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Reading Recap: Dave Eggers, “Zeitoun”

zeitounVermont Avenue’s Skylight Books overflowed last night with Los Angeles literati eager to catch a glimpse of indie lit ambassador Dave Eggers. If you had arrived on time, you’d have gotten your copy of his latest nonfiction book, Zeitoun, about one family’s incredible survival of Hurricane Katrina, and a place in line to get it signed, albeit one hundredth-plus, but probably not a sightline to the author. Eggers claimed the event was his first for the book and spent a lot of time summarizing the Zeitouns’ history, punctuated with a couple of passages, stopping just short enough that fans were left in suspense and eager to crack it open that night when they got home.

In the Q&A after the reading, Eggers talked about the three-year research process that involved multiple trips to visit the Zeitouns in New Orleans and their extended family in Syria.

“I’m trained as a journalist,” Eggers said. He wrote news articles and features for papers and weeklies “all through my twenties. That was my background. I actually came to fiction very late.”
Eggers’ last book project was also based on a remarkable individual’s life, but What Is the What, chronicling Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng’s journey from Sudan to America was marketed as a novel.

“I was writing that as nonfiction,” Eggers explained, “but we kept running into things we couldn’t document, couldn’t prove. There wasn’t enough to make it compelling. We chose to call it a novel even though every event in it took place. We just gave ourselves permission to paint a scene, to include the novelistic details that are necessary.”

Zeitoun’s story, on the other hand, was just three years old and extensively documented by the media. If Zeitoun remembered a downed orange helicopter, Eggers could locate the TV footage or newspaper photo to confirm it.

With Away We Go, his first foray into screenwriting, in theaters now, Eggers is returning to his roots with another upcoming project. The next edition of his quarterly literary journal McSweeney’s will take the form of a newspaper.

“Because I come from newspapers, I still believe in the printed word,” he said. “I want to try to reinvigorate the medium and remind everyone how beautiful it can be.”

Hitting the street on November 6—literally, in Eggers’ hometown of San Francisco, where it will be sold at newsstands and bodegas and by sidewalk hawkers—the fifteen-by-22-inch full-color broadsheet thicker than the New York Times will resurrect old forms of investigative journalism and comics.

Eggers’ staff brainstormed for months “what papers can do universally well. We’re hoping it will remind readers what papers can do.”

Despite his forays into nonfiction, Eggers assured the crowd, “I’m still writing fiction.” Next up is a novel adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Eggers also adapted the children’s classic into a screenplay directed by Spike Jonze.

But even on his finished projects, Eggers’ work isn’t done. He’s notoriously added forty pages to the second edition of his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, later removing this addendum plus another thirty pages. Six editions later, he recommends the shortest version.

“That’s the beauty of self-publishing,” he said, adding that even as he read passages from Zeitoun at Skylight, “I’m making changes in my head for the next edition. I’ve never been someone who’s been able to say, ‘That’s it! I’m done!’”

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Reading Recap: Attica Locke, “Black Water Rising”

black_water_risingAlmost as thrilling as getting your own book published (I can imagine) is seeing the publication of a friend’s. Last night I got to experience what every writers group participant hopes to one day—seeing the same words that had been developed and honed in a workshop finally appear between hard covers.

Years ago I participated in a writers group with Attica Locke. She was working on a thriller set in 1981 about a struggling Houston lawyer whose rescue of a drowning woman ensnares him in a murder investigation that reaches the highest echelons of the city’s corporate society. I’ve often recalled that manuscript over the years, admiring its melding of literary and genre elements. Today, I hold Black Water Rising in my hands.

Locke wasn’t always a fiction writer. She’s worked in both film and television for more than a decade, writing scripts for most of the major studios. None of those projects, though, ever got made, and, she said last night at a reading at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, going into her 30s, she felt “bored with my work to the point of depression.”

Film is a “cumbersome art form,” she said, consisting of “meetings about practicing art, not actually practicing art.” Writing a book “seemed so accessible. It just seemed possible in the way that movies don’t.”

Perhaps she was always destined to write prose: one executive told her, “There are too many words in here.”

Locke “thought I could find something in a book that I couldn’t anywhere else.”

She found inspiration for her first novel close to home: her protagonist, Jay Porter, is based on her own father. “I have to be careful,” she said. “My father is running for mayor. But, yes, facts of [Jay’s] life line up with facts in my father’s life.”

