Category Archives: Books & Authors

I wrote a young adult novel under a pen name and this is what I learned

A year and a half ago I signed a contract with Penguin to write a young adult novel. I chose to write the YA novel under a fake name so as to reserve my own illustrious name for the thousands of stories about sex, death, and misery that I planned to write for masochistic grownups in the future. My pseudonym—let’s call her W-2—has been trying to build a fan following in advance of her January 2015 debut by Tweeting about her boyfriend and responding warmly to teen bloggers who read the galley and pronounced it either “amazeballs” or “awesomesauce.” W-2 has sort of taken on a life of her own, which I guess is the point.

The author John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2005 novel The Sea, also happens to write noir detective novels under the name of Benjamin Black. “If I’m Benjamin Black,” Banville once said, “I can write up to two and a half thousand words a day. As John Banville, if I write two hundred words a day I am very, very happy.” He prefers his crime fiction to his dense and poetic literary novels that tussle more with human consciousness than with bad guys. “My Banville books are attempts to be works of art,” he told The Guardian, “but because perfection can never be achieved they always ultimately fail. So when I look at my Banville books all I see are the flaws, the faults, the failures, places where I should have kept going to make a sentence better.” Literary fiction seems more about achieving an esoteric ideal (the Great American Novel, for instance), while genre fiction (crime, romance, YA) seems more about connecting with an audience. They’re almost different forms of media altogether.

In a 2011 Slate article, Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix wrote about their experience co-authoring the YA novel The Magnolia League. “[R]eaders in Y.A. don’t care about rumination,” they wrote. “They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that evokes the exact color of the shag carpeting in your living room when your dad walked out on your mom one autumn afternoon in 1973. They want you to tell a story.” Crouch apparently had trouble letting go of her “M.F.A. background where the rule was that good writing requires rumination, pain, and the slow loss of your best years” and embracing the “insane pace” of writing YA. This was similar to my experience. I wrote three distinct drafts of my YA novel in nine months. That’s a book every three months, which is a timetable that even Grisham doesn’t maintain. Psychologically, it was grueling. By the end of the process I felt like the worst writer in the world. But that’s only because I was thinking about it all wrong.

For the past year, when I’m at a party or something and am asked what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer. Then my boyfriend (who two-times me with W-2—the bastard) usually pipes up that I wrote a YA novel and it comes out in January and it’s going to be a big deal, etc. Though I think it’s sweet that my cheating boyfriend likes to boast about me and my future millions (sometimes he even seems to think I have a movie deal on par with The Hunger Games), I always feel sheepish when my YA book is made public like this. I thought it was because I’m somewhat insecure and I tend to downplay my accomplishments. “It’s nothing,” I’d say to counter his brags. “Just some silly kids’ book I wrote under a pseudonym.” This response left me feeling that I was betraying my novel (and how hard I had worked), and that I needed to be a better advocate for myself.

But now I don’t think it was my dismal self-esteem making me respond in such a way. I actually like the story and the characters and the message of the book. A lot. The trouble is I didn’t write it. W-2 is entirely responsible. She’s more interested in things like plot, paragraphing, following an outline, hitting the right emotional beats at the right time, getting those pages turned, etc. She doesn’t tear her hair out when a cliche sneaks into her work. She’s cool and she’s crazy about teen readers and she’ll be positively thrilled to sign your copy of her book, come January. But if I try to identify with her, I start feeling low. My whole sense of self is called into question. Being a writer is integral to who I am. But I can’t write just anything and still own that sense of “being a writer.” I can only write the stuff that comes from that rock-bottom place that would make most teenagers (and many adults) say, “WTF?” It’s nice to have met my alter ego and I will enjoy tagging along with her on book tour, but it’s like Banville said about himself and Benjamin Black: “They are two completely different writers who have two completely different processes.” In order for me to conserve my sense of self as Some Kind of Artist, I have to divorce my meager talents from W-2’s. It’s not a question of highbrow versus lowbrow or young versus old or whatever. The categories are too fluid for that. It’s a matter of “THIS IS WHO I AM” versus “This is something I wrote.” Thinking in these absolutes seems to help me. Creative desolation only strikes when I don’t know who is writing.

