Thursday, July 30, 2009

Read this Book: A Fortunate Age

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff is today's The Group, only instead of Vassar, Rakoff gives us six Oberlin graduates struggling to find themselves and their fortunes as artists and academics in Manhattan. What's not to love?

Many years ago, you were a book reviewer. How did years of being a book critic inform your own novel? Did it affect what you wanted to accomplish with your novel?

It’s funny, because I began writing book reviews—and author profiles and suchlike—as a way to support myself while I wrote fiction and poetry, but for a few years it actually prevented me from doing so, partly because I was so busy. When you’re always on deadline, it’s hard to find space in your head to develop characters and stories (much less the intricate rhythms of a poem). But mostly reviewing made me excessively aware of the pitfalls of fiction, as well as the clich├ęs of much contemporary fiction. As a critic, you’re reading analytically—trying to suss out the writer’s larger project and influences—but you’re also examining the nitty gritty of how each book works (or doesn’t work). At first, I think, this scared me away from fiction, as I realized how easy it is to fail. Or to simply to write a mediocre, first-person coming-of-age tale (I reviewed many of those). But eventually it helped me figure out exactly what I wanted to do with these characters I’d been writing about, loosely, for years. I was able to figure out the sort of tone I wanted for my omniscient narrator (slightly grand and Forster-ish, but intimate) and the sort of scope I wanted for the novel itself (large). In other words, I was able to think a bit more consciously about my work than I had been.

But my work as a critic also shaped the novel in that it led to a frustration with contemporary fiction, in general. As a young, female reviewer, I was often assigned novels and collections by my peers—women in their twenties and early thirties—and as the years went by I began to think about the similarities between these works, some of them wonderful, some awful, but most of them somehow small in scope. With some big exceptions, like Zadie Smith’s brilliant White Teeth or Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend or Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me, or, more recently, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, the novels I was reading by women lacked a certain breadth and ambition (even if what they achieved, in miniature, was wonderful). I kept waiting for a novel like, say, The Corrections to cross my desk—with a woman’s name below the title—but it didn’t. So, to an extent, I wrote the novel I wanted to read.

A FORTUNATE AGE is loosely based on Mary McCarthy’s The Group, and while there are plot similarities, there are also some pretty big differences, especially in terms of tone – while McCarthy’s book is a biting satire, your treatment of your characters is more gentle. Why are you kinder to your characters?

I think the big difference between McCarthy’s (great) novel and my own is that The Group is ultimately a comedy—at the end, the status quo is affirmed—whereas mine is, really, a tragedy. Many characters have achieved some semblance of security or happiness, but much has been lost along the way: their ambitions, their integrity, their hopes. In the larger sense, I suppose I’m not actually kinder to my characters, for things don’t work out quite as well for them. Or, perhaps, they’re slightly more self-aware than McCarthy’s characters, which means they’re doomed to unhappiness.

How would your novel be different if it was set in New York City today, rather than the internet boom New York City of the mid 90s? Do you think your characters, who are academics and artists, would be more or less determined to pursue their artistic and intellectual goals in this very different economy and world?

In some ways, I think the novel is completely rooted in the boom economy of the late 1990s and that twenty-six-year-olds moving to New York today are very different, that they’ve been spoiled by the lushness and ease of the past decade. But in a way, everything has come full circle and once you get past superficialitiesFacebook, skinny jeans, etc.—there are perhaps more similarities than differences between Generation X and Y (or whatever you want to call them). We both grew up under the shadow of deeply conservative administrations. We both graduated from college into a recession. And, really, the twenty-five-year-olds in my midst—and there are quite a few—seem just as intellectually ambitious as were my friends at that age.

But also many people of older generations have read the novel and said, “This reminds me of when I moved to the city. I went through similar things.” And they moved here in the 1970s or 1980s. I think much of what the characters go through is somewhat universal.

That said, my novel definitely is very much about a specific chapter in New York’s history. In the mid-1990s, the city transformed itself—both in reality and in the world’s cultural imagination—from a crime-riddled, graffiti-scarred urban wasteland into a gentrified, tourist-friendly playland. My characters are very much part of that transformation.

How autobiographical is your novel? Are the characters based on real people? Is one of them based on you?

The novel is completely fictional, though certain incidents in it certainly bear a resemblance to things that have happened to me. I’ve certainly seen a few relationships similar to Lil and Tuck’s, and I’ve seen numerous actors go through struggles similar to Emily’s, and so on. There are little bits of Oberlin lore in it, which are pretty much real, like the mention of someone baking a bread coffin and eating her way out of it. That was my closest friend’s final project for her performance art class. Or the guy who made plaster casts of his penis and planted them in the garden outside the Conservatory.

Your book is set in Brooklyn in the mid 90s. How has the borough changed since your characters lived there?

