The Divining Wand

Discovering authors beyond their pages…

Guest Chandra Hoffman on Dawn Chorus

November 02, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Guest Posts

[Given that Chandra Hoffman’s debut novel Chosen is about family, her guest post could not be more appropriate. Every writer needs someone to believe in them and, here, Chandra shares “a tribute to my mother-in-law who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2008, but who taught me much about balancing the art of balancing motherhood and the writing life.”]

Dawn Chorus

My mother-in-law died in the early hours of August first, while the East Coast birds sang their dawn chorus. It was her favorite time of day, and as we drank tea and watched the sunrise, my family took a teaspoon of comfort in that, that her spirit might be soaring and dipping with the swallows, calling out with the wrens and the finches.

Cheryl and I had planned to write a children’s opera based on this birdsong phenomenon; she brought her flute whenever she visited, because she had to practice for her concert schedule, but also so we might get serious about this opera project. She would do the music, but, “You’re the writer,” she told me.

She always rose with the sun. When she was at our house, it was to make recordings of the birds and chicory coffee and memories with her grandchildren. When we took our annual winter vacation to the Cayman Islands, she was the first up, reading an entire novel on the screen porch, waiting for me to lumber out of bed and join her on the next part of her morning ritual, a walk of the entire Seven Mile Beach, collecting sea glass. At her home in Buffalo, she spent her winter-dark morning hours in the bathtub on the phone, talking shoes and thrift and art with her sister, an even earlier bird on the West Coast.

My mother-in-law and I were well-matched from the moment her son introduced us—high energy, creatively hungry, lovers of vegetables and words and walking. At that point, she had already endured breast cancer for two years, diagnosed at an untimely thirty-seven. Her cancer was a third person in our relationship, someone hunkered down in the backseat behind us, lurking predatorily. We were good at addressing it when it reared up, but even better at ignoring it.

It was a happy day for us all when five years after meeting, her son and I married, when I started affectionately calling her Cherry, when she gave me a heart-shaped antique silver necklace because I was “the daughter of her heart.”

When we were together, we took occasional breaks from Scrabble and walking marathons. She was a big believer in collaborative competition and losing never bothered either of us. If we weren’t cruising thrift or shoe stores, we were crunching rice crackers and carrot sticks, composing children’s stories and contest winning poetry, scribbling them on index cards we kept tucked in her Scrabble dictionary. If she was in Buffalo, where she was the director of UB’s flute program or preparing for concert perfomances from Southern France to Carnegie Hall, we spoke on the phone daily. She talked with my husband on his hour-long commute to work, to me as I washed dishes and folded laundry, and then the capper, several hours doing knock-knock jokes and stories with our young sons in the evening.

When she visited, she welcomed my boys’ early morning companionship–tidepooling on the beach washed in sunrise, stories in the kitchen, breakfast picnics on the porch with the birds serenading, while my husband and I slept in and counted our blessings.

If it truly takes a village to raise a child, she was our village sage. As the years went on, the majority of our beach walk and phone conversations became about ‘our boys’, her son and grandsons, analyzing their behaviors, development and child psychology and gender theories. She sent me beautiful journals, ads for writing contests and articles on motherhood. I have one from her on the concept of ‘thumos’—male energy in young boys that I have worn thin, copied for all my friends with sons.

Once, faced with a crossroads in our lives, the house my husband and I rented going on the market, deep holes in our resumés that reflected our early wanderlust, I asked Cherry’s advice.

“You’re a writer,” she told me again, and I laughed. Our first son was a full time job, born with challenges that required several hours of expensive specialists a week, my constant devotion.

“No, no,” I told her, “I need to do something that makes money.”

She insisted I send out the stories we’d been playing with, things I’d dashed off and sent to her for her keen editing, her economic and whimsical way with words.

“Where would I find time?”

“Get up in the early morning, put on the kettle, put in a load of laundry, and write.”

Instead, I started an event planning company, despite her constant affirmation that I was a writer, despite the fact that her very existence proved a woman could be both a successful mother and artist.

