Recently in writers Category
Bouchercon 2012 was strange and lovely. A non-academic conference: new to me. I loved meeting all the fans, the readers who save up to come meet and talk with their favorite mystery and thriller authors. That was unique and moving and really fun. I also loved meeting book bloggers like Neliza Drew and Elyse Dinh-McCrillis; Gwen and Sara Reyes, the mother-daughter team behind Fresh Fiction; and writers like Deborah Crombie, Marcia Talley, Clem Chambers, and Julia Spencer-Fleming.
People: Val McDermid is hilarious. And Elizabeth George was lovely and frank and interesting. I found myself wishing I could have been one of her high school English students. . . . It was great to catch up with Linda Rodriguez, who visited Lincoln with her mystery Every Last Secret not long ago.
Our panel was awesome, mainly due to the strenuous advance efforts of Katrina Niidas Holm, our moderator, who asked thoughtful, lovely, informed questions. It was great to sit next to Robert Olen Butler, whose The Hot Country is out now, and to meet the other writers on the panel: Hilary Davidson, Bruce De Silva, Cathy Wiley, and especially Hannah Dennison. We talked about books that have writers as sleuth-protagonists: travel writers, journalists, novelists--even an obituary-writer!
Last night, my suitcase still unpacked, I sent in my final-final edits on NEARER HOME, the sequel to Hell or High Water. (At least, I hope they're the final-final edits.) It will be out in July, 2013, and the cover's gorgeous; I can't wait to show it to you. I've been very cover-lucky lately.
Now I'm just going to teach my graduate workshop and do my laundry and then head out to Denver for the SSAWW conference. Very excited to be reading there--and very surprised and grateful to the scholars who organized it and who want to hear from still-living writers! We're so much messier than dead ones. If you're in Denver, our reading is Friday, October 12th at 12:30 in the Blake room at the Denver Westin Downtown, so please come.
On Saturday, October 20th, I get to be on a panel about professional issues for writers at the (downtown) omaha lit fest, curated (yes, I said it) by Timothy Schaffert. The panel's at 1:00, and then at 2:00 I'll give a little reading and then be interviewed by someone (Timothy, I hope, but we'll see). Looking forward!
ForeWord Reviews just gave Island of Bones this lovely review. Beautiful. So grateful. Publishing two new books in the same year has been wild and chaotic and lovely. Would I do it again? Yes.
Here's to another fruitful, happy year! And may you have the same.
While it is good to be heard, it is even more wonderful to listen--attentively, curiously, sincerely. My favorite people are the ones to whom I love to listen. (Or--counterintuitively--the ones with whom I love to be quiet, both of us listening. To silence.) When I listen, I learn so much. (Maybe, then, listening is a form of greed!)
Even the people who are perhaps not my favorites--well, I always understand them better when I listen carefully. Their stories start to come together, make sense, explain their choices and actions which might otherwise seem unsympathetic, selfish, foolish, or harsh.
And in the classes I teach, I tend to listen much more than I talk.
Much as the page can be, listening might be the natural refuge of the shy (or, as I heard Willa Cather described in a lecture last week, the "reticent"). It's still social; it still participates in the exchange of ideas. But it's a quieter way to be present.
So for me, it's a little awkward to be the person who is listened to. Tomorrow Nora Comstock and I will talk live about Hell or High Water on a 7 p.m. CST teleconference with the Las Comadres National Latino Book Club--twenty different chapters across the country, all of which have read the novel. Mil gracias.
About the folks who register for the teleconference, I was told, "They'll be able to hear you, but you won't be able to hear them." Which seems logistically necessary but also profoundly strange to me--an organized form of eavesdropping, with no back-and-forth. I wish I could hear them. (If you're interested, you can register here, and you don't have to be a member to listen in.) It seems so generous of them to want to devote an hour of their time to listening. I'm grateful in advance.
When the teleconference ends, I'll hustle down to Crescent Moon here in Lincoln's Haymarket to give a reading at 8:30 p.m. All very cool. But that's a whole lot of my own voice in my ears. I'm grateful for the opportunities, as I should be, but they provoke some ontological unease--which is maybe just a fancy academic way of saying 'butterflies,' but I don't think so. I've wrestled with the butterflies before and figured out strategies for dealing with them. This is something a little different. A more objective probing of the issue.
I understand that anyone who wants to be an author today cannot be a hermit. (Look at all the flak even J.K. Rowling--who hardly needs publicity--is currently taking for her reclusive stance and her tight control of media interactions.)
I get the economic necessity of it. I get the role we're required to play in the publicizing of our work.
But I'm still intrigued and persuaded by what John le Carré, the famous writer of spy thrillers, has to say about his own role (or lack thereof, rather) as a public voice:
A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue. Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.
And to a point I am flattered that my fabulations are taken so seriously. Yet I also despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.
This perspective fascinates me; le Carré's critical phrasing ("reluctant to submit to interviews") fascinates me. (I think my publicists would pitch a fit if that were my own approach, but it does sound alluring.) Sometimes I wish that I'd come of age as a writer back in an era when that stance was acceptable, or that I'd already achieved a le Carréan level of success so that I could dictate my own reticent terms. So do many writers, I'm sure.
Maybe there's a happy medium between listening and speech, between holding still and holding forth. Maybe, with time and practice, I'll find it.
Maybe all of this is just something you get used to.
First, though, I'm very grateful to Swapna Krishna, who calls Hell or High Water "an absolutely gripping read" in her review. I'm grateful to Kate Birkle at The Mystery Bookstore in Omaha, where I get to give a reading on Saturday, September 22nd. And I'm really, really grateful to everyone involved with the optioning of my novel for film, which was reported in Publishers Marketplace today:
Sort of amazingly wow. My understanding thus far is that if it goes into production as a feature film, Zoe Saldana herself will play Nola. I dreamed of this.Joy Castro's HELL OR HIGH WATER, where a journalist takes it upon herself to investigate the 800+ sex offenders still missing three years after Katrina, optioned to producers Jane Startz of Jane Startz Productions and Aida Bernal of Spellbound Entertainment who have teamed up with sisters and producing partners, Zoe and Cisely Saldana from Saldana Productions, by Holly Frederick at Curtis Brown.
