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.