Friday, February 26, 2010

 

The Stephen J Gould Theory of Writing

Somehow I have managed 60 pages of a new novel. Of course, 40 of those pages were written last year, before I got pregnant, before I became perpetually exhausted and was hauling myself around the country with what little energy I had. But I still have 60 pages, and intend to have more. I think that most of the sentences are pretty bad and the paragraphs even worse, but I have a kind of hope that once the majority of the text is down, I can shape it into something.

It's supposed to be impossible to write while raising a small child. I'm supposed to have full time help. I don't. But at the same time, plenty of people I know wrote while raising children, so I think to myself that it ought to be possible. I've already learned that I can function with interrupted sleep. I don't think I'm 100% sane (though that's been a problem for a while). But, I manage to function.

I was thinking this morning about Stephen Jay Gould and his theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution. This was a somewhat revolutionary approach to evolution at the time that he put it forward-that is, unless you are someone who thinks that evolution itself is suspect, in which case you probably ought to stop reading. But anyway, Gould essentially posited that species remain somewhat static, and then go through sudden bursts of evolutionary change. That's when-looking at the fossil record-we can see one species branching off of another, or changing in some fundamental way.

Writers are told to commit to the computer/chair/desk every day, if they want results. Certainly that's been how I've worked for the last who knows how many years. And over time, I've found that I can sit for longer and longer and still get up in the morning with fresh energy. But if I am honest with myself . . . I remember these bursts . . . a week or a few days in which suddenly the book seemed to write itself. Or a week in which an essay just sort of fell out onto the page, almost fully formed. And then for weeks . . . tinker, tinker, tinker. And I wonder if there isn't some kind of punctuated equilibrium when it comes to writing.

A couple of weeks ago, the baby went through an awful spell. He fussed and fussed, but the doctor told me he didn't have colic. "Babies cry," she said. (No one told me they cried this much. My mother still swears I never cried at all). He didn't like eating. He didn't like swinging, or swaddling, or sleeping. We were both miserable. A baby's constant cry is even worse that the motherf*cking car alarms we have in Manhattan. It gets under your skin. It is the worst sound. In the end, the only way that I could do anything to remotely pacify him, was to slump back in the bed, and have him lie on top of me while I patted his back. This was how Gordon found us, hours later, in the dark, both clutching each other for dear life, and me sort of shell shocked and numb from having spent the day trying to stop the baby from crying. Gordon peeled the baby off of my torso and I went off and took a shower and cried and wondered what kind of fresh hell I had introduced into my life. A few days later, the baby was fine. In fact, he started to turn his head and follow me with his eyes when I crossed the room. A day later, he smiled at me. (Finally! Some gratitude!). He had had the classic 6 week growth spurt. (Another one is supposedly coming at the 3 month mark; I'll be more ready-or so I tell myself).

But there you go. I know he's growing all the time-we weigh him often. But occasionally, there is some kind of inner rewiring going on at the same time, and these are the ones that cause him confusion and pain, but also hallmark some kind of interesting change-the laughing, the recognition, the smiling.

When we say that writers have to write every day, I'm thinking it isn't because we make slow, steady progress everyday. I mean, maybe some people do, but I don't. I tend to write (novels, anyway) the same way that Ewan grows. I write so steadily I don't notice it's happening, and this is followed by some catastrophic outburst that upsets family and friends and then . . . a sudden shift. Maybe the thing to do is to keep writing, then, while the baby naps, or decides to amuse himself by staring at his reflection for a half an hour. Because eventually, there will be a growth spurt, a puncture in the equilibrium and something good will be there that was not before.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

 

Compartment Comportment, Parts Two and Three

The essay continues and concludes.

 

Feminism, Blogging and Fort Greene



Monday, I returned to life as a writer by reading a little passage from my book at Fort Greene's wonderful and enviable bookstore, Greenlight. The conversation was facilitated by The Undomestic Goddess herself, Amanda Recupido, and organized by one Ron Hogan. I walked into the store and the proprietor introduced herself to me--turns out we already "knew" each other over Twitter, only, I had always thought of her as BookNerdNYC. If you haven't figured it out already, I only know Amanda and Ron because of the internet in the first place.

