Our friend James McBride shares a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut that he delivered at the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Foundation Gala

October 3, 2011

Not long before he died, I did a reading with the late Kurt Vonnegut at a church in Manhattan called St. Barts. Before the event, Kurt and I stood in the church courtyard while Kurt smoked. He smoked filterless Lucky Strikes. I asked him, "Filterless cigarettes? They're terrible for you. Why smoke em?" He inhaled one deeply and said, "More value."

Suddenly the rectory door opened and his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, popped her head out. She said, "Kurt! Hurry up! Come inside. The people are waiting. They've got coffee and doughnuts for you."

Kurt, his face covered in cigarette smoke, took a deep drag of his filterless cigarette and said, "But dear, I just brushed my teeth."

We went inside, and during the Q&A, a woman said, "Why don't you two speak out against the Iraq war? You're writers! Why aren't you doing something to let people know what's going on?"
Kurt said, "Miss we don't have the power you think we have. They affirmation you want, we cannot deliver to people who aren't listening."

And therein lies the problem. We live in a society so wired everyone can write a book about nothing. My plumber is writing a book. My marriage therapist is writing a book. My ex-wife is writing a book, presumably about our marriage therapist. Newt Gingrich wrote a novel and he's a short story. Bill Clinton wrote a biography and he's a novel. Barack Obama -- all book writers. In fact, I can't think of anyone offhand who is not either writing a book or who does not believe their life is worthy of one. With all these people writing books, there's no one left to read them. So I think fewer people should write books, and more people should spend time thinking.

What all this blogging and the internet chit chat has done, is given us the chance to talk more about nothing. Just because some rant on television or radio sells toothpaste and sneakers and beer does not mean the person saying it is smart or a valid political movement. They're just salesmen with different titles, selling a different kind of drug, the drug of obedience, the drug of compulsory behavior disguised as patriotism or religion. But I remember Kurt Vonnegut. His kindness. His talent. A veteran and former P.O.W. who swore off all wars forever, because he saw its destructiveness. His widow Jill was one of the first women photographers to work in Vietnam.

The PEN Faulkner organization supports the NEW Kurt Vonneguts and the NEW Jill Krementzes in its school program. That's why I'm wearing this tux. And that's why my fellow writers and I gather nervously before you like sheep, in a town that, at times, seems to be is living proof that the world is run by gangsters. You are a few of the good. Thank you for keeping up the good. God is watching. He will bless you for your good, and in the end, right all wrongs in this world. That's the real Writing On The Wall. It's also the prayer on my lips every night.

James McBride

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Sara Gruen on the experience that inspired her to write APE HOUSE.

October 27, 2010

Right before I went on tour for Water for Elephants, my mother sent me an email about a place in Des Moines, Iowa, that was studying language acquisition and cognition in great apes. I had been fascinated by human-ape discourse ever since I first heard about Koko the gorilla (which was longer ago than I care to admit) so I spent close to a day poking around the Great Ape Trust's Web site. I was doubly fascinated--not only with the work they're doing, but also by the fact that there was an entire species of great ape I had never heard of. Although I had no idea what I was getting into, I was hooked...
To continue reading, visit Sara's site: http://http://saragruen.com/2010/07/a-letter-from-sara-2/

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Sara Gruen on the experience that inspired her to write APE HOUSE.

October 27, 2010

Right before I went on tour for Water for Elephants, my mother sent me an email about a place in Des Moines, Iowa, that was studying language acquisition and cognition in great apes. I had been fascinated by human-ape discourse ever since I first heard about Koko the gorilla (which was longer ago than I care to admit) so I spent close to a day poking around the Great Ape Trust's Web site. I was doubly fascinated--not only with the work they're doing, but also by the fact that there was an entire species of great ape I had never heard of. Although I had no idea what I was getting into, I was hooked...
To continue reading, visit Sara's site: http://http://saragruen.com/2010/07/a-letter-from-sara-2/

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Patricia Morrisroe, author of WIDE AWAKE on the up-side of being up-all-night.

April 26, 2010

More Than Enough Hours in Every Day

My mother-in-law, Dorothy, is showing me the red spiral notebook that's almost as precious to her as my husband's baby pictures. Inside, in Dorothy's distinctive script, is a list of every book she has read since 2007. For some people waking up in the middle of the night is a terrible curse; unable to drift back to sleep, they're confronted with a big gaping hole that represents hours of lost time. For my mother-in-law, that time is a gift. At 87, she is acquiring the education she never had by working her way through the canon of great literature. She has now read close to 100 books, including every single novel by Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James and Thomas Mann.

My mother-in-law discusses her newfound passion with the enthusiasm of a young girl, although she can also be a very tough critic...To continue reading please visit: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/theres-more-than-enough-hours-in-every-day/?scp=1&sq=morrisroe&st=cse

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Rebecca Stott, author of THE CORAL THIEF explains how the novel ambushed her.

