England Have My (Winter) Bones

Posted January 27th, 2019 by Candice

I love winter indoors.  Outside, not so much.  I’m not a fan of snow, bitter temperatures, ice, chilling rains, and many gray days in a row that constitute a Virginia winter.  Even as a kid, I didn’t like winter sports.

So, every January and February I escape Virginia and head to Britain.  I read British books, buy British travel magazines, and scour the international aisle in Wegman’s for lemon curd, crumpets, and imported cookies.  And tea!

My taste in tea is white–the only kind I drink because it’s mild and low in caffeine.  White tea has suddenly become very popular for its health benefits.  I can make little tea sandwiches, but I’d rather cut to the chase and fix scones, crumpets, and shortbread.  I don’t care if I never see another sprig of kale or grain of quinoa.

My tastes in reading are broad: from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (but not Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno), to chick lit by Jenny Colgan, whose characters are always running tea shops or bakeries in remote Cornwall or the Outer Hebrides, and Sophie Kinsella’s London-infused capers, to the hunting and gun dog mysteries of Gerald Hammond, to the country house sagas of Elizabeth Jane Howard and Susan Howatch.

I also read older British authors.  Just look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s autobiography, The One I Knew the Best of All.  This copy, that I paid less than $9, was given to “Agnes, from Mamma, Christmas 1893.  A tea-worthy book if ever there was one.

In January I dip into the novels of Angela Thirkell, best known in the 1930s and 40s for her satirical look at rural village life.  Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles is another favorite.

When I’m not reading British books, I’m watching British television.  I just finished Season 2 of “The Crown,” and am champing at the bit for Season 3.  Until it’s out in DVD, I’ll be satisfied with biographies of the royal family.

The title of this post comes from T.H. White’s memoir England Have My Bones.  T.H. White was born in British India at the turn of the century.  Like most children of colonial parents, he was sent to school in England.  He is best known for The Once and Future King, a series of four novels about King Arthur.  You might know The Sword in the Stone from the Disney movie.  His children’s book, Mistress Mashem’s Repose, is a classic.

I revisit all these books each winter and discover new ones (eagerly awaiting my reserve library copy of The Gown by Jennifer Robson, about the women who made Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress), teacup by my side.  Join me in a cuppa?

Paperback Writer

Posted January 20th, 2019 by Candice

Once upon a time, I sold a million books.  Most of my books landed on bestseller lists.  Every Saturday was devoted to answering fan mail.  Readers figured out where I lived and came to my house.  What? you’re thinking.  Not Candice Ransom, author of a lot of books, but who has hardly set the world of children’s lit on fire.  Maybe not Candice Ransom.  But Candice F. Ransom, yes, indeed.

Since I was 15, I imagined my middle-grade novels on library shelves.  However, my first book, published by Scholastic, was for young adults.  The original paperback, with a photograph of a teenage girl on the cover, cost $1.95.  It was 1982, and I had caught the wave of teen fiction, a wonderful time chronicled by Gabrielle Moss in her book, Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction.

Gabrielle interviewed me and other “paperback writers” from that time period.  As the book jacket states: “These were not the serious issue novels of the 1970s, nor the blockbuster YA trilogies that arrived in the 2000s.  Nestled in between were the girl-centered teen books of the ‘80s and ‘90s—short, cheap, and utterly adored.”

The attraction to these books?  By the 1980s, malls were everywhere and that’s were kids hung out.  Chain bookstores like B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Brentano carried a huge selection of mass market paperbacks.  Kids used their allowance to buy an inexpensive book, read it in an afternoon, and trade with friends.  Series like Sweet Valley High hooked readers with spin-offs.

During the mid- to late-80s, I was best known for the Sunfire romances—a series of historical romances aimed at teen readers but judging from my fan mail were gobbled up by girls as young as ten—and also for my own series, the Kobie Roberts books and My Sister trilogy.  Scholastic Book Clubs ensured world-wide readership.

My path to publication wasn’t at all what I’d envisioned when I was 15.  I was well beyond the goal I’d set in high school to be a “best-selling children’s writer” by the time I was 25.  In Writer’s Digest magazine, I found a listing from Ann Reit, editor at Scholastic, who was looking for romantic suspense for teens in the vein of Phyllis Whitney.  I wrote three chapters and a one-page outline.  Ann Reit called and offered me a contract.

