Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Soup and Salad: The Best American Writer You Don't Know, Banging Out Words With Ben Marcus, Kids & Typewriters, 100 Actual Titles of Real 18th-Century Novels, Dumps and Death Threats and Book Tours, The Beauty of Josh Weil's Glass Sea, Zadie Smith's Reading Habit, Caroline Leavitt's Backlist, Matthew Thomas Listens to His Manuscript

On today's menu:

1.  ”Why should I let best-seller lists spoil a happy life?”  That's William Maxwell with some practical advice for writers, as quoted at Head Butler, Jesse Kornbluth's never-disappointing blog about arts and culture.  With something akin to stabbing an icicle into my conscience, Mr. Kornbluth reminds me that I still haven't read Maxwell's acclaimed 135-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.  What the hell is wrong with me?  It's not like I don't have the time--I mean, just this past weekend, I devoted several hours to reading 208 pages of a lame-ass Tom Swift adventure story.  Head Butler persuasively argues that I really should read Tomorrow today.  Yes, the book is a mere 135 pages, Kornbluth writes, "but that’s not to suggest you can race through it, because, with William Maxwell, every word matters.  Every word matters because Maxwell had learned from editing how to pare a story to its essentials; there’s no fat in these pages."

2.  Speaking of good writerly advice....if you're a keyboard-wrangler, you must read Ben Marcus’ "Dear Writer" letter at The Story Prize blog.
     Dear Writer:
     I trust this finds you immersed in your work, suffering alternating spells of doubt and excitement, doing your best not to entertain impossible questions like What is fiction for? and Who will read my work? Good. Those questions can churn in the background, along with other larger unanswerables, but right now you need your best head space for getting something done.
     You’ve heard all of the advice already—show don’t tell, write what you know—and after giving it serious due, you’ve laughed in its face. Then you stepped on it. Also good.
     Your blinders are on, your Internet is off, and you have somehow carved out a daily schedule into your very hectic life. Fine. You probably also have some goals. At a thousand words a day you’d finish a draft of your novel in two or three months, an absurdly quick pace. But did you do the math that suggested that at two hundred and fifty words a day you’d finish a draft in a year or so, still ridiculously fast, as far as novels go? And if you lowered your word count expectations, wouldn’t it stand to reason that those words would be more sharply gathered, more coherent, more precise? Would they be truer to your vision of your book, and would they more forcefully invite readers into the world you’re creating? Because you could bang out two hundred and fifty words and then revise them about a hundred times each day, maybe perfect them, rather than charging ahead just to get more words. More words are a fallacy. But you know that. It’s about the right words, and, well, if it so happens that you can rightly order a thousand of them or more a day, well then you should. Still, you have a strong suspicion that this obsession with word count is somehow deeply beside the point. And your suspicion is correct.

3.  Good Lord, this makes me feel old.

4.  Purely for your amusement: The Toast provides us with a list of 100 Actual Titles of Real Eighteenth-Century Novels....

The Adventures Of A Pin, Supposed To Be Related By Himself, Herself, Or Itself.

Atrocities Of A Convent.

He’s Always In The Way.

The Interesting Adventures Of A Hackney Coach, (As Related By The Coachman)

Isn’t It Odd? By Marmaduke Merrywhistle.

The Travels Of Hildebrand Bowman, Esquire, Into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, And Audinante, In New-Zealand; And In The Powerful Kingdom Of Luxo-Voluptot. Written By Himself; Who Went On Shore In The Adventure’s Large Cutter; And Escaped Being Cut Off, And Devoured, With The Rest Of The Boat’s Crew, By Happening To Be A-Shooting In The Woods; Where He Was Afterwards, Unfortunately Left Behind By The Adventure.

Wine And Walnuts.

5.  For Those About to Book Tour, We Salute You...
       At The Daily Beast, Bill Morris (Motor City Burning) writes about Dumps and Death Threats, Hecklers and Vindication: True Tales from Today’s DIY Book Tour:
      The night before, during my reading at A Cappella Books in Atlanta, the audience included one of my literary heroes, Charles McNair. After the reading, McNair told me that he, too, had mounted a DIY book tour for his second novel, Pickett’s Charge, which was published in 2013, a whopping 19 years after his debut, Land O’ Goshen.
      He regaled me with stories of driving all night with Cheetos littering his car’s floorboards, of sleeping on friends’ sofas, of bouncing to some 50 bookstores, book clubs, universities, libraries, foundations, museums, barrooms, and radio and TV studios. At a bookstore in Nashville, a customer who belonged to a local militia expressed his loud displeasure with McNair’s portrayal of a militia in his first novel.
      When McNair asked mildly if the man wanted to defend his right to bear arms, the offended militiaman brandished a copy of McNair’s book and roared, “I don’t need a gun! I could kill you with this book!”
The literati at Literati Bookstore
And then, flipping over to Salon, we find the road adventures of best buds Josh Weil (The Great Glass Sea) and Mike Harvkey (In the Course of Human Events) as they go in search of America, Simon and Garfunkle-style.  Their account begins at a urinal.
      Our first bathroom break came 300 miles in, still shy of Buffalo (the sign said “An All American City”): one of those manufactured rest stops with an, um, Canadian Tim Horton’s. Entering the cavernous bathroom, one of us asked, “We gonna pee next to each other?” and we both made straight for opposite ends of the urinal line. Ten empty toilets between us.
      One week before September 11 we met as creative writing students in Columbia University’s MFA program. Over the next decade we became best buds and first readers for just about everything we wrote. A few months back, our first novels hit shelves just weeks apart. Now, both of us staring down the double barrel of middle age — Josh expecting his first baby and Mike returning to real life after a year of backpacking around the globe — we decided to push against the busy lives that put a whole country between us, coming together on a classic adventure: We’re crossing the entire country, reading together in bookstores from Kalamazoo to Laramie, hiking America’s mountains, swimming America’s rivers and getting eaten alive by America’s bedbugs in cheap roadside motels.

