Archive for the 'Good Things I Wish You' Category

Feb 18 2010

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Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

This question, and others listed below, emerged from a discussion run by K C Culver, who leads the Literature Group at the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  The Literature Group consists of smart, witty, and well-read retired professionals, some of whom have participated in the group for more than ten years.  During the Group’s last six-week semester, they read Good Things I Wish You and Vinegar Hill, as well as poems based on myth, and discussed topics such as the challenges of writing (and reading) contemporary writing based on history and myth, how the music of the Schumanns and Brahms reflects their biographies, and how to distinguish a good book from a great book.

A bit about K C: she’s a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Miami. She earned her MA in English Literature from Auburn University, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of South Carolina.  Her poems have been published in several journals, including Peregrine and Gulf Stream Magazine, and are forthcoming in Word River.

1.  Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

I find it nearly impossible to write when I am unhappy, unsettled or ill at ease.  And loneliness, for me at least, is a form of unhappiness.  But what I do require is a fair amount of solitude.  To write well, I need to be alone in my house or in a public place (such as on a plane or in a coffee shop) where I feel that no one knows me or might interrupt me. I suppose I also require a certain amount of emotional solitude as well.  I could never last long around someone who was constantly asking, What are you thinking?

2.  Did your view of Clara or Brahms change after writing this book?

I started writing about Clara and Brahms in 1994, when I co-wrote a screenplay with Stewart O’Nan.  But I’ve loved Clara Schumann since I first learned about her in high school; I’ve read everything about her I could over the past thirty years.  Writing Good Things didn’t change what I believed so much as make visible, make tangible, the connections between men and women living today and the lives Clara and Brahms lived then.  I knew the story was relevant; I just didn’t know how relevant until I began to collage contemporary fiction with historical fact.  If you click on my home page, scroll down and then click on Author’s Statement, I go into this in detail.

What did change–unexpectedly–was my view of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck.  He is often portrayed as a tyrant (or worse), and while this is true in some ways, he was also a feminist–far more so than his daughter, despite what some revisionist historians suggest.  He was absolutely right about what the demands and duties of marriage and motherhood would do to her career as a composer, and I saw, while researching the book, how deeply and sincerely he mourned the loss of what she might have offered the world through composition.

3.  What made you decide to write the novel as collage, which is very difficult? Did you have models?

I had read Maureen Seaton’s memoir Sex Talks To Girls in manuscript, and I was impressed with how much forward momentum she could generate out of short chapters, some of them hardly a page.  But I didn’t so much as decide to write a collage novel as find myself writing one.  Two things happened to facilitate this.  The first was that I went out on a blind date–pretty much the one I describe in Good Things–and the fictional story that evolved began to harmonize with the historical pieces I’d already written.  The second was that I started to photograph my desk and then pull the images into the text as a way of carrying my research with me on my three and a half hour commute (by public transportation) from the town north of West Palm, where I live, to Coral Gables, where I teach.  Initially, I did this to jog my memory, but gradually I began to rely on the images themselves to tell pieces of the story.

4. We’re interested in the role of L. We were split about whether he represents the stability/happiness that she doesn’t really want or whether he’s a Brahms figure.  Can you speak more about it?

L– is the guy who would always be asking, What are you thinking? In other words, Robert Schumann.

5. Does it worry you to have imagined details about Schumanns’ lives?

No, because that’s what you do in fiction.  You make things up.  I was pleased that the metafictional structure of the book allowed me to publicize the best nonfiction book about Clara, which is Clara Schumann:  The Artist and the Woman by Nancy Reich.  As you may recall, my contemporary characters reference this book in their debates.

6.  How did the people in your life react to this semi-autobiographical novel?

In an upcoming blog, I am interviewing my mother on this very topic.  It’s a question I get a lot, because my writing style is deliberately intimate; I want you to believe, as Anne Sexton said, “It was all true when I wrote it.”  However, the people in my life know the difference between the generative facts I’ve plundered for my own devilish purposes and the fictional lives that result.  The line, for those who know me well, is always a very clear one.   I have never written about something that someone has asked me not to write about.  Incidentally, my ex-husband did the design for this web site.  Isn’t it gorgeous?

7. We noticed that the names Heidi and Hochmann appear in both novels—how do you choose and use names?

I tend to use and reuse names that were common in the area of Wisconsin where I grew up.  “Heidi” in Good Things was actually my daughter’s choice; I told her about the character and asked her to pick a German-sounding name, and she picked Heidi.

8. We’re also interested in the name Salome, which seems unusual for a strict Midwestern Catholic community.  Where did that name come from?

I actually knew of a Salome where I grew up, though we pronounced it to rhyme with “Shalom.”  I chose the name because I wanted something associated, ironically, with a temptress.  Poor Salome.

9.  We’d like to hear your thoughts on the scene where Mary Margaret and Salome think the babies are being reborn.  Is it a symbol of rebirth?  Old age?  Trauma?

It’s more a concrete enactment of this idea:  that the secrets we keep do come back to haunt us, will continue to haunt us until they are brought to light.

10. What do you imagine happens to Ellen and the kids after the novel ends?  Have you ever considered writing a sequel?

Vinegar Hill is the only novel I’ve written that inspires this question, which I get a lot.  I really don’t know what happens to Ellen and the kids, which is probably a good reason to write a sequel. However, for the time being at least, I keep getting distracted by other, more urgent projects.

11.  We’re interested in the difference between the two novels in terms of style—what are you more comfortable with?  Where do you see yourself going next?

Each novel I write tells its own unique story and, as such, demands its own unique structure.  The book I am working on now–at least for the moment–has no chapter divisions (yes, on purpose) to facilitate the linear thinking of my first person retrospective male narrator, though it does have brief pauses, represented on the page by asterisks.

manette-at-her-desk

Thanks for the questions!  I welcome question lists like these from classes and clubs everywhere.  Those of you in the Miami area interested in taking a class through OSHER, here’s the link:  www.miami.edu/olli

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Feb 09 2010

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Parent/Child Collaborations

I enjoy Caroline Leavitt’s blog at carolineleavittville.com Today she posted an interview with writer Dawn Raffel, who offers these thoughts on the work/life balance:  ”I’d like to tell you that I am very disciplined and write every day but I’m not and I don’t. I write when I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t write. At that point, a missile could be coming through the wall and I might not notice.”  Her latest collection is called Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.   The cover is quite striking and–here’s the detail I loved–it was done by her son.

I used one of my daughter’s drawings in Good Things I Wish You.  She was asked by her pediatrician, at age 4, to draw a picture of her family.  She refused.  After that, she periodically (and gleefully) mentioned the fact that Dr. Ivy had asked her, and that she’d refused.  About 5 months later, she came home from school one day with a drawing that included 17 people, each of them labeled phonetically, plus a note from her Montessori teacher saying she’d worked on it all week.  The striking thing about it is that all the figures in it are smiling except me.  The teacher said, later, she’d been told it was because I was “lonely,” but what she didn’t know what that my daughter used “lonely” as a synonym for “different.”

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That same night, after my daughter was in bed, I wrote what became Chapter 17, one of the shortest patches in the overall quilt that shapes the book.  Even typeset, it’s less than a page. I wonder if Raffel’s collection gained focus after she saw her son’s drawing, or if she’d already completed the collection when she chose his artwork for her cover.   Also, I wonder how many other writers have been inspired by their children’s art (or words) to the extent that they’ve physically incorporated those images/ideas into their own projects.  I can think of one other writer, William Maxwell, who used his (grown) son’s artwork for the cover of So Long, See You Tomorrow, and as I mull this over, I’ll probably think of more.  In ways I can’t explain, this thought is connected to a relationship in the novel I’m working on now between a mother, who is an architect, and her grown son.

An obvious writing prompt here, but for those of you with young children, take a closer look at what’s hanging on your refrigerator.  Choose one detail–or one section–of one masterpiece and re-imagine it in words.  Just because it is a child’s drawing doesn’t mean you need to work from a child’s point of view.  In fact, a more incongruous point of view might indeed be more effective, more surprising and, therefore, original.

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Feb 03 2010

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Found Poem

It seems my German friend Winfried (who give me all my best lines:  see Author’s Statement regarding the writing of Good Things I Wish You) has downloaded Dragon, a voice-recognition app, onto his iPhone.  All I had to do was break his email into stanzas.

*

Enough

*

Hi minutes. Hello minutes. Couldn’t talk my net. Hey in the net.
Nanette, how are you? Minutes. What is going on? Man net you doing
well? Minutes are you asleep already? Minutes your names to test.

*

Minutes can you believe that? Men at this program can not learn your
name, however, it turned my name. Incredible, isn’t it? Made by Lynn
freed and Dragon. I was trying to say you need to pay Winfried and

*

Dragon. No, I was trying to say you need to body Winfrey and Dragon.
Wrong again, I was trying to save me into body Winfrey and Dragon.
Stupid blogger, I am trying to say you need to buy bling free debt and

*
Dragon. What’s wrong with this problem? I think I’m just I’m just
trying to hard. I am trying to save going on me into buying Winfried
and Dragon trying again. I think if I try to hard this program can

*
understand me. What’s I tried to say is needed by Winfried and Dragon.
I’m just trying to say made by Winfried and try for her. I’m just
trying to save me but Winfried and Dragon. Noah. I am just trying to

*
say and made by Winfried and try again. Not try it again. Made by
Winfried and Dragon. Finally got it. Noah, I said finally it got it. I
never said no why I said no. I didn’t say no one I said no. Enough of

*

that nonsense.

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Jan 26 2010

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A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words (or Several Hundred, Anyway)

The inclusion of images in Good Things evolved out of a happy accident. I commute long hours by train to my academic job–as does my narrator, Jeanette–so I started photographing my desk (laden with research) and importing the photos into my text documents. It was the closest thing to carrying all my books and papers with me that I could come up with. I’d sit on the train, writing, and then when I got stuck, I’d study the images. After a few months of this, I realized these images were fast becoming cornerstones, essential to the story I was trying to tell.

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Incorporating images into my writing (which I’d never done before) made visible what had been previously obscured: the relationship between the novel’s historical figures (Clara and Robert Schumann; Johannes Brahms) and its contemporary echoes (Jeanette and Hart.) Each story became more thematically resonant–and more personally meaningful–as a result.

Want a writing exercise? Collage/combine your own contemporary images (let’s say, for argument’s sake, your oldest child’s birthday party) with a seemingly unrelated historical event that has held your imagination/fascination (let’s say Austin de Iturbe y Green, the two year old Heir Presumptive to Maximilian von Habsburg, who was installed by Napoleon as Emporor of Mexico.) Does a third story–somehow greater than its parts–suggest itself?  Begin.

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