So readers: Believe. You never know. Crazier things have happened.
Okay, so here's the Stevens poem, which slays my heart (which, "being hungry, feeds on food/the fat of heart despise"--down, Millay!) and which appeared in Stevens' 1936 collection Ideas of Order. If you yourself are not given to display, you too might like it.
Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu
That would be waving and that would be crying,
Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,
Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the centre,
Just to stand still without waving a hand.
In a world without heaven to follow, the stops
Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder,
And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell,
Just to be there and just to behold.
To be one's singular self, to despise
The being that yielded so little, acquired
So little, too little to care, to turn
To the ever-jubilant weather, to sip
One's cup and never to say a word,
Or to sleep or just to lie there still,
Just to be there, just to be beheld,
That would be bidding farewell, be bidding farewell.
One likes to practice the thing. They practice,
Enough, for heaven. Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?
The book is Stephanie Cha's Follow Her Home, forthcoming from St. Martin's, and I think it's really smart and terrific. I can't wait for it to come out so I can push it on people. It's another one of those thrillers that's doing cool sociopolitical work while still delivering a fast-paced, entertaining story, so I loved it. Besides, has there ever before been a Korean American, feminist homage to Raymond Chandler? You're going to want this one.
Many thanks to Nicole Henke for her warm review of Hell or High Water. When first planning to write the book, I had some trepidation about setting Nola's story in a city so beloved by so many, because I know how protective New Orleanians are (and rightly so) of their home. But my plot and protagonist were completely inextricable from the place. It had to be written, and it had to be there. So it really comes as a relief when people from the area love the book and feel like it gets their home in a deep, meaningful way. Thank you!
The HH and I were emailing each other real estate ads for places in New Orleans this morning. Not that we're putting our apartment on the market or anything. But there's a pretty sweet condo for sale in the Quarter right now, if you're looking. Not that you are.
Held at the beautiful and eco-friendly Lied Lodge, the residency seemed really solid, and the little bit I got to see included readings by the wonderful Natalie Diaz, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Amy Hassinger, Pope Brock, Coffee House Press founder Allan Kornblum, and the awesome and inimitable Jan Beatty, who's always so killa. And I finally got to meet Fred Arroyo! Those MFA students are lucky. If you're an aspiring writer in the region, you might check it out.
I gave a reading and a lecture--and I also wandered alone in the forest for a couple of hours. Loved that. Many thanks to Allison Adele Hedge Coke and Richard Duggin for inviting me, and Jenna Lucas Finn for making my visit so comfortable and smooth.
This Sunday, I'll be at Chapters Books in Seward, Nebraska to sign copies of Hell or High Water and chat with folks from 2 to 3 p.m.
Big shout-out of thanks to the Barnes & Noble in Lafayette, Louisiana for stocking Hell or High Water front and center on their New Releases table! And big thanks to my sweet family there for letting us know.
Women in Jeopardy: Crime Fiction
Wilford B, Hilton Chicago, 3rd floor
I'm very excited about this one, especially since I'm now writing crime novels in which women are very much in jeopardy, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the panelists have to say about it all. I'm also looking forward to meeting Julie Hyzy in person.
A Pat Mora panel
Wilford B, Hilton Chicago, 3rd floor
Yes, it's in the same room as the one above, but no, that's not the reason I'm staying put. I'm a huge Pat Mora fan and have taught her work for years. This panel will be great.
OUR PANEL! Prepare to swoon.
Wabash Room, Palmer House Hilton, 3rd floor
This one is all about female modernist creative nonfiction writers: Virginia Woolf, Alice Meynell, Louise Bogan, Margery Latimer, and Meridel Le Sueur. Woolf, as you can see, is the only canonical one; the rest expand our concept of modernism and of the history of female-authored creative nonfiction. The panelists are creative nonfiction writers themselves: Tracy Seeley (who did a great Q&A about writing memoir here on the blog a while back); Marcia Aldrich, the long-time editor of Fourth Genre; and Jocelyn Bartkevicius, who edits The Florida Review and directs the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. I'm super-excited about this panel (which I think, with a few tweaks, could work equally well at MSA...).
Now, the panelists are supposed to go have coffee (read: cocktails) afterwards, so I probably won't make it to the 3:00 p.m. panel that I'm interested in, but I'll put it here anyway:
The Geometry of the Novel
Grand Ballroom, Palmer House Hilton, 4th floor
This panel will explore alternatives to Freytag's stalwart, sturdy pyramid, and how we can choose/develop structures that work with our material in more organic, exciting ways. I'm all for that, and I hope I can catch a bit of this. Moreover, I believe Debra Di Blasi is one of the presenters, and I'm a fan ever since she did the (downtown) omaha lit fest.
The Whole Truth
Waldorf, Hilton Chicago, 3rd floor
To tell you the truth, I'm sensing my own incipient burnout on the whole D'Agata controversy (though I love Dinty Moore's recent entry into the fray: " But I reserve the right to complain, and to call something a self-promotional manipulation, when I see it that way.") But anyway, this looks like a great panel. It stakes a claim (yes, art can be rooted in fact), and the panelists are all great people. So it's a maybe. Depends on how good those coffees are.
Pachanga for Pat Mora
Zapatista restaurant, 1307 Wabash Ave.
What could be wrong with celebrating Pat Mora a little bit more? Especially with tapas and friends.
And then of course you know all about Margaret Atwood at 8:30, so I won't belabor the point. I haven't seen her in person since I was an undergraduate, when she came into our workshop and eviscerated the short story of one of my peers, and I was at once admiring and horrified and so very, very grateful that it hadn't been my story on the docket that day. Presumably she will be just as terrifying from the stage. I look forward.
Then I'll be toddling home to crash in my dear cousin's luxurious guest room. His condo overlooks Lake Michigan. He's obviously the member of our family who made the shrewd financial decisions.
