This is how I write: Justine Musk

I can’t remember how I came across Justine Musk’s work but I do know it stays with me long after I’ve read her words (I often link to her posts in my Friday round-ups). The author of three dark fantasy novels, mama to five boys and a prolific blogger, Justine’s got the kind of edgy style I love, so I was thrilled when she agreed to do the interview. Hot pink notebooks, candles and badass creativity? Bring it ON.

Ladies & gentlemen, please welcome Ms Justine Musk…

SC: What do you use for writing a) notes/ideas/brainstorming and b) your books?

JM: I love big eco-friendly notebooks with hard covers (hot pink when I can get it) and blank pages. Never lined. I need all that gorgeous empty space for scrawling and mind-mapping and random jottings. I do my actual writing on my laptop, but there’s something about the hand-to-paper connection, the physical motion of writing, that helps me think things out.

I switched from Microsoft Word to Open Office because it runs on the open-source Linux platform and you can download it for free. I’m a big fan of Dropbox, which allows you to access your files from any computer anywhere. I just joined Pinterest with the intention to create an online visionboard for the novel I’m working on now.  I want to access that visual, holistic, intuitive side of my brain when developing a storyworld, so I will try to get away from words and think in terms of images. You can make new associations that way, flash on insights, open up new ideas.

How do you begin?

It starts with snippets and fragments of things that live in my head for a while – a half-formed idea, or a sense of a character, or a setting I want to use, or an image that keeps nagging at me, or even just a feeling.  Then those fragments start joining up with each other in a way that begins to feel like a story. There’s always one aspect I find really compelling, that drives me onward, and the rest coalesces around that, or grows organically out of it.

This part of the process rarely if ever happens at my desk.  A lot of it happens when I’m driving.  I’ll be rocking out in my car and have that Eureka moment, when different ideas click together and boom.  You know it’s a book.  The question is whether or not you need to write it.

Describe your writing process (edit as you go? Shitty first draft? Daily word count goal?)

The daily word count thing has never worked for me.  Time tends to move differently according to which part of the novel you’re working on.  You might have a day where all you get is two paragraphs, but those could be difficult paragraphs that blast you through a vexing plot problem. So it’s still a total win.

I’ve also learned that if I hit a block, it’s a sign that something isn’t working and I need to back up and take another look at how the story is evolving.  If I ignore it and press on to meet some arbitrary word count, I tend to zig when I should zag and end up trashing those pages anyway.

The important thing is to stay in daily contact with the novel, even when all you can do is dream it out a little more in your mind.

I’ll do some line-by-line editing as I go, but I leave the heavy lifting of deep, structural revision until I’m working with a complete manuscript.  I need to see how all the parts relate to each other.

And I totally believe in the power of the shitty first draft.

What do you do when the words aren’t coming?

I’ve learned to work it hard, then release and surrender.  You can get trapped in ruts of thinking where your mind doesn’t go anywhere new, just repeats the same old patterns.  So you sever those patterns by switching your attention to something completely different.  Or even just zoning out.  That frees up your undermind to mull things over for a while, do its own thing, so when you return to the project you can see your way forward again.

So I’ll work out, or take a nap, or meditate, or find an excuse to drive somewhere.  I will drive just to drive, because something about it frees up my thinking.  And I’ll stay open and receptive to whatever comes to me.

And I’ll read. There’s something about reading fiction that primes my brain and makes me eager to get back to writing.

I’ll also meet up with my writing coach (Rachel Resnick), who will offer up some brilliant nugget that inspires me.

Please describe any writing rituals you have (I’m assuming you have some as all writers I know have some, including me)

I clear my desk, except for a few talismanic objects I’ve chosen to represent the novel in some way and which help trigger the right mindset.  I’ll take a few minutes to meditate and downshift into the creative brain waves.  I put on music – I make a kind of soundtrack for each novel.  Sometimes I’ll light a candle, supposedly to signify that I’ve crossed over into this creative space, but mostly because I just like candles.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process/madness?

I love to revise. I love the feeling you get when you re/vision something and understand how to make it better.  The story moves in your hands and takes on its final form.

