Observations on Writing
Many thanks to Women and Words for posting my guest blog about Giraffe People today. This has been quite a week. My second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, won the Great Northwest Book Festival, which is particularly exciting because I can’t think about Spokane without thinking about that novel. Young family. Young adulthood. The horrible cost of getting away with things.
I’ve been ill with the joint-aching sinus-infection thing that’s going around, and yesterday I helped the second graders paint their dinosaur models in the hallway, sort of on butcher paper. Some had paint in their hair, on their ears, down their shins, and they were so gleeful about the opportunity to paint their animals — made from recycled cardboard — that they each kept up a running monologue of all progress. “Look! I’m painting the tail! And next I’m probably going to paint that leg. And then that one!”
“Mine has three eyes,” Gavin said. “Its name is Oddosaurus.”
Yes. Yes, quite. Joy in every direction. I’m grateful for the stories that exist, and the stories forming. Tomorrow we have a date for the Dinosaur Museum where Gavin will take us on a tour of painted dinosaurs, drawn dinosaurs, dinosaur research papers and 3-D dinosaur exhibits. I will think of the little boy who whispered, “My dad is going to kill me.”
“This shirt is new.”
“I promise all that paint will wash out.”
“Will you tell him? Maybe you could write him a note?”Read More
Brett Norris, dynamic writer, tagged me to contribute to The Next Big Thing. A chance for writers to dish some dirt on their forthcoming work. Let’s get filthy.
What is the working title of your book?
The working title was Tales of a Vocabulary Black Belt, but happily that got dropped in favor of Giraffe People as I kept working. I don’t think I’ve ever had a title that suited the work as well as this one does. And it was Cole’s idea. She refers to her family as Giraffe People — lumbering, nomadic, it seemed so exactly right.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wanted to write about music, and what it had been like to be a kid growing up on military bases. I took my experience on the base at Fort Monmouth, and the base at Aliamanu and I combined them. I was trying to understand what was going on in Iraq as well, and this story gave me the opportunity to go back through the Persian Gulf War and look at the repercussions of our choices there. And, in other ways, I wanted another chance at a first time. I wanted to write about virginity.
What genre does your book fall under?
Oh. Questions like this bug me. What difference does it make? Will you not read it if I name a genre you find boring? It’s a story about being human. So, if you like those, give it a read.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Most of the characters are in high school. I think Emma Watson should play the Army cadet trying to get into West Point, and the narrator, Cole, should be played by someone athletic. Imagine an actor like that, athletic and musical and giraffe-ish. Her. She should play Cole.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A military brat whose father is a chaplain decides to join a punk band during her last year in Jersey and collides with an Army cadet in ways that might kick you in the heart.
What is the longer synopsis of your book?
If you were going to write love letters back and forth — maybe before you even realized they were love letters, how would you go about it? Cole does it with vocabulary lists. High school is a community you cannot get away from. They are imposed upon you, and this is the story of a girl who has to figure out what her community will look like. What does she want it to look like? And, then, later, how will she leave it behind to go to the next base?
This isn’t a coming-of-age book, it’s a coming-of-self book.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Like my previous novels, Red Audrey and the Roping, and A Field Guide to Deception, Giraffe People will be published by Bywater Books. Appearing in stores near you, and the virtual ones in May, 2013.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I think I wrote the first draft in five months. And then, some 18 months later, my wife and I sat on the couch and she read it and we talked about it, and I wrote a revised draft in two days. That second draft is almost exactly the book that will be published in May, 2013.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Have you read Stephanie Vaughn’s short stories? Go listen to the New Yorker podcast of Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn’s short story, Dog Heaven. You deserve to hear this story. It’s amazing, and listening to it, walking around my neighborhood in 2009, I realized that the life of kids in the military is secret and unexplored and rich with possibility.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
This is the funniest book I have ever written. And I think the first with characters who are truly likable. I dare you to read it. Come on. I double dog dare ya.Read More
After I read Alice Munro’s stunning collection, The Love of a Good Woman, I read an article that dissected the way violence turns her stories though the stories themselves rarely incorporate violence. In other words, violence is peripheral as an occurrence, and central as an action.
When I began thinking about A Field Guide to Deception, I had a girl who has stolen something, and believes she has gotten away with her theft, only to find the body of her closest friend in the trunk of her car. And then I started to think about how much more interesting it would be to steal a lot of money and get away with it. Not be hunted. Not be caught.
What is your life like when it’s based on a lie?
