Monday, January 31, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Melissa Senate

A 1/2 Dozen with bestselling, beloved novelist

MELISSA SENATE

who talks about the loss of her father

and her confused childhood

the truth about Harlequin

and the most brutal writing teacher
she's ever had

and
luckily
(for gajillions of readers)
stopped listening to.




Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise. (I prefer otherwise.)

I've always been enamored by the great and beautiful actress Meryl Streep, and for the past year I've been rewatching her oeuvre of films--from my favorite, Out of Africa, to The Bridges of Madison County to Kramer Vs. Kramer to Sophie's Choice, and everything in between and since. I'm obsessed with movies in general. And there's a river I like to drive past these days, this huge, sparkling, gray-green-blue body of water with tiny cottages and huge mansions dotting its shores. I live in Maine, where's a body of water every ten steps, but this particular river keeps calling me by. If spring ever really comes, I'll go sit by the river and see what it wants to tell me. Maybe something about my next-next novel.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I agree with you. I never have a singular moment of inspiration--except for a pervasive feeling. I think a sense of loneliness inspired The Love Goddess' Cooking School--I wrote it during a time that I was feeling alone (post divorce blues) and scared about a bunch of things, from my little son's health and happiness to finances, to why I was suddenly living in the state of Maine (if a state could be the very opposite of you as a person, the state of Maine is that for me). As I was writing and conceiving the novel in the first draft, I did pull singular moments of inspiration into the book in ways that transformed the entire story--for example, my son wishing into a bowl of raw eggs that he was scrambling that I'd get him a mouse, rat, hamster or rabbit for his 6th birthday. Suddenly, in the cooking class my main character teaches, wishes and memories are the final ingredients of every recipe. I do love that about inspiration.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

When I know what I’m doing, I’m in heaven. Not that the words always come, but I understand the point. When I’m unsure, when something isn’t making sense in a big way—a character is missing something crucial that I can’t pinpoint, the structure is off, the story begins too early, the plot is lagging—I need to do my magical thinking, which always happens when I’m asleep, in the hours right before dawn. I know that if I’m stuck, if I sleep on it, the answers will come at 4:30 a.m. But when I know what I'm doing, when I understand the inside of the story, the inside of the character, the page is my best friend.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

The Publishers Weekly review of my first novel (See Jane Date) was scathing, but the review came out exactly a week after 9/11, a time when not much else could affect me or break my heart. I’ve had “this is the best book ever!” reviews. I’ve had “this books sucks cheese balls” reviews. And everything in between. I’ve learned to feel wonderful for five minutes at the glorious ones, and feel sad for a minute at the negative ones. That’s really how long a bad review gets to me. It’s just ONE PERSON’S opinion, based on one person’s sensibilities or mood. The word subjective in the dictionary should include book review as part of the definition. The way I like to look at it is this: an editor, whose job it is to buy books and publish them, gave it the ultimate 5 star review. That’s all I need to know.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a confused kid, but a reader and a writer from first memory, which got me through so much. I haven’t seen my biological father since I was eight or maybe nine (standard story that he an affair with my mother’s friend, got her pregnant, then moved from our 6th floor New York City apartment to hers, with her three children, yada, yada, yada, we never saw or heard from him again). The nothingness and everythingness in this, what you have to do as a child to rationalize such a thing in your heart and mind, has informed every book I’ve written. Somehow, someway, I work it out in my fiction, sometimes in the tiniest ways, sometimes very obviously. I learned that my father died last summer from the half brother I've never met, the one born from that affair. The awareness of that half-sibling gave me an entire novel (The Secret of Joy). Now that's my father is truly gone, instead of just being his as usual gone, I think I'll have some kind of necessary closure that'll play out in my work in interesting ways.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I love big, smart, warm women’s fiction. Elizabeth Berg and Jo-Ann Mapson are two authors whose books and backlist are taking over my bedside table and my Kindle. Two under-the-radar books I was crazy about in recent years were: The Fiction Class by Susan Breen and Some Assembly Required by Lynn Kiele Bonasia. Knock-outs, the both of them.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I’ve always worked in publishing—a year at Berkley at the tender age of 22, ten years at Harlequin (and loved every minute there), two years at 17th Street Productions/Alloy, which is probably the most creative place on earth (Gossip Girl and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants were dreamed up during my time there). The Harlequin authors, the books, the community of RWA (Romance Writers of America) taught me some beautiful things about people and different ways of life and camaraderie and support; I knew when I started writing that I’d find support and friendship among fellow authors). And the YA think-tank book packager 17th Street/Alloy taught me how to write a proposal, how to package it, how to think SALE. If you mix the heart and earnestness and truth of Harlequin (and I will say to my death that those who put down Harlequin romances have never read a single one) with the SELL ME of 17th Street, you get a very helpful mix for writing for which I’m very grateful.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

There was one, and whoo-boy, was it a negative impact. Sledgehammer impact. When I was bright-eyed twenty-two year-old, I took a fiction writing class at NYU (continuing ed dept) because my favorite author at the time (a literary author) was teaching the class. (I won't name names, and I still admire her as an writer, even though she did a number on my already shaky confidence.) This teacher, this writer, HATED everything I turned in. She circled adjectives in my story and scrawled the equivalent of today’s REALLY? in the margins, which would be fine, except she circled pretty much every one. She did not like my voice or style at all, and because I admired her so much, I decided to face facts—that I wasn’t meant to be a writer, that I wasn’t good enough, that I could not summon the right adjectives, that my imagination and talent was limited, and I focused on being an editor instead.

But at age 34, when my life was kind of up in the air (I was leaving publishing and the corporate world behind for grad school), the novel that had been poking at me for years came rushing out of me. As I was writing (what turned out to be my debut, See Jane Date), I realized that the reason the Very Important Writing Teacher didn’t like my voice or style or anything I'd turned in was that I'd been trying to be something I wasn't--trying so hard to write like she did, trying to be a literary writer, when my true voice was very commercial. Once I let it out, let out the funny, the warm, the heart and soul, my past, my present, everything I am, my voice clicked. That was ten books ago.

Are you bloggish? Why?

I long to be bloggish because I spend an hour every morning before dawn (in the hour before my little dynamo of a son wakes up with his CAN I HAVE SMILEY FACE PANCAKES, CAN I PLAY ON THE DROID, I’M NOT WEARING A SHIRT WITH STRIPES!) reading my favorite blogs while I drink my hot tea. Book blogs, author blogs, editor blogs, agent blogs (one of my favorite morning pasttimes involves trying to figure out what song Betsey Lerner’s blog lyric-headlines come from). I love reading long personal essay type blog posts from authors. Guest blog posts. New book news. Cover info. When authors post links to blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, I’m the biggest clicker to head over and read.

