What I love about book Clubs

Simon & Schuster selected my book as their May pick for their Book Club, and after I did my little dance of elation and joy in my living room, I thought about how I feel about book clubs. In a word (or three): I love them! I just did a skype yesterday with the wonderful Boulevard Books Book Club in Brooklyn, New York, and they reminded me of why I love book clubs so much.

I’ve done my fair share of book club visits (mostly through skype or over the phone, though I’ve done a couple in person, too). Book clubs are all very different from each other. Some involve food, others don’t. Some are huge, others smaller. But in all of my visits, I was delighted to hear from people who knew the book incredibly well, had strong feelings about plot/theme details, and talked about my characters as if they were real people. I think that outside of a university graduate seminar in literature, there are very few places in American life where people can gather and talk thoughtfully about the machinery of fiction: language, metaphors, themes–and a book club is one of them.

What always excites me about book clubs is just how well they know the book. Sometimes, they actually know the book better than I do. They notice everything about the characters, even throwaway lines I put in on a random page and forgot about it. They notice certain recurring metaphors. (Despite my book’s title, I was unaware of the number of times “burning” shows up as a metaphor.) They make connections between characters. (I didn’t notice how characters who are on opposite sides of the antagonist/protagonist fence sometimes behave in similar ways in my novel.) I write very subconsciously, and make a deliberate effort, during the drafting stage, to remain unconscious of the book’s themes. So it’s really exciting when I actually get to hear from readers–super smart, engaged readers–who let me know what’s actually on the page. What I actually wrote, as opposed to what I think I wrote. For instance, book club members often ask me about the character of Hana. When I wrote the book, she was a minor character, someone I really didn’t think much about. I didn’t realize her importance until after I started doing book club visits.

The other thing about book clubs, and this may be the masochist in me, is that they really let you know what they didn’t like! They do this superpolitely, but they still do it, and I kind of love it. If they see some inconsistency in a a character, they don’t hesitate to tell you. But by the same token, there’ll be someone in the club who’ll explain that exact character’s (seemingly) puzzling behavior by offering their own insights. Book club members, I suspect, are all amateur psychologists, and always figure out the characters’ motivations (even the secret ones). On the other side of the coin, book club members aren’t shy about letting you know when they’re fans of the book, and there’s nothing more fun than to talk to someone who appreciates what you’re doing.

What really intrigues me is the fact that no book club visit is the same. Yes, there are some questions that often get asked, like my parents’ reaction to the book. (The book is inspired by my mother’s life.) But the book club is more often than not a reflection of its members’ own interests, backgrounds, and location. In a book club in Singapore, a lot of the conversation had to do with Asia, as well as my own complicated ethnic/national background (Brazilian/Korean/American); we ended up talking about “third cultures” and the ladies had some wonderful insights about raising children in a foreign country. In a book club in New York, East Coast intellectual mecca, the members asked very Charlie Rose-like questions about the ethics of writing about living family members and process-related questions about different stages of the manuscript. In a book club in Chicago, populated by young women in their 30s, we talked about the customs and traditions described in the book. When a book club visit is going really well, in my opinion, the members almost forget that I’m there and start talking about the book amongst themselves, offering their views on different characters’ behavior. Interestingly, in my most recent visit, there was a lot of talk about possible What Ifs, like alternate endings, and What if Soo-Ja ended up with —— instead of —— at the end? It was fun, because the book then took on its own life, with people rewriting the ending in their heads, or getting to hear about the different versions of the story that were in my own head at different points.

The other thing that impressed me about the book clubs I’ve visited is the egalitarian nature of the meetings. Pretty much everyone who wanted to talk got to talk, without anyone trying to dominate. And when people disagreed on an interpretation, it was always done in the spirit of coming to a deeper understanding and the awareness of multiple possibilities, rather than a “You’re wrong and I’m right” kind of situation. Sometimes I’ll get asked a question, and the answer that another book club member provides is often just as interesting or even more so than the one I do. I think of myself as the “Director’s Audio commentary”/Making-of Featurette on the DVD, providing some illuminating trivia about how the characters came to be, or why I made the choices I made. Yes, I’m the bonus feature on the DVD; I mean, book!

If you want to chat about the book, BookBrowse is hosting an online book club discussion here. If you want to chat with me directly, request a Skype visit here. If you want to join the Simon & Schuster discussion of the book during the month of May, the link is here. Happy reading and discussing!

