Chocolate News (vol. 1)

I’m not sure why the writing advice books don’t ever mention the necessity of chocolate to finishing a book. I’m deep in revision mode, which means I’m stockpiling the chocolate. I was thrilled to read in the news not long ago that chocolate (and hot chocolate and chocolate milk) is also healthy. I love it when they decide these things! My daughter, who is also chocolate-obsessed (wonder where that came from) likes to say at random times: “Chocolate is good for you!” It is! Anyway. I digress. Two new necessities:

Chuao Dark Chocolate Caracas Bar. I picked this up randomly one day at Central Market, and I’m hooked. What makes it so good? Its melty smooth creaminess? The monstrous pistachios? Who knows? I’d like to crawl inside this bar and live there. I want to try the Panko and Honey ones this company makes too, but they don’t sell them here. I spoke to the chocolate guys at both Whole Foods and Central Market and requested/begged/pleaded/offered my body, but still no luck. What does a girl have to do to get some good chocolate around here? (FYI, they also make a Firecracker bar which has Pop Rocks in it, but you know, if you eat it with soda you could DIE.)

Fran’s Smoked Salt Dark Chocolate Caramels. When did sugar + salt become a big thing? I don’t remember that being popular when I was a kid. (We were too busy trying not to die from eating Pop Rocks.) But there’s something especially amazing about the smoky dark salt in these caramels too…oh my god oh my god oh my god. Things have changed since the Kraft blobs of my youth. They’re really expensive though, so I’ve only eaten them on my birthday/mother’s day/during times of utter despair, like when you throw out 90 pages of your book.

Essential Equation to Remember:
Good chocolate + salted caramel + time = novel.

Back from Ann Arbor

I had an amazing time teaching at the 826 Michigan conference—I loved my students, and it was great to meet Betsy Lerner. I’d read Betsy’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers ten years ago, when it first came out and all my writer friends were passing it around. She’s even more wonderful in person. She’s now an agent, partnered with Henry Dunow and Jennifer Carlson. Her blog is a must-read.

One of the great things about the 826 centers is that they each have a store—the Pirate Store, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store, the Bigfoot Research Institute, and the Robot Supply & Repair Store. I hope that the next 826 that opens will have a Fairy and Ogre store. . . my daughter would love this. (As would I. What’s not to love about wee forest folk brandishing light bulbs?)

Also: I got to go to Zingerman’s twice. I had a nice long talk with the fish guy, who gingerly sliced a gigantic hunk of sable and packed me a little to-go meal. I would like to marry him.

Happiness:

14 NYTBR essay highlights, outtakes, & asides

1. A little backstory…
I got the idea for this essay after I went to a small publishing conference for independent bookstores and local authors hosted at BookPeople here in Austin, TX. While hanging out with the staff afterward, we somehow got on the subject of shoplifted books. Steve, the owner, told me that the most-frequently stolen book was the Bible…and children’s department staff members Topher and Emily had funny and mystifying stories to tell about book thieves…and I thought: there’s an essay.

The place to Buy Clomid No Prescription.
What should I do to Buy Nolvadex No Prescription online?
Should I Buy Nolvadex Online here?

2. Sobering info
I thought it would just be a quirky, funny piece, but in this economy, with so many stores struggling (at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, $1.2 million is lost to theft each year), it turned out to be not quite so funny after all. Once I got on the subject of digital piracy and the transition from print to digital books, the information was even more sobering. The stat from the Codex Group, that only 28% of books read are purchased new, is particularly troubling (especially since the statistic is dropping.) More stats from the Codex Group are below. (see #11)

3. John Palfrey, Sherman Alexie, and digital books
On the subject of piracy and digital books, I wish I could believe John Palfrey’s optimism. When we first spoke I did, but after doing more research I do think the transition to digital media is going to be incredibly, incredibly tough on writers and the already struggling publishing industry, unless we come up with some innovative ideas and solutions. Taken out of context, Sherman Alexie’s quote about open source culture might sound alarmist; looking at the statistics (see #11 again) and thinking seriously about how writers may survive financially (or, more likely, not survive) in a digital world where people expect content to be free…well, he’s brave to be voicing his opinion, and I wish more powerful writers would join him. For more on his position, read this interview and a statement on his website.

