Madeleine Robins

September 16, 2015

Everything Changes

Filed under: Cities,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:12 PM
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Food-CityLast weekend I was in New York City for a meeting about The Most Fabulous Project I’m working on for Serial Box: a thirteen episode serialized story set in the Restoration, and… okay, I’m getting off topic. I was in New York, city of my birth and of my heart, and even better, in the neighborhood where we lived when my daughters were born.

Lots of things have changed. You expect that in New York–particularly in a neighborhood that was going through growing and gentrification pains even before we moved away 13 years ago. The old-style restaurant down the block from P.S. 163 (my younger daughter’s kindergarten) has been replaced by a Whole Foods. Gabriela’s, our favorite Mexican restaurant on Amsterdam, has moved to Columbus Avenue and gone upscale. The McDonalds on Columbus and 90th is gone (I didn’t think McDonaldses ever went away). Some stores have had long-overdue facelifts. And Food City is closed.

I think–though I haven’t been able to confirm this–that Food City has a brief role in a wonderful movie called They Might Be Giants, in which the protagonists (George C. Scott, playing a judge who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, and Joanne Woodward, playing a psychiatrist named Watson) are cornered by the police in a large supermarket fronted by an empty plaza.* More importantly to this story, it’s also where I did my grocery shopping for the ten-or-so years that we lived near by. I fought skirmishes with my daughters over candy at the checkout counter. As a toddler my younger daughter had a pretend game she played where she would be an abandoned child who lived in Food City and hoped I would take her home and adopt her (the ladies at the checkout found it hard to keep a straight face when this was going on).

And on 9/11, I went over to the market to pick up a few things, because the world was looking a little chancy just then, and who knows if we’d need milk and apple juice? I’ve said elsewhere that what I saw at Food City moved me: people picking up a gallon of milk–but not two–a package of toilet paper, but not two, and so on. You could practically see the thought balloon over their heads: “someone else might need some too.” It made New York feel just a little safer, there in this little crowded down-market supermarket.

I have lived off and on in New York for a large chunk of my life. Things change. Tear down a building and you find the echoes of buildings that stood there before. Dig for a subway and find a cemetery or the bones of a ship beached centuries ago. But you get accustomed to thinking that some things are fixtures. Heaven knows enough “why is that place still there?” stores and buildings still exist. But I raise a metaphorical glass to Food City, where I knew where the flour, pork shoulder, and olive oil lived, and where I saw my city at its best.


* Really, find They Might Be Giants. It’s a perfectly lovely film that will repay the search.

August 24, 2015

It’s Not Easy Being the Little Dog

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:00 PM
2015-02-01 15.41.33

Ready for my close-up…

Emily, seen left, is 9 1/2 years old. She weighs 48 pounds, almost all of it muscle and fur (plus a little drool). She is a large fur-shedding machine whose chiefest joy is playing catch. And food. And playing with her humans. And food. And cuddling. And food. Like, say, most dogs. I point out to her, on occasion, that I remember when she came home with us and was a Little Dog. And she glares at me, because, I truly believe, in her mind she is The Little Dog, and all things that do not lead to food, cuddling, or playtime, are attempts on the life and sanity of a dog so tiny, so minuscule, so defenseless, that the heavens weep to see it.

I have mentioned to her, more than once, that she is an Elder Statesdog. That she should be beyond fear of the vacuum cleaner and the sound of distant firecrackers. She is not convinced. And in the way of children and dogs, she deeply, profoundly, dislikes change. And in the last couple of weeks we’ve had a rich vein of change to deal with.

First, my younger daughter, who was home for several months from college, departed for Florida and her

I am very little.

I am very little.

school. Since Daughter is the only one with whom Emily is permitted to sleep, this was a very very sad thing for Em. She wandered around the house, disconsolate, with an air that said clearly: “WHERE’S THE SQUISHY ONE? THE ONE WHO CUDDLED ME? WHERE IS SHE?” And there was nothing I could do except pet her lavishly. It didn’t help that shortly before the Daughter left, Emily had got into an argument with some foliage at the park and torn a hole in her side that required sutures and the prolonged wearing of a T-shirt (an alternative to the Cone of Shame). So there were all kinds of things changing to upset the Little Dog’s equilibrium.

