Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
As you can see from the rave reviews above, Father of the Rain is a knockout novel. And it's no surprise, really. Lily's first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, aChicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Father of the Rain, her third novel, was published in July, 2010. Lily is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines includingPloughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Summer Pierre's first book, The Artist in the Office (how could you not adore that title) addressed how to stay creative while paying the bills. Great Gals is a compendium of of famous women who are down right inspirational, and best of all, they have Summer's quirky, wonderful illustrations.
What I love so much about this book (and your last one, about being an artist in an office environment) is the quirky spin you put on things. Instead of giving us inspirational women to emulate, you tell us we're already there. That we are those women. Can you elaborate?
We all (men and women) have a story about famous people that says they are special, so that’s what makes them great. This does two things—it makes us want to be them, and paradoxically it discourages us when we our lives don’t seem to match up to this specialness. The truth is, even “famous” people are regular people. The poet Nikki Giovanni, who many would consider fearless and gutsy, started out self-published because she was afraid to try to be published elsewhere. I can relate to that. Susan Sontag sometimes would go see 3 movies a day. Because she is “Susan Sontag” people chalk that up to a voracious appetite for culture, which is part true, but she also did it on occasion for escapism. I can relate to that too. I am more interested in those human aspects than the glory of these lives because it makes me realize that I am in the same world with the same struggles, and I can STILL do what I dream of doing. So many people discount their own efforts and experiences in the shadow of what they consider “greatness” in the media and in history. We get inspired by people, but don’t ACT on that inspiration and leave it to the “experts” to live it for us. Screw that! Let’s all live it! A way to do that is to acknowledge that the lives we have right this second—not in the future, not in some mystical idea of accomplishment, fame, or otherwise—matter.
For 6 years I created an illustrated calendar of great women. Many of the portraits in the book are from various years of that calendar. I have always collected stories and quotes of these great women and it was through that lens that I wanted to make an interactive book based on these stories. I wanted to include quotes that reflected themes that I found in these women’s lives, but also quotes that spoke to me directly, and that lit up the page. I love that Ingrid Bergman said that she had a wonderful life. I love that Lucille Ball likens her humor to bravery. Phyllis Diller’s inspirational spirit is also a punch line. It’s great! I also am a great experimenter of ideas and how to think of new perspectives—so almost all the exercises come from my own journals and questions I have worked through myself.
I think women are tribal people, who often look to other women to relate to, to talk to, to compare notes with, to work their own identities with. I see this book as part of a larger tribe’s conversation. I also try to make things that I would want to find—and as a woman, I would love a book like this that helps me feel grounded in the life I am living now. I hope that women come away with a sense of their own lives being of significance and that they also feel part of a larger tribe of women through history and the present. We’re all in this together.
I think it’s because we are natural multi-taskers and that goes for emotions too. We are constantly multi-tasking emotionally—meaning that we are always negotiating how we feel and what we need with what others feel and need. But like all great skills—and this is a definite skill women have—it has a drawback. That drawback is that often we don’t immediately trust our first instincts in favor of trusting perhaps the second instinct to negotiate. I think this is something we can work on by practicing to trust ourselves. If we trust our abilities and our ideas we can use our negotiating skills for better uses, like tending to doubt and fear (ours or somebody else’s).
Mondo Guerra from Project Runway, how in the heck to make a thriving and extravagant living in the arts, the sad disappearance of bookstores, pie making, and my son’s neck chub.
What question should I be mortified I forgot to ask?
“How’d you get so cool?” Just kidding.
Dori Ostermiller, the author of the shatteringly good novel, Outside the Ordinary World talks about the good and bad news about time.
Last week, in preparation for speaking on a panel about time management, I started chatting up my writing buddies, and discovered some good and bad news about this time issue… The bad news, my friends, is that you probably won’t ever have more time than you do now. During my informal interviews, I found that pretty much everyone is insanely overscheduled, regardless of numbers of offspring, levels of employment or income… (well, with the exception of two retirees in their 80’s). There seems to be an osmotic pressure ruling our hours: got a free space in your week? Something will inevitably flow in to fill it up.
