Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The difficulties of writing a masterwork: The sublime Jennifer Haigh talks about Heat and Light, nearly abandoning the novel, writing, and so much more

I so love Jennifer Haigh's work that I'd have her on the blog every week if I could. Her latest novel, HEAT AND LIFE is ambitious, profound, and absolutely dazzling. Richard Price calls it, "smart, sharp, hyperprecise, and near incantatory in its momentum." Ha Jin dubs it "a  thrilling page turner"  and Richard Ford calls it "Brilliant beginning to end." But that praise could be said about all of her novels: FAITH, THE CONDITION, BAKER TOWERS and MRS. KIMBLE, winner of  the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her short story collection NEWS FROM HEAVEN won the Massachusetts Book Award and the PEN New England Award in Fiction.  

The thing I love the most about this interview (beside the fact that I get to do it) is the honesty about the process. She's said  that writing HEAT AND LIGHT nearly killed her, that she abandoned it but couldn't let go, until it finally began to coalesce. I'm so jazzed and honored to host Jennifer here. Jennifer, thank you for everything.

What was the generation of this book—what sparked you into to wanting to write about it? 

I grew up in western Pennsylvania and still have family there, so the gas drilling phenomenon was on my radar from the very beginning. When I started writing HEAT AND LIGHT, the drilling boom was going full force, and the national debate over fracking was raging. Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland had just come out, and environmental activists were campaigning for a moratorium on fracking in New York State – a measure that eventually passed. Among my peers -- writer friends in Boston or New York -- there was overwhelming consensus that fracking was an environmental catastrophe in the making. So when I went back to Pennsylvania for a visit and an old friend told me his parents had signed a gas lease, I was stunned.  From his perspective, this was the opportunity of a lifetime; why would anybody say no?  I was struck by the contrast between how people in Pennsylvania viewed fracking, and the attitude in New York State.  The difference is that Pennsylvania has always been an energy state. The first oil well in the world was drilled there. The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster happened there. Coal companies dominated the economy for a hundred years. All that history has shaped the culture in profound ways, and I explore that in HEAT AND LIGHT.

 How difficult a process was it to write this novel?   How did you write this?  Did the process differ from your previous books?

 For me, the process changes every time. I approach each book as a unique engineering problem. Unlike a poem, which can succeed or fail entirely on aesthetic terms, a novel is a machine – a one-of-a-kind contraption I am designing, building, testing and re-testing, so that by the time it lands in a reader’s hands, all he has to do is turn the key and the machine will come to life and start moving on its own.

More than any other book I’ve written, this one has a lot of moving parts. There are so many strands to this story, so much history brought to bear.  When I’m writing, I don’t think about plot so much as causality – how each event has consequences that lead to more consequences. As I was writing HEAT AND LIGHT, I kept thinking about that old board game, Mousetrap -- the game Wesley is playing in front of the television as they watch the news about Three Mile Island. The object of the game is to build a complicated mouse trap out of unlikely parts:  a drainpipe, a bathtub, a seesaw and so on. As a kid I was obsessed with that game, that moment when you turn the crank and kick off the whole intricate chain reaction, which ends with the plastic cage sliding down the pole to trap the mouse. Writing HEAT AND LIGHT felt very much like that.  It’s a story that gathers momentum.  I love making sentences and take great pains to write to write good ones – but in the end, this is a novel, not a poem. When you turn the key, you want the thing to move.

 Did anything about this novel surprise you?

 Everything about this novel surprised me.  For the first two years I had no idea what I was writing. The shape of the book changed monthly, sometimes weekly.  What started out as a story about fracking became a love story, a deconstruction of what went wrong at Three Mile Island, an exploration of what it’s like to be transgender in a very small town, the rise and fall of a ruthless CEO. It took me years to understand how all these pieces fit together, the interconnectedness of everything.

As I wrote, I was surprised to discover how much of the story had to do with addiction, that perverse human compulsion to poison ourselves in much the way heavy industry poisons the land.  Like many small towns, Bakerton has a thriving bar culture, which is out in the open; and a methamphetamine problem, which nobody talks about. After the coal mines closed, addiction became the most successful local industry. When Dick Devlin was laid off from the mines, he opened a tavern. His older son is a corrections officer in a prison full of drug offenders, and the younger one is a counselor at a methadone clinic – an entire family employed, directly or indirectly, by addiction.

Writing this novel nearly killed you.  Could you elaborate?

 HEAT AND LIGHT is a big book, an intricate book. It seems to me now that every thought I’ve ever had is in this book. From the very beginning, I felt overmatched by the complexity of the story. Twice I abandoned it entirely and started writing something else, but I found I couldn’t leave it alone. At several points in the writing process, I hit a point of complete cognitive paralysis. It’s exactly the way I felt studying calculus in high school, like I was mixing concrete with an eggbeater, asking my brain to think in a way it wasn’t designed to do.

I love the way you express the world as it was, as it is now, and as it might have been too. Can you talk about this?

 We all live simultaneously in the past, present and future. Most of us can’t go ten minutes without recalling the past or fantasizing about the future, all while going about our business in the here and now. To be psychologically true, fictional characters must reflect that complexity. All the characters in HEAT AND LIGHT are haunted, to one degree or another, by the past, by broken promises and missed opportunities and dreams that failed to materialize. And in a way, I’m haunted too:  I’ve written two other books set in Bakerton, so I’m keenly aware of the town’s history, its glory days as a bustling coal town and its long painful slide into poverty after the mines closed. There is a collective memory of boom and bust, an ancestral memory even the young people carry, a peculiar nostalgia for times they aren’t old enough to remember. As one of the characters reflects, “The town is all aftermath.”

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

 Like everybody, I am riveted by the upcoming election, a window into all that is best and worst in the American character:  our cynicism and idealism, our fears and bigotries, our short attention span and hunger for entertainment, our deep-seated and mostly unconscious sexism, our national delusions of grandeur and authentic capacity for heroism. There’s a novel in there somewhere.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

 I’m glad you didn’t ask it, but one question I always get has to do with research – how much I did, and what kind, and how it shaped the novel. I hate that question, because I can’t seem to answer it without disappointing.  The person asking the question is usually an aspiring writer, and she doesn’t want to hear that research doesn’t lead to a novel, that all the art happens long after the research is done. To write HEAT AND LIGHT, I spent years learning about fracking, about nuclear energy, what it’s like to work on a drill rig. I learned about organic dairy farming, heroin addiction, EST, the Iranian Revolution, thyroid cancer, female shot-putters, strip mining, disciplinary procedures in Pennsylvania state prisons. But when it came time to start writing, I made it all up.  Research is useful in constructing the skeleton of a character’s life. The rest is empathy – an imaginative leap into another human being, his interior weather, how it feels to walk through life in his body, to live in his house and make love to his wife and drive his car and wear his clothes. No amount or kind of research can tell you that.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Amber Brock talks about A FINE IMITATION, type A planning, Neil Gaiman, history, writing and so much more

I'm partial to debuts, so I'm especially delighted to be hosting Amber Brock and her fine first novel, A FINE IMITATION. Just take a look at the high praise:

“There’s never a dull moment in this debut novel centered on an intriguing and tightly woven story line. Vera’s struggles are highly relatable, and the anguish she feels will resonate with countless readers. This surefire hit is certain to be beloved by fans of Beatriz Williams’s Along the Infinite Sea and Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party.”
– Library Journal, starred

"An absorbing tale of art, deception, romance, and forbidden desire."
– Publishers Weekly

Thank you so, so much, Amber for coming on the blog!

What was haunting you that drove you to write this novel?

A Fine Imitation started with a dream I had about a woman in a high-rise and her relationship with an artist painting a mural in her building. Still, even before I began to write, I knew I wanted to create more than just a good love story (though, of course, a good love story is nothing to sneeze at—I’m forever a fan of books that feature well-crafted romantic tension). But for me, because I teach at an all-girls’ school, I often found myself thinking of my students as I began to tease out important moments in my manuscript’s plot. I always ask my students to consider how the social conventions of an era shape a person’s opportunities and choices. In telling this particular story, I wanted to make some of the challenges that women faced in the early twentieth century come alive for my girls and for others. Even though my main character, Vera, is privileged in a lot of ways, she’s still very much restricted by what was expected of women in those decades, especially in her college years.

How does it feel to be a successful debut author? And does this make it harder or easier to write your next novel?
Being a debut author is overwhelming, amazing, scary, fantastic…a rush of emotion. I’ve dreamed about holding my own book in my hands since I was twelve years old, so the idea that my novel is going out into the world is still sinking in somewhat. I’ve found, interestingly, that starting the next novel has been similar to the start of the other unpublished novels I’ve written. There’s always some insecurity, but since my focus is always on completing the work (rather than the publishing stage), I’m dealing more with the specific challenges of the novel I’m writing. In some ways, it’s easier for me to tackle the writing when I’ve let go of the goal of publishing.