So I’m going to keep doing what I do and maybe W-2 will keep doing what she does (or maybe she’ll take some time off to backpack Europe with my boyfriend), but never again will I confuse the two writers. Meanwhile I can learn a lesson from the teen audiences that W-2 wants to reach. As Crouch and Hendrix point out, these young readers are “still fresh and unjaded.” They’re loyal and excited and communicative and they just want something honest to hold onto. They’re the main reason Crouch turned from the elitist world of literary fiction to YA. But it seems to me that instead of writing YA in order to connect with that tremendous audience (and its allowance money), we intermittently sophisticated grownup authors who actually enjoy describing “the exact color of the shag carpeting” should strive to treat our own and each other’s work with a comparable level of freewheeling enthusiasm. Or at least that’s the only way I can foresee Hollywood turning my Great American Novel into a four-part movie trilogy. Fingers crossed.

Erotic French poetry translated without a dictionary

Con large comme un estuaire

Con large comme un estuaire
Où meurt mon amoureux reflux
Tu as la saveur poissonnière
l’odeur de la bite et du cul
La fraîche odeur trouduculière
Femme ô vagin inépuisable
Dont le souvenir fait bander
Tes nichons distribuent la manne
Tes cuisses quelle volupté
même tes menstrues sanglantes
Sont une liqueur violente
La rose-thé de ton prepuce
Auprès de moi s’épanouit
On dirait d’un vieux boyard russe
Le chibre sanguin et bouffi
Lorsqu’au plus fort de la partouse
Ma bouche à ton noeud fait ventouse.

–Guillaume Apollinaire

Vagina Large Like an Estuary

Vagina large like an estuary
Where my sperm goes to die
You taste like fish
The odor of the butt
The fresh scent of holes
Oh woman with the uncrushable vagina
That I can’t forget
Your niches distribute the sauce
Your voluptuous thighs
Even your menstrual period
Is bloody and violent
The pink tea of your pubes
Makes me faint
A person might say it smells like an old Russian drunk
The buffered and happy place
When my mouth inhales your nest
With more power than a vacuum cleaner.

–Guillaume Apollinaire

Mignonne

Mignonne, sais-tu qu’on me blame
De t’aimer comme je le fais ?
On dit que cela, sur mon âme !
Aura de singuliers effets;
Que tu n’es pas une duchesse,
Et que ton cul fait ta richesse,
Qu’en ce monde, ou rien n’est certain,
On peut affirmer une chose:
C’est que ton con vivant et rose
N’est que le con d’une putain !
Qu’est-ce que cela peut foutre ?
Lorsqu’on tient ces vains propos,
Je les méprise, et je passe outre,
Alerte, gaillard et dispo !
Je sais que près de toi je bande
Vertement, et je n’appréhende
Aucun malheur, sinon de voir,
Entre mes cuisses engourdies,
Ma pine flasque et molle choir !…

–Stéphane Mallarmé

Hey Cutie

Hey cutie, do you know that people blame me
For loving you like I do?
Swear on my soul people say that!
It’s so weird that
You’re not a duchess
And yet your butt makes you rich
It’s also weird that in this world
Where nothing is certain
We can be sure of one thing
That your rosy and spirited vagina
Is only the vagina of a prostitute!
Now you’ve done something terrible to my penis
And I don’t like you anymore.

