Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jessie Sholl talks about the incredible DIRTY SECRET

Trust me, you have never read a book like this. I'm so honored to have Jessie Sholl here, and I am mortified that I muffed my day to post this (I had a family emergency.) But here it is, and thank you so, so much Jessie.

Thank you so much, Caroline, for letting me do a guest blog post. As a longtime reader, I’m very happy to be here! I’ve decided to do a Q&A with some of the questions I’m often asked about my memoir, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding—on sale December 28, 2010.

What made you want to write this book?

Dirty Secret began—in my head, anyway—about seven years ago, when I happened to tell my husband about how I used to stare out the windows of my elementary school when I was ten; I’d gaze back and forth between my mother’s house and my dad and my stepmom’s, and have very different visceral reactions when I looked at each house. It was just a short anecdote, but as soon as I was done he said, “You know you need to write about this, right?” which of course I laughed off. I couldn’t imagine ever telling anyone besides him about my mother being a compulsive hoarder.

Then, a few years later, I joined the Children of Hoarders support group; the shame and embarrassment we were all carrying around began to seem ridiculous. And unnecessary. I hoped that by “coming clean,” about my mother’s hoarding, the secret would lose its power. And that scene about looking back and forth between the two houses ended up being the first one I wrote for the book.

In recent years, the concept of hoarding has gone mainstream, thanks mostly to television shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive. What do you think about the presence of compulsive hoarding in national media and pop culture?

Overall, I think the television shows about hoarding are a good thing. Occasionally they can feel exploitive, but I like the fact that people are beginning to understand that compulsive hoarding is a mental illness and not laziness or selfishness, which is what some people used to think. The stereotype of the crazy cat lady is beginning to seem as outdated as the “hobo with the knapsack,” and that’s great.

At one point in the book, you mention that other people reacted positively when you told them about your mother’s disorder. Did this surprise you?

This did surprise me. The most rewarding part of writing the book so far has been those moments when someone tells me about their mother, brother, cousin being a hoarder; every time I hear it I feel less freakish and it seems that the person does as well. I also really appreciate the fact that no one has ever judged me harshly. Maybe that expression is true: all our secrets are the same. I only wish I’d known it earlier, because I spent way too long being ashamed of something that didn’t warrant it.

For more information about Dirty Secret, please visit You can watch a trailer for the book here:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bad book tour tales!

I have had nothing but pure joy promoting Pictures of You, thanks to my fabulous publisher, Algonquin, and to all the wonderful booksellers and media people I've met along the way so far. I know how very lucky I am, and I am so very grateful. And, I cannot wait to get out to promote it even more. But in previous books, I was not so lucky. Witness this "bad book tour tale" for an anthology I was in, on the fabulous Paula Whyman's wonderful blog.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pictures of You is a Costco Bookclub Pick!

I am thrilled, honored and dizzily exhilarated to announce that I am the January Book Pick at Costco Bookclub! They have an interview, a contest, and an amazing review by the book buyer Pennie Clark Ianniciello, which calls the book one that has "richly developed characters fluidly moving through a well-paced plot. An ideal read."

My huge and humble thanks to Pennie and to Costco.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why the right publisher makes all the difference

Anyone who knows me knows that I worship my agent AND my new publisher Algonquin Books. The wonderful Susan Henderson (her novel, Up from the Blue, is fabulous) interviewed me about publishers, books, and my new novel, Pictures of You, which is out now, for The Nervous Breakdown.

Hope you'll read! And thank you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Author Eileen Granfors asks: Where do novels take us?

Right now, I am deep into rewriting another new novel, and it's due to Algonquin January 2012. Of course this means I am obsessed with the whole writing process even more than usual. Where we think a novel is going to take us is not always where we end up, which I find fascinating. It's the reveals that make writing alive and that make the whole process so amazing.

Eileen Granfors started a novel in my UCLA class and has been busy handselling it, sometimes as much as a hundred copies a day, particular in the Hispanic markets--amazing for a self-published novel, no? I asked her if she'd consider writing a little something about her process for me. So thank you, Eileen!

Some Rivers End on the Day of the Dead came to me from the opposite corner of where I thought I was going when I started. I was planning a book about mean girls, angry at their stern teacher. They would connive to make the teacher’s life miserable.

As I was writing, I found Marisol could not be that that voice at all. She loves books and admires words because her father had been a journalist. He taught her about the power of language. And so Marisol became this young woman, caught between two cultures and two languages, with a particular interest in idioms and proverbs. She needs to find a way back to her family’s roots. And when she is separated from her mother and uncle, she wrestles with her desire to belong to other families, who live a more American way of life.

