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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Summer Pierre talks about Great Gals: Inspired Ideas for Living a Kick-Ass Life

Summer Pierre's first book, The Artist in the Office (how could you not adore that title) addressed how to stay creative while paying the bills. Great Gals is a compendium of of famous women who are down right inspirational, and best of all, they have Summer's quirky, wonderful illustrations.

You'll want to check out the cool trailer with music from Summer herself (don't you wish your name was Summer?) And also, here are some completed pages from the journal.

What I love so much about this book (and your last one, about being an artist in an office environment) is the quirky spin you put on things. Instead of giving us inspirational women to emulate, you tell us we're already there. That we are those women. Can you elaborate?

We all (men and women) have a story about famous people that says they are special, so that’s what makes them great. This does two things—it makes us want to be them, and paradoxically it discourages us when we our lives don’t seem to match up to this specialness. The truth is, even “famous” people are regular people. The poet Nikki Giovanni, who many would consider fearless and gutsy, started out self-published because she was afraid to try to be published elsewhere. I can relate to that. Susan Sontag sometimes would go see 3 movies a day. Because she is “Susan Sontag” people chalk that up to a voracious appetite for culture, which is part true, but she also did it on occasion for escapism. I can relate to that too. I am more interested in those human aspects than the glory of these lives because it makes me realize that I am in the same world with the same struggles, and I can STILL do what I dream of doing. So many people discount their own efforts and experiences in the shadow of what they consider “greatness” in the media and in history. We get inspired by people, but don’t ACT on that inspiration and leave it to the “experts” to live it for us. Screw that! Let’s all live it! A way to do that is to acknowledge that the lives we have right this second—not in the future, not in some mystical idea of accomplishment, fame, or otherwise—matter.

I'm curious how you went about writing this book, the whole process. I loved the quotes and was wondering how you decided which ones to choose. Could you talk about it?

For 6 years I created an illustrated calendar of great women. Many of the portraits in the book are from various years of that calendar. I have always collected stories and quotes of these great women and it was through that lens that I wanted to make an interactive book based on these stories. I wanted to include quotes that reflected themes that I found in these women’s lives, but also quotes that spoke to me directly, and that lit up the page. I love that Ingrid Bergman said that she had a wonderful life. I love that Lucille Ball likens her humor to bravery. Phyllis Diller’s inspirational spirit is also a punch line. It’s great! I also am a great experimenter of ideas and how to think of new perspectives—so almost all the exercises come from my own journals and questions I have worked through myself.

Why did you make this book just for women, rather than including men? (I know the answer, but I'm curious at the response.)

I think women are tribal people, who often look to other women to relate to, to talk to, to compare notes with, to work their own identities with. I see this book as part of a larger tribe’s conversation. I also try to make things that I would want to find—and as a woman, I would love a book like this that helps me feel grounded in the life I am living now. I hope that women come away with a sense of their own lives being of significance and that they also feel part of a larger tribe of women through history and the present. We’re all in this together.

Why do you think women don't follow their gut instincts? And what can they do to make this happen?

I think it’s because we are natural multi-taskers and that goes for emotions too. We are constantly multi-tasking emotionally—meaning that we are always negotiating how we feel and what we need with what others feel and need. But like all great skills—and this is a definite skill women have—it has a drawback. That drawback is that often we don’t immediately trust our first instincts in favor of trusting perhaps the second instinct to negotiate. I think this is something we can work on by practicing to trust ourselves. If we trust our abilities and our ideas we can use our negotiating skills for better uses, like tending to doubt and fear (ours or somebody else’s).

What's obsessing you now?

Mondo Guerra from Project Runway, how in the heck to make a thriving and extravagant living in the arts, the sad disappearance of bookstores, pie making, and my son’s neck chub.

What question should I be mortified I forgot to ask?

“How’d you get so cool?” Just kidding.