Her cancer moved, breast to lymph to lung and finally, to brain. At her encouragement, I applied to a school in California for my masters in creative writing. The same day I was accepted, I learned I was pregnant, this time with a daughter.

“How can I do this?” I sobbed to her, meaning get my masters three thousand miles away with three kids under the age of five; meaning, be a mother to a little girl?

“Early mornings,” she told me. “Get up before they do.”

I resisted. She had told me for years that she had no sympathy for her college students who came in whining that they didn’t get enough sleep.

“Get over yourself!’ This was one of her favorite sayings, delivered with emphatic affection. “I haven’t slept through the night since I had Jonathan at nineteen!”

“What about the other, being a mother to a little girl?” I whispered, because my relationship with my own mother was often turbulent.
“Think of our relationship as a model,” she told me frankly. “Love her like I love you.”

I finished graduate school, my novel manuscript as my thesis. I had a daughter I named Piper, which means ‘flute player’, because though we all denied it, we were losing our Cherry. In June, she went in for a treatment that injected chemotherapy directly into her tumor-riddled brain and suffered a massive seizure, the beginning of the end.

I finished my novel that summer as she died slowly, still resisting rising in the early mornings. I watched my sons struggle to comprehend their loss, too early an introduction to death. I sobbed for the daughter, her namesake, who would never remember her, and I ached for my husband as he lost the woman who was as much his best friend as she was mine.

In the hospital, Cherry had promised me she would haunt us afterwards, and she did. That summer, we were constantly visited by dragonflies, alighting on the shoulder of my oldest son while he canoed on our pond, sitting on my knee at the beach and buzzing about us as we planted three cherry trees in her memorial garden. On the morning after my novel sold, I stepped outside at dawn to see not one but dozens of dragonflies swirling overhead.

How did I finish that first novel and start my second?

I set my alarm for 5 am, sometimes 4. It’s not pretty. In the winter, it is worse. My house is cold and dark and my bed is warm and full of people I adore. But I tug on the knee-high baby blue fluff momma furry Ugg boots Cherry bought us both on her last Christmas and I put on the kettle, put in a load of laundry and I get started.

Spring and summer, it’s better. I sleep with the windows open so I can hear the birds, often waking ahead of the alarm to turn it off, slipping out of the bed that by morning is a tangle of children’s limbs and lovey blankets and cats and snoring. I sit down with my tea, and my computer, serenaded by the hum of the washer and the beautiful chorus of the birds that my mother-in-law loved.

And then I write, because Cherry taught me you can be a mother and an artist, but you have to get over yourself, and you have to rise with the dawn chorus.

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Book Giveaway: This week Skyhorse Publishing has generously provided The Divining Wand with two Hardcover copies of Kim Stagliano’s All I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Teresa to be given away in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Presenting Debutante Kim Stagliano and All I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Teresa. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

The Revealing of Chandra Hoffman

October 27, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

Debut novelist Chandra Hoffman wrote of what she knew best and, as a result, her book, Chosen, has been captured in this one sentence description:

In the spirit of Jodi Picoult and Anna Quindlen, CHOSEN features a young caseworker increasingly entangled in the lives of the adoptive and birth parents she represents, and who faces life-altering choices when an extortion attempt goes horribly wrong.

Followed by Praise:

“Chandra Hoffman’s CHOSEN is a finely tuned page-turner. With unwavering clarity and genuine empathy born of experience, Hoffman turns the spotlight on her so-real characters, exposing the raw edges of their love and longing and fears. There is no perfect happiness here; instead, there is the unexpected grace of discovering that getting what we want is so often less ideal than wanting what we get. This is an outstanding debut.”__Therese Fowler, author of Reunion and Souvenir

“This riveting debut novel from Chandra Hoffman will keep you on edge until its final glorious pages. Enlightening, terrifying, and big hearted, CHOSEN is a terrific book!”__Ann Hood, bestselling author of THE RED THREAD

The Divining Wand has scheduled a presentation/review of Chosen for Monday, November 8, 2010 but of course, in the meantime, let’s meet the author through her “official” bio:

Since graduating from Cornell University, Chandra has been an orphanage relief worker in Romania, a horse trainer in the Caribbean, a short order cook in a third world hospital, the director of a US adoption program and an event planner for Philadelphia’s Main Line elite.

