If you are in the publishing world, then I’m sure you’ve heard of the twitter hashtag #franzenfreude.  I’m not going to rehash the debate here (if you are interested, you can find what I thought were the most interesting discussions here and here), but for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about—Franzenwha?—here is the two cent version: the extensive coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel FREEDOM led a few women novelists to bravely point out the disparity in coverage for women and male novelists in the New York Times Book Review section. I think Slate’s numbers pretty clearly speak for themselves, but instead of taking the time to make the same argument that has been made elsewhere by people with bigger platforms and who are more articulate than I, I thought now was an ideal time to instead bring attention to a brilliant woman literary novelist.  Julia Glass—who believe me has better things to do than be subjected to the inanity of the Julie Has Writer’s Blog Five Questions—kindly agreed nonetheless, and let’s all take a moment to let the legitimacy she brings to this here blog sink in.  I’m a little giddy about the whole thing to be honest.

If you are unfamiliar with Julia Glass, let me start by saying she is a NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER. Yup, I put that in caps, because holy crap, that’s big.  Julia Glass did my five questions! Happy dance. (And by the way, since her five questions made me fall even more in love with her and when that happens I take to the internet in a stalking binge, I dug up Julia’s NBA acceptance speech. You can read it here. It’s truly inspiring, and made me a bit teary.)

Julia’s fourth book, THE WIDOWER’S TALE came out last week, and for a glowing review, by yes, none other than the New York Times, check the link here. I’m so excited to read it that I’m having my Dad bring a hardcover copy over to London when he comes to visit next month.  I already know it’s the kind of book that I don’t want to get absorbed into the digital no-man’s land of my Kindle.  This one is going proudly on display in the bookcase.

If you are still not sold, here’s the first sentence:

“Why, thank you. I’m getting in shape to die.”

Brilliant, no?  Come on, admit it.  You are a little in love too.

So without further ado, and with a huge burst of gratitude and excitement, here’s Julia Glass…

1. Where were you the first time you saw your book in a bookstore and who did you call first?

Actually, weeks before the on-sale date of my first novel, my children’s babysitter told me that she’d seen my book for sale on a street huckster’s table a few blocks from our apartment in Greenwich Village. I’m not sure how those advance reader copies “fall off a truck,” but when I walked down the avenue, there was a single ARC of Three Junes, for sale in its not-for-sale, not-yet-proofread edition. I felt a strange mixture of pride and aggravation. But the first time I saw it legitimately for sale was in the window of my lovely neighborhood bookstore, Three Lives—along with the large poster of the jacket supplied by my publisher. I nearly cried. I was with my six-year-old son, who recognized the book and asked, “Are you famous, Mommy?” I laughed and said, “No, honey.” But when this seemed to disappoint him, I amended that to “Well, maybe I’m a teensy bit famous. Sure.” The truth is, at that moment I felt more famous, in the very best sense, than I ever have since.

2. I’m convinced all writers are a little bit crazy. Do you agree, and if so, what kind of crazy are you?

I don’t know if I agree with you—though I do believe all writers are nerds, no matter how hard they try to hide it. There certainly are times when I wish I could say I was certifiably crazy—it would make a good excuse for so many shortcomings—but I’m just plain-vanilla neurotic: insecure, indecisive, temperamental, and periodically convinced that someone will out me, in fact, as too sane to be a writer of any consequence. Does that make sense?

3. If you were going to have another author write your biography, who would you choose to write it and why? Any title ideas?

I would be crushed if the author, the CO-authors, were anyone other than Margot Livesey and Joan Wickersham, two extraordinarily insightful, witty, and eloquent writers whom I am proud to claim as friends. They’ve known me at my best, worst, and (see above) most neurotic as a writer, parent, woman, and citizen at large. They would do me justice, I’m sure, if there’s any justice to be had. And they’d think up better titles than I could—though an obvious choice might be Better Late Than Never . . . or, if you ask Joan, maybe Ella FitzGeronimo Glass: The Daughter She Never Had.

4. When did you start to take yourself seriously as a writer?

I don’t think I’ve ever taken myself more seriously as a writer than I did when I was six or seven years old, the precocious composer of illustrated poems and stories on blue-lined composition paper. Recently, as my parents were cleaning out some drawers, they came upon a cache of my writing from that time. There was an absolutely hilarious poem I wrote that began with the confrontational line “Infinity had better stand still.” Wow, how ballsy is that! When I tried to take the poem home with me, my dad said, “Oh no you don’t. That’s mine. I’m selling it on e-Bay.” But seriously, I strive never to take myself too seriously as a writer—because that’s when you stop being hungry. Every good review (though I treasure each and every one) is an ego snack on the road to a potentially dangerous sense of overfed accomplishment.

5. If your house was burning down, and you had time to rescue only three books from your library, what would you choose and why?

Funny you should ask that. We had a dramatic chimney fire last Christmas. The firefighters arrived in a heroic blink, and, along with the kids and the dog, I fled to a neighbor’s house. (Their dad stayed, like a captain with his ship.) The neighbor, a friend as well as a fan of my fiction, said, “Did you grab your laptop? Don’t lose your new book!” I ran back down the street and convinced the fire chief to let me go in and get my laptop from the kitchen (by then the fire was under control). I was so touched by my friend’s gesture—even though my agent had an electronic copy of the novel. But what three books, not my own, and not counting photo albums of my sons, would I rescue if I had the presence of mind? My childhood copy of Roar and More, by Karla Kuskin (the first book I chose to own); ditto of The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton (my personal first author inscription); and definitely the binder of unpublished poems written by my older son when he was in fifth grade. (Now I wish he would take himself seriously as a writer!)

