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How Reading to My Kids Helped Me Give Better Author Readings

Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.

This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.

But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.

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Poet Laureate of Spaceship Earth: An Excerpt from ‘You Belong to the Universe’

You Belong to the UniverseThis Thursday at 7 p.m., author (and ZYZZYVA contributor) Jonathon Keats will be at City Lights to discuss his newest book, You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future (Oxford University Press). Called by Douglas Coupland a “wonderfully written and highly necessary book about one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic outliers,” the book takes Fuller’s life and personal myth as a basis for applying his world-changing ideas in the present.

The following is an excerpt from Keats’s book.

Late one evening in the winter of 1927, Buckminster Fuller set out to kill himself in frigid Lake Michigan. At thirty-two years old, he was a failure. He had neither job prospects nor savings, and his wife had just given birth to a daughter. A life insurance policy, bought while he was in the Navy, was all that he had to support his family.

So Fuller walked down to a deserted stretch of shoreline on the North Side of Chicago. He looked out over the churning water and calculated how long he’d need to swim before succumbing to hypothermia. But as he prepared to jump, he felt a strange resistance, as if he were being lifted, and he heard a stern voice inside his head: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” Then the voice confided that his life had a purpose, which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world, and that his family would always be provided for, as long as he submitted to his calling.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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E-remorse and Writers

“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”

On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.

But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.

I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.

A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.

Whom to bury, whom to praise.

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Each Element Building to an Exuberant Whole: tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel

tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel in San Francisco.

tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel in San Francisco.

On a recent Monday evening at the Chapel, a gabled music venue built last year in San Francisco’s Mission District, a crowd gathered beneath the venue’s bejeweled chandeliers and curved stacks of speakers to hear the Oakland folk-indie act tUnE-yArDs. It was the band’s first stage appearance in over a year and a half, as well as the debut performance of their highly anticipated third album, Nikki Nack, and the excitement was evident. Cheers rose and fell and hands stretched out and waved as the house music blared above. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and the audience began shuffling under lights switching vigorously between green and blue and red, but nobody left. If the band was intentionally prolonging their entrance, then the crowd felt confident they were worth the wait.

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All the Lost, Autobiographical Novels

The Haunted Life and Other WritingsYears ago, when novelist Alexander Chee couldn’t sell his first book, a literary agent told him, “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” The agent was right.

Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote his first novel, the autobiographical story of a boozy Kentucky boy in the city titled Prince Jellyfish, in his early twenties. After numerous literary agents declined it, Thompson shelved the manuscript and finished a second novel called The Rum Diary, which Simon & Schuster released in 1998, nearly four decades after he had completed it. And just last month, De Capo Press published Jack Kerouac’s lost, semi-autobiographical novella The Haunted Life, seventy years after Kerouac wrote it. It isn’t the Beat author’s first novel. That title goes to The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, penned in 1942. Nor is The Haunted Life Kerouac’s only “lost” novel; both it and The Sea Is My Brother took seven decades to reach print. The troubled twenty-two-year-old supposedly left the manuscript of The Haunted Life in a New York cab. But the novella surfaced in his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dorm room closet, and much later in 2002, it sold at Sotheby’s for $95,600.

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It might be true that the first novel you write isn’t the first novel you publish, but like many writers sitting on a finished manuscript, I used to want to publish mine anyway. It isn’t simply the first novel I’ve written. It’s the only novel I’ve written, possibly the only one I ever will write.

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The State of the Bracket

The NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Championship will be played next Monday. The field of sixty-four college teams has been whittled to four. Warren Buffet’s $1 billion bounty for correctly predicting the winner of each game in the tournament will go unclaimed. And for weeks, people asked—they had to ask—the question, How is your bracket?

So, how are your brackets, dear ZYZZYVA friends and contributors?

Kate Milliken: I’m offended by the question.

Ben Greenman: The way this tournament has gone, the only way to look at brackets is philosophically. What is victory, really? What is loss? Who can say for certain that the Stephen F Austin game even happened? We think we know, but do we know that we know? Bracketology, meet epistemology.

