Pardonnez Mon Français (or, The Benefits of Haldi)

Non, cher reader, je ne vous ai pas oublié. J’ai de très bonnes raisons pour ce long silence.

But first, my apologies to the francophone reader who knows I should have used excuser and not pardonner in the title. My French dictionary is right now louring upon me like the clouds upon a Shakespearean king’s House, but I’m not apologizing to it. It’s a Webster, not a Larousse. It has no right to lour upon me. Au contraire, it should be beaming gratefully at me for picking it up a Staples or Office Depot store closing sale and giving it a home almost ten years ago. It might have been pulped or donated to a thrift store otherwise. Instead, it has a seat on my Reference shelf, with prospects of seeing a certain French monument in the near future.

Eiffel Tower

Perhaps I should apologize to the anglophone, lusophone, hispanophone, or any other-phone reader who, understanding a little French, clicked on this post hoping to find some four-letter words that count as “French” in English. I’m sorry to disappoint you – unless you consider the four-lettered word 75% similar to the word word as a four-letter word.

Since I am kindly disposed towards you – don’t I often insert a four-lettered term of endearment before reader? – let me give you a clue. The four-lettered word in question has a five-lettered synonym, which has six letters in British English, thanks to u.

For the reader who is still scratching his head, let me give a clue about the clue. The five-lettered Am. Eng. version has a national holiday named for it (clue: first Monday in September). The six-lettered Brit. Eng. version has a political party named for it (clue: not that of Britain’s only female PM, who was in labor once but delivered twice).

Margaret Thatcher and her kids

As I was searching for images of Margaret Thatcher and her twins, I came across this tribute Meryl Streep, who played Thatcher in The Iron Lady, sent out when Thatcher died in April 2013. Naturally, Streep’s first adjective caught my attention.

“Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. I was honored to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side.”

Playing Thatcher was work for Streep, and I wish the work that kept me from you these many weeks had been as glamorous. Alas, it was a prosaic matter of coming up with descriptions for products with ingredients like methylchloroisothiazolinone. If you want to know more about that 27-lettered word, it has its own Wikipedia entry. Just for fun I searched for “methylchloroisothiazolinone images,” and you won’t believe— No, actually I believe you will believe. You’ve searched for images of 27-lettered words yourself. You know what’s out there.

No MethylchloroisothiazolinoneI had not intended to mention methylchloroisothiazolinone when I turned on my computer to write this post. You must forgive me, reader. I have been laid up with a cold and fever since the day after Thanksgiving, alternating between shots of NyQuil and DayQuil, and that’s bound to have affected my ability to think coherently. Perhaps the reason I have come this far is because I have also been drinking haldi milk.

For those who don’t know, haldi in milk is an Indian remedy for colds – haldi being Hindi for turmeric, that yellow spice that gives curry its color. The Wikipedia entry for turmeric begins with the sentence below. (The sentence has six hyperlinks, including one for the phonetic transcription. All of these, dear reader, bearing your sanity in mind, I have removed.)

“Turmeric (Curcuma longa) / ‘tɜrmərɪk/ is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.” 

What I knew of turmeric before writing this post was that it has anti-inflammatory properties, it is rich in antioxidants, it helps prevents cancer, and it’s considered an antiaging agent because it combats free radicals. To make sure I was not omitting any of its many benefits, I searched for “benefits of turmeric” and found this gem from a book titled Indian Spices and Condiments as Natural Healers by Dr. H.K. Bhakru:

“Turmeric is aromatic, stimulant and tonic. It corrects disordered process of nutrition and restores the normal function of the system. It is a carminative, antiseptic, a great anti-flatulent, blood purifier and expectorant.”

Through that same article I learnt that the benefits of haldi include:
(i) Lowering cholesterol;
(ii) Controlling diabetes;
(iii) Preventing liver disease; and
(iv) Preventing Alzheimer’s (either I didn’t know that, or else I’d forgotten).

Please don’t rush off to your favorite Indian restaurant just yet. I have a story to tell you. I’ll tell it, you read it, and then we can part ways until my next post, which will most likely be written in the land of haldi (and other spices).

