Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cook the books!

I'm excited to have appeared in a ... webisode? of "Cook The Books," a terrific author interview show conducted by Emily Gould, herself a terrific author (check out her wonderfully sharp and honest memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, if you haven't already).  We made spicy tuna sushi and filmed the show on a blazing hot day in June, in her enviably tidy Brooklyn apartment.  I mention the blazing heat to explain the shine of my face.  We had to keep pausing the filming so that we could mop ourselves off with paper towels.  All this said, now that we're going on a month of solid fog and 50-60 degree temperatures here in SF--that month being July/August--I wouldn't mind sweating a little.  What happened to summer?  It's almost gone before it ever started.

http://www.theawl.com/2010/08/cooking-the-books-how-to-make-spicy-tuna-salad-sushi-with-malena-watrous

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Friendiquette

Where does the "social" part end and the "networking" part begin?

I have had the odd experience, over the past week, of receiving two "friend" requests from people previously unknown to me, that were immediately (well, minutes later) followed by favor requests, of a professional sort.  This made me slightly cranky.  Granted, I know that Facebook is a "social networking tool," but sometimes I think that the word "friend" is a bit misleading.  I might have been less cranky to be asked for the favor, had the request reached me via the email account that I use for work.

I thought of a friend of mine--a true friend, made face to face, our friendship deepened over years of shared experiences, good and bad--who has a policy of not accepting friend requests from a) former students, b) anyone she doesn't know.  In my crankiness, her policy made good sense.  But then again, I do like the possibility engendered by the site, of connecting with someone I might not otherwise have had the chance to overlap with, and forming something like a friendship--if not quite.  It has happened.  There are people on my friend list who intrigue and delight me from afar, when I happen upon their status updates.  But more often, these "friendships" with strangers stagnate.  And ones struck back up with old acquaintances often remind me of why we drifted apart to begin with.  All of this has as much to do with my character--I dislike the term "people person" as much as people who consider themselves "people people"--as the limitations of the site.  I hate the idea of going to a social event because it might be a good "networking opportunity."  They never lead to much, and they're usually a drag.  It's like we're supposed to feel like everything is fun now, but instead everything that used to be fun now feels like an extension of work.  Friends are really colleagues.  It's all mixed up.

When I was back in Oregon, an old friend from high school (with whom I'd reconnected on Facebook, of course) mentioned how "You have to put up about 8 to 9 random and interesting status updates for every 1 that has to do with self-promotion."  I thought about how right she was, even though I'd never heard the rule articulated, how otherwise people look a bit greedy and grabby, trumpeting their successes or asking for audience members, readers, fans, whatever.  Not friends.

But then again, and I know I'm in the minority here, I'm not sure I need to know when someone is "making cookies on a foggy morning, yum!" or "gearing up to watch Girl With a Dragon Tattoo on Netflix."  Even when I do read about someone doing something that sounds like fun, I wonder what it really adds to their pleasure, to see me add my thumbs-up sign along with thirteen other friends who "like this!"

Recently, an old high school classmate that I'd never known in person joined Facebook with a lot of fanfare.  A friend request was followed by daily messages and wall posts galore, many of which seemed copied to everyone on his list.  I found out about everything that had happened to him over the fifteen years that I had not been wondering about, since I never really knew him to begin with.  I learned of his illnesses--startling, for a man his age--his career highs and lows.  He was quite candid, given the public nature of his correspondence.  And then, after a few manic days of posting, he sent all of his new friends a message announcing that he had decided to leave Facebook.  "It's just not for me," he wrote without the confessional zeal I'd come to expect.  He had seemed to love it, to be made for it, but I guess it wasn't what he'd been hoping for after all.  After an initial greeting, I for one had not responded to his daily messages.  I had work to do, and he wasn't really my friend.  I can't say that I truly miss him, although now I do wonder how he is.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What is your earliest smell memory?

Mine is of the smell of wood chips baking in the sun.  The wood chips in question lined the playground at my first elementary school, that I attended as a four year old.  This school was in the Haight, where it is seldom sunny, but in my memory the playground always smelled of sun baking into wood, and it's a smell that still makes me feel a little queasy.  I remember sitting on top of the parallel bars, where I felt myself to be (or ought to have been) safely above the throng of playing kids, and where every day a slightly larger and older child named Omsi (could it have been spelled this way? but how else could it be spelled?) would sneak up on me and spit in my ear.  I tried everything I could think of to get her to stop, including telling on her, but the adults I told didn't seem to take the offense all that seriously, maybe because I couldn't really prove it and there was little to show for it.  One day Omsi was on the bars when I got there, and without really thinking about it I ran up and pushed her, as hard as I could, off the bars, and she fell hard and cut her face and bled on the wood chips, and I swear that I could smell the irony tang of her blood too, baking into them in the sun, and I swear I meant it when I said that I was sorry, that it was just an accident. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

I write like...

http://iwl.me/

Check out this very strange website that analyzes a few paragrpahs of your writing and tells you who you write like.

I apparently write like Chuck Palaniuk, a fact I find hilarious and way off target, not that I'd mind writing like the author of Fight Club.  I remember hearing him read and talk once, and how how said that he emulates Amy Hemphill, which also seemed like a strange and unlikely comparison to me.


UPDATE: Someone inputted a section of the phone book into this database and was told that they write like Thomas Hardy.  So: maybe not such a good judge of authorial influence.  Good to know that as of yet, computers can not do a writer's job. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PPP or "Post a Paragraph Project"

Thanks (or no thanks) to the dated nature of blog posts, I (and you) can see that it has been two months since my last one.  Truthfully, I am finding the shift from book promotion to...something else, I'm not quite sure what yet, a little uncomfortable.  Lots of writers complain that promoting their books takes up too much time, and I agree that it was time consuming, but there was part of me that found it comfortably "doable" as well, compared to the nebulous and uncertain process of writing new fiction.  I'm a good student.  I can do assignments, no problem.  Each article or interview felt like a homework assignment, with known parameters: a specific word count, guaranteed readers. 

There is such a huge difference between the first year of a project, before you can even say for sure what that project is, and the last year that you spend with a finished book, in which you try to help it find its way in the world by getting it into readers' hands. 

I spend a lot of time, in my writing teaching, talking to people who are feeling in some way stuck or intimidated or uncertain how to form and sustain the disciplined and regular writing practice that everyone says is necessary in order to get much writing done.  I know the advice to give, but that doesn't mean that I can follow it all of the time.  (I'm like the fat gym teacher).  There are two things that I almost always tell people who are stuck in or feeling daunted by the early stages of a project, because I believe that if you follow these two pieces of advice, you will get unstuck and make breakthroughs.

1.  When you don't know quite what to write about, use prompts.  It doesn't really matter what they are.  Just having something to trigger you, something to respond to, will get you writing, and your writing will lead you where it wants to go.

2.  Keep writing forward.  Don't waste today self-editing what you wrote yesterday, before you even know what your story is really going to be about.  Write a lot before you worry about whether you're making the perfect craft choices.  You might need to write 3000 words before you find the right beginning for a piece, and that's fine. 

With this in mind, and because I would love to hear other voices, I'd like to try and experiment that I am calling, "The Post a Paragraph Project."  If you happen upon this site and this post, and you're looking for a creative kick-start like I am, I encourage you (would beg be too strong of a word?) to respond to my post (I'll put up a new one every few weeks, if there is any response to this letter in a bottle I'm sending out), do a free write and then post your favorite paragraph of it here for others to see.

First prompt:

Write a memory, fictional or non, based on the song, "You Are My Sunshine."

I'll respond to the paragraphs if anyone puts them up. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

dziękuję

Today my novel sold its first (the word "first" seems optimistic, bordering on vain, but I'm keeping it) foreign rights: to Poland.  Having lived in France and Japan, I have harbored fantasies of being translated into those languages and as a result being able to travel back to visit old friends and haunts in countries I know and love.  While I'm extremely happy to be translated into Polish, I find myself curious as to what in particular about my book struck a nerve with the Polish foreign rights person, and also how they are going to translate Miyoshi-sensei's letters, written in "Japlish," or English with a Japanese flair, into Polish?  

At a conference recently, participants were asking about how much control authors have over their foreign translations, and how you can be certain that things like humor and poetry don't get lost in it.  The answer is, I'm pretty sure, that you have no control, and you can't know what might be lost (or possibly even gained?) in a language you can't speak or read.