August 18, 2009

In my other life as a historian, I was deep in the research for a history book - a fascinating and utterly absorbing history of evolutionary ideas before Darwin. But it had turned out to be largely a story about men. I began to wonder, staring out of the library window, about what it would have taken for a female evolutionist to emerge in, say, the late eighteenth century. It occurred to me that to be taken seriously and to be able to get papers published, such a woman would probably have to cross-dress in order to pass as a man. And that wasn't so unusual - I knew of cross-dressing women in Paris in the late eighteenth century.
Suddenly my cross-dressing philosopher-thief, Lucienne Bernard, was up and about, making her presence felt in the library. From my long, oak table in the Rare Books Room, I began to hear her talking through a hot night on the back of a stage coach heading towards Paris. So I guess that scene with which The Coral Thief opens - Daniel's night ambush on the road to Paris and his passionate desire to know how this woman who steals from him had come to be was also my ambush and my desire. I sitll had so much to find out - about her scientific convictions, about how she'd survived the French Revolution, and how she'd become a thief.
In Paris in 1815, when the city was full of spoils of war, what did it mean to steal something that had already been stolen? I wrote to the curator of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, housed in the building Lucienne Bernard needed to break into, and explained that I needed to know how someone might have broken into the building in 1815. She was delighted. She invited me to Paris and gave over an entire day to help me work all of that out. She produced old maps and charts and prints which showed me where doors and trap doors would have been in the older building. Soon the curator and I could have done the job ourselves.
Then I had to find Paris - a little bit of time-travelling was needed for that. And for time travel I always go to the Rare Books Room of the university library where I work. To describe Paris in 1815 - its smells, sounds, senses - I assembled journals, diaries, old prints, books, guidebooks, letters - hundreds of them. I found a guidebook to Paris for 1815 that tells you where to get hats mended, where to buy the best cut flowers or get your hair cut or a shave, how to hire a valet or a carriage, as well as a review of all the theatres and marionette theatres and wax museums. It made it all so immediate and vivid. At one point I had memorized so much that I felt I could walk down the Rue Vivienne, for instance, and point out all the shops on either side. I still dream about it.
In Paris in 1815 everyone was spying on everyone else, and the intellectuals in Paris were particularly closely watched. It heightened the sense of danger and eroticized it too. Paris was an enormous web of intrigues and surveillance in 1815, and my dangerously corrupt police chief, Jagot (based on a real police chief in Paris in 1815), was the spider sitting at the centre of that web. I got to be very fond of Jagot. He seemed to infiltrate himself into so many scenes. I like that about writing - you think you control the characters, but some of them just misbehave and throw their weight around. Fin, Daniel's sidekick and fellow student, was the same. Ungovernable. As an author you have to learn to be tolerant.
My hero, Daniel Connor, was based on parts of many people but probably most of all on my own young self. Like most young people away from home for the first time, I was terribly drawn to intimacy and danger and new knowledge but I was also rather scared to take risks. Daniel's story is a story of sexual and intellectual transformation. It is a coming-of-age story. When the book begins he is ambitious, proper and a little bit self-regarding. He is utterly transformed by his encounter with Lucienne and the thieves. He will never be the same again. But then, no-one will. Nothing stays the same. Everything and everybody is casting off its skin in this book, metamorphosing into something new, even Paris itself. My job as author, once the characters were up and moving, was to keep up with them. Daniel says in the book that when he finally realised he had fallen amongst thieves, it hadn't felt like a falling, but a flight. I watched him learn to fly.

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THE BLUE NOTEBOOK author James Levine visits Mumbai's infamous Street of Cages

July 30, 2009

The Street of Cages
In Mumbai the Sparrows -- children of prostitutes -- are being rescued and given an education, thanks to a remarkable project
While in India, investigating child labour, I walked down the famed Street of Cages in Mumbai. This is one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country, described by campaigners as "21st-century slaves". Before leaving the street I saw a 15-year-old girl leaning against a bright blue steel gate. She wore a pink sari with a rainbow trim; she was writing in a blue notebook. Having worked in numerous underserved areas, the mantra "education is the answer" is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.
The image of the girl in the pink sari haunted me so that I was compelled to write The Blue Notebook, a work of fiction based on fieldworkers' reports and observation of the conditions that such children survive. I named the girl Batuk. With The Blue Notebook published, I repeatedly returned to India to examine how positive action could be deployed in Batuk's name. It was not until a week ago that I discovered how.
A barrow, stacked with rolls of carpet, stops. The man pulling it, 5ft 10in and thin, rolls his shoulders and stretches his back. The bus behind him has now stopped, too. The driver honks and an argument follows -- the words can just be heard over the car horns, traffic and general throng of Mumbai. The carpet man and the bus eventually move. As the bus inches forward, I see the entrance to an alleyway.
Fifty yards down the alleyway I walk into an unnumbered building. I step over a sleeping dog, on to a floor carpeted with compacted moist rubbish. I duck under a wooden lintel. The stench stops me in my tracks. My feet are wet. I step forward, turn left and face a long corridor barely lit by a single bulb; there are two dead rats next to a small pile of rubbish. Equally spaced down the corridor are pale-blue steel doors with numbers -- they remind me of storage closets. The door to No 4c is open and I step inside the 10ft x 16ft cell.

To continue, please visit: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/destinations/india/article6676174.ece

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BIG MACHINE author, Victor LaValle, discusses black nationalism in the age of Obama.

July 16, 2009

Beyond the Skin Trade
How does black nationalism stay relevant in the age of Barack Obama?
(from Bookforum, April/May 2009)


When I was a boy, I prayed for straight hair. You have to understand, I grew up on heavy metal. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to start. Then Anthrax and Exodus, Megadeth and Metallica. My friends and I gathered in living rooms and basements and empty lots and banged our heads to "Damage, Inc." and "I Am the Law." If you nearly snapped your neck, you were doing something right. We were a pretty wild mix: a Persian kid, a Korean, a couple of white guys, and me--the only one with a tight, curly Afro. The rest had straight hair, grown long, and when they thrashed to the music, their hair bounced and whipped like it was supposed to. I'd watch them pull off this casual magic and wish I'd been so blessed. But I was black, and there was no enchantment in that. It actually felt like a kind of curse. I'm so embarrassed to admit any of this.
Now, heavy metal may be to blame for any number of ills (my tinnitus, for instance), but I can't really say it spawned my self-loathing. Instead, let's head upstairs, to my family's apartment in Flushing, Queens. We won't meet the guilty party there, just another link in a long chain.
My mom grew up in East Africa. Uganda. A member of a tribe called the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in the country. Daughter of a proud and courageous mother and father. They worked to eject the British colonial powers; they were one small part of the Pan-African movement. My grandfather helped oust the British and set up schools in rural Uganda. He made sure his own kids were educated. For college, my mother packed off to Canada. In Kitchener-Waterloo, she was denied housing, mistreated and maligned in school and on the street. Finally, she moved to America to escape the racism. That poor woman--she didn't understand what was happening to her. What had already happened. Somewhere, flying over the Atlantic Ocean maybe, she'd stopped being a Muganda, a Ugandan, or even African. She had become black.
The original American slaves weren't black, either. They were Ashanti and Ewe and Fanti, among others. The slaves' path to Christianity has been told and retold as the great conversion story of Africans in the Americas. But that's not the only conversion story. There's the legal conversion: from humans being into chattel. And there's the cultural conversion: A wealth of ethnicities became one black race. This must have shocked those Africans as much as it did my mother.
To continue, please visit: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/016_01/3516

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Miriam Gershow explains how her close bond with her older sister inspired her to write about the complicated relationship between two siblings.

February 12, 2009

When I think of childhood, I think of my older sister. She and I existed in a particular sort of family, the kind where parents were nearby but in their own orbit of adult preoccupations: art museums and Cornish hens and PBS and New York Times Sunday magazine. Rebecca, even though she was three years older, still revolved in the same cartoon-watching, sprinkler-jumping, stuffed-animal-collecting orbit as I did. And so she was my playmate, my confidante, and my mentor--calm to my spastic, mellow to my weepy, unflappable to my very, very easily flapped.

