Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beach reading

I think that when most people talk about "beach reads," they mean light reading, books that are heavy on action and thrills.

For me, vacation reading trends in the opposite direction. Vacation is when I have the time and leisure to approach a quiet and thoughtful book, or to dig into a slow, meaty tome. When I've worked all day, I often want a book that doesn't require intense concentration or considering philosophical nuances. On vacation, I'm rested enough to read slowly and deeply.

But I'm glad there are all kinds of books, for all kinds of moods and seasons.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Where to begin

Time for my monthly slot at YA Outside the Lines, where this month we're blogging about beginnings of all sorts. My post starts with "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and proceeds to discussing opening lines of recent books. A sample: "When I get lost in the writing of a story, I try to remember what compelled me to start it in the first place ..."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014


If you read about real-life paradigm shifts, disasters, and other large-scale changes, one thing that is strongly evident is the presence of denial. Human beings often resist accepting a new situation, especially a negative one. Usually there is a time when most of the population is in denial, and then acceptance creeps in, a tipping point occurs, and those in denial become the minority. The phase of major denial can be short or long; its presence can have consequences ranging from minor to tragic.

I think denial is built on a few foundations: People don't want to change (or don't want the world to change); it's too much trouble and they're afraid of what they might lose. (Often, people with the most to lose from the change are the most resistant to it.) Or they can't wrap their minds around change and don't know what to do about it anyway, so they choose not to deal with it. Or they don't trust the source that is warning of the change. Or they are suspicious because of false alarms in the past; after all, some predictions turn out to be wrong. But in any story we write where a major change is overtaking the characters, denial is likely to be part of the process.

This can be tricky for writers to manage. Usually, readers are quick to heed the omens and prophecies and predictions and warning signs in stories, because they know those signs wouldn't be there unless they were important. Readers know that something big is going to happen, or there wouldn't be a story at all. The characters don't have this advantage--and can't, unless you are writing meta-fiction and breaking the fourth wall. Realistically, the characters can't jump right into accepting a new normal without some questioning, resistance, nostalgia, if-only thinking, etc. Meanwhile, readers are likely to be shouting at the characters: "Of course the plague is coming!" or "Get out of the way of the tornado!" or "The ghost IS real, you fool!" or "Yes, there WILL be a war!"

A little of this can provide tension and urgency. Too little of it seems false and can break the reader's spell, but too much of it makes readers impatient and cranky. It helps if readers can thoroughly feel the old reality the characters are clinging to, and to embrace it themselves so that they won't want to let go of it either. It helps if the characters' tipping point is logical--an undeniable fact, a trusted source. It helps if the characters test out the idea of acceptance before finally embracing it. And it helps if this phase doesn't go on so long that it just feels like a pointless delay or a stagnation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


The resurgence of the Ebola virus in Africa and the recent discovery of smallpox vials where they should not have been made me want to reread Randy Shilts's book, And the Band Played On. It's an in-depth account of the early years of AIDS in North America and Europe: the early cases, the discovery of the virus, the tragic losses, the mobilization of entire communities, the political battles for recognition and resources. Some of the medical researchers mentioned in And the Band Played On were involved in quashing an outbreak of Ebola, and in officially eradicating the smallpox virus. And strangely enough, this very year, stray vials of smallpox were discovered in an old government storeroom, and Ebola fever is raging again in Africa.

With all the technological progress we've made, we can still be undone by microorganisms.

And the Band Played On chronicles the beginning of the AIDS horror in the US, its exponential spread, and the extent to which it decimated communities. For me, one statistic illustrates the scale of this horror. As reported in The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience (Perry N. Halkitis), only 20% of those diagnosed before January 1, 1985, were still alive in 1990. 20% survival over five years: staggering.

Shilts's book was published in 1987, before the watershed year of 1996, when the protease inhibitors that have done so much to curb the deadliness of HIV became available. Sean Strub's book Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival is a personal account of the AIDS pandemic, but his account extends to the present. Protease inhibitors arrived in the nick of time for Strub, who was in the very late stages of AIDS (internal Kaposi's sarcoma) when the new medication brought him back from the brink. "I started to see events in my life as 'last times' ... When a postcard arrived to remind me of an upcoming dental checkup, I threw it away," Strub writes. And then he found himself not only alive but improving, reclaiming a future. Strub's book therefore covers a broader sweep of the American part of the pandemic. Sadly, Shilts could not write such an account himself: he died in 1994, of complications from AIDS.

