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I inhaled this book. My copy of The Penny Tree came in the mail last week, and I took a peek, thinking I’d just sample it and then put it on my TBR pile. Many hours later, in the middle of the night, I was still curled up in my favorite chair, still reading. And when I got to the end, I felt like flipping back to the beginning and reading it all over again. It’s that good. So good that it made me want to take my daughter out into the garden and nail a penny to a tree. So please, treat yourself. Do it now. You’ll thank me.
I first met Holly at the Maui Writers Conference, in the intensive pre-conference retreat. Picture ten writers in a room at a tropical resort, madly reading, critiquing and revising each other’s novels. Okay, don’t picture it. Not a pretty sight, especially because they put me in charge of a group, and I am notoriously messy.
The students in my group that year were talented, intense and driven, but none moreso than Holly. The first thing that struck me was how very generous she was with her fellow writers in the group. But what I remember most of all is reading the draft of her manuscript, a novel called The Tin Box, and getting that twisty feeling in the gut that you get when you realize you’ve discovered something. I was thrilled for Holly, but not at all surprised, when the book was picked up by publishers worldwide and released to great acclaim. Attending the right writers’ conference can be invaluable–believe it.
Now Holly’s third novel, The Penny Tree, is about to be published, yet again to great acclaim. It’s been picked up by foreign publishers and book clubs. If you like really delicious, emotional women’s fiction, this one’s for you. Here’s a brief interview with the always-entertaining Holly Kennedy. She is a kindred spirit, a woman with a great heart, a busy life and a first-class blog. Enjoy!
Q. Okay, tell us what The Penny Tree is all about.
It’s a story about a woman (Annie Hillman) who’s offered a second shot at happiness while coping with the fall-out from her failed marriage. It involves a determined anonymous admirer, a handful of anonymous ads, and the complicated emotional terrain of a family slowly torn apart by their child’s life threatening illness.
Q. Do you have a Penny Tree of your own?
A. No, but I wish I’d been given one when I was growing up, because there were times when I sure could have used one!
Q. Are parts of the story based on real-life events?
A. Yes, there are a few that were borrowed from my life. For example, at a recent family reunion, one of my nieces walked into a plate glass window at a restaurant, followed later by my husband, who was followed by his father moments after that. To me, it was hilarious, because they were from the same family, and I knew I wanted to use this in The Penny Tree. There are more, but any smatterings of fact have been carefully blended into the story. However, to clarify, I’ve never seen a drive-in movie theater burn down, I’ve never met a crazy woman with a feather duster in her back pocket, and my boys have never shaved their heads (yet).
Q. Are any of the characters based on people you know?
A. None of them, although there are coincidences that have been ‘borrowed’ from my life here, too. Unlike Annie, I wasn’t adopted. I’ve never been fired. And I can say with confidence that I’d make a horrible physical therapist. Sadly, though, my nephew was diagnosed with Hystiocytosis when he was three, although he did survive and is now a healthy young man. I have a Newfoundland dog (Sully) and like Annie, I bought my boys goldfish that refused to die, the same goldfish my husband revived with a turkey baster four years later when our air stone tanked.
Q. Your main character often lacks confidence in her role as a mother. Was this intentional?
A. Yes, mostly because this reflects how I feel as a mother. No matter how old we get, we never stop growing or changing, and being a mother is a delicate balancing act as you guide these little minds through life, even though yours often needs guidance as well. So to me, making Annie appear wholly confident in her role as a mother wouldn’t make her real.
Q. In the book, it says, ‘Some people meditated or did yoga before they started their day. Others jogged. Annie paddled with her eyes closed.’ What do you do to unwind?
A. I make a double shot of espresso and I write. For me, nothing else comes close.
“I’ve always wanted to write a novel…”
I hear this a lot. It comes as no surprise to me because I truly believe everyone has a story to tell. But only a few end up actually doing it–getting their stories down and then sending them out into the world. Which ones actually pick up pen and paper, or fire up their computers and actually go for it? There’s such power in taking action on your own behalf, in finally saying, “Today’s the day.”
I have a little card stuck on the bulletin board in my study with a handwritten reminder: “This is your shot.”
