September 2006

Weekly Wrap: Who Owns Our Truths?

by Susan Henderson on September 22, 2006

Here’s something that gnaws at most writers, whether they’re writing fiction or memoir: How much are you allowed to tell? Who owns our truths?

For several years I was a sexual abuse therapist. And what you learn right away, if you haven’t already learned it elsewhere, is how trauma is exacerbated by silence. Trying to fake that you’re fine, trying to keep a trauma a secret, trying to protect a family system or an abuser you also love – these are emotions that eat at the heart of a survivor. So why not just tell, right?

Not so fast. The moment you tell, you have also exposed a slew of others. You’ve exposed a family system and an entire network of secrets. And maybe worst of all, you’ve opened yourself up to the problem of all problems: whose perspective is right, and whose memory contains the real truth? Rarely, when a survivor speaks up, do others agree that the survivor described what happened accurately. And rarely is speaking up met with hugs and apologies.

Truth is a slippery thing. Let’s stay with the example of the survivor a little longer. Surviving a trauma involves many things including denial, dissociation, and possibly some coercion to process the abuse in some alternative way. A survivor who’s been abused by a family member may feel a number of emotions besides the fear that you might expect. They may like the attention of the abuser. Their body may react positively to the abuse, regardless of how their head responds. The abuser may have many likable traits, and the survivor may have many unlikable traits. This starts to make a mess of the survivor’s head because we don’t have a black-and-white situation anymore. Instead you have complicated and layered characters in a complicated and layered relationship. So the moment this survivor speaks up, there is plenty of room for others to argue the truth of what’s been said.

One advantage to writing essays or memoir is that you can speak your mind without interruption. You can tell the entire scope of a story or paint as large a picture as you need in order to express what you need to express or discover what you need to discover. It can be like traveling through hell to find truth or peace or order, but it can free you from the past, make you wiser, and allow you to connect with others who have no voice for their experience. Say, then, that you’ve done it, you’ve said what you needed to say and said it lovingly and yet fearlessly. Now is when you hope the real people within your story understand the way you see the world, they “get” you, they value your experience and how you’ve become the person you are and why you think or feel the way you do.

Ha ha! You know why I’m laughing, right? Because now your memory is out there for others to question and judge. What is true to you is not necessarily true to the other players in your story. And why is that? For starters, there are mistruths in even the most careful of memoirs: misremembered events, dialogue re-invented years or decades after the fact, things left out because they don’t seem important or because you wanted to quicken the pace, not to mention the blind spots we all have from seeing the world through our own lens for so long. And the final kicker: others don’t want to know or believe your truth because it would be disastrous to their psyche and their paradigm about how they fit into the world.

So, given that others are naturally intertwined with the stories we want to tell, where is that balance? I think the answer is different for each of us. And, of course, it’s complicated when you’re telling things that are true about your heart and your emotional experience of the world through fictional writing. But I’ll answer this question for me: I won’t read tepid writing, and I certainly don’t want to produce it. I like writing that goes where we’re afraid to go and says what we’re afraid to say in our real lives. Salman Rushdie says it better: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and ask difficult questions.”

Your thoughts?


Amy Wilentz

by Susan Henderson on September 20, 2006

And her memoir about fear of catastrophe.

Amy Wilentz has written for The Nation, The New Republic, Newsday, Time, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, where she was the Jerusalem correspondent from 1995 to 1997. She is the author of two prize-winning books, THE RAINY SEASON: HAITI SINCE DUVALIER (Simon & Schuster, 1989) and MARTYRS’ CROSSING (Simon & Schuster, 2001), as well as the translator and editor of IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR: WRITINGS FROM HAITI by Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

(Fun tidbit: the picture below was taken by the daughter of Errol Flynn.)

photo credit: Rory Flynn

I invited Amy here to talk about her brand new book, I FEEL EARTHQUAKES MORE OFTEN THAN THEY HAPPEN: COMING TO CALIFORNIA IN THE AGE OF SCHWARZENEGGER (Simon & Schuster, 2006). The book is part journalism (the history of California and the implications of the recall election that opened the door for Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor) and part memoir (how she left New York after 9-11 in search of a sense of safety and renewal in sunny California).

Talk to me about your background in journalism, and how is this book a departure from that work?

My first book on Haiti, The Rainy Season, was a book of reportage at a moment when the Duvalier dynasty’s dictatorship was falling finally, and there was an opening toward democracy in Haiti for the first time in almost 30 years. My second book, Martyrs’ Crossing, is a thriller about the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, written while I was living and working in Jerusalem. In a way, this new book is in the same tradition: reporting and writing from what I consider to be a foreign assignment. But it’s also a memoir of sorts, about coming to California.

When writing non-fiction and memoir, do you worry about how you portray real people? How do you go about deciding what to include and what to keep private?

Yes I do worry. I try to keep private things said by people about other people that might hurt their interpersonal relationship. I try not to use extraneous information that doesn’t help my point and that might hurt people. However, people do not like to see themselves portrayed in print. Even flattering portraits can get you in trouble, and certainly unflattering ones are taken very hard. There are some not so flattering ones in this book.

Has there ever been any fall-out with telling your truths?

Yes, of course, both in Haiti and here in L.A. For instance, Haiti’s former president, Aristide, has refused to speak to me for the past six years, much to my regret. Here in L.A., I no longer get invited to dinner.

You speak about Americans being drawn to men like George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger when the world seems unstable. Talk to me about the qualities you believe voters sought.