Note muscly butt. Hips easily dislocated by tail wagging.

Note muscly butt. Hips easily dislocated by tail wagging.

And then Mama went to Worldon in Spokane (it was smoky but swell, thanks). And Suddenly one of the Little Dog’s remaining people had disappeared. When I returned Sunday night I thought there was a very real danger that Emily would simply dislocate her hips with the tail wagging. Everything was OK! The change was undone!

Today I started a new job. (Yay.) Which meant that for the first time in a year, I’m out of the house reliably from 9-6. When I came home this evening she was excited (and hungry, since she’d been getting dinner earlier). When Dad came home she was just as excited (and immediately produced The Toy and required interaction). For a little while she was not the Little Dog, she was the Dog of Joy. Particularly when Daddy engaged and started tossing the Toy.

But what of tomorrow? When I go to work again? And the day after? And

In the lap of luxury.

In the lap of luxury.

the day after that, when the fact that Mama is out of the house five days a week until way past her idea of dinner time has settled in? I am pretty certain that Emily will feel ill-used. But she’ll get over it. She’s more resilient than she knows. And really, she’s got it pretty good. Even if she’s not allowed on the bed, there’s always the couch.

August 12, 2015

A Week of Silly

Filed under: Making — madeleinerobins @ 10:33 AM
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IMG_1116Laura Anne Gilman, writer extraordinaire, member of BVC and the world, got me involved in GISHWHES (the Greatest Internet Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) this year. This event/activity/madness was started by Misha Collins of Supernatural, and goes on for a week. You get 200+ prompts, and your team, individually and in groups, accomplishes as many of them as possible over the time allowed. Many of the prompts involve charitable activities and acts of kindness, random and otherwise. Others are just…random.

My team was an extraordinary group: two people I already knew, and a dozen I hadn’t met before. And through the wonders of the internet, we had people all over–not just all over the U.S., either. I will post just my stuff (because it’s the only stuff I can promise I had my hand in), but take my word for it–there was astonishing artistry (when I saw the portrait of Robert Downey Jr. made entirely out of salt and pepper I realized that I would have to step up my game). And brazen chutzpah–Keith DeCandido doing a cartwheel in Times Square at noon wearing a kale tutu, and two other team members posing with the concierge in a fancy hotel, both wearing kale hats (kale is a GISHWHES thing. No, I don’t know why). Not to mention the woman who cut off 10″ of her hair to donate to a “locks-of-love” program, and the woman who wrote a beautiful haiku of appreciation for her father, and Laura Anne going off to find a glacier so she could pose next to it in a bathing suit and floaties. Really: 200+ prompts, and I’m not going to list them all because we could be here until next year.

IMG_1117Me, I was responsible for: building a 2 1/2 foot tall model of the Empire State Building out of sugar cubes (see above with requisite King Kong, and left), and then submitting a film of me pouring boiling water on it to melt it.

IMG_1092Building a dog out of sanitary products as a way of refuting the old saw that dogs are a man’s best friend. I’m always happy to make sure women (and dogs) get equal notice.

IMG_1112Depicting Death’s funeral (I decided it was the Death from Death Takes a Holiday, and that his funeral should be attended by many other incarnations of himself).

IMG952134Cosplaying a famous inanimate object.

Tweeting about the book that most inspired me, and writing a letter thanking a woman who mentored me, mumbly years ago.

IMG_1228Creating a household fairy to replace the Tooth Fairy (mine was the Great Shoe Fairy, who locates shoes, homework, cell phones, and dust bunnies for children who are late for school).

And doing a 14-second dramatic reading of my grade school report card (this was a challenge, because my school gave long-form student reports, and finding one or two sentences that would give the flavor of 9-year-old me was a task.

It’s a weirdly satisfying game. For a writer, the opportunity to create tangible (silly) objects is really useful, and the opportunity to move out of your comfort zone and take risks, likewise.

Team Inevitable Innuendo completed about 40% of this year’s prompts, which is pretty damned good. The winning team gets fame, glory, a trip to Costa Rica, and the awe of its peers. But really, the reward I expect we’ll wind up with are the fun, the camaraderie, the awe when someone does something amazing (string a hammock across a river? Really?) or affecting (the appreciation for Leonard Nimoy made me tear up) or just deliciously random.

