5 books...

I saw this topic on another message board, but thought it’d be fun to throw out here. What are the 5 books or poems that influenced you the most. These are not necessarily your FAVORITE books/poems of all time, but rather the ones that had the biggest impact on your literary tastes, and maybe even that helped define your work...

For me (in no particular order)...

Ginsberg, Howl & Other Poems
O’Hara, Collected Poems
Joyce, Portrait of the Artist…
Rimbaud, Illuminations
Blake, Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience

But like I said, with the exception of O’Hara, I don't think any of these are among my “favorite” books/poems.

If we really want to get into it we can say how & why & what & etc. etc., but I'll save that for the thread.

Homeland Security

This may not be the definition of irony, but it's getting damn close.


Softball team

Yes, we're forming one to play in the city leagues. And we need a few more players, especially chicks. You have to commit to playing 3 out of 4 Sunday nights from April 24-August 18. Games start on the hour variously from 5-9. $30. Meeting tonight at George's 7:30 to finalize. Please let me know asap by commenting here or emailing xochi@iecc.com -- deadline is Friday.


Curtis Sittenfeld interview

   August 3, 2005 update from Curtis: My second novel, called The Man of My Dreams, is scheduled to be published in June 2006. I wrote a story called "The Man of My Dreams" at Iowa, and several of my classmates said, "The story's fine, but I hate the title." Well, at this point, pretty much all that remains is the title--but I have certainly learned in the last few months that you can't please everyone!

The novel follows a character named Hannah from the age of 14 to the age of 28 and chronicles her interactions with her family (especially her father, her older sister, and a cousin who is her age and sort of torments and enthralls Hannah) and also delves into Hannah's messy dating relationships. Hannah is less analytical than Lee in Prep--which I think is why this book is about 100 pages shorter, because Hannah doesn't anxiously anticipate every event and then anxiously reflect on it afterward--but she's still pretty neurotic. Go figure!
Original interview post: Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novel Prep, which today (March 29, 2005) sits at number 10 on the NYT bestseller list. The book tells the story of Lee Fiora, a midwestern girl delivering incisive takes on class and sexual politics at an elite Massachusets boarding school. It has been praised for its "... achingly funny authenticity…" and "pitch-perfect voice that's brimming with acute self-consciousness and wit" (Boston Globe).

The craft and detail of Prep go far beyond most coming-of-age efforts. As the NYT put it: "Sittenfeld's dialogue is so convincing that one wonders if she didn't wear a wire under her hockey kilt …" Curtis was two years ahead of the Earth Goat prosers at the IWW, and as a TWF may well be responsible for many of us getting into the program. So if you can't bring yourself to genuflect, at least take off your hat, sit up straight, and try to still look deserving.

Earth Goat: At the moment, your career is turning into the kind many writers dream about. How are you finding the spotlight? Is it weird? Exhilarating?

Curtis Sittenfeld: Well, the spotlight is appointment-based, if that makes sense -- like, I'll have an interview or give a reading and I'll be in public writer mode, but for the rest of the time I'm normal Curtis (or abnormal Curtis, as the case may be). Although I feel really lucky, my life has not changed in most ways, and I'm certainly not walking around flooded with self-satisfaction. I've had a few surreal moments, like I was at a wedding and some people asked me to sign their programs, or I was invited to a party hosted by Meg Ryan -- but I should admit that the people who asked me to sign their programs hadn't actually read Prep, and I couldn't go to the Meg Ryan party.

EG: I'm sure you saw the Newsweek caption in a story on L.L. Bean "boat and tote" bags, saying they were perfect for "your new copy of Prep." And there was something about Payless Shoes "putting Prep in your step"? Your book seems to be already on its way to becoming a kind of icon. How is it that your book has become so aligned with fashion trends? Is it that belt on the cover? People are putting their collars up again. Is your publicist in league with the Devil or something?

CS: I'd like to claim that I'm incredibly prescient, but the fact that preppiness is trendy right now is basically a lucky coincidence -- it's a wave Prep is riding rather than creating. I just hope the cover doesn't look really passe by the time the paperback comes out.

EG: Are you tired of the "how much of it really happened?" issue yet? In a way, it's a compliment to your writing skills that they have convinced so many that Lee's story must be true. I must say I thought the book read like a memoir. That's high praise for fiction. But are you tired of explaining to people the basic fact that writers make stuff up?

CS: I'm not surprised that non-writers ask how much is true (and, hell, I often have that question myself about fiction) but I'm surprised that writers (including you) think it reads like a memoir. I don't want to spoil anything, but the number of things that happen to Lee, and the sequence of them, is somewhat improbable -- as I was writing, I worried that she would seem Forrest Gump-like in being conveniently omnipresent. I suspect part of the reason the book seems true is that I don't make certain things work out for her that typically do work out for characters in fiction. I guess I'm a mean author.

EG: You have said that your fascination with prep schools may have came at least partly from watching "The Facts of Life." Can you expand on that a bit? There was something comforting about that show.

CS: I know -- wasn't there? Maybe it had to do with the fact that the things characters would freak out about would typically be along the lines of getting embarrassed in front of a boy, or feeling jealous of a friend -- relatively safe problems, all things considered. Most sit-coms are pretty comforting, even more than they're funny -- I also was comforted by "Golden Girls" and "227."

EG: The film rights for Prep have been sold to Paramount, if I'm not mistaken. To those who have fantasized about such a moment, what's it been like to sell your book to Hollywood?

CS: So far, the book has been optioned rather than sold -- my agent explained it to me as optioning is like renting, where the studio pays me such-and-such amount for 18 months (and they can renew for another 18) and they reserve the right to make it, but what people would typically think of as the real money doesn't come unless they actually start making it. Also, to put things in perspective, a producer told me that out of every 100 projects in development at a studio, one becomes a movie. So, in short, it's not like Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, and I are drinking martinis together just yet. The funny part to me is that, legally (and this applies to things like sequels), if the movie gets made, the character of Lee Fiora belongs to Paramount in perpetuity. I find this hilarious because I think Lee Fiora would be so excited and find it so glamorous to be owned in perpetuity by Paramount.

One thing I feel compelled to say is that although I definitely can imagine writing a screenplay or writing for TV at some point, I don't see writing fiction as a stepping stone to those opportunities. I actually find it kind of offensive when people imply that fiction is a lesser form, or what you write because you're not sufficiently connected in Hollywood. To me, fiction is the best form, and other forms would be more of a lark.

EG: You said you got a little sentimental reading the notes from Frank's workshop. What influence did the workshop, or Frank in particular, have on you? Were there similarities between prep school and the workshop as communities or experiences?

CS: I can't say enough good things about the Workshop. I truly adored all my teachers, including Frank -- my others Workshop teachers were Chris Offutt, Ethan Canin, and Marilynne Robinson. They all were so wise and so generous-spirited. I think of things they said all the time when I'm writing, and just in normal life. Some of my favorite nuggets from each are (I'm going in order of semesters, and I'm not phrasing any of this as eloquently as they did):

Chris saying to be a writer, you have to "Live cheap, don't kill yourself, and write what hurts." Chris also would point to a good passage in a story and say that if any part of it could be that good, it could all be that good. He really discouraged me from "coasting."

Ethan said, "Don't write what sounds good or clever -- write what's true." (True NOT being the same as autobiographical here.) This was so important for me because I think young writers, including me when I arrived in Iowa, can be in love with their own verbal cleverness , but it's really so off-putting in writing, and so shallow. Ethan also would say to love all your characters because of course why would the reader have interest in or sympathy for them if you don't?

Meanwhile, I love how Frank talks about fiction as one soul speaking to another across the abyss, how the reader has to be this sort of active participant, and also how a sign of good fiction is when you can feel a soul on the page. (Frank can somehow pull off talking about "souls" without sounding remotely cheesy.) I also of course think constantly of Frank's various comments on abject naturalism, ping-pong dialogue, meditating on the text, and making the reader carry a backpack up a mountain -- I've repeated that one many times.

And Marilynne is less sound-bite-ish, but she taught me a lot about seeing larger meaning in a work. She also taught me about teaching, in the way that she lets students sort of fight things out and only then does she speak -- she teaches with a light touch, in a way that's impersonal but not at all cold. She also scared the hell out of me regarding Mad Cow disease -- for some reason, my class talked a lot about that.

As for similarities between prep school and the Workshop, the main thing is that you're around a lot of bright people who are roughly your age, interested in the same thing you're interested in, and the environment can be simultaneously quite inspiring and quite incestuous and gossipy. I think in prep school, the gossip is unavoidable, and in the Workshop it's avoidable, not that I chose to avoid it. In both places, I felt like I was in juicy, exciting settings, which can provide both fun and anguish.

EG: You've been compared to J.D. Salinger. Do you see similarities between Lee and Holden? Were you influenced by Salinger at all? Have you read him as an adult? What book or books did influence you, do you think?

CS: I like Salinger's stories more than Catcher in the Rye, which I find hugely readable and charming in places but also excessively voice-y. It's an easy, obvious comparison because of the settings of Prep and Catcher in the Rye (and A Separate Peace), and the teenage narrators, but I don't see the books as having a tremendous amount in common. I also suspect most people who compare Prep favorably or unfavorably to those books haven't read them in years. I don't take the comparisons that seriously one way or the other. I also think it's so funny that people talk about whether there's "room" for an addition to the "boarding school genre" when that genre exists only because it's so small -- that is, there's no genre of books about unfaithful men living in the suburbs because there are so many you could never tally them. That's just considered a normal novel!