My earliest memories are of camping outside Rebecca's bedroom door, where I waged a nightly campaign of tears until my parents relented and let me sleep in her bed; she and I running around the gym of our elementary school, shirtless, flapping our arms as we played the nonsensical diversion we'd dubbed The Chicken Game; me trying to keep up with her on her bike as I trailed behind on my loud, loping Big Wheels. Growing up, when I wanted to know what to wear, what magazines to read, what music to like-when I wanted to know how the world worked and how I was supposed to work within it-I looked to her.

So the idea of siblings has always been of interest to me, and in particular the power older siblings hold over younger ones. I have been fascinated by what my friend Luanne calls "The Little Sister Syndrome." Luanne, like me, grew up with an older sister who was, roughly, the sun and moon to her. Now Luanne calls me days after her sister has made a cutting remark ("I've decided to spend Christmas with my husband and kids from now on. No extended family"), still bruised from it. This, according to Luanne, is a classic case of Little Sister Syndrome. No matter how old or accomplished or out from under our older siblings' sway we consider ourselves, they still wield a unique ability to influence and penetrate, rendering us into earlier versions of ourselves: young and spazzy, suddenly unsure of the ground beneath us.

When I decided to explore these tensions in my first novel, I had little interest in writing a thinly veiled story about Rebecca and me. We lacked the requisite conflict. Decades later, we still live seven minutes from each other. She still tops of the list of people I call when I have news: grad school, engagement, book deal. She's still the person I spend birthdays and holidays with, though the guest list now also includes her husband and mine, and her two young daughters.

As one of my favorite authors, Charles Baxter, wrote, "All happy couples are alike, it's the unhappy ones who create the stories."

I needed to invent some unhappy siblings.

And one day, a single scene came to me: a teenaged girl is traveling through her neighborhood, distributing posters of her missing older brother to local businesses. She gets into an argument with a convenience store clerk who refuses to hang the poster. That was it. My sole idea. So I wrote the scene. From there, The Local News was born.

I only knew two things when I began. One, I knew that Lydia Pasternak, the narrator, did not get along with Danny, her missing older brother. Two, I knew the outcome of Danny's disappearance. Everything else I discovered in the two years of writing the book. What fascinated me the most-more than the search for Danny, or the tumult of Lydia's high school life, or the rapidly crumbling Pasternak family, all of which I loved writing about in their own right-was the jumble of love/hate feelings Lydia had toward Danny, and the power Danny had over Lydia, and the way that power was complicated and deepened and muddied and intensified by the fact that he was suddenly missing. Their relationship turned out to be neither as simple nor as bleak as I had initially imagined, their shared orbit far more nuanced and multi-layered than my early ideas of it.

Rebecca was one of the earliest readers of the finished book. I was well into a successful writing career by then. I'd landed my first book deal. I'd won awards and fellowships. I knew that I was a good writer, that this was a good book. But still I waited in the anxious way little sisters do, to find out what my big sister thought.

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Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls, writes about how transient relationships can be in China's migrant community.

October 13, 2008

Sometimes it is the failed stories that stay with you. The first time I went to Dongguan, the Chinese factory city where my book is set, I met two young women, Tian Yongxia and Zhang Dali. They were sixteen years old, from a Henan farming village, and only twenty days out from home. They complained that their factory paid badly; they wanted better jobs with more overtime. In passing, they mentioned that they had stayed up until 1:30 in the morning gossiping with roommates--my first glimpse that factory life, for all its hardships, might be an adventure too.

By the time we sat down in a nearby noodle shop and ordered Cokes, I had decided I would write about them. I would document their first year in the city, as they switched jobs and made friends and saved money and went on dates. Maybe I would even write a book.

Suddenly the girls spotted someone they knew on the street outside and took off in a hurry; they were so new to the city that they didn't know their dormitory phone number and did not have mobile phone numbers to give me. We agreed to meet two weeks later, in the same public square where we had first met. I flew down from Beijing at the appointed time and waited for two hours, but they never came. I had no way of finding them again.

In the four years during which I researched and wrote Factory Girls, whenever I went to Dongguan, I scrutinized the faces of the young women on the street, hoping to find Yongxia and Dali again. If an unfamiliar number showed up on my mobile phone, I thought immediately of them. And whenever I met someone new, I always asked for multiple ways to contact them--mobile phones, factory phones, the numbers of friends and relatives, and even the names of their farming villages. Eventually I found two young women, Min and Chunming, who became the book's main characters. Even now that the book is done, I continue to call them regularly. I know how quickly I will lose them if I stop calling.

To lose someone for all time, I discovered, is the central experience of factory life. Min lost her mobile phone--and with it, any way to find her two best friends or her boyfriend. Chunming lost touch with countless acquaintances over thirteen years in the city; during that time, she had switched residences seventeen times. Occasionally there were stories of people found. A young man struck up a conversation at a bus stop with Chunming and then mentioned her to a young woman he knew; the woman turned out to be a good friend with whom Chunming had lost contact eight years before, and so they were reunited. "This is the meaning of fate," Chunming told me.

The fear of losing people lent urgency to my reporting--I came to realize you could just as easily lose a place, even one as vivid and specific as Dongguan. To spend time in China today is to know that this historical moment will not last. People will not be forever experiencing the city for the first time; owning a mobile phone, dating someone from another province, and living among strangers will lose their novelty. I suppose this same conviction drives many writers: I must tell this story, or it will be lost for good.

These days I find myself thinking of all the people I left out of the book. They come before me, bright-hued and unchanged from the day we met. There is Li Wenfang, the young woman with a "stifling" job as an elevator operator, who dreamed of attending beauty school; when I called the number she had given me, she had already left. And Ding Xia, the prostitute who vowed to save another one hundred thousand yuan and quit the karaoke clubs forever--did she? And the two girls I met on a Dongguan street who could not have been more than twelve or thirteen, with no evident source of income. "We are just in the city to have fun, not to work. We want to have fun all day long," one of the girls said, her too-insistent young voice telling me that what she said could not be true.

Seven months after my first visit to Dongguan, my phone rang. "Guess who I am?"

I named several migrant women I had recently met.

"This is Yongxia," she said, sounding peeved that I had not guessed. "We met on the square, remember?"

She was now working at the Aigao electronics factory, which paid better than her old job. "We work until eleven or twelve every night and never have a day off," Yongxia told me, cheerful and matter-of-fact. "But we have three days off for the National Day holiday. Will you be around?"

