Thursday, December 10, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

Okay, I'm desperate to see this, even though I don't like musicals.

But I want to see Jim Norton on Broadway again, and I'm willing to sit through the kissing scenes and a lot of corny songs in order to do that. Not sure how we'll manage it, as we're both unemployed, but we will.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What is the Resemblance?

Larry is working on an anthology that you can buy here. While working on this project, he's had the chance to edit the work of many different men, either in the form of essays or in their answers to quizzes that have been published online. This morning he said he was working on something from one man who is the father of another contributor. Larry said that he could see the resemblance between the two of them in their writing. Both men, father and son, had similar narrative habits, similar quirks. They both arranged their thoughts in a similar pattern. Both made the same type of grammatical mistakes. They had a likeness on the page, despite the vast difference in education between the two of them.

I suppose that shouldn't have been surprising, but it shocked me. Of course, you can resemble your parents in so many ways, in looks and personality and in behavioral tics. I never, never thought that this likeness would extend to the written word, to creativity itself. What a humbling notion. My father never liked to write, but when he did, he was pretty good at it. My mother never wrote at all, and never wanted to--as far as I know. I have always assumed that my career choice set me apart. Perhaps not.

And I watch G, who is 7 now, and who writes on the computer almost every day. He obsesses over Diary of a Wimpy Kid and wants to write a book just like it, chapter by chapter. A year ago, he was writing endless chapter books about a boy and his stuffed dog, just like Calvin & Hobbes. Who is he taking after?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mister Roberts

Larry took me to see the New Rep's version of this over the weekend. This was the first half of a birthday present. The second half will be the same theater's version of Speed The Plow.

How was it? Hard to say. The audience was deathly quiet, not a sound in the house. How extremely awkward it is to watch a bit of camp (a row of sailors looking through binoculars out into the audience, talking about and reacting to the naked women they're spying on) while the entire audience just sits and frowns at them. Not a whisper of indulgent laughter. Not even a cough. On one hand I wanted to react to the complexity of the scene. Five guys talking in turn, not stepping on each other's lines, all of it musical and wildly precise in terms of timing. And they're not looking at each other at all. It was amazing, but not a joke on which I cared to join in.

As a culture we may have outgrown campy humor pieces about war. It's supposed to be funny and touching as well. And it's about a man on the sidelines of war who really wants to be in the thick of it. An early reviewer suggested that the premise of the play is dated and I resisted this, but on second thought, it just might be true. What's interesting about the play for me was the fact that it started out as a series of short stories. Then was a Tony award-winning play, and then a highly successful movie--fifty years ago. There would be difficulties in staging something that started out as a series of episodes, trying to string them together into a dramatic arc at which something real is at stake very early on. It didn't happen, and that's the fault of no one involved in the current production. I wonder that audiences didn't notice the play's slow start before now.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Boy Meets Book

So, the publisher sent along some copies of the boy book yesterday. G happened by as I was ripping open the box. I said, "Honey, look. It's my book."
"Yeah, so?" he said. And then: "Is this some kind of famous book or something?"
Well, no, honey. Not yet.
He took a copy, demanded to know who the kid is on the cover. (Don't know.) And then he sat down and paged through it, reading the subheads aloud and saying "boring" after each one.
He asked me to read some of it to him, and I did. I read the little section about boys loving bad guys and danger, and specifically natural disasters. It's a section about a mom whose boy came home from kindergarten asking pointed questions about the Titanic and how many people died and about drowning. G got a kick out of hearing this, so I got bold and and told him, "You know you're in this book a little bit."
That's a risk, and I knew it. Some kids hate the idea that their parents talk about them, and one mom I know had a complete revolt from her kids when one of them learned he'd been mentioned by name in a book--and it wasn't even her book. It was somebody else's book of essays, and it was just one mention. The kid didn't care. He was mortified that his name had been used in a book. Anyway, G took it okay. He said, "Oh, yeah? Where?" I told him that he was the kid who came home asking about the Titanic. A classmate had brought a book to school about it and afterward all the boys in his kindergarten couldn't get enough of talking and wondering about it. G smiled at the memory. And then he took the book from my hands and said, "Can I keep this?" It's in the bookcase in his room right now.
Secretly, I hope he never reads any more of it. It's not really about boys, after all. It's more about parents and teachers and pediatricians.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Photo of a Bookshelf

My friend Grace sent this photo as proof that the book is on the shelf in a bookstore. So far, the coolest thing about this whole process is hearing from incredibly generous friends that they've bought the book or recommended it to people they know. No book can survive without this kind of support.

And here in this photo is proof that I have a friend who will drive to the bookstore, buy the book, and then take a picture of the remaining books on the shelf. Life is pretty good.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Amazon Ranking = Crack

My friend Jack wrote two memoirs, Home Ice and Open Ice, both well-received, along with the novel, Saved, a book that found a large readership among women hockey players. All of them are wonderful books in which Jack's voice and his warmth are forever preserved. In the weeks following each release, I could always look forward to receiving emails from him that would contain his ranking in fantasy hockey as well as his ranking on

In fact, he would sometimes break down the ranking for handy analysis. It always made me smile to learn that he was at 26,783 overall, but number 6 among hockey books and number 50 among sports books.

Now I know he was practicing restraint. The amazon page just sits open on my computer so I can refresh it every few minutes. In this way, I read a new meaningless number and have a new emotion about it. Micro elation if it goes up slightly, micro panic if it goes down. And all the while, there's bright sunshine outside. Someone down the street is mowing a lawn. Larry and the kids have gone off to the pool. I'm supposed to be preparing to teach tonight. This is crazy, far crazier than the phone call I got from my co-author yesterday announcing that he couldn't find the book in any bookstores. The store owners were insisting that the book hadn't come out yet, or they said they had it but couldn't find it. Hey, at least my co-author was outside, doing something active. We've both gone mad.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's Out

The summer is almost over and the release date (different from the pub date for reasons no one will explain) is here. The Way of Boys is available to purchase. You can buy it in hardback, or in electronic versions for the Kindle or the Sony reader thingy. And I think you can get it in installments on a cell phone. (And why would anyone do that? Again, no explanations are available.) When I started writing here the project was a quasi proposal, each draft of which was greeted by our agent with the same tepid response.

Somehow, during this summer I've lost the urge to write here--or anywhere. The only cure for dry spells is reading, so here is a list of books to read when you're wallowing in fear and self-loathing.

1. Tender at the Bone. Ruth Reichl's memoir about growing up with food against the backdrop of growing up with a crazy mother. I read Garlic & Sapphires first, which is much lighter, a fun account of being the NYT food writer. This one is better, a bit darker, as it must be and readable in one sitting. Plus, there are recipes. What strikes me about Reichl is her ability to be so generous toward the people in her past. I've now read all of her books this summer and may make a class prompt based on her work.

