Out of Twenty: Nell Leyshon, Author of The Colour of Milk, Answers Eighteen Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which Nell Leyshonquestions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk tells the story of a young English farm girl who learns to write, but with devastating results. Here is what Nell had to say about reading, writing, and and how working with a population of marginalized women inspired her novel.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I came to writing late. So many writers talk about writing when they were young, but I never did. I started as part of my degree which I undertook as a mature student, after I had my first son.

I write many different things – it’s hard to say what they all have in common as it’s difficult to see what it is when you are doing the writing. I have published three novels to date and am somehow working on two more which is scrambling my brain!

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I don’t think I have any rituals. I think of writing as «work», so it’s something I have to do. If I don’t write for a while, I feel the pressure to speak build up and it becomes quite uncomfortable. Sometimes I listen to music; other times I work in silence. Sometimes I write at home, sometimes out and about. The main thing is to keep writing.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

I have worked with maginalised people for a long time now – I work with recovering addicts, and ex-offenders. I also work with gypsies. Many of the women are illiterate or semi-literate and writing The Colour of Milk made me realise how extraordinarily important education and literacy are. I really did feel under great pressure to tell Mary’s story.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I have always read critically, and writing has me do so even more! I wish it hadn’t. I read widely, but am quite demanding. I don’t like to be told too much – I like to work some things out. I also liek to be surprised. I’m currently reading a book of stories about adoption which interests me greatly. I’ve just had a reading binge on Willa Cather and Elizabeth Taylor. Both are brilliant.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

Yes I am fine to read while I’m writing, but don’t find inspiration in books, unless they’re for research. I find inspiration is better found in walking and thinking.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimatley decided not to include?

That there had been riots in 1831 about the mechanisation of agriculture, but to be honest it just didn’t fit in as by the time I wrote it, Mary had snatched the story from me!

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?

They would have almanacs and auction catalogues; King James Bibles and local newspapers. Songsheets from the local fair.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

I walk every morning before I start work. Each day is slightly different; I may be workshopping or meeting with one of the writers I work with through the charity Vita Nova. I may be in London, in theatre meetings or working on a theatre project. If I’m at home writing, I may put in a shorter day or if I have a deadline or am in an unstoppable mood, I may put in a very long day and not stop until I am worn out. I like being busy The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshonand thrive on it.

If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?

I can’t quite imagine being that prescriptive! I know we all have such different taste.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

The title came on the first page, as soon as I wrote the line «my hair is the colour of milk». I just knew that was it.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

I burned all my early work! I lit a bonfire and burned years’ worth of writing. However, even thouh it doesn’t actually exist anymore, I do remember it. And yes my writing has evolved. All writing does if you put enough work in and do your apprenticeship.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

I loved reading, but there wasn’t a pivotal moment – it came to me gradually.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

I always have quite a few projects on. I write across three different forms – radio, theatre and prose, so I like to mix it up. I do scrap a lot of work but I am trying not to do that as much or I will have too many unfinished pieces and you don’t know if something is any good until you do actually finish it and rework it.

As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?

That you have to write another one and another and another…..

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

Mary. I just love her and her spirit and have to admit to being upset when I finished writing her story. Luckily I got to revisit her as I have just done a radio version of The Colour of Milk for the BBC.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

I tend to make it up then do some research to check. I don’t like too much research or it becomes  a bit dry for me.

Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?

I can write anywhere and even in a room full of people chatting and music playing. In fact I love that.

 What’s next?

Two novels – very different voices and subjects/themes. I’m waiting to workshop a big theatre commission about folk music. And I’m working on a couple more theatre projects. I don’t tell anyone too many details about anything I am writing, or I find the energy and drive to write dissipates.

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Pick of the Month: February 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana MathisFebruary and one-third of March have come and gone and I have almost no idea of where the time goes. I must be having fun, because it certainly is flying!

I had another really good month of reading, a lot of variety, and frankly, hardly any duds. Reviews are a little slower in coming because I have been spending a huge chunk of time on a newsletter dedicated to monthly blogger recommendations. I’m hoping my blogger friends will stop by and recommend some good books for April, and beyond. I can tell that I have been occupied because from February 17th through the end of the month, I didn’t finish a single book!

