Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reading Group Guide questions

Ah yes, it's time to write my reading group guide questions for Pictures of You, coming November from Algonquin books. Doing reading group guides requires a different part of the brain than the writing of the novel. You have to become critical, yet not so critical that you feel as if you are writing Sparks Notes. I grew so baffled and befuddled writing mine that I began to get a little slap-happy, so in the interest of feeding my personal lunacy, I've come up with the following reading group guide questions instead:

1. Which fancy restaurant would you like to take Caroline to and why?
2. If you had to issue a restraining order against one of the characters in Pictures of You, which one would it be and why?
3. What fabulous gift do you think the author would most appreciate and why haven't you sent it to her yet?
4. If you could play matchmaker, which character from this novel would you fix up with characters from other Leavitt novels?
5. If Caroline did not write another novel, which profession do you think would best suit her: dentist, animal portrait painter or exhibitionist?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Holly LeCraw talks about The Swimming Pool

Holly LeCraw's The Swimming Pool is the kind of dark, thorny, complex novel I love. But don't take my word for it. Amy Tan called it riveting and psychologically complex, Tom Perrotta called it gripping and passionate, and raves came in from People, Entertainment Weekly and more, giving this glorious novel the attention it deserves. I'm honored to have Holly here answering my questions. The story of a present day love affair against the backdrop of a past filled with secrets and lies, The Swimming Pool is truly knockout.

Thank you so much, Holly.

So, what’s it like to be a debut novelist getting all this attention?

Unreal. It’s a dream come true, and all the rest of it. But I am very conscious that I am at the beginning (hopefully) of a career, and I will have much more to be proud of when I have stuck it out and written several books, not just one. I should probably just relax and enjoy it more…I am always a little too concerned about hubris.

Where did the idea of the novel come from? (I read your remarkable essay on Amazon about the line between what happens in real life and what happens in an author’s fiction, so I had to ask this.)

The characters, the plot—I honestly don’t know. But there were certain themes that had been on my mind, and I think the story came about because of those preoccupations. I was thinking about how obsessed we are with control, and how in this life it’s all illusion; it can disappear in a second—for instance, the moment you find out someone you love has been murdered. I am a Metro section addict—I read about the things that befall ordinary people, and wonder what happens next, after all the news articles have been written. And so often those stories involve secrets, and ordinary, decent people making terrible decisions. Also, I am a mother, and I started the book when my kids were very small. So, really, it is parental love that is the underpinning of the book. The illicit romantic stuff is really just the surface.

Betrayal figures prominently in The Swimming Pool—do you think it’s ever possible to be betrayed) or to do the betraying) and come away unscathed?

I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to heal, but no way would it not leave a wound. I don’t know if I personally could survive it, or if I could heal very well.

Honestly, the plot of The Swimming Pool involves things I would never do. Dear God, I hope not. But I knew that they were things that these characters would do, and that these characters were not fundamentally bad people, despite their actions. I wanted to dig down and understand the how and why.

The ending, which I won’t give away, is a stunner. At what point in writing the novel did you know what your ending was going to be? Did it surprise you?

Let me just say that I am dying to go visit some book groups (I already have a few scheduled), so I can talk about the book with people who have read it! It will be so interesting to hear what people think of the ending. It came about naturally—I didn’t know it at the beginning of the process, certainly. When I had the idea it shocked me (just like the idea of Jed and Marcella’s affair shocked me), but it also seemed right. Once that idea was in my head, nothing else would work.

I knew that my job then would be to make it believable from a character point of view. The characters involved absolutely had to act organically, and the ending had to be the natural outgrowth of their other actions and of who they were. Also, I don’t think it’s shocking from a whodunit point of view; real mystery buffs would probably spot it a mile away. But I think it’s shocking from a character point of view.

Speaking of the ending, I should mention that the only really substantive change my editor wanted was for me to lop off the last seven pages of the manuscript—what was essentially an epilogue. I absolutely agonized over it, but in the end I decided she was right. And she was. Now I can’t imagine it any other way. I like very much that these characters come to some sense of peace and resolution, but that the story is not over—it’s continuing, somewhere, after you close the book. I know where I think they go, but readers might have other ideas. Which is as it should be.

