Friday, May 29, 2015
You know that just about everything I own is black but this is a wonderful cause (thank you Noelle Howey for telling me about this!) I'm joining in to support efforts to stop gun violence in America, and I hope all of you will do this, too. On June 2, upload a photo of yourself wearing orange with an anti-gun violence message and the hashtag #WearingOrange. And GUESS WHAT? I actually own an old pair of silky orange pants and I am wearing them!!!
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Jon Papernick talks about his gripping new novel, THE BOOK OF STONE, the Jewish/Arab conflict, being grabbed by the throat by a book, and so much more
"Jonathan Papernick has created a terrifying novel that illuminates the dark corners of those souls who will give their lives for a cause without regard for their own suffering or that of others...in this astounding exploration of morality and madness."
The Jewish Book Council.
"This intelligent and timely thriller is told through a Jewish prism, but Papernick’s persuasive insights into the nature of fanaticism and its destructive consequences could be applied to any ideology. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal (starred review)
"Devastating, gripping and beautiful. Open this book carefully. You will close it changed." Dara Horn
The first thing you need to know is that Jon Papernick is not only kind, smart and hilariously funny, he's also a real champion of writers--and people. He worked as a journalist in Israel after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He's the author of The Ascent of Eli Israel, There is no Other, and his latest, The Book of Stone is something short of magnificent (just take a gander at the reviews above.)
I'm honored to have him here--and I'm even more thrilled to be interviewing him june 28th at Little City Books in Hoboken, NJ. Please come!
There is always something haunting a writer that gives way to a novel. What was haunting you that gave way to The Book of Stone?
I think in some ways I am always haunted by something or many things. I think the most obvious answer for this question is that I was haunted by my experience living in Israel, in the sense that I wrote about Jewish extremists and violence in my first collection of short stories and still felt that I had not fully explored that issue. I wanted to dig deeper into the fanatic mentality and what it is that makes people into terrorists and The Book of Stone was a much broader canvas which allowed me to explore this fascination. I don’t know if it’s out of my system yet, but I certainly can move on to writing about other things.
Titles are notoriously difficult to get right, but yours seems perfection. Where did it come from and how hard was it to come by?
I’m a strong believer in the importance of titles, how a title should contain the entire DNA of a story or a novel and usually I do pretty well with my titles. The title for this novel was much more difficult to come up with and I spent many, many years working under a different title that I thought was the perfect title. In the end, I realized that it was too difficult for people to remember it reminded them incorrectly of a song that had nothing to do with novel. So as I got back to rewriting my novel I knew I needed a better title, something that was perfect. I did what are Ernest Hemingway supposedly did in his search for titles, and I took out a blank piece of paper and just free associated around the themes of the novel. I tried not to think too much and had about twenty or twenty-five names down in about five minutes. I crossed off the worst ones until I was left with two or three and then it became crystal clear that The Book of Stone was the right title. I like how it echoed the family name Stone, but also the Book of Life or The Book of Death from the Jewish high holidays, even the book of Job. Of course, the novel also involves piles and piles of books so that ties in as well. It still took me a while to fully appreciate that this was the natural title for the novel. I’m glad that you believe it’s perfect, because it was indeed a struggle with this title.
So much of the book is about the Jewish/Arab conflict — as well as the conflict between father and son. How does one inform the other?
The book is indeed about the larger Jewish/Arab conflict as well as a personal conflict between father and son and I guess they inform each in the sense that the Jewish / Arab conflict seems somehow insoluble after more than a hundred years of conflict. On the surface the relationship between Matthew and his father also seems insoluble until Matthew believes he is found a way to finally make peace with his father which clearly is as much a mirage as any peace in the Middle East has proven to be.
What surprised you in the writing? What discoveries did you make? And what kind of writer are you? Did you map this all out?
I think I was most surprised how deeply I came to know Matthew Stone, so intimately as if he really were a living and breathing human being. The same goes for some of the other characters in the book such as his father. The fact is these characters are not real and they are not based on anyone in particular or in general yet to me they became real.
I discovered that the more time you spend with these characters, the more they will reveal to you as they continue to grow and ultimately they start to write themselves based on the foundation I have given them.
I’m a very idiosyncratic writer in the sense that I can go months without writing, and then sit down and write four or five short stories in a few weeks. I often don’t know where I’m going and just have a basic itch that I need to scratch. When I began this novel way back in 2000, I really had no idea where I was going, though I vaguely knew that I wanted it to make my first book look like a trip to Disneyland by comparison. I spent several years writing in the dark with terrible prose, horrible plot ideas and ultimately I found only frustration. I had that urge to work on the novel, but I was so far from what I wanted to do with it that everything was awful and discouraging. Then, one day after banging my head into a wall for several years, the light began to shine in and things started to make sense. This novel is a testament to the power and importance of persistence.
I really feel that so much of your book has to do with the way we all struggle to live now and the way we try to understand the ones around us — those we “hate” and those we love. Can you please talk about this?
The older I get, the more I realize how little we know about the people around us, even our loved ones. And yes it can be easy to hate somebody who is a distant abstraction, somebody different from ourselves, but ultimately we are all broken people, and we all want a better life, though many of us are so broken that not only can we not get that better life, but we can only turn our powers to destruction against others. I really came to understand in a most concrete manner why reading, namely fiction, is important. When one is immersed deeply inside a novel, we know these characters so intimately that they indeed are real, the neurons that fire off in our brains recognizing these characters as if they are real. Ultimately I come to love all of my characters because I could see all the depths of heights of their humanity as multidimensional human beings, in a manner in which we rarely ever know a person in real life.
How did this novel change you as a writer?
I think any arrogance I would have ever had approaching a blank page has certainly been given a pretty hard slap across the face. Writing a novel is something one should not go into lightly, because it will grab you by the throat and take over your life for years, and you have to be ready for that commitment or else the voices in your head will overwhelm you. I’m definitely a better writer now than I was before. I think my prose is cleaner and comes to me more naturally. I know more certainly now than ever that every good story comes out of a psychologically complex character or set of characters. The most important thing about writing fiction is not the prose or even the narrative, but the believable and compelling psychology that will ultimately drive the story.
What is obsessing you now and why?
For years I definitely was obsessed with writing about Jewish themes, strictly Jewish themes, namely related to Israel and though I’m still interested in writing about those themes, I’m definitely over the obsession. My stories now are often smaller, and shorter, dealing with sex and intimacy and the damaged psychologies of human beings looking for the life raft of love. My stories can be considered cynical, but they are also deeply human and they don’t rely on the exoskeleton of the complexities of the Middle East conflict or the endless intricacies of Judaism. I guess as I get older I have come to realize that life never gets easier and that we as broken human beings always struggle to keep our lives together and that struggle is what compels me now in my fiction.
This is your first novel, after two highly acclaimed short story collections. How was writing a novel different than writing the collections? Did you have to get into a different mindset? Was there ever a moment when you felt, oh my God, I should go back to short stories?