The writer Stephen Koch talks about how writing a book requires you to keep taking and relinquishing control.  You have to relinquish the reins to produce and get to the end of those early, free flowing drafts, and then take hold of them again in revision, and back and forth, times fifty or more, until the thing is finally "done," which really just means sold.  I was once at a reading where an author was making comments and adjustments in the margins of the published copy of her story collection, based on the responses of people in the room.  In other words, she was revising a finished book.  She couldn't give up control by calling it done.

She looked, frankly, crazy, crossing words out in the middle of a reading.  But I understand, to a point.  Getting to the end--of a book, or (as is now the case in my life) a book tour--is bittersweet.  Completion is satisfying, but done can feel like dead.  As long as you're still working on something, still engaged in solving its problems, it still has potential.  And potential is comfortable, a soothing word, full of hope and promise, especially for those of us who remember our student days with fondness, when everything was still up ahead.  Calling something done means saying, "this is as good as I could do for now," and then opening it for judgment.  Finishing something also means that you have to start something else, knowing how long it's going to take, and how arduous and awkward that process of repeatedly taking and surrendering control can be.

But it's also exciting.  I've been in the finishing stages of novel production and dissemination for a while now, and while it has been a pleasure--especially getting to know other writers and readers as a result of this book--I'm starting to miss the early part, the drafting, where you give up control to such an extent that you don't really know what you're really writing about as you're writing, let alone whether it even has potential.  It's scary, but it's also exhilarating.  Only by surrendering that control while moving forward do you open up the possibility for great surprises.

I'll never get to know how my novel reads in Polish, whether the funny parts are still funny or not, but I don't mind.  I'm excited for it to have a new life, beyond this country and the one in which it's set.  It may be done--my part at least--but it's not dead.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Ten Tips for Writers


My final post for The Well-Read Donkey:

While I'm relatively new to the world of blogs, much of my work as a creative writing instructor has taken place online.  For the past three years since its inception, I have been teaching creative writing workshops through Stanford's Online Writer's Studio.

http://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/onlinewriters.php).

I help facilitate this program, planning the curriculum and training instructors, as well as leading my own workshops in both fiction and creative nonfiction every quarter.

The program started when I was pregnant, and it was a job I was able to keep doing even when my son was a newborn (sometimes holding live chat hours while nursing--a fact which I didn't share at that time with my students).  I had taught writing in the classroom before that, and I enjoyed the chemistry of a live interaction, the crackle of excitement when a class is going especially well.  But I was surprised and pleased to find that I love teaching writing classes online just as much.  It's not the same, and you do miss certain aspects of the live classroom, but there are definite tradeoffs.  I enjoy being able to work at odd hours in my pajamas, a glass of wine by the computer and my feet propped on my desk.  I also like the intense focus of getting to know my students through their writing, and I do feel like I get to know them as people, which was confirmed when I met a group of them for dinner before the Kepler's reading. They were even more remarkable in person than on the page, which is saying a lot.

For my final post, I thought I would share some tips or suggestions that I give students in my writing workshops, for those of you out there who are beginning writers, or struggling with some stage of the process (as we all do from time to time).

1.  Make and stick to a regular writing schedule, and keep that time sacred--no email or checking facebook.  It doesn't have to be four hours per day, seven days per week.  In fact, setting a goal that's too lofty might doom you to fail, and that feeling of failure might keep you from picking up and trying again.  Be ambitious but also realistic.  If you're busy with a job and family, but you can carve out one hour each morning before the kids wake up, then try setting your alarm clock an hour early--even just two or three days per week.  If you go from zero hours per week to three hours per week, you'll be accomplishing three times more than you were before.  If you have Sunday afternoons free, then try setting those aside.  I just read an interview with a young adult novelist who has written three books using one weekend day per week to write.  The point is that you don't have to make it a full-time job, but you do have to set aside time to do it, and regularity and consistency tend to work wonders for writers.

2.  Whether you are in a writing workshop or not (and I definitely think they're a good idea, especially for those just getting started, to learn craft basics) find a writing friend, someone at about the same stage as you are, and trade work on a regular basis.  Having a close reader, and hearing that person's take on your work, will help you to be able to revise it.  Without a reader, it's very hard to have any objective sense of what's working well and what could still use improvement.  You can definitely use readers who aren't also writers, but I find that fellow writers tend to be better at giving constructive feedback.  It's nice to hear, "This is fabulous," but only hearing praise won't help you to grow or your writing to improve.  (Yes, I'm a big believer in revision.  Without it, I wouldn't be a writer).

3.  Do exercises.  I love prompts.  I love to give them to the classes I teach, and I love to be given them as well.  The secret about writing prompts is that it almost doesn't matter what they are.  You might be staring at a blank page, with no idea what to write, feeling utterly uncreative, and if I were to say, "In your first paragraph, make sure that there is a prosthetic arm, an animal and a hot beverage," I have no doubt that you would soon pick up your pen and a story would start to flow.  In grad school at Iowa, my friend Chelsey and I used to give each other arbitrary prompts like this, and it never failed both to amuse us and to trigger our imaginations.  The point of a prompt or exercise should never be to force you to do an assignment "perfectly."  There is no "wrong" way to follow a prompt.  The point is to trick your mind into forgetting about self-consciousness and perfectionism, and to get you free associating and imagining things outside yourself, and writing and enjoying writing.  You can make up your own exercises, or pick up a book like What If that's full of great prompts.

4.  Read four times more than you write.  This was the advice given by Frank Conroy (rip), the legendary former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, when I was a student there.  It can be hard to follow when you're frantically busy, trying to hold a job, raise kids, walk the dog, exercise--oh yeah, and write.  That said, it is crucial that you read at least as much as you write, and that you read both in the form that you want to write in, and also in other forms.  You will not learn to write amazing short stories unless you are actively reading as many short stories as you can get your hands on, seeing all sorts of variations on the form, figuring out what works for you and also what you're not enamored of.  You won't be able to write a mystery if you don't read mysteries, or have a good idea of the goals and limitations of young adult fiction without becoming an expert reader of the genre.  But also read nonfiction, magazines, histories, biographies.  Saturate yourself in the written word.

5.  Take in other art forms, as many and as often as you can.  When I'm really stuck on a piece of writing, I've been trying and trying to figure out how to fix it, and the hours of applying the seat of my pajamas to the seat of my chair just aren't doing the trick, sometimes the thing that helps me most is to take an afternoon off and use it to go see a matinee or go to a museum or listen to music while taking a walk.  Visual art is especially helpful and inspiring to me, as is movement.  I've had story breakthroughs while jogging and listening to a favorite song on repeat.  After a lot of struggle, it's often when I surrender and stop trying so hard, and so consciously, that I'm able to figure out what I need to do to make a piece of writing work.

6.  Try the accordion approach to revision.  If one draft is really long and expository, with way too much backstory and lengthy asides, try making the next draft as streamlined as possible, cutting out everything that could possibly go without making the story overly opaque, perhaps sticking mainly to dialogue and just a few stage directions.  Then, on the revision after that, add back in the lines and details that you really miss and don't want to live without.  In other words, grow a long draft, then shrink it to the bare minimum, then grow it again, then shrink it...  After doing this a few times, you'll probably land on a final version that is just the right length.

7.  When you're learning how to write--and even after you're a seasoned writer, if possible--try not to think about getting published as long as you can possibly stand it.  Write as if no one were going to read your writing, allowing yourself to be fearless with the feelings and details that you put on the page, vulnerable and brave and experimental, even ruthlessly honest.  Take every risk that tempts you as a writer.  There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to get published, but my perception is that most people who focus on this too soon actually hurt their writing and (ironically) their chances of eventually finding their way into print. 

8.  When I was at a stage with my novel where I had been working on it for a few years but couldn't yet see the end, I was laboring to make pieces come together, and I didn't know if they ever would, I started to feel incredible resistance and resentment toward writing, and I actually made a header for my manuscript that said, "Remember that you choose to write, and try to have fun."  For me, it was helpful to remember that no one was forcing me to do this.  I could have been spending that time doing something to earn money, or out at a restaurant or walking on the beach.  No one had a gun to my head. 

9.  Have a boring job or have a baby.  I say this somewhat jokingly, and yet I found that a lot of that resentment or resistance that I just described went away after I had a child and suddenly found myself with a lot less time to spend on my writing.  Furthermore, the writing time I did have were costing me a lot in childcare, not to mention time away from my kiddo.  I no longer felt that I could afford to waste that time, but also--interestingly, because I hadn't anticipated this--I appreciated that time more.  I was less likely to torture myself over revising and re-revising the same paragraph over and over.  Having less time in which to write made me want to use what little time I have more efficiently.  I am a bit less precious and perfectionistic about my writing, more willing to move forward, to call something finished in order to move on to another project.

