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Interviews

Chuck Sambuchino

by Susan Henderson on October 1, 2010

Last month, I wrote a guest column for Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog. My column was called, At What Point Can You Call Yourself a Writer? and it sparked a conversation I wanted to bring back to LitPark. So today I’ve brought Chuck here take a crack at answering that same question, and I hope all of you will chime in with your own thoughts.

Thanks, and here’s Chuck!

When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

This is an important question in every writer’s life. At what moment in time can you actually refer to yourself as a writer? But even the very question itself is deceiving. It’s deceiving because there are actually two questions here. The first is: When can you look in the mirror and call yourself a writer? The second is: When can you call yourself a writer in front of several complete strangers at a party?

When Can You Call Yourself a Writer in Private?

Now. Absolutely right now. Tell yourself in the mirror before you brush your teeth then again when you’re driving home from work. Say it so many times you get exasperated looks from your spouse. Heck, get business cards printed, too. I remember reading somewhere that Robert De Niro will sometimes repeat his lines dozens of times before filming a scene, in an effort to make himself fully believe what he’s saying. That’s your goal: Say it, then say it again until you believe it.

When you call yourself a writer, it drives home the fact that this is real. It’s serious. We’re no longer talking about some vague ambition. You’re a professional writer who is going to produce content, be that novels or nonfiction books or articles or whatever. Go ahead and say it right now: “I am a writer.”

When Can You Call Yourself a Writer in Public?

Well now. This is a different matter altogether. I remember the first time I called myself a writer in public. I was 21. I was still in school, and my only writing credits up to that point were campus news articles and getting a few plays produced. But at that point in my life, I knew I would be a writer. My sister and I were in a mechanic’s garage listening to some guy explain everything that was wrong with the family car. When the mechanic asked me what I did, I replied, “I’m a writer.” My sister immediately snickered at the remark and even said, “…Nice.” That was my first taste of how people react when I said my occupation out loud.

I can boil it down to this: You should not say, in public, that you’re a writer until you are fully prepared to answer the question that will boomerang back you 10 times out of 10—and that question is: What do you write? I don’t care if you are at a book party in Manhattan or a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Yukon. When you say you are a writer, they will always—always—ask “What do you write?” and then when you answer, they will follow that up with “Anything I might have read?”

The most important thing to remember when answering this question is to respond quickly and concisely. Even if your credits are insignificant, if you answer with clarity and speed, it conveys confidence.  Try this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Oh, cool. What do you write?”

“Articles, mostly. Working on a novel.”

“Articles—great. Anything I might have read?”

“Just some stuff for some online websites. Nothing major, but I’m working on it.”

It isn’t impressive, but it’s confident. The writer is in control. It comes off poorly when, upon being asked what they write, a writer stammers incoherently, then answers the question by basically saying “I’m not really sure yet, and to tell you the truth, I may just have no clue altogether! Hahaha!” So if you don’t feel like you can confidently answer the question, or are embarrassed to say aloud that you haven’t been published, think twice before mentioning your writerly aspirations at a soiree.

The constant to both questions I raise here is confidence.  Tell yourself repeatedly that you’re a writer to build up confidence and raise the stakes. Then, upon stating your occupation at a mechanic’s garage or a Hollywood mansion, answer people’s questions with confidence and come off like a professional.

(This column is a supplement to Susan Henderson’s guest column on Chuck’s blog addressing this same topic: At what point can you call yourself a writer?)

*

Chuck Sambuchino is an editor and a writer. He works for Writer’s Digest Books and edits GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) as well as CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET.

His humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK (gnomeattack.com), was released in Sept. 2010 and has been featured by Reader’s Digest, AOL News, and The Huffington Post.

Besides that, he is a produced playwright, magazine freelancer, husband, cover band guitarist, chocolate chip cookie fiend, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

{ 17 comments }

LitPark Announcement: BEA Signing and Party News!

by Susan Henderson on May 10, 2010

A quick announcement that Book Expo America (BEA) is just around the corner, and I would love to see you there.

I’ll be signing galleys of UP FROM THE BLUE at Table 29, 10:30-11:00 a.m., Wednesday, May 26. That means, even though the book doesn’t come out until September, you can get an early copy. I hope you’ll stop by!

AlgonquinBEAinvite

[Sorry, I’m just posting the pretty invitation now. I wasn’t allowed to advertise it because we had to keep the number of guests within the fire code. But isn’t that a pretty invitation??]

I’ll also be attending the 50th anniversary celebration of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and later that night, the book bloggers party at the Algonquin. Hope to see you there!

{ 25 comments }

Dylan Landis

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2009

I started to write an introduction for this interview that talked about the hidden lives of girls and their mothers. I mentioned bullies and victims, shoplifting, unwanted pregnancies, and other topics Dylan Landis takes on in her debut short story collection, NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS.

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In the end, I scrapped that intro because it felt too academic. It didn’t at all capture my true emotional response, which is this: I love, love, love this book. Every sentence. I hope all of you will join the conversation and then rush out to read these gorgeous stories for yourselves.

