Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.




Friday, October 31, 2008

A Writer's Creed: Get What You Need. Maybe It's What You Want, After All.

About six months ago, a new acquaintance, a would-be MFA student, was complaining about being too broke to apply to nearby schools that didn't offer funding; unable to relocate to take advantage of programs that do offer funding; and unimpressed with the low-residency model. What to do?

I'm sympathetic to this dilemma because it's one I faced several years ago when the traditional programs I could reasonably commute to didn't offer much in the way of funding, and in one case offered me a "scholarship" that sliced the tuition, but only down to a level that made me gasp instead of pass out. I didn't think I would get enough out of a low residency program, and at the time (and I don't think it's changed much since) no low residency programs I could find offered funding that would substantially reduce costs. Eventually, I realized that for me it was going to be low-res or nothing (as is the case for many other mid-life, mid-career folks) and I found a low residency program to suit me, one that was more-or-less reasonably priced (in comparison, friends), got a loan and got on with it.

Which is what I told my new acquaintance. Leap, I said. He wasn't ready and wanted to know if he could get at least some of the literary training he longed for without disrupting his family, job, and home, or going broke, or both.


I told him there was good news and bad.

First the bad: Want to seriously write? It's going to be disruptive. You are going to need to steal the time, from somewhere – family, job, home, hobbies, sport, friends. I've yet to meet or read about any successful writer (and I’m defining success broadly here, not in best-seller terms) who describes their transition to becoming a dedicated, serious writer as a smooth one which pleased everyone around them.

More bad news: It's going to cost you. Maybe you don't need to fork over a tuition check the size of a house down payment, but you know what? If it's top quality instruction, guidance, coaching, and advice you are after – and not just that you want to spend more time writing – there's a price tag, even outside the MFA. Really fine writing teachers who take on private students or who teach in non-academic settings or non-degree programs have value and are priced accordingly.

A little more bad news: Debt is bad for a writer. I'm learning this first hand right now. Sign on for those student loans and sure, you get to pursue the MFA without working three jobs at the same time. But six months after graduation, those loan payments begin. True, they can be spread over 10 years, and as my husband keeps trying to explain to me, an extra monthly payment that's less than the combined cable/broadband/phone bill is manageable. Most months. Unless the entire economy tanks, throwing both of your self-employed incomes into a tailspin. Like now. The point is, if you are worried about paying for that MFA, if you find yourself having to take on work that's soul-sucking but better-paying just to whittle down that MFA loan – well, I can tell you that's not a great way to feel post-degree. But I wouldn't trade those two MFA years either.

The dilemma is, now that I finally feel I'm ready to write full time, my family's financial outlook isn't ready for me to do so. Maybe it's just me, someone who abhors debt, who pays off entire credit card balances every single month, who won't buy a car unless I can put down 50 percent and also get 0% financing. I'm sure others have much higher tolerances for debt. But a writer who is emotionally burdened over cash flow (hey wait, doesn't that describe most writers?) is not in the best of all possible creative places. But enough about me. I'll get the loan paid off, maybe later rather than sooner.

Back to my friend. Here's the good news. If the MFA is out of reach financially, or logistically, well -- forget about it. Concentrate on what is possible and create your own "program" to elevate your writing. I'd build it around having at least one traditional type of workshop-style "class" going most of the time. Writing coaches, authors and MFA-level instructors are all around, teaching a course or running a workshop here or there out of their homes, a writing or literary center, or community colleges – why? To supplement their writing income, or because they want to teach but don't want the administrative burden of a traditional faculty position, or because they just like the independence.

My friend located three excellent, well-published writers who teach privately, all less than 90 minutes from his somewhat rural town, at various price points, but all within his budget and right for his skill and craft level. He's starting his first workshop with one of them next week. Meanwhile, he's found a
literary festival near his parent's house, with free workshops and lectures, so he's combining that with an overdue visit. He joined two writers' organizations, in two different cities, and one smaller one much closer to home. He's applied for workshop scholarships at two writing conferences, and is just now thinking about a few low-residency MFA programs in cities where he has relatives or friends who can offer free lodging. Last month, he attended a reading, lingered afterward, fell into conversation with the author, who offered (yes, without being asked or begged) to read the first chapter of his novel-in-progress and pass on some tips.

All good. But there is some bad news. The money he's spending on the workshop was supposed to be for a guys-only weekend to watch his old college football team. His wife tells him his writing life is cutting into their time together after the kids are in bed, not to mention how he's monopolized the basement corner she'd once planned to turn into a craft studio.

