Friday, May 29, 2009

Michele Zackheim Guest Post: Elena Ferrante and Identity

“I read this novel in one day from cover to cover, forcing myself to take breaks as a swimmer breaks the surface of the water.”
– Alice Sebold

The distinguished American publisher Europa Editions introduced Elena Ferrante to the English-language audience. So far, three of her books have been translated from Italian into English: The Lost Daughter, Troubling Love, and my favorite, The Days of Abandonment.

In the literary realm of what Jane Gardam calls “serious unsensational fiction,” Elena Ferrante stands very near to the heart. And like an intense love affair, she’s challenging to write about. Solitude. Claustrophobia. Forced intimacy. Her emotions climb into one’s body on a broken-down wooden ladder; her language is intense, and flashes of fire lead the way.

I’m delighted to link Ferrante to another author I admire, the Brazilian writer Helena Parente Cunha. I’ve kept Cunha’s novel Woman between Mirrors, published by the University of Texas Press, close at hand since 1989. I had thought Cunha was the only writer who could so successfully and beautifully explore the dismantling, then the restoration, of a woman’s identity. Many others came close, I thought, but not with such lyrical prose. That is, until I read Ferrante’s books.

The conflicting emotions evoked by raising children, the rage and confusion between mothers and daughters, the desperation of being abandoned by a beloved husband--all are explored with great psychological perceptiveness and heart. We ache along with Ferrante, but are also transported onto a path of salvation. We just have to hold on and trust that the writer will figure it out. And she does, like Cunha, evoking great waves of relief and awe. These women invite the reader into their own private rooms, resplendent with luxuriant roses and Venus flytraps.

In Woman between Mirrors, Cunha plays with the notion of the writer’s identity. By contrast, Ferrante continues to hide hers. Ferrante may live in Naples, but maybe not. The truth is, we don’t know who she really is. She has shunned the public and insisted to her publisher that her real identity be kept secret. I suggest that her characters live in a kind of limbo, too--and wonder if this is indicative of the emotional state she’s most comfortable with. There’s a rumor that she’s really the writer Domenico Starnone. But on reflection, I find it nearly impossible to imagine that a man could have the psychological insight to write so accurately in a woman’s voic

“I can’t make fun of the woman who writes me,” wrote Cunha. “I can’t do to her what she did to me.” Happily, the complexity of writing a woman’s life is left to these two remarkable writers, Helena Parente Cunha and Elena Ferrante.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts at Kepler's

"Artfully woven, exquisitely modulated, walking a master’s line between ancient Chinese myth and the grit of immigrant life in the Sacramento Delta, Water Ghosts tells the unforgettable story of a town brought to its knees by loneliness and longing. Complicated, compassionate, haunting, Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel feels more like tapestry than words on paper, her prose less like sentences, and more like song."
Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness

How true! Here is an excerpt from Shawna Ryan's Water Ghosts:

"The startled egrets stretch their wings and lift up like incandescent sheets being shaken to dry..."

And here is Shawna during her May 5th, 2009 visit to Kepler's, talking about her book:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Michele Zackheim: Jane Gardam's Astonishing Fiction

“She’s not one of those writers who’s into publicity. She prefers long walks. She genuinely leads the life of the writer, an interior life.”

Penelope Hoare, Gardam’s longtime editor

Jane Gardam is eighty-one years old and still writing astonishing fiction. In an interview on British television’s Book Show, Gardam was asked if she would consider writing a sequel to her acclaimed masterpiece about Sir Edward Feathers, who is the main character in her novel Old Filth. The TV commentator said she thought that Gardam’s readership wanted more of him. “I finished him,” Gardam said. “He died at the end of the book. But I can’t get him out of my head. I keep getting visions of the old boy in the rain and getting his umbrella and being asked out to lunch on a wet day with his terrible friends. I do like him very much and thought I could have more fun with him.”

So Gardam changed her mind and decided to resurrect Sir Feathers in a book of short stories, The People on Privilege Hill, published by Europa Editions in 2008. “Drenching, soaking, relentless rain. Black cold rain for black cold winter Dorsetshire. Edward Feathers loved rain but warm rain, rain that wetted the pelts of monkeys.” One of my favorite characters was back!

Now readers will get even more of him in Gardam’s lyrical new novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, to be released by Europa Editions in November of this year. We’re all in for a real treat. This story is told from the point of view of Sir Feathers’s wife, Betty. They fall in love after Betty has spent part of the war in a Japanese internment camp. Feathers, called “Old Filth” (Failed in London Try Hong Kong), meets her in Hong Kong and they marry. By the time the novel begins, this unforgettable couple has been married for fifty years.

Jane Gardam began her writing career late. She has said that she was a nervous mother who needed to devote all her attention to her children. However, when her youngest child started school, Gardam “flew upstairs, slammed the door, and off I went.” As far as I can ascertain, she has thirty-seven books to her credit, of which Europa Editions is now publishing its fourth.

