BETWEEN THE LINES
May 20, 2015
A few days ago, a book group I attend discussed Roxanne Gay’s debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I had suggested the book for the group, and read it for a second time in preparation for the discussion. So I admit I was shocked when the first two comments were, “I hated this book.”
Me, I love this book.
I suppose I wasn’t entirely surprised, because of Gay’s subject matter. AN UNTAMED STATE is about the kidnapping and brutal sexual torture of a young woman who returns to Haiti to visit her parents. It’s not an easy book to read. It’s not a comfortable place to go. So why do I admire it so much?
For one thing, the first sentence is one of the best I’ve ever read in a novel. It sent shivers up and down my spine, hooking me immediately into the story:
“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”
I love that first sentence, because it tells me that this novel is about the fairy tales we like to tell ourselves, but they lie. This young woman will not live happily ever after. I love the book because the bad men – and they are very bad – are young men with hope beating in their chests. This doesn’t excuse their actions, but it certainly deepens the story. I love this book because it’s about the enormous chasm between wealth and poverty and how the fairy tale princess and her family share responsibility for the brutality of that system. I love this book because it’s about the impossible choices people make, and then must live with.
In powerful prose – no one disagreed about that – Gay shows us the tangled and terrible realities of a very ugly class and race system. I love this book because even though the princess doesn’t live happily ever after, she does survive.
Even though we disagreed about the book, it was a terrific discussion. I still love the book, and I love book groups too.
May 8, 2015
My mother wanted it all. She was bossy and demanding, a terrible cook, ambitious and very determined. I’m rather like her, except I’m a better cook. Raising my younger sister and me in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Mom told us that we could have it all, be everything we wanted to be, but she was clearly unhappy in her short stint as a stay-at-home mother. The moment my sister started school, Mom went back to work as a high school chemistry teacher.
Being demanding and smart served her well as a teacher. She taught in my high school; her students loved her. Me, not so much. My friends competed for her coveted lab assistant positions. I focused on English classes and the school newspaper and took chemistry in summer school. Mom stayed late every afternoon after school, as faculty advisor to student groups and to meet with students needing extra time. I learned to cook dinner.
Mom demanded a lot of herself. In her fifties, she returned to college for a Masters and then a PhD and started teaching at a state university. By then, I was out of the house with a family of my own. I was proud of her, but I lived far away and her accomplishments had little to do with me. I worked on feminist issues (reproductive health and abortion and day care), earned my living as a nurse, and co-raised my daughters. My mother retired from teaching and turned her considerable fervor to collecting silver and turquoise Indian jewelry. In my fifties, I decided to write fiction. I took online classes, attended writing workshops and conferences, and then earned an MFA, completed just before I turned 60.
My mother died in 2008, three years before my first novel was published. She never knew that in my own way, I followed the path she blazed. But every time I do a reading from my work, I wear one of her silver bracelets.
April 29, 2015
During the Q&A after a reading last night (thank you, Storrs Library) a woman asked what influence my nursing career had on my writing (I worked for almost 30 years as a nurse and pediatric nurse practitioner). I didn’t have a good reply; I had never thought about it. I answered something about my first novel being about medical/nursing ethics, but beyond that I floundered, saying something general about seeing the world through a nurse’s eyes. I knew there was more, but couldn’t put my finger on it.
This morning, on the treadmill (where I do some of my best thinking), I realized that for me, being a nurse was an odd mixture of empathy and nosiness. In nursing school I was taught that one aspect of my job was to help my patients accomplish the things they wanted done but couldn’t do alone, respecting their individual, cultural and spiritual beliefs. I was taught to empathize, to understand what another person is experiencing from within her frame of reference, to see the world through her eyes.
That’s eerily like my approach to characters; it’s my job to discover who these “beings” are who wander into my brain and take up residence, and helping them develop personalities that serve themselves and the story.