On more than one occasion, I have left the house with my pants on backwards.  Or inside out.  Ditto tops, skirts, and underwear, which for some reason I find most challenging of all.  My socks rarely match, and most days I forget to wear my wedding ring.  Though I’m sure we’ve all had that recurring dream where you show up for school naked, in my case, it’s not too far out of the realm of possibility.  In short, I am—in the most euphemistic of terms—easily distracted. Getting dressed is one of the multitude of activities I must do each day that I find boring, and since I hate, perhaps more than anything else, being bored (well, except being nauseas, because I really hate being nauseas) I tend to run away in my head when dealing with the mundane.

I’ve come to excuse my inability to do the most basic of tasks (get dressed, cook dinner, remember to fold the laundry) as part and parcel of being a writer.  In fact, I’ve come to think of it as a necessity.  You need to let your brain run wild—give it the room to wander far and wide—and if that means wearing shoes that don’t always match, well so be it.  I think it’s fair to say my husband would say I’m making excuses, and maybe I am.  Regardless, I’ve learned that without day-dreaming during non-working hours, without gifting myself the freedom to completely disengage from reality and enter my fictional world when I’m going about the day to day, I can’t write when I do sit myself down at my desk.

After having Elili, I noticed that I felt like less of a writer all of a sudden.  Just thinking about book three would stress me out, and the thought of actually writing seemed physically impossible.  What did I have to say?  Looking back to those first few crazy post-natal months, I realize now that what was missing was the freedom to daydream.  I was way too busy (and too tired) to let my brain focus on anything else than what felt like the emergency in front of me.  A crying baby.  A dirty diaper.  Figuring out how to keep Elili safe and warm and comfortable and not covered in poo.  It was an all hands on deck kind of time, and now that I’m on the other end of it, now that some of that urgency of first time parenthood has subsided, I find I’m back able to indulge in my daydreaming again.  Which means I’m finally able to write, too.

Today, when I was giving Elili her breakfast, I noticed that she had suddenly tuned out.  Her eyes were glued to the window, and she was watching a tree blow in the breeze.  I have no idea what she was thinking about—maybe fairies, maybe milk, maybe figuring out that new fangled thing called crawling—but I have no doubt she was daydreaming.  And for a moment, I indulged myself and went away somewhere too. So there we were, mother and daughter, both somewhere else entirely.  And normally, I’d feel guilty for running away in my head while I was with Elili—I do worry about missing the small moments, about being too distracted—but today I allowed myself this small treat.  Because while Elili was off sticking her fingers in all the outlets in her brain or something equally taboo, I was imagining my little girl maybe growing up to be just a tiny bit like me.  A daydreamer.  Maybe even a writer.  Backward pants and all.

This past weekend I was chatting with a new friend here in London about what kind of people we were in high school. I admitted, with maybe the hint of a blush, that I was always part of the “smart nice girl” crowd, and then I realized that probably would surprise no one. I’ve always been a bit of a dork, still am, actually, (do I need to revert to pirate talk again to prove my point?) but even more than that, I’ve always been nice. Which I know is a loaded word, and not one I tend to like to use. Nice feels weak to me, ineffectual, and worst of all, boring. But I don’t think of myself as any of those things, and yet, I’m, well, nice. I’ve always placed importance—and lately, I’m thinking too much importance—on other people’s opinions of me, and at heart I’m a true people pleaser. I came to this conclusion a few years ago, when I was at the gynecologist having my yearly exam. Here I was, on the cold table, legs in stirrups, and ridiculously uncomfortable, and what did I do? I started cracking jokes so that the doctor, a woman whose relationship to me began and ended with her examining my vagina, would like me. And no, in case you are wondering, she didn’t laugh. We are not best friends; in fact, I can’t even remember her name. And yet, I walked out of that exam, well, vaguely unsatisfied if you must know the truth.

I swear I have a writing related point here, though. As I mentioned the other day, I had a great conversation with a book club this weekend, and one of the issues that came up—that actually comes up a lot when I talk to book clubs—is the concept of likeability of characters. Aidan Donnelly Rowley, the author of LIFE AFTER YES, touched on this question on her blog a few weeks ago, in response to someone saying they found her main character to be, well…not very nice. And pretty much any women’s fiction writer will tell you that often reviews seem to be less about the literary merit of the book, and much more a referendum on whether the reader “liked” a main character.** I often get the criticism that my main characters start out un-likeable—why would Emily dump such a nice guy like Andrew in THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE? why would Ellie just walk away from her husband with little explanation in AFTER YOU?—and it takes a while to understand and appreciate the complexity of their motives. Hopefully, the wait is worth it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve lost a reader or two who wasn’t willing to take the ride with a character they didn’t immediately like. I blurbed Aidan’s book, and one of things I made sure to mention was that I really enjoyed the book because of the fact that her main character was flawed and very, very human. She makes choices that some of us would consider just plain unforgivable, but that’s what makes the book come alive for me.

