Monday, July 23, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Lydia Netzer

"I like to pick sides. I like a book to bleed a little. Even if everything is meaningless, I still want it to hurt." -- Lydia Netzer
"Of course working in a porn store taught me about creating nuanced characters, and effective pacing over multiple timelines."-- Lydia Netzer

"Writing is our defense against the abyss. I picture the shelves of a library like fortifications, protecting us and defining us from darkness, swinging clubs and grunts and dullness."-- Lydia Netzer

Okay, now stop reading Lydia Netzer quotes.
Read the Q and A below. Read her debut novel -- SHINE SHINE SHINE
And if you want to WIN an audio copy,
where there's a giveaway in action.

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

Here’s one that seems much weirder in retrospect than it did at the time. I knew that I wanted my main character, Sunny, to be born during a total solar eclipse, and I knew that I wanted her to be nearing the age of thirty at the time of the novel. So I started looking at different eclipses that would have occurred around 30 years ago, and settled on Saros 145, an eclipse in 1981, during which the totality would have been visible from Burma (now Myanmar.) In a way I settled on this setting arbitrarily, but in a way it was geographically dictated by science. Arbitrarily or not, I decided Sunny was born in Burma in 1981 during this eclipse, and after that I had to figure out why her parents were there, how to get them back to the US, and what could happen to them that would cause her father’s mysterious death.

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

I am adopted, and was raised in a very non-traditional family. My adopted mother was 62 when I was born. I was privileged with horses and music lessons and travel, but I was always fascinated with “normal” families and would fill notebooks with very boring descriptions of the mundane lives of characters who had mother-and-father families with sister-and-brother problems. The character I wrote most about was named “Liz” and her darkest frustrations involved taming her unruly hair. She had a barn full of horses, and I think once she tripped and landed in a pile of horse manure just as a hot guy was walking by. And that was a major event. The extent to which I would elaborate the boring details of her family’s life is a little psychotic in hindsight. But it genuinely took me a long time, in college, to realize that writing was about igniting conflict, not creating pretty fantasies. Getting to the point where I could write about dark things in my own brain -- that took even longer. 

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I love a goofy comedy. In fact P.G. Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors, as is Patrick McManus. However I’ve really never liked that sort of bloodless, detached “funny” book full of social criticism that comes across as empty, to me, despite being stylistically maximalist. When I was a kid I tried to read The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and couldn’t get through it. Not because I wasn’t intellectually sophisticated enough -- but because the snide detachment of it upset me. There are three books in my life that I’ve actually thrown into the trash, and that was one of them. I know people love it, and I respect that! But I don’t see the point of watching a game where both teams suck, or looking at politics and saying “They’re all crooks” or writing books where everything is meaningless or symbolic of something meaningless and the point of it all is to illustrate pointlessness. I like to pick sides. I like a book to bleed a little. Even if everything is meaningless, I still want it to hurt. 

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

I’ve been a manure-slinger, a burrito-stuffer, a teacher, a porno video store clerk, a receptionist, a web designer, an advice columnist, and a book doctor. Being a book doctor really shaped me as a writer. I learned something useful from every manuscript I worked on, and seeing the flaws and potential in other people’s novels helped me to look at mine more objectively. It also helped me to trust other people to see my novels better than I do, and to take their advice seriously. Of course working in a porn store taught me about creating nuanced characters, and effective pacing over multiple timelines. 

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who great impact on your writing life?

Well I always like to remember the one guy who told me “Just go out and TRY to get something like this published, and see what happens.” He meant it like “You idiot, you think your nonsensical garbage could ever be marketable? Enjoy your inevitable despair.” But I always found it very motivating. 

One of my teachers in graduate school that I am very fond of is Cris Mazza. She used to say to me that reading my fiction was like climbing up the face of a cliff, and that some of my paragraphs felt like falling backward off that cliff. Of course, these were usually my favorite paragraphs. I have learned, though, that pushing my reader backwards off a cliff is not something that I should be doing. I’ve learned to temper those departures, ground them, make them more accessible.

There’s one paragraph in the book that starts like “It is dark inside the body. The things that go on there cannot be seen.” This was definitely a falling backwards off a cliff paragraph, and it’s actually one of the only bits that survived the very first draft. It’s the oldest piece of writing in the book, but it’s been edited and contextualized until now I hope that if you’re still falling backward, at least you feel you have a parachute.