EG: You've made quite a first impression with your debut book. Are you afraid at all of being pigeon-holed in the future? Do you feel you're locked into a genre now? Let me put it another way: What's next for Curtis?

CS: I'm working on my second novel, though I haven't written a lick of fiction since Prep came out. But Random House bought Prep in June of 2003, so I had time to get well underway before that and I'm planning to get cracking again in April. As for other people's expectations, it's probably healthiest to try to ignore them and just write the best I can.




Looks like the Chicago office of Earthgoat reigns supreme.


Robert Rosenberg interview: our man in Kyrgyzstan

Robert Rosenberg is the author of This Is Not Civilization, a novel that takes place in Kyrgyzstan, an Apache reservation in Arizona, and Istanbul during the 1999 earthquake. The book begins with the best opening line in recent memory: "The idea of using porn films to encourage the dairy cows to breed was a poor one." In his NYTBR piece, Christopher Buckley called the novel "journalistic, humane, and heart-wrenching." He forgot to mention very funny. A paperback edition has just been released by Mariner.

Earth Goat: You were a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. What was your role there?

Robert Rosenberg: I served in Kyrgyzstan from 1994-96. I was with ‘K2’ – the second group of volunteers to be sent to the country. The Peace Corps placed me in the TEFL program, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, basically ESL style classes. After three months of training in the capital, they sent me to a village in the northwestern part of the country, in the Talas Valley. I was the first American to serve there, the first English teacher in the school; and there were only three other volunteers (including my future wife) in the region. We basically had our own private corner of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were really the first Americans most of the people in the region had ever met. So in many respects, the responsibilities as cultural ambassador were as important as the teaching.

Landing in Kyrgyzstan just after Independence felt like stepping onto the moon. It was really a thrilling time to be there – both for us, and I imagine for the Kyrgyz people we came in touch with, whose lives were changing so rapidly. I worked hard at the teaching, and had some success. Many of my Kyrgyz students have gone on to study here in the U.S.

But I often wonder how well I did, in other respects. It was hard being so young, and so far away from home, in a completely foreign culture, speaking unfamiliar languages. There were long periods of loneliness and deprivation, and much complaining. The irony of the Peace Corps Volunteer is that, as difficult as it might be, you know it will be over for you in two years. On the other hand, the troubles I faced – periods without running water, failure of heat and electricity in the winter, those kinds of things – have become permanent problems for the people in my village. As volunteers, you’re dropped into the difficulties, do your best to help, and then you leave. But the difficulties remain.

EG: What do you make of this blink-of-an-eye revolution in Kyrgyzstan? Did you ever think something like this would happen?

RR: I’m honestly surprised. I’ve known about the general discontent with Akayev over the last few years, the corruption, the fraudulent elections, the suppression of dissent. But these things seemed to me a permanent fact of life in the former Soviet Union, both in larger countries like Russia, and in the smaller states. Plus, after 9/11 the U.S. seemed to be willing to accept, and turn a blind eye to, the frustrating political situation in places like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, in order to guarantee support for the war on terror. They needed friendly relations with Kyrgyzstan and its government, for example, in order to set up a military base there. So I knew it would not be through any U.S. pressure that Akayev would eventually go.

Even after what happened in Georgia and the Ukraine, I could not imagine similar events unfolding, this quickly, in Kyrgyzstan. I underestimated the frustration of the Kyrgyz people, and their propensity to act. When I lived in Kyrgyzstan, the people always struck me as rather passive, willing to accepting a great deal of hardship in their lives, but not willing to do much about it, politically. Peace Corps volunteers always marveled at the amount of ‘silent suffering’ that went on there. Well, the Kyrgyz people are silent no more! They were obviously inspired by the Georgian elections being overturned, and the massive street movements in the Ukraine and in Beirut. My impression is that many, many people felt, Why not us? Life is so hard, and we have nothing to lose. What started off as small movements in smaller cities in the south (and in Talas, where I served) kept gaining momentum, and moved very quickly up north to the capital. I’m not sure Akayev even saw it coming.

It’s pretty exciting, and the emails I’ve gotten from students and friends are uplifting. One former student I’m still in touch with called it a “very special day for the Kyrgyz people.” And then she only wanted to know if we in the States had seen it on CNN. The revolution wouldn’t be good enough unless the U.S. was paying attention, on television, it seemed.

My hope is, of course, that the situation will stabilize quickly. I was optimistic yesterday at how little violence the takeover seemed to require. Today it seems as though the country is aware of the power vacuum, and has descended into looting, and a number of people have been killed and injured. The biggest question for me is what will follow. Will the Kyrgyz people learn from their mistakes, and elect leaders with some degree of wisdom and selflessness – leaders who will be willing to step down, and share power, and allow dissent. Fair elections are the key. I’ll be watching to see who, if anyone, emerges from the disorganized opposition with enough power to calm things down, and move the country forward from here.

EG: What interest does the U.S. have in Kyrgyzstan? We and the Russians have military bases there. Is it oil?

RR: No, unlike its extremely wealthy northern neighbor Kazakhstan, tiny little Kyrgzstan has no oil. It’s one of the most mountainous countries in the world, and natural resources are extremely limited. The U.S., I think, needed a small, passive country in Central Asia for geopolitical strategy. After Independence, Kyrgyzstan was known as the most liberal, democratic, and pro-U.S. country in Central Asia. It was obvious, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russia and China – as well as Iran and Turkey – would be struggling for influence in the region. Friendly Kyrgyzstan gave the U.S. a foothold – something that indeed proved valuable in the war with Afghanistan.

EG: You often talk about your students in the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. What did they teach you while you were teaching them?

RR: As a teacher, it’s always been my feeling that I’ve taken more away from my students than I’ve ever been able to give. The students I taught on the White Mountain Apache Reservation had a way of thinking that was totally different than mine. They were extremely patient – passing a class this semester or next year made very little difference to them. Life would be long, and there was no need to rush. They didn’t understand the constant urgency behind most things “white people” did – the need for expensive houses and high SAT scores, for instance, all of which suddenly seems ridiculous when you live on the reservation. They made me look at life in America differently, to appreciate what I had even more. And to need much less, materially, to make me happy. What was important to them was family and their small, tightly knit community.

Spiritually, too, I was always inspired by their ability to appreciate both their Native ways and outside religions such as Christianity. I liked their idea that God, or the Creator, was good, and more God, and more Creator, were even better, whatever form He came in.

EG: How did it occur to you to combine the three very different locales of Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and the rez in Arizona in your novel? Or are they so different?

RR: I’ve always had two passions: travel, and the desire to be a writer. I imagined, when I first went to Kyrgyzstan, that I would like to try to write about it. I was living an isolated existence in the Peace Corps: isolated geographically, psychologically, linguistically. I need the connection to people, something all writers probably feel. So I wrote hundreds of letters home: I was inspired, entertained, and I felt my skills developing. I could describe difficult, unusual things, such as the custom of filling tea glasses only half full, or the kurban mayram – the sacrificial holiday, when there were sheep hanging off of the village trees like fruit. In writing these letters, I also learned discipline - that the labor of writing was done every day, bit by bit. Still, when I returned home, I had no book. I had a huge stack of letters. It was reportage, not literature.
I won a fellowship to teach on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, and I thought, well, I didn’t write my book about Kyrgyzstan, but here’s a fascinating, unique place. I’ll write a book about the reservation. Living there, though, I found that I wasn’t writing at all. The teaching was too difficult, and I had a telephone, and e-mail, so the urgency to make sense of things on paper wasn’t there, as it had been in Kyrgyzstan. Plus, I found I wasn’t interested in writing a book, so much as what I could do to let the students and community tell their own story.

In school we worked on a community magazine that I edited with the students. The stories came pouring in, interviews with elders, hunting tales, ceremonies…and in this way I became inspired by so many of the similarities between Kyrgyzstan and the Apache reservation – the art, the love of the land and hunting, the problems of alcoholism and suicide, the need to keep a dying culture alive.

I started to think about characters. At first I imagined a young Apache man who, like so many of my students, thought of fleeing the reservation. I imagined an older Kyrgyz man, fleeing the mountain village and the hardships of his post-Soviet existence. Somehow the two characters would meet, like the old Tibetan man and young child in Kipling’s Kim. But I didn’t yet know where or how they would meet.

I took a job and moved to Istanbul, and with distance and perspective, the connections between these two places became even clearer. I was living in this enormous city, that had just suffered, in the 1999 earthquake, this enormous disaster. I thought, what if they met here? What if these characters I was imagining saw what I had seen, and lived through it. How would it alter their views of the native lands they had fled?

So, more than just the connections, suddenly I saw the shape and pattern of the novel, which is a vital step, I realize now, in the process. The novel had a structure: the two characters would leave their native lands, encounter something completely life-altering, and eventually return to where they had come, somehow changed. It was the typical hero’s journey, though mirrored in two characters. It only took me seven years to come up with it.