Well, voters are seeking or have been seeking someone who appears decisive, but of course whether a decisive person is a good leader depends on the quality of his decisions, as we’ve seen with Bush. I think people also liked Schwarzenegger because he was seen as someone who was physically strong and capable of inflicting violence on perceived enemies. In reality, as a politician, he is neither so ham-fisted nor so effective.

Do you think this is just an American phenomenon or a worldwide trait?

I think it’s an American trait. We’re famous for being attracted to violence and of loving the power of violence. Look at our gun laws; only lawless nations have a similar proliferation of arms among the people. But of course, Germany in its day has swooned over violence; the French and Italians are not immune, either. The Islamic world to me right now seems filled to the brim with young men in love with violence, too.

Amy’s personal Terminator doll.

Bush has an extremely low approval rating, and the world is no more stable. What do you think this means for the next election? What kind of person do you think Americans will be drawn to?

I think the country will be split again; about half wanting someone who can lead the country responsibly, like an adult, and half wanting just to get things fixed somehow and fast — the Bush method (except it gets nothing fixed). I also believe that in our next presidential election, domestic issues like immigration and the economy will be just as important as the management of the Iraq war.

Your book puts two things together that I hadn’t really considered as playing off of each other before ”“ the fear of catastrophe and the desire to have an almost absurd cut of the American dream. Would you talk about the connection you see between the two?

I think a people raised, like a majority of Americans, with not so much disaster and upheaval in their lives, are both terribly afraid of the potential vicissitudes of life and very attached to the material possessions that indicate to them that their life is good and stable. This is one reason for Americans’ illogical daily fear of tabloid mayhem… there is so much to be protected that at times the simple job of protecting can seem unending, and causes a good deal of stress and psychological upheaval both individually and for the nation as well.

I’m a good example, by the way: I worry a lot about earthquakes here in LA, after leaving New York in a wave of nerves after September 11. It’s a kind of bourgeois panic. Yet I lived in Jerusalem with my husband and three small sons during terrible times and just went about my business.

What have you learned about living with fear and uncertainty?

Well, you just keep on, don’t you? I try to prepare for the eventual earthquake, but really you can’t prepare for an overpass falling on your head or a parking structure pancaking around you. You have to block it out of your consciousness, as I tried to do — not so successfully — in Jerusalem during the bus bombing era. People in war zones keep on living; guess I can, too, in earthquake prone L.A.

Death Valley, the same kind of landscape Amy travels through as the book opens.

And how do you teach your children to take precautions without filling them with fear?

My kids just roll their eyes. I try to tell them where to go if there’s a quake and no adults are home, or where to stand during the shaking, and they just want to know if there’s a leash for the dog somewhere outside the house in case of The Big One. (There is, by the way.)

What was the most difficult part about writing this book?
The most difficult part was tying the odds and ends of experience together, to make a whole that coheres and makes sense. Memoir experience is diffuse; of course, I had to go out and report stuff, too; I FEEL EARTHQUAKES is not a memoir of what I did today with the kids, dog, etc. It’s a broader thing than that — a sort of political-historical-cultural cross-hatch of California, mostly southern California.

Are you working on something new?
Yes fiction: about an old family story of mine concerning a kidnapping and an execution.


You can see more of Amy over at the LitPark Roundtable: 8 Authors Discuss the Business.


Question of the Week: Risks of Truth-Telling

by Susan Henderson on September 18, 2006

When writing non-fiction and memoir, do you worry about how you portray real people in your life? What have you risked to tell your truths? Or, if you’re someone who has protected others from the truths you know, what have you given up by remaining silent?

(Don’t think you have to be a writer to answer this question. Answer however it applies to your art.)


Author and journalist, Amy Wilentz, tells uncomfortable truths, and Wednesday, she’ll talk about the consequences of this.

Amy is the author (or translator) of these books:

Her latest book, however, is of a much more personal nature. In I FEEL EARTHQUAKES MORE OFTEN THAN THEY HAPPEN: COMING TO CALIFORNIA IN THE AGE OF SCHWARZENEGGER (Simon & Schuster, 2006), she writes of her fear of catastrophe following 9-11 and her desire to flee the east coast to what she believed would be a safer place. What she discovers about fear ”“ her own as well as the country’s fear and how that impacts the political scene – drives the narrative of this book.

I looked around New York and the whole place reeked of the aftermath of September 11; there were checkpoints at the subway stops, armed guards at entrances to bridges, and something called “police actions” that occasionally stopped all traffic in both directions (p. 23).

Once in California, however, there were new catastrophes to fear.

At my sons’ new elementary school in a church in Hollywood, I was encouraged to supply what are called “comfort bags” for them. I was given a flyer that told me what to include in the bags marked with their names: a favorite stuffed animal or security object, a book, games, a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and perhaps a photograph of the family (which sounded ominous). This was in case of earthquake (p. 25).

What happens when you combine this culture of fear and uncertainty with a hyper-masculine Hollywood star, “who never question[s] himself” (p. 232)?

In shaky times, a politician who projects power, decisiveness, and a measure of violence can win big with the American people. President Bush was such a figure for a time. When an old friend of his disagreed publicly with Schwarzenegger about not returning $2 billion he had borrowed from the education pot and about changing the rules of teacher tenure, the governor called his friend up on the phone and told him that his position was “pussy” (p. 138-9).

