Blog Hop: Una McDonnell–The Whole Yummy-Messy Smash

Thanks to the lovely Tess Fragoulis for including in me in the Blog Hop, and letting me hop right onto her blog to do it!

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Una McDonnell

What am I working on?

I’m working on a book of short stories I started during an MFA in Creative Writing with the amazing Zsuszi Gartner, who taught me how to unleash my own voice as a short fiction writer. I don’t know whose style I was trying to write before, but it was some safe, bland compilation of a “literary” voice. For the first class, I’d written this truly horrible last line in a story, involving one tenacious leaf hanging from a winter branch. Zsuszi and the gang—we later named ourselves “The Tenacious Leaves”— facilitated that breakthrough moment in which I could finally see how I was getting in my own way as a writer. Once I kicked the nasty self-imposed critic, with all her “shoulds,” off my shoulder, the writing and my enjoyment of it opened up. That’s the book I’m working on now, The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In the title story, I was interested in that particular problem of consciousness in which there is no logical reason why we should have experience, or a rich inner life, as part of the meat-machine processes of mind. How then do we share our experience? Or as Betty Goodwin asks in one her preliminary sketches, “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” I like playing with that in story—how little of what we mean gets across once its been through the filter of our personality and the listener’s own psychological makeup. The extraordinary capacity of language and its failures. I find I’m always drawn to books and movies with interweaving story lines and characters. I have a triptych in the book that takes place on one night in a small village (very like the one I live in) with three characters in the middle of various crises that draw direct and indirect connections between them.

I also have a mostly-completed book of poems and half a novel and a small business. Starting a business is like pushing a huge boulder off a mountain peak, then getting in front and running. The boulder is slowing down and my legs are way stronger than when I started. So, right now, the stories. I’m learning to focus.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is the sort of question I wouldn’t have the first clue how to answer. It’s hard to see my own work objectively. One thing I’ve decided about other people’s art—to dispel that feeling that I’d have to take survey courses covering the whole of human history in every discipline to properly “understand” it—is that if a work engages me on numerous levels, then it’s working for me. A Betty Goodwin mixed media piece challenges me intellectually and visually, cracks me open and gives me goosebumps. That method of engagement with art has a corollary for my own work: that the best I can do is develop my craft and strive to be authentic. The writing I most admire has spiritual grit, and by that I mean, it’s earnest in the best sense of the word, but has its feet on the ground too. It feels elemental, like a brilliant new idea, yet one that resonates in my most hidden self, and I wish I’d written it. I try to write the work that in a parallel universe, I would wish I’d written.

Why do I write what I do?

It’s nice to be asked to talk about writing, and I enjoy reading factual articles and memoirs, but so far, the only kind of writing I love to do is fictional. In fact, I wither under the mental organization of other kinds of writing and of life tasks in general. The regular world, with its exigencies and details makes me tired. I can feel a nap coming on right now…

I write fiction and poetry because those forms engender more epiphanic moments than anything else I could do. So, yup, I chase that feeling. Everyone has had those seconds in the morning mirror, when, for some reason, time slows, and you can see yourself, really see yourself, briefly, from a slightly different angle, as though a veil has dropped, and you think, “My God, that’s me, I am Me.” You are both more familiar and more a stranger to yourself in those moments. Or as one of my characters, an adolescent girl named Tanya, says, (cause, lets face it, my characters know much more than I do), you get pulled “into the big old world and every living thing we share it with, all the animals and trees, rivers and caves, stars in the sky, and everyone, the whole implausible, irreconcilable, yummy-messy smash.”

The specifics come based on whatever gets lodged in my mind or body and haunts me until I let it out.

How does my writing process work?

Before a first draft, I spend a lot of time working when I’m not working. I need to fill my life with the right things in order to write well—time in the world of nature, time to read, and some good old-fashioned loafing about on the couch and staring at the ceiling with a song like Springsteen’s The River on a repeat loop, à la my sixteen-year-old self. Caffeine helps. Sometimes wine. Long drives are good. So is sleeping on it. Once I can feel the story, feel the emotion of the idea, character, or question that’s asking to be written, then I can face the blank screen.

When it gets down to writing the story, I have to say, I have a pretty unstructured mind, so sometimes laying down a structure frees me up to delve into character and ideas. I want the content and the form of the story to work together and I really enjoy playing with that. Revision is my favourite part of writing, where I really develop the characters, the line by line craft, etc. The best I can hope for in a first draft is that I get the voice on the page. Most of it gets cut later, and everything else is re-writing. If my writing process were a poem, it would be Steven Heighton’s Ballad of the Slow Road.