“Europa Editions and Kent Carroll,” Gardam said, “have put new life into me and new hope into serious unsensational fiction.” Gardam and I share this view: Kent Carroll of Europa is my publisher, too. Although a small company, Europa Editions is huge in imagination, and I’m honored to share its imprint with a writer such as Jane Gardam.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Michele Zackheim: About BROKEN COLORS

“In oil painting, when two or more pigments of different colors are combined, ‘broken colors’ occur. Here, for example, is viridian,” she said, and she squeezed a bead onto the palette. “See, it’s a bright, pure tone of emerald green. Now, I can create a fake viridian by mixing a blue with a yellow. See? It looks close, doesn’t it? But the difference is that it won’t reflect the red light waves that makes viridian so fresh. You have to remember that to keep colors luminous and vibrant, it’s important not to muddy your palette.” (From Broken Colors.)

For many years I was a visual artist exhibiting in museums and galleries, in both the United States and Europe. Over time, random words began to appear on my canvases . . . then poems . . . then elaborate fragments of narratives. I started to think more about writing and less about the visual world. Finally, I simply wrote myself off the canvas and onto the lavender quadrille pages of a bright orange-covered notebook. That book was titled Violette’s Embrace. It is about the French writer Violette Leduc and is a collage of genres: biography, fiction, and memoir.

My newest book, Broken Colors, is a novel written with a metaphoric paintbrush, or what I call writing from a visual perspective. Writing in this style offered me the opportunity to use my skills as a painter and experiment with vivid color and voluptuous form to create my characters.

Before writing the first draft, I made a psychological and philosophical profile of all my characters, a kind of architecture of their lives. It was the same as making a maquette for a sculpture or a preliminary drawing for a painting. These profiles had an idiosyncratic freedom of movement to them – grand emotional gestures that would eventually be refined and repainted as the book progressed.

Emile Zola said about Eduard Manet: “In beginning a picture, he could never say how it would come out.” I started painting/writing the portrait of my primary character, Sophie Marks, at the beginning of her life, not knowing who she would ultimately become until I got to the end. I was surprised, astonished, and sometimes disappointed by her choices.

For Sophie and the other characters to become full-bodied entities, I had to ask questions that were more and more detailed. I had to look for nuances in their emotional lives. I needed to see them, to hear them, even to smell them before I could begin creating the story. Then they started to come alive. Indeed, Sophie moved in with me. For four years she was woven into my life. Every now and then I would sense her perched on my shoulder. She was telling me what to do. Sometimes her imaginary friend, Stella, was on the other shoulder and they would bicker about a decision I had made in the story. The voices helped me to see my characters as three-dimensional people, rather than flat, paper-doll cutouts. Stella, who is blonde and a bit on the voluptuous side, is dressed in a blue and red and yellow flowered dress that buttons down the front and is cinched at the waist. She wears high-heeled ruby-red leather shoes that match her bright red lipstick. Sophie, on the other hand, is a bit too thin, and might wear 1940s flare-legged forest-green pants with a black knit turtleneck sweater. She has a Modigliani face, with dark hair, pulled back in one long braid.

Sometimes, if I felt vacant of an emotional description, I would metaphorically climb into bed with one of my characters and ensconce myself in a cocoon of imagination. Once I had a turpentine-smelling dream about a painting Sophie had buried; another time I had a dark and gruesome nightmare about the war; another time, when I was sitting beneath a tree in Central Park, I daydreamed about seeing pinkish-yellow dust motes that sparkled and jitterbugged against the light of a morning sky; once I imagined walking into the Paris studio of Sophie’s lover, Luca Bondi, and smelling the strong odor of wood – an unlikely aroma to find in a city; and once. . . .

Like most artists, Sophie and Luca learned to know themselves, both emotionally and artistically, through their visual sense. They naturally experimented with a variety of forms until they found their own perceptual languages. Of course, these forms changed over the years, each change revealing another facet of their beings. For Sophie, geographical location had a significant influence on her art. For instance, at the beginning of her career in England, she would paint and then bury her portraits, petrified about their seeing the light of day. When she lived in the desert, she thought that a part of her sensual self was lost, dried up, ancient. The portraits she painted there were small, jewel-like, reflecting her need to be quiet. But when she moved to the Continent, surrounded by sensual colors and light, she painted the music embracing her, and like an ancient damask silk flower, opened up to love.

The act of placing a brush on a canvas is a physical gesture creating an emotion that is part of a narrative. This gesture is imbued with the same magic as writing down words next to each other, especially if you are writing by hand. The difference for me between the two genres is that I am more intimate with writing and find it more emotionally provocative. I like this. In creating visual work for thirty-some years, I never experienced the same visceral intimacy and immediacy as I do in writing. Painting was more of a physical and intellectual exercise that eventually would weave itself into my consciousness. Writing takes me by the hand and walks with me through the years it takes to make a book.