10.  Write the poem/story/article/book that you wish you could be reading, but that you haven't found out there in the world.  This is my favorite piece of advice, that I always come back to as a writer, and pass along to writing students whenever I can.  You will do your best writing if you feel passion for your subject, and if you're saying something that you think needs to be said, and hasn't yet, at least not quite the way that you want to say it. Don't copy someone else's book, even if it's a book you love.  That book already exists, and doesn't need to be rewritten. 

If anyone feels like commenting, I'd love to have other people add to the list of tips for writers.

What inspires you, keeps you going when it's going slowly, or helps you out when you're stuck?

And since I mentioned the fact that I was pregnant when I started teaching online, and then the way that having a baby proved unexpectedly useful (not to mention challenging) to me as a writer, I thought I'd post a picture of said child holding my book.  Shameless, I know.  But he'll never let us get away with forcing him into cute poses like this later on, or let me write about him either, I suspect.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Whom?

A change of scenery, for once.

Just for fun, I wrote this piece on an earlier experience abroad that I had as a 16-year-old on AFS, placed with a completely crazy (and rather wonderful) family in the suburbs of Paris.  

http://www.wowowow.com/culture/french-women-sexuality-malena-watrous-456599

The Accidental Blog Tourist

Last month, while I stayed home, my novel went on a “virtual tour” of book blogs. The person who set this up encouraged me to visit the tour stops and contribute to each comments thread, to thank the bloggers and answer potential readers’ questions. I found this a little embarrassing, as if I were eavesdropping on conversations about me (which I was) or obsessed with people’s opinions about the book. I’ve heard some writers swear that they never read their reviews, good or bad, and while I’m not sure I believe them, I can understand why this might be wise.

The tour started with a book blogger who didn’t want to read “another depressing book about suicide,” and resented having to read about a woman in a relationship with another woman. She doesn’t like reading fiction in which the characters make “objectionable lifestyle choices,” a point she made more than once, carrying it into her comments thread. “The lesbian thing was the icing on the cake!” (Um—that sounds kind of good).

While I knew that I should just brush it off—clearly this wasn’t the right reader for my book—her review irritated me. She is entitled to her opinion, and her politics too, I guess. Still, her criticisms struck me as odd, coming from someone who apparently wants to review fiction, if not for a living then at least for free ARC’s and a public platform. When I write book reviews, I’m sometimes assigned novels that aren’t exactly my thing, books I wouldn’t necessarily choose to read in my free time, but I try to approach them on their own terms, not to contrast them with books closer to my taste.

I was tempted to remind her that fiction represents the spectrum of human experience, and that homosexuality and suicide both occur fairly frequently within that spectrum. But I figured she didn’t want to hear it from me. Besides, I didn’t want to be accused of recruiting. I chose not to post a comment on that particular blog post.

But aside from that first stop on the tour, the book bloggers who took the time to read and write posts on my novel were generous and insightful, measured in their varied opinions, which interested me greatly. Before the advent of book blogs, I don’t think that writers had the chance to see how readers (not just professional book critics) were responding to their choices on the page. Aside from that lingering feeling of voyeurism, it was cool to follow the comments threads, to see how something that one person mentioned especially liking could spur another reader to want to pick up a copy, or how the same thing could make a different reader decide this probably wasn’t the book for her.

The book bloggers and their followers were clearly passionate and close readers, and they made me doubt all of the fear-mongerers who have been dourly predicting the death of the novel, and the collapse of the print media as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s an easy market for fiction writers—especially literary fiction writers. The print media is struggling, and book reviews in particular are dwindling or getting cut with disappointing frequency. I hadn’t realized how little print space there is for book reviews, compared to the number of books being published, until I paid a recent visit to the basement of the San Francisco Chronicle, a labyrinthine space devoted to the storage of galleys, most of them gathering dust before getting boxed up and donated to the library. There is precious little space left in print journalism for book reviews, most of which go to authors with established reputations and readership, making it hard for beginning writers to get attention paid to their books, so that they can find their readers.

But book bloggers are definitely working hard to compensate, and they’re doing a great job, not just filling a niche but creating something new and dynamic on their interactive sites. One of the things that I love about some of the book blogs that I only recently discovered, like Sasha and The Silverfish (http://silverfysh.wordpress.com), and The Constance Reader's Guide to Throwing Books With Great Force (www.constance-reader.com) is that there’s no market-driven pressure behind what they can choose to review, no need to satisfy advertisers or a particular demographic. They can blog about adult and young adult books, literary and genre fiction, just-published novels and classics. They also have space to do interviews or run pieces by guest bloggers. With readers able to leave comments (and authors encouraged to chime in on the comment threads) it fosters a real literary community, and gives me hope that the novel will survive and even thrive, in spite of (or maybe even because of) the changes in publishing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I Wrote a Novel, Not a Memoir


This is the first of three guest posts that I have agreed to write this week for the blog of Kepler's bookstore, in Menlo Park: http://wellreaddonkey.blogspot.com/

* * *

“Wait,” the woman cut me off, after I mentioned that my husband’s family had connections to the bookstore where she worked.  “Your husband?  When did that happen?” She looked bewildered and (was I imagining it?) irked.

“Five years ago?”  I said, my voice rising in a question the way it does when I get nervous.

“So when did you write the book?"

“Um...  I started it in 2000 and I guess I finished it about two years ago?”

Upon hearing this, her scowl deepened (no, I wasn’t imagining it), which was disconcerting since until the conversation took this detour, I had been enjoying speaking with her.  She had told me that she’d begun reading my book earlier that week, and that she planned on recommending it to customers at the bookstore.  I was thrilled.  This was the week that the book came out, and I was still getting used to the fact that strangers—people aside from my mother—might actually choose to read my novel.

“You do realize that it’s a novel,” I said on a whim, figuring that of course she must.  After all, the words A Novel were printed on the spine.

“What?” she practically sputtered.  

“It’s a novel?” I sounded as if I doubted this fact myself.

“I had no idea,” she said, shaking her head.  "I'm really sorry."

“That's okay,” I rushed to try and put her at ease.  “There’s a lot that comes from real life.”

Let me stop and tell you a little bit about the book, which will help explain her confusion.   

My novel (and it is a novel—I swear), If You Follow Me, is about a young woman who moves from Manhattan to a small town in rural Japan.  She is in her first relationship with another woman, and is following her girlfriend, who wanted to teach abroad, on a Japanese government program.  When they learn that they’ve been placed in a remote and conservative region—in the nuclear power plant town of Shika—they decide to keep their relationship a secret for a while, so as not to scare people.  Unfortunately, this creates pressure that contributes to the erosion of their relationship.  Even though they’re not “out,” they both find plenty of other ways to alienate themselves from the senior citizens who preside over their neighborhood—mostly to do with their inability to follow the Kafka-esque garbage laws about how to dispose of things.

The novel follows the narrator, Marina, over the course of a year, as she struggles to adapt to this new culture and job, and to come to terms with her father’s death.  He killed himself during her senior year of college, ending his life right when hers was about to begin.  While she tries to set her grief aside and move on as if nothing had happened, her sadness and confusion and guilt follow her to Japan—they’re as hard to “throw away” as the trash.  The novel is also, as the back of the jacket says, “a strange kind of love story,” as she starts to fall for her Japanese supervisor, a karaoke aficionado who writes her letters that are initially intended to teach her how to obey garbage laws, but grow increasingly personal.

So why might that woman have mistaken my novel for a memoir?   

For starters, the main character’s name is awfully close to my own.  “Marina” is what I was called when I lived in Japan, because “Malena” was nearly impossible for most native Japanese speakers to pronounce.  The Japanese characters Ma-Ri-Na were etched on my hanko, the bamboo stamp that was registered at Shika’s town hall, that I used to “sign” bank statements and bills.  Like my fictional namesake, I lived for a year in the nuclear power plant town of Shika, where music did in fact pump from speakers aimed at every house, “to test the PA system in case of some emergency evacuation,” according to my supervisor.  I taught at a vocational school not unlike the one in the novel, where the classes were split by gender.  I also followed someone to Japan, where the relationship unraveled for different reasons, not so dissimilar from what happens in the book.

