Sunday, January 31, 2010

Writing sparks

Recently, I've been so overwhelmed with other peoples' manuscripts, that I haven't had time for my own. It's hard for me not to be writing. I've felt cranky, and lost and moody and when I finally carved out some time to write last week, my novel-in-progress felt like a dead flounder on the page, which ramped up my despair level, as well as my need for chocolate. Why couldn't I write? What could I possibly do to work my way back into the writing zone?

But then, I began to finish up one particular manuscript, and it was so good, so breathtaking in the risks it took, and the way the characters related, that I felt that switch turn on for me. I wanted to write! I had dozens of ideas suddenly for my novel, (and my ideas, not this manuscript's) and today I sat down and wrote ten pages. Ten pages!

I have to thank that manuscript and that writer. That's what great art can do. Not just involve you in a whole other world, but to spark your own creativity. That manuscript was like an invitation to join the party, a reminder of that wonderful, magic, tough, rewarding world. And yup, we're all invited.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Read This Book: Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

I have to begin by saying that Chris Bohjalian is possibly one of the funniest, most graciously kind people on the planet. In talking with him, I've discovered we both share a love of cupcakes, and we both love moral ambiguity in novels, which brings us to his remarkable new novel, Secrets of Eden. Chris won the New England Book Award in 2002, and his novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah's Book Club, a Publishers Weekly "Best Book," and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. His work has been translated into over 25 languages and twice become movies ("Midwives" and "Past the Bleachers").Thank you so, so much, Chris for answering my questions.

Secrets of Eden unfolds the events of a shattering murder-suicide like a prism, revealed bit by bit by each voice we hear from (and I love that one character says, “All of our stories are suspect.”) It’s a perfect structure for the book, but I’m wondering if this was always the structure, or if you played around with other ways of telling this story?

Henry James thought it was inherently problematic to try and write a novel in the first person. A novel, in his opinion, demands multiple viewpoints and the first person limits a novelist to one. (On the other hand, this may be precisely why the first person narrator works so well in a mystery novel: The narrator is as deeply in the dark as the reader.)

Although I don’t fully agree with James, I do understand his argument. I have loved writing novels in the third person, both third person omniscient and third person subjective.

But I also love the idiosyncrasies and fallibility that come with a first person narrator.

And in your question you picked out what may be favorite line in the novel: “Believe no one.Trust no one. Assume. . .all of our stories are suspect.” I even considered titling the novel, “All of Our Stories Are Suspect.”

Consequently, when I was mapping out the novel in my mind, I always imagined there would be multiple first person narrators, each of whom would reveal a little more of what presumably happened that awful night – and each of whom would have pronounced biases and preconceptions. What I liked most about that idea was pretty simple: It meant the narrators would be very, very human.

The novel, about domestic abuse, is set in a small town, and you yourself have moved from NYC to a small town in Vermont. Do you feel that these small towns, which seem to have, as one of your characters says, an “aura of intimacy” really are more intimate, or do you think they breed more despair and drama—and if so, why? I know you’ve done a great deal of research on domestic violence—have you found that it is looked at and treated differently in a small town than in a big city?

Here’s the reality about Vermont. We have very few homicides, but on any given year the vast majority will involve domestic violence. To wit, in 2008 we had 15 homicides, 11 of which were domestic violence related. If you happen to be murdered in Vermont, the odds are that you will be female and that you will have known your murderer very, very well. I think that’s true in many rural areas. We may not have a lot of drive-by shootings, but, sadly, we have our share of sexual violence and domestic abuse.

Just like a metropolitan area, however, we are likely to look the other way when a woman is an abusive relationship. That aura of intimacy doesn’t necessarily lead people to intervene.

Your characters almost instantly breathe on the page. Within the first two paragraphs of each section, I felt I knew the character and had no doubt that he or she was alive. How do you go about creating your characters? And how do you go about creating your novels? Do you map them out? Start with an idea?

I start with a voice. One sentence. Sometimes I think I am more of a mimic than a novelist. But I can’t start understanding who my characters are until I know how they speak – and so even if I know a character is a minister, I don’t start writing until I hear in my head that one, character-revealing sentence.