I have to comment on the great marketing strategy—a book about a steamy love affair, dark secrets, set on the beach, yet with a pedigree of blurbs that makes it undeniably literary. I especially loved the marketing letter which ended, “Is it hot in here?” as a tease. Were you involved in the strategy? Was this how you saw your novel?

No, that line was my editor’s. She gets all the credit. I always saw it as literary fiction—or, at least, that was what I was shooting for. The more commercial aspect of it is surprising to me. Probably because when you’re writing your first book in total obscurity, it’s amazing to think that anyone will ever want to read it! I like the term “literary page-turner.” Literary merit and plot are, obviously, not mutually exclusive. I always read for plot—although by plot I usually mean emotional plot rather than action, and in the end that’s what this book is about. It is about how characters get from A to B to C emotionally and psychologically. There is a tremendous amount of tension in those evolutions.

I also want to say that I was so, so lucky with those blurbs. Those authors were extremely generous; it’s an embarrassment of riches.

What idea is obsessing you now?

My next book. The working title is The Sweetness of Honey. It’s a Cain and Abel story about two half-brothers, nearly twenty years apart in age, who are both teachers at a New England prep school; they fall in love with the wrong people, who, just to make things interesting, are also the same people…the center of the book is the older brother, who’s Cain, of course. Another deeply flawed character whom I love anyway. The bad guys are always the most interesting, right?

And finally, What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?

Oh, no mortification. These were wonderful questions. Thank you so much for having me here.

Guest Blog from Aryn Kyle, sublime author of Boys and Girls Like You and Me

I first discovered Aryn Kyle when I reviewed her ravishing debut novel, The God of Animals, for The Boston Globe. (I gave it a rave.) She has a new book out, the superb collection of stories, Boys and Girls Like You and Me and because she's also really, really funny, I asked her if she would do a guest blog for me. Thank you so much, Aryn!

That Horse Book

My first novel is about horses. I didn’t mean for it to be about horses—really, it’s about a family—but it’s set on a horse ranch and, draft by draft, the horses became more important to the plot until my friends began to joke that I should just call the book Horses. Think how much easier it would be to market, they said: “If you like horses, you’ll love Horses, the debut novel by Aryn Kyle!”

Every time I thought about this, I kind of wanted to die. I’d read the horse books growing up, had watched the horse movies on television—they were full of earnest girls who pined after geldings like they were forbidden lovers and saved the day, though barely, with their grit and good nature, their commitment to doing the Right Thing. The world did not need any more of these books, I thought, and I did not want to be the writer of one. But my novel was full of horses; there was a horse on the cover. People would ask, “What’s your book about?” and there really was no answer that didn’t include the word: “Horses.”

In interviews, I tried to minimize my own horsiness: I didn’t grow up on a ranch, don’t live on a ranch now, don’t, in fact, live anywhere near a ranch. But it’s impossible to control every situation, and I have the unfortunate habit of sometimes zoning off during my own interviews, which accounts for the occasional horsey sound bite. Quite near the top of an ever-expanding list of regrets I have in life would be the comment I once made during a video interview, now immortalized on YouTube, declaring that my first love was an appaloosa.

Overseas, things were even harder to control: Everywhere I went, they took my picture with horses. In Antwerp, I was driven to a stable for a television interview and instructed to walk through the barn, feeding the horses as though this was what I did every evening—a scenario which lost a little more credibility every time a horse nipped at me, causing me to shriek and run away.

A few days later in Amsterdam, I rode with my Dutch publicist, Ingeborg, to a photo shoot at yet another stable. During the drive I tried to explain—more than fifteen years had passed since I’d even ridden a horse. It made me feel a little sleazy to keep posing beside them for photographs. Ingeborg told me that the magazine I was being photographed for was the Dutch equivalent of Mademoiselle. I should not feel sleazy—they would do my hair and makeup and dress me in designer clothes!

I’ll spare you the details of the horror show that followed and just say that somewhere in the world there now exists a photograph of me dressed like a colorblind go-go dancer and kissing a horse on its cheek.

