Four Novels

So I boldly said on this site that I don’t read a lot of novels, and then I plowed through four in a row recently. Be careful the claims you make, I guess.

But all my many reasons aside for not reading a lot of novels, I’m still enchanted by a good story and accomplished writing. The following books were worth every page.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Awhile back I watched Benioff on a random little show called The Writer’s Room, and from that I learned he’d written a couple of novels before he got into the writing-for-television business. I looked him up, read some reviews, and decided to give City of Thieves a try. It’s about two young men in World War II Russia who are thrown together and forced to go on a strange little quest that doesn’t turn out to be so little. I’m not usually drawn to plot-based fiction—and there I go with another claim—but this one was so well-crafted that I couldn’t put it down. Then I gave it to my boyfriend and he couldn’t put it down either. Apparently Benioff had to do a lot of research for this, and I’m thankful that he did, because now I realize there’s a whole section of history I never knew about, and it makes me sad all over again for what I was taught—or not taught—in school. Sigh.

Lemongrass Hope by Amy Impellizzeri. You won’t find this on the shelves…yet…but I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy from my friend and fellow writer Amy. Lemongrass Hope is both an exploration of contemporary love and a tale of time travel, which poses these questions: If we had the chance to go back and make different choices, would we? And what if life is simply about what you do with the choices you make—good, bad, or indifferent? I was honored to read her touching and thought-provoking work. But here’s a really interesting thing about Amy. She was a total stranger until a few months ago, when she sent me an email out of the blue and told me she was reading my first novel. We started exchanging emails, and from this I learned that she was finishing her first novel (the very same Lemongrass Hope). She inspired me to keep writing—renewing this blog is, in fact, a direct result of her—and is now at the beginning of her own journey as a published author of whom you should take note. Lemongrass Hope will be released in October of this year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. One afternoon I was walking through a book store on my way out when I passed by a shelf with a sign saying something like “Staff Recommends.” Constellation was front and center. I was leaving on vacation in a few days and already had a lot of reading material to take with me, but thought, “What the hell.” Not only is the book divinely wrought, it is also, like City of Thieves, about war-time Russia and unlikely partnerships, set during the Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I got to the end, I read the author’s notes and found out that Marra had read City of Thieves prior to writing Constellation. Marra considered Benioff’s novel a kind of green light to launch into the unearthing of his own unique story in a country and during a time in which he had no particular background (more history that escaped me…what was I doing all those years?). Anyway, after I was done falling off my chair, I realized I was grateful to have been one of the many anonymous third points in this reader/writer triangle, and to have stumbled upon the connection between these two authors.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I read an interview with Kingsolver a couple of months ago in The Sun, and was intrigued by her, even though I’d never particularly taken to her fiction before. I bought The Lacuna and dove in. The protagonist is a boy from two worlds—the U.S. and Mexico—who comes of age in the 1930s when the art and political influences of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and their friendship with Leon (Lev) Trotsky, pressed upon the sensibilities of both countries. He eventually grows up and moves back to the States from Mexico, where he becomes a popular writer and then, true to the times, suffers accusations of anti-American activities. It was the Mayan part that made my skin prickle (when he makes a trip to the Yucatan peninsula to research the Mayans for one of his books), because a few weeks earlier, before I’d ever even considered reading The Lacuna, I had written a blog post about my adopted brother and his Mayan roots. As well, the window into history, the blind hysteria around communism, and the pulse of revolution present in City of Thieves and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena culminated in a great crescendo for me there in The Lacuna. The book is close to genius and I now have a newfound respect for Kingsolver.

It’s not an accident that I read these novels. I’ve learned to pay close attention to those small coincidences, the lines drawn between seemingly unrelated things, and the people who come into my life with insistent messages. Many times books have cracked open the world just a little bit more for me, and I’m always in awe of what authors can do when they tell the truth—the truth as they see it, anyway.

And I shall now officially stop telling people that I don’t read novels.

A Story for an Afternoon

Follow me.

Once upon a time, a girl turned into a young woman, and then into a depressed and world-weary soul, who at the age of 28 decided to go to graduate school in San Francisco to get an MFA in Fiction Writing.

There were two reasons for this:

1)    She was trying to get away from a disappointing sometimes-friendship / sometimes-relationship with a guy with which there was no future, and it was making everything else in her world disappointing and future-less; and
2)    She had always wanted to write, since she could first hold a pencil and identify words on a page, and it seemed that the only possible way to write was to get a degree that confirmed she was a writer.

The first reason was private (and kind of stupid, so she was ashamed). The second reason was much loftier and easier for her to tell her friends and family.

She was supposed to be in San Francisco for two years. But she left after seven months. She also quit the graduate program before she even started it. She was afraid that people would think she was a quitter and a failure, which many probably did (but didn’t say so), and yet the urge to leave that city and the urge to write—on her own, without academia giving her credit—erupted at the exact same time and grew so exponentially in the first few weeks she was there, that something had to crack.

(She also figured out, years later, that you are supposed to make big life decisions from a position of strength, not weakness. And since she was weak with relationship drama, she’d probably decided to do something she wouldn’t have otherwise done. Or maybe she would have. It’s hard to say.)

