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A Novel

Written by Gayle BrandeisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gayle Brandeis

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: February 12, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-50446-3
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Flan Parker has always had an inquisitive mind, searching for what’s hidden below the surface and behind the door. Her curious nature and enthusiastic probing have translated into a thriving resale business in the university housing complex where she lives with her husband and two young children. Flan’s venture helps pay the bills while her husband works on his dissertation, work that lately seems to involve more loafing on the sofa watching soap operas than reading or writing. The secret of her enterprising success: unique and everyday treasures bought from the auctions of forgotten and abandoned storage units.

When Flan secures the winning bid on a box filled only with an address and a note bearing the word “yes,” she sets out to discover the source of this mysterious message and its meaning. Armed with a well-worn copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that she turns to for guidance and solace, Flan becomes determined to find the “yes” in her own life. This search inward only strengthens her desire to unearth the hidden stories of those around her–in particular, her burqa-clad Afghan neighbor. Flan’s interest in this intriguing and secretive woman, however, comes at a formidable price for Flan and her family.

Set during the year following the September 11 attacks, Self Storage explores the raw insecurities of a changed society. With lush writing, great humor, and a genuine heart, Gayle Brandeis takes a peek into the souls of a woman and a community–and reveals that it is not our differences that drive us apart but our willful concealment of the qualities that connect us.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Part One

"Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!


I celebrate myself

Sorry. I just can’t do it.

Walt Whitman starts “Song of Myself,” the greatest poem in the world, with those three words. I wish I could follow his lead, start the same way, but I can’t. The words sound tinny in my own voice—arrogant, wrong. Maybe someday I’ll be able to say “I celebrate myself” freely, even joyfully, like he does, but I’m not there yet.

Whitman’s book saved my life. Leaves of Grass saved my ass. If it wasn’t for that book, I might be in jail right now. If it wasn’t for that book, I wouldn’t be writing this one.

I have to admit, it’s a bit intimidating to write under Whitman’s long and illustrious shadow. I suppose I could try to picture him in his underwear. It worked for Marcia Brady when she gave her big speech (not that Whitman was in the audience at Westdale High). I have an advantage: I’ve already seen Whitman naked. A series of photos by Thomas Eakins from the early 1880s—“Old man, seven photographs.” Whitman’s name isn’t mentioned, but I can tell it’s him. Others have thought so, too. He was pretty cute for a sixty-something-year-old. I love how his belly pouches out just a little, the way my daughter Nori’s does over her diaper. I love the way he cocks one hip to the side—a little peevish, a little saucy. I love seeing him stripped bare.

I guess I have to strip myself bare here. I have to unload all that happened these last few months. If I write it down, there’s a chance I’ll begin to understand it.


One image keeps coming back to me. An image of Sodaba, my neighbor from Afghanistan, hunched inside the storage locker. The front of her burqa was flipped up off her face; it hung down the back of her head like a nun’s habit. She was turned slightly away from me; tendrils of hair were plastered against the side of her neck. The wide plane of her left cheek was slick with sweat. That was the first time, the only time, I saw any part of her face. I never learned the true shape of her lips or nose, the full scope of her eyes—just that wet expanse of skin before she realized I was there and pulled the veil back down. The skin of her cheek looked so smooth. It gives me chills to think about it now.

But that’s not where I want to start.

I want to go back to my normal life, before her life collided with mine. Back when I had more simple things to worry about—my kids’ lunches, my husband’s TV addiction, the auctions I attended each week.

The auctions. Of course. I could celebrate my self-storage auctions. That is something I think I could do.

This is how the auctions work.

You get one minute with a flashlight.

The auctioneer breaks open the padlock with a blowtorch or bolt cutters, and you get one minute to stand in the doorway of the storage locker. One minute to peer inside and decide whether the wrinkled black trash bags, the taped cardboard boxes, the bicycle parts and beach chairs and afghans that reveal themselves in your mote-filled path of light, are worth your while.

You learn to trust your intuition. You learn to listen to that ping inside your gut that tells you to bid. You learn to look for the subtle clues—the shopping bags with a Beverly Hills address, the boxes marked fragile with a sharp black marker. You learn to avoid certain smells—mold and mildew are no good; you’ll probably end up with a bunch of old sweatshirts and socks that someone put in the wash but never bothered to dry properly, just left them to rot in plastic sacks. You develop a sixth sense for the smell of jewelry, the smell of electronics. TVs emit a hot, charged smell, even if they haven’t been turned on for years, while diamonds smell blue, like sweet cold water.