Lovely writer/blogger Lori Adelman did a write up for the New York Times local blog which you can read here (I've swiped a photo that Lori took). A snippet:

Ms. Mockett, who was born in California to a Japanese mother and an American father, transported the mostly Brooklyn-based crowd into her literary world of Greek gods and geishas. Her debut novel isn’t easy to label, as the author herself conceded in a recent blog post, but can loosely be described as a multi-generational story of Asian women that doubles as a fairy tale, complete with “girl power and ghosts.”

Reading under the glare of the bookstore’s signature green foyer light fixture, Ms. Mockett introduced her audience to spirited characters like 11-year-old Satomi, who navigates her 1950s Japanese mountain town with the help of her best friend Tomoko, who says things like “In the long run, I suspect that being talented is going to matter more than being pretty.”


Amanda, as expected, was super smart and came with a set of pointed and intelligent questions. What did I think of the fact that reviewers complained that the men in the novel were not redeemed at the end, while the women were? (I pointed out that the Asian guys were all pretty nice. It was the Caucasian men who took a beating). How did I reconcile the fact that Francois celebrated his daughter's talents, even as he denigrated other women? (Lots of men-hell, people-are compartmentalized this way. Remember: Zeus' favorite child was Athena, a girl). And did I think I had written a feminist novel?

I've been wrestling with this concept ever since my novel was published. It's pretty hard to avoid that fact that the early adopters of my book have been self-identified feminists and that the book strikes a chord with them. Others-including an editor who became upset with my main character-become angry with the way the women in my book behave, and with one choice in particular. That "choice"--sorry to be vague but I'm trying not to avoid spoilers-is something that Amanda told me was "very feminist."

Actually, it was Amanda who raised the whole "feminist" issue with me in the first place. She asked me if I was a feminist and I explained that in general I don't like labels. My parents, for example, had an inter-racial marriage long before it was trendy to do so, but their partnership wasn't a political act. They just fell in love. And while, yes, other people might attach a political meaning to what they did, they themselves didn't feel that way. They seemed oblivious to politics and were more concerned with art-which is probably one reason why I've blundered along the same way.

Since I've never thought of myself as a feminist, it is difficult for me to speak up and say that I intentionally wrote a feminist text. I wasn't trying to. I was trying to write the kind of book that I might enjoy reading and to illustrate some things in the world that I see that I thought other people might not. At the same time, I can't avoid the fact that feminists keep responding to my words.

Since Amanda's interview, I've been thinking more and more about issues of gender inequality and feminism. And I have noticed a kind of inherent inequality in my chosen profession. At one point, I was so pissed off about this inequality, I wrote this. Further, I do on occasion read a book that I think is overlooked and which, if written by a man, I suspect would be better recognized. It would be considered the product of a great and wise mind. It wouldn't be dismissed as "cult" and "odd" and "small." Those are marketing terms.

Once I get to this point, my mind does bad things. I develop a crappy attitude. I start to think uncharitable thoughts. I think: Don't assume that because a man has written a "hard book" it must be smart. Maybe it's just bullshit. But don't assume that because a woman has written a book, it's silly or chick lit or light. Don't get angry at a female writer when she "fails" to soothe you in the way you wanted her to. That is your problem.

When I step back and look at my book, and consider the reception it has had from feminists, I think I can see what people are responding to. The women in my book are driven. They suffer at the hands of men, but do not languish in their beautiful surroundings or escape to the freedom of America-which is often what happens in novels set in the East and populated with beautiful but suffering female characters. (Why do we accept this from novels? I think it makes us feel good about ourselves). The women, in other words, take no prisoners. Is that always pretty? Well, of course not. To take no prisoners is to take no prisoners. It's ugly if you are a man, and it's ugly if you are a woman.

Setting aside the question of whether my book succeeds or fails or is any good-why be harder on a female character for behaving this way, than a male character?

