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.

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.

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.

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:


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.