Writing a novel is very different than writing short stories; I find novel writing difficult in the sense that I am extremely impatient and often times if I work really hard, I can have a complete draft of a story done within one day or at most within a week and I can already see the possibilities as to how to improve it. At a certain point, often a reasonable time after the original spark of an idea there’s a completed piece of work, a complete world which lives and breathes and exists as a result I feel like I have accomplished something. In a novel, you could spend weeks trying to figure out how to get your character to cross a room and it is often hard to see the big picture as you focus in on the minute details that make this world come alive. Writing a short story is like juggling two balls at once, completely manageable, while writing a novel is like trying to juggle seven or eight balls. I used to say writing a novel is like running a marathon, but that is clearly an understatement. Writing a novel is like running many marathons, and you never know how many more marathons you have ahead of you until the book stops speaking to you and is complete.
There were many times that I felt that I should just quit the whole thing and go back to short stories. I don’t find short stories easy, but I do feel that I know how to work my way around short stories. The novel is so much bigger and there were many times I would have quit if I hadn’t already put in so many hundreds and hundreds of hours. It’s like swimming across the ocean and realizing you’ve gone more than half way and it’s too late to turn back, so you plow forward anyway. I think that is one of the reasons why I saw this through to the end because I most definitely put in my required ten thousand hours on this novel. I don’t think I really had a different mindset except that I was more often scared that I wouldn’t find what I was looking for whereas with a short story I never felt the same level of pressure since I didn’t have as much at stake. If a short story didn’t work after a few pages, I could always crumple it up and start over again, but once I was several years into the novel, that was impossible. I either had to finish it or live with regret at not doing so for the rest of my life.
Friday, May 22, 2015
Jami Attenberg talks about her extraordinary new novel SAINT MAZIE, her dapper dog Sid, writing about NYC, and so much more
Jami Attenberg is one of those writers who pops with so much personality, you want to be around for the sparks. How can you not adore someone who happens to be down-to-earth, funny, real--and does not seem rearranged by her mega-success, which by the way, is deserved to the electron. She's the author of the story collection, Instant Love, and the novels The Kept Man, The Melting Season, and The Middlesteins, which zoomed up on The New York Times bestseller list, and will be published in England, Taiwan, Russia, Italy, France, Turkey, The Netherlands, Germany and Israel in 2013. It was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Prize. Saint Mazie is remarkable, heart-winning and heartbreaking at the same time. I'm thrilled to host Jami, and thank you, thank you, thank you, Jami!
I always want to know what sparked a novel--what was the question that haunted or nagged at you that you wanted to explore with Saint Mazie?
Because she was based on a real person, I knew certain facts about her, and I was curious about the motivation behind them. Like I wanted to know why a Jewish woman would have an interest in the Catholic faith, and why she chose to remain unmarried in her life, and how she became the kind of person who would devote much of her adult life to helping the homeless. Those were the three main mysteries to me: faith, love, and compassion. Pretty big topics – certainly an excellent foundation for a novel.
I loved the structure of the novel, the chorus of voices, Mazie’s diary entries, all forming a tapestry that becomes a living, breathing person. Did you always have this structure in mind and did anything surprise you about it as you were writing?
Initially it was supposed to be just her memoirs. For about nine months, I was certain that would be the structure of the book. But I had to take a little break from writing it because my last book, The Middlesteins, came out, and I needed to tour and promote it. And when I eventually returned to writing I saw that the book needed to be bigger than just a memoir. It just didn’t feel authentic to me as written, and I couldn’t say all that I needed to say within that structure. So I ended up chopping up what I had written – probably about 100 pages – and repurposing some of it and trashing the rest. And then the book really cracked open for me. In some ways it became easier to write because I could say anything I wanted because I was no longer limited to a single voice, but it also became harder because I had to master more voices, and create more storylines.
Somebody loved them once and that’s all you need to know. I found this line incredibly moving, because isn’t that what is most important? But I also loved the line where Mazie says she needed someone to know what she knew, then she changed her mind--because needing someone to know what we know, well, isn’t that something like what writers do?
I’m so glad you liked it, thank you. Mazie is vain in a few ways but she is not a braggart about her exceptional humanity – which is one mark of a true hero. The choices that she makes, her devotion to helping others, she does it for no one but the people she helps. I wrote about her because I wanted to learn from her! I wanted to contemplate what it would be like to be a selfless person, even if – or because – I am not that way myself. Because yes, I do so love being heard.
Saint Mazie is such a wonderful, bustling love letter to New York City. I know you live here, but you also spend a lot of time in New Orleans. How does place impact you--and your writing?
No one was more surprised than I was that I was writing a New York novel. It didn’t even occur to me that was what I was doing until I was mostly done with the book. I know that sounds strange, but I was just interested in her, and she just happened to be in New York. And, for the most part, the New York in the novel doesn’t exist anymore. But the research made me fall in love with it again. And there is something about being young in New York that is quite thrilling. I moved here in my twenties, and I had a hell of a good time. So if there was anything I was channeling, it was that period of time, when I stayed up late and walked the streets and everything was crumbling and rising and crumbling, again and again, and I felt like I could change my life if I just kept hanging on here. Mazie’s exhilaration felt very familiar to me.
I have to ask about Sid, your dapper dog-about-town. How has having a dog changed you? Has it changed your writing at all? (My tortoise definitely changed mine…)
He’s made me happier. I don’t have a lot that is stable in my life, mostly because I travel so much. Just my books, and now my dog. For a long time I only had to be accountable to my work, but now I have to show up every day for this adorable pup, no matter what. I’ve always thought of my books as my babies, but the truth is having a dog is the closest I’ll come to parenting. I don’t know if it’s changed my writing. It’s just nice to have him around.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Ah, this book launch! Planning my time for the rest of the year. I’ll travel this summer and fall here and abroad and I’m just trying to manage all the details of my life. Other than that I’ve got this Courtney Barnett album, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” on repeat. She’s this dry, funny, rambling, poppy Australian singer, and I can’t get her out of my head lately.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Jax Miller talks about Freedom's Child, drug addiction, the mafia, being a moody writer, and so much more
Jax Miller's Freedom's Child is the kind of thriller that makes you feel like someone is breathing over your shoulder. Freedom, a woman under witness protection, must set out to rescue the daughter she gave birth to in prison, who has now gone missing. I'm thrilled to have Jax here!
I always want to know what sparks a book? What question was haunting you that propelled you into this particular story?
It wasn’t something that propelled me to write up a story as much as it was creating a character. I created Freedom and she led the way, she told the story. I only wanted to create a person commonly overlooked in society (in her case, the town drunk) and create in her a deep and rich history unimaginable to anyone else. I wanted to create a woman like me who was just trying to dig herself out of a hole and find some purpose in life. I guess I just needed some companionship and found it in a person who doesn’t really exist. I like to think Freedom “gets me.”
