The Genius of Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde speaking at Brazos Book Store in Houston. Image taken by Christy Esmahan.

This week I had not one, but two dreams come true! Dreams come in all sizes and shapes. Some are dreams that one works toward diligently, and others are more like passing wishes—it would be really awesome if I ever got a chance to… This week the stars aligned in the universe, and I found myself swirling in the everyday magic that comes from having experiences filled with joy and wonder. The first was a professional dream: I began writing in earnest in 2008, working on my series of novels which were ultimately published this year, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas. That in itself is a pretty big dream come true, but on Tuesday evening I was given the opportunity by the lovely folks at Katy Budget Books to do my first Book Signing ever, and on top of that, the event went swimmingly well. Many of my friends and neighbors showed up to support me, but I also had the chance to convince some nice strangers to try my novels, and that was very gratifying. I hope to have many more book signing events in the future, but this one will always have a special place in my heart.

My second dream was seeing one of my hero-authors in person: on Wednesday night I got to meet Jasper Fforde when he did a book talk and signing at Brazos Book Store in Houston. I have lots of authors I like—I can talk excitedly about books for hours on end—but there are only a handful of people that I call my hero-authors: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and Jasper Fforde.  That’s it. There’s no hope of meeting the first three, so you can imagine my delight when I found out by chance that Fforde would be in town! I live 30 miles from the store, and yes, I had other commitments, but this was a special dream so I cleared my schedule and got myself there, right smack in the front row.

I’ve admired Fforde since 2003, when I read his first novel, The Eyre Affair. Most of Fforde’s early published works are more enjoyable if the reader has read and remembers a broad spectrum of books by other authors in order to greater appreciate and thoroughly understand the hilarity of his plots. As he described his writing style in his talk, he said he liked to “move the furniture around in people’s brains–put a sofa on top of a hat stand and look at it from there.” And boy, does he have a creative and talented mind for doing this!

The Big Over-Easy was the next book I read, and my experience as a mother of young children, whom I doused in nursery rhymes, helped me to further enjoy his Nursery Crime narratives. The Fourth Bear was also extremely entertaining, and my training as a scientist primed me further for enjoying his questioning at the thermodynamic level of the temperature of Mama Bear’s porridge, which makes no sense if you consider that there is no way it should be colder than Baby Bear’s porrige unless some of its volume was reduced by interference from a hitherto undisclosed fourth bear. How awesome is that?

In his Last Dragonslayer series, Fforde also tickled my fancy when he described the “fact” that there were six different types of Quarkbeasts, (terribly frightening monsters with shark-like rows upon rows of teeth who eat cans of dog food as treats, can and all) and these beast come in six flavors: Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm. If you remember your high school physics, you can’t help but be amused!  I was listening to this book on audio and I found myself pounding the steering wheel and laughing out loud when the narrator got to this part.

That’s nice, you’re probably thinking, a very creative mind and entertaining books. Is that all it takes to be a hero-writer for you, Christy? Good question, and the answer is no. Where Fforde crosses the line from “very good writer” to “sheer genius” is in his Thursday Next books where he takes on the act of reading in a refreshing and altogether unusual and creative fashion. His explanation of the ImaginoTransference system is nothing short of brilliant, so let me quote a post on in his Phorum 5 

Book Operating Systems:The operating system that runs every book from within using a system of ImaginoTransference to project the author’s ideas into pictures within the reader’s head. The first system used was OralTrad, upgraded ten thousand years later by the rhyming (for easier recall) OralTradPlus. For thousands of years this was the only Story Operating System and is still in use today. The system branched in two about twenty thousand years ago; on one side with CaveDaubPro, (fore-runner of PaintPlusV2.3, GrecianUrnV1.2, SculptMarble V1.4, and the latest, all- encompassing SuperArtisticExpression-5). The other strand, the Picto-Phonetic Storytelling Systems, started with ClayTablet V2.1 and went through several competing systems (WaxTablet, Papyrus, VellumPlus) before merging into the award winning SCROLL, which was upgraded eight times to V3.5 before being swept aside by the all new and clearly superior BOOK V1. Stable, easy to store and transport, compact and with a workable index, BOOK is still the operating system of choice. Current System in use today: V8.3.