So much of your fine novel is about who we are and who we are meant to be. Can you talk about this, please?
We make a lot of decisions about who we want to be when we’re young, and early adulthood can feel like a “finish line” in a lot of ways. House? Check. Job? Check? Family? Check. We’re ticking off boxes on a list instead of considering what kind of life we truly want to pursue. Too often we let others choose our path for us, whether that’s because of parental pressure, societal pressure, or our own desire to create the sort of life that we imagine will earn us the admiration of people we respect and love. This is Vera’s struggle—she’s made all the “right” choices, but she’s not being true to herself. Once she recognizes that, she begins to re-evaluate everything.

A Fine Imitation is set in the roaring twenties, so I always want to know, what surprised you in the research? Did any of the things you discovered derail your plot temporarily, or open it up?

I always find myself researching the strangest things when I’m working on a novel. For one scene in A Fine Imitation, I needed to know how long a 1920s elevator would have taken to travel about twenty floors. I ended up learning more about the evolution of elevators than I ever expected. That’s one reason I love writing historical fiction in the Internet age—there are so many people who are experts in such fun subjects, and Google allows me to find their collected information in a way that wouldn’t have been possible only a few decades ago.

Running across an actual program from a 1923 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was one particularly nice surprise. That discovery led to the inclusion of a painting (Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni) that added weight and meaning to the scene it’s in and eventually colored the way art is discussed in the novel.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you map things out?
I am a Type-A planner by nature, so no one who knows me is shocked to discover that I have lists, plans, charts, and chapter outlines. I always handwrite those materials, so I have notebooks full of scribbles.

I usually prefer to draft in the summer. I’m a teacher, so that time is marginally less busy. But inspiration arrives whenever she’s ready, so at times I’m writing in the evenings or on weekends (or between classes!). And, as with so many writers, my best ideas come in those moments when I can’t write them down—in the shower, driving my car, and just as I’m about to fall asleep. I’ve honed my memory so I can capture as many of those ideas as possible!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Now and always—history. When I can steal a moment, I’m reading The Year of Lear by James Shapiro. Since I teach British literature, I’m always looking to learn more about Shakespeare’s work and the British canon as a whole.

I’m also researching the early 1950s in New York and Miami, and I continue to find it fascinating how seemingly minor events can continue to affect society long after most people have forgotten them.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

What is the most surprising thing that influenced you as you were writing this novel?
I don’t think too many people would immediately connect my novel with Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett’s cult classic Good Omens, but that book (which I love and teach) changed the way I think about how a novel’s conclusion should work. As I read the first time, I kept thinking, “There’s no way they can pull this off.” That was the last time I underestimated them. They set up an impossible choice between one potential outcome and another, then concluded with an outcome I never saw coming. When I found I’d given Vera a similar impossible choice, thinking of Good Omens freed me to consider other endings for her.

Karan Bajaj talks about The Yoga of Max's Discontent, being a striving yogi, Wall Street verses enlightenment, and so much more


I'm honored to have Karan Bajaj ihere to talk about his wonderful new novel, The Yoga of Max's Discontent. He's an Indian American author of three contemporary Indian novels, Keep Off the Grass (2008), Johnny Gone Down (2010) and The Seeker (2015). Bajaj's first novel, Keep Off the Grass, which became a bestseller with more than 70,000 copies sold in the year of release, was a semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and was longlisted for the Indiaplaza Golden Quill Award. Together his novels have sold more than 200,000 copies in India.

I always think that a writer is sparked to write a particular novel. So what sparked you to write The Yoga of Max’s Discontent?

For me, two things have to come together to embark on a novel—entertainment and meaning. I’d been playing around with the idea of writing about a journey through secret India for years but it became a deeper, three-dimensional reality when my mother died from cancer.
My questions about the nature of human suffering became more urgent for me to answer. So in 2013, my wife and I set forth as monks with a metaphorical begging bowl, going from Europe to India by road with no possessions, then learning yoga and meditation in a remote ashram in the Himalayas.
Both the adventure through secret India—hidden yoga ashrams, surreal night markets, remote Himalayan caves—and my own transformation through the journey became the impetus for The Yoga of Max’s Discontent.

You call yourself a “striving yogi”, and you spent five years on that path—that’s so fascinating I have to ask you to elaborate.  Are you still striving?

Indeed, very much striving! A yogi is on the journey to dissolve himself or herself completely, to become just a vessel for his work to express itself. I slip and fall often but I like to think I’m working everyday towards that ideal. Whether in my writing or my corporate career, I just try to act without attaching myself to the outcome. Like a tree that just grows and bears fruit because that it’s innate tendency, I try to work and write to express my innate tendency without thinking of whether my books will change the world or establish my platform or sell a lot.

I love the message of the novel, seen through the eyes of Max, who gives up Wall Street for a quest for enlightenment.  Do you think America will ever prize the spiritual over the material? Or even consider it to be a worthy search? (I hope so.)

We have this idea in India that life’s journey is like the flight of an eagle. First, you flap your wings high, as high as you can flap them, growing with experiences in the world. Then, you gracefully bring the wings down, go within and complete your journey. So there’s a role for both and I think you’re seeing that a little in America now. You’re seeing folks who’ve realized that it’s monotonous to run after external experiences, be it houses, cars, travel etc. infinitely, and they’re choosing to become more silent through yoga, meditation, or their spiritual practices. So indeed, I think a societal shift is occurring.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or have them channeled through you or a little bit of both?

Over the last decade, my writing style has been a little bit parallel to my life.  I follow what I call a 4,1,4 model:
4 Years: Extreme goal-directed living—working at my corporate job, disciplined reading/writing/researching etc.
1 Year: Complete slack—take a sabbatical where I travel without a goal, write when I want to, meditate, work in an orphanage, basically allowing myself the space to just be and discover facets of myself without the constant hankering to become.
4 Years: Return to corporate/goal-directed life.
 …and so on.

I’ve done three cycles of this and traveled, deepened my writing, and learned yoga and meditation in my sabbaticals. In that sense, I think writing is a reflection of my life. For four years, I’m very outline-driven, then I completely let go. I think this balance of tight and slack is helping me produce work consistently yet have a hint of transcendence in it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m thinking a lot right now about the Axial Age, that unique period of ten centuries between 10 B.C and 0 A.D. when Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Plato, all sprouted in the world with the same mystical insight into the nature of reality without having any connection with each other at all. I think it had something to do with society reaching a point of relative prosperity when it had progressed enough to not have to compete for resources yet hadn’t progressed enough to create too many technological and entertainment distractions. That space for contemplation may have been crucial to get a direct insight into the nature of reality.

I’m reflecting on all this because I’m wondering how to construct a life that allows me that space for mystic contemplation and not get sucked into the cult of modern productivity.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I guess a little about my writing history since I don’t have the usual credentials—MFA’s, New Yorker writing stints, or other creative writing pedigrees. I’m an engineer-MBA from India and wrote two novels in India on the side with HarperCollins, both of which became #1 bestsellers in India and were optioned into films. I resisted the impulse to publish them in the US despite publishing offers because I didn’t think I had anything new to add to the conversation with the books in the West—they were very specific to the Indian cultural context. This is the first time I feel I’ve written something which will give pause to readers in this part of the West and I’m eager for their feedback!

Karan Bajaj is the author of THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT (Riverhead, May 3rd’ 2016). Get your free gifts worth $299 including your free meditation video course, yoga flow course, and Quit Sugar in 7 days guide, when you order the book at (150 Spots Only!).

1940s and 50s American, the beginning of the women's rights movement, atomic bombs and birds--Elizabeth Church talks about her incandescent debut, The Atomic Weight of Love

I'm always partial to novels that come from my beloved publisher, Algonquin, and this one, Elizabeth Church's The Atomic Weight of Love, had me reading into the wee hours of the morning. Brilliantly written, incredibly alive, Elizabeth has captured a woman whose love of science helped her find herself. It's really a genius novel.

Elizabeth practiced law for more than thirty years and her short story "Skin Deep" won first prize in the 2001 fiction contest from Literal latte. She has amazing taste in earrings, too, by the way, and I'm deliriously happy to have her here. Thank you, Elizabeth!

I know (according to Stephen King), you aren’t supposed to ask writers where a book sparks, but I also know, that as a writer, that there usually is an answer, and it usually has to do with what is haunting the writer at the moment. What sparked your novel?

