Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Soup and Salad: Visiting Tolstoy's estate with hungover honeymooners, Owen King wrestles with titles, Leigh Newman fights fear, Being a better literary citizen, A book club directory

On today's menu:

1.  Literary pilgrim Stephen Phelan takes us on a tour of a few writers' homes, including those which once belonged to the Brontes, George Orwell, J. G. Ballard, and this memorable day at Leo Tolstoy's country estate near Tula, Russia:
      It's a gloomy, windy Sunday when I visit, and a long, muddy walk from the main road and through the sodden grounds to the mansion house itself. Inside, I tag along with a couple of hungover Scottish newlyweds--hardcore Tolstoy readers who pre-arranged a tour in English for the first day of their honeymoon. Scholar-in-residence Galina Alekseeva talks us through the interiors and contents: the aristocratic family portraits; the library that was later partly burned by occupying Nazis; the so-called "vaulted room" where Tolstoy wrote in the mornings, permitting only his wife, Sofia, to enter with his cups of tea. Beside this, the small cramped room where 5000 mourners came to kiss the hand of his corpse in 1910.
      An odd custom has developed around Tolstoy's grave, a simple grass mound in the woods nearby: young couples go to lay flowers and ask the master's blessing for good luck and lasting love. The newlyweds forgot to bring a bouquet, so we just stand there in the cold rain, with the autumn wind stripping leaves off the surrounding oaks. The scene is so melancholy that we have to laugh, which strikes us as a suitably Russian response. We tell ourselves that Tolstoy would approve.

2.  At The Weeklings, Owen King delves into the problematic issue of book titles.  King's new novel, Double Feature, was originally called Reenactment, but his editor nix-nayed that title because Nick Flynn was just about to release his memoir The Reenactments.  King polled a few of his writer-friends to see if they shared his titular frustration.  Stewart O'Nan, Amber Dermont, Timothy Schaffert and others responded.  If you'll recall, there was some eleventh-hour indecision on what to call Fobbit.  I toyed with naming it "Soft Men, Hard Bullets" or, most embarrassingly, "Of Men and Marshmallows."  I even went so far as to put out a call for help from blog readers; but in the end, my editor at Grove/Atlantic liked Fobbit enough to keep it.  Thank God he did because I don't think I could have lived with a marshmallow book.

2a.  Oh hey, I almost forgot: What I really wanted to highlight in Owen King's article was this spot-on perfect description of what it's like for a writer to live with a work-in-progress for years and years:
      If you’ve never attempted to write anything of a novel’s length, imagine having a friend or relative visit you for roughly that length of time, for three or five or seven years. Imagine a person, a person with whom you are not enjoying anything like traditional sexual congress, leaving their little hairs and toenail clippings in your sink, sprinkling their droplets of pee on your toilet seat, cluttering your surfaces with their weird pocket stuff, sticking things in the wrong cabinets, being underfoot and distracting you constantly for three or five or seven years. Let’s be honest: even if it was your favorite cousin, and even though you sort of invited him, after a year or so, you would owe it to yourself to give, at minimum, tacit consideration to murdering this person. This is the unique affliction of writing books: the endeavor is such that you can never entirely stop thinking about it. Picture the houseguest that is your novel, day after day, chewing cereal with his mouth open, his butt cratering the seat of your favorite armchair, and you will begin to understand.
      After your houseguest/novel does finally stomp all his dirty underwear down into his duffel bag, after his stupid buddy with the flatbed arrives to drag off the piece of shit four-wheeler that has been sitting dead in the middle of garage, after your houseguest/novel/ hemorrhoid finally has it together enough to decamp and set up in a place of his own – i.e. a publishing house – the relief you feel will likely open the gates to feelings of magnanimity. The memories of the good times – that one scene that clicked on the first pass, that passage that said so much more than your ever hoped – may become foremost, but it should be self-evident that such pleasure depends on the book being out the door. Here lies the major portion of the unhappiness that so often attends the editing of any novel: with the son-of-a-bitch finally gone, you don’t want him crashing on your couch again, not even for a weekend.

3.  At the 49 Writers blog, Leigh Newman (Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home) fights off the black ball of fear, and finds that it's not unlike surviving a plunge in a plane, pulling your dog out of wave-battered rocks, or falling from a raft into Class 4 rapids.

4.  Every so often, I read a piece of writing which brings me up short, slapping me in the face with the reminder that I can be a better person.  The recent essay "Writer Friends: the Rules of the Community" by Jennifer Niesslein at The Virginia Quarterly Review is one such article.  Niesslein says we can all be better citizens of whatever community in which we reside if we would just set ourselves aside and look outward to others.  It's kind of like that Michael Jackson anthem "Man in the Mirror."
We don’t know what it is about publishing that makes some writers lose both their minds and common sense, but many of us have been victim to another writer’s bad manners. The more successful among us have felt the weight of other writers trying to ride our coattails.  The rest of us have endured conferences where other writers try to establish their importance, aren’t interested in an actual conversation, and vampire the energy from the room. We’ve spoken with writers who drop the phrase “my agent” so many times, one might suspect the two were lovers.
I read this and fall into soft contemplation, knowing I have probably been guilty of some of this--especially in the past year.  It's like another writer friend of mine once confessed to me, "I hope you never have to live through the experience of having a couple of books published and having no one interested in anything you have to say, because it's an awful place.  And of course it conjures up all kinds of exaggerated ideas about what people think of you, and what they might be doing to perpetuate your misery.  All imaginary, of course.  And of course, the worst thing about it is that you occasionally give in to the desire to express feelings that are based on these imaginary slights, to the complete bewilderment of those on the receiving end."  May we all be so self-aware.

Remember this book club in Lost? They read Stephen King's Carrie.
"It's not even literature," one member complained, "it's popcorn."
5.  This GalleyCat item prompted me to sign up for the "Authors Who Visit Book Clubs" directory.  Fellow writers, it's worth your while to add your name to the list (as long as you're comfortable sitting in a semi-circle of readers blabbing about your book for up to an hour or more); book clubbers, be advised there are some pretty cool authors who are willing to come talk to your group, including Randy Susan Meyers, Meg Waite Clayton, Brendan McNally, Terese Svoboda, Jenna Blum, M. J. Rose, Laura van den Berg, Melanie Benjamin, Lauren Groff, Robert Goolrick and hundreds more.  I myself have Skyped with a couple of groups and really enjoyed the experience.  And I promise I was wearing pants at the time.


  1. I am reminded if when I once visited Dostoevsky's house in St. Petersburg. The dezhurnaya was all excited to have an American tourist who spoke Russian and started running around the room showing us items which belonged to his children. She picked up this children's book which used a series of wires to make barnyard animal sounds. She wound it up all excited to demonstrate it for us, and then PING, the wire snapped as she broke it. she looked around conspiratorially as she tried to repair this antique and waved us out of the room.

  2. James, that is an awesome (though, ultimately, sad) story. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. To this day I still wait in fear expecting extradition for my part in the destruction of state treasures. although that dezhurnaya must be 105 by now, so as long as the other Americans keep their mouths shut, I'm good... My own little Crime and Punishment. Sorry, couldn't resist.