Thursday, April 28, 2005

Hee! I had no idea I was a known smartypants! (Joshilyn's blog is great fun, by the way--you should check it out!)

I am taking myself and my pants (smart or not) to San Diego for a few days for the wedding of the century (at least in my world--congratulations, Catherine and Robert!)

See you next week!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

For those of you who may need some cheering up today (I know I do), may I present Birds in Costume! You can see even more of them here.

The Girlfriend's Cyber Circuit is back! Today, our guest is Joshilyn Jackson, author of the highly praised debut novel, Gods in Alabama (which happens to be the number one BookSense pick this month. Yay Joshilyn! Yay independent booksellers!) Here's a synopsis:

There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches. So begins Joshilyn Jackson’s stunning debut novel, GODS IN ALABAMA (Warner Books Hardcover; April 13, 2005; $19.95).

When Arlene Fleet heads up north for college, she makes three promises to God: She will stop fornicating with every boy who crosses her path; never tell another lie; and never, ever go back to the "fourth rack of hell," her hometown of Possett, Alabama. All she wants from Him is one little miracle: Make sure the body is never found. Ten years later, God has broken His end of the deal. Alabama has landed on Arlene's Chicago doorstep in the form of her high school arch-enemy, a young woman who wants to find the golden-haired football hero who disappeared after their senior year.

To make matters worse, Arlene's African-American boyfriend, Burr, has given her an ultimatum -- introduce him to her lily-white family or he's gone. Arlene would rather burn up in a fire than let him meet her steel magnolia Aunt Florence; her eccentric, half-mad Mama; her sweet-as-pecan-pie Cousin Clarice; and all the rest of her deeply racist kith and kin.

But the fickle finger of fate is pointing her south. All too soon she and Burr are on their way to confront Arlene's redneck roots, the secret she ran from, and the crime that stole her peace of mind. Back in the small town of her girlhood, Arlene's demons are closing in -- and after a decade of running away, Arlene must face them all. Yet while the truth threatens to destroy the life she has built for herself, it just may open her eyes to a love powerful enough to revise her past and alter her future.

Crackling with humor, defiantly endearing characters, and plot twists that will astonish even the most jaded reader, GODS IN ALABAMA will send you careening from tears to laughter and back. Most of all, it brings a unique, rough-around-the-edges heroine to life and makes her a permanent part of your own.

I asked Joshilyn a few questions about her writing life. Here are her responses:

--You have an amazing first sentence. I was just working on first sentences with my Novel Writing I students, and I was wondering if you could tell me how this sentence came about. Was it the first thing you wrote when you sat down to write a novel, or did it come to you later in the process?

Oh, THANKS! I spend a great deal of time spent on that sentence, actually. The "gods" changed and evolved as the characters and story did, and orginally that sentence kicked off the scene that ultimately became chapter two---Arlene Fleet at fifteen, creeping up the side of Lipsmack Hill to beat a man to death with a tequila bottle---but the central idea of that sentence began the novel for me.

They'll tell you in Writing 101 that the first sentence has to suggest a conflict, and that's true, but I also want an immediate sense of voice. Even when I write in third person, it's a very CLOSE and DIRECTED third, and the thing that most interests me as a writer is voice. I want my first sentence to act as an introduction. I think people who open the book and read the first three lines get a taste of Arlene's wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. It suggests conflict, and how, but it's a very Arlene way of introducing it. It's Arlene-o-centric.

--There was a recent article in Poets & Writers Magazine about the use of the word "chick lit". Chris Mazza, the editor of the feminist fiction anthologies Chick-Lit and Chick-Lit 2 (which you appear in) takes umbrage over the current connotation of the word. How would you define chick lit, and how would you categorize your own fiction?

I define Chick Lit as a book that is written for a specific demographic--- young (18 - 35) urban, educated career women. It's generally humorous and has a young, single, female protagonist with a crew of odd-all friends who help her overcome obstacles and find the right guy. Because it sells well, there's this push to call everything that has a female protag under 40 "Chick Lit" and stick a pink cover and some feet on it. That gets on my nerves--it seems to suggest that every book with a younger female protag is ONLY going to appeal to this limited (but book-buying) demographic. I read Chick Lit and I enjoy it--I love Jennifer Crusie and Lani Diane Rich, especially, and will read whatever they put out next as a matter of course. I read most books; I am voracious, avid, and eclectic...I read a book or two a week at a minimum, and I read everything from the delicious pulp fiction of the 60's to whatever nabs the Pulitzer.

My own fiction? I would call gods in Alabama, "Southern Fiction layered over the kind of suspense-powered engine you would find in a literary murder mystery." It's an odd blend of humor and violence. I wouldn't call it Chick-Lit because so far about a third of the letters I am getting about the book have been from men---men really like this book, too. I read a lot of muscular sorts of books---I adore Dennis Lehane and Robert E. Howard and and Hemingway and Heinlein---and they have probably as much influence on me as Flannery O'Conner, Rebecca Wells, Christina Schwarz and Fanny Flagg have. My editor says, "gods in Alabama is what would happen if Fried Green Tomatoes and HBO's Six Feet Under had a baby."

--What was the initial seed of inspiration for this novel?

