Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The road to Wicked.


Today, I am proud to post this interview with Gregory Maguire, of Wicked fame. He had an intimate Q&A/reading session at the Muse and Marketplace conference in May, and I became even more enamored, thoroughly impressed and awed by his intelligence, wit and great reading style.

Gregory Maguire's adult novels

Kristen Tsetsi, founder of Tuesday Shorts, had already been in contact with him briefly last year (and we're still hoping maybe someday he'll send us a short-short), so I asked after the session if I could have a few minutes. He had a prior engagement, but he generously allowed me to e-mail him some burning questions.

So here we go....


SRR: First, let me say it was an honor and privilege to hear you speak at the Grubstreet Muse and Marketplace. I was already a fan, and your eloquence and "stage presence," if you will, are remarkable. I must say, I also think you're quite humble given your success and obviously much smarter than you claim!

During your Q&A, you mentioned something that I think will strike the hearts of all writers. You spoke of the devastation of your first review of Wicked by the New York Times and subsequent jump back up after the Los Angeles review was published, an underdog comeback of sorts. Could you talk a bit about that?

GM: All writers need a little humbling. Put another way, all writers need to be reminded that their work is not for everyone. No one's work is. I have been rather lucky with decent reviews and a popular following. However it comes at some cost: the packaging of my books disguises, I think, the more intellectual aspects of my prose efforts at the expense of the common-ground appeal of fairy tales. I joke around the house that I am not likely to get a long article considering my contributions anytime soon in the New York Review of Books.

So there are plusses and minuses to every stroke of luck. The New York Times reviewer didn't "get" WICKED, I felt; it's also possible she got it just fine but didn't like it. Fair enough. I've had other compensations.

Ultimately, one doesn't write for reviewers. One also tends to respect reviewers who point out flaws one has not seen; one tends to dismiss reviewers who point out flaws that are not actually pertinent to the novel at hand--that is to say, flaws in the book that the reviewer believes she has read, or believes the author should have written, rather than the book in hand. Reviewers (and I am one, so I know) can read incredibly quickly and sloppily.

SRR: You read a little from your novel in progress, DEPOSITION OF AN ORACLE, the final installment of the Wicked series (oops. Third of four). Initially, did you know that this would be a series? How did the inspiration evolve?

GM: DEPOSITION will be the third of four books. I didn't know the books would be a series until my readers wrote at the end of SON OF A WITCH that they would take out a contract on my life unless I began to wrap up some loose ends. Since fiction is meant to simulate real life--even life in a fantastic land like Oz--loose ends don't bother me at all. But I now see, too, that I don't want to be writing about Oz for the rest of my life, so I will provide some narrative closure by the end of book four (tentatively called THE WATERMARK) for my sake as well as for my readers (and my poor, punished characters).

SRR: When you talked about your process of writing, you used a piano analogy, that writing was something like practicing scales. You are so talented in your readings, it makes me wonder. Are you also a musician? Do you have an acting background as well?

Nice of you to ask! I play piano and guitar and I do sing (used to lead a church choir.) I do not have a background in acting--but do in teaching, which is much the same thing.

SRR: While developing your novels, you mentioned occasionally using notecards to keep track of your scenes. How often does it occur that you find the story jumping into totally different or alternate paths?

Very often--if not always. But it is akin, I think, to driving across country--that famous (and useful) metaphor. If I start out for San Francisco, I usually get there--don't change my mind and decide to terminate the trip in Topeka or veer up to Anchorage. However the discoveries along the way --sometimes just to keep one's self invigorated-- mean interesting diversions. San Francisco may be the destination, and I do reach it: but perhaps it looks and means something other than I expected when I started out.

SRR: As well, you use a journal method and write by hand; I believe you said it allows you to moves slowly and carefully in the development process – pushing the "whole cart." Could you expand on that notion?

Like all fourth-grade kids, I find it painful to write by hand. It goes slowly and the wrist aches. One has to stop and rest from time to time, which allows the mind to sort out words a lot more efficiently, to sift not only for clarity but beauty. I am a fairly glib writer as I am a speaker, but my prose style is improved by slowing myself down.

SRR: I found your words on writing for children quite moving. You said that children demand the best we have to offer and thrill to learn how to live. In your session, you described for us your move to adult novels. Could you tell the readers briefly about that decision?