I’m most productive at writer’s residencies, where I can be locked away in my room with a view, but know that there are great people working near-by, stimulating conversation and a cuppa tea or a pint waiting when I’m ready to leave my bubble. So right now I’m renting a studio with the writer Lesley Buxton in the Farrellton Artist Space in an old, country school housing 20 other artists. It hasn’t produced as much beer-drinking as I’d like, but I’m getting work done.

I’m passing the rabbit’s foot over to playwright, poet, short-story writer, and fibre artist, S.Lesley Buxton, who is currently writing a Memoir through Dalhousie’s King’s College based on her beautiful and heart-breaking blog Fall On Me, Dear. And to poet, Dilys Leman, (who will also post on Lesley’s blog) great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Augustus Jukes, senior surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 Rebellion. Dilys’ new book, The Winter Court (McGill-Queens University Press), challenges the official story about the roll of First Nations in that rebellion through a mix of original poems and reconstituted archival texts.

*

Una McDonnell has performed at literary readings and music festivals, on top of café tables (to get a gig), and on one occasion in a boxing ring (she won her round). She attended the 2002 Banff Wired Writing Studio and the 2003 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and has a Masters of Fine Arts from UBC. She has published work in Arc, Prairie Fire, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to Aids, and Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature.

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If I Were Proust

ProustMarcel Proust and I have several things in common. We’re both writers. We’re both over-writers–though I come nowhere near his graphomania. We like pastries–Madeleines, millefeuilles, whatever. And most of all, we enjoy spending much of our time reclined, though unlike Marcel, I have no servants and, thus, have to get out of bed every once in a while to fetch those pastries.

That said, having recently read through his answers to what has become known as The Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions that were meant to reveal a person’s character, I found myself wondering how writers I know might answer. Of course, Vanity Fair adopted a version of the questionnaire that it puts to celebrities every month. I know no real celebrities, but I do know many, many writers, especially here in Canada. So I intend to publish a series of their answers over the coming months, not only introducing their work, but their inclinations and aspirations, as determined by 31 questions–only slightly modified from the original ones that good old Marcel answered in 1890.

I will begin with myself, not only because I am the most readily available writer I know, but also because I’m still in bed as I type, which seems somehow appropriate.

1. Your favorite qualities in a man. Charming
Charm mixed with kindness. You sometimes get one or the other, but seldom both. Beware of free-standing charm.

2. Your favourite qualities in a woman.
Confidence and directness. I like a gal who can tell it like it is, without couching it in too much politeness or euphemism.

3. Your chief characteristic.
Open-mindedness. I am much more curious than judgemental. It helps in both writing and life.

4. What you appreciate the most in your friends.
Their intelligence and wit. Their ability to lend a sympathetic ear when necessary.

5. Your main fault.
Tendency to worry/be anxious. This may be the downside of an active imagination.

6. Your favourite occupation.beach
Sitting on the beach on a sunny day, staring at the waves and sky. Going into the water every now and then. I guess I was supposed to say writing…

7. Your idea of happiness.
A stretch of empty days that I can fill with whatever I please. If the weather is fine and the locale interesting, even better.

8. Your idea of misery.
A prison of responsibilities and obligations that you cannot escape, that sour the soul. Anything you don’t want to do but have to.

9. If not yourself, who would you be?
Lucinda Williams. At least for 3 days. But would she have to be me in the meanwhile? I wonder what she’d make of that.

10. Where would you like to live?
I like where I live now, but would love a life spent partially in exotic and tropical climes. Bora Bora, Fiji, somewhere with crystalline water, white sand and palm trees. I would take a Greek island in a pinch…

Star-Gazer-Lily11. Your favourite colour and flower.
Purple, of the deep variety. Any type of lily, but especially the tall Asian ones that smell like flowery butter.

12. Your favourite bird.
I’m partial to African Grey Parrots. I like a bird that can hold a conversation and make up its own vocabulary.

13. Your favourite prose authors.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Ford, Truman Capote.

14. Your favourite poets.
I’m going to say Ruth Stone for today. Poems ambushed her in fields!

15. Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Jose Buendia in 100 Years of Solitude, especially after he was tied to the tree. I also have a lot of affection for Dell in Richard Ford’s Canada.

16. Your favourite heroines in fiction.
I’m currently enamoured with Isabel Archer in Henry James Portrait of a Lady.

17. Your favourite painters and musicians.
So many, but here are a few: Otto Dix, Modigliani, Francis Bacon; Bach, Jack White, Psarantonis

18. Your heroes in real life.
Rebels, geniuses, whistleblowers, and anyone who helps without expectation of reward.

nunfun19. Your heroines in real life.
Nuns. I think nuns are awesome. And what I said about heroes.

