Maybe Your Scale is Broken

I couldn’t figure out why I was gaining weight. I mean, I had recently been on a trip to New York for a reading. There, I had not eaten particularly well — cereal bars and yogurt with fruit on the bottom for breakfast, whatever I could buy at a cafe or museum for lunch. More desserts than I usually eat. Once, I’d had pizza. Once, a cheese plate. So yes, I might have gained a few pounds on the trip, but it should have been easy to lose them . . . after all, I was home now, eating healthy food, exercising regularly. And yet the number on the scale kept going up.

I should explain that once upon a time, before my life got so busy, I used to take ballet classes several times a week. I had taken them as a child, and then started again as an adult. A ballet class is the hardest, most intense workout I know. In order to survive them, I had to make sure that I was very healthy — sleeping enough, eating well, and at the right weight for my body, the weight at which I felt strong and fit. I had to stretch every day, do Pilates and yoga regularly, so I wouldn’t be injured by the bar exercises, the floor routines — especially the jumping. So I got into the habit of monitoring not just numbers like weight, but whether I was eating enough vegetables, going for a walk every day . . . Even now, when I’m so busy, I try to make sure that I’m taking care of myself, staying as fit as possible. I don’t have to make it through ballet classes anymore, but my ordinary life is just as stressful.

So anyway, there I was with a dilemma. The scale was telling me that I was gaining weight. And yet I was eating normally, exercising normally. Why wasn’t the number on the scale matching how I felt? I figured I must be eating more than I thought, or perhaps it was stress — I didn’t have much time to think about it, because it was the end of the semester and I had papers to grade. So I just tried to eat especially well — no cookies! And still the number on the scale kept creeping up.

I felt like such an idiot when I walked into the hardware store to buy a new scale. I mean, it wasn’t the scale’s fault, right? Clearly I was doing something wrong . . . After all, I’d had that scale for probably ten years, during which it had functioned reliably. I bought the exact same model, took the new scale home and stepped on it, expecting to see the exact same number . . . and found that I was the same weight as I had been before the trip to New York, even a few pounds lighter because I’d been so diligently not-eating cookies.

In other words, the old scale was broken. Which leads me to the life lesson here: Sometimes it’s not you. Sometimes it’s the scale.

Sometimes the problem isn’t what you’re measuring, but the way you’re measuring it.

Are you happy enough? Are you rich enough? Are you successful enough? We have scales for all of those things, and sometimes our scales need to be recalibrated, or we need new scales altogether. I’m the sort of person who finds large meanings in small things (which is probably why I was a literature major). So this realization led me to all sorts of philosophical questions: What did I really want out of my life? How would I know when I had achieved it? How was I going to measure my own happiness and success? What did I need, financially, to get where I needed to go? It was a small experience that led to some larger resolutions.

I could connect it to even larger issues: I recently heard a very smart presentation by the Prime Minister of New Zealand in which she talked about using measurements other than GDF to evaluate the effectiveness of economic policies. GDP didn’t, she said, accurately represent the well-being of the population. If wealth was concentrated at the top, GDP could look fine, but there could be poverty and deprivation below. The method of measurement could actually mask information.

I hesitated to start by talking about my scale, because I knew someone would inevitably tell me not to use a scale at all, that I should focus instead on being healthy. But I am healthy . . . And I think we have to be honest about the fact that here in the United States, we live in a society that makes it almost impossible not to take in more calories than our bodies actually need. I know this because I spend part of the year in continental Europe. There, I have a scale, but I don’t really need one — and I eat whatever I want. As soon as I get back to the United States, or (with apologies to British friends) set foot in England, I have to watch what I eat again. Why? Because the food is literally different. It’s grown and packaged differently. European foods have fewer additives, and no high fructose corn syrup. Also, the servings are smaller. Americans visiting Europe can be surprised by how small the pastries and cups of coffee are. How there are no muffins (those 400-calorie American extravaganzas pretending to be health foods) in the cafes. There are circumstances in which we need to measure and monitor things — we just need to make sure our instruments are accurate.

This is a topic I think about a lot because I’m a teacher: I both give grades and deal with the effects of imperfect measurements — by which I mean the SATs and AP exams. My students have been taught to write to their standards, so part of my job is teaching them to write as though they’re not taking an AP exam — thoughtfully, with care and conviction. Many of them assume, based on past writing classes and exams, that they are bad writers. But none of them are bad writers — they are just writers who could improve, as we all can. Hopefully my scale is a little more accurate, and conveys better information, than the ones they’re used to. I don’t think not grading them at all would be helpful, just as I’m not going to throw away my scale altogether. I just need to make sure that my grades are fair, and that students understand how and on what basis they’re being given.

