Friday, February 25, 2011

A new name for Romeo

Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee
I’ve always loved the name “Elio”. It comes from the Greek Helios, meaning “sun”. For an Italian name, it’s comparatively short and rolls off the tongue with perhaps the loveliest sound in any language, “l”. In all my years in Italy I only ever ran into one person named Elio, so to me it also feels crisp and fresh, a name without history.

But now I have to ditch it. As a name in my manuscript, that is. I won’t go into a detailed explanation as to why “Elio”, the fictitious name for my lead male character, must go, but I will say rather mysteriously that it has something to do with an astrological sign, a top-hundred list and a very confident Irishman.

Darnit. The name Elio was so very well suited to the real-life “character” in my memoir: a brilliant geology student from a small town chain-smoking his way to big dreams. Of course, the actual name of this geologist would have been an even better match, encapsulating as it does his succinctness, earthiness and ties to tradition, without giving away an ounce of volatility. But the geologist has already graciously agreed to appear in my book, along with his personal emails, so I think it would be a bit too much to ask to use his real name as well. His hometown is, after all, a village of only 1,372 souls: how long do you think it would take before every man, woman and goat was whispering his name on the streets?

Over time I’ve worked my way through a mental list of Italian names, without ever finding a suitable substitute. In each potential name, I see only faults. This one’s too long, this one’s hard to say, this one – unfortunately – was the name of the Neapolitan butcher who used to hang bloodied rabbit skins in his shop window. In fact, I think you’ll agree with me that the following names, for various reasons, simply don’t work:

Too long – Alessandro, Francesco, Giovanni, Domenico
Short but dorky – Afro, Divo, Ulfo
Too aristocratic – Baldassare, Ambrosiano, Eustorgio, Fiorenziano, Ludovico, Pierluigi
Too ghetto – Peppino, Guido, Pippo, Gennaro
Too foreign – Valter, Igor, Omar, Sigfrido
Good but belonging to another character in the book – Leo, Gerardo, Luca
Too famous – Cesare, Dante, Dionisio, Napoleone, Ponzio, Socrate, Ulisse
The name’s meaning doesn’t match the character – Innocente, Modesto, Immacolato, Libero (= free), Orso (= bear), Primo (= first), Ultimo (= last)
Forever tainted for English-speaking audiences – Benito, Tito, Quasimodo, Elmo

At this point, there are only a handful of contenders towards which I feel, at best, lukewarm: Ennio, Ezio, Caio, Ivo, Manolo, Lino, Nico. I probably like this last one best, but we used to have a beautiful dog named Nico, the kind of pooch with sad eyes who, without a leash, would sit for ages waiting for you outside the supermarket, and all night long would poison the bedroom with thunderous, noxious gases. I just don’t know if I can get past this association with the name Nico.

So maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a great name for the Romeo in my manuscript, a name that will make all the girls melt like buffalo mozzarella. A name that’s somewhat traditional but doesn’t remind you of the hairy Sicilian who used to run the pizza parlor on the corner. A name that’s relatively short and easy to pronounce for an English-speaking audience. A name you would give to your own newborn son, if it weren’t for the fact that you once read a bestselling book called Lost in the Spanish Quarter, and so the name will forever remind you of that heartbreaker from a small town near Naples.

Any suggestions?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bedtime story

My grandfather, whom we called Papaw, was good at many things including growing green beans, teaching dream interpretation, baking cinnamon bread and playing competitive senior-citizen tennis. But for us grandkids, his greatest talent was telling bedtime stories.

Papaw’s real name was Bob and so, of course, all the heroes of his stories were called Bob. Cowboy Bob. Garden-boy Bob. Spy-boy Bob. Fish-boy Bob. They all started the same way, with young Bob’s mom packing him a sandwich in a paper bag before he answered his call to adventure, Cowboy Bob jumping on his horse and Fish-boy Bob jumping into the lake. I never did get how that boy’s sandwich stayed dry all the way to lunchtime.