But I took plenty of liberties with the story as well.  In Shika, I lived not with my girlfriend in a rickety old house, but by myself in a postage-stamp-sized apartment that was largely made of plastic.  The house featured in the novel was actually in Kanazawa, the small city where I lived during my second year in Japan, with two other women—one of them a semi-professional fencer from Canada.  We did bury a cat, but he died of natural causes, not at the hands of a furious shut-in, as happens in the novel.  No such shut-in lived across the street.  However, there was an obese boy who happened to be the only male student in my all-girls class back in Shika, who had allegedly been living in his room throughout junior high, and who was bullied by other kids.  I taught him for a year, but never got to know him.  My lingering fascination provoked me to want to write about him, to imagine what had motivated himself to hide from the world and why he’d come out again--but so tentatively.

Sometimes I feel like I should have a checklist, where the parts of the book that are true are listed on one side, and the parts that aren’t are true appear on the other, that I could bring as a visual aid to readings.  It might simplify things for readers, and satisfy their curiosity, which I get.  Whenever I read a book that is semi-autobiographical, I always wonder which bits came from real life and which were invented.  I don’t have a particular preference for autobiographical fiction, but I do like to read something where the emotions of the characters (especially the narrator, in a first person novel) feel fresh and spot-on, where the writer is using fiction to explore complex and nuanced feelings, often about difficult things.  A reporter asked me recently if I could say what percentage of the book is true and what percentage is made up.  I said that the emotional core of the book is largely true, or as true as I could make it.  While writing, I was trying to sift out and find language to dramatize feelings that are still murky for me.  But the story is largely made up.  A lot of the characters are inspired by people I knew, or who captured my imagination when I lived in Japan.  But they didn’t do the things or say the things that happen in the novel.  

“So why did you write this as a novel and not as a memoir?” a woman asked at a reading--a question I'm getting used to, although I still can't give a quick answer (as you can see).

“Because I like to lie,” was the first response that came to me, tongue-in-cheek but also at least partly true.  I’m the kind of person who, when telling an anecdote from real life, can’t help but embellish the details a little (or a lot) if it makes a better story.  This is why I love fiction, why I mostly read stories and novels instead of memoirs, and why I want to write it as well.  During the James Frey scandal, I was struck by the fact that he’d written his book first as a novel, which he failed to sell, only succeeding in finding a publisher after he turned it into a memoir.  When Oprah attacked him, one of the issues she had was the seeming randomness of some of his lies, which seemed needless and exasperating.  The reason for this, I’m sure, is that he’d grown attached to the fictionalized version of events, the one he struggled to find while crafting the dreary or disconnected bits of his life into a novel with a coherent story line, a book with a structure and a plot and themes, an arc and some kind of resolution--things we ask for in a work of fiction and seldom get in real life.

In this book, I wanted to have it both ways.  I wanted to be able to write in almost documentary detail about this incredibly surreal place where I lived in Japan, and also to capture the feelings, ranging from claustrophobia to wonder, that I had while living there.  I started the story that turned into the novel while I was in graduate school at Iowa.  For a year I'd been inventing characters, jumping from one perspective to another, never quite satisfied that I’d nailed these fictional people or captured their voices.  Before that, I’d worked in journalism.  Writing essays and articles, I found it easier to capture a natural or authentic sounding voice, partly because I could imagine the reader.  I knew who I was speaking to.  When I started writing about Japan, I wanted to tap into that voice, the one that I use when I write nonfiction, but I wanted to use it to tell a story.   That was my chief goal: to give readers the satisfaction of a story, rather than just stringing together a series of vignettes from my two years abroad, where I would have been unable to resist the temptation to exaggerate—and gotten in big trouble after getting caught, I have no doubt.

Now, when I get caught, I can always point to those words, A Novel, written on the spine of the book.  It's true, sort of, just like the book itself.
           

Monday, March 22, 2010

From Short-Story to Novel, and The Page 69 Test

I've been busy guest-blogging this week, and I'm scheduled to blog for the wonderful Keplers bookstore
next week, so I thought I'd put up links to the posts here.

I wrote this piece for a terrific book blog (and book reviewer) called Nomad Reader.  I recommend keeping up with her insightful posts.  My own list of books that I want to read is growing.

http://nomadreader.blogspot.com/

This is a post I did for a zany site called "The Page 69 Test," which asks authors to look over page 69 of their books to see how representative they are, or aren't, of the book as a whole.  I liked the randomness of the exercise, as well as the fact that "69" is a "target vocabulary word" during the sex-ed/English lesson in my novel.

http://page69test.blogspot.com/2010/03/if-you-follow-me.html

Friday, March 19, 2010

The beginning of the end of innocence

I used to scorn innocence.  As a kid, I sensed that adults fetishized naivete in children.  I thought that this was because they wanted to be the only ones who got to know how things really worked--the dark and dirty truth of it all.  I hated feeling like secrets were being kept from me, "for my own good."  I didn't want to be good.  Good was boring.  Every kid figures this out before long.

Luckily, my parents were rather lazy in their attempts to shelter me from the dark side.  Rather than hire a babysitter, they would take me to R-rated movies with a brown paper grocery bag, making me put it on my head during the "inappropriate" scenes--anything with too much sex or violence.  They reused the same brown bag over and over, into which I poked pinholes that they never detected, not doubting my innocence.  If the gunfire or groaning went on long enough, they'd take it one step further and tell me to wait in the lobby--and I would, happily peering through a crack in the door.  I didn't miss a thing, although I often had no idea what I was actually seeing.  Why was it such a big deal that Cheech and Chong smoked a bunch of cigarettes and then lazed around eating junk food?

I wasn't the only kid who wanted to shed my innocence as fast as possible.  At school, new knowledge was a powerful currency.  No one wanted to be left behind with the babies.

At two-and-a-half, Max is still a baby in many respects, although he's quickly on his way to becoming the "big boy" he insists that he already is (even though I insist in return that a big boy does not use diapers).  My eagerness to get him out of diapers aside, I find myself predictably, mawkishly sorry to see him outgrowing the vestiges of babyhood.  Now that I'm the adult, I have a new appreciation for innocence, and a new understanding for why adults try to preserve it in children as long as possible.  As a kid, I thought innocent was a synonym for stupid.  Now I realize that it's also a synonym for sweet, that sweetness is not boring, and that niceness is underrated.

Up until recently, Max refused to express a preference for one kid in his class over another, or for one teacher over another.  In his innocence, he was affectionate and loyal to everyone in his life.  But suddenly he has a favorite teacher, and he "only" likes her.  He's testing the new power of declaring which kids are "not my friend," which kids are "babies" (in contrast to his big macho self).  And he informed us that he in turn "bothers" a little girl.  "I bother her," he said woefully, clearly repeating words she'd told him, since I have somehow managed to hold back, upon the numerous occasions that he has "bothered" me, from declaring it outright.  She happens to be his "enamorado," the girl he loves.  Already, an unrequited romance, and he's not yet three. What heartbreak lies ahead!

I spend a lot of time reading fiction that is all about the complexity of the human character and relationships, admiring authors who manage to represent these tangled webs on the page, trying to do the same in my own work.  And while I wouldn't want Max to stay naive eternally (or in diapers, for that matter) I am a little surprised by how sorry I feel to see him getting more complex, so fast.

Earlier this week, for the first time, he was strewn in colorful beaded necklaces when he suddenly took them off and informed me, "Necklaces are for girls!" with palpable scorn.  This came as a shock, given that when I show up at the end of the day at preschool, the little boys in his class are as likely to be stuffed into leotards and tutus as fireman costumes.  Fair's fair, I guess.  Clearly he's passing on some new piece of knowledge about gender distinctions, gleaned by another kid seeking to disabuse the lot of them of their innocence.

"This is my gunk," he said yesterday, pointing a baby carrot at me.  He'd been home with me all day recovering from tongue surgery, it was late afternoon and he was restless and irritable, as was I.

"Your what?" I said.

"My GUNK," he repeated, making an unmistakable "bang bang" sound.

