Cristina Henriquez interview: Come Together, Fall Apart

Crstina Henriquez, or cek as we lovingly call her, Workshop class of Ought Three, is the author of the highly praised story collection Come Together, Fall Apart. No less a pantheon member than Isabel Allende says this about it: “These stories, told in a direct and sparse style, are truly unforgettable. Cristina HenrĂ­quez's young female protagonists are as haunting as the setting of Panama. I could not put aside this book." All well and good. But what about Sandra Cisneros? Well... "How does a young writer gather the wisdom, heart, and tenderness to write stories of such exquisite humanity? I can only guess she is an ancient soul, a zen master, a bruja, or all of the above."

Let's have a nice, long chat with America's hottest young Latina writer, shall we? Pull up a chair and grab some coffee.

EG: Your book is getting glowing, even breathless, reviews . Way to go. Did you work on these stories in Come Together, Fall Apart at the Workshop? How long did it take to write them and were they published in magazines prior to the book?

CH: The only story in the book that was workshopped is "The Box House and the Snow," which was a story I wrote before I got to Iowa and then submitted for my first workshop (Grendel, I still have your comments on it), although it was in a much different form back then. Otherwise, I wrote only one other story from the collection while at Iowa: "Beautiful." I wrote it the first week I was there, when the reality of going to graduate school was sinking in, and I thought I had better get to work because I was sure that everyone else in the program was more talented than I and that they already had a lot more stories under their belts. I wrote it in a creative frenzy that lasted about three days.

But after that, my time at Iowa was spent working on all sorts of stories set in the United States. "Mercury" is the earliest-penned story, written when I was an undergraduate at Northwestern. And, except for those three, I wrote everything else after Iowa, when I had time to clear my head a bit, when I was just sitting around after we had moved to hot, hot Dallas and I didn't have any friends yet nor even a car to get me out of the house. So all in all, I wrote these stories over a period of about five years, but I was working on other things in the meantime that didn't make the cut.

"Beautiful" was published in TriQuarterly; "Drive" in the Virginia Quarterly Review's special issue called Fiction's New Luminaries, which includes stores from some other Iowa grads; "Mercury" in Glimmer Train; "Ashes" in the New Yorker; and "Chasing Birds" in Ploughshares. That list reflects the order in which the stories were accepted over time.

EG: Can you tell us the story of how your book came to be published?

CH: I'm not sure how far back to start, but basically after I left Iowa, I got an agent and started thinking about shaping a collection. I had some stories set in the United States featuring American characters, and I had some stories set in Panama featuring Panamanian characters. My agent, who is amazing, encouraged me to think about which direction I wanted to go, which set of stories I liked more. I took a good look at all of them and it turned out that the stories set in Panama were just BETTER. The characters were more realistic, more alive, the plots felt less forced, that sort of thing.

For some reason, many of my American stories at that time felt a little cartoonish, very exaggerated and just silly. Which wasn't all necessarily bad, but I hadn't yet figured out a way to make cartoonish, exaggerated, and silly add up to a good story. So I decided on Panama and as soon as I had that path laid out, I worked to round out a collection with more and more stories set there. When I had it all together, I thought, great, it's ready to go.

But then my agent and I discussed the possibility of my writing the start of a novel (she knew I had an idea for one) that we could send out with the collection, to try to get a two-book deal, which is strangely supposed to be easier than getting a one-book deal. So I worked on a novel for a while until I had 100 pages. We did a few rounds of fine-tuning everything and then she went out with it all. The first publisher we heard back from was Riverhead, literally two days after she had starting sending everything out. And I gasped when she told me Riverhead was interested. Because they were definitely one of my dream publishers. They publish what seems like half of my favorite authors. But then another publisher was interested, another passed, on and on it went for a few more days until we had gotten all the bids we were going to get. There was some negotiating. My agent kept me updated. And then I ended up at Riverhead, with an editor and whole team of people who have been extremely good to me. They're incredible.

