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February 2008

Question of the Week: Masks

by Susan Henderson on February 18, 2008

What do you hope people will believe about you that couldn’t be further from the truth?

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Wednesday’s guest is going to appear a little later than usual because I’m coordinating my show with McSweeney’s. Sometime Wednesday morning, one of their regular feature writers, also a friend of mine, will reveal his true identity over there, while here at LitPark, that friend and I will talk about the mask he’s been wearing.

Now, for those of you who would like to win some money and some attention from a top-notch lit mag editor, there will also be a contest, so be sure to stop by!

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Some quick shout-outs to the lovely folks I met Saturday at The Bowery Poetry Club:

Kim Brittingham, who read her sassy, poignant, and seriously funny essay called Fat is Contagious. She will be talking about this essay Wednesday on The Today Show – they even followed her around with hidden cameras! So if any of you know how to turn your TVs on and can send a link (particularly a legal one that doesn’t hurt our poor Hollywood writers who have been through so much), I’ll be happy to post what you’ve got. (If you don’t have my email, and you shouldn’t – it’s only for my mom and my agent, mostly – then you can send that link directly to my webmaster, Terry Bain, who is much friendlier about receiving email.)

Heather Maidat, who told me, after I read, that I closed a certain chapter in her life, and the conversation we had about that meant a whole lot to me.

Shoaleh Teymour, who is so absolutely sweet and wipes tears away when she talks.

Lisa Haas, who not only made us all feel comfortable and welcome, but is also the director of Creative Evolution, which supports women with works-in-progress in literature, and I think, film.

Oh, and I was also so happy to finally meet Rachel Kramer Bussel, and I want to apologize to her for hugging her so much except for she’s so awfully cute!

Okay, everyone, see you Wednesday!

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Weekly Wrap: Creative Writers, Creative Drivers

by Susan Henderson on February 15, 2008

I asked Mr. Henderson how he would characterize my driving, and he said, “Timid… to the point of being unsafe.” My back-seat driving, on the other hand is all confidence!

I was surprised to learn that most of you who answered this week’s driving question characterize yourselves as bad, distracted, or exceptionally cautious drivers. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t that. I dislike driving for two main reasons: My head likes to wander, so I find the whole experience of remembering where you’re going and reading signs and knowing which lane to be in incompatible with daydreaming. And I find being strapped in and forced to keep my hands on the wheel incompatible with being a restless workaholic.

I’ll tell you a little driving story, but first let me tell you where I’m giving a reading this weekend:

Saturday, Feb 16th, 12-3pm – The Bowery Poetry Club – $10
308 Bowery, New York, NY 10012
212.614.0505

The club is right across from CBGB’s, at the foot of First Street, between Houston & Bleecker. (That’s the F train to Second Ave, or the 6 train to Bleecker.) If it looks long and expensive to you, well, hey, I was thinking the same thing. But I hope some of you come down and keep me company while my hands and voice shake at the microphone.

The reading is called: Paper Dolls: Live Lady Essayists, and I’ll be reading with Kim Brittingham, Heather Maidat, Carol J. Clouse, and Shoaleh Teymour.

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Okay, here’s a little driving story. I’ll call it, The Fog Storm.

When I was fresh out of graduate school, I answered an ad for a counselor in a group home. I was just right for the job. The trouble was getting there. I’m not good with directions, so Mr. H and I did a practice run and it was pretty far away.

I have some unusual phobias related to driving, but most seem to go away if I just close my eyes. For example, I can navigate a tunnel better with my eyes closed because that keeps me from overcorrecting and hyperventilating about hitting the wall.

I felt confident in my get-the-job outfit. I am a great interviewee and I knew I’d land the job if I could just find the building. I started early, didn’t want to be rushed, didn’t want to get anything wrong. And since it was raining, I wanted extra time to perhaps blow dry my hair in a bathroom before my appointment.

What I was unprepared for was the fog storm. By the time I got on the highway, the fog became so bad it was like driving inside a thick white cloud. I couldn’t see if I was in my lane, much less see exit signs. I slowed to under 20 MPH. The amazing thing, and what made me so angry about the selfishness and impatience of other drivers, was that other cars whizzed by, despite the weather and the danger it could cause.

Somehow, though I have no memory how I did it, I found my way to an exit and pulled into a 7-Eleven parking lot. I was in a terrible mood because I didn’t know how I’d get to the interview on time (and I am never late to anything). I was mad at the weather and mad that I’d pulled off the road and was no longer able to follow the simple directions Mr. Henderson had written down for me.

I called him from a phone booth, described the fog storm, told him there was no way I could go back out there. In fact, I admitted, just before I called him, I’d called the person I planned to interview with and explained that the drive was just too far and I was sorry for any inconvenience I caused. “Are you still there?”