India spices

When I started writing this post, I had intended to share the ten Shakespearean plays I like best and why. You might have been surprised why some make my list and others don’t, but I’d have reminded you of what the 17th-century French mathematician-physicist-philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had said (“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point”), and I’d have begged your pardon for not including one of the four great tragedies. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, there’ll be no prizes for guessing which of the four great tragedies would top my list.

NyQuil and DayQuil are doing their number on me, dear reader, and my position has been getting steadily more horizontal with each successive paragraph. But I promised to tell you a story and you know I like keeping my word. In “Keeping My Word,” I had told you that I was keeping my word to a couple librarians to promote my events at their libraries. One of the ways I did this was by posting the flyer I had created (in Word) all over the cities of Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Well, all is hyperbole, but I certainly put in many flyer miles. My story takes place on one of those frequent flyer trips, outside a coffee shop in Pasadena.

Sharon Edwards ArtNight

I was walking to my car after posting my flyer at the back of the coffee shop (the only place they allow flyers to be posted). I’d had to get the barista’s permission because the manager was “at lunch,” and since they don’t serve lunch at the coffee shop, she was not on site (and therefore out of sight). But my story is not about the barista or her manager. It’s about a cute guy I found seated at a table, reading a book, outside the coffee shop.

Now I have a personal rule not to approach cute guys outside coffee shops, though I don’t mind bending this rule if they happen to be reading a book. I didn’t ask this cute guy what he was reading, which would come across as your standard pickup cliché. I merely asked him if he had read my book.

He looked up with a slightly bemused expression and I quickly showed him the book. He blinked, looked at it, and said he’d never heard of it. That’s no way to flatter a famous author, but I’m not a famous author so it didn’t bother me. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to give him the thirty-second promo spiel. He seemed to find it interesting, so I gave him another thirty seconds. And another. And perhaps another. By which time he had the book in his hands and was reading the back cover.

I invited him to ArtNight Pasadena and he said he’d try to make it. Then, out of curiosity, I asked him what he was reading. I’m passing this information on to you, dear reader, because I know how much you like puns. He was reading Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield.

Just My Type

As we were saying goodbye, I asked him his name. I know I should have done that when we said hello, but we never actually said hello. Our conversation had begun in medias res, like epics do.

Reader, it was an epic moment when he told me that his name is Hamlet. Here’s a picture to prove I am telling the truth. The camera never lies.

Sharon Edwards and Hamlet

Got Mill?

If you are among the millions out there who noticed that I missed two weekly posts this month, and who missed those two weekly posts, I congratulate you on your powers of observation and your impeccable taste. If you are not among the millions, I can only commiserate with you. It must be hard to be lacking in both powers of observation and impeccable taste. What’s more, I feel sorry for you because you are not like me: I missed two weekly posts but you did not. But cheer up. You’re not alone. There are billions out there like you.

I searched for images of our not-so-lonely planet’s teeming billions, to show you that you are not alone. I also wanted to keep you happy. I’m not naïve, reader. I know you like my images, and some of you like them more than my text. Well, I must inform you that instead of finding moving or humorous images to keep you happy, I only found millions of typos to keep me happy.

Billions of typos

I was exaggerating, of course. I didn’t find millions of typos. I only found these few, and maybe ten or twenty more. But I’m sure there are many millions in print, on the internet and off it. Why, my own book had some eight or nine. Apart from being mortifying, they were ironic because my book’s back cover says something about my having been a proufreeder. (It will be the ultimate irony if their our sum tie pose hear. Unintentional ones, I mean.)

The most mortifying of my typos was an incorrect end-of-line break that could have been avoided had Word been smart enough to know I meant “biolog-ical,” not “biology-ical,” and had I been smart enough to know how to turn off that feature. But I was not smart enough. Don’t be shocked, reader. If you’ve been reading the posts I churn out for your reading pleasure week after week (barring a couple weeks here and there), you will know what grade I’m mentally in. Turning off features in Word is for Indian techies, those teeming millions in whose august company I will never feature, in August or in any other month.

Pioneer Boulevard Back Cover

Most of the typos I came across as a proofreader at Warner Bros. weren’t funny, but I remember these because they were.

