31 August 2009
Is it really the last day of August? I think 2009 will likely go down as one of the most un-summery summers in (my personal) history. Tomato blight, rain rain rain, a tougher teaching schedule than I had in the spring, a series of ailments and illnesses. My most summery activity was probably frequenting the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park semi-regularly; I even once, despite my lactose intolerance, enjoyed a delectable, life-changing frozen custard.
I did spend Sunday of the last weekend of summer upstate in Ulster County with friends who have 47 sublime wooded acres bordering a large creek. If this sounds luxuriously summery, you’re mostly right; but the occasion for the visit was to have my author photo taken by kind and talented Robin, who happens to be a professional photographer.
I fretted this outing for the week preceding. The life of the writer — contra my previous life working in a professional office five days a week — is one in which meticulous self-coiffing and productive writing tend to develop an inversely proportional relationship. I’ve never been particularly girly, but over the last two years or so, I’ve pretty much forgotten the how of the whole thing. Hair? Makeup? Outfit? Uy. Like many-a bookish writer types, I fantasized sending in to my publisher a photo of gorgeous Pax the Pup, so naturally winning and photogenic (on Amazon, there is an explicit rule for Authors on the Authors Administration Page: Please, no photos of pets or children. Oh, cruel corporate guidelines!)
Bring a few different outfits, any makeup you normally wear, and something for putting your hair up if you want to try that, Robin had advised when we spoke on the phone. Okay, I can do that, I thought.
By late afternoon, we had over 200 photos (the miracle of digital!). This lighting, that lighting, the white shirt, the dark shirt, smiling, unsmiling, standing, sitting, arms crossed, arms by my side. We included Pax in a few, for good measure. The weather cooperated. By the time we were done, my head was pounding and my stomach a little sick. But I was grateful; it was done, and I knew Robin had done a great job despite my anxiety.
In a few days, all 200 photos will be loaded up to an ftp site for my review. Somehow, I’ll pick one or two for the book jacket. Similar to my previous ruminations about the book jacket design itself, I’ll ask myself: what’s the purpose of this photo? What do I want it/what is it meant to convey? How does the photo impact the potential book-buyer or reader, if at all? Your thoughts? To be continued…
27 August 2009
The Atlantic Monthly is nurturing a good debate about whether the Internet age is transforming our brains for the better, or for the worse. This month, Jamais Cascio makes the argument for better; a year ago, Nicholas Carr made the argument for worse. Both agree that our brains are indeed being transformed.
A year ago, I was on board with Carr; today, reading Cascio’s article, I find myself eager for a counter-argument. What’s changed? Essentially, I think I have grown exhausted of pessimism. Which is another way of saying I am officially weary of my own fundamental temperament.
I just might be ready to be swept up in Cascio’s optimism:
25 August 2009
A string of technical difficulties this past week: overload of my laptop hard-drive; a bug in my email program that wreaked havoc on my email archives; my laptop power cord went kaput; Internet connection issues (related to the email bug). Ugh. At such times, my version of road rage rears its ugly head, and I become a very, very, very unreasonable human being. I begin to see the occupational hazards for tech support people.
In all this, I’m having to evaluate the contents of both my hard drive and my email archives (some 8,000 emails). Time to sort and purge. God, it’s painful. I pride myself on the fact that I strive for a clutter-free environment in my material life. But in my digital life? Uy yuy yuy.
Email archives are essentially personal journals. What is the future of the email archive? Will we soon be seeing “The Collected Emails of David Foster Wallace” in hardcover?
As for hard drive files, I’m struggling with the twenty-three complete and partial drafts of Long for This World, each dated approximately monthly over a period of two years. Any counsel from writers and/or highly-organized digital archivers out there? ”Get an external hard drive,” one friend has already advised. I guess that will be my online research task this week.
21 August 2009
A package arrived in the mail the other day from my mother.
As it turns out, Long for This World is not my first book. Miranda & Blair, the story of two girls, best friends, who have a big fight but then make up and become best friends again, was in fact my first book.
I have almost no recollection of writing Miranda & Blair. This elephant’s behind does look familiar, however. Apparently, Miranda and Blair take a trip to the zoo together; an elephant escapes; pandemonium ensues; four (blind?) mice save the day.
“This is her first book and hopefully not her last.” Ha! That’s funny. Who knew? Even funnier… the book I am now working on is called Sebastian & Frederick –about a friendship between two boys (who reconnect years later as grown men). Hmm… I wonder if I can work an elephant into the story line…
19 August 2009
It’s hard to say whether it’s cooler right now to love Mad Men, or to hate it. I suppose aloofness would be the super-cool posture du jour: Mad WHAT? Don WHO?
