Creativity Friday: The most beloved painting in Britain? Or, the Lady and I

Posted on Jan 16, 2015 in A Gathering of Shadows/The Lily Maid, creativity, news & muse

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

Many of you know that the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of  Shalott (above) served as inspiration for my novel A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. Turns out I’m not alone in my obsession: I’m pleased to report The Lady of Shalott was recently voted the most loved painting in the United Kingdom as part of Art Everywhere’s incentive to celebrate British art.

As such, it will be featured on billboards for the next two weeks, along with 57 other popular British paintings, in what is being billed as the “world’s largest art show.” How cool is that?

Here’s my description of the painting from my novel. It’s written from the point of view of Elizabeth, the young woman who models for it:

 Though The Lady of Shalott clearly wasn’t finished—loose brush strokes indicated much of the composition—I easily recognized myself in it. Gazing at the painting was like looking into a strange mirror reflecting back another time and place. There I was, a fragile-looking young woman on a barge, my sorrow-filled eyes half-shut in anticipation of death. One hand held a lily; the other grasped the side of the boat. My blonde hair was scattered about my shoulders, as it had been that first morning when I’d first posed on my settee. The landscape surrounding the barge was marshy and tangled, threatening and wild. Water lilies past their bloom filled the foreground. The overall sense was one of tragic beauty. Of yearning that extended beyond grief. Lost possibilities. Lost love.

My obsession with the Lady of Shalott goes back years before I ever learned of the Waterhouse painting, or caught a glimpse of the novel that would become A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. My first exposure to her came at the age of six, when a favorite cousin gave me the Golden Book of King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. It included a lush painting of the Lady of Shalott, here called Elaine the Lily Maid, that was simply the most stunningly romantic thing I’d ever seen. I must have spent hours staring at it, trying to comprehend her death from heartbreak. I couldn’t—but what child can?

But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

This was only the beginning of my relationship with the Lady of Shalott. She stayed with me throughout my childhood, this tale of a girl trapped in a tower weaving tapestries of the world forbidden to her; to my mind, her story mirrored my favorite fairy tale of Rapunzel. Later, as a high school senior, I made an illuminated poster retelling the Lady of Shalott—one of my first attempts to integrate art and words as one. A teacher at the time said to me, “I’d be very interested to see you attempt this subject after you go to art school.” Alas, this was not to be, at least in painted form, for it was at the School of Visual Arts I was  introduced to Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott by another art student. How could I attempt to paint her in the wake of such a glorious painting?

Though it’s been some years, I still recall how my fellow student pulled out a much-thumbed postcard from his sketchbook. “It’s a painting of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott,” he said with the hushed tone of a junkie hawking an illicit drug. “It’s on display at the Tate Gallery in London. I returned every day to view it while I was there. I want to go back this summer.” However, that wasn’t all he found at the Tate Gallery: standing beside the famed painting was the young woman he was convinced was meant to be his true love and eternal muse.

I wonder still if they ever reunited. If so, I like the idea that the Lady of Shalott’s tragic love might have inspired someone to a happy ending.

Wordless Wednesday: A song among friends

Posted on Jan 14, 2015 in news & muse, the world around me, Wordless Wednesday


Photographed in Brooklyn using a wide angle lens. I like how cozy everything appears!

Publishing Monday: Hidden in Plain Sight ~ Or, When the Cuckoo Calls

Posted on Jan 12, 2015 in news & muse, publishing

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

Over the weekend book lovers were stunned to learn that J.K. Rowling—yes, the J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame—had published a crime novel under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She was outed on Twitter by an anonymous tweet stating THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was, in face, authored by Rowling; the tweet was in response to someone musing that THE CUCKOO’S CALLING seemed too accomplished to have been written by a debut author. When approached, Rowling immediately ‘fessed up to her deception: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

To Rowling’s credit, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has received overwhelmingly positive reviews—far more than THE CASUAL VACANCY, Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel, did. Both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal granted THE CUCKOO’S CALLING coveted starred reviews; PW called it “a stellar debut.” So, it’s a good book. Yet, despite this, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was turned down by publishers before being acquired by Little, Brown, Rowling’s publisher for THE CASUAL VACANCY.

More stunning news: Since its April 2013 publication, Nielsen Bookscan reports THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has sold only 459 copies in the United Kingdom. [ETA: And only 500 copies in the United States, according to Time magazine.]

Repeat after me: 459 copies. 