EG: You have had two -- TWO -- (2) -- dos -- stories published in the New Yorker so far ("Ashes," July 4, 2005 and "Carnival, Las Tablas," July 3, 2006), which is quite unusual for someone of such a relatively tender age. Do you think you'll eventually catch up with John Updike? How did it work getting your stories into the New Yorker? What was the editing process like there?

CH: Oh, I'm going to leave John Updike in the dust. I have a carefully plotted forty-year plan for how to accomplish that. (Reader, do not doubt the existence of this "plan." -- Ed.) Ha! No, it's been one of the very high highlights of my writing career so far to have had two stories published in the New Yorker. "Ashes" was a complete shock. I had sold a few stories by then, but I certainly still assumed the New Yorker was a ridiculous long shot. I had this idea, though, that I should start at the top of the magazine food chain and work my way down because, well, you just never know. I remember Elizabeth McCracken saying that to us once in workshop.

My agent had submitted "Ashes" in the fall and it wasn't until the following spring that we finally heard back that they were taking it. I was working a full-time job then, so my agent emailed me at work: "Call me." My immediate thought was that Riverhead was backing out of the book deal (which we had secured only weeks earlier) or that something equally bad was happening. But I called her and the first thing she said was, "You're going to be in the New Yorker." Predictably, I freaked out. I was running up and down the halls and calling everyone I knew using my work phone and trying to catch my breath. It was fantastic.

"Carnival" was a very different experience, not insofar as I was any less thrilled, but it wasn't so out of the blue. I had been working on that story for a very long time. We submitted it once in a different form and they basically said, it's not ready yet but we'll be happy to read it again if you revise. So revise I did. It was still more or less the same freak out when I found out they were taking it, but I was a bit more prepared for the possibility.

The editing process both times was hands down the most intense editing I've experienced in my life. And both times, I came away from it feeling like I had learned so much. First, Cressida Leyshon (the editor I work with there) looks at the story and suggests changes. They're not so much plot things as line edits, although at times she will say, explain this more, show how this relates to this, that sort of thing. Then a copyeditor gets his or her hands on it and makes a bunch of little changes, a lot of which are simply getting the story to adhere to house style rules (for example, they spell vendor as "vender"). Each time, I see a proof and tell them which changes I accept and which I reject. Then Deborah Treisman submits her edits, of which (for me, at least) there are many. Some of it is really amazing, watching how a sentence can be fine-tuned, for example (I know, I'm not exhibiting that fine-tuning in this interview), or how things might be rearranged for maximum impact. I'm sure there are some authors whose stories don't get as marked up as mine do, and I'm sure there are other authors who aren't really keen on such heavy editing, but for me, it's wonderful.

The other thing I want to say about the process is that you're assigned a fact-checker. Yes, even for fiction. My first fact-checker really went to town on my story. He was calling the Panamanian Embassy and the Smithsonian and lugging books out of the New York Public Library that referenced something in the story. We talked at length about whether chlorine or bleach was a more appropriate cleaning product for the father in the story to be using. The fact-checker was really good about saying, if you mean this to refer to a real place, then I have to fact check it, but if you intend it to be made-up, then I won't worry about it. He also looked for issues of continuity. The one I remember best is that when the mother in "Ashes" sits down on a chair cushion, I had written that the cushion wheezed but, he pointed out, a few lines earlier I had described the same cushion as being completely flat. He blew my mind. But he was great.

EG: What writing advice do you have for young writers hoping to succeed in story-writing?

CH: The first thing I would say is to read as much as you can. Read short stories and novels and nonfiction and poetry. Read stuff that someone recommends even if it doesn't sound like something you would normally be interested in. Just read. A lot.

The second is to be patient. Understand that success is not going to come overnight, whether success for you means finishing a story you love, or getting published. I remember once reading in an interview with George Saunders that he didn't write a story he liked until he was 30. That was very inspirational to me -- the idea that even for a brilliant writer like him, it could take years and years to figure out what the heck he was doing or wanted to do. I mean, I'm young. I know people might look at me and think that the successes I'm finding these days just happened -- presto! -- but I've been writing stories for ten years now, and it's only in the last two or so that I've really had anything to show for it, anything that I even liked. I think it's important for writers who are just starting -- no matter their age -- to know that, to not to have any illusions about what the writing life is going to be like.