But I often realize that long stretches go by before I update my own blog. Not sure why. Half of me is private and introverted, and the other half spills every detail of my personal life and never shuts up. For the past six months (since I last blogged on my own site), I must be in private mode. But I do long to be bloggish. I even love how that sounds.

Follow Melissa on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MelissaSenate
Friend her on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MelissaSenate
Visit her website: http://www.melissasenate.com/

Check out The Love Goddess’ Cooking School on Amazon.


Melissa Senate is the author of 10 novels, including her newest, The Love Goddess' Cooking School, which Publishers Weekly kindly said "reinvents comfort food;" her debut, See Jane Date, which was made into a TV movie; two books for teens; and several short stories and essays. She lives on the snowy coast of Maine.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Letter Series -- #1

A Brief Introduction:

What is The Letter Series?

This occasional feature on my blog is not for everyone. In fact, it's audience is very specific.

Over the course of the next few months, I hope to feature letters of advice from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals written to parents raising kids who don't fit the typical gender-identity mold. When we have questions about child-rearing, we usually go to the generation of parents before us. In this case, however, the world is changing so fast for the GLBTQ community that I think it's best to hear from the now-grown children of the generation before us.

Keep in mind that these letters are written to parents who want their children to be healthy and happy and comfortable with who they are. If you want to change your child, this isn't the place for you.

Some of the letters will be written by people who are parents themselves. Some won't. But for those non-parents there is always deep humility while faced with giving parenting advice. I've told these generous souls that I'm not looking to them for their experience as parents, but as having been children.



Our first letter is from Jacob Newberry.

Jacob Newberry is a University Fellow at Florida State University, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. A classically trained pianist, he has an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Mississippi and is currently working on several translation projects. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Rattle, The New Guard, and Pinyon, among others. He is currently Poetry Editor for The Southeast Review.


I can’t say that I know for sure what works: each child, of course, is different, and you’re the best person to judge what will or won’t work with your child.

If you think your child is wondering about – or struggling with – his or her sexuality, then your response should be determined by one question: How much do you already talk to your child? If you have a relationship where you talk about everything – fears, struggles, doubts, joys, etc. – then your response should be direct. But if your child is more reticent to share with you about her emotional state, then you need to be indirect.

The direct approach: If you talk about everything already, then you should talk about this. Look for natural ways to bring it up, if your child hasn’t brought it up already. Watch one of the “It Gets Better” videos (itgetsbetter.org). Watch Glee together. Look for positive gay role models, in your community or in the media. See if there are organizations that you can join as a parent (PFLAG) or maybe organizations at your child’s school. Is s/he the activist type? Why not help her set up a Gay-Straight Alliance? You can offer to be a sponsor.

Above all, let your kids know that you love them, and that you’re listening. And be honest: if you don’t know the answer to something, tell them. Ask around for help. Go online. There are too many resources out there for you to feel helpless and lost. You should be immersing yourself.

And remember that your child doesn’t have to know the answer to anything right now. Maybe he’s certain he’s gay, or maybe he’s just not sure. Tell him that it’s okay to not be sure. It takes a long time to learn who you are.

The indirect approach: If your child is more emotionally distant with you, you’ll need to be indirect. (Pressuring your child on something this large is a bad idea. Don’t try it.)

I was the emotionally distant child. It wasn’t my parents’ fault; it was just my disposition. They were stridently anti-gay, but they never told me so directly. Everything they said and did to let me know was directed outward, never at me. But the message was always clear.

So what’s an indirect way to let your child know that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, or questioning his sexuality? Make a concerted effort to talk in a positive way about gay people when your child is in earshot. (“Hey honey, my cousin Rich and his boyfriend say that we should bring the whole family out to San Diego sometime. What’s our vacation budget looking like?”) Try to have your child around a happy, stable gay person (super bowl party? church picnic?) – and then make nothing of it. (“I’m so glad I finally got to chat with Anne at the party. I can’t believe she doesn’t have a girlfriend!”) Watch TV shows or movies that have a gay-positive plotline or character, and then don’t dwell on it. Best of all, if you’re lucky enough to have a close family member or friend who’s out and emotionally stable, see if your child can visit them for a few days. (Again, make nothing of the fact that they’re gay: it’s just a chance to see Seattle, or to spend some time with a favorite uncle.)

This will almost certainly be difficult for you as parents, but it’s harder for your child, I promise. Even though you may want to be the first person she tells – you deserve it, after all – that might not be the right thing for your child. But she’ll know that if things really do get bad, you’re both on the same team. As I said, I was emotionally distant by nature, but knowing how strongly my parents disapproved only served to push me farther away. If your response to being gay is one that’s thoroughly relaxed, your child will be able to turn to you if he’s ever in real trouble.

There are a million small ways to let them know that being gay isn’t wrong, but the point is always the same: it’s not a big deal. Some boys like girls, some boys like boys. That’s just how it is. You don’t have to say any of this to your children directly. But I promise they’re listening.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Happy Random Saturday

Dear sweet Lord, the stuff I would have posted on YouTube if YouTube had existed in my youth. I had an ongoing radio show -- without any transmission ability -- called the Focal News, which opened with me and my friend on my porch, as anchors, each holding spoons over one of our eyes, and reporting the daily goings on of our lives. We had a tape recorder.

My college years marked the advent of the Answering Machine. One of my friends and I spent hours working on our outgoing message. As it was also the advent of The Simpsons, many of our messages were in the voice of Julie Kavner, aka Marge, whom I love dearly. We also bought one of those toy cow-noise makers that you flip over and it makes a moo. We put that moo to some very witty use, I tell you.

Basically, if there had been YouTube when I was in college, I'd have flunked out -- but it would have been beautifully-tragically documented.

AND NOW ... I have kids. My kids make movies all the time. They've made their own chest dollies out of PVC pipe. Exacto knives for cutting out and hot-gluing cardboard weaponry must be done on the tiled kitchen floor. I have rules. The oldest three have all been in FSU films -- MFA and BFA theses. And there they learned how to write, shoot, edit, add music, sound effects, voice overs ... It's insane.

But a lot of time, they're riffing.

Here's my oldest son -- Finn, now 14 -- doing just that. This first one is 4 minutes long -- as he announces his YouTube channel. And this one is only 1 minute and gets cinematic on your ass -- though it has no plot.

Who's it starring? Him. Of course.

OOOOOoooo, and THIS gem is the handiwork of my second oldest son, Theo, almost 11, mix-mastering a video of Otis, the youngest, dancing to "I WHIP MY HAIR BACK AND FORTH."


Happy Random Saturday.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why we're drawn to read & write about teenagers.