  1. Fathering Forces. The copy had gathering, but given the licentious lifestyle of the heroes in the movie, fathering would have been right too.
  2. Until then, ______ was the longest loving member of the Senate. Obviously the copy had said living. Even if the writer knew something about the senator’s love life, they wouldn’t have told.
  3. Standing on the shoulder of Stanley Kubrick. If you have as good an imagination as Stanley Kubrick, you’ll be able to picture what it would be like to stand on his shoulder. Especially because he’s been dead since 1999.

Apostrophe Intelligence

And now, let me tell you about the not-so-teeming millions. These are a million dollars, which my wallet has yet to teem with. (Please don’t stop reading. I have something very important to say on this.)

Some days ago I was in conversation with a man who visits India regularly in connection with some community development projects he raises funds for. At one point he stopped mid-sentence to ask, “What would you do if you were given a million dollars?”

Someone asked me this question when I first came to the US, and at the time my hopes rose. The speaker was an elderly woman, and I thought she was about to bequeath her estate to me. I’d heard that anything was possible in America, and I felt it was about to happen to me. So convinced was I that I almost gave her the answers I thought might win her (“Save the manta rays” being at the top of the list, this being Hawaii). I soon discovered that she had no intention of bequeathing anything to me. When I finished speaking, she began telling me what she would do if given a million, and that’s when I discovered she had nothing to bequeath to anyone.

It took another five or six people to ask me that question before I figured out that when someone asks that, they are only trying to eavesdrop on your thoughts. Because (if you answer honestly), what you would do if you were given a million dollars shows where your greatest passions and interests lie.

Note: Change that to a billion when speaking to a millionaire. And if you’re speaking to a billionaire, don’t ask them what they would do. Ask them what they are doing.

Who wants to be a millionaire

When I first came to the US, I also heard about a study that had been done a decade or so before among the Builders (people who had lived through both world wars), in which they had been asked this question: “If you had to live your live over, what would you do differently?”

This is another of those “million dollar” questions of the kind I was asked recently. It’s different in the sense that you could be given a million dollars whereas you cannot get to live your life over, but the Builders have not been called the greatest generation for nothing. They gamely responded, and these are the top three answers:

  1. I would watch more sunsets.
  2. I would spend more time with those I love.
  3. I would invest in things that will outlive my lifetime.

When my conversation with the man who regularly visits India began, I hadn’t been expecting the “million dollar” question, and I wasn’t thinking about the Builders when I replied, but I knew what he was getting at and I named the top three items on my wishlist. I responded honestly, but I’m not revealing my answer. If you’ve been eavesdropping on my Collected Thoughts for any length of time, you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself. I will say this, though: I believe my three points cover the three points on the Builders’ list. The first two things I’d do if someone gave me a million dollars will be an investment into something that outlives my lifetime, and the third will allow me to watch more sunsets and spend more time with those I love.

So here’s the very important thing I have to say to you: If you have a mill bill to spare, please pass the buck to me.

Million dollar bill

The Soul of Twitter

To celebrate the first anniversary of my book’s release, I joined Twitter yesterday. I’m @Consonantbooks. And I just learnt that my first follower is someone whose writing advice I began following four years ago: Joe Stretch. Yes, I follow my tutor on Twitter.

Since brevity is the soul of Twitter, my first Tweet was 140 characters and my second 139. But I’m not trying to make my way down to zero. As any author knows, the more characters the better. Just ask the creator of Polonius and Co.

Shakespeare Tweet

After signing up, I signed out of my Twitter account and searched for “sharon edwards consonantbooks twitter,” to make sure it was up and running before I made any announcements on Facebook. But not one of the results generated by the search engine was my Twitter page. The top few were related to a blog you love called Collected Thoughts, and as I scrolled down the list, I discovered that Pioneer Boulevard is now in India!

I don’t know when or how this happened, and I don’t know if anyone will pay 703 rupees for my book, but there it is. Listed as the International Edition, no less. Wonders will never cease.

Pioneer Boulevard in India

Brevity may be the soul of Twitter, but it isn’t the soul of WordPress (aka WordyPress). While I may someday master the art of communicating in 140 characters, I’ll never master the art of communicating in only 140 characters. You, dear reader, will always find more than the soul of Twitter. Even though WordPress has stopped sending me the friendly reminder at 3:58 AM on Thursdays (which is rather unfriendly of them), I’ll blog on and on and on.