I’ll end this long, rambling post with the takeaway. Here’s what I want you to remember:

Maybe it’s not you. Maybe your scale is broken.

(The image is Justice by Pierre Subleyras.)

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How to Be Elegant

I hesitated to write this blog post, because its title implies both that I believe myself to be elegant, and that I think I can tell other people how to be so. And that’s not quite true . . .

What’s true is that one day, I decided that I wanted to be elegant — that it was one of the qualities I admired, and I wanted to figure out what it was, and how to achieve elegance myself. I was tired of seeing women dressed elegantly, not just in magazines but walking around the streets, and knowing that I could never dress like them, could never be them. Knowing that whatever they had, that air of quiet confidence, was unattainable for me. When I was growing up, there was no money for fancy clothes, and anyway I was taught that emphasizing clothes, or really anything to do with appearance, was frivolous — I should be working on what was in my mind.

Of course, I also grew up in an inelegant era: the deliberate ugliness of the seventies, meant to break the quiet propriety of the fifties and much of the sixties, was followed by the excesses of of the eighties, when shoulder pads sprouted like mushrooms and nothing was the right shape. That was followed by the deliberate dressing down of the nineties, which was better — at least clothes looked as though they might fit on human beings again. And since then . . . well, we’ve been in a twenty-year period when there have been no new ideas in fashion, just constant recycling.

But through all those eras, there were elegant women. I could see them — and I envied them! I had no idea how to be one of them. When I was a teenager, I tried by dressing in what was fashionable, buying the cheaper versions of course — the imitation Izod polo shirts and L.L.Bean duck boots when everyone was preppy for a while. Ripped jeans and off-the-shoulder sweaters when everyone was wearing them, inspired by the success of Flashdance. I succeeded mainly in looking silly. It would have been better if I had stuck to being the nerdy student I was. And then, when I had money for the first time, after graduating from law school and starting my first real job as a corporate lawyer, I did what seemed logical — I bought expensive clothes. But you know, I didn’t look any better in them than I had with my polo shirt collar fashionably turned up. I looked just as much like I was wearing someone else’s clothes, pretending to be someone I was not.

One day, I remember, I was in the dressing room of a Laura Ashley store, looking at myself in a $200 navy blue suit that was supposed to make me look like a lawyer who was also the heroine of an English novel, but only made me appear rather lumpy. I took off the suit and walked out, knowing in my heart that not only would I never find clothes that looked right on me, but I would never become the person I wanted to be . . . no, never. Don’t laugh. Clothes have that kind of power, and dressing rooms are places of deep psychological torture, antechambers of hell. No wonder we walk out of them in despair.

Throughout those years, I had been researching and reading about historical costumes, because I was interested in how women had dressed over time, and what their clothes had said about their lives, their circumstances. Finally (why did it take me so long?), I decided that I was going to research elegance. What was it? Why didn’t I have it? Was is some sort of genetic trait that had simply passed me by? That only people like Audrey Hepburn had? With the help of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy . . . At the same time, I went back to graduate school. The era of buying expensive clothes had ended for me some time ago (they didn’t help, so why spend the money?), but now I quite literally could not afford them anyway.

In between reading books for my graduate degree in English literature, I read books about women’s clothes, about the history of fashion and style, about ballet (since I was taking classes at the Boston Ballet School) . . . all sorts of things both central and peripheral to this particular question. It was only half-deliberate — I knew in my heart of hearts that I, personally, would never be elegant. But I was interested on a theoretical level. At the same time, for my graduate degree I was reading theories of the beautiful (Hogarth, Burke, Kant). And I was shopping where I have to tell you I still prefer to shop: my local Goodwill, and all the thrift stores around Boston. There, I could buy a skirt for $5, and if for some reason it did not work — if it did not go with anything else I owned, if I ended up hating how it looked on me, if for some reason it just felt wrong after a while — I could return it to Goodwill. It would turn into a $5 donation for which I was getting nothing — except perhaps a lesson in what was not me. And if I loved it but it did not fit exactly right, I could take it to a local seamstress who would tighten a waist or shorten a hem for $25. It would still end up costing considerably less than anything I could buy in a boutique or catalog.