I told her I wouldn't but that I hoped to see her on my next trip to Dongguan. "Is there a number where I can reach you?" I asked.

"No."

"Do you ever have a day off so we could meet?"

"No."

Finally I told her that we should keep in touch and hung up. I had found Yongxia, only to lose her again.

How was she doing? Was she happy? And what had possessed her to keep my number and to phone me, after all this time? I'll never know, because she never called again.

Leslie T. Chang is the author of Factory Girls.

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Julie Grau spoke at the New York Public Library's tribute to Nuala O'Faolain on June 24, 2008. These are her remarks.

July 21, 2008

Some time in 1997, Michael Jacobs, who was then working as an agent for New Island Books in Dublin, handed me a big fat volume that was the collected opinion columns of a woman who wrote for the Irish Times. Michael told me not to bother reading the columns, but to read the author's introduction to the work. In spite of myself--because of course we editors are trained to uncover the reasons not to publish a book as quickly as possible--I was reeled in by the crystalline, unapologetic voice of this "accidental memoir." I soon found that I loved it, in fact, and wanted to publish it, but was beaten back by certain executive opinions who didn't feel quite as bullish as I did about the book's prospects. That I ceded to those views and didn't put up a howling fight is a great regret of mine, but when Are You Somebody? went to # 1 on the New York Times bestseller list it also gave me the greatest "I told you so" of my career.

"Go get that writer!" I was told by the same folks who'd passed on the chance at publishing Nuala the first time around. But I wasn't one to stand on ceremony, so go after her I did with the full force of the house behind me. And, after reading 100 pages of her first attempt at fiction and an intense, dazzling meeting in which it was never quite clear which one of us was doing the auditioning, I did in fact acquire Nuala O'Faolain's next work for our list. Shortly after, Nuala called me at my office.

"Are you well, Julie?" she asked.

"Yes, I'm fine, thanks," I said.

"No--I mean, are you well, are you a healthy person?" she said.

"Sure...yes...I'm fine, I'm healthy," I replied.

"Well, good! Because every day I want you to come to your office and ask yourself, 'What can I do for Nuala today?'"

I might have thought that was a peculiar little joke for a while, but soon it became clear to me that that was no joke. Ours was not to be a typical editorial relationship. At first, Nuala tested me--tested my devotion to her, my loyalty, my ability to fight on her behalf in publishing meetings. She also tested my breaking point--when I'd push back and let her know she'd crossed a line. In the early days, I didn't have the temerity to go up against Nuala very often and mostly, really, I wanted to prove myself worthy of her, I wanted to show her I could keep pace with her brilliance and stamina and fortitude. So I'd read the prodigious output that came out of her printer--draft after draft after draft. She was tireless and un-self-conscious and had the work ethic of a newspaper columnist who was used to generating several hundred words a day. Except with Nuala it could be more like thousands of words each day. She was a dogged, miraculous reviser too. Often I'd see work that was very rough survive several drafts--and it would be maddening, because I'd felt she'd chosen to ignore my diligent comments--when suddenly in its fifth or sixth incarnation, in due course, these same pages would be breathtakingly transformed into gold.

So in those early years, she would test me and I'd strive to pass each test--because could there be a better feeling for a youngish editor than the approbation of a writer you admired with your whole heart, a person who prevailed over a childhood of terrific adversity and deprivation through sheer intellectual grit to become an academic and a journalist, an opinion-maker, a feminist, a memoirist, a novelist--a somebody--whose life and survival was a singular testament to the transformative power of literature?

She'd ask me to meet her for lunch, for dinner, to discuss her work. She'd never want to hear about other writers, other books--when I was with her, she was my one and only. She'd make somewhat nasty, casually mean comments--maybe I was dim, but I was never sure if it was her intention to be so cutting toward me or if it was a vestige of her childhood. I only knew I didn't want to find myself in her crosshairs.

In no time the boundaries blurred--she'd ask me to come shopping with her to help her choose clothes for a book tour--and tell me to follow her into the dressing room so we could keep talking. I lost my discomfort at such moments surprisingly quickly--which is more about Nuala's famous candor and her ability to disarm those around her than it is about my unflappability. One Valentine's Day, before Nuala met John, she and I shared a candlelit dinner at an Italian restaurant full to capacity with lovers, where, in very close proximity, we watched Tatum O'Neal open a jewelry box from her hopeful suitor and clocked her disappointment with its contents. Of course Nuala's play-by-play made us both weep from stifled laughter.

She asked me to come to the west of Ireland to work with her on the final draft of My Dream of You. She didn't really need me there, we could have spoken on the phone or written each other emails, but I recognized that she was throwing down a gauntlet. How far would I go for her? Could she make me fly across the Atlantic, leave friends and family behind and devote five days to her exclusively? Of course she could. I got on a plane to Shannon and entered Nuala's beloved Barrtra--I understood that by making this trip I was meeting her particular needs, but I also realized that on some level I was being rewarded for all the tests I'd previously passed. We walked the misty, lush country lanes down to the Atlantic Ocean, with Molly and Roger, two wonderful dogs, beside us, and we'd talk about the novel. She pointed out the seals' sleek heads bobbing in the waves, the lichen that was disappearing from the rocks. She educated me about traveler culture. She drove me to see the marvelous grottoes and shrines tucked into the green hills of County Clare. We took steam baths in the spa at Lisdoonvarna. I read the pages as they came out of her printer, and we'd talk endlessly about the work. We took every meal together. She marvelled aloud that I wasn't getting on her nerves.

On our last day together, we went into a dress shop in Cork. Luckily there was only space for one in the fitting room. But the sales ladies recognized her instantly and swarmed around her, making a fuss, asking for an autograph, and I had a glimpse of the folk hero status she enjoyed at home. My memories of that trip, however it came about, are cherished ones--all the more so now.

I went on to publish two more of Nuala's books--a second volume of her memoirs and an unconventional biography of a turn-of-the-century Irish émigré who became a mythically glamorous international criminal. In between I killed a novel she stubbornly tried to bring to life more than once. Writing that letter, knowing how it would cut Nuala to the quick, was perhaps the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my professional life. It was also, though, a measure of how I'd grown, under her inimitable tutelage.

Years later, when she was very sick, she wrote to me in an email: "I've talked to you very often recently, especially at night. Mostly laughing at this or that. Other people might not realise it, but I loved every minute of knowing you, including when I'd let you/me down." I was sitting at my desk when I read those lines and burst into tears. I was instantly choked with regret. How could I have failed to appreciate fully every moment with her? Why did I let time go by when we weren't closely in touch? Did I not understand that she was utterly, uniquely gifted as a human being--difficult, oh yes, she could be very difficult and complicated and demanding, but she was so worth knowing. What a privilege it was to be her editor and publisher, to have passed the tests, to have been able to make her laugh, and to have a held a place in her memories of happy times--as she has in mine.


