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November 2006

Harper Perennial Lit Chicks

by Susan Henderson on November 29, 2006

The Harper Perennial Lit Chick Invasion brought three authors – once strangers from Australia, Canada, and England – together for a book tour. I saw them read at New York’s KGB Bar, and I left with all three of their books, not knowing which to read first.

Boston Airport

Want to know what they thought of each other, their Lit Chick title, and their American tour? Me, too. So welcome Emily Maguire, Heather O’Neill, and Sarah Hall!

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EMILY MAGUIRE:

When I was preparing for my first writers’ festival appearance a couple of years ago, I was warned that ’writers as a breed are self-obsessed’ and that ’novelists are particularly bitchy and jealous towards each other.’ Now, I had no personal experience of other writers and the advice-giver was a long-time publishing insider, but this really did not sound right to me. I mean, I was an author –albeit a shiny new untested one –and I wasn’t self-obsessed, jealous or bitchy. No more than any of the teachers, shop assistants or car mechanics I knew, anyway.

My experience at that festival and every multi-author event I’ve done since has affirmed my immediate reaction that the publishing old-timer was full of shit. The writers I’ve met have been no more unpleasant than the general population, and quite a few have been exceedingly warm and generous.

Still, when my publisher told me I’d be touring with two authors I’d never met, I was apprehensive. Not that I expected them to be the mythical self-obsessed, jealous bitches I’d been warned about, just that book tours can be crazy-making and I wasn’t sure that putting three strangers, all of whom were likely to implode by the end of the tour, together was such a great idea.

But then, I thought, the things that can make a writer lose the plot while on tour might be avoided or at least lessened by touring with other writers. I’m talking about the feeling of absolute worthlessness that comes from reading to five rows of empty chairs, the excruciating silences that follow a call for questions and – in the case of a smashingly successful event – the lack of debriefing and decompression afterwards.

It wasn’t until I was sitting (jet-lagged and disoriented after 26 hours of travelling) in a New York hotel lobby with my co-authors and a reporter that the most obvious question of all occurred to me: what the hell were we doing here? Or, in the words of the reporter: why were the three of us on tour together?

I had been so excited/anxious about being sent to the US on tour, and then so concerned/relieved at the thought of travelling with other authors that I never thought to ask why. I guess I was the only one. Without exception the people we met on the tour –bookstore owners, reporters, readers, media escorts and even cab drivers –wanted to know why we three were thrown together.

Now, the question is more complicated than it might first appear. Our publisher dubbed the tour the ’LitChick Tour’, an obvious reversal of and play on that much derided term ’chick-lit.’ This seemed fair enough. We are all young women who have written books about young women, but these books could not in any way be described as chick-lit.

Important Note: I do not use the term in a derogatory way although I’m aware many do. And, actually, after endless discussions that looped around and around and never got anywhere, I reckon that chick-lit has become a meaningless term because no one can say what it is.

Still though, it seems pretty obvious that certain books would not be considered by anyone, anywhere to fit into the many changing definitions and categories of chick-lit. Say, a book about the beauty and imagination of street-kids in Montreal’s skid-row district (Lullabies for Little Criminals). Or a lyrical, earthy, furious tale about the building of dam in 1930s Cumbria (Haweswater). Or a book about sexual violence and obsession in suburban Sydney (Taming the Beast).

So, okay we’re the non-chick-lit Lit Chicks and that’s why we were grouped together. Except, if that were the only criteria, half of the books on our publishers’ list should have been included on the tour.

Emily

It quickly became evident at our readings that there was something else we three had in common: accents. Now it would be beyond bizarre for a publisher to send authors on tour together just because their English (Sarah), Aussie (me) and Canadian (Heather) accents complimented each other, but the accent thing did highlight the fact that we were all foreigners. We had not only written about unconventional female characters but we had written about far-off (geographically, culturally or both) places.

There was also another, quite practical, commonality: our books were all debut novels released as paper-back originals within a month of each other. Obvious, then, to tour us together and attract publicity and reader attention to three new-releases at the one time.

So, over the course of two weeks of nightly readings, a handful of interviews and many airport/car/bar/hotel lobby chats these were the reasons we came up with: non-chick-lit chicks, foreign, debut paper-back originals.

And those selfish reasons I had first thought of turned out be good ones too. The inevitable soul-destroying reading at that cold suburban bookstore with a disinterested audience and a constantly churning coffee machine was slightly less horrendous thanks to Sarah’s bright, bossy taking charge of the moment. That pre-reading drink or two to calm the nerves felt social rather than medicinal, and the post-reading booze-up to commiserate/celebrate felt less pathetic when shared with others.

Em, Sarah, boozing

But the best, the most unexpected thing, about touring as a group had nothing to do with writerly anxieties and nothing to do with how much we or our work had in common. Quite the opposite, in fact: I think our audiences enjoyed the diversity of styles, voices and themes and the varied approaches we each have to our work.

Night after night as I listened to Heather and Sarah read I was struck by what incredible, and incredibly different, writers they both are. Worlds apart in terms of themes and writing styles, both books are original, poetic, tough and compassionate. I learnt from listening to them read and I learnt from hearing them answer questions about their writing process and I learnt from getting to know them over drinks and coffee and airport food.

Thanks, girls. I had a ball.

