Cradle

Got a soul-mate and/or a best friend? What is it about that person that you love best? Describe them in great detail — leave no important quality out.

Six feet tall. Sandy brown hair, brown eyes. Tiny charming gap between his front teeth and a voice so deep it barely registers to the human ear. Wide shoulders perfectly level at the collarbone. Nose which has been broken at least once and gives him a profile fit for the head of a coin. Thick forearms. Big strong hands, perfect for opening stubborn jars and fiddly things like bra straps and children’s toys.

He’s good, that’s the main thing. A good man. Every characteristic that phrase evokes in my mind is personified in my husband. He’s the better half of us by far—kind and strong and straightforward, with patience for everything but bullshit. What he sees in me is hard to fathom, though I suspect our marriage satisfies the caretaker in him. I’m a mess and he likes that. He knows how to fix me.

65383a6b09b07693ed7e7bb2fd337231Lately I’ve taken to driving out to see him when his truck is nearby but too far to make it home. We have dinner and talk about things, and we go back to his rig where it’s dark and the music is good and where we can feel like teenagers and really be alone. That’s how I know it’s him, for me. Because I crave the time alone with him more than anything else in the world. People say it’s ridiculous to dream of living in an Airstream trailer, traveling about, that you’d get sick of each other and would want to spread out or at least accumulate a few possessions. But I could happily exist that way with him. When I think of what I want for today and forever, it’s the two of us in a tiny home like a cradle, and the wind at our door rocking us to sleep.

That may be the world’s smallest dream or one too big to ever come true. But I believe in it and I believe in us. After all, in this world of billions, we found each other. What could be luckier than that?

Red Lines

We all feel down from time to time. How do you combat the blues? What’s one tip you can share with others that always helps to lift your spirits?

Gin?

Sorry, low-hanging fruit, but then I’ve never been much of a one for the sort of plucky affirmation that seems to be called for here. I’m more of a wallower. I get quiet, withdraw, and wait it out, and I try not to inflict damage on myself or anyone else during the down time. I don’t attempt to talk myself out of what I’m feeling. Periods of melancholy are part of life and struggling against them is like trying to free yourself from quicksand.

That said, what has always helped me manage depression is work. I can’t write new material when I’m down, but I can edit like a motherfucker. All those ruthless little murders of paragraphs and scenes, all those red, red lines where my writing used to be—my bullshit detector works like a dream when fueled by self-loathing. Over the past two months I have rid my manuscript of every sex scene and a boatload of navel-gazing dialog. I’ve identified a shiny new collection of writerly tics. I’ve metaphored my simales, -ed’d my -ings. I’ve jettisoned some of my more fanciful ideas in favor of a straightforward approach (just tell the story, for fuck’s sake, Averil), and I think the book is stronger for it.

Construction over destruction, that’s what I’m trying to learn. Use what you have and get on with it.

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always gin.

Zig-Zag

Do you believe in fate or do you believe you can control your own destiny?

This question seems to imply that one or the other of these is true. I suppose an argument could be made for certain theories of time that suggest past, present, and future exist in some cosmic location already, and only consciousness is fluid. Maybe everything happens for a reason and the reason is that the future requires it. A scientist might be able to apply a theory of space-time to a life philosophy in a way that makes sense to her.

I am not a scientist. I’m an atheist, a pessimist. I don’t believe I control my destiny and I don’t believe in fate. I think you are one of a billion ping-pong balls bouncing around a crowded room. Your path is never straight, it’s beset by obstacles seen and unseen and sometimes internal. I’m willing to be convinced that the zig-zaggy track already exists and you are simply riding it, but I don’t think it follows that anyone is steering. We are small and unimportant creatures except in our imaginations, which are wider and darker and more mysterious than the cosmos. This seems to be an alarming thought to most of us. We prefer explainable things and the illusion of control. Understandable, but, to me, unsatisfying. I don’t like philosophical constructs cluttering up my head. There’s enough shit in there already without adding a concept like fate to the mix.

This prompt has made me grouchy. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s will be better.

