Friday, March 26, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Physical gesture in fiction

For the past few weeks I've talked about ways to depict Big Ideas in fiction. But I'm feeling micro today. So for this writing workshop on The Brothers Karamazov, as Dmitri caroms across the landscape on the most fateful errand of his life, I would like to focus on the comic relief passage. I'm especially interested in a little moment of physical action that interrupts the usual Dostoevskian activity of yelling.

Desperate to borrow money (so that he can look even more like a murderer than he already does), Dmitri appeals to Mme. Hohlakov. This dingbat serves as Dostoevsky's explanation for why women should not be "liberated," or even allowed to read. She offers to solve all Dmitri's financial problems by giving him a suggestion worth a thousand times more than the paltry sum he wants to borrow: he must go to the gold mines. It takes Dmitri awhile to realize that Mme. H is giving him the suggestion instead of money, rather than in addition to it--and so follows a somewhat amusing scene of mistaken-assumption type humor. (It might be interesting, though not right now, to compare this to Melville's proto-Abbot-and-Costello routine in Moby Dick.) As Dmitri gets even more flustered, Mme. H offers him a final gift:

“Enough, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, enough!” Madame Hohlakov interrupted emphatically. “The question is, will you go to the gold-mines or not; have you quite made up your mind? Answer yes or no.”

“I will go, madam, afterwards.... I'll go where you like ... but now—”

“Wait!” cried Madame Hohlakov. And jumping up and running to a handsome bureau with numerous little drawers, she began pulling out one drawer after another, looking for something with desperate haste.

“The three thousand,” thought Mitya, his heart almost stopping, “and at the instant ... without any papers or formalities ... that's doing things in gentlemanly style! She's a splendid woman, if only she didn't talk so much!”

“Here!” cried Madame Hohlakov, running back joyfully to Mitya, “here is what I was looking for!”

It was a tiny silver ikon on a cord, such as is sometimes worn next the skin with a cross.

“This is from Kiev, Dmitri Fyodorovitch,” she went on reverently, “from the relics of the Holy Martyr, Varvara. Let me put it on your neck myself, and with it dedicate you to a new life, to a new career.”

And she actually put the cord round his neck, and began arranging it. In extreme embarrassment, Mitya bent down and helped her, and at last he got it under his neck-tie and collar through his shirt to his chest.

“Now you can set off,” Madame Hohlakov pronounced, sitting down triumphantly in her place again.

I direct my fellow writers to the two sentences beginning with "And she actually put the cord around his neck..." Dmitri's actions in helping her with this useless (to him) gift are so plausible, precisely because they seem implausible. As frustrated as he is, some ancient habit of politeness and propriety still kicks in. We all wait and watch as he gets the ikon properly situated. Of course this detail tells that Dmitri is not a bad sort deep down, for all his bluster and violence. It also shows us how hard he's trying to get on Mme. H's good side, as the money he still thinks he's getting fades away before his eyes. Also it briefly slows the pace of the story, which is otherwise in a headlong rush. Dostoevsky, once in awhile at least, recognizes that his readers need breathers; prose, like music, needs diminuendos as well as crescendos.

The preciseness of this action got me thinking about how writers use characters' physical gestures in general. I sometimes find myself getting so caught up in writing a dialog, or the broader actions in a scene, that I forget to look at what the characters are doing while everything's happening. Now, one can go too far in the other direction:

"What are you thinking?" she asked, twisting her hair around her index finger.
"Nothing," he said. He stubbed out his cigarette.
She took a sip of her wine. "It doesn't look like nothing."
"What are you implying?" he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

In real life, people are constantly moving in some fashion, unless they are dead. We don't need to record all these movements. However, when we do show them, they should be significant and interesting. In addition to over-recording the gestures, the passage above (straight from the fevered brain of yours truly, solely for the purposes of illustration) relies on stock gestures: wine, cigarettes, hair. B-movie stuff. The neck action is a little better; perhaps our man has a crick from some interesting experience we will learn about later.