Storyweek Festival of Writers

Every March, the college where I teach hosts Storyweek, a week-long series of talks, readings, and discussions with writers, playwrights, and book industry folks. I was invited to participate in a panel called “The Female in Contemporary American Fiction,” alongside Bonnie Jo Campbell, Christine Sneed, and Nami Mun. Patricia McNair moderated. In the photo above: Bonnie, Patricia, me, Christine, and Randy Albers.

Each of us read for about ten minutes, and then we had our discussion. Nami started things out with a section from her novel MILES FROM NOWHERE. She read from the chapter “What We Had,” which is one of my favorite chapters in the book, and emblematic of the heroine’s suffering at the hand of abusive lovers. I was intrigued by the way Nami read: slowly, in an almost whispery, lulling tone, giving a dreamlike feel to an otherwise harrowing scene. I’m teaching her book in my Asian Am Lit class this semester, and halfway through her reading, I thought, “Why did it not occur to me to invite my students to this?” I probably didn’t say anything because I was reading, too, and I treat my fiction writing as some shameful habit that I don’t bring up in public unless others mention it first, kinda like it’s a previous marriage, or something that I’m dealing with in AA.

The section I read is one of my favorite scenes to perform. My approach to readings is informed by my experiences going to the theater to hear stage readings of plays, rather than fiction readings. I hate to sound like a Benedict Arnold, but I often find author readings quite dull (with the exception of my friends’ readings, which are always scintillating and delightful, of course). That’s why when I read, I treat it as a theater experience, and read it as if I were an actor. Sometimes I’ll do a more traditional reading (like I did at the Brooklyn Fest), but most of the time I pick a scene that’s heavy on dialogue and pretend I’m in a play.

The scene I did was the one where Eun-Mee, Soo-Ja, and Jae-Hwa go to a coffee house, and Eun-Mee sabotages Soo-Ja’s plan to borrow money from Jae-Hwa. I love playing all the characters, and in fact, I’m thinking of starting a service where readers can call me at home and I’ll read to them, although maybe that’s the same thinking behind this cool “audiobooks” concept. But seriously, I feel like part of the reason book tours and author readings are on the wane is because we authors often fail to make them entertaining. The notion that our presence alone justifies the audience trekking to the bookstore doesn’t quite cut it. That’s why I think readings should be more like talks (lectures), or theater. I remember going to Steppenwolf once with my friend Crystal Williams, and watching a performance of a short story by Julie Orringer. The actress was fantastic, and managed to make each line land. She was memorably, charismatic, and totally convincing as the “voice” of that character. So that’s my philosophy toward author readings: a cross between an excerpt from an audio book and a theater performance. And that’s kind of what I tried to deliver at Storyweek, with the help of the microphone and a lovely  audience that kindly went along for the journey.

Christine Sneed read from her book PORTRAITS OF A FEW OF THE PEOPLE I’VE MADE CRY, whose plot sounds so much like my own life back in L.A. (a creative writing teacher has affair with movie star), or wait, actually maybe that was just a dream I had. And Bonnie Jo Campbell read from her book AMERICAN SALVAGE, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Bonnie and I did an event together in Detroit back in October, and it was super fun to see her again. What I like about Bonnie, both in her fiction and in real life, is that she’s unfailingly honest, super generous, and whip-smart. We had dinner together in Chicago a few months ago, and for more on that, looksie here. That, incidentally, is my most popular blog post, which indicates the level of interest in writers eating at restaurants together.

My Visit to My Publisher

ImageGoodness, am I really this behind in my blogging? Time-machine, please take me back to September 16! That’s the weekend I flew to New York for a triple whammy of events: visiting my publisher, taping an author video, and doing a group reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival. On the plane ride over, as we were boarding, like the ditz that I am, I accidentally dropped all my things on the floor. I was super embarrassed, as I was completely stopping the line, and people in the back started hissing. One incredible kind passenger wearing a fancy suit actually let me squeeze in front of his knees and compose myself, while he held my stuff. How nice is that? Eventually, I made my way to LaGuardia, where a cab took me to my hotel. The next morning, I headed to the offices of Simon & Schuster, feeling a bit like a character in a Judith Krantz novel. (Yay, Scruples is back on ABC!) Simon (as them folks in the biz call it, or maybe that’s just how Wendy, marketing director, refers to it) is in the most glamorously imaginable location, right in midtown Manhattan, only a block away from Times Square.