Amber

What are the three most memorable moments — good or bad, happy or sad — in your life? Go!

I’m not sure a life can be distilled to a top three this way. I have three children and I remember each of their births in vivid detail—except for my daughter’s actual delivery, during which I was unconscious. I remember my father’s death. The love in my husband’s face when we took our vows. The main events loom large because of the importance we place on them at the time, and the way we return to them over the years.

But my most persistent memories are of small things. I remember standing on the sidewalk as a young child, looking out at some distant traffic from the busier road at the end of our street. It was the first time I made the connection that those cars were not toys but vehicles belonging to other families, that other people got in them and drove around like we did. This was the first time I experienced a thought of the wider world and had an inkling of our place in it. A tiny moment, but it has become fixed in my mind like an insect trapped in amber.

I remember arriving at my boyfriend’s house after school one day when we were about thirteen. He had a German Shepherd named Zada whom he loved to tease. When we got to the door, he started pounding on it and shouting, laughing, working the poor dog into a frenzy. Finally he opened the door and stepped aside (?!), and that dog shot out of the house and knocked me flat on my back. She bit me hard just above the breast, which was such an awkward and horrible place to attend to that I pretended for the rest of the afternoon that I was fine and hadn’t been bitten at all.

He did say he was sorry afterward. To which I say, Boys!

I have a collection of memories, as most women do, of men doing bizarre and sometimes frightening things in the pursuit of their own brand of happiness. The first of these came around the time of the Zada incident. I was on my way home from a walk-a-thon. I’d been walking all day and felt so pleased with myself that I decided to walk all the way home as well. About halfway down Eastern Avenue, a motorcyclist stopped to ask if I wanted a ride. He was easygoing about it when I refused, but set himself in my path, hidden off the road in a drainage ditch where he made sure I’d see him jerking off as I passed. I remember how slowly my head turned when he called. The reluctant sideways slide of my eyeballs, the gravitational weight of my skull on its axis. And I remember this odd sense of inflation at the fear and panic. Lightness, numbness. I couldn’t feel my legs when I took off running.

Flash forward ten years to the guy who stripped down unbidden in my kitchen. He was so casual, like, I’m going for a beer, TA-DA! The full monty, baby, whaddya think of that?

I think you need to get out of my apartment, freak. I am scarred for life.

The Ladder

How do you feel about your job? Do you spring out of bed, looking forward to work? Or, is your job a soul-destroying monotony of pure drudgery, or somewhere in between?

First of all, I think we need to give the Daily Prompt a proper name, so that at times like these I can say, Oh, [insert name], how well you know me this fine Monday morning. Are you looking into my soul, [insert name]? Do you feel my pain?

I’m sure something will come to us. Back to the question.

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

I don’t hate my job. My coworkers are nice, and I like our patients—except for one guy, the only patient in the history of patients who requested a printed copy of our 13-page privacy statement and wanted to know what temperature the ice should be when he puts it on his knee. I treat people like that to my patented what-the-fuck stare and make furious notes on post-its as soon as they leave the room: nervous tic, nails bitten to bleeding…suspicious for hairspray…either a jackrabbit lover or the kind who keeps a running checklist in his head and becomes annoyed when at step four she doesn’t respond exactly the same way to exactly the same performance of cunnilingus…it used to work…it used to work, goddammit…

A job means survival and the detritus of the job is fodder. I was cursed by unfocused creativity and a profound unease around institutions of higher learning, none of which is helpful if you’re trying to climb the ladder. So I take what I can get and try not to complain. Life is a series of choices and mine have led me here. And I’m pretty happy, which is the end goal after all, right?

Nightbird

What kind of sleeper are you? Do you drop off like a stone and awaken refreshed, or do you need pitch black and silence to drift off to dream?

