Category Archives: Interviews

The Mill River Recluse

This weekend I’m reading Darcie Chan’s THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE.

On my iPad.

And you know I don’t like reading on my iPad.

But I came across this article about Ms. Chan and her book and I was hooked.  After years of trying, unsuccessfully, to get her first novel into the mainstream world of publishing, she’s now sold 400,000 self-published copies.  In today’s New York Times Book Review, THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE is #23 on their e-book best sellers list.

iPad reading or not, I’m enjoying this story a great deal.  Click on the book’s cover above to get your copy.  I promise it will be worth every penny of your 99 cents, and then some.

Click here for Darcie Chan’s website.  You can find her RedRoom interview here.


Shhhh.  This blog is still on holiday, but I have to thank those of you who gathered up to send me this.

God knows I love fountain pens, and if you could feel this one — this one! — in your hand and see the ink on the page …. pure writerly pleasure, that’s what it is.  My scribbles don’t look so scribbly.  Y’all are spoiling me.


I’ve always felt my real teachers are other writers (all of you included), and I spent Friday and Satruday with a couple of favorites:  Joan Didion and Mary Karr.

Since I just read Didion’s BLUE NIGHTS, I watched her latest Charlie Rose interview.  I also fired up her clip with Charlie from 15 years ago, in 1996.  Watching the 2 back-to-back taught me much … and broke my heart.  If you’re feeling your inner student, you can find her master class here, along with a montage of other Writers On Writing.

If you’re working on a memoir and feeling sassy, or even if you just need to shore up your courage (and who doesn’t?), here’s the Mary Karr interview.

The two lines I needed to hear most today?

1.  After saying she threw away the first 2,000 pages (two thousand!) of her last memoir, LIT, the interviewer asked her why.  Her simple answer:  It was boring!

2.  Her advice to newer writers:  Never show your work to anyone unit you think it’s finished.

And now … I’m off to work toward FTF.


* Comments for this post have been turned off.  Enjoy the rest of 2011.

Breaking It Down

From PaperLanternLane

One thing I miss about school is sitting around the table with a group of readers and taking a story — usually a short story — and breaking it down to see how it works.

Today I came across this Podcast at The New Yorker:  it’s my favorite writing teacher, ZZ Packer, reading “Paper Lantern” and then talking with Deborah Treisman about the mechanics.  Here’s the audio link:  Paper Lantern by Stuart Dybek.  If there’s anything that helps me figure out my own writing, it’s seeing how someone else pulls it off.  I started out enjoying the story, ZZ’s voice, and her great big laugh, but ended up with the perfect writing prompt for today.


P.S.  We’ve been talking about the importance of libraries lately.  How about this Dybek quote: “The public library is where place and possibility meet.”  My 10 year old self would have agreed.

Bad Writing. The Movie.

There is a documentary called BAD WRITING.

Did you know this?

Where has this film been and who’s been hiding it from me?

You can buy the film or rent it.  I bought it for $9.99 on iTunes and have watched it.  Twice.  Today.  Cheaper than 2 trips to Starbucks.


Disclaimer:  A few of my biggest writer crushes appear in this movie: Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, and Lee Gutkind.  (I am honest-to-god swooning as I type their names.)

Favorite line by the writer / filmmaker:  I felt sick, maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought, maybe I was still bad, maybe I would never be a good writer, maybe I was wasting my time.

Best reminder:   Anybody who doesn’t write and fail is really not trying very hard.

Most under-appreciated question:  But how do you write and not smoke cigarettes?

And now, in the spirit of this wonderful film, I offer you this week’s very worst of my bad writing:  (As a writing prompt, I was told to think about the sky and the grass.  Please hold your applause until the end.)


She often wondered, where was up and where was down?

Why one blue, the other grass and green,

Green on the low road, blue on the high,

What road was she on?

She often wondered.


He often wondered, where was he going, the same place he’d been?

Why bother with forward

When all he knew was back

Back where he’d come from

The same old road

There, nowhere, again.

He often wondered.


Who wants to share their best bad writing?

The Art of Fielding

As much as I try to avoid the big hype books (until the hype is long dead, at least), I’ve made an exception for the current literary darling.

I first heard of THE ART OF FIELDING when, late on a Friday night, AmyG directed me to an article in the latest Vanity Fair she called “writer porn.”  And jesus people, who among us can pass up writer porn?

AmyG was right.  If you haven’t read this long and detailed piece about how THE ART OF FIELDING came to be, stop reading this post and get ye straight to the magazine and read Keith Gessen’s phenomenal essay.  (in the print magazine only, sorry)  I’ve never read a better, more detailed and intriguing drama about how a book was written, re-written, discovered, agented, edited, negotiated, sold, marketed and, finally, set out into the world.

The writer, Chad Harbach, is also a co-founder and editor of N+1, one of my favorite lit mags.  Here’s an 8 minute review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  Chad wrote this book long-hand; he says he finds writing on the screen paralyzing.  There’s a thought.  He’s got me thinking, this Chad Harbach character, thinking about baseball and expectations and writing and success and MOBY-DICK and tragedy and secrets and long sagas and the art of great story telling.

