What I learned about life (and writing) from a puppy

Our puppy Sherwin is four months old today. During our first few days together, I seriously didn’t know if I had the chops to raise a pup. Rather than being overwhelmed by Sherwin’s cuteness, I was overwhelmed by a deep and strange depression. You see, I grew up with dogs and have always prided myself on being a canine expert. I was so very wrong. And this realization of my foolish hubris made me start doubting everything about myself, including my rash decision to get a pup (I pounced it on my husband as his “birthday present,” when in actuality, I’d been the one who’d longed for a dog).

Sherwin had major separation anxiety. He would howl and cry whenever we were out of sight and he would screeeeam into the night. His screams sounded like a human being tortured, and the painful sound would send me into a deep, dark spiral of agony. I’m not exaggerating. His anxiety stressed me out so much that I couldn’t sleep and I lost weight (I guess that’s a bonus). And he peed everywhere when he was out of his pen! His favorite pastime: hiding under our kitchen table to lay stinky surprises. We were tired and worried all the time for a period of two weeks. We even hired an expensive private trainer to come over to help us. We were that desperate.

Whenever I leave Sherwin in the backyard for a few minutes, his separation anxiety is what I come back to.

Side note: I want to thank (and blame) my parents for protecting me from the truth all these years: dogs are super high maintenance. The potty breaks, multiple (expensive) vet visits, the endless chore of training. My parents did it all without complaints. I just enjoyed the fruits of their labor by having fun with our dogs, blissfully unaware of the massive amount of work involved.

Fortunately, Sherwin’s gotten A LOT better. He grew up, we grew up, we got to know and trust each other. And yes, he’s still a lot of work, but at this point, his delightful aspects outweigh the burdensome ones. And now that I actually have time to think again, one thing I’ve been thinking about is what Sherwin exemplifies.

  • Live (and write) with gusto. Sherwin lives with gusto. He’s a passionate little guy. He eats with joy and gratitude, he plays with fervor, he loves with all his heart. He never ever holds a grudge and he’s mastered the art of enjoying the moment. I want to be more like Sherwin. And as a writer, I have to remember to write with joy, fervor and heart. When a writer is passionate about his or her craft, the story is that much more compelling and that passion sweeps the reader up into the journey. Sherwin lives with all his might. You should see the way he fetches a ball. You’d think that fetching balls was the most exciting thing to do in the entire world.
  • Focus on the essential (in both life and in writing).  When we first got Sherwin, he was teething. So we ran from pet store to pet store, collecting chew toys that would captivate our pup and distract him away from shoes, furniture, etc. Going against my love for decluttering, we ended up with a mountain of chew toys and our living room looked like a doggy daycare. And you know what? Sherwin focuses on precisely three of these dozens of toys: a squeaky hedgehog, a rope ball and a fuzzy mouse. He loves what he loves. He ignores the rest. This is another good lesson in minimizing material possessions. To quote the fox in The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And it also tells me to be spare in writing, cutting out inessential details and descriptions that don’t serve the story, and focusing on the “meat” rather than spouting long observations and meandering internal monologue (which I have a tendency to do — can you tell by the length of my blog posts??).
  • Love without reservation. In modern American life, so many are practiced in guarding their hearts, protecting themselves from being too vulnerable for fear of being hurt or disappointed. Sherwin only knows how to love one way: unconditionally, without reservation. As prideful humans, this is hard to do. Many just give as much as they’ve been given, nothing more. And yet, loving without reservation is the key to allowing your heart to grow. Loving unconditionally is the only path to true love. And in writing, I find that I gravitate towards writers who are generous and openhearted, those who treat their characters (even the most flawed of the bunch) with compassion and understanding, rather than harsh judgment. Love is truly the greatest gift any of us can give and receive, and this little guy seems to have an endless supply of love to give. I have never seen so many people smile and laugh in my presence as when this little guy is in tow (and I think I’m already pretty charming ;).

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone. And to all fellow writers and artists out there, may 2018 be filled with projects created with joy, passion and love.

Sherwin is all grown up — both ears stand now, but I miss the floppy one 🙂 Folks have asked if this photo was taken in a studio. Uh, no. In our house, actually, with an iPhone. I was holding a treat above his head, which is why we had several seconds of intense concentration from him. Normally, he’s a squirming sausage. What a lovable little guy.