February 2013

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler
It’s Your Move by Nick SavoySiege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo (Grisha Book 2)
Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Shadow Woman by Linda Howard
Darius by Grace Burrowes
Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black
The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

Additionally, I interviewed:

Laura Sherman (The Little Russian)
Lynda Rutledge (Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale)

Pick of the Month(s): I have two this month. They were SUCH

different books that it was impossible to choose just one. Siege and Storm isn’t out until June, but you can content yourself with The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, now.

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Lazy Saturday Afternoon: The Cornelia Street Cafe

The last couple of weeks have been hectic, and that has included busy weekends. This was the first time in about a month that I haven’t had any plans for either Saturday or Sunday. Last night was game night with the fam, and today I caught up with a friend for a leisurely brunch at The Cornelia Cafe.

This was my first brunch here, and I didn’t have any expectations , bust as it turns out the cafe is a well-know hang out space that boasts many activities. The downstairs area hosts live music, readings and other fun events, but going here for brunch was such a treat. The staff is very warm and inviting, and because we arrive on the early side (11:15) we were seated immediately. As you can see in the picture, arriving later guarantees a wait in line.

The Cornelia cafe has a variety of food and drink options that are reasonably priced, but when you take into account that a mimosa is $9, the brunch prix fixe make sense and it’s pretty wonderful. To start there was a choice of bread which included blueberry muffin and pumpkin bread, followed by breakfast entree which included the staples of buttermilk pancakes, french toast, omelettes and eggs any style, as well as some breakfast specials. Also included were coffee or tea and an adult beverage. I had a greyhound, made with pink grapefruit juice and it was very tasty, but they also offer screwdrivers, bloody marys, mimosas, and sangria. I was tempted to get eggs, because it was hard to think about getting pancakes after the bread course, but I saved my pumpkin bread for later and yielded to the temptation of buttermilk pancakes.

If you are looking for a cute place to grab a bite to eat and catch up with a friend, I would recommend The Cornelia Cafe. In addition to having a warm and friendly atmosphere, great service and good food, it’s also conveniently located around the corner from public transportation. It’s in the West Village, so it’s a great starting point for a day of shopping and sightseeing.

I had hoped to get a bunch of reading done today, but when I say lazy day, I really mean lazy day. I ate and watched tv, all day.

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Oz the Great and Powerful (Movie Trailer)

Oh internet, where have I been? This is what happens when you don’t have a television and you skip all the ads online. In the five seconds I was waiting to skip an ad on YouTube, I saw that there was a trailer for an Oz movie, which okay, I had heard vague rumbling about. I thought it was coming out next year, but it is out today, and I have just spent my morning (thus far, it is only 6:30 now) watching all the trailers and promo.

I think it looks fabulous. Of course, the fascinating part about all of this is that we know who this dude becomes. When Dorothy finds him, however many years down the road, he has become a prisoner to his own hype and image – hiding out from his people, and behind a lot of smoke and mirrors, to hold onto his power. Now we see him as he started out; ambitious, frustrated by the limitations of life in a small town, and surprised by an opportunity to be a big man in a troubled city. This is one instance where I love knowing the end.

Oh yeah, brought to you by the post I mercilessly bumped to talk about Oz this morning. You’ll see that post on Sunday.

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Out of Twenty: Liza Gyllenhaal, Author of A Place For Us, Answers Seven Questions

Liza Gyllenhaal

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Liza Gyllenhaal’s A Place For Us deals with a post-9/11 sex scandal concerning the teenagers of a wealthy family. Here is what Liza had to say about reading, writing, and how Social Host Liability Law informed her latest novel.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of Liza Gyllenhaalbooks you like to write?

I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania. After college, some of which was spent at the University of Iowa Writing Workshop where I studied poetry, I moved to New York City and began a career in publishing and advertising. In the late 1980s, I founded an advertising agency that specialized in book publishing accounts and watched it grow over the next couple of decades. About the same time I started the agency, my husband and I began to spend weekends in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, eventually buying a small cottage there. Like so many weekenders, we found ourselves drawn more and more to the serenity and natural beauty of the area—the corn fields, dairy farms, and rolling hills. When I was able to sell the agency several years ago to devote myself to writing, we also decided to spend more time in this part of the world.