Arlene Fleet. She appeared YEARS ago in short story that was published in TriQuarterly--it's up on my site here:
She's only in a couple of sentences, a throw away character, really, but I couldn't stop thinking about her. Every time I revised the story, my eye was pulled to her. She seemed so intense and vivid and full of secrets, but I had no idea what they were. It took me eight years to figure her out, figure out what was driving her and making her tick like a bomb, and once I knew, her voice became so strong and sure in my head I couldn't NOT write the book. She was so LOUD. She insisted.

--What is your writing process like? What are you working on now?

I spend a little time drafting and am miserable and hate it. SO EMBARRASING. You are writing sentences that you KNOW are bad even as you take them down. The part I like is REVISING. I spend 90% of my time toying and changing and refining my drafts -- that's the part that makes my heart go piterr-pitter-pat-pat. That's the fun part. I only write, do the actual drafting, to generate material so that I'll have some new word toys to play with.

I just finished a book called Between, Georgia that will be out next April.
I. Love. It.
It's about a feud in a tiny, tiny (population 100 or so) Georgia town. Between is a real place that lies at the exact midpoint between Atlanta and Athens. I've never been there. I used to make that drive all the time over a dozen years ago, and I became obsessed with the town when I noticed that they changed the POPULATION sign by the exit every time someone died or was born. So one day it said 111, and then two weeks later it would it said 110.

Imagining what Between must be like kept me entertained on my frequent drives. I mapped it and figured out its economy and I gave it a matriarch, this orderly, iron-willed Southern Lady who makes sure the sign gets changed and the whole town runs around her schedule and money and ideas. Bernese Frett is her name. I've waited years as the rest of the people in this book trickled into my brain and took up residence in my version of the town. The Matriarch got two sisters... one mentally ill, one deaf-blind, all three absolutely dependent on each other, and the town absolutely dependent on them. They steal a baby from a dangerously violent and extremely trashy family, and get away with it for thirty years. The novel opens just as all hell breaks loose in this tiny, isolated place.

It' odd blend of humor and violence. I think that must be my genre!

--Also, it wouldn't be a Fruitful interview if I didn't ask you what your favorite fruit is and why.

I am not much of a fruit person. I prefer veggies. If I am going to eat sweets, I want CHOCOLATE. Is an avocado a fruit? I like them because they are meat-like and that makes them both delicious and little creepy.


And I appreciate you stopping by, Joshilyn! Thanks so much! Have a great time on your book tour!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I am quoted in Adam Langer's column about author blogs. I had a fun time answering his questions, and thought I'd share all of my answers here, since only a little bit ended up in the article.

1) Why did you decide to write a blog? What do you enjoy about doing it?

I initially decided to start a blog because I didn't have access to the inner workings of my website, and I wanted to have a way to let readers know about upcoming events, new publications, etc. I thought of it as a very practical tool at first, but it slowly became fun for me, as well. It's nice to have a place to share links that interest me or to spout my strange enthusiasms.

2) Is there a difference between journal writing and blog writing? Are there elements that you try to leave out or do you try to be completely honestly nakedly personal?

Sometimes I'll look back at blog entries and cringe a little because they sound like my high school diaries—lots of exclamation marks and words like "awesome." I think I tend to get a little carried away when I'm excited about something. I don't see the blog as a journal, however; while I occasionally post personal entries, I know I am not laying my whole life bare. The blog is like a pop-up-book version of my life—just little colorful moments here and there.

3) Do you have any impression of who is reading the blog, what they like or don't?

I don't get too many comments on my blog, so it's hard to know how people are responding to it. It's always a thrill to get a comment (even when a recent comment I received included a pair of emoticon breasts!) Every once in awhile, I'll get email from blog readers, which is always a treat, too. A few people—including my sister!—have told me that they feel a little guilty reading my blog because they feel as if they're peeking into my diary. I assure them I wouldn't post anything I wouldn't want them to know (in that sense, the blog is very different from my high school diaries!)

4) Do you blog less than when you first started out? Is it hard to keep doing it?

My blogging comes in waves—I go through phases where I don't think about the blog much at all, and then phases where the blog is at the front of my mind. Even when I blog often, I always feel as if I am not blogging enough or taking full advantage of the format. I write my entries hastily and often floridly, and sometimes wish I had time to write more thoughtful posts.

5) Do you have any impression of whether the blog and the website are helping sales and/or general knowledge of your books?

It's hard to tell. I do think that the blog is a good way to maintain dialogue with readers between books, though. I know I appreciate getting windows into author's lives, and I'm glad to be able to provide that for readers (even though it's a strange streaky window.)

6) Do you read other authors' blogs? If so, which ones? If not, why not?

