Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rick Kleffel talks about The Agony Column, technology, insomnia, and when author interviews don't go as planned

What do Mary Roach, Vindela Vida and Siobhan Fallon all have in common? They’re all been guests on Rick Kleffel’s  amazingly entertaining Agony Column. The interviews are so quirky and so fascinating that I decided I need to talk to Rick and he graciously obliged. Thank you, Rick! 

I love the title The Agony Column. Why that title, though? And tell us how the Agony Column came about?

It actually started with my dislike of the horror genre.  I'd always enjoyed the work of H. P. Lovecraft, but beyond that thought it was a wasteland.  Then, for reasons I don't remember, I decided to buy a mass-market paperback of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, which I enjoyed very much.  Barker used the tropes of the genre to tell a variety of stories.  As I read further into the horror genre, I found a lot to like.  I picked up a Scream/Press limited edition of Books of Blood, which I loved (and still love) and that led me down the path to a lot of outsider publishing.  This was back in the mid-1980's and I was working at a firm that was connected to the Internet, where I found Chuq Von Rospach's OtherRealms USENET magazine.  I proposed writing a review column for that publication, and chose The Agony Column as a nod to both the horror genre I was covering, my attitude in general, and of course, Sherlock Holmes' source for clues and clients.

You've interviewed everyone from Penn Gillette to Lev Grossman and what makes listening to the Agony Column so much fun is the fun that YOU clearly are having. How do you approach these interviews?

First, I find books that I want to read, that interest me. I read all sorts of books, and try to stay away from doing too much of any one thing.  I can tell pretty quickly if I'm going to like a book, or not.  here are enough books out there that I'd love to read, or re-read, so I see no reason for me to waste my valuable reading time on something I'm not going to enjoy.

Then, I read the books, and take notes.  I have a rigorous process so that the ideas, concepts, characters, the whatevers of the books I read eventually make it into my overcrowded mind, generally forcing something else out.  By the time the interview rolls around, I'm eager to talk with the author about how they brought the book into being, in a manner that does not spoil the reading experience but enhances it, I hope, whether you hear the interview before or after you read the book yourself.

Do you know what you are going to talk about or do you let the conversation just evolve and see what happens?

I know in general what I'm going to talk about, but don't write specific questions and don't map the general flow of the conversation.  I sometimes have some idea of where I'm going to start, but after that, I just let the questions fly from the shattered remains of my memory.

I used to script interview questions and carefully sequence them for a more "polished" feel, but I've given that up in favor of pretty much making everything up on the spot.

Have interviews ever not gone as planned?

All of them, and some disastrously so.  Interruptions, forget the cell phone is on, ask a questions and have the author look at me like I'm from the mailroom and reply to my question, "I don't know what to do with that."

Of course, since I don't plan them, none go as planned. They sometimes seem to go well.  But to be honest, afterwards, I'm generally hitting my forehead and feeling like an idjit. Then maybe in the edit, I listen and figure, well, that wasn't so terrible.

You also do commentary and reviews on books as well as the podcasts for NPR as well as for the Agony Column. And your references other movies and tell people about other sites--all in such a warm and funny and engaging way.

I suppose this is because I pick my subjects carefully, so I like them.  I've been lucky to have a home at NPR affiliate KUSP for nearly ten years now. They're very kind to tolerate my generally messy style and a flat-out refusal to be limited by genre.

My goal with The Agony Column website is quite simple -- and selfish.  I want publishers to keep making the sort of books I enjoy reading, so I write about them to bring them to the attention of others like myself, and I know they are out there, so that they can buy them and provide a profit margin for all involved. So I'm happy to direct others wherever they need to go to find what they want.

And, since I talk to writers about writing, I also tend to see the podcasts as a means of mentoring writers-in-the-making.  Anyone who wants to can listen, at no cost to them, to literally thousands of hours of writers talking about their craft.  The site is a sort of structureless writing class with advice from top-notch successful, money-making writers.

So you rarely sleep and you play electronic music. Does one have something to do with the other?

No, I'm a hereditary insomniac.  I require about four, five hours a night sleep.  I only wish I needed less so I could devote more time to playing music, which I find very relaxing and enjoyable.  I try to emulate the electronic chamber music of the late 1970's and early 1980's.

And what about technology interests you so much?

It's totally the new toy, techno-lust factor, but I move in unpredictable waves.  If I made any money, I *might* buy more new toys, but I have an abiding trust of trailing edge technology.  It's cheaper, the bugs have been worked out and you don't have to deal with disaster issues as much.  That said, there are lots of times that I go out and buy something hot off the shelf.  Last time, was the iPad, which has proved very useful for interview notes.

So what's obsessing you now in the world of books?

Tomes. Neal Stephenson, Haruki Murakami. Book bricks. And totally, one-hundred percent, Tartarus Press.  Everything Ray Russell touches is GOLD, I tell you, GOLD.  Subterranean Press as well. Night Shade. Pyr.  Macmillan UK. I'll stop now.  But I could go on and on.