I’d long been struck by the differences between the small, close-knit rural communities in the Berkshires and the upscale urban weekenders. All three of my novels for NAL — Local Knowledge, So Near, and now A Place for Us — are set in this area. They’re mostly about family life, the tensions and joys of living in a small town, and the longing for a sense of community.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

During the years I worked in advertising in New York City, I would try to fit in an hour or two of writing every morning in my cramped apartment. I used to dream of one day having my own writing studio. If Henry James thought “summer afternoon” were the two most beautiful words in the English language, I began to feel that “writing studio” took a close second. I imagined it in the woods somewhere with a fireplace or wood-burning stove — rustic and musty and so quiet you could hear the mice scrabbling around in the walls.

When I sold my advertising agency I was able to buy my dream — a place in the country which included a small farmhouse and an old horse stable which became my “writing studio.” It still has the old iron stall feeders and leather harnesses on the walls. It remains permeated by a wonderful smell of animal and old hay.

I wake up early and reread and rewrite on my laptop in the house, but in the afternoon I go out to the studio, bolt the door, and start the hard work of writing the next new word, sentence, paragraph, chapter. In the winter I have a fire going in the Jotul stove, in the summer I have all the windows open and can hear the seasonal brook and birdsong. In the summer I can watch our family of wild turkeys parading up and down in the old paddock. Other sightings: woodchuck, coyote, fox, and early last spring, when the trees were just greening out, a big black bear. It was a breathtaking moment when this wall of darkness lumbered right past me — so close that, if the window had been open, I could have reached out and run my hand through the bear’s ink-black fur.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

A few years ago I heard a news story on our local public radio station in Massachusetts about a married couple who were being arraigned under the Social Host Liability law. Two teenagers had been seriously injured in a car crash after drinking with the couple’s son at a party in the family’s basement.  Though the parents had been asleep upstairs and unaware of the underage drinking, one of the injured teenager’s family was bringing a law suit against the couple. Understandably, the rural community where the accident occurred was upset  about the incident — but also divided about where the responsibility rested.  As someone who loves writing about families and small towns, the story couldn’t help but capture my A Place For Us by Liza Gyllenhaal coverimagination.

It also brought back to me a tragedy from my girlhood — two teenagers from my town who were killed in a car accident on their prom night; a bottle of whiskey was found in the front seat. As I began writing the novel, a very similar incident took place in a town not far from us in the Berkshires.  In this case, tragically, one of the teenagers involved in it was killed. This senseless death brought home to me how serious and pertinent  — and ongoing — the problem of underage drinking remains.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I read a lot — poetry, fiction, history, memoir.  I loved spending time in 18th century Russia with Robert Massie’s fascinating biography of Catherine the Great. Recently, I relived the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s remarkable early achievements as President via Robert Caro’s latest installment of Johnson’s life.  I loved Anne Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder and Edith Pearlman’s collection of short stories Binocular Vision. I’m currently writing a new novel that revolves around a mystery, so I recently reread all my favorite P.D. James novels and I’m currently working my way through Agatha Christie.  After Nora Ephron’s death, I read everything she wrote in book form — and laughed out loud for a couple of days.

 Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I know that some writers have a hard time reading when they’re working on their own books, but reading, for me, is an almost physical necessity.  I’m not sure I could breathe without it!  And I certainly wouldn’t be able to write.  Books do influence what we do and how we think — and great writing can be a wonderful inspiration.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

I tend to research as I write. I spent a lot of time on the internet reading up on the Social Host Liability law and the many cases in Massachusetts that have resulted from the law’s passage.  The more time I spent researching different stories and exploring various sites, the more the name of Richard P. Campbell kept cropping up.  Digging a little deeper, I discovered that Mr. Campbell is the founder of a prestigious law firm in Boston, President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and a driving force behind Social Host Liability legislation. He created a multi-media program, Be A Parent, Not A Pal, to educate students, parents, teachers, and members of the community about the Social Host Liability law. It’s a first-rate tutorial on the subject.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Campbell by phone one afternoon.  He had agreed to a one-hour session, but we ended up talking for much longer than that.  He was outspoken and full of great anecdotes. And he was tremendously helpful, clarifying many complicated legal issues for me. He was also a passionate spokesperson for a cause he obviously believes in very deeply.