2. The Horned Man, by James Lasdun. He has a new book of short stories out (It's Beginning to Hurt) that I'll be reading this fall. It's selling really well in hardback, which is all you need to know about his popularity. In this bizarre and dark novel, Lasdun takes his unreliable narrator all the way to the edge and then pushes him over. The high point of the book comes about 130 pages in when the narrator describes an anecdote about spending time with his step-sister at an exclusive club to which he doesn't belong. He thinks he's getting along beautifully with her and her tony friends, and he's not. It's so beautifully told, with so much restraint, and it's so haunting (and creepy and sad).

3. The Time of Your Life. Okay, it's a play by William Saroyan, and not a book. But it's a lot of fun. Written in that little slice of time between the great depression and WWII, it is a play about a group of regulars at a bar, and the main character, Joe, is trying to help everybody with his money and this kind of New Agey optimism, and all the while despair keeps creeping in. The Broadway Theater Archive has a version of this with a very young Kevin Kline as the longshoreman, available on Netflix.

4. Twin Study. These stories by Stacey Richter have been a kind of lifeline during the past month. They are surreal and funny and cool, and I love almost all of them, which I can't normally say about a story collection. They have served as great inspiration.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Out Stealing Horses

I'm reading this book right now (in English, of course, I just love the original cover) and it's lovely. 

In other book news, a Grubbie friend is sending me her book, newly in paperback (French Women Don't Sleep Alone) so I'll be writing about that here soon. It promises to be a hoot, but an instructive one.

I'm also all set to read another Grubbie friend's novel (Tethered) this summer and will write about that one here, too. She just had her first rave review in a German newspaper, which is highly inspiring.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer Reading

What's funny about vacation and reading on vacation is that it's supposed to be so different from the reading done during the rest of the year, and yet it isn't.

This past week, I started and finished a little novel called In the Shadow of Gotham, which purported to be one of those literary historical fiction novels and just didn't quite make it. The history in it seemed a bit thin, and the chosen time period, 1905, had very little relevance to the plot, and yet it was really very readable. Characters? I wish they'd had more emotional depth. Dialog? Stilted, although not quite as bad as what I read in another historical novel, one that was a runaway best-seller. Plot? Not quite as clever as I'd hoped. Yet, I'm not complaining. Or rather, none of these complaints stopped me from reading the book. Perhaps the only thing required of summer reading is that it can be snatched up and finished inside of 48 hours and it was. This makes me wonder what readability is made of. This book will probably be a success and I see great things in this author, who, if she can solve the problems of characterization, plot and research, will shine mightily. This might seem mean, but it isn't. These are small matters when you have readability on your side.

What's even more interesting is that my husband is now reading this book, and I keep stealing it from him, literally waiting for him to take off to make himself a sandwich so that I can quickly read a few pages. And yet it's a baseball book, and I have no use for baseball. My favorite line about televised baseball is that it's excellent background noise for napping. I've never understood the passion that some people have for it, for the history behind it. We have taken the kids to ballparks because that is a great cultural experience, one you really only need once. Jack and I used to go to Fenway once a year or so when you could still get tickets, which was some time ago. I don't understand the reverence for the players who are punks, nearly every one of them, punks in the rawest sense of the word. Ask anyone who has worked as a sportswriter and he will confirm this. And yet I crave this book. This is summer reading. It's the book you don't want to read, shouldn't read, hate reading, and frankly, can't put down.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Book Video

This is a video the publisher made to promote the boy book. I'm not sure how it will be used or where it will appear, but it's really cool. I love the boy they picked for this.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

She Reads!

So, S came home from kindergarten orientation the other day and she was very excited about going to school. She said, "I want to learn to read."

I was all warm inside at the thought of this and I said, "Well, honey, that's exactly what you're going to learn next year."

She was having none of that. "Now," she said. "I want to know now." I stammered and explained but she wouldn't give in. Off I went in search of these literacy books we bought the G-man when he was gearing up for kindergarten. He wanted nothing to do with them, of course and so we sort of forgot about them. After some frantic searching, I found the Bob's Books carton, empty of course. Then more searching yielded the first of several small paperbacks with little three letter words strung together in simple sentences. 

S snatched them out of my hands and set to studying them. We went over the basics of sounding out words. After a few minutes, she had it. She read, "Mat sat. Sam sat. Mat sat on Sam." She read the book and was very pleased with herself. That night I found her clutching the books in bed. That's what she really wants. She wants to read by the night light like her brother does. 

Finding a new reader is always a miracle.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Words to Write By

I'm taking a writing class and the instructor likes to post inspirational quotes for us to read. My friend Jack used to do this when he taught writing classes. He would get to class early and write something on the board. I loved those quotes, but I never understood why he used them. I didn't really think that the students cared about them.

Now I'm clinging to these quotes. 

One recent one came from poet Nikki Giovanni:

"Writers don't write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don't. ...If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

And yet I like this statement of hers even better:

"A lot of people refuse to do things because they don't want to go naked, don't want to go without a guarantee. But that's what's got to happen. You go naked until you die."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Favorite Music

The kids like to listen to this channel on XM called "Kids Place Live." I've never liked to give in to the kid music thing because it can be so divisive. We have Sweet Honey in the Rock, which sets Larry's teeth on edge. We have another CD that is sort of like those corny old fashioned sing along things in which about 25 kids are singing "Bingo," but they're singing it as funk. The "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" song is like some kind of over the top Sinatra-esque thing. But kids are singing like that. The kids used to tolerate it, but now G shrieks and moans and rends his clothing if we play it.

Kids Place is okay, if you can get past the talking, of which there is a lot.

Their top four songs are:

1. The Butt Song.  It's actually called "I've got a butt" and it's by this guy who calls himself Uncle Jim. Their favorite part is when the singer stops the song in order to call his mom and ask if he can use the word "butt" in a song. That and when he says that George Washington had a butt. And Abraham Lincoln.

2. The Mom Who Yells at Her Kids Song. This is the audio version of that mom who tallied up all the nagging that moms do in a day and sings it to the tune of the William Tell Overture. They think this is hilarious. We can't get out of the car when this is on.

3. That Enchanted Song. This is the best song from the movie. It's called a "Happy Working Song." Watching others clean, that never fails to satisfy. It's what being a kid is all about.

4. Henrietta's Hair. This is the only song they know by name. It's by Justin Roberts, and don't listen to it here or you'll be singing the chorus to yourself for days. There's room enough to spare up in Henrietta's Hair...

They also hate certain songs. Who doesn't?

The top four songs they hate are:

1. The Balloon One. There's a group called Lunch Money that does "indie rock for kids." Yeah. That's right. About 60% clever and 40% insufferable. And sometimes it's the other way around. I kind of like the song called "It Only Takes One Night to Make a Balloon Your Friend," but the very first notes of this song are enough to send G into spasms of dismay. That's why it's so fun to sing it loudly and way off tune at the dinner table when certain individuals are getting rowdy and not eating their vegetables.

