Monday, December 15, 2014

"Castlewood" in Mill Valley Literary Review

My story, "Castlewood," a corporate fairy tale, is up at the Mill Valley Literary Review.
Note: pancakes are involved.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Feeling ideas

In their salute to Russian literature yesterday, the NYT Book Review asked their Bookends writers the fascinating but awkwardly worded question, "What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?" About Dostoevsky, my personal fave, Francine Prose writes, "Dostoyevsky’s people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other’s feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar."

I still like the explanation that apparently comes from one of Dostoevsky's own characters in A Raw Youth, a book I have never read. This character says that he "feels ideas," a condition that applies to many of Dostoevsky's people--at least to the men (the women seem to just plain feel). It's true that in real life, we rarely see people driving themselves to actual madness over what God really wants from us, or why there is evil, or how we can contribute the most to humanity during our short time on earth. But maybe they should.

Such characters also inhabit Iris Murdoch's novels, which is probably why I've gone a bit nuts for her, too. What I love about these characters is that they deeply care about ideas, about morality, about thinking and meaning. Ideas and morality aren't abstract concepts that one contemplates instead of living. For these people, thinking is living. That probably seems rather foreign, in an American context particularly; but in these novels, ideas are life blood. Thinking makes us more human, and more alive--not less so.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pints & Prose in Fairfax tonight!

Join Lindsey Crittenden, the Tuesday Night Writers, and me for Pints & Prose at Peri's Bar in lovely Fairfax, CA! Festivities start at 6 p.m.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another good grad school memory: Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin

For several months I've been too scattered to do much other than tweet, write the occasional blog post, and--oh yeah--do my day job. But now I'm thinking about resuming work on my third novel, while Novel the Second seeks a home. I was about 40 pages in, last time I touched it, and it's at least partly inspired by what scholars have called the first American novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown.

The cool thing to realize about this novel, first published in 1798, is that it's about a ventriloquist who drives a man to murder his family by making him think God is speaking to him. Yep, the first American novel is a (sort of) paranormal/religious/serial-killer thriller, which reflects fears of democracy and the "voice of the people." It's great stuff, and the prospect of revisiting Wieland is exciting enough to get me back in the writing chair. Religious nuttiness + ventriloquism. What can go wrong?

I see my book-in-progress as a combination of this and Gogol's "The Overcoat," set in a comparative literature department--just by coincidence.



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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bigfoot and the Baby at Litquake, Monday, October 13

Just found out I'm on the "First-Time Authors Reveal All" panel at this year's Litquake! I'll be chatting with Amrit Chima and Edan Lepucki at 3 p.m. the Foundation Center in San Francisco. Follow the link to pre-register.



Update: Here's a great write-up of our conversation from an attendee, writer and blogger Clare Ramsaran.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Why is Bigfoot scary (and funny)?

Just in time for Halloween, I contemplate this pressing question over at G. G. Andrew's Writers Who Read blog.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Thursday, October 2: Bigfoot and the Baby at Books, Inc. Palo Alto

This Thursday, join us at Palo Alto's favorite indie bookstore, Books, Inc., at 7 p.m. I'll be reading and chatting with Tanya Landsberger about cryptozoology, consumerism, and comedy. We'll also have wine and, I believe, a very special ale.

Hope to see you there!






Thursday, September 25, 2014

The evolution of Jackie Majesky

This is a blog hop, y'all. I'm taking the hand-off from Shelly King, whose debut novel, The Moment of Everything, came out this month from Grand Central. It's a funny and quite touching story of a Silicon Valley geek who finds her true calling--and family--at a used bookstore. Buy it at your favorite indie shop!


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Now, here's an introduction to the main character of my novel, Bigfoot and the Baby. I should note that neither Bigfoot nor the Baby is actually the main character, but they are both significant characters. And you could argue that the novel has three main characters, since at various times we're inside the head of Jackie, her husband Kyle, or their daughter Katie. But I consider Jackie to be the lead, since she's the one who (I believe) undergoes and also brings about the greatest change.

I've been told she's not the easiest character to like. She certainly would be a difficult friend to have, which is possibly why she doesn't have many, at least at the novel's beginning. She's fearful, judgmental, grandiose, a little desperate. When the novel opens, she has recently latched onto an apocalyptic brand of Christianity as a way of channeling her unfocused fear and sadness, and she's trying to convince her family that the end is nigh. But they have other priorities, which she cannot understand for the life of her.

Is Jackie like me? In all but the religion, well, yes. I gave her some of my worst qualities (amplifying them, I hope, beyond their normal measure). But I also gave her a lot of my hopes--to do something important with my life, to make the world a better place, to love and be loved, fully and sincerely. And I have a lot of sympathy for women who feel they were somehow born in a place that was too small for them--who tried to do what they thought was the right thing, only to find it wasn't the right thing for them.

Jackie's world does get bigger, in a way that's currently impossible in the universe we inhabit. However, what really matters is that Jackie grows a bigger heart and a much wider field of vision by the end of the novel. I didn't necessarily expect that--but she had that in her from the beginning.

So I hope you had fun meeting Jackie.

Next up, another writer about difficult women: Vicki Addesso, one of four authors of Still Here Thinking of You. It's a clear-eyed, heartbreaking, yet hopeful memoir about daughters and mothers.

Look for Vicki's post next Thursday! Here's her Tumblr.



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UPDATE: Another bloghopper has joined us! Lawrence Coates, the author, most recently, of The Garden of the World, writes about his forthcoming novel, The Goodbye House, here.



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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What did I see today?

A few months back, I published a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books about Yuri Olesha's memoir in fragments, No Day without a Line. At the end, I suggested that I planned to try the same experiment: keeping a notebook--offline--in which I wrote every day. The purpose was not only to recover a purer experience of writing in the midst of constant distraction, although that was part of it. I wanted to write in a way that placed me in a larger context than just inside my own head. I wanted to record, for better or worse, "the times."

I'm sure you've all been on the edge of your seats, wondering: How's it been going? Did she do it? Has she written every day? What are those little handwritten gems really like? Answers: So-so. Yes. No. I was amazed how quickly I regressed to my previous journal-writing habits, which is why I gave up the practice in, oh, 1995. The thing became, far more than I had hoped,  Compendium of Complaints. A Litany of Laments. A Chronicle of Cranky. It's not that I ever intend these pieces to be published in this form (unlike Olesha, who was ultimately writing for publication). It's the ease with which I tumble into the black hole of solipsism as soon as I believe no one is looking.

On one hand, I obviously need some space for blowing off steam, and perhaps writing it is better than dumping it on, say, one's husband night after night. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that "venting" is really all that helpful in and of itself. And the writing it produces is altogether useless.

What to do? The solution I've come up with is, no matter what I've written previously, before I close out the daily blurb, I ask myself: What did I see today? This is a variation on one of Olesha's fragments. And it forces me to think of something, even something very small, that I've observed. Often I find myself writing about it at some length. For example, yesterday I recalled seeing, during my daily walk around the neighborhood, a film crew setting up on someone's lawn. Why? I don't know. But then I began recalling details, like a man entertaining a child (his daughter?) by placing her in the driver's seat of his car. I presume he was trying to keep her out of the film crew's way. But who knows?

