Friday, June 26, 2009

Clea Simon: On the internal editor

“Bash it out now. Tart it up later.”

This has become my mantra since my buddy and fellow writer Brett Milano first passed it along several years ago. The phrase originates with pubrocker Nick Lowe (who also penned the deathless “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?”), he tells me. All I know for sure is that those eight words have saved my writing life.

Bash it out. That’s the essence of this advice, and the reason it is key is that this is the single most difficult part of writing. Bashing it out. Getting the words on paper. Putting word after word to make a sentence, a paragraph. A scene.

Apply butt to chair, I frequently tell prospective writers. Start typing (or scribbling). Just (to paraphrase a shoe ad) do it. That’s the first hurdle, the threshold into being a writer. And it is both high and hard to overcome.

Why is this simple first step so horribly difficult for so many of us? I blame the internal editor. Face it. There is nothing so wonderful as the book you are about to write. We are dreamers. Storytellers. Idealists – or we wouldn’t want to write at all. In our heads, before we’ve committed anything to paper, our ideas are quicksilver. Starlight. Translucent. But as soon as they appear in the light of day, they become fixed in the physical world with all that implies: They become leaden, earthbound. Not fun. It’s a terrifying transition from limitless possibility to concrete immobility, and it is enough to freeze up even the most experienced author. Whatever we write cannot compare to what we imagine. And so to our internal editors – our writing superego or our internalized mothers or high school teachers – it isn’t good enough. We aren’t good enough. And so we don’t write.

We tell ourselves that we are writing. That we are just searching for the right word. The right phrase. The opening scene that will spark everything off. But in truth we procrastinate. We fiddle. We cook. When I’m trying to start a project, I do more loads of laundry than a two-person household demands. I know this about myself now and accept it as part of my process – and then, I sit down and start the work.

Because if we are going to write, if we are going to be writers, then at some point we have to do the deed. We have to actually set words down and build them up, scene by scene, into something that others can read. We have to overcome the horrible, crippling doubt and dare to make it real.

Over the years, I’ve learned various techniques to get me over the threshold. One of those is, of course, fear of deadline. When you earn your rent by what you write, fear is a great motivator. This often works for students, too, and explains why so many assignments are penned only hours before deadline. This fear can be useful, and I confess I’ve allowed myself to wallow on occasion on a more nebulous, existential variety: Maybe I don’t have any more books in me. Maybe I’ve done it all and should simply teach full-time or take up PR. For while there is absolutely nothing wrong with either profession, the idea of not writing terrifies me – and gets me back to work.

I’ve said before that I believe the ability to write is like a muscle, and keeping the muscle in shape helps, too. All those years doing journalism have given me some fall-back techniques – surefire “ledes” to start a story that I can use in fiction, too, if need be. I’ll also assign myself fairly arbitrary word lengths – say, 1,000 words a day – and make myself do them.

But basically these techniques only work because of the second part of the mantra, the “tart it up later.” I can use a hackneyed device (“start with a quote”) or bash out 1,000 words of transitional sentences because I know I can fix it later. I tell myself that in a month or two, whenever I have a draft, I can choose to rewrite the entire work – or toss half of it. I can bash it out now, because (as I remind myself), I will have the opportunity to tart it up later. That’s the promise I make myself and to my internal editor. In exchange, she lets me write.

That sounds a little like a trick, doesn’t it? But it’s not so much outwitting the internal editor, as it is buying her off. I’m just typing, I tell her. You’ll get your turn later. And for a little while, she leaves me in peace.

* * *
How do you get yourself writing? What are your biggest hurdles and your successful tricks?

Thanks so much for letting me vent her this week! I’ve appreciated all your comments both posted and privately emailed. If you’d like to continue the conversation, you can find me on Facebook and also on my home blog. Be well!


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Clea Simon: On structure

“Do you outline?”

I may get this question more often than some other writers because, at this point, I’m writing mysteries, and mysteries tend to be plot-oriented. For most people, the obvious point of a mystery (crime novel, whodunit, thriller, call it what you will) is to find out who did what.

Of course, I and my “sisters in crime” may also get that question more than some of our author colleagues because we are classed as genre fiction, along with romances, fantasy, Westerns, etc. We turn out product specifically designed for entertainment, as opposed to any higher purpose. And thus we are usually assumed to be more formulaic and less literary. More craftsmen than artists. Hacks.