“Mhmm.”

“Good. You weren’t saying anything. I’m so embarrassed about the whole thing. I’d rather have told them after they offered me the job. Now here’s the pesky part,” I said. “Kind of a favor.”

More quiet, so I proceeded.

“I need you to come and get me so I can follow you home.” And before he could fuss, I said, “Please don’t be mad at me. I can’t help the weather.”

Mr. Henderson listened carefully, continued his silence a while longer, then calmly asked, “How is that fog storm now?”

I looked around, and can you believe, it was gone. “It’s gone,” I told him.

“Remind me to show you where the defrost button is,” he said.

I waited in my car until he found me. Mr. Henderson is one of the kindest, least likely to anger people I know, but he suggested that I just follow him home, and when we got there, to leave him alone for a while.

Unfortunately, the very things that make some people angry, I find hysterical. I rolled up my window so he couldn’t hear me laughing. Do people really know the function of every single button in their cars?

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Quick but cool announcement for those who don’t hang out in the LitPark Comments section…

My girl, Tish Cohen, has not only had her book, TOWN HOUSE, optioned by Fox 2000, with Pulitzer Prize winning screenwriter Doug Wright (Quills, Memoirs of a Geisha) adapting it to screen, but now…

TOWN HOUSE is on the short-list for the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in the region of Canada and the Caribbean. How great is that?!

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Thanks for those of you who left comments and stories this week. And thank you to this week’s guest: author and director, Bridgett Davis. Those who rock because they linked to LitPark this week: A Mesa de Luz, She Shoots to Conquer, the Cape Cod Times, Holly’s Fight for Justice, and The Inside Cover!

See you Monday with a new question of the week.

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Bridgett Davis

by Susan Henderson on February 13, 2008

My guest today is Bridgett M. Davis, author of SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL (Amistad). This debut novel, set in 1970s Detroit, focuses on Rae Dodson as her parents’ marriage and father’s health disintegrate. It’s a compassionate story about what a young girl holds on to when her family comes up short.

Bridgett is also the writer, producer, and director of the award-winning independent film, NAKED ACTS, the story of a young actress, Cicely, whose mother starred in Foxy Brown-type soft porn films. Now Cicely must make a choice about whether to shed her clothes for a film she’s been cast in, and where things go from there will surprise you.

I hope you’ll give this smart and big-hearted writer a warm welcome!

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I wanted to talk to you about some of the themes that run through both your movie and your book. The heartbreaker for me was seeing young women wanting so badly to have a sense of belonging and to know they are valued by others, particularly their mothers. In both cases – though in different ways – these young women do not get what they need. Can you talk to me about this, about yearning for something you may never get?

I’m fascinated by how women become whole, how they become who they are. I think on a fundamental level, it begins for most of us with a quest to gain our mothers’ approval, and by extension, their love. That need, that desire never goes away, and it’s certainly more acute, I’m sure, in women who don’t get the reassurance they need. As a writer, I like to explore what those women must do to compensate for what their mothers couldn’t give them, and what they must do ultimately to accept their mothers’ limitations and move on.

This brings me to a second theme that runs through both works – about women seeking to feel whole despite their circumstances. How do these women find happiness and self-love when it’s not necessarily what they’re taking in?

In my novel, the main character, Rae, had her father to compensate for what her mother didn’t/couldn’t give her, and that love from him was enough to sustain her after all. In NAKED ACTS, Cicely also had someone else who loved her in a more healthy way, her grandmother. I believe that it’s less important, finally, who loves a child (mother, father, sister) than how much that child knows she’s loved.

That’s a really lovely thought. I’m going to remember that….

After he returned to me, I slept every night atop Daddy’s broad back. He was a soft, wide man, and miraculously he remained still throughout our slumber – never rolled over, never pushed me off. How that sleeping arrangement came to be I do not know, but it felt as natural to me as play. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL.

Talk to me about the theme of body image in these two works.

Body image is obviously a big theme in NAKED ACTS, as I wanted to explore how an African American woman gains a sense of her own sexuality and relationship to her body against the backdrop of a very particular sexualized history for black women in this country. To me, they go hand in hand – themes of self realization and body image. How do you accept yourself until you accept your body?

“If you start crying now over every little thing, you’ll be crying for the rest of your life.” – Lydia Love to her daughter, NAKED ACTS.

Both of your works take a very compassionate stance toward the characters who come up short – the absent parents and cheating lovers. Where does Bridgett Davis get that kind of compassion?