Anyway, I would have entirely forgotten about that if all I'd allow myself to do was grouse. Just a suggestion for those of you seeking a way to get words on a page.



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Monday, September 08, 2014

Hovering and recovering

Ah, my poor, neglected blog. For the past two weeks I've been on vacation, trying and largely failing to say away from all electronic communications. The need to promote the book hovers, always, like a mild illness. I am not doing enough. I know I am not doing enough. But I cannot make myself do any more. Well, maybe a little more. Like what? I don't have the foggiest. Well, I kind of do. More appearances. More approaching strangers, offering the irresistible chance to meet me. More guest posts. More tweets (about what?). More Facebook (god help me). More ... just more.

It's certainly not the worst fate to befall anyone. And I brought it on myself. Maybe I'm even getting a little better at it. Then again, is it working?

Anyway, here's a picture from our trip to Olympic National Park. It was a beautiful day at Hurricane Ridge.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of small presses and agents

At Litquake Palo Alto last Sunday, where I was on the Breakthrough Novelists panel, an audience member asked each of us how we got our agents. When it came to my turn, I said, "I don't have an agent," and was passing the mic along when several people shouted, "Wait! Then how did you get published?"

The answer: a small press. Many people don't realize that small presses, including my publisher, Bona Fide Books, will often accept unagented submissions. Small presses are also awesome because they exist to take chances that larger publishers can't afford--on unknown authors and odd, hard-to-categorize books (like mine). The publishers are almost always writers themselves, and they love literature. They're not in it for the money, but to keep what they love alive.

Poets and Writers has a small press database, which is a good place to start looking. Another fun way to get acquainted with small presses is to play Small Press Roulette. You send them money, and they send you a grab-bag of small press publications, including books and zines. Look what I got!


All that said, however, I do plan on querying agents for my new novel, starting this fall. This book is a tad more mainstream, I think, and I certainly would like to reach a larger audience. At the same time, though, I'm going to keep the small press option on the front burner, because I've loved the whole experience, and I believe in the mission.

Think of it this way: if you like independent films, you'll like small presses, too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How to network and not to network (by a bad networker)

I am a bad networker.

Well, I'm probably not as bad as I used to be. The need to "network" was first impressed upon me rather late in life, because I was particularly resistant to having that sort of impression made upon me in the first place. It was toward the end of graduate school, when it became apparent that simply sending out CVs and writing samples and waiting for the interview invitations to roll in was not going to work. (I can't quite convey how shocking this news really was to me. I was that naive--and that resistant to networking.) My adviser suggested going to conferences, even ones I was not presenting at (which constituted the almost infinitely greater majority), and--get this--hand out business cards.

How the hell was I supposed to actually accomplish this was not clear. This particular culture did not seem to come with a ritual of exchanging cards upon introduction. Let's just skip ahead now and say I at the first and only conference where I attempted this, I managed to rid myself of precisely one card. I did it by interrupting the conversation of someone I had talked to on the shuttle, saying "Do you want a card?," thrusting it at her, and then racing off, my face hot with shame.

That was the last networking I did for about a decade.

For some people, networking seems to come quite a bit more naturally. Not (as I was taught) because they are cynical users of others, always alert for opportunities to advance their own interests and equally blind to the pain their self-advancement inflicts on those they use and then cast aside like so many used tissues--but because they understand that people need other people just to get through life. Professional life (and related stuff like, you know, promoting your novel) is part of the life that we need help with. Asking for help is not the same as using.

This is especially--and, in fact only--true if you approach the whole networking process with the mindset of trying to help others. Of course one can never set one's mind purely on this goal (by "one," I mean myself, anyway)--but I think it's worth trying to focus on opportunities to assist others, particularly at first. To piggyback on my last post, let's say you want to join a writing group. If you only want to join so that others will help you with your work, you'll have a problem. People will notice that you show up only when you have a story under review. They may not kick you out, but they won't feel like you're fully part of the group.

To network effectively, you must sincerely want to be part of something larger than yourself, to do your part in meeting the group's goals--even if those goals include each individual's desire to advance. We all want to succeed, and we don't have to help others succeed at our own expense. In the same way, we don't have to succeed at others' expense.

Networking, done sincerely, just means helping each other. It's really that simple. I wish I'd figured that out a lot earlier.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Why you really, really need a writing community

Several years ago, I was in a writing group that I adored. But that group gradually fell away, as these things sometimes do, and so for a number of years I didn't have a group. That seemed fine; I was writing a novel, and I didn't necessarily want anyone reading it piecemeal as I went. I thought I should just stay by myself and plug away till it was finished. Then we'd see.

Of course, what I didn't realize--and what I now understand, thanks to several new groups I've joined lately--is that the community doesn't just exist to give critiques. (And it certainly shouldn't exist just to give critiques to me.) Apart from the amorphous though extremely important function of offering moral support, a community can:
  • Go to events together
  • Create events and invite speakers
  • Join together to give readings where individual speakers might not draw a big enough crowd
  • Help publicize each other's work
  • Recommend (or warn you away from) agents, publishers, publicists, etc.
  • Advocate for one another and for fellow authors worldwide
  • Eat good food and drink good wine 
  • Pull each other out of literary and personal ruts

This is only a small sample of what writing communities can do. So even if you have no work you want to share at the moment, I strongly recommend joining one or more groups, in person and/or online. It makes a remarkable difference, believe me.

Here I am with some of my writing buddies, at our party yesterday ...


Friday, July 25, 2014

A few meandering thoughts about writer's block

We've all heard way too much about this mythical ailment, mostly from the movies, because 1.) people who write movie scripts are writers and are writing what they know, and 2.) as has been pointed out repeatedly, writers actually writing aren't very interesting to watch; the "block" is the only way to get them out of the house.

That said, I don't think "writer's block" is much different from any kind of procrastination brought on by doubt or fear. In my case, anyway, my reasons for not writing usually boil down to thinking it's not going to work. I don't want to spend two or four or eighty or ten thousand hours on something that's going to be bad, do I? In the same way, I don't want to cut back on carbs because it probably won't make me feel better; I don't want to see a movie because I might not like it; I don't want to go grocery shopping because I'm afraid of the parking lot; I don't want to work because I'm lazy ... or, I mean, it might not be satisfying.

Still, in most of these cases, I do the thing anyway. Sometimes, as with work, there's a concrete financial incentive. But other times I'm able to get past my objections relatively easily. How do you know it won't work if you don't try it? I ask myself, and then away go the carbs--at least for a little while. But with writing the resistance seems greater, and I can only think that, unlike these other issues, my ability to write says something fundamental about me. Writing something bad means I'm not really a writer after all, which means the only certain way to preserve the illusion that I am a writer is not to write.

So how to combat this? Maybe by remembering that writer's block is the ultimate absurd condition--and just writing any goddamn thing you can.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Five things I miss about grad school

It occurs to me that I have said some negative things about grad school of late. Also of early. And yet I read an article just today that made me nostalgic for the kinds of issues that used to dominate my consciousness on a regular basis.

Have I gone soft? Am I forgiving, or simply forgetting? Who knows. Herewith, a gradschoolisticle of stuff I miss about those glory/gory days.