Candace Walsh talks about Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Talk About Leaving Men For Women

Candace Walsh is hilariously funny, a brilliant cook (all you have to do is follow her on FB to yearn for her to invite you to dinner), and one of the warmest people on the planet. Along with her partner, Laura Andre, she's producing some of the most interesting books around, including Dear John, I Love Jane, a collection of essays about women who left men for other women.

I'm thrilled to be able to ask Candace questions here.

One of the things I wanted to ask about was that judging from the essays, it takes real bravery to leave a man for a woman, to risk the status quo for true happiness. Do you think that it is easier now than it was years ago, or is this a media myth?

I definitely think it's easier now than it used to be. Just reading our book's precursors from the 80s and 90s (From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life; And Then I Met This Woman) shows that it used to be a much harder choice to make. Women lost custody of children, were shunned by their communities, and also evidently felt like they needed to shear off their pretty locks and get godawful haircuts. (That last example is a bit facetious, but has a grain of truth.)

There were very few people who responded to my "news" with a horrified cringe. I was thoroughly surprised at how many friends and acquaintances said, "Right on, sister!" or "You go, girl!" And next to the high fivers were the quietly unfazed people, who gracefully communicated that it was a non-issue. There are probably some purse-lipped types who don't approve, but nobody has given me a hard time to my face. What I hear is "You're so much happier. It's so obvious. And I'm happy for you." Being in same-sex relationships is a much roomier place to be than it used to be. One thing that does sadden me is that I don't have the carefree public display of affection option any more. I might be the type to hold hands with my girlfriend in a big box store, but my partner, Laura, is not comfortable doing that kind of thing; and I totally respect that. Her reticence has probably saved us from some randomly ugly encounters. But I do miss the privileges I used to take for granted, from legal rights to canoodling without going through an internal evaluation process.

We feel like we're part of a wave of growing awareness about the unpredictable nature of women's desire. Nicole Conn's new film, Elena Undone, has the same storyline as our 27 essays: woman partnered with a man meets woman, falls in love, redefines her life.
Jodi Picoult's next book is about a married woman who falls in love with a woman. Public awareness is building, as is the body of artistic work that respectfully and supportively reflects these experiences.

I loved the whole refrain through the book of women discovering who they really were meant to be and how empowering that was, and also how fluid sexuality really is. It's wonderful to read about women being so open to their real desires, but on the other hand, our society now seems to be making an alarmingly far right turn. How does someone deal with being who they are when a backwards portion of society is so against it? Is there a solution for eradicating ignorance?

I don't know the answer to that one. I think that there are a certain group of "swing" people who will be swayed toward supporting gay rights if they know gay people personally, which is an argument for being more widely out. I honestly do think that although there's a wrestling match between the left and the right, we've advanced so far--gay marriage is legal in five states--and it's really a matter of time. Being anti-gay has gone from being an acceptable status quo to being a bigoted, shrill, tacky position. Just look at how Cindy McCain has supported No on Prop 8 and the end of DADT, and then pretty much recanted. To me, that kind of wobbliness indicates an encouraging vulnerability within the Republican party. One thing I learned when I jumped the fence, as Audrey Bilger puts it in her essay, is that just living my life, without waving a single picket sign, is a political act, whether I choose that or not. It just is. It's a bit weird, given that I spent my twenties and half my thirties in the bosom of middle class, heterosexual respectability and approval.

How do I deal with being who I am? I just do it...and it feels so good on a soul level, and in my circle, that other nasty business that crops up is kind of like a hornet veering by or a pesky mosquito hanging around. It's not going to make me pack up my beautiful picnic lunch. I have had to engage in a spiritual practice of letting go of the things I can't control, and making the most of my deeply gratifying life. I'm very fortunate.

What sparked this book? How easy was it to get women to tell their stories? Did any of the stories surprise you?

I wanted to find this book and read it, but it didn't exist. The books I mentioned earlier are good, but they felt dated. I was having an experience that Cynthia Nixon was having, that Portia deRossi had; when these books were written, no glamorous, high-profile women were doing what I was doing...because they felt it would be career suicide. But that's not the case for women now.

