Tag Archives: writing

Publication Day: The Beast is OUT.

Here I am between David Sedaris and Anita Shreve in the wilds of my local Barnes and Noble:

While I was dorking out taking this picture, a nice couple stopped by and asked me if I was the author and I said yes and they read the back of the book and then they bought it and then I signed it.  WHOA.  (Signing felt like a minor act of vandalism but I guess I’ll get used to it…)

Much stuff has been happening.  I got to write guest posts for BookPage and 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started.  I’ve been getting lots of blog reviews–I think more than I can keep track of.  My favorite cranky review said that I am a bad, smutty writer like that awful DH Lawrence.  That is the most wonderful way I’ve been insulted, ever!  The crudity of my language is apparently reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published in 1928–and 13 rue Thérèse is set in 1928, so I feel like I win at life.  I managed to capture that 1928 flavor.  Sweet.

Of course, the reviews that moved me the most were the good ones where it looked like I connected with the readers.  How awesome!  It is why I got into this whole publishing racket in the first place.  So, to all the people out there who enjoyed my book and got something true out of it, I give you a great big virtual hug.

Meanwhile, to keep myself from exploding with the anxiety of all these developments (it’s all very elating but my body is in an undeniable state of alarm, my brain constantly morse coding out this is…  not…  normal… commence…  freaking out…), I have been writing this random Gothic diptych about dead dogs.  I know.  Brains are weird.  I just finished a draft of Part One today.  Tomorrow I will begin Part Two.  Oh–and speaking of short stories, I will have one coming out with Five Chapters next week, which will rock my socks.  It’s a great website: they publish a new story every week, serially from Monday through Friday, so you can go back every day for new content.

Okay.  I am going to go try to not explode.  It’s going to be increasingly hard because I got word that my book is going to be in the New York Times Book Review on February 13 and I am absolutely shitting bricks.  Please please please be gentle with me, unknown NYTBR reviewer…

(I must develop some kind of emotional coping mechanism for this attention I’m getting.  That, or a drug habit.  Whoa, you guys, I just explained all of Hollywood to myself.)

BOOKSPLODE!

No matter how long you work at a craft, you can always learn something new.  Today’s lesson is: Even if the protagonist has a compelling voice and a strong personality, she should not necessarily be the narrator.

I got stuck about 85 pages into In the Red.  I decided to print out the whole manuscript and read it over, having found that oftentimes when you get stuck, your text itself will cue you as to what is supposed to come next.  I read along marking it up, realizing for instance that some of the material around page 60 or so should be right in the front of the story.  I felt a sense of cautious hope.  And then I got to the last dozen pages or so and the whole thing just completely destroyed itself.  I’d never seen it happen so fast; it just telescoped like a collapsing building.

It’s wasn’t so much that the plot broke apart (the thing with plot is that you can pretty much pull anything off as long as you do it with enough panache), it was just that the voice totally died.  It was unreadable.  I was breathless with pain.  It sucked more than I thought suck could suck.  I had started the book with a voice hoping that eventually a structure would accrete, but instead the lack of structure just completely imploded the voice.  What went down?

A partial answer came to me when I read a quote from Joyce’s “The Dead” that a friend had posted on her facebook:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I was quite moved by the beauty of that sentence.  Then for some reason, I changed the sentence to first person.  Go ahead and try it.  Doesn’t it completely suck that way?  (The reason being that this sort of intense shameless lyricism just can’t work in first person.)

It dropped like an anvil: I should have never tried to write this book in the first person.  It is a third person book.  I am a dumbass.

The reason why, I think, is because the novel is so much about erasure, about how much of the protagonist is erased.  If the protagonist is the narrator, then you simply know too much, you know where the holes are.  Part of the interest of the story is that you’re not supposed to know where the holes are; Irina should be mysterious.  That was why she was such a recalcitrant narrator–because she’s not supposed to even be the narrator.  She is the object, not the subject.  God, I am such a dumbass.

Eventually I will go back to see what can be salvaged from all the rubble.  But not yet.  I need to take some time away and maybe work on some short stories, smaller structures with lower stakes.  When those fall down, the devastation is not quite so complete.