Brooklyn, more than any other part of the city, was affected by the boom economy. When the novel begins, the neighborhoods in which my characters live—Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill—are slightly depressed, marginally dangerous, working class enclaves, with little pockets of artists and writers who had been priced out of the East Village, Brooklyn Heights, etc. The high streets in both areas—Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg; Smith and Court Streets in Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill—were largely home to drug-front bodegas and liquor stores encased in bullet-proof glass. Today, those streets—and many others in the areas—are lined with bistros and boutiques, over which tower dozens of new condo developments. Both areas are now primarily home to affluent young families. Most of my friends still live in both those neighborhoods, thanks to rent stabilization, and feel that things have gone too far. They now feel out of place among the hedge fund managers or what have you. It’s an old story, of course. The same thing happened to the West Village and Soho in the 1980s. But if my characters were to move to the city today, they’d likely be moving to Bushwick or Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights.

One of the best parts of your book is the relationships between your characters and their parents. Did your own relationship with your parents inspire these sections of the book?

Yes. My parents are of the same generation as the Peregrines—they grew up during the Depression and World War II—and my relationship with them was, from what I could see, rather different than those of my friends who were just one generation removed from their parents. I was always very aware that my parents possessed a different set of values than the other parents I knew. And because I came along so late in their lives, they treated me more like a mascot than a kid. After I was born, they didn’t really adjust their lifestyle much; they simply took me with them. We traveled frequently. We had late dinners at Hungarian restaurants that specialized in calves’ brains. I was expected to just entertain myself when I got bored and I usually did so with a book.

But it led to my feeling very close to them. As a kid and a teenager, I spent perhaps too much time thinking about my parents—the lives they lived before I came long; the selves they kept hidden from me (and why they chose to do so)—and about how they’ve shaped me. And how they were shaped by the eras in which they came of age. My mother, right now, is sick with worry about the recession. She lived through the Depression. She knows how bad it can get.

What was your first job when you moved to New York?

My first real job was at a grand, storied literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, where I was the assistant to the president, a grand, storied lady named Phyllis Westberg, who was wonderful to me – if a bit scary, at times – and gave me more responsibilities than, perhaps, she should have, which really allowed me to learn about the publishing industry and literary culture, in general. I'd just dropped out of a Ph.D. program and still thought, rather pompously, of myself as a scholar, which made Ober a great place to work, as they were primarily known, at that time, for the estates they represented: Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Anna Kavan, and tons of others. But perhaps the most interesting and strange part of my job was answering J. D. Salinger's fan mail. Salinger, a longtime client of the agency, received tons of mail, as you can imagine, much of it very personal and strange, and much of it from teenagers who had formed a sort of hysterical identification with Holden Caulfield. I was supposed to send a form letter to each and every Salinger fan, but over my time at Ober I began personalizing letters and -- it's bizarre to think about it now! -- entered into a correspondence with a few of them. I actually still have some of my favorite letters from that time (which are supposed to be filed away somewhere in the Ober archives...).

Read the Book: The World Beneath

Years ago, I reviewed Aaron Gwyn's dark, quirky collection of short stories set around a fundamentalist community, Dog on the Cross, for my column in the Boston Globe and raved about how inventive it was, how the author got at the heart of how people grapple with afflictions of the soul and the body. It was one of my favorite books of the year and it was a finalist for the 2005 New York Public Library Young Lions Award. So of course I was interested to see that Aaron had a new novel out, The World Beneath. Sparer in language, it’s even more powerful and haunting-I was stunned. The book intersects two stories--one about a missing, haunted fifteen-year-old boy, and the other about an Iraq war veteran who becomes obsessed with a mysterious, bottomless crevice in his backyard. So I had to talk with Aaron.

Often, writing a second novel after a successful first one, is fraught with all kinds of anxieties. What was it like for you?

It was a grueling process. There were periods of great productivity where I’d get a lot of material in a relatively short time, and then months of creeping along at a snail’s pace, or worse, sitting around doubting the project altogether. When my agent told me he sold it to W.W. Norton, I felt like someone had lifted a piano off my back.

The whole idea of the bottomless crevice, which figures symbolically and literally in the plot knocked me out, and made me obsessively aware of the ground beneath my feet. It’s the stuff of horror films, yet it’s presented so matter of factly, that it becomes all the more unsettling. Where did that idea of this endless crevice come from?

That’s a great question. I wish I could answer it. The truth is, I don’t know. It’s just something that came to me. The first thing in the whole project that came to me, actually. There’s no precedent for it that I know (in terms of a news story or an actual geologic occurrence). I found out in researching the book that such things can happen (collapsed oil wells, etc.), but the idea was just there one day. It’s probably the one thing in the book I can’t account for.