"... Childhood is a self-enclosed world. It defines itself against the self-enclosed world of adults. Adolescence represents the disruption of childhood. It’s the restless time, the time of dissatisfaction. Adolescence looks in two directions and rejects both. It looks one way toward childhood and another toward adulthood, and feels twice banished. It erects its own laws, which it only half believes in. Sometimes it experiences an immense nostalgia for childhood, more often a disdain. It’s suspicious of adulthood, which it fears as a destiny. It tosses restlessly and doesn’t know what to do. The restlessness of adolescence is good for stories. It keeps them uneasy."

-- Stephen Millhauser, taken from an interview online at The Southeast Review.


(Here's another Millhauser piece that I teach on what the short story can accomplish.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Danica Novgorodoff











A 1/2 Dozen with graphic novelist
Danica Novgorodoff


who offers language lessons on the occasion
of meeting gravediggers
from Datong, Shanxi


advice on how to quickly escape
the dark cave of our writing


and who hopes
that "happy childhood = bad writer"
isn't true at all.


HERE GOES...


Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
My relationship with the page is a double process of writing and drawing. I try to write first so that I'm not making unnecessary drawings, but it never works out so cleanly. I often write first, start to draw, get new ideas or find flaws in the story, re-write, re-draw, change my mind about the writing, stop drawing, re-write, start drawing, and so on. The writing part is the exciting spark of of the idea, and penciling the images can sometimes be tedious. Inking is faster and looser, and hand-coloring is always an experiment. It's a challenge to find ways to continue to surprise myself as I draw the images for a story I might have written years ago. One sentence of text can take a page of images to describe.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.
Whether it's a professional editor or a smart friend, find a reader whose opinion you trust. I find it invaluable to have someone to talk to about ideas. Working alone, I'd have to put down a new draft for 6 months to come back to it with fresh eyes. An outside reader can offer that kind of perspective immediately. It's nice to not work alone in the dark cave of your own mind all the time. Not that your mind is a dark cave. But mine sometimes feels that way when I'm too close to my own project.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I like to travel to a place I'm writing about and take lots of photos for drawing reference, and to get a general feel of the place. Right now I'm working on a book set in China, so last year I traveled to China with my boyfriend, Farmer, who is socially braver than me, even though I've done more traveling. My book begins with a grave-robbing, and Farmer and I came across a field spotted with graves while we were wandering the outskirts of Datong, Shanxi province. We spotted three gravediggers and Farmer suggested we go chat with them. "But we don't know Chinese," I said, timid. "Sure we do," Farmer said. We did: we knew how to say "Would you like some tea," and "I only eat vegetables," and "I am glad." A few phrases learned from Chinese language CDs from the library. Farmer set off across the field, I followed shyly, and we greeted the three men. They stared at us for a long time. Farmer enthusiastically told them, "Beautiful China" and I said, "I am glad." They didn't understand and whispered to each other. Farmer did some pantomime. They stared at us. Then they started to ask us questions, a barrage of questions, to which we nodded cautiously, shook our heads, and finally shrugged apologetically. They got frustrated, they laughed at us, they gave up. They offered Farmer a cigarette and we squatted on the gravesite, the men smoking, all of us silent. We took their photograph and then left them to their work.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

My favorite thing to do as a child was to wake early in the morning, before my younger brother and sister were up, and go walking the 83 acres of our farm in Michigan with my dog. I liked the movement, the solitude, the fields and trees. I like to work this way, now: waking up early, working alone. I also like to run to think; I'm a much better problem solver when I'm moving.

I've heard people say that a troubled childhood and messed up family makes for a good writer. I hope the implied inverse of happy childhood=bad writer isn't true; I had a mostly very happy childhood.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
No. It's always a struggle: if I'm satisfied with the amount of art I'm making, it probably means I'm not making enough money to pay my rent. If I'm making money, it usually means I've put aside my art for too long. My new years resolution every year is "make more art." This year I really mean it.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I've worked as (among other things) a graphic designer for a publisher in New York, a horse wrangler in Colorado, an assistant to a photographer in Virginia, and a transcriber of marketing research focus groups. All of these jobs have their merits in my writing life: the first put me in touch with the publishing world and got me a publisher, editor and agent; the second inspired numerous stories about horses, guns, and cowboys; the third gave me a model for the type of artist's life I would like to one day live; and the last helped pay the bills.

Danica Novgorodoff is a painter, comic book artist, writer, graphic designer,
and horse wrangler from Kentucky who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.
She received her B.A. from Yale University in 2002.
Her work has been included in Best American Comics as a distinguished
comic of the year, has won the Isotope Award, and has been nominated for
an Eisner Award. Her graphic novels Slow Storm (2008) and Refresh, Refresh (2009)
were published by First Second Books.
I first spotted her work in the literary journal Ecotone.

A 1/2 Dozen for Rebecca Rasmussen

Here is a 1/2 Dozen with novelist

Rebecca Rasmussen


who gives advice on maxing your glutes to Lady Gaga,

on finding a partner willing to play banjo on the streets,

and

who even sings for us a little.


1. Current obsessions?

I am completely obsessed with the new treadmills at my gym. I mean, how cool!, the treadmills have a built-in radio and a thirty-minute program called “Glute Max” that I choose once a week, and once a week my glutes are indeed maxed out with Lady Gaga inevitably chanting, “I don’t want to be friends” at some point along the way. Yes, I am a big dork. Huge. But then, according to my logic, so is my local radio station.

I am also obsessed with the 72% dark chocolate bars at Trader Joe’s; they come in packs of three for under two dollars, which is truly dangerous and may be the reason I chose “Glute Max” in the first place.

(I am also a nail biter. Shhh. Don’t tell.)

2. What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Before I met my husband, when I was in college, I was looking for a man who would be willing to live on the streets not only for my dreams but for his, too. Someone who would be willing to give up comfort for artistic freedom. At several points in our twenties, my husband and I were one step away from him playing the banjo for money on a sidewalk and me counting shiny copper coins next to him, so my advice is to pick someone who believes in the value of art over money, dreams over practicality…that way when you get the warning about the gas being shut off, you’ll hand each other a sweater instead of a noose.

(Kidding. Just kidding.)

3. Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2.

You are the only one who can make your dreams come true. Fight for them every step of the way. You’re worth it.

4. Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

Publishers are very large these days, and because of this, sometimes authors can feel a little forgotten and even a little disappointed in the attention or lack of attention their books are getting in-house. But instead of feeling sorry for ourselves and playing the blame game, which is destructive to everyone, I always tell my fellow newbie authors to play a more proactive one. Who knew Kennedy’s inaugural speech would come in so handy? My advice is this: ask not what your publisher can do for you, but what you can do for your publisher. Just because your publisher isn’t making your book the lead title for fall doesn’t mean you can’t stir up some buzz about your book yourself. Get moving. Get online. Spread your Facebook and Twitter wings. Devote yourself to this part of the process with the same guts and grit you devoted yourself to writing your book. At the very least, you will meet many lovely and amazing people who will become very good friends. (That’s a very least that’s pretty wonderful to live with!) And you know what? Your publisher will notice and love you for your hard work, for your strength of heart, your will to lift your book above the fray. They may even change their minds about how “little” your book really is!

