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reynald’s rap

Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Porochista Khakpour

by Susan Henderson on November 21, 2007

I have a great affection for debut novels. Having finished my own attempt at one this fall I finally had time to dive back in and see what we have going on out there in the field.

If you were to ask a handful of friends, some of them might say I have good instincts. Now and then I stumble across something that causes a brow to raise and a pause to be taken.

I linger a moment longer than usual, Google a bit. Fire off a note to my nearest and dearest. Something to the effect of,

Watch this one.

That’s how this month’s guest popped onto the radar.

A great debut does something incredible to me.

A sensation I really like. Something I expect if I’m going to pass on the recommendation.

It grabs me by the lapels and shakes me about, challenges me, engages me and then looks me dead in the eye and says, “You got that?”

Oh yeah! Loud and clear.

These are the books that I think serve the rest of us notice.

The books that raise the bar.

They improve our craft and leave us waiting for the next word to come out of their authors.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove Atlantic, 2007) is one of those books, and I’m delighted to share the author with all of you this week. Porochista Khakpour is one amazing woman, with a debut that gave me a good shaking by the lapels and left me with a very happy smirk on my face.

You guys better start reading her now, she’s going to lead the pack for a while. Let’s go chat her up.

*

LR: Porochista Khakpour, Welcome to Litpark! You’re a very busy woman; I see your name everywhere. How did you find the time to nurture such an amazing debut?

PK: It’s probably a personality thing. I can’t really take a break. Rest, relaxation, vacations, spa days, yogic corpse poses– all that is very anxiety-inducing for me. This ol’ Angeleno has become a true New Yorker, I guess you could say. I have to do things and be a part of the world in some way. Even if that means separating myself from the world for a bit to later rejoin it full-force. I like to work hard and work hard. I was shocked when I found out all the other kids weren’t staying up til 3:30 AM every night their junior year to get their AP homework done. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing.

But, I also work like that to write and not because I have these electric coke-head maniac muses that just won’t quit; I write like that because I feel I have to. On my desk, next to computer and notepad, I always display that endless ever-growing tower of bills, envelopes which generally remain unopened. It’s extremely threatening, like working with a pen in one hand and a loaded gun in the other. My greatest inspiration has always been some degree of serious poverty. It sounds a little crazy and ironic, I guess. uh, perhaps the Alanis Morrisette definition of “ironic” – that I actually write with the intent of making a living.

LR: Your book is infused with a strong sense of New World identity and dichotomy and your characters journey through those things in the aftermath of September 2001. On tour, have you found readers aligned with the experiences of your characters?

PK: The book tour was very confusing. Whereas I imagined a lot of men in their late 30s through 60s as my readers, they mostly ended up to be 20-something girls with artsy glasses and nice tattoos who’d give me these big long hugs after the reading. Lovely, you know? Or, in the case of a few places, homeless-seeming 70+ year-olds–there were a lot of them–but I think they might just go to every reading? Not sure. Once in a while, I’d get some normal bright human who’d thank me profusely for writing this book, because of some personal connection they had whether it was knowing an Iranian-American, being one, being in New York during 9/11, growing up in LA, etc. In one case, an LA editor and blogger called my novel the first great Iranian-American novel, with my being sort of the first of the hyphenates for my people (note to self: The Hyphenates, excellent title for a multi-culti thriller.) I felt very fancy for a day or so.

LR: Your acknowledgments section reads like a who’s who of contemporaries; how have you found your own writing enriched by these friendships?

PK: Hmmm, well some of them were just my teachers. I don’t know if I could call Stephen Dixon my “friend,” as much as I wish I could. But he like many of the others were my teachers at Sarah Lawrence and Johns Hopkins. My writing was certainly enriched by all of them: Alice McDermott who finally got me to understand why they always said “write what you know,” Stephen Dixon who taught me you could do anything you wanted if you did it well. A few of the writers crossed over to becoming good friends of mine though. The only thing the crossovers all have in common that I can tell right now is that they all encouraged my sick humor, which is valuable in a friend or mentor, I’d say.