The Cuban American panel (I forget the whole real name of it, but it's a good topic)
Private Dining Room 2, Hilton Chicago, 3rd floor
Ruth Behar and Achy Obejas will be on this one, so it's a can't-miss.
[Now follow several hours in which I'll wander aimlessly around the Bookfair, have coffee with friends that I will randomly bump into, and try to eat something vaguely nourishing--all the while chiding myself for not sitting quietly somewhere prepping for class next week--after which I'll head off to the next can't-miss event, which is (drum roll):]
Luis Rodriguez & Dagoberto Gilb
Grand Ballroom, Hilton Chicago, 2nd floor
Oh, I cannot freakin' wait to meet Luis, who is of course an amazing writer, an amazing community organizer, and an amazing human being, but who also has been so incredibly nice ever since last year when he gave a paper on an AWP Latina/o memoir panel I organized and then (due to the horrible blizzard) could not attend. Oh, the wailing and the gnashing of teeth! (Long-time readers of the blog will remember the sad little photo of my packed suitcase against a yellow wall.) And, uh, Dagoberto Gilb's pretty talented, too.
Flash Mob at the VIDA table, booth #308 at the Bookfair!
If you care about women's creative nonfiction, and especially if you write it, be there! (There will be candy.)
Then I'm going to the Prairie Schooner reception (thank you, Marianne) and dashing over for a quick bite with my lovely former colleagues from Pine Manor MFA program--again at Zapatista.
Esmeralda Santiago & Jesmyn Ward
Grand Ballroom, Hilton Chicago, 2nd floor
After which I'll presumably head straight home, without stopping off for drinks with any festivity-seeking writers. Because that's what a good cousin does.
By Saturday, I'll be overstimulated and exhausted and whining like a tired child, which should make me tons of fun when I attend the following:
A panel about writing YA lit for Latina/o readers (primarily because Sergio Troncoso will be presenting, and you know the severe writer-crush on him I've been nurturing for years now)
Astoria, Hilton Chicago, 3rd floor
A panel about teaching writing to migrant workers' kids (primarily because it will be fascinating but also because Linda Rodriguez will be presenting & I'm dying to meet her)
Lake Huron, Hilton Chicago, 8th floor
Then I will stagger back to the condo and fall weakly into the arms of my cousin and his partner, who'll be scheming up something lively for dinner and will forgive me for babbling incoherently about everything I've just quasi-absorbed.
They are nice, nice people. Their niceness cannot be overemphasized.
It occurs to me that there are a great number of events on offer this year for people with an interest in Latin@ writers. That's kind of a nice transformation. I don't remember there being nearly so many when I first started going to AWP. It's been a gradual ramping-up. There are tons that I'm not going to get to, too. So hey: good job, everybody.
All right. Off to pack. How will I shove all my jewels and silks into a carry-on?
So I'm thrilled to share her comments with you, and I am so moved and honored by them. (At some point in the book production process, a shorter version will appear on ISLAND OF BONES itself as a blurb, but here's the whole lovely shebang.)
Replete with a quiet wisdom, Joy Castro’s essays are powerfully focused revelations, as in the lyrical examination of a creosote bush, word by word; she trains our eyes to see beauty in pain, “Yet observe for a moment the grace of the creosote bush, hollowing as it grows, stretching and bending under an empty sky.” And along with the writer “you cry here it is!” In the author’s journey from abused runaway child to a fulfilling life as a wife, mother, writer, and professor, we see the flowering in an arid desert landscape, the miraculous flowering of the creosote. The power of these personal narratives resides in Joy Castro’s ability to invest every telling detail of every sorrow and every joy with her piercing attention, until each scene reaches a transcendental clarity. We are moved out of our complacence quietly but steadily by a voice that must witness and will testify. We come to a new awareness of what it means to triumph over unimaginable obstacles, and to the empowerment that comes of forgiveness. Joy Castro has achieved in these essays what Emily Dickinson called “the Truth that must dazzle gradually.”
Mississippi University for Women hosted a knockout Welty Symposium. I loved hearing the work of Sefi Atta, Latha Viswanathan, Michael Kardos, Randall Horton, and several more writers, including the lovely Judith Ortiz Cofer, our keynote, to whom (it's fair to say) I am devoted. A huge hats-off to Kendall Dunkelberg, symposium mastermind and exquisite host (he had me at the truffles); Bridget Pieschel, who not only was instrumental in having my book adopted as the Common Reading Initiative for the whole freshman class but also took me out for po'boys and let me borrow her iron; and Tom Richardson, who taught all of our books in his very cool course. The students were amazing. Fantastic, lovely, enthusiastic, smart young people. It was a joy to meet them.
Today, the UNL creative writing faculty had planned a celebration of Prairie Schooner's 85th year and its new editor, poet Kwame Dawes. Effervescence, donors, deans, sparkly earrings, etc. But now, with the passing of our beloved friend and colleague Gerry Shapiro, it will be a rather more somber affair. Each of us is slated to read something short, and then there'll be a reception. If you're a local Lincolnite, join us at 3:30 in the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center on City Campus. Afterwards, Sarah Schulman headlines the annual LGBTQA dinner.
Tomorrow (Friday) at 6 p.m., the delightful Wendy Call will give a talk and slideshow at Indigo Bridge Books about her new book, No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy. If you're around town, come join us for coffee and a little global perspective.
Coming soon on the blog:
Already an award-winning journalist and a musician, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez had her first huge success as a novelist with Dirty Girls Social Club in 2003. Several novels later, after becoming a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Alisa has very recently published the third installment of the Dirty Girls series, Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, the first chapter of which appeared in the October issue of Latina magazine.
Named one of the 25 most influential Hispanics and the "Godmother of Chica Lit" by TIME magazine, a Woman of the Year by Latina magazine, and one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in America (twice) by Hispanic Business Magazine, she is known for the warm, casual, intimate voices of her believable characters, her irreverent sense of humor, her focus on female friendships, and her iconoclastic brand of social critique. Also the mother of a son, she writes a column at Mamiverse.com.