At The Elegant Variation, a reprint of an excerpt from n+1, panning the show as “an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better.” The writers at TEV themselves “came to it with an open mind, looking to fill a void left after the last season of The Wire. We made it six episodes, walked away and never looked back.”
I’m a lover not a hater. I recently stayed up way past my bedtime watching FOUR consecutive Season 2 episodes. There were many other mission-critical things I needed to be doing (like, for instance, sleeping). With such obsessions, one asks oneself at some point, what’s this about?
People who know me know that I’m not a particularly bandwagon-y type. If anything, I err on the side of suspicion when it comes to popular fads (and yes, I recognize that this is as flawed a posture as mindless conformism). But I do notice that a lot of writerly folks love Mad Men (TEV and n+1 notwithstanding), along with The Wire. People are split on The Sopranos (didn’t do it for me), Deadwood (run, don’t walk!), Six Feet Under (if I’m stuck in suburbia and someone has cable TV, I’ll watch it), and other HBO series, but The Wire and Mad Men seem to be staples among the literary.
(David Simon has in fact said many times that The Wire was conceived to be “read” more like a novel than a TV show.)
It’s odd to feel part of this “club” of Mad Men lovers. There is a faint self-loathing that creeps up, like how I feel when I’m at an Ikea on a Saturday afternoon and almost half the people I see around me are 30-something Asian Americans wearing solid-colored clothing and Daniel Libeskind eyeglasses.
What’s interesting to me is how different Mad Men and The Wire are from each other. When I consider the two obsessions, I can’t help but compare. The writing on The Wire is far superior, I’d say. And the story lines much more complex and compelling. I could watch The Wire — every season — over and over and over again and take greater and greater pleasure in the writing, and the characters, each time.
With The Wire, I feel I am being both entertained and enlightened; The Wire is challenging, in a highly stimulating if slightly painful way (I feel the same way about David Simon’s Iraq War mini-series Generation Kill) — maybe akin to the experience of a David Mamet or Neil LaBute play. Mad Men is an altogether different kind of pleasure: I am aware of being both entertained and indulged; to some degree affirmed. Because, let’s be honest, as nice as it is to behold Don’s beautiful face in almost every frame; it’s all… about… the women.
Yes, yes, yes, we women say internally as we watch Peggy, Betty, Joan, Trudy, Jane, Mona, Helen, Bobbie, Sheila, and that vixen Joy at the end of Season 2 saunter by in their fitted dresses and high heels. I am her, and her, and her, and her, too.
I am (s)he as you are (s)he as you are me and we are all together.
And there you have it; for a woman in 2009, living the fullness of identity fragmentation, Mad Men is integrative. Which I suppose is just another way of saying, it’s therapy.
17 August 2009
A couple of state-of-the-industry pieces on the Web:
Popular-fiction writers Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman discuss the strategy of giving their work away for free on the Internet to increase sales, buzz, and ratings (both are in favor). Read about it (and listen to it) here. I confess that when I first read the headline at Publisher’s Weekly, I thought it referred to EL Doctorow, and that’s what made me click over. Now that would be something.
Literary agent-blogger Nathan Bransford declares on his blog that the age of being “just an author” (and not a promoter) is officially over. He cites Thomas Pynchon’s lending his voice to the book trailer for Inherent Vice, and the fact that “even Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah.” I also noticed that on Pynchon’s Web site, there is a link for a Pynchon Wiki – which is something like Cliff’s Notes on the Web, I believe?
I’m not sure what the effect of Well, McCarthy and Pynchon are doing it is supposed to be exactly — convincing, or comforting, perhaps. If Marilynne Robinson started blogging and making You-Tube videos, I personally would certainly take notice. I guess for those of us who are still on and off the wagon — Analogians Anonymous — there are stages of grief; and the great-writers evidence effectively jolts us out of our denial.
13 August 2009
A happy accident brought me to a wonderful and timely article in Glimmer Train about the novelist’s research process, and the relationship between research and imagination. Here’s how it happened…
Then, in the Glimmer Train newsletter, I saw that there was an article written by George Rabasa. I thought, Oh, I’ve been meaning to read his book, I should check out his article. So I saved the email for about two weeks in my inbox.
Then, of course, I came to discover my mistake. But was glad to discover Rabasa, and his wisdom on researching for fiction. I especially liked his Ten Exhortations for the Literary Researcher:
- Go where no writer has gone before.
- Don’t feel you have to use everything you’ve learned.
- You don’t even have to use anything you’ve learned.
- Keep in mind that someone out there reading your book knows more about your subject than you do.
- Don’t worry too much about that person.
- Don’t confuse facts with details. Facts are stones. Details are wings. The astute researcher sniffs out the telling detail like a pig rooting after truffles.