The plot required something to force Marisol back to Tijuana, Mexico, more than just wanting to see her friends and grandmother there. The traditions of the Hispanic Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) provided that urgency for her.

My writing day goes like this: At 8 a.m., I walk my dogs and think about scenes for the book I am working on or a poem or a short story. I write from about 8:30-11:30 each morning. If I am not writing by 9 a.m., it's a day I won't be writing.

In the afternoon, I reread and edit whatever I wrote in the morning and make some notes to think about in the morning. I finally have learned to quit editing myself into a fury on the first draft!

Currently, I am working on the sequel, So You, Solimar, set in 2016, which is a whole new challenge of thinking into the future. The prequel, The Pinata-Maker’s Daughter, will be easier, and it’s tempting to see if that’s the book I should be writing now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How do you title a novel? Damned if I know.

I talk about the impossibility of getting the right title for novels (including the road I traveled titling Picture of You) on the incredible Christina Baker Kline's blog.

And, author and fellow UCLA instructor Victoria Zackheim and I interview each other on the UCLA blog.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Satellite Sister Lian Dolan talks about her knockout debut novel, Helen of Pasadena

Writer, novelist, producer, talk show host and Dick Van Dyke aficionado Lian Dolan's radio show, The Satellite Sisters won 11 Gracie Allen Awards for Excellence in Women's Media, including Talk Show of the Year. She's also the force behind the uber-successful The Chaos Chronicles, which began as a column in Working Mother and morphed into radio segments on Satellite Sisters. One of the funniest people on the planet, she now has a knockout debut, Helen of Pasadena, which mixes up the classics and class structure in a deliciously witty romp. I was thrilled Lian agreed to let me pepper with questions. Thanks, Lian!

So what was it like to write your first novel? What surprised you about all the whole process?

I think I was totally ready to write my first novel because the process didn’t scare me at all. I started the book at the end of 2008. Shortly after Satellite Sisters, the radio show I had hosted for ten years, ended abruptly, I knew I needed something creative to do or I was going to get really depressed. So, I signed up for an online writing course at and plunged in. I had had a novel bouncing around in my head for years, but never had the time or creative energy. With my sudden unemployment, I had both. Finding the focus and the discipline wasn’t hard; I had been working on air 6 days a week prior to writing so I knew how to buckle down and get stuff done. But I was surprised how exhausting and all-consuming the process was. Some days, I’d write five pages and have to lie down! And I’m not napper, so that was unusual. And, I lost interest in most human interaction because my mind was churning with the characters and details of the book. I liked that sense of disengagement from the real world.

I love the culture clash in the novel, the way the hippish Helen butts heads with Pasadena society. What’s been the feedback from Pasadenans?

The book has been the talk of the town! Because it’s just that kind of town! I was even invited to a dinner party with the Mayor, something that had never happened in the prior 18 years of my residency, so it’s been really fun to have my moment. 99% of local readers think the book is lots of fun and spot-on; the other 1% mistakenly think that I’ve stolen their lives and put them on the page. It’s all fiction, people.

I love it that your degree in the classics found its way into your novel. I also loved a quote from you where you said that you envied people who could follow the tiniest historical detail with passion. But don’t you think that’s what you’ve also done in your novel? (With the added benefit that you can make things up?)

I do admire academics, particularly historians and archaeologists because those areas of study were always my favorites in school. I wish I could claim that I’ve put in the years in the library that the average Ph.D has. But I did make stuff up! About 50% of the history is real and the other half I invented to help the plot move along. To me, that is the perfect combination of research and imagination. All of the fun of history with none of the burden of proof like an actual academic. Look for more of that in future books.

As someone who lives in the NYC area, I loved what you wrote about the pressure to get into the right school, and I applauded Aiden not going to the “right school.” Do you think there’s a way for parents to continue fight against all the pressure, or are the stakes simply too great?