As a devoted fan since Dirty Girls Social Club (long-time readers of the blog will have read about Alisa's work here), I received my copy of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith in the mail on Thursday, stayed up way too late to read it, and finished it over my morning coffee.
This Q&A occurred afterward. Huge gratitude to Alisa for her thorough, swift responses.
My questions, gentle readers, may seem a bit wonky. (One cannot entirely escape one's academic leanings.) But the freshness and humor of Alisa's replies, which made me smile and laugh out loud more than once, should more than compensate for that. She discussed craft issues, boundaries and hybridity, ideology, ethnicity, publishing, and more. Enjoy.
Joy: One of the exciting strengths of this new novel is its deft use of suspense. Lauren, our main character, finds herself in terrible, life-threatening trouble, and several of her chapters end with dangerous situations. Cliffhangers. The narrative then switches to chapters focused on other characters, prolonging and intensifying reader anticipation about Lauren's fate. Can you talk about pacing? How do you time these intervening chapters? Do you have a sense of how much delay a reader can bear?
Alisa: This is such a good question! I am a huge, huge fan of Dean Koontz. No one does pacing like he does. He is the king of the cliffhanger. So I guess I've been studying him a little. That said, I worried a little about breaking up the forward motion of the main ("A") story in this novel, the chase of Lauren by Jason, with the intervening Rebecca and Usnavys chapters. I wondered if it would be just a bit TOO agonizing to have to wait that long. In Koontz's books, the momentum is relentless, a high-speed race from start to end. Because I was sort of creating a hybrid genre with Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, melding the rotating first-person "chick lit" of the first Dirty Girls book with a new suspense format, I had to tread carefully. I hope it worked. So far, I am getting excellent feedback from readers, lots of them saying they couldn't put the book down. That's what I was hoping for, a page-turning suspense/women's fiction hybrid.
Joy: The novel's psychopathic villain, Jason Flynn, a Nietzschean nihilist with a penchant for sadism, is depicted with scary relish. As a result of his presence, this novel includes more action and suspense than some of your other work, and you mention in your prefatory note that you "wanted to explore the suspense genre a bit, within the confines of a commercial women's fiction book." Can you talk about your interest in exploring a psychopathic character, as well as discuss this novel's experiment in blending (or breaking) genre categories?
Alisa: Oooh! I like very much how you characterize Jason! He absolutely is a Nietzschean nihilist, and I bet he'd LOVE that description of himself, too. Thanks, too, for finding him scary. I became interested in sociopaths because of my own interaction with a person who has some sociopathic tendencies. I began reading a lot about sociopaths, and one book in particular just absolutely blew my mind and changed my life. It is called The Sociopath Next Door, by Harvard professor Martha Strout. In that book, she gives compelling evidence for the sociopath's lack of empathy being a GENETIC problem, unrelated to upbringing, something these people just can't help. She also talked about how 1 in 25 people in the United States are literally without a conscience, many of them skating by undetected by the rest of us. I was like many people and had stereotypes about sociopaths, that they were obvious, like Hannibal Lecter, obvious creeps, when in fact the truth of most sociopaths is that they are brilliantly charming chameleons who not only blend in with the rest of us, they often end up RULING the rest of us. I found this idea fascinating. It went against everything I had learned as a child raised by a sociologist who taught me that everything was a product of socialization, even criminality. This is not actually the case. I wanted one of my Dirty Girls characters to run across one of these charming monsters, and I wanted to explore the mind of a person who goes through life with no emotions whatsoever, barring envy, boredom and fear of getting caught. The sociopath's primary emotion is boredom. They act out as manipulators and, in the extreme, violent criminals, because there is nothing else that interests them. Jason Flynn is a sociopath, a genius, and a charmer. To me, this is the most dangerous combination of qualities to be found among human beings. I would like, eventually, to focus my adult fiction on suspense/thriller books that center around dangerous people. I find them fascinating, and I think that the more the rest of us know about how they function, the better prepared we will be to defend ourselves against them.
Joy: The women's chapters in the novel--Lauren's, Usnavys', Rebecca's, and Jennifer's--are narrated in the first-person, while the men's chapters--Jason's, Martin's, and John's--are narrated in the third-person. Can you talk about that choice? Did you experiment with alternatives?
Alisa: I feel like this is a woman's book, about friendship between women. I wanted to write it like a Girls' Night Out, where the inner circle, the women, are talking to each other in the first person, intimately, and the men are there, maybe talking in a separate conversation at the other side of the bar. I did not experiment with other ways of doing it. This just felt natural and right from the start.
Joy: You've described English as your "native and only tongue," yet in this novel, as in earlier ones, the first-person narrators incorporate Spanish and Spanglish with ease. How do you achieve this?
Alisa: I learned Spanish in my late 20s. I am also a writer, a wordsmith, so I don't feel comfortable enough in Spanish to claim it as my own language. I know enough to get by, and I have listened to enough Spanish and Spanglish to feel confident in capturing the cadences and slang of those who do speak it well. I would never, ever insult the Spanish language, however, by claiming ownership of it. To own a language, you must know it as you know your own soul. I'm not there yet.
Joy: What was the most challenging craft aspect of writing this particular book?
Alisa: It is always challenging to write a sequel of any kind, but it is particularly daunting to write a sequel to a book as popular and beloved as The Dirty Girls Social Club was. I was always feeling inadequate to the task of making something as sincere or important as that book. That's why I stepped outside of the women's fiction genre a bit, because I am personally done with that genre, and knew I could not have the same enthusiasm or excitement for a book written in it. I feel like I have said what I wanted to say within those confines. Finding something new to say with the same characters, and a new way to say it, was the biggest challenge.
Joy: Of what literary achievement in this novel are you most proud?
Alisa: I am very proud of having pushed my own highly empathetic self off a cliff so that I could write, albeit in the third person, from the point of view of a sociopathic man. I am embarrassed to admit that it was a rush, and fun, and scary, becoming that person for a while. I felt empowered afterwards, though, because I knew that if I ever ran across someone like that again, I'd know how to play his game better than he did.