Okay, I won’t go further with that – not today – but I do want to talk about process here, and today that means how we build our book. Outline, storyboard, seat of the pants, or whatnot. After all, if the book doesn’t move forward, it’s not a book – it’s an extended character sketch. It can also become formless. A good friend is working on a manuscript that, at last count, topped 1,000 pages. She loves her characters and keeps finding new subplots. She wants to crawl into that book and live in it. But at the rate she’s going, I doubt she’ll ever finish it – or that anyone will ever read it if she does. She needs a plan, or some kind of outline.

Now, I’m not a huge advocate of outlining. I know it works for some writers I admire, and is particularly useful for those on tight deadlines. But I tried drawing up an outline for my second mystery. It made things easier – you don’t forget about a character, for example – but the process felt forced to me. I began to feel that the effort I was putting into the outline was draining the juice out of the book, and I ended up abandoning it halfway through.

But I’m not a real fan of simply winging it, either. I did that, more or less, with Shades of Grey and while it was fun, I felt that I basically wrote three or four books and over the course of several years had to work extra hard to extract the main story from the wreckage.

I’m not alone in this: I had the pleasure of interviewing Edgar-winner Tana French not long after her second mystery, The Likeness, came out and we got to talking about process:

“When I start writing, I don’t have a clue as to what happens,” she told me. (You can read the interview here.) “I have a premise, a narrator, and a load of caffeine, and that’s it. ... It makes for a huge amount of rewriting.”

What I’ve found works for me is something in between. I like to start with a premise – a problem or a conflict – and I sort of know how it might resolve. And then I start writing. To get this into manageable form, I now have to the right of my desk a big, white board. On it, I draw a rough timeline. And on that timeline, I stick Post-It notes with bits of dialogue I’ve dreamed, plot twists, character names, and crises. All the tidbits that start to come out once you get into a story. (Some of these read: “Red leaf, red hat!” “Annoying students,” and “He knew I liked ‘pretty things.’”) Sometimes I refer to my board, sometimes not. But the process of jotting down these notes seems to help.

Why does this work for me? I’m not sure, but it does help me process and it has shown me what I care about in terms of plotting. Plus, over time, I’ve come to realize that much of what I and my mystery colleagues call “plotting” is the same as what non-genre writers call “structure.” That is, the underpinning that holds the book together and propels the reader. In a mystery, the basic thrust is usually seen as involving finding the solution to a crime, whereas in a more general (I’m resisting saying “literary”) novel, it may be more about some inner motive: finding oneself, resolving a conflict. Finding girl, losing girl, and finding girl again. But, you know what? They’re all pretty much the same. A mystery that doesn’t engage the characters’ hearts won’t capture the readers, either. As much as the reader wants to know who did the crime, she or he also wants to know why the crime happened – and why the protagonist/cop/ amateur PI/housewife-spy cares. And a non-mystery has to have something happen, too, even if the action is entirely internal or imaginary or subtle. In both cases, what we’re really doing is looking for the big “why?” The reason for the book, and that is what will propel both us and our readers from beginning to end. That is why, ultimately, we will have written our book.

Several years ago, I was on a panel with Leslie Meier, the quite lovely author of such mysteries as Star-Spangled Murder. She was incredibly sweet and encouraging, even though I was then a fledgling, flogging my very first mystery, and she was the established author of a successful series. And when I told her, in confidence, that I wasn’t sure of my plotting yet, she leaned over to me and said, “Plotting is the hardest part for all of us, dear.” Okay, I’m not entirely sure she said “dear,” but that was the essence. She affirmed for me that finding the plot – the structure, the reason – is indeed the hardest part. I’ve felt strangely reassured ever since.

* * *

What's your process? Do you outline, storyboard, or just let the characters take you where they will?

- Clea

Monday, June 22, 2009

Clea Simon: On lying fallow

“Where do you get your ideas?”

As the guest blogger here at the Well-Read Donkey this week (hello, everyone!), following in the footsteps of such marvelous authors, that might seem too basic, too elementary a question. You are, after all, fellow writers and book lovers.

