Introducing T.J. Wooldridge’s The Kelpie

KELPIE front coverWhat I’m reading now is The Kelpie from author T.J. Wooldridge, a book I’m particularly excited to share with my kids. As a special treat, I had the privilege of interviewing Wooldridge and here are the highlights of our conversation.

Most often Wooldridge’s novels and short stories start with a vision of a scene that appears in her head.”The scene just sort of comes to me as a vision,” she explains, “and in this particular case, it was of a child seeing a Kelpie rising out of a loch near her home in Scotland.”  Wooldridge’s newest novel, The Kelpie, appeared on the literary scene just a few weeks ago from Spencer Hill Press, and between her short stories, editing and other projects, we shouldn’t be surprised if 2014 is the year of years for this rising fantasy and middle grade author.  While her previous projects are not for children, appearing in anthologies such as Bad A$$ Faeries, it’s anybody’s guess as to where her work will appear next.

In the current book, the main characters, an 11-year-old girl and her friend, the Prince of Wales, must stop the Kelpie from abducting local children. A Kelpie is a horse-shaped figure from Celtic folklore that haunts lochs across Ireland and Scotland.  Wooldridge has extensive experience with horses from many years volunteering at a horse rescue.  “I’ve seen horses when they’re upset; some of those gestures are scary, which brought me to the myth of the Kelpie,” she explains.

Trish Author Pic

Author T.J. Wooldridge

Wooldridge works on the story or novel from there, using that initial scene as a jumping off point.  Most often that first idea ends up as the start of the story.  “I generally like to open the book in the middle of the action,” Wooldridge adds, “so that the reader sees the main character in trouble and then now that character clears up the problem.”

Point of view is of particular importance to Wooldridge.  The Kelpie is in the first person and when she talks about it, Wooldridge is passionate.  “It’s all from Heather’s point of view and Heather is a slightly snarky 11-year-old,” Wooldridge laughs. “She is also very observant, but while she sees everything, she doesn’t interpret it all.” For example, Heather notices a look between her friend another person, but does not realize that her friend has a crush on her.  Readers, who Wooldridge trusts to make interpretations, would understand the look before Heather, who is, after all, still 11.  Wooldridge says that she had a lot of fun with jokes like that when she considered her readers.  The young adult set will understand the plot, but there’s a whole other layer of consideration for an adult reader.

Wooldridge wants her readers to connect with her characters. “I would know any one of them if they walked into the room and that’s how I want readers to feel,” she says. To do that, she incorporates things like a nervous tic such as finger tapping which might annoy another character.  Those are the things that make characters real.

As a writer myself, Wooldridge’s careful attention to detail with regards to her characters and point of view is something I strive to emulate in my own work.  The Kelpie is great reading for the start of 2014.

Today I Feel Quiet

There are definitely some days where I revel in the quiet of writing.  Sometimes it’s too quiet and I have to get out and see people, but there are wonderful points where I can be left alone with my thoughts so I can really process ideas and make meaning out of ordinary moments.  I have learned in recent weeks that it is the ordinary that defines our sense of the exceptional.  Without the parameters of the regular, for example, how would we recognize irregularity?  How can we define what is special without the frame of normal life?

My son’s bar mitzvah – as a marker of coming of age for him – has given me pause to consider the idea behind growth that goes beyond the physical.  As I watch my children change practically every day, whether inside or out, I am reminded to take those few minutes to appreciate them.

This week my parents are in town with me to celebrate my son’s second bar mitzvah.  They have not been in Japan since 2003, and at that time, I had babies, not independent children; it rained every day; and we didn’t have language or place skills.  It was a long time ago.  It is only day two of their nine-day visit, and they are already enjoying it more than their first visit.  Today they are taking a tour to Nikko via Sunrise Tours and I am alone with my thoughts.  I’m so glad they are here; I am so glad to have the day to myself, too.

Quiet days are to be treasured.

My Son The Writer

My grandmother with my children in 2010.