This is an area in which writing is very much like acting. As writers, we inhabit imagined bodies and can operate them as we wish. This gives us great freedom, and we don't want to waste it standing around like dorks--or stubbing out cigarettes. I remember hanging out with an actor several years ago, and feeling increasingly self-conscious as I realized she was observing and filing away my gestures for later use. (I realized this because she told me she was doing it.) Nevertheless, this was a good practice for her as an artist, and it behooves writers to do it as well. In a couple of writing classes, I've been given the assignment to surreptitiously record conversations to learn how people really talk. I would give us all the assignment of watching how people move. Note especially the gestures that deviate from stock actions--which most gestures do, after all. I am even thinking of keeping a gesture library in my journal, so I won't fall back on hair-twisting.

At least, if my female character above is going to twist her hair, she must do it in an original and telling way. Maybe she could be wrapping it around a pencil, a process that ends up drawing far more of her concentration than she had expected to have to give it. Immediately she and the conversation become far more interesting.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Literary journals list

A very helpful list of top literary journals, with links. Thanks, BookFox!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to corrupt a hero

I'll start this week's workshop on The Brothers Karamazov with a follow-up to last week's post. I attempted to explain why Dostoevsky chose to interrupt a nicely galloping mystery plot with a biography of an idealized individual, who is not even central to that plot. The broad answer is that the mystery story is merely a scaffolding on which Dostoevsky hangs his spiritual portrait of Russia--so he is not only free but obliged to wander off into theological labyrinths just as the central crime is about to take place. This structure does serve to create suspense (which may or may not be the same as reader frustration). Also it's interesting that a mystery tale is the apparatus for theological exploration. For Dostoevsky, God and the human heart are intertwined mysteries, so it makes sense that the ostensible plot is about searching, wondering, fastening on clues and chasing down false leads, and being desperate for answers. We literary writers could do well to revisit various forms of genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, romance, detective, horror, thriller, etc.), with an eye to how these plots might lend themselves to various Big Questions. Personally I find the juxtaposition of genre and anti-genre (if you will) in BK quite bracing.

The Zossima section, as I mentioned last time, depicts religious ecstasy in a convincing manner. Zossima, his professed atheist brother, and a local dignitary who's wrestling with a secret crime, all come to realize and exalt in the interconnectedness of all beings. Zossima's vision is humanistic, by which I mean he believes heaven and hell are ultimately provinces of the human heart. The greatest joy comes when we sense our own hearts opening to reveal infinite love for all creation, the heaven that is contained within each of us. We are all capable--temporarily--of love on this divine scale. A modern equivalent of Zossima's tales might be David Foster Wallace's "All That," which is a really beautiful story. In both, such ecstatic moments are always fleeting; perhaps because the heart can't bear such joy for long without exploding, or maybe because--as Dostoevsky makes explicit in BK--the human vessel is literally corrupt.

Now we discover another reason for the long digression on Zossima's life. Dostoevsky has set him up in order to bring him down. Way down. Writing teachers tell us not to protect our characters, especially those we love and admire the most, and here Dostoevsky complies by causing Zossima's body literally to stink. First, the ailing monk passes away, somewhat peacefully, but not without significant pain, surprising both Alyosha and the reader. Like Alyosha, we're expecting God, and / or the author, to grant this saintly man a painless death. But then things get even worse. There's a general belief on the part of the monks and the townspeople that God does not allow the corpses of holy men to rot. As Zossima's body is laid out and viewed, everyone looks forward to witnessing the miracle of his physical preservation...and then someone suggests they open a window. Zossima's body is rotting, and even faster than expected. This brings cynical delight to all who like to see great men cut down, and it devastates Alyosha--not because he wanted to see a miracle, but because he can't understand why God would humiliate his faithful servant in such a gruesome manner.

Of the corruption, Dostoevsky says,

I should, of course, have omitted all mention of it in my story, if it had not exerted a very strong influence on the heart and soul of the chief, though future, hero of my story, Alyosha, forming a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect, which finally strengthened it for the rest of his life and gave it a definite aim.