5a.  Speaking of The Great Glass Sea, if you've reached page 288 and the chapter titled "Heaven's Breast," you have just arrived at what will probably be the most beautiful passages in fiction you will read this year--and, perhaps, for a good chunk of surrounding years.  You will read about a great ice storm pelting the glass of the giant greenhouse (the Oranzheria) which is being built over vast acres of cropland in Russia.  You will about the thousands of workers on top of the "great glass sea" moving "with plastic-edged shovels and rubber tipped scrapers and wide push brooms, thousands of them side by side in lines like the peasant harvesters who, sickles synchronized, once filled fields centuries ago.  But as fast as they cleared it, the sleet filled in their tracks."  You will read about a cold front descending so hard and sharp, "like a nail slammed down by a hammer blow," that flocks of birds freeze in midflight, "so frozen by the time they hit the ground that their legs simply shattered, small black icicles tipped with frozen bulbs of red, skittering down the frost-white streets."  You will read about how all those thousands of workers scramble for safety through escape hatches, descending to the warmth for one man who climbs to the top of the ice-sheeted greenhouse, dons a pair of skates, and begins to glide and from below it looks like "two pen tips inscribing long arcs in the ceiling, curves and curls and loops, as if some giant of the old fables--some Koshchei or Norka--had reached down to scrawl his sign into the man-made sky."  And then maybe you'll half-close the book, bookmarking your spot with a finger, and maybe you'll tip your head back and look at the ceiling or the sky or whatever's overhead, as if to see a pair of winking, glinting skates skywriting a message to you and you alone, and maybe you'll close your eyes, but not before a solitary tear leaks out--a tear of pure delight and sublime happiness--because this, this is such beautiful writing that you must stop reading for a brief moment because if you don't, your head will explode into a hundred bouquets of flowers.
      Or maybe that's just me.

6.  At Oprah's website, Zadie Smith pretty much sums up my malady (which, I suspect, might be your malady, too):
Quite often I am asked to recommend, as a practice, the habit of "reading." I like to do this, though I always feel a little phony. To recommend something implies that its presence in your life is a positive choice, like playing tennis or avoiding gluten. For me, being a reader, in summer or at any other time, isn't a "lifestyle choice." Rather, I made the choice—if that's what it was—so long ago, it has taken on an inescapable character in my mind. I think that if I were a very good swimmer, I would be proud to be so, but being proud of being a reader, in my case, is like being proud you have feet. I don't feel much pride when, on the way to somebody's house for dinner, I stuff several books into my handbag for...well, for what? Can I really not manage a brief subway ride without textual support? Is that normal? Are there other people who, when watching a documentary set in a prison, secretly think, as I have, Wish I had all that time to read?

7.  O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!  Open Road Media/Dzanc Books is reprinting Caroline Leavitt's backlist!  At her blog, Caroline gives some backstory to each of the books, including this tale about her first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway:
      I never intended to be a novelist. I was going to be a short story writer, and I could have papered my walls with rejections. Meeting Rozzy Halfway is about two sisters growing up in Boston, tightly bound together until one of them begins to slowly go mad. I wrote the story and sent it off to Redbook magazine’s Young Writers Contest (I was really young), expecting nothing. Months later, I was coming home from another terrible job I was fired from (this one was working at a puzzle factory that made obscene puzzles) when I saw the big brown envelope that I knew meant rejection. I tore it in a million pieces, spreading it like confetti on my front stoop.
      And then I happened to see one word: congratulations. I leaped down and put all the pieces together. it turned out I won First Prize! They wanted the story! And publishers began calling!

8.  I'll leave you with another bit of writing advice from Matthew Thomas (his debut novel We Are Not Ourselves is near the summit of my always-growing To-Be-Read pile, aka Mt. NeveRest).  In this Q&A at Bloom, Matthew says we writers need to cock an ear close to our manuscripts and listen:
      If you pay enough attention to the rhythms of sentences, paragraphs, and books, you eventually develop a version of the “shit detector” Hemingway sees as essential to all good writing. An ability to see what wasn’t working was probably my greatest ally when I was writing without feedback. It gave me faith that I wasn’t going down blind alleys.
      Seeing what there was to fix streamlined the editing process for me. In the middle of writing the book, I could see I had a lot of work ahead of me, and I figured potential readers were probably going to tell me the same things I was telling myself, so I simply cut that step out by deciding to keep the book to myself as long as possible. I wanted to be as hard on the book as I could, for as long as I could, until I handed it over. Teaching made it easier to see the weak areas, because in spending the day analyzing stories with the kids and going over how to improve their essays, I inhabited a mindset not unlike the one an editor would bring to a text.
      And then, after I turned the book over to my early readers, I quickly saw that no matter how honed you think your own perceptions are, no matter how clearly you think you see your work’s flaws and blind spots, there are always problems you’re unaware of....
      Eventually there came a time when I would read the book over and not hear the nagging voice that had told me to change this, fix that, cut this, add to that. I found I was just reading it. That was when I knew it was time to send it out.

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