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

Writing is our defense against the abyss. I picture the shelves of a library like fortifications, protecting us and defining us from darkness, swinging clubs and grunts and dullness. Or from some swirling vortex of lack. We all need to keep filling those shelves with the best books we can possibly write.

Writing is the ultimate populist activity. Known and unknown, writers are scribbling furiously all up and down the human timeline, trying to figure out history, and document it and describe it in fiction, our best way of communicating. We all have the same bodies, from Homer down to Thomas Hardy, to Hilary Mantel. We all have access to the same vocabulary. The chance to participate in this is monumental effort, and create this wall of culture, where my book has the same dimensions and physicality as Ishiguro’s, the same parts of speech as Desai’s, is staggering. You and I are writing from right now, here today, and I want our corner of the library shelf to be strong. 

Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, an IndieNext Pick and Amazon's Spotlight Book for Best Books of July. She lives in Virginia, homeschools her two children, and enjoys tearing out invasive vines, playing the electric guitar, and reading books. 

Twitter: @lostcheerio

Sunday, July 22, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Adrian Fogelin

Here is a half dozen with Adrian Fogelin -- a novelist for younger readers, artist, singer-songwriter, and a humanitarian I deeply admire. She has an incredibly brilliant soul. Her presence is one of those rare gifts in the world. She is living a life that seems to prove that joy comes from giving to others. When I'm feeling selfish and greedy and low in spirit, I think of her and feel renewed.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I am obsessed with helping kids, not just survive childhood but grow into their best adult selves. I do this in my books, each of which could be boiled down to a grandiose and old-fashioned sounding title like: On Courage, On Prejudice, On Finding Home. I want to sweep young readers away with life’s epic challenges and possibilities, but my most intense effort along those lines is not literary. It’s practical, modest, and extremely local, and is aimed at the kids of my own neighborhood. Seminole Manor is blue-collar bordering on welfare and our children have limited opportunities to gain life experience; one girl told me of a friend who lived far away and then named a street at the edge of the neighborhood. When my father died, my husband and I (with the help of many volunteers) turned his house into a children’s library that offers books and programs on everything from map-making and Greek mythology to human anatomy—a couple of weeks ago while taking on simple machines we built a catapult that jettisons rocks across the yard. Our library uses books and catapult-building to stimulate creative thinking and to demonstrate that life’s options are vast.

I am also obsessed with making and writing music.  Through high school, college and a little beyond I was always in a rock band or duo. After a very long hiatus I am now half of a duo called Hot Tamale. With my partner, Craig Reeder, I perform Motown, classic country, R&B. Best of all we write music collaboratively. Lately we have been writing lyrics that come out of the experience of being a little older. Who needs more music that celebrates falling in love at eighteen?  I wrote enough of that stuff while suffering early love myself (and bemoaning the fact so few words rhyme comfortably with “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?

I was on a school visit—something writers for young readers do a lot—trying to make the concept of “setting” real. "Tell me about a place you know well," I said. I was ready to hear about a neighborhood, a school, Disney. Instead I heard about a cardboard box, the kind an appliance comes in. The boy who’d stuck his hand up said he had one. The box was where he went when he needed to be alone. That need for a place was the germ that became "Summer on the Moon." I had intended to go with the cardboard box and I gave it a shot, but the box grew in the writing, becoming a financially distressed housing project that was only partially built. As the kid in the only family that has moved into Moon Bridge Estates, Socko makes the entire subdivision his cardboard box. He skateboards in the empty swimming pool, walks the beams of unfinished houses, and in the end leads Rapp, the gang leader from his old neighborhood, on a chase across a territory he knows and Rapp doesn't.

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

Shy and self-conscious—why, oh why, do my eyebrows meet in the middle?  Observant. A listener. From my novelist mother I learned writer’s habits like editing (done by her on any flat surface anywhere in the house, sometimes while ironing my dad’s shirt with the other hand), an awed respect for good writing (she committed poems to memory while washing dishes), the stoic acceptance of rejection (“not for us” letters came to our mailbox with such regularity she rented a PO box to avoid my live-in grandfather’s punitive sympathy).  The childhood provided by my parents was safe and nurturing. That, more than anything, affected the stories I write. I will never write a book in which a young character is completely unsafe and without access to adult help. That help may not come from a parent, but sympathetic, responsible adults can always be found a couple doors down.