ISSUES & INFLUENCES
Joy: In the novel, dirty cop Jason Flynn is gorgeous but predatory, while John Smith, a former assassin, turns out to be a hero with values (a sort of Jason Bourne character) whom Lauren must learn to trust. In its story of a woman's romantic education, the novel seems to echo the Austen/George Eliot tradition that sees as crucial a woman's realization of what makes a man good or bad, trustworthy or deceptive. To what extent is this still a salient lesson in most women's lives?
Alisa: I can't speak for most women. I can speak for myself. Trusting men has been a huge issue for me, for a variety of reasons. This book reflects my own growth as a woman who has learned with great difficulty that there are, in fact, good men in the world, men you can trust and rely on, men who won't let you down. So much of what I'd written before this new book came from a place of suspicion and anger toward men. I intentionally made Jason Flynn and John Smith alike, on a superficial level. They are both gorgeous, they are both killers. But I wanted to show that they were, below the surface, nothing alike at all. This is an ongoing theme in my work, this idea that we must all stop generalizing about people, including ourselves. We need to take people as they come, on an individual basis, and get to know their motives before we can decide what their actions represent.
Joy: Can you talk about women's fiction and the writers (historical and/or contemporary) who've influenced you the most?
Alisa: I can tell you that I use terms like "women's fiction" grudgingly. Ernest Hemingway once said, when asked his opinion of "the Russian writers," that there was no such thing as a "national writer" because writers belonged to only one nation, the nation of writers. I feel the same about sex and race and ethnicity in writers. It's irrelevant. Writers are writers, born with writers' souls, and we all have more in common with one another than we will ever have in common with anyone else. We are writers. Publishing has created divisions among books and writers out of their need to sell these things to an audience that they see as being segregated along extremely simplistic lines. So they label us, and our work, with simple phrases that by their very lack of nuance go against everything the writer stands for in being a writer. Writing is the physical act of thinking. Segregation (like prejudice, its mother) is, by its nature, the act of NOT having to think at all, a simple and inaccurate solution to a complex question. So, no. I cannot talk about women's fiction. I can happily talk about writers I love. The writers who have most influenced me, who consistently drop my jaw in awe and envy, are Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Dean Koontz.
Joy: There's a passage toward the end of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith that reads like an homage to the moment in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth sees Darcy's manor for the first time. When Lauren first visits the cowboy John Smith's "4500-square-foot stone house" on his 5,000-acre ranch, she thinks, "Everything is beautiful. The house is incredibly perfect, and I realize with a shudder that I am already starting to feel at home here. I could, I think, spend the rest of my life in this place. In this house. With this man." We know she's attracted to him physically, but in your view, to what extent is Lauren drawn to John Smith's character, and to what extent is she drawn to the security and material ease that his home represents?
Alisa: Lauren is drawn to John for who he is and also for what he has. I don't think this is bad. She's a journalist at a time of death for the journalism industry. She has quit her job. Her financial future is uncertain, and she is relying upon her friends to float her for a while as she runs for her life. To find a man who is noble and hot and good to her is terrific, but it's even better that he's rich. This part of the book is pure fantasy, but a fantasy I think we all, to some extent, entertain from time to time. The idea was that Lauren, after such a long, hard journey, might finally be able to rest, in every way, and let go, and stop worrying.
Joy: There's a strong turn toward self-reliance in the content of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, which swings in a conservative direction that may surprise some of your long-time fans. The protagonist Lauren's heroic cowboy love-interest, who inherited his 5,000-acre ranch, is retired military ("one of the best-trained assassins in the world"), who goes unquestioned when he says, "God knows how many American lives we save by taking key people out." You're also currently pitching a memoir called Learning to Submit: How Feminism Stole My Womanhood, and the Conservative Cowboy Who Helped Me Find It, which you describe as a move away from your upbringing in a liberal, feminist, academic home. Can you talk about your own ideological development and to what extent you see your fiction working as a vehicle for the expression of social and moral values?
Alisa: My ideology has been turned upside down in many respects in this past year, and the new book reflects it. I owe much of my growth to my boyfriend, who, like John Smith, is a cowboy. There's a lot of My Cowboy in John Smith, but there's also a lot in John Smith that is completely fictional. There's a lot of me in Lauren, but a lot in Lauren that is fiction. I was raised to be a rabid leftist. It was the religion in my childhood home, and deviation from this ideology was not tolerated. I went through life with this religion, never questioning its assumptions about the right. Then I met My Cowboy, who is a conservative AND brilliant. I had never known those things could go together. I am embarrassed now to say this, but the truth is I was a left-wing bigot. I was totally convinced that my side was full of the smart people, and the other side was a bunch of idiots. I was very, very wrong. In coming to know and love a wise conservative cowboy, I have come to see things in a way I never saw them before. I will be exploring this journey of mine in my forthcoming memoir, and probably in everything I write from here forward. The left and the right in America have an awful lot in common. That's what I've learned. The differences are mostly in how we express these feelings and ideas. I realized there was a language barrier between us, even when we were all speaking the same language, English. For instance, the word "respect" means something very different to My Cowboy's stepfather than it does to my father. In the conservative world, "respect" connotes a certain deference to authority. The left misinterprets this as obedience all the time. In fact, it is a beautiful thing, this respect for authority that the right has, when it is done right. The respected authority is respectful in kind to those in his or her care. For the left, meanwhile, "respect" is more about "live and let live," and a tolerance of difference. The right have this same value, but they express it differently, as "personal freedom." The left, meanwhile, think of "personal freedom" as being about choices, as in the abortion debate. It goes on and on, the many ways we are all misunderstanding one another. I think the current leaders in politics and media understand these barriers, and rather than seeking to build bridges and help us all understand one another, they use them to divide and conquer. It has to stop.
