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.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lauren Weisberger doesn't wear Prada

Here's a photo from our evening at the Newport Beach Public Library. Lauren Weisberger, seated beside me, came to talk about her new book, Chasing Harry Winston, and of course we talked about her first book, The Devil Wears Prada.

I met Lauren in the conference room with her media escort and her husband Mike. She wasn't wearing Prada, not that I thought she would be, but somehow I thought if you wrote a book about something that happened to you while you worked at the biggest fashion magazine, that you would be into fashion.

So I spent more time than I should have concerned with what to wear. Should I wear my best white pantsuit that I bought at Nordstrom last year? I almost emailed Lauren to ask what she was going to wear, so we would sort of match, but didn't. I decided to dress the way I always dress for literary events, which is how I usually dress in general, only not as casual (no tee-shirts, no pull over cotton jerseys, no black workout pants, no faded jeans). I did bring along my knock-off Prada bag. It was meant to be a joke, but I don't think Lauren found it funny. (Later I decided she was burnt out on Prada jokes and people thinking she was into Prada.) I bought it a few years ago at a flea market in Pennsylvania because I loved the lime green color and size. The Prada logo put me off, though.

I don't want to buy a knock-off, I told my cousin John.

So Sharpie in the logo, he said.

That's tacky, I said, buying the bag but leaving the Prada logo alone. When I carry it, I turn the logo side toward my leg so the logo doesn't show.

I was happily surprised Lauren was dressed casually in white jeans and sandals. She likes to buy jeans, perhaps more than she should (says she). Her diamond wedding band caught the light as big diamonds will. I loved the ring.

In the conference room she said she thought we should only talk a little and use the time for questions. She said she hated the media. I commiserated. So many radio and TV people are only interested in sound bites, I said. I told her I thought we'd talk for 30 minutes or so and then take questions. She thought that was too long. I said it would be okay. She said she liked questions. I said it would be fine. I worried, though, that she seemed nervous.

But it was fine. It was actually great fun. Lauren seemed to genuinely have a great time, too.

Before an audience of 230, Lauren and I talked about her books, but we also talked a great deal about writing. One tidbit I took away (that a lot of us took away) is that Lauren is distracted just like the rest of us, with email. Even a speck of dust can seem fascinating. And yet the girl is extremely productive. I found that inspiring, that she's distracted often and is so productive anyway.

In the photo, you'll see Lauren and me seated, and behind us are Lauren's new husband Mike, NBPL Executive Director Tracy Keys, and Event Coordinator Janis Dinwiddie, with Dinwiddie Events. Kudos to Tracy and Janis--the library has been bringing in solid authors and helping to quench the Orange County thirst for literary events. Yay, Tracy and Janis!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Noir on tomorrow's show

If you're on my e-list for the radio show, you've received this. If not....

Tomorrow, Weds. June 11, for the entire hour, we'll have three authors--Naomi Hirahara, Gary Phillips, and Susan Straight--talking about noir. I'm excited!

Naomi is the author of the Mas Arai mystery novels and the noir short story: "Number 19." Gary is the author of the Ivan Monk and Martha Chainey series, and a lot of short stories including the noir story "Roger Crumbler Considered His Shave." Susan is a novelist ("Highwire Moon" was a National Book Award nominee), and the noir short story: "The Golden Gopher," which won an Edgar. All three of the stories highlighted above are in the collection: "los angeles noir," published by Akashic Books.

Tune in at 9 a.m. Pacific at 88.9 FM KUCI or listen on iTunes. Eventually the show will be podcast and you can find it (and many other podcasts) here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

So You Want to Write a Memoir?

My student Sarah shared this article with me. A good list!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Alice Munro's Free Radicals

When I'm skimming through the New Yorker or Tin House or any number of other journals with formidable-to-crazy good short fiction, I maybe read the first line and if it doesn't grab me, I go on to the next. Life's too short for a short story--or essay or novel--that doesn't sing.

This morning I roamed the New Yorker web site looking for a short story for my Gotham class and I found this one by Alice Munro. I could not stop reading.

She knocked my socks off with "A Bear Comes Over the Moutain," that was made into the movie, Away From Her. Incredible artistry. But I don't want to influence you. Read it. Tell me what you think.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Point of view

A couple of Pen on Fire blog readers have questions about point of view.

Bibliophile says:

Hi B, I've been writing different parts of the same story in many different points of view. I've got at least 5 main characters, all speaking in first person. I then spent a week revising everything to omniscient... spent another week reading every chapter on POV in my collection of writing aid books. I had an idea to make one character in to the 'listener,' the one collecting all these stories from the other characters, but thought that might seem amateur-ish. Any advice?

And Christina says:
I finished reading a novel by one of my favorite authors. This particular novel has three main characters. For two, she uses first person; but for the other character, she uses third. It didn't confuse me as a reader, but as an aspiring writer; I feel like I need to know why this was done. I couldn't find the significance of using a different POV for this character - besides the point that the character was dealing with a lot of pain and in the end, she ended up killing her mother.

What do you think about using different POV's in your novel? Is there some type of rule out there that this author broke? As I said, this character was fighting through a LOT. Do you think the author switched the POV on her readers because it was easier to tell the story from a third person POV; rather than take us through the characters inner toil from her POV? Or perhaps when dealing with customer going through a lot mentally, it is better to use a third person POV?

I'm not trying to attack the writer; there's so much I need to learn about writing fiction - so when I see something I've never seen before, I just have to ask!

Well ... that's a lot to chew on.

I'll just give my thoughts and if others reading this blog have thoughts/opinions, please feel free to let them fly. I'm not the last word on this subject.

I don't think there are any fast rules on point of view. As soon as an author or writing teacher says, "This is the way!" someone comes along to break it. In my humble opinion, you do what works for the story you're writing.

I do think when you're writing a short story, using more than one point of view can get to be too much. It's so such a short form!

But with novels, like so very much in life and writing, it just depends. If you use more then one point of view, you've got to have a reason. Often the reason writers do this is that they wanted to get at various aspects of story and they just couldn't do that using one point of view character.

Usually you wait to change point of view characters with a new chapter. Although Ann Patchett did not do this in Bel Canto and it worked quite wonderfully. In Atonement, the novel is written in the third person until you get to the end, and then it goes into first person. Worked for me!

If you're writing a first novel, it probably makes sense to stick with one point of view, because you're getting to know the form, and why complicate things for yourself?

These are just my initial thoughts. I'll keep pondering. Meanwhile, if anyone has anything to add, please do!