EG: What would you say you gained from your time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop?

CH: Man, Iowa gets such a bad rap sometimes. But I had a great time there. It was amazing to be part of a program whose basic philosophy was, here, we're giving you two years to write and not worry about much else. I mean, when in your life will you ever get that again? So I took it really seriously. I set my alarm clock and woke up every morning to write for a few hours and I read in the afternoons and by the time I left two years later I had really practiced writing in a way I never had before. So, for me, the most important thing was that time to practice, practice, practice what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Admittedly, I wrote a lot of awful stuff while I was there. But all along I thought that was sort of the point. I saw Spike Lee on Inside the Actors Studio giving advice to the students in the audience, and he said, "Make a lot of mistakes. " His point being that while you're in school, while you have the support of other students and teachers around you, it's the perfect time to make mistakes because people will be there to catch you. It's a good time to try things that may or may not work out, just to see what you're capable of. So I did a lot of that. I wrote a lot, and most of what I wrote were failed stories, but that was okay, even necessary, to be able to come out on the other end with a better sense of what I was not so good at and a better sense of what I was.

Iowa also gave me a sense of purpose and seriousness. I didn't truly start to think, until I got there, that maybe writing was something I could do as a career. I had never before been around so many people who cared so much about writing and who were trying to make a go of it. I gained a sense of craft, as well -- which might seem obvious. I have a few notebooks that I still go back to when I want to look up something Elizabeth said about minor characters or something Frank said about process or something Chris said about dialogue. And I gained friends, some of whom are readers for my work now. And I gained a deep, deep love for Iowa City, which was totally unexpected. I had moved there from Chicago, thinking I was a city girl at heart, and then I ended up adoring Iowa City. I still think that one day perhaps I'd like to get a summer house there, a place where I can sit on the porch and look out at nothing but fields and mosquitoes and the setting sun. There's just something about that place that makes me feel really at peace.

EG: You have focused on Panamanian culture so far in your writing. What is it about Panama that is so compelling to you, and can you tell us a bit about your connection to that place? Is your book being translated into Spanish? Have you had feedback from Panamanian relatives?

CH: I'm half-Panamanian. My father is from Panama. I was eight months old the first time I went, and I've been going for a few weeks almost every year since. All of my dad's family still lives in there, so we stay with family when we go -- for most of my life it was with my grandparents in a neighborhood called San Francisco, and for the past few years it's been with my aunt and uncle and cousins and grandmother (she relocated), who all share one house.

I've been to a number of locales within Panama, but most of my time has been spent in Panama City, doing day-to-day sorts of things like accompanying my grandmother to the doctor and dropping off clothes at the cleaners and going to the grocery store. Because of that, I feel like I have a unique perspective on life in Panama. I'm still an outsider in many ways, definitely, but I've been privy to an insider's perspective in other ways. I actually think that distance has something to do with why writing about Panama works for me. There's enough space between me and Panama for my imagination to take flight. I have some breathing room.

The book hasn't been translated into Spanish yet, but I do know of a bunch of Panamanians who have read it. I've received emails from people living in Panama who have recommended it for their book clubs there, which I love to hear. My cousin has told me that certain characters remind her of people she knows, that someone will make a gesture that only a Panamanian would make -- in other words, that I'm getting things right -- which is immensely gratifying.

In nearly every city I visited on tour, at least one Panamanian would be in the audience, which was always a thrill for me. One girl even knew who my grandfather was. They all seemed to like the book. Someone said that I was sharing Panama with the world, and that sort of freaked me out, because I felt the sudden weight of responsibility, something I'd wrestled with ever since it was clear that I would put together a collection of stories set in Panama. But to hear someone verbalize it, and in such a hopeful way, was scary.

