Author Archives: Catherine Egan

My One Thing

I was at the playground with my kids a couple of years ago and some very toned-looking moms were talking about going to the gym. Finally I said, a bit pathetically, “How do you all manage to exercise?” I myself had not Formally Exercised since my first pregnancy. One of my friends said, “When you’re taking care of little kids all day, you can do one other thing. You can take care of the kids and you can have a clean house. Or you can take care of the kids and you can be fit. But you can’t do two other things, so you have to choose. You’re a writer – that’s your one thing.” It reframed everything for me, and I stopped feeling bad about all the stuff I wasn’t doing. I took her word for it: I could do one thing, and I’d made my choice.

Sometimes I imagine that if I had a little more time I might also clean my filthy apartment and exercise and volunteer and cook fabulous meals and read more non-fiction and study Japanese again. I imagine myself with a better haircut, better fashion sense and excellent posture, all muscly and wide awake and multi-lingual. In this alternate reality, the laundry is folded and put away, the garbage doesn’t smell bad, the children do not eat crackers in the bed, my book is a huge bestseller, and we are planning a totally affordable trip to the Galapagos islands because this perfect version of me is canny and full of know-how and found an awesome deal on the internet and oh yeah also we can afford it because of my huge bestseller.

I read somewhere that nothing actually improves a person’s long-term happiness except nearly dying and then recovering. I can see how nearly dying might shift one’s perspective on what constitutes good enough, but I also think happiness is not necessarily the point of all this living we do.

For a long time I was perpetually dissatisfied with myself and my (lack of) accomplishments. I’d compare myself to people who seemed to me to be Better At Life, and then I’d feel sort of slouchy and glum, or I’d pep-talk myself and pretend I was going to get Better At Life. Life Is Short, I told myself (because I was wildly original) – and I didn’t mean for mine to pass me by in the ordinary way. I was going to have great adventures, write brilliant books, do interesting and noble things with the precious days of my life. I did not imagine children back then. I did not imagine that I might not be all that brilliant, or even all that interesting.

I’m sort of over it – not that I don’t have goals, but the idea of actually being Better At Life. Fuck that imaginary self with her shiny hair and awesome biceps, sneering at me from her chic little flat in Paris. Fuck her folded laundry and her clear conscience and the way she’s got it all worked out. I can’t decide if this late-in-life self-acceptance is a positive thing, maybe a sign of becoming less self-obsessed, or if it signals a sad slackening of ambition – a kind of giving up. The only thing I’m sure of is that things will change again soon, and then change again. There are no do-overs; this cocktail of good luck and mistakes and hope and regret and paralyzing fear is what you get today. If you can stomach it, you’re one of the lucky ones. Life might keep opening up wider for a while, or it might slam shut, because you never know when your luck is going to run out. Not to be overly morbid, but even the best-case-scenario for a life ends with decay and death (and then more serious decay), so, you know – well, I don’t really know where I’m going with that.

I mean that I really will try to stop biting my nails, and I know it’s not healthy or useful to stay up past midnight reading and then panic about what would happen to the kids if I died, and when my friend came over the other day she took one look at the stained, ripped sofa that we still haven’t gotten around to replacing leaking its stuffing everywhere and shouted “SERIOUSLY, CATHERINE? THAT’S YOUR SOFA?” And it is, that really is our sofa, but it’s fine, that’s all I’m trying to say: I’m OK with this. I’m doing fine. I don’t know what to make for dinner but I sent my new book to my editor today because, no matter what else, making up stories and writing them down is the one thing I’ve always been sure I could do.


A trick of the light

We were lying in bed early in the morning, the light coming through the curtains and illuminating a corner of blanket. My four-year-old said, “Look! A ribbon!” He reached for the curling corner of light and at the same moment his brother rolled over, moving the blanket, and that bright loop was gone.

The four-year-old scrambled around the bed looking for it, frantic. “I saw a pink ribbon!” he wept. “It’s in the bed but I can’t find it!”

“There’s no ribbon,” I tried to explain. “It was a trick of the light. Sometimes the light plays tricks on your eyes and you see things that aren’t really there.”

He didn’t believe me. He shouted and raged and kept searching the bed. He sobbed over breakfast: “I want that ribbon! I loved that ribbon!”

It’s easy to forget the first time it happened to you. We get used to it, in a way – reaching for something, and then, poof, it’s gone, or it was never there, we were wrong. We learn that not everything we think we see is real. That we can’t always touch the things we imagine and long for.

