Monday, November 28, 2011

Lee Martin and his memoir, "From Our House"

Martin was the keynote speaker at The Writers' Center annual Gathering of Writers. TWC always pulls in big names -- previous speakers include Alice Friman and Elizabeth Stuckey-French -- and although I always enjoy listening to authors discuss writing, Martin's words resonated with me in a way others haven't.

Martin began by admitting that he never meant to write memoir. He thought of himself as a fiction writer, but life took him to unexpected places -- a new job at a university teaching CNF (creative nonfiction, my genre of choice). Stepping out from the "scrim of fiction" for the first time, he was prompted to pen the essay, "From Our House." Martin said that writing the essay awakened something in him, and led him to arrive at these conclusions: "This is me. I'm here to tell the truth. I'm no longer keeping secrets." Compelled to leave the "safety of fiction," he "opened the door and stepped back into memory."

In writing and teaching creative nonfiction, Martin also realized these things: All lives hold private truths; memoir writers speak when they have a reason to speak; memoirists write to understand themselves and others. He encouraged us to write from what we don't know, saying that by investigating and digging into layers of memories we allow our former selves to come into focus.

Martin quoted the memoirist Patricia Hampl, saying that memoir is never about the past, but the future.

Writing "From Our House" opened the floodgates for Martin, who continued to write about his life and saw the arc of a narrative. This exploration led to his memoir, which carries the title of the essay.

After the Gathering of Writers, one of the first things I did was shuffle Martin's "From Our House" in my lineup of books, placing it on top. Good decision. The memoir is gorgeously rendered, the story of Martin's life as the only child of older parents, and his struggles with his father. Lee Martin's father lost both his hands in a farming accident when Lee was a baby, and although Lee's father sometimes displayed heart-melting tenderness toward him, more often than not he terrorized his son with an out-of-control rage.

Martin responded generously when I asked him if writing his memoir changed him. "Shaping that experience into something that I hope is artful required me to have a simultaneous immersion in memory and an aesthetic distance from it. By the time I finished, I knew the experience more intimately, and with knowledge comes control. Instead of that experience controlling me -- I'd had my own anger issues for years as a result of my father's influence -- I now in some way controlled it simply because I'd faced it and shaped it. I look back on my younger years now with much more clarity because I had to see it wholly and completely in order to write about it."

Just as Martin's speech did, "From Our House" spoke to me and left me changed. At the finish, despite not being overly sentimental, I wiped away tears. "From Our House" is memoir (and for that matter, storytelling) at its best. Move it to the top of your "To-Read" list. You won't be sorry.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Anita Diamant talks about the body

Reeling from my fun, cousin-filled Thanksgiving holiday, I'm also still processing this fall's authors' readings. In literary terms November brought to Indianapolis an embarrassment of riches. Anita Diamant came to Indianapolis and gave two talks (as did Myla Goldberg a few days before). The first was sponsored by the Jewish Community Center's Book Festival, where she talked about the body as a way to connect her works.

For those unfamiliar with Diamant -- can there be anyone out there who is? -- she is the author of four novels and many more nonfiction titles. Her bestselling "The Red Tent," a historical novel based on the Old Testament's Dina, is a mainstay of book clubs. And her Jewishly-related how-to books have served as Jewish life-preservers, assisting non-Orthodox Jews (the vast majority of the Jewish population), in navigating and renegotiating Jewish life with a modern day sensibility.

Diamant began by noting how the subject of the body is so multi-faceted. "As a journalist I have written about food, AIDS, and infertility treatments," she said. During the past ten years Diamant has spent her time "underwater," involved in the creation of a new type of mikvah in Boston. Mikvah, a pool of water in which Jews ritually immerse -- sans clothes -- is inextricably tied to 'body.' Diamant shared that she has a cellular empathy for telling the stories of women, and that although her four novels are very different, each focuses on the common threads of women's friendships, the female body and the concept of resilience.

According to Diamant, the female body was historically problematic. When she comes up against the problem of telling a story in which the feminine and the divine are not mutually exclusive, she turns to the body -- "an unbroken continuity of flesh and bones."

Her recent novel, "Day After Night," takes place at the close of the Holocaust. Diamant noted that Holocaust stories weren't freely told until the early sixties, that it wasn't until the time of the Eichmann trials that the floodgates opened for the telling. She strives to get into the emotional and psychological landscape of the time she writes about, but said that out of all her novels, "Day After Night" was the most difficult to write; living in a female body during the Holocaust held a particular kind of risk.

That evening Diamant took part in a program sponsored by Indianapolis's Spirit and Place Festival. Here she was part of a panel whose task was to have a conversation about the body. Sharing the stage with Diamant were Thomas Lynch (essayist and undertaker, whose work inspired the creation of HBO's series "Six Feet Under), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Thomas Lynch spoke about language: the words gravity, gravitas, gravid and grave are all on the same dictionary page, and Lynch pointed out that the body, just like language, plays tricks on us. Diamant spoke about childbirth being the crucible of womanhood, and that her experience of giving birth allowed her to write "The Red Tent."
Abdul-Jabbar remarked that athletes die twice -- the first death occurring when the body can no longer continue in professional sports. He disclosed that he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, and credited his otherwise good health to his long-standing yoga practice, that it provides his body with preventative maintenance.
Diamant, also a staunch believer in regular yoga practice, said that as a sixty-year-old, she is learning to accept the blessings of her body. Both Abdul-Jabbar and Diamant spoke out against plastic surgery, expressing the wish that society valued wisdom and experience over youth.

