Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Anne Lamott talks about Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, failing, dating, and what the heck is she going to write next?
What can I possibly say about Anne Lamott? I carried Bird by Bird around when I was writing, I clutched Operating Instructions to me when I was pregnant, and I've read every word she's written. But it's not just her writing that's so wonderful. She's a treasured friend and you've never met anyone as warm and hilariously funny as Annie--or as generous. She interviewed me in California and though I knew the huge crowd was really there for her, she made me feel the people were there to hear me. And when I interviewed her at a bookstore, she made sure to mention my book and me, though the evening was all about her. She's the author of the novels Hard Laughter, All New People, Blue Shoe , Rosie, Joe Jones, Crooked Little Heart and Imperfect Birds, as well as the nonfiction books, Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird, Help Thanks Wow, Traveling Mercies, Stitches, Grace Eventually, and Some Assembly Required.
As always, I'm delighted to host her here. Thank you, Annie!
Your writing is always so grounded in faith, and even when you write about the moments that derail you, you always find your center. Do you have hints for the rest of us how to do that?
Well, it's like the title Grace, Eventually. I know a sense of center will come, but it often takes awhile. I flail around, usually trying to self-will resolution, b/c its so uncomfortable to be lost or in limbo. My center always turns out to be in my quiet heartcave, not in my crazy roiled-up mind.
And was there ever a moment when you could not find your center? A moment that was a harder than all the others?
Lots of times when I couldn't find my center. About a third of the stories in SV are about that--about how it takes the passage of time, whether an hour, a few, a week...some rest, lots of breath. There's no magic wand (which I hate.). Our breath can take us to our center, so we have to get quiet and settled and friendly w/ourselves to hook into that.
So much of this amazing book is about the value of community, how friends, and family, and even strangers can show us grace. How can we make ourselves more open to being vulnerable enough to accept their help?
I always say that the willingness comes from the pain. I become available to grace when I have finally driven myself totally crazy with forcing things, posturing, trying to "fix" people and messy situations. Surrender leads us to clearer vision.
For me, what you do with spirituality is to bring it back home, i.e. you make it relevant to everyday without being preachy or sounding like a sermon. Who lead you to this path?
I'm afraid I DO sound preachy, so thank you. One thing that helped was the dozens of books I've read over the years where the writer told me an amazing story, without driving home a message or point. I tell other writers to write what they'd love to come upon, and I hate beijg preached at. Whatever works in my stories is because of multiple drafts, and the willingness to do what Jessica Mitford said, to kill your little darlings--ie your favorite little moments that you just think make you seem so erudite or enlightened. I do a draft where I take out the boring parts, and then the lies. One of my best friends is a fierce but loving editor. And my Riverhead editor, Jake Morrissey, is perfect for me.
"Getting found always means being lost for a while." I love this sensibility, but while we are lost, are there signposts you should or could be looking for, or do you just stay in the moment and wait to see what happens?
This was the line that PW mentioned as being a cliche, in an otherwise great review! So thank you again. When we are lost, we can ask for help--from God, a friend, a partner, a child, Life. We can remember to breathe. We can practice radical self-care, and get ourselves a glass of water. We can look UP! We can pay attention. We can try things, and fail--fall on our butts, get up, try something else. Like Beckett said, "Fail again. Fail better."
I think your piece about your year of dating was one of the funniest pieces on the planet. As a yenta-ish sort of person who likes to see everyone coupled, I have to ask, would you do it again?
The problem with being semi-well-known is that a lot of men were hoping I would be a good muse or editor. That we would talk about writing a lot of the time, and I would read and edit their work. They'd send me links to thinks they had written. Very discouraging! I still log on now and then but have not made contact for months. And don't think I will again for awhile.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Caroline, you know that around one's pub date, we ALL get cuckoo in the cabesa (well, not you, of course....) I'm obsessing about whether the NYT will review me, and how I would ever survive if Michiko K or Janet Maslin trashed me, and what foreign city I would have to move to (Monaco? Ulan Bator?), and if I'll get one of those tiny tiny spaces in People, and if I'll get the flu or Ebola on one of the airplanes....
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
"Annie, what are you working on now?"
"I don't have a clue! Honest to God. It's the strangest feeling....and I love it. I don't have ANYTHING due. For the first time in years, I have no idea what I'll do next. I accidentally published 4 books in 4 years, with five book tours (hard cover and paperback for Some Assembly) so maybe it is time for a brief sabbatical.
I totally love Facebook and Twitter, so I'll writing my little pieces and posts, but as for a next book? All I know is that, More will be revealed; and to always always carry a pen.
Love you and thanks so much
Friday, October 17, 2014
Litsa Dremousis talks about ALTITUDE SICKNESS, the culture of mountain climbing, grief, resilience, and so much more
I'm not sure when I met Litsa, but I fell in love with her work before I fell in love with her--which is really easy to do on both counts. Profound, funny, and warm, she's one of my go-to people when I need to talk something out. And what a writer! "Altitude Sickness", about losing her lover to rock and ice climbing and the mainstream culture that venerates them, is mind-bendingly great. (Future Tense Books). But so are her other works. Her essay, After the Fire" was selected as one of the "Most Notable Essays of 2011" by Best American Essays 2012. She's a Contributing Editor at the literary site The Weeklings, which partners with Salon and has received praise from The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, Slate, and others. Her work appears in The Believer, BlackBook, Esquire, Jezebel, McSweeney's, Men's Health, Monkeybicycle, MSN, New York Magazine, Nerve, Nylon, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paste, Poets & Writers, Salon, Slate, The Weeklings, on NPR, KUOW, and additional venues, and The Seattle Weekly named her as one of "50 Women Who Rock Seattle".
Plus, frankly, she's very, very cool. I can't thank Litsa enough for being here!
This is, perhaps, one of the most profound, real, haunting, (and also flashed with wit) books about loss that I’ve ever read. But it’s also about mountain climbing, and the price climbers and their loved ones pay for risking death to “live life to the fullest.” You’ve written about Neal’s death before, but never before in such depth. What was the writing like for you? Did anything surprise you or reveal itself to you as you were writing?
First off, thanks so much because you know how much I admire your work and think you're wonderful. And because you've written about a similar loss, you know what it's like to live it and to write about it. So, really, thank you.
"Altitude Sickness" has an unusual back story. Future Tense Books approached me and said that to commemorate their twentieth year anniversary, they were launching their first ebook line, Instant Future. They asked if I had a 10,000 to 12,000 word memoir or essay that would fit because they wanted me to launch the series. I'd been taking notes on "Altitude Sickness" for two years, so I wrote back, "Yes, I have an idea and here it is." They accepted it immediately.
Then I thought, "Oh, shit. I'm about to immerse myself in his death again. This is about to hurt like hell."