But now it’s up to my husband and me to defend the logic of our own bedtime stories, should our son question us. As part of the next generation of storytellers, I’ve discovered a few very grown-up truths about bedtime stories:

1. They are not planned in advance and retold on the night. Bedtime stories are actually made up on the spot. Did you know that? Because I didn’t.

2. There are facial muscles that you must absolutely not scrunch up when asked for a story about a green mail-delivering elephant, in order for it to sound not like a made up story, but rather like a series of well-known facts.

3. Bedtime stories may not all have a satisfying ending. But that’s OK, because your audience won’t be awake to hear it.

4. You’re lucky if you are still awake to hear it.

Now, when my husband tells our son a bedtime story it sounds something like this:

“There was once a little red train who wanted to explore outside the train station where he grew up. So one morning he went chugga-chugga chugga-chugga down the longest track he could find. He didn’t know where it was going but he just kept down it as fast as he could. Soon the little train was going really really fast because he was actually speeding down a really steep hill and then suddenly CRASH! He fell off the tracks, but luckily just at that moment, whoosh-whoosh a big dragon swooped out of the sky with huge big wings. And the dragon picked up the little red train and put him on his scaly back and together they went flying over the countryside till they reached the sea. And the sea was full of pirate ships, hundreds of them! And the little red train was so amazed that he leaned over to get a better look when the next thing he knew – SPLASH! – he fell straight into the cold blue sea…”

You get the idea. It’s action-packed adventure with colors and sound effects. It might as well be scratch-n’-sniff. That’s how my Papaw’s Boy-Bob stories were too.

On the other hand, when I tell our son a bedtime story, it goes more like this:

“Once upon a time, there was a fuzzy little rabbit who lived in a hole in a tree with his mother. It was oh-so-cozy in there and he felt so safe and warm. There was always plenty of yummy food to eat, like carrots and beets, which are both very rich in antioxidants and should be consumed daily, as you already know. And every morning, Mama Rabbit would make a nice cup of green tea – the cancer-combating properties of which are widely known – with a spoonful of honey. Mmmm. He didn’t think there was anything more a little rabbit could desire from life.

But then one morning, he woke up with a start and said to his Mama, ‘I just had the most amazing dream!’ When Mama Rabbit inquired further – because with a hook like that you just can’t resist asking a question – he told her that he’d dreamt about making friends with a wolf. A wolf, of all creatures! Because you should know that rabbits and wolves are – evolutionarily speaking – a bit at odds with each other, if not sworn enemies.

‘It could be a premonition,’ said the little rabbit’s mother. She was talking about his dream, of course, the one about the rabbit and the wolf forming a forbidden bond.

Now just as the little rabbit was drinking his green tea, there came a rapping at the door. It was an adventurous little hedgehog looking for new friends.

‘Hey little rabbit, come out and play with me,’ said the hedgehog.

And the little rabbit tentatively went to the door, opened it just a little and whispered, ‘No!’

‘Why not?’ said the hedgehog, ‘We can play in the woods and collect pinecones.’

‘But my Mama says there are wolves in the woods and I’m afraid.’

‘I bet you don’t even know what a wolf is,’ said the hedgehog with a rather haughty air. ‘If you knew what a wolf was, you wouldn’t be so apprehensive.’

The little rabbit felt ashamed and in fact he was blushing under all that fur. ‘My mama once told me a story about a wolf broke into a farm and ate a chicken.’ But, of course, this story just demonizes the wolf, who is actually a victim of human reduction of the wolves’ natural habitat and their food source. But that’s a whole other story. Anyway…

The hedgehog answered very knowingly. ‘Look, don’t worry. If a bear comes then I’ll prick it with one of my quills.’

‘Quills?’ said the little rabbit. ‘My mama once told me a story about a quill…’

The little rabbit hasn’t even left the house yet and my son is already asleep. In fact, you might even be asleep. But I have to admit the soporific effect of Act One Scene One is entirely unintentional. Because I’m busy here trying to build a story from the ground up: setting the scene, building characters, creating tension. And all these things take time.