*

In Jazz, the first story in this collection, you write about a girl who “wants to set fires and she wants to control how they burn.” To me, that’s what this entire collection is about, walking that fine line between thrill and danger. Talk to me about that fire and what draws these girls toward it.

Rainey Royal, who is thirteen and wants to set those sexual fires in men, was abandoned by her mother physically and by her father emotionally. In the ten minutes consumed by the story Jazz, she’s lying under her father’s best friend, wondering who’s in control. Did she set this man on fire—which would prove how powerful she is—or is he about to rape her? That’s how razor-fine that line is. And Rainey’s balancing right on it. She’s drawn by the thrill, but beyond that, in the center of the flame, she’s drawn to self-destruction, which can be powerfully alluring if you think that’s all you’re worth. Rainey’s right on that line, about to stumble. Whereas Leah, the teenage protagonist of most of the stories (and the girl Rainey bullies in Fire), only walks up to the line. She gets vicarious thrills by worshipping and befriending the burning girls. It singes off some of her anxieties, though it provokes new ones, too.

Richard’s hands are mashing her wrists. His hands have hair on the back. Andy Sakellarios, who might or might not be her boyfriend, has smooth hands. Richard is a fire she has lit, and men are flammable, and Rainey believes it is her born talent, the one she sees reflected in the mothers’ eyes, to set the kind of flickering orange fire that licks along the ground. (Jazz, p. 6)

litparkdylanlandisbookcover

Wondering who’s in control. I love that. And you see how powerful and full of life they feel the closer they get to that line. I think that’s why I was so nervous when I was reading this because I could see the appeal. So let’s talk about Leah, then. The fire that attracts her is trying to befriend people she doesn’t trust. Her instincts tell her someone is likely to humiliate her or use her, and she’s always got to test it. What’s that about?

Someone who’s really healthy might not get this, viscerally. But Leah senses that the girl who’s most likely to use her is also the most exciting to be around. First she’s enamored with Rainey Royal, who torments her—but who also starts to lift the veil on adult mysteries: mothers who leave, fathers who screw their girlfriends right there at home, and the possibility of friendships so close that words aren’t needed. I’d trade a lot for that at twelve. Then she’s friends with Oleander, who shares a casual adult knowledge of sex, stealing, cutting, drinking, drugs—more chaos than Leah can handle, almost. And finally there’s Lorelei, so determined and damaged, with terrible and magnificent mysteries to reveal.

When she survives the testing, Leah makes it into the secretive inner chamber of intimacy, where it’s safe and even fascinating—but also suffocating and a little dangerous. In that final test with Lorelei, she only wins by walking out.

“Thank you, gentlemen, for giving my daughter a beer. Did she happen to mention she’s only twelve?”

“Not for long,” Rainey said.

One of the boys had opened his mouth into the shape of a shocked twelve, and the blond boy with the gold earring and the cross had looked straight at the mother and said: Sorry, we didn’t know. The cross made Rainey want to find the badness in this boy. She wanted to ignite him with a brush of her arm. She wanted to steal this boy from God. (Jazz, p. 10)

I’d have traded for that, too. For intimacy. For something that made my heart beat faster. For that sense of being on the inside of a secret. And it’s not just the girls in your stories who are trying to control fires; it’s their mothers, too. Tell me something you learned about mother-daughter relationships from writing this book.

*That motherhood doesn’t come with instructions. Anxieties get passed down—through generations, I sometimes think—about love, sexuality, girlfriends, body image, body boundaries, how to survive loss, and figuring out what on earth in this life a person might be good at. And yet gifts of all kinds, hopefully including love, pride, and faith in who the daughter is, may be transmitted. As Bonita Prideau, Oly’s mother, says: “We never know what we inherit.” I would say instead: It takes time to understand what we inherit.

*That the mothers who look like the easy, fun mothers may not have it all together: Bonita, at first, seems like a blast. She lets her girls smoke and drink beer, and hang out on the roof; she’s conveniently oblivious, and she’s book-smart. She thinks she’s bestowing respect, independence. To Leah, she’s a dream. But one Prideau daughter is a cutter, and both girls are promiscuous; they’re going hungry on that laissez-faire diet.

*That mothers, not just daughters, must take risks if they are to blossom. Helen starts out obsessed with decorative beauty and control—her scissor-thinness is a mark of that—but later, when she takes creative and romantic chances, she starts becoming a woman of appetites.

*That all daughters, including mothers, must come to terms with what they inherit. Leah can’t see it clearly, she’s only 19 when the book ends, but from Helen she’s inherited her sense of order (perhaps too much order) and beauty and an appreciation of good design that at times is almost spiritual—whether she finds it in a French cafe or in the guts of a frog she’s dissecting.

*That the expression of love is not a native language to every mother—and yet. And yet. When Helen touches her daughter’s face, it’s with such tenderness she almost expects it to leave a mark. When Pansy Prideau appears with fresh cuts on her arms, the pain is visible on her mother’s face. And in the title story, Helen grasps that the most loving thing she can do for Leah at that moment is to silently have faith in her.