Your prose is diamond-cut: hard-edged, spare, but each word seems burning from within. Who have your writing influences been?

Thankfully, I can answer this one. Beckett’s fiction had been very important for me. Particularly his “trilogy”: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Cormac McCarthy has affected all writers of my generation and Faulkner, all writers with a Southern bent. I would also have to say that playwright David Mamet is probably more of an influence than I’d even like to admit, and I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount about dialogue from studying his plays. I could go on to list a host of others, but I’ll only add that Denis Johnson is a writer who I greatly admire and it’s nice to see him finally getting the attention he deserves.

The book moves effortlessly from the past to the present, in and out of characters' heads, and uses two powerful parallel stories, one about a damaged Iraq war veteran, and the other about a troubled teenager boy. It all feels surprising and yet inevitable. So of course, I have to ask you about the process. What was it like writing this novel? Are you an outliner or did the book generate as you went along?

The section with the veteran and the hole was the first I wrote and was, in the beginning, going to be the entirety of the narrative. About 75 pages in I realized I was basically trying to write the novel from the perspective of the “villain” (a word I use very loosely…perhaps “antagonist” is better). That’s when the other story, that of Sheriff Martin entered. As I began to work with his arc, the two plotlines began to weave together in a way that felt really organic to me. I almost feel like I can’t take credit for that. I understand that to some reviewers the structure seems elaborate and complex, but that happened to be the way the narrative forced itself on me. I couldn’t really conceive of another way of structuring the book. I find it of interest how many reviewers comment on the structure. For some, it’s the best thing the book has to offer. For other, it’s a liability (i.e. one review called the book “uneven” because of the narrative sequencing). It seems that’s an element of the novel people really love or hate.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my next novel and my next story collection. The stories have been finding good homes. Two have been in McSweeney’s, Esquire took another this spring (it’s entitled “The Gray” and those interested can access it free online at, and another (the strongest, I think, so far) is coming out in the October issue of The Gettysburg Review. I’ve been going back and forth between the novel and the collection as ideas come to me.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Read this Book: Love is a Four-Letter Word

What's more fun to read about than bad breakup stories? Love is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts, edited by Michael Taeckens is a knockout collection of tales of the busted heart from Linda Barry, Junot Diaz and 21 others. I loved this collection with a passion. What really got me about the book was that here are all these people writing about these horrible relationships, and yet it is all done in such an engaging way that you realize these are the people you would want to have a relationship with, no matter what they did—people who are honest about their lives, funny, open and a little outrageous, too. It actually made me feel really hopeful, right down to the cartoon on the website where the poor blobby cartoon character is nursing quite a broken heart.

What I adored so much was the willingness of the writers to be the bad guys in their essays. A lot of what goes on in these essays is horrifyingly funny and revealing, but each writer seemed cheerfully happy to reveal it all, right down to the scars and messy stains. What was the process of choosing writers for this anthology like? Did anyone stop and say, this is too personal, too horrible, I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want anyone to know?

The process was easy at first—I turned to several of my good friends, all of whom said yes and who wrote excellent pieces before I even had a publishing deal. Because of them, I was able to submit a strong proposal to my agent. From there I started going after writers I admire, and I also asked the writers already on board for recommendations. It was a lengthy, somewhat exhausting process, but I’m ecstatic that I’ve found so many talented writers—including many who I think will be big stars in the future.

There were a few writers who had started the process who had to slam on the brakes midway, although I think it was more for professional reasons (e.g., teaching jobs) than anything else. I had assumed ahead of time that this might happen with some people—it is rather scary revisiting these difficult times and revealing intimate aspects. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and strong enough to poke fun at yourself, or strong enough to know that your past behavior doesn’t represent who you are today.

In your hilarious essay, you mention “love turns you into something else.” And that something else is often confusing, unpretty and crazy. Given all that, do you still believe love is possible for long periods of time? If romance is possible, but it is also doomed, why should we go ahead and enter into the fray anyway?

Yes, absolutely. I am still an unapologetic romantic, but perhaps one who is a lot warier these days. I suppose I think of love as a field with some landmines in it—just avoid the landmines and you’ll be fine. Easy, right? I’ve seen enough friends and family members who are in long-term, fulfilling relationships to know that true love is, indeed, possible.

Why is heartbreak after the fact so much fun to read about and really so much more telling about the nature of love than a story about a lovely relationship that lasted 50 years?

I think because we already know how a lovely, long-term relationship works. That’s not to say that a love story can’t be interesting or written about in a compelling way, I just think there’s a certain uniformity to love stories. Whereas with breakups, everyone has a different story to tell—so many things can go wrong for so many various reasons. And often, the results (at least in hindsight) are hilarious. That was really the impetus for the book. Why is it so cathartic to talk about past horrible relationships, and why is it often the case that talking about them incites laughter? At the time, the experience is dreadful; in hindsight, you realize how foolish you were and are relieved to have moved on.