The first item of the day was to shoot an author video. It consisted of the video director asking me questions off-camera and me answering them. They actually gave me the questions ahead of time and I practiced in front of a mirror the night before. But as I was practicing, I felt like I wanted to add my own plug, and so when we were done with the Q&A, I asked them if I could deliver, umprompted, a teaser line that I’d come up on my own. That line, much to my surprise, is what they chose to open the video with. You can see the results here.

After the video, I went back to their offices for a catered lunch at the conference room where I got to meet…tcham tcham tcham, the man I call The Wizard. Jonathan Karp. I call him that partly because it’s a campy reference to the Wizard of Oz and I’m just like Dorothy off to meet the Wizard in Midtown Manhattan. But unlike the Wizard in the movie, Karp actually does have magical powers. If you don’t believe me, then see this. Or better yet, see this. Aside from Jonathan, I also got to meet Richard Rhorer, Lauren Monaco, and some other folks. The Today Show had just done a thing on my book a week earlier, so they kinda teased me about that, which was kinda fun. I mean, if you’re gonna tease me about anything, please let it be about the Today Show! I also got to see Wendy Sheanin, who I’d got to hang out with at a pre-pub tour a few months later. (For a flashback about that, looksie here.)  I also got to meet the sales reps for the book, including Amy Hoang, Jessica Ko, and Stuart Smith, who were super, super nice. They had all written amazing blurbs for the book, and I was happy I got to thank them. (For those of you who don’t know this, sometimes people in-house will write blurbs for a book, just like those you see in a book jacket.) It was really fun to meet everyone who had worked on the book! In the photo above, you can see some of them: Rebecca Marsh, Sammy Perlmutter, my publicist Tracey Guest, moi, and Amanda. The photo was taken by my agent Lisa Grubka, who unfortunately is not in the photo, but who was a constant and supportive presence all weekend.

ImageI was in town not only for my visit to Simon & Schuster, but also for the Brooklyn Book Festival. Wow. Where to begin? It’s like, Cavalcade of Stars time. I got to see Larry McMurtry (who has a super charming rapport with his collaborator Diana Ossana), and Jhumpa Lahiri, who was unbelievably funny and self-effacing. Also, while I was in line for the McMurtry event (which I had to duck out early from due to my flight), I see none other than Joyce Carol Oates walking in my direction. And we made eye contact! It was one of those moments where I knew, and she knew that I knew, and I knew that she knew that I knew, that in my head, I was going, “That is Joyce Freakin’ Carol Oates, ladies and gentlemen.” She gave me a faint smile as she walked by me. She looks exactly like her book jacket by the way, and those twerps at Princeton are very lucky they get to learn from her.

But first, I was all business that morning, for a panel I was doing with Haley Tanner, Barbara Browning, and Peter Munsford. It was called “Who? New!” and it was about debut novels. Tea Obreht moderated the panel, and she was really great. She’s sooo young, and so talented and gifted, and I wonder what it’s like to go through what she’s going at such an early age. In my mid-20s I couldn’t even figure out how toasters worked, much less write a book this good. I bought Tea’s book and she did something that was so unbelievably charming (and hopefully she won’t mind me sharing): on her dedication, she drew a cute picture of a tiger! Oh, in the words of Rachel Zoe, I die. Afterwards, we signed books, and this one reader was named “Erwin” and I kept mispelling his name on the dedication for some reason. I think it’s because in Portuguese (I’m Brazilian), “e”s sound like “a” and “e” sounds like “i” and there’s really no “i” sound. The photo above is from all of us on the stage.

After my panel, I hung out a bit with my agent and the Simon people who came, including Michele Bove, Amanda, Rebecca, and Sammy. Then, I headed to the Courtroom Hall to check out my friend Patrick Somerville’s reading. Now, while I waited for the event to start, apparently some clever person from the New Yorker thought it would be a clever idea to take a picture of our line, and call it the “hippest of all long lines.” This is from the New Yorker book blog. I’m the third person from the top, and if you squint, you can see my hipness all right, though mostly it’s just me trying to juggle a water bottle with my books, and desperately trying to hang on to my spot in line against ravenous crowds of lit-hungry zombie intruders.

All in all, it was a really fantastic trip. I got to check out early the Jackson Pollock exhibit at MoMA, thanks to my friend Jesse Oxfeld, theater critic extraordinaire and purveyor of museum admissions, and had an awesome dinner at Ma Peche with my friend Wendy Lee.  I love New York, and you can hear me rhapsodize more about it here. Ah, New York, you sure do know how to treat writers, don’t you?