Laura and I sent out the call for submissions...we waited...and received a deluge. 130 submissions. And they were so good! Narrowing them down to 27 was no picnic. But there was something so powerful in the emphatic, abundant response. So many other women were so eager to see themselves in other stories, to not feel like they were the only ones. My perception of myself changed as I read all of the stories. I was part of something greater...a crowd of women who had this very particular experience with very globally human characteristics.

You mentioned that you are working on a memoir. Can you talk about that?

Yes! I'm writing a food memoir called Licking the Spoon, which will be released in the spring of 2012 by Seal Press. Laura likes to call it a meta food memoir, because I examine the influence 15 cookbooks had on my life, growth, development of my self-concept, as an individual and as an American woman born in the early seventies. Betty Crocker was my mother's kitchen headmistress. The recipes called for things like cream of mushroom soup and celebrated the pastiche of a trickle-down idea of fine Continental (European) dining. Betty Crocker herself was a marketing construction, and she morphed throughout the decades in accordance with what a corporation thought women wanted or needed. I travel through other cookbook experiences as I grow up and figure out what it means to be a woman in this era. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest dovetails with my vegetarian, experimental college period. Martha Stewart is an aspirational role model whom I realize is more of an exacting fusspot...I admire her for all the ways that she is different from me, but part of growing up is making peace with who I am, instead of faking it till I maybe make it. It goes on through the other books, and follows me to the present moment; I am no longer subscribing to other models of living, eating, loving; I am discovering, every day, what is true for me, what I crave, what feeds my soul and nurtures my happiness. And, the book will include my very best recipes.

Right now, I'm the food columnist at AfterEllen.com, which is probably the most fun I've ever had doing anything writing-related. It's so much fun to be a saucy, irreverent Sapphic food writer! The opportunities for double entendre are legion. The column is called Good Taste.

You also mentioned that you and your partner work together on these books. What's that like?

It's so deeply wonderful. It could have been an ugly scene. I've tried to collaborate with less compatible partners in the past, and those experiences were rife with discord and ego-collisions.

Laura and I just happen to really groove together as co-editors. We have different strong points, and they're complementary. I feel like doing this book together has strengthened and deepened our relationship. I have loved learning about her more because of the process we've gone through.

Now I'm beginning my memoir, and Laura is embarking on her own anthology about women and mental health issues, working title, It's All in Her Head: Women Making Peace with Troubled Minds. [link:

It's been a little bittersweet for me. It's like she's going on a trip without me, and I want to come along. But I have such an amazing opportunity to write my own book...and luckily, we'll still be writing in the same room, just like before. It will just be more like parallel play.

Where can people learn more about this book and your upcoming projects?

website has excerpts, reviews, event listings, and links...and we have a very active facebook page with discussion threads and fun posts. You can also read more about our co-editing adventures in this Lambda Literary blog post:

And please follow me on twitter @candacewalsh; I'll follow you back! Laura's @lauramandre.

Dori Ostermiller talks about time and its discontents

Dori Ostermiller, the author of the shatteringly good novel, Outside the Ordinary World talks about the good and bad news about time.

Last week, in preparation for speaking on a panel about time management, I started chatting up my writing buddies, and discovered some good and bad news about this time issue… The bad news, my friends, is that you probably won’t ever have more time than you do now. During my informal interviews, I found that pretty much everyone is insanely overscheduled, regardless of numbers of offspring, levels of employment or income… (well, with the exception of two retirees in their 80’s). There seems to be an osmotic pressure ruling our hours: got a free space in your week? Something will inevitably flow in to fill it up.

The good news, though, is that needing lots of time to write is actually a myth. I know this, because in 1999, I won a $12,500 Massachusetts Cultural Council grant. I was a part-time working mom, writing grants 15 hours a week, for 15 bucks an hour, and the grant would allow me a long-coveted 6-month leave—enough time, I figured, to finally dust off my neglected manuscript and complete the book.