Justine Musk blogs about badass creativity: how to channel your signature voice and express it in the world with purpose and impact. She’s the author of three dark fantasy novels published by Penguin and Simon + Schuster, and is at work on a psychological thriller called THE DECADENTS.  She lives in Los Angeles with her five sons.

Cartoon portrait of Justine by Mars Dorian

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Thank you so much, Justine!

You might like this, too: This is how I write: Danielle LaPorte

This is how I write: Danielle LaPorte

Danielle LaPorte

Ever since I finished writing my book I’ve been a bit obsessed with how other writers write. Writing a book — writing any lengthy piece — is such a solo mission it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has to smudge herself with burning sage and pray to the gods of Polaroid before she begins (I might be joking… Maybe). So today’s post is the first in a very occasional series of interviews with writers to see how they get in the zone and get their words on paper. I’m also asking them to share photos of their writing space with us, so we can be nosy inspired.

First up is the indomitable Danielle LaPorte. Danielle is the author of Style Statement and The Fire Starter Sessions (hitting book shelves in April 2012) and today sees the launch of her next e-program-of-awesome, Your Big Beautiful Book Plan. Co-authored with book proposal whizz, Linda Silvertsen, it’s exactly what you need to craft a book proposal that’s gonna get you that book deal. And here’s what makes it extra useful: they’ve included lots of real-life proposals from published authors (including me!) Those alone are worth investing in. Seriously. After our Fire Starter call back in 2009 Danielle was generous enough to send me a copy of the proposal she’d written for Style Statement. Having a real-life proposal in my hands helped me craft my own when the time came. I’m forever grateful to her :)

SC: What do you use for writing a) notes/ideas/brainstorming and b) your book?

DLP: Everything begins in hand notes in my Moleskine notebooks. I prefer the ones withe the craft covers. 6×9. I can outline a whole book in two pages. If I can get down the four core ideas, then it all begins to flow.

Then, and I love this part: pattern recognition. I move on to using one inch square light yellow sticky notes (you see I’m very specific about these things. Squares help me think mo’ better than rectangles. Can’t explain.) I write down different ideas, concepts, words on dozens and dozens of sticky notes. And then I lay them on a large piece of art board and I begin to cluster them. I start to see which are the Big Themes, and I place the supporting ideas under the obvious umbrella concepts. And THAT becomes the outline of the book or program. Works every time.

Then I do my first Table of Contents on my trusty MacBookPro (or my Mac Air if I’m traveling.) And I don’t look back.

How do you begin?

Usually in the bath tub. Really my best ideas come with heat and bath oil.

Describe your writing process (edit as you go? Shitty first draft? Daily word count goal?)

I have no typical, writerly “measurables”. If I had to write X pages per day, or X words a week, I’d faint from lack of creative oxygen — couldn’t bear it.

I write what feels good, when it feels good. And of course, sometimes what feels good is slamming a deadline, so I don’t drift from the goal: which is to create something awesome and impeccable and ship it. But I do prioritize mostly on emotional/creative pull.

What do you do when the words aren’t coming?

Nap. Organize stuff. Buy too much on iTunes. I also visit my Alexander McQueen and Donna Karan coffee table books. And Rilke.

Please describe any writing rituals you have (I’m assuming you have some as all writers I know have some, including me)

Well, I pride myself on being able to write anywhere, any time (being too sensitive about your surroundings can be such a creative cop out). Like, with kids dueling with light sabres by my desk, or in airport terminals, I manage to just tune it out and keep putting words on the screen. But ideally, I have a morning walk, a lush green smoothie. My desk is tidy. I light a honey beeswax candle, some hand-rolled incense, I crank some chanting tunes, and I play my wireless key board like a hot damn piano.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process/madness?

Crafting the one sentence that says it all.

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Thank you for bringing us into your space today, Danielle — it’s the one inch square sticky notes that are staying with me!

Full disclosure: I’m an affiliate for Your Big Beautiful Book Plan because I absolutely believe in it. So if you click on the link and decide to invest in the Plan, i’ll get a few dollars in return (which I’ll be reinvesting in more books. Yay for books!)