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a quick note from Mary Guterson, author of We Are All Fine Here.
“In college, I didn’t know what to do with myself so I became a speech therapist. I figured I could work in the schools, have my summers off, and make enough money to live off of until some Hollywood director discovered me and made me into a movie star. I’d always wanted to be a movie star. Turned out no Hollywood directors were seeking their next discovery in the halls of my suburban Seattle elementary school. Turned out also, I didn’t care for other people’s children. Major career mistake, any way you looked at it.
“One day, a friend of mine pulled a draft of a novel she’d written out of a drawer and handed it to me. I couldn’t believe it. An entire book, written while I’d been doing my best to enjoy the world of lateral lisps and teachers’ lounges. For years, I’d dreamed of writing, but it had always seemed an impossible dream, as unlikely as my becoming a movie star. Who could just sit down and write a book? I stared at my friend’s pile of typed pages. Then I went home and gave it a shot….”
So there you go. What have you done for the writer in you today?
Elsa Watson is proof that you can have a gentle soul, a rapier wit and a fierce intelligence all at once. Could be it’s that degree in Classics from Carleton, combined with service in the Peace Corps, where she and her husband served for two years in West Africa, in Guinea-Bissau, and her tireless work on behalf of West Sound Wildlife Shelter.
In Africa, to pass the long evenings, she tapped into her passion for old stories and myths, and began writing stories of her own. “By the time we returned,” Elsa explains, “I’d finished a few ‘practice books’ and knew I’d found something I loved to do. In 2001, I took my first stab at historical fiction and the pieces began to fall into place. I love balancing my days between research and writing, digging up details about what life was like eight hundred years ago.”
Currently, Elsa is working on two historical novels–The Thieves’ Handbook and The Pirate’s Apprentice, both featuring strong, smart young women who are down on their luck. Crown Books published Maid Marian, a stunning first novel Booklist calls “an intriguing new twist on an old legend.”
A winning blend of action/adventure and female empowerment, Maid Marian gives us her side of the Robin Hood legend, beginning when Marian is a child, long before she meets the famous outlaw of Sherwood Forest. The story is set in medieval times, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, and follows Marian from Warwick castle to Sherwood and beyond. “Because she was born both an orphan and an heiress,” Elsa explains, “Marian is an unusually independent soul. She struggles through the intrigues of court life and regents, and more than once comes face to face with the imposing Eleanor of Aquitane. Marian’s wits and courage are her best assets, and she uses these to create the future she wants for herself.”
The author was inspired by curiosity about the legendary character. “Maid Marian has intrigued me since childhood. I’ve always been a fan of the Robin Hood story, but I could never understand why so much of the attention went to Robin, and so little to Marian. It struck me as strange that her name is so well known, yet no one has a sense of her character beyond her role as Robin Hood’s consort. Once it occurred to me to write her story myself, I couldn’t let go of the idea. I wanted to show how complex her own life might have been, and how she might have struggled with the choices she made.”
The novel is bound to appeal to anyone who loves historical fiction or an old-fashioned romance. “It’s a great choice for young women, since it involves a young heroine who has the will to shape her own destiny,” Elsa says. “Maid Marian is set in England’s Midcountry during the late twelfth century…Tensions ran high during this time–a huge class division separated the ruling Normans from the Saxon underclass. Taxes were also very high, since King Richard needed to finance his Crusades into the Holy Land. Marian sees a great deal of the land and falls in with people from differing classes. She is therefore able to compare castle life with small village life or with the hidden camp in Sherwood forest.”
Elsa approaches the writing process in shifts. “First I spend a month or so on research only, bringing home huge stacks of books from the library on everything from clothes to food, weapons, and animal husbandry. Next, once the story is roughly planned, I’ll begin writing. I write each morning until I’ve finished about six book pages, then I spend the afternoon doing follow-up research and planning out the next day’s writing. And last comes the editing process, in which scenes are cut, scenes are added, and many, many paragraphs are rewritten. It’s a wonderful thing, really, to be able to spend weeks and months shaping a story into whatever it ought to be.”