I knew what I wanted to write and why, so writing this one from a technical standpoint wasn't particularly hard. From an emotional one, though, I had many, many days where I wanted to throw up. I've been prone to nightmares my whole life, but returning to his death and its immediate aftermath really unloosed my subconscious and the nightmares were pretty fucking bonkers. Neal died mountain climbing. He was missing four and a half days before his body was found. He fell one thousand feet and died instantly. He was a highly experienced climber. But loose rock gave way. No amount of experience trumps loose rock.
I should note I got engaged shortly after I started the book and am the happiest I've been in my life. So, it says something that in the midst of such enormous joy, when I'd sit down to write, it still felt like getting flayed then dipped in rubbing alcohol.
The biggest surprise was that writing about Neal's funeral wasn't the hard part. But writing about him while he was alive was devastating. We were intertwined almost our entire adult lives. He's been dead five years now, but it's really easy to conjure him, both as a person and as a writer. As the former, I very much live in the present. His death is as much a part of me as my curly hair and most of the time, I am used to his death. But when I wrote about him alive, oh god, each time I stopped and came up for air, my subconscious was like, "Ha! Ha! Ha! You can hear him and you can see him and you want to go to a matinee´with him now but you can't because he's dead. Ha! Ha! Sucker!" The following nightmares were among the worst.
That said, thanks for taking note of the book's wit. Neal and I were often funny together. There was no honest way to write this book without being funny sometimes. Most lives have some humor in them and Neal was deeply funny. Also, his death, like many, was laden with gallows humor. Making absurd jokes was one way I kept from killing myself those first two years after he died.
I’ve often thought that part of grief healing is being able to tell the story, especially if your loved ones death is a shock. First, you tell it in hopes of a different ending. Then you tell it to let it sink in. Or maybe you tell it to keep the loved one alive in some way. Was it this way for you, or was it different?
Oh, god, that's the greatest point: how in the beginning, each time you tell the story in print or out loud, you desperately want to change the ending and there's a tiny part of your brain convinced this is possible.
In my case, the first time I wrote about him was a few months after he died. It was a fictional short story about his funeral. I wrote about it because I couldn't *not* write about it. The essay I wrote later that year won Most Notable Essays of 2011 from Best American Essays. He'd been dead fourteen months when I wrote it, the shock had worn off and I was in hell. But I didn't write it thinking, "Wow, this will be a great essay." I just wanted to distill the loss and pain into something. Like, "Here is this pool of blood. See if anything will grow in it."
With "Altitude Sickness", like I said, I'd been taking notes for two years. I live in Seattle and climbers die in the Pacific Northwest fairly often because we're surrounded by mountains. I started noticing how similar many of the deaths were and how the climbers' loved ones almost always said, "He died doing what he loved." I wanted to explore what causes someone to enjoy life most when they're risking death. That's how I discovered there was already a considerable amount of study on the neurological similarities between climbers and addicts. "Altitude Sickness" examines Neal's death in this context, and in the context of a mainstream culture that venerates climbing, despite its massive and pointless danger.
I also wanted to talk about bravery. Is it brave that Neal climbed mountains, or is the real bravery that, knowing the risks, you went ahead and loved him anyway? Isn’t that the kind of bravery we should be celebrating instead?
Neal demonstrated incredible physical and emotional bravery again and again in the mountains. And like I write in the book, he was mauled by a bear in Yellowstone Park in 1999. A year to the day after the mauling, he returned to Yellowstone and hiked and camped there. He refused to live in fear. I'll always admire him for prevailing over an attack that would have psychologically crippled most of us. What's hard to reconcile, though, is that there was no purpose to his death. Climbers tend to attribute a military-like heroism to what is an extreme activity undertaken with free will. He didn't die rescuing children in a war zone. He didn't die because he was fighting a fire and saved the elderly person trapped in the bedroom. He died at forty-two because he chose to climb and loose rock gave way. Climbers hate it when I say this, and I don't care, but his life was amazing and I'm forever grateful he was here, but his death was a waste.
As for my loving him despite knowing the risk, I wouldn't say I was brave at all. Yes, I knew he could die climbing and I chose to keep loving him. I don't regret loving him, ever, ever, ever. At his core, he grew to identify as a climber, the way I identify as a writer. But when he and I met, he was acting much more often. We first met in a Creative Writing Class at the University of Washington. We always loved each other, but five years after his death, it's clear how different from each other we were becoming. I loved him deeply and completely. I have no regrets. But I don't think I was brave. I just loved him.
You write that no one can return from the high peaks with their brain in the same condition that they left. But our culture venerates climbing, even as families are campaigning against high school football, which has been racking up its share of brain injuries. What can the public do to change this mindset? I’m thinking of how cigarettes were glamorized and then there was this ad featuring a woman putting on her wig, speaking from an artificial voice box, and talking about the ravages of cancer from smoking—and that ad supposedly worked. Are there any climbers who have changed their mind about climbing and spoken out against it?
That is a great question because, in my experience, debating this with a climber is exactly like telling you're active alcoholic friend, "Hey, you're drunk again. You need help." They have to figure it out on their own, and in the meantime, they'll concoct every excuse they can to explain how they're not really harming themselves. I'm sure some climbers have reconsidered climbing and given it up, whether because of a near brush with death, an injury, the urging a of a loved one, or through their own belated common sense. I haven't met such a climber, but given the sport's growing popularity, I'm sure at least a few of them exist.
Mostly, though, when you read or watch interviews with climbers who've nearly died, they proudly state that as soon as they're recovered, they're going to climb again. To use your comparison to smokers, it'd be like someone recovering from lung cancer and proudly declaring on camera, "I'm gonna get me some Marlboros!" It's not brave; it's idiotic. And I'm comfortable being judgmental here.
As for what might prompt a climber to change his or her mind, I don't know what would work. I remember the anti-tobacco commercial you''re referencing. I don't know what the climbing equivalent would be. Maybe your loved one identifying your partially decomposed and shattered body in the morgue? Would even *that* work? I don't know.
Many people think that when you grieve a loved one, you move on, you find love again, if you're lucky, your life goes on. But you very astutely show that that isn't the whole story. You're engaged to a peach of a guy who you adore--but like a layer beneath that, is your love and grief over Neal. Can you talk about that please?
I'm extremely fortunate. I'm in love again and the happiest I've been. My fiance´is the greatest man I've known and I just feel so fucking lucky. I hate mornings and, with him, we laugh over breakfast each morning. I've never done that with anyone in my life. He understands parts of me that Neal never did.
But, as you wisely note, I still love Neal dearly, of course. Death didn't change that. I will always love him. But even immediately after he died, I refused to canonize him. As everyone who has lost someone, particularly someone young, will recall, you miss your dead loved one so much, you miss even the things that annoyed the hell out of you when he or she was alive. So, even while I was missing what I found to be Neal's most annoying traits--and he knew all of mine intimately, so that's not a one-sided assessment--I didn't make him a plaster saint. I hate it when people do that. It robs the dead of all their complexity.
