Madeleine Robins

November 1, 2017

Like Penelope

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

Family 1,2,3,4_0006When my peers were taking piano lessons, I was taking weaving lessons. My family placed a premium on the arts and the more esoteric crafts, and when my parents realized that we had a professional weaver living down the road from our weekend house in the country, my fate was sealed. Not that I protested: even as a kid I loved knowing how things got made.

My teacher was a stately octogenarian named Hazel Warren, whom my father had the temerity to call “Hazel-baby.” I called her Mrs. Warren, because, well, I was ten. Hazel Warren was a craftswoman of extraordinary skill–and a fondness for Eisenhower-era colors (mustard yellow, lima bean green, Wedgewood blue). Every Saturday morning for three years I spent two hours with her, learning to weave on a four-frame floor loom.

Mrs. Warren’s weaving studio–a small barn attached to the farmhouse where she and her dapper husband Harry lived–held perhaps half a dozen floor looms, lengths of woven fabric, skeins of cotton and wool. There was a sign over the door with a winged shuttle (in that way that you don’t register the what of something for years, I was well past my weaving-lesson years when I realized what that image was). I don’t remember much about the actual tuition; what I recall is the quality of sunlight on those Saturday mornings, and reaching my toes down to work the treadles that moved the different frames up and down, and (when I got the pattern wrong) having to figure out where I’d gone wrong and undo the weaving. Mrs. Warren was soft spoken and patient, but inexorable. If you messed up, you fixed it. No kissing-it-up-to-God and forging onward.

On one memorable occasion she taught me how to string the loom (up to that point I had been all weaving and no set up). It involved an unbelievable amount of arithmetic, and confused me. In the end it got done: the actual work was long and painstaking–thousands of feet of cotton thread, all threaded through the tiny eyes of the frames–but not technically difficult. Except for the arithmetic. Fifty years later, if forced at gunpoint to set up a loom, I could probably figure it out (except for the math).

Among my peers, if the subject ever came up, I suspect this was just another reason I was weird. But I made placemats (everyone makes placemats), and a set of five ties (I gave one to my eighth grade teacher, on whom I had a bit of a crush), and I don’t know what all else.  Curiously, when we moved up to Massachusetts from New York full time, I had stopped weaving–perhaps we couldn’t afford the lessons, or maybe Mrs. Warren had got out of the business.

But weaving wasn’t done with us. When I was in high school my mother bought a four-frame loom and had it strung with a spring-green wool, with the intention to weave curtains for the living room.  Bear in mind that the entire west face of the Barn was windows, each about seven feet high and five feet across. Weaving fabric for curtains for all of them would have been a breathtaking amount of work, even for someone who had been weaving for years. And it was my mother’s first project. I think, over the next five or six years, Mom managed to weave about two yards of 48″ wide fabric. Ultimately the wool began to crack and break (wool left wound on a loom for long enough is subject to the slings and arrows of climate and light, with predictable results). I cut the two yards of fabric off the loom and it became a shawl of sorts, and a dress-up item when my daughters were of dress-up age.

And the loom? It stood, unthreaded, in the front hall of the Barn, for another twenty years, until I sold the place. At which point I disassembled the loom, packed it carefully, and had it shipped out west to California. It is still upstairs–I checked the other day. Perhaps, when I am no longer working a day job, I will bring it down and reassemble it–that in itself may be an interesting task) and find someone to help me string it, and I’ll try weaving again. I remember it, as an activity, with great fondness.

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October 16, 2017

Autre Temps

Filed under: Being a Woman,Family — madeleinerobins @ 11:11 AM
Tags: ,

The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.

Bride and home

“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”

A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.

And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.

My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.

My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.

September 25, 2017

Preorder Welcome to Dystopia

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 2:57 PM

 

“The Road South,’ written by me with Becca Caccavo (aka younger daughter), will be appearing in Welcome to Dystopia in early 2018. It’s Bec’s first fiction sale, my first collaboration, edited by the estimable Gordon Van Gelder, and including many names far more illustrious than mine (like Ron Goulart, Eileen Gunn, Janis Ian, Yoon Ha Lee, Lisa Mason, Barry N. Malzberg, David Marusek, Mary Anne Mohanraj, James Morrow, Robert Reed, Geoff Ryman, Harry Turtledove, Ray Vukcevich, Ted White, Paul Witcover, and Jane Yolen).