The library is a key player during the process. “I would be sunk without our library. When I’m researching, I have regular moments of panic that the librarians will see me coming with my huge stack of books and flee the building. But so far, so good! No one batted an eye even when I ordered the Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor five different times over as many months while I was working on a book about pirates. I needed it desperately, but it was popular – I kept having to turn it in so other people could have it, then put myself back into the hold queue.
“I make good use of the inter-library loan system, which lets you order books from all over. I also love the children’s section. I always begin researching a time period there, since kid’s books give such a wonderful overview (and include pictures!). The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] is a real treasure for historical fiction, since it can tell you when words were first used in written English. Lately, I’ve begun to make use of the library’s database system and am looking up New York Times articles from 1916!”
Want to meet Elsa (who is one of my favorite people in the world, btw)? She’s teaching a workshop at the Field’s End conference on April 28. She is irresistible! To visit Elsa online, go to www.elsawatson.net.
Women Take Center Stage:
Author Elsa Watson Recommends…
I, ELIZABETH by Rosalind Miles. “A wonderful, first-person account of Elizabeth I’s life, including the dramatic events within her own family and court.”
PERSUASION by Jane Austen. “Seven years after she turned him down, Anne Elliot meets her former suitor, Captain Wentworth, when he returns from the Napoleonic Wars.”
WIVES AND DAUGHTERS by Elizabeth Gaskell. “A touching, wide-ranging novel that follows half-sisters Molly and Cynthia through the complexities of English society.”
A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E. M. Forster. “Whether in Florence or southern England, Lucy Honeychurch struggles with the same question – to follow convention or her own heart?”
MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather. “Experience the hardships and joys of immigrant life in 1800s Nebraska.”
You know who she is, that angsty girl who stayed up late and cried a lot and lived a deep inner life all through high school. She kept journals and never showed them to anyone. She wrote lines like “i am the moon in the water/stillness surrounded by skim milk…” Okay, maybe you didn’t write stuff like that but I know one teenage girl who did. On second thought–if you say you didn’t write stuff like that, you’re fooling yourself. But here’s the good news. You’re not alone.
My writer profiles on this blog are starting to look like a Gallery of Hotties, which believe me, is not intentional. I just happen to know a bunch of writers who are talented and hot, and they would probably hate me for saying that, but it’s my blog, so there. And stay tuned, because there are more where these came from. In some ways, Kelli reminds me of Garth, in that she is accomplished as well as gorgeous and talented, and yet instead of wanting to set her hair on fire, you find yourself liking her. A lot. And wishing you could meet her. (Which you can.)
The original interview with Kelli was done by Jeannine Hall Gailey, a Seattle-area writer whose first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books. Poems from the book were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and will be included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Evansville Review, and The Columbia Poetry Journal. She’s currently helping edit Crab Creek Review. This interview was previously published in Rock Salt Plum. I’m reprinting Kelli’s comments in their entirety because it’s all just so good. Enjoy!
Kelli Russell Agodon was born and raised in Seattle and educated at the University of Washington and Pacific Lutheran University where she’s recently completed her Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing. She is the author of two books of poems, Small Knots (Cherry Grove Collections) and Geography, winner of the 2003 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. She is the recipient of two Artist Trust GAP grants, the William Stafford Award, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, as well as a Puffin Foundation Grant for her work towards peace with her international poetry broadside series: The Making of Peace. Her poems have appeared or will soon be appearing in places such as The Atlantic Monthly, Prairie Schooner, Meridian, North American Review, the print version of Poets Against the War edited by Sam Hamill and on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor. Kelli’s work is also featured in Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times anthology. She has been a featured poet on the ABC News website for National Poetry Month and awarded a Soapstone Writer’s Residency in Oregon. Currently, she lives in a small seaside community. Visit her website at: www.agodon.com
Small Knots originally started out to be what my chapbook Geography became—a book about one woman’s experience with breast cancer. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that I couldn’t condense a life to only a disease because there was so much more I wanted to explore as a poet and as a woman. I wanted the book to have a greater complexity to it. The subjects I wanted to write about and add to the collection also reflected many of the same themes I had written about in Geography, the idea of loss and the events that happen in our life that slow us down, make us pause and consider the philosophical questions, the basic “why am I here?” When I began to explore the other ideas on my mind, I saw them falling into three categories: generations, love and illness. Those became the three sections of the book and from there, it was just a matter of choosing the best poems to tell the story I wanted to tell….The first section, “Tangle,” focuses on generations, both in our histories and stories, as well as having a daughter and losing a father. The second section “Interweave,” focuses on love and relationships. I wanted to show younger love and also consider the idea of retirement and growing old together. The last section “Stitch,” is the diagnosis of breast cancer and the story of living with the disease. Once I understood my sections, then it just came to be a matter of choosing the best poems to complete the stories.