You’re the highly esteemed, adored publicity director of Algonquin (and no, I am not kissing up—I hear this over and over again from the people in publishing I know or work with) but with this book, you are under a different publisher with a different publicity department. What’s it like for you working with a publicity director who is not you? Is being on the writer’s side of the table giving you any new perspectives on the whole process—and which side of the table has the best seats?

Thank you for the compliment! I love working with the publicity department at Plume. They’re smart, engaged, and attentive. I feel lucky and grateful.

Being on the writer’s side has definitely made me empathize more with the hard work and anxiety that writers deal with on a daily basis. The anxiety of waiting for that Publishers Weekly review to arrive, for instance. I now appreciate that on a deeper level. As for which has the best seats—I suppose it depends on what day it is! I’m a natural promoter, so I love working from the publicity side, especially when I have the good fortune of representing books I love.

Do you think of this collection as a prescription—i.e. when we know what love isn’t, then maybe we can begin to figure out what it is?

That’s an interesting angle, I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I do think that might be a bonus payoff of the collection, but I really thought of it more as an opportunity for people to revel in this mostly universal experience. I don’t find the collection depressing or dour at all—it’s really fun, funny, and uplifting in many ways. I think, if anything, I just wanted people to have a good laugh, read some excellent stories, and maybe even be inspired to write their own story

What’s up next for a writing project? And what’s your writing process like?

I used to write every day for many, many years—back in my late teens and twenties. I wrote mostly in the evenings, and I was a chronic reviser—always striving for perfection. In my thirties I moved away from writing, but this project has brought me back to it. My job, which I love, keeps me pretty busy, and I have a lot of hobbies on top of that, so I find I don’t have as much time to write. But I’m thinking about ways to reincorporate it into my daily schedule.

What question didn’t I ask that I should be ashamed of myself for not asking?

Hmmm, perhaps “Are you in a relationship now”? I’m happily single—happier than I’ve ever been before. But let me know if you know of anyone funny, smart, and talented that you can set me up with!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Thunder! Lightening! Copyedits!

I just received another round of copy edits from Algonquin. I've never worked with such a thorough--and really funny copy editor. She quipped about a coffee stain from where her cat knocked over her cup, she made sly asides over changes she suggested that had me laughing, and she suggested that my acknowledgement pages were getting to be book length and maybe I could consider paring them down. She has the kind of mind I don't--drawn to logic, honing in on every wrong turn I've made and pointing me to the right direction.

And boy, am I grateful.

Going through copy edits is nerve-wracking, because you really want everything to be perfect, and there is always the fear that you really screwed up and got something terribly wrong in the plot and you won't know how to fix it. I have to change the name of a town because if I use a real town, then I have to make everything in it right, and I'd rather fudge it and have fun with it. I had to do more research on everything from obstetrics to funeral parlors because the more real those facts are, the better.

So I'll be done by Wednesday, I think. Liberating! Freeing! I can work on my new novel! I can finish my script!

I can wait for page proofs.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hoboken follies

I am obsessed with what is going on with our slime mold mayor. I warned people not to vote for him. He's slick, part of the machine, and devious, and Dawn Zimmer actually had more votes, but not enough to quite win, so there was a run-off. It's highly suspected that Cammerano stole the election, but what's worse is how he took bribes and was so corrupt as to be...well Sopranos material. Right now, everyone wants him to resign immediately. There's talk of rallies and protests, and I can't help but remember all the other times I made myself heard.

When Max was five, we took him to a Stop Bush rally, where he proudly wore a button. I've rallied for gay rights, women's rights to choose, to stop wars, and now I'm gearing up to stop our slime bucket mayor and get him out.

Without him, Hoboken could go back to being a great little city: urban, walkable, 7 minutes by Path into the heart of the Village, brownstones, shops, restaurants, writers, artists...

And me fighting for it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Character traits

All this week, Jeff and I have been facing the dreaded "what the hell's for dinner" dilemma. the house is filled with exotic cookbooks, I genuinely love to cook, and Jeff makes a mean Mexican dinner, but lately, I have just not felt like making anything other than reservations. So what gives?

I blame my characters.

I'm currently writing a new novel and one of the characters is a would be chef. He's obsessed with making diner food more delicious. He studies types of basil like fine wine, he 's happiest with pots and pans. Food for him is a kind of desperate nurturing. By the time I spend all day with him in the kitchen, well...I'm ready to hang it up for a while.

This isn't new.