And this is why authors should imitate Dostoevsky and his God. They must bring the mighty, especially the morally mighty, low. You need not be cruel; you do not want readers like the cynical townspeople and monks, who like to see goodness punished for their own gratification. But there is nothing more human than corruption, in the larger sense. And nothing more challenging to faith and love. You need to give some genuine "shock" to the intellect and emotions of your characters, to strengthen them and give them definite aim. That's how they become real literary heroes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dracula and other epic fails

This morning as I cast my gaze around my workspace, seeking some project to tide me over while my novel cools (or bakes, or congeals...feel free to choose your metaphor), I caught sight of my copy of Dracula. I'm thinking of doing this for the next edition of Borrowed Fire, which is not to say that I am in any way tiring of our current tome, The Brothers Karamazov. Far from it! Why, just yesterday I passed the halfway point, and a new post is coming very shortly... However, Dracula intrigues me, because it's one of those books that one expects to be bad, but isn't. Although it does have its problems, chief of which is that in order for the plot to work, the renowned vampire hunter Van Helsing--much like Gandalf the Wizard--must prove incompetent at the very thing he's renowned for.

But speaking of incompetence. When we think of the 1931 Dracula film, we mostly think of Bela Lugosi, his bouncy accent, and his cape. We may not recall what a complete disaster the film is. Wikipedia rather mildly calls it "a mostly disorganized affair." The director, Todd Browning, pretty much abandoned the set; Wiki speculates that this was due to grief over the death of Lon Chaney, whom Browning had wanted for the lead. Anyway, if you've ever asked yourself, Do films really need directors?, take a look at this shipwreck. After maybe the first couple scenes, the actors are literally directionless.

Dracula, the film, resembles an experience I had in high school. I had somehow managed to get cast as a querulous old woman in a Chekhov one-act play (yes, our destinies are set in stone early). As part of an evening of one-acts, this play, whose name I'm still too traumatized to recall, had only one performance. That performance was marred, perhaps 2/3 of the way through, by an attack of amnesia on the part of every single one of the actors. I am not certain if we looked around for help from our director; in any case, I suspect she was only capable of open-mouthed horror (or perhaps she had already flown the coop, like Browning). So one of the actors--possibly me--decided we ought to chase each other around the sofa, screaming colorful accusations, until we collapsed in a heap. The curtain was wrung down to the cheers of the electrified audience, who, while likely unfamiliar with the original text, were certainly not expecting anything like that.

I suppose you could call this a triumph of sorts, although I also recall that before the play began, I was standing in the wings with an actor from one of the other plays, and intoned to him that Chekhov (unlike the other dorky authors being showcased) was subtle.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Creating a spiritual landscape

While we are on the subject of Russian literature, it's high time I got back to The Brothers Karamazov.

Last week we saw Dostoevsky shift from the philosophical / spiritual set piece of The Grand Inquisitor into full-on mystery-novel mode. The shift takes place via the consciousness of Ivan, the spiritually tormented intellectual. (Ivan is also my candidate for "author insert," even though Dostoevsky probably wished he were Alyosha.) Ivan's tendency to obsess about matters of good and evil is what leads him into Smerdyakov's trap. Smerdyakov knows Ivan can't resist a moral and spiritual puzzle; he also knows that he himself represents that very kind of puzzle to Ivan. So he lies in wait for him, and then explains how he just might have one of his epileptic fits after Ivan leaves town, at the very moment when Dmitri just might be coming to the house to do something really terrible to the brothers' father Fyodor.

Sure enough, Ivan leaves for Moscow, down Smerdyakov goes, and just as the plot is really heating up, we get...umpteen pages on the life of Father Zossima. This is Alyosha's spiritual mentor, here to represent the godly life well-led. What kind of crappy mystery novel is this?

Well, I remember reading in some book on writing craft (I really can't remember the guy's name; he was a screenwriter, I think) that you should "never take readers where they want to go." This is a method for creating suspense, and I suppose Dostoevsky succeeds in that, because I really didn't want to read about Father Zossima at this point--or possibly at any point. Still, as didactic as the section is so far (I haven't finished yet), it does convey several varieties of religious experience and ecstasy. So it seems to me that the larger purpose of this heavy-handed "meanwhile" is to further explore the spiritual landscape of Russia.

