Bread Loaf

Bread Loaf was magical.

I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about it, how to explain how magical it was….I’m not sure I can capture it here, so that someone who’s never been could understand how special a place it is, but I’ll try…

I first went to Bread Loaf when I was 22 and filled with dreams of being a writer. “Bread Loaf was my Paris and my Rome,” Wallace Stegner said after he went there. Back then I dreamed of someday coming back as a fellow (you have to publish a book to be one), and to return this summer as a fellow was such an honor and, really, a dream come true. My second night there I went to the history slide show given by David Bain, which featured photos of Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers when they were fellows, sitting in their Adirondack chairs, and it drove home even more what an honor it was. As a fellow you get to read in the Little Theater, where Robert Frost and Toni Morrison have read, and in the middle of my reading I paused for a second, thinking of this history, and had chills up my spine.

The Little Theater

The Little Theater

My favorite things:

The people. I met so many amazing, amazing people—too many to name. I miss them already.

The lectures and craft classes. Faculty, fellows, and guests offer these great 1-hr classes on craft tips and techniques...Bret Anthony Johnston gave a fantastic one on POV, and Alex Chee gave an amazing one on troubleshooting the novel. I took tons of notes.

The incredible talent everywhere. Several people in my workshop will surely be published soon, and it was amazing to see so much talent. I also had the experience of reading the first section of a book that someone there, who wasn’t even in my workshop, was working on…and I stayed up till 3am finishing it and fell head over heels in love with it. It was thrilling, to be the first reader of a manuscript that I know is going to be an incredible book, and it felt like a gift to be able to help this writer get this book into the world.

The dances. Dancing in a huge barn with 100 poets and writers might sound scary in theory, but at around 1am I stared up at the fairy lights hanging from the rafters, dancing to Crazy In Love with Stacey D’Erasmo and Amaud Johnson and Martha Southgate and thought, Holy shit. This is so much FUN. (New resolution: go dancing more often. As in more than once every few years. Not sure where to go in Austin, but in NYC I love this hole in the wall on the Lower East Side.)

Random incredibly fun experiences, i.e. tango dancing. Bread Loaf waiter/scholar and tangoist extraordinaire Loren Kwan taught tango dancing a few evenings in the barn, and my tango partner was Andrew Foster Altschul, who, according to Loren, is a natural. Me? Hmmm….not so much. But Andrew and I decided we’re going to go pro anyway.

Most important of all?
The incredible feeling it leaves you with. There’s so much gloom and doom in the media about the death of reading in American culture, the lack of importance of poetry and fiction…yet to be in a place like Bread Loaf, literally worshipping poetry and fiction on an enchanted isolated fairytale mountain with these fellow worshippers…it’s unspeakably inspiring. That’s what it’s all about, really—that magic. I think often as writers we lose that sense of magic, of why we’re compelled to write in the first place. Bread Loaf makes you certain you’ll never forget it. And I’ll never forget what it was like to be there this summer.

The 2008 Fellows

The 2008 Fellows

Comments snafu

The comments feature hasn’t been working for the last few weeks, so I apologize to everyone who left comments that didn’t get posted. My Assiduous Website Manager (a.k.a. my sister Jackie) has been working to fix it, and it’s finally fixed now. Thank you, Jackie!

Postcard from Bread Loaf

I’m at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, and it’s like the setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I’ve been to Bread Loaf a few times before, and the history of this place always staggers me. Here’s just a sampling of the writers who’ve been here over the years: Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Anne Sexton, and, of course, Robert Frost. Even Julia Child was here—she worked in the office.

I’m teaching a workshop with Luis Urrea, who is perhaps the nicest person on earth. Have to go run to teach a craft class, and then go to 1,000 more readings…

Paperback writer

Cures for Heartbreak is released in paperback today!

I’m really excited. It looks pretty much the same as the hardcover, just skinnier. Like the hardcover went on a diet. Both are 238 pages…and looking at this even slimmer version, one would not think it would’ve taken a person EIGHT YEARS to finish writing it. (If people only knew how many thousands of pages got thrown out in the process…)

Here’s a photo of the new first page, which includes reviews and stuff:


Today is the ten year anniversary of my father’s death, and I can’t believe it’s been ten years. In January it will be eighteen years since my mother died. Ten and eighteen years sounds so enormously and unfathomably long…but in some ways it feels like no time has passed at all.