I try to remind myself, though, that my responsibility is not to Panama, per se, but to each individual character and story. Actually, that came up in a more negative way when I was in Panama last year and I went out to dinner with a family friend, who told me she had read the story "Drive." I asked her what she thought about it, and it turned out that she was fairly offended by it. The story features a drug-dealer boyfriend and a narrator who goes to some extreme lengths not to have children, and she started asking me whether that was really how I thought of Panamanians and railing that all Panamanians weren't like that. I told her that I knew that, that they were just characters, meant to represent only themselves, not an entire population. We went back and forth for a few minutes and eventually agreed to disagree, but I doubt she's happy about it to this day. I guess there will always be those reactions. But what can I do? I'm not trying to capture all of Panamanian society in a story, or in a book. I will probably never make the tourism board happy. But that's not my job.

EG: Did you see the recent survey that found Panama to be one of the five happiest countries in the world (Columbia and Costa Rica were in there, too)? Did that surprise you?

CH: I haven't seen that survey! Where is it? (Here. -- Ed.) In a way, I'm not surprised at all. Almost everyone I know in Panama is struggling, but they are happy. They feel like there are certain things they will never have, but I bet if you asked them, they would still say overwhelmingly that they have a good life. The people I know aren't overworked like Americans are. They put more emphasis on enjoying life, enjoying their friends, spending time with their families, than they do on work. Compared with people I know in the United States, people in Panama have much more joie de vivre.

EG: How do you like living in Dallas? Do you have a day job there? What is Ryan up to these days?

CH: There are some things about Dallas that are great -- the gym I belong to, so many sunny days, certain restaurants, my friends, margaritas, the fact that almost every store on earth has a location here so I never have to order things online and pay for shipping. But I would love to live somewhere again where I don't need a car. And I would love to be near at least one really great independent bookstore (Prairie Lights spoiled me!). And I would love to be closer to my family. So I don't think I'll be here forever.

I don't have a day job beyond writing. I do things here and there -- I was teaching at the University of Texas at Dallas, and I help out with the Arts & Letters Live literary festival, and I mentor a few people one-on-one. But for about the past year now, my real full-time job has been writing. Which, I don't think I need to tell you, is insanely, undeniably awesome.

When we first moved here, I got a part-time job working at an independent movie theatre (the Magnolia) in town. I worked there for about three months, shoveling popcorn and tearing ticket stubs, and sweeping up mustard packets after the show. I used to jot down lines for stories on the back of the printed movie schedule we would get each day. I would be standing up at the host stand between films, writing down random lines. Actually, the beginning of "Drive" came to me that way. I wonder sometimes whether I should get that job back because I wrote some of my favorite stuff while I was working there. Maybe there was some weird collusion going on between my brain and being in the theatre.

After that, I worked at the NPR/PBS station here for about a year. I would write on my lunch breaks and at night sometimes and every Saturday and Sunday morning. It was exhausting, but every writer I know has a similar story. If you really want to do it enough, you cobble your life together to make it happen.

Ryan is still working at Travelocity, where they love him and have told him they want to make Ryan clones.

EG: Last I heard you were working on a novel. How is that going? Do many -- or any -- short story skills transfer, do you think, or is a novel a completely different beast to you? Did your wonderful novella "Come Together, Fall Apart" provide some training?

CH: Oh, my novel! I've told myself that when anyone asks, I'm just supposed to say, "It's fine," and leave it at that.

It's fine.

Actually, it's hard to tell. I definitely definitely feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. Short story skills like dialogue, I guess, transfer, but not much else. Or not in my experience so far anyway. Maybe there are more cunning writers than I who can figure out how everything they learned before is now applicable to this other form, but I haven't been able to do that. Even the novella wasn't good preparation. Part of that is because I don't know where that novella came from. I literally sat up one morning and had the idea, fully-formed, just come to me. I wrote the whole thing in sort of a daze. I wish I could remember better how I was able to plot everything out and move forward through time, etc. because it might really help me now.