To place into context, most self-published authors sell on average less than 250 books—about 200 copies less than Rowling’s anonymous debut in the UK.


A much older book’s wheel of fortune.

I’m bemused and horrified by this story in so many ways. First, I’m certain the anonymous tweet was generated by someone with a vested interest in Rowling’s career. Since being outed, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has assuredly sold far more than 459 copies in the UK. Within 24 hours it had raced up to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list; I presume the New York Times Book Review will follow suit. Secondly, it brings to mind how incredibly capricious publishing a book can be: if an anonymous book by J.K. Rowling can sell less than 500 copies in three months, despite being brought out into the world by a major publisher and receiving glowing reviews, is there hope for any of us? Or is it only a matter of authors having their turn on the wheel of fortune? Sometimes you get lucky; other times, Barnes and Noble doesn’t approve your co-op advertising.

This story of Rowling’s hidden-in-plain-sight new novel brings to mind a post I wrote in 2007 about the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell’s experience of busking in the DC Metro. Since it seems relevant, I’m reposting it below. Enjoy!


A friend forwarded me this article today from the Washington Post about Joshua Bell, one of the most brilliant violinists of our time. As an experiment — or PR stunt, you decide — Bell was asked to perform as a busker for 45 minutes during rush hour in L’Enfant Plaza, a major Washington DC Metro station.

The concept: To see if genius would be recognized if hidden in plain sight.

The disguise: None. Unless you count Bell wearing street clothes instead of concert formal a subterfuge.

The instrument: Bell’s beloved Gibson ex Huberman, which was crafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. This violin is considered one of the greatest stringed instruments created by perhaps the greatest luthier who ever lived.

I’m sure you could guess what happened. Of the more than one thousand people who passed Bell as he performed, only several stopped to listen. And only one person recognized him. For his efforts, Bell received a measly $32.17 in hand outs — about $40 an hour.

So why didn’t anyone pay attention to Bell’s free concert? It wasn’t the Metro’s accoustics — Bell said they were particularly resonant. Nor was he slouching — he thought that he played particularly well on some especially difficult pieces, such as Bach’s Chaconne.

One theory that comes to my mind is that the number of people who stopped were in proportion to classical music lovers everywhere. Or that many of the commuters were plugged into their iPods, unable to hear anything outside of their chosen aural environment. More likely, it was that they were so used to quickly classifying (excuse the pun!) whatever stimuli reaches their senses down to its most basic info-byte to save time: I see a violinist, is he asking me for money? Will he slow me down? Am I running late? Will I get to work on time? This is a common survival mechanism for city dwellers (and I’m guilty of it myself). There’s just so much going on around you at all times that you filter things. Otherwise, you’d just be overwhelmed with Too Much Information and become strained and drained from the effort of processing it all.

Still, it’s so sad to consider that so many people missed such an experience of beauty. And it was there, right in front of them for the taking.

I was thinking about this strange-but-true story this afternoon, as my toddler daughter searched for easter eggs that we had hidden for her to find. Tom and I were careful to hide them in easily accessible places, so Thea would find them without becoming frustrated. Thea was so persistant as she hunted. Yet every so often, an egg would elude her, even though it was right there before her eyes. It was almost too obvious, too easy, even for a two year old with a limited attention span.

These sort of events, great and small, makes me wonder how often we stumble across gifts of beauty and inspiration, hidden in plain sight. It makes me wonder how many I’ve missed along the way, because I was too busy or too preoccupied with the soundtrack of my thoughts.

Sometimes all we can hope for are eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to recognize.

Creativity Friday: Interview with author Lisa Alber

Posted on Jan 9, 2015 in creativity, friends and colleagues, interviews, news & muse, stuff I like


So new year, new you? How are those New Year’s resolutions going thus far? For myself, as I mentioned last week, one of my intentions for 2014 was to offer more author and artist interviews on this blog. I’m delighted to introduce Lisa Alber, author of KILMOON: A County Clare Mystery. Lisa will be generously sharing about creating a positive moments jar, one of her favorite tools for keeping herself encouraged and inspired.

You might be wondering what a positive moments jar is. It’s exactly as described: a jar to collect scraps of paper upon which you write positive moments. What I especially like about this simple concept is that it makes happiness visually tangible. And what could be better than that?

Without further ado, here is our interview. And thanks, Lisa, for helping me keep my resolution!


?????????????????Lisa Alber: Thanks so much for having me here today, Kris. I enjoyed answering your questions.