You try to remember that you’re bidding on someone else’s misfortune. Someone who couldn’t pay for their storage locker, who let it lapse into lien. You try to remember that you are benefiting from someone’s sadness, someone’s failure, that the money you’ll gain from this merchandise will come from someone else’s loss. You try to remember that there was a self who first put these items in storage, a self who one day planned to take them all back, a self who will miss these photo albums and brittle swim fins and frames filled with dried beans. But you push this all aside when the auctioneer says “Bidding will start at one dollar,” and your own self muscles its way to the front, and your own hand flies into the air.


I lifted my chin. Just the slightest tick. A few centimeters at the most. A small tilt of the head, a concurrent yet subtle lift of the brow. I wanted to see how small I could make my movement and still be noticed by the auctioneer. The auctioneer standing on a step stool in his Hawaiian print golf shirt and cargo shorts, the auctioneer with his Ray-Bans and poofy hair, saying “TendoIheartententengoingoncegoingtwice . . . ,” his mouth looking too solid to go so fast. Then he said “Sold to Flan Parker for ten dollars,” and I felt like I had been granted superpowers.

Early in my auction career, I waved both arms to bid. Soon I shifted to one flailing arm. Then one calm arm. Then a single hand. Then a finger. Then the chin. I thought maybe I would get to the point where the auctioneer would notice my pupils dilating, and that would be that.

I fanned myself with the auction list and gave my two-year-old daughter a sip of water. I wished I had been granted superpowers to keep us cool. The year 2002 was one of the hottest on record so far. Even the palm trees seemed to be drooping in the hundred-degree early-June weather. Everything at EZ Self Storage seemed to be drooping, not necessarily because of the intense Riverside heat. It was an older self-storage complex, and the owners hadn’t done much to spruce it up over the years. Like most self-storage establishments, it consisted of row upon row of low, rectangular buildings fronted with a series of garage doors. The walls were all unpainted cinder block, gray and crumbly-looking; the roll-up doors had probably been bright yellow at some point, but now were dinged and hammered into a dull, bruised shade. The asphalt on the ground was cracked and pitted, shot through with weeds. I wondered who would want to store their stuff in such a decrepit place.

I looked into the unit I had won. I couldn’t wait to find out what was inside one particular JCPenney’s bag. The plastic sack looked blocky, like it was full of transistor radios. Possibly bricks of gold.

Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine.

“Good work,” said Mr. Chen-the-elder, a dapper junk-shop owner and fellow bidder. He patted me on the shoulder and ruffled Nori’s white-blond hair. The auctioneer folded up his step stool and put his clipboard under one arm, his red three-foot-long bolt cutters under the other. The crowd of eight or so of us rambled after him to the next garage door, the last unit of the day, a ten-by-fifteen, most likely out of my league. I just went for the “Flan lots,” as my auction cronies had dubbed them. No big-ticket items, just modest assortments of boxes and bags, things I could easily carry to the car myself while pushing Nori’s stroller. I was usually able to get them for the opening bid. Most of the bidders weren’t interested in the small stuff—they wanted the furniture, the appliances, the big-money pieces; most of them were dealers with pawnshops or stalls in antiques stores. My yard sales were small potatoes. The lots full of antiques could start at over $100 and could go to several hundred, cash only, but they were still a steal. People generally earned back at least twice what they paid in auction once they sold the goods; sometimes they earned back ten times the amount. Sometimes more.

The lot on the block was full of instruments—a drum kit with amendz written on the front of the bass drum in electrical tape, a couple of guitars plastered with stickers, a stand-up bass, a saxophone, all set up like the band had just left to get their requisite groupie blow jobs. A few beer bottles and a couple of towels were scattered over the concrete floor. The storage unit had obviously been a rehearsal space. How could a band let all their instruments go into lien? Maybe everyone died in a Central American bus crash; maybe their wives had nagged them into giving up their rock ’n’ roll dreams.

Nori struggled to get out of her stroller. I had augmented the buckle with a complicated knotting of twine to thwart her escape attempts. Nori had become quite the little Houdini lately; it was getting harder to restrain her.

“Tigars, Mama!” She pointed to the guitars. I tried to hush her; the auction was about to start. I wasn’t very successful—she screamed at the injustice of being trapped in her small canvas seat. The auctioneer raised his speeding voice.