AWP 2012: Writers, writers, writers!

The AWP conference was in Chicago again this year, after the city hosted it in 09, and it was a great chance to check out some awesome panels and hang out with other writers. I teach close to the hotel where the conference was held, and am there often, but I’ve *never* seen it so busy. Writers, writers, writers, everywhere! It was impossible to get an elevator, until I figured out a trick: When you’re in the lobby trying to go up, just take an elevator car going down. You only have to wait one floor, and then you get to your destination!

My Friday began by visiting a panel hosted by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It was about work-in-progress/process, but also about procrastination/inspiration. Ken Chen led this one, and he said some really wonderful things about trying not to intellectualize too much and just letting the scenes work themselves out. Nami Mun also had some really great insights, and the audience was treated to some cool pictures of her writing space. Who doesn’t love looking at writers’ s desks? Hers is surprisingly uncluttered, and looks out to a view of some trees. Don Lee, who has a book coming out with Norton, also shared a picture of his writing space, which was quite beautiful. The reaction from the audience after the panel? One person asked, “How are you guys so awesome?”

Later that night, I attended a dinner in honor of the formidable writers Esmeralda Santiago and Jesmyn Ward, who just won the National Book Award. They’re both super generous and wonderful writers. We went to Henri, which is a restaurant right across from Millennium Park. We could actually see from our seats one of the art pieces in the park. Also at dinner were my colleagues Jeanne Petrolle, Garnett Kilberg-Cohen, and Aviya Kushner, as well as Dinty Moore, Bonnie Culver, Amber Withycombe, and her husband Josh. Frank Cantor (who is Esmeralda’s husband) unfortunately got a cab driver who took him to the wrong place, but he made it! Towards the end of dinner, we caught a sneak peek at local celebrity Christy Hefner, who was waiting for her table. Yes, from that Hefner family.

Jesmyn, by the way, is the completely opposite of how I imagined a National Book Award-winner to be: she’s utterly humble, kind, and generous. The moment I win the National Book Award (after all my payola goes through; I *am* from Chicago, after all), I’m going to be a complete and utter diva, and surround myself with an entourage of ten. But Jesmyn was just wonderful, and I was floored to hear about her experiences with Hurricane Katrina.

Jesmyn and Esmeralda were absolutely amazing readers/speakers. They are not just readers but *performers*, and kept the audience entranced. If you ever have a chance to hear them read, do! During the conversation part, which I was lucky to moderate, they shared so many incredible stories of courage, and fortitude, and I think they reminded everyone how much blood sweat and tears goes into a book. Afterwards, some folks came up to me to say some nice things about my moderating, and I was glad, because everyone knows the moderator is the most important person! Right? I mean, I will completely take credit for any and all interesting things said at the event. But seriously, that’s the spirit of collegiality at AWP: it’s a lovefest.

Finally, the day ended by going to Alexander Chee’s fantabulous get-together at the 720 South Bar & Grill, in the lobby of the Hilton, where the conference took place. There, I got to meet in person the uber-awesome, awesome-beyond-words Eugenia Kim. I’ve already blogged about her before: I ADORE THIS WOMAN. She wrote The Calligrapher’s Daughter, and, hopefully this is not top secret, is working on a sequel. (If it is top secret, please pretend you didn’t see this, and Eugenia, I will take this post down. Well, maybe not the whole post, just that one sentence.) Eugenia introduced me to Krys Lee, who has a new book out, DRIFTING HOUSE (I’m not sure why I just put that in caps, I just felt like it). I’d met Krys before on twitter, and it was great to meet her in person. The photo above it is of the three of us–and yes, I’m aware that I closed my eyes. There was one with my eyes open, but in that one, the camera caught Eugenia at an odd angle, and since I am such a gentleman, I sacrificed my own adorable-ness (which is usually the most important thing) and am posting this photo instead.

So that’s my report from AWP 2012!

Book Tour, Part three: Los Angeles

I love Los Angeles. I grew up there, went to high school there, then later graduate school. I came of age there. I know the freeways, and that the best way to get from the East to the West side on rush hour is to take Venice and not the 10; that San Vicente cuts through all the places you need to get to; that the 405 is actually quite easy during off-peak hours. L.A. has its own very unique character; it is truly laid-back, multi-ethnic; regional and cosmopolitan all at once.

