Ten Things I Learned from my Google Hangout Yesterday

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Because everyone loves listicles (thanks, Buzzfeed), I decided to write one for my latest post about my experience yesterday moderating the #UprisingofLove Hangout on LGBTI representation in the media, sponsored by Google+. If you’d like to watch the hangout, check out the link/video at the bottom!

 

1. Google’s entire employee pool is made up of sexy, super-cazh, 23 year old waif-nerds.

I guess this isn’t surprising, but still: walking around the offices, and eating in the cafeteria especially, was like being back in college. No one even pretends that this is the corporate world: I did not see a single person in a suit, and pretty much every conversation sounded like people running into each other on the street.

Of course, you sometimes see someone over 30; if you peek inside an office, they’re usually huddling in a corner somewhere with a 23 year old hunched over them trying to explain how something works.

2. Persimmon and fennel go great together in a salad.

Who knew? Other terrific combinations: Yuzu juice, white grape and chia seeds. The amount of food, the variety, and even the quality is pretty astounding: we’re talking 5,000 person cruise buffet variety. And this was just one of the cafeterias. Each cafeteria serves different food, and every day the menu changes. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything is free. My contact at Google, Devin Emery, told me he has worked there for three months, and has gone grocery shopping once. 

Aside from this, they have happy hour Thursdays, and quite often, Google invites special chefs to cook meals for the day. You can browse all the menus online before making your choices. Feel like quitting your job yet? (Don’t bother, if you’re over 30)

3. If you want people to be more productive, make sure they are never more than 100 yards away from food. Or a massage chair.

So I mentioned the cafeterias, but that’s just the beginning. Every floor at Google has several very large and well-stocked kitchen areas with tons of beverages, snacks and desserts. You never have to walk more than 100 yards for free, delicious food.

Aside from that, there seems to be way less actual office space than sofas, funky chairs, areas to hang out, pool tables, slides, etc. There are plenty of conference rooms, with fun names like “Teenage Joe and the Jerks” or “The Blues Bar,” and granted, many of them seemed to be filled with people who it’s safe to assume were working. Lots of white boards with markers to leave messages or post-its and tons of signs everywhere, because it’s very easy to get lost at Google.

The massage chairs were the biggest irony, of course. These are probably the least likely employees to need massages that I’ve ever encountered.

4. I am not the only person who feels incredibly stupid when it comes to technology.

I was happy to see that everyone on the panel had to ask for help to get on to the hangout. (Granted, none of us are 23. Maybe that’s why.)  I know Google applications are pretty intuitive, but frankly, I think the easier technology becomes, the less smart we become in relation to it. I had to have pretty much everything spelled out for me before we began. I’m sure one day we’ll just tell computers exactly what we want done and they’ll just have to figure it out. Better, they’ll have to intuit what we want. (If you’ve seen “Her,” you know what I mean.)

5. Doing interviews with famous people is not terrifying

I was pretty nervous in the run up to this event. I had never moderated a panel, and I was far and away the least important person on the panel. I was afraid of making a stupid comment, or having dead air, or having technical difficulties that I wouldn’t be able to handle.

But none of that matters, because celebrities are really good at talking. Once you ask the question, they are more than ready to step in and take over. I just had to chime in every once in a while to guide the proceedings, and occasionally switch up the order if things seemed to be headed in a different direction. It was way easier than I thought.

6. Celebrities sometimes just show up at each other’s houses and join in on media panels.

Jennifer Beals was a surprise guest on our panel, because Janina Gavankar decided that she wanted to include Jennifer on the panel, so you know, she just drove over to Jennifer’s house and they hung out together. The two worked together on The L Word. I have a feeling this happens all the time in Hollywood.

I really enjoyed having them on because while they were both thoughtful and had a lot of great answers, they reminded us that this was a “hangout” and that we were all supposed to be relaxed and just talking off-the-cuff about the topic.

