Monday, February 28, 2005

Richard Beban for CA Poet Laureate!

If there was an election for this position (it's an appointment now), I would vote for Richard in a heartbeat. He has done so much to bring poetry to the people (plus his poetry itself is gorgeous.) I hope his "campaign" will be successful!

Saturday, February 26, 2005

I have an exciting week coming up. Monday night, I will drive to the airport to catch a midnight plane to NY. I'll get into JFK around 8:30am, go to the annual Poets & Writers Banquet that evening, and fly home the next night (I'll get in around midnight, so I'll be gone pretty much exactly 48 hours). I'm very excited about this--I am going to be a "literary table host", and when I saw the list of the other hosts, I just about plotzed--all sorts of Pulitzer Prize winners and literary idols. It is amazing to see my name next to theirs; I can barely believe that I get to do this kind of thing in my life. The banquet is going to honor Barbara Kingsolver (yay! We're going to have a little Bellwether convo), Quincy Troupe, and Sidney Offit. I just hope I'll be able to sleep on the plane. I would hate to be a zombie at the banquet.

Next Saturday (3/5), I am going to teach a class, Writing Your Passions, at the annual Women Creating Peace Collective's Interational Women's Day Conference. This year, it's going to be held at a holistic center in Beaumont. It should be amazing--there will also be drumming and art and storytelling and all sorts of fabulous workshops and gatherings. I'll post the details soon...

Sunday, 3/6, I will be reading from The Book of Dead Birds at the Riverside Film Festival--1pm, University Village theaters. I mentioned the Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea documentary below; I'm thrilled to be able to collaborate with these talented filmmakers. Come if you can!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

My story at Drunken Boat is now live. Click on my name under "Prose", then click on "Flotsam." And check out DB's cool Aphasia feature, if you are interested in words and silence and meaning and all of that good stuff.
Today is the release date for the Spanish edition of The Book of Dead Birds, El Libro de los Pajaros Muertos. You can read the first few pages of it here. I found it interesting that the publisher replaced the quotation marks with dashes; I think that is the more European way to denote dialogue. I wish I could throw a release party in Spain! I'll have to eat some tapas today to celebrate.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

This introduction to a new edition of Virginia Woolf's "On Being Ill" (which I've been meaning to read for years) argues that bed rest can be a creative stimulus for a writer. I know that my illness as a teenager--while frought with sadness and shame and other negative baggage--was ultimately fruitful for my life as a writer. It gave me the time and space to think, to observe, to create myself outside of the whirlwind of highschool life. It might be time to resurrect my Sick Girl project.

Hermione Lee writes:

Why has illness not been as popular a subject for literature as love, (Woolf) asks in the essay? (This question could not be asked now). Why has the "daily drama of the body" not been recognised? Why does literature always insist on separating the mind, or the soul, from the body? Perhaps because the public would never accept illness as a subject for fiction; perhaps because illness requires a new language - "primitive, subtle, sensual, obscene". But illness is almost impossible to communicate. The invalid's demand for sympathy can never be met. Besides, illness really prefers solitude. "Here we go alone, and like it better so."

Monday, February 21, 2005

Bengali author Taslima Nasreen, whose poem "Eve Oh Eve" I quote in my book Fruitflesh, has been exiled from her home in Bangladesh since 1994. Her work was considered blasphemous by conservative Muslims, and her life was threatened as a result. She has been living in Sweden ever since. In the last couple of years, she has been trying to regain Indian citizenship, but so far has not had any luck.

I have such deep admiration for her and for other poets and writers who continue to speak their truth despite the threat of imprisonment or death. I would like to think that I would do the same under the same conditions; I hope I would have that kind of courage. I will close with a few lines from "Eve Oh Eve"--words that show Taslima Nasreen's fierce dedication to freedom...

Why would Eve merely suppress her wishes,
regulate her steps?
Subdue her thirst?
Eve, if you get hold of the fruit
don't ever refrain from eating.