My own mother is a great expresser of affection, by the way. That’s a lovely part of what I inherited. I probably give my son more space—maybe too much space; I truly hope not. I’m taken with the words of a rabbi who once said: A couple that’s truly in love can walk down the street holding hands without holding hands. Some of my own fears and flaws about motherhood got funneled—fictionalized and exaggerated—into the character of Helen.

She had a daughter who seemed to be smoking and stealing and dressing underneath like a prostitute, who wrote in a secret notebook with tight slanted script, one arm curled protectively around the page.

She had a recurring fantasy of being struck by a bus. The bus would knock her into a coma for many days. All she’d have to do was breathe. (Normal People Don’t Live Like This, p. 64)

Since we've been talking about mothers and daughters: Dylan and her mom, 1967.

Since we've been talking about mothers and daughters: Dylan and her mom, 1967.

Just beautiful. Your answers are setting off so many emotions and memories. I’ll let the sparks from this answer hit the comments section and move on to a question about structure. What made you tell these interconnected stories as a collection rather than a novel? And was this an issue with publishers?

I wasn’t aiming for a collection or a novel. I just wanted to master the short story. I have no MFA, no English degree, so I was struggling along by ear, literally: first I listened to short stories on tape, for months. Then I wrote about Leah’s girlhood because I already knew her—I was finishing a novel about her, called FLOORWORK, in which she’s 22, intoxicated by a woman who lives a mysterious, possibly dangerous life and tells mesmerizing, possibly untrue stories. Four agents wanted FLOORWORK, but when it went out to publishers, nothing clicked. I don’t read my rejections, but my agent finally selected a few that said, gently: fabulous writing, but can you dig deeper for Leah’s motivations?

I got pretty depressed. Then I wrote more stories, chronologically. I’d found a great teacher, Jim Krusoe, who runs an amazing workshop at Santa Monica College. Structure was the last thing on my mind—I was learning about Leah, revising FLOORWORK, and getting an education in fiction, long and short. My agent never told me what other publishers thought, but Persea loves that everything links. They see NORMAL PEOPLE almost as a novel told in ten segments.

Grandma Rose’s mind looked like her bedroom, Leah decided. It was a wonderful room. Hair pins napped in the rumpled bed. Dark hairs from her wiglet drifted into the cold cream. Tubes of Bain du Soleil lost their caps and slid into open drawers, releasing the oily fragrance of summer into white nylon bloomers. Nor did Sophia Rose seem to register, when Leah was allowed to stay with her, that Leah smoked in the basement, riffled through her grandmother’s pocketbook and skimmed every paperback with a passionate couple on its cover. (Rose, p. 38)

You chose a very interesting order for your stories. I love, for instance, that I met the tormentor first. She was fully sympathetic and complex. I felt like I knew her and loved her, and then, bam, in the second story, told by Leah, I saw how mean she could be.

You’re seeing the result of a structural renovation, in which I moved the front door to the book—switched  the first and second stories. Now, instead of entering through Leah’s point of view, you enter via Rainey Royal, who torments Leah at school. In “Jazz,” Rainey’s thirteen and lying beneath her father’s best friend at nightfall in Central Park. His hands are wandering her body, and her mind is wandering everywhere, including to the mother who packed up one day and left. In the second story, “Fire,” Rainey menaces Leah with great calculation, and Leah vacillates between sheer dread, attraction to Rainey’s beauty and power, fascination, and dread again.

If the stories had stayed chronological—and it’s such a slight thing, less than a year’s difference—you’d perceive Leah as a victim and Rainey as a bully, and that’s too simplistic. Flipped, I hope it’s clear that Rainey has less power than she thinks, while Leah has more.

“Hate is so much more interesting than love, isn’t it? I hate a room without books. I hate a desk without papers. I hate not having a cat, but I’m allergic. I hate the way laundry piles up around here. We all share clothes, so nobody feels that the laundry is exactly theirs, do you know? I hate that Pansy—” Bonita laughed. It was a tight, hard sound. “But I’m not giving you anything useful, I’m sure.” (Normal People Don’t Live Like This, p. 71)

How about a story of you and fire?

I was a teenager in the 1970s, with everything that implies, and I thought partying was my one great skill. Certainly not school. And writing—I thought that was a gift you were born with, like a Joni Mitchell voice, not something you could practice. I remember standing with dread and desire outside a closed door at a party, willing it to open. (It didn’t.) In that room, some kids were shooting up. Into the backs of their hands, one told me later. What a vivid detail, which of course I would use, years later: who knew you could shoot smack into your hand? I was forever wanting to try something new and terrible so I could lose myself in it, conquer my fear of it, and brag about it. That was me at fifteen, and later too. I needed the bad girls to escort me into the flames, and the good girls to be awed by my recklessness. One sells people short, categorizing them like that, but it’s fascinating how confused a young girl can be, and how anxiety and recklessness may be inseparable. When I mine these feelings for fiction and make up characters, I love them all. The more messed up they are, the more I love them.

