June 3, 2013
I'm really proud to have my essay, Role Credits, in the smart, gorgeous new Chicago mag The Urbaness. Here's an excerpt:
There’s a black and white photo of my parents at their wedding reception that captures them moments before plunging a silver blade into a frilly-edged cake. My dad’s suited shoulder touches Mama’s bare arm as he leans into her. Mama looks blissful. Her heart-shaped face and almond eyes contrast dad’s hollowed cheekbones and square jaw. She’s wearing a cream sheath dress and her hair frames her face in perfect black pin curls. My dad looks happy but there’s something about the set of his jaw that throws me off; it looks like determination; it looks like he was thinking, I’m going to try my damndest to make this work.
Never underestimate the power of sitcoms. Sitcoms molded my psyche as forcefully as my parents’ guidance. The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Bonanza, The Partridge Family and even the freakishly disturbing Bewitched taught me that family is everything. You make a mistake? Family gets you out of it.
The shows’ neat and tidy plotlines helped make sense of the world. Character X screwed up. Characters Y and Z helped her get out of it. Character X learned a valuable lesson. Roll credits.
Even as an only child, I identified with those families. And then everything changed.
April 26, www.chicagonow.com/what-would-royko-do
Who's making money? Sadly, it's all the usual suspects.
In case you haven’t heard, public schools don’t make money. In case you haven’t heard, charter schools make money. It stands to reason, then, that public schools don’t contribute to political campaigns. But charter schools do contribute to political campaigns and they contribute very nicely, thank you.
So guess who has the ear of Governor Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Edward Burke and Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic Party leader Michael Madigan? The Chicago Teacher’s Union? Try again.
People like Juan Rangel have their collective ears. Rangel is the CEO of United Neighborhood Organization (U.N.O.). U.N.O. is a Chicago charter school company that, you might have heard, ran into a bit of a snafu this week. Seems the politically connected U.N.O., slated to receive $98 million in state grants, has been hiring contractors who also happen to be family members of UNO’s top executives.
What’s the big deal, you say? It's the Chicago way, right? Why get all fired up?
Well, for one, our politicians are selling public education to the highest bidders. Charter schools take taxpayer dollars away from public schools. That money ends up in the bank accounts of corporate interests. That money, which could be used to build libraries and improve playgrounds and purchase badly needed technology for our public school students, is being quickly funneled into building a corporate education infrastructure. For example, investment into the K-12 education sector soared from $13 million in 2005 to a record $389 million in 2012.
And then there’s this: wealthy individuals from China, Nigeria, Russia and Australia are spending tens of millions of dollars to build American charter schools.
Reuters’ Stephanie Simon writes that, under a federal program known as EB-5, wealthy foreigners can ‘in effect buy U.S. immigration visas for themselves and their families by investing at least $500,000 in certain development projects.’
Lately, however, enterprising brokers have seen a golden opportunity to match cash-starved charter schools with cash-flush foreigners in investment deals that benefit both.
The demand is massive - massive - on the school side," said Greg Wing, an investment advisor. "On the investor side, it's massive, too.
But our public education system is broken and we need to fix it, right?
It’s not broken. But it has been attacked – by spending cuts and well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning reformers – for decades.
Diane Ravitch is an educational policy analyst who once supported accountability reforms and now ardently opposes them. Ravitch has, for years, called for people to take action against corporate reforms:
What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children's readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.
We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan "reforms" that have never been proven to work anywhere.
Josh Dwyer, Director of Education Reform at the Illinois Policy Institute writes that Governor Pat Quinn makes it sound like the slated $400 million cut to K-12 education will be the death knell of public education:
Similar to President Barack Obama’s approach to discussing the sequester, the Quinn administration is making these cuts sound like they will bring the education system to its knees. In actuality, it will force the state to spend as much on education this year as it did in 2008.
If Quinn was serious about tackling the issues within Illinois’ education system, he’d take a deeper look into how the state funds education and the outcomes this system has produced.
So where does all of this lead? Well, take into account that Juan Rangel showed up with Rahm Emanuel in Emanuel’s first public appearance after resigning as White House chief of staff in October 2010. And since Emanual has been in office, there has been a teacher’s strike, the slated closing of dozens of Chicago Public Schools and the proposed building of dozens of charter schools.