Eventually I realized that my best hope for escaping a lifetime of faux-equestrian photo ops was probably just to write more books about fewer horses. The very last thing I did before I sent my story collection off to my agent was search the document for the word “horse.” One had managed to make its way in after all, and I considered rewriting the sentence to cut it. But within its context, this horse was more metaphorical than literal, and I thought it might be bad luck to have an entirely horseless collection. Besides, who has time to worry about one little horse in a story collection that includes puppet therapy and a pirate dinner theater? I look ahead at book tour and imagine the photographic possibilities.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

In Praise of Deadlines

Ok, I admit it, I can be a lazy writer, or at least it feels that way sometimes. I can take a a year to write a first chapter because I keep fiddling with the words, fussing with a sentence to the point of being ridiculous (Should it read, "He ran to the store" or "He ran"?) Maybe it isn't really being lazy at all. Maybe it has to do with not wanting to let this glorious writing stage go into the next panic-inducing stage of giving pages to my agent and then to my editor. The sort of "proof is in the pudding" stage.

For the past year, while I've been doing page proofs and edits for my new novel Pictures of You (Algonquin! November 2!) I've been working with two new novels at once. I threw out two hundred pages on each. I finally--because it felt too Schizophrenic to me--settled on one novel, (I'll do the other one later) and I began once again writing and writing and writing and never getting further than Chapter one.

So I did the only thing I knew how to do that might work. I had someone give me a really tight, nearly impossible deadline. While at lunch with my beloved agent, I told her what was going on and begged her to give me a timetable. "June 1, three chapters," she told me. "We'll submit as a partial." I was thrilled! June!! That was a short enough amount of time to kickstart me into letting this novel go. Then, I contacted a writer friend, a smart, serious critic and begged her to look at three chapters for me before I sent them off. "May 1," she said. Even better!

So now, I guess you could say I'm a little possessed. I have to let go, have to push forward now, have to stop worrying about the perfect sentence and move more into the story as a whole. My writing feels different now with this deadline, more feverish, more involved, and to my absolute delight, less judgmental.

Now, if only someone would give me a deadline for my script.....

Friday, April 16, 2010

In which the Paper Rats interview each other!

Everyone knows how much I adore the Paper Rats. Their Inside the Writers Studio videos are hilarious (and they have great swag you can buy, so it's technically not really swag, but you'll want it anyway). I offered them space on my blog to talk about their books, and being the Paper Rats, they decided they wanted to interview each other (and who am I not to let them?)

Kristen Tsetsi's Homefront was inspired by the year she spent waiting for her husband to survive his tour in Iraq. Surreal, humorous and raw, it allows readers unfiltered access to the often unimaginably frustrating experience of waiting through a deployment. (She also has a hilarious blog. )

If readers were going to make up a drinking game for Homefront, what would signal them to take a shot?

When Jake leaves for Iraq, Mia is going through a deployment for the first time. She's not quite sure how to handle the sensation of mourning someone who's still alive. It's truly confusing - it has the effect of warping the world around you (or, rather, your perception of the world). Her way of dealing with it is to drink a little (a lot). A game could probably center around that, or around the number of times she turns on the TV to watch the news and has choice words for the embedded journalists' overly dramatic war updates and news bites.

What is a common misconception a reader comes away with after reading the synopsis for Homefront?

a) That it will read like "my story and my story only" non-fiction they won't relate to - that it's written strictly for the military spouse, or that it's somehow something that can only be appreciated by a military spouse, or b) that it's well-suited for a daytime women's program when it's much more suited to be, say, the sister to HBO's "Generation Kill" - what's happening at home while those zany "Generation Kill" guys are at war.
The varied cast of characters allows for some pretty honest and gritty exploration of the different ways people react to circumstances beyond their control.

After "The End," how do things work out for poor, ignored Chancey?

Oh, Chancey! Yes, sadly, he was a bit neglected, but I think Mia "finds" her cat again and builds a lovely relationship with him.

Who is your least favorite character - excluding Jake's mother - and why?

Curses! She would have been my pick.

Because I cannot choose Olivia, I'll choose Dick's Fiance. I don't like that she introduces herself to people as "Dick's Fiance," and her uber-dependent personality in general is one I wouldn't get along with very well. Such an impression she makes, and she only lasts a page...