And then there’s the other part: I’m nosy. I like to watch other people and know what they’re feeling. If they won’t share, I imagine it. Okay, there’s more, I like to deconstruct and manipulate those feelings too, but I try to limit that to my characters. So, on the bulletin board over my computer is a large piece of newsprint, covered with the complicated and sprawling family tree of my characters. Yes, the major characters in four novels and over a dozen short stories are all somehow related – by blood or love or geography or circumstance. They’re my literary karass. (For those of you who are not Vonnegut fans, that’s a term he coined for a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner.)
So, to the woman who asked the question last night – I wish I knew your name – let me answer that being a writer, like being a nurse, gives me the opportunity, the privilege, of sticking my nose into the business of others with as much respect and curiosity and skill and love as I can muster.
April 6, 2015
On Friday our local paper, the Hampshire Gazette, published a guest editorial Robby wrote about the strange convergences between Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg, both of whom would have turned 100 this year. I think it’s a gorgeous piece, simultaneously thoughtful and timely.
Our cats didn’t agree.
This morning, the editorial page was shredded, particularly Robby’s essay. We know that Cory (aka Coriopsis) was responsible. He chews paper, while Loopy (aka Lupine) prefers plastic.
Robby’s comment: “Everyone’s a critic.”
It got me thinking about how we handle the promotion – and the criticism – of our work. I’m smack in the middle of the book tour for my new novel; I’ve done thirteen events in the past two months and another two dozen scheduled are through the spring and summer. Today, still unpacking from Texas and starting to prepare for Wednesday’s trip to Minneapolis, I’m both exhilarated and tired, both pleased and always wanting more. Without all the effort of promotion, new books would not find readers. But promotion has a high cost: I haven’t written a word of fiction in weeks, and it will be weeks before I can return to my manuscript-in-progress.
So today, in line with Cory’s breakfast and Robby’s comment, I think I need to take a deep breath, pick up one of the several books I’m halfway through, find a comfy chair, read and relax. If I’m lucky, Cory will curl up on my lap and purr.
March 22, 2015
I got home last night from a six-day, five-city, four-event book tour to Virginia and D.C. The hardest part was sleeping in a different bed every night. There were many best parts, like:
• Meeting wonderful booksellers, like Kelly and Diane at Fountain Books in Richmond, Kim and Rocky at Phantastic Books in Lynchburg, and Anne from Over the Moon Books in Crozet.
• Hanging out with writing buddies from grad school, like Meriah Crawford and Bunny Goodjohn and Ted and Annie Deppe.
• The kindness of strangers, like Gary Dop and his Taproot Reading Series in Lynchburg, like the dedicated volunteers who make the Virginia Festival of the Book so amazing.
• The generosity of old friends, who opened their homes and invited their friends to my readings.
• Talking books and reading at writing with all of the above.
• Meeting new readers, like the woman who bought a book and sent my friend this email later that night:
“So, it's 11:00 P.M. and I Can't Stop Reading. Just wanted to thank you so much for including me in such a special night at Elli's book reading night. ...That's all for now because I'm on page 148 and the hurricane has not yet hit but I hate Tobias and am so proud of Austin and hope Henry emerges as a hero and...okay...I have to go back to reading now...”
It doesn’t get much better.
March 12, 2015
Speaking of torture
I did not set out to write a novel about torture. But sometimes you create a character and fall in love with her. You put her in a perilous situation that gets her into big trouble. So what can you do? You hang in there with her and try to get her out of that trouble. That’s what happened to Gandalf Cohen and me.
Six years ago I was going through airport security when a character jumped into my brain and made her home there. She arrived complete with a peculiar name and an odd profession. I could see her short graying hair and her no-nonsense persona. I imagined her standing ahead of me in the security line. When she stepped out of the TSA scanner, barefoot, a man in uniform escorted her down a side corridor and out of sight.
I had to know what happened to her, so I wrote a novel.
When Gandalf was kidnapped by federal agents I knew little about torture beyond what I’d read in novels, or seen on TV and in movies. All made-up stuff. So I made up some more to write the first draft of the novel and then I did research to try to correct the worst of my errors of imagination. I read THE DARK SIDE by Jane Mayer, and that led me to the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) manual. I wish the Senate torture report had been available when I was trying to get the ugly details right.