7. Wilson Cruz should head every LGBT organization, period.

There is a reason that GLAAD hired Wilson as their National Spokesperson. He is ridiculously well spoken. Not only does he know the issues so well, but he has a way of expressing his thoughts and getting to the heart of the matter in a succinct, thought-provoking way. One minute he’s sharing personal tales of strife and the next he’s cracking jokes. I was super impressed.

8. Too much of the focus on gay issues is often on (relatively young) gay white men.

Janina made a point of this in one of her answers, and Wilson also discussed this as well. I know that I’ve been guilty of it myself, even though I try to be mindful of it and we certainly discussed it at length on the panel. The voices of LGBTQI people of color, or the elderly, and even of lesbians is often marginalized by the media who seem to gravitate to stories of gay white men. These are the people with the most currency in the media, and often the only people with the power to write, produce and create stories about the LGBTQ community. But the community is as diverse as the rest of the country, and the world should be made more aware of that, which can only happen when media outlets start to see stories about these folks as “less risky” and worthy of attention.

9. Andrew Rannells is even more adorable than you think.

We all know he’s cute. But the characters he plays are kind of high strung and annoying. (Then again, who isn’t annoying on Girls?) On the video chat, he was relaxed, funny , personable and thoughtful. And hot. A little stubble goes a long way, Andrew.

10. “We’re not living in a post queer world”

Noah Michelson, Editor of HuffPo Gay Voices, made this point, and it’s something that needs to be reiterated to all those who think gay people are being too sensitive in their responses to the numerous offensive comments made by people almost daily in the news. Gay people have not won every battle yet. Discrimination and prejudice still exist, and remaining silent or letting these offenses pass without shedding light on them, without giving people with purchasing power the right to choose not to watch a certain show or a buy a certain product, would be consenting to being treated as second class citizens. The battle rages on.

Uprising of Love LGBTI in the media hangout

 

Fun Times at the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division

I was really excited when Steve Berman, editor of The Best Gay Stories 2013 (in which my story “Body and Mind” appeared) contacted me to ask if I would be willing to do a reading at BGSQD. I’d been hearing about the bookstore for months, and was thrilled that there were still some people out there interested in starting an independent queer bookstore. We’ve lost quite a few in NY and across the country in the past few years, so Greg and Donnie should be lauded for their efforts, not only to establish a space, but to foster such a thriving community via a pretty much non-stop roster of events that includes the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ+ populace.

For now, BGSQD is an adorable pop-up bookstore on Orchard Street, but Greg and Donnie (such sweethearts!) are starting an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for a permanent space. Fellow queers, we need a space like this, so please contribute if you can – visit the website for more info.

I was on the bill with Simon Jacobs and Basil Papademos. Simon is also a contributor to Best Gay Stories 2013 (a great piece, you should check it out) and he read a new piece of his first, which was funny and rhythmic and kind of like a prose-poem. Basil read from his novel “Mount Royal” which not surprisingly takes place in Montreal. It was really funny, especially the dialogue, but Basil really topped himself with his story about his recent border crossing into Canada, when the border patrol guard saw the cover of his novel and decided to detain him on “obscenity” charges. Basil’s convinced that the man gradually fell in love with him over the several hours that he was detained.

After these two guys left the audience in stitches I felt I had to try to keep the audience laughing. As a big fuck you to Putin’s gay propaganda ban, I read “The Coming Revolution” from Margins of Tolerance and then a short excerpt from my novel, Admissions. I was a bit nervous since I haven’t read from the novel in quite a while, but it seemed to go over pretty well.

A big thanks to Steve for organizing and to Greg and Donnie for hosting–I’m sure I’ll be at BGSQD in the near future for some of your other great events!

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Ctrl-Alt Launches

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Very excited to announce that my column for Speakeasy, the Wall Street Journal’s arts and entertainment blog, has launched! “Ctrl-Alt” will broadly focus on alternative culture in all of its many incarnations. My first article is about a slew of new online dating apps that have recently launched which are taking rejection out of the equation. I’m not convinced this is necessarily a good thing. You can read the article here:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/04/09/ctrl-alt-with-a-slew-of-new-apps-is-online-dating-too-easy/

I’ve written quite a few articles for the WSJ in the past few months and all of these have been gathered under the “Ctrl-Alt” tag here:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/tag/ctrl-alt/

“Ctrl-Alt” also appears on Speakeasy’s main page in the Hot Topic menu bar. When you click on it, it will take you to the page dedicated to my column. All the articles I’ve written will be listed there.

