Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Laurence Gonzales and John Demos

Marrie Stone interviews Laurence Gonzales, author of Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and John Demos, author of The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World.

Download audio

(Broadcast date: October 15, 2008)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Raymond Carver on writing fiction from life

Since I read this interview a few days ago, in the Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III, it's stayed with me--especially this excerpt:

Interviewer: Where do your stories come from, then? I'm especially asking about the stories that have something to do with drinking.

Carver: The fiction I'm most interested in has lines of reference to the real world. None of my stories really happened, of course. But there's always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place. Here's an example: "That's the last Christmas you'll ever ruin for us!" I was drunk when I heard that, but I remembered it. And later, much later, when I was sober, using only that one line and other things I imagined, imagined so accurately that they could have happened, I made a story--"A Serious Talk." But the fiction I'm most interested in, whether it's Tolstoy's fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent. At the very least it's referential. Stories long or short don't just come out of thin air. ...... Of course you have to know what you're doing when you turn your life's stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself...A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.

A lil tidbit for you to dwell upon as this year segues into next ...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Diane Leslie

Diane Leslie, author of Fleur De Leigh's Life of Crime.

Download audio

(Broadcast date: September 6, 2000)

Friday, December 26, 2008

"Writers on Writing" Holiday Show

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and Marrie Stone are joined by The Green Room in a special Holiday episode of Writers on Writing. Enjoy music and readings by the cast and crew of the show.

Download audio.

(Broadcast date: December 24, 2008)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Preeta Samarasan and Dan Ariely

Marrie Stone interviews Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening is the Whole Day and Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

Download audio.

(Broadcast date: August 6, 2008)

Wednesday's show: Holiday show with The Green Room

Tomorrow we're having our somewhat annual Christmas show. Marrie and I will be reading from O'Henry and others, and my son Travis' band, The Green Room, will be with us, playing live.

Tune in at 9 a.m. Pacific at 88.9 FM KUCI or listen live at We're also on iTunes at Public Radio.
Travis and I wish you a wonderful holiday.

Photo by Judy Alexander.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Silencing the room

Lately I've been thinking of something that my late friend Barbara Seranella said on my show (it's in one of these interviews). She said when she was reading, to friends or to her critique group (of which I was a member), she didn't want to just hear, "Interesting," or "I like it." She wanted to silence the room.

That's a tall order, I know, and yet I find I've arrived at another crossroads with this novel I've rewritten for the umpteenth time. Who cares? I find myself thinking, and saying. And mostly I'm looking into myself and trying to figure out if I indeed care. The theme of this latest novel has grown stale, and now I'm thinking of shelving the entire thing. (And probably thinking entirely too much, which I always tell my students and writer friends: Stop thinking so much!)

It doesn't help that I receive so very many books in the mail to be considered for the show, and so many of them, while formidable, do not silence the room--especially the self-published books. (I really wish folks wouldn't send me self-published books. There are just not enough filters--editor, copyeditor, proofreader, etc. etc.--to polish the work to a high sheen.)

Yesterday on a long car ride, I found myself saying to Brian and Travis: "I just don't want to waste more paper on something that doesn't silence the room."

Of course they both thought I was outrageous. Writers use paper, Brian said.

True, true.

But still.

When I wrote Pen on Fire, I, in effect, silenced the room. And I didn't care which editor or agent said there were too many writing books on the shelf, I was going to get it out there, no matter what. My students needed it--well, wanted it, anyway--and so there was a greater good.

I'm not sure I have that same drive with this novel. And that drive is what carries you over and through.

As Judith Thurman said on my show in this wonderful interview, it's like the Shawshank Redemption, digging your way through a brick wall with a fork. You've got to be committed to your project this deeply.

So as well as enjoying the holiday and cookie parties and Christmas Eve Mass and hopefully more snow in the mountains, I'm going to spend these next couple of weeks dwelling, and playing around with a few ideas on the page.

What will you be doing? And what do you think about silencing the room? Is this something you think about?


Out at my brother-in-law's, his sweet horse, lovely dog Max, and a snowball tree.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

David Francis and Jon Fasman

Marrie Stone interviews David Francis, author of Stray Dog Winter and Jon Fasman, author of The Unpossessed City.

Download audio.

(Broadcast date: December 3, 2008)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wednesday's show

On Wednesday's show (12/17), my guests will be photographer Pete Souza, author of "The Rise of Barack Obama," Triumph Books, and Elizabeth Strout, author of the novel "Olive Kitteridge." The show airs at 9 a.m. Pacific, KUCI-FM, accessible via iTunes/public radio.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Writing books

A student asked:

"When do you know when you're ready to write a book?"

Most new writers, I think, start with short pieces--essays, articles, short stories. There's the gratification of starting and finishing. Jumping into a book length manuscript takes a ton of commitment and new writers don't know how committed they are, generally. It's a little bit like running: Before you run a marathon, you will run around your neighborhood, run longer routes, and get in shape before you attempt a marathon.

You may find, in writing short pieces, that you want to say more, that short pieces are, well, too short. That's when you know.

Or you have a burning passion to tell a story that needs more room than a short piece can offer.

My short stories became longer and longer, which is when I knew it was time for a book. I still write short pieces, but I always seem to need a book-length project in the works.

What about you, out there? When did you know it was time? Or do you remain loyal to the short form?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Linda Pastan, Martha Serpas and Lisa Williams

Marrie Stone moderates a poetry panel with Linda Pastan, author of Queen of a Rainy Country, Martha Serpas, author of The Dirty Side of the Storm, and Lisa Williams, author of Woman Reading to the Sea.

Download audio.

(Broadcast date: November 5, 2008)

Julia Glass on today's show

Today my guest will be Julia Glass, author of I See You Everywhere. Tune in at 9 a.m. Pacific at KUCI-FM, 88.9 in Orange Co., CA. Listen via iTunes at Public radio, or at

Podcasts of past shows can be heard here.

Thanks for listening!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Stephen Baker and Padma Viswanathan

Marrie Stone interviews Stephen Baker, author of The Numerati and Padma Viswanathan, author of The Toss of a Lemon

Download audio

(Broadcast date: October 1, 2008)

Publishing biz bailout

Has everyone been reading the paper, listening to the news and the online reports about the publishing biz?

My publisher, Harcourt, now merged with Houghton Mifflin to be Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has a six month moratorium on buying new manuscripts. Whoa, Nellie,

There's been a shake-up at Random House, too.

Publishing has been circling the drain for some time and the gurgles are becoming louder.

All this talk of bailouts--what about publishing? In my view, books are more important than cars and lots and lots of people are employed in the publishing industry. Why aren't publishers going to Washington?

Maybe I just don't understand politics. If I were a publisher, that's where I'd be headed.

New books are more important (to me) than new cars.

An editor came on my show last year and said too many books were being published, but how could publishers stop publishing--it's what they do: publish books.

If anything should slow down, it should be self-published books. Except for a rare few, I would venture to say no one reads self-published books, except family and close friends. I'm harsh, I know.