Vanessa Hua: My bracket’s busted. In the stack of books on my bedside table, I have books-by-friends, The Dismal Science by Peter Mountford and Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen, matched up against books-whose-structure-I’m-studying-for-my-novel, Monkey Hunting by Cristina García and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The latest-book-by-a-favorite-author, At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón, facing off against an award-winning-book-by-an-author-new-to-me, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales

I’ve started on each. But the book I finish night after night, I am Invited to a Party by Mo Willems, features the adventures of Elephant and Piggie and illustrations of the fancy pool costume party, a tale my toddlers twins demand when we pile into bed to read before they sleep.

Paul Beatty: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, fellow citizens, readers of ZYZZYVA:

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that “the NCAA bylaws makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress … It is my task,” he said, “to report the State of the Bracket – to improve it is the task of us all.”

Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American hoopster and Mercer, there is much progress to report. After a year of grinding up and down war, our brave men and women in basketball uniform are going to the rim. After years of grueling recession, our TV networks have created over six million new jobs–all bracketologists. We fill out more American brackets than we have in five years, and depend on less foreign oil and players than we have in twenty. Our mid-range jump shot is healing, our offensive rebounding is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and sports talk radio enjoy stronger protections than ever before.

The state of the bracket is strong.

Thank you,

Barack O’Beatty

(This a copy of the Prez’s 2013 State of the Union Address with very few changes.)

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A Bag of Wheat, a Flood, a Fold-Out Couch: The Moth StorySLAM in San Francisco

The ten readers selected for The Moth StorySLAM at the Rickshaw Shop.

The ten readers selected for The Moth StorySLAM at the Rickshaw Shop at the night’s end.

In 1997, in hopes of recreating the experience of swapping stories with his friends on long summer nights in Georgia, poet and novelist George Dawes Green founded The Moth. Since its first event, held in the living room of Green’s New York City apartment, The Moth has grown into an influential organization known for bringing out original and affecting stories from everyday people around the world. The stories can be funny, or sad, or dramatic, or light, but, above all else, they must be true. The rules are simple: start with the theme for the night, come up with a story drawn from your own authentic experience, hone it until the stakes are real and the consequences apparent, and keep it within the constrained time. Then, if you are picked and get to climb up on stage, no notes are allowed.

This basic, but fundamental, formula has spawned multiple iterations of The Moth.  There’s The Moth Mainstage, which invites well-known artists, scientists, and celebrities (Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell, and Dan Savage have all spoken), as well as anyone with anything interesting to say, to tell their story, many of which are available to watch online.  There’s The Moth Radio Hour and The Moth Podcast, both of which collect the best Moth stories and sometimes even dig deeper, exploring how those stories came to be.  There’s a book that features adaptations of stories that have previously been performed, as well as several Moth community and education programs. But on a recent Monday night at the Rickshaw Shop, an event space decorated with bicycles and drab couches in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, I had come to what was perhaps their most inclusive, interactive, and widespread program of all: the open-mic Moth StorySLAM.

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Conveying the Brilliance and the Chaos of a True Genius: John Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’

Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing as Petrouchka in John Neumeier's "Nijinsky" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing as Petrouchka in John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” (photo by Erik Tomasson)

A few people straggled almost unnoticed onto the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before the house lights had dimmed, and they began to talk. Even before the dancing had begun, their presence was an announcement that one had better not expect to see a traditional narrative ballet that opening night. However, the ambition to create a piece that comes close to the innovative prowess of its subject—Vaslav Nijinsky—would require more than an opening gimmick. Nijinsky is still one of dance’s towering figures, and one of the very few who merit the term “genius” both as a performer and a choreographer, blessed with abilities of the practitioner and the visionary. This is the man who envisioned a young faun as a masturbating nymph-chaser, and disguised a ménage à trois as an innocent game of tennis between two women and a man (and that was the cleaned-up version; his original idea was for an all-male cast and even less ambiguity). His ballets incited riots and still look modern today, while other examples of innovative and even revolutionary art softens and grows quaint with time.