5.What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I have been a camp counselor in northern Wisconsin, a hotel receptionist in southern Wisconsin, a cook at a ski resort in Colorado, a babysitter in Illinois, a copywriter in advertising land, and a waitress in Massachusetts—to name just a few jobs. Some, namely the uniform-less ones, were better than others. The camp counselor job is the one I remember the most fondly and is the one that helped shape me as a writer. Before I was a counselor, I went to a wonderful summer camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin as a camper for six summers. Learning how to sail; ride horses; swim; bead with dried penne pasta!; live with twelve other girls in a rustic cabin; make moldy towels smell better with Lysol; salt leeches and pull them off of my body, and sing songs with sixty other girls in a dining room changed my life. It gave me a kind of confidence and a sense of belonging that has helped me tremendously in my writing life, especially when I am saying yes, but my characters are saying no. Each year, my mother scraped and saved and waved goodbye to me for seven weeks because Camp Woodland gave me something that she couldn’t. (Thank you, Momma.)

I still think a lot about camp. About Sand Lake and Vespers Hill, about Treetops and Sunnyside and all the old cabins. I think about the land. I don’t know if my daughter will ever want to go to Woodland or not, but I sing this camp song to her every night (hoping) anyway:

May you sleep well tonight

Friends so good and true

Woodland Girls say goodnight and send sweetest dreams to you.


6. What’s your take on touring?

Well, I’m going on one in April and May, so here’s hoping they are worth it!


Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, forthcoming from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and loves to bake pies. The Bird Sisters is now available for pre-order. Visit her at http://www.thebirdsisters.com for more information.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Cliffs Notes of a Baggott Workshop.

Here are some of the things I've said over the years that I've built my craft lectures around. This is the shrunken-wool-sweater version of a workshop with me.


"Writing can be seen as the engagement in a daily practice of empathy."


"The success or failure of anything I write depends, in a given moment, on my willingness to fall in love."


"Don't be faked out by the false suspense of what might happen. The novel relies more deeply on how and why."


"Make regular practice of digging through concrete memories. The things you find there have already been edited by the mind. They remain in your head because they have some psychological resonance. You don't have to fully understand the psychology -- perhaps better not to. Rely on that resonance to transfer to the reader."


"Be not vaguely bitter. Yelling at the dog is a waste of rocket fuel. Hone your bitterness. Use it to charge your work." This goes with a lecture in which I also suggest writers "polish their hate like chrome" and "tender care for and feed and groom the chip on your shoulder. The chip can be a great gift, if properly trained."


"Learning to truly take in the things around, working the senses, means that you can learn to write while not writing. Writing happens first by experiencing the world and then translating that experience for yourself and then, in revision, to translate it for the reader."

Friday, January 21, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Laurel Snyder


Here is a 1/2 Dozen with
Laurel Snyder -- a poet, essayist, anthology editor, novelist for young readers and picture book author who explains why ...


"...writing is hard. Inspiration only changes the way in which it's hard..."

and



"If you feel like you've exhausted faith as a subject, you aren't actually thinking about faith."

And here goes:



1. I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I actually feel like I went from believing in inspiration, as a melodramatic teenage poet, to NOT believing in it at all, as I studied, got serious, began to learn craft. It was like I needed to believe that hard work and reading would pay off on their own, if I was going to bother doing the work. But now I feel like I'm in a place where I believe in the limits (and the magic) of both hard work and inspiration.

My next book, Bigger than a Breadbox, and my last book, Penny Dreadful, are opposites with regard to inspiration. Penny was not "inspired" so much as I sculpted an idea. I whittled it. The book went through four serious drafts, changed radically, and ended up nothing like I initially imagined it. I had no moment of "inspiration" to cling to, and so I was able to be more malleable. I was more able to "get out of the way" of the book that wanted to be written. I changed the tone, the plot, the main character, the ending. I changed everything.

Breadbox is the very opposite. I was sitting in a car, on my way to Iowa (my husband was driving) and I said to him, "When something appears magically, where does it come from? What if a kid had a magical box that would give them whatever they wanted, but then they figured out they were stealing?" And that was that. I pegged that whole idea of loss/theft to my own memories of my parents' divorce, and the book sort of wrote itself. This is not to say I didn't slave and revise and pull my hair out over it. Emotionally it was the most brutal book I've ever written. It nearly killed me. But part of that was because of the inspiration. I was trying to write a book that would match the initial thought, the moment of lightning-strike. Does that make sense?

Either way, writing is hard. Inspiration only changes the way in which it's hard.

2. Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love to write once I'm at it. I hate to sit down and start. I'm not sure what that says about me. I will spend hours noodling online to avoid opening the word document, but once I'm inside a poem or a story, I don't want to leave it. One day, when I was revising Breadbox, I stayed in bed for 18 hours. I just never got up that day. My kids kept coming in, and I kept shooing them away, and my husband kept asking if I was going to take a shower, and then suddenly it was 2 in the morning, and my breakfast coffee was cold on my bedside table, and I was starving.

3. What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner?


Ha! I think finding love you can live with is just hard for most people, and staying in love is work too. I think that a writer would do well to look for someone with a good insurance plan and job stability. I got lucky-- I married a musician, but then then he decided to go get an MBA and a straight job. Not sure how to advise people in matters of the heart.

4. What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

Well, my main job is being a mom. Before that my main job in life was being a waitress. If nothing else, both gigs have set ridiculously low standards for me-- in terms of compensation and appreciation. I joke about this a lot, but really, I think they've been helpful that way. I talk to some writers, and they can't understand why I'd slave at a book for years without any promise of reward. But my waitress-brain still thinks in terms of hourly wages, and my mom brain-- well, my mom brain doesn't think like that at all. My mom-brain just thinks, "I just need to get through the work in front of me, because I have to believe that what I'm doing has value, no matter how hard or frustrating or covered in vomit it might be."

In the end, neither of those jobs is directly related to me being a writer, but both have made me a better writer, a more patient, tolerant, appreciative writer.

5. Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Yes. I've had several, but most important of all was Dr. Blankenberg, my high school writing teacher. He's a poet in Baltimore, and in the years when he was my teacher he was pretty depressed. He taught me to write, and to read, and to take myself seriously as a poet (which is not something most 15 year old writers get at all). But also he taught me something a lot of people never learn-- which is that if you expect your work to make you a happy person, and you judge whether you should be doing that work based on how happy you are, you will eventually stop doing whatever it is. By being honest about being depressed (while still functional, and productive, and a writer) he taught me that people aren't always happy, and that's okay. He taught me that you can write through the unhappiness, use the frustration or depression or sadness or boredom or fear, or whatever it is. Not because it's dramatic and poetic to be unhappy, but because it's a human thing to be unhappy, and that in the end-- writers are human. How many kids get a role model for functional unhappiness?


6. Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?
Bold

Faith plays a big part in my writing. To begin with, I tend to write about it as a subject (mostly in my work for adults, but also in some of my picture books).


But also because I think, for me, magic is faith and faith is magic. On some level, I have never stopped believing in unicorns and fairies and witches and wishes and parents who remarry after a divorce and mean girls who turn into nice girls and endless love that finds you when you least expect it. Basically I believe in absolute potential. I don't know that any of these things truly exist, but I don't think we can disprove that they do, ever. So for me a unicorn or a handsome sensitive guy who sweeps a girl off her feet is akin to God. The process of believing it might still be out there, and the process of imagining that story-- that's religion. Faith is believing the story you tell yourself (and that you tell others), as well as believing the story someone tells you. I could go on about this forever, which is why I write religion essays. It's the topic that never gets fully unpacked. If you feel like you've exhausted faith as a subject, you aren't actually thinking about faith.

Laurel Snyder is the author of three novels for children, Penny Dreadful, Any Which Wall and Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess (Random House) and two picture books, Inside the Slidy Diner and Baxter the Kosher Pig. (Tricycle).

In addition to her books for children, Laurel has written two books of poems, Daphne & Jim: a choose-your-own-adventure biography in verse (Burnside Review Press, 2005) and The Myth of the Simple Machines (No Tell Books, 2007). She also edited an anthology of nonfiction, Half/Life: Jew-ish tales from Interfaith Homes (Soft Skull Press, 2006) A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Michener-Engle Fellow, Laurel has published work in the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, but most of all, she is a mom.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For All the Ladies in my Mother's Book Group.

Today, a college friend congratulates me on having a Notable Essay in the back of Best American Essays 2010. I texted back, "what essay?" I assumed it was going to be this very serious piece called "Literary Murder," that had been chosen for Best Creative Nonfiction. She wrote back, "For All the Ladies in my Mother's Book Group." "THAT one?" I texted back. The essay was a blur that came back to me slowly -- starting with BONG HITS and ending with this wild pack of genius -- with a jab at Harold Bloom and getting snubbed by my mother's book group.

A QUICK READ, first published in HAYDEN'S FERRY REVIEW. HERE IT IS:


[Warning: This one's not for kids. It's got some foul language -- mainly from the mouth of my mother.]