I can’t tell you how it happened exactly — it was a long process of trial and error. But over those years of graduate school, of skimping and saving but also learning and growing, I think I did achieve what I believe to be elegance, for me. My personal idea of elegance, which may or may not be yours (but elegance, I’ve learned, is deeply personal). So what I’m going to give you are my personal rules. If you want to be elegant, if that is even something you care about (and you don’t have to), you can develop your own. Here they are (there are only five):

1. Your clothes should be appropriate to the occasion. If you’re going to a ball, dress for a ball. If you’re going to a punk concert, dress for a punk concert. If it’s winter, for goodness’ sake, dress for winter. Walking around in freezing temperatures without socks because it’s currently fashionable just looks silly.

2. Your clothes should be an expression of yourself. That’s you at the ball, you at the punk concert. What do you feel good in there, what do you think expresses who you are in those places? This takes experimentation, because we often don’t know who we are, we often don’t know our own taste. This is where a store like Goodwill helps, because you can walk down the aisles going “ugh, ugh, no, seriously? wait, yes, that looks nice.” You can develop your taste. And if you buy something then later realize it’s not you? Well then, you made a mistake, and a $5 or $10 donation to Goodwill. Try to figure out who you are, what you actually like, and over time you will learn a lot . . . which is applicable to more than clothes.

3. Your clothes should fit and be in good condition. Your clothes should always fit right, and if they don’t, here’s your opportunity to support a small local business by finding a seamstress. If the problem is a small rip, a stitch coming out of a sweater, a button that needs to be replaced, then learn to mend your clothes. It’s one of those valuable life skills, like cooking. Make sure the heels on your shoes are not too worn — if they are, take them to your local cobbler. Polish your shoes. Make sure everything is fresh and clean and ready to wear. This is also an argument for buying good quality, because clothes that are made well, of material that lasts, can be repaired. (Obviously don’t buy anything you personally can’t wear — wool is wonderful but I’m allergic to it. It’s not elegant if your clothes give you a rash . . .)

4. Your clothes should emphasize what is important. Unless you are a model, what is important is never the clothes themselves, but whatever you are wearing them for. You need to be able to move in them comfortably — if you’re uncomfortable, you’re going to miss the most important part of being elegant, which is the effortless confidence truly elegant women have. (Remember, I studied this stuff. How I envied them!) Even if you’re dressed for a party, you want to be able to walk, move, eat. You want to talk to people, be yourself without worrying about your outfit. The whole point is to put on the clothes and then forget about them, to just be in them. To live.

5. You should never spend too much on clothes. One of the reasons I wrote this column is that I see a lot of advertising for clothes online. Recently, I saw a skirt I liked quite a lot. I clicked on it, and . . . it was $300! I don’t spend that much on my monthly heating and electricity bills, in Boston, in the middle of February! I mean . . . that’s kind of disgraceful, really. If it had been the price for something genuinely beautiful, and the money were going to support skilled workers earning high wages, that would have been one thing. But it was an ordinary although rather nice skirt, probably sewn by women earning very little money, with a fancy brand name. Well, I find all the fancy brand names I need at thrift stores, thank you. I’ve found Ralph Lauren, Diane Von Furstenberg, even Mary Quant, for under $30. If you’re wearing something for which you know you paid too much, for which perhaps you actually went into credit card debt, that outfit will never be elegant because you’ll be wearing it with a worried expression on your face, with trepidation in your heart. And that’s not elegant. There are two things I do spend money on, because they need to be sturdy and last: everyday shoes and purses. Those are the workhorses of your wardrobe, so make sure they’re of good quality, which does not necessarily correlate with price.

In the end, elegance is an attitude. It’s about wearing clothes you love and that make you feel comfortable, and then moving in them gracefully through the world. That’s really all there is to it. It took me a long, long time to have that much confidence in myself. I hope you’re a quicker learner than I am . . .

This was me on a day I felt particularly elegant, in a not very elegant part of the city, reflected in the post office window. Boots and coat by Land’s End; purse (my trusty go-everywhere bag) by Baggallini; dress from Goodwill; hat, scarf, and tights from CVS. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just office hours . . . but I felt great.

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Writing as Myself

When I first talked to my agent as an agent, meaning about the possibility of working together, rather than just saying hello at some convention where we were both appearing on panels, he asked me whether I would ever write under a pseudonym. I said no. And I don’t think I would, although one can never say never. But for now at least, whatever I write, everything I write, is published as Theodora Goss. If I would not publish it under that name, I don’t write it.