Sometimes the light makes a pretty ribbon in the bed, but sometimes it makes things that are terrible, too. When I was a little girl, shadows became monsters on the wall with awful frequency. I remember one particular occasion so clearly because real terror stays with us – the car pulling into the driveway, the headlights coming in my bedroom window, casting moving shadows across the wall and ceiling. One shadow on the wall had eyes, a mouth, reaching arms that lengthened and lengthened. It grinned at me as it moved across the wall, arms stretching out, and then it vanished. I screamed until my mother came. She probably told me it was a trick of the light, but I knew she was wrong. I knew what I’d seen: the sly treachery of the mouth, the hungry eyes. Just wait, it said, just wait. And then: poof. Gone. The car parked in the driveway. The engine shut off. My mother sat on the edge of my bed, but I was only safe as long as she was there. That shadow was still hiding somewhere. I’d seen it.

Another time I looked up and there was a woman standing at the foot of my bed. She was wearing the same dress as my doll and holding an open book, which she appeared to be reading. She didn’t look scary but all the same I hid under the covers, paralyzed with fear, because what was a strange woman doing standing by my bed reading a book? I have never in my life felt such a rush of adrenaline and terror. I hid until I couldn’t bear it. Then I rocketed out of the bed, out of the room, screaming, for my parents’ room, cannon-balling into their bed and waking them.

It might have been a dream. If I believed in ghosts, I might say it was a ghost. Our eyes and minds are easier to trick when we are younger because we aren’t used to their tricks, to the way light and dark and half-awake moments and our own brains all play together. I used to see strange things, inexplicable things, all the time. Now I can’t remember the last time I saw something that didn’t look right, something I couldn’t explain. Still, when I saw my son’s hand groping for that lit corner of blanket, the urgency of his movement, I knew exactly what was happening. I remembered how it felt – your hand closing on nothing.

We got through a weepy breakfast and went to the beach in boots and coats. It was windy and beautiful. The sea shimmered in the sun and white clouds streaked across the sky. We ate sandwiches on the rocks and my son said “The water is beautiful,” and I said, “Yes, it is,” and then his voice cracked and he said, “Is this a trick of the light?”

“No,” I said, with the kind of certainty and authority I can command only as a parent. “This is real.”

But of course, we can’t really touch the golden light on the water. We can’t hold on to any of this, and I used to wonder all the time as a small child if what I saw was the same thing that other people saw. Who could say?

“I wish I had that ribbon,” he whispered.

It took a few days for him to really accept that it was gone, that maybe it had never been there at all. Just this morning he said, without crying about it: “Remember that ribbon I saw that was a trick of the light?”

After I pick him up from preschool, I give him some play-doh so I can read over the chapter I wrote in the morning. He makes ribbons with the play-doh – a departure for him, since generally he shares my interest in monsters.

“This is not the same color,” he says, eyeing his play-doh ribbons critically. “This is not like the ribbon I saw.”

I say, “but it’s a very nice ribbon.” And I keep tinkering with my chapter – the burning shore, the uneven light, monsters multiplying around my heroine. We spend a quiet hour together, working with what we thought we saw, what wasn’t there, until it is time to go get his brother from school.

Kissing & Fireballs: the complexities of co-authorship

My kids, J (5) & K (almost 4), have a friend over, a 6-year-old boy I’ll call A. I told them I was going to try and do some writing while they played, but our apartment isn’t very big and it’s sort of impossible to focus while they are crashing about. As far as I can tell, the game they are playing is like a fanfic mish-mash of Tolkien and Harry Potter, with just a touch of Sweet Valley High or something (kissing comes up at random moments).

The props: J. clutches a tattered copy of The Silmarillion and wields a foam sword. A. has constructed a sword out of cardboard and has taped various other toy weapons to his body and has a loop of rope slung over his shoulder. K. is wearing a cape and superhero mask and has a lightsaber, but he is currently sitting at my feet drawing dinosaurs.

J: We have to cross the Mountains of Terror, where there are…

A: Zombies!

J: No… well, OK. Well, there aren’t zombies, there are giant spiders.

A: Pretend I know all about the Grim.

J: Pretend I do, too!

A: Yeah.

J: Hey, A…

A: Call me Harry.

J: But I like calling you A.

A: OK, let’s pretend Harry is my real name but A. is my nickname.

J: OK. So, we have to cross the mountains, and this is our map. (shows map from the Silmarillion and they examine it together)

A: (picking up stuffed cheetah) Let’s pretend that this is a Baby Grim we caught to be our pet.

J: Yeah!

A: And we need climbing ropes.

J: This is going to be a very tough journey. (sighs heavily)

A: Uh oh. I think the Grim are coming.

J: And Shelob is their leader!

A: Run! There’s more coming!

(They run back and forth. K looks up from his dinosaur picture to watch them) 

J: Here, put on this armor, it’s Mithril.

