Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do novelists need story structure? I rave about Truby story structure

Every once in a while, there is a writerly discussion about how some writers write from inspiration, “following their pen,” writing pages and pages at National Novel Writing Month (I’m not a fan of that, by the way), or writing a crappy draft in a stream of conscious way and then seeing what’s there. Outlines and synopsis, some writers say, make for flat writing. “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader,” some say. Admit to using an outline and you may get some glassy stares, as if you’ve said you like Venus Paint By Number paintings. I realize some writers can and do write without a plan, but for me, it leaves me with a tangle of story. It makes me feel as if I am creating the flesh without having the bones beneath.

The main argument against story structure has been that it kills creativity. So, listen to this quote, from John Irving. “If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re doing probably isn’t very vital. If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell the story, then you’re not trying to tell enough.”  Sounds like his writing is full of surprises, grief, angst, the zone--all those delicious and wonderful and terrifying and terrific things novelists grapple with, right? Well, Irving outlines. He won’t start a novel until he knows his last line. 

I started out writing without a plan. For me, it always ended badly. Then I reluctantly began to outline, realizing as I wrote, that the outlines were a kind of lifeline for me. They organized things a bit, and because I was always changing them. Suddenly, I began to be more of a structuralist.

Enter John Truby and his Story Structure Class. I first heard about him in my UCLA novel writing class. I get a lot of screenwriters, and because I was trying to write scripts, one of my students began to gush about John Truby story structure. Truby had spent years studying stories--what makes them work, what doesn’t, and he came to the conclusion that the usual three act structure for film was all wrong that instead there were certain key things in every story spine, whether it was in a novel, a film, a crowd pleaser or the most esoteric work. 

The student gave me her notes and I found that the same story principals he talks about for film could work for novels. Just this week, I took his 3-day story structure seminar, and I felt as if sparks were coming out of my head. He gave me this new way to think about story, a new way of seeing a story, so that every novel becomes a moral argument in a sense, with a deeper meaning, instead of just a series of events. 

I took the class with another novelist, Tish Cohen, and together, we ganged up on John and asked if he’d consider doing a story structure class for novelists, which he wants to do. 

What can I say? He showed me how to break down the beats of stories, how to find the moral center, how to escalate the drama, and find the bones to build on. And do I feel less creative for knowing structure? Actually, I feel more. 

Gerry Hadden talks about the unexplained, Never the Hope Itself, and more

Gerry Hadden's Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin American and Haiti is one remarkable book. A young radio reporter about to don monk's robe, he winds up in Mexico City and Haiti instead, dealing with ghosts (both literal and figuratively) while also falling in love. It was such a stellar book, I asked him if he'd write something for the blog. Thank you so, so much, Gerry.

Covering Mexico at the dawn of the 21st century was an extraordinary experience.  A busted open piƱata of extraordinary experiences.  It began so hopefully.  The country saw its first democratic transition of power in more than seven decades.  The U.S., under President George W. Bush, was busy mapping out a “century of the Americas,” a new era of closer cooperation and respect.  Planes smashed into the Twin Towers and elsewhere.  The U.S. forgot Latin America, remembering only to lock down its southern border before shipping soldiers out to Afghanistan and Iraq.  A great debate began:  Was it a blessing or a curse to have the great eye of America suddenly focused elsewhere?  That debate continues.  There is no right answer, only points of view and arguments to defend or discredit them. That’s geopolitics. It can be maddening, but almost every decision taken or event unfolding can be explained through its prism.  You might not agree with an explanation, but it’s there, rational or not, supplying motive. 

That’s normal stuff.  What made my experience in Mexico extraordinary were all the things that couldn’t be explained. 

I couldn’t explain to my Italian friend, Guido, the sax playing hairdresser, why the sofa he was sleeping on in my living room kept lifting off the ground and banging down again.  I couldn’t explain the banging of dishes in the kitchen when I wasn’t in the kitchen.  Even harder to make sense of was the pair of boy’s legs that apparently scampered down the front steps one evening.  Just legs.  Wearing knickers, my friend Karina said. Or the people milling around in the big framed mirror over the piano who drove that young human rights worker from my house forever.  Or the thing that sat on me, or the self-propelled raisins, or the Bertrand Russell book, an impossible gift and yet just lying there, for me, on my computer. 

All of these things were heard or seen or happened in the house I rented on Jojutla Street in Mexico City.  It was my home and the NPR bureau, and it became a crossroads of events both current and other-worldly.  What a gift.  I could exercise my rational mind each day by gnawing on the news, the culture, the history.  And then, every once in a while, I got to shut my rational self off and instead just stare in surprise, or awe, or fear, resting in the uncertainty.  That was exercise too.  The Mexicans I met had a name for the strangeness I was encountering: Ghosts. For lack of a better answer, and despite my skepticism, I accepted the term.  Provisionally.  I waited.  A better answer never came. My skepticism waned. I was living in a world that seemed to find nothing unusual about specters.  Maybe, just maybe, I thought, if an entire culture makes mental room for the supernatural, the supernatural can be born into that space.  But who knows? I never figured it out.  It was extraordinary.