My Creative Life: Dr Sara Gottfried

As I told her in an email reply yesterday, I have such a girl crush on my next Creative life interviewee. Dr Sara Gottfried is a champion of women’s health, something she practices in her work and life as a doctor, a yoga teacher, a writer and a mother. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, The Hormone Cure, and shares her wisdom with women across the globe from her medical practice in Berkeley, CA. On her about page she writes: “I believe PMS is a legitimate health concern, no different than a sprained ankle” — this was when I knew we were meant to meet one day :)

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dr Sara Gottfried…

SC: Did you always know you wanted to specialise in women’s health? How did this path begin for you?

SG: I was one of those annoying people in medical school who loved everything – from surgery to psychiatry to primary care. I particularly loved psychiatry because it felt like surgery to me – surgery to mend the heart and soul, and the medical frontier of the next century, but not with answers found in the bottom of a pill bottle. But to answer your question, no on women’s health. It came to me later as a way of integrating many loves into one package.

I’m a devout, card-carrying but irreverent third-wave feminist. What I loved about obstetrics and gynecology is that it knit together all the things that held potent meaning for me. I was honored to attend women’s births and in awe of the transformational container of birth. I am blessed to have followed in Christiane Northrup’s footsteps as she redefined women’s health and gynecology, and empowered women to participate in their surgeries with regional anesthesia, as opposed to being knockout flat on an operative table – the ultimate in female objectification.

I loved the political agenda in women’s health, from reproductive choice to more research dollars for underserved conditions women face such as breast cancer and osteoporosis. Truly, the personal is political when it comes to women and health.

I trained as a physician-scientist at Harvard and MIT so that I would have the cred to take on women’s health and broaden the conversation so that women no longer feel dismissed, or perhaps worse, that their issues are somehow a moral failing. To me, that’s the worst aspect of patriarchal, old-school medicine – that women blame themselves for conditions they face such as Premenstrual Syndrome, anxiety, infertility and disordered eating.

But you asked how the path began, and I must give credit here to my great-grandmother. She was a whole foodist yogini from Palo Alto, CA who arrived at our doorstep when I was growing up on the East Coast with suitcases of wheatberries, carob cookies and wheat germ. She slept on a board and practiced yoga. She taught me the magic of our innate intelligence when it comes to health, and that planted the seeds that grew into my love of integrative and natural women’s health, or what I call organic gynecology.

You’re a doctor, a writer, a yoga teacher and a mother — how do you marry all these vocations together? What does a typical day look like for you?

One thing I know for sure, to cop an Oprah moment, is that marriage is not easy, at least conscious marriage. Susan-Piver-approved marriage. Most days are wildly out of proportion in the doctor or writing direction, and far less in the yoga or mom direction. I don’t seek balance, that mythical place of a seesaw at horizontal – I just try not to let the seesaw slam down so hard that it knocks the wind out of me.

I’m an early riser at 5am. It’s the only time of the day that my household is quiet. I practice a power ritual of: tea, meditation, intention, yoga, maybe some sacred texts and mantra. I have bucking-bronco physiology that favors negative thinking, food addiction, attention deficit, irritability, and a chronically chaotic home office. The power ritual is a non-negotiable to retrain my brain toward grace, in 15 minutes or less.

Then I write. I try to get 30 to 60 minutes in before the kids wake up. It’s not enough time but it’s what works right now. The other times I write are when a patient cancels or my husband takes the kids somewhere for a few blessed hours on the weekend, or I’ve carved out a 2-hour block on a Wednesday or Friday. I see patients either in my office or virtually on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Breakfast is crucially important to me. All the data shows the benefit of dinner together with your family, but I love the energy of breakfast. The promise of the day – hearing what my kids are thinking about, their dreams, what’s up for them at school. Eating together with Geneen Roth eating guidelines (Sit. Eat. Talk. Not in a car.) in practice, though my kids don’t know that. I eat a measured amount of raw oat groats pureed with almonds, and with berries plus chia seeds. Divine. I look at grain and gain weight, so this is my only grain of the day.

