I'm thrilled to announce that SheBooks has just published two of my previously published short stories as an ebook, and I hope you'll want to read. The Wrong Sister is about a younger sister who dates her older sister's ex, with dangerous results. The Last Vacation is about a family-vacation-from-hell, mixed in with yearning, love, guilt, and a lot of sand.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Roxane Gay talks about her amazing novel, An Untamed State, inhabiting characters, and her favorite season of One Tree Hill
I read Roxane Gay's astonishing novel, An Untamed State, as if I were caught in a hallucination. About kidnapping and class, it's so powerful that it leaves an indelible mark. Roxane's an amazing writer. her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Salon, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, and she's the co-editor of Pank, and the essay's editor for The Rumpus. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Roxane.
I always want to know a novel’s origins. Can you talk a bit about what sparked the novel?
This novel rises from a short story I wrote a few years ago, "Things I Know About Fairy Tales." For whatever reason, that story wouldn't let me alone. I kept thinking, there is more that needs to be told and so I began writing the novel.
What I admired about the novel so much was that it wasn’t just a kidnapping story--it really is a story about race and class and what those divisions do to people. Would you talk about this please?
Kidnapping is, in fact, a symptom of a much greater cultural malaise, where there is not enough to go around. This economic disparity is particularly glaring in a country like Haiti where there is such a small middle class. I wanted to explore, through fiction, what it would be like for people from two ends of the wealth spectrum to clash in such a complicated way that is fueled by desperation and rage.
I build my characters by inhabiting them. I literally walk around pretending to be that character until I feel like I know the character's every thought and desire and failing. Once I feel like I know a character well enough, I let my imagination run wild and try to imagine how they would respond to a given situation or circumstance.
People are a mess, you know? We harbor all kinds of prejudices and Lorraine and Mireille are no different. Interracial relationships introduce all kinds of challenges and for me, the biggest challenge has always been the mother and so I wanted to write about that through this novel but I also wanted to show Lorraine as a decent person, no more or less flawed than the rest of us. And she's strong and she loves hard and deep and we get to see that as she and Mireille grow closer.
The original title was Things I Know About Fairy Tales which I was fond of but it was also quite a mouthful. Then I started thinking about wildness but a book named Wild had recently been released so I thought about wildness some more, and this idea of being untamed, and being in untamed places and aha! The title came to me--An Untamed State.
The writing of this novel was also like a fever dream. I wrote the first draft in a summer, and would lose myself in the story for hours and hours a day. Once I found the emotional core of the novel and felt sufficiently inhabited by Mireille's voice, I was relentless with the writing. I was driven. It was one of the most invigorating writing experiences I have had.
What’s obsessing you now and why?What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Right now I'm pretty obsessed with the two novel projects I'm working on which are, as is most of my writing, about damaged women growing beyond their pasts. This is an obsession I don't think I will ever be free of nor do I particularly want to be.
Support Alex Green (he owns the fabulous Back Pages Books) and his 15th Century dream of owning and operating his own letterpress publishing studio
Back Pages bookstore in Waltham, Massachusetts, is one of my favorite stores on the planet. Alex Green, the owner is warm, friendly, smart and on fire with ideas. His mission? to own and operate his own letterpress publishing studio. Come on and donate!
Watch this video and you'll see why and how this is so important.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
James Romm talks about the dark, compelling saga of Nero and Seneca, writing a dark history, and so much more
Why did you choose to write about Rome when your background is in Greek history and Alexander the Great?
Mostly because the story of Seneca and Nero was the darkest, most compelling story I knew from all my research on the ancient world, bar none. I have felt for many years that I wanted to tell it, even though it took me outside of my comfort zone. I really felt that I understood Seneca in a way that few today do -- that I knew all his literary tricks and gambits, in part because I've used similar ones myself.
What makes this so unsettling and dark a book?
It's claustrophobic -- almost all the action takes place indoors, in closed rooms of Nero's palace, with just a few people present -- and extremely grim, in that explores Seneca's obsessions with death, suicide, and apocalypse. The title "Dying Every Day" was chosen for its double meaning: It defines how Seneca conceived of human life, as a journey toward death, but also describes his own condition, trapped at the court of a dangerous, deluded despot. He had to live out his own morbid vision of life as a journey toward death.
What was your favorite character in the book, besides Seneca?
I have a real soft spot for Agrippina, Nero's mother, even though she's something of a terror -- scheming, manipulative, volcanic in her anger. She set out to become Rome's most powerful woman, and for a long time, she succeeded. Nero had her killed for no apparent reason; he was simply so scared of her that he had to eliminate her from his life. Her death is the emotional high point of the book, thanks to the unforgettable account preserved by Tacitus.
