Reading around

I guess this is one way to handle it if your hardcover flops: rewrite it in paperback.

According to Publishers Weekly, Myla Goldberg substantially revised her second novel, WICKETT'S REMEDY, for the paperback release. “The spirit of the book and its story remain unchanged, but certain threads are developed a little further."

Now, if only Goldberg could go back in time and rewrite the interviews she gave implying that everyone who loved her first book was a shallow aficionado of “domestic dramas blah-blah-blah” who wasn’t deep enough to appreciate the capital-A Art she was laying on them. (I always wonder about writers who feel that way, and feel compelled to say so. Are they surprised when the readers they've maligned stay away in droves?)

I’m currently reading Sarah Dunant's IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN, which is fantastic – meticulously researched, richly detailed, moving, engrossing, everything you’d want historical fiction to be. I also loved Ken Kalfus's very funny, extremely bleak 9-11 tragicomedy, A DISORDER PECULIAR TO THE COUNTRY. If you like Tom Perrotta (and I do), you'll dig this one as well.

Janet Maslin liked LISEY’S STORY almost as much as I did, although there’s a big and interesting error in her review of Stephen King’s latest. The writer character in the story, Scott Landon, late husband of the titular Lisey, is not, like King, a horror writer. He’s a much more respected fellow who’s won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer and still managed to sell enough books to leave his wife with twenty million dollars – the kind of writer, in other words, who can most commonly be found in other writers’ imaginations.

Finally, I did this Q and A for a column that was going to run in the San Francisco Examiner. The column just got killed, so the piece will never appear, so I'm posting it here, because I can. Enjoy!

Q: Why do you write?

Because I figured out pretty quickly that the ballerina thing was not going to happen.

Seriously, I write because I love to read, because it’s the thing I love to do the most, and because I believe that if you can tell a story that can entertain or transport a reader or make her see the world or herself differently, it's a good thing.

Q: What are you reading right now and why?

Right now I’m reading a bunch of stuff that hasn’t been published yet, which is one of the secret benefits of being a published author – you get a lot of things in manuscript. I love love loved Stephen King’s LISEY’S STORY and will be recommending it to everyone I know who writes, or who’s married (I’ll be giving two copies to my friends who are married writers). I’ve got a copy of Diane Setterfield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE on my bedside table. And, to be brutally honest, I am re-reading Judith Krantz’s SCRUPLES II for about the seventeenth time, and you know what? It’s a damn good story.

Q: The first two stories in your new book, "Just Desserts" and "Travels with Nicki" sound biographical. Do readers assume that they are?

I haven’t polled them, but I’m assuming that because there are some similarities between those two stories and my own life, that readers will believe that I’m Josie and my sister’s Nicki (when, in fact, I am actually Milo the bulldog. They’ll never know!)

Q: It seems like the Josie character and the Nicki character are more like the ego and the id. Nicki gets to act out all the things that Josie never would. Is that anywhere near the mark?

Sounds about right to me, but I’ll have to run it by my real-life little sister and hear what she says.

Q: Your story "Good Men" really captures the secret behavior of guys, the kind we usually don't let women see. How did you go about achieving this?

Younger brothers? Bad boyfriends? Years of being a wallflower, which gave me unprecendented access to how men behave when there’s no woman they want to sleep with nearby? Hmm. I think I’ll just go with “good imagination.”

Q: Can you please describe the process of re-creating your story "Swim"
after losing the original 1989 version? (Has anyone come forward with a copy of the original since publication?)


No, nobody’s come forward with the original yet (I am still waiting eagerly.) And the process of recreating the lost story was a little strange because all I could remember about the story was the basic outlines of the characters and the plot: a girl who made a job for herself script-doctoring classified ads who lives with her grandmother and falls for one of her clients. The piece I added was the story of Caitlyn and her brother, to layer the theme of judging people on appearances – how Ruth does it even when she believes other people are doing it to her. I think that made it much less a straightforward girl-gets-guy story and turned it into a story where the girl does get the guy – or at least the possibility of the guy – but also gets to deal with issues of appearance versus reality, hope versus despair.

