Concluded my agent search!

Alright, well that was the most nerve-wracking two weeks of my life. Got a lot of interest in the book, but finally ended up going with the first person who got back to me: Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord.

Very pleased to be working with Robert. He has an excellent track record, but, more importantly, he really loved and seemed to get my book. Hopefully it’ll sell, but we’ll see. Hmm, now I need to update all the many places on my site where it says who my agent is…

OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTHS, by Barbara Comyns

Recently I’ve been reading a number of very mannered, and yet quite modern, British novels. Obviously, I come across these books using the best possible catalogue of slim, mannered novels: The New York Review of Books Classics. I adore this publisher. They aim to publish “lost classics,” and yet if you read enough of their books, you’ll see that they have a very definite aesthetic of their own. Their books are usually very small-scale, compressed, realistic, and oftentimes they’re about lonely or desperate people. In modern times, novels like these are often lyrical or multi-cultural (or multicultural and lyrical), but the NYRB classics tend towards a more shabby-genteel, combined with sharp, specific, and oftentimes quite humorous, prose. I know that at this point I’ve turned off the vast majority of my blog’s readers, but this is my sweet spot. These are the sorts of books that I love.

It would be a mistake, by the way, to say that the NYRB Classics series is “white” or lacks diversity. But…I think of the NYRB classics as being from some long-ago era when our standards for diversity were different. For instance, so much of the call for diversity is about American voices. We want to see an Indian-American writing about India, or a Chinese-American writing about China, or a black person writing about what it is to be black in America. I’ve seen very few people calling for more translated fiction.

I don’t think that a book like our_spoons_cover_image_2048x2048, to name one spectacular NYRB find, quite qualifies as “diverse” according to our modern definitions. After all, the book is from Hungary, which is arguably a country of ‘white’ people, and Deszo was not, as far as I can tell, a marginalized person within Hungary. Nor is there anything in the book that strikes one as explicitly “non-Western.” It’s about an elderly couple whose lives revolve around their unlovable daughter, and who find their marriage, and their zest for life, restored when she goes off for a week of vacation.

And yet…there is something about it that feels very foreign. Something in its structure. This is a book that is clearly coming out of a very different tradition. It is in conversation with different novels. It could have taken place in America, but an American writer probably would not have written this book.

I think the world of contemporary fiction has a very difficult idea understanding that our notions of race only apply within America. Like, in what world does it make sense to say that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a person of color, simply because he’s Colombian? He’s not a PoC. He’s white. Similarly, is Aravind Adiga really writing post-colonial literature? Is Chetan Bhagat? And where do the ancient Chinese or Japanese novels fit in? Lady Murasaki was one of the most privileged people, and one of the most fettered, of her time and place (Heian Japan). How do we fit The Tale of Genji within the systems of power relations by which we judge which works are diverse and which aren’t?

Which is to say, I think the NYRB Classics provides a lot of diversity to the world of American letters, and that people who’re interested in diversity would do well to read some of these books.

Anyways, long digression over, the best of these books I’ve read recently was Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns, which is about a young woman, a painter, in mid-1930s Britain, who marries another painter and who attempts, amidst increasingly dire poverty, to, I don’t know–to try to survive and be happy–even as her husband grows more and more unmanageable.

What sells the book is the voice, which is indescribable. It’s such a perfect performance. The narrator is looking back on these events after a gap of perhaps ten years. She describes everything so matter-of-factly, even when things are at their worst. And yet it’s not an emotionless recital. It’s simply that she doesn’t place the emotion at the points where you’d think we’d place it. She’s a woman who’s keenly aware of beauty, and of silence, and of comradeship. She takes joy in other peoples’ company, and in the raising of her children. She loves the countryside. She even loves her husband, sometimes. She’s very pleased, at times, to be married and making a life for herself. I think…in some ways the distance has allowed her to remember things as they really were. When she was living through those days, they weren’t horror and poverty all the time. Even when she was most impoverished, she still had beautiful, carefree days. She still had joy. In many ways, the book reminds me of the Sarashina Diary, in which the anonymous author in a few words skips over her marriage and her bereavement and the children she bears, and instead spends many pages describing a conversation she had out in a snowy field with a strange traveller.

