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Fairy Tales & Transformation

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When I teach ENGL 215, Intro to Women's Literature, I begin with fairy tales.  Not because women's literature is childish, but because scholars believe that fairy tales and folktales are the oldest forms of women's authorship in the West.  Mothers, grandmothers, nursemaids, and nannies made up tales that expressed their intuitions, experiences, and sense of form (those neat sets of three!), and passed them on orally, generation to generation, until folks like Perrault and the Grimm brothers collected and reshaped them. 

In class, we move on then to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, through which the strains of fairy tales echo, and to texts that followed, like The Yellow Wallpaper, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Bluest Eye, The House on Mango Street, and A Gate at the Stairs (which we're also reading this week in ENGL 852, in preparation for Lorrie Moore's visit here).  Gothic echoes of fairy tales--with their frank acknowledgment of the reality of cruelty, the divisive role of beauty, and the structures of power at even the most intimate levels--waft through them all.

As Marina Warner argues in her excellent critical study From the Beast to the Blonde:  On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, all those seemingly absurd (yet undeniably enchanting) stories of talking animals, people turning into birds, and frogs turning into princes alert us to a deep truth:  the possibility of transformation.  Our ethics and our actions can transform us.  The world is alive--and possibly sentient--all around us.  Our choices matter.  We can change.

When I was fourteen, I ran away from a violent home, and I eventually helped my little brother, who was nine, to run away, too.  Before we succeeded, however, we made one horrifying, aborted attempt, and I've written about it in my memoir The Truth Book.  During that botched attempt, he dropped his little plant.  The container broke open on the road, and soil spilled, and I told him to leave it behind, there was no time. 

And then I forgot about it.  For years.  But as Nola says in Hell or High Water, "nothing that's buried can stay buried long."

I am thirty-three when I wake choking from a dream of the little plant.  A small green seedling, the one thing he wanted to take with him.  Alone in the brightness of my room, I see how simple it would have been to have helped him scoop it up, to have held it in our hands together as we rushed to the revving car.  How you can be saying to someone, "You are the most important person in the world to me," and yet be ignoring the small thing closest to his heart.  How you can halo yourself as the hero and never match up the shards that say you're not.  How quickly it all happens and then there is no way back.  (The Truth Book)

This realization was devastating to me.  Yet I could not have moved forward without its clarity.  It transformed me. 

On the new paperback edition of The Truth Book, which launches this week, the University of Nebraska Press honors this moment of realization with Annie Shahan's beautiful cover design:

Thank you, Annie Shahan.  And thank you, Tom Swanson, Bison Books editor, for wanting this project to come back to life in a new form, and to the wonderful and amazing writer Dorothy Allison, for writing a foreword for this new edition.  The book has always been dedicated to my brother.  Now its cover shows this, and I am so grateful.

This Saturday, we'll be celebrating the launch of Island of Bones at Indigo Bridge Books from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m.  We'll have mojitos, food, and homemade flan from my grandmother's secret recipe.  But we'll also be celebrating the transformation of The Truth Book into something new, something more lovely than it used to be.

Our ethics and actions can transform us, can make our lives magical.  Our writing can make us have to change in painful, powerful, and beautiful ways.  If you're in Lincoln, come celebrate



Countdown to Island of Bones

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A big shout-out of gratitude to writer and critic Rigoberto González for this great interview about Island of Bones on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors' blog.  Rigoberto asked great questions, and I really enjoyed responding.  Here's an excerpt:

Stories can enact or dramatize hybridity.  They can show us what acceptance and freedom look like.

Written literature has an unusually powerful rhetorical opportunity in this regard, due to its intimacy:  one person’s story, one person’s voice entering the mind of the solitary reader.  We want to connect to the speaker of the poem or the narrator of the story.  We want to care, to see things through his or her eyes.  We respect the private story of the individual, and we give it credence.

Island of Bones publishes in September, so I'm grateful to Poets & Writers for snapshotting a page from it in their Lines We Live By column, to wit:

I'm meeting in half an hour with Aja Martin, the lovely manager of Indigo Bridge Books, to plan the birthday party for it (seems like the last one just happened!), so I'll be getting information about that up here on the blog soon.  You're invited, of course.

Thanks very much to Jen's Book Thoughts for this review of Hell or High Water, which calls it "a thought-provoking odyssey of recovery and a case study in resilience," which I like very much.

And guess what!  I just found out I'll be on a panel about crime fiction as literature at the Miami Book Fair International this November.  Joe Olshan organized the panel.  Thanks, Joe!  I'm excited!  I love the Book Fair.  It's one of the truly great book festivals.

In the meantime, it's time to get back in harness.  Our first department meeting is tomorrow, and classes start on Monday.  Buck up, all you students and teachers angsting out there.  It'll be cool. 