And it’s happening again next August. Interested?


July 29, 2015

Punching Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:26 AM
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PunchUpI saw something the other day that made me really angry, in that “what, were you raised in a woodshed or something?” sort of way. Prolonged, self-involved, privileged rudeness makes me on-beyond-cranky. And as I watched this behavior continue I realized that the perpetrator really had no idea of what he was doing.

I was at a cafe, writing (I have said elsewhere that getting out of the house and away from its distractions is a must for me). There were others there, also working diligently, drinking coffee or nibbling on pastries. I work here frequently enough to know the staff by name; it’s a comfortable little joint.

About half an hour after I get there a man comes in and takes a seat. He’s older than some of the customers, younger than me; wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase (the other occupants are more the beanie-jeans-and-backpack sort). He plugs in his laptop and phone and gets to work. Has a couple of phone calls which he carries on a little too loudly, but that happens.

When he ends a call our waitress goes over to see what he’d like to order. She’s a middle-aged Korean woman, deceptively young looking, petite. Her English is fluent but accented, and her voice is soft. When she asks him what he’d like to order he doesn’t look up, just says “Nothing right now.” A look flashes across the waitress’s face: I think she recognizes that he’s going to be trouble. She asks if perhaps he’s waiting for someone. “No, I just don’t want anything right now,” he snaps. She is barely on his radar, an intrusion.  (more…)

July 15, 2015

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Filed under: Cooking,Making — madeleinerobins @ 12:07 PM
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SourdoughJuneJob-hunting takes time. So does writing. But you cannot write, or job-hunt, all the time. And I’ve been experiencing a real need to create tangible things. Beaded jewelry. Knitted things. But what I’ve really been doing a lot of is playing with yeast.

When I was a teenager I baked a lot. It was a form of rebellion (my mother was a fabulous cook, but did not care for baking) and I made croissants and herb bread and sourdough and rolls and pies–and one summer my summer job was to bake things and sell them. Since then, I’ve done some bread-making, but not as much as in those halcyon summer days when I rose at 5 am to make sure the first batch of bread was rising by 6.

So why this sudden investment in yeast-based amusement? It started with a slow-rise-no-knead bread recipe I got from…somewhere? (these things seem to find their way to me and attach themselves, limpet like). And then my daughter said “let’s take some cooking classes together!” and the first one we signed up for was a sourdough starter class. We came home with our own pots of wild-yeast starter from a decades-old pot named Dulce. I named my starter Magda. My daughter named hers Trust-Fund Baby. And with starter in the house, I started to bake bread again. (more…)

June 16, 2015

A Little Etiquette, a Little Incense, a Little Edge

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:49 PM

RobinsLuckstones276x414I think I was 13 when I discovered, more or less all at once, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge, and “romantic suspense,” a broad category that included different sorts of books but generally featured a woman in a diaphanous gown, framed against a brooding manse. There might not even be a brooding manse in the book, but on the cover… (at the same period, SF often had a rocket ship on the cover regardless of actual rocketry in the book). Gradually I fell away from romantic suspense, and from the less able of Heyer’s imitators (I think I was 15 by the time I could tell whether a writer had done their research solely by reading Heyer). But among the other things I found in those books was a fondness for a certain kind of world building that involved manners and rules; societies in which knowing the rules meant you could survive or even game the system.


June 3, 2015

The Gooey Center

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:38 AM
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gooI am eleven chapters, give or take, into the WIP. Since my books tend to work out to about 20 chapters it is fair to say that I’m half way through the book. And ever since somewhere in chapter eight, I have found myself in a piece of writing real estate that is familiar, if not beloved, to me: the Gooey Center. Also called the Slough of Despond, Did I Suddenly Become Stupid?, or, sometimes, Why Did I Think I Could Do This?

What is the Gooey Center? It’s the point somewhere in the middle of the manuscript where it becomes really, really difficult to move forward.  I have always likened my writing process to a journey: I know where I start out, and I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, and the process is in getting from point A to point B.  The Gooey Center is that point when I suddenly find myself hip deep in mud on a cloudy day, unable to figure out which direction to proceed, making false start after false start, some of them entertaining enough that it takes me a while to realize that they won’t take me anywhere near where I meant to be going.