Much of this initial idea changed, of course, in the actual writing. But once I had the characters, and the basic structure, the writing started to happen.

EG: Anarbek is my favorite character in your book. How did you come up with him? Is he based on someone you know in Kyrgyzstan?

RR: Thanks. A lot of people seem to like Anarbek. As I told you, the initial idea was to have an older Kyrgyz character hoping to flee his life in Kyrgyzstan. Older because I was imagining a character who had lived through, and understood, much of what happened in Kyrgyzstan under the Soviet Union. I was wondering how he would interpret events after the collapse of the empire. How attracted would he be to the West, and to America in particular? How would he continue to support himself and his family in an economy that had crumbled? All of these questions interested me.

I try never to base characters on any single person. In the village where I worked in Kyrgyzstan there was a cheese factory, and I knew the manager. But I like to think that Anarbek is an amalgamation of many of the Kyrgyz men I knew – men who were always on the lookout for a new way to make money, men with a great deal of pride in their masculinity, men who could drink heavily (as all Kyrgyz men in the village did), men who were protective of their family at all costs, men who both wanted to experience life in the West, but were also devoted to preserving, and excelling in, their ancient traditions.

To anyone who has lived in Kyrgyzstan, Anarbek is probably a familiar figure, then. There was something extremely noble, and extremely comic, about nearly all the Kyrgyz men I knew there.

EG: Your novel has been praised for its dead-pan humor. How did you develop that?

RR: The humor, I think, comes simply out of my written voice. It was probably developed through those years of writing letters home from faraway places. The events and clash of cultures were often so weird, and comic, that I never felt they needed any embellishment. I just put them on the page, and let people make of them what they wanted. An attentive reader, I realized, would find them as hilarious as I had found them, living them.

So when I made up events in my fiction, I treated them in the very same way. One of the reviewers said something like “Rosenberg lets the reality speak for itself”, and I like to think I let the comedy speak for itself too.

EG: What do you suppose lies at the heart of your passion for travel and other cultures?

RR: I think I’ve never really known where I belong. I’ve never felt that any place was home. Was it Basho, a Zen master, who said something like “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home?” That’s how I’ve always felt. I’m happier with a backpack on my back, a paperback novel in my hand, floating through some unfamiliar landscape in a train or a bus, than I could ever be sitting at home. That to me is pure pleasure. I’m extremely restless, and extremely curious about how other people live. What would it be like to BE them? Have they found some kind of happiness that I don’t know?

My characters, then, in this first novel probably all exhibit much of the restlessness that I am cursed with myself. They’re constantly traveling, constantly wondering how other people live, and if they might be happier in some other place.

I should say, though, that I haven’t traveled much since 9/11. I’m terribly upset by the way the rest of the world perceives us, and it’s my firm belief that this misadventure in Iraq has done more to harm America’s standing in the world, and our ability to understand other cultures, than any foreign policy blunder in the country’s history.

EG: Was it hard to write from the point of view of characters from other cultures? Did you anticipate criticism for trying that and has it materialized? I'm sure you recall that evening in Elizabeth McCracken's workshop at her house when you were kind of cornered by a fellow student's tirade that questioned your qualifications to be writing such material.

RR: You know, I might never have attempted to write from the point of view of foreign characters had I attended Iowa before I began the novel. Luckily, I had no idea what I was doing when I first started writing the book, and so I did what came naturally: I tried to imagine what it was like to be a young Kyrgyz woman or an Apache teenager, and just kept putting it down on paper. I was amazed at how much it was possible to imagine, if I put my mind to it.

I was aware, many times, of NOT knowing things I needed to know – details, say, that a Kyrgyz woman would of course know. But I also realized how much I DID know, from having lived in these places, from having taught these people and befriended them, from having read four years of English class essays and journals. I put in what I knew, I avoided what I didn’t.

It was only at Iowa, halfway through the finished book, that I began to question myself. Believe it or not, it had little to do with that particular workshop you mention. It came from my own guilt. What right did I have, a young Jewish man from New Jersey, to attempt a scene from a Muslim woman’s point of view? The world would see me as a fake. The writing would be inaccurate. Kyrgyz women should tell their own stories, shouldn’t they?

And of course they should. But I also realized, they weren’t. Nobody on the reservation was writing a novel. Nobody in my Kyrgyz village in Talas was writing an account of contemporary Kyrgyzstan. So I argued with myself that, at the very least, even if I wasn’t capturing 100 percent of the essence of life in these out of the way places, at least I was capturing SOME of it. I was giving voices to people I cared deeply about, and doing it with as much empathy as possible. Even if the book sucked, this was a valuable exercise.

I expressed these misgivings once in a conference with Jim MacPherson, one of my workshop teachers. I asked him what right I had to be attempting this book, and he told me, sternly, that one should never place any limits on the power of the imagination. No one would ever be able to write novels, if we did that – only memoirs. Would Tolstoy have been able to write sections of War and Peace from Napoleon’s point of view if he doubted his imagination, or Hadji Murad from the Tsar’s? When you write a novel, you always inhabit a foreign consciousness – be it the man next door or a woman in Kyrgyzstan. The trick is to do it as honestly as possible.

And there hasn’t been any criticism from this angle. In fact, the Kyrgyz people who have read the book and contacted me have been extremely honored, and thankful. They believed I understood their difficulties, and presented them honestly. It’s been a joy and a relief to hear that.

I haven’t heard much from the Native American point of view. There are certainly amazing Native American writers out there, dealing with similar material (Alexie, Erdrich), but none of them have written a book that compares the plight of Native Americans to other indigenous people. In that, I feel it was justified.

EG: What have you learned from writing and publishing your first novel that the rest of us might like to know?

RR: It’s a long, punishing process. I was simply so thrilled to be having the book published, I did not foresee the issues that I would have to deal with, on the business and promotion end of things. It’s good to be informed, more informed than I was, so one will know what to expect.

I would tell everyone at Earth Goat, many of whom will be publishing first books soon, that the FIRST novel is an enormous opportunity that does not come again. I had always thought of myself as a writer in terms of a CAREER, that the first book was just getting things started. Unfortunately, under the current publishing atmosphere, the first novel can be the start and end of a career, if it doesn’t do well enough. Publishers are looking for the big new thing. When you’re no longer new (ie. no longer publishing your first book) interest in the work is significantly lowered. So don’t be in a rush to get a first novel published. Take your time, if possible, and make it as wonderful as possible.

That said, publishers seem to want to get new writers out there with a bang, and I wish I had supported this more, in the months before the book came out, by writing articles for magazines, creating web pages, getting my name out there on these blogs, all in an effort to create pre-publication buzz. In retrospect, I feel like I could have done so much more of this, but didn’t know how important it was at the time. Take advantage of every publishing opportunity, no matter how small, before your book comes out. The goal, I think, is really to get your name out there. Thisbe Nissen’s amazing self-promotion odyssey, published on Earth Goat a few weeks back, is a great example of how determined and ambitious you have to be, and what good things can happen as a result.

EG: Your lovely wife Michelle now teaches the talented and gifted at the White Mountain reservation. What was it like going back?

RR: It’s actually been a very quiet existence since we moved back. Michelle loves her job, and is working with the brightest kids in town, the kids she feels she can most help. She’s able to organize a lot of projects and events that she couldn’t when she taught the large regular classes, often filled with very needy students.

It was funny. When we first came back, the Apaches all asked, “Where’ve you been?” As if we were gone for a few days, not five years. Time has a different meaning here. Life happens at a much slower pace. They’re very friendly with us – more open this time around than the first time we lived here. I think they were quite happy we returned. So many teachers come for a short time and leave forever, that the Apaches are pretty hardened and don’t try to establish a relationship. Because we came back, we sort of validated our respect for the reservation and the culture, I think, and many in town seem to appreciate that.

For me, it’s been a fairly isolated existence, writing full time. We live in the teacher housing, across the street from the school, so there isn’t nearly as much interaction with the rest of the community as there was, say, in the Peace Corps. Still, it’s a beautiful, quiet place to live. The rusty mountains of Eastern Arizona are topped with snow as I write to you. Tomorrow the sun will come out and probably melt it all.

EG: Any fond or grating memories of Iowa you'd like to share?

RR: The first time I put up a section of the novel, it was in Frank Conroy’s workshop my first semester. Class started. He counted out the first twelve pages of the twenty page chapter, separated them from the rest, and tore them into shreds. “This is not the way this novel begins, he told the class. He went on to say some nice and extremely useful things about the rest of the opening chapter. But of course I was crushed. “I’ll show him” I thought. “This book will be published one day, and those WILL be the opening pages.”

Do I have to even tell you that Frank was right? Over the next two years, over many revisions, those opening scenes were moved, then edited completely out of the book, as determined as I was to keep them. The man has a genius for spotting unnecessary baggage, among a host of other potential mistakes. I’m curious who will replace him as director, and saddened that he’s stepping down.

EG: What are you working on now?

RR: I’m working on a novel set exclusively in Istanbul, that deals with the small Jewish minority still living in the city. It’s the story of two estranged brothers, a take on a modern Cain and Abel legend. I’m still much in love with Istanbul as a city, and haven’t quite gotten it out of my system, in terms of the writing.

EG: Word is, you recently accepted a teaching job. Can you tell us about that?