A middle-aged contemplation of my history, that of my mother, that of the women I knew growing up in Los Alamos.  Somewhat to my surprise, the book turned out to be a way for me better to understand my mother, our differences -- what led us to pitched battle for so many years and what ultimately let us find peace with each other. Meridian forms a bridge between our two generations.

What was the research like? What surprised you? And did the research make you a bird watcher, or were you one already?

I was already a bird watcher (more of behavior than species identification), a person steeped in the sciences, a person who has a nearly constant internal dialogue that goes something like:  "Hunh.  I wonder why X.  And how does THAT work, function, come into being? I wish I knew more physics/biology/chemistry." Once I decided to focus on crows, I devoured several books on the topic -- and relished learning all sorts of obscure facts, in particular about their phenomenal intelligence. These birds can recognize individual faces -- and pass that knowledge on to their young!

Writing about the landscape closest to my heart, that of northern New Mexico, led me to move back to Los Alamos after an absence of over forty years.  I wanted to return while I could still physically manage to hike the trails through the mountains, along beautiful cliffs, and amongst wildlife (including cougars!).  My decision to move back to Los Alamos after such a long hiatus came as a bit of a surprise.

The crow journals change, as Meri changes, and become more personal and more intimate. The more she opens up, the more she suffers--and the more it’s worth it. Can you talk about this?

What an entirely lovely, astute question!  Over time, Meridian allows herself to become more complete, to permit her emotions, her spirit, to emerge more fully.  Her intellect had always overpowered the rest of her being, tamping down her artistic side (her painting), and her sensitivity.  A wise friend once told me that we only grow through pain -- never through joy or simple contentment.  Pain teaches us what we value, and it can teach us who we are (or strive to be).  I believe that we build resilience, true strength, only through suffering.  And yes, I set about to make Meridian suffer.  I set about to find out what it would take to make her move, to take charge of her life.

There’s a lot of discussion today about whether women can really “have it all.” Certainly, they couldn’t in Meri’s time, during the 50s and 60s, when women gave up their dreams so their husbands could live theirs. Yet, in the end, Meri crafts an enviable life, but there still is a cost to her. Do you think it will ever be possible to get beyond that cost?

I don't think we get beyond the incalculable costs of unconscious self-abnegation, martyrdom or self sacrifice (no matter how greatly those attributes -- particularly in women -- might be applauded by society).  What Meridian does, what we all have to do, is take the clay remaining and fashion it into something beautiful, meaningful.  In that way we conquer, we "win" -- even if we still carry a history of loss.  I also think we owe it to younger generations of women to remind them of progress made, and the need for constant vigilance to prevent backsliding, the insidious creep of misogyny.  Let's take a moment and ponder the current election atmosphere in this country, shall we?

What kind of writer are you? Do you map everything out or just follow your computer?

I have to do some mapping before I begin, or I wouldn't begin -- wouldn't know where to begin.  I let the character(s) begin forming in my head for weeks and months ahead of time.  Once I begin writing, I am so deeply, thoroughly living the characters that they take on a life of their own -- some are born without my say-so; some act in ways I would not have predicted.  The characters largely determine action and plot, and I may have to let go of my initial plans for the story line.  When I'm writing well, I have very little control over what's going on.  Hours pass in a flash.  I am a mere conduit, a mere stenographer.

So much of this book is really about the moral choices we make--and the cost of those choices. The scientists at Los Alamos thought they were making the world safer, while the Viet Nam war protestors marked them as warmongers. Do you think we can ever know the ramifications of a historical moment while it is happening?

I think, sometimes, we can have a sense of ramifications at the time an event takes place.  Certainly, Oppenheimer and others knew the bomb would change the world in profound ways.  Could they predict all of the ways the bomb might change the world?  Could they begin to foretell how it would populate our dreams and alter our very psyches?  No.  But could they anticipate changes in balances of power, the dire need to keep the knowledge they'd amassed from politicians' absolute control, to prevent misuse of the formidable power of atomic warfare?  Yes.  After all, the world had just seen what Hitler and his ilk wrought; it had seen survivors of the Bataan Death March.

With respect to questions of morality implied in your query -- I have come to believe that context is an all-powerful determinative factor.  For me, a solid knowledge of the context in which the bomb was created and used is essential when interpreting its morality.  

I loved how each chapter begins with fascinating facts about birds. Did you always know that that would be the structure? And what did you learn about crows that fascinated you the most?

Long before I began to conceive of the novel, to have Meridian living in my head, a friend sent me a list of bird groupings.  I was entranced by the sheer poetry of the "scientific" names for bird groups.  I kept that list for years -- thinking how wonderful it would be to write a book using those bird group names as chapter titles.  And so, they long preceded the nascent stirrings of characters, setting, and plot.  They became even more charming when I began to decide which bird group might best tie into the events of a given chapter.

The crow research that most surprised me was that young crows have blue eyes that change to brown.  How I'd love to spot a blue-eyed crow!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next novel.  Feathers of another sort -- those worn by Vegas showgirls in the Sixties.  Dean Martin.  Elvis.  Tom Jones, Dinah Shore, and Sammy Davis Junior.  How the illusions created by Vegas contrasted with the real world at the time -- the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, hippies.  And how events of a childhood might so thoroughly warp, twist, tangle, and mangle both being and perception, that finding love is rendered next to impossible.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have.

Two things:  How grateful am I to you for your generous support, how many of us benefit from the leadership you provide?  The answer is IMMENSELY GRATEFUL.

Secondly, I suppose you didn't ask me if I could have written this book several decades ago, had I summoned the fortitude to make the sacrifices necessary to change my life so that I could write.  Were you to ask me that question, I would have to say that I could not have written this book at any point prior to when I did actually sit down to write it (age 56).  I hadn't sufficient wisdom.

Mrs. Wyatt Earp? There really was one and Thelma Adams talks about her wildy west, brilliantly rendered novel about her.

Love, loss and making history on the page. Thelma Adams tells the astonishing story of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, exotic, Jewish, and in love with the notorious Earp.

Adams is a novelist, movie critic, journalists a writer and leading New York-based film critic. Her debut novel Playdate (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books) came out in hardback January 2011, and paperback the following year. She is currently a freelance writer, most recently profiling Diane Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Clarkson for the New York Observer following three years covering the awards season for Yahoo! Movies. She was the film critic at Us Weekly for eleven years from 2000 to 2011, following six years at the New York Post. She has twice chaired the New York Film Critics Circle. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, More, Interview Magazine, The New York Times, The international Herald Tribune, Cosmopolitan and Self. She has appeared on CNN, E!, NY1, NBC’s TheToday Show, CBS’s The Early Show, OMG! Insider, Fox News Channel, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, Bravo and VH1.

I'm thrilled to have Thelma here. Thank you, Thelma!

What could be more fascinating than a novel about Mrs. Wyatt Earp? What sparked you to write this extraordinary novel?

A novel can have many origin stories. I saw -- somewhere, somehow, nearly a decade ago -- that Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery (a word I can never spell) in Colma, California. I became obsessed. Was Earp Jewish? No. So why would the famed gunslinger, the hero (or villain) of the Gunfight at the OK Corral be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

The answer was Earp's wife of nearly fifty years: Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp called Josie by some, Sadie by her family. That was the beginning. Here was a knot that I needed to untangle, a question of Jewish identity that intrigued me.

First and foremost I wanted to know who the hell Josie was. Who was this beauty who turned up on a few pages in the many, many books that praised or reviled Wyatt in that 'the man, the myth, the legend' way. Josie did write a memoir that was edited by her descendants, I Married Wyatt Earp. It exists in multiple formats, some truer than others. But all versions are to a certain extent opaque, so far from contemporary memoirs that scratch down to the sticky embarrassing truth like Running with Scissors or Wild.

One goal of Mrs. Earp's memoir was always to restore Wyatt's good name, and by extension Josie's place beside him. Because, in the conventional history of gunfights and border skirmishes, law and order, Republican and Democrat, she only existed at his side on the frontier. And, then, she's often portrayed as a floozy, an actress or dancer, a beautiful opportunist, an exotic, a Jewess. As a historian out of Berkeley, I knew that there were many alternate histories, and the history of women and the poor are not marked by battles won or lost. A social historian has to dig deeper and read between the records in order to discover what these forgotten people were about. Once I heard about Josie, I wanted to dig deeper and discover what made her tick.