Who would you hand-pick to play Vietnam veteran Donny Donaldson if you were a casting director?

Easy: Terry Kiser. Terry Kiser IS Donny Donaldson. Picture him in "A Weekend at Bernies," but instead of being dead, he's drunk, cranky, and inexplicably charming.

What would Mia have wanted someone to put in a care package for her?

A book called "How to Avoid Your Morbid and Meddling Quasi Mother in-Law."
Have you ever known an Olivia?

Everyone, at one time or another, in one way or another, has known - and tried to avoid - an Olivia.

R. J. Keller's (check out her blog) Waiting for Spring offers angst, sex, humor, love, and redemption, set against the backdrop of a rural Maine town struggling with poverty and loss.

If a reader were going to be
distracted by something in WFS, what would it be?

Sex. Language. And also sex.

What is a common misconception a reader comes away with after reading the synopsis for WFS?

That it's a romance novel. There's definitely a love story going on, but it's really the story of a woman's journey toward self-acceptance and self-worth.

I heard something somewhere about you being on a NyQuil buzz while writing a chapter of your book. Which part? I must know.

It was chapter 21, where Tess and Brian get stoned "underneath the mischievous stars." I was sick with a rather hideous cold and took much more than the manufacturer's recommended dose of Cherry Nyquil, then lay down on the couch to try to get some sleep (because my sniffling, sneezing, and coughing was keeping my husband awake). As I drifted off, I looked out of the window at the cold, wintry sky and, under the combined influence of Nyquil and watery eyes, noticed that the stars started to blur together, then turn colors. I knew it was something Tess would dig, so I very wisely hopped up off the couch and wrote what I'd seen and felt. Later on, I wrote the rest of the scene around it.

Who is your least favorite character - excluding the mother - and why?
Definitely Tim. Drug-dealing, murdering, control freak rapists are not good people.

Compare your book to a movie character from a popular movie. Nothing obscure.
Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Or is that obscure?)

Speaking of movies, who would you hand-pick to play Tess if you were a casting director?
Kate Winslet. She'd be totally believable as quirky, intelligent, damaged, sexy, caring, sharp-tongued Tess Dyer.

Which character are you most like?
A cross between Tess and her equally forthright, but much more level-headed, sister-in-law, Kim.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Read This Book: The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

For me, there are certain books that you feel compelled to reread every year. After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell was one of those books that I carried around with me because I couldn't stop reading it. She has an astonishing new book out, The Hand That First Held Mine, and already it's getting dog-eared. Tracking two different London women, fifty years apart, the novel meditates on memory, art, longing, motherhood--and loss. I was thrilled that Maggie offered to answer some questions. Thank you so much, Maggie.

In many of your novels, you veer from the past to the present, with multiple perspectives. Do you believe we can ever escape our pasts—or recover from our secrets?

It’s not so much that we can’t escape our pasts – we are our pasts. We’re made up of every experience we’ve ever had. I think life adds layers to us, like different strata in rock. Everything is embedded in there, visible or not.

I was about a quarter sure that I knew what was going to happen in this novel, and then was thunderstruck when I got to the truth. Did you know this was going to happen before you wrote the novel or did it just come to you? And are you one of those writers who do like to know?

The central mystery of the story was clear to me from the book’s inception: everything else had to be fitted in around. I don’t generally plan my novels to every last detail before I start; I know writers who do but I prefer to work things out along the way, with just a few ideas in place before I begin. The challenge for me is to link these ideas together. One of the things I like best about writing is when you think the book is going in one direction but then it takes off somewhere else. It keeps you on your toes when your characters assume a life of their own; it’s also a sign that you’re doing something right. So I started with the idea of two women living fifty years apart in the same city but everything else evolved along the way.

The novel talks a lot about what it means to balance being an artist, a lover and a mother, which felt as difficult to modern day Elina as it does to Lexie in the past. Do you think it’s possible to have it all, or do you think something always has to be given up in the process? You’ve also held a variety of jobs starting out, from chambermaid to cycle courier. Did any of your own early struggles find their way into the novel?