And here's an old style Barbara Walters question for you: Which dead writer would you most like to have a conversation with and under what circumstances (Fitzgerald when he's not drunk? Hemingway before or after he got punchy?)

Three; Flannery O'Connor, on her porch with a jar of iced tea in the summer, Philip K. Dick in the Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana where I got lamb burritos, and Stanislaw Lem at Google HQ.

How do you choose the authors you converse with?

If I like the book, and they'll talk to me.  I prefer to speak in person.  It makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE to be in the room and look someone in the eyes; that said, sometimes you just get on the phone and do the best you can do.

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

Oh, I guess a a gearhead question, to wit, How do I record on the fly? And the answer is: with two Electrovoice RE50's and a very old (beyond trailing edge) Marantz digital recorder.  I edit using Peak on a MacBook Pro.  The whole shebang is shockingly primitive.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The food of love and grief

When you're grieving, people are usually trying to feed you.  But many years ago, in an attempt to outrun my terrifying grief, I got involved with a man who wouldn't let me eat. To leave him meant I'd have to grieve again--so I stayed in a relationship that was controlling and toxic. I did, of course, get out, and I wrote about this relationship, masking/changing the person's name and profession--but not the cruelty--for The London Telegraph --and many thanks to my stupendous UK publisher, Allen and Unwin, for making this happen!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Novelist Elizabeth Benedict is here to help with Don't Sweat the (College) Essay!

Elizabeth Benedict, author of Mentors, Muses and Monsters, Almost, The Practice of Deceit, and more is a writer's writer. Smart, funny, warm and generous, she makes you feel that she's always on your side. Now, Elizabeth has this brilliant new business--helping make sense of one of the most traumatic events in the world--writing the all-important college essay.  I've asked Elizabeth if she'd talk about her company here, and truly, who better to help you or your kid write a knockout essay than a knockout novelist? Thank you, thank you, Elizabeth!

 Do You Suffer From College App Essay Syndrome?

The English have a dozen ways of saying “It’s raining.” Parents of today’s high school seniors have more than a dozen words for "worry." I probably don’t need to list them for you.

The race to get into college has never been more fierce. And the college application essay, once a minor part of the process, is now central to how your child comes across to the admissions committee. 

At many schools, the essay has replaced the interview as the way to reveal a student's individuality, to differentiate one smart, talented kid from another. It's the place for your kid to sparkle, to stand out, and get the admissions folks to move the application from "Maybe" to "Yes.” It wasn't this way when we went to college, but like it or not, it's the way we live now. 

I started my business, Don't Sweat the Essay (link to:, to help families navigate this brave new world. I have decades of experience teaching writing (fiction and nonfiction) at top colleges and universities, and getting young people to find their material, locate their voices, and produce their best work. I've got a page of credentials that are all over the Internet (writing and editing novels, memoirs, biographies, articles, even a poem or three). Please go to the company website or google me (I’m not the actress or the interior decorator of the same name.) 

For right now, let's talk about The Essay.

The truth is that The Essay is often more than one essay. If your son or daughter is applying to any top tier schools, s/he might have to write separate essays for each school.  

The essential document is the Common Application Essay (CAE), which goes to each school your child applies to. In Supplemental Applications, many schools ask for an additional essay. Many also ask a number of questions that require short answers.

If your son or daughter is applying to five or ten schools, he or she might be writing a lot of essays under a ton of pressure. 

If your child is applying to a school Early Decision or Early Action, there may be only one application. However, if s/he is turned down - you'll know in mid-December – s/he must move into high gear to send out applications by January 1. Many students prepare those essays and applications long before mid-December.

If you would like help sorting through this, and you’d like someone neutral to guide your son or daughter through the process, I hope you’ll contact me.

I live in New York City and Boston, and work with people all over the country by phone, Skype, iChat, and email. I’m happy to give discounts to low-income families with verification.  

Huge thanks to Caroline for posting this ~ and for having such a wonderful, welcoming blog.

Elizabeth Benedict
Don't Sweat the Essay
917 294-6296 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fever dreams

Usually, I give my blog over to other writers, but the past few days I've been really sick. You know the kind of sick, where you drag yourself from the bed to the computer and where even reading a line makes your eyes hurt? I've cancelled everything to tend myself and I've discovered a few things about being sick.

1. You have to watch the right kind of films. As a movieholic, I've been known to watch anything--so much so that some of my friend refuse to go with me anymore. But when you're sick, you want what I call "flu movies"--they have to totally entertain you, and yes they can be stupid, but no they can't be well-meaning where everyone learns a lesson and everything is tied up in a neat bow. They also can't be period pieces. Quirky indie films are the best. Or great old Douglas Sirk films. We have the original The Postman Always Rings Twice. And yes, I'm sort of panicked that we just saw Contagion a few days ago.

