With the announcement that Pamela Paul will be taking over the New York Times Book Review, the hills of social media have come alive with the sound of women writers cheering even as they point out that the numbers still look very bad, indeed, for us when it comes to review space.
And why is that? Part of the problem is that, even though we ladies write most of the fiction out there, we’re crammed into a pink ghetto, all of us—romance writers, and “chick lit” authors, “literary fiction” writers, women who write magical realism, women who pen murder mysteries, those of us who put out historical fiction, and those of us who write contemporary family dramas.
What if the Brothers Karamazov had been The Sisters Karamazov? Would it still be considered a classic? Is Anna Karenina chick lit because it deals with an unhappy wife? What if Death in Venice portrayed a desperate spinster? Would it still be “great?” If George Eliot had published under her real name, would she still be read today?
My great-grandmother came from the Ukraine with her three sisters when she was 13. Back home, her male relatives were sent to Gulags by Stalin. In America, she built a bread oven in her backyard, never really learned English, survived a couple of husbands, had a passel of children, and became a bootlegger. Is her story any less epic because she was more or less illiterate?
My grandmother was a maid. She knew about how to make a bed sheet snap into hospital corners, how to wring a rag so hard it almost dried itself, how to stretch a skimpy meal into one big enough for a whole family. She didn’t influence foreign policy, or go to war, or have deep and complicated sexual crises (that I knew of).
It pisses me off to no end that the stories that make me who I am, the history that forms me, is not only shut out of most scholastic books, but that it’s also shut out of literature. Like my grandmother, I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning. I, too, am raising children, and know how to smooth a bed sheet just so. Unlike her, I have a Ph.D. I’ve been around the world—twice. And I write for a career.
There’s a reason we women create the sorts of books we do, but it ends up being the same thing that smack us in the butts later. When we sit down to pen stories about who we are and what we know, we’re facing a Catch-22 (to borrow a manly literary reference). If history doesn’t recognize us as legitimate subjects, how on earth are we supposed to get into the esteemed literary canon?
Twenty years ago in college, when I was defending my senior thesis, I got in really big trouble for suggesting that we throw Alexander Pope out of the canon to make room for Sylvia Plath. It was an unfair question. In reality, there’s room for everybody, men and women, all races, all viewpoints. At least, that’s what they should tell you in school when you’re studying all the “great” works, most of which are by men.
Maybe until this whole mess gets straightened out, we ladies should have our own bestseller list, our own canon. Maybe then, the powers that be would sit up and realize that, hey, we actually do sell a lot of books. Literature is meant to expand the mind, after all. It’s supposed to change the world. I just wish the larger world would agree.
Ever wonder what it’s like on a launch day? Here’s how mine has gone….
4:45 am Alarm goes off. Deny it, then get up, put on all the fleece you own, and go to rowing practice. Row for an hour in 38 degrees and the dark. Flinch a little when the coach says, “Give me another twenty hard ones!” and “It’s only 7:00? We have time for another piece!”
7:20 am Coffee with teammates. Also, eat all the baked goods. And don’t even feel a bit sorry.
8:00 am Longest, hottest shower known to man. Since it’s important to dress for success, put on yoga pants, a cashmere sweater, Christmas socks, and too much eyeliner.
10:00 am Ask all your girl writer friends on Twitter and Facebook to shout out that The Gilly Salt Sisters is released in paperback. Be immediately gobsmacked and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and friendship offered. Feel honored to know so many cool women writers. Even if we’re not getting proportionally reviewed, we are a force!
11:00 am More food, this time involving shameful amounts of melted cheese. Refuse to feel guilty about this, either.
1:00 pm Lovely notes from editor and publicist at Grand Central saying congratulations on the PB release. Answer them, thanking them for their vision and support. Be grateful that your publishing house feels more like a publishing family.
4:00 pm Snack. Totally necessary. Pull up new book and stare at it, but get nothing done.
4:30 pm Check Amazon rankings. Hmmm. Book is not #1. Book is not #10. Book is not….Okay, never imind. Book is ON AMAZON. That’s good. Book is also on IndieBound and B&N. Feel proud.
5:00 Cooking of dinner about which children will first complain, but then fall upon like badly raised wolves. Family talk. No one is impressed with paperback release, as they have heard all about the book already for far too long. Conversation drifts to Shetland ponies, Legos, and how many laps it’s acceptable for the PE teacher to make students run.
8:00 pm Pajama time, for kids and you. New book swirls in your head. The paperback of The Gilly Salt Sisters sits on your desk. In it, there’s a chaper for your NEXT book, Mercy Snow, coming in January. Start thinking about THAT book launch. Swear that next time, you’ll do it right. Or maybe not. Probably not. Nah. Mostly, you realize, you wouldn’t change a thing.