You ask about my compassion. As a writer, I’m completely uninterested in blame and easy targets. The real challenge and interest for me is in trying to understand each character’s complexity. I care for all of my major characters. Even the minor characters whom I wouldn’t want to hang out with are compelling to me as a writer, because they each have a point of view, a way of seeing the world, something they’ve been through that informs their actions.

The biggest compliment I’ve received for SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL is from folks who say they loved the father character. That suggests to me that I captured his humanity, that it came through despite his myriad flaws. I also love it when someone says they “felt for” the mother. As the writer, it’s never my job to judge a character, nor is it my job to make them do what they “should” do. I want them to do what’s probable given the history I’ve created for them. That’s what excites me about writing!

I could, if I stood on tiptoe, peek through the triangle of colored stained glass at the top. Blue, pink, and yellow. I imagined this was how the world looked to Mama when she took one of her pills – warm and tinted. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL

Did you find a big difference between writing a novel versus a screenplay?

I love writing fiction for different reasons from why I love writing screenplays. With fiction, the work feels a lot more visceral and internal, and personal. Not that the subject matter is personal per se, but the process is deeply so.

With screenwriting, I love the structure. Screenplays are all about structure and that allows me to use a different side of my brain, to think about what story to pour into a given paradigm vs. with my fiction when I write all this stuff and then try to figure out what prism it demands to be told through. I like going back and forth with the two genres as a way of balancing the two processes.

I’ve been working on a novel now for over 4 years and it’s been a long haul. About a year ago I started co-writing a screenplay, and that was just the antidote I needed after so many years fixated on this internal, solitary work. The screenplay is collaborative by nature, and I find that refreshing. I’m a novelist but for years I was a journalist and I find screenwriting the perfect marriage of those two different pursuits.

They dug a grave for him in the backyard, beneath the apple tree. That misfortune was like a pothole on a dark road. An old clunker could charge right through it, but a new car, its axle untested, never rides the same again. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL.

Did you learn anything in the process of editing your book or your screenplay that you could pass along to a writer who’s editing her first book?

My advise? First, put some distance between you and the book. Let a month, even two go by before you return to edit it. Distance is key. And then, when you do return to it, read it aloud. And if you’re not already, join a writer’s group of a few fellow writers whose sensibilities and style you admire. I’m in a group of just 3 women at the moment and it works beautifully. Their feedback is enormously helpful to me.

Worst of all were any telltale signs of low-class living on the outside of the house, the greatest offense being car parts strewn across a back lawn. Mama was very conscious of the responsibility of living next to white folks, even after most of those who’d been our neighbors had moved away. – SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL

What are you working on now?

My new novel is entitled LAGOS and it’s the story of a young African American woman who embarks on her first trip to Africa, where she discovers herself in ways that have nothing to do with finding her roots.

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Bio:

Bridgett M. Davis is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, where she teaches creative writing and literature. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, she is the director of the award–winning feature film Naked Acts and author of the novel Shifting through Neutral. Davis’s journalism has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Columbia Journalism Review, Detroit Free Press, New York, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. In 2007, she was honored by the New York Association of Black Journalists with its Excellence in Education Award. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.

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Question of the Week: Driving

by Susan Henderson on February 11, 2008

How would you characterize your driving? (Or, maybe I should ask how the person in the passenger seat would characterize your driving?)

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Wednesday, Bridgett M. Davis will be here. She is the screenwriter and director of the award-winning, indie film, NAKED ACTS, and author of the novel, SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL.

She also happens to be married to my friend, Rob Fields – we attended geek finishing school together – and you can check him out over at his blogs, Bold As Love and Marketing Pop Culture.

Okay, have fun with today’s question, and I hope you’ll be back Wednesday to join the conversation!

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Weekly Wrap: We Can Say a Lot in Six Words

by Susan Henderson on February 8, 2008

I have to stay focused on my edits, so my wrap will simply be a picture of my page in the book of six-word memoirs:


NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING (HarperPerennial, 2008), page 45. And my six-word entry is this: Mistakenly kills kitten fears anything delicate.

You’ll have to hurry to get this collector’s edition of the book with Brian McEntee‘s name misspelled in it because future editions will be corrected. And if you want to hear a little more about kittens, I blogged about them here.

Brian, as you may have guessed, is the lovely one in the cow costume… see Monday’s post. I think he’s great.

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Thank you to this week’s guests, Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser of SMITH Magazine. And thanks to all of you who added your own 6-word memoirs to the discussion. Much appreciation to everyone who linked to LitPark this week: The Boston Globe, The Publishing Spot, A.J. Davis, Roy Kesey, SMITH, Indigo Editing!

Okay, Mr. H is in London and my kids are in bed, so back to the novel edits I go. See you Monday!

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