20. What characters in history do you most dislike.
Pick any psycho/sociopathic dictator and insert name here. And Stephen Harper.

21. Your heroines in World history.
Hypatia, Catherine the Great, Mata Hari.

22. Your heroes in World history.
Democritus, William James, Carl Jung.

23. Your favourite food and drink.martini-fruit
Japanese and Italian, and, as always, very dry vodka martinis, preferably with berries in them.

24. Your favourite names.
I’m partial to mythological ones: Persephone, Ariadne, Telemachus, Achilles, etc. People still have these names in Greece.

25. What you hate the most.
Aggressive stupidity.

26. The natural talent you’d like to be gifted with.
Singing. I’d give my left arm to be able to sing. Opera especially, but anything really.

27. How you wish to die.
Suddenly, without warning. Would save me from worrying and suffering. But I hear drowning is nice too.

tropical bird28. What you wish to come back as.
I was once told it would be a lemur, but I would prefer to be a very pretty, tropical songbird.

29. What is your present state of mind.
Quiet, but anxious at the same time. Yes, it’s possible.

30. For what fault have you most toleration?
Sentimentality.

31. Your favourite motto?
Expectation is the root cause of all suffering.

I trust you all feel you know me a bit better now, and won’t use it against me.

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 2

Here is the second installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. For Part 1, click here.

A woman of about 35 sent him a yellow envelope with a photograph and the requisite dollar. He stared at her image, at her flawless skin, her troubled green eyes, and her mane of auburn hair that went down to her navel. On the back of the photograph was an note in neat and rounded penmanship: I am pretty and popular, yet I am still a virgin. This took Bruce’s breath away, and though he was aware that it might seem unethical, he contacted the woman immediately and invited her to the house. His purest intention was to offer her a cup of Lady Grey, then show her the stacks of letters from other virgins—male/female, ugly/beautiful, some as old as 93.

Marjorie arrived the next day wearing a lavender dress, white gloves, and a large straw hat. Over tea and biscuits, she told him she was an only child, adopted by a couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They paraded around the house naked, making love whenever and wherever the spirit moved them. They even died in the act on a cruise she was not invited on when she was 14. “Seems they climbed into a lifeboat, which spilled them into the ocean in the middle of the night. I swore I’d never be like them.” Bruce noticed that she related the story without emotion, as if she had told it many times before, but that her bottom lip quivered when she whispered, “I think it’s time to let go of my grudge. Before it’s too late.” Soon after tea, Bruce gave her back her dollar and took care of her problem.
Marjorie quit her job in the listings department of the local telephone company. She had started as a proofreader 15 years earlier, and had worked her way up to supervisor of production, with a staff of 20 beneath her. After a quick wedding at City Hall, she moved into Bruce’s house and became his assistant, taking it upon herself to organize the secrets with the same zeal she had applied to the phone book all these years. “Have you ever seen a name misspelled or a business in the wrong category?” she inquired when Bruce asked her whether she knew what she was doing.

First, she opened all the neglected envelopes as well as those that arrived on a daily basis, then divided the secrets into groups: Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Sexual, Psychological, Criminal, Edible. At the end of each day, she put on her straw hat, and deposited the dollar bills at Bruce’s bank on Bank Street. Though Marjorie didn’t thrill in the secrets like her husband did, it satisfied her greatly to put some order to them, and as a result, to the house. It gave her the impression that the world could also be ordered, one room, one secret at a time. It was also Marjorie’s idea that the secrets be made public so that people would not feel so alone, as she had for so many years, hiding her virginity in her underwear drawer. “If we all knew each other’s secrets,” she reasoned, “we could never use them against each other.” Though Bruce had his doubts, he nodded pleasantly. Who was he to disabuse her of her naïve notions, especially since they kept her so happy and motivated?

To humor her, he made an appointment with the editor of the Daily Reporter, who wrote a profile of Bruce that was published in the weekend edition. This attracted a few internet magnates, which in turn alerted a couple of magazine and book editors, who drew in a trio of harried television producers not wanting to be left behind. Bruce invited all of them to the conference room of a medium sized-hotel on Visitor’s Lane and told them his story while they took furious notes.