I lived through these years myself, but I did not live inside this pandemic. I knew two people who died of AIDS in the early 1990s, but they were friendly acquaintances, not close friends. I was not going to funerals every week nor monitoring my own T-cell count. My view of AIDS was an outsider's view; the disease cast a long shadow, and for a while, everyone was afraid. And I well remember the panic caused by unhelpfully euphemistic terms like "body fluids."

AIDS is still a problem, although because of improvements in understanding and treating it, in the US, AIDS is now often seen through a sort of historical, rear-view mirror. David Levithan's novel, Two Boys Kissing, includes narration from the souls of gay men from the era most affected by AIDS, addressing the young gay men of today: "We were once like you, only our world wasn't like yours. You have no idea how close to death you came. A generation or two earlier, you might be here with us." Also: "If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. ... We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore."

Our literature contains the records of this plague. Plagues have always been part of human experience, and right now a particularly devastating one is unfolding in West Africa. This story unfolds again and again; each time we hope for a better ending, a swifter resolution.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In obscurity, butterflies

"Not even the splendor of the Nobel Prize made a lasting difference. My royalty checks fattened surprisingly for one payment period following the prize and then returned to the under-$10 payments they had always been. In Stockholm, I had asked Karl Otto Bonnier about the next Oe book he was planning to publish and was surprised when he told me his company had no further plans for Oe. 'This Nobel excitement is just a blip, it won't last long,' he explained, and he was right."

That is John Nathan, a translator of Kenzaburo Oe's work, writing in Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere about the effect of Oe's Nobel Prize on book sales. Or rather, the lack of effect. This passage came to mind again recently because I've requested one of Oe's books from the library. Not only is it proving scarce and difficult to find, but the librarian who helped me with my request didn't seem to be familiar with Oe.

Writers know how hard it is to find and keep a readership, let alone any sort of longevity, but one would think that at least a Nobel Prize for literature ought to ensure some measure of fame, at least within literary communities. It has only been twenty years since Oe's moment in the Stockholm sun. I suppose this brings home the reality that the audience for literary fiction is small, and in the US, the audience for translated fiction appears to be even smaller.

One could find this disheartening, in a we're-all-destined-for-obscurity sort of way, or strangely heartening, in a well-if-greater-writers-can't-stay-in-th
e-limelight-that-sure-takes-the-pressure-off-me way. On Twitter, Anne Lamott often comments that we and our works will be quickly forgotten. A glance at the bestseller lists of yesteryear shows us that--how few books from even five years ago are still widely read and discussed, let alone twenty years, or fifty.

Most of us will have an indirect effect on the wider world of literature. We will not be read by everyone at once. We will be read by, and perhaps influence in some small way, a few people who will in turn influence other people, and these multiple influences will ripple through the community. We flap our butterfly wings and never know exactly how far the resulting breezes reach.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Not to change the subject

Two final quotes from Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons (once again, quotations that I find relevant to writing):

On doing many works centered on the same subject:
"A change of subject is really very unimportant to me, because there are always new revelations coming out of that one subject."

On legacies:
"People say sometimes, 'Will your [paintings] last?' I tell them I don't [care]. I'm painting for myself. If my paintings are worth anything--if they have quality--that quality will find a way to preserve itself."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Potato salad and time

When you're getting ready to publish a book, you get involved in all sorts of promotional activities. Some of them are obvious: bookstore appearances, school visits, interviews about the book or the writing process. Then there are the less obvious. I've known writers who were able to tie in specialty nail polishes, craft activities, or charitable events with their books.

One thing I didn't expect, as a debut author, was the demand for recipes. At least five or six times during that first year, I was asked to provide a recipe as part of some promotional activity. And my main reaction was: Huh? I didn't write a cookbook. I wrote a book about adolescent love and loss. What does that have to do with recipes? Who says I can even cook?

I can cook, but I mainly use other people's recipes. I do not, as a matter of course, invent my own. I'm still mystified why anyone would think I would. (But maybe this is just one of those things that "everyone else" does, and the world is full of people whipping up their own recipes!)

I was thinking about recipes this weekend because I made the family-recipe potato salad, which takes two days and is more fun to eat than to prepare. Nevertheless, even as I complain about the work (mainly the peeling and chopping of all those potatoes and eggs), as I make it, I feel connected to my mother, and her mother, and my sister, all of whom have made this same recipe. I enjoy that aspect of it, and I enjoy putting my time and attention into something that will feed and nourish other people.