And it’s been that way whenever I’ve been working on a first person novel going all the way back to Midwives (1997). I knew who the narrator for that novel was when I heard in my head the sentence that would eventually begin chapter one:

“I used the word vulva as child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke. It wasn’t a swear exactly, but I knew it had an edge to it that could stop adults cold in their tracks.”

For Secrets of Eden, I worked the same way: I waited until I had that one sentence that told me who the characters were and how they sounded before diving in.

Just for the record, the character who was the most interesting to write was Catherine Benincasa. I enjoy listening to prosecutors speak and I knew I had Catherine’s voice when a lawyer I was interviewing started talking about blowback from a handgun and “how much of the bastard’s brains would be up the gun barrel.” (Yes, I did use that in the novel. The alliteration and rhythm were irresistible.)

I was wondering about the title, Secrets of Eden, until I got to the section where the pastor proclaims that there were no secrets in Eden until Adam and Eve ate the apple, and once they did, they had to try to keep it a secret from God, and we in turn, all lost that wonderful innocence. But wouldn’t you also say, that in this book, secrets are really what protects or even saves people?

I love that notion. I really do. I hadn’t thought about the book in that context, but it makes sense.

I enjoy books that have a current of moral ambiguity running through them. And while sexual violence and domestic abuse are most assuredly not moral gray areas – they are, pure and simple, horrific criminal behavior – I do appreciate the moral ambiguities that mark some of the narrators in Secrets of Eden. This, too, makes them human.

The ending is shattering—shocking for the final secret it unveils. You’ve said you count on your characters to show you the ending, and I’m hoping you can elaborate on that with this particular book.

Usually I have no idea how a book is going to end and I really do depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. The only exceptions to that would be The Double Bind (2007) and Secrets of Eden. I didn’t know precisely where each character would be when I finished the story, but I did know what had occurred at the Haywards’ house that tragic night when only George and Alice were home. In other words, I knew A and Z. What I did not know were the 24 letters in between, and that was when I needed my four narrators (and, yes, the late Alice) to help me fill in the blanks.

Can you talk about what you are working on now?

I am in the home stretch of a first draft of a novel about an airline pilot who has to do what Chelsey Sullenberger did on the Hudson. . .but fails. Three-quarters of his passengers and his first officer die when his regional jet is brought down by birds and his plane cartwheels and shatters on Lake Champlain.

But he lives, and with his wife and two young children retreats to a house in northern Vermont where he hopes he will figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Unfortunately, it turns out the house has a history and it isn’t pretty. I’m honestly not sure yet whether it’s a psychological study of PTSD or a ghost story. Maybe it’s both.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Barnes and Noble without pity, and a city without a bookstore

When I first moved to Hoboken, what I loved was that it was an artsy city that was a subway stop (and 7 minutes) from Greenwich Village, that it was bustling and urban, full of brownstones and writers, and it had three bookstores. Not for long, of course because Barnes and Noble came in and forced them all out of business. But gradually, my family began to spend more and more time there. We loved hanging out, drinking tea, reading, buying books. When my son was born, we spent even more time there because as he grew, he loved books and would often sprawl on the floor reading for many happy hours. The store was blocks from our home--convenient, welcoming, absolutely essential.

Sigh. Now Barnes and Noble is closing and Hoboken is about to be without a bookstore. I'm both angry, crazed, and upset. Someone said, "Thanks, B&N for coming in, running the indies out of town, and now leaving us in the lurch without a bookstore." I know times are tough, but I can't imagine not having a bookstore close by, and I'm desperately praying some indie will fill the void. And if anyone wants to open a store, I promise, I'll work for you a few hours every day for free. I'll get the word out.

Read this Book: Devotion by Dani Shapiro

I first became aware of Dani Shapiro in her knockout memoir Slow Motion. I began reading everything she wrote, and following her career, because from Black & White to Family History, she was so fearless in her writing, so honest, that every page seemed to breathe. Dani’s latest, Devotion: A Memoir, was one of those books I carried around with me for weeks after I read it. Her quest to find spiritual meaning in life was so intelligent and so moving, that I was gripping pages, and often in tears. Thank you, Dani, for agreeing to answer my questions.

There have been a lot of books and articles about the nature of God and atheism, of late. Some scientists feel that God is possibly an evolutionary and genetic development because religion supports community and keeps humans from despairing too much. Anne Lamott has said that when you start talking about your belief in God, people sometimes see your IQ points fall. Were you at all anxious about facing those kinds of critics as you were writing the book?