–Stéphane Mallarmé

Les bijoux

La très-chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n’avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores,
Dont le riche attirail lui donnait l’air vainqueur
Qu’ont dans leurs jours heureux les esclaves des Maures.
Quand il jette en dansant son bruit vif et moqueur,
Ce monde rayonnant de métal et de Pierre
Me ravit en extase, et j’aime à la fureur
Les choses où le son se mêle à la lumière.
Elle était donc couchée et se laissait aimer,
Et du haut du divan elle souriait d’aise
A mon amour profond et doux comme la mer,
Qui vers elle montait comme vers sa falaise.
Les yeux fixés sur moi, comme un tigre dompté,
D’un air vague et rêveur elle essayait des poses,
Et la candeur unie à la lubricité
Donnait un charme neuf à ses métamorphoses ;
Et son bras et sa jambe, et sa cuisse et ses reins,
Polis comme de l’huile, onduleux comme un cygne,
Passaient devant mes yeux clairvoyants et sereins ;
Et son ventre et ses seins, ces grappes de ma vigne,
S’avançaient, plus câlins que les Anges du mal,
Pour troubler le repos où mon âme était mise,
Et pour la déranger du rocher de cristal
Où, calme et solitaire, elle s’était assise.
Je croyais voir unis par un nouveau dessin
Les hanches de l’Antiope au buste d’un imberbe,
Tant sa taille faisait ressortir son basin.
Sur ce teint fauve et brun, le fard était superbe !
Et la lampe s’étant résignée à mourir,
Comme le foyer seul illuminait la chambre,
Chaque fois qu’il poussait un flamboyant soupir,
Il inondait de sang cette peau couleur d’ambre !

–Charles Baudelaire, Les fleurs du mal

The Bangle Bracelets

My sweetie-pie was naked, knowing my heart.
She was only wearing jewels of some sort,
Which made her look like a conqueror
That owned Mauritian slaves back in the day.
When the conqueror shouts a lot of things while sexy-dancing,
This world shiny with metal and rocks,
Making me ecstatic, and I love to a furious pitch
The things where the sound gets mixed up with the light.
All of that wore her out and allowed me to do her.
And from the height of the couch where she smiled with no problem
At my love deep and gentle like the sea
That mounts her like she’s a boulder,
Her eyes staring at me, like a male tiger.
With a vague and dreamy expression she tried out some poses
And her candor made her wet
Giving a new charm to her metamorphosis.
And her arm and her leg, and her thigh and her kidneys,
Polished like oil, undulating like a swan,
Passing before my calm and all-seeing eyes.
And her stomach and her chest, her grapes of my vine,
Advanced, more callous than nasty angels,
To trouble my reposing soul
And to disturb my crystal rock
Where she sat down calmly by herself.
I thought I saw the haunches of an antelope
united to the boobs of an umbrella
Which her body was sorting out.
On these brown colors, the farts were superb!
And the lamp was okay with being turned off
Because the room was lit from the lobby
And every time a breath of light came in
It drowned the antelope’s skin in blood.

–Charles Baudelaire, Les fleurs du mal

A review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Despite being a jaded and cynical person who’s grown weary of fashionable literary enterprise, I’ve decided to start using this wildly popular soapbox as a depository for my reviews of trendy new book releases. I haven’t written any of these reviews yet, nor have I read any of the books in question, but I’m looking forward to having firm convictions about the art of other people. I say this as if it’s a joke when in fact insightful reviews are the lifeblood of the book industry—an industry which would immediately be overtaken by Big Oil or the pharmaceutical lobby if influential critics like myself were suddenly to cease their bloggings.

But it’s hard to know where to begin. I reject most contemporary novels because they recount events that clearly didn’t happen and describe people who clearly didn’t exist. The fusty old guys didn’t have this problem. No one would ever dispute that Anna Karenina, Charles Kinbote, Julien Sorel, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, and Moby Dick were once alive and walking/swimming around. No one would ever allege that H.G. Wells wasn’t close personal friends with an English scientist who traveled by time machine 800,000 years into the future where he was threatened by Morlocks. My chief criticism of today’s novels and works of short fiction is that they’re not real. And it’s annoying. You think Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice’s adventures using his imagination? No. He did the research. He went to Wonderland, interviewed its inhabitants, ate the cakes, smoked pot with a caterpillar, etc. Readers deserve at least that much due diligence from modern authors.

I suppose this old-fashioned interest in being real is where metafiction was born. Reading David Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis or Martin Amis for the first time feels as if you’re being let in on a secret. And naturally their books ring true because the self-aware authors responsible for them are so miserable and exacting. Having your attention drawn to that extra layer of contrivance endows the made-up story with dumb reality, to which everyone can relate. It’s like being occasionally reminded of your own hands holding the book. You don’t continue to think about your hands as you read, because that would be distracting, but you appreciate that the author is kind enough to acknowledge the existence of your humble appendages because they’re always going to be in the background anyway (unless you’re a spambot, which, judging by my comments of late, most of you are). After all, you’re a character too, even when you’re utterly lost in a book. It feels good for everybody to be on the same page: The reader has two hands and the author has a word processor. From here fabulous things will happen.

