Watermelon Agua Fresca

Watermelon agua fresca and Optics

As we say goodbye to summer, we can prolong at least one seasonal pleasure by enjoying a sip of watermelon agua fresca. This bright rosy beverage plays a special role in Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddlesand not just because I enjoy it!

Setting the Scene by Setting the Table

Writers have a full pantry of ways to establish a fictional scene. They can define a location, season, tone, and a character’s mood by dramatizing or describing everything from the physical surroundings and weather to the character’s clothing, actions, and speech. One element that can evoke several specifics at once is food.

We wouldn’t expect most characters to sip a hot toddy poolside in ninety-degree sunshine, for example. But if I introduce you to a character who is seated at a linen-covered table with fine china and a crystal wine glass in front of him and a platter of turkey just beyond his reach, you might picture a Thanksgiving table ringed with several other people. I’ve set the scene—the time of year and occasion—by setting the table. By showing how this character interacts with the table that’s been set, I can suggest even more. If the man you’ve just met is described as “shoveling” turkey, stuffing, and green beans into his mouth faster than he can chew and swallow, you might wonder if he’s been starving. Perhaps he’s homeless. Or perhaps it’s Uncle Norbert, whose lack of manners is legendary.

Setting the Scene in New Mexico

If you’ve read Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles, you know that food and beverages play an important role in several scenes. It’s not just that midlife women often give careful thought (or anguished stressing) to what they eat. The food and drink shared also help readers see how the story is both rooted in New Mexico and universal. It’s a way the characters demonstrate affection for others and how they express creativity. Some of the dishes mentioned are those traditionally associated with this special state; others you might find in any North American city. One—watermelon agua fresca—even has a thematic connection.

To help you set a table inspired by Optics—perhaps for a book club gathering—I’ll be posting a few recipes over the coming months. In some cases I’ll simply provide links to others’ recipes, but for this first one, you’re getting my version of watermelon agua fresca (“fresh water”).

Watermelon Agua Fresca

This summery drink is a nonalcoholic refresher that you’ll find in parts of the U.S. Southwest as well as south of the border. Though watermelons are most popular in summer, you often can find them year-round, thanks to shipments from Mexico.

Watermelon Agua Fresca prep

Making this agua fresca requires few ingredients and tools. You can even muddle through (ahem) without a blender by crushing the watermelon cubes with a potato masher or fork.

Watermelon Agua Fresca

 

Though the basic watermelon agua fresca recipe is simple, you can dress it up with garnishes, turn it into an adult cocktail with a splash of liquor, or dilute it with plain or sparkling water to create a homemade flavored water that’s far cheaper and tastier than the kind you’d buy in plastic bottles.

And yes, the color of watermelon agua fresca resembles the cover of Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles!

You’ll find the recipe below. You can also download and print a pdf of the watermelon agua fresca recipe.

 

Watermelon Agua Fresca

A recipe from Gail Reitenbach inspired by
Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles

Traditionally, agua fresca (“fresh water”) includes sugar or a simple syrup, but watermelon is already super sweet and needs, in my opinion, only a counterbalance of lime. If you have a serious sweet tooth, feel free to add a bit of sugar. (I find agave and honey adulterate the melon flavor too much.)

Agua fresca comes in more- and less-diluted versions. If you’re watching calories, dilute with more ice or water.

I never measure the proportions of melon, lime, and ice when I make this, but I did test these proportions. Start here and adjust to taste.

Ingredients for 1 to 3  servings (makes about 1.5 cups)

1.5 cups of cold, seedless watermelon cubes

1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lime juice*

1/2 cup of ice cubes

1 teaspoon sugar (if you must)

Directions

Puree all ingredients in a blender. Taste. Add lime juice or sweetener. Consume immediately or refrigerate, covered, for no more than one day. Stir before serving, and add ice as desired.

Options

  • Garnish with a lime slice and/or mint sprig. You can also add a few mint leaves (no stems) to the blender ingredients if you love mint.
  • Stir in ½ to 1 tablespoon of chia seeds (preferably, previously powdered in a dry blender) for a healthy (if sugar-free) afternoon pick-me-up.
  • Pour ½ cup undiluted agua fresca from recipe above into a glass and top with sparkling or still water and ice.
  • Pour ½ cup undiluted agua fresca from recipe above into a glass and add 1 ounce tequila (I’m partial to añejo) and ice.