But last week, speaking to a library group, I fielded it, as you have or as you will, too. And, to be honest, I was momentarily at a loss. I rallied – when you speak to readers, you’re as much an entertainer as an interview subject and besides, I'm promoting my latest, Probable Claws as well. So I recalled the incident that sparked my first mystery. I’d been working on a nonfiction book (The Feline Mystique) and had ended up spending a very odd day with a possible cat hoarder (you know, a “crazy cat lady”). I love cats, but spending time with her had been stressful. She was not well, and I felt myself pulled between sympathy and terror and plain old revulsion. These were strong, uncomfortable feelings and I realized, then, how such a woman could become a victim of violence. I had a motive. I could put myself in a criminal's mind. And thus, the process that resulted in my much-lighter-hearted first mystery, Mew is for Murder, began.

But last week – this week, too – I’m in a different place. I am not working on a book. I have nothing in the works. This after having published three nonfiction books and four mysteries, with a fifth (Shades of Grey) due out in September. You see, last month, I turned in what I hope will be the sequel to Shades. After that was done (on deadline, no less), I returned to a beloved project that I’d let sit months before. I re-read and revised that and sent it off to my agent. And now I’m trying to relax. To let myself lie fallow. To have no ideas.

This is the most difficult part of the process for me. I’ve been writing professionally in one way or another for nearly thirty years. Much of that time has been in journalism, where ideas are your stock in trade and need to be churned out regularly. I’ve worked for bimonthlies, monthlies, weeklies, and daily newspapers with the same results: when you need to write something, you find something to write. And if you’re momentarily stumped (accent on the “momentarily” or you wouldn’t be in the business), you punt. You take an evergreen idea and add a few new branches. Basically, you create at will.

That kind of writing has its advantages. For one thing, it paid my bills for many years. Plus, on a deeper level, it taught me a discipline I cherish. I do not believe in writer’s block, since it was a luxury I could never afford. When I have to write, I do – even if it means spending a day hacking out some transitional scene that I know is necessary but that I’ve avoided. Even if it means writing a scene that I will probably cut later, but need to get out on paper for some structural reason. The ability to write is like a muscle. If exercised regularly, it works better, moves more fluidly and with more grace.

But the churning out of ideas, that I’m trying to give up. A book is too dear a project to just jump into. I don’t want to commit to a story the way I used to grab up a service feature assignment. Don’t want to plot on demand, pulling together bits and pieces of projects past. I’m not a prima donna – I did just write a mystery because an editor wanted it! But if I don’t have a contractual obligation, I’d rather just let it happen naturally. And in order for that to happen, I have to allow myself time.

When we’re both writing, novelist Caroline Leavitt (author of Girls in Trouble) and I often talk about the “rusty water” days. The days when you write crap, knowing you have to get it out of the way in order for the clear water to flow. “I’ve learned to be patient,” she emailed me today. To trust that, in her words, “the subconscious is still churning.”

This is harder for me, because it’s not about getting the bad out. It’s part of the process, but it’s not an active part. It’s lying fallow and letting those deep springs replenish. It’s not that I don’t have little tickles in my head – scenes, a possible title, a confrontation, a spark – I do, lots of them. But unlike some of my colleagues, I'm not writing them down. Not yet. They're too ephemeral, too fragile right now – and I don’t want to leap in just yet. Writing anything would feel like commitment. It’s too soon and I’m still in too reactive a mode. I’m not writing for a daily paper anymore. I’m not on assignment. I want to fall in love.

* * *

How about you? How do you deal with the quiet time between projects? With the waiting and wondering? I'll move onto cheerier, more fruitful topics later this week, but this is the one on my mind now. Are you in a fallow period? How are you coping?

Let's chat. Who knows what will come of it?


Friday, June 19, 2009

Kate Maloy's Guest Post: Both Sides Now

I live in a small, steep village on the coast of Oregon. There is more light here than in anyplace I’ve ever lived. It courses among clouds or falls unimpeded from the sky; it bounces off the water and the mammoth rocks on the shore; it drips from leaves and rooftops. I walk for miles at a time in this beautiful place, beside the ocean and up into the hills. Walking is my meditation. I am no good at sitting still and focusing on my breath. Movement is my best access to that trance state.

Not long ago, though, I did slip into meditation while sitting still. I was perched beside the water, and this time it was the ceaseless motion of the waves that drew me in, instead of the energies of my own body. I never even noticed; I simply found myself perceiving like a newborn, without language or intentional thought. Everything—light, color, creatures, sound, and motion—formed a fluid oneness, I think because I named not one component of the scene. For a writer to somehow turn off the naming part of the brain, from which follows instantly an organizing, separating, and then reintegrating effort, is a splendid accident, and always an inestimable gift, for I can call upon it even if I can’t reproduce it at will.

