Friday, July 31, 2009

Harriet Chessman's Guest Post: Two Achilles Heels

I have this landscape on my computer screen – a photo my son Micah took at Arastradero Preserve.

Each day, once I’ve read the newspaper, walked my collie, had breakfast, cleaned the kitchen, taken a shower, mailed some letters, worried about the broken dishwasher . . . once I’ve almost spent my whole morning, that is, immersed in my life, I sit down at my desktop and see this beautiful, simple landscape, and remember my writing.

This is, then, my first Achilles Heel as a writer: Life.

As for my second, well, come with me on this little walk.

Something I love about the photo is the path, curving up the slope to blue sky. It suggests what I search for in my writing: a clear path for my story. The writing process, for me, is this search. I try one route, and it ends in sand; I try another, and I land in a marsh, feet stuck, mosquitoes biting.

Of course, what I say to any writer in a similar predicament is: Keep trying! If this path didn’t work, try another! It’s the only sane advice, and yet it’s difficult advice to take.

As someone who started to write fiction after a first career, I still feel like someone new to this process. I look for signs; keys to the map; the best routes to follow.

So this is my second, my most vulnerable Achilles heel: Story.

Description, yes! Lyrical passages on someone’s face or the weather, I can do that! But finding my story? Argh!

I think I’m getting better at it. That is, I’m gaining more patience. If I have to cut 150 pages, so be it. Sometimes I just have to slice my way through underbrush and even damage some very beautiful mature trees, until – incredibly – one day I look up and see a simple path. A beginning, middle, and end. And even though I’m only on page 50, for the seventh time, I am on my way.

It’s important to note that I can’t reach this point on my own entirely. I’ve been lucky in a few brilliant, insightful manuscript readers: my daughter Marissa; my spouse Bryan; other writers; my wise agent Priscilla. Just last week a fellow writer, Maud Carol Markson, led me by the hand out of a wide marsh indeed.

Such readers help me clarify what this landscape is through which I’m trying to move, and who is coming with me on the journey. They help me understand who my characters are as people – and this, after all, is the key. A work of fiction can move forward compellingly once the characters become profoundly real to the writer. Wonderful words: “I think your character is --- ,” or “I think your novel’s about ---,” upon which I always say, “Wait a minute; let me write that down.” My heels feel stronger already.

I’d love to know what your own particular Achilles heel is, in writing or in life. I wish you a fruitful journey!

Harriet Chessman

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Harriet Chessman's Guest Post: I Love All Things Irish

I love all things Irish. This ardor doesn’t come from a trip to Ireland, although I hope I will go one day. My love could be inherited from Hannah Horn, my great-grandmother from County Cork – although all I know about her is her musical name. It could be that Irish American families and friends I’ve loved all my life (including the very wise and well-read M. Lucia Kuppens, O.S.B., at The Abbey of Regina Laudis) have captured my heart and transformed it forever – yes, this is true. In addition to all this, Irish literature has become a cherished world I’m still discovering.

I came first, around the age of twenty, to the poetry of W.B. Yeats, which captivated me with its incantatory lyrics, and the thoughtfulness of later poems like “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Cutting against such graceful, contemplative poetry came the mordant, moving plays of Samuel Beckett, which I first read in college, and first saw in my twenties.

(Happy Days, one of my favorite Beckett plays, in which a woman occupies herself with toothbrush, lipstick, daily items, as the sand in which she’s stuck rises, will be at CalShakes soon!)

James Joyce’s Dubliners opened up for me the yearning and sorrow of children and others in lives that could be pierced by epiphany. Joyce’s voluble Molly Bloom, in the last chapter of Ulysses, will be my companion for life, as will Portia in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.

When my children were young, I often chose children’s books based on myths Yeats and other Irish writers loved and used. Tomie dePaola’s sturdy, colorful version of the Cuchulain myth, Finn M’Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill, is one of the many that tickled my children and me equally.

Fiction I’ve come to love recently includes Brian Moore’s 1955 novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, with its concoction of compassion, realism, and bitter humor. In Moore’s honest vision, the world and heaven itself have come down to a bare boarding house room and the hopes and anguish of a middle-aged woman, longing for an epiphany out of her reach. I came to this novel soon after reading Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, a book that offers a different portrait, just as fierce and beautiful in its own way (pace to that great-hearted, brilliant son of Angela McCourt).

I hope you may have come across John Banville’s lyrical The Sea and Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne, both of which unfold – each in its own gorgeous, slow way – buried secrets. And, finally, I encourage you to read Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, which offers a similar unfolding, yet in a lusciously fragmented style. To read this novel is to listen closely to a compelling, harshly funny, honest, contradictory, and ultimately redemptive narrative voice – the voice of a woman who has lost her brother to suicide, and who is bent on reconstructing and understanding the childhood she shared with him.