The panel spoke to a packed house, and the conversation was followed with opportunities to buy books penned by these three authors (Yes, Abdul-Jabbar is an author, too!), and have the books signed. I was anxious to shake Diamant's hand, as I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to interview her for The Jewish Post & Opinion. (Thanks, Jennie!) I was worried there would be a long line at Diamant's table, but the only line that formed was at Abdul-Jabbar's table. That night I drove home happy, my signed copy of "Day After Night" resting on the passenger seat.

I guess I shouldn't cast stones at the star-struck basketball fans. Next to Diamant's table was Lynch, who despite his own impressive oeuvre, I never thought to visit.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Myla Goldberg

Let me just say this: Myla Goldberg is unique. She's remarkable. In preparation for her visit, I had the good fortune to profile Goldberg for The Jewish Post & Opinion. We spoke on the phone, and she gave great interview -- was well-spoken and thoughtful. Despite her focused, articulate answers, she took a relaxed path from Point A to Point B, peppering her erudite explanations with almost whimsical twists. Goldberg clearly retained the wide-eyed curiosity and creativity that most of us lose as we passage into the adult world. As Myla answered my questions, this quality of uninhibited creativity shined. Goldberg made an appearance recently at the Jewish Community Center's book festival, and it was a delight to see how much more evident this Myla-ish-ness is in person.

Indy fans were treated to two Goldberg talks that night. The first was a discussion of "The False Friend," Goldberg's most recent novel. The second was a discussion of what it means to be a Jewish writer.

Today's post will focus on Goldberg's second talk. (See my blog post of July 17th, 2011, for a review of "The False Friend.") Goldberg admitted that she bristled when she first heard she was labeled a Jewish writer. She was uncomfortable thinking that this classification might turn off non-Jewish readers. Then she reflected that the memory that provided the seed for "The False Friend," a childhood incident of throwing a pair of scissors at her best friend, resurfaced on Yom Kippur. Also, she described her recent urge, as a mother to two young daughters, to reconnect to Judaism. In navigating modern day options in the Jewish world she found a home in Progressive, Humanistic Judaism. Her connection to this part of the Jewish community brought about a new openness to the idea of being a Jewish writer.

In considering her work and her Jewishness, Goldberg noted that the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is threaded through each of her books. She gave the example of the character of Lydia in "Wickett's Remedy" who helps with the investigation of vaccines.

Goldberg concluded that she no longer bristles at the Jewish writer label; now she embraces it. She noted that Jewish literature is a broad category, and that the books labeled as such don't necessarily even concentrate on Jewish subject matter. Jewish literature must gaze through a lens that has been shaped through thousands of years of Jewish history, but as long as the prose is written from this perspective, the subject examined through that lens can look at anything.

Before leaving us for the evening, Goldberg answered her fans' question about the subject of her next novel. Kind of. Comparing the novel-writing process to gestation, she explained that she feels the need to protect her fetus-like subject matter. She left us with one word: ambition. It was a teaser, to be sure, but one made with Goldberg's characteristic openness and candor.

When authors give readings I look for this unguarded quality, a willingness to share of themselves. Hopefully Goldberg will find her way back to Indy again soon. If she does, grab a front row seat.

For more on Goldberg, here's the link to my profile:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Richard Price

Why do Jews fixate on IDing other Jews? I saw Richard Price standing behind the lecturn, and here's the pressing question that came to mind, the question every Jew asks: Is he, or isn't he? It wasn't long before Price answered this essential question. I asked him to describe his path in becoming a writer, and he mentioned the legacy of his grandfather, who wrote Yiddish poetry. Richard Price: MOT (Member of the Tribe, for those who aren't.)

Price, who now lives in Harlem, filled us in on his background. He was the first in his family to attend college. He almost succumbed to family pressure to get a professional degree (M.D. or J.D.), but took creative writing courses instead, and despite feeling guilty about wanting to write, enrolled in an MFA in creative writing program.

Now that the vital mystery of Price's ethnicity was solved I could use my considerable brain power for literary purposes. What I learned at the Q&A/lunch with Price (by the way, thanks for the pizza, Butler), is that at 74, he has written several novels (set in gritty, urban landscapes that tell stories where drugs and race relations play a big part), and has screenplays and TV scripts to his credit. He has written for the HBO series "The Wire." He is known for his authentic use of dialogue.

I can learn something from anyone as long as there is an honest exchange, and Price didn't disappoint: He's a good guy -- engaging, entertaining and shockingly candid. He began by bemoaning the fact that whatever project he is working on quickly becomes a drag, and that he always wishes he could go back to whatever he was working on before -- even though he wasn't any happier working on that project.