So basically, what he’s saying is that there is an operating system, a kind of computer program, if you will, that allows readers to take the little black marks that we see on a page and turn them into the full-blown mind-movies we get when we read. And like all systems, Fforde goes on to explain in his novels, it can sometimes go down. When this happens, steps must be taken to keep us, humans in the Outland, from finding out. The program therefore puts us to sleep so we don’t realize that the failure is occurring. Like most systems, it fails more often at the end of the day, when it’s been used continuously by humans all around the world, and that’s why we will often fall asleep reading at night. Like I said, the man is a genius!

I also love how he dives into the formation of characters, with varying depths of personalities and back stories–his explanations have affected the way I view other books and even the way I view my own writing. All of this is what makes him an author-hero in my mind.

If you like books that challenge you to use your imagination, and which are not afraid to step into several genres at once, mixing time-travel with Ms. Havisham,  a nice werewolf detective who will help with literary crimes, and Shakespeare, all the while teaching you about the dangers that “Adjectivores” and other “Grammasites” can and do cause to our language (if you text, you’ve seen the damage!) I encourage you to read, nay, devour all of his novels. I have, and am ready to re-read some as I wait impatiently for the next ones to be published.

And, if you ever get a chance to attend one of his speaking engagements, as I did this week, do yourself a favor and go. He is a dynamic, charismatic and entertaining speaker, every bit as fun and thought-provoking as his novels. Meanwhile, check out his website  and enjoy this genius who lives and walks among us.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Harvey and Elul

Front cover Sinco26In Jewish tradition, this month before the High Holy Days is called Elul. It is a time of reflection, a time to think about the past year, ponder manners in which one may have “missed the mark” and which one now regrets. Harvey Jones, the main character in my debut series, the Cantabria American School novels, is a Jewish man, although he considers himself an ethnic Jew, i.e. not one to go to services regularly or follow all of the rules.

He is a complex, flawed and endearing character, one who is dealing with grief (his beloved brother Sammy was killed accidentally by the terrorist group, ETA) and with the anger and disapproval that his father laid heavily upon him as a child.

He is also struggling to manage the group of disgruntled employees, difficult teachers, at his present school in northern Spain, where he is a foreigner.

In the second book of the trilogy, Sinco, Harvey has made a bad mistake—he neglected (procrastinated to his detriment) telling his girlfriend, Carmen, about an important event from his past and she (quite understandably) feels betrayed when she finds out from others.

Under these trying circumstances, when Harvey is feeling anguished by the thought of possibly losing her, the love of his life, his Judaic teachings surface and his apology is rendered more solid as a result.

Here is an excerpt from the scene, after he had spent quite a bit of time telling her the entire story:

Carmen, it was so wrong of me not to tell you sooner,” he whispered.

     She nodded.

     “And I can see how, if you only heard part of the story, you must have thought me a monster…”

     She nodded again.

     “Do you…do you think you could ever forgive me?”

     Carmen looked up at him, but kept her arms folded. “Bueno, Harvey, I am not sure…relationships take trust, and you have not shown me that you trust me.”

     Harvey held her eyes. “It was really wrong of me not to trust you. I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to explain it…but I really did mean to tell you, eventually. I thought about doing it several times but there never seemed to be a good time to talk about something so awful…but that’s not an excuse. Look, in Judaism, when someone makes a mistake, a really bad one like this one, they teach that you can only be truly forgiven once you are faced with a similar set of circumstances and then make a different and better decision the next time around.”

 Carmen looked at him doubtfully.

     “So, say for example,” said Harvey, rushing to make his point, “I walk by a fruit stand and there’s this beautiful apple and I’m hungry and I don’t happen to have any money on me and the shop keeper isn’t watching so I steal the apple. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t cut it. I can, and should, pay the shop owner for the apple that I stole, and that helps, but even then, I’m not truly forgiven. But if the next time and the time after that and so on, when I walk by the stand and I’m hungry and I don’t have money and he’s not watching, I still don’t steal the apple, then I’m forgiven.”