If this outright sale of public education to the highest bidder doesn’t bother you, it should. It should bother you because the charter school issue will change the face of public education. And, if you scratch the surface of this latest attempt at corporatization, if you look into who’s paying and who’s taking, you’ll see that certain people are profiting and certain people are getting fleeced.
And it’s exactly who you suspected. It’s all the usual suspects.
Published March 14, 2013 at www.chicagonow.com/what-would-royko-do/
Ruffled Feathers at Columbia College Chicago
Adjunct Faculty Compared to Seasonal Retail Employees
During union negotiations at Columbia College Chicago, a CCC negotiator compared the college’s adjunct faculty to 'seasonal retail employees' (CCC negotiator says comment was taken out of context).** This, as you can imagine, ruffled a few feathers. It ruffled feathers because many adjuncts have decades of teaching (often more teaching experience than some full-timers) under their belts. It ruffled feathers because part-timers have been patiently working without a contract since 2010 and because they are professional, knowledgeable, thoughtful, intelligent and hard-working. It ruffled feathers because many part-timers have concentrated on teaching as opposed to publishing (not that teaching and publishing are mutually exclusive).
It ruffled feathers because part-timers are the pistons in CCC’s motor. Without part-timers, CCC would be on the roadside calling AAA for a tow.
There are about 1,200 part-timers teaching at CCC. So, by not agreeing to a fair and equitable contract, is the administration saying that 77% of their faculty – faculty who teach tuition-paying students -- could be easily replaced by anyone with a pulse and the ability to neatly fold a sweater?
I would imagine that most people (and parents of current students) might be perplexed by the ongoing and contentious union negotiations and might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Before 2008, I would have been, too. I was lukewarm, at best, about CCC's P-Fac (Part-Time Faculty Association). Our department chair treated us fairly. P-Fac? I could take it or leave it and, honestly, didn't pay it too much attention.
Then, in 2008, CCC's student enrollment started to decline. This, as you can imagine, put a crimp on cash flow. A good management team might have been prepared for such a setback. They weren't. Instead of fund-raising their little behinds off before 2008, the administration bought up a good deal of the South Loop (whose idea was that?) at the height of the real estate bubble.
Then – enter strings – the recession hit.
In 2012, the administration also tried pushing through a poorly planned and hastily implemented ‘prioritization’ plan that aimed to consolidate academic departments and cut costs. Good idea, right? But, instead of making thoughtful changes based on a college-wide prioritization study, the administration used ‘prioritization’ as an excuse to implement decisions they’d made prior to the process. Department Chairs’ contracts were not renewed and part-time faculty started losing teaching assignments.
Here's a tip. If you're a college administrator thinking about implementing a prioritization initiative, take a page from CCC's playbook. Then rip it up.
In the end, the administration convinced many of us -- many of us who were ambivalent, at best, about the union -- that P-Fac plays a crucial role in assuring that part-timers are treated equitably and fairly at CCC.
Shabby Treatment of Professors Emeritus
Not long after part-timers were compared to seasonal employees, another curious thing happened. John Schultz and Betty Shiflett, both founders of the Fiction Writing Department and professors emeritus, were told to vacate their long-held offices. Not a big deal, right? Moving offices happens all the time.
But where did CCC move them? They didn’t. They simply took away their offices.
Professor emeritus is a title that many colleges and universities bestow on long-serving professors. It’s a title of distinction. It’s a title that says, You worked your ass off for years to make this institution great and now we’re rewarding you. There are no hard and fast standards for bestowing the title; it's an honor that often includes certain privileges like an on-campus office, the opportunity to continue teaching and the use of institutional facilities.
CCC nearly gobbled up the whole of Chicago’s South Loop at the height of the real estate bubble. It seems curious, then, that they suddenly find themselves without office space for two distinguished professors.
Some might call the decision to leave two professors emeritus without offices downright shabby.
I’d have to agree.
I HEART Columbia College
Don’t get me wrong. I love Columbia College. My students amaze me every single time I walk into the classroom. And I wholeheartedly believe in our mission. And part of our mission statement is
to give educational emphasis to the work of a subject by providing a practical setting, professional facilities, and the example and guidance of an inventive faculty who work professionally at the subjects they teach
An ‘inventive faculty who work professionally at the subjects they teach’ describes CCC’s full- and part-time faculty. It also describes John Schultz and Betty Shiflett – both of whom have mentored hundreds, if not thousands of CCC fiction writing students. Both have worked for decades building the best and one of the only Fiction Writing Departments in the country.