But once she decided to leave San Francisco, life got easier (plus, she was stuck there for awhile due to a lot of tedious logistical reasons, so she had to make the most of it). She spent every Saturday and Sunday morning at a coffee shop two blocks from her apartment and wrote feverishly in a journal—about everything. She made observations about the weirdness of the city, and wrote tributes filled with longing about the home she’d left behind. She explored why her heart was always broken, and what she wanted more than anything for herself. She started a novel. Twice she saw a race being run where people were dressed inexplicably as cows and bananas; twice she was rendered speechless by this. She eventually made friends and was blessed with a window into their lives—so very different from hers, but remarkable and poignant and full of comic relief—and even dated a new guy for awhile (a Midwestern transplant who liked beer a little too much).

She spent Thanksgiving by herself on Ocean Beach, standing at the edge of the continent, looking out to the gray Pacific and shivering in the haze. There was something about standing alone on a beach when everyone else was indoors celebrating with loved ones; not because she was a martyr, but because she knew she had survived one of the biggest emotional challenges she had ever faced and standing alone was an act of true self-reliance.

When it was time to go home, she packed all her belongings into her small car and her dad’s pickup truck, and together they made the long trek back to Colorado so she could get there in time for Christmas.

Later, she would take a writing workshop with an instructor who would tell her about graduate school: “You don’t need a degree to write. You just need to write.” And he would help her edit and revise that novel she started back in San Francisco, as well as another novel that would eventually be the first one she published; even more, he would provide the best possible education in writing she could imagine, all without her having to set foot in a classroom or be a good little student (because she had been a good little student her entire life, and it was exhausting) or spend $38,000 she’d have to pay back tenfold over time. She wanted someone to tell her straight up: “This is how it is.” And also, of her work: “This is really good.” Somehow both were all she needed to change her life.

She believes in graduate school for those who really want it. She also believes that if you know in your heart you have the talent, and if you commit yourself to the craft in every way your resources allow, then your writing improves and flourishes all on its own by your very curious, loving, and fierce dedication to it.

She paid a visit to San Francisco a few years ago—the first time she’d been back since she left. And she was able to look at the city with fresh eyes. She still saw its blights and its flaws, and she remembered all the things she had feared and wished were different; but she also saw resilience and defiance, humor and wisdom, and yes, even magnificence, too.

She also believes that people do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons in their lifetimes, and that only after time has passed can people look back and see why they did it and what it all meant.

Did you stick with me?

Because I’m here, and you’re reading this, and I understand now. May you understand some day, too.

Lunch Blues and Rolls

My writer friend Margaret and I meet for lunch about every other month. Inevitably, we sit down and ask “What’s new?” and often a variation of “Not much” comes out of both of us. She writes for children and young adults; I write literary fiction; we both have various pieces in the works. If neither of us is creating anything new here, then a large chunk of the written spectrum is getting short-changed in Denver, Colorado. (One glass of water, Margaret; this lunch is gonna be short).

And yet, nature abhors a vacuum.

So my theory is that there actually isn’t a void of work on our parts. Even if we just think about writing, we’re working. Even if it takes us eight hours to produce one word, that’s enough. We joked about this the other day. Most likely that word is “Shit.”

The point is that writing is fickle stuff. And just like an iceberg, 90% of it happens below the surface, in the furthest recesses of our brains, where the inspiration receptacles live that capture the gossamer threads of new ideas…or old ideas…or solutions to the nagging problem on page 38 we haven’t been able to solve. Those receptacles are wired differently than the rest of us. Our regular neurons might be firing away, allowing us to digest food and watch TV and honk the horn at the person making an illegal turn in front of us, but the inspiration part of our brains sits down on a couch, crosses one leg over the other, folds its hands in its lap, and simply waits. And we wait along with it. Do you know how hard it is to watch waiting?

But that’s what it feels like. We wait to turn up a gossamer thread that advances us a little bit further in the story. It’s totally maddening. And totally humbling.

It’s probably not even our brains at all. Some people theorize that memory is actually contained in every cell of our bodies, so perhaps literary inspiration works that way, too. I’d like to think that Chapter Six can be found in the cells of my left elbow. If I stick it out a little as I walk, maybe I can catch a breeze and the words will float free.

The other thing is that sometimes “not much” becomes “I’m on a roll.” And those are the best kind of lunches. They are unexpected and light-filled. The hair rises up on our arms and we smile. This is when something happens called mudita—a Buddhist term (I’m told) that means “sympathetic joy” (although someone else told me that it’s also an Arab concept, so if that’s the case, respects should be paid there as well)—which is that feeling of unconditional joy in witnessing someone else do well in his or her craft / sport / calling / talent / affinity, and probably life in general. On these days, we go back to our respective desks and bask in the glow of mudita, because surely, in addition to sticking an elbow out, just sitting in close proximity to inspiration works, too.

One day, Margaret and I will sit down and ask “How’s your ninth book going?” and we’ll both say “It’s OK” with lackluster aplomb…because by then Margaret and I will have the oh-so-weary task of living up to expectations (sigh). But it will be fun, nevertheless, just to say those words. We will have befriended the enigma on the couch; we will have made peace with waiting. Until then, the best we can do is meet for lunch and strum our angst-filled chords and greet the occasional roll with a generous amount of butter and jelly.

By the way, if you’re interested in harnessing inspiration and understanding where it comes from, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and his follow-up, Turning Pro. I also rave about Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creative genius. All resonated with me deeply, and may with you as well.