That said, there are a few things that I've written in my novel effort so far that I really love, that I think are really working. And I trust I'm going to work everything else out with time. As Frank used to say: Have faith in the process. I know that feeling like I don't know what I'm doing is just part of the process. But writing a novel, some days it feels like jumping off a diving board without being sure there's water in the pool.

EG: What are you reading these days?

CH: I've recently read a whole slew of books that I thought were really great. Predictably, I'm reading mostly novels to try to learn from them, study how they hold together, that sort of thing. Gilead by Marilynne, of course. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Small Island by Andrea Levy. I just read Miss American Pie by Margaret Sartor, which is a girl's recovered diary from the 70s, mostly as research for my novel, but I liked it very much. George Saunders' newest book In Persuasion Nation. Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Oh, and The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine by a friend of mine, Steven Rinella, which is a nonfiction book about trying to recreate a forty-five course meal using recipes from the great French chef Auguste Escoffier. The kinds of ingredients he had to get -- and the lengths he had to go to to get them -- is crazy. To answer your question, though, right now I'm in the middle of Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. Otherwise, I'm reading various blogs and trying to Google the answers to crossword clues I can't get.


Curtis Sittenfeld interview: The Man of My Dreams

She's back. I'm a couple months late with this, but the author of last year's surprising NYT bestseller Prep (one of the Times' Top Ten Books of 2005) and workshop grad (class of '01) has penned another novel, The Man of My Dreams, which this blogger found even wittier and more satisfying than the debut (as did some other folks). As Alice Munro put it, "The Man of My Dreams is so free of tricks, the honesty is so startling, you feel there's a writer here who isn't trying to beguile you but to lay out some plain, raw truth about emotions and sex. This is a courageous, refreshing novel." We join our interview already in progress...

EG: The novel opens with a kind of fascination about Julia Roberts' wedding in 1991. Hannah is discussing it with her aunt, and only gradually do we learn why she is with her aunt and not her family. This seems like a neat way to do several things at once: establish marriage as something fantastic, idealized, and remote to Hannah; distance her problematic immediate family; and dramatize her isolation right away. Then we skip from year to year, month to month. Can you talk a little about how you decided on this structure?

CS: Each chapter is supposed to be an episode in Hannah's life when her fascination with and anxieties about romance, boys, and men come to the fore. And then, or at least this was my goal, all the boring stuff between big events is just eliminated. These leaps in time meant I could make Hannah's maturity level change. Another big incentive for jumping over time was that I got to entirely skip her high school experience. And after writing Prep, I'd had my fill of high school.

EG: Your dialog reads as utterly real. Do you by any chance record people's conversations (you have been a journalist after all)? Or eavesdrop in coffeehouses, typing out the way people converse?

CS: I record interviews that I conduct if I'm writing a freelance article (something I did more in the past than I do now), and then I transcribe the tape, and transcribing probably has improved my ear for how people talk. But no, I never surreptitiously record people's conversations. Something Frank Conroy used to say was that you don't want dialogue to actually be realistic; you just want it to seem realistic. Most conversations are extremely repetitive and disjointed, and I try to make my dialogue crisper and fasted-paced than it would be in real life.

EG: One part of the book takes place in Alaska. Did you ever do a trip like the one Hannah, Alison, and the two fellows take? Alaska felt real, and I wonder if you had to go there to achieve that. Ethan used to tell us in class that you can be very convincing a lot of times without needing a ton of factual detail.

CS: I have indeed been to Alaska. But actually, I find that when I want to know if a fiction writer has experienced something firsthand which he or she has written about, I'm disappointed whether the answer is yes or no; even though I want to know, I'm disappointed by knowing. So admitting this to you, I feel sort of like I'm letting you down. (Ah, delicate, fragile, writerly me!)

EG: What differences, if any, did you encounter while writing this new book in third person after the first person of Prep? It seems to me your powers as a narrator are well served by this foray into third person. To take just a simple example, you are sometimes able to tell the reader what other characters are thinking and hence clarify a dilemma or conundrum.