RR: I’ve been offered a tenure-track job at Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania. We’ll be moving out there in June, and I’ll start teaching next year. As much as I’ve enjoyed the chance to write full-time, I also realize how much of this free time I waste. It’s a curse.

I miss the responsibilities of teaching, the interaction with students and other writers. Discussing great literature feeds the writing, for me at least. And having a rigid schedule and other work forces me to be more efficient, to get that page a day written before checking e-mail and reading twenty-one online newspapers and great literary blogs like Earth Goat. Those pleasures will have to wait for the evenings, once again.

We’ve also, as you know, just had our first child. I’m going to pass on the stay-at-home parenting responsibilities to Michelle, who’s excited to be able to spend more time with our daughter. So the timing of the job offer, and the move, has worked out wonderfully for us. We’ll be passing through Iowa City, no doubt, on our way out there…so we hope to catch up with as many of you as possible!

El Gordo De Amore Interview

Earth Goat: So what have you been working on lately?

El Gordo De Amore: Still working on the fifth draft of my novel. I really like it -- even if no one else ever does, I've written something that I can believe in my own little mind is something really beautiful. Maybe I'll end up giving it to my son. Considering all the silliness and crappiness in publishing, and records and movies for that matter, I'm feeling really ambivalent about sending it out into the world. And even if my work never sees the light of day, I've always wanted to be Guided by Voices, not Matchbox 20.

EG: Even with all your monkeys and zombies and what not, you don't consider yourself as someone trying to write for the popular audience?

EA: Not really. One of the things that was hard about being in the Workshop was the idea you had to succeed at something (namely publishing), and it was a hard vibe to fight. I really base all my feelings of self worth on my teaching now, not my writing, which I think makes the writing better, strangely enough. The stories and novel I've been working on are completely done for themselves, not because I want someone to like me, or praise me, or give me money, or whatever. As goofball and Hallmarkian as it may sound, I just want my son to be proud of me. Screw everyone else.

EG: Interesting. Please touch my nipples.

EA: Err -- O.K.

EG: I'm glad we're sharing this moment. Do you consider yourself avant garde in any way? Or do you think you're working within the tradition, or as your own little island?

EA: (unintelligible on tape -- noise that sounds like a duck. Loud bang.)

EG: Has your writing changed since your graduation from the Writers Workshop?

EA: Well, sure -- I'm a lot less self conscious. I just write things that entertain me -- I have an entire story cycle about a guy with a stinky foot problem. Again, probably something for my son. Maybe I'll make a cartoon for him out of it.

EG: Put your hand back on my nipples, you dirty chimp. So, being out of the Workshop has been good for you?

EA: Uh -- Well, I've written a lot more than I used to. I used to spend too much time --

EG: Start twirling them. Twirl my erasers of love!

EA: O.K. Um, I used to spend too much time just trying to write any idea that I had. In a lot of ways, it was like the 1 million half-thought-out five-second punk songs I make up when I play my guitar. A lot of ideas -- little followthrough.

EG: Yes. Follow through. Follow through. What do you mean exactly? Are you comparing the work you did in the Workshop to guitar practice? Call me Bonnie.

EA: Well -- Bonnie -- the thing was, I basically, I guess I, well, I had a burning need to --

EG: I am having a burning need right now. Twirl faster. Sharpen my love erasers!

EA: Urr, well, sure, um -- I guess an idea I thought was cool would, well, um, pop up into my head --

EG: Pop! Head! Followthrough! Twirl faster, you stinky bitch.

EA: --And, well, O.K., well, I, I would turn in a lot of unfinished ideas --

EG: Faster! Don't leave Bonnie unfinished! Follow through!

EA: -- and (unintelligible on tape)

EG: Bonnie! Bonnie! Bonnie!

(unintellgible noises and a loud banging sound).

Write your newspapers

This is not a political blog, but it is a writing blog, and this has to do with writing. And we are still the reality-based community after all.

The Republicans are on the verge of creating the political equivalent of the Death Star. Salivating at the prospect of grabbing Complete Power for the first time in two centuries, their hope is to end the tradition of filibustering in the Senate and pack the courts, especially the Supremes, with extremists to finish extinguishing the ever-dwindling legacies of any past U.S. government that registered at least a bleep on its EEGs. As many as four vacancies on the Court could come up in the Chimperor's 2nd term, and they will only need 51 votes to create the Death Star. Maybe this is why the Shiavo distraction.

Your Senators and Congresspersons are going to be home over their break for the next week, and their staffers will be sniffing the local air for signs of what people are thinking. I myself have admittedly been in blissful political hibernation since a few days after the election, but this is one of those opportunities to impact ten-fold over normal times. Write your local papers -- it's easy and can in many cases be done through the Web or email. Often what I've written in five minutes has been published. I just send an email to opinion@press-citizen.com, they call me to confirm my identity, and boom.

Use understatement. Be funny. Be witty. Be Mark Twain. And why not post them here as comments when you're done.

Here are some talking points from a MoveOn email I forgot to delete:
  • Radical Republicans want absolute power to appoint Supreme Court justices that will favor corporate interests and the extreme right over the rest of us.
  • To get it, they plan to use a parliamentary trick they call the "nuclear option" to overturn 200 years of bipartisan checks and balances that have kept the courts fair for centuries.
  • Last term Senate Democrats confirmed almost 95% of President Bush's judicial nominees. Eliminating the filibuster is not about overcoming "obstructionism", its about the desire for complete one-party control.
  • While the "nuclear option" is likely to come up in a fight over an nominee, make no mistake -- the real targets here are the 4 Supreme Court seats likely to turn over in the next 4 years.
  • Republicans have taken millions of dollars from their corporate backers. Now they're seeking to use the courts to pay back their big donors by overturning protections they have long agitated to remove like labor rights, environmental laws, and privacy rights.


'Nuff said.


I love Bishkek in the springtime

Will Americans be reading This is Not Civilization to gain some insight into recent events in Kyrgyzstan? Let's hope so.

A truly killer poet

Any of you Chicago writers ever run into "J. J. Jameson" up there before his arrest, at poetry slams or bars or dark alleys or soup kitchens?

Help! We're being attacked by the Culture of Life! Send zombies

I was going to write a searing piece of right-to-die satire, but Get Your War On beat me to it (and frankly did a much better job than I could have).

Yes, El Gordo, there are zombies mentioned.


Terry Gross Hearts Iowa

I just heard Reza Aslan on "Fresh Air," making him the third Workshop-related guest in recent weeks (the others were Marilynne and David Milch). It'll probably be posted online later today - the interview was about his new book, No God But God.

Foetry hacked

Tried to go to Foetry today....


What are you reading now? March edition

I got a lot of good book tips the last time we had a thread on what we're reading. I'll start it off:

Beloved. Shame on me for never reading this before now. It's blowing me away. I know little about Toni Morrison, but she is so good she's scary. Clearly read a lot of Faulkner (and actually gained from it). How old will I be when I stop discovering stunningly talented writers? Dead, I think.

Love in the Time of Cholera. My fourth attempt, and this time I'm going to make it. Realizing that with Garcia Marquez, practically every paragraph is a story. He's one of the few that I can actually feel trying to influence me when I work on my own book. Back, Gabe, back!

Notable American Women. I can only handle a few pages at a time, but I always come back for more. Surreal and funny and dense.

Uncle Tom's Cabin. Second read-thru (novel research). It does not succeed as art. It's more like propaganda. There are plenty of reasons it's not in the "canon": It's simplistic, preachy, overwrought, not near ugly enough, too authorial, and it really, really needed an editor. And it was the bestselling novel of the 19th Century and ended up changing the country. Is it the last time a novel did that? Hence the research.

Just show up and play their instruments

I noticed a flyer outside The Yacht Club, the IC's underground music venue. Said, "Jammin' Wednesdays" and "Instruments provided" and "Sit in on sessions" and, though belied by everything that came before, "Great music!" El Gordo, I thought you might be interested in this. If they have a bass and a guitar there, all we need is a drummer. Do we know any drummers here? Any other interested musicians? Brando, how are your karaoke chops nowadays? Surely we could get sloshed on pitchers and stagger through "God Save the Queen" or "Highway to Hell" or "I Wanna Be Sedated."


Moby Dick / Dan Beachy-Quick

Since so many of us are interested in Moby Dick, or were in the Moby Dick seminar, I thought it would be interesting to see what you all have to say about this new book of poems that surround Moby Dick by Iowa grad Dan Beachy-Quick. Here is the link:


How do you feel the sample poem responds to or expands to Moby Dick?
What new directions does this poem take you in?
How many people want to order the book and perhaps have a discussion about it over the Earth Goat?

Terri Schiavo

This whole case makes me apoplectic.

If I am ever incapacitated by this apoplexy, please turn the machines off. I feel so sorry for her husband -- I can't imagine the rage, fear, and pain I would feel if I was in his position. I'm really surprised he hasn't done something stupid like shoot her. I think I would.

And, considering Tom "Complete-Bastard-in-Need-of-an-Ethics-Indictment" DeLay's involvement, yet another reason to be ashamed of my Texas roots. I really wish I was from some place sensible.

But, at least I still have Steve Earle, Tex Mex, Wes Anderson, and The Mars Volta. So far, they haven't let me down (I liked The Life Aquatic).