One thing I wanted to know was whether Josie really run away from home with dreams of becoming an actress with a travelling H.M.S. Pinafore troupe as her memoir says. Just that one detail seemed fantastic and marvelous because when I read the Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics for an operetta whose heroine is coincidentally named Josephine, I woke up. I realized that this was an era – the early 1880s, nearly two decades after the Civil War -- far more sophisticated culturally and socially than I'd credited it. Like that romantic heroine of the stage, mine ran into the arms of the man she loved – not the one her father (or mother) would have chosen. So this beautiful Jewish girl from a middle class Eastern European family had her own independent narrative running in her head, informed by the popular culture of her day. And she piqued my curiosity: what was it like to look out at this Wild West through Jewish eyes with Jewish values and traditions?

I knew that I could only get close to it through fiction, through imagining what impelled Josie from a good home in San Francisco to the dangers of Apaches and outlaws and scheming politicians in the Arizona territory, in Tombstone. The silver boomtown near the Mexican border couldn't be reached directly by train. It was both a land of opportunity and disaster.

In order to get myself into Josie's head, I channeled the feelings that I had, leaving home at 17 for Berkeley six hundred miles away, a place where I would determine my fate and, if not write poetry then at least live poetically. I had passion and so did Josie – and that's where we connected in the beginning. Josephine quickly discovered that she was no actress or dancer or singer – but she had a talent for drama and sweeping onto the center stage, which put her by Wyatt Earp and into his arms the very year that he fought and survived The Gunfight at the OK Corral. 

Josie really came alive for me when I thought: what does it mean to be a Jewish woman in the wider world of events outside the home in a society where gentiles make the rules? How are those qualities that I see in myself – liveliness, intellect, a need for justice, a need to be heard and seen and find a true soul-mate, the weight of guilt and the past, a daddy's girl and a mother's misfortune – manifested in Josie, a woman born in the past but reborn in a novel?

Was writing this second novel different than writing your first?

Writing The Last Woman Standing was very different from Playdate, which began as a screenplay and evolved into a novel of contemporary manners – and which sold first. It contained very little research and channeled my experience of motherhood into a comic situation about a stay-at-home dad that was intended to be a cross between Shampoo and Mr. Mom. In some ways, it was chick lit with a male protagonist, which was not an easy sell. Meanwhile, I had written a very large chunk of thoroughly researched Mrs. Earp when my two children were still young on the hope that I could sell it on a proposal and continue my research and writing while raising my kids. I had shelves and shelves of primary and secondary sources.

To me, Josie's life seemed ripe for a novel – and this was before academic Ann Kirschner's acclaimed nonfiction book about Josephine, Lady at the O.K. Corral, had been published. I was then a film critic at Us Weekly, and without a commitment I could only manage two hundred pages. They were full of details – the size of a carriage and the number of horses pulling it, the style of women's clothing and cowboys' hats – but they lacked a strong storytelling impulse and the overall voice was uneven and, frankly, a little fruity. They also included the perspective of Wyatt Earp's sister-in-law, Allie Earp, a prairie pioneer with a bitter past. Her salty perspective spoke to me but it wasn't until I regained Josephine as a first-person narrator years later, and handed the story entirely to her that the book came alive. It was thanks to my agent Victoria Sanders, who read the initial pages when I pulled them out of a drawer and said in her fabulously blunt and truthful way: great idea, execution not so hot. "Get me three smoking chapters and a proposal and I can sell this," she said. I did -- and she did.

Those fresh chapters (nine rather than three) sacrificed the fascinating frontier story of Allie, but went back to the San Francisco house where Josephine was raised and fleshed out her mother (a key figure in shaping who Josephine was), her father and her siblings. In a completely fictional scene, I seated them at dinner beside the Shabbos candles on the Friday night that Josie departed for Tombstone. When Josie left home in 1880 engaged to the gentile John Harris Behan, who would become the sheriff of Tombstone and a fierce enemy of Wyatt, Josie's mother tore the collar of her best dress and sat shiva. Knowing that fraught relationship, and how earlier generations of my own family had reacted to children who intermarried, grounded the entire book. Josie lived her adventure in Tombstone one thousand miles southeast, but her mother's critical voice remained in her head along with her father's unconditional love.       

What surprised you in your research? (And what did you have fun making up?)

I tried to lift the lid on the women in the story and also to weave in a bit of photographic history. The Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred in the vacant lot beside Fly's Photography Gallery, a bustling hub in town. And while C. S. Fly took the famous photo of the victims of that gunfight, it was his wife, Mollie (also a photographer) who ran the studio. She also managed the attached boarding house where the famed "Doc" Holliday lived. Central to the Fly's marriage – which was her second – was their mutual love of photography. All of this I got from research and is relatively straightforward – and could itself become the core of a book. Writing The Last Woman Standing I was always tumbling over tangential stories that seemed to cry out for their own novels.

There are wonderful photographs that have survived from this period – and one controversial risqué portrait of Josie (that has largely been discredited) wearing nothing more than a black net mourning veil. Rather than trying to determine its provenance and validity and enter a rabbit hole of a historical battle, I created a relationship between Mollie and Josie that unfolded in the studio. Their activities wouldn't have been recorded in the newspapers of the day, or the diaries of the local miners and politicians. What if Josie, who was by all accounts the most beautiful woman in Tombstone, became an artist's model for Mollie – as an alternative to selling her flesh as a prostitute? What if?

And as I researched, I discovered a startling connection to the history of art photography. This was the very time that photography was becoming cheaper, easier and more portable while meanwhile more respected as an art form. What I discovered, as I dug into Victorian erotic photography, was that one of my favorite painters, Thomas Eakins, was taking nude pictures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in the decade prior to the 1880s. In fact, contemporary to my story, the Academy dismissed Eakins for teaching from life models to a co-ed classroom. When he lifted the loincloth on a male model for a female student to see, he crossed a line.

So, I was enjoying fascinating art history research when I discovered that the famed "Doc" Holliday had studied dentistry in Philadelphia while Eakins was at the Academy. I realized that, as an educated Southerner, Holliday would have likely visited the art studio and been exposed to the latest uses of the technology. He could easily have shared that knowledge with Mollie, his landlady. The historical record seemed to confirm that my fictional direction yielded an insight into Tombstone beyond the facts of gunfights and fringed jackets. There was a rich culture in Tombstone, and a daring one, because in many ways the adventurers that congregated there were unfettered by convention. Because the boomtown was only a few years old at this point, and infused with silver and those attempting to grasp it, there was no inherited wealth or established elders. And while male writers and filmmakers have focused on the women-as-wives-or-whores trope, I tried to figure out how this freedom from societal apron strings could manifest itself among the female figures I encountered.

This inspired, and seemed to validate, a sensual scene where a distraught Josie (who has just left Wyatt's bed before he rode off to lead a dangerous posse) poses for Mollie. I personally, even a century later, would be too ashamed of my bits and pieces to pose nude but here is Josie, her emotions having risen to her skin from recent sex and deep sorrow, getting photographed: "I felt my body relax. My shoulders dropped. I released my neck, stretched the fingers, and then let my free hand fall heavily where my legs intersected. I bent my knees and curved my feet around each other. I heard Mollie behind me, exposing film, changing glass plates, moving the camera closer, changing lenses. As she did this, I relaxed more deeply—not dozing, not forgetting my pain, but suspended in the camera’s eye."

In that climactic moment, I made the leap from research to imagination.

You have profiled megastars like George Clooney, Jessica Chastain and more, and you've covered films and festivals--and been on just about every major TV show there is. What was it like for you to settle in and get solitary writing a novel?
I have always done both – film criticism and poetry. I wrote my first film review for The Daily Cal and my first published poem (possibly my only) appeared in The Berkeley Poetry Review. I struggled for a long time to accept myself as a writer, which was my own fault. I now tell people: if you write, you are a writer. Do not seek accreditation or benediction from others. I received my MFA in fiction from Columbia in 1993, the same year as I got my first professional job as a critic at The New York Post. As a critic, over the years, and as a member and chairperson of the New York Film Critics Circle, I began to travel in celebrity-heavy circles just as celebrity culture really took off. Us Weekly hired me in 2000 when they went from a monthly to a magazine published once a week. And then it started: my immersion in celebrity culture.

I still get speechless in front of certain directors and behave like a cartoon character, although my friends who attend parties with me think I display an incredible sang froid in the presence of bold-faced names. I love talking to people and so doing profiles of Clooney, the most charming man on the planet, or Chastain, a searcher with a big heart, or others that have become friends, has been relatively easy. I don't, however, claim that my heart doesn't beat faster at times, or that I don't fumble when the luncheon conversation stumbles and I'm seated next to Robert DeNiro. My answer is to find the commonality – as I do with my historical characters. I try to bring an honest me – a writer, a mother, someone who has seen many films and read many books – and not approach celebrities slavishly. The truth is that I have something to offer, too, which is authenticity.