It used to be that parents wanted a better life for their kids than the one they had; now our generation of parents now wants a better resume for our kids that we had! More honors, better grades, fancier college. It’s nuts. I think there’s always a way for parents to hold back the tide of mounting pressure on our kids, but it takes incredible individual discipline on Mom’s or Dad’s part not to get caught up in high-stakes parenting. With the tremendous focus on the ‘measurables’ of childhood—like SAT scores or GPAs of batting averages- you really have to work hard as a parent to focus on the immeasurables that make each child unique. Like kindness, or helpfulness or neat handwriting. If only schools gave grades for “shares lunch with others,” then maybe we’d see parents hiring tutors for that instead of advanced math in the 5th grade. After 16 years as a parent, I can say that I have been guilty of every uptight parenting move invented, from test prep classes to invoking “college admissions” to middle school kids. But as my two sons have developed into great boys who come with all kinds of imperfections, I’ve learned to relax. My personal trick is to bow out of any conversations that engage in comparison of kids, schools, teams, colleges, Ivy League Acceptance rates. I just won’t participate in the endless comparative conversations that pit child against child. It’s made a huge difference in my approach to raising my own children.

You’re one of the five Satellite Sisters, and I don’t know what I find more amazing—that you have four sisters or that you created this wonderful show. Did you share early pages with your sisters? And, do your sisters now want to write novels?

I love my sisters, but the novel was all mine. Plus, I have a policy about getting notes from family members: Don’t. I would rather show pages to any stranger on the street than an actual family member. Sisters, brothers, husband—not interested in your thoughts on my work, thanks. But, after I had a polished draft, I let my sisters read it. And accepted compliments! I did not encourage “open and honest’ feedback. There’s family unity to think about. Do you really want to have Thanksgiving with the sisters that trashed your writing? No thanks.

I don’t think any of my other sisters are interested in fiction. And, that’s the way I like it. As the youngest of 8 kids (I have 3 brothers in addition to my 4 sisters!), it’s nice to finally have something that is my very own!

Your plate seems more than full—you write for, you’re a producer, a blog host, a consultant and a parent and wife. Is it a problem finding time to write, or do you find that the busier you are, the more time there somehow is?

Being on the radio 6 days a week, 3 hours a day was tremendous training for cranking out creative material on a daily basis. Plus, I love doing the creative parts of my job, like the writing or audio editing or brainstorming for column ideas. It’s the business end of my work that I could do without. But that’s life, right? I will say that now that my kids are older, my days are a lot less chaotic. That really helps free up time. And, I have really cut back on school volunteering! I recommend a moratorium on volunteer overload if you are a mother who wants finish a creative project.

What’s obsessing you these days?

Sitcoms. I am working on a TV pilot for a network with a writing partner. It’s my first pilot script, so now I am spending hours and hours watching old sitcoms on Hulu and YouTube, breaking down the structure and absorbing the dialogue. I have always been a sitcom fan, but now I am watching with a whole new set of eyes and ears. Particularly, the pilot episodes. The Dick Van Dyke Show rules.

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

Do you think that including a Disgraced Rose Queen and a Death by Rose Parade Float in Helen of Pasadena has weakened your chances of being named Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade? Without a doubt. The minute I wrote the phrase “killed by a Rose Parade float,” I knew the good people of the Tournament of Roses would take me off their list. It hurts, but I understand.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jon Michaud talks about When Tito Loved Clara

I love books that set me down in a world that's so supersonically alive, I swear I could map it in my sleep. I carried Jon Michaud's blazing When Tito Loved Cara with me all over New York City, because I couldn't bear to set it down. About culture, family and the impact of the past on the present, it's a stunner from page one on. Besides being a fantastic writer, Jon's also the head librarian at The New Yorker and a regular contributor to, (and also another Algonquin writer), and I was thrilled to be able to talk to him about his book.

What I loved so much about your book was that it wasn’t just a love story between people, but a love story about culture, family and community—which sometimes is a more star-crossed lover than a person. Could you care to comment on this?

Sometimes I think my whole life has been one long cross-cultural love story. My father was diplomat and we lived in a number of turbulent foreign places when I was a child: Iran, India, and Northern Ireland. I think that the recurring experience of not being a native-born member of the cultures in which I grew up made me especially aware of the conflicts that immigrants and exiles face within themselves and within their families and communities. Those insider/outsider conflicts can be seen in almost every neighborhood in New York City (witness the controversy over the Park51 Islamic community center)—and in plenty of neighborhoods around the country.

Many wonderful books, from Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” to Jhumpa Lahiri's “The Interpreter of Maladies,” have chronicled those conflicts, too. In my case, I had the good fortune to wind up living in northern Manhattan in the late 1990s and to marry into a vibrant Dominican-American family. The stories my wife and in-laws told me and the stories I heard around the neighborhood resonated with my own childhood experiences of being constantly out of place and fed into the novel that became “When Tito Loved Clara.”

Clara has assimilated into a new life, but when Tito comes back, things disrupt, making everyone question choices made or unmade. Do you think we can ever escape our past or our culture—and should we?