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Liza Monroy, author of Mexican High shares her experience writing autobiographical fiction.

June 23, 2008

I had set out to write a memoir. What happened?

I was on the phone with my friend, the Mexican artist Ricardo Gonzalez, the other day, catching up after almost a year. We’d met while attending the same international high school in Mexico City and both ended up in New York for our careers. He’d seen that my novel, Mexican High, was about to be published.

“So how much of it is true?” he asked.

“It’s our high school,” I said. “But it’s not.”

“Oh,” he said, sounding confused.

“There’s one anecdote in there I know you’d know,” I said, wanting to navigate into more concrete territory. “Remember that thing about the guy who was on acid at a party and disappeared, then jumped the fence at the Chapultepec Zoo into the hyena cage?”

Oh, yeah,” he said. “Everyone talked about that. It was crazy.”

This is why I didn’t write a memoir. My memoir of high school in Mexico City would have gone something like the conversation with Rick: “ So there was this guy, I don’t remember his name, but rumor had it he accidentally jumped into a hyena pit . . . Crazy.”

With fiction, on the other hand . . .

I spent my four years of high school attending the international prep school in Mexico City that the school in Mexican High is loosely based on. Ever since I left, I was fascinated with the setting, the people I’d met, and the freedoms teenagers had there. The student council sponsored parties with open-bar beer, rum, vodka, and tequila, as well as weeknight “cocteles”—cocktail parties—where they rented out nightclubs—again, with open bars. No one would drive drunk, because everyone had drivers and being drunk was frowned upon as déclassé, anyway. My peers’ parents were of a small, elite group that ran the country. My sophomore year, somebody’s father was actually assassinated, and he was pulled out of class to be rushed to his dying father’s bedside in the hospital. My mother went on some dates with the head of a prison where major drug lords were held. He was eventually assassinated, too. Kids took acid and streaked through graveyards or dove into the cages of wild carnivores.

The whole place and events that had happened felt rife for memoir, which, in our reality-obsessed age, seems to be a more popular form than the novel. So, at twenty-five, eight years after graduating from that high school and moving back to the States, I embarked on the project. The opening scene was my thirteen-year-old self arriving in Mexico City and feeling overwhelmed by the chaos and pollution. I’d come from Rome, and was devastated to not have been able to stay there for high school.

I got seventy-five pages in, then I was stumped. The memoir wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out why. I started again, with a different opening, then again. I began doubting whether or not I could even write a book. If I couldn’t write about this, the most heightened time in my young life, how could I ever write anything?

Before law school applications were due, I realized the fundamental flaw in my years-in-the-making memoir-writing plan. A memoir must centralize on the “I,” the most important character, the narrator. I, as a teenager, simply wasn’t the right narrator for the story. I’d come to Mexico City, witnessed a fascinating world, and left. I had no personal connection to the place, and the fact that teenagers had wild lives, easy access to drugs and alcohol, and drivers and bodyguards didn’t give enough of a reason to write my memoir. I didn’t suffer from addictions or sexual trauma (the rape scene in the book was born entirely from imagination). Nor did I have too dramatic a childhood, or come to some kind of grand epiphany in Mexico other than believing freedom was healthy for teenagers, which struck me as a more pedestrian realization, not the stuff of literature. Simply put, the story I wanted to tell wasn’t my story. So then, whose was it?

One late summer night, riding a ferry to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, a vibrant and diverse beach town off the coast of Long Island where I was spending a weekend, I remembered a necklace my mother had bought when we were in Mexico. It was made of charms called milagros, the Spanish word for miracles and surprises, which, as I wrote in the book, “were said to bring luck for whatever they represented. An arm stood for strength, a leg for travel.” What if Milagro were a person, a character, a girl? Slowly, the story came. She could move to Mexico with her diplomat mother (like me). Her mother could have sold Milagro necklaces on the beach when she was young (unlike my mother). Milagro could search for her father, a Mexican politician whose identity her mother had always kept secret (completely fictional storyline). Since it wasn’t a memoir, I no longer had to be married to, or at least in a very serious relationship with, solely true events and people. The birth of these three characters gave the story a backbone, and also turned Mexican High into a bona fide novel, barely recognizable as based anywhere near the true events of my life.

Suddenly, time—and pages—were flying.

Still, I sometimes feel like The Girl Who Cried Fiction. Many of the stories-within-the-story of things Milagro says, does, and experiences range from “precisely what happened” to “deeply rooted in fact” to “loosely based on truth.” There is an emotional authenticity to the story of Milagro’s missing father, as I also have an estranged parent. The story told in Chapter Ten, “When You Steal from Yourself,” about faking a robbery in one’s own home to get out of getting in trouble, is something that I, embarrassingly enough, actually did in high school. (The chapter’s title comes from the song “Slide” by the band Luna, which I was obsessed with in high school.) Also true is the peyote trip in the desert, rendered in Chapter Nine, “Real de Catorce,” though I went with different people. Compressing the timeline of the narrative from four years to one streamlined the story and improved the pacing, and also resolved the dilemma of what I would do with all those long, languid, and quite eventless summer vacations.

By switching to the mode of loosely autobiographical fiction, I got to have my milagros and wear them, too.

Liza Monroy is the author of Mexican High

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Rebecca Stott describes the origins of Ghostwalk

June 18, 2008

The Beginnings of Ghostwalk

In November 2003, while I was doing readings and publicity for my book on Darwin’s early years (Darwin and the Barnacle, Faber, 2003) I bought a copy of a new biography of Newton in order to compare Newton’s formative years with Darwin’s.

The book left me with a series of questions about Newton’s fellowship at Trinity, which he was awarded in 1667, five years after arriving at Cambridge as a young student: How had he been given a fellowship without particularly impressing himself on the college authorities? Had someone acted as a kind of patron? Unlike Darwin, who readily acknowledged his dependency on networks of fellow scientists in his early years, Newton appeared to be a legendary recluse. I found this difficult to believe – surely it was impossible for any scientist, then or now, not to be dependent on, and entangled in, networks of knowledge and power?