See? Disruptive. Good for him.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Teaching (Writing) is to Learning as Learning is to Teaching -- or Something Like That

A few things about teaching writing that drive me a little bit crazy:

- Writing students who say they don't read much (huh?).
- Giving an open-ended writing assignment and having students ask for very specific guidelines.
- Giving a tightly-defined writing assignment and having students ask for fewer guidelines.
- Students who say they'd rather write than do anything else in the world – and then can't (won't?) complete a short writing assignment.

Some things I love:

- I read an excerpt from an author I'm very familiar with, and when students respond, I learn something new and unexpected.
- How quickly a supportive atmosphere develops around any table where writers gather to learn.
- When I think I've said everything I can on a topic, and then someone asks a great question and the discussion continues.
- Watching a student intently scribbling, just after class ends, eager to get their words down, which were somehow pried loose by something they read, heard or thought about during class.
- When I worry that I'm veering off topic a little, and then finding students fully engaged, and realizing it's a lot more on-point than what I had originally prepared.
- That aha look. Theirs, or mine.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Takes Two (Complete Opposites?) To Tango

Over the summer, I was asked to write an essay about being a "white collar" wife to a "blue collar" husband. I don't often think of me and my husband in those terms, as I'm more likely to say something glib about opposites attracting, and leave it at that. But it got me thinking -- about how, even after 20 years, in a thousand ways, we're both more different than we are alike, and yes, the disparity in career trajectory is not insignificant. In the end, it's a piece about how being different can be great – and greatly frustrating – but it also makes one important point about enduring love.

The piece went up today over at
YourTango.com (formerly TangoMag.com, the web descendant of the no-longer-in-print magazine Tango).

It's titled I Like NPR, He Likes NASCAR. Here's a taste:

He likes NASCAR, I'm into Nova. His food comes bland, mine spicy. He's a beach person, I hate sand in my suit. He watches CSI, I'm liking Medium. Frank skied, I was a competitive equestrian. I listen to NPR, his tastes run to (do I have to say it?) a.m. talk. Then there's the biggie. Frank never went to college. Not a semester, not a day. Me? I just completed a master's degree. In literary nonfiction. Which my husband never reads…I read in order to keep breathing. Frank reads the sports pages and Consumer Reports, and he even reads long involved fantasy books about bats and bots aloud with our ten year old. But I long, yes, still, after 20 years for him to really read—a novel, any novel, or a memoir, even a ghostwritten one about a quarterback…
Do I sometimes wish I'd married a man who went to college, who works in a more lucrative, higher profile business, who likes Springsteen, knows the difference between The Nation and The New Republic, and who has already read the book I'm in the middle of? I do……

You can read the rest here. Oh and yes, he does read what I write – if I ask, and nicely.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Twitter, Tweet, Twitterpated

One of my clients is using Twitter to lure in more website visitors, so they'll get interested in subscribing and/or buying products from the site. An editor friend is taking a break to read through the Twitter postings of friends every hour or so, to keep from going insane while doing tedious edits on a scientific manuscript. Me? I'm wandering around Twitter every so often to get a feel for this newest social/business communication tool. Occasionally I also Tweet.

So, it being Sunday night, and having just wrapped up plans for a class I'm teaching tomorrow morning, and my brain feeling a little lazy, here's what just occurred to me: In the movie, when Bambi emerged from hibernation to discover he'd started growing antlers and no longer felt like a little boy, and instead starting falling in love with Faline, all the other little animals said, "Aw, he's twitterpated".

So, what'll we call falling in love w/Twitter?

P.S. If you feel about Twitter the way I did six weeks ago (What the??), then click here for the details - clever & quick.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out

Tidbits for a Friday. Because sometimes the brain just can't put together more than that.

►Seems everyone I know who has been through an MFA program can name one person in their class about whom every other student wondered, "Why is he/she a student and not on the faculty?" That's what I thought each time I listened to
Patricia Smith read – no I should say, perform -- one of her poems. And now I can say I have a friend from grad school whose poetry book, Blood Dazzler, has been nominated for the National Book Award. Go, girl.

►The blog title says it all:
The Three P's of Post-MFA 08: PhDs, Publications and Panhandling. Go, you'll like it.