1. Heated debates about Freud in particular. (I'm mostly in the "against" camp, but I get the appeal, especially for literary folk.)

2. The sense that one's primary purpose, for the next 5-7 years, was to learn. OK, that probably sounds even more naive now than it did then. In reality, one's primary purpose was--or probably should have been, if one had any kind of instinct for material success, which I most certainly did not--building one's career. You mean it's your second semester and you haven't published anything yet? Aren't you going to MLACLAHASA? Still, living in an environment explicitly dedicated to intensive learning and intellectual discovery was quite a privilege. And being identified primarily by my ideas, while not always beneficial, was an interesting experience.

3. A very nice (for me) balance between responsibility and freedom. Papers had to be written, classes (at first) had to be attended. Still, I had a lot of unstructured time, and could get things done mostly in my own way.

4. The intense focus. Sometimes that got a little too much for me. But the ability to spend days or weeks on the meaning of a single sentence, maybe even a single word (yes, I was a New Critic at heart) seems exceedingly refreshing to me now--when often any act of reading, as opposed to skimming, feels like a chore.

5. Many of the people.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The poet's brain in a jar

Here's a little coda to my piece in the LA Review of Books on Yuri Olesha's memoir-in-fragments, No Day without a Line. I tried so hard to get this into the piece, but it just wouldn't go ... So here it is.

In the section of No Day called Moscow, Olesha writes about several famous Russian writers he befriended in the early twentieth century. He was particularly close with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide ... leading to this amazing memory:

When the evening after his death we had gathered on Gendrikov Lane in ... the Briks' apartment [where Mayakovsky had been living], we suddenly heard loud noises coming from Mayakovsky's room--very loud noises, unceremoniously loud, as if somebody were chopping wood. It was the opening of Mayakovsky's cranium to allow the removal of his brain. We listened in horror-struck silence. Then a man in a white gown and boots came out of the room--either an attendant or a medical assistant, but a stranger to us--and in his hands he held a basin covered with a white cloth raised in the middle almost like a pyramid, indeed, just as if that soldier in boots had been carrying a paschal cream-cheese pudding. In the basin was Mayakovsky's brain.

This scene, surreal even by Olesha's standards, defies belief. And yet, recently, an intrepid reporter from Vice Magazine, Joy Neumeyer, paid a visit to the Moscow Brain Institute. There she found Mayakovsky's brain, residing in a jar alongside those of many other luminaries. She even quotes Olesha to explain how the brain got there.

So Olesha was not making this up. As Neumeyer explains, "When a Soviet celebrity died, the brain-collection process worked in one of two ways. Sometimes, the family or the deceased had already agreed to give their brains to the Institute. Or—as in the case of Mayakovsky—they came without asking."

Thursday, July 10: Reading at Folio Books, San Francisco

Join us at Folio Books, the wonderful Noe Valley bookstore, on Thursday, July 10, at 7 p.m. to celebrate Bigfoot and the Baby. We'll have wine, a reading, Q and A, and ... possibly a Special Guest!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Writer in Pieces

My essay on Yuri Olesha's No Day without a Line, which records his struggle to relearn how to write, is up at The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What do you want from an author reading? (updated)

This issue has been on my mind, since, you know, I'm now doing readings somewhat regularly. Having attended many bad author events that resemble ritual obeisances akin to church--from which the bored audience members, like bored parishioners, feel ecstatic to be freed--I promise to try my damnedest not to let this happen at my readings.

On the other hand, certain ritualistic behaviors are expected. At some point, the author reads from her work--presumably to entice audience members who don't know the book to buy it, as well as to offer some deeper interpretation to readers who may already know the story. The author then takes questions and signs books. Schmoozing, perhaps with alcoholic beverages, may occur before, during, or after.

Given this general format, what can an author do to not only limit the pain she inflicts on the audience, but actually turn the evening into an enjoyable event? First, as I've said before, it probably wouldn't kill you to take some acting lessons. Second, read and consider everything in this post. Third--well, maybe this is obvious, but I honestly didn't reflect on it until just now--think of what you'd enjoy most from an author reading, and do that--because your audience is probably made up of people much like you.

So what do I especially enjoy at a reading?
1. A good performance (see above).
2. Interesting information, particularly about the writing process. The audience is probably full of aspiring as well as successful writers. And we all love to find out how others do it.
3. A sense that the author is genuinely glad to be there and excited to share her work. For the introverts among us, this can be a tad difficult to pull off. I can say that my acting lessons helped with this aspect, too--not least in building my confidence, which (I hope) translates into greater ease in public.
4. A sense that the writer is not only there to promote her particular book, but to take part in a larger conversation. In other words, believing that the author cares about writing and her subject in general, and that she sees the audience as contributing to her understanding. In still other words, I want to feel like part of a spontaneously formed community around a topic of common interest--not like a vessel receiving 40 minutes of promo.

I'm sure there's more.

Of course, for all of this to happen, you also need a good audience. Not necessarily a large one--though a tiny one can certainly feel dispiriting--but one that's rooting for you and your event to succeed. Which, fortunately, is usually the case, given that they showed up in the first place.

UPDATE: But read this post by Jennifer Margulis, which describes what can happen, all too often, and what we can do to fix it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

This Thursday: Bay Area Launch of Bigfoot and the Baby!

This Thursday, June 26, join us at Village House of Books in Los Gatos to celebrate the release of Bigfoot and the Baby! Music, food, and schmoozing start at 6 p.m., and the reading starts at 7.



I would love to see you there!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Blog hop! Questions of character

Last week, Harriet Chessman answered questions about the main character in her latest novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things--a truly beautiful and extraordinary book. Harriet is also the author of Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, and Ohio Angels (a title particularly close to my heart). If Harriet ever does a reading anywhere near you, overcome any obstacle to go see her. She is warm, insightful, and charismatic. Her website is here.

This week, Harriet has passed the baton to Thaisa Frank, Elizabeth Stark, and me. So here are seven questions and seven answers about Jackie Majesky, the main character in Bigfoot and the Baby.


1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person?

Jackie Majesky, definitely fictional.


2. When and where is the story set?

1986. Near Bakersfield, CA and the Mojave Desert. Detour to the Washington rainforest.


3. What should we know about him/her?

It's easy to get irritated with Jackie. She can be self-righteous, self-justifying, and judgmental--but she means well. Kind of like most of us. Writing her, I learned to be more aware of those aspects of myself, and therefore more patient, I hope, with everyone.


4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Jackie wants a great deal more from life than it seems to be giving her. Basically, she wants to save the world, and those around her don't share or understand her ambitions. Fortunately--or disastrously--she finds someone who does.


5. What is the personal goal of the character?

In addition to saving the world, Jackie wants to feel like she matters. She needs an effective, responsive setting for her agency, which she hasn't had up till now.


6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it?

Thanks for asking! It's Bigfoot and the Baby. You can learn more about it here.


7. When can we expect the book to be published? [Or: When was the book published?]

It just came out on Friday, June 13, 2014. A very lucky day for me.