I’m not criticizing pseudonyms, not at all. I understand why other writers use them. It’s just that I’ve had a complicated relationship with names. As is true for many immigrants, my name was Americanized soon after I came to this country. I was already in school, so I had gone by a Hungarian name for the formative years of my life. I hated my American name — it never seemed mine, and it made me feel as though I had lost, not only my original country and language, but myself. When I got married in my early twenties, I took my husband’s name, which is where the Goss comes from. It was a real name, a name with a history: the first Goss had come to this country before it was the United States. His sons had fought with General Washington. I had lost my original name long ago, my legal name did not really feel mine, so why not take his? And I have used it since. It’s the name I publish under.

But this blog post isn’t actually about names. It’s about what it means to write as myself. The issue of names is just an entry point, one among many. A second entry point is an experience I had while a student in the Clarion Writing Workshop. I wrote a story called “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” which has been reprinted a number of places and translated into several languages. It’s a cold story, in more ways than one. Another student, I no longer remember whom, said something like, “I wish you would write something really personal, where you would let your emotions out. I want to know what a personal, emotional Theodora Goss story sounds like.” Now first of all, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” is actually very personal: it’s about a cold silence descending on Budapest. It’s about my childhood. But second, I understood where this statement came from. It wasn’t just about my writing; it was about me personally. I never spoke about my private inner life, about my feelings, at the workshop. Not because I’m a particularly cold or unfriendly person, but because my primary approach toward the world has always been a combination of the instinctive and intellectual. I sense something, and then I try to understand what I’m sensing. On the Myers-Briggs test, and yes I know it’s probably inaccurate, don’t lecture me, I’m consistently an INTJ. Of course I’m also an introvert, so whatever is going on inside my head, I’m unlikely to share it with anyone except a close friend. I was certainly not going to share my personal life with the Clarion Writing Workshop!

But my point is, I don’t write the way this particular student wanted me to, because that would not be me writing. That would not be my brain, my experience of the world. My most personal stories situate the emotional within a framework — often the framework of history, sometimes of theory. You know, there are other writers who do this, who are not particularly personal in their writing. They tend to be men. I don’t think anyone ever said to Umberto Ecco, “You need to let your emotions out.” I was once asked in an interview why Mary Jekyll is the main viewpoint character in the Athena Club novels. The answer is that she was the easiest for me to write. She’s the one who is most like me. She has my particular flaws and blind spots. The difference between us is that I know they’re flaws and blind spots, so I can have the other characters criticize her for them. The second easiest character to write was Diana, because she’s the opposite of me: I just had her do and say the opposite of what I would in any given circumstance!

The third entry point, the third thing I want to discuss in this blog post about writing as myself, is the recent New York Times review of Snow White Learns Witchcraft, my collection of fairytale-inspired short stories and poems. If you’re not a writer, you may not know what an enormous privilege it is to have your book reviewed in the New York Times. I’m so grateful to the reviewer for reading and writing about this collection! In her review, she wrote,

“These pieces, all centered on fairy tales, refract and reshape familiar stories as much as they retell them; fairy tales, after all, get told and retold because there are elements in them — young people and old people, trials and quests, a visceral desire for justice — that are universal, while their configurations are almost endlessly changeable. Fairy tales are clothing, and to retell them is fashion. The fashion of these particular stories and poems is an abundance of lace, roses and porcelain contrasting with fur, snow and blood.”

Above one of my two writing desks, the one with my laptop on it, I have a corkboard, and on that corkboard are pinned quotations that are important to me. One of them says, First give them beauty. Then give them darkness. This isn’t from a famous author — it’s just me, just something I though of one day as I was trying to describe my own process. I want to write things so beautiful that you may not even notice the darkness underneath. But the darkness will be there, because beauty by itself has no tension, no suspense, no narrative. It needs darkness to work with and against and through. Just as every object needs a shadow . . . This is not just a matter of technique. It’s an expression of what I believe, at the deepest level, about reality. I want my writing to reflect reality as I see it. So my roses have thorns and beetles and blackspot.

The review goes on to say,

“The collection is at its strongest when troubling the boundaries between memory and memoir, exploring the terrain between childhood and adulthood. Recurring along with bears, snow and roses are a love of Boston and Budapest, and the sadness of moving between those places, and between the phases of life they represent. ‘I have always prided myself on my ability to let things go,’ a graduate student named Vera writes in ‘A Country Called Winter.’ ‘I’ve had plenty of practice. When I was a little girl, I let go of an entire country.'”