As a friend of mine said to me over dinner one night, “I’m a Democrat but I like Bush because he’s decisive. Clinton always wanted to think about every issue from every angle. I can’t stand that, all the doubt and worry, that constant questioning. I want a decision maker.” It’s the same principle that caused Californians to vote for Schwarzenegger, the same thing that made me hope he was a rescuer, the same principle that makes the creationists want to fit the tar pits into a prearranged scheme. People feel comfortable with certainty (p. 184).

The socio-political analysis is not without some risky truth-telling, and much of it concerns celebrities such as Warren Beatty (who graduated from my high school), Carrie Fisher, Joan Didion, Arianna Huffington, and Steve Wasserman.

Amy on Huffington as celebrity:

There are degrees, wattages, of celebrity. Arnold’s is a klieg light; Arianna’s an appliance bulb (p. 101).

On her way from her hybrid Toyota to the makeshift podium, Huffington handed off her grande Starbucks latte cup to an aide, to keep it off camera. To one sector of the California electorate, Starbucks smacks of pretension and privilege; to another, it represents corporatism and globalization; you just can’t win with that cup in your hand. In midwalk, another aide handed her a small bottle of water, instead (p. 102).

Following a lethal blow to Huffington’s campaign, here is a description of a barbecue thrown at her home:

But no, there is no outdoor fire. (The fire is in the kitchen, where the housekeeper is laboring.) Many skinny wives in tight jeans, their blouses diaphanous in the setting sun, come through the big doors of the Huffington breezeway out into the long gardens near the pool, bearing baked desserts which they did not bake and will not eat (p. 103).

What was most eye-opening for me was seeing the deep fears of these unsettling times side-by-side with the absurd, Hollywood-type paradise so many seek.

I wonder: how it can be that when my friend emerges from her yoga class zonked out and blessed out, floating down the pretty little street on brown moccasins to meet me at Peets, and Sir Bernard is playing on his metal drum while girls in Sunday trousers and babies in strollers glide by, I wonder how can it be that at almost the very same moment when my friend sits down and smiles, and I bring her a double tall percent latte, and a baby in pink who’s passing by pats a dog lying under a table outside the door, how can it be that in Iraq, a suicide bomber is busy blowing hundreds of people up into ashes (p. 295-6)?

Stop back on Wednesday to visit with Amy and join the discussion. Have a good day!


Gina Frangello

by Susan Henderson on September 16, 2006

Here is Angela Stubbs interviewing author/editor/publisher, Gina Frangello.

I think Gina Frangello is an expert. Most people have one solid area of expertise, but Gina isn’t most people. To start, she’s the Executive Editor at OTHER VOICES literary magazine where she molds chosen submissions into flawless pieces of literature with her keen eye. Knowing what makes a story publishable is what she does best. She has analyzed and researched various aspects of psychology to such a degree that she’s become an expert in everything from feminist theory to holistic therapy and the Freudian case study of Dora, in particular. As if all of this weren’t enough, Frangello is capable of choreographing some of the most intriguing, complicated and disturbed characters you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting in a novel.

Gina’s debut, MY SISTER’S CONTINENT, is the perfect mixture of poetic prose, complex characters, dysfunctional families, damaged psyches and sibling rivalry. After having read a novel like MSC, I was haunted by the images and the story kept me thinking about these characters long after I’d turned the last page.

It was important for me to get to know the woman behind this piece of literature and not just because she really seems to know what the hell she’s talking about. Gina Frangello is just as articulate on the phone as she is with her work. During our phone call we talked about her drive to write, even at a young age, why she felt she had to leave the field of psychology and what it’s like finding a press to publish a book like MY SISTER’S CONTINENT.

Prior to starting your writing career, you studied psychology. What made you decide you wanted to go the creative writing route?

Well, I had always written. I tried to write my very first novel when I was 10. I wrote basically my entire youth until I was 16, then I concentrated on partying for a few years. At [U-W] Madison when I was an undergraduate I started taking workshops just for fun. I studied with Lorrie Moore and Ann Packer, but I was a psych major. Basically, I grew up very poor and I had no money. My parents had no money. I’m an only child and my parents are older. I always felt like I was going to have to help support my parents when they were older, so being a writer was simply the opposite of anything that would have been a practical career. It never even occurred to me to major in writing or go to graduate school for writing because it would have seemed preposterous. I was going to be a psychiatrist. I was going to go all the way through and get my Ph.D. I got my BA and my MA. During my MA in Psych I was doing a lot of work with battered women and foster girls who’d been taken out of their homes due to sexual abuse. I did a lot of things that schematically ended up popping up in this book later, but I was only about 23 years old. It is just a brutal field. I worked at a battered women’s agency and we used to get bomb threats. The husbands of my clients would say, “I know what that bitch’s car looks like and I’m going to kill her!” It was scary and in rural New Hampshire and it was indeed a very small community. You could run into your clients and their crazy, abusive husbands at the gas station. It was really intense and I had grown up in a really intense neighborhood where there was a lot of violence, too. I began thinking, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to go to work and hear about how somebody’s dad invited everyone over to have sex with all the kids. What if I didn’t have this in my life every single day?”

I had intended to take a hiatus. I started writing the original version of MY SISTER’S CONTINENT while I was still practicing psych. I started calling in sick to work and blowing my responsibilities left and right. But it didn’t occur to me to go to graduate school and focus on writing until I got married and my husband got a real job. He was no longer in graduate school and we had a little bit of money. I thought, “Well, I could do this for two years. I could go get my Master’s in Creative Writing and won’t that be fun? I’ll take a little break from this dark world as a therapist.” Instead I ended up sort of plunging into a lot of dark literary material, but for some reason I never went back. Once I was studying and reading and got involved with OTHER VOICES and was publishing my short fiction, it was just clear very quickly that this was it.