Yet, I'm still cranking, making progress on the umpteenth revision of my novel. I can't stop because publishing looks dismal. When I'm writing, I keep those dire reports away.

When I was pushing ahead with Pen on Fire, agents told me writing books didn't sell. Lots and lots of days and nights, sitting alone, being anti-social, writing and wondering if I would ever see the fruits of my labor. I'm here to say it was worth it. A pretty good deal, and a book that's in the 7th printing.

Writers write. What a cliche that's become. And yet it's so very true. You've got to have hope. Writers are a hopeful lot. Without hope, you would put down your pen, close up your computer, and do something else.

Meanwhile, is anybody talking publishing biz bailout, and if not, why not?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book freeze...or no?

An article in today's New York Times puts things a bit more in perspective, especially after yesterday's report in the Wall Street Journal that my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is putting a freeze on acquiring new manuscripts, for at least six months.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More on Annie Proulx

In an Oct. 18 post, I linked to an article Susan Salter Reynolds wrote about Annie Proulx. I don't know whether you read it, but even if you did, this bears repeating:

"Proulx believes the computer is 'the enemy of careful writing.' She prefers to write by hand, using the computer as 'a joinery device.'

"'There's something about the rhythm of writing on the page with a pen,' she says, 'that is richly fulfilling--like drawing a picture.'"

Yes. I love my fountain pen, which now contains a cartridge with purple ink. My favorite ink is turquoise, though. Makes the writing process more colorful, all those turquoise lines and curls falling upon the page, page after page.

Here she is, interviewed by Charlie Rose, in 1999.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tomorrow's radio show

On Weds., my guest will be ASJA friend Sam Greengard, author of Finding the Work You Love: The Essential Guide to Reinventing Your Life (AARP). Click here. 9 a.m. Pacific, 88.9 FM or listen via iTunes at KUCI-FM, or online at

Podcasts of previous shows can be found here.

The Paris Review

Thanks to ASJA compadre Pat McNees for pointing out this site. Read interviews online from the notable Paris Review. I have a few of the Paris Review Interviews (I like paper, and don't like to bring the laptop to bed), but you may like reading them online. And saving dinero.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wednesday's "Writers on Writing" KUCI-FM

Tomorrow, my co-host Marrie Stone moderates a post-election day poetry panel, including poets Lisa Williams, author of Woman Reading to the Sea: Poems, Linda Pastan, author of Queen of a Rainy Country: Poems and Martha Serpas, author of The Dirty Side of the Storm: Poems.

Tune in Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. PT at 88.9 FM, KUCI, or go to iTunes and listen via public radio.

Past shows can be heard here.

Thanks for listening!


Monday, November 03, 2008

On losing well

Interesting piece in the Washington Post that can certainly be applied to writing. (Thanks to my student, Patricia.)

I can't resist

The election is almost over--thank goodness, some of you are saying. You just want me to return to writing. I know, I know. Well, this is writing-related. Some levity, in the face of these oh-so-serious political days. Thanks to Deb, for forwarding it to me.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

I've wanted to build a Day of the Dead altar for some time, but never have--until the other day. The more I learn about this celebration, the more I like it. Celebrating the dead and making light of death rather than fearing it, rather than it being a deep, dark, scary matter. In Catholicism, we know of this day as All Soul's Day. Google "Day of the Dead" and you'll find a ton of links. Here's a recent food-related article in the Los Angeles Times about the day. Here's our altar--a converted mantel.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Writers Retreat

Here's something writing related (esp. for you, J.)...

I'll be the featured author at this overnight retreat on the weekend following election week. It sounds like a gorgeous setting and a fun, inspiring time. The organizers tell me there's still a couple of openings. Here you go:

The Write Coast Read and Critique is hosting its 8th fiction writer's retreat -- this time with critiques, discourse and instruction led by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, whose writing and teaching career includes publication of the well-received "Pen on Fire" and her weekly radio broadcast of "Writers on Writing."

The venue -- a ranch home on 11-acres in North San Diego County -- lends itself to immersing yourself in creativity and craft along with other writers. Up to 12 participants shed their day jobs and share and learn with others devoted to writing.

Barbara has graciously agreed to conduct a read and critique (everyone will read up to 6 pages of any work of their choice) and to provide a lecture on specific topics. Topics under consideration include "How and Why to Select a Point of View," "How and Why to Select Present or Past Tense."

Novelists, memoirists and short story writers welcome. Two (possibly three) openings remain, and we love having new participants.

The nonrefundable $110 fee for the retreat (commencing Friday, 11/7/08 at 4:00 p.m. and ending Saturday, 11/8/08 at 5:00 p.m.) includes meals and drinks and an overnight stay on Friday. You need not stay overnight, but the fee remains the same. The Friday night three-hour workshop begins after dinner at around 7:00 p.m. Those who stay overnight often continue sharing writing experiences and questions into the wee hours, if they so choose. The first of two three-hour work shops on Satruday starts at 9:00 a.m.

Sending the fee to Laurie Richards, 28104 No. Twin Oaks Valley Road, San Marcos, CA 92069, reserves your place. Laurie will then contact you with specific details for directions and anything you should bring with you. To speak or e-mail with Laurie:; (760) 727-1758 (evening) or (951) 308-1555 (daytime).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Al Qaeda endorses McCain

You don't hear McCain talking about this endorsement.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wednesday's "Writers on Writing" KUCI-FM

It was suggested that I should start posting upcoming shows (thanks, Luke). I've meant to, but it always just slips my mind since I send out a weekly e-list to about 400 - 500 people on my list.

So here goes:

Peter Ferry, author of Travel Writing, Heather King, author of Redeemed, and Anne Roiphe, author of Epilogue.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Speaking of photos....

I love these photos of Obama on the campaign trail for the last two years. So moving.

And these are fun and moving too.

What you see

Observational skills are a big deal for a writer--for anyone, actually, but especially for artists who need to see and to translate what they see into words. For me, photographs help me see what's there. Here are a few from last night (my newly carved pumpkin) on through to this morning, just minutes ago. What do you see from where you sit, or when you get up and walk around your surroundings?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Visiting with your writing

I've posted this link before (I think), but here it is again, Walter Mosley on why you need to visit with your writing daily.

Also, here's a link to a poem that one devoted blog reader, J., thinks is perhaps the greatest thing he ever read.

If you have any links to writings you want us to read, please post!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Annie Proulx in the Times

An article on the reclusive Proulx.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Here's what I walked out to find at 5:30 this morning. Thanks so much, relatives, friends and acquaintances, for all of your sweet birthday wishes. What am I doing on my special day? Well, I do want to watch the's true. Wonder where there's a restaurant in these parts with it on and the sound turned on, too, with people eating and yelling (or moaning). That may be where we end up.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Authors for Obama

An event you might be interested in.

And a video.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Recuperating ...

