Monday, February 27, 2012

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

Perhaps the best way to introduce Veselka's first novel is to quote the first three paragraphs:

I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.
"Canada is just not far enough. Mostly Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali."
He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook. No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper. Add feta. Potatoes crispy and when when are we going to get spelt. He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage. I hope he dies. I'd like to read about it.

We are in an unnamed western American city (San Francisco? Portland? Stockton?) sometime in the near future. The narrator is Della Mylinek, a 27-year-old graduate student at UC Davis. She is living with her brother Credence and his pregnant wife until their twins are born. "...Credence fell in love an got married although I think he secretly wants a medal for falling in love with a black woman. Our parents were so proud. Now, if I could only abandon my hetrosexual tendencies as uninvestigated cultural preconditioning and move in with some sweet college-educated lipstick-dyke bike mechanic, they could all finally die happy."

Della, I hope it's clear, has an attitude. She is trying to make her way in a society that appears to be breaking down--self-immolations, police brutality, rampant capitalism, bombings. She sees the ambiguities and absurdities and can be very funny. ("The [fund-raising] event was a benefit for a media collective that taught underprivileged kids how to make chapbooks.") She and her friends feel powerless and want change. She begins to call in hoax bomb threats to provoke action. Then bombs start going off at the sites she'd called.

So Zazen is working on at least two levels: Della's own thoughts and attitudes and how to bring about social change. While I'm sure Veselka wrote this before the Occupy Wall Street movement gained much momentum, I suspect the book could be read as a primer on the attitudes and feelings of the occupiers. And as a warning to the powerful that if change does not occur, the bombs will start going off.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Conversation with Joseph

This week I had a literary conversation with Joseph Montebello at the Gunn Memorial Library in Washington, CT. I was there to talk about Getting Oriented. Montebello was there as someone interested in supporting the library and its programs. The library arranged the evening as a service to patrons.

Montebello is host of "Between the Covers," a radio show of in-depth interviews with authors. He was Vice-President and Creative Director at HarperCollins Publishers, and founded his own imprint Harper Style. He is a contributing editor for Litchfield magazine. We sat in easy chairs in the front of the library meeting room and chatted spontaneously and unrehearsed for about an hour. He had read the book and prepared thoughtful, open-ended questions. For example: "When did you know you were going to be a writer?"

I knew I was going to be a writer when I was 14 years old. I wrote plays, poetry, and fiction in high school; short stories in the Army, two unpublished novels in college, and more fiction and poetry during all the time I was a trade magazine journalist. Getting Oriented is the fourth novel I've written.

"Which was your favorite character and why?" I had not thought about this. One answer, of course, is that this is like asking which is your favorite child. But I blurted out that Sol is my favorite. Although I did not plan to do so, Sol seems almost the mirror to Phil, my protagonist; he is someone who has also lost his way, but unlike Phil is apparently going to remain lost.

"Do you write every day and how does that work?" Yes, I write almost every day. My wife and I are both writers; we share an office in our house. We are usually at the desk shortly after nine in the morning and work until five or later. Not every day is equally productive, but being at the desk is a start.

"Having gone through the process of looking for an agent and a publisher, would you self-publish again?" Probably yes. I told Joseph that I had written query letters to perhaps 150 or more agents and some number, possibly as many as 30, had asked to see the first few chapters of the novel. They all rejected it with essentially the same message: We have decided that your manuscript is not right for our list. I suspect the problem is that the book does not fit neatly into a category—mystery, thriller, romance, whatever—and neither a publisher nor a bookstore would know where to display it.

"How did you come up with characters like The Mad Shopper?" I've led tours in Japan and I've now been on tours elsewhere and shared experiences with guides. The characters in my novel are creations, not people I've known. But there you find certain stereotypical clients on almost every tour, The Mad Shopper, The Picky Eater, The Enthusiastic Drinker among them.

I found the evening wonderfully stimulating and thought-provoking. I only hope that people who sat through the conversation had half as much fun as I had.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Newtown Reads One Book

As a writer, I have a vested interest in reading. The more reading the better, I say, and I walk around with a low-level concern about reading in this country. Between television, video games, and non-verbal activities on the internet (YouTube and Farmville, as two examples), I worry that people are reading less.

I was therefore delighted to join the committee that is organizing the third town-wide reading event. According to the Library of Congress website, "The 'One Book' movement began in 1998 when Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book in the Seattle Public Library, initiated "If All Seattle Read the Same Book." With funding from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund and several local sponsors, she invited members of the public to read the novel The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks, and brought the author to Seattle for three days in December to discuss his book in a series of free public programs."

This will be the third time our library and town has held such an event. In 2003, the committee selected April Morning by Howard Fast and in 2005 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The committee's challenge, of course, is to pick a book that is (a) in print, (b) available in paperback, and (c) reasonably priced. We are also looking for a book that will appeal to a variety of ages (14 to 84), will inspire a variety of supporting activities and discussion points, and will not piss off too many members of the community.