I checked a second biography for further information about the award of the fellowship which told me that Newton was “lucky” because there were extra vacancies that year in the fellowships, brought about by two deaths of fellows falling down stairs apparently drunk, the expulsion of another fellow for insanity, and the death of a fourth fellow from pneumonia caught from a night spent in a field apparently drunk. Was Newton really that lucky, I wondered. I marked the deaths with asterisks and a question mark in the book.

With some spare time in the University Library, I looked up the sources for these mysterious deaths in Trinity college, and found them in a diary written by an Alderman (city councellor) living in Cambridge in these years. He described the deaths in ways that suggested they were regarded as suspicious. There was a further Trinity death in those years between 1662 and 1667 – the death by drowning of a young boy in the River Cam, also regarded with apparent suspicion by the Alderman.

Then came the “what if.” What if Newton had been involved in some way in those deaths? What would that mean? It was an idle and speculative question at this stage. I also wondered what it might be like to be a historian who found evidence about those deaths and a possible link to Newton – what if you had a lead like that and reached the end of what was known, reached the end of the archives? What if you were really obsessed with knowing something but it was unknowable by conventional means? What would you do next?

A few days later I was supposed to fly to Spain to join a friend there for a few days. At 5 a.m. I cycled to Cambridge station only to be told that there would be no trains to Stansted airport for several hours. Just as I was about to go home, a mysterious man in a dark coat suggested that we share a taxi to the airport – a 45-minute ride. I agreed. As the taxi drove away I mentioned to him that I had read that there was a meteor storm going on up in the sky, which we unfortunately could not see because of thick fog. He was, he said, a meteorologist who was returning to Germany after a conference in Cambridge and yes, meteor showers were common in November, but meteor storms were rare and often extraordinary, even life-changing, to watch. He described the meteor storm as a series of tiny lines coming out from a still center in all directions, like wind blowing dandelion seeds from the seed head. Then he fell silent.

The image he described of the complex movements of the meteor storm worked as a kind of catalyst for all the ideas germinating in my mind over the previous couple of weeks: entanglement, love, the limits of knowledge, the tensions between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, obsession, the dangers of certain kinds of knowledge…

Between that conversation and arriving in Stansted I conceived the plan for the entire novel – or rather it came to me complete as if out of the meteor storm: a woman in red drowned in a river, the psychic, the neuroscientist, the double murder plot, the love story, the fatal entanglements.

When I arrived at the airport I wrote it all down on a scrap of paper which I later glued into a bigger notebook. The finished novel, which took two years to complete, is almost exactly as it was conceived in that taxi ride during that invisible meteor storm.

Rebecca Stott is the author of The Ghostwalk, now available in paperback.

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Petite Anglaise author Catherine Sanderson explains how an online diary helped her reclaim her identity and reinvent herself.

April 29, 2008

Petite Anglaise and me

With the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s unsurprising that the personal blog I began writing just after my daughter’s first birthday came to play such a central role in my life.

Since her birth, and my subsequent return to work, four months later, my sense of self had been all but lost. Rushing from home to nanny’s to work and back again, I played the roles of mother and secretary from dawn until dusk, caring for my daughter single-handedly while my partner became increasingly wedded to his career. The independent, adventurous Catherine I used to be had become submerged under the weight of my routine, and rarely came up for air.

When I looked in a mirror, the post-partum body reflected back at me didn’t even look like my own. Who was this harried-looking, overweight, carelessly dressed woman?

Writing an anonymous blog and building a small but fiercely loyal community of readers began as a substitute for the social life I’d reluctantly put on hold. During the long evenings home alone, while my partner worked and my daughter slept, blogging filled a void. Virtual friendships I struck up online helped quench my thirst for adult human contact.

But my blog became more than just a hobby that enabled me to reach out across the Internet to communicate with like-minded souls. The time I devoted daily to writing was utterly selfish me-time: the ultimate guilty pleasure. I fell in love with my new hobby. It gave me a creative outlet, a place to flex my new muscles.

My self-confidence grew in proportion to my swelling readership, and I began to draw a real sense of pride from my online achievements. I wasn’t just a mother or a secretary any longer. I was a blogger too—a writer with a readership of thousands.

And by writing, not as Catherine but as Petite Anglaise, I’d unwittingly set about the process of reinventing myself. Petite Anglaise was a subtle blend of aspiration and nostalgia: she was the person I wanted to be, the person I wanted to write into existence, but also, in many ways, the embodiment of a Catherine I’d lost sight of since I’d become a working mother.

I’ve been writing as Petite Anglaise for nearly four years now and we’ve been on a roller-coaster ride together, she and I. Writing the blog precipitated the demise of a long- foundering relationship, introduced the prospect of new love into my life, and, when my employer discovered Petite Anglaise and unceremoniously fired me, brought about an unexpected career change. Nowadays writing is no longer a hobby or a guilty pleasure—it’s my bread and butter.

People often ask me how I differ from my online alter ego. It’s an increasingly difficult question to answer, because Petite Anglaise is an integral part of me. The character traits which tend to come to the fore when I write Petite Anglaise are not necessarily those you would see if you met me in the flesh. But all are part of the same whole—we are one and the same.

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Saher Alam explains how The Age of Innocence inspired her debut novel, The Groom to Have Been.

March 1, 2008

Is it too embarrassing to admit that the inspiration for my novel, The Groom to Have Been, began with a crush on Daniel Day-Lewis? Urbane and self-possessed, with a permanently suppressed smile on his lips, he played Newland Archer to Michelle Pfeiffer’s twinkling and breathless Countess Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Once I managed to get past the crush and return to the novel itself, I found that I identified wholly with Newland’s ambivalence about the demands of his society and even with his cowardly inability to break free and act on his desires.

But all this was years before I embarked on writing a novel myself, before I even considered being a writer. This was in college, when my mother’s anxiety about who I would marry—that is, how she would find me the person I would marry—could be heard in every phone call home. I was twenty, I was twenty-one, I was twenty-two (the age at which she’d settled down), I was unattached, unmoored, and uncooperative. Off campus, in the dark movie theater, I thought: Well, Ammi, if you can find me the Indian Muslim Daniel Day-Lewis, I’ll drop—in a (skipped) heartbeat—all my silly principles about needing to choose the person I want to spend my life with.

Or maybe it didn’t happen quite that way. Maybe inspiration began with the beautiful, twisting, who-will-marry-whom plots of the Austen novels I’d read before then and loved? Or perhaps it began with the inexorably doomed marital arrangements in George Eliot’s Middlemarch? Being the child of immigrants who’d imported the custom of arranged marriage (along with a strong sense of the kind of people they had once been), I found the central problems of all these classic novels—should a person marry for love or for the myriad compelling reasons having to do with loyalty to the people one comes from?—strangely contemporary and urgent. But maybe the nature of inspiration is such that it’s hard to pin down.