Reading such a good book!!! Katherine Heiny’s STANDARD DEVIATION

9780385353816One of my happiest finds of the last year was Katherine Heiny’s story collection, Single, Mellow, Carefree, which was so good I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of the author before. So when I was browsing books on audible, I was ecstatic when I saw the author had delivered a novel: Standard Deviation

It is so good! I actually can’t believe I had never heard of the book before. I know literary writers are always frightened of being shunted off into the women’s fiction ghetto (something that Heiny, with blurbs by Louise Erdrich and a publisher like Knopf, has obviously avoided), but this book has the things that make the best women’s fiction stand out: humor, zest for life, a focus on relationships, and larger-than-life characters.

I adore this book. I am actually restricting how often I listen to it (I only allow myself to listen whilst on walks) because I’ll be sad when it’s over.

The book’s protagonist is this dude in his mid-fifties, Graham, who’s been married to his second wife, forty year old Audra, for about twelve years. They’ve got a ten year old son who has pretty high-functioning autistism (kid loves origami and becomes increasingly involved with an origami club full of middle-aged men who also have autism). And Audra is really compelling. Okay, it’s possible I am only saying this because I am a man and because she verges on Manic Pixie Dream Girl status, but she also reminds me of plenty of people I know. She’s just this strange combination of self-absorbed and empathetic that, both in real life and on the page, is very compelling. For instance, she immediately ferrets out every detail about every person she meets. She collects gossip and extraneous information. Although she comes off as kind of ditzy, because she doesn’t know, like, history and science and stuff, she also has a remarkable amount of information about how systems work: how to get into college, how to get jobs, how to make friends. And she can read people with astounding accuracy.

She’s also got problems! She’s a pathological liar, and she gets inappropriately drunk. She also has a history of sexual misadventure, which includes hooking up with Graham while he was still married to his first wife, Elspeth.

Twelve years later, Graham and Audra are married, and he runs into Elspeth in the supermarket. They eat lunch together, and he begins to marvel at how different she is from Audra: she’s very cold and controlled and quiet. He wonders how one guy could’ve ever loved two such different women. And in some ways he wonders if maybe Elspeth isn’t a better fit for him.

Of course Audra gets involved. She befriends Elspeth, and for awhile the couple doubledates with Elspeth and her boyfriend. But then shit gets more complicated and well I don’t know. I’m not nearly finished with the book. But I highly recommend it! This book just makes you, I don’t know, it makes you feel hope for contemporary realist fiction. For the future of the novel of manners. Like, yeah, there is still life left in this old beast.

Onward to the next thing

I’ve never felt more definitively “between projects” than I do right now. I mean for the first time in three years I’m neither under contract nor am I currently working on a manuscript. I do have ten thousand words of a literary novel for adults that I’m pretty stoked on, and I think I’ll get back to that later in the summer. But in the meantime there are a few things I’ve wanted to try. I don’t know. These are exciting times. It’s still amazing to me sometimes that I’ve actually written novels. Like these whole huge long things. I’ve written them. One even got published! And didn’t do too poorly either. What a weird, weird thing. I still feel like a total beginner / outsider. Maybe this is what imposter syndrome feels like. I’ve never thought that I suffered from it, but perhaps I do.

And yet I don’t know. Part of it is that I still don’t feel fully grown up or mature or anything like that. I mean I do in my life. In my life I’ve pretty much got everything under control. But in my writing I still feel like I haven’t taken control of my full power. Not exactly sure where or how to do that…but I guess you just have to keep trying.

“I don’t know the answer to that, and I’m glad it’s not my job to figure it out.”

Over pride weekend, I was at a brunch where we began discussing, as happened at pride brunches around the country, the numerous reasons why Hillary lost.

To be honest, this is not something I have a huge opinion about. It does seem like Hillary could’ve done better, but it also seems like something of a moral hazard question. Like, if a few states had swung the other way, we wouldn’t be having this talk at all. Like do you guys remember 2008? Where they were more or less even in the polls until the economy crashed in September? And afterward all the talk was about what an amazing politician Obama was?

He was definitely an amazing politician, but would he have become president if AIG hadn’t gone bankrupt? I dunno. But if he’d lost the story would’ve been different. And why should it be? Why should the presence or absence of calamity change the story?

So the truth is I don’t know why Hillary lost. I’m not convinced it was Russia. I don’t know that it was the Comey letter. It may’ve been voter suppression: it’s hard for me to say!

Lately I’ve been falling back more and more on “I don’t know.” And that’s because oftentimes it’s the only honest answer you can give. Like there’re plenty of people out there who talk in these slippery slope arguments. They’re like, well, doesn’t America need an immigration policy? Can America just have open borders? Should people just flood in and be able to work without any controls?

