Tuesday, September 29, 2015
One Play. One Night. 25+ Cities: Victoria Zackheim adapts essays in The Other Woman (Including mine!) for a November 9th play about love, lust, betrayal, sex and deception.
I am so totally thrilled and excited. Victoria Zackheim has adapted essays (including mine, which got me on The Today Show twice!) from her anthology, The Other Woman into an event. One Night; One Play, on November 9, 2015. The Other Woman features five wives, lovers, and others talking openly about sex, deception, love, and betrayal in this compelling drama.
If you're interested in participating as director and/or theater, please contact Victoria on (the Facebook page URL) and please click here for more info.
Participating cities/theaters/directors, as of today...more coming:
Benicia, CA: Benicia Library, more info TBA
Berkeley, CA: venue TBA, Angela Mason directing
Chicago: Tribeca Flash Point College, Killian Heilsberg directing
Colorado Springs: Main library, Eve Tilley/Linda Weise directing
Hoboken: Mile Square Theater, Ellen Lancaster directing
Houston: FreshArts Coalition/Mildred's Umbrella Theatre, Jennifer Decker directing
Lake Geneva, WI: Venue TBA. JaNelle Powers directing
Laguna Woods, CA: Community theater, CeCe Sloan directing
Long Beach, CA: Garage Theater, Cecelia Fanon directing
Los Angeles: Ebell Theatre, Victoria Zackheim directing
Louisville, KY: The Bard's Town, Carol Hatt directing
Midland, MI: Creative360 Theatre, Carol Rumba directing
New York City: Gene Frankel Theatre, Jane Aquilina directing
Oak Park, Il: Venue TBA, Amy Rising directing
Petaluma, Ca: Clear Heart Theater, Leslie Scatchard directing
San Francisco, CA: Friends of Library, Fort Mason, Bayla Travis directing
San Luis Obispo, CA: The Monday Club, Linda Wilson directing
Santa Fe, NM: Santa Fe Playhouse, Cristina Duarte directing
Ukiah/Mendocino: venue TBA, Ricci Dedola directing
Waitsfield, VT: Mad River Valley Theatre, Jennifer Howard directing
Walnut Creek, CA: Congregation B'Nai Shalom, Anne Nicolson directing
I'm thrilled, excited and honored to host Victoria here, who has been my heroine for years. She's never seen a "no" that she couldn't turn into a "yes, " she's fearless, funny, warm, and a deep part of my heart--and my family.
So this play originates from your anthology The Other Woman. What gave you the idea for this book?
As the essays arrived, I downloaded, printed, and then read and edited each one. The only distraction I faced was this recurring image of a theater stage. Seated there were five women, and they were having a dialogue/debate/argument/sharing about infidelity.
And what gave you the idea of one play performed one night all across the country?
I was discussing the play with Cynthia Comsky, who is connected to the Ebell Theater in Los Angeles. We talked about a possible reading...and we were suddenly planning a one-night nationwide event! I'm quite sure it was Cynthia's idea...although I'd love to take credit!
The anthology did incredibly well, with appearances on the Today Show, many local/regional television and radio interviews. (I also recall an invitation to launch the paperback on Good Morning America, which never happened...you decided instead to fall down a flight of stairs and injure your head the day before your NY flight.) What made you decide it should also be a play? And how did you choose which essays should be in that play?
As I read the essays, I not only saw the actors on the stage, but I heard the voices of the authors. I knew there was a play hiding in there—the point/counterpoint of opinions, the tragic and funny and angry stories—and I had the adaptation before the book was launched.
Choosing the essays was by far the most difficult element. In the four readings I've done since 2007, I've used perhaps ten essays...but never more than five for the play. The five selected for this nationwide reading represent five very different experiences of infidelity. Connie May Fowler rants against it, Aviva Layton was the other woman and has no remorse, Maxinne Leighton became the other woman when she was a little girl molested by a trusted uncle, Mary Jo Eustace suffered a media explosion when her husband left her for Tori Spelling, and your piece pulls us into the life of a trusting woman who is figuratively stabbed through the heart by both her husband and her dearest friend.
I need to digress for a quick moment to say that Ellie Mednick, now senior executive at the Lark Theater in Marin County, was instrumental in the 'reawakening' of this play. It was Ellie who directed it in San Francisco several years ago. There have been many changes since then, but Ellie never stopped reminding me that it had promise.
You are one of the most amazing people I know, reinventing yourself all the time. You started as a novelist, but you're now a playwright, essayist and a screenwriter. Tell us about all of this, and what is your next challenge?
I do love the novel, but I'm afraid I lack the patience it takes. (Having said that, I should probably add that I'm working on my second novel, and have been since....1996!!!) Theater, film, television offer something that resonates within me: the process of putting voices to words, faces to images, within settings that evoke both time and place. In film, I can say/show in ten words what it might take three pages to convey in a novel. It's the glance, the shrug, the lowering of the eyes... they convey so many emotions and thoughts. I love that challenge. I also love that I can close my eyes and see the entire scene, hear the voices...it's magic.
I'm now working on a pilot script for a television series. I have the great fortune to be doing this with the queen of mystery writers, Anne Perry. I've no idea where this will go, but we're having great fun creating this!
There already has been one staged reading of a previous incarnation of this play in NYC. How did it feel to see your work on the stage?
The staged reading in June 2007 is one of the most exciting moments of my life. How not? Reading my adaptation were the most gifted actors: Penny Fuller, Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, Winslow Corbett, joined by author Connie May Fowler. The audience response was thrilling....and if I remember correctly, a film guy rushed up to you minutes after the play and wanted to option your essay for a film.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I actually have the "pleasure" of obsessing over two major projects! The first is the 11/9 simultaneous readings of the play; the second is this television series I'm writing with Anne. I'm at the age where passions run deep and time is running out!
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Victoria, have you ever thought of falling in love again? Why Caroline, funny you should ask. If he's brilliant, funny, kind, liberal, and isn't fixated on marriage, who knows?
The other question you didn't ask: What are afraid of? Not living long enough to do all the projects I'm yearning to do...and since that would take perhaps 30 years, the fear is well founded! On the other hand, I give everything my best shot. If it doesn't work, I've tried. If I don't try, I've failed. No one fails if the attempt is made.
Down the rabbit hole of relationships! Louise Wareham Leonard talks 52 MEN, Red Hen Press, the sometimes viciousness of social media, writing, more
How can you resist a memoir called 52 men? I certainly couldn't. Louise Wareham Leonard won the James Jones Literary Society First Novel Award for Since You Asked and was published by Akashic Books, New York in 2004. Her second novel, Miss Me A Lot Of was a New Zealand bestseller. I'm thrilled to have her here.
For me, writing any sort of autobiography (even fictional autobiography) is always nerve-wracking because you truly are unearthing your soul. Was it this way for you?
I spent my early life not being heard –at least in one way -- and the more I was not heard, the more I needed to be. For a long time, writing was a way for me to make things real –not to be told that my feelings were ‘wrong’ or that I shouldn’t have them. Writing publicly was a hurdle I avoided somewhat, both from fear of hurting people and from fear that I didn’t know everything yet, that I didn’t have the big picture or the ‘right’ picture. But the beauty of getting a little older, is that you really can come into your self and your truth -- and no can take what you feel from you.
Writing the truth, either literally or emotionally became in 52 Men and my recent work, a pleasure. I write to speak of all I kept in over so many years -- and I also write for all the other girls and women out there who are taught to doubt their feelings, to doubt their reality. My work is for you/them.