Brevity reminds me of brief, which in turn evokes two memories. Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness only flourishes outwardly, I will be brief.

Twitter

The first memory dates back to school, when my seventh grade English teacher told us that the only time that the word brief is pluralized is when it refers to men’s underwear. St. Mary’s was an all-girls school in my day. Most of us had never referred to men’s underwear, let alone heard a teacher refer to it, so of course we tittered. Schoolgirls today would have twittered.

When I was older I came across another term for men’s underwear: boxers, a word that to this day reminds me of Rocky Marciano, my father’s favorite boxer. And I just learnt that there’s a version of men’s underwear called boxerbriefs. Which shows that one is never too old to learn.

Marciano

My second brief memory dates back to when I worked as a proofreader at Warner Bros. One morning I received an email concerning the creative brief for a documentary called You Must Remember This. Narrated by Lauren Bacall, the documentary was going to be included in the Casablanca Ultimate Collector’s Edition, and the email had been titled “You Must Remember This Creative Brief.”

Since it was Bacall on Bogart, and since it was too early in the day to say no, I said okay. And I kept my word. As you can see, all these years later I still remember it.

Casablanca UCE

My Art in San Francisco, part 2

This is the concluding part of “My Art in San Francisco,” but it’s not the end of the story. My art will go on. (I’m only punning. I’m not trying to evoke the image of Celine Dion singing the Titanic theme in a French accent.)

Like the unnamed protagonist of “Some Sunny Day,” the story I read at Milpitas Library on June 17, my former classmates and I lost track of time while catching up when we met for a girls’ night out last Friday. In fact, we didn’t even go out of Geeta’s house until it was (well past) time to drop Neeraja back. Next morning, grateful that I didn’t have an early flight to New York or Vegas like my friends, I drove to Oakland, where I was spending the weekend. En route I visited the main branch of San Francisco Public Library, which has two copies of my book.

I call myself a writer, but words cannot describe my disappointment to find both copies sitting on the shelf. I thank SFPL for ordering my book, of course, but the copies don’t belong on the shelf. They belong in the hands of readers! I removed duplicate copies of Pioneer Boulevard and every book near it (to make it fair), and took a photo.

Pioneer Boulevard SFPL

To get my books from where they were to where they belong, I considered making an announcement over the PA offering an autographed business card to anyone who’d be willing to borrow my book, but I quickly decided against it. With my luck, everyone would step forward, only to tell me to be quiet.

I returned the duplicate copies to the shelf and began strolling through the E–F aisle in search of a better idea. I tried to make it appear as though I was searching for a book, not a book promo idea. The aisle was deserted so it’s not like anyone was watching me, but I sometimes get this feeling when I’m in a deserted aisle (which would never happen on a deserted isle) that I’m being watched by a hidden camera. I have no kleptomanic tendencies, and the feeling only comes upon me in a library or bookstore, so I must have a subliminal desire to acquire books. Actually, anyone who has helped me move will tell you it’s not subliminal. And now that I’ve given my psychoanalytical reader something to think about (which I try to do in every post), let me finish my story (which, believe it or not, I also try to do in every post).

Before I could reach the G–H aisle, this inspired thought reached me: Why not ask someone to read my book? It would be more personal (and less humiliating) than a PA announcement. I’d attempt to tempt them with a smile and if that didn’t work, I’d use the business card trick.

Sharon Edwards business card

I had only three or four minutes to do the deed because the parking meter was dangerously close to running out, and much as I wanted a reader, I didn’t want a ticket. The parking was steep enough on its own. But everyone in the neighborhood of the fiction aisles was hunched over a newspaper or staring at a computer or snoozing in a comfy chair. No potential reader there. I was about to give up when I saw him standing there. He had headphones on and was browsing through a thick book. The headphones were a bad sign, but the thick book was a very good sign. It meant he was a reader. And it seemed that Dame Luck was smiling at me, because he looked like the kind of guy who’d be tempted by a smile.

Maybe it was the smile. Maybe I convinced him that his life was incomplete without my book. Maybe he felt sorry for me. Either way, when I asked if he’d be willing to check out my book (no pun intended), he said yes, so I led him to the deserted E–F aisleHe was kind enough to pose for a photo while taking a copy off the shelf and also give me permission to post it. And he graciously accepted the autographed business card.