Just to Be There and Just to Behold

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Wallace Stevens' poem "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu" has possibly been my favorite twentieth-century poem since I first read it over twenty years ago, so I want to share it with you, in case you've never gotten to read it.

First, though, I'm very grateful to Swapna Krishna, who calls Hell or High Water "an absolutely gripping read" in her review.  I'm grateful to Kate Birkle at The Mystery Bookstore in Omaha, where I get to give a reading on Saturday, September 22nd.  And I'm really, really grateful to everyone involved with the optioning of my novel for film, which was reported in Publishers Marketplace today:

Joy Castro's HELL OR HIGH WATER, where a journalist takes it upon herself to investigate the 800+ sex offenders still missing three years after Katrina, optioned to producers Jane Startz of Jane Startz Productions and Aida Bernal of Spellbound Entertainment who have teamed up with sisters and producing partners, Zoe and Cisely Saldana from Saldana Productions, by Holly Frederick at Curtis Brown.
Sort of amazingly wow.  My understanding thus far is that if it goes into production as a feature film, Zoe Saldana herself will play Nola.  I dreamed of this. 

So readers:  Believe.  You never know.  Crazier things have happened.

Okay, so here's the Stevens poem, which slays my heart (which, "being hungry, feeds on food/the fat of heart despise"--down, Millay!) and which appeared in Stevens' 1936 collection Ideas of Order.  If you yourself are not given to display, you too might like it.

Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu

That would be waving and that would be crying,
Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,
Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the centre,
Just to stand still without waving a hand.

In a world without heaven to follow, the stops
Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder,
And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell,
Just to be there and just to behold.

To be one's singular self, to despise
The being that yielded so little, acquired
So little, too little to care, to turn
To the ever-jubilant weather, to sip

One's cup and never to say a word,
Or to sleep or just to lie there still,
Just to be there, just to be beheld,
That would be bidding farewell, be bidding farewell.

One likes to practice the thing.  They practice,
Enough, for heaven.  Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?



The Idea of Home

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Today I got to write my very first blurb for a thriller!  Exciting. 

The book is Stephanie Cha's Follow Her Home, forthcoming from St. Martin's, and I think it's really smart and terrific.  I can't wait for it to come out so I can push it on people.  It's another one of those thrillers that's doing cool sociopolitical work while still delivering a fast-paced, entertaining story, so I loved it.  Besides, has there ever before been a Korean American, feminist homage to Raymond Chandler?  You're going to want this one.

Many thanks to Nicole Henke for her warm review of Hell or High Water.  When first planning to write the book, I had some trepidation about setting Nola's story in a city so beloved by so many, because I know how protective New Orleanians are (and rightly so) of their home.  But my plot and protagonist were completely inextricable from the place.  It had to be written, and it had to be there.  So it really comes as a relief when people from the area love the book and feel like it gets their home in a deep, meaningful way.  Thank you!

The HH and I were emailing each other real estate ads for places in New Orleans this morning.  Not that we're putting our apartment on the market or anything.  But there's a pretty sweet condo for sale in the Quarter right now, if you're looking.  Not that you are.



Boston Bound!

I'm excited to be heading to Boston.  Thank you, Pine Manor MFA program, for inviting me back!  It'll be great to see so many familiar faces--and I'll get to see Dennis Lehane, a long-time hero of mine, read his work. 

Here's a new review of Hell or High Water from Chick Lit Central.  Very nice!

And here's a new piece, "From the Ivory Tower to the Gritty Gutter," that went live today on Writer Unboxed.  (Q:  How did an academically trained scholar of modernism learn to write a crime novel?  A:  Very, very slowly.)

Thank you, Bill Stibor, for interviewing me on NET Nebraska, Nebraska's NPR station, this morning! It was fun to do my first interview about Hell or High Water.  Bill's questions were interesting and fun, and the time whizzed by.

Until I'm back on Wednesday, take care! 


All the Single Ladies

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As a person of honor, I would never, ever pimp one of my friends merely in order to lure more people to my book-launch party for Hell or High Water.  Because that would just be wrong.  Low.  Unworthy.

However, I do want to mention--just in passing--that my smart, lovely friend Reza (the aeronautical engineer), who'll be flying in from L.A. (where he owns his own home in Hollywood) for my book-launch party (July 17, 6 to 8 p.m., Indigo Bridge Books here in Lincoln), is not only dashingly handsome and cosmopolitan (and straight) but also, and astonishingly, quite single. 

Ladies, start your engines.  This window will not last.

And if you can't make it to Lincoln but will be in the Boston area on Sunday, July 8th, please come see me at Pine Manor College, where I'll be reading with memoirist and Fourth Genre founder Mike Steinberg and YA author Mitali Perkins at 7:30 p.m. in the Founder's Room.  It's free and open to the public, and I'll be reading from Hell or High Water (which will be available on-site) and Island of Bones

Please drop by.  Alas, I have no hot, single men to dangle as bait, but it should still be a lovely evening. 