You wrote something really wise, though, and I'm sorry I can't remember which essay or book it was in, but it has stuck with me for years, that the dead become different in death, take on a different incarnation from who they were alive. And that is *so* true. Despite my being able to recollect Neal in great detail, I think of him now in sweeter, softer ways. It doesn't matter that he didn't get a cell phone 'til six months before he died, for instance. When he was alive, that drove me nuts. Now it's a funny quirk that was part of what made him unique.
Some friends don't quite understand how I spent so much time missing Neal and then fell in love again. Some didn't understand why I didn't fall in love again much sooner. The best friends, of course, just understand your loss and help you get through the early hell years and are thrilled when you're happy again.
One of my friends describes it best: most new parents worry they won't love their second child as much as their first. But their hearts expand. So, as with birth, it is with death. Our hearts expand. I love Neal. I love my fiance´. it's not a competition and it's not contradictory.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My fiance´is a professor. He's lived in Seattle over a decade, but he grew up in the South. He's an amazing cook--I found a genius who loves to cook--and for the first time in years, I'm eating butter again. BUTTER IS AWESOME. Dear god, butter, how could I have turned on you? Also, I was caffeine-free for five years, and because he makes coffee first thing in the morning, I started sipping it again. Now I have one to two cups a day and it is electric brain nectar and I thank it so.
In terms of pop culture, I'm becoming obsessed with Bill Hicks. I'm really, really late to that party, particularly given every comedian I've interviewed or known has cited his genius. And he was a genius. He died young of pancreatic cancer two decades ago, but his humor and observations are as relevant now as they were then. I also love Key and Peele. So damned brilliant and hilarious!
As for what's obsessing me as a writer, I have an answer to that. But I hate discussing my writing obsessions while I'm writing about them because I am super-neurotic about that. It's not pretension; it's me being a bit tightly wound sometimes.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What curly hair care products work in humidity? You and I have similar hair. You're on the East Coast and I'm on the West. With climate change, Seattle is becoming increasingly humid. We just had our warmest summer in forty-seven years. You're more acclimated to the heat and humidity. If I'm going to face a global catastrophe, I'd like to do it with my hair not resembling kudzu.
Litsa, I swear by Deva! Wash with One Condition. Then, when your hair is soaking wet, put in some B-Leave-in, and scrunch the extra water out with a t-shirt. Never dry your hair with a bath towel, just with paper towels or t-shirts!
Caroline, again, you are my inspiration! Your questions were deeply thought-provoking.
Ever hear of cage fighting? I hadn't either, until I read Kerry Howley's electrifying book THROWN, an account of the three years she spent in the company of mixed martial artists. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Gulf Coast, Vice.com, and frequently in Bookforum. Howley teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she resides with a husband, son, and vizsla. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Kerry!
What made you interested in the bloody, strange, violent, obsessive world of cage fighting? As you learned more and more about it, and the two cage fighters you followed, did any of your opinions change? Why and how?
People who have never seen a fight often assume that they’re just lumbering brawls transplanted from the street to an arena. I think part of what fascinated me, the first time I saw a fight on television, was how clearly this was not the case. This was the marriage of a refined sense of bodily movement with absolute abandonment of the self, a delicate, precise practice that makes possible a moment of savagery. I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, but I’ve always been drawn to the way the fighter takes years perfecting his art—steeped in civilization and discipline—to find that precious moment away from civilized life. And as I got deeper and deeper into this world, I came to see fighting as a practice of shedding one’s identity, searching for that fluid place beyond selfhood. Civilization is interested in stability and therefore in stagnation. I think it means something that the verb for practicing Brazilian Ju-Jitsu is “roll.”
So much of the book is about violence, what it really means, how we approach it, and what to do about it. Can you talk about this please?
There is something fretful and sad about our current obsession with self-preservation that I think obviates the possibility of certain kinds of experiences. No one smokes anymore. I certainly don’t. And maybe a society that can’t smoke also can’t whip itself into the kind of ecstatic self-abandonment I saw in the fighters. I’m interested in consensual violence as a portal, a conduit, to a place I think is harder and harder for us to get to. What Artaud called “a theater that wakes us up: nerves and heart.” It was the poet Joe Wenderoth who first suggested to me that there was a confluence between MMA and the Theater of Cruelty. This is not a stretch. But it’s also not a comparison you can make in anything other than a comic work.
Your relationship with these two men is electrifyingly real. What surprised you about it?
I don’t know that I was particularly surprised by this, but something about Erik, Sean, and Keoni made me feel desperate to be liked by them. They each exuded a kind of confident, gentle calm that I assume comes from knowing you’ve got nothing to fear from other men.
I will say that more than a few times, people who have read the manuscript have praised me for “not condescending” to the fighters. This is bizarre, like congratulating me for not being a sociopath. By what right would I condescend them? They’re living the kind of life I don’t have the courage to live.
There is such a sense of place in the book that sometimes the air seems electrified. How did you come down from writing such a powerhouse of a book? Do you ever go to cage fights anymore?
Well, that’s a very generous question. I felt a kind of disturbed nothingness when the book was finished. The last time I’d felt that way, in 2008, was when I’d just returned to DC from two stimulating years working for a newspaper in Myanmar. I responded to this by going on the market and selling 18 of my ova; if I had to stay put, I was going to do something strange to my body. It got me through.
Thrown was such an outward-looking project; I spent years forcing myself into strangers’ lives, pushing myself into situations where I looked conspicuous and felt uncomfortable. At some point, when I finished, it seemed like the craziest thing I could do was a harbor a person in my own body, which sounds, I know, like the most mundane move I could make. And yet perhaps the closest I have ever been to the kind of experience I write about in Thrown was the moment when my son was descending through my hips and I was in the depths of a pain spiral beyond what I’ve ever known or will ever know again. There was no room for thought inside that moment.
What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you map your stories out or just wait for the Muse?
I map out my fiction, writing the first and last thirds before tackling the middle. With a long narrative essay like this, you can’t see to the end; I had no idea what would happen to Erik and Sean, and it was important to me that their stories remain in the realm of the factual. It was in part for that reason I shifted so much emphasis on the narrator, which is to say my crazed narrative persona, Kit; here was an element I could shape and control as Erik and Sean’s stories spun out into the strange narratives that they are. Here was a way I could tease meaning from a string of events.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
In an interview about his first three novels, Ishiguro once said that he published the same book three times and “somehow got away with it.” Can I get away with it? I don’t think I’m done with the motivating force behind Thrown, which I take to be an articulation of wildness.
