Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Patrick Darby Talks About his Fantastic New Indie Bookstore, Novel Places

It's always cause for celebration when a new indie bookstore opens and Novel Places is an especially brilliant one. Opened by the fabulously warm and well-read Patrick Darby, this is a store that is going to turn out to be a home away from home for many happy readers and writers. Come visit at 23341 Frederick road in Clarksburg, Maryland. I'm honored Patrick agreed to let me ask him all sorts of questions about his store. Thank you, Patrick!

I'm a huge fan of indie stories. What made you decide to open an indie store?

I've been in the bookselling business for 30 years, but always with chains and university stores. I was frustrated with the corporate attitude of selling, budget, and policy. After my father died, I came to the decision to do bookselling the way I always wanted to do it, which usually got me in trouble with headquarters. As a bonus, when I started Novel Places, my blood pressure dropped 20 points.

And how can I convince someone to open one in Hoboken, where I live? We're just a ten minute subway stop from Greenwich Village, but our bookstore closed a year ago.

They need to know that there's a lot of support in the community. Research will tell them about location and regional access. Find out exactly why the previous store closed. Like those of us opening new stores this year, we can see the hurdles and have plans to compete. Once they know the size and type of the store that can be sustained at the beginning, it's usually an easy choice. Type is very important. I started Novel Places almost 5 years ago. Lease deals fell through, and I ended up online and distributing to coffee shops. When I sublet in a coffee shop in Clarksburg, I quickly realized the mystery and children market needed to be tapped. The new store focuses heavily on children books and toys, but sells all categories, especially mystery.

I love that the book store was the first and the original building in Clarkesburg. So do you ever feel any sense of ghosts around?

The book store is in the original building of Clarksburg. It started out as a trading post, and eventually became a general store. There are no reports of hauntings, but the building has seen Clarksburg rise as the third largest town in Montgomery County, with one of the first academies. It was the stopping point between Georgetown and Frederick. It almost disappeared when the railroad bypassed Clarksburg for the town of Boyds. It came back somewhat with the advent of car travel, but fell back when I-270 was built. In that time, Clarksburg saw George Washington pass through, Andrew Jackson stop at Dowden's Ordinary (another name for a tavern) before his inauguration, Sons of Liberty meet to "discuss" taxes by Great Britain, and the growth of arts and literature. I'm reviving the Clarksburg Literary Society that formed back in 1879. But, back to your question, I do hear what sounds like footsteps on the porch, but there's nothing there when I look. A few strange noises come from upstairs I care not to investigate.

Seriously, though, tell us about some of the antique items you found in the store.

The general store closed a few decades ago, and the building went into disrepair. An antiques dealer used it to store antiques, so when the building was bought by the current owner, a lot of it was chairs, tables, and other furniture. They did find the original counters and curved glass displays from the general store. I picked up a glass voting box (the lid was smashed and poorly repaired), along with the wheel and other items I mentioned before. The counters and glass displays are part of the new store. One unusual item we found was a rack on wheels that has rows of pegs (about 8" long) that didn't have any purpose we could think of. Finally, an antique dealer told us it was a shoe rack for a shoe maker. As the stopping point, Clarksburg's industry became leather, blacksmithing, inns and hotels, that serviced travelers, their horses, and carriages. A tannery flourished for leather goods, including 2 shoemakers near the outside of town. Old maps I have show the locations. 

Your grand opening is July 2. What things are in store for lucky readers in your area?

We're already scheduling author signings. Since this is a young community, we're reaching out to daycare centers and families to promote playdates and storytelling. I've had some inquiries about parties, but I need to consider consequences of that. There are more community themed events scheduled, and I will be supporting those events with bands, activities and book related contests. I'm gearing up for ebooks by having education sessions on downloading ebooks and choosing e-readers. I already have a QR-code sign on my sign post by the street. It will have announcements and special ebook downloads available. I've been asked to create seminars for aspiring authors.

How do you see your store growing, and how can authors help?

I've already mentioned a few ideas, but I'm looking for the store to be the town meeting place. Each community here has a center, but this will be the place to catch up on all happenings in Clarksburg, and be a place to discuss books and gather socially. Authors can help by reading and signing books, but also be part of the activities we plan during the year. I believe people will support local independent bookstores more when they see the authors giving back to the store and the community. It's about the partnerships and energy generated through support.

Want to tell us what you're reading and promoting now that you love?

