Thursday, March 29, 2012

Maud Newton

The photo, so blurry as to only do justice to her smile, looks like it was taken with Ms. Newton in motion. This pretty much sums up how I felt about her visit, that it went by too fast. Before her talk at Butler, we MFAers were all atwitter. We wondered what she would look like, this Maud Newton, this author of one of the longest-standing and most-respected literary blogs. Some of us expected an older, staid, bookish woman. Maud Newton was anything but -- a high-heeled, petite, stylish young woman with a heart-shaped face set off with a pair of parenthesis dimples and hipster black eyeglasses.

Newton began her blog,, over a decade ago, as a lark between projects. Back then, she commented, culture blogs were few. Blogging was a combination of performance and writing. (And yes, she said, contrary to rumors, blogging IS writing!) Back then blogs were just beginning to be discovered by newspapers, and there was always tension over the question of whether those in the literary world considered blog writing important. As print media began their own blogs, though, the criticism about blogging diminished.

Newton's advice for bloggers: "Have faith in yourself, your perspective, your voice. Express yourself completely." She went on to say, "Your point of view distinguishes you from everyone else. Only you can get your words on the page." And then a warning: "Once your words are in the world it's impossible to take them back."

Newton receives about sixty books a week. Between her day job and working on her first novel, she finds herself stretched, and has decided she doesn't want to review books she doesn't feel strongly about. If she feels a book won't be edifying or meaningful, she has no qualms about bailing. Her advice for reviewers is to reach into themselves and explain why they do or don't like a book. They have a duty to be honest and not bore the reader.

Now, here's something wild: the day after Newton spoke I was invited to a brunch with her, Mike Dahlie (author of "A Gentleman's Guide to Gracious Living"), Allison Lynn (author of "Now You See It"), and John Green (uber-popular author of too many YA novels to list.) CAN YOU IMAGINE?!

Actually, John Green was a no-show, his kid had strep throat. Green met with us MFAers last fall (see my post from November, 2011 and was genuine and earnest. His words stay with me still. I would have LOVED the chance to break bread with him again. But, to tell you the truth, I was almost hyperventilating with excitement with Newton, Dahlie and Lynn at my table. One more erudite author? I might have needed to breath into a brown paper lunch bag.

So, what did I ask Newton, the author who has published in Narrative, Granta and The New York Times, and about whom the Paris Review blog wrote is necessary reading? Mostly I was speechless, but when the nerves subsided enough for me to get my bearings, I asked, "What is your favorite book of all time?" Answer? "The End of the Affair," by Graham Greene. I asked Newton about the profile of author Emma Forrest she published in The Awl. Newton said she wanted to give readers an appreciation for Forrest's memoir, "Your Voice in My Head," so instead of a traditional interview, she put together a profile. Newton seemed especially -- and rightly -- proud of this piece. Check it out at (My review of Forrest's "Your Voice in My Head" can be found in my January 6, 2012 post,

Overall, the brunch went by so fast that it was over by the time I'd finished my yummy Patachou crepe. It was only as I drove away (after Maud hugged me goodbye!) that I realized all the great questions I wanted to ask her were still orbiting in my head. Here's what I walked away with: Maud Newton, Mike Dahlie and Allison Lynn are all extremely nice. They inhabit a six-degrees-of-separation literary world, and were able to chat about literati the way my crowd gossips about our kids' SAT scores. Also, I learned two things about myself: One, that I wish I had attended prep school instead of the alternative, Haight-Ashbury high school (where I spent a lot of time doing things you might expect a teenager to do in the Haight-Ashbury), and two, that I wish I was better-read.

Check out my pal Beth Bates's much more detailed recap of Newton's talk in her post: www.

None of these links are working, are they? I suppose you'll need to cut and paste the URLs. (Is that what they're called?) Have I ever claimed to have a clue about this technological mumbo-jumbo? Yeah, I know, you're not surprised. Me neither.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dueling Celeb-oir: Untied, by Meredith Baxter, and Drama, by John Lithgow

It was only when I emptied the ashtray that I realized I had been duped by my brother. There, under the aluminum bowl in the hollow of the wooden ashtray stand, were the crinkled, beige remains of desiccated liver vitamins. Dad gave my brother and me one each morning. Each vitamin was embedded with a small nugget of dried liver. The pills smelled like old, wet wool socks and tasted like dog excrement left by a rabid, dyspeptic dog. The rule-following eldest, I took my tablet dutifully, suppressing a gag as the small gravely bits dissolved in my mouth. My brother, infinitely more savvy than me, had spit out his vitamins and stashed them in the ashtray's base. When I saw those relics, it hit me. I had been a patsy. (And also that I hadn't given my brother nearly enough credit.)

