Saturday, September 24, 2011

Soup and Salad: Ann Napolitano Visits Flannery O'Connor's Home, Tiny Bookcase, The Life Stages of a Writer, A First-Time Author's First Review, Hating Bestsellers, When We Fell in Love With Agatha Christie and Freaks, Darin Strauss on What Fiction Teaches Us

On today's menu:

1.  At The Millions, Ann Napolitano writes about what is perhaps the most significant stop on her book tour for A Good Hard Look, a novel which features Flannery O'Connor as a primary character.  "Lost in Andalusia" is wise, witty and even a little bit suspenseful (will the crotchety old cousin rise up from the back row and smite Napolitano with her cane?).  I loved every inch of this personal essay, but one of the best moments comes when the anxious author is standing alone on the front lawn of Andalusia before the reading:
My attention was caught by a sudden movement to my left. A rattling noise filled the air. The peacock stood in the center of his pen, shaking his long, thin tail. When the shaking concluded, he hurled his feathers upwards. This violent motion created, all at once, a sweeping display of moons and eyes and cerulean blues and bright greens. The fan was easily four feet across, and dazzling. The peacock pointed the display at me in silence, his head averted. Only when he thought I’d admired him long enough, did his sharp eyes deign to meet mine. In the hundred-degree heat, I was swept with chills. For one singular moment, I could feel Flannery’s presence. She stood beside me on the lawn, and together we stared down her wondrous, obnoxious birds.
I've only made one pilgrimage to Flannery O'Connor's farm, but reading Napolitano's essay made me yearn to return--sooner rather than later.  (I'm also reminded that A Good Hard Look is still very near the top of my To-Be-Read pile--other reading obligations have delayed me from getting to it.)

2.  Plan on doing a little reading this weekend?  Here's a teeny-tiny bookcase built in 1904.

3.  Leslie Pietrzyk says there are three life stages of a writer: self-therapy, craft and career.  After my happy news earlier this week, I feel like I'm more fully in Stage 3.  But perhaps I should heed Pietrzyk's caution:
What I’ve been thinking about is how easy it is to get trapped in the third stage and think that you’ve already fulfilled the first two and therefore you need to focus only on getting published, to think of your career. On paper, we know the dangers of that strategy. On paper (or in class) I’m the first to say, “Write the story you want to write,” and, “Worry about the marketplace later."

4.  Debut writer Laura Maylene Walter's short-story collection doesn't hit bookstores until November, but she's already received an early review of Living Arrangements from Publishers WeeklyShe reports:
      It was a mixed bag. But what can a writer do but appreciate the good and ignore the rest, all while thanking her lucky (dare I say “dazzling and disturbing”) stars that her debut short story collection from a small press is receiving reviews at all?
      I have to remind myself that three years ago at this time, I was sitting on a bunch of stories, furiously writing others, stalled on a novel attempt, and not sending anything out, anywhere. To think that by this time I’d have a book coming out, and a review from Publishers Weekly to top it off, would have been unimaginable. But here I am.

5.  If Walter is too successful, however, Valerie Frankel might hate her.  I'm not sure how far Frankel had her tongue in her cheek when she wrote in The Daily Beast:
      The rich. The thin. The beautiful. I’ve got no problem with them. If the world’s wealthiest, hottest woman walked into my office and asked for a cup of coffee, I’d get it. But if she said, “Guess what? My first novel just hit the New York Times bestsellers list!”?
      Hate. She could get her coffee in hell.

6.  I've always loved the "When We Fell in Love" series at Three Guys One Book which gives authors the chance to wax rhapsodic about books which made a difference in their lives.  Here's a recent pair of excellent WWFILs:

Christopher Bollen on Agatha Christie (warning: there be spoilers ahead):
I believe Agatha Christie was my first taste of addiction. Shelves in my bedroom were vacated to make room for a growing book shrine. Soon came the hits like Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun, and then first reluctantly but ultimately happily, I managed to fall in love with St. Mary Mead’s Jane Marple of A Murder is Announced and Cat Among the Pigeons fame. I may have been the only twelve-year-old in Cincinnati city limits to remove the Pink Floyd posters in my bedroom to thumb tack posters of 1970s Agatha Christie movies (this also proved a boon for distant family members who finally knew what to get me for Christmas; before I was just another boring boy but now they could purchase Christie biographies and weird mystery-phile anthologies and expect a sincere thank you note). I even greedily consumed Christie’s one-off mysteries like The Man in the Brown Suit and They Came to Baghdad. I didn’t stop, I would not stop, until I had read every one of her books and then the end of the world could happen, Cold War nuclear atrocity could finally descend, and I wouldn’t mind.
Lenore Zion on Geek Love:
There’s nothing I love more than a good physical deformity. Thalidomide babies (otherwise known as flipper babies), good old fashioned amputees, the Elephant Man (whose official diagnosis was neurofibromatosis type 1), good old fashioned extra limbs, and so on and so forth. I’m a little bummed that Western medicine has significantly decreased the number of birth defects, and I’m extremely bummed that our state of political correctness has prevented the expansion of traveling freak shows. People used to be proud of their deformities. Those tails and flippers and mutated extremities weren’t something to be ashamed of, they were money makers! The freaks in freak shows were the ultimate inspiration to me – talk about making lemonade from lemons.

7.  At The Millions, Robert Birnbaum sits down for a conversation with Darin Strauss (Chang and Eng, Half a Life).  Here's just a snippet of their talk (I especially love what Strauss has to say in the last few lines about what we can learn from fiction):
Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir?
Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died.
RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this?
DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it’s linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence.
RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue.
DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly.
RB: What is the benefit?
DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It’s funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic.
RB: Isn’t that the point?
DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person’s flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do.

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