Lynne Bryant talks about Alligator Lake, racism and more

Lynne Bryant's Alligator Lake, is an extraordinary novel about Southern racism. I'm thrilled and honored to have her on my blog. Thank you so, so much, Lynne!

Conversations around the country evoked by my first novel, Catfish Alley, have me eagerly anticipating readers’ responses to Alligator Lake. Both of my novels expose deeply rooted racism. Although I write from the context of the Deep South, I have found that people nation-wide struggle to communicate honestly about race. My own creative process in writing these two books, particularly Alligator Lake, involves grappling with racism through the fictional story of a particular family. 

Debate generated by my novels can be uncomfortable—for me, as well as readers. My personal angst is directly related to the importance I place on being sure that the voices I use in my work are authentic. 

In November, 2011, I participated in a community dialogue in Jackson, Mississippi called “Facing History, Facing Ourselves.” The event was sponsored by a faculty member of Jackson State University in collaboration with The Margaret Walker Center, a museum and research center dedicated to African American history and culture. 

Why do we need to talk about this?” a woman asked, challenging me from across the room with her glare. She was a powerful black woman—a Democratic lobbyist. Her skepticism was clear. I was overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. All of my reasons stuck in my throat, refusing to be spoken because of my fear I would be unworthy to have an opinion.

“Because so many of us are unconscious about our own racism; because we need to wake up,” I managed to say, hoping she would not dismiss me. She didn’t let me off the hook easily, but the subsequent two hour discussion among the members of the small diverse group gathered together that evening reinforced my belief in the power of conversation to enlighten and change our perspectives on race and each other.

One of the most moving stories was recounted by a young black female professional who works full-time as a mentor and advocate for teens in the Mississippi Delta, which has the highest teenage pregnancy and poverty rates in the nation. She had taken a group of black teenage girls to the local Pizza Hut for lunch. As they were leaving the restaurant, she stopped to have a friendly conversation with the white male manager. The girls stood quietly nearby watching her interaction. When she returned to the group, she found them wide-eyed, mouths gaping. 

“What?” she asked.

“You looked him in the eye,” they whispered. 

"Yes, I did,” she responded, sensing what was coming.

“But, you’re not supposed to look white people in the eye,” the girls said, shocked by her behavior.

“Oh, yes, you are,” she responded. “He’s no better than me. I’m no better than him.”

Through her matter-of-fact manner, we were reminded that even in 2011, these young girls held the same beliefs their Jim Crow era grandparents and great-grandparents had held; they were firmly entrenched in a sense of themselves as unequal. Those girls learned an extremely important lesson watching the interaction of their mentor with a white person. 

It’s amazing to me how many people deny racial disparity still exists. Often blacks and whites who attempt to mix socially, or in religious settings, or in intimate relationships receive criticism from members of their own races. The need to maintain racial boundaries is powerful. 

Perhaps some people are destined to step across boundaries, and others are destined to stay within? Alligator Lake explores that notion. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I’m profoundly interested in the question.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Anita Diamant interviews author Rain Mitchell, er...well, maybe not

Want to have fun? The sublime Anita Diamant , author of The Red Tent, Day After Night and ten more fantastic books, interviews the mysterious Rain Mitchell, author of Head Over Heels and Tales from the Yoga Studio and discovers Rain is really...well read on, and you'll see, and don't forget to check out the photos on the bottom. I'm completely honored and thrilled to have Anita here, and my feelings about Rain go at the very bottom of this blog, too. Thank you so much, Anita! (And thank you, "Rain.")

ANITA DIAMANT:  So, Rain, I just finished Head Over Heels, your second novel, and I found it as delightful and fun as your first, Tales from the Yoga Studio.  

RAIN MITCHELL:  Thanks, Anita.  Coming from you, I consider that high praise.

AD:  I think you managed to find the balance between the lunacy and the wisdom of yoga in America today, cleverly exposing both sides through the lives of the main characters. 

RM:  My biggest challenge was to be satirical about the wonkier aspects of the yoga scene (which are pretty hilarious—David Romanelli’s Chocolate and Wine Yoga Retreats?  What’s wrong with this picture?) while at the same time emphasizing the benefits of the practice itself, which I believe in completely.  

AD:  After reading the second book, the five women at the center of the stories feel like close personal friends.

RM:  I love hearing that.  I’ve come to know them really well and care about them tremendously.  Since it’s a series, I have a sense of their lives going on, even when I’m not actually writing about them.  I can’t wait to start writing the third book, just to find out what they’re up to.  At the same time, each book has to be written so it can be read separately. 

AD:  The books are very funny and upbeat, but there are some pretty dark corners as well—a miscarriage, a bad marriage, an abusive relationship.  

RM:  I like these women so much, I hate when bad things happen to them.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I shed a few tears while writing.  But if you’re going to have subplots and suspense, you have to have trouble.  You know that better than anyone.  I don’t recall any completely happy marriages in your novels.
AD:  Completely happy marriages? Uh ... I don't write science fiction.
RM:  Yours might be the only science fiction novel I’d read if you did, but I still hope you don’t go there.    

AD:  I wouldn’t worry about it too much.  Do you have a favorite among the characters?