I'm reading so many good books, trying to stay on top of Friday Reads. I pledged to Bethanne I would read one book each week because of Friday Reads. It's a challenge, but I discovered it's possible. I usually took two weeks to read a book, claiming I was too busy. My favorite book to promote right now is The Taker, by Alma Katsu. It's a wonderful, but dark story. I don't want to take away from the excellent books of the authors signing at the store next week, but I'm promoting The Taker because I've met Alma twice and keep in touch with her. She stopped by the store last week, and that stays with me, which encourages me to handsell her book. I will give as much to The Bird Sisters and Silver Sparrow, not because they're signing next week, but because they are great books.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Sidelines. I've picked up quite a few sidelines, such as greeting cards, toys, bookmarks, special bookends, etc. It can be a dangerous path. You want to offer book related items to enhance your bookstore, but there are so many items to choose from, you can get things that don't fit a bookstore, but could sell. I'm thinking about back-to-school supplies, but that can rapidly grow into department store size merchandising. Fortunately, budgets help decide what you offer.

Sloane Crosley talks about writing, fame and How Did You Get This Number

Sloane Crosley is one of the most hilarious people around. HBO has recently optioned her book, I was Told There'd Be Cake for a series, and her new collection, How Did You Get This Number is an even funnier book. (Well, I think so.) I'm thrilled to have Sloane here.  Thank you, Sloane!

You aren't working in publishing anymore. Are you losing your mind just working at home--or perhaps, finding it?

Mother, is that you? No, kidding. I’m not losing my mind. It is a very sharp change, sharper than I expected despite everyone’s warnings that it would be a big adjustment. I’ve been doing it for three months now and I’m just starting to shake the feeling that I’m home sick or got laid off. So I’ve definitely been productive but am slowly starting to realize that it’s a pretty awesome thing, making one’s own schedule.

I also want to know what it's like to be on the other side of the publishing fence. Are you doing all the things you always wish authors didn't do when you were a publicist?

I think it’s more about discovering reading again, as fantastically cheesy as that sounds. I can read anything I want. Because I worked for Knopf and Doubleday, I was hardly confined by what I was reading. It’s like oh, poor me, someone locked me in a room for a decade and told me I had only chocolate and cheese and wine to consume….not so rough. But when you’re working on so many books, each of which you aim to speak intelligently about…I read about one Little, Brown or FSG book a year. If that. Same thing with attending events. When I saw Karen Russell and Wells Tower read at The New York Public Library Young Lions event in March, it was the first time I had gone to a literary event since I quit my job and it was mind-blowingly enjoyable in a way I didn’t even know I was missing by working in book publishing.

So much of your work seems to me to be a love letter to New York City. Could you imagine living anywhere else and why or why not?

Thank you. It’s hard to write love letters to a lady who has had, say, several centuries worth of suitors. What can you get her that she doesn’t already have, you know? But yes, I could definitely imagine living other places. Certainly abroad but book tour is also a nice American sampling experience. I’m a huge fan of Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Austin but I think I would miss the clip of New York. Even in LA, I’d miss it.

What's obsessing you now?

I’m doing a lot of larger magazine pieces. So I’m obsessing about those and also a novel.

You've been called the anti-adult. Can you comment on that?

Have I really? No fair. I challenge whomever said that to a kickball duel on the playground at recess.

What question should I be mortified that I didn't ask?

I suppose you could have asked me to spill all sorts of ridiculous stories about authors, inside trade secrets about e-readers and the future of the printed word but alas – it’s all in the vault.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Yay, I published in Salon; Boo, the commenters hate me

I used to write for Salon all the time, and when recently, a Chinese edition of my novel, Girls in Trouble, appeared with the wrong author photo, I wrote about it for Salon. To me, it was an essay about how so much is out of our hands as authors and also about the meaning of ownership, how an author photo is a physical symbol of "this is who I am and I wrote this book."

You might have thought I was writing about starting WWIII.

I instantly had about 70 responses, and most of them were anonymous. I had posted up two photos, my real author photo and the photo of Summer Pierre, the woman whose picture festooned my book.  "You look like a vampire who needs a tan," someone wrote. "You want to look mysterious, but instead, you just look like a big bitch." I was accused of being jealous because the other woman was prettier, warmer, less pale. Then commenters began attacking me for what they thought was navel-gazing, for being a hack writer, for having a website they didn't like where "each link opened to a new window!" The attacks grew bigger and bigger, the language nastier and nastier, right along with my headaches and nausea.

People did come to my rescue. "I was going to email you to warn you about the commenters we get," someone who worked at Salon told me. My editor there emailed to tell me, "they're all mostly wanna be writers and they get jealous. Don't take it personally." A few friends, who had published pieces in Salon, also wrote me, telling me the same vitriol had splashed over them, too. "Don't read any more," people begged.