I’d love to hear your own recommendations of books by Irish authors. Anecdotes and travel stories welcome too!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Afghan Women's Writing Project

Curiosity about the lives of women is what initially sparked my interest in Afghanistan. I remember seeing that infamous footage, surreptitiously shot during Taliban times, which showed a woman in the blue burqa who’d been accused of adultery and was shot in the head in a Kabul football stadium during the weekly public punishments as a watching crowd cheered. That, coupled with the knowledge that Afghan women were not allowed to attend school, work, or even leave home unless fully covered and accompanied by a male relative, convinced me Afghanistan was arguably one of the most difficult places to be a woman.

When I first visited the country in 2004, I focused on interviewing women. I spoke to a 12-year-old imprisoned in Kandahar for objecting to marrying the 35-year-old man to whom her father had essentially sold her. In a dusty courtyard, I spoke to the matriarch of a large family of opium farmers, a grandmother who kept a small trunk of precious belongings (including an air-dropped food package) to display in a room of her own if she ever in her life had one. I talked to a young girl slated to be married in a week to her much older cousin, who told me she was afraid about what would happen when the lights went out, and then, finally freed from my questions, ran with her friend to the playground. I gave shiatsu to women in Wardak who had never been touched in that way before.

The situation remained difficult for women, but there was a sense of optimism. Some were attending school, some were receiving microloans to start small businesses. And the women themselves were inspiring. They were often funny, and unfailingly full of grace.

When I returned in November of last year, the mood had changed. Because of kidnapping concerns, I was unable to visit Kandahar or Logar or Wardak. The Taliban held much of the south of the country. I went north, over the Hindu Kush, and stayed in Kabul. The government was talking of opening negotiations with Taliban leaders, and some women expressed fears about a possible return of misogynistic policies.

It was from this trip that the idea of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project sprang. The project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or the media. The project engages generous, talented women author/teachers here in the United States who volunteer, on a rotating basis, to teach Afghan women online from Afghanistan. Volunteer designers set up our blog, a volunteer blogmaster keeps it running, a volunteer technical specialist set up our online classrooms. Due to security concerns, we use the Afghan women writers’ first names only on the blog, editing out all names of family and friends and removing locators.

Please consider reading some of the essays highlighted below, and adding comment, which means a lot to the women writing in Afghanistan.

In "Narrow Escape," Freshta writes about being spotted by the Taliban while on her way to a secret school. “My heart was shaking. My clothes were moist with sweat, which fell from my body like rain. Suddenly one of them jumped from the car with his gun and appeared in front of me. “Where you are going?”

Zaralasht talks about the end of her idyllic childhood, which coincided with the start of war: “Our parents carried us in their arms and ran barefoot from our home. We were not the only family running away without knowing where we were going. The street was filled with people just like us who were trying to flee the fighting and killing….Our parents tried to not let us see the dead people who were lying along our path.”

Fattema tells the story of Sara, sold in wedlock to an Afghan man living in Iran. “When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My husband was Afghan but he had an Iranian wife with four children. His oldest child was twenty years old, older than me.”

Marzia writes about a girl she knew who, at age 14, fell in love with the 16-year-old boy next door and got pregnant. “The girl’s mother became very sad and angry... The mother came home, took a big stone and put it on her daughter’s belly and killed her.”

These stories are compelling. Please don’t miss them.

Masha Hamilton (Photography by David Orr)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harriet Chessman's Guest Post: My Life as a Writer

A happy thank you to Aggie and to Kepler’s for inviting me to contribute to this rich blog! Thank you too to Kate Maloy for suggesting it. I’ve enjoyed reading all the posts.

In this first post, I’ll create a snapshot of my life as a writer, through a mini-q&a. My fifteen-year-old son Gabe came up with the questions.

How often do you write?

Once a novel has gotten a foothold and I’m sure of its direction, I write each weekday, for two to five hours. Often it can take me months, though, to reach this point!

What are your favorite or most influential books by any author?

I love so many novels, poems, short stories, memoirs, essays, and plays. In my first career, I taught English at Yale, so I had the chance to read and teach a wide range of authors, from Chaucer to Milton to E.M. Forster. The authors who may have most directly influenced my writing, though, include Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and J.D. Salinger. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the novel that inspires and moves me most deeply.

Which of your own books are your favorite?

I think of them all with affection and some pain! My first, Ohio Angels, helped me see that I could write; my second, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, created a voice I trusted; and the third, Someone Not Really Her Mother, generated a form I found fascinating to work with: that of linked stories, each one holding to a small slice of life in present tense, with the mysterious past hovering in the background. I also have great affection for my new novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things, as yet unpublished.