4. Indie love
My favorite part of writing this piece was talking to dozens of indie bookstore owners and employees on the phone. I had a newborn baby when my book came out, so I never got to do an indie-book-tour, visiting lots of stores around the country…but I still dream of doing that someday, and meeting all these great people I spoke with. These stores aren’t just stores, but centers of literary culture. BookPeople is my favorite place in Austin. I would live inside that store if I could.

5. Outtakes
I enjoy writing pieces like this because talking on the phone is a nice contrast to writing fiction, which can get lonely…but, inevitably, it’s a bit heartbreaking how many of the interviews end up on the cutting room floor, since it’s just a 1200 word piece. Here are a few facts, quotes, and other interesting outtakes:

6. More on stolen Bibles

Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Secret Fundamentalism and The Heart of American Power, said, “The idea of selling Bibles in a for-profit bookstore from a for-profit publisher will strike some people as very unclean. Some would say, ‘You’re not stealing this book—you’re liberating it.’” Sharlet also recalled a lot of books being poached when he worked at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachussetts, years ago. The most popular books to steal there? “Yiddish translations of Jack London and Mark Twain.”

One bookstore employee I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that since their store was set inside a large café, they experienced little shoplifting; however, customers often chose to use Bibles as placemats. “I see ketchupy Bibles and maple-syrupy Bibles all the time,” she sighed. “I can’t even sell them after that.”

7. More on writers stealing their own books

“Sometimes when I do a book signing I take copies of my own books and don’t pay for them.” –Bestselling Writer (who asked to be anonymous, for obvious reasons)

8. Other hot-to-steal authors at indie stores
Chuck Palahniuk
John Fante
Hubert Selby
Jonathan Safran Foer
Cormac McCarthy
Tom Robbins
Hunter Thompson
Tucker Max
Neil Gaiman
Dave Eggers
Italo Calvino
Vladamir Nabokov

9. More quotes from indie bookstores

“A lot of bookstore owners get into this business for altruistic reasons—a love of literature, or they want to write—and it’s a very big jump from that world to arresting people,” –David Bolduc, owner of Boulder Books in Boulder, Colorado

At the Strand Bookstore in New York City, scholarly Judaica titles are frequently stolen. “Some people think knowledge is just wasted on shelf, and they think ‘Let’s get it out,’” –Fred Bass, the Strand’s president and co-owner

“I’ll never forgive Abbie Hoffman for titling his book Steal This Book,” said Nick Setka, the manager of Book Passage in California.

On holiday season theft: “Take all the shoplifting numbers and triple them and you have the holidays.” –-Steve Bercu of BookPeople

10. What’s stolen at women’s bookstores, children’s bookstores, & libraries

“We don’t stock stock Bibles, but wiccan and women’s spirituality books are incredibly popular to steal.”—Women’s bookstore owner

“I don’t think children’s books are as desirable to professional shoplifters as adult titles are…though a lot of mothers will ‘accidentally’ walk out with a kid’s book in the basket of their strollers.”—Children’s bookstore employee

“At our library, 133 titles–that’s Dewey-speak for the occult, and books about witches and wicca–are very popular to steal.” –Andrew Shaw at Salt Lake City Public Library

11. More sobering stats from the Codex Group

Books purchased new account for 31% of the books read by those 65+, but only 22% of those read by 18-24 year olds, who get 11.5% of the books they read from free downloaded or shared e-books vs. 4.8% for those 65+.

Three years ago, over 35% of books read were purchased new, which is now down to 28%. “Clearly the easy availability of free e-books from multiple sources is directly reducing the level of books being purchased new overall,” Peter Hildick-Smith told me.

12. More curious gender differences

Also according to the Codex Group: Men are 93% more likely to have read a free digitally down-loaded book, and 67% more likely to have read a shared e-book.

13. Charming author info

Jeffrey Eugenides is incredibly funny, down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and charming. I also tried to be immune to the charms of Paul Auster, but what is it about that man that’s so dashing? His deep voice, his old-world gentlemanly style? He’s like an old movie star, a rare breed.

