Friday, May 23, 2014

Tongue and Groove Reading Series: Lineup for June 22

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

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.

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 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!

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?

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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