I'm also excited to get to attend, on the following evening, the readings of Tanya Whiton, Laura Jones, awesome travel writer (and friend) Stephanie Elizondo Griest, stunning poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, and my personal suspense-writing hero, Dennis Lehane.  All for free, also at Pine Manor.  The reading series is terrific; check it out.

In other news, I love this review of Hell or High Water from Atlanta public librarian Sarah Trowbridge, who's going to recommend the book to her mystery- and suspense-loving patrons when the book arrives at her library.  Many thanks!



No Small Thing

Well, lovely people, it is no small thing to receive not one but two terrific reviews from Kirkus Reviews in a matter of days, since Kirkus is known for being fairly brutal.  Or brutally fair, perhaps, depending on your perspective.  (In either case, I'd braced myself for evisceration.) 

The full reviews are not yet available to the public on Kirkus's website, but they're very good, and here are excerpts from what the publicists at St. Martin's and University of Nebraska Press sent me.

On Hell or High Water:

Castro's first mystery is fierce and intense, with both harrowing depictions of New Orleans after Katrina and psychological mayhem for its troubled heroine, who crawls under your skin and lingers there long after you've finished reading.

On Island of Bones:

Throughout her life, Castro has had to redefine her identity, both to herself and to others.  These powerful transformations form the backbone of this slim volume of visceral pieces.  Potent, emotional essays that speak to the relatable experience of rising above a harrowing childhood.

Fantastic.  I'm very grateful to the person or persons responsible. 

Not entirely sure what it signifies that the word harrowing occurs in each, but there you have it.  Maybe that could be my new slogan:  Castro:  Harrowing a Specialty.

As the countdown to Hell or High Water's launch continues, I'm doing more and more writing for publicity's sake, which is interesting.  None of it has appeared yet, but apparently nearer the launch date (July 17th), many little essays and interviews will begin appearing all over the Internet, and you will all be bludgeoned into being interested in buying my book.  That's how it's supposed to happen, at any rate.  You'll see me popping up all over the place, opining on things upon which I have no business opining, and the sheer quantity of exposure will make you hand over your credit card in surrender.

And once you're thoroughly saturated with my thoughts on everything under the sun, it'll be time for Island of Bones to launch, and I'll spout even more. 

You will love it.

Let me just say publicly here on the blog that I am thrilled that Reza Zaidi, friend extraordinaire, will be flying in from L.A. for the launch party on July 17th at Indigo Bridge Books.  Reza has known me since I was 17, when we met at the Café Suisse at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio--I was the little hostess up front who seated people, and he waited tables (he's now an aeronautical engineer)--and he has persisted in liking me all these years.  He even rang the church bell at my wedding to the HH.  When we talk on the phone, it's like no time has passed since the last time we spoke.

Like I said, no small thing.




When You Think the Manuscript's Ready

What I'm doing right this very instant is taking a break from what I hope is the final, final draft of the second Nola Céspedes novel, which is due June 30th to my editor at St. Martin's Press.  I think it's done, but I want to sit with it for a while. 

Here's what I do, a trick you might try.  When I think I'm really done, I type out the whole email to the editor in a flush of "I'm finished!" relief, explaining what I've done and haven't done in response to his/her editorial suggestions.  I attach the document file of the revised manuscript to the email. 

Then I get up and go do something--doesn't matter what.  Wash the dishes, whatever. 

And don't you know that before five minutes have passed, little details are gnawing at me--you should have changed x, could have fixed y, you know you're being lazy with z.

Sigh.  So then I come back and delete the attached document from the email, open the bloody thing up again, and make those changes that my better angels know I ought to make.  Grrr. 

So if you're ever wondering if a piece is really, truly done and ready to send out, you might try that.  It always works for me.  Saves me from chagrin later on, and saves my editor time and labor. 

Here's hoping that this new novel, which I was calling BAD SHOOT but which we're now calling NEARER HOME (a title that may sound cozy but, as an allusion to Robert Frost's "Desert Places," is actually psychologically chilling), will be actually, really, finally done by the 30th.  Wish me luck!

In other news, a big shout-out of thanks goes to blogger Michelle Jackson, who reviews Hell or High Water here.  You cannot imagine the relief in an author's heart when a review begins, "I do not even know where to express my absolute love of this book."  I'm so glad Michelle loved it, and I'm tickled that she thought I was a native New Orleanian.  I like what she says, too, about the novel's heroine, Nola:

She is wickedly smart and brave, yet puts herself in so many risky situations that you wonder what the hell is wrong with her. . . .  The book is told from her voice, and what a voice it is.

Gratitude.  It means so much when readers love a book.