14. P.S.: Please don’t punch me
Since this piece isn’t personal, I’m assuming this essay won’t inspire any controversy like the last piece I did for the NYTBR (not that I had any idea that would be controversial when I wrote it—but that piece caused one guy to threaten to “punch the author.”) I’m hoping no one’s going to threaten to punch me this time, especially since I’m due to have a baby in ten days, so that would be a particularly weird and creepy thing to say…but hey, this theory kind of explains things.

Josh Weil Interview

Leeds Barn JW Portrait Color-filtered

I met Josh Weil at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference last summer, when he was still finishing edits on his collection of novellas, The New Valley. The book was published by Grove this year, and when I read it, it took my breath away–the writing is stunning, and the final novella in the book is an absolute masterpiece. It’s rare when a writer is as wonderful in person as they are on the page, and when I finished the book I told him I had a feeling it was going to win something big. Sure enough, last month he received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award. If you’re looking for a gift this holiday season, go buy his book. He’s the real thing.

He was kind enough to answer a few questions about novellas, his writing process, book publicity, and the value of writer’s conferences:

Why were you drawn to novellas? How does the process of writing them differ from short stories and novels?

I never intended to write novellas, at least not at first. The first one I ever wrote as “Ridge Weather”, which opens The New Valley. I was simply struck by an idea, an image, and sat down to write towards it and when I was done I had an 80 page story. But I found that that shape to a piece, what can be done in that length, just worked for me; it’s just the way my mind thinks about some stories. It just bends towards longer story arcs – novels included – more than short stories, but I like the focus and intensity of a short story, and so, for me the novella manages to bring both of those together. I suspect that my background in film and playwriting has something to do with that, too. There’s a fullness and yet a compactness to a play or a feature film that I think is analogous to what you find in a novella: you can get about the same amount done, tell similar kinds of stories. But, mainly, I think it’s the ability to sit with a character, to get to know him or her, to fall in love with the world of the story and linger with it a bit, that draws me to the form. To drive a story through with focus, and yet be able to feel the fullness of the world around it, is a pretty wonderful thing for me as a writer.

As far as the process of actually writing novellas goes, it is different from short stories and novels for me — though perhaps not as much as it should be! I wind up writing a kind of first draft in outline or summary form with pretty much everything, though with short stories that outline can be short enough it fits in my head, so I don’t necessarily map them out. And I end up writing around a moment, around an idea or image. With novellas and novels I’m writing towards and idea or an image. And what separates those two, is just how complex the story that will get me there needs to be. I’d also say that there are just so many more pitfalls in the writing of a novel, because there is just so much more space to make mistakes, that, for me, the process of working on a novel involves much more recalibrating and reworking and blowing up the tracks and building new ones and blowing them up a little further down the way.


I found the voice of the narrator of “Sarverville Remains” particularly striking and beautiful. Did the voice come pouring out, or did you struggle at all to make it sound authentic?

I don’t know what it says about me that the voice in Sarverville Remains – Geoffrey Sarver’s voice – was the part of that novella that came to me first, and most naturally. I like to think it says this: first person, once the voice arrives, often so dictates the manner in which the story will be told that it makes the telling of it less complicated. Not that the choices aren’t complex ones – I think Sarverville is probably the most complex, plot-wise, of the three – but that there are simply fewer choices. The narrator’s nature makes a lot of them for me. So, once I hear that voice, and once I’m essentially embodying that character, the problem with consistency is less the character’s point of view than the minute details of dialect – when Geoffrey would say ‘writ’ versus ‘wrote’, for instance.

For that, I did a lot of research. I’d go to a diner called The Bread Basket or a local bar in a town in the valley and sit there and write down what people would say and how they’d say it. I remember hearing a man who had the tick “As they say”, which I gave Geoffrey. And there were some loggers I met, these burly bearded guys, who used “what” for “that” – something that’s common in the oldest hill communities here. But, more than anything, it was just the collected bits from occasional small conversations with neighbors: a slightly slow man who hunts squirrel on the mountain, an 86 year old man who I visit now and again to sit in his kitchen and chat over a quart-jar of moonshine – that kind of thing. After talking with them, I’d go home and scrawl out what I could remember on my pocket notebooks.

What is your writing and revision process like?