And it’s available for preorder.

I’ve been looking at the galleys: it’s full of good stuff!

 

September 22, 2017

No, I Won’t Put You In My Book

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:05 PM

CarefulMy daughters gave me this t-shirt a few years ago. I don’t wear a lot of t-shirts–particularly t-shirts with slogans on them–but I keep it for exercising and for those times when a t-shirt is required. However, as regards my own work I fundamentally disagree with its message.

I have a lot of friends who tuckerize, or even kill off people who have hurt them in their fiction. Sometimes they auction off  naming for a character for charity. Sometimes a friend just works his/her way into a story. I found myself a member of the NYPD a few years ago, which was kind of interesting. (more…)

September 6, 2017

Finland and Estonia in Bits and Pieces

Filed under: Conventions,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:38 AM
Tags: , ,
2017-08-04 17.50.32

The Helsinki rail station.

Others have written reports about the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki. Yes, it was swell–and better attended than they expected, to the extent that you often could not get in to events you wanted to see because other people were already in the room (they take occupancy rules seriously at the Helsinki convention center). I had, as earlier noted, never had a driving interest in traveling to Northern Europe, which is why I was so delighted to find that I loved it. Herewith, a handful of reasons.

  • Auspicious beginning: let me tell you that Finnair is a pleasure to fly with: comfortable seats, flight attendants who did not look as though they were down to their last nerve, real (and tasty) food in decent quantity. The thing that pleased me most, however, was something done for another passenger. I was one row behind the bulk head, my friend Pat was directly in front of me, and also on the bulk head row was a lovely woman with a highly personable baby.  Finnair does something I’ve never seen any other airline do: it has a contraption whereby they hang a bassinet off the bulkhead, so that instead of holding your child for ten hours, you can put the baby down, sing her to sleep, and get some sleep of your own. Baby slept, mom slept, nearby people slept… brilliant.
  • The Ladies’ Room at the Helsinki airport has birdsong piped in. After a 10-hour flight it was unexpected balm to the soul.
  • We stayed in a prison our first night there: very comfortable, excellent breakfast, and you can go visit the remaining cells (one for a group, one an isolation cell, both calculated to remind you of just how fortunate your life is). Also, I saw a hare the size of a respectable beagle charging across a park when we went out to dinner.
  • Next time I go to Tallinn I will take the Tallink ferry both ways. We took Viking over, and it was like being on a sea-going version of Reno: not as flashy as Vegas, but full of smoke, drinking, and people obsessively playing casino video games. Not my scene. The cloud formations from the deck were amazing, though.
  • Living in Tallinn, even for just a few days, is like walking around in a Grimm fairy tale. It’s not just the architecture, or the great stone walls that circle the old city, or the cobblestones, or the carefully maintained shops that sell reindeer pelts and handbound books… it’s everything. And yet it’s a thoroughly modern city (WiFi everywhere–we’re not savages, you know). Suffice it to say that we had a bronze chimney sweep outside our apartment door (the apartment itself was charming and comfortable, and retained a touch of the vibe I think of as cold-war Third Man… something about the halls, the stairs, the lace curtains and deeply recessed windows). I recommend Tallinn highly.
  • If you go to Tallinn, may I suggest a farm-to-table restaurant called Farm? Here’s the front window. I had the game cutlets (basically red-deer meatballs), and we split the Spiced Baltic Char Ice Cream on a Stick with various vegetal relishes as starter. A wonderful, wonderful restaurant–I think we sent everyone at Worldcon there.
  • I also dined at Olde Hansa, which purports to be a medieval merchant’s house, serving a medieval merchant’s feast. It managed avoid being twee and Medieval Times-ish, and the music and food were unexpectedly good. On this trip I ate venison, elk, bear-and-boar sausage, moose, and reindeer. My vegan daughter is doubtless horrified, but I found them all tasty.
  • We took a day trip along the Estonian coast with a guide named Yvgeny to the city of Narva–right across the river from Russia. Seriously right across the river: the Estonian and Russian fortresses are lined up so they probably lobbed stones at each other. We visited Toolse Castle, a fortress on the Estonian coast (one of many fortresses built along the coast to protect the country from invaders by sea,of which it appears there were lots). The Estonians seem to have been in a long series of occupations for a millennium or so, the last being by the Soviets. So here is what Yvegeny characterized as “the most Soviet Monument ever.” He’s not wrong.
  • I was sad that I did not get to see the Oldest Continuously Operating Apothecary in Europe–it is closed on Sunday, which was the only day I managed to get there. We found an excellent place for breakfast in Tallinn, but did not go there on our last day because Viking Ferry cancelled our ferry and we all had to get to the terminal–and then to another terminal–and negotiate a new passage back to Helsinki on Tallink. They did not foil us! We got back and checked in to our new home and so there, Viking!
  • Our place in Helsinki was half an hour from the convention, a delightful top-floor apartment with a terrace and sauna. For the purpose of conventioning, I have to say I prefer to be closer to the con… if you have to go back to change your shoes or get dressed up, it’s awfully tempting to just stay there, have a glass of wine in the livingroom, admiring the sky (especially after a really spectacular thunder storm). The neighborhood reminded me a little of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for many years, so I felt right at home.
  • The Helsinki public transportation system is clean, goes everywhere, and (thanks to the munificence of the city and the convention) we had complementary travel for the week, which was wonderful. The system does have its share of “you know this if you’re a local” issues: the Number Two tram magically turns into the Number Three tram at some point just past the harbor, which caused some merriment and confusion. But these are the adventures that make a place yours.