Even so, about three years into the writing of my novel I heard the echoes between the story I was hoping to tell and Wharton’s classic tale: A man of the world, who is rather smugly engaged to the best candidate among his mother’s list of potential brides, encounters a woman who makes him realize that he’s made a mistake. In both Newland Archer’s and my main character, Nasr’s, cases, the mistake is almost a joke on himself, on his own pretensions of being a person who, while belonging to a privileged social set, has long cultivated a disdain for the narrow-mindedness of its members.

In much of her work, Wharton portrays the shifting social and private relations in the New York society of the late 1800s, and, taken together, her novels capture a moment in the evolution of intimacy that was in such flux that the difference between one’s parents’ marriage prospects and one’s own felt like the difference between epochs.

My novel began as an investigation of a similarly transitional period in which arranged marriages and love marriages are both available to my generation. I assumed that the norm of our adopted culture would eventually win out among my peers, but arranged marriage continues to be a viable, rational, and even attractive option to many people I know. So my central question was: Why would a person who’s grown up in the West, who’s taken pride in the seamlessness of his own assimilation and is free to marry for love, consent to an arranged marriage? What possible allure could such a tradition hold for him? To complicate matters, the story is set in the fall and winter of 2001, when the attacks of September 11th came to signal that we (here the larger we, of Americans and Muslims) had entered another sort of age—had shed an innocence that had previously defined our actions.

I hope to write one day a novel as exacting and astute as The Age of Innocence. In the meantime, I’m thankful to have spent some time in its long, inspiring shadow.

Saher Alam is the author of The Groom to Have Been, coming July ’08.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle, describes the interior journey of the memoirist.

February 1, 2008

I was twenty-eight when I started writing my book, and I think like a lot of young authors I had only a vague sense of what I wanted to do. I started off trying my hand at capturing my dad, the biggest, greatest, most complicated, most frustrating human being I’d ever come across. He had an idea that I should write a book that basically chronicled his life, juxtaposing it with my own. The book was supposed to revolve around the intersection of race and manhood.

This was the story I ultimately sold, but it became clear to a lot of folks that there was a book within this book, one that came from my perspective, and used my father as an antagonist. Back then, memoir still seemed like a big word to me, an act committed by BIG writers—or by some guy who’d spent a year trying to place a ten-minute call to everyone in the Manhattan phone book and decided to write about it.

Of course I didn’t see just how difficult it was until I got into it. I’m a hard-headed dude, and so I set out, in my arrogance, to commit the greatest possible act of literature that I was capable of—to tell an amazing story and trick it out with flourishes of beautiful language and style. In other words, my expectations didn’t include gleaning what we used to call Knowledge of Self. In fact, what I quickly discovered was that if I were going to write anything approximating even a merely adequate book, I’d have to understand myself on a deeper level. Even with that in mind, however, I probably came closer to plausible explanations than exact truth.

Writing The Beautiful Struggle was like being an actor and playing my younger self in a low-budget movie. I had to get to some sort of core reason for why I, for instance, repeatedly took school as a joke, or why in the summer of ‘88, I couldn’t stop playing Public Enemy. Answers to these kinds of questions gave me deeper insight into myself. I know that I was negotiating a violent world as best I could. I know that I was totally overwhelmed by own dumb imagination. I know that I, like a lot of boys, had no idea how to communicate with the opposite sex.

But what I now know, more than anything, is that were I president, I would give everyone a small advance, and then tell them to go off and write a memoir. Even if we don’t get close to finding out who we are, we at least arrive at an invented explanation, a reasonable facsimile of the truth. That’s better than nothing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, coming May '08.

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Suze Orman, author of Women & Money, makes up a financial To Do list to start the year off right.

January 1, 2008

January is such a dangerous month. Dangerously deceptive, is what I mean. You have twelve months of possibility before you. You’re full of optimistic resolutions and good intentions. This year, you resolve, is going to be different. Yet as February approaches and nothing has budged on your To Do list, you lose momentum and then you lose heart—and too often you give up before you ever got going.

Not this year, my friends. Below are four simple things to do—all of them doable in the thirty-one days of January—to get 2008 off to a great start financially.

1. Sign up for the company bonus. If your employer offers a 401(k) or 403(b) retirement savings plan and agrees to match a portion of your contribution, you must sign up for the plan. Not to participate is essentially turning down a bonus from your boss. Hello? It’s free money, and you’re saying no thanks? Make an appointment with your HR person, get the forms, ask for help filling them out, do not be ashamed—do what you need to do to get this started. I promise it will take less than an hour and you’ll wonder why it took you this long.

2. Sleep Better. Here’s my one and only prediction for this year: something unpredictable will happen to you that you haven’t budgeted for. It might be a busted water heater, a battery of medical tests not fully covered by your health insurance, an unforeseen car repair, or any number of the few thousand things beyond your control. But what is totally within your control is how prepared you are. When it comes to stress management there is no greater asset than an emergency savings account that can cover the cost of the unknowns that might befall you and your family. A great place to start up your fund is with a “Save Yourself” account at TD Ameritrade. Go to www.saveyourself.com and open an account before March 31 to take advantage of the extraordinary offer TD Ameritrade is making to readers of Women & Money: Arrange for a monthly direct deposit of $50 or more for twelve consecutive months and after the twelfth deposit, TD Ameritrade will contribute $100 to your account. More free money! Go to the site to learn all the details of this offer, but trust me—this is one not to pass up.

3. Sleep Better (Part II). If anyone is dependent on your income—spouse, partner, child, parent, sibling—the single best way to protect them is to have a term life insurance policy. The great news is that term policies are fairly inexpensive these days; ensuring the well-being of your loved ones has never been so affordable. As a general rule of thumb I recommend buying a policy with a death benefit that is 20 times the annual income you want to replace. For example, if you want to replace $50,000 in income you would purchase a $1 million term insurance policy. That sum would allow your beneficiaries to invest the death benefit conservatively—in bonds—and live off the income without needing to touch the principal. I know $1 million sounds like it will be way too costly, but the premium for a healthy 45-year-old is $100 or so a month. You can learn more about term insurance and shop for policies at www.selectquote.com and www.accuquote.com.