You have perhaps the most shattering first sentence I’ve ever read: My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter.” Where did that come from? And how did you go about crafting the character of Freedom?
I intentionally wanted something to make the reader say ‘Whoa, there.’ I wanted it to be something pretty unthinkable and that was the first thing that came to mind, because it really is something so unimaginable: to kill your own daughter. I wanted her to be incredibly honest from the get-go and couldn’t think of a more shocking confession. It prepares readers from an early start for what to expect from Freedom’s voice.
I loved that Freedom kept track of her daughter via Facebook. But Facebook often presents an untrue picture of what is going on in someone’s life, which I thought added a wonderful extra dimension to the story. Why do you think this is?
Freedom is anything but a stupid woman. I don’t think she’s under any illusion that her kids’ Facebook pages aren’t candy-coated. However, I think Freedom needs to think this and convince herself that their lives are as great as they appear. That way she can justify her choice to put them up for adoption. But rest assured, Freedom will soon learn that nothing about her kids’ lives is candy coated.
In an interview I read, you talk about your books being a puzzle. How do you go about solving them? Do you map things out? Do you wait for inspiration?
I wouldn’t call Freedom’s Child a puzzle as much as the current story I’m working on, ‘This Neck of The Woods.’ Perhaps it’s the amateur in me, but I’ve no idea where I’m going in any of my stories. I never adhere to the outlines I try (I just don’t have enough leg room with sticking to outlines). It’s great, though. When my character gets surprised, I’m just as surprised. The inspiration/idea comes when my character’s ready for it. I really do let my characters lead the way.
You’ve also spoken about how your own prior drug addiction fueled Freedom’s. When you were writing about this, was there anything that surprised you, that you hadn’t considered before about the nature and scope of addiction?
Not really. By the time I wrote this, I was already well acquainted with my relationship with addiction. Freedom (I think) was more fueled by my trying to redeem myself in a world where I’d made so many mistakes, my struggles with sobriety as opposed to drugs, and lastly, my struggle in faith. I realize Freedom’s Child isn’t a religious book by any means, but for me, it was a book that 100% was parallel to my spiritual journey and relationship with God. It was rocky, it was messy, it pissed me off half the time… In that sense, the book shocked me a bit. I was surprised that writing could be a coping mechanism and it helped me come to terms with a lot of my own grief.
What kind of writer are you? What’s your daily writing life like?
If such a term exists, I’m the poster child of binge writing. I’m a moody writer. I can go weeks without being able to write a word but then whip out a hundred pages in a long day or two. Depending on the scene, I need to have music blasting in my head. I can’t write without it!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Milk and sugar?
What's obsessing you now and why?
I am plagued with book ideas. I have seven ideas right now (and growing). The main one revolves around the 1920’s and the mafia. I’ve always loved the idea of both. But ask me tomorrow, my passion’s on the move and every day I’m interested in something different.
Writer. Teacher...magician! Lori Horvitz's work has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Epiphany, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, Hotel Amerika, and Chattahoochee Review. Her book, The Girls of Usually comes from Truman State University Press. Horvitz is Professor of Literature and Language at University of North Carolina at Asheville, where she teaches courses in creative writing, literature, and women, gender and sexuality studies. I'm delighted to have Lori here. Thank you, Lori!
I love the title—How did that come about?
“The Girls of Usually” is the title of an essay in the book. That story focuses on a Mexican woman I dated when I lived in New York City. She was a non-native English speaker, so every now and then she charmed me with a mistranslation. Once, when I asked her who’d be going to a dinner party, she said, “You know, the girls of usually.” In a way, the slightly skewed translation is a representation of the whole book—there’s something not quite right, something always a little off, but right enough to make sense of it.
I love the whole idea of the outsider—a Jewish girl adrift in a sea of shiny blondes—but what I love more is that instead of trying to be them, you decided to reinvent yourself as something totally new. What surprised you in the process?
I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision to reinvent myself, but through trial and error, through following my heart instead of my head, the road to reinvention came a lot easier. I always had a rebellious streak, but then again, societal pressures were like a magnet pull. Simultaneously I wanted to fit in, to not call attention to myself, but I’d also go out of my way to get attention. In college, I shaved stripes into my hairy legs and walked around with shorts on. I’d blow dry my hair straight for three hours, only for it to frizz back up into a wild mess. It took a while to embrace the wild mess. I embraced the rebel while secretly, or not so secretly, shunning it. I remember sitting in the kitchen of my East Village apartment while a college friend asked about our mutual friends and if so-and-so were dating anyone. At the time I had a girlfriend. My sexuality was the elephant in the room. She didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. I hated her for not asking, but I hated myself more for not speaking up. What surprised me (but in retrospect is a no-brainer) is when I truly embraced my identity, when I no longer hid from who I was, I was a whole lot happier.
I’m deeply interested in memory, and I always want to know, when someone writes memoir, how the event you remember changes as you are writing about it. Can you talk about that please?
Through the writing process and through time, memories are re-contextualized and re-visioned. My first draft of “The Weight of Stuff,” an essay about my mother (who died in a car crash while I was touring the ruins of Pompeii) was filled with anger. Anger about her inability to nurture and see me. But with each revision, the anger dissipated. I began to find compassion for her, to understand why she didn’t have the tools to mother me. In my final draft, my anger turned to a deep sadness, which gave me the ability to understand her and to find compassion for myself in the process. It always takes time and perspective to make sense of an experience. A number of the essays in the second half of my book speak about hopeful love connections that eventually don’t work out. Without the time and perspective to revision the stories through a lens of humor, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.
Although your book is a memoir, it really reads like a collection of short stories—very funny ones, at that. What made you decide to do a memoir instead of pure fiction?
This book is made up of a series of memoir-essays; many have been published as stand-alone pieces. As a collection, the essays speak to each other and build on each other towards a bigger whole. I didn’t plan to write a memoir. I just started writing separate essays, which all shared similar themes of identity, love and travel. Although I started off as a poet, and then moved to fiction writing, when I left New York City for a teaching job in the South, I began to write nonfiction stories about New York. Of course, there are elements of fiction in essay writing: in re-creating dialogue, scene, setting, etc.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
How will I find more time to write? It’s hard to get writing done with a full-time teaching gig. But I do have summers off!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How does it feel to expose yourself by putting your stories out there? Don’t you feel vulnerable?
At this point in the process (the first essay was written over ten years ago), I no longer have the emotional attachment to each piece as I once did. I suppose it’s like sending a child out into the world after nurturing them for eighteen years. And now it’s time for the child to make her own mark; she’s out of my control, out of my hands.
Lily King's Kirkus Prize-winning novel EUPHORIA is out in Paperback! Revisit her interview, come see her on tour and read her favorite question from book tour (so far)!
In honor of Lily King's book, Euphoria, coming out in paperback and Lily going on tour, I am replaying her last interview with me here--and posting her tour schedule, her favorite quote from book tour and the reads she is raving about.