What’s next?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m starting to write a new novel with a mystery at its heart.  It won’t be a traditional police procedural, though someone will be murdered and the story will explore the reasons why — and probably end with the discovery of who did it.  But I’m hoping the novel will be more about the characters and the small New England community where they live.  I’m an avid amateur gardener and I loved writing about gardening in So Near and talking about my garden on my blog, so I’m pretty sure I want my main character to be a landscape architect/professional gardener.  I also know who gets killed — and when.  But I still have a lot of things I need to figure out.  A lot of the joy of writing — just as it is in reading — is discovering what’s going to happen next.

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Schroder by Amity Gaige – Book Review

Schroder by Amity Gaige Cover

Schroder by Amity Gaige CoverAmity Gaige’s Schroder is very loosely inspired by the story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German man who spent years pretending he was a “real” Rockefeller – Clark Rockefeller, in fact. Eventually “Rockefeller’s” marriage disintegrated, his mental instability became insupportable, and he kidnapped his daughter on one of their supervised, court ordered parental visits. I read Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, which is a nonfiction account of Gerhartsreiter /Rockefeller’s story, but Gaige only heard the basics reported one night on the news, and did no further research, but still found herself intrigued by the creation of another life and persona coupled with the kidnapping of a child. Schroder examines Eric Kennedy’s story through a document he writes to his wife while incarcerated for the parental kidnapping of their daughter, Meadow, and it is a fascinating examination of class, identity, belonging and love.

One of the extremely powerful results of fiction is its ability to firmly stick you in the shoes of a person whose background and perspective can be completely different than your own. Sometimes as a reader these unfamiliar notions are rejected right away, but in the hands of a skilled writer the subtle workings of the text (and maybe even the charm of a character) holds us captive in a way that forces us to consider whether notions other than our own are correct, and help us to gauge how we behave and judge the rightness of others’ actions. Schroder is a complex tale and Gaige weaves it beautifully. Even knowing what I did about him as the novel begins, it was difficult not to get wrapped up in and sympathize with his point of view.

Kennedy mentions that it’s not a crime to lie or create stories, and that fraud is only perpetrated when you benefit from the lies you’ve told. It’s an interesting admission because he clearly benefits in the imaginary life he builds for himself in the aftermath of his name change. Alluding to a vague relationship to “that” Kennedy family, he claims to have grown up in the fictional and idyllic town of Twelve Hills and his admission gets him a wife, a career and a daughter whom he adores, all with minimal effort. Kennedy, in a reflective state of mind, and having taken a vow of silence while imprisoned, has nothing to do but explore the history he attempted to leave unremarked, and the myriad ways he has benefited from being Eric Kennedy. We learn he was separated from his mother in Germany at a young age (pre Berlin Wall demolition), that he and his father have a distant relationship, and that neither of them made a good job of assimilating into their adoptive community of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The camp application where Kennedy first declares himself Eric Kennedy is the opportunity for a fresh start as an all-American boy, and once the dream is within his grasp, he can’t let go.

In the aftermath of his crimes, Kennedy calls himself a monster, and though he is capable of monstrous actions and grievous errors in judgment, I still had mixed feelings about him, and even huge compassion for him. Had he crossed no other lines, I’m not sure that I would have thought it was such a big deal that he changed his last name to Kennedy, or made up stories about his upbringing. Anyone who has survived childhood and teenage years knows how fierce the desire is to belong, but Kennedy is also an unreliable narrator. He happily spins readers down one path before tracking back to provide a much fuller and illuminating portrait of events previously viewed as benign. I never doubted his love for his daughter Meadow, but the main of their interaction occurs at Kennedy’s lowest point, and as good a father as he prides himself on having been to her, his actions on those seven fateful days gave me pause at the best of times, and were horrifying at the worst.