I love taking my kids to school and picking them up. I cram a full-time medical practice into those hours in between. The only way I accomplish that is with a fab group of virtual assistants who keep me sane and MANAGE ME. I start seeing patients around 8:30am and finish at 3:30pm before the kid pick up. After pick up, we head to my LEED-Platinum green Craftsman bungalow for homework and I make dinner. Sometimes I’ll do a bit of research for my book if there’s a spare moment. Today I’m writing about high stress hormones and how they screw up your hormones. I write from both personal and professional experience with high cortisol!

We all have dinner together around 7pm, including my husband who works long days as a green entrepreneur and change agent. We also have a digital sabbatical every week from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown.  It helps me find the eye of the storm.

In your opinion, what are the top three things women can do for their health and vitality every day?

Meditate (in any form – for you, Susannah, photography seems to be your form of meditation), take fish oil and cultivate gratitude with girlfriends. I like to call that the girlfriend gratitude groove – it fills you with oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding, and gives you a touchstone for all that is working in your life. Our minds like to focus on what’s not working, and we have to constantly reset our compass.

I suffer dreadfully (understatement!) with PMS every month and it’s getting worse the older I get (I’m 38) — could you share any words of wisdom for me and my fellow PMS sisters?

Right there with you, Susannah, until I figured out what is most effective.

·      Chastetree vitex is my favorite herb for PMS. More effective than Prozac and virtually no side effects. Very well proven to reduce PMS.
·      Take calcium and magnesium daily. Many women know this but drop off in their consistency yet it lowers PMS symptoms by 30-50%.
·      Exercise moderately 4 days per week. Frequency seems more important than intensity when it comes to combatting PMS.
·      Find the juicy message of your PMS. Rather than just medicate it away – is there some wisdom about the truth you’re not acknowledging. Often I find PMS keeps you from tolerating bad behavior in others. Pointing that out kindly is a major challenge in the throes of PMS – so notice and perhaps revisit later when kindness feels more possible

What and who inspires you – could you share some links and recommendations with us?

Gwen Bell is rocking my world right now. I love her utterly original reflections and contributions.

I crave the blog of Marta Dansie, probably because I’ve got ADD and my home just doesn’t ever look like hers. I can live vicariously in her orderly home office. Orgasmic eye candy.

I’m insane for the design of Natalie Chanin and the revolution she’s started with slow clothing in Alabama with artisanal needle workers.

Ana Forrest is my yoga teacher and just wrote a terrific book, Fierce Medicine. She helps me find the path out of my garden of dark thoughts into the compost heap of beauty and promise.

For medicine – well, it’s harder here to find inspiration. Most of the pioneers are much older than me such as Chris Northrup, Mark Hyman and Andy Weil. I’m loving the work of Atul Gawande but he’s very mainstream. Smart but conventional.

What is the message you want to share with the world? (in other words, what do you consider to be your life’s work?)

Women are so used to being dismissed for their health problems that they hardly even notice anymore. That needs to change. I believe in changing it. We have so many proven ways to help manage PMS, low energy, weight gain, and stress. We have so many choices about how to do it safely with both ancient wisdom and cutting-edge treatments, and I want to broadcast those choices. I see many of my patients seeking the counsel of their girlfriends because their doc offered them a birth control pill or an anti-depressant, and it left them cold. Insufficient answers and interest on the part of your doctor needs to be hunted down, identified and shifted into something more helpful. I want to broaden the conversation, broaden the container so women are informed and empowered about their health, and never again dismissed or brushed off.

What are you working on next?

We just now are launching Mission Ignition, a 30-day program to deal with the #1 issue my 10,000 patients face: low sex drive. I’ve figured out proven ways to double sex drive using a combination of adrenal, sex hormone and thyroid balancing together with sacred anatomy and a new model of female sexuality. Can’t wait to share it with my first group online starting October 25, 2011. You can sign up for my free October 12 teleseminar, 3.5 Sex Drive Myths Even Your Doctor Believes (+ 1 Half-Truth) happening at 11:30am Pacific. Register here to get call-in details or to get the recording sent afterward.

You’re having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?

Maureen Dowd. She’s hilarious and it would be fun to catch up on world events with her.

Tara Parker Pope. She has a great mind for what matters in medicine and I love her columns in the New York Times. I always get new ideas from her. I’d love to thank her for that and see what makes her tick.

Jim Collins. He makes business more palatable and artful for me and I think he’s genius.