Up next in this blog hop, on June 23, is Shelly King. Shelly is the author of The Moment of Everything, coming September 2 from Grand Central Publishing. It's a novel about love, and bookstores, and love in bookstores. It's getting amazing advance press, and Books, Inc., Palo Alto will be doing the launch. Join us then for a fantastic party!

Take it away, Shelly!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Monty Python as Self-Help, Lesson One: How NOT To Not Be Seen

Monty Python's "How Not To Be Seen" is a satire of 60s-era, government-produced educational films, which have their corollaries here in the U.S.



However, as an American, I am bound to derive a simple moral lesson from this absurdist sketch. And so I choose: Do Not Be Afraid.

OK, in all seriousness, I've been thinking about my own fear lately. Though I don't feel my life has been particularly traumatic, I've noticed how much fear has been the prevailing weather of my existence. It's mostly a matter of cultural heritage. My people are self-effacing. As Midwesterners we're accustomed to trudging out in two feet of snow to scrape off our car, and our neighbor's*--but not to sparking any form of controversy. In all situations, we keep our heads down.

I also don't doubt that being female has something to do with this. "Don't make anybody mad" has larger implications for us, as #yesallwomen has made so eloquently clear; that warning dovetails nicely with "No one cares what you have to say anyway."

So I tried to stay quiet. I really did. But then I wrote a book, and now I have to admit, I'm worried about what people will think.

Except, as Rachel Thompson reminds us powerfully, if you write through your fear instead of against it, people will thank you for your authenticity. Also, the people whose reactions you fear most may well surprise you with what they already understand and accept.

And, as Monty Python reminds us ridiculously, we're all going to die someday. More broadly, you will, in the end, be seen and (metaphorically) killed. The fact is, some people are going to dislike you no matter what you do. They won't like your hair, or your voice, or who you remind them of (possibly themselves). They won't like your role at work. In other words, by merely existing, you'll just rub some people the wrong way. As for others, perhaps you'll upset them more by your secretive, apparently withholding behavior. Why aren't you being more open with them? If you're a writer, why aren't you sharing your work?

In short, trying not to be seen is pointless and possibly even harmful in itself. So quit with the hiding, already.

*Note: I now live in California and haven't scraped off a car in nearly three decades.

Monday, June 02, 2014

A good word from ForeWord Reviews ...

ForeWord Reviews calls Bigfoot and the Baby "a delightful black satire." Read the full review here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Tongue and Groove Reading Series: Lineup for June 22

LA friends--please join us, and help spread the word!

SPREADING THE WORD for 10 YEARS!
A monthly offering of short fiction, personal essays, poetry, spoken word + music produced by Conrad Romo. This  month features:  Ann Gelder "Bigfoot and the Baby", Chris Wells - Secret City, Adrian Todd Zuniga - Literary Death Match, Xavier Cavazos "Barbarian at the Gate", Amanda Montell and our  musical guest is Josephine Johnson

Sunday June 22nd  
6-7:30 pm
The Hotel Cafe
1623 1/2 No. Cahuenga Blvd.
Hollywood, Ca 90028

Ann Gelder's work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Flavorwire, The Millions, The Rumpus, Tin House, and other publications. She has taught literature at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked as an online producer and marketing consultant. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bigfoot and the Baby is both a love song and a Molotov cocktail to the American myth of self-reinvention

Chris Wells is an award winning writer/performer who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. As host of The Secret City, an Obie-award winning gathering for artists and art lovers, Wells curates, produces and emcees a monthly event that is part salon, part cabaret and part ceremony. As a writer, Wells creates original solo work and first person stories about his life. He lives in Woodstock with his boyfriend, Bobby Lucy, where he is at work on his first book, The Bermuda Triangle Inn, a Memoir in 29 Stories. www.thesecretcity.org

Adrian Todd Zuniga is the host/creator/CCO of Literary Death Match (a literary event now featured in 53 cities worldwide), and founding editor of Opium Magazine. His fiction has been featured in Readux, Gopher Illustrated and Stymie, and online at Lost Magazine and McSweeney's. He lives between Los Angeles and guest rooms all over Europe. He longs for a Chicago Cubs World Series and an EU passport.

Amanda Montell is an East Coast-born writer, blogger and pizza enthusiast living in Los Angeles. She graduated magna cum laude from NYU in December 2013. She has work published in Thought Catalog, Underwater New York and Trop magazine. One day she'll have an MFA and a book, but until then, you can find her at Instagram.com/elysianplain.Xavier Cavazos is a former Nuyorican Poets CafĂ© Grand Slam Champion. He is the author of "Barbarian at the Gate" and "Diamond Grove Slave Tree", was awarded the inaugural Ice Cube Press Prairie Seed Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in 2015. He currently teaches in the Writing Specialization Program at Central Washington University.

Josephine Johnson grew up in Greentown, Indiana, a small farming community where she learned to work hard and follow through with things. She first sang to trees and listened for the melodies in the nature around her to tell the stories of the things she'd heard and seen.

Come early!  Seating is limited and we start on time! tongueandgroovela.com

There is usually ample street parking, but meters need to be fed till 8pm.  Read the signs carefully, but don't park on Cahuenga other than a parking lot or on Selma. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Going to see the rooster: on meandering in short stories

As I've said on this blog before, I'm a fan of Werner Herzog. That is to say, a fan of the more recent, oddball documentaries, as well as of Wild Blue Yonder, and not so much of the weird, freakish, screaming-in-white-makeup, German expressionist whatever. Call me a philistine.

Anyway, as I've also said, what I like best about Herzog is the way he allows his storylines to meander. In the middle of telling what seems to be an urgent story, he'll often allow the camera to linger on a field of waving grass or a waterfall. These moments provide no information about plot or character, or even necessarily about the setting, of which we've already seen plenty. Herzog just finds the motion beautiful and therefore worth recording.

One of my favorite moments in all his films occurs in The White Diamond, a documentary about an engineering team in Guyana trying to build an airship to fly above the rainforest canopy. It's a dangerous undertaking, as an engineer who attempted it previously crashed and died. But as all this tension builds, Herzog keeps hearing from one of the local team members about his rooster.
I should've had my rooster here with me for the world to see. His name is Red. He has five wives, five hens. So, I get five eggs every morning. Yeah, my rooster's good.
We begin to realize, with Herzog, that he cannot not go and see this creature. So, in the middle of their thrilling tale, they take a day to film the rooster. And he is, indeed, a fine rooster, though he does not appear, to the untrained eye, exceptional in himself. What makes him exceptional is how much his owner loves him. And that love, in some tangential way, is part of the story.

I've been thinking about this moment particularly as I write a new short story. It's always seemed to me that meandering is permissible in novels, but not stories. You don't have enough time. A novel--if we can switch to an other animal metaphor for a moment--can be like taking a long walk with a not-very-well-behaved dog (i.e., your imagination). You and your dog/imagination can wander off the path, stop and stiff the bushes, pee on something, chase something, bark at something, and still get home in reasonably good shape. But a story, I've thought, is an arrow you shoot at a target. Beginning, middle, end. Wham. Everything in service of the relentless forward motion-otherwise, you miss the mark.