Joy: You recently published a wonderfully honest piece on Mamiverse.com about the difficult experience of mentoring a young girl, walking away when she became pregnant at 13, and fictionalizing her as a character in your first novel. [Full disclosure: I've been mentoring a young girl through Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2007, and it hasn't been an easy road. In my forthcoming novel, the protagonist mentors a young girl.] In real life, Nancy Brown eventually became a successful salon owner in Boston, and in your new novel, there's a wonderful character, Taina, who owns a salon in Roxbury and is similarly "generous" and rooted in her religious faith. Is Taina a fictional tribute to Nancy, and can you talk about the process of making characters out of real people?
Alisa: Taina was a subconscious tribute to Nancy. I honestly hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it, but, yes. I think it was an homage to her. It was my way of saying, through Usnavys, that we all have to be careful not to underestimate people because of where they come from.
Joy: A follow-up. In the new novel, characters allude to the possibility of betrayal via fictionalization. Usnavys says to Lauren, who's beginning a novel about six Latina friends, "Just don't base none of them on me, okay?" and when Lauren suggests writing a book about Rebecca's complicated marriage, Rebecca warns, "You better not!" Lauren replies, "Never be friends with a novelist." Can you talk about the ways, if any, in which your novels, which are so focused on women's friendships, have drawn from your real-life relationships with female friends?
Alisa: I think this is a good time to invoke my Miranda Rights.
Joy: Has publication ever had an impact upon those relationships? To what extent must an honest writer accept loneliness?
Alisa: Yes, absolutely. My family and friends have often recognized themselves in my characters. In one case, I had a friend whose husband was always hitting on me and our other female friends. I knew that if I told her directly she would never believe me, and I knew that he was dishonest enough to defend himself in such a situation by telling lies about me. It broke my heart for her to know what he was doing, so much so that I had to get it out somehow. I wrote a character in The Three Kings that was very much like her, down to the profession, married to someone very much like him. I said what needed to be said there, knowing that she would read it. It was a terrible, passive-aggressive way to do it. She has not talked to me since. I don't know what he told her. I was trying to protect her, but it is quite possible that she saw it as me humiliating her. I don't know. I think writers are driven by a need to tell emotional truths. Unfortunately, the world doesn't always want the truth. So, yes, to a large extent writers are a lonely bunch. We are the observers. The quiet people who are always watching, listening and taking notes. People who only know me by my writings are often surprised when they meet me because I'm not an obnoxious loudmouth in person. I have kind of a high little voice and I try to avoid conflict in person. I get all my aggressions out on the page.
Joy: Your Twitter stream recently focused on the vexed issue of ethnicity, which, if I'm understanding correctly, you see as a harmful social construction we should debunk. ("I confess to having been, in my 20s, seduced by ethnicity and all the benefits that come with being its handmaid. Never again. No more lies.") In this novel, most of the characters' ethnicities are included: Jason Flynn is Irish American, Martin Bernstein is Jewish, Usnavys is Boricua-Dominicana, Rebecca is a New Mexican Chicana, and Lauren is half Cuban, half white. John Smith, who is white, is otherwise as ethnically ambiguous as his name--which nonetheless echoes that of Captain John Smith, who was purportedly rescued by Pocahontas in the legendary story of early American conquest. Ethnicity seems to remain significant to you. Can you talk about the relationship between the role of ethnicity in U.S. political life and its role in character development within your own work?
Alisa: There is no short answer to this. I'm giving a TEDx talk on this subject later this month and maybe you can link the video after that? [Readers: I will. --JC] Basically, race and ethnicity are social constructs without any scientific way to prove they exist at all. In this regard, they are rather like religion. All three are taken on faith. That you can't "prove" there is a God, or a race, or an ethnicity, does not make the results of people BELIEVING in these things to be any less real. So it's a complicated relationship I have with all of them. Something can be untrue, yet real in its impact on people's lives. In a way, fiction is in this same category. Ethnicity is a social fiction that sustains many people and damages many others. I have been both sustained and damaged by it. I have never been comfortable with labels of any kind, but that doesn't make them any less fascinating to me in their outcome. I explore the falsehoods of these things in my writings, and yet so many people miss that altogether. If I mention ethnicity in my work, it is usually to deconstruct it. But most people miss that, and just "identify" with the character instead. I set out with my first novel to prove there was no one marker, no one thing you could point to to say "that's what a Latina is". The book was meant to show that this was a false, entirely made-up category, specific to the United States. The ironic result of the book was that I was held up as the new "Latina author" du jour. It'd be hilarious if it weren't so sad. Many people mistake what I'm saying to be self-loathing of some kind, when in fact I am aggressively asserting that every human being has a right to self-determination, and that none of us need be corralled or penned in by categories created for us by the U.S. government. We are people. Period. In a way, I'm like an author who writes about Christianity in a critical way, almost to disprove its existence, but who is held up as a "Christian writer" after the fact. It is fascinating.
Joy: In the novel's prefatory "NOTE TO MY READERS FROM ALISA," you write that both you and your readership have
I'm sure that many readers will agree and that your audience will appreciate the sensitivity and tact of this shift.likely moved past the shallow materialism of the 'chick lit' era. I find few things as distasteful in this era of extreme need and desperation as books or other popular culture offerings that glorify materialism, narcissism and consumerism. Those are the sins that got us all into this mess in the first place. I cannot be party to promoting consumption as the road to happiness anymore.
Yet the novel hardly reads like what's now being labeled "recession fiction." Lauren delights in the well-appointed house (with three master suites) that's loaned to her as a hideaway (since it was just standing empty, unused by its well-to-do owners). Her friend Rebecca has two adobe houses on her property, and even "the smaller house," where she installs her mother, has three bedrooms, "a soaring loft," and countertops of "blonde granite with black flecks." The straw that finally breaks the back of Usnavys' marriage is when she cleans out her family's two-thousand-dollar emergency fund from the Bustelo can and goes shopping at Nieman's with it. She also gets her Mercedes Benz repossessed, her home foreclosed upon. But she *has* two thousand dollars in an emergency fund. Moreover, even though she returns briefly to the projects where she grew up, Usnavys has used her entrepreneurial ingenuity to begin making a bundle again with Taina, her new business partner, on women's beauty products within a month or so. Even Lauren, who abruptly quits her job and drives a borrowed old Impala cross-country to escape her violent ex, has "enough savings to survive for a couple of years."