Why I bought nothing at the new mall

The mall in Century City has been undergoing a massive $1 billion makeover, and last night, some of the more famous new spots finally opened. One being Mario Batali’s Eataly. The other being Apple’s new location near the huge, shiny Nordstrom. And oh, the French boutique Equipment with their buttery silk blouses, which I absolutely adore… And oh lookie, a Jo Malone shop with candles that would be great for my house!!!

But while waiting for my friend to arrive, I bought nothing. And after she and I had our coffee date, I walked out of the mall without a single purchase. Not even a book or magazine from the new Amazon bookstore. And you know I love books.

Let’s get real. I do shop. I buy things all the time, things some folks would consider frivolous (like a fragrant, organic candle). But what I don’t do anymore is buy things on impulse. And so, while walking through that newly-renovated, glittering mall, I put on some armor in order to resist the siren call of consumerism. But if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t have to struggle to put on that armor. Why? Because the siren call of shopping no longer tempts me.

I wrote about decluttering and minimalism in prior posts, but I haven’t fully explained how I developed my armor and how that armor has hardened over time. Years before Marie Kondo’s famous book came out, I was already feeling overburdened with stuff. So I sought wisdom in the place I usually find it: books. I also reminded myself about what life was like when I lived abroad – super happy years that involved very little shopping and very little stuff, as explained in this post here.

Apart from Marie Kondo’s books, these are the books I continually find most inspiring. They’re chock-full of wisdom that keep me on the path of mindful spending.

I love this book. It really makes me think twice before an impulse purchase. Erin Boyle writes about how she will not buy anything unless it matches her aesthetic and/or functional ideals. She’ll wait to find the perfect item, rather than buy something that’ll suffice for now. (This is a very French approach, actually.) Whether it’s a kitchen utensil or a pair of socks, Erin won’t buy unless the item is exactly what she’s looked for, even if the ideal version doesn’t show up until much later at a higher price point. Since she’s an aesthete, she doesn’t buy things she doesn’t like to look at. This takes discipline, but actually, if you’re an aesthete, it’s easier to maintain that high bar because you have a very strong understanding of what you like and don’t like—you’re not swayed by what’s hot or trendy or on sale. I find her book very inspiring, which is why I’ve read it three times since it was published. It provides armor maintenance and upkeep.

Josh Becker is one of my favorite bloggers. He’s also a pastor. He runs the website becomingminimalist.com, and he gives concrete pointers on how to live mindfully. I find his voice to be very friendly and encouraging, never judgmental. I once emailed him a question about his faith and his writing, because he does a fine job of inspiring people without pounding them on the head about Christianity–this word, unfortunately, is such a loaded one these days. And he wrote back very quickly and graciously, and basically said that he wanted his message to resonate with a wide audience, which is why he doesn’t advertise his profession on every post. I think he’s succeeded with this approach.

This book is a classic, and was recently revised and updated. Francine Jay truly understands the costs of over-consumption from a time/environmental/lifestyle perspective. She runs the website missminimalist.com that features, on a weekly basis, people who’ve come to see the light. I love this book.

I’m not going to lie: I have a weakness for luxury goods. I think it developed while I lived in Paris, among people who bought only few items in the highest quality they could afford. I love the way luxury goods are made, the craftsmanship and attention to detail. I love longstanding companies with a history of producing fine goods that last a lifetime. Did you know that Cartier invented the first modern wristwatch so that a pilot could quickly find out the time, instead of pulling out a pocket watch while navigating a plane?? And their creations last a looooooong time. I’ve owned the same watch (modeled after the pilot’s original version, because I love that story) for twenty years. And I rotate among the same handbags I’ve had for a few decades, adding to my collection every few years with only a high-quality item I’ve eyed for a while. I don’t go for the “it” bag. As for clothes, I am increasingly trying to buy few items in fabrics that feel good and look good and that last — silk, linen, cotton, cashmere, fine wool.

It’s all about mindfulness, and being aware of why you’re buying something—do you really need it? why do you want it? can you afford it? Or is the purchase an attempt to fulfill some empty aspect of your life or to stave off boredom? Do you really like it or are you buying it because everyone else is? Remember this quote from the movie, Fight Club: We buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.

As we enter the biggest marketing season of the year, with holiday sales going on left and right, I hope this post encourages someone out there who’s trying to live mindfully.

If you have any pointers, do let me know. There’s room for improvement over here!

Magic in NYC

I love that the publishing industry is based in such a great city. I love visiting the city’s various food halls, like the one in the basement of the Plaza (behind me).