“As many people as there are willing to divulge their darkest secrets, there will be that many more who will pay to hear them,” he said, fanning a dozen unopened envelopes on the table before them. The publishers cleared their throats, the TV producers scratched their double chins, and the internet magnates drummed stubby fingers on the table. They were all used to making decisions based on statistics and market research and 30 page proposals written in legalese by experts, not on the sentimental and hyperbolical claims of a man who looked like a schoolteacher. But they were dying to know the secrets contained in the innocuous envelopes spread before them. Like rabid squirrels they descended upon them, tearing them open as if they contained a million dollars instead of one. And as they passed the hand-scrawled notes amongst themselves, they laughed and they wept, felt repulsed, afraid, and finally relieved. “There is nothing more tempting, more satisfying than a secret,” Bruce told them in closing, and the businessmen nodded solemnly and shook his hand.

A thick, glossy magazine featured an interview and a photo spread of Bruce and Marjorie at home receiving the bags of mail on their front porch from a smiling postman—not Murray, who was mildly offended. Though reluctant at first, Marjorie even gave permission for her secret to be included with the article after Bruce convinced her it would set an example. Hers was a story that everyone could get behind, he said, a love story and proof that telling your secret improved your life in ways you could not even imagine. Marjorie nodded and sighed, and went into the stacks to find her secret. After the article was printed, a support group called United Virgins of the Lower West Side wrote to Marjorie, declaring her their spiritual leader. She wrote back that although she was honored, she had no time to attend their meetings as there was far too much work for her at home. In addition, as she was no longer a virgin, she was uncertain whether she had anything to contribute. She had other secrets now, but these she kept to herself.

For the most part, Marjorie was thrilled that her initiative had been met with such enthusiasm, and was even willing to give Bruce all the credit for it. But she had one concern. Despite her general trust in others (all those years as a virgin had shielded her from the most unpleasant of humankind’s neuroses), she was worried that with all the publicity, too many people now knew where they lived.

Part 3

No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf

Other People’s Secrets: The Stories I Won’t Tell

Once a week I volunteer at an active listening center, where I lend an ear to people in distress. In my eight months there I have spoken to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with schizophrenia, with bipolar disorder, with borderline personality disorder, with depression, anxiety and paranoia. There also have been closet cross-dressers, frustrated poets, and at least one female masturbator, who kept me on the phone for 45 minutes–until she was done, I guess. Far from being depressing, I find it fascinating to talk to and listen to these people. I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humor than most of the things I read. In other words, these people are the perfect characters, who willingly reveal themselves to me. But I am sworn to secrecy (one regular caller ends every conversation by asking me if our talk is confidential).

It is said that Dostoevsky stole the epitaph from his mother’s grave for a story. I have used incidents from my life, along with versions of the characters that have populated it for my stories and novels, and I have been called on it more than once. I have even abandoned a story more than once because it would probably get me into trouble. Dostoevsky’s mother was already dead, so he had nothing to answer for. As for the characters in my stories who recognize themselves, they are there because I am–my story couldn’t be told without them. But these anonymous callers are just passersby in my life, though I speak to a few of them at least once a week, know their first names in some cases, have heard the details of their life-altering story–the one that sent them to the hospital, that keeps them up at night, that no one else believes–more than once.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that every character has a secret that motivates or hinders him/her, and whether the writer reveals the secret in the story or not, he/she must always be aware of it. It is the secret that makes the character interesting, and the way it manifests that makes the story unique. My callers are dying to get their secret off their chests, to have it understood, untangled, justified, and most importantly, to not be judged for it. At the end of a good call, they will thank me profusely, bless me, tell me they love me or even adore me for the simple reason that I listened, responded, took interest, and possibly even helped them–at least in the moment. A bad phone call will end pretty much in the absolutely opposite manner, but luckily I don’t have too many of those. Unless someone is being pushy and disrespectful, I respect them enough to believe their distress, even if its cause is transparent to me. Carl Jung taught me long ago that psychological reality is that person’s reality. We all count on our brains to tell us what is real and how to react to it, and this is as true for person whose brain is not absolutely reliable.

When I teach literature, I give my students a list of hints that a character is unreliable, including explicit contradictions and other discrepancies in the narrative, contradictions between the narrator’s account of events and his/her explanations and interpretations of the same, and a high level of emotional involvement, including exclamations and repetitions. Many of my callers meet the criteria for unreliability, but that makes their stories no less fascinating. They are not stories, however, that I will be stealing for my own writerly purposes, not whole hog anyway. It would feel like I was stealing their souls. Perhaps a detail will eventually work itself into something I write, divorced from the person and his/her whole narrative. I do think the masturbator is fair game since she already used me for her own selfish purposes. But everyone else is too vulnerable, too beaten down and used by their families, their mental illness, the health system, by the world at large. Though some of their stories are heartbreaking, poignant, hilarious, I cannot become one more person who betrays them for my own benefit.