Somehow, the pressure to perform put me off my game. Terrified of failing, I ran lots of errands during my fifteen hours, sorted through stacks of baby clothes... In my defense, I did finish a chapter or two. I think I finally sent out birth announcements, too, though my daughter was nearly two and everyone was quite aware of her existence. Long story short, having extra time didn't solve my writing dilemma!

When I turned 40 and realized I no longer had unlimited swaths of time before me, I got determined. Or maybe desperate. I now had two kids and was teaching and running a writing studio—my time more taxed than ever. But if I didn’t finish the book soon, I’d have to admit that writing was a silly pipedream, like learning to speak fluent Chinese or reading the complete works of Hegel.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Right to Write, says, “The trick to finding writing time is to make time in the life you’ve already got. Stop imagining some other life as a ‘real’ writer’s life.” Once we learn to write from the sheer love of it, she says, there’s always enough time, but it must sometimes be stolen, like a kiss between lovers on the run… While finishing Outside the Ordinary World, I somehow found the will to rise at 5 am, four times a week, though I'm allergic to mornings… I also learned to utilize that “waiting mother” time—during piano lessons, dentist’s appointment, soccer games—perhaps the most abundant untapped resource we moms have access to! (I once completed a chapter during a 40-minute dance practice).

And when these stolen moments didn’t feel like they were adding up to a publishable novel, I swiped some weekends: every six weeks I’d spirit away to a writer’s retreat in Ashfield and shut myself in for 3 days at a stretch—I was that hungry for silence and solitude. Did I feel guilty leaving my family? Yes! So I channeled that angst into the novel; I created a fictional affair. I figured that was a much better deal for my husband, anyways...

Speaking of affairs, Cameron also likes to point out that the busiest, most important woman in the world can still find time for someone she's in love with. If something is important enough, we do find a way.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thanksturkey, anyone?

Let's hear it for the non-traditional Thanksturkey.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a family holiday, but one Thanksgiving, I found myself alone. My mother was off to a relatives, my sister and her family had been invited elsewhere, and there I was, alone in New York City, having recently left my husband (okay, the truth is, I was booted out). I was scared and lonely and living in what surely was the tiniest apartment in all of Manhattan.

If you'd like to read more, please go to AOL's Kitchen Daily: http://www.kitchendaily.com/2010/10/08/thanksgiving-traditions-sweet-potato/#ixzz15OO51pM9. I have to thank Gina Misiroglu for putting me in touch with AOL to write this. This is just one of the incredible ways she's helping to promote Red Room authors and bring more traffic to Red Room. And how fantastic is that?

Every Thanksgiving, Jeff, Max and I spend alone now--and we love it. It's a tradition. We buy a big tofurkey and make cranberry sauce and two kinds of pie, and then we hit the movies.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bill Peschel talks about his hilarious Writers Gone Wild

Trust me, you are going to want to devour this book. Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes
by Bill Peschel is a hilarious and witty compendium of writers acting badly. (What? We act badly?) It's a collection of over 200 different stories of bad behavior and it is absolutely and totally wonderful. Thanks, Bill, for coming on my blog.

Where did you ever get the idea for this book? (aside: I know you tell how in your book, but it’s such a great story, I’d love to reproduce it for my blog.) And how much fun was it to research?

The idea for the book surfaced in 1994. I was reading a biography of George Bernard Shaw, and when he was a poor, charming Irishman living with his mother in London, he lost his virginity to an older woman, Jenny Patterson, who had a fiery temper and “a remarkable bust.” In preparation, he had bought a packet of “French letters” ─ condoms to us ─ and noted the date and cost in his diary (he had also opened the packet and commented that they “extraordinarily revolted” him).