Mr. Chen-the-younger, a slightly shabbier version of his father, lifted a finger when the bidding reached $250. Yolanda Garcia gave her bouffant-fluffed head a quick tilt to the right when it got to $375. Soon after, Norman, the crusty old swap-meet man, shouted “Right here” over Nori’s cries of protest, lifting both of his veiny hands.

“Sold to Norman for $425,” the auctioneer bellowed. “Good going, everyone.” He shot Nori a slightly reproachful glance. “I’ll meet y’all in the office for payment.”

It was an easy transaction for me—ten bucks for at least a dozen bags and boxes. I couldn’t wait to bring them home and crack them open.


From the Hardcover edition.
Gayle Brandeis|Author Q&A

About Gayle Brandeis

Gayle Brandeis - Self Storage
Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write. She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and two children.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Gayle Brandeis

Laraine Herring, author of Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal from Adolescent Father Loss and Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice interviewed Gayle Brandeis about the novel Self Storage. Gayle and Laraine attended an MFA program together at the Antioch University in Los Angeles and have remained close friends and writing companions.

Laraine Herring: You’ve said that fiction allows us to slip into others’ skins—to see through different eyes. How is the process of creating that other perspective different for the writer than for the reader?

Gayle Brandeis: Readers have the luxury of jumping directly into the story, slipping it on like a magic jacket. The writer, on the other hand, has to make sure that the stitching is correct, that the cloth has integrity, and that it won’t come apart at the seams. It’s a huge responsibility, writing about another culture—you want it to ring true, to have an authentic foundation. It takes a lot of humility and chutzpah all at once. Then again, all fiction does. You probably remember my agony over writing The Book of
Dead Birds
when we were at Antioch. I struggled so much with my right to write Ava’s story,my right as a white woman to deign to explore the life of a woman whose mother was Korean and whose father was African-American. Ava wouldn’t leave me alone, though—she wouldn’t let me walk away from the story,and I had to build up my courage and disappear into the work as fully as I could. And ultimately I found that I had much more in common with Ava than I realized. In Self Storage, I hoped to convey our common humanity through Sodaba, even though it can quite literally be veiled by our differences on the surface. I wanted to get down to the beating human heart we all share.

LH:What lessons has your work taught you?

GB: My writing is constantly teaching me lessons. One lesson I keep relearning is the importance of getting out of my own way. Each story has its own rhythm, its own flow, and if I try to control its unfolding, it will often end up stilted and unsatisfying. Writing has taught me to trust the moment, trust the creative process. It has taught me to not take myself too seriously (but at the same time, to take the work itself seriously.) It has taught me to be open—to not judge characters (including real ones!). To be
receptive to inspiration wherever it wants to come from. To not be afraid of the dark. To take risks. To pay attention to life. To have fun!

LH: After a novel is finished, are you ever surprised to discover what you’re really writing about? Is that different from what you thought you were writing about? I’m thinking not so much about particular plot points, but about deeper emotional truths of a writing project.

GB: Oh my goodness, yes. And the truth is often much smaller and more intimate than I lead myself to believe. Sometimes I’m convinced that a book is about some big concept, but it turns out to be more about a quiet moment between two characters. Self Storage started out almost as a thesis about the self—I wanted to explore what the self means in the context of our culture today. Later I realized that the book was much more about the characters’ desire for and fear of connection. It operated on a much more human scale than I had imagined. I love how stories find their way into their own truest heart, almost in spite of the author’s intention; my writing is definitely smarter than I am!

LH: Our mentor at Antioch, Alma Villanueva, stressed the importance of dreams in fiction writing.Have dreams ever played a role in your writing process?

GB: A fever dream changed the whole course of The Book of Dead Birds; I had been writing in the third person because it felt safer. I could be an observer, not claim to live inside Ava’s skin. Then I came down with strep throat and had intense fever dreams in which I became Ava.When the fever broke, I realized Ava needed to tell the story in her own voice. I’m not sure I would have made that shift without that dream; it was the shift that brought the book to life for me. Writing dreams aren’t always that productive, though. Once I dreamed I was in a movie theater. On the screen was a close-up of a giant book I had never seen before. I read each page, and then a giant hand would turn to the next page. I read the whole novel that way, completely engrossed. I woke up thinking that all I had to do was transcribe the dream, and the novel on the screen would be mine. Unfortunately, by the time I sat down to write, I couldn’t remember a single word of it.