Kris Waldherr: My pleasure! What inspired you to create your positive moments jar?

LA: I have Facebook to thank! Last year someone mentioned it on a post. I wish I remembered who because I’d thank her. I thought it was the perfect idea. I was completely swamped and stressed because KILMOON, my debut novel, was jetting its way toward publication in March — so much to do! — and I knew that if I didn’t take one little concrete step to memorialize all the good things, they’d slip past me in a blur.

And? I’m prone to depression, which means I tend to linger on the negative. So, a happy jar felt like just the thing. The act of taking that extra minute to savor a good feeling was helpful. And, of course, reliving the moments at the end of 2014 was a blast.

KW: How long have you been doing it? How often do you add to it? 

LA: Last year, 2014, was my first year. I’m proud of myself for filling the jar because I’m not always consistent with rituals and routines. That said, I wasn’t consistent through the year, and I forgot a bunch of great things too. (Some of my book launch week festivities, for example.) But that was OK — making any part of the practice mandatory would have soured the experience.

So, I added to the jar as I remembered. There were times when I was more aware of my happiness than other times. For example, I didn’t write any notes in July and August. Zero. This seemed odd until I remembered that I was practically psychotic from lack of sleep around then. I was miserable, barely functioning, and working a lot with my doctor. I’m sure I had happy moments during that time, of course, but I wasn’t on the happy jar wavelength.

I also had a period of about two months, April through June, when I didn’t drop notes in the jar. This corresponds to post-partum book launch depression (which I’ve since heard is pretty common!) and putting my beloved dog, Luna, to sleep.

Seeing the larger pattern to my year comforted me — the two downer periods passed and they weren’t actually that bad even if in my memory they take up the whole year. Hardly!

KW: Has the jar influenced your creative process, especially as you published KILMOON? If so, how?

LA: I don’t think the happy jar influenced my creative process — not in a direct way anyhow. I can tell you this though: I’m starting 2015 in a positive frame of mind. I feel some energy around my writing, and I’ve already done some great work on my work-in-progress. I suspect that reminding myself about the good stuff in 2014 has helped me begin 2015 on an optimistic note, which is great for my creativity. The benefits of the happy jar will be in the long run, I think. I hope that the practice of happiness will become easier over time. There’s that saying about what we pay attention to flourishes. Sometimes these things take practice.

KW: How do you use the jar? Is it only for moments when you feel discouraged? Or is it to keep you going?

LA: I didn’t use it when I felt discouraged — just the opposite. I wrote notes when I was legitimately happy or proud of myself or elated or awed, not when I was trying to manufacture a happy feeling by, say, reminding myself to be grateful for the roof over my head. Gratitude lists are a different thing. (I do those too — in a journal.)

Seeing the jar fill through the year did buoy me up sometimes, but mainly it was an exercise in savoring the happy moments. If I was down, I didn’t put anything in the jar.

KW: Anything else you care to share?

JarinActionLA: This year, I’m doing two things differently. One, I placed the jar in a central location where I see it all the time. Two, I have scraps of paper and a pen sitting right there. I seem to be forever scrabbling for pens or paper.

A few examples of my notes:

Jan: GOOD REVIEW FROM KIRKUS!!!! (I can tell how happy I was by the capitalization and exclamations points.)

March: Surprise and delight to see a lone viola blooming on my neglected deck.

April: LAUNCH PARTY. Owner of Annie Bloom’s said she’s reading KILMOON and loving it. Said their best launch party ever — set a new threshold. Woohoo!

June: FAWN!!!! (my new dog)

September: Such glorious sun and shadows and golden light.

September: Another authorial milestone to add to honorarium library talk and award nomination: XXX asked me to blurb his novel!


Thank you, Lisa, for an inspiring interview! I think I see a positive moments jar in my future. :-)


More information about Lisa and her debut novel KILMOON: Lisa Alber’s County Clare mysteries feature Merrit Chase, a recent transplant from California, and Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. KILMOON has been called “utterly poetic” and a “stirring debut” and received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant. Ever distractible, you may find Lisa staring out windows, dogwalking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Visit Lisa online at

Top photograph: Lisa’s positive moments jar—I like that it has a big bow on it, like a gift.


Wordless Wednesday: Lonely nest

Posted on Jan 7, 2015 in news & muse, the world around me, Wordless Wednesday


Photographed in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Now that it’s the new year, I can’t help but wonder if this lonely little nest is eager for spring. I know I am!