►While contemplating whether the sky will cave in, I found this well-put, practical advice to being a writer during the big, bad economic crisis our country – and likely everyone's wallet – is facing. On her blog, Tamara Kaye Sellman, has a lot to offer on the subject. Like this:

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with putting your economic needs ahead of your writing life if the writing life doesn't reconcile your bank statement at the end of the day. Of course, the challenge in writing while having a full-time job and possibly a family to raise, is always going to be about finding the time to write. But let me give you some advice from a 13-year veteran of that battlefield: the busier you are, the more likely you'll become a better time manager and overcome issues such as writer's block."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Matthew Quick, on First Novels, Readings, and Those Questions Readers Ask

As is so often the case, I first "met" today's guest blogger Matthew Quick on the page, through an essay of his in The Sun, nearly two years ago. Then we both wound up with nonfiction work in the same issue of the literary journal Quay and discovered we were both writing and living in New Jersey – he closer to Philadelphia, me nearer to Manhattan. Later, I interviewed Matthew, who has an MFA from Goddard, for an article on Mediabistro. Then one morning at breakfast not long ago, I found him – or rather his terrific first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) -- in the coveted Newly Released column in the weekday arts section of the New York Times, and heard it touted on NPR. I had to find out on my own, since Matthew doesn't mention it, that the film rights to his book have been optioned by The Weinstein Company. While I understand his pragmatic "anything can happen" reason for not shouting this last news from the rafters, I, on the other hand can whoop all I want for him.

Please welcome Matthew Quick.

Last month, I embarked on what I will loosely refer to as my debut ‘book tour’—a few readings, signings, and interviews in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

I was excited, hopeful, thrilled.

Four years before, I had left a tenured teaching position and sold my house to pursue fiction writing seriously. In that period I wrote three unpublished novels. My fourth, The Silver Linings Playbook, weathered more than 70 rejections from literary agents, and, once Doug Stewart began to represent me, the book endured many courtships with US publishing houses that were initially interested but ultimately passed. We actually sold rights in Europe before the US.

And then, suddenly, somehow, I was finally a published novelist with positive reviews, ready to greet my fans. One of my first appearances was during the opening of an architecture museum of sorts that has a bookstore attached. Feeling proud, sitting behind a big desk, pen in hand, with stacks of my novel prominently displayed throughout this hip new venue, I was approached by a man in a suit.

“Is this book about architecture?” he asked me.

“No, sir.”

“What’s it about?”

I gave him my one-minute pitch

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m signing books.”

“Were you asked to come?”

“Yes.”

“Why? Your book has nothing to do with architecture.”

“But it’s set locally. And it did get nice write ups in
The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and in People too.”

He examined the cover of my book more closely. “May I read the first chapter?”

“Sure, please do,” I said, and then for the next five minutes I anxiously watched this potential reader sample my words.

When he finished, he snapped my book shut, placed it back on the table, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Nope,” popping the ‘p’ triumphantly. Then he walked away.

There was no one behind him, and so for a few moments, I just sat there, sort of stunned.

Now, I fully realized that not everyone would like my book, that some people would fall outside of my target audience, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for a face-to-face p-popping ‘Nope.’

Shortly afterward, a woman in a cocktail dress walked up to me and said, “There’s a football helmet on your cover. I’m a woman. I don’t like football. Why should I read your book?”

There was no smile on her face. She was demanding to know why I expected her to crack open my book—which, if you really think about it, is a perfectly legitimate question.

For a good five minutes I smiled at this potential reader, told her that my editor is a woman who does not particularly like football, nor does my agent,
Doug Stewart, and they both love the book. Plus, we were getting a really good response from women readers so far. I talked about how my novel really isn’t a football book at all, but a quirky love story, a book about family, hope, new beginnings, and finding promise in unlikely situations. By the end of my pitch, I had her smiling, but she moved on without buying my book, and I began to feel slightly exhausted, crestfallen, even though I would go on to sell a few copies that night.

Recently, I did a corporately sponsored event. It was the grand opening of a bank branch. There was a string quartet, free food and booze, and the sponsor had purchased 100 copies of my novel. Anyone who attended could have a signed copy—for FREE.

The sponsor had made beautiful posters of my novel’s jacket, and I had all of my positive reviews framed on the signing table. I thought surely I’d have all the free copies signed and moved in under an hour.

But early in the evening a man walked up to me and asked, “So why should I read your book?” Again, this was posed as a challenge—there was a confrontational edge to his question, as if he were insulted by the bank’s offering of a free novel.

In my mind I was thinking, These are FREE tonight. All you have to do is say your name and I sign your book and then you take it home. But it quickly dawned on me that this man wanted to know why he should carry my book around for the rest of the night, why he should even bother to lift it off the table. And so I gave him my pitch, smiling unceasingly, and he ended up shaking my hand and taking a signed copy home.