Friday, October 10, 2014
Yona Zeldis McDonough talks about You were Meant for Me, taking scary chances with a new novel, Pomeranian dogs, parenthood, and so much, much more
It's always fun when I get to host an author who is also a friend, which Yona has been for a very long time! Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of six novels for adults: The Four Tmperaments, In Dahlia's Wake, Breaking the Bank (which has been optioned for a film), A Wedding in Great Neck, Two of a Kind and her newest, You were Meant for Me.
She is also an award-winning children's book author with 23 children's books to her credit. For over a dozen years, Yona has been the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine.
I'm so thrilled to have Yona here!
I always want to know, what sparked this particular book? (I actually know the answer, but I want readers to know it!) What surprised you in the writing?
I was inspired by a true story told to me by a friend. In the actual story, it was a man who found the baby--it was a boy--and he kept visiting the family court judge to see if anyone had claimed the child. The judge suggested that the man consider adoption--and he did. The boy is a teenager now and lives with his two adoring dads. The story remained with me and I realized I wanted to write it; or at least my own version of it. I changed a lot of the details--that's the prerogative, if not obligation, of the novelist. But the core of it was the same: sometimes, despite all odds, there is grace, redemption and a happy ending. Amen to that!
How do you think this book is a departure from your other novels?
Actually, I think of it as a continuation rather than a departure. The book centers very much on parenthood and raises the questions of who is a good parent and how being a parent changes a person. I think all of my novels have addressed these questions in one way or another. So I see You Were Meant for Me as part of a continuing exploration of the subject.
Let’s talk about the four very different men in the novel. Why was each necessary for Miranda’s development?
Ah, the men in Miranda's life! Luke is the narcissist who is sexy but self-involved; he has a lot of appeal for Miranda but she eventually comes to see that he will not make her happy and is not the one with whom to build a life. Jared is also a very sexy man and Miranda responds to him in an immediate and primal way. He is more honorable than Luke though; he knows he does not want to settle down and he does not want to hurt Miranda. Evan is the last in this trio of potential candidates for Miranda's heart. At first, Miranda is not that attracted to him; she considers him a friend rather than a lover. But his good qualities emerge slowly and she is won over; it's only when she thinks she has lost him that she realizes she really does love him and that he indeed was meant for her. Miranda's father is the last--or first, depending how you look at it--man in this quartet. They were very close when she was a child but she has loses him twice--first to dementia, and then to death. Yet there is a moment at the end when he recognizes her and she is able to keep that memory when he is gone.
I have to ask, what would you have done in Miranda’s situation?
I have fantasized about this more than once and I think that I'd do just what Miranda did. Finding a baby seems like such an astonishing thing; how could that not change you, and make you feel that somehow, it was meant to be?
You’ve written 19 books for children. 19! How different is it to do that than writing for adults? Which do you prefer and why?
The number is up to 23 now! I like writing for children very much, especially fiction for children, which I have done in my chapter books. I don't prefer one over the other; each form fills different needs, and taps into different strengths. When I am writing for children, I am really writing for the nine year old girl who is alive and well inside of me. If I can write a story that she would have liked, then I feel I have succeeded.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The House on Primrose Pond, which is the new manuscript I am working on. This one really is a departure because it is set in New Hampshire, a first for me, and because it will include a novel-within-a-novel. That's something I have never attempted before. It's exciting but a little scary too; I have no experience with this structure at all, so I have to figure it out as I write.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
About my dogs! There are two, both small, happy Pomeranians, and I love them both without restraint or measure. They often keep me company as I work and if I get stuck, they provide endless diversion.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Jodi Picoult talks about LEAVING TIME, elephants, memory, why things are not where they should be (yet) for women writers, and more
Okay, here is an astonishing fact. It is estimated that there are 25 million books by Jodi Picoult in print —in 35 countries. She's one of the most beloved writers on the planet, but I also need to tell you, she's also one of the most down-to-earth. She answers every e-mail. She can kick back with you and have you laughing in a nanosecond. She's got the best hair on the planet. And she not only champions women writers--she uses her considerable clout to fight for them.
Her newest novel, Leaving Time, is with a new publisher, Random House, and it's a stunning story about memory, love, grief and healing. As always, my gratitude to Jodi is huge, and my delight at having her here again, overwhelming. Thank you, Jodi!
I always have to ask, what sparked this particular novel?
JP: I have three kids, and my daughter – my youngest – was getting ready to go to college, which meant I’d be an empty nester. It was daunting, to say the least. Then I read a fact: In the wild, an elephant mother and daughter stay together until one of them dies. I thought, How enlightened! Why can’t we be like that!? I began to do a little digging on elephants, and learned how advanced their cognition is. And when I discovered that they actually grieve and experience and process loss, I was completely hooked, and knew I would be writing about what it meant to be left behind…and also that I had my profession for the character of Alice.
I know you actually worked with the elephants at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. Did you have any preconceived ideas that were changed by your experience? What surprised you the most?
JP: I was privileged to spend time at The Elephant Sanctuary – and I really do mean that, because the whole point of the sanctuary is that their elephants are no longer on display but in a lovely retirement setting. Since this was my first experience with elephants I didn’t have many preconceived notions, but I was touched again and again by the stories I was told. For example, Sissy is an elephant who survived the 1981 Gainesville Flood by being submerged for 24 hours with only her trunk above water. When she got to the sanctuary, she was traumatized and took to carrying around a tire, like a child’s security blanket. Eventually she bonded with an elephant named Tina and they were fast friends. But Tina died, and when she did, Sissy stayed with her – and then remained by her grave for a few days. Finally, she placed her tire on the grave – like a wreath – and left it behind, never to return to it – almost as if she believed Tina needed the comfort more, now. What surprised me the most was how easy it was, given these very human-like interactions, to assume that these elephants are tame. They’re not. A keeper was killed at The Elephant Sanctuary and recently in Maine, one of the owners of a small sanctuary was killed by an elephant.
So much of this novel is about what, how, and why we remember what we remember. Can you talk about that please? And is it true that elephants’ memories rival our own?