I laughed at the mistake, even as I cringed at his acquisition of yet another unfortunate new piece of information, this being the first time he'd ever mentioned--let alone pretended to play with--a weapon.  He seemed annoyed by my reaction, more so when I lunged forward and took a bite.  He burst into tears, telling me to "Put it back!"  Then, like a baby, he let me comfort him, even though I'd been the one to eat his gunk.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writers Read

I've been "guest blogging" this week, so my juices runneth dry.  I thought I would post a link here to a post that went up today, on a cool site that asks authors what books they've enjoyed reading lately.

http://whatarewritersreading.blogspot.com/2010/03/malena-watrous.html

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Happy birthday


After a long wait, today is the official pub date for IF YOU FOLLOW ME.  Max looks to be enjoying the novel (hey, he can recognize the letters M, A and X), or maybe it was the promise of the celebratory trip to Tartine bakery that he was looking forward to, the "warm chocolate" and whipped cream.  In any case, a happy day for us all, especially following this review in the Boston Globe yesterday:

http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2010/03/08/malena_watrouss_debut_novel_is_full_of_discoveries/




 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Brick House



Whenever people ask me how I liked the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I'm not sure how to answer.  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," wouldn't be inaccurate, although unfortunately that line has been taken.  Before I went there, an undergraduate writing instructor, Michael Cunningham, told me that it was a place where, in any given writing class, people might literally throw a story onto the ground with disgust, or run from the building crying, but that at least they cared that much about good writing--where else in the world was that true?  I thought he might be exaggerating, but no.  He was right on both counts.  

I once saw an instructor drop a student's work to the floor, and then leave the room five minutes into a two-hour class, after announcing that the piece didn't merit further discussion.  And I've never seen so many people openly crying outside of my son's nursery school, during those first two weeks when the two year-olds were adjusting to being left by their parents.  So was the workshop a nurturing environment?  Even this question is surprisingly hard to answer, because in spite of the drama and the unalloyed criticism, most people I was in school with improved a lot as writers over their two years in the workshop, and kept writing after graduating.  

One thing I can say for sure is that Iowa City (and the workshop as a microcosm of it) is a claustrophobic place.  I love many things about it, from pie shakes at the Hamburg Inn to Prairie Lights bookstore, but everyone is connected to everyone else by two rather than six degrees of separation, and nothing you do goes unnoticed.  I started writing the story that turned into my novel here, in the late spring of my first year in the workshop, inspired (or plagued?) by that feeling of being constantly monitored and judged.  I had felt similarly watched in small town Japan, where I'd been living for the two years up until I started graduate school, but I'd been insulated from a lot of the gossip by the language barrier, and from the fact that Japanese people tend to be discreet.  They do their shit talking in private, or they disguise what they're saying so cleverly that you can barely catch the innuendo.  Not so here in Iowa, although there are midwestern codes as well.

"Harlan has been going through some changes," a customer recently told my friend Mark, who runs an antique and art store here in Iowa City, about a mutual friend in his eighties whose boyfriend was recently arrested, twice, for shoplifting at the High-Vee, and for drunk driving.  At this point, you might be wondering whether I'm exaggerating.  I sure know a lot of specifics about this old man and his boyfriend's recent crime spree.  I have heard about poor Harlan and his boyfriend from three separate people over the past twenty-four hours that I've been in town.  I know that Harlan's boyfriend is in his sixties, a good twenty years younger than Harlan.  He could be suffering early-onset dementia, but it's unlikely.  More folks suspect that he's been shoplifting and driving drunk for a while now, and this is simply the first time he got caught.  I know that he is the truffle maker for the New Pioneer Coop, where the rum balls have been tasting extra rummy lately...  You could accuse me of spreading the gossip by writing about Harlan's boyfriend here, but the Iowa Press Citizen already ran accounts of both of his arrests in the police crime blotter.  This morning, over breakfast muffins, when I mentioned to another guest and the innkeeper at this bed and breakfast that it seemed like a violation of the man's civil rights to print his arrests in the paper, they both laughed uproariously and said, "No it's not."  I guess when you break the law you forfeit your right to privacy.  Still, I'm starting to feel badly for the truffle maker.  "Iowa City may seem like a really big city," said the other guest (who hails from someplace in Nebraska, so I couldn't bear to tell her that, um, it really doesn't) "but it's actually a small town."

The picture at the top of this post is of the house in which I lived during my first year at the workshop.  See how it's split vertically so that one half is painted white and the other is bare brick?  I always assumed that this was a sign of my landlords' laziness or poverty.  They lived in the white side, and didn't seem to do anything for a living, since both of them were always home.  I occupied the first floor of the bare brick side, under the overhang of the porch that obscured almost all daylight.  It was a shotgun apartment, and the floor dipped at an angle so that I could roll a tennis ball from the front door through all four rooms to the back, which let out onto a fetid creek.  My landlords paid the gas and electricity for the whole building, and if I left a light on (say when I dashed out to the New Pioneer Coop, just two blocks away, for a forgotten recipe ingredient) I'd inevitably come home and find a note reminding me that money didn't grow on trees and asking me to please turn my light off in the future.  The notes got increasingly passive aggressive (actually, they left passive behind after a while) to the point that I would run from car to apartment and slam the door behind me with my heart racing, terrified of running into them, in spite of the fact that they never said more than "hello" to me in person.  All the criticism was on paper--as was true, for the most part, in the workshop. 

In Iowa City, other people's opinions crowded me like those brick walls.  And I was by no means innocent.  I like to gossip as much as (maybe more than) the next person.  And "the next person," in Iowa City, is probably a writer, with finely tuned antennae and habit of repeating good stories.  Eight years after leaving the place, I still know way-too-intimate details about some of the people I keep running into, people who probably know way too much about me, too, although we've never spoken face to face.  

About a year after I left, a tornado hit town.  The New York Times ran a photo of the very house in which I'd lived, its roof and two-tone brick facade ripped clean off.  Looking at that photo, I wondered what happened to my mean old landlords.  Assuming they'd found shelter somewhere (the article mentioned no deaths) I felt glad that they had lost their hideous house, and could no longer rent that dark and dank unit and torment graduate students.  So I was very surprised, on a walk yesterday, to see that the house had not only been repaired but also restored to its former shabbiness.  They fixed the place and repainted it so that one half is white and the other brick, a detail that my knowledgeable friend Mark assures me is not historical.  No, they just want a literal line drawn between themselves and their tenants, to make sure it's clear who's leaving the notes.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Returns and Firsts

I am finally, after a long day of airplane travel, back in Iowa City, where I went to graduate school, and where I will be giving the first reading for my novel, this coming Tuesday.  My old friend Jane Monson kindly picked me up at the airport in Cedar Rapids and brought me into town, and as we walked to the Atlas Cafe for dinner--an old favorite haunt--we passed Praire Lights bookstore, where I will be reading with Sabrina Mark, and where my book was on display in the window.  This was the first time I saw it for sale at a bookstore (it's not technically released until 3/9) and Jane obliged me by posing with her copy in front of the window.  Self-indulgent?  Absolutely.  But it seemed like seeing your first book for the first time in a bookstore was worth a commemorative picture.

It's fun to be back here, doing my first reading in Iowa City, where I wrote the first draft of the story that eventually became this novel.  A lot of the material was inspired by my first year here in Iowa City, where I lived in a house with landlords who monitored my coming and going, and would leave angry notes when I left a light on (costing them electricity).  That house, which was split down the middle--one half painted white, the other half left red brick--got demolished in a tornado (!) the year after I moved away.  Jane drove us down Iowa Avenue, to see the vacant lot where it had stood.

Packing for this trip, I grabbed the first small suitcase that I found under the bed.  It wasn't until I was at the San Francisco airport that I realized that this happened to be the same suitcase I'd had since graduate school.  I knew this because the plastic handle had been gnawed by the squirrels that lived in the attic that stretched around the room where my roommate and good friend, Cathy Park Hong, slept.  We used to hear them galloping around, and when we'd open the door to the storage area they would freeze, and we'd see dozens of pairs of glowing green eyes in the darkness.  They were too numerous and terrifying to take on, and so we let them sharpen their teeth on our stored possessions--hence my masticated suitcase, which now seems like the perfect thing to pack for this particular trip, my first time back in 8 years. 

Tonight I learned from Jane, who also lived in the building (in the same lot as a double-wide trailer-turned bar) that the landlord, Bill Winkle, died last year.  He used to make rather shoddy (RIP Bill Winkle) pine furniture in a wood shop on the first floor, so we'd interact with him whenever we entered or left the building.  He had about three remaining teeth, and liked to eat tortilla chips that he would leave to wilt on a cookie sheet.  He bragged that when his daughter got married, he gave her an option: he'd either wear a tux or his false teeth, which he hated.  She chose the tux.   