HEATHER O’NEILL:

When I was fifteen, I ran away from home. I was headed first to Nevada to go to a festival, after which I intended to go live on the street in San Francisco. This seemed like an airtight plan to me. All I had to my name was a pair of jeans, my running shoes and a T-shirt. I didn’t even bring a pair of socks, but I was feeling pretty good because I was going West, wherever that was, to win my fortune. I was with my boyfriend who was twenty- two, wore police sunglasses and a fedora all the time, had black curly hair and owned a dog named Mushroom. He possessed skills like riding a ten-speed bike and smoking a joint at the same time. We were getting into his silver Camaro at a rest stop in Vermont, when a state trooper walked up and asked me if I was Heather O’Neill. As a teenager, I suffered from serious delusions of grandeur. I thought that I was famous and that everyone must have heard of me somehow. So I thought this police officer was a fan of my work, and wanted my autograph, so I said, “Why, yes, yes I am.” My boyfriend turned to me like he had just pissed his pants, and ten minutes later we found ourselves at the local jailhouse.

All this to say, I wish I had that same sort of confidence going into this book tour. It’s difficult as hell going out on a tour when your book has only been released for a matter of days. As we were travelling, the escorts and journalists complained to Emily, Sarah and I about established writers coming to town with their entourages and being difficult to handle and making absurd requests. I sighed to myself and thought, one day”¦ The only thing I insisted on is that they get me a podium so that I could hold my book down firmly. The Harper Perennial books are made on such a low grade of paper that they will lift off the podium and flutter about the bookstore like moths at the slightest breeze. I put a big rock on mine in the hotel room before I opened a window. I didn’t want it to escape.

Anyhow, I lost about ten pounds during the week leading up to the tour just by virtue of worrying insanely about rejection. I used to do readings in Montreal in my early twenties. They were mostly in bars and rock and roll type venues and the audiences were the rudest on earth. They would yell at authors to shut up and throw things on stage and they’d just keep talking and laughing, completely oblivious to the fact that someone was reading. So I quit reading for the opposite reason that the Beatles gave for ending their touring days: they simply couldn’t stand all the raucous adulation of their screaming fans. But when you write a book, reading it out loud seems to follow along, absurdly, afterwards. Even the best readings in the best venues make you feel weird about yourself. There’s something oddly disconcerting and shameless about standing in a brightly lit bookstore reading about how your underwear have superheroes and airplanes on them. The whole thing reeks of a perverse desire to be loved.

Borders, Ann Arbor

Admittedly, our audiences were, on the whole, very good and responsive and encouraging. Still, you start to feel unromantic about the whole endeavor at times. There are some other drawbacks to readings in bookstores. The audience is filled with people who’ve wandered over from the coffee shop and some are asleep before the reading even begins. In Ann Arbor we had to sign some teenagers’ papers to prove to their teacher they had actually attended a reading in order to earn their credit. In these moments, you are like a salesman from the 1950s, taking out the kitchen knives from your suitcase and showing how they can slice tomatoes expertly without squishing them. When you’re done with your presentation, you have to pack up your knives and head back to the hotel, worried about your mortgage payments, or whatever is was that salesmen worried about before the Great Death of 1000 Salesmen of 1957. That’s the way I felt some nights upon returning to my hotel room. There’s this existential down that you experience even after readings that have gone well. You burn so much adrenaline anticipating the reading and then finally performing, that you crash afterwards. You have to struggle hard to ignore the depression and self doubt that come flooding in.

Sarah and Emily have both had their books out in other countries for years and have written other novels. Although they informed me that reading never gets any easier, they had expertise in other more practical matters. I worried about signing my books with ink pens like Emily and Sarah were doing.

“Shouldn’t we be signing our books with ballpoint pens, what if the letters get wet and smudge?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sarah said. “No one reads underwater.”

It’s weird even being seen in public, because as a writer you’re always so invisible. This transparence of the physical self allows you to participate freely in exhibitionism in his highest form: penning the secrets of your soul. But at readings people come to see the actual person behind all the writing. So for those of you who missed the readings, here’s the form these novelists take: Emily Maguire looks like this Living Dead Doll that my daughter bought in New York last year, with straight black hair and a pale round face and cupid bow lips. She dresses like the doll too with cotton black dresses with striped sleeves. She has this great voice that sounds simultaneously evil and sweet, sort of like what you would imagine the Sparrow would sound like when confessing to the death of Cock Robin. Sarah Hall has big hazel eyes and wears A LOT of fancy clothes. She wears these jackets with embroidered sleeves and lovely beige high heels shoes. She dresses like we used to dress in high school when we were putting on Shakespeare plays. It’s odd to spend time with someone who’s genuinely from England. A lot of people in Canada fake having British accents that sound like wet dogs that have leapt out of the bathtub and have fallen flat on the bathroom floor. (Canada is a country filled with people who love being colonized, and who wish that our colonizers would boss us around just a little more). Sarah’s voice is subtle and kind, but commands instant respect. She has an excellent knack for throwing people out of their seats on planes so that we can sit next to each other.

Heather

My boyfriend has warned me never to talk about what I look like in writing. I love to exaggerate in that department. He used to edit my poems by putting a big strike through lines that described how good looking I was. “That’s absolutely gratuitous and ridiculous!” he’d scream. “Have you no shame?” Someone held up my book in San Francisco, examining the black and white profile shot on the back, “When was this picture taken!” he exclaimed. “1890! How can you still be alive!”