I believe in karma.  I didn't react. I stayed cool, but it was a really rough day for me. And then, half an hour ago, I heard the story had found its way to China. An award-winning radio show in Ireland emailed me, wanting to interview me.

Not bad for a "vampire who needs a tan."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Vanessa Veselka talks about Zazen

Every once in a while, the writer Jonathan Evison tells me about a book that he insists I have to read.  Since I loved West of Here, and I adore him, and he's never been wrong before about a book, I always listen. This time he told me about Vanessa Veselka. Yup, he was right. Zazen is a haunting, brilliant, disturbing and very funny look at the world on the edge of collapse. I'm honored to have Vanessa here. 

So, you’ve been a runaway, a sex worker and a musician. How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I always kept journals so I always had the idea that things should be recorded. My first “book” was something I wrote when I was six. My dad and my stepmother packed everything they had into (and on top of) a VW Bug and drove my brother, a large shepherd mix dog, and me from New Jersey to Alaska camping in tents the whole way.  I wrote about what I saw. Afterward they added pictures and turned it into a book. I still have a copy. What strikes me about it now is how deep my tendency toward darkness runs.  I managed to get a little of the desperation of the moment on the page. They were going somewhere with nothing. And my aesthetic around language is similar to my work today. In the ‘book’ I quoted the line, “All set about with fever trees,” twice. I looked it up. It comes from Kipling. I clearly heard it or read it somewhere and something about it hooked me and I couldn’t let it go. I think I am much the same way today.

Through grade school I wrote. It was a survival skill. If I didn’t do the reading I could be witty on paper. But I didn’t write stories. It was "It was all snappy non-fiction, precocious and predictable.". But I got praise for it. I sold pieces to big magazines in my 20s and then somewhere around 28 I stopped. I couldn’t stomach the voice I wrote in. It was all ‘I know and you know but they don’t know.’ False intimacies of popular narrative designed to make everyone feel clever and mean nothing. I couldn’t write after that and didn’t until I was 36. When I started writing again, it was fiction. That’s the great thing about the artistic mind. It’s just like a child. It grows in its sleep.
Zazen is so richly atmospheric, and so unsettling that at times, the effect is dizzying. Yet, you manage to meld very concrete details (tofu scrambler, for one) with the weirdness of more and more people gradually leaving the country and bombs gradually coming closer and closer. Do you feel this is where things are headed at all?

I don’t know where the world is going to go. I try to fight off the darkest view, not because I’m worried about being too “negative” necessarily, but because that view may be incorrect. Zazen certainly inherited some of my darker views though, but I think the real fear for Della is uncertainty. She doesn’t want to be a part of the world before she knows if it’s going somewhere good. She doesn’t want to watch. My personal guess is that the world is going to go to hell in a million places all at once and rebound in a million others at the same time. But I can’t predict the overall arc.  There’s a big difference between not knowing because you want to remain ignorant so you can feel better, and not knowing because it’s all more frighteningly creative, brilliant and deadly and glorious than you can track, and you really don’t know.

What was it like to write Zazen? Who were your influences, or were there any?

It was like taking cheap, strychnine blotter every morning instead of vitamins for breakfast. It was electric and awful and riveting and felt better than anything I ever knew. My whole brain was engaged. I used everything. I felt like a single computer that could smoothly run an entire city, which is also to say it was a megalomaniacal state of extremes. And antisocial. It made me really boring company for over four years. That part is just wearing off. I think.

Influences? So many things affect my thoughts: Emma Goldman, Tolstoy, Neil Gaiman, Neil Young, Brian Eno, Led Zeppelin, Mother Jones, Melville, Devo, Dostoyevsky, Devo, Television (the band and the box), the Pali Canon, Conrad, Eliot (T.S., George, and Smith), Mercator maps, the Permo-Triassic extinction—I’m al over the place. The fire-bombing of Dresden. Sebald. Brad Neely.

What’s your working/writing life like? Are you an outliner or a fly by the seat of your pen kind of writer?

What’s my working/writing life like? Unsustainable and I do it anyway. Probably this is like most writers. I’m not going to get rich writing the kinds of books I like to write. I am too surly to be a copywriter, too dyslexic to be a copyeditor, too spiritually restless to work in communications—none of my talents cross over. I’m nearly unemployable. So it’s always a struggle to support myself and write. But you do it anyway. Just like everyone else. Somehow.

I am a morning writer so I don’t take jobs that cover that time.  And I do ‘fly by the seat’ so I need large expanses of time to work my way into a world before I can effectively write in smaller, more convenient stretches. I probably missed my historical niche. I would have been great under a patronage system. Here’s the deal, Veselka. Write me into all your novels as a benevolent force and I’ll pay your rent and food. I’d sign right up. But then again, in the words of the great 18 century Haiku master Kobayashi Issa:
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art. 