You’re a critically acclaimed poet. Did writing fiction come naturally to you? How different was it?
For me the hardest thing, was finding the right form to express my experience. For a long time, I thought I was supposed to be a traditional novelist – but I struggled with, for example, multi-generational psychological dramas that seemed to make sense of everything. I couldn’t fit my life or past into that; nothing matched up neatly, it seemed impossible to find one way to see things, one vantage point that stayed the same. I thought for a time that poetry would work best for me because it has hidden spaces and is subtle and oblique. Yet as soon as I started to create my own kind of work – a mix of styles, – a kind of intense ‘poetic’ prose, with space and elision and the ability to change directions and emotions, I felt happiest. Quickness, lightness, intensity, that’s what I love in language, in hybrid works, in texts that use different forms.
I love the structure of the book—the vignettes, the occasional photo of a note, the lists you make. Was this always how you saw this book or did it metamorphose into this shape?
I was inspired by George Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood in which two stories play off each other. I also see the childhood story in 52 Men (Ben – Part 2) as an explosion in early life and the 52 Men the result or ‘fallout’ of that explosion. It is a very simple structure.
In terms of photographs, and visuals, for me they add a mystery and depth while at other times, objects -- a letter or a card -- seemed to represent an entire relationship or man all by them themselves -- like #47, his rage and intelligence tell you the whole story in just one of his own paragraphs: “Generous of you to write, considering the rather over-the-top nature of my letter.” His whole tone and energy, it’s all there. Or the lists of words about sex: Sergios’ funniness and sexiness and brightness, it’s all in his “Project #1 #2 etc. “to nail, to “paste to the bed,” or “jewelry box,” “garden.”
There are so many quotable lines --(I was driving with the world’s most famous author. Now I would be famous, too.) And so many (well 52) men, some of them famous, some of them who died young. Do you see any cause and effect in your relationships? Did one man lead to the next?
As testament to the bomb/explosion metaphor, the 52 are in no particular order, but scattered all around. Yes, one led to the next, but some were mere encounters, others relationships. What unites them is that I was single, I was in New York, I was open to all kinds of people. I was always fascinated by the different lives each man seemed to make available to me – it was down the rabbit hole into all of these dizzying fantastic or sometimes terrifying worlds.
One day I could be out with my all denim-clad Irish Dexy Midnight Runners hairdresser from Jean Louis David, the next looking at a $6 million triplex in Tribeca with a man who turned out to be a gangster. One day I was taking a gun from the hand of a narcotics officer on Jane Street, the next strolling up Fifth Avenue with a blueblood named Hewson Baltzell. I was open to everything.
In other ways, of course, I was also open to nothing, because like most of us, I’d been hurt in childhood, and was trying to get free of that and was not as ‘available’ as a girlfriend or wife as I imagined I was.. .
Publishing has changed so much, and I really love and support the small presses like Red Hen. What has your experience with them been like?
My three books are all with indie presses but Red Hen has been like no other experience. Not just I, but my agent, and all the staff at Red Hen have worked relentlessly finessing and pitching the book. It has been a tireless team effort – frustrating at times as the market is so saturated – but to have anyone work hard on your behalf – who could knock it?
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The viciousness of social media is bothering me. It’s brutal and I am really disturbed at the lack of respect and the total public shaming of people who might have just made a mistake. One day, it could be you – or me – who puts a foot wrong – and I want never to be one of those people adding to the nastiness. At the same time, I have opinions too, and the trick is to use anger, passion, rage wisely. I want to speak up against certain things – lies, greed, deceit -- but I want also want to be a good person. I do not consider myself a victim of men, but of individuals; I am not weak or disadvantaged because I am a woman. I have strengths as a woman men can only envy lol.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How many times have you been engaged? Four. Married? Once, at age 41
Leslie Pietrzyk talks about Her Drue Heinz Literature Prize Winner, This Angel on My Chest, grief, loss, healing, writing and so much more.
I wish I didn't know so much about loss. But I do, and it has changed me. And so has Leslie Piertrzyk's dazzling new collection of stories (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) , This Angel on my Chest, a dazzling collection of stories, all about loss, each about a different young woman whose husband has died suddenly. I'm so thrilled to have Leslie here on the blog. This book is special. And Important. And Wonderful.
I always ask writers on my blog what sparked them writing a particular book. I know the answer to this, but it’s so moving, I’d love for you to talk about it.
Yes, my first husband died of a heart attack when he was 37 and I was 35, and many of the experiences and the emotional turmoil in THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST are based on my own life. That said, the book is fiction, and plenty of elements are made up or fictionalized. The opening story, “Ten Things,” was actually written in the throes of grieving, the first thing I wrote after Robb died. I started the rest of the book years later, sparked by a random breakfast conversation at an artists’ colony. Someone mentioned she was teaching a class on the literature of subcultures, and I decided to spend the day writing about a subculture, since the novel I brought to work on wasn’t going anywhere. This ended up being the story “The Circle,” about a young widow’s support group similar to the one I attended for several months. Once in that world, I couldn’t leave, and I scribbled out dozens of ideas for stories exploring that part of my life. I’m so grateful that I was up early enough for breakfast that day.
How difficult was it, after such a loss, to write this book? Did anything surprise you while you were writing?
Almost fifteen years had passed since Robb’s death, so I had a lot of time to grieve and gain perspective. Even so, yes, some of these stories were very difficult to face. The writing assignment I gave myself was that each story must contain one hard, true thing about my experience with loss—whether an insight or an incident—so from the beginning, I knew this would be an extremely personal book. Looking back on the writing process, I realize that those early stories were highly fictionalized—characters with names, linear plot lines—and that as I kept working, diving deeper into my memories, the material became more truthful and started to read almost like non-fiction or memoir (even as I embellished and invented). Several of the earlier, more traditional stories didn’t make the final cut when I finalized the manuscript, but I’m sure writing them eased my way into the challenging stuff. What surprised me is that even as I was immersed in this difficult material, dredging up a painful time, I enjoyed thinking about Robb and mentally reliving our early days together. Those memories are mine alone now, and there’s no one else who cares about, say, the time we made cider from the wormy apples off the tree in our backyard. It was pleasant to indulge in those thoughts.
Did putting words to paper help you grieve, or did it make it more acute? How do you think you would have felt differently if you had written a memoir?
Though I have written a couple of short essays about Robb, I never considered writing a full-length memoir. This writer needs to duck behind the veil of fiction! And I like the tricks of invention that fiction offers, shifting events as I please or tossing in something unexpected. My Midwestern upbringing may have something to do with my overall lack of interest in writing a memoir. It feels impossible to say, “Read about me and my dead husband,” but maybe I can say, “Read about these other women and their dead husbands.” I love reading memoirs—but I’ll leave all that honesty to someone else.
It’s interesting to ponder whether the writing helped me or stirred up sadness…I guess both. As I said, plenty of time had passed, but so what? As anyone who has suffered a loss knows, tough feelings arise unexpectedly, without regard to schedules and plans and “closure” (I hate that false notion). I definitely struggled with the idea that I was using the intimacy of this death as writing material and though this is what writers do, I felt guilty that I might be exploiting Robb. So, yeah, things got stirred up. Maybe that’s good? I wouldn’t want there to be a time where I wouldn’t feel emotional when thinking deeply about Robb, whether our life together or the aftermath of his death. Grieving a loss, to me, is not getting back to normal and carrying on as if nothing has changed; it’s understanding that absolutely everything has changed, and finding the strength to forge a new path to an unexpected destination.