RM:  The character I have the most fun with is Alan, Lee’s narcissistic ex-husband.  He’s just so appallingly and consistently selfish, I can always count on him to do something outrageous.  I keep hoping he’ll reform, but it hasn’t happened yet.  I’m afraid bad characters are sometimes more fun to write about.    

AD:  On the page, maybe.  When did you start practicing yoga?

RM:  When I was a teenager.  Back then you could find a class or two in a church basement if you searched.  Now there's a studio on virtually every corner of every major city.  The good news is, I can always find a class, no matter where I am.  The bad news is, I have fewer excuses to miss a day of practice.  

AD:  Why set a series of novels at a studio?

RM:  Yoga studios are now central to the social lives of a lot of people I know, women especially.  It's where they make friends, organize for social causes, and sometimes, meet men.  It seemed like the perfect setting for a series of novels.  Lots of "backstage drama."  Do you see this at the studio where you practice? 

AD:  There are a few couples I find intriguing – including the husband/wife team who are there every time I take a class. And there’s one guy who practices bare-chested and wearing spandex shorts.

RM:  I think he made a cameo appearance in Tales from the Yoga Studio.  His name is Brian, but the women refer to him “affectionately” as Boner.  He of, "the white stretch pants that scream I'm serious about yoga, ladies--and circumcised."

AD:  There’s a lot in the books about the way yoga has become commercialized.  Is this something that’s obsessing you these days? 

RM:  Let’s just say I’m not losing any sleep over it.  But I do think there's something inherently funny in the emphasis on spirituality combined with the importance of designer pants and having a perfect "yoga butt."  This is especially true in LA, where my novels are set.

AD:  I loved the term you coined to describe conversations about poses and classes:  “conversasanas.”  I can spend a ridiculous amount of time having those conversasanas about some small yogic accomplishment, but only with another yoga acolyte.  Anyone else looks at you like you’re selling Amway.

RM:  Maybe that should be my next book.  I’ll never write the Great American Novel, but the Great Amway Novel…maybe.  

AD:  So how did you get the name Rain?

RM:  It's the title of my mother's favorite story by W Somerset Maugham.

AD:  Oh, come on. I know Rain Mitchell is a pseudonym and you're really Stephen McCauley.

RM:  Ummmm....

AD:  Why, after writing six successful  novels under your own name, did you decide to publish these books under a different name?

RM:  It was the editor's idea, not mine. 

AD:  But you do have a following of loyal readers, 

RM:  The Rain Mitchell books were intended to be in a different voice, more plot driven than my novels tend to be, and pitched toward a different audience. After I finished my sixth novel, Insignificant Others, I wanted to try writing something very different from what I'd written before. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that. 

AD:  It’s a different voice, but I hear little echoes of you throughout.  What was it like working this way?

RM:  Liberating!  I tend to second-guess everything I scribble onto the page.  Rain is more secure than I am.  Rain has a better work ethic. I'm easily distracted, but Rain has laser focus.  Rain loves big plot twists, while I'm hesitant about them.   Believe me, I learned a lot from Rain.  Tales from the Yoga Studio sold foreign rights in fourteen countries.  I’m proud of Rain.

AD:  From the very first page of the first novel, I wondered what  Rain wore to class.  The full Lululemon? Tanks or sports bra with a fine-gauge cotton T?  In other words, is Rain a yogini or a yogi?

RM: Initially, Rain was of unspecified gender.  When Plume asked me to write some biographical information about Rain, I put my foot down. Writing 1,000 words about someone without identifying that person's gender is just too grammatically complicated. Rain is officially a she.  But if you prefer Rain to be a he, talk to me about it.

AD:  Is there any question I haven’t asked that should have been asked?

RM:  I’m always flattered when people ask for my phone number.

AD:  Too bad, dear—I’ve known it for years.

Note from Caroline: Stephen McCauley is one of the funniest, most wonderful people around. I met him at a reading a few years ago and we quickly bonded over our shared love of Liza Minnelli and hilariously bad movies, and I once talked Stephen into making mac and cheese for a Boston Globe article (he's Boston's mac and cheese king. Don't let him tell you otherwise.) He's also an incredible writer and I would probably do just about anything for him. Thanks so much, Stephen, for doing this!

Monday, March 19, 2012

The sublime Anne Lamott talks about writing Some Assembly Required with her son Sam, grandparenting, holding on, letting go, and so much more

I'm completed thrilled to post this blog, for many, many reasons. I don't remember when I first had contact with Annie--I think it was after I read Operating Instructions (though I had been following her career since All New People). But what I do remember is, before I gave birth to my son, I had a miscarriage at three months and people were saying all sorts of ridiculous things to me, like "At least you didn't know the baby," or, "Why'd you have a kid at your age, anyway" I just felt I had to talk to her, and I called and left a message (or maybe I wrote a letter, I don't remember) and then immediately felt like an idiot, because who was I to intrude on her time? I went out to sulk and when I came back there was this ten minute, hilariously funny, incredibly warm message on my answering machine from Annie. It was the first time I laughed since the miscarriage.

I never forgot such incredible kindness. 