I drop off just fine. It’s staying asleep that’s the problem. Last night I woke at 3am after a dream in which I had an incurable cancer and was trying to round up a back-up writer to finish my book in case I couldn’t get it done in time. (All of you were like, Forget it, Averil, you’ll just have to write faster.) It was a sweet dream, in a way. I was being very brave. I remember my mother bringing me a goose-down pillow and complimenting me on my stoicism in the face of certain doom. But then, of course, wide awake hours before dawn, my thoughts turned back to Blackbird and my real-life deadline, and after flopping about on the bed for an hour (always counter-clockwise, round and round like a pig on a spit) I managed to sneak in another few minutes of sleep before waking again at 5:30. Pretty typical nighttime behavior on my side of the bed.

Now I’ve got coffee. A couple of clicks to open my manuscript and I’m back to work. Clearly I’m going to have to finish this fucker all on my own.

Birds

Today is the first day of the rest of my…year. I put my hand in the grab bag, and came up with this:

What are your thoughts on aging? How will you stay young at heart as you get older?

Physically, of course, it’s a bitch. Decades of gradual bloating followed by a slow-motion collapse, until all that’s left is a slip-slidey fabric of skin over swollen bones, white wisps of hair, a querulous voice and a myriad of maladies. It’s what’s in store for all of us if we’re lucky enough to survive to true old age. My grandmother looked like a baby bird at the end, so small in her twin-size bed.

But the physical decline has some payoffs. As a young woman, I felt intensely visible at all times. I could tell on eye contact whether I had achieved some pleasing effect, or hadn’t, had met with approval or scorn, had chosen too high a heel or too low a blouse or had given up trying and was lurching into frump territory—an unforgivable offense. I had a shifty sense of self. I lived as a reflection in other people’s eyes.

As I get older, I feel those reflections fading. They have to, because people really aren’t looking anymore. I’m not saddened by that; in fact, there are times when I find it thrilling to be physically uninteresting. It means I have to rely on my mind, which is where I am most at home. I’m slowly being released from the burdens of sexuality, physicality, attraction. All the energy I used to spend on my face has been diverted to my head, and I fucking love that. My opinions matter to me now, at least as much as anyone else’s. I take judgement with a salt lick and I’m more likely to consider the source before I feel ashamed for having fallen out of favor. I am the authority on my own page. I say what I mean. And I move through the scenery now in a state of translucence, barely visible, light and free in my skin.

My fading, velvety skin.

New Curtains

Time for a new format around here. A new project. Starting tomorrow and for the next 365 days, I’m going to let go of control, embrace creativity, and hold my own feet to the fire. burnett2_custom-19b0ae267317ecfb02d88a4047ed975945372b93-s6-c30

Which is a grand and self-important way of saying that I’m going to do a year’s worth of daily blog prompts, because I’m fresh out of things to write about, because I need a big fucking spur to the ribs, and also because I think it will be fun—until about day 38, at which time I will be ready to gnaw off a limb to free myself. Just thinking about the upcoming angst makes me feel all artsy inside.

Not that I expect you to be knotty with anticipation for the upcoming shenanigans. I only mention it in case you wonder what the hell is going on around here, why the questions are coming at the beginning of the post instead of the end and why your inbox is suddenly full of Averils. To which I say, I’m sorry, I love you, please join in the chatter only when it works for you.

See you tomorrow.

Empty Boats

Writing, writing, sitting in the bed (deck chair on the Titanic?), writing. Our mattress is concave, two shallow graves side by side, a small hump in the middle. Drew’s side is empty now, as it often is. I think he’s in Montana. Billings, or Butte. Someplace cold. Someplace not-here. To compensate I’ve covered his half of the bed with books and the cast-off clothes I wore today, my bra doing that weird empty thing with the cups all crumpled and sad. My headphones are over there. My e-reader. On his nightstand is the wooden box I got him at an art fair years ago, where he keeps his coins and pocketknife, folded-up receipts he’ll never need, a flash drive, an old watch. I’m wearing his shirt that smells like him, and sometimes I shuffle around the house in his rowboat slippers which slide around my feet in a reassuring way. Big shoes to fill and I can’t. He’ll have to push his feet in there and his shoulders into this shirt, and make the bed go down on one side so that it rolls me to him, and warm the house again by body heat alone. Three more nights until he’s home. In the meantime, I’m sleeping with the extra pillow between my knees.