The new YA novel I’m writing is also partly about a teen coping with grief (I guess that’s my literary territory…) But lately I’ve been thinking about how no matter what age we are, grief makes us all adolescents. It strips us bare, down to the essentials; it takes away everything that we thought we knew about ourselves, everything that we thought we believed. After my father died I felt like I’d lost myself; for a long time afterward I didn’t know who I was anymore, or what I hoped for.

William Maxwell‘s mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, when he was 10. Sixty-two years later he published So Long See You Tomorrow, a beautiful collection of connected, autobiographical stories. In this section he writes about his mother’s death:

I couldn’t understand how it had happened to us. It seemed like a mistake. And mistakes ought to be rectified, only this one couldn’t be. Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn’t be crossed. I had to find an explanation other than the real one, which was that we were no more immune to misfortune than anybody else, and the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.

The strange thing about grief is that you know you can never go through that door again, but you still keep trying.

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference

I’ve been back from Sewanee for two weeks, but I still think about it every day. It’s one of those experiences where every second feels heightened, feels alive; you’re completely taken out of your regular life and placed in this different world, and when you return to your life you’re inevitably changed. As a writer, I feel like I have two warring parts of myself: the hermit-like part that loves and needs to be alone and to write, and the social part that loves meeting new people and making new friends. Sewanee is all about that second part. It’s a celebration, being with like-minded souls who worship books and writing. Writing can be so lonely and isolating, and I used to think that after I published a book it would feel less lonely and isolating….but it doesn’t. You’re still alone with that page, day after day. But for those twelve days at Sewanee, you’re part of this incredible community—and when it’s over, you do feel so much less alone, and so inspired about the importance of fiction, poetry, and playwriting. The poet Leslie Harrison wrote in her blog that after Sewanee “My tribe got so much bigger.”

So did mine. The three people I met at Sewanee who I spent the most time with are Porochista Khakpour, Josh Weil, and Mike Rosovsky. If Porochista and I had been in a cartoon when we met, a little heart would’ve appeared above our heads. She’s the author of the award-winning Sons and Other Flammable Objects (and she has the best clothes ever.) Josh Weil’s novella collection (yes! novellas!) The New Valley will be published by Grove/Atlantic next spring; Josh also wrote these two amazing essays in the Times. He was the Squiggy to our Laverne & Shirley, and Mike Rosovksy was our Lenny. Mike is a fiction editor of Post Road magazine, and a lightning rod of fun. I finally figured out how to insert a photo, so here’s a picture of Porochista, Josh, and me (the photo I took with Mike didn’t come out….apparently his devastating good looks were too much for my camera). I’m the one in the middle:

Porochista, me, and Josh

Other new tribe members not pictured: playwrights David Roby and David Caudle, fiction writers Don Waters, Darrin Doyle, Jason Ockert, Cecilia Ward Jones, Jim Scott, Ryan Call, and Dave Mullins, poets Kimberly Johnson, Sandra Beasley, Michael Dumanis, Aaron Baker, Eric McHenry, Matthew Thorburn, and Katrina Vandenberg. I’m a little bit in love with all of them.

On the businessy side of things, the fiction workshop I was in was led by Margot Livesey and Randall Kenan. I’ve participated in a LOT of writing workshops and have not had exactly glowing feelings about most of them (I wrote a satire of one that can be read here) but honestly, this was the best workshop I’ve been in. Margot (what a fab name, yes? Even if she spells it a little funny) and Randall took each story seriously, respectfully, and on its own terms, and critiqued them while managing to be insightful, thorough, illuminating, and kind. Which, if you’ve ever been in a writing workshop, is no small feat. Just because someone is an incredible writer doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher–if anything, some writers get so frustrated by stories that aren’t working that they lash out at the student. One professor in my M.F.A. program repeatedly put his head down on the table in exasperation at students’ stories. He looked a tad suicidal sometimes, as if our ramshackle prose was literally killing him.

Margot read the first 50 pages of my new novel, and, thank god, she didn’t put her head down on the table. With every book I write I go through this phase when I decide the whole thing sucks and I should throw it in the garbage, but Margot talked me down from the ledge and gave me some great suggestions. She is such an incredible teacher—if you write fiction and are thinking of taking a writing workshop, Get Thee to Margot Livesey. Take a class with her. Follow her wherever she goes!

And read her books. Her novel Eva Moves the Furniture is one of my all-time favorites.