So, I finally made it to San Francisco, after all these years. There were plenty of eccentric street kids in purple platform running shoes waltzing down the streets, but I was too old to play with them now. Still, it was sweet to get there and I felt like the weight of an old dream had been lifted off my back. The weather was overwhelmingly wonderful too. I told the other girls that if they were planning to defect, the time was now. The idea was tempting as the mere thought of another winter in Montreal, where you have to put on two pairs of pants and a ski mask before leaving the house, was making me cringe. Dressing like a GI Joe storm trooper eats away at your humanity.

Signing, The Beauty Bar

I showed up at The Beauty Bar earlier than the other girls or anyone else for that matter. The door was locked, so I knocked on it for a minute before someone answered. The owner opened the door and peered out curiously at me.

“Are you one of the readers?” he asked. “No, wait, you can’t be. I was told that all the readers came from other countries.”

“Well, I’m from Canada.”

“What!” he laughed. “That’s not another country!”

The Beauty Bar had red twinkling walls and old beauty supplies like hair dryers and manicure tables pushed up against the walls.

“You should wait until ten o’clock to read,” the owner told me as we leaned against the bar, drinking. “That’s when the bar fills up with the regulars and the hard core drinkers.”

“No thanks,” I said, and then I yelled out to the others that it was time to read.

SARAH HALL:

One of the most interesting parts about this tour for me was being in the company of two other writers. Usually I travel alone to readings and festivals, for years it’s been a solo enterprise, but I have always really enjoyed meeting other authors at events, especially if it’s arranged as a joint performance of some kind. When you are tugged out from behind your desk, like some wide-eyed twitching creature from a secluded crumpled-paper nest, and you’re placed in the wider literary zoo, you become acutely aware of the huge diversity within writing, but you also become aware of any potential relations. It’s always intriguing to see why arts administrators and organisers have paired you up with another author, why they think you’re a good match, and what the common or complimentary ground in your work might be.

The first thing that struck me about our tour grouping, after I’d read Lullabies For Little Criminals and Taming The Beast, was how different these debut novels are, not in calibre, both are excellent, but in style, form and content. And under our collective tour title of ’Lit-Chicks’, that to me was a really positive thing; the idea that while at first glance we were all perhaps united by gender, age and publication dates, the novels are original and versatile, and they demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of trying to have female writers catalogued, labelled, and demarcated, which I think the industry and the reading public has a tendency to do, with whatever curious logic each is employing.

I think Heather, Emily and I do share literary ground. In these novels there are strong and surprising female protagonists, who challenge notions of traditional femininity, and who ultimately do their own thing, fulfill their own orthodoxy, however that manifests. It’s an almost absurd distillation of a single idea though, and an imprecise linkage to make, but if you’re positioned together, interviewed together, and you’re riding the trains, trams and planes together for two weeks, then you do have to begin to find ways of summarizing the similarities in your work for folk asking the questions. The most common shared aspect I guess is probably the general appeal of these books, the non-specified readership. They are not written for nor tailored towards a specific audience or a gender-based marketplace. Of course it’s a little odd to speak about writing on behalf of other writers, so I hope Heather and Emily will forgive any claims and generalizations I’m making here.

Far and away one of the greatest pleasures of this trip was to get to hear the work of these two authors being read out, with the confidence, grace and verve that each of their books contain. Writing takes on a new dimension when you hear it out loud. You can sit back and enjoy the show that you are also a participant in. That was the real bonus of these combined readings; as well as being required to entertain and engage a crowd with your own work, for two-thirds of the evening you are being entertained yourself. For my part I’m always amazed and intrigued by what human beings are able to produce creatively, simply with some strings of words and a few ideas. To be privy to it is baffling and wonderful. So, here were these lovely, reasonably ’normal’ girls, who it was possible to just shoot the breeze with day to day, but at night, on stage, out of their grey matter and out of their mouths, came this colour and this imaginative flair and this ability to conjure up riveting characters, original stories and whole others worlds. Wow.

I had the feeling that the audiences attending the readings really got lucky, in terms of the variety on offer at each event. And not just because of the accents. The books are set in various corners of the globe – Canada, Australia, England. The scope of subject matter is variable, formidable, and ambitious, and there was a range of tone and style. I mean it was like apples, bananas, and oranges for anyone coming along to the events. We certainly made for a mixed punnet of fruit.

It’s great to have company when you travel. I mean it’s odd to be hooked up with two strangers on the road, and then have to create a dynamic in order to best showcase your work. You worry that an anticipated or expected sense of literary holism or sorority will not come about. But it wasn’t too tough to figure things out, and I think the texts actually worked really well placed side by side. There are big advantages to having travelling colleagues. You can have a drink before a reading, or food after, take a look around a new city and comment on the wonders to behold there — glass flowers in the natural history museum at Harvard (’How in hell’s-knackers did they twirl those tendrils?’), full-moon over San Francisco (’Yep, it’s definitely bigger here, I’d say by an inch at least’), snow in Detroit (’That’s only the second time I’ve seen snow’). And you can figure out which reading passages are working well, figure out what not to obsess over, and even try and figure out the Big Literary Stuff with people who are in a similar position, and who have likely had, and are probably still having, comparable experiences within an industry that’s often as mad as a box of frogs. And, you know, stripping down to your skinnies every other day to go through airport security, well a certain kind of camaraderie develops there, I reckon.

Sarah

There were some great venues for readings on the tour. I think my favourites included the KGB Bar in New York and The Beauty Bar in San Francisco. Both were slightly out of the ordinary. Both had very red walls. There’s something about red walls that does it for me –maybe it appeals to my English pub mentality or some weird Victorian parlour proclivity that I have. Occasionally you get really lucky with the acoustics in a reading room too –like at Newtonville Books, an independent on Walnut Street in Newton, MA. Next to the bookstore is a disused commandeered Firehouse, where authors are set up with a podium, and the brick walls and arches of the place really carry the voice well. The place lends itself so fantastically to oration. Even a whispered rendition of the novels could have been heard there. What a joy.