I enjoy reading other author's blogs. The authors I visit regularly include Martha O'Connor, Stephen Elliott, Bee Lavender, and Damian McNicholl. I also appreciate authors like MJ Rose and Karin Gillespie who blog about the wider publishing world. And I visit literary blogs like The Elegant Variation and Maud Newton and Moorish Girl just about daily.
The fabulous poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil recently offered a link to a posting about Oulipo poetry. Oulipo, which stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, is a group of writers and mathematicians, including Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, who have created a bunch of wild writing exercises with a decidedly Surrealist slant. One exercise is S+7, where you replace every noun in a poem with a noun seven places away in the dictionary. I decided to give this a try with one of my dictionary poems. Here is the original:


(13c): a candy consisting of a piece
of fruit, a root (as licorice), a nut, or
a seed coated and preserved with sugar

I want to roll you
in sugar. I want
you crusted sweet.
I want the grains
to pack into the curl
of your ear, glitter
from your eyelashes,
fill your bellybutton
like lint. I want to coat
each of your limbs
with a second sucrose skin.
I want to preserve each
honeyed inch of you.
I want to love you
until my teeth ache.

Here is the Oulipo version:

comic opera

(13c): a canicola fever consisting of a piecework
of fruition, a rootedness (as lie), a nutmeg, or
a seed leaf coated and preserved with sugardaddy

Iamb want to roll youngberry
in sugardaddy. Iamb want
youngberry crusted sweet.
Iamb want the grams
to pack into the curlpaper
of your earring, glitter
from your eyepiece,
fill your belonging
like lion's share. Iamb want to coat
each of your limbers
with a second sucrose skinhead.
Iamb want to preserve each
honeyed incidental of youngberry.
Iamb want to love youngberry
until my tefillin ache.

I love how I became Iamb, and I especially love how the title became "comic opera"! Oulipo is definitely a comic opera in and of itself.

Monday, April 25, 2005

There was a wonderful editorial by Salman Rushdie in the LA Times yesterday. He asks the question "Does writing change anything?" and answers in the affirmative. Here is a choice quote:

Mostly we read books and set them aside, or hurl them from us with great force, and pass on. Yet sometimes there is a small residue that has an effect. The reason for this is the always unexpected and unpredictable intervention of that rare and sneaky phenomenon, love. One may read and like or admire or respect a book and yet remain entirely unchanged by its contents, but love gets under one's guard and shakes things up, for such is its sneaky nature. When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced. We love relatively few books in our lives, and those books become parts of the way we see our lives; we read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours —they become ours.

Salon recently featured an interview with Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis and other graphic novels/memoirs. I loved this quote:

You said something interesting before -- that fears about security make us conservative. Can you explain the connection?

First, people have stopped talking about pleasure. Eating is a pleasure, but they will tell you if you eat you're going to get high cholesterol. If you make love, you're going to get AIDS. If you smoke, you're going to get cancer. But smoking is a pleasure -- I'm a smoker, I can testify. Eating is a pleasure. Making love is a pleasure. OK, it's a risk sometimes.

The fact is, the world is very fearful, because we don't know who the enemy is. The world is at war, but at war against who? Bin Laden turns into Saddam and Saddam turns into someone else. They all the time talk about security. Security, security, security. But when you talk about security, then everything is about being safe. And being safe also means having less freedom.

This makes me think of the end of Rushdie's piece:

Tyrants fear the truth of books because it's a truth that's in hock to nobody; it's a single artist's unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it's incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book's truth is slightly different in each reader's different inner world, and these are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader's imagination; and the enemies of the imagination, politburos, ayatollahs, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down, and can't. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance.

Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.

Here's to taking creative risks, to embracing pleasure, to falling in love with books and life. Here's to countering fear with a full and passionate plunging into the word!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I know I keep harping on Amazon, but they've done something else weird. They are offering articles I wrote a million years ago for sale as digital downloads: Childhood and Ritual in Bali originally appeared in Mothering Magazine in 1991, and was my first real professional publication. It's also the only thing I published under the name "Gayle Brandeis-McGunigle" (when I was still toying with the idea of using a hyphenated name. My kids are saddled with that double last name, but I decided pretty quickly it woud be simpler just to use Brandeis for myself.) You can read it for $5.95, which seems like a total rip off. And of course I won't see a penny of it. You can also purchase my essay Openings, which first appeared in Special Delivery in 1996. Strange to see writings about my kids as babies for sale (and who is benefitting from this sale? Amazon and Amazon alone.) My kids are 14 and 11 now--I can barely believe they came out of my body.

Amazon also amazingly has a listing for This guy, which was a Very limited edition broadside a friend made of one of my poems when we were in college. I didn't realize she had registered an ASIN number for it. I have sadly misplaced my copy (and I've misplaced any way to get in touch with that friend. Christine, if you happen to see this, please email me--I miss you!)
This is the first year I haven't had a chance to go to the LA Times Festival of Books since it began--it's always one of my favorite events of the year--so I'm grateful that Mark Sarvas over at The Elegant Variation is blogging live. It's not quite the same as being surrounded by books and people who care about them, but it's a good vicarious visit. The LA Times is following its grand tradition of ignoring me and my work (dramatic sob), but one year I hope to be part of the festival schedule. Even if they never invite me, though, I will continue to go and soak in the fabulous readings and panel discussions and tents upon tents of books.