I would go on to sign many books and have dozens of genuinely pleasant conversations that night, but a long line never formed and, at times, I had to lure people away from the free drinks and food long enough to convince them to take a free copy of my novel.

Why should anyone read my book?

When I was writing The Silver Linings Playbook, like most writers, I was trying to craft a good story that would move people, something I thought readers would generally like, but I never really thought objectively—from a purely market-driven point of view—about why many people should bother to reach specifically for my book, especially considering that there are so many other equally entertaining, well-written books they could read. When you publish, you are absolutely asking people to choose your book—to pluck it off the shelf, pay money for it, and then devote hours to reading your words. It’s an incredible request. Going through the publishing process has really changed the way I now think about this reality.

I have always loved to read fiction. I taught my students that reading fiction makes you a more humane person. I respect anyone who takes the time to arrange words carefully and is brave enough to share stories with the rest of the world. And so the ‘sell-it-to-me’ attitude of many potential readers I met on ‘book tour’ was slightly disheartening, but extremely illuminating. And because I want people to read my books, because I love writing fiction and want to keep doing what I am doing full-time, I am adapting my pitch, becoming a better salesman, learning every day.

Note from Lisa: Read an excerpt of the novel
here. Though he's officially "on hiatus," Matthew will still answer occasional writing and publishing questions on his blog.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Jobs in Editorial, Media, Publishing: Gloomy, yes. Maybe this will help.

Every week lately, I hear from or read about an acquaintance or two who have lost jobs in journalism, editorial, media, or publishing due to downsizing, closures, mergers and other situations. Recently, a laid-off friend and I compiled a list of job boards and resources. For anyone it may help, I'm posting it here. It's by no means comprehensive and is more reflective of that friend's current interests; but with the economy as it is, I can't see keeping it to myself.

http://www.mediabistro.com/joblistings/
http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/jobs/
http://jobs.foliomag.com/careers/jobsearch
http://writesuccess.com/id25.html
http://www.filcro.com/page9.htm
http://mastheads.jobamatic.com/a/jbb/find-jobs
http://www.asbpe.org/jobs/jobsites.htm
http://www.bookjobs.com/searchjobs.php
http://www.mediajobmarket.com/jobs/index.jsp
http://journalismjobs.com/
http://minonline.com/mediajobs/
http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com/
http://writejobs.com/


Here's hoping you don't (and won't) need it. If you do, I hope you find something that is in at least some important way better than what you left behind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Author Q/A: Laura Shumaker on Writing About Sons, Publishing Surprises, and When NOT to Schedule a Reading

Memoirs about raising sons – all kind of memoirs, all kinds of sons – are one of my weaknesses. I collect them the way my teenager hoards NASCAR tee shirts and my10-year-old accumulates Pokemon cards. I know I may never get to all of them; that's not the point. I have to have them.

By way of a mutual writer friend,
Laura Shumaker's memoir, A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism, landed on my desk this summer, got moved around from office to bedside table and back, resided for a week in my car, where I can read for 15 minutes each afternoon while in the school pick up queue. As with most memoirs, I didn't want to start it until I knew I'd have time to finish. Then I read it in two short sittings last weekend and I knew I wanted to interview Laura.

LR: Your book covers so much ground, from before Matthew was born until his 18th birthday. What was your biggest challenge as a writer in selecting which events and scenes out of the vast store of family memories to write about? And as a mother?

Laura Shumkaer: When I first started writing what I thought was “the book,” it was a collection of stories--sort of like an anthology--about being a mother of an autistic child. I arranged the stories semi-chronologically and showed them to an editor,
Alan Rinzler. He encouraged me to change it to a continuing narrative with a beginning, middle and end. It was then I had to think about what readers would want to know about me and my family. I thought it was important to show how my history, growing up in a loving family affected by tragedy and knowing early on that I wanted to be a MOTHER, was important. I tried to stay focused on the memories that would add to the story.

LR: I felt a close rapport with you as the mother-narrator especially through your use of italics to frame your gut reactions, acknowledging the sometimes unsavory thoughts we mothers have when outsiders make judgments about our children. What impressed was your restraint in using this device so that each use has an impact. I'm curious how you came to deploy this device, whether it was there from the start, or did it evolve in revisions?

LS: In the beginning, I wrote long explanatory sentences about how I was feeling, what I was doing--so much emotional calamity. It seemed awfully wordy and defensive, so I decided to try the old “show don’t tell” and the italics showed what I was thinking, which I thought was more effective.