My characters also usually love to drive. They speed recklessly, they drive across country without stopping, they fall in love on drives, or betray each other in a car. They wash their cars and tuck photos of the ones they are obsessively in love with in the glove compartment. And me? Car Phobic. Have not driven since I was 16, and even though I renew my license every year, I can't imagine ever feeling as comfortable as my characters in a car. (Lucky for me, I live in NYC area, so I don't have to.) If I ever had to drive, I would drive ten miles an hour, hunched over the wheel, my knuckles white, certain I was going to crash into someone and kill them, or injure myself in some horrific way. My characters would scoff at me and laugh and beep their horns or shout at me from their windows.

I used to say that writing allowed you to live other lives. (I even titled a novel that--Living Other Lives.) Now, I know it does--the lives you may not want to live at the moment.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Read this book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Let's begin with what I said about Lev Grossman's first novel Codex, in my A Reading Life column in The Boston Globe: "Fabulously entertaining. By turns fascinating, compellling and deliciously disturbing. It's an intelligent thriller that is truly just that: intelligently thrilling. His second novel, The Magicians, is even better--the kind of book you really want all your friends to read, but you don't want to let your copy out of your hands.

Many thanks to Lev for answering my questions.

I raved about your first novel Codex in the Boston Globe, and for me, part of the pleasure of the book was that you turned a genre into something eerie and literate and wonderfully new. I think you’ve done it again with The Magicians, which takes all the usual tropes about magic and turns them on their head. So, where did this novel come from? What sparked it?

Well -- to extend the sparking metaphor, probably past where you intended -- the tinder had been dry for some time. I’d written a few sketchy sequences of it back in 1996 -- back when the major precedent for a novel about the education of a wizard was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, not Harry Potter. But I began it in earnest in 2004, spurred in part by reading an early draft of my brother Austin’s novel, Soon I will Be Invincible, and also by reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an amazingly accomplished work of literary fantasy. I’ve been an obsessive fantasy fan all my life. I knew I wanted to do something with that, to write fantasy, but I just couldn’t find a way into it. I couldn’t find the wardrobe. Those two books showed it to me.

Also, I was getting divorced. And all kinds of surprising things shake loose during a divorce.

I’d say this novel was the anti-Harry Potter, and all the more interesting for it. Magic here is dark, terrifying, deliciously disturbing and often causes more problems than it solves. The characters here are magicians because they want to “break the world that has tried to break them.” While kids may be entranced by all the presto chango that goes on in the Potter books, the magic you’re looking at in this book has more to do with how do we make love happen (and not disappear), how do we get to feel normal and not disappointed, and how do we make sense of all the worlds we live in—or want to live in? Alice says that “you have to find something to really care about to avoid running off the rails” because “real life is so much harder than magic.” So, can you talk about your personal worldview in the light of the novel?

I’m a massive Harry Potter fan. Another reason I started this book is that we were in the two-year trough between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I wanted something to read -- something that was like HP, but also not. So I began noodling with something in a similar vein, which became The Magicians.

But Rowling’s books, for all their brilliance, are YA. And reading them as an A(dult), you feel aware that some things are more complex for grownups than they are for teenagers. So one of the ways in which I modified Rowling’s story, to more closely fit my personal worldview, was to subtract Voldermort from the world. In Harry's world, in most cases -- setting Snape aside -- you know who’s evil, and who’s good, and what magic is for. Magic is for fighting the evil people. In the world of The Magicians, there is no obvious paramount evil -- no Big Bad, as Joss Whedon would say. The whole world is shades of grey, and you spend a lot of time flailing around in a state of confusion, making very bad educated guesses as to what to do next. So the adventure becomes less about using magic to defeat the villain, and more about just figuring out what the hell magic is for. Which is a very different kind of adventure.

The Magicians has this wonderful dark heart, yet it is also, in parts, hilarious (I am partial to the bear who liked peach schnapps and I also loved the Dickensonian use of names—like Quentin Coldwater) What was it like writing this book? How did you keep all the many myriad plates spinning in the air so effortlessly? Did you map it all out? Did anything surprise you in the writing?

That bear is one of my favorite characters. He's actually partly a steal from Douglas Adams. One of the characters in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy learns to communicate with birds, but it turns out that all they talk about is wind shear and seeds and berries and such, and it’s very dull. I feel sure that most bears are bores at heart too.

Composing The Magicians took about 4 years, and if it ever looks effortless, that effect was created very very effortfully. Before I wrote it I carefully plotted out an outline, which I followed meticulously, point for point, and the resulting draft was an absolute shambles. I spent about three years surgically rewiring it, and adding more elements at the same time, to fix the damage my neat but terrible outline had done.

There were definitely bits in the writing that surprised me. But they’re the bits that are supposed to surprise YOU. So I’m not going to say what they are. Though generally speaking I never knew what Josh was going to say before he said it.