Now that the book has been published, I have to admit that I miss Sophie and the people in her life. And I still dream about her. She has taken to wearing a cloak of black velvet. The cloak is beautiful; it shimmers when she walks, swings like a bird swooping toward the ground. Although I realize that she is wrapped in approaching death, I continue to count on Sophie to show me the way.

I would be interested to hear from readers about the question of visualizing feelings. For instance, how do you ‘see’ . . . joy . . . emptiness . . . passivity?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kepler's Writing Group May 31, 2009 Meeting

Kepler's May Writing Group meeting is on Sunday, May 31st from 3-5:30 p.m. at Aggie's house in San Jose, or more precisely, Aggie's backyard. She looks forward to our outdoor get together next Sunday and, per Terry's request, assures all that no one will be asked to weed her lovely garden.

Todd's Notes on the Kepler’s Writing Group April Meeting:

My past several visits to the Kepler’s writing group have reminded me of what I miss most from my courses as a graduate student of literature and composition: learning how to better evaluate and interpret writing through the disparate perspectives of other students. Their perspectives, more often than not, deepened my appreciation and understanding of our assigned texts.

This lesson resurfaced its way throughout the course of our last writing workshop, where we focused on three works of composition. For instance, in response to Bob’s Vietnam story, several readers implied that his main character needed to reveal more of an interior self (even if it did seem somewhat embarrassing). To build a stronger sense of interiority for this character, Aggie suggested the technique of developing main characters so that new aspects of their selves evolve on “each page” of their narratives.

Easier said than done…for this technique may seem simple but is actually quite complex. At any rate, it made me think about the importance of this technique given the compressed nature of an effective short story. A short story, like a poem, must be compressed so that neither too much nor too little information is given. Selection and compression is the key, as the short story writer Frank O’Connor would say.

This is the main reason the discussion on Aggie’s story (“Eva’s Room”) appealed to me. The title of her story, in itself, creates a fairly narrow scope in which the interior life of Eva is explored. The character reveals herself, as one reader most aptly implied, through the way she relates to the sensual world of her room and its objects (including her friends).

Such commentary and interpretations, more importantly, were generated in the context of the story being discussed. The process, then, of how insights are generated is the primary reason that writing groups are invaluable; for instance, during our discussion of the third story, Jeanne discussed why one of its central events (the moment when the main character decides to purchase an expensive painting) affected her. Her response, in turn, enabled me to articulate the reason the same event affected me—in that it made me realize how this event (and the painting itself) symbolically structures the story in an important way.

Articulating an interpretation for a story is rarely easy—but it often becomes easier—and much more enjoyable—in the company of other readers and writers—and this is why I look forward to the next workshop for the Kepler’s writing group.

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Writing Soundtrack

My husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, an editor at Jazz Times, and the author of Got a Revolution writes about music. Our house is filled with it. In fact, when we moved from Manhattan to Hoboken, the city's unofficial 6th borough, we had to buy a brickstone that had a basement simply to keep Jeff's music collection. Any CD you want? Trust me, it's in our basement, and if it isn't there, it's in Jeff's office, our living room, the bedrooms--maybe even in the kitchen.

I have to have music when I write. It calms me down, it gives me a time frame (four or five CDs and usually I am ready to take a break) but it drives my husband crazy because when I write, my musical taste tends to be…well, bad. I admit it. When I’m not writing, I love world music and Fado and jazz. I love classical and The Fray and Green Day, and I absolutely worship Leonard Cohen and Eric Costello, but when I am writing, I listen to… the Carpenters. I listen to Billy Joel. I listen to Sonny and Cher or even Elton John. And I need to listen to the same albums over and over and over again, for months at a time.

“Why?” Jeff asks me, pained, when he hears the familiar strains coming out of my office yet again. I know why. I have to have music that has a beat, something that is background, that won’t require me to really listen or to consider it or even like it. In fact, when I am deep in my writing, I don’t even really hear the music at all, other than on some subliminal level. Like Pavlov’s dog, the music I don’t really love primes me to write.

Clea Simon, author of Probable Claws insists she can’t listen to the music she loves when she writes, either. If she does, she doesn’t write. “I need ambient music, like Gamelan or this one great Baroque violin CD, which I play over and over in the background, so it doesn’t get in the way,” she says.

But Binne Kirshenbaum, author of The Scenic Route, writes to the sounds of silence, even though music appears in her novels. “When I get to a part where the music appears, I stop writing and listen to that piece of music to see if it sounds in my ear the way I imagine it sounds in my head,” she says. “The Brandenburg Concertos figure in a lot. So does Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, The Beatles, Blondie and Frank Sinatra.