Book culture in L.A. is really Pasadena culture, where the supporters of literary fiction live. So it was no surprise I ended up spending so much time off of the 110 freeway. First, I visited the KPCC studios for an interview with Madeleine Brand. Madeleine is amazing, and she has a gift for getting you to tell the deep truth behind things. I came into the studio with a rehearsed, prepackaged set of answers, which I promptly threw out the window. Madeleine doesn’t ask any of the questions you expect her to, and something about the way she gazes at you makes you want to be totally honest and in the moment. Our half hour together flew by, and I was impressed by her insights into the book. You can listen to the interview here. I personally have not listened to the interview yet, ‘cos I hate the sound of my voice, but I heard it’s intriguing, and does a good job of explaining the novel.

The day after I taped the radio show, I did my reading at Vroman’s–a hallowed institution in L.A. for book lovers. Vroman’s is a place for people who love books, where the booksellers know the writers really well, and where the customers feel like they’re inside a cultural institution, not unlike an art gallery or a cinematheque. Connie Kalter was my excellent host, and I was delighted that she stuck around to listen to the reading. It was the first reading I did where a substantial audience came. Some of them mentioned they’d come after hearing me on the radio that morning, which reminded me of the power of the media. It was, as my readings often are, a lovefest. A lot of my former colleagues and fellow graduate students at USC showed up, and we took this group photo. I was especially happy to reconnect with my old high school friend Juliana Cheng, who I hadn’t seen in almost two decades, and my old pal Josh Welsh, who brought his lovely wife Bonnie and their gorgeous daughter Isla. Josh laughed at all the laugh lines in the section I read–thank goodness for him. Afterwards, my friends and I went across the street for some Mexican food–it was wonderful to get to celebrate the book release with them. My only minus was that I didn’t get to say hello to Jen Ramos, who so kindly invited me to come–the thought of her just absolutely makes me smile.

I happened to be in L.A. when the book came out, so I ended up doing a lot of my promotion while I was there. The day after the reading, I headed over to the offices of the Korea Daily News to chat with Ena Yu, their arts editor. Ena asked a lot of great questions, and we had a lot of fun talking about the book. Ena speaks English, but for some of the interview, we talked in Korean. Ena was also wonderfully patient with me, as I showed up quite late, after getting lost on the way to Wilshire Place (which is not the same as Wilshire Boulevard!) I also did an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times a few days later, and I thought Mary Houlihan asked lots of wonderful questions as well. I happen to like doing interviews, because I love talking about the world of the book–it’s a way of staying in that world a little longer, even though you’re done writing and the book is out.

My other two events were done in connection with Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. Now, in order to give Mysterious Galaxy’s Terry Gilman proper justice, I might have to devote a whole post just for her. But just to summarize: Terry is one of the owners of Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore in San Diego that is now just branched out into Redondo Beach, in Southern California. Terry’s name and mine are forever bound by a brilliantly written blurb/summary of the book she wrote a few months ago. That blurb has appeared in numerous places, including I believe some newspapers, and on the Indie Next List. So if people look up This Burns, most likely they’ll run into Terry’s description. (In Indiebound, for instance.) Terry has been an early and wonderful supporter of the book, and I’d been dying to meet her. In person, she is completely charming and smart and lovable, and I was thrilled to spend time with her. She and Debra Gendel put together an incredible Ladies’ Lunch at Tiato in Santa Monica. It was a glorious summer day–warm and inviting–and we ate outside, on a patio that felt to me like a beautiful country home. I got to meet one fantastic new friend after another (we had a turn out of about 25 people for the lunch), and they absolutely made my day with their tough questions, their presence, and their hugs. Later that day, Terry hosted me a second time for a reading at the Redondo Beach Library, which was special in that my sisters, my brother-in-law, and my niece were able to come, and I got to share with my family some of the experience of my book tour.

I ended my days in L.A. by stopping by some bookstores to sign stock. I was delighted to see Skylight carrying it in their New Fiction section (I’m always surprised and thrilled when that happens), and Book Soup displaying it on their tables, right in front of the store. Seeing it at Book Soup was particularly surreal and exciting because I used to live near Book Soup, only a few blocks away, on Laurel Avenue, and Book Soup is a very cool, very rock ‘n roll and movie biz kinda place, right on Sunset Boulevard, and I used to be too intimidated to go in back in the day. I got to say hello to Paige Garver, the manager of the store, with whom I’d had dinner a few months earlier during my pre-pub tour and we chatted a bit about the biz, and books. I also stopped by Diesel, at the Brentwood Country Mart, which was full of customers, and is in a really lively and lovely neighborhood.