I have always been an extrovert who loves solitude. So I relish the long quiet of writing – thinking with my fingers. That mind-fingertip connection: there's nothing like it, the pleasure of rereading and tinkering. I consider writing books like being a marathon runner, I am happiest when I am in training, in a book, capturing that rhythm. I don't long for nightlife, then, or the company of famous people. I write. I read. I watch good TV (the French cop show Spiral or the Scandinavian The Bridge, for example) or movies from my collection. I sit with my cats. I talk to my children. I do yoga, which I find helpful in connecting bigger ideas within my work. I make Ethiopian chicken in the crockpot. Yes. I have a really big crockpot. And, then, when I go to a film festival, or interview someone like Mark Ruffalo or Diane Keaton, I'm coming from a real place. Remember: they are, too.
Which brings me to the question--what kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or do you like to follow the muse?
As a novelist, I have been struggling toward structure for a long time. My first unpublished novel, Girl Empire, was a picaresque. Playdate took place over four days. The Last Woman Standing had tent-pole events: the arrival in Tombstone; the date of the lynching of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce; The Gunfight at the OK Corral; Josie's exit after assassins attempted to kill Wyatt's brother Virgil and the town became too hot for the Earps and their friends. And, yet, there were big gaps in the narrative: she came to marry Johnny Behan, and she left attached to Wyatt Earp. When and how did that happen? What were those events that did not hit the historical record and how would I shape them to reveal my characters? I am not by nature someone who carefully plots but in this case, since I sold it from a proposal, I did have to map out how the chapters fit together for the table of contents I submitted. That was a good exercise for me. I found that even when I could not see the whole book in my head, I could often see three chapters ahead. And so I approached it as I would a writing schedule, concentrating on three chapters at a time, hitting the tent-pole events, aiming for the final chapter, which I knew before I even wrote my first one. I also follow the muse in that when characters talk, I listen. Sex scenes take on their own heat and you have to get out of the way and let your characters just do it. And I had this one minor character, a brothel owner named Madame Mustache, who just took over the pages she was on: she was a truth teller with ulterior motives and her voice took over whenever she appeared. I would say that whether you map out your chapters, or float forward in time, the muse will always find you. She will leave you, too. And that's when the marathon matters: just showing up at the computer is so much a part of the craft and the art of novel writing. 

What's obsessing you now and why?
Right now I'm absolutely obsessed with my next novel, Kosher Nostra. Set in Brooklyn from 1902 to 1935, it is about the little sister of a button-man in Murder, Incorporated: the Jewish subcontractors for the mob that specialized in contract killing. It opens on the night of October 23, 1935 when the Williamsburg Boys Club killed Pretty Amberg and set the body aflame by the Brooklyn Navy Yard with their wives and girlfriends watching.

It is my first attempt at a novel of such scope – three decades in a single life. It's based on a real character that lacks a birth certificate or a notice in the newspaper: my grandmother Thelma Lorber. Her older brother was Abraham "Little Yiddel" Lorber, all of five foot two. These are little lives with big emotional arcs on the schleppy side of Boardwalk Empire. At 19, Uncle Abie stabbed a man for questioning his bravery on 14th Street in broad daylight. That made the newspapers – although it was something I learned in the archives and not from my family.

If I were E. L. Doctorow or William Kennedy, Uncle Abie would be my protagonist. But I want to figure out what it was like for Thelma (who I resemble) the wiseass little sister. She was born in 1902 into hard times and they just got harder. She depended for succor and protection on her beloved older brother Abie, only to see him get pulled into the mob and away from her. Like her sibling, she was a hedonist. But she existed in a stifling culture that didn't permit women to experiment out of wedlock. She married a man who suffered from a deep depression and died shortly after she gave birth to their only child, a son.

With Kosher Nostra, a Brooklyn novel, I want to reclaim this single mother and, like Josie, see the world through second-generation immigrant eyes. What did Thelma want from life – and what did she have to accept? How did she break the mold – and how high a price did she pay? Like Josie, she burned bright, but Thelma lacked the beauty that was Josie's ticket to a bigger stage. I want to write this novel to understand life for the family on the fringe of the Kosher Nostra, the juicy stories we don't share, the shondas, the shames, which define us in equal measure to our accomplishments.   

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

How am I like Josie – and how do I differ?
I put a lot of myself into Josie but in a number of key ways she is not like me. She is defined by her looks – she was by all accounts a great beauty. I'm not. And so she had the privileges that came with that, the attention from men wanted or not, the jealousies of women her looks inspired. And, because of that gift she didn't have to work at, she could lack empathy for others that struggled more than she did. Still, it was fun to slip on that skin, creamy, curvy and alive. When I needed a picture, I modeled her on the young Rachel Weisz, who has a face so breath-taking you can't look away – and you also almost can't hear what she's saying because her looks are so distracting. So, what is that like, to try to define yourself as an individual from the inside out, when people are constantly reacting to the wrapper?

I identify with Josie's desire to perform on the stage and then to discover that she lacked the required talent – she could not carry a tune and neither can I. She wanted to sing and entertain like her Gilbert & Sullivan namesake, but she couldn't. And she had debilitating stage fright. I don't but my daughter did when she was very young, so I remembered how she played the White Rabbit in an early elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland and had to be carried on the stage by her elbows when she had her solo, with older actors singing her part. I pinched that memory for Josie: the desire to be a star in the spotlight thwarted by her own fear of failure.

Growing up, what I had to set myself apart was intellect. I was a grind behind my thick glasses. I took the good student route to recognition but Josie and I share our desire to be recognized as individuals on the stage of our own lives, not as merely reflections of others more powerful or talented or famous.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Bruce Bauman talks about Broken Sleep, living riskily, writing out of nightmares and daymares, and so much more

 First, the praise:

"Big-thinking...a postmodern epic." —Kirkus Reviews

Now, the story. A writer friend, Leslie Lehr, emailed me to tell me that I had to contact Bruce Bauman, that I had to read his book, that it would knock both my socks off, and maybe my boots, too. So I did, and she was right. Broken Sleep, now in paperback, is the kind fo read that changes you. (You'll catch a glimpse of what I mean when you read the interview.)

Bauman is the author of the novel And the Word Was. Among his awards are a COLA (City of Los Angeles) Fellowship in Literature, a Durfee Foundation grant, and a UNESCO/Aschberg Fellowship. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and more.

I'm delighted to have him here. Thank you, Bruce!

I always am curious about the creative process. What was it like writing Broken Sleep and how did it differ from your previous book, And The World Was? Did anything surprise you in the writing? It feels to me that you took such risks in the writing—and they all paid off beautifully.

First, thank you so much for this opportunity and the terrific questions.
I’d like to quote one of my mantra’s, which comes from Grace Paley (also one of my lit heroes)  -- Be Risky. Write a work of truth. Remove all lies.

Every time I write something that that feels safe, feels like I’m lying to myself or I am lying about the characters -- the characters like to lie about themselves -- out it goes.  It’s my purpose to let the characters lie but somehow make sure the reader knows the truth. (I hope that makes sense.)  

Some things both books had in common. Both were initially inspired by the Bible.  
Word started off as two stories, one about Neil Downs losing a son and playing off the Abraham/Isaac child sacrifice myth and the other about Levi Furstenblum, who wrote about the Holocaust.  When I combined the two, the book finally made sense to me and took off.

For Broken Sleep I had the stories of the Insatiables and Alchemy Savant (who had come to me years and years ago in a dream as Twilight Fingertips) and of turning the Biblical Moses story - born a Jew raised by an Egyptian -  upside down. When the idea, and I don’t understand how this shit happens, came to me that Moses and Alchemy were half-brothers -- Shazam! Nine years later -- a book!
Both of those combinings surprised the hell out of me. 

Word had a completely different ending than I’d contemplated and first wrote.  I knew it wasn’t working.   It was the ending I wanted not the one the characters demanded.
With BS, something unexpected happened on virtually every page, which is exactly what I want. 
Both books were rewritten many times.

The biggest difference in writing the two books was this -- I was excited while writing Word and got a lot of satisfaction but it is, I’d say, a mournful book.  BS was so much damn fun. Yes, it was hard, writing is hard and there’s plenty of sadness and regret in the book - but my prevailing emotion was joy.  You know, you can dance to it. Word, I think has a dark humor. BS, well, I hope is funny in a lot of different ways. 

I can explain many things about Broken Sleep—obviously there are many conscious choices I made and created – chapter headings, anagrams and other word games, the insertion of other writers’ words, the religious allusions -- but there is so much I can’t explain.  I put my pages on the walls from floor to ceiling so when I walk into my studio I walk into my book.  The world of the book. And on good days something exciting happens.  How or why the creative process works baffles me. And I’m kinda glad it does.