Yet the stories I love best, just like novels, don't fly straight and narrow. They, too, meander. Perhaps not as often, or for as long--but they, too, wander off the path to examine something the writer (via a character or the narrator) is irresistibly attracted to. They pause, lurch, and restart, delivering surprising, not completely necessary information. They have an odd, lumpy shape, rather than the dreaded Freytag pyramid.

So here's your permission slip, from me and Werner, to ditch the pyramid. Whether you're writing a novel or a story, I say: go and see the rooster.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bigfoot is real (almost) ...

My debut novel, heading out to distributors this week! Available for sale June 13 (preorder here).



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A summer of Bigfoot and the Baby--updated and corrected

Like summer, Bigfoot is just around the corner. Here is a partial list of events and readings for my debut novel:


Come to one, or come to all! I would love to see you there.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Must unconventional female characters be punished?

So I just finished reading Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. I almost didn't buy it because of this cover:


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Someday I will write a screed about literalism and book covers, but, OK, it was the 80s. And Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize, which struck me as a good sign.

Still, when reading the back cover copy, I had my doubts: if this was "the life of a strong, independent woman, with its often contentious relations with family and friends," was I in for a tale of this woman's eventual comeuppance? As Claudia Hampton "lies alone in a London hospital bed," reviewing her life, will she come to regret her choices--her aloneness, above all, showing how wrong she has been?

[SPOILER]
No. And, therefore, yay!

Claudia, a best-selling history writer, worked as a war correspondent in Egypt during World War II, where she met the love of her life and, soon enough, lost him. And while this love affair is presented as the heart of the story, and of Claudia's life, it doesn't represent Claudia's one chance to settle down and have the normal life she secretly wanted--it wasn't, and she didn't. Her loss doesn't impede her from going on to a successful career, despite the obstacles that stopped less determined--and less abrasive--women at that time. The affair ultimately is no more and no less than heartbreak, which all of us, conventional or not, will experience at some point in this life.

Claudia does have a child with another man, whom she never marries. But motherhood doesn't change her. She doesn't find it, or her daughter, Lisa, very interesting--and here's where I think Lively does an especially good job of criticizing without condemning or pitying. The story is told from multiple points of view, so we sense the daughter's pain as her mother once again brusquely dismisses her. But we are also discouraged from making easy judgments. We come to understand that these two are simply made of different stuff, and they're doing the best they can under those circumstances. Lisa craves convention as much as Claudia loathes it. Perhaps Lisa's conformity is her rebellion against her mother, much as nonconformists rebel against their straight-laced families, but no matter. As the novel unfolds, we see both of them accepting their own and each other's limitations, while not being exactly happy about them.

And in the end Claudia [SPOILER] does die alone. But this is not a punishment or comeuppance, but, as I read it, a kind of triumph. Lively suggests that aloneness can be beautiful and satisfying--at any rate, no more imperfect than "proper" family life.

This is where Moon Tiger departs from another, more recent story with a non-conforming female protagonist, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. This book sparked a much-needed conversation about "likable" female characters; in a now famous interview, Messud sharply pointed out that "likability" is an absurd, sexist, and shallow demand that male authors and characters don't have to contend with. Still, I read The Woman Upstairs as ultimately supporting traditional definitions of female success. Nora defies conventions for female protagonists, but not convention itself: she is angry because she hasn't been able to get married and have kids and succeed as an artist by her early forties. Lively, in contrast, allows her protagonist to suffer the downsides of defiance while still showing that defiance was worth it.

I don't mean to suggest that novels should have a particular political agenda, or that Moon Tiger is "better" than The Woman Upstairs because the former is more radical. But I do think that more books like Moon Tiger would be good for us all.



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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How do you create an alternative world?

I've been reading Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam (the third installment of the trilogy), and marveling at how complete her post-apocalyptic world is--how thoroughly thought-out, how detailed, how true to its own internal logic. How the hell, I ask myself whenever I encounter such a world, does a writer accomplish this?

For Bigfoot and the Baby, I did end up creating a somewhat alternative world, mostly but not entirely like Southern California in the 80s. Apart from providing a sort-of habitat for a sort-of real Bigfoot, that world differs from ours by containing a domed city in the Mojave Desert. So I had to posit a technology to do that, though I don't explore the technology's plausibility in any great detail (it's not that kind of book). Other than that, I don't remember setting out to build an alternative world as such; it just sort of arose, over time, from the needs of the narrative.

I don't know if that's how Atwood proceeded. And I really don't know how, say, China Mieville created the far more alien world of Embassytown, or how any number of so-called "hard" science fiction writers do it. You probably have to know more than I do about ecosystems, architecture, ancient civilizations, high tech, low tech, organizational psychology, and everything else besides.

One strategy I've heard of, which I suspect came from the Poets and Writers writing prompts page, is to consider a world exactly like our own, except with one difference. That difference, I suppose, could be big or seemingly small--an entirely different government in the US, or people walking on four legs rather than two, or trees having black leaves instead of green. This difference becomes a seed that, as it grows and sends tendrils throughout your story, changes almost everything in subtle or enormous ways.

You could probably go really small-scale with this, too. Say, imagine the room you're in, with one thing different. My God, what if this very room were ... clean?




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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Idea of Order at Key West

In my sudden zeal to relive the heady days as an undergraduate English major, I came across this relic in my Norton Anthology:


Here we see a long-ago incarnation of yours truly, taking notes on Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West," most likely in Intro to Poetry, circa 1985. It's clear from the flat, dutiful quality of these notes that I was recording my professor's statements as he walked us through the poem. That is to say, I had literally no idea what he, or Stevens, was talking about. The interpretation of the poem was as incomprehensible to me as the poem itself. Yes, this is auditory. Yes, this is conditional. This is spiritual language. So what? I didn't understand how any of these concepts elucidated the poem, or vice versa. Thanks in part to the New Critical practices my teachers were steeped in at the time, the whole discussion became an echo chamber of abstractions.

The final proof of how lost I was lies in the title of the next poem, "The Poems of Our Climate," where you see my younger self filling in the o's. Now, I was not normally one to engage in this activity. In fact, I recall thinking at various times in my youth that filling in o's and p's and e's in printed text was a sure sign of idiocy. Yet here I am, not only doing that very thing, but carefully shading the o's for a 3-D effect. I had completely thrown in the towel on Stevens.

Rereading the poem now, I find both more and less here than these notes suggest. I'm certainly less intimidated by it, and can sort of relate to it without being able to articulate exactly what it's "about." And that's probably because I simply have much more experience, with poetry and with life. Also I don't have to write a paper about this, which reduces the anxiety level considerably; but if I did have to write one, I would likely spend a lot more time on the poem's aesthetic qualities, and how they create an experience that doesn't necessarily represent anything beyond itself. That is, poetry happens within the poem. It is not always, or at least not solely, a pointer.

With this hindsight, it seems critical that anyone teaching such poems in high school and college remember how increasingly distant our young charges' experiences and concerns are from those of a middle-aged white poet in 1935. How might we bridge the gap?

I think we could start with the advice Dean Bakopoulos gives in this marvelous piece from the NYT. Before even beginning to wrestle with a story or poem's "meaning," whatever we're trying to get at with that, first let students select sentences or phrases or words that move them. They don't have to know why these words speak to them, only that they do on some level other than pure logic. They might like the words, in fact, because they're confusing. They present a new, unfamiliar experience.