The good news, though, is that needing lots of time to write is actually a myth. I know this, because in 1999, I won a $12,500 Massachusetts Cultural Council grant. I was a part-time working mom, writing grants 15 hours a week, for 15 bucks an hour, and the grant would allow me a long-coveted 6-month leave—enough time, I figured, to finally dust off my neglected manuscript and complete the book.
Somehow, the pressure to perform put me off my game. Terrified of failing, I ran lots of errands during my fifteen hours, sorted through stacks of baby clothes... In my defense, I did finish a chapter or two. I think I finally sent out birth announcements, too, though my daughter was nearly two and everyone was quite aware of her existence. Long story short, having extra time didn't solve my writing dilemma!
When I turned 40 and realized I no longer had unlimited swaths of time before me, I got determined. Or maybe desperate. I now had two kids and was teaching and running a writing studio—my time more taxed than ever. But if I didn’t finish the book soon, I’d have to admit that writing was a silly pipedream, like learning to speak fluent Chinese or reading the complete works of Hegel.
Julia Cameron, in her book The Right to Write, says, “The trick to finding writing time is to make time in the life you’ve already got. Stop imagining some other life as a ‘real’ writer’s life.” Once we learn to write from the sheer love of it, she says, there’s always enough time, but it must sometimes be stolen, like a kiss between lovers on the run… While finishing Outside the Ordinary World, I somehow found the will to rise at 5 am, four times a week, though I'm allergic to mornings… I also learned to utilize that “waiting mother” time—during piano lessons, dentist’s appointment, soccer games—perhaps the most abundant untapped resource we moms have access to! (I once completed a chapter during a 40-minute dance practice).
And when these stolen moments didn’t feel like they were adding up to a publishable novel, I swiped some weekends: every six weeks I’d spirit away to a writer’s retreat in Ashfield and shut myself in for 3 days at a stretch—I was that hungry for silence and solitude. Did I feel guilty leaving my family? Yes! So I channeled that angst into the novel; I created a fictional affair. I figured that was a much better deal for my husband, anyways...
Speaking of affairs, Cameron also likes to point out that the busiest, most important woman in the world can still find time for someone she's in love with. If something is important enough, we do find a way.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
Breathtaking prose, a gritty sensibility, and a fearless delving into racial issues--any of these words could describe the sublime Susan Straight's novels. A National Book Award finalist, Susan Straight has written six glorious novels and is a professor at the University of California. Take One Candle Light a Room follows Fantine, determined to help the godson of her murdered best friend, even as the past begins to threaten any sort of future. Thank you so much, Susan for answering my questions.
What do you think the answer is to how we find our place in the world, which I think is the question your novel is asking? I found it really interesting that Fantine keeps her own family at arm’s length and yet is invested in the son of a murdered friend—as if that is somehow an easier bond.
I found again and again while writing this book that my main theme was: There are people who stay and people who leave, which is what Fantine knows her mother believes, and I realized that Fantine was kind of my fantasy woman, someone who has made sure she has no actual place to tie her down with those bonds of obligation and responsibility, someone who has only a few items in her refrigerator, someone who can love a city for a week and then just feel vaguely sentimental about it. But I think when she realizes that Victor is actually a lot like her, and he calls her on that, she thinks about how little she actually has, and how much she was given.
What sparked this novel?