So let me be clear—I don’t believe writers have a responsibility to make their main characters likeable. Look at LOLITA, one of the most beautiful and arresting books ever written, and it’s about a child molester. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about likeability quite a bit while I’m writing and creating my main characters, and of course related to this, because I think they may be one and the same, I take much care in making sure that readers will enjoy my main character’s voice. Since I write in the first person, I do want the reader to be taken with that voice that’s leading them through three hundred and some pages, and to do that, I don’t necessarily need to make my character nice, or even likable, but I do have to make them engaging and interesting and someone that my reader wants to spend that time with.

To bring this back full circle, in literature as in life, and yes, I totally just used that phrase, I maybe place too much emphasis on being liked. On a total side note, if my brother is reading this blog, he is laughing his ass off. Though come to think of it, he’s definitely not reading this, because he is spending this week volunteering at a camp that caters to homeless children. I know.  He’s my brother, and even I’m charmed. But be warned, he’s not nice at all. When I was eight, I let him call me “gorda” for months, thinking it was just a cute nickname. Which it was, until I discovered that it meant fat in Spanish. So he’s likeable, even loveable, but nice? Not so much. Anyhow, I’ve digressed, and then digressed with my digression: My original digression was that my brother is laughing his ass off because when we were young, we had a theory that if you wanted to get an A on an English paper, you needed to know two phrases: “In literature as in life” and “Man’s inhumanity to man.” Trust me, high school English teachers love that shit. I swear it’s what got me into Penn.

Are you still with me? Yes. So long story short. I’m nice. Which is a word I don’t like, but there it is. And I try to be likeable***, which I’m starting to see as a fatal character flaw. But maybe I’ll save that story for therapy. And when I write, I try to find a balance between likeability and humanity, because plain old nice characters are boring. Come to think of it, Don Draper maybe a good example from television. Yeah, he’s a lying, cheating, son-of-a-bitch, and yet, because we also understand him, we still, despite all his crap, sympathize with him, root for him, even. And honestly, I don’t think it’s just because we want to see him naked.

So what say you readers? How much does likeability matter to you when reading? And do you find when discussing a book that you can’t help but ask whether you liked the main character? Or are you one of the rare few who can honestly say you find it irrelevant?

** I think there’s a point to be made here that women writers are more subject to this type of criticism, and where the gender bias is felt most keenly is with memoirs. Men can write about doing all sorts of horrible things—beating up hookers, for example—and get rave reviews in the New York Times. A woman tells the same story, and she is whiny and over-sharing. But that’s a discussion for another day. And I do think women are taught to place a greater value on being nice and liked, which is no doubt a trap I’ve fallen into my entire life.

*** Apparently, the words “likeable” and “likable” are interchangeable. I have used the former, because the latter reads like “lickable” to me, and in case I wasn’t clear about it, that is not what I was talking about in regards to my gynecologist.

Yesterday, I got to Skype with a book club in DC, who turned out to be a bunch of super smart, super articulate, super cute group of 20-something women, some of who happened to be living in Julia Child’s house.  They had one of the coolest bookcases I’ve seen in a while (and I’ve seen my share of amazing bookshelves since Allie Larkin introduced me to bookshelfporn.com), and they were hanging out and eating scones and drinking tea in honor of the whole London element of the book.  Have I mentioned that I kind of love them?  I do.  Anyhow, I learned two interesting things about myself during the discussion:

Firstly,  I really need to read AFTER YOU, which is a funny thing to say, since during the editing process, I must have read the book at least six trillion times.  And, yeah, I wrote it.  But, I kept saying to the girls, “You know in that scene where Lucy says to Ellie, blah, blah,” and they’d be like, “Nope, not in the book, Julie,” and then I’d remember that I cut whatever I was blabbing about–because as I mentioned in my post last week, I tend to edit myself pretty mercilessly–and then I’d be embarrassed, and nervous to mention some other scene for fear I deleted it.  The truth is I spend a lot of time debating whether something earns its place in the final book, and oftentimes, my words just don’t–maybe because they just aren’t up to snuff, maybe because they are a little too contrived, maybe because it just doesn’t fit.  (My prime example of this is the murder scene in AFTER YOU, because I wrote a scene that shows exactly what happened to Lucy told from the third person, and yet, in the end, no matter that I thought it one of the strongest pieces of the book, it needed to be cut.  It chopped up and slowed down the rest of the narrative.)  So, yeah, to save myself further embarrassment, maybe a re-reading of AFTER YOU is in order.

The second thing I learned about myself is infinitely more important.  So it seems I have CRAZY eyebrows.  As I mentioned we were Skyping, and so on my screen I saw in the big box eleven adorable women, and in the small box, I couldn’t help but watch myself as I spoke, and be mesmerized by the sheer flexibility of my brows.  Those babies jump.  I had them waxed recently, and it turned out to be a hilarious twenty minutes because when the waxist was done, and I asked, “So, how do they look?” she responded, “Well, your right one is perfect!”  Yeah, not what you want to hear.  But she didn’t stop there.  She then went on to say, and I swear I am not making this up, “You have my FAVORITE eyebrows ever!  They just have so much…character.”  Which we all know is the word we use when we are describing something ugly but lovable–as in, you should totally take out my friend X on a date, yes, her nose makes Jay Leno’s chin look small, but she has a lot of character.  I could go on and on about how this lady is right–my brows are totally unique because of some hairs who choose to grow in the wrong direction, not to mention the ones that are blonde and therefore make it look like I have gaps, and the really fine ones that are a product of some overzealous tweezing in my twenties.  Come to think of it, I deserve weird brows now–excuse me, brows with character–because I did have a dangerous plucking habit for a while, that led to a few years in which I walked around looking perpetually puzzled.  And you know what, some of my friends have some explaining to do, because they never once during that time said: “Julie, step away from the tweezer.”  But this blog is not about my eyebrows, it’s about writing and books.  So, with absolutely no transition whatsover, I’d like to welcome Kristina Riggle to the blog this morning.