... after the Angels' momentous loss. Still reading the Sports page first thing, before any other section of the newspaper. And still getting used to the fact that I'm a fan of baseball, and specifically, the Angels. As for football, no thanks, and boxing, as Sonia brought up the other day, Yuck. If anyone loves boxing, please, tell me why, and what it does for you. I want to understand...I do.

I have the best students in the world. As well as being and great people to know and wonderful writers, they know how to throw a party and make their teacher happy. A total surprise! I loved it. This is one of three cakes
they brought last night for a surprise birthday fest (which is actually next week, a dark night for the class, the night of the debate. What will my family be doing on my birthday? Watching the debate from a restaurant or home! Better order something easily digestible...).

Speaking of which ... I'm trying not to veer into politics, trying not to put down Palin too terrilby much or repeat too often how McCain's voice and the phrases he uses ("my friends" ERGH) bug me, so I won't.

I'll close now, and go work on my novel and The ASJA Monthly.

What's new with y'all? Tell me something!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Angels sense overload

Friday night Travis and I went to an Angels-Red Sox playoff game. They gave out the thundersticks at the entrance. Fortunately the guys behind us clapped them above our heads and not beside our ears. A few seats down, though, a fan kept us going with cheers. I've never cheered so much in my life or stood at a game so much. Every so often I checked in with my subconscious: Remember this, I telegraphed. Remember the volume of sound, remember the color red, the green of the playing field, the way the players look so white and pristine.

Later, at home, where it was quiet, my ears were ringing, the way it sounds after you go to hear a band that is LOUD.

The Angels sadly lost this second playoff game and last night they played the Red Sox in Boston. Everyone was giving them up for gone. I was worried and nervous and said to Brian, I'm going to be very upset when they lose.

When? he said. When!? No, you have to say 'I'm going to be very happy when they win. When they win!'

I Googled the patron saint of baseball and found the name St. Rita. So all night we remembered St. Rita. Brian played the Rita Meter Maid song and substituted lyrics. I called out to St. Rita. After all, what could be more natural for a saint than to cheer on an Angel?

And when the Angels came back, I thanked St. Rita.

What a game. As my cousin John would say, What a fricken game!

In the LA Times Travel section yesterday, I loved the article about the Dominican Republic. I want to go there. Streets named after baseball players, baseball on ESPN in eateries. Such an addict! It could be worse; it could be much worse, this addiction of mine. It could be cocaine or shopping.

Tonight I teach at UCI so there will be no baseball for me. It's their fourth playoff game, which they have to win, or they're out of the running. I will be thinking of the game, though, and the players, and be reminding St. Rita, silently, to help our guys out.

I want to write about baseball; I just don't know what about yet.

But my sense overload of the other night isn't apt to go away anytime soon. Remembering is a good thing for writing.

It can be a very good thing, indeed.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Celebrate California Writers Week

Next Saturday, the 11th, I'll be in Orange at what sounds like a fun event. Check it out by clicking here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

West Hollywood Book Fair

Here's that link, again, for the West Hollywood Book Fair taking place tomorrow. My panel is at 2:00. There are a ton of great panels. You can find the schedule on the WEHO Book Fair web site. Hope to see you!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Westways article on writers events

My editor at Westways, Beth Fhaner, is the best. She sent me this link to my article in the current issue of the magazine.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anti-Palin rally in Alaska

Sorry, my Republican friends, but we're drawing upon the election and I just have to post things like this. People who voted for her as governor of Alaska do not want her for VP. If she makes it, I may really have to become an ex-pat.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Power of words

Sent to me by a friend. Moving....! Click to watch.

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace

He was 46 and died in Claremont, CA, of suicide. Here is his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon.

More remembrances of David.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Save Lori Hall Steele's House

Lori is a fellow ASJA member and single mom battling ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and chronic Lyme disease. She faces the loss of her home to foreclosure within days because she's too sick to work. She has medical bills totaling more than $50,000, which may ultimately reach $120,000.

She has a seven-year-old son, and prior to the devastating neurological disease that has left her paralyzed and on a breathing machine, wrote over 3,000 published articles. She is 44, and determined to fight this disease with all her strength.

A fundraising drive is on to help her save her house. If everyone donated $25 to help her, it could get done. Click here to learn more. Or send a check to:

Lori Hall Steele
223 W. 7th Street
Traverse City, MI 49684

This is one of those deals where if everyone who could, donated a little, it would become a lot.

Westways Sept./Oct. 2008 issue

I will post the link if Westways puts it up on their website, but if you live in Southern California and you belong to AAA, you've received it. My feature on Southern California literary events and festivals is in its pages.

The last Sunday of this month, I hope to see you at the West Hollywood Book Fair. At around 2:00 in the afternoon, I'll be moderating a panel with literary agents BJ Robbins, Elise Capron and Jenoyne Adams. Please say hi if you come by.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A new Palin disorder

My friend Dennis Palumbo posted this on his blog:


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As a veteran therapist, I'm using this forum to announce the establishment of a new clinical diagnosis: IFP Disorder (Irrational Fear of Palin Disorder).

Since the McCain campaign picked Sarah Palin as their V-P candidate, poll numbers have swung ominously in their favor. The gun-totin', Bible-thumping, anti-choice, book-burning "hockey mom" is America's newest sweetheart.

But that's not the point: what really has amazed me in the past week is the change that has come over my therapy patients. Without fail, they seem oddly uninterested in dealing with their usual issues---relationship conflicts, family concerns, career crises, substance abuse, etc. All they want to talk about is their Fear of Sarah Palin.

Click here to read more.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin wants to ban books

If you've kept up with reports about Palin, then you know she's tried to get books banned.

She scares me.

So buy a button that says "I read banned books." Toni Morrison and Mark Twain are among the most challenged authors. Yup.

Here's a link for the button. Scroll to the bottom of the page.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Jim Tomlinson on short stories and novels

Jim Tomlinson was on the show some time ago with co-host Marrie Stone. I emailed him questions last week regarding the short story form and he graciously responded. Here you are:

BDB: Why do you write short stories?

JT: Short stories give the writer a way to look at some single thing that puzzles or interests. You can turn a situation over in the story and examine it in detail. And maybe, as you write, you'll reach some new level of understanding. Or maybe you'll just gain an appreciation for the mystery of how complex lives and relationships (both the fictional and the real kind)can be.

BDB: Have you ever considered novels?

JT: A novel is a different thing. It has scope. In general, it addresses bigger concerns, portrays the larger part of a character's lifetime, the societal implications of things, long-term effects, moral consequences of deeds, etc. A novel is built of a string of consequences and complications, and a hundred pages in it is hard to remember how different the world seemed starting out. While the short story is usually centered on a moment, the novel is a seemingly endless progression of "and then, and then, and then..." in a grand and pleasingly shaped arc.

Of course, when someone tries to define what a novel is, another someone can always point to examples that disprove it. Still, that's how I think of the novel. I've definitely considered the novel, Barbara. Yes. In fact, I'm working on a novel now.

BDB: Isn't it hard to publish short stories or don't you think that way?