All in all, I had a great time in Los Angeles, and can’t wait to go back.

Book Tour, Part Two

The second stop in my book tour was San Francisco. I read at Book Passage in the Ferry Building–a gorgeous bookstore with an incredible view of the Bay. The building was full of tourists, which lent the place an atmosphere of leisure and lightness. There, I was hosted and introduced by the incredibly kind and friendly Ama Wertz, who made me feel instantly at home. A big thank you to everyone who came, and I was especially happy to see some old friends who still live in the Bay Area, two of them with new babies in tow! Also present at the reading was Meg Waite Clayton, who I met at the Printers Row Lit Fest a month earlier, and was excited to see again. I also got to meet in person for the first time Meghan Ward, whose blog Writerland I really like, and Erick Seitwan, author of OF BEES AND MIST. We used to have the same editor at Simon & Schuster, and it was great to see him there. The next day, I stopped by The Booksmith in the Haight to sign some stock. The Booksmith is right in the middle of all the action in the Haight, and it was really fun to see all the tourists going in and out of all the stores. Afterwards, I walked over to City Lights, home to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legendary press. The store was packed, and it was fun to see all the customers browsing and lining up to make purchases. The bookseller I met was really nice, and superhelpful in tracking down copies of the book for me to sign. Call me an egomaniac, but I love seeing the book on tables, or on displays, and it was great seeing the novel displayed on the New Fiction shelves, on the bookcases next to the register. Finally, as a final stop, I stopped by Books, Inc. in Berkeley, where I got to chat with the inestimable Calvin Crosby, manager of the store. Calvin and I chatted a bit about the pre-pub dinner where we met a few months earlier. I didn’t realize how big Books, Inc. was, or how lovely that part of town was, and I had a great time visiting. My friend had his camera, and he took this cute picture of my book, in the New Fiction table.

Now, after doing my reading and visiting all those stores to sign stock, I felt like my visit to San Francisco had been a success. I got to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, and celebrate the release of the book with some incredibly kind and supportive booksellers. To cap it all off, as I walked over to my gate at SFO San Francisco International Airport, I stopped by the airport bookstore and was surprised and delighted to see there, displayed on the side of a shelf, my book! That sighting was the perfect way to end a perfect trip.

Book Tour, Part One

The first stop of my book tour was Women and Children First Bookstore in Andersonville, Chicago. The reading happened the day after the book’s official release, so it became a launch party of sorts. I have a lot of love for WCF; I’ve been to a ton of readings there and always felt a sense of community. I loved the introduction I got from Shanta, the bookseller, and then it was on to reading three scenes from the book. Later, my friends said it felt like “Story Time,” or “Reader’s Theater,” as I ended with a scene that was very dialogue-driven. I did this thing that I learned from my friend, the playwright Lisa Schlesinger, where you look in a different direction for each character, to help orient the listeners.

What made the reading special is that it was the “local, hometown” reading–the one that all your friends come to, and it was an incredible treat to see my friends there. So many of my friends had helped along the way, and it was great that they could see what their support had led up to. I was also very tickled to see some of my former students. In the picture, you see Marquita Jackson, Michele Thompson-Draper, and Pamela Gabb, who’d been in my Intro to Lit class this summer and were just wonderful.

Also, I have to confess, I’m a bit of a ham, and love performing my characters. I also really enjoy talking about the book during the Q & A sessions. Finally, at one point during the signing, Shanta told me that we had run out of books, and I was surprised but delighted to hear that.

Afterwards, some friends and I walked over next door to Andee’s, a Mediterranean restaurant. The picture you’re seeing required multiple efforts–my camera turned out to be a sensitive soul, requiring special handling to activate the flash. But maybe the sepia look adds to its charm?

The day after, I decided to stop by a few bookstores and sign stock. My first goal was to get to Unabridged Bookstore, in Lakeview. Unabridged is great, and world-class in its selection. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) they were sold out of the book, so I didn’t stop by, as I waited for them to get more copies. I went instead to the Borders on Michigan Avenue, which is a very lively (and always packed) bookstore, and it was very sad to hear, a few days later, that they were closing. The staff when I was there was incredibly helpful and kind–going through such lengths to find me a Sharpie!–and I really do hope things work out for them, in spite of the closing.