She's got legions of fans, her books seem to become bestsellers before they are even out of the gate, and she writes about what's really important. I loved Some Assembly Required (written with her incredible son Sam) because she talks about how difficult it is to let go of our children and let them have independence, how thorny, wild and wonderful it can be to navigate from being a mother to being a grandmother, and how love and hope and faith are the glue that holds it all together.

I'm honored, thrilled, and so excited that I can hardly sit still, to also report that Annie will be interviewing me in April 26 at Rakestraw Books in California as part of Algonquin Books Book Club. Please come! (This is yet another example of her incredible generosity and kindness.)

I can't thank Annie enough for coming on this blog--or for everything else. Thanks, thanks, thanks, Annie.

What was it like writing a book with your son? What surprised you about the process?
The main thing was that I wouldn't have written it without his initial insistence that it was a great idea, for Jax to have an operating instructions of his own. Then, getting him to write his pieces or submit to the interviews was pretty much like getting your kid to do his college applications. Every so often a sweet funny little e-mail arrived on its own, but I had to rely on all the old parental stand-byes--guilt-mongering, teeth pulling, threats; money changed hands. Then I would receive one of his set pieces--like the Father's Day entry, or the story of my brother's wedding, and it would just stun me with how profound and lovely it was..

I love that you talk about the whole idea of letting go of our children, letting them find their own way. As a mother of a 15 year old, I already am panicking about this! So much of our culture gives it a cute name—empty nest syndrome—but it’s a real ache of the heart, and I loved how honest you were about your struggle. So I have to ask, does it get easier?

If it were mostly a phenomenon that men experienced and expressed, it would not have a birdy name. It would have a name that captured the wrenching pain of loss and identity, how scary it is to create a new life when all that you've known drops away. The male term would make men seem heroic for being able to raise their children knowing the kids would leave while still in their youth, in the natural yet excruciating order of things. I think men minimize the process with a cartoony name because it hurts them so much, too--missing the kid, and facing up to the passage and ravages of time., and all that silence and empty space.

My story was that Sam moved out on his own to live, work, go to school, locally. So I had the best of both worlds--him having taken the plunge, yet getting to stay in close contact. I loved so many things about both having him around, and him being gone, the freedom and quiet of that. My work took off. Then a year and a half later, he and Amy were pregnant, which was very frightening and unexpected. The best thing to do about all the pain and confusion of feelings is to wake up to them, have a real awakening to the mixed grille nature of one's emotional responses--grief, anger at having to hurt so much, failure, the great attendant achievements, the wistful mooniness--because an awakening always leads to blessings and expansion of consciousness. You really have to cry a lot, or it all gets stuck and plugged up. Then the tears, the water, the action of self-care, your life-force and general wonderfulness, lead you back into the flow of life, your life; like a stream. Then you get to have all these dreams come true, because you have time and space. 
I also love the way you talk about your faith: it’s messy, complex, complicated, and best of all, it’s always evolving. (I also love your two prayers that Sam says he got from you, Help, help, and thank you, thank you.) Do you ever waver in your belief, and if so, what brings you back?

I don't really waver in my faith too much, but there are times when I think--or rather, can SEE--that life here on earth can really be too hard to bear. I sometimes feel sick with the devastation that dear friends are going through--sick kids, bad diagnoses, Madoff, various anvils dropping on top of their lives from out of the sky. But each and every time, literally, I have seen the response of their closest people and of the community, and so have gotten to see miracles and mind-blowing acts of strength, generosity, vulnerability and grace.

 I have a son I adore, but I don’t have grandchildren yet (I think I would kill myself if I did—he’s only 15). But you describe how different the love of grandchildren is from the love of children. Why do you think that’s so? What makes your son having a son so incredible?

The great thing about grandchildren is that they LEAVE. When your kid still lives with you, at the end of they day they walk to their own room to continue plotting the uprising against you. Or to shut you out of their minds so they can think straight, or find a floaty patch of peace. But with a grandchild, you pour yourself into him, and then at the end of the day, one of the parents takes the baby away! It's so great. You and the dogs sink to the floor with exhaustion. Then you get to watch all the shows you recorded on your DVR, in a row, while eating something delicious that you don't have to share with ANYONE. Then of course you find yourself craving the baby again, because he is so lovely and smart and hilarious and delicious, and his skin is so soft and he just adores you. So maybe you have a little withdrawal, but then you see him again, absolutely pour yourself into this mutual love machine, until you are totally used up--babies are exhausting--and then the parents take him away. And you get to have a tiny pre-dinner nap.

You and your son Sam also have this incredible honesty with each other. How did you get so lucky to have such a thing?

Maybe it had to do with my being a single mother. Also, I so love and live for truth and honesty in the world, especially because those qualities are so rare; so he grew up with this as a primary value, amidst my very closest friends and my brother, and it can be very addictive.

 There’s a part of the book I found profoundly moving. You’re at an ashram, and you say that the leader doesn’t “breathe on you, the way your parents would. He lets you come to it.” Do you think that might be the secret of life?

The secret of life is close friends. But it really is so life-giving and wonderful to see real people modeling a beautiful healthy way to be with others, OE not needing to own, control, manipulate, rescue them, to see people who know from deep within that each of us--even our kids!--is on our own hero's journey towards truth and oneness.