Friday, February 18, 2005

It's time for the next installment of the Girlfriend's Cyber Circuit! Today, our guest is Jennifer O'Connell, whose latest novel is Dress Rehearsal. Here is a synopsis of the delicious-sounding book:

No one knows wedding cakes better than the owner of Lauren's Luscious Licks, Boston's hottest cake boutique. Lauren Gallagher is a pro when it comes to helping brides and grooms pick out the perfect Big Day dessert. But what her clients don't know is that her talent doesn't end there. Because while the happy couple is choosing between buttercream and royal icing, Lauren is predicting which relationships will last, and which marriages will crumble, simply by watching them pick a cake. Her latest prediction, however, is anything but sweet. Unless her marital Magic Eight Ball is off, one of her best friends is about to tie the knot with Mr. Absolutely All Wrong.

Lauren's got to save her friend, and prove her cake theory is true, even if it means taking her predictive powers public. All of a sudden it seems everyone wants to learn Lauren's secret for relationship success, but is predicting a sure thing the formula for true love, or a recipe for disaster?

And while Lauren's trying to prevent a potential mismatch, she's got her own problems - involving an ex-boyfriend, his new fiancee, and the cake of Lauren's dreams.

I asked Jennifer a few questions about her process. Here is what she had to say:

1. Since your book centers around cake, I would love to know--what is your own dream cake?

I love anything dense and chocolate - a plain old flourless chocolate cake with fresh raspberries is my number one pick.

2. Are you a baker, yourself? If so, I'd be interested to hear whether you've found any parallels between baking and the writing process. If not, could you please share some tidbits about how/where/when you write?

I can bake with the help of Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. Other than that, I buy my desserts elsewhere. I write at Barnes and Noble pretty much seven days a week when deadlines are looming and the idea of my publisher ripping up my contract is scaring the hell out of me. I don't write in sequential order, pretty much just write whatever I'm having brainstorms for that day. Or night. Or middle of the night. As I'm sure most writers will tell you, some of the best ideas come when you're all snuggled in bed and too damn lazy to get up and sit in front of your computer.

3. What inspired this particular book? What inspires you in general?

The original concept for Dress Rehearsal was different than the final book. I had an idea to write a book about how so many women treat life before marriage as a dress rehearsal - they don't buy good plates or nice linens, they don't invest in their own home because they're thinking that "when" they meet the man of their dreams, they'll do that together. Lauren was one of the four main characters, and my editor and agent loved her so much they wanted her to become the main character. And so she did. Because Lauren has spent years catering to blissful brides, she thinks she's over the whole wedding/marriage thing. She soon learns that she's not as immune to the idea of prince charming as she thought she was. The three friends in the story are so different from one another and yet each of them have to come to terms with how they view themselves and their idea of happily ever after.

As far as inspiration for my writing in general, it's pretty much selfish - I like to write about things my friends and I enjoy reading.

4. What's in the oven (so to speak) now?

Things in the oven... well, I have my third book, Off the Record coming out in September, and I just sold my first teen chick lit to MTV Books. It will come out in Spring 2006. Off the Record is about a Chicago attorney who discovers that the number one hit and Grammy winning song her freshman year in college was written about her by a former childhood neighbor. Once the news gets out, her life is turned upside. down. I pictured how cool it would have been if I'd inspired a song (particularly, Sweet Child of Mine by Guns n Roses), and went from there.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jennifer! Good luck with everything!

Before I sign off for now, I should mention that my own favorite cake of the moment is the Princess Cake from Simple Simon's bakery--it has layers of marzipan and raspberry jam and pastry cream sandwiched between the moistest, most lovely, almost lemony cake. Mmmmmm....

And I can't eat cake now without thinking of my friend Greg Walloch!

Also, be sure to visit the fabulous Cupcake Series!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

If you've read The Book of Dead Birds (or even if you haven't) and you're curious to get an inside look at the Salton Sea, the wonderful documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is now viewable online. You have to register (for free) to view the film, and I know the filmmakers will appreciate it if you give the movie good feedback. It looks like I'm going to be doing an reading in conjunction with the movie at the upcoming Riverside Film Festival, which should be a lot of fun.