2. Never Smile at a Crocodile. This is that old song from Peter Pan. I really like this version by Captain Bogg and Salty. It's silly in an old fashioned way. Both kids beg to have the channel changed when it's on, but I never can quite reach the button. Sorry guys. The channel is stuck. Too bad you're strapped in back there.

3. Peanut Butter Polka. This is by the Jimmies, and it's the kind of earnest and inclusive song that kids and parents can hate together. The message is that you can have your sandwich however you like. Well, duh. I'm a kid in suburban America. I have everything however I like. Or else.

4. Harry Belafonte. They hate his music. Are they kidding? First, I'm shocked that they play it on Kids Place Live. It's too cool, too retro, too 1960s. That's what I was listening to as a kid. My kids are having none of that. Too bad mommy needs to turn up the volume and sing along. They're horrified by that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nothing Personal II

A few months ago, I described getting an anonymous acceptance letter from a journal. The journal in question sent me a pre printed card addressed to "Dear Writer." On this little half page, they wrote "We are happy to inform you that," and here they left a space in which the title of my story had been hand-written, "has been accepted to appear in a future issue of" (name of journal withheld). There wasn't a signature on this. There wasn't an address or email address on this paper. They offered no way to reach anyone. 

I found online an email address for the publication or so I thought. And I wrote them a nice note saying that the piece had been accepted elsewhere, so they couldn't have first rights. If they want to publish it anyway, that's okay. If they didn't want to publish something that had already appeared elsewhere, that's okay, too. I gave them contact information for me. Nothing. No response for three months. I hear that this is uncommon but not unheard of. Many literary journals are run by college students who are pretty busy, and who may not have a firm grasp of business communication.

Then yesterday a little package arrived in the mail. It was the latest issue of this journal. Interesting. And on page 41 is my story, or at least the first two paragraphs of it, followed by a big blank space. Presumably the rest of the story would have fit in that space if only someone had read the galleys. Like me, for example, or the editor. Or anyone who had read the original. Or anyone at all, really.

The funniest part of this was the letter that accompanied the journal. This letter was again addressed to "Dear Writers" and it was a sort of chatty missive thanking us (I'm going to include myself here) for being "such a pleasure to work with" and further for "being so patient with the arduous publishing process."'re welcome. I guess.

Unlike the acceptance letter, this letter was signed by an actual person. Still no contact information for her or the journal. I found another email address inside the journal and sent a note to let the editor know that in my case the publishing process could have been a tad more arduous. Then I noticed that it's after May 1 and their offices are closed for the summer. Oh well. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Helen and the Rucksacks

I've had very bad luck the past few weeks. The writing has been dismal. Awful. And I'm taking a class in which we're studying writers and borrowing narrative techniques from them. That's all well and good when the model text is great. Less so this week, when the model text is a book of aggressively cryptic poetry. 

Last night I handed the book to Larry. "See what you make of this." I was sitting up in bed trying to write, trying to get a handle on this nonsensical assignment and I needed a second opinion. He read out loud the first line of the poem in which the narrator is having what must be a one night stand, but who has also decided that she's Helen of Troy. the first line is something like, "We had a drink and got in bed." So far so good. 

Then, Larry read the second line which is about how a boat set sail in the narrator's mouth. He sighed. He read it quietly to himself. He read it out loud again.

Me: What the hell?
Larry: Oh, wait. The boat is her tongue and it's setting sail, you know, going out of her mouth.
Me: Yeah? 
Larry: So, they're making out.
Me: And? That's it?

Larry kept reading out loud until he got to the line: "I found all the bric a brack of your attic gloom." 

Larry: Bric-a-brack. She's licking his rucksack. 
Me: Gimme the book. She is not.
Larry: She is! The boat in her mouth is licking his rucksack.
Me: It's Helen of Troy. Helen of Troy never licked a rucksack.
Larry: Are you sure about that?
Me: Do you want me to Google it? Gimme that.

Larry held the book out of my reach and kept reading until he got to the line about "the woven rope tethering me to this rotting joint."

Larry: What the fak is that?
Me: Bondage?
Larry: You gotta tee off on this bullshit.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

He's Just Drawn That Way

This is a line drawing of my husband, in which he looks like he escaped from the most wanted list that hangs in the post office, or from a wall of those tacky caricatures of mobsters and celebrities that you find in some Italian restaurants. It was created for a book project he's working on, which is a good project and one that will likely be published, although nothing is certain these days. Don't know why the contributing writers and editors have to be rendered instead of photographed, but there it is.

I keep telling him that he's thinner in person and much better looking. Not that he's asked.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


 I've just picked this up. Apparently, reading this isn't just an exercise in studying how an older narrator looks back on an earlier self. Not so, as I've now discovered. There's this article about why everyone hates this writer. And by everyone, I mean everyone who published a book of poems last year that was not gushed over in the NY Times Book Review. While that could be a long list, I have to confess that I don't actually know anyone who would be on that list. And I know a lot of writers. Then! Then there's this article about why this poet is deplorable for...well, I can't figure it out. Something to do with the "Syles" section. 

At this point, I'm sort of hoping the poems live up to the anti-hype.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Olive Kitterige

I just finished this book and it's wonderful. Stunning. Sometimes I read something and then I just have to go in the corner and cry for a few minutes because it's that good, and because I'll never write anything half so good, so generous to the characters. I'm no fan of collections of linked stories, but this one is worth it. 

The most chilling story is called "Tulips."

It starts like this:

People thought the Larking couple would move after that happened. But they didn't move--perhaps they had nowhere to go. Their blinds remained drawn, however, day and night. Although sometimes in the dusk of winter, Roger Larkin would be found shoveling his driveway. Or in the summer, after the grass got high and sad-looking, you might find him out mowing the lawn. In both cases he wore a hat far down over his face and never looked up when someone drove by. Louise, there was never any sight of at all. Apparently, she'd been in a hospital down in Boston for a while--the daughter lived near Boston, so that would make sense--but Mary Blackwell, who was an X-ray technician in Portland, said Louise had spent time in the hospital there. What was interesting was that Mary was criticized for reporting this, even though at the time, there wasn't a soul in town who wouldn't have chopped off a baby finger for news of any kind. But there was that small outpouring against Mary.

At this point in the story, there isn't a reader who wouldn't chop off a baby finger to find out what's going on with these two. The rest of the story is worth the wait.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Five Muse Moments

1. Listening to Ann Patchett give the keynote speech in which she lamented the fact that her husband doesn't care for her work, that it takes him a really long time to read one of her novels, and that she should staple a $20 bill to the text every three or four pages just to help him along. (As S would say, "Is he for real?") And that he defends himself by saying that this proves that he loves her for who she is, not for what she does. And that this sentiment inspired a sentiment expressed by a character in Bel Canto

Also, the room erupted when she said, "The muse is a bunch of BS. It's not happening. Just let it go. Writing is a job."