JP: I think these days I can’t remember anything, LOL. My brain is fried! But yes, there is a fine line between a bad memory and a traumatic one in the human brain. My friend Abby Baird, a psych professor at Vassar, taught me all about the human brain and cognition. Bad memories get coded as red flags, to remind us NOT to repeat the same behavior. This is similar for elephants, too, who will avoid corridors where poaching has historically occurred. But a traumatic memory can be so scarring that it gets morphed and warped by the brain, as a protective measure – so that you can actually function and not be crippled by it. Elephant memories are BETTER than our own. At the Elephant Sanctuary in TN, they had to institute a no-fly zone because the elephants got so agitated by the sound of planes and helicopters, even though the only helicopters that the elephants had ever heard were 50 years ago during the South African culls when they were captured. Also at the sanctuary were two elephants with a terrific story of memory: Jenny lived at the sanctuary when Shirley was brought there, and that first night, in the barn, they kept roaring and banging on the gate between them, touching through the bars. Eventually the keepers opened the gate and let them into the same stall. They immediately touched each other all over, and when Jenny lay down to sleep, Shirley stood over her like a mom would. They were inseparable for years. As it turned out, they had been at the same circus when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was 30 years old. They’d been separated for 22 years but hadn’t forgotten each other. And here’s a story from the wild: In Pilanesberg, SA, a reserve existed for elephants that were orphaned after culls for population control. It was a social experiment – they thought these teen elephants would bond into a herd, but that didn’t happen, because there was no matriarch. So a decision was made to bring two older females, Durga and Owalla, back to Africa from the US where they had been working and training. It was a success – the two matriarch formed two thriving herds. However, Owalla got bitten by a hippo 16 years later and couldn’t be anesthetized for medical reasons. They knew she was going to die, if not treated. So Randall Moore – Owalla’s former trainer –was called in. He found the herd, got out of his vehicle, and called Owalla by name. The younger members of the herd scattered, terrified of this human contact. Owalla came forward and greeted Randall, and then lifted her trunk and her leg according to his commands, letting the vets treat her without any anesthetic. After sixteen years of being completely wild, she remembered him, and his commands.
Leaving Time has a really different--and totally gorgeous cover--than your other books, and you are now with a new publisher. Somehow, this very simple design is so incredibly arresting! Did you have input into the cover?
JP: I am very happy to be with Random House – a really committed group of folks who love this book as much as I do. They wanted a cover that looked different from my others, and Paolo Pepe – the art director I had once worked with at S&S – is now at Random House and was given the task of creating the cover. When I saw the two tendrils of grass grasping like two trunks, I was sold. I got to pick the color – I went for the greeny blues instead of a rosy pink.
You’ve also started writing these wonderful e-shorts, novellas which feature the characters from Leaving Time, which is richly satisfying. What gave you the idea to write them? Where these written after you wrote the novel, before, or during--and should they be read after the novel, or are they stand-alones?
JP: When Random House took over and wanted to move my pub date from March to October, I knew I was going to have a lot of furious fans. I wanted to give them a taste of the book, and Gina Centrello at Random House suggested that I write an e-short. It’s really hard, you know, to take a completed book and find a hole in it! But I read a sentence in one of Alice’s sections that began “the first time Africa healed me…” and I thought, Hmm, why was she hurting? That became Larger than Life. However, I apparently did SUCH a good job that Random House wanted to use that piece in late August, to drive readers to pre-order LEAVING TIME. So I wrote a second piece, this one a flashback in Serenity’s voice, because she’s so much fun to create. That was released first, actually, in the spring. You don’t have to read the e-shorts before you read the book. Or even after. But if you do, it will really make the characters even more three-dimensional.
I always ask you this question, because I think it’s an important one, and we need to keep hearing the answer over and over again. You’re a huge champion of women writers and you fight constantly about getting women the same sort of attention that male authors do. Can you talk a bit about this please? Do you see the situation improving at all?
JP: We’re still not there yet – ask VIDA, which crunches the numbers. Sometimes I feel like we are improving. There are outlets for reviews that have dramatically undertaken to balance their coverage of books by women and men. One lovely thing that happened this year was the Year of Reading Women – a concerted effort from the reading public to search out female authors they might not otherwise have read. And of course Pamela Paul’s appointment as editor of the NYTBR is a great start, and has led to some welcome changes – reviews of genre fiction, even new bestseller lists devoted to categories that usually didn’t merit NYT coverage or mention. I just think it’s really important to remember that for every literary star like Matthew Thomas, who wrote an excellent book (We Are Not Ourselves) that is a sweeping, generational family saga – there are women who have been doing that sort of writing for years who have been marginalized and sidelined as “women’s fiction” authors. What, all the men just woke up and started reading this stuff? Really? And of course, when you wake up to the news that of ten NBA longlist finalists for non-fiction, ONE is female…well, you just want to crawl into bed again.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
JP: Racism. It’s the topic of my next adult book and God knows it’s a conversation we need to have in this country. It struck me that when white writers write about racism, it’s from the safety of a historical context – i.e. slavery. I mean, no one reads about slavery and thinks, “Man, those were good times.” But why aren’t white writers talking about racism NOW? Why only the writers of color? Well, because it’s terrifying to speak out. You don’t want to upset anyone, and you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and/or of being called to the carpet for what you say and why you think you have any right to say it, as a white person. It took me a long time to grapple with this (and several workshops about racism) but I have the right story to tell, and the right way to tell it. I am not writing this book to tell my fans of color what the world is like. They KNOW, and they feel it daily. I’m writing this book to tell my white fans that racism isn’t about intent – it’s about power, and privilege, and just by being born with your skin a certain color you have had privileges you’ve never had to think about (which in itself is a privilege). I’m writing this book to open people’s eyes.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
JP: What’s next for you? Well, I’m so glad you asked, Caroline. My daughter Samantha and I just finished the sequel to the YA book we wrote a few years ago, BETWEEN THE LINES. The next installment, OFF THE PAGE, will be published on May 19. We’re so excited about it – for many reasons. Not only is it a great read, but the two books combined are being developed into a major musical, hopefully headed for Broadway. Stay tuned!
Binnie Klein talks about BLOWS TO THE HEAD: HOW BOXING CHANGED MY MIND, the weird stones in our path, letting loose, and so much more
Boxing fascinates me. It's brutal, it's dark, it gives way to great drama (think Ray Donovan), and it's an alien world to me. Now consider a book about the male-dominated sport of boxing written by a woman, with the fabulous title, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind. You're hooked, right?
Binnie Klein not only boxes, she's a radio host of A Miniature World, a popular weekly music and interview program, and The Home Page Radio Show, the first radio show devoted exclusively to our relationship with our living spaces. It airs on the 4th and 5th Thursdays of each month on WPKN, 89.5FM or www.wpkn.org. But wait, there's more! Binnie is a psychotherapist in private practice in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University.
Thank you so much for being here, Binnie!
I grew up in a pretty sedentary family. We were all “mind,” and there were some physical fears and phobias floating around in our DNA. In my mid-fifties, I was in rehab for a broken ankle and foot when I spotted a pair of boxing gloves in the facility. They called out to me, and I didn’t know why – so I asked the trainer to show me a few things. I fell in love with it. I ultimately got my own coach, a former middleweight state champ who loved teaching middle-aged women to get comfortable with their aggression. Although I was a complete novice and would never be a “contender,” I wanted to get as close I could to the real thing.
What is it about such a brutal sport that drew you to it?