In international news, the ink is dry on the contract, so I'm happy to be able to announce that Gallimard will publish a French translation of Hell or High Water in its historic Série Noire line.  This is a huge honor and thrill for me, since that's the imprint that published two of my biggest mystery-writing heroes, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  The editor at Gallimard called Hell or High Water "tricky and insidious"--and really, for a crime author, what compliment could be higher?



A Bit Giddy

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And I thought that getting back home to Nebraska might be dull.

No chance. 

Thanks to everyone who's been excited with me today about this glorious starred review from Publishers Weekly of Island of Bones, my collection of essays that'll be out this September.  (To non-author types:  a starred review from PW is kind of like the Grail.)  To read about the book, pre-order it, or take advantage of the press's generous examination copy policy, go here.  (In the meantime, you may refer to me as "tough and elegant.") 

Huge thanks to Aja Martin, the kind manager at Indigo Bridge Books, the very cool indie bookstore & café with a social conscience, where the launch party for Hell or High Water will be held.  Everyone, but everyone, is invited.  So mark your calendars, loves:  Tuesday, July 17, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  (The location of the after-party has not yet been determined, but yes, you're invited to that, too.)

For the party, I'm going to make flan, like Nola does in the book.  Mine, which is from my grandmother's recipe, is delicious.  (It's a secret Castro-family recipe, I'm afraid.  My aunt has sworn to hunt me down if I ever post it here on the blog.  Note:  this flan is not vegan, or low-cal.  It's made with about eight jillion eggs and lots of the national fruit of Cuba:  sugar.) 

There'll also be New Orleansy food, Abita beer, and bubbly, if all goes well with the caterers.  It's going to be wonderful.  I'll be signing books and gadding about and personally spooning out flan for all my guests. 

What I won't be doing is giving a reading or a lecture, or doing a slide show with my laser pointer, or having a serious discussion of current events. 

Because it's a party.  We'll be partying.  Please come.



Stay Up Way Past Your Bedtime

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Okay, so I'm definitely going through some withdrawal (tapas, beautiful architecture), and jet lag has made me a little incoherent at times, but on the whole, it's lovely to be home from Spain.  What a warm welcome everyone has given us!  Especially Spyder von Zeppelin, the wonder cat.

My two forthcoming books are getting a warm reception, too, and I want to thank the folks that are welcoming them into the world.

Many thanks to the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) for choosing Hell or High Water as one of its Summer 2012 Okra Picks.  SIBA is an alliance of over 300 independent bookstores across the South, and each year they choose a dozen fresh books to hand-sell to their book-loving patrons.  This year, Hell or High Water is one of them.  It's such an honor.  Thank you, SIBA!

The University of Nebraska Press chose to feature advance copies of Island of Bones at their booth at Book Expo America this year--and they put Island of Bones on page 1 of their Fall & Winter 2012 catalog.  It's gorgeous.  Thank you, UNP!

I want to give a shout-out to the Vine reviewers on Amazon, an invitation-only program that provides pre-release copies to reviewers that other Amazon readers have found especially helpful.  Even though some of them aren't loving Hell or High Water, they are reading it and talking about it, and I want to thank them all for their time and attention--with special thanks to Jaylia3, a top 1000 reviewer, who called it a "couldn't put it down book."  Thank you, Vine reviewers!

Lastly, here's Booklist's starred review of Hell or High Water in toto, since it's behind a paywall on their site.  (But at least you can see the star!)  Thank you, Booklist!

Castro, Joy (Author)
Jul 2012. 352 p. St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne, hardcover, $25.99. (9781250004574).

Reading this suspense novel is like being handed a plate of appetizers and realizing you like them all, and that every single taste, even the bitter and hot ones, enhances the others. There’s New Orleans, both tourist-style and historical. Post-Katrina New Orleans, where a wealthy St. Charles Avenue denizen is capable of saying they suffered terrible damage, since some of their pear tree’s branches were ripped off. And the New Orleans perfect for disappearing acts, both voluntary and criminal. The central crime is the kidnapping of a college girl from a packed restaurant. The nerve center for the book is the features section of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where heroine Nola Céspedes churns out entertainment pieces and yearns for an actual news story. Her editor assigns her to an in-depth feature on the rehabilitation of sex offenders. As Nola (her Cuban single mother thought the name would give her daughter roots) interviews victims and offenders, she realizes that her story is evolving into an investigation of the college girl’s disappearance and probable fate. Most of the book follows Nola on her interviews. It’s amazing how gripping, without seeming at all contrived, these interviews are, both for moving the plot along and for revealing what goes on in sociopaths’ minds. Exquisite New Orleans background, intriguing newsroom politics and atmosphere, a flawed but plucky heroine, and skillfully paced suspense make this a “stay up way past your bedtime” read.

— Connie Fletcher