Blog Hop: I Almost Never Write and Tell

A few weeks ago, I was tagged in a blog hop by writer and friend Sally Cooper, asked to talk about my work, my process, my current projects.  advice mod verbsApart from the fact that I feel there is way too much talk about writing these days–who does what, how often, how–which I almost never relate to, though may find interesting–I am, at base, against the concept of the writer as public figure, asked to pronounce truisms about the writing life, give advice to the aspiring, or lay down wisdom derived from his/her own struggle with the written word.  I am not saying that I’ve never engaged in these activities: as an instructor of creative writing, that is half of my job, and even this blog has such pondering, such pronouncements.  So here I am, after several attempts, some contempt, and a good deal of procrastination, with my answers to the questions posed, by whom initially, I am not sure. Make of them what you will.

What are you working on?

PR-SecretsI am, by nature, a secretive person.  This may not be evident given how social and garrulous I can be on occasion, but no matter how much of a story I tell, there is always something I leave out.  This is true in all aspects of my life–in my relationships with family and friends, in my intimate relationships, and even in my relationship (when I had one) with my therapist.  Part of this might have to do with a fear of being judged and found wanting, but the greater part has to do with keeping a tantalizing something for and to myself.  This also holds true in my writing life.  I will generally only speak of my work in any sort of detail once it is complete.  I don’t consider it a superstition that a work can be damaged or talked out by speaking of it too soon, before it and the writer have grown a skin thick enough to resist both skeptics and detractors, not to mention the well-meaning critics who are only too willing to offer what more they desire from it.  But mostly I am just happy to selfishly guard it, like a fabulous secret life, full of passion and conflict, created to suit myself, since I write first and foremost for myself.  So I’m not going to talk about what I am working on.  That is, as they say, for me to know and for you to find out.

I can, however, talk about what I have almost finished: a collection of magical and wistful stories called In Love with the Dead, which are mostly about people in relationships that may or may not be real. They are fairy tales for adults and, as such, will come with illustrations by South African friend and artist Lynne Lomofsky. Why should only children’s books be illustrated? Do we not all desire and require a little more art and colour in our lives? I do.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I have no idea.  This seems like a question for academics and agents, not for writers.  Answering that kind of question would likely stop me in my tracks. Are fairy tales a genre? Then there is not always a happily ever after to my stories, at least not the expected kind. Is literary fiction a genre? Then that’s what I’m doing, at least I hope I am. Is magic realism hallucination-selfhelp-012413a genre? Well, the stories are somewhat magical, and somewhat realistic, and do exactly what they are supposed to do: they explore and reveal human desires, wounds, psyches, conflicts, and consequences without being tied to the literal and mundane aspects of physical reality. On the other hand, a reader might be tempted to conclude that many of my characters are suffering from mental breakdowns; this might be the one difference. But those types of conclusions or interpretations are also not my responsibility.  I have been known to entertain magical thinking in my life, so who am I to judge?  I just tell my character’s stories as they come, without much of an agenda–at least that is true of this book.

Why do I write what I do?

Sometimes I have a question that I want answered. In my last novel, The Goodtime Girl, I wanted to know what it would have been like to be a female singer in the 1920s tavernas and hash dens of post-war Greece.  In Love with the Dead was a reaction to such research-based writing, which often made me feel shackled to reality, to history. I wanted freedom and less tragedy. I wanted imagination to be the driving force in the lives of the characters. I wanted anything that happened, no matter how unlikely, to be acceptable.

I also tend to write the types of stories that I want to read. I try to fulfill my own wants and needs for emotion, for amusement, for certain types of narrative the best I can. Curiosity, hunger, and self-satisfaction sum it up best.  If I could simply find other books that perfectly satisfied those three needs, perhaps I would stop writing. Or maybe not.

How does my writing process work?