LR: Writing about one's children and spouse and about family history is fraught with landmines, some anticipated, others often unexpected. Can you talk about how you navigated this difficult terrain? Did you let your husband and/or sons react to the book before it was published?

LS: I took a class from a writer who joked about being sued by her family after each of her books was published. I wanted to tell the truth, but I wanted to do it in the context of our situation. In one chapter, I tell about the time my husband lost it with Matthew. They were punching and kicking each other and I had to call 911 to break it up. Instead of making my husband look like a child abuser, I showed how exasperating Matthew can be, how frustrating it was for my husband to connect with him, and the remorse both felt after the fight. When Peter (my husband) read that chapter, he was very moved and appreciated how I portrayed him. Both he and my son Andy read every chapter and helped me express the truth. One funny thing--in one chapter, I talk about breast feeding, and Andy begged me to take it out.

LR: What has the reaction been from family members, neighbors and others who know your family and Matthew?

LS: My family loved the book. My husband and my son Andy both cried when they read it from beginning to end. Andy said “Wow. You really knew how hard it was for me.” That was very cool. I was surprised that some friends and acquaintances felt guilty after reading the book because they thought they hadn’t done enough to support me along the way. I’ve also noticed that some friends and acquaintances have been avoiding me, so either they are judging me or they think I targeted them!

LR: You open yourself to possible criticism when you write about being just too tired and worn down to try yet another "solution" for Matthew. While parents of special needs kids will relate completely, were you concerned about the reactions of others?

LS: I thought it was important to tackle this issue honestly. When you have a special needs child, some well-meaning friends, family and remote acquaintances have stories about what other people in your same situation have done, bless their hearts, they have stopped at nothing blah, blah, blah and look how great their kid is doing. As for showing my flaws, I knew that readers would relate to me better if I told the truth. I think that readers could feel my fatigue and desperation.

LR: Some writers who've written about their children's struggles are accused of exploiting their family for career advancement. How does one deal with those emotions and practical considerations?

LS: I felt like I didn’t exploit anyone, but explained them. When in doubt, I left out incriminating stories because I felt that being defensive would take away from the story. I tried to show that Matthew was a challenge even in the best of circumstances.

LR: At one point you eavesdrop on your sons Andy and John, telling "Matthew stories." I thought this was an effective way to allow another point-of-view and show the brothers' affection for Matthew without that cloying "aren't my boys fabulous" tone. Another move I liked was the switch to present tense for a chapter detailing the tediousness of a day at home with an unpredictable teenage Matthew, who's scattered and unmoored. I'm always curious if writers make these choices organically or if they result from a dilemma during rewriting.

LS: Once again, “show don’t tell.” Especially the present tense story. I really wanted readers to know what a typical day with Matthew was like!

LR: As a first time author, what surprised you most?

LS: I’m surprised by how hard it is to get a book published. I’m amazed by the bad books that get published and the good ones that don’t. I’m thrilled by the people I’ve met now that I’m a writer.

LR: What led you to publish your book independently?

LS: After my manuscript and book proposal were ready, it took about four months to get an agent, Jill Marsal of Sandra Dijkstra. I thought I was set. Jill was a great agent and loved my project, as did the other agents at Dijkstra, but was not able to find a publisher. We came close several times, but it seemed all of the editors who were interested wanted to turn my memoir into a "how I cured my son" book. They said that autism memoirs didn't sell well unless they had a prescriptive element.

I decided to self publish, because I was scheduled to speak at a number of conferences and didn't want to lose out. Once I had my book designed and put together, I sent it out to a few more agents and
April Eberhardt of Reese Halsey North, in her words "snapped it up". She is pitching it to traditional publishers, and while I'm hopeful, I'm realistic. It's a numbers game, and the Jenny McCarthys of the world will sell more books regardless of quality than a first time 50ish author like me! While the book is selling well, it is hard to get the distribution that I would with a traditional publisher.

LR: Have you done a lot of readings? Does your family get involved?

LS: Funny you should ask! I was just in Chicago where I did a reading at a developmental center the same night and the same time as the second McCain/Obama debate. I had nine people in the audience and sold ONE book. I’ve had many others, though, and am scheduled for many more.

I love readings and author appearances. They are the best way to sell books. I usually read three chapters and then take questions and the questions go on for an hour or more. My husband and son John go to all my readings and are very active in the Q and A. (Andy is in college back east, and Matthew chooses not to attend, but tells everyone that he is famous because his mother loved him so much that she wrote a book about him.)