I was beyond anxious. I was absolutely terrified as I was writing Devotion. First of all, I felt I had no business writing it. I kept asking myself: why me? Why do I think I have anything to say about spirituality, about God, about meaning? I'm a novelist. I'm used to imagining and inventing characters and stories, and here I was grappling with the story that requires the greatest leap of imagination (and possibly invention...who knows...) I needed to find the willingness to take a good hard look and consider what it is that I really believe about the biggest questions in life. I must have asked myself Why me? a hundred times a day. It was the whispering voice in my head that I had to find a way to shut down in order to write, in order to think. Of course, I also worried that the outside world—critics, readers—would be asking the same question. Why her? I realized, at a certain point, that part of this difficulty in giving myself permission to explore these questions had to do with my upbringing itself. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, women had very specific roles, and those roles did not involve intellectual query—much less public intellectual query. And also, I was aware that it was essential that I tell a story. After all, reading about someone's spiritual journey is about as interesting as watching water boil. I wanted to write a page-turner of a spiritual journey.

Devotion deals with finding meaning in life, but the answers you found are complex and complicated and seem to indicate to me that the journey is never really over. Where are you now on that journey?

When I finished Devotion, I was depressed for a while—perhaps I still am—because I wanted to continue to spend my days in the way I had been: practicing yoga, meditating, reading and doing nothing except thinking about these matters. The book has 102 small chapters, almost like pieces to a puzzle, or a mosaic, and I wanted to open a new document and begin with 103. I just wanted to keep going. One of the reasons I embarked on Devotion was because I so much wanted a reason to go on this search, and writing a book about it gave me that reason. But of course the search continues. I hope it's life-long. The process of writing the book was really one of living inside the questions. I never expected to find anything like an answer. I was wary of the whole idea of answers—and continue to be. But living inside the questions seems, to me, like a good way to live.

In your addictive blog, you talk about how after 7 books, your writing has gotten leaner, that you’re more concerned with the truth being told than the beauty of the language. Would you say that your writing is now following your spiritual journey in a sense?

That's such a great question. I think that's very true. I realized recently that Devotion is my seventh book, and the number seven has great mystical significance in many traditions—often it marks the end of some sort of life cycle. That feels apt when it comes toDevotion, which feels like the culmination of everything that I have learned and understand up to this point in my life. The painful and the joyful facts of my life—the losses, my father's early death, my mother's recent death, family rifts, my son's serious illness when he was a baby, as well as the great gift of his recovery, and the great gift of my marriage—all have brought me to this place, in midlife, the necessity of seeking, the longing to make sense of it, not in a literal way, but in a way that creates greater empathy and solace and meaning. I hope that, whatever I write next (and, tellingly, for the first time I have no idea) it will spring from this new place in which I find myself.

Threaded in the narrative is the story of how you almost lost your baby to a rare illness. Even though he survived, the fear remained. Why didn’t it occur to you to blame God?

When my baby was so sick, as I write about in the book, what I did—among other things—was pray. I found myself, in every quiet moment, praying. Sometimes these prayers were the Hebrew prayers of my childhood, even though I didn't have the first idea what the words meant. Other times, the prayers were a lullaby as I rocked my son to sleep. Other times, I was aware that the word please kept running through
my head. I didn't feel I was directing these prayers toward a specific God, because I wasn't at all sure that I believed in that kind of God. So it was kind of hard to blame God or be angry at him/her/it, because that wasn't my conception of God, and still really isn't. I mean, to blame God is to believe in that kind of causality. If God could have singled out my son to be sick, then God can also get my parking spaces, stop the plane from crashing. That God would be able to stop genocides and famines. It's hard to believe in a God who
could do those things (parking space aside) but doesn't. I've spent a tremendous amount of time since those years of my son's illness (he's now ten and completely fine, which I consider a miracle, but don't believe that God saved him any more than I believe that God made him sick) and I do believe there is something greater than all of us, some sort of pattern or invisible fabric that connects us, but I don't think of this fabric as the God of my childhood, up in the sky, writing our fates in the Book of Life, making plans. I guess I don't believe in God as micromanager.