Gilead wins National Book Critics Circle prize

The Iowa City Press-Citizen has a kind of charming local take on this well-deserved honor for Marilynne Robinson, including some appropriate "gee whiz" comments from her son and a big picture observation or two from Jim McPherson. The paper also says it's in the running for the Pulitzer Prize. And, of course, it's up for the Pen/Faulkner award, which will be announced "in April."


More on trade paperback originals

There is an interesting letter by Christian Bauman on Moby Lives on the wisdom of publishing your first book as a trade paperback original. I had forgotten, for example, that Bright Lights, Big City was issued in paper first (and then in hardcover).

Notes from Frank Conroy's workshop

I found my old notebook from Frank's last workshop before the surgery. He taught only four or five weeks before Chris Offutt had to take over for him. Caution: Contains hoary chestnuts:

Impersonal criticism is the name of the game. It's not you on the page, it's not about our souls. Everything that's wrong is always revealed in language. Art takes place at the overlap between the writer's energy and the reader's. Where the reader's energy doesn't reach the writer's is private writing. Where the writer's energy is so overwhelming that the reader doesn't need to use any of his own, that's propaganda.

I'm well aware of the joys and temptations of bullshit, but most of what I say will be negative.

Fancy stuff
Meaning Sense Clarity

Do the words precisely mean or just nearly mean? Does it literally make sense? Clarity: also known as brevity. Control diminishes as you go up the pyramid. I'm sorry and wish it were not this way. Trying to tell the truth creates pressure, supercontrols the language, and allows the upper layers to emerge. Trying to tell the truth is the gasoline that drives the engine.

You must do weak work. Every writer has 4/5 under the surface. Don't be afraid of failure. It is necessary. Process is what's important, not the particular story. Taste is beyond dispute.

Popular culture is the writer's headwind.

Meditate on the text. Backstory should be an artful part of the structure.

Abject naturalism is when believable, safe events occur in chronological order.

Dialog should be short. Likewise flashbacks. If they are too long, the reader falls off. The writer implies, the reader infers. The reader builds character from details you give. A loose reader will insist on any material making sense -- will come up with an outlanding explanation so that it does. Writer and reader are equal and are together looking at the same thing. The writer has his arm around the reader, and is going around pointing out stuff.

Don't ever count on a second read from the reader. You're lucky if you get one. If something is intelligible on 2nd read but not 1st, something's wrong. There's nothing you can't do, but there are plenty of ways to screw up. For dialect, read James Baldwin. He gets the rhythm and sound of black speech without dropping the G's.

The reader is smarter than you are. Never explain if you trust the dramatization. The reader will not miss. American Pastoral is a masterpiece. Drop City is Boyle's best. Read The French Lieutenant's Woman. Read The Red and the Black.

It's zen, it really is. It's weird shit.

Meditate deeply on the text. Doctorow got Ragtime from meditating upon his wall. You must punch through to the story's manifest destiny. Think of John Cheever getting dressed in a suit and tie and going down to write in the basement of his building with a typewriter on a card table.

Be a monk for your story. The monks know where power comes from.

The deal between the writer and the reader was made a long time ago, and there's nothng we can do about it: I'm taking you somewhere for a reason -- you may not understand now, but I promise you will.


Thoughts on Finishing My Novel, Part III

6. Shoulda bought stock in Tylenol PM.

5. There are countless different ways to write the same story, but the only way that matters is the one that's interesting to you.

4. Wi-Fi is the worst black-hole time-suck ever invented.

3. If you think you're going to the gym, you are sorely mistaken.

2. Don't compare your novel to a short story, any short story. Short stories are the well-dressed preppy brainiacs of literature. Your novel is a massive, hairy, stank-breathed bitch, and no matter how many times you make her over, she's always going to be on the rough side.

1. The breakthrough you've been waiting a year and a half for will come the day of your deadline.


I'm way too stupid to post the right link.

Anyway, if you go to Yahoo sports (http://www.fantasysports.yahoo.com) and follow the Tourney Pick'Em links, it'll take you to the correct site, where you really will be able to use the group ID and password.


Tourney Time!

Since I'm such a college basketball geek, and since it's lonely here in the national nuclear waste depository (aka Nevada), I've set up a tournament pick'em thing on Yahoo. It's really easy to get to:


The group ID is 89752 and the password is, in honor of El Gordo, monkeys.

Please sign up. I'm starting to name tumbleweeds after my favorite point guards.

Poll results

After a week, it's probably safe to say the votes are in.

"Who should be the new director of the workshop?"

Ben Marcus: 41 (53%)
Jim Shepard: 11 (14%)
Richard Bausch: 10 (13%)
Keep looking: 8 (10%)
Sam Chang: 7 (9%)
Total votes: 77

Surprising, no, if only for its decisive result? Of course, there's no way to tell who those 77 folks are. Supposedly you couldn't vote twice. Discuss if you dare!


No Guinness for you

Due to the, um, modest response (TLB's and Brando's enthusiasm notwithstanding, but I doubt they could down four gallons each), the First Annual Earth Goat Sheriff's Birthday and Guinness Keg Festival has been postponed. Spring Break has indeed broken in Iowa City. The banks took down their marquees and put up sundials. I took a long nap in the middle of Burlington Street and woke up to a Mennonite buggy waiting for me to move along. The only obstacles to parking wherever you like are the tumbleweeds. I've seen bigger crowds in a port-o-potty. This place is slower than a sloth doing tai-chi -- it's emptier than an Iranian McDonald's, folks.

Went through my old concert tix...

Rush / Rory Gallagher

Molly Hatchet / Blackfoot
Blue Oyster Cult / Aldo Nova

Ozzy Osbourne
Van Halen
Judas Priest
Sammy Hagar

Deep Purple

The Cult / The Divinyls
Van Halen
Stevie Ray Vaughan (twice)

Pink Floyd
Roger Waters
Billy Idol

Sting (twice)

Grateful Dead
Doobie Brothers
Bob Dylan
The Rolling Stones

Willie Nelson & Family
The Romantics
Grateful Dead
Jimmy Buffet
Crosby Stills & Nash

Neil Young
Sting (twice)
Steve Miller Band

Eric Clapton
Allman Bros. Band
Beastie Boys / Rollins Band

Grateful Dead
They Might be Giants

Bob Dylan
The Rolling Stones


Tom Petty
Emmylou Harris
The Cure
Phish (twice)
Black Crowes

Marilyn Manson
John Mellencamp
Bob Dylan
Emmylou Harris
Counting Crows
Lyle Lovett
Ben Folds Five

Jazz Mandolin Project
Leftover Salmon
Bela Fleck (twice)
Bob Dylan

David Grisman
Trey Anastasio
Widespread Panic
Phish (twice)
Alanis Morrisette / Tori Amos
Bob Dylan / Paul Simon

Jazz Mandolin Project
Bela Fleck / Jr. Brown
Bob Dylan / Phil Lesh
Lyle Lovett
Bob Dylan
Barenaked Ladies
Medeski Martin & Wood
Trey Anastasio

Steve Earle
David Gray
Eric Clapton
Paul Simon
Five For Fighting
John Mellencamp
Nickel Creek
Bob Dylan


Attention local Goats, Babies, readers

We are thinking of having a party this Friday and getting a keg of Guinness, but it's spring break and it seems many folks may be busy at wet tee-shirt contests in Fort Lauderdale. Notably El Gordo will be out of town, and we'll need roughly three men to make up for his absence. If you're in the IC and would like to help kill a keg of God's Blood to some Irish music at Earth Goat Headquarters Friday March 18, please add a comment here to let us know. We'll add more details once we get a sense of who's thirsty and in town. Slainte!


Earth Goaters Love Their Fathers Too

Fellow Goaters without father issues,

Following up the bestselling success of Big Russ & Me (which made an acceptable birthday present for my father-in-law last November, never an easy task) Tim Russert, of Meet the Press, is putting together a collection of inspiring stories and anecdotes and vignettes about Fathers for a new book. The book is scheduled to be released for Father's Day, 2006.

I've been put in touch with his ghost-writer, Bill Novak, who claims he's 'looking for a few good writers' Where else, naturally, should he turn but to Earth Goat?

Novak and Russert are currently accepting submissions for the book. It sounds like they can take just about any form, and simply have to be, in some way, a tribute to your father, or fathers in general. Up to seven pages, double-spaced, so a relatively short piece - the shorter the better, it sounds like.

Anyway, I've already submitted an embarrassing traumatic event ("he reached for his belt...") from my childhood, and I thought some of you might like to as well. There are no royalties or payments involved (any money earned from the book will go to charity), but I think it's a nice opportunity to get published and get your name out there in what will surely be a widely read book, if not another best-seller. And to make your Daddy proud.

Email me and I'll shoot you back the submission guidelines (I would have posted them here, but I'm not sure Russert would approve, and I wouldn't want to be called out on it one Sunday morning, down the road, under the glare of the television lights...)


David Milch on "Fresh Air" today

Workshop grad and Robert Penn Warren protege David Milch, the subject of a fascinating profile in the most recent double issue of the New Yorker, will be talking on today's edition of "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" about his creation of the brooding, brilliant HBO series Deadwood. In Iowa, it's on at 11am and 7pm on WSUI AM 910.