Which brings us back in a circle to the issue of names, because Vera is not her real name either — she is Veriska, but even that is an approximation, because you can’t pronounce her name properly unless you too grew up speaking the language of Winter. I want my writing to be versatile — in this collection, I write stories that take place in different time periods, and they are in different styles. But underneath it all is my voice. Underneath it all, I’m writing the only way I know how — as myself.

This is me with the collection. A few perceptive people have asked if the image on the cover is me, and the answer is sort of . . . the artist, Ruth Sanderson, asked me to model for it because she needed a woman holding a potion in one hand, reflected in an apple (actually her cell phone camera). So yes, it is me, in a sense, just as all the characters in the book are me, even though I have done my best to give them their own individual personalities and lives. Because that’s the way writing works. We are all, always, spiders spinning the threads of narrative out of ourselves . . .

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Lost in Transition

I’ve only recently started blogging again. I did not blog all through the fall, for various reasons. One was that I was finishing two books: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, which is the final novel in the Athena Club series, and the short story and poetry collection Snow White Learns Witchcraft. And of course I was teaching at the same time, so I ended up getting terribly behind on my work — all my work, both the teaching and writing, although I delivered everything I needed to. By the time the semester was over, everything had been turned in.

And then I got sick. And I kept getting sick, and the truth is that I’m sick now, as I’m sitting here typing this. I spent last weekend at Boskone, one of the local science fiction and fantasy conventions, telling everyone not to hug me because I was probably contagious. And of course also appearing on panels, signing books, talking to people. I think I’m getting over whatever this is, probably just a bad cold. But I still don’t feel well . . . My late night snack was two graham crackers and a tall glass of lime Airborne.

So clearly I’ve been overworked, but there’s more to it, because last fall I also moved into a new apartment, where I’m living now. I haven’t quite settled in yet, but I feel something here that I did not feel in my previous apartment . . . I can tell that I’m in transition. When I moved into the previous apartment, I felt a strange sense of dismay because I could tell that I was entering a period of statis, a period during which things would not change for a while. I don’t know how I could tell, but somehow I knew. And here, I feel a sense of dismay because I can tell the opposite, that things are going to be changing almost constantly.

I don’t know . . . I just sense these things, and I’ve learned that my instincts are a dependable guide to life. I can feel things in my gut, literally in my stomach, before I know them intellectually. The problem of course is that I don’t know what the transition is to. I don’t know where I’m going, although I’m being proactive. A friend told me about keeping a daily journal, even if the entries were short, even if they seemed boring and irrelevant, and I thought, why don’t I do that? So I’ve been keeping a journal that I write in most mornings, a page or two . . . And I’ve been writing down what I want in my life, as a sort of conversation with the universe. Maybe, my thinking goes, in this way I can convince the universe to give it to me?

Everything you experience tells you something about yourself, about what you want and don’t want in your life. This apartment is the entire first floor of a house that is at least a hundred years old, but probably older because it has wide plank floors with square-headed iron nails. There are things I don’t love about it: it’s expensive for a teacher to live in, for example. But then, any apartment would be in this area, so close to the city. And I can’t have a cat here, but again, that’s true of most apartments. There are things I do love about it. I have my very own back porch, where I’ve hung a bird feeder. This morning it snowed, and I could see blue jays, cardinals, and small gray junkos. The blue jays and junkos don’t like the feeder — they prefer to pick up seeds that have fallen to the ground. The cardinals perch on the feeder, but the ones who really love it are the squirrels. As you can imagine, they engage in all sorts of intricate contortions to get at the seeds. They are very amusing. And then, this house is on a quiet street lined with old trees, so when I wake up, it’s to the sound of rain, not traffic. I love that.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love so many things about my life: I love teaching, I love traveling and meeting readers, and there are even days when I more or less like Boston! But I also know that I’m missing a lot of things. Time, rest, and what is most important to me, the ability to spend an entire day writing, dreaming, creating things. I am always rushed, always trying to meet the next deadline, and nowadays often sick.

So something’s got to change, but the thing is, I think it’s going to, because I think I’m in the middle of a period of transition. Yes, I feel uncertain. Yes, I feel a little lost. And yes, sometimes I’m afraid of where I’m going, or the dark woods, or the night around me. All sorts of things. But life is a sort of fairy tale, isn’t it? I think it is, and mine has been so far in so many ways. The heroine of a fairy tale doesn’t quit in the middle of the dark woods. She keeps going. After all, she’s got glass hills to climb, white serpents to talk to, three old troll women to meet. They will give her a golden ring, a golden comb, and a golden spinning wheel, on which she will spin the silk rope for a ladder. With it, she will rescue the king held in the castle beyond the moon.