I have several California readings coming up in November for A Regular Guy (details on my
website). During October, I'm doing a few readings from a new anthology, Writin' on Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside, and Everything In Between When Children Leave the Nest.

LR: What's next? Are you at work on a new writing project?

LS: I’m ghost writing a book with an autism specialist--it’s a great learning experience and profitable, but what I really want to do is write a sequel that weaves Matthew's, Andy's and John’s stories together.

Note: You can find an excerpt of Laura's book
here and an essay Laura wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Jobs, Novels, NaNoWriMo, Write-a-Thon, Poetry in Jersey, Agents and the Fabulous Nancy Mairs. Phew.


►Yeah, I'm not a big Gawker fan either. But this seemed to pretty accurately sum up the sad state of the journalism/media job market. A more helpful, if not entirely cheerful destination is this site, where all in one spot one can find nearly 100 links to job boards, salary charts, publishing company evaluations by former/current employees, and more on-the-job-hunt resources (resume examples, etc.).

►Anyone out there taking the
NaNoWriMo plunge this November? If a month is too much to commit to, check out this Write-a-thon, for just one day, and for a good cause too. (Not that kick-starting a novel isn't a good cause, but this one involves boosting Dzanc Books' nonprofit program putting writers in the schools.)

►I've been exploring the literary landscape around northern New Jersey lately, and while I already knew that my neighboring community of Montclair is heavily populated with authors, journalists, broadcasters, editors and media pros, I was also pleased to find, for example, that a few miles in the other direction, in the grittier cities of Passaic and Paterson,
poetry activities are thriving.

►I heard three of those Montclair writer/editors (see above!) talk about memoir writing and getting published at
Watchung Booksellers a few weeks ago and had been planning to post some of their good tips. I got sidetracked and though I still plan to pass on some of what I learned that night, in the meantime, here's a quick video of David Henry Sterry speaking as part of another panel at an iconic independent NYC bookstore, on snaring an agent.

►Essayist, memoirist and poet
Nancy Mairs, over on her publisher Beacon Press's blog, talks about her writing life, on the occasion of receiving the 2008 Arizona Literary Treasure Award. She titled her piece, "How I Became a Treasure," and it's a great read, tinged with all of her wonderful gifts for understatement, bemusement and simple yet compelling narrative.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Author Q/A: Penelope Schwartz Robinson on Publishing an Essay Collection and Slippery Men

Penelope Schwartz Robinson's first book (already favorably reviewed), is the essay collection Slippery Men, winner of the Stonecoast Book Prize, and published this month by New Rivers Press. Penelope teaches creative writing at University of Maine Farmington, and is a 2004 graduate of USM's Stonecoast MFA program. Our time at Stonecoast did not overlap, but we have a number of writer friends in common, and I got to know Penelope when she visited Stonecoast during residencies and by sharing meals, ideas and walks together at writers conferences from Iowa to New York over the last year. I was thrilled to hear that she recently was awarded a $13,000 Maine Individual Artist Fellowship, and I can't wait for her book to launch this month. She took some time out this past weekend to answer my questions.

LR: Penelope, you've done something thought virtually impossible for literary nonfiction writers -- getting an essay collection published without being an already established author. You must be feeling pretty great about that.

Penelope Schwartz Robinson: It’s amazing! An essay collection is very hard to place. Usually a writer publishes something else—a memoir for instance—and then is asked “do you have anything else?” And that’s when it’s possible to put up a collection. I am enormously grateful this has worked the other way around for me because I think the collection showcases different strengths of mine that might not have been so apparent in a more “cohesive” piece of work.

LR: Can you talk a bit about how the book came together? Did some of the essays come out of your work in the MFA program?

PSR: Five of the seven essays in the book originated in Stonecoast workshops; however, each has been significantly revised post-Stonecoast. The other two are excerpted from two book-length projects I worked on after Stonecoast. The overall vision was cast with the MFA thesis because it also was titled Slippery Men and my selective process of the many pieces of work I had to choose from was shaped by the title.

LR: Can you describe what life has been like in the months, weeks and days leading up to the publication date? Enjoyable, frantic or both?

PSR: I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the beginning, it was very quiet. New Rivers Press is a teaching press which means I worked with a team of college students from Minnesota State University at Moorhead in the initial phases. This is a situation which requires a good deal of author patience. The team was very enthusiastic. In the end, everything came together. NRP is fortunate to have Donna Carlson as its Managing Editor. She had the enormous responsibility of wrangling the student team and working with the author— both of which she handled beautifully. She was thorough and flexible and I credit her with everything good about the finished product. As for the timetable, things heated up a little as we approached the publication date, but not too appreciably.