JT: When I'm working on a story, my only concern is writing the next sentence and then the next paragraph and trying to make each word absolutely true. Until I've written and revised a story and polished it into as true a thing as I can, I don't give one moment's thought to whether anyone will want to publish it.

The total market for single short stories is huge. Unfortunately, the paying market (something more than complimentary copies) is a small part of that. And the demand by publishers for single-author books of short fiction is at a low ebb right now. It has been for several years. Writing short stories is not a lucrative business.

The only time I'm concerned with the market for stories is when I'm printing out copies to submit. The market doesn't really matter on the other days, the vast majority, when all you have to concern yourself with is writing.

BDB: Tell me about your latest book.

JT: Nothing Like an Ocean, my second book of stories, is in the publishing pipeline now. It is due out in March, 2009. It's a sequel of sorts to Things Kept, Things Left Behind (Iowa Short Fiction Award). Like those earlier stories, the new ones are set in and around fictional Spivey, Kentucky. Since it's a small town, it seemed natural that some characters and settings from the first book would show up again. And they do. Most of my stories are concerned, at their core, with characters in complex relationships, be they brother and sister, father and son, spouses, or teacher and former student. Gunshots are rare, high-speed chases and outhouses non-existent. There are church dances, though, and drinking on weekends, rainy craft fairs, copper thieves, fume-huffing teens, a rescue greyhound, a rare rabbit, and several flavors of burgeoning romance....something, in short, for everyone.

Barbara, just an hour or two ago I visited your blog and read the recent post. I can relate to the dilemma.

I had a discussion with Claire Messud about my efforts to transition from writing short stories to writing novels, and she questioned my motive for wanting to switch. There is pressure from the industry for every decent story writer to turn out a novel, and I'm guessing that Messud suspected that was motivating me. I told her that I genuinely wanted to write the "bigger story" that a novel canvas allows. "Maybe you aren't a novelist," she said. "Maybe you're a short story writer. That's not a bad thing to be."

She went on to name several writers whom she categorized as essentially story writers.

In trying to make the shift to novels (I've written three complete, unpublishable novels in years past, so I know something about it), I've come to understand how different they are from short stories. Yes, you have characters and scenes and use some of the same writing tools. But there's a whole 'nother level of storytelling and structure that you have to master to turn out a good novel. And I'm still working to get there.

But I'll echo what Messud told me...a short story writer isn't a bad thing to be. In fact, it's a lofty goal when you look at what writers like Chekhov, Carver, Dubus II, etc. have achieved in the form.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Maureen Dowd on Palin

Read it here.

McCain and ... Palin?

I hate being manipulated, but this is what he's done--or at least what he's trying to do. McCain chooses a woman running mate and now all the Hillary backers are going to go his way? Puh-lease. That so denigrates women's intelligence. But hey, Palin's a macho gal, right? A gal who hunts moose and has a mouth on her has to be a good choice for good ole boys. That denigrates everyone's intelligence.

And McCain and Palin just met, something like not more than two weeks before? Bizarre.

I liked Obama prior to his speech the other night, but now I love him. He's sincere, brilliant, and has heart. If you haven't heard it, please, do so now. Here's a link. Or read it here. But what you don't get with the printed version is the sincerity of the man. Obama is awesome. And he writes his own speeches: Imagine!

I didn't dislike McCain before; I just wasn't going to vote for him. But now he seems like a major idiot, someone who's seriously losing his marbles. And should he lose his life while in office, Palin would be president? That's truly scary. Even my brilliant Republican friends, whom I love, can't think this is a good idea. Can they?

Ergh. My friend Marrie says truth is stranger than fiction and she is so right. It's scarier than fiction, too.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Palm Desert: Our last morning

Our last hours here. On about the third day I'm on vacation/away, I start settling in and want to stay/move in. But we have things to get back to in Orange Co. Travis starts school next week. I think I made a breakthrough as regards my novel. I wrote a rough draft for an essay. I'm going to talk with Connie, here, about holding a writers' retreat. It's all good.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Palm Desert reprieve

It began with a mojito, homemade by Brian.

Morning on the Lazy River, outside our room.

The desert resort version of NYC, outside our room, also. Great people watching.

Heat, sun, water. Mountains that rise from the stark landscape. Panting birds. Here's where I want to hold a writing retreat in the coming months. Writing during the day, water and big fun at night. A group of 12. A sublime time.

Better pics here than these.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My essay in today's Los Angeles Times

In case you don't get the print edition, but would like to read it, here it is. If you have any thoughts, comments or questions, bring 'em on.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Short stories vs. novels ... again

If you're in a rush, come back later. There's a lot here. Maybe this long post will make up for my often terse posts, or sporadic ones.

It's long, like a novel, but it's mostly about short stories, which I've been thinking of a lot lately--especially since writing a noir short story for an anthology, which I loved loved loved writing.

I dwell on this so much of late, whether what I'm obsessed with these days -- namely, the past -- should go into my novel or stand alone as a short story. I just read Polly Frost's thoughts on this subject and think: short story! Then I think, short stories can be too short when you tend to write long; my first published short story ("Quickening") was 9,000 words.

Short stories were my first love. I spent my entire time in college writing short stories and poetry. Didn't even consider writing a novel until I was years out of college.

Short stories give you more immediate gratification, too. A novel can take years but a short story might take, at most, a couple of months. Getting it published can be a trial, though, unless you're willing to pub it anywhere.

I just received the new book, Off the Page, edited by Carole Burns. It's a compendium of short pieces with quotes by 40-some writers on aspects of writing. I like what Gish Jen says about novels vs. short stories:
It's the difference between having an affair and being married. The story is fun because you can go anywhere, you can write about anything. I think in my stories you can see that there's a slightly giddy air to them. I think you can see I'm on holiday. But there's a way in which you can put everything that you know as a human, including the texture of your life, into a novel.

I love novels, yet--and don't hit me for saying this--sometimes I think too many are being published. So many cross my threshold in consideration for the show and I can't help but think some shouldn't have been published at all, and others should be way shorter--short story length, actually. There's such pressure to write novels, not short stories.

Depends on my mood as to what I want to read. Lately I tend to read novels, though I love the noir anthologies published by Akashic Books. Los Angeles Noir is a current favorite. (This year Susan Straight won an Edgar award for her story.) Susan, Gary Phillips and Naomi Hirahara talk about writing noir on my show, which you can hear on podcast. (Enter one of their names in the Search box and you'll find it.)

I asked Frost what she thought about short stories vs. novels. She said:

God bless everyone in the mainstream book world who publishes short fiction! The New Yorker, the book publishers who are committed to anthologies, the editors who stand up for short story collections. I'm grateful for your radio show and for Tania Hershman's
The Short Review -- you celebrate short fiction!

But I don't think the road to mainstream publication is easy for anyone writing short fiction of any kind, literary or genre, these days. I wish I could say that there is one easier path to get published, but I don't think there it exists.

This is a puzzle to me, to be frank. For one thing, I've been writing and publishing since the mid-1980's, so I've seen phases come and go. There have been times when mainstream publishing gushed out a lot of short fiction of many different kinds, and when critics and readers enjoyed a real wealth of material and talent to explore.