I deeply admire how you played with form. There are quizzes in here, and even an index of food. What made you decide to do this?
Thank you! This is a stylistic departure for me, and I definitely had fun playing around (amidst the torture of wrestling 10 different types of point of view into the 40-page craft lecture of “One True Thing.” Hint: stream of consciousness is best reserved for geniuses!). But the underlying purpose of experimenting with form was to illustrate the utter impossibility of conveying the depth of loss and pain experienced after a loved one dies. Even mourning the death of the same person speaks to this impossibility: losing a husband is different than losing a child or a brother or a friend or a parent or a co-worker or an in-law, and none of these is the worst because they are all heartbreaking. The bereaved are plunked into an altered world, where nothing is normal, and the regular rules have vanished. I wanted the writing to reflect that reality.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m fairly obsessive, so I could offer 1000 answers here, and probably I should be obsessed with re-revising my new novel. But what popped into my head first is that fall is coming up, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be scraping together a rationalization that tells me I need a new pair of boots. I just love boots. And coats. Put me in a cute coat and a fierce pair of boots, and the rest can be rags. I’m obsessed with boot season approaching! And this new look with fringe on boots…what could be better?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Maybe something like, “This book sounds soooo depressing. Is it?” After mumbling about what a good question that is, I would say: Yep, probably hilarity will not ensue in a book in which a young husband dies or has died in every single story. After Robb died, the worst thing and the best thing I learned is that life goes on, meaning it is possible to laugh and hope and love again. Like life, my book can be sad, but it’s not without hopefulness and humor.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Hate your frizzfest hair? Shaved your head from illness? Long for the kind of locks you just don't have? The great Elizabeth Benedict talks about Me, My Hair, And I, and the best haircut she's ever seen, plus much more
Elizabeth Benedict is a fabulous editor (I know because of the brilliant edits she did on an essay of mine.) A wonderful writer. Warm. Funny. Smart. And she has a great head of hair. Her new anthology, Me, My Hair, And I, is racking up the raves from People, PW, Kirkus, and BookRiot, and mentions in Sheen Magazine and on many blogs. In advance of publication, a number of essays are appearing in major magazines and on websites, including Vogue.com, Harper's Bazaar (August issue), Saturday Evening Post, and Quartz. com. She'll be at the Barnes and Noble on 86th on October 1, and what are you waiting for, you know you want to go!
Liz is also a bestselling novelist, journalist, teacher of creative writing, editor, and writing coach. She has published five acclaimed novels, including the bestseller Almost and the National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing, a classic book on writing fiction, and hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles. She is the editor of two acclaimed anthologies, the New York Times Bestseller What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most (Algonquin 2013) and Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives (Simon & Schuster; SUNY Press). I'm so thrilled to have Liz here--and now I am off to obsess about my hair!
What is it about hair that instantly starts a conversation with women?
ANSWER: Everything. The color, the texture, the length, the new beauty salon, the old salon, the hairdresser, the hairdresser who got away, how we think we’re supposed to look in contrast to how we do look and how our sister/mother/daughter thinks we should look, and how we used to look, and how we still haven’t gotten over all the years when our hair was … well, you get the picture. My sister likes to say that “hair is everything.” It’s about grooming, beauty, vanity, sex, mortality, and on and on. It’s also public in a way that other body matters are not. I have a very close friend who is extremely polite in every way but we sat down for dinner after not seeing each other for a very long time, and the first thing she said was, “You’re hair’s too dark.” She would never have said that I’d gained weight, but she had no qualms discussing what she thought was wrong with my hair. It was pretty funny. And she was right, of course, which I already knew because my sister had told me.
And why do we women always go through periods when we want exactly the opposite of the hair we have at a certain moment?
Hair is the easiest element of our appearance to change. Yes, you can get a facelift or a nose job but you can get a haircut for $40 on your way home from the gym and make a stab at becoming someone else, because we all know how tiresome it is to be whoever we are. Hair is so central to one’s appearance, changing it in some dramatic way can be like getting a major makeover without anesthesia. Also in their favor is that hair changes are not permanent, so if the new color or style is terrible, it can be remedied, so why not give it a try and give into our desire to try on another identity?
Hair seems to have a say in just about everything, from a woman cutting off her hair after a tragedy, to someone finally loving the frizz and freeing her life, and what I love so much about this book is that hair is serious business. It matters. It creates turning points: an orthodox women who has been wearing wigs, finally takes hers off; a woman with cancer finds renewal as her hair grows in. And I think reading this essays changes the reader, too. How did putting this book together change you? The way you think about your hair? And other peoples’ hair?
I have never been good at the beauty and fashion part of life. It’s a little embarrassing to admit quite how bad I’ve been - my sister can fill you in on it. The short answer to your question is that spending all this time with the book has caused me to change nearly everything about my hair. My essay for the book is about my refusal to go gray, but as the book was being copy-edited, I made the decision to go gray. (Actually, my hairdresser inadvertently made it for me when he dyed my hair black by mistake, and I was so annoyed that I decided it was time to stop dying it altogether rather than spend six months and hundreds of dollars undoing the damage. I may make another decision by the time the book comes out, so please don’t hold me to this). As part of the book research, I studied a spread of hair pictures in a magazine and decided I would let my hair grow, and as part of this “new me” attitude, I changed the part in my hair, and it made a huge difference in how my hair falls around my face. Suddenly people were saying how great my hair looked. It was all pretty startling, especially because all the changes were free things I did myself, not a fabulous new haircut with a fabulous new hairdresser. I saw my sister the other day after a long absence, and my hair is now much grayer and longer than it was the last time I’d seen her. I assumed she would want to know when I was going to get it colored and cut again. I’m still surprised that she thought it looked terrific.
On another note, I was having dinner with one of the contributors to the book, and she told me she had gotten her hair done because she was going to see me. I tried to explain that I didn’t care about hair that way. I think it’s fascinating to dissect culturally, historically, emotionally, and every other way, but the last thing I want to be is a hair judge. I want women to accept their hair the way it is rather than feel they have to meet some external standard of beauty. Grace Paley once asked, “Who’s the boss of beauty?” Women find a lot of beauty bosses - and maybe we don’t need quite so many.
How did you go about choosing the essays? There must have been an overload of women wanting to write an essay! And did you consider men?
The publisher and I came up with various lists of names and issues we wanted covered. The publisher didn’t want me to ask women who’d contributed to What My Mother Gave Me, which is why you didn’t hear from me. Some were writers I encountered in my teaching life at the NY State Summer Writers Institute (Honor Moore, Siri Hustvedt), and some I knew had interesting stories that related to their hair (Suleika Jaouad, whose blog in the Times was about her cancer treatments in her early twenties; Deborah Feldman, who left the Hasidic Satmar sect; Myra Goldberg, who adopted a biracial daughter and had to figure out how to groom her hair; and Deborah Hofmann, whose husband shaved his head in solitary with her before her cancer treatments began), and a few writers I could see in photographs just had really good hair (i.e. Rebecca Goldstein, Emma Gilbey Keller). And Anne Kreamer, who has a fabulous head of gray hair, and who wrote an important book called Going Gray. She’s been my going gray guru. No guys were invited to be part of this conversation. Since when do men want to talk about their hair for hours - days - on end?
What’s obsessing you now and why?
It has something to do with sex but I can’t say what in public. Not yet, anyway. What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
If you could have any haircut, whose haircut would you have?