So they remain ephemeral, like the charming songs children make up while they are playing, to be felt, enjoyed in the moment, then forgotten. I do enjoy them immensely as they unfold over the line, and though I won’t forget them, I won’t repeat them either. They have nothing to do with me. They are not my stories to tell.

The Trouble with E-books

Though I am a longtime fan and consumer of independent films and music, I am not so convinced that indie is the way to go when it comes to books. I realize that by championing the old guard, the gatekeepers, the money-grubbers, I am A) going to piss quite a few people off, and B) will likely have to eat my words in the future–or possibly the pages of a book like the lover in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. But in watching the e-book r/evolution from the sidelines, I have come to the conclusion that the traditional route to publication and distribution is still the best route for literary fiction.

Make no mistake, my journey to publication has been a rocky one at the best of times, but there are many things I appreciate about my publishers and what they have done for me. First of all, a dedicated group of professionals selected my manuscript out of the thousands they receive each year, and deemed it appropriate for their list. This is truly a vote of confidence. It may seem to many people that these middlemen and women are the only thing standing in their way of love and accolades from the masses, but the truth of the matter is that each publishing house that takes on a book knows who its audience is, what they might like to read, and puts its money where its mouth is. Publishing houses take huge risks with every book they publish and very rarely get a return on their investment–this is equally true of small and large houses.

Each house that has published me has invested in me,  putting together and paying a team of editors, proofreaders, designers, and publicity people to help my book make a splash once it is out. An objective editorial eye is imperative to any writer, no matter how advanced or accomplished he/she is. We all have blind spots, especially after we’ve spent years staring at the same pages. Even if the editorial changes are minor, they are invaluable on the road to perfecting a manuscript for the ease and pleasure of a reader. In addition, with my latest novel, I have been more involved in its p.r. than ever, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be to get it noticed without the constant work and support of my publicist. Generating publicity is time-consuming and an art form in itself, which I’d really rather leave to the experts.  That way I have more time to do what I do best: write the damn books.

I am also a book lover: here I’m talking about the book as object–not only my own books, but also those written by others. When there was delay after delay in the release of my last novel, the idea was floated by my agent that we might just publish it electronically, with a print on demand option. In my depths of despair, I considered it because wasn’t it better to have a book out there rather than a manuscript collecting dust under my bed? What stopped me was a real sense of loss. Not having a tangible book to hold in my hands, to put on my shelf next to my first two, and next to favorite volumes by beloved writers depressed me almost as much as not publishing it at all.

Why all the doom and gloom when Kindle and Kobo are taking over the reading world? Well, I may just be a late adopter, but I have yet to take the plunge into a e-reading device. I have the Kindle app on my iPad, a device that I am literally addicted to, and I have downloaded a bunch of books to it, but I rarely read them. Some might say that this has to do with e-ink and back-lighting and such, but I think it has more to do with my preference for holding onto the real cover of a real book and flipping real pages. Somehow, it gives me a more sensory and substantial experience. I know this may be entirely subjective, but when it comes to my own books, I think I’m allowed to have an opinion as to the format. You have to be totally behind what you are selling. I believe the Oncler loved thneeds. I don’t love e-books. The Goodtime Girl is available for Kobo and Kindle for those who do love their e-readers, but as an alternate option, not as the only format.

And let’s face it, most stand-alone e-books are not getting the same attention as traditionally published books in magazines and newspapers, which still have more clout and reach than the best-curated blog, and definitely more clout than reader reviews on Amazon (though I appreciate them folks, I really, truly do.) Why are serious book-reviewers not jumping on the e-book bandwagon, except to make a point about some grand success story that usually comes to someone who has self-published genre fiction online? It may very well be because they too, professional readers that they are, find the “interface” of a real book easier to read. Even the bloggers I’ve contacted about my book prefer to receive a hard copy when given the choice. But, more likely, it is a combination of format, prejudgment, and time.