[NOTE: When I was writing away years ago with no publishing deal in sight, I was always curious to know what the exciting parts of a writer’s life are actually like (not the hard part where you sit for hours at your computer — I already knew enough about the hard part!). So I hope for all the aspiring writers out there, this gives you a glimpse into the fun parts 🙂 ]

One of my favorite memories of NYC is this: right after college graduation, a suite-mate and I took her parents’ rickety van and drove from her house in Maryland all the way up to NYC. As soon as we saw the city’s skyline, we started belting out Sinatra’s “New York, New York” at the top of our lungs while sharing a submarine sandwich. We were both twenty-two and full of hope and anticipation for what was to come. Approaching NYC that day was like cruising straight into a dream.

That’s exactly how I felt last month when we went to NYC. I had a few meetings set up across town, and could hardly sleep because I was so excited.

After a fun weekend hanging out with our family, I went to Penguin Random House on Monday morning to meet with my editor Maria. I’d never been to PRH’s building before, so I gasped when I saw, right in their enormous lobby, glass cases from floor to ceiling filled with books. I took one look and turned around to step outside again. I had to stand on the sidewalk to gather my wits (and snap a quick photo).

The lobby of Penguin Random House. The photo’s blurry because I was standing outside and wanted to hurry since it was 9 am and the building was super busy.

[Side note: a few people have asked me what I wore that day. I wanted to be stylish but comfy, put together but not fussy. So I wore these black jeans, a deep purple blouse and a fitted black blazer. For shoes, I wore these black Nike sneakers that a friend recommended — I’m in love with these kicks! I walked about thirty NY blocks wearing those shoes and was A-OK. I’ll admit I felt a bit underdressed when I met the fashionistas at PRH, but overall I felt like I’d dressed appropriately — to the point where one gentleman in the building asked if I was a new hire! And to which Maria responded, “She’s actually one of our authors. We won her manuscript at auction.” Love it!!!]

Anyway, I took the elevator up PRH’s skyscraper and lovely Maria met me and escorted me to her office. Her office had a magnificent view of the city and, of course, shelves upon shelves of books she’d published. I even saw one work shelf with my name on it and a bunch of paperwork. WHOA.

And OMG. She’d prepared breakfast for me. In her office, we sat at her small conference table, which she’d decorated with a pretty tablecloth and cloth napkins and flowers, and enjoyed homemade blueberry muffins and hot tea. It was so incredibly thoughtful! We discussed THE PAPER KINGDOM, the talented illustrator Pascal Campion and details about the release and marketing strategy for the book. She also introduced me to the fantastic people in her department (some of whom were incredibly well dressed, like people who work in fashion) and gave me a tour of a few of their floors. On shelves everywhere, I saw stacks and stacks of books I adore, including WONDER by RJ Palacio, which I’ve read about five times. It was so exhilarating!

And it was so much sensory and emotional overload that I forgot to take photos.

After a wonderful time at PRH, I stepped out into the bright NYC day. Onward, to continue the magical day!

I then met with my agent Bill for lunch.  It was my first time meeting him in person, though we’d spoken a number of times on the phone.  We were so simpatico!  Our lunch lasted nearly three hours.  We talked about everything: books, publishing deals, shows, movies, travel, politics, the writing career. By the time we emerged from the restaurant, I couldn’t believe it was already almost three in the afternoon! And again, I was completely swept up into the conversation and living in the moment, so I forgot to take photos. Notice a trend?? Too much excitement = no photos.

When we met up with our family that night for dinner at the fabulous L’Artusi, they told me I was smiling A LOT. I must’ve looked like a crazy lady, but I couldn’t stop flashing my chompers.

It’s always such a treat to hang out with our hilarious and wonderful niece and nephew. Seeing them in their hometown is always cute, because they’re only twelve but they’re already pro New Yorkers, meeting up with friends at Chelsea Market and complaining about the slow pace of tourists on sidewalks 😉

With our niece and nephew near their home in the West Village.

The next day, I met up with Colleen, the illustrator of THE TURTLE SHIP at the Plaza for coffee. She showed me her latest illustrations, and she gifted me with an original piece of artwork from an early spread for the book. I was so moved! Colleen has become a really good friend, so it was so fun to see her again. I first met her in person when we visited Lee & Low together this past April, but if you’ve read this SCBWI article, you know that the way Colleen and I started working together is nothing short of miraculous. I really believe it was meant to be.