Two things surprised me about writing this novel. First, the content transformed my writing practice. I was used to writing in the evening, a habit developed over years of having a day job. But if I sent my imagination to these dark places in the evening, it kept me up at night. It gave me nightmares. So I started writing first thing in the morning and into the early afternoon; I needed several hours of distance between the events Gandalf and I were living in the novel and any successful attempt to relax into sleep.
The second thing that surprised me was my intense curiosity about the bad guys. The torturers. I wanted to know what was going on in their heads. How did they justify their actions? What were their secrets? How did they sleep at night? I went back and reread Edwidge Danticat’s amazing novel, THE DEW BREAKERS, the Tonton Macoutes who tortured and killed resisters in Duvalier’s Haiti. Then I reread the thought-provoking interview with Danticat in The Writers Chronicle, in which she said, “Even if someone is a torturer, you don’t have the luxury of writing him off, of not ‘listening’ to him... Understanding the complexity of a difficult character’s life is most appealing to me as a writer.” It is appealing, but it’s also disconcerting and uncomfortable.
After doing the research, I returned to my novel. I took a deep breath and crawled back into the brains of my characters who did those bad bad things. Not to forgive them, but to understand them, and render them as well as I could to my readers.
It’s been odd timing for a novel about domestic detention and enhanced interrogation: first the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. And then newspaper reports about the existence of a secret interrogation facility in a Chicago warehouse operated by the Chicago Police Department.
After reading On Hurricane Island, or hearing me talk about it, people inevitably ask, “But do domestic detention centers exist? Could rendition and torture really happen on U.S. soil? To an American citizen?”
I’m not an expert. I don’t know if domestic detention centers like the one I made up really exist in this country. I do know that there are historical precedents for their existence, such as the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the targeting and detention of Muslim residents after 9/11. And I know that the scaffolding for detention is firmly in place. Our national narratives about terrorism and the need for extraordinary measures are an accepted part of our culture, normalized by television, repetition, and fear.
As a fiction writer and a citizen, do I think that events like those in On Hurricane Island could happen?
I’m profoundly sad to say that I do.
February 24, 2015
In one week, on March 3, my second novel will be published. The books are finished and printed. My book tour plans are healthy and still growing. I’ve selected a few sections to read at events and practiced them. I’ve thought about the questions I’m likely to hear during radio interviews and event Q&A’s. I’ve figured out a couple of as-dressy-as-I-ever-get outfits to wear at readings.
This week, I’ll be working hard to promote the book, submitting essays, sending out emails and postcards about events, and contacting people who might be interested in the book. But as I remember from the last days of pregnancies, many years ago, I will live in a peculiar limbo of anticipation and excitement and worry and hope. Will this baby come easily? Will she thrive? Who will she turn out to be in the world?
Publishing a novel brings as many unknowns as birthing a baby.
In addition, when you publish with a small press you understand that there are likely to be fewer resources - financial and personnel - to promote your book. You know that will be balanced by the passion that small presses bring to the books they publish, by their energy and enthusiasm. You know also that you will rely on the generosity of friends and strangers in your community of writers and readers.
In this odd limbo before pub date, I’m so grateful for that generosity. I’m grateful to Kate and Mark and the staff at Red Hen Press for their amazing dedication. To my publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek, who answers my emails even when I might step just a little over the off-the-wall-with-stress line. To my buddies at the Odyssey Bookshop, for support and helping me launch this baby. And for all those people – you know who you are – who have offered to read advance copies and write blurbs and reviews, to host house parties and invite their friends, to invite me to their book groups and their neighborhood bookstores. Who will buy an extra copy and put it into a friend’s hand, saying, “you’re going to love this book.”
February 19, 2015
Last week I tackled my writing room – moved furniture, went through files, cleaned and reorganized. I had three reasons for this insanity. First, because my heavy desk was blocking the heat source and with the recent frigid weather, I could hardly type in there. Second, I was running out of file space, even with an embarrassing number of file drawers. Third – and most important – I was trying not to obsess about my upcoming book launch. Not to obsess, not to google the book title repeatedly, not to bother my wonderful publicist (who just might be getting a little annoyed with me).