You talk about the between space, being still and empty, and how helpful that can be. But how difficult is that for a novelist to do that, when the urge to create story, to make meaning out of everything, is so large? Or, is that ability to make story a kind of salvation?

I think that space between being still and being empty is enormously helpful to anyone doing creative work! It's where it all happens. When my mind is cluttered with the million things I need to do, or worse, with the toxic crap of: why did she say that, and I should have done this and I feel guilty about x, y, or z thing, that is not |conducive to any kind of creative mindset. When my mind empties during meditation—even if just for a few seconds—I think that's where the seeds of creative work reside. And yes, Caroline, I absolutely think that being able to create a story is a kind of salvation. Don't you? I think we novelists are enormously fortunate to be able to take some of those seeds—the yogis word for this kind of seed is samskara—and build stories out of them. Otherwise, at least for me, they sit there and fester. In the silence, this is where I find them.

You also write about midlife when those losses get larger and we know they will continue to increase—and how you grappled with them and discovered that being in the moment, that just standing there and paying attention helps. Do you think you could have accepted this kind of knowledge in your twenties? Does it all have something to do with being in midlife

Oh, I don't think I could possibly have accepted this kind of knowledge in my twenties. It's so much a midlife thing. When I was about halfway through writingDevotion, my agent called one day and asked how I was. I told her I felt like I was staring straight at the sun. The foreknowledge of loss—of loss being the way of life—is something that the Buddhists know and teach so eloquently. Carl Jung terms midlife (which he defines as everyone over the age of 35) the afternoon of life. He also says that the knowledge and tools we attained in life's morning—in our youth, in our twenties—is of little use in the afternoon. How true this is! We have to keep opening ourselves to the truth of what is, otherwise we become...I don't know...somehow stunted. My fear, at this point in my life, of being stunted is greater than my fear of recognizing the truth of loss and change.

What are you working on now, and what question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?

No, these are great questions and there's nothing I'd rather be thinking about! I'm getting ready for the publication of Devotion, and trying to stay in the same mindset as I have been for the past two or three years since embarking on this journey. I'm working on small things, but the big thing for the moment is this.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Read This Book: Dangerous Places by Perry Glasser

I first met Perry Glasser on Facebook. His book of stories, Dangerous Places, boasts blurbs from Bob Shacochis, Ron Hansen, Ron Carlson and more and he's the winner of the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. I picked up his book and was thoroughly knocked out. His stories, about people on the edge of hope, are raw, gritty, extraordinary and unlike anything I have ever read before. It's literally the best short story collection I've read. So, of course, I grabbed Perry and insisted he let me ask him questions, and he was gracious enough to comply. Thanks, Perry.

You say that you write out of convictions no longer universally accepted, which instantly intrigues me. Can you expound on that?

The phrase is from an article I wrote for The North American Review, “How We Lost the Internet” (March, 2000). I was doing IT/business journalism with a front row seat at the revolution, and Robley Wilson, the NAR’s editor, gave me some space to write a series of essays we called Virtual View. In that particular essay, I musing as to why though the World Wide Web had been invented by academics, it was being dominated by commerce. The dramatic rise in bandwidth and convergence of telephony with computing makes my unease less acute today—music, video, self-publication, and such things as this literary blog are available to us. Green sprouts push through the pavement.

But the reasons I’d thought Moloch would own the Internet are still with us; academics are so embroiled in ideological warfare they overlook what Faulkner would have called the eternal verities, and too many writers who depend on academe for a livelihood still write out of convictions no longer universally accepted. The credo is in full at my website:

“I write out of certain convictions no longer universally accepted and, in some circles, under attack; that the purpose of the Arts is to illuminate and enrich the human experience; that however dark, unknown, changing and inchoate, a universal human experience exists; that human experience can and even must be communicated across the lines of our obvious physical differences; that the product of the Artist must be readily accessible to an audience; and that while the expression of the Artist embodies the essence of a time, the Artist speaks to and for an audience beyond that.”