I wrote the book nervous as possum in a slop bucket—Ann Reit would surely trap me as a fake.  Instead she noted I’d used authentic research and asked me to write the first title in a brand-new series of historical romances.  The first book would be set on the Oregon Trail.  I lived and breathed the Oregon Trail for months.  For the second book, I suggested the Civil War in Virginia—research I could get to more easily.  Amanda and Susannah became the launch titles for the Sunfire series.  And I was off to the races.

From 1982 until Ann Reit retired years later, I never lacked for work, often under contract for four to six books a year.  There were other series—Crystal Falls, Junior High, Dear Diary—that I wrote under a house pseudonym.  The Dear Diary pseudonym was Carrie Randall, created to be next to my books on bookstore shelves.  By then I was a regular on the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks bestseller lists.  I wrote my own series and many stand-alone middle grade titles.  At signings, I sat down to long lines.

But . . . there was a downside to being a paperback writer.  Libraries were reluctant to carry the books.  They were flimsy, unless the covers were laminated.  For me personally, my biggest snub came from the revered children’s only bookstore in Washington, D.C., Cheshire Cat.  I loved that store.  I attended many events, bought hundreds of books, but they never carried my books and I was never asked to do a signing, except as part of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. yearly group signing.

I thought those days would last forever, those busy paperback writing days, even after I moved on to writing hardcover books.  But times change.  Kids read less now, most of those lovely children’s-only bookstores closed, along with all the rest of the bookstores, and Harry Potter raised the bar with incredible sales, movies, and theme parks.  How can a $1.95 paperback possibly compete?

Fans–even editors!–contact me often.  The Sunfire books were the topic of one young woman’s PhD dissertation.  Gabrielle Moss wrote a serious—and gorgeously illustrated—book on paperback teen fiction.  An artist fan, now a good friend, made me a Kobie Roberts doll!  Another artist told me she became an artist because that’s what Kobie wanted to be.  Most just want to say hi, to let me know how much they loved Nicole or Thirteen, to say they still have their old copies, or, best of all, to let me know they’re introducing their own daughters to them.  You can’t ask for better than that.

The Books We Keep Forever

Posted January 12th, 2019 by Candice

In late September of 2018, I stood at the corner of 37th and Madison Avenue in New York City and gazed longingly at the elegant pink marble building that housed J.P. Morgan’s library, now the Morgan Library and Museum.  I’m willing it to be January 25, 2019, the opening of the Morgan’s exhibit: “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibit.  But I must wait.

I only travel to New York every three or four years, but I’ll come back to see this exhibit, even if I have to crawl.  You see, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen.  Afterward, I moved to Middle-earth and stayed the next eleven years.  I drew pictures of hobbits and Gandalf and thumbed to page 126 in The Return of the King again and again to experience the most thrilling sentence in English literature—“Rohan had come at last.”

I have several copies, including the 70s hardcover editions in slipcase, a heavy one-volume edition I read with the book propped on a pillow, and the movie-based versions.  But the books I prize most are the 1967 Ballantine mass market paperback editions with Barbara Remington’s strange cover art.  Originally, I checked out each volume from the library in hardcover, read it in school, in bed, in the car, as I walked, and returned it feverishly praying the next volume would be on the shelves.  When I found the paperbacks in the first bookstore in Fairfax, I nearly fainted.  My very own Lord of the Rings!

The fantasy made me want to tell everyone about the trilogy and at the same time tell no one.  I wanted Tolkien’s masterpiece all to myself.  This is a common notion among bibliophiles.  In her memoir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Pamela Paul writes, “I considered certain books mine, and the idea that other people liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intrusion.”  I also wanted more Lord of the Rings, but there wasn’t any.  And The Hobbit didn’t cut it.

Those paperbacks went everywhere with me, house to house, state to state.  In each move, things got left behind: yearbooks, my high school diploma, my mother’s kitchen table, the dress I was married in (not a wedding dress).  But never Lord of the Rings.

On my last morning in New York, I wandered around the Upper West Side with children walking to the various P.S.’s and private schools I’d read and wondered about in books like Harriet the Spy.  They walked with parents and nannies and baby brothers.  They walked with friends and dogs and siblings on scooters.  These three children stayed ahead of me.  At first I thought the boy was staring at a device.  But he was reading a book!  He wasn’t catching up on homework, he turned the pages too fervently.  His book was so engrossing, he couldn’t put it down.