 

* Limes are the most difficult citrus fruit to juice. If you don’t have a heavy-duty manual lime squeezer, just use your hands. First, roll the lime on the countertop for a few seconds, applying heavy pressure. Then slice the lime in half and use your fingers and palm to squeeze the juice into a container or directly into the blender. Look for limes with bright, green skin that are heavy for their size. There’s nothing sadder than a dry lime.

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For the Love of Book Clubs

I have a confession: I’ve never been in a book club.

I’ve read hundreds of books, thanks to undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, a brief but successful career as an English professor, and a lifelong interest in the written word. I’ve sat in, and led, courses devoted to the discussion of books, but I’ve never been in a book club.

My professional and social orbits haven’t even included talk about book clubs, until recently. I’d briefly considered searching one out as a way to meet new people when we moved to Santa Fe nearly two decades ago, but I never got serious about the effort, for two reasons. The first was the double-edged fear that, as a former English professor, I’d be expected to lead the group and provide insightful comments or that everyone would be struck dumb in fear of what a former professor might say. (No worries there; I’ve forgotten almost everything I took pains to learn about literary theory.) The other reason was best articulated by Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

But such decisions are never forever. I now can imagine belonging to a book club, many years from now, when I’m retired and hanging out with other retirees. None of us has a professional persona to preserve. We’ve lived long enough to call BS on highly touted titles we find dull—or poorly edited. We take turns revising the fates of favorite characters. A couple of us share the backstory on the latest fiction we’re writing. There might be a bottle of wine or a cocktail shaker in the scene.

For now, though, I’m being selfish. I’m reading what I want when I want. I feel no guilt when I don’t finish a book. I feel no guilt for not reading “enough.”

Why Book Clubs?

I became interested in book clubs from a marketing angle when I wrote my first novel, Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. But beyond that, I love that book clubs are thriving. I love that readers of all ages and backgrounds are gathering in person or virtually to discuss books and share their experiences. I love the potential book clubs hold for community-building.

From their name, you’d assume book clubs are about reading and discussing books. From movies, you’d gather that they’re about getting together with friends of a shared demographic over wine. From the popularity of Oprah’s and Reese’s book clubs, you’d suspect they’re about staying current with influencers. Turns out, book clubs are all that and more.

Large publishers host their own book clubs and offer deals to big-name clubs as a savvy marketing strategy. (That’s one reason it may seem that all the well-known book clubs are reading many of the same books in any given year.) But you can also find book clubs for niche demographics and for every genre under the sun. Some clubs don’t even require you to read the book. During the COVID era, it’s no surprise that virtual book clubs have grown in popularity.

Book clubs aren’t just for those with the disposable income to buy a dozen books a year. Libraries have made digital sign-outs possible. For example, Hoopla, an ebook service for libraries, has a Book Club Hub that’s accessible to anyone with a library card at a library that subscribes to Hoopla for ebook check-outs. (Optics will be available through Hoopla, though my non-Amazon ebook distributor says the service has long processing times.)

Data on the number of book clubs and members is hard to verify, especially as so many are local and without a digital presence. Whatever the reason for joining a book club, participation among “regular readers” in the U.S. between 2004 and 2015 rose from 33% to 57%, according to a white paper produced for librarians. The three-page report includes tips for creating successful book clubs. A chart showing the various ways book club members find out about books puts “Personal recommendations” in the top spot, so thanks in advance for any good words you share about Optics with fellow readers!

Book Club Questions

Whether a book is selected by a nationally known club helmed by a famous one-namer or by a self-governed local group, having a novel selected by a book club increases book sales and can expand the network of potential readers. That’s great, but getting book clubs to choose indie-published Optics is much harder, especially as large traditional publishers have substantially larger marketing and promotion budgets.

Even with those advantages, best-sellers and highly acclaimed titles can fall flat, as a friend who’s been in multiple book clubs recently explained. She described one meeting at which most participants offered only one-word answers to what she considered lame discussion questions.