Kristina has beautiful eyebrows and is the author of THE LIFE YOU’VE IMAGINED.  I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on the top of my to-read pile when I’m allowed to start reading women’s fiction again.  Instead, since I’m writing these days, and worried about being influenced, I’ve been reading some post-apocolyptic vampire stuff, and so if the undead sneak into TMGH we now know why.  Anyhow, Kristina’s book is about three friends and a mother connected by a dying family business learning to cope with life as it is, not as they planned.  And her first sentence rocks:  “The taxicab exhaust curls up around me like a fist.”

So without further nonsensical ado, here’s Kristina:

1.  Where were you the first time you saw your book in a bookstore and who did you call first?

I stalked Real Life & Liars, my debut, on the actual release date. So I watched the Barnes & Noble people physically shelving it first thing that morning. I was too embarassed by my own behavior to out myself as the author that day. I just snuck a couple of digital pictures and scurried off. At my local indie, Schuler Books & Music, the book wasn’t displayed yet, but I was chatting with the manager and she set up the big display right up front by the door as I was standing there, then she indulged me by taking my picture with the books. Then I bought myself a funky piece of costume jewelry as a treat. It was a ring made out of old buttons. Sadly, the ring broke, or I’d wear it again for the release of The Life You’ve Imagined.

2.  I’m convinced all writers are a little bit crazy. Do you agree, and if so, what kind of crazy are you?

I’m cracking up laughing at this question given my answer to number one! But I’m a cheerful kind of crazy, I think. Usually. Except when I’m not.

3.  If you were going to have another author write your biography, who would you choose to write it and why? Any title ideas?

I hope no one ever writes my biography, because then they’d find out about the time I failed driver’s ed … oh, wait…damn.

4.  When did you start to take yourself seriously as a writer?

March of 2003. I can pinpoint it so exactly because that’s when I quit my day job as a full-time newspaper reporter for all kind of complicated personal and professional reasons. I continued to freelance, and I knew I’d also try writing fiction for publication. I bought Writer’s Market soon after quitting, and by the end of that year was working on my first novel manuscript (Real Life & Liars turned out to be my fifth completed manuscript, so I had some work ahead of me…)

5.  If your house was burning down, and you had time to rescue only three books from your library, what would you choose and why?

First, my hardcover copy of CATCH-22, because it was a gift from my husband (then boyfriend). It is my favorite novel of all time so he tracked down a hardcover copy for me, and this was before online used books made it so easy. I love that he put effort into this, and how this considerate gift showed how well he understood me. After that… the King James Bible that my mother had as a girl and she gave to me. I love how the leather cover zips closed. I love the smell of it, and I love her handwriting in the front cover, reminding her which passage has the Ten Commandments. And then I’d cheat and grab my own two published books so far. They are next to each other, after all. I’d still make it out the door.

I’ve been having a sort of non-summer this year.  Haven’t been to the beach, nor have I managed to get a tan, or go swimming, or do one of the million things that make summer, you know, summer.  I’m not sure why we’ve been delinquent with our summer fun–maybe we are still settling into parenthood, maybe it’s partly the fault of the London weather, which invariably tends to be rainy come weekend-time, or maybe it’s this new laziness that’s set in now that I’m in the hangover/recovery period post-baby.  I feel like I need about three months of doing nothing but sleeping twelve hours a night and eating salad to start to feel like Julie again.  Regardless, the point is that instead of doing actual summer activities, I’ve been doing lots of pretending.  I sit on my leather couch, and put my feet up, and picture a blazing sun, sand between my toes, and I do my beach reading.  So, though I can’t recommend the newest Hamptons hotspot, I can help direct you to some great escapist fiction.

Today, I’m featuring Jenny Nelson’s debut GEORGIA’S KITCHEN.  Here’s where I normally give you the blurbs from other writers, but it turns out I blurbed Jenny’s book, so let’s just go with my puntastic review:

“All the right ingredients— an insider’s look at the restaurant industry, a heart–warming heroine, and a romp through Tuscany—make for a delightful and delicious book. Buyer be warned: GEORGIA’S KITCHEN will leave you hungry for more from Jenny Nelson.”–Julie Buxbaum, the author of THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE and AFTER YOU

You get it?  The book is about the restaurant industry, and I mention “ingredients.”  And say it’s “delicious.”  Did I stop there?  Nope, I also mentioned that it will “leave you hungry for more.”  One blurb, three puns.  A personal record.  Anyhow, buy it.  You’ll love it it;  it is, after all,  full of sugar and spice.

Now the five questions….