In an essay in the October 2018 Harper’s, William Gass writes of his beloved Treasure Island, a cheap paperback that saw him through “high school miseries,” went with him to college, and was stowed in his Navy duffel during WWII.  Despite the yellowed, brittle pages, Gass admits, “That book and I loved each other.”  He doesn’t mean the text, but the physical book.  Books on a screen, he maintains, “have no materiality . . . off the screen they do not exist . . . they do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit.”  I can’t imagine squinting at The Lord of the Rings on a Kindle, trying to find page 126 in the third volume, unable to lose myself in Remington’s cover art that forms a triptych when the individual books are lined up.

As a child in the 80s, Pamela Paul sought vintage “yellow back” Nancy Drews (the ones I read as a child).  The original 30s blue spine books were too old, and the new paperbacks were “loathsome.”  She preferred the 60s editions with their interior drawings and “broody cover paintings.”  The quality of the paper, the binding glue, the end papers made the book a treasured object, “the vase as much a pleasure as the flowers.”

The books we keep forever are the ones we owned back when buying a book was a big deal.  When we made the effort to track down special editions.  When we would walk and read because the book would not leave our hands.  I hope the book that New York schoolboy was reading changed his life, that it was his, and that he would keep it forever, no matter where he went.

After high school, I got a job as a secretary.  I hung a poster of Remington’s Lord of the Rings cover art over my desk.  (Clearly, I was not your average secretary).  At the age of 24, I decided it was time to leave Middle-earth.  In March of this year–I’m counting the days–I’ll return to New York to see Tolkien’s original papers and drawings and maps.  I’ve already bought my “train reading” book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered, Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918, by Joseph Loconte.

Meanwhile, I’ll re-read my Ballantine paperbacks.  The door to Middle-earth is always open.




Resolutions? Goals? Or Status Quo?

Posted January 5th, 2019 by Candice

My only artwork in 2018

In exercise class this week, various instructors asked us if we’d made resolutions, or had goals for the new year.  At 66, I am over resolutions.  How much of my life can I meaningfully change at this stage?  It’s enough to keep moving forward and maintain goals made in the last few years.  Watch my weight, eat right (big slips the last two months!), 10,000 steps.  Work goals remain the same: keep writing each day if I can.

On Facebook, I skimmed past friends’ plans and goals.  Many of us use the New Year to set a new course.

As for planning, in past years I’ve bought every kind of planner known to man to help me figure it out.  I’ve long been seduced by Bullet Journaling, not for its practical aspect, but for the gorgeous pages I see on BuJo sites.  Who wouldn’t want to decorate their daily pages with watercolor stories or lovely handwritten titles?  I have a box of journaling supplies and how-to books, but in the evenings, after a long day of work, supper, dishes, laundry, and separating cats who tear through the house like it’s a gymnasium, I have little energy for painting morning glories or making calligraphy entries.  In the mornings, I’m up before 6:00 to sort out cats, do household chores, shower, and be out the door by 7:10 to go to exercise.  I’m not likely to fill out a Bullet Journal then, either.

By Journalella

Planners with templates to plot out the future don’t work for me, either.  It’s impossible for me to project what I’d like to be doing five years from now.  But what did work for me last year–and was quite eye-opening–was a daily record of what I’d done.  To-do lists and daily or weekly tear-off pages get tossed.  I designed a weekly template, made 52 photocopies, and put them into a 3-ring binder.  Each evening while I watched TV (or “boxed sets” as they say in England, since we don’t have cable or Direct TV or stream), I listed everything I’d accomplished that day, from emails to research to chapters written.  I’ll keep the binder for 2018 and have already started one for 2019.

Why keep track of what we’ve done as opposed to making future plans?  Because we tend to forget our daily accomplishments.  I know I wrote eight books last year (many were very short) and taught two classes.  But how did those books get written?  Or revised?  What happened in the weeks I taught?  I was amazed at how much work I did in a single day.  Unlike artists, writers don’t have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.  Words on a screen, shut away in a computer file, and we may delete it all the next day.  Not much to see.

If I’ve learned anything over the last ten years, it’s that I have to keep learning.  I never got an undergraduate degree, and by the time I started graduate school at the ripe age of 50, I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up.  I did, though I sweated out those papers!

So I don’t have any resolutions or goals for 2019.  But I’m not exactly staying status quo, either.  I’m giving myself the gift of learning.  Starting today, I begin an online course through Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab: “Comprehensive Bird Biology.”  I have a real textbook and a new notebook.  (I opened up the textbook when I got it to a page with a bird cut open–well, I asked for it!)  When I finish in about three months, I’ll have a certificate in a subject I’ve wanted to learn since I was ten years old.

Next, I’ll find a course in geology.  Let the wonder continue.