So excited by this opportunity! I’m always looking for interesting, unusual, thought-provoking and/or wacky stories to write about, so please, if you have any ideas, send them my way! I really appreciate your support!

AWP 2013: Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night stays these courageous writers…

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And so, the annual celebration/schmoozefest/reading-and-panel-palooza/drink-a-thon that is AWP has once again concluded, and I am left feeling both deeply satisfied and overwhelmed and tired and more than a little anxious, which I guess is exactly what most people feel after AWP.

While Chicago was all about the off-site readings and parties–at least for me–the weather in Boston made many decisions for us, and we writers, already pretty comfortable shutting ourselves indoors, had not only a snowstorm but a seemingly endless series of tunnels and arcades connecting the hotels, the convention center and the mall, which meant we never had to see actual weather. If I did venture outside, it was because my hotel was in the Boston Common area, as my three-month-in-advance booked Airbnb place fell through last minute because of flooding in the building, and we had to scramble to find a reasonable deal. Besides, so many of the parties–Grub Street, Vida, Agni, Pen American, among others–were less than a five minute walk offsite. (Dearest friends with far-flung readings: truly sorry to not make it, but the snow. And the panels. And the book fair. It runs a guy down.)

If it were only the readings that I missed! The thing about AWP is that, even when you know you can’t possibly do/see/attend/support every single person/panel/reading you want to, you still feel guilty. Why am I not tweeting more? Or posting pics of my friends on Facebook? (Or at least the meals we shared on Instagram–I didn’t take any pictures this year. Nada. I was that lazy.) And what about my friends in Boston? Do I contact them to let them know I’m in town? I only have three days…Is it terrible that I want to go shopping on Newbury Street? Or that I need to nap every afternoon?

One of the things about getting older (oh God, how much do I hate sentences that begin with “One of the things about getting older…”) is you learn to accept the inherent contradiction between your pre-conference optimism and your post-conference reality. I had a list of ten panels I wanted to attend. I ended up going to two. Normally at the book fair, I spend hours and hours–across several days–chatting people up at the lit mags and the presses, looking around for people I know and for organizations I want to support. This year, I spent less than two hours total at the fair. Am I just jaded? I don’t think so. I had some business to attend to this year, and I focused on that. I recently signed with Erin Harris at Folio Literary and I was so pleased to attend the Folio breakfast on Friday morning, where I got to celebrate with my friend Viet Dinh, who also recently signed on with Michelle Brower. Erin and Michelle are both such sweethearts, and after schmoozing with the other Folio authors and attending the panel on The Right First Book, I felt even more fortunate to have signed with them.

For me, AWP is pretty much Writers Camp Reunion. Conference and residency addicts such as myself have a lot of people to catch up with, and since we can’t plan trips to Utah and Missouri and Minnesota etc., every year, there’s just no better way to reconnect with old friends. And AWP is inspiring: in the face of the recent Nate Thayer/Atlantic controversy about writers no longer getting paid, and the endless moaning about the dismal state of publishing literary fiction (I won’t bother to get into the state of publishing poetry, which has long been dismal, and in some ways seems less dismal than lit fic lately), ignoring the  barrage of rejection letters and our general discomfort about large-scale socializing, forgetting our families and deadlines and our need for quiet, we gather, and we listen to our fellow authors tell their stories, read their work to us, share their experiences and wisdom and advice and yes, tales of horror and frustration. We travel hundreds if not thousands of miles and just by doing so, we quietly say fuck you to a world that seems to value Transformers movies and “reality” television and Lindsay Lohan kleptomania, and we remind ourselves, with every George Saunders and Jennifer Egan hitting the best seller list, with every poem we hear that shakes us to the very core and with every friend of ours getting over-the-moon happy about that piece being accepted at that undergraduate Tumblr e-zine, that just by doing what we do we make it matter, because it is we who get to decide that it matters.