A: Fireball! Fireball!

J: Fireball! Aaargh!

(K stops drawing dinosaurs and joins the game) 

K: I have mifril armor too.

A: Who are you?

K: I’m Darth Vader. (breathes like Darth Vader) 

A & J exchange a look.

A: We’re not playing Star Wars.


J: Well… are you good or bad?

K: Good.

A & J exchange another look and silently decide to drop it.

A: (picks up stuffed dragon) I found an animagus!

J: Is he wounded?

A: No. Look, these two are kissing on the lips. (makes cheetah and stuffed dragon kiss) 

J&K gape, amazed. A. makes kissing sounds and keeps mashing the stuffed animals’ faces together.

J: (tiring of the kissing scene) Oh no! Look out, they’re coming!

A: (dropping stuffed animals) Fireballs! Run!! It’s The Grim!!!

Everybody screams and runs. 

I am transcribing this because I find it hilarious but I’m also vaguely unsettled at how closely their game mirrors my own inner monologue when I’m writing.

*Adds more kissing*

*Adds more fireballs*

The world has always been this way

Instead of working, I’m checking the news from Paris every few minutes like me sitting here and freaking out is going to help anybody anywhere.

The world has always been terrible / wonderful. This isn’t new news, it’s old news. It’s pretty much the oldest news there is. I’m trying to remember when I first found out the kinds of things that people do to each other – because my kids don’t know yet. They have no idea. I took them to school this morning – nice schools with big windows and caring teachers – through beautiful snowfall, bundled in their snowsuits, laughing and falling in the snow and catching flakes on their tongues. They are so happy, and they just have no idea, because they are so, so lucky. And eventually (soon? I don’t know) I have to start telling them about the Terrible World, and then we have to have conversations about how to live in it.

Lately I’ve been reading the news and feeling like I don’t know how to swallow the terrible stuff and keep my chin up anymore. That’s ridiculous, of course, what with me being officially the Luckiest Person Alive. But then nobody said anybody had to swallow anything, and nobody really cares whether my chin is up or down. There are homicidal maniacs out there, rampaging around as usual – in Paris, and that’s in the news, but elsewhere too – these men who once upon a time were each somebody’s little sweet-cheeked boy, and who knows what happened to them after that? What went wrong? Now they are out for blood, like they always are.

I don’t have anything to say about it. There was this article that I thought was beautiful and which made me cry and cry. And the incredible Christine Gilbert posted a good piece too, about the Parisian police officer Ahmed Merabet, who died defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to make a mockery of his religion. I’m glad there are articulate and compassionate people talking in nuanced ways about all this but I am getting more pessimistic as I get older and I don’t have any hope of such voices drowning out the angry din.

I live in this bright bubble and it looks so dark and grim outside. But that’s not really true either. Because the world has always been terrible, but it’s always been wonderful too, and it’s not hard to find the bright spots when you find you can’t swallow.

I guess that whenever I tell my kids the story of Hate and Rage and Blind Righteousness, I will try to suggest that we not only live in a bright spot, but we can be a bright spot. We are part of the world, and we can try to give off light. There are a lot of ways to do this – big ways and small ways. Today I am trying to dial back my own rage, and live with my horror and fear, and be kinder. I’m thinking of the victims in Paris, and even those little boys who turned into raving monsters with guns, and while praying is not something I do in general, today I wish that I knew how. If I did, I’d be on my knees, praying for peace and light, the ability to know the world and still be joyful in it, and the strength to spread that joy.


The Mirror, the Window, the Axe: thoughts on love & books

My favorite writers are mostly (but not exclusively) women. When I was a kid, I wanted stories with girls in them. It was always all about the girl, for me. I loved the Prydain Chronicles for Eilonwy, not Taran. I loved Princess Leia, not Luke. As I see it now, I was hungry for girl heroes and, lucky me, I found them easily: Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, Meg Wallace, my books were full of them.

When the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag started trending on twitter, it offered a vivid picture of what it would be like if you were a kid with that hunger to see yourself in books but couldn’t find anybody like you. What if you are a girl who loves other girls but there are no stories about that at all in the library? What if you are a black kid who loves sci fi and every hero in every book you read is white? I don’t know what that feels like, but I can imagine. Junot Diaz has written about it, talking about how vampires don’t have any reflection in the mirror: “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. …Part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

We want and need to see ourselves in stories, of course, and at the same time reading gives us access to other selves and other lives. George Orwell had the great line (though he was talking about style, mainly) that “good prose is like a windowpane.” Not only a mirror reflecting ourselves, but each book a window with a view outside ourselves. A great writer lets us in, and if we as readers do our part and enter the story with our whole hearts, that is as close to being someone else as we will ever get.