Anna Deveare Smith. I got to meet her last month in Berkeley and her art form blows me away. Have you ever seen her do Lance Armstrong? I was peeing my pants.

Barbara Ehrenreich. So damn smart. I could use her feedback on how to not overindulge in positive thinking.

Bethenny Frankel. I’m not sure why I like her so damn much, but I love her direct form of communication. It really works for me, but I do think she needs a natural hormone consult.

As an alternate, say if Bethenny blows me off at the last minute, I’d choose Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, nobel laureate at UCSF who discovered that stress shortens women’s telomeres and accelerates the aging process. I’d love to get a download on every possible thing proven to help women lengthen their telomeres. Oh, BTW, telomeres are like shoe-lace caps on chromosomes that keep them from unraveling.

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Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today, Sara! Isn’t she amazing? I’m off to buy some fish oil, calcium and magnesium right now…. seriously.

My Creative Life: Christine Chitnis

Christine Chitnis
I had the pleasure of meeting Christine last year in New Hampshire and she was exactly as lovely as I knew she’d be. A writer and brand new mom, Christine’s first book hit the bookstores yesterday and I’ve been feeling the excitement for her, imagining what it must feel like to be at the conclusion of the publishing journey. A contributor to publications such as UPPERCASE and the Boston Globe, Christine will be teaching a class at Squam Art Workshops this autumn…

Ladies & gentlemen, please welcome Ms Christine Chitnis…

SC: Did you always know you’d write? How did this path begin for you?

CC: I came to writing in a rather round-about way.  I discovered my passion and talent for writing when I worked as a program director in the educational non-profit sector. Part of my job included writing grants and promotional material.  I loved the work, but it was seriously demanding, and after working several years in inner-city Chicago, putting in 60-70 hour work-weeks, I found that I was extremely burnt out.  Around this time, my husband was offered a great job in New England, and we decided to make the move.  I left my job behind, and vowed to strike out on my own as a writer.  I wanted to work on my own terms…and I have been ever since.  It was a struggle at first, transitioning from non-profit writing to creative non-fiction (magazine articles, blogging, etc.).  I feel incredibly lucky to be at the point in my career where I am writing about what I love.

Tell us about your gorgeous new book!

I am so excited about my book because the subject matter is very near and dear to my heart.  Markets of New England introduces readers to fifty of the most vibrant and unique markets — both farmers’ markets and art events — in the region.  I have a passion for travel, photography, writing and supporting our local artisans — making this book combined all of those passions.  It was truly a labor of love, and I am immensely proud of the end result!

Markets of New England

How are you managing to balance new mamahood with the creative life?

Hmm, I wish I could tell you!  I am completely flying by the seat of my pants, and learning as I go.  Some weeks I feel like I am on top of the world, perfectly balancing my career and motherhood… other weeks, I feel completely overwhelmed, like I am furiously treading water and only barely keeping from going under. 

My big thing is that I refuse to compromise my time with my baby — when he is awake, and we are together, I am completely, 100% focused on him… no phone calls, no emails, no Blackberry.  When he naps, I try to shift and focus 100% on work.  In some ways, I have become more efficient.  No more mindless web surfing…when I work…I WORK!  It helps that I do something that I am passionate about,  and I think that having a career that I love makes me a happier and healthier mom. 

I guess the other trick is to ask for help. I have great helpers in my life, including my husband, family, friends and babysitters. You can’t do it all alone, and you will be miserable if you try — so ask for help.  And something us moms (and women in general) are so bad at, but desperately need to do — give ourselves a break.  We all deserve a few minutes of “me time” every day, and we shouldn’t feel selfish for taking it.  A happy mom means a happy family!

Has your experience of book publishing been what you expected?

I guess I didn’t enter it with too many expectations or preconceived notions. Having written for publication before, I understood the general process of writing and editing.  Perhaps my only fear was that of being over-edited, to the point where my voice was lost.  I have had that happen on several articles, and I am always left feeling sad at seeing my writing chopped apart.

But the exact opposite happened with my book- I had such an incredible experience working with The Little Bookroom.  They are a small publisher, which allows them to give their authors so much individual time, guidance and support.  They had complete trust in my abilities, and really let me loose to write and photograph in my own style.  This gave me such confidence, and I never second-guessed myself during the whole writing process. 