How did you decide to become a writer?

I fell off the tenure ladder at Yale (ouch!), and something in me doggedly refused to apply for other teaching positions. The pull to write was quite strong.

How have your personal experiences influenced your style and stories?

Oh, I am sure my personal experience is everywhere in my books. Often it’s disguised, though, even to me. Once I’m really inhabiting a fictional world, I use what comes up inside me, yet in the act of writing, I’m not consciously thinking, “This is something from my own life.” As novelist Maud Carol Markson (author of the new, beautiful novel Looking After Pigeon) says, one’s characters quickly become not characters, but people, as close to the author as family members.

What do you think of popular literature, read mostly by teenagers, such as Twilight? I haven’t had the chance to read any of the Twilight series. I am, however, all for any books that entice readers, especially young readers!! The summer you (Gabe) were nine, for instance, I wished I could send flowers to J.K. Rowling each day.

Do you have any advice for a beginning or unpublished author?

Trust yourself.

P.S. You’re welcome to take Gabe’s “quiz”! All thoughts welcome! I’d love to hear your own response to any of these questions.

Coming up Wednesday: Irish Writers I Love.

And on Friday, my Achilles heel as a writer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Barbara Quick Guest Post: How Exciting—I’ve Been Internationally Plagiarized!

I’d been planning on writing something completely different for my last post as guest-blogger for Kepler’s. And then this came into my inbox, squired by those trusty Google Alerts cued to my name or the title of my novels:

For those of you who don’t read Italian, the gist of it is that an Italian novelist named Tiziano Scarpa just won a really important literary prize, the Premio Strega 2009, for his novel Stabat Mater.

The cultural editor for, Alessandro Gnocchi, writes in this article about the embarrassing similarities—nearly the same plot and identical narrative structure—between Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Virgins (which was published two years prior to Scarpa’s novel).

Gnocchi stops short of crying plagiarism—even though he brings the word up more than once in his essay. But he taxes Scarpa with a lack of imagination, as well as with self-consciously trying to write the sort of novel most likely to win a big literary prize.

(Hmmm—I always thought the thing to do was just to write the very best book one is capable of writing at a given time in one’s literary life—a book that sweeps one away in the writing. A book that practically writes itself, for all the urgency that its characters have to make themselves known.)

Apparently, Signore Scarpa even acknowledges me and my book in the Afterword to Stabat Mater—although he claims never to have opened Vivaldi’s Virgins or to have read a single word of it before he wrote his novel.

Rather nice of him, I’d say. You’ve probably heard the quip, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

Alessandro Gnocchi (to whom I am indebted) writes in his column that while I am an unknown writer in Italy, publishing houses all over the world (13 of them, so far) have taken advantage of the opportunity to publish translations of Vivaldi’s Virgins.

I took it as somewhat of a personal affront, given my passionate love of and attachment to Italy, that no casa editrice italiana had yet chosen to publish my novel in an Italian edition. Does this explain why? Did someone decide that this particular story really should be told by an Italian rather than—gasp!—an American novelist?

There’s more thickening to this plot, if I allow myself to amble even the tiniest way down the byroads of paranoia. Luisa Cox, an Italian emigree and professional translator who met me at a reading I did in Arizona, fell in love with Vivaldi’s Virgins. On her own time, consulting with me during the process, she translated the entire novel, and then she circulated it to various publishing houses in her native Italy.

Coincidence? It will be interesting to see where this goes, if anywhere. I’ve already alerted my publisher. And I’m going to make sure—even though I am not a litigious person—that this blog post makes its way to the legal department of the Authors Guild, just for drill.

To Tiziano Scarpa, I say, You owe me and my fiancé a nice dinner in a great Italian restaurant. We’ll be in Italy next year, when he’ll be touring with the San Francisco Symphony.

To the casa editrice that published Stabat Mater, please note, cari signori, that my new novel, A Golden Web—also set in Italy—is being published by HarpeTeen in April 2010. I blush to say that two different (adult) bloggers have already called it the best book they have ever read. Your step-child—this scritrice americana with her heart in Italy—is waiting for you to recognize her.

—Barbara Quick

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Barbara Quick Guest Post: The Untapped Power of Readers (and Writers!)

The latest issue of the Authors Guild Builletin—a trade publication available to members only—features the transcription of a terrifying symposium, held this past March, on “The Future of Publishing.”