I don’t care about the action of stealing. That is less interesting to me than the emotional life afterward. My stories turn on violence too. And it’s there all along. In Field Guide in particular, the violence is inevitable from the first pages.
Atonement turns on a word in a letter. Cunt. The whole book. All the tragedy and horror stems from that word in a letter, handed to a girl by mistake.
The Modernists were trying to get at something. At the complexity of the way we think. The rambling, miraculous life of the mind. But they missed something else entirely. That we have deep emotional lives and those lives are often at odds with our values, with our impulses, with our actions, with our thoughts. They were moving away from plot and into consciousness. I think stories live in the middle.Read More
“Wanna interview me?”
“Sure. Oh, you mean, now?”
“I don’t get time to think about my questions?”
“No, you do.”
“HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE A BOOK? ………….. Jill, that’s the first question.”
“Oh, we’re not interviewing on video?”
“No. You can write it. Answer the question.”
I wrote Red Audrey as a short story when I was in graduate school. The story had almost the entire arc: Emily, Audrey, Nick, UPS, Hawaii, the clubs, accident. Jane wasn’t named in the story, and everyone called her honey. So, I was 23. And then I wrote it in scenes when I was 27. I had folders labeled “Emily” “Nick” and “Audrey” and I would write scenes at work and then put them in the appropriate folder. I’d wander around and think, Now I need a scene that gets me to blah. Or, I should write about that weird catacomb jazz club. In the end, I printed all the scenes out and spread them on my bed. I assembled the novel like that.
And then edited it for like 3 years.
I wrote Field Guide in a summer. And had to re-write it twice. My editor hated it. She said it was joyless. She didn’t really say that, but that’s what it felt like she said. And she was entirely right. The drafts were joyless.
Giraffe People was written over about 7 months. I wrote when I felt like it. And the story was just there. Like picking fruit. It was miraculous.
TALK ABOUT HOW PEOPLE ALWAYS THINK THEY’RE CHARACTERS IN YOUR BOOKS.
That’s an interesting thing. I suppose because my work is familiar. I mean, I write about things you think about, don’t I? That’s what I try to do anyway. To write about the experience of being human. And so it seems familiar to you. And you suspect that we had a conversation like that at some point. And you know you do that certain thing that appears on page 142, so I must mean you, right? I hope people do it because the work dings inside them. Lights them up.
TALK ABOUT HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT CANDY.
This is your question? OK. I love candy. Especially Japanese candy. I don’t really see any reason to eat anything else. When I was a kid in Germany, you could get these giant gummi bears in the vending machines. Everywhere! They were everywhere and they were the size of rats. It was the happiest thing ever.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT SPOKANE?
Trains. The trees here. The parks. I love the river and the brick houses. I love the derelict buildings and the hiking trails. I love how many farmers’ markets we have. There are like seven and a half thousand farmers’ markets here now. Or anyway like three. It’s amazing.
We have deer in our neighborhood. Porcupine, skunks, hawks, coyotes. I love the way Spokane resists change and then suddenly paints bike lanes all over the place. The yoga studios and the coffee houses are exactly proportionate.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL BE DIFFICULT ABOUT WRITING A COMEDY?
Well, probably just the sitting down and writing part. I have this story in my head — have had for a year — but still haven’t sat down to write it. I used to have awful dates. I mean mythological, they were so awful. I would go home sometimes and check myself for battle scars, shrapnel. The comedy is just endless. Lesbian dates are a particular kind of surreal.
I’m not really answering the question, am I?
WHICH OF YOUR CHARACTERS WOULD BE THE MOST IRRITATING TO KNOW IN REAL LIFE?
I refuse to answer this question. This question is traitorous. I like all of them. Not like children, or whatever, but I like all of them. That dude who was always hitting on Claire was an asshole though. So I pick him.
BUT I DIDN’T ASK YOU WHICH ONE YOU DISLIKED, I ASKED WHICH WOULD BE THE MOST IRRITATING?
Sheesh. I don’t know. Jane, I suppose. She has terrible boundaries. So there’d always be calamity and shit.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE SOMETHING ABOUT EITHER OF YOUR FIRST TWO BOOKS, WHAT WOULD YOU GO BACK AND CHANGE?
I wish I hadn’t put everything I put into Red Audrey. I mean, I put everything I could think of into that novel. The god stuff had no place there. That wasn’t Jane’s issue, it was mine. I wish I hadn’t quite pushed the language as hard as I did. I made it work too hard.
I love Field Guide. I wouldn’t change anything about it, except the title. We lie too much sometimes in fiction. Love stories fucking suck. Some of them really fucking suck. And we have to write those too. The nearly stories. The we-tried-so-hard-and-still-everything-burned stories.