You have a great blog, Nerdworld and Coldwater is definitely a nerd—I know authors hate this questions, but I’m going to ask anyway: How much of him is you?Y

It’s bits and pieces. I had to have a little fun with him, so there are differences. For example, Quentin is tall; I am small-to-medium-sized. Quentin has all his hair; I don't. Quentin is a genius; I used to think I was a genius when I was in junior high. Quentin has a dangerous iron-skinned demon; I used to have a cat named Mittens who scratched people. ETC.

On the other hand it’s pretty safe to assume that all the bad bits of Quentin are me.

You’re Time Magazine’s book critic. How different does it feel being at the authors’ table right now, waiting for the critics to weigh in, rather than being the critic making the authors tremble?

It feels very different. As a critic I championed my right to present my random subjective opinion about books as if it had some lasting, universal, objective validity. Now I am at the mercy of the random subjective viewpoints of others, and I hate it. It’s cause for reflection to say the least.

So what are you working on next?

The short answer would be a sequel. I guess I’m still working on what the long answer would be.

What question should I be absolutely appalled that I didn’t ask?

Appalled? Never. But let me try to think of something. Somebody once asked me who I would cast as the main characters in The Magicians if they made it as a movie. Answer; Quentin = Withnail-era Richard E. Grant. Alice = Ghost World-era Thora Birch.

Oh, and I always get asked about my fantasy influences, but I like to talk about my non-fantasy ones too, which are just as important. Among them are Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections -- I often try (and fail) to imitate his style -- and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History -- you might think of Brakebills as a hybrid of Hogwarts and Tartt’s Hampden College. And above all Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the 20th century’s great novel of innocence and experience, hope and disillusionment. I borrowed heavily from Waugh. So heavily that maybe it’s just as well you didn’t ask that question.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Read this Book: A Better View of Paradise

A movie made me interested in this novel, A Better View of Paradise. Randy Sue Coburn wrote the script for Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle, which is one of my favorite films. Her novel, about fathers, daughters, secrets, family and the Islands hooked me with her first sentence and I am delighted Randy offered to let me pepper her with questions.

The Hawaiian islands hold sway in this remarkable novel and truly cast a spell. Did you live out there to research? What was it like?

Hawaiian life can be so alive to the elements that many children are taught to ask permission of the appropriate god or goddess before they step into a stream or pick a flower. I’d visited the island of Kaua`i a handful of times, but when I returned knowing I’d like to set a book there, it was almost like the entire trip was a continuous request for permission to do just that. And I’m just nuts enough to think that I received answers all over the place! First I found an old plantation-style house to rent just like the one where I imagined my protagonist Stevie lived when she was a child, and discovered a locally published memoir about growing up in Kaua`i written by Waimea Williams. Two major sources of inspiration right there, since I couldn’t get off the dime until Stevie’s childhood felt real to me. On Sunday mornings I would listen to a local veterinarian’s call- in show on Kaua`i’s NPR affiliate station, and when my husband and I found a lost puppy one day, I knew that both a radio vet and that little dog belonged in the book. As did the Hawaiian language church, where the congregation’s ethereal harmonies make you feel as though you’ve just had your ticket to heaven punched. Maybe I’m more superstitious than most writers (I doubt it!), but even putting Hawai`i aside, such synchronicities seem like little blessings that help make another book possible.

You've written about the creative life before, in your screenplay for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, a film I loved. What drew you to Dorothy Parker and to the story?

I’m so glad the film spoke to you! Dorothy Parker was deeply embedded in my maternal lineage. My flapper grandmother, who wrote poetry, adored her. And my mother, who’s a painter, always had a copy of “The Portable Dorothy Parker” on the shelf of her bedside table. When I was thirteen and imagining myself heartbroken, I would copy Parker poems into my journal. Then when I went to work at a big city newspaper (I’m from small town South Carolina), Parker was a role model for me and all my twenty-something female colleagues (including Maureen Dowd) who wanted to write with Parker’s kind of precision and wit. Maybe the Parker deal was sealed by the fact that I became pals with Nat Benchley, the grandson of Parker’s great friend and fellow Round Tabler, the humorist Robert Benchley? Sometimes I wonder. What’s for sure is that when the director Alan Rudolph suggested that I write for him a script based on someone like Dorothy Parker, I said why not the genuine article?

Which do you prefer, writing scripts or novels, and why?

I love writing screenplays, though compared to novels, they’re a bit like writing haiku. Plus with movies, the director always has the last laugh—it’s her or his medium. The advantage of novel writing, as John Sayles says, is that nobody’s going to tell you, “Hey, we just ran out of money, get rid of all your adjectives.” But with movies, that kind of thing happens all the time. I remember being so sad when the dinner party seduction I wrote for Dottie in “Mrs. Parker” turned into a teatime quickie behind bushes because we could only afford to rent our faux Long Island mansion for exteriors. What this all boils down to, I guess, is a preference for writing novels. But brother, if another good project came my way, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Even Guild minimum buys someone like me a whole heap of time to work on a novel.

