Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I love old comics. I have this enormous "coffee table" book called The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics that I haul out every year or two and peruse. It's like time travel. Daily comics are ephemeral, they are not meant to be deathless prose, and so they reflect the immediacy of daily life in their time, and I find it interesting to immerse myself in a time other than my own. I'm fascinated by late-medieval England as well as late nineteenth and early twentieth century England and America, and Ancient Egypt, too. Anyway, last night I was looking at a Barney Google and Spark Plug comic from 1929 (a comic still running when I was a child) and was intrigued to see a drawing depicting a Paris street cafĂ© full of patrons. It was obviously drawn from the artist's actual experience. There were people from all over the world seated there, sleepy Arabs and arty Americans, snooty English ladies, German professors – and two black men. All were caricatures, of course, but the black men were such brutal shapes as to be barely human. In fact, I looked at them for several seconds, wondering what they were supposed to be. The artist wasn't commenting on their "type," he was depicting a racist attitude very far from the reality of two black human beings. Shocking.

I find that happens when wandering in the past. I understand what's going on, I can identify with the sentiments – and then I'm brought to a sharp halt. What were they thinking? Why were they thinking that? Who were these people, really? How could our not-distant ancestors have thought those things? It's things like that that make it so difficult to write "period" novels. I have had my own go at it, and approached it with fear and trembling, because I hate the "Mary Jane" form of period novels, in which a woman from the tenth century yearns for a room of her own or a Victorian woman hates the clothes or a character in the forties latches correctly onto every social attitude. These people swam in the waters they were born into and didn't see how foolish or wrong they often were – just like us.

I wonder what future generations are going to be dumbfounded by about us?

I'm looking out my window this morning of April 11, 2007, and it's SNOWING. In my front yard the tulips are up. Some even have buds on them. And it's SNOWING. Where's global warming when you can use it?

I have an unusual appearance this weekend. Joanna Page is a nice, brisk southern belle transplanted up here in Minnesota. I met her through my church. She and her husband own a mansion built in 1907 not far from downtown, in a little neighborhood of very nice houses. I wish I had connected with her back when I was writing Sins and Needles, because I would have "borrowed" her house, or some elements of it. Her house is a Craftsman, and I wrote about one. I could have done a much better job if I'd had her house for inspiration. Anyway, she wants to raise money for The Bridge, a charity that helps runaway children. She is offering a catered buffet for a twenty-five dollar donation (though if you want to give more, she's open to that!), and I'm to be the entertainment. You see, I collect hats, and I love to wear them to church as well as to signings. So I'm to bring some of my favorites and keep changing hats all afternoon as I go about talking to her guests. I suppose I'm to talk about them, as well as my mystery novels. Some of my hats are antiques, but the best ones I bought from a shop in Muncie, Indiana, that caters to black church women. Any of you read the book Crowns? Or seen the play? Those kind of hats, large and decorated with fur or feathers or sequins or rhinestones – or all of the above. It took a certain gathering of my courage to go out in one of those big hats at first, but now I just smile and enjoy the amazed looks. I'm hoping to get such a reputation for these hats that someone can go into a book store and say, "There's this author, I can't remember her name, but she wears these hats . . ." and the shop owner will know immediately who the customer is looking for!

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