Afterwards, I went to the Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Park, where I was absolutely tickled to see, in the New Fiction shelves, my friend Eleanor Brown’s book WEIRD SISTERS. I also saw my friend Rebecca Makkai’s THE BORROWER, which was very cool. My own book was there also, right next to Ann Patchett’s new one, STATE OF WONDER, which is, as everyone knows, a fantastic read. I also tried to make it to Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, but I ended up missing my train. I definitely want to get there eventually, though, Sharpie in hand.

All in all, my release week in Chicago couldn’t have been better. I met lots of wonderful booksellers, got to celebrate the debut of my book with my friends, and had that experience that’s always incredibly gratifying: seeing the finished book in actual bookstore shelves! There is nothing like it.

What You “Be” v. What You “Do”

In my early years writing, I spent a lot of time asking myself, “Do I have talent?” “Am I a good writer?” “Am I smart enough to be a writer?” Those were all “to be” kinds of questions, and implied an immutable, fixed, essential notion of ability–something that you “are” rather than something that you “do.” It implied that talent was genetic, and I was either “good” or “bad,” “talented” or “untalented.” It implied that who you were was static, and could neither change nor grow.

Then I realized that “to be” questions should be replaced by “to do” questions, and that who I really am is about what I do–my habits, my actions, my gestures–rather than what I “am.” There is no “am” at the end of the day, only what I’ve done and will do. What I do–how I garner my identity through actions–truly determines my talents and abilities.

To do questions are useful: “Do I revise frequently, and do I make my work better every time?” If yes, then I’m a good writer. “Do I do the necessary research, and does my research enrich the world of my characters?” “Do I submit my work to friends, and find ways to incorporate constructive feedback?” Those are all much better measures of one’s ability, skill, and talent, than “to be” questions.

“To do” questions acknowledge the fluidity of ourselves, and our ability to improve and change through discipline, application, and education. “To do” questions acknowledge the expansion of our brains, the mystifying effect of inspiration, and the magical power of self-efficacy and self-belief.

“To be” questions are elitist, self-defeating, un-self-loving, and ultimately, inaccurate and unhelpful. Inaccurate because so much research shows that nothing about our brains is “fixed”–our intelligence is certainly not fixed, and everyone can “stretch” their abilities. Biology and genetics are the worst possible determinants of success as a writer. The successful writer was not born with some kind of special gift. The successful writer simply has been doing the right things longer than your average writer. (The right things meaning reading a lot, writing a lot, refining one’s craft.)

The work of people like Malcolm Gladwell has been key in doing large-scale debunking of our myths about genius. Rather than genetic advantages, those highly original and successful individuals simply benefited from particular circumstances, i.e. birth order and/or exposure to technology and information. They may also have benefited from having to overcompensate for some kind of real or perceived drawback. One isn’t born a genius–one simply does genius-like habits and customs. I’m reminded of this every day, when I consider how much the quality of my thinking changes depending on what I do that day–for instance, I find that exercising has a tremendous effect on my brain power. And traveling (being in new environments) has a profound effect on my ability to be creative. When I travel, I don’t even need to tell myself to write. Words simply start flowing.

At the end of the day, there is no “I am a good writer” or “I am a bad writer.” There is only “I do the things that make a good writer good,” or “I don’t do the things that make a good writer good.” Nobody’s born “good” or “bad” at writing, and no one’s stuck at the same level of skill. A good writer doesn’t be a good writer–she simply does a good writer–and we all can, too.

Seeding, Seeding, Seeding

Writer-time is different than real-time. Real time moves incrementally, day by day, changing slowly. We look at our pile of manuscripts and ask, Why aren’t you published yet? Why are you not bound in hardcover and sold in stores yet? The rate of growth appears static, frozen, unchanging. We’re so used to change that happens gradually (a small success here, a pat on the back there) that we become frustrated by the appearance of stillness. Things should be happening now. After all, we’re used to seasons coming and going, and change happening incrementally in nature. Usually, “success” gets stretched out evenly over time. We feel like publication should work like that, too.

But writer-time is different–it’s all sameness, until suddenly you’re published. This phenomenon is also found in nature: in the bamboo, that remains at the same height for a very long time, and then suddenly sprouts many feet. It’s also found in the harvest, when the seeds planted suddenly sprout into fruits and vegetables. The rate of growth is not gradual; it’s sudden, and all at once. That’s writer-time. We sit on our manuscripts for years, waiting, and then suddenly, everything happens all at once: publication, followed by more publication, all of a sudden. It is how it is for everyone–the only difference is how long that “seeding” time takes–in some cases, 10 years.