I’m never really sure what that phrase “have it all” means. I’m uneasy with it, for some reason, probably because I suspect there’s something deeply misogynistic buried in it: you never hear it used for men, do you? It’s usually applied to women who have dared to have a career and children. The cheek of it. It is possible, of course, to work and to be a mother. But that’s not to say it’s easy. It’s a struggle and a constant act of planning, juggling and compromise. You have to decide what’s important – what to keep, if you like – and what to lose (in my case, a tidy house, orderly laundry cupboards, organised accounts have been sacrificed, not entirely reluctantly). Elina and Lexie aren’t me, in any sense, but of course there are elements of my experiences in them. Like me, Lexie arrives in London from a rural background to become a journalist. And the scenes with Elina and her tiny baby are drawn from my time with my newborn son.

I was fascinated that the book was also about how and why and whom we love and the choices we make because of that emotion, from the shock of love for a newborn to Lexie’s devotion to Innes Kent who helps transform her. In many of your novels, love goes hand in hand with secrets. Do you think love can ever be easy, or is it just the nature of love to be elusive and complicated?

Human beings are very complex creatures so any form of interaction between them is going to be fraught with uncertainties and ambiguities. Loving another person is easy and also alchemically strange. But I would say that the relationship between Lexie and Innes is remarkably uncomplicated: she loves him, he loves her. Yes, there are complications, as in every relationship, but if that bedrock is there nothing much can threaten it. The difficult bit is finding someone you love who loves you back. If that’s in place, everything else can always pretty much fall in step, don’t you think?

Elina and Lexie live in the same London, but fifty years apart—which makes it a different London—there’s that sense of dislocation like when you wake up and it takes you a while to recognize your room. I loved that you mentioned that these two women hear each other’s echoes over time. Do you believe that such echoes are possible or was this a (brilliant) literary device?

I think such echoes are always possible. Ten years or so we bought a house that needed a great deal of renovation. It was over a hundred years old and we knew from the deeds of the house that we were its sixth owners. At one point, a wall separating two bedrooms caved in and it was possible to see five layers of wallpaper, like skins of a onion. There was the original Edwardian wallpaper, right next to the plaster, a heavy gold-and-red pattern, and five others had been laid over it, at one time or another. So although I knew nothing about the house’s five previous owners, apart from their names, I now knew their tastes in wallpaper. And that they had stood once in this room, as I was doing, deciding what colour to decorate it and would it suit gold or green or blue or lilac?

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?

Um. No mortification necessary.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ann Hood talks about her new novel, The Red Thread

I first heard of Ann Hood years ago, back when I picked up her extraordinary debut, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine. I was enthralled and began following her career obsessively, to the extent that though we've never met, I feel, because her work is so bold and brave, (Read Comfort for its blazingly honest exploration of loss), that I feel that I do.

Ann's new novel,
The Red Thread is a gorgeous story based on her own experiences adopting a baby girl from China following the death of her daughter Grace. I asked Ann if she'd write something for my blog, and she graciously agreed. Many, many thanks Ann, for both another book for me to love, and for your piece below.

Every Mother’s Day for the past five years, I pause to think about a woman I have never met. A woman who, in fact, I will never meet. In 2004, halfway around the world, that woman gave birth to my daughter Annabelle. Because of the strict one child policy in China at that time, women were abandoning their baby daughters in parks and marketplaces, on the doorsteps of police stations and orphanages, in the hopes that the baby would be found and taken care of. In Hunan Province, where Annabelle was born, women could have second babies if their first one was a girl. However if that second—or third or fourth—was also a girl, she would likely be abandoned to allow for another try at a son.

On the morning of September 6, 2004, Mrs. Li, the director of a small orphanage in the industrial city of Loudi, arrived at work and found a baby girl in a box at the door. Most of the abandoned babies were only a few days old, usually with the umbilical cord stump still attached. This baby was different. Dressed in blue pants and blue and white flowered socks, she appeared to be five or six months old. Between 2003 and 2004, over 500 baby girls were adopted from this one orphanage alone. Mrs. Li was finding babies at the rate of five or ten a week. Like she did with all of them, she took this baby inside where the doctor examined her. She was given a crib to share with another baby who had been found a few days earlier. She was given a name: Lou Fu Jing. Six months later, that baby girl would become my daughter Annabelle.