But sometimes people really, really don’t want to understand what it might be like to be somebody else or to lead another life. For example: a lot of white people are getting really angry that black people are angry about Ferguson. Maybe we can never know exactly what happened leading up to the moment when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death, but we can and should know the America in which it happened, where young black men (or boys, like Tamir Rice) are getting shot (or choked, like Eric Garner) with terrifying frequency for doing not much of anything. If you really don’t understand the anger in Ferguson, you aren’t following the plot.

I understand the default white person position where racism doesn’t really seem like a thing, because that is the starting point for all white people. Maybe in school we learn about slavery in the United States, or the residential school system in Canada, or the Holocaust in Europe – an assortment of unthinkable atrocities dished out in history class – and everybody says how bad it was and it feels like the Terrible Past but we’re all cool now thank goodness. That’s a comfortable way to feel, and nobody living in the world today should feel that comfortable about the way things are. Since I’m throwing quotations around, here’s one from David Foster Wallace: “I had a teacher once who used to say good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

I can’t get over that line. I think it’s so true. If you were following the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag, you could see over and over people talking about how books saved their lives – the books that reflected them, the books that comforted them. But if you are, say, a white girl with every kind of good fortune growing up on the west coast of Canada, then you don’t need books to comfort or reflect you. I needed them to disturb me, to unsettle me, to offer windows into other selves and other lives and other realities. I needed them to wake me up and show me the world.

Junot Diaz talks about mirrors, George Orwell talks about windowpanes, and Kafka famously offers that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Honestly, I read mainly for fun. I don’t think to myself, “hmm, I need an axe for the frozen sea within me” – I just want to be drawn in and entertained. But if I had to list the books that have stayed with me the most, they would be the books that have disturbed me, that changed my thinking – the books that acted like an axe on my consciousness.

The truth is that we can’t ever know what it is like to be somebody else, to live another life outside our own skin. We can’t know anybody and we can’t truly be known – that’s just the way it is, being human in the world. When I hear white people shouting all this angry defensive stuff that boils down to the laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-horrible “no, YOU’RE racist!” I think that this stupid shit is what happens when white people refuse to believe that we don’t know, can’t know, and insist on the primacy and rightness and universality of our own narrow perspective. That insistence, that knee-jerk refusal to enter someone else’s story, to turn away from the lying mirror and look out the window, is where bigotry and hatred and resentment all begin. I think, probably naively, that these people need to sit down and read, just read about lives that are not theirs, written by authors who know differently.

It’s lonely and scary – not knowing and not being known. Empathy is knowing we can’t know, but trying anyway to share ourselves and to know others as well as we can. For me, this basic striving to know and be known has always come down to love and books. I’m sure there are other ways, but those are my particular fixes.

We Need Diverse Books has gone from a hashtag born of deep frustration to an incorporated passion-driven non-profit that I dearly hope is going to change the (white) face of publishing, and which you can check out (and support) here.

A story is a changeable thing and can be what you need it to be – whether a mirror, a window, an axe. It can show you yourself in the way that only those who love and know you best can ever show you yourself, and it can pry your heart wide open, let in the air and the world outside, shatter you, if you need to be shattered. Sometimes we do need to be shattered.

Tag, I’m It! The Writing Process Blog Tour

I know what you’re going to say. Aren’t I in the middle of my own blog tour right now? And didn’t I do one of these blog hop thingies about a year ago? Yes, you’re right on both counts. But THIS is different, because I was tagged by Lena Coakley, and do you want to know what the odds are of me ever saying No to Lena Coakley about anything? ZERO, OK?

I first read her novel Witchlanders the winter after it came out and I have read it again every winter since. If you have heard me talk about anything ever, you have probably heard me talk about Witchlanders. It is one of my all-time favorite fantasy novels – gorgeously written, with stunning world-building, and the most beautiful and original vision of magic I’ve read. Look, here is a pretty picture of Witchlanders next to the Crystal Kite award.

Crystal Kite Award

So you can imagine my delight when I first heard she was working on a historical fantasy about the Bronte sisters. The first time I read the premise I gasped out loud, because it’s such a great idea and it is so exciting to think of it in the hands of such a phenomenal writer. You can read Lena’s post about it here.


Now on to those four questions:

What are you working on?

I am writing a trilogy about a thief and spy-for-hire, Julia, who finds herself working on the wrong side of a power struggle between immortal siblings, while a serial killer leaving bodies all over the city is zeroing in on her. When caught in a dangerous bind, Julia does something truly evil to save herself, and must then confront the terrible consequences of her actions.