NYTBR outtakes, Volume 4: Barnes & Noble

One of the most interesting things that I learned while doing the research for this essay was how James Patterson’s YA series Maximum Ride went from being sold only in the YA section of Barnes & Noble to being sold only in the adult section. When I first read this article in the New York Times, I assumed it meant that Barnes & Noble had decided to shelve Maximum Ride in both the YA and the adult sections. It didn’t occur to me that a YA series would be shelved ONLY in adult. I kept asking questions over email until I finally got a spokesperson for Barnes & Noble to speak with me on the phone. Here is an excerpt from our phone conversation:

How did Maximum Ride come to be shelved only in the adult section?

The series was originally published as YA when it first came out. When the second book came out the publisher and author had a discussion, and they spoke with us about how these books had as much appeal to adults as to young adults—adults would enjoy reading these books just as much, and the enjoyment was not specific to a YA audience. In the fiction world, we don’t cross-merchandise books—we don’t put the same book in adult and YA. By putting it in one subject area we came to a conclusion with the publisher that it should be merchandised in Fiction in hardcover and paperback, to be available to all readers. As a whole industry, it’s our goal to put books in subjects where readers will come to find them. We’re offering our customers a place where they can find all James Patterson books.

The YA trade paperback edition is not stocked then?

We’re not stocking it at Barnes & Noble. We have it available for special order.

When did Maximum Ride start being stocked only in adult?

We sent a message to stores on January 16, 2008, that on Feb 8, 2008 we will be moving Maximum Ride Pageturner novels into the adult Fiction section—that both the hardcovers and the paperbacks should be shelved with James Patterson’s other books.

Would you do this for other YA books?

No. I can’t think of another YA book offhand that would fit as an adult book. This is a unique situation.

Have sales increased since the move?

Yes, we’ve seen sales increase since it’s been moved to adult.

Did you consider shelving it in both the YA and adult sections?

We don’t do that.

Why not?

Our stores are huge. We try to have a gigantic selection with many authors and titles—you can’t carry every book, and if the content of the book itself isn’t any different, then we only put the book in its one subject.

A librarian I spoke with suggested an “All Ages” section for books that cross over from YA into adult. Would Barnes & Noble ever consider that?

I don’t know. That’s a bigger decision than we [the spokespeople] can make. It’s very hard to do that with our huge selection—when you have so many subjects, like romance and mystery…We already have to ask, “Is it a mystery? Or a novel?” We do the best we can.

Barnes & Noble has a lot of power in the book industry, and their policy of shelving books only in one place means that American publishers won’t print both an adult and a YA edition of a book, because Barnes & Noble won’t stock both.

There was a letter to the editor in the Book Review this Sunday from a community relations manager at a Barnes & Noble in Encino. She pointed to The Book Thief as an example of a YA novel that is hard for adults to find, and suggested that publishers produce special “book group editions” for adults. However, the reality is that publishers won’t print a separate book group edition, because Barnes & Noble won’t stock it.

Halloween Plans

I was brushing my hair the other day and had the sudden urge to attempt to style it in the fashion of the Crazy Polygamist Cult Ladies of Eldorado, TX. (When in Texas make like the natives, right?) Then I thought: Halloween! If I could round up a bunch of women and we all did our hair like that….we’d have the best costumes EVER. There’s a photo essay in last Sunday’s Times Magazine about these ladies, and there’s a picture of a toddler who looks to be about my daughter’s age, in a mini version of one of those weird candy-colored floor-length Cult Lady dresses. So of course I thought, if I could sew, would I make my daughter dress up as a Weird Polygamist Cult Baby as well? Nah…I’m not quite THAT depraved. (Though I did consider it for a minute or two.)

Coming soon: Back to our regularly scheduled programming, with the inside scoop from Barnes & Noble, and more from Peter Cameron, Francesca Lia Block, and Stephen Chbosky.

NYTBR outtakes, Volume 3: Michael Cart, Linda Sue Park, Justine Larbalestier, and the YA community

In an earlier draft of this essay, there were some great quotes about YA that, sadly, had to be cut for space reasons. Here are some of them below:

Michael Cart, the former president of YALSA, told me that we are currently in the “new golden age” of young adult literature. “YA has become the most dynamic and risk-taking area in American publishing—YA lit has arrived,” he said. “With the rate we’re going, every single member of the adult literary community will be writing for young adults in a matter of time.” (Michael Cart is also the author of From Romance to Realism, an amazing collection of essays about YA literature.)