It is illegal to abandon babies in China. Yet mothers who give birth to daughters do it every day. For fear of being caught, they leave no clues, no records, no letters or information with the babies. Therefore, the first five months of Annabelle’s life will forever remain a mystery to us. Ever since we brought her home, I have found myself imagining the woman who gave birth to her, kept her for five months, then one morning dressed her in blue pants and white socks with blue flowers, placed her in a box, and left her on that orphanage doorstep. Had she tried to hide her and got caught? Was Annabelle a second daughter abandoned when her mother got pregnant again, hoping for a son? Or did her mother die and her father was unable to keep her? Or? Or? Or? I imagine so many histories for my daughter, spinning tales to complete her life story.

When I began to write my novel, The Red Thread, I wanted to tell the stories of the women in China who are forced to abandon their baby girls. Since those women do not speak of what they’ve done, I had only my imagination to create their lives. By inventing their stories, I felt closer to that stranger who gave me the gift of her daughter. This Mother’s Day—my fifth as Annabelle’s mother—I will pause in my day. I will close my eyes and imagine that city. The air there is polluted and gray from the steel mill that dominates its landscape. I will imagine that woman, moving through the crowded streets.

Perhaps she holds her son or daughter’s hand. Perhaps she is thinking of what to make for dinner that night. Perhaps she has a husband who will touch her cheek lovingly, a baby who will lift her arms for her to hold it. Perhaps my gratitude will reach across continents and oceans and land in her heart. In her busy day, perhaps she too will pause, and know the daughter she had to leave, is safe and healthy and loved.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In which Caroline guest stars in a Paper Rats Video

I've blogged here before about how much I love the Paper Rats and I talked myself into a video with them, which is now ready for viewing! A

Sublime authors Kristen Tsetsi (Homefront) and R. J. Keller (Waiting for Spring), otherwise known as The Paper Rats, gave me a list of expressions to film (rolling my eyes, looking appalled, smiling, blank stare), and a list of scenarios (do five things you'd do if you were bored--I chose playing with my one-legged Barbie, lifting weights, playing with my hair, and having a game with my rubber Mr. Tofu and Mr. Bacon; introduce yourself in an alarmingly self-promotionary sort of way; show myself watching one of their videos and saying something; and generally acting like a fool. They also insisted that I say the word "boobs" as if I were totally appalled.

Of course, I obsessed about how I was going to look. Would my hair look too chaotically stupid? (It did) Would I look a thousand years old? And most importantly, would I be FUNNY?

I had Jeff shoot the videos and made him reshoot a lot due to some of the above issues. (Told you I was obsessive) and then I turned all the segments in to the Paper Rats. I love the final project, and hope you do, too. These women are genius--and a whole lot of fun.

Anne Lamott talks about Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott should be a national treasure (complete with a holiday named after her.) Her book on writing (Bird by Bird) is required reading for any budding writer (or anxiety written pro), her book on having a child (Operating Instructions) should be tucked inside every diaper bag, and her novels simply soar. Her newest, Imperfect Birds, returns to one of her earlier novels, Rosie, to tell the story of teenage drug culture and parents being terrified for their the safety of their kids. It's as remarkable as she is--and thank you, thank you, Anne for answering my questions.

Of all your books, this one was the one that absolutely terrified me. It was so raw, so real (plus, I’m the mother of a 13 year old and I worry about the future endlessly) and yet, it also was, to me, the most spiritual of your books, too. Would you say this is because in those dark, scary moments, that’s when there is light (if you can notice it?) Or that being tested give us an opportunity to reveal our best (as well as our worst) selves?

When we are faced with really frightening developments in our lives, like loss or a bad diagnosis or a lost child, we get stripped down to what is true and essential--and this is the most spiritual place we can arrive at. And then to be deeply loved in such a raw and undefended state--without armor, routine, and the ability to Fake it--is the absolute definition of Spiritual.

Knowing Rosie (from your novel Rosie) as a child and then seeing her as a teenager here also made this book more nerve-wracking for me. Because Rosie was the child of an alcoholic mother, I was sure Rosie would never want to have anything to do with substance abuse. Is this usually the case?