2. If you are at the computer, forget work. I tried. I really tried. I'm waiting on revision on my 10th novel from beloved Algonquin, and I started a new book but as soon as I start to write while being sick, I get brain fog. So, yes, I admit it, I have spent the better part of  half hour reading fascinating new details about Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, which segued into whether or not Demi Moore's marriage is really intact which then went on to Tom Cruise gossip and Scientology. And yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I'm also sick, so I can be forgiven, because when I'm sick, even Dancing With the Stars looks really, really good to me.

3. Food. Everything tastes like metal or gum.

I'm going to go to sleep and I promise by next week, the blog will return to its shiny self.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lois Alter Mark talks about, empowering girls and women, and the dangers of Rick Perry and sexist t-shirts

Lois Alter Mark (she's the one in the middle, flanked by Amy Krause and Susan Jensen) is the co-founder of this terrific new website I want to promote, It's an online gathering of women who want to look, feel, and do good, and in an age when women's rights are slowly being eroded, I think it's an really important place. I really wanted to interview Lois, and I'm thrilled she agreed. Thanks, thanks, Lois!

You and the two other women involved in the website are mothers of teenaged daughters, which jumpstarted the website. Can you talk about that? Are your girls involved with the site at all?

Amy Krause, Susan Jensen and I have been best friends practically from the minute my family moved from New York to San Diego when the girls were all in first grade – they’re now college sophomores! (I also have a son who’s graduating college this year and Amy has another daughter who’s in high school.)

We started after Amy came home from a podcast conference and said, “We have to start a website.” We both said, “okay,” and that was it! We all have full-time jobs – I’m the Flicks for Kids editor at, Amy is a producer and Susan works in Benefits at the Solana Beach School District – but we were disgusted with what was going on in the world and we felt that we had to try to make a difference. We had to show our kids that you have to take action or stop complaining – and we were doing a lot of complaining! – so we decided to go for it.

We knew we wanted to talk about issues that were meaningful to us without being preachy, and we wanted to still be fun and to start a really great community. As we always say, we believe female energy has the power to change the world and we wanted to attract women like us – those “seeking world peace, food for thought and a really great pair of shoes.”

Our daughters have all written for us and they do talk to us about subjects we address on the site, but it wasn’t until Oprah chose us as Ultimate Viewers and took us to Australia with her that they realized we really were making our voices heard. That trip was so surreal, so life-changing. We will always be grateful for the life lessons we learned from Oprah, and will never stop dreaming big and paying it forward.

I was as appalled as you were about the horrific t-shirts for girls which said something like if you were pretty, you didn't need to study. How odious is that? And why do you think there is this throwback attitude towards girls now?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a throwback attitude – I think it’s just a continuation. J.C. Penney pulled the “pretty” t-shirt but they’re still selling the one that says, “My best subjects: boys, shopping, music, dancing,” and Forever 21 just introduced a shirt that they’re marketing to girls that says, “Allergic to algebra.” Really? Did they think there was a void now that the J.C. Penney shirt is gone?

I wrote a post about “Why Sexist T-Shirts Aren’t Cute,” and we shared a powerful and sobering video by the inspiring Elin Stebbins Waldal (who wrote Tornado Warning: A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and Its Effect on a Woman’s Life) about how the media portrays females. Some of the images are truly horrifying. There are a couple of ads that feature women with black eyes like that’s a look to aspire to. It’s really shocking that this is acceptable in the 21st century, and it’s apparently up to us, as women and mothers, to change it. We have strong voices and, probably more importantly, we have purchasing power. It’s why we created a Shop With a Conscience section on the website. It’s vital to support companies that do the right thing. So many readers wrote in to tell us they cut up their old J.C. Penney credit cards after reading our post – and sent them back to J.C. Penney. That is truly the only language corporate America understands.

I love the idea of calling out to a group of women to get things done, and indeed your website has such a terrific feel about it. It's smart, it's important, and it really has substance. What's next for you?

Thanks so much! We’ve just partnered with Girl Scouts San Diego on a really exciting long-term initiative to help stop domestic and teen dating violence. It’s called “M-Power U with StyleSubstanceSoul,” and it was inspired by an amazing 11-year-old girl named Miriam Mendoza (she’s the “M” in the title) whose 19-year-old cousin was killed last year by her estranged husband. We are putting together an Advisory Board of experts who will blow your mind. This will be a group of women who can really get things done. We’re hoping to launch the project in October, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and we’ll be devoting an entire section of the website to it.

How can other people get involved?

Easily! We welcome everyone to visit the site, subscribe to our free newsletter, comment on posts, search the archives for issues that interest them. We have the most amazing, active, passionate community of women (and a few men!) who email us with suggestions, comments and questions. Writer Amy Wise, who is in an interracial marriage, recently posted a piece about why her husband won’t see “The Help.” It led to a fantastic, articulate and thought-provoking conversation among our readers – and the best thing about it was how respectful everyone was of everyone else’s opinions, even if they didn’t agree with them.

