Aug 8 2018

The Writer’s Trip

This past May I had a chance to take short trip to France, to learn some more about writing.


The tip of my elbow is sticking out from under the duvet. It’s a duvet, not a påslaken. I am in France and I am freezing! I have come to the south of France for 5 days, to Provence, to a small town named Cotignec to participate in a 3 day long Writers Retreat/Workshop. It’s a small workshop, just the 8 of us, but still…
And did I mention I was in France?

When I was about 15, my mother bought me a small notebook with lined pages. It had a beautiful cover of turquoise patterned silk and a string bookmark attached to its spine. What it didn’t have, was one of those cheap locks on its open end, so it wasn’t what I would have called a girly diary. It didn’t say My Diary on it either, for which I was very thankful. My mother gave it to me, maybe as a birthday present, but maybe not. I don’t remember anymore. As she handed it to me she said, “Here. You can write down what you are thinking about in this book.” I think she gave it to me to get herself off the hook because she was the one who I always kept tossing all those thoughts at. She had gotten tired of having to listen to me.

The sound of voices downstairs wakes me. I poke my head out of my warm cave as I listen to an engine starting up and the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. Liz is on her way to buy fresh bread for breakfast. My first morning in Provence is about to start. I am staying in a large stone house, overlooking an incredible view of fields and mountains, together with 8 other people. I am here to enjoy the pleasures of real French bread and to write.

By the time I reached high school, I had decided that I was going to go to be an artist and that I would go to Art School. I didnt know yet exactly what I wanted to study. At the time, it was a toss-up between Fashion Design and Architecture. I knew it would be something that required the making of pictures. I wasn’t going to be a writer. Somewhere, I had gotten it into my head that you had to pick one or the other – words or pictures – because you couldn’t do both. That’s what I thought then. And I had long ago, already chosen pictures. I filled the notebook my mother gave me with words though – all the thoughts and ideas and opinions that took up space in my head got funneled down into those lined pages. But I made a decision, when I started putting those words on paper, that all I would do is write what I was thinking about or had an opinion about. I wasn’t going to make the words pretty or fancy or artistic or even be there for their own sake – because that is what I did with pictures. The words were just there because there was no more room in my head, so I put them on paper.

We have just landed in the airport in Nice and right away the four of us go to the small airport cafe and order something to eat and drink. I order coffee and a pain au chocolat. I need the caffeine after a night of almost no sleep and an uncomfortable three-hour flight – and the pastry…well, hey, I’m in France! Liz arrives in her rental car and we head off. The sky is grey and overcast and the air chilly as we drive through the damp French countryside.

I went to Art School – for Fashion Design – not architecture. But after a year and a half, I realized I didn’t want to design clothes for other people. So I switched to Commercial Art and came out prepared to be an Art Director or Graphic Designer or Illustrator. In the commercial art world, you had designers who worked with pictures and you had copywriters. The copywriters worked with the words. So that theory which I had back in high school turned out to be true. When working with a copywriter, I occasionally contributed to the words that were used but it was still the copywriter’s job to finish it. I continued to write my words in my lined notebooks. New ones had been bought and filled. I didn’t make up stories, like writers do. I only wrote what was True. Because I was a graphic designer, not a writer.

And so I continued – all through my career in New York City and even after I landed in Stockholm – it was always about the pictures. Occasionally, I still added words to my notebooks but less and less after I moved here. In 1991, I had my son and any thoughts of putting words on paper went out the door along with the dirty diapers.

And then the World Wide Web and the Internet happened. In the beginning of the new century, my friend Amy Brown started up a website for English-speaking parents in Stockholm called ParentNetSweden. It was an ambitious undertaking and she needed content. She asked me if I could write some articles for her. Someone else would be doing the graphics so I said yes. I wrote about how one eats at a Swedish smörgasbord. I described what Swedish life in the countryside is like. I did a few book reviews. I wrote a review about The Lord of the Rings films and described going to Trilogy Tuesday here in Stockholm, dressed in costume. I found I had trouble keeping myself out of my texts. I wasn’t interested in statistics or facts. Instead I wrote personal pieces. I wrote pieces about how it was to move to Sweden and how I adjusted to life here. I wrote about being Jewish here. (Some of those stories ended up on this blog.) After a little over a year, the site closed down and we all moved on to other things but I had gotten a taste for putting words outside the boundries of my lined notebooks.

Everyone is sitting around the large oval dining table in Brynn’s kitchen; Ting, Eva, Liz, me, Cassie and Joe and Matt and Ulrika with their 2 month old baby Kay. Brynn, is Liz’s friend and he has graciously allowed us to invade his big stone house in Provence just before the tourist season starts. Several fresh loaves of bread, along with a multitude of cheeses and various spreads are arranged on the table and we sit around planning the next 3 days as we eat. Sleeping places are assigned. Weather is discussed – it seems like we brought typical Swedish summer weather with us, not the warm sunny south-of-France kind of weather that we have all been expecting. The weather report says it is going to be chilly with periods of rain throughout the week. We decide to divide our days into exploring the neighborhood and writing. When the sun is out we would leave the house to explore. The writing could be done when the rain comes down.

