Saturday, December 18, 2010

do tell

Dear Marco,

I haven’t written you in a long time because you’re dead. You died 18 years ago of Aids. You may not recall the day but I do. It was July 4th and as you—look. Let’s be honest. You didn’t “slip away.” Slipping wasn’t your style. You went fighting. It was as if you had the word “activist” tattooed on each of the 206 bones in your body: bold script for the arm bones and leg bones and across your skull and then fine little cursive for your finger bones and those teensy ones in your ear. So okay. As you went out fighting, fireworks exploded in the street it being, as mentioned, Independence Day, as well as one of those states with pretty lax fireworks laws. Not like NC, your home state.
Which reminds me. We have this friend who’s a great and funny guy whose kid is my kid’s best friend, which is how we know him. And he told me recently that he’d finally applied for American citizenship in great part so that he could explode the illegally powerful fireworks that he traditionally hosts in a big smoky display at holiday time. He explained that breaking fireworks laws as an American citizen would be a lot safer than breaking them as an alien. So he’s become an American. You’d love him.
I’m writing today, Marco, because despite the fact that it’s December 18th and actually snowing in North Carolina which is not exactly miraculous but certainly unusual, it’s another Independence Day. Today, after years of battle and as if in afterthought, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by the Senate. It was a nasty piece of discrimination and it was a blemish on our country and now it’ll be gone and that’s a wonderful thing.
So I write to tell you about this step forward and also to tell you that I’m proud of you. You assisted. You had your own way of making a difference. You spoke to crowds and carried signs. But there are other ways too: sit-coms with cute gay characters, and comedians who marry their partners in public, and magazines, and the amazing pride parade that our mother and your niece and I went to (Mom wore an Act-up tee shirt; I had multicolored balloons, Charlotte had rainbow fingernail polish) and the greeting card I carry in my store showing a guy who says, “Mom made me gay,” and his friend says, “Can she make me one too?”
The country’s changing, bit by bit. Freedom is becoming manifest. Today was a big bit. You did a really hard part. But all the bits and all the ways are important. I thought you’d like to know.
It’s almost time for Ashu to light his illegal fireworks. I always think of you when I see their patterns in the night sky. This year, for me, it’ll be truly a celebration. Each pop will be another ask; each bang, another tell.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Promo Notions

Nothing original here: writing’s solitary, promoting’s the opposite. When you sign on to publish your book-- whether you’re doing-it-yourself or being published in the established way—you accept the fact that you’ll have to do some promo. Unless you’re Philip Roth, you’re probably going to have to sell yourself around a little. If you don’t, chances are that your book will end up under the bed with your unpublished ones, just a’languishing.

You build your website (and then you have to tell people to go to it), you email book clubs, you post reviews, you try to avoid saturating your buddies with stuff about what is, after all, just a little bitty novel. The thing is: you worked hard on your novel, you want to coddle it some, you know that it’s likely that its day in the sun is limited and you want it to get a nice little tan while it can.

A week ago I spent a day in NYC at a private book fair. The fair-goers fell into two groups. Group A was comprised of representatives from institutions which might like to ask you to come talk to them, ie: they were lecture scouts. Group B was comprised of a whole lot of authors. We authors had 2 minutes each (by which I mean 120 seconds and no more) to describe the books that we’d taken 2-6 years to write. We were to describe them in witty, self-deprecating, self-promoting, enthusiastic, kinda cool, unhurried, competent, well-dressed-but-not-overly-so, nerveless, intelligent-nay-brilliant sort of ways. We authors—of whom there were 50-- had written novels, dog books, political books, historical books, joke books, and books about how to get good deals when you go shopping. We authors, who were seated in alphabetical order, were unknowns (hiya), best-selling authors, Pulitzer prize-winners, actresses whose faces you know, serious scholarly authors with books from Oxford University Press, lady novelists (hiya), tall, short (hiya), etc.

I was seated next to Michael Ellsberg, the son of Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers which exposed the web of lies upon which our involvement in the Viet Nam war was based. Michael Ellsberg’s book is called The Power of Eye-Contact which supports the idea that eye contact can lead to successful dating. On the other side of Michael Ellsberg was a guy who’d written a scholarly book about Nixon and knew a lot about the Pentagon Papers. Subsequent to Michael Ellsberg’s 2 minutes, everyone who went up to the podium made some crack about looking at the “eye contact guy.” 50 authors at 2 minutes each equals an hour and a half or so. There was a lot of interesting info, some squirming, quite a bit of laughter as we each took our turns.