1.  Where were you the first time you saw your book in a bookstore and who did you call first?

Here’s the funny thing: I didn’t see Georgia’s Kitchen in a bookstore until a day after the release. This was by no means my original plan. For weeks, I’d assumed that come release day, I’d awake at my home in upstate New York, drop my daughters at camp and hightail it to the city for my book party, which would take place later that evening. This would allow plenty of time for bookstore stalking – I even brought my camera, although I’m not sure what I thought I’d be snapping – and I planned to hit a couple Barnes & Nobles, one Borders and the indie bookstore near my apartment. Alas, stalking was not in the cards. I arrived in the city much later than intended with fingers and toes to paint (can’t sign books at a book party with ragged nails!), family to welcome, hair to tame, guest blog posts to write and, finally, a book party to host! The next day, I walked into my local bookstore, Merritt Books in Millbrook, NY, and was greeted by a lovely Georgia’s Kitchen display, complete with stacks of books and a poster of the cover on an easel. The store was empty, so I took a few moments to let it all soak in. When I left, I called my husband. “It’s there!” I said. “What is?” “My book – it’s in the store!” I spent the next few minutes laughing and crying (see below), but the good kind.

2.  I’m convinced all writers are a little bit crazy. Do you agree, and if so, what kind of crazy are you?

Hmmm, I suppose I’d have to agree. I am the emotional, slightly manic kind of crazy. Super happy and then, well, not. I also tend to obsess about things I’m convinced no one else cares about in the slightest. Do you think I need to go back to my shrink?

3.  If you were going to have another author write your biography, who would you choose to write it and why? Any title ideas?

Someone funny and sharp who gets nuance, isn’t afraid to tackle emotion, knows her way around a sentence, wouldn’t gloss over the less flattering parts (but wouldn’t rip me to shreds either) or get bogged down in the boring bits and who, above all, gets me, or at least makes a genuine attempt to get me. If we’re talking dream, I’d have to go Jhumpa Lahiri; closer to home I’d choose my sister, Steffie Nelson, a journalist.

Title? Oy. Not my strong suit. Need a hed for a magazine article, web page, or blog post – I’m your gal. Thinking of book titles, especially for my own stuff, keeps me up at night (or maybe that’s my obsessing).

4.  When did you start to take yourself seriously as a writer?

When I found my agent. It was affirmation that someone else – someone who knew – thought my book was good enough to sign me, which meant she thought there was a decent change she’d sell it. When people asked, “what’s up with the book?” instead of admitting somewhat sheepishly, “Oh, I’m still revising it” (because, truth be told, I could have revised that ms forever) I could say “I just signed with an agent.” Having an agent meant I was on my way.

5. If your house was burning down, and you had time to rescue only three books from your library, what would you choose and why?

The Great Gatsby because I re-read it once a year, Three Junes by Julia Glass because of the way it deals with family and relationships and its strong sense of place and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri because it blows me away.

Goodbye

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I’ve had the sort of week where I’ve been looking at the sky and checking for seams.  I’m convinced there is a loose thread up there, and someone is pulling at it, and before long, stars and meteorites and black holes are going to start falling and devouring me.  (And if you are a science geek, and feel the need to remind me that it’s physically impossible for black holes to fall, well…actually, I’m in the kind of bad place right now that I don’t even have the energy to tell you to go screw yourself.)  It started with a few minor setbacks.  First, and let’s start very small, I have a head cold and am walking around with the very distinct feeling of being consistently punched in the face.  Secondly–and this seemed huge, gigantic, until everything got put in perspective with the fucking sucker punch of grief/loss/death–we got evicted on Tuesday.  Basically, my landlord has decided to turn his already huge house into an even bigger house by knocking down the walls that connect to our cosy home.  So we are moving. Which sucks, but after Wednesday, I now laugh at my Tuesday self, the one who thought that having to find a new apartment was a disaster of epic proportions.  Like that was something worth getting upset about.  My Wednesday self (and my Thursday and Friday selves too) kind of want to slap my Tuesday self in the face.

Maybe I’ll just say it and get it over with.  On Wednesday, I got the call that Elaine Koster, my agent and friend, had died.  I’m not ready to talk about it or even write about it yet, and one day, I hope I can write about her and do her enough justice so that you guys can get a sense of what an amazing person she was, but that day is not today.  I’m still too devastated and heartbroken and heartsick to let my mind go there.  She was a publishing titan, and if you want to read a little bit about her, you can click to this news article here, but this doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface.  Elaine was much more than an agent to me, and it is not an overstatement to say that I owe my entire career to her.  Perhaps, most importantly, I loved her.  So, let’s just say I’m sad.  Very, very, very sad.  If we were living in a different century and I didn’t have a child to take care of, I would take to my bed.

When I was in college and calamity would strike—when my beloved grandmother got ill for example—my personality would undergo a complete transformation, and I’d become what my friends dubbed Adversity Julie. And it was always sung like I was a super hero or something: Ad—versity, Juuuu—leee.  Everyone loved Adversity Julie because she (see how quickly I can switch to the third person when talking about myself?  Weird…) was much funnier than normal Julie.  A slight edge of mania, maybe, but also sharper and somehow hilarious.  Humor has always been my coping mechanism of choice–laughing, is after all, much more fun than crying, and still feels just as emotive and cleansing–and so I’ve been waiting around for Adversity Julie to show up.  Cape and all.  But I haven’t seen her yet.  Been definitely doing a lot more crying than laughing this week, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older now, and perhaps I’m more concerned with being appropriate than feeling better.  But I miss Adversity Julie.  And I’m hoping she’ll make a comeback soon.  Because let’s be honest.  I don’t just miss her, I kind of need her right now.