Who wants to read this with me?  

Summer Vampire

Remember Barnabas Collins?

Some say they hole up and write the most and their best in the winter months, when brooding skies, cold and rain and snow, drive them indoors.  Picture the well-stoked fire, the over-worn sweater, the steaming urns of soup and cups of tea.  What a cozy picture.  But not for me.  I’m like some kind of summer vampire.  The light glows brighter and I’m twisting my shoulders away from sun, hiding indoors during the heat of the day — the air-conditioned library serves me best — emerging in the early evening for a glass (or 3) of chilled white wine and a mental wind-down.

I was never one of those kids who eyed the start of summer.  I didn’t care for that kind of freedom.  I craved the routine of school:  the ringing bells, the expectation of a real lunch, the paper-shuffle-quiet of test taking, the structure of playground games like Tether Ball and Four Square.

As this summer comes on, I’m shuffling paper and getting to work.  And I’ve got Dorothy Allison on the brain.  Last week I watched a short interview where she talks about growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, and writing about the country of her imagination.  You can find it here (Dorothy’s part starts at the 41 minute mark).  In the span of 15 minutes, she says the word “dangerous” 10 times … as in: it was dangerous for her to write about her home, her family, her real life.  The country of her imagination was a place where “men were dangerous animals roaming the earth.”  Dorothy wrote her first story when she was 9 yrs old.  And she burned it.  Then she continued to burn every single thing she wrote — feeling that her truths were just too dangerous to be out in the world — until she was 24 yrs old.

Summer’s here.  I promise not to burn anything.  I’m remembering Dark Shadows.  And I’ve got Dorothy, brave Dorothy, on the brain.  What’s got you thinking these days?

Kathryn Harrison Interview

I sent this to a couple of you separately, but I’ve watched it again and thought I should post it.  It’s interesting to see how uncomfortable Charlie Rose is, especially at the start, like he’s not quite sure how/what he should ask.  And Kathryn Harrison answers every question — tough questions — with such honesty and grace.  What an inspiration.

Click here for the link:  Kathryn Harrison

I also ordered the new release of THE KISS and read it — are you sitting down — on my iPad.  I’m inching my way into the 21st century.  Jane Smiley’s afterword is worth the read.  And of course I couldn’t help but page through the book (electronically).  Jesus, this book.  There’s still never been anything quite like it.

Setting The Memoir Table

The Dining Room in Carter Library

Last night I hosted Book Club and man was I worried as I set that table — I’d picked Mary Karr’s LIT and I was certain they were either going to (a) hate the book, (b) not bother finishing it, or even worse (c) hate Mary Karr.  My god, what was I going to DO if they hated my Mary Karr?!

Like most of my totally irrational fears, this one didn’t pan out.  I won’t say everyone loved LIT, but they liked it well enough and pretty much everyone finished — except for one, who’s Kindle died right in the middle of reading — and I was thrilled with the discussion it prompted.  I’m not sure we’ve ever discussed a book where so many of us could quote from the book without opening it.  How about that mother saying, “I’m a lot of fun to be with.”  Or how she was such a “sneaky bitch.”  Remember that woman from AA who kept her Vokda in a turkey carcass in the freezer and, when she couldn’t midwife it out one night, just tipped up the whole bird!  Or that guy who blew himself up because he needed a cigarette and forgot the stove gas was on from when he tried to kill himself.

Insert ROUSING LAUGHTER all over the place …  Funny how funny tragedy can be.  My Mary Karr, bless her, does this better than anyone.  I worship at her altar.

Since we don’t read many memoirs in this Book Club, I decided to use some of my favorite tell-alls as the table decor.  Note THE LIARS CLUB right there in front, and also Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS (also the topic today over at Betsy’s) to the right of it.  THE KISS has been a favorite since the first time I got my hands on it.  It’s a small book with big print and the craziest damned story — sparsely and achingly told — the kind of story you read in one sitting.  I’ve read it no less than 5 times.  I even wrote a paper about in grad school (what a study in structure, voice, the not naming of names, etc…).  Harrison’s prose is no less than brilliant.  But I can’t for the life of me get anyone to read this book.  I tried to sell it again last night but, as usual, no one was buying.

What am I doing wrong?  (aside from trying to shove it like a stick of dynamite into everyone’s purse and then hover over them while they read every last word)  If you want to read some excellent interviews with Kathryn Harrison, here’s her website.  I love her matter-of-fact answers.  And in light of James Frey coming back into view with his latest Oprah interview, you might find Kathyrn’s answer to this question worth its weight:

Q: Your 1997 memoir, The Kiss, is a stunning look at father-daughter incest, and feels quite confessional. How do you incorporate translation when writing about your own life?