By 4 o’clock the drizzle has stopped and the sun is trying to show its face. A group of us decide to go off and take a walk down the country road. The air is still damp from the recent rain so I make sure to put on my hat. I don’t want my hair to frizz. We walk till we come to an unpassable puddle and then turn back. The bread and cheese from earlier in the day was starting to wear off and it was time to go have dinner at a charming little restaurant in the center of town.

When Facebook came along, my friend Janet Suslick talked me into joining. For the introvert that I was, it was like a hand finding its perfect glove. I could be opinionated, witty, contemplative, and clever with all my friends and I didn’t even have to go outside my door or put on my makeup. But you had to keep it short. No long-winded pieces for Facebook. And I had no control over how anything looked – it all looked like Facebook.

So eventually, the glove started feeling a bit too tight. One size fits all was never a good fit for me. I decided to start my own blog. My husband and I already had a domain name and the WordPress blog could go there. I looked through page designs till I found a design I liked and then redid it to make it personal and truly mine. (I was still a graphic designer, remember?) I could write as many words as I wanted in my blog and keep everything I wrote in one place. I called it Just Hilarie because it’s just me. So far, I’ve published exactly 84 pieces. But I’m not very prolific. I have a number of fits and starts that never got finished and I am the world’s worst publicist so very few people ever actually read what I write. I announce on Facebook and Twitter when I have a new piece up but, you know how it is…..

During my last few years at IGBP, where I worked as their in-house graphic designer, I would spend lunch times talking about writing with my co-worker and friend, Ting Yiu. She knew she wanted to be a writer. She read some of my blog posts and told me that the kind of stuff I wrote could be called Memoir. Wow! I was a genre! Ting suggested I take the University of Iowa’s online MOOC. It was titled Storied Women and I signed up. It was my very first creative writing class and it was definitely a challenge. I watched the video classes and I loved reading what the assignments were. I even managed to do 3 of them while spending a month in New York City.

Ting told me she was regularly attending a writers workshop and suggested I join her there. She said the group leader, Cassie Gonzales, was very good. And Ting was right. I found myself planning my life around these alternate Tuesdays. By then, I was officially retired, which was basically a nice way of saying I was out of a job. I had been spending a lot of time wondering about what I was going to do with my life once retirement started. Unlike for my parents, retirement had never been my end-all goal in life. The work I did as a designer was who I was. It defined me. So who was I if I didn’t make pictures anymore? Attending these writing workshops seemed to be filling a gap in my new life.

After a few months, Cassie announced that she was offering a 9-session writing course. I signed up and for the next 5 months every other Sunday, I spent my time learning about Plot and Character and Structure and Dialogue. Cassie introduced me to writing prompts, which I loved. Many of the things Cassie discussed, I had probably been aware of, because I’m a reader. But no one had ever talked about them to me as things that a writer does consciously. I felt like something was missing when the class ended. But I continued to attend her workshops, occasionally submitting pieces to be dissected and workshopped. I loved having a piece workshopped! It reminded me of being back at Pratt, in art school, and putting an illustration piece up for a critique. After a session, a small group would often go out for a beer together and just talk, about writing, and life in general. I got to feel like I was getting to know these people. They were becoming my writer friends and a new part of my life.

When Liz texted me, this past spring, inviting me to join her and a few of the regulars from our Writers Workshop at her friend Brynn’s place in France for a kind of writers retreat, my first reaction was “Oh that’s a cool idea!” And then my sometimes irrational brain kicked in and started saying “No no no…can’t go. I hate traveling!”

Liz and Ting managed to talk me down from the edge of the windowsill and promised that everything would be fine. When I heard that Cassie and her Joe were going, I booked myself on the same flight so I wouldn’t be traveling alone and my brain quieted down. So at 5 am, one very foggy May morning, this very timid traveler, met up with Ting, Cassie and Joe at Arlanda Airport, poised for a new kind of adventure.

Our first morning in Provence was going to be rain-free so we decide to go exploring. Like the day we arrived, it was damp and chilly out so I put on multiply layers of my summer clothes, not forgetting my knit hat to protect my hair from the humidity. The sun was at least threatening to peek out between the scattered cloud cover. We headed off for a walk in the forest alongside a river. I’m not much of a hiker and among this bunch I have to admit I’m the old lady but I was determined to keep up. There were several sections along the path that I needed the help of our male companions to make it up the steep places. I figure it’s always nice to let men feel they are needed sometimes. We ended up at a beautiful waterfall tumbling from far above our heads into a still pond that made it worth the struggle to get there. After returning the way we came, with me getting help again from the boys, we wandered around the outskirts of the town, exploring small paths and finding hidden gardens. We took a breather at a very French cafe and I got to taste extremely strong espresso. We wandered to the center of town and stopped for lunch at a small Brasserie. We sat down to eat, at the tables outside, but after about 5 minutes, we looked at each other and unanimously decided it was too cold and we went inside for our lunch. We weren’t in Sweden after all, and we didn’t have to pretend we liked sitting outside in the cold just because it was summer.