So while they're not shopping for designer bags, these characters are all well cushioned from "extreme need and desperation." Can you talk about the role of escapism, fantasy, and consumer desire in commercial fiction?
Alisa: Hmm. I'm not sure I agree with your assessment. Usnavys hits rock bottom pretty hard. There is, I will grant you, an element of escapism in all of my work.
Joy: Do you think this differs between women's commercial fiction and men's commercial fiction (like thrillers)?
Alisa: Hmm. I don't know if I've read enough of each to comment intelligently on it.
Joy: Publishing has become turbulent and complicated, and self-publishing is on the rise as a viable option for many writers, including successful authors such as New York Times bestselling author Scott Sigler, who signed a 5-book deal with Random House in 2007 but still went the self-publishing route in 2009 because, as Tay Nguyen wrote recently on Jane Friedman's blog, "he wanted more control over his own destiny."
You wrote a really interesting piece about why, after your fantastic success with St. Martin's Press, which included becoming a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, you decided to go the self-publishing route with the third installment of the Dirty Girls Social Club series. [Full disclosure: My debut novel is forthcoming from St. Martin's in July 2012.] Is there anything else you'd like to say about the choice to self-publish this time?
Alisa: I was just curious to see how it would work out, whether it would. I am still publishing with major houses for my teen fiction and memoir. I'm still comparing and contrasting the experiences.
Joy: The e-book and paperback of Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith were released in September. Can you give us an overview of how it's all going so far?
Alisa: It is selling just as well as my last books with a publisher, only instead of making a dollar a book, I'm making between $4 and $9 per book.
Joy: Do you have any advice for writers who plan to self-publish?
Joy: During the process of publishing Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, were there any elements of traditional publishing that you missed ?
Joy: At the end of the novel, a note informs readers that they can purchase "the X-rated Very Dirty Chapter" at amazon.com. The note says that you "did not want to offend any sensitive readers," but can you talk further about your choice to publish it separately? What are the censorship barriers that define the boundaries of women's fiction, and to what extent are those boundaries imposed by readers?
Alisa: I like erotica. I even like some pornography. I think that the natural outcome of a loving relationship is good sex. I like to write about sex. But I know there are lots of people who would be offended by it, so I wanted to separate it out.
Joy: You've described your sixth novel, The Husband Habit, as your "attempt to write literary fiction." In Lauren's Saints of Dirty Faith, the character Usnavys tells Lauren,
Can you talk about what you see as the differences between "literary fiction" and commercial fiction? All of your fans are familiar with your many strengths as a writer of "chica lit," including warm voices, believable characters, humor, and social critique. What drew you to literary fiction? Do you think the publishing industry overstates the case for drawing boundaries among different kinds of books?"Okay, but if you do base a character on me, make sure she's glamorous and employed. You want it to be aspirational fiction, not the shit that wins Pulitzers and makes everyone who reads it want to slit their fucking wrists. Whatever you do, promise you won't go all E. Annie Proulx on me, because ain't nobody actually likes them books of hers."
Alisa: Again, it's all about barriers created by people other than writers. Literary fiction and commercial fiction are categories created by academia, mostly to justify the MFA in writing degree. Louis Armstrong once said there were only two types of music, good and bad. I believe the same of writing.
Joy: Lastly, one of your characters in the new novel says this great line: "Dangerous business, book-writing. . . . You never know who's going to read it, or how they're going to react." Comments?
Alisa: I will allow Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to answer for me: "A person hears only what they understand."
This year in my graduate memoir workshop, I taught her stunning essay "Cartographies of Change." Published in Prairie Schooner, it's a gorgeous example of what creative nonfiction can be.
Tracy is the author of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas, published in 2011. She teaches literature and creative nonfiction at the University of San Francisco. There, she has held the NEH Chair in the Humanities and won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and the College Service Award. She currently co-directs the Center for Teaching Excellence.
She has also published scholarly essays on Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, poet and essayist Alice Meynell, and other writers, as well as literary essays in The Florida Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her essay "Cartographies of Change" was a finalist for both the Iowa Review and Brenda Ueland prizes in nonfiction.
Tracy lives in Oakland, California with her husband Frederick Marx, a filmmaker. She is an avid if novice gardener and has raised two smart and darkly witty daughters who now live too far away.
Once my graduate students had read "Cartographies of Change," which weaves together the losses of breast cancer and a relationship's end with the story of the narrator's budding meditation practice, Tracy was kind enough to do a Q&A with them about the essay.
Gabriel Houck: "This essay was linguistically gorgeous, but its organization--specifically, the shaping of how you talk about coping with trauma--Is what makes it work so well for me. My question has to do with my own struggles organizing in this way, more specifically: was the idea of cartography (or the metaphor of mapping and all of its connected lexicon) present at the onset of the writing? Was it something that developed as an organizing principle during the writing process, or was it something that was inserted afterwards, upon reflection, as a way of framing the language and the shape of this story? I think it is a beautiful choice and it's done tremendously well, but you have other things in the piece that seem as if they could have equally taken the burden that 'cartography' takes on for you: the metaphor of cancer-treatment-as-warfare, the idea of meditation and being outside of time, and the constant, mantra-like repetition of certain refrains. Mostly, I guess the question is about organizing things (at what point the shape and the frame are clear to you), and the prioritizing of the ideas at work (choosing to use cartography in the title, in analogies and language, as a dominant refrain vs. some of the other ideas you present in the essay)."