My father calls me up. “I had to explain bong hits today to Eloise Newmarker.” Eloise is a neighbor in the lake-side trailer park where my parents spend the summer. She’s sixty or so, crisply dressed.
“Sorry,” I tell him, because I know it’s my fault. The new novel is out. “Did you do a good job?”
“I think I did a very good job.” In the 1960s, he was the nation’s leading patent expert on vacuum cleaners, anything, really, sucked clean by air– from street sweepers to handheld Hoovers -- and it seems like a vague backwards connection to bongs can be made there. “She thought bong hits meant group sex.”
“She’s naughtier than I thought,” I say.
My mother’s voice breaks in now. She’s evidently pulled the cell phone out of his hands, which is dangerous since they have to climb on a top bunk bed in the trailer’s corner to get any connection at all. “I always knew you were a genius! I told all of your teachers, but they wouldn’t believe me! Well, they believe me now, don’t they?”
Here, I should say that this is all very nice, but my parents would be steamingly proud of me if I got early parole. They’d accost the neighbors out walking their dogs. “She’s really shaped that prison up. You should see how even the guards look up to her!” And, sadly, I’m not a genius. Harold Bloom would never discuss me in one of his ghastly, wind-baggy books. I’m mediocre with some vast and gaping holes. Math seems completely subjective. I add by an elaborate counting scheme. Geography: to me the world is flat with shifting Dairy Queen landmarks. In my defense, I spent fourth and fifth grade lunching and banking with my mother because the bus ride into the city school was too long and my mother thought the driver, a white guy who wore fringed mocassins, might be a drug dealer, making his rounds on the taxpayers’ dollar.
Recently I was invited back to give a reading at my alma mater in Baltimore and the director of creative writing asked how my mother was. “Fine,” I said. “Do you remember her?” “She’s the only mother I ever had who called me up before school to ask if the curriculum would in any way damage her daughter’s natural talent. Of course I remember her.”
When I told my mother this, she drew a blank and shrugged. But we both knew it was so very much like her that there was no sense in her trying to deny it.
Neither of my parents think they have any natural talent. My father is analytical; he woke us on long car-rides to see the odometer line up in some miraculous numeric symmetry. My mother taught us to say that she’s a concert pianist, but admits that she was the hardworking blue-collar type who had to bang through everything for lack of an ear. She actually won a scholarship for graduate work in Rome, but turned it down to marry my father and because performing made her want to throw up. She didn’t even particularly like to play for dinner guests who, she feared, might start making awful requests, like “Misty,”or, worse, might want to start a sing-along in which she’d be reduced to an accompanist for drunks. And, so, she left the entertaining to my father who liked to prove the springiness of DuPont carpet padding by bouncing raw eggs off of the shag rug.
They cried on my first novel’s auction day. My father harkened back to the auctioning off of the first Baggott on American soil, a British sheep thief who, according to some ancient penal colony documentation, didn’t sell for as much as my father would have hoped . “But you, you’ve made us proud, Sweetie.” And it would have seemed that this kind of win-win, all-good scenario was just the beginning.
Unfortunately, none of us could have predicted the odd social test that a published book can become. I envision it now as an actual hurdle stolen from a track meet and set down in front of me everywhere I turn. People have to maneuver around it. Some get a running start – from across a crowded room, “Oh, I read your book!”– and hope to clear it. Others ignore the hurdle and try to balance a drink on it. Most lurch over it breathlessly. I used to offer to hold their hands, their handbags. I used to try to give suggestions. “If you didn’t read it, it’s okay.” Or “You don’t have to comment. You’re an accountant and I don’t critique your management style.” But now I just sit back and watch, which is exhausting enough.
Here are a few comments from those early days:
From a professor of 18th century English: I don’t read modern books, but I suppose, for you, I’ll have to make an exception.
My answer: Hey, you’ve got a great gig. Finite literature. Don’t make any exceptions on my part. Use the book as a door stop.
My mother in law, never having discussed the books with me: My friend Bob is reading your book. He said he’s only doing it because you’re my daughter in law, and that if you were his daughter, he wouldn’t ever want to read it.
My answer: A) Bob probably didn’t raise particularly creative children (Was he easily disturbed by their sock puppets?) and B) I’m glad that he isn’t my father. (the unsaid C) being: why the hell are you telling me this?)
My father in law: What if I hate it?
My answer: Don’t say anything. I’ve got a lot going on. I probably won’t notice.
He’s never mentioned the books again. Unfortunately, it’s become glaringly obvious.
Random man at a mall signing: Bestseller, yeah, right. What best seller list have you ever been on?
Random drunk woman at a book group: These women don’t grab life by the ass. Do you grab life by the ass? (Does life want to be grabbed by the ass or would life slap me, and, perhaps, rightfully so?)
Random question at a Q and A: Are you frail or do you just look frail? You like you could die of consumption on a moor, coughing into a hankie.
One thing was clear: For a writer used to sitting in a room alone for hours, going public was going to be tricky for me and for my unwitting parents.
First of all, it was my mother’s natural inclination to tell everyone she met that she was the mother in the novel. She beamed, “The mother is me! It’s so wonderful!” This, I had to explain, confused people – friends, neighbors, fellow airplane passengers, a group of Harley Davidson riders she met in a hotel lobby in Montana.
I said, ever so gently, “People will think that dad had an affair with a redheaded bankteller. They’ll think we caught him in the act. They’ll wonder why he has two legs and isn’t a gynecologist.” This didn’t phase her. I hadn’t wanted to say the harshest truth, but now I was forced to. “They’ll think you were raised in Bayonne, New Jersey.”
And so she stopped.
And then came the critics. As a writer, I was used to criticism, but my parents weren’t. If it was positive, the reviewer was a smart cookie, not as smart as their daughter, of course, but close. If negative, the critic was obviously a jealous-crazed idiot with a personal vendetta. If my mother had had Abby Frucht’s mother’s number after that Washington Post review, well, she’d have gotten an earful, let me tell you.
But this is nothing, really, compared to the personal comments that their friends began to make.
“I just don’t see any reason to use foul language in books or in life. Why would she use such horrible words?” one of my mother’s prudish friends said.
Although my mother once invented the term “triple asshole”, she doesn’t curse much. But she told me later that it came quite naturally. She’d had a gin and tonic, but enunciated it clearly, gingerly, “Well, fuck you.”
My father kept his hands in his pockets and smiled. He watched my mother slam back into the trailer then added, “I think you know what those words mean, don’t you? If not, I can further explain.”
(Did this really happen? Did my mother actually say fuck-you? Did my father offer to explain it? Did I dream it up? My parents would say, “Yes, she’s a fiction writer! Who cares what’s true or not! Fiction! Isn’t it wonderful!”)
After the (let’s say: supposed) fuck-you incident, my mother decided she needed to do research. She remembered an old National Geographic with Faulkner’s mother in it. She handed me the article and talked me through it. “When Faulkner’s mother was attacked at a bridge group by a woman who said she didn’t like it that Faulkner was writing about the folks in town, Mrs. Faulkner simply said, ‘My son writes what he has to.’ I’m going to use that from now on.”
This didn’t help, however, when I was booed by three hundred Jewish women from a Haddassah group on Long Island where Victoria Gotti got top billing. (The fact that I was talking in the same line up as Victoria Gotti should have been an indication that I might have been in the wrong place.) While talking about the importance of personal memoirs, I called them “an older audience” and the place erupted. They’d been eating dessert, the mic was bad. I was shocked they’d heard me at all. They were older than me by an average of forty years. They didn’t boo Victoria Gotti, by the way, who bragged about her “award-winning article after September 11th called ‘Bomb those Bastards.’”My mother still brings it up, sometimes over bagels.
Still and all, this was a small price to pay, and we moved on, looked forward to bright horizons, new days, good things to come. But what we didn’t know was that it was about to take a turn for the worst. My mother’s own book group was turning on her. It would prove to be a near-fatal blow.
I’d been on national and international book tours, NPR, French news, but my mother’s book group is elite. My mother had been a founding member when in 1963 they first met to discuss The Group. They have short stylish haircuts, for the most part. They serve rich desserts from the local bakery. They’re mostly my mother’s age, except for a young lesbian – a fact that most of the members have never quite grasped – who works at the local bookstore and handles the orders. They bicker endlessly about the autobiographical nature of every book, which causes some bewilderment when it comes to novels like Memoirs of a Geisha. What else? They smell very nice.
The fact that my second novel had been out for about six months when I was invited to give a talk should have made me question the suspicious lag time, but I said I’d be happy to come. A week later, however, I was at a neighborhood get together and was chatting with another founding member, a straight-shooting Texan, who informed me that it had been a split vote on whether to have me or not, but that she, personally, was looking forward to it. My mother hadn’t been at that meeting, obviously.
“A split vote?”
“People already know you,” the Southerner explained. “They know your story.”
It was one of those awful moments. My face must have dropped – like my father’s expression at that eventual, unavoidable dinner party when the carpet padding had worn down to an unforgiving thinness and the egg didn’t bounce but cracked and seeped into the shag.
I called my mother later that day. “You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” I told her with grave sincerity. “Which is to say that, evidently, they knew that I once peed my pants in second grade and can’t take anything I say very seriously.”
“A split vote?”
“I can’t go,” I told her. “Even if only one person didn’t want me to be there, I couldn’t go. But half?”
My mother was completely betrayed. She said, “Don’t worry about it. You aren’t worrying about it, are you? Don’t. It isn’t worth your time.” But I could tell she wasn’t going to be able to let it go. There was this angry shake to her voice. “Their loss. They’ll regret it.”
But I wasn’t so sure they would regret it, frankly. Although I’m convinced that my mother believes that my elementary school teachers spend their days lamenting, “How could I not have seen the genius in that little Baggott girl? How could I have been so blind?” I can’t quite buy it.
“You’re brilliant,” my mother went on, “brilliant and they simply don’t get it.”
And, here, I stopped her, because she’s buoyed me up for years, whether I wanted it or not. Both of them – my mother telling the suspicious bus driver who rode down in front of my house one day and beeped, belligerently, “No, she’s not feeling her normal perky self, not today!” and my father that wry angel in Polyblends comparing bongs to the delicate nature of certain 1960s vacuum cleaners. “No,” I said, “you’re brilliant, you and dad. And they are jealousy-crazed idiots with personal vendettas. We will not harden our hearts to them, but know that they suffer a paranoid insanity not because of books, but because they have witnessed the glowing love that I have for you, a mother among mothers, a queen, and dad, father among fathers, a king. Have they ever inspired such love? No. Not possible. They are triple assholes, and we will rebound like eggs bouncing off new DuPont carpet padding. I come from the best stock in the world.” I told her, “A pack of wild geniuses, and how could they ever understand that?”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Parents Think They're Funny.