She is growing desperate. She has bumped something fragile off a shelf, a thing she must snatch from the air before it shatters. And she is genuinely surprised to realize that she is going to just stand there and let it fall. (Delacroix, p. 172)

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And finally, what’s next for you?

Two, maybe three novels.

I can’t keep my hands off the first. It’s a novel-in-progress about the woman whom the papers called Typhoid Mary. Her real name was Mary Mallon, she came here from Ireland as a teenager in 1883, and she was so talented with food that she cooked for some of New York’s wealthiest families. She adored dogs, and she loved a cop named August Breihof. In the winter of 1907, a “sanitary engineer” knocked on the servants’ door of the Park Avenue townhouse where she worked, and told her that though she was healthy, she carried and spread the typhoid germ. She was so mortified and disbelieving, she chased him off with a sharp fork. And they came back and quarantined her. She maintained her innocence till she died, and infected relatively few people, but the question is: did she know, deep down? Or suspect? And what does it mean to be guilty or innocent, clean or unclean, or (even if she disbelieved it) that powerful?

The second is FLOORWORK, which never sold. It’s in first person; I want to transpose it into third, deepen it in places, slow it down. Meanwhile, it has the sweetest ghost-life. Eight chapters ran in literary magazines; one, in the New Orleans Review, won special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.

And the third I started, but it has to wait for Mary Mallon: it’s about an artist in the Joseph Cornell style whose home slowly becomes a hoard, and her two daughters.

Plus there’s Rainey Royal. I don’t think she’s done with me yet.

I have no doubt Rainey’s going to pull a fourth novel from you. She may even cut in line!

{ 20 comments }

Judith Ryan Hendricks

by Susan Henderson on September 9, 2009

In 2001, Judi Hendricks published her debut novel, BREAD ALONE, which went on to be a bestseller. Now she’s out with her fourth book, THE LAWS OF HARMONY, about a woman trying to flee from grief and betrayal. We’ll talk about this new book, the persistence of memory, and the lessons she learned from the community of writers at Squaw Valley. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Judi Hendricks

Judi Hendricks

Kids are playing on a rooftop during a party when one little girl falls to her death. Your book begins long after this tragedy, but this death is always stirring beneath the surface. Can you talk to me about weaving the past and present together in your narrative and whether you were tempted to set your novel back at that original incident?

For me, the past and present are inextricably woven together, which is why I always write many more pages than the eventual length of the book—because I have to know the history, and I can’t know it until I write it. Having said that, however, there’s a point where you have to sort of pull the two layers apart so you can look at each of them alone before putting them back together in a different way, a way that makes sense for the telling of the story.

THE LAWS OF HARMONY is a story that really hinges on the past—and I love the way you put it… that the death is always stirring beneath the surface. That was exactly my intent as I was writing, and it’s exactly how the main character (Sunny) perceives it. Loss is the great common denominator here—we’ve all known the loss of a person, of a home, a job, of love, of a dream. For Sunny, the loss of her sister becomes the prism through which she views the world forever after. But I never thought of setting the book in that time because, while Mari’s death is the inciting incident, the story isn’t about the death; it’s about the effect of that death on Sunny’s life. It’s about how we all experience loss and somehow find ways—no matter how flawed—to keep moving.

Years ago she told me she wished she would get Alzheimer’s, that her memories were unbearable. (p. 118)

The Laws of Harmony (Harper Collins)

The Laws of Harmony (Harper Collins)

In the scene where Nana buys Sunny a chocolate-colored dress, Sunny is shown another world, another way of living; and you see how this delivers both a crushing blow to her feelings about her current life and opens a window to how she might dream differently about her future. Talk to me about this scene. And do you remember a moment like this in your own life?

This is one of my favorite chapters because writing it clarified so many important relationships in the book. It helped me understand where Gwen came from and why she rebelled against her parents and their lifestyle. At the same time I saw that there was still a lot of love mixed in with the misunderstanding and pain. These are people who want to be close to each other, but they just can’t figure out how… sort of like Gwen and Sunny later on. I discovered the tension between Gwen and Rob, their different backgrounds and his dependence on alcohol and drugs to get him through intense situations. This chapter also revealed the mirror image parent/child relationship between Sunny and her father, the way she tries to look out for him, keep him from getting in trouble. Then there’s the bonding of Sunny with her grandmother, which seems to sustain her in different ways over the years, even though they never see each other again. And finally Sunny’s connection with Mari, who at this point is just a toddler, but seems to have a preternatural understanding of her world. The scene where she cries because she doesn’t recognize Sunny all dressed up for the wedding foreshadows that Mari will never know her sister as an adult.

My own experience with a glimpse into a different world came when I was about ten years old. My mother was the oldest of four children, and the only one who had kept to “the straight and narrow path.” On the rare occasions when her sisters and brother were mentioned in my presence, it was with much tsk, tsking and knowing looks between her and my grandmother. I was never privy to details, but I got the message that my aunts and uncle were not examples that I should emulate.

The doll from Judi's aunt.

The doll from Judi's aunt.