     Carmen nodded and continued looking at him.

     “What I stole, Carmen, was far more valuable than an apple,” said Harvey, his voice quavering. “I…I stole your trust in me, and it was a particularly bad thing to steal when your heart had already been broken by the circumstances of losing Javier. But please, Carmen, I’m begging you with all my heart, please give me another chance. I promise that I will never be this stupid about not telling you things that you should know in advance. Oh, Carmen, I love you so much, and these last several days, thinking I…that I had lost you, they’ve been the worst days of my life. It’s been absolute hell. My dearest, sweet Carmen. Please say you’ll give me another chance.”

I’ve not added any more of the scene as I don’t want to spoil the book. What do you think? Have you ever hurt anyone by omission? Are there people to whom you’d like to apologize and don’t know how or when to do so?

If you enjoyed this blog post you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Brujas newsflash

Wordle: Brujas WordleOne of the fun things you can do is play around using the words you’ve slaved over for so many years and plug them into a program called Wordle, which will mix them up and represent them in randomly colored shapes based on word-count. So, in honor of autumn, which is upon us with its lovely colors and cooler weather, and in commemoration of the start of a new school year, I created this Wordle using a chunk of text from Brujas. What do you think?

I also wanted to announce that Brujas, the third and final novel of the Cantabria American School trilogy, will be released in paperback form on September 1st and in Kindle (which is currently available to pre-order from the Kindle store) on September 8th, 2014. As you can see from this Wordle, Harvey plays a prominent role in the narrative, as do Tom, Sonia, Sherice and Cindy. Can you guess what else is going on from the words you see?

Preliminary reviews by early readers of this book are saying that they love the series and that Brujas is the best one yet. Let me know what you think!

This is a perfect book for any educators in your life!


If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Hatchette Books vs Amazon

It’s been a LONG while since I wrote a blog post, but this legal battle between Hatchette CEO, Michael Pietsch, and Amazon is getting on my nerves.  I think that Amazon is right in offering lower-priced e-books, and after reading the article written by Readers United and the Amazon Books Team ( I decided to make my voice heard. I recommend that you, too, dear reader, take a moment to read the letter at the above link, before reading my letter below:

Front cover Brujas2

Brujas, the third novel in the Cantabria American School series, will be available in September, in both paperback and e-book and proudly sold through Amazon or your local bookstore.

Dear Michael,

As a mother of 4 college students, an educator, an avid reader and an author, I strongly believe your company is making a HUGE mistake in refusing to lower the price of e-books.

I have read and followed the debate extensively, and I’ll admit that I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t have a vested interest in seeing a prolonged fight. What I know for sure is that reading is FUNDAMENTAL to bringing up literate, creative and intellectually hungry children. And it is increasingly difficult to compete for their attention with all of the electronic games and social media available, so being able to give my daughter a Nook or my son a Kindle and instruct them to download e-books and carry 10 or 20 or 30 with them in their backpack, wherever they go for the summer, has been a life-saver. There is no way they would have agreed to carry so many paperback or hardback books, but e-books get read. And I would NOT be able to afford purchasing so many books if it were not for the fact that e-books are generally cheaper. Oh, and I do tell them to only get books under $10—with so many different kids and interests, I can’t afford more expensive ones.

I have also found that the cheaper the e-book is, the more likely I am to take a look at it and buy it, just to see if I like it. Often I will try new authors—I was never this adventurous when I had to pay more for books. So, yes, I do end up spending more on books than I did before, but I feel good about being able to get so many. However, if I see an e-book priced at $14.99, I won’t take a chance on it.

As an educator, I just LOVED telling my students to get a book, say, on a Friday night, and know that they could easily do so without asking someone to drive them to a store. And again, out of consideration for their parents’ pocketbook, I only suggested the more economically priced e-books.