Traditionally, colleges hire part-time faculty to pick up the slack, carry the heavy load. Traditionally, colleges respect faculty -- including those they honor as professors emeritus. Perhaps the CCC administration and Board of Trustees should take a good look at CCC’s mission statement. Maybe they should take a field trip to every academic department, talk to students, talk to full- and part-time faculty.
Talk to a few professors emeritus.
CCC is great because of three things: students, staff and faculty. Administrators? They come. And they go.
Maybe the CCC administration should take a good, long look at their faculty and at the unique programs that make CCC one of the greatest liberal arts colleges in the world. Maybe they should slow down, see things more fully, recall what makes CCC tick.
And then consider their next move.
**You couldn't pay me enough to represent P-Fac or the administration in these negotiations. I admire both sides for trying to hammer this thing out (I've only sat through a few hours of negotiations...I would compare it to watching paint dry...without the fumes). The negotiator who allegedly made the comment is stuck between a boulder and a hard, cold Board. Regardless, the sentiment sums up the current administration's dismissive attitude toward adjunct faculty. It's exactly the way we feel we're being treated. This is not the negotiator's fault. It's the current administration's fault.
January 23, 2013
The Next Big Thing – Writers Discuss New Work
As part of The Next Big Thing Blog Hop, I was tagged by the fabulous Sheree Greer (check out her blog and the blogs of the other writers she has tagged).
The purpose of this Blog Hop is to introduce writers and their work to a whole new audience. These are writers you might not know but writers who you'll probably hear about in the coming years. These are writers who, as Sheree says, are are 'getting it done.'
According to the rules of the Hop, I will answer the questions below (the same ones for every other Blog Hopper) about my work-in-progress. At the bottom of the post I’ll list authors who will will be tagged. And they will post next Wednesday, January 30th (yeah...working on that).
(One more itty bitty thing... I'll be writing a blog for ChicagoNow called What Would Royko Do? Check out my first blog post Monday, January 28.
So here goes...
TNBT: What is the working title of your book/story/whatever?
ME: I'm about 90% of the way through a novel-in-stories. The working title is 'Swarm Theory.'
TNBT: Where did the idea come from for the book?
ME: I was diligently responding to Patty McNair's Journal Resolution - Daily Prompt and what turned out to be the the first story in the collection came from the prompt: "This is how they get you..." For some reason, that line breathed life into my main character -- one that I'd been wrestling with for about a year.
TNBT: What genre does your book fall under?
ME: It's a big dose of literary fiction. But there are lots of dream segments and doses of magical realism, too.
TNBT: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
ME: Hmmm... Astrid Miracle is a tender 19-year-old trying to disappear from her small town's microscopic gaze following her mother's suicide. I am not plugged in to actors -- especially young actors -- so that's a tough question. Young actors bug the crap out of me. But, if I had to pick one, I'd pick Hailee Steinfeld from 'True Grit.' Yeah. Hailee Steinfeld. Her acting is pretty effortless. Astrid's mother, though, that's easier. Her mother, Leila, struggles with mental illness and falls in love with the local priest. She might be played by Diane Lane or Marisa Tomei or Salma Hayek. Three actors. Did I break the rules? Yeah, that will happen.
Father Maurice Silver is a raging alcoholic who's about to be defrocked. Somebody like Tim Robbins or Steve Buscemi (just because I LOVE Steve Buscemi) would make an excellent Father Maurice Silver.
TNBT: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
CM: The interlocking narratives of my novel-in-stories are set in a Midwestern farm-town-turned-manufacturing-town (in the 1980s) and revolve around Astrid Miracle, a teenager whose mother has just committed suicide, and Father Maurice Silver, a local priest who had fallen in love with Astrid’s mother. The remaining stories unravel a small town’s complicity in sins and secrets and reveal how, regardless of what you’ve consciously done with your life, the past can’t help but influence the present.
Two sentences. I broke the rules again.
TNBT: What is the longer synopsis of your book?
ME: Well, there are probably too many themes but here goes: small-town brutality, bees, shadows, finding a way out, the beginning of AIDs, love, love and more love, unrequited love, spying, love, affairs, lies, not doing what you're supposed to do and love. Everything is about love.