CS: I don't always know why I choose the first or third person -- I just sort of try one, and then it works or it doesn't. This book is written in a close third person, so it's definitely very Hannah-centric. I think people's individual wishes and quirks and neuroses are what make them interesting, and are what I like to read about in fiction; I like to want something on a character's behalf. So no matter the POV I'm using, I try to keep readers close to, if not inside of, my own characters.

EG: Hannah's relationship with her abusive father seems to have dampened her relations with men later on. Did you meet Hannah grown-up first and then realize her backstory, or did she grow out of seeing a fourteen year-old character whose dad can't control his anger? Did she withdraw from men partly out of fear of her father?

CS: The first section I wrote was when Hannah is in college interning at an ad agency for the summer and has a really awkward drunken hook-up with a co-worker, and then I decided to write about her before and after that incident. While I would say that of course her relationships with men are influenced by her father, I also wanted to avoid a simplistic "A leads to B leads to C" type of storyline. I always see Hannah as being her own agent, and being complicit in all the relationships she has.

EG: Oliver was the most interesting and vivid male character to me. Would you talk a little bit about how you came up with him?

CS: I get different feedback about him -- some readers think he's charming, and some think he's scummy. I thought it would be interesting to create a character where his flaws are explicit, they're a given, and then look at the reasons why people are drawn to him anyway. Certainly I think people like that exist in real life.

EG: Did you feel yourself growing as a writer during this book? I ask because comparing Lee (from Prep) and Hannah, you seem to have taken Hannah farther along in development, and I wonder if that parallels your own growth as a writer in some way?

CS: The book follows Hannah into her mid-to-late 20s, so she's an official adult, whereas most of Prep takes place in high school, and even though Lee is narrating the story in retrospect, the details about her adult life are intentionally murky. I think The Man of My Dreams is in fact a more mature book, but it's not because of Hannah's age; it's because of technical and structural issues -- it's more tightly written and faster-paced; it's a tad less self-indulgent.

EG: Do you revise stuff as you go along, or get it all out and then go back and start slashing?

CS: Both. Chris Offutt once recommended looking only at the last line of what you wrote the previous day and then pushing on, and going back only at the end. And I think of that suggestion often, even though I don't usually do it. But I strongly believe that sometimes you have to write something wrong -- and you might even know it's wrong as you're working on it -- in order to write it right. It's impossible to fix a piece of writing when it's in your head rather than on the page. Of course, when you put words down on the page, and they're really cheesy and graceless, it's discouraging. But then, ideally, you make them better.

EG: How did you decide what to do with the last chapter? Not to give too much away to those who haven't read it yet, but it's epistolary. Was that something you imagined doing early on, or did it evolve out of getting to that point in the book?

CS: The letter form was a bit like choosing the third person point of view -- I decided to try it, it seemed to work, so I kept it. It's a letter Hannah writes to her former therapist, whom she hasn't seen for a few years. The therapist has told Hannah to drop her a line and tell her what happens after Hannah moves from Boston, and Hannah doesn't know if she really means it -- if writing to the therapist is a self-absorbed gesture, or if not writing to her is rude. I'm intrigued by how people do or don't stay in touch, or do or don't cross paths years after first knowing each other. It can be quite surprising and different from what you'd anticipate.

EG: Time magazine called you "the Faulkner of awkwardness." Do you think you notice the various tensions in situations more than most people? Are you always wondering what people are thinking as you observe them? In talking to you face to face, I must admit I can almost feel your intense curiosity emanating off you in waves. Do you get a lot of people who say your work hits too close to home, or that it's almost embarrassing to read because they feel so keenly for the characters? Where do you think this fervor to absorb so much about someone's character comes from?

CS: Wave-emanating curiosity?! Okay, now I'm the one cringing!! In all honesty, I secretly suspect I'm kind of a dull person, with nothing in particular to say most of the time, so that might be the source of the curiosity you refer to -- that I'm moved to ask people questions because otherwise I'd have nothing to contribute to conversations! All this said, I like to believe I'm socially normal, much more so than my characters.