Tracy Seeley: Great question! For me, this piece and the experience it grew out of are about relocation, displacement, and making a place for myself both literally and figuratively. So the idea of mapping—of finding one’s place, marking it, making it meaningful—seemed far more expansive to me than any other metaphor the essay might have made available. “Cartographies of Change” as a central metaphor also seems to me more suggestive, a bit more allusive and thus richer than some of the other choices might have been.I have to say that mapping, making a place, finding a place, creating a home—they were all very much on my mind at the time, as I was also working on my book My Ruby Slippers, which is a memoir of place. And I’d done written about space in Virginia Woolf’s fiction and nonfiction. It’s a preoccupation of mine, a metaphor that works to explain a lot about me. Having said that, I didn’t actually hit on the idea of cartography as the organizing principle or the title for a long while into the drafting process. Early drafts were much more expository, straightforward storytelling. But I wasn’t happy with the tone or the feel of the essay. In some ways, I think I was still too close to the experience and the piece sounded sentimental. So I put it away for awhile, then one day I was reading Donne and came across the poem that acts as an epigraph. And I had that aha! moment. THAT’s what I was really trying to do…write about mapping and change. Donne uses the metaphor of body as map, so it’s a bit different than what I ended up doing. But I grabbed his metaphors, since they let me do exactly what I wanted to do. Some of the mapping language was already in the essay before I found the poem—so I’d been headed in that direction intuitively—and some of it made its way in as I rewrote and revised. Once I had the idea of Cartographies, it became easy to get the emotional lightness I wanted. Caitie Liebman: "Other characters, or players, in your life barely appear in this piece. They are, however, briefly mentioned: 'sisters . . . daughters . . . friends' (116). What do you think their brief mention does for the reader? Does the reader need to know those relations exist even though they are not described as players in your life throughout the diagnosis and treatment of your disease? Why did you choose not to acknowledge their roles (or absences)?"
Tracy Seeley: I never know what to say about “the reader,” who is really an imaginary, impossible to locate entity. Readers are multiple, all with different sensibilities and responses, so I don’t know what my inclusion of these other characters will do for any given reader. For me, this piece is about an inward journey, not a story of my relationships with others—so that’s part of what they’re doing (or not doing) in there. One of the realities of going through treatment for cancer is that no matter how many people may be around or who they are, there’s no way for anyone else to be inside that experience with the patient. By its very nature it’s deeply private. We confront our mortality alone. So in a very real way, as much as there were other people in my life, they were not on the inside and couldn’t be. It seemed quite natural to me that they should be mentioned, since I continued to occupy a larger world of relationships, but those people are also very much on the margins in terms of what my experience was during those months. Cancer is an intense, surreal place. You go there by yourself. Nicole Green: "Writing memoir, how do you think about organization? Do you begin by imagining a structure you'd like the piece to take, or do you just tell your story first, and allow the organization/structure to emerge more organically through revision? When you start, what is your process? How do you imagine a piece at its very first conception?"
Tracy Seeley: When I start something new I don’t think in terms of structure at all. I just jump into the soup. I usually have an image in mind, or a narrative moment that seems somehow important—and usually I don’t know why it’s important until I start writing about it. I’m a very messy writer, and have learned to live with a lot of chaos, lots of extraneous material, lots of disorderly bits and pieces. In the early stages of something, I’m just trying to generate a lot of material. But I’ve learned that eventually, the shape, purpose, focus and even subject of the piece will emerge. I will announce itself. That is, I’ll get an understanding of what it’s really about. Once I know that, I can think more clearly about how to organize it. Some of my organizational decisions are very conscious and analytical, and some are just intuitive. You know as a writer when something works, even though you might be hard pressed to explain why. Wendy Oleson: "Were there drafts of this essay in which you speak more about the sister you woke up by 'rubbing [your head] on her cheek' or the daughter whose 'hand-tinted photographs' you admired from the couch? (113, 115)"
Tracy Seeley: No. Kathryn Samuelson: "I love the line, 'To be present, in the present, is to swim in infinity.' Is this a learned response to life that you intend readers to apply?"
Tracy Seeley: Thank you. I don’t think of my writing as a set of directives for other people. All I hope for is that they’ll have a reading experience that rearranges something inside them. It’s not up to me to say what they should do with it. Vanessa Languis: "At the very end, was it an out-of-body experience that the author was experiencing? Did the author/narrator die momentarily? Or was that another metaphor?"
Tracy Seeley: The section I think you mean begins this way:
Sometimes on the threshold of darkness, I would forget the lessons of the meditation cushion. I too easily slipped into darkness, let it slip into me. Awake and still, I breathed the darkness in and set it loose to explore my interior rooms, long shadows trailing in its wake. I let it lead me through corridors of regret and desire, where darkness, impresario, opened the curtains on a host of dramatic restagings—quarrels and partings, the man and the woman, moments of failure and fear.In the first sentence, “darkness” is literal. It’s evening. In the second sentence “I too easily slipped into darkness,” darkness is becoming metaphorical, referring to a mood of sadness, but the phrase “slipped into” opened up the door (so to speak) for me to make that darkness a physical space, like a house, as well as a presence in that house. So darkness becomes both spatialized and personified. And then I just ran with the metaphor and created a scene in which I am in those rooms, following darkness around, replaying scenes from the past, confronting my feared version of a future, etc. And then, eventually, I manage to I pull myself out of that wandering back to the present. Here’s what it’s about. Think of what our minds are often prone to do: we may be sitting in a café, thinking about the past, mulling over regrets, imaginatively replaying scenes that went badly, rehearsing things we wished we’d said. Or out of fear, we spin out a whole scenario of what bad thing is going to happen in the future if we do X, or don’t do Y. That’s what I’m allowing myself to do when I “slip into darkness, let it slip into me.” I take the metaphors and make them literal. I stole that technique from the transformation scene in Woolf’s Orlando by the way. Check it out. The minute I end that internal dark wandering, I reflect that this is how we create our own suffering: dwelling in the past, wishing things had been different, or fearing the future we imagine will come. It’s part of Buddhist teaching to understand our suffering this way. We create it ourselves. And we can end our own suffering by accepting things as they are and by living in the present. That’s what that section of the essay’s about: a moment when I create my own suffering by “slipping into” the darkness of my own thoughts…and then I’m aware enough of what I’m doing to stop it, to “wake up” to the present. That’s when the light goes on in the essay, by the way. The end of suffering is enlightenment.