Other writers may have no such longing for this boundary-less and occasionally wordless state. It’s one I have drifted into at moments throughout my life, and I always come away with new insights or connections. But it has its costs. I sense that it’s connected to the years of pinballing, in which I impulsively but unconsciously avoided structure of any kind. It might explain why I never took creative writing classes or aimed for an MFA or read books on craft or joined writing groups. Too many words, too much thinking, perhaps, when apparently I was after something else.

I finally did read some books on craft, after Every Last Cuckoo came out. The one I remember most is Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, because in it he talks about the central necessity of the dream state to the creation of fiction. He says early on, “There is no intellect in this world powerful enough to create a great work of novelistic art. Only the unconscious can fit together the stuff of fiction; the conscious mind cannot.” Later, he says, “Your ambition as an artist is to give voice to the deep, inchoate vision of the world that resides dynamically in your unconscious.”

I love this; it dovetails with my experience by the water, and with other moments when I have found myself in trance or at the receiving end of those lightning flashes. I can only arrive at that state by indirection. I have to come at it sideways, like any other truth, because it does not happen by intention. In that, I agree with Butler completely and am grateful to him for opening my eyes to how much of Cuckoo came from my conscious (and self-conscious) mind, but also how much of it really did arise from the dream state.

Where I part company with Butler is over his insistence that no fiction writing at all should come from “the head,” the conscious, organizing, plotting mind. That part, with its technical concerns, is useful only when the writing is done. It is allowed no ongoing interplay with the act of creation. To be so dictatorial about fluidity and the elusive lightning flashes in the dark—this seems contradictory.

Given my sense that the boundaries within us are illusory, I can only feel that Butler is wrong in setting them up so rigidly. Wrong for me, at least, because I am aware of a free and natural exchange between left and right, fiction and life. Had I trusted this awareness many years ago, I might have been able to write much earlier. Instead, I have done something else worthwhile, which is to form habits of mind and psyche that now I can rely on in my work. I’ve looked for patterns in the accidents of my life and lessons in the pinballing. I’ve listened for messages from my own DNA, teasing out the kinds of ideas and situations that mean something to me, that resonate all the way down my bones to my genes, no doubt passed on my some long-dead ancestor whose name I will never know.

Interviewers and others ask where my ideas come from. The truest answer is that they come from accident and randomness, from my own past and all the generations that gave rise to me, my particular and not well-organized self. They come from living on this planet among all its species and geographies. They come from looking at paradox everywhere and learning to love it, to take pleasure in the mysteries and complexities and the fact that there are no blacks and whites, no opposites, no coincidences, and no reality that is not fiction or fiction that is not real.

I guess that’s why pathways paved by others don’t work for me—not Butler’s, not anyone’s, because my own, regardless of its fissures, bumps, and sidetracks, brings me as close to my “deep, inchoate vision of the world” as I can possibly get. This is where I wish to live.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kate Maloy's Guest Post: Cleaning Up the Copy

When I showed one of my brothers what I wrote for Monday’s blog post, he said “Gee, I guess girls can have messy lives, too. Who'd a thought!” He also said he liked the ending, about the revising and editing stages. “Time to clean up the copy.” His own copy looks pretty clean to me. I see his editorial work in his dry humor, in the wise kind of father he is, and in the durability of his one and only marriage.

I very much like the notion of cleaning up life’s copy, and the more I think about it, the more I think most of us, writers and nonwriters alike, treat the text of our lives the way novelists treat their fiction—making things up, changing our stories, creating subtexts we’re not even aware of.

To live is to create fictions. In nearly everything we do—meet crises, sustain relationships, take on new challenges—we are forced to rely heavily on memory to inform and instruct us, even though memory is a proven liar, a notorious manipulator of reality for the sake of convenience and self-image. We try to see ourselves in others, too, and they may send back no truer images than a funhouse mirror. Add to that our preferred angles of view on important people and events—views that we frame like camera shots, leaving out the ugly parts. And then there’s everything that never makes it from our subconscious mind to our functioning awareness. No matter how deliberately we search for truth and try to act on it, our subconscious is always there, greedily or needily keeping things from us.