What does your love leave behind?

Photo by Hedi Slimane

Photo by Hedi Slimane

Reel to Real

This morning I outlined three new scenes, with notes on setting, stage direction, scraps of dialogue that I know I want to incorporate. This is how I get my pages near the end of a project, when I’ve gotten past the what and have moved on to how. I plan the final scenes beforehand and don’t start the real writing until I can see the action in my head, until I can feel the body I’m writing from as if it were my own. This, then this, then this, no this. The reel goes forward and back, changing a little each time, until it plays out smoothly from beginning to end. I ask myself shrinky questions: What does everybody want? Why does it matter? Is this a bullshit scene that I’ve set my heart on because it’s pretty? Can the story do without it?

Tell me one thing? A writerly tip?

Broads on Broadway

For anyone in Portland tomorrow night, please come see Suzy Vitello and me at Broadway Books. It won’t be all smut-talk, I promise. Suzy’s book, The Moment Before, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and it’s wonderful.

7pm, March 11. Be there or be square.

(I know. I can’t believe I said that, either.)

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth. And no, that's not what we're wearing to the gig.

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth. And no, that’s not what we’re wearing to the gig.

Misfire

I’m in a state. Thrilled with myself one moment, ready to stick a pen in my eye the next. I have finally tackled the structure problems with Blackbird but am now confronted by everything else that’s wrong with the fucker, along with my complete inability to rise to the occasion. I can’t sleep, except when I’m supposed to be writing. Can’t eat, except by shoving salty things in my face while hypnotized by my pages. Ninety-two came out so pretty I want to frame it; ninety-four makes me want to throw myself in a reedy lake. For fun, I read five-star paeans to the latest serial killer formulary, and one-stars thrashings of Julian Barnes and Alice Munro. (Boring! Deflationary! Not my cup of tea, darling, I take it with cream.) It’s all bullshit. Every opinion is a whim. It’s not possible to know whether a thing is good or is not, only whether it works for the moment, whether it passes through the tangle of neurons in a pleasurable way or encounters obstructions, triggers a misfire, teeters at the edge of a gaping hole. What the fuck is writing, anyway, but a fireworks show of rerouted synapses?

What are your symptoms?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

The Well

Weird the way we shut down sometimes, isn’t it? I wish I had something to tell you—there’s plenty going on in the world and in my life, but I have become so mired in self-loathing that I can’t seem to pull myself together long enough to let the words peep out. This is depression, deep dark well of it, and I’ve just got to be quiet for a while until I can locate some handholds and pull myself out.

Photo by Gregory Crewdson

Photo by Gregory Crewdson

So I will tell you again about some things I noticed, because words are soothing when you aren’t using them to explain yourself:

I see chimneys exhaling through the columns of trees, plumes of unfurling steam, white and then gray and then gone. Car-breath is the same, and the breath of people and pets and probably even warm little squirrels, only their lungs are too small to reveal it. I saw a plane touch down with its row of tiny windows, and behind each window is the child of some faraway mother, all of them cupped in a long silver palm and gently set down upon the tarmac. My own daughter on the curb, and in the car, and in the kitchen, and in my arms. Blue chipped fingernails, blue-green eyes. A freckled nose, a spongy cheek. Chickpeas, raisins, pine nuts, kale. And this morning, all the different lights: soft-box sky, tungsten bulbs, streaks and squares of highlight and a long curving ribbon of it along the fluted bowl on my desk. Wells of shadow where the light has retreated. Or has been blocked. Or is resting, maybe, until things shift around and it’s safe to come out and glow.

What shuts you down?

Slow Dance

Some things I saw yesterday:

  • A form we give our patients, returned with all the appropriate numbers circled for rating the function of the afflicted hand, but with the circles jagged and tenuous as kindergarten stars.
  • Two holes in the knees of a pair of black leggings.
  • Miso soup, separating, then stirred to reveal cubes of tofu and concentric circles of bright green onion.
  • Small hand pressed to a glass door, leaving a perfect, sticky starfish-mark at knee height.
  • A man who talked and talked and slowly talked, whose mouth began to resemble the jaws of a guppy. Opening, closing, opening, closing, as if the words were water and he was trying to swallow them back.
  • Pine trees slow-dancing in the wind.
  • (Debris from tree party on the hood of my car.)
  • Fans of water bursting from a black road, lit in yellow and red, disappearing like fireworks into the darkness.