Afterwards there was a meet-and-greet. I’m bad at those. I’m friendly but I like small groups. I’m not good in crowds. In large groups I tend to talk about inappropriate things in monosyllables. I drank wine but it didn’t help. I talked to a scholar about eastern religion and I talked to a lady about her dog and then I made a totally lame pass around the room and then I’d had it. I figure: it’s good to know your limitations. If I’m going to become a world-changing author, it’s going to have to be my writing that does it because my personality isn’t going to sell me, for me. Or something.

So I headed out. I walked out onto Park Avenue and then up towards Fifth to hail a cab. I’m from a small town and haven’t experienced much cab-hailing. I looked around for a good spot and some nice cabbie recognized something about my body-language: he pulled over right in front of me. No hailing even necessary! I smiled, climbed in and told him my destination. As we pulled away he looked in his rear-view mirror and said, in his lovely Persian accent, “Good eye contact, hunh?”

In the end, no eye contact needed for the butt in the chair part, but when promoting your book, it’s probably not a bad idea.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Club Fun

Hobbyist-novelist like me write because they must. There’s an urge to write that’s a lot like the urge to knit or the urge to clean or the urge to run (not that I’ve ever felt that last one). The urge to write comes from some visceral need to exorcise or imagine.

This has nothing to do with the desire to be published. The desire to be published comes from the need to have people read what you wrote. You did the work: you want to show it off. This doesn’t sound very noble, I know. And neither is it. However, it’s perfectly natural and is true across the board of hobbyists and artists: dancers want to do it publicly, painters want their products hung, composers want your butt in the seat and your ears open. Even those Amish ladies who make those fantastic quilts with the required defect (because only God is perfect) want those quilts to be seen, even if it’s only by a bunch of cheesy tourists.

I admit: I recall my musings on how life would be if I were ever lucky enough to have a book published, pre Wet Nurse. I’ve always been a realist and thus I knew that my life would be pretty much as it always was: that there’d still be the laundry, the dinner to be cooked, the bookstore to be run, the kids to, um, urge on. I also know that the first book isn’t the thing: it’s the second book that’s the thing. (And then, the third, right?) But I did think about bookstore readings (about which I know a thing or two, having been in the biz for 30 years). And I thought about the reviews: how would I handle a bad one?

What I didn’t know about so much were the book clubs. My bookstore is not a book-club friendly bookstore. Parking sucks, people on campus already have their own hugely packed agendas: they go off campus for the leisure of the book club.

But the book clubs have been wonderful.

At one club meeting, held at 9:00 on a Friday morning, we drank ale and ate meat pies, (just as my Susan Rose would have done!) and talked about how nursing has changed. Another, which took place in Pennsylvania, was done over Facebook: it’s fun to make jokes not face-to-face. At a huge club, one of the members told me that while she liked my book, she was upset by the ending. (I have the power to upset someone with the words I write! Amazement, as my husband would say.) At one, I was expected to hold forth on the (fairly massive) research I had done for the book, which I loved talking about. At another, my role seemed to be to listen to the members describe what they thought was going to happen to the wet nurse at each turn of the tale—this was wonderful too. At another, we mostly laughed.

Wet Nurse is coming in paper in August. Paperbacks are the meat pies of the book group, of course, so it’s a fond wish of mine that I get to do more book clubs. Here are the readers! Here are the book lovers! It gives a hobbyist-novelist like me hope and inspiration to get to what’s really important: the next book.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I like helping my kids with their homework. It’s not because I’m a helicopter mama which I am compared to some and am not compared to others. It’s because I like learning things. I liked learning about tectonic plates. How can you not be moved by the idea of the birth of a mountain? It seemed exactly metaphorical for a character in my last book—a person who’s sort of killed on the inside but yet lives. She looks at a mountain view and, rather than feeling the peace of the blue ridge view, she thinks about what it might sound like when plates collide.

I love the research angle of the business of writing novels. For Wet Nurse, I read about the lives of the lower classes in the early 19th century: their floors were dirt, they were illiterate, they ate the same thing every day of their lives. When I was younger, I was sort of taken in by that English country garden stuff. Then I grew up. There never has been and never will be a happy peasant in just the same way that there never was a happy slave. Those black mammies nursing white babies? They didn’t love those babies, nunh-unh. They weren’t wet nurses, either. They were slaves. Wet nurses got paid. Slaves didn’t.

For my last book, I read about Truman Capote and the Brooklyn Dodgers in Japan in 1956. 1956 wasn’t long after the end of WWII. The Dodgers—PeeWee Reece, Jackie Robinson—went on a goodwill trip. They played baseball all over Japan. Truman Capote went to write about Marlon Brando who was playing in Sayonara. Capote wrote an article about it in The New Yorker. Can you imagine the guys who brought the room service? What did they think about Capote? What did they think of Jackie Robinson?