 Library Journal raved in a starred review about Broken Sleep, calling it both a “nightmare and a dream.” Can you talk about this please?

That phrase made me very happy because that is exactly what I’m hoping a reader feels after reading the book.

First a bit of personal information because it’s the kind of personal information I think informs the creative process rather than leads to a psychoanalytic deconstruction of the writer and his characters.
 I’ve always been an insomniac. Even a young kid and teenager I’d sleep maybe 6 hours and get up Sunday mornings to watch the Late, Late, Late show on Channel 2 in New York.  (That is where I first saw a Greta Garbo movie- Ninochtka, which made me want to get the hell out of Flushing and to Paris. Garbo is an important character in the novel.)  I’ve also always had screaming nightmares, though I have much fewer now than ever before.  But I’ve also had beautiful dreams. Dreams have given me so much of what is in my fiction.  I have 25 notebooks filled with dreams and daymares.
I wish I could play music because I’ve heard the sound of the Insatiables in my dreams – the band came to me in a dream as did the names Absurda Nightingale and Ambitious Mindswallow. (I had been reading Pynchon at the time.) But so much of the inspiration, scenes and ideas came out of my dreams, nightmares or that in-between sleep-wake state.

I used to keep a pen and pad by the bed because I wake quite frequently with ideas. Sometimes they suck. Sometimes they’re great.  Half the time I couldn’t read what I wrote so, who knows?  Now I keep my phone handy. (Not much fun for my wife who often kicks me out to the other room.)

Now, in the book I tried to both linguistically and with content create that dream or nightmare atmosphere. Salome’s prose and “logic” is I hope often dreamlike or nightmarish.  My favorite dreamlike chapter is the one chapter from Alchemy’s POV. But if he is the representation of the successful American Dream, his final scene is the demise of his dream.

The relationship between Moses and Jay --  and I love Jay, the character who has gotten the least ink of the major characters, but I think holds much of the book together -- is at first dream-like, then nightmarish and then well, somewhere in between.

I’m approaching this answer with some trepidation but I was nervous about using the phrase An American Dream on the title page because it can be called pretentious or overused. But it was heartfelt.  (Michael Silverblatt, speaking on Bookworm said “This is a novel about America from the 60s on…” And also “a parable of America right now.”  I was more than pleased to hear him say that.) Heck, at one point I even thought of calling Alchemy … America Savant.

America has been and continues to be the dream of the world, despite everything, I believe that. I don’t think there has ever been a country with more power to do good. The French like to brag they gave us liberte, egalite, fraternite but they came after our revolution, and Locke inspired Jefferson to write “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and all mean are created equal. The statement was obviously a lie in reality, but the ideal was and remains true. Despite the sins of slavery and women as practically chattel, no country ever began with such high ideals. And we are making progress. The Nathaniel Brockton/Bohemian Scofflaw character is to the embodiment of the great 60s generation who did so damn much good. They are too easily ridiculed now.
This is what sometimes I and so many of my radical persuasion fail to see- the dreamers of the 60s have gotten us closer and closer the ideals of America.  Some tangible, some not. We’re in the midst of it, so it’s hard to see how Obama as president is mindfuckingly world changing.  It is simply beautiful. It is the American Dream and no one, no matter how much Mitch McConnell, the Koch-sucker brothers try to undo the will of the people, the majority of Americans voted for a black man for president. But those regressive forces sure will keep trying to change the course going forward.

Now, in my perhaps egocentric way, in the telling of a good and very personal story that is primarily about human relationships, I tried to represent that belief in progress in the book and also show that America is capable of tremendous evil and destruction. And the future is not clear whether the dream of America or the nightmare of America will prevail in the 21st century.

To me, so much of Broken Sleep is about who we really are, how and why we do or don't belong to others, and how our lives are combined or separated. 

Yes, I believe you are right about Broken Sleep being about who we are etc.  But, as in life I hope the characters in the book, are in a constant process of finding out who they are. 

We are all connected. Like it or not. I think Word touches on that in a more obvious way than BS.  But we are also totally separate and alone. It’s a contradiction, a duality I have not figured out. I’d say writing is the way I’m hoping to find, struggling is more accurate, an answer to the question of belonging and to many others.

Do you believe in destiny?

Only in (my) novels. And even then… the Insatiables have a song called “No Destiny.” So…

Sometimes, I want to, but no.  If you believe in destiny as in preordained by Gods or some mystical force that, I think, probably denies free choice. I don’t think we have much in the way of free choice, less than we want to believe. But there is some choice.  In the Duino Elegies Rilke wrote “Don’t think destiny is more than what’s packed into childhood.” That’s one loaded sentence and it’s haunted me for decades.  But I get it.

If you mean destiny predicated on the past and a set of circumstances -- maybe. Between genetics and the first few years of family life, free choice is not an option.  Then, as we age, and have more control or seeming control, yet so much has already been determined.  So, are the choices we make truly free? I don’t know. A lot smarter people than me have not figured that one out.

And there is randomness.  It’s everywhere and mostly it’s terrifying.  Was the person who had the flu and was cursing out some guy who coughed in his face on the subway because his boss was gonna be pissed because he was going to miss an important meeting, still cursing the guy on the subway and his bad luck because that’s the day the WTC was blown up and that’s where he worked? Is that destiny or randomness?
I met my wife though a series of the wildest, unforeseeable circumstances. If one of a dozen things had not occurred over a dozen years, we’d never have met. The romantic me calls that destiny.  The rational part of me knows it was a random set of happenstances that just worked out great. We acted on the randomness, the opportunities of the moment and 24 years later it’s best thing that ever happened to either one of us and I don’t care if it was fate or randomness.  There’s lot of strange and unpredictable meetings in the book—or what might seem strange to some -- but not to me. My life has been filled with the oddest, most illogical and unexpected meetings and events.

 Leukemia, biological and adoptive mothers, and the yearning for more life infuse your novel. It also felt to me that living life fully has a cost. Would you agree?

Absolutely. It comes back to risk, the more you risk, the more you live, the higher the cost. But there is a high cost for inaction as well.  Alchemy is all risk and lives passionately.  Victory or death is his motto.  He pens the songs “More” and “Chicks and Money” which are both a joke and his truth. And he gets huge rewards and pays the highest price. Moses is reticent, often internally paralyzed, and plays life safe.  And still, he gets life-threatening leukemia. Salome gives everything she has to her art, and in some ways it is ruinous to her emotional life and her relationships to her children – but she has to make art. And Ricky McFinn aka Ambitious Mindswallow, who often, especially early on, appears to be completely selfish and shallow, keeps losing people he can’t admit he loves and he’s devastated each time.

Living life to the fullest also means to me, allowing yourself to love and be loved which kind of leads to the central question  -- How do you live life to the fullest and live morally and kindly?  I could make the crazy case that Malcolm Teumer would say he has the fullest life of anyone in the book—he’s rich, he had a lot of kids (some even appear to love him), traveled often, had a lot of women, lived a long, long time --  yet he’s a reprehensible human being who it seems did not pay a high cost for the fact that he also killed people.  Not high enough price for sure.

So, there is living life to the fullest and living life to the fullest with kindness and empathy. It’s not easy to do. Not easy at all.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The presidential election.  If you take out the “killed people,” (which admittedly, is no small thing), from my description of Malcolm Teumer he sounds a helluva lot like Donald Trump. Not one of the four remaining presidential candidates exudes Kindness. Not even Bernie, who makes a one sentence appearance in the book, and I’ve been a fan of for 20 years.  The lack of kindness in American political and cultural life, the lack of empathy, of generosity of spirit I think, not financial collapse or terrorism is the greatest threat to what I have always believed is the promise of America.  The only two presidents in the last forty years who were truly kind and empathetic were Carter and Obama. One lost after one term to an avuncular sounding man, who in his deeds was selfish and mean spirited. And Obama is hated by a substantial minority of the country and his presidency has been hindered by thinking he was dealing with rational people.  Bill C said he “felt our pain” but it was lip service.}

America and the world can’t afford another calamitous presidency like that of Bush Jr.  We’ve underestimated Trump long enough, he can win. Ted Cruz, who I actually think has a more than decent chance to win the election against Clinton, is a younger, even creepier version of Dick Cheney.  It wouldn’t surprise me if that guy jerks off to fantasies of end times. 

I’m getting ready to start another novel – that’s pretty obsessive.  Actually there are so many things that I obsess over, I’ll just leave it at that for now.   

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You mentioned the religious allusions before, what purpose do they serve?