In the mid 1990's, with the school book market ever more intimidated by the rist of Christian fundamentalizm (especially in Texas), children's book publishers were becoming cowed as to both subject and style. If a big segment of the book-buying market took against a book, there was little hope for it. (We see the same thing in the attention paid to the opinions of the buyers of Borders and Barnes and Noble.) I think that children's book editors began to play a little too scared just at the time that I was beginning to want to open up my subject area to more and more morally complex material. In the end, I was for a time crowded out of the children's book market because my work didn't suit the market needs at the time. I have come back, gladly--in my new novel for children, out on September 11 this fall, called WHAT-THE-DICKENS. The great success of HARRY POTTER helped publlishers of children's books to see that the wildly imaginative and morally complex could not be fully suppressed by twitchy school boards in one part of the country.

SRR: When I first started reading Wicked, I was not only drawn to the mysterious world these characters inhabit, but also the political and social metaphor. At the end of your session, we unfortunately ran out of time, and I had just asked my burning question. The writing immediately suggested a parallel in my mind to George Orwell. Has that comparison ever been made and did you "feel" his work as an influence?

Most of the books I have loved the best have had a moral question at their center--a question about the individual's relationship to society. So Orwell's ANIMAL FARM, though I only ever read it once, in high school, stayed central in my thinking. So too the work of Grahame Greene and, in a lesser sense (on this score), E. M. Forster. I have usefully reread 1984, come to think of it, too.

SRR: One of your last statements [in the Muse and Marketplace session] was that one of the writers tasks is to "Keep ourselves awake." I love that sentiment but also think it can be broadly interpreted. What does it truly mean for you?

All those wonderful metaphors--and I forget who said which one-- Kafka, was it, an axe chopping up the frozen sea within-- Emily Dickinson, "If I feel the top of my head is being taken off, I know it is poetry." None of that verbatim. If a writer can respond that way to other writing, a writer must also respond that way to the world--when and if it is possible. The axe should always be swinging, the head always exploding with revelation. Clearly one can't schedule this or self-medicate in the interest of encouraging revelation: but one can encourage in one's self a habit of study of each day as it comes, each moment of feeling, each perceived conundrum, quirk, or contradicton of human experience. They come at us hourly, moment by moment; reading poetry regularly hones the skill of seeing the world anew. At least it does for me. And I hope that translates into making me a better writer than I might otherwise be.


I want to thank Gregory Maguire. His thoughts have greatly enlightened me personally, and if you haven't yet, read WICKED. It is a thoughtful and entertaining journey through the land of OZ and the exploration of good and evil. I can't wait to read SON OF A WITCH (the second of the series) now.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Amy Guth interview, part deux


Today, I'm continuing with Amy Guth's Q&A. We're talking about Three Fallen Women, her first novel.

SRR: I found it interesting that the jacket says the story is part anti-love story, where I actually felt it was perhaps more pro-love-of-self. In fact, I feel several of the "love" stories are beautifully tragic. Care to comment?

AG: I completely agree. I think it's a very inner-love sort of story. It isn't about what's happening in the relationship between Zach and Helen that is dictating Helen's actions toward Zach, but a sense of wanting to take care of herself. I think that's a good move, looking after yourself, that is. Because really, how available can anyone really be to a relationship, especially a romantic involvement, if you don't feel whole and relatively fulfilled yourself? Not very. And, sometimes, it hurts quite a bit to clear that personal space and set those boundaries for yourself. Always worthwhile, though, I think. To not do it is to put other people's feelings above our own and that never turns out well! Ha!

(SRR: Tell me about it!)

SRR: TFW is a far-from-comic, yet you began as a comedian/comic writer. Was it hard to separate your humorous inclination when writing about the intense characters and situations in this book?

AG: Strangely no. I think I tell a story in a certain literary voice, like every writer does, and sometimes the stories are tragic, and sometimes they are lighthearted and funny, but I think they all come from the same place. Dark stories resonate because we can identify with the character's struggle or pain and moments are funny when they're based in truth. It all boils down to truth and vulnerability, I think. Ha, also, people always comment on how quick I am with gallows humor, so maybe that's just me. I kind of feel like things just are what they are, not really categorizing things as good or bad. They just are. Most things are a balance of both and we opt to look at, or ignore, certain aspects.

(SRR: This gives me hope.)

SRR: Because I tend to focus on marketing on my blog, how did you decide upon So New Publishing, a rather new indy publisher? Did/do you have an agent?