I want to make it easy for book clubs to select Optics, so I wrote a set of Book Club Discussion Questions. Take a peek and download them if you plan to read Optics with a book club or a friend. I’ve written no “reading quiz” questions—the sort that require you to recall some obscure detail. Nor will you find any that ask you to comment on the “significance” of this scene or that character name, as one might expect  from a college English course. They’re simply prompts to help you articulate why you did, or didn’t, like particular aspects of the book.

If you use these questions in a book club—this year or any time in the future—send me a message via this website to let me know how they worked (and what you drank).

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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Reader Advisory: Optics Is Not a Romance Novel

Don’t you just hate it when you start reading a book you think you’ll enjoy, only to discover a few chapters in that it’s not your cup of tea? It’s either more like a mug of weak church coffee or a shot of mescal.

Maybe you’ve had that experience with a book labeled a classic, best-seller, or award-winner. If the title was assigned reading for a class, you probably slogged through to save your grade. If your book club chose it, you might have skimmed the pages or skipped to the final chapter. But when you buy a book for your own entertainment or edification, you want a higher degree of confidence that you’ll like it. (For mass market maybe books, the library can be a safer bet.)

That’s one of the reasons I gave Optics a descriptive subtitle: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. Turns out, that may not have been explicit enough. Comments from a couple of pre-publication readers suggest that they were expecting something different from the book—specifically, romance.

I didn’t think anything in the title, subtitle, or back-of-book marketing blurb would lead readers to expect a romance plot, but I may have underestimated the power of the romance genre to shape expectations.

When Women’s Fiction Equals Romance

This story on Bustle, “Who Reads Romance Novels? Infographic Tells All,” is a few years old, but the data are probably similar today. Nielsen BookScan, which collects book-related data, found that in 2015, young, white women constituted the largest reading block (59%) for romance novels; readers over 45 were 40% of the market. Now think about every sort of fiction genre published—from literary to fantasy and from historical novels to mysteries. In 2015, nearly one-third of all fiction titles in all formats—29%—were romance novels. That’s a powerful percentage.

My concern about Optics potentially being misidentified as a romance doesn’t come from a place of intellectual disdain. The best romance writers are professionals in every sense; one of my fellow graduate students earned her PhD in English and promptly began a successful career as a romance novelist. And romance novels aren’t necessarily shunned by the supposedly intellectual elite: One of my English Department colleagues in my first academic job frequently reported, with no shame, that she relaxed with “bodice-rippers.” Then there’s the business side. The writing and selling of romance has helped thousands of  women support their families, and I’m all for women’s financial independence.

My challenge is alerting potential readers that Optics isn’t a romance novel. Well, one subplot does have a romance element, but it certainly doesn’t drive the main plot. Social media is one way to reach readers, so I created a couple of tongue-in-check Reader Advisory graphics to post on Facebook and Instagram. They’re designed to acknowledge the pervasiveness of romance plots and the odds that a reader will be younger than my book’s main character.

Not recommended for romance readers

Main characters are all over 50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be clear: I want Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles to sell as many copies as possible. I’m not trying to drive away potential buyers. Instead, my Reader Advisories are intended to guide readers to a book I hope they’ll enjoy and tell their friends about. Who knows, maybe a few forewarned romance readers will be curious enough to read Optics and will love it. After all, the reviewer at the San Francisco Book Review called it “a perfect beach read,” so you know it’s not self-consciously literary. (You should be able to find the review online in a week or two after they batch-upload the latest reviews.)

Defying Categories and Expectations

The assumption that Optics might focus on romance isn’t just influenced by the overwhelming number of romance titles in the marketplace. It’s also aided by industry categorization.

Marketing in the book industry—whether you’re dealing with a book published by a Big Five traditional publisher or an indie publisher—is driven by metadata (data that provides information about the title). An essential piece of book metadata is the genre category or categories. Traditional print book distributors, bookstores, and online retailers use slightly different lists of categories, but they typically use the same big buckets. Those big categories help both physical and online booksellers group any given book with similar books so browsers can find what they’re looking for. But the more specific your category, the higher the probability that someone interested in just the sort of book you’ve written will find that title. Such a category does not exist for Optics.