Take note, readers and—especially—writers! All the rules are changing. The publishing industry is entirely in flux. No one knows exactly what is going to happen—but everyone is scared. And the only players who will survive and thrive will be those who can be graceful and resourceful enough to not only roll with the changes but also help determine how the stardust finally settles.

Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, referred in the symposium to iGooglezon—the behemoth that is the collective power of the iPhone, Google and Amazon combined.

Publishers are all Davids to this Goliath—bravely girding their corporate loins, but trembling with fear that Goliath’s nameplate has already been affixed to the door of the penthouse office, with the heavenly view, in the virtual headquarters of the Brave New World of multimedia publishing.

If our wise and experienced publishers, with all their business savvy and bevy of bean-counters and legions of lawyers, are quaking in their corporate boots now, where does that leave us, the puniest of the puny: the writers?

It’s scary enough for so-called mid-list novelists like myself. But what about the writers who are even now working on that first novel, book of short stories or (God help them!) collection of poetry?

Change = Opportunity I can’t read Chinese (even if I can read the writing on the wall). But it seems to me that the pictograph for “change” looks very much like a person on the move, something like the “Keep-on-truckin’” guy:

I remember the concept from the many New Year’s Eves when, shunning noisy celebrations, I stayed at home by the fire and cast the I Ching: Change = Opportunity.

Publishers and writers (myself included) stand in awe at what Oprah Winfrey has been able to do for books that would, without her help, have sunk to the bottom of the literary lake with nary a ripple. But, with all due respect, what does Oprah Winfrey have—even as a mega-powerful corporate entity—that the online literary community, at least in potential, doesn’t have as well?

Why couldn’t lovers of literature band together to do what Oprah does for the books she chooses?

There are more of us—and we are everywhere: sitting on commuter trains and in our coziest chair at home, in the bathtub, in cafes and propped up in bed all over the world. We are sinking blissfully into the pleasures of reading a real, live book—a bliss that requires no one else. Just the words, our eyes and our hearts perilously, deliciously open.

We are an untapped power—and I want to try an experiment here to test it.

Carpe librum A beautiful small-press book of poetry—Judah’s Lion by Anne Caston—was just published by—yes, a friend of mine—Maria van Beuren of Toad Hall Media. Ann Caston’s poetry makes one want to shout with joy at being able to read the English language.

Here’s what others have said so far about this brand-new collection. Dorianne Laux called Judah's Lion "a pleasure to read, intelligent, moving, grappling as it does with reason and faith." Lucille Clifton wrote, "[Caston] has dared to look without flinching and to report what she has seen. Her work is some of the bravest poetry written today. It is not always pretty, but it is always beautiful."

These are not just chick poems, either. My fiancé, who is as macho as he is literary, went nuts over the book. “Why aren’t people reading this instead of Mary Oliver?!” he wanted to know.

Buy the book for yourself—and, if you can afford to, buy a second copy for a friend who loves and appreciates language that cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be alive.

To really be part of the movement, send the link for this blog post to all the word-loving friends you can think of who might like to form the advance battalion of power-brokers and taste-makers for the world of publishing as we want it to be.

Carpe librum: Seize the book, change the world! Let our collective voice be heard!

—Barbara Quick

Monday, July 20, 2009

Barbara Quick Guest Post: Love Me, Love My Books

When a writer moves—which I’ve just done—a whole heck of a lot of books move with her.

Boxes and boxes of them, the first ones carefully alphabetized and labeled, and the last ones thrown into the same boxes with miscellaneous precious seashells, kitchen gadgets, and CDs, wrapped up in bed linens and towels in the fight against the deadline to get one’s house unpacked and ready to be lived in by someone else.

Those boxes of books—a weighty, three-dimensional representation of who I am—are now all stacked up in one of the outbuildings on my fiancé’s Wine Country farm.

Some of the books are ones I’ve written. But most of them are books I’ve read and loved—or haven’t read yet but want to. They’re books that other writers have signed for me (quite a few of them at Kepler’s!). They’re the books I’ve used for my research in writing historical novels.

There are about five big boxes—boxes I’m just itching to unpack—filled with reference books about 18th century Italy. These were the doors that opened my eyes and heart to the world of the foundling home in Venice where the young priest, Antonio Vivaldi of “Four Seasons” fame, served as music master and resident composer: the world of my 2007 novel from HarperCollins, Vivaldi’s Virgins.

There’s the slightly smaller but no less intriguing collection of books that empowered the research for my forthcoming novel (HarperTeen: April 2010), A Golden Web. Books about cross-dressing in medieval Europe, manuals for manuscript illumination and women healers, studies of 14th century medical practice, and lushly illustrated Books of Hours.

Some of the books were too precious to pack: the ones I’m using to research my current novel, set, again, in the world of music, this time in 18th century Vienna. I couldn’t risk having any one of these go astray.