I was working with an agent for a time and wasn't feeling heard at all. So, I took matters in my own hands and decided to do it myself. Everybody thought this was far too ambitious, but it made sense. I knew the kind of home I to find for Three Fallen Women. Once I found So New, I knew I wanted to work with them. They weren't taking manuscripts at the time, so I did the worst thing possible! I wrote as asked them to read it anyway! I hit send and thought "What the hell did I jsut do?" But, somehow it worked. It got down to SNM and one other publisher that I liked, but ended up going with SNM. And, I'm glad. James Stegall, the brians behind the operation there, is so talented and intelligent. I really had such a positive experience during all of it, but especially during the editing process. So many people told me to go in ready to fight for my words and pick my battles in the editing phases, but that wasn't the case at all. He and I worked through the manuscript and he gave every change such thought and care. We were very in synch and I feel like he really understood different complexities I was trying to show in the book and helped bring them out that much more.

(SRR: Again, more hope.)

SRR: I know from your blog, music pushes you into gear; does location stimulate you as well?

AG: In a strange way. It's hard for me to write about the environment I'm in. When I am in cities, I find myself writing about rural environments more and when I'm in the middle of nowhere, I can capture cities how I want to. I went to southwest, in the desert, to pull Three Fallen Women together, which I'm glad I did because it made me miss living in an urban environment enough to be a sort of taskmaster. I mean, I can write about the environment I'm in at any given moment, but I find it is easier to write from memory than sight.

(SRR: This is just cool!)

SRR: Finally, I'm dying for the next novel. Can you tease us with a few words about your novel-in-progress?

AG: Which one? Ha! I have five manuscripts coming along. Two are dangerously close to being out into the world, but I'm keeping my cards pretty close. One is set in the late fifties, and explores some feminist themes again, though different ones, and the other soon-to-be-ready one touches on a lot of things, but is mostly about, uh, what is that one about? Well, I guess I don't have my "elevator speech" down for that one just yet. So it goes.

SRR: Wow! That's amazing (and actually seems like what I do) – and I have to say, I'm also relieved. So many renowned writers promote the "one-at-a-time" mode- it seems I've always heard NOT to work on more than one project at a time. . Maybe I have masked ADD. But seriously, has your writing process always been so free? Did you have to break some binds of traditionally taught structure and method?

AG: I think that one-at-a-time thing was tried on me, but it didn't stick. I get bored far too easily, just generally, so I tend to bounce between projects until then are all finished, while creating new things as things wrap up. I think there is a good amount of workaholism at play there, too. (laughs)

Amy, again I want to thank you, and please let us know when that next novel comes out. I'm in line!


If I had to put one word to THREE FALLEN WOMEN, it would be "honest." It takes a particular brand of truthfulness to dole out such brutal situations and treat them with an empathy I don't see often, a realization of undisguised life.

And I'd like to add that my impression of Amy Guth is reflected in this passage from TFW:

"Beauty is beauty but gusto and passion make the world's skin burn. Not passion as in fucking, but passion in little moments that make up the day in the life. Smirking and ohhing over a delicious lunch, singing your head off in the shower, walking down the street with headphones on with a fucking groove in your shoe. Beautiful women are a dime a dozen, and really, quite and extremely dull, but take any woman and have Tinkerbell sprinkle the magic glitter of passion over her head and suddenly she's radiant."

I think Ms. Guth has that gusto and passion.


HERE is Part I


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sharing the joy!

It's interview week. First with Amy Guth whose debut novel, Three Fallen Women, is a knockout, and then with Gregory Maguire, long-time children's author who found his fame in the adult novel, Wicked.


Today, I'm celebrating the joy of a new job, Central Park in the rain, the sounds of the subway, and a conversation with Amy Guth, author of Three Fallen Women. These things may not seem related, but they are indeed. To fully understand how, you need to read this book.

Interview with Amy Guth, Part I.

THREE FALLEN WOMEN is a novel filled with an intricate web of emotions and actions in which a reader is so involved that occassionally the feeling to slap a character and immediately hug her pervades the immersion. I gasped, cheered, gagged, shuddered, and yes – I admit – watered up too. I was lucky enough to have met Amy Guth just before this novel's release last fall at the Decatur Book Festival and have stayed in contact with her since. After reading the first two pages, I fawned all over her and begged for this interview. She graciously accepted.

Let's get started.


SRR: First, I enjoyed Three Fallen Women so much, Amy. It was simply electrifying. I felt as though there is a part of me in all of them, so much of each of the characters resonated. Do you feel that women all have these extremely layered personalities? What about men?