Last week my son had a conversation with my grandmother, his great grandmother.  He had a school assignment to speak to someone – anyone he knew and could interview – who had a connection with World War II.  My grandfather was a pharmacist on a hospital ship based in Europe during the war, and though he died fifteen years ago, my grandmother was the obvious go-to source for help.

Before the call, Bailey created a list of questions to ask.  I looked over the list and they were good questions – ones designed to get her to talk and tell a story.  I knew my grandmother wouldn’t need much prompting to talk.  He wanted to know if Papa enlisted or was drafted.  He wanted to know if Papa ever saved any lives and how he survived the war.  He had questions for Grandma about the home front as well.  It was a good list.

As I predicted, Grandma didn’t need much prompting to talk.  She told Bailey a great story that Papa had told her about how the convoy that included his hospital ship normally sailed in complete darkness for secrecy, and then noticing the beauty of the lights on V.E. day when they could be more overt.  She reminded him that Papa was in Europe when my mother was born and he came home to fatherhood for the first time. She told him about how Papa donated his uniforms for Israeli soldiers after the war.  She told him about the patriotism of New Yorkers and how everyone did their part.  I listened to the entire interview as it happened on speakerphone.  My grandfather was just an ordinary guy, but at the same time, a great guy and a wonderful grandfather.  I spoke to him every day the last year of him life, and Bailey carries his name.   The whole conversation was rife with meaning – to my grandmother, to me, and even to Bailey.

With all of this info, Bailey had to write not an essay, but a poem.  That night, he sat down with his notes and wrote each line that Grandma had told him.  Then under it he wrote a line or two of description or analysis of the story.  He wrote concisely and tried to be as poetic as possible.  He really crafted the words.  He ended up with more than 400 words.

The next day Bailey’s teacher had a few words to say to the students about how to write, and actually suggested the method that Bailey used – quote then analysis.  He also had a word limit of 300 words, so Bailey then had to go back and tighten his language without losing any meaning – a tough exercise for any writer, novice or seasoned.  But he did it – he got it down to just about 300.

Bailey spent Tuesday evening reading the poem aloud over and over again to give it in class on Wednesday.  He said it went really well and the teacher and his classmates seemed to like the poem.  I was pleased for him.

Somehow he captured the feelings – he captured the idea that while my Papa wasn’t a war hero per se, every act at wartime is an act of heroism.  He found the words to name the sacrifice of missing the birth of his first child, and the depth of meaning behind giving uniforms to the army of the burgeoning state of Israel, much of whose initial population was comprised of former concentration camp victims.

I really didn’t help much; Bailey found the words to do it himself.  For me, as a writer, it was joyful to watch him do it.  The learning process – the thinking process – that is going on in his head as he develops never ceases to amaze me.  Is he learning from me?  I don’t know and I am not sure it matters much.  Bailey is just at the start of his educational journey, and I hope he can derive the same sweetness from it that I have had over the years.  He’s off to a strong start.

Thanksgiving in Tokyo, Take 2

I say “take 2” but that is just because it’s my second blog posting on the topic.  In reality, this is our seventh (!) turkey day in Tokyo.  Each year has been a little different and this year is no exception.

Our lives are different this year, having been through a number of new beginnings in September.  One of the biggest was my return to work.  It has been an interesting experience from start to finish, but one of the biggest things I’ve found is that teachers at a secondary school are different than those at a university, most notably regarding the formation of a collegial atmosphere.  I love the camaraderie and sharing.  I love the community.  I love being able to run next door to ask another teacher a question if I have one.

Since much of the faculty and staff is American, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day together.  To be sure, we will all work a full day and then have an early dinner so we can get up Friday morning to head back to work.  The Japanese have not embraced the Thanksgiving spirit like they have for Halloween and Christmas, which is really fine with me.  It’s not the same having a truly American holiday while NOT in America and I don’t want to pretend that it is even close.