We drove back to the house and gathered around the big table for our writing workshop – the real reason (or excuse?) for being here. Cassie lead us on an exploration of the use of Defamiliarization – how to use the familiar and the strange in writing to make your writing unique and original. She discussed how to make memoir speak to a reader. And then we did writing prompts! I wrote my very first piece of Science Fiction from one of these prompts! It was very short and not really very original but it took place on a space ship instead of planet Earth. And it wasn’t about me for a change!

After almost 3 hours of inspiration we were ready for more food. So around 5 pm, we hopped in the cars for a trip to Super Marché, a big supermarket, to buy food for dinner. It was great fun to wander through a French supermarket seeing what they sold. With bags and bags of food we headed back. Joe had volunteered to make pasta with a sunflower seed pesto. Also on the table was a huge salad platter, filled with bright red tomato wedges, slices of crisp yellow sweet peppers, red-tipped lettuce, juicy green-edged cucumber chunks and crunchy pieces of French bread left over from the day before and fried in olive oil and salt. The French bread crutons were good enough to eat by themselves. After supper, we huddled around the fireplace, struggling to get it lit in spite of the scarcity of dry wood, because we were all still so cold. My husband sent me a screen capture of a map showing temperatures around Europe with Sweden having temps in the 20s (Celsius) and southern France being down in the low teens. It’s not often Swedes can boast about warm weather and he was enjoying himself.

Tuesday morning was Market Day in Cotingac and the sun was predicted to show its face, so after a breakfast of freshly bought French breads we headed to town. We spent the morning wandering amongst the stalls and offerings. I bought 2 thick slices of French nougat to bring home to Stockholm. We ate fresh made crepes off a food truck for lunch. Mine was with ham and cheese and an egg – all the flavors dissolving together in my mouth. And then we were back at the house for an afternoon of writing. By this time the sunshine had warmed things up a bit so we dared to sit around the patio table on the terrace, with a view of fields and forests and mountains spread out before us. We started off with a writing prompt to get us thinking about Character – how to make our characters physically believable in their world. We practiced writing about Space (not the kind in Sci-fi) but up and down, in and out, the space a character takes up as they move around. Cassie led us on a discussion about Staging and Tableau – who is in the frame that you are writing about. And she discussed Stakes – something I am very poor at writing. You have to write characters who want something very much, she explains, something that they are in danger of losing. This is a way to create tension and makes your story interesting enough for the reader to continue to read it. I still have a lot of work to do on this. I am much too kind to my characters, unfortunately. Maybe because my character is usually me??

As the sun started to fade behind the mountains, it was time to make dinner. We ate eggplant parmesan and couscous with roasted mixed veggies. Again, it was a group effort but I tried to stay out of the kitchen. You know what they say about too many cooks. And as usual, there were lovely French wines to drink with the meal. The rest of the evening was spent around the living room fireplace – the firestarters finally figured out how to get it going and wood had been brought in to dry in advance. It was still cold outside and the glow of the burning wood was very welcome even if it didn’t really add much heat. We spent the time talking – getting to know each other on a more intimate level. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this kind of thing – talking with people who are relatively unknown – discussing life and who we are instead of talking about work or raising our children. It reminded me of being back in college or in the mid 70s when my friend Fern Kershon would invite me out to her summer share in Fire Island and we would hang out with the other house sharers. I like that. I like being one in a group of many – to be included in the conversation – to listen to what others have to say about their lives. I definitely don’t get to do that too often these days.

Wednesday morning was going to be sunny. So, everyone decided to drive off to explore another town a bit further away. I told them I wanted to stay at the house. I wondered if they would be upset if I didn’t go with them. Would they be worried about me because I didn’t want to join the group? I reassured them I was fine, just a bit tired. And it seemed ok. I admit to not being the best traveler. I have very little interest in exploring strange new worlds, new places. As much as I was loving being around everyone, this introvert (who knows how to pretend to be an extrovert) needed to spend time alone after so much socializing. Unlike a true extrovert who gets energized by being around other people, the energy needed by me, to be social, gets drained and needs to be replaced by spending time alone to recover. So I stayed at the house. I sat out on the flag-stoned veranda in the sun and stared out at the horizon of beautiful mountains and fields, watching the clouds move across the sky. I looked through my notes and read my Kindle. Brynn, the owner of the house was also there, puttering around with his new lawnmower or painting chairs, getting ready for the summer rental guests. When he took a break we sat at the table and talked for a bit. He was a Jewish guy, around my age, from Stockholm who had had an American mother, so we had a lot we could talk about.