But for some writers the established metafictional techniques are not enough to drive home the truth of what they’re saying. Their reverence for the real takes them deeper into authorial self-awareness until the book is them and/or they are the book. Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe. The reader is encouraged to identify the narrator with the author, either through name (“Sheila” in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) or circumstance (both the narrator and Jenny Offill have similar career trajectories in Dept. of Speculation). It’s daring, I think, to pretend to be the author of your book, when in fact you’re the author of the author of your book. People might look at you funny (as my mom did when I named my nymphomaniac, first-person narrator “Wishter” in the first draft of my novel). But it’s damn effective as far as vraisemblance is concerned. It channels the memoir vibe without ever purporting to be a memoir (as many novels also do to great effect). The writer is simultaneously perceived as a creator of art and a willing confessor, making both these books seem deeply private and real, though only Heti explicitly states that hers is “a novel from life.”

But ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s the language, not who’s writing it, that is going to make or break a book. That, and the action has to take place in a city that actually exists, like Hogsmeade or Kings Landing.

Finally, read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It was good and I liked it.

 

 

Depressed female writer with suicide story in VICE contemplates depressed female writer suicide fashion editorial in VICE

The depressed female writer wears a clean shirt for once. Also a knit sweater, though it’s 90 degrees outside. She chose certain pieces to complement the gloom. For instance, even her underwear is black. She sits at her mother’s kitchen counter, near the knives and the oven. Her mother is out of town, thus not featured in today’s fashion spread, which is probably a blessing in disguise. Ranging down the counter is an array of aesthetically coherent props: typing computer, wine glass, feelings journal, corkscrew, stale coffee, unread New Yorker, wooden spoon. 

The writer just ate an onion for lunch. She’s not sure why. She was already in a crying mood. Soon it will be time to fetch her laundry from the dryer. When she folds her summer separates you can imagine the outfits they might figure into and how they could be flattering. The writer knows they won’t be flattering. The writer knows that she is a monster.

This photo editorial contains an element of danger, for at any moment a beloved friend or family member could stop by the house unexpectedly and then the writer will have to go hide in a closet until the visitor gives up and goes home. The writer is fully prepared to pee in a jar until the threat of social interaction recedes.

The rubber soles of the writer’s sneakers are stained with mango juice, residue of a happier time. The orange spots now fortify the writer to kick things. But for the most part, the depressed model is stationary. She hunches over on a kitchen stool and glumly plays brain improvement games on her computer. These games seem engineered to make the writer feel bad about herself. The writer solemnly pledges that she will not drink before tomorrow’s brain training session.

The writer’s cuticles are bleeding on her keyboard, which seems like a nice touch. If only the blood could do the talking, the writer thinks, but it would only sound like Wah wah wah.

The writer wonders what other household appliances would visually communicate imminent suicide. Trying to fit into the refrigerator would make a good excuse for eating everything inside it within the next half hour. Cats are always trying to kill themselves by secreting themselves in the dryer. There might even be one in there now with the writer’s superior clothing ensembles. Come to think of it, there is no end to the places in this house where a cat might commit suicide. Dishwasher, coffee pot, salad spinner. And that’s just the kitchen.

The writer hopes that in the fashion photographer’s eye, her look of anguish when working at the computer reads as “finishing magnum opus” or “putting final touches on goodbye note” rather than “getting royally slaughtered in quantitative reasoning game on Lumosity.com.”

It’s raining outside. It rains here too often. The writer suggests trying to incorporate the rain into the shoot somehow. For effect. For texture. For wetness.

So the rain falls, the cat concludes its hot orbit, the writer plays games because she can’t model for shit, and explaining the dying remains a lot harder than explaining the living, especially when you’re only using pictures.