So what’s a girl to do? I’m hoping some bookstore will hire me or someone will teach me a trade.
What’s your experience been like with Red Lemonade? I love the tagline “because the future of publishing starts with the writers.”

I love Red Lemonade and I love Richard Nash. Going with any publisher is a gamble, but gambling on the smartest person you know is a good place to start. That way even if it doesn’t work out, the conversation was better and you haven’t spent three years with a jerk. Earnestly, though, I wouldn’t be a part of Red Lemonade and Cursor if I didn’t believe in its vision. There’s more respect for writers in a way that makes sense. To borrow some playdate language, it’s more consensual. My novel isn’t “bad” because an agent or editor doesn’t like it. It’s just not for them. So there are two levels that kind of talk occurs on:
1) A politically correct pass-off designed to sweep uncomfortable moments under a rug, 
2) An actual, real, commentary on the situation, as in they are not your readers.
And all you can ever ask for is that a novel finds its readers, its people. I feel like Red Lemonade allows for that in a more democratic way than a traditional publisher. And I think, in general, writers know more about who their readers would be than any editor. A business model that writers’ aesthetic instincts as well as what they know about their audience is doomed. Hear that? DOOMED. Or at least very silly.

What’s obsessing you now?

Finding a job so I can create enough stability to write the next novel. And the next novel.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have asked?

The poet Crystal Williams raised the question recently (on facebook) of why white writers avoided writing about race. She thought they should. No interviewer has asked me about race yet, despite it being all over the novel. I think this is part of the “polite” white silence on the issue. The social discomfort many feel about not knowing how to enter the discussion. In Zazen, I let a lot of really problematic ideas about race run through. To my mind, I was exposing a particular kind of racism that many of us slip into and trying to satirize it. But recently I had a conversation with a very intelligent woman who felt that satirizing it was still giving it a pass. She wanted, I think, more of an overarching statement or maybe an aside about race. So for the record, I think if we dig deeply, every single person on this planet is racist at some level. We are prejudiced in a million ways, seen and unseen and we still have to figure out how to live together, get over it and be human. I don’t believe in art as social curricula. I don’t believe we, as Americans, close these gaps by covering them with paper or filling them with plaster.  I was as shocked as anyone that I decided to write about race in Zazen. But in retrospect, maybe you can’t really write an American novel without it. I’m sure I’m going too far with that. Oh well. It’s my nature.

Ted Krever talks about the Long Road to a Story

I'm giving over my blog to Ted Krever today, who is in the brave new world of ebook publishing. Thanks so much for being here, Ted!

Long Road to a Story

I have many female friends but one in particular became very close in the last ten years—we care deeply about each other, laugh at the same things, admire each other’s gifts, know we can count on each other in good times and bad. We both got divorced around the same time. I found myself wondering: Why aren't we in love with each other? That would be so damn convenient!

When she invited me to Ireland, where she raises and trains horses, I took my laptop and made notes in character. Seeing the whole thing as fiction from the start freed me up—I followed different threads and details, got nervier and a bit more irresponsible. I actually had a bit more fun than I would have if I’d been me at the time.
The nourishment in travel comes from the surprises. I’d never have known, without going, that you could stay in Ireland two or three days without meeting a single Irish person (back in 2004, the height of the Celtic Tiger). I would never have imagined the labyrinthine structure of Irish pubs—or the reason behind that structure. And it would never have occurred to me that this ancient culture was a far younger country than we are—grandparents today either remember the Irish Revolution or heard about it from their parents.

So I had a start. It took two other women to get me to the home stretch.
The first I met for one date. She was obsessed with the torment of being beautiful—her every anecdote turned on this issue. My first reaction was ‘we’d all love to have such problems’, until I realized it really was a prison. Attractive women have a power they did nothing to create, can’t control and know will wither far too soon. It’s a corruption that’s almost irresistible.

I met the other woman in NY the night before my second Irish trip, the following year. After eight exchanges of email the next day and twelve or so the next, I knew I’d met my soulmate, the person I’d waited for all my life. As soon as I said I was moving up my flight home to be with her, she decided she couldn’t remember my face and wondered if we could possibly get along in the same room. And made sure, once I returned, that we couldn’t.

It’s harder to have your heart broken in middle-age. You don’t expect the sting, you don’t have forever to recover. But it left me with an ache I had to understand, to explain.  So I wrote. It’s the only way I come to understand anything.

They tell you as a writer that your job is to raise good questions. I surprised myself, after 16 drafts and almost nine years, by actually finding some answers.