The organization that standardizes these categories, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), doesn’t have a category for contemporary fiction about women in the workplace. That omission may seem inconsequential, but there is a category for fiction that focuses on the Amish and Mennonites. No disrespect to those faith groups, but I would guess that category is a rather small piece of the fiction pie. Of the 47 subcategories for romance fiction, you will find one for workplace themes. But what if the novel has a workplace theme and isn’t romance? You’re out of luck. There’s no category for fiction that happens to be about women in the workplace—nevermind midlife women. You’re left with a general category for fiction about women.

Perhaps one day BISG will amend its list to include a category that better fits Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. In the meantime, I wrote the book I couldn’t find to read, and I hope others will discover in Optics what they’ve been looking for.

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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A Book Publishing Declaration of Independence

While the United States celebrates Independence Day this week, I’m celebrating independent publishing. Especially this year, as the publishing industry wrestles with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m feeling increasingly happy about my decision to publish my first novel independently.

Indie publishing is loosely defined as any sort of publishing beyond large corporate trade, academic, and scientific publishers. That category includes both smaller houses that typically are not publicly traded companies as well as author-publishers who produce and market their own books.

Indie author-publishers may produce a physical and/or digital book under a personal or a business name, or they may hire a third party to handle the majority of editorial, production, and promotion tasks; the latter model can slide into “hybrid” publishing, which is another contested concept. The primary distinction from a business standpoint is that in traditional publishing, the publisher assumes most of the financial risk by accepting a book for publication, whereas the indie publisher bears the financial burden of getting the book to market.

Author-publishers are also called self-publishers. The latter term is preferred by those who wish to denigrate indie entrepreneurs. I have nothing against the traditional publishing industry, which is why I don’t call traditionally published authors lazy or afraid of learning new things—which, trust me, you must do to be an indie publisher. In fact, as a former book and magazine editor, and a writer who has had academic and freelance articles published in traditional outlets, I’ve been part of the traditional publishing industry. And that’s why I knew I could produce as good a book as the corporate behemoths.

Even today, when indie authors account for an ever-increasing percentage of titles and sales, the truths about indie publishing are not self-evident.

Even today, when indie authors account for an ever-increasing percentage of titles and sales, the truths about indie publishing are not self-evident. For readers curious about the differences between traditional and indie publishing, I’ve constructed a short list below. The reasons for both fiction and nonfiction authors taking the indie path vary, so consider this a highly personal list.

Traditional Publishing Takes a Long Time

Unless you’ve got a big name and a timely topic that publishers think they’ll make millions from, moving from completed manuscript to published book typically takes well over a year. After snagging an agent, and after that agent hooks a publisher (both of which can take several years under the traditional model), authors typically wait a year or more to see their book in print. That’s how long traditional publishing takes to go through the editorial, production, and promotion process. It’s the latter—built around customary spring and fall lists—that drives much of the delay.

Experienced indie publishers can bring a book to market in as little as one to three months, but I wanted to present a professionally edited, produced, and promoted book, so I budgeted six months.

Agents and Publishers Love a Safe Bet

Much as in Hollywood, agents and publishers love a book that sounds like something that has previously been successful. I, on the other hand, love to read and write stories I haven’t seen a dozen of. That’s a problem for cracking traditional gate-keepers.

Publishing is very subjective

The Big Five (whose numbers continue to decline thanks to mergers)—Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster—don’t accept author pitches. The price of admission is signing with an agent first. In the six months I allotted to the agent query process, I heard variations on this theme: “After reflection, we don’t feel that this is a perfect fit for [Agent’s] list. Publishing is very subjective, however, and another agent may well feel differently.” The key word there is “subjective.” Even before the pandemic, traditional publishers and agents were reluctant to take on new authors who didn’t already have a large public presence—and, hence, built-in market—or who hadn’t written the next Gone Girl or Twilight series.

Would I have liked to secure an agent and publisher contract? Sure. It would have meant less work for me, as well as easier access to markets, reviewers, awards, and readers. Would I spend an indefinite number of years pursuing that goal? Hell, no. I’d rather declare my independence.

Traditional Publishers Offer Exposure—for a Price

The main advantage of using a traditional publisher (when that’s an option) is exposure. (Book advances are nowhere near as large as in previous eras, most advances don’t come close to paying the rent, and when advances don’t “earn out”—meaning that the book has sold enough copies to pay back the advance—the author sees no future royalties.) The big corporate houses, whose numbers have been steadily declining, have the most clout with book distributors and booksellers. That means they can make your book more visible to potential buyers.