I am beyond thrilled that Knopf and Doubleday will be bringing all three books into the world, with the first book, Julia Vanishes, slated for spring 2016.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This question! Somebody or other (how’s that for citation?) said that there are only about seven stories in the world and four of them are crap anyway. If that’s true, it leaves the writer only hoping that she is writing one of the three good ones rather than one of the four crap ones. The difference is in the details. Well, and every voice is different of course, but that goes without saying (she says).

So, Julia Vanishes is the one about evil deeds and the burden of guilt and the hard work of atonement. It’s that story about idealism vs. realism vs. nihilism, forgiveness vs. vengeance, recognizing the lesser evil in the absence of good, addiction and loss and how little we can truly know or be known by the people closest to us and how dearly we love them anyway. It’s the story about perching on the edge of adulthood and looking around and not seeing any models of the kind of life you’d like to inhabit and then figuring out what to do with that lack. It’s that story.

The difference is that in this book the protagonist can vanish and nothing much scares her until she has to take a long hard look at herself, the Prime Minister is a witch-hunting fanatic with a terrible secret, immortal siblings are battling over a fragmented book in the evening of their long lives, witches work magic by writing and the pen is quite literally mightier than the sword, a sad-eyed serial killer uses his victims’ memories as clues, magical killer spiders are the least of the hero’s concerns (but still: don’t get bit!), and a small boy’s life is either a footnote to the conflict or the heart of it, depending on your point of view. Also, I wrote it. That’s different, right?

Why do you write what you do?

I’ve started a lot of books and finished a few. All those that I’ve finished were drafted in great bursts of enthusiasm within a matter of weeks. Years of revision followed of course – but the stories I stick with are the ones that seem to unfold to completion naturally as I go, where the characters and their journeys and relationships fascinate me enough (and for long enough) to keep my fickle heart from straying to another shiny idea. So I suppose my answer to that question is simply “enthusiasm” – I write what I enjoy and what comes easily.

Having said that, I keep coming back to one story that I’ve failed to write so many times but can’t let go of. I intend to give it another go post-Julia, and if ever I’m successful and this slippery idea becomes a book, I might change my answer from enthusiasm to love.

What does your writing process look like?

My process is not very interesting, but it is very comfortable to me. On a macro level, it involves an idea brewing for a while and pages of notes. If the idea keeps growing rather than fizzling out, it progresses to an outline. The outline goes through a number of variations as the idea keeps brewing and growing. At some point, the thing is ready to be written, and I write it. The story develops further during the first draft process, and I pause to adjust the outline and rethink as needed. Then I rewrite the thing a billion times until I have to hand it over.

On a micro level, it involves just me and a computer and a big mug of coffee, sometimes a pen and notepad for tricky scenes or notes. I write happily at home or in cafés. Currently, with my younger son in preschool in the mornings, I have enough time to write but not a lot of time, and I’m starting to think that “enough time but not a lot” is key to my productivity.


I am tagging Dana Alison Levy, who managed to inadvertently (I think) throw both a bean from her plate and a knife into my purse within a matter of minutes at a lunch we both attended, and whose middle-grade debut, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, has been gathering raves and accolades from far and wide, including from little rags like this one  and this one. In spite of these Big Deal reviews, my favorite comment on her book is actually from author Kristen Lippert-Martin on goodreads:

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 11.12.02 AM

Look for Dana’s post next Thursday.


Isn’t he scary? Isn’t he beautiful? The Blog Tour – with prizes!

Bone, Fog, Ash & Star is out in the world, my lovelies. Look how pretty all three books are lined up on my kitchen table!

Photo1 (21)

It is an odd thing to say goodbye to a world (well, two worlds if you’re going to get all technical about it) and characters that you’ve spent years playing with inside your head. I am onto the next thing, but if I pause to ask myself what I will miss most about writing the Tian Di books, the answer is easy: I will miss my darling villains.

So to celebrate / grieve, I am doing a wee blog tour and a giveaway at each stop. I’ll update here each day when a new post goes up. Go read the posts and leave a comment sharing your favorite fictional villain(s). At the end of the tour, I’ll select a winner from each post using a random number generator (I’ll post screenshots), and send you all three books in the series.

Here is the blog tour schedule:

October 10th: Isn’t he scary? Isn’t he beautiful? You can also read Helen Kubiw’s review of the third book here.