On Smashwords (for e-readers other than Kindle): http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/56896

Monday, May 23, 2011

Elizabeth Searle talks about life, art and Girl Held in Home

Elizabeth Searle is as warm and funny as she's talented.  The author of four novels, including Celebrities in Disgrace, which was produced as a short film in 2010, as well as her forthcoming new novel, Girl Held in Home. Her novel, A Four-Sided Bed is being developed as a feature film. her theater works have drawn national media attention and her show, Tonya & Nancy, The Rock Opera, has had productions on both coasts. She teaches at Stonecoast in the MFA program. What really intrigued me is that she's been able to move from the world to fiction to the world of short film, so I asked her if she'd write about it.  

 Thanks to Caroline, a real star, for giving me this chance to talk about my ongoing adventure in the world of short film: an actual do-able 'way in' to movies for starstruck fiction writers.

Little did I know when my novella Celebrities in Disgrace was first 'optioned' back in 2005 that on a hot summer day in 2010, I would be gobbling M&Ms outside our 'closed set' while listening breathlessly to the heavy breaths of our film's talented stars Julian Brand and Patrice Bunch, as they brought a sex scene I'd written to passionate life.  It was fascinating and a bit freaky to watch the scenes I'd imagined in my head so vividly performed.

The resulting film is CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, a fifteen minute glimpse of one aspiring actress's quest for her fifteen minutes of fame and of the troubled young man who gives it to her.  It's produced by Bravo Sierra Pictures, an upstart film company whose motto is 'Micro Budget, Macro Attitude."  The film premiered at the longrunning Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod in August of 2010.  Our 'short' was lucky to receive coverage on WBUR Boston and in the Boston Herald.  The film was most recently accepted as an official selection of the Hoboken International Film Festival (with screenings in between in Las Vegas, Maine, Boston and Hollywood FirstGlance shorts competition, so far.

How did my little book, published by Graywolf Press, become a little film?  While it took years to get the film made, I found that entering the world of film festivals is easier than my shy fellow scribes might think-- and can offer a chance to make fledgling film world connections.  Festivals are open to the public, tickets are cheap and even the big-deal parties are crashable.  (One tip on that is to hang out with members of the press, who might just let you tag along on their Press Passes!)  At Nantucket Film Festival, I met producer Paul Boghosian of Harborside Films, who is now producing a theater work of mine.  Through working on scripts for Harborside, I learned the basics of script writing.  My Celebrities in Disgrace novella was first optioned by Seattle-based short-film maker Paul Ramsay, who I worked with in writing an initial version of the script.  Unfortunately, the economy collapsed and his option lapsed.

Cut to 2009.  As a teacher in the Stonecoast MFA program I was impressed by a scriptwriting seminar led by a student I had never worked with, Matthew Quinn Martin. Matthew already had a feature film to his credit: SLINGSHOT starring Julianna Margulies and David Arquette, released by the Weinstein Co.  I told Matthew about Celebrities in Disgrace and he gamely took a look at the script.

Matthew helped me shape that initial script into a 15 minute version that focussed on the central sex scene from the novella which I'd often performed at readings, so I knew it had dramatic potential.  In it, my aspiring actress character (who longs to play the role of Nancy Kerrigan, ice princess) 'acts out' the infamous Nancy knee-attack-- all while being filmed by a young 'fan' who has talked his way into her home.  Mayhem and 'disgrace' ensue.

Once we had our script in hand, Matthew and his Bravo Sierra partner Mark McNutt raised funds and called in some favors to make a high quality film on a low budget, all at Mark's lovely home in Pennsylvania.  I got to play the role of the 'bad mother' in blood-red lipstick, looking scary and coming across, Matthew told me, 'very David Lynch.'  On the 'set,' I helped as best I could, mainly assisting in making lemonade for our sweaty hard-working stars and crew.  Unlike many directors, Matthew-- as a writer himself-- welcomed me into the process.  I felt I'd been magically thrown back to the days when my sister and I shot our own 'movies' on our family's ratchety Brownie camera.

I was teary-eyed weeks later at my first online viewing of the intense 2 minute Preview Matthew put together, which made me think in audience reflex: Hey I want to see that film.  The filmmakers set me up on a Celebrities in Disgrace 'blog'. At our film festival premiere at Woods Hole, our film appeared with an especially well-matched set of shorts, including Alysia Reiner's accalimed Speed Grieving.  

Now I am working with Matthew and Bravo Sierra to develop my novel A Four Sided Bed as feature film, and we're proud to have our short film getting our collective foot in the door and making its way around the festival circuit.  I've noticed benefits to my fiction too.  As I wrote my forthcoming novel, Girl Held In Home, my first book to be billed as a sort of 'literary thriller', I was mindful of what I'd learned about pacing and dialogue while writing scripts.  