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Reading Music

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of the great examples of program music, which means notes, not words, are the storytellers. The story here is a lurid one of opium induced reveries and unrequited love that descends into murder, execution, and hell. I heard it for the first time in junior high school, back when music appreciation was considered a part of a public school’s core curriculum and stories of opium and sin didn’t trigger over-protective hysteria in the PTA. The work became the first piece of classical music I could recognize, despite the fact that music of all kinds (but not Symphonie Fantastique) was ubiquitous in my house growing up. I haven’t heard the work since my son studied it at his own school over ten years ago, nor did I listen to it very much in the many years prior. Still, I can easily hum the piece’s major theme—its idée fixe—recall its unusual instrumentation, and tell the story.

I’ll never know if the music, without the narrative, would have been as compelling. Having heard the tale and been shown in the score where certain events are “told,” I cannot separate the music of Symphonie Fantastique from images of the warped waltz, the walk to the scaffold, or the Witch’s Sabbath. When you attach words to music it is magnified in the same ways pictures enrich words. But I’ve often read books where my image of a main character doesn’t match the one the graphic designer decided to put on the cover. Can branding a piece of music with a story be equally limiting?

Abstract music does not tell a story but that doesn’t mean it can’t contribute toward an inner narrative. As a former flutist, playing was an alternative form for me of speaking a feeling or relating a sensation. When I was in college, I played in the orchestra that accompanied a performance of Bach’s great choral work, his St. Matthew Passion. The work includes a beautiful duet between flute and the alto soloist. We were performing in a gothic cathedral whose gloominess had settled over me like a shroud. The vocalist was my voice teacher who had no fondness for me nor I for her. Yet by the end of the duet, I had become the music and, in becoming the music, had no defense against anything that might harm me. Music leaves me vulnerable.

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The Outlaw Barney Rosset

Because my brother Howie and I collected comics as poor kids in the Bronx, hoping to score a prized first edition of, say, Avengers #4 (which heralded the return appearance of Captain America) or Amazing Fantasy #15 (containing the origin of Spiderman) we haunted the sleazy second hand bookstores around the Bronx of the 1960s, dark moldy storefronts stacked with boxes full of lurid paperbacks and stag mags.

In such a shop, I found a wooden grapefruits crate containing back issues of a magazine called Evergreen Review, edited and published by one Barney Rosset.

Fred Jordan, the other name prominently displayed on the magazine’s masthead, bore the intimidating title of Managing Editor. The small print somewhere described the review as an offshoot arm of a publishing house: Grove Press.

I bought a pile of Evergreens for a dime apiece, hauled them home in a shopping bag and stretching out on the cot that served as my bed poured over the black and white pages, little understanding what I read, mostly impressed by  the authors’ exotic high-sounding names—Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, William S. Burroughs, Vladamir Nabokov.

I aspired to write and  would have given at least one eye, possibly an arm, to appear in the pages of such a periodical. But, published in Manhattan, the distance between the offices of Evergreen/Grove Press/Barney Rosset and my Last Exit to Bronx neighborhood was like that between Cape Canaveral and Venus.

Nevertheless, decades later, and despite enough misadventures to fill the pages of several books (which in time they would), somehow I found myself sitting as an invited guest in the Fourth Avenue walk-up loft of the very same Barney Rosset (and his lovely wife, Astrid) whose magazine I had held in my hands as a child.

The journey to the Rossets has been one fraught with improbabilities. My anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, had just appeared, containing a poem from Barney, as well as his picture. And just days before, Fred Jordan—the very same whose name had appeared as Managing Editor of Evergreen Review (and now, decades later, head of his own house, Fromm International, an imprint distributed by FSG) had acquired my memoir Jew Boy for hardcover release, which Barney later published in paperback on his Foxrock imprint.

I had by these and other weirdly karmic routes, arrived on Barney’s sofa, and now sat directly across from the famed publisher.

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