That's not a very good synopsis. The stories shift back and forth through time to unravel the secrets of a number of characters in the town. All of the characters, in one way or another, link back to Astrid Miracle and Father Maurice Silver.
Here are a few of the stories and a brief description of each:
- Solid-State Reactions introduces Astrid Miracle and her desire to get away from her overbearing, emotionally weak football player boyfriend Paulie McClellan.
- What Now? What Then? is the story of Leila Miracle’s and Father Maurice Silver’s affair and uncovers the reasons for Leila’s eventual suicide.
- Swarm Theory is the story of one of Astrid’s father’s lover, Dovey Trellis, and her attempt to befriend Astrid after her mother’s suicide.
- An Impossible Task flashes back to Astrid and her two best friends, Edwina and Gomer, confronting neighborhood bullies after finding out about the sick things they've been doing to neighborhood pets.
- Something Else begins a year after Leila’s suicide. A young man with AIDS, Eric, goes to a faltering Father Maurice for help.
There are 14 stories in all (I think) so I'll stop there. It's not good blogging to read summary, right?
TNBT: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
ME: I just sent a letter to an agent today. The first of many, I'm sure. I like the idea of an independent press but a lot of them aren't even taking submissions right now. The idea of self-publishing is appealing in many ways. But I have 2-3 more months of writing left to go. Then I'll dig into getting it published.
TNBT: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
ME: Three years.
TNBT: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
ME: I guess that the book inspired me to write it. I didn't have much say in it because it's been ordering me around every chance it gets. It takes all of my working time and energy.
THE GOOD MEN PROJECT
In December I wrote The Evolution of Dudes and Bros: Are Straight Men Softening? for The Good Men Project. Whoa. That title got people all riled up. The smart-ass in this article is none other than Josh 'The Josh' Alletto.
Here's an excerpt...
My daughters will not date until they turn 65. By the looks of things, this rule, like all the others—e.g., no piercings, no boy bands, no visible tattoos—will be thoroughly disregarded.
Last week, at a friend’s birthday party, after cake and ice cream, the conversation turned to our teenage daughters. And boys. And dating. One of the moms said, “I think guys are different these days. They want a girl friend—not just sex.” The 40-something men around the table considered this. One smirked. Another raised an eyebrow. My husband, in his infinite wisdom, remained motionless.
Now, to be fair, my husband and the other guys, who are usually pretty opinionated, were rough. The night before, they’d taken a round-trip ride on the drunk bus and, even at 6:00 p.m. the next day, weren’t too chatty. Within minutes after finishing the cake, they disappeared to the couch where they watched football through closed eyelids.
But I considered her remark. Had men fundamentally changed in the twenty-some years since I’d dated? Was it true? Are modern men more interested in relationships? Has there been an evolutionary shift?
Is Don Juan dead?
Read more at The Good Men Project.
THE HYPERTEXT INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINE SNEED
Christine Sneed has put in her 10,000 hours and then some, Mr. Gladwell. I first heard Christine read last winter on a frigid, snowy night at a Come Home Chicago event at the Underground Wonder Bar. Tell you the truth, I went to hear one of my favorite writers, Stuart Dybek, but walked out of there with a new favorite.
Her first collection of short stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won the 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. It was also nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, won the Ploughshares Zacharis Award and won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award.
Her new novel, Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury Press) will be published in 2013. Pre-order Little Known Facts here.
CR: During our correspondence, you mentioned that you sent out You're So Different fifty or more times and rewrote it numerous times. It's one of those stories I love and seek out. It makes me cringe (still) because it explores that gap between what life might have been and what it has become. After fifty rejections, how did you not become despondent and throw it out? How do you keep faith in a story? Before I started learning about your tenacity (is it partly confidence?), that's what I would have done.
CS: Unbridled hubris? Or else stubborn persistence. Probably both. Despite the dozens of rejections, a couple of editors at journals that I really respected, AGNI, for example, wrote me kind notes about this story even though they said they weren’t going to take it. AGNI’s editor said, “I’m sure you’ll place this. Just keep sending it out.” His brief, kind note is probably the single most important reason why I didn’t give up on it. It encouraged me to keep submitting Different, and eventually to include it in my collection. I believed from the start that it was a publishable story; I liked it and believed in the characters and the awkward situations that I’d placed them in. It’s been vindicating to have you and a number of other readers tell me that You’re So Different is one of the stories that has stayed with them the most after they finished my book.