Whoa, the colors…

Developments!

(1) This blog now has its own pimptastic domain name!  Welcome to elenamaulishapiro.com.  Aw yeah.  If you click on the link, it will take you…  where you are.  I know.  Life is like that.

(2) I just got my very first review ever for 13 rue Thérèse, on Library Journal.  It is here (you’ll have to scroll a bit to find me).  I had a tiny heart attack when I got to the word VERDICT in red all-caps like that, as if they were going to take me out back and execute me.  But, the verdict is positive, so, huzzah!  And with a comparison to the awesome Nick Bantock!  Huzzah x2!  And I can finally say I’ve had press.  Oooooooh I’m going to put it on my Press page right now.

Sweet.

(3) I printed out what I have of my next book so far, about 20,000 words.  (Somewhere around 80 pages)  It felt good to see it on paper, because when you’re just typing away on a Microsoft document, it doesn’t feel like you’re actually making any progress.  Also I got terribly stuck and needed to read it through, to see if I could see any semblance of structure emerging from my pile of fragments.  I realized today that a lot of the stuff I’ve been writing lately actually belongs way in the beginning, so that’s nice.  After I’ve finished marking it up, there will be much shuffling.

(4) You can make colorsAll over your text! Wheeeeeeeee! Doing this repeatedly would not at all get annoying!

(Sorry, I just discovered this making VERDICT all scary and red to mimic the typesetting on the Library Journal site…  I will attempt to contain myself in the future.  But I can make no promises.)

kill me as many times as you like

Ahoy!  I have been remiss in updating this blog for the last couple of weeks.  There hasn’t been much to report, 13-rue-Thérèse-wise, since the galleys have gone out.  I hover in an anxious Limbo waiting for reviews to start coming in, trying desperately to keep my brain from chewing on itself.  I’ve been reasonably successful at doing that by giving it In the Red to chew on instead.  I have been working on this unyielding book.  It is a very, very testy text but I think eventually some good will come of it.  It is, as I am, obsessed with palimpsest.  So, that is quite expected.  What is less expected is that it has some pungent opinions about American capitalism.  I couldn’t quite describe them as unqualifyingly negative; that would be too simplistic.  Let’s just say the text is working on this problem.

The text also has a lot to say about wedding rituals.  That imagery keeps cropping up all over the place.  Ditto imagery about executions.  The two sets of images are, of course, related.  The link is not a new one–nevertheless there is something weird and compelling at work here.  A preoccupation with ceremony.  Symbolic clothes.  Performed gestures.

Money.  Not just as a concept, but as a physical object.  The cloth-like weave of cash, the smell of it.  The transfer through many hands.  The stolid gazes of dead presidents.

There is less sex than I was expecting in this book.  But in another way there is more sex than I was expecting.  Again, difficult to explain.  I should say: so far there has been less graphic description than I was anticipating about bodies doing what they do, but there is a sort of arrested attention in the gaze of the narrator on the world itself that is very sexual.  Not emotional, but intense in a denuding way.

A trinity of men: Bad, Worse, and Worst.  And the narrator doubles herself infinitely inside all the other female characters, inside allegorical dream figures.  The narrator, the blasted creature named Irina with a name that doubles my own so obviously that it’s embarrassing.  Last week the text introduced yet another double for her, a Russian mail order bride named Elena.  The moment gave me pause.  I looked at the book and said, really, you’re not serious.  It smiled at me quietly.  Radiantly.  And I knew that this frail girl with my name will have to die, given all the execution images.  How that I will happen I don’t know, but the destruction of her body is an inevitability.

So you want to symbolically walk me down a dark hallway and shoot me in the back of the neck, Soviet-style, hm? I said to the book as it showed me the pink dress with tulle overlay Elena had on at her quickie Vegas wedding, the delicacy of her collar bones, her heart-rending youth.  You intend to kill me, do you?  Well, then, kill me as many times as you like.