In a very grisly TV series, Prime Suspect, Dame Helen Mirren plays a detective solving horrific murders of young women, and in every episode she has the best haircuts. My inability to describe them is the result of a lifetime of failing grades in fashion and beauty, so just google some photos and you’ll see what I mean. She plays a convincing detective, except that no detectives can afford weekly £200 haircuts.
Thank you, Caroline! XOXOX
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Anne Perry (her 83 books have sold over 25 million copies) talks about Corridors of the Night, 20-page outlines, why you should put your heart on the page and so much more
Anne Perry is the international bestselling author of over 83 books, which have sold over 27 million copies. The Times selected her as one of the 20th Century’s "100 Masters of Crime". In 2015 she was awarded the Premio de Honor Aragón Negro. Her first series of Victorian crime novels, featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, began with The Cater Street Hangman. The latest of these, The Angel Court Affair, is her most recent of many appearances on the New York Times bestseller list.
In 1990, Anne started a second series of detective novels with The Face of a Stranger. These are set about 35 years before the Pitt series, and feature the private detective William Monk and volatile nurse Hester Latterly. The most recent of these (21st in the series) is Corridors of the Night.
Anne won an Edgar award in 2000 with her short story "Heroes". The main character in the story features in an ambitious five-book series set during the First World War. Her other stand-alone novels include her French Revolution novel The One Thing More, and Sheen on the Silk, which is set in the dangerous and exotic city of Byzantium. Moving into a different area, Anne has responded to requests for workshops and teaching by producing her first 'how to write' instructional DVD "Put Your Heart On The Page."
I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Anne!
What sparked the whole Monk series?
Monk's appearance and my feelings about him came from a dream. He was a man I was always quarrelling with, and yet I trusted him absolutely to do what he believed was right, and knew he would never hurt me. That started me thinking. His predicament of having no memory came from wondering how much any of us are the sum of all that we have been, remembered or not, I was held by the thought of being a stranger to yourself. How much are we answerable for what we cannot recall? Different people see any of us in widely different ways. Many of us at some time ask........who am I? And who is my enemy, who is my friend?
Did you ever imagine you were going to be this famous?
No, I certainly did not imagine I would be famous. I don't understand it, but I am grateful, not for the fame, but that so many people apparently like what I write. Yes, I worry about every book. I go through stages of thinking it's good, then complete rubbish, then middling, then terrified it will be a flop. Don't we all?
What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Or do you wait for the muse?
I am very pleased you liked Corridors of the Night. I care about it a lot because of the subject matter. But yes, I outline in detail, fifteen or twenty pages of chapter notes, and backstory, and of course research, especially medical subjects in this story. I have never waited for the muse! Not sure I believe in it. On the other hand, I do believe that the harder you try the more likely you are to have a stroke of good luck! Or inspiration!
What do you think is the key to Corridors of the Night--and to life?
I believe love of all sorts, for people, animals, nature, art, life, is the center of everything. If you don't love anything the most important part of you is dead. It is caring that makes us do all the things we try, and keeps us at it even when it seems impossible we could succeed.In the story Hester has to be torn by her understanding of what the brothers are trying to achieve, and horror at the methods they are willing to use. Monk's love for her means that he has to find at least some understanding of that also.
You are now teaching writing as well, right?
Yes I am creating several one hour long How to Write videos. I wish I had known some of these general guidelines earlier in my career! And I love to teach, I often learn most by trying to concentrate my ideas to explain them to others. How did I know how to write my first book? I didn't! The Cater Street Hangman was far from my first attempt. It was simply the first to be published. It was the first mystery, and I think the need for a strong plot line was the single factor that made the difference. I am still very much learning as I go.
Put your heart on the page! To me that means write what you believe, what you care about passionately. Keep the core of it simple, and absolutely honest. Don't set out to impress, only to share your deepest feelings about whatever is the subject of the moment, sink yourself into the story. Look into yourself, not outward to see who is watching you.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Can I make the next book in some way the best yet? Can I make it fresh, a little different, and will people care and think about what I am trying to say? Each book should be something new.
What should I have asked you that I didn't?
Perhaps, what do I want to write about that I haven't yet?
In case you want the answers, About the French Revolution and how all revolutions seem, in the end, to become even more violent and extreme that the people they overthrew.
The early Spanish Inquisition, and how we seem to feel we have the right, even the obligation, to decide for other people what is best for them. Religiously, Politically, etc. and then force them to do it.
And most of all at the moment, about the 1930s in Europe, where we danced blindly along the edge of light and darkness, and eventually fell into the terrible darkness of WWII. So desperately like today, in so many ways.
Kate Christensen talks about How To Cook a Moose, goals for urbanites, foods she would never eat and so much more
The first thing you need to know about Kate Christensen is that everybody--and I mean everybody--adores her. And small wonder. Not only is she an incredible talent, but she's so warm and genuine that you just want good things to happen to her. She's the author of six novels, including The Epicure’s Lament, the PEN/Faulkner award-winning The Great Man, and The Astral, as well as two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special: an Autobiography of My Appetites, and her latest, How to Cook a Moose, which is delicious and wonderful, and I want all good things for the book, too. Thank you so much for being here, Kate.
What I loved so much about this book (and about Blue Plate Special) is the sense of place--how environment really can add to your happiness. It felt to me that as soon as you were up in Maine, you knew it was the right place. Do you think it always will be?
I’m leery of using the word “always.” Superstitiously, I fear that as soon as I say it, it ceases to be true. But I will say that I hope Maine always feels like the right place, because I love living here more than anywhere else. For now.
I also deeply admired the way you wove in the stories of the Maine people--how they really are living off the land, and how you appreciate their values--”hard work over glamour, honesty over style”--those sound like essential truths to me. Do you think there is a way for a city person to incorporate those gifts?
Anyone anywhere can value hard work and honesty over glamour and style if they want to, but maybe ideally, you’d get to have a dollop of glamour along with your hard work and a gloss of style with your honesty. That seems like a worthy goal for an urbanite to shoot for.
I always thought I needed to live in the middle of a city because otherwise I would be lonely, yet some of your happiest moments are alone in Maine in the chill of winter. Did this surprise you? Do you think your becoming happier with yourself made it easier to live in Maine, or did living in Maine make it easier to be happier with yourself?
It’s all just sheer dumb luck, as far as I can tell. During my last years in New York, I needed to leave both my husband and the city; my love and passion for both had run its course. In the fall of 2008, I met Brendan. We fell in love the following spring; he happens to have a family farmhouse in the White Mountains. In one fell swoop, I left my old, unhappy life behind for both love and this region. We discovered Portland together and bought a house in the fall of 2011. My happiness and my life here feel inseparable.
Is there any food you have no desire to try? (I personally don’t think I could eat those tiny live birds hidden under a napkin, but that’s just me.)
I can think of lots of food I don’t want to try! Most of it is animal in origin, such as those tiny birds under a napkin (I’m totally with you there), live octopus, cheese made out of a rotted sheep’s head, and roasted beetles. But I would happily eat a delicacy called “moose muffle,” the stewed nose of the moose, described thus in 1916 by Samuel Merrill in The Moose Book:
“…A military chaplain (Rev. Joshua Fraser) writing of a dinner in an Indian camp on the upper Ottawa thus describes a dish of muffle ‘The crowning dish was that grandest of all dishes moose mouffle. This is the immense upper lip and nostrils of the animal, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing it one of the most toothsome and savoury of all the dishes within the range of the gastronomic art. It is white and tender as spring chicken, yet firm and substantial as fresh beef, with a flavor combining the excellencies of both. I eat to repletion, yet was not sensible of any of that uneasy heaviness which generally follows a too hearty meal.’”