It seems that so much about the book is about relinquishing control—of where the baby is baptized, of how he is raised,--and yet, it’s a paradox that this letting go actually brings closeness. 

 I'm so lucky that Sam and Jax still love and depend on me, even though I am so impossible and needy and spoiled (AND such a martyr, although perhaps 75% better.) Letting go is by far the hardest and most important thing we do, daily and over time. As I said in the book, when people chirp, Let go and let God," I literally want to attack them. There's a great line from the recovery community that everything we let go of has claw marks on it, and that is still often true for me. One way I let go is by SOMEHOW not doing certain controlling things--for instance, maybe I hold my tongue instead of sharing my rarely helpful Helpful Thoughts. And that creates an atmosphere of ease, the opposite of clutch and clench, and that means our children don't have to gird themselves defensively against us. So they don't have to bolt from us, and we find ourselves metaphorically sitting together on the couch a little while longer, or riding around in the car enjoying the views together, or the music., or God knows, even each other's presence.  

How are Sam and Jax and Amy now?

They split up a few months ago and are now living about an hour apart, raising their boy together from two different homes.

What's obsessing you now?

Oh, all the usual things; how the book will do, what my butt looks like, how old one of my dogs has gotten, and how I can possibly survive when she dies; the economy. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Laura Barcella talks about Madonna & Me, her favorite candy and of course, Madonna

Doesn't everyone have a Madonna Story? When Laura Barcella graciously invited me to be a part of her new anthology Madonna & Me, I couldn't wait to tell my tale of how for three days (three days!) Madonna was considering making my novel Into Thin Air, her directorial debut.  Instead, she went off on another singing tour and smashed my heart and my hopes to bits. Still, it was lots of fun to write about it, and the stories in this anthology practically sing. I'm thrilled to have Laura here to talk about Madonna, and isn't the above photo of her, dressed up as her idol, a hoot?  Thank you, thank you, Laura.

So, why Madonna? Why do you think she's still relevant today?

Doing an all-female anthology about Madonna interested me for two reasons. The first was selfish -- because, as I've gotten older and started to look back on my childhood and the things and people that most impacted me, I've realized just how much Madonna affected my life. I was really young (6 or 7) when she first got famous, but I became obsessed with her from the very first moment I heard her. I loved her music and looked up to her in an idolizing pop-star way, but I also looked up to her on a personal-identity level. I truly had never seen or heard a woman like her before -- completely unashamed and unapologetic about being exactly who she was. Her refusal to tamp herself down, quiet her sexuality, or minimize herself really showed me a new model of what women could do, be, say, and think. That's the first reason I did the anthology -- to honor the impact she had on my life and identity.

The second reason I did it: I knew Madonna's pop-cultural footprint was huge, and I suspected, from talking to other women, that her impact on women in general was possibly even bigger. I wanted to explore all the ways she changed women's lives.

I think she's still relevant today in the way that any groundbreaking artist is relevant past the initial heyday that made them famous. She may not be as trail-blazing or influential as she was in the '80s, but she's obviously still super-successful and powerful, and what she's doing or not doing now doesn't really change the enormity of the impact she had on the culture at large. We're still talking about her, she has clearly influenced dozens of female artists (hi, Lady Gaga), and she's still actively performing and making music. People still care about her -- that was made even more apparent when she was asked to perform at the Super Bowl.

Were you surprised by the essays you received? Did you expect one thing and discover some new things along the way?

I knew I'd get a ton of submissions from a ton of women who loved Madonna and wanted to express that love for her. That's pretty much exactly what I got! But I was a bit surprised by the commonalities shared by many of the writers -- for instance, the "Like a Prayer" video specifically came up again and again and again; I hadn't realized (or remembered) how profoundly moving that video was for people.

Another thing that was interesting was how many women seemed to feel a kind of personal, familial connection with Madonna. I did too. I think that's partially because she's been around as part of our consciousness for so much of our lives; she's just always been there, kind-of like an aunt or an older sister.

And I was surprised, too, when I received a few stray submissions from male writers who REALLY wanted to participate; they pretty much begged me to let them write something even though the call for submissions clearly stated this book would be women-only. I thought that was kind-of funny and sweet, how badly they wanted in, but obviously I didn't accept their pieces!

What was it like to edit an anthology?

Oh, it was awesome. I loved it almost every step of the way. Of course, one aspect that wasn't fun was having to turn people's essays down -- that was difficult. Also, there were a lot of small details and files and organizational stuff that needed to be constantly maintained, and I'm usually not the most organized person. But I pretty quickly got into the groove (ha, ha) and figured out how to manage a good system for all the details -- the contracts, essays, payments, etc.

What are you working on next?

I actually have another book coming out in July, from Zest Books. It's a nonfiction apocalyptic-pop culture guide aimed at teenagers. It's called The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About...Before It's Too Late. You can pre-order it on Amazon here: It's a  fun and slightly dark project; adults would definitely enjoy it too.