We are going to a restaurant called Addis.  Here’s the menu:

  • Brown Lentil Fresh Thyme Soup
  • Cranberry mustard and cream cheese canape
  • Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese and Fennel salad
  • Roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce
  • Pumpkin Cheese cake
  • and of course a vegetarian option that’s very Japanese: Grilled tofu wrapped with eggplant in a port wine cardamon reduction

We will have bottle after bottle of wine, I am certain.  We’ll be about 12 for dinner. The cafe is close to school, and pretty casual.  It should be a wonderful time.

I am thankful for so many things this year, many of which are new and different, so mostly I am thankful for the wonderful things that ARE new and different.  I am delighted to spend the holiday with the people with whom I work, along with my husband and kids.  What a year it has been.

Wherever and however you are celebrating, I wish you a dinner full of love and peace.

Writing As a Teacher – New Adventures

Recently a lot of the writing I have done has been for school.  I am teaching freshman composition at Temple University’s Japan campus, but I am also teaching at The International Secondary School (ISS) part time in the mornings.  I teach one class of 7th grade English, one class of 8th grade English, and then one class of Multicultural literature for 12th graders.  Trust me when I tell you that it is never boring.

This is the end of the first marking period and right now I have just finished writing report card comments, the first I have ever done in my life.  Wow, what a challenge!

As a parent myself, I know what those comments mean.  Parents search within them for clues to how their child is really doing, regardless of their grade.  If the grade is low, they search for reasons why.  If the grade is high, they lap up the positive comments like a parched animal.  Every word is subject to interpretation and therefore, misinterpretation.

The key is to make the comments nuanced enough so the parent can understand what the concerns are with their child, without being outright negative.  No one wants to believe something bad about their own child, and bad news is difficult to deliver.   Even good comments have to be phrased in such a way that is cautiously optimistic, lest the parent think that the child is fault-free.

It took me a long time to craft the right message to the parent about the kids.  It is a whole different type of writing than that to which I am accustomed.  I’m not saying that it was a bad experience; just different.  How’s that for nuance?

A Hopeful Sign – The Gift of a Girlfriend

This is my latest piece for the e-zine, A Hopeful Sign.  You can see the entire post at: http://ahopefulsign.com/making_a_difference/the-gift-of-a-girlfriend

But here it is in its entirety also:

THE GIFT OF A GIRLFRIEND

(Post by AIMEE LEDEWITZ WEINSTEIN)

My friend Bonnie calls me almost every morning while she is commuting to work. While that might not seem out of the ordinary, you have to remember that Bonnie lives in Maryland in the United States, and I live in Tokyo, Japan. When she calls, it’s generally around 9 pm for me (8 am for her) and we have between twenty and thirty minutes to talk before she parks her car, and I have to get my 7th grader into bed. Bonnie and I have one of those rare friendships that transcends time and distance, but it’s more than that. It has to do with an unspoken commitment we have made to each other to be there through thick and thin. Sometimes it’s not easy being a woman, but the friendships between women provide support, understanding and fidelity that are not often found between men or even between men and women.

I met Bonnie at summer camp when I was ten. She was eleven and in the bunk next door. We hung out together that summer and the following one, but our friendship cemented when we attended the same regional junior high school; she a year ahead of me. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that Bonnie spent parts of two summers living at my parents’ house while her mom was away and her brothers were at camp. My parents agreed to have her with us but she had to abide by the strict house rules. Bonnie’s mom wasn’t so strict and I think Bonnie may have been relieved at the high expectations of my mom and dad. She loved being with them and my parents loved having her there.  She was the obedient daughter that I wasn’t. Bonnie worked her way through high school at an ice-cream shop, and she would bring hot fudge sundaes for my dad. Even now, when speaking to Bonnie, my dad will ask her to bring him one. For her fortieth birthday he sent her a gift card to an ice-cream place.

“So what’s going on?” Bonnie asks in her no-nonsense voice. And I tell her. I tell her that I’m fighting with my son about his homework and because she has a daughter the exact same age and grade, she empathizes and tells me what she did in that situation recently.