George Saunders story in Harper's

I only read "Brad Carrigan, American" once in the airport and then gave it to my brother, who is still in Florida with it, so I can't reread or refer to it. I cannot decide if I liked it or not. I'm leaning toward not. I really need to reread it. What I liked: I laughed out loud at the FinalTwist game show, where the contestants learn they are eating their own mothers. I liked that it dramatized the vapid and shallow and selfish and hypocritical miasma that passes for many American lives. I liked the talking corpses in the yard. I was entertained, for the most part, by the story. BUT: Something about the flip and glib tone bothered me. Like, if you're going to tackle these big, important themes, don't do it in such a cutesy, cartoonish manner. That feels like ducking, like hiding behind clever humor in order to avoid really addressing what these kinds of inane TV shows say about our lives in America. And I hated the ending, where Brad dissolves into a gray blob. That seems like what you do when you can't think of an ending. He had a good idea for this story, but the execution left me feeling there was something too trivial about his treatment. It felt like it probably didn't take too long for such a talented writer to write. I did not feel any of these negatives about "Jon," his amazing story in the January 27, 2003 New Yorker. That one blew me away and gave Saunders a lifetime pass in my book to at least be watched for more brilliance. So far, I'm still watching and waiting. I'm sure I'll buy his novella when it comes out.

Also, something is wrong with Blogger today. People are finding it hard to post or comment. They must be doing maintenance (I hope). Final note: take a look at Lila's BAF post re: emailing Connie with opinions on the candidates...

Thisbe Nissen interview

Thisbe Nissen has published two acclaimed novels, The Good People of New York and Osprey Island, a collection of stories, Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night, and The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook. She is currently teaching at the Workshop, filling in for Frank.

When an Earth Goat thread about publishing and publishers began swerving into territory Ms. Nissen is known to have thoroughly mapped, a search party was dispatched in the direction of her home, two blocks down Bloomington Street from the Earth Goat home office. Sadly -- perhaps because it was so heavily laden with rum and cigars -- it never returned. A substantially lowercase interview was therefore conducted over email:

You are legendary for self-promotion. The story I heard involved your piling everything into a car and hitting the road, going to bookstores, setting up readings, visiting libraries, and so forth to get the word out about your book of stories. Could you relate a little bit of what you did to promote that book?

TN: legendarily shameless: it's my lot in life, i think... my story collection came out in '99 from U of I press as part of the award series where the prize is publication (no money involved), the print run is small (2,000 copies, i think), and the budget/staff for publicity small. my novel (what had been my mfa thesis) had already been rejected by every publisher in north america, and determined not to let this book go straight to the remainder tables, i spent the spring and summer before the book came out on the internet (to which i was very new then) and the phone essentially tracking down an address for every person i'd ever known in my 27 years of life on this planet. literally. shameless. I figured out where in the country i knew lots of people and then tracked down the bookstores in those places and cold-called them saying "i know enough people in your town/city to fill a bookstore audience--would you let me read?" and some of the places said "have your publicist call our publicist" and i hung up dejected. but some places said "awesome--how great you're doing this yourself! sure come on down!" and of course those were the small independent booksellers and feminist bookstores...

before the book came out i made postcards with all the readings i'd set up and sent them to boys i'd kissed at summer camp in 1984, my parents' college classmates, my friends' friends' friends... i borrowed gas money from my folks, got in the car and did a book tour. i stayed with friends and at hostels. u of i press was great about sending materials wherever i'd set something up (i don't think they'd had someone come at it quite like that before, though i think they've seen much more of it since). and i spent like 3 or 4 months driving around doing readings. my friend cathy's girlfriend at the time owned a ben and jerry's franchise in DC, and i hadn't been able to find a bookstore to host me in DC so i read at ben and jerry's--a guy behind the counter even bought a book. oh--and the books i just had in the back of my car. i can't remember if i bought them from the press, and then sold them, or if they gave them to me on spec. but when it wasn't at a bookstore where they could ship the books i just literally sold them out of the back of my car. and i guess the coda, or whatever, to that story is that a woman named jenny minton, who had been an assistant at some publishing house where my novel has gotten rejected had since gone on to become an editor herself at another house. jenny liked my story collection and brought it to an editorial meeting saying "this came out in this small, expensive, paperback original run from u of i press--could we release it from vintage/anchor in a less expensive, more widely distributed and publicized edition?" and they took a look and said no.

THEN i did the whole tour and went to all these independent bookstores and those booksellers got the book onto the booksense 76 list, which had really just started, and was gaining some momentum as a means for smaller booksellers to have some banded-together leverage power in competing with the chains. that list made it BACK to a vintage/anchor editorial meeting where someone said "thisbe nissen? that sounds familiar... jenny, didn't you show us something of hers six months ago...?" and of course what she'd shown them was that same book, which they then bought, that second time around, for three thousand dollars--fifteen hundred to u of i press, fifteen hundred to me. i get a royalty check every year for about 50 bucks...

EG: Writers often complain that publishers don't do a good enough job promoting the average first novel or story collection. Why do you think publishers spend so much time carefully creating products, only to let many of them wither on the vine?

TN: sadly, it works like anything else would: an editor at a house buys a book, works on it with an author (if you're lucky and your editor doesn't switch houses mid-book and you get passed on to someone else who has authors of their own and maybe would never have bought your book in the first place, but that's another story...) and then every season all the editors essentially come to a big meeting with all their books for that season and tell everyone how great they are--and then the company has to decide how they're going to try to sell each of those books. there's x amount of money to go around, and it gets divided according to someone's ideas of what's going to sell, what's hot, what's not... so your editor could work lovingly with you on your book for years, but the house as a whole, or the publicity folk could decide that yours isn't the one that season that they're going to put their money and manpower behind because there's another book that they think could be big...

or WHATEVER, point being, your book either gets championed by the house at that stage, or not, and your editor's enthusiasm for the book certainly matters, and her ability to sell the rest of the house on it, but there are so many other factors that come into it that you're just at the mercy of the business machine at that point. that's when some people then opt to put their own money and energy into promotion, if they feel their publisher is letting them fall by the wayside. or if the author doesn't have the time or money or energy to put into it, then there's not a lot that can be done... (it seems clear that my every answer will end with ellipses, fading off into the nothingness that is the fate of literary fiction, at least within its author's lifetime, most likely.)

EG: Do you think self-publishing or starting a new press is a viable idea right now?

TN: haven't thought much about self-publishing, as i don't think i'd ever have the chutzpah it would take to champion myself if i were laboring in the face of having had the book rejected by every publisher who might possibly put the book out for me, for pay or not. i DO often think of starting a new press--the mcsweeney's model, we might call such dreams--and publishing books i think are worth publishing, going at it in the grass-rootsiest way possible. it feels a hell of a lot more like ME than being part of a huge publishing industry. but A) there's no money in it, and we're all already dedicated to one career that's got no money in it, and B) it would be an enormous time commitment, time away from writing, and a monetary commitment, and energy commitment, and much as i'd love to do it i'm no dave eggers and i don't have the kind of energy, money, and entrepreneurial wherewithal it would take to get something like that off the ground and keep it flying. i wish i did...

EG: What do you think about trade paperback originals, such as the Mariner line? Would coming out in paper first draw in more readers willing to risk perhaps half the money of a hardcover on a new writer? Why do publishers insist on expensive hard-cover first editions?

TN: i think paperback originals are the most sensical idea around! i mean especially for young writers, first time authors who are most likely going to appeal to young audiences who don't have 25 bucks to shell out for a hardcover. i wish they didn't have this stigma of being not as important as hardcovers. i feel like if more people were willing to publish first edition paperbacks, then it would catch on. i had lots of hope for the mariner line--i mean they put out peter orner's book, esther stories, and it got a ton of great attention--a huge ny times book review, finalist for the young lions award. i wish writers would see a book as wonderful and beautiful as esther stories come out as a paperback original, and think: if it's good enough for peter orner it's good enough for me. i wish publishers could find a way to make it work...

EG: (Lifting diction liberally direct from the thread) What would you think about a kind of publicity co-op where writers starting out help each other with grassroots marketing by amassing a database of contacts and media outlets, brainstorming ideas for promotion, working local angles together one by one, doing indie publicity, using targeted database mailings (retail and consumer), and coming up with imaginative cross-promotions in key markets?

TN: sounds awesome. sounds like a more organized form of what writers i know are doing already. i mean: now i know all these booksellers all over the country, and when someone i know puts out a book i love i send them to those booksellers to try to set up readings. it's hardly going to change the world, but it's very small scale people putting people in touch with other people that makes me feel like we live in a world i can understand on some tiny level at least. (and she stops, strong, with a declarative period.)

EG: What can be done to increase readership in literary fiction when, according to one study, half of all Americans don't even buy or read one book a year? How do you find the international sales of your books? Is that a market segment with potential for expansion?