Other than that, I'm pretty busy promoting Madonna & Me. I am batting around some ideas for possible follow-up anthologies -- someone suggested doing a similar anthology of Madonna-themed essays by men (Madonna & Men?). I would also love to do a similar book about Morrissey -- called, obvs, Morrissey & Me -- but apparently he's pretty niche, so it's unclear whether a book like that would manage to sell at all.

What's obsessing you now?

Hard question! Um... sparkling water? I don't know. I've become one of the Pinterest-addicted masses, but I'm not too compulsive about it. I'm as obsessed with music as I've ever been (Spotify is feeding that addiction). I'm pretty obsessed with Madonna & Me, obviously, and how to better spread the word about it. Also as per usual, I'm obsessed with trying to Figure Everything Out on some grand personal and philosophical scale, which is a tall order, clearly -- I haven't gotten very far on that one.

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

Hmm... Maybe "what's your favorite kind of candy?"  That'd be an appropriate one for me. I've been a bona fide candy-freak since, well, infancy. And to answer that question you didn't ask: I love anything gummy from Haribo. Their gummy grapefruits have been my #1 fave since high school.

Laura Barcella  |  writer & editor
Twitter: @laurabarcella and @MadonnaAndMe
Madonna & Me:
M&M on Tumblr:
M&M on FB:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lesley McDowell talks about Between the Sheets, literary couples, and more

Lesley McDowell's Between the Sheets is the kind of fascinating book you carry around with you because you can't stop reading it--I know I did. An exploration of nine literary partnerships, from Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to Martha Gelhorn  and Hemingway, Between The Sheets ponders just how much these unions hurt--or helped--these women in their creativity and careers. I'm honored to have Lesley here on my blog. Thank you, Lesley.

What sparked the idea for the book?

The book has its origins in two sources; the first was a relationship I had with a writer when we were both working on our first novels. The relationship lasted about fifteen months and wasn’t anything like one I’d had before. For bad and good reasons – bad, in that he didn’t want to acknowledge me publicly as his girlfriend because he was separated from his wife, he didn’t have any money and I would bail him out with food and wine and cigarettes, he had no intention of being faithful and was seeing five other women when we met, and so on.  Lots of things I would never have put up with before yet found myself putting up with this time. Why? I loved him, but that wasn’t enough. The good part, for me, was the help and encouragement I was getting with my writing. We’d read each other’s work and edit; he got me started on my first novel; he told me all the time what a good writer I was and made me try things I’d been too nervous to try before.

After we split up, I read a review of Christopher Barker’s memoir of his parents, George Barker and Elizabeth Smart, and this is the second source for my book. Barker, a hugely promising poet when they met, seemed in many ways like the man I’d just split up with. He was unfaithful, penniless, unscrupulous, but he was also hugely encouraging to Smart. I began to think that, perhaps women who put up with men like him and who had always been seen as victims of that type of relationship, weren’t quite the victims they’d been portrayed as. I didn’t think I was a victim, so why see Elizabeth Smart as one? And I started thinking about other literary relationships, especially ones where the women had been viewed as the victims in them. Was that really the whole story?

How did you decide which literary couples to write about?

Once I began thinking about the women who’d been portrayed as victims, the rest came very easily. Sylvia Plath was the obvious one after Elizabeth Smart, and I’d read and reviewed her journals and remembered very well her complex and often compromising relationship with Ted Hughes. I’d also recently read Martha Gellhorn’s letters, and her relationship with Ernest Hemingway seemed like an appropriate one here too, given how their marriage ended. Soon, I had about half a dozen – Rebecca West, like Gellhorn, was a feminist and pioneering journalist, yet entered into an often demeaning relationship with H G Wells which lasted for years – why? Anais Nin and Henry Miller were my last additions, possibly because I was never a huge fan of Nin’s – with projects like this, the names of writers you like tend to come to the fore first.

Anything surprise you in the writing?

Yes, speaking of Anais Nin – I grew to like her better, and to appreciate the kind of feminist project she was engaged in with her diary volumes (which previously I’d just viewed as an enormously egotistical exercise). And I was surprised just how hard she tried to break into women’s writing communities in Paris, and with what little success. Nathalie Barney’s literary salons, Sylvia Beach’s publications, writing to Janet Flanner – she appealed to them all, yet they all gave her the brush-off. 1920s Paris is depicted as a liberating time and place for women writers, especially lesbian women, with little magazines being produced and salons going on, but it seems to have been every bit as exclusive a club as anything else. Jean Rhys was there at the same time, impoverished and hobnobbing with prostitutes in Montmartre – she didn’t get invited into the literary women’s scene any more than Nin did. That surprised me a great deal.

What’s obsessing you now?

I’ve just finished a historical novel about a childhood friend of Mary Shelley’s, whose husband went mad, so for a long time I’ve been immersed in research about the enlightenment and the beginnings of psychiatry. Now, though, I’m back to women’s literary lives – I’ve started research for another non-fiction book, this time looking at literary muses of the early twentieth century. I think there’s a huge story to be told about some very different women who were all cast as muses to great writers (whether they wanted to be or not). Zelda Fitzgerald, Nora Barnacle, Vivienne Eliot, Vita Sackville West, Alice B Toklas are just five of the eleven women I’m researching. My argument is that they rebelled against the limitations of the ‘muse’ role – how they rebelled and what that did to them is part of the story.