I suppose I could have gone today--our hiking trip was cancelled because of rain--but I was too wiped out to move. Matt and I didn't get home from his gig until 4:30 in the morning. It's weird to suddenly be ushered into the rock and roll lifestyle in my late 30s! I am still fuzzy headed and bleary eyed from the late night and all the smoke--the bar allowed smoking inside, which surprised me (and bummed me out) tremendously. Once again, I danced like crazy, so my lungs feel scorched. I'm ultra sore today, too, but it felt wonderful to let loose and get all sweaty. Bucksworth was incredible. So was the band who played afterwards, Rancho Deluxe. We stopped at Canter's Deli on our way home; even though I didn't go to a seder this year, at least I can say I have eaten some matzo (in the form of matzo brei) and horseradish this Passover season.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

It is Passover--Good Pesach, y'all! I don't have any seder plans this year, but I thought I'd share this tangentially Passover-related piece (even though it's a bit long by blog standards.) I was artistic director for an anti-death penalty concert, Poetic Justice, last year, and wrote this piece for the event:

Last Suppers

I have always been fascinated by last meals. I have been opposed to capital punishment since I was a girl, but I've always been curious to hear what people on death row choose for their last supper. On July 14th, in Ohio, Stephen Vrabel asked for a BLT with extra mayo, a ham and cheese omelet with extra cheese, two hot dogs with mustard, pork and beans, potato salad, vanilla ice cream, chocolate pudding, and six Cokes, before he was executed by lethal injection. I wonder if those were all foods from his childhood. Comfort foods. I wonder if he savored every last flavor he was going to taste on this earth, or if he was unable to taste anything, knowing his death was imminent.

Of course, most of us won't have the luxury of choosing our last meal. Most of us will have no idea when we are enjoying our final plate of spaghetti, our last swooning bite of crème brulee. The victims of murder certainly don't have the luxury of choosing their last suppers, and it's important that we acknowledge the victims as well as those put to death by the state. The victims whose memories are so often not served by execution; many innocent people are sent to those death chambers.

I think the practice of the last meal on Death Row gives me some hope. It is a small gesture of compassion by the state, an acknowledgement of the fact that these inmates, even though they may have done unspeakably horrific things, are human beings. Human beings whose lives are about to be extinguished. Then again, it's hard to see the compassion of the state when a man like Rickey Ray Rector is executed, a man so severely retarded that he asked, while being escorted to his execution chamber in 1992, if he could save the rest of his pecan pie—part of his last supper--for the following night.

Of course, when I talk about last suppers and compassion, it makes me think of You Probably Know Who. As a Jewish girl, I have to admit, I don't know a whole lot about "the" last supper; much of what I've learned about it is through the DaVinci Code. One thing I did learn growing up, however, was the fact that Jesus' last supper was actually a Passover seder. For those of you unfamiliar with the Passover seder, it is a ritual meal held every Spring to commemorate freedom from slavery in Egypt. Several items sit on the seder plate—including horseradish, a bitter herb representing the bitterness of slavery, and parsley, representing the freshness of spring, which we dip into saltwater to remember the tears of those who were enslaved. A roasted egg, representing the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, the cycle of hope, also sits on the plate.

I don't know what I would choose for my own last supper—something involving mangoes, most likely, maybe the Tallerine casserole my mother used to make, maybe that wild mushroom pasta dish I had at Mario's Place that was so good it made me cry. But as I think of people's last suppers on Death Row, suddenly I have a desire to pull out the seder plate, to take a whole bunch of parsley in my fist, to dip it into a bowl full of salt water. I want to taste the sadness of the victims of murder, the sadness of their families; I want to taste the sadness of the people being led to their state-sponsored deaths; I want to taste the sadness of their families, as well. I want to taste the sadness of the whole damn situation. And I also want to feel the crunch of green beneath my teeth, to let its sharp fresh promise fill me up, the hope that we can learn to grow and evolve as a society, the way any green thing grows from this earth.

On Passover, we ask "Why is this night different from all other nights?" When someone is eating his or her last supper, that is an easy question to answer—this night is different from all other nights because this is my last night alive. We can ask the same thing tonight: why is this night different from all other nights? Well, this night, we are raising our voices together, raising awareness; this night, no matter what we ate for dinner, I hope we'll all leave with the taste of justice, the promise of justice, in our mouths.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Happy Earth Day! Here is what some Canadian authors are doing to make the publishing world more environmentally friendly. I hope we can follow suit in the US. I am going to try to ask for recycled paper for my next book; I know Julia Butterfly Hill successfully worked that into her contract. Then again, her book was about saving trees, so that made perfect sense. We'll see if I can pull it off...

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The current Poets & Writers Magazine has a picture of me and the lovely Donna Gershten (the 1st Bellwether winner)--taken at the P & W banquet last month--on their Coda page. We're at the very top; I'm the one on the left. I've subscribed to Poets & Writers for over a decade, and always thought that if I ended up on the Coda page, it would mean that I've made it as a writer. I can't say that I feel as if I've really made it yet (there is so much still for me to make before I'm made, plus I just received another disappointing rejection yesterday, which is keeping me extra humble), but it's awfully cool to end up there.
Some ways to bring words to the people:

An open letter to Oprah, asking her to bring back her contemporary book club (I'm happy to be one of the authors who signed the letter.)

Guerilla poetry readings.