For the book I’m writing now, I’m looking into utopian communities. Holy. Cow. The Shakers: what the hell? They shook all night in order to not have sex. Brothers and sisters weren’t allowed to pass each other on the stairs lest they get all, uh, bothered. Some of the communities I read about—religion based—were enough to make you simply blush. Here’s what I figure: very strict rules about sex constitute a dead giveaway as to how much, how often, how much energy is put into thinking about sex. In other words, primness is dirty-minded. Perfect for a Victorian novel.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Commercials Are Fun

I like a good tv commercial. I like being spoken to, on my own level, by someone who might have chosen to talk to me like I was a 2-year old but who wised up and thought, ‘hmm, maybe the object of my intentions has some wit, some style, some intelligence.’ I like those commercials with the talking babies because they make gentle fun of the frat boy-golfer thing which is, in fact, their market. (The fact is that I can’t tell you now, without looking it up, what they’re advertising, because it’s not a product I’ll ever use so I haven’t paid attention to that aspect. But I’m not here to argue the success of commercials. I’m just telling you what I like.) (Hmmm, it occurs to me that I suddenly sound like Andy Rooney, for which I hope you’ll forgive me.)

There are some commercials I hate. Hardees commercials are disgusting. Please imagine that I’m pronouncing the word “disgusting”with a “z” sound for the first “s” in the word. That’s how I feel about them. I don’t know if Hardees Hamburgers, which I believe is the fruit of some NC’ers palate and pocketbook, is indeed a national chain or whether it’s still fairly local. All I know is that the commercials are sexist to such a degree that even men of my acquaintance shudder at them. I know that I will avoid the restaurant because of the commercials but I also know that the commercials must be successful—as in, they bring in the customers—because they keep making new ones in the same vein.

A current commercial is worth a second look. On as scale of 1-10, I give it about a 7 or 8 for originality. The actors don’t talk, there’s only a voiceover by a really nice (like, you’d really like him if you knew him) sounding guy. We see a handsome middle-aged black man standing in front of his small barbershop, looking dismayed at the ‘Cheap Cutz’ haircutting franchise going up across the street. We see the Cheap Cutz grand opening: cheering crowds, a guy dressed like a pair of scissors. We see the big sign that says, “Cheap Cutz: Home of the $6 Haircut!” We feel for the friendly barber: how can he compete with such a big chain?

We are told by the friendly voiceover, that the barber is no dummy. We watch as the barber goes to an office supply store and pantomimes (for us) that he wants a biiiiig sign. The friendly customer attendant understands. Next frame: the barber has hung a sign outside his shop that says, “We Fix $6 Haircuts.” We are told that, six months later, Cheap Cutz has gone out of business. We smile. Chalk one up for the little guy! Take that, Corporate America!

The office store the barber went to...Office Depot. Office Depot! Yep, the national chain, Office Depot, a corporate entity if there ever was one, is making an anti-corporate commercial. One can only assume that they thought we wouldn’t notice. I noticed. As the longtime manager of a non-chain bookstore, believe me: I noticed.

This brings me to the end of my spiel but stick with me: it’s a fascinating end. Last week our bookstore had a reading by Bryant Simon who wrote "Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks." He imbibed a lot of Starbucks coffee, all around the world, in pursuit of something to say sociologically speaking. And what he said was fascinating. But here’s what I remember best: Simon has noted that even Starbucks is hitching their coffee wagons to the current anti-corporate feeling that’s (veerrrryyyy slooowwwllly) making its way across the country. His evidence? Very recently, Starbucks opened two new coffee houses in their hometown of Seattle. Did they call their new shops “Starbucks?” No. They did not. They named their new stores after the streets on which the stores reside. One is called Tenth Street Coffee House and the other Pine Street Coffee House. (I just made those names up because I can’t remember exactly what they’re called, but you get the picture.) Simon told our audience that you have to look hard, but that on some piece of signage in the new stores, in teensy letters, it says, “inspired by Starbucks.” Apparenty, Starbucks was afraid of anti-corporate backlash enough to camoulflage their own name!

We’re all adults here, unlike, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States of America, who somehow wasn’t able to figure out that corporations are, in fact, different from actual, like, people. But we’re the ones with the wallets. We can decide when to open our wallets. We can still decide where to spend the contents. We can decide whether to buy from Office Depot and Starbucks or whether, every once in a while, whether we might want to Buy Local.