The last time I saw Elaine was in June, and I had had no idea she was sick.  I think back to our conversation and how I spent the entire time talking about me and new motherhood—it was my birthday, and we met for coffee with Elili, and it was about a hundred degrees and Elili was incredibly fussy and kind of a pain in the ass and Elaine gave her a spoon to play with and I even breastfed at the table so we could get a second to actually talk—and I wonder if I even bothered to ask Elaine how she was doing.  I remember afterwards she sent me an email telling me she greatly admired my energy, though even that didn’t raise any alarm bells for me.  I knew she looked a little bit older, more tired maybe, but still, I only thought about me, me, me, baby, me.  Worst of all, I remember we were standing outside a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side, saying our goodbyes, and she said that she thought I was brave for traveling all by myself with an infant, how I always seem to be doing a million things at once, never afraid of anything.  And talk about wanting to punch myself in the face now, I remember I actually said something horribly mundane about life being short and trying to pack it all in.  Stupid for so, so many reasons, not least of which, she of course knew me well enough to know that I was totally full of shit:  No matter how fast I’m moving, I’m always afraid. And so I can only hope and pray now, that she knew too, that it was always the other way around: that I greatly admired her.  That she, Elaine Koster, was always the brave one.

Writing of THE MODERN GIRL’S HANDBOOK is now under way, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about process.  I know, I know, that word sounds pretentious, but I mean it at the most practical of levels.  I’m not talking so much about how I come up with my ideas—which is a question I get asked almost daily, and never have a good answer for.  I’m always tempted to say I buy my ideas at Costco.  Or maybe Target, which is the only store in the world where you can get underwear and a lawn mower and ideas.  When I talk about process these days, I’m thinking more about the technicalities of writing, or maybe I don’t even mean process, after all.  Maybe I’m talking about routine?

So I’ve taken to hiding out in Starbucks these days, though I used to prefer working at home.  Chalk that up as change #4567 since the baby has been born.  My commute is now a little bit longer (a seven minute walk) and I need to actually get dressed in the mornings.  (Oh the horror of having to button pants on a regular basis! Really? Most people do that EVERY day?) I miss my pajamas terribly and I know the feeling is mutual because when I come home they jump right on me; Seriously, before I even give Elili a kiss hello, they have flung themselves across the room and are humping my legs.  My husband, however, is pleased with the new arrangement, since this means he gets to see me actually wearing—gasp!—makeup.  (Whenever that happens, I always half expect him to say, “Julie? Is that you under there?”)  Anyhow, I assume you do not read this blog to find out about my sartorial choices, particularly because a friend (actually I’m going to put “friend’ in quotes here) once suggested I send in a video of myself for What Not To Wear.  (Mean, right?  And maybe not such a terrible idea…)

So back to process:  I throw on some headphones and put on some classical music, which is my signal that it’s time to stop playing around on Facebook and Twitter and my three email accounts, and it’s time to start writing.  I then open up a bunch of documents: 1) My work in progress, 2) My “editing draft.”  3) My “chapter list.”  4) My “character list.”  5) My “notes.”

My work in progress is exactly what it sounds like—my work to date.  That’s the document where I get to see my book as a whole, and best of all to feel the satisfaction of the accumulation of pages.  After I get to a certain point, say 25 or so pages, I start saving as a new document everyday, so I’ll have on my laptop TMGH 1, TMGH 2, etc., in case I ever need to return to an earlier draft.

My “editing draft,” on the other hand, is really my garbage pail—it’s where I put all the stuff I cut.  Most of the time, when I dump a couple of paragraphs or sometimes whole chapters in there, they’ll never see the light of day.  Occasionally, however, that draft comes in handy for a description or an idea that was just in the wrong place.  Maybe the reader will be interested in the paragraph I wrote about Charlotte’s childhood obsession with LITTLE WOMEN, but not necessarily in Chapter Two.  I also use it to trick myself into cutting some of the stuff that just doesn’t belong in the book.  If I keep it alive in the halfway house of my “editing draft,” I can fool myself that it’s not work wasted.  But, of course, wasting work is all part of the process, and this time I actually mean that in the pretentious sense of the word. (Sorry.)  Oddly enough, my editing draft sometimes ends up almost as long as my actual manuscript.  You know the expression you have to have money to make money? Well, I think you have to have lots and lots of sentences to make sentences.

My chapter list is pretty self explanatory—just a list and description of each chapter as I write—but I find it a helpful way, especially now that I have dual narratives, to keep track of plot. It gives me a meta view, and shows whether I’m creating a natural arc.  The character list, even more mundane, is the place I keep track of character detail.  I’m pretty lazy about this one, particularly because I hope I have each of my characters sufficiently stored in my mind’s eye by the time I start writing, but I think it’s good practice to keep it going, nonetheless.

And lastly, my notes, which may be my most important document next to the actual manuscript.  This is my writer’s notebook.  I have, of course, a bunch of actual notebooks scattered around the house for when inspiration hits and I don’t have my laptop handy, but often while I’m writing, this is where I pose questions to myself, or jot down my ideas.  To an outside reader, it probably looks a lot like jibberish. It’s filled with vague phrases like “Charlotte’s relationship with money” or “Bernie hat symbol.” When I read it, though, I see a future novel.

So, that’s how my sausage is made.  Or at least my first draft.  But there are a million ways to write a novel, so if there are any other writers reading this, I’d love to hear about your process in the comments. Any suggestions? Do you buy your final drafts at Costco?  And tell me the truth: do you take the time to put on proper pants?