Carol Reedy Rogero, a teacher in Florida, went out and got a grant to develop a project based on our Formerly Flip Flops campaign. Donna Agins became a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project after we sponsored a reading by Masha Hamilton for her book, “31 Hours.” We could go on and on …

I have to ask, what's obsessing you now?

I am obsessing about the divisiveness of our country, the rise of the Tea Party and the fact that dangerous people like Michele Bachman and Rick Perry are actually being taken seriously as candidates for president. The hate, negativity and intolerance that they spew makes me so devastatingly sad. I don’t know how we’re ever going to come together as a country, and sometimes it just feels so hopeless.

On a much sweeter note, I have become totally obsessed with Sprinkles cupcakes. I carry their flavor schedule in my purse. I live for Fridays when they feature Chai Latte cupcakes. I think I have more pictures of Sprinkles cupcakes on my Facebook page than I do of my kids.

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

You didn’t ask when we can get together for coffee! You are one of my favorite writers, and I can’t tell you how exciting it is for me to be interviewed by you! You have an open invitation to visit us in San Diego any time. Did I mention I know a place that has great cupcakes?

Moni Mohsin talks about Duty Free, Pakistan, out-to-lunch heroines and satire

Moni Mohsin is hilarious and whip smart. Called a modern-day Jane Austen she's crafted a novel that's as funny as is it thought-provoking. I'm honored to have her here on my blog. Thank you so much, Moni!

I deeply admired the multi-layered structure of the book, especially the way you put headlines at the beginning of every chapter, which throw the heroine's plight into satiric relief. How did this all come about?

Duty Free's origins can be traced back to a column called The Diary of a Social Butterfly which I wrote in The Friday Times, a national Pakistani paper. The column's primary purpose was to gently mock the foibles of Pakistan's disassociated wealthy elites, but since it was in a diary format and appeared in a weekly newspaper, it was always linked in some way to the news of the week. So for instance if there had been heavy rains and floods, the column would be about my fictitious Social Butterfly's response to the floods. When I first conceived of a novel centred around the characters from the column, I wanted to retain the idea of situating it in real time because it enabled me to highlight the disconnect between their lives and events unfolding in the country but I didn't know quite how to do that without weighing the book down with tedious explanatory notes. It was my editors who came up with the idea of using national headlines -- one serious and one comic -- to achieve that purpose. 

Was it fun to write such a basically out-to-lunch heroine or did you have moments when you wanted to throttle her?

Actually I found it bracing to write her. My challenge was to filter some serious reflections on an unravelling society and a collapsing state through the prism of this frivolous, self absorbed narrator without stepping out of character. In the beginning I had to constantly question her every utterance; 'would she say that? would she think that?' but as I wrote on and gradually I began to inhabit her character, I found it alarmingly easy to think and feel like her.  

You've been compared to Jane Austen, both because of the plot of "finding a suitable husband" and truly because of your witty, smart sense of social satire. But it seems to me you're more tongue-in-cheek than Austen--do you agree?

While I am deeply flattered to be compared to my literary heroine, I must leave that particular assessment to my readers.

What's your writing process like? Do you outline? Do you work a set amount of hours every day and in one place?

Since it is my abiding belief that a lot of writing happens subconsciously, I tend not to make rigid outlines. I have a vague idea in my head about a character or a story when I start but once I enter into the writing process I allow myself to be led by the process itself. (I hope that doesn't sound too precious!) To give you an example, when I set out to write Duty Free I knew that my heroine could not blunder her way through to the end without understanding a thing or two about herself but I had no idea how to bring about that change in an unforced natural way. It was not until I was almost three quarters of the way through the book that I suddenly saw how it could be done. I work, on an ideal day, between 10 am and 3.30 pm, that is between dropping my kids to school, exercising, showering and collecting them from school, with a short break for lunch and a few phone calls stuffed in here and there. I wrote Duty Free in my husband's office, where he gave me a glass cubicle, because I found it difficult to discipline myself at home. I don't know where I will write the next book since he's now taken on a new colleague who sits in that cubicle...

What's obsessing you now?

As always, Pakistan.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 
How come Janoo hasn't divorced her yet?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A student first becomes a friend--then a colleague!

Part of why I love teaching at UCLA is because every once in a while, I become real friends with the students. I first had Jennifer Gooch Hummer in one of novel classes years ago, but I knew she had talent at the first sentence. We became friends and even though she lives in LA, we've managed to see each other every year, meeting for chocolate at the City Bakery, and last year, while I was on tour, I was squired around by Jennifer in Manhattan Beach! I can't live without the red bling ring she made me (it's good luck), and I find I can't live without her in my life either.