It’s a mistake to assume that publication and “success” will not come just because all is as still as a quiet river right now. It’s like assuming that the bamboo will not sprout just because it’s been at the same low height for the past few months. It’s like assuming that the harvest will not come, just because the fruits don’t grow at the same rate day by day, but rather, all at once. There’s a time for seeding, and there’s a time for harvesting. Those two–seeding and harvesting–are not intertwined. You can’t seed and harvest at the same time. What we can do is seed, seed, seed–and wait for the inevitable harvest.

The farmer seeds because she knows that the harvest will come. Likewise, the writer writes because she knows that publication will come. The farmer doesn’t say, “Oh boy, I think I’m gonna pull out these plants by the roots because it’s been long enough and no peaches yet.” The farmer just waits patiently, secure in the knowledge that growth is inevitable. Similarly, a parent doesn’t say, “I guess I’m going to give up on my 8-year old son ‘cos he’ll never be more than 4 feet tall.” That boy, of course, will eventually go through his growth spurt and become an adult, gloriously 6 feet tall. The successful writer knows that the child will grow into the man, just as the manuscript will “grow” into the hardcover book.

During the years that we’re unnoticed, unread, unpublished, we’re doing something vital–we’re “seeding.” There is no harvest without seeding, and there is no published book without the seeding of the manuscript. Success does not come little by little, a tiny bit each month. It remains virtually absent, until suddenly it shows up at your door–a grown man, or a huge tree. It’s on its own time, its own schedule. It’s on bamboo time rather than clock time. The impatient writer in all of us may ask, “Why don’t I have an agent yet? Why am I not selling my book?” But that’d be like the farmer asking, “Where are my peaches? Where are my peaches?” We would look at such a farmer and think that he’s mad. Of course the peaches will come–as soon as it’s time for the harvest.

Why Writers Irrationally Dislike Their WIPs

A very typical response to a manuscript you’ve written is to at times dislike, or be critical of it. (Or to love it to death, but for now we’ll look at the days you dislike it.) You look at what you wrote and you feel disappointed, annoyed that it bears little relevance to the magna opus you pictured in your head.

That feeling, however, is completely irrational. You cannot compare the typed sentences in your computer to the imagined book in your head. Your work hasn’t been edited, type-set, or bound in covers yet. It hasn’t, in fact, even been completely finished yet. There is no way it can live up to your expectations.

But it’s not because it’s not good; it’s because it lacks the apparatuses of what we think of as a book. If you compare your first draft to a finished book (one that’s been bound, edited, and reviewed) of course your work will seem weaker by comparison. Writers often doubt themselves and the true value of their work because they compare the nascent manuscript not with other nascent manuscripts, but with finished books–finished books that have the “aura” that a book gets after it has been edited, marketed, and talked about in the press.

Every writer at one point dislikes her WIP, and for a simple reason: she’s spent a tremendous amount of time and energy into it, but the manuscript still hasn’t given her anything back. It just sits there. In order to make sense of that reaction, we decide there must be something wrong with it: it’s weak, or it’s bad. But the reason we question its value isn’t out of some rational, genuine awareness of the manuscript’s merits, but rather out of frustration that the manuscript hasn’t returned to us the work we put into it.

This phenomenon happens in life all the time: for instance, a lot of postpartum depression is caused by the disconnect between the mother’s “literal” labor and the baby’s inability to give the mother so much as a smile or a “thank you.” With buyer’s remorse, you spend a tremendous amount of money and time buying a house, and the day you move in, you realize you haven’t gotten anything from the house yet. No memories, no shelter, no nothing. You’re out 10 or 20 or 50 grand, and you haven’t really gotten anything in return.

Same thing with a manuscript. In that in-between, purgatorial period between finishing and selling the book, the manuscript just sits there. You’ve spent months, or even years working on it, sacrificing for it, and meanwhile, the manuscript gives you nothing (for the moment). In an attempt to understand this confusing scenario, the brain starts to play tricks with you. The book hasn’t lived up to the version in your head (the one that’s beautifully displayed on the tables in the entrance to the bookstore), and so you decide there must be something wrong with it.

It is impossible to gauge the true value of your manuscript, because of the “added bonus” that the process of editing, marketing, and displaying your book provide. (This is partly what makes publishing such an inexact art.) Your WIP may seem weak to you, but imagine it with a jacket cover image, a blurb from a famous novelist, an ISBN on the back, and a hardcover spine. It is comparing apples and oranges, and why WIPs–printed out, without the fancy stuff–always seem worse by comparison.

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