- Hang on to notes, clippings, book titles, photos, souvenirs, post cards, road maps, hotel receipts, (good for taxes, if you ever make any money).
- Whenever you don’t know something when you’re writing, make it up. You’ll be surprised how true it is when you check later.
- Don’t forget to check later.
- Research does not make the story. The story makes the story.
Click here for the full Rabasa article.
(Click here for the Scialabba piece on NPR.)
It’s all good.
Welcome to the official blog site of Sonya Chung, author of the novel
Long for This World.
“An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.”
–Kate Walbert, National Book Award finalist and
author of A Short History of Women
11 August 2009
When I happen upon a terrific independent bookstore or hear of a new indie bookstore opening up, the first thing I wonder is, “How are they making it work? Will they survive? What’s the business model?”
Here’s one maverick bookstore’s hilarious, inventive strategy for staying on the map and keeping their customers coming.
Click here for “The Book vs The Kindle Smackdown,” a series of (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) short videos created by the staff of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. There are seven up currently, a total of ten will be produced.
(Note: I’ve added “bookstores” as a category.)
9 August 2009
I’ve been accused at various times in my life, by well-meaning loved ones, of lacking ambition. My bank account, my networking skills, my life goals (or lack thereof) might corroborate these accusations. But after years of living (anxiously) with my head always in the future, never in the present, something clicked at some point (ok, actually, something crashed), and I realized, in the words of the poet Czeslaw Milosz: Only this is worthy of praise: the day.
It’s not that I don’t have goals; it’s just that these days, my goals are small, modest. Grow enough cucumbers for pickles throughout the winter; run three miles in under 30 minutes; post on your blog at least three times a week; make it to February without missing a house payment; read Kierkegaard. It’s not much, but it’s a good life — hard-earned, I dare say, and built with care.
And, of course, central to this life is the writing. The writing goals are perhaps the most ambitious, even as they are relatively modest as well. As I prepare for the release of Long for This World in March, I ask myself, “What is success?” What do I hope for, what will I work toward? In my mind, I suppose there is a kind of abstract threshold I hope to cross; one that enables me to continue achieving my small goals. Making my house payments, for instance. Having time to grow vegetables.
But these are “business” goals. Artistically, my ambition seems to grow every day. Simply put: write a good novel. Write a very good novel. Write a very very good novel. The word count on Sebastian & Frederick is now just over 65,000. I’ve had a good few days to step back and look at structure and characterization, and a wave of panic struck yesterday: God, this thing is ambitious. I looked through my notebook, the one I’ve been keeping for two years as I’ve worked on this draft, and part of me thinks: Who am I kidding? Can I pull this off? Will I? How will I resolve all these issues, how will I weave the threads? Who are these characters?
But how else could it be? For those of you would-be fiction writers out there, you know that the impossibility of the work is part of what keeps us going. The sculptor Henry Moore said this — that the definition of contentment is having a goal that is impossible to achieve. Writing a novel — a good one — is such a goal, I think.
So here I thumb my nose, good-heartedly, at my (also good-hearted) accusors: how’s that for ambition.
5 August 2009
This piece on NPR’s “On the Media” about the shrinkage of copyediting staff at major newspapers rings true with me; I’ve been noticing more and more error-age in print.
I first wondered about this when I was reading a paperback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which I found no fewer than 15 typos. This was not long after candidates Barack Obama and John McCain had both named it as one of their favorite novels of all time. I thought, sales of this book must be up, you’d think the publisher would go back and give it a proofread?
Then I read this article in the NY Times business section, about a book called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, in which Ruppel Shell argues “that our national obsession with bargains has lowered our standard of living and hurt the environment and the quality of American products.” The book was published by Penguin, and the reviewer’s critique included the following:
Cheap isn’t perfect. Ms. Ruppel Shell makes some glaring errors. She refers to the convicted fraudster Bernard Madoff as “Michael Madoff” (who she says has contributed to consumer cynicism) and at one point refers to the former Wal-Mart C.E.O. Lee Scott as “Lee Jones.”
Really? At least three people must have read this manuscript: the author, the editor, and the copyeditor. No one caught “Michael Madoff”? Uy.
“The Wire” creator David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has had a lot to say about the death of print journalism, including, “No one does more with less. You do less with less.”
Speaking of the Baltimore Sun, John E. McIntyre, who was 23 years at the Sun‘s copy desk until this past April — interviewed in the above-mentioned “On the Media” piece — blogs about copyediting and language here. Fun stuff: I can just imagine him (prior to April) riffing with reporters in the newsroom, a la “The Wire” Season 5, on the proper use of “evacuate” — You don’t evacuate people, as in “100 people were evacuated”; you evacuate buildings. To evacuate a person would be to give the person an enema. Lovely, lovely.