After a while, you might begin to introduce some context, like Stevens's particular interests and concerns, and some general concerns of his time and place and class and culture. How is this individual mind interacting with external ideas and questions, as well as with physical places and experiences like hearing and seeing and feeling?

I frankly have little experience teaching poetry, and find more experimental pieces much harder to deal with than this one. But it does behoove us, when we teach, to try to put ourselves in our students' shoes, remembering how little we knew, back in the day, about the lives of those to whom this poem speaks more readily.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Empathy vs. justice for characters

I just finished reading Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History.* I found it almost insanely absorbing. The characters felt realistic and compellingly distinct.

Yet I did not care about them in the same way I care about, say, Ivan Karamazov or Oscar Wao. Yes, I cared what happened to them, but what I wanted to happen was comeuppance. While feeling some sympathy for their plight--which was entirely of their own making--I also wanted them to be caught or at least punished somehow. This seems rather different from the awkward situation of rooting for an anti-hero to get away with a crime, which can also be an interesting reading experience.

I'm not exactly sure how Tartt creates this sort of double-consciousness in the reader. I suspect it has to do with her precise attention to detail in every aspect of the story. We know quite clearly what the characters look like, which is often not the case in literary fiction. We understand the social milieu, its arcane hierarchies, its dangerous gray areas. We see, feel, and breathe the Vermont setting, the crushing winter and the hopeful--and then also, suddenly, crushing--advent of spring. These elements, rather than any aspect of the characters' (including the narrators') almost entirely self-serving behavior, draw us into the story. I really did feel, at every single moment, like I was there.

At the same time, I, at least, take some satisfaction in knowing--knowing--I would not fall into the particular trap the characters find themselves in. Often, fiction makes me wonder what I would do when faced with some extreme moral dilemma. Not in this case. These people are vivid and palpable, but they're really and truly not like me. Maybe it's just good old class resentment at work. I can't deny there's a certain pleasure in seeing fictional rich preppies and wannabes doing stupid, violent things to each other.

Several years ago I wrote a post about "altruistic punishment," which is the scholar William Flesch's term for a particularly satisfying plot formula. Readers, according to this theory, love seeing wrongdoers discover the error of their ways. They much prefer this outcome to virtue rewarded (sorry, Pamela). However, they also want justice meted out, well, judiciously. The punishment can't be too severe, or readers begin to feel sorry for the punishee. In fictional practice, this means "just" endings have to somehow feel a little ambiguous; a simple eye-for-an-eye won't do. I won't give away how, but Tartt mainly succeeds in striking this balance.

What's my point here? I suppose that we don't always have to empathize with characters in order to engage with them. We can stand very near them without actually stepping into their shoes. And we can care what happens to them by rooting against them rather than for them.

So this is just another permission slip to create unlikable characters. You have other, powerful mechanisms for engaging your reader.

*No, I haven't read The Goldfinch yet. I attribute this to two factors: 1) The Secret History, not The Goldfinch, was under the T's at my favorite used bookstore. 2) Frankly the plot of TSH appealed to me more than that of TG; at the time of purchase, I strongly wanted to read a story about preppie killers at a second-tier liberal arts college. In fact, I only wanted to read stories about preppie killers at second-tier liberal arts colleges. That desire more or less continues today. Any suggestions?










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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What does "write what you know" mean?

Glad to see the NYT Book Review taking on another workshop canard. Actually "workshop canard" is itself a canard. I've taken many workshops that never offered such formulaic advice, at least not uncritically. And both of these NYT pieces more or less lead to the conclusion that "know" is a tricky term. What does it mean to "know" something in the first place? How, and how well, must you "know" it in order to write about it? Zoe Heller puts the matter succinctly:

You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.

Just because you have never been to outer space does not mean you cannot write about an astronaut--or an alien. Still, for a writer just starting out, the injunction to "write what you know" does seem to mean "mining your own life," and that can just about shut you down. It almost did me.
At least from an external point of view, and frequently enough from my own, my life seemed to be pretty boring. Writing about a girl or a woman who grows up in the suburbs, gets good grades, plays the flute, almost becomes a bowling champion but soon becomes too embarrassed to continue with this particular endeavor, goes to college, goes to grad school ... well, I, for one, couldn't find a hell of a lot of material in these events as events. (I did write a bowling story, though.)

But, as Mohsin Hamid explains:

It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.

I have similarly learned that it's the interaction of known and unknown experiences that makes characters and events believable. Like Hamid, I think some element of not knowing is central to creating a successful story. The act of stretching to make something you don't know into something you do forces you to consider viewpoints, details, and sensations you might otherwise overlook.

So, for example, I could put a nervous, overthinking type like myself into a situation I've never actually been in--say, on a moon colony. Now, I'll have to do some research to make that moon colony plausible, though I don't feel I have to understand every element of the ventilation system and what have you. What's more important is how someone like me would inhabit a place like that. Would I become obsessed with ventilation, and air, and is there air? what is air? why can't I see it? am I going to die in the next two seconds? I imagine so.

Or flip the terms: how would a person completely unlike me--or a talking dog or a lobster from Titan--live the life I've led thus far? Would the dog ignore taunts about bowling as a working-class non-sport and proudly lead his team to the Ohio state championship? How would the lobster handle literary event-planning? (Better than I did--that's one thing I know for sure.)


Monday, March 24, 2014

Good vs. interesting characters

I've been meaning for some time to take up this discussion again. How does a writer make her readers feel empathy, or compassion (maybe the same thing, maybe not) for her characters? The question goes hand-in-hand with recent discussions of how/why/whether characters must be "likable." I'm glad that conversation is finally well underway; it feels like I've been grousing about how stupid that terminology is for years. And one thing I never really grasped till recently was how gendered the "likable" requirement is. Women characters, it seems, must be "good," while men are only required to be interesting. Let's make "interesting" our universal standard from now on, shall we?*

On Glimmer Train's website, Geoff Wyss writes: "[M]y favorite characters in literature are those mysteriously human enough to startle me into empathy. It's that word mystery that seems to be the point: The characters that most powerfully evoke my compassion are the ones who, paradoxically, most resist being known." This resistance to being known is precisely what makes the characters appear realistic, because, Wyss points out, "we don't understand people in real life, not in the sense of comprehending them and holding their keys, not even our friends, not even our husbands and wives, not even close."

I agree. Compassion and empathy arise, first and foremost, out of curiosity. You may never "like" a character or a person, much less understand them, but you can find him--or let's say, for the sake of advancing our feminist agenda, her--interesting. And, at least for fiction, that's enough. Better than enough--necessary.

Wyss further addresses another little peeve of mine, that old saw that "story begins with character" (perhaps a mistranslation of the maxim "character is plot," which Wyss restates here). What that *cannot* mean is first constructing a character outside of any context, or, in Wyss's words, "monstering characters together from a charnel pile of traits—'Let's make him bigoted but sentimental, obsessed with film noir, and hypochondriacal'—and sending them into my stories with their stitch-lines showing." I swear, in writing workshops, I've been told to do exactly this, and it does not work. For me, character and context evolve together in a close, unending dialetic. Personally I like to start with the situation and see who shows up there; then I turn the character back to face the situation and see what she does to it, what it does to her in turn, and on and on.