I always ask about process because I find it so fascinating. How do you work? Do you outline? Fly by the seat of your pants? What rituals do you have when you work?

I’m of the school that says if you want to make God laugh, show him your outline. I do find outlines useful, though, in giving the illusion that you know where you’re heading. I’m just way too left-brained to find the kind of juice in outlining that some of my more right-brained writer pals do. What gets my engines revving more is stream of consciousness, present-tense writing that lets ideas pop out unedited, and noting what scenes might be suggested by those ideas. So I try to keep track of those things in a journal. And when all else fails, I knit. If I can turn a heel on a sock, which always seems like a small miracle, then maybe I can write a scene. Or so I tell myself.

What rituals do you have when you work?

First of all, I work in bed. Which I’ve been told is not a great thing to announce to the world at large, but you know what I mean. And I do this on an old, brain damaged computer with absolutely no internet capability so I won’t be tempted to check e-mail or go online. But probably the most important ritual in my writing life is that most every Wednesday, I meet for lunch with my pal Jack Remick. We always go to the same place, and always split a burger, French fries, and salad, and after we eat, we read our pages for the week—which we do aloud, alternating paragraphs (very handy when you get to a dialogue passage), not stopping to discuss until we’re finished. Jack’s a poet as well as a novelist, so his ear for language is terrific, and he’s great at helping me get my guy characters’ dialogue sounding more guy-ish. I seriously doubt that I would have finished my last two books if it weren’t for weekly lunches with Jack. I don’t think it’s just the old journalist in me responding to a deadline, either. When I put those pages on the table, even if they suck, working on them with Jack gives the book a more solid reality outside my head. I also—and this sounds really retarded—read finished chapters to my mother on the phone. She’s a creative person, too, and always gets what I’m going for. I’m lucky she likes being read to because I often catch stuff doing this that I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ah, the dreaded question: What are you working on now and why?

I’ve just finished an outline (ha!) and the first few chapters of a novel about a woman who writes historical fiction, and is alarmed when instead of writing herself into the past, as she’s always done, she seems to be writing herself into the future—her future. More than that, I’m too superstitious to say!

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

Hmmm, How about:

The father in your book is an avid Chicago Cubs fan; why did you decide to make baseball such a bond between Stevie and her dad?

Because I knew all about that bond from my own father—a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, like Stevie’s. The 2003 season, when the Cubs were just one game away from the World Series before blowing it, was my dad’s last chance to see his team go the distance. I gave to Stevie all my own hopes that Cubs wins would extend my dad’s life. Which is not quite so insane as it sounds, when Wrigley Field is your father’s only church of the resurrection. I haven’t been to Wrigley Field since my dad died, but I plan to sneak in a handful of his ashes to scatter under the bleachers next time I go.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More bad jobs I remember

Job From Hell One.
When I was in high school I worked for an answering service. The whole board terrified me and I never knew what to plug in where or who I was talking to, even though there were little name tags above each connection, and the owner was a loud, brassy woman who wore laced-up striped pants and teased her hair and kept yelling at me, "What are you, stupid?" The worst was when we had to page someone because the microphone you were supposed to use always shocked you. At one point, my boss picked it up and yelled, "Paging Mr. --got shocked-- Jesus Goddamned Christ --" And how did I get fired? There were two doctors named Dr. Foot. One was a podiatrist and the other was an obstetrician. A woman called frantic, having her baby and guess which doctor I called up?

Job From Hell Two.
I was hired to type for a small company run by a woman who was 500 pounds. Really. She could barely walk but she was very vain and she had lots of boyfriends who came to see her, all of them swooning over this special bath tub she had built for her house. I walked her poodles for her and gave them the Valium she insisted they needed. I got her lunch every day --three cheeseburgers, a piece of cake and a diet Coke. The first time I had to write a letter for someone on special letterhead, I made so many mistakes, that when I had to give it to the client, I lied and said, Oh, it's a new girl. I'm sure we'll fire her. The guy shook his head. "I would like to fire her myself," he said. I then went into my boss, hung my head and admitted my screw up. She said, "Well, you can paint glitter on the stars for the Kirby Vacuum Cleaner conventions. Just don't wear those little halter tops anymore and don't flirt with the salesmen because their wives won't like it."

So that was my new career. Painting glitter on paper stars and talking to the salesmen who taught me their spiel. "Madame, what's the dirtiest room in your home? That's right, the bedroom!" Then you stride, with confidence, into the bedroom and tug down the blankets while the housewife looks at you askance. "See that? Looks clean but it isn't!" Then you vacuum and empty the bag and show them the dirt. Everybody likes that.