Planning this trip, I had thought that March meant spring--having lived so long now in California.  I forgot that this is not the case in Iowa City, where it can be (and is) 7 degrees in March.  I won't be spending the next few days strolling around quite as idly as I'd fantasized.  The streets are narrowed by dirty snowbanks.  There's nothing green in sight.  Still, it's nice to be back in this place I once called home, and the bed and breakfast where I'm staying seems squirrel-free.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hot sashimi



For the last few months, I thought I had lost my photo album from Japan.  I worried that I might have thrown it away in a fit of housekeeping.  I get way too much pleasure out of throwing things away.  It's so much easier than actually organizing them.  Our apartment has so little space.  But it does have a garbage chute that makes throwing things out almost fun.  It's like a slide at a playground, for trash.  I get giddy with the sense of lightness that comes from throwing things away, the suddenly clear surfaces and cleaned out drawers, but often suffer from disposal remorse after dumping more than I actually wanted to part with.  This is pretty much the subject of my novel.

My two and a half year old son, Max, also loves to throw things away.  At his preschool, the teachers tell me that he will often ask for a cup of milk, claiming to be thirsty, then take just a few sips, only for the pleasure of walking over to the garbage can and dumping it.  He also likes to throw things out of his car window while I'm driving.  It's hard to explain to a toddler why it's okay to spit a cherry pit out the window but it's not okay to throw a crumpled potato chip bag out the window.  So I finally had to tell him not to throw *anything* out the window, a line he likes to repeat in a testy way.

The other day, he was sitting in the backseat with his window open, wearing a pair of Spiderman sunglasses, and then suddenly they were gone from his face.  I asked where they went and he said, "I don't know, Mommy," in a tone that suggested he did know.  I asked again and he shrugged.  "Did you throw them out the window?" I asked, and after a little more prodding, he finally admitted that he had.  We were driving fast down a four lane street that fed onto the Bay Bridge.  He started crying as he said that he wanted his sunglasses back, and I explained rather tersely that after he threw something out the car window, he could never get it back.  I was stern, hoping to get my point across.  When we got to our destination, and I went to get him out of the backseat, there were the sunglasses on the floor of the car.  I was relieved that he hadn't thrown them out the window, but a little disturbed by how readily he accepted the blame.  He seemed to believe that he was guilty, as surprised as I was to see the glasses. 

I wonder if there is a genetic predisposition towards feeling guilty when you've done nothing wrong.  My mother has admitted to me that one of her greatest fears is accidentally committing a hit-and-run.  How could you accidentally drive away from a car crash? 

The last time I cleaned out my closet, Max had a ball watching me dump hangers and clothes on the floor, much of which made its way down the chute.  Within an hour, we'd filled the apartment building's trashcan.  I was cleaning my closet in the hopes that my photo album would turn up, and to my relief, it did.  Looking through the photos, I came across this one, taken at the Bonenkai or New Year's party for the first high school where I taught English.  After staying up half the night with my fellow teachers, drinking way too much and singing karaoke, we slept on futons on the floor in two luxury hotel rooms (men in one, women in the other) and then met up again for a banquet hall breakfast featuring this sashimi.  A man brought the fish, still alive, to the breakfast table, filleted it as you can see while we watched, then served the slices of sashimi in the bowl of its own carcass. 

Looking at the photo, I remembered how, the next day, I told this story to a friend, embellishing it slightly to say that the fish had been killed so freshly that its flesh was still warm when we ate it. 

At first she seemed duly horrified.  But then she said, "Wait.  Aren't fish cold-blooded?"

Yes.  Okay.  If you're going to be literal about it.  But it made a better story my way. 

Which is just one of the reasons why I didn't write a memoir.  Like Max, I can't seem to stick to the truth, and have a hard time knowing the difference, but at least I don't have to feel guilty about it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Anne Frank Gets Bad Reviews

One of my Goodreads friends (the people whose capsule reviews of the books they've read recently get emailed to me), a former undergraduate at Stanford, now finishing her MFA at Iowa, just gave The Diary of Anne Frank four out of five possible stars.  This woman is consistently harsher on her Goodreads reviews than I am, seldom dispensing the top five-star rating, I guess saving it for books that she deems truly special, not just close to perfect.  I get this.  I respect this, even if I follow a different model with my own Goodread ratings.  But The Diary of Anne Frank?

"Why'd you hold back from giving Anne Frank that fifth star?" I joked in my comment to her.  "Was the language not restrained enough?  Too nakedly adolescent?  Or was the story simply melodramatic?"

I admit that it has been a while since I've read Anne Frank's diary--"a while" being a euphemism for the decades since middle school--but what I remember feeling at the end of the book was an aching sense of double loss, that this real girl had died (her death standing in for so many) and also that the world had lost an incredible writer, already so talented in her adolescence, who would undoubtedly have given us many more beautiful books.  I know that I'm not the only one to feel or express this.  Francine Prose has a critical book out on Anne Frank that I'm curious to read.  But apparently--I learned after scanning Anne Frank's Goodreads ratings--that Iowa MFA student is not the only person who thinks that Ms. Frank's writing is a bit...overrated.  In fact, her four star review was one of Frank's highest ratings.  Many of the Goodreads reviewers begrudge Anne her full corona of stars, and don't hold back in their capsule reviews explaining why.

A sampling of Goodreads reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank:

"It was so tedious, barely about the war itself, which supposed to make this book special."

Really?  I wonder why the diary of someone who was pent up with her family in an attic for many years might be tedious?  

"I just read it, to assume it is fake or not. I`m not sure yet, but I assume it is real , nobody would be bothered to write such tedious babbling."
  
I didn't know that Anne Frank's diary was suspect, a la James Frey of A Million Little Pieces infamy.  Does this person believe that she might be part of the whole holocaust hoax?  A "document" from that "genocide"?  

"i was recently at her house and was SHOCKED that it's HUGE. i mean, the diary makes it sound like they're living in a matchbox when even the hideaway part is two stories and far bigger than anywhere i've ever lived."

Well, I certainly hope you have written books about your experiences in those claustrophobic studios.  I'm sure they would be riveting.  I too have visited Anne Frank's house and don't recall being SHOCKED by the palatial size.  I mean the fact that there were two entire families living there, and that they COULD NEVER LEAVE might contribute to Anne's rendering of the space as small and confining...  Or maybe that was just more of her tedious adolescent babbling... 

"The time period is great, everything should set up for a good story, but Anne flunks out. Her book seems to have chapters of dialog between people that we don't even know - People she hasn't introduced properly."
  
This came with a one-star rating to go with Anne's "F."  Could it be that she's not introducing characters properly because she is writing in her own personal diary and not crafting a novel for people to read five decades later?   

"By the end I was rooting for the Nazis."

I thought I had a dark sense of humor, but this crosses a line that find beyond cringe-worthy.
 
"recommended for: people who like depressing or boring books"  

That's me, I guess. 

Frankly, I was SHOCKED (to borrow one critic's technique of making sure no emphasis is missed via the subtle art of ALL CAPS) by the number of negative reviews posted on this book, and by how few people held back from their less than humble opinions, regardless of the author--indeed, they seemed to relish heaping criticism upon this book.  Should Anne Frank's diary be sacred because she was a real person who did not write her book to be subject to public scrutiny or judgment, a real person who died in a camp before reaching adulthood?  I will leave that up to the individual person and Goodreader.  I personally would not feel comfortable writing a negative review of Anne's prose (or assigning her fewer than the five possible stars which I do believe she deserves).  

I've been having semi-frequent conversations recently with different friends--many of them writers, some fellow book reviewers, all avid readers--about whether there should be negative reviews of fiction at all.  The subject has been coming up a lot, in part I'm sure, because my own novel is about to be released, so it's a bone I'm gnawing.  I've been publishing book reviews for the last decade, and am now forced to recognize (what an epiphany) how much easier it is to dole out the judgment than to be on its receiving end.  It is also a hell of a lot easier to judge a book (via Goodreads, in particular, where all you have to do is hit "submit") than to write one.  

This is one of the arguments behind the school of thought holding that with so little space to review books in print, and so few people buying books, especially fiction, why not reserve this coveted review space for recommendations?  The Believer upholds this model.  Heidi Julavitz wrote a manifesto against "snarkiness" in the opening issue, which set the standard for "giving books the benefit of the doubt."  As a new and somewhat nervous novelist, I'm all for it.  But it also seems to me that taking fiction off the critical table altogether suggests that it is too weak and anemic as a form to hold up to the slightest prodding, that it will collapse like a heap of ashes and scatter to the winds.  A friend who writes both poetry and fiction argues that this is what happened to poetry--she says that it's virtually impossible to find a negative review of a book of poems in print--and that poetry is in fact a form on the brink of extinction, in the sense that no one can make money off their poetry alone, and very few people buy it.  She sees the increase in positive reviews for fiction (perhaps influenced by The Believer) as a sign that novels might be headed down that same slope.  