Donald Antrim and Jonathan Ames got their own line in the acknowledgments because, yes, they were friends. They were both actually very helpful – Ames knew me before I got my book deal and really helped me get through the very scary shopping-the-manuscript months. I remember one day in particular when I saw a young woman die on a subway and then I met Jonathan for coffee in Brooklyn and my agent called three times, with four different rejections to report from major publishing houses. Jonathan offered to buy me a sandwich. We went to the deli next door and bumped into one of the editors who rejected the manuscript. Very awkward. In between bites of the sandwich, my agent called with another rejection. I began crying so hard, the whole baguette was ruined. I wasn’t even deserving of a shitty sandwich as a consolation prize, I kept saying, until Jonathan finally placed me gingerly into a cab. Oh, it was a painful time.

And Antrim was passed the PK-savior baton after my book deal, when I spent an entire summer in the throes of a deadly insomnia that seriously began to threaten my life. His good advice and patient ear just kept me going from week to week, over the phone from NY to LA (I was at my parents’ home). Even just a few months ago, I called Antrim and declared, “I can’t do this reading tonight. I just can’t do it – I don’t even know why, but I can’t.” I was having some strange, stupid “exhaustion”-moment and wanted to pull an Amy Winehouse on a reading for no good reason, really. For two hours, he coached me, scolded me, etc. until I was able to face I was just scared and that we all get scared and such is life, etc., and then I did it. And it was fine.

So yes I have a sort of mild pedigree and my acknowledgments reveal that. But show me one published writer that really and truly doesn’t at all, show me one person that got anywhere with absolutely zero connections in this day and age. . . I’d buy him/her a sandwich!

LR: Xerxes Adam lives a life feeling that his own identity is split between irreconcilable cultures, a man that belongs in no land. Did the human struggle of this narrative help you see a reconciliation between the two that wasn’t apparent to you before?

PK: Absolutely. Initially, I wanted this novel to be far more sadistic, hopeless, and absurd. It took a long stroll down Identity Issues Lane to really see what a very real and serious novel I had on my hands. I didn’t expect it. In fact, I mainly became interested in Iran after I finished the novel. Like the protagonist, I had always thought of myself as more of an Angeleno or New Yorker, never really an Iranian. It was always suffocating me a bit so I latched onto any culture or counterculture that was as far from me as possible and made it my own. The novel retaliated and became like one of those fat mirrors to my face at first – mix of shocking and humbling – and by the end of it I think I fine-tuned the reflection to some fair even balance, but in the beginning it was rough.

LR: Obviously we’re going to see your name around for a while; what do we get to see from you next?

PK: I have pretty much wrapped up the manic planes-and-trains part of my book tour. I have three readings in New York coming up: National Arts Club on Nov 9, The Half King on Nov 19 (a very special Iranian women writers reading that I am moderating as well as reading in), The Happy Ending Series on December 12. I will be on Leonard Lopate’s NPR show on November 12. Then I have some university speaking engagements and conferences and benefits and stuff like that. Somehow through it all, I am also teaching, freelance writing, working on a collection of short stories and a new novel. I think the last one’s gonna wear the pants in the end, but we’ll see.

*

Bios:

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran in 1978 and her first language is Farsi. She was raised in the Los Angeles area. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars MA program, where she was awarded the prestigious Elliot Coleman Fellowship. She has also received a fellowship from the Northwestern University Academy for Alternative Journalism. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Village Voice, nymag.com, Paper, Nylon, Gear, Alef, Raygun, spin.com, Flaunt, Bikini, Bidoun, and nerve.com, among others. She currently lives in New York City.

Lance Reynald is the author of the novel Pop Salvation, the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. Currently available for submission to interested editors, publishers and agents. He can be reached via his website, Lancereynald.com. He is currently at work on his next novel, Your Next Heartbreak Was the Hardest. In addition to Litpark, Lance is a regular contributor at thenervousbreakdown.com. As of December 1st, he is one of Portland,Oregon’s newest literary residents. You can friend him at myspace.