Remember the Gordon Lish years? The years when both women's and men's magazines like Redbook and GQ regularly published short fiction?

Now doesn't seem to be one of those eras. Still, I'm confident the good times will return soon.

For another thing, there's a growing audience for short fiction, especially among younger readers. People are working longer and longer hours, time is getting chopped-up in strange ways, and life seems to be getting faster and faster.

It really should be a great time for short fiction. But maybe we creators of it need to be more entrepreneurial. Maybe we need to take more advantage of the online world, of Amazon's Kindle, of self-publishing, of audio, of doing live readings. I myself did live readings in lounges and bars during the last five years and it was a fantastic experience -- I was happily surprised to get full houses and lively audiences eager to hear short fiction.

So whenever I think the grass may be greener for either literary short fiction writers or other genre writers, I stop myself. The truth is, we short fiction writers need to stop whining and start looking after our own business until mainstream publishing catches up with us and realizes that short fiction rules.

What about publishing, I said. Is it easier publishing novels?

It's absolutely easier on every level if you write a novel, from getting an agent to getting a book published.

A funny experience I had: When I first published a humor story in The New Yorker I got a call from a literary agent. The first thing she said was "So, do you have a novel?"

She lost interest in me the moment I said, "Actually, I haven't thought about writing a novel at all. I love writing short fiction."

I think this attitude on the part of the mainstream book business is, in fact, why there are so many crappy novels out there. I always say that many of today's novels feel like a short story that's gone on way too long!

It's easier, too, to get your book reviewed by the mainstream press (in so far as the mainstream press still even reviews books) if it's a novel.

However, I will say that my story collection, Deep Inside, has been reviewed close to 50 times, by mainstream and online publications and blogs. I found that many editors and critics welcomed a book of short fiction. Like everyone else, they have limited time, and it's appealing for them to read a collection of stories. I can't complain about the coverage I got for my collection -- it was much better than many novelists get.

The conversation isn't over, but this is enough about what I think. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Howard Junker and ZYZZYVA

If you're in the Southern California area, and read The Los Angeles Times, you probably saw this piece on Monday. If not, click here. (And here's ZYZZYVA's blog.)

Stories like this give me hope, and we writers always need signs pointing up.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Q&A with literary agent Gary Heidt

The following is an interview I did earlier this year with NYC literary agent Gary Heidt for The ASJA Monthly.

FinePrint Literary Management agent, Gary Heidt, was a John Jay Scholar at Columbia University and General Manager at WKCR-FM. Upon graduating, he returned to the nightclubs as a gigging musician; the Village Voice called his first album a "masterpiece." He is a published poet and columnist. His librettos for composer Evan Hause's Defenestration Trilogy earned praise from Newsday, Opera News and the New York Press, and his musical comedies (he has written several in collaboration with Gary Miles, including The Feng Shui Assassin and American Eyeball) were described by The Onion as "strangely funny." Originally from Texas, he has lived in New York City for a decade and a half.
Gary is looking for history, science, true crime, pop culture, psychology, business, military and some literary fiction.

BDB: Talk about how you became an agent.

GH: I wrote a few novels, and in the nineties I was briefly represented by two different agents, neither of whom had any luck with my rather precious, self-indulgent work. Ten years later, it occurred to me that those people had what seemed to be a pretty neat job— they were fairly independent and got to read a lot. So I went to work at a literary agency.

BDB: What sort of material do you especially like to handle?

GH: Like everyone, I love something that is truly and deeply funny. I am convinced that humor is the hardest thing to do well. We are awash in bad humor and pathetic comedy, and the bad stuff is really terrible. A finely tuned sense of humor is a wonderful thing, and it enhances any genre of writing. I am also very interested in well-researched history, although it's hard to sell if it isn't by someone who doesn't have any history credentials.

BDB: Is what you like to handle and what sells best one and the same?

GH: What I like to handle is precisely what I think I can sell best. What I like to read for personal fulfillment is often a book I would never represent, because I couldn't sell it. I read poetry, which I don't represent, and some academic nonfiction, university press type stuff, art criticism, histories of banks, things that I would probably not represent as an agent. But I also like to read commercial fiction, thrillers, and mainstream literary stuff.

BDB: Talk about the nonfiction you represent—science, history, psychology....

GH: I recently signed up two physics professors. I love to read about science. History is, to me, about understanding one's self and how the world got to be the way it is. Psychology is murky—I don't do self-help books or prescriptive nonfiction, how to survive depression, things like that. In order to write books in any of these subject areas, these days, one really needs a Ph.D. or a strong resume as a journalist.

BDB: Do you see any particular trends in publishing right now, in terms of what’s being sought after?

GH: Overall, the picture right now is one of downsizing, shrinking lists, former editors standing around fires in hobo encampments wearing fingerless gloves and fighting over tattered copies of McSweeny's. Every publisher wants an author that doesn't need a publisher—in other words, they are eager to sign authors who can sell a half-million copies on their own, through their Web site or their television show. A larger and larger proportion of books are being bought from packagers rather than authors—it's another aspect of editors at corporate houses shifting more of the work of editing onto an external supplier.

BDB: Of course writers shouldn’t pay attention to trends, right?

GH: That depends. If by writers you mean bitter, lonely, unpublished writers, yes, I would agree.

BDB: It’s a conflict for a writer, perhaps especially for literary writers: You want to write from your passion, yet if you’re not aware of what’s selling, you’re considered na├»ve.

GH: I would say that if you find yourself thinking or saying, "Nothing good is being published now," as I hear so many people say, you should realize that something on the order of 150,000 titles were published last year, and that it's likely that a few good ones may have escaped your notice. I think it is profoundly important for writers to be as aware as possible of their peers. So for literary writers, I would say it's especially important to seek out and champion writers whose work you like. Review books for a local newspaper, on your blog, whatever. I am constantly reading new literary fiction, and there is a lot of very good stuff being written. I would say that literary fiction isn't really about trends, but at the same time, there's no excuse for not being aware of who is doing good work in this day and age. If all the writers who queried me about their literary fiction in the last year bought twelve new literary books a year, we would see an immediate renaissance of literary publishing in this country. If you're stumped because all the critics liked Franzen's novel and you can't stand it, don't stop there. Look for the books the critics ignored, buy them, read them, tell everyone about the good ones.

BDB: Speaking of fiction, what sort of fiction are you attracted to?

GH: My favorite fiction writers today—who are published: In literary fiction, I love Charles Yu, Tito Perdue, Stephen Policoff, Carol Emschwiller, Shelley Jackson, Stephen Wright, Daniel Patrick Scott, Frederick Barthelme, Charles Baxter, Ryan Gattis and Sam Lipsyte. There are a some that I like a lot but which don't speak to me quite as emphatically as that first list, but they are very good and worth reading—folks like Bruce Wagner, Viken Berberian, Walter Kirn, Danuta de Rhodes, Amelie Nothomb, Gregoire Bouillier, Joe McGinnis. In YA, I particularly like Marcus Zusak, Chris Lynch, Sonia Sones and of course Jason Myers. In crime fiction, everyone should read every single book that Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime publishes. Not that I have, but I would guess I've read over a dozen of them and have yet to be disappointed. In thrillers, I love the team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Lee Childs.