I think the success of the tour lay not only in the novelty value and the combined interest of having three Commonwealth lasses headlining together, but because of the inverse idea and result: That while women writers remain subject to groupings, pigeon-holes, and terms, and while ’chick’ and ’lit’ said in any order in the same breath carries all manner of preconceptions and problems, disservices and lop-sides, the reality is that when you actually put women writers in proximity, they are pretty damn different, unique and inspired. So, yes, there was a definite duality to the whole affair, and that was the beauty of it. There was strength in numbers, but I like to think we also proved that the richness and success of fiction, coincidentally written by women in this instance, comes from its many idiosyncratic parts. And I suppose America is a great location for such a tour, isn’t it. E pluribus unum, right?

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Thanks to all three of you for being here!

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Bios:

Sarah Hall was born in 1974 in Cumbria, England. Her second novel, THE ELECTRIC MICHELANGELO, was a finalist for the 2004 Man Booker Prize. She divides her time between the north of England and North Carolina.

Emily Maguire was born in Canberra, Australia in 1976. She worked in various occupations and traveled extensively, before completing a Master of Arts (English) at the University of New England, Armidale. Emily now lives in Sydney’s inner-west where she divides her time between teaching English and writing non-fiction articles. TAMING THE BEAST is her first novel.

Heather O’Neill is a contributor to the radio program “This American Life,”
and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Montreal, Canada. This is her first novel. (And by the way, for those who didn’t hear the announcement on Monday, LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS is one of five books nominated for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads 2007!)

{ 10 comments }

Question of the Week: The Book Tour

by Susan Henderson on November 27, 2006

For those of you lucky enough to have published a book, tell me about going on tour. Did it live up to your expectations?

And for those of you who simply attend readings and book signings, tell me why you go and what expectations you bring with you.

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Wednesday, stop by and meet three authors – Sarah Hall, Emily Maguire and Heather O’Neill – touring together as the Harper Perennial Lit-Chick Invasion. I’ll leave you with a taste of each of their books because they’re good:

Here’s Sarah:

One morning she watches her father kill a lame cow. It is still upright in the field, but one hind hoof is rotten. It will not move and cannot be saved, must be destroyed before it destroys the herd, her father says. It sways and lets out an occasional quiet bellow. The decision is made quickly and, without remorse, her father leaves for Whelter Farm to get some cartridges and the gun. For a time she is left alone with the animal. During the wait she prays that the cow will somehow recover and move from the middle of the field where it is stuck. Even two rotten steps to the left might mean it could be saved, so that she could take her father by his cuff and say, See, see, it is still capable. Salvation. Her mother would say the word, the place, is reserved for humans, for they alone can be redeemed through God. Not the animals who have not been blessed under His Mercy. What, then, of this beast without choice or hope of mercy? Only a bullet in the brain to stop its energy and the eventual spread of its bones across the soil. And the land will borrow back that which was lent, as always. She tries not to notice the creature’s gentle, living eyes, but keeps a blind company for it in these last minutes. She can see her father coming back down the lane, shotgun cracked open over his arm. He is inserting cartridge cases, looking down. And at the back of her mind she knows better than to hope for the impossible. She knows she won’t beg her father not to shoot it. He would not mind her pleas, but certainly he would tell her to leave because of them. As her position as guardian it is vital that she stays, a witness to the events entire. And she does not want to disappoint him, he has no son. She wonders if she will cover her ears when he raises the gun. Her father’s boots on the gravel track are louder, and she thinks, thinks hard about the motionless cow, and salvation falling away, perhaps never existing at all.
– Sarah Hall, Haweswater, winner of The British Commonwealth Award

Here’s Emily:

Sometimes he was so much the English teacher that it drove her crazy. While he was locking the change room door, she let slip that she had finished Madame Bovary last night, and now he wanted to waste precious alone time talking about it.

‘We can talk after.’

He smiled. ‘Anxious, aren’t you?’

Sarah shrugged her school bag off her shoulders. ‘The weekends are so long. By Monday afternoon I’m just so-‘

‘Horny?’

She felt herself blush. It was the sort of word the girls who shared smokes in the toilet block used to describe the boys they drove around with on Saturday nights. Sarah did not think it was the proper word for what she felt.

‘It’s not that. I just miss you.’

‘So hurry up and sit down.’ He pointed to the stainless steel bench that ran through the centre of the room. ‘Talk to me.’ He sat himself at her feet, looking up at her. ‘I want to know what you thought of Emma Bovary.’

Sarah sighed. ‘I don’t know. I sort of hated her, especially how she treated her kid, but I felt sorry for her, too.’

‘Tell me why.’

‘Well, because she was searching for something amazing, for ecstasy. But her husband’s such a plodder, so she falls for the first guy who offers her a bit of excitement and he turns out to be a pig and then the next guy is this awful coward and it just seems the more she searches, the worse things get for her.’

‘And this makes her deserving of our sympathy?’

‘I just think it’s sad she never found what she was looking for.’

‘Do you think what she was looking for even exists?’

Sarah nudged him with her shoe. ‘Yes.’

He took hold of her foot. ‘And what makes you think you’re not as deluded as poor Emma?’

‘You do.’