My fiancé is also a lover of words (as well as a professional violist and vigneron). The very first piece of my furniture I found a place for inside his house was my dictionary stand. He exulted right alongside of me at the beauty of having it there, where—at any given moment—either one of us could go look something up.

Yes, I love Google and use it all the time. But there’s no replacement for the physical evocation of all those words, all that language, waiting for us, beckoning us, buoying us up above the tumultuous waves of our storm-tossed lives.

—Barbara Quick

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Joy of Deadlines

When I sold All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, I also was fortunate enough to sell a pitch for my second book at the same time (what's known as a two-book deal in publishing industry parlance). My publishers gave me two and a half years to complete the second novel. It didn't sound like much time to me, especially considering that my first book took almost four years to complete, but then again, I'd learned a lot on the first novel and figured that the second would come more easily.

There are a lot of upsides to two-book deals (including getting paid *while* you write, instead of *after* you write, the book), but for me, the primary upside was the deadline. I work best when I have deadlines. In fact, I can barely work without one.

As a journalist at Salon, I often had to turn in four or five stories a week, and missing a deadline would get me in hot water with my editors. So the reverence for a deadline was already ingrained in me when I quit to try my hand at a novel. But after quitting my job, it took me nearly a year to really start in on the novel-- and I soon realized that this was because I didn't have any deadlines for it. It was all so freeform, my schedule completely up to me, and I found myself floundering about, meeting deadlines for all the freelance journalism pieces I was writing, but hardly ever touching the novel.

This was one part of the reason why I eventually signed up for a novel-writing class at UCLA extensions: It came with deadlines. If I didn't turn in pages on my assigned week, the entire workshop would be sitting around with nothing to discuss. And when the novel-writing class ended, I joined a writer's group, and then another, for similar reasons. The deadlines may not have been strictly enforceable (no one was going to fire me for missing them, for example), but they still existed as a goal to meet: People were expecting to see my pages on a certain date.

So here I am, now, three months away from my final deadline for my second book - and much to my surprise, I am actually ahead of schedule. Part of this may be because I have an even more stressful deadline before me: I'm due to give birth to my first child at the end of next month, so I figure I better have the novel done before then. (From what I've heard, newborn infants aren't very conducive to fiction-writing during the first month or two).

There were moments, with this second book, when I thought I would never finish it on time. Say, the period of writers block when I was beginning the new novel, and found I could barely remember how to compose a sentence. (This lasted about five months). Or the long, three-month period during the publication of my novel, when I was so distracted by the chaos of book tours and interviews and the emotional anxiety of being published that I could barely write. And then, the time when I decided to scrap the first 100 pages of my new novel, because they just weren't working the way I wanted. Each time, I thought I was doomed.

But the deadline always kept me motivated. I found I could even take a few weeks off writing in order to get some creative distance from the novel, or to find new inspiration, or while I waited for feedback -- somehow, the date of August 30 was lurking in the back of my mind, egging me on and keeping me on track. If I really needed time away from the book, it wasn't the end of the world, but the deadline at least kept me from wasting my mornings on the Internet, or watching Real Housewives of Atlanta reruns on BravoTV when I'm just wasn't in the mood to write.

So two and a half years turned out to be just enough time to write the new novel. But I have to wonder - if my editors had only given me two years, or eighteen months, would that have turned out to be just enough time, too? Did I really efficiently use the time I had, or merely fill up the time I was given? The legendarily prolific Joyce Carol Oates, after all, produces a book a year; then again, there's Thomas Pynchon, who takes at least a decade per tome.

What about you? How do you set deadlines for yourself? Or do you have outside forces that set your deadlines for you? Or do you just not worry about them at all?


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Denise Rae Kouzoujian Guest Post Part II - Which came first—the chicken or the egg?

Currently I am working on a memoir piece/pastry cookbook that I’m calling,
“Is That a Chicken? Finding Patience Through Pastry.”

Last year while on a camping trip with my husband, son and my college roommate’s family, Dave said, “Hey Denise! I saw a great T-shirt last week and I thought of you. It said ‘I don’t have AD/HD… IS THAT A CHICKEN?’”

Now, one year later, it’s my favorite line and my husband’s too. I must say that I have those “chicken” moments all the time! Whether it’s AD/HD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), bi-polar, high functioning autism, learned behavior or merely genetics, it’s who I am. It’s what I do. And it seems to get me through.

I’ve been a shoot-from-the-hip kind of gal all of my life, and when it comes to cooking, I have always said that I don’t do pastry. I’m pinch-and-dash, a savory chef. Pastry takes patience. I’m not patient. Cooking is emotional, pastry is logical. I’m emotional—I cook!