Price spoke of writing for TV and movies. Despite the bigger audience and heftier paycheck that comes with working in TV and movies, he loses control of his work. Novel writing is where he maintains artistic control. Price noted that his novels are what's ultimately important, his prize.

About books and movies. Price said that great novels can be made into terrible movies, that the people involved with the adaptation tiptoe around the prose, giving the literature too much respect. The result can be that the movie is solemn. Doesn't do well. Conversely, B-novels can make great movies.

About dialogue -- Price's strong suit -- he said that there are moments in the TV series "The Wire," that are so authentic, people are convinced they are unscripted. That's not the case. Price also emphasized the importance of the visual: if there is a choice between giving a great actor fantastic lines, or simply allowing the actor's face to communicate, it is best to short-shrift the dialogue and let the visual "speak." In a related comment Price said it's a mistake to write a role with a specific actor in mind. His advice is to build the most interesting character and the right actor will come.

Speaking about his novels, Price claims he's not interested in "whodunit," but "why-dunit." He doesn't aim to write genre -- nothing as transparent as good versus bad -- but a layered, realistic portrayal of life where the good guys are always a little bad, and the bad always a little good. His most recent novel, "Lush Life," is an exploration of the Lower East Side, where many worlds encapsulate, but never meld; people only have eyes for those like themselves. One-hundred-years ago Price's great-grandparents were arrested for stealing fifty cents in order to make rent. Now gentrifying, Price found it ironic and amusing to see five-dollar dishes of gelato for sale there. Today, in the way things often come full-circle, his daughters spend time in the Lower East Side.

In researching "Lush Life" Price said the first thing he did was find a cop to shadow. Price said he "tried not to be a jerk," so he could meet as many people as possible while on patrol. Price said that the draw of "Lush Life" was that, in telling the story of a killing that occurred during a robbery, it brought many of the Lower East Side's worlds together.

Richard Price must have accumulated boatloads of great stories during his lifetime, in researching his novels, and in his work in Hollywood. If only we had more time together. Come back soon, Richard Price.

Monday, November 7, 2011

John Green

Butler blows me away with its visiting writers series. Last week brought YA (Young Adult) author John Green. For those of you without resident tweens or teens, Green's most well-known titles are "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines." I've never given much thought to YA books, but Green's talk was eye-opening.

According to Green there are two camps of YA literature. The first is typified by the Chris Crutcher-type book, one that aims to help kids feel less alone by giving them a group to identify with. The second camp focuses on the "I," emphasizing that every person (teen) is unique. These 'second camp' books are inherently empathetic. According to Green, books that fall into the first camp miss the point. Despite that we need stories about under-served populations, these 'first camp' books are not the be-all, end-all of reading.

The most notable thing about Green was the sincere affection and appreciation he expressed toward his readers. He gave the impression that his work isn't an entity separate from his fan base, but that the two are part of a whole. He originally built this fan base by engaging in a project of video blogs, or vlogs, with his brother. The project's premise -- which became wildly popular -- was that the only communication between the brothers would be through their published video blogs.

Green spoke about his authorly beginnings, entering ISBN codes into a computer for Booklist. Despite the scut-work nature of his job Green made a point to remain friendly and helpful. When Booklist needed someone to review books about Islam, they asked Green, as he had studied Islamic culture in college. After 9/11, the number of books about Islam mushroomed, and Green's career was headed in a more literary direction. When Booklist's reviewer George Cohen died, Green given Cohen's old "carnival gig," which included books about conjoined twins, and little people. It was around this time that Green also started reviewing YA literature. At first Green looked down at the genre, thinking it would consist of simplistic, moralistic titles like "Don't Bring Your Gun to School." But at closer look he saw a community of YA writers who were writing great stuff -- unpretentious, and not overwhelmed by irony. This was when Green caught the YA bug. He joked that he thought that by writing YA he could steer clear of the cut-throat, Pulitzer-seeking competition of the adult literary community; this didn't turn out to be the case, though.

In characterizing the YA genre, Green said that, in general, stories in this genre don't employ narrative distance -- the story happens in real time. He used "Catcher in the Rye" as an example of a story that does employ narrative distance -- within those pages there is a consciousness that a few years have passed between the telling of the story and when the story happened.

Green said these things about his work: his books often change plot dramatically while he writes; he needs lots of guidance, and has had one editor who has been invaluable. Green commented that he feels a duality in his writing: both confident (brilliant, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald felt) and despondent, as if he's the "worst writer ever." Expanding on this Green said that without confidence he can't write well, but without doubt he loses the sense that he's fallible.

We MFA students had the chance to chat with Green over lunch and then at the Q&A that followed. Throughout this two-hour chunk of time, the one comment that left the biggest impression was when Green spoke about why he writes. He reported that he struggles with depression and anxiety, and writing makes him feel less crazy. Writing does that, doesn't it? It helps us to make sense of the world, and helps us to understand ourselves. Green added that modern society is one of surfaces. We skim, surf the web, and employ a million distractions to escape from the ennui and boredom of life. For Green, writing makes this feeling go away. "It's contemplative. It feels like paying attention. I need to write to be engaged in the world," said Green.