LR: You have a reading coming up in
Boston (Oct. 14) as well as in New York City (Oct. 29). In what ways, if any, do you prepare differently for a Manhattan audience?

PSR: I have read previously a couple of times in New York City. I don’t prepare terribly differently, but since I am something of a “nature” writer, I do tend to tone that down for a city audience and go with material which is a little less “outdoorsy.”

LR: Many essayists (me included) and memoirists struggle with putting their relatives and friends on the page. How did you deal with that? Talk to them about it? Get an OK? Change names and details? Let them read it first in draft form? Just plunge ahead hope for the best?

PSR: Writing about friends and relatives (and people who just happen to cross one’s path) is definitely a challenge. In a general response to your question: none of the above. I don’t ask anyone’s permission and I don’t let anyone read drafts. (So far.) I have a couple of ground rules: when I’m writing about people who didn’t ask to be included in my (writing) life—as for instance “Elliot” in “Mucking About”— I change their names. The same is true for friends. I do not write about my daughters—unless the work is undisputedly positive. I don’t write about my husband. Parents, because they are so formative, I believe have to be placed carefully on the page. My father, as an example, has recently died and so did not see the piece I wrote about him. My stepmother, however, is another matter and I am concerned that she will be offended by this work. I have tried to prepare her and, as you say, shall hope for the best. My mother is still living and I have written a great deal about her which I will not publish during her lifetime.

LR: As you know, I finished an MFA a few months ago and I'm in my late 40s; so it's wonderful and hopeful for me to see a graduate of the same program who is older than me, getting her first book published a few years post-MFA. What advice, if any, do you have for fellow writers getting started at a certain age?

PSR: The line I begin almost every interview with is, “I’m a late bloomer.” It has been enormously gratifying to me to achieve recognition during my mid-to-late sixties. I spent a good deal of my life putting off my own creativity in the service of others. Now, I don’t regret that because I learned so much that allowed me to move ahead with a voice of my own. A voice, I believe, that would not have found utterance even ten years ago.

My involvement with the Saturday Morning Club is an important part of not only my development, but also my ability to believe in it happening later in life. I’ve been a member of this extraordinary group of women since 1988. Founded by Julia Ward Howe in 1871, the Saturday Morning Club provides a forum for women to present personal philosophical and literary expression. We meet every Saturday at the Harvard Club in Boston from October to April; each member reads aloud a 25-30 page “paper” annually. When I was invited to join, I was forty-eight years old and the baby of the group. It was enormously important for me to see women in their sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties, who were alive and vibrant. I credit the Saturday Morning Club with giving me a vision of what was still possible for me.

LR: Your essay about your father's aging especially speaks to me, as this is a theme I've been exploring as well. It really all starts with our Dads, doesn't it – our relationship with all the men in our lives, slippery or not?

PSR: In my case, although I have written about my father, that’s easier for me to do than to write about my mother, where the real conflict lies. But men. Yes. At least for me, most of the major decisions, choices, postures in my adult life were made in response to men.

LR: Since you teach at the college level, I imagine you need some pretty definite structure to your own writing time. Can you dish on where, when, how often, etc.?

PSR: This semester I’m not teaching so I have a really wonderful schedule, structured exactly as I like it: up at 4:30-5, write, meditate, move around words until 6. Breakfast, walk the dog, read the paper. Back at the desk from 9-12. Sometimes I’ll do a little more work in the afternoon, but essentially, I’m a morning person. Cooking is a vital part of my life and so every afternoon I go to the market and from 4 on, am involved in making dinner. I don’t strive for a particular number of pages, but I do need to run a few words through my fingers and my head every day. I thrive on structure and this semester I have it. There is no question but that teaching, especially college teaching, disrupts the creative cycle. I, at least, find it hard to switch gears. Also, since I teach creative writing, I have to shake my students’ words out of my head before approaching my own. And there’s no real boundary for the contemporary teacher: on any given day, I’ll get twenty to fifty e-mails from students, some in the middle of the night, and all requiring considerable response.

LR: What's on your reading table right now, and on the to-be-read list? And is it as frustrating to you as it is to me, that one never gets enough time to read everything one wants?