But I have still created monsters from time to time. In fact, early in writing my first novel, I was hell-bent on creating a female villain, who is now the story's hero. I found I'd assembled Jackie from an inorganic collection of "traits" to serve my predetermined theme, and she turned out both unbelievable and boring. So I gave her some of my own physical characteristics. And all of a sudden, I was much more concerned with how someone might come to think in these ways I totally disagreed with. I didn't like being a straw woman very much at all, and as a result, that character started insisting on her own mystery and autonomy.

*I'm talking about fiction here. All real people have to be good, according to my definition.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thoughts on re-watching Season One of Battlestar Galactica after 10 (!) years

So we've been re-watching Battlestar Galactica.

1.) The rebooted series started in 2003. Just think about that. I feel like we watched it, oh, five or six years ago. Not freakin 10-plus. Jesus.

2.) This is a post-9-11 show if ever there was one. Everything about it is 9-11, 9-11, 9-11. Terrorism. Torture. Religion. Realization that "we" can't always tell who "they" are, and that "we" don't always have the moral upper hand. General dread and claustrophobia.

3.) So far, the show holds up really, really well, apart from a few things (see 4, below). For the most part the acting and dialog are excellent. Olmos rules. Michael Hogan still possesses the most outsized Canadian accent I have ever heard.

4.) Way, way too much of Boomer and Helo running around in the rain on Caprica. Now as then, it feels like the directors said, "We can't resolve this plotline till Episode 13, so, um, OK, run that way for awhile, and now run this way, and that'll be it for this episode." Novelists have something of an advantage in cases like these; if we have a plotline we don't want to resolve till later, we can just *not write about it* for awhile, or just mention it cryptically or briefly every so often. On a TV series we have to be visually reminded of these characters' existence and what they are doing--and if they're just biding their time on behalf of the storytelling, that shows.

5.) How does one portray a butch, straight female character in a typically male profession? I remember the ruckus (and adulation) when BSG fans learned the new Starbuck would be a woman. For the most part, she's an appealing character, believable in her toughness ... except that we are given to understand that, as with all women, that toughness hides a deep vulnerability. Every now and again we're treated to the sight of Starbuck crying or crumpling into a ball and sort of squealing. We also see her in an evening gown, knocking the space socks off Apollo. Do "tough" male characters show vulnerability in any similar ways, or just pour themselves another drink and/or race off on their motorcycles? Do these brief bursts of stereotypical feminine behavior add dimension to Starbuck, or reassure us that she's really a little girl at heart? And straight! Don't forget straight! Though having a butch woman turn out to *be* straight also challenges stereotypes, I think in 2003 they were more worried about having one of our heroes be gay. OK, they're still worried about that in 2014.

That is all for now. Galactica out.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Why writers must become better actors

For two reasons.

One: writing is quite a bit like acting. Your characters inhabit you, of course, but you also inhabit your characters. As you write them, you see the world through their eyes, acting and reacting as they would. For this reason alone, it seems to me, learning a bit more about how actors practice their craft can only benefit writers. How do actors access and express those parts of themselves that coincide with their characters'? How can you convey emotions and concepts indirectly yet effectively through body language, voice, pacing, etc.--all of which you can convert into words?

Two: at some point in your life, you are most likely going to have to read your work in public. And by "read," I actually mean "perform." For a long time, it has been something of a mystery to me why people go to author readings. I mean, we can read the book ourselves, right? So what's the value in having something read to us, especially in the rushed, hushed, even apologetic monotone that too many authors employ? Does having the words come out of the author's mouth really add anything to the story?

It can, if the author interprets the story through her performance. Now, here come the caveats: we are writers, not actual actors. We can't be expected to put on costumes and cavort around the narrow and labyrinthine confines of, say, a bookstore. However, we can learn to read from our work to help the audience better understand and--this is no small thing--more fully enjoy our presentation. We can learn to use pace, timing, eye contact, gesture (within reason), voice modulation, and other techniques to convey not just the words but the meaning of the story as we understand it.* This is why series in which actors, not authors, read short stories--such as Word for Word in San Francisco or the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles--are so damn fun.

And this is also why I've signed up for some private coaching from actor and teacher Valerie Weak as I prepare to read at various venues this summer. Having experienced just a single session thus far, I can say that learning to perform one's fiction is, first of all, exhausting. The level of concentration required just about drained me, to the point where I spent the rest of the day on the couch (not the casting couch, ha, ha). However, as I worked to inhabit, not just quote, my characters, I began to discover layers of emotional nuance in them that I hadn't actually been aware of. As Valerie told me, even small physical gestures can help you unlock the voice and meaning of the words--even if the audience can't see the gestures, which a podium might obscure. These discoveries alone have amazed and even thrilled me. I can now say I'm truly looking forward to upcoming readings, rather than mildly fearing them.

So, I say, fellow writers, get your actor on!

*Which is not to say that writers own the meanings of their stories, or that public readings serve the purpose of instilling a particular interpretation in the audience's mind. We're just offering some possibly helpful or provocative insights, which the reader can then respond to at his leisure.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bona Fide at AWP -- through Amy Tan's lens!

Look who's front and center in this Twitter pic from Amy Tan!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Learning to trust the laughter

In selecting parts of my novel to read at events, I've been running up against a particular prejudice I didn't realize I harbored. It's actually really stupid. A lot of times, when I read my work to an audience, they laugh. Now, a lot of my work is satirical, which implies that if my audience laughs, I've succeeded. Besides, I personally like funny books, though my idea of funny may not be everyone's. Dostoevsky is funny. So is Richard Powers's new book, Orfeo. I didn't expect that, because these guys have long worn the mantel of Serious Artists who write about Serious Subjects.

So why does it make me nervous when people laugh? Because deep down, I fear the laughter means my work isn't serious. If you're laughing, you're making light of something, evading, skating on the surface rather than diving in.

But this isn't true! George Saunders talks about this all the time, possibly because the question comes up for him, too: are you really "just" making jokes? He recently said in Salon:

[Y]ou can’t play it large unless you play it small. And you also can’t eradicate one or the other. An amateur eradicates one or the other. A real writer would say, “No, both exist. Of course they do. Serious and funny. Hunger and satiation, they exist.” In a certain sense, you just have to see where you are in that cycle, and the story is an entity and response to itself.
The complexity is in saying, “Oh, this story is so funny. Is it a little too funny? Is it too silly?” And the writer goes, “Maybe.” Boom! And then something really significant happens, and the reader goes, “Oh, I misjudged you.” That’s a wonderful artistic feeling, when you’ve said to the artist, “I’m sorry, I misjudged you.”

There are different kinds of funniness, of course. What Saunders is getting at is that life's staggering complexity encompasses laughter as well as earnestness, and that one powerfully can set off the other--or incorporate it. Laughter isn't just a way of dismissing something--it can be a reaction of surprised recognition, a sign of empathy between reader and author. It can also contain deep darkness. I remember laughing hysterically with my mom at my dying father's bedside. But that's another story.