So fellow fiction writers, check out film festivals and indie film events near you.  Withoutabox on Facebook makes submitting scripts or films easy.  With luck and a bit of movie-mad moxxy, you will get to watch your own secret writerly vision come to life as a small film on the 'big screen.'

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Emma Straub talks about Other People We Married

Emma Straub is frankly amazing. Her first novel Flyover State was named one of the best books of the year by the Courier Journal and just try to find someone who isn't raving about Other People We Married, her extraordinary collection of stories about love, loss, and the ties that bind and sometime strangle. She's also a bookseller at BookCourt and she runs a graphic company M. & E. with her husband. I'm thrilled she's here--thank you, Emma!

So, when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Were you encouraged?

I have always been horribly unsuited for most real jobs. After college, I worked as publicity assistant for six months, and that was the last time I had an office job. It's the pirate's life for me! My parents always encouraged me to do what made me happy, and because my father is a writer, they both understood this wacky endeavor. I think what's nice about having parents who really understand the publishing industry is that they're extremely well-informed about the entire process. They certainly understand it better than I do. That also means that they know the drawbacks and pitfalls and potential disasters better than most parents, which I suppose could have made them like those Hollywood parents I always read about, the ones who swear they won't let their children follow in their footsteps, but they remain my biggest supporters. 

What's your writing life like?
Oh, much like yours, I'm sure. I sit down, grunt at the computer screen, get up to find snacks, sit back down, grunt some more. 

Some of the images in Other People We Married stopped me in my tracks, so much so that I had to  underline them.  The hair that was crashing like waves on a rocky shore, the pool that's like a giant eggplant. The stories are so funny and weird and filled with a uniquely quirky vision, and your characters very slowly unpeel like onions to reveal their deeper selves. So where do you think that vision came from? Why do you see the world the way you do?

You are so nice, Caroline. Thank you. I don't know why I see the world the way I do-- I'm sure it has to do with having parents who always told me stories, and found joy in making things up, and being a younger sister, and going to all the wonderful schools I went to, and having smart, funny friends, and finding the right husband, and all that. My voice on the page-- at least in these stories-- is very much me. I think if I wrote a book of essays, the voice would be much the same. 

What's the new novel that's coming out about? Is it a departure from Other People We Married?

Indeed it is! The novel I'm working on-- Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, which Riverhead is publishing in 2012--is a novel about a movie star in the Hollywood studio system. It starts in the 1930s and follows an actress for several decades of her life. It could not be more different than my stories. I think I needed a break from things that were so close to myself-- even the stories that are the farthest from my personal life could have happened to me, in some way, shape or form. I wanted some distance, and boy, did I get it. Hollywood! Historical fiction! Who knew? It's been a lot of fun to work on the book. 

How has working at a bookstore impacted your writing life?

I read more than I did before, and I'm more aware of the marketplace. Honestly, I think every writer should work in a bookstore, at least for a little while. Even though I grew up knowing writers and editors and publishers, I never understood the role of the bookstore in the scope of the publishing world. I will be grateful to BookCourt for the rest of my life for letting me be a spy. (I mean, I do actually work, and sell books, and open boxes, and all that good stuff.)

What's obsessing you now?

The idea of free time. I've been working non-stop for the past couple of years, on writing and at the store, and at a host of other jobs, and though I am extremely, monumentally grateful for all the work I have at the moment, I am very much obsessed with the idea of a proper vacation. I don't know when such a thing will happen. I'm not very good at taking breaks. Unless of course I need a snack, in which case, I don't mind if I do.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You might have asked about the wonderful teachers I've had (Dan Chaon, Lorrie Moore, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Judy Mitchell), or if I've always liked to bake (yes), or which yoga poses I find physically impossible (crow, handstand), or how many hours I day I spend on Twitter (a thousand). Other than that, I think you covered it all! Cheers!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Jennifer Haigh talks about FAITH

Jennifer Haigh has long been one of my favorite writers--and I have the dog-eared, oft-reread copies of Mrs. Kimble, Baker Towers and The Condition to prove it.  Mrs Kimble won the 2004 Pen/Hemingway Award for debut fiction; Baker towers was a New York Times bestseller and won the 2006 Pen/L.L. Winship Award for an outstanding book by a New England author. Faith is an astonishing novel about family, loyalty, and what we choose to believe and why--and there is also a fascinating book trailer that goes along with it. Thank you so much, Jennifer, for being here.

Let’s talk about the narrator in Faith. She’s not sure what to believe about her brother, or her church. Why did you decide to have her be the one to tell the story?