Okay, so I know we’ve being doing lots of 5 Questions lately, and you might be thinking, “huh, yarr, has Julie abandoned this here blog?”  Because, in my head, all of you talk like pirates.  (Apparently, I’m into pirate speak lately, because I’m pretty sure I made a pirate reference a few weeks ago, matey.  Which is just plain weird.  But alas, as usual I digress…)  To answer your question, I have not abandoned this here blog, but it just so happens a lot of fantastic books came out the last two weeks and I wanted you to know about them.  So, you see this all about you, and not about me trying to get other people to do my homework.  Though if I were to get other people to do my homework, Mark Haskell Smith and Therese Walsh would be at the top of my list, because they are awesome, and come to think of it, maybe I should just hand over the blog to them, because their 5 Questions were witty, and were completely free of any reference to pirates.  I’m pretty sure Mark talked about bondage, but I think I’d take bondage over pirate-speak any day, especially if we had established a safe word. Am I digressing again?  Crap.

Okay, how about I just introduce Therese Walsh, the debut author of THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY, who may just have the most beautiful covers in all of the women’s fiction world.  I own the hardcover of THE LAST WILL, but I think I may just have to buy the paperback too, because it’s just so pretty.  In addition to being a kick-ass novelist, Therese also co-founded the website Writer Unboxed, and if you are a writer or an aspiring writer, and have not yet checked it out, add it to your blog reader.  Seriously, it’s filled with honest and truly helpful advice.  Even cooler, Therese has put together one of those mega-contests I’ve been telling you about where 49 authors have gotten together and donated two copies of their books (AFTER YOU is of course in the mix) for a “My Sister and Me” contest, the idea being that if you’re one of the winners, you’ll have a copy of one of these books to keep and another copy to share–with a sister or a friend. Click over here for the rules and to enter.

One of these days, I’m going to blog about first sentences, but in the meantime let me give you an example of a doozy.  How does THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY start?: “I lost my twin to a harsh November nine years ago.”  How can you stop reading after that one?  You can’t.  Which is reason #3564 why you should buy Therese’s book.

And now, finally, on to the Five Questions…

1. Where were you the first time you saw your book in a bookstore and who did you call first?

It was the day the hard cover of The Last Will of Moira Leahy was released. I was online with a blog tour that day and didn’t have a chance to run around town to gawk at my book. That night, though, I had my first signing at my local Barnes and Noble. I stepped inside to find a table stacked with my book and over 100 people there (including a local TV crew) to hear my book chat. Trial by fire? Definitely. And we sold out of books.

2. I’m convinced all writers are a little bit crazy. Do you agree, and if so, what kind of crazy are you?

Oh, yeah. I’m neurotic-crazy. If I were a puppy, I’d chase my tail.

3. If you were going to have another author write your biography, who would you choose to write it and why? Any title ideas?

My fellow blog Mama at Writer Unboxed, Kathleen Bolton. She would be honest, witty, and use a flattering title: Writer Unhinged.

4. When did you start to take yourself seriously as a writer?

Hahahahaha. Next question?

5. If your house was burning down, and you had time to rescue only three books from your library, what would you choose and why?

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon; and The Last Will of Moira Leahy—because my copy is marked up with lots of notes, and as I’ve mentioned

(Admin Note!:  Congrats to Megan for winning last week’s DIAMOND RUBY giveaway.  Random Number Generator went with lucky number 7.)

I’m going to dispense with the clever intro today, not only because my page count on THE MODERN GIRL’S HANDBOOK is still pathetically low, but also because Mark Haskell Smith (or MHS as I like to call him) is clever enough for the both of us.  So I’m assuming you all listened and bought BAKED yesterday, as directed, but in case you didn’t and still need a little more convincing, check out these amazing blurbs:

“Between these covers, my friends, Mark Haskell Smith has harvested and served up the best kind of hybrid: at once a pulp mystery, demented comedy, and meditation on little ideas like greed, desire, and decency. Baked is original, subversive, a bit mind-expanding, and fully irresistible—a laugh a minute romp through a cultural moment just screwed up enough to be recognizably our own. You won’t have time to exhale.  Nor will you want to.” —Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children

“With Baked, Mark Haskell Smith may just have written his masterpiece. The writing is addictively brilliant enough to render it a Schedule Three narcotic. I defy anyone to put Baked down without wanting more. It’s so good you’ll lose your short-term memory.” —Jerry Stahl

“Murder, mayhem, marijuana and Mormons–what more could you ask for in a crime novel?  Baked grabs you by the sacred underpants and doesn’t let up ’til the last page.” —Lisa Lutz, author of The Spellman Files

5 Questions for Mark Haskell Smith:

1. Where were you the first time you saw your book in a bookstore and who did you call first?

You know I honestly don’t remember.   It would’ve been 2002 when Moist came out.   I might’ve called my girlfriend (now wife) but I really don’t remember.   But every time I find one of my books in a bookstore I’m kind of amazed.    And I especially like finding them in bookstores where I don’t normally expect to see them.   Like the bookstore at the San Francisco airport or the USC bookstore.  

2. I’m convinced all writers are a little bit crazy. Do you agree, and if so, what kind of crazy are you?

I’m not a psychiatrist so I can’t really make a clinical assessment of writers, but I think it’s true that the desire to spend so many hours sitting alone with imaginary friends cavorting in your head can maybe cause a person to develop eccentric habits.   Or alcoholism.