The course of Shaw’s unfortunate affair ─ filled with fights, reconciliations, stolen letters, makeup sex and ending in a lovers’ triangle and a screaming row ─ surprised me. I thought he had been an ascetic, possibly a virgin all his life. I wrote down the date he bought his condoms, amused at the thought of collecting notable literary stories tied to the calendar.

The more I thought, the more other events surfaced: the day Truman Capote opened the New York Times and read about the murders that led to “In Cold Blood” (the inciting incident, to you fiction writers, that would lead to his downfall); the first performance of “Casey At The Bat”; or the night Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Perhaps I would write a book for writers, containing useful stories: where inspiration comes from, how writers can lose their focus or waste their talent. It would contain birth and death dates, illuminating quotations, maybe some writing tips.

It seemed not only like a great idea, but also impossible to write. It would require 366 stories, including leap year, each keyed to the day it happened. It would take years to assemble, and I would have to write it.

But the idea stayed. Maybe it felt sorry for me. So I began setting aside ideas and stories. At my job on the newspaper, I’d save profiles and reviews from the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times and the Associated Press. When we got internet access, I found British newspapers such as the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, that covered the book scene and also wrote about the canonical writers. New York and Esquire magazines wrote about writers in Bellevue and Olivia Goldsmith’s obscene valentine candy. On a website, someone posted their Ph.D-level dissertation about Henry David Thoreau accidentally setting fire to a forest. A friend of Allen Ginsburg told an anecdote about the poet’s sexual degrees of separation from Walt Whitman.

About two years ago, with a lot of material compiled and little to show for it, I decided to write some essays and post them to the website. Six months later, I had the makings of a book.

Why is it so wonderful to know that our most hallowed writers can also be fumbling and foolish? Personally I feel that rather than diminishing their reputations, these stories actually make the person more complex, and thereby enhance their writing. Would you agree?

That’s true. Some of these stories show the incredible struggles these men and women have had to overcome. Janet Frame was days from a lobotomy that would have destroyed her talent. Dostoyevsky endured a decade in Siberia after believing he was going to be executed by the Tsar’s firing squad. Sherwood Anderson literally fled his wife and family to find himself as a writer. They were gifted, but they had to work, like us. They lived, like us. Yet look at what they achieved! That’s the point behind “Writers Gone Wild.”

Plus, writers have always put their lives into their works. There’s a scene in Hemingway’s short story, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in which Macomber flees from the lion, then asks Wilson, the great white hunter, not to tell anyone. Wilson takes offense and thinks of Macomber as a “bloody four-letter man as well as a bloody coward.” That key exchange was inspired by Hemingway’s drunken fight with Wallace Stevens on a Key West pier. Afterwards, Stevens ─ an upright, proper insurance exec ─ asked Hem to keep quiet about it. Think of what the boys back in Harford would say! The story gives you Hem’s response.

The writing must have been a great deal of fun.Note the title: Shelley freaks out. What was it like writing this?How did you figure out how to organize things? And were there any writers you wanted to do, but they had no juicy information on them at all?

The essays were great fun to do. It was like writing fan fiction. The characters are there, the story was there. All I had to do was ferret out the facts and figure out the most effective way to tell it. The only difficulty was that Penguin wanted short essays ─ roughly 300 words each ─ with the manuscript topping out at 60,000 words. A lot of decisions had to be made about which stories to tell and what to leave out.

If you could see my desk, you’ll see I’m not a natural organizer. I’ve been a self-help junkie all my life. I’m always reading books and websites and trying new methods to motivate me: keeping notebooks, creating to-do lists, using whiteboards and bulletin boards to display and track information. I could write a self-help book for writers, if I could only find my notes.

So I organized as I researched, because the key thought is that accumulating facts mean nothing if you can’t find it again. And my system had to be simple, because I keep forgetting how to use complex systems. So the filing was as simple as it could get: A-Z. I had amassed two file drawers with information saved by the writer’s last name or by topic such as sex, feuds, frauds, last words. The system was duplicated on my computer, where I have thousands of files saved.