You see, I’ve got things to do. When you’re feeling a little lost in transition, the thing is to just keep going . . .

This is me last weekend at Boskone. It looks almost like a publicity photo, but actually I was hiding in a little back corner of Starbucks, drinking something hot to soothe my throat. That’s not a decorative scarf but a warm winter one, to protect my throat from the cold hotel air. And although I’m smiling, my nose was stuffed up, my voice hoarse. But I was there, doing what I do, being an author.

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Writing Fairy Tales

This week I’ve been thinking about fairy tales because I just had a collection of short stories and poems come out, all of which are based on fairy tales. And now I’m thinking of them particularly because I’m trying to put together a reading group guide with questions and activities.

What would I want a reading group to think about and do, in response to my book? I don’t really know, since I’ve never written one of these before . . . But I’ve been thinking about what I might want someone to ask me in relation to fairy tales. Like the following:

Why fairy tales? Why did you get interested in them in the first place, and why write about them now? I mean, you’re an adult now. Does an adult really need fairy tales?

I started reading fairy tales as a child because I was given them — that was what children were given, when I was growing up in Europe. All my fairy tales books are in Hungarian, so perhaps it was simply a European thing? The books I was given when I was older, in the United States, were generally more realistic, but I still gravitated to fantasy, like the stories of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. I loved magical stories because they showed me that magic was possible, and my world was often a dull place — I would have loved to step through a wardrobe, even into a land dominated by winter and the White Witch.

But fairy tales had, and still have, something else as well. There is a darkness at their heart that fits with what children know about the world. Children experience the world as large and irrational. (Why do they have to go to bed at a particular time? Because a parent said so.) It’s filled with forces they don’t understand (even gravity, which they have to learn about over and over through direct experience). Some people will help you, but some people will harm you, and it’s difficult to tell which is which. Food is strange — why is there broccoli and why do you have to eat it? There are witches and trolls for sure.

As we grow older, the power of fairy tales does not diminish, because they also reflect the adolescent experience. To an adolescent girl, all men are wolves, bears, foxes. They are the animal other, hairy and unpredictable, who may end up being good husbands, or may keep the corpses of dead wives in their castles (metaphorically, although fairy tales are also about the reality of violence). And then, if it’s time for marriage, fairy tales tell us a fundamental truth: that all marriages are to animal brides and bridegrooms. We always marry an animal because we are all animals, all “other” to each other. You are as strange and unknowable to your spouse as a swan bride, a bear groom.

Fairy tales tell us fundamental truths about the world, truths I often think we don’t get from other places — from economics or political science or religion. They tell us that hunger hurts, that we need to share, that sometimes we need to be clever because the trolls are ready to trick us. But also that being too clever, to the point where we lose our hearts, is never good.

What is your favorite fairy tale and why?

You see, I can ask this question in a reading group guide, but I can’t answer it myself. There are too many I love, both old folktales and literary fairy tales. But if I really had to answer, I would say Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” A beautiful princess who also happens to be a powerful sorceress, disguised as a white cat, falls in love with a youngest son and gives him a dog so small it fits in a walnut shell, a veil so fine it slips through the eye of a needle, and finally the most charming woman in the world — herself. I would not mind being a cat princess-sorceress, living in a castle filled with cats. In the collection, the story “Blanchefleur” is based on “The White Cat.”

If you could rewrite any fairy tale, which would you pick? How would you rewrite it, and why?

Of course, I’ve already written so many. But right now I’m working on a story that combines the narrative structures of “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin.” It’s a completely realistic story, other than being set in an imaginary country — there’s no magic in it, but it has the feel of a fairy tale. I’ve just started, and so far it’s going well, but I’m not entirely sure how long it’s going to end up being, or what I will do with it once it’s done. I’m writing it because “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin” are essentially mirror images of the same story. I wanted to see what putting them together would be like . . .

And you, reader? If you could rewrite any fairy tale, which would you rewrite and why? Is it your favorite fairy tale, or one that bothers you somehow, that you want to retell even if you’re not sure why?

As for activities, I think I would tell this hypothetical reading group to research a fairy tale, to find out its history and read various versions. Then to come together and tell the tale to each other, the way women did long ago while shelling peas or spinning. In the end, the best way to interact with a fairy tale is to ingest it, like a slice of bread — to learn it and tell it and make it your own.

