Life Beyond Writing Q&A: Rosecrans Baldwin

Twenty questions for authors, none about writing. Some questions are not in the form of a question.

We begin with ROSECRANS BALDWIN, author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. (See below for purchase links.)

1. Rename yourself.

RB: Bart Savagewood.

2. Satan hoofs up and says two words to you. What are they?

RB: Sit. Stay.

3. Give us an A+ summer song.

RB: “Why Did You Do It,” by Stretch. [Youtube]

4. What is the worst injury you’ve ever sustained?

RB: Fractured ankle.

5. Form a supergroup using any four musicians, living or dead, that would be thoroughly awesome to experience, for better or worse.

RB: James Brown + Destiny’s Child.

6. What was your best Halloween costume?

RB: Sherlock Holmes. (This was also pretty much my only Halloween costume.)

7. Tell us something you built.

RB: Recently? A monster desk constructed from IKEA desk parts.

8. If you could safely have one non-domesticated animal as a lifelong companion, what would it be? (Fantasy creatures are allowed.)

RB: Hawk.

9. What do you like to grow?

RB: Figs.

10. Name a thing you love that nobody else you personally know also loves.

RB: Richard Hawley.

11. How would you like those eggs?

RB: In a taco.

12. What’s the worst thing about your favorite holiday?

RB: Nothing. I really like Thanksgiving.

13. You’ve just been turned into a lousy superhero. Who are you, and who is your nemesis?

RB: Drywall / The Tack.

14. Name a thought that has profoundly scared you in the night.

RB: Poverty.

15. You’re stinking rich. What’s the first thing you add to your home?

RB: Complete ownership.

16. What are you up to this weekend?

RB: Having dinner with friends.

17. Which color makes you feel the most comfortable? The most anxious?

RB: All / none.

18. What is the strangest job you ever had?

RB: Ambulance driver as a 16-year-old.

19. I mean honestly: aren’t you better off living without ___?

RB: Fish oil capsules?

20. James Cameron discovers something new at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. What do you hope it is?

RB: My next novel.

Rosecrans Baldwin is the author most recently of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down. His debut novel, You Lost Me There, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2010 and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Web sites: The Morning News, Official Author Site

Buy his books:

Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down

Barnes & Noble

You Lost Me There

Barnes & Noble

Pumpkin Seedlings in the Ground

Five of the six giant-pumpkin seeds germinated over the week. I’m planting three outdoors and keeping the other two (as long as I can) as emergency backups.

The seedlings are planted at the far end of the patch, where the morning and early-afternoon sun shines most directly. After digging three holes and filling each with forty pounds of humus/manure, I mix in a handful of mycorrhiza (a beneficial fungus that increases the root system’s nutrient and water intake; it comes in granules) and gently remove the seedlings from their starter pots. Then I give them a drink of warm water and extreme blend powder (from Extreme Pumpkin Store) and hope they aren’t too shocked by the transplant.

As I wrote in an earlier post, by delaying my start-time by a few weeks this year, the transplant is occurring with warmer air and soil. This ought to reduce the stress and allow them to flourish more quickly. I keep the plants protected from chilly weather, hail, pests, and curious puppies by covering the planting area with a popup greenhouse, making sure to ventilate on hot, sunny days. The greenhouse will remain until the vines outgrow the space. By then I’ll have a makeshift fence to keep Bones from uninhibited access, though it’ll really be a matter of training him not to trample and eat the vines.

Pressurized Eggplant: A Plumbing Tale

Since I don’t wish to name names, allow me to say that anyone who is currently married to me is hereby advised not to dispose of eggplant down the kitchen-sink garbage disposal.

Last night, water from the dishwasher backed up into the kitchen sink and downstairs bathtub. Foul gray water, full of sediment and eggplant. Down in the basement, the kitchen pipe meets the bathtub pipe before it all flows into the giant outflow pipe, and the semi-shredded eggplant had jammed up tight in that particular spot. Everything else in the house bypassed the clog, so we still had a functional upstairs shower, two bathroom sinks, and both toilets. But once I had isolated the clog, I realized there was no easy way to attack it.

The Pipes:

As you can see, the bathtub drain pipe is one twisty mofo, and the chance of successfully feeding an auger down to the clog was zero. I tried plunging the tub drain to no avail, which meant that one of two remaining options–an option I did not like–was opening that white safety cap that juts off the side and feeding the auger in that way. Opening that cap, however, would release the hideous water stuck in the pipe, and said water would need to be caught in a big garbage can or something, and I would assuredly be a gray-eggplant-water-soaked mess by the time it was all over.

Option #2: CRL Power Plumber. I’ve used this stuff before and it’s miraculous. The can is full of non-toxic pressurized gas. You invert the can over the drain, press down, and blast the trapped water against the clog. The gas is super-cold; ice crystals appear after use, and you can apparently get frostbite if it hits your skin directly. I love it dearly.