LH: Let’s shift to Self Storage now. I think there’s something unusual about a culture that has to rent space to store “stuff ” that doesn’t fit at home. Do you think the plethora of self-storage units across the country is indicative of something larger at work in the fabric of America?

GB: In 2003,when I was on a book tour for The Book of Dead Birds, I met a woman on an airplane who told me she supplemented her income by going to self-storage auctions and selling her winnings at yard sales. Though “self storage” signs had piqued my interest for years, I had never heard of self-storage auctions before. I actually wasn’t supposed to be on that plane to begin with: I took an earlier flight to be home with my family; my mother-in-law’s husband, Jack, had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. He died a few days later. I dedicated the book to his memory—I wouldn’t have known about self-storage auctions if I hadn’t changed flights. Of course, I’d rather have Jack in the world than the book. The ubiquity of self-storage establishments does speak volumes about our consumer culture. I imagine it’s indicative of a deeper hunger—we keep trying to fill a hole inside ourselves with stuff, but those calories are empty.We buy more and more until we don’t have room for it, but we’re still hungry, so we keep buying, as if the next purchase is what will make us whole.

LH: Did you attend any auctions at self-storage centers? If so, what prevailing feelings did you notice at the auctions?

GB: I attended a couple of auctions as I was writing the book, and then a couple more before the book came out so I could pick up some boxes to open at readings. I really wanted to share that moment of discovery with the audience. I invited anyone who asked a question to come choose something from the box to bring home, and people were very excited to come claim their treasure. The auctions are quite congenial, sometimes even raucous—a real sense of community develops among the bidders. There is
such anticipation when the metal door is lifted—what gold mine or trash heap waits inside? At the same time, a sense of sadness permeates the whole enterprise. The lots up for auction hold the evidence, the remnants of people’s lives—people who most likely have fallen upon hard times—and it can make the bidders feel like vultures circling a carcass. I started to feel a bit sick about what I was doing at my readings. I had to stop bringing boxes to my events. I’ve held onto the items that seem most personally
significant—homemade Christmas ornaments, photos of children, et cetera—and I’m going to try to track down the original owners so I can return them.

LH: Flan’s husband, Shae, spends most of the novel on the couch watching soap operas. Flan’s frustration with him is an underlying tension throughout the novel. How did you, as the author, find empathy with his character?

GB: I think we all have a couch-potato side to ourselves, a side that just wants to give in to entropy. I remember when you and I shared a beach house during our Antioch residencies, our friend Peggy once called me a house cat because of how I would lounge around and read and not necessarily be “doing” things all the time. So I can relate in a way to Shae (although I think that Shae’s lounging comes from fear, from feeling stuck, not from a desire to luxuriate). I also wanted to give Shae a chance to redeem himself, to get up off the couch—and thank goodness he did!

LH: The heat seemed almost to be a character in the novel. You live in the desert in California. I spent twenty-five years in the Phoenix desert. It’s hard to really describe the heat, the pervasive, unrelenting sunlight and dryness that exists most of the year in these regions. As you were writing, did you consciously think about how weather can oppress?

GB: I realized recently that I keep writing about heat. The Book of Dead Birds takes place in the summer in the desert; Self Storage takes place in the summer in the (irrigated) desert.My new novel takes place during a particularly hot summer in Chicago. I wasn’t thinking consciously of how oppressive the summer heat can be in Riverside, but I’m sure it seeped in subconsciously as I wrote Self Storage. Perhaps my next novel should take place in the snow!

LH: Self Storage strikes me in many ways as a commentary on the changing social structure of America, and I think you use Whitman in part as an anchor throughout the text to pull us back to the struggle between individual identity and community identity. I think about how many people live behind gates, or behind block walls, especially here in the west—how many people don’t know their neighbors and don’t know how to create community.Were you thinking in any way about the end of the “rugged individual” archetype in American society in favor of a more sustainable, community-based lifestyle? Is America waking up?