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

Just who my favourites in the book are! My favourite writer is Jean Rhys but my favourite ‘story’ is Elizabeth Smart’s. Not just because she’s the one whose story sparked it all off for me but also because she’s so human, so approachable, so willing to go after life and take it all on board. I think she must have been a remarkable person to know.   

Samuel Park talks about This Burns My Heart (now in paperback!), writing without being institutionalized, and why writing the ending makes him want to put knives in his eyes, and more, more

Samuel Park's This Burns My Heart, about a young South Korean woman trapped in an unhappy marriage,  is one of my favorite novels of the year. A Starbucks Bookish Reading Club Selection and a Target Emerging Authors selection, it was also chosen as one of Amazon's Best Books of 2011, a People Magazine "Great Reads in Fiction," A Today Show's "Favorite Things," a Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction of 2011, a BookPage Best Books of 2011, and an Indie Next List Notable Book. There is also a fantastic video for his book here. 

Sam, himself, is smart, hilarious, and totally wonderful to talk with. I can't thank you enough, Sam for this wonderful interview! 

 What part of the creative process makes you want to put knives in your eyes and why?

Writing the ending. The easiest part for me is always writing the beginning. The first forty pages are always a breeze. The middle is also not an issue, although lots of people struggle in the middle. But
the ending for me, is always very hard. I rewrote the ending of THIS BURNS MY HEART something like, eight times. I actually wrote three different endings. My editor, agent, and I went back and forth, and it was coming down to the wire. I was rewriting that ending until as late as the night before it was supposed to go to the copyeditor. I think endings are hard because it's hard to write them unconsciously; by then, I know what the book is about, and so it's trickier to shut off
the intellect and just create.

If you couldn't be a writer, what would you be doing (and how would you like doing it?)

I would love to be an actor! I really love entertaining people. I did a reading once in Michigan, and afterwards, one of the ladies in the audience asked me, "Have you thought about pursuing the performing arts?" And I thought, "Funny you should ask..." Alas, the world will not have to worry about me unleashing my thespian talents onto it, since I'm quite happy being a writer. Writers are like Bottom, the Weaver in Midsummer Night's Dream: you want to, and you get to, play every part, though only on the page!

Do you ever worry that you might run into one of your characters, and if so would you apologize?

I would be terrified to run into the character of Eun-Mee in my book. She's a classic villain, but full of charms. I worry that she would rip me to shreds with her acid tongue--she holds no prisoners, and is the queen of passive-aggression. I would apologize for the way I portrayed her, but she would roll her eyes and say that she liked all
the attention, but why couldn't she have more pages devoted to her? "Next time," she would say, "Start the book with me! That heroine of yours, she is strictly secondary and what is up with those silly shoes she liked to wear?"

I personally feel if I wasn't writing, I would be institutionalized. Do you ever feel that way?

I think that's true for a lot of writers. I know you don't mean it this way, but I think writers suffer from all kinds of disorders that could be classified as crazy: obsessive-compulsive behavior, narcissistic personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and so on. And the more successful the writer, the more those behaviors come up! But to go back to the original meaning of your question, I think that if I didn't have this outlet--which allows me to focus and have an ongoing passion--I would go crazy too. Whatever book I'm writing often becomes the organizing principle for my days--it's what I think about from morning to night.
The book becomes the country where I live. Without it, I might go insane. That's why vacation time is often really hard for me.

And some serious questions: How did writing This Burns My Heart change your writing--and change you?

This Burns My Heart changed me in the sense that I no longer feel like I have to prove myself all the time. That gets exhausting after a while. I think I used to feel a lot of frustration about my work--I knew that I had talent, so I couldn't understand why my work wasn't getting anywhere. And then the book came out, and all these good
things started happening, one after the other. It's fun when you have your moment--and I really do think everyone has their moment, it just comes at different times for different people. And it's even more fun when you're aware of it, and you learn to enjoy it and make the most of it, instead of questioning it. My book came out after many, many years of writing in the dark, and then finally someone gave me a light and say, "Hey, it's your turn now!" And I suspect you can relate to that, since Pictures of You was such a smash and a best seller, but it came out of a non-best selling period for you. I've been really fortunate--Today Show, People magazine, Costco, Target, Starbucks--and what makes it fun is that I'm completely aware of how fortunate I am and I don't take a single thing for granted.

Carolyn Turgeon talks about The Next Full Moon, writing middle grade novels, mermaids, noir,and so much more!

First, you have to know that Carolyn Turgeon is hilarious. I met her at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriends Weekend Book Festival (that's us posing in the first pictures and yes, I do look like I have something radically wrong with my forehead, but honestly, it's just an illusion), and as soon as I saw her cowboy boots, I knew we were going to be fast friends. She's so smart, so funny, and so engaging--plus, she's a wonderful writer. I'm thrilled to have her on my blog again, this time talking about her wonderful new novel for middle grades, The Next Full Moon. Thank you, Carolyn. I hope to see you and your boots soon!

Why did you decide to write for this age group?