I wasn’t sure it’d work this time. The clog was way beyond the drain (see pipe picture above), and the blast would have to move the water down the long twisty tub drain and then, at the t-junction, have enough oomph to blow in both directions and still affect the clog way off to the left.

Worth a shot. I removed the bathtub’s drain cap and overflow-drain face plate. Then I stuffed the overflow drain with a wet cloth to contain the pressure, put the can over the tub drain (there was still backed-up water in the tub, which is actually ideal when you’re using CRL), and blasted away. It took half-a-dozen attempts but then I heard that glorious sucking sound, the water began to move, and lo:

Easy Chair

Always some damn thing interfering with the Peaceable Law and Order of my daily schedules. Having Bones around has made for happy chaos, but chaos nonetheless.

My work desk is usually a little orderly but currently boasts three coffee mugs, an uncharged wireless receiver, a roll of poop bags, several unpaid bills, flea/tick medicine, a bag of pumpkin seeds, multiple books, two external hard drives, a live rattlesnake, a bomb with a sparking fuse, a very small man that may or may not be a leprechaun, and the shadow of a sword suspended by a single hair directly over my head.

My workdays have been similarly cluttered. But I’ve found that whatever I intend to do on any given day, writing and exercise are the only self-appointed tasks I have to accomplish, or else I wind up feeling anxious or down at the end of the day, even if I’ve managed to complete lots of other items along the way. And I tend to finish my entire list more consistently if I accomplish those two priorities prior to everything else. And 9 times out of 10, the struggle to complete a day’s writing comes from scatter and distraction, which I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have a big to-do list weighing on my mind, so there’s the Catch-22 of needing to write before working on the rest of the list and being unable to write because the list preoccupies me, and I hate it when my brain works this stupidly, I really do.

I’ve got the exercise part covered because I go to the gym first thing in the morning, when I’m too tired to rationalize skipping. The remainder of the day is where it all goes awry.

Simple fix: inviolable writing time. It worked well this morning. From 9a-1p, I turned off my iPhone, unhooked the internet, sat in a comfortable chair with an ottoman, and wrote longhand. I worked 45 minutes, then took a 15-minute break to be with Bones and pour another cup of coffee. I did the 45/15 split a few more times, got a ton of writing done, and plan to key it into the computer this afternoon. Obvious and easy: I had to unplug and willfully ignore my other obligations. The result was enjoyable, productive time with zero chatter.

Now I can finish this post, clean my desk, deal with the leprechaun, and fold laundry.

Giant-Pumpkin Seed Germination 2012

Last night I took out my big bag of seeds from the 314-lbs. pumpkin I grew in 2010. When I originally gathered those seeds, they were cleaned, dried, baggied, ziplocked, and stored in a cool, dark box, and they’re still in excellent condition.

Giant-pumpkin seeds tend to be thicker than regular seeds, so I do a presoak to soften them up… just an hour or two in warm water mixed with liquefied seaweed; some growers believe the seaweed gives the plants a jumpstart, and since I already have the seaweed for later in the season, I figure it can’t hurt.

Next I gently file the edges of the seeds (everything but the tip, where the delicate embryo is) so moisture can more easily penetrate the shell. I wet a bunch of peat pots; a dry peat pot will wick moisture out of the planting medium and I need to keep everything lightly damp at all times.

Seed-starter mix is added to the pots, just wet enough to barely hold together when it’s squeezed. The seeds are planted tip-down an inch below the surface and lightly covered. Then the pots are placed on a heating pad to keep them warm. If all goes well, the seedings will emerge in less than a week. The seed itself contains just enough energy to get its head in the air. After the seedling is up, the first leaves, or cotyledons, need light to keep growing… not too much direct sunlight or else they’ll burn, but more and more each day until they’re ready to go outside.

I’m germinating later than usual this year. In previous seasons, I’ve started the plants on May 1 and had to wait longer to plant them outside because the overnight temperatures were dangerous cold, even with a temporary greenhouse enclosure. The plants simply don’t grow in chilly air and soil, so they tend to stall a while anyway. This year I’m hoping they’ll respond quickly after I transplant them into the warmer outdoor patch, and any time I lost waiting until May 15 will theoretically be overcome by faster early growth.

I need a fence to keep Bones from eating/trampling the plants, but I will have that temporary greenhouse in place for the first several weeks. We had quite the super happy funtime shoveling compost (last year’s ruined pumpkin, maple leaves, etc.) into a wheelbarrow and over to the patch. Bones kept biting the shovel, leaping into the compost bin, and chasing every shovelful I tossed into the patch. He had a grand old time. It’s a miracle I was able to get the job done, but it was nice having an enthusiastic partner.