I’m so delighted to have this book out into the world . . . I’m especially proud of it, and I hope it finds a readership. If you, reader, like fairy tales — well, I wrote it for you.

This is the cover of the book, with wonderful art by Ruth Sanderson. I was also very lucky that the amazing Jane Yolen agreed to write the introduction. And yes, I did model for the image in the apple! That is based on me . . . If you’re interested in ordering it, here’s the Mythic Delirium order page.

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Home from the Sea

This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

No, I’m not dying — of course not, even though the verse I started with comes from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem he wrote as his own epitaph. It’s on his gravestone in Samoa. But that was the verse that came to me the other day, when I realized that I had been on ten airplanes this summer, and that I was now home for a while. Well, until the end of the month, but I won’t be going too far again until next summer. All my travel will be up and down the east coast.

In May, I flew to Budapest for two weeks, then I went to London to do research for the novel I’m working on, then by train to Penzance and Marazion, then by plane again from Newquay to Dublin, then train and bus across Ireland to Dingle, where I taught for a week. Then I flew from Shannon to Budapest, passing once again through the banal horrors of Heathrow. London was interesting and overwhelming as usual, Cornwall was a beautiful adventure, I loved Dublin, which reminded me of Budapest, and Dingle was work but also fun. And then Budapest again, city of my heart, where I belong probably more than anywhere else on this earth.

But do I actually belong anywhere? I feel as though I don’t know the answer to that question yet.

From Budapest I flew back to Boston, but went almost immediately by train to Portland, Maine, and across the bay to Peaks Island for a week, and once I got home from the island, I flew across the country to San José for WorldCon. As of Thursday, I’m back in Boston again — for a while.

Perhaps it’s because I spent my entire childhood moving around that I often feel more at home living out of a suitcase than in my own apartment, with my books and music and art. Here are the places I lived as a child: Budapest where I was born, Debrecen (I’m not sure how long, but not longer than a couple of years), Budapest again until we left the country, then Milan for six months, Brussels for a year and a half where I went to first grade, Philadelphia where I repeated first grade in English, Maryland where I skipped forward to third grade. We moved between fifth and sixth grades, then moved again for seventh grade, and then for eight grade in Virginia (so I went to three different schools in three years). Ninth grade was in California, tenth through twelfth back in Virginia, so the longest I went to any school, the longest I lived in any one place continuously, was three years. Honestly, it was a relief going to college for four whole years in a row. That was in Charlottesville, and then I moved to Boston for another three years, to attend law school. Then a year in New York, and then back to Boston, where I stayed for graduate school . . . and here I am. Except that I keep going away as often as possible.

When does the sailor come home from the sea? What is home, anyway?

I know what the sea is . . . I saw it from both sides this summer. I walked in the Atlantic near the town of Marazion, crossing the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount before the tide had entirely gone down. And I knelt beside it on Peaks Island, picking up snail shells and small stones from the tidal pools. It’s a gentler ocean near Cornwall. In Maine, it’s notorious for its temper tantrums, its storms.

I feel like the sailor, always setting out for a new horizon. I feel like the hunter, although I’m not entirely sure what I’m hunting or what lies beyond the next hill. I’m searching for something, and I know neither what it is nor whether I’ll find it. And so I keep departing, with a suitcase and a laptop bag, and a purse that I bought in an airport, which has pockets for a passport and the different tickets and passes I need to use public transportation in five different cities. Maybe eventually, when I die, the right epitaph for my tombstone will be something like “She’s not here either.”

Someday, I will probably have to settle down somewhere. I just don’t know where that place is yet. I’m still searching for something to tell me where home is . . .

In many ways, it has been a miracle of a summer. I’ve been to the most wonderful places, met the most fascinating people. I’ve sat on top of a cliff on Great Blasket Island watching the seagulls and butterflies, writing (not very good) poetry. I’ve written two fairy tales (both on airplanes), which will be published in a collection next year. I’ve had my second novel come out, and revised the third. I’ve talked to professors and writers and critics, old friends and new ones.

Now that I’m back, I feel a terrible sense of restlessness, of longing. I don’t yet lie where I long to be . . . If it were up to me, I’d be off again. But there are duties and responsibilities here, at least for a while. I don’t think it’s going to be like this always. I think I will eventually find the place I’m looking for. I just don’t know where, or when, or with whom — not yet.

I’m home from the sea. Just not permanently.

(Sitting on a wall in Marazion, looking across to St. Michael’s Mount.)