What did you see?

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Mayo

I’m on the pony, on the pony, on the fucking pony. In other words, writing. Words all strung out and dopey, gnawing sleepiness, circular walks over familiar territory, chanting open sesame from the inside of a locked room. Someone recently called me weird—and not even my writing, which is par for the course, but me personally, with an implication of otherness: We are here being normal, you are over there being weird. Just stand where you are while we get the name tag printed up. And I thought, well, point taken. I’m quiet and crookedy-faced, and I eat weird things like chickpea sandwiches and lentil stew. I dress funny and make references that nobody understands and rarely see the point of a joke. I blush if any person looks in my direction but drop bombs on the page like mama never bought me a ten-dollar word. I spend most of my time talking to imaginary people and get my nicks at the five-and-dime. My haircut’s bad and my socks don’t match. Also, my dog has legs that look like flippers. Which is more cute than weird if you ask me; you could dye her pink and send her right off with Cindy Lou Who.

There’s an elderly patient who comes in to our office with her sister. The first day she showed up with a snarly bird’s nest on the back of her head, swimming in a pilled-up cardigan and fuzzy slippers which had gotten soggy from the rain. She could barely walk, and made no conversation. The next visit, her hair had been more or less smoothed out—with mayonnaise, she said, which is something good to put on under a wig or plastic bag while you sleep. Her hair had gotten into a snarl because she was tossing her head in pain for two days following surgery, but the mayo had worked a miracle. (A Miracle…Whip? I said, to hoots of laughter.) Your hair will look great and you’ll smell like a sandwich! she cried, and gave me the sweetest smile, peg-toothed and conspiratorial, while her sister stood ready with the next beauty secret on how to make a facial mask from a day-old egg.

What’s your weirdness? 

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

The Locked Room

Blackbird 2.0. I spent the weekend mapping out a new outline and got a start on the writing, beat down yesterday morning’s panic attack over the looming deadline, and woke this morning with an unambiguous directive in my head: simplify. The structure of this work is becoming increasingly complex, with a third-person, backward-moving timeline spanning several years, and a new first-person narrative detailing the events of a single hour, weaving through the middle of it. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it, too. Why do you imagine I’m awake and lathered in sweat at 3am every day?)

The only way to make this story work is to simplify anywhere else I can. Strong visual cues leading in and out of the scenes, a tight cast of characters, and a clear premise—which hasn’t been clear until recently. But as I started restructuring I began to see the point of the story as revealed in all the neat little dovetails where the twin narratives intersect. Each time I found one, I thought, Oh, and you were there all the time. How is it I didn’t see you?

This, I think, is the most sublime aspect of writing. It’s realizing that your subconscious has been at work all along, weaving its story under the surface, waiting for your conscious self to wake up and discover it. What relief there is in knowing that despite the day-to-day floundering and angst and despair, you still are your own best and truest ally. You are quietly writing even when you’re not, even when the work seems like a horrible muddle, even when you think you’re writing about something else. You don’t always listen and you can’t always hear, but the message is in there. You to yourself. An echo in a locked room.

The clip is obliquely to the point of the post, and is also my unsubtle way of steering you toward this show. This haunting, poetic, mesmerizing show.

If you could describe in physical terms the room of your mind, what would it look like? How is it furnished? What are the colors. What music is playing, what floors are underfoot, what have you pinned to the walls?

Smooches

Ahh. I just got off the phone with my editor at MIRA. She’s read the new draft and has walked me through her ideas for revision. The chick is brilliant. She managed to give me a shitload of homework that I can’t wait to do.