I could go on and on… about the Estonian stone lion whose claim to fame is that he is said to resemble Vladimir Putin.

Or the strange “goat” than hung out in the Town Hall Square in Tallinn and would bleat a thank you if you gave him a coin.

 

 

 

Or–good lord, the arts center in Helsinki on the way from the rail station to our apartment, which had a giant statue of a pike–the fish, not the weapon–looming over the picnickers and joggers. Would have put me right off my rye-bread-and-butter (the rye bread–dark and molassesy–is magnificent) had I been picnicking under it, but I am not so hardy a soul as a Finn.

The convention was lovely, but really, I want to go back to Finland and Estonia again. Why did I never realize this before?

August 15, 2017

All My Bags Are Packed

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:28 PM

No, actually, they’re not. On Thursday evening I’m heading off to Finland (and Estonia! Don’t forget Estonia!) for 10 days for the World Science Fiction Convention, otherwise known as Worldcon. Worldcon is held in a different place every year–last year it was in the midwest, this year, Helsinki. And for the first time in forever, I have not been planning obsessively, I don’t have a complex matrix of schedule and place and so on. And it occurred to me this morning that I’m not really sure why that is. Could be the chaos of my work life at present; could be that I’m still reeling from my daughter’s 3-month trip to Europe this spring (as I write this she’s on her way back to college and I will hear fewer daily reports on the excitement of it all); could be that I never imagined myself going to the Baltics.

For some reason I fix on places with a sort of passion related to (surprise!) reading–England was my first love (if I haven’t told you about my first short story, dictated to my mother when I was 3, in which England played a role… well, now I have). But a lot of my fixations have to do with what I was reading: I went to Greece the first time, not because of the mythology but because of Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael and Moonspinners. I wandered all over Paris the first time I was there, looking for twelve little girls in two straight lines (Madeline) and hoping for Musketeers, or perhaps Edmond Dantès. I have not yet achieved some of my geographical ambitions–Ireland, Italy, Japan, India, South Africa–all of which have, via books I’ve read, a lock on my psyche.

For some reason the Baltic region has no such lock. I’m not sure I have a reading reference for the place. My images of Scandinavia are colored by Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Wallander, Denmark has Hans Christian Anderson to speak for it*, but Estonia? I got nothing. Add to this lack of fictive reference the fact that everyone keeps telling me “Oh, everyone speaks English!” Which is reassuring on the one hand, but a little disconcerting on the other. Why go someplace Other if it’s just like home? But of course, it won’t be. My traveling companions and I are going on a tour in Estonia of one castle and “highlights of Soviet architecture”; you get neither in the wilds of Northern California.

Here’s the thing I’ve been realizing as I wrote this: I’m going with no preconceived notions. No story to fit my surroundings to. Maybe (just maybe) I’ve been resisting planning too much for exactly that reason, because I don’t want to know too much before I get there. Other than my flight and ferry times and the hotels I’ll be in, because really, I’m too old to sleep at the train station.