TN: pretty much the words "market segment" make me want to curl into a hole and shrivel up. i guess i don't really have any hope that people can be made to read, or to like reading, or to be intelligent or interesting. i kind of think we have to make peace with small esoteric readerships and be grateful there's even that. be grateful for each other--i mean: we ARE the people who buy those books, and read them.

here's what i know about international sales: good people of ny was translated into german and dutch, and it seemsquite clear based on the fact that no one bought any of those translatedbooks that i will never sell the foreign rights to anything i write everagain. i'll be grateful to sell american rights to the next thing i turn out! OR i'll buy a farm in the middle of nowhere with the money i have left from the foolish people who once thought my books might sell, and i'll start subsistence farming, and doing SOMETHING to bring in enough money to get by and then i WILL start my own press in an old barn and live a life that at least i find romantic if nothing else. expansion of the market of literary fiction? i don't have enough faith in the human race to think we're going to have a planet to live on for much longer...

EG: What about getting one's name out through writing nonfiction pieces in magazines? Is that a good strategy for a new writer? It would take time away from writing The Work...

TN: i think it's a way to make money if you can bear it, but there are other ways to make money too... honestly, i think the number of people who read non-fiction pieces in magazines or newspapers or whathaveyou who actually notice who the author of the piece is and who then remember that name long enough to notice when you publish a book and to go and buy it will probably sell three extra copies worldwide. but maybe i'm getting way too cynical now. i guess my instinct is to say that if you get something out of writing nonfiction for magazines, great, go for it, if that enables you to do the work you really want to do. but there are other, less brain and
soul-draining ways to support your real work, and the tradeoff of name-retention with a handful of readers isn't worth it if writing for glamour makes you feel like slitting your wrists.

EG: What general tips do you have for getting your publisher to pay more attention to your book after it's published/rolling up your sleeves and doing promotion yourself?

TN: in a way i'm really THE wrong person to ask this particular question of. i'm not confident enough to demand attention if it's not coming from people's own free will. it feels too much like having a crush on a boy who doesn't pay you much attention. you can try to get his attention and hope that when he gets to know you a little he'll like you and want to know you more... but if you try to talk to him and he keeps blowing you off or just doesn't even register your presence, then, if you're me, maybe you make one last-ditch effort to show him how great you are, but if he still doesn't see then you just go home with your tail between your legs and think that maybe he's not all you thought he was, or maybe it just wasn't meant to be, or maybe you'll meet again years from now and fall in love and it'll be great, and for it to be great, then, years from now, it has to feel horrible and shitty right now, so you'll live with horrible and shitty because maybe feeling horrible and shitty about this guy not liking you back is is exactly what you need to feel to lead you in to the next phase of your life, in which you will learn things that will make you a stronger and better person, in which maybe you will meet someone who loves you for who you are and sees that immediately and isn't dumb like that dumb boy who didn't like you back who probably is not a nice person anyway, or is a nice person but would have made you miserable anyway, or something else...

which is all my pathetic and longwinded way of saying that what's important is you, doing your work, living your life. maybe not getting a publisher's attention the way you wish you had it, or the way jonathan safran foer had it, is exactly what's going to make you go and write your next book. jonathan safran foer has problems too, and having a publisher's attention for a little while doesn't change who you are or what's important to you or what going to happen when you sit down to write. it seems to me that what's important is finding a way to live and write and do whatever you feel you need to do with your time on this planet. mazel tov if someone notices. but mazel tov if no one notices and you still lived your life and did the work you had in you to do and spent your time as well as you could. the difference that a good publicist or a 40-city book tour or an extra hundred thousand dollars of marketing funds makes seems so profoundly negligible in the long run. if your work's good it'll get read. or not. there's no template for it. find a way to live your life and do your work. yell at a publicist. don't yell at a publicist. ultimately how much difference does it make? i'd rather spend my time not-yelling at a publicist. i'd rather be writing. somehow it seems like that's what'll make me feel like i've lived a productive and fulfilling life. or at least tried to as best i know how

... and on that depressing, existentially angstful note, i will go drink a glass of cheap pinot grigio and continue contemplating the infinite abyss, as usual... (ellipses forever...)
i wish you all good work,


Leh Poll and this beast of burden's paranoid egotistical guilt

RB was my second pick, with a bullet. The fact that he has zero votes is probably not indicative of the overall picture.

(I say that only because of this absurd anonymous audience stuff! I don't want people to feel bad. Which, I'm sure, they don't. Anyway, I'll shut myself down now.)


Ben Marcus Job Talk

Thanks to our intrepid secret reporter, no one will be penalized for my inability to arrive at anything on time, although to be fair, this was yet another instance of the workshop secretly moving the time of the talk and failing to inform me. How dare they? Our mole is responsible for everything below except the occasional snarky comment and my overall thoughts, at the end. Thank you, intrepid mole!


BM starts by announcing he's not going to talk about Richard Yates and Stanley Crawford and that he's not going to talk about the novels Revolutionary Road and Instructions to my Wife. He then observes that though the novels couldn't seem more different, both are "really crushing, really devastating" and made him gasp for breath in different ways. And though he won't be talking about either, both illustrate how emotion can be achieved through drastically different forms. He will also not be making the case for his belief that there is no ideal form.

In fact, he'll be giving up his intended talk altogether because a) he had far too much time to prepare and write and scrap many different craft talks (his efforts didn't test well with his craft talk confrontation group) and b) something happened to disrupt his attempts. The thing? The New York Times Book Review. Halfway through Tom Perrotta's review of Judy Budnitz's Nice Big American Baby, Perrotta claims he's "probably not Budnitz's ideal reader." This phrase, BM reports, "scoffed at all my craft talks." He says he's always had a problem the notion of an ideal reader. Writers are often asked to describe their ideal readers--Tobias Wolff, for instance, says his is a farmer who listens to books on tape while farming--and he often hears this phrase in workshops. But if the workshop is functioning at its best level, the teacher is the ideal reader. The kind of reading he does is what he expects students to do as well: read widely and generously.

Introductory remarks complete, BM says he wants to speak about how he reads as a teacher and his approach to workshop. He also wishes to be frequently interrupted by questions, which he loves. Suggested questions: How are you? Would you like to stop and consult your notes?

First principle: absolutely respect the artistic instinct of the student. See the dream of what the student is trying to do. Every story aims for something, and even if it falls short, the mistake can be beautiful and lead the writer to the next level. However misguided, there is a fantasy of originality in every work. The only way progress can happen is if a really deep, honest, and respectful reading occurs.

Cultivating relations with student writers works: he likes to get to know his students so as to know how to help them better. Some students like workshops in which they're torn up and spit out; others would be shut down for six months under the same circumstances. To figure out what kind of workshop would help, he meets with students in pre-workshop. This meeting, in conjunction with a post-workshop conference [TWO OUT-OF-WORKSHOP CONFERENCES, GOT IT?], helps him to find out what will help a particular student produce the best work. He also likes to know what people are reading, what context affects their artistic endeavors, etc. [At this point our intrepid reporter was interrupted by another workshop grad claiming s/he would "reapply" if BM got the job, so some stuff may have disappeared into the ether.]

Moving on to biographical information: BM says that he can’t talk enough about what a good critique is. At the time he was an undergraduate (as a philosophy major), workshops weren’t common, and when he discovered one, he was tremendously excited (so much so that he showered twice and put on a clean shirt to attend). But he left the class “so, so discouraged.” He says it was one of the dullest experiences of his life. How this could be—how twelve people with a fervent desire to write and a love of literature could turn out to be so dull—is a mystery to him. It seems that the workshop consisted of students staring at their hands and making bland, vague comments along the lines of “I liked this” and “I didn’t like that.” BM believes that going around the room and saying what we like and don’t like is not at all helpful—it’s like shopping. The disappointing workshop led him to formulate his early pedagogy as “a promise not to be dull,” and admits that this attitude can lead to all sorts of clownish behavior that has little to do with teaching.

The notion of a useful critique is really vexing and really elusive—he always wants to chase it, but never assumes he knows it. What has helped him get closer to the “actionable critique” is to have a conference with a student a week after the workshop. The student brings in the pile of critiques, and together, they sift through all the contradictory information. He says it’s quite interesting to see what the student is defensive about and what he/she is open to. In this meeting, he tries to narrow down the criticism to what is useful to the writer. A good workshop actually produces too many ideas: it produces every idea and its opposite. In the conference, they throw some critiques away, and select and keep only the useful ones. He wants to ensure that each student’s “artistic horizon” is as ambitious as it can possibly be.

BM also collects all the students’ critiques, at least at the beginning of each semester. Reading critiques can offer possible avenues into the students’ own compositions. For example, if Chip and Louie always offer the same critique no matter the story, this is a sign that Chip is obsessed with POV or Louie with back story. (He pauses to remark that his talk on obsessions sounds strangely like psychoanalysis. Though much cheaper.) The recognition of students’ reading habits and their biases can lead to all new writing.

The conversation takes a new turn as BM reports that at Columbia, more and more people are writing novels. He has no patience with students who automatically become “surly” or are generally disdainful of workshopping novel excerpts. “It’s our job,” he says, “to adapt to the work on the table.” It’s “inexcusable” to claim that something simply can’t be critiqued, or that a work “’just isn’t my kind of thing.’” He also thinks that novelists “deserve fewer turns in class,” meaning that it is not helpful during the “long sprint” of a novel to be forced to put something up every three weeks.

At this point, BM pauses to see if there are any questions. Several hands go up. The ensuing discussion is so lively that BM never returns to his talk proper, though no one seems to mind.