2. Listening to Tess Gerritsen talk about writing. This would be what I'd call the opposite end of the spectrum from Ann Patchett in a way. Well, in every way, from style to content to output. This is someone who publishes a book every year and has done so for more than 20 years. (I'll bet she views writing as a job, too.) I'd never read one of her books, but I will now. Why not? She went into a long discussion about where great ideas come from and how she does her research. The discussion about prose she distilled down to two main points. First, action is boring. Second, gross stuff is really cool. For example, she discovered that people bleed differently in space. Instead of spattering, the blood pools in zero gravity, like some giant blood bubble. She said: "I knew right then that I had to have a character bleed to death in space. 

Inspiration comes from every corner.

3. Listening to Dinty Moore read an essay about teenagers and evolution and molars. You had to be there. I thought it was from his new collection, the one that one the Grub Street nonfiction award this year, which is why I ran to the bookstore to buy it. But it's not in there. Luckily, what is in there is pretty good, too. He did a great job with the reading. It's not easy to entertain 400 people in a ballroom while they have lunch right in front of them, you know a plateful of food as distraction, but he did.

4. Hanging out with writers. I didn't go to Amy MacKinnon's talk about writing, but I bought her book, anyway. I may have taken the last one. On Saturday she and I found ourselves lounging on a couch alongside an editor, all of us talking about editing and being edited, and handling and being handled by agents and general gossip. Amy traced her novel's progress over several Muse conferences. One year, she went to the Manuscript Mart to get feedback on a few chapters.  The next year she had an agent but was stuck in the writing. That year she attended a talk that inspired her to break through. Of course, at last year's conference, she had just sold her book.  At this one, it was out at the table. Who wouldn't be inspired by that?

5. Coming home on Sunday night to the kids (who were already asleep) and to Larry (who was watching a game) and curling up with this book, which is astonishing.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Musing Weekend

It's that time of year again. Famous and aspiring writers converge this weekend at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston for the annual Grub Street conference.

I'm hosting a panel called "Agents on the Hot Seat," in which four agents will describe the best ways to find, attract, hire and work with an agent.I did this last year and there wasn't one single crazy person in the audience to stand up and carry out an angry, paranoid rant about the state of the world, which is shocking in a way. A good way.

I'll also be manning the kiss and cry area of the Manuscript Mart. That's where writers meet with agents and editors who have read their work and prepared feedback. It's tense and scary in that room, but people love it, and every year several someones get an agent from it. Last year a top editor met with one Grub writer and liked her work so much, she turned to the agent at the next table and said to him, "You should represent her. Now." I'm sure he did. There are also talks and workshops on every type of writing, and there are parties, parties, parties. More on Sunday night when it's all over.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Talk Talk

Last Friday, G tested for his orange belt. On the way to the "dojo" (which is really a rented storefront in our tiny downtown area) S sat in the back seat talking to her left hand. She held it in a fist up to one cheek and did a passable imitation of a teenager in a chat-a-thon with a good friend, named Honey. She had the sarcastic overemphasis on all the right words. She kept her free hand going in lots of gestures. It was hilarious.
"Honey, what are you talking about?" she asked with great incredulity.
"Eating your pajamas! Honey, that's disgusting!" 
"Well, I know. But still, you shouldn't eat them. They're not food, you know."
"Yeah, but I've told you and told you not to do that." 
This went on and on all the way to downtown, which is just a mile away from our house, but she continued as we parked, walked to the little dojo, all the way up to the door. She and honey discussed which stuffed animals were mad at each other and why, and what they like and don't like on TV. Finally, I told her to hang up at which point she said to her hand, "Okay, Honey, gotta go. Bye."

The end near. She's 5, and all I can think is: What's going to happen when she gets her hands on a real phone? 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Possible Cover

I don't know if I'm allowed to do this, but this is the cover design that will go on the bound galleys to be sent out this month. I like it.

I know it's hard to see here (I don't have a larger version) but the subtitle is "Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World." You can also go here to see the catalog copy for the book and to see a video clip of my co-author, who is so authoritative on this subject.

This is starting to feel real... 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Images of Fear

I'm reading this right now, which is an interesting meditation on early horror stories and how they shaped popular culture in the 19th century. So far, I'm most interested in how certain authors have come up with their material. One section postulates how Mary Shelley came up with the story for Frankenstein. It started as a dream image during the cold summer of 1816. She was holed up indoors, listening to her husband in his long discussions with Lord Byron on matters of politics, technology and philosophy, including the nature of life itself.

In an introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel, she writes, "Invention...does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded."

I love that. A story must be created out of a chaos of impulses and influences. In her case, the primary influence was the contemporary belief, or perhaps the fear, that science would be able to create life. And that's what she did. She gave life to a character that will never die. 

The book discusses such characters as Dr. Jeckyl and what he has to do with Jack the Ripper, specifically, how the story informed the public's views of what sort of person could be a serial killer. In fact, an actor playing the notorious Dr. Jeckyl had to cut his run short because people in the audience kept fingering him to authorities as Jack the Ripper. How annoying. In another chapter the book details the relationship between the Dracula story and the attempted liberation of women. Can't wait.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Drifting Along

We turned in the first pass galleys last week on the boy book, and now we're truly in the lull before publication. Well, I am. My co-author has no lull. He's working with publicists and getting geared up to promote the book, while I sit around thinking about finding some new work. 

I've been interviewing with doctors who are in need of a co-author, which depresses me a bit. In the past couple of weeks, I've heard from one doctor who had wanted to work on a book and now wants some time off, not much, just a year or so to think things through. I had a lovely conversation with another doctor who seemed really excited about writing a book on the phone and then sent out an email later saying he doesn't like the idea any more. A third doctor has three writers vying for the position of co-author. We each bid on the project and attend a series of meetings, because it has been explained to me that this doctor wants to feel "truly connected" to the writer. I can understand that, and yet I want a job, not a date.

Meanwhile, I've been reading and writing a lot, trying to catch up on the books I bought in Ireland, but somehow not getting there. Instead, I read Brock Clarke's The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, which I heartily recommend. And I'm starting to read Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist on someone else's recommendation. So far, so good. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Watching the Door

I'm reading Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast by Kevin Myers. This on the heels of Here, Bullet, a book of poems by Brian Turner, who served in Iraq after getting his MFA. Both are fascinating meditations on war.