As long as you make something of it.


worms everywhere

So, I went to NCIBA trade show on Friday evening and it was fun, if somewhat surreal.  NCIBA stands for Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, so I got to sit at my little author table and chat with lots and lots of book sellers.  Also sign galleys for them.  I’d never signed my name so many times before.  After a while, it started to dissolve.  Actually, seeing a tabletop covered with multiples copies of my book had the same effect–something about all that repetition induces the same sort of vertigo as standing between two mirrors that are facing each other.

A couple of the book sellers already knew who I was, and even what I looked like.  It occurred to me that this is what any amount of fame entails: people you don’t know know who you are.  Which is…  Spooky!  Let’s just say I’m not worried about finding paparazzi digging through my trash, but still, having a public face to any degree requires some adjustment.  At least I am not a memoirist, thank God.  Fiction affords me a covering, however flimsy.

Meanwhile I am about 15,000 words into In The Red.  While I know most of what happens in the story, it is dreadfully hard to make this narrative take any sort of shape since it insists on coming out in disorderly fragments.  It’s like I’m getting shipments of hashed meat and bone from which I’m somehow supposed to eventually reconstitute the entire cow.  Sometimes one of the bone pieces is sort of an interesting shape.  This is a conversation between Irina and Andrei, shortly after he tells her a hypothesis about something that is awful, and yet has a certain air of inevitability:

“One body for another,” he said placidly, “that is the way it works.”

How did he do this?  This relentless disdain for all people, this ability to carve them up until they were all selfish and rotten.  It was a talent—a talent for making the world ugly?  No, it was not that he made it ugly, how could he make it ugly sitting there all golden skin and lithe musculature and iron-gray eyes?  Filled with stark knowledge, yes, but so beautiful himself he could make nothing ugly.  It was worse.  He stripped and peeled and sliced everything until loneliness bled out of every cut.

“Andrei,” I said, “you’re disgusting.”

I expected him to laugh then; that was mostly the way he ended these kinds of conversations.  He never became offended.  He was impossible to offend.  At least he was true in that way.

He didn’t laugh.  He looked at me very seriously, at the outline of my body that I’d pulled the sheet over while he remained naked.  “How much more disgusting would I be,” he said, “if I came to you in the guise of a good man?”

I hadn’t thought of explicitly connecting these two things before: inability to be offended and being true.  But when I put the words down on the page, they made sense.  Say someone accuses you of something.  If you know yourself completely and the accusation is true, it will not faze you because you know it already.  If it is false, you will merely feel a sense of dim puzzlement as to where your accuser could have gotten such an idea.  If you react explosively with HOW DARE YOU? then somewhere along the line, you have told yourself a lie, and indignation is the handiest way to keep yourself from acknowledging it.  Being offended is the defense mechanism of the false.

And that is only one of the cans of worms this roughly sketched scene decided to open.  That is the problem with this book: I don’t know how to make order of it because it just keeps opening cans and there are worms everywhere.

Seriously, don't open it.

The Writing Workshop, or, Only Do This to Yourself if You Crave Intense Discomfort.

A while back, I wrote a post on stages of the writing career from the point of view of submitting.  I thought I’d track the writer’s progress from the point of view of the Creative Writing Workshop, given that a writing career, these days, almost inevitably involves undergoing a whole series of them.  Here, then, are my findings:

Phase 1: Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome

This is a normal response when confronted by the format for the first time.  Having your piece workshopped is an exercise in naked fear, and when it’s up you take frantic notes on everything everyone says since you can’t spend any energy processing the feedback: all your attention must be channeled towards not bursting into tears like a little girl.  Your face is a particular shade of crimson that immediately identifies you as a workshop newbie, which will cause a kind-hearted instructor to go easy on you and a hard-assed one to plow into your guts with renewed vigor.  When giving feedback on other people’s work, you are merely blindly stumbling, trying not to look like too much of a clueless dumbass.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1997, during my first two workshops in college.