You made a huge jump from psychology to creative writing. They are complete opposites in so many ways. Looking back, do you miss it?

I miss certain aspects of that job. I don’t think I’d have some of the same problems with it now that I had when I was so much younger, but there’s just no room in my life for it now. I’m running a magazine and press. I’m teaching. I’ve got 3 children and I’m writing my own novels and stories. I don’t think I’ll ever find the time to go back and work as a therapist again. Sometimes, I wish I magically had ten more hours a day and I miss certain parts of it. Writing can be isolating and even running OTHER VOICES can be a little isolating because even though it’s a large community, it’s a community all over the country and most of your work is still done in a solitary way. I miss the sense of very immediate contribution that you have when you are a therapist. You are sitting with someone who is in need. You’re talking to them and it’s very, very immediate. There were many rewards to that even though I may have been doing it at the wrong point in my life.

It’s hard not to get emotionally involved, even if it’s just your job.

Oh you definitely do. I’d gone into the particular type of psychology I ended up practicing because of issues that I’d grown up with in my neighborhood. So, in a sense it was kind of like I jumped right out of the frying pan and into the fire. I was so young. I don’t think I’d really given myself a chance to work out a lot of the issues of what I’d seen growing up before immersing myself in helping other people. And I think I did help them. In all fairness I think I did a reasonable job of it, but then the writing called and unfortunately I had to defect.

When you were in school, you obviously studied Freud’s case study of Dora. As you sat down to write MSC, did you have it in the back of your mind as a blueprint or were the Freudian parallels coincidental?

This is what happened. I had read plenty of Freud and I’d read about the Dora case study, but I’d never read that study when I was studying psychology. I was getting my master’s in the early to mid-90’s and there was an extreme New Age movement in psychology at that time. So basically, Freud was the devil. Nobody believed anything that Freud had to say. If you were caught reading Freud, it was strictly so that you could talk about what an asshole he was. It wasn’t like people were sitting there meticulously poring over Freud case studies. My concentrations in school were feminist and holistic therapy. Psychoanalysis was pretty far from what I was studying. I had read some Freud in undergraduate and I had read a little in graduate school. It wasn’t until I went back to get my master’s in English that everyone was all about Freud and Lacan and various types of psychoanalytic literary theory. I was particularly interested in it because of my background in psychology. I started reading a lot of the French feminist theorists and they all talked about Dora all the time. I’d read a couple of the other Freud case studies, but not that one and it sounded really interesting. Well, it sounded really interesting because when I started to read it, it was freakishly like this unfinished novel and story cycle I’d already been working on for something like four or five years! It was very, very weird.

I became so intrigued by the parallels between Dora’s life and the lives of my characters (Kendra & Kirby) that I began reading any bit of theory I could get my hands on about Dora. I taught it in a class called “Hysterics in Literature” at UIC and I became preoccupied with what it would be like to take this existing, contemporary storyline I had and really use that old case study as a frame. Kind of like Jane Smiley did with A THOUSAND ACRES. And that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to re-tell the Dora case study. I didn’t want Dora to be my character. I didn’t want Freud to be my character and for it to take place in 1898 Vienna. I wanted it to be a contemporary story that had its own plot, its own characters so that you could read the book without ever having read Freud and it wouldn’t matter. It all really was something that came up much less because of my background in psych. I think it could have happened to any English grad student because the Dora case study is very prominent in psychoanalytic literary theory.

It’s almost kismet that MSC happened the way that it did. It’s bizarre that you happened upon a theory that served the book’s purpose.

The strangest thing was how much was already there in the stories I’d already written! The thing that strikes me is that growing up as a young woman is not real different in 1998 Chicago than in 1898 Vienna, which is a really scary thought. Some of the core issues of sexuality and identity and power are not that different now.

You wrote an earlier version of MY SISTER’S CONTINENT. Did you want to keep anything from the initial versions of those stories or was it easier for you to begin fresh?

I was trying to write this novel, then it evolved into stories and most of them got published. A couple years later I decided I was going to return to the novel but give it the Freudian framework. And so once I was going to do that, certain elements of the plot and characters emerged as more prominent than they had been. Certain elements of the plot changed and so I think it would have been a very convoluted, difficult thing to try and take things piecemeal from the former version of the novel and the published stories. Once I knew I was going to use that framework, I basically started over again. I didn’t want to try and cram the foot of the previous version into the shoe of the Dora case study. I just wanted it to be fresh and I was still very, very interested in the characters and the basic themes. That’s what made me so intrigued with the Dora case study to begin with. It was so incredibly similar to what I had already been working with. But there were differences, too. For example, a major difference is that the character of Leigh Kelsey, (Michael’s ex-wife) is a very important figure in terms of the case study since she represents Frau K (the woman Dora unconsciously loves). But in the original novel and stories, Leigh Kelsey never makes an appearance. Michael just has an ex-wife and I think she’s named but she’s never there. So, that changed a lot. Kirby is not in most of the short stories, but in one of the stories that were published, Kirby is already out as a lesbian. She has a girlfriend named Melissa and they’re living together. Clearly, I had to go way, way, way back in order to start telling Kirby’s story in a way that would fit more within the framework of what I was trying to work with regarding Dora. The characters remained very similar but they changed in some ways. One thing that changed a lot about them was in one of the stories Kendra is actually the one in therapy, but Kirby became the one in therapy (in MSC). The biggest difference was the ambiguous ending. In the short stories there were more clear answers.