It had been years since I’d seen any of them and I wasn’t old enough to remember what they even looked like. Then one day my Aunt Barbara showed up unexpectedly at my grandmother’s house when we were there… bleached blonde hair and dark red lipstick, top down on her convertible, loud, funny, and with a wallet full of cash. She scooped up my little brother and me, put us in the back seat and drove to the nearest toy store, where she told us to pick out anything we wanted. I still have the doll I got that day. Then she took us out for ice cream and told us all about her job—she was working as a blackjack dealer at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. My brother and I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded pretty darned exciting. Next we drove to the bus station to pick up her boyfriend, who’d just come down from San Francisco to meet her and then they were off to Mexico for a week. When we got back to my grandmother’s house, things were very quiet. I could tell my mother was angry, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was never discussed… my family’s usual method of dealing with anything outside our comfort zone.

Interestingly when my aunt died of lung cancer ten years ago, my mother professed not to remember that day. Maybe she didn’t. I’ve never forgotten it. I wasn’t quite ready to run off to Tahoe and learn to deal blackjack, but I now knew there were other possibilities than the “straight and narrow.”

So here’s an honest answer: I grew up on a commune in New Mexico. I spent my first eighteen years surrounded by an ever-changing cast of characters. Group work, group play, group meals… group sex, on occasion. Even our outhouse was a five-seater. It made my brother the kind of person who’d strike up a conversation with a guy who’s mugging him at gunpoint. It made me into somebody who thinks three people is a mob. (p. 218)

In many ways, you’re writing about contrasting worlds; and yet, when Sunny runs from one to the another—hoping to flee broken relationships, financial struggles, loneliness, disappointment—the hurts and problems run right along beside her. I’d love to hear you talk about this battle—the weight of the past versus the force of what a person dreams for herself.

French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”

Nobody understands that better than Sunny Cooper, my protagonist in THE LAWS OF HARMONY. At the age of 8, living on a hippie commune, she witnesses the death of her younger sister and the subsequent fracturing of her family. This is the memory that she can never outrun.

When I was twelve years old, I saw a painting by Salvador Dali … the one with the melting clocks. The title meant nothing to me then, but I was fascinated by the painting. Now it’s the title that I find most compelling. The Persistence of Memory.

The past—and how we deal with it—shapes our lives. Some of us get stuck there, repeating our mistakes, sometimes our parents’ mistakes, too—as if by reliving them we could change what happened and finally make things right. As Sunny finally learns, real freedom comes only when we acknowledge what is possible and what is not.

It rained in the night – the kind the Navajos call a female rain – slow and steady, soaking into the earth. As opposed to a male rain, which is hard, fast, and runs off immediately. (p. 300)

Judi's dog, Blue.

Judi's dog, Blue.

What did you learn about reconciliation while writing this book?

Actually, nothing. To me, true reconciliation is like the Aurora Borealis—I know it’s out there, but I’ve never seen it. Many people claim to have achieved it, but once the tears and embracing are out of the way, I’ve noticed that people tend to go right back to the attitudes and behaviors that caused the problem in the first place.

While reconciliation is the often longed-for resolution in a story, it’s not always realistic. As I got closer to the ending of THE LAWS OF HARMONY, I kept trying out different scenarios between Sunny and Gwen, none of which were successful or satisfying. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to force a resolution between these two women that was impossible… at least at the point where the book ends. You can know in your gut what you should do, and it may even be what you want to do, but you can’t make yourself feel something that you don’t feel. If Sunny and her mother are going to be reconciled it’s got to happen later, farther down the road. About the best they can do by the end of the book is a hopeful truce.

I love the way food is so much a part of this novel. You can feel the emotional lift the characters get as they eat brownies with blackberry ganache. And when Sunny has the blues, the perfect remedy is a chicken soup called avgolemono. I’m curious if you can describe this passion for food to someone who’s a lazy cook and disconnected from this type of joy, right down to the canned spaghetti sauce and instant coffee. And would you mind sharing a recipe?

I’ve always thought of food as more than sustenance. For me, it’s like music, the way it serves as a touchstone for life events. What we were eating the night Geoff proposed… Which Thanksgiving was it when Aunt Helen dropped the turkey on the floor? We were all eating my gram’s lemon meringue pie when my best friend whispered to me that she was pregnant.

The first novel where I noticed food being incorporated in a realistic and interesting way was Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER. There’s a wonderful scene where one of the Mafiosi is making spaghetti sauce and he’s explaining how he adds a little sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. In the mid 80’s my brother-in-law turned me on to Robert Parker’s SPENSER novels; the main character, a literate tough guy, does a lot of cooking and eating.

Now, some twenty-five years later, I sense that cooking and writing run on parallel tracks. Both can be very solitary pursuits, but the object of both is to touch other people, to offer them something, to communicate. My career as a novelist seems to have had its roots at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, and I think that’s appropriate. Because a book, just like a loaf of bread, is a process, not a product—slow, arduous, messy, and utterly unpredictable.