Gaige absolutely does justice to gray areas surrounding gender and custody issues in parenting, the effects of history and identity on interpersonal relationships, and the fragile bond between parents and children as they pursue the ideals of happy families and golden childhoods. It’s great to have these pursuits and ideals in mind, but Schroder shows that there is an inherent risk in it all going terribly wrong. Highly recommended.

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Bloggers Recommend

Monthly Book Recommendations - Bloggers Recommend

So, reviews and things in general have been slow around here because I have been hard at work on a new project with Jen Karsbaek, and now, we are ready to unveil it to the world.

Jen and I are often bouncing around ideas, as we do, and when she came to me with the thought of curating a monthly “best of” list with a select number of books that bloggers were looking forward to in the upcoming month I was intrigued. We talked about it on and off for months, but didn’t quite have the time and couldn’t quite figure out the logistics. A chance conversation with a colleague helped bring all the pieces together, and so no we can give you Bloggers Recommend! I hope you will also check out the site and give us your very best recommendations for upcoming books. I know what it’s like to read books in advance and have to wait to share your thoughts on them, here is your chance to let off a little steam beforehand, and to recommend something you’re excited about to other readers.

Take a peek at our first newsletter, and please join us in upcoming months with the books you love the best.

It’ll be so fun!

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 BOOK CLUB   Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

 

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Giveaway: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher JansmaThis weekend I will be reading The Unchanging Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (March 21, Viking Books – Penguin).  It’s described as the story of a young man who is trying to become a writer, and it was recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. I’m not usually much of a cover girl but I like how the title ties in with the “spots”, which upon closer examination are different colored typewriter keys.

Publisher’s description: From as early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable— yet hopelessly earnest—narrator of this ambitious debut novel has wanted to become a writer. From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s irresistible narrator will be inspired and haunted by the success of his greatest friend and rival in writing, the eccentric and brilliantly talented Julian McGann, and endlessly enamored with Julian’s enchanting friend, Evelyn, the green-eyed girl who got away. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, desperate to tell the truth in his writing and to figure out who he really is, Jansma’s narrator finds himself caught in a never-ending web of lies.

You can also check out an interview with Kristopher Jansma.

I have one finished copy to giveaway to a reader with a US address. If you’re interested in receiving the book, please fill out this brief form. I will pick a winner at random on Friday, March 8.

Good luck!

Also, congrats to Jamie. You’ve won a copy of The Little Russian by Susan Sherman.

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Reading List Swap with Mom (v 1.0)

This year my, mom and I decided to do a list swap. She has been on a reading tear lately –   in spite of having a busy professional and social life. She’s been managing a book or two a month (yay!) and she’s getting tired of me always telling her what to read. Say what? She now wants to tell me what to read. We each made a list of what we wanted each other to read and what we wanted to read for ourselves. Her lists are one and the same since she also wants to read and share around the books she chose for me. We are being really flexible, so as long as we haven’t already read the book, these lists can change.

Mom’s List For Me & Her

  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – We both read this already, and really loved it.
  • My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Paradise by Toni Morrison; or Stolen Lives by Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi if you’ve read Paradise

My List for Mom

  • The Absolutist by John Boyne
  • Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharp
  • Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler
  • Passing by Nella Larsen
  • The Good Father by Noah Hawley

My List for Me

  • Schroder by Amity Gaige – Read it and loved it already.
  • Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Magic Kingdom: For Sale, Sold by Terry Brooks
  • White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor Morse
  • The Four Ms. Bradwells by Meg Waite Clayton

Book To Read Together

  • Swan Song by Robert McCammon – Way back in the day I read this near thousand page tome and loved it, and passed it along for mom to read.  She loved it too, but now it’s all a blur, so we chose it for our summer read.

We are both writing up our thoughts as we read these books.  I will share mine here, eventually, and maybe if I get permission I can post some of hers as well. Then you’ll really get to see who should have a book blog!

Do you have a favorite friend with whom you exchange reading material? Isn’t it fun?

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 BOOK CLUB   Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

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