As Elif Batuman mentioned during her reading at Kepler's a few nights ago, Dostoevsky--in contrast to Tolstoy--doesn't spend a lot of time on conventional setting: if Tolstoy is movies, Dostoevsky is theater. That is certainly borne out by BK. While we gather that the story takes place in a small provincial town, Dostoevsky is far more concerned with what goes on in people's minds and hearts than with how their daily lives look from the outside. With BK he presents a sweeping portrait of Russia, but it is a spiritual landscape, filmed with a special kind of night-vision camera. Instead of racing over dunes and forests and mountain passes, like the camera in contemporary "epic" films, Dostoevsky swoops and dives from one soul into another--from Alyosha to Ivan to Smerdyakov to Zossima--and covers a territory just as vast.

So this week's nugget for fiction writers to mull over is an idea I've brought up before, in relation to characterization. Perhaps Dostoevsky's brand of show-don't-tell could be an antidote for our overly visual age. That same book on craft I mentioned earlier says that today's readers expect lots of visual detail, because we've been trained by movies and television in ways that readers from previous eras were not. But maybe writers can overdo the visual--or else feel compelled to focus on it, neglecting the wild terrain of the inner landscape.

An exercise: what would a spiritual portrait of your hometown look like?

More good news for Russian literature fans...

Gregory Freidin, a professor at Stanford and one of the people Elif Batuman writes about in The Possessed, has published a new book: The Enigma of Isaac Babel. This is the first examination of Babel's life and art since the fall of Communism and the opening of Soviet archives.

Read more about the book here.

(h/t Amanda Z.)

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

A hilarious and moving book for anyone who loves to read:

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Netflix FAIL haikus

Because you liked Moon
Japanese Screaming Contest
Is our pick for you

You say you enjoyed
Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains
Jeez, you must be old

Little indie film
Is supposed to be charming
But it is creepy

User / reviewer
Sixty-eight percent like you
Is a psychopath

...yes, it appears I need something to do...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

First draft of novel

Done. That only took five years.

Now to try to ignore it for six weeks, per Stephen King's advice, so that when I reread it, it will seem new to me. (I always do what Stephen King says.) After that, revisions, then critiques, then more revisions, then...oh, god. Out into the world...

Monday, March 08, 2010

Plotting and planning

While we're on the subject of plot, it has now dawned on me--maybe you knew this already--that "plot" is a synonym for "plan." I had this flash of insight while reading this short piece by Joshua Henkin. He warns writers against doing too much planning, because "If you plan out too much, you can end up injecting characters into a preordained plot and you get...Lipton-Cup-a-Story." Instead, he tries to create "situations where something important can take place" and lets his imagination run with them.

This seems similar to the advice Robert Olen Butler gives in his book From Where You Dream. He suggests beginning a novel with an extended period (a couple months, if I remember correctly) of "dreaming" up images. You don't want extended scenes, just mental pictures that feel intriguing to you (or make you "thrum," to use his term). Note each image on a different index card. When you're done, organize the index cards till you have them in the right order; and only then do you sit down and write the novel. But, you know, you've done most of the work already, so the writing's pretty much smooth sailing. Maybe if you're R.O.B.

I tried this when my novel was already in progress, and I found I couldn't do it. That's because I could not let go of the problem of plot, of linking intriguing scene A to intriguing scene B. So I had hundreds of cards, the bulk of which said something like "L has to get a job. What job??? Has to be one that involves DRIVING." These were not inspiring. I still have those cards in a shoebox that says "Novel: Do Not Pitch" on the lid. But I never open that box anymore.

Now that I've nearly finished a draft of same novel, I have a better idea what Butler means. For my next book, I might try the index-card business again. However, I still can't get past the fact that I get most of my ideas / scenes while I am actually writing. No amount of sitting and trying to visualize can substitute for cranking words out on the page. Also, *after* I've done my session for the day, scenes tend to occur to me, which I then note down. Entering these into my outline helps me ease into the session the next day.

So, what I think would work is a process like in those old films, in which railway workers are laying track right in front of the oncoming train. (Fortunately the engineer is patient and the train is moving very slowly.) I'd start with 2-3 scenes and write, say, fifty pages. I would expect maybe a dozen more scenes to pop up from that, which I would then note in my outline. (I really don't get index cards--never have, probably never will.) Once I'm about 100 pages in, I'll probably have enough track set up in front of me that I can see my way the end. But the track will always change; earlier scenes will have to be deleted or revised. Also, amazing new ideas might show up right near the end.