I have a very long gestation period for any idea.  I collect tidbits for it while I’m waiting for the moment, for the motivation, for courage to begin.  Sometimes I am plagued by a first line that I know I must write down, which repeats in my brain like a disembodied, obsessive voice, and more often than not pushes me towards a notebook, just to shut it up.  That line often has momentum, at least for a paragraph, if not more.  I can also, on a disciplined day, have an intention to write and begin putting something down on paper scriptcrumb(yes, I still write on paper) just for the sake of doing it, so I can say that I tried.  If I can hang in beyond the awkward stiltedness of the first lines, I can sometimes get into a rhythm, begin to feel the flow of language, let the writing take me beyond my mechanical intentions.  I used to work 3 or 4 hours every day, no matter how I felt: inspired, uninspired, tired, resentful, hopeful.  That really is the way things like a novel get written.  Now, I have less time to dedicate to my writing, but when I am ready to dive into my new project, currently waiting patiently in the ether, gathering strength, momentum, urgency, I will clear my schedule again. Writing is not a thing I can do part-time, or in stolen moments.  It completely takes over, and I need full days, with no other distractions, to surrender to the new relationship.

So that’s my two bits, and now I pass the baton over to poet Una McDonnell, whose contribution will appear on this blog in a few weeks, and poet, publisher, and dandy rob mclennan.

Thanks for hopping by!

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Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Philomena Zapponi owned a button shop on what was called Tailor’s Row by the locals. It had been opened by her grandmother Delphina after her grandfather Cosimo was lost at sea. As Delphina packed her dead husband’s clothes to donate to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, she found herself unable to part with the shiny buttons on his ceremonial uniform. Before she could stop herself, she had cut them all off, and not only those fine gold buttons, but all the lesser buttons on his shirts, on his trousers, on his winter coat. She absolved herself of her guilt over this act of vandalism by telling herself that buttons were inexpensive, and even the poorest parishioners could afford them. They were, after all, still getting Cosimo’s fine clothes—a blessing, with or without the buttons. Delphina collected his in a big glass jar, which she placed on the dresser across her bed. As there was no body to bury, no grave site to visit and tend, she polished the jar and its contents daily and spoke to it every night before she went to sleep.

“Oh Cosimo,” she said, “the children are sneezing and skinny as gypsies, the city has turned off the gas, and it’s so cold under the blankets without you.” Sometimes, when the moon was full, a flame ignited inside Delphina, and she told the jar secrets she would have never dared tell Cosimo while he was alive, then pasted her lips against the cool glass and did things with the buttons she could never tell anyone.

There was no pension for the widows of seamen, so Delphina’s pantry emptied day by day, her children’s shoes wore out, and her spirit waned. Without any skills other than those of a housewife, she was forced to sell off her jewelry, then her imported china and crystal, then the inessential furniture, and finally the essential, until the house was almost bare and the children slept in flour sacks on the floor. She could not, however, part with the jar of buttons. Desperate, hungry, and humiliated, Delphina wept into it, corroding the buttons with her salty tears, begging Cosimo, God, the buttons for a solution to her woes. “You could have asked earlier,” all three might have justifiably replied, “before the children were forced to wear rubber tires on their feet, and before little Agatha developed rickets.” But Cosimo had been a kind man, and even God had His moments of compassion. The buttons, the most practical of the trinity, shone brightly and screamed “Sell me! Sell me! Sell me!”

And thus Delphina’s Button Shoppe came into being—first in what had been their living room, and eventually in the storefront on Tailor’s Row. Delphina greeted customer’s from behind a long glass display case, where the shop’s finest buttons rested like gems on velvet cushions. They were illuminated from above by a chandelier of Bohemian crystal that sprinkled the whole shop with stardust. On the side walls were large gold frames that displayed all manner of buttons like abstract pointillist art, their copies kept in the little drawers of an ebony apothecary cabinet so immense that it took up the entire back wall. No other shop carried as large and eclectic a selection of splendid buttons made of rare wood, of ivory, of hand-blown glass. And even after Velcro and plastic snaps invaded the market, barnacling themselves like zebra mussels to otherwise respectable garments, the most discerning and difficult-to-please seamstresses and tailors still frequented Delphina’s shop in search of the perfect button.