But I do realize that the story is a little heavy on the adjectives and adverbs and could do with a little less dialogue and a bit more action. I am also well aware that the use of speculative “if” sentences and stories (and dreams) within a story may be slightly beyond the reach of my two-year-old’s comprehension. However, I do think the nutritional titbits and doses of realism are well-placed. And even though he may struggle with the difference between “afraid” and “apprehensive”, it’s never too early to start understanding the nuances of your own feelings, right? I mean, how else is he ever going to relate to others?

And how else – when he’s a father himself – is he ever going to get the kids to sleep?

Friday, February 11, 2011

One mother of a book

The most unbelievable of unbelievable events has happened. No, my crow’s feet haven’t disappeared overnight. No, rising sea levels have not made our house beachfront property. Even better.

A literary agent has requested to read my manuscript. I’m not going to say the agent’s name yet because I’m afraid to jinx everything. I’m even afraid to breathe the wrong way and mess it up. But I will say that if I were to create a profile of my ideal literary agent, she would be it: an Italian in London, with a degree (like mine) in languages and literature from an Italian university, whose interests are memoirs, multicultural books, in particular books about Italy, and – get this – first-time writers!

I hardly slept for two nights after contacting her. Then when I got her email casually and oh-so politely asking to read my book, I got so excited that I nearly threw up. I mean that literally. Then I immediately forwarded the email to my husband to check my comprehension: had she really asked to read the whole thing, not just a couple more chapters? “Wow, it sure looks like it,” he wrote back. My utter disbelief even led me to email back the agent herself (a big faux-pas, I’m sure) trying to clear up our obvious misunderstanding.

The nerves beginning to show before mailing my MS

But misunderstanding or not, my precious four-kilo manuscript has since been sent across the seas to the agent of my dreams. My hope is that when she unwraps the package, right away she smells the scent of a bestseller. Hopefully, she’ll stay up all night reading it because she just has to find out how the story ends. That is, however, if she doesn’t give up on it before reaching p.50 (that’s p.31 in the normal, single-spaced version), where things really start getting exciting. Or she might even decide not to open the package at all, once she picks it up and does the mental calculation that four kilos equals about a ream and a half, or 750 pages, of double-spaced text on average-weight A4 paper, adding up to…one mother of a book. Then again, the manuscript might not even make it to her desk at all, having caused some poor postal worker a slipped disc and ended up abandoned somewhere in an ‘Oversized and Dangerous Packages’ storeroom.

But I can’t stress about these factors. At this point, it’s out of my hands. All I can do now is wait.

Wait? That’s easier said than done. Waiting is notoriously painful. And I’m one of those masochists who have actually attempted to watch a pot boil. Let me confirm to you that this is an excruciatingly futile effort. It is scientifically proven that it won’t boil until you leave the room. Fortunately though, in my case, because I can get so easily distracted by my toddler, I might very well find that by the time I make it back to the kitchen, the water has completely evaporated and the bottom of the pan has burned dry. So all I can hope for now is distraction. Or amnesia.

Waiting for my dream agent to read my manuscript feels a bit like waiting to find out if the owners would accept the offer my husband and I had made on our dream house. There was another couple bidding for it, though it’s possible this was a little fib woven by our real estate agent. But whether they were real or not, that undeserving other couple couldn’t buy that house! We were meant to own it. It had our names written all over it, scribbled onto its built-in 50s furniture and charming wooden doorframes and etched into the mud of its wild native garden. Oh, losing that house, when it was so tantalizingly close, was too painful to bear thinking about! I spent several nights tossing and turning then too, before we received the good news that we would be the proud owners of a mortgage until the age of seventy-three.

When I was pregnant, I also waited anxiously for the end of the first trimester, when the risk of miscarriage would considerably drop and allow us to tentatively celebrate with the purchase of tiny little Crocs. But I can’t honestly compare the whole experience of waiting for the birth of a human being to waiting for a literary agent to read my memoir. Because, ultimately, I found pregnancy so thoroughly enjoyable. You don’t have to suck in your stomach anymore. Strangers smile at you. Shopkeepers give you freebies. There are all those meals to look forward to every day. All nine of them. And as time passes, the waiting only gets easier because every day brings you one step closer to becoming the mother of a healthy baby. Whereas with each passing day of waiting for the literary agent to reply, you are one step farther away from having knocked her socks off and, therefore, from getting published. Because if it took her three months to finish reading your manuscript, either it didn’t really grab her or…