The most striking contrast between the two works (although they probably shouldn't be compared at all as one is by a journalist observing one war and the other is written by a soldier who participated in another) is the distance the narrator has from the material. I often stress to students that they need distance from what they're writing, which can come in the form of time, or in the form of some narrative stance that is distant from what you were feeling when the events occurred. The tone of the work has to be separate from the mood you're trying to create. Myers has first the distance of time. The events he writes about occurred thirty years before the publication of this book. Also, he has taken on an extremely self-mocking stance as a narrator. He seems to truly dismayed by the young man he was, which is a difficult posture to maintain for 250 pages. The book opens with a description of him watching, calmly, while a group of gun toting boys ambushes a group of British soldiers, killing two of them. He explains that he never filed a story on that ambush in part because he could never have explained his presence there or the fact that he made no effort to intervene. This is the eternal moral quagmire for a reporter, one that seems to have haunted him ever since.

He also uses a lot of humor, which is not easy to do when you're writing about people killing each other. One of my favorite anecdotes so far is one about how the young Myers liked to invite friends up to Belfast from Dublin for a visit. In his hubris, he would take them out in his ratty old car at night on a tour of the most dangerous areas in Belfast, presumably so he could enjoy their fear. He describes one of these trips on a rainy night:

We drove through the control-zones between Catholic areas and Protestant areas, where no one but the security forces ever travelled at night--no one, that is, apart from me. Finally, I drove once again down towards Henry Taggart hall, turning off my headlights on my approach, as one always did. With only the sidelights on, the Renault eased over the speed ramps outside the sangar containing the sentry, and then right on cue it backfired--crack!--before stalling, stone dead. Jesus.

Backfires had often attracted fatal gunfire in Belfast, and here was I perched on a speed ramp beside the most fired-at sentry post in Ireland. Grinning through inanely clenched teeth, I turned on the engine. Nothing happened. I tried again, pressing the accelerator hard; and the engine burst into life with a series of short, sharp explosive bangs that sounded precisely like the Browning 9mm my old shoulder-to-shoulder friend used to favor me with. Yards away, invisible, a British soldier was calmly making a decision about my life.

The car moved forward, then backfired loudly, and stalled again. Jesus. What was I to do? I was nearly paralysed with terror, and outside it was dark dark dark, not just here, but across Belfast, and vertically upwards, a deep black to the very edge of the universe. And now in this fathomless vault, lit only by the sidelights on my car, with the frayed rubbers of my wipers forlornly trying to wipe the Niagara from my screen. I had to decide how I should manage this crisis. If I got out of the car, how would the sentry respond? In his shoes, what would I have done? In his shoes, I would already be dead behind the wheel. 

I had no choice but to start the engine again. My companion sat rigid as a corpse beside me, whispering in terror, his pallor dimly luminous in the utter dark. I turned the ignition, and the engine burst into life. Then I drove slowly away, sending a single sharp bang in farewell. Behind me stood a young working-class British soldier on sentry-go whose name I will never know, who was sitting in the most fired-on place in western Europe, and who had stoically and unflinchingly endured the gunfire-like sounds from a stationary car at point-blank range, without firing once. By such men is civilization made.

Most of what he describes in the book is terrifying, and appalling, as Myers intends. My one complaint about the American edition is that it includes no map of the region. I'm slowed by my need to google the locations and roads he mentions, hampered by my own ignorance. I suppose it's a small price to pay for this narrative.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

First Pass Galleys

The galleys arrived by UPS on Monday. We co-authors have until April 10 to read and correct them. This is a great step up from the days when I worked on a book on heart disease. I remember giving birth to S, then coming home from the hospital to a 300-page package of galleys and a note from the publisher saying, "You have 48 hours to make any corrections." I read the entire book and marked it up while sitting on an inflatable donut and nursing a newborn. Then I wrote a glossary for it, which is the other thing they wanted right away. My co-author at the time, a really, really nice cardiologist, wrote me an email. It said: "You seem annoyed." I wrote back. "Do I?"

Now we have more than two weeks to read and obsess about every detail. The note attached to the galleys thoughtfully reminds us that any changes we make at this point are expensive and could be charged to our royalty account. Any changes that are not factual in nature or that involve adding more than a few words should be submitted on disk in a certain format. There's a whole tea ceremony involved for that. This is good information, because I read the first page and wanted desperately to rewrite every word of it. I felt visceral, palpable shame while reading those first paragraphs. I thought: This is a disaster. The whole book is a disaster. We have to stop this from happening.

Fortunately, I called my co-author at home. He answered and before I could get into my shame-a-thon he went on and on about how much he loves the book. This is the book he wanted us to write. This is the book he's ready to promote. "Don't the galleys look great?" he asked. And I found myself saying, "yes, yes, they do" while my worry leaked out of me. The good thing about having two authors is that we can take turns being crazy.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading in Cantonese

We had a Memoir Project reading this past weekend, one to celebrate the participants in the project's second anthology, My Legacy Is Simply This: Stories from Boston's Most Enduring Neighborhoods. It was a good turn out. The seniors read their stories and signed each other's books, and even signed those of some people who had bought books.
This reading was in Chinatown, which meant that Alexis and I were the only ones in the room whose first language is English. Almost all of the conversation among the participants and their assembled family members was in Cantonese. The seniors brought copies of their books to the front of the room and read entirely in Chinese to the crowd of onlookers. I introduced each of the four readers in English, while Kwan, our translator, turned my words into Cantonese. This is how the entire class was taught two years ago. 
I'd forgotten how exhausting it is to break up my thoughts into bite sized chunks to be translated
into another language, and how disorienting it can be to listen to others speak in a language I can't understand. I found myself staring at the faces of the people reading in vain hope to understand some of what they were saying, to figure out where in their story they were. I also watched the audience, alive to every gesture, every nod and smile, hoping that they were enjoying themselves. Often while teaching the class I felt alone in the room, isolated and
humbled by my ignorance of their language and culture while at the same time grateful that they were willing to share so much with me, so much affection and honesty. I miss them. At the end of the reading, they sang a bit, and opened up for hugs. And one or two of them offered a goodbye in English and a gift of sweets to honor the new year. It was a celebration of story telling and gratitude, just like the class itself.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Prompts in JP

We started teaching the Memoir Project in Jamaica Plain last week. For the first time in several months, we have a group of participants who really want to write. They write in class for twenty minutes at a time. That's not easy. Try it. And they have great stories. One woman is writing an incredible account of how she became a ward of the state at the age of 12 and went into foster care. Her description of her first subway ride in Boston, alone, with no idea of where she was going, is chilling. She ended up at a wonderful home for girls  in the Back Bay run by a woman called "Mother Agnes." Another woman was a young nurse during Boston's last polio epidemic in the mid 1950s. She worked with the most debilitated patients, those who depended on an iron lung to breathe through the night.

I've come up with new prompts for them because they're so inspiring. In general, people have a better time starting a writing project if they start with a list. All writers use lists because they are so much easier to generate than paragraphs of perfect sentences.