Linda Sue Park, whose novel A Single Shard won the Newbery Medal in 2002, said that the rewards of writing for young people may not be as prestigious or as lucrative as writing for adults, but are so much greater. “The impact we can have on a young person’s life is enormous—they’ll remember a beloved book for the rest of their lives. A lot of adults remember everything about their favorite books from childhood, but can’t even remember what they read last year.”

Justine Larbalestier, author of the Magic or Madness trilogy said, “One thing that doesn’t get talked about is how YA in New York City is a real community—a real scene, and it’s such an incredibly fun scene.”

Justine is absolutely right. There’s a monthly drinks night for YA authors in New York, and it’s such a friendly, welcoming, tightknit community. At these drinks nights I’ve been lucky to spend time with Justine and Linda Sue, who are just as amazing in person as they are on the page. I was really sad to leave NYC and move to Austin because I wouldn’t be able to attend the drinks nights anymore. But yet another sign of the wonderfulness of the YA community: I’d been living in Austin all of one week when I was invited out for drinks with the YA authors’ community here. I’ve met some incredible writers who live here: Cynthia Leititch Smith, Shana Burg, Varian Johnson, April Lurie, and Jennifer Ziegler, among others. Also, when this essay came out, I received some really nice emails of support from several YA authors, which was so kind and thoughtful. It’s seriously an amazing community to be a part of.

I’m not sure why it’s not the same in the adult author scene. There are pockets of friendly-community-ness among adult writers in NYC—everyone associated with the magazine One Story is an example—but it’s not the same as YA. When you publish an adult novel it’s not as if Jonathan Franzen emails you and asks you to join his monthly poker night. (Not that I know how to play poker anyway…but I can play a mean round of Old Maid.)

Also, on the subject of “What makes a YA book,” Justine said this quote, which I thought was incredibly interesting: “When people talk about there being restrictions in YA–restrictions writing about sex, drug use, swearing, et cetera—that’s not true. There are YA books that deal with all of those subjects. It’s just about whether the books get picked up by school libraries, school book clubs, and retailers who care about that stuff—it’s a marketing consideration. There are plenty of writers who ignore those restrictions, and those books are called ’14 and up’ books, which is code for ‘Will not wind up in your school library or picked up by school book clubs.’ ”

I’m reading Linda Sue’s new novel, Keeping Score, right now, and it’s fantastic. Justine’s new novel, How to Ditch Your Fairy, is coming out in September, and I can’t wait to get a copy.

The Brian Lehrer Show, and Must-Read YA Titles

That was a lot of fun being on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC this morning! The segment is online here.

One commenter asked me to recommend YA titles that would give an adult a sense of the richness of the genre. Here are a few of my favorite YA titles that I think have huge adult appeal:

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. I was completely swept away by the voice of this novel and I couldn’t put it down. I would finish one page and then read it again because the writing is so beautiful.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This novel has touched many readers and is destined to become a classic. Alexie’s novel Flight was also published last year; I loved Flight just as much as True Diary, and though Flight was released as an adult title, teens will love it as well. Flight pays tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read in high school when I was fourteen, and I fell head-over-heels in love with it. It affected me so deeply that I can still quote parts of it from memory. Teaching Slaughterhouse-Five and Flight back-to-back in a high school english class would be amazing.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Meg Rosoff’s novels have been published in so many dual YA and adult editions in different countries that she told me “You need a flow chart to keep track of it.” All three are fantastic.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham. This book also has a voice that grasps you and does not let you go. I started reading and stayed up well into the night until I finished it.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan. This book defies many of the “What makes a YA book” rules since there isn’t even a teenage character–or even a sentence!–in it. It’s a graphic novel composed entirely of illustrations, and I think it was published as YA partly because YA publishers are more open to genre-defying books, and partly because the adult publishing industry has yet to figure out how to market graphic novels successfully. It’s beautifully produced and it’s as large as a coffee table book; it’s the kind of book you can’t help but pick up and pore over.

In Summer Light by Zibby ONeal. This title is out of print now, but I’m adding it here because I first read it when I was 17 and I’ve re-read it many times since, and it affects me every time. It’s partly the story of a 17-year-old falling in love with a 25-year-old, and though the love is mutual they never act on it. It’s a wonderful portrayal of that unique kind of friendship/romantic love that, even if it’s never acted upon, is still so powerful and is so hard to define, but which ONeal articulates so beautifully. I really hope this book comes back into print sometime, but in the meantime used copies are available here.