October 13th: You Never Forget the First Time: Jadis from the Narnia Books and Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials at

October 14th:  I love you and I want to kill you; let’s make out: Bad Boy villains in YA at

October 15th: There is nothing on earth that we share: Javert from Les Misérables at

October 16th: Sometimes the bad guy just wants to be a big snake: Mayor Wilkins from Buffy the Vampire Slayer at

October 17th: An exchange of gifts: Linay from Plain Kate at


The giveaways are now closed and books are winging their way to the winners. Thanks for joining in, everybody, and thank you so much to my gracious hosts!




Summertime: Wicked Kings and the Fly-by-night

In the airport at midnight my kids were the kind of tired that kids get when it is hours past bedtime and they are in a bright, crowded, noisy place after sitting still for hours. So, naturally, they started to act like drunken football hooligans after a major loss incurred partly or wholly due to a bad ref call. They are still small enough that I can scoop them up, one under each arm; I carried them, kicking and hooting, to a filthy spot on the floor against a wall, apart from the crowds, where I sat them down and read them Rumpelstiltskin while That Guy waited for our baggage to appear.

What is the deal with Rumpelstiltskin? At first, the King is the obvious villain, followed maybe by the idiot miller who spread the tale that his daughter could spin straw into gold in the first place. The King shuts her up in a room filled with straw and says he’s going to kill her if she doesn’t spin it into gold, even though, the story says, he doesn’t actually believe it’s possible. I guess he just thinks it would be fun to kill her? Rumpelstiltskin appears, and with his magical abilities, he spins the straw to gold and saves her life.

So it seems that Rumpelstiltskin is on the side of good, at least compared with the King. The third go-round, the King tells the girl that if she can’t spin all the straw into gold, he’ll kill her, and if she can, he’ll marry her. Talk about being stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. But then, after Rumpelstiltskin helps her a third time (exacting the promise of her first-born child, which, OK: yuck) we fast-forward a year or two and she is happily married to the King. There is no mention of the fact that he is a greedy, vicious sociopath. She’s Queen now, she has a baby: all is well. So the King stops being the villain – in fact, he disappears from the story altogether – and Rumpelstilskin, reappearing to claim what he was promised, becomes the villain.

It is implied that he wants to cook and eat the baby – an unsavory practice, to be sure, but a deal is a deal, after all. He does offer the Queen a way out, though: if she can guess his name, he’ll let her be. When she is able to name him, he flies into a terrible rage, and in the version that we read in the airport at midnight (my little hooligans utterly subdued by the horror of the story) he stamps his foot so hard that it gets stuck in the floor and then he tears himself in half trying to get his leg out. Nice, right?

I can’t think of many other fairytales where one feels that the villain has been hard done by, or in which a girl ends up uncomplainingly marrying a man who’d threatened to kill her and it gets treated as a happy ending. It’s a weird one, all right, about as amoral and bizarre as fairytales get. However, I do recommend it if you are dealing with a double-meltdown at the airport at midnight. That Guy came over with the suitcases, took one look at the saucer-eyed silence of our recently rampaging children, and asked, “What’s wrong?” “Rumpelstiltskin,” I replied grimly. “Ah,” said he. And J, appalled, whispered: “I want to read it again.” 


In a hotel room outside Toronto, after a white-knuckled hour of driving through a blinding downpour, cars inching along the highway through the rush of white water, I read the boys a story from a collection of fairytales by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame). We all adore his stories. They are clever and whimsical and have the peculiar power of original fairytales. There is hardly a stinker in the bunch.

That night, we read a story about an unpopular, frivolous King who neglects and ignores his hungry, homeless, rightfully angry subjects, and a Dragon who arrives in the Kingdom and settles on a rooftop. The King decides to boost his popularity and asks the Most Famous Dragon-Slayer In The Land to kill the dragon. The dragon slayer goes and checks the dragon out and says, Nah, forget it, this dragon is old and harmless, he’s on his way to the East to die, leave him alone.

The King won’t have it. He fetches the Second Most Famous Dragon-Slayer, who points out that the smoke and blood from a slain dragon will poison the land and blot out the sun and that nothing will grow for a hundred years afterwards and really, truly, it’s better just to let this old dragon be.

The King is furious. He fetches the Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer, and The Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer goes and kills the dragon. There is a long and brutal dragon-slaying scene, and indeed the land and the air are poisoned by the blood and smoke flowing from the dead dragon. But although the country is now even more destitute, the people praise the King, who becomes a very popular ruler, and the Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer In The Land becomes the Most Famous.

The boys were understandably shaken and confused by this ending, which is not exactly subtle. They wanted to talk about it, but it was late and we were all tired and the room was cold and I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the howling air-conditioner, so I probably did a very poor job of fielding questions about Injustice and Scapegoating before I declared it bedtime. Feeling too apathetic to even call the front desk about the air-conditioner, we just piled under blankets together. When I closed my eyes, I saw the road awash in rain, blurred headlights all around us, and had to concentrate to unclench my jaw.