Recipe? Certainly. The only difficulty is choosing just one. This is one of my favorites:

ROSEMARY PINE NUT SHORTBREAD

8 oz butter
2 C flour
¾ t salt
½ C powdered sugar
1 t vanilla
½ C toasted pine nuts
2 T finely chopped fresh rosemary

Melt butter in microwave or in saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients to make a stiff dough. Pat evenly into a 10 x 14” baking pan. Chill for 20-30 minutes then bake at 350° F till firm & golden brown (15-20 min.) Cool in pan 2 minutes, then use a knife to cut into bars. Let cool at least ten more minute before removing with small spatula. Great with fruit and/or goat cheese.

“She’s like a cat,” I say. “Always attaching herself to the one person in a room who’s least likely to want her around. (p. 467)

Judi learning to ride a motorcycle while researching The Laws of Harmony.

Judi learning to ride a motorcycle while researching The Laws of Harmony.

What have you learned about yourself and this business after publishing four novels? And what’s the best lesson you could you share with writers who are at the beginning of their careers?

One thing never seems to change: every time I begin a new book, it’s like the very first time, and I have to learn all over again how to write. But the experience of writing has been completely different for each book. I think maybe this is because of the organic relationship between writer and book, the way they affect each other, the invisible push and pull of the story.

What it comes down to is that each book is a unique adventure for all concerned. The writer—just like her characters—is not the same person at the end that she was at the beginning. The book that you finish is not the book that you started. That’s what’s so amazing and engrossing and frustrating and exhilarating about the process of writing. And that is why, so long as I can see the computer screen and prop myself upright in my chair, I’ll probably never stop.

I recently saw a film called EVERY LITTLE STEP. It’s a documentary about the 2006 revival of the musical A CHORUS LINE. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world that I’ll never know—the world of young performers trying to make it on Broadway. And yet, certain aspects of it were all too familiar. You’ve got a line of people stretching for blocks; I think 3,000 people auditioned for 18 roles. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is talented. Every one is driven. The thing I loved about the film was that it follows not only the ones whose dream came true, but also it looks long and lovingly at some who were eliminated, some in the early rounds, and a few at the very end when it was down to two people for a role and the reason one was chosen over the other was often incomprehensible to me.

One of these was an actress named Rachelle and she was a heartbeat away from one of the plum roles—as Cassie. The part went to another young woman instead. I felt so let down. Had I been her, I would have fallen on the floor and kicked and screamed and cried. Instead, she packed up her stuff, patted the shoulder of the guy who’d just given her the bad news and walked to the door. To add insult to injury, the people making this documentary have got the cameras on her, the microphone in her face and they’re asking her how she feels. The one thing she said that resonated big-time with me was, “It’s a hard business. You really have to like yourself.”

So the best lesson I can share with writers at the beginning of their careers—and one that we all need reminding of occasionally—is sort of that: Be gentle with yourself.

I hear myself laughing inside the helmet, like a little kid with the training wheels off for the first time. (p. 271)

I know you were a participant in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Can you tell me about that experience? I’d love to know who you studied with and how that shaped your writing or your dedication to the craft.

I was encouraged to attend Squaw Valley Community of Writers by Andrew Tonkovich, who was my writing instructor at UCI extension. Some of the things I remember most clearly had nothing to do with writing… it was blisteringly hot. The resort was being renovated, so workshop meeting times and places were somewhat fluid. There were construction noises and great clouds of dust during the day… and yet, I have nothing but happy memories of my time in the valley. I got lucky, ending up in a house with two guys who both had cars, and one of whom was an excellent cook. The three of us spent several long evenings drinking wine and discussing writing until someone would finally jump up and say, “I’ve got to go read my workshop papers for tomorrow.”

That summer I was working mostly on “creative non-fiction.” I did have the first chapter of a novel which would later become BREAD ALONE, but I’d never written fiction before and didn’t quite know what to do with it. I loved the workshop system they used, where you had a different instructor at every meeting, so I was privileged to learn from Mary Morris, Louis B. Jones, Lynn Freed, Bharati Mukherjee and others. In the afternoons I got to listen to Diane Johnson talk about dialogue (this alone was worth the cost of the program) and James N. Frey (No, not the James Frey of the fake memoirs) talk about plotting the damn good novel. In the evenings the instructors would read from their own works and authors like Amy Tan and Max Byrd regaled us with tales of the writing life. It was the first time I’d ever had a true sense of a writing community. I was thrilled to return in 2001 to read from my just-published novel.

While I learned at least one thing from every single writer (published or not) that I met there, the one who had the most influence on my work was Andrew Tonkovich. The year I attended, they had not yet started a nonfiction program, but in his classes at UCI Andrew had showed us how to use fiction techniques—setting, point of view, dialogue, etc—to write compelling non-fiction. It was in his class that I came to the realization that it was all one. All writing. Andrew gave us the tools and the freedom to use them for anything we wanted to write.