When everyone else returned from their adventures, I was once again able to rejoin the group and we had our last writing workshop. Cassie talked about the differences between Story and Plot. We listened to a very character-driven short story called Emergency written by Denis Johnson and discussed how each scene works. And once again more writing prompts. As during each previous session, Cassie gave us the chance to read aloud what we had written and we workshopped each small piece. I always find these discussions of the work so enlightening. It is real, practical help – not just abstract theory.

The evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice cooked by Brynn. And more wine and conversation round the fireplace till it was time for bed.

Thursday morning and it was time to travel home to warm, sunny Stockholm. How many times can I say that? We took a train back to Nice and then a bus to the airport. We were very late and really had to high-tail it though all the security and gates. But we made it on the plane. All that running and stress reminded me why I hate traveling. I’m never flying anywhere again. Yeah, right…

Summer is almost over now and I’m sitting at the dining table out at my own country house in Stavsnäs. The door to the deck is open and the lace curtain that hangs there stirs a bit in the warm breeze. Next to me on the windowsill lies a small flat wooden stick – the kind you put in gardens so you remember what you planted and are waiting to see grow. Cassie gave this to me after I finished her creative writing class. One end is pointed and the other end has a green ribbon attached. Printed on one side of the stick are the words Write & Write & Write & Write & Edit. On the other side is my name, printed in the same kind of block letters, and above it is the word Writer. Maybe I am after all.


Jul 19 2018

Summer 2018

To simply sit. To do absolutely nothing.

The air outside is warm – so warm that I don’t feel it surrounding my bare skin. I should get up and do something; sweep the deck clear of all the brown dried pine needles, put away the wood sander, coil the garden hose back on its holder, wash the dinner dishes from last night. So much that could be done. But I don’t move. The chair cushion is soft and encompassing, almost too warm under the shadow of the umbrella spreading its rust-tinged grey fabric over me. I don’t want to move.

High above me, in the upper reaches of the trees, the sunlit, dry and yellowing leaves of the birches flutter in a breeze that barely works its way lower, to move my hair against my neck and whisk away the dampness from my skin.

One time Jersey girl that I am, I close my eyes and imagine that the sound which the leaves make as they rustle against each other is the sound of salt water boiling up against the wide white sand of the Jersey shoreline. All that is lacking is the rhythmic pounding of the waves. But I can pretend, can’t I?

Last week, we washed the dirty grey from the deck’s wide boards. They look almost new-laid except for the uneven warping and dry fissures that give away the fact that they’ve been there a long time. In the sun, the wood is almost too hot to stand on with bare feet. They remind me of the Boardwalk, running along the Brooklyn beaches from Brighton to Coney Island, that I walked on with Grandma long ago. If I descend the staircase leading from the deck, will I arrive at the dry patchy grass of our sorry excuse of a lawn or to the blinding hot, white sand which leads to the far away water’s edge? My eyes are closed. Who can tell what I will find?

I still remember the summer of 1997. My son was only six years old then. We had an inflatable wading pool, nestled on top of the uneven moss and grass-covered rock below our tiny cottage, for him to splash around in. The summer was hot and long and dry. I emptied everything out of the mildewed tool shed, laying all the junk on a tarp spread on dried moss, without fear of anything getting rained on and wet – it hardly ever rained that summer. All summer, my husband and son spent hours lying in a hammock suspended between two birch trees, using paddles to swing themselves back and forth, pretending to be sailors on the open sea. That was also the summer we built our Friggebod. Or at least, the carpenters we hired built it. For many years, it was the only mold-free house on our property.

One of the birch trees gave up and died many years ago. We no longer have a good place to hang the hammock,so it sits rolled up on a shelf, in the over-crowded and still musty tool shed.

Five or ten years from now, I’ll sit with a cup of tea in my hands and remind friends of the summer of 2018 – how long it was, how hot it was, how sunny it was, and how dry it was. How wonderful it was. Hopefully, it will be the occasional exception to the rule, worthy of remembering and not become the expected normal Swedish summer.

It rained this year on Midsommar afton. It was practically the only rain we have had all summer. But, then, what would Swedish Midsommar be without a little rain?


Apr 24 2018

Books, oh how I’ve loved you but now its time to say goodbye

Ok…it’s gonna be hard…But it’s time. Time to get rid of all the paperback books of my youth. Not my childhood but the books I read in my 20s and 30s when I lived in NYC. I’ve never had room to unpack them in the 20 years that the boxes filled with them have been in Sweden.

When I first moved to Sweden 3o years ago, I rented out my apartment on New York’s Upper West Side for almost 5 years before I finally gave it up. I wasn’t ready to burn all my bridges and remove all possible chances of returning to the big apple just because I moved to another country. But it was just a rental and I couldn’t keep it since I didn’t own it, so after 5 years and a small baby, I finally had to admit that I wasn’t coming back.