Lily King is the kind of writer other writers rhapsodize over. Fiercely smart, and deeply emotional, she's a keen observer of how people struggle to live their lives--and, of course, there is her glorious prose. Lily’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award. Lily's new novel, Euphoria, is an Amazon Book of the Month, on the Indie Next List, and hitting numerous summer reading lists from The Boston Globe to O Magazine and USA Today. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.” The novel is being translated into numerous different languages and a feature film is underway.
Lily, thank you, thank you so much for being here.
I’m fascinated that your novel was inspired by Margaret Mead (A video on her in the Natural History Museum actually transfixed my son when he was a baby, so I have a special fondness foe for her.) What is about anthropologists that caught you? And about Mead’s life in particular? And how and why did you change the facts of her life to craft your novel?
I stumbled on this biography of Mead about nine years ago. I wasn't looking to write anything about her or anthropology. In fact I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, so I wasn't even looking for an idea. But I started reading this biography and I got to the part when she was 31 and doing field work in what was the called the Territory of New Guinea with her second husband in 1933 and they meet this other English anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and have this crazy five month love triangle in the jungle and I thought that would make a good novel. It was sort of an idle thought, not a real thought. I didn't think I'd actually write that novel. I thought the idea would go away. But it didn't. So I started reading more about and by Mead and Bateson and more ideas started coming, though I didn't actually commit to writing the novel for five years, after I'd finished Father of the Rain. I thought I was going to stay true to the facts of her life as best I could, but the minute I started writing scenes and dialogue my characters separated from their real-life inspirations and I couldn't really control them anymore.
What was the research like for this novel? What startled you about it? Was there anything you learned that turned what you thought you were going to write into something else entirely?
The research took years, though I did it intermittently as I wrote the third novel. It was hard to know when to stop, hard to make that transition from research to writing. I think the most startling thing was when I did start to write and I quickly realized it wasn't my character Nell's story. I thought she would narrate it, and she did for a while, until I shifted the point-of-view for one short chapter to Bankson's, and just felt him in a different way, so much more intimately, and I understood that it all had to be told in his voice. And that changed everything.
So much of this astonishing novel is about obsessions--for work and for love. Do you think obsessions can save us as well as destroy us? Which leads me to my next question--what’s obsessing you now?
The word obsession has unhealthiness built in, doesn't it? Everything else falls away, and perspective and relativity are lost. That very much happens to the characters in Euphoria. I'm sure there have been situations where obsessions save people, but I do think the real kind of obsession tends to destroy more often than not. Right now I am slightly, but not yet destructively, obsessed with a particular kind of potato doughnut in Portland, Maine called the "old fashioned" which you get at the Holy Donut on Exchange Street. Also this summer my husband, kids, neighbors and I have been playing way way too much of card game called Nerts.
There is also an equally fascinating thread about how we should (or shouldn’t) study other cultures, and if it is possible without disturbing those cultures in some way. Can you talk about this, please?
In 1933 Anthropology as a discipline taught at universities was still a young science, only a few decades old. Modern Western Anthropology grew out of colonialism and the contact the dominant powers made with indigenous populations. These populations were then studied, occasionally out of curiosity, but more frequently out of desire to subjugate. The way anthropologists in the early part of the twentieth century spoke of their "people" and their "village" using possessive pronouns and picking out a shoot boy and cook boy and house boy, was inherently colonialistic. My characters are still very much a part of this tradition, and yet Bankson of three is more aware of it, less comfortable with it, and much more cognizant that his presence is altering what he is observing. He is aware that his whiteness changes the way the people in the tribe he is studying behave.
What’s your writing life like? Do you plan things out or just see what happens?
I write only when my kids are at school. I don't work weekends or evenings, except when I'm about to hand in a draft to my agent or editor. Then I go up to the attic and don't come out, or I rent a cabin somewhere and work straight for several days.
When I start a book I have a few characters in my head, an initial situation they're in, and a sense of the emotional journey I want to take them on. I often know where I want the characters to end up emotionally, but I never know until I get there what exactly will happen to get them there. I take notes along the way, in the back of the spiral notebooks I write in, and then when they notes get unruly, I make a little timeline of moments I write towards. Not chapters or even full scenes, just little moments that help me know where to go next. I love the part when I type into the computer the chapters in my notebook. That's when I do my best editing. That's when I can hear it in a different way. It's a complete rewrite because I am re-writing every single word, not cutting or pasting or tinkering but fully re-writing.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
When I had my first reading of the tour in New York in June, my agent Julie Barer asked, "What was a high point and a low point of writing the book?" I think I said then, because the whole process of writing it was still so close to me, that there were no highs. I couldn't think of one! But the truth is that day when I wrote that short chapter in Bankson's point of view and was so stunned by the way it came out and how it changed everything about the book, that was a high. And then the rest of the time I felt the whole thing was impossible and terrifying.
Paperback Book Tour Dates -- (ME, MI, NY, MA, TN)
May 13, 2015, 12pm - Portland, ME Portland Public Library (This is the PPL Brown Bag tomorrow at noontime!)
May 18, 2015, 12pm - Detroit, MI Book & Author Society
May 18, 2015, 7pm - Ann Arbor, MI Nicola’s Books
May 19, 2015, 7pm - New York, NY Barnes & Noble
May 21, 2015, 7pm - Bath, ME The Mustard Seed Bookstore
May 31, 2015, 4pm - Cohasset, MA Paul Pratt Memorial Library
June 04, 2015, 9am - Harwich Port, MA Wychmere Beach Club.
June 06, 2015, 11am - Damariscotta, ME Maine Coast Book Shop
June 17, 2015, 6:30pm - Nashville, TN Parnassus Bookstore
June 28, 2015, 3pm - Wayne, ME Cary Memorial Library
July 8-16, 2015 - Holland/Germany (TBA)
July 21, 2015, 5pm - Tenants Harbor, ME St. George Summer Literary Series
July 22, 2015, 7pm - Bar Harbor, ME Jesup Memorial Library
July 30, 2015, 7:30pm - Biddeford Pool, ME Union Church
(see my website lilykingbooks.com for more details.)
My favorite question on book tour so far (from a man at a luncheon in Las Vegas):
"Why did it take him so long to have sex with her?"
What I've recently read and loved:
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Love and Other Ways of Dying by Mike Paterniti
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Ellis Avery talks about her searing new single read, The Sapphire and The Tooth, grief, writing, more
The absolutely wonderful Ellis Avery has won two Stonewall Book Awards, one in 2008 for her debut novel, The Teahouse Fire, and another in 2013 for her second novel, The Last Nude. The Teahouse Fire also won a Lambda Literary Award and an Ohioana Library Fiction Award. I'm so delighted to host her here to talk about her Kindle single, The Sapphire and the Tooth, the first in a series of essays on grief, illness and food--all under the umbrella title, The Family Tooth.
My blog is always your blog, Ellis.
A jeweler with a law degree, for decades Elaine Solari Atwood fought crippling arthritis with hard liquor, until she died of a brain aneurysm at sixty-eight, leaving two daughters in their thirties and a lifetime's worth of unfinished business. Forced as a child to play nanny to five siblings, she grew up to become a mother who loved her girls as tenderly as her stifled pain and anger allowed. In THE SAPPHIRE AND THE TOOTH, I tell the story of selling my mother's jewelry in New York's Diamond District, and offer a searing portrait of alcoholism and difficult love.
Right after college, I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, where I first encountered the Mexican Day of the Dead. I was moved by intimacy and earthiness with which participants mourned and celebrated their dead family members, constructing altars decked out with tequila and cigarettes, bread and chocolate—all the comforts the deceased might crave in the hereafter.
After my mother died, I found myself constructing a similar altar. I took comfort in setting a glass of chilled vodka in front of her photograph, and next to it, the diamond ring she was wearing when she died.
In that moment, as I set up her altar, my fingers slippery from the cold condensation on the crystal shot glass, buttery from the soft gold of the ring, a connection sizzled in my brain between the liquor and the gemstone, and not just because my mother had loved both. The two objects together, as clear and sparkling as ice, brought to mind the word frozen.
Frozen: the diamond brought to mind the hundreds of human hours, from the mine to the gem cutter, trapped inside that stone, never to be retrieved. Frozen: the vodka made me think of the way my mother’s alcoholism preserved her pain and anger for decades, whole and unchanged, both protecting her from ever really feeling them and preventing her from ever really letting them go.
I know I’m not the only woman to wish I’d loved my mother better, or to wish she’d left me better loved. All I can do is tell as much of my truth as well as I can, and hope that doing so helps someone else feel a little less alone with theirs. If Mother’s Day gives you a difficult pause—or a bittersweet one—this essay is for you.
You can read THE SAPPHIRE AND THE TOOTH on Kindle here.
Other essays from THE FAMILY TOOTH are forthcoming from Kindle Singles, and a zine edition of the memoir is forthcoming from Ellis Avery later this year. www.ellisavery.com
Andrew Roe talks about his astonishing novel, The Miracle Girl, the desperate need to believe, havoc-wreaking gophers, writing and more
I'm partial to Algonquin Books (my beloved publisher!) authors, and Andrew Roe's debut, The Miracle Girl, is eerie, haunting, unsettling, tragic and also full of hope. And I'm not the only one to think so because the praise is pouring in. I devoured this book in one sitting, and instantly reached out to Andrew, and I'm thrilled to host him here. Thank you, Andrew!
What sparked this novel? I always believe there is a question that is haunting the author and the writing is the salve.
I love that phrase: “a question that is haunting the author and the writing is the salve.” I’m going to regularly quote that, if it’s OK with you. And I totally agree!
The question that haunted me for this book was the question of belief, the mystery of belief—and not just religious but also secular belief. As someone who’s not religious, I do appreciate how faith draws people in and serves as such a foundation for their lives, particularly when confronted with death, illness, life challenges, and so on. So I suppose there’s a bit of me going against that old writing chestnut of “Write what you know” and instead choosing to “Write what you don’t know.”
So much of this exquisite novel is about what we believe, what we want to believe, what we need to believe—and why. Why do you think a miracle has so much power?
For me, the book has two types of miracles: the divine, otherworldly kind (which, of course, can never be proven), and the day-to-day, more commonplace kind (which can be verified). Both are powerful, but we might tend to not appreciate the daily miraculous nature in our lives—things like forgiving a parent or spouse, raising a child, or simply being fully present in our lives.
As for the divine kind, I think there’s a hunger, a thirst for these things to be true. But there’s never the certainty that people desire. Just a taste, perhaps. There’s a quote in the book, from a 17th-century English cleric named Jeremy Taylor, that comes to mind here: “A religion without mystery must be a religion without God.” And people may accept the mystery, but there will also always be a human need for verification, validation.
I loved the structure of the book, the way you focused on both the mother, the father, and the girl. Can you talk about why you wrote the novel this way?
Thanks so much for mentioning the structure, and I’m so glad it worked for you. It was definitely one of the book’s biggest challenges and something I spent a lot of time on.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to have multiple points of view and many characters. When I started, I instinctively wrote chapters from the point of view of a particular character—not only the mother and father and girl (Anabelle) herself, but also the people who were drawn to the title character and found their way to her house for various reasons. I ended up consolidating those latter characters, the visitors, who were more secondary, into single chapters in parts 1 and 2 because there was too much time away from the mother, father, and Anabelle, who were the main characters. The tricky thing was to weave characters into chapters that were told from a different character’s point of view.
It’s interesting: I’ve received some nice feedback about the chapters that are from Anabelle’s point of view, and those chapters were a relatively late addition to the book. For a long time, I shied away from going there, but I’m so glad I eventually did. It gave the novel a weight it didn’t have before.
So, I have to ask, as a debut author who is suddenly smack in the middle of the limelight, does it feel the way you thought it would? Does it make it easier or more terrifying to write your next novel?
Honestly, I didn’t really know how I’d feel. It’s something that I’ve been working toward for so long that I kind of purposefully avoided having any specific expectations. At various times along the way, I thought I might be overwhelmed or it might somehow be anti-climatic, given that I’m a 48-year-old debut author. Plus, I’m a pretty private person, so I also wondered if I’d feel vulnerable or exposed. Now that the book is out, however, I’ve mostly just been feeling grateful and thankful that people are taking the time to read the book, and that it’s finally finding its way into the world.
As for whether it will make the next novel easier or not—well, while waiting for The Miracle Girl to be published, I’ve already polished up and finished a short story collection and also have a good chunk of the new novel underway. It’s helpful, I think, to focus on the writing itself and trying to get better and not get too distracted or caught up in any limelight-ish stuff. I’ve been away from the new book for a while because of touring for The Miracle Girl and doing publicity and writing some essays. So we’ll see how it feels once I dive back in, hopefully later this month. But I’m guessing that writing a novel will always be terrifying to some degree, no matter how many you’ve written.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Can I pick more than one? Guitars, because my son is getting into music and wants a guitar for his tenth birthday (I used to play guitar myself, in a previous life); anarchism and squatting in abandoned buildings, because of research I’m doing for the novel I’m currently writing; and gophers, because they’re wreaking havoc in my backyard.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Boxers or briefs? But I’m not saying. (OK, boxers.)
Author, editor, coach Jordan Rosenfeld talks about A Writer's Guide to Persistence, writerly dark nights, Amy Schumer, drought, and why being a better person can make you a better writer
Jordan Rosenfeld is arguably one of the kindest people on the planet. She's the author of Night Oracle, Forged in Grace, Make a Scene, Write Free, and her newest book, A Writer's Guide to Persistence, a toolkit for writers that every scribbler needs to own. Her work has appeared in AlterNet, DAME, Mom.me, The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Writer's Digest magazine and more.I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Jordan!
Why does a writer have to be persistent?
First, let me define persistence, because it's easy to equate it with "slogging" or something equally negative which has a negative connotation. My favorite definition of persistence, which I actually stumbled on after writing the book comes from Patch Adams, that famed real doctor played by Robin Williams in the movie of the same name, who could work miracles with his patients and has this gorgeous outlook on how we can serve one another better. He describes persistence as "Hanging in there, joyfully." What makes a writer able to be persistent, to hang in there when doubt, discouragement and rejection come to visit, is one's passion and love of the writing more than the need for praise, validation or fame. Or, as Brenda Ueland says in her lovely little book, If You Want to Write "The moment I read Van Gogh's letter I knew what art was, and the creative Impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others." And a writer has to be persistent because all great things take time to manifest. Not only the literal work, but the person him or herself--we deepen, and thus the work deepens--the more we invest in it. Those things that come quickly and easily often have a cost, or don't last. No one wants to be a flash in the pan. I want to talk about the Building Boundaries chapter, because so many writers feel if they are not published, they don’t have the right to tell people not to drop by, or to cancel dinners.
It comes down to this: we have to legitimize our writing to ourselves first, or no one will ever believe or respect us. The most serious writers just write and write and write. Every time I see someone post on Facebook that they will NOT be posting on Facebook for the foreseeable future to finish writing a book, I cheer for them. That is healthy boundary setting and a good reminder for the rest of us. It's really no different, however, than a mother remembering to take care of herself so she can be the best mother she is capable of--a writer has to find ways to make time to write, thus turning away friends and canceling dinners--if it matters to her. It's just non-negotiable in my book--to write, you have to shut out the world at times, and that means your loved ones, too, and hopefully they knew that going in when they met or married you ;-) Your children are just out of luck. What's more, writers who don't make time for their writing, in my experience, end up martyrs, or resentful, or cranky. If writing is your purpose, your joy, your gift or just a way to express yourself, then you'll start to feel badly when you don't do It. Pretty simple. Boundaries are just necessary.
You mention that criticism and doubts come with the territory--they do indeed. What’s the best way to deal with them?
I like to treat criticism as though it is all a stream of illegible nonsense spewed from a mean drunk--in the case of the critic, the criticism may stem from meanness, or a different aesthetic, or a need to sound important, or a difference of opinion, but it has less to do with me, and more to do with where the critic is. I also always say that truly good critique (I differentiate helpful critique from cutting criticism) has a spirit of improvement--it strives to help you make the work or your vision better. It seeks to understand what you are trying to do, and support that with insight. But also, a lot of writers don't give themselves necessary space between the making of the writing, which is fresh and vulnerable, and getting feedback, and thus even helpful critique can feel like negative criticism. You need to know your own level of tolerance, and how much room you need before you are ready to hear it. And a really good friend you can call up and moan to who will prop you back up and remind you that it's all going to be okay.
So much of this extraordinarily helpful book is about loving the journey, instead of focusing on the outcome, be it reviews or sales or fame, but rather, what you personally get out of it. I find that incredibly healthy and sustaining. Can you talk a bit about that, please?
I wrote Persistence, or rather, the seeds of it, at a very dark time in my own writing practice. I'd had two agents represent two novels that did not sell. Then I had a baby and lost momentum in my freelance writing life. I basically felt that my writing career as I knew it was over by the age of 34. In searching for inspiration, I recalled Rilke's words to Young Mr. Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet, which I first read at the age of 15, then again at 21, in which he advises him to go deep into his soul and ask the question "must I write?" I tweaked the question and asked: "Will I still write if no one is reading, if I'm only doing it for me?" And the answer was a resounding yes. And from that place came this rush of relief, that there was still something inside me that felt compelled to write even if no one was listening. So I started writing blog posts sort of cheering myself, and hopefully others, on through these writerly dark nights of the soul. And out of it came this book, which I eventually envisioned as a guidebook, as though for hikers on a rigorous trail, for the challenges of the writing craft.
Anne Lamott once said in a talk I heard (I'm paraphrasing) that we think success will fill our emptiness and assuage our sorrow and make us happy; instead, it just adds pressure to all those pre-existing issues and makes us more neurotic. Success is just a byproduct of your work and life--and there are lots of kinds of success. If you become overly reliant on praise or reviews or fame, then what happens to you when those things end or change as they are wont to do? So you have to create a writing practice, a foundation of meaning inside you that doesn't shift so easily.
I also really love the worksheets you provide. Are these things you have always done yourself? How did you come up with them? They really seem to be the best kind of cognitive therapy, where you prove to yourself the things you fear have no teeth, simply by facing fears and then facing the facts as you have them in the minute!
I am an optimist at heart--and optimists are born, I think, out of circumstances where all the other people around them are pessimists--I'm naturally wired to look on the bright side because not too many people in my life did. I was an only child, a latchkey kid--always writing and reading. I like to cheer people up, and I'm also married to a psychologist who is also a Buddhist--we talk a lot about people and the psyche and the ego, and being present, and a ton of other things about how the mind and heart work. So I think that intersection is the genesis for these ideas to try and shift people out of stuck places. I'm also a HUGE believer in adding in physical movement. I experienced something of a revolution when I started to exercise really for the first time at age 35. And my mood completely changed and my focus became so much clearer. So I believe that half of the time we are stuck, the best thing we can do is move our bodies In some way.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Good question. I've been spending a lot of time here in my drought stricken California thinking about our human tendency toward convenience, disposables, instant gratification, and how this has led to such terrible impact on this gorgeous natural world we so take for granted, and how, if ever, we can change. I'm also obsessed with the intersection between belief and health--placebos and faith healing and mind's ability to heal body, and the way our emotions make us sick. Oh, and comedian/actor Amy Schumer who just sticks it to patriarchy, pop-culture, gun-culture, republicans, and more.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You asked lovely questions, but If I may say one last important thing it would be that If more writers spent time focusing on what makes them genuinely passionate, ecstatic, purposeful, better human beings, I suspect that a lot more writers would find themselves producing work that does, in fact, lead to publication more quickly because authenticity and vibrancy are very attractive to others.
NPR's Scott Simon talks about Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime--and so much more
I don't remember when I first met Scott Simon but I do know it was on Twitter. I'm pretty sure he responded to a hopefully-witty tweet of mine, and then we began conversing online, which is pretty amazing to me considering he has 1.25 million fans. He's totally hilarious, uncommonly smart, with a heart the size of Jupiter.
One of America's most admired writers and broadcasters, he's also the award-winning host of Weekend Edition Saturday--hey, it has over 4 million listeners and is also the most listened to news program on NPR. He also hosts TV specials, does stories for CBS Sunday Morning and he's the author of the highly acclaimed nonfiction books Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, and Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other. But wait, there's more! He's also the author of the extraordinary novels Pretty Birds, and Windy City. His new book, Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime, shares his beloved mother's dying process in a way that's actually filled with wonder and with life. It became an instant New York Times bestseller, a Morning Joe Book Club pick, and it is still racking up the raves.
And deservedly so.
I'm so thrilled to have Scott here. Thank you, Scott!
I know you were tweeting as all this was going on, and it had a profound impact on you. Did it change the way you saw social media--and see it now? Were you surprised by how many people your tweets touched?
Yes I was surprised, and it did change the way I see social media. I had always known that my mother was funny, charming, and wise. But to see so many others come to realize that about my mother, in real time, was extraordinary.
At the same time, though, social media has been growing and changing since my mother died in July, 2013. The tweets about my mother demonstrated to some that social media is as serious or frivolous as we choose to make it (and I do a little of both).
The pope (and I like this one a lot, by the way) reaches more people on Twitter, in a way, than he does in his appearances at St. Peter’s. A number of people who have declared their candidacies for president recently have used Twitter to do so. Even as the number of cat photos and fart jokes have also expanded.
I’ve now come to see social media platforms as our papyrus scrolls. It’s where a lot of people record scraps of their lives for others to read, ignore, respond to—or ignore and react to later (as Trevor Noah, the young comic chosen to succeed Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, has so recently discovered).
How did writing the book change you? What did you learn in writing it, about both yourself and your mother, that surprised you?
Writing the book confirmed for me why I became a writer; how, in a way, it just fulfilled me as the kid who always put out the class newspaper. I don’t keep things to myself (well, some things I do, but not many). There’s a good reason why I didn’t go into espionage work. It’s just in my nature to try to fathom my experience and share it with others, be it the war in Bosnia, an interview with Bill Cosby, or my mother’s death.
In our last days together, my mother did surprise me by confiding a conclusion she’d reached a long time ago: that my father, who was a serious alcoholic, more or less willed himself to die when I was sixteen because he couldn’t stop drinking and realized he would drag us down with him. “It was the last gift he could give us,” is how my mother put it.
My mother didn’t want me to grow up with that thought pressing on my mind. I’d blame myself for not helping my father more (which, by the way, no one can do for a real problem drinker, especially not a truculent teenager). I’d wonder if I should have done something. So she waited until she felt I could understand and accept my father’s death as a gift to tell me.
I also felt that your relationship with your mother was a blueprint for parents. She opened you up to the world, to art, and was so unconditionally loving, often in a non-traditional way. Do you find yourself raising your daughters with her in mind?
Oh yes. Especially now, when she’s not around to encourage my wife and I to do that. But her presence, in a way, becomes more powerful in death. We see her lessons as nuggets of imperishable wisdom. We do what we can to drag our daughters through all kinds of places and experiences to let them know that—what was Auntie Mame’s phrase?—life’s a buffet and some poor bastards are starving to death. Our daughters, gosh knows, may often doubt my sanity. But not my love.
To me, the book is really all about how life--and death--are really all about love. Can you comment on that?
It boils down to this: love is all that endures. I’ve learned, too: you can take it with you. My mother sure did.
I was really interested in your descriptions of the hospital system. It was impossible to get in touch with your mother's pulmonologist, for example, when just her simple appearance would have soothed your mother immeasurably. Yet, the nurses should have been awarded guardian angel status. Can you talk a little more about that please?
The nurses were ever-present, kind, considerate, and wise. That seems to be who they are. But the doctors, near as I could tell, just look at laptops, enter keystrokes (and, in the case of the pulmonologist, send bills for “consultations” they make without seeing the patient). Medical care has become cold, remote, and data driven; maybe we’ve forced it to be that way, too, with so many demands. Our veterinarian is more attentive to our cat that my mother’s doctors were to her, or, presumably, any of their patients. I’m not sure why some of them have become doctors if they spend most of their time looking at screens, not people.
I've often asked you silly questions like this upcoming one, but now that I feel I know your mother through these pages, I want to know how do you think she would have answered this: If you had to choose, would you rather be trapped in a room with a coconut crab (they are the size of really large dogs and they do eat dogs, as a matter of fact) or a giant squid?
Oh, a squid for sure. My mother loved dogs too much to be trapped with a coconut crab. But out of curiosity, how do they find a dog to eat? In the Great Barrier Reef? It seems to me that however giant a giant squid might be, they are soon rendered powerless on dry land. In which case, I think my mother would choose a giant squid and a tub of marinara sauce.
What's obsessing you now and why?
It’s got nothing to do with my mother but: the increasing use of drone warfare. War was destructive enough. But drone warfare offers the dotty illusion that damage can be inflicted on an enemy without cost or risk. I think it may be reaping a dangerous whirlwind.
Jane Ciabattari talks about her new audiobook, California Tales, being bicoastal, writing--and you could win one of her books!
Jane Ciabattari does more to champion books and writers than just about anyone I know, so I am thrilled to host her here. She writes the Between The Lines Column for BBC.com, is the Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle online, and is the author of two highly acclaimed short story collections, Stealing the Fire, which at 1.99 is less than your morning latte (and more delicious), and California Tales, which is now an audio book from Audible and Sound Cloud. The first three people to comment get a freebie!
Jane's been a guest on my blog before, and you can read more about California Tales here, and Stealing the Fire here. Thank you so much, Jane, for everything.
You seem to be the quintessential New Yorker, so why a series of stories about California?
I’ve been a bicoastal person for years. Despite my long association with the Upper West Side and Sag Harbor, I’ve spent a lot of time in California. I studied creative writing at Stanford and at San Francisco State (for graduate school). I was a Sunday magazine editor in San Francisco, where some of the authors I worked with included the legendaries of the Beat generation (Michael McClure among them) and others just beginning their careers (including Amy Hempel and Mona Simpson). In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time in Sonoma County, become a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, and cofounded the [Flash Fiction Collective] reading series at Alley Cat Books in the Mission, with Grant Faulkner and Meg Pokrass. I’m in New York when I need to be—for National Book Critics Circle board meetings and events, Brooklyn Book Fair, all the rest—or connecting with literary buddies at AWP (it’s in LA next year), the Oakland Book Fair later this month, Litquake in the fall, and other places. I’ll be cohosting the fifth annual National Book Critics Circle/Zyzzyva party this year in June in San Francisco, with Laura Cogan and Oscar Villalona. My avatar is always on the alert for live tweeting opportunities.
So many of these exquisite stories are about the dark side of the Sunny State--meth addiction, earthquakes, and alcoholics Do you ever think hat some of that bland good weather has something to do with that?
California has a notorious dark side—think Charles Manson, the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, Jonestown. And yes, meth and all the rest. The natural world can be deceptive. I was in Los Angeles to attend the Golden Globes when the Northridge quake shook everyone awake and ripped apart freeways (that’s the background for my story “Aftershocks,” in California Tales). Napa had a 6.0 quake recently that broke the liquid crystal display on my MacBook Pro. And there’s a horrific drought ongoing. All of this sets up a curious tension. You can’t take anything for granted. A placid scene can be disrupted at any moment. Great, of course, for fiction.