Mr. Carr frowned up at her. ‘Ah, Sarah,’ he said, and started to untie her shoelace.

‘You didn’t say if you missed me on the weekend.’
– Emily Maguire, Taming the Beast

Here’s Heather:

We looked at each other and a peculiar feeling of excitement came over us. We just started wrecking everything we could think of. There was a statue of a ballerina that I threw against the wall. All its limbs broke off at once, poor fragile thing. We knocked everything on the floor. Theo ripped the shower curtain off the hook. He took a marker and scribbled on the wall, “You are a bitch and you are going to hell. I am going to kill you all.” He took his machete and started stabbing the couch cushions. Theo handed it to me and I cut through some paintings on the wall. We knocked their stereo system over. We did a whole bunch of other things that I can’t really remember.

I dumped a potted plant in the sink. I rescued a little flower from one of its stems and stuck it behind my ear. At this point we’d lost all sense of reality. It was like being in a dream. What made everything feel so strange was how easy it had been to break into someone’s house and wreck their things.

Violence never gives you a specific feeling that it’s time to knock it off. That’s because it is impossible to satisfy. All your actions are like shoveling mud into a hole with no bottom.
– Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals

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P.S. In case you missed it, the lovely Jim Tomlinson was reviewed in The New York Times on Thanksgiving day:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/23/books/23wals.html?_r=1&oref=login

{ 25 comments }

Reynald’s Rap: Lance Reynald chats with Robert Westfield

by Susan Henderson on November 25, 2006

I was a late bloomer when it came to reading. Everyone around me seemed to pick it up with Dick, Jane and Spot in the first grade, I remained back in the special reading group until well into the second grade. Looking back I think this might be due to the fact that Dick and Jane just hovered there in white space without any background. They existed in no place. Once I discovered that books and stories could transport you to another place I became a voracious reader.

As writers we all know that Place can be not only the background, but also a supporting character to the work. It gives our characters elements by proxy. Fitzgerald’s New York, Faulkner’s South, Steinbeck’s California, Kansas via Capote and the Wyoming of Proulx. All vivid places, travels and landscapes drafted in words.

I have two favorite places that make me feel secure though they might seem as opposites of one another. The safety of my writing room and the bustling streets of NYC. That’s just the way it comes down for me. I would guess that the safety of my writing room is obvious, but the fact that you can walk the streets of NYC, anonymous and inspired… A thrilling place for a writer.

Robert Westfield’s Suspension is a book that charmed me in the fact that it features both of these places. The hero of the story, a Hell’s Kitchen shut-in. We see the city as a backdrop known just outside of the secure four walls of the main character’s apartment.

As a book it all made me smile. Dark humour, farce, cultural observations, a bit of paranoia, a reclusive hero and a journey within a modest apartment.

I’m still smiling.

These days, any book that makes me smile certainly makes me want to talk to the author and share them with my Litpark friends.

Litpark pals, meet Robert Westfield.

*

LR: Hello Robert, Welcome to LitPark.

Suspension seems a mix of many things, but your love of NYC runs through the whole. A tribute to the city in some ways. Was this intended as a tribute to a post-911 NYC?

RW: I didn’t necessarily set out to write a tribute or, as it states in the jacket copy, an homage…though I wouldn’t argue with the terms; I set out to write about the emotional fallout and instability of that period. The majority of the narrative takes place during the nine months before September eleventh and the nine months afterwards. There has been an enormous attention paid to the day itself, but I was more interested in writing about the aftermath. It was a conscious decision to have Andy lock himself in his apartment a month before the attacks…we see Andy walk up the stairs at the end of that chapter and lock his door, there’s a sentence-long reference to the morning of September eleventh and then the next chapter opens in November. I was fascinated that fall by how people coped, how they struggled to find a new kind of stability in a stunned, shaken and now topsy-turvy world. Each of the characters in the novel responds in a different way to this loss of control, to the fear, hysteria, paranoia that comes with the awareness that most of your life is being decided by other people behind your back.

LR: Your love and knowledge of NYC seems great; Have you considered writing a hipster tour book? (I’m imagining it like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees)

RW: Definitely. I’ve been giving tours of New York since ’97 and would love to put that decade of experience and research onto the page. The project I’m working on now is a hybrid of sorts…part tour book, part collection of stories that are interwoven through a four-day itinerary. My goal is for the readers to feel as if they’ve gone on a tour of the city by experiencing it through the minds of ten or twelve characters. Each of the characters has an aspect of American culture that I want to engage. Overall, I want the book to explore New York, cities in general and what it means to travel away from home, what it means to be a tourist.

LR: You clearly enjoy the literary history of NYC. Any favorite legends you’d like to walk us through with a few words?

RW: In a city of competing and collaborating egos, one of my favorite anecdotes comes from Sherwood Anderson who, after publishing Winesburg, Ohio, moved to St. Luke’s Place, a few doors down from the literary god of the time, Theodore Dreiser, whose name was abbreviated “The.” One morning Sherwood Anderson gets the courage up to knock on “The Dreiser’s” door. And the author himself opens it. As soon as Andersen begins introducing himself, the door is shut in his face. Shocked, humiliated, outraged, he goes off to a few local pubs and drinks. Hours later, when he returns home, he finds a note from “The Dreiser” apologizing, explaining how nervous he’d been when he found himself face-to-face with such a great writer like Anderson.