Unconsciously, I needed to let loose, to do something that contrasted with my daily work as a psychotherapist, where I am there for the “other,” helping someone else’s journey. That requires a lot of containment of feelings, for them and for you. It takes patience. Boxing turned out to be quite the opposite, with its immediacy and complete physicality. Yes, it challenges the brain (there’s a lot to remember – protect yourself at all times, how and when to choose what punch, watch your stance, etc.), but it’s so physically absorbing. The quick decisions you make in boxing can have volatile consequences. Plus, you can grunt and emote and generally let it all hang out! (although I admit I never spit in a bucket).
Also, as women, we’re definitely not encouraged to recognize or express our aggression. I had been ambivalent about my own competitive nature. Competition and ambition don’t have to involve physical violence of course, but they do require a certain comfort with self-assertion and sometimes, appropriate aggression.
What’s the connection between being Jewish and being in the ring?
One day, while sparring with my coach, the late John Spehar, who had a vast knowledge of the history of boxing, I asked if there were ever any Jewish boxers. The answer was a resounding “yes!” In fact, there were 26 Jewish champions between 1910 and 1940. With the waves of Jewish immigration in the turn of the 20th century, America became a new center for Jewish fighters. It was a more lucrative alternative to 16 hour shifts in sweatshops. As Budd Schulberg wrote: “To see (Benny)Leonard climb into the ring sporting the six-pointed Jewish star on his fighting trunks was to anticipate sweet revenge for all the bloody noses, split lips and mocking laughter at pale little Jewish boys who had run the neighbourhood gauntlet.” Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard – these sounded like the names of my relatives – and I began the research that resulted in Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind. I’d grown up thinking of Jews as the pale scholars, heads bent over books, not particularly physical. I needed this other image of strong, tough Jews to round out my experience of my heritage. And I needed to understand my own father’s love of boxing, and explore some of the sources of his own rage.
So tell us, what did you think it would be like to be in the ring, and what was it really like?
I’d love to modify this question – because I was never in the ring the way real fighters are, and it does a disservice to those who truly face their fears and risk injury. I was a poseur compared to them, an investigative researcher. I can only speak to my experience of sparring with my coach, which was a relatively contained and safe version of the sport. Yes, we were in the ring, but as he often said “I would never use my right hook on you; I will never hurt you.” But even being buffeted about on the head and body, I experienced sensations I’d never had. He encouraged me to thrust out punches, aim for his face. I felt stronger and empowered, and began to feel that if faced with danger I might be a wee bit more courageous in protecting myself. But for me, learning about boxing, the history of Jewish boxers, and women who box, was never about wanting to inflict pain on anyone.
When did you begin to notice that you were changing from your involvement in boxing?
The immediacy of boxing forced me to get out of my head. I looked forward to the lessons and felt a difference when I didn’t box. I noticed that I felt more confidence in general, and I don’t know if it’s primarily because I learned some punches; I think it’s because I pushed the envelope in my life. I tried something I never thought was “me.” Also, I’d never understood the lure of sports; now I watched footage of Ali fights, mesmerized by the choreography and grace. I began to appreciate the joy others took in following baseball, tennis, etc. Taking up this unusual sport late in life made me realize I could make other changes, too. I could put myself in new and unfamiliar settings – go to pro fights, meet women boxers, attend boxing camp, interview famous fighters and boxing writers. I started to write about my experiences. I’d always written – poetry, reviews, clinical essays – but it had always been a dream to do a book.
It affected my clinical practice, as I began to look at my patient’s physicality more closely. How were they with their own aggression? Were they timid? How we inhabit our physical bodies has so much to do with our sense of identity and possibility of effecting others. We can cower or we can have a stance of sorts. We are entitled to prevent others from hurting us.
What surprised you about it?
That any and all of these changes would come from a passion that most people could not understand. “Boxing? You? But it’s so violent,” and so on. That I found connection and comfort with the boxing community, a world of people who I never would have known before.
was surprised that this involvement and research made me more empathetic towards my family and piqued my curiosity about my heritage. I studied immigration (my mother had come from Poland at 8 years old), and talked with Rabbis. I held the rare text of 18th century fighter Daniel Mendoza’s memoir in my hands. I “worked the corner” for a young fighter at an amateur bout. I cried when a famous trainer bullied me at Gleason’s Boxing Camp. I learned my limits, and celebrated the triumphs of others.
Tell us about the “weird stones” in our path?
Think of a walk on a beach, or on a trail. We pass many stones on the ground. Sometimes we spot an unevenly shaped one, “a weird one.” If you follow your attraction to the unusual stone and pick it up, turn it over, study its contours, you may find a hidden gem. But you have to pick it up and get closer to it. Boxing was my “weird stone.” Weird stones rub out assumptions and preconceived notions, especially when we finally see the imprint of their true shape. We can’t know the true shape when we first pick them up. They are ones that surprise our friends and loved ones. “You?” “You’re going to work with gorillas?” “You’re boxing?”
“Each person has to find his own range considering the things that matter.” I find this to be as eloquent as it is illuminating. Can you talk about this please?
My coach John Spehar often talked about the importance of “finding my range.” Initially it was mystifying. Did it have to do with the length of my arms? Where I stood in relation to my opponent? I was a kinetic learner, he said; I understood things only after I tried them physically, and repeatedly. The right range was the amalgam of everything he’d taught me about my body’s abilities and limits. My proper range was not so far away that I couldn’t make contact but not so close up that I would get lost and smothered. It’s like when you get too enmeshed with a loved one, you can’t quite get your bearings or feel your own boundaries; you’re merged with them. We merge when we fall in love, and it’s an incredible feeling; nothing like it, but eventually we have to re-introduce the separateness so we lose illusions and truly see the other. We try different things out -- this close, that far away -- and only by trying can we find the right distance that works for us. When my range was right, when I was “the right distance away,” I had the most power, anything that emanated from my being was authentic, even if imperfect.
Each person finds their own range as it apply to the things that matter to them, whether it is family, work, beliefs, or relationships. These days I’m trying to find my range in relation to social media and facebook, things like that. Like many of us, I’m so absorbed and so focused on various screens, my eyes are getting blurry. I need breaks. I need to prioritize. I need to walk away so that I can come back.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I can’t tell you how much I love that you asked this question, because it assumes that there is always another obsession. It speaks to the truth of my and many other creative peoples’ lives in particular. We have to have a project. It’s an engine inside that never shuts down. We only feel truly and fully alive when the engine is revving and adequately fuelled.
So my current focus is the creation of a half-hour radio podcast which will weave together my long-standing interests in literature, film, culture, and music. I’ve been hosting a weekly music and interview show at WPKN, a listener-supported station, for many years, and have treasured the freedom. We are entering a new era of radio delivery, and if it is in fact going to be achieved through podcasts and easy Internet access for consumers, I want to be part of it! It challenges me to hone my skills, edit down some longer pieces, and weave together threads that I hope will give the audience a tiny bit of respite from the chaos of our over-stimulated lives. I want to share the joy I get from books and contemporary thinkers, and the thrill of discovering new and powerful music. I hope I get the opportunity to reach a wide audience.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Ooh, that’s another great question. I’ll pick “What was the most fun aspect of writing the book for you?”