It’s always a trade-off, isn’t it? You have to give up something in order to gain something. For some people, success means completely reinventing yourself by shucking off the culture in which you were raised; others seek to strike a balance between old and new, assimilating enough to function in the new world while still honoring their origins. The novel deliberately explores the gamut of options, from someone like Clara’s father, who has hardly assimilated at all—he won’t allow his children to watch English-language television—to Clara herself, who sees it as her mission to have the colonial in the suburbs, a white-collar job, and nice china on her table. There’s no single right answer for everyone, as Clara comes to realize at the end of the book.

At the same time, I also wanted to look at the question from the other side and ask how Americans are assimilating to immigrant cultures. Like it or not, each new wave of immigrants changes the country in ways that are both subtle and not. That's why I felt it was important to include the chapters written from Thomas's perspective.

The portraits here, from Clara to Tito to Deysei to Raul, were so indelible and so crackling with life. How do you go about shaping character and what surprised you as you were writing?

I'm an improvisational writer. I don't work from an outline. I never know what's going to happen when I sit down at my desk. Writing a story or a novel is, for me, a slow and stumbling process of discovering who my characters are. This process of writing aspires to mimic the surprises and revelations that a reader experiences.

Clara and Thomas began as an alternate-reality imagining of my wife and myself. They provided me with a way of saying, “What if such and such was different…?” or “What if this or that happened to us…?” The problem was that my wife and I live a blessedly mundane life, a life nobody would want to read about, so I felt compelled to alter those alter-egos in order to make them more interesting. But still, there was no real narrative to the novel until Tito came along. He is the engine who drives the plot. Tito, who is a complete fabrication, arrived almost fully formed—a rarity for one of my characters. He ended up being a kind of litmus test for everyone else in the book. Many of the other characters didn’t come into focus for me until they'd encountered Tito and reacted to him.

I also loved all the library details of Thomas’s life, especially the term, “knowledge manager,” which means I now get to ask you about your job as head librarian at the New Yorker. What’s that like?

The early editors at The New Yorker recognized fairly presciently that they would need a library and archive and they hired two skilled librarians, Ebba Jonnson and Helen Stark, who put into place many of the practices my colleague Erin Overbey and I still use today (though, certainly, a number of those practices have been updated to keep pace with the times.) It's a privilege to work in the library that Jonnson and Stark established and to serve an institution that values its history as much as The New Yorker does.

Working there has also been the perfect dovetailing of my professional and vocational interests. It is hard for me to imagine a better way of learning how to write (and edit) than reading The New Yorker each week as it is prepared for publication—that is, really reading it, with a view to indexing and abstracting the articles and stories. It may sound counterintuitive, but I'd say that I've learned at least as much from the longform journalism in the magazine as I have from the fiction it publishes.

I was also really fascinated by how the details Thomas finds in the library reveal to him the inner workings of a man’s mind—ie. that one particular client wants control. So you can tell a person by their covers (i.e. books?)

I've spent almost all of my adult life working in libraries and bookstores, so I am endlessly curious about what people are reading. At parties I will invariably wander away from the conversation in order to scope out the host's bookshelves. On trains and at the beach, I'm less than subtle about checking out the covers of other people's books. My main complaint about e-readers is a selfish one—that they prevent this kind of casual snooping.

Having said that, I'm not sure that the books on someone's shelves will tell you everything about them. A lot of people carefully curate the titles on display in their homes. How do you know they don't have another set of completely different books down in the basement or up in their bedrooms? How do you know they've even read the books they're showing you? On the other hand, if you had unlimited access to all the ephemera that surrounded someone’s reading (marginalia, diaries, etc., as Thomas does in the novel) then you might really be able to learn something. Or perhaps you'd learn just enough to fire your imagination.

So much of your novel is about yearning for a better or maybe the better way of saying this is--a different life. Thomas years for a glittering NYC life, Clara for a baby, Tito for the Clara of his youth. But these struggles for the life they want vs. the life they have take a toll. Do you ever think it is possible for the real and dream life to merge?

Well, I suppose there’s a reason it’s called the American Dream and not the American Reality. I think it's human nature always to be yearning for something you don't have or something you feel that has been denied you. Isn't that what drives people to leave their homes and move to a new place? (Robert Olen Butler has argued that yearning is the key to fiction.)