Bones Mahoney

Max, our eighteen-year-old cat, died early last week. I was really close to this cat and don’t feel like writing about him yet, but we suddenly have a dog and so I’ll write about that.

My wife and son led the charge on getting a dog so quickly after Max died, though we had talked for years about “getting a dog eventually whenever our poor old achy cat passes on.” We wanted a rescue dog, preferably a mix, not too big and not too small, playful but snuggly, the kind of dog that looks like a dog in the most generic, plain-old-dog sense of the word.

My wife made the perilous move of looking up Homeward Bound and discovering online photos of cute and lovable puppies, which even in our sadness over Max, or perhaps because of the empty-house vulnerability we were all experiencing, convinced us that we had to rescue one of these particular pups as soon as possible, because what if, what if, he or she was destined to be our family pet and our inaction, though perfectly reasonable given our cat grief, resulted in a Badly Thwarted Cosmos or, God forbid, the tragic euthanasia of Unadopted Cuteness? We applied the next day.

We liked one litter best — a set of spaniel mixes (two border spaniels, two boradors) — and went to meet the whole pack of homeless dogs on Saturday morning at a rundown local mall. It’s a place that used to thrive but now, for reasons that are difficult to pin, is empty of virtually everything expect a decent movie theater, a JCPenny at the far end, and a couple of depressing stores that sell incense, dreamcatchers, and pewter dragons (it’s likely even those have closed; I didn’t check). An ideal location, in its way, for a weekly adoption clinic. I suspect it makes the mall smell better.

The minute we arrived, we were greeted by a tawny pup who, as if confirming our cosmic suspicions, had unexpectedly arrived overnight from a high-kill shelter in Kentucky. He would have been euthanized in a matter of days but Homeward Bound saved him, bringing him all the way up to find a home here in upstate NY. We still had our eyes fixed firmly on the litter we’d considered, but here came the Kentucky stranger, over and again, full of friendly action, licking our son, jumping into my lap (to be cradled, not to pounce), and rolling on his back in total submission to my wife. None of the pups we’d planned to chose from gave us any kind of serious attention.

My parents brought their own dog, a terrific sporty Dachshund named Howard, and he and the Kentuckian hit it off right away. This was crucial… we spend a lot of time with my parents and need our dogs to be Bosom Friends. Homeward Bound approved our application more or less immediately. I expected them to say we’d acquire our puppy in several days, once proper arrangements had been made with his foster family. But nope, he was ours on the spot, so before I really grasped what was happening, we had a dog named Bones wagging around the house.

He’s a Jack Russell mix of some kind. Homeward Bound said he was mixed with boxer. Friends and family disagreed. Today at the vet we heard “lab” and “German shep” and discovered he’s probably four months old instead of six, as we were told at the clinic, and so we really don’t know what the heck he is except capital-A awesome and exactly what we wanted.

He was found roaming the streets of Winchester, KY. That’s all the early history we got. He was neutered shortly after being found and got his early shots. But he must have had some training, too, because he’s already pretty good at Sit, Stay, Come, and peeing/pooping outside. He’s great with things that puppies are supposed to have to learn, like soft biting, letting go of toys when nicely asked (even marrow bones and antlers, which he loves), submitting to inner-thigh, belly, face, and tail handling like he’s trusted us for years. He’s been great with every stranger he’s met and seems inquisitive and active — not aggressive — around the few other dogs that we’ve encountered. Today we had the Best Nap Ever on the couch and played with a toy skunk. He rarely barks, and when he does he has a respectable reason.

He’s currently 16 lbs. Not knowing his actual mix, he might double or triple in size by the end of his first year. But that’s OK because he’s home no matter what, and while we still miss our old cat Max, whom my wife got before she even met me 17 years ago and was a member of the family for the entirety of our son’s life, Bones became a permanent Mahoney as soon as we walked into that hopeless old mall.

Fellow Mortals After All

My forthcoming novel was originally called Fellow Mortals, a title I chose because “fellow” is a good-sounding word that expressed the community vibe of the story, and “mortals” because the book is preoccupied with death and loss and moving on with our lives in spite of the specter of mortality, and also because an earlier version made explicit use of Greek mythology and “mortals” has a classical Greeky quality. (The singular “mortal” might have indicated that my book was a drugstore thriller, which sadly it is not.) Fellow Mortals was easy to pronounce and short enough to remember and fit the book, so win-win-win.

But then I had second thoughts because I cut most of the mythology (it started feeling to me like very pretentious first-novelist stuff), and my aunt and mother could never remember the title when friends and relatives asked, and, as the FSG publicity director noted, it sounded rather like something Cicero might have pronounced before the Senate.

I liked Pine because a lot of the book is set in the woods and there was the double-meaning of grief/yearning. But marketing worried it was too quiet and vague, and after weeks of batting around, oh, hundreds of unsuccessful word combinations that ranged from overpoetic to not-quite-right t “Dennis Needs to Step Away and Clear His Head”, my editor and her boss put their brains together and thought, you know, Fellow Mortals works great for this thing, and I found myself in total agreement.