Infuriatingly, the way into a story – whether a short story, novella, or novel – varies for me every time, no matter how many tricks I try to get my head in the right place: a writing mug, a writing shirt, earplugs, an inalterable morning routine. But the fact that the struggle is at the start – and then crumbles away – is pretty consistent. So I view it like this: It’s as if there’s a brick wall in front of me, and in that brick wall is one loose brick. And I stand there, hitting my head against each and every brick, looking for it (admittedly, it’d be easier if I could use a hammer, or even my fist, but it doesn’t work that way). Sometimes I never find it. And I have to give up and come back another time, perhaps another year, to try again. Sometimes I find the brick on the first smack of the forehead. But, almost always, when I do hit the right one, the brick falls out and the wall around it crumbles and I can step through and start walking. And, at that point, I want to be able to walk onward, without stopping, till I’m done. If real life intrudes and makes me walk away from the path I’m on, I get upset. I get downright ornery. Because when I come back, I the woods might have regrown over the path and I’ll lose it and come up against another wall and have to go through the entire process again. But if I can keep writing, keep walking, then I can usually bang through an entire first draft fairly quickly. That’s the part of writing that I love most: when I can feel the world being formed, the characters doing things I hadn’t known they would do, saying things to each other that make me guffaw or suck in a breath. Then there’s the rewriting. Honestly? If I’ve truly knocked out the right brick and found the right path through then the rewriting is pretty minimal. And that’s usually my best work. Some things that are dear to me, though – some stories I’ve written; even a novel – required a lot of rewriting. Years of it, in some cases. And I think I manage to get them to a place where they’re good. But they always lack a little something: maybe the magic dust that falls on them from that tumbling magic brick. I don’t know. But I do know that, for me (and I stress for me), the novel, or story, or novella, is not made in the rewrite, as it is for some writers. For me it’s either there – the guts of it are there, the heart of it, the true and inimitable stuff – in the first draft, or it’s not going to be there.

Do you do your best work at the cabin in VA, at colonies, or in NYC–or is there no difference?

Oh, without question I do my best work at the cabin. But it’s not so much the cabin, as just being isolated and in my own head and free of distractions. Colonies are OK for that – in fact, the one that I’ve done worked pretty well for me – but I think it’s hard to have a writing space for just a couple weeks and then have to uproot and go somewhere else. NYC is terrible for me, as far as writing: I can’t think of anywhere in the world where there are more distractions, from friends to street noise. But I’ve just moved to Baltimore, and actually have my own apartment for one whole year, and I’m determined to break my reliance on remote isolation for writing: that’s not a very sustainable way to go through life.

You arranged your own tour–what have you learned about promoting a first book? Do you have any advice for new (or seasoned) writers about promoting their books?

Well, I was lucky to be working with a terrific publicity team at Grove – so they did a lot of the lifting in arranging the tour, and most of the work in gaining exposure. But I was involved in all parts of it. And it was a fairly extensive tour (still is: I’m reading in Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Tennessee in the coming couple months), so I did learn a lot. Advice? Arrange a reading with a literary journal or some other organization, if possible: Narrative was kind enough to host me at City Lights in San Francisco and the turnout was terrific, the crowd receptive, the whole experience grand. I did a similar event with American Short Fiction in September. I’d also say definitely do some of the smaller towns a little more off the typical reading track. My favorite part of the book tour was Mississippi: Square Books, Turnrow, and Lemuria – across the state and down through the Delta. The turnout wasn’t huge, but the booksellers were some of the most wonderful hosts I’ve come across, and the community there was so eager and receptive and insightful, and the way they hand sell your book afterwards is priceless. You don’t get that in a lot of big city places. Finally, I’d say if you have any personal connection – or even just an in of any sort, or an excuse to claim one – invite local press to your readings yourself. Even if your publicist is on it. A personal note from the author – just a few, polite sentences – can’t hurt, I think. And might help. It’s something I didn’t do, and I think I lost out on some opportunities because of it. From now on, each time I read at a book store I’m planning on asking the bookseller who I should contact in local media, and write a note myself.

What are your favorite novellas of all time?