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The Horns of Elfland

I don’t know why I write fantasy.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I write fantasy because as a child I read fantasy. But why was I drawn to fantasy in the first place? When I was a child, all I wanted to read were books about magic. I read Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read fairy tales, and the Oz books, and The Once and Future King. Sometimes I would pick up books that seemed to be about magic, and they would not be, and I would get very angry at them. I would feel as though I had somehow been tricked. Bridge to Terabithia and The Witch of Blackbird Pond earned my ire. There was no witch, there was no Terabithia except in the children’s imagination, and what was the point of that? If the magic wasn’t real, I wanted no part of it.

Now, as an adult and writer, I will not write a book in which the magic isn’t real. I won’t promise you magic and not deliver, because that would have made my child-self furious.

But why was I so drawn to fantasy in the first place? Looking back, I can see that my obsession with Narnia, and Earthsea, and Middle Earth, had to do in part with the fact that I was an immigrant. I had lost my country of origin, and because these were the bad old days of an Iron Curtain across Europe, that country was as lost to me as Naria is to the Pevensies after Aslan tells them they must leave. There was no way to go back, not then. And I did not have a magical wardrobe. It also had to do with my sense of displacement — where did I belong? Nowhere in particular. I read books about imaginary countries to belong somewhere. While I was reading, I could pretend, for a while, that I belonged in Prydain or at Green Knowe.

But I loved books about magic happening in the real world as well. I still remember the strange little rhyme that Mrs. Tuggle sings in The Witch’s Sister and its sequels. I adored Carbonel and Mary Poppins and the house with a clock in its walls. Stories about magic happening in our world promised me that it was not as dull and ordinary as it appeared — that our real world had the possibility of magic in it. And I needed that promise, as I think all children do, because despite how we romanticize it, childhood is hard. When you’re a child, the world is large and doesn’t make much sense. Adults are continually telling you what to do. Other children can be cruel.

I even loved books that were what I might call fantasy-adjacent, like The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows. They, too, promised that there were hidden powers in the world, although we might not call them magic. The chapter in which Mole and Rat meet the god Pan is still one of my favorite episodes in English literature.

At that point in my life, I wanted to be a witch. When I grew up, I became the closest thing to one, which is a writer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that witches cast spells: both witchcraft and writing are about using language to alter reality.

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien says some people simply have a taste for fantasy, while others don’t — and if they do as children, they will likely have it their entire lives. I’ve found that to be true. I moved from Nesbit to Anne McCaffrey to Isabel Allende without ever losing my love of magic. I still want to know that there are hidden powers and possibilities in the world, behind the facade of the everyday. I want to know that circumstances can change, that wishes can come true, that somewhere out there, someone or perhaps the universe itself loves us.

The title of this blog post comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

I think there are some people who hear the horns of Elfland, and some who do not. That’s all right . . . not everyone has to hear the same music. Those who hear them are the ones who long for magic, who try the backs of all the wardrobes just in case, who wait for their letters from Hogwarts, who secretly in their hearts believe that there is a deeper, truer life than this one, and perhaps even live as though there were. They make their homes in cottages out of fairy tales, or keep bees, or recite poetry. They talk to cats, and wait for a response. I do think, although this is based on no empirical evidence, only personal observation, that more people nowadays hear the horns of Elfland than when I was a child. There are more books about magic, there is more fantasy in media of all sorts, and that makes a difference. There is also a widespread view that we have lost something essential in our lives — we are losing the environment, we are losing handicrafts and old hobbies, we are even losing community with other human beings, and that loss is being felt. It makes us long for the ordinary magic of sitting under a tree, or weaving a tapestry, or telling stories with friends.

Nowadays, I make magic, or at least I try to. I sit down with pen and paper, or at a computer screen, and I put down words. Hopefully, when you read them, castles will rise above you, hills and green meadows will unroll around you, the sky itself will unscroll its myriad stars. Hopefully you will hear and see and, most importantly, feel my world and its characters. This is what it means to be a spell-caster, a witch or do I mean writer, a wielder of words.

I still hear the horns of Elfland. Nowadays, I try to transmit what they are blowing, to capture their music in my own language. But I know that the music comes from beyond me, as does the magic itself — that I am a sort of translator of what is already there, the underlying magic of reality. I feel it now even more than I did as a child. Adults are not necessarily more obtuse than children — we can also choose to become more sensitive. We can learn to hear the music better. Nowadays, hopefully, the horns of Elfland blow through me as well . . .

(The image is The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.)

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