Once the contract was signed, I went back through all those files, scanned the material and dug out stories ideas I had missed. Grouping the stories by topics seemed the logical response.

As far as writers I would like to have covered, that wasn’t an issue. Penguin wisely wanted the first book to be about canonical writers, so I’m sure Jonathan Franzen will be heartbroken to learn his fallout with Oprah didn’t make the book. Neither did Philip Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom or Alice Walker disowning her daughter by e-mail. Maybe in the sequel.

But as the book was taking shape, I wanted to make sure that women and black writers were represented and that American writers didn’t dominate. So I looked for stories about Ida B. Wells and Richard Wright, and when cutting stories, made sure that the foreign writers stayed.

The only hole in the book was the lack of Canadian writers. All of them are apparently honorable, level-headed, honest, upright and sober. Wonderful for them, but frustrating for a muckraking writer.

I loved the story of Mailer taking out a page in a newspaper and printing his horrible reviews—and how instead of hurting him, it made him a larger fixture on the literary scene.So, can modern day writers learn something from this, or will it only work if you are Mailer?

Mailer wasn’t the first to do it. Maxwell Anderson also bashed his critics in a full-page ad. Recently, I ran across a similar story about a playwright who ordered the one negative review of his play to be displayed in the lobby. He explained that he wanted the audience to leave the play, read the notice, and say, “What was that wanker thinking?”

So there is a lesson in Mailer’s story, that artists can use their personalities to shape the world and promote their works and the force. Create an iconic image. Make some noise. Leave an impression. There’s a Monty Python skit in which Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” He’s right.

The problem is balancing being talked about with producing things worth talking about. Popularity can trap a writer, both from without ─ by creating expectations in readers that limit your creativity ─ and from within, when your ego becomes a parasite on your energy.

I experienced this when I wrote an article about playing a Continental Army soldier in Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot.” The set was closed to journalists, but I got in as an extra. The story didn’t break any news, but being near Mel created a strong proximity effect. The day after publication, this self-effacing copy editor was under the heat lamp of eager attention from my co-workers and friends. The local TV news station interviewed me. I could literally feel my head swelling. To a lifelong pessimist, it was an unexpected, disconcerting feeling, like I had slipped into an alternative world where I was a celebrity.

So tell us your favorite story here and why?

Boy, that’s hard, because every story had to engage me in some way before I would write it. William Burroughs shooting his girlfriend through the head while playing William Tell; Ana├»s Nin cheating on her husband with Henry Miller and making up for it by taking him to a lesbian bordello; the logrolling behind Kafka and his interest in very peculiar porn; Erica Jong’s seduction by a publisher. How do you choose?

So here’s today’s favorite story today: After the Nazis overran France in 1940 and began oppressing the Jews in Paris, Samuel Beckett decided “you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.”

So in 1941, he and his partner, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, joined the resistance. They’d gather information about the disposition of German forces, and he would type them on paper that would be reduced to the size of a matchbox. An old woman who looked like a respectable peasant would pass the information on to England.

A year later, they were betrayed by a Catholic priest. Sam and Suzanne fled Paris barely ahead of the Germans sent to arrest them. They made their way to Provence, where they spent the rest of the war in Roussillon, a hilltop village isolated from the world. Beckett would help the farmers by day and spend his evenings working on his novel, “Watt.” After the war, he was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance by the French government.

Beckett’s story impressed me. I wouldn’t have expected the man who wrote “Waiting for Godot” to take such a stand. With all of the writers with questionable political beliefs ─ Ezra Pound, who loved Mussolini and fascism, Knut Hamsun, who welcomed the Nazis to his native Norway, and H.L. Mencken, who silenced himself during WWII and turned his back on persecuted Jews, Beckett ‘s act was heroic and historically correct. He also rarely mentioned his resistance work. Many of his friends never knew about the medals.

What’s obsessing you now?