{ 21 comments }

Naseem Rakha

by Susan Henderson on August 5, 2009

In Naseem Rakha‘s debut novel, THE CRYING TREE, a 15-year-old boy is killed; and as his family unravels, the boy’s mother lives only for the day that the murderer will be executed. Months turn into years, and a single action changes everything, opens the possibility for forgiveness. I loved talking to Naseem about this book, which is already a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller and a pick for the Barnes & Noble’s autumn Discover Great New Writers program, and I hope you’ll join the conversation.

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I love the sentiment of the Mohandas Gandhi quote you use at the opening of your novel. “Love is the prerogative of the brave.” Can you put that philosophy into your own words and talk about why it strikes you?

While The Crying Tree is obviously about difficult subjects – murder, loss, secrets, the death penalty, forgiveness – more than anything else the novel is about courage, and more specifically the courage to love. The story takes on this theme in many ways, but the most obvious is in the protagonist’s (Irene Stanley’s) decision to forgive the man who murdered her son. Loss sears our souls only if what we have lost we have also loved. To turn around in the midst of the most grievous loss, and decide it is better to have hope in this world, to appreciate its beauty, and to love no matter what the cost, takes, I believe, tremendous strength and courage.

You’ve written about the kind of grief people never fully heal from, the violent death of a child. Every member of this family lost their bearings, felt alone with their needs and their secrets. Even the tree at the burial site wept sap. But something survived, insisted, in each of them. And I wonder if you can talk about this push and pull of the human spirit – to lay down and to stand up again.

One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption. A man is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife, but instead of giving up, lying down as you put it, he finds ways to make his life whole. I think the reason this film appeals to me, and so many others, is that it speaks to our higher selves: that part of us that strives to be more than the sum of our accumulated hurts. We saw that with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which helped people rise up from the desperation and anger caused by Apartheid. We see this in Iran as people risk their lives standing against a repressive regime. And we see it in the everyday acts of people that decide to forgo the victimization and pain of their past and move on with their lives. Survival is a natural instinct. The question is will you live this life standing upright, your eyes looking toward the sun, or will you be stooped by the weight of anger, your eyes always looking behind?

Her mission on this day was to stay upright. To bear this thing called a funeral with her mind as closed off to its sights and sounds as possible. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 35)

The boy who’s murdered in this book played the trumpet, music his mother called ‘evidence of God.’ And I love that the image of him in the field, where he played Silent Night even in the summer, became the cover of your novel because the trumpet is used so beautifully throughout. It made me curious: Did you play an instrument as a child? And would you tell a story about you and music that says something about the kind of kid you were?

Music….

It is essential to me. Right now I am listening to Shivkumar Sharma’s Call of the Valley. It is classical Indian music. Santoor, sitar, tabla. Music follows me wherever I go. And if it is not on, it is only because I want to listen to the birds, or the wind, or the creak of the house. Or NPR….

I attribute my love of music to my parents. My father – from India, and my mother, from Chicago – shared a passion for music which they the passed on to all three of their children. I grew up going to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall to listen to the Symphony, I took ballet, I played the piano and later the guitar. In fifth grade, we were given an assignment to pick out a piece of music, listen to it, and then write a paper about why it appealed to us.

I remember the moment I picked my piece. I was leaning against our stereo – a big walnut console with speakers on either side – listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. When it came to the second movement – the Allegretto – I was bewitched. It is a simple theme repeated over and over again, building like a wave, or growing like a flower, at least those were the metaphors I used in my paper. I also remember feeling the music as something alive and almost magical. If everyone could sit down and listen to this one piece, I thought, then there would be no war or crime. There would only be this music, and all around it there would be people who understood its power.

I still love the Seventh Symphony. In fact, it was one of many pieces I listened to while I wrote The Crying Tree. Music was essential to certain scenes in the book. A song called Tennessee by Mindy Smith helped me recreate the land, the people, and the love Irene had for her life in southern Illinois. Bruce Springsteen’s You’re Missing helped me delve into that empty space created by Shep’s death. And the closing movement of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring helped me develop the tone and emotional landscape of The Crying Tree’s final scene.

For anyone who is interested, I’ve created a downloadable playlist on Itunes. You can find it on my web site: www.naseemrakha.com

The only thing that interested her was the trial. She wanted answers from Daniel Robbin, and she wanted to be there when he gave them. But most of all she wanted him to see her. She had an idea that when they finally locked eyes, her son’s killer would crumple and cry for mercy, knowing – absolutely knowing – the value of what he’d taken, and how in taking it he had altered the course of life. Not just his and Shep’s, but something far more vast and irreconcilable. And then in this idea of Irene’s a dream, really; a kind of sinking, spinning vision that moved through her days – Daniel Robbin would experience all the agony he had caused and would continue to cause, from now until forever, all of it ravaging him as he had ravaged her son. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 76)

A view from Points Beyond -- the small farm where THE CRYING TREE was written.

A view from Points Beyond -- the small farm where THE CRYING TREE was written.

The mother in your novel lives for the execution of her son’s murderer, but that wait takes years. Almost two decades. And what began as a rage we can all understand, became a hatred that destroyed her and all that she had left. You show other kinds of hate in this book, including the glee of those drunk and singing on execution day. What did telling this story teach you about hate?

