There are a lot of things I don’t talk about on this blog. My children, for one. My sex life, my job. Diet, health, exercise. I don’t talk about how I went vegan or when or why, because a) this is a writing blog and b) vegetarians tend to sound like uptight lunatics when the topic arises. My kids showed me this video the other day of some vegan on a rant, accusing everyone else of murder and claiming the moral high ground for himself as a non-murdering environmentalist. He looked ridiculous, all spittle and vituperation. I don’t wanna be that guy.
Especially when the whole thing is driven for me by a passion for food. I fucking love to eat. And right now, in this part of the world? Heaven. After work last night I stopped to pick up some peaches, nectarines, apricots and greens, and I made this mad genius salad. People. Words cannot describe the joy of a drippy peach with mustard dressing and pickled onion. My mouth hardly knew what hit it. Even the prep was a sensory joy, which I find is true of vegetarian cooking in a way that I never experienced when we were eating meat. I like the raw ingredients—the plausibility of a sliced zucchini, the innocent outline of a pear. It’s simple stuff and it all makes sense. This grew out of the ground, you put it in your mouth and are nourished. But the alchemy of a perfect bite is still elusive and elevating and life-affirming as it ever was, and I hope I’ll never stop chasing it.
What do you love to eat? (I promise not to pepper you with spittle if there’s beast in it and will probably giggle if you get jiggy with the drippy peach.)
Well, the book concept is a non-starter. Too many strikes against it, too much that doesn’t work and can’t be fixed. But I had a great conversation with my agent, who gave me some new ideas about what might work and how I can better incorporate the things I love about the setting and characters into a novel that stands a fighting chance in pub-land.
Them’s the breaks. I’m not willing—at the moment, anyway—to sink a year or more into something that I know from the outset is going to be a tough sell. Probably that makes me a hack. But my feeling is that story ideas come easy and quick, and I’m okay with including a certain amount of calculation in the process of choosing what to write. I’m okay, in fact, with hacking.
That’s not to say it isn’t more noble to simply write whatever the hell you want to write, New York be damned. There’s a place for that in any writer’s career. Maybe I’ll peck away at this story while I’m writing others, like Agatha Christie did when she turned out Giant’s Bread and Absent in the Spring. I don’t know. I suppose it depends on how important this story is to me, how much it nags, how much time I can cobble together and how much creative mojo. For now I’m headed back to the mill to grind out a better idea.
Do you try to accommodate the market, or do you prefer to write and let the market come to you?
“Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to starting (an activity, a hobby, or anything else, really)? Tell us about it — and tell us about what’s keeping you from doing it.”
I always thought that when I was an adult I’d have a horse. I imagined myself on shaded trails, wading through streams, loping across summer meadows with the wind in my hair and a fist full of mane. There are opportunities to do that now, but somehow I haven’t. I don’t know why.
It’s been twenty-five years.
The dishes are done. I know as much about this book as it’s possible to know without getting in there and starting to write. I’ve planned it, mapped out the arc, amassed a series of (to me) interesting complications, and done some rudimentary research. This book is going to take a good bit more of that than anything I’ve written before, but it can wait. The story comes first, verisimilitude later.
I’m stalling about sending it to my agent. It always feels like offering the breathless exposition of a four-year-old after the latest Pixar, complete with hand gestures and stick figure drawings to illustrate the climax. I try to remember that all stories start somewhere. Other writers use critique groups or have partners or mentors to help them. Everybody needs a sounding board, there’s no shame in it. But for me it’s hard to put the suggestion out there, like, Hey, how about I write this, wouldn’t it be cool? Because it might not be cool. I have a tendency toward wild, potentially embarrassing ideas, and it usually falls to the publishing peeps to break it to me when I’ve come up with something batshit. Then I get all apologetic and awkward, and retreat with my stupid idea trying to work up the nerve to try again with something new.
How willing are you to show your unfinished work? Is it something that comes easily or do you keep your projects close to the vest?
If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.
I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.
- Ray Bradbury
I am here. The new story is crazy—crazy!—and I must be crazy to want to write it. But how can I not try for something that makes me feel the way I do now, that makes my throat tense and my pulse gallop, a story that paces at the back of my mind like a lover, springing forward at unexpected moments to claim my whole mind when my mind should be elsewhere. It’s a madness. It’s not sensible. But this is the sort of infatuation in which you sense something deeper underneath the flirty surface, hinting at some part of you that needs to be expressed though for the moment is inexpressible. All you know really is the agony of not having written it yet.
