Sybil Rosen’s memoir of life as the wife and muse of Texas music legend Blaze Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley (University of North Texas Press, 288 pages) was adapted for Ethan Hawke’s 2018 movie Blaze — which Rolling Stone called “the best biopic of the year.”
A playwright, essayist, poet and novelist, Rosen helped Hawke pen the script for Blaze and portrayed her mother in the film. The Virginia native, who now lives south of Atlanta on the Chattahoochee River, jumped at the chance when she was invited to write a picture book for the youngest audiences.
Carpenter’s Helper (Schwartz & Wade Books, 40 pages) is the story of a girl named Renata who falls in love with a wren family before finding herself in a position to help the fledglings fly away. The bittersweetness of wanting to cling to something that cannot be possessed leads to her growth.
Rosen’s trans-Atlantic collaboration with Camille Garoche, the Parisienne children’s-book illustrator who began work on the drawings just as the pandemic struck, was a new experience — as was the challenge to engage her readers on their level.
“I had to get inside a child’s perspective, the point of view of being young, being small, being innocent,” Rosen says. “Writing for little kids means becoming a miniaturist; the telling by its very nature has to be spare. Like a haiku, but with more syllables, a work that can be read in one breath, as it were.”
Carpenter’s Helper, released this week, has already received a coveted starred notice in Kirkus Reviews: “Renata’s wren encounter proves magical, one most children could only wish to experience outside of this lovely story.”
ArtsATL: What do you want children and their grown-ups to take away from Carpenter’s Helper?
Sybil Rosen: First, a love of nature, a kindness toward it. That is, I think, the overarching impression. I would also be pleased if children and their grown-ups had a conversation afterward about Renata, that she not only does a smart thing for the fledglings, she does the right thing.
Earlier she tells her father she wants the wrens “to live in our bathroom forever.” But when it comes time for the little wrens to go, she helps them, even with the bittersweet knowledge that her effort will, as one reviewer put it, “hasten their exit from her life.” At that moment Renata becomes what Buddhists call a “bodhisattva,” someone who unselfishly puts others’ needs before her own, whose first impulse is always to help even if that altruism runs counter to her desire. In assisting the chicks, Renata has to say goodbye. And though it hurts, generosity bestows a kind of grace on her sorrow, making it more possible to bear.
ArtsATL: The number one myth about children’s books is that they are easy to write. Do you agree?
Rosen: It’s not a myth. Years ago, my publisher/editor Anne Schwartz (who also published my YA novel, Speed of Light), said to me, “Once you figure out how to write a picture book, it’s not that hard to write. But finding an idea that works for little kids — that can take years.” It took me 20 years to have the skill and insight to tell this story to children. It took me maybe 10 hours to write it.
Writing for kids is an exercise in restraint. Showing a rough draft to first readers — an elementary-school librarian and a first-grade teacher — they each gave the same advice: No exposition, no backstory. Keep it spare. Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. Their counsel helped me find the proper dimensions for the story’s unfolding.
ArtsATL: Did you have a muse — whether two-legged or winged — while writing Carpenter’s Helper?
Rosen: I do think the character of wrens infused the writing. Living in their presence for many years, I’ve long admired their droll mixture of self-importance and humility. Wren exuberance and cheerfulness are undeniable, their work ethic unparalleled. Carolina wrens, in particular, are notable for nesting in peculiar places in the human sphere: the pocket of a jacket on a clothesline, an upturned helmet, the spider plant on my back porch (very good real estate, it even has a river view). So they easily became the animating spirit of this tale of two families — one avian, one human — and how they teach each other.
ArtsATL: Is Renata’s being left with an empty nest at the end of the story a metaphor for a bigger idea?
Rosen: Loss is an inescapable element of living. Growing up is a matter of how we learn to manage loss, disappointment. Renata has two things going for her: one, a loving, understanding parent (which cannot be stressed enough); two, the opportunity to not only actively engage with the wrens but to find a successful solution to their dilemma. That exchange, its deeply reciprocal quality, is what makes it possible for Renata to let go. She helps the wrens to fly; they help her gain a new sense of her capabilities. Becoming part of the baby wrens’ journey, she chooses to hold the sadness of loss and the joy of creation at one and the same time. No small thing for a small person. That is what grows her heart.
[Full disclosure: Rosen is executive editor Scott Freeman’s landlord.]
March book picks
(Each month, we feature new reading suggestions from book lovers from across Atlanta’s arts and culture landscape.)
I didn’t want to read another book set in the time of antebellum slavery. Then came the promise that Robert Jones Jr.’s novel, The Prophets (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 400 pages), was different — a story of two enslaved Black men who are in love with each other. Further enticement arrived with repeated comparisons of the author to the astonishing Toni Morrison.
The first pages of The Prophets reassuringly exposed lyric, introspective and revelatory prose. Further reward is that this love story is also a psychological thriller [that folds in] Black Lives Matter and PRIDE. Jones takes us into the hearts and minds of the two life partners, and the people who love them, lust for them and despise them. There are poetic and spiritual chapters that bring the present and past into question without offering neat answers. The Prophets is to be approached as you would a solitary stroll on an empty beach, without hurry or agenda, other than to meet each character where they are.
— Tara Coyt is an author, photographer, painter and playwright. Her 2019 book, Real Talk About LGBTQIAP, was nominated for a Georgia Author of the Year award and won a Next Generation Indie Book Award. The Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill will host an author’s talk with Jones at 6 tonight (March 17). The virtual event is free and open to the public.
A year into the pandemic seems like an appropriate time to release Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (Little, Brown and Co., 320 pages) by Jeremy Atherton Lin. Reading about crowded dance floors, bodies pressed against each other and what happens between strangers in dark back rooms isn’t the same as being there, but it’ll do for now.
And the resonance between our current health crisis and the one that took so many queer lives — the misinformation, a criminally negligent government response and the communal grief — is inescapable. Part memoir, part history lesson, the personal, the political and the academic, the past, the present and an unfathomable future all exist simultaneously in this deep dive into the fertile ground that is the gay bar. Like most gay bars I’ve been in, the book is at once sexy and sad, a place that feels like home and a place I feel uncomfortably exposed, a thing I love and a thing I reject.
I haven’t finished it yet. A part of me doesn’t want to. I want to live in this world a little longer.
Mexican Gothic (Del Rey, 301 pages) is a lot of things. It’s a novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, that much is obvious. It’s also a haunting feminist allegory, an anti-colonial manifesto in the form of a page-turning thriller and a subversive piece of gothic fiction. Most importantly though, it’s a hell of a good read. As soon as I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.
The story follows young Noemí as her quest to check up on a sick cousin leads to an isolated, creepy mansion infused with suffocating energy. Over and over again, I found myself thinking “she has got to get out of there . . . now!” I’m not normally the type to yell at screens during horror film but this book completely drew me in with its creeping pace and ominous atmosphere. A perfect read for a rainy day in the midst of a pandemic.
— Kevin Gillese was Dad’s Garage Theatre Company’s artistic director (2010–20) and is still part of its ensemble. He’s most proud of launching Dad’s Garage TV, which, in a few years won an award at the L.A. Comedy Festival and produced both online videos and commercials for broadcast.