I can't blame my brother for not letting me in on his secret. He knew I was a goody-two-shoes and would have narc-ed on him in an instant. He knew I'd "out" him. But when I saw the ugly truth, that I had needlessly consumed DRIED LIVER each morning, I had an epiphany: I didn't need to follow every f-ing rule. (And also, if someone gives you a shit-flavored pill, spit the damn thing out!)

What, you may ask, does this have to do with celebrity memoir? Well, maybe it's that sometimes it's okay to break the rules, to spit out the stuff that's supposed to be good for you. Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing literature to foul-smelling vitamins. But sometimes a little fluff can also be nourishing.

So let's look two examples of my not-so-secret indulgence, what I like to call the "Cap'n Crunch of literature," celebrity memoir.

I don't see many movies, but one of my all-time faves, The World According to Garp, features John Lithgow. Because Lithgow doesn't have the chiseled jawline of a typical leading man, I was sure "Drama" would be delicious celeb-read, full of the confessional over-sharing that is the genre's hallmark. Wrong! "Drama" is more autobiography than memoir, more dry recounting of achievements than raw story. Lithgow skips honest revelation in favor of cliche and generality. It's only near the end of the book that Lithgow gets personal, tells us that he had a MAJOR problem with fidelity, slept with many (all?) of his leading ladies and destroyed his marriage. Even then, his explanation for this adulterous behavior comes off sounding like an excuse, like he's letting himself off the hook. In other words, if you're looking for drama, you won't find much of it in "Drama."

In "Untied," Meredith Baxter, star of Family Ties (and the '70s show Bridget Loves Bernie, which you'll only remember if, like me, you've hit the half-century mark), comes clean. WAY clean. "Untied" is the anti-"Drama" -- and that's good. Baxter's memoir isn't artful. It's no "The Liars' Club." It's structure is simplistic and predictable. But Baxter packed her (probably ghost-written) memoir with so,that I didn't care. Three failed marriages, a famous abusive spouse, a descent into alcoholism -- what more could you ask for? How about Baxter's slow, late-in-life discovery of her homosexuality?

"Drama" is certainly the better written memoir. But if you've decided to read celeb-oir -- the literary equivalent of spitting out a liver vitamin -- you might as well make it count, might as well order a literary meal sugary enough to induce a diabetic coma. In this memoir battle, "Untied" is the sweet winner. Insulin not included.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nicole Krauss and my inner 13-year-old

Tuesday afternoon, Nicole Krauss due any moment for a Q&A, I was excited and a little nervous. A birthday this week, I had just confessed to Nancy that despite my 51 years, I still feel like the anxious 13-year-old girl I was in 1974. Nicole Krauss. Yikes. Bestselling novels. Young, hip, East Coast Jewish writer. Famous hubby. Rumor had it that she deflects all questions about her personal life, and I wondered if all I would see was Krauss's lovely forehead as she angled her gaze toward the floor to look down at me. Thankfully, as is almost always the case, my inner 13-year-old was wrong. Fantasies of Midwest inferiority notwithstanding, Nicole Krauss was polite and well-spoken.

At the Q&A Krauss spoke about becoming a novelist, saying that by the age of 15 she knew she wanted to become a published writer. "The need to write is a need for freedom," she said. The literary form that first captured her attention was poetry, and she studied with Joseph Brodsky. By the time she turned 25, though, she realized the compact and compressed form of poetry demanded perfection, and diminished her personal space. She felt trapped. She discovered what she was meant to do even as she wrote the first few pages of what would become her first novel, "Man Walks Into a Room." Joking that she is now a failed poet, she explained that within the space of a novel she finds infinite freedom, a way to recreate herself. "Novel writing," said Krauss, "fits the way I think." An ill-defined form, she said, the novel is by nature imperfect. "I've learned to enjoy relaxing into a novel's imperfections. Novels illuminate new aspects of life, she said, and within their pages there is always a conversation between the fictional world and real life.

Krauss told us a bit about her writing process. She begins a novel by using a series of dots -- characters, images or moods that compel her -- that serve as jumping off points. "My work as a writer is to find the coherence. I'm interested in seeing how the parts are juxtaposed," she said. She creates a set of characters, the underlying requirement is that for each she must feel a profound empathy. The quality of this empathy, though, has a different quality in each of her books. "Leo and Alma, from "The History of Love" wear their hearts on their sleeves," said Krauss. On the other hand, the cruel Israeli father from "Great House" had Krauss wondering what the quality of that empathy was. She came to see that, as with many of her characters, he needed to unburden himself.