The LA Times Festival of Books.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Thanks to Howard Bilow for sending me this picture of my recent reading at Beyond Baroque (one of the greatest literary centers out there.) I think it's cool that I look so ghostly; I also appear to be standing on the Milky Way! Reading at Beyond Baroque is always sort of an out-of-body experience(the lights make it impossible to see anyone in the audience) so that's fitting. I was one of twelve poets reading that night from Mischief, Caprice & Other Poetic Strategies edited by Terry Wolverton. A wonderfully mischevious gathering of word people!

While I was there, I picked up a book published by Beyond Baroque--Oh Tongue by Simone Forti (more proof that I have a literary oral fixation!) When I was in college, I stole Simone Forti's Handbook in Motion from the library, despite my ethical qualms, because I was so worried I wouldn't be able to find it anywhere else (I still feel guilty having it on my shelves, even though I eventually paid the library for its absence. I'm glad to add another Simone Forti book to my collection--rightfully purchased this time!) Forti has a lot of interesting things to say about the play between movement and language. I need to play with movement again more--dancing the other night reminded me just how much I miss it.
I am a fan of certain types of irony--although I am much too dorky/earnest/happy to pull it off convincingly myself. This type of irony, however, breaks my heart. That the founder of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict ended up as an innocent victim of conflict herself over the weekend makes the world feel like it's spinning off its axis. May the important work that Marla Ruzicka began continue to grow in her name.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I had such a fun day yesterday. Before seeing Matt's debut with Bucksworth--he was awesome! I danced like a maniac--I went out to Indio to visit the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center, where I had done a lot of research for The Book of Dead Birds. They were having a volunteer lunch (complete with an old time jazz/Dixieland band) and invited me to attend. I donated several copies of the novel to the Center so they could use it as a fundraiser; they sold most of the copies on the spot. It was wonderful to see Linda York again; she was so helpful to me as I was researching pelican rehabilitation. No pelicans are at the center right now--botulism season hasn't started yet--but I saw tons of owls (many of which hissed at me. That was unlike anything I had experienced--even the babies sounded like huge pneumatic machines!), hawks, falcons, etc., etc. I saw baby mocking birds being fed liquified bird seed, and baby starlings being force fed pellets (actually, they weren't begin force fed--they like the food to be pushed down their throats.) A road runner even propositioned me! He came up to the edge of his enclosure with a fat mealworm in his mouth, wagging his long tail back and forth. Deborah Eby, Linda's daughter, said he was asking me to be his mate. I had to tell him I was already married; he handled it pretty well. It was wonderful to see the good work that is being done at the Center; all the volunteers are so dedicated--one woman takes baby hummingbirds home and feeds them every fifteen minutes!

I also stopped by the Palm Springs Book Festival. I was originally scheduled to be on a panel there, but the other authors were unable to attend, so the panel was cancelled. I got there in time to see the What a Poet Should Know panel, where Richard Beban, Eloise Klein Healy, Michael Datcher, and Brendan Constantine all shared their "top ten" lists for poets. So much wonderful advice--read a lot, revise a lot, have a lot of different dictonaries and reference books at your disposal, play drums to learn rhythm, be precise, have friends, give back to the community (all of these things were told much more eloquently than I am writing them here. I wish I had taken notes!) It was a very inspiring panel. And I found a great 80s station on the drive home; a great day all around.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

My husband Matt is making his pedal steel guitar debut with Bucksworth tonight at The Press in Claremont. The first time we ever saw Bucksworth play was at The Press a few years ago, and we were blown away by their gritty, grooving, roots rock. Mark Nemetz is an amazing song writer. Matt can barely believe he gets to play with them now. Come check them out if you can at 9:30pm, 129 Harvard Ave., Claremont.

Matt will be playing with his other fabulous band, Old Brown Shoe, tomorrow night (Sunday, 8pm) at Coffee Depot in Riverside, as guests of the always entertaining Hobos.

Friday, April 15, 2005

You can read a portion of my interview with Dominique McCafferty over at the Riverside Public Library's website. The entire interview will be in the May/June issue of Public Libraries.

The Riverside Public Library has been an important part of my life. When the kids were little and we were living well below the poverty level, we used to go to the library for storytime (which was not only wonderful, but free!) and then we would go to the bagel shop across the street, where I was usually able to scrounge up enough change to buy us each a bagel (I think they were either 25 or 35 cents each.) Cups of water were free, so that's what we drank. We didn't feel poor, though; it was always a fun outing.

The library has been so supportive of my writing; I am very grateful for all they have done for me over the years. It's a treat to appear on their site.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

It's my birthday! I am 37 now, which is kind of a strange number. A prime number. Hopefully this will be a prime year!

I just got back from the most amazing event--the Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner. Sister Helen Prejean was the final speaker, and I am still rattled and inspired by her words. She talked about how bizarre it is that state sanctioned murder is still happening and most people are unfazed by it; she talked about how we all need to wake up, how we need to learn from the poor whose communities are most affected by death row. She said our hearts need to break before any change can happen. I felt my heart breaking--an actual ripping sensation in my body--when she talked about how a mother of a man about to be executed gave her son a peck on the cheek and then ran outside and collapsed on the ground. She later told Sister Prejean that if she had wrapped her arms around her son, she never would have been able to let go, that no guard would have been able to tear her away. I am getting choked up just remembering her words. What a mesmerizing speaker she is.