The same Iowa MFA student who gave Anne Frank's diary a four star rating gave Faulkner's As I Lay Dying only three stars.  I admire her rigor, her refusal to grade inflate.  I was about to say that if she ever gives a book five stars, I'll order it immediately with the highest expectations.  But then I saw that she gave a fellow acquaintance five stars on his newly released novel.  Hmm...  I'm guilty of this too, and I admit it.  I give five stars for friends' books.  This is Goodreads we're talking about, not print journalism, where I wouldn't review a friend's book to begin with.  
 
After having spent the better part of the afternoon cruising around Goodreads--which was good fun, make no mistake; I still love the site--I am newly glad that print journalism and vetted "professional" book reviews still exist.  Whether a book critic is worrying about sounding too "snarky" or not, at least there is some worry motivating the critic, whose name will appear beneath a published opinion.  I don't think that only positive reviews should see the light of day.  I think fiction can and should hold up to honest scrutiny, and as a reader, seeing a spectrum of reviews (on one particular book, or on different books released at the same time) helps me to appreciate what reviews (and possibly what novels) are going to be truly exceptional and what I want to buy and read.  But even when criticism is earned, I also think it's important for the critic to remember how much work goes into creating and finishing a book.  IMHO.

I'm always fascinated by how very different two readers' opinions of the same book can be, or even by how different my own opinion of a book can be when I reread it years following a first reading.  Every book is imperfect.  They are the work of people.  They are built of sentences and scenes, images and thoughts, all creating an illusion of wholeness--the magical part. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Straight Man

Matt resents playing the straight man in my writing--the Cheryl to my Larry David--claiming (with some validity) that whenever I write anecdotes from our real life, he gets saddled with the boring lines, and the thankless task of reining me in, keeping me from crossing lines that I like to cross, just to see what I can get away with. 

"You can't do that kind of thing anymore," he said to me not long after we got married, when I showed him how I'd stuffed my jacket pockets full of tea bags from the Stanford business school cafeteria.  In my mind, this very minor transgression was justified, since A) the business school is richer than many solvent nations, and B) I had bought an expensive cup of tea, which I felt entitled me to extra tea bags--like a dozen at least.   "I like my tea strong!" I argued.

"Fine," he said, rolling his eyes at my lame justifications, "just don't do that kind of thing when I'm around, Blondie.  I can't get away with it like you can."

I was recently watching Wanda Sykes' hilarious one-woman show where she made the same point, telling the story of how she watched with incredulity as a white friend of hers walked out of the supermarket, openly chugging a bottle of water that hadn't been rung up, utterly unconcerned that she might get arrested.  Sykes told her never to do this again in her company--and then ordered her to go back into the store to shoplift something for her, too.

The other evening, I was coming home from picking Max up at preschool when two cars collided in the intersection in front of our apartment.  There is something seriously wrong with this intersection, because every few weeks we hear the squeal of brakes, followed by a riot of metal crushing metal, and we rush to the windows to assess the damage.  This time, the hood of one of the cars (a black 80's low rider sedan with amber tinted windows) was pleated like an accordion and flapping up over the windshield.  As I watched the wrecked car careen around the corner, cruising past the spot where Max and I had just parked, at first I thought the driver was pulling over to trade information with the other party, but instead he zoomed by: a hit-and-run.

By the time Max and I got upstairs, both of our upstairs neighbors (and friends) were still peering out the window, having jotted down the license plate and called it in to the cops.  We were rubbernecking, but no one was visibly injured, and the perk of living on a street as grimy and crime-ridden as South Van Ness is getting to witness the colorful street life.  Every Saturday, when the bars let out at 2 AM, we're awakened by telenovelas playing out at our doorstep, lovers throwing each other up against the front gate, making the whole building rattle; a particular drunkard who likes to sing, "I'm washing windows in the rain" while doing just that.  

When Matt got home from work a few hours later, I eagerly dispatched the story of the hit-and-run, slightly exaggerating our parked car's proximity to the accident to make a more exciting story.   I also claimed to have gotten a good look at the driver's face, when it was more of a fleeting glance: a dark form, a black stocking cap.

"Great," Matt said flatly.  "No wonder that woman on the corner looked at me funny."

"What are you talking about?" I said, and he pointed--with an expression that said, duh--to his black polar fleece hat, borrowed from his dad to conceal his overgrown curls.  I thought that this was one of his funniest jokes ever, until I realized that he wasn't kidding at all.  Matt--in his ironed, white Brooks Brothers oxford, computer bag slung over one shoulder--was positive beyond convincing that this woman had mistaken him for the kid speeding away in the wrecked sedan with its tinted windows, the guy responsible for the hit-and-run.

I still think he was being paranoid, but at least I understand why he won't steal so much as a tea bag.  He's the straight guy by default, or by no fault of his own, but he's funny too, for sure.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Inspiration: a dirty word

At Denis Johnson's colloquium last week at Stanford, he announced that he hasn't written in years, that he doesn't really miss it or care if he ever writes again.  This followed a reading the night before that was such a flop that some people who'd attended both events might have thought: I hope you mean it.  

He knew that the reading was a flop.  It almost seemed like he was deliberately making fun of his last published novel, a noir that seemed more like dishwater read aloud.  He stopped halfway through a scene, in mid-sentence, to say that he'd forgotten to read a key scene leading up to that one, then went back and read the skipped scene (which didn't seem all that key) before starting over from the top of the scene we'd already heard the bulk of, pausing every few sentences to Tourettishly pre-read the coming swear words (apparently he'd been told not to swear much, for the touchy donors' sakes), pausing to take a glug of water every time there was white space on the page (informing us that this was what he was doing), and rapping his knuckles on the lectern when characters in the story knocked on doors (commenting, "Did I really just do that?")  Singly, any of these tics could have been charming, and in fact he did come across as charming in a devilish way, but he was also strangely aware of the rotten performance he was delivering, yet seemingly unable to deliver anything better. 

"I should just stop and start over," he said about twenty minutes into the reading, and you could hear the audience shift in collective discomfort--nervous that he was going to read all of those "key" scenes over again, from the top.  No one wanted to hear it a second time, even if he ironed out the creases.

Maybe it feels strange to him to read from his fiction now that he's (apparently) not writing it anymore and has no forseeable plans to do so again--or so he says.  The colloquium at which he made this announcement is a regular and favorite Stanford event.  Every quarter they bring a big writer to campus, and the day after the writer's big reading, students and members of the community attend a kind of informal, lunch-hour chat where they can grill and schmooze with that visiting writer.  People were especially excited for Denis Johnson's visit.  I was too. 

Practically every fiction anthology that I know of features one of the stories from from Jesus' Son, usually "Emergency," which means that his work gets read in nearly every undergraduate creative writing class, where it inevitably inspires students to track down the slim and almost perfect novel-in-stories, which is unlike any other book really, utterly inimitable, yet impossibly tempting as a model for college students dying to write about their own experiences getting drunk and stoned and falling in love and messing it up.  (The student versions usually feature red cups and frat parties--only one of the reasons why they fail to live up to the prototype).  At the colloquium (before the big announcement) Denis Johnson answered what must be the inevitable and identical run of questions on Jesus' Son, telling the audience that the book was built of anecdotes, things he'd heard tossed around in bars, things he'd lived through when he was drinking, saying that people kept telling him that he should write those stories down, and he'd strung it all together without really knowing how the parts fit or what it meant.  There again was the self-deprecating self-awareness that had been part of his reading the night before, a kind of fuck it bravado assuring you that any flaw you might spot, he could point out first.  But I also appreciated the honesty--it seemed sincere, not a cop out--behind his admission that he isn't really sure how a lot of the stories in Jesus' Son work, or even if they work. 

Although I've read the book many times--for pleasure, and with envy, knowing I couldn't copy it if I tried, and to teach from, just like everyone else--the meaning and mechanics of some of those stories continues to elude me, which is one of the reasons I think that they're brilliant.  They can't be pinned down; they are too full of life; they wriggle out from under any attempt to nail them.  And they are so beautiful too, finding luminescence in the gutters, bringing the tragic right up against the comic like sandpaper rubbing against silk.  Some books, you find at the right moment, they intersect with who you are at that age and that time, but rereading them later, you're not entirely sure why you loved them as much as you did.  Jesus' Son is not one of those books.  It will never wind up in the bag of books destined for the used bookstore.  It won't grow dated, I don't think, just better with time.