What makes you crazy?
- What’s the first article of clothing you remember owning?
- What time do you naturally wake in the morning?
- Last sandwich you ate.
- Do you sing in the car?
- Tattoo inventory.
- Broken bone inventory.
- On a scale of 1-10, the heat number on your Thai noodle order?
- Have you ever held a snake? (That’s only a euphemism if you want it to be.)
- Weird lessons your parents made you take.
- What’s your sign?
- Where are your glasses?
- What would you name a little boy?
- What would you rename your home town?
- Can you tie a cherry stem with your tongue?
- Ever been in a food fight?
- Can you swim?
- Have you ever been knocked unconscious?
- What do you like on your toast?
- Is it hard to apologize?
- Look up. What’s the first thing you see?
Today I’m getting started on the new proposal. I’m not entirely clear on how this works once you’ve got a couple of books under your belt and are angling for a new contract, but I’m pretty sure there’s a proposal involved. It’s just a detailed synopsis, really, a new book’s play-by-play, and maybe a couple of sample chapters if someone asks for them. This is one of the perks of having written a couple of books; people know you’re good for the work and will do what you say you’ll do, and they’ll take a look at what you’re working on next. I don’t need to tell you, in this business that’s a really big deal.
So it’s time to start putting the story together. I’m a bit worried because this book is not a suspense novel like the other two, so the structure is not as obvious to me as it has been in the past. With suspense, the story arc forms naturally. Lots and lots of windup, then release. That happens over and over in a thriller—in miniature, scene by scene, then again on a broader scale over the course of the book. I want this literary novel to have that kind of pull, so I’m looking for ways to keep it really tense throughout and escalate the trouble to the end. Not so easy to do without a crime to work around.
What’s the biggest challenge in your WIP?
This is one of those Mondays where I have so much to say that I can’t settle down and put the words together. My life is so quiet generally speaking that when anything at all happens I get an experiential rush and have to start writing in bullet points because it’s all been too much for me. Or, failing that, I just strip it down to the bare facts: we took two day trips this weekend. One to Ballard (shopping), the other to Mount Rainier (nature ogling). More about those later.
The other thing I did this weekend is work through my edits for Blackbird. I have a wonderful copyeditor at MIRA, who did a thorough and sure-handed job with my manuscript, who saved me from myself on several occasions and managed to eliminate the worst of my tics without stripping out what passes for personality in my writing. She simply removed the debris I’d left behind, so that the reader’s path through the story is smooth. And as I worked, a funny thing happened: I kind of fell in love with my own book. I got interested again, found myself reading with my chin cupped in my palm, totally ignoring all the mark-ups because the story itself had captured my attention. I kept having to retrace my steps and pull myself back to edit mode, each time with a deepening sense of appreciation for the work my editors have done on this novel. The structure, the characters, the language, the rhythm—all are vastly improved for their contributions. They’ve taken a disjointed scrapalanche of writing and helped me turn it into something I am glad to call my own.
Thank you, Michelle and Robin. You’d probably call me out on the cliché, but I couldn’t have done it without you.
What are your experiences with editors?
If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Ain’t that the truth. I spent hours at Barnes & Noble last weekend and came away with nothing. Nothing! And not because there weren’t dozens of books calling my name, but because I had a particular craving and could not find a way to slake it. For every book I write there is a single book already written that evokes the mood I’m hoping to capture, something to return to when I need a dose of inspiration. For this new book I’m looking for something dark and lyrical, third person, romantic and tragic and rustic and slim, something with the quality of a myth but using a modern lexicon, featuring a couple of sexy young things who see it all go desperately wrong. I want to be heartbroken, spellbound. I want to be magicked, beguiled, enchanted, seduced. I’ve got no use for a gentle book at this point; the fucker’s got to drive my whole writing process for months and months, it’s got to have mojo. It’s got to have legs.
It’s got to exist! I’m going back to the bookstore today for a second expedition.
Are you writing to fill a void? If so, what does that unwritten story look like?
Hot damn, people. I had no idea you were so tech savvy. What else are you holding back? Do you play the oud, sew your own clothes, have a minor in dolphin psychology? Can you climb a tree, do a back flip off a swing at its apex? Somersault across the living room without ending up in traction? Do you make chocolate-chip constellations in your five-year-old’s pancakes? Can you operate a lathe? A dowsing rod? A pasta machine? Can you locate true north by laying your palm on the ground, or sniffing the air, or noting the direction of the tree branches on a hillside? Are you the world’s greatest lover, god’s gift to woman or man? Can you fly a plane? Read a blueprint? Recite forty digits of pi? You’re a hottie, smarty-pants, but I’ll tell you what: I can drive a stick shift, read a light meter, and make a chocolate roulade—and my hair, properly treated, dries by itself into perfect spiral curls.