There were a lot of favorite poems that I didn’t use. Mostly in the first two sections, I had to make choices on which poems helped the reader move forward and gain a better understanding of the book/narrative as a whole, and which poems took the reader out of the story or sent them in other directions. I actually have two other manuscripts in process because for me, theme, coherence and a larger vision for a book is very important. I wish I could just pack all my favorite poems in a book and say, “Here you go!” But my mind doesn’t work that way. I think at heart I’m a storyteller and so I’m constantly trying to weave a narrative thread through my work. The positive of all this is that I have some great poems ready for my second collection.
Many of what I consider the “Northwest writers” have had a strong influence on my work, Richard Hugo, in making me rethink my sentences and deleting words like “but” and “then.” I always remember his suggestion that the reader will put two ideas together without us holding his or her hand. William Stafford, in the simplicity of language, and using words not to show our own intelligence or appear perhaps wiser than we actually are, but to convey an idea to another. Also, I’m influenced by Stafford’s dedication to peace as well as writing political poems. I was definitely influenced by Sylvia Plath’s wordplay, creating words and images like “moth-breath” “wedding-cake face.” I like the noun-noun combos in her poems very much. I’m influenced by [Edna St. Vincent] Millay, less by her individual poems, more in the way she chose to live her life as a poet. Her confidence, her activism─she was ahead of her times in what she was writing. More recent poets I’ve been influenced by are Li-Young Lee, for the spiritual aspects that layer his poems, Olena Kalytiak Davis for her edginess (of which I have none), Naomi Shihab Nye for how to tell a story and write with a larger vision, Aimee Nezhukumatathil for her playfulness, Martha Silano for her incredible use of language, Susan Rich for her strong narrative poems, and Bob Hicok for being able to go from image to image and somehow make it all work out.
My first poetry mentor in college was Linda Bierds at the University of Washington. She was incredibly supportive to me as a poet and many of things I learned from her twelve years ago, I still return to today. In the mid-nineties, I met another poet named Paula Gardiner, who was the person I turned to for support when I left my 60-hour-a-week corporate America life to move to a small rural village and focus on my writing. Currently, I have a couple of writing groups I turn to when I need feedback on poems, as well as a few other poets I can email poems to if I need to work through something….I’m a perfectionist myself and I revise poems extensively, but the feedback from others helps me understand what isn’t coming across in the poem and where I may be losing people.
I think we are all writers of some sort. Everyone has their own unique, individual story; I guess the key is to know which parts to tell. Picasso said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think we’re all creative beings, the challenge is to keep that, whether it is writing, painting, dancing. We need to keep that creativity in a prioritized place in our lives.
I think it’s important for writers and artists in general to have solitude, time strictly for themselves and their art. I think women, mothers in particular, have a harder time of taking or finding that time for themselves. For so many years, women were asked to put their goals and passions to the side so they had enough energy and time to take care of whatever else needed tending. The problem with that attitude is that you can’t care for others if you aren’t taking care of yourself and it’s an easy to way to bring feelings of resentment into your situation. I definitely don’t believe people with families (male or female) can take off for a year and disregard the family part of their life, but there needs to be a balance. It’s a mix supporting the people you love by caring for them as a mother, wife, friend, or daughter, but also making sure you are being supported by them in that you’re allowed the time you need to create.
Balance is the key. For me, Soapstone allowed me a chance to intensely focus on my collection. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly hard to leave my family for a week and I had a lot of guilt about leaving my young daughter with my husband while I drove to Oregon to be alone. But the time there was so important to me, I probably wouldn’t have finished Small Knots or learned so much about myself had I not gone. And through the experience, we all gained confidence; my husband in knowing he could take care of my daughter without my help, my daughter in knowing that her father could give her the care she needed and that I would return to her, and I gained confidence in my writing and knowing that what I do is important. And when I returned, I was greeted with the best welcome home hug. By the next day, things were back to their regular routine, as if I hadn’t gone.