“Stupid King,” muttered K, squashing his toy kitty in an angry hug. “I would chop off his head.” My son, the righteous usurper.


And when we came home after five weeks away the apartment looked dingier and dirtier than before. Our jet-lagged children pulled out all the toys they hadn’t played with all summer while we unpacked in hazy slow-motion, and suddenly it was midnight again. I lured them bedward to read my favorite of Terry Jones’s fairytales: The Fly-by-night.

In this one, a girl hears a tapping at her window, and when she looks out there is a fuzzy little black-as-soot creature on a flying cat, asking if she would like to go flying. Of course she wants to go flying! Who would say no? So off she goes, on a dizzying, terrifying flight, too high and too far, farther and farther from home. She starts to panic, because how will she get back? The Fly-by-night doesn’t care about that. She begs to be let off, and so they leave her in a forest somewhere, all alone. All the half-seen creatures in the woods scoff and mock, tut-tutting to each other, saying how foolish she was to go off with a Fly-by-night, but the moon takes pity and guides her home again. Much relieved, she snuggles back into her familiar bed:

“She fell asleep thinking how silly she’d been to go off with the Fly-by-night. But, you know, somewhere, deep down inside her, she half-hoped she’d hear another tap on her window one day, and find another Fly-by-night offering her a ride on its flying cat.

But she never did.”

J wants to know, Why didn’t the Fly-by-night ever come back? I say, She was lucky it came even once. He asks, Was she lucky? I don’t know, I say, I think so. Would you go with a Fly-by-night if it knocked at your window? And J says yes and K says no and then they ask me, would I go, if the Fly-by-night came? I tell them, only if we could all go together. Because that’s how it is, now.


I’m thinking of these stories as summer draws to a close because they are all true, and maybe that is the point of fairytales, or part of the point anyway. The King might be a monster, and maybe the miller’s daughter married him because she felt she had no choice, but in practice isn’t it still a sick triumph to be made Queen? Isn’t it still lucky? The King is Power and Privilege, he is The Way Things Are, and in the end you might find it easier to choose another villain – the imp who threatens what you love, and on whose back you built your kingdom.

We all know that other King and his Third Most Famous Dragon-Slayer, and we all know about the good men who don’t end up being part of the story because the story is about Killing A Dragon, and we all know that dragon too. That one is easy. It’s transparent and a bit trite, honestly, but the land is poisoned anyway and we are brought up to be afraid of dragons, not kings.

And what about the Fly-by-night, tapping at your window? The world looks different from above, and flying is scarier than you thought it would be. You aren’t really in control, but that’s the glory of it too. I remember those nights: what it felt like taking off, the fear and the exhilaration, and what it felt like to be lost, regretting my foolishness. But there are so many ways to be a fool – trust me, I know all about that. Life can keep on just being the same if you let it. That’s a kind of luck, of course, but there are so many ways to be lucky – I know all about that, too. If a little creature on a flying cat taps at your window and asks you if you want to fly, well, you’d be a fool to say yes, but wouldn’t you be an even greater fool to say no?

The Whole Wide World

I woke up in the night – around 1 a.m. – to fat little hands brushing my hair out of my face. When I opened my eyes, there was my three-year-old leaning over me, his eyes shining in the dark, and he said, “Why do bugs live in the whole wide world and we live in houses?” I mumbled something. Or maybe I said, “shhh,” because his voice got even softer: “Maybe they sleep underground, or under a leaf?” I rolled onto my side and said, “Maybe, yes, that’s right,” and then he lay down next to me and fit his head under my chin and fell asleep in under a minute, with his mouth smushed against the hollow of my neck. He was out, just like that, and I lay awake for an hour or more afterwards, listening to distant traffic and thinking about the whole wide world and how much I miss it sometimes, but even so, who could walk away from this? 

It still often feels like an either / or to me. Motherhood vs. Everything Else. It’s a bad attitude, I guess, but I have been So Tired for So Long. Back when I used to wander the world I saw mothers toting babies and toddlers and I always thought, oh look, if I have kids I can still gallivant! But I can’t. There are many reasons why not, and Money is a big reason, but there are other reasons to do with who I am and who they are. Routine and stability have kept this ship afloat for the past few years, but change is in the air. They are changing, and they change so quickly. Even though this is of course the way of it, and I knew that beforehand, still I am amazed at how fast they are changing. Having children over the age of 3 is a different thing, very different from having a baby or a toddler, and I am just starting to feel that I might be able to combine family life and adventure after all.