Not only did the novel help me understand how addictive and annihilating hate can be, but how society colludes to make hate a pastime. Shock jocks pollute the airwaves with hate, making it easy, even acceptable to pit one group of people against another. Political leaders tend to do the same, setting up litmus tests to determine if your behavior is acceptable. And we know the role religious institutions have played in perpetuating the myth that there is only one true faith. With so much reinforcement, hate has become the easy antidote to any perceived slight or injustice. It makes us feel more in control, more powerful, more right. And, like a drug, it distorts our perspective of reality, interfering with our ability to be productive members of our community.

What I also learned is that when individuals renounce hate they find in its place feelings of balance, perspective, and joy. These are the people you want to sit next to on the bus. They are ones that see opportunity where others do not. They are creative and funny and almost impossible to offend. And more than anything else, these people are free.

The Crying Tree taught me a great deal about hate, and pain, and love and grace. It has also given me a great deal to strive for.

The choice was simple. Take the truth to his grave, or make her choke on it. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 154)

Lake Champlaign Vermont. September 11, 2001 Naseem and 18 month old Elijah watch the sun set on a very sad day.

Lake Champlaign Vermont. September 11, 2001 Naseem and 18 month old Elijah watch the sun set on a very sad day.

What’s gained by seeing our adversaries as human beings? And why do you think the idea of absolution or forgiveness is so threatening?

Forgiveness threatens us because it means we have a choice about what we carry. Some people do not want this choice, and moreover, they do not believe the choice really exists. When people are in pain, forgiveness can seem obtuse at best, and grotesque in the extreme. How can a mother forgive someone who murders her son? How can people who have suffered under apartheid, forgive the perpetrators of this generational crime? How do we forgive racists, or terrorists, or the neighbor who beats his wife? A lover that cheats on the other? A boss that fires an ill employee?

Anger is a legitimate response to these actions. The question is, what does the anger give, and where will it lead? For a decade, a friend of mine lived her life for the execution of the man who murdered her eighteen-year-old daughter. Today this woman considers this man her friend, visiting him at least two times a year on San Quentin’s death row. This transformation was not something she would have predicted, and if it had been suggested early on she probably would have been repulsed. Still, it can’t be denied that by setting aside her anger and dealing with Mr. X as a human versus just a murderer or a monster, both she and the man have gained, and learned and grown.

Forgiveness takes work, and it takes time. But more than anything else, it takes faith. I am not a religious person, but I do have a strong belief in the ability of the human spirit to reach beyond the confines of rage and deal with one another in humane and just ways. In fact, I think our future will be determined by whether we are successful at this or not.

All these years with the DA telling her the execution would provide “closure.” That was their word. As if her son’s life were a book that could finally be shut. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 169)

Naseem in hot air balloon over Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Naseem in hot air balloon over Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Tell me about your journey to getting this book published. Looking back to the days before you had an agent or a book deal, or when this novel was nothing but a few ideas jotted down on the back of a gas receipt, is there anything you learned that you could share with other writers?

I knew what story I wanted to tell, I felt it was an important story, and I believed in this story and its emerging characters. Then, I worked on it every single day from June of 2004 until its final edits with my editor at Broadway Books in January, 2009. Working means that I was either physically in the act of writing, or I was mentally in the act of imagining, or as it often felt, listening. That effort, plus the exquisite and sometimes brutal advise from a solid set of writing companions helped make the book a possibility. I did not think about publishing, finding an agent, or book sale politics. These things were distractions, and as a mom on a small farm, with a big garden and plenty of animals, I had plenty of distractions.

Then, when I finally thought it was in a tight enough form, I attended the Backspace.org Agent Author Seminar. There, I found my agent and four weeks later signed on as a client with Folio Literary Management. Five months later, my agent and I felt the book was ready to be shopped around to publishers. Within a day, the book had an offer. The following week The Crying Tree went to auction. Since then, it has sold to six different countries and will also be offered in audio form.

In all, the process has been fast moving, and relatively painless. My agent, Laney Katz Becker, editor, Christine Pride and my team of marketers and publicists have been outstanding. And their support and excitement for the book is palpable.

My advice to writers is to find a topic that holds your passion. Research it, then dive in. Do not listen to nay-sayers (I had plenty), do not listen to the negative bugger that lives in the left hand corner of your brain. Do not listen to news about the publishing world. Just write. Then, when you feel ready, have people read it. These must be people who know how to pick apart a work, telling you honestly what works and what does not. They should tell you where in the book they were excited, scared, sad, bored, pissed and so forth. And they should be able to tell you why. After that, sit down and polish your work until you know it shines. In the mean time, research agents. Track Publishers Marketplace deals page. Look to see who is selling the type of book you have written. You don’t just want any old agent. You want an agent that is moved by your work, believes in you, has ideas, and is willing to work with you to make your manuscript even better. Finally, do everything with vigor and ardor and a deep sense of gratitude because you are a writer, and that means you have been given the honor to touch a little piece of grace.

{ 29 comments }

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