It seems to me that any book we pick is going to disturb someone. After all, as someone wrote about To Kill a Mockingbird in an Amazon review, "In my Junior English class this year I was forced to read this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. First, what was the PP committee thinking? Yes it was 1961, yes it was the Civil Rights Movement, yes a lot of people used WAY too much pot, but none of those arguments can explain why this obvious, saccharine mockery of a novel won anything, including publication rights. I kept thinking that 'it has to get better,' but it DOESN'T! The characters are flat and cariacatured—everyone does exactly what a Disney-style movie would like them to do. Because of this, there is no real definition to the characters and you can't care about them—believe me, I tried—under threat of death by English teacher. Also the symbolism is blatant beyond belief. She actually tells you directly what the symbols are and what they mean—defeating the whole purpose...."

Our committee has thrown out a long list of possible titles including The Namesake, Sailing Alone Around the World, The Book Thief, Lost in Place, Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Girls of Tender Age, The Coldest Winter Ever, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, and a couple dozen more. Eventually, we'll winnow this down to a short list of five and ask the community to vote on a finalist.

Meanwhile, I have a whole list of what sound like interesting titles to look into. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

This is the second novel in the Matthew Fox series; it's Rankin's 25th book. It goes down as smoothly as 25-year-old single malt Scotch.

Inspector Fox is an Edinburgh cop assigned to the Complaints, the cops who investigate other cops. The setup taps into the inevitable tension between the fallible human beings who are trying to bring criminals to justice and the rule of law. As the Romans said, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" As a result, Fox and his two associates are barely tolerated other cops when they are assigned to look into a case of police misconduct.

The Impossible Dead begins as if Fox, Kaye, and Naysmith are on a fairly straightforward investigation to see whether a rogue cop's mates had known what he was up to and tried to protect him. The dialogue is sharp and natural:

"Forrester's the one we should be talking to," Kaye said suddenly, breaking off from his argument with Naysmith.
"Because her first name's Cheryl. My years of experience tells me that makes her a woman."
"And if one of her colleagues was a sex pest, surely she'd have had an inkling. Surrounded by blokes circling the wagons when the rumors start flying . . . she's got to know something."

As anyone who has ever read a mystery knows, however, the straightforward investigation morphs into something far more serious and far more complex. It is a sign of Rankin's mastery that he is able to keep the story moving and his large cast of characters from bumping into each other or into the scenery.

He is also a master at giving just enough descriptive detail to convey place, character, and mood. Here is Fox interviewing the elderly widow of a dead politician:

"Fox took another sip of tea and placed the cup and saucer back on the tray. The room was silent for the best part of a minute. He got the feeling that when she was left alone, this was how she sat--calm and still and waiting for death, staring at her reflection in the window, the rest of world lost somewhere beyond. He was reminded of his father [in the elder care facility]: I don't sleep...I just lie here...."

I'm afraid I cannot sum up my feelings better than P.D. James, who is quoted on the book's jacket: "Rankin is a master at what, for me, is one of the important aspects of a crime novel: the integration of setting, plot, characters, and a theme which, for Rankin, is the moral dimension never far from his writing."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

One of the things I think about as a writer of fiction is how to convince (or persuade) a reader that the story she is reading is—or could be—true. Of course, most readers of a book labeled "novel" realize that neither the characters nor the situation are "real." They are the author's creation. Still, if the author is skillful enough, we are willing to accept that this could have happened; these people might have lived and talked and acted the way the author presents them.

This is true even when the characters inhabit a world we know does not exist: Narnia, the Mars of Martian Chronicles, a post-apocalyptic America. We are willing to accept the impossible (time travel, faster-than-light drive, magic) for the pleasure of the story, the characters, the writing, the conceit, or all four.

I've just seen Woody Allen's latest film, "Midnight in Paris." It hinges on the possibility of time travel. A hack Hollywood writer is in Paris with his fiance and her parents. One evening, alone and tipsy, he is invited at midnight into an ancient Peugeot and finds himself in the 1920s hobnobbing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and more. Indeed, with virtually ever famous artist and writer who was working in Paris in the 20s. It happens more than once when he is entirely sober, so the experience is not the result of alcohol. This I can accept.

At one point, apparently browsing the Seine-side used book kiosks, the writer finds a diary of the 1920s written in French by a woman he has actually met; she mentions him by name in her diary. The American writer, who speaks no French, finds a young, good-looking French woman to translate the significant passage aloud. This I cannot accept. It raises too many questions for me. He doesn't have any French; how does he find the book? How does he convince a stranger to read it to him?

I am not sure why I am willing to accept that an American Hollywood screenwriter of 2011 can be transported back to Paris of the 1920s, but I cannot accept that the American can find a specific French book when he speaks no French. Does anyone else have this problem with books or movies? Does anyone have a theory why this should be so? Comments are welcome.