What are your mad skills?
A week ago Saturday my laptop gave up the ghost. That little Mac has been chugging along for so long I thought it would never die. It was the one I bought when I started my photography business, four houses and eight years and another lifetime ago, and in all that time it’s given me nothing but faithful service. Slow, but faithful. It was the ol’ Shep of laptops.
But the time has come to bury the poor old thing, plant a lilac over its grave and bring another puppy home from the store. I’ve been researching and price-shopping, trying to get the hang of all these new devices and see which one might work for me. I need something portable that I can type on, obviously, and watch movies and read blogs and whatnot, so I was planning to get another laptop. But apparently the clamshell design is so 2009. Now we have the iPad Air where you can type on the screen or use an optional keyboard dock. We have PCs where the keyboard swivels around and disappears so you can hold the device like a pad while you’re bumming around in avoidance mode. Some reviewers swear by the touch pad alone and say you can get used to typing without an actual keyboard. Which, I don’t know…
So the question du jour, as I continue my hunt for the new old faithful:
What sort of computer do you work on? Pros and cons?
And, Monday. Two good things happened over the weekend:
1. I wrote an outline for the new book.
2. I found a vegan coffee creamer that I really like.
Of the two, I’m more excited about the creamer. That morning cup of coffee is pretty damn important, and it never did taste quite right without something rich and velvety to stir in. I tried almond milk, coconut, soy—all of which either vanillaed the flavor or thinned down my brew or both. But yesterday I discovered a soy coffee creamer with tapioca in it or some damn thing, and it’s gooood. Caffeine crisis, resolved.
The outline is not so impressive. The story sounds okay—actually it sounds pretty exciting—but outlining it accomplished nothing. This is not a complicated story, I have it all in my head. What just happened is that I wasted a perfectly good weekend not writing. I’m in that stalled-out, chickenshit moment in which you want to write, think you probably are ready to start, and cannot pull the fucking trigger. I’ve been telling myself it’s because I haven’t pinned down a voice or a mood for the story. I don’t know how to tell it. Which is the no-shit, Sherlock moment I come to every time I begin with something new. As if you can come to a project with all the answers, as if you won’t change your mind halfway through anyway, no matter how elaborate the planning. Some decisions you can only make after you have something on the page and that is where I am. This weekend was about stalling via busyness.
What are your stall tactics? Are you in gear or idling?
I’m stirring a melting pot of ideas at the moment. The essential story, insistent enough now that I’m pretty sure I’m going to write it, can go any number of ways. Could be gritty or romantic, modern or post-apocalyptic, and it probably could slide into one of a handful of different genres depending on the age of the characters and how I choose to write them. But it will never be a thriller. That’s a problem, since the first two books I’ve put out there are psychological and literary suspense novels, dirty little neo-noirs that play to my strengths and disguise, I hope, a few of my weaknesses. This book is not that. It’s tragic and sexy and full of juicy conflict, but no crime is committed and the story itself is quite simple.
Luckily, I am not well-established enough to be locked into a genre the way the big-name writers are. I can follow the roughly consistent thread that’s been tugging me along since the beginning—dark, troubled relationships—and see where it goes. I’m grateful for that freedom, though at times like these I sort of wish I were writing a series and could just carry on where I left off. At least you’d have the basic groundwork covered: character names, voice, back story, rules of engagement, etc. Of course, you’d also be stuck with those choices, and for someone as impatient and easily bored as I am, that might be a deal-breaker. I’d probably end up staging an epic battle and murdering every last character by the midpoint of book two.
What about you? Any interest in writing a series? Do you like to read them?
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.
David Foster Wallace
I’m no student of literary philosophy and I’ve never taken a writing class where such things might be discussed, but this idea interests me. What do you think? Is banality a form of rebellion?