Jay’s psyche, though, “is much closer to my own. I’m a child of the Reagan ’80s. Jay’s racial paranoia is mine—I’m the first in my family to live in a racially integrated society. My parents didn’t equip their children to deal with what they fought for. I’m a product of that tension.”

Locke is working on her second book, but it’s not a follow-up to Black Water Rising. “I like stories that drop in at the biggest moments of a character’s life,” she said. “Something big would have to happen” to Jay for her to return to his story.

For Locke, writing her first book was life-changing. “It felt like do or die,” she said. “I was so burnt out and so unhappy. Other than being a parent, it was the single most transformative experience of my life.”

For an interview with Locke, click here.

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Reading Recap: Glen David Gold, “Sunnyside”

sunnysideJust two degrees separate author Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) from Charlie Chaplin, the subject of his follow-up novel Sunnyside: Gold’s great aunt Ingrid lived next door to the iconic silent film star in Switzerland. (Although it’s true that Chaplin was known to read portions of his autobiography to friends and neighbors and seek their feedback, Gold admits that what he calls “story yeast” has exaggerated his relative’s involvement over the years to the point where now his family claims, “Oh, yeah, she wrote Chaplin’s autobiography!”)

Last night at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, the Los Angeles native read for about twenty minutes from an early passage in Sunnyside. Inspired by a true incident in 1916, the chapter describes a mass hysteria in which Chaplin was claimed to have been spotted in eight hundred places all over the globe at the same time.

It turns out this really happened. With a character as famous as Chaplin, “it would be a disservice to really mess with it,” Gold said. “I tried to color within the lines pretty closely.”

The book follows Chaplin—he’s the “spine” of the story—but it’s also about his effect on the world. Consequently, copious amounts of research were necessary not only into Gold’s leading man, but into characters such as General Edmund Ironside, who once strangled a man with one hand—the single scrap of information that the author returned with after an overnight trip to a London archive.

It’s a good thing Gold loves “research for research’s own sake. There’s something about picking up beads of knowledge. Sometimes something really sticks with you.”

Too often, however, Gold would find that while he thought he was researching, he was really just goofing off. “I have no discipline whatsoever,” he said. His wife, novelist Alice Sebold, set up a schedule for him. When the work was really rigorous, he was working as many as twelve hours a day. This was when he forced himself to unplug from the Internet, for reasons explained on his guest blog for Vroman’s Bookstore.

“The whole thing about writing is discovery,” he said. “You have to go for the mystery, the thing that’s the question mark.”

The biggest mistake Gold made was trying to outline the novel in advance—a move that contributed to the eight-year delay between books. “It was hell because it was like taking your embryo, putting lipstick and high heels on it, and putting it on a street corner,” he said, attributing the colorful analogy to his wife.

He did know what the last scene was, but not how it fit in with the rest of the story. And he knew the last question—is there meaning in the universe, or is it just chaos?—but not how it would work. This is a technique he picked up from John Irving, who advised to at a certain point write the end of the book, “a target to throw an arrow at.”

Based on what Gold read last night, that arrow flies straight and true.

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“Every Life Is Worthy of a Novel”

At a special event curated by novelist Mona Simpson at the Hammer Museum in Westwood last week, Michael Cunningham (Specimen Days, The Hours, A Home at the End of the World) gave the audience an early holiday present: a reading from his as-yet unpublished, untitled next novel. The passage was enthralling, and he cut it off expertly right before a revelation that “changes everything.”

Cunningham has been away from novel writing for the past couple of years, co-scripting the adaptation of Evening with the book’s author Susan Minot, developing a television series, and writing a biopic of Dusty Springfield to star Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in the big-screen version of The Hours.

Cunningham doesn’t see his work in showbiz as slumming, however.

“I love the movies. And TV,” he said, citing especially HBO’s critically lauded The Wire. “I never for a second thought of writing for the movies or television as a lesser form. Would I rather watch a great movie than read a perfectly adequate first novel? Yes. One of the big things that’s happening in aesthetics is in the blurring of boundaries,” with poets or novelists working in other forms.

This malleability has marked Cunningham’s fiction writing as well, as Simpson noted each of his novels is different from his others.