Nevertheless, we can approach truth, by degrees. Some kind of intuitive calculus lets us do this the way a mathematical calculus lets us find the area under a curve. Little by little, by tiny calculations and accumulated experience, we learn to recognize authenticity and develop it in ourselves and our writing.

This could be why I sometimes find myself marking STET where once I’d have written DELE. Though my text will always need work, I begin to reject my assumption that because I didn’t plan well, I didn’t execute anything of importance.

Editing is such a left brain activity, so neatly separated from the writing itself. Right? The left side plans, analyzes, and comprehends; the right creates, intuits, and apprehends. But what about the corpus callosum, the bridge between the two? I think I was stuck on that bridge for a long time, held fast in crossfire from both sides—in a manner of speaking. I don’t really know how the corpus callosum works. If it neither thinks nor creates, then perhaps its role is to generate lightning strikes, brilliant, wordless flashes that illuminate otherwise dark territory. Only connect. Isn’t this how we do it, in flashes?

What I once thought of as mindlessness has actually been full of flashes—connections and insights that come without language or thought. They suddenly just are, where an instant before, they were not. What I’ve tended to see as a lack of discipline and productivity just might have been a necessarily long gestation required by my particular nature, psyche, and circumstances. It’s possible I’ve needed all these decades to be able to write at all—to cross the corpus callosum freely instead of just standing there, tangled in my own ganglia.

All this imagery is important. I use it because the truth is too elusive, and metaphor lets me approach this sly creature a little from the side before it startles and runs off. The thing is, I am falling in love with its skittishness and am very happy in the dappled light that camouflages it. I become a patient stalker and am rewarded now and then with a glimpse of something real and true. If truth were just there, tame and for the taking, there would be no need to search, no thrill of discovery, no flashes.

So there really is no dividing line between life and art—or between left and right. Even in our own brains, there is only the illusion of a boundary separating one function from another. Everything is plastic, fluid, connected. Which is exactly what writing demands from us—or maybe I should just say, from me. We all have our unique approach to writing and truth and our own ideas as to their mysterious source.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Kate Maloy's Guest Post: An Accidental Author--Or Not

Hello, Kepler’s Writing Group! I am delighted to be here this week, among so many authors I admire—and who appear to me more mindful and disciplined than I am. They have posted here about their creative methods and management and the books that have most inspired or motivated them. They have studied and persisted all along and have succeeded where they are most devoted.

I, on the other hand, am a seat-of-the-pants writer, so unsystematic that it all seems accidental to me. Yes, I meant to write, I decided in fifth grade that I wanted to be a writer. I just never settled down to it. Though I made a living writing for hire or editing other people’s prose, the day jobs left me feeling I’d used up exactly the energy I needed for my own work. How could I write all day and then go home and write at night and on the weekends? Other people did it—why couldn’t I?

What I see now, as a sixty-something first-time novelist, is that I was busy making all the mistakes I might have had characters make. I made bad choices in everything from work to love to time management. I didn’t plan, I pinballed. I was on the move, all the time, but without a map or destination. Twice I married by accident, by which I mean that I drifted into relationships that simply presented themselves attractively, and I did it without asking myself the right questions about either party’s needs or intentions. I even became a mother in sort of an accidental way. I had always wanted a child, genuinely and deeply—the way I really did want to write—but fate seemed determined to deny me. Reproductive problems led to medical crises and an agonizing choice, but without them I would never have had a healthy son at age forty. That was almost twenty-four years ago, and nothing in my life has ever made me happier. (The whole story appears in the anthology Choice, edited by Karen Bender and Nina de Gramont. This collection, by the way, covers every kind of real-life reproductive decision, with all its anguish and struggle. It is the perfect book for these fraught days after Dr. George Tiller’s murder).

Just as I was an older, first-time mother then, an “elderly primipara,” I am an older writer now, an “elderly primipublished.” As with pregnancy and childbirth, I failed several times before I succeeded. I wrote a mystery, then I wrote nearly a whole novel about an ugly woman who one day woke up beautiful, and then I quit for a long time, made more mistakes, and began searching more diligently for new directions.