{ 22 comments }

Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Michael Stusser

by Susan Henderson on October 17, 2007

I’m not much of a name dropper, sadly I can never seem to remember the names. So, I bungle it at dinner parties.

I tend to get anxiety in social situations. Always feeling like I won’t have anything interesting to say. Trivia helps. My mind seems to retain loads of the trivial. If I’ve dead-ended subjects like the weather or minor current events trivia always helps the cause.

Always best to avoid the quirks that weird people out. I’ve found that we writers have quirks. My big one is Day of the Dead. Can’t get enough of it. Love the idea.

Once I run through the weather, some light trivia and the Dia de los Muertos collection I really start to get myself in trouble. This happened a few months ago at a casual gathering. Attempting small talk I found myself across the table from someone new. As usual I steered the conversation towards my comfort zone.

Literature.

Now, to be fair. My taste get obscure from time to time. In some circles I get accused of being a literary elitist. I don’t really agree with that term. I tend to think the books out there are out there for everyone, thus there is no elitist realm; but anywhoo… back to the story.

So, here I am at dinner. The subject turns to books, authors and such. Random stranger at the table was aware of what I do here in the park for fun; the chatting with whatever writers I want and having almost no ground rules (cause the boss is just that cool!).

There was great flow to the conversation so we must have been in my comfort zone, talking about some writer I love.

Usually that kind of excitement is one of three; Camus, Proust or Burroughs (William, not Augusten, and no I’m not really an elitist).

You guys know where this must be going, right?

The inevitable question asked.

“Why don’t you get an interview with him?”

Get a few glasses of wine in me and my humour gets wicked… I paused, but had a response. And not that vicious.

“I’m just not that good. Too much effort to get THAT interview.”

and Yes, that was the moment that my companion kicked me under the table and conversation went to trivia.

but, the notion of the impossible interview stuck with me.

Sure, Susan gives me lots of room to explore my subjects here in my corner of the park. The thought of bringing you Camus, Burroughs, Hemingway or Proust always gets a smile on my face.

But, I’m just not that good.

Michael Stusser; journalist, Game maker, interviewer and a guy with a sense of humour just wicked enough for me, on the other hand is.

Good enough to interview 45 dead celebrities. Getting their feelings on their own lives and pop culture.

The Dead Guy Interviews.

His book and our chat got me to smile a bit, remembering a most awkward dinner conversation and the thoughts on the interviews I would have loved to get.

*

Welcome to LitPark, Michael!

LR: I’m just going to jump right in with the big question;

Oujia, seance or a lot of research?

MS: All of the above! You’d be amazed how many of these guys have profiles on MySpace. To be honest, getting a hold of the deceased was the easy part. The hard part was getting clearance from their damn agents. Mozart would need to plug his new album, Napoleon wouldn’t appear without his high chair, and Genghis Khan was pushing a helmet law, of all things.

The genesis of the book came after running into Beethoven at a RiteAid. I was trying to use one of those damn photo machines and Piano Boy was refilling the batteries in his hearing aid. Well, it looked like Beethoven, anyway. Point is, it got me to thinking: what if I could track down the most famous folks from the past and talk them about their lives. It’s like that question, “If you could have dinner with one person in all of history, who would it be?” I decided to meet ‘em all.

LR: How did you come to pick the subjects?

MS: What I tried to do was talk to people who’d been dead for a long, long time – Montezuma, Confucius, Emily Dickinson. The more recently dead – folks like Miles Davis and Marilyn Monroe – have already been interviewed on radio and TV, and are on the record quite a bit. In the ancient days, there was less paparazzi– though there’s an early YouTube video of Caligula that’s hilarious. After compiling a list of about 500 names, my researcher (Anne

Kaiser, who has directed the Center for Policy Research at Harvard University for 25 years) and I narrowed it down to the ones we thought had the most to say – and perhaps wanted to clear up some misconceptions of themselves – Sun Tzu, for example, is actually an incredibly peaceful warrior – he’d love Bono or Angelina Jolie. Even though he wrote The Art of War, he’s all about conflict as a last resort. His new book is The Art of Golf, so you know he’s mellowed over the years. And the process just went from there.