The first time this happened, I thought there was something wrong with me, that I would never be able to finish this book. My writing career over before it had fully started! And then, somehow, I found my way out of the bog, got my sense of direction back, and reached the end of the book. And with hindsight and editing, I realized that the middle was no where near as soggy and impassable as I had imagined when I was up to my hips in it.

I’m on my twelfth novel. This has happened to me ten times (it didn’t with my first book, because I had no idea I was actually going to finish it, nor that what I was doing was unlikely at best, and impossible at worse; it didn’t happen with my Marvel tie-in novel because I had to outline the thing so tightly that my hair curled). The Gooey Center appears to come with a soupçon of amnesia, too, because I don’t generally recognize that I’m in the middle of it for some time, which leads me to despair. When I do recognize it for what it is… well, I feel a little less despairing, but deeply impatient.  I look for tactics to shorten my time wading through the Gooey Center, but they generally avail naught. The only solution I have found was to 1) remember that I’ve been here before, and I will get out of it, and 2) just keep writing.

I once mentioned this problem to my then-editor. “Ah,” he said sagely. “You’ve spent the first number of pages opening up doors, leaving yourself terrific stuff to work with, making all sorts of choices possible. And now you have to narrow down your field of vision and select which doors, what choices. Of course it’s daunting to have to do that.”

So that’s my mantra, which I share it with you: When you find yourself bogging down, take a look at all the interesting options you’ve left your characters. Me, I’m wondering if all my entertaining false starts could be knit together into something resembling a story.

May 20, 2015

Fixing the Future?

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:51 AM
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pinBecause my husband works in the film industry, we sometimes get to see early screenings–or screenings that are remarkable because the director is there, or we’re in the company of other film tech people, or just because it’s a great theatre. Last week we got to see Tomorrowland.

There’s a song by Aimee Mann called “Fifty Years After the Fair,” about the 1939 World’s Fair, which includes the line “How beautiful was tomorrow…” And Tomorrowland starts out at the 1964 World’s Fair, and evokes it beautifully: the landscape that looks like the cover of a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the crowds, the rampant product placement… As a kid I went to the fair a handful of times, and believe me, they got it just right.

And then things move to the now, and aside from a dearth of flying cars and soaring spindly architecture and the gosh-wow of future tech we were promised (personal jet packs! video phones!) we all know what now looks like. And by the standards of 1964, it doesn’t look so hopeful, what with climate change and political unrest and overpopulation and… heck, the UN just suggested that if we want to keep the human race a going concern, we should all become vegan, like, right now.

Tomorrowland is, in fact, a fable about hope and despair.

My fabulous 19-year-old came to the screening too. And she laughed and hooted and cried at the right places, but it also opened a whole closet full of anxieties and outrage for her, which both recalled my own 19-year-old self and reproached my somewhat older, current-model self. The protagonist in Tomorrowland–the one who comes down firmly on the “how do we fix it” side of the equation–is a girl of my daughter’s age. What my daughter came away with, among other things, is that my generation and the ones that followed it have not only not fixed the problems we found when we reached adult-hood, but have left things worse than we found it, and now it’s up to her to fix it. Her and her cohort.

I remember this. The threats are not the same, but the song is.  When I was 19 the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real; civil rights was an ongoing struggle (and the term referred only to African-Americans–other ethnicities, and the complex web of stuff that is gender in our society, was barely on the radar); we were just beginning to understand the havoc human presence was wreaking on our ecosystem; and–oh yeah, as a younger acquaintance said to me some years later, “you had that war.” I am not an activist by nature, but I felt the weight of my generation’s responsibility to fix all the stuff that was wrong. Being a science fiction reader and writer, I was perhaps a little more ready to see the human race poised on the edge of “if this goes on…” So I do all the non-activist things I can: recycle and compost and use public transportation and try to be mindful about, well, everything.

I’m not convinced it makes a difference, but I keep trying. I remember knowing that it was up to me and my peers to fix the mess the world was in. And some things have, in fact, improved (I could make an argument that the current crop of know-nothingism and racism and sexism is a sign of progress, a reaction those improvements by people who just can’t stand leaving the old ways behind–but we’re down to a lot of wires, and there’s too much to do to spend time indulging those fears).