When my older kids were younger, my parents babysat for them one night. Unbeknown to me and Dave, my parents were planning to get new carpeting installed in the playroom in the coming days. While we were out, they gave the kids all the markers they could find and told them to draw on the carpet. They did -- wildly, huge ten-foot-long people with hats and boots.

When we get home, the kids are asleep. We ask how things went. "Good," my parents said. "Well, you know, the kids got a little messy. There was this one thing..."
And they lead us into the playroom.

Dave and I gasp. We're stunned.

My parents love this part of the story -- our horror at the carpets our kids have destroyed. They let us suffer a while then tell us that the carpet guy was scheduled already.

A few days ago, my parents tell the story, but this time they tell us about the carpet guy.

He walks in and he stands there, awed. "Everyone should do this. No one's ever done it before. But everyone should."

My parents love the story because they knew they saw the beauty of it in its earliest inception -- ah, the joy of the harmless messing with others!

I love the story because it's making something from nothing.

I love something from nothing.

Writing is always the act of something from nothing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Crying on the Streets of New York.

By the time I was ten or so, my oldest sister was an actress, a struggling one, living in NYC. My parents love the theater. The youngest of four, they took me with them to everything -- bad community theater (which I personally love) and Broadway and everything in between. My father keeps every play he's ever seen written on an index card in his desk. He's got stacks of cards, held with rubber bands. One time, I shuffled through them to see if I had a chance of having seen TRUE WEST with Malkovich and Sinise. I remembered the show vividly. The actors were unknown to me. And turns out, timing wise, it was probably them. My family loved playwrights, and, honestly, the only time I've gotten really nervous meeting a writer was Wendy Wasserstein. I'd published a bunch of books by then, but she was a hero where I came from. Novelists? No. Poets? Nada. Playwrights were gods.

At around 13 or 16 -- it's blurry -- I was visiting my sister when she had an audition. She took me with her and I waited in a dark room with sofas while she went in through the door. It felt foreign, a little dirty. I was worried about her. I was nervous for her. There were other actors in the room. I hated the place.

My sister walked out and told me to get my coat. We walked down a long set of stairs out onto the street. She started crying. We walked fast. She said she was done. No more. I didn't say much. I trailed beside her. I didn't want her to quit, but I also did. I'd wanted to be an actress at one point, but I also hated the thought of it. It felt caged to me. I wanted her to get out.

She went on more auditions, got roles, and eventually managed a theater company there, an important one. She produced and directed. Names you'd recognize. (It was there I shook hands with Pacino and swapped fortune cookies with Shel Silverstein, writing some plays at that point.)

Years later, many, I cried on the streets of New York. I'd come out of a meeting with one of my former editors. It had gone badly. Things, in general, were. I felt blamed and pissed and caged.

My kids were waiting in the lobby. My husband must have been there too. I'd never leave them alone in a strange lobby. But I only remember walking back to our hotel. I was overdressed, holding one kid in my arms, gripping another's hand -- the way I do in New York with my kids not very used to cities. Now I remember. Dave was behind me, holding the hand of one of our other kids. And I can't explain how good and awful it felt to cry on those streets. The tears streamed down my face and I just marched on, people gliding past, the noise, the feeling of being so small. It was like getting out of a cage in a way -- though I didn't think I wanted out, there I was.

And it was cold. The kids were silent, and we pressed on, wordlessly -- until, eventually, we found some words.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Workshop Issues: The Cost of Realism as Truest Art (A Pro-Zombie Riff?)


I love the intro to the Surreal South's call for submissions:


"
Step into, say, 90% of university writing workshops, and you’ll find the students interested in writing outside the lines slumped in their seats, looking like they’ve been pelted with rocks. For many decades now, realism has been the order of the day for those teaching serious fiction. Disappointing, isn’t it? Our children are drawn to the fantastic, and naturally blend it with their own daily reality. So we immerse them in games and literature that excite their imagination... until it’s time to write. Then we toss a big, fat brick of realism at them and wonder why their prose has all the sparkle of desiccated mouse turds."

This was likely written by the editors of Surreal South -- Pinckney and Laura Benedict who have been editing this anthology for a number of years with stories by Daniel Woodrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, and a ton of new, emerging talent.

I don't blame the desiccated mouse turdish prose on realism, but, in my workshop, the goal is art. However you get there is up to you. When I tell them this, they test me. (It's not usually their first time on the workshop merry-go-round.)

"Can we write about aliens?"
"If it aspires to be art, yes."
Can we write about zombies?"
"If it aspires to be art, yes."
"Can we write a story set in the subconscious?"
"If it aspires to be art, yes."

One of the most literary and heartbreaking love stories that ever came out in a workshop of mine was an alien-human romance. The most gorgeous description of a stark rural winter and the inherent lonesomeness came from a zombie story. The most inventive story I've read from a workshop was set in the imagination -- llike the best scenes from Inception pre-Inception.

About twenty years ago after undergrad, I was teaching English as a Second Language to Spanish pilots with Berlitz, living at home
in Delaware, failing some psych courses that I was taking just to rule out psych , and Fred Chappell came to give a reading at the University in this little basement where I'd seen a lot of bad theater throughout my childhood. He read a story about an idea -- I believe it was an idea -- that settled in and blocked a country road. I decided that I wanted to study with him. I applied to UNC-Greensboro where he taught, sent him a personal letter that I was applying because of him, and he wrote me back and eventually I got in. I wrote whatever the hell I wanted while there, and it was a mix -- sometimes realism, sometimes absurdism, sometimes a mix. The stories that I wrote those two years exist -- essentially -- in the novels I've published since.

Before my second year, there was a rumor that one of the new MFA students had traveled around the world because she'd won a contest. She'd answered the question: Why do you want to travel around the world? With this: Because you can't travel through it. (I'm paraphrasing.) She won. This was none other than Kelly Link, the author of some of the wildest and most wonderful magic realism going (or fabulism or sci-fi or horror or slipstream or absurdism ... whatever -ism you prefer to call what Link does). She also cofounded Small Beer Press. We were allowed to aspire to art -- whatever way we wanted to get there.

Then I went on to hunker in to realism, which, I suppose, I thought the publishing industry wanted. And it did. The publishing industry actually starved the adult audiences of fabulism (sci-fi lived in the ghetto of sci-fi) and it created a hole. Harry Potter arrived. It rushed to fill that vacant hole -- the adult appetite was proven. And fantasy element came back into the adult publishing world, allowing for successes like The Time Traveler's Wife and, eventually, vampires, zombies, paranormal ...