PSR: I consider my reading just as important as my writing— perhaps more so. I find I read entirely differently now from the way I used to: I really read like a writer, which means my reading is much more concentrated and if more intense infinitely more rewarding. I’ve been on a
Richard Preston kick. He wrote The Wild Trees, about climbing the redwoods, an absolutely fantastic book. I read that a couple of years ago and this summer I caught up with his The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer, books he calls part of his “black biology” series. I also love Simon Winchester and I’m just about to finish his latest, The Man Who Loved China. Those are all literary nonfiction. I have also been reading, from time to time, various “illness” memoirs as research for a project I’m working on.

In fiction, I’ve been indulging myself with
Wallace Stegner (about whom I’m writing my Saturday Morning Club paper for December), one of my literary heartthrobs. I re-read Angle of Repose, a novel I greatly admire. Read Redemption, The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, which is a collection of essays about the West. This is what I’ve been reading since July. I don’t exactly have a to-read list. I tend to pick things up as I go along. But I certainly agree, there is never enough time to read all the books one wants to. Recently I decided I need to re-read Norman Mailer, but I haven’t taken that on yet.

LR: What's next writing-wise?

PSR: I am working on a book-length project about assisting a friend through the initial terminal diagnosis to her death from uterine cancer. I have just received funding for this project from the
Maine Arts Commission (a “Good Idea Grant”). It’s a little hard going because it’s intense, but I am moving on it. I have also been given her diaries by the family and I am going through this material to incorporate it into my text.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Author Interviews, Book Review Sites, and a Used Books Cache

►Now that the household is healthy once again, it's going to be a busy month here. I have four author interviews lined up, so look for one each week, starting in a few days. I'm always thrilled when writer friends have new books coming out, and especially when it's a first book. Yes, I'm jealous too. Sue me.

►I recently discovered One Minute Book Reviews and if I hadn't also recently met the blog author, I'd have thought she was really ten people, otherwise how could she possibly read all of those books and make all of those smart observations? But she's the real deal and what I like most is that she takes a look at all kinds of books, not just a narrow sampling of personal favorites, as is often the case with book blogs.

►This weekend was the annual used book sale held at the apple-pumpkin market on the grounds of an historic site here in our little town. I got there just as the barn doors opened for first crack at the stacks (and piles, boxes, rows and milk crates full) of books. I wasn't looking for anything in particular (why risk disappointment?) which I find is the best way to approach these things.

The haul: 34 books. Total: $14. A very random sampling:

The Slate Diaries. Pre-2000 postings from a hugely divergent group of 71 essayists, journalists, novelists and others from the site's early days, and a how-Slate-started introduction by Micheal Kinsley that now reads as both social media commentary and quaintly wide-eyed history.
The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger). 'Cause my teenager is going to have to read it sometime soon and since it's his habit to first read the school-issued copy and then re-read and re-read, and this was a never-been-cracked open recent issue. And hey, I can barely remember most of it myself. Maybe I'll read along with him.
Blue Shoes and Happiness (Alexander McCall Smith). Never had a desire to read anything from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, but a visitor recently remarked that I had a lot of "blue books" on my shelf – Blue Suburbia (Laurie Lico Albanese, a memoir in poetry); Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet's memoir of growing up with Asperger's Syndrome); and Blue Peninsula (Madge McKeithen's memoir of how poetry got her through a son's illness). [Anyone else see a symmetry there?] So I grabbed it. And you know, anything with "shoes" in the title might be OK.
Paris to the Moon (Adam Gopnik). I snagged this even though it was the only one in my stash with that musty been-sitting-in-the-basement-too-long odor, because I love Gopnik's New Yorker essays and articles and since I'll never move to Paris (or anywhere!) with my spouse and kids for a few years and bathe in culture and food and all things foreign, I may as well read about it.
The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros). A chapter from this novel-in-vignettes was assigned during grad school and I was happy to find the slim book. Lately, I love anything written in short sections like this (some as short as a half-page). Is it my ever-shortening attention span in the face of too much to do, or my love of writers who can condense and condense and yet say so much more?
Three by Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, The Writing Life. This is a strange thing to say for someone who just finished an MFA in creative nonfiction: I'm not a huge Dillard fan; and yet I've learned an awful lot from studying her writing, so I figured this belongs on my shelf. If I read only a page at a time, from time to time, I'm guessing it will be worth at least 50 times what I paid for it. Probably more.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynne Truss). Had this on my Christmas list a few times but Santa apparently isn't into grammar and punctuation and all that.
It Happened in New Jersey (Fran Capo). I plead guilty. I live here.
• And finally, Shiloh Season (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor). Because Mom has to come home with something for her favorite young reader.