I’d had this idea that I wanted to write for younger readers for a while, but it wasn’t until my friend Julie Merberg asked me to write something for her new children’s book publishing company, Downtown Bookworks, that I got serious about it. I was actually in Germany Skyping with her husband David as their son Nathaneal hung from his shoulders and made faces at me (and a couple more of their four boys were darting in and out of the room) when Julie came over to the camera to say hi and tell me I had to write a book for her! I said of course, and I loved the idea, not only of doing a kids book but doing it with and for her and her family. I liked the idea of this being a warm, familial-type, not-corporate-publishing undertaking. The publishing company launched in fall 2010 with a bunch of cool, gorgeous picture books, and my book is its first middle-grade (ages 9 and up) novel. David (Bar Katz) is also writing a middle-grade novel for Downtown Bookworks, about two stepbrothers who unwittingly become representatives of warring alien species, which is going to be awesome and hilarious.  
What sparked the idea of this novel for you?

Actually, my original idea for a middle-grade novel was on the list of ideas that I handed to the British editor who bought the UK rights to my second novel, Godmother, in 2008, and wanted to do a two-book deal. I handed over a list of projects I was working on and near the end of that list was just a one-line idea for a book about a 12-year-old girl who starts growing scales and having other creepy things happen to her body and then discovers that her mother, whom she thought had died when she was infant, was in fact a mermaid. The editor kind of swooped in and bought that idea, but as an adult novel about mermaid, which eventually transformed into a retelling of the original little mermaid story by Hans Christian Andersen. That was my third novel, Mermaid.

When I was trying to figure out what to write for Julie, I came back to that original idea, which I still loved, but my agent said I couldn’t write another mermaid novel before Mermaid even came out, even if it was for a totally different age group, and so I put the idea aside. I was playing around with a bunch of others ideas, but none was exactly right. Then one day I was reading an old fairytale about swan maidens and realized that they would work for my story, even better than mermaids would! The girl would start growing feathers instead of scales, and feel freakish and strange and completely mortified, and then she would eventually discover that her mother was/is a swan maiden. I emailed Julie and she loved the idea right away.

The fairytale The Next Full Moon is based on is this: a hunter one day witnesses three swans landing by the side of a river. They take off their feathered robes, transform into beautiful maidens, and go swimming. After, they put the robes back on, turn back into swans, and fly away. The hunter has fallen madly in love with one of the maidens, and so waits for the swans to return. When they do, and when they’re again swimming in the river, he runs out and steals the feathered robe of the one he loves. When the maidens leave the water, two of them fly away but his beloved is stuck in her human form. He takes her home, marries her, and they have children. One day a few years later he confesses to her what he’d done. He shows her the robe and, to his shock, she puts it on and flies away. This is the version of the tale—there are many—that I first read, and basically my novel tells the story of the daughter the swan maiden left behind, as the girl approaches her thirteenth birthday and weird, horrible things start happening to her body.
What was it like writing your first middle-grade novel after three adult ones?

It was actually much, much easier than I thought it would be. I found that I could remember vividly—and painfully!—what the world was like for me as a twelve-year-old. I was unbelievably shy, and I was tall and overly developed and in a constant state of self-consciousness and embarrassment. We moved around a lot and at age 12 my family moved from Texas to Michigan and I was wearing blue eyeshadow (I blame Texas) and I was 5’8” and I’d walk into a classroom and people would think I was the teacher. I may not have been growing feathers at that age, but I might as well have been. The Next Full Moon is kind of my experience exaggerated, but with a lovely twist where the girl gets to discover that she’s not a freak, but powerful and magical. I had no idea, at that age, that the things happening to my body made me, and all girls turning into women, powerful, magical beings. 
What's obsessing you now?

Well, right now I’m finishing a draft of my next novel for adults, The Fairest of Them All, which will come out in 2013 and is about Rapunzel growing up to become Snow White’s stepmother. It occurred to me that for most of these beautiful damaged fairytale girls who end up riding off with the hot prince—Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, etc.—things can’t turn out that well. Especially when they start to age. Since the draft is due in three weeks, you could say I’m obsessed!

And then last year I told you about my mermaid obsession, which isn’t totally my own fault, and my mermaid blog Now I’m the editor of a special-issue annual magazine called Mermaids, which will debut next month and is chock full of everything you want to know about mermaids. Okay, maybe you don’t know that you want to k​now this stuff, but you will soon. I wanted the magazine to include some great original fiction, and got all these amazing writers, like Alice Hoffman and Keith Donohue and Aimee Bender and Matthea Harvey and Francesca Lia Block, to contribute. And there’s all kinds of other stuff, interviews and articles and photos and art, just you wait. 

I’m also kind of obsessed with this noirish novel I started writing a long time ago and am maybe half done with, that I want to finish this year, too. I would like to show that I can write about people who aren’t swan maidens or mermaids (but are murderesses!). 

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

Hmm, maybe what I am doing this weekend?

Well, I will be going to this science fiction and fantasy convention called Lunacon in Rye Brook, New York (, and, among other things, participating in a panel called “The Effects of Global Warming on Mermaids” that’s being held in a hot tub. 

Please do not be too jealous.