In time for the holidays, here’s one of my favorites and explains why images of “Old Christmas” are almost exclusively Victorian. (Credit for this goes to Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which is a profound cultural history of the holiday and not related to the silly and shallow War on Christmas books.) Before the 1820’s, Christmas was a completely different holiday. The roots go back to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a harvest holiday when Saturn was released, chaos reigned, the streets were full of bacchanalian revelry, and masters and servants would switch places for the duration. This served as a social gauge and was understandably popular with the servants. Hundreds of years later, a monk placed the birth of Christ atop this pagan tradition in an attempt to smother it. Religious leaders were riled, asking what shepherds would be tending their flock by night in Syria in late December? When the Puritans came to New England, the holiday was outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The way the holiday was celebrated for centuries was with marauding members of the lower class knocking on the doors of the wealthy, caroling or wasailing in order to be invited inside to partake of the best wine and food the house had to offer. Think trick-or-treating. In the rapidly growing city of New York, there was a move to alter this tradition. The Knickerbockers, a wealthy social set with literary interests, which included Washington Irving (America’s first full-time writer and the man whose fabricated history of New York introduced the fictitious Knickerbocker family and the name “Gotham,” a man so respected that one bank printed his face on currency to attract investors and a developer named a street after him to lure residents to the newly laid out Gramercy Park), decided to celebrate the holiday the way their Dutch forebears did. Of course, it was all phony. The Dutch did have a St. Nicholas Day in the beginning of December (or at least the Catholic Dutch back in Holland did), but the New Yorkers pulled in several disparate harvest traditions and invented others. A poem was crafted…A Visit from St. Nicholas…the patron saint of New Amsterdam (the Dutch name for NYC). Whether Clement Clarke Moore penned it or someone else as was recently claimed, it was a radical poem that cast Santa as a worker (he smokes a short pipe, and everyone at the time knew that only workers smoked short pipes…they broke off the stems to fit them in their pockets while the wealthy left their pipes hanging on the tavern walls). In the poem, Santa (the worker) is someone who leaves gifts instead of guzzling your wine and is someone who comes down the chimney allowing you leave your front door firmly closed to the street. But what’s most radical is the idea that instead of masters switching places with servants, the children switch places with their parents. So these writers, mainly in Greenwich Village and the area now known as Chelsea, are responsible for turning this raucous street holiday based on class into a cozy domestic one centered around the family. And with it comes the birth of consumerism…the first goods in the history of manufacturing to be given away by the purchaser were Christmas gift books; the cult of the child; and the countless traditions we now consider centuries old. Who says poets can’t rock the world?

LR: As writers we all work with solitude, your protagonist rationalizes finding a Walden-esque existence within his apartment; Do you work this way yourself?

RW: Andy comes up with all sorts of justification for locking himself in his apartment, but in seven months doesn’t produce anything other than cranky letters and word games. I hope I’m far more productive. I used to be able to write anywhere at any time. I could sit at the kitchen counter and draft stories or scenes as my family yammered around me. I could borrow a friend’s computer and blissfully work while she rearranged furniture to paint her living room. I could have full conversations, which I later didn’t remember… “Sure, I’ll help you move that couch, just give me a few minutes.” Nowadays, I need to be alone, away from distractions, drafting on the computer with phones off and my Internet temporarily disabled. I can still brainstorm and edit in cafes or bars or on the subway, but when it comes to drafting I have to be alone. I prefer when I can work uninterrupted for a few hours each morning and then be more social for the rest of the day, but I do often disappear for a few weeks at a time. I don’t restrict myself to my apartment…I walk through parks, swim at my gym, stroll through museums…but yes, weeks can go by without “touching base” with friends or family. It was easier when writing plays, because, for one, they’re shorter, and I was more frequently meeting up with actors and directors to discuss the script or read scenes aloud. Writing a novel, however, requires longer, lonelier periods of isolation. For me at least.

LR: In addition to Suspension you are also a playwright. Anything going up on stage soon?

RW: I’m creeping back to it. I was just informally commissioned (for “informally commissioned,” read “not paid but asked nicely”) to write a play for four actors. At this point, I’ve written: “A Play with Four Actors.” So far, that’s all I have. It needs some work obviously. I’m also currently collaborating with a Dutch actress on a play about a woman she knows on an island in Croatia. This play is much farther along: “A Play for Nanette. Setting: Croatia.” Again, there’s work to do, but this will hopefully be co-produced in New York and Amsterdam in the next year or two. We’ll see. Hey! Wait a second”¦if I make this one a play for four actors”¦

Thanks for coming by the Park!

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Bios:

Robert was born in Maryland in 1972 and spent his early years in Japan, Hawaii, California, and West Virginia before his family returned to Maryland and settled in Bryans Road, a small, one-stoplight community south of Washington. In 1990, Robert moved to New York to attend Columbia where he twice won the college playwriting prize as well as the fiction award and the Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship which funded a writing/research trip to Greece and Italy. He spent his twenties catering, temping and leading tours of New York while writing for the theater (A Wedding Album, The Pennington Plot, A Tulip Economy, and A Home Without). He was the writer-in-residence for The Working Group and a dramaturge on Marc Wolf’s award-winning solo play, Another American: Asking and Telling. Suspension is his first novel. He currently lives in upper Manhattan.

When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, Lance Reynald can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.

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Okay, guys, you can friend Robert at Myspace. And if you’d like to catch him in person, his next appearance is December 5, 5:30 at Labyrinth Books, New Haven, CT.