Writers in academic settings make a pact with the Devil: life is easy, time plentiful, but the environment is toxic. Academics fragment human experience. They have to: fragmentation creates jobs, dissertations, grants, and textbooks, and not-so-incidentally manufactures academic prestige, which manifests itself in promotions and less teaching. That’s what endowed chairs are about, not to mention release time to edit yet another journal no one but other academics read. So English departments are hotbeds of politics where power and position are brokered, and the coin of the realm is identity and victimhood. What greater triumph for a young critic than to elevate to visibility what has hitherto been ignored? What easier claim than to say the obscure writer is obscure because of a hostile, larger culture? The issues are trivial; the intensity is overwhelming, the subject of any number of comic novels. Voices become shrill. Critical acceptance in such an environment requires conforming to ideological demands.
What could be more poisonous to a writer?

The best literature elevates the particular to the universal—think of Tolstoy or Austen—and that runs counter to the ideological demands that precipitate success English departments. Accidents of a writer’s DNA should not be a measure of quality, but open any copy of Poets & Writers or the AWP Chronicle and tally writing contests open only to writers of a certain age, gender, race, national origin, or sexual orientation. Note how many of those are sponsored by journals housed at universities whose editors are fulfilling a political agenda. The situation becomes acute with state and federal grants to the arts which are less about aesthetics than about redefining aesthetic standards to suit political necessities. Allegedly blind readings really never are: subject matter is telling.

When writers pervert their vision to align with such finagling, writers fail our culture. Mass audiences see no relevance to Art. It’s easy to claim that economic factors are why general magazines are abandoning fiction, but it’s more likely the economic factors are caused by “arty” fiction saying less and less to fewer and fewer people. I am old enough to recall when late night talk shows frequently hosted writers because writers were important people with important things to say who did not hold their audience in contempt for failing to see the importance of their work.

Human nature does not change: the hunger for wisdom and quality is still widespread. If that were not so, Oprah’s Book Club would not sell millions of copies for any anointed title. Oprah—God bless her and her staff—does not peddle junk.

The only conclusion possible is that many writers who are not producing software for film have abandoned their audience, not the other way around. Writers need to resist the artistic provincialism that makes English departments go round and round—not embrace it. Writers have to turn away from the identity politics that “demands” a readership motivated by guilt. Writers have to stop bemoaning the demise of quality literature because the larger culture is filled with brutes. Writers have to stop emulating critics because Art cannot be the handmaiden of politics. If we writers do not stop, we will continue to lose readers and our own souls. Tell stories that appeal to the heart, and leave causes to politicians.

What I loved about Dangerous Places was how no one is completely good or evil, the lines are pretty blurred, even as the world emerges as the title suggests, as a damn dangerous place. These stories are unsettling, because you make us understand every bit of bad, shocking behavior. There’s not a lot of redemption in your world, but there is a kind of connection and a blurry sort of hope. Do you feel that’s really all we have?

Wow. It’s always nice to make a long-distance call and have the phone picked up by a grown-up. Thanks. Real people are seldom saints and most of us sin in one way or another. Bad shocking behavior, short of persecution, is how we share our humanity. Morality is simple to understand but hard to live by; kids in nursery schools all know right behavior from wrong. The rules are simple enough: don’t tell lies for advantage and protect the weak. But knowledge of evil and the desire to be good still does not stop kids in nursery schools from aggression. I suppose the people I want to write about are the ones who struggle to make right what they have screwed up. They just do not know how.

Purely evil characters are the staple of comic books and bad movies where some psychotic is intent on hacking apart twenty-something blonde women who wear only scanty underwear and always investigate odd noises in dark places alone. Psychotics need not be explained, just presented. After that, back to the action and pass the popcorn. It’s an important point. To make a silly, extreme example, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment commit similar crimes, but Dostoevsky’s character is far more interesting because Dostoevsky holds out the possibility of redemption; it’s not a novel that studies evil, and the murder is done 40 or so pages in. Here is an ax-murderer who struggles to understand his own motives, and he can’t. Better yet, the novel is pre-Freud, so there is no easy equation to unpleasant childhood trauma to explain away evil, and the fevered dreams afflicting Raskolnikov are free of some pre-determined symbolic system. “Ah, that axe in your hand, Rodya? Why are you hacking at the moneylender with your phallus?” There IS a character in the novel purely evil: Svidrigailov kills himself, not out of guilt for his amazing depravity, but because his life is too boring to endure.

So, yes, I do think the world is a dangerous place. The noblest chapters of human history are about our striving to overcome disease, starvation, and predators, but in America in the 21st century, we are feeling complacent enough that people can afford to embrace some Rousseau-like myth about noble savages and civilization being the cause of our ills. But the importance of struggle lurks in our genes. We go out and seek danger.