Be warned: there are likely to be pictures. And stories. Just because I go somewhere without stories to back me up doesn’t mean that I won’t be coming up with some on my return.

_____

*it occurs to me that I imagine Sweden as sleek and modern, and Denmark as quaint and rustic. I suspect neither imagining is strictly accurate.

August 2, 2017

Reading for Fun and Points

Filed under: Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:16 AM
Tags: ,

ClassicsSherwood Smith wrote on Saturday in the BVC blog about revisiting classics that were foisted on you as a teen and discovering that they were really pretty good (as always with Sherwood’s posts, she writes about many different things in one essay, but this is one part of what she’s talking about). I read a bunch of “classics”assigned in high school, as, I suspect, we all did, and some of them I cordially loathed. But I also had a fairly ambitious program of reading outside what was required at school, which was based on a simple criterion: if it was “classic,” or old, if I felt I should read it, I read it. Or wedged my way through it, regardless of actual comprehension. The only book that ground me to a halt was War and Peace. I read Candide, which I loved, and Manon Lescaut, which I liked, and Wuthering Heights, which made me want to slap every single character in it, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is much, much longer than any film version had led me to believe.

Granted, at that age I was reading everything. Science Fiction from the spinner racks at the drug store; gothic romances, ditto; suspense and historicals from the library; and all sorts of books from my parents’ mixed bag collection of thrillers, best sellers, and classics. I homed in on the classics, i.e., anything I felt that I ought to read.

Did I enjoy them? Some of them, very much. Others I made it through the way I would eat liver for dinner: slowly and unhappily. So why do it? Because I really coveted markers of smartness. Throughout high school I racked up a body count of Great Books, a sort of intellectual check off list that I thought somehow improved my educational resume. I really really wanted to be smart, see, and if reading Crime and Punishmentwould help, then Crime and Punishment I would read.

Some of the books read I made my way through once and never attempted again  (that run at War and Peace gave me such an aversion to Tolstoy that I never went back) and others I’ve read more than once–in the case of Austen and Charlotte Brontë, more or less annually. With books that I loved then, in most cases I have loved them later, but find layers of richness that escaped me on that first read.

As for the rest of them? I think Sherwood was absolutely right that many of the books I read I was not ready for. I needed to be older to appreciate Dickens’s ability to sketch instantly recognizable characters. I needed to be older–and to know more history–to really get Eliot and Henry James and Dostoevsky. But you couldn’t tell me that when I was 15. I know now that I did myself a disservice in collecting great books like Pokemon. And–which I did not understand then–what’s a Great Book changes over time, the list keeps growing, and you will never catch them all.

In my next life I will leave some things to later. I will also be readier to understand that a few years can change my appreciation of a book. At least, I hope so.

July 22, 2017

Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:56 AM
Tags: ,

Absent-AudienceOne last thing about reading to an audience: bring a big box of graceful resignation. Because sometimes, no matter how wonderful your work is, no one shows up. Or, perhaps worse, three people show up and you’re reading to a room set up with chairs for thirty, and you can’t say “I’m sorry, this is below my threshold of audience numbers, so I’m not reading today,” because that’s unfair to the three people who did show up. Even if two of them are your parents.

Look: this happens to everyone. Odds are that even the Gods of Successful Writing, early in their careers, had author appearances where the author outnumbered the audience. Don’t despair. (more…)

July 5, 2017

‘Ow’s that, Guv’nor?: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Conventions,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:47 PM
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Bert
Do you need to read accented speech with an accent? Let’s think about it.

Dick Van Dyke is appearing in the new Mary Poppins film–not, blessedly, as Bert the Sweep, but in some other role. And according to Mr. Van Dyke, they had a dialogue coach glued to his elbow at all times. With reason. When the first Mary Poppins came out, people were a little more understanding about accents–or rather, it just didn’t seem to matter so much. But Van Dyke has taken… well, anywhere from teasing to abuse over the failures of his Cockney accent for fifty years.

Van Dyke is an absolutely wonderful performer (I’ve had a crush on him since I first saw him pitch forward over the hassock on the Dick Van Dyke Show), but he does not have a mimetic ear. Many actors don’t: far worse than Van Dyke’s Bert, in my book, was Leonardo DiCaprio playing Louis XIV and his twin in The Man in the Iron Mask, where Di Caprio, bless him, couldn’t pronounce his characters’ names. There’s no shame in not doing accents well–but you need to know that that’s the case.