“As a writer, I want to feel a little bit incompetent, a little bit out of my depth,” he said. Putative work resides in the gap between what an artist wants to do and what he or she is able to do. The minute I start to feel competent, the minute I start to feel that I know what I’m doing, I know I’m in trouble.”

Where Cunningham is consistently competent, however (to understate it hugely), is, as one audience member noted, in finding beauty in the everyday.

“Any writer learns over time what his or her natural scope and scale is, where your eye goes in a scene,” he said. “And I do look for something largish in something that appears ordinary.”

He borrowed this technique from the authors who have inspired his own writing: Woolf (The Hours), Walt Whitman (Specimen Days), and James Joyce, whose work makes an appearance in the passage he read that night. Before Woolf and Joyce especially, he said, “Literature had been mostly about heroics and large events. Okay, most of us aren’t involved in events so obviously cataclysmic. Most of us spend a lot of time driving down roads.”

The modernists asked themselves, “What if we as writers were to insist that every life is an epic-sized life? What if we as writers were to stop looking around for lives worthy as a novel but argue that every life is worthy of a novel?” The result of this line of thought, Cunningham said, was “two of the greatest book of the last hundred years”—Mrs. Dalloway, epitomized in The Hours, and Ulysses.

“It’s great and hugely important to look out at the universe and see so far that we can see billions of years into the past. It’s equally important and not all that different to split the atom and look into the subatomic world. Ultimately it’s the same thing.”

Fiction’s dramatization of everyday lives, Cunningham ultimately argued, is its greatest strength.

“Maybe the way in which fiction is most indispensable, the reason we still need it, is it’s the best medium to communicate what it’s like to be someone other than yourself. There is nothing to take the place of fiction’s ability to put you in the mind and body of another person. It’s a subtle and hugely political act because the more we understand what it’s like to be someone else, the harder it is to amend the Constitution [to ban same-sex marriage] or bomb the fuck out of a country. This is fiction’s most essential contribution. Without fiction, I don’t know where we’d go for that.”

Caught in the ’Net

“For the first time, the Pulitzer Prizes will accept submissions from online-only news outlets.”

“What to do if you find your copyrighted material on a website.”

“What’s black and white and green all over?” An eco-friendly font.

Gift ideas for “the bard on your holiday shopping list.”

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Glowing Bags of Poison

“Hey, look, Ma! I’m a writer!”

This is how Ron Carlson, author of four novels (most recently Five Skies) and four collections of short stories, characterized the writing in his first book, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, last night at a literary salon moderated by Janet Fitch (Paint It Black, White Oleander). The event, hosted by local press Red Hen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles’s Westwood neighborhood, brought together Carlson, the director of the fiction MFA program at Irvine; first-time novelist Charles Bock (Beautiful Children); and short story writer Greg Sanders to read and discuss literature in front of an audience of mostly writing students.

Now, Carlson said, “I don’t want the sentence to call attention to itself, but it needs to carry its own weight.” The same goes for the narrative. “I want the story to have a heartbeat more than call attention to itself. … Over the course of writing short stories, everything moved down in the body—out of the head and down,” he said, putting a hand over his heart.

Writing four complete drafts of his first novel over the course of ten years, Bock, a graduate of Bennington’s MFA program, suggested this is a lesson he’s already learned.

“Early on I was an angry writer,” he admitted. “I did very much feel I was taking on the culture.” A culture that, in Beautiful Children, includes strippers, pornographers and a gang of street kids. “But when I looked at the people the book was about, these people at the side of the road, that wasn’t getting through. You have to care about every single person. They’re your babies. Even if you have to send them out into the night to eat poison glowing cows”—a reference to a hilarious parable Carlson read earlier in the evening—”you have to care about them every step of the way.”

It was this realization that helped Bock to stick with the project for a decade. “Part of it was to see what frightened me,” he said. “And to move forward, to tell it. That sees you through when draft three doesn’t work—whether you put it in a drawer and say, ‘That’s it. I’m a shoe salesman,’ or you see if you can figure it out.

“Some things can’t be fixed, but I didn’t have much else going on. I don’t have a rich life.”

Paraphrasing Nike, “Just fucking do it,” was his final piece of advice.

Caught in the ’Net

I could have used these writing targets oh, say, five years ago.

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