Contentedness is not far removed from complacency. I'm always interested in the way that desire and longing manifest themselves in people’s lives. If you're not careful, or if you’re unable to recover from a few setbacks, you can end up like Tito, whose life is overwhelmed with unconsummated yearning. By the end of the book he can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

I am working on a book about Northern Ireland set in the early nineteen-eighties. It began as a memoir, but I found that sticking to the facts was a major inconvenience (I don't know how reporters do it), so it has lately morphed into a novel-in-progress. When not working on that book, which requires a fair amount of research, I've been plugging away at some short stories, which are mostly set in the same milieu as “When Tito Loved Clara,” and require no research at all. Being able to go back and forth between those two projects is beneficial to both, I'm finding.

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

There were a number of books that served as guiding lights for me as I worked on “When Tito Loved Clara” and I would welcome any opportunity to acknowledge my debt to them: Edith Wharton's “The Age of Innocence,” Zadie Smith's “On Beauty,” Jay McInerney's “The Good Life,” George Pelecanos's “Drama City,” Edward P. Jones’s “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” Junot Diaz's “Drown,” Tom Perrotta's “Little Children,” and Richard Ford's Bascombe trilogy.

Carolyn Turgeon talks about Mermaids

“A gothic love triangle with two equally matched heroines. This isn’t kid’s stuff.”—Kirkus Reviews. Now, how could you ask for a better review than that? Mermaid is indeed nothing like what you would expect, and either is author Carolyn Turgeon. I'm thrilled she agreed to talk to me about her twisty new tale.

What do you think our fascination with mermaids is really about?

Well, mermaids are very very strange. They’re unbelievably beautiful, yet grotesque and monstrous. They’re incredibly sexual with their long hair, bared breasts, and hourglass shapes, not to mention those gorgeous, magical voices that can lure sailors to their deaths, yet they’re FISH from the waist down and have no genitals… which makes them seductive and unattainable in an unusually literal manner. They hang out on rocks looking pretty and staring into mirrors and they also swim in the deepest ocean, in these weird dark parts of the world no human has ever entered. So they’re linked with mystery and death and birth and everything we don’t know but long for and fear. They’re accessible monsters and totally inaccessible ladies, at the same time. They’re death and sex and the ultimate feminine. And they’re everywhere! Once you start looking, it’s sort of astounding how ubiquitous they are, in film and art and pop culture generally, and all over the world, and for hundreds of years. I think it’s pretty clear that even a super whitewashed mermaid like Ariel taps into some kind of dark unconscious longing in us.

You've written other books which twist on popular tales. What generated this? Did you grow up on these stories? Have the meanings of stories like Cinderella changed for you throughout the years?

I definitely grew up on these stories, though more through Disney movies and Little Golden Books than the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen. But even the more sanitized fairytales retain some of the darkness of the originals, which can get unbelievably weird and twisted, and I always liked that combination of beauty and magic with those darker elements. I’m sure that over the years I’ve become more critical of the Disney films, which were just pure delight for me when I was a kid. You know, the idea that the abused, damaged Cinderella could be whisked away by a prince and magically healed, or that this little mermaid could give up her voice and tail—her entire world, in fact—for a hot stranger, and that that could possibly end happily. So of course those things don’t happen in my books, but I’ve been even more interested in exploring the female relationships in these stories, like between Cinderella and her fairy godmother and between the little mermaid and her human counterpart, the princess who ends up, in the original story, marrying the prince.

In this novel, you really combine the magic qualities with the real ones. Was it hard to meld the two?

It wasn’t hard, actually. I knew that if I was going to write about mermaids and an underwater kingdom and a sea witch and all that, I would have to make them as real as possible—to transport the reader into a world as vivid and multi-dimensional as possible—and that I would also have to make the real, human world as gritty as possible, for contrast. I really love that contrast. I think the more grounded you are in a real world and setting, the more magical it is for the reader to suddenly enter a totally fantastic one. Both Godmother and Mermaid start out in real worlds and then move into fantastic ones, and alternate back and forth, so for both books it was crucial to have that contrast be as vivid as possible.

Plus I think that the fantastic is always better as a surprise. In the first chapter of Godmother, we follow an old woman in New York through her day, as she works in a West Village bookstore, as she walks home through Chelsea and to the Garment District and up the stairs to her old, worn apartment… and then as she draws a bath, relaxes into it, and spreads these beautiful white-feathered wings. That’s the kind of magic I like, that sneaks up on you.

I love that you say the novel "will change your life." Tell us how, please?