I’m only half done, but the job is pretty much what I expected. I’m throwing away a lot, recycling a lot, donating a lot (someone might want those three-ring binders, right?) I’m not very sentimental about stuff, but I do have filled a box labeled “Stuff I don’t need, never use, and can’t bear to throw away.”
The most interesting finds are the notebooks. When I started writing fiction fifteen years ago, people told me to always carry a notebook to jot down thoughts and observations and ideas. I rarely write more than a paragraph by hand; I much prefer working on the computer, but still I took that advice to heart. So as part of the clean-up, I gathered those notebooks. There are nineteen of them ranging from big to tiny. Thumbing through them, I found sentences that ended up in a published novel or story, intact, like my friend Irene’s observation years ago – “I didn’t take the interstate for a whole year. I couldn’t merge.” – which a character says in my first novel. I also found terrible sentences, and some interesting advice to myself, like “Too sappy; dark is better.”
I also found twelve new notebooks, mostly presents from friends and family. That is particularly generous, since they know that my always carrying a notebook means it’s even more likely that they’ll end up in a story.
February 13, 2015
I'm just home from Winter Institute, an annual three-day educational, networking, and author-meeting event put on by the American Booksellers Association. I’ve been to other ABA events with co-workers from the Odyssey Bookshop, but this was my first time at Winter Institute, first time as an author, and the first time my publisher, Red Hen Press, attended. This year the venue was the Grove Park Inn, a luxury resort in Asheville, N.C. with amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (There wasn’t room for the 500 booksellers and other guests at the Inn; I stayed at a hotel in town.)
The first time anywhere is confusing. Neither Red Hen managing editor Kate Gale nor I had much idea beforehand about what to expect. “Meet people and be charming,” people advised me. So I made business cards with the jacket design of my new book, and prepared to be charming.
Several things were spectacular, besides the views. One was the galley rooms, where advance reader copies (ARC’s) and finished books were piled on tables, free to Winter Institute participants. Picture that scene: many books, many passionate readers. It was only marginally more polite than sale day shoppers at Filene’s Basement. Luckily, there was an on-site shipping service to send all these books home.
Publishers, large and small, attend to promote their new books and they bring authors to hang out with booksellers and sign books. Those events are in the evening, and they are crowded and fun. There are keynotes and educational sessions for booksellers, and many small gatherings. There is a lot of partying. Literary partying, of course.
Some of the high points, for me:
• Sitting on a rocking chair in front of one of the massive stone fireplaces, working on my laptop and realizing I’m sitting next to the talented and well-known author of a book I just finished reading.
• Seeing my first novel on the shelf of a wonderful Asheville bookstore.
• Meeting booksellers from around the country (the world, actually; I chatted with a fellow from a bookstore in Australia, and another from New Zealand).
• Hanging out with my lovely editor, Red Hen Press co-founder Kate Gale.
• The helpful and friendly folks from the ABA, especially Mark, and Ann.
• Meeting a friend-of-a-friend and making a new friend, the talented and lovely Ann Bauer.
• Watching Kate at the podium, describing my book so that I wanted to read it.
• Signing many, many books and handing them to booksellers; joyfully sending this baby out into the world.
• Feeling part of this wonderful world of books, and the people who write them, read them, promote them, share them with all of us.
January 29, 2015
This morning I read that Beyond the Margins, the wonderful website dedicated to writing and writers, is closing shop. I've loved reading their articles and essays - funny, smart, helpful, inspiring. In homage to them, I'm reprinting below a guest post I wrote for them three years ago. I'm also reprinting it today because On Hurricane Island, the book I was researching in my travels way out of my comfort zone is just weeks from publication (33 days, but who's counting). So, thank you Beyond the Margins, for publishing this essay and for five years of service to writers.
Out of My Comfort Zone: My Trigger Finger
One night, working on revisions my agent requested on my novel manuscript, I realized that my character had to grab a gun and hit someone with it.