We watch indie films in more or less the same manner we would a blockbuster, and we listen to music through the same devices whether it was recorded at EMI or on someone’s computer (though many would rightly argue that mp3s lack the sound quality of vinyl). We  also dedicate a limited amount of time to them. A film may be two hours long, an album forty-five minutes. A novel takes hours and hours to read and then hours to write about. It’s a much larger investment for a reader/reviewer, and for the time being, the team approach of the publishing house assures some sort of juried pre-selection and quality control for both reader and reviewer. There is also the issue of what it takes to produce a film or an album vs what it takes to publish a book these days. Perhaps it is true that everyone has a book in them, but not everyone can actually write one worth reading. As the writer Stuart Dybek stated, we write novels and stories in the same language we order pizza, but it is not used in the same way. There may be fabulously written and perfectly edited self-published e-books out there, but there are hundreds of thousands of books out there, period, and a reviewer will likely go for something, from someone, from somewhere that already has a track record of offering the best reading experience.

It’s hard being a writer, it’s hard getting published and recognized for your work. It always has been and it’s not getting any easier, despite the wild frontier of e-books and self-publishing, which used to be called vanity publishing once upon a time and, valid or not, was generally dismissed as the second-rate work of the unpublishable. There is probably a way for e-books to escape this, perhaps, unfair taint of vanity, to produce and package themselves with the same professionalism as books taken on by publishing houses, to gain the credibility they need. But I believe it will take a long time to get there, and there will be many casualties along the way in the form of dashed dreams, and money and time spent for little satisfaction.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep writing and reading on paper, browsing covers in bookstores, and occasionally buying a book I can slip into my purse.

Because at the moment the medium is still the message.

Writing as Fortune-telling (starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

I was truly saddened to read yesterday that my absolute favorite author (in fact, I often refer to him as my literary god), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has succumbed to dementia and can no longer write.  I never met him, but his books and stories have been my best friends for many years, and when I was writing my first novel, Ariadne’s Dream, I dreamt he chased me down the street trying to give me a pint of beer. I took this as a good omen. If every writer has a great mentor on his/her shoulder, guiding his/her hand, raising the bar to vault over, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been mine.  His style, his literary magic and magnificence gave me something to admire, to envy, to emulate and, most importantly, something to aim for in my own work.

I’ve lost count of how may times I’ve read 100 Years of Solitude, and The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World can still bring me to tears.  Love and Other Demons, a slim novel that not a lot of people know, remains one of my favorites with its tragedy and passion between a young girl bitten by a rabid dog and the priest who comes to exorcise her of demons.  When I was in grad school, I opted to do as much work as possible on Garcia Marquez, and I’m happy to report that academe did nothing to spoil his fabulous tales for me.  They are so finely woven they resisted being unravelled and studied except in small sections–the whole is elusive–which makes them even more magical.

I’ve already used the word magic twice, and the label magical realist has long been applied to Garcia Marquez, though he always insisted that he had no imagination and invented nothing in his books, but simply recorded his observations and his grandmother’s stories.  I’ve always wanted to visit Colombia because if he truly recorded daily life as it existed, it must really be the most fantastical place on earth, where, no doubt, the handsomest drowned man would land.  Of course, seen through the eyes of Gabo, processed through his mind and his pen, it was certainly transformed in the manner only great art can achieve.  Though everything in his books may have been real, it was his reality, shared generously with us.

As a bit of a magical realist myself, not only have I never been that concerned with the boundaries between the real and the fantastical (it is all a matter of perception and expression), but I have always suspected that we create our reality as we write it.  More than once, something I have written has come to pass, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  When I was first researching and writing my second novel The Goodtime Girl, whose central event is the destruction of the city of Smyrna in 1922 through fire, I visited the village of Zipolite in Mexico. On my last full day there, a large swath of the village burned to the ground after a kitchen explosion in one of its restaurants.  Like the citizens of Smyrna, the inhabitants of Zipolite ran towards the water, and we all watched helplessly as black smoke clouded the sky.  Now, I am not saying that my writing caused the fire in Zipolite, but it is quite odd to have just recently written about a cataclysmic and (thankfully) uncommon event, and then to witness a facsimile of it.

There are other examples of less dramatic events that have also manifested after being imagined and written. This has made me consider trying to write happy endings to some of my stories, so perhaps I could eventually experience one, too.  But my mind is as dark and complicated as some of my fictions, which probably accounts for why they mirror each other or are prescient–burning cities and villages notwithstanding. We are what we write and we write what we are.  It is a sort of fate, with an often predictable outcome.

Buddhists (and cognitive psychologists) believe that our thoughts create our reality; in The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde argued that life imitated art and not the other way around; and in his sunset years Gabriel Garcia Marquez has turned into one of his own characters: patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia from 100 Years of Solitude, who became so mad he had to be tied to a tree in his own yard for his own (and everyone else’s) sake. Gabo has fared better so far.  Jaime Garcia Marquez has stated that dementia runs in the family, but that, luckily, his brother ” still has the humor, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had.”

