OK so I am going to Europe for two weeks in September because I was invited to two literary festivals, one in Paris and one in Rome (fuck!) (yes!) (I KNOW), and I decided to add on some extra days on either end of the trip because when I am ever going to get to Europe again with my flight already paid. Answer: Not soon, if ever. Also I will it be my birthday present to myself. (Yes that is the sound of me trying to justify spending this money. Do I sound rational? Good.)
So I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go the other night on the Italy end of the trip and I was talking to my friend Dave and he was like, “You should go to Tuscany.” And I was like, “Is it fine to travel there by myself as a single person?” And he said, “Yes!” Because what he thought I was asking was, “Is it safe for me to travel there on my own?” Which makes sense. But really what I was asking was, “Am I going to have fun there on my own as a single person?”
And he continued on, telling me glowingly of his trips to Tuscany, of the time he had spent there with his wife, and also of a wonderful wedding he had gone to there, how beautiful and lush the countryside is, the food, the charm of it all. And I was like, “It sounds very romantic and I am not going there to sit by myself in some goddamn B&B with a bunch of newlyweds blissfully screwing in every other room and then look at their shit-eating grins in the morning. I need to go out and have some fun. I am not hiding amongst the grapes, watching the rest of the world be in love. My life is not UNDER THE GODDAMN TUSCAN SUN.”
So I’m going to Sicily instead and I’m going to see a volcano.
Can you tell me about the workshop at IUB this summer?
I can tell you a little bit about what I’m doing at the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, although I’m probably going to adjust what I’m teaching a little bit based on the class submissions. I’m going to talk about taking risks, elevating your stakes, working with details, and heightening your voice. We will talk about the business of being a writer, what it really means to make it your career. There will be daily writing exercises. Also I think I’ll give a reading one day, and I’m doing a panel.
I know it's not in your wheelhouse, but is there any YA you like at all? Or ones that you think are less awful than others?
Hey I like YA! I do not read a lot of it because I have a lot of other stuff I have to read, and there’s only so much time in the day/room in my brain. It’s the same with reading poetry, for example. I think it’s really important for writers to read things not in their their wheelhouse because it can only help them to grow as writers.
Anyway I really loved Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (it was my pick during this year’s Tournament of Books) and TFIOS was great, obviously. In particular, I adored the late, great Ned Vizzini’s work. (Aw, Ned.) I have not read the Hunger Games books yet because I started with the movies and I kind of want to experience it all as a big surprise on screen, and then I’m going to go back and read them and fill in the blanks. I have no idea how I’ve made it this far without knowing the plot, but somehow magically I have. (Please don’t spoil it for me.)
I am definitely not an expert on YA, but whenever someone recommends something to me I always enjoy it. The folks at WORD are huge YA fans. If you ever want any recommendations from them, they’ll definitely hook you up!
With a fifty-dollar-a-month rent-regulated East Village apartment, I could write one lucrative article for a mainstream magazine and support myself for weeks or even months while I did what I liked, whether that meant writing for countercultural publications that couldn’t pay or going to political meetings. When I did have jobs, I didn’t worry overmuch about losing them, and so felt no impulse, let alone need, to kiss anyone’s ass. There was always another job, or another assignment. At one point, while I was living with a group of people in Colorado, the money I made writing (sporadically) about rock for the New Yorker was supporting my entire household.
Since the early ’70s, however, the symbiosis has been working in reverse: a steady decline in Americans’ standard of living has fed political and cultural conservatism, and vice versa. Just as the widespread affluence of the post–World War II era was the product of deliberate social policy—an alliance of business, labor, and government aimed at stabilizing the economy and building a solid, patriotic middle class as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and domestic radicalism—the waning of affluence has reflected the resolve of capital to break away from this constraining alliance.
How much time writers used to have to work on pieces has become a sort of obsession for me. I keep fantasizing about having a month to work on something — maybe only a 2000- or 3000-word thing. As an experiment (necessarily on my own time, fit into little holes between the very long days I tend to work), I’d love to write even one piece this way, committing myself to taking 160 or more hours on it, just to see how it would come out.
It was an Italian man, in his thirties, and we were near the park. He was with a group of people, and he was leaning on the back of a bench. Sunning himself in his sunglasses and v-neck t-shirt. My dog had something sticking out of his foot. He had stepped on a small stick, and was limping and I didn’t notice. The man saw it, and he called out “Sir” three times. I didn’t think he was calling to me the first time because I’m a woman, and then the second time I actively ignored him because I thought he was fucking with me, and then the third time I turned because I thought maybe it was important. He pointed to the stick, and I thanked him with the most girlish voice I could muster and then I laughed because I didn’t know how else to react. The end.