A friend also alerted me to the fact that the February issue of National Geographic Magazine also has a great feature on the Salton Sea. I'm feeling a hankering to head out to the desert now...

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

It seems as if the New York Times has been raiding my old file of research--so many articles tangentially related to The Book of Dead Birds have been appearing lately. The latest is this article on the "sea women" of South Korea (my character Helen's mother could have been one of the women profiled; I half expected to see her there on the page, even though the only pages she exists on are my own.) If I was really smart, I would find a way to create a marketing opportunity out of this, but I find myself just smiling as I read the article, and thinking "Cool. This is a world I know."

Monday, February 14, 2005

In her latest column, Maureen Dowd writes about a man who gave his wife 26 books--a title for every letter--that would help her understand who he is as a person. That made me wonder what books I would choose to include in such an alphabetical, self-revealing list. I'll give it a shot here:

A--American Primitive by Mary Oliver and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
B--Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban and Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
C--Cruddy by Lynda Barry
D--The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds
E--Earth House Hold by Gary Snyder and Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta
F--The Funny Thing by Wanda Ga'ag
G--The Golden Book Library (a collection of children's book anthologies) and The Girl with the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
H--The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
I--In the Language of Love by Diane Schoemperlen
J--Just Only John by Jack Kent
K--Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
L--Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
M--My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
N--A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
0--The Oblivion Ha-Ha by James Tate
P--Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge
Q--The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum
R--Reality Sandwiches by Allen Ginsberg
S--Sonnets to Orpheus by Ranier Maria Rilke and Sula by Toni Morrison
T--Tracks by Louise Erdrich
U--Unless by Carol Shields
V--Voice Lessons by Nancy Mairs
W--Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin and Walden by Henry David Thoreau
X--Generation X by Douglas Coupland (a bit of a cheat, but I couldn't think of any titles that started with X)
Y--Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss
Z--The Zoom Book (I don't know if this is the title for sure, but it was the book from the PBS Show Zoom in the 70s. I spent hours pouring through it.)

This isn't an exhaustive list of the books that are meaningful to me by any stretch, and some on here are more meaningful than others, but all of them have had an impact. It was fun to make the list--if any of you are up to the challenge, I'd love to see your own lists!
Happy Valentine's Day! Do you know where your chocolate comes from?

Here is a good source for fair trade chocolate.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

I've daydreamed about earning a million dollars as a writer (what writer hasn't?), but I never expected to do it this way! I am one of the 1,812 writers listed in the class action suit in the article. The jury mistakenly awarded us $1,000,000 each, instead of splitting the $1,000,000 among us (which would amount to about $500 each, which isn't too bad in itself). The judgement is most definitely going to be overturned, but it is fun, for a brief shining moment, to be a millionaire on paper! I've written an essay about the experience--if it gets picked up anywhere, I'll let you know.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Well, I guess I've started writing a new novel! This is a story that has been percolating inside for awhile--it started as a short story about a year ago--and it finally built up enough steam to blast its way out of me. I am both terrified and thrilled. It is nice to have something new to occupy my thoughts while I'm waiting to hear news about my latest novel. I'm in the research/getting to know my characters phase, which is one of the most delicious (and vulnerable) parts of the process for me. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Let's give a big Fruitful welcome to Alison Pace, author of If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend, art historian, and inaugural member of the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit. Thanks so much to Karin Gillespie for her GCC brainchild, and to Alison for stopping by!

Alison's publisher describes her book thusly:

Jane Laine used to know a lot about art. But that was before she started managing a prominent gallery, and long before she met "it" artist Ian Rhys-Fitzsimmons. Jane can't seem to put a finger on what exactly is so "it" about his work. In fact, as far as she can tell, he's a big fraud and his fifteen minutes of fame should be over by now. Which could be kind of a problem-since Jane is the one who has to accompany him on a five-month international art fair tour.