4. Keep the Momentum Rolling. Before January ends, make up a financial To Do list for February. Need help? Go to the “Save Yourself Plan” in Women & Money. I’ve made up my wish list for you, month by month for five months—the things that if you would only do them, I’d sleep better. Honestly, is that too much to ask? Now, let’s face it, the single best motivator is achievement, so capitalize on the momentum you gained by checking off points 1, 2, and 3 above and set goals for the 29 days of February. If you keep that process going for a few months, you will never turn back—you’ll learn that there is only one way, and it’s forward. I am prepared to make you a guarantee that if you can accomplish even just three items on your To Do list every month for three consecutive months, by the time spring rolls around, you will own the power to control your destiny.

Suze Orman is the author of Women & Money.

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Novelist Adam Mansbach discusses his relationship with his grandfather and its connection to his writing life

December 1, 2007

After my grandmother died in the winter of 1999, I began spending summers with my grandfather so he would not be alone. It was no great sacrifice; since the early sixties, my grandparents had been spending the warmer months in a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, the island to which much of their once-wide and now greatly diminished social circle repaired at the close of each academic year.

My grandfather was the kind of man people had theories about, the kind his descendants formed study groups to discuss, as if he were a difficult novel. Some of his accomplishments were matters of public record, though he waved a dismissive hand at them all. He’d graduated high school by fifteen (“soon as you could read and write, off you went”), been the youngest American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (“I got there at the end; I didn’t do anything”) traveled to Panama to mediate between the government and the builders of the Canal (“The headline read ‘Kaplan Arrives,’ but the real work was done by others”). He’d taught three future Supreme Court Justices during his quarter decade at Harvard Law School, then sat on the bench of Massachusetts’s highest court. He was ninety that summer. He would not retire for another five years.

But the facts that most fascinated me were those to which history had little access. The silence he forged into a weapon he wielded for weeks at a time when he felt wronged. The year he’d spent chopping wood in Upstate New York after graduating City College and before beginning Columbia Law School. The way his genius had exempted him from so much in life—turned him into the man in the chair atop the hora dance, passed from one protector to the next, and how that had forged and crippled him. My whole life, he’d seemed almost visibly stooped by the weight of his regrets, lamenting his decision to prioritize work over family and wishing he could do it all differently. And yet day by day, year after year, he did not.

That summer, as we sat before a muted television, watching the Red Sox break our hearts again, I asked my grandfather all I could think to. During the days, I holed up in a bedroom seemingly built to avoid the sea breeze, working on a novel about grandfathers and grandsons that had yet to find a reason for existing. I knew only that the generation I was trying to understand would soon be gone, and that when it vanished the world would be stupider and less elegant, absent the force of intellect and character men like my grandfather possessed.

Why he opened up to me, I cannot say. Years before, his four grandsons had partially liberated him from the “do not disturb your father” doctrine that ruled our parents’ childhood, barging into his study and demanding his attention—and he had loved us for it. Perhaps this was an extension of that; twenty-plus years later, I still would not leave him alone.

He was incredulous at my interest in Bronx stickball rules and his experience of being the first Jew admitted to a Cambridge health club, but as the months passed he reached more willingly into the recesses of his perfect memory, and I learned things no one in my family had ever known. He’d written a humor column for the City College newspaper, for instance: twice a week throughout his senior year. I made a trip to New York to find and photocopy them. We read each one together. My grandfather had believed he’d be a writer then, and with good cause: his language was marvelous. He was funny. Suddenly, his marriage to my grandmother, a poet and a legendary wit, made sense.

Little of what I learned found its way into my novel. But in some larger sense, his story was my book; his story was his generation; his story was me. As we spoke and laughed and sat together in silence, I began to understand why I was writing. I was exploring my greatest hope and fear: that my grandfather and I were exactly alike.

Adam Mansbach, author of The End of the Jews, coming March 2008.

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Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine, introduces "First Person" by discussing what it means to write in the first person on the internet

November 1, 2007

There’s a passage in my forthcoming book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, where I describe the first-person nature of blogs as “a firewall against sympathetic feeling.” So perhaps I should be super-cautious about appearing on a blog called “First-Person.” But one of the main arguments of my book is that the first-person isn’t what it used to be.

Nowadays, the individual has learned to retail his privacy as a public performance or a public transaction. The self-dramatizing style of the memoirist has become the dominant literary expression of our day, escaping from the pages of books into garrulous emails, blogs, and videoblogs. We don’t intimately confide our interiority. We carefully craft it for public consumption. We bring our selves to market the way farmers bring heads of lettuce to market.

The packaged self has been a long time in the making; technology didn’t create this new condition. But on the internet, technology has engineered an ideal environment for the packaged self to thrive. It has manufactured a place where all activity – even play – is submerged in the work of self-selling to such a degree that it becomes nearly impossible to avoid the realms of business and commerce.

My research for Against the Machine brought me to online venues like Ebay, Jdate, and Second Life, where my avatar, Delbert, found himself behind the wheels of a sports car, which he promptly smashed into the side of a mountain. It also got me to some sites that are, in the parlance of the medium, NSFW (for research!). But it also allowed me to trace this transformation through a half-century of “offline” cultural evolution: from some very prescient postwar thinkers to the shallow boosterism of the so-called "futurists"; from the rise of method acting and the close-up to the advent of reality television; from the business-first cheerleading of some of today's most popular journalists to the still relevant skepticism of critics like Christopher Lasch. Researching this book, thinking about it, and writing it certainly allowed me to escape my own first-person for a while and to throw myself happily into the world of ideas and their consequences, and to confront The Machine -- that confluence of business and technology that serves the interests of business and technology, while moving us further away from the precious human values that sustain us.

By the time I was finished, I was able to see an alternative destiny for the Internet, a day when the Internet itself would be used to combat all the glib, slick, utilitarian forces that are now shaping it. A day when the Internet would retain its speed, and relevance, and pith, yet fulfill its promise of greater intimacy and humanity instead of betraying it; a day when journalists could stop worrying about being left behind by technology and speak truth to their modems; a day when technology would be an aid to cultivating your private self, rather than a snare for losing it. Internet users of the world unite! You have nothing lose but (some of) your links.

One other thing. I started off by saying that the first person isn’t what it used to be. For the most part, that is. It’s been my good fortune to find a home for my own first-person with a publisher that gets the present moment in all its perplexity and complexity, while approaching it under the aspect of a very old sensibility. A culture critic, if he wants to be taken seriously, has to be careful about the company he keeps. I’m happy and proud to see my “I” appear on Spiegel and Grau’s inaugural list, where intimacy and humanity seem very much alive.

Lee Siegel is the author of Against the Machine, coming January ‘08.

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