Here is a point I write to sometimes: I want people to read my writing and think, “Holy crap, I didn’t know she had it in her.” Sometimes I have a real screw you, you didn’t believe in me attitude when I’m working. I don’t even know who I’m saying that to anymore. I have plenty of people who believe in me. But I still think I’m saying it to someone and I still think it’s driving me and who am I to argue with something that makes me get my work done.
While I waited at the coffee shop for my morning nectar to arrive, I studied the daily horoscope clipped to the back of the espresso machine. A woman walked up behind me and squinted at it. She was blonde, elegant, thin, and smiling. “It’s my birthday today so I guess I should read it,” she said. “But I’m so old I’m going blind.” I skimmed it, and skipped the part about chaos, and just read her the last line about going with the flow. “Uh oh,” she said. “But you know the other day a cab driver told me to just live life. So that’s what I’m going to do.” I wished her a happy birthday, and she left, off to live life.
I am pretty sure there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who take life advice from horoscopes and cab drivers, and those who don’t. Guess which one I am.
I walked the dog to the bank this morning, early, around 7 AM. I had a check to deposit. As we approached the vestibule, a homeless man poked his head out and started asking people for cigarettes. Someone cursed him. I glanced inside. The man had set up camp. There was a dirty towel on the floor. A duffel bag, a backpack, a sketchbook. The man was twitching and talking to himself. He could have been on drugs, he could have been mentally ill. He paced around inside the vestibule. He lit a cigarette.
I thought deeply about whether or not it was wise to enter an enclosed space with this gentleman, and then access my bank account within that space. I also thought about whether or not it was wise to bring my dog into that space, because I worried my dog would bark at him. The man could just as easily be kind and damaged as he was threatening, and then how would it make him feel to have this dog barking at him?
Inside, he paced. Outside, I paced. Finally I tied up my dog outside, and went inside. He promptly folded up his towel. There was a drawing of a dragonfly in the sketchbook. I went to the ATM. He went outside and squatted in front of my dog and began to pet him. I deposited one check, looked back, and the dog was placid in front of him. I finished my transaction. I exited the building as he entered and he smiled at me, and he was clear-eyed. I thought maybe he had another half hour before someone would kick him out on the street.
Molly met me at the dog park on Saturday morning. We hadn’t seen each other since December. We talked about what we always talk about: Our families, our love lives, and our hustle to make our work and keep our finances in order. Every time I talk to Molly she’s gotten another grant or award. Molly is amazing.
We’d been sitting there for about a half an hour when an old man approached us and asked if he could sit next to us. We made room for him on the bench, which is low and strangely shaped, the back part of it angling backward, away from the body. He flopped awkwardly down, and only half of him made it onto the bench, and he couldn’t pull the rest of himself up onto it. He said he had Parkinson’s. I tried to help him from one side, but he needed to be pushed, not pulled. I got up, and I pushed him, and he strained himself, and somehow between the two of us, we got him on the bench.
He told me he was embarrassed. I said, “Don’t be.” I felt that I should talk to him, try to make him feel comfortable. I would charm him and then he would forget about everything that happened. We would move on together and forge a new memory. After touching a stranger, you should talk, right?
He turned out to be kind of a dick, though. He questioned what Molly and I did for a living. He did not believe what we did were “real jobs.” How could we possibly make our living being creative? Surely someone was supporting us. (The unsaid someone would be a man or our parents.) He quoted Nietzsche to us at one point. Like I give a fuck about Nietzsche.
Eventually I grew tired of him. I tried not to let my annoyance show, but then again, maybe I didn’t try at all. He said, “You’re one of those independent women aren’t you? You don’t need anyone.” All around us, dogs pissed on the ground, marking their territory.
“Lazar: In hindsight, I must have been looking for a way to write about Jewishness that somehow managed to minimize irony and self-deprecation. The root was Meyer Lansky and his persisting desire to live in Israel. What about Israel suggested to him a life of dignity, meaning, and value, when he was in no way a pious Jew? That gave me a way to write about any secular Jew’s desire for dignity, meaning, value, etc. By writing about the “bad” man’s search for meaning, I was able to make that search matter in a more dramatic way (for me, at least) than if I had written about a “good” person’s search.
Rumpus: I call myself a bad Jew all the time, although I do not think I am the worst Jew.