Who’s the best source of feedback for your work?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Doldrums

I haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been depressed, I suppose, though it’s hard to tell. I recognize the bigger fiery emotions, but this slow coldness is harder to name. Could be the winter doldrums, or low-level angst about my job, or diminished expectations, or grief. It doesn’t matter really. We feel what we feel until it passes.

It should be something to write my way through, but I’ve been obliterating the words on impact. It’s a side effect of publication, this apologetic feeling for having disturbed people with my unpleasant, unromantic little book. What courage I had while writing came from the notion that my work would never see the light of day. There was comfort in that, and freedom. Writing for strangers requires a new kind of courage, the kind that stands you upright in your skin and says to the world: I don’t give a fuck about who I’m supposed to be. This is who I am.

Here’s where I’m supposed to issue platitudes about how it’s worth it to have opinions of your own. How it can be done. That all you have to do is ignore this group of people or that one, put your sunglasses on and dance like nobody’s watching. But try opening your eyes to look around and you’ll find it’s not so easy. Your moves are bound to get a little jerky. You feel puppet-like and insincere. You might feel compelled to leave the dance floor altogether, save yourself the humiliation, escape the hoots and booing and back right out of the room. It takes courage to endure the rotten tomatoes and still more to scream out Bring it! when you’ve seen what the crowd is packing. Courage, to look yourself in the eye and realize that you actually are a shitty person but that even an asshole like you might have something to say.

The truth is, I’m not so sure it is worth it. These things are relative. What I do know is that I’m working up to a third book and facing the usual array of choices, so I come to you with a question. I’d like to be clear that this is not a reflection on my current state of mind—I’m simply having a bad few days. Really it’s a question for all of us, and what we’ll endure for an equivocal dream:

If you knew that publication would break your heart, would you still seek it?

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Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

 

Diorama

When I was at my mother’s house last weekend, we got to talking about the objects we live with. My mother, ever the caretaker, loves antiques and considers herself personally responsible for their well-being. My sister likes a feathered nest, but enjoys a good purge every now and then in order to keep the clutter under control. I could happily live in a nunnery, provided there were books available, and…well, men. So maybe the convent is out, but the idea of a spartan environment enchants me. When our last chick has flown the coop, Drew and I are planning to go small. Motor home small. Or small like this:

pump-house-1Narrow floors, huge windows, green space all around. I do like a bit of kitsch, so I’d throw in a turquoise chair and maybe a couple of stripey orange pillows, but not much more than that. I want to live inside my head, with a tight, glossy shell around it to keep the thoughts from escaping. I want a footpath from the house to the woods, from the woods to a lake, and a wide circle back again to that bright diorama on a patch of jade-green grass we can call our own.

Looking back, though, over the past ten years, I’m not sure we’re any closer to this particular dream. We overcame the big hurdle of leaving Las Vegas and reestablishing ourselves in the Pacific Northwest, but after that I think we ran out of steam. I’m back in an office, Drew’s driving a truck; we’re both still walking the treadmill and getting nowhere fast. We wouldn’t have the down payment for this bit of land or for a motor home or anything else if an opportunity arose, and money is so tight that it seems unlikely we’ll be much further along five years from now unless we adjust some things and formulate a plan.

Luckily, we have become hotshot plan-makers during the course of our marriage. And my darling is home for the moment, asleep in the bed. It’s the perfect time to pounce and wake him up with questions from out of the blue: Where do you see us in five years, honey? Can we start now with the baggage-shedding and money-saving? Would you like a house on wheels or foundation? Woods or meadow? Built from scratch or old and creaky? Do you— What? You want to wake up before this life-altering conversation? Well, alright. But I’ll be back! 

Do you feel your goals getting closer or further away?

Macaroni Art

I don’t write much about my family, here on the blog or anywhere else. Part of that is due our smallness, the tight-knit, tight-lipped nature of us and the way we interact as a group. We are fiercely protective of each other, careful of our secrets and inextricably intertwined. But more of it is about the nature of me as a writer. Even beyond the sexual content, my writing is intensely personal. It’s my psyche on the prowl, creeping around the corners and standing with an eye pressed to the peep-hole, the better to report back about what goes on in the red-light glow of the back room. It’s no place for children, or mothers, or birdlike grannies in flowery chairs. There are better writers for those stories. You’d want to start by being the type of writer who could sign her own name to her book.