 

 

 

Cooking with Butter

“Who are the real writers?” asks the author of Cooking with Butter (unpublished 2012, 2013). What are they cooking with? What superior foods lubricate their baking dishes and frying pans? How do they manage to flavor without butter, my accent ingredient?

Is it wrong to obsess about the cookbooks of other authors? What makes them so great? Maybe it’s better to stir fry with sunflower oil. Or with bacon fat. But aren’t we all driving for the same result, the same sensual pleasure? Do we even need multiple flavors in the kitchen? Our cakes will crumble like the Tower of Babel. Eventually all tastes congeal into the same sordid substance. We rarely die with a book in our hands or food on our lips.

Do I honestly think that I can churn out butter like no one before me? Is it inherently selfish to want people to handle my recipes? To desire cravenly that my dishes find a wider audience? Does my cookbook by definition make me an egomaniac? Should I just execute these recipes for my own consumption instead of writing them down and sharing them with the world? Does butter need to be at-large? Should I skip the writing process altogether and just eat this dairy product in its purest form, congealed, with a spoon, from a bowl, in the dark? After all, recipes are always one remove from real food. My cookbook is not butter. You cannot eat it. The only nourishment it may provide is in culinary translation.

I should blog more frequently about butter. I should use social media to hype this essential ingredient. I’m going to start tweeting about my recipes. They’re edible, which means they should be publicized. Butter deserves a full-time hustler. Everyone needs to see how I put food together. Everyone needs to know the taste in my mouth.

Strike that. Sadly, no one is living or dying by my pompous butter recipes. Plus, what if my readers try them out and the butter malfunctions, like the fat operates differently in their personal skillets? And then I’d have to deal with the shame, the remainders.

Oh butter, maybe it’s better we pretend you don’t exist in my refrigerator. I cannot cook you so you’re righteous and savory with every meal. Only sometimes in the dead of night, or when I’m driving alone for long stretches, becoming one with my laden arteries, do I feel that I’m doing something right in the kitchen.

Links: In sickness and in health

“Now That Books Mean Nothing”: 31-year-old author Nell Boeschenstein reflects on literature and her double mastectomy

NPR interview with Louis C.K.: “You find yourself in front of a room of wounded veterans, and they just want to have fun. They want to see you go crazy. So every time I did these shows, I would start polite, and then I would maybe test the waters with one something dirty, and they would go crazy. And I’m looking at a bunch of guys who want relief, who want to laugh.”

Cannibalistic polar bear

Paris Review interview with Gary Lutz

Lizard playing video games

“How I Became a Best-Selling Author”

Christopher Hitchens on suffering: “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate.”

Loving “The Logo”

You all know me here as a basketball legend. I’m rarely caught expressing myself outside of a game of hoops. Like Jerry West before me, I am both a depressive and a fierce competitor. I compete with other people who are depressed. Come to think of it, I don’t typically play basketball so much as cry in front of extinguished TV sets on which watching basketball is an option. I am winning at that. But I have great respect for athletes. My family members like to run around and throw things. My siblings routinely crush me in paddle ball matches on the beach, when I am handicapped by my grip on Pinot Grigio bottles. My dad was an athlete, or at least he liked to take his shirt off in the driveway when he sensed something physical happening in the vicinity. My mother, on the other hand, is sports challenged. Throw a ball at her when she is not looking and it will likely hit her.

But Jerry West knows how to play basketball. His last-minute heroics on the Lakers team earned him the nickname “Mr. Clutch” (which sounds a lot like Wistar Clutch, for those of you still shopping for a term of endearment). And West recently collaborated on a memoir with author Jonathan Coleman, a book that features me in the acknowledgements because I had the honor of transcribing audio interviews with Jerry West and his long-limbed cohorts, an honor that true basketball fans will forever resent me for because I had to look up the spelling of venerable names such as “Elgin Baylor” and “the Lakers.” And because I feel so privileged to have gotten to know Jerry West in this raw form before the book was published, through his interviews and once or twice on the phone, I was outraged to read Dwight Garner’s mean-spirited review of West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, in the New York Times last month.