This past week I asked them to make a list of every job they've ever had. They had no need to limit themselves to paid work. They should list every job they had in the family, every formal role they played at home as well. Once they'd made a list, I asked them to focus on one job, perhaps a favorite job or least favorite, and describe it in more detail. Then I asked them to describe a memorable co-worker. Finally, I asked them to offer written advice to anyone entering the workforce now. Our participants love giving advice, and they're pretty good at it, too. 

Well, the stories came pouring out of them. One man described his jobs shining shoes and selling magazines as a very little boy and how he was expected to strip off his clothes when he came home to prove he wasn't hiding money from his parents. Another woman wrote about her first after school job, which was helping an elderly shut in bake cakes and pastries to sell. She remembers what she baked, how much money she made and what she bought with it. 

Try it. It works.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Exits & Entrances

Larry and I went to see this last weekend. Fitting, as this is a memoir or memory play by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright and novelist. This past winter, I've been teaching a writing class that used lots of prompts to get people to access new personal material. I was shy about asking students to write bits of drama or scenes, but no more. You can dramatize your past as long as you're willing to be aggressive with the form as this play shows.

I had two fears at the start of the play. First, when the lights went up and actor Ross MacDonald, who is the Playwright in this piece, began to write in his diary while reading aloud what he was writing, I cringed. Oh, no. Oh, no. This is so wrong. Writing in a diary is not dramatic. Reading out loud while you write is not something anyone does except in a 1960s era sitcom. No. Make it stop. And the prose itself is so flowery and writerly, and not in a good way. It was a rough moment, but fortunately the playwright moved quickly to addressing the audience. That's still strange in my view, but not as awkward, and the writer uses this technique to set up the rest of the drama by introducing the other character, the legendary actor Andre Huguenet, who is nearing the end of his career of playing leading roles in classical plays. We learn that the actor has just died, and that the rest of the play will be a smooth series of flashbacks.

My second fear was that I was not going to be able to relax and watch Will Lymon, the actor who plays Huguenet. When he opened his mouth and out came the voice that narrates the movie, Little Children, in that oddly deadpan, NFL Films-style voice of God, I thought I wasn't going to be able to shake the association. His voice is too distinctive. Not to worry. By the time he got to his sudden soliloquy from Oedipus, that association was gone. Both performances were wonderful.

Apparently, critics don't like this play because it's not up to the playwright's usual standards of throwing grenades at political injustice. But I found it fascinating as a series of insights about how a sea change in art can coincide with and even lead something similar in society. It also meditates on the artist as an earnest young agitator and shows him alongside an older artist who looks at the young man and knows himself to be irrelevant. The fear of being displaced by an ever-changing world is surprisingly powerful, at least for those of us in middle age. This fear and empathy sneaks up on the audience, I think. At the end of the play I was astonished to find myself in tears, and I looked over to Larry to find him in the same condition. We weren't the only ones, either. So when the play ended with the Playwright reading aloud from his diary again, it was sort of okay. Not that anyone was listening. We just needed time to sit in the dark and mop up before it was time to clap.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

OK, I Lied

Three more things from Ireland. This is the view from the house we stayed in. Every morning I made a pot of tea and sipped and watched the outdoors until the tea grew cold. I said to Larry, "See, it's like Nebraska." To which he said, "No it's not." What I meant, of course, was the tough grasses, the absence of trees, the long horizon, the whole agrarian scene. It made my heart ache. Larry was having none of it, and truth is that there aren't a lot of mosses in Nebraska, and thorny bushes? None. Stone walls built of flagstone are tough to find as well in the midwest, and I saw birds and bushes and weeds in Ireland that I didn't recognize at all. Still, I found it all oddly familiar, no matter what Larry says.
We stayed in this house, which is beautiful. 

Inside the house is this ornament, which stopped me cold. Here is the central image from The Seafarer, a plate with an electric flame flickering in front of it. And on the plate is a Jesus who could be mistaken for a very pretty bearded girl. It opens the play and closes it. And here it is hanging on the wall in this house. I felt suddenly as though I understood the play in a way I didn't before. 

Ireland, Again

I'm thinking of Ireland today. Who isn't? The weather is warming in Boston, so I'm wondering how it is in the surf community in Lahinch, which is where we stayed not three weeks ago. Here (above) is the sign on the tourism office in town. 

On the Saturday we left town, these folks were parked in the lot by the beach, ready to rescue surfers (on the last day of February) who might have smashed against the rocks. Truly, the EMTs were stalking the walkway while looking grim. No fatalities while we were watching.

But there were plenty of takers on this extremely brisk morning. Nothing would have tempted me into that water. As you can see, they wore full body wetsuits and ran full tilt into the waves. Maybe that reduces the shock.

It's much more fun to huddle in your parka against the wind while gazing at the beautiful green cliffs.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Legacy Reading

More pics from Ireland to come. But first, tonight Grub Street is hosting a reception (yes, free food is included) for the authors of the latest anthology of the Memoir Project. This volume, called My Legacy is Simply This, features short memoirs from seniors in four Boston neighborhoods: Mattapan, Chinatown, East Boston and Charlestown. It's being held at the Borders in Downtown Crossing, which is 10-24 School Street. Around the corner and down the Street from the Omni Parker House (which is where we hold the Muse conference each year). 

Most of the seniors will be on hand to sign copies of the book. We did this same thing last year for the first volume and it's very cool. Last year the bookstore set up little tables with vases of roses on them and we had a huge spread of good food. The seniors sat at the little tables and after people bought a copy of the book, they toured the tables and asked the seniors to sign their memoirs, and they chatted and had a grand time. Yes, many of the people buying the books are relatives and friends of the seniors themselves, but there are lots of people who wander in off the street, too, and buy a book and have a hell of a time talking about old times and what it's like to be a writer. For those of us who teach or coach the seniors, it's a chance to meet their families and friends and chat about the project, which is a very neat project. The room really buzzes. Last year the bookstore sold out of the books, and the people in charge of the event couldn't have been happier about that. 

All are welcome.

Monday, March 2, 2009


The last night we were in Ireland, we stopped into this pub, one of the last of its kind. Our proprietor (pictured above) who is 90 years old, poured us a whiskey the old fashioned way. We'd come in at 9 p.m. and we were interrupting his evening news. He took very little notice of us aside from pouring us a drink. We sat and drank in silence, all of us watching the little TV hanging in the corner.  When it was over, we stood up to leave and he held a hand up to stay us. "The weather," he said. And we sat back down. Sure enough the weather report came on. It wasn't good news.