Jane Kaczmarek, who plays the mom on Malcolm in the Middle, had me crying, too--she gave such a moving and impassioned speech about her experience with Death Penalty Focus (she is so lovely and generous; she signed an autograph for my kids that says, jokingly, "Obey your mother!" They're going to be thrilled when they wake up in the morning and find it on the table next to her picture.) When she first accepted her award, she laughed about how Rupert Murdoch would flip if he knew two of his stars (Kiefer Sutherland was the other one) were being honored at an anti death penalty event (this is one reason I am okay with the fact that HarperCollins isn't going to publish my new novel--it means I can get away from being part of Murdoch's evil empire). Such a rich, upsetting, uplifting evening. An a capella singing group composed entirely of formerly homeless veterans just about brought the house down. The event was a continual reminder of the power we have, both individually and collectively, to change the course of humanity.

I guess I should try to get some sleep, but I'm feeling very wired after hobnobbing with celebrities and listening to such electrifying words (Jesse Jackson spoke, too! And a bishop who said something amazing about how we need to have a "lover's quarrel" with the world. I love that concept--we can love the world deeply but still argue with it, still want to change it.)

Well, the sleepiness is kicking in now. Good night on this morn of my birth (my mom was in labor at this time 37 years ago...)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

As promised, here is the Fruitful GCC interview with Ann Marie Michaels, author of Cooking to Hook Up...

> --What was the seed of inspiration for this book?

One night when we were newlyweds, my ex-husband decided to cook dinner
for me. He made orange roughy. He said you would have thought he had
bought me a Mercedes. He had no idea cooking could impress a woman so
much. He said, "I wish I had known this when I was single!" (I also
taught him to wear product in his hair and not to wear the black socks
with the khaki trousers.)

We got to talking about it and I agreed -- women are impressed by a
man who can cook. But I explained to him that not all women are alike.
Granola Girls like tofu and organic vegetables; Uptown Girls like
filet mignon and Champagne. We got to thinking how fun it would be if
there was a cookbook to impart this information -- one that would
teach guys about the different types of girls (Granola Girl, Uptown
Girl, Indie Girl, etc.) and not only how to cook for them, but what
kind of shoes to wear, what CDs to play, and what magazines to put on
the coffee table.

> --My book Fruitflesh uses fruit as its central metaphor because I thought it
> captured the juicy fruitfulness of both women's bodies and the creative
> process. Could you talk a bit about any parallels you've found between the
> cooking process and the creative process (and/or between the cooking process
> and love/sex?)

Good question! The premise of Cooking to Hook Up is that if you want
to impress a woman, get to know her and find out what pleases her. To
quote the book, "Casanova, arguably the most successful seducer in
history, had a simple philosophy: Get to know the woman, find out what
she lacks, and provide it. Seduction through food is a time-tested
technique. However, and this is the big however, you must choose the
right food, the food that works for that particular girl."

Similarly, I find that what inspires me to write is RESEARCH. The more
I research a topic, the more I want to write about it. And I think the
more I research, the better the writing is.

If men would apply this to dating, I think they'd have much a better
success rate with women. "Cooking to Hook Up" is kinda like Cliff

> --What do you think is the sexiest fruit, and why?

Well, the banana is an obvious choice. Hahaha! (Do I need to elaborate on why?)

> --What would be your ultimate hookup meal?

I'm a Gourmet/Indie girl hybrid, so anything with fancy ingredients
like heirloom tomatoes, fiddlehead ferns, blood oranges ... along with
good cheese, well-rated wines. Because I'm Indie, though, I would need
a guy to pay attention to the music he plays and maybe even rent an
independent film. As Nick Hornby wrote, in his book "High Fidelity",
"It's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your
record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films
wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party." Yeah, I'm
high-maintenance, but I'm worth it!

Thanks so much, Ann Marie! (I share your love for heirloom tomatoes and blood oranges!)

I talked about my literary oral fixation yesterday. I don't think anything in my work is quite as overt as this book cover, though! The author of Cooking to Hook Up, Ann Marie Michaels, will be my next visitor from the Girlfriend's Cyber Circuit later today.

For those new to the blog, the GCC is a collective of women writers, founded by the author Karin Gillespie. We tour one another's blogs, offering cross-promotional possibilities and support. I have to admit that many of the books that tour the GCC are not ones I would normally be drawn to--I am a bit of a literary fiction snob, and tend to shy away from Chick Lit, which many of the GCC authors write. I have found that my experience in the GCC has expanded my look at the book world, and has allowed me to connect with other writers. The writing world can be so lonely, and it's wonderful to find community and support one another in our writing quests (no matter what form our writing takes.)

Cooking for Hooking Up is a book that I probably wouldn't have picked up, despite the provocative cover, because it has the word "bachelor" in the title; I've been married for 15 years, and my husband knows the way to my heart, so I wouldn't have seen the need to have the book. But now I'm so glad I had a chance to look it over. I'ts great fun. And the authors even provide a cool quiz to see what "type" of girl you are (the book is filled with recipes geared to individual types of women.) The first time I took the quiz, I was labeled "Progressive Girl." This time, I'm labeled "Granola Girl" (which on a food level is a better fit, since all of the Granola Girl recipes are vegetarian!)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A few days ago, I mentioned Amazon's new Statistically Improbable Phrases feature. Now Amazon has surprised me again with a new slew of strange features.