However, those same publishers have almost total control over the fate of a title once it’s acquired. The publisher chooses the editorial team (Will you be simpatico?), the cover design (Will you hate it?), the print run (How big a bet will they make?), the promotional budget (Did you know that anyone other than best-selling authors is expected to fund and organize the bulk of a book’s promotion these days?), and how long the book stays in print.

Successful Authors Can Go Indie and Traditional

It used to be that the mark of a successful indie author was to be picked up by a traditional publisher. That typically happens after impressive indie sales, as was the case with E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. That franchise earned Random House so much (one estimate puts net profit at $163.5 million) that the publisher gave a $5,000 bonus to each of its more than 5,000 employees. (In case it’s not obvious, that sort of earnings record is rare.)

… indie authors don’t have to stay in one genre lane …

However, an opposing trend is also taking shape. The reasons are as varied as the authors and their goals, but those leaving big-name publishers for the indie realm are more than a blip. (One UK author offers a case study in this lengthy but fascinating article from 2015.) Thanks to new technologies, feisty new distribution and retail partners (more on those another time), and readers of all ages who are platform agnostic, indie authors don’t have to stay in one genre lane—something that traditional publishing contracts may stipulate; instead, they can publish as widely and eclectically as they wish.

These days, even agented authors will, at least selectively, go indie in order to retain greater control and potentially higher earnings. That’s the case with Tim Westover, the winner of this year’s first Selfies U.S. Book Award, sponsored by IngramSpark and presented at the American Library Association’s annual conference. Westover has an agent, but he felt that self-publishing The Winter Sisters would be the most pragmatic option. “Indies carry the stigma of ‘not good enough to get traditionally published.’ And sometimes that’s true. But there’s also a substantial segment of authors that speak to smaller audiences, whether that’s something regional (like my book) or a hyper-specific genre or a minority cultural voice,” Westover says.

Indie Publishing Is Mainstream

One could argue that indie publishing is the original traditional publishing in the U.S. After all, Benjamin Franklin, one of our Founding Fathers, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, was a self-publisher (under a pseudonym) of Poor Richard’s Almanack. No surprise, then, that the Independent Book Publishers Association (I’m a member) named its awards program after Franklin.

In the early centuries of book printing, someone with money decided what got published. That was either the publisher or the wealthy patron or the author with means. Not much has changed. When authors foot the bill for publishing, the process has often been labeled “vanity publishing,” but given today’s options, one retired college professor has argued that traditional publishing is the new vanity publishing.

Today, indie publishing is big business.

Today, indie publishing is big business. In 2018 for example, the number of self-published books increased forty percent and totaled 1.68 million. And in June this year, Publisher’s Weekly Vice President and Publisher Cevin Bryerman said, “Self-publishing is one of the fastest growing segments in the book industry.”

Indies Have More Control

My favorite jobs have always been those where I’ve had influence over both the big picture and countless details. It’s the project manager in me. Now I’m putting those skills to work for my own project.

For starters, I get final say over how the cover looks. Traditionally published authors may be able to offer feedback on proposed covers, but they never get the final vote. For example, one publishing industry insider has written about strongly disliking the first cover proposed for her nonfiction book. The revision might be better, but in my opinion, her book’s cover is dull and conveys nothing about the contents (which I’ve read).

I also was able to choose the formats I wanted to invest in. Instead of hard cover—the standard first-run choice for traditional publishers—I opted for trade paperback to keep the price lower, in hopes of attracting more readers. I’m also offering ebook formats, of course. Audio books require additional investment for a professional narrator and production, so that decision is for a future date.

Indies Can Adapt More Easily

The novel coronavirus has been a harsh reminder of human frailty and business fragility. The traditional industry carries on, but smaller traditional publishers, including those affiliated with universities, are struggling operationally and financially.

Meanwhile, well-established authors with agents and traditional publisher contracts are leaning more heavily on social media and other guerilla marketing tools long employed by indies. For example, with in-person book tours cancelled, one group of novelists, operating under the moniker A Mighty Blaze, has turned to do-it-yourself online promotion. (They only include traditionally published authors.)