Then he wanted to chat a bit, about Obama and the state of our economy, both of which are favorite topics in Ireland. Or maybe that's as much about America as they care to discuss. Then we said our goodbyes and left and he turned back to the TV. He lives in apartment in the back. At dinnertime, a neighbor brings him food and sits with him. In the photo you can see the rows of bottles. These aren't for serving to customers. They're for sale. It's almost like a pharmacy, but with booze. You can buy aspirin, some over the counter remedies, bottles of soda, and whiskey. But this is a truly old style pub. You can sit at his bar and drink and you don't have to say a word. He might even doze a little while during your stay. 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

My New Boyfriend Sings a Song

This is the scene we walked in on at O'Neil's in Newmarket on Fergus after our visit to Ballycastle. This guy brings down the house. Wait until you see him play the accordion. I'm in love. (I've since heard that there was a video glitch on this. I think it works now.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Whiskey and Song

I can only get intermittent service here, so the postings are few.

Yesterday we saw Bunratty Castle, which is basically Ireland's version of Plymouth Plantation. Pictures to follow. We didn't want to eat in any of the pubs around there, so we went up the road, wandered into this place in, well, I forget the name.

Pub's name is O'Neils. Tiny place. We thought we could get lunch. Instead we wandered into a storytelling session. One of the historians from Bunratty was singing and telling stories in this old accent, which may have been a Kerry accent. And these oldsters were sitting all around heckling him and the like. It was amazing. It was a bit of a private party for the local senior group, called the Going Strong Club. We heard amazing music. We laughed while this guy told terribly dirty stories. It was great fun. And then Tighe (pictured above, center), who is 90 years old, got out his accordion and began to play. Oh, they whooped and danced in their seats. And then he sang. Beautiful love songs. He played the Highland Reel and the crowd, small as it was, could barely be contained. The shots of whiskey kept coming and we've never been happier. We walked in at 2 and didn't get out of there until 5. 

I went to kiss my new boyfriend Tighe (I'm truly in love here) on the cheek, but here's the thing about Irish men. It's right on the lips or none at all. 

So that's how it ended. They fed us, and we left a donation for the club. It was the least we could do. And we bought a round or two for the folks who were staying on. It was lovely.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cliffs of Moher, etc.

This, on the left, is my mother-in-law sleeping in the back seat of the car on the way from the Cliffs of Moher (which are beautiful by the way) and back to Lahinch, where we're staying. Jet lag is a bitch when you're on the far side of 70, but she's a good sport about it all.

This is Julie and Ellen at the cliffs. I do have pictures of the cliffs, but won't post them here. Suffice to say that they're big, breathtaking and scary when you walk past the sign that says, "Don't go past here," and then look down over the edge. As Julie says, "Chargies!"

Monday, February 23, 2009

The West Coast

We're here. It's beautiful. We've already been teased multiple times about the weakness of the dollar and one helpful shopkeeper asked of the US economy, Have you hit bottom yet? It's actually good to talk to people who refuse to pull their punches. More soon, when my camera is working and when I find a wifi hotspot. No promises.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reading on the Go

I leave for Ireland tonight, after many hectic days of tying up work details. I spent marathon sessions on the phone last week with my co-author to approve copy edit changes. Apparently, this publisher likes each copy edit suggestion to be addressed separately. We were expected to either "stet" each one (write and circle the word STET in the margin to alert the editor to restore the original copy, which we rarely did) or write okay in the margin in blue pencil. Three hundred pages worth. And I was gratified to find five typos and two grammatical mistakes that had been edited in by mistake. My co-author was really good at finding typos. Grammar geeks!

I have another short story ready to send out when I get back. We hosted a birthday party for S's fifth birthday. Very exciting. The work on the house was completed with just one grudge match between us and the contractor. Not bad. Bills, laundry, tidying up. The usual.

All that's left to do is pack. Many people obsess about clothing on trips. I obsess about books. Which books to bring? How many? Yes, they're heavy. Yes, they take up space. But the idea of having nothing to read is too horrible to contemplate. I'm halfway through this book right now. It's wonderful and worth all the praise heaped on it. But it's such a page-turner that it likely won't survive the plane trip. 

I want to read The Gathering by Anne Enright. In fact, having read the first page of this book, I now want to read all of her books. So that's in the suitcase already. I briefly toyed with the idea of bringing December Bride by Sam Hannah Bell. It could be an all Ireland theme. Or, I could be practical. I'm supposed to be reading this book for a class I'm taking in the spring, but do I want to carry it across an ocean? And of course, Ann Patchett will be speaking at the Muse in April, and I was able to snatch up her Bel Canto at a used book store. Possibility? I also have been meaning to read In the Heart of the Sea by Nthaniel Philbrick, which is the true story of the whaleship Essex, the inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick. And on the off chance that the jet lag is overwhelming I could bring this little truffle of a murder mystery. I'm too embarrassed to type the title, but it's set in Istanbul and the main character is a drag queen who looks like Audrey Hepburn.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bad Hair Day

In four days I go to Ireland, and I'm already having nightmares about being apart from the kids for several nights in a row. Not much time to worry about that, though, because the copyedited book manuscript has to be approved before then, one change at a time for 300 pages. I have student papers to read, a story to write, a birthday party to host (S turns 5 in two days! Alert the media!) and a large check to write to the nice guys who are finishing the roof that replaces the blue tarp of doom. They are pounding away on the shingles right now.

Not much time left over to freak out, but wait...

I came into the kitchen yesterday afternoon to find a pair of scissors sitting between the kids. They were at work on the kitchen table, each of them drawing away. G was writing a picture book about Spongebob. He does dialog and story lines. He draws the pictures. The story had this huge plot full of desires, obstacles, misdirection, puns. He writes better than anyone in the family. S was busy drawing detailed pictures of pirates leaping from a clipper ship. The details are incredible. The pirates have shoelaces, they have ears, they have buttons, they have sleeves. She has put multiple sails on each mast. I try not to show my shock. 

As to the scissors: these were not ordinary scissors. These are the scissors that the mommy person keeps hidden in the upstairs bathroom, because they are used for cutting hair. Back when G would let me cut his hair, back when S was too little to preen, I used these on the kids. What are they doing in the kitchen? I'm afraid I asked that question with a little more force than intended. They both looked up, startled, and said in unison, "Nothing." (They both lie now. Gone forever are the days when S will flip her hair and say "Well, of course" to the question, "Did you just pee yourself?")

I used my mommy psychic powers and zoomed in on S. "Were you cutting your hair?" No, she said. "Are you sure?" Why do mothers ask this? This question never yields a confession. Never. Not even in a four-year-old. I'm afraid I asked it twice. No, she said again and again. Then she did this thing that she does when she wants to impress on me how stupid my questions really are. She flipped her palms into the air and shook them at me, bouncing them for emphasis on each word. "We're just using them to cut paper," she said. Every syllable betrayed her frustration. And then she shook her head sadly, as though mommies this dumb should not be allowed out of the house. The only trouble is that huge hunks of hair were missing from her scalp. "Honey," I said. "Look at this. What did you do?" And that's when S screwed her shoulders up to her ears and said, "Well, my hair was stuck together." As though this explains everything.