SFPL Patron

His name is Matt. Thanks to him, the shelf had only one copy of my book when I deserted the E–F aisle. And hopefully that’s in another reader’s hands by now.

As I was leaving the library, it occurred to me that my GPS might to not know how to get me out of the downtown maze (it gets lost even in DTLA), so I asked someone for directions. He walked me to my car as he explained the lefts and rights (three times), and since I didn’t have a parking ticket, I asked him to take a photo on my phone. He got down on his knees (because he was as tall as an SF Giant, not because he wanted to give me a ring), and said “Smile big.”

I smiled big. My art was in a San Francisco reader’s hands, and I was on the verge of leaving my heart behind.

Sharon Edwards outside SFPL

My Art in San Francisco, part 1

During my first visit to the US a well-traveled American told me that the two prettiest cities in this country are Washington and San Francisco. I saw the capital that summer and I saw the City by the Bay last week, and the capital doesn’t even come close. I’m sure the capital won’t mind my saying this. It’s where freedom of speech is upheld, after all.

I’d like to say I left my heart in San Francisco, but in one of my favorite posts to date, “Morley, Morley, and More” (February 25), I had said that as a writer I must remain above clichés so let me not stoop now. And anyway, this post is not about my heart. There being no he, I must stick to my art.

Pioneer Boulevard Golden Gate

After months of trying to make the Bay Area trip happen, it worked out suddenly, as these things sometimes happen. On the morning of June 2 I received a message from my friend Neeraja (to whom the post of April 16 is addressed), giving me her Bay Area itinerary. She lives in New Delhi and she’d told me about the trip some months ago, but we didn’t know if our dates would match. Happily they did, so as soon as the clock struck ten (that auspicious hour when libraries open), I began making calls in an attempt to land a reading between June 17 and 21. Being a true friend, Neeraja has often expressed the desire to attend a library reading, and I felt it would make a good gift.

Since becoming an author I have discovered that landing a library reading is, cliché or no cliché, a Herculean feat. It was only love for a childhood friend that compelled me to dial another number whenever a librarian hung up saying “Sorry, we don’t have anything available. Good luck.”

As Dame Luck (that lame duck) would have it, Milpitas was the only library that had something available that week. Naturally I took it. A bird in hand is better than no bird. The same holds true of a nerd, but given the number of Indian techies in the Bay Area, it was disappointing that not one of them showed up at the reading on the 17th. Perhaps this has to do with how the event had been publicized. Or perhaps Indian nerds in the Bay Area don’t want to read about the Indian community of So Cal.

A nerd in hand

Absent nerds notwithstanding, the Milpitas Library reading was special for these reasons:
(i) It was the first reading at which all members of the audience were, like my protagonists, Indian women.
(ii) It was the first time an Indian publisher was present: Neeta Gupta of Yatra Books, New Delhi, who has given me some invaluable help with publishing matters this past year. I had come up with an inscription for her copy in LA, but blanked out while signing it. In the end, I had to ask Neeta for help – and of course she gave it.
(iii) It was the first time I had two former classmates from St. Mary’s, Pune, in the audience. In honor of Neeraja and Geeta, I read an excerpt from “Some Sunny Day,” in which two former classmates from Poona meet again after many years.

Milpitas Library

Some Sunny Day p1

Some Sunny Day p2

Saved from Second Best

This is a true story, and to prove it I can even name the day and date it happened. It was, like today, the day before Easter, but because Easter fell on April 4 in 2010, this story takes place on the 3rd. The backstory, however, begins a whole year before.

One morning in early April 2009, while on medical leave, I received a letter from Warner Bros. informing me that I would be laid off on my mother’s birthday. To be fair, WB didn’t know that June 12 was my mother’s birthday or they might not have been so cruel as to strip me of my proofreader’s title on that day. It would have been kinder to lay me off on the 11th, which would also save them a day’s wages. But sometimes it’s kind to be cruel, so they cruelly laid me off on my mother’s birthday and kindly gave me an extra day’s wages.