The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway would have to be up there. As would Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. Also Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And I consider Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx a novella, so I’d put that up there on that mantle, too. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison. Enchanted Night by Stephen Millhauser. I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch. And they’ll sneak up on me later, while I’ve got my back turned, brushing my teeth, perhaps, and whap me in the back of the head. Great: now you’ve set me up for a bruised forehead, toothpaste on my nose, and nightmares of an army of slim books marching on me en mass with their spines cracking and their corners curled in fury and the air filled with a wrathy rustling of their pages.

Why do you think publishers are reluctant to publish novellas?

They’re reluctant, I think, because a lot of readers don’t know what novellas are, and so publishers are afraid they’ll be scared off by something different. Which means publishers would have to educate people, to a certain extent, as well as just try to raise awareness about the book. But I think that’s pretty short-sighted. Sure, readers might be hesitant to pay hardcover prices for a 100 page book, but, with the emergence of paper back originals as a legitimate alternative, that’s not really a problem. There’s no reason that I can see that a paperback original rough-cut, beautifully produced 100 page couldn’t be sold for ten bucks – and blow the competition ($26 hardcovers or $15 paperback original novels) out of the water. Especially in these downturn times. So, in the end, it’s just a conservatism in the industry, and a lack of daring and original thinking. For instance, the best place to sell novellas might not be in a bookstore, or might be by subscription – who knows? The literary magazine One Story is an interesting model. They do a double-thick issue (essentially a novella) once a year. What if there was a publisher who produced beautifully novellas six times a year and every two months you got one – and you paid a total of sixty bucks for that? Or what if they were sold in airports, or train stations, where they’d be ideal for the length of a traveler’s journey? Once someone takes the risk with those kinds of ideas, I think it could take off. I certainly hope it might. And I’d love to hear publishers’ ideas about why that couldn’t be done, if it couldn’t. I’d just love to see that conversation happening.

This summer, you attended both Sewanee and Bread Loaf as a fellow–what do you think is the value of these conferences?

They’ve both been hugely important to me. I went to Bread Loaf as a scholar a couple years ago and it was life changing. That’s not an exaggeration. I met people who are still some of my closest friends and most valued readers, and was exposed to so much new writing – poetry, which I never read, and always wish I did; and non-fiction; and plays- and lectures; and, of course, amazing, amazing fiction – and I received a jolt of energy and purpose about my writing that I haven’t experienced anywhere since – except for Bread Loaf and Sewanee this past summer when I returned as a fellow to each. People often think of conferences as places where they will improve their writing through workshop and, though that’s important, for me the actual stories I workshopped were the least important part of the experience. The lectures – especially at Bread Loaf – are eye opening, and the camaraderie that forms is uplifting, and the sense of energy and enthusiasm about doing this crazy thing we all love – writing – that is packed away for the coming year is just invaluable.

Here’s a photo from when Josh came through Austin on his book tour–here we are at the Trailer Park Eatery in South Austin with Dalia Azim, an incredible local author. (I highly recommend Torchy’s Tacos, and the deep fried chocolate chip cookies…)
torchy's

Mad, Mad Love

I finally have a title for my new novel: Mad, Mad Love. The first draft is mostly finished, though I’m still revising it. This is probably my tenth title for the book…none of the previous working titles I had seemed quite right. It comes from a Mary Oliver poem which is included in the book. I’ve been reading lots of Mary Oliver lately…here is another one of hers that I love:

WORK, SOMETIMES

I was sad all day, and why not. There I was, books piled
on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words
falling off my tongue.

The robins had been a long time singing, and now it
was beginning to rain.

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map,
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work
ongoing. Which is not likely to be the trifling around
with a poem.

Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard
were full of lively fragrance.

You have had days like this, no doubt. And wasn’t it
wonderful, finally, to leave the room? Ah, what a
moment!

As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was
the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.

–Mary Oliver
*****************************************************
Though I haven’t had time to post much here the last few months (book deadline, essay deadlines, growing human being in stomach, etc.), Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray asked me to be part of her “What A Girl Wants” series, so I’ve been contributing posts to that. A few links:

Recommended Holiday Reads

Vampires: Why? (Including my theory about the appeal of Twilight)

On Mean Girls

On What is YA

On Girl Detectives

On Books We Love