The point is, trust the laughter. Your own, and your reader/listener's.

Anyway, here's my cat, Bella, sitting on page proofs of Bigfoot and the Baby.


Monday, February 24, 2014

The ambivalent academic, round 2,671

I can never get enough of these "what's wrong with the academic profession and what should we do about it" discussions, for pretty obvious reasons (I'm a PhD, doing "other stuff" besides teaching at a university). When Nicholas Kristof's column lamenting the lack of public intellectuals came out, I thought, God, he's right! Then came a flurry of both outraged and more nuanced rebuttals, like this one, and I thought, Those are all right, too! And so is Josh Marshall's new post!

Whether we stay in academia or leave, I can't help thinking a lot of us who went to grad school end up disillusioned in some way. I venture to suggest that we're a more idealistic lot than most, attracted by the prospect of a lifelong job creating and disseminating ideas--not products; not shareholder value; not, God help us, lies to induce others to buy products. We loved thinking, talking, writing, mentoring, discovering, sharing. And then, at some point, we realized that the profession involved lots of activities other than these, time-consuming efforts which even ran counter to our ideals. There was unfairness. There was infighting. There was insincere schmoozing and jockeying for position. There was pettiness and envy and full-on stupidity and grossness. Sure, such conditions existed elsewhere, but we joined this rarified world to get away from all that. When it showed up in our world, we felt particularly betrayed. Whatever decisions we made after the scales fell from our eyes, we were never the same again. Call us naive, or at least call me that. I was.

Still, one thing is different today: we have the Internet, and we're not afraid to use it--at least if we're not aiming for tenure. It's already changed the equation for people like Josh Marshall, and it will continue to do so. I find this very hopeful--those who enter grad school will do so less innocently, with a wider view, I hope, of their eventual options.



Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

When reality imitating fiction creates a new reality altogether ... or something

I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Orlean's piece in last week's New Yorker on net art. Recently, Orlean played a crucial role in revealing that the most successful example of net art thus far, Twitter's beloved spam account, @Horse_ebooks, was in fact a human mimicking a spammer. In fact, @Horse_ebooks originated as a genuine spambot but the net artist/prankster Jacob Bakkila bought access to the account and then posted snatches of truncated text from other sites, just as the original software had done. The resulting phrases, like "Everything happens so much," were at once deeply meaningful and hilarious.

I came late to @Horse_ebooks, but when I found out a human was behind it, I was delighted--I thought the work, or stunt, or game, was brilliant. Others, however, expressed outrage. To them, the fascinating phrases could only have meaning if a machine had randomly created them. That they were selected by a human being pretending to function like a randomizing machine rendered the whole business inauthentic.

Have we not, then, come full circle, if the machine is authentic and the human is not?

Not yet. For now we have another insanely delightful phenomenon that I would also put under the net art category: I speak, of course, of Dogecoin. A "satirical cryptocurrency," meant to parody Bitcoin, which is already a sort of parody but also a real thing, to the extent that any form of money is real, and that extent is highly debatable, Dogecoin, too, can be exchanged for goods and services in the real world.

In yesterday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd says, of Paddy Chayevsky:
Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing the news,” noting “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” But real news became so diminished that young people turned to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to learn about what was going on in the world.
But what if, via the Internet, comedy becomes the news, as jokes commenting on the world begin to reshape the world?

I suppose there's a lot to worry about in all of this. Yet when I think of @Horse_ebooks and Dogecoin, my heart swells with hope for the human race. Seriously.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Consuming ambivalence

Do a Google search on "consumer culture ambivalence," and you will get "about 245,000 results." So, apparently, this is an issue.

But perhaps I don't need to tell you that. Because there seems to be something deeply ingrained in the experience of buying anything--other than, perhaps, food--that induces discomfort. At least for me. Do I really need this thing? I mean, really, really, need it? Or am I just adding to the stuff that surrounds me, separating me from a more authentic experience of life? I desired this thing, which is why I bought it, but now I kind of hate it, because it tricked me. I wanted it, but I didn't really, really, really need it. The thing made me confuse want with need.

Thoreau, of course, was quite the scold on this topic:

I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. 

However, we know Thoreau was kind of a nut. Admirable, but impossible to imitate; in fact, not even he could really walk the talk. As Paul Theroux says of his near-namesake

During his famous experiment in his cabin at Walden, moralizing about his solitude, he did not mention that he brought his mother his dirty laundry and went on enjoying her apple pies.

Did he also occasionally buy some snappy new boots in downtown Concord? But I ramble. My point, or my question, is: how do we decide when our consumption has gone overboard?

A book called The Ambivalent Consumer: Questioning Consumption in East Asia and the West, says the decision is cultural:

People believe consumption has become excessive ... when it threatens a culturally understood "balance" with morality, citizenship, production, saving, or the environment.

I'm at the point where any consumption feels like too much. Yes, deep inside, I'm Henry David. And yet, under these circumstances, buying feels somehow gleefully naughty, like an act of defiance, or a piece of apple pie. There's just no way out.

The things will always get us in the end.


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Monday, January 27, 2014

An author I will keep reading till I decide if I like his writing

Because of my now almost year-long obsession with Iris Murdoch, whenever I go into a bookstore, I head straight for the M's. A few months ago, at my favorite used bookstore, while staring disappointedly at the space that should have contained several Murdoch novels, but didn't, I discovered a novel called Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosely. I knew nothing about him, including that he is the son of renowned British fascist Oswald Mosley ... but of course I am going to pick up any book called "Hopeful Monsters" that promises to be a "pyrotechnically accomplished novel of ideas, in which communism, psychoanalytic theory, uncertainty, and relativity obtain visceral emotional force," according to the book jacket.

I liked it. I think.  It contained extraordinary, stunning images, including an unforgettable extended scene of a small child being rolled down a hill in a tire. But overall, the book managed to be both fascinating and oddly distancing. Perhaps it suffered from that common criticism aimed at all "novels of ideas," whatever those are: that they are bloodless, that readers really want novels "about character" (as if that's somehow opposed to "ideas"). Yet what if your characters themselves live lives of the mind? What if their greatest passion in life is ideas, the search for the truth about the universe?

Anyway, I couldn't decide if I liked the book or not, so I got another one, The Hesperides Tree, which I'm reading now. Here's a sample passage:


This section contains a couple of the distinctive, sometimes baffling quirks of Mosley's style. That "I thought -- " appears at least once on nearly every page of both novels, and it has the effect, for me, of kicking me out of the narrative. A cardinal sin, as any writing workshop will gleefully inform you. But that effect has to be intentional. These characters, themselves, have the habit of stepping back, even in the middle of very intense experiences, and reflecting on what the events mean. They, like us, are in and out of their own stories at the same time.  Mosley also likes repetition, as here, with the vaguely hypnotic recurrence of "wildlife station." Again, you end up paying attention to the language as much as to what the language conveys--which lends the whole story an edge of unreality.

It's not that the story becomes less compelling because of these techniques; what's compelling is the telling of the story. Which is why we don't get to pretend that we're seeing straight through the words into some alternate but completely believable world, populated by people just like us. The story is the story. And that makes for a different but still deeply intriguing reading experience.