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

I never studied writing—yes, I’m an imposter.  I am a trained artist—a field which also has surprisingly slim job prospects, but straight out of the Rhode Island School of Design I got a job as an illustrator for the Baltimore Zoo. This was back when zoo workers trickled in from truck circuses, farms, performing dog acts.  Cleaning toilets was a retired blues singer named Orgie Kimball who had performed with Billy Holiday, “back in the day.” I married the zoo photographer. When I finally sat down to write in earnest, the zoo and my fellow employees became my first novel. After the birth of our daughter, Ray and I packed our step van and rolled out of Baltimore.  Living aboard an old wooden boat in the Keys, I had my own art gallery, ran a public library, taught art at the community college, cleaned condos, kept books for a carpenter.  The time of knocking around in the Keys generated a couple more novels. My random wanderings hardly constitute a career but they have yielded the observation that has generated every one of my books. With or without visible accomplishments, everyone has a story. Surprisingly often the woman cleaning toilets, the toes cut out of her sneakers to ease her bunions, can tell you about how she once sang with Lady Day.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I teach writers from third grade through imminent extinction.  Some are excited by the prospect, some are indifferent, even unwilling. I do it first to see the spark of story ignite and the writing begin—I had the same experience teaching drawing. Everyone can draw and everyone can tell a story. Once the words are hitting the page I get huge satisfaction out of keeping new writers off rocks that holed me below the waterline when I began.

What's your worst writerly habit?

When in doubt I return to page one. There is always a word/sentence/paragraph that needs a little talking to, but since I’ve been there so many times that page has a reassuring familiarity. Page one is where I sit on the ugly but comfortable couch and drink the coffee that will get me back to the swampy middle pages of the manuscript. I can make a cup of coffee last a long, long time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Ann Napolitano

A quick chat with novelist Ann Napolitano -- author of A GOOD HARD LOOK: A Novel of Flannery O'Connor and WITHIN ARMS REACH. She's here to talk writing tips, Groff, English rock stars, Cholula hot sauce, and one truly bizarre publishing-world request. 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Cholula hot sauce, kale chips, and how to structure a novel.

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

17) Be nice. Out in the publishing industry (and in life), don’t be an asshole. Whether you’re famous, non-famous, struggling or not struggling, remember to write thank you notes when people help you. And help others, when you’re able to.

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

I read a quote somewhere that said the first twelve years of a writing career are the hardest. This made me laugh, but it has the sharp jab of truth. It took about ten years of writing seriously before I was published (and that period was laden with rejection). Tenacity and persistence are the key to a writing career. Keep writing (regularly and seriously), and you will be published. You will get better. You will go deeper. That’s it.

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

I recently fell in love with a young writer named Lauren Groff. It’s such a huge, rare, book-nerd pleasure to stumble upon a writer who thrills, entertains and inspires me this much. I read her two novels back to back—Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia—and then a beautiful short story called “L. Debard and Aliette”. When I was done I knew I’d added another writer to my list of absolute favorites.

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

I was a personal assistant for an English rock musician and his family for eight years. It was a great job for an aspiring writer. I met legitimately fascinating people on a regular basis. In fact, they were not only fascinating, but often brasher, bolder and more poorly behaved than the people one normally comes across, so they made for awesome character research. The other big plus, for me, was that I spent relatively little time writing/typing during that job. Every day was different, but it involved a lot of phone calls and logistical planning with nannies and drivers and tour managers and running errands and attending photo shoots, which meant that when I went home, my computer screen felt fresh to me, instead of painfully familiar. I think I would have found it difficult to sit at a desk all day, typing, and then go home to type my stories.

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

When my first novel was published, the editor for the English edition wanted me to change my name. Not the name of one of the characters in the book, but my actual name. Why? Because the novel was about an Irish-Catholic family, and my last name happens to be Italian. My editor asked me to publish under my mother’s maiden name, which was McNamara. She thought readers would have a stronger connection to the book if they knew the author had based it on her own history.

This request, quite simply, shocked me. In part because this was my name, and my first book to go out into the world, so I didn’t want to publish under a pseudonym. But I also didn’t believe that readers would care what my last name was. I was a reader, after all—I knew that we were smart and in it for the writing and the storytelling. Changing my name wasn’t going to make a difference. They would love or hate or feel ‘meh’ about the book based solely on its merits.

Up until this point I’d had an attitude of complete reverence for the publishing industry; my stance was that they knew what they were doing, and I didn’t. But with this request I realized the obvious: no one knows everything. I had to advocate for my book, and my readers, going forward.

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.  She received an MFA from New York University; she teaches fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

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