Finally, as a new author, I assure you that we authors are not united on this issue. I chose to price my e-books at an accessible $5.99 each. I have written terrific books that are beginning to receive national and international attention. But not just because they are wonderfully well-written, no. It is because they are AFFORDABLE. So people take a chance, download them and like what they see. If I had to charge more, I would be less well-known.

So please, re-consider your position and come to an agreement with Amazon which embraces the future and makes reading accessible to all.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.



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Thank you, Lauren Sapala!

Salamanca art

Salamanca art: Lauren often uses images of murals in her blog posts, so in her honor, here’s a mural in Salamanca, Spain.

Knock me over with a feather! I’ve got a wonderful success story to share with you today.

It begins late in 2013, during the final stages of writing The Cantabria American School series. The editor I had hired had sent me a huge list of issues that needed to be addressed, (rightly so), providing me with no less than 17 pages of comments and suggestions, and I had been slogging my way through them. In addition, I had decided to take my 700+page manuscript and break it into three books. That meant that each novel needed a separate story arc, characters needed to be developed more fully, and I needed to create more beginnings and endings than I had originally intended.

I was exhausted and discouraged, and even though I’d dedicated more than 5 1/2 years to writing this series, I felt like I was never going to be a published writer. Even more distressing was the fact that a friend of mine who is a successful writer gently suggested that I should go back to working in what I was trained to do and give up writing. The tasks ahead seemed completely unattainable and I was ready to walk away, throw in the towel, and forget about my dream of becoming a writer.

That’s when I stumbled upon Lauren Sapala’s blogs. Lauren is a writer and a writing coach based in San Francisco, and her posts were nothing short of a miracle for me. Posts such as “Why You Finishing Your Novel is Exactly What the World Needs” and a slew of others began to brighten my days. Lauren is a terrific writer and over the weeks and months as I continued to read her posts, hungrily digging through the archives, I became inspired to keep going and finish the task. Her blog is a treasure trove for writers: there are posts that address specific issues to do with characters or plot, and others more about life in general for writers and the special demons in the heads of all writers (not just mine!) Her blog is wealth of ideas and inspiration and I continue to greatly admire and benefit from her insightful writing.

I managed to complete Bueno and publish it, and then last month I published the second novel in the series, Sinco. Now, as I put the finishing touches on Brujas, the third one, I can honestly say that Lauren Sapala is a huge part of the reason I was able to keep going and finish writing these novels.

One day about a month ago I decided to reach out to her: I wrote to her, introducing myself and thanking her for inspiring me. I had been reading her posts constantly for six months now, and even though she didn’t know me, I was beginning to feel like she was a friend, always there with another cheerful and expertly presented blog post dealing with the craft of writing. In the middle of my e-mail, I became brave and decided to ask if she wouldn’t mind reviewing Bueno, a creation which she had been so instrumental in inspiring me to complete. I figured that most likely she wouldn’t answer me—after all, she has over 17,000 followers on Twitter, and over a thousand friends on Goodreads. Her whole life is about writers, all of whom are more well-known than me. Surely my little request would be one of a million and she would not have time to look at. I drafted my note to her about ten times, and read it to my husband over and over again before I finally pressed the “send” button.

And here’s the part where things began to turn surreal: first, she wrote back to me! It was a cheerful answer, much as her blog posts are.

Second, she agreed to read Bueno. I was over the moon just anticipating her taking a look at my creation, wringing my hands in worry that she’d not like it or find it sub-par, and wondering if I’d done the right thing in asking her to read it.

Then the third surprise came: she gave it five stars, calling it a “hidden gem”! It was a dream come true! And even If I do say so myself, it’s a terrific review, thoughtful, thorough and kind. Click here to read it.

So that’s my story of a miracle in my little corner of the universe! I hope that you too, dear reader, find miracles in the form of helpful souls like Lauren Sapala in your life, and if you do, please share your story–I’d love to read it!

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Ask the Author…or the Character

Pilars lips

This is how I imagine Pilar’s ribbon lips when she speaks to Harvey. (And what do you think about the snowflakes in the background? Apt, wouldn’t you say?)