Friends: I am so happy to have seen you. There can be no better reminder than AWP that we are all in this together, that we must really love what we do to put up with what we put up with. And there is such joy in that, a joy that only we understand. See you in Seattle!

The Next Big Thing

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Jeffrey Condran, publisher of Braddock Avenue Books as well as author of the forthcoming story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, asked me to participate in this chain blog series, The Next Big Thing, where writers discuss their recent or forthcoming works. You can read Jeff’s post here.

Shout-outs to two other writers who also asked me to participate, super talented multi-genre artist Aparna Das, who discusses her project Snake Ate the Moon at her blog, and the awesome Will Kenyon, who discusses his novel, The Survivor of San Guillermo.

Please check out the two other writers I tagged at the bottom of this post, who will also be participating in this series:

**What is your working title of your book?

Instead of discussing my short story collection, Margins of Tolerance, here, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my completed first novel. Right now it’s back to its original title, Valhalla. It was called Admissions for a while, which I think is a better title, but there’s a book out called Admission that might be a bit too similar in subject matter.

**Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’m an SAT tutor in NYC, so the initial idea came from personal experience. But really, very little of my actual experience with tutoring shows up in the book. Real life (at least not my real life) isn’t juicy enough for a book. The book has two main plotlines:

Gabrielle Levy is intent on seeing her Arianna enrolled at Princeton. She attempts to bribe the one classmate she perceives as competition: Mandela Robinson, one of the few African Americans at Arianna’s exclusive high school. But what starts off as a simple deal becomes far more complicated when Gabrielle’s connection with Mandela forces her to face her buried past and failed ambitions.

Legion Cartwright’s father gives his teenaged son $50K to play the stock market and “earn” his college tuition. When Legion loses most of it on bad investments, he struggles to find another way to prove himself to his dad, which means getting into the Ivy League all on his own. When Legion encounters Randall Miller, a frustrated would-be novelist and SAT tutor, at a book store, he sees his way in: he will seduce the older man and convince him to take the test for him.

**What genre does your book fall under?

Normally I’d say literary fiction, but I think it’s pretty commercial so…commercial literary fiction? General fiction is another category it could fall under, but to me general fiction sounds insipid.

**Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Back when I started writing the book, Annette Bening would have been a great choice for Gabrielle, the nouveau-rich UWS mom who desperately wants to send her daughter to Princeton. Now I guess it would be Tilda Swinton. Neither of them are remotely Jewish but both have a certain flair for expressing equal parts exuberant self-confidence and self-torturing doubt. Randall, the tutor, is 28 in the book but looks a lot younger, and he’s a bit nebbish and neurotic and somewhat ridiculous, so maybe Jesse Eisenberg or Paul Dano. Zosia Mamet (from “Girls” and “Mad Men”) would make a great Arianna, Gabrielle’s overachieving daughter.

Or we can just have Meryl Streep play all the characters.

 **What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Some NYC kids (and parents!) will do just about anything to get into the right college.

 **Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

While I cannot currently discuss the status of the book, I will say it won’t be self-published, and it’s not represented by an agency.

**How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote the first chapter of the book back in 2000, and believe it or not, it has withstood the test of time and remains almost the same in the 2013 version of the book. The first draft took me about seven years and was 216,000 words (730 pages!!) I then cut it down to 187,000 words (613 pages) and now it stands at 141,000 words (450 pages) I’m mulling a 110,000 word version of the book, but would prefer not to cut that much out. We’ll see.

 **What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Darin Strauss read an early draft of the novel, and I still remember how floored I was when he compared it to “The Corrections,” a book I love. Thematically it’s not the same at all, but structurally there might be some similarities. Any book that has multiple rotating points-of-view might make for a good comparison: Jennifer Egan’s “Look at Me” or Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” (Clearly I’m delusional to compare my novel to any of those great works!) In terms of subject matter, there are a few college-admissions-related books out there, but the one I enjoyed was Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl.

**Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It’s easy to say that I just followed the age-old maxim of “Write what you know.” But that would be pretty misleading, since I don’t really know any of my characters and they weren’t inspired by real life people. Back when I was getting my MFA I thought I didn’t have the attention span to tackle a novel. I thought I would solve this problem by writing a novel with multiple POVs, this way if I got tired of one character/POV, I could just move on to another. When I began writing, the issue of affirmative action in the college-admissions process was a hot-button issue, and it still is now. As for the tutor-student relationship, I knew that would prove a bit scandalous and also fun to write. It was.

**What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

While tightly structured, the book is playful and funny. Arianna’s chapters all appear as journal entries, some of the other chapters are epistolary, and a few of the minor characters get their own POV chapters later on in the book. There’s also a meta-fictional aspect to the novel that I won’t elaborate on because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. In general, the book tackles controversial subject matter in what I hope is a gripping, candid, darkly humorous way.

This week and next, please check out some other fantastic writers who will share their projects with you:

Sian Griffiths writes about her forthcoming novel, Borrowed Horses, coming out from New Rivers Press in October 2013. Borrowed Horses is a retelling of JANE EYRE set in contemporary Idaho. I can’t wait to pick it up!

Merridawn Duckler will be writing about one of several of her upcoming projects (Will it be the mash-up with Found Poetry Magazine? The visual art show here in Portland based on all-text based memoir essays? The chapbook of Modern D’var Torah? Tune in to see!)

 

Enclave Reading Series at Cake Shop

 

The Enclave Reading Series

This past Saturday I was lucky to be a part of the latest installment of the Enclave Reading Series over at Cake Shop on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. I’m used to doing readings in the evening, so I wasn’t sure how a Saturday afternoon reading would go. What a pleasant surprise! Not only was the space super cool–dark and fabulous and kitschy all at once–but the crowd was geared up and the other readers were all excellent.

The Enclave Reading Series is in its sixth year, curated and hosted by Jason Napoli Brooks and Jim Freed. Both of them couldn’t be any friendlier.

Jason was our MC and he looked all dapper in his button down white shirt and tie. J.E. Reich kicked things off with a story about a British spy which was published in Armchair/Shotgun. The piece was gripping and tense, and while I would have loved to hear her read it in a British accent, I understand from personal experiences with my own stories why she didn’t choose to. It’s hard to sustain an accent for 10-15 minutes!

M. Craig read an excerpt from her “lesbian steampunk thriller” novel, The NarrowsMaggie (sorry, I just outed your first name, M!) is the founder of Papercut Press and has an awesome stage presence, kind of like the I don’t give a fuck rock star chick we all secretly dream we were. From what I heard, the novel sounds awesome.

After the break, “Special Guest Star” Laurie Weeks wowed us with her wacky recipe for nachos. I don’t think I’ll look at a postcard the same way again. Laurie is the author of the LAMBDA-award winning novel, Zippermouth, which so happens to be one of my favorite books of last year, so it was a true pleasure to share the stage with her.

Elizabeth Reddin was up next, and she brought props. A boom box circa 1980 and a bunch of mix tapes which held the background music to accompany the readings of her poems from her collection, The Hot Garment of Love is Insecure. I totally loved the music, and how original her performance was.

I rounded out the evening by reading an excerpt from “Body and Mind” as well as “The Coming Revolution.” I’d never read those pieces together and it’s sort of a weird transition from a really tense piece to a straight-up funny one. It takes a bit of adjustment on the audience’s part, I think.

The Enclave Series runs once a month at Cake Shop, so you should check it out. Thanks to everyone who came out, the other readers, and Jason for inviting me!

Sunday Salon at Jimmy’s No. 43

Sunday Salon is one of the great reading series in NYC, and has been going strong for ten years now. Nita Noveno and Sara Lippman consistently attract great readers/performers and a standing-room-only crowd, so I was really excited to be part of the line-up this past Sunday. It was not only a great night of performances and readings, but also an opportunity to raise some funds post-Sandy for Habitat for Humanity.