I am amazed at that, including the propensity in myself. Who among us has not had that crisis in the heart when at 3 am when we ask ourselves, “What was I thinking?” Well, of course, we weren’t thinking, and that’s probably glorious. The only thing that might be more boring and predictable than pure evil is pure good. Who’d want to have lunch with a saint?

Why does driving at 85 mile per hour with the radio blasting make me feel free? When did adrenaline lose its evolutionary advantage? That’s the underlying question in The Veldt, a story in which bad, shocking behavior, is committed by an out-of-work leadership trainer whose wife lies to a mall cop for him, but I give the final meditation on the nature of survival to the mammal that is probably a rabbit living in a burrow in their garden. I’d be lying if I said such a story was planned—the themes were discovered. Maybe connection—as between Samson and Lillian Levy in The Veldt—is the most redemption we can hope for.

Dangerous Places is as wildly funny as it is horrific (a patient calls his therapist to tell her he has his parents tied up and is going to kill them when the ballgame is over, a mother mentions that she doesn’t like carrying her children because she’s not some goddamned gorilla). There’s one astonishing sentence, too, which spells out the lives of a couple, from divorce, remarriage, blood pressure meds and more. You take a lot of risks in your writing. Are you always consciously pushing the envelope? Can you talk a bit about process?

The physical part of writer process used to be calculated by counting revisions. A manuscript was a tangible thing that occupied space. You could store it, and when done, if asked, humbly note, “Ah, yes, that story went through twelve revisions.” But technology, for me, has changed that, and with that change, I think the cognitive process has changed as well.

I used to write with a #2 pencil on yellow pads. They had to be yellow. I’d read about Hemingway’s habits and was pretty sure there was magic in a Ticonderoga pencil. If I could have found one, I’d have bought a desk that allowed me to write standing up. I purchased my first computer because someone told me it had the capacity to cut and paste and would automagically renumber. My heart swooned. I’d done that with scissors and tape, renumbering in ink. Who knew that Bill Gates occupied a perch on Parnassus?

These days, I compose directly on a computer. I choose Courier New as a font because that’s what my typewriters used, and everything else looks like print in a book, far too solid to change. But composing on a computer yields no physical sense of feedback about length or proportion. I wonder if Kerouac and that piano roll on which On the Road was composed felt that way. The older I get, the more I prattle on like your kindly but enfeebled Great Uncle. In the days of the yellow pads, I had to consider my words carefully because the labor of typing each day’s copy on my Smith-Corona lay before me; I also noted that if a scene that ran ten pages was followed by a scene that ran a mere two, I probably had been writing into fatigue and had taken too many shortcuts. Laziness made me a far more careful writer. Now I just prattle on and on and on, fully aware I am writing like pig on amphetamines, but reassured that I can with a few keystrokes fix it later. I require the shape of the story, first, by which I man to have all the elements in the manuscript; then I can sculpt a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

There comes a time late in the process where I need tactile feedback, especially in work of some length, such as the novellas in Dangerous Places or the novel I am just completing. With physical pages, all those self-indulgent words glare, and I grow frustrated with myself at the many places where my imagination failed to match what the moment deserved. Stephen King has observed that the road to Hell is paved with adverbs, and if that is the case, my drafts have definitely, certainly, unequivocally been the equivalent of the Interstate system. I do a lot of that work in Starbucks, where an overdose of caffeine makes me bug-eyed and able to note that the passage on page 12 is pretty much the same as the passage on page 27, a fact impossible for me to notice on a computer’s one-page-at-a-time screen.

There is also a moment when, for important passages, often endings, when I am going for more than the right details in the right order in the most efficient language I can muster. I have to feel the words on my lips, so I read them aloud. It’s a test of rhythms; if my tongue stumbles, the words have to be wrong. This exercise is also conducted in Starbucks, where any number of yuppie-types are either schizoid or talking into their ear-piece cellphones, and the site of a middle-aged man babbling to himself raises few eyebrows. I am thinking of buying a faux earpiece.