GB: I very much like this interpretation. I think our cultural focus on the individual and self-reliance can be inspiring in terms of people wanting to find their own voice and trust their own vision, but it can also be very isolating. Such a focus makes it easy for us to forget how interconnected we are; we can forget to reach out to a larger community that can nourish us. I set Self Storage in family student housing at the University of California at Riverside because I loved the sense of community when my family lived there in the early 1990s.We would have communal meals and share child care, just like in the book; no one had much money, but everyone had plenty to give. I first encountered Whitman in my junior year of high school. I was very shy and cautious at the time, but there was a part of me that longed for the freedom of Whitman’s long breathless lines. I loved how he connected with absolutely everything, how open he was to experience, to the world. He gave me a sense of possibility that blew my mind. I do think America is waking up.We’re realizing that we need to take more responsibility for our planet—reduce our carbon
footprints, eat locally when possible, recycle, et cetera. It’s very cool to see these issues enter mainstream public awareness and discourse. People are asking more questions now—of the government and the media—which is such a relief after so many years of fear-induced public silence.More of us are beginning to realize that things need to change, and—as Gandhi said—that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. I hope Self Storage reminds people that through tolerance and compassion, we can begin to achieve real change.

Praise

Praise

Advance praise for Self Storage

“A novel of passion and consequence, identity and accountability. I love the narrator, her children, her wild ride, and this truly American story of getting mad and getting wise.”
–Barbara Kingsolver

“If you doubt that a deadly serious thread–also somehow all but laugh-out-loud funny–can connect the pillage of metal storage units, the fierce devotion of family, the rape of human sensibility, and the pursuit of art, read Self Storage by Gayle Brandeis. Or better yet, just take the hand of its greathearted and deeply bewildered heroine, Flan, and hang on for the ride.”
–Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of Cage of Stars

“The personal and the political collide in Gayle Brandeis’s complex and witty new Self Storage. [The] novel illuminates the way we define our loved ones, our neighbors, and ourselves.”
–Amanda Eyre Ward, author of How to be Lost

“Gayle Brandeis’s marvelous new novel is a rare thing: a story of love, marriage, and friendship that stirs our most tender emotions without manipulation or bathos.”
–Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

“Beautifully written and warmed with wit, this is a bold, brave meditation on both the family and the whole family of man.”
–Caroline Leavitt, author of Girls in Trouble

“Deftly plotted and engagingly told, Gayle Brandeis’s new novel is a suspenseful, thought-provoking, and inspiring exploration of what it means to be a sensitive and thoughtful human being living in George W. Bush’s America.”
–Adam Langer, author of Crossing California


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How does the excerpt from the Marge Piercy poem that serves as the epigraph to the novel set the stage for what follows? Why do you think the author chose this particular passage?

2. At self-storage auctions, Flan bids on objects that used to belong to other people, and, in many cases, were important to those people. How do objects inform our sense of identity? Do you believe some part of our selves is stored within the ephemera of our lives?

3. Do you have any experience with self-storage facilities? Did the novel change your impression of secondhand goods?

4. When Flan first meets Julia, she fantasizes about kissing her. Later, she has other fantasies about sexual encounters involving women and men with whom she comes into contact. Are these feelings the result of Flan’s frustration with her relationship with Shae, or is something else happening?

5. Is Flan right to help Sodaba? Can you imagine other ways of helping her than the ways Flan chooses? What would you do in Flan’s position?

6. How does education—both formal and otherwise—affect the characters in Self Storage?

7. Flan and her family experience communal living of a sort in their family student housing neighborhood. How do their living arrangements impact the events of the novel? Have you ever experienced a similar sense of community?

8. Are Shae and Flan responsible parents? Do they become better parents over the course of the story?

9. What role does motherhood play in the novel? Who are the strongest maternal figures? The most surprising?

10. Were you familiar with the work of Walt Whitman before reading Self Storage? If so, did the excerpts here—and the role Whitman plays in Flan’s life—change your impression of him? If you were not familiar with Whitman’s poetry, are you inclined to read more of it now?

11. When Flan finds a piece of paper with “yes” written on it inside a box, it leads her on a quest to discover the source of “yes” in her life. Is her quest successful? What is the source of “yes” in your own life? Have you ever thought of the word in this way?

12. Self Storage takes place in the year following the 9/11 attacks. How has America changed since that day? How does the novel reflect that change?

13. When Flan decides to sell her copy of Leaves of Grass, do you think that means that she has moved beyond her need for Whitman, that she is free of him? If not, how might Whitman continue to play a role in Flan’s life?

14. At the end of the novel, Flan fears that she is about to be arrested and perhaps “disappeared” by the government for her role in spiriting Sodaba to safety. Are her fears justified, or does running away represent an opportunity for Flan to change her life? Do you view this ending as hopeful, or ominous?


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