LR: Any favorites among them?

MS: Cliché as it sounds, I’d have to say honest Abe; he’s an incredibly bright fellow and a great President during the roughest of times. He’s also got a helluva sense of humor. When we were talking about an opponent who called him two-faced, he said, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be using this one?”

I also loved Salvador Dali – he had an amazing point of view. What’s strange about him is that he’s so flabbergasted how normal everyone else is. “Nothing of what might happen ever happens!” he kept saying. “Why are bath tubs always the same shape? Why, when I ask for grilled lobster, am I never served a cooked telephone?” And odd bird, to be sure.

LR: Any surprises of an interviewee once you started working with them?

MS: You know, at the beginning of the process we had 45 interviews lined up, but there were some cancellations. Apparently, Jesus is miffed about being constantly misquoted, not to mention my request to turn my water filter into a wine dispenser. We had Gandhi all set to chat when my idiot intern offered him a foot-long sub during one of his frickin’ fasts. And Helen Keller – don’t get me started…Oh, and the reason Elvis refused to be interviewed? He’s not dead yet. I’ll give you a hint: The Golden Nugget, Reno…

LR: Any follow-up in the works? Plenty of Dead Guys banging on your door to chat?

MS: I’m sitting with Jack the Ripper right now, though he’s got an odd habit of dashing out mid-sentence. I’d also love to interview Amelia Earhart, but her radio keeps cutting out on me. You know, all sorts of dead folks want to be interviewed – but there’s plenty of time. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.

Also, I write a monthly “Interview with a Dead Guy” for Mental Floss Magazine, so I’d encourage your readers to pick those up. It’s a great magazine – they nail the whole “edu-tainment” thing.

Thanks for stopping by the Park, Michael! And best of luck with your book!

*

You can “friend” both Michael and Lance on MySpace. Also, Michael blogs over at Penguin, and Lance blogs at his place. Hope you have time to check them out.

{ 32 comments }

Lines marking the road.

Lines of a journey.

Lines on a map.

Things to be crossed, followed, broken and blurred.

As writers we deal with all kinds of lines, and everything we see between them.

A funny thing occurred to me in this interview, a certain subjective quality to literature. Those broken lines, what line a writer follows on the journey and the lines that the reader might pick up.

I followed a line of mild suspense, breakdowns in communication, fears, courage and misunderstandings. A line that felt a bit like a great Hitchcock film. Not an imaginary line; that story is certainly in there. Just not the full track of the book. There is another story. A story of love and loss, and a journey along 58 miles of highway to reconcile it all.

Not too shabby for a debut novel, an impressive debut from Claire Cameron in The Line Painter.

*

LR: Welcome to Litpark Claire!

Here we go:

Your book joins a vast literary tradition of road stories, with some shades of Hitchcock along a scant 58 miles of the trans-canadian highway, how did you come to find that setting?

CC: I spent a few summers working just outside of Hearst ON, where the book is set. I spent a lot of time out in the bush, days off in the town and nights off in the bars. That’s how I got to know the place.

It’s funny you mention Hitchcock. Many people describe, talk about the mood in my book, that it’s dark and creepy. I think of it as a love story–or perhaps the end of a love story.

That is one of the things I love most about my book being ‘out there’. Everyone has a different take on the story, depending on the experience they bring to it.

LR: Your personal bio includes a bit of time with the Outward Bound program, what of those experiences resurfaced while writing The Line Painter?

CC: I imagine you are referring to the bear encounter in the story, which didn’t come from my time at Outward Bound, but it is a mix of two different experiences.

The first was when I was hiking on my own near Canmore, Alberta. I was a two day walk from my van when I rounded a bend into an alpine meadow and saw a Grizzly bear in the distance. It looked over at me. I immediately backed up, but that took me back around the bend, so I could no longer see the bear.