I’m late writing today because my son has brought home his art projects and I’ve been busy admiring them. I have a small collection of these objects scattered around my writing space: a clay hippo, missing one ear but redeemed by the most adorable toe point of its left hind foot; a corn-husk doll with twine belt and tie; a 3D extravaganza titled The Dancing Mushroom, made with oil pastels and paint; a sock puppet sporting googly eyes and a felt uni-brow, its sticks held upright between the spines of my photography books; a god’s eye of red, black and green yarn, formed around the architecture of an old CD, with a green mancala bead at the center; a watercolor tree on a washed blue background, thick clumps of grass around the trunk; and the new addition, a piece of soft plaster with my son’s name carved in the top, colored all over with pencil to make it look like a stone.
I’m convinced that all this creativity is good for my mojo. Also, I fucking love the artist.
What artwork do you keep nearby?
Over the weekend I tried to start writing the new book, but realized almost immediately that something was off. In planning this story, I had reached to include an element that fascinates me but doesn’t belong, is not essential, and will expose one of my biggest flaws as a writer: a lack of imagination. I can’t do world-building. My strengths lie in the dark realms of character: schemes and obsession and polluted headspace, all manner of malicious deceit. There’s no imagination in that for me, only recognition. World-building is something different and requires a level of vision and planning far outside the scope of my potential. I need to dial it back.
It’s a bummer, because I love the way the story looks in my head. But so much of writing is recognizing the crappy parts of the plan you made and letting them go. Or the crappy parts of yourself and working around them.
What are your strengths as a writer? What are your weaknesses?
One trip to the farmers market + one trip to the food co-op = one of our favorite dinners, courtesy of Isa Chandra Moskowitz:
For the masala spice blend:
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed or chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
For everything else:
3 tablespoons refined coconut oil
1 large yellow onion, sliced into medium pieces
2 jalapenos, seeded and thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 pounds tomatoes, diced (I mixed canned and fresh)
1 teaspoon salt
2 (15-oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon agave nectar
Juice of one lime
Cooked basmati rice, for serving
* * *
Preheat a large pan or pot (you’ll need a lid) over medium heat.
Mix up the spice blend in a small bowl.
When the pan is hot add the coconut oil and sauté the onion in the oil for about 10 minutes, until nicely browned.
Add the jalapenos, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the cilantro. Add the spice blend and toss to coat the onions, letting the spices toast for a minute or so.
Add the tomatoes and mix well, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Add the salt, pepper, chickpeas, and agave. Cover the pan and bring the heat up a bit. The tomatoes should take about 10 minutes to break down and get saucy. Remove the lid and cook for about 20 minutes more on low heat. It shouldn’t be too thick, but it shouldn’t be watery, either.
Add the lime juice. Taste for seasoning. Let sit for 10 minutes off the heat and serve with basmati rice.
Anything cooking at your place this weekend?
From The Secret Miracle, Edited by Daniel Alarcon:
How rigorous are you about maintaining a schedule?
Anne Enright: My children dictate my schedule—I have done vast amounts since they were born because they keep me from my desk and make me impatient to get back to it. I don’t count words so much anymore, or note beginnings and endings. I work on several things at once, so there is always a file to open and no such thing as a blank page. I like working. What discipline I have comes from the fact that I don’t do any of the other things I am supposed to do. Housework, personal administration—everything else goes to hell. My husband cooks. We don’t starve.
Andrew Sean Greer: Extremely so. It turns out that talent is not as important as willpower for a novelist. It is like training for the Olympics—you really have to do it every every every every day. Not in one ten-hour caffeine-inspired stint every Friday night. Every day.
Colm Tóibín: I finish everything I start and I always feel guilty about not working hard enough but I am not rigorous.
Daniel Handler: I don’t know what else to do with my day.
Rabih Alameddine: I am not rigorous at all. I am one of the laziest, most undisciplined writers you’ll ever come across.
Mehmet Murat Somer: Not much, recently. Previously I was working in a more disciplined way. Now there are many more things attracting my attention, especially on the Internet. I really should disconnect, even cut off my high-speed connection altogether. With any kind of Internet surfing, I end up either on deep, very specific intellectual details or porn. And believe me, sometimes it’s far more satisfying than the planned five pages.
Nell Freudenberger: I’m pretty rigorous now, but I was much less so when I had a full-time job.
Josh Emmons: I’m very rigorous except when I’m not. Writing every day is a good idea and the goal of hundreds and perhaps thousands of writers, and I subscribe to it in theory, but when it’s impossible—when family or work or traveling or depression or illness get in the way—I forego it and try to forgive myself (as with everything, sadly, dangerously, this gets easier over time and should be kept to a minimum).
Stephen King: Plenty. I’m a fucking drudge.