The "Concordance" feature lists the 100 most frequently used words in a book. The blocks of words (which you can click on to see every instance of the word inside the text at Amazon) look almost like prose poems. Here are the top 100 words in The Book of Dead Birds:

again against air almost another anything arms ask ava away bag birds bit body book car come dark darryl day dead door down emily even eyes face feel felt few find first frieda front get girl go going good ground hair hand head heart helen herself home inside jeniece keep know let little long look man maybe mother mouth myself now okay omma open pelican people place pull put right room run said says sea see should skin small something start still sun sure take tell thing think thought time toward try turn two voice walk want water woman words

and the top 100 words in Fruitflesh:

apple away belly body book breasts breath choose come creative day deep different does down earth even experience eyes face feel find first flesh fruit fruitflesh full get give go hands heart help hold inside itself keep know language leaves let life light little live look love may mouth movement name need new now often open orange ourselves own page part peach people place poem real roots say see seeds senses skin something sometimes sound still story sweet take taste tell things think time tongue tree try use voice want whole woman women words work world write writers writing yourself

(I suppose it's not surprising that "mouth" is in both of them. A class at the University of Redlands recently pointed out how oral The Book of Dead Birds is. I hadn't realized I had made so many references to lips and tongues and beaks; the professor had the students go around in a circle and each mention an oral reference to me when I visited the class. It was quite hysterical! I liked their interpretation--that so many mouths appear in the book because the book is about women finding their voices, and voices issue forth through the mouth. Sounds good to me! I like how in the Concordance words in Fruitflesh, alphabetically you'll find "try use voice." And in the Book of Dead Birds, you'll find "want water woman words.")

Amazon is also listing the Fog Index and Flesch Index of each book (I love how those phrases sound, especially the Flesch one! They have to do with the "readability" of the book.) You can also discover, among other things, how many words per ounce in each book (in Fruitflesh, you get 6,531 words to the ounce) and how many words per dollar (the Book of Dead Birds will give you 6,688 pages per buck. A bargain, if I say so, myself.) A much belated edit: I just realized I wrote pages per buck, not words per buck--6,688 pages per buck would be an amazing bargain indeed! 6,688 words per book isn't too shabby, either.

I think Amazon has officially lost its mind.
Thanks to the fabulous Wendy Ortiz at Earthly Delights, I just learned about a great site/organization called Fallen Fruit. Here is their manifesto:

A SPECTER is haunting our cities: barren landscapes with foliage and flowers, but nothing to eat. Fruit can grow almost anywhere, and can be harvested by everyone. Our cities are planted with frivolous and ugly landscaping, sad shrubs and neglected trees, whereas they should burst with ripe produce. Great sums of money are spent on young trees, water and maintenance. While these trees are beautiful, they could be healthy, fruitful and beautiful.

WE ASK all of you to petition your cities and towns to support community gardens and only plant fruit-bearing trees in public parks. Let our streets be lined with apples and pears! Demand that all parking lots be landscaped with fruit trees which provide shade, clean the air and feed the people.

FALLEN FRUIT is a mapping and manifesto for all the free fruit we can find. Every day there is food somewhere going to waste. We encourage you to find it, tend and harvest it. If you own property, plant food on your perimeter. Share with the world and the world will share with you. Barter, don't buy! Give things away! You have nothing to lose but your hunger!

On a similar note, I recently read this article at the San Francisco Chronicle about a guy who spent two months bicycling around California. He packed no food and bought no food; he lived off the land (and off the kindness of strangers). He says he mostly survived on figs and almonds. Not a bad diet, I must say. I adore figs. Almonds, too.

Monday, April 11, 2005

I wasn't planning to watch Pamela Anderson's new show, Stacked (even though it's set in a bookstore; even though Pamela Anderson knocked--with her knockers!--into my daughter at the West Hollywood Book Fair last year.) Now, though, I read that the fictional bookstore is stocked entirely with HarperCollins books, and I feel a perverse curiosity. I kind of doubt The Book of Dead Birds will end up in Pam's hands, but I can picture her holding a copy of Fruitflesh near her own genetically modified melons. If anyone watches the show and spots my book(s), please let me know!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

When I was 10, my sister (who was 6) and I put together a neighborhood newspaper; we sold subscriptions door to door; we wrote everything--the comic strips, the advice columns, the profiles of people in our building, the editorials about pollution and grafitti. Our very first headline was GIRL STUCK IN ELEVATOR!, based on the trials and tribulations of our friend Julie McAffery, who was stuck in our building's elevator for a short while, probably half an hour at the most. Nothing like this poor guy, who was trapped in an elevator for three days. I wonder if some kid in his neighborhood is writing about him now.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hooray! The Salinas libraries won't be closing down, at least not this year. Power to the reading people who rallied to keep them open! started a weird new feature a few weeks ago--Statistically Improbable Phrases. Here is the reasoning behind them:'s Statistically Improbable Phrases, or "SIPs", show you the interesting, distinctive, or unlikely phrases that occur in the text of books in Search Inside the Book. Our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to how many times it occurs across all Search Inside books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.