It’s summer time in the northern hemisphere, and one of my fun rituals is making a list of the books I want to delve into. I’m so happy that several of my favorite authors have come out with new books, and I just finished ordering a few from the library. I’m a bit behind on Alexander McCall-Smith’s books, and when I went on his website this morning to get the list, I scrolled around to see what else I could learn from this pro. He’s one of my idols–I have several authors in that category–and someday I hope to meet them all in person. McCall-Smith’s website is interesting because of the fun African music that plays while one is browsing, and the graphics of little birds flying around–it’s a nice touch.  One section which I really like is the “Ask the Author” one in which readers can address him OR one of his characters. The questions are not just about his writing process, but often they are about life itself, and it is these that Mma Ramotswe, the main character from his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, answers with the wisdom and patience that are inherent to her. One reader (though I wonder if they really are readers or if McCall-Smith made up these questions) asks “My son stole a car. What shall I do?” and I just love Mma Ramotswe’s  wise answer which is rooted in understanding, forgiveness and common sense.

Another of my all-time author idols is Jasper Fforde, and I’ve also read all his books and am eagerly awaiting the next ones. If you’ve not read his books,  I can’t recommend him highly enough. He’s got a brilliant and hilarious writing style and his books are both entertaining and mind-expanding.  Like McCall-Smith, Fforde has created an entire world with truly lovable and unforgettable characters. His fans are so devoted that they have one weekend a year in which they celebrate his books in Swindon, (in the U.K.) where his Thursday Next novels are set. Everyone dresses up like his characters and runs around playing games that act out events which might (or might not) have happened in his books—it sounds like a lot of fun. It’s called Fforde Fiesta, and I would love to be a part of it one of these years.  Like McCall-Smith, he has fans write to his characters, and it’s hilarious. One of Fforde’s series is about Nursery Crimes, you know, the dastardly stuff that can happen in the world of Jack Spratt, Humpty Dumpty (who, himself, was a victim of a vicious crime, don’t think for a second that he just fell off that wall, he was clearly pushed) Mary, Mary, and others.  Readers are encouraged to write to Detective Spratt about any crimes they suspect in the Nursery world, and some of the fans are quite creative.

So, those are two of the authors I’ll be reading as I sit down with something tall and cool to drink. What about you? What books are you excited about reading this summer? I hope you’ll make time to read Bueno and Sinco, which are available in paperback or on Kindle. If you have any questions for me (or any of my characters), please do send them my way, either on this page or by messaging me on my FaceBook page. And if you’ve made any drawings (or other art projects) about anything in my books—I understand that about 30% of readers draw out characters and scenes from the books they are reading—I would love to post your fan art.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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The “My Writing Process” Blog Tour

20140304_111724_2This is cool: I’ve been asked to participate in the “My Writing Process” blog tour by my friend and fellow author, Moore Bowen.  Please check out her blog.  Thank you, Moore, for inviting me to jump onto the #MyWritingProcess blog tour.

The questions are the same for everyone on this tour.

 What am I working on?

I am working on my Cantabria American School series, and am about to publish the second book, Sinco, which will come out in early May—just a couple of weeks from now! I am also putting the finishing touches on my third novel, Brujas, which will be released in early September. As an Indie Publisher, I spend a lot of time and energy disseminating my works, getting my books into libraries and bookstores, entering them in contests, and encouraging everyone who reads them to recommend them to friends. It’s an excruciatingly slow and sometimes discouraging process, but I’m trying to stay optimistic, knowing that it may take a long time for people to notice what I’m doing. Occasionally I still write blog posts, although these are coming more infrequently now as I concentrate on getting my novels out.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Several different readers have told me that my story is original, which is difficult to do nowadays with the huge volume of novels already on the market. Like all good fiction, the novels in the Cantabria American School series have unforgettable characters that have actually “come alive” for me, often surprising me as I finish writing a scene or a chapter and realize that what happened was not at all what I had expected to happen. I have had several readers tell me that they felt like they really got to know the characters and want to know what will happen next in their lives. It’s funny because I often feel the same way–I want to write so I can find out what’s going to happen to them!