I loved her novel, originally called APRON. It moved me, unsettled me, haunted me--and it's just extravagantly good. So, I'm celebrating today, because look what happened???

September 12, 2011Fiction Debut 

Jennifer Gooch Hummer's GIRL UNMOORED, a coming-of-age story of a 13 year-old girl in 1985, outcast from her widowed father and best friend, who is saved by Jesus (not that Jesus, but the actor who plays him in "Jesus Christ Superstar"), along with his partner; both of whom are social outcasts themselves, and both of whom have AIDS, to Lou Aronica at Fiction Studio Books, by Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sandra Novack talks about Everyone But You, titles, short stories vs. novels and more

I first met Sandra Novack because of a blurb request. Her publicist wanted to know if I'd consider reading her debut novel, Precious, and by the first ten pages, I was so enthralled I couldn't do anything but keep reading. With her first novel, she established herself as a writer of prodigious talents. Now, with Everyone But You, she's turned back to the short story form, and the stories here are exquisite chips of lives. I didn't know Sandy when Precious came out, but let me tell you--she's the type of person who not only made it her business to drive an hour out of her way to come to a reading of mine in her native Chicago, she came during a blizzard. Sandy is reading in NYC this Friday at the  Center for Fiction, 17 E 47 St, from 7 to 10. I'll be there, and you should be, too. 

I'm so thrilled to have Sandy here.  Thank you, thank you.
How is writing a short story collection different, especially coming after such a raved-about debut novel? Do you like writing short stories better--or novels?

Short stories are more severe. In essence, too, these stories were mostly written before PRECIOUS, my debut. EVERYONE BUT YOU was part of a two-book deal that my agent brokered for the then-completed collection, along with an 80-page partial of my novel. The novel was published first with the collection to follow. After PRECIOUS came out, I didn’t return to short stories but dove into writing a new ‘big book’. So when it came time to revisit the stories, I had a very difficult time! I quickly realized I was a different writer than the writer I was in 2003-2005. I was a different person, too. I felt like I was ruining things, messing around too much, and lots of times I opted for the original version. It felt more honest that way. 

I’m very hard on myself with writing, either when writing stories or a novel. People tell me the stories are funny and irreverent and moving, but it’s hard to get clarity of vision anymore. Interestingly, I also feel that way about PRECIOUS, despite any praise it received. When I read it now, I cringe. I’m told there are many writers like this, who are always hypercritical of anything they’ve ever done. And my perceived ‘best’ work is always my newest work, the story I’m in right now. 

As for what I like better: I tend to think that writing short stories was prepping me for being able to juggle more threads, bigger worlds and more expansion--a preparation for novel writing. I don’t have plans to go back to short stories, at least for now. But I stand by them, because they are part of me. And they really are much more funny compared to PRECIOUS, which seemed to get everyone thinking I was this very, very serious, intense writer. I am that, but I’m other things, too.

Your characters in this collection are so wonderfully multi-layered-- from a man caring for his sick brother to a boy dealing with issues about faith--that I wanted to ask if you might talk about how you build your characters. 

I’m interested in all sorts of people—old, young, male, female, dense, clueless, impenetrable, sassy, deep, rich, poor, deviant, straight-laced, you name it. There’s always something I find interesting in anyone I speak with on any given day. And I tend to hang out with all these different sorts of people, too. For some reason a lot of people tell me their stories. I’m a magnet for it. When it comes to character building, I often steal a little. I take something about a person that interests me, and then I build fiction around that and amplify/deepen from there. I always try and write from a trait that amuses me, moves me, saddens me, shocks me, or even flat-out offends me. Generally it is an extreme of any given emotion. Why invent from scratch, when so much about people is interesting?

I love the title, Everyone But You, because it seems to expand on one of the themes of the collection, the desire and difficulty of connecting with another person. I know from experience that sometimes the titles we choose are not the ones that end up on the novel! How'd this title come about?

The original title, sold to Random House, was Love and Other Disasters. For me all the stories are really love stories: failed attempts at love, the desire to resurrect love, the oddity and insanity and whimsy of it, the healing power of love, too. But I never loved that title! So I started messing around. I liked the idea that the stories focused so much on characters on the edge. And EVERYONE BUT YOU came from a duality of vision. Readers could correctly say, “These characters are crazy,” or “These characters are fucked up,” or “These characters can’t get their act together.” But I generally find that’s a position of judgment. I always think even the sanest, most ‘together’ person I know could be five steps away from their world falling apart, given the right and crucial sequence of events. You know what I mean. They could lose a great job. Have a love affair end. Suffer a loss that breaks them. When someone like a homeless person tells me a story (and they do, on trains, buses, etc.), I wonder: What would it take for me to land there, where they are? I can’t help but think that. I know a lot of other people who think that way, too, and operate out of a mode of … compassion? Or if not that, at least tolerance. But I know quite a few who run in the opposite direction, the Snookie’s of the world. Like everyone else has a problem but them. In that case, the title spoke to a level of judgment. From me. In part, too, everyone but you has a sense of exclusion, as well, like everyone but you has their shit together, everyone but you can make it work, find love, keep family together, loved ones, hold things down. That attitude, too. Like, geesh, why am I so far behind in the game, when everyone else appears so much better off?