So much of this book reads like fiction. How can you assure readers that it's true?
If you read the endnotes, of which I'm very proud, you'll find the ancient evidence for each plot turn is presented for inspection. I'm careful not to go past the evidence or decide points that really can't be decided, such as whether Nero himself set the Fire of Rome. It's more satisfying to me to work within the constraints of historical narrative, yet I like to write with a dramatic tension more typical of a novelist. So hopefully my readers get the best of both worlds!
I first met Elizabeth Nunez because she was the eloquent host of a Women's National Book Association Great Group Reads event where I was one of the authors featured. We got to talking and I became instantly fascinated by her upcoming memoir and asked her if shed agree to be on my blog!
Elizabeth's the award-winning author of eight novels, four of them New York Times Editors’ Choice, including Boundaries (PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award); Anna In-Between (long-listed for an IMPAC Dublin International Award); Bruised Hibiscus (American Book Award) and Prospero's Daughter (NY Times Editors’ Choice and Novel of the Year for Black Issues Book Review). Her awards include 2013 National Council for Research on Women Outstanding Trailblazer Award; 2012 Trinidad and Tobago Lifetime Literary Award; 2011 Barnes and Noble Poets and Writers, Writers for Writers Award. She is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, the City University of New York, where she teaches creative writing, fiction. Not for Everyday Use is her first memoir; it has received an advance starred review from Booklist.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth for being here.
I always ask, what sparked this particular book? Why did you choose to focus on emigration and your parents? Did anything surprise you in writing it? You're the acclaimed author of 8 novels, but this is your first memoir. Was this a scary thing to tackle? How different was it than writing a novel and why?
It’s always about some catastrophic event that gives a sense of urgency to your life, isn’t it? For me, it was the death of my mother. She was ninety, and while I grieved for her passing, I discovered that I was angry too. So this memoir became a way for me to confront that anger. Luckily, I managed to arrive at a place of understanding and compassion.
Yes, I had written eight novels, but I did so under the illusionary veil of fiction that allowed me the pretense that my stories were not about me, about my life, my experiences. By the time I discovered the truths that my fiction revealed, I was safe. No one, I thought, would find me in my stories. My life would remain a secret from the world.
So why did I decide to write memoir rather than fiction? Was it age? Was it time to face the truths of my life head-on? I was scared, of course, but I thought that by writing memoir, I could still control what I revealed. But memoir, I was to find out, just like fiction, leads the writer to discovery, to places the writer had never suspected.
What did I discover? I had always harbored the belief that I could go back home, home being Trinidad, and that when I returned I would feel a sense of belonging to the people and places I knew in the country that had shaped my identity and my values. I discovered that was a fantasy, that I was now an outsider in my homeland, and that the people and places I knew had changed and were in many ways unrecognizable to me.
I discovered, too, that subconsciously I had blamed my mother for making me feel like an outsider in my homeland. She had abandoned me. When I was sixteen I was sent to live with my grandparents, and when I was nineteen I was sent to college in America. I returned home after I graduated, but a year later I went back to the US and have lived in New York ever since. Somehow, without admitting it verbally, I was hurt that my mother had never asked me to return home. Much of the tension between us was a result of resentment on my part, though I was not conscious of its source.
I stumbled on the title of this memoir when I was preparing the eulogy for my mother. I suddenly realized that just like the treasures in my mother’s cabinet which she saved for important days, my mother felt that demonstrations of her love for me and her children were not for everyday use, but we could count on her if we ever needed her. Tracing back events in my life, I saw that that was always true.
My memoir also focuses on my parents’ marriage, the love they had for each other that endured in spite of my father’s infidelity. I am also critical of the Catholic Church that prohibited birth control and so forced my mother to have more children than she wanted. She had fourteen pregnancies, nine live births, and three of her five miscarriages almost killed her.
I made happy discoveries too when I was writing this memoir. I realized more fully than I had ever done before that I did belong to a country, that America is my home, and that in the more than four decades since I have lived here, I have made a new family—my son, my daughter-in-law, their two daughters—and that I have wonderful friends in America who share my values and are a great comfort to me. I have also had great satisfaction and pleasure from my professions as a university professor and a novelist, careers that would have been unlikely for me had I remained in Trinidad. Writing this memoir also gave me a better understanding of how race and skin color discrimination in America, as well as the enduring legacy of colonialism and my orthodox Catholic upbringing, affected decisions I made, both in my personal relationships and in my professional life.