So it’s strange now to see readers speculate about my family, and my mother in particular, to whom I dedicated my first book. Maybe it was an odd choice, given the nature of the story. I get that. But publishing is a fickle business, and I may never have another chance to dedicate a book to anyone at all. I chose my mother because she loves me. Because she understood how to raise her dark child alongside her bright one. (She told me once that she always felt she had to hold my sister physically; me, she held by the mind.) I chose her because she values me and my work even when her understanding is tenuous, even when it upsets her, even when she worries. Because she gave me a happy childhood, and is loving and kind in that essential mama-lion sort of way: she’ll let the cubs climb all over her, but rip the eyes out of anyone who thinks we’d make a good lunch. Because she gives me courage. And solace. And acceptance. Because we are simpatico.

And because, when all’s said and done, I will never stop bringing her the macaroni art.

Have you written the dedication for your book? Who and (if you like) why?

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Raggedy Alice

One week. Alice Croft is out there now, being loved and hated. Judged, along with her creator, for what she’s done. Readers are trying to get a handle on who this character is and what point of view she represents—and they’re trying, I think, to like her.

This last effort is probably a mistake. As Lionel Shriver points out:

Readers often get approval and affection confused. Countless book-club denizens have denounced Kevin’s narrator for not having taken her wayward little boy to see a therapist. (Why didn’t she? A cultural outsider, Eva would never take her kid to a shrink just because other Americans would, and her husband Franklin doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with the boy.) Another reader penned her indignation that Eva buys an animal from an “endangered species” for her daughter. (FYI, friend, the elephant shrew is not endangered; it’s simply unusual for a pet.) Another correspondent was incandescent that two characters in my eighth novel, The Post-Birthday World, order foie gras, and she fiercely disapproved of force-feeding ducks. All these readers are groping for moral justifications of an elusive emotional recoil that is harder to explain.

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Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

The people we like in real life are those of whom we approve: nice people, good citizens, or at least with such a wicked sense of humor that we can’t resist them. That’s not to say our lives are populated only with saints, just that the friends we seek out tend to share our morals and care enough about society that they’re willing to participate in a positive way with the rest of us. We don’t deliberately surround ourselves with people who drive us batshit.

But the kind of fiction I like to read and write is full of characters I would not befriend in real life. Borderline characters, on the margins of society. Trouble-making, unhappy, friendless creatures, lacking in social skills and carrying bricks on their shoulders, the better to club their fellows senseless should anyone get too close. I want to be angry and worried and fearful and heartbroken when I read. I want to recognize the darker, unsettled parts of myself in fiction, so I can grapple with them between the safety of the covers.

Other readers want to fall in love. And I get that. Everyone reads for a different reason; it’s one of the happiest aspects of our community. I’m grateful that there’s room, though, for the raggedy Alices of the world. I’d hate to deny myself the pleasure of pain.

Unattractive characters. Who are your favorites?

Crawlspace

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Photo by Todd Hido

Where to start? I’ve got a draft out with my editor and too much time on my hands. I want to be writing, so I’m bingeing on movies and reading and jotting things down. I’m after a feeling. A particular mood. It’s not about the story right now or even the characters, it’s how do I get the hard-on? What do I need to see, feel, think about to get into that place? What’s my wank material gonna be this time? Revolutionary Road comes to mind, and Blue Valentine, and The Place Beyond the Pines. I’m searching for that dark, tight, unhappy crawlspace in my head where I can hunker down and carve. I’ve got my Todd Hido collection. Avedon asylum pics. Mary Ellen Mark. Pablo Neruda. Gillian Flynn and JCO. I’ve got work angst, money shortage, a sky full of crows and the still, silent pines like a spiky fence around my house. It’s getting dark in here. Time to put the red light on.

What’s your literary wank material? Aka: inspiration.

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