"I need different things at different times," says M. J. Rose, author of The Memorist. "Music at a stage in the book when I want to fill in the spaces so I don't have to think, silence at the stages when I do."

Last week, I was in the elevator, when a Muzak version of one of my writing songs came on. I swore, if I had had a pen and paper, I would have sat down and started scribbling.

I can't believe this is my last entry. I've had a blast! Thank all of you for reading my blog and for commenting, and I want to thank Kepler's and the wonderful Aggie for giving me this opportunity--and for being every writer's and reader's best friend!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Remembrance of Books Past and Two Contests!

When I was in 8th grade, sick in the hospital with a terrible asthma attack, an English teacher I had a huge crush on gave me something that would prove more important to me than his heart: a book. Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica. While I was drifting on my hospital bed with a respiratory infection, machines whirring around me, my parents hovering, I stopped seeing the drip of the IV or feeling the tightness in my lungs, and instead, I was transported onto a pirate ship, one of a brood of proper English kids. When I left the hospital and was well again, I left every one of my possessions there, never wanting to see any of them again. Except for that book.

As you can see from the photo, I still have the same copy that was given to me. Dog-eared, battered. Recently I reread it, and it still meant a great deal to me. There are some books that do that, and I still treasure them.

Every year, for the whole unhappy seven years of my first young marriage, I made it a point to read Larry McMurtry’s Moving On. I loved it that Patsy, the young, married heroine was always upset and thinking about leaving her husband. I read that book until I actually did what Patsy did in the novel: I moved on, I left my husband. I started a new life. And I took Patsy with me.

know a lot of writers who still have ties to the books of their past. Katharine Weber, author of Triangle and the upcoming True Confections loves the book, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. “I think it's a book that has that primal feeling of a folk tale, with a lesson about judging beauty, and humility. Every time I see a gathering of many cats I think of the lines, 'Hundreds of cats, thousand of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats,'" says Katharine.

Victoria Zackheim, editor of For Keeps  and the upcoming The Face in The Mirror, champions In Henry’s Backyard, by Ruth Benedict. The book is about a racist who becomes ill and needs a transfusion and becomes deeply grateful to get it from a Black man. “I grew up where my family was singled out for being “liberal” and this book was really comforting to me.,” she says.

Sandra Novak, the author of Precious, is a big fan of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. "As a child, I remember being fascinated by "quite contrary" Mary's temperament (she was so dour!), by her loneliness and her abandonment by her parents, first through neglect and then death," says Novak. "I remember thinking how children might not always be happy and how that was okay in this fictional world. It was a book I couldn't put down as a child. I can still conjure the magical feeling I had being in this world, just by talking about this book now. Makes me want to read it again." Beth Bauman, author of Beautiful Girls and the upcoming Rosie and Skate, also loves this book. "I love stories about cranky children," she says.

There is a series of books I loved as a child that I can’t find--which drive me crazy. My mother had loved these novels (and she doesn’t remember the titles) and guided me to them at the Cape Cod library while we were on vacation. There were three books, all about one family, which included Elizabeth, Sally and Pierre, and the books followed them as they grew up, married and had families. I remember being really shocked (I was ten!) at how Pierre ripped the buttons off his girlfriend’s suit when he kissed her, and horrified that Sally ended up alone in a New York City tenement. But I so loved those books because they were so adult for me, so unlike any other book I had ever read. If anyone knows the titles of these books, I will make you a watercolor of a coffee cup and a spoon in return! 

I am also giving away a copy of an anthology I am honored to be a part of: Feed Me: Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image, edited by Harriet Brown.  (My essay, The Grief Diet, is about a toxic ex who would not let me eat, and why grief made me stay with him.) To get this, you don't have to do a thing except enter a comment and say you want it!  First come, first served!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Are you what you write--or read?

You may be what you eat, but are you what you write—or read?

 Hi readers, writers, lurkers, friends, I’m Caroline Leavitt and I am so completely thrilled to be blogging this week for Kepler's. (Every writer and reader knows that an indie store is your best friend and Kepler's is wonderful.) I write novels, I write a book column for The Boston Globe and Dame, I review for People, I write screenplays, I blog  at, I'm on Facebook and Twitter, I'm a senior instructor at UCLA Writer’s Program online—and I read everything in sight, including the back of cereal boxes.

 Because I also write very personal essays, a lot of time people assume that my novels are also personal and autobiographical, and that if you read any one of them, you can truly know me. Hmm and alas. Not quite true.

 Sure I write about things that have broadsided me in life—a devastating illness in Coming Back to Me, open adoption in my latest Girls in Trouble, and about asthma and my phobia about driving in my forthcoming novel Breathe, (2010 from Algonquin.)  But for me, those autobiographical details are really just the background, much like the wash you do on a watercolor painting before you really begin the hard work. As soon as you put a real life event on paper, it changes.  It fictionalizes. The characters stretch their legs and begin breathing on their own. I’m not interested in writing about myself in fiction because for me, the pleasure is losing myself in another person, another world, another situation I’ve never been in and am dying to explore.