Well, I might possibly enjoy the use of slight exaggeration and hyperbole on occasion, but I do think that books change lives, even if in subtle, sneaky ways. Like when you take a narrative that you know, from childhood, that’s part of you, and go in and root around in it and then offer it up from an entirely new point of view, illuminating parts that were hidden and/or revealing new possibilities. I think that changes something. And you know, when a butterfly flaps its wings in one place….

Plus: I suspect my book will change lives out of its sheer awesomeness. People will reach for it at the same time and fall madly in love. They will buy my book and then win the lottery that night. They will see shooting stars and rainbows, get raises and promotions, take fabulous journeys, have breakthroughs in therapy, wake up 10 pounds thinner. They may not make the connection directly between my book and their newfound joys, but that’s how chaos theory works and I can accept that.

What's obsessing you now?

Well, a few things are obsessing me, but mainly, right now, it’s mermaids. Not because of the book, really, but because of this idea I had and may regret having to start a mermaid blog. You see, I was staying in Berlin this past fall and doing some travelling, and I visited Denmark to pay homage to Mr. Hans Christian Andersen and took all kinds of video and photos and learned all kinds of weird things about him. Then I went to Warsaw to see Leonard Cohen and discovered, totally by accident, that the symbol of Warsaw is the mermaid and has been since the middle ages, and so I took more photos and videos and learned all this weird stuff. I have a friend in Berlin who performs as a singing mermaid, so I filmed her and interviewed her.

It occurred to me that I should DO something with all this stuff and eventually I decided to start a mermaid blog,, and THEN I started asking people if I could interview them about mermaids, all kinds of people, people who’ve done anything at all relating to mermaids, and suddenly I’m seeing how many people, and people of all stripes, have done something related to mermaids, and I was surprised at how many people said yes and actually wanted to talk about mermaids—like I almost fell over when my one true love Tim Gunn said yes—and I’m finding out all kinds of weird things about mermaids myself. Suddenly I have tons and tons of material and keep finding more.

I found a professor who teaches a course on mermaids at Wellesley and visited him last week. I’ve been talking to tons of former Weeki Wachee mermaids, including two who performed for Elvis in 1960. I’m talking to the spokesperson of a town in Israel that made world news last year when mermaid sightings were reported and the mayor offered $1 million to whomever could photograph a mermaid. And on and on and on. For a few weeks I just became madly obsessed. Now I’m trying to keep it in check a bit so I can get some other work done, too!!

I’m starting the blog January 1 and posting something awesome every day for a year, so I suspect I will be obsessed for a while. And I’m quite sure that at the end of the year, I will never want to talk about mermaids again.

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

Well. You really should have asked me about my lovely children’s book, tentatively titled The Next Full Moon, coming out next summer. I know it hasn’t been officially announced yet since we are signing contracts next week, but still. How rude. It’s about a 12-year-old girl who, amidst the embarrassment of suddenly growing feathers, discovers that her mama was a swan maiden. And it will change your life

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dawn Tripp Talks about writing, self-doubt and faith

As readers of this blog know, I often have long, lengthy conversations about writing with the incredible writer Dawn Tripp. (Her new novel, Game of Secrets, coming from Random House, is one of the most exquisitely written novels I have read. There is the lovely cover posted here.)

Recently she wrote this amazing piece for Psychology Today, about faith, self-doubt and the way writers work, that I wanted to include here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

So you want to be a novelist

David Kazzie's hilarious video, "So You Want to Write a Novel" has been all over Facebook and Twitter. In the video, a novice writer profoundly irritates a professional writer by his hilariously naive and egotistic views on what it really means to be a writer ("How many editors do you think Random House will assign me?"). I was so in love with this video that I tracked David down so I could pepper him with questions. Check out David's other videos, too. And David, just for the record, I'm afraid of clowns, too.

Where did you get the idea to do these inspired videos? And in particular, the "so you want to write a novel" one? Are these all statements you've heard? (I know I've encountered quite a few.)

Let me start by saying I'm very, very appreciative of everyone who's watched and shared the "So You Want to Write a Novel" video. I can't thank you enough - it's very exciting for an unknown writer like me to get this kind of exposure.

Here's a brief (sort of) history. After dabbling in writing for most of my life (short stories, college newspaper, etc.), I took my first real stab at a novel in 2002. My first manuscript was a total disaster - as I've since learned, if your villain is a corrupt U.S. Senator, you've probably written a crappy book. I kept at it, and my third manuscript was one I truly loved and was proud of. It got a bunch of partial and full requests, but alas, nothing happened. Getting so close and coming up short was a bit disheartening. I decided to take a break from fiction, and in June, I started writing a weekly humor blog. Although I really enjoyed putting out a new column every week, I quickly learned that it's hard, very hard, to establish an audience in this day and age. I got a couple hundred hits a week, mostly friends and family, but after a few months, it seemed like I was bleeding readership and not getting any new readers. I started to think about cutting back or even shutting down the blog entirely to get back to working on fiction.