But my most important discovery was finding about my mother’s side of her story. Writing this memoir allowed me to hear my mother’s voice, to listen to her tell of her struggles and the obstacles she had to overcome, and I began to empathize with her and to understand her better and to know that she that she loved me, and indeed all her children, as best as she could.
Let's talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things or just follow your pen? Do you have rituals at all?
I wrote my first four novels in pencil, on long sheets of yellow legal paper. Friends tried to persuade me to go to the computer, but I was convinced there was some magical connection between my pencil and my brain. One day, however, my typist, frustrated by having to transcribe my patched up scribbles, demanded that I learn the keyboard. I took classes and discovered new magic between the tips of my fingers and the keyboard.
I write best in the morning when I am most alert. I try to get in at least four days a week, from about 8am to 1pm, and give myself an achievable goal for the number of words I will write that day, say 500 words. Many times I overshoot that goal and that allows me to fool myself into a feeling of accomplishment. I don’t use an outline. I let the characters in my story push me forward. Sometimes they let me see two or more chapters ahead, and I will scribble down notes so that I do not lose my way. I’m inspired by Maria Callas who said, “When you perform, half of the brain has to be in complete control and the other half of the brain has to be at a complete loss.” The part of my brain that is in complete control when I write contains all I know about the craft and all I have learned from years of reading the masters and writing constantly. But I take the risk of not knowing exactly where I am going and allowing my characters to direct me. It’s scary but exhilarating. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Generally, my house is cleanest when I am writing, because I often find myself needing the reward of physical activity when I feel at a loss, trying to find a way through the twists and turns of the imaginative world I am creating
What's obsessing you now and why?
I find myself always racing against the clock, that is, my mortality. When I was writing my dissertation for my PhD, I kept fearing I could die before I was finished, and I was just 28 years old. This feeling of urgency had two effects: it pushed me to complete my work, but, on the other hand, it did not allow me the comfort of knowing I had time to revise. Now, when I am much, much older, and issues of my mortality should be much more immediate, I find myself having the opposite feeling. I am not so scared that I would leave unfinished work as I am scared that I will leave work that is not well written. So I write more slowly; I have more patience to revise, revise, until I have written what I have seen in my imagination and used words that are music to my ears.
I am working now on a novel inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear. This would be my second novel based on a play by Shakespeare. I had written Prospero’s Daughter which is a contemporary telling of The Tempest. In my novel-in-progress my focus is on Lear’s daughters rather than on Lear. There’s not much more I want to say about it, mainly because I’m not certain how the story is going to play out. By chance, 2016 happens to be 500 years since the birth of Shakespeare, so, perhaps, it will be a perfect time for the publication of the novel. No settled title as yet.
Cari Luna talks about The Revolution of Every Day, outline-less drafts, DJ Larry Love and so much more
I can't remember where or when or how I came to know Cari Luna. Maybe it was through a mutual friend of ours, or maybe it was because I kept seeing her fabulous knitting designs, or maybe it was because I adore her name. No matter. I'm just thrilled that we became friends and honored to host her here for her amazing novel, The Revolution of Every Day. Fierce, original and gorgeously written, it's about a group of squatters in a New York City that no longer exists.
Thank you, thank you, Cari for being here.
You used to live in NYC for many years--so I want to ask, how do you know what you had to know to write this book?
The Revolution of Every Day is set in New York’s Lower East Side in 1994-95, in a community of squatted buildings. I was never a squatter, but I lived in the East Village back then. As I wrote the book, I definitely leaned hard on my memories of the neighborhood, but I also did a lot of research. I relied on newspaper articles from the time, list-serv posts among squatters and activists, pamphlets that had been distributed and posted online at a later date, etc. There are also a few excellent books about the Lower East Side squats. Of course, it’s a novel, so there’s also a good deal of invention involved.
So much of the book is really about a New York that's gone--What happened to NYC, do you think, and how can we stop it from becoming more of the investment Banker/Models/Celebrity paradise it's turned into?
I’ll be interested to see how New York shifts now that Bloomberg is out and De Blasio is in, but honestly, I think the damage has been done. The book is set at the very end of an era in NYC that isn’t coming back. I very deliberately set it at that point—what I believe was a tipping point, when gentrification won out. Before that, it was still possible live relatively inexpensively in NYC. And so you could be an artist and not have to spend all of your time and energy just working to cover your rent. You could be a working-class or middle-class family and get by without an insane amount of struggle. There’s always been struggle, sure, but not to the degree that you see now. Policies that favored big business—and particularly Wall Street—are what happened to New York. It’s been remade for the very rich. This isn’t news to anyone, of course.