And guess what I finally wrote about, when I found enough peace, time, and confidence to complete a novel I believed in? I wrote about Sarah Lucas, an elderly woman nearing the end of a well-planned life, surrounded by family and a diverse array of friends. Sarah, the main character in Every Last Cuckoo, has spent nearly all of her seventy-five years in one place, the rocky, gorgeous state of Vermont, from which she has derived her great heart and strength. Planning Sarah’s life as I never did plan my own has shown me how I want my old age to be. It is gratifying to see that my best role model is a product of my own imagination. Readers, too, tell me that they want to be like Sarah as they grow old.

Nevertheless, it surprises me that Every Last Cuckoo has done so well. In the writing, it just seemed to unfold, as if I were winging it, like a marriage or a freelance assignment. And yet, though it felt like a seat-of-the-pants effort, I seem to have had intention and craft all along. That’s what showed up sharply in the revising and editing. It’s what continues to show up, and further surprise me, when I talk with interviewers or hear from readers. Other people’s reactions show me aspects of the novel’s shape and pattern that I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it.

This is a grand revelation! It relieves anxiety; it tells me I can trust the processes of my own mind even when I am not conscious of them.

It also suggests that I’ve had intention about my life all along, too. I have, after all, gotten everything I wanted most, a child, a published novel, and even a third chance at a good marriage. This time, marriage works because I’ve learned to be deliberate, every day, about acts and consequences. I’m a little old to be figuring this out, but even though I’m late, I’m not never. I think I’ve simply reached the revising and editing stages, the time when patterns and subtexts reveal themselves, if ever they are going to.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Lucy Silag´s Guest Post: New Leases on Life

I'm a real sucker for those stories about people who got a new lease on life somehow, either by miraculously surviving a near-death situation or by simply letting go of something that was holding them back.

The sparks that set afire my plans to shift my own day-to-day reality came from the bestselling book EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. I hung onto every word of this hugely popular memoir as if it were a suspense thriller. I was right there with Liz for every roller coaster moment through Italy, India, and Bali. At the time I picked up this book, the puzzle pieces of my own life weren't fitting together very comfortably. Even though I was young and healthy with a great family and wonderful friends, I felt stuck for some reason. Reading Liz's story made me feel a little braver about making some changes--namely, quitting my job and leaving New York to become a full-time writer.

I took the book manuscript I'd been spending nights and weekends writing and sent it off to an agent. I was hoping the project I'd been working on as a hobby would be something I could grow into a career. With a lot more work and some very necessary letting go, BEAUTIFUL AMERICANS was indeed what knocked me into a beautiful, creative space and a daily life that just feels better. Apartment in Paris, anyone?

I challenge you to read or listen to any of the following and not feel like you don't have another minute to waste in this life! Some are very serious, others not so much.

*Ed Gavagan, Victim's Impact, The Moth podcast

*Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, by Sara Miles

*This American Life #104: Music Lessons, specifically, the essay read by Anne Lamott about the miracles she witnessed on board an extremely turbulent flight, and also at her church.

*Pretty Is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breat Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny by Jessica Queller

What´s your favorite book that inspired you to change your perspective?

-Lucy Silag
from Lisbon, Portugal

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Lucy Silag´s Guest Post: Unexpected Places

Thinking about vacation reading during my last post reminded me of some times when I've been traveling and found myself reading novels that were so wildly different from my surroundings that I'd stop and have to take a look around to remind me where I was.

Lying on a beach in Greece, I plowed through Valerie Martin's gripping TRESPASS, which is set in lonely rural New York state and horrifying, war-torn Croatia.

Unable to sleep after arriving for a research stint in Paris last summer, I stayed up all night finishing MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by John Berendt, which captures spooky Savannah fascinatingly.

Sitting in my mom's hot tub in Carmel Valley, CA, I really enjoyed THE 19th WIFE by David Ebershoff while I drank a cold can of diet Coke and looked up at the leafy trees in her backyard. In Tunis, Tunsia, I read ESCAPE by Carolyn Jessop in between visiting mosques and souks. Both of these books take place on polygamous compounds in Utah, one fictional, one the border enclave of Hildale/Colorado City.

During an epic 22-hour train ride from Delhi to Jasailmer, India, I scarfed down all 575 pages of AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL by Penny Vincenzi, a soapy British novel about an 80's financial collapse in London.

Sometimes I wonder if reading while traveling just automatically enhances the experience of the book, no matter where your locale is and what the locale of the book is. When you are out of your comfort zone, you take deeper pleasure in those moments of relating to the emotional arch of the characters, and, conversely, if you are lying in a very relaxing beach somewhere, you might just be more able to escape and enjoy the story more than you would at home. For me, reading a great book while traveling somewhere fantastic might be as good as it gets; what are some of your some of your favorite vacation-reading memories?