Phase 2: Grinding Along

You are now comfortable with the workshop format.  You have mastered the compliment sandwich when delivering your feedback on peer manuscripts.  You write down most of what they say when your work is being critiqued, but know to put your pen down when you hear something obviously spurious.  The quality of your work may be stationary or improving slowly.  It draws a genuine compliment here and there–but you are by no means comfortable: every time you are up, you still receive a beatdown that feels worthy of a gang initiation.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1998-99, later college workshops, then 2004-05, first year in MFA program.

Phase 3: OMGWTFBBQ

Something is happening to your writing.  You are not sure what, and neither are your peers.  Discussion of your work will generally begin with a class-wide flummoxed silence.  The feedback you receive might be very tentative, because nobody is sure whether you mean to be doing what precisely you are doing–whereas before they knew you didn’t.  You are a puzzlement to them and to yourself.  Your instructor might not quite know what to do with you, and might say cryptic things like, “I’m not sure I’m qualified to give feedback on this particular genre,” or might compliment your work using more specific words than the standard “good,” like “seductive.”  Your feedback to your peers is exceedingly thought-out and careful; you treat them as if they are in the same delicate transitory state as yourself.  You do not know if any of this tremendous upheaval is a good sign.  You suspect you might be going insane.  You write down very little of the peer feedback your receive; at least you have become an adept sifter.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2005-06, second year in MFA program.  By the time I finished the program I felt as if I’d been shot into space.  Complete disorientation.

Phase 4: Workshop Transcendence

Seriously, this happens.  This does not mean your work is universally liked, but it does mean that it has acquired authority–so that your peers are aware that you mean your text.  Your work is crafted; it knows what it intends; they will not quibble with that.  You will receive little to no prescriptive advice.  Instead your peers will sit around analyzing your work like literature students, drawing various interpretations (this is actually quite useful, as it highlights which themes are visible to the audience and may help you decide what needs to recede and what needs to be further brought out).  Your instructor may say some crazy stuff like, “this is a perfect story,” which will effectively bring the proceedings to a complete standstill while you shit a brick.  Your feedback to your peers may have reached instructor-grade.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2009-10, taking two workshops while in my PhD program for fun and/or needful units.

Advisory to aspirants: All of the workshop phases are characterized by mild to intense discomfort (even Transcendence involves shitting a brick).  Completion of all phases qualifies you to be at the head of the workshop table as a beginner instructor, which will in turn bring on Cycle 2 of Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome.  Good luck with that.

Dude, this is what the inside of my head looks like.

While I was making the bed, Dragos Popescu, one of Andrei’s business associates, suddenly spoke to me.  He is even more unbelievably tactless than Andrei is; those bastards won’t lie to me, even when I may want them to.  Today Dragos came up behind me while I was noticing that some of the stains on the new sheets hadn’t come out in the wash, and snapped my garters (he is the kind of man who can snap your garters even when you’re not wearing any).  “That’s nice, the pink underthings,” he said, “did Andrei suggest them?”

“Why are you here?  You’re just a bit character.”

“You were asking why men like young women so much, I’m going to tell you.”

I don’t know where he got that from, I did no such thing.  I was going about my housewifely business.  But I let him go on anyway, it gave me something to do while I was trying to figure out which way the fitted sheet was supposed to go.  “It not so much the smooth skin and the taut flesh, though that is nice too.  What is so lovely about them is that they will take the shape of whatever you choose to put them in, like water.  A woman who has been around, who may have pushed people out of herself, who may have realized that the world does not end when there is no man in the house, that woman with lines on her face and hip bones that have been pushed apart by growing life will not go breathless with need to give me what I want.  The young ones are so good, my dear, because they will say: do you like me in this dress? Would you think me prettier blonde?  Shall I put bags of silicone in my breasts?  Shall I give you what little power I might have had?  Would this please you?  There is no limit to how much they will cut themselves to please you.  How grateful I am to all their papas for not loving them.”

“Dragos, seriously?  This is what the old come stains on the bed make you think of?”

“Yes, how soft they are, how much you can hurt them, those sweet girls.  You simply cannot hurt an older woman like that.  And yes, my dear, you ought to get a stain remover for those.”