Sunday, April 23, 2006

Shari Goldhagen’s Inspiring Debut Novel

This is a “writing” entry, although there are certainly plenty of well-written sex scenes in Shari Goldhagen’s debut novel/linked short stories, Family and Other Accidents. (Not much food though—only Asian takeout and salmonella.) This is a sort of embarrassing admission, but I haven’t been reading that many novels in the past few years, probably because I write short stories and focus on that genre, plus these days memoirs and other nonfiction just grab my attention more. But I was intrigued by Rachel Kramer Bussel’s review of Family on her blog and her interview with Goldhagen in The Gothamist. And, since I am writing a novel now, the question of what makes a good one is more personally pressing than ever before.

Well, I was totally blown away by this novel! Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. It has so many qualities I hope for in my own writing: very real characters who stay with you long after you stop reading; sharp, witty insights into the human condition; clean, lovely, I-wanna-write-that-way prose; and an enviable balance of page-turning drama with literary attention to detail and language that makes this worth a second or a third read to appreciate Goldhagen’s skills. I just know I’m going to be picking this up when I’m in a writing funk for some inspiration to get back on track.

I’m not sure why Jack and Connor and Mona and Laine and the rest seem to have moved into my brain so that I can analyze them and love them and hate them like members of my own family, but they have and that’s the magic of good fiction. Some of it might be the insight into the Midwest—I’m a neurotic East Coaster who married a guy from Chicago and the culture is definitely different in America’s heartland. Some of it might be that I have a controlling older sibling like Jack and my father died when I was young and a lot of that part rings true. Certainly part of it is that I’ve always found love and sex and all the silly things they make us do mysterious (I know I’m definitely not alone in that) and this novel tackles those issues with intelligence and humor.

Style-wise there was a lot to learn, too. I knew I’d like this book when I saw the chapter titles: “stealing condoms from joe jr.’s room,” “the only pregnant girlfriend he ever married,” “the way he said ‘putz.’” The shifting POV’s allowed for so many “aha” moments—Ah hah, that’s what he was really thinking in the last chapter—which is somehow very satisfying for a reader. I also admired the way Goldhagen brought her themes full circle in the last chapter to create a satisfying ending without tying the story into a contrived conclusion. It was also cool to learn a bit about the genesis of the novel from Rachel’s interview I’ve linked to above. The first story Goldhagen wrote with some of the characters became chapter four, not a standout chapter on first reading, but that is how things work sometimes in the creative process. I recently wrote a story that I can feel wants to become a novel and now I’m letting the characters and images simmer away in my mind on my early morning walks, which is the longest and probably most enjoyable part of the creative process for me.

I can only hope any novel I write will be half as good as Family and Other Accidents.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Kulich and Paskha: A Quick Jaunt to Russia

With two young kids and a limited budget, I’m not likely to find myself heading off on an overseas vacation any time soon. But I’ve discovered a substitute that seems to work almost as well for my body and spirit—a trip to one of the Bay Area’s many wonderful ethnic bakery/restaurants. On this Easter weekend, I dragged my family into San Francisco to the Cinderella Bakery on Balboa St. Yeah, I know the real Russian Easter is next week, but we’re all caught up in dyeing eggs and decorating the German Easter tree, so it seemed like the right time to buy some kulich (Russian fruit bread, like pannetone) and paskha (a mixture of sweetened farmer cheese mixed with candied fruit). I also picked up a delicious, over-sized honey poppyseed roll and a sweet cheese roll for breakfast. This kids had butter cookies, which got rave reviews. As my husband and I savored our morning pastries, we both observed that some subtle flavoring made us feel like we were suddenly in a foreign land. It really did bring back those European vacations of our DINK lives, when each day would find us at a café or patisserie sampling the local sweet. I’m not sure if it’s the yeast, the egg coating, a spice or just plain baker’s magic, but there was some sorcery at work on the taste buds. This morning we had the official Easter breakfast. Cinderella Bakery’s kulich is not as rich and fruity as some of the less authentic versions I’ve tried at local bakeries, but it was nice, especially topped with the sweet cheese. This may become an annual spring ritual, along with the vegetarian matzo soup and the various charosets (classic apple walnut plus nouveau pistachio and dried cranberry) and the chocolate eggs.