I’ve met Jerry West in person since the book came out, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience. The man has beans. He’s forever curious about other people. He’s weird and kind and conflicted and wonderful. If he hadn’t been so tall, I would’ve determined that he played a different sport, perhaps something having to do with chess. Garner’s description of Jerry as “a boor and, worse, a bore” is so outlandish as to belong in the Outlandish Descriptions Hall of Fame, which I have often visited because I keep my medals there.

I treasure my experience with Jerry West. His complexity and thoughtfulness far exceed his on-court exploits, which is saying a lot because I hear the man has done some things. As a girl I never had a sports hero, and I didn’t expect to acquire one as a struggling, slouchy writer of 31, but now the Jerry West posters have joined the Nabokov posters on my wall, and the Jerry West trading cards have replaced the Sartre trading cards in my lockbox–and keep in mind that I’m just being writerly and I actually own none of these things–and even though I’ve still only watched a handful of basketball games in my life, I now rank myself up there with Jerry’s many other number one fans.

Mrs. DeLillo Spends 12 Hours Inside a Super Walmart

(Start of a pastiche of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Don DeLillo’s White Noise)

It was a few minutes before 7am, and Mrs. DeLillo was fingering the Floral Satin V-Kini underpants that comprised a three-pack in the Intimate Apparel department of her local Super Walmart. The cardboard packaging denoted the underpants as panties, a word that Mr. and Mrs. DeLillo had always avoided on principle in their erotic situations. Mrs. DeLillo had to decide between this floral array and a four-pack of Fruit of the Loom Women’s Stretch Cotton Hipster Panties styled in “Rmnce Boqt,” also predominantly floral, also rolledback, pricewise. She placed the cotton underpants in her metal shopping trolley. Value bundle, she thought. Even though the four garments resembled boyfriend panties more than hipster panties, Mrs. DeLillo felt certain that Don would appreciate them. Tonight they were inaugurating their newly renovated basement fallout shelter with a cocktail party, and Don would be horny afterward, as he always was after shaking hands with a fallout shelterful of random friends and acquaintances.

Mrs. DeLillo had been shopping at the Super Walmart since before dawn and she had already eaten her way through half a cinema-sized bag of Twizzlers, which she had every intention of paying for. The overhead intercom personality came to life again, as it had at regular intervals since Mrs. DeLillo began her shopping expedition:

Attention Walmart shoppers. The current Value of the Hour is Wonder Bread Bite-Size Sandwich Slices in White and Brown. Everyone needs a pile of miniature sandwiches in their naked and vulnerable hands. Spend your day at Walmart, where we save people money so they can live better lives. Stay tuned for the next Value of the Hour.

Mrs. DeLillo couldn’t remember where she had originally entered the store from outside. There were no windows to orient her in space-time. The exits could be anywhere. In the Sporting Goods department she rested her spine on an oversized exercise ball. In Beauty/Hair Care Mrs. DeLillo selected a dozen new hair elastics and a banana clip, then turned all her attention toward growing a tumor in her left breast.

Mrs. DeLillo’s friend Maria would be meeting her soon. Mrs. DeLillo watched for her near the smiley face sticker greeter, who always seemed to have the saddest life in the world. If Mrs. DeLillo followed that smiley face sticker greeter home and shadowed his domestic life for 24 hours, she was convinced she’d die instantaneously of depression. Spontaneous death from sadness and dread was a thing Don thought about a lot.

Mrs. DeLillo watched one of her hairs fall out of her scalp and float away on invisible molecules of McDonald’s French fry grease, finally settling under a bottom shelf of cereal, the generic kind. How long would her single hair reside there? What would become of this organic matter in the midst of so much synthetic packaging? The grayish strand looked dirty and out of place on the linoleum. Suddenly all of Mrs. DeLillo’s living cells felt estranged from this environment. She was not even alive. She was dead matter suffocating twice-over inside a plastic bag. This sensation happened at home as well, especially in the bedroom when she felt herself asphyxiating on Don’s swollen member.