Marketing this book. Years from now, writers will reminisce fondly about the pre-Internet days, when all you had to do was attend booksignings and pass out bookmarks. Now, we’re YouTubing, Facebooking, tweeting, Shelfaring and podcasting. Soon, we’ll jump to brain-to-brain linkages with readers on our e-mind list.

I’m not complaining. It’s wonderful to have these options to reach readers, but it can be very exhausting. You always feel you’re forgotten to do something vitally important.

Otherwise, I have two passions. I’m slowly gathering material for a “Hollywood Gone Wild,” and annotating Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel. She was one of the first women to graduate from a British university (Oxford, in fact), and her Lord Peter mysteries are full of literary, cultural, historical and political references. I have several books annotated on my website, but because her first book is in the public domain, I’ll get to publish it in e-book and print form.

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

After writing 2,000 words, the first one that should come to mind is: “Do you ever shut up?” Seriously, thanks so much for inviting me!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Coffee, tea and me

First Virtual tea a great success! You can read the transcripts right here, if you are so inclined.

And please check out my book trailer, done by filmmaker Chloe Reynolds.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Susan Straight talks about Take One Candle Light a Room

Breathtaking prose, a gritty sensibility, and a fearless delving into racial issues--any of these words could describe the sublime Susan Straight's novels. A National Book Award finalist, Susan Straight has written six glorious novels and is a professor at the University of California. Take One Candle Light a Room follows Fantine, determined to help the godson of her murdered best friend, even as the past begins to threaten any sort of future. Thank you so much, Susan for answering my questions.

What do you think the answer is to how we find our place in the world, which I think is the question your novel is asking? I found it really interesting that Fantine keeps her own family at arm’s length and yet is invested in the son of a murdered friend—as if that is somehow an easier bond.

I found again and again while writing this book that my main theme was: There are people who stay and people who leave, which is what Fantine knows her mother believes, and I realized that Fantine was kind of my fantasy woman, someone who has made sure she has no actual place to tie her down with those bonds of obligation and responsibility, someone who has only a few items in her refrigerator, someone who can love a city for a week and then just feel vaguely sentimental about it. But I think when she realizes that Victor is actually a lot like her, and he calls her on that, she thinks about how little she actually has, and how much she was given.

What sparked this novel?

This novel was sparked by the oddest images and sights. Two blocks from my house, there's a vacant lot where a house must have burned down years ago, and I saw kids from the city college parking there. I wrote two stories about a kid who's really intelligent and misses taking his SATs because his mother is a crack addict, the most beautiful woman in her community, and then I remembered two real women: one was the most lovely woman I've ever seen, even now, and I have three beautiful girls. But this woman rode the bus with me when I was a freshman at USC, and she was a secretary; she was iridescent, and men followed her around, and she was so sad and ignored them. The other woman was a 17-year-old girl, pregnant, found murdered and left in a shopping cart in a vacant lot I pass every day on my way to work; her mother said to the newspaper that the police wouldn't really investigate because no one would care about a girl like her daughter. So I wanted to know what happened to this kid, and his mother, and his brain.

The novel is also very much about race and being an outsider. There’s light skinned Fantine, dark-skinned Victor and Fantine’s father who wants to shield Fantine from prejudice. Do you personally think, given America’s attitudes towards race, that racial equality will ever be a given? Is it possible to embrace a future without still bearing the scars of the past?

If you look at all the newly-okay use of the n-word and all the racist language floating around right now, language I know we didn't hear back in the 1990s or even in 2005, how can my daughters and I ever think that race will not be the measure by which people still judge each other? Rosette, my youngest, is a sophomore in high school, and for her AP European History class, she was studying a packet last night in which she had to define "mulatto" and "mestizo." We always laugh in our family - if someone is a "mulatto," that means half African and half European. So, as in the novel, if a mulatto marries a mulatresse, and then five generations later they are still marrying "light-skinned" people, how half are they? What percentage of what is what? My kids are Swiss, French-Colorado-Illinois white, African, Cherokee, Irish plantation owner, and mystery people whose race no one ever knew - so are they black, or mixed, or do we have to do that forever?