As I interviewed moving companies, I started giving thought to what was coming with me and what was not. I gave away my air conditioner and my TV and pretty much everything I owned that needed to be plugged into an electric outlet. They wouldn’t work in Sweden so no point bringing them with me. The only electric things I was keeping was my ballerina lamp and an “antique” floor lamp. They could be rewired. My drafting table was nothing really special so that found a new home. Same with my big 4-drawer filing cabinet. My sofa was almost 10 years old and even though I loved it, it had seen better days so I got rid of it (though I can’t remember to who). I sold my ceiling fan, which was still lovely. I was down to bare bones furniture. My two chests of drawers and a night table that I had inherited from my parents were coming with me. My classic 1940s dining set painted black and with chrome trim from my parents was definitely coming with me too. Also the 2 wooden 1930s office armchairs. And that left just the rest of my stuff consisting of kitchen things, art supplies, fabric and books.

Our Stockholm apartment was small but we managed to move some of the furniture out of the packing crate and into our 2 and a half rooms. We found space for the chests of drawers, the dining table set and the wooden office chairs. Håkan rewired the two lamps so we could use them. Everything else stayed in their boxes in storage. Then in the winter of 98/99 we renovated our 2 small side-by-side apartments and combined them to make a 3-bedroom apartment with a large open plan kitchen/living/dining room with lots of kitchen storage. All my kitchen stuff from New York moved in. The old dining set moved out – its chrome details were so rusty by then that it didn’t seem worth it to keep. But the boxes filled with art supplies, fabric and books stayed packed away –  most of my art was being done on a computer by then; I had no time to sew, and shelf space was non-existent. Since then the boxes have been taking up space in the small office we rent next door to our apartment building. Or at least it was office space for a while but little by little became just mainly storage – starting with my own stuff and then the growing collection of stuff from dead relatives. Over the years, it also collected old computer screens and other outdated electronics, plus all the other junk left over from our lives. But now our co-op association has decided to not renew our lease on that space. We have till September to clear it out. OMG!

So now, I have begun opening boxes and taking stuff out. A whole box contained old almanacs filled with descriptions of what I had done and journals describing my life in even more detail. My black covered sketchbooks were there too. Another held font catalogs Art Director’s Annuals and other books related to the advertising life I led when last in New York. And four boxes were filled with all the paperback books that had entertained me in the 1970s and 1980s. Most were Science Fiction. Quite a few were Fantasy novels of one sort or another. And then there was the miscelleny of other assorted “normal” authors and novels.

But most of it is gonna go – to Myrorna (sort of like the Swedish version of the Salvation Army and Goodwill all rolled up in one) or maybe to people I know who like to read the sort of thing I do and still want paper books.

So If you live here in Stockholm (I’m not about to mail books to anyone) and see anything you like as you look through the gallery, let me know. Or if you want to see a pdf list of the books, I can send you one. If you want something from the collection let me know and we can meet up for fika and a book hand-off. You can leave a comment in the comment section, or if you know me (IRL) you can just contact me the usual way you usually contact me. Call me, Facebook messenger me or email me. But don’t wait too long. These books are moving on to new homes soon.

If you want to see a close-up of the photos just click on one.


Apr 15 2018

Stockholm Writers Festival #SWF18

I write this as I am sitting here sipping at my first cup of morning coffee. Actually it’s already after noon and I just got up. My body aches. My eyes are fuzzy. My throat hurts and my voice is hoarse. No, I am not sick. I’ve spent the last couple of days participating in the Stockholm Writers Festival, the first ever writers festival for writers of English to be held here in Stockholm and I am so energized! (despite waking up this morning feeling like I’ve been tossed around in a tumble-dryer)

Who's ready for a Writers Festival? Here's a bunch of faces you'll be seeing about in the coming days, all excited to meet you in just a handful of hours!

Who’s ready for a Writers Festival? Here’s a bunch of faces you’ll be seeing about in the coming days, all excited to meet you in just a handful of hours!

Thursday afternoon, April 12, was the kick-off mingle for helpers and faculty at SWF founder, Catherine Pettersson’s incredible new apartment. There were lots of home-made baked goods on the kitchen island along with different colors of wine, and Catherine’s son Victor knew to fizz the water with lots of CO2. Fuzzy beer was available on the rooftop terrace. And while the apartment was pretty cool, it was the people I had a chance to meet and talk to that made the evening. I got to schmooze once again with Cat’s rat pack of incredible people who helped her shepherd her idea to reality; Lizzie Harwood and her Mickael were there, as were Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Sandra Carpenter, Susan Wuest, Sarah Hollister, Kendal von Sydow and Adnan Mahmutovic. I got to talk sci-fi with Paddy Kelly. Met Eira Ekre again and her guy Dan who I spent a lot of time talking to about cool virtual reality stuff. I chatted with faculty member, Paul Rapacioli, from The Local. He was interesting and funny and also tall so I didn’t have to talk to him while scrunching down. Always a plus. I talked with the charming Clydette de Groot who together with her husband, Charles, sponsored the Festival’s First Pages Prize. I met (and talked with) Adam McCulloch, the winner of the First Pages Prize, who traveled here all the way from Mexico. Another of the Faculty members I had a chance to meet was Brooks Sherman and his wife, who came all the way from the US but via Italy so he wasn’t too jet lagged and seemed really excited to be here.  There was a chance to once again meet the wonderful group of young people (yes, Ting Yiu, you are a young person) from the Stockholm University Masters program in Transnational Creative Writing who were going to be the helpful volunteer facilitators at the festival. There were many more there that I wanted to talk to but it was impossible to talk to everyone when there is so little time and so many great people. I knew I would see them later on Friday and Saturday.