She has lived in eleven international cities and this wanderlust shaped her writing–in each novel, the setting is its own character, flavoring the story. She prefers to write about everyday scenarios, shining a light on the complexities of situations through the voices of multiple characters. Her debut novel, Chosen, uses the domestic adoption scene of Portland, Oregon as a backdrop to pose the questions “What happens when you get what you thought you wanted?” and “How far would you go if it might not be what you want anymore?”

Chandra received her MFA from Antioch University in 2007. She is now settled back in her hometown outside of Philadelphia with her husband, three young children and an ever-changing menagerie.

Impressive and thought-provoking? Definitely, but now it’s time for even more with Chandra, upclose and personal:

Q: How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A: wife/mom/sister/writer/friend/daughter/runner/nurturer

Q: What is your motto or maxim?
A: Before kids it was “Never say no to an opportunity,” which is why my early adulthood was full of adventures and my resume is full of holes. Now I would say that it’s “One of the best things you can be is flexible.” My kids get tired of hearing that.

Q: How would you describe perfect happiness?
A: family animals success outdoors

Q: What’s your greatest fear?
A: Losing my husband/kids

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A: This isn’t bad, but I’d love to be in GumbaLimba in Roatan with the monkeys and the ziplines and the beach with my family.

Q: With whom in history do you most identify?
A: I can’t come up with anything for this–I don’t think very well in broad sweeping terms. More anecdotal. Tell me a story about someone and I’ll find our human connection.

Q: Which living person do you most admire?
A: I admire my sister, and her ability to follow rules and instructions and recipes. For people I don’t know personally, I admire the lifestyle, writing and ideals of Barbara Kingsolver.

Q: What are your most overused words or phrases?
A: I just asked my kids and they said, “Turn that off.” I’m not a big fan of electronic entertainment.

Q: If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A: I would like natural athletic ability–I definitely wasn’t born with it. I love sports–running, riding, yoga, field and ice hockey, but none of it comes to me naturally.

Q: What is your greatest achievement?
A: Without a doubt, Hayden, Macrae and Piper

Q: What’s your greatest flaw?
A: I am 3-5 minutes late for almost everything, and I almost never fold the laundry when it comes out of the dryer.

Q: What’s your best quality?
A: My ability to (mostly) keep all the balls in the air.

Q: What do you regret most?
A: My husband’s vasectomy–I would love to have one more baby.

Q: If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A: If I could be an angel, briefly, there are a couple of people on the other side I’d like to see.

Q: What trait is most noticeable about you?
A: Creativity or more overtly, my inability to keep my hands still when I am talking.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A: I love TS Garp–when he is running through his neighborhood tracking down speeders.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A: The Once-ler

Q: If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A: Antero Niittymaki is an NHL goaltender and I have a teeny tiny fan crush, mostly for the endearing and quirky things he does but if we met, I doubt I’d be much for conversation.

Q: What is your biggest pet peeve?
A: Bad breath and meat on the bone followed closely by baby talk.

Q: What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A: Motherhood

Q: What’s your fantasy profession?
A: I’m really living it. I feel incredibly blessed to be doing what I love. I guess I would like more security, to know that my books would keep finding their way out into the world, preferably with the same publisher and editor, because I have at least four more novels in me.

Q: What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A: flexibility, generosity, wit

Q: If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A: I would say Nutella but for health, quinoa and roasted kale are pretty tasty and would probably be better at ensuring my longevity.

Q: What are your 5 favorite songs?
A: All I Want Is You – U2 Protection – Massive Attack La Montana – Gipsy Kings They Say It’s Wonderful – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman King of the Dance Hall – Beenie Man

Q: What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
Joy In the Morning – Betty Smith The World According to Garp – John Irving The Lorax – Dr. Suess Bel Canto – Ann Patchett Into The Forest – Jean Hegland

To learn even more about Chandra Hoffman and Chosen, please become a fan on Facebook.

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Beth Hoffman and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is tonight at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in tomorrow’s post. If you enter, please return tomorrow to see if you’re a winner.