Every time I make it, I find little ways to do it more efficiently, but it is never going to be a fast process. Kind of like writing, which I was also thinking about today. We may be in the era of fast drafting, of NaNoWriMo and ebook serials and publishing multiple books a year. But I don't seem to be able to write well under those conditions. My books require a certain amount of time that has nothing to do with how fast I can type (and I type very fast). There is some sort of digestion or marination or slow-cooking that goes on as my stories develop, and you don't even want to know how many drafts I have to do to get a story looking like it was written by a sentient human instead of a feral raccoon.

But if I'm out of step, it won't be the first time. I've had a pretty good time in this world doing things my own quirky way, so I guess I'll just keep on. If my books turn out to be half as good as the potato salad, I can't complain.

Friday, August 8, 2014


"You never know how influences come in. ... I'm certainly never conscious of them ... Knowledge of the works of certain others is, of course, important. But that doesn't mean that you should think about it. These things should go into your bloodstream and disappear."

--Andrew Wyeth, in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, Metropolitan Museum of Art

We are influenced by so much. We start out imitating, with the undigested influences sticking out in our early work. And then, somehow, we absorb them. They blend so well that they flavor our work, but the work itself is something new.

I like to read widely, to keep my "influences" diverse. Right now, I'm partway through a memoir and an essay collection; I just finished a collection of editor Ursula Nordstrom's letters; and I've been looking at two art books, one of photography and the other the Wyeth book that I've been quoting.

Libraries are a great source of art and photography books, which can be expensive to purchase new. Now that we can find thousands (millions?) of photos online for free, maybe such books are less necessary. But I still like seeing an organized and themed collection, with some unifying narration, which I find more often in books. The Wyeth book is a favorite of mine because the artist was interviewed at length, and answered at length, about how he developed certain paintings, what the drafts and studies of those paintings looked like, what factors in art and in his own daily life affected the painting, and the stories behind many of the pictures and the people in them. I'm finding that much of what he says about the visual arts applies to writing as well.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The closet

"I took a workshop with Christine Schutt once and she compared writing a short story to giving someone a tour of your house. You lead your reader into the house, but you don’t let her go in the sun-drenched kitchen, you don’t let her peek into the sprawling living room, you don’t let her linger in the foyer. You take her directly to the closet and show her the inside. That’s what a short story is. The inside of the closet and nothing else. I think about that all the time."

--Erin Somers, interviewed at One Teen Story

I think some of this is about the directness of a short story: You don't have much space. You don't have much time to get to the point, so you get to the point. You can't do a lot of introduction or exposition. You take people right to the hidden heart of the story.

But this is also about any story, even a thousand-page novel. Maybe with a long novel you can take people on a tour of the house before you reach the closet, but the story is really about the moment when you open the closet door. Whatever has been hidden, whatever has been held onto, whatever hasn't been prettied up for others, wherever "backstage" is, wherever things collect, that is where the story is.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On (not) sharing works in progress

"That's why I make a point of never showing pictures I'm working on to anybody because if a person likes it too much, I'm disturbed and if a person doesn't like it, I am also disturbed, because somehow that will freeze it and I wouldn't dare go on with it. Either I want to destroy it or else I think it's so good that I don't want to touch it. And that's the beginning of the end."
--Andrew Wyeth, in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, Metropolitan Museum of Art

He was a painter. But this can apply to many kinds of artists.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Nature in the city

I spent some time today at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, one of Philadelphia's surprising treasures. (If you've ever taken the train from the Philadelphia airport to the center of town, you've seen some of the refuge's marshes from the train window.)

The place changes over the years, and changes with the seasons, and changes with the weather, but there's always something to see.

Today we saw a deer, a rabbit, several frogs, a cormorant, and swallows. The egrets and herons were out fishing (slinking along on their stilt legs with necks craned; resembling pterodactyls when they fly). The violet pickerelweed was blooming, as was the swamp rose mallow. August to me is always the mallow blooming in its shades of white, deep pink, and pale pink.

We also saw a bittern. I remember seeing this bird in a picture in a book when I was little, thinking that it was interesting, and wanting to see one in the wild. Apparently bitterns like to spend most of their time lurking in marsh foliage, camouflaged, and can be difficult to find. So it was a special gift to see one today.