And I also got to reconnect with my dear friend Amy Brown (who abandoned me and Stockholm, to move to the sunny shores of Florida) and her cuz Elinor Lipman (keynote speaker) who was lots of fun to talk to. Amy, Eli and I went and ate dinner together afterwards with our friend Carol Henderson.

A Writers Festival? But I’m a graphic designer!
It all started for me on Tuesday, 9 May 2017, (a whole year ago in case you didn’t catch that) in an Expresso House where I met with Catherine to discuss helping her with this writers thing she was doing. She knew I did graphics (and was also interested in writing) so she wondered if I could offer her my graphic designer help. It sounded like fun so I said yes. Catherine can be very persuasive.

She had already found a logo for the festival – I just helped make it more usable. I did a quick proposal brochure for her to show around. During the following months I made a few ads and the odd graphic here and there when needed until it was time to start work on the festival program brochure. Lizzie Harwood’s husband Mickael Gohier, Marketing Director for the Antalis paper company, was donating some very hi-tech paper for the back cover of the program. It had a computer chip embedded in it that when programmed would lead your smart phone to the comments page on the Stockholm Writers Festival website. I got to join Mickael and Catherine at the printer’s to watch the back page being printed and to test how it worked. It worked great! We also printed up business cards on Antalis donated paper with embedded chips leading to the SWF website. So cool – combining old tech with new tech.

And so it starts

And so it starts

Friday, April 13, 2018
OK, so it was Friday the 13th, but what a great day anyway! And it was sunny!
Registration opened at 4pm at the Berghs School of Communications. Berghs generously donated their facilities for the festival. I got my nifty festival bag with a bunch of goodies and my name tag! I schmoozed a bit with people I knew and some I didn’t, till we were all called in by the clanger to take seats around the round tables in the Berghs Auditorium. Catherine was on the stage, dressed in a fantastic coat covered in images of Stockholm. One of my pet peeves (I have many) is people who speak in front of an audience and don’t know how to do it; who talk into their papers, who don’t enunciate clearly or speak too fast or too unhearable, people who quite simply don’t know how to take control of their audience. Catherine isn’t one of those. She is a natural on the stage, funny, authoritative and clear, and she belongs up there.

We started off with guest authors Elinor Lipman, Derek B. Miller, Jess Lourey, Cassie Gonzales, and Marina Blitshteyn on the stage reading excerpts from their books. (and I ended up doing something I told myself not to do – I bought 2 new books)

Then Lizzie and the de Groots announced the winners of the First Pages Prize and gave awards to the first and second prize winners who were brought here for the festival. Adam McCulloch won the first prize and Kristy Keller won second.

And then the big crowd of attendees rearranged themselves into their genre tribes. I joined Lizzie Harwood in the tribe of Memoir writers. We all sat together bonding over what we each wrote about. Yes, I’m beginning to think I belong here. 

After a dinner of Hawaiian Poké with my friend Liz Watson and Hedvig Andersen, another attendee, we headed to the Hellsten Hotel for a SWF mingle. Don’t ask me to list who I talked to – my brain is mush by now. But if you talked to me (and remember doing it) write me a comment! (and remind me what we talked about!)

Saturday, April 14, 2018
And so it began – 8am registration. I got there at 8.30 because I was already registered. The coffee was very strong  – and needed. The clanger started ringing and we all got summoned to the auditorium.

A panel discussion about the state of the publishing industry, moderated by Paul Rapacioli with the guest editors, agents and publishers; Terri Bischoff, Rebecca Carter, Amy Cherry, Peta Nightingale and Brooks Sherman, started the day off.

Then on to the first breakout session.
I had chosen to listen to Julie Lindahl talk about memoir: Writing from past pain. As a Jew with a grandparent who lost family members in the Holocaust, listening to someone discuss how discovering rather late in life that her grandparents had been SS members and how that hidden past had affected her and how writing about it had helped her, was very enlightening. I wanted to talk more to her later but didn’t manage it.

Then came 2 sessions of Buttonholing the Expert, a kind of speed-dating (with a lunch break at Urban Deli in between). I’ve never done speed-dating and I’m not really very good at rule-following so I decided to listen twice to Jess Lourey discuss editing hacks. Catherine, standing just above me on the stage saw me not changing tables and announced to the whole auditorium that I was not following the rules. Boy, what a bully she is! I didn’t move though. I figured I needed to know those hacks. I also went to Lizzie Harwood’s table and listened to her excellent advice on story structure.