But yes, some people do say that reading my writing makes them wince and squirm because it's too uncomfortably real. I guess I'm interested in the times when there's a discrepancy between what people are expressing and what they're really thinking and feeling, and that discrepancy often arises in moments of awkwardness. Plus, when there's awkwardness and tension, we're more alert, even if it's not in a desirable way.

EG: Your style is very precise, clear, sharp, and solid, etc. (for lack of better words). The reader doesn't have to guess anything or fill in the blanks. Which writers have taught you the most about style? Whose style do admire among contemporary writers?

CS: I have two contradictory theories about clarity in fiction. On the one hand, I feel like the writer is working for the reader, and I want to give the reader an enjoyable, palatable reading experience. On the other hand, I try to write with the assumption that readers are intelligent, to appeal to the highest common denominator, because I like books that allow me to figure things out for myself and don't over-explain a concept. (Alice Munro allows this, and I just finished The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which I thought was fantastic and definitely assumes the reader's intelligence.) So maybe what I try to do is make situations clear -- I hate when a writer has so little control of her material that you can't tell when or where something is taking place -- but use a lighter touch with ideas. One example of a person who does an excellent job writing clearly but not simplistically is our very own Ethan Canin.

EG: You've done some work on Ira Glass's "This American Life" radio program. What's that like? Do they assign you projects, or do you bring an idea to them and they give you recording equipment?

CS: I've pitched ideas to "This American Life," and they've rejected some and accepted a few. Once they accept an idea, they send me recording equipment, I talk to a producer about the structure of the piece, then I do the recording. Sometimes I have to go back and re-record additional interviews because there are holes. The biggest frustration with radio pieces, and the main way they vary from print articles, is that I can tape someone saying something so funny and great, but if the sound quality is poor, I can't use it; you have to focus on technical issues beyond just pure content.

Working with the "TAL" producers, including Ira Glass, is wonderful -- as fans of the show might imagine, they're so smart and funny and they're also amazingly nice and patient (I think because they're used to working with radio novices). You get off the phone with them enjoying this lovely illusion that you're new best friends. The only potential downside to working with them, and it's something I respect but it can also feel inconvenient, is that you might spend 20 hours on the phone working on a piece that's 12 minutes on the radio. They're perfectionists. And again, I admire this, but there have been times when I've been on the phone with a producer for three hours and I've had to say, "I'm really sorry, but I feel weak with hunger and I need to pee -- can I call you back in 10 minutes?"

EG: I was trying to come up with a concise theme so far in your two novels, and the best I could do is something like this: Everyone is weird, conflicts should be faced head on, and you can learn to like yourself if you remain honest. How would you summarize your thematic concerns so far? And how do you think they may develop in the future?

CS: Describing your own writing, or the themes in it, is like describing your personality; you're the least credible person on the topic. So I'll just say I think you've done a good job describing my work for me. As for the future, I'll always hold a special place in my heart for girlish angst, but I suspect I'll also tackle other subjects.


J. C. Hallman reading tonight

Chris Hallman will be reading from his book, The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe, tonight at 7 at Prairie Lights and on WSUI AM 910. See the recent interview Chris did here on Earth Goat, and the one he did on Bookslut, for refreshers on why you want to go to this reading. He is a very good reader as well. Should be a good time. He has expressed interest in getting reacquainted with the Fox Head afterwards, and then we will head back to Earth Goat headquarters for more drinks, more conversation, and general debauchery.


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Heading Back to Ioway

I'm flying back to Iowa for two weeks to welcome Mary Frances to the world. However, due to my daily beach going and my twice-a-day Dunkin Donuts habit (there are literally 6 -- 6! -- repositories of deliciousness between my home and work -- about five miles) you may not recognize me, so I thought I should post a picture.