I decided to drop my pack, as it had all my food, and climb a tree. This is, arguably, a pointless thing to do. If a Grizzly wants to get you out of a tree, it probably can. I sat in the tree for hours, unable to see the bear and unsure about what to do. When I finally got the nerve to come down, the bear was gone. I kept walking and never saw it again. Later, when I was telling the story, I could see a lot of humour in the situation. I was scared to the bone and the bear, as with most in the wild, couldn’t have cared less. When I remember it, I can almost picture the bear looking at me and shrugging. It was such a big deal to me, but nothing actually happened. It was an adventure I manufactured in my head.

The second was when worked up in Hearst ON. I planted trees to make money during University. Treeplanting is something a lot of Canadian students do, you work 11 hours days, planting saplings and get paid by the tree. Our camp happened to be in an area where the park service released black bears, from down south, that had grown accustomed to garbage as a food source. I wasn’t there at the time, but a few of my friends had a bad run-in with a bear that was sick and desperate. Three of them ended up in a tree, with the bear snapping at their boots. It was a close call.

LR: You’re touring your book at Husky stations. How goes the reception to literature in truckstops?

CC: I’ve had a good reception so far. Some truckers read in their downtime. Others just want to stop and chat as they spent hours on the road alone. I have sold and signed 11 books in 6 hours. I think that’s pretty good going? I’ve also heard a lot of stories about life, love and loss. As a writer, you can’t ask for more than that.

There is always an excruciating first half hour when I first set up. After about half an hour, someone decides to break the ice. It’s always entertaining after that. I’ve posted detailed reports from each truck stop on my blog.

LR: The story seems to effortlessly move in and out of flashbacks as a part of the narrative. Was the writing linear as such or did the story grow as two separate narratives?

CC: I wrote the story as a whole to begin with. I tend to write a first draft quickly and impulsively. That’s how I find the heart of the narrative. Then I start to rewrite, endlessly. It was during the rewrite that I picked apart the two narratives and developed them.

I’m glad it seems effortless. It never feels that way when I’m writing.

LR: How’s Alun Piggins making out on your tour?

CC: Alun Piggins played at the book launch. He wasn’t available to come to the Husky Truck Stops, because it’s now on tour in China. Out of the two, I suppose I can see why he chose China.

LR: What do we see next out of you?

CC: I hope to find a US publisher for The Line Painter.

My next book is in my head, but hasn’t taken shape on the page yet. Most of my thinking happens this way, on the back burner, slowly simmering, for a year or more before I start to type.

LR: Best of luck with getting that US publisher, and getting the next book out of your head.

Thanks for coming to the park Claire!

Thanks so much, Lance.

*

Bios:

CLAIRE CAMERON was born in 1973 and grew up in Toronto. She studied history at Queen’s University and then worked as an instructor for Outward Bound, teaching mountaineering, climbing and whitewater rafting in Oregon. Moving to London in 1999, she founded Shift Media, a consultancy with clients including the BBC, McGraw-Hill and Oxford University Press. Claire now lives in Toronto with her husband and son. The Line Painter is her first novel and was published by HarperCollins Canada in April. If you’re on MySpace, you can “friend” her here.

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

{ 22 comments }

Left or right?
A fork in the road?
College or Europe?

As writers we get to tinker a bit with our endings. Sometimes it’s the one perfect ending that consumes our long hours in front of the screen.

It’s that power over narrative that leads me into some trouble now and then. You meet someone new, the narrative takes off in your head. Just introduced and you’re imagining the great adventures, the journey ahead. Not always thinking about the choices in that impulsive narrative. Somewhere along the way the life story you imagined doesn’t look like your well crafted design. It must have gone wrong in a moment. You need to hit the delete key on a few chapters, you need to rewrite a bit, you deserve a Do-over. Right?

What would you do differently? How many right turns would you make lefts?

Point A to B to C into a tidy happy ending?