WHY ARE YOU SO MEAN TO RED AUDREY?
What now? How am I mean?
TO THE BOOK? WHY ARE YOU SO MEAN TO THE BOOK?
First-pancake syndrome? I don’t know. It’s your fault actually. You told me parts were overwritten and I asked for an example and you read me one and I can’t think about that book the same way now. And I was young. I wrote that book a decade ago. It’s a first novel. It has first novel problems.
BUT WHAT DOES YOUR RESPONSE SAY TO THOSE OF US WHO LOVE THAT BOOK?
That’s a good question. You have to understand artists operate in a constant state of redress. We’re always looking to improve, to tell something better, to express an experience differently. If I couldn’t see the weaknesses in my novels, then I couldn’t strengthen them. You should have less faith in me as an artist if I tell you my work is flawless. It isn’t. It’s like me. Still working to figure shit out.
I’m glad you love Red Audrey. It’s gratifying that you love Red Audrey. I feel about the novel the way I feel about my teenaged self. Wistful and proud and embarrassed. We don’t have to agree about my work. If I were satisfied with it, I’d stop working.
WHAT’S THE BEST NEW THING YOU’VE DISCOVERED IN THE LAST YEAR?
Yard work. Yard work feels like meditation. I sometimes wander around looking for weeds. Why do I do that? I don’t know. It’s just so satisfying to pull them out.Read More
Long before I realized it, I was writing about power. My novels are concerned with sex. With the complex, troubling, joyous experience of sex. With the mess. With the fuck ups of fucking. With the vulnerability.
Too often sex is portrayed in books as this unlikely experience — a kind of pyrotechnics to make flat characters seem more lifelike. Or it’s truncated as though we must not speak of it. Like some teaser from a black-and-white movie where the door closes as the couple looks at the bed.
You can tell a lot about a character by the kind of sex she has. And it would be odd if she didn’t have sex. It would tell the reader things about her — hopefully things you’ve considered as the writer. One of the most curious things about Tipping the Velvet, for instance, is that Nan doesn’t know what “tipping the velvet” means when she overhears prostitutes using the expression. We’ve spent hundreds of pages watching her have explicit sex, but Flo has to explain what it means. And that’s a huge character moment for both of them. Flo is not some sexless unimaginative socialist, she’s aware and she’s not haughty about sharing her awareness. And Nan, for all her experience, is initiated into the frank sexuality of the lower class.
In my second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, I write about sex in a more forthright way than I was able to in Red Audrey and the Roping. I suspect that part of that is because I was moving away from lyricism and also because so much happens between these characters with little overt action. My second novel is subtle. And, I think, better, than my first.
In exactly one month, I’m going to premiere my video series set in Spokane. Half of the videos will introduce you to curiosities about this town, and the other half with highlight spots from my second novel — places that I lifted and fictionalized. Sometimes just lifted. If you haven’t bought a copy of my book, please do. That way you’ll be able to request spots you’d like to see. Or argue with me about my assertion that I write about sex. Or some other third thing.Read More
I told you I wrote a list, right? I wrote this list. It was three pages long and had “three wishes” phrasing. I labored over the items on this list. I wanted them to summon exactly the person I described. My list was a roadmap to the destination of somebody perfect for me. Not perfect full stop. Just perfect for me. The space between those two sentences is a big fucking space.
So? So, I’m telling you because I found myself in a weird conversation a couple of days ago. We were talking about Audrey (from my first novel Red Audrey and the Roping) and Mary said maybe Audrey comes off as ethereal because I didn’t actually know what a good girlfriend was. I kind of sketched her. She was vague because I’d never actually experienced a good girlfriend. Dude. That is a tragic speculation. And also true. I don’t think I had. I’d never had a romantic relationship with boundaries, and so my attempt to write a person with boundaries kind of feels blurry.
But, you know, I was chasing her. I was chasing a person with boundaries. And I knew, as the writer, that a person with boundaries could keep Jane safe until she had boundaries herself. Red Audrey was a roadmap home. For me. It was a story to make peace with my scary places. I tried to conjure someone to love me in spite of everything. And she reads like a dream because I didn’t quite capture her.
Because that’s not how it works. You can’t chase somebody with boundaries. You have to have boundaries yourself. You have to have them and then calmly ask for the opportunity to be with your list. You have to hope your person. You have to hope them. And while you wait, you have to work. You have to remember that you’re never finished. That you’re always crafting yourself. That you’re never finished, and that you are worth it. That you are worth better. You, with your beautiful fractures. You, love. You.