Then we had time for 2 more break-out sessions:
First, The role of research by Jenny White. She described how she used research for her trilogy of novels about the Ottoman Empire. But Jenny is a star in my book because she told me when I had met her a few weeks ago that Diana Gabaldon had done a very nice blurb for her first book. Anyone who knows me or has read this blog already knows how I feel about Gabaldon and her Outlander books so I won’t get into that now.

The third breakout session was about Subtext and lead by Cassie Gonzalas (my writing guru) and was great as usual. She has discussed subtext in some of the workshops I have taken with her before and amazingly enough I actually remembered some of what she has taught me. And she gave us a writing prompt to do – always fun.

And then we needed to be rewarded with Fika – coffee and cookies and casual conversation. (Tea too if you preferred that.)

Midway in between bites of cookie, the clanger rang again bringing us all back into the auditorium to hear our guest writers, Katarina Bivald, Jess Lourey, Derek B. Miller, Marina Blitshteyn and  Elinor Lipman, lead by moderator Sandra Carpenter, discuss how they kept on writing in spite of everything. Gee, even real, professional writers have problems writing (and tricks to get over it). Good to hear.

And finally our Keynote Speaker, Elinor Lipman got up on the stage to talk about her writing process, one sentence at a time. As she spoke from her collection of index cards, she explained to us how she puts her books together with no advance formal outline. As I watched her shuffling through her cards, I realized that was the same way she wrote speeches too. She was warm, funny and very entertaining. A very good ending to a fantastic day.

But wait! It’s not over yet…

Together with my pal Amy Brown, her cousin Elinor Lipman, Editor Amy Cherry, Newsman Paul Rapacioli and publisher Peta Nightingale I went for dinner at The Queens Head, a nearby British style pub. I had Fish and Chips – what else!

By 8pm we had rejoined the rest of the SWF18 gang at the Hotel Hellsten for the Literary Idol event in their glass-covered room. A variety of hors d’oeuvres and wines of different colors was there to sample. Elinor Lipman, Amy Cherry, Terri Bischoff, Brooks Sherman and Peta Nightingale sat as judges as Marina Blitshteyn read 1-page entries submitted by SWF18 attendees. If 2 or more judges raised their hand before the piece was finished, it was out. It was so interesting to listen to the variety of the entries and there were a lot of them. By about 10.30 the judging was over and it was time to call it quits. I said goodbye to new friends and old and left to come home.

There was an additional series of Intensive Workshops scheduled for Sunday April 15 but they seemed to be more for those who are further along on their writing paths so I didn’t go to those.

In summation…
This has been my first and so far only writers festival so I have nothing like it to compare it to. But I worked in the conference field for over 15 years, making slide shows for speakers and I have been to a few of those conferences. And I will put this first time effort up there in the top 5! Professional was just one of the words I would use for this event. The Festival committee members Lizzie Harwood, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Sandra Carpenter, Adnan Mahmutovic, Cassie Gonzales and especially the brain child behind this amazing endeavour, Catherine Pettersson have done a fantastic job. Their modest goal of selling 100 tickets was more than met and as I looked out on the auditorium filled with people who all seemed to really want to be there, all I could think was that here in Stockholm, Sweden, a place where English is almost a second language, holding a writers festival for writers who write in English was something that was long overdue. I am so glad I could be part of this whole event, both as contributor and attendee and I am really looking forward to coming again next year.

And next year I will take a picture of each new person I talk to while they are holding their name tag!

Here’s to #SWF19!

 


Mar 25 2018

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died recently. There was lots of information about her death in the news and social media. The general consensus on Twitter and Facebook was that it was so terribly sad that she had died. For her family and close friends, yes of course, it must have been very sad. But I didn’t know her personally. I only knew her through her books. And as far as I’m concerned, she is still alive because of those books.

I first started reading Science Fiction when I was 11 years old; The Martian Chronicles was the novel that got me hooked. By the time I was 14 I had gone through all my Dad’s collection of the classics; Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark. I was a freshman in High School when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings;  it had just been published in paperback in the US and it was on the list of books my English teacher let us order from some book club. For the next 7 to 10 years, Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth was what occupied much of my reading time and shifted me from Science Fiction to Fantasy. During that time, I kept searching for other fantasy novels whose worlds were equal to Tolkien’s. I bought a lot of books that mostly left me feeling very disappointed. My bookshelf was filled with stories about elves and dwarfs and magic that I judged harshly and barely got through without lots of internal complaining. Tolkien remained king. Then sometime in the very early 70s I picked up a paperback copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t remember how I heard about it. Maybe I just liked the cover illustration. The inside content was even better. I went on to buy each subsequent book in the series. I bought The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore as soon as their paperback versions were released.