KH: I teach memoir writing, so I’ll answer as both a writer and as a teacher. We’re very aware right now of writers like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs being accused of fabricating too much to call what they write memoir, and a lot of my students are anxious about how strictly faithful a writer must be to factual truth. My feeling is, if you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it will be evident in your work. I was asked to blurb James Frey’s book, so I read it before all the controversy, but immediately I responded to the book as an exercise in self-mythologizing rather than memoir. Memoir, to me, is anti-narcissistic; it leans towards discomfort; it relies on self-scrutiny. If a writer is engaged in that process he or she is being faithful to the idea of truth and honesty. Truth is not a destination but a direction; it never has a capital T, not if you’re mortal. A lot of how a book reads has to do with the writer’s agenda; if your agenda is to reveal yourself honestly, then your narrative will read that way, no matter if every detail is factually accurate or not. I think text is more transparent than people assume. 

Keep reading.  I promise not to hover.  Much.

A Page From E.L. Doctorow

What a treat this week — I saw E.L. Doctorow twice!  Last night he read from his latest short story collection — ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD — which is a pretty funky title considering he just turned eighty.  And today he was in conversation with a professor at the University Theatre.  That’s Mr. Doctorow on the left, spry and sharp as they come (sorry it’s such a blurry picture).  Anyway, here are just a few of the gems he shared with us.

Where do his ideas come from?  First, he’s not a believer in overthinking and story-boarding it out.  And he doesn’t wait for fully cooked plot lines and characters and mull them over for days/weeks/months.  He just sits down and starts typing.  How does he get started?  It all starts, he said, with an image, a sentence, a piece of music … some little spark that fires his imagination.  He jumps into it with absolutely no idea where he’s going.  He said that after he finished THE BOOK OF DANIEL, he was emotionally exhausted.  Couldn’t write anything for a year.  When summer came, he made himself sit in his office where just sat at his desk, stared at the plaster wall, and wrote about the wall.  Then he moved to the woodwork.  Then he realized how old his house was, that it had been built in 1906, which conjured images of how people might have dressed back then:  women in their all-white summer frocks, carrying parasols.  And so it went from there.  A new novel was born.

Speaking of THE BOOK OF DANIEL:  He started writing this story in the 3rd person.  150 pages in, he felt like he was writing the most boring, lifeless story — he hated it, hated working on it — and got so fed up he took the whole stack of pages and threw them across the room.  But why was the story so boring?  Pondering this, it occurred to him that he needed a character’s perspective worth following.  He put a new piece of paper in the typewriter and wrote the opening of the story from the innocent child’s viewpoint.  And it worked!

The spark image for BILLY BATHGATE:  He saw a tug boat in the harbor and imagined several men in dark suits standing on the boat.  This was an odd image.  What would these well-dressed men be doing, dressed in their finest, in the filthy, blue-collar area of the docks?  Then he had it.  A little boy, Billy, was seeing this scene, thinking these thoughts.  They were gangsters, taking a body out to dump, and Billy needed to follow these men, tell this story, to see what happened.  And needed to tell it in the first person, in his own voice.

On doing research:  He often writes about places he’s never been, about people and times he knows little about.  He says that all you really need are some key points and then you need to start writing.  Part of the joy of writing it is, after all, discovery.  So what if he doesn’t get it exactly right.  It’s fiction!  He knows so many writers who have researched a topic to death, only to become so bogged down by the facts that their imaginations become paralyzed.  And then they can’t write.

Did you know that Amazon.Com has an entire page devoted to E.L. Doctorow’s work?  Here’s the link.  I’m  a new fan.

Sassafras, or Maybe Just Sass

I’m all wound up today, throwing around all manner of four-letter words and waving my hands in the air when I talk.  All I can think about is sass, sass, sass.  So of course I went looking for more…

#1  —  James Baldwin, from his 1984 Paris Review interview, when asked about recognizing talent in a writer:  “Talent is insignificant.  I know a lot of talented ruins.  Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

#2 —  William Faulkner, from his 1956 Paris Review interview, when asked if he’s under any obligation to his reader:  “I myself am too busy to care about the public.  I have no time to wonder who is reading me.  I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my work or anyone else’s.”

Sometimes I read these interviews, and I wonder what they’re really wanting to say, what they’re holding back, whether they want to just say this is all a bunch of %&*#@!^(!*$^.  I didn’t, however, think this about the Faulkner piece.  If you have a chance, read the whole thing.  It’s a hoot.  At one point, the Interviewer tells him, Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they have read it two or three times.  What approach would you suggest for them?  To which Faulkner says:  “Read it four times.”

#3 —  I chose a book I love — Mary Karr’s LIT — for my May book club.  I was downright giddy with pleasure when I did it.  The next day, another Mary Karr devotee said basically this:  Oh no no no.  I worship at the Marr Karr altar and, therefore, could never do that.  What if they hated it?!?!  

Well, sister, it’s going to happen.  I hear the train coming.  And I’ll just have to bite down on a big bar of Ivory soap and survive it.  Today one of my bookclubbers sent me an e-mail:  “I’m about 1/2 way through.  Does it ever get happy?”  To which I wrote back:  “I’m not big on happy books.  I like the survival-of-life stuff.”

Better get that bar of soap out and keep it at the ready.