AG: Thank you! I absolutely feel like there are many layers to our personalities. I'm sure we probably have access to different parts of ourselves at different points in our lives, hopefully discovering deeper layers as we age and rack up new life experiences. I'm not sure if that is sex-specific, because I think that's just part of being human. What is probably most likely is that women and men are socialized in such different ways that different dimensions of personality and psyche are taught to emerge, manifest and remain hidden, depending.

SRR: Because of these character complexities in Three Fallen Women, I have to wonder: Did you ever study philosophy, or is your socio-awareness a part of you inherently?

I love Philosophy. I did study it a bit in passing, but it wasn't my undergraduate focus so much. I say that, but I think I'm inclined that way and sort of put things through that kind of philosophical filter anyway. I'm really into physics, and I think a lot of that is present in TFW, too. I was reading a book about String Theory at the time, a topic I really enjoy reading about and considering, and that was really coming through in my writing. Around then, too, I was renting this place back in NYC and, upon moving a shelf one day, knocked a bit of plaster and found a bullet in the wall! I followed it's path back and found a patch in the wall, and the next wall. Finally I got the building super to admit that there was a robbery and shooting in the building over a decade prior. A few weeks later, I had people over for dinner and a couple I knew got into this horrible argument right in that area of the apartment. So, I started thinking about a room having scars of sorts and when I sat down to write and explore it, I think my mind went to explain it in terms of physics and philosophy. Probably a few other things I have tucked away, too.

SRR: True that! Three Fallen Women could be described as an ethereal glimpse into how our lives become interwoven – with others, dreams (both shattered and promising), ourselves. Here, I'd like to share a tad of this string theory theme from the book. (And now that I look back, perhaps it's why I became so hooked anyway, not even realizing the strings of TFW tied to my own science background and the love of magic realism variables in "real life").

"Déjà vu, you see, is little more than smelling trails you blazed in your last incarnation. It isn't stored in any shred of cognitive material (not the brain, not even the watery rawness surrounding it), for, as nobody knows, our underused brains are never to be trusted. No past-life memories are stored in our shifty heads, ready to be repressed or forgotten or dismissed in a moment. If you are a returner, past-life tracks are scattered about, left behind by the you before you. So déjà vu is never handled correctly. Instead of grabbing it, knowing you left strings behind in This Place, and following it around a while, it is marveled at and psychics and hypnotists are called in and the whole glorious thing is spoiled."

SRR: Did the concept of TFW arise from your own experiences or segments of your own life? Not in terms of having been an abused, confused druggie, but the feelings and situations that lead us astray from ourselves.

AG: That's interesting that you asked that, because it's sort of connected to something I've been thinking about a lot lately, the right to write. I never map out what I'm going to write, I just sit down and write and let it take on a life of its own. So, I sat to write one day and wrote about a character in the middle of such a sensitive issue and I stopped and wondered if I had the "right" to go there. I mean, if we were limited to write about only variations of our own experiences, doesn't that take a lot of creative wind out of our sails? Anyway, to bring it back around, I haven't ever been in situations anywhere near the situations in Three Fallen Women, but sure haven't we all had moments in life when we realized we'd gotten away from being our authentic selves? Everyone has. No doubt.

At the time I wrote TFW, I was seeing a lot of people, particularly women, who were having such difficult times enforcing their personal sense of boundary and without the roots that boundaries lend, these people were getting pushed more and more until they'd find themselves in their dire situations and people around them would wonder how things happened to suddenly or why this person had "snapped", when it felt so clear to me.

So, I tried to convey a sense of sympathy, I suppose, in the novel. I didn't just write Frieda lashing out and making these incredibly brazen choices, but I tried to leave judgement out of the text and understand how she got to that point, almost supporting her choices as reasonable ones to her, given her circumstances, even if they are painful and dangerous choices.

And that's all for today. On Saturday, I'll wrap up Part II!

Places to buy THREE FALLEN WOMEN; see reviews and such here at Amazon (with a 5 star rating, I might add).


And now for something completely different...

A book called Private Soldiers by a talented writer and soldier, Benjamin Buchholz.

I know Ben and his writing, so this is one nonfiction book I'm looking very forward to reading - a true account of one battalion, complete with professional and candid photos. Proceeds are donated to family support groups and memorial funds, so we can not only support our troops and their families, but also engage ourselves, through first-hand accounts, about what's really going on in Iraq.


And PS

Happy birthday to my son and my mom. They are both my most wonderful assets and biggest pains in my ass.

June 7 rocks!


HERE is Part II