BDB: You’re interested in graphic novels, yes? Please elaborate...

GH: They are a lot of fun to read. I was into Marvel Comics as a kid, and then in the nineties was introduced to Alan Moore's work by a friend of mine. I think that the potential of the genre is nearly limitless. On the business side, the graphic novel shelf is the fastest growing segment of the bookstore. I think publishers are a little confused on how to deal with this, but I am trying to give them some helpful guidance.

BDB: Do you see books going away in favor of electronic publishing?

GH: It could happen. The reading of books has mostly gone away already, and all that's left now are the actual objects. I read somewhere that a pretty large percentage of books are bought as totems. You can put the book on your coffee table or carry it to Starbucks, and it sends a message about who you are. Now how will this work with a Sony Reader? No one will know that you are carrying a copy of The Stranger in that Kindle. The portable electronic readers will go down in price, and once they hit, say, fifty, sixty bucks, I think e-books might do for publishing what the mp3 did for the record business. The good thing about electronic publishing is that it lowers the production cost for a new book, so theoretically more authors could get published.

BDB: If you had to sum yourself up in one line, what would you say?

GH: Don't take it serious, it's too mysterious.--Lew Brown

BDB: How does the fact that you’re a published poet and columnist, and a musician, figure into the mix?

GH: I think I have a better understanding of what goes on in the creative process than some of my fellow agents who haven't pursued these kinds of activities.

BDB: What else should potential clients know about you?

GH: That I want you all to go out and buy a lot of books, especially those by my clients!

Monday, August 04, 2008

What to do with your extra books

Chair made from discarded paperbacks.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mary Roach, author of Bonk

Here's an interview I did with Mary a few months back, after she was on the show.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading John Irving and talking with John Ware

Anyone reading anything good? I'm listening to John Irving's A Widow for One Year and hate to see it end. I love it. I love good novels--great novels--with main characters who are writers. This one has five writers--four novelists and one sassy journalist--who are great characters. Irving is a bit obsessed with breasts, but then again, who isn't?

What book made you feel that way, that you just hated to see it end?

(FYI, one of my favorite literary agents in the entire universe--John Ware--was on the show again the other day. My podcast guru Rob Roy posted it so give it a listen. It's podcast here. If you search his name, you can listen to older shows featuring the great agent.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

San Diego....

To those of you who've written to me about him...Travis is fine. He says he's not troubled anymore, but when I asked him why he thought he was so freaked out by the little girl, he said, Weren't you freaked out by that? The elevator opens and there's a little Indian girl muttering!

Friday, July 18, 2008

San Diego, little lost girls and Moleskines

This afternoon Travis and I drove down here to San Diego to attend my student Peter's wedding. What a gorgeous ceremony and delicious, fun reception. And Peter looked so handsome in his tux and hot pink vest and Melissa looked beautiful in a sublime beaded strapless gown. They both looked so happy.

We sat and gabbed with Dianne and Ron, and Andy, and afterward drove back to the hotel. At 10 p.m. Travis and I stood in the parking garage on the 3rd floor of the Doubletree, waiting for the elevator. The door opened and out wandered a toddler, a little Hispanic girl in a tee-shirt and undies. Travis and I looked at each other, wearing blank, then befuddled, looks.

Where's your mommy? I said to the girl. Travis' dark eyes went wide. He said nothing.

C'mon, honey, I said, trying to grab her hand to get her back in the elevator to go down to the lobby. She rambled in toddler Spanish and of course my Spanish is bad.

We got her back into the elevator and hit the button for the lobby. Travis did not say a word while I was thinking, how does someone lose a little girl? And what if it wasn't us finding her but someone else?

We got her over to the registration desk and I said to the reservationist who had checked us in, We just found this little girl.

A moment before he was laughing with the couple he was helping with directions, but now he looked completely puzzled.

And then from the direction of the elevator I saw a couple of Hispanic women looking slightly curious as they looked around and I said to the reservationist, Maybe one of them is the mom, and then one of the women saw the little girl and yes, it was the mom, or auntie, or someone, anyway, who was connected to the cutie.

She picked up the girl and they went into the elevator. So did we. I said, We found her coming out of the elevator on the third floor, and she said, Oh, thank you, and I'm thinking she wasn't as freaked out as we were, as Travis was, as I would be if I just lost my kid.

They got off on the 8th floor. On the ride up to the 14th floor, we said little. Travis was unsettled. What's wrong? I said. I don't know, he said. Then: That was weird!

Our room key didn't work, and Travis said, I don't like San Diego.

Oh, come on, I said, it's a good thing it was us who were there. Someone else might have snatched her for his or her own.

Don't say that! Travis said.

I'm just saying, I said.

We tried the key a few more times, then hiked back down the hall to the house phone and called the lobby. Someone will come up with a new key, a voice told me. Travis sounded funny, incredulous, when he said, Shouldn't we have a little bit of good karma for that?

Why are you so freaked out? I said.

He said he imagined the mother was killed in her hotel room and that was why the girl was wandering around alone and in the elevator.

Honey, I said, but I'm thinking: My kid has watched one too many Hitchcock films and has brainstormed with me about plot for noir stories a bit too much, maybe?

A bellman came with a new key, we strode down the hall to our room and the key worked.

Travis knows how to plot. He has a great imagination and spins out plots to me, or inciting incidents for stories. I've kidded him: You're great at plot for someone who doesn't want to write.

But now he was saying he wanted a Moleskine notebook so he could write these things down.

You have two Moleskines, I said. We'd just bought him two pocket sized notebooks a couple of weeks ago.

Those are for music, he said. I need one to write down stories, to write a book. I'm going to write a book, he said, laughing strangely, surprising himself at hearing those words.

Writing would help you purge this stuff, for sure, I told him, as he went into the bathroom. I was still feeling a bit creeped out, too. I started thinking: What if those women weren't the kid's relatives, but someone else, or what if they were doing her harm, and she escaped, and now we sent her back to her tormentors?

Such is a writer's mind, always going, always imagining....

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sunday's event

This coming Sunday I'll be at Barnes & Noble, Fashion Island, Newport Beach, 1 p.m., talking about essays, maybe, or knitting, or both--depending on the crowd. Come by! My essay, "Knitting: My Urban Escape," is in the new(ish) anthology, Knitting Through It: Inspiring Stories for Troubled Times (Voyageur).

Friday, July 04, 2008

Orange Coast Magazine's Best of OC

It's a tad embarrassing (embarrassing because I'm more used to being behind the scenes. After all, no one can see you on radio), but some of you may be interested in this piece. (Scan to the bottom for the copy.) It's a nice mention by Orange Coast, which has become a readable magazine again, now that Marty Smith is back at the helm.