What's your writing life like? How do you write?
I’ve got two young kids, so their schedules determine mine. My son is in second grade, so he’s in school five days a week, but my daughter is in preschool just three days a week. Those three days a week are my only writing time during daylight hours. And those school days go by so quickly! Other than that, I write once the family is asleep—usually from about 9:30 or 10pm until 2am. It’s not particularly healthy, and it’s starting to catch up with me, but I’m loathe to let go of that work time at night. It feels like there’s never enough writing time. I’m greedy for it.
I write my first drafts without an outline, and usually without much of a plan. I follow the story and the characters wherever they go, trying to get it down as best I can. I’ve written three novels this way, and counting. The resulting first drafts are somewhat chaotic messes, but it gives me the raw material I need. I do many drafts—ten revisions of my (unpublished) first novel, thirteen drafts of The Revolution of Every Day. (The third novel is only a messy completed first draft at this point, on hold because I’m obsessed with writing a different book right now. I’ll get back to revising the other one soon.) Perhaps I would need fewer drafts if I were to outline, but I can’t imagine I ever will. I’m too in love with those moments when the book surprises you, when it goes somewhere you never would have expected but it feels exactly right. My MFA mentor, Michael Cunningham, told me once that “our books are smarter than we are.” I’ve found that to be true, and so I trust the process.
What's obsessing you now and why?
My novel-in-progress! It’s all I want to think about! It’s all I want to do! I try to be present for the family when I’m with them, but otherwise my head is firmly planted in the new book. It’s about online vs real life identity, and sexual obsession. This means Twitter = research, so you can imagine I’ve been struggling with my productivity a bit.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You might have asked for a story about book tour. I would have told you that my best tour story centers around a guy in Philadelphia named DJ Larry Love, and that it’s a story best told in person, over coffee. My reading in Philadelphia this past fall was definitely my Spinal Tap moment, but DJ Larry Love (and a bag of hot soft pretzels) saved the day.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Deborah Jiang-Stein talks about PRISON BABY, being born in prison, identity, rebirth, and roller-skating
Okay, this is one remarkable woman. Deborah Jiang-Stein was born in prison, a fact kept secret from her for many years. Shaped by fear of her own story, desperate and furious, she blazed through her life, finally coming to terms with who she was--and who she could be. It's an astonishing book and I'm honored to host Deborah here. (And P.S. She's one hell of a roller-skater. Because of her, I now have a roller derby name, Attila the Honey. Need I say more?) Thank you so much, Deborah.
What sparked the writing of this book?
First, thank you Caroline for asking me on your blog. In the beginning, I wrote this material as a novel. A protagonist born in prison, on a dangerous and adventurous journey in search of her true self. The usual of three plots, with some crime and drugs added.
My then-agent found interest from two top tier editors who both engaged with me about how to better develop the manuscript. When I mentioned the story was based on my life, they suggested I write memoir, but I just wasn't interested. I felt cautious and anyway, I’d already backed away from a few screenwriters and producers who approached me around the same time. At the time, none of it felt right so I put the story of my life in a box.
I wasn't ready to make my story public, either, and also didn't even know the full story then. Still don’t. But in the beginning I knew just a few facts but not all. That was ten years ago.
I'd already published short stories in small literary magazines and fiction called me more than memoir so I worked on a manuscript of linked short stories I wanted to finish. (About to finish it now. ) I was also raising two young children then. Fast forward ten years, when I finally committed to memoir, it took all this time for me to pull a more universal meaning out of my story. All these years to know it's not really a prison or adoption story, but a wider tale about the ravages of secrecy, stigma, and shame.
From the beginning to publication, it’s been a long road of persistence: 56 publisher rejections and three hard workings agents. I did everything backwards, and even the road to publication. My gratitude swells for my editor Gayatri Patnaik at Beacon Press for picking up my book. This happened without an agent, a rare chance these days. I hope everyone persists in whatever they want.
So much of this amazing book is about identity: how we form our sense of our selves and how other people help form it, as well. It took incredible courage for you to change. Can you talk a bit about that?
The change happened out of necessity. I'm gutsy in my drive for survival, not always courageous in other areas. I'm driven by curiosity. Those together guided me around the corner towards transformation. I was on a path where I would've either killed someone else or myself. I was physically unhealthy, mentally imbalanced, and all around unwell. Dis-ease in every sense. I knew I needed help, knew I needed to invent myself anew. Something also sparked inside—I wondered if I had a greater purpose in life than the destruction I was causing as I moved from state to state.