Your use of language is just breathtaking. Do you feel the language is as important as the story, or can you even separate the two?

For me, everything is language, and character, and setting, and dialogue, and all of it is language - how you're going to make the reader see it, hear it, smell it, with description. I think my job is to make people cry. That's what my daughters tease me about.

I found it really interesting that you said in an interview, that no one calls your novels any genre because they don’t know how to classify them. I personally think this is a great thing but how do you feel about this? Why do you think this is?

That's a great question. Don't you think men write "Social Novels" and women write "Domestic Novels," according to some people, when really some great Social Novels are Mystery (think Pelecanos and Burke and Mosely and Laura Lippman), and some are Historical Novels (think Pat Barker and Toni Morrison!) and some books are just great novels. I like to think I write novels that are uniquely American in the way that Flannery O'Connor and Louise Erdrich and Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow novels are uniquely about particular places and people in America. I like to think that writers like you and me and Jennifer Egan and Marisa Silver and Attica Locke are writing those kind of novels.

I read--and found it fascinating--that you started Highwire Moon, your National Book Award nominated novel, when you were 19.What began that novel, and what did it take to finish it?

I began to write Highwire Moon one night when I missed my foster sister, Sandy, with whom I shared a bedroom for about four years, until I was 13, and after I'd read an article about a linen company where my dad worked, which had an immigration roundup where a bunch of women were deported back to Mexico, and suddenly I wondered about the children they'd left behind, at babysitters or with friends, and how the children would, of course, blame themselves if their mothers didn't return. Children always think people leave them behind because they don't love them. Then, I wrote those 50 pages by hand, and had no idea what the Mexican mother, Serafina, would actually do to try and find the daughter she was separated from, until I was 34. I had three kids by then. I went to Oaxaca to find out.

How does teaching other writers impact your own work?

I love teaching other writers. Next quarter I'm teaching a class I wrote called Working Class Fiction, with novels about people's labor and life. (I met an editor once who said writers had stopped writing novels where people had jobs, and I know I never had! She laughed that my characters were always obsessed with work.) I will teach Helena Maria Viramontes, Stewart O'Nan, Michael Tolkin, Ernest J. Gaines, and Anza Yezierska. It only impacts my own work in that I get to admire and appreciate them, and feel a sense of community with people I never even see or meet - I live in a place where hardly anyone even knows that I write.

What question did I forget to ask?

Those were great questions, some that I've never heard before!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Milk and Ink Anthology is here

Milk and Ink is here now! This anthology of stories, essays and poems, edited by Eros-Alegra Clarke, Jordan Rosenfield (who shares my Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes fixation), Nina Perez and Tomi L. Wiley, is by writing mothers and celebrates the intensity of being both mother and writer. It also will inspire all to recognize the power of living true to your passions and life purpose. And, it also features an essay by me!

Milk & Ink focuses on the experience of motherhood, but it also speaks to everyone: fathers, daughters, and sons. This anthology, not only in its stories, but in its creation and promotion, seeks to acknowledge the need we have for one another.

Proceeds of the project will be donated to Mama Hope, which supports women and children in Africa in a variety of projects.

To purchase copies you may visit here or try here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Caroline loves Venus Zine!

Getting reviews is nerve wracking. Love me, love me, love me is like a drumbeat inside your head, but you can't always win. But this review from the national publication Venus Zine was better for me than ten Valiums. I especially love the comparison to Reservation Road, one of my favorite, unsettling novels of all time. So here it is:

“With a tragic story and a cast of highly relatable, flawed characters, Pictures of You is a kind of female version of another novel that revolves around a car accident, John Burnham Schwartz’s haunting Reservation Road.”

Time to celebrate! Where's the chocolate?