Honor Molloy read an excerpt from her autobiographical novel Smarty Girl. I loved how when she went up to the mic you could barely detect an accent, but when she started her reading this amazing Irish brogue spilled out of her mouth. Honor has studied acting, and boy did it show. Her reading was truly an epic performance, and a very hard act to follow.

Which unfortunately was left to me. I decided to read a newer story of mine, “Please”, something I wrote explicitly for my friend Christina Phelp’s pub crawl last year for her literary magazine, Trans. I had only read it aloud once so far, so I was glad to see people were laughing at the right places.

Next up was The Unnameable, a NYC-based band composed of writer/musicians Robert Lopez and David Hollander. Robert has an amazing, raspy voice that reminds me of the lead singer from TV on the Radio. And David wrote L.I.E., which although I didn’t read I did see the movie, which was pretty fantastic. I’m sure the book is even better.

After the break, Gene Albamonte read some hilarious pieces from his new book, Huckster, as well as some brand new material. Gene is hilarious. I was lucky enough to meet him a few months ago from a mutual friend of ours, Patrick Bradley. Patrick told me how funny Gene is and Gene didn’t disappoint. He’s also a super nice guy.

Tara Betts was up last. Tara read some poems from her collection Arc and Hue, including a really funny questionnaire-like poem for upcoming poets, before slaying us with a harrowing section of her forthcoming memoir. Very powerful stuff.

The Unnanmeable returned for a few songs to close out the night. These guys are really great. Not going to lie–I’m more than a bit jealous of these writer/musician types. I should have listened to my mom and taken those piano lessons when I was six ;)

Thanks to everyone who turned out and for donating to a really good cause. And special thanks to Nita and Sara for running such a great series, which you should definitely check out soon!

Dire Literary Series in Cambridge

 

What a great weekend in Boston, and what a pleasure to read at the Dire Literary Series in Cambridge last Friday night. It was a bit surreal to leave NY after Sandy, but in some ways it was also a relief. My friend Francesco decided to come along for the weekend and we were very fortunate that the LIRR was running smoothly so we could catch the Bolt bus to Boston.

Timothy Gager runs the Dire Series and he’s been doing a bang-up job for years now. I believe he said our reading was his 140th(!) so congrats on that, Tim! I really enjoyed the space–a cozy art gallery called Out of the Blue–as well as the diversity and creativity of the other readers, both the Open Mic as well as the featured readers. My friend Aparna surprised me at the reading and on the fly decided to sing a song at the Open Mic that her friend had written that addresses the treatment of women in India in the caste system. The other Open Mic readers were probing and gripping as well. MC Tim kept things casual and funny, and even read a few short works of his own.

It was a pleasure to share the bill with the two other featured readers, Thomas M. Cirignano and Carolyn Zaikowski. Carolyn read an excerpt from her forthcoming novel that was mesmerizing. She’s a terrific reader. Thomas was once a mechanic to a mob, and he wrote first a memoir and then a fictional account about his experiences dealing with gangsters in South Boston. Fascinating stuff! I chose to read what’s becoming my go-to story, “Dear Guy in 24 B.” I’ve been experimenting with new work lately, but when I travel I sometimes like to go with the time-tested stuff.

I am SO grateful to all my Boston area friends who showed up! You guys really packed the house, and I am humbled by your support. Seriously, Boston peeps–you rock! Afterwards we went to Koreana for some bim bi bop and bulgogi. The rest of the weekend was also wonderful–I’d forgotten how charming Boston was, and the people were much nicer than I remember. (Don’t hate, I had a few bad experiences in Beantown before. But it’s all good now!)

Belated Round-up: KGB, WSJ and Novel Conception Blog

Normally I write a short post after every reading I do. Alas, I have been derelict this time. Not because the KGB reading wasn’t awesome. It’s just that I’ve been distracted by other things like home repair and the election and just life in general.