Krauss said her writing is a process of enormous trial and error, a throwing of herself into the unknown and coming up against parts of herself she didn't know she had. In describing her three novels, she noted that "Man Walks Into a Room" is a linear work, whereas "The History of Love" is polyphonic. "History of Love," she said, is about the power of imagination, about the power we have to reinvent ourselves. "Great Desk" is made up of stories that touch at points, that allow readers to see parts echo within the whole. Referring to "Great House," Krauss described the desk as related to the idea of the burden of inheritance. A huge and bulky hand-me-down, the desk was incredibly flexible as a metaphor, and served as the connective tissue between the stories.

Interestingly, Krauss said she embarks on each new novel without a game plan, without an endpoint. As she works on a novel, the concerns within it need to grow, and as this sense of urgency builds, her characters' paths reveal themselves. Ultimately, for both Krauss and her readers, each novel is a discovery until the very end.

Krauss's masters degree is not in creative writing, but in art history. I asked her how her studies of the visual arts impacted her writing, and she noted that she sees her novels visually. When someone asked to what extent she keeps the reader in mind as she writes, Krauss replied that, in general, she doesn't think a lot about the reader until revision begins.

Writing pal Maria Cook asked Krauss why her writing lens focuses on how characters deal with trauma's after-effects, rather than how they survive the trauma itself. Krauss responded that writing about the traumatic situations theselves simply doesn't provoke her imagination. "What fascinates me is what trauma asks of the survivors, how they are called upon to radically recreate themselves."

Sitting across from Krauss at dinner that night, my inner 13-year-old reappeared. How many people get to say they had dinner with Nicole Krauss? Still, I hoped for a chance to see the author a little less guarded. It was clear Kraus was still on duty, though. She agreeably chatted about literature, but wasn't eager to engage on a personal level. She shared with us her fondness for translations and works by European and Israeli authors. I asked Krauss if she thought of herself as a Jewish writer, and she resisted the label, saying she would like to be able to write about anything that spurs her imagination.

Charming at her evening reading, she apologized to anyone in the audience who might have come to see Nicola Kraus, author of "The Nanny Diaries." She read from "Great House," and answered a few questions. It was while answering one of these questions that Krauss returned to the theme that lies at the foundation of her work: empathy, which she said was, for a writer, one of the most important things. "Literature is one of the few opportunities to stand in another's shoes, to transcend boundaries and experience another's life.

"We'll always need literature as long as empathy matters to us."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Happy Accidents, by Jane Lynch

For me, it's all about the connection. I thrive on it. I want to get to know others -- and not in a small talky way. Also, I'm a supreme busybody. I want to know everything about everybody, and not only do I not mind reciprocating, I want to. My dear friend and fellow MFAer Nancy Hill became enamored with the work of poet Simon Armitage and, two weeks back when Armitage crossed the pond to spend a few days with us at Butler, Nancy's open and generous nature shined bright. Connection? Between Hill and Armitage I felt as if I'd won the lottery.
First, Nancy kindly invited me to join her and Simon for lunch after she picked him up at the airport. After his evening reading, Nancy invited me to join her, her genial husband, John, and Armitage for a few pints. Not only did that provide me an opportunity to get to know the poet Armitage, but a bit about the man behind the poet.
This semester I'm lucky to be in Andy Levy's (the director of Butler's MFA program), Visiting Writers class. Andy's a treasure trove of literary wisdom, and he recently presented us with this gem: Novels teach us how to read them, and that as this occurs, we learn a different way to see the world. The best writing of any type serves to connect us to the world through a lens different than the one through which we normally view. When memoirs accomplish this it's magical.
I had hoped "Happy Accidents" would do all this: connect me with an intriguing actress, and give me a glimpse of an experience unlike my own. Indeed, Lynch's celeb-oir is satisfying as a fun, entertaining romp. Ultimately, though, it's the equivalent of superficial small talk. It's a light read -- in its own way refreshing, yet non-nourishing, like an ice cold glass of Kool Aid on a ninety degree day.
Lynch takes the reader through her angsty childhood, one in which she couldn't shake a sense of otherness. And although it was a nice surprise to find that she doesn't fall into the easy trap of parent blaming, she doesn't show us what it was like to feel so 'other,' of why she felt this way. Lynch's path to becoming a well-known actress has been unique. She didn't hit her stride and find fame until later in life, and she had me with this part of her story.
To her credit, Lynch doesn't hold back about her personal life. Or does she? She writes about her years of therapy, years of not being able to get along with others, and a seemingly asexual life. She writes that she finally was able to admit what those around her knew long ago, that she is a lesbian. And yet she doesn't pull us close and show us the emotion that comes with this self-isolating behavior, or how her coming out impacted her life.
Like Glee, the show that presented Lynch with the character of Sue Sylvester, that ushered in her breakout fame, Happy Accidents is heartfelt and sentimental, yet at its foundation is constructed of superficial platitudes.