Photo credit: Bradley Meinz

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Charles Baxter Q&A

Here is an interview I did with Charles Baxter for The ASJA Monthly, which I edit.

BDB: You began as a poet. Do you think this was because you grew up in a literary family (with Brenda Ueland as a friend of the family--how lucky!)? Or did you just have a thing for language early on?

CB: I saw Brenda often, and she bullied me, as a strong aunt might, and in a pleasing way. She told me that I should do what I wanted to do in life. It was radical advice. My family wasn’t especially literary, though my parents had known some novelists, such
as Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren, in their day. I began as a poet—as most poets do—because I had an intense inner life exacerbated by solitude, and because I fell in love with poetry at the age of seventeen, when I first read the work of James Wright.

BDB: When did you turn to fiction, and why?

CB: I dabbled in it until I was in my thirties, when I began to dedicate my life to it. I noticed that my poems were all narratives, and I found that I was particularly interested in characters, and in sequences: what people do when they’re under pressure, how they get themselves into interesting trouble. That’s the interest of a fiction writer.

BDB: I read a funny story in a Ploughshares profile about you that you had
an agent who asked you why she hated your first novel. Care to elaborate?

CB: It was unpleasant. I’d sent this agent (not my current agent, of course) a novel manuscript, and she said over the phone that she hated it; then she asked me why she hated it. I told her that I didn’t know. She insisted that I answer her. She was very cruel, of course; she had a mean streak.

BDB: And then you gave up writing fiction, deciding you would teach and write criticism?

CB: Yes. Well, I didn’t give up writing it. I resolved to give it up, but I couldn’t, quite.

BDB: But then you didn't quit--you merged three novels into one....

CB: No. What I did was to write a story, “Harmony of the World,” about a failed artist, which is what I thought I was. In the story, he’s a musician, not a writer. With the irony of which life is so fond, the story was published and anthologized and lifted my spirits a bit, so that I thought maybe I could live in the world as a writer after all. You never know who or what will give you permission to be the person you want to be. Brenda Ueland had, but few others had, in my case.

BDB: Since then, you've published four novels, the lastest being The Soul
. What inspired this book?

CB: It began in an odd way, with something that happened to me years ago, when there was, briefly, an imposter Charles Baxter. Also, I have a friend who, when she was a freshman at Duke University, found that her roommate was stealing her clothes and beginning to imitate her, unconsciously. And lately I’ve been thinking about MySpace and Facebook, and how virtual identities can be concocted in our time. It’s a very strange feature of our age, this trading-off of identities.

BDB: One of your books, Feast of Love, was turned into a movie. How satisfying was this experience?

CB: I was pleased that they wanted to make a movie of the book, which I knew would be very difficult to adapt. Many talented people worked on that movie.

BDB: How do you generally begin: theme, character, image?

CB: I never know. It changes from project to project. Sometimes I begin with a dramatic image, of someone-doing-something. I don’t have any rules about where I should begin. Out with the rules!

BDB: As well as novels, you've published nonfiction, which I always recommend to my students because of your non-generic slant. Talk about your collection, Burning Down the House, and how this came about, as well as the controversy at least one of these essays inspired.

CB: I’ve been associated for years with the Warren Wilson College MFA program for writers, and I’ve given many lectures there. I revised them for that book. It was never my intention to give how-to lectures. If you give how-to advice, you’re involved in the how-to-write-literature racket. Instead, I tried to isolate certain features of cultural life (how we gossip, for example) and compare those features to how we tell, write, and read stories. Two essays in that book (Burning Down the House) got me into some controveries: the essay “Against Epiphanies”—which some readers mis-read as an attack on insight—and the “Dysfunctional Narratives essay, which was interpreted as an attack on our mealy-mouthed Chief Executives, who had disavowed responsibilty for bad outcomes. That’s just what it was.

BDB: How do you merge all of the various forms you write and publish in--short stories, novels, nonfiction? How do you decide what you're going to spend the next however long on a particular project?

CB: It’s whatever I also want to do next. I follow my impulses.

BDB: You're also an instructor! You must be highly organized, to be so prolific and to teach as well.

CB: No. I feel that I’m completely disorganized. It’s a wonder that I get anything done at all.

BDB: By the way, how do you teach writing? I've read that you"eschew how-to
tutorials on fiction writing."

CB: I try to read the work as closely as I can, and then describe it to the writer. After that, if the form and content seem to be at cross-purposes, I’ll try to say why.

BDB: In The Soul Thief, there is some of the best description about Los Angeles, as if you've never been here. Yet, you say you've traveled here often. Talk about writing landscape.

CB: You sometimes have to write about a place as if you’re a stranger to it. The description of LA in that book is a stranger’s description of it, in which details that residents take for granted are made strange again—odd, and worthy of attention. I never get used to LA, much as I sometimes like it.

BDB: Do you ever concern yourself with the marketplace? Seems the marketplace hangs over so many writers' heads.

CB: No, not any more. If you think too much about the marketplace, you turn into a hack. Of course you think about readers, but you can’t be too concerned with sales.

BDB: What are your reading right now?

CB: I just finished Richard Price’s Lush Life and Scott Spencer’s Willing. I’m also re-reading War and Peace, in sections, and I have Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story nearby.

BDB: Any words of wisdom for our [ASJA] members?

CB: No. I probably need words of wisdom more than they do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The economy and publishing

BJK asked me to address the following here: "How does the economy affect publishing? Buying manuscripts etc?"

There are others who could address this question better than me, but first I would ask BJK: Why do you want to know? Why is this important? How will it affect your writing? If I tell you I've heard that the economy is making it even more difficult to get published, what will you do? Will that make you write harder or take a vacation?

All kidding aside, I'm thinking that you should check out MJ Rose (you can Google her). She talks about business a lot. Or you should forget about it.

Not what you were hoping for, huh?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lion hug

Not about writing.....but so sweet.

Monday, June 16, 2008

David Benioff interview

David Benioff recently spoke with my co-host Marrie Stone on my show, "Writers on Writing." But there was a broadcasting glitch, and not only was no one able to tune in, it also will not be podcast. So here is some of that interview, thanks to Marrie.

David Benioff is an author and screenwriter. He adapted his first novel, The 25th Hour, into the feature film directed by Spike Lee. He also adapted The Kite Runner for screen and wrote the script for Wolverine. In addition he is also working with D.B. Weiss on an HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is due out in 2009. Stories from his critically acclaimed collection When the Nines Roll Over appeared in Best New American Voices and The Best Nonrequired American Reading. He is a graduate of our very own UC-Irvine MFA program. And it is his latest novel, City of Thieves, published by Viking that we’ll be talking about this morning.

(The following is a synopsis taken from the publisher’s comments about City of Thieves.)

A writer visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. His grandmother won't talk about it, but his grandfather reluctantly consents. The result is the captivating odyssey of two young men trying to survive against desperate odds.