Soon Delphina’s house was filled with furniture much finer than the hand-me-downs that she and Cosimo had been given as wedding gifts. The children skipped to school in new shoes of the butteriest, most expensive leather. Agatha was attended to by a specialist who fed her oranges and grapefruits until she stood up straight and glowed as if sun-kissed. And although Delphina never married again, she was the most sought after guest at balls on Tailor’s Row, where she danced the cha-cha and the rumba in beautiful dresses, bedizened with the most exquisite buttons money could buy.

After Delphina’s death at the age of 79, the shop was passed down to Agatha, who was efficient but nowhere near as glamourous as her mother. And when Agatha got so old that she confused a box of pink and black striped enamel buttons for licorice candy, she was promptly placed in a nursing home by her children, where all of her clothes were fastened with Velcro. This encouraged her to flash other patients, orderlies, unsuspecting visitors, and her children when they came, which was not often. The sound of the two prickly strips being ripped apart made Agatha laugh out loud, and she would do it over and over, much to the chagrin of everyone, especially her only son, Augusto, who was the first to stop visiting.

It was expected that Philomena, the youngest, would take the reigns. None of her three sisters, and certainly not her brother Augusto, wanted anything to do with “the button racket” as they called it. “Philomena, you’re the most organized,” insisted Melina, the pretty sister who had snagged a rich husband at the Tailors’ Spring Cotillion. “Philomena, you are the most knowledgeable,” pointed out Lucretia, the brainy sister who had gone to medical school while Philomena toiled behind the button counter from the age of six onwards, enduring her mother’s incessant criticism, obeying her increasingly bizarre whims. “Philomena, we have families who need us,” argued Augusto and Delphi, the oldest daughter who was named after her illustrious grandmother.

Though this was all true, Philomena couldn’t see how this excused them. They had jobs they went to every morning, jobs that the buttons had provided by putting them through school, and by making their suits more appealing and professional-looking at interviews. Were they really prepared to deny the power of a properly-chosen and well-placed button? These were good arguments, which might have even moved her siblings to contribute at least some of their time to the family business had Philomena actually pronounced them. But just as she had never been able to stand up to her mother, she proved equally inept at standing up to her siblings. She just nodded dumbly as they left the shop, and as if foreordained by the jar of her grandfather’s buttons itself, Philomena became the Button Mistress, or the Button Spinster, or the Old Crazy Button Lady, depending on who was speaking of her, friend or foe.

More buttons coming up…

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 1

Here is the first installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. Like the serialized stories of old, I will be posting two sections a week, so get on board and enjoy the ride!

For reasons he couldn’t explain, people kept telling Bruce Lanzieri things that were none of his business: in elevators, in laundromats, in movie line-ups—wherever he went. It hadn’t always been so, and the first time it happened, he thought nothing of it. He was standing at the corner of Bank Street and Antique Alley, waiting for the light to change, when an old woman squinted at him through tortoise-shell glasses. “You look just like my brother Harry,”she said, sniffing the air like an offended cat. “He’s been dead now, 3 years.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Bruce replied, hiding his discomfort behind a sympathetic smile.
“We weren’t that close,” the old woman added, “never really got along.” She blinked a few times, and seemed to be done, but Bruce noticed a strange light in her eyes, a sparkle mixed in with a hint of anxiety. “It’s my fault, really,” she continued, her voice tinctured with remorse. “I always resented him because Mother thought he was the cat’s pajamas. So at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into his room and pour apple juice on his sheets.”