…it’s just one mother of a book.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My new résumé

Heddi Goodrich, Writer
47c The Best Street in the Worst Neighborhood
New Zealand
(photo may be a bit out of date)
  • Excellent timing: Being born in the pre-PC year of 1971 uniquely qualifies me as a writer: how else could I have developed such good penmanship?
  • Self-starter: My former business partner, my brother, will attest to the fact that our very first business – selling popcorn and organic apple cider from a makeshift cart – was a big hit on the streets on Brookline, Boston.  
  • Persuasiveness: Vacationing in Jamaica at the age of four, I managed to persuade my dad and stepmom to take us every morning to the local café for their specialty breakfast smoothie (ingredients: milk, banana, mango,  ganja). Later on, I convinced my parents that going alone to Italy on an exchange program at sixteen was a really good idea. And that in Italy there were no men whatsoever, only women. My skills of persuasion lend themselves even to crackly telephone communication, resulting in me heading off to Spain, Bulgaria, Istanbul on my own, and the Ukrainian countryside around Chernobyl (sorry, Mom, did I not tell you?). 
  • Humility: I refrain from boasting about how many countries I’ve been to. It just makes people jealous.
  • Fast learner: Without the help of a map, within days I learned my way around the mother of all labyrinths, Venice, when my stepmom and I started the highly lucrative business of buying the city’s hand-crafted papier-mâché Carnival masks, slightly sturdier than eggshells, wrapping them in newspaper and shipping them across to America.

  • Three years’ primary schooling at the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School, Washington, D.C. (USA). Subjects studied: eurythmic dancing, theater, playing the recorder, Norse mythology, locating and capturing fairies
  • High school diploma from Blaire High School, Silver Spring, Maryland (USA)
  • High school diploma – because one just isn’t enough these days – from Liceo Linguistico Settembrini, Poggiomarino, Naples (Italy)
  • Masters in Foreign Languages and Literature from L’Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli (Italy)
  • Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, Languages International, Auckland (New Zealand) Score: A (the first they’d given in years, a CELTA “A” is a language-nerd badge of honor)


1983: Wrote and self-published my first epic novel: hand-written, hole-punched and bound with red yarn.
1985: Completed the first of a revealing 12-volume diary series called Oh-So-Wise for Her Years
1991 – present: Freelance proofreading / translating
1996: Wrote a 50,000-word Masters thesis in semiotics that would bore you to tears if I went into any detail
1996: Worked illegally as a waitress in the main café in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, Naples. (OK, maybe not so relevant, but cleaning the toilets there taught me the aforementioned humility and signaled a real high in a long string of restaurant and coffee shop jobs.)
1996 – present: Various English-teaching jobs (they blend together after a while) in Italy, the US and New Zealand, some of them legal
1999: My heart got badly broken: although not technically a career move, the event did inspire me to move to New Zealand and eventually write my memoir.
2001: Wrote four excellent poems. Heartbreak is good for that. So is poverty, wandering through forests with inappropriate footwear and skinny-dipping in stormy seas.
2007: Wrote my 189,000-word memoir about living in Naples, The Third Person (since renamed Lost in the Spanish Quarter)
2008: Edited my memoir way down to 183,000 words
2009: Sleep-deprived, while nursing a three-month-old, wrote and published two scathing book reviews for The Dunedin Star
2010: Began a literary blog called "Confessions of a Wannabe Writer", giving new meaning to the word “wannabe”

  • Strong people skills. I deal with people all the time. 
  • Fluent in Italian, Neapolitan, Spanish and Bulgarian  
  • Some Russian, five or six words in Maori 
  • Translating / interpreting  
  • Faking accents
  • Driving, including defensive driving.
  • Typing. I do it a lot. I’m really good at it. 
  • Teaching résumé writing

  • Yoga  
  • Cooking (Italian, Mexican) and bread-baking 
  • Cats
  • Collecting (and occasionally reading) National Geographic
  • Speed diaper-changing