In some ways I felt like a civilian non-CIA version of Jason Bourne in the Bourne Trilogy movies, only a female spin off and not as violent. His wildness and desperation, unable to outrun himself, and on the hunt for his memory and his true identity, this was my life as I grappled with the losses and trauma, stigma and mystery of my prison birth.
Nothing is stagnant in my life, not even my identity. Adoption is all about invention and reinvention, and in fact I think if we're lucky, any major loss drives us to invent ourselves. I am not just the woman born in prison. I am many things. In many ways I believe I'm still defining myself. Maybe we all are until our very end.
You felt a terrible stigma about being a prison baby, yet you longed for your birth mother. How were you able to deal with these two opposing needs?
Still, I haven't. I yearn for what I lost, the mother I lost, and yet I wouldn't be who I am today if we'd stayed together. I've resolved that sometimes we're presented with impossible choices and unbearable circumstances.
Women in prison, and men, are looked upon as second-class. So the stigma remains, I just don’t take it on.
Can you talk about why it took you two decades to tell your parents that you knew about your prison birth? What were you afraid might happen if you told? Or was it simply that you had shut down, that you didn’t want to talk about it.
Before I could tell anyone else and talk about my prison birth, especially speak to my parents about it, I needed to not feel so afraid of my own story. It scared me, who I was and where I came from. Not prison so much as the differentness, and even now that can still bug me sometimes but there's nothing I can do to change it. Now, though, I've stopped feeling scared of myself.
How therapeutic or traumatizing was the writing? What surprised you as you wrote, and how did you change during the writing?
What a wonderful question. The therapeutic influence happened for me before I could write the story, not during. I had to speak it first, just say the fact, "I was born in prison" and not feel like I would pass out from terror every time I said it. Because when I admitted it, I also had to say how much trauma and loss it caused, and how much pain I caused others as I battled through to accept myself, my family, and the truth of my story. I had to heal before I could write the story.
The process of writing was traumatic because it forced me to re-live some of the trauma, as well as recalling the illegal activities of my former life. Writing this book immersed me into real-time pain, not just the recollection of it.
I know from FB, what an extraordinary mother you are to your daughter, who is a magnificent young woman now in college. Given your background, did you have fears about being a parent. And did you consciously decide how you were going to raise her?
I've raised my children by instinct. Most of all I’ve wanted them aware of the basic values of self-honesty, kindness, and respect, and to live with eagerness, curiosity, and an open heart. I figure if day to day they live these, most everything else falls into place.
I don't envy my children with a mother from my background. Can you imagine?! A mother born in prison and a mother who almost ended up in prison—I've made sure they wouldn't wander into the darkness the way I did.
You also work with women in prison. Can you talk about what that’s like?
My work with women in prison is my passion, my duty, one of my loves. Ten years ago I was conducting writing and creativity workshops in a few women’s prisons, and after a while a warden suggested I speak to the total population.
Prison gyms fill with hundreds of folding chairs and I’m there with nothing but a hand-held mic and my story and a carrying a universe of hope I want to hand each of them face to face. I wasn’t born as a speaker but for sure I was born for this work in prisons.
While I haven’t been incarcerated, other than my infant year inside, I use story as a tool for social change. Each of the women I meet can do the same, use their story to mentor others. Most are in for nonviolent drug related charges, just like my prison mother.
What's obsessing you now? One thing: I'm obsessed about reaching all the prisons that have invited me for a One Read book club for Prison Baby. After the inmates read, they’ve asked me to present a workshop and speaking engagement.
Actually I am obsessed 28 times. I’ll reach 30,000 incarcerated women in total! My vision is to find ways to fund this work so I can reach each of these prisons within the next 18 months.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What about roller-skating? You didn't ask me about roller-skating! You and I have discussed skating before, which I love. The freedom, the flying on wheels even though I like to skate slow, I love it all.
I've been invited to guest skate in a few derby bouts and hope this happens. Prison Baby on wheels.
All this to say that my story and book carry a weight of seriousness and one way I've survived and metabolized the pain is to live with some humor, play, and have fun. I’m not frivolous here. For some reason, as adults, true play stops. But I see it as a necessity, and the best nudge I know for creativity and transformation.
Plenty of research shows how the brain’s functions better with play, and that play also fosters learning and teaches perseverance and replenishes emotional wounds—key tools for overcoming hardship. This is how I’ve survived. I believe in balance, on skates and in life.