I ask about her son, who never fails to crack me up with his antics. She regales me with a story that leaves me rolling with laughter. My daughter, who is exactly his age, always says that she loves him so much because she can never tell what he’s going to do next, and I agree.

A few months ago Bonnie had some issues with her mom and we spent hours on the phone talking about it all. She could explain what was happening at the moment, but what she didn’t have to explain was her mom’s personality and background. I’ve known Bonnie almost all her life; I know that stuff.

One of the biggest gifts Bonnie has given me was the month that my kids and I stayed with her and her family after the earthquake in Japan. They’re all in the same grades, so it seemed like a no-brainer to let my kids slide into school with hers. Bonnie went out of her way to make sure that my kids felt as at home as possible amid all the uncertainty.

Do we always agree? Absolutely not. On that same visit, I had to discipline my son and she did not agree with my method. I don’t always think she handles everything perfectly either. But our friendship is such that we let each other know and don’t hold it against each other if we differ.

Surprising my parents with both our brain power and our tenacity, both Bonnie and I have gotten doctorates and are teaching on the college level. Bonnie is an organic chemistry professor at the University of Maryland and I am an English professor at Temple University’s Japan campus. Two summers ago I got to sit in on one of her classes. She stood up in front of 250 kids and dazzled them (and me) with her ability to write equations, manage sliding white boards, and not only maintain her sense of humor, but make everyone laugh in the process. It left me breathless with admiration for my friend.

“Did you know enough to learn anything, Aimee?” my dad asked, knowing full-well the answer would be negative. I am the polar opposite of Bonnie academically. In fact, one fun part of being in her house for that month last year was homework time for the kids. She would sit at one end of her big kitchen table and supervise math and science homework and I would sit at the other to supervise English and social studies homework. When we are together with our kids we practice what I call ‘proximity parenting’ – the person closest to the child at the moment does the parenting. We trust each other with our children, the biggest compliment.

One thing I know is that Bonnie does not always agree with my decision to be in Japan; even before the earthquake she wasn’t thrilled with it. However, she never brings it up, and she never says “I told you so” when I complain. In fact, she has let me know that when I make up my mind to do something, she will support me fully. Recently, at my request, she did a little research into the half-life of radioactive cesium and its effects, after a series of articles on radioactive hot spots appeared in the media. Since giving me the information I asked for, she has not asked me what I intend to do with it.

With Bonnie I can talk about my menstrual cycle, child rearing, the latest book I am reading, or American Idol. We can discuss politics, religion, music, or philosophy and everything in between.  These are things I don’t – or can’t – always discuss with my husband.

I love my husband as Bonnie love hers, but women need other women, whether they are married or not. There are just some things that a man can’t do for a woman. Bonnie is my oldest friend; the person in my life besides my parents who I’ve known the longest. She represents a constant for me that I count on every day. I know that many of you out there reading this have a Bonnie in your life. Now would be a good time to call her and tell her how much you appreciate her. It’s 8:30 pm my time right now and pretty soon I’ll be waiting for my phone to ring. Sometimes we all need help blooming where we’re planted. It takes strength to ask for that help, and it’s a gift when we get it.

Summertime Lives

It’s summer! Kids are off from school; the weather is warm enough to swim every day; and heck, even the Japanese companies are participating in “cool biz” – dressing down for work. But how is a writer to keep on writing with all of these distractions? And even if they’re not so distracting, time is somehow further crunched with obligations to family and friends when visiting one’s home country. Between jet lag, a lousy cold, and kids with me 24/7, I haven’t written a word in days. I have deadlines to meet – both outward and self-imposed.

It seems that such is the life of a writer. The ebb and flow of life affects the ebb and flow of writing. It stands to reason that I write more when I have more time in which to write. Luckily by next week both kids will be in camp all day and nothing will impede my progress. I will be distracted enough to write about my Washington DC experiences this summer here on my blog but that will be the fun part. I really miss Tokyo when I ‘m away, but I also do love DC. As I mentioned, life affects art. Onward ho!