You know what’s funny, though? No one ever questioned me on the title before now. I never understood why, because the title seemed so introspective and personal to me, and not necessarily obvious (to my mind).

What's obsessing you now?

I’ve had a year of bad luck, starting with my dad’s sudden death this spring. I was working, prior to that, on a ‘big, big book’. But when Dad died, I just naturally needed to process, because it was a game changer. I don’t think I ever gave my father credit for holding the family together before that moment, but, with him suddenly gone, the shape of our family changed radically. I’m writing about that (non-fiction, of all things!) to make sense of it all, and it’s been going well. In part, it’s a logical progression, because my sister Carole (whom PRECIOUS was dedicated to) is now once again talking to family, after a thirty-year absence and silence. I still know I will get to that big, big book again, because I’m OCD with it as well. But it will realistically take longer to complete, and I’m trying to stay on a ‘one-book-every-two-years’ schedule. I’m not sure that’s the best way to be, but it’s the only thing that’s working right now.

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

I think I have bored you enough!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ann Hite on the fictional community of Black Mountain

I've written about Ghost on Black Mountain before here (and I proudly blurbed it) and I'm thrilled to have Ann here again, talking about the community of people who helped populate her novel.  Thanks, Ann!

On Tuesday September 13, 2011, Ghost On Black Mountain will be released by Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster. So, is this another personal piece about the satisfaction of having one’s book published? Busted. Yet, this essay is also a glimpse into the inspiration behind my fictional community of Black Mountain.

When I was ten my mother became a single mom and brought my brother and om and brought my brother and I me home to Atlanta. She had a dark secret, which she guarded her entire life. And typical of the time and place, my grandmother helped hide it. Mother was a self-medicating manic-depressive, now called bi-polar. In the late sixties this diagnosis would have been a death sentence for a mother. Seeking any kind of help warranted an invitation to the state mental hospital, where she would have undergone the harshest of treatments and lost custody of her children. So Mother did the best she could. She moved us in with my grandmother.

Every Sunday we piled into Granny’s 1967 Osmoblie for a visit with my great aunts in the country. I would sit among what I considered very exotic women. One aunt was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, wringing her lace hanky in her fingers. Another wore a scarf around brush curlers wound tightly into bleach blonde hair, a cigarette hanging from her fingers. And of course there was the cousin, who went and married out of our faith. Imagine a Catholic in the family.  If I was quiet, they forgot I was there and began to tell the old mountain stories. These were not for the faint of heart. Believe me. I loved each tale and memorized them. This atmosphere of superstitions and dead souls gave birth to Black Mountain, even though I didn’t have a name for the community back then. I spent many hours writing and forcing my little brother to sit on the back stoop of my grandmother’s home and listen to my stories of ghosts and goblins. I can’t tell you how many times I got in trouble for scaring him silly.

Ghost On Black Mountain’s launch party will be attended by many old friends and family, but Mother and Granny will be absent. They died several years ago. They never knew I had a ‘hankering’ to be a novelist. They must have assumed I loved to tell stories like the rest of the women in the family.

So I can imagine as I crack the spine of the book and begin to read to the crowd gathered, Granny sitting among the listeners, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “Lord, that book’s nothing but a new way to tell our old stories.” And she’ll be partially right, but it’s much more than that. Through my novels I keep them alive. I open doors for others to know them. But most of all Ghost On Black Mountain is a love letter to the courageous women, who taught me how to use my circumstances and move into the place where dreams are born.  

Samuel Park talks about how Reality TV Prepared Him to Become a Writer

Let's start with how much I love Samuel Park's This Burns My Heart. And don't just take my word for it, it's an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List Pick and a Kirkus Reviews' Editor's Pick. Publishers Weekly went nuts for it, calling it a "dramatic, suck-you-in chronicle of finding a thrilling love affair." About the way the heart tricks, fights, saves and ruins us, it's just a gorgeous read.

Now let's talk about Park's love for reality TV. He's written this ferociously funny piece for the blog, and I'm honored to have it--and him--here. A zillion thanks, Mr.  Park!

How Reality TV Prepared Me to Become a Writer

I have a love to confess, a love that dares not speak its name: a love for cheesy, competitive reality televison. I hugged Amazing Race before its Peabodies, yelled at The Apprentice through its Omarosa years, and learned to smize with Tyra in her Top Model show. Over the years, I inadvertently discovered some nice tips for writers from these fabulous contestants!