Job From Hell Three.
A dirty puzzle factory. They made Bridgett in The Buff puzzles-Bridgett being nude and about 5o pounds. Very scary machines. On my first day, there was screaming. A girl got her hair caught in the glue press and her head was bleeding. While I was shaking, the foreman strode out and began yelling at all the women. "You have GOT to put your hair back in a ponytail!" he ordered. "Or cut it all off!" The girl came out with her hair tied back in a bandana and a sheepish look on her face. I looked at the woman next to me. She was missing a finger. I quit within the next hour.

Job From Hell Four.
Pittsburgh. Job Corps. Me in a sea of 15 to 17 year old boys, many of them married with kids, half on parole, some sent here rather than jail, to learn a trade, to live together, to stay out of trouble. On special searches, you could hear the clanking of the knives and razor blades they hid a mile away. But they were polite around me, even protective and chivalrous. They spoke softly, even as they told me how they were planning to smuggle dangerous goods from state to state so they could buy their 16 year old wives the horse the wives wanted. One handed me a poem he had written (I was supposed to get them writing a newspaper). I thought it was so good, I wanted to enter it into a contest, but he refused. I could not understand why until one day I was at the Giant Eagle supermarket and I heard the same lines piped in on a Frank Sinatra song. Word for word. I wasn't fired, but I left when they decided to make the program co-ed. All the boys I worked with--many of parole--warned me to quit because they said the girls were really tough. They would throw acid in my face or beat me up. "Please," one boy said, taking my arms. "Don't make me make you leave." But the powers that be were mad at me anyway because I allowed the boys to have a gripe page in the newspaper--the only writing they were enthusiastic about. What I learned? That you can give yourself a tattoo using a sewing needle, thread and some ink from a fountain pen, but it is very hard not to get it infected.

Job I loved
I taught at a private high school, one on one. I had to teach grammar, so I made it Bizarro grammar. Please tell those/them ants not to wear so much lipstick. I like them/those vampires over there wearing the pink shoes.

I am so so happy I am a writer. Remember your awful jobs? I'd love to hear about them.

Writing in pieces and job history

Usually, when I write my novels, I write from the beginning to the end, but lately, I have begun writing in pieces. When I was 1/4 through Breathe, I felt so stuck I was hyperventilating just looking at the pages, but I kept hearing the voice of this new character in my head, so I wrote his scenes, which come at the very end of the novel. The coda to Breathe came early, too, and I wrote that one in a fever state. At the time, I had no idea what it was, or where these sections might fit in. But somewhere, around the 4th draft, I began to realize what those pieces meant, and the novel suddenly began to stretch its legs and ..well, breathe.

With this new novel (I still do not have the title I want), I'm also moving about. I thought this process might make me crazy, but it is ridiculously liberating. I like having all these mysterious puzzle pieces floating up to the surface. Sooner or later, I'm going to know just how they will all fit together. The best thing about this process is because I have done it this way before, I don't have all the angst about whether or not it will work. I'm just going to trust.

I was thinking how much I adore what I do with a passion, and feeling guilty about not working harder yesterday when a friend reminded me of how little work gets done at 9 to 5 jobs. Maybe it is different now, because of the economy, but I do remember how at my video company job, I would spend the first hour discussing my personal life with the art director sharing the office, then I'd do a little writing about movies, then we would take off three hours to go SEE a movie (paid for by the company), then we would have lunch, then talk more about our personal life, and then do..oh, about an hour of work. (Bruce is back and better than ever in the high octane thriller, Die Hard 14)

When I worked as a fashion writer for Macy's (this is very funny, considering I wear mostly black and I live in jeans and sneakers), most of my day was taken up with meetings. The buyers would come in with $5,000 dresses or blouses that sometimes I could talk them into letting me try on, and they would always raise their brows at my attire and my complicated earrings, but mostly we talked. While I wrote about expensive dresses, I often cut out photos of rings from the catalogs and wrapped them around my finger for my own amusement. I made up copy for friends' clothing to make them laugh (Sheared Genius! Corduroy goes to great lengths to make a new statement.) I hung out and in the down time, I worked on my novel and no one complained.

I was full-time freelance at Macy's and they loved me. I was full-time staff at the video company and they made my life a living hell. I was told never to tell anyone I was a novelist because they would know I was thinking about plot rather than selling videos. I was told my desk was too messy. I was told not to use titles like "stallion stories" because no one would know a stallion was a horse. I was told to "walk the halls" and ask everyone in marketing how their weekend was because I was perceived as not being a team player.

Well, that company is no longer. And I'm on my own team now.