Maria saw her friend Mrs. DeLillo before she herself was seen. Mrs. DeLillo was leaning over her shopping cart, pinching the boyleg holes of a pair of floral underpants. Tonight Maria would attend the grand opening of the DeLillo fallout shelter. She was bringing Lay’s Ruffled Potato Chips even though Mrs. DeLillo had insisted the party was casual and that she should bring nothing but herself. Maria vaguely hoped that everyone would commit suicide at the party, that it wouldn’t be a dry run for disaster after all…

Literary brainstorming in Charlottesville, Virginia

I returned to my beloved hometown primarily to see my older brother graduate from med school and get married, but my secondary concern was generating ideas for my masters thesis, an original novel that’s due in two months. This means that I’ve spent the majority of my southern vacation poaching plots from every local I encounter. People I would never expect to have book ideas have written me outlines and sketched out character motivations. This town is a hotbed of unrealized literary genius.

For example!

My 21-year-old brother and his buddy run a handyman business in town mowing lawns, chainsawing everything in their path, “removing stinkbugs,” “babysitting,” and performing other oddjobs. When I jokingly asked them if they did novels, it took them less than a day to turn over a notebook overflowing with rich material, including fully developed protagonists (serial killers in love), back stories (sex abuse, murder, childhood trauma), themes (municipal corruption) and some thoughts on a prequel. But my little brother had a vague impression that my typical work is more emo, so he was sure to pencil in “(*feelings*)” where he thought my skills could really shine, e.g., “Mom addicted to painkillers, protag always starved for her affection <<-----(*feelings*)." The boys said they'd write the sex and violence scenes, and I could be in charge of all the emotional truths.

My friend's four-year-old son is obsessed with traffic cones. Last week we all went to Lowe's and while his mom shopped, he spent 45 minutes in the plumbing aisle lining up orange cones in different formations, then routing the Lowe's employees around them as though the men were cars or airplanes. My friend says, try as she might, she cannot find any children's books devoted to the wonders of traffic and safety cones. She thought I might write something for her son and other kids like him. I have never written a childrens' book, but I think I could manage a literary novel about an extended family of traffic cones. Something like The Corrections, but set in a parking lot.

Stumpy and Big Mac, the two men who make the compost deliveries from my uncle’s compost farm, were especially excited when they found out I was trying to write a novel. They told me I could do a ride-along with them in the compost trucks for a week and I’d have more than enough material for my book, tentatively entitled The Adventures of Stumpy and Big Mac. At first I thought they were just teasing me for being a dork, but now every time I go over there they gush about a new plotline worthy of Tom Clancy. Without giving too much away before this thing is published, Big Mac’s latest brainstorm involves a jihadist at UVA’s graduation ceremony. We agreed that the more local landmarks I insert, the better my chances would be of getting my book stocked in New Dominion. Or in the Barracks Road Barnes & Noble. Or in Random Row Books. Or in Daedalus. Is anybody listening?

Also my grandfather gave me a 2011 World Almanac, saying that it was full of ideas.

Also I need all the help I can get, because I have no ideas.

No, I have one idea. Wishter, a 30-year-old woman with few career prospects, laments the fact that she chose writing school over medical school. In a fit of jealousy, she steals her big brother’s med school diploma, and his beautiful new wife for good measure, and opens a private psychiatry clinic in the Cayman Islands, where she makes tons of money by hypnotizing her patients into giving her tons of money as well as revealing their darkest secrets <<—–(*feelings*), emotional truths which will eventually make their way into Wishter’s bestselling memoir.

Taking the story for a walk

When I am struggling to write a short story, I often elect to take it for a walk. I’m like, “Come on Story, let’s get some fresh air.” So the story and I go meandering through Central Park, where my story can inhale the pure-bred piss of other stories, where it can take huge dumps in the grass, dumps which I can then pick up and discard in labeled shit receptacles, where it can try to hump the legs of more attractive stories, and sometimes novels. Occasionally I let the story off the leash, letting it charge across the meadow, kicking up dirt and cigarette butts, delighting me with its freewheeling ways, but then an urban park ranger fines me $100 ($5 for every curse word, $10 for every inapt metaphor), and my story and I return home, both of us tired, demoralized, and hungry for bacon scraps.