My first book struggles with grief. A woman who returns to Hawaii after nearly a decade of absence, and finds herself stuck, still processing her mother’s suicide. I don’t have any suicide in my family. But I have heard, over the years, from readers who do. And grief is so familiar. Heavy and daily in that awful boring way.
Eighteen months ago, my coworker’s son took his own life. Since then, she has started a suicide support group in Washington State. She has organized, and grown funds, and reached out to her community and talked about drugs and desperation. She has poured her grief into action, and hollered for help and extended aid and she’s just awesome. Honest about her struggle. Honest about her willingness to do whatever she can to help those struggling around her.
A week ago, Mary’s coworker’s son took his own life. The familiar grief. No, no, not you again. Veterans returning with their maladies, with their brutal experiences. Kids trying to cope with addiction, with bullying. Desperate financial times. Health crises. Denial of assistance for food, housing, mental illness. Need in every direction. Mothers trying to explain to themselves, to their families, to their faith: Why did this happen?
Last Sunday, Mary spent the afternoon and evening in the kitchen making casseroles. The house takes deeper breaths when she’s cooking. I sat nearby, reading. Thinking. Wishing for these families. A friend of mine recently lost his comrade to cancer. And he wrote this gorgeous eulogy about his love and his loss, about his brotherhood. And this is the part of grief that is most familiar. We are, none of us, spared. And for some reason, I keep thinking about that Margaret Cho title, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. I tell you these stories about love, these stories about loss because I know you have felt them. In your particular way. I know they are familiar. They are ours. They are all of ours. We can’t save anyone. It doesn’t work that way. We love them. And sometimes that is a task. Sometimes that is our liver, torn every night from our body. We love fiercely. We grieve in pieces. We hold each other together. We unravel and gleam.
“You have an impulse, occasionally, to burn shit down.”
I say this to myself sometimes. In fact, years ago I wrote that line of Audrey’s, “I think you destroy things, people, just so you can grieve them.” Or something like that. Yeah, something like that.
But when she says it, she adds, “If I had a different kind of ego, if I were prone to panic, your impulse would have gotten in the way of our relationship.”
“How’s that?” I say, laughing softly. I see how worrisome this admission is, but I’m not sold on the worry yet. I’m still considering the purchase.
“Your whole, ‘You should just go’ thing. If I’d listened to that, I would have left. You meant it when you said it, but you didn’t mean it for long.”
No. I never meant it for long. And this leads to the crux. What do I mean for more than a moment? How many people have I believed—adamantly believed—I loved? Said it. Convinced myself and others. Only to find I didn’t mean it for long. Mercurial. Is that right? My mother used to say, “I don’t think you want to be happy.” When? Or did she simply forget to add, With this? Because I didn’t. I didn’t want to be happy with the various incarnations of “this” that she was convinced should have made me happy.
It’s a good feeling, getting rid of things. And sometimes the severance is essential. Sometimes it’s rash. I have no interest in grief now. Isn’t that strange? I don’t have to dismantle anything. I don’t need to take the engine apart and figure out why the oil is leaking. Maybe it’s faith. Maybe I acquired some, at last. Is it faith? There is a difference between wanting to be happy, and being happy. That difference is where I live.
Am I a fattist? Well, occasionally people have read Red Audrey, and come away saying, Yes. She’s a fattist. She hates the fat people. All her characters are beautiful pencils. Rich, beautiful pencils, who say mean things about swamp cows. Jane Elliott is filled with self-loathing. It’s her thing. The novel should have been subtitled: Self-Loathing, A Love Story.
I have two major regrets about Red Audrey. One, it’s overwritten. I can give you cringe-worthy pages. Two, I put two kitchen sinks in because I was worried it would be the only novel I ever wrote. Should I have been more sensitive about body types? Probably.
I wrote Red Audrey at a time when I ate 6 meals a day, and couldn’t hold my weight at 140. Friends, family, and coworkers felt an incessant need to tell me they were worried I had an eating disorder. My boss wanted me to report everything I ate to him daily. Eventually, my husband started fielding these conversations because they were so upsetting. And since childhood, strangers have felt it’s perfectly OK to come up and touch me. I couldn’t write about body image as a whole because I was absorbed with my own. With untangling and deciphering it. I was writing about athletes in their twenties. Granola wild things. I was writing about my experience. And if I’d had more grace and awareness, I couldn’t have told that story about hating myself. Because I hated myself, I wrote a story about love in spite of everything.