I found Sheila’s voice by accident. I’d never written a novel in the first person. I’d always considered it too limiting:  in my experience, it’s rare for any one character to know all the interesting parts of a story. But when I began reading about priests suspected of abusing children, I was struck by how difficult it is to get to the bottom of the story. There are never any witnesses. The only people who know the truth of the story are the priest and the child, and often neither will talk about it.  The rest of us can only speculate about what went on behind closed doors. That’s exactly what Sheila does in Faith. She’s neither a devout Catholic nor an atheist. Instead she is a seeker, a person who’s still figuring out what to believe.

On the surface, Faith is about sexual abuse and the priesthood, but it’s really about so many more deeper issues about the faith we have in our clergy, in each other and in ourselves. It’s also, to my mind, about connection and love. What’s the backstory behind the writing of this novel?

Like a lot of writers, I write to make sense of the world, which sometimes means writing about things that disturb me. I moved to Boston from Iowa in 2002, just as the city was reeling from revelations that Catholic priests had molested children, and that the Archdiocese had covered up the abuse. Like everybody else, I was horrified. I was raised in a Catholic family, spent twelve years in parochial schools and had extremely fond memories of my interactions with Catholic clergy. It’s no exaggeration to say that nuns and priests were the heroes of my childhood.  As I read about what had happened in Boston, I found it impossible to square it with those tender memories of my Catholic childhood.  Faith was my attempt to explain the inexplicable, to understand what I couldn’t make sense of in any other way.

Without giving anything away, what I loved was how often expectations were reversed. I thought I knew where the story was going, and it almost always veered in another direction. How carefully do you map out where you want to go? When you started writing this novel, did you know whether you wanted Art to be guilty or innocent?

I wanted Art to be innocent, but suspected he might be guilty. Like Sheila, I figured it out gradually.  All of the surprising events in the story were surprises to me too.  I never write with a fixed idea of how the story will end.  The suspense is what keeps me going. Basically, I write novels for the same reason I read them:  to find out what happens next.  

What was the writing of Faith like? Your last novel, The Condition, was this wonderful expansive novel, but Faith seems leaner and tighter on some levels. Was this a deliberate choice?

Not deliberate – it came about organically, probably as a result of writing in the first person. The Condition is told from multiple points of view; and the same event is often seen through different characters’ eyes. The story lies in the contrast:  how differently Paulette and her ex-husband remember their marriage, for example. In Faith everything is filtered through Sheila. There’s none of that interplay between perspectives, and the result is a tighter structure. We are limited by what she knows and what she understands.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

I’m nearly finished with a collection of short stories I’ve been working on for seven years. They’re all set in Bakerton, the western Pennsylvania coal town where my second novel, Baker Towers, takes place.  A few of the characters from Baker Towers actually reappear:  Miss Peale, the schoolmistress; Joyce Novak and her mysterious younger brother Sandy, who runs off to California and is rarely seen again. Readers have been asking me for years what became of Sandy Novak. The story collection will finally answer that question.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thelma Adams talks about writing and Playdate

Thelma Adams has been the film critic at US Weekly since 2000, following six years at the New York Post. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, the New York Times, and more. Her debut novel, Playdate, is an Oprah pick, and I'm honored to have her hear on my blog. Thanks, Thelma!

As a former tortoise owner myself, I was in love with the box turtle in the book. Why a turtle in the book?

When we first lived together in Chelsea, my husband always had turtles. He is a turtle-lover, and we have a very turtle-and-the-hare relationship. (I’m the rabbit, always leaping.) What this means is that I spent a lot of time with turtles – red-eared sliders, box, but nothing bigger than a breadbox. We had an Asian Box Turtle that we named Buckethead. And, amazingly, if we played Stevie Winwood’s “Higher Love” the turtle would actually dance, moving his bucket head back and forth to the music. Because of that, we played “Higher Love” a lot. Now, we live in the country, and there’s an ancient one-eyed snapping turtle that lives in our stream. We’ve named her Cyclops. She doesn’t dance that we know of, but she does lay eggs. We’re very protective of her without getting very close.

But why a turtle in the book? Because, as clever as they are, you can’t get affection from a turtle the way you can from a cat or a dog; they don’t hop onto the bed and curl up beside you. Belle, the daughter in the book, wants that connection from a pet, the uncritical affection. And it just wasn’t going to come from “Boxy,” or even from the mother that allowed her to get a turtle, but said “no” to a puppy.

The wildly comic ride of your novel’s been compared to Little Children, but where would you say your inspiration lies? 

