Library, Sweet Briar

{Studio, Improvised}

During my VCCA residency, I wound up doing a lot of writing over at Sweet Briar’s library.  Their quiet, wood-paneled browsing room gets flooded with daylight, and I loved working alongside all the lush color and texture of wood and textile.  It wound up being a great space to escape and play through the long draft of the book’s new story.

Sweet Briar Library

Sweet Briar Library

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts / Road Trip

  

With my spring VCCA residency wrapping up, my mother flew down to Richmond to join me for an impromptu mother-daughter road trip back up to the (reportedly still snow-patched) north.

We headed right for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve been dying to see, and even more so since I found out about the Chihuly glass installation commissioned for their courtyard.  The sculpture garden did not disappoint: lush and green and spacious, and full of modern pieces installed in dynamic interaction with their surrounding space.  People from Richmond had wandered in for lunch at brightly painted cafe tables scattered on the various patios and for picnics on blankets on that hearty green expanse of grass.

We headed up to Amuse for the most sumptuous lunch I’ve had at any museum restaurant (I’m still dreaming of that coq au vin and fresh-baked herbed bread).  And there’s nothing quite like enjoying an exceptional meal with an aerial view of Henry Moore and red glass-reed Chihuly.

Our favorite piece in the garden wound up being Jun Kaneko’s ceramic Untitled, Mission Clay Pittsburgh Project, which you can see in the first picture and which, along with some of Kaneko’s other work, is the largest freestanding sculpture made of clay.  The medium is so unexpected; there is an organic feel to this even form, and Kaneko evokes an expressive depth through the splashed glaze and richly patterned surface.  We were transfixed.

Current Reading

{The Paris Review + Chai Green Tea}

The interview with Hilary Mantel in the new Paris Review is amazing.  And it’s such ridiculously good timing as I work on this book of historical fiction and wrestle through its myriad attendant challenges.

Mantel talks pretty frankly about this writing process:

When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in… any historical material, I prepare for it.  Whatever I’ve done on that scene, I put aside.  I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it.  It’s like walking on stage — with the accompanying stage fright.

And, she continues:

When I’m writing a novel about historical figures, I have to be everybody.  It’s strenuous…. When people are real, though dead,… I consider them my responsibility.

It is a heady business, this writing fiction set in the past.  So happy to have come across this new interview.

Plus, perennially grateful for the stash of green tea my mother sent to Virginia for my residency.  The chai in this blend cuts any bitterness when, writing along mid-scene, I invariably forget and leave it over-steeping.

To the Boathouse

{Lakeside, Sweet Briar}

This spring I’m down at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency.  I’m already well into a long draft of the book’s second-to-last story. With all the bookwriting, there’s not a lot of mojo left for blog posts.  But there are long walks to the Sweet Briar boathouse with its spindling floors and greening, weather-gnawed clapboards and the music of the lake on those old woodwind pilings.  The perfect antidote to these lengthy days (and late nights) of writing.

Book Research, Japan

My research in Japan has been more amorphous than my research in Seattle and Hawaii, where my days were scheduled into tight timelines of meetings and archives appointments.  Which is not to say that my time here is freewheeling by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, my trip to Japan is charted by the geography and trajectory of my book.  My days here are organized by research.

It’s just that the nature of this research is different.  In Japan I visit temples, shrines, Taisho buildings, specific houses and villages that appear in the book, the few remaining pre-war Tokyo neighborhoods.  And even as I make careful notes on architectural detail and landscape and historic references, I understand that my research here also encompasses a more nebulous set of impressions and observations and thoughts.

Here I am tracing a vanished landscape.

One of the great challenges of writing this book set in Japan and Hawaii and a few other places during the second World War, is that so little survives of that landscape.  Places are paved over, torn down, bombed out, rebuilt.  And in some ways this confers both a freedom of imagination and the obligation that comes with it.  We can know these places only through invention, through the access fiction alone can give us to our past.

For the section of the book that’s set in Japan, I am gathering the intangible.  I am looking for a felt sense, an imaginative access point.  For all the small cues and sensations that later become the fuel and spark and sustenance of creative work.

I do not know yet what they will be or how they will enter my work.   Only that they will arrive as I remain present in these places, and that I will trust in the unforeseen ways they might infiltrate and populate my book.  So much of artistic process is this gathering, this blind trust.  Allowing ourselves to float suspended and see what connects.

Sugimotodera

I arrived at Sugimotodera Temple just after four o’clock, after a long afternoon of being lost.  My map was stretched to fit the dimensions of the page on which it was printed, and so northbound streets slanted west, and the map’s roman alphabet transcriptions of road names meant nothing next to the Japanese street signs.  I was actually aiming for Hokokuji (not, as it turns out from subsequent days’ explorations, too far away), but I came upon Sugimotodera first and stopped, transfixed by that light.

I was lucky the monk let me in; it was late in the day for Japanese temples.  Most close around four or four-thirty.  But I’d been walking such an awfully long time by that point, and I suppose it showed.

By the time I arrived, the temple had emptied of anyone who’d visited earlier in the day, and I was here in this space by myself.  Striking, how quiet and bright it was on the hillside after the busy grey streets.  How the air cleansed.  I stayed until the border of my welcome, drinking in this yellow light, these white banners, which in my foreign eyes turn to pattern and shape.  It is so liberating to be freed of text.

The stairs here are cobbled and worn by footsteps.  They slant and waver, tilt into themselves and tumble together.

The wooden temple glows in the afternoon light, the warm boards coppered and golden.  Under dense roof thatching, it stands on its slender stilts, this steady scaffolding.

Reflective Day in Portland

Reflective Day in Portland

Between stops on this research trip, I planned a few days in Portland, Oregon.  My extended family is from Portland, and I used to visit every few years.  Growing up, I always believed I’d wind up living in Oregon.  Still for me, there is a sense of coming home when I go to the Pacific Northwest.  My body relaxes into belonging.

On this visit, I stayed at my great-aunt and uncle’s house on the hillside.  I love this house — its energy and views and the way it admits daylight.  I wish I reserved the word love for places like this one.

I’ve learned on this research trip how important these few days of reflection can be.  For the most part, my research has been conducted on this trip at a pretty relentless pace.  In between Seattle and Japan, these few days in my great-uncle’s study overlooking the trees gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, to process information and impressions.

It felt right to do so in this space that belonged to my great-aunt and uncle, who had their own connections to both Japan and Seattle.  In the sunlit quiet of their living room, I looked through their 1930s jazz records, poured tea from their Japanese teapot.  It felt good to be connected with them across time through these shared spaces.

University of Washington

As I’ve been walking through the University of Washington campus this week researching for a story in my collection that’s set, in part, here in Seattle in the 1930s, it’s occurred to me that my father’s father was a student at the University of Washington not much after that.

My father’s father, who died a few years ago, wasn’t one to share much about his past.  But he came to school here at the University of Washington as a newly orphaned teenager.  He played the flute and the piccolo and diligently studied science.  In just a few years his life would take an entirely new arc: he’d join the army, study medicine, go oversees, settle east.

In subject and content the stories in my collection have nothing to do with my family.  Yet the idea for the first story sparked from a letter my mother’s father wrote home from wartime Hawaii.  By coincidence, through the winding intricacies of research, the last story in my collection has led me to Seattle.  Somehow, twelve years and 3,000 miles later, this book that started with the letters of one grandfather has now brought me to the other.

Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!