Does it look like this:

A->B->C= finished.

or, like this:

Some of you might remember the above from junior high. Back when I was a twelve year old we called them Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Well, those were for kids, not very adult themes. Your choices didn’t lead you to being a millionaire, being homeless, having a drug problem or a bit of hanky-panky with a primate.

Such a genre certainly deserves a good name.

Interactive Hyperfiction according to the press release.

The first Do-Over novel.

I had a lot of fun reading this one. I’ve gone through about a dozen threads and I’m nowhere near seeing the 150 possible endings yet. I’m pretty sure a dog-eared copy of Pretty Little Mistakes is going to follow me around all summer.

It’s an addictive read.

Without it I would have never thought of beef tenderloin, weaponized.

You really have to appreciate a woman who can handle a tenderloin with such style.

Litpark pals, meet Heather McElhatton!

*

LR: Welcome to the park, Heather. I’ve read that the genesis of Pretty Little Mistakes was your feeling of failure with your first novel. What of that failure led you to crafting interactive hyper-fiction?

HM: I think the feeling of being shattered and scattered made this broken structure seem natural. I felt like I couldn’t follow one story to the end, I had to follow them all at once. I honestly don’t know why I wrote Pretty Little Mistakes this way”¦it just sort of happened. Like if you blacked out and then when you came to there was this manuscript in your hands.

LR: I’ve read through a dozen different scenarios in your book, always amused and surprised by where I end up and how things turn out, but I have yet to have that wild monkey sex I was promised. Where am I going wrong?

HM: I am fascinated by the lives people choose, the threads they follow. Lots of folks have said, “But in the book I did all the right things! I was responsible and I still ended up homeless or working at Denny’s or having sex with a monkey etc…” I usually ask them if they know anyone, possibly themselves, who has done everything “by the book” and still had their lives blow up in their face. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t know of one very unfair story in the world.

So the book gives you no guarantees. The moral of the story is do the right thing, or don’t. You still might end up having sex with a monkey. You might as well do what you really truly bone-marrow want to do. It’s your best bet. So Lance, to read the monkey-sex scene, you must dig very deep into your soul. Really follow your own true path”¦that or go to page # 351.

LR: Many of the choices appear to be the black and white of responsible or impulsive. As a rule, are you responsible or impulsive in your choices?

HM: Yes. Both. I mean, think impulsivity has saved me in a lot of instances. The ability to move quickly and act rashly has let me leapfrog out of bad situations. Sure, sometimes I’ve leapt right into something (or someone) worse, but eventually I always scramble to high ground. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to be super Zen and walk measured steps? In my life however, I’ve seen both methods work, and not work. I think it’s a balancing act.

LR: You seem to be having a great year, how has this quirky book and it’s deal changed your life?

HM: Am I having a great year? I’ve been too swamped to notice. Really, absolutely nothing has changed in my life except I got a little puppy pug named Walter and in general I have bigger deadlines looming over me. Yesterday, I did my taxes and spent the day comparing various pee stain removal products and then testing them out on my Walter-ized furniture. That’s a typical day right now. Not too fancy.

I think the thing about writing though, and life in general, is that you never “arrive.” Your horizon always recedes in perfect proportion your steps. So, after you’ve written one book, then you want to write another. If you can write two books, why not four? You’re never done. No one is. Every single person is struggling to get or get away from something. It doesn’t matter if they have a book, or ten books, or no books. We’re all in this shit storm together ”“ which is kind of beautiful.

LR: You’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the television version of This America Life with Ira Glass on Showtime. How was that experience?

HM: Being on the show was a strange experience. I started in radio for a reason. I love being the anonymous voice. Not being seen and letting the words paint a picture”¦so when I was being filmed and telling my story I was squirmy and self-conscious. I was sweating and there were bright hot lights in my face. Ira kept trying to calm me down ”“ but I was just a fish out of water.

The show itself however is phenomenal. I think the stories are gorgeous on film. Chris Wilcha is the director, and he’s got a great eye, which matches Ira’s perfectly. They both have this “other” way of seeing and it comes across on camera.