This is why it was hard to hear his lackluster reading the night before, and then hard again to hear him confess (with that same fuck you/fuck it tone) that he's not writing anymore, and doesn't really care if he ever writes again.  Again the collective shift was audible, the discomfort palpable.  We are not used to hearing writers (especially ones as celebrated as Johnson) talk (gleefully no less) about giving it up, or giving up on it, or whatever he was saying exactly.  It had the same effect as if someone barely middle aged had announced to a room full of people that she was tired of sex, didn't miss it and didn't care if she ever had it again.  Really?  You mean that?  Don't you need it to feel alive?  The people in the audience were almost all writers or would-be-writers, from the hopeful undergraduates imitating Johnson's stories in their specially designated writing notebooks, to the peninsula professionals taking adult writing classes at Stanford in the evenings, meeting in writing groups in their precious spare time, reading how-to books on writing that invariably stress process over product and push the idea that you must put in the time, write every day even when you don't feel like it.  Perspiration over inspiration, etc...  And here was this award-winning author who has filled a shelf with his books (some better than others, but still) admitting that he's lost the inspiration, for now at least. 

I thought of a radio interview with Nick Hornby, who apparently struggled to get his first novel published, and didn't break into print until he had been writing for quite some time.  He said that a woman contacted him, complaining that her first novel was still unpublished, and asking how long she should keep at it before she gave up.  I can't give the exact quote, but he said something to the effect of: honestly, if you can ask that question, then you probably should.  He wasn't being harsh.  He meant that you should write if you feel a pressure to write, and if not then why not do something more immediately gratifying, less liable to lead to rejection?

Maybe Denis Johnson is doing something hard and necessary by "lying fallow" for a while.  Maybe there is something facile in the conventional writing book wisdom that we should all be writing, all the time, rather than waiting for inspiration.  Inspiration, these books suggest, is a cliche, an illusion, a trick of the id, that would rather be out shopping or drinking or seeing a movie, than sitting in a hard chair applying word after word to the page.  But how many Jesus' Sons is any one writer expected to have in him?  And what is that book if not inspired and inspiring?

Denis Johnson wasn't being completely honest either, when he said that he hasn't written in years.  In fact, he admitted with that same devilish glint in his eyes, he has been working around the clock on a TV show, which he described as "MASH meets In Treatment," which he said has had him up at four in the morning most days, dying to get back to the characters he is developing, to see what's going to happen to them next.  It sounds like it's coming from some kind of pressure point.  Jesus' Son was inspired by anecdotes traded by drunks at bars.  Who is to say where this might end up?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

German World

At a German restaurant last night, there was a copy of "German World" Magazine on the table in the waiting area where you could enjoy a German beer or glass of German wine while waiting to be seated at a table under portraits of Marx and Lenin.  I hadn't known that this magazine existed, nor did I know that Sandra Bullock (featured on its cover) is half-German and (according to the interview) actively seeking German citizenship, to honor her mother.  The interview (like everything else in the magazine) was printed in German on one half of the page, and in English on the other.  The English had clearly been translated from German, and while this makes sense (apparently Sandy B is fluent and no doubt answered the questions in German) the English translations of her answers had a hilarious stilted quality.  "I love my husband because he accepts me as I am, even when I awaken in the morning looking as if the dog had gnawed on my hair."  There was also a great review of Inglorious Basterds in which the author commented on how the Germans in the film were amazingly well-educated and eloquent, while the Americans were "ignorant dolts."  It almost seemed like a parody of German-ness, like Sprockets, circa SNL 1989, and I was sure that something had been lost in translation.  But then, after we were finally seated, Matt asked the waiter whether he liked the sea bass special featured on the menu, and the waiter replied, "Sea bass has a good texture."  Yes, but is it good? 

Bye-bye Kindle?

Agents don't like the Kindle.  This has become clear, based on the current wrangling between Amazon and agents over rights and costs, monopolies and so forth.  Before this news broke, I was talking to an agent who said that she would never buy a Kindle, because it's bound to be replaced by something better and faster.  "It's going to look like a beta-max in six months," she said.  "Don't waste your two hundred bucks."

I didn't admit that I had already--in fact, just--done exactly that.

I am not a trendsetter.  In fact, if this word had an antonym, that would be me.

A month after I finally accept that it's time to join the legions of folks who swear by their Kindles, and get one for Matt for Christmas ("Thanks for the present," he jokes every time he comes into bed and sees me reading on it) Apple announces its i-pad.  It's twice the price but a million times cooler and better designed than the beige (beta-max-y) Kindle--able to hold pictures, books, movies.  "Bye bye, Kindle," said my friend Dana.  Granted, she works at Apple so she has reason to believe that the i-pad is going to corner the market, but I'm inclined to believe too, if only because I bought a Kindle, so it must be on the way out.

This is not the first time I've purchased some digital gadget only to have it almost immediately rendered obsolete by the next generation device.  A mini-disc player purchased right before the advent of the MP3 comes to mind.  It was cute.  Smaller than a sandwich, and apple green.  They were all the rage in Japan, where you could rent CD's and then copy them in just a few minutes onto cheap mini-discs.  But I returned to the US and found mini-discs hard to come by here.  I was stuck with an extensive collection of J-pop by Puffy and Kiroro.  If you haven't heard of these bands, there's a reason.    

One of my adult students, a woman in her mid-fifties (I'm guessing based on the ages of her children--I teach her online, so we've never actually met) recently wrote a piece for class about how brokenhearted she felt when she stopped being able to buy cassettes, and again when she had to box up her old CD's, and how she's almost unwilling to form an attachment to a new device only to have her heart broken her again.  I liked her ardor.  It is certainly discouraging, if not quite heartbreaking, to have a prized collection of tapes, CDs' (or possibly books, in the not so distant future) suddenly lose its value, become bulky and kitschy.  For a while at least, holding onto these relics just shows your age and how uncool you are. 

All of this has made me remember a humiliating and humbling experience of my early twenties.  A friend in publishing (OK--I babysat her kids) helped get me an interview with the head of HR for Conde Nast: Bucky Keady.  How could I forget that name?  Or the way the wiry little thing wore a cowboy hat and a business suit?  Bucky Keady seemed to see some glimmer of potential in me (or she was just trying to be nice to our mutual friend) and so she "forwarded" me to an interview at one of the Conde Nast magazines: Details for Men.  I think they may have dropped the "for Men" part since then, but as a newly minted Barnard graduate, that detail stuck out and made me wonder why, of all of their publications, this was the one where I was being funneled for my second interview.

For four months prior to this, I had been traveling around South East Asia.  I went abroad having secured via mail (yes, the actual post office) a teaching job for the coming year at a Catholic university in Semarang, Indonesia.  I got there and learned that the position had fallen through.  I also got desperately homesick, and when a friend told me about an apartment for rent in New York--all I had to do was bribe the super $500 and it could be mine--I begged my mom to send a check and returned to the city with no job.  As a stop-gap measure, I worked as a kindergarten teacher's aid at a private school where the kids brought lunches with detailed prep instructions like, "grate asiago on the penne after heating." 

So I was excited for my Details interview.  Bucky Keady hadn't told me much about the position, except that it would entail "attention to detail" work at first, with the possibility of future writing assignments.  It sounded good to me, and a lot better than pitting olives for a five year-old's nicoise salad.

I was already sweating when I went into the interview--it was an Indian summer day, and I was wearing a ridiculous tweed skirt suit, a button-down shirt, stockings and heels, like I was auditioning for Mad Men--but I started sweating even harder after the editor asked me his first question: "What trends have you noticed lately?" 

My mind went blank. 

"OK," he said.  "Let's start simpler.  What new music has been catching your attention lately?" 

All summer, in Indonesia, it seemed like the only album I'd heard (everywhere, all the time) was Bob Marley's Legend.  I'd brought a half dozen tapes and a Walkman (yes, that's how old I am) but somehow I didn't think that Paul Simon's greatest hits or Sarah McLaughlan were going to impress this slick Details editor. 

"What's the last CD you bought?" he asked. 

"Joni Mitchell?" I said, not admitting that it hadn't been a CD.  His next question was about trends I'd noticed in fashion, and the only answer I could come up with was that I'd seen a lot of guys around the city wearing stockings on their heads. 

"Are you talking about doo-rags?" he asked, sounding incredulous. 

It turned out that the position for which Details for Men was hiring was "Trendspotter."

He all but pushed me out the door.  And he was right to.  But I can't help but think that there must be a practical use for someone who spots trends right before they expire.  I could save people a lot of money.  If you've been thinking of buying a Kindle, maybe you should hold back.