I think people seem to have some preconceived notions about twins. They think they must be polar opposites.

The evil twin or the good twin. It’s this bizarre cliché. I lived with twins in college and obviously that was not the case nor is it probably ever the case, but it has a lot of power over the popular imagination. Plus, when it comes to novels in the corporate publishing houses, that’s what they’re looking for in terms of books, villains vs. victims. Especially in books by women. There have to be the bad guys and then the plucky heroines who triumph over adversity. MY SISTER’S CONTINENT is just not that kind of book.

I was so glad that it wasn’t that kind of book. Is that why you ended up going with an independent press for MSC?

Well, it was a long haul. The book did have an agent at one point and he did try to sell it, not just through the corporate houses but the very top corporate houses. That was kind of what he was accustomed to. He had some very prestigious clients and therefore maybe had delusions of grandeur for the rest of us, which in some ways was great, when it worked out. He wanted big advances and editors who were very well known. So he did his send out but it had a reception that was kind of complicated. There were a few editors who tried to champion it but it kept getting vetoed. There were other editors who were horrified by it. My favorite story is that an editor at Houghton Mifflin apparently told my agent that the book was so disturbing that she kept having to put it down and leave the room. I was thinking, “So that made you want to publish it, right?” They were saying, “No.” (laughs)

Any piece of work that moves someone in any way should be a good thing.

There was another editor who said something to the effect of “I couldn’t explain this book to a marketing rep without blushing or breaking down.” There was a really weird, extreme response from a certain contingent of the editors that it got sent to. After it had been sent out to about 10 of the top houses and it had not been taken, my agent didn’t want to send it anywhere else. He wanted to wait until I had another novel and sell that novel first, basically with the hopes that one of those original editors or the place that we sold the next novel would come sniffing back around and take it. This was shortly after 9/11 so it was awhile ago. The publishing industry was in a horrible place and everything had gotten puritanical. There was no money and the climate of the country was bizarre. Many people felt this was negatively impacting being able to sell edgier, more graphic, risk-taking fiction by newer writers.

My agent’s perspective was “I have no desire to take this to a smaller house or get a lesser deal.” He just wanted to wait and have something else happen first. He was my agent and I really believed in what he said, so I said okay. I spent 2 years working on my next book and didn’t even send this book out. I finished my next book. He and I were on the verge of sending it out and then his agency collapsed really abruptly and basically, I ended up out on the street without an agent. I decided I was going to look for a new agent, but I had no desire to start all over again with MSC. I just decided to start looking for an agent for the new novel and have found one. But where MSC was concerned, it was basically sitting in my former agent’s drawer for 2_ years, so I sent it out on my own. I sent it to three independent presses and it was taken by the end of the week.

In hindsight, do you regret not having sent MSC to an independent press first?

Sort of. I never thought he was trying to screw me or anything, but his agenda had to do with making money. That’s most agents’ agenda. It’s their profession and they don’t make money unless they get you a big book deal, you know? And you’re not going to get that big book deal with Chiasmus in Portland. Agents have to do what they do, but once I’d seen what the response was in New York from the big houses, I should have seen the writing on the wall and said to myself, “You know, it’s not acceptable for it to sit around for 2 _ years. I can do this on my own” and at least have tried that avenue. But it all turned out fine. I’m glad everything happened the way that it did in retrospect. It’s been a good learning experience.

There seems to be some trial and error involved in the marketing process of a first novel. Money is always a big factor for agents, publishing houses and for some writers, too.

Right. And I never really cared about that. Obviously most of the writers I know don’t make a lot of money, including those who have had their books published by the larger houses. They usually still have to teach and still have to do other things, so that wasn’t ever really a big concern for me. But certainly having a wider audience is important to most writers. You want a marketing engine behind you. You want people to know about your book. I think that’s the allure for writers, more so than money with the corporate houses, just feeling like they’ll put a lot of advertising bucks behind it and people will know about it. Of course that doesn’t always happen even with corporate deals. Many of their books disappear and are never really supported in-house. But it can be harder to get word of mouth when you’re with an independent press. On the other hand, there are so many pluses to having an independent press in terms of what the final product is. With a mainstream publisher, you might be asked to radically revise a riskier book. So the fact that Lidia Yuknavitch had a very similar creative vision was great. We were on the same page, so I didn’t end up having to make artistic compromises and that’s been really good. Particularly for a first novel. Your first book is your baby.

Will you take your next novel to the indy presses first?

Well, it’s a complicated mix of things. First of all, it’s a very different book, so it would be extremely unlikely to come out with the same independent press because it’s not at all an experimental book (my second novel). It’s a coming of age story about an Italian-American neighborhood in Chicago, basically just a very different, earthier kind of novel with a very young protagonist. I think it’s a somewhat more commercial book. It’s still a literary book but it’s more commercial in the sense that it’s not terribly a cerebral book. It’s got some violence in it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of sexual themes that MSC had so it’s different in that respect. If a big house doesn’t take the new novel I would never sit around pining after that for ages. But I do have an agent for it and with an agent it’s always an automatic that the first people who see it are going to be Ballantine or HarperCollins or whatever. They’re not going to send it to the small houses first. So, I’m just going to wait and see what happens, wait and see what she can do. If there is interest in that regard, fine. And if not then I’ll just immediately send it out on my own to indies that are suitable for it.

Your cover art for MSC is a great photograph. Was it Lidia’s idea to use that for the cover?