The next day, a woman with a blonde beehive mistook him for the high school sweetheart she’d never forgotten; then an old man with a parrot for a long lost friend he’d betrayed; then a man with a mole on his brow for a forgiven enemy. The reason, perhaps, for these optical delusions was that Bruce didn’t look like anybody in particular, thus he looked like everybody and was a threat to no one. It baffled him that even after these strangers realized their error, they divulged a secret they had never told anyone else. Soon they were approaching him in such great numbers that no matter what their shape or size, their age or even their gender, they blended into one non-descript being, as indistinguishable as a tree in a overgrown forest. At most, Bruce might remember an accoutrement or a physical oddity: the tortoise shell glasses; a red purse; a tie strewn with sunflowers; the startling mole, large and puffy as a nipple.

In the beginning, Bruce often wondered which came first, the wish to confess or his arrival at the traffic light? He no longer asked such questions. He accepted that he had been chosen by some higher power to receive their secrets, plain and simple, So instead of fighting it, he did what any reasonable man would do. Bruce quit his job as a schoolteacher to dedicate himself to his new calling full-time. He’d read somewhere that if he did what he loved, the money would follow. So he gave himself a title, and advertised on laundromat bulletin boards, in community papers, on telephone poles around the neighbourhood:

Bruce Lanzieri, Cryptotelist—Your secret is safe with me!

For one dollar the burdened could send him a secret anonymously, and in return they would feel, if not absolved, then at least relieved of carrying it around, afraid that it might slip out after a few drinks and ruin them. He provided his home address in these advertisements, and the secrets, with their accompanying dollars, began trickling into his mail slot:

Every time I walk on a subway grate, I pray it won’t collapse.
My husband’s twin brother is the father of our son.
I cheated my way through medical school.

Bruce made two piles on his kitchen table—one for the secrets, another for the dollar bills—which gradually grew taller as the weeks passed. Then, like a ripple in the ocean’s depth that gains strength as it travels towards the shore, the trickle became a tidal wave of mail. More than Bruce could read, more than he could count, more than he knew what to do with frankly. Mailbags bursting with longings, transgressions, wishes for revenge began filling up every room, floor to ceiling, of the small house he’d rented on his teacher’s salary. Soon it was difficult to get to the front door if someone rang—most often Murray the postman, who was none too pleased.

“Mr. Lanzieri,” he said one morning after he’d made three trips to his mail truck and was about to make a forth, “I got two things to say to you.” This was unusual as Murray generally dumped the bags on the stoop, rang the bell and was on his way before Bruce could make it to the door. He looked at the little bald man kindly, ready to receive his confidences. But Murray’s only secret was his lisp, which gave his advice the ring of truth. “You need to move to a bigger house,” he began, looking past Bruce’s body into the mailbag cramped hallway, “ and you gotta stop putting your address in them ads. This town is full of scallywags and crooks, and if they ain’t interested in the money,” he held an air mail envelope to the light, “they’s gonna want the secrets.”

Indeed, the dollar bill was visible through the thin blue paper, and so was the secret in its bold black letters. Murray shook his head as he went back for the last bag, and after Bruce dragged all four into the house he began the gargantuan task of opening the newly-arrived envelopes. With the stacks of dollar bills he extracted from inside, he bought a large house that was not on Murray’s route, for which the lisping postman was eternally grateful. The house’s six rooms, as well as the basement, both bathrooms and the attic, were immediately overrun by secrets, which multiplied and spread like jack rabbits. Bruce confined himself to the living room with its brown fold-out couch, and the adjoining kitchen, where he sometimes used the sink as a toilet. But since he lived alone, no one was the wiser, and from the letters he received, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

That was the saddest and most endearing quality of the secrets: so many were the same, but their owners were convinced that no other person in the history of the world had ever had sex with a cousin, regretted having children, or wished their spouse would never come back from war. And heaven help them if the husband actually got blown up by a roadside bomb, or the child fell through the window screen at a neighbor’s birthday party, or the cousin gave birth to a baby with a curly vestigial tail. Then they would flog themselves daily with a wet cat ‘o nine tails, a bamboo switch, a wire hanger, and might have done so indefinitely had Bruce not come along with his offer of respite for a buck. He was providing a valuable service, and in appreciation he was not only compensated financially, he was also sent a wife…

Part 2