And not all of these books aspire to art, but some -- regardless of subject -- do and beautifully so.

Now, every workshop teacher has his/her own methodology. I don't want to mess with it. In fact, I think that limitations and rules are delights to the imagination, and what more can a writer ask for than to have something to buck against?

For me, personally, I don't believe that all writers are readers moved to emulate (referring to Saul Bellow's quote); I believe that storytelling is instinctive and, wiped clean of the history of literature, people would build a fire and tell stories around it. I've let go of the snobby shackles of subject matter, if I ever did believe in them, which I probably have. I hold onto that aspiration of art and I let 'em write towards it -- in any form that takes.



Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Tatjana Soli

Here's a 1/2 Dozen for novelist Tatjana Soli

who gives advice to those who've fallen in love with a writer

"...Don't take on the role of guilting the person into being normal. Don't expect dinner parties, or in fact dinner on any regular basis...."

how to survive the early years of a writer's life when you're "boomeranged with rejections," and ...

how one singular photograph inspired a novel.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise. (I prefer otherwise.)

Travel is a big one. My husband and I are workaholics — when you are in the arts you kind of have to be to keep the bills paid — so we didn't travel for many years. Now we are making that a priority. I don't know that it has a direct connection to my writing, but the excitement I feel planning and then traveling makes me feel like a child again. Luckily or unluckily, we can still only do it in small doses so the excitement isn't wearing off. Lately I have developed a love of cooking, which I refused to do for years. Not day in, day out, but tackling a complicated recipe once in a while. I love baking! If I see a great picture of a dessert, I usually am tempted to try it. I am obsessed by all things Italian. Clothes, wine, and especially food. Southern style, with lots of seafood and tomato sauce. My dream would be to rent a place In Rome and live there a whole year.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Run! Seriously, it's hard to be a writer because of the isolation, and we rely on our support network heavily. I think you have to be the type of person who is not threatened when your loved one wants to go off alone, when she is lost in the world of her book. She will come back up for air and be very happy to see you. Don't take on the role of guilting the person into being normal. Don't expect dinner parties, or in fact dinner on any regular basis. But the good parts (this is self-serving) is that most writers I've met are tremendously open to the world, are empathetic to all kinds of people. Most writers are like big kids; it keeps life fun. Just make sure to gently punch down the ego regularly (like bread dough).

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Make sure he cooks! My husband is a really good cook, and boy has that gotten us through a lot. When we first met, he brought me and my roommates a box of his homemade chocolate-chip cookies. These weren't just regular cookies, they were fantastic! Love at first bite.

Although we all might crave excitement, the writing life is pretty prosaic. In other words, the work isn't going to get done unless you are planted in that chair every day. Finding someone to enjoy the routine of every day was vital to me. My husband was a businessman when we first met, and twenty years later, he is a full-time painter, so I think we have influenced each other. We both work at home, we hike with our dog, we cook and have friends over. A simple but sustaining life. Although it's not always easy, we both are doing what we love.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

The Lotus Eaters was my first novel, and if I had been smarter about publishing, I don't think I would have been brave enough to write it. This was definitely a case of ignorance is bliss. I had such low expectations of ever publishing it, that I allowed myself to write something that was inspired by a single picture of a female photographer in Vietnam. The subject matter, the body of work already written about the war, was extremely daunting, and yet, I had never read an account like the one I wanted to write. I was obsessed by the war, but I had no intention of ever writing about it myself. But that picture haunted me. What was it like to be her? So that was the beginning.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

In the early years, it was definitely a slog. I would only work to fill my quota, either pages per day, or amount of time. I think it was because I had such high expectations that everything would be perfect, first time out. You can drive yourself crazy that way. Or become blocked. I'm much easier on myself now. It's all part of the process. And the routine of writing becomes fixed in you. That's what takes all those years. Now, it is so second-nature that I feel jittery when I'm not working. For example, when Lotus Eaters got accepted for publication, I was very distracted by all the things that a writer needs to do to help a book make its way — website, blogs, etc. Now that I'm more used to the routine, I'm balancing that part of the business with writing. I'm working on a short story now, and also researching a third novel. It makes me feel less anxious, more grounded.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an essay about the creative life that I always pass out to my students at the end of my class. The sentence that was a wake-up call to me was that the world doesn't owe you a living because you want to be a writer. It's so easy to complain — about the unfairness of the industry, about publishers and agents, on and on. You somehow have to come to this delicate balance of having absolute belief in your work while at the same time being humble about expecting the world to embrace that work. I think that's how you avoid bitterness at any stage of your career.

When my novel first went out and boomeranged back with rejections, I was devastated. I seriously thought of doing something else with my life. For about a week. And then I thought, hell, there is nothing else I want to do. So I spent half a year writing short stories, that very lucrative activity. I stopped telling people I was a writer because I didn't want that feeling of expectation, of pressure: What have you published? I just wrote. I still got plenty of rejections on short stories, but I simply checked those places off, and sent the stories out to others. I separated the creativity part from the publishing part. If I felt I did something good, I didn't let the rejections take that away from me. All of those hard lessons learned are still serving me every day.


What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

If I could clone myself, one of me would do nothing but read. The saddest part of being a writer is that you have less time to read. Especially if you teach. But when I travel, for vacations or flying around promoting the book, I binge read. I always tell my students that you can't write if you don't read (you would be surprised how many try to). Since I've been spending way too much time in bookstores, I have been reading all the "big" books that came out this year. I had a stack, plus kindle, on my trip to Asia this last winter. I always try to balance my reading between novels and short stories. But the surprises were the most exciting. One that 's been in my TBR stack, blew me away: The Size of the World, by Joan Silber. It's described as linked short stories, but it has the breadth of a novel. It a wonderful book about travel and identity. Another great short story collection that I read over the summer was The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund. Again, a book about travel, but Ostlund was such a wonderful voice, so smart and yet funny, I devoured the book. Robert Stone, a master of both novels and short stories, had a great collection out this year, Fun with Problems, but you should also read his earlier collection with it, Bear and His Daughter. An astonishing novel came out this year, In the Company of Angels, by Thomas E. Kennedy, that's beautiful, profound, disturbing, everything you want in great literature.

Tatjana Soli is the author of The Lotus Eaters, a 2010 New York Times Notable Book. Born in Salzburg, Austria, she attended Stanford University and the Warren Wilson MFA Program. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, StoryQuarterly, Confrontation, Gulf Coast and North Dakota Quarterly among other publications. Her work has been twice listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was awarded the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Prize, the Dana Award, finalist for the Bellwether Prize, and received scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She lives with her husband in Orange County, California.