That's what's happening to me now, and instead of being worrisome, it's exciting. These new insights actually put lots of earlier stuff in context, and are helping me resolve issues that I couldn't decide about earlier, no matter how hard I wracked my brain. As everyone always says, though I refused to believe it until now, you have to keep going forward despite the fact that what you have now is imperfect. You can revise your first 50 pages until the Rapture and beyond (because, if you're like me, you'll be left behind, still writing). But once you get to the end you will *still* have to revise your entire book from the beginning. You will simply not know certain things till you've finished. So there's no sense wasting time.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Depression and plot

Another week has gone by, and I have read all of one page in The Brothers Karamazov. But it is a good page. Partly because we're now in the point of view of Ivan, a more tormented character than Alyosha, but not so histrionic as Dmitri or Fyodor. So he's a good guy to hang around with, narratively speaking--emotional, but able to reflect on his emotions in an intelligent and even entertaining way. Not coincidentally, this combination turns out to be helpful for the plot. My friend Kate and I were discussing how to motivate characters, i.e. how to get them (and therefore your plot) moving from where they are to where you want them to go. I think we can learn something from Dostoevsky here about precisely rendered emotion as a driver of plot.

Having delivered himself of his great poem "The Grand Inquisitor," Ivan heads back to his father's house. His internal monologue is dryly funny:

And Ivan, on parting from Alyosha, went home to Fyodor Pavlovitch's house. But, strange to say, he was overcome by insufferable depression, which grew greater at every step he took towards the house. There was nothing strange in his being depressed; what was strange was that Ivan could not have said what was the cause of it.

A recent article in the NYT Magazine on depression tells us that in a study, eighty percent of the writers in the Iowa Writers Workshop met the diagnostic criteria for depression. There are so many ways to enjoy this information that I cannot begin to detail them all here. However, the article reasserts the well-established link between depression and creativity. It's safe to say that depression is the life-blood of literature in general, and certainly of BK. The article, called "Depression's Upside," also suggests there is an evolutionary point to depression, in that it gets us to slow down and really examine our problems, which leads ultimately to solutions. In my experience this is generally true, except for the "solutions" part. One ruminates, one even thinks of plausible solutions; however, one does not act, but simply goes on ruminating until the end of time. Rather like being stuck on a plot point.

But if you're an author, presumably you at least recognize that circular rumination is no good for your book; you want your characters to actually do stuff. So it may be particularly compelling for a depressed author to create a depressed character--who's also an author--who figures out exactly what's wrong, and then does something about it. This character moves your plot forward, which allows you to finish your book, which then lifts your depression, maybe, somewhat, for awhile. So, I dunno: maybe there is an upside to depression, but only if you're able to deploy it through your art.

Anyway, like a good depressive, Ivan ruminates on all the possible reasons he has for feeling like crap.

Yet at that moment, though the apprehension of the new and unknown certainly found place in his heart, what was worrying him was something quite different. “Is it loathing for my father's house?” he wondered. “Quite likely; I am so sick of it; and though it's the last time I shall cross its hateful threshold, still I loathe it.... No, it's not that either. Is it the parting with Alyosha and the conversation I had with him? For so many years I've been silent with the whole world and not deigned to speak, and all of a sudden I reel off a rigmarole like that.” It certainly might have been the youthful vexation of youthful inexperience and vanity—vexation at having failed to express himself, especially with such a being as Alyosha, on whom his heart had certainly been reckoning. No doubt that came in, that vexation, it must have done indeed; but yet that was not it, that was not it either. “I feel sick with depression and yet I can't tell what I want. Better not think, perhaps.”

Ivan tried “not to think,” but that, too, was no use. What made his depression so vexatious and irritating was that it had a kind of casual, external character—he felt that. Some person or thing seemed to be standing out somewhere, just as something will sometimes obtrude itself upon the eye, and though one may be so busy with work or conversation that for a long time one does not notice it, yet it irritates and almost torments one till at last one realizes, and removes the offending object, often quite a trifling and ridiculous one—some article left about in the wrong place, a handkerchief on the floor, a book not replaced on the shelf, and so on.