What was it like writing these three stories?
Two are set in Southern California--the valleys and clubs and desert of “Arabella Leaves,” about a young woman high on crystal meth whose life is about to be shattered for the second time, and, in “Aftershocks,” the Viper Room and nearby hills during and just after the biggest quake in years. The third is set in Silicon Valley, just before the dot.com collapse. Again, those peaks and valleys, sudden collapses.
Now that they are newly out on audiobooks, does listening to them feel different than "listening" to the written word to you? Y
es, surprisingly. If so, how? It was a surprise to hear an actress read. Her enunciation is great, of course. And there is an undertone to her voice that is complex, but also a bit cheerier than I visualize “Arabella Leaves” to be. It’s such a tragic story.
Do you feel that a short story is like a very intense relationship while a novel is more of a long marriage?
Short stories can be completed relatively quickly (I wrote “Wintering at Montauk” in one sitting) and then polished for months or years. Novels take years to write and revise. Years.
Do you write and imagine stories differently than you do novels?
Yes. I can imagine a story in its entirety. That’s much harder to do with a novel. I can carry a chapter in my mind. I can think about the overall effect of a novel. But hundreds of pages? Dozens of chapters? Much harder to keep it all in my mind while also working on other deadlines. I need solitude and a place to put all my chapters around me for that. Something I get at writers colonies like the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and at the Grotto.
I always ask What's obsessing you now and why?
Finishing my novel, The Road to Eastville. It’s a complicated novel about a biracial family with a lot of research and quite a bit of history (including material on the underground railroad in the Midwest) layered in. It may be impossible. But I’m determined.
And I always ask, What question didn't ask that I should have?
Who are you reading now? I’ve just recommended the new Toni Morrison novel, Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, other story collections by Lauren Acampora, Edna O’Brien, first novels by Heidi Pitlor and Jabari Asim, new novels from Mary Morris and Ann Packer, and Leaving Orbit, a Graywolf nonfiction award winner by Margaret Lazarus Dean, as books to read in my BBC.com books column.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
"The Last Hotel is a 20th Century ark filled with survivors of history and gentrification. Sonia Pilcer brings them all vividly to life with gentle wit and a generous heart." - Hilma Wolitzer
One of my favorite things to do is remember New York City in its gritty heyday, when you could get a shoebox apartment for $500 a month, when the Pyramid Club and Danceteria were always your nightly destination. And one of my favorite people to talk about those times with is Sonia Pilcer. Sonia's first novel, Teen Angel, was bought by Universal Studios and she wrote the screenplay with Garry Marshal. She's also the author of Maiden Rites, Little Darlings and I-Land: Manhattan Monologues.
The Last Hotel perfectly captures Manhattan in the 70s, as well as being a page-turning literary novel. I'm delighted to have Sonia here, and I bet we crossed paths at Danceteria!
I always want to know what sparks a book? What question was haunting you that propelled you into this particular story?
I consider myself a nearly native New Yorker. I was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, child of Holocaust survivors, and we arrived at the St. Mark's Place Hotel when I was a year and a half. In recent years, I felt as if my city was becoming unrecognizable. The subways, clean and safe, as were the parks, even Times Square turned wholesome. Where was the squalor? The sense of risk and excitement? When I used to leave my house, I never knew what would happen, who I might meet. Now I was surrounded by haute bourgeoisie, their children, their pricey bars and eateries. Where were the street people, not necessarily homeless, who hung out, played music, told stories, asked for some change? As I thought about it, I realized that young people coming here had no idea of the splendid decrepitude and pre-poop-scooped streets of Manhattan. I wanted to preserve the fly in amber. Or was it a cockroach? New York City, 1979.
What was it like to revisit the 70s?
Ah, the 70s. Isn't there an expression that if you remember the 60s, you probably weren't there? 70s was a hedonistic flush. Caroline, you mentioned the Pyramid and Danceteria. I'll add the Limelight, Max's Kansas City, and CBGBs. It was the ultimate party before Reagan, before AIDS. And we were so young and full of promise. A fearsome thing.
Do you miss that grittier NYC? To me, there has been a serious trade-off for a safe NYC, with artists and writers being pushed out, and the wealthy moving in. Can yo talk about this?
I know it's much more civilized now. No muggings. If we own anything, which I don't, its value has risen. But I miss the sense of a struggling, not completely broke, middle class, working class atmosphere. Many of my friends were artists, writers, filmmakers -- the aspiring population, who went to screenings, openings and the Gotham Book Mart. We could sit in a bar on Columbus Avenue for hours, nursing one beer or a glass of red wine. The talk went on for hours. Foreigners love New York City in the movies. So colorful, covered with graffiti. But this is a nostalgic view. Follow the dollar. The city now belongs to the money like so many other things. THE LAST HOTEL is a kind of last stand against the wave of change, saying, "Hey, this is really what it was like. And it was cool."
I also LOVE the title: a Novel in Suites. How did you go about structuring the novel and what was that like?
Well, there's the play on words. Musical suite, but mine refers to the suites of THE LAST HOTEL. Every chapter takes place in a different suite, which is how we get to know the characters and their visitors. As you can imagine, the ordering of the suites was a major undertaking.
I enjoy challenging myself with different structures. I-LAND: MANHATTAN MONOLOGUES is told entirely through monologues, all taking place on one day. THE LAST HOTEL is what one of the characters calls "a vertical shtetl." A hotel is a great way to throw characters together. Besides my father managed such a hotel and I always wondered what happened upstairs.
What kind of writer are you? What’s your daily writing life like?
I started out as a poet so for me, it begins with language. A word. A phrase. A person's name. The idea of this beautiful old structure gone to disrepair, but still possessing "good bones and solid brass fixtures" made me want to fill it with stories.
And then these people started arriving. I have no idea where they came from. Well, actually, a few came from previous books. The manager, Saul, is based on my father. They seemed to want to rent a suite at the hotel and they wouldn't stop talking.
Dialogue, what people say and don't say, how they say it -- drives my work. I feel as if i'm often racing to capture some great, outrageous thing a character says. That's why I like to write for theater too.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The great Colette said, "You have to get old. Don't cry, don't clasp your hands in prayer..." All of my novels have been coming of age stories. This is another coming of age. Actually, aging. I want to create older characters who are sexy, alive, which I've tried to do in LH. I think of those older European actresses, lined and glorious, mysterious in their enduring appeal.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I wonder how you respond to the Yiddishkeit. Though I don't speak Yiddish well, for this book, for these characters, I felt I had to introduce its wonderful expressions. Did you know a knish is a vagina in Yiddish? I use it as a pungent spice in my writing. I love the sound of Yiddish, so vulgar sometimes, yet so unerringly frank. As a result, we decided to include a Yiddish glossary at the end of the book.