CR: The stories in Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry stick with me. You never take the easy dig or cheap shot. Your writing is always surprising but carefully crafted (and funny in so many subtle ways that I'm envious). Every sentence fits. Same in what I've read of Little Known Facts. You have written five novels before the short story collection was published. How has your approach to writing changed over the years? Or has it? And what happened to those other novels?
CS: My approach to writing has stayed the same since I started writing seriously about twenty years ago – sit down at my desk and whether or not I’m worn out from other things I’ve done that day or from poor sleep the night before or a pile of other tasks clamoring to be done, I make myself to stay at my desk until I’ve written a few paragraphs, or a few sentences, at the very least, that are worth saving. I might go back the next day and see that I wrote something cruddy and start that section over, but that’s okay. I remember reading an interview with the story writer Mary Yukari Waters in Glimmer Train a couple of years ago where she said that being a writer is like being on a lifelong diet – you feel this tremendous guilt if you don’t write, just as you would if you cheated on your diet. I know exactly what she means. The days I don’t write, I usually feel pretty anxious and guilty. So I write. You have to say no to a lot of things, and you have to be committed to your craft and enjoy it enough not to feel like you’re missing out too much on the things you say no to. You have to love writing as much, or more, than anything else. Obvious as it may seem, that’s one of the biggest differences between a writer and a non-writer.
Read the rest of the Christine Sneed interview at HYPERTEXTMAG.COM.
Christine Rice: In the opening story, a baby falls out of a carnival ride. That's about as horrible an event as I can imagine. Other than that, there are no car chases or exploding buildings or boy wizards in this book. Why not?
PM: Well, I tried to have an exploding building, but all I have are little houses in a small town and a couple of storefront businesses, and the ruckus would have been relatively small. And a car chase—considering the size of New Hope, the fictional Midwestern town in which The Temple of Air is set—would have been over in a paragraph, a sentence maybe. I still had a lot of pages to fill. And no boy wizard, you’re right, but a little magic hidden here and there.
What I decided to do was to make the horrors more internal, you know? Like loneliness and crises of faith and grief. To me, those personal devastations and quiet desperations are more interesting than blowing up buildings and things. And an exploding building, in my opinion, is sort of like what they say about eating a Chinese meal: in an hour you’re still hungry. I wanted the feeling a reader might carry away from my stories—the loss she might feel from what happens in the first story; the sadness instilled on a small town in a time of war; the disappointment a teenager feels when betrayed by the adults around her; those sorts of things—I wanted those emotions to stick with a reader past the fortune cookie. If you get my slippery and slightly politically incorrect metaphor...
CM: That's so true about Chinese.
Your writing is lush. Can I use that word? You have anything against lush?
PM: No. If you mean lush like thick and fertile and dense and green. If you mean drunken, well...But maybe that’s okay, too. Sort of swirling and rambling. I think the writing swirls and rambles, too. But—I hope—in a good way.
CM: Not drunken, Patty. That would be weird. Regardless, the language is gorgeous. Even dickhead and motherfucker sound amazing wrapped in your prose. It all seems to work together. How is that possible?
PM: Wow. That’s about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing. I’m gonna take this question seriously, because I think you mean it seriously. Those places where words like “dickhead” and “motherfucker” hit the page are entirely in a character’s voice, and I like to think that maybe readers have developed some sort of affinity for the character, even if she isn’t all that likable at first. So if there’s compassion, there can be acceptance—or tolerance, at least. Beyond that, though, I am really interested in the rhythms of language, and I think that helps those words fit, too. Are you a fan at all of David Mamet? I am, and I think his dialogue is very poetic. Complete with all the bad language. It’s a rhythm thing there, too, partly. That, and there are some who think “creative cursing” is more cerebral, more artful. I don’t agree. Mark Twain said something like “never say ‘constable’ when ‘cop’ will do.” I’ll say: “Never say ‘fornication’ when ‘fuck’ will do.”
And I’ll go back to the swirling, rambling thing I said before. I love to let sentences wind out and out; love to catch the precise metaphors, too. So maybe that is part of what you are referring to when you say such nice things about the language.