Dave Alvin tonight at the Mill

The terrific songwriter, founder of The Blasters, and ex-X lead guitarist is headlining a show tonight with his band The Guilty Men. Apparently he's now into country. 9pm. $15. Energy: High.


News from the Move

So, me and the two hounds are in New England (George says Hi, Pogue is too busy trying to figure out how to open the basement door, but she might talk to you later). I have a bed on the floor, a chair I got dumpster-diving on the way to work (while wearing my tie, which I was very proud of), my guitar and an amp the size of a shoe box, a stereo, and a papasan from Pier One. I feel like I'm in Chad's old heroin apartment -- it's really wonderful. The wood floors and empty rooms make rocking a very satisfying experience.

I live in Padanaram Village -- and it's gorgeous, with private beach access where I can look out across the water at Martha's Vineyard. The local "George's" is right on the water -- the bartender is Beth, and she is a big fan of Wally Lamb. Any and all must come visit.

The other day I was walking the dogs while wearing one of my old Iowa Young Writers t-shirts and this car came to a screeching halt in front of us. I panicked, George panicked, Pogue tried to use the opportunity to go after a cat. It turned out the woman who lives three doors down from me just had a son come back from Young Writers. He was in Arda's class, and apparently loved it. He has a green Volvo with a sticker that says "Listen to Black Sabbath."

So, come one, come all -- and bring a bathing suit.


The kind of thing you find when you're moving and cleaning out drawers

This is from a little over three years ago. Six of us were in a Chicago bar, and some artist drew this surreptitiously and brought it over. Of course, we bought it. In left to right order: Toad Press, dunkeys, Grendel, traca da broon, Vampiro, and Mrs. Vampiro. I think it's kind of disturbing just how well he captured us. Especially the waistlines. He got those just right.


Free plants

As we are moving, we need to part with our leafy and spiny friends. Let me know if you'd like to come over and adopt one or more.


Summer reading

Whatcha readin'? Most of my reading time is taken up with novel research stuff, but I've managed to slip in other stuff recently, too:

Valis. A romp through madness, paranoia, conspiracy, and healing riding a strange bucking bronco combination of autobiography and science fiction. Pretty funny, too. Reminded me of Vonnegut. Philip K. Dick's star has risen steadily since his death in 1982 because his stories tend to make good films.

Speak, Memory. About a quarter of the way through Nabokov's autobiography so far, and it's living up to the hype. Luscious sentences often containing breathtaking snark. I'd kill to write prose like this.

American Gods. I really wanted to love this, but it didn't do it for me. The style was too breezy and had stretches of slop and awkwardness, the protagonist was too remote and flat, and the detective story ending was laughable. Great idea, but it has to be all about the execution. I hear Anasazi Boys is better, but I dunno, now I am a tad wary of Gaiman. Someone defend this, because too many people I know liked it.

The Devil Is a Gentleman. Very good survey of modern American religious fringe movements, using William James as a touchstone.

Oxherding Tale. This novel was outstanding. Hilarious and heart-breaking and extremely well written. And short. A jewel. If you can imagine a comic novel about slavery ... oh, you can't? Seek it out. Read it. Made me want to read all of Johnson's works.

Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. I don't swallow all of the author's assertions, but he does a formidable job of puncturing the myth of scientific impartiality and biaslessness. He retells the history of Indian settlement and white anthropology in America, uncovering systematic, often shocking racism. As it turns out, he was more right than wrong, as more and more scholarship agrees that no, the Indians did not exterminate the mammoths and other megafauna, and no, they didn't arrive only 11,000 years ago, and no, they were not poor stewards of the land. Perhaps the most fundamental bias has been that anthropologists simply don't take Indians' stories about their own origins seriously, preferring to weave their white, agenda-laden fantasies that take decades, in some cases a century or more, to dislodge.

American Indian Myths and Legends. Fantastic collection of rich, rich mythical stories. Better than the Bible.


The lovely Paula Morris...

...will be reading from her lovely novel, Hibiscus Coast, at the lovely Prairie Lights bookstore, Monday, July 10th @ 7:00 p.m.