3. If you were going to have another author write your biography, who would you choose to write it and why? Any title ideas?

I’d chose James Frey because he’d make my life much more exciting than it really is.    Perhaps it would be called: “His Mother Still Thinks He Should Get a Real Job.”

4. When did you start to take yourself seriously as a writer?

I had messed around with writing since I was in high school.   I loved reading, loved going to plays and watching movies, but I never really thought that it was something I could do.   And then when I turned 30 – and was working in New York City as a sales rep for an Italian laminate company – I just sort of decided that I would make a concerted effort to write something.  

5. If your house was burning down, and you had time to rescue only three books from your library, what would you choose and why?

I would probably save whatever book I was in the middle of reading and then my houseplants.

Today, we have a guest post from not only one of my favorite writers (his work is hilarious, and perverse, and always page-turning), but one of my favorite people, Mark Haskell Smith.  I met Mark about four years ago, when I was a recently retired lawyer trying her hand at writing a novel, and he was my illustrious teacher at UCLA Extension. He has since become a friend, and perhaps most precious of all, a honest and  trusted first reader, which, let me tell you, is very hard to come by.  We’ve talked a lot on this blog about writers supporting other writers, and Mark is one of the best of the best; since long before I had anything that can be remotely labelled a “writing career” Mark went out of his way to help me learn the art and the craft of writing, and then later, when I was finally ready, answered a million and one questions about the business side.  This is all a long way of saying he is good people and a great writer and you should buy his newest book, BAKED immediately.  Like right now.  Go on, do it. The first week of sales is vital to the life of any book, and BAKED comes out his week, so don’t wait.  Seriously. Buy it.  Yes, I’m being a bossy boots, but I don’t care.  Have I mentioned you should buy BAKED right now?  I haven’t?  Well, let me take this opportunity to say it just once–I wouldn’t want to sound like a broken record or anything–buy it.

As you’ll see from his post below, Mark’s work is not for those who are squeamish about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, but it’s always funny and smart and never gratuitous.  And if you are the squeamish sort–which I’d be surprised about actually, if you have stuck with this blog–I still say buy the book anyway, and give it to your less squeamish friends, who will then tell you how great it is and make you feel silly for all the fun you are missing.  So yeah, go buy it, NOW.  And just in case I haven’t heckled you enough, tomorrow we’ll again be talking about BAKED with 5 Questions for Mark, and if I haven’t already convinced you, I’m going to trot out  a huge list of famous writers who say you should buy it too.  So there.

Now, take it away, Mark.:

“What do your kids think of your books?”

I get this question a lot from readers.  And I know what they’re really asking.  They’re not asking if my kids are avid bookworms, they’re looking to see if I’m embarrassed by some of the actions of the characters in my novels.  I suppose I should be.   My characters are often drunk or stoned, fiercely promiscuous, aggressively horny, and oftentimes find themselves involved in some sort of transgressive sexcapade.   They are, in a word, incorrigible.  They can fall madly in love, violently in lust, or just get kinky with it, but whatever they are up to, it makes sense for them.   It’s not gratuitous.  I don’t write erotica.   It always comes down to the character’s authentic response to their desires and the situation the find themselves in.

Love and sex are great motivators.   You don’t have to ask a romance novelist, ask a historian.  From the myth of Leda and the Swan to the Trojan War; the forbidden romances of Romeo & Juliet and the hot young Vampires in lust of the Twilight series; to the more modern and sordid story of Mary Kay Letourneau, sexual desire has moved armies, destroyed kingdoms, caused individuals to risk their life, security, safety and status to find joy and fulfillment or heartbreak and tragedy.

It’s a novelists job to explore a character’s inner life, their psychology and deepest desires, and sex and love are much more compelling (and more fun) than contrived motivations like revenge or greed or power.    Besides I like sex.    I always have.

And to answer the question: yes, my kids have read my novels.   But I didn’t let them read them until they turned 16.   My daughter, who’s now 21, reads my books and just kind of rolls her eyes and says “that’s my Dad.”   I can’t tell if she’s humoring me or not.

But I do feel bad for my wife.   She gets the whispered asides from friends and relatives.   They give her a concerned look and say things like, “I just finished Mark’s new book and, well, does he make you do those things?  You know?  Those things he describes in the book?”

Depending who asks she’s gives them either a knowing smile that says “wouldn’t you like to know” or she tells the truth and says, “he’s a writer.  He makes stuff up.”   Her parents, wisely, don’t bring it up.

In my new novel BAKED, one of the characters is any expert in the delicate art of Kinbaku (Japanese rope bondage) and I’m sure friends and acquaintances will soon be checking my wife’s wrists for signs of abrasion.

But that’s the thing about writing.  It takes a little bit of courage.  Your fantasies, predilections, and prejudices are exposed whether you want them to be or not.   Readers always assume that there’s a little bit of the author in every character.  I can’t say they’re wrong, because the characters come through the filter of the author’s imagination.   So I’ve learned to own it.   Yes, I write racy, sexy, comedic novels.   I put a lot of effort into making them fun to read, and yet I hope they still carry some fundamental truth about the human condition, and some emotional wallop, so that the trials and tribulations of my characters will move the reader and make them feel like they’ve just spent a few days at a party with some really interesting people.