Q: Why did you decide to include the story notes in the back, describing the history and chronology of the collection? (I don't think I've ever seen that before...)

Ah, then you haven’t read Stephen King! In every short story collection he’s written he goes through the history of the pieces – where and when and how they were written, how editors responded, where they were or weren’t published, the whole megillah. As a writer, it was always my favorite part of the books – reading the stories, and then reading the stories behind the stories.

Q: You've said you wrote this collection as a fan of short stories (I am too). You've said that Joyce Carol Oates was a teacher of yours.
What did you learn about short
stories from her? Did you learn anything new while writing this collection?

Joyce Carol Oates was a fabulous teacher, but it was a little daunting to study with her because…well, she makes it look so easy, and it’s not until you’re actually down there in the trenches, wrestling with your plot and character, knowing that with short stories, every single detail has to lead somewhere and add to the theme and bring the reader toward the resolution, that you appreciate just how talented she is. I think back to “Where are you Going, Where Have you Been,” with its perfectly calibrated aura of menace and possibility. I just hope that some day, if I keep trying, I’ll get that good.


Q: How often are you lumped in with the "chick lit" movement? What's your opinion of this particular label?


I think at this point I could write Beowulf and still have it be called “chick lit.” That’s the risk you run when your first book has naked legs and cheesecake on the cover, a breezy tone and a happy ending (and, to be perfectly honest, I probably could not, in fact, write “Beowulf.")

I’m not crazy about the label, because I think it comes with a built-in assumption that you’ve written nothing more meaningful or substantial than a mouthful of cotton candy. Plus, at this particular moment, chick lit is on the receiving end of a great deal of antipathy from some women writers who prefer to think of themselves as writing capital-L Literature, and would probably dissolve into steaming puddles of pretension if anyone were to call their carefully-wrought, insistently ambiguous, extremely pedigreed books chick lit.

However, having said all that, I don’t think the label matters much to people who aren’t booksellers, publishers, authors or aspiring authors. From what I’ve seen and heard, readers could care less what my books are called, how they’re reviewed (if they’re reviewed at all), where they’re shelved or what color the covers are. They just want good stories, funny dialogue, and heroines they can relate to, and I hope that’s what I deliver.

Q: What is your writing schedule like?

I write for twenty hours a week. I used to write every afternoon from 1 to 5, Monday through Friday. My daughter started nursery school last week, so now I work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8:45 to 12:30, when she’s in school, and have a sitter Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 1 to 5.

Q: What is your workspace like?

I work in coffee shops, so my workspace is whatever table I can grab that’s near a power outlet, and the soundtrack is whatever Cosi or Starbucks is playing that day, and whatever the customers and baristas are talking about. I think a lot of writers would find the noise and other people a distraction, but after ten years in newsrooms, I can’t get anything done in the house, where I’m all alone, it’s too quiet, and there’s a lot of very fine daytime programming available as a distraction.


Q: Is there a newish book that you would recommend to readers as a 'winter pick'?

I think everyone should read LISEY’S STORY, but I suspect that by winter, everyone already will have, so I’ll pass on two more funny titles: HOW I PAID FOR COLLEGE by Marc Acito and THE BOOK OF JOE by Jonathan Tropper, and one funny/poignant one: PUG HILL by Alison Pace.

SIDEBAR QUESTIONS
Age: 36
Birthplace: DeRidder, LA
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English literature, Princeton University, 1991
Favorite song, piece of music: I love singer-songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Dan Bern, Emmylou Harris and Dar Williams
Biggest literary inspiration, author: Susan Isaacs
Biggest literary inspiration, book: CRAZY SALAD by Nora Ephron
Most memorable book from my childhood: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN
Book re-read most often: THE TALISMAN
If I could only retain one book on a desert island, it would be: A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANEY
Book I've read lately I'd recommend most: LISEY’S STORY
Most meaningful line from any book or poem: These days, I’m reading a lot of Sharon Olds, especially the poem she wrote about her fantasy of going back in time and telling her parents not to get married:
“I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

Jen