A book has to survive on the ability of the writer to get the reader to want to turn the page because the story is compelling. But I like it when there is or can be more. So, the biggest purpose they serve is me having fun throwing clues in the book about less obvious themes. I love that as a reader. People can pick up on them or ignore them as some inexplicable meanderings. (Jordan Blum, in his review in Pop Matters, called it a Family Drama of Biblical proportions – and said the book s echoes “the layout of many religious texts.” Yep.)  Word, in its story line was directly about belief and faith and how to live with or without belief in god.

Broken Sleep  is less obvious thematically, but from the introduction which mentions the Book of J, to Salome’s claim, through DNA travel, to have communicated with people who were at the Crucifixion, to chapter headings taken directly from the Bible to some of Alchemy’s lyrics, to his last words… maybe there’s something else happening…  


You said you have so much fun writing this book? Was there anything that was the most fun?
Not sure about most, but different and really fun was doing the entire Insatiables’ discography, making up albums and song titles and all that. And writing lyrics. And then putting together Salome’s artist CV.  Both were adrenaline rushes. And took a looong time.  Probably the most fun of all was inhabiting the souls and living the lives of artists or rock stars.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stewart O'Nan talks about CITY OF SECRETS, revolution, cautionary tales and so much more

Stewart O'Nan and I share one fun fact-we both know what it's like to live in Pittsburgh (I left in 1980 and he's still there.) He's also one of my favorite writers on the planet, crafting gorgeously written, thoughtful novels that both haunt you and change your life in some major ways.

Stewart O'Nan's award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America’s Best Young Novelists, and I expect he'll be on any list of Best Novelists even when he's 98.

Thank you so, so much for being here, Stewart.

 What sparked this particular book?

Growing up in the 60s & 70s, I've always been interested in revolution, both violent and non-violent, and the role faith has in it.  What inner strength do revolutionaries draw on to commit violence in the name of their struggle?  Likewise, what strength do they draw on to withstand the violence done to them?  How does it change who they are?  What are the moral consequences when the ends matter more than the means?

You've written so many extraordinary books. I always wonder if writing each book feels differently to the writer. Does it for you?

Every book feels different, but imagining Brand was a big reach.  He's lost everything--family, home, country, identity--and sets off into the world with no hope and no direction, but somehow Jerusalem draws him.  Here is where he'll recover his soul or destroy himself trying.  So it's an extreme book, and very much of its time, recalling (I hope) Camus or Graham Greene.

City of Secrets is so alive, so real. What was the research like? And how did you know what to use and what to discard?

The research was fascinating, as it was for West of Sunset, trying to reinhabit Los Angeles in 1937.  The Jerusalem of 1945 is long gone, yet parts of the Old City and the desert are eternal.  The most startling thing was--obviously, still--the bombing of the King David Hotel.  And the idea that, within months, survivors of the death camps became fighters with the underground.  Point of view saved me from succumbing to what journalists call 'Research Rapture.'  If a detail or fact didn't impinge on Brand's true desires, it didn't belong in the book.

What do you think it means to be morally good--something your characters wrestle with--and what's the cost?

Like its weirder cousin, A Prayer for the Dying, City of Secrets is a cautionary tale.  I don't know if I've ever written an exemplary one.  But maybe to be morally good is to try to do your best by everyone, even faced with an impossible situation.  The cost (the reward) is caring, and seeing the world (and time) ultimately take away everyone and everything you care for.    

What's obsessing you now and why?

My new novel, about Emily's husband Henry.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

The question you should have asked:  What draws you to this time period?  This is your fourth book set between 1937 and 1945

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Diana Abu-Jaber talks about Life Without A Recipe, food, family--and oh yes, CAKE.

 "Abu-Jaber renders her relationships to both food and family in rich, joyful detail."—Booklist.
Diana Abu-Jaber’s new culinary memoir, Life Without A Recipe, has been described as “a book of love, death, and cake.” Ruth Reichl calls it “bold and luscious” and “indispensable to anyone trying to forge their own truer path.”

Oh yes, all of that is so true.

I first met Diana Abu-Jaber at this wonderful, now defunct bookstore on the Upper West Side. She was reading her debut, along with a friend of mine, Rochelle Jewell Shapiro, and I fell in love with Diana's reading. Of course I set out to make her my friend.\

Her most recent novel, Birds Of Paradise, won the 2012 Arab-American National Book Award. It was also named one of the top books of the year by National Public Radio, the Washington Post, and the Oregonian.

Her novel, Origin was named one of the best books of the year by the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. Her second novel, Crescent, won the PEN Center Award for Literary fiction and the American Book Award. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz won the Oregon Book award for Literary Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award.

The Language of Baklava, her first memoir, won the Northwest Booksellers’ Award, and has been translated into many languages.

I am absolutely thrilled to have her here, but it does feel like we need some cookies and wine, doesn't it, Diana?

I know the answer to this, but I want you to talk about it anyway—has your life always circled around food?

It’s so funny because I never really became conscious of my family’s food obsession until after I’d written my first food-obsessed book, Crescent. Then it was like, wait a second, what was that? Then my fiction editor actually proposed that I write a food memoir next, and I laughed, saying there was no way I had enough food-oriented family stories to fill a book. And of course, after I wrote the first draft I ended up having to cut it in half because it was too long.

My sharpest early memories are filled with food: lying back on the hood of the family car, eating hot shish kabobs that Dad brought from the grill; getting routed out of bed in the middle of the night for fried fish sandwiches on the edge of Lake Ontario. In general, I think whenever immigrants are involved, the connection to food gets kicked up a notch—it’s a link to the native land that’s richer and more immediately alive than other sorts of artifacts.

Writing every new novel is always different. What was different about this one and why?

Well, this is my second memoir and, once again, just like with the first one, I set out doggedly thinking I would write it in the same way I wrote my novels: decide on the main characters and their struggles and how they get resolved. And, just like with the first memoir, I was once again flummoxed, obliterated, and generally overwhelmed by the experience. I was raised to be a good girl, which means never, ever, ever hurting anyone’s feelings or upsetting anyone and always trying to see absolutely every side of the story, and so when writing each memoir, I go through all this bargaining and wrangling. I think: well, I’ll tell this much of what happened….but I won’t tell about that part! And then of course I’m tormented by the ghost of artistic omissions, so I end up putting it back in again.

This memoir was even more confounding to write than The Language of Baklava, though, because my first memoir really focused on childhood and it ended—conveniently enough—before things got too grown up and complicated. So Life Without A Recipe is my complicated grown up book –which meant I had to start owning up to poor decisions and escapades and the generally confusing mess of adulthood. Certainly, novels also require emotional honesty, but the memoir demands a kind of truth-telling that’s far more specific and literal than that of fiction. It also means dipping into other people’s stories to a certain extent--which is unavoidable if you’re going to write deeply about shared experiences—and which I have a horror of, because it feels so much like co-optation or colonization. Or like being a tattle-tale. There are memoirs where you sometimes think, wow I can’t believe she had the nerve to say that out loud. Well, this is that book for me.

What’s so wonderful about you is you have this engaging social media presence that is very much like your books—warm, smart, open-hearted—and so, so creative about food!  So, here is a weird question—does cooking influence your writing and does your writing influence your cooking?

Oh Caroline, thank you! I do think Proust was right—that taste and scent are the best senses for retrieving memories—which makes food such a rich source for all kinds of artists. We each have our madeline cookies. An interviewer once asked me if I used food-writing to avoid “more important” issues. I was so offended! These sorts of assumptions overlook issues of race, class, and gender. If you’re stuck at home raising babies, for example, then food is your important subject. I suppose if you wear a suit and teleport into your office, you might be able to pretend there are more pressing concerns. But for most of us, even if we’re fortunate enough to have plenty to eat, food still represents one of the last and most vital ways we return to animal gratification and our basic shared humanity. It’s art, it’s culture, it’s history—so rich and multi-valenced and layered, I can’t really figure out how people manage to not write about it.

Haha, as for my writing influencing my cooking—for me, that probably happens only in unfortunate ways, like being a messy cook, bossing everyone in the kitchen, and trying to have every dish done ahead of time when company comes to dinner.

Talk to us about improvising your life?