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Weekly Wrap: Our Unfinished Brilliance

by Susan Henderson on November 24, 2006

Write down every idea before it’s gone. Use the backs of envelopes and gas receipts if you’re driving. On one of those slips is your breakout story:

Amputee obsessively sharpens pencils with his phantom arm.

Girl impresses boy by eating frozen guacamole with her hair barrette.

Mother dances salsa in front of the mirror in a stolen dress.

Suicidal student has habit of sucking on pennies she finds on the street.

Kid sits under basement stairs in a suitcase, watching an unplugged TV set. (Put it in third person so people don’t know it’s you.)

If you don’t write it down, you’ll waste your gift.

I drive with a pen between my teeth, holding the paper against the steering wheel when I write. Never mind the honking. I roll the windows up or the hundreds of story ideas littering the passenger seat will blow onto the highway, and then someone else might write my breakout story.

This blog post is now over at FRESH YARN.

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Thanks to those of you who answered the question of the week: PD, who tried another writer’s idea of using post-it notes, but couldn’t keep track of them so goes for a pocket-sized notebook; Katrina, who uses a legal pad; Andy, who keeps a good four half-finished books on the backburner (me, too!) and lets the ideas mount up; Ellen, who stores her ideas in her porous and forgetful mind; Sarah, who carries a number of themed notebooks with her (geek!); Aimee, who still has an idea notebook she started in high school and uses snippets for inspiration; Lance, who records his random thoughts in Moleskine notebooks but also tacks ideas, torn pictures from magazines and index cards all over his “idea walls”; Paula, who can work with lists but finds snippets to be incoherent or ridiculous and melodramatic; Lori, who keeps a pencil and pad by the bed and fills spiral notebooks with random thoughts, character traits and settings (me, too, Lori); Robin, who is blessed with a Gaiman-signed Moleskine and also uses elementary composition books; Carolyn, who uses a pocket PC to record story ideas, good titles, and other scraps; Tish, whose post-it notes are stuck to the base of her computer screen; Amy, who has a box of half-full notebooks beside her desk and prefers those Clairefontaine notebooks with grids and colored pages; Dennis, who treated us to a poem about the snippets we’ll hate in the morning (Hey, Dennis, if you’re interested in La Brea, Amy Wilentz talks about it a lot in her new book); Claire, who uses her blog for snippets (good one!), where she tries to expand them into full ideas; Lauren, who says, “It’s all here somewhere”; Anneliese, who has a fancy orange silk Moleskine with a pocket in the back and who alerted me to a great interview with Janet Fitch ( http://www.drinkswithtony.com/janetfitch.html ); Shelley, who used some several year old snippets just recently; Noria, who writes her snippets right in her appointment book so they get used; Gail, who uses my method of having them on every receipt and envelope and check stub; Mark, who likes to get his large idea first so the he has a place to put all of the snippets that come along (oh, if only my brain could operate this way); Juliet, who needs to post a link to her book launch information (Congratulations!); Joe, who writes ideas down on everything, including parking tickets, and never throws them away (p.s., I think it gets way easier); Ric, who’s filled two filing cabinet drawers with journals and also goes for the blue (shorter) legal pads; Darrin, who calls snippets “those restless orphans” and wonders if he’ll ever find homes for them all; Jordan, who can keep the information straight in her head, but once she extracts a snippet, panics about which category, which story, which notebook; and Aurelio, whose lower desk drawer is stuffed with story concepts, book titles, overhead conversations, and doodles. Thanks to everyone who played. And a big thank you to the talented and deadly-handsome Cameron McGill for the words and the music!

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The fabulous Lance Reynald will be here tomorrow with SUSPENSION author, Robert Westfield. Join the fun!

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Cameron McGill

by Susan Henderson on November 22, 2006

I’ll listen to just about any kind of music and enjoy it, but when it comes to lyrics, I’m picky. My favorite songwriters? Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, . . . and Cameron McGill.

Here’s the opening of “When It Could Hurry” from the Street Ballads & Murderesques album:

i really should have tried to put up a fight
my word’s almost as good as yours and you lie all the time
what was it you always used to wish for
forgiveness in the face of coming age
but hell’s ceiling ain’t heaven’s floor
i wish i could say you shouldn’t worry,
but why would life take it’s time when it could hurry?

Cameron’s writing and his voice knock me flat, and he was generous enough to let me include 2 MP3s so you can hear for yourself.

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Make Out Face
Click the blue play button to hear Cameron while you enjoy the interview. (There will be another blue button near the end.)

Give me a little background about you, your band, your town.

Well, I seem to have difficulty connecting to all three of those these days, to be honest. So. I’ll give you the interview version. I am from the midwest and my band has always been me and whomever I can convince to give of their time. The Army incarnation from the last two years is the best band I’ve ever been in, but the gentlemen involved are all so very busy. We get done what we can, when we can. I think my error lies in trying to make it feel like a band, when at the end of the day, it’s not possible. When you are a solo artist, that’s it. People want to be in their own band. As much as I try to make it feel like that, it usually ends up with me at the piano, starting over from scratch. That being said, the record we just finished will be out early-mid next year, and that was nice to work on it within a group context to some degree.

Let’s see, my town was a place called Champaign, IL. I don’t know much about it anymore, other than it feels different every time I go back there. There are a lot of kind souls who have meant very much to me over the years. There are also lots of voids and some ghosts, but I know them so they are not scary.

I admire so much about your songwriting and singing, but I think what attracts me most to your music is the emotional surprises and unexpected directions you’ll take in a single song. Can you walk me through your process of writing a song? What comes first ”“ an emotion, a melody, a snippet of lyrics?