Lev Beniov considers himself "built for deprivation." He's small, smart, and insecure, a Jewish virgin too young for the army, who spends his nights working as a volunteer firefighter with friends from his building. When a dead German paratrooper lands in his street, Lev is caught looting the body and dragged to jail, fearing for his life. He shares his cell with the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested on desertion charges. Instead of the standard bullet in the back of the head, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible. A search that takes them through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and the devastated surrounding countryside creates an unlikely bond between this earnest, lust-filled teenager and an endearing lothario with the gifts of a conman. Set within the monumental events of history, City of Thieves is an intimate coming-of-age tale with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.

MS: It feels like it would be terribly easy to fall into an entirely macabre tone in this book, given the subject matter, given the stand-out scenes which I won’t give away. But if one can imagine the Siege of Leningrad in any detail at all, you can imagine what went on. And yet that’s not the feel of this novel. It’s not oppressive and hard to take. It’s got its moments, but it also has moments of real humor and sex and love and the whole spectrum of emotions. Was it difficult to lift your characters out of this molasses of despair and keep them going in the face of all that adversity?

DB: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit St. Petersburg with a friend and translator while working on this book. One thing that really struck me, and this is true in other countries as well, but particularly in Russia, was how fiercely connected the Russians are to their literature. People walking around quoting Pushkin all the time. I don’t know who the American equivalent of Pushkin might be, but I know we don’t quote literature in this way.

From the diaries I studied, it became apparent that the Russians really did stay connected to their culture during the siege. They still wrote, they still read, they still attended theater and concerts. If the first violinist was on the front lines, they turned to the second violinist. If he was gone, they found another. They were very attached to culture and to humor. They didn’t give up who they essentially were in the face of what was going on around them, and I wanted to retain that spirit in writing the book.

MS: You said that Ann Patchett once told you to chose the single best book on the given subject and study it obsessively. As opposed to reading a dozen books on the subject. What’s the wisdom in this advice?

DB: Ann was one of my mentors at UCI. She wrote this fabulous book called The Magician’s Assistant and she seemed to know magic in and out. I asked her about research and she advised getting the one definitive book and studying it fiercely. The thinking being that if you studying too many texts or books on a subject, you become someone who sets out to write a sort of high school report that may be factually accurate, but is lacking imagination. With that said, I was too overwhelmed to enter into a project so big—the Siege of Leningrad—something that happened long ago and far away, without really getting my facts straight. So I read quite a bit. But the real texts that I relied upon were Harrison Salisbury’s, “The 900 Days” and “Kaputt,” by Curzio Malaparte, an Italian journalist who was an early Fascist (he marched on Rome with Mussolini) before becoming disillusioned with the movement. He had remarkable access to the German and Finnish officers commanding the invasion of Russia, his writing is beautiful, and I ransacked his reportage for many key details. And the diaries.

MS: I like the device of putting your characters on a deadline. There was a ticking clock in this novel, and also in “The 25th Hour.” Something needs to be solved or done by a particular time or there’s some consequence. It strikes me as a good suspense builder, and a good way to keep momentum. Is this a screenwriting ploy or something you build into most of your material?

DB: After my first book was rejected, and I worked up the courage to sit down and read all the rejections, the gist of the feedback was that nothing was really holding it together. The novel took place over 30 years and there was no cohesive story. At first, I thought they were all wrong. I thought they were just idiots who didn’t understand what I was trying to do. But after I sat with it, I realized they were right. So I forced myself to have some structure to the narrative in the form of something having to be accomplished. The 25th Hour has a deadline. It’s the 24 hours before this man goes off to prison. And this novel obviously has a deadline motivating the movement of the novel. I think it’s a good way to keep yourself on track.

MS: One thing that struck me, and maybe this is just because I knew you were a screenwriter going into the book, but this is a very visual novel. There are some novels that you feel—you’re in the character’s brain and there are amazing insights and ways of looking at the world—and this had that too. But there are other novels that you really see. This had the feeling of a movie playing in my brain. The language was almost tactile somehow. Talk if you would about how your screenwriting informs your fiction writing, and what the two mediums can give to each other.

DB: The good part about screenwriting is that it made me a very disciplined writer. Working within the constraints and pressures of time . . . you have to tell a story, a fully fleshed out story, in 120 pages. If you see the number 200 or more on your page count, you’re done and over. So there’s a real discipline to telling a story in a compressed time. The bad part of screenwriting is that it makes you a lazy novelist. While I can just write “interior restaurant” on a script and I know the production director and lighting guy and location scout will take care of it all, you can’t do that in a novel. You have to slog through descriptions of where you are and make it come alive on your own. And that takes discipline. The first section of this novel took me months because I was out of practice on describing things well.

MS: You had this to say about writer’s block: “Writer’s block, I think, is often the result of a frustrated anticipation for inspiration. But if you’re writing for a living, you can’t sit around waiting for the muses. You get your butt in the chair, you turn on the computer, and you write, and if the writing’s no good you keep doing it anyway, because that’s all you’re good for.” I rearranged a few words for radio. But I do like you combating the notion of inspiration or the muses or whatever it is we think we need to write.

DB: I have this friend who I went to college with. Brilliant writer. I always thought he was the best writer among us. And now he barely has written a word. Every few days he writes me these gorgeous emails. And on the one hand, I’m so happy to receive them. They’re beautiful and poetic, and on the other hand it makes me so angry that his talent is going to waste. He always says he’s waiting for inspiration, or he’s stymied because he can’t write until he feels he really has some insight or some phrase or something important to say. We’ve been having this debate for years and years, and I’m so frustrated with him because it’s just wonderful talent going completely to waste. You can’t wait for inspiration. It’s rare. It happens, but it happens so infrequently that if you rely on it, you’re doomed.

MS: You came out of the UCI MFA program. No need to let that influence your answer here. But seriously, I’m curious about your feelings on MFA programs in general and what you may have gained from it in particular.

DB: I do see value in the MFA programs. For one thing, I was able to study with some incredible writers. Ann Patchett, Geoffrey Wolff to name a few. What the MFA program did was give me time to focus on nothing but writing. And while I know there are people out there who can handle a job and keep writing (Khaled Hosseini is one rare example, who kept writing while practicing medicine), that’s not easy for most of us. And while I was in the program, I was teaching undergraduates which paid for my time there. And being around that kind of intellectual stimulation was very exciting. So it gave me time and focus and access to amazing writers.

MS: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

DB: My advice to screenwriters is to read more screenplays. Good screenplays. “Carnal Knowledge” and “Chinatown,” to name a couple. We’re told as novelists to read, read, read. But I don’t think scriptwriters are given the same advice, and it’s a shame.

My advice to novelists is just to get into the discipline of sitting down to write. There’s no other way around it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Six words on love and heartbreak

Do you know about the book,, Not Quite What I was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure? (My co-host Marrie Stone, interviewed the editor on the show a few weeks back.)

Well, they're looking for submissions for a new collection due out on Valentine's Day. Here's the link if you'd like to submit your six-word memoir.