Sharon Edwards and Bugs Bunny

A few days before my ties with Bugs Bunny were severed, I had the idea to go to England for a master’s degree. Specifically to Oxford, for a Master of Studies in Victorian lit. (Oxford doesn’t stoop to naming its courses after genres. They simply call the Victorian literature strand the Long Nineteenth Century, long because for Oxonian purposes the Nineteenth spills 14 years into the Twentieth.) If the world wants to know why I chose this course, I chose it because Dickens has long been my favorite novelist and I love the Victorian novel as a genre. (If the world wants to know why I chose Oxford, the world can hazard a guess – and it will be right if it’s an educated guess.)

Preparing for Oxford meant rereading the Dickens canon (and reading Barnaby Rudge for the first time); reading or rereading all the Dickensian criticism I could find; writing two critical essays and a statement of purpose critical to acceptance; and pestering former professors for a recommendation letter. Oh, and there was that minor matter of obtaining my transcripts from India.

If anyone who has read “Crocodile Tears” has wondered whether the transcripts passage is based on my own experience, let me assure you that Pioneer Boulevard is a work of fiction. Credit me with a little imagination, s’il vous plâit, and kindly note that I have described the obtaining of transcripts as a minor matter above. In “Crocodile Tears” I describe it thus:

Obtaining an official transcript ranks among the greatest challenges an Indian student will face in their entire academic career. It is a truth universally acknowledged by the Indian student populace that obtaining a transcript is tougher than obtaining a degree.

So much for my transcripts (which, in the end, I did receive). What I must make a clean breast of is my statement of purpose in which, perhaps as a fiction writer in the making, I included a piece of fiction (also known as stretching the truth). The odds of my having Oxon. after my name were against me because only 60 out of 600-odd applicants are accepted into the MSt, so to make an impression I stretched the truth in my statement with this statement: “I confess to being among those sinners G.K. Chesterton calls ‘the worshippers of Dickens’.”

That is fiction. Much as I adore and admire the author of Bleak House, I worship no man. No, nor woman neither.

Tom Quad Christ Church

I am convinced that Oxford rejected my application because of that piece of fiction. I received the rejection letter the day before Easter 2010. As soon as my hands were steady enough to pick up the phone, I dialed my spiritual mentor’s number, and I am forever grateful that his immense wisdom prompted him to tell me that God was saving me from second best.

Time was when I’d have laughed to hear anyone call Oxford second best, but I wasn’t feeling particularly mirthful that day so I didn’t laugh. I am being facetious, of course. The reason I didn’t laugh is because I saw the truth in my mentor’s statement, and notwithstanding all that Oxford was, I understood that it was second best for me. Then my mentor said something I found harder to accept: “If I were you, I’d keep looking.” This challenged the position I’d held for almost a year, the position being Oxford or nothing.

I might not have begun looking again had I not remembered something suggested by a professor I’d met during my trip to Oxford earlier that year. If I were interested in Dickens, the professor had said, I should consider Leicester University, which is home to the Victorian Studies Centre. So I did something (I forget what) with the Oxford letter and began the Leicester application. The day after it was submitted, I was lolling on my sofa when I had this strange thought: “Oh no. I will be accepted and I want to do creative writing.” I stopped lolling on my sofa, turned on my computer, and asked my search engine to find me “creative writing ma uk.”

And now, dear reader, since I’ve been kind enough to tell you this story, you must be kind enough to answer some questions for me. We’ve known each other exactly three months today so I am sure you’ll be able to answer them without needing to consult your cheat sheet. (But if you do need help, I’d rather you read my older posts instead.)

1. Which program do you think was displayed first in the results?
2. Which course director do you think replied promptly?
3. Which tutor do you think offered me a place?
4. Which offer do you think I accepted?
5. Which course do you think God saved me from second best for?

Keele Shield

My Favorite Backstory

On March 1, at my author talk at La Habra Library, I had said that I’d put my favorite backstory in a blog someday and I apologize to those members of the audience who’ve been waiting anxiously for this post. I’m sorry it’s taken me a whole month but believe me, it’s not like I was dragging my feet. My feet were actually on a brisk march of 31 days.