Now, being a lawyer by day, I had been wanting to do a satire piece about practicing law, but I could never think of a way to do it that didn't sound cliched. Toward the end of the summer, I saw a very funny video using the Xtranormal animation website called "HTC Evo vs. iPhone4" that had gone viral (and it truly is hysterical), and I thought the format would work well for a discussion between a jaded lawyer and idealistic law student (I've been both). Basically, "So You Want to Go to Law School" was my hail-Mary pass to drum up an audience -- I was thinking that if I was really lucky, it would get a few thousand hits, which compared to what I'd been getting, would seem like a bazillion hits. For whatever reason (I wasn't the first person to have made a law school video), mine took off in the last 2 weeks of October, and it's approaching 1 million hits on YouTube. My video spawned some other "So You Want To (insert profession/grad program here)" videos that other people did, and I did a few more about law school myself.
In my fourth video about law school (which I posted the Sunday before Thanksgiving), I introduced a character (the boyfriend of the law student main character) who's an aspiring novelist. He states that his work is experimental, and that he has no storyline ("plots are for the unwashed masses") and no main character (in fact, no characters at all). A couple days later, I thought, "holy crap, I should make one of these about being a writer." I searched YouTube and saw that no one else had done one. The day before Thanksgiving, I was off, I had a house empty of kids, and so I sat down and wrote the script for "So You Want to Write a Novel."

The attitude of the would-be novelist is hilariously spot on. Why do you think people persist --particularly in this age of information online--in thinking that being a novelist is fun, easy and that they are entitled to it?

I read a discussion about this very issue on an industry blog recently. I'm paraphrasing here, but the essence of the argument, which I agree with, was this: Most people realize that they lack the the size, speed and strength to be a professional athlete. Most people realize that becoming a doctor or electrician or lawyer requires years of education and training. But self-gauging whether you're a good writer is a far more slippery thing, because writing is something that virtually everyone can do. Being a writer doesn't require a college degree -- it doesn't really require anything more than something to write with. You hear stories about J.K. Rowling scratching out the early draft of the first Harry Potter in a coffee shop or John Grisham banging out one thriller after another, and you hear about the advances and the book tours, and working in your sweatpants in your beach cottage in Maui, and it’s easy to develop this picture in your mind that not only is this something you can do, you can make a boatload of cash doing it!

That being said, with the amount of information available about the craft and business of writing on the Internet now, I can't believe anyone still thinks that becoming a novelist is fun or easy. Many days, I wish I didn't have the compulsion to do it myself. I even tried giving it up several years ago, thinking I'd be happier without it -- I could just live a normal non-writer life without the stress of writing down story ideas, coming up with character names (frequent thought in my head when I'm writing: "that's a stupid name for a character. It even sounds fake."), etc. I lasted about a year, and then I came crawling back to the keyboard.

I also loved the voices of the characters--which sound almost computer generated, which somehow adds to the hilarity. Was this a deliberate choice? Ditto this question for the bears, especially the one with the big button overall. Somehow hearing and seeing a bear saying matter of factly, "I have a gun in the car. I'm going to get it now," makes it even funnier.

So there's a little voice in my head that tells me every day how crappy a writer I am.
That voice says I owe 90 percent of the videos' popularity to the computer-generated voices and maybe 10 percent to my writing talent. Maybe less.

There are a handful of voices to choose from in the Xtranormal moviemaking template (and given that I am not a filmmaker by any means, I like the simplicity of it, and I am the biggest Xtranormal fan there is), so I chose the ones that were the easiest to understand. I had used the human characters for the Law School videos, and I did switch over to the animals to distinguish them from my Law School characters. And yes, there is just something awesome about adorable little animals threatening bodily harm in a deadpan voice.

Has any would-be-novelist without a clue recognized himself or herself in the video? (I'm afraid to hear the answer to this one.)
A few brave commenters on Twitter, Facebook, etc. have hinted they may have said or thought similar things when they first started out. I confess -- I know that when I finished my first manuscript (a thriller) in 2002, I remember thinking something to the effect of "yeah, this is awesome. I'm gonna be rich now." Pretty sure I started querying it about ten minutes after I finished the first draft. And now, eight years later, I think to myself, "Really? An evil U.S. Senator? Really?"