[My blog and] the internet definitely keep us better connected to our favorite writers, especially poets and writers who keep a homepage with their reading schedule, blog or new projects. For me, I love to read other poets’ blogs because it reminds me that we are all going through the same things—rejection, self-doubt, and insecurity, mixed in with some success, acceptances, and joy. I forget many times when I’m writing on my blog that others are reading it. I do a lot of it as a sort of free-write meditation, high-tech journaling, I guess. It’s nice when people comment or email me about something I’ve written. It’s also been good for me to return to earlier times in the blog to see where I’ve been, either good or bad, as it reminds me that things pass and that it’s not always about rejections or acceptances, just a lot of everything in between. And a few of these blog entries have gone on to be poems or parts of poems. I think the net is a positive place for poets and poetry lovers because there is an enormous amount of well-written poems out there to consider. Readers and writers can step away from their region and see a much greater variety of poetry. It takes away “regional writing” because we have so many poems from so many places at our fingertips. The diversity of writing is incredible.
I’m not really someone who writes when they’re inspired. If I waited for inspiration, I’d probably have two poems a year. I’m usually inspired by reading other poets, so if I need a jumpstart to my writing, I’ll grab a favorite book of poems and read a few and see if anything comes from it. Mostly, my work begins with me sitting down and starting a poem to see if it goes anywhere. I have a huge number of poems in my “In Process” file that will never see the light of day. But I keep them and occasionally I’ll go through that file and something will get my attention and I’ll start the revision process. Sometimes it works, sometimes not and it returns back to the file until another day. I am always revising. When I can’t write, I open four or five poems on my computer and begin revising them. Sometimes something great comes out of it, sometimes not. I always sort my “In Process” poems by date and I pull up the newest poems first to work on. After awhile I’ll look further back in the file and find some older poems, which is always fun, especially if I don’t remember working on them. Then it’s as if I’m revising someone else’s poem, which seems easier for some reason. I think the distance in time does a lot when I’m revising. A poet I know always says, “We love our newest poems most,” and it reminds me of how a baby can do no wrong. I’ll look at the poem a few months down the road and I’ll start to see its weak points, where the reader could get lost. When a poem is new and so close to us, we just see its beauty and freshness, and it can take awhile to see its flaws. I guess that’s another reason for workshops or critique groups. I take some poems there, though some poems never go. But it’s a good way to see how others are receiving your poems. I use workshops less for the details (though they are always helpful), but more to understand what ideas I’m conveying to the readers and what story they are getting from the poem.
The best advice I can give [to emerging writers], which was given to me as an undergrad from my professor David Wagoner, is to “read, read read.” At the time he gave it to me I thought it was terrible advice, but I’ve learned there is nothing that makes you a better poet than reading a huge amount and large variety of poems. Read as much poetry as you can, old and new. Buy books of poems and subscribe to literary journals. Learn from the poets that are alive today. Learn what works and what doesn’t from their poems. The more you read, the more you will discover your own voice and what you have to say. Read as much poetry as you can, then write. The other advice I’d give to young writers trying to break in is “Don’t fret rejections.” We all get them. They aren’t the best thing in the world, but they aren’t a reason to quit writing or submitting either. If you feel poetry is your path and you need to write, keep going despite the rejections and continue to work to get better. Also, start submitting to local and regional literary journals first. Community colleges have great journals, and if you’re accepted, a lot of times you get to participate in a reading. They are a great place to break into publishing. As you gain a few credits, continue submitting but start to choose more competitive journals. And always be as professional as you can when submitting, clean, easy to read copies, clear cover letter, things like that. I think writers’ conferences and poetry festivals are wonderful and fun places to learn and improve. They are also a great place to meet other poets, hear what’s being written today and discover new poets. I always appreciate hearing the “behind the scenes” stories that poets tell. These are the people future generations will be studying; we have the opportunity to hear and support them now, which I think is wonderful.