For me, writing a novel is really like living another life.  I try to tunnel into every character’s skin until I am as confused or angry or scared as they are (which isn’t always pleasant at the dinner table!) So in that sense, I suppose I am all my characters.  I’m the 16-year-old girl who is terrified and pregnant and wildly in love in Girls in Trouble. I’m the husband in Breathe whose wife has been killed in a car crash three hours from home and has no idea why she had a suitcase in the back seat.  Wasn’t it Flaubert who said, “Madame Bovary, C’est moi?”  And when you read, don’t you slip into the skin of the characters? Don’t you also feel that you are them? If the emotions feel true, if the situation seems alive and breathing, than we are all, if just for a few hours,  Jay Gatsby pining for Daisy—and Daisy weeping over all his beautiful, expensive shirts.

 Leora Skolkin-Smith,  the author of Edges, (now in film development) insists (and I agree with her,) that it’s important to remember that fiction is not reality. “I go inside my life as material to write my fiction,” she says, “I want to invent, not to present it as reality. It’s as Proust said, we can only know our experiences later, in memories or in fiction. ”

But Rochelle Jewell Shapiro, author of Miriam the Medium, thinks a little differently.   “I am what I write,” she says  “Miriam in my novel is me.  Every essay, every story I have written is me. It’s my burning issues that fire me up to write. My novel was about the conflicts I have being psychic: conflicts with family, clients, even myself.”

Recently, one of my son’s teachers asked to read one of my novels.  Thrilled, I gave her Girls in Trouble, hopeful that she might love it, but she returned it, shaking her head, apologizing that she only got to page 50 because it made her too emotional, because it didn’t mesh with her idea of whom she thought I was.  “You’re such a happy person in real life!” she explained.  “So how can you write such dark books?”

 Sigh and alas.

So, I'm very curious now.  Are you what you read or write?  Or just the opposite? 

Meg Waite Clayton: On Getting Published

megGrowing up (isn’t that when most dreams start?), I was a huge reader. I dreamed of writing books like A Wrinkle in Time, but the adults I knew were businessmen—not even business women; the “ladies” were moms and teachers and nuns. Even a girl going to law school was a stretch. My husband, Mac, was the first adult to whom I admitted my childhood aspirations to write, and he gave me a great big push. He said, basically, “Your dream, Meg. How will you ever know unless you try?”

I used to think that to be a published author you had to be able to leap tall literary buildings in single bounds, something I'm quite sure I'll never do. I don't think I bring any unusual talent to the blank page, but what I do bring is an unusual amount of determination. Every writer I know who has gotten published does.wednesdaysisterspbackcoverbenchfinal

I can't tell you how many times I submitted my first novel to agents, and how many times I revised it after getting rejected, before I found an agent to represent it. I actually found three agents in the last round, so those last revisions must have done some good - but not enough, apparently, because the first agent I went with didn't ever sell it. That happened a few years later, after I'd gone back to the drawing board, starting writing stories and essays, and found a new agent.

The first thing I published, an essay in Runner's World, sold quickly. But I collected hundreds of rejection slips for short stories after that. My approach: sumit, revise, submit again. And again. And again.

How did I find an agent? I am a big fan of the cold query. The over-the-transom, you-have-no-reason-to-pick-me-except-that-I-can-tell-a-story approach. I honestly believe every agent worth having dreams of finding a great book, and brings nearly as much passion to his or her dreams as we writers do. If you were an agent, wouldn't you?

An introduction might garner you a slightly more polite rejection - maybe a letter rather than a form. An engaging query letter, though, no matter where it has come from, will find most agents flipping to your first page, and if your first line is engaging, they'll read on. If your work looses their interest at any point, they'll likely set it down - again, no matter how your work came to them. If you're not sure how to write a query or find agents, visit the Writers' Page on my website, and don't miss the goodies in the desk drawers there.

The path to publication for my second novel, The Wednesday Sisters, was not a straight line by any means, either. I left the agent who sold my first novel and found another to represent it, only to unraveled the literary knitting I'd done with him six months later and put my needles to work again, alone. I signed with a new agent - my true-love agent - and even then I went through half a dozen drafts, to get it right.

When it was pretty close to right, it sold quickly to a publisher.

Did I revise more then? Yes, indeed. But when The Wednesday Sisters was published, it hit the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list in its second week out, went into a second printing in its third week, and a third printing in its fourth, becoming a national bestseller, too. Moral of story: revise, revise, revise.

But don't just take my word for it. Visit my blog, 1st Books: Stories of How Writers get Started, to see lots of stories, mostly written by the authors themselves, about how much persistence it takes to break into print. Even Jane Austen faced rejection: it was fourteen years - yes, fourteen! - from the day Pride and Prejudice was first submitted to a publisher until it was published. And it sure wasn't because it wasn't good.