I don’t know what I am thinking of specifically. Traveling with them? Or something else? I miss traveling a lot. I miss being out of context, I miss feeling like my days are full of the unexpected and the unfamiliar. We have a lovely time together, the kids and I – we go to the beach and the farm and the frog pond and the park and I think, I am so lucky to be out in the wide world all day with these gorgeous, funny boys! And other times it all feels like a fog of packing sandwiches, keeping them out of poison ivy, changing muddy clothes, bandaids and tick checks, eat your vegetables, cutting toenails, trying to figure out if letting them get that high in the tree makes me laid-back or totally negligent, sitting on the bus and trying to answer, in public, the loudly asked “How could somebody have a baby BY ACCIDENT?”

The frog pond is a favorite destination. In April, the toads were mating en masse, and for weeks afterwards I had to try to explain the scenario to strangers who saw my boys piggy-backing each other and shouting, “we’re mating!” We went back the following week to see the long jellied ropes of toad eggs all around the edge of the pond, and when they turned into tiny tadpoles, we brought some of them home and kept them in a fish tank, feeding them boiled lettuce. J wondered if their mommy-toads missed them, and we told him probably not. It is an efficient if brutal system, to lay hundreds of eggs and then leave them to fend for themselves, going on your froggy way, basically unchanged. We watched them change and grow, from fast-moving little black slivers to creatures with angular heads and glinting, watchful eyes, we watched their back legs emerge like little paddles and then turn into proper froggy legs, and then out came the arms. Their tails started to shrink then, and they climbed up onto the rocks, sat there not eating for a few days, absorbing their tails and turning into little fingernail-sized toads. Then we took them back to the pond and released them, and the grass around the pond was full of hundreds and hundreds of tiny toads, some of them just as big as houseflies.

The boys were interested in the tadpoles, but not nearly as obsessed as I was. Metamorphosis is so weird, when you watch it happening. How they start out as one kind of animal, a little vegetarian swimmer with gills, and then turn into a carnivore with hoppy legs and lungs. Such a total transformation. But I think I can relate a little bit. The boys are changing all the time, but I am changing too. Or: I am changed. Motherhood has turned me into something else and I’m still trying to figure out what. I’m not sure yet what I can do, what my natural element is, what feeds me. And I am also too aware that I am the element my boys live in, to some extent, though that will become less and less true as they get older. I am trying to be a wide green pond free of predators, with plenty of food and plenty of fun, for them. That’s what I’ve been for years now, and I’m trying to remember what it feels like to try to be anything else.

Now life-as-a-parent is opening up, bit by bit, and there is room for me to finish thoughts and books, to plan adventures, embrace the unexpected. I am writing more. I am reading more. I feel like Rip Van Winkle, like I’ve been under for years, but of course it just feels that way, it hasn’t been so long at all, and later I will forget what an eternity it felt like and I’ll say, as all mamas eventually do, that it all goes by so fast. It does, it really does, and also it doesn’t. When I look up, the whole wide world is still there, the bugs sleeping under leaves and the toads in piles around the pond, my children waking in the night full of wonder and unanswerable questions, and me, sleepless but happy and ready, I think I am ready, for whatever comes next.

My Very Exciting (to me) Book Deal News

I don’t usually use my blog to announce things – mainly because I don’t usually have anything to announce – but here I am, adjusting my tie, polishing my megaphone: I!Have!News!

Here in my blog-world, I go on and on about how I’m writing, and I am. Every now and then, all this writing actually turns into a book. JULIA VANISHES is set to be published in the Spring of 2016, which may sound like a long way off to you, but between now and then I will be working with Nancy Siscoe of Knopf in the US and Amy Black of Doubleday in Canada, and I am… *practicing understatement since it’s not like you can see the little jig I’ve been jigging for days now* …Very Excited. JULIA VANISHES is the first book in a fantasy trilogy (I know, I’m such a one-trick pony) about a spy-for-hire who takes on a job posing as a maid in a wealthy, eccentric household, and finds herself on the wrong side of a power struggle between ancient forces.

The Publisher’s Weekly announcement is here, if you are interested in that sort of thing.

As a side note, this all came about while I was deep in Annie Cardi’s first novel, “The Chance You Won’t Return,” about a girl whose mother has a mental breakdown and believes she is Amelia Earhart. I will admit that, as the good news sank in, I had more than a few moments of fearing I might be delusional and making the whole thing up. If that turns out to be the case, I apologize, but I am just going to keep living in this fantasy world where the likes of Nancy Siscoe and Amy Black like my book and want to work with me, so don’t bother trying to bring me back to reality. I like it here, thankyouverymuch.

*puts away megaphone*

*loosens tie*

*jigs another jig, very quietly*