Okay, I could accept that, but I couldn’t write it. I’ve never handled a gun. Never even touched one. Never wanted to. And my imagination was balking at coming up with the necessary physical, sensory, details.
So en route to my optometrist appointment the next morning, I stopped in at a gun shop.
The place was a bit of a cliché: on a potholed street in a seedy neighborhood, heavy grill bars in the door, a warning about videotaping taped in the window. The six men inside had military haircuts and significant body heft.
If only I’d brought someone along. At least I had emailed my friend Liz of my plan. Just in case. Even though no one looked at me, or spoke to me, my skin prickled with their frosty attention. The guy behind the counter, a large fellow with beefy arms, ignored me too.
I admit it; I was intimidated.
I’ve been intimidated before doing research for a novel. For my last book I had to learn about house arrest monitors – how they work, what the systems look and feel like, and how someone might circumvent the technology. I asked a favor of a friend’s husband who made a phone call, and a week later I had a meeting with a probation officer at the federal courthouse.
Like Emily Klein, my main character in HOUSE ARREST, I am not at all comfortable with cops or courts. I was nervous going through the metal detector, even just walking by the courtrooms. I kept thinking that someone would put my name in their computer and my 1968 criminal trespassing conviction would pop up, or the misinformation in my FOIA files, where they had so much wrong – putting me at antiwar demonstrations I never attended and missing the places they should have seen. I worried that they would look at me and announce, “Got you. You’re not getting away this time.”
Way out of my comfort zone. But ultimately I was able to use the details of my discomfort in writing that book. And like most other people I’ve interviewed to get background for fiction, the two probation officers were helpful and gracious. I explained that my character had to get out of her ankle contraption for one night. Not possible, they said, but they explained the system in detail and let me touch everything. And while sitting in their office I had the eureka moment of understanding how the plot would play out.
In the gun store this morning, Mr. Beefy Arms was neither helpful nor gracious. After waiting for thirteen long minutes without being acknowledged, I left. Didn’t want to be late for the eye doctor, did I?
Afterwards, feeling braver knowing that my eyesight hadn’t deteriorated, I returned. This time I was the only customer.
“Can I help you?” His arms were crossed over his white tee.
“I’m a writer,” I said in my sweetest voice. “I’m writing a scene with a handgun and have never held one. May I?”
“What kind of gun?”
“I don’t know. A pistol, or revolver. Something a security guard might use.”
“Which one?” His tone was just this side of insulting. “Pistol or revolver?”
I know nothing about guns. And my character isn’t actually a security guard. But I didn’t want to tell him that she was going to hit an FBI agent. Somehow, I didn’t think Beefy Arms would approve. “A pistol,” I decided.
Shaking his head in obvious disapproval, he unlocked the glass case and removed a gun. He did that clicky-click thing they do on television and removed the clip before handing me the pistol.
It was a Smith and Wesson. I knew that because the company name was engraved on the metal. The gun was heavier than I expected. I held it by the grip, my finger avoiding the trigger like poison ivy. Then I grabbed it by the barrel, in the position I imagined my character would use to slug the bad guy.
“That’s not how you shoot it,” Beefy Arms said.
I smiled. “I know, but she’s going to hit someone, not shoot them.”
“Let me educate you,” he said. “If deadly force isn’t required, a security guard would use a baton to hit someone. If you need to use a gun, you shoot. Just saying.”
At that moment I realized two things: first, Beefy Arms might know guns, but I know my story. And second, I was really terrified in that store and had to leave. I had handled the pistol and now I could write the necessary physical details.
“One more thing,” I said, trying to smile. “May I take a photo of the gun?”
He hesitated before nodding.
I took the photo with my phone and then asked, “How about one of you?”
“That’s not necessary,” he said, turning away.
Hurrying through the rain to my car, I could still feel the tiny bumps of the gun grip, how awkward it felt to hold the barrel, the curve of the engraved Smith and Wesson name. I thought about my fear, and realized I have everything I need.