Survivor: “Personality Counts/Listen to the Room”
The first person voted out of Survivor is always the most annoying one. The person who is bossy, demanding, difficult. Or just plain weird. Take season 21 in Nicaragua, for instance, when the tribe had to decide between voting out Jimmy Johnson and Wendy DeSmidt-Kohlhoff at the first tribal council. Wendy turned to be a big talker, the kind who is oblivious to the social cues from the people around her. Regardless of who was willing to listen, she just kept (nervously) talking and talking--attracting negative attention to herself. Publishing (as in a lot of the arts) is very much a social game, and an appealing personality goes a long way. Writers are constantly interacting with people—their agents, editors, publicists, magazine and newspaper writers, booksellers, readers. Being kind to others and attentive to their needs goes a long way toward establishing those relationships (and staying in the game!). Don’t give people an excuse to want to get rid of you, or not respond to your emails.

The Apprentice: “Never Say No to Yourself”
If you watch the Apprentice, you know that the Trump’s worst pet peeve—worse than failing a task, worse than raising no money—is having a contestant who doesn’t stick up for himself. Contestants who quit, who say “You should fire me.” Trump treats those contestants like chopped kidney boiled in sewage water. According to the logic of the show, you have to go out with a fight. Likewise, as a writer, I’m a strong believer that one should never (psychologically, subconsciously, through self-doubt) offer yourself up as the one who gets kicked out of the writing game. There are enough people out there wanting to say No to you, that there’s no point in you saying no to yourself. Honestly, I never say no to myself. I always say “Yes,” as in, Yes, you should represent me. (Charming smile.) Yes, you should acquire my book. (Fingers crossed.) Yes, you should give me a blurb. Even if you’re convinced that you’ve done a terrible job and you think deep down that Trump should fire you, don’t say that. Don’t fall on your own sword. Have the passion to believe in yourself and your work.

Amazing Race: “Follow the River Where It Takes You”
The Amazing Race is kind of like the world’s most complicated grocery errand, the Hitchcock in North by Northwest version of figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. The contestants I find the most interesting are the ones who seem to forget that they’re on a TV show. They’re the ones who try to board a different flight than the others (and not the one already booked by the producers); or who overthink and forget that the clue boxes have to be in plain sight enough for all the teams to see it from afar. You see, the producers want the contestants to get from Point A to B, just not at the same time. They don’t want anyone stuck, or left behind, so they’ve plotted out the paths ahead of time. Likewise, the most successful writers are the ones who trust the path laid out in front of them. I, for instance, made some mistakes early on by offering suggestions to my publicist that really did not make sense for my book. Eventually, I figured out to just trust the experts. The whole let’s-try-this-instead approach can work wonders if you’re a maven/genius, but for most of us mortals, it’s a clue that you don’t want the successful path that’s been thought out and meticulously laid out for you by people who know better. Don’t overthink; just enjoy the ride.

Project Runway: “Leave it Up to the Gods (or Michael Kors)”
One of the reasons I think this show has been around for so long is, I suspect, because they almost always get the winner right. And there’s something very reassuring about that. Over each season, people cry, struggle, worry, suffer (in TV as in life), but at the end of the day, what’s supposed to happen, happens. The contestants work very hard, but at the end of the day, they have no control. As I mentioned in the previous item, which this one is kind of an extension of, it’s up to the Gods (or Michael Kors and Nina Garcia). I think for writers, it’s the same thing: we work very hard, down to every colon and semi colon, but at the end of the day it’s in the hands of readers. I find the lack of control incredibly frustrating, but also enormously freeing. Not having control allows for surprises—you get reviewed in places you didn’t expect to, you get sales from a demographic you hadn’t thought about. Giving up control is hard to do, but ultimately, it allows for something to come into your life that’s even better than what you were planning for.

Top Chef: “Luck Counts for a Lot”
During Season 7 of Top Chef, Angelo Sosa looked like he was going to win. He’d been on a roll up to that point, winning the most individual Quick Fire challenges, and going toe to toe with his other competitors, Kevin Sbraga and Ed Cotton. It was anyone’s game at the end. However, on the morning of the final competition, Angelo woke up with a bad, bad virus. He was so sick he was barely able to compete, delegating most of the cooking to his sous chef, Hung Huynh. In the end, Kevin Sbraga won. What if Angelo hadn’t gotten sick that day? Likewise, what if your agent submits your manuscript, and the one editor who’s likely to love it happens to be swamped, or having a terrible day? I have a friend who’s a best selling novelist. He tells me that he used to think luck accounted for 30% of success as a writer (the other thirds being talent and hard work). Now, he thinks it’s actually 70% luck.