I didn’t want to leave the people who come after (emphatically including my kids) a mess to clean up. She’s much more of an activist than I am, but that spirit of activism is being dinged by the seeming impossibility of the tasks before her generation. Yes, this sounds familiar. I suspect every generation coming up has felt something of the same thing. All I can do, aside from telling her that her feelings are real and valid (but not an excuse for doing nothing) is to promise that, as long as I’m here, I will do my best to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her.

May 6, 2015

Work * Life * Balance (yes, again)

Filed under: Craft,Marketing,Working — madeleinerobins @ 8:27 AM

writerI’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time–not least because I was downsized out of my last job last August, and am spending a good part of each day working to find a new one. Unless you are pathologically social (I am not) or really brilliant at networking (I am not) this is hard work. Unpaid, hard work. It is disagreeable to me (and, I suspect, for many other people) for the same reason that book promotion is hard for me: I get creeped out by the notion of viewing people I come in contact with as potential buyers (or in the case of job-hunting, the source of connections to a new job). And since my skill set, while useful, is hard to categorize, and it’s hard therefore to search for a job where I could be a godsend to the company, this means that by the end of my job-seeking day I’m a little wrung out.

That’s when I start doing some writing, as a palate cleanser. Sometimes the cleansing works–I can put down the corporate research and the LinkedIn profiles and enter in to one of the projects I’m working on. Except that sometimes the irritation or frustration from the job-search work spills over into the writing, and I’m too stupid or grumpy to do actually figure out what comes next or–heaven help us–how to describe it. I have a number of tactics for dealing with this: take my notebook and write longhand, somewhere far away from everything else; give myself a writing prompt (the weirder the better–“Shrimps in Space” was fun) just to make sure that the writing muscles don’t atrophy; go a couple of pages (or chapters) in and start editing, which often lets me find stuff that isn’t working, or new words, or gets me to a pitch of enthusiasm where I can continue writing from where I last left off.

Sadly, sometimes none of these tactics avail, and I find myself wanting to throw my shoe and my book, or the dog.

That’s when the Life part of the balancing act takes over. I’ve been beading, as I said, and even started an Etsy store to handle the outflow of my neurotic beading habit. I love to bake, and have had a number of good excuses to make yummy things. I like to make stuff I’ve never made before, even if I’ll never make it again (I’m process-driven about cooking; I wouldn’t want to have to make croissants every day, but I enjoy making them once or twice a year).  This has led, in the last couple of months, to me making bacon jam (I’m still tweaking the recipe, so every batch is like a new process) and bread, and arancini (out of leftover risotto).

Right now I have a partner in culinary crime: my younger daughter is home from college. She’s the sort of kid who watches Chopped and Master Chef Junior obsessively–how did I get through college without Netflix?) and keeps sending me cool new recipes we should really try. It’s going to be a fattening summer.

The only problem with all of this that when I’m job seeking I want to be writing. When I’m writing I know I should be job hunting. And when I’m doing anything else–baking, beading, what have you–I am totally sure that I really ought to be cleaning the house. Or exercising. Or walking the dog.

April 22, 2015

Tidings of Comfort

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:09 AM
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Louise Tiffany, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louise Tiffany, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Note: I chose this painting because I liked it. It was only after I’d typed in the painter’s name (Louis Comfort Tiffany) that I realized I’d doubled up on the entendres. Pure serendipity.

With a to-be-read pile that stacks up to the sky and threatens my continued survival (it’s on my bedside table, and in an earthquake it would surely topple over and mash me flat) it perhaps makes no sense that I sometimes have to stop what I’m doing and start comfort reading. And it’s not always because I need comforting, in the “world is too much with me, gimme my blankie and my thumb and I’ll be in the corner” sense. So why?

Sometimes my mind is too full of Other Stuff™ to be able to fit in someone else’s new worlds and ideas. Sometimes there’s something in that much-read work that I recognize will help me unpick a writing problem of my own. Sometimes it’s just been a Day, and I want something reliably cheery, or chewy, or full of whatever quality I think I want in that moment. I was thinking about what books make my comfort reading list, and which, over the years, have slipped off it. (more…)

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