That said, there is the underlying question of non-physical process: where do the stories come from? I am, alas, not always sure, but usually there is an autobiographical element in my work, something from the recent or distant past. I try not to exploit people I’ve known, but no writer imagines characters whole cloth. I believe odd moments stay with us for years and years, sometimes perfectly ordinary moments, as well, and what writers do when not physically typing is cultivate the habit of resurrecting the past in such a way that it emulates a fully realized dream, complete with sensory details, the kind that awakens you and your pulse is elevated. I couple that with what I have come to call retrograde plotting.

Those imagined, half remembered moments for me are almost never fictional beginnings. That makes composing something like planning a journey on a map. If I want to drive to Indianapolis, I don’t place my marker on my starting place in Haverhill, Massachusetts, but I place it on Indianapolis to trace a path backward. To beat this metaphor like a rug, once I am in the car, actually leaving Haverhill, as likely or not I am going to find out that the little side-trip to Cleveland is just the thing, and the temptation to drive the circular bypass around Columbus is a mistake—I’ll need to drive directly through downtown, like it or not. I may even learn I never wanted to get to Indianapolis at all.

An Age of Marvels and Wonders was composed in this way. I am a professor, and I am diabetic, terrified of going blind. I asked my ophthalmologist to recommend a condition that would have a character gradually go blind, but it could not be diabetes so I would not scare my family to death if the story was published. He recommended macular degeneration, which I had never heard of. Add to that the fact that about a bazillion years ago, I was trapped in a grocery store checkout line behind a woman who could not afford to pay, which I offered to do, not from altruism, but because I was in a hurry. She needed about $2.00. She near cut my lungs out for daring to make the offer. I never saw her again. Fantasizing the moment, much older now, I decided they should have an affair—so I set out for Indianapolis. But along the way, discovered I was just indulging myself, that getting them romantically involved was too stupid even for me, and so instead of abandoning the story because I needed to wrestle with my demons about blindness, I “saw” their connection could be an entrepreneurial venture. I was retrograde plotting. I required her to insist on paying him back; I required her to only be able to do so by cleaning his place. I required her to read to her children so she could read to Bob, and so I required a book on his table for her to notice and misunderstand the title, The Magic Mountain. The story began to come together, Raylene had to be smart without being educated; Bob knows all I know about management from my time as a business journalist. I needed a villain t get this beyond Modern Success Stories, and the narrative challenge became how to have an enfeebled, near blind, older man best that guy. I put Bob in the house I’d rented in Des Moines, Iowa, where I once banged up my car fender because the driveway was too narrow. My favorite moment in the novella is when Raylene says, “Why ain’t you never tried nothing funny with me?” and Bob says, “I don’t think of you that way,” and she says, “You are so full of shit,” which in some ways is a dialogue that reconciles my initial base impulse for the story that I like to think wound up in a far better place. Why drive to Indianapolis in winter if you can wind up in New York City’s Central Park in May?

I’m curious how you feel teaching impacts your writing?

I was a high school teacher in an inner-city all girls public school in Brooklyn, New York, for a decade. It was the second most formative experience of my life, the first having been a single parent to a daughter. The kids did not have easy lives. Women coming of age in America is frequently “my” subject, and I think I manage cross-gendered writing reasonably well. A few years ago, I was honored to have work in an anthology called Our Mutual Room where in the alphabetic table of contents my name was between Erdrich and Godwin. Saying my subject is young women makes me sound like some sort of ageing degenerate, but I have been an adolescent boy, and being a girl is, barring extraordinary circumstance, far more perilous. Women in America are prepared for fluid identities, for example, and while fewer and fewer married women change their names, most still do, and while more and more men do things like dye their hair, changing and controlling appearance is more central to a young woman’s life than a young man’s. Guys will lift weights, but that just is not in the same league as learning to put on a daily face or the eating disorders that plague white, middle-class young women. I am not saying this is a great thing about America or that the status quo is desirable—I like to think I raised my daughter to evade most of those self-image traps—but as a writer I know drama is about trouble and the changes trouble cause; both the novellas in Dangerous Places need to be novellas because the strategies the women in those stories need to confront what bedevils them are complicated. Their resources need to be far more subtle than the resources young men have.

As a teacher, I spend a lot of time answering questions about craft and thinking about what I do and what writers do. This is what students want to know, at least the ones who have figured out that writing is more complicated than making a macaroni necklace. There is, unfortunately, a lot of writing instruction that is just so much pasta. Slide word number one next to word number two and repeat. I am teaching a class called Telling the Take this semester, and I hope to separate storytelling from writing.