I think my work is also unique because of its setting, which is in Spain. I lived there for a long time as an adult, and got to the point where the average person on the street could not tell, after speaking to me, that I was not from Spain. This ability to sink into the role of someone with a different cultural paradigm has allowed me to infuse my novels with authentically “foreign” characters, full of the idiosyncrasies and surprises that we associate with those from another culture. It also allows me to examine my American characters and see them with different lenses.

Why do I write what I do?

Although writing is arduous, I am finding that I really love the creative process, and I’m really drawn to writing multicultural fiction. I’ve had the good fortune to have lived and travelled to so many places, and thus writing is a way for me to process all that I have learned and experienced. I am amazed to see that I have many more stories in my brain than I ever realized. Overall, it’s very rewarding to write and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to do so.

How does your writing process work?

My writing process has taken many turns and twists and I will sometimes go for extended periods without touching the story, although I’m still thinking about the characters all of the time. That’s why it took nearly 6 years to produce these three novels. When I consistently dedicate time to my work, I find that I make a lot of progress. But as a mother of 4, and with another part-time job, it can get really difficult to sustain the effort. I find that I write better in the morning, when I’m fresh. I write a scene and then end up editing and re-writing it dozens of times until I get it to where I want it.

If I’m struggling with a particular plot twist, I will often think about it for several days, and then one morning I’ll wake up and find that I know what I need to write, or at least have a clearer idea of which way to go.

I also read some blogs that are for writers, like Lauren Sapala’s blog, and these inspire me and help keep me going.

When I’ve finished writing, I ask my husband to read my work, and I’m very fortunate that he gives me insightful and honest feedback which makes my work stronger.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Spanish artists: Joan Miró

Miro museum

This is me at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, admiring Miró’s whimsical works of art.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have found it fascinating when people’s last names have something to do with their chosen profession. Sometimes the names are directly linked—a Baker will open a cupcake shop–and sometimes it’s a little farther-fetched, but all the more intriguing, like William Penn becoming an author. Is it serendipity? Does that person really come from a line of ancestors who liked to cook? Or does having to write their last name from the time they are little somehow stimulate their subconscious mind to seek out that line of work?

On my last visit to Chicago I was pleasantly surprised to see an exhibition at the Art Institute by one of my favorite contemporary Spanish artists, Joan Miró. His last name, it seems to me, fits this paradigm of choosing work related to one’s name. In Spanish, “miró” means “he looked”, and first and foremost, all artists I’ve ever known are keen observers of our world. How Joan Miró saw our world, and how he chose to portray it in his works of art, is an interesting study and I’m sure there have been many art history dissertations written on it, so I will only brush the surface, if you will.

Miró’s works are often in bright, primary colors which are punctuated with black or white lines and spaces. I’ve seen his whimsical statues and captivating mobiles, and I could look at them all day. And his paintings, well, I’m not big on modern, abstract art, but these are really very good. His style is so fun that I think that if Dr. Seuss had ever decided to outsource the artwork for his wonderful children’s books, Miró would have been the ideal illustrator.

Like Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali, Joan Miró was also born in Catalonia, in 1893. (It’s amazing how many gifted artists have come from Spain.)  Miró knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. He studied in Spain, and then after a trip to Paris in his early twenties, became a surrealist painter.  He lived to be ninety years old, passing away just three years before I got to Spain, and created a wealth of works. He was one of those artists so entirely devoted to his work that he never stopped, continuing to create masterpieces in his 80’s.

When I had a chance to go to Barcelona as a graduate student, I went to his museum, the Fundació Joan Miró, and was intrigued at how his sculptures seemed to be 3-D representations of his paintings, as if they had gotten tired of the canvas and jumped out so they could stretch into their full forms. It was stunning!

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Bueno: a journey

Bueno w Stanford bikes2

Bueno is going places!!