What's up next for you?
Honestly, I'm not really sure. It's been awesome for me to get this kind of exposure, but I also realize I can't ride the animated video train forever.

Certainly, my ultimate dream is to become a full-time novelist (because the Maui beach cottage is a powerful image indeed). That being said, I think that finding an agent is an important step I still need to take. I truly thought my most recent manuscript would be the one to break through -- and it got multiple requests for the full and personal comments from agents (and even one phone call from an agent) -- but maybe it wasn't the one.

Bottom line -- it's still my dream to see a novel that I've written on the bookshelves (before we all bow to our e-reader overlords and there are no more bookshelves). And with my last name starting with K -- I'd be really close to Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver on the shelf -- I can't lose, right?!

What question should I be mortified that I didn't ask?
Whether I like clowns. The answer is a resounding "no.". (Seriously -- I don't think you missed anything -- sorry if I went on too long). Thank you for having me on your blog. And thanks again to everyone who has watched the video.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

LIly King talks about Father of the Rain

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.

I was really interested in the structure. You present her childhood with her father and then take great leaps forward in time. Other writers might have started in the present and woven in the backstory, but this particular structure gives the novel a shimmering kind of immediacy. Was this intentional, or was it just the way the novel played out as you wrote it?

As an idea, the novel really started from the point-of-view of Daley at 11. The rest grew slowly out of that. I didn't even know there was going to be a third section, a third leap in time, until I was nearly finished with the second section. It didn't occur to me to change the structure, but I did worry that these great jumps wouldn't work. I love it when novels do that, Disgrace and The Reader come to mind, but I'd never tried it before and I worried there was a trick to it I didn't know about.

Why do you think the things that happen in our teens have such continued and lasting impact on our lives as adults—even things that we should know better about?

I think it is very hard to break out of emotional patterns with a parent that were fixed in childhood. It's hard to see things afresh. It might be easy to know the relationship is unhealthy, but it's hard to know exactly why, and how to step out of the dance. It's also hard not to recreate the same patterns in other relationship, unless you really break free. Which is what the book is all about, Daley's struggle to unlock herself.

One of the rave reviews (and there are many, many, many) I read mentioned the primal loyalty Daley has to her incredibly dysfunctional father, and it’s that word, primal that interests me so much. Why do you think we are so attached to the people who can hurt us the most?

I think we are attached to the people who raised us, and it can take a long time to identify whether those people are healthy or unhealthy, comforting or menacing, safe or dangerous. there are many ways to be hurt, and some are less obvious than others. I really don't think it's a natural instinct to be drawn to people who hurt you, but the people you love always have the ability to hurt you the most, because you are most emotionally vulnerable with them. The trick is choosing to love people who choose not to exercise that ability, who derive no pleasure from it. I think Daley's father, among his other issues, was drawn to that kind of power over the people who loved him.

The psychological impulses in the novel are both shattering and profound. Daley’s struggle to do right by herself and her father are never quite what you expect them to be

She does not make great choices, does she? i think she makes the decisions of someone who feels perpetually guilty, and has a burning desire to change the past. So she plunges in, much to the detriment of her own life and future.

I’m always fascinated by process so can you tell me something about yours? Do you outline? Do you write by the seat of your pen? And is every book different?

I write every book more or less the same way, by hand with a pencil in lined spiral notebooks. A whole novel is really only 2 notebooks' worth of writing. I leave about 20 pages blank at the back of each notebook for notes, so that when I get ideas for something that might happen later, I put them in there. And if I take notes in the middle of the night or in the car or while I'm reading, I transcribe them into that back section of my notebook. With the first two books, I wrote a chapter by hand then typed it up, three-hole punched it and put it in a binder, but with this one I couldn't look back. Once I got the words on the page, I had to keep moving. It was an emotionally hard book to write and sometimes I had to take long breaks from it. So there was a point when I had to type up about 180 handwritten pages. I'm a really slow typist and it took months. But I love that step, because you are literally rewriting the book. You are writing it all over again and you hear it differently and it makes for a good revision step. Add it's so pleasurable, because the blank pages stage is over. This time I did eventually create an outline—it was more of timeline—when my notes got too unwieldy and I wasn't sure where I was going next. It wasn't at all extensive, just a line across a page with a series of markers and a few words below suggesting a possible scene.

What’s obsessing you now?

My new novel. I'm only in the research stage, but already passionate and terrified in turns.