First things first: I want to mention two pieces I wrote that have recently gone up. One was my article, “How Social Media has Changed Love On the Road” for the Wall Street Journal online blog, Speakeasy. You can read it here. Major thanks to Barbara Chai for this great opportunity. Barbara is one of the people who run Speakeasy and we had discussed a bunch of ideas for an article, mostly about my story collection and what it’s like to win a contest. But that seemed a bit narrow for the WSJ audience, so Barbara suggested I write something about Grindr et. al, a topic I have to admit to being pretty familiar with ;P

Another piece I wrote just went up at my friend Sabra Wineteer’s new blog for novelists, Novel Conception. Sabra has gathered a whole bunch of her novelist friends to write occasional posts about what it’s like to tackle a novel, from conception to revision to marketing to sales and beyond. It’s definitely worth checking out–just click on the name above, or you can access my specific post here.

As for KGB, what a treat it was to read there. It’s sort of every writer’s dream to read at KGB since it’s one of the most prestigious and well-known reading series in the city. Plus the bar itself is such a trip and it’s one of the few places that serve Baltika beer, a nice dose of nostalgia from my SLS St. Petersburg days. I wish I had better pictures, but the bar is (appropriately) dark. It was great reading with Marie-Helene Bertino again. Her collection, Safe as Houses, is out now and it’s such a funny, brilliant book. Check out her site here. The other reader was Gregory Spatz, who came all the way from Washington state. Greg read a terrific piece from his new novel, Inukshuk. Check out his website here

Many thanks to the fabulous Suzanne Dottino who runs KGB‘s Sunday night reading series for her enthusiasm and support, as well as to all my friends who made it out. I was a little nervous to read such a fresh piece and I was pleased with the reaction. All in all, a great evening and a nice bookend to the Brooklyn Book Fest!

 

 

Hambidge (and a few words about Sewanee)

 

Before I talk about Hambidge, I just want to give a shout out to all the wonderful peeps I met at Sewanee this year. I had a BLAST, and it was mostly because of all the talented and amazing drinkers (ahem) writers I met there. Of course Sewanee deserves its own blog post, but it’s been over a month now, and while I know I had quite a bit of time up in Hambidge, I decided to devote myself to my stories and novel. Go figure.

That said, Sewanee was super fun. I used to say it’s like summer camp for writers. But now I’m thinking, it’s more like a cruise for writers, in that we all never stop eating and drinking and very rarely “get off the ship,” so to speak. Plus we line-danced, so the cruise ship analogy is apropos.

So, Hambidge! I recently completed my four weeks there, and what a great residency it was. A real retreat from the everyday mania of NYC living, Hambidge is in the middle of the woods, about 4 miles from Dillard, GA, which sits on the North Carolina border and smack in the middle of the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. When I say retreat, I mean it. There was no cell phone service; the nearest place we could get decent enough reception was about 3 miles up Betty’s Creek Road. We did have phones in our cabins–we each got our own cabin, and mine was the super spacious and pretty awesome Foxfire–but they only received incoming calls. Internet access was limited to the Rock House down where we ate dinner together every night. (Two weeks into the residency I realized the wireless signal was strong enough for me to get a weak signal in my cabin, enough for emails and Facebook.)

Foxfire was completely surrounded by trees. Which means, you guessed it: animals. Insects. Snakes. I was warned by Deb in my orientation speech. There will be lots of bugs, she told me. (She wasn’t kidding. I became so obsessed with bugs I wrote a short story about them.) There might be mice. Then there were the snakes. Black snakes shouldn’t frighten me, she said, only copperheads and other rattlers. And of course, your usual possums and skunks and raccoons etc. Also, bears. She advised me to wear the provided bell if I chose to take a hike among the 400 acres of trails on Hambidge property. But I didn’t see any bears, or snakes for that matter. I did see hawks and other cool birds. I did see the wildest mushrooms I’ve ever seen in my life. Andlots of very, very large bugs. Cicada Killers. Spiders the size of my palm. Wasps and hornets and mantises. Mostly they stayed outside, but when I wrote at night by my table lamp, they would gather. I made peace with them pretty quickly, though–once I wrote the story they decided to leave me alone. Here’s a cicada killer stuck in the web of a spider:

 

Dillard is apparently a popular destination for Georgian summer homes. It’s really pretty up here, but there’s not much in the way of services. When there’s a Piggly Wiggly, who needs services? Clayton, about seven miles south, had a lot more options, including Ingles, possibly the biggest supermarket I’ve ever seen, and even a 24 hour gym which I ended up joining for my last two weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

Four nights a week we’d gather for dinner at the Rock House, where chef Ray would prepare our meals for us. Ray was sweet and no nonsense. She made delicious southern vegetarian meals and fish on Fridays. Her desserts were world class. After Sewanee, I thought I’d might be taking a bit of a turn back to healthy food when I found out Hambidge was mostly vegetarian. Turns out, in the south, vegetarian food ain’t health food. I can now say I know the difference between turnip greens and collard greens. I had all sorts of biscuits, with dill being my favorite. I had succotash and fried green tomatoes and grits and okra and something called “dressing”, which up north we call stuffing. Tasty as hell, but not exactly the most lean, protein-rich diet I’ve ever had. The Rock House:

Each week some residents would leave and new ones would join us. The first week I met Dan Albergotti and Katy Didden, two very talented and super sweet poets, as well as Marina Kassiandou, a visual artist from Cyprus. These three welcomed us newcomers, Julia Fenton, a visual artist from Atlanta (and one of my new favorite people in the world), Pat Riviere-Seel, a darling and funny poet from Asheville, Seyed Safavynia, a composer/neuroscientist/all around nice guy genius from Atlanta , and Tim Houghton, a poet from Maryland. We learned about the Hambidge ritual of holding hands for a moment of silence before dinner, how to load up the dishwasher and put the leftovers in the tupperware. The next week all three newcomers were from Atlanta: Mariana McDonald, a vibrant, passionate poet/writer, Allen Peterson a visual artist/accordion player/bee collaborator, and Anne Webster, a poet with the greatest Southern accent I’ve probably ever heard.

On Thursday or Friday nights we’d share our work with each other. Julia is an installation artist and her work is deeply rooted in feminism and feminist theory. A lot of her stuff is provocative, and she uses a lot of bodily fluids as well as kitschy things like plastic toy soldiers she paints pink and fish hooks. While in residence she was working on something called “The Bride of Christ” which was going to be her take on the whole madonna-whore attitude the church often displays towards women. Julia is also hands down the best storyteller I’ve ever met. 75  years young, she has more energy and verve than many women half her age. She’s led a terrifically full life, and she has the stories to prove it. From the meth addicts living below her in Oregon to the terrifying and hilarious stories of getting sick in India–not to mention that she has her own uterus(!) stored in a jar in her pantry, we certainly didn’t need television or internet with Julia around. Julia, if you need a ghostwriter for your memoir, I am there with bells on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allen probably does the most unusual work of all of us. He cast two children’s heads (based on his daughter’s heads) out of beeswax which he then placed into two separate hives, one at his home in Atlanta and one near Hambidge. For a while the bees didn’t participate, but once he made some adjustments, the bees began to create the most fascinating and somewhat disturbing honeycombs. The bees in Atlanta made a flowing beard-like river from the head, while the Hambidge bees covered the face with the honeycomb. I wish I had pictures, but Allen hasn’t shown his work yet, so he can’t release it out into the world until he does. But you must check it out when he does!

Merill Comeau was the last resident to arrive during my stay, and I’m happy she was. Merill is such a hoot, and for several days we were the only ones at Hambidge, so I’m happy I was with someone as funny and wise and interesting as her. I never would have found out about Mary Hambidge’s more scandalous affairs if it wasn’t for her. Merill does collage work out of all kinds of salvaged fabric. Some of her pieces can be very large, and really striking.

Oh, and I did get a lot of writing done, which is the point. I went in with a novel outline to work on, but when I wasn’t really feeling that project I allowed the environment to inspire me to write two completely new stories. I revised about three more and I even started a new novel, one which happens to take place in part at a residency in Georgia…

All in all, a great way to spend the month of August!