Honestly, the entire book writing and editing process was a dream!  I loved every minute of it, and I would be incredibly happy to collaborate with The Little Bookroom on another travel book in the future!

What and who inspires you – could you share some links with us?

I am all over the map in terms of what inspires me- I love craft blogs, home decor magazines, memoirs of interesting characters. I draw inspiration from my daily walks, both through the cityscape of Providence, and trips to the country.  Lately, I am greatly inspired by film photographers- a few of my favorite film blogs include Nectar and Light, Wonderings and Wanderings, and, of course, your lovely site!  I really want to improve my landscape photography, and I recently came across the work of eco-photographer Jerry Monkman.  I found his work to be absolutely breathtaking.

I also love reading about interesting, young families — two of my favorites: Aurajoon, and Pacing the Panic Room.

Finally, two women that I look to as constant sources of inspiration- Pia Jane Bijkerk and Sibella Court.  Both have books coming out this month, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on them!

I have one week in New England: where should I visit?

Obviously, for starters, you should visit me in Providence, Rhode Island!  All kidding aside, Providence is a great town for creative people.  We have the renowned Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) here, as well as fabulous museums, galleries, restaurants, markets and shops.  There is a very indie, youthful, artsy vibe that makes it a great place to live, and an exciting place to visit.

After exploring Providence for a day or two, I would take you on a driving tour along the coast of Maine, stopping in the super cool city of Portland, and then weaving up through some of the small coastal towns (Belfast is one of my faves!).  I am completely drawn to water, and Maine has gorgeous lakes, and beaches…not to mention a stunning coastline!  And their coastal small towns are so charming, and so quintessentially “New England.”

That being said, this is such a tough question — each of the six New England states has so much to offer: Massachusetts favorites include Beacon Hill in Boston, and the bicycle-friendly island of Nantucket.  New Hampshire has the most gorgeous farm land, and the majestic White Mountains.  Vermont has an incredible Art Festival that runs the month of August, and ended up being one of my favorite events in the book!  The list goes on and on!  Can you stay for the whole summer instead of just one measly week!?

What is the message you want to share with the world? (in other words, what do you consider to be your life’s work?)

I try to find beauty in the simplicity of daily life, and I encourage others to do the same.  In our fast-paced world, we all need to be reminded to slow down and savor the simple things that can make life so rich- homemade, farm-fresh food, handcrafted goods, time spent with family, travel, good friends, quiet moments, the smell of my baby’s fuzzy little head and the beauty of the natural world.

What are you working on next?

Right now, I am focusing on Markets of New England, and making it a great success!  That means a busy summer of book signings, teaching gigs, and a big book launch party here in Providence.

I am continuing to write freelance articles for several publications, including upcoming articles in The Boston Globe, UPPERCASE, Edible Rhody and Yankee Magazine.  I am also a craft blogger for Yankee, and I have my own blog, which I put quite a bit of energy and thought into.

As I start to think about my next big project, I am definitely drawn towards writing another book, and I am just itching to expand my photography skills through workshops and classes.  I basically just want to travel, write and continue to take better and better photographs — all while focusing on being the best wife, mother and daughter that I can be. Phew — I am kind of exhausted just writing that!

You’re having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?

This might seem like a boring answer, but I am going for total honesty here.  My husband’s job requires us to do quite a bit of entertaining.  We have dined with Forbes billionaires, government officials and royalty.  It sounds very posh and exciting, but in all honesty, it really just means you have to mind your table manners, and pretend to be interested in tedious topics.  Usually I am stifling a yawn and fantasizing about swiping my finger across my dessert plate to soak up the last bit of chocolate sauce.

Not to say that I would feel that same way about six famous people of my choosing, but really…my ideal dinner party — mom, dad, husband, baby and my two brothers.  We are a rowdy crew, but there are no pretenses, and when I am in their company, I can be 100% myself.  They might not be famous, but they are my kind of people!

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Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today, Christine — I can’t wait to have your book in my hands!

{portrait of Christine by me; all other photos: Christine Chitnis]