So if you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that about six months ago, I got sucked into a strange and mysterious cult otherwise known as the Sport of Rowing.
I started because sitting around writing novels is fun, but rough on your body. Long days in a chair. Hours at a keyboard. Not healthy. I needed to get out and move.
I got more than I bargained for, as rowing has transformed my life. And guess what? As I learn to handle myself in a boat, I’m also discovering that what happens on the water has an enigmatic push-pull with my life off of it. Who knew that rowing and writing go hand-in-hand? But they do! Oh, they do!
1. Setting Out is Scary: There is a terrible moment—especially in a single—when you push yourself away from the dock, and you think, “What am I doing? This is a bad idea.” Maybe the water is rough. Maybe it’s cold. Maybe you haven’t been out in a while. It’s the same feeling I get when I begin a new book. I feel vulnerable, tippy, and very uncertain about what I’m about to do.
2. Rhythm Is God: You cannot row a boat hurky-jerky. It’s slow up the slide, and quick hands away. Over and over again. Likewise, every story has a balancing point, a voice, a structure. You just have to find it and follow it.
3. Repetition Is the Name of the Game: Want to row fast? Want to win? Put the oar in the water, and pull. Then do it again, and again, and again, and again. Even when your legs go numb. Even when your hands start bleeding. Even when you’re pretty sure you’re about to throw up. Do not stop. In writing, there will come a time when you hate the story, when you want to throw in the towel, when you have no idea why you’re doing what you’re doing anymore. This is NOT the time to quit.
4. You’re Going to See Things Other People Don’t: No one will understand why you get up at 4:30 and go out when it’s raining and 35 degrees. No one will understand why you run stairs until you hobble, or erg for 50 minutes at a time. Honestly, sometimes YOU won’t understand it. But there will come a day when dawn breaks on the water, and a seal pops up by the bow, and the ferry slides by that you will look around, and you will get it. You are seeing the world in a way almost no one else ever does. You will feel like an Arctic explorer, like you’ve gone back in time. I always get that feeling when I’m well and truly into a novel I’m writing. Like I’m a trailblazer. I feel humbled, and lucky, thrilled, and alive.
5. You Better Work Well With Others: I am a rowing slut. I will row anything—most often a single, a double scull, a four, and an eight. Rowing is not an individual sport. You need to be perfectly in tune with your pair partner and your stroke. You need to do what the coxswain tells you at the drop of a hat. Similarly, novels are not produced in total isolation. You should probably listen to your editor. You should remember that there are marketing teams, and publicists, and sales teams involved in the whole process of putting out a book. If you’re pushing against them, you just aren’t going to get very far. In fact, you may overturn the whole shebang.
6. If You Can Row, You Can Do Anything: Rowers are amazing and superior beings. It’s a simple fact. You don’t even have to row very long to feel that. There’s something about navigating a fiendishly difficult and narrow boat, often with other people, that translates into self-confidence. Maybe it’s because we are constantly pushing ourselves past what we believed we could do. Get my butt out of bed on a freezing morning? I do it! Handle equipment failures? Yes, no problem! Cox a boat in the dark? Sure! I feel like if I can handle whatever rowing throws at me, I can probably handle whatever the rest of life gives me, too. This has lent me confidence to try new subjects and tactics in my work, to take a chance, and reach for bigger things.
7. Rowing Is Wonder-ful: I turn into a six year-old when you put me in a boat. I’m like, “I’m in a boat! I’m in a BOAT!” Somewhere along the line, I’d lost that sense of joy, and boy, am I glad I got it back. Now, if I can only put it down on the page….
Whatever you do in 2013, I hope you find all the joy and fun in it, too. And if you haven’t found it yet, what are you waiting for? Get out there, and play!
When I heard about the Newtown school shooting yesterday, I think I reacted the same way as every other parent in America—with a passionate and immediate desire to drive straight to my children’s school, bring them home, line them up on the couch, and then throw my body over them. For the rest of time.
I didn’t, of course. For one thing, it would have scared them. For another, I was reasonably certain they were safe where they were. But how could I go on with a normal day when the very worst thing about being alive—the threat of suddenly and violently losing one’s children—was being played out in front of the nation’s eyes?
The answer is that I didn’t. Instead, I went to my local independent bookstore, which probably seems like an odd and maybe even capricious decision, and did to me at the time, as well. But I think I understand what was behind it. In the face of a most horrible and devastating story, I needed to be in the one place I knew that could not only accommodate that narrative, but would provide a kind of dialogue about it.