I made the decision to go indie before the coronavirus threw all businesses into coping mode. In retrospect, it feels like a lucky bet. When my launch schedule was thrown by an editing delay, I was able to adjust the publication date, and as a print-on-demand publisher, I can avoid the financial risk of a too-large print run.

Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles is getting favorable early reviews, which is a welcome validation of my decisions over the past several months. Though there are no sure bets in indie or traditional publishing, I’m proud to declare myself an independent author.

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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One Story at a Time

I anguished over what to write this month, and yes, I know that’s a sign of my white privilege. Part of me wanted to write nothing, in order to make more space for black lives and voices, which are rightly the current center of attention. But I live in a complex country at a time when every group that has been discriminated against or made to feel invisible—including midlife women—deserves to have its stories told. Offering my story about one invisible group doesn’t nullify all the other stories, just as saying, “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t negate the value of my life.

When Everything Feels Out of Control

The world continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic while the United States confronts the latest horrific manifestation of racism: the murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, countless men and women are struggling to tie frayed ends together in hopes of coping with pandemic-related job loss, the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, and the loss of customary social rituals. Even the luckiest among us have difficulty imagining what happens next.

In times of crisis, we’re forced to reckon with the limits of what we humans can control. Nature is not one of those things; hurricanes and novel viruses will always challenge our preparedness and response.

Celebrating Raised Voices

But even in crisis, whatever its nature, we can control our voices. The human voice is simultaneously the most ordinary and the most extraordinary instrument. Individually and collectively, it can be used to raise up our fellow humans or to denigrate them and incite violence. That’s why I’m heartened by the sight of hundreds of peaceful protests across the country and around the world. The marchers—of multiple hues and ages—have been shouting and singing cries for justice, and they’re being heard.

This painful moment—just one in a stream of never-ending moments for people of color—has amplified the voices of those typically underrepresented in the halls of power from local to federal levels. Many Americans who have escaped confronting the realities of institutionalized racism (brief explanations here and here) are starting to hear those voices. Some are opening their ears wider by reading recent and classic books about racism.

Learning About Race and Culture

At this moment in early June, when anti-racism protests are ongoing, reflections by someone who isn’t black can easily veer into white privilege apologia. But reflect I must. Just because I grew up in Canada doesn’t mean I get a pass to escape confronting institutional racism. (Besides, Canada has its own history of racism, especially regarding First Nations peoples.) The events of the past two weeks have made me examine how my own attitudes toward people of other races formed. What follows is by no means the whole story, but it is a reminder that many small actions and exposures can add up.

It’s easy to believe you’re not a racist if you’ve only been surrounded by people who look like you, as was my early experience. The exception was my favorite high school teacher, Indian-born Mr. Bains, who taught biology and chemistry. When I spent my last two years of high school in a dormitory, I encountered a few students from other countries, mostly Hong Kong. Later, when I transferred to a U.S. college, I was assigned to the International Floor, because I was from Canada. One year, my roomie was a girl from Hong Kong who had attended my high school; other years, I was the foreigner in the room.

I was aware of other races much earlier than high school. I’d always loved to sing, and one of the first songs I can remember singing is “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” whose lyrics call out “red, brown, yellow, black and white.” Somewhere around the time I learned that song, I received a black doll for Christmas. I didn’t get many gifts when I was a kid; I didn’t grow up economically privileged. As I recall, the dark-skinned doll may have been my only gift that year. Either my parents or close family friends whom I called Aunt Linda and Uncle Wilfred gave it to me. I can’t speak for the givers’ intent, but you’ll notice the doll is dressed in the same conventional way I am (no Aunt Jemima look here, as I see online with some other Sixties-vintage dolls), and we share the same hair style. (I remember hating the process of getting a perm—courtesy of Aunt Linda.)

Here’s what’s interesting to me about that experience: I grew up in western Canada and can’t remember ever seeing a black person. Even today in British Columbia, where I lived when I got the black-skinned doll, those with African ancestry account for only one percent of the population. I have to believe the adults in my life wanted me to love that black doll as much as Cindy, the fat-faced white baby doll I’d been given a couple of years earlier. Small actions matter.

As for exposure to black culture, that came first through music. As a preteen in rural Saskatchewan, I listened to a Motown station that I picked up on my dad’s boxy radio from his Air Force training days. Then, during my first year of college, I fell in love with jazz, thanks to classmates who were in the University of Regina Jazz Band; they even played the Montreaux Jazz Festival. My classical music education and performance experiences were formative, but my exposure to jazz was ear-opening.

I may have read a small handful of works by people of color once I transferred to St. Olaf College in Minnesota and switched my major from music to English, but I can’t recall any. Grad school was different. Just as I started work on my PhD at Boston College, curricula were starting to catch up with the culture. Writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, N. Scott Momaday, and other people of color were beginning to get their due respect. The first paper I presented at an academic conference was on narrative voice in The Color Purple.

The eighties were an exciting time to be studying American literature. In addition to the decades-old canon of mostly male and almost entirely white authors, I was exposed to new voices as well as older ones, like Zora Neale Hurston’s, that had been largely neglected by American literature survey courses. When it came time for me to develop my own reading list for such a course, publishers had caught up, and I was able to create a rich, diverse (for the time) syllabus, which was included in the anthology publisher’s resources.

But appreciating, and even loving, the creative work of talented people of color doesn’t guarantee that I or anyone else who might read or teach those works isn’t racist. Anything we do in our personal and professional lives to reinforce or counteract institutional racism matters too. That’s why it’s important to me to vote for candidates who promote policies that ensure equal access to opportunity and to support organizations that guard voting rights. Those are ways this introvert amplifies voices that deserve to be heard.

Making the Invisible Visible

“Invisible” is a word that comes up a lot in both fictional and nonfiction contemporary narratives about women in midlife. For me, that designation will always be associated first with Ralph Ellison’s novel, The Invisible Man, so I’ve long been aware that race can often be a more powerful marker than gender. And, it bears noting, midlife women of color can experience invisibility along multiple dimensions—race, gender, and age being just the most common.

When I wrote Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles, I made the main character white, like me, but I also wanted to represent the diversity of New Mexico, where I now live. Knowing that intent, you may be surprised to hear that there is only one black character in Optics, which is set mostly in Albuquerque. Even that single character—who moves to the desert after experiencing Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—is actually an overrepresentation of African Americans, who constitute just 3.17% of Albuquerque residents. I intentionally included this specific character for his other attributes, in the service of plot.

No one book can capture the fullness of any human experience.

No one book can capture the fullness of any human experience. As I used to explain when teaching literature by people of color, no single author should be expected to represent the totality of the black, Asian-American, Native-American, disabled-American, LGBTQ-American, or midlife female–American experience. We need multiple stories told by diverse voices even to understand those who look like us.

Taking Control

My midlife female characters control what they can. They cannot immediately change those who are ageist or sexist, but they can demonstrate that discrimination on any basis is short-sighted. I cannot address and assuage all the racist, ageist, and other identity biases in one novel, but I can offer a story to sit alongside countless others that, individually and collectively, may open readers’ hearts an inch or two.

As 12-steppers know, sustainable change happens one day at a time.

As 12-steppers know, sustainable change happens one day at a time. Long after anti-racism protesters move from the streets to the sidewalks, their voices will still need to be raised and heard. I believe that’s going to happen in part through stories—thousands of stories that will vary in tone, pitch, length, and rhythm. Together, they will tell the grand story about how we all have more to gain than to lose when we honor each person’s humanity. One story at a time, we learn to hear and see each other.

 

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Optics and the Midlife Woman

Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles—my debut novel—examines both literal and figurative optics: Kris, the main character, is marketing manager for an eyewear company; how she and her over-fifty friends are perceived by others—especially bosses and potential employers—is at the heart of major plot developments.

Women in the vicinity of fifty, give or take a decade, are literally in the middle of their lives. Yet just when they hit their prime in terms of career development and wisdom, society often renders them invisible. In spite of a few actors and entertainers who have gained notoriety for looking fabulous after fifty, the average fifty-plus woman in a corporate milieu has a target on her back. Too often the job market discounts her value, assuming she’s got nothing new to offer.

Ageism is real, but judging people (aloud or internally) by how they look is also an age-old human trait we all express from childhood to elderhood. Meanwhile, we’re all PR flacks, trying to control the optics of our journey through this world, regardless of race, age, sex, or income. I’m no exception.