Now, I'm all for statistically improbable phrases--I love when unexpected combinations of words show up in poems and stories; it's one of my favorite things, actually--but I can't understand the need for this feature. And some of the SIPs they chose are just plain goofy. I thought at first they only did this in non-fiction books ("mystery fruit" shows up as a SIP in Fruitflesh), but now they're popping up in novels, too. The SIPs for The Book of Dead Birds are "bird hospital" and "bridge ladies."

Here are some random SIPs (well, random among friends' books):

--Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer: "calico skirt", "hemlock grove"
--Ayun Halliday's The Big Rumpus: "salad bin", "dip head", "birthing center", "glitter glue"
--Donna Gershten's Kissing the Virgin's Mouth: "golden zone"
--Caroline Leavitt's Coming Back to Me: "bolted awake"

Someone should write a poem entirely composed of Amazon SIPs!

Update: Fruitflesh has two new SIPs today--"own fruitflesh" and "in your skin." So weird that this is what they've found (I like how the two phrases sound together--"own fruitflesh in your skin." That's what the book's all about, isn't it?!)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I'm back from Mexico and am having trouble getting back into work mode--it was such a fun and deeply relaxing few days. I ate the most delicious tortillas (and tried to pretend I didn't know they were filled with lard), and felt a sea anemone close its sticky tentacles (if that's what they're called in sea anemones) around my finger, and watched my friends sleep (how often do we get to watch friends sleep? There's something very sweet about it), and even had a few naps myself, curled up in patches of sunlight. Mostly, I stared at the ocean. Very nice.

I was quoted in a recent Emerging Writers Network newsletter and thought I'd share what I said here. Dan Wickett, intreprid EWN founder, had sent out this question: Do you find that the importance of setting or placediffers greatly between poetry, short stories, and/or novels?

Here is my answer:

Hi Dan! Thanks for an intriguing question! It's a timely one for me,
too - I'm teaching setting in my Novel I class right now, so I have place on the brain. I love all three genres you mentioned - both as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, I am always grateful when place plays a role in any work, be it poem or short story or novel; it grounds me, orients me, give me a physical touchstone. I find that, for me, place is most important within a novel, though. Poems can be very internal, very surreal - they often exist in a place that's not really a place, more like inner space or previously unexplored space. I love poems that plumb the natural (and unnatural) world in a rich sensorial way, but I also like abstract poems, poems that play with language and ideas, poems not necessarily rooted to the earth. Short stories have a similar freedom -I love when a short story explores place in a deeply detailed way, but I also love stories that are less rooted, more heady. A novel, on the other hand, seems to need to have a sense of place- otherwise, the reader can get lost. It would be hard to spend 300 pages without having a specific place to grasp on. The landscape, the environment, in a novel can act as a frame, a bass note, a way to connect the characters to the larger world.

The first novel I wrote (which I'm sure will foreverremain unpublished) was set in an unnamed city. The story really suffered as a result - as a writer, I didn't have a firm grasp of where the story was located, what sort of weather, what sort of geography,what sort of culture, the characters had to contend with, and I think the story was sort of vague and claustrophobic as a result. I've found that place has become more and more important to me as a writer over time. I've just started to write a new novel set in Chicago, where I grew up; it's a real pleasure to return to the streets and trees of my childhood on the page. Poems can thrive in unnamed cities, short stories can thrive in unnamed cities, but novels will have a hard time surviving without a zip code (or many zip codes) to call home.

Thanks again!

Friday, April 01, 2005

Hey, happy Poetry Month, everyone! Happy April Fool's Day, too! To celebrate both, I will share one of my own foolish poems (or, I should say, a poem that makes me look like a fool.)

Sestina Upon Having A Sestina Rejected from McSweeney’s

I’m not cut out to be a McSweeney’s
poet. I should have known it. I chose six
end words, hammered them into a poem
that was maybe a little hip, maybe a little ironic,
just not quite enough, I guess. Now

I have to deal with that. Now
I have to decide whether McSweeney’s
was able to peer into my un-ironic
heart, was able to see that those six
words were too self-consciously hip,
that I had formed a poem

outside myself, despite myself, a poem
I thought the cool kids might
like. Now I have to admit that I’m not that hip,
that I can feel everyone at McSweeney’s
smirk at me, at my six
piddly end words, and it’s really ironic,

isn’t it? Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not ironic
that the rejection of my simple poem,
my simple rearrangement of six
terminal words, now
causes me to question my own McSweeney’s
worthiness, to rue my own utter hip

lessness. But I really never
cared to be hip,
anyway, so I think it’s ironic
that I even let this whole McSweeney’s
rejection thing get to me because poem
making is usually my purest joy, and now
here I am puzzling over six

tricky end words again, six
words that I’ve tried to strip of ironic
content, six words that now
I’m shooting straight from my own hip,
six words I am cobbling into a poem
that I secretly want to send to McSweeney’s,

even though these six words now
show how completely un-hip I am,
even though this poem
exposes my ironic desire to hear, just once, that I am wanted by McSweeney’s.

Well, I'm off to Mexico for a few days. I feel I've been a bit mawkish in some of my postings lately. Maybe some time away from my computer will knock some of the butterflies out of my head...