The photographer who did the cover image is a Chicago photographer named Robin Hahn. She’s represented by the gallery that feeds most of the OTHER VOICES covers to us, so I actually knew that piece. I had considered using it for the first title of our imprint, OV Books, but then when Tod Goldberg won our contest for his collection SIMPLIFY, which is very, very masculine, I thought, “Well, clearly not appropriate for the Tod Goldberg cover!” (both laugh) So I thought, “I’ve got to keep that on the back burner for something” and before I knew it, I was going to have my own book. I got an image of the photograph and sent it to Lidia and Lidia really loved it.

Often times we see a shift in the artwork from hardcover to paperback. This usually happens most when a novel has had a smaller press publish in hardcover and then a bigger house will distribute the paperback and the artwork becomes generic looking.

Yes, or often the American version will have some ridiculously generic cover and then the British version will have a really cool, edgy version. That happens a lot. But I love the cover of my book. I actually ended up feeling like it was fate that I didn’t use it for anything else. It fits better with mine.

Let’s talk about the ending of the book. When you were trying to find a publisher did anyone have any issues with the ambiguous ending?

Oh yeah. That was a major thing among the people who were not histrionically screaming how they had to leave the room because the book was too disturbing. The other editors had issues with two major things: One was that there were no answers at the end of the book and that the ending was too “confusing” or didn’t let the reader know what to think or who to believe. The other thing was that Kirby wasn’t “good enough” to be the good twin. They all wanted Kendra to be the evil twin and therefore Kirby had to be the good twin and everyone was just frustrated that Kirby just wasn’t good enough. They kept asking for Kirby to be more reliable, more “good” and sympathetic in order to exist in complete opposition to Kendra. And I was never interested in that at all nor was my agent, to his credit. We both thought that was such an asinine suggestion because really Kirby and Kendra are supposed to be flip sides of a very similar coin and that’s the whole point. They think they’re so different . . .

They’re not!

They’re not! Editors kept saying, “Well, I really want to be able to trust and believe Kirby. Kendra’s so intense. I need to able to trust Kirby. She needs to be my guide.” Well, Kirby is a little less intense than Kendra in some ways, but she was never going to become the good, clean twin, where you could believe everything she said, which seemed to be what those larger houses wanted.

Do you think bigger publishing houses will become open to risky or non-traditional endings like the independents are now?

Well you can best get away with it in bigger houses if you’re already known. I look at Margaret Atwood and I think she continues to write fiction that takes a lot of risks and has ambiguity. She’s definitely not someone who likes to wrap things up neatly. A lot of times you don’t know what to think and you don’t know how things are going to end. She’s 60-something and she’s been a grand dame of literature for decades and therefore she’s able to do certain things. But I think there’s always just a fear of how to sell new writers in a marketplace. Literary fiction makes up such a small percentage of what anyone wants to read anyway and even within literary fiction there’s a distinction between more and less “commercial” literary fiction. I don’t want to say literary fiction is itself becoming more and more formulaic in the way that genre fiction is, but I think there’s a little bit of truth to that. There is a fear of risk-taking in an arena that sort of has risk-taking as an inherent proponent of it. I find that somewhat confusing and disturbing not only as a writer, but as an editor and publisher as well.

MSC has a very strong psychological pull to the story and its characters. You’ve written a novel that contains intricate, multi-faceted story lines with layers of psychological issues. Will your next novel have anything to do with psychology?

I don’t think that I would be capable of writing a book that didn’t get into the character’s psychology. I think that’s just the way that I write. Kassia Kroszer said something really interesting on the Lit-Blog Co-op during that whole period where my book was being talked about. [MSC was a “Read This!” finalist on the LBC in Spring 2006.] She said a lot of literary fiction doesn’t let you get too close to the characters. There’s a lack of getting intimate with them, a kind of formal distance with them, and I think that that would be the opposite of my writing and the writing that I like. I think that for me, getting inside the character’s head is really what keeps you ticking when you’re writing. There is a problem in literary fiction with things remaining at too much of a formal distance in a lot of cases. If that’s becoming somewhat less true then it’s a very good thing. I don’t know.

I still have a hard time finding books where I feel like the writer is really getting in there and swirling their fingers around in the character’s guts. But I like it when I do find something like that and I get really excited. Mary Gaitskill is a writer who always does that and that’s why I wanted to interview her for OTHER VOICES. I just think she’s fantastic. She looks at the good and the bad and the ugly and her characters have thoughts and feelings and emotions and a past or histories that intermingle. There’s lots of ugliness and lots of beauty and nostalgia. She’s not afraid of positive or negative emotion. In my new novel there is still a lot of psychological development of the characters, but in a different way. The protagonist is 12 to 14 in the course of the book. She’s quite young so she’s a very different character than those in MSC who are all at least in their 20’s or older.

There is a very tense moment in MSC where Michael uses a tea kettle full of boiling water in the bedroom with Kendra. Did you become tense or nervous as you wrote some of these sexual scenes?

There was a lot of tension in the writing of it. But most scenes in the book have been revised so many times that you get de-sensitized to it. But originally there was a lot of tension in writing a lot of different scenes in the novel. I was just saying in an interview the other day that the scene in the law offices between Michael and Kendra was a very difficult scene to write. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I was very stressed out writing it because to me that was the scariest scene in the book. Kendra didn’t really know what the hell she was doing. She’s coked up and she’s turned the tables so that she’s taking on the dominant role and it’s not a role that she feels comfortable in. She’s an angry character. It’s never safe to let an angry person tie you up and do what they will to you. And Michael, just because of the way he is, is also a scary person to have as your victim in a sense. He’s too nihilistic.