 

Polish Picking Bones from Ash

Poland has one of the most vibrant literary scenes in what is often called the "New Europe." I'm damned excited that there will be a Polish translation of "Picking Bones from Ash." And, of course, perpetual wanderluster that I am . . . I can't wait to travel to see the book in context.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

 

Fall's Big (and Little) Books

“I have an idea for a blog post,” my editor said to me. “Maybe you can write about being a debut novelist during Fall’s Big Books.” This would have been some time around August 2009, when the buzz over Barbara Kingsolver, EL Doctorow, AS Byatt, Jeanette Walls, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and anyone else who was anyone and publishing a book was starting to gather steam.

The idea was this: yes, we were and are in a recession and books are among the many casualties to suffer from a lack of spending dollars. But so many famous writers putting new titles out at once ought to be helpful in getting shoppers into stores, and this, in turn, might help a debut novelist like me.

I said I’d think about it. I knew, of course, that PR was important even though I had already decided not to spend $10,000 on an independent publicist. I’d read all about how readings don’t really help sell books (not true) and that I should not be surprised if the four people to show up at my reading in Seattle included a couple of homeless men there for the free coffee. I was feeling apprehensive, but basically positive. I had some fantastic blurbs. I loved my cover. There were a few people who’d read my book and liked it and I had a kind of blind faith that this support would count for something.

I guess I had my first inkling of what would happen when a freelance book reviewer posted on her Facebook page that she did not want to hear any more about any books with “Picking, Bones and Ash” in their titles.

For my book launch party, my publicist called around independent bookstores in New York City where we could host an event. I’d have a lot of friends present—books would definitely sell. No one was interested.

McNally Jackson, the independent bookstore in Soho, did, however, invite me for a reading. But about two weeks later, they uninvited me. I think this is funny now, though my agent and others attest they have never, ever heard of a bookstore doing such a thing. Bizarrely, Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Center put my book in their window. Nothing was going as I had expected.

A print review for a regional paper, which had been all but guaranteed, was suddenly killed; review space was at a premium and priority had to go to the “big names.” And suddenly, I understood all too clearly what it meant to be part of “Fall’s Big Books.” All October and November I chased the leftovers to Barbara Kingsolver and Jeanette Walls’ audiences. The point was driven home when I went out to lunch with a few debut novelists who told me that their houses had deliberately delayed their pub dates until the spring in other to avoid an overly crowded space.

Not long ago, Nielsen announced that Kirkus, one of four trade reviewers of books (which charged a fee, mind you), was closing. Ron Charles, the Washington Post Fiction editor, lamented via his Twitter feed: “Everytime we lose 1 of these rare independent voices we grow more dependent on publicists, authors' parents/ friends clogging blogs w praise.” Well, yes, that’s right. That is what will happen—and it is what is happening. It is, in fact, what has helped me with my book—the collection of readers and mothers and writers who are looking for something new. As far as I’m concerned, the bloggy-internet-online-bookclub-nightmare of publishers and editors can’t happen fast enough. As a reader, I don’t need to read reviews of the same writers over and over and over again. Yes, I understand that there is a hierarchy, that Margaret Atwood has been at this much longer than I have, and that she deserves my deference. I don’t believe, however, that I’m not supposed to have a career at all. New writers, after all, are the lifeblood of this profession that we are supposed to care about so much. I say we level the playing field sooner, rather than later.

What’s more, creative people are supposed to be creative. We—and I mean all of us: writers, editors, publishers, agents and publicists—aren’t supposed to cling to outmoded and elitist systems. We are supposed to like what is fresh and new and challenging. Instead of standing around, befuddled and sneering at the new world, we ought to be contributing to the solution. You think that blogs seem inhabited by amateurs and you consider yourself “an expert”? Do something about it. And what’s wrong with a book blog anyway? Did you really think you lived in a world where you controlled public consumption and taste and that word of mouth wasn’t spreading anyway? The difference is, now you can see it. This ought to be a good thing. Now you can identify people who, amateur or not, like to read. Now you can determine where a book starts to take off, or which book stores are instrumental in bringing a book to the public’s attention. I’m reminded of the ending to season 3 of Mad Men when Don Draper, concerned about the sale of the company to which he has devoted so many hours and ideas, earnestly looks at his colleagues and says: “I want to work.” Don’t you want to work?