-Lucy Silag
from Lisbon, Portugal

Monday, June 1, 2009

Lucy Silag's guest post: Travel Theme Reading

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

I'm so excited to be guest blogging here at the Well-Read Donkey this week! I love getting the opportunity to share some of my reading habits, and hear about those of other book-lovers out there in cyberland somewhere.

Nothing gets me excited for a trip like a little preparatory theme reading to inspire and prepare me for my destination.

Sometimes, I put together a pre-trip reading list and have really fantastic results:

Before I went to India, for example, I felt I learned a ton of valuable information about this vast and very complicated nation from both the bestselling Australian travelogue HOLY COW by Sarah McDonald and Financial Times reporter Edward Luce's IN SPITE OF THE GODS: The Strange Rise of Modern India. I added nuance to these sometimes rather dense and dry nonfiction books by also reading Madhur Jaffrey's memoir CLIMBING THE MANGO TREES, which got my mouth watering with descriptions of the delectable foods the author grew up eating in the pre- and post-Partition capitol of New Delhi. All of these books really got me thinking about how diverse India is--with regional differences in food, politics, religion, standard of living, and other areas as strong as those that we find in the United States. Trying to say that "India is this" or "India is that" is very difficult after reading any of these three books. India is a lot of things, which was why it was by far the most exhilarating trip I have ever been on. Learning to watch out for those sometimes subtle differences as I traveled from Delhi to Rajasthan to Uttah Pradesh to West Bengal really enhanced my understanding of this gorgeous, cacaphonous and often bewildering place.

Another fantastic thing, I think, to do while traveling is take along some fiction that is set where you are going to be.

I read Julia Alvarez's incredible historical novel IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES and Junot Diaz's heartbreaking story collection DROWN while visiting the Dominican Republic. These two works of fiction made me feel like this heavily touristed island country was haunted in a way that you won't notice if you sequester yourself at an all-inclusive resort. I actually had the great fortune to meet Junot a few months before I went on the trip, and he encouraged me to stay off the beaten path when we went to the DR. It was great advice, not because we were broke, but because it was more fun: my boyfriend and I took crowded public buses, ate in local people's homes, and found ourselves having the most rewardingly simple vacation of our lives. Whenever our bus would wrap itself around a curvy hillside road, I'd think of the Mirabal sisters, and what they went through fighting Trujillo's regime--ultimately being chased off the side of a road much like those we drove along. When we met English-speaking Dominicans on the streets of Santa Domingo, they'd often want to know where we were from. When they heard it was New York, they'd tell us about their cousins, their friends, all the people they knew who lived near us. Getting to know Santa Domingo and North Jersey from Diaz's point of view, the eager people who'd encountered us on the street seemed less like bothersome touts, and more like people aching to talk about their faraway loved ones in that cold place they'd heard so much about.

All that said, however, I've just embarked on a six-week trip around Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and the Dordogne in France. Unlike usual, this time I've been so busy writing the third novel in the BEAUTIFUL AMERICANS series (titled EXPERIENCED and out next summer 2010) that I didn't put much thought into what I read before the trip and what I'll be reading while away. Instead, I've just been enjoying that haphazard pleasure of going, quite randomly, wherever an author takes you: a suburban Michigan high school in the captivating THE LOCAL NEWS by Miriam Gershow, eighteenth-century Sussex in mega-bestselling author Phillipa Gregory's steamy first novel WIDEACRE, to GLBT rehab and back with Augusten Burroughs in DRY and to BRICK LANE, London with Booker-shortlisted Monica Ali.

Along for the ride of this trip are some books I've been really looking forward to: AN OUTRAGEOUS AFFAIR by Penny Vincenzi, THE WHERABOUTS OF ENEAS MCNULTY by Sebastian Barry, THE MARCH by E.L. Doctorow (inspired by a Christmas trip to Abraham Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky last year), the similarly titled and also Civil War-themed MARCH by Geraldine Brooks, and SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See.

Not a one book to teach me anything about this mysterious, history-steeped corner of the globe . . . but definitely, I'm positive, volumes from which I'll dream up plenty more travel plans.

-Lucy Silag
in Porto, Portugal