There's no such thing as "usually the case". Kids with alcoholic parents have a genetic predisposition to be alcoholics or substance abusers. I really have not observed a "norm". What I've observed in Marin is high-achieving kids with seemingly ideal family circumstances, who have lost their lives, minds, futures, to high risk behavior. We just lost another gorgeous 17 y.o. Marin girl last weekend, about to graduate, who got drunk with her girlfriends about 20 minutes from my home, fell off the cliffs into the ocean, and washed up near Muir Beach.

Elizabeth doesn’t believe in God, though she does seem to have a belief in some things, and there was that powerful scene in the sweat lodge where she feels a glimmer of something larger than herself. Do you think it matters whether you do or you don’t believe, as long as you are open to the moment? And that being open to one moment, like in the sweat lodge, might make you open to more moments?

Yes, I do think there an many many ways to opening our hearts and awakening to the present--and Presence. To seek this presence, of a deep rich reality, the shimmering Now, is to find it. And then some commit to developing this sense of Life, and other people keep hitting the snooze button via workaholism or multi-tasking, which is absolutely life-destroying

For me, the novel was about the reality we create for ourselves—i.e. Rosie’s reality is that what she is doing isn’t so wrong, but James and Elizabeth reality about what she is doing is really something different. Rosie lies, but so does Elizabeth to James. You nail the fierce love parents have for their kids, and the pain when those kids start to pull away into their own lives (as well they should) and their ignorance of the pain it causes their parents. How do you think it’s possible for anyone to really know the truth and reality of someone else’s life? And is there a way we can be better at it?

I don't know that we can really understand what it's like to be another person's, but we can see when people are exhibiting self-destruction and deceit. Parents have to be willing to risk not being the coolest parent on the block, in order to set healthy boundaries, and to impose appropriate consequences for lying, stealing, smoking, etc. A lot of parents so desperately need their kid's affection that they (maybe unconsciously) don't see what their kids are up to--don't see the cries for help, the out-of-controlledness. They don't want to fight with their kids, or have their kids pull away, and so they keep their heads in the sand, or get it to come out OK in their minds--ANYthing that will keep the appearance of closeness: anything to avoid making waves. But as I said, another 17 year old died this weekend.

I’m intensely curious about process, so can you talk a little bit about yours in writing Imperfect Birds? And can you talk about what you are working on now?

Well, novels as you know are a lot harder than stories or essays--it takes close to 3 years, and you never quite know what you're doing. I really try to commit to my characters, and capturing each one's voice and truth, instead of committing to a finished novel. It can be a nightmare for a lot of the process, because you're trying to keep so many plates spinning in the air. So I just to get a day's work done everyday. I let myself write incredibly shitty drafts. I ask one or two cherished writer-friends for feedback. I read novels, to see how other people handle tough stories of being human, and in families, and community; how we survive unsurvivable loss, how we grow, how we age, how we heal, how we keep our senses of humor. And I write everything over, and over, and over; and rely DEEPLY on great editing.

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

You could ask how Sam is doing! He is 20 now, a student of industrial design at an art academy in San Francisco, and he and his girlfriend have an 8 month old baby boy, who (along with Sam) is the apple of my eye. His name is Jax; my grandma name is Nana.

Monday, April 5, 2010

In which I happily humiliate myself!

I've written about my love of Paper Rats videos and now I'm going to be in one! They won't tell me what it's going to look like, but they've given me directions for filming (shots of bored, rolling my eyes, saying certain things) and they have this preview!

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett talks about writing and Orange Country Noir

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's the host of the fabulous radio show Writers on Writing, the award-winning author of Pen On Fire, and one of her short stories has just appeared in the anthology Orange County Noir. Since I'm a sucker for anything noir (and I happen to revere the films Barbara mentions here), I couldn't wait to ask Barbara questions. Thanks so much, Barbara!

So when you were asked to write a piece for Orange County Noir, what went through your head? Do you usually think of your home as the stuff of noir?