And continue to believe in your work. As Linda in The Wednesday Sisters says, if you don't believe in your own work, how can you expect anyone else to?

Best of luck with your writing!


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Meg Waite Clayton: 2,000 Words or 2:00, and Writing Friends

Writing Group
The history of my own writing starts with a little brown lunch bag. Like the character of Linda in my novel, The Wednesday Sisters, my first writing teacher—at a college extension class—dumped a bag of "interesting things" out over the table and told us to write for five minutes about anything that spilled. She swore we wouldn’t have to read (just as Linda does in The Wednesday Sisters when she’s pushing the sisters to write at the picnic table in the park). Then she called on me to read first.

Which is the good news. If she hadn’t, I’d have ducked out before she could. It had taken all the nerve I had just to get to that class, to admit that, yes, I dreamed of writing novels.

wednesdaysisterspbackcoverbenchfinalTo make a long story short from that point, I’m just going to say it: Ten Years. That’s how long it took me from dumped bag to first novel on bookstore shelves. The thing that kept me going: writing friends.

Much like the Wednesday Sisters in the book, my writing group of four, when we first started meeting, could count among us only a single travel piece in a small distribution magazine. We can now claim seven books published or being written under contract with a major publisher (seven! it still delights me to say that!), and numerous article, essays, stories and poems in print. We all have published now, and we all have agents. Was there something in the coffee where we used to meet in Nashville?

The one thing we've all brought to the writing table is persistence, or what I like to call the absurd ability to believe in ourselves long beyond the time any rational being could do so.

I'll say it again: Ten Years. TEN YEARS. And sadly, I was the quick one. But the good news is that when your paperback comes out with "National Bestseller" splashed across the top of it, you REALLY appreciate it.

My writing routine is pretty simple: I sit down and write, every morning. 2,000 words or 2:00. If I have 2,000 words by 10:30, I can party the rest of the morning and all afternoon. (Although if I have 2,000 words by 10:30, I am staying glued to that chair for as long as that blessing lasts.)

Every morning!


Bobbie retold on this blog a story I tell at readings about how I sat down to write one morning and got up a few hours later with the guts of The Wednesday Sisters - really it was a blessed writing day. But I tell that story not because it was this great moment of inspiration, but because it came on a day when I would rather have been scrubbing toilets, when, if I didn't make myself sit down and write every day, I would not have sat down.

Also, it makes a much better story than the many mornings I sit down and not much comes.

I work mostly on a keyboard, but I start most things in my journal. The beauty of a journal, for me, is that it's not anything, I'm just doodling. It's less intimidating than a blank Word document. For me, getting something started is the hardest part, so I start anywhere I can. I often just write whatever I'm thinking. The journal entry that turns out to be the kick off entry for The Wednesday Sisters starts, literally, with the words, "Feeling incredibly well-run-dry today." A pity party, yes, but also ink on the page. A start.

I have lots more about how I write, the little things I keep around me for comfort and inspiration, and how I research, outline (not just yes, but in several different ways), and revise on the writing page on my website. Click on the desk drawers on the page for tips on how to get started and other resources.

And come back Friday, for a post about publishing. - Meg

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Reader is a Writer: Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters

I was recently tagged on facebook with a "What kind of Book Geek Are You?" list. Although I rarely do the things it appears one is supposed to do on facebook (determine what TV mom I am? give a friend a plant?), I’d been spending days on the same scene in my new novel without too many words actually attaching themselves to the story, and so … procrastination without calories! I thought a slightly shortened version might make a decent introduction of myself as a reader, and who I am as a reader says a lot about the writer in me, too—or the writer I aspire to be, anyway. And what are we, if not our aspirations? That is (I hope) what my latest novel, The Wednesday Sisters, is about. The novel, about readers, writers, and friends, comes out in paperback tomorrow!wednesdaysisterspbackcoverbenchfinal

I’ll post more later in the week about how I write and how I got published, but for today, without further ado, here’s the Inner Book Geek in me:

What author do you own the most books by?
I have six books by each of Jane Austen, Alice McDermott, Sue Miller, Ian McEwan, and Ann Tyler. I have ten novels by Tolstoy, but eight are in a single volume. Does that count as ten or three?

What book do you own the most copies of?
Aside from my own (I just got 36 copies of the paperback of The Wednesday Sisters from Random House), I have three copies each of The Mercy Seller and The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease. She's my best writer-pal; we started critiquing each other's work long before either of us had published anything more than her one travel article, and we now together count six books published or about to be. I drew heavily on our experience together in a writing group for the writing group the Wednesday Sisters form.

Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
They did? I’m actually an ardent admirer of the rules of grammar, but my copyeditor at Random House assures me that the modern novelist needs to be comfortable bending them sometimes.