Over the last few months I’ve learned that there are many steps in the path I’ll call “getting my book out there.” Before I could even begin, there were the hurdles of actually publishing it: completing the manuscript, getting the cover design right, proofing, submitting it in the format required (especially tricky for the Kindle edition) getting the library of congress and ISBN numbers— and all of these things took much longer and required far more energy than I had expected. The second step involved  building my “writer’s platform” and this blog has been an important and entertaining part of that process. I’ve also had to create an “author fan page” on FaceBook, a twitter account, and a Pinterest account (which, sorry to say, I don’t pay much attention to).  Now I am approaching book stores, arranging book signings, imploring everyone who reads my book to write a review (not much luck there, so far—only 5 kind souls have responded) and I’m entering contests.

Each contest I enter is like going through a job interview: my book is competing for recognition, jostling with heartfelt works that others have produced, hoping that the interviewer (or judge) is in a good mood when s/he reads it, and then waiting on pins and needles for the clock to tick by and the results to be announced. Yesterday I got the first result from a contest that I entered, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and…I made it to Round 2!! You should have seen me jumping up and down, even though it’s really only a small step and there are another 4 rounds to go. But still, the fact that Bueno survived when 4/5 of the entries (1600 novels) in its category were eliminated, is exciting.

As with each job interview, every contest focuses on different aspects of the author’s handiwork before the final decision is made. For this first round in the ABNA contest, the judges looked only at my “pitch”, which had to be no more than 300 words. That’s it. Just 300 words to either survive to the next round or be washed away with the masses. In preparation for this contest I wrote 12 different pitches, then  narrowed them down to the three best, then worked on these till the final one emerged. Once I knew where I was going with the pitch, I re-wrote it another 4 or 5 times, and it’s this pitch which I’d like to share with you today:

Shhh. Harvey has to think. When he left the kindergarten classroom most of the children had stopped crying. But pig’s blood still stained the grass and he knew that the students would have nightmares about what they had witnessed at recess. The farmer had sworn that he had sent a letter to the school informing of the planned slaughter.  And then, when he returned to his office, Harvey had noticed that his in-box was inexplicably neat and tidy. With a sinking heart he reached for the pile of letters and found the one that had not been there earlier.

Harvey had expected his interim position to be challenging. After all, he was a foreigner:  a tall, red-headed Texan whose high school Spanish was barely passable. And he was relatively inexperienced, having never been a headmaster before, but he had trusted that his graduate degree, hard work and determination would suffice.

Closing his eyes, Harvey thought of Carmen, who had brightened his life tremendously. But now with this crisis, the worst since he had begun working in this hornet’s nest of a school, would he be able to remain in Spain, the country his late brother had loved and where he could be with Carmen?

He scanned the letter again. It was obvious that he had been framed. Why was it that nothing he did seemed to work out? How should he handle this situation?

Teeming with sympathetic, believable characters and masterfully interweaving humorous and poignant moments, Bueno is a truth-telling, engaging novel which explores shared human experiences that cross national and cultural boundaries.

What do you think? Have I enticed you into a) reading my novel; b) writing a review on Amazon for me (this will be super important if I make it to later rounds in the ABNA contest); and c) recommending my book(s) to your friends and family?

Thank you for your help!

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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The Enchanting University Tunas


Cuenca University Tuna

Aren’t they a handsome group? This is the Cuenca Campus University Tuna. Use of this photo is with permission from the generous folks at CuencaOn, a communications service of the University of Cuenca. You can follow them on Facebook at