“The edible portion of the muffle comprises the fibrous flesh of the cheek and the gelatinous prehensile upper lip. The cartilaginous nasal septum is, of course, not eaten… When I shot my first moose the guide who was something of an epicure and a skillful cook withal described stewed muffle in terms of extravagant praise. His mouth fairly watered at thoughts of royal banquets in the woods when simply a dish of muffle with pilot bread and tea had constituted the menu.”
Your voice--who you are--comes through so strongly on the page, in such an inspiring and honest way. (There’s that word, honest, again.) Was it ever difficult to be so truthful, so there on the page?
Thank you! That’s an enormous compliment. Writing the truth has always felt like the simplest and most rewarding thing in the world, and it’s a quality I love and treasure and respond to when I encounter it in other writers’ work. I know of few greater pleasures than being honest, both about myself and about the world as I see it. And nothing is more interesting to me than hearing, reading, or seeing the truth laid bare. Of course, there’s imaginative truth, and fictive truth, and complex, multifaceted, nuanced interpersonal truth, and they all count.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
On a personal level, I’m obsessed with this new novel I’m working on, which has taken over my life these past few months. And in a larger sense, I spend a lot of time, too much really, thinking about a number of all-too-dire 21st century preoccupations—the environment, climate change, human rights, animal welfare, corporate hegemony, financial inequities, and I will stop here, but the list goes on. If my own worrying solved any problems, we’d all be fine by now.
What question did I forget to ask you?
I don’t know! Maybe what’s going on with my dog lately? Dingo is almost 14, and he’s becoming increasingly deaf and blind and slow, but his eyes are bright, his appetite is keen, and his spirits are high. He’s as dignified and sweet-natured and passionately loyal as ever, and I am inspired by his ability to remain optimistic in the face of decline and mortality. I intend to use him as an example when it’s my turn.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Theresa Brown talks about THE SHIFT, her gripping look at nursing, why she lvoes Nurse Jackie, writing, and so much more
I love the insider information. I didn’t know about Voice Care, for example or that nurses don’t get paid for lunch and usually work through it anyway, that you say Happy Birthday to all transplant patients. What is the one other thing you wish people knew about nurses?
A: That our intentions to do good are usually outstripped by how overly busy we are. Because of that we often don’t have time for what we call “the little things” that patients, and we, find so meaningful.
How did the writing of this book develop? Did you take notes? What was the writing process like and how on earth did you have time?
A: The time question is the easiest one to answer. I work part-time clinically so that I have time to write. Also, I love the writing so I’m very motivated to do it. As to how I actually wrote the book, I wrote from memory and I have a good memory, but I keep reading articles about how fallible memories are so I know that the book is reality as I remember it. That said, it’s all based on real clinical experiences. Everything in the book is true, but there may be small details I misremember, or even that I changed to protect patient or staff confidentiality.
I sort of agree with Sheila, in your book, who is disheartened that a doctor tells she has a 20 percent chance of surviving an operation. She prefers not to know. I wonder if there is a way to tell which patients want to know and which don’t? Would or could a hospital ever ask beforehand? I realize that knowledge is power, but isn’t there also a mind-body link? In your experience, do optimistic patients do better than ones who are more negative about their chances?
A: This is a hard question, because for a patient to consent to a treatment or operation they have to give “informed consent,” which means they understand the risks. However, learning that the odds are not in one’s favor can create anxiety and fear, which is fundamentally disempowering. As I portray in my book, if the patient’s nurse can soothe worries about risk that can really help, but nothing can totally take away anxiety about a risky operation. In terms of recovery, though, I haven’t seen that optimism or pessimism makes a difference in how people do, at least not when people are as sick as our patients.
This one day in your book is so completely intense. The responsibility that nurses have is extraordinary. In this twelve-hour shift, it seems that lifetimes are lived. I found myself gripping the pages and feeling tense and anxious. How do you deal with the exhaustion? Is it possible to shut off the hospital when you leave?
A: Just so people know, this is a busy day with the exceptional stress of the two patients who ended up doing much differently than I expected, but this level of busyness was not unusual and I’ve definitely had harder days than this one. How do we deal with the exhaustion? Riding my bike to and from the hospital helped me shut off work after I left. Getting home and seeing the kids is important as is my glass of wine with dinner. The best medicine is sleep and camaraderie; getting enough rest and venting to friends when I need to help keep me on an even keel.
I love the way you talk about the relationship between doctors and nurses, and how it’s changed. It always seemed to me that the nurses, who were always around me, knew more about how I was doing than the doctors, who sometimes whisked in and whisked out. Do you think this will continue to change, and that nurses will have more power?
A: I do think the nurse-doctor dynamic is changing as patients get sicker and care gets more and more specialized because nurses are becoming much more expert. It would help if nurses had more power, but what nurses need even more is consistent respect from physicians. Some MDs just are not willing to listen to what nurses have to say about patients and that’s hard for nurses, but can be really bad for patients.
You talk about how “pain is what the patients say it is.” I realize you have to be suspicious of people wanting to score drugs, but can’t you gauge pain level by the condition? Or is there a vast difference between people’s pain thresholds?
A: You can gauge a patient’s pain level pretty accurately if you listen, look closely and pay attention. I try to always believe the patient’s assessment of her pain and medicate accordingly because the experience of pain is so individual and subjective. The worry about addiction is institutionally very present, though, so I have to keep it in mind even if I don’t feel it’s an issue with any particular patient of mine.
At one point, you talk about how a patient is trying “to turn his pain into a story.” Does making a narrative of illness help a patient feel more controlled? Does that narrative also help nurses to know the care the patient should receive?
A: Illness is scary and as humans we try to make stories of our experiences, especially the difficult ones, because it makes them seem more understandable and yes, more controlled. The patient’s narrative of his illness can be helpful to nurses, but can also be full of red herrings because some portion of the story that is very important to the patient may not matter that much clinically. That is, patients may stress the wrong details because something that stood out for them emotionally may be trivial in terms of their condition or prognosis. The challenge is understanding and acknowledging the patient story while helping the patient understand what we are trying to say to him.
I loved when Ray, healthy and robust, came back to the hospital after having a bone marrow transplant. You said it was proof that people do make it. How do you deal with the knowledge that what you are doing really is life and death? Do you worry about making mistakes? (I’m projecting—I would be worried all the time that I had screwed up!)
A: There’s a lot of worry about screwing up. The trick is knowing we will all make mistakes, but some mistakes are much more serious than others. That means that as much as possible we need to titrate our attention. If I’m checking and hanging chemo I need to be at the top of my game. Helping someone walk to the bathroom takes a different level of attention. What’s hard is that our patients can change on a dime so we always have to be ready to kick our attention into high gear.
I have to ask, is Nurse Jackie (outside of her drug addiction) an accurate portrayal of nurses?
A: Nurse Jackie is a really great portrayal of nursing if you exclude her drug addiction. She’s confident, she’s knowledgeable, she’s a good teacher to younger staff, and she goes all out for patients. I’ve always defended the show and people have told me they started watching it because of my columns about it and were impressed with the representation of nursing on the show.