So, to quote Cicero in a way that may or may not be relevant, “Saepe autem ne utile quidem est scire quid futurum sit; miserum est enim nihil proficientem angi nec habere ne spei quidem extremum et tamen commune solacium*,” and I’m calling the book Fellow Mortals and figure it’ll work out fine when hypothetical readers want to recommend it to their hypothetical friends.

Oh hey, I have an author site, too: Which is basically an old-timey splash page circa 1997 and seemed the best way to direct random visitors here to the blog, the book, or my contact info. Please LIKE it with the Facebook button when you have a chance.

My About page has a link to a giant high-res copy of my author photo, taken by John Oberlander of Oberlander Group, who’s a great guy and a talented photographer. We went for the serious-but-approachable, smiling-with-the-eyes expression, and I encourage you to download and deface my image in Photoshop. If anyone wishes to email their defacements, perhaps I’ll post a few for public enjoyment.

dmahoney at gmail dot com

* Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.6.14: “Moreover, often it’s not even advantageous to know what’s going to happen; for it’s wretched for a man to be tortured [by foreknowledge] when he’s powerless to do anything about it, and to lack even the last consolation of hope, which is available to all.”

The Vulgar Tongue

The novel I’m working on now is set in a supernatural colonial New England: an alternate early America with its own geography, history, and idiosyncrasies. So I get to make stuff up whenever I need or want to without some finicky expert crying, “Rhubarb wasn’t introduced to North America until 1789*!”

But I chose this era because I love it and want to live in such a place for the next several years of my imaginary life. So historical semi-accuracy matters to me, and fact is often stranger (and better) than fiction, and I plan to use whatever terrific details I find in the course of my research, which isn’t research in the negative sense of the word but crazy good times reading books about colonial taverns and war and criminal masterminds and bread riots and the like.

Which brings me to a question I incorrectly posed via Twitter last week: where to find a comprehensive list of 17th century profanity? I meant 18th century (my brain is stupid sometimes), but an old friend came through with an excellent answer: Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). I found a $1 hardcover copy online and it’s just the ticket. Here’s a description:

A fascinating and hilarious collection of all the words and phrases that raised eyebrows in the 18th century. The original 1796 alternative dictionary of ‘The Vulgar Tongue’ educated readers in the correct usage of colloquialisms, slang and old English idioms. Includes those familiar entries such as ‘mealy-mouthed’, originally meaning over-modest, and revives classics that should never have been forgotten, such as ‘apple dumplin shop’ for a woman’s bosom, ‘nit squeeger’ (a hairdresser) and ‘flaybottomist’ (a teacher)…No true aspiring vulgarite should leave home without it.

You can read the later 1811 version online at Project Gutenberg: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Some personal favorites after a quick perusal are ‘laced mutton’ (a prostitute), ‘duke of limbs’ (a tall, awkward fellow), and ‘resurrection men’ (grave-robbers employed by anatomy students).

* I made this date up. Which I can do in my world.

Giant Pumpkin Season 2012

Giant pumpkin season is here. The serious competitive growers are stretching closer every year to a 1-ton world record. The current record, set last year, is 1,818.5 lbs. You can see that pumpkin here.

My own attempts are far more modest. I read some books about serious pumpkin growing a number of years ago and found myself hooked. Backyard Giants is a terrific account of the early competitive growers that got the sport rolling, and I suspect I’m not the only one who caught the bug by reading it. For the best advice on how to grow a giant yourself, Don Langevin’s books are the definitive resources. There’s even an organic edition for those wishing to avoid the nastier pesticides/herbicides.

Several years ago, I grew some ordinary pumpkins in our small backyard and had such a good time that I expanded operations, digging up a larger plot and scoring a 50-pounder the following summer. By 2010, I’d grown obsessed (I get obsessed with things) and managed to grow a 314-pounder, pictured below:

Last year I had a nice one growing in August but a groundhog chewed it up and I couldn’t save it. Most serious growers have at least a half-dozen plants, so if catastrophe occurs they always have backups. Our yard is simply too small to handle more than one. My patch is about 300 square feet and really ought to be double that. A single vine will easily fill the space in the course of a summer. But having only one heightens the drama, I suppose, and it’s definitely possible to grow a 500-pounder in my yard if everything goes well.

There’s a good chance this is the last year I’ll be growing big pumpkins, although one can never tell with obsessional behavior. I have seeds of excellent lineage (more on that in future posts) and will plant them indoors, in peat pots, in the next week or two. I always start with 4-6 plants and go with the strongest grower.

I’ll be writing updates every Tuesday throughout the season, detailing each step of the way and, I hope, growing a nice fat pumpkin for the fall.