The backstory I’m talking about is the story behind my book’s title story. I was telling the La Habra audience that the title “Pioneer Boulevard” revealed itself to me in my dorm room at Keele a few days after our first snowfall, which happened the night after Thanksgiving 2010. My search engine just informed me that Thanksgiving was on November 25 that year, which means that the first snow fell in the wee hours of November 27, which means that my book’s title revealed itself to me around November 30. It might have been November 29 or December 1, but let’s stick to the 30th because Consonant Books was born on that day two years later.

Snowfall at Keele

I had a tutorial on December 2, and of course I couldn’t keep the title a secret from Joe Stretch. He liked it – judging by his expression, he liked it very much – and we agreed that I’d send him the first draft of “Pioneer Boulevard” the next week.

The next week was the most difficult one of my first semester at Keele. December 8 marked my father’s first death anniversary, and on the 7th I wept throughout my walk in the Keele woods. And it didn’t help that there were signs of death everywhere. The leaves, especially, which had carpeted the ground in vibrant fall colors a week before, were now buried in the snow, black and reeking.

In “Frost at Midnight” Coleridge says that “all seasons shall be sweet” to his sleeping child, but for me, grieving my sleeping father, this season was anything but sweet. I felt more at peace after a memorial service in the chapel with Chaplain Ruth Maxey the next day, but it didn’t help me write “Pioneer Boulevard.” Or write it well. I emailed the first draft to Joe at the end of the week, with a message that began thus:

Let me cut to the chase. I hate this story. Okay, maybe hate is too strong. But I don’t like it at all. The idea is OK, I think, and maybe the story has one or two decent moments, but if you say it sucks I won’t mind. In fact, I won’t be surprised if you tell me to rewrite it completely.

My words turned out to be prophetic. Joe was polite enough not to call that first draft of “Pioneer Boulevard” what Anne Lamott calls first drafts, but he said it wasn’t a story and I must rewrite it completely.

I didn’t rewrite it at all. I only edited it and emailed the second draft from LA, where I was spending Christmas. I had to wait for the verdict until my first tutorial of 2011 in early February. Joe told me, as nicely as was possible under the circumstances, that the story still sucked and I must rewrite it again. And again I sent him another edited version. Next week I was in for my hardest tutorial ever.

“You’ve got to move on, Sharon,” Joe said firmly. “Let this story go. Write something else.”

That had barely sunk in when he added these ego-shattering but life-changing words: “Go for a walk behind Keele Hall and ask yourself what you need to change about your writing.”

I left his office in silence, knowing that he was right. I must go for that walk behind Keele Hall, but I couldn’t ask myself what I needed to change about my writing. I didn’t have the answer. (If I did, Joe would have liked my third draft.) I had to ask God.

Keele Hall

God said nothing about my writing during our rendezvous behind Keele Hall. He simply gave me the idea for a new story. Joe liked it (even if he made me rewrite massive chunks of the beginning, middle, and ending). He also liked the next story I wrote, and the next, and the next . . . but none of these were called “Pioneer Boulevard.” The title story of my dreams remained in my dreams. When the summer term began and there was still no sign of “Pioneer Boulevard,” I accepted that my book would be called A Language Barrier and Other Stories

On June 30 I had a tutorial for what I thought would be the last story (“Some Sunny Day”). I had wanted ten stories but I figured that if J.D. Salinger could have written a nine-story collection (ingenuously titled Nine Stories) then I had nothing to be ashamed about. I would spend the summer editing my nine stories and forget about the one named for the LA street known as Little India. No one would ever know (except Joe Stretch and Tim Lustig, and I knew they wouldn’t tell). That was my plan, but God, who had not forgotten our walks behind Keele Hall, had something else for me. And I’m eternally grateful that that something was called “Pioneer Boulevard.”

One afternoon in July, I was lolling on my dorm bed looking at the now fully clad tree outside the window. I was thinking of nothing in particular (I particularly remember that), merely watching the brilliant summer sunshine sparkling upon the leaves, when the image of a woman in a gold shop flashed upon that inward eye. The next moment I was taking the three-and-a-half steps to my desk, turning on my computer, and creating my second favorite character in Pioneer Boulevard (Niteshbhai).

What did Joe say about the new “Pioneer Boulevard,” you ask? Well, I cannot repeat what he said, but he loved it. So do I – and so, I hope, will you.

Pioneer Boulevard 1st Page