Well that is nice to hear. I am sure the reality of writing them is far less romantic than what might attract people to the finished piece. Any of the three things you listed can begin a song, though often times it is the absence of emotion, melody or lyrics that starts the process. The lyric snippet is now the bane of my existence, too many snippets to keep track of. I have never been an organized person in the traditional sense, but there are, for me, a tremendous amount of lyrics to go through and keep in rotation so I don’t forget about them. I just try my best not to lose songs.

I guess many of the songs start as poems or lyrics first and I might try a few different kinds of chord progressions or patterns along with them. I mostly write on the piano it seems these days, but after returning from this last tour, I did sit down with the guitar and write a group of songs that I will be recording in November. I am excited about their simplicity and directness.

How long does it take to create a song? An album? (Do you still call them “albums”?)

Five minutes, five years. There are lines I am still trying to find homes for from years ago. Somehow they stick around on a back burner until you can use them correctly. Conceiving, writing and recording an album can take any amount of time, really. It just really depends on your given situation. My first record was recorded over a period of six months, off and on. My last record was entirely live and done in a few weeks. This newest record is somewhere in between. I like operating in both extremes, you have to approach them so differently as far as organizing sounds. But that is just the recording…some of the time done with the whole band live, some times tracks are more meticulously built. Mostly depends on who’s available and if there is studio time open and money to pay for it, and most importantly, how I feel like doing it at the time.

Name three things you couldn’t create without.

An instrument of some kind, my voice, being alone.

What do you consider breakouts – events or people or chance encounters that changed the level of your work or the direction of your career?

Not sure how many we’ve had. I guess for someone like me, it’s a lot of little things put together…all the touring, recording, promotion, etc. This year we had a few breakout shows – performing at Lollapalooza in Chicago and Summerfest in Milwaukee. As far as people go, Bob Dylan changed the way I write songs indefinitely…just that you can create a world in your mind and on paper that can actually effect change in the real world. The foxhole goes pretty deep on that, I have found.

When did you start performing?

I guess when I was around 16. I think my first show was at a public swimming pool, I kid you not. Not sure I performed at all, but I did play a few songs.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

I think my ma has it framed somewhere, I’ve lost track. It was probably overly sentimental and lyrically vague, like a first song must be, but I thought I was being serious. Or I was and I thought that was how I should be. Funny thing was, it was actually a tune that I later arranged for a chorus to sing at a local church. Figured I’d start big with a full choral ensemble for my first song. Since then I’ve scaled down, but not too much.

Talk to me about performances that flopped, songs you weren’t able to complete, the tough side of your work.

For me, performances flopped for a long time consecutively. I think that was called learning. I feel fairly comfortable on stage now, as comfortable as I might ever feel. Too many songs to mention that weren’t completed, give me time. The tough side of my work is so relative, right? There are civilians and aid workers living in war-torn countries and people starving all over the world. I have the privilege to be so selfish, and sit and think and write and play songs. I feel very lucky to be able to do that. It is the only thing I enjoy doing, thus I never do take it for granted.

Part of what I do involves a great amount time (writing) and physical and emotional effort (touring). I work on songs every day. There are days where you sit at the piano four or five hours to work on certain ideas. There is always an immense amount of writing, and revising (though sometimes you get something all the way done, completely right the first time), trying to organize the things you have written so you don’t lose them. Honestly, sometimes it’s miserable and I hate it, but somehow I can’t stop. Seems it’s the only thing in my life that voluntarily recharges itself every day. I will always enjoy finding words and a melody that sound pretty to me over some kind of a chord change. It’s that simple, I guess.

I enjoy reading your blog and was surprised to find how unglamorous the touring life is ”“ finding venues, finding cheap places to stay. Talk to me about touring.

At my level, touring is a tremendous amount of work physically and mentally. I enjoy it, but after 5-6 weeks you usually want to sleep in a bed and stay in one city for a few days and rest your mind.

I book all my own tours for the most part. This last tour I did with Matt Hopper, we booked together. Then when you are on the road, you are handling all the day to day, and yes, trying to find places to stay (never hotels), getting promo out to the clubs, advancing the dates to press, doing the whole MySpace thing to get folks there. Its always a long day, usually 8am or so till 3am, then again times 35 days or so. Wears you down.

You fight boredom during the day and being tired or sick, but then you always seem to get the energy for the show, that never ceases to amaze me. Oh, and the golden rule on touring for me is: All the problems you left at home when you started, will be waiting for you when you return, so you should deal with them before you leave.

Depression Glass

Tell me about performing at Lollapalooza.

It was like the little kids eating at the grown-up table for the first time; kinda messy, energetic, hectic, but a lot of fun

What musicians are you listening to these days?

Lou Reed, Jim Noir, Tom Waits, Midlake, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen.

Any musicians you’d really love to meet or collaborate with?

Jon Brion.

What are you working on now?

I am just about finished with the Cameron McGill and What Army full-length record, 12 songs. Hope to have that out in the spring. Am going to record an EP in MI with my friend Katie in November, and then start another full-length record.

And finally, because lots of my readers are authors, what are some of your favorite books?

I am in love with the poetry of Charles Simic, specifically Walking the Black Cat and Hotel Insomnia. Also, Frank O’Hara‘s collected poems. One of my favorite books is Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume.

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If you like, subscribe to Cameron’s tour blog, make him your MySpace friend, buy his music, support good songwriting. And for those of you who are not psychotic or dangerous, offer him a place to stay when he performs in your town.

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