Women Need to Control the Optics

Managing our personal and professional optics—how we’re perceived by other people—can be a high-stakes game, especially for women. Presenting the perfect balance of warmth and competency during job interviews is one of the most obvious examples. But a razor-sharp résumé and friendly smile aren’t enough. Conveying the ideal package to a prospective employer involves managing the optics of everything from clothing and makeup to posture.

That’s one of the messages in Comeback Careers: Rethink, Refresh, Reinvent Your Success—at 40, 50, and Beyond, which confronts the reality of ageism and offers advice on how to fight it. The book, coauthored by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and her sister-in-law Ginny Brzezinski, counsels women returning to the workforce after a child-rearing gap and those switching careers in midlife to ensure their skills are relevant and updated. Dress and language, the authors add, also need to be contemporary. In a March video interview with Leslie Jane Seymour via her Covey Club, Ginny Brzezinski noted that glasses and haircuts and dress do make a difference in how midlife women are perceived.

That trio held me back from posting a photo on this website for several months.

Clothes Make the Novelist

I’m not fond of having my picture taken and made public even under optimal circumstances—whatever those might be. My Instagram feed, for example (@GailReit), is the antithesis of the selfie-stuffed social media presence.  I’d probably still be virtually invisible online were it not for a previous job that required me to be active on multiple platforms. Even now I avoid posting selfies whenever possible, but an author website must have an author photo, I’m told by the experts. Besides, web crawlers like to find photos, so if you want people to find your work online, you gotta play the algorithm game.

Even though I had a business-appropriate headshot I liked that was less than two years old, it didn’t seem right for an author photo. I didn’t look like any of the other novelists I saw online. Though the white shirt, navy jacket, and string of pearls were suitable (ahem) for a certain type of nonfiction author—which I once was and still am—the ensemble didn’t convey “novelist.”

So what does a novelist look like? Judging by photos of both famous and “emerging” novelists, they seldom wear jackets. Whether the writer is promoted by a big-time PR firm or presenting herself as an indie, jackets—when worn at all—tend to be leather or unstructured.

OK, so I could find alternative apparel in my closet, but then there was the hair. Another reason to procrastinate.

Blame It on the Coronavirus

In response to the New Mexico governor’s (wise) guidance in early March that all nonessential businesses close to the public, my hair stylist was unavailable in April for a scheduled appointment. I normally go three to four months between cuts and enjoy the transition between chin-length and longer hair, but this spring I wanted a reshaping before taking a new headshot.

That’s because back in November we’d tried something new—a much shorter style than usual. The cut was perfectly executed—my stylist is an artist; it just wasn’t me, and it didn’t grow out in a way I was familiar with. So I was ready for a fresh cut—which would have to wait indefinitely.

Meanwhile, my eyewear was also in limbo.

Glasses: An Obvious Metaphor

The eyeglasses on the cover of Optics, the main character’s career in marketing an eyewear brand, and the primary plot are all grounded in the real-world importance of vision care and prescription glasses. But frames can also make a style statement.

Cover of Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife MuddlesI’ve worn glasses since second grade, and I always look forward to the periodic change in frames. As the Brzezinskis note, you don’t put your best face forward with an outdated frame style. I knew I’d need a new author photo before Optics launched, and my current frames were just beginning to show a bit of wear (if viewed from the right angle), so I ordered a new pair when I went for an eye exam earlier this year.

Shortly thereafter, my optician’s office closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. My new Spanish-made frames were somewhere on this planet, though who knew when they’d sit on my nose.

Fighting Perfectionism

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” I tell myself a lot these days as we continue to self-isolate. After all, there’s no single “novelist” look, and the classic image of the author as idiosyncratic in habit and dress simply doesn’t apply to me. Besides, I don’t believe author photos sell books. Covers—that’s another story.

And so, with my hard-won midlife wisdom, I decided to make the best-for-now of my perfectly ordinary self. I gave a few snips to the front edges of my hair, pulled on a favorite sweater, donned my timeless-design frames (which my trendy optician’s shop still sells), and posed for a photo.

The author photo was necessary, but I think you’ll find the novel is sufficient without it. Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles will be available September 1 from online and physical booksellers.

In the end, I realized my angst about the author photo was mostly a coping mechanism. It was about acting as if—as if things that mattered before COVID-19 still matter, and will matter after COVID-19.

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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