So much of my childhood was built on a parental bulwark of advice, rules, and restrictions. I grew up in an extended family of immigrants, so the instructions were boundless; and then I decided to go get a Ph.D.—I didn’t want to stop school and I didn’t want to leave home. For years after graduation, I was constantly badgering my friends for advice. But that’s how I ended up getting married three times (and divorced twice) and a zillion dollars in debt and not writing enough and waiting almost too long to become a mother. Sometime after the second husband, I gradually, slowly, began taking over the reins and began making better mistakes—my own mistakes—which is much more satisfying than letting others make them for you. I guess that’s really what the book is about—the necessity of trial and error, of learning to let yourself try and fail grandly, to love your mistakes as much as your successes. When I tell my students that they need to learn to fail, they look at me like I’m insane. It takes a while to get that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Surprise: my current obsession is…food-related! Several years ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Both my parents had it and my doctor said basta, I had it and I should take medications. I just really didn’t want to be tied to prescription drugs—which for someone so advice-driven—is perhaps somewhat surprising, but there it is. For a while I kind of ignored it, which didn’t work out so great. My blood pressure grew to humungous, alarming numbers. So a couple years ago, in something of a panic, I started to study alternative approaches to high blood pressure. I dove in, reading one nutrition book after another, and became absolutely fascinated. I learned so much about food from an entirely new perspective. Instead of simply cooking for pleasure, I began to think more seriously about what I prepared—and what I was feeding to my daughter and husband. I now walk every day, practice yoga, take supplements, and eat stuff like beet juice with ginger and turmeric. My readings are still high, but they’re much lower than they used to be.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Haha—how do readers get to hang out with me all the time?! Come find me on Twitter @dabujaber, Instagram, and Pinterest. I pin all sorts of fantastic cookies and pastries that I’m no longer allowed to eat. Come join me if your hobbies include procrastination, work avoidance, and sugar-sublimated pinning.

Deborah Copaken and Randy Polumbo talks about THE ABCs OF ADULTHOOD, collaborating, tools for life and so much more

Every once in a while there is a book that's classic, the kind you want to give to your kids, your best friend, even the dentist because maybe he gave you a break on a root canal. I fell in love with The ABCS OF ADULTHOOD, with text by the amazing Deborah Copaken and photographs and design by the equally amazing Randy Polumbo.How a Doodle Became a Book is the story of how this first in a series came to be. Deborah told me that creating it stretched both their creative muscles-- Randy with a pen and Deborah with a paintbrush. "We are so much more than our titles and skill sets," Deborah says, and she's so absolutely right.

Randy Polumbo is one of the most astonishing talents in the art world. Don't believe me? Check out his web page. You don't want to miss Randy's most recent show in Chelsea. And if you are in Tasmania, you have to see this at MONA museum.

I've always been a total fangirl to Deborah Copaken.She's brave, she's funny, she incredibly smart, generous and creative, and part of every day is checking her FB page to see what she's up, too. Her bio she wrote for her website is so funny, I'm letting it speak for itself here: Wrote bestselling Shutterbabe, followed by unpublishable drivel, followed by Between Here and April, Hell is Other Parents, and the New York Times bestselling The Red Book, which was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize); published essays in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Elle, More, Slate, Paris Match, O, and others; shot photo assignments; produced and shot a documentary in Pakistan for CNN in the wake of 9/11; became a columnist for The Financial Times; performed live on stage with The Moth, Afterbirth, Six Word Memoir, and Eve Ensler’s tribute to Anita Hill; adapted Hell is Other Parents for the stage, starring Kate Burton, Sandy Duncan, Tovah Feldshuh, Julie Halston, and Rita Wolf; wrote several screenplays and a TV pilot that were never produced; watched Shutterbabe (the big and small-screen versions) languish in development hell; had another baby; lost appendix, uterus, father, Upper West Side home, bearings, socks, sanity, and several nouns; found Harlem, yoga, and occasional serenity. But not the socks. Or the whatchamacallit. Nouns.

 The upheaval years; separated from husband and life partner of 23 years; sent the two eldest off to college; received a diagnosis of stage 0 breast cancer; got sucked into the vortex of job turmoil, twice, while single parenting the little one 24/7; seriously contemplated emigrating to Scandinavia; instead, moved across the street from the Inwood Hill Forest, the greatest city refuge no one in Manhattan has ever heard of; granted three miracles: 1) sold Shutterbabe as a TV series and was hired to co-write the pilot for NBC/Universal; 2) landed new full-time job plus three-book deal to co-create, with artist Randy Polumbo, a series of ABC books; and 3) love.

How did you get the tone exactly right? It's hard, sometimes to talk to your grown up kids, but the tone was absolutely honest and real--and it works for both an adult-adult and an adult kid.

I think I have to harken back to my late father here. My dad, from the moment I was cognizant of his existence, always spoke to me as if I were his equal. My opinions counted. But so did his. We were engaged, always, in a rational dialogue, human to human. I've always tried to do the same with my own kids. I failed on many occasions--yelling when I shouldn't have, retreating into my head when they needed me, being overbearing when they just wanted to be alone--but I'd like to think that I did a half-decent job of communication, especially when I could channel my father. The tone of the book is meant to mimic that kind of dialogue. In other words, it's less of a pedantic "You must do this or else!" and more of an opening to a longer conversation.

And speaking of honest, I loved the instruction to be sober for one day, just as an experiment. No judgements at all.

I'd been experimenting with radical sobriety when I wrote that, and I was finding that social interactions were actually made better without the lubricant of alcohol. I could think more clearly, enjoy the conversations, really be present rather than artificially happy and numb. So many of my social interactions in college took place over a keg or a bowl of grain alcohol punch or with a joint in hand. I knew my kids would be exposed to the same, but I wanted to provide a bit of a counterpose or at least food for thought: what would it be like to be at a college party sober? I'm not sure I ever tried that. I wish I had.

What was it like choosing topics for each letter? The wonderful thing about this book is it got me thinking about my own letters (though I bet no one can think of a better L than Love.)

That actually took the most time: trying to map out an entire adulthood's worth of advice in 26 paragraphs. It took me days, in fact. It was like a puzzle. At first B was for Beer, which was going to be my plea for a night of sobriety, but then I needed B to be Bed, so then the I became Intoxication. Stuff like that. L will always be for love, in every alphabet book we do, and we will always use Randy's drawing of the L you see on his desk in some way. It's the most important letter of all, the most important noun and verb on earth. What's cool is that Randy and I have been writing our next book, THE ABCs OF PARENTHOOD, together in tandem, and we managed to bang out the ideas for all of the letters for that book one morning over breakfast. That's the beauty of collaboration, I suppose. Two heads are sometimes not just better than one, they become their own hyper-fast organism, especially where Randy is concerned. He's a mad genius. You should see his art.

1/2 question-What's obsessing you now and why?

A bunch of things, really. I'm obsessed over the way so many of my writer friends are suddenly struggling to survive, whether as journalists or novelists. Musicians, too. We're all consuming more media and music than ever before, and the artists is getting shafted. This bothers me tremendously. I'm obsessing over circles. I keep making paintings and collages of broken things that become whole within the boundaries of a circle. I'm obsessing over romantic love. Being mid-divorce forces a reckoning with what it means to love and be loved. Ironically, I feel that finally, at 50, I understand not only what love means but how rare it is. I'm obsessing over my new bike, a birthday present from my family by a company called Tokyobike. It's so beautiful and light and well-designed: I love riding it! And finally, I'm obsessing over my nine-year-old son, my one remaining child of three. He's totally quirky and wonderful, and I'm just trying to enjoy every second with him that I can.


The images are both startling and hauntingly beautiful. So which came first, the images or the decision to use them for a specific letter?

Thank you for appreciating the images.. As you can imagine since we are both artists, this changed constantly.  We started sending lots of text messages in letter / image form and by the end of this series I expect we will have developed a secret language no one else can understand.  Since we are both treasure hunters of sorts, “finding” the letters probably preceded the decision that they were keepers, we just collected a large flock then culled all but one!

How did you two work together? (Yes, this is another which came first, the chicken or the egg question..)

Without divulging any secrets that would necessitate our killing you, we can say we have almost opposite approaches and we meet in the middle on a tiny bridge made of frayed ropes that can snap at any time, but that is part of the magic, bounty, and fun of it.

How do you know when an image is the right one? Each of your sublime photographs somehow seems imbued with emotion--the right emotion--and well as meaning.

We agreed mostly upon which image was right/best.  This seemed to be largely intuitive, and the times we reshot something complicated and thought out it often failed to thrive.  We both are interested in capturing a complete moment that often has an emotional cast as well as an archeological or detective aspect, revealing an angle, some close up details, or relationships, time, or even psychological or physical space.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Right this minute I am obsessed with plants.   While I will not turn away a perky mushroom or bunch of roots or vegetables, flowers are my favorite, and especially finding images of propagation, blossoming, and pollination that are symmetrical in other systems.  For example how space probes are reminiscent of seeds.  I think part of the key to fixing the world is understanding that we are all the same and everything is connected, and some day we will have the habit of thanking even a plant before we eat it, and saving the water for them from washing our hands or dishes will be required for our survival.