What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
I do like Will Lasislaw from Middlemarch and Ray from Graham Swift's Last Orders, but my true literary loves are all spunky women: Meg from A Wrinkle in Time, and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.

What book have you read the most times?
Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice.

What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
Since I know how very hard it is to write any book, I'm simply unwilling to trash someone's hard work on a public forum.

What is the best book you've read in the past year?
For the first time? Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl and Michelle Richmond's No One You Know. I've read some great nonfiction, too, including The House of Mondavi and Towers of Gold.

What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
The Wednesday Sisters. (Not for the obvious financial reasons, although I'd spend it wisely, but because movies sell books!)

What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
Are any Shakespeare plays obscure? Obscure, from my dictionary: "relatively unknown." Where do I sign up for Shakespeare-level obscurity?

Do you prefer the French or the Russians?mybookshelves4web

Roth or Updike?

Sedaris or Eggers?

Austen or Eliot?
Both! I love Middlemarch better than any single Austen, but I like all of Austen put together better than all of Eliot.

What is your favorite novel?
Toss up between Middlemarch and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Les Miserables. Although I loved Avenue Q, too, and Wendy Wasserstein.

The poem I return to most often is Elizabeth Bishop's “The Moose.” My favorite passage from it, ending with my favorite lines in the poem:

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus's hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses)…

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

The poem evokes the "sweet sensation of joy" I felt the first time I saw a moose, which was just like in this poem, through the window of a bus late at night when I was a teenager going to canoe in the Quetico. One of the characters in the novel I’m working on now, "The Ms Bradwells," uses it to describe one of her friends.


Tim O'Brien's “The Vietnam in Me.” I carry a copy of it in my journal, which I take everywhere. Whenever I lose my courage as I'm writing (and I do), I take it out and reread it.

And... what are you reading right now?

The answer I gave for this one on facebook was Dead of the House by Hannah Green (for Molly's Kepler's Fiction Group), and Kate Brady's The Mechanics of Falling. I've since finished the Hannah Green (great discussion!) and moved on to Amanda Eyre Ward's Love Stories in this Town. I read about 75 books a year, and I keep a list of recent reads on my website. - Meg

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Shawna Yang Ryan: Asian American Lit

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month--what better time to start dipping your toes into books by Asian American authors?

Though a few Asian American authors, such as Sui Sin Far, Han Suyin and Jade Snow Wong, broke through to the mainstream in the early to mid-20th century, it was not until Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan that Asian American writers gained major attention. While many early works covered issues of cultural/generational conflict and identity, in the three decades since Kingston's Woman Warrior first came out, Asian American literature has flourished. Asian American writers, with strength in numbers, no longer bear the burden of being the single representative voice of Asian America. We are now blessed with idiosyncratic novels covering every conceivable human theme. 

Below are five of my favorites:

1. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This delightful graphic novel entwines three stories--the mythic Monkey King, a sitcom-like plot involving "Chin-Kee," and the adolescent travails of Jin--into a funny and insightful tale of self-acceptance. And you gotta love a book in which the overriding metaphor is a Transformer.

2. Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
Luminous prose. Intriguing themes. Politics. Stereotypes turned literal in intriguing, smart ways. There's so much going on Lee's 1995 debut--it should be on any list of must-read American novels.

3. Donald Duk by Frank Chin
"Only the Chinese are stupid enough to give a kid a stupid name like Donald Duk," Donald says to himself. "And if the Chinese were that smart, why didn't they invent tap dancing?"
Frank Chin's literary career is perhaps outshone by his infamous feud with Maxine Hong Kingston, but that's a shame because Donald Duk, about a 12-year-old boy in San Francisco's Chinatown is a funny and generous (without being precious) account of how he comes to term with being Chinese  American. There are gods and railroad workers and Vietnam Vets--Chin covers big ideas with a light touch.

The first time I read this, I was struck by how... authentic the stories were. Some of the stories in this 1988 collection date back to the 1940s, and I suppose I was expecting something prim in accordance with the times, but instead I found writing surprisingly modern and honest, and without the stylistic tics that sometimes date mid-century writing. As beautiful as the haikus upon which the title is based.

5. Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun
 Joon is a Korean American runaway and Mun's 2008 debut follows her struggle on the streets in precise, heart-rending prose. This book exemplifies my point about new generation Asian American writing--this edgy, smart story is about an American girl--who just happens to be Korean too.

Again, this is just a sampling. There are too many to cover in a single post. Suggest your favorites in the comments!

I'm so happy to have had a chance to share my thoughts via the Well-Read Donkey! I look forward to presenting my new novel, Water Ghosts, at Kepler's on Tuesday, May 5th at 7:30. It happens to be an Asian American book too--about America's last Chinese town, Locke, on the Sacramento Delta. Richard Fong, the gambling hall manager, hasn't seen his wife in ten years. On Tuesday night, find out what happens when they meet in Locke for the first time in a decade....