LR: Any mistakes you’ve made along the way getting this book out there that you’d like to share with all these writers in Litpark?

HM: My biggest advice is if you send your manuscript out to agents or publishers; keep that piece of information to yourself. Otherwise friends, family and co-workers will keep asking you, “How’s the book?” and after a month or two of hearing “How’s the book? How’s the book?” you want to throw a stapler at them and say “YOU CAN BE SURE IF THERE WAS NEWS ABOUT THE BOOK I WOULD TELL YOU. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP ASKING ME THAT.”

Then after enough time passes people either STOP asking you about the book, and just give “understanding nods” or they ask you about your book in the same gentle concerned tone they’d use to ask you about your contagious disease.

Just save yourself the entire ordeal and keep everything, (your ideas, your writing, your manuscript, your submissions) a secret until you have a book deal. Then you announce it all at once, people buy you champagne and no staplers are thrown.

LR: What do we get to see out of you next?

HM: The next Little Mistakes book will be called “Million Little Mistakes,” and it’ll be out in 2008. (I named it before the James Frey ruckus, but I think it ties together nicely.) There’s actually a section of it in the back of Pretty Little Mistakes. I have under a year to write another book. There’s so much more to tell you… I’ll be in New York on May 23rd at McNally Robinson in New York and the rest of the details are at www.prettylittlemistakes.com Excuse me, will you? I have to go take some aspirin and lay down.

Thanks for playing in the Park!

*

Bios:

HEATHER McELHATTON is a writer and independent producer for Public Radio International. Her commentaries and stories have been heard nationally on This American Life, Marketplace, Weekend America, Sound Money and The Savvy Traveler. She also produces the radio literary series Talking Volumes. Heather’s audio archive can be found at www.mpr.org. Pretty Little Mistakes is Heather’s debut novel, available now from HarperCollins.

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

{ 31 comments }

Reynald’s Rap: Lance Reynald chats with Olympia Vernon

by Susan Henderson on October 21, 2006

“a book should be as an axe, to break the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka.

I think that Franz K. might have been on to something there. But, how?

As writers we all struggle to come in to our own. To find our voice. We study, we read, we workshop and we write, then we write some more, and rewrite, walk away, write some more…you get the point. Tell me I’m not alone on that one!

Once a writer finds that one voice-the spark, a brushfire can start. A blaze across the literary landscape that none of us with a love for words ever wants to see go out. Such fires are marvels to me, true beauty. Whenever I see these blazes I stop being a writer, become a reader; and marvel at the words.

Finding such a voice out there seems to become more and more of a challenge. So much of what we see on the shelf is formulaic, the voices that seem chosen for us. Voices marketed straight to us, faced out and in a pleasing package.

I spend a good deal of time trolling the internet, waiting for something to catch my eye. A unique voice. Something to make me think and see life through new eyes. I see some of you here at the Park. I find some of you on MySpace. Makes me feel a bit better about this writing life that we all seem to have fallen into.

My friendship with the writer Olympia Vernon was born on the internet.

Initially I was intrigued by this young woman finding a home under the Grove Atlantic banner. Grove Atlantic has published the likes of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby Jr. and Henry Miller (not a shabby house, huh?). Somehow or another Olympia and I made an electronic connection that quickly cut deep to the heart of the modern writer’s life. We’ve exchanged correspondences over the past months about art, films, photos, experiences and music (we both feel touched by Joni Mitchell’s “both sides now”). Our correspondence has caused some of my presumptions about her to fall away.

Sure, I’m still certain she is one of the “greats” of my generation, but I regard today’s guest as a brilliant contemporary, a gifted writer and a true friend.

I’m very happy and proud to introduce my LitPark pals to my dear friend, Olympia Vernon.

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LR: Olympia, Welcome to Litpark.

In previous correspondence we have discussed finding some inspiration or movement for writing within an image or a song. Many writers speak of doing this. Are there any specific images or tunes that were a part of your writing of A Killing in This Town?