Over the past three months, I contacted editors and publicists at publishing houses who are friends, and asked for advice. “What,” I wanted to know, “do you wish your authors would do to help themselves?” They were brutally honest, and I tried to do pretty much everything they suggested. I asked for my press kit so I could hand it out myself. I visited bookstores and discovered that booksellers liked meeting authors. I developed lectures and workshops to go along with my novel. I wrote book club questions and delivered them to book club organizers. I wrote “off the page” pieces and published them. I decided that the pitch for my novel was not working (does the world need another multi-generational Asian women’s book?) and reframed it in my interviews so it was closer to what I had really intended to write about—fairy tales, girl power and ghosts. And I learned that many other debut novelists before me have quietly trod this path—and are working to help out their fellow writers. Yes, writing is a competitive field. But you will find many more allies who want to help you than you might have expected. It’s now my turn soon to share what I have learned.

An independent bookseller in the Bay Area saw what I was doing, and understood it. “Every little bit is going to make a difference,” she said. “You’ll see.” Even though I couldn’t get a reading at a bookstore in San Francisco, I hosted a lecture on Japanese fairy tales—a theme in my novel—at an arts club. Over fifty people showed up. Half now have my book. The bookseller who sold my novel to the audience told me she would not return the excess stock: “I know I can sell this,” she said.

In the process of trying to learn how to take charge of my own PR I discovered something; it’s healthy for writers to understand and be in control of their careers. This is true of virtually every other profession; why shouldn’t it also be true for writers? Do you really want to live in a world where other people control your life for you? I don’t know about you, but I like solving my own problems. Much of writing and editing, after all, have to do with decisions that you as a writer must make on your own.

So, to the freelance book reviewer who writes for a print journal who did not want to have to hear about my book (and why, by the way, do you feel this way when I never actually did anything to you and you don’t even know me?): you got your wish. I was not in your paper. And at this point, I don’t care if I ever am. Because your world is falling apart. I am ready for the changes. Are you?

Monday, February 08, 2010

 

Back to Business

The very gracious librarian at the Saxton B. Little Free Library in Columbia, Connecticut, wrote to me about my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, and asked for a blog for the library blog. I was a little slow in responding--baby interruption--but was only too pleased to write something new for her and for the library patrons. You can see some thoughts about writing and grief over here.

I have an essay called "Compartment Comportment" coming out in the inaugural issue of the Asian American Literary Review this April. The essay is--as the title suggests--about how we comport ourselves when living in compartments (I had fun with that title). You can read the intro of the essay over at the Discover Nikkei; the essay appears in installments and the first part runs today.

I'm pretty damned excited to appear on February 15th at 7:30 at the very awesome Greenlight Books in Brooklyn. Blogger and feminist Amanda ReCupido will talk to me about . . . feminism. You might remember an interview I did with her a while back--and a follow up little post I wrote on the subject. This will be my first time back out and about as a writer since having a baby and I'm looking forward to it. Hope to see you there.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

 

Japanese Baby Reading

I received a package from Japan this week which made me burst into tears. My childhood cousins/friends had put together a little packet of Japanese books for Ewan, with a note that read: "We hope that you will one day love Japan." Obviously, I hope so too.



You'll probably recognize the image on the cover of this one book--it's the story of the bamboo princess. There are lots of other books too, about the heroic peach boy Momotaro--and other stories suitable for a boy. Plus, this will force me to read in Japanese.



I also love these alphabet books. Each page flips up to reveal a word that starts with the letter of the alphabet.



And for those who have been through my Japanese Fairy Tale lecture--note that all the "items" are alive and have faces, as in the tangerine and glasses below. Growing up in the west, Ewan will have no choice but to come face to face with monotheism. But maybe he'll get to escape this with a healthy dose of animism thanks to his exposure to Japan, where everything is animated.



And then there are books with stories that I don't know. It will be fun for us to explore these together.


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