Well, earlier this year, I fell into the world of pastry and I’m beginning to find my patience. Let’s see what comes of it, shall we?

Here is an Apricot-Blackberry Galette recipe from “Culinary Road Trip” A Search for New Wines Leads to Past Reflections, an article I wrote, appearing in the July & August 2009 issue of Vine Times Magazine that I thought you might enjoy:

Apricot-Blackberry Galette (Serves 6)

One of my favorite childhood memories is walking with my sister down to our local elementary school, bucket in hand and dressed in “berry-picking clothes,” to pick blackberries. We’d bring them home for fresh blackberry pie and jam. This galette is a nice twist on an old favorite.

For pastry dough:

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup cold butter (1 stick), cut into thin slices

4-6 tablespoons ice water

For apricot-blackberry filling:

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar

10- 12 sweet, ripe apricots, cut into 1/4"-thick slices

1/2 pint blackberries, raspberries or other berries; can be a combination or a single kind

Juice from half of a lemon

2 tablespoons butter, cut into thin slices

Egg wash:

2 eggs & 2 tablespoons water, beat together with a fork.

Preheat oven to 425F.

To prepare pastry dough:

1. In a medium bowl, mix flour and salt. Cut in cold butter using two knives in scissor-fashion or pastry blender until mixture has coarse, pea-sized crumbs. Sprinkle ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, into flour mixture, mixing with hands just until dough holds together. (If you work dough too much, it will not be as light and flaky once baked.) Shape into a flat ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

2. Line large cookie sheet with parchment paper. On floured surface, roll out dough into 13-inch round. Transfer to lined cookie sheet.

To prepare apricot-blackberry filling:

1. In large bowl, mix together cornstarch and sugar, reserving 2 tablespoons for later. Add apricots, berries and lemon juice, gently tossing to coat fruit. Spoon filling onto center of dough round, leaving a 2-1/2-inch border all around. Dot filling with butter. Fold border of dough up over outer edge of filling, leaving a good-sized opening in the center. Pleat edges as you go and pinch dough to seal any cracks.

2. Lightly brush the dough on top with the egg wash & sprinkle with reserved sugar.

3. Bake galette 45 to 50 minutes or until crust is golden brown and filling is gently bubbling. As soon as galette is removed from oven, use a metal spatula to loosen it from the parchment paper. Allow galette to cool 15 minutes on cookie sheet, then slide it onto a rack to cool completely.

So, to answer that age old question, which came first – the chicken or the egg? I still don’t know. Maybe it’s either, both or possibly neither. I guess there is no right or wrong answer to this question. It’s like that with passion, you find it everywhere and in everything; from the people in our lives, the art and music we love, to the food & wine we eat and drink, and the places we see in business or pleasure, and for some, in the words that we write. There is no right or wrong with passion either, it’s who we are, what we discuss and sometimes write about, and for me that’s all it really needs to be.

Now, if I were to have to try to answer this question, I would say that it was the chicken that came before the egg, or should I say lots of eggs. For many years now I have enjoyed preparing those savory chicken dishes and it wasn’t until just recently that I’ve used so many eggs in my new pastry recipes—and with it all, I have gathered quite a few stories along the way.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Table with a View

The other day, I was reading a story in the New York Times about an author's writing sanctuary. Despite living in a "Classic 8" on the Upper East Side, with multiple bedrooms and a kitted-out study, the author Roxana Robinson chooses to write in "an 8-by-10 space that faces a tan brick wall and was formerly a maid’s room. In décor and design, it is as spare as a monk’s cell."

Forgetting the fact that this author somehow can afford a vast Manhattan apartment with multiple options for her writing room (the key to this, it seems, is marrying an investment banker), I was struck by the fact that she writes best in a monastic, silent, tiny room with no view. It reminded me of the site Daily Routines, which documents the writing routines of famous authors. Reading through them, I'm struck by how many authors maintain schedules and writing spaces that are austere, severe, or downright dogmatic. They write alone, in windowless rooms, with no distractions. They get up at 5 a.m. and are writing before daybreak. They have their days planned down to the minute. They can't write unless the dictionary is positioned in the right place on the desk.

I, on the other hand, have a completely haphazard writing routine. Loosely, I try to be writing by 10 in the morning; my goal is to write six hours a day. Some days I don't start writing until after lunch, and then write late. Some days I start early and finish by lunch. And as to where I write -- that changes daily.