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Shawna Yang Ryan: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

Perhaps the natural next step after fairy tales (see previous blog) is ghost stories. 

Ghosts too have their own evolution, from energies that gain physical shape only when draped in something material (like a sheet!); to apparitions haunting hallways; to the real-but-more-symbolic ghosts of books like Toni Morrison's Beloved.

It was Beloved that I turned to when puzzling out the ghosts of my novel Water Ghosts. Though I love a good, old-fashioned, moss-draped-oak-tree, gothic-style haunting (and my book's setting, the Sacramento Delta, lends itself well to that), I had a historical problem. I set out originally to write a book about Chinese women in early 20th century America. 

But I discovered that there were few Chinese women during this time because of restrictive immigration laws. I then understood that there was a reason why stories of Chinese during this period tended to focus on the men. 

Water Ghosts is set in Locke, California, an independent (unincorporated) all-Chinese town. During the 1920s, when the novel is set, men outnumbered women 20:1.  That means in a population of 500, there were only 25 women. Many of these women, however, were white prostitutes.

How could I write about the “absence” of Chinese women and show that that absence loomed large, even defined life in Locke? 

The old-fashioned way. Ghosts. 

Ghosts are not only exciting story devices, but also lovely metaphors: placeholders, symbols of the longed-for object -- they are the presence still lingering in our hearts.

Ghosts remind me of the Chinese watercolor technique of "leaving whiteness," in which the unpainted areas become objects-- for example, the way painting a mountain around a stream of blank page can create a river.


Ghosts became a way to approach this historical and emotional absence. Richard Fong is a gambling hall manager who came to the US in 1918. He has worked his way up from a pear picker to manager. He has been separated from his wife, Ming Wai, for ten years, but one day she appears on a boat that emerges out of the fog. This what happens when he first approaches her on the dock as the rest of the town watches:

Richard feels as if they are all witnesses to his own funeral. Maybe he is already a ghost.

But the real ghost stands at the center, next to Manny. A faded, older version of Richard's wife, Ming Wai, whom he has not seen in ten years. 

Ming Wai? he asks. He stiffens at the hope heard in his own voice, the falter in two syllables.

I'm sorry, she says. I don't deserve to look at you. The voice makes sense now. It breaks its way across time and his memory. It is Ming Wai.

However, ghosts don't work just as metaphors without some good eerie haunting to liven up the page! I've tried to throw in the iconic oak tree (called the Hangman's Tree--it has its own ghost), a fog-draped river, well-placed lightning bolts, a thunderstorm, people (?) in dark rooms.

Ghosts are no good without a few goose-bumps.

In  the 1944 Modern Library collection Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, the epigraph, an old Scottish invocation, reads: 

From Ghoulies and Ghosties
And Long-Legged Beasties
And Things that go Bump in the Night,
Good Lord Deliver us!

(The picture of Locke is from the Library of Congress collection.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Shawna Yang Ryan: Once Upon A Time...

In 2003, I was in Taiwan, teaching kindergarten (one among many of my random teaching gigs there). I remember being squeezed onto a tiny chair, the children gathered cross-legged on the floor around me, watching and listening intently as I read "The Princess and the Pea." I was enjoying myself too--there was a castle, mystery, a clear protagonist and antagonist, the "reveal" (to use a reality show term--when the "duck" emerges as the "swan")--essentially all the elements of great story.

And I realized that the desire to be enraptured by story--to be awed and entertained--doesn't end at adulthood. 

So I've found myself returning to the tropes of fairy tales in much of my work. To be honest, I don't know if it's because I hope to engage the reader in a similar child-like-wonder way, or if I just love fairy tales.

What's not to love? After my epiphany at the kindergarten storytime, I read the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen--not the watered-down interpretations--for the first time.

Now, it's said that true fairy tales are dark, but I was not prepared for how dark! Beheaded children baked into pies, girls kidnaped to be married to animals, changelings, husbands faking death to test their wives' affection. The real stuff might not get a PG-13 rating!

The concept of animism pervades fairy tales. Everything--rocks, weather, animals--has a spirit--and through this idea, the writers can cannily depict  human behavior. Take, for instance, Andersen's Darning-needle:

There once was a Darning-needle which thought itself so fine, that it imagined it was a Sewing-needle.

"Mind how you hold me!" the Darning-needle said to the Fingers as they took it up, "or you may lose me, and, if I fall, it is a great question whether I shall be found again, for I am so fine!"

As you might guess, the Darning-needle does get lost--in the road in fact--where a wagon runs over it, to its great chagrin.

Fairy tales, despite their talking wolves and proud needles, offer us real truths.  Apollonius of Tyana phrased it well when he said of Aesop:

...he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.

Thanks Kepler fans! I look forward to guest blogging for the next few days!

Best Wishes,