A. S. KING talks about her extraordinary new novel I CRAWL THROUGH IT, how technology messes up our communication skills, why it's a relief when a book doesn't suck, and so much more
So much of this extraordinary novel is about what is real, what isn’t real, what is surreal, and how we can best navigate through our lives. Do you think technology has it so wrong? Instead of bringing people closer, iPhones and computers seem to be pushing them apart. What can we do about that?
It’s so interesting that you brought up technology first. I guess the role of technology in the book doesn’t much go beyond television, the 24/7 news cycle, and the reach of social media and how it can complicate already-awful things. I have a feeling it’s damaging our culture because A. So many people are glued to the TV watching the latest story and B. A lot of reported news isn’t accurate, and it’s massively politicized. It’s ripping us apart—as a populace, as families who keep the TV on during dinner, and as individuals when we choose to get sucked in rather than go out and interact with real things.
Social media is pulling people away from human interaction while at the same time giving us the feeling of human interaction. I think it can be both bad and great. On one hand, I’ve met many wonderful people through the Internet, you included, but I’ve also become someone who can’t watch a movie at home with my kids and not check my phone at least once in those 90 minutes. So I’m not sure what this means in relation to the book—maybe that information and this Internet human interaction allows us to take less seriously the real humans with whom we’re spending time. They become less real somehow. Maybe life become less real right alongside of that.
Mixing these two paragraphs together, then, what we have is a sensational living environment. You and I both lived before the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle. I reckon those were better times, Caroline. I reckon I spent more time watching the swallows fly in from Africa to nest in my barn on the farm in Ireland. I reckon I walked to my neighbors’ houses and had a small drink in the evening. I reckon we talked about real news, then. Things we could trust that were well-researched and reported. I think we went off half-cocked far less often back then. It’s harder to do face-to-face, that’s for sure.
Which brings me to the dangerous bush man in I Crawl Through It. Some readers will see this man as a dangerous man. He is also sometimes naked, true. But he is a mythical beast. He’s the guy we blame everything on when he’s really just an innocent to whom people come for answers because he’s there and he’s listening. He’s real. He’s different. He isn’t distracted by technology because he doesn’t have any. But he’s easy to blame, and our culture doesn’t take to weird types, so he becomes the problem—an assumed perpetrator—when, in fact, in every high school and college and boardroom there are perpetrators and they are not seen as dangerous—even when we catch them. So who’s the real danger? (If we believe our culture which is reflected in our media, apparently teenage girls who wear shorts that are an inch shorter than fingertip length are to blame for many things.) We are spending so much time talking about dress codes and mythical beasts. Fake stories abound when real stories happen every day. And so: technology is often distracting us from real human issues that need to be solved right now.
This question has brought me to a lyric in a Kate Tempest song. “True never meant nothing more than it means right now, when everything's fake.”
What I also thought was crucially important was the feeling that you believe in your feelings, emotions, inklings—they all matter much more than facts, and we should be paying attention to them because of the things that they can tell us. How can the average young person, and old person, get there?
Oh yes yes yes. We have somehow lost touch with our collective gut. Emotions are such a hassle in our new world. Emotions and reality and trauma and healing—these are things we leave for the weak. To be strong is to have no problems. Right?
I see things a bit differently. I think to be strong is to have emotions and to trust them. Hunches, inklings, red flags. If we don’t trust our guts both individually and collectively, then we’re just blindly following something that our culture has whipped up for us. We will become zombies, Caroline. If we get too sucked into others’ stories on the news or the Internet, we forget that we ever had anything to say for ourselves.
I’ve been in situations where my gut told me to be afraid when there was no obvious reason to be afraid, and yet my gut was right. I’ll tell you a story. I was working in an antique store in Philadelphia in 1994. A man buzzed to come in and I let him in. He seemed a nice man—looked around, got to the glass cabinet that held our small but somewhat valuable collection of trinkets, some of them made of ivory. He asked, “Is that ivory?” And I answered, “Nah, that’s all bone.” I was so honest-sounding about it right off the cuff. It was so weird. I remember thinking: Why did I just lie to that nice man? He left the shop. Five minutes later he came back, pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of a duffel bag, held it to my head, and told me to give him all the money in the register.
Gut feelings. So important.
How do we get them? We listen. We stop blowing ourselves off. Geez. How many times a day do we blow off our own feelings, you know? I think the inclination to do this starts in childhood. There’s the solution. Stop teaching kids to blow off emotions. Anxiety and depression are fueled by this behavior. Our mental health issues are not going to get any better if we keep doing this. And what helps make it worse? The TV segments that use cynical sentiments when talking about victims of crime or advocates of change—people with feelings and valid reasons for those feelings. It all goes together. It’s a cultural problem, really.
The way to take the power back is to talk openly about what we feel and teach our children to do the same. Feelings are a body part like any other. If we want to be healthy, we need to treat them well and take them seriously. And for the love of the gods, we need to stop telling teenagers that what they feel and think doesn’t matter. I’m so tired of the eye-rolling. They are still young enough to have feelings and trust them. Why dull that?
You’ve been called the most original YA writer today and you’ve got so many starred reviews, you really could start your own galaxy. (This title alone has FIVE, count them, FIVE starred reviews). So I want to ask two things-do all those stars make you feel pressured or do they allow you to branch out? Was writing this particular book different than the last?
I’m always surprised when my books are well-received. Part of my process is to loathe a book for quite some time after I finish it, so it’s just always a relief to find out that my book doesn’t suck.
To answer your questions: The stars don’t make me feel pressured, I don’t think. I’m just always surprised. They don’t mess with my writing process. I write what I write and I hope for the best like I always did. They do help me branch out, though. No doubt about it. I Crawl Through It is a book I never thought I’d be able to publish due to its surrealism. But I wrote it anyway and look what happened. I am being allowed to stretch as a writer and that’s the nicest feeling.
Writing this book was different to writing all my books. I’d quit writing. I got fed up with the Heller-like world of publishing where nothing makes sense. I’d written 18 novels by this time. I figured number 19 would show up one day if it felt like it. It wasn’t a dramatic quitting. It was very quiet. I didn’t tell anyone but my husband. Anyway, two days after I quit, the book started to write itself. Those first paragraphs about Gustav building the helicopter—an invisible helicopter—came out. So I kept writing it and really doubted anyone would buy it and I didn’t care, either. Number 19 would be for me and me only. But then my editor bought it after reading about 70 pages. This next part was the biggest and best difference when writing this book. I said to my editor, “Look, I can’t write the rest of this book if we talk about it now. Can you trust me to just finish it and we can go from there?”
I write all my books by the seat of my pants. I don’t outline and this book, being surrealist, was particularly interesting because I really had to trust myself all the way to the end—which is why I asked my editor to trust me. And in the end, it worked. She was thrilled. I was thrilled and now it’s out in the world.
You’ve said to me that in writing this book, you had this gut feeling, that “this is important. This is the book that is going to reach those who need to be reached.” I absolutely agree and was so moved toward the end that I was near tears—and I also had this yearning for this book to have been around when I was a teen. It really would have helped me. Can you talk about that please?
One of the coolest things about writing fiction for all ages but having it come through a young adult publisher is that teenagers read my books and write me letters. And adults write me letters, too. I get very lovely letters. I get very painful letters, too. I take these letters very seriously. There is so much pain out there, Caroline. There is suffering that everyone blows off and when a human being can read a book and feel understood, and they write to you to say “You are the first person I’ve ever said this to, but your character is me and this book changed my life” it’s a pretty amazing thing. I go to schools and libraries and I meet a lot of teenagers and adult readers in my travels. I hear about their pain. I think that if we talked openly about our pain, the world would be a safer place because then we would all realize that everyone has pain. Maybe we would treat each other better. Maybe we would just believe in other people’s pain and not mock them or ask them to keep it to themselves as if it’s something they should be ashamed of. I could have really used books like this when I was a teen, too. But as an adult, this book changed my life and that’s weird because I know I’m the one who wrote it. Something in it freed me to just bleed on paper. (Probably the structure. Something about having a surreal structure allowed the real truth to come forward or something.) Something in me changed after I read it—even after the 100th revision. I don’t know. How do I explain a gut feeling to you? It’s just a gut feeling. I still don’t know why I lied about the ivory to the guy who robbed me with the shotgun, you know? This book has something for me—it’s the book that made me say “If I never wrote another book after this, I can die happy.”
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am presently obsessed by Kate Tempest’s album, Everybody Down. I found it about a month ago and can’t stop listening to it. Her poetry is phenomenal and her delivery in that South London accent and slang connects me to myself somehow. It’s raw, it’s heavy, and it’s real. The album is about several characters and carries a story with a beginning and an end and it’s just the best album I’ve heard in a long, long time. I’m completely obsessed by it.
It helps that so much of it feels like I Crawl Through It to me. There’s even a line in “The Beigeness” that talks about how we pickle ourselves in jars because it’s safer. Sound familiar? So so good.
I love the line, “We could have been so much more but no one would let us fly.” How can people be aware of those forces that don’t let us fly, and fly through them?
I think everyone has a thing. My thing is writing. I knew I wanted to do it when I was about 14 for sure, but I’d been holing myself up in my closet for years before then reading and writing thoughts and poems down when I could. I moved on to dedicated journal-writing as an older teenager. But in the outside world, so many realities work against a writer. The impossibility of it all, you know? I wrote my fist novel when I was 24. I wrote 8 novels over 15 years before I ever got published. In those 15 years, what did I have that made me keep doing it? Even when people started to avoid eye-contact and stop asking “Are you published yet?” because they were embarrassed for me? I have no idea. Determination? (Probably a little.) A habit I can’t break? (More likely.) A level of self-knowledge or worth that I couldn’t ignore? (Yes.) Self worth is important. Self worth allows us to do the things we love even if we don’t think we’re very good at them at first. It’s not ego. I’m still a simple country girl who says please and thank you. I’m no one special. But I have self worth because I allowed myself to fly and I sure liked the feeling of flying. It’s hard to stop once you’ve started.
As for the characters in this book—modern teenagers—their flight is greatly inhibited by this farce of standardized testing and curriculum designed only to pass those tests. Those test scores are then tied to that student and their teachers and their schools forever. Can you think of a worse environment for flight? I can’t. I come from a family of educators. I understand the need for classroom assessment. But there are ways to do this without putting students in a jar and labeling it before that student even reaches high school. It’s gross. It’s negligible. And it’s no way to build a future as a society. It undermines talented teachers. It undermines students’ things. It’s skewed toward the students who have families at home to help them study and three square meals a day. It leaves behind some of the greatest minds we could ever tap—the bored kids, the kids who work jobs, the kids who come from difficult backgrounds, the kids in pain—who couldn’t care less about standardized tests. Not caring about school? That’s flying. I did that. I graduated in the lowest third of my class. That’s where so many of our thinkers are.
We’re allowing this zombification to happen to our country—dueling media causing massive conflict between people who are being used by those media outlets as game pieces. We need thinkers. We need people who aren’t afraid to say no to the games. We need people to protest what’s wrong. Where have we historically found those people? Usually in the younger demographic. And we are testing them to death [while blowing off everything real in their lives.]
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You asked all the right questions. You made me think and I thank you for that, Caroline. You know how much I treasure you and your work and I’m so proud to call you my friend. I can’t wait to bump into you in the ladies room again. Thank you so much for having me to the blog. xo
Art, betrayal, marriage and prestige: Jill Bialosky talks about her extraordinary new novel, THE PRIZE, and so much more.
Jill Bialosky is one of these amazing Renaissance writers. She's written poetry collections: Subterranean, The Players and The End of Desire, and wondrous novels, House Under Snow and The Life Room and she has co-edited, with Helen Schulman, the anthology Wanting A Child, and a blazingly moving memoir, History of a Suicide. Her poems and essays appear in The New Yorker, O Magazine, Paris Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review among other publications. She's racked up numerous awards, including the Elliot Coleman Award in Poetry. She is currently an editor at W. W. Norton & Company, and I'm so thrilled to be hosting her here for her novel The Prize, which is already collecting raves. Thank you so, so much, Jill.
There's always a reason for writing a novel. What sparked this one?
After I finished my memoir History of a Suicide I longed to dive into the world of fiction. I write in order to reflect upon ideas and conundrums that interest me. The Prize represents years of my thinking about art and its intersection with commerce and also ideas about integrity and betrayal, desire and marriage (what else is there?!). My protagonist is a middle-aged art dealer, son of a Romantics scholar, who still retains his idealism. He’s thrust into a world of egotistical and powerful artists and I wanted to see how his idealism would fare in this shark pit. At the same time, he is a family man in a long marriage with one young daughter. I was also interested in exploring a conventional marriage, against a marriage between two successful artists. The Prize is at its core a novel about the cost of our silences, betrayals, and the choices we make.
Was the writing of this novel different from books you’ve written before? How so? What surprised you in the writing?
Each novel presents its own challenges. And each time it is like starting over again. You don’t really know if a novel is going to work until you are pretty far into it. You have to suspend doubts and see if the characters you’ve created are complex enough and the situations you’ve put them in potent enough to withstand not only your own interest but also a reader’s interest. It takes a tremendous leap of faith. I try not to think too deeply about the process as I’m writing otherwise I’d be daunted from the start. My characters and their concerns require heat and urgency to sustain my attention. I have no idea in the end how it all works, but as Agnes Murray, one of my creations says about her own creative process: “It’s amazing how much isolation goes into each painting. All the doubts and second-guessing. And then voila`, something happens and it paints itself.” Writing a novel is a little like this.
How do you know so much about the art world? What was your research like?
My love of art and fascination with artists began at a young age beginning perhaps with my first visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art in elementary school. I was dazzled by the quietude in the galleries and how each room opened a new window into a particular moment in history. I am not an art expert. I never studied art or art history in college, but my deep admiration for artists and their work infuses The Prize. Most of what I know about the contemporary art world is from osmosis, going to galleries and art shows and reading about artists and their process and being an observer and a sentient being. I read interviews with art dealers and gallerists at prominent galleries and spoke with art dealers to learn a something about the actual business. Some of my friends are artists and I visited their studios and learned about their process. But as you know as a fiction writer, I took liberties. The novel isn’t meant to be read as nonfiction or to necessarily be an accurate portrayal of the art world.
“Art must capture what we’re afraid of most,” says Agnes, in the novel. I absolutely agree, so I want to know, how afraid were you writing this novel?
I love this question. My protagonist is an idealist and the novel concerns his loss of innocence. He genuinely loves art and is moved and transported by it and believes in its ability to transform and to shape our understanding of history and ourselves and finds himself in the business of dealing with artists and their egos and managing their careers. These two enterprises are often at odds. In order to investigate how true he’ll remain to his ideals I had to stack the deck against him. The novel as we’ve noted is also about marriage and desire and about the ways in which one’s professional life bleeds into one’s personal life. There are a series of betrayals that occur and that threaten my character. It was terrifying to allow him to go close to the edge and not know how he would fare. I do believe that art should capture what we are afraid of most and with every project, whether a poem, or prose, I challenge myself to be braver and to take more emotional risks. This is where the urgency and intimacy I’m drawn to as a reader comes from.
What is so profound about this novel is its investigation of ambition in both love and in the arts, and the price we sometimes have to pay for success in either one. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Thank you. I suppose I have a complicated relationship with ambition and this may have fueled the novel. I began writing as a poet when I was eighteen. I studied poetry in graduate school first at Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and then earned an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. At Iowa it was clear from day one those who were there out of love and necessity and those who had grander ideas about where there writing would take them. I grew up in a modest home in Cleveland, Ohio. In graduate school, particularly at the Iowa workshop, the jockeying that went on for position was an eye opener. Part of me was appalled by it and another part envious. I’m fascinated by operators and by hutzpah. I’m ambitious but I don’t have that particular gene and when I see it in action I have a visceral response. I played with this tension in my creation of my characters and the world they operated within in The Prize.
As for ambition in love, I think I may have more novels in me (I hope so) because in The Prize I have not exhausted my exploration of love and marriage and the costs of our decisions. The choices we make when we are young may not be the right ones for us when we are older and I this is the challenge of a long marriage. This is the situation I put my protagonist in. Additionally, it was intriguing to create a marriage between two artists who are incredibly ambitious and to see how it would fare. I’m fascinated by competition and envy among partners and having two artists vying for the same prize (and I mean this metaphorically as well) in one household is almost biblical. I like creating these points of volatility and seeing how it will all unfold.
This extraordinary novel talks a lot about how art can flourish or suffer in a commercial culture. Could you talk about this, please?
This is a challenging question and I’m not sure I have any sound answers. Artists may press up against a commercial culture to gain traction and create authentic work as a result of it or the opposite may happen. Alternatively, artists may capitalize on trends and fashion and dilute their own ideals of excellence. The English artist, Damien Hirst, thought to be one of the shrewdest marketers of his art said, “money complicates everything. I have a genuine belief that art is a more powerful currency than money—that’s the romantic feeling an artist has. But you start to having this sneaking feeling that money is more powerful.” I think that says it in a nutshell!
What’s obsessing you now and why?
This year I published two books. A volume of poems called The Players came out in March from Knopf and now The Prize. Both of these projects were five or more years in the making and represented years of my thinking and emotional investment. I’m pretty depleted. I’m not sure where I’m headed next.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I think that about sums it up! Thank you, Caroline for you rigorous and engaging questions.
Saturday, September 5, 2015
Howard Axelrod talks about The Point of Vanishing, why coming back to society is so scary, writing, how we see, and so much more
Imagine this. You're a junior at Harvard and playing basketball, and suddenly, someone's finger hooks into your eye, leaving you permanently blinded in your right eye. Desperate to figure out how to live in this new world, you go to the Vermont woods and live without computer or TV and without much human contact for two years. That's that astonishing true story of Howard Axelrod's magnificent memoir, The Point of Vanishing. I'm thrilled to have Howard here!
Can you please talk about what it means to see differently?
Everyone, I think, has had some experience with seeing differently. After you fall in love, or after a friend has died, or even after you finish a beautiful book--in each case, the air around you feels distinctly different: your eye penetrates in ways it didn't before, and you become attuned to the world, for whatever period of time, in a new way. Of course, if you went to an ophthalmologist, she'd say nothing had changed, but if you went to a phenomenologist--imagine the eye chart!--or just a good friend, she'd agree that something had. Sometimes these changes in vision, which are really changes in consciousness, happen through accident, sometimes through effort, and sometimes through both. That combination of accident and effort is what my book is about, but my change in vision started more prosaically, with a physical change in vision.
When I was blinded in my right eye, the difficulty was of making sense of a world that had suddenly become larger, whose rules had changed in an instant. Without depth perception, nothing looked solid to me; I no longer trusted physical surfaces--they looked permeable--and, soon enough, no longer trusted my own surfaces, the parts of my identity that came from circumstance. My blindness started me on a search for a deeper kind of orientation, for something other than the visual world that I could trust. Which, ultimately, is what sent me into solitude in the Vermont woods.
You write about stopping to search for something or someone to save you, to begin with you. Do you feel there is a balance between being on your own and reaching out to others?
Yes, finding that balance is one of the fundamental challenges of identity, and the ratios for everyone, and for each person at different times in his life, will vary. In some ways, with the love affair in Italy, I went too far to the side of looking for truth to come from the outside, and with the time in the woods, I went too far to the side of looking for truth to come from within. The Transtromer quote I used as an epigraph is a helpful reminder.
Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside,
and where they meet, we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves.
--Tomas Transtromer, from Preludes
Both parts, the truth that comes from inside and the truth that comes from outside, need to be cultivated. Neither one, ultimately, will have much meaning without the other.
What was the scariest thing about being without human contact? And would you do it again and under what circumstances?
The scariest thing was coming back. The speed. The noise. The filters on my senses hadn't been necessary in the woods--there was nothing I didn't want to see, nothing I didn't want to hear--and the most basic outings back in Boston overwhelmed me. Even to have a conversation in a quiet restaurant--classical music overhead, Red Sox game on at the bar, conversations at the tables around me--seemed impossible. I'd learned how to listen for everything--squirrels, chickadees, wind--and forgotten how not to listen. Which was the second part of what was scary--getting a reflection of myself, and seeing just how far away I'd really been, and how far I'd have to come to return.
The book is so beautifully written that I want to know what kind of writer you are. Do you outline? Do you have rituals?
Thank you. No, no outline, originally. My assumption going into the memoir was: I know what happened, I can write strong sentences, I'll just follow my memories and associations, and a book will form on its own. Four years later, I had some strong sentences and a 500-page mess. So I outlined, worked doggedly for another year, but it turned out to be the wrong outline, too essayistic. So I did another outline, the narrative with the alternating time-frames clicked into place, and I wrote the majority of the book in eight months, stealing many of those strong sentences from early drafts. The process, now that I think of it, is akin to your question about the balance between being on your own and looking to others. The sentence writing was looking within; the structure was looking to an external form, but one that accorded with what I'd found through the sentences.
Rituals, yes. A walk every morning through the park near my house, then stretching, then sitting down to write. Then lunch, nap, another walk through the park, then sitting down to write again.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The death of Oliver Sacks. I just heard the news of his death this morning. A few years ago, we had adjoining rooms at a writers' colony. He read an early draft of my book, was incredibly generous in his response, and we became friends. He, too, had lost vision in his right eye. He, too, loved William James. It's been a hard day. Sitting across from him, I had the feeling he was listening with all the books he'd ever read, all the patients he'd ever interviewed, all the pain he'd ever suffered. Imagine the better part of the New York Public Library existing in the form of one man, whose erudition only deepened his interest in what you had to say. You asked about what it means to see differently. Whenever I left Oliver's apartment in the West Village, 8th Avenue looked wider and slower, the people more wondrous, our existence here more complicated, more fragile, and more profound. I will miss him.
What question didn’t I ask that I should havJust realized you already asked it--I just didn't answer. "Would you do it again and under what circumstances?" My assumption is that I won't need to. Not that degree of solitude. Not that level of disconnection from everything beyond the trees. But I do still like being alone. And I would retreat to a solitary cabin, for a month or two, with a writing project. Say, for instance, a novel about the benefits and perils of silence. Which is the novel I'm working on now.