But there will be no more books from his brilliant mind, which saw what was to come a long time ago,  based on history and the spells conjured as he wrote. Those marvelous visions will be forevermore reserved for his own enjoyment.

How do I procrastinate writing? Let me count the ways…

I’ve given myself quite a simple, straight-forward task.  Every Wednesday, write something about anything and post it almost immediately.  The theory is that this will be a freeing exercise, which will rescue me from being too anal about my writing, and from taking myself and the whole pursuit of writing too seriously.  I’ve already written a very serious novel, which took me  upwards of a decade, and let me tell you, after the first 4 years, freedom’s just another word for everything left to lose or toss off a bridge. There’s got to be fun and freedom in writing, right?  Otherwise, who in his/her right mind would keep doing it?

Nonetheless, this self-imposed directive is not as easy-peasy as I’d imagined (isn’t it always the case that life never lives up to the imagined?).  It is almost 2pm and these few words are the only ones I have managed to put down.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to convince myself to just do it. I have made several very attractive bargains with myself:

  1. Write out in the backyard in a little notebook–that way it won’t seem like work.  Excuse: It’s hot in the backyard, and transcribing is a drag, which will indeed turn the exercise into work.
  2. Write after lunch. Who can write when her stomach is grumbling?  Excuse: But who can write on a full stomach, which is sure to make me groggy, in the middle of the afternoon.
  3. Take a nap and then write.  But no napping longer than 20 minutes, or the whole bargain is off according to science.
  4. Recycle an old post from an old blog.  No one has seen those, right? But that’s not writing is it?  That’s copying and pasting. Or self-plagiarizing–a word being thrown around a lot these days, what with the Jonah Lehrer/Bob Dylan/New Yorker scandal.  My view: If I can’t plagiarize myself, who can I plagiarize? I’ve opted to eschew the self-plagiarizing for the moment, however.
  5. Write whatever comes to mind–it will be fine.  But will it, really? If you’ve read this far, you are in a better position to judge the fruits of that bargain than I.  I am a true believer of the magical first draft, and I also know that it is a rarity which comes from writing continuously, daily, passionately.  Under these circumstances–not so much.

Apart from the bargains, I found  a number of other small tasks to complete, before beginning to write, that could not wait another minute:

I wish this was a woman, but the same principle applies…

  1. I removed an old, non-functional doorbell that has not been bothering anyone for the past 4 years.  This involved a lot of thought, then a lot of traipsing from basement to first floor, to second floor to look for proper tools, back to first floor, where the job was accomplished not with the myriad of screwdrivers I’d collected in my travels, but with a hammer, a butter-knife and pliers.  I cut the old, sticking-out wires with at least 80% certainty that I wouldn’t be electrocuted. (Who can write after electrocution?) Really, that doorbell was bugging me.  Quite a feat since it makes no sound. It’s now gone to the doorbell junk-heap at the dump. R.I.P.
  2. I watched 6 minutes of Drop Dead Diva.  It’s not a highly intellectual show, but I like it because there is almost always a happy ending. There was also a part of me that felt it would be a nice accompaniment to lunch and a precursor to the nap, after which all my glorious writing juices would be flowing. As long as I did not oversleep, that is. But why only 6 minutes? Because the doorbell was calling me to take it out of its useless misery. And I probably keenly felt my own useless misery in those 6 minutes.  Watching tv in the middle of the day when I should be writing.  For shame.
  3. I checked my WordPress account, my Facebook, my Twitter to see if anyone was talking about me.  Seriously, there is no better time-waster than social media.  A few people are talking about me, by the way, which is encouraging, but besides the point to  actually sitting-on-my-butt and writing.
  4. I’ve also toyed with the idea of framing and hanging 3 very large prints in my office. I have the frames; I have the prints.  They have been sitting undisturbed by anything but dust since last Christmas, if not the one before. I really can’t remember.  I suppose they would make my office a more colorful and inspiring place, which is why I bought them.  But it’s not my office’s fault that I have nothing of import to write about, is it?

If I had to do it all again (and I will, next Wednesday, if not sooner), I would get up, have a cup of tea and a bite to eat, turn off the phone, the internet, put the do not disturb sign on my door, and hunker down to write something, anything other than a piece about having nothing to write about.  There’s nothing new in that, is there?  Why should anyone care? It happens to all of us, more often than we’d like to admit. Well I’m admitting it.  So there. Sue me.

I’m off to take that nap now.

He is my nap guard, and will also wake me up after 20 minutes.