So maybe, even if you hear the words you’ve written with a perfect what-ever-it-is accent, you’ll want to think carefully before giving voice to their accents. This is a time when enlisting the assistance of a friend can be useful. Read aloud to them and ask them to tell tell you if it works. If your listener says you’re more Bert than Sir Ben Kingsley, rethink.

But my dialogue is written in dialect! Okay, but you don’t have to read inflections that are not in the page. If you’ve got a character saying “I don’t know ‘ow!” you can soften the presumed “Oi” in I; if you aren’t good at the vowels, don’t hit ’em hard. And remember, it’s more important that your listeners follow the sense and meaning of the words than that they get a full theatrical performance.

You can also give the impression of an accent by varying your tempo, by changing your pitch, by adding a little vocal fry (vocal fry is when you lower your voice enough to get some gravel in it, which Wikipedia informs me is “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency”). This last is a really good tool for a reader, as it gives your character voices a quality which can suggest age, gender, or social class.

Now, there may be a time when it’s important to the reading of your story that you be able to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle or Pepe LePew or Boris and Natasha–that is, that you sound like a comicstrip version of the accent you’re using. In which case, go for it.

What you want, in the end, is to read your words in such a way that the hearer is not distracted from the action, the characters, the story of your story. Even if you’re good with accents (or good with some accents…) don’t make that the focus of your reading. It’s just another tool.

June 19, 2017

Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Craft,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

The first reading I ever went to was by a well known writer of whose work I was a huge fan. There were three readers (I think it was in a bookstore). I found the first reader un-compelling–he read in a subdued, almost monotone voice, and I couldn’t focus on the words–let alone the story. The next participant was not much more inspiring, but I was there for reader no. 3, so I waited patiently. And then it was the third reader’s turn. And she read in the same dry, subdued way–as if she didn’t enjoy the words she’d written. It was just a little heartbreaking.

As I got more experience at these things I came to realize that this is a style. The lack of engagement and performance is deliberate. Later in the evening I heard one of the authors chatting about a reading he had been to, complaining that the writer he’d seen was “acting” the reading. I wanted to tell this guy that his reading could have benefitted from a little acting too, but tact won out.

Too much performance at a reading can be clownish, or make the audience feel talked down to–you don’t want to come off like a deranged reader at the Thursday afternoon Story Time for Tots at the local library. But too little… gives your listeners nothing to hang on to. As with all things, there’s a sweet spot in the middle.

You’re telling a story. When you’re among friends telling the anecdote about that time in Marrakesh with the nun, the waffles, and the chicken, do you tell it in a monotone? Not so much. Reading in a monotone does not give your material dignity–it flattens it. So read as if you’re talking to your friends. On the other hand, unless you’re a really gifted actor, you don’t have to act it out. No, really.

And dialogue? Speak it as you hear it in your head, as if your characters were saying it. Use the emphases you hear them using. Pause when they do. (Maybe I’m overselling this, but when I write I hear the dialogue, so that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.)

There are many ways of “doing voices.”  I tend to go for different tones for different speakers, just so it signals a new speaker. Sometimes a character needs a higher voice or a different tone. If you’re able to find voices for your characters that work for you–and that you can replicate as needed–do it. But two cautions: 1) don’t overdo it (that’s the sweet spot principle again), and 2) don’t do so many voices that you get confused, mid-reading, as to which one you’re using.*

Regarding accents, if you use them (I often do, as I’m often writing in historical settings where accent signals a host of things, from regional origin to class), my feeling is that unless you’re really, really good at them, it’s easier and better to hint at them. You don’t need to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle in order to suggest that the chap whose dialogue you’re reading comes from the lower reaches of British society, or like Pepe le Pew to suggest a person of French extraction.

When it comes right down to it, the way you read your material offers your listeners a way into it. You want that way in to be enticing and welcoming.

Oh, and if you’re reading something funny? Try your best not to laugh at it–that’s the listeners’ job.

_____

*when my kids were young I generally used voices when I read to them–but I confess that somewhere in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth I started getting confused as to which voice was for the Humbug, which was for King Azaz, and which was for The Mathemagician, and by the time we reached the Senses-Taker I was hopelessly lost.

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