Colleen’s hand holding tiny paper figures for the beautiful collages she’s created for THE TURTLE SHIP.

Thanks for a wonderful time, NYC! Until next time…

The rooftop bar of the Viceroy.

Publication news!

I’m so thrilled to announce that Random House has acquired my second picture book, The Paper Kingdom.  I poured my heart and soul into this story, and I’m excited to see the book when it’s released! I’ll keep everyone posted, and one of these days, I’d like to write a post about how the entire acquisitions process went. Offers started coming in within a week! What a crazy and exhilarating time that was… For now, here’s the Publisher’s Weekly announcement:

Maria Modugno at Random House has acquired The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee, illustrated by Pascal Campion. Inspired by a true story, the picture book tells of a magical nighttime adventure while weaving in commentary about the differences between the haves and have-nots. Publication is scheduled for spring 2020; Bill Contardi at Brandt & Hochman literary Agency represented the author, and Justin Rucker at Shannon Associates represented the illustrator in the deal for world rights, all languages.

A Fun Glimpse into an Artist’s Process

I’m happy to reveal the work in progress of Colleen Kong-Savage, the talented artist who is illustrating THE TURTLE SHIP.  I find absolutely fascinating the thought process behind her artistic choices.  For instance, Colleen is working to find a way to contrast the turtle enough to make him pop off the page, instead of blending into the background.

(All images are courtesy of Colleen Kong-Savage)

You can see that she’s tried various shades and textures for the background, in order to make the turtle stand out.

I always love seeing the work space of artists I admire.  It’s fun to get a glimpse into their world of creation, when they’re all alone and deep in their projects.  It’s like seeing a tactile, outward manifestation of the workings of their brain.  Here’s a photo of Colleen’s work table.  So much brilliance and energy in her paper collages!  It sure looks like A LOT of hard work!!

You can see Colleen’s love for that little turtle shine through.  When I first saw Colleen’s portfolio at the SCBWI summer conference in 2016, her paper collages had me immediately hooked.  Can’t wait for late 2018, when the book will be released!  Until then, be well and please behave, little turtle!

Joining the pros

Here’s my latest article for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), which covers attending the pro track for the first time at their conference. Featuring photos of Judy Blume and Newbery winner Linda Sue Park. Girl crush time!! Check it out here.

In Love with Sempé

I have been in love with the artwork of Jean-Jacques Sempé since I was fifteen, when I read the NICOLAS series (which he illustrated) for a high school French class.  Sempé is known in the U.S. for his iconic New Yorker covers, such as this one:

But in his home country of France, his illustrated books sell like hotcakes. I collect his books, and have about thirty of them.

While living in Paris, I once attended a gallery showing of his work in the 6th arrondissement. When I finished touring the exhibit, I knew I absolutely wanted to buy his retrospective book.  Well, that book was mighty expensive, especially for a student like me.  It was the equivalent of $150 USD, but I took the plunge because I knew I’d cherish the book forever, even if it meant I’d have to subsist on baguettes and butter for a few weeks.  And I still cherish that book to this day, almost twenty years later.

Since I write picture books, I pay a lot of attention to illustrations. And I just love how Sempé captures tiny figures in a really big landscape/cityscape. His illustrations make me happy and hopeful, and he makes the world look full of charm and humor.

These are some wonderful illustrations by Sempé:

(I have a poster-size of the second one 😉

I’d love to meet Monsieur Sempé in person someday…a girl can dream! But for now, I’ll just admire his photo:

Do you have a favorite artist or illustrator?  I’d love to know!

The reason for my absence

When I first launched this website a few months ago, I promised myself that I’d post at least once a week.

Well, three months into this endeavor, I’ve already been absent for an entire month.

The reason for my absence is actually a pretty good one 😉  Our home renovations were finally completed (side note: believe all the warnings about adding double to any home renovation timeline), and we FINALLY moved in.

The photo below is of our freshly-painted front door and exterior, inspired by our travels to Greece last year (Oia on Santorini and Chania on Crete were particularly influential). The bougainvillea was already there (another side note: bougainvillea must be the most resilient plant on earth– this gal was detached from our house not once but twice for a collective three weeks, and after a few weeks of looking skeletal, she began blooming again one hot summer afternoon).

The house was originally a greyish exterior with a farmhouse brown door.  I’m very happy with the change. The house looks happy, too.