Ivan is so attuned to the nuances of his depression (again, as the best depressives are) that he realizes that this particular flavor of it is unusual. For once it has an "external character," and he surmises (wrongly, as we will see) that if he can only identify it, he can move it out of his way. Having suffered from depression most of his life, Ivan is highly motivated to deal with this rare, concrete form.

At last, feeling very cross and ill-humored, Ivan arrived home, and suddenly, about fifteen paces from the garden gate, he guessed what was fretting and worrying him.

On a bench in the gateway the valet Smerdyakov was sitting enjoying the coolness of the evening, and at the first glance at him Ivan knew that the valet Smerdyakov was on his mind, and that it was this man that his soul loathed. It all dawned upon him suddenly and became clear.

Unfortunately for Ivan, Smerdyakov is no mere book that he can simply replace on its shelf.

Ivan shook. “Get away, miserable idiot. What have I to do with you?” was on the tip of his tongue, but to his profound astonishment he heard himself say, “Is my father still asleep, or has he waked?”

He asked the question softly and meekly, to his own surprise, and at once, again to his own surprise, sat down on the bench. For an instant he felt almost frightened; he remembered it afterwards. Smerdyakov stood facing him, his hands behind his back, looking at him with assurance and almost severity.

“His honor is still asleep,” he articulated deliberately (“You were the first to speak, not I,” he seemed to say). “I am surprised at you, sir,” he added, after a pause, dropping his eyes affectedly, setting his right foot forward, and playing with the tip of his polished boot.

“Why are you surprised at me?” Ivan asked abruptly and sullenly, doing his utmost to restrain himself, and suddenly realizing, with disgust, that he was feeling intense curiosity and would not, on any account, have gone away without satisfying it.

Ivan's loathing for Smerdyakov is intertwined with (even motivated by) curiosity. The valet is a distorted reflection of Ivan: intellectual, but soulless and conniving. Smerdyakov is also a figure for Ivan's depression--that mixture of curiosity and loathing Ivan feels is like depressive rumination itself. One cannot bear it, but one also cannot turn away. So Ivan cannot simply pass by Smerdyakov or put him, so to speak, back in his place. Smerdyakov is a servant, and as his "better" Ivan can and should put him there. (Radical in some ways, Dostoevsky is no egalitarian. The fact that Smerdyakov blatantly flouts his social standing is a sign of his villainy.) Well aware of Ivan's nature, Smerdyakov easily lures him into a conversation which will turn out to be a major plot point for the book.

Sometimes writers have their characters stumble into circumstances which they don't anticipate or understand. That could be fine, or it could be a sign that your plot, rather than your characters, is driving your story. If so, I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, unless that process doesn't feel right. Maybe your people seem to be resisting you when you push. Or maybe when you push, they fall right over, because there's not enough to them in the first place. I've had both problems in writing my novel, and I think I "emptied out" one character because I needed him to do stuff without question. I had my plot in mind and he was going to follow it, dammit. But in the process I made him a shell, and as a result, the plot itself became implausible.

Here, Ivan is stumbling into a set-up, but it feels entirely like his own doing. He's not stupid or hapless, but highly intelligent, as well as plausibly and vividly depressed. He's drawn to the villain because he wants to understand himself, so he can stop suffering. It's telling that Smerdyakov is waiting for Ivan here. He doesn't have to go out looking for him; Ivan comes right to him.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Bat Segundo Show explained

Thanks to The Rejectionist for explaining what The Bat Segundo Show is. Like TR, I've been getting Bat's mysterious...OK, let's just call it spam, because it started showing up in my Gmail a few years ago, without my consent. When the infiltration first started, I glanced at the emails and noted they were about some kind of literary series. It was located in New York, so I couldn't go to it...but neither did I click the link to unsubscribe. This is my way of supporting literary endeavors: I allow their spam in my inbox; but I punish them for spamming by not reading their emails closely.

Turns's a *podcast*! Like a *virtual* show on the *Internet* and so I can go to it! Anytime I want! Now I have even more excuses for not writing, because I am *learning about writing* from skilled practitioners! Thus far I'd say the interviews are excellent, and there's a whole lot of them, too.