When I arrived at a structural component that involved a fantasied meeting with 3 of the greatest Jewish boxing champions of all time – Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, and Daniel Mendoza. It was an imaginative exercise that really stretched me. I wanted to avoid just a dry historical recounting of their lives, and I wanted to see what I had in common, if anything, with each of them, and how I imagined us interacting. Barney “Beryl the Terrible” Ross, was a champion from 1933 to 1938, a handsome gambler who loved the ponies (like my Dad). He “told” me about early beatings in the neighborhood, and his father’s murder, leading to disillusionment with “the Jewish things.”
By eleven years old, small and wiry Benny “The Ghetto Wizard” Leonard was the boxer of Eighth Street on the lower east side. He learned about his “range” by studying defense, and was responsible for boxing’s designation as “The Sweet Science.” He could use his head and understand how to succeed without being big and burly and powerful.
When Daniel “The Star of Israel” Mendoza battled in the 18th century, it was bare-knuckles, no rounds, and you went until you dropped. His book “The Art of Fighting,” discussed the need for keeping one’s equilibrium, and he described it the way I thought about “keeping one’s range”
These remarkable men were true boxers. I learned through writing this book that I could face some of my fears. I learned that I wasn’t really meant to be a boxer, but that in my own way, I had been, and would always be…. a fighter.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Elizabeth Rosner talks about ELECTRIC CITY, practicing gratitude, technology's impact, writing, memory, and so much more
Elizabeth Rosner is one of my favorite writers--and favorite people on the planet. Warm, funny, generous, she also writes novels that defy categorization because they're so fascinating on so many levels.
Her novel, The Speed of Light was in Book Sense 76 twice, and was selected as one of Borders Original Voices. It's also been optioned by Gillian Anderson, and is slated to be her directorial debut. The novel was the recipient of the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, administered by Hadassah Magazine and judged by Elie Wiesel, N. Scott Momaday and Myla Goldberg (the previous year’s winner). Hadassah additionally selected the novel for their National Book Club in spring 2003. Rosner also received the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award for Fiction in 2002. In 2003, the French edition of this title was a finalist for the prestigious Prix Femina. In April 2004, the French awarded the novel a newly inaugurated literary prize, called the Prix France Bleu Gironde, at an award ceremony in Bordeaux. She's also the author of Gravity, and Blue Nude, and a poetry collection, Gravity. Her prize-winning fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in the New York times Magazine, Elle, Chicago Magazine, Catamaran, and many other places.
Her newest novel, Electric City, is about memory, history and invention, and it's unlike anything I've read before.
What sparked you to write this particular book? How was the process different from any of your other fine novels?
It may seem strange to say this, because my previous two novels are both quite autobiographical (and in fact I often refer to them as "emotionally autobiographical"), but the initial spark for ELECTRIC CITY happened when I realized that I hadn't yet written a novel about the place in which I grew up. At the age of sixteen, after graduating a year early from high school, I got a scholarship to study for a year in the Philippines, and I seized the opportunity to "get as far from home as I could without leaving the planet." (This is a line from one of my poems in GRAVITY called "Keeping Kosher in the Philippines.") The truth is, not writing about Schenectady, New York had a lot to do with having fled from there at a young age, with no desire to return.
And yet, in my late 40s, it occurred to me that I could finally look back at my hometown with a liberating mix of curiosity and forgiveness. Suddenly I became altogether fascinated by the place, discovering that it possessed many more layers of history and personality and cultural complexity than I had ever been able to recognize. I quickly found myself wanting to burrow into those strata as though in search of secret treasures. The process became profoundly research-driven at times, especially because I was incorporating historical figures into my work. This was certainly new for me, often more than a little intimidating. And yet as I had done while creating my previous novels, I also had to keep digging for the stories beneath the story. I had to keep allowing my characters to show me the way forward.
There's the whole notion of the double-edge sword of technology in the book, how it can light up a city, and yet it can also be harnessed for war's killing. Can you talk about that please?
As the daughter of a scientist and also as someone raised in the post-Sputnik era, I was taught to believe that technology and invention held the keys to our future, promising to save us from every difficulty. Yet my instincts and intuition seemed to tell me otherwise. I saw what I considered to be enormous dangers and disasters that our own brilliant human minds had created. I was a wanna-be hippie and a devoted peacenik, convinced that war was not the answer. I was haunted by Oppenheimer's quoting the Bhagavad Gita, after the test detonation called Trinity when he faced his own participation in the building of the atomic bomb: "Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds."
Your characters were just so live and breathing on the page. I fell in love with Sophie, in particular. Can you talk about how you shape your characters? And what was it like writing about real, historical figures?
As I mentioned above, writing about historical people was an unfamiliar challenge for me. In certain ways I feel somewhat limited in my imagination, so it can be comforting to look for source material in documentation, but at the same time, I am extremely fearful about "making mistakes" or being accused of falsification. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I got along the way was in a conversation I had with E.L. Doctorow, when I asked him how he managed to work so brilliantly with real-life figures from history. He said (something like): "I just treat them like the rest of my characters. Portrait painters don't always just work realistically. We interpret." That gave me a lot of permission to be elastic with the kinds of facts and details I came across in my research.
Perhaps my favorite way of shaping characters is to ask them over and over again: What do you want? What are you afraid of? As for Sophie Levine, she is both like and unlike me in all sorts of ways. For one thing, in creating her, I wanted to imagine who I might have been if I'd been born ten years earlier. (Not surprisingly, I always wished I had been born earlier so as to be old enough to fully participate in the anti-war movement). I wanted to explore some of the alternate paths I might have taken in life (for example, going to medical school, as my mother had always urged). I truly loved the experience of seeing the world through her eyes.
The novel is such a fabulous and heady mix of history, that I was wondering about your research process. What surprised you? Did anything you learn turn the plot around for you?
Some of the most surprising things I learned had to do with the Mohawk history --- the living history --- of my hometown. When I was growing up, there were Native American names all over the place, but I thought the Iroquois Nation had been lost to the distant past. It probably never even occurred to me that I might meet a living member of the Mohawk tribe. When I did meet a Mohawk man --- by sheer coincidence, while traveling in Mexico --- my entire worldview shifted for good. You could say that the plot of my novel came as a delayed result of that encounter.
For the record, I feel the need to repeatedly confess that I am a sloppy and haphazard researcher. Each time I revised the manuscript, it seemed I had to delve yet again into the archives for some "perfect" item to make a scene come out right; magically it would always appear (usually in the place I had looked before, and not found anything). I am quite possibly the least organized novelist in the known world.
What's your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you outline?
Re: outlining, see confession above.