Also in the early 70s, I discovered The Science Fiction Shop. It was a tiny crowded bookstore in Greenwich Village that only sold Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was crowded with books, not people. It was the first and only one of its kind in NYC – Science Fiction hadn’t gotten as popular as it would become after the success of Star Wars. I still remember how it felt that first time I walked through its doors and looked around. You could see the entire store from the door. There were a few geeky looking guys amongst the racks and me! I was in heaven!

My method of choosing a new book was simple. If I found an author whose book I liked, I went to the shelf where their name was and bought another of their books. I kept buying their books till I ran out of new ones and then I went on to find another author. After Earthsea, I spent the rest of the 70s and 80s reading all of Le Guin’s books – none of which were fantasy but real Science Fiction, set in the far distant future. I read all of the Hainish novels and all her miscellaneous stuff too. She became one of my favorite authors of that time.

Books can be read for different reasons. In some books, the plot is the most important aspect and that is what you remember it for; in other books, you remember very vivid characters and not so much what they did and in some very rare books, you remember the ideas. Le Guin’s books left me with remembered ideas. Before writing this post, I had to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the plots and the names of characters but the ideas I didn’t need help with. There have been three strong ideas from her books that have stayed with me ever since I first read them so long ago.

A Wizard of Earthsea taught me that names are very important and they have power; that everyone has their own “secret” name that only their closet friends can know. To know someone’s real name gives them power over you. I loved this idea when I first read it. Ever since I was a child, I hated my name – Hilarie. It was so odd. No one was named that! And it was spelled weird too. I wished I was named something normal like Mary or Sue or Carol. My mother used to console me by saying that when I grew up I could use just my middle name, Ruth, which at that time seemed a more normal name, to my way of thinking. And then I grew up! And couldn’t imagine using Ruth as my name. Hilarie was my true name – my name of power – that no one else had. And now in the world of social media and the internet I have discovered the wonderful reality of having an unusual name. There is no one else named like me. Even though it’s not a secret it nevertheless belongs only to me. And I find that wonderful.

I love when a writer of speculative fiction creates an entire cosmology with many stories and worlds to fill it. Isaac Asimov did this in all his Galactic Empire stories, Iain M. Banks did it with his novels set in The Culture. My favorite authors have been those who do a really believable job at world-building. You can see and feel and smell the worlds they create. Le Guin built her worlds with a deft hand in her novels and stories about the planets that belonged to the Ekumen, a loosely connected league of worlds which had once been seeded and colonised by a long-gone civilisation from a planet called Hain.

My biggest take-away from the Hainish novels was the idea that the Ekumen, in their attempt to reunite the Hainish worlds, sends only one person at a time, a single envoy, to a newly rediscovered planet; a planet that had long since forgotten their Hainish heritage. In the Hainish cosmology, faster-than-light space travel doesn’t exist, travel through the galaxy takes time. If you travel to another solar system, you say goodbye to everyone you once knew. The job of envoy must have been a very lonely assignment; one that often ended in death for many of them. I liked the idea that the best way to convince a race (or a whole world) to join you was not by sending a huge military force but to send one person who speaks for you, to whoever will listen and if the first person fails, you send another. The Left Hand of Darkness was the most important novel in this series and a book I often recommend to friends who “don’t read science fiction”.

Published in 1969, Left Hand is also a fantastic examination about gender, and how it affects the way we relate to the people we know. Geffen is the name of the planet in the book; a world undergoing a planet-wide ice age at the same time as its industrial revolution. Among the Hainish worlds, Geffen was different. Its people, while from the same original human stock, had mutated from having 2 distinct sexes to a race of beings who were “sexless” except for about 6 days each month when they went into “kemmer” becoming either male or female. Each individual had no way of knowing in advance which they would become. The same individual could both father a child and give birth to a child. All other days of the month, they were just human, neither male nor female, yet at the same time both. To this odd world comes an envoy from The Ekumen, a human male originally born on Earth. Through the eyes and emotions of Genly Ai, Le Guin examines the various ways gender affects our lives.  Genly eventually learns to understand and even love a person who seems on the surface totally different from everything he had come to assume about being human.

In these #metoo days discussing gender discrimination and all the talk about the small percentage of women working in many diverse fields, this book should be required reading by anyone who thinks about the importance gender plays in our lives.

Click to see larger image of these other Leguin books I also have.

Click to see larger image of these other Le Guin books I also have.

When I moved permanently to Sweden, I packed up all my New York books in boxes and that is where they have been for over 20 years. I never had enough room to unpack them or shelf space to display them. But my storage room where the boxes have been patiently awaiting my return will soon have to be given up – the lease has been cancelled. I still don’t have enough book shelves for my weathered, yellow-paged paperbacks. So I am in the process now of revisiting them again for a short time; not rereading but reminding myself of the stories that helped to make me who I am. Some of those books I can say goodbye to without a second thought. But some of them I will thumb though softly, revisiting them with love. Le Guin’s stories are among those and like with any old love, I will fondly remember them forever.