Sometimes, I write from home. Despite the fact that my husband and I have a spacious office -- a converted garage in our garden with ergonomic chairs and a huge built-in desk -- I tend to write from a reclined position on the couch. I'm sure it's terrible for my back and my wrists, but I find it comforting, perhaps slightly womb-like, to be entombed on the couch on a pile of pillows with the French doors thrown open to the garden and my computer humming in my lap. Sometimes, though, it's a bit too comforting, and I get no work done at all.

Instead, I head to a cafe, which is where I do my best work. There are a half dozen of them that I frequent on a daily basis, all carefully selected based on their chair-to-table height ratio (for ergonomic soundness), whether they have wall outlets for plugging in my laptop, the quality of their coffee (very important), the availability of free wireless, and -- most critical of all -- whether they'll tolerate me sitting around for up to four or five hours at a stretch. Thankfully, I have a number of great cafes in my neighborhood that are known as writer's hangouts, and are packed at any hour of the day with people tapping away on laptops.

Those authors who, like Roxana Robinson and the other "Daily Routines" writers, require monastic silence to work their genius would undoubtedly cringe at my routine. But I find that I work best with outside stimulus. I like the hustle and bustle of human activity around me: Human interaction fascinates me, and the sight of a woman carrying a child in a sling, or the sound of two men arguing about the bank bailout, or the banter and rhythm of the baristas taking orders from customers, often triggers ideas that I then translate onto paper. I never forget what human language sounds like; I can see, before me, how people move and interact. It's almost like using the world as my own private theater of inspiration.

If I need to tune the world out, I just put on headphones and drown out the noise with music. And I often meet with another writer friend, who has the same kind of writing habits as I do. We'll schedule a time and a cafe every day -- we call it our "virtual office" -- in order to keep each other motivated and on track. Together, we work in complicit silence for hours at a time, an oasis of creativity in the midst of the chaos of everyday life.

I suspect that if, like Robinson, I did my writing in a tiny cell-like room, my books would never achieve the vibrancy that I strive for. All the more power to her for achieving what she does in such a spartan setting.

I'm curious -- tell me about your writing habits, and where you choose to write?


PS: The photo was taken yesterday, at Casbah Cafe, which is one of my regular writing spots. Excellent lattes, gooey baklava, comfy chairs, and lots of plugs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Denise Rae Kouzoujian Guest Blog: Part I - Which came first—the chicken or the egg?

Which came first—the chicken or the egg?

I don’t know. But what I do know is passion. Passion is the force that drives me. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. It’s why I write. It’s what is good about me and, at times-- what is bad.

One thing that I struggle with is how to take my life’s passions and put them into the kind of words that a reader can truly feel.

My name is Denise Rae Kouzoujian and I am a writer, a chef, and a salesperson. I’m in the business of selling myself, my thoughts, my work and my product—whatever that may be. I try to balance that with being a good wife, mom and the best person that I can possibly be. It works for me in my own unconventional way and at times drives my husband and family crazy!
I have found over the years that life throws many things your way, and passion, mixed with creativity and a strong sense of faith, is what gets me through! It’s what I write about.

Passion for business and a love for my family kept me in my family’s business for over 20 years now, selling hydraulic and pneumatic products alongside my father. It was also my passion for cooking that led me down the culinary path thirteen years ago. This was about the time I found my way into the Menlo Park Draeger’s, cooking school as a chef’s assistant which eventually led me to start Food for the Soul with D. Rae, a personal chef business and in-home cooking school of my own.

Food For The Soul offers personal chef services, kitchen consulting, catering and culinary education. What I truly enjoy is teaching gardening and cooking classes to children as well as adults. I get a quiet sense of satisfaction knowing that, in some small way, I help to unleash the passion of others.

After getting married and giving birth to my son Jac, I began to write. I’ve always been a journal writer, starting and stopping along the way. In addition to journaling and writing my memoirs, I began writing about food, planted a garden and started to develop recipes, which later turned into a gardening/cookbook that I co-wrote with my friend Pam Larkin. We have just finished writing this book and are now ready to send our proposal out.

A bit of “Your Growing Kitchen: Growing and Enjoying Foods Fresh From the Garden” by Pam Larkin, Home Gardener and Denise Kouzoujian, Chef:

"The real beauty, though, lies in the excitement and pride of serving food you've had a hand in growing. Sharing this with friends and family reaffirms that some of the life's simplest joys prove to be the most meaningful. As you discover favorite recipes in the book, new fruits and vegetables become candidates to be grown in your garden. With new recipes to cook and new plants to plant, you'll enjoy the experience of growing your garden and kitchen. And you''learn that when you garden, you, too, will grow."

