Monday, June 29, 2009

Joanna Hershon & Jewish Cowboys, This You've Got to Hear

I want to give a quick shout out to my friend Joanna Hershon, who just sent me her most recent novel, The German Bride.

If you've ever wondered about the Jewish immigrant experience, then this novel promises to tell the stories you haven't heard, as it traces Eva Frank, a German Jew, and her passage to America through Santa Fe, New Mexico (this ain't no Ellis Island to Brooklyn yarn apparently). Pat Conroy calls it "a surprising novel of grace and refinement." Nicholas Delbanco says Hershon is a "first-rate talent" and the novel "a riveting read." (And of course I agree wholeheartedly about the talent part.) Vanity Fair did a nice review and asked Joanna who her dream cast would be. No matter the story, I like her choices. Natalie Portman as Eva? Sounds good to me.

Joanna as a writer crafts her stories with thoughtfulness, depth, and humanity. Characters linger. She controls every page. Her writing chops sizzle.

I would be remiss if I didn't also recommend her first two books as sure things, Swimming and The Outside of August. Bottom line: Joanna's the real deal, even if I'm a little biased. Thought you'd like to know.

Here's a link to her website.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Long Vacation (What One Read)

Some vacations are structured around activity--The zoo, Coca-Cola Museum, lunch in Centennial Park, Braves Game (this was me last summer)--but others get noted for their decided lack of activity. Which brings me to this summer's escape for the Scapellato family: Edisto Beach.

Kids and wife have the beach. I have unrestricted reading and writing. I'm sure I'm a grave disappointment (easy on the "grave" part) to my dermatologist, but every morning upon waking, I got to spend my morning reading in a chair oceanside. When the sun spread her light in the full splendor of afternoon, I wrote in the cool of the camper. After 14 days, I have one hell of a tan, I made it through eight books, and I'm off to a good start on the next novel project.

So here's my fully eclectic catalogue of 09 beach reads:

Manhunt by James Swanson: page-turning account of the 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln. Riveting. Mary Surratt was the first woman hanged in the U.S. I didn't know that.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby: spot-on British speech, genius observational humor, Hornby is a master at character. When I was sixteen, I would've been in love with Jess.

Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult: impossible to put down. Riveting plot even if I didn't exactly buy it (teachers are notoriously critical of novels about teachers). Ending was jaw-dropping, too, even if I didn't buy that either. But did I enjoy the book? Absolutely. Picoult is very good at spinning a yarn.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: A writer's writer. Jaw-dropping writing on every page. A plot so bizarre and beautiful, one wonders how on earth she came up with this.

Tin Roof Blow Down by James Lee Burke: wow, the guy can write about the Louisiana. He is to the Bayou what Pat Conroy is to the Lowcountry. Except Burke writes of the hardscrabble life of Dave Robicheaux, his steely PI. Dialogue is some of the best I've read. Someone called his writing Faulknerian, and somehow, oddly enough, I agree. Beneath the guns and car chases, there is something visceral and soul-moving about the people of this place.

Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Aames: First novel, a must read. I'm Aames' newest fan. A piece of art with angled prose that I kept reading aloud to Sara, much to her irritation (she was always reading her own book, and my high praises were an interruption). This is a novel I wish I'd written. A moving story about one Thanksgiving in Buffalo with a man caring for his dying mother that was equal parts dark and hilarious. Weird, I know. Superb title.

Sweetwater Creek by Anne Rivers Siddons: I'm not supposed to read this type of stuff, but I am a friend of Annie's, and I love every word she has ever uttered. I'd read her grocery list with rapture. I don't which she writes better, the Lowcountry or Atlanta. If I had to say, this novel is one of the better ones.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry: a classic. My daughter was reading it, so I borrowed it. Finished it in one sitting. A beautiful story I knew nothing about: Danish Jews trying to escape to Sweden. Well-deserving of its classic status. Exquisite writing with heart-stopping impact. I did not know that Danish scientists came up with cocaine and pig's blood to throw off the German dogs from finding hidden jews. Such desperation. And it worked.

And so here are the vital stats on my most recent life escape:

14 days
8 books
2861 pages read
35 pages written

My idea of a vacation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Laptop is the New Mole Skin Journal

Had to get up at 11:00PM last night to change the point of view of my opening chapter. Went from first person to third person. I was reading a book on Abraham Lincoln of all things, when suddenly this revelation hit. I leaped from the bed and rushed to the computer. I can't say why such an epiphany came at such an odd moment. Thank goodness the computer was on. I know, I know. I'm a lame-O nerd. I can't help it.

I'll probably switch it all back in a week.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Okay, LOLA, my friend, here goes...

Recent struggle: begin with lyricism (My father believes there is a little of God in any city beside the water--river, lakes, oceans, it's no matter.), or begin with situation (Three days after my twenty-eighth birthday, my wife kicked me out of the house for NEARLY having an affair.).

Can't decide honestly.

Even more vexing is the notion that it might not matter, and perhaps most vexing of all is that I know it doesn't matter, but I can't seem to stop caring about it.


Welcome to the life of a writer.

Maybe these concerns do matter on the level that a writer must engage his material to the nth degree, even if the story itself presents only the top layers of thought and idea. Put another way, a documentarian might shoot 100 hours of film to capture the three minutes he needs to tell the story at hand.

It's not enough to know your story. It's far more important to learn how to listen to your characters and tell the story the way it should be told. My problem stems from a desire to control my characters. I create them and then I start bossing them around. They become recalcitrant teenagers, shutting down like parent vs kid on opposing couches when really if I would let them speak, let them breathe, their story might come to me. I might simply have to transcribe at that point. This is so much more difficult than it sounds.

Some writers write chronologically. Begin chapter one, GO. Other writers I know skip around, working on chapters they feel like working on that day. Don't want to write the scene where Beth tells her daughter to get the hell out of the house? Well, then maybe write the chapter where Kathryn puts a butcher knife to her husband's throat or the scene where Sam comes back to Charleston to face his father.

John Irving has a new novel coming out this fall, which pleases me to no end. This is a man whose sensibilities ride more along a nineteenth century track, and while this would seem a hopelessly impossible idea to pull off in today's age of immediate gratification (yes, maybe we should start with the "almost-affair" and save the philosophical waxing for later), he remains a Dickens for our times, a master purveyor of the winding story that delivers big in the end. In this interview for the New York Times, he discusses the importance of final lines and how he constructs a novel backwards. God, I love this man.