Fiction vs Non-fiction (with cameos by Jim Jarmusch, James Frey & Truman Capote)

Over the years I’ve had more than one person announce “I don’t read fiction” upon hearing that I’m a writer of stories and novels.  When asked why, these people told me that it was because fiction is not true.  These same people, when asked whether they went to the movies or just took in the latest “very serious” documentary on war or obesity or the disappearing naked tribes of the Amazon (who are very lean, by the way), replied that of course they went to the movies.  Perhaps they even identified with a character, shed a tear, or decided to leave their families and find themselves in Alaska or the Andes or Timbuktu. Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law convinced me that life could not go on if I didn’t take a swamp boat through Louisiana’s Bayou.  Perhaps a guide to alligator hunting would have had the same result, or the latest spate of reality shows like Cajun Justice and Swamp People, but probably not.

When I teach creative writing, I dedicate one class to a discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  The different expectations  a reader has when approaching an autobiography vs a novel comes up, and inevitably we end up talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, who was publicly spanked by Oprah for giving into the impulse to make his memoir more exciting by fudging the facts a bit.  No one batted an eye when Truman Capote embellished In Cold Blood in what he called his “non-fiction novel,” but those were other times, and I guess he didn’t embarrass the queen of daytime t.v.  It was when his fiction read too much like non-fiction that the ladies who lunch hung him out to dry.  Uncomfortable bedfellows, fiction and non-fiction, although they have much in common.

Anything you read includes certain things and excludes others.  All writers have a point of view and a story they want to get across.  I once gave a talk at a college where my first book was being studied, and a young woman raised her hand and asked me why I was so unfair to Greeks in one story, why I didn’t also talk about all the good things about them. I replied that I was a writer of fiction, not a sociologist, and thus was not responsible for a fair portrayal, but for telling the story I needed to tell completely.  (I take this opportunity to share my favorite Marguerite Yourcenar quote: “Everything that any one of us can do to help or hinder his fellow-man has been done, at least once, by a Greek.”)

When I teach essay-writing and rhetoric, I also point out that although it gives you credibility to tip your hat towards your opposition, your argument should focus on the points that will persuade your reader of your superiority.  So it is with most works of non-fiction.  You don’t get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a slice of it.  In that sense, fiction can actually give you a more expansive view of a world, a time, or the dynamics between people, between past and present.  Unlike history, it is not necessarily written by the victors.

That said, I’ve been wanting to cross over from literary fiction into non-fiction for a while now.  This is not simply because non-fiction writers seem to get large advances even before the whole damn book is written: we are living through troubled times where literal truth is valued more than figurative truth, and people need information that will help them make sense of things. I must confess that many of my favorite books in recent years have been works of non-fiction: travel writing, biographies, psychological studies and spiritual explorations which have touched me as much as a good novel with their voice, their depth, their strangeness and their honesty. Also, some ideas lend themselves to fiction, others to poetry or drama, and others to essays or the newfangled name for Capote’s non-fiction novel: creative non-fiction.  I’ve had  a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a while that are clearly not meant to be novels or short stories.  They need a more direct form, a more direct voice–my voice perhaps, whatever that may be.

Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, or as I like to say, there is shit you can’t make up, but I am stopped by an ironic dilemma.  I am actually more honest in my fiction than in my non-fiction.  My voice is more genuinely my own, and I feel free to tell things like they are (or were), to share my most perverse and dastardly thoughts, to expose my very soul from behind fiction’s veil.  You get more of me through my characters than you would ever get if I chose to write a memoir.  I am far too private to hang out all my dirty laundry, and would really only be able to give you my side of the story, and a sanitized one at that.  (Here I recall Lauren Bacall‘s autobiography, each chapter ending with this chirpy capper: “Oh, we had such fun!”) It is safer to speak through a narrator and through all my characters than as myself. I feel less implicated, less accountable.

I am speaking as myself here, but it is a compromised version because I am loath to confess my prejudices, weaknesses, fears and insecurities, and I am sticking to the subject, as much as I can anyway. I completely understand how James Frey blundered over the lines and got into so much trouble. He let his imagination go in order to create the essence of the experience of drug addiction for the reader, to  produce a visceral feeling rather than simply providing information.  The fallback position of some of my creative writing students, when they are told that their story is cliche or plodding or one-dimensional, is “but that’s how it happened.”  So what?   Frey’s book was touted for its honest portrayal of an addict’s life, for its ability to shed light on addiction and recovery.  Maybe he should have called it a non-fiction novel, but it apparently helped a lot of people nonetheless.

How is that not the truth?