I started in on the lecture, the one about how we don't cut our hair and how if you want long hair, as she does, then hacking at it with scissors is not a good strategy, but Larry intervened. Let it go, he said. Maybe a few days away isn't such a bad thing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saint Updike

In the "Talk of the Town" section of this week's New Yorker, Roger Angell remembers John Updike, the staff writer. It's one of two snooze-worthy pieces on Updike. 

In Angell's piece, we learn that Updike was "an editor's dream" because he was so involved in his own product. I quote:

"My end of the work was to point out an occasional inconsistent or extraneous sentence, or a passage that wanted something more. Almost under his breath over our phone connection, while we looked at the same lines, he would try out an alternative: 'Which one sounds better, do you think?' Sighing, he would take us back over the same few words again and again, then propose or listen to a switch of some sort, and try again. All writers do this, but not many with such lavishly extended consideration."

All writers do this? They do? On the phone? I've been a magazine writer for fifteen years, and I've never had an editor call me to ask about changes he was proposing to make in a sentence, or who would let me loiter on the phone for long minutes while I tried out this phrase and that in order to improve a passage that "wanted something more." Who is this guy kidding? And this is supposed to be evidence of what? Professionalism? Or narcissism run amok in both of them? But he goes on about Updike's involvement in the process:

"He wanted to see each galley, each tiny change, right down the the late-closing page proofs, which he often managed to return by overnight mail an hour or so before closing, with new sentences or passages, handwritten in the margins in a soft pencil, that were fresher and more inventive and revealing than what had been there before." 

Lordy, what a nightmare. Look. I've worked as a magazine editor. I married a magazine editor. What any real editor will tell you is that the writing should be done before the page proofs. An editor should rather expect that such a great genius of literature could manage to stumble on inventive and revealing prose in an earlier draft, especially if he's allowed to call his editor and spend hours tying up the phone line while parsing out alternative dependent clauses and questioning every proposed change in order to make his book reviews a tad more vibrant. At any other magazine, this would never fly.

I am reminded of a talk given by Charles Baxter at a recent Muse conference at which he recounted the publication of one of his short stories in the New Yorker. His enduring memory is of the conversation he had with a fiction editor there, quite possibly Angell, in which the editor demanded he remove a sentence from the story, an important sentence in which the narrator notes that the main character can't call a neighbor late at night because he knows that the guy drinks at night and won't be coherent. The editor's statement was "nobody knows that about a neighbor." Baxter said something on the order of: well, in a small town in the midwest, it's the kind of thing everybody knows about everybody else. (Having lived in a small town in the midwest, I say he's right. It's the kind of thing that you can't help but know.) The editor's response was that they wouldn't publish the story unless the line came out.

How interesting now to see that a pet writer, who essentially spent 40 years writing the same short story over and over again, was encouraged to soak up as many of the magazine's resources as he could, while other writers of equal professionalism were told to take bad edits (or else) and in fact to eat them and smile. It's a revealing little story, but it doesn't reveal Updike as much as the entitlement in which he flourished.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Uncertain Times II

We live in the suburbs, which means that the above magazine arrives on Saturday instead of Sunday. So, we've already read it, or as much of it as we can stand. The magazine is wildly hit and miss, but it did offer one smile of the day. The "Coupling" column, which is by far the most uneven part of the magazine, in which the ratio of the insufferable to the interesting is roughly five-to-one, is about men who love cats. The teaser line for this is something like, "If you're looking for a sensitive guy, look for cat dander on his clothes."

To which Larry said, "So if you're looking for a complete p***sy, check for cat hair." I tried to give him that look, but he wasn't having any of it. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "That's like..." Here, he tossed an imaginary softball into the air and thwacked it with an imaginary bat. "Had to be done," he said.

I couldn't argue. In this economy we're taking our laughs where we can find them.

The boy book has a new editor, and that editor has an assistant. We have the copyedited manuscript in hand and it's due back in ten days. The new editor checked in to say that she loves the book, believes in it, has boys of her own, can't wait to bring it out into the world. We were so thrilled and relieved to hear it. "The biggest concern is the environment it's coming out into," she said. Or something like that. Meaning that book sales are down across the board. Apparently, even good books aren't selling.  All we can do is hope.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Uncertain Times

The news across the publishing industry has been bad and getting worse for many months. I hear from my novelist friends that they've been cautioned against trying to sell something now, that the market for literary novels is bleak, or sometimes agents use the word deadly. In addition, I've heard of top, top editors who have been dumped from their jobs, people who have found and worked on many best-sellers. 

Then yesterday, I heard this news and the recession became that much more real for me. The entire publishing division that bought the boy book just ten months ago is gone. I have no idea how many of the good and talented people we've worked with during that time are now out of a job, but it's very possible that they're all gone. It was a little under a year ago that Larry got this same news about his editorial team, so I do know what they're going through. It's awful.

Nothing has happened to our book. It sits and waits, just as we do, to see where it will go and on whose desk it will land. It has been edited, and we've seen the cover design. We were slated to get copy edits on Friday with the understanding that we would turn it around quickly. They had worked so aggressively on this book and we were so impressed with their creative efforts all along. Now, nothing is certain.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nothing Personal

The other day I got what I thought was a rejection slip in the mail. These are easy to spot because they arrive in a self-addressed envelope. That means I can see my name and address just as I wrote them when I submitted to this or that literary journal. In the past some of these rejections have turned out to be acceptances. Apparently, some editors are so busy that they can't pick up the phone or send an email to tell you that they're taking your story. Or even to address a new envelope in which to send the happy notice along with the contract. Once I got an acceptance that looked so much like a rejection that I didn't even read it for a couple of months. I just tucked it in a drawer with the rest of the rejections.  It was a sad, crumpled little piece of paper and at the top it said, "Congratulations" and then they'd written in the name of my story. And then at the bottom I was supposed to sign over the rights and send the lonely little piece of paper back. Of course, that never happened. I never read it until the editors sent me a little note wondering where my contract was.  As my four-year-old would say, "Oops-ees!"

The newest acceptance tops this in terms of anonymity. It's a little preprinted card with the words "Dear Writer" at the top. Then a big space. Then the words "We have chosen to publish" and then another big space in which someone wrote the title to my story in ink and then the rest of the one line acceptance letter "in a future issue of" and then the magazine title. Signed, "The Editors."

That's it. Are they kidding with this? They like the story well enough to publish it, but not well enough to have any contact with the writer. They provided no phone number, no email address, no way to get in touch with them. Never mind that the story has already been accepted by another journal. I'm sort of hoping these folks don't go ahead and publish it without further contact with me. That would be awkward.