As for rituals, they mostly included relentless paths of avoidance, distraction, procrastination and despair. How I find my way out of that mess and into productivity remains a marvel to me. I'm serious.
I often tell my students that when Toni Morrison was asked "Where do you write?" she replied, "I type at my desk. I write all over the house." My version of an answer is "I write all over town, all over the world." I write while taking long walks in my neighborhood with my dog. I write while swimming. I write in my sleep (or so I'm inclined to believe).
To clarify, though, there is a huge difference for me between composing and revising. What I said just above has mainly to do with composing the earliest drafts and also perhaps an early phase of revising that is something maybe akin to architectural design or even choreography. Once the pages exist in a great big pile and the story has its shape and the characters are dimensional --- in other words, when it is time for the diligent task of improving and refining, polishing the facets, I am much more able to sit at a desk and focus.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Obsessing may be a strong-ish verb for this, but I'm fully committed to practicing gratitude on a daily if not hourly basis. I am acting on the belief that I can rewire my brain and place my attention on everything inside and around me that is already good, already enough, already perfect. Pardon me if this sounds embarrassingly optimistic (or naive or whatever).
If what you're really asking about is what writing project I'm working on next? It's most definitely too soon to talk about it.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
THANK YOU FOR ASKING SUCH GREAT QUESTIONS!!!
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Dylan Landis talks about her extraordinary RAINEY ROYAL, the turbulent 1970s, the sharp edges of girls, and so much more
It's been called captivating and unnerving. It gets under your skin like a thorn--and you want it there. Janet Fitch said, "It should carry a warning sign: do not read before bedtime." Joanna Rakoff called it "beautiful and brutal," and Roxane Gay said, "there's edge and tenderness and longing to be found." Dylan Landis' debut novel, Rainey Royal is all that, and more. About girlhood, sex, friendship and fighting for your place in the world, it's an absolute stunner.
Dylan is also the author of Normal People Don't Live Like This, and her fiction has appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, Bomb, Tin House, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She's won a fellowship in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts and has written six books on decorating. I'm so thrilled to have Dylan here. Thank you, so much, Dylan!
Your first book was a collection of linked short stories. How difficult and/or strange was it to write a novel? Did anything about it surprise you?
The novel, Rainey Royal, also began as a set of tightly linked stories. So the surprise lay not in the writing but in revision, in going back and giving them the arc and the weight of a novel. It took much weaving and reweaving to work characters and iconic objects and subplots through the book from beginning to end. For example, a story about Rainey's Aunt Laurette became chapter 12, so Laurette now had to make earlier appearances. A story about a robbery became chapter 3, but the plunder from that robbery had to turn up elsewhere. Rainey's longing for her mother had to resonate throughout. I had to retrofit the book with unity and layers and resolution. That took a while.
Will your next work be a novel?
I hope so. I'm so in love with the distillation of the short story, the sprawl of the traditional novel does not come naturally to me. But I'm trying. A novel requires airspace and I'm working to embrace that, to learn to defer the action, not to frontload everything in the first fifteen pages for fear of losing the reader. And yet don't you have to start with a character in trouble? My favorite novel, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, takes its time unpacking the storyline, and I've probably read it ten times.
The setting, the turbulent 1970s, is very much a character here. What made you set the book during that time period, and in the Bohemian heart of New York City, and what was your research like?
I grew up in New York in the '60s, till I was twelve, and then in the suburbs through the '70s, but very city-connected. Those years every nerve ending was alive, and I remember so vividly how everything around me looked and smelled and sounded. It was the most intense setting I could bring to life from memory. It was dissolute and enthralling and our parents had no idea what we were doing. The Met was waiting to be explored and school was waiting to be cut and the music was charged with burgeoning sexuality and curfews were waiting to be broken and there was a sense of physical danger on some blocks, true or not. Kids were marching in Washington with their parents and it really mattered how your jeans fit. I don't have the same sensory access to any other decade, or to any other cities I've lived in and loved.
What I researched was jazz. I'm not remotely musical. I went online and watched people play instruments, so I would know how they moved. And I Googled "terminology of jazz" so I would have a vocabulary with some metaphorical freight, like when Tina thinks about the inner voice of the music, and of course of her own heart.
Rainey is an extraordinary creation, a tough, fierce, tender girl struggling to become an artist--and a person in her own right. Actually, all of the girls in the novel are astonishing. There’s such a dangerous edginess to the girls’ friendships, their sexual escapades, their lives. How did you go about crafting them?
One line of dialogue and gesture at a time, draft by draft by endless draft. It was a process of discovery. There was so much I didn't know about these girls until I wrote a couple of new lines and thought, Oh! So Tina's grandmother isn't blind—but Tina really does take care of her—and with such grace—I had no idea till I got there. Or that Rainey won't ask for a glass of milk from Gordy because milk feels too intimate—that sprang itself on me, like nearly everything else. All I knew for sure was that they had to have very sharp edges, these girls, and they had to be vulnerable where it didn't show. Andrea Barrett talks about how the "layers accrete" as she writes draft upon draft upon draft, and that was my experience.
What kind of writer are you? Do you put out a welcome mat for The Muse or do you outline everything until you have a solid skeleton?
The welcome mat's always out, but I don't wait for The Muse to enter. I try to just write, however badly. If I can't write, I revise. I've tried outlining for the novel I'm working on now, and sometimes it feels reassuring; it gives me something to write toward, a sense of direction. I like in particular the index-card method that Robert Olen Butler describes in From Where You Dream; it's a much looser version of an outline. But sometimes knowing too much makes me feel, as Robin Black says, like I'm doing a paint-by-numbers picture. With my best stories, I knew how a scene opened, but I didn't know the ending till I fell over it. So my answer lies in the middle of the spectrum you describe. Welcome mat, but don't wait. Think ahead just a little. Work in the dark.
And honestly if the Muse just peers in at the window I feel lucky.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Hoarding and collecting and art, and the places where they might intersect, if they do. I saw a hoard when I was little, a newspaper hoard, and it overwhelmed and fascinated me, and I never forgot wanting to explore the pathway that led into it and see what secret lay beyond those towering stacks of newsprint. It was in a large storage room of the basement of our building, and I knew the porter lived back there. Rainey has an aunt who's a hoarder, and there's a hoarder in the novel I'm trying to write, though that project is shape-shifting as I work on it. I'm also fascinated by the way art exists in us as a drive apart from morality. Rainey's father says at one point, "An artist can't be a criminal," but of course that's not true. Rainey is an artist and she does something criminal at one point, and so does her father's musician-acolyte, Damien, who lives with them. Yet art can save us. It can hold us together when nothing else works.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Rainey's been in two books—will she come back?
She's my alter ego. I miss her already. I'd love to write about her at an older age. I'd love to hear Rainey's voice in my head again.