Recently, I finished my first formal writing class with Malena Watrous, who is an accomplished writer and an amazing instructor. I found this food writing course through Stanford Continuing Studies Program and look forward to taking another class very soon. I’ve always felt a bit intimidated within the literary world and with my own ability to write. But again, my passions in life and love for books are what keep driving me forward. This is how I found Aggie and the Kepler's Writing Group, which is located in my home town of Menlo Park, and I am so grateful to be a part of this eclectic group of people.

One of my favorite places to go is Kepler’s. I have spent many hours wandering the isles, sitting on the floor with a stack of books, trying to decide which ones to buy. I love reading, and find that I am drawn to many different types of books—especially nonfiction. I have an endless supply of cookbooks, travel and gastronomic essays. I read Ruth Reichl’s Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise as part of my food writing class last year and it has become one of my favorites. I deeply enjoy the times that I am able to get lost in the memoirs of lives that seem to somehow connect with my own. I found the haunting honesty of Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, absolutely fascinating and I currently find myself engrossed in Rupert Isaacson’s The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son.

I always have at least one book in my bag, and try to get a few chapters in whenever I can find a handful of minutes during the day. I cherish those long, quiet days when I can cuddle up with a blanket, an intoxicating book and get a wonderful case of “book-itus.”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Learning to Write, in 5 Easy Steps

.... If only it were as easy as the title of this blog post.

A few throat-clearing items.

1) Hi! I'm thrilled to be your guest blogger this week.
2) I'm the author of "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," a novel set in Silicon Valley, which you can find on the shelves of Kepler's in newly-released paperback form.
3) It's lovely to meet you all.

Now, on to the meat of my post.

I've been a writer -- in the loosest interpretation of this word - since I was in second grade, composing poorly-spelled stories about my pet basset hound. And I've been a professional writer -- as in, making a living putting words on paper -- since I got my first job as a journalist at Wired Magazine in 1995, when I was just out of college. So you could say I've been writing for nearly three decades.

But when I quit my staff writing job at to try my hand at writing fiction, back in 2002, I realized I was starting at zero again. I knew nothing about the process of fiction-writing. Although I'd known I wanted to be a novelist since I was about seven years old, I'd never really written anything but journalism (outside of some rather execrable prose-poems I wrote in a narcissistic love-stricken stupor, back in college).

Many would-be authors "learn to write" by signing up for an MFA program and heading off to university to spend two years in a sheltered bubble of all-prose all-the-time. It's an expensive luxury, a bootcamp for the privileged few. But I didn't take that route. Instead, I took local workshops (including with Palo Alto writing teacher Tom Parker) and fiction writing classes at UC Berkeley extensions and UCLA extensions (once I moved to Los Angeles). Through these classes, I wrote a whole drawer full of short stories, 99% of which I should probably burn. They were not good -- hesitant, light on character, and poorly structured -- but the point was less to write publishable works than it was to simply get in the habit of writing prose.

I also read. And I didn't just read for the joy of reading - I read in order to learn. I went back to some of my favorite books, ones that I already knew what happens in the end (so I wouldn't get distracted by plot), and re-read them in order to dissect them. I took notes as I wrote - wrote outlines of the book's structure, made narrative and character maps, wrote down favorite lines of dialogue. I tried to look under the hoods of these books in order to see how the author had constructed their stories, their characters, and their language.

Next, I copied. I transcribed short stories that I found interesting, typing them out word by word, in order to get a feel for the rhythm and pace of great writing. It was a fascinating exercise, almost like stepping into another author's shoes.

Eventually, I began to write a novel. I wrote and threw away vast quantities of material: I didn't regard my writing as precious. I wrote words that were disposable -- long character sketches that I knew would never make it into a book, scenes that had nothing to do with the story that I was telling, background material that I wanted to know about, but had no intention of putting in the novel. I knew that in order to write one good page, I would have to throw away ten bad ones, so I tried not to worry about quality as much as simply getting lots of material on paper. The quality, I figured, would come later, as I got better at what I was doing.

And finally, I sought feedback. I assembled a trusted group of writer friends and we started a writer's group that met every Thursday and gave each other regular feedback on each other's works. I found this invaluable - their reader's eyes could see the holes in my work that I couldn't, because I was too close to the material.

Even then, the process of learning to write was tedious. It took me almost six years after quitting my job, and four complete drafts of my novel, before I finally had a book published. And I feel like I'm still learning how to write every day. Even now, when I'm feeling rusty, I go back to some of these exercises (especially reading books to deconstruct them) for a little jump-start.

... and I'm always interested in collecting other people's stories. I'm curious what exercises you do to learn how to write -- Do you take classes? Have you come up with your own learning exercises? Or do you just write and figure the learning will come naturally?


ps - the photo is of me, with my dog Guster, in my backyard.