But I also find that teaching makes me very self-conscious of what I am about as I write. I am very aware, maybe too much so, and I realize the “rules” my students want to hear or perhaps have heard, or that I am generating for them, are destructive to creativity. I used to say that writing from the point of view of a dead person was dreadful—all those moralistic tales my high school students wrote about drinking and driving: it’s a good thing Alice Sebold was not in my classroom. So from time to time in my short fiction, there are elements of what used to be called meta-fiction, a nod and a wink from the writer to the reader about the story before them. Lighted Windows has some of that. The hope is that near direct address to the reader allows for aesthetic effects otherwise not possible, a kind of collaboration.

Also, perhaps because I teach, I give myself permission to take minor risks with language when I see some advantage to it: the long sentences summarizing lifetimes in Danger, for example, but I think those are inexpensive risks. The sentences are crafted for rhythm as much as for content and information. They have rolling cadences and are fun for me to read aloud. Similarly for the first paragraph of the section in Jody’s Run called “In the Arms of Men.” She’s a young woman being snatched off the street by three thugs, so the run-on sentence matches her panic, her psychology in the moment has her recalling being in the arms of men at other times and other places, most especially the desertion trauma she suffered at her mother’s death when she was four, the fact of her life that propels the entire novella. Her disorientation matches the language, and when writing such stuff I think of my students having been told by well-meaning Ms. Grundys that a paragraph should always have at least three sentences, essays five paragraphs, and that topic sentences have to appear in every paragraph, preferably at the beginning. Take that Grundy!

The ubiquitous question: What are you working on now and why is it obsessing you?

What I am working on is getting an agent to represent the novel I have just finished. I am at the point where I am moving commas, so it is either done and worthless, or someone needs to publish Riverton Noir, but that needs a good editorial eye to make the decision because I am no longer able to see it clearly. I started it two years ago to keep myself amused, and it was a mean and spiteful little parody, and then the damned thing got good on me and I had to rise above being a nasty little boy with a nasty little imagination. I made myself rewrite exclusively for pace and kept the language in the Noir tradition—Tony Soprano would blush. But I think it profound, funny, and profane, a kind of cross between Mickey Spillane, Jorge Luis Borges, and Philip K. Dick. And now I am done writing my own review….

I also am completing a new collection of short fiction, unifying the stories in the same way danger unifies Dangerous Places. All these stories have already been published, a few won awards, but alas, my name does not have the cachet that has a publisher camped at my front door. The most recently published story in the group is I-95 Southbound, which won an award from Gival Press and is online at The citation makes me blush.

I’ve given up trying to publish my collection of memoirs entitled antimemoirs, (lower case intended, Caroline) because while almost all have been published in literary journals like The Antioch Review and Boulevard, I cannot get publisher interest. The memoirs trace my story from my adolescence to being 50 when my second wife and I reluctantly split because her sexual orientation changed. They all have baby boomer music titles. I hope they have resonance beyond narcissism, and many have that meta-fictional self-awareness I mentioned above. For example, Norwegian Wood mentions the Beatles tune in the context of an episode in a Brooklyn poolroom when I was 17, but the piece is really about ambiguity in art—dunno, did I have the girl, or did she have me? The song titles are more than labels, though; the lyrics inform the pieces. Gimme Shelter is about growing up Jewish in America, comparing the story of my US-born parents to the story of my first wife’s Holocaust refugee parents, to the story of how my first wife and I met, and how the seeds of our failed marriage were actually sewn before we were born. The final tale about my second divorce is named for the Jefferson Airplane song, Somebody to Love. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies …” Works for me, but my query letters to publishers small and large don’t get answered; if you say “memoir” to an agent, you’d better be a celebrity; and nonfiction book contests give awards to tales of victimization that cover 300 pages, not collections of short takes that offer up conundrums and insights in 7 to 25 pages.

Enough whining.

I try not to get obsessed anymore. I just keep working and wish I had someone to market for me so I could spend more time writing and less time packing envelopes, monitoring email, and wondering why a writer with three collections in print and a number of awards can’t get people to find the time to click Reply and send an email that says, “No, but thanks for asking.”