I first got the hankering for kulich and paskha at Easter from Catherine Cheremeteff’s food memoir, A Year of Russian Feasts. Her description of the monastery where they prepare these Easter treats by the thousands really stayed with me—plus I know the proper way to eat a kulich is to slice off the decorated top, then slice rounds to pass around, then replace the top when you are finished for the next round.

Food memoirs are definitely my favorite form of travel these days—they’re quick and low-calorie, unless thinking about food puts on the pounds, and sometimes it seems that way. Other favorite food writers include Ruth Reichl, whose books are about so much more than food. Tender at the Bone and Garlic and Sapphires are the two I’ve read so far. I reread Jane and Michael Stern’s cleverly amusing histories of American eating about once a year, Square Meals and American Gourmet. The latter has a great chapter on food for lovers, mid-century style! The combination of humor, history and recipes is right up my alley. The Stern’s have come out with a memoir, Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food, which looks interesting. Sometimes on their travels, they’d eat TEN meals a day. Better to read about than do….

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is Real Sex Really Sexy?

I’m about to embark on an exciting and hopefully not too painful experience—I’m writing an erotic novel under contract with the UK publisher, Orion, who is launching a series of “literary” dirty books dubbed “Neon.” (I hope my cover has a nice neon sign in Japanese characters.) Yes, it’s scary, although I’ve been mulling over my material for many years now and it feels ripe. It’ll have a lot of exotic information about Japan and my main character is an insatiably horny woman who has sex with lots and lots of men. How can I go wrong?

Well, you never quite know what makes a piece of writing soar, even though the raw material seems promising. So, in my typical fashion, I’ve turned to books for the answer. Other erotica as examples and a few writing how-to’s for advice. I picked up a very helpful tip from Scott Edelstein in his book, 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. On page 22 Edelstein advises: “To get the most out of writing, write what you would enjoy reading.” Later he elaborates: “The more interested you are in what you’re writing, the more interested your reader will be.” And since repetition is always good when you lecture, he concludes: “Write something you yourself would want to read.” And that is exactly what I’m going to try to do. At the very least, it makes the writing process more fun if I myself am laughing and crying and getting turned on. Plus, this seems like the kind of basic common sense that will help me through some sticky or slow times in the process.

So, what exactly do I want to read? I actually know the answer to this question--for a change. I want to read a dirty story that feels real to me. A lot of sex stories out there (and there are many, many exceptions of course, especially in the anthologies my stories are in!) strike me pure fantasy, which may be what some readers want, but it keeps me from getting truly involved in the flow of it. Everyone in these books has an orgasm, or two or three, in the abundant sexual encounters that happen every few pages like clockwork. No one ever has doubts or regrets. No one hesitates to jump into bed with the next absurdly attractive stranger of whichever sex who bounces down the road. There’s no jealousy. No new sex trick ever hurts or falls flat. It all just happens, effortlessly, in an ever-ascending arc of outrageous acts, each which proves more fulfilling than the next. Again, I can understand the appeal of this fantasy of nonstop thrills with no consequences, but it doesn’t really do it for me. What I like—and I’m not saying I can pull this off—is a glimpse into the real experience of sexual intimacy. And maybe some would think what happens in real life is exactly what you’re trying to escape when you read erotica. But I’m more of a voyeur. I want to know what sex is really like for other people and I have a companion urge to tell other people what it’s like for me. Some criticize Susie Bright’s BAE series for being too dark, but I’d argue that the stories always touch on something real. And I can’t lose myself in a story unless it has something that resonates deeply as truth. But here’s the thing—real sex can be magic and that magic is much more powerful than any predictable genre fantasy I’ve ever rolled my eyes over.

So, I’m going to go for real and true in my erotic novel, although I’ll throw in lots of luscious descriptions of food and men’s bodies and wild sex. And while I hope lots and lots of people want to read it, I don’t have much control over that. What this will be is an experiment, a test as to whether Mr. Edelstein is right with his suggestion #12. Wish me luck!