Now that I’ve finished my Master of Fine Arts, I feel as if I’ve just come to a new town; I’m just going to have a cup of coffee and look around for awhile. As for writing projects, I’ve just finished a second poetry manuscript and have started submitting it. So right now, I see a lot of open doors in front of me, I may choose one or just sit back for a while and enjoy the view.
This week, I fielded the most unusual permission request of my career. My agent called to say a reader has inquired about permission to use a line from The Winter Lodge—on a headstone. Every once in awhile, my publisher gets a request to use text from a book for the usual reasons–to use in a class or excerpt. This request, of course, is a first.
The text? It’s the epitaph from the grave Jenny visits at a key moment in the story: “Step softly. A dream lies buried here.” Ironically, it’s not original so the permission wasn’t needed. I don’t remember where I saw the phrase. Probably wandering around a cemetery, reading headstones, which is not something I do often, but every once in awhile, I find myself in such a place. It’s one of those things that stays in your mind, brief and powerful, so you don’t even have to write it down in order to remember it.
The writer in me is like that, a magpie picking up bright, shiny things that catch her attention, and collecting them. A lot of the “kitchen wisdom” in Jenny’s recipes from THE WINTER LODGE came about in the same way. Wise women–my grandmothers, mother, aunts, friends–all contributed in their way.
Today I’ll think about this reader, who lost someone precious and found a few words to express her sorrow in such an unlikely place.
It’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of my first book. My debut novel was published in April, 1987.
At the time, I was writing two types of fiction. The G.A.N. (Great American Novel) and romance novels. Here is my first author photo. Jay took it with his ancient Nikon SLR and the reason for this Goth-in-the-headlights look is that I was trying to resemble a Serious Novelist who can’t be bothered to straighten up her bookshelves or smile. The dress has literary significance, which I was sure readers would notice. I bought it in San Miguel de Allende, where we went one year because there was a reference to it in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Back then, we were scraping by on teachers’ salaries, our daughter was two, we had been married nearly seven years and it appears I had no budget for getting a haircut. I probably didn’t have the time, what with the baby, husband and job. My writing time was restricted to nine to midnight every night, and I wrote two books a year that way. (This might explain why my daughter is an only child.) I wrote my first drafts in longhand and typed them up on an ancient Olivetti manual typewriter. After finishing two manuscripts that way, I upgraded to a Sears “Correct-O-Ball” electric typewriter and wrote the next one on that. I tried some sort of computer called an “Adam” which saved its data on a cassette tape and it was a godawful machine. But I sold that book and a few more and got a decent computer made by Bell that had a program called “WordPerfect 4.2” on it.
Here I am 20 years later, able to afford help with the hair, makeup and photographer (and much more in need of same than the girl above). I’ve given up trying to be serious, and it’s working well for me. Some things that haven’t changed–I still write in longhand on the same kind of paper with the same kind of pen. I still write multiple drafts. I still use WordPerfect (X3, I think). I still haven’t written the G.A.N. but I’ve had a lot of books published. So life is good.
Sitting down and writing a novel is a solitary pursuit, but actually making a 20-year career out of being a published author takes a dedicated team. So many people have helped me along the way and at the risk of hearing a swell of get-off-the-stage music in my head, I’d like to thank some of them here:
- My family, who never set any limits on my dreams and who who made growing up all over the world an adventure
- My adorable husband, for giving me the reason for all this
- My girlfriends (and you know who you are), cheerleading me on and taking the time to read every book I write, even when their book clubs are reading lit-rah-choor
- Wendy McCurdy, then an editor at Kensington Books, for buying that first novel
- The Petri Dish (and you have no idea who you are, but then again, neither does anyone else)
- My writers’ groups on the island and mainland, and organizations for writers–the Authors Guild, RWA, Novelists, Inc. and Field’s End
- My literary agent Meg, aka the Don King of publishing
- My truly gifted editor, editorial director and the whole chain-of-command at my publisher
- My CPA and bookkeeper for taking care of business
- Booksellers, reviewers and librarians for getting the word out and putting my books in readers’ hands
- …and readers everywhere. There is no writing career without you.
Happy anniversary to me!