Book Passage is more than just a store. It’s a longstanding community hub, a place to grab coffee and talk, a locus for lectures, classes, and clubs. It’s where I used to go as a child, where I took seminars as an aspiring writer, where I’ve given readings, and shopped, and made connections with other writers. It’s part of my life, as necessary to me as the grocery store.
When I walked in, I was met by my good friend, Calvin, who manages events for the shop. He knows I have kids, and he, too, had heard about the shooting. He hugged me, and then we talked books, recipes, family, and discussed the merits and drawbacks of Christmas.
I ran into Luisa, the daughter of a famous local writer and a family friend, who also works at the store, and who, like me, has young children. We shook our heads, our faces long and worried, and wondered what would happen if book people ran the world.
Since I couldn’t go snatch my kids out of school, I began snatching books off the shelves for them. That novel my oldest daughter’s been asking for? In the basket. A book about trolls for my middle daughter? Yes. The Lego book of ideas? Why not? Books for my husband, a paperback for me, more books for the kids.
Maybe it seems silly. Maybe it seems like I’m trying to buy my kids’ affection, and, to be honest, I worried about that, but then I realized what was behind my book binge. When my kids got home from school, I knew I was going to have to tell them about the shooting. I just wanted to make sure that when faced with an unthinkable and awful story, they know there are a million other voices in this world, and that not all of them are evil.
A bookstore—a good one, at least—is far more than just a retail establishment. It’s a bank of the human condition. The shelves of Book Passage offer succor to the grieving, wonder to the jaded, advice to the confused. You can go in alone, and come out with an armful of company. If you are a regular, chances are you can walk in and someone there will be able to prescribe exactly what your spirit needs.
In a bookstore, you can find all manner of villains and heroes, both real and imaginary, in a tangle of interrelated pages. It’s a safe place to ask the big questions. Where does evil come from? Are heroes born or made? And most especially, in the face of something like the Newtown shooting, the simplest and hardest question of all: Why?
The children who died in the shooting had their life stories stolen from them. They were still at an age where magic could be real, where they believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Probably not all of them could read, but when they listened to a story, I bet they did it whole-heartedly, in the manner of all children, putting themselves right at the center of it.
May we all remember that lesson. May we all turn the pages of a book from time to time, walk a spell in one other’s shoes, and remember that but for the grace of God, we go there, too. Once you read a story, it becomes yours. What you do with it is up to you.
My prayers and thoughts are with the families of Newtown.
I hope. I have been in a cave for the past eight months–a dark place where much drafting and rewriting has occurred–with the end result being a new novel! It’s called Mercy Snow, and is set to come out in January 2014, still some way off, but there is a lot to do. Covers to design. Final revisions and copy edits to get through. Catalog copy, blurbs to collect, all the exciting business of putting out a new book.
And! The paperback of Gilly Sisters is coming out this March! The Gilly Sisters would be perfect for your next book club. There’s so much to talk about: sisters who are nothing alike (and you’ll find out why), lost love, redemption, and second chances. And the salt! You’ll want to nibble all the savory snacks you can.
Now that I’ve (sort of) rejoined the land of the living, I will be updating my blog more frequently. Check back in and see what’s new.
Today, I gave my kids their advent calendars, which they jumped upon with mad glee. I wish I had one of those, I thought. Then, I thought, what a cool idea an advent calander of books would be. Or, better yet, since a book a day might be a bit much, a book every Sunday of advent. In some countries, like Denmark, presents are given on the Sundays of advent. This would be such a lovely tradition. I may just start it this year! My adult choices would be:
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. So good!
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. A magical fun read for this time of year.
Delicate, Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. Because short stories are always fun and these are simply breathtaking.
The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater. Because a cookbook is the perfect present and because his recipes always turn out so well.
Whether you do an advent of books or just a Secret Giving exchange, what would you give? Happy Holidays!
If you’re like me, you have overindulged this weekend. If this keeps up, I am going to end up square-shaped by New Year’s. Clearly, it’s time for a pause in the carb-fest. Here’s what I love these days. It’s GOOD.
Sliver 1/4 of a head of green cabbage. Sliver some Romaine leaves. Add some thinly sliced radish and some celery. Add a bunch of chopped chives and a little basil or any other fresh herb. Sprinkle on some feta and, if you want more protein, add a little boiled, chopped chicken. Mix some olive oil with lemon juice, a splash of white wine vinegar, a clove of smashed garlic, a sprinkle of cumin, and some dried mint leaves. Dress the salad, add salt and pepper, and enjoy. Surprisingly filling, crunchy, and good. The perfect remedy.