This novel was sparked by the oddest images and sights. Two blocks from my house, there's a vacant lot where a house must have burned down years ago, and I saw kids from the city college parking there. I wrote two stories about a kid who's really intelligent and misses taking his SATs because his mother is a crack addict, the most beautiful woman in her community, and then I remembered two real women: one was the most lovely woman I've ever seen, even now, and I have three beautiful girls. But this woman rode the bus with me when I was a freshman at USC, and she was a secretary; she was iridescent, and men followed her around, and she was so sad and ignored them. The other woman was a 17-year-old girl, pregnant, found murdered and left in a shopping cart in a vacant lot I pass every day on my way to work; her mother said to the newspaper that the police wouldn't really investigate because no one would care about a girl like her daughter. So I wanted to know what happened to this kid, and his mother, and his brain.
The novel is also very much about race and being an outsider. There’s light skinned Fantine, dark-skinned Victor and Fantine’s father who wants to shield Fantine from prejudice. Do you personally think, given America’s attitudes towards race, that racial equality will ever be a given? Is it possible to embrace a future without still bearing the scars of the past?
If you look at all the newly-okay use of the n-word and all the racist language floating around right now, language I know we didn't hear back in the 1990s or even in 2005, how can my daughters and I ever think that race will not be the measure by which people still judge each other? Rosette, my youngest, is a sophomore in high school, and for her AP European History class, she was studying a packet last night in which she had to define "mulatto" and "mestizo." We always laugh in our family - if someone is a "mulatto," that means half African and half European. So, as in the novel, if a mulatto marries a mulatresse, and then five generations later they are still marrying "light-skinned" people, how half are they? What percentage of what is what? My kids are Swiss, French-Colorado-Illinois white, African, Cherokee, Irish plantation owner, and mystery people whose race no one ever knew - so are they black, or mixed, or do we have to do that forever?
Your use of language is just breathtaking. Do you feel the language is as important as the story, or can you even separate the two?
For me, everything is language, and character, and setting, and dialogue, and all of it is language - how you're going to make the reader see it, hear it, smell it, with description. I think my job is to make people cry. That's what my daughters tease me about.
I found it really interesting that you said in an interview, that no one calls your novels any genre because they don’t know how to classify them. I personally think this is a great thing but how do you feel about this? Why do you think this is?
That's a great question. Don't you think men write "Social Novels" and women write "Domestic Novels," according to some people, when really some great Social Novels are Mystery (think Pelecanos and Burke and Mosely and Laura Lippman), and some are Historical Novels (think Pat Barker and Toni Morrison!) and some books are just great novels. I like to think I write novels that are uniquely American in the way that Flannery O'Connor and Louise Erdrich and Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow novels are uniquely about particular places and people in America. I like to think that writers like you and me and Jennifer Egan and Marisa Silver and Attica Locke are writing those kind of novels.
I read--and found it fascinating--that you started Highwire Moon, your National Book Award nominated novel, when you were 19.What began that novel, and what did it take to finish it?
I began to write Highwire Moon one night when I missed my foster sister, Sandy, with whom I shared a bedroom for about four years, until I was 13, and after I'd read an article about a linen company where my dad worked, which had an immigration roundup where a bunch of women were deported back to Mexico, and suddenly I wondered about the children they'd left behind, at babysitters or with friends, and how the children would, of course, blame themselves if their mothers didn't return. Children always think people leave them behind because they don't love them. Then, I wrote those 50 pages by hand, and had no idea what the Mexican mother, Serafina, would actually do to try and find the daughter she was separated from, until I was 34. I had three kids by then. I went to Oaxaca to find out.
How does teaching other writers impact your own work?
I love teaching other writers. Next quarter I'm teaching a class I wrote called Working Class Fiction, with novels about people's labor and life. (I met an editor once who said writers had stopped writing novels where people had jobs, and I know I never had! She laughed that my characters were always obsessed with work.) I will teach Helena Maria Viramontes, Stewart O'Nan, Michael Tolkin, Ernest J. Gaines, and Anza Yezierska. It only impacts my own work in that I get to admire and appreciate them, and feel a sense of community with people I never even see or meet - I live in a place where hardly anyone even knows that I write.
What question did I forget to ask?
Those were great questions, some that I've never heard before!