(Home sweet home)

The current color is Casablanca by Sherwin Williams, and the door is a hue called Bluebird Feather (we’d gone a lighter blue, and then repainted it a little darker).  We didn’t go bright white for the walls, the way Santorini buildings are, because we were afraid of blinding our neighbors.  But actually, now that I look at our house, I think we could go Santorini-bright the next time we give the exterior a paint job.

Here’s what inspired us — Santorini in all of its breathtaking loveliness:

(View from the Katikies Hotel)

(A typical Santorini door w/bougainvillea)

I’ll provide more renovation details at some point soon, including photos of my home office where I write (is your heart pounding in anticipation?!).  But for now, I have to go back to unloading boxes.  I learned, yet again, how important it is to be mindful before you acquire anything new.  I thought I donated and sold a lot of stuff over the past few years, but apparently, I haven’t been vigilant enough about new stuff coming in or diligent enough about getting stuff out.  Wow, I have a lot of books and shoes and hats…

I’ve already filled three more boxes for donation during the process of unloading our storage unit (which we’ve happily gotten rid of).  Is it just me, or is stuffocation a common household ailment in America??  If you have any tips for avoiding this ailment, please do share!

What I Learned about Writing from an Eleven-Year-Old

My nephew is a wonderful pianist, but sometimes, he really hates to practice.  But he loves music. He loves excelling at the piano. So he practices at random times of the day, no routine involved, no inspiration needed. He just applies his tush to the piano bench, and starts going.

Here’s a video of him playing Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu in the early morning, before he even brushed his teeth, before he even combed his hair:

This video was shot when he was a wee eleven years old. He had just learned the piece a month or two prior. And he is simply amazing. You should hear what he sounds like now at age twelve – WOW. He understands music theory the way a mathematician understands fractals.

What I learned from him is this: if you want to excel at something, just do it. Practice. Even if your breath stinks, even if your hair looks like a nest built by an incompetent bird (quoting David Sedaris). And especially if you have absolutely no inspiration or motivation and simply don’t feel like it. I know I don’t love writing (it’s hard!), but I love having written. I’m at peace when I’ve finally put words down on the page.

After performing this piece beautifully, he ran outside to play. One minute he was a maestro of music, and the next, he was any eleven year old tossing a football with his uncle. He practiced his music without fanfare, without complication. So often, I wait for the conditions to be “just right” before I start writing. I wait for silence, for emails to be addressed, for the muse to come along. This is all just procrastination. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. Just do it!

Will STUFF make you happy?

I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, my number one fantasy went like this: I wake up, and my parents tell me we have to go to Toys R Us to “run an errand.” When we get there, all the employees are standing around and smiling at me. My parents then inform me that I have exactly fifteen minutes to fill a huge shopping cart with everything my little heart desires. Everyone cheers and claps as I race down the aisles, filling the cart with toy chemistry sets, video games, maybe a Barbie styling head because they always kind of fascinated/creeped me out, etc.

You can probably guess that this never happened. Not even close. We couldn’t afford any excess and my dad is the type of person who keeps a pair of pants until it splits down the rear. And then his pants would get sewn and transformed into shorts. This overarching policy applied to everyone in our household, so I had many shorts that had previously been pants.

So when I became a working adult and got my first corporate job at a law firm and my first paycheck, I splurged on myself: shoes, clothes, trips, gadgets, you name it. And after years of stuffing myself silly on materialism, I finally grew sick of the bloating.  It didn’t happen overnight.  It happened gradually, where after another shopping spree, I’d feel disgusted with myself.  This feeling of disgust kept getting stronger and stronger, and the only relief I found was when I returned the items and got a refund.

Then it became clear: it was time to shed the excess.  

It was time to stop allowing ads and my surroundings to push me into consuming, when I already had enough.

I began to search online for people who also wanted to live in a way so that they weren’t burdened with stuff, and landed on several great websites.  The most helpful websites I came across were becomingminimalist.com and mrmoneymustache.com. They gave testimony after testimony of people who were much happier after they learned to see these advertisements (aka false messages) for what they really were: a way to get you to part with your well-earned money, a way to get you to focus on meaningless consumerism and to detract you from your true passions and talents, a way to breed envy among friends and acquaintances so that the consumer machine would keep chugging along.

Wouldn’t it be great to be free from materialistic urges?  Join me in future segments where I’ll discuss practical steps. And one day, together, we’ll get rid of piles of stuff and be FREE!  Yeah!

I leave you with a hilarious clip of Jerry Seinfeld talking about STUFF: