Sunday, July 29, 2012

Christie Nelson talks about how all art and lots of play make for a dazzling writer

Can learning book-binding help you become a better writer? Christie Nelson thinks so. Her second novel, Dreaming Mill Valley will be out soon, and she went back to camp to see what it was like to craft a hand-made book in a wooded forest, "eating at the chow palace, swimming in the chilly river, and sleeping in a rustic tent. I asked her to write something about it. Thanks so much, Christie!

Breaking The Mold

What’s a writer doing at Art Camp? I pondered that question as we traveled up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crossed Quincy’s wide meadows, and bumped along the dusty road leading into Feather River Art Camp. My head had been down for so long pushing toward the finish line of a novel that art camp sounded impossibly crazy. “Think of it,” a friend persisted. “This is a camp for everybody to make art.  It’s a rare opportunity to be drawn into the creative process without any distractions or mundane interferences. It’s you, camp, and your art.”  
But my art is writing, I thought, not the visual arts. Then I saw the offering of Bookmaking, and my objections evaporated. Rhiannon Alpers, a book artist and letterpress printer at San Francisco Center for the Book was teaching the workshop. How would it feel to make a real book with my hands compared to the long haul of novel writing? The lure was tantalizing. I could write in the afternoons; I wouldn’t break rhythm. Like a guilty wife taking a lover, I signed on.    
My first glimpse of camp in a wood dotted with old-timey buildings, reminded me of childhood, and I quickly saw that most of the workshops were held outdoors. The scene resembled a Sherwood Forest of artists, setting up tables and stringing lights in the branches. The afternoon sun filtered through the trees, Spanish Creek called to swimmers, and the wind sent the pines to singing. When the dinner bell rang, off we trooped to the Chow Palace.  That night the temperature dipped to 37 degrees, and we slept in our rustic cabin like babes under down comforters.     
On the first morning, Rhiannon, a tall, striking redhead with a soft voice, took control of our group of eight. We arrived with basic supplies; she brought paper, thread, wood, needles, leather scraps and paint. Clumsy at first, I fell under the spell of completing one task at a time: measuring, cutting, folding, painting and sewing. I soon realized that the craft of bookmaking is a blend of geometry and artistic vision.  Rhiannon’s direction was precise, her artistry astonishing.
In the hot afternoon on the shaded porch of my cabin, I wrote. Playfulness entered my writing. I took more risks, dove deeper. Somehow giving myself permission to learn a new craft energized my writing practice and fortified my dedication.    
By week’s end, I made two books that I loved. No matter that the pages were blank—they were smooth and creamy, scored and folded by my fingers; the wood cover didn’t have a title—it was sanded and painted, embellished with a driftwood handle that I had found on a beach in Baja; the binding had no glue—it was hand-stitched in bright orange thread in an intricate Copic stitch pattern.    
Now, following an invitation from Rhiannon to publish a small letterpress edition at San Francisco Center for the Book, my memoir, My Moveable Feast, with drawings by Fiona Taylor, is launching on September 7th. And that novel I was writing? Dreaming Mill Valley, will be published this October in print and e-book formats. My friend was right. Fostered in art camp, my creativity knew no borders. It flowed freely, summoning the Muse, urging me on.

Margaret Dilloway talks about The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, outlining, samurai women, and so much more

 See the photo above this text? That's Margaret Dilloway clowning it up at the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend (yes, I'm afraid that is me in the clown dress and pigtails and red boots in front, standing by author Victoria Zackheim and Wade Rouse!) Her first novel How To Be An American Housewife, was stellar, and her latest novel, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns is even better. About the cost of love, roses, and kidney disease, it's that terrific hybrid--gloriously literary and also a page-turner. I'm thrilled to have Margaret here--and I hope she doesn't mind the clown pictures.

I adored the heroine of your new novel. She really starts off so prickly, and then gradually, she begins to unfold, much like a flower, and I ended up being totally in love with her. Where'd she come from? 

I had the idea to write a book about rose breeding, so I began research. When I found out that many rose breeding hobbyists are retired scientists or engineers, the voice of Gal popped into my head. She always thinks she’s correct, she loves order, and she has a very methodical way of doing things. But, she’s extremely passionate and wants what’s best for everyone. She’s partially based on my late sister-in-law, whose lifelong struggle with kidney failureended last Christmas. I think Gal has developed a take-no-prisoners attitude toward life because that very attitude is necessary for surviving her chronic illness.

The details, both about roses and kidney dialysis, were fascinating. Can you tell me about the research process? What surprised you? 

For rose breeding, what surprised me most was the amount of chance involved. So much of it depends on luck. The breeder who helped me most, Jim Sproul, breeds many Hulthemia roses. He told me his child got a perfect specimen on the first try. Jim was the first one to get Hulthemias to the consumer market this year—they’re called the Eyeconic Lemonade and Pink Lemonade. 

For the dialysis/kidney stuff, the biggest surprise came with how many times medical doctors sort of mess up because sometimes they’re too full of pride to listen to the patient. The medical stories in Roses came from my sister-in-law. She really did have a doctor who told her that her allergy to intravenous pyelogram (IVP) dye was psychosomatic and who would not let her proceed to the transplant list unless she got this specific kind of screener using this dye. Finally, desperate to be on the transplant list, she agreed, and she had a severe anaphalytic reaction. She later switched doctors, and her new doctor pointed to studies showing it was not psychosomatic; the other doctor had clung to old beliefs and ignored her concerns.

Tell us about your writing process. Do you map things out? Rewrite a million times?

I write an outline. I actually really hate making an outline, but it helps me. Then I more or less follow it, but I veer off quite a bit. For Roses, the finished plot only vaguely resembles the original outline, and the ending’s totally different. Luckily, my editor was fine with that—she’d signed off on the original outline, but she loved how it turned out.

What's obsessing you now?

Samurai! I’m writing a book about a samurai woman who, if she were indeed a real person, might have been in my family tree. Tomoe Gozen. She lived during 12th century Japan, before the really popular time of samurai, so there are lots of persnickety details I am trying to get right. For example, they used a different kind of sword in 12th century Japan than in 15th century, and green tea was only drunk by monks and royalty then. 

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

People say that Roses is very different than your first book, How to Be an American Housewife. How did that happen?

To me, they don’t seem too different, because I wrote both of them. First, they are both stories about female familial relationships. They have strong, potentially unlikeable, female characters who are a bit different than the typical heroine.

One of the recurring themes in my work is, how do you manage to find happiness when so much in your life can, and will, go wrong? I write imperfect characters struggling to find hope, beauty, and love in their common, everyday lives.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Amazing Grace: I made the first round of Sundance!

I am awed, blissed, frantic, that I actually and unbelievably made the first round for Sundance Screenwriting Lab! My script is based on my upcoming novel IS IT TOMORROW, set in the paranoia of the 1950s, and I have two weeks to polish the complete script. If I make the next cut, I get to go to Sundance for five days and work with experts to make the script a real movie--and they give support for the project when I leave, too.

If anyone knows any spells, now is the time to let me know!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Elissa Schappell talks about the paperback of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, not sleeping well, and so much more

Elissa Schappell is a powerhouse, an amazing writer, and also very, very funny. She's Vanity Fair's Hot Type book page editor, a senior editor at The Paris Review, she co-founded Tin House where she is now editor-at-large, and her amazing debut, Use Me was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. I raved about Blueprints for Building Better Girls in the Boston Globe, and it's now available in paperback. Buy it now. Trust me. You need this book. I'm so jazzed and honored to have Elissa here on my blog Thank you, Elissa!

 So, do you think there are, or should be, blueprints for building better girls--or boys?

Society has always proffered, nay, dictated, rules of conduct, since the first time a cavewoman was grabbed by the hair in front of the neighbors and questioned, Do I make a fuss, or not make a fuss? Should I invite them back to the cave to share our mammoth shank?

I do think good manners are important. In that regard I take Emily Post’s point of view that, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.  If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.”

You may damn the forks, but you should, no must, say Please and Thank you, and Pardon me, and Please take my seat, and It’s fine I wasn’t using my left foot anyway. Rarely have I regretted not being polite in a social situation. There are, of course, certain situations where rudeness is not only acceptable it’s demanded.

As to the blueprints for women, I’d start with: Don’t Give Away Your Power, and If You Wait for Someone to Give You Permission to Be Yourself You’ll End Up A Nobody.

There’s a whole list for men too, but I’ll start with: Don’t Tell Girls It’s Cute When They Get Mad, and Don’t Rape People

I loved and deeply admired the structure of the book, linked short stories, where the same characters would sometimes re-pop up.  

I’m so glad. I love this structure too. Only recently have I come to terms with the fact that at my core I’m trans. A proud trans-structural writer. People always ask when I’m going to write a novel—like, When are you going to grow up and get serious? Get a real job. As though the pinnacle of achievement is the traditional novel. Preferably one of those two-hander, he-man-sized doorstops.

I’m mad for linked-story collections as a reader because they deliver the pleasure of a story—a contained world with beginning middle and end—with the gift of the novel, a unified landscape of characters and storylines joined in a larger web of meaning.

The form speaks to the way I think—which is far from linear. As well as my abiding desire to capture those transformative experiences in our lives, big or small that make us the individuals we are.

Having the characters appear in each other’s stories whether directly or indirectly was appealing to me because that’s the way life is when you socialize within the same social strata, there’s overlap. We exist on the peripheries of each other’s stories without even being aware of it. Sometimes we are characters in other’s people’s minds or memories, and sometimes we simply occupy the same space.

I wanted to highlight the ways women judge each other on the basis of looks, a pre-conceived notion of who they are, or what we’ve heard about them. In truth we have no idea what we might have in common with someone else, or how other people suffer.

One of the nice things about having the women pop up in each other’s stories is that reader knows them in a way the other characters don’t. We know their secrets, while the other players in the story don’t. (I love this as a reader) That intimacy between reader and character bonds them the way people who know each other’s secrets are bonded.

Plus, by getting to see the characters through a different lens, from another angle, at a different time in their lives challenges the reader to consider the judgments they made about them, and confront their own biases and prejudices. 

Your brilliant novel Use Me, was also linked stories, but it seemed more to focus on just one character, so I wanted to ask, were there any problems or surprises in doing linked stories? Did you end up preferring one form to another?

I hadn’t intended to write linked stories. I loved Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid” and Elizabeth Tallent’s “Time With Children” I fairly worship Grace Paley’s work and the recurring character of Faith, although her stories aren’t linked in a chronological narrative. Still, I hadn’t considered it--obviously this was pre-Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Jenny Egan’s Goon Squad--I was just doing what I always have done which is write the stories that I wanted to, needed to write.

It wasn’t until my agent pointed out despite having different names my main character was always the same person (I thought by changing the names perhaps no one would notice) and when you laid all the pieces out—it was almost like a scrapbook—the trajectory of the stories was clear.

In Use Me I wanted to tell the story of how one young woman’s sense of identity was shaped by the love and loss of her father and on a larger scale how a woman’s sense of power, her sexuality and ability to form intimate attachments with men, are related to their relationships with their fathers. What was surprising to me was that as I was writing that book, which is episodic in nature again like postcards or photos capturing the pivotal moments in Evie’s coming of age—I kept hearing another voice, a Catholic school girl who was in love with her abortionist. This young woman, Mary Beth would become the other point of character in the book. (The only other time this voice insisting on a story has happened to this same degree was in Blueprints when I started hearing the voice of Bender.) Unlike Evie, Mary Beth, in the absence of a good father has a very different power dynamic with men.

In terms of Blueprints for Building Better Girls I wanted to write about a range of universal female experiences and female archetypes, subverting the reader’s expectations and pre-conceived notions of who these women are. The cast of stereotypes: the good mother, the bad mother, the slut, the party girl, the good girl, the bad girl, the good wife, the artist. The structure can be seen as a sort of etiquette or anti-etiquette book as the stories all address the way our cultural mores influence women—what is valued, what is considered appropriate behavior, what is attractive—and how these messages inform our sense of self. Each story is a reflection or response to the image we have of these female stereotypes

Belinda, one of the characters, says, ““Everybody forgets who they used to be, and they become better people, even though inside they’re exactly the same.” Do you think there is ever really a possibility of change on a deeper level? (I’m afraid of the answer).

I do think there is the possibility of change on a deep level, if one wants it bad enough. No, you can’t change where you come from or what you’ve done, but you can change how you choose to look at it. You can grow out of that. At the risk of sounding like a goof ball, your past is the seed, you are the flower. That said, on some cellular level I am very much the girl I was at thirteen—in fact I am more like her now than I was twenty years ago. I am passionate and I want to change the world, I think I can, in some way change the world.

You are taking the pulse of modern America, from discontented moms on the playground to women who are struggling to become moms (discontented or not) to young women with eating disorders, in a wickedly funny way. Do you find yourselves always watching people and situations?

Always. Like all writers I am continually registering information. Having a writer in the family is like having an assassin at the breakfast table. It’s no different with friends and acquaintances, which may explain why—after the last book—I’m not getting invited to as many parties. While I am writing about experiences that are not necessarily my own, I hope that I am doing so in a way that feels truthful and empathetic. No matter how unlike me a character is, I hope I never write about them in a way that suggests they’re a stranger to me.

You’re also the co-founder of Tin House, the ravishingly great literary magazine, and you write the Hot Type column at Vanity Fair. So, when do you sleep?

I don’t sleep. Or not often, and when I do—whine, whine--it’s poorly. That’s something I have to learn how to do. Seriously.

Actually, the question is what’s your daily writing life like?

My whole life I’ve struggled with organization (perhaps that’s clear from my answers here?) were I not to organize my writing life I would spin out of orbit and do nothing but careen through the universe, shooting out sparks and clouds of dust. Which I did for years. What works for me is to break down my week thusly—Monday’s I scheduled appointments, lunch dates, shop for food and sundries, what have you. If I’m on deadline, I’ll write once this is accomplished. Tuesdays are wholly dedicated to teaching, again if on deadline, I’ll work at night. Wednesday through Friday, I’m in the studio writing. Mornings are dedicated to fiction—I have to start as early as possible to beat my super-critical ego out of bed, and lock the door. In the afternoon I work on non-fiction. Saturdays and Sundays I try not to work unless I’m on a roll or absolutely have to. You know as a writer you can work all the time, you can convince yourself that you must. (I have a dread fear of being thought lazy.) However, what I found was that when I went into the weekend thinking I was going to get to write, I was resentful when I couldn’t find the time because I was with the kids or doing something else around the house. And when I was writing on a Sunday I felt guilty for not hanging out with my kids. I longed to be with them but thought, No you can’t. You have to work. This way everyone wins. As they’ve gotten older and have their own plans and lives on the weekends it’s easier for me to work, should I really desire it, or have to.

I do also want to ask, since I’m also a book critic, how you feel reviewing books has impacted your own work.

It’s made me a harsher critic of my own work. I can be rather thinned skin--imagining a writer/critic reading my work as critically as I read theirs--makes me reluctant to publish anything before I’m certain it’s perfect. I’m not about to publish a book—which is really the equivalent of sending poorly lit naked pictures of yourself cleaning the tub--into the world, until I’ve fixed every flaw I can see.  

On the flip side I hope that being an author has made me a better critic. I know how hard it is to write a book, so I go in rooting for the writer to win. It’s why I never review anyone’s work I don’t care for. 

(Personally, I find being able to figure out what works and why and what doesn’t and how it could be fixed, really helps me in my own work. Is that the case for you?)

Absolutely. I find reading other writer’s incredibly instructive and inspiring. And yes, I can always see how someone else might improve their piece, but rarely can I see the flaws in my own. Oh that stories were tires you could just immerse in water, and follow the bubbles to find the holes.

What’s obsessing you now, and why?

As you know if you ever go to my FaceBook page or read “The Weeklings” online, I’m fairly obsessed with the war being waged against women by the GOP. Once I’d have written, “radical Conservative right wing of the GOP” but they are in the majority now, and while they’re radical—in terms of extremism, they aren’t radical in relation to the majority views of the Republican party.  I’m also obsessed as it were with the rising acceptance of rape-culture, this idea that rape really isn’t that big of a deal. This despite the fact that 1 in 4 college girls, and 1 in 6 women will be the victim of rape of attempted rape. The majority of these women ages 12-34, will be assaulted by someone they know. The victim shaming and blaming is something that angers me greatly.
So, yes, that, that has me a bit obsessed.

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask?
Darling, I think you’ve covered it all. 

Beth Kephart talks about Small Damages, Spain, and so much more

I don't remember when I first met Beth Kephart, but what I do remember is the immediate warmth I felt. This is a woman you'd want to live next door to because you know she'd always be there for you with a plate of pie and a cup of tea and conversation.  She's not just a wonderful writer, she also has a heart the size of Jupiter and I'm honored to consider her my friend. I wanted to celebrate the publication of her extraordinary new novel, Small Damages, and I'm jazzed to have her here on my blog. A million hugs, Beth, and a thank-you! For the blog and for everything.

You are now the diamond in the sky. A rave NYT review, praise everywhere, and rightfully so, for a novel that is as luminously moving as it is smart.  You and I have talked about the struggle to be published well, to find the right home with a publisher, to feel appreciated, and the absolute joy when that happens. So tell us about it, the struggle and the joy. Did you know when you were writing this novel that it was somehow different in some way, and that you were going to shine?

You and I have talked, first of all, because you are such an incredibly generous and open writer who yields so much to others. So that first.

Second, Small Damages is my fourteenth book.  It arrives after five memoirs (in which life’s big questions were examined, as opposed to Epic Personal Tragedies), an uncategorizable foray into poetry and history, a twisted corporate America fairytale (which became corporate Everywhere fairytale after a dozen translations), and several young adult novels that have primarily been read by adults.  In short, I have not been an easy writer to peg, my work hasn’t always been easy to shelf, and I fear I’ve been more of a conundrum than anything else.  I have not made for easy publishing fodder.

Through all these years I have been working on Small Damages, a book inspired by my travels to Spain, where my brother-in-law lived for a long time.  Place is story to me.  Seville and its rural outposts was a world I could not leave in my imagination.  I read, I thought, I dug deep into history, I took photographs, I interviewed people, and I wrote eighty drafts of a novel that kept changing its foreground, but never its background.  A few times this book seemed close to finding a publishing home, but then things would ebb away.  It found the home it did find because Philomel’s Jill Santopolo, with whom I had worked at Harper, had slipped a copy of Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray to me at the ALA a few years ago (the same ALA when I read Pictures of You in my hotel room!); the book had been acquired and edited by Jill’s Philomel colleague Tamra Tuller.  “This book made me cry,” she said, “and I think it will move you, too.” 

Well, I thanked her, put the book in a safe place, turned to talk to someone else, and when I looked back the book was gone.   Jill kindly sent me another copy, and I read at once.  Here was a smart book, a literary book, an important book, an unusual book.  I was in love, sight unseen, with anyone who would acquire a book like that.  I sent Tamra an email with Small Damages attached.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Philomel is exquisite.  At Philomel I have a home.  There I have never felt like a fringe writer, a secondary writer, a marginal, will-she-please-fit-a-category, we’ll-get-to-you-when-we-get-to-you writer.  Michael Green, Philomel’s president, is a most generous person, and correspondent.  Tamra—beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, embracing—approached the editing of this book, the design of its cover, and the preparation of it for the world with the greatest care, and in the process we became great friends.  Jessica Shoffel, a wildly wonderful and innovative publicist, wrote me a note I’ll never forget after she read the book and her devotion to getting the word out has been unflagging, sensational.  The sales team got in touch a long time ago and has stayed in touch.  And on and on.  

But no, I never knew I would shine.  I don’t think of myself as a diamond or a star.  I never think in those terms.  I just keep writing my heart out.  And when you are collaborating with a house like Philomel, when you are given room, when your questions are answered, when you are given a chance, there are possibilities.

 What I loved so much about Small Damages was how unexpected it was. Kenzie weighs the future with her baby not in America, but in Spain, where she is a cook's assistant. Where did that idea spark? What was the research like?

I have the privilege of knowing some incredibly wonderful young women who found themselves pregnant at a very early or uncertain time in their lives.  They have raised exceptional children.  They have had to persevere with great courage.  I always knew there’d be a cook, there would be gypsies, there would be heat and bulls.  Kenzie entered this story late. I fell in love with her.  I fell in love with writing, again, about maternal love.
What's your writing life like now?

For the first time in probably twenty years I am not writing.  I just completed three books, and they will appear over the next eighteen months—a book for another fantastic Penguin imprint (Gotham) called Handling the Truth (about the making and consequences of memoir, the subject I teach at the University of Pennsylvania), a boy-centric YA historical novel for Philadelphians called Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (featuring Eastern State Penitentiary, Baldwin Locomotive Works, and my favorite 19th century city characters), and another novel for Tamra, which takes place in 1983 Berlin.  I need to dream, to stand, to walk, to see, to not hurry toward anything new.

 What's obsessing you now and why?

Living well, living quietly, teaching, my family, the garden, the rain that does and does not fall, the 100 books that sit in stacks to be read, and of course the corporate work, which is part of every day, the tock in the clock of my existence.
 What question didn't I ask that I should have?

My goodness, if you asked me anything more, can you imagine how long this would be!!??  I’m just grateful to be here, Caroline, and grateful for you.

Nora Zelevansky talks about Semi-Charmed Life, shoulds vs. want, and much more

Nora Zelevansky is both novelist, journalist, essayist and editor, and the author of the very sparkling Semi-Charmed Life. We both had a conversation about writing in the wonderful Dame magazine, and I couldn't wait to ask Nora to come on the blog. Thanks, thanks, thanks, Nora!

I loved the title. Can you talk about what it means to have a semi-charmed life?

It's funny.  This wasn't the original title and we really struggled with finding the right one, which would allude to an otherworldly quality and a seemingly glamorous lifestyle (at least when viewed from the outside), but also the main character Beatrice's tendency toward poor decision making, clumsiness and her self doubt.  It's hard to find one title that fits all of that!

Beatrice comes from a "charmed" background and she falls into yet another "charmed" situation when she meets the famous Veruca Pfeffernoose, but there's a darker, more complicated to side to being inside those worlds too.  And sometimes all that charm seems like more trouble than it's worth.  So, she's sort of half-charmed, which is what the title is meant to imply.  (Also, it's the name of a 90's pop song, which is sort of funny and kitschy.)

You grew up on the Upper West Side and one of the pleasures of the books is the New York City attitude, that nothing exists outside of Manhattan, that whole "why would you go anywhere else?" attitude. Yet, the book is both a Valentine to the city and a satire about how limiting such an idea--that NYC is the best--can be. (Though frankly, I sort of feel that way myself!) How do you personally feel about this, and how much of Beatrice is or was you? (There's such a great insider feel to the novel!)

People who know my background will think that the book is largely based on my life.  That's sort of true, but mostly it's not.  The setting and the environment (the Upper West Side, an art world family, the dramatic older sister etc.) do mirror my upbringing.  My mother is a museum director and my father is an artist, but they travel constantly all over the world.  And, as opposed to Beatrice's parents, who insisted on keeping her close, they insisted that I leave New York City for college.  That was their only guideline.  They felt that it was important to broaden my horizons and meet different types of people.  I went to California, which was farther than the rest of my friends, which was alienating at first and definitely a culture shock.  I would come back and visit New York over the years before I recently moved back and I would be surprised by both the almost physical ache I felt in missing it and also by the pervasive provincialism, the idea that very little of note happened outside of the city.  Most of all, I was amused by people who—despite having very little going on—seemed to think they were "cool" or "interesting" simply because they lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn.  It's such a specific phenomenon!

The main character Beatrice Bernstein (great name by the way) is ghostwriting the blog of a socialite when she starts to take on her lifestyle of immune boosting smoothies, apartment spa, and more..So much of this delicious novel is about identity, who we want to be and who we really are, and how to discover the difference.  Can you talk a bit about how we get trapped sometimes on the way to finding our real truths and identities?

After college, my best friends and I would always discuss the struggle between "shoulds" versus "wants."  As may people that age do, we felt this strong pressure to do "the right thing," even when we didn't know what that was.  We worked to separate our ingrained childhood selves (based in part on who our families told us we were) from our adult selves.  I know I spent a good deal of time in my 20's just trying to figure out who I really wanted to be and how I saw my life.  It seems to be a relatively common experience to wake up one day and decide you don't like your role in your family dynamics or to discover that you actually ARE the funny one or the smart one or the goofy one or whatever, despite what you've previously accepted as fact.  I hear those stories a lot.

Personally, I always felt a bit rooted in two worlds.  With some exceptions, most of my New York friends came from very different households than I did and sometimes my outside life really didn't match up with my home life.  (My parents, for instance, went to Studio 54 in the 1980's and hated it.  They always turned down invitations to The Hamptons.)  I spent a lot of time, like Beatrice, in debaucherous over-the-top circles, but then coming home to this intellectual sanctuary.  Fashion and style were HUGE in my house along with creativity and intellectual ideas, but status and an easy going mindlessness were not.  Unlike Beatrice, I felt I belonged to both worlds instead of neither, but there were times when I'd look around at a party or some club and think, what am I doing here?  And, as a lifestyle journalist as an adult, a similar thing happened: I'd find myself in these very swanky settings as I struggled to pay my rent and I'd think, can I be both?

i was interested that you said this is a new category of work called New Adult, tapping twenty and thirty somethings. Can you talk more about that, please?

Obviously, Young Adult has become a huge category and it's crossed over, growing popular with adult readers too.  My hope is that this book works on various levels, appealing to readers of all different ages for different reasons (the love story versus the satire and humor, for example).

Part of the idea behind the New Adult category is that the publisher is thinking about that college aged and later 20-something reader and realizing, there's a gap here.  YA protagonists have to be 17-years-old or younger, which Beatrice is not.   But she's also not 40 yet.  I sometimes describe this book as "a beach read for smart girls/women," something that should be fun and effortless, but which has some substance too.  And that's something I know I would read, so I hope people of many ages feel the same way.

Let's talk about process! How do you write? Do you outline? Do you go by inspiration? What's your writing day like?

Well, I'm readying to start a second book in likely the same series, so that should be interesting because my process will have to be different than the first time around.  It already is!  I wrote the first book during National Novel Writing month, which is this "movement" every November designed to help people get over the mental hump of writing a novel.  (There's a book by Chris Baty that guides writers and also a website you sign up on that keeps you accountable as you log your words.)  The specific rules and guidelines actually preclude outlining and allow for only minimal research.  You write about 1,700 words a day for a month.

This system worked really well for me, as someone who would previously have an idea and then decide it wasn't worthwhile and abandon it because you're not allowed to stop or edit as you go.  I wanted to see if I could write fiction and so I tried it and I just found the whole process really satisfying.  This time around, I already have a synopsis etc.  But I do know that I'm a morning writer, which is not to say early, but is to say that I need to get right to it when I wake up.  Right now, I'm writing in my Brooklyn apartment, but I may escape to the country for a few weeks and try that as well.  We shall see!

What's obsessing you now?

A: New York Times op-ed's by Gail Collins, Mint Oreo's, Jennifer Egan, Tana French, rereading Fitzgerald, always Salinger ("Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenter" is my favorite book and I read it annually), the Chesapeake shore, being back in NYC, the fact that Park Slope is basically "Portlandia," Rag & Bone shoes, Isabel Marant everything, My Girl, 30 Rock, Downton Abbey, Earth Bar smoothies all the way back in LA, Talde's bacon pad thai, Kerstin Florian's Neroli Water (which smells like heaven in the vein of Veruca's orange blossoms) and, of course, my book!

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

Nothing!  Your questions were perfect!  I guess the only thing I can add is that in anticipation of my first book coming out, I have so many feelings: I'm proud, nervous, hopeful and so so grateful.  This is an experience unlike any I have had before.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Painter Richard Kattman talks about art, obsessions and why a splash of surf on the rocks drives him to distraction

I know most of this blog is given over to other writers, but I really have an intense curiosity about every other kind of creativity. I wonder how the process in different media is different, what goes on in process, and how I might possibly learn from it myself, or at the very least, deepen my understanding of someone else's art. I've had filmmakers here, and a clothing designer, and now, my first painter! 

I first came upon Richard Kattman's paintings while browsing through my FB feed. I had an immediate visceral reaction to the painting above, the blue one called West of the Ocean. I couldn't stop staring. My heart was pounding. I had a physical yearning for the painting. It wasn't just that I wanted the painting. I needed it. So I went to his page and began to look at his other paintings, and for many of them, I had the same strong reaction. This yearning! So I wrote to Richard and asked if I could interview him for my blog, and we started to have a conversation and realized we had similar life experiences--could that be why his paintings move me so? 
I'm thrilled he said yes to coming on here. His paintings are now at the Attleboro Arts Museum and he's also a prominent landscape architect. And, of course, he's becoming more and more known as a painter. Thanks so much, Richard, for agreeing to this pesty interview.

When I work, I’m not thinking about the reader or the media attention it might get (or not get). I’m just writing for myself because I feel that if I reach those deep dark places of emotion for me-it will also reach someone else. Do you do that as you paint, or are you aware of your audience?

Early on in my life as a painter, I decided to paint abstract paintings as a way of searching for something unknown, something on a higher level of thought or experience, outside the normal realm of experience, outside the sphere of my education and upbringing, beyond my capacities, to explore the realm of understanding, simply to go beyond anything familiar, yet stay in touch with myself, and reach out for what I knew not. 

Painting became a way of expressing my love of nature, my happiness, love of beauty, my angst, my history, my wins and losses, and battles with demons. Painting allowed me to make a mark on the world, to claim the thumbprint of my existence. 

All of this was done in a sort of rage in the studio, with no one to see the results. I had total confidence in my abilities and knew it was just a matter of time to master the craft. Harry Callahan, the photographer, told me that King Harvest would come! So I looked at thousands and thousands of images of artworks by Durer and DaVinci and Titian and Picasso and Matisse and Monet and Giacometti and of course Richter, the latest rage in the art world. I taught myself to draw from the figure and the landscape. I read many of the classics, especially Tolstoy. Then armed with cultural overload, I painted, and painted, and painted.

How do you go about doing a painting? Does it surprise you or are you in control?

Inspiration comes from many sources. With some artworks I start out painting with a vague idea of color combinations, say violet and gold or blue and peach, and make marks with umber black to add movement or structure. With other paintings, the curve and color of a breast is all that is required to set up resonance. A rose in the garden or the splash of surf on the rocks drives me to distraction. 

So some works are planned, but most are not. The painting often takes shape as I work. Some works go up rapidly. I often feel like the White Rabbit, with little enough time to paint…so make the most of it and get things done quickly. Yet I step back and reflect, then attack the canvas again. The best works are often completed in a matter of days, others weeks or months. It is done when it is done.

In the beginning of a canvas I have little control and paint desperately, but a certain calm takes over and an image gradually emerges, both flawed and incomplete. Studying he canvas determines possible modifications but with each change the entire canvas changes, minor or major. Sometimes the entire work gets washed out and another work emerges from the struggle. Surprises and errors, an out of control feeling adds chaos to undermine order. Like life. Finally when adjustments will lessen or ruin the story, the painting is complete, and another idea surfaces.

What make you want to paint?

The urge to paint and draw is built in to my nature and there is no denying it. Forces in my arm dictate action, as does my wired brain. Any stimulus is means for creation. Artworks by artists that I have pondered get recycled and reappear in new contexts divorced from the original models set in the context of my way. Choice is not an option. I am driven to create constantly, reacting to personal circumstances, forging new inroads, experiencing the tragedy of a ruined landscape, or seeing the beauty of a pattern in the snow. 

Can you talk about each (Landscape and Abstract Paintings)? 

Abstract painting is my passion, though I live for plein air painting. Abstraction, using big brushes and a huge canvas allows me to travel uninhibited through space, time, and memory, to paint. Movement, energy, and force are primary considerations. Spatter, drips, thrust, marks from figure drawing, hand prints as proof of existence, memories, hopes, flowers, stars, the ocean currents, fields of color, frame edges, and all aspects of life come in to play. Abstraction demands a higher ideal and the risks are large as the soul is spilled out for all to see.

Landscape painting requires seeing, concentration, translation, drawing skills, color selections, and expression. Taking the time to actually see and paint a magic pond or local field or a lovely red house in Winter is an endeavor in itself, usually richly rewarding. With difficulties it can make an artist cry! Placing a pink sliver here or a slice of pale blue there on the canvas is most satisfying. The place is not forgotten and may bring great pleasure and joy. 

Can you tell me what goes on in the planning of a painting for you?

The kernel of an idea formulates in my mind usually demanding immediate attention. Sketching out the idea or beginning straight away as Monet would, I put charcoal to canvas to lay out the design. Correcting the positions is key as is selecting and placing the colors. I change the colors or add a line. I meditate, then repeat the first verse add infinitum until finis.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

• Collecting old fashioned roses and minding the garden to stay in touch with the Earth
• Keeping track of family to keep us together
• Reading fine literature for the love of it
• Looking at fine art books also for the love of it
• Buying fine paints to use the best available materials
• Planting trees to save the planet
• Fine art painting to raise awareness of the environment
• Attempting to fuse figure and abstraction for the hell of it
• Keeping old and making new friends to feel alive
• Searching for beauty for no reason
• Enjoying life so no regrets

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

RK: I do not know!?