My inspiration lies in P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (think Scoop), in creating a surface lightness in dialog that belies the darkness, or the complications, beneath. Or acknowledges the darkness playfully, with a sting, like the Jewish humor I grew up with – The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks (think his wonderful song and dance “The Inquisition”). The fiction writer Paula Bomer compared Playdate to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and I liked that, and felt honored by the comparison, because Roth’s early writing was sexy, funny, and painfully honest. He broke new ground.

I loved the whole backdrop of the wildfire, which gave your novel this incredible cinematic quality, which brings me to your job as film critic for Us Weekly. Does being a novelist inform being a film critic and vice versa?

It runs both ways. As a critic, I think I always look at story first. Does the script deliver? Does the dialog pop? Are we moved to laughter or tears? Does it have narrative drive? And, as a creative writer myself, I also recognize that the movie is an artistic collaboration, and even the worst movie was somebody’s baby at one point.

On the other hand, the first kernel of this project started as a script idea: a cross between “Shampoo” and “Mr. Mom.” But then I realized that I knew nothing about writing scripts, and it was an entirely different skill set. So I fell back to what I knew and wrote a book. In “Shampoo,” the movie is set against the backdrop of an election. I wanted this book to be set against the backdrop of a larger event. Enter the fires. But it wasn’t until a much later revise, after the Witch Creek Fires, that the Santa Ana winds became a much larger determining force in the book.

In the final draft of my novel, my editor Katie Gilligan at St. Martins/Thomas Dunne Books pointed out all my cinematic transitions that began chapters – meanwhile, over at the playground – and suggested (only suggested) I try another way in. I hadn’t realized that I was doing that, that I was wasting an opportunity to go deeper at the beginning of chapters, and I appreciated her fresh eyes. And dug deeper.

From the “playground fabulousness” to the kiddie diner with gourmet food, you skewer the pretentions of upper class suburbia with gleeful aplomb. Do you think there’s a solution for this kind of living?

Yes. Love your children and don’t turn them into status objects. In my book, I call it the Disneyland Syndrome – the misconception that if you take the kids to a theme park, and buy them every thing they want, and go on every ride, they will remember that as their childhood. Childhood is also in the rest between beats. It doesn’t take any money to have a real connection with your kid, just an open heart and a willingness to listen to them, really listen.

Tell us what your daily writing life is like?
Because I’m a film critic, and movies get scheduled on a very short lead time that the studios control, every day is different. Two or three days a week, I take Metro North to NYC to see movies. Seeing new movies remains a pleasure for me, and I think always will be. I love that moment when the lights come down in the theater, and the screen lights up. But my schedule’s unpredictability makes it hard to get a fiction-writing routine together. And I love a writing rut. I’m a morning writer, and write best in a few compact hours of very high concentration, without internet if I can control myself. What I’m trying to do now is string together three or four or five days running – including weekends – when I can get my head in the novel and keep it there. Writing for Us Weekly always comes first, and interviews for Marie Claire. That’s how I pay my way, and it’s a lovely way to do it.

The biggest break for my writing life (after publishing my first novel) just happened: after years of putting my kids on the school bus and getting them ready, my son is now at boarding school and my daughter suddenly this week began to get up and dressed and out the door by herself. That means when I wake up, I can just caffeinate and go without the distractions of lost homework, missing socks, sleepy children and scraping ice off the windshield.

What’s obsessing you now? 

My next book. I’m writing a novel about Upstate New York mothers. I have an outline, and a string of incidents, and I’m trying to get it to cohere. Really, I’m just trying to write from beginning to end to see what I have without judging it along the way.

When you’ve completed a book, there’s a tendency to see it as a finished product, and forget all the many, many drafts that got it there. So, it can be a challenge to start afresh, and write through the crap, and the indecision, so that later you can cut back and dive deeper and play with the prose. It’s a marathon – and it helps to have marathon buddies to remind you that the large overwhelming project is put together in a string of days spent with your butt in the chair and your fingers racing. And that every day you get your butt in that desk chair, every 500 words chipped away, is a small triumph.

What do you wish you knew five years ago? 

That I would get a novel published. Whew! If I had known that five years ago, I could have discarded all the time spent and wasted worrying that I was writing fiction into the void, rather than taking the kids to sports activities or getting my house in order or just plain chillaxing.

And, secondly, that even though my wish would come true, that I would publish a novel, life would go on with all its ups and downs, births and deaths. Becoming a published novelist wouldn’t change every thing like a magic pill, and it would even create some new problems. But nothing could knock the giddy happy feeling to see my hard work realized: my book in print and lined up with its gorgeous blue cover beside my desk; and strangers across the country (Ok, mostly in NY and LA) laughing at my jokes, and seeing the world through my eyes.