To get through it all, Jane figures she'll be a good sport and keep her critiques to herself. Until, traveling with this alleged genius from London to Rome and beyond, she starts to understand the connection between art and love-and the fact that in both, perspective is everything.
The novel has received some fabulous blurbs, including this one from Pam Houston: "A funny, feel-good fairy tale set improbably in the high-powered international art world. If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend will give hope to the most relationship-weary heart."

Alison herself (in yesterday's stop on the GCC) describes her book as "a novel about art, love, miniature schnauzers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, horrible bosses, careless boyfriends, looking for love in all the wrong places, and finding it, eventually, inside yourself."

I asked Alison a few questions about her writing life:

--I would love to hear about your writing process. Where do you write? Do
you have a writing schedule or are you more of a go-with-the-flow kind of
person? Do you write longhand or on the keyboard?

I write in my apartment, at the coffee shop down the street, and sometimes, when I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating, at the library. One day a week I meet up with two friends who are working on screenplays. We vary where we go, but it’s nice to have that day of camaraderie. I have a schedule of when I have to be at the computer, but I’m not always writing my novel, I can often be found sending emails and reading blogs.

--When/how did you decide to write your novel?

Almost exactly three years ago. I’d always wanted to write but had never been sure if I had a whole novel in me. I was feeling very tired of my job at the time and wasn’t sure what to do career-wise, so I sat down and started working on the novel.

--What are you working on now?

I’m technically working on finishing up my second novel. But I’m taking a few weeks off from that to concentrate fully on promoting If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend. Then it’s back to work.

--What/who inspires you?

So much. I live in New York City, which I find endlessly inspiring. Whenever I’m able to travel, it inspires me. All my favorite travel spots made it into my book. Rome particularly is almost like a supporting character. My friends inspire me, my parents. I really think that inspiration is everywhere; you just need to know where to look.

--Do you have any words of advice for new writers?

Stick with it. Don’t listen to all the people who tell you it’s just impossible to get published. Everyone told me that. I think you should be sure you like to spend a lot of time by yourself. As far as I can tell, there’s a lot of that.

--I later sent Alison an email asking her about her favorite fruit, but haven't heard back yet. Is it mangoes? Is it persimmons? Stay tuned...

Update: Ding! Ding! Ding! Alison's favorite fruit is indeed mangoes! I think I'll go into business as a fruit psychic.

Thanks again to Alison for stopping by. Best of luck on the rest of the Circuit (and beyond)!

Monday, February 07, 2005

In The Book of Dead Birds, my character may Ava kill her mother's pet birds with Teflon, with M&Ms, with carpet cleaner fumes, with make up, but at least she never bit a parrot's head off.
Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a concert by koto player Yukiko Matsyama and taiko drummer Tom Kurai. Yukiko shared a song she wrote based on her visit to Manzanar, and spoke about how she believed music could be a great cultural healer. It could maybe even stop war, she said.

Music can offer such a gorgeous and important bridge between cultures. My brother Jon recently won a highly competitive grant from PBS to develop a film about life after September 11th; he is going to travel to the Middle East to interview musicians there. He will bring the musicians to the US to help create dialogue through the power of music. Jon is an amazing guy; his movie, American Bellydancer, opens this week. I can't wait to see it. Here is the poster:

Literature, of course, can also be a great bridge between cultures. This recent article in the Hindustan Times explores how literature in translation has been one of the most important sources of cross cultural understanding between the Arab and Western worlds.

When I think about it, I realize that my new novel, Self Storage, is my attempt to create (or at least begin to create) such a bridge. It is very much a post 9/11 novel; my main character's life collides with her Afghani neighbor's, and things get very complicated. I am still waiting to hear the fate of the novel--hopefully I'll have some news soon...

Thursday, February 03, 2005

If you've read my book Fruitflesh, you know I have a thing for strawberries. In case you haven't read it, I should mention that "A strawberry changed my life" is the very first sentence.

Strawberries have changed other people's lives, too. My husband read this passage to me from The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, a book I never would have expected to hold strawberries:

One of the most moving moments in my life, was also one of the most ordinary. I was with a friend in Denmark. We were having strawberries for tea, and I noticed that she sliced the strawberries very very fine, almost like paper. Of course, it took longer than usual, and I asked her why she did it. When you eat a strawberry, she said, the taste of it comes from the open surfaces you touch. The more surfaces there are, the more it tastes. The finer I slice the strawberries, the more surfaces there are.

Her whole life was like that. It is so ordinary, that it is hard to explain what is so deep about it. Animal, almost, nothing superfluous, each thing that is done, done totally. To live like that, it is the easiest thing in the world; but for a man whose head is full of images, it is the hardest. I learned more about building in that one moment, than in ten years of building.

Amazing what a stawberry can teach us, what a person can teach us through a strawberry. Writers, like architects, so often live in our heads. It is so good to remember to drop back into our body, to taste those open surfaces.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I've been carrying around an idea in the back of my mind for a book that engages all of the senses, literally--kind of like a scratch and sniff book for grown ups, but with sound and taste and textures also woven in. A cd would appear on one page, and you'd have to listen to a certain song, for example, and a piece of candy would appear on another page and you'd have to eat it while reading a certain poem, etc.

I just read an article about a chef who prints pictures of food on edible paper with food based ink. He prints sushi flavored pictures of sushi, etc, which got me thinking...

Wouldn't it be cool to print Fruitflesh on edible paper with fruit flavored ink? You could read the exercise about the mango, for instance, and then pop it in your mouth and let the mango flavor coat your tongue. Of course, you'd be missing the texture of the mango, which is half the fun, but it would be so cool to make an edible book. Books and food--two of my favorite things! One of these years, I swear I'm going to create something for the Edible Book Festival...

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The internet is such a boon for writers. When I first started to get serious about publishing my work, long before we had (or could even imagine) internet access, I could turn to books like Writer's Market for information, but it was a lonely process. I knew other writers were out there--and I did know a few--but overall, I felt very isolated. The publishing world felt so far away, and was shrouded in so much mystery. I have since found such a wonderful community of writers, both in the world and online. A community that offers information and support and inspiration. It is remarkable how real community can be formed in a virtual world. I teach an online class, and love getting to know people through their words alone.

Here are some of the online resources I share with my students:

Poets and Writers has a great online presence. Much of the content of Poets & Writers Magazine (which all serious writers should subscribe to!) is available, and they also offer a lively discussion board, the Speakeasy.
Readerville is a forum for passionate readers and writers. You can access dozens of conversations about writing and reading and publishing 24 hours a day.
Publisher's Lunch is a free daily email newsletter about the publishing industry. You can also sign up for a paid subscription at Publisher's Marketplace, which offers even more information about what's going on in the publishing world. A good place for those seeking agents.
The Emerging Writers Network posts numerous interviews with underappreciated authors and provides great networking opportunities through the newsletter.

There are also some wonderful blogs about books and publishing. My favorites include:
Maud Newton (which focuses on literary fiction and publishing)
The Elegant Variation (which also has a literary emphasis)
Moorish Girl (which focuses on international fiction)
Buzz, Balls, and Hype (which focuses on book promotion)
Southern Comfort (which focuses on women's fiction and book marketing)
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (which claims to focus on crime fiction, but often casts a wider net)
Galleycat (which focuses on publishing news)
Cupcake Series (which has a great feminist literary focus)

Author Karin Gillespie, proprietor of Southern Comfort, recently started up the Girlfriend's Cyber Circuit, to help women authors connect and help promote each other online. I thought this was a great idea and signed up right away. In the coming weeks, you will see guest appearances by other authors as we make the rounds of one another's blogs. This is kind of a twist on my friend Kevin Smokler's brainchild, Virtual Book Tour, which gives authors a wonderful new way to connect with readers. I look forward to being part of it!
Calling someone a "bird brain" isn't the insult we once thought it was. A new article at the New York Times states

Today, in the journal Nature Neuroscience Reviews, an international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto. Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and mammal brains.
Maybe my next novel should be The Book of Smart Birds!