One of the best things about the book is that the reader never knows what to expect from the characters.

I read a review where someone said they thought Kendra and Michael were going to kill each other and I thought it was a little funny because I never thought they were going to kill each other. But the law offices scene really scared me in the writing of it because I never knew how bad things might get or what might happen. Certainly the hot water scene is one that’s designed to create tension. Because of where it’s placed in the novel it was probably less tense for me writing because I knew nothing all that extreme was going to happen yet. Well, if having hot water poured on you isn’t extreme, I mean. But it was too early in the book for it to veer totally out of control. It was still exploratory at that point. What were these characters’ limits and how were they going to fuck with each other and also how they were going to build a certain kind of trust.

As an editor for OV Books and the OTHER VOICES magazine, how different would you say the criteria is for publishing a short-story at the magazine versus publishing a collection like Tod Goldberg’s for OV Books?

The biggest difference for me is that we’re only publishing one book a year. You have to be pretty damned choosy. You’re really going to be living, breathing and eating this book and it has to be what you want to completely represent your press for that entire year or possibly even a little bit longer. In that sense I will say that the word “marketability” started coming out of my mouth for the first time in my entire life. I have no aspirations of publishing a bestselling book and we’re not looking for the DA VINCI CODE over at OV Books. What I mean by marketability is very different from what the corporate houses mean by marketability. However, we’ve had to think about certain things like, “Is this gripping? Are people going to read this?” Being a page turner, being gripping like SIMPLIFY was . . . you want to keep reading that book! It’s very engaging. It’s not just like, “Hey, I can turn a phrase!” but it’s gripping. You want to see what’s going to happen. There are parts of that book that are like watching a car wreck. You can’t look away. So that became much more of a consideration for OV Books than it usually is for the magazine because we have stories in the magazine that are gripping. We have stories that are slow moving, luxurious and beautiful or strange and intriguing. You wouldn’t want to read 200 pages of it or not enough people would want to. OV Books still likes a good story. We’re very open to experimental or avant-garde work, but we’re also the kind of press that wants to champion work that probably would have been considered marketable by the big houses in the 1980’s or 90’s, but has been pushed out now because of a changed, more conservative political climate, and because short stories in general are being marginalized by the big houses. We’re aiming to publish collections that are risky, but not so much in form necessarily as in content. We like disturbing, thought-provoking stories that keep you up tossing and turning, that don’t make you feel good per se, but make you want to go out there and do something. Our second title, O STREET, is exactly like that. It is the kind of book that would have scared the big houses shitless, yet its form is relatively traditional and it’s a great, gripping story.

OPEN CITY magazine began Open City Books last year where they now publish one collection for the year, just as OV Books did. Did you look to OPEN CITY for help when you started OV Books?

OPEN CITY was really a big model for us. I talked to Joanna a couple years ago in New York when I basically wanted to launch OV Books. I think OPEN CITY is the most similar model for what we’re doing. They’ve got one book a year, a magazine and a book of fiction. I wanted to know how they did it. Joanna really told me a lot about how to launch a press.

What is a typical day for you when you work at OTHER VOICES? Does OV read in the summer?

We don’t read in the summer but right now we’re in the process of producing the next issue of the magazine as well as producing the next book, so even though we’re not reading new manuscripts over the summer, we’re still working. First of all, I should say a typical day for me in the recent past, because I just had a baby four months ago, has not really been involving writing my own fiction. I haven’t really written probably since January when I was putting the finishing touches on my new novel that my agent is finally sending out for the first time. Basically, right now I’m juggling OTHER VOICES and family and not having really any time for my own fiction. I have 20 hours a week of child care and OTHER VOICES can easily take twenty hours of my time if not more than that. I’m still reading some stories because my reading staff stops reading April 1st. But because as anyone who’s ever submitted to a literary magazine can tell you, a lot of readers do not read stuff the minute it gets to them. I’m still getting pass-ons in June and July. They’re trickling in. I’m copy-editing the current issue, OV 45, which was guest edited by Cris Mazza. She selected the stories and now I’m doing all the production, which is particularly intense since I haven’t read most of these stories. Usually I’ve already done a lot of editing by the time I get to the copy-editing stage because I’m the one who picked the stories. I’ve never even read some of these stories so it’s more labor-intensive.

What are your thoughts on blogging? Do you feel it has changed the literary landscape in terms of book sales and literature awareness?

It’s huge! And I should say I’m not the most computer literate girl who ever lived. I do have a blog, as you know ( and I was quite resistant to it because it was one more thing I would have to do and I don’t have a lot of time. I finally did it after years of people suggesting to me that OTHER VOICES should have a blog and once my own novel came out, my husband was like, “Okay, we’re making you a blog and we’re not taking no for an answer!” so that was that. But I think blogging is huge! I don’t even think I realized how huge it was. You remember when I got interviewed on Bookslut a few years back? Well, a friend of mine from Japan emailed me and said, “I saw your interview on Bookslut” and I thought, “What?!”

Bookslut readers in Japan. That’s great.

I was realizing that there are no barriers on who can read this. It’s a no-frontier type of forum for people and that’s really interesting. Most literary magazines, OTHER VOICES included, basically have maybe like 1,000 subscribers and a print run of like 2500 books. But if you’re writing a blog, you can get that many hits a day! Obviously my blog doesn’t get that many hits a day, but I’m sure Bookslut probably gets way more than that.