OV: There is always an image or tune lit in the mouth of a cave when I’m writing. I am unsure if I am asleep or awake when a vision reveals itself to me. The image was Claude Neal and he was naked; he had begun to walk through a sunlit wood and I could not see his face; but, even now, I close my eyes and see the shape of his body. He was a bit muscular, a good, strong spine. We met in the center. Neither of us spoke and when he disappeared, the air returned to my lungs. I later discovered who he was after seeing a photo of a white man standing under him, a photo of him hanging from a tree. And the tune for this moment, this note, was Diana Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues; but, there were others, Bjork was one of them; I cannot remember the others specifically; but, I am drawn to the sound of a record when the curtains are open.

My characters are jealous when they hear a violin in the room: my attention is drawn to it, the violin, the strings, and they feel I will not focus.

A character must choose the tune. If the writer does, she must have the character’s permission; otherwise, the character pouts, sits in silence, refuses to come through, unless she is convinced that the tune will not deduct from the experience she wants you to write about. A tune is another child in the eyes of a character and the character must believe that upon the writer’s giving birth that neither the tune nor the environment will silence her.

LR: Are there any tunes or images stirring you now? Those that may become your next work?

OV: Yes, there are images; but, the music has not arrived yet. The image is blurry; there are many characters fighting for the part. It is an odd feeling when they fight like this. I cannot balance them and their faces and lives are many. When this happens, I can only wait for the winning image to come forth…and listen.

LR: Your work, though fiction, includes characters that speak of troubles that we face as a society. Do you find yourself cast as an activist/advocate outside of your work because of this? Are there risks to a writer falling in to such a role?

OV: When a work moves me, when I am struck by it, how the world perceives it does not enter my mind. What does is the voice(s) of the character(s); a true writer focuses only on the character(s).

My characters are characters of the society we live in and they are brutally honest; it does not matter if some consider me an “activist/advocate.” I’m not sure they do; this is the first time I have approached this issue. I write from the characters’ lives and I cannot leave them, when a work is finished.

I want to die with a good name, something associated with it that is good. If ever I am considered an “activist/advocate” for the works I produce, then I hope an energy of splendor is attached to it. What a grand way to have lived…to have your name held in the hand of a woman who has survived or is getting through breast cancer, to have your name held in these hands and hands like these because of your legacy of goodness cannot be seen by any eye as a bad thing. It would be an honor.

LR: You’ve recently taken a chair position at Willamette University, as a teacher do you find young writers concerned or interested in the role of writer as activist/advocate?

OV: Not so much ‘the role of writer as activist/advocate.’ I find young writers are more interested in structure, the how-to of writing. My philosophy has never changed: one cannot be ‘taught’ to write. One can only be taught to open herself/himself up to the tools within her. There are those young writers who are familiar with Henry Miller, Hubert Selby, Jr, William Burroughs, etc. and they want to experiment with these works; there is only One voice for One writer. One can never mimic the voice another writer hears. Characters are unique to the writers who translate them. One painter, One brush, One scene. So, I would have to say structure: many writers feel there is a formula and if they swallow it, the power of writing begins; it is not this way. Writing is a tough, spiritual process that is a collection of voices, events, scenes, people and each voice, event, scene, person represents a frame of light and sound traveling at great speed, especially in terms of literature, and the writer must be aware, at all times, of this light and sound so much so that the reader is not aware of the blow.

LR: What advice would you give to another writer drawn to using their voice for social reflection or change?

OV: Do not think while writing. It irritates the character(s).

again, thank you for your time.
xo-LR

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Bios:

Olympia Vernon is the critically-acclaimed author of three novels. Her first novel, Eden, won the 2004 Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was nominated for the Pulizer Prize. Her second novel, Logic, was nominated for the 2005 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. A Killing in This Town, her third novel, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick and was released in February 2006. Vernon won the 2005 Governor’s Award for Professional Artist of the Year. She is now Hallie Brown Ford Chair at Willamette University. Olympia’s also on MySpace and you can “friend” her here.

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

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