Question 1: If we’re all ideal readers, how do you feel your role as a teacher is different?

BM: [Answers will be a bit random, due entirely to the scribe’s inability to write quickly.] Sometimes I am a choreographer of ideas. Sometimes I play devil’s advocate, but not capriciously. I like to turn on my own ideas because I’m worried about students just agreeing with me. My role is to manage discussion, to knock it over a lot…to make it stop looking like a mob group, or stop us from agreeing with each other too much. Because a group of people think something, that alone is no reason to believe it. After the din of the workshop, the question is, What is the best confusion we can have now? What will activate us to write at full speed?

Question 2: [Your mole missed this entirely. She was listening to more whispered praise of BM.]

BM: I don’t try to control people’s critiques. My ultimate goal is to help the student feel he’s getting on to the next level of his work.

Question 3: Can you tell us your ideas about a novel workshop [double entendre not intended]? How would it work? [note--questioner said question might be reduntant of things he'd discussed in workshop, which she'd missed. BM responded, "too bad--it was awesome. Laughter and merriment ensued.]

BM: One could easily create a workshop that accommodates novels. In a novel workshop, there’s a lot more room for outside reading and little craft discussions. Frequent workshops of small novel excerpts are unhelpful; the novelist should get an entire class [three hours]. There are so many wrong turns and mistakes made over the course of a long work; it’s better to put up, say, 150 pages of a novel and have the class workshop that. One could, however, present small excerpts to the class and have a fifteen-minute conversation so as to focus on one issue, such as voice. Lots of novel issues are really technical—Am I willing to risk a year of my life trying out this voice?—and this is where the short session could be very helpful.

Question 4: Would your personal aesthetic come into play as director [when vetting applications]?

BM: [BM takes the question to be about faculty]: I would want to hire someone who can do what I can’t do. And teaching ability is very important to me. [Questioner clarifies: he wants to know about student applicants.] BM: At Columbia, I’m the director of the fiction program. [Note: He reads all the applications (around 600).] I’m looking to have my attention held, to be captivated. I’m looking for who has passion and authority: “good writers are demanding to be read.” My taste is all over the place.
- He mentions Carver, Dubus, Joy Williams, Deborah Eisenberg… and then he discovered Barthelme, who was a “huge turn-on.” He mentioned Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote “defiantly boring” work (such as detailed pieces on rope).
- He says that “one of the strange casualties” of how he writes is that students approach him with work that’s “like word salad,” where one word isn’t related to the next word.

Question 5: If you were director, what relationship would fiction and poetry have?

BM: They have one. We’re all making art out of language. It’s strange to think that there’s that much difference between us—we’re all a super-marginal group the world doesn’t care about at all because we don’t use language in the way USA Today does…. We should have the biggest possible appetite for all kinds of language art.

- As for poets and prosers swapping workshops, BM says he doesn’t necessarily believe in “mixing.” People have worked very hard for years to get to a graduate level class in their genre, and it’s not fair for a curious poet or two to sit in on a prose workshop—all members of the class should be writing at a similarly high level. He doesn’t see why a seminar can’t cover issues of craft, though. At Columbia, one thing that has worked very well is a series of Master Classes. These are 3-4 week modules in one seminar—in other words, 3-4 week mini-seminars—on fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, and so on. At some point a writer has to specialize, but there is no reason fiction and poetry should be entirely divorced. That said, he firmly believes that we “should not create divisions. We are language arts.”

BM then says that he’d throw away everything he’s said in the talk “in favor of telling everyone just to go read. We have to consume language in all its forms if we expect to write anything that other people will care about.”

Question 6: A 2nd-year fiction student wonders about a class on submissions, magazines, agents, etc. He points out that that the Workshop does little to nothing to guide students in getting their work published. [five bucks if you can guess who. okay, i'm lying, but guess anyway. lovingly, of course.]

BM: “Honestly, I don’t think that’s a course.” He says it would be very easy to arrange for events, however, such as bringing agents or others in to talk about this subject. He explains that there is not enough information for an entire course, and that he may be “too marginal in the publication world” anyway.

Random closing remarks:
“I do love things that, if they work, cause me to throw away everything I thought about fiction. It’s rare. But there are a few who make it all worthwhile.” (He mentions Honored Guest by Joy Williams and Agony by Joe Wenderoth.)
“Language is everything to me.”

-Despite having a more quiet demeanor than Bausch and Shepard, the only two I saw personally, BM seemed to generate more buzz.
-Today's event was more fun than the two previously, at least for me--more opportunity to show humor, etc.
-BM did an outstanding job of deflecting any potential critiques re his personal aesthetic--effective to point out that as director at Columbia, he's losing his top picks to Iowa, which I interpreted as him saying a) we're looking for the same things, and b) i'd rather work w/my top picks (no insult to Columbia intended, particularly as were it not for the Columbia fiction program I would never have written again).

That's all I've got for now.

Slowly, But Surely, Dragged Into The Light

The Goats and the Babies - specifically SER and Grendel's heroic efforts to document the director search - rated a mention in Media Bistro's Galleycat blog this morning. Now, granted, Galleycat herself is a workshop grad, but Media Bistro ain't small potatoes, no matter which way you cut it. And with that mixed metaphor, I leave you.


Ben Marcus Stuff

I posted a writeup from today's workshop, as well as notes from my interview, on Babies Are Fireproof. Enjoy!


Collage at the College, er, University

When I was in the COIC this past weekend, fellow goat nate took Vampiro, chad, and me over to see the collage exibit at the university art museum. For any and all in town, I highly recommend you check it out. It follows collage from the early days of Dada through Surrealism, the Situationalists, and into more contemporary forms. The soundtrack of the exhibit is Negativeland's version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The collage is quite a hoot. (My favorite moment being the line "I have kissed honey lips and boy do they burn!") There are documents, videos, various pieces of art.

Which I guess takes me to a question for all you goats. As a poet, the ideas and impetus of collage have often been front and center in things that I like to look at, things that I like to read, etc etc. The ideas of dadaists, surrealists, contempories in this field, etc, often have informed my poems. How does collage work in fiction? Does it work in fiction? Just a question for discussion I throw out there...

Publishing, Leaders on the Highway to Craptopia

As many of you know, I have taken over the publicity duties on a certain book that all of you should own at least 14 copies of (Pooper needs shoes--and he is oh-so-very handsome) -- not because I necessarily wanted to, but because the publisher basically forced me (in that it did a whole lot of nothing, and congratulated itself for the things me and Lump did on our own).

I'm guessing this is a common occurrence for many of us (or soon will be). And what is completely astonishing is that every time I call up said publisher to light a fire under its butt it sighs sadly and says, "people just don't read anymore -- there's nothing we can do -- right now, all of our energies are being put into a Da Vinci Code colorforms collection and Bill O'Reilly Gets those Pesky Liberals -- Again!"

Which depresses me on several levels (even those that don't directly affect my pocketbook). Publishing seems incredibly ready to blame any and all of its problems on readers. This strikes me as clear snobbery -- "My God, the Proles don't know what's good for them, Muffy! Throw them another book by Paris Hilton's dog! And Scott Peterson's mailman!" -- and incredibly counterproductive. McDonalds doesn't bitch about people being more health conscious -- it just comes up with a new McSalad Shaker. And then grinds up a chicken and a cow and puts them in the dressing.

As a writer who cares a lot about writing (and who cares a lot about his students, who are often just looking for some guidance, and actually love books when you get them in their hands -- these very same students belonging to a community college Muffy would never willingly set foot in), this worries me. Those in publishing seem to want to return to some halcyon Eisenhower days where they didn't have to compete with Playstation, movies, and Internet porn. But they can't.

And, to sound like the conspiracy theorist, former X-Files junky that I am, the publisher in particular of which I speak is owned by a foreign corporation. I've started wondering if this corporation views the average American as a barely literate cave person whose deepest wish is to eat a cheeseburger while simultaneously taking a crap, watching American Idol, and dreaming of some nice brown nation to bomb the living shit out of. And, considering the last election at least, we haven't done a whole hell of a lot to prove it wrong.

So, What Would El Gordo Do (fashion-colored bracelets available for three easy payments of $5.95 -- absolutely no money will be given to any downtrodden, sick, or poor person, you can count on that!)? Well, how come America doesn't have paperback first editions? I don't have any money, but I love books. My students always go bananas when I put a book on a list that is only in hardcover, and when they have a choice, they go for the paper. If you could get three books for $30, wouldn't you buy and read all three? And then buy even more? As it stands now, a single book will set you back $30, and you can get two CDS, or a discounted Playstation game and four cookies from the cookie place in the mall for that same price. And since a book costs $30, I don't (and can't afford to) take chances on a writer I've never heard of (and I think most people would agree with me).

But publishing won't change their prices or way of publishing books, so they've tried to up the crap calories of what they do publish to tempt our tastebuds. For example, a major publisher's new "tent pole" book for the new season is a book on how to give blowjobs. And another publisher is handing out copies of Paris Hilton's memoir as if it is proud of publishing it. That's pretty freaking pathetic.

So, what do y'all think? Got any ideas? If others are reading this, and we are some sort of Algonquin roundtable of emerging writers (or at least a pack of fairly erudite drunks with computer access), maybe we could actually help change things.