One of my favorite grad student memories is of the first time I ever heard the university tuna. It was a magical and wonderful moment that I shall never forget. (Spoiler alert—this is not about chicken of the sea!) A group of us was sitting at an outdoor café in El Barrio Húmedo of León as the sun was setting when suddenly we heard male voices singing in wonderful harmony, accompanied by music from guitars, lutes, mandolins, tambourines, an accordion, and a double bass. Their voices were strong and echoed off the thick stone walls of the buildings around us that were many hundreds of years old, and these voices were clearly drawing nearer. My friends all began exclaiming that the university tuna was arriving, and of course, I began looking around, not quite sure what to expect. Then I saw them: about a dozen, or maybe 15 men, clearly students, dressed in Shakespearean-style clothing. They had on black leather shoes, black stockings and either knickerbockers or puffy shorts made of black velvet with vertical satin folds of yellow or purple (the colors of the University of León ). They also wore black button-down and fitted jackets with pointy white collars protruding, and a leather belt around their waist secured with a square, silver buckle.  The sleeves of their coats were tight fitting from the wrist to just above the elbow, at which point they suddenly became puffy, like the trousers, with bright satin folds. A brightly colored sash, folded in the shape of a “V”, was draped over their chests. Most of them also wore majestic black velvet capes, the thick ones, lined with satin, which reached almost all the way to the ground. Pinned to their capes were many different colored roses made from satin ribbons, and attached to the roses were long stretches of ribbon, like streamers, hanging the length of the cape so that as the person walked, all of the streamers flew out behind, like adoring fans waving to them.  It was an amazing sight.

Once the tuna had gathered around our table, (because, of course, my friends immediately alerted them that the Americana, the only one in the city, was there) they began singing a song that I had never heard before, and which became one of my favorites: Clavelitos. It’s about a guy asking his sweetheart to share her flower of a mouth, the honey of her lips, with him, and promising that he will always bring her clavelitos, little carnations. It ends with him reminding her that if there ever comes a day when he doesn’t bring her these flowers, she mustn’t think that anything is wrong, but just know that he was unable to get them that day.

tuna tools

A wooden fork and spoon became the international symbol of the University Tuna groups

It turns out that different colleges within each university across the country have their own tunas, which are like singing fraternities. According to the Tuna Universitaria de Salamanca website,  (The tuna of the University of Salamanca) when this, the oldest and most famous of Spanish universities, opened in the early 1200’s, there were some groups of students called sopones (which I will translate as “soupers”) who were so poor that they would serenade the neighboring convents and plazas in exchange for their daily meal of a bowl of soup and a few coins with which they could use to pay for their studies. They usually carried around their own wooden spoon and fork, hoping for a meal, and these utensils eventually became the symbol of all of the university Tunas.  Later, in the 1300’s, there were groups of students “who didn’t crack a book or go to any classes; indeed, their  guitars never left their fingers, they were very entertaining and sung many a sonnet, and always seemed to have a new melody” as described by Guzmán de Alfarache.  Two hundred years later, in the 1500’s, it was the world famous Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes, who in his book “Tia Fingida” describes a particular Tuna group which has, along with their string instruments, about a dozen cow bells. Cervantes surmises that it must have been their intention, and he felt sure that they would achieve it, to wake up the entire neighborhood and make them come out to their balconies to be serenaded.

But my words don’t do tunas justice. In these next few paragraphs I have embedded links to YouTube videos of tuna groups performing, and you can access them by clicking on the colored words. This first one is the Tuna from the College of Law from the University of Albacete singing “Don Quijote”, in homage to Miguel de Cervantes, for the reason I mentioned above. You can really hear the power of their voices. The introduction takes the first minute of the video, so you might want to fast forward over that part if you don’t understand Spanish, and get to the music. I really liked it.

This second link is the Tuna from the College of Medicine at the University of Salamanca. They are playing in a hall in the university and you can see both their typical costumes as well as the wonderful university setting, with the colorful tiles on the walls and the different shields. It’s an ideal backdrop for their music.

This third video is the Tuna from the Law School of the University of Huelva, singing a song called “Maria, la Portuguesa” which is about a Portuguese woman named Maria who has left and broken their heart. They are performing on a stage, which I find strange as I always saw tunas walking around campus or the city, but it turns out that every year there are tons of competitions of tunas from different universities—I would love to go to one of these someday.

Nowadays there are also tunas outside of the university setting, many of which will play at weddings, and I found several YouTube videos of tunas playing for the couple emerging as newlyweds, or to the bride the night before the wedding.  The concept of tunas has even been exported to Europe and Latin America. So the next time you go to Spain, no matter which city you visit, look up the local tunas and go watch them perform–I’m sure you’ll love it!

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like my series of novels, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, which takes place in Santander, Spain.


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