Actually, I heard about the idea from Susan Straight at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, as we stood at the breakfast buffet, contacted the editor (Gary Phillips) and he said he'd like to see a story. I love noir movies (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and wanted to try my hand at it. Plot worried me at first; it's my biggest weakness as a writer. And as for my home, Orange County, well it may be sunny and happy seeming here, but darkness lurks. my home town, in fact, has a bunch of domestic abuse, white collar crime, and rich people crime--deaths in the ocean (Oh, she just fell off the yacht!) and suicides. So my home town, and probably most home towns, have the makings of noir.

I loved the story, which played out like a Robert Mitchum film noir to me right down to the knockout ending. Tell me where the idea came from and what it was like writing the story?

Oh, I loved Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. Like I said film noir is my favorite genre in film. My story has its genesis in another movie, Days of Heaven (one of Richard Gere's first movies.) When I first started toying with plot, I thought: She could be a knitter (like me) an has a studio in the industrial section of Costa Mesa and this guy stalks her and she stabs him with a knitting needle. Then I thought: too typical. And then Days of Heaven began swimming through my head so I watched it again. I loved that film. It's so bittersweet and tragic and Sam Shepard is at his finest. I thought about the movie's plot and how I might contemporize it, and that's how my story Crazy for You came about. You'd never recognize the movie in my story, but that's where it came from. I had great fun writing the story. I suppose writing dark fiction is especially fun because it's not a world I care to go to in my daily life. I have known shady characters and loser types, though mostly when I was a teenager, and strains of those boys found their way into Levi.

Your book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Fire Within was an LA Times bestseller and it won an ASJA Outstanding Book Award. I've recommended this book in my UCLA writing classes simply because it has a real understanding of the whole writing process while making you feel that any obstacle is not insurmountable. I also loved the idea that it's never too late, and it's always a mistake to give up. What do you think the most important component is for a writer to succeed?

You're a sweetheart for saying that. probably the most important component for success is becoming your own biggest advocate and taking yourself seriously. If you don't, who will? And then, of course, keeping your derriere in the chair on a regular basis.

You also host the fascinating radio show, Writers on Writing, which is downright revelatory about craft and the experience of being writer. (Plus, as someone who's been privileged to be a guest on your show, you really are one of the best interviewers around.) Have there been interviews that have really surprised you in terms of what the writer revealed?

I'm sure there has been, but it's been 12 years since I started the show so if there were huge surprises, they probably came early on. But one thing that I hear often is how serendipitous publishing is, and how if you keep on writing and progressing in your chosen craft, you will often succeed.

What project is obsessing you now?

My agent is circulating a book proposal that very much deals with the business end of writing, specifically about agents. And I'm working on a memoir. The rough draft is done. Now comes refining and revision, which can be greatly satisfying, y'know?

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

Oh, I don't know, maybe something about setting priorities and still having a life. I'm big on sacrificing social occasions--lunches, dinners, shopping, movies--for my writing, but not for my family--my son, in particular who's 15 now. He comes first, and I wouldn't have it any other way. They go from being little kids to big kids in a flash. I've been there for most of it. So if you have to give something up to make time for your writing, take that time from somewhere not all that important, and keep that time with those close to you.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

In praise of deadlines

Usually if I don't have a deadline, I can spend three whole months on one sentence. I've been working on this new novel set in the 1950s for almost a year now. I was working on another novel at the same time, and then shelved it to work on this one, called The Missing Ones (at least for now. I'm not very good with titles, but that's a whole other story.) A few months ago, I realized I had no idea what I was doing and began talking the story out with another writer and finally realized what the main thread was. Throwing out 200 pages wasn't easy, but at last I felt that I knew what I was writing about. I felt what I needed to write towards.

Last week, I had lunch with my adored agent and she asked what was ready to be shown, and I had a revelation. If I told her I would have something to her by, say June, then I'd really have to work hard. I'd have to produce. No more sitting on one sentence for weeks. "I'll have a few chapters to show you by June," I said.

So, after being weak with nerves and nauseous (Could I do this? Was I insane? Wouldn't it be better to just hold on tight to the pages I have rather than risk failure?) I set to work. I've been putting in ten hour days, but I have two chapters and 40 pages that don't make me want to flay my own skin off. I have a third chapter brewing. I feel feverish with excitement, manic with drive, and so, so happy to be writing. And even better, if this does sell on a partial, than I'll have another deadline for the full ms. And to me, well that's just bliss.