Bookslut has become such a successful little machine and Jessa Crispin is largely to thank for that. It’s just getting bigger and better.

When Jessa blogged about MSC, my book sales went way up on Amazon. Jessa had discussed the book with Kathryn Davis’s THE THIN PLACE, so next thing you knew on Amazon, if you go looking for my book, you’ll see us linked together in one of those “better together” deals, which totally benefited me since Kathryn’s marketing engine was a lot bigger, with deeper pockets, than mine. Bookslut did that. I’ll also say that Tod (Goldberg) went into a 2nd printing before SIMPLIFY was even officially released and he credited that to the blogging community, especially since he’s such an avid blogger. He felt everyone was really behind him. I mean, I don’t read all that many blogs. I do read a few of them, but I’m not checking everything out. My husband looks up my book and sees whose blogging about it and I guess people are blogging about it, which is amazing. There’s this word of mouth even when big newspapers are done with their reviews, after the book’s been out half a year. Blogs continue to spread the word, which is particularly helpful for indy titles like MSC and SIMPLIFY. This is the community that is making or breaking you these days.


Angie Stubbs is a writer, book reviewer, and band manager for OSGOODS. And, like Gina, she’s very pretty.


Weekly Wrap: Our Shared Trauma

by Susan Henderson on September 15, 2006

My kids have been back in school for one week, and already I got a call from the school nurse. Green-Hand Henderson was in the nurse’s office complaining of a “tingly tongue.”

“I checked for swelling and didn’t find any,” she said. “Green-Hand was worried he’d had an allergic reaction.”

“To what?”

“Oh, he was eating ants on the playground today to impress the girls.”

“Put Green-Hand on the phone, please.”

I told my son to get a drink of water and go back to class. “You’re not allowed to eat ants at school.”

I have to say, I’m not exactly shocked when I get these calls. My boys, afterall, spent the weekend inventing a new game called Spiffle (think Magic Cards), featuring “Samurai grandmas from Uranus.”

I asked the nurse, “Is this something you’ve had to do before – you know, call about ants?”


Sigh. I guess only my mom understands what it’s like to get a phone call like this.


This is all relevant to my feelings about 9-11, believe it or not. I was going to tell my story of where I was and how that day and the months afterward played out in our family, but I realized I’m tired of reliving it. That’s not where I am anymore.

The short of my story, the part of it that I can’t disconnect myself from is that I was the messenger. There was a little girl in Green-Hand’s class of 10 students who lost her father, and that little girl stayed with us as her mother slowly learned of and came to accept her husband’s fate.

The problem was that several weeks went by before she was ready to believe her husband wasn’t coming home, and by that time, she didn’t know what to tell her daughter. So she asked me, and one October morning, I told the little girl that her father died and what death meant – how he couldn’t come home again and eat dinner or tuck her into bed.

This is a picture of that little girl, my boys, and a neighbor of ours on September 12, 2001. They’re in the boys’ clubhouse, happy as can be because they don’t know a thing. The weather is beautiful and there are no planes in the sky, which is unheard of when you live near JFK and La Guardia.

I stopped writing for over a year. I lost my sense of humor. I lost my sense of fearlessness. And mostly, I worried that the kinds of things I was writing about – relationships, silly things kids say, quiet disappointments – were too trivial.

Instead, every month, I met with the moms from Green-Hand’s class for Mexican food and girlie drinks. Slowly, we learned to laugh again. It was the year Green-Hand got pecked by a rooster on the class fieldtrip to the petting farm. It was the year we sat around that table, tipsy, dreaming of moving farther from the city. And within two years, that’s what we did – every one of us.

Sometime after that first anniversary of 9-11, I was thinking about the little girl’s father, my friend, who had died up there in Windows on the World. I missed his smile and how he sat on my floor outside the kitchen putting some little plastic train track together. I missed our barbecues and talking to him about the funny stories our kids brought home from school. He would have liked the rooster story.

And I thought: sometimes it’s the little details that create meaning in our world. There are writers who look at humanity from a long lens and show us sweeping themes about our behavior and our culture and our history. But there are also writers who focus in close – who wake up the senses to the smallest details and moments. There is tremendous value in both of these ways of telling stories. And I needed to realize this before I could write again.


Thank you to all who answered the Question of the Week: Carolyn, who spoke of the plunge taken by the travel industry and yet the heart of the traveler still seeks adventure; Lance, who spoke about the state of vigilance we’ve entered into as a result of the attacks; Peter, who asks what inspires us to make weapons of mass destruction; Gail, who uses this catastrophe to better understand the divisions and oppressions of others, and who tries to remember that our nation is also guilty of inflicting this kind of horror; Kasper, who wants to make sense of 9-11’s aftermath and how we can make progress toward world peace; Pia, who found that 9-11 exposed unspoken troubles in relationships, and who is now a part of rebuilding New Orleans’ spirit after Katrina; Patry, who uses this new sense of impermanence to give away more, plan less, and love with more abandon; girlgrey, who sees this anniversary through the eyes of her sixth grade students and the lies they believe; Mikel K, whose poem reminds us that it’s always the regular folk who get screwed in these wars; and Joe, who experienced such personal loss that day that he doesn’t have enough distance for insight or geo-political musings. Thank you for your stories.


Tomorrow, stop by for a conversation between BookSlut reviewer, Angela Stubbs and author/editor Gina Frangello. Have a good weekend!