Many of my friends would have answers for these questions. I don’t. As far as I can see,  open borders aren’t on the table, so why argue about them, unless it’s for the sake of arguing? I have my moral opinions, which is that it’s inhumane to deport people who’ve made their lives in this country and who have, often, been good and decent citizens. In many cases they’ve even paid taxes! And that’s oftentimes all I really need!

Or people are like: how do we stop police from killing black people?

Shit, I don’t know! I know that I would really very much like it to stop. I feel like it’s not really my job to provide detailed policy proposals to make this happen: it’s only my job to be part of a constituency that’s in favor of change.

I do think that running a government and creating laws is a pretty complicated job. There is a role for technocrats and wonks and centrists. The job of the political process is to set priorities. Politicians cannot decide what’re the most important things to be done; they rely on elections to agglomerate the voice of the people. But once they know what people want, it’s their job to figure out how to do that shit.

The downside, unfortunately, is that people oftentimes want some pretty messed-up stuff! Like since November 8th, people have been saying, “We’re gonna stop Donald Trump this way” or “Don’t let Donald Trump do that stuff” or “Make sure Washington knows that this shit isn’t normal!”

But, err, didn’t we have an eighteen month long election whose entire point was figuring out what exactly it is that Americans care about? And apparently Americans really care about immigration! It completely baffles me, honestly, but then again I am a brown person. Americans really care about repealing Obamacare. Probably because they think it mostly benefits brown people. They really care about building a wall. They really care about banning muslims. You can spin the election however you want, but it’s pretty clear that Americans care about that shit.

And this time around you can’t even say that the election got bought by establishment interests, because it wasn’t. You think the establishment cares about immigration? No way, they have no problem with open borders. This nativism is entirely a grass-roots thing.

In this case, the political process worked. It told our government exactly what the American people want from it. What they want is horrifying and stupid, but I don’t think the government is going to ignore it. Just like in the UK, the government could’ve ignored the Brexit vote, but they didn’t. It’s like, they had a vote on Brexit: the people spoke; they said what they wanted. That’s the system. It sucks.

Our system has judicial review. The courts are doing their best to block Trump. That’s pretty good. Thumbs up to the founding fathers. But other than that, what is there to do? All the calling your senators and congresspeople in the world isn’t gonna change the fact that we just had an election that was fought on exactly these issues, and our side lost.

So what comes next? Well…I don’t really know.

Every revision has been an exercise in pulling back

Getting extremely close to sending out my book! Very excited. It’ll probably go terribly and turn into a miserable experience, like everything else related to writing and publishing fiction, but right now I am excited. I am particularly excited with the revisions I’ve made. I think this last revision really pulled the book together.

What’s interesting with this book is how in every revision I’ve pulled back and made the book smaller, less plot-focused, and less dramatic. That’s not normally where you go, but in this case it felt right. The core of the story is in the main character’s sense of longing for a particular kind of connection with other people, and that’s a longing which gets blown up when there’re too many high-stakes events going on.

It’s been fun! If no agent picks up the book, it’ll probably be the end of my fifteen months of working on it, but they won’t have been wasted. I do feel much more able now to write the sort of books I want to write. Although I still love science fiction and fantasy, and I think my writing is much more exciting and high-stakes because of it, I do think I’ve needed to unlearn some habits I picked up from writing adventure stories.

Not that I think adventure stories are bad, it’s just that I don’t want (right now) to write them. I want to write books that focus more on the interior and on the prosaic, and you can’t really do that if the police are showing up and people’re being kicked out of school and all this craziness is going down.

Feeling quite anxious about sending out my book

I’m doing line-level edits to It’s Probably Just A Phase. The book is currently at about 78,000 words, and I’ve found that it’s generally possible to reduce a book by at least 10% simply by going through and tightening the language. I am also going to try to inject some beauty into the language.

In general, I’m not an amazing prose stylist. I have an okay ear, but my eye isn’t very good. I can’t see things in a new way, and if you can’t see well, then it’s difficult to write well. However I have come, over the years, to have a better opinion of my own line-level writing, simply because I leave out most of the bullshit that people often put into books when they’re flailing around and trying to write something that sounds like a book ought to sound, rather than relying on their own sense of aesthetics.

I’m not against description. I’m not even against wordiness. My sentences tend to be pretty long, and I think the right detail in the right place is a beautiful thing. Two of my favorite writers are Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust for Christ’s sake. Although it’s not the main thing I enjoy in a book–I prefer books that depict complex social relationships–I do love it when a writer can make me feel like I’m living somebody else’s life: seeing what they see, smelling what they smell, walking where they walk.

But if you can’t do that, don’t try to snow me over. I’m basically talking about any book described as having “lush prose.” To me that just means this book is describing the greek friezes on the lintel, and grandma’s collection of elf dolls on the bookshelf, and the smell of the jacaranda that’s climbing the trellis. God save me from the jacaranda. When a book is really dense and full, nobody describes it as lush. Nobody’s going around saying Virginia Woolf is lush, because prose is lush when it seems excessive or overgrown.

Anyyyyyyways, I’m editing my book. It’s frightening. I mean I haven’t done this in four years! And it seems very possible that nobody is gonna want the stupid thing. I believe so strongly in this book, but that’s not really a guarantee. And I am getting terrifyingly close to the day when I will need to send it out. Because after I do this line-by-line tightening there’s no more revisions left. I’m not gonna go back and rewrite a bunch of scenes. The book at that point is done, at least until an editor or agent has their way with it.

Oh well, better get to it.

Getting ready to get myself all married and such

I and my fiancé, Rachel, have been pulling things together for our wedding on July 30th. Mostly everything is pretty set, but there’s always little stuff. We’re chasing down everybody’s meal preferences, making a playlist, etc. It’s sort of tedious, but I am excited to be married. Mostly because of the healthcare! Rachel informs me that we don’t need to pay any premiums, and that I’m gonna get dental and vision coverage! Holy smokes. Right now I pay $300 a month, and I have a $4500 deductible.

There are other reasons besides healthcare for a writer to get married. But healthcare is really all the reason that you need.

I’ve read so many Westlake novels in these past two weeks. They’re kind of like candy, but they’re not mindless. Each one is very specific, and each one contains such detailed and intimate portraits. The Parker novels, in particular, have a very keen eye for psychology, which is surprising because the protagonist, Parker, seems to have very little psychology of his own. He just wants the job to go well. That’s all he cares about. I’m getting into the later Parker novels, where he displays more of a human side. He helps one of his heist buddies, Alan Grofield, out of a jam, and later on he falls in love with a woman, Claire, and brings her along with him. It’s not a terrible thing, I suppose, and Parker has always contained within himself some yearning for more humanity, but I don’t know…

Am working on revising my second YA novel (formerly called Tell Em They’re Amazing and now retitled It’s Probably Just A Phase). There’s been a (relatively amicable) parting of ways with both my publisher and my agent (yes, the passive voice was carefully chosen there), so the book will be going out in a few weeks to agents. Kind of nerve-wracking to be querying agents for the first time in four years, but this time I know a lot more about the industry and about what I want.

Been reading so much Donald Westlake. He is so good.

You’re probably so cool that you heard of Donald Westlake, like years ago. He sure does seem to have a lot of books out, and he does seem to get mentioned sometimes in the same breath as Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, etc. Which is to say, he writes crime novels. Not detective novels. Novels in which people commit crimes.

I have read ten of his books in the last eight days. They’re that good. He’s got two major series. I started with the Dortmunder novels, which are about a hard-boiled thief whose capers always go ludicrously wrong. In one novel, for instance, they conduct a heist in an office building, only to discover that the megacorporation that’s based there is in the middle of an orientation session for the army of private mercenaries they’ve hired to overthrow the government of a small Latin American nation.

His other major series is the Parker novels, which’re about a hard-boiled thief who’s an emotionless monster and who always wins, no matter what the odds are. Apparently the Dortmunder books were Westlake’s humorous take on the Parker novels, and they bear a lot of similarities. It’s like they take place in slightly askew universes.

Weirdly, given how much I tend to like comedic novels, I actually enjoy the Parker novels more. They’re shorter, and they tend to be much more high-concept. For instance, in the one I just read (The Seventh), a heist goes awry when an angry ex-boyfriend stumbles into Parker’s hideout, trying to settle a score with the girl that Parker’s sleeping with, and ends up killing her and making off with the money. The whole novel is Parker’s focused attempt to throw off the cops and find the ex. Another, The Outfit, is about Parker trying to fight an entire organized crime syndicate that’s decided he’s crossed it. In the current book I’m reading, The Score, Parker assembles a group of twelve men, and they rob an entire town in North Dakota.

Parker is so terrible. He’s a sociopath, but he’s not even cruel. All he wants is money. During most of the year he picks up a woman and goes with her from resort town to resort town. When he runs low on money, he gets involved in these heists and steals more. He doesn’t kill except when it’s the best solution to his problems (this tends to be unfortunately often), and he’s willing to torture and kidnap people too (there hasn’t been any rape yet, and I don’t think there’s going to be). He’s chillingly evil, but a very different sort of evil from what we’re used to. He’s the sort of evil that is greedy and has no moral code of any sort. If he had different appetites, like an appetite for fame or for dominion over other people, he’d be a real monster. But since all he wants is money, he’s sort of tolerable.

The books are great though. And Westlake does this thing about halfway through each one where he cuts for a few chapters into somebody else’s mind, and these are my favorite parts, because it’s clear that he’s writing Parker this way because that’s how the character is. Westlake himself is capable of broad range and a lot of nuance (although let’s be real, his female characters are infrequent and thin, though the Dortmunder books are better on this than the Parker books, and I’ve literally only seen one nonwhite PoV character in the course of these ten books). Anyway, I highly recommend.

I really liked Wonder Woman

JL_Wonder_WomanSaw Wonder Woman last Thursday. Was pleasantly pleased. The other DC Universe films were so bad that I had pretty low expectations, but this one wasn’t terrible. The pacing was good. The story sort of held together. And the character arc felt at least a little bit fresh and interesting.

I also thought it was interesting to have a romantic subplot that felt a little bit less shoe-horned than normal. I’ve become so accustomed to action movies that don’t have the slightest hint of chemistry between the male and female leads that I guess I’d even forgotten what chemistry looked like. In this case, it honestly did feel like Steve Trevor and Diana actually, you know, were interested in each other. And when they kissed it felt a little bit less perfunctory than normal (a little bit).

Also was interesting to see a female hero who is so much more powerful than her romantic interest. I mean it’s not that Steve Trevor can’t handle himself in a fight, but she repeatedly saves his life. She’s a semi-divine, and he’s merely human. It’s sort of the sit-com trope of the very competent wife and the bumbling husband, but it’s not something that often gets plunked into action films. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how rare it is for there to be a female superhero movie, especially when it seems like the audience out there has been very receptive to Wonder Woman.

I won’t go overboard in praising the film. It does feel like we’re sort of grading on a curve, both because DC’s other efforts have been _so_ disappointing and because we badly want a female superhero movie to do well. The movie had plenty of flaws. The action sequences, aside from the no man’s land sequence and the alleyway fight, felt a little lackluster. The villains weren’t really that menacing, and the movie didn’t feel very high-stakes, somehow.

Hmm, when I have to say what made the movie stand out or make it worth watching, I guess it’s just that Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins kind of started to sketch out what a fantasy by, for, and about women might look like. In some ways, the fantasy is disquieting: Gal Gadot is thin, she’s white, she’s beautiful, and she’s innocent. She also quite frequently doesn’t wear very much in terms of clothing. But in some ways that feels like the flipside of male superhero movies. I mean, Chris Hemsworth is white and blonde and handsome and rugged and stoic. His Thor is an aspirational figure for men, created by men, but that doesn’t mean he’s not toxic.

In this movie, too, Gal Gadot becomes one of the boys. She does this by accepting and understanding their attempts at flirtation, by slogging it out with them in tough encounters, but by also maintaining a sort of den mother appeal and seeing to all of their various psychoses and neuroses. In this she sort of replicates what a lot of successful women do (and need to do) in the workplace. They have to become one of the boys, but not too much so. I mean how many sorority girls have played den mother to a pack of frat guys in exactly the same way? How many female management consultants or doctors or lawyers have performed the same function in an otherwise male workplace? The way that Wonder Woman becomes a leader of this group is subtle and clever, but it’s also open to criticism, because it’s so tied up with her beauty and with traditional gender roles.

And yet…I don’t know…she’s a fantasy. There should be other fantasies, I agree, but I think that the desire to have a perfect body is always going to be a part of our fantasies. It’s just that for women the desire to have a perfect body has these gross connotations: why do I want this? who do I want it for?

I think with Wonder Woman, and with movies and shows like it, there can be some effort to unpick that and to create an action-heroine aesthetic that’s more for women than for men. But obviously there’s a long way to go. And, equally obviously, I’m not a woman, so I can’t really opine too much further about this matter.

(Thinking about another recent release, I think part of the appeal of Robin Wright in House of Cards is that she’s beautiful, and she’s sexual, but she’s not entirely given over the male gaze. There is a severity and a coldness to her that is the opposite of Wonder Woman, and that she would I think be written very differently if the show wanted to make her fully available to men. In House of Cards, she’s sort of a femme fatale, but unlike Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, the show makes it clear that she needs a lot more from the world than a slap in the face and a hard kiss.)