The Bachelor: “Do It For Love”
I actually don’t watch this show, but it’s the only one where love is involved, and I wanna end by talking about love. Back in my early 20s, before I had a serious relationship, I told a friend how much I envied her relationship with her husband, how she had someone to go out with to restaurants and parties and other events. They got to be looked at by other people, as a couple. She replied to me that relationships are actually not about the public space, but the private one—it’s about being domestic with someone, at home. The other people don’t really matter. I think it’s the same with books. So much hoopla is spent talking about advances, royalties, book tours, sales rankings, and reviews. But at the end of the day, it’s just you and your book—how you feel about it, and your feeling of accomplishment over it. Just as those reality contestants have to go back to their own lives when the shooting is done, writers have to return to their manuscripts after all the noise of publication. That’s the real relationship, the real feeling of success. Only you know what it took to write it. Only you, in the end, really cares that it’s there. After all else gets eliminated, it’s what’s left. You and your work—you and the thing that you love, the wondrous relationship you have with your craft. Speaking of which, I should go now. My next novel awaits, and so does the new season of Survivor!

Robin Stratton interviews herself for ON AIR

OK, I admit it. I am in chaos right now. Waiting to do revisions on Everything That Happens Today, throwing myself into a new novel tentatively titled Big Bad Love, and still cleaning up after Irene. But I want to still give my blog over to other writers, so many have been writing essays and interviewing themselves.  All this means my head does not explode! 

Robin Stratton is wonderful. She is a writing coach in the Boston area, director of The Newton Writers and Poets Center, editor of Boston Literary Magazine, and author of Dealing With Men, and The Revision Process: a Guide for Those Months or Years Between Your First Draft and Your Last. Her fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Poor Richard's Almanac(k), Antithesis Common, Chick Flicks, 63 Channels, Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines and many others. 

Robin has kindly agreed to interview herself. Oh Robin, I thank you. My head thanks you!

Congratulations on your new book! So the first question, of course, is What is it about?

On Air is a pop-culture Coming-Of-Age story about a guy named Eric Storm who's fifty and coming to terms with his youth being gone... he's trying to figure out what the universe will give him in return. Part of that huge population of baby boomers whose life didn't turn out the way they planned.  

I think a lot of people can relate to that!

I think so too. The thing about Eric is, he used to have it all – he was Boston's most popular DJ, he was rich, he had a beautiful wife and a fancy house. As On Air begins, he's divorced, on the brink of being fired, and has suddenly had to take over the role of caregiver for his aging mother.

The mother-son relationship is the whole basis for the book.

Right. The dynamics of this mother who has driven you crazy your whole life, and now she's old and sick and you know her time is limited... how do you prepare yourself to get along without her, especially now that the rest of your life has tanked?

Why did you decide to make him a DJ?

I thought that something to do with rock music was the best way to show that now he's on the far side of the generation gap. He used to be rebellious and passionate, and in the 70s and 80s DJs had a lot more freedom with their show, they could choose the songs they wanted to play. But in the year 2001 Eric has to accept that each morning he's given a corporate-approved list, and mostly they're songs he doesn't like. Commercial hits. For the first time his boss is younger than he is, but very grownup and responsible, and that makes Eric seem even more childish. I've had many people tell me they wanted to shake him – you see him acting like such a brat. But it's because his mother spoiled him and for the first half of his life he basically got whatever he wanted. Pretty rude awakening!

At first it wasn't clear why the story took place in 2001 (you have him mourning the defeat of Gore). Later, of course, the events of 9/11 come into the plot.

I began writing On Air in 2001 (while I was mourning the defeat of Al Gore) and one of the themes – that your whole life can turn upside down in just a short time – suddenly became true on a national scale after the attacks on 9/11. Like Eric, so many of us suddenly realized how good we'd had it... just the day before life was pretty good, you know? And now 3,000 Americans are dead, we no longer feel safe, and it really hits home that there are people in the world who hate us so much that they want to kill us: our children, our spouses, our parents. I watched the news all day, cried at the sight of every American flag, and wrote every night about each day's developments... my rawest emotions and reactions came out in Eric's thoughts and dialogue, including my fear that from now on maybe I wouldn't trust anyone from the middle east... the way our parents or grandparents learned to mistrust the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. I felt very conflicted and ashamed of those feelings.

And on top of all of this, Eric has to deal with this crush he has on a much much younger woman!

Recently I told someone who hadn't read the book about that part of the story and she just wrinkled up her nose, like, you know, Ugh, typical middle-aged man! But that wasn't my intention at all with that plot line – I just wanted to show how he's so desperate to cling to his youth that he falls for this woman because she reminds him of himself at that age... she's in her 20s... it's not her, it's this wish that he could go go back to those days.

I had to laugh at the way that part of the book played out at the end. I won't give it away, but I was really nervous for him! I wanted so much for him to do the right thing!
I did too! I think the word for him is “hapless”!

So where can people buy On Air?

It's available at Amazon, or through the publisher, Blue Mustang Press, or at my website, If they go there they can read chapter one, and if they buy the book from me I would be happy to sign it!