CM: I really fell into reading The Temple Of Air. I mean, just fell into it and felt really sad when it was over (you know that hollowness when you have to let the characters go?). You mentioned that these stories were written over a decade. How did it feel to let the stories go and publish them? No problem? Mixed feelings? What did the actual book feel like the first time you held it?
PM: Again, Chris, thank you so much for such kind words.
I think one reason why these stories took so long was because I kept revisiting the characters: Nova and Sky, Michael and Annie, Hoof, Christie, and some of the others. Once they appeared in a couple of the stories, I wanted to learn more about them, write them out. In some cases the stories weren’t originally meant to be recurring characters, but it started to become clear to me that they had to be—the man in Running was too similar to the man in The Things That’ll Keep You Alive to not be the same guy. They even looked the same to me when I imagined them. The same with Sky. I kept creating this type of character, a sort of dangerously charming, long-haired blond guy with green-blue eyes that my girl and women characters were attracted to. So of course he had to be just one guy: Sky.
But you asked something else—about how it felt to let go of the characters. Frankly, I haven’t entirely. There are stories I wrote about them that didn’t make it into the collection. I may still try to get those up to snuff. And I’m working on a novel that is set in the same fictional town a couple of decades later. There will be some cameos of characters from The Temple of Air in that.
And to hold the book in my hands—well, I can’t even describe how great it felt. It is a really, really beautiful book. Jotham Burrello from Elephant Rock Books worked really hard on directing its production, and Melissa Lucar, the designer, absolutely understood what I wrote; she made the book a piece of art, in my opinion. And it literally feels good to hold. Tactilely. It is smooth to the touch. Sort of lotion soft. I’m not kidding.
CM: Jergens, maybe?
In Something Like Faith, Michael says, "So I just turned my head. I ignored it." But these stories never turn away from the moment of real dramatic tension -- no matter now difficult. No cliché endings here. Were you ever tempted to let your characters have a Disney ending?
PM: I am not sure I could do that even if I wanted to. Why is that, do you suppose? I am not an unkind person; I like folks to be happy. But I am drawn to stories that are bittersweet at best, or the ones that make you ache. I remember reading Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love when I was an undergraduate, and it blew my mind. Not so much the minimalism—exaggerated by his editor at the time—but by the fact these stories did not end happily. I don’t think I fully understood that was possible before that. And while I have had a happy, lucky life for the most part, the moments that probably shape me most as a writer are the small heartbreaks: my brother’s face when we were told my dad died; being picked on by the neighborhood bully; being lonely in a relationship. And I don’t know if this is going to make any sense, but when I remember those experiences I feel honored to have witnessed them. As a reader, I feel some of the same privilege to be trusted with these moments and to be able to read them on the page.
CM: The Temple Of Air by Patty McNair. Temple of Air. McN-air. Any connection?
PM: Yes. The connection is this: A. And I. And R.
CM: Thanks for clearing that up.
Read the rest of the Patty McNair interview at HYPERTEXTMAG.COM.
Chris Rice: We're in a virtual paneled library (a la Beauty And The Beast/Disney version...don't pretend you haven't seen it). I'm sipping cognac. You're smoking a pipe. We're both wearing tweed.
Megan Stielstra: Got it.
Thank you for writing about a character with the Incredible Hulk under her bed. Why do you think other writers don't come clean about those kinds of relationships? Do you think this could hurt you professionally?
There's this scene in Love in the Time of the Cholera when Florentino Ariza runs into Fermina Daza in the market. He was totally in love with her; she stomped all over his heart; now she's standing there with her new husband and Florentino looks at him and thinks, This man has to die. I was going through a break-up myself at the time, I'd just bumped into my ex and his new girlfriend, and reading that scene was like, Yes! That's it exactly! It's a feeling I'd wager everyone has experienced at some point, but of course, you can't admit it. You have to move on! You have to be the bigger person!—but in secret? Your imagination is on fire.
So there I was, a twenty-year-old girl in Chicago in 2000, connecting with some Columbian guy in the early 1800's, all because of the very honest admission of a secret feeling. I love this about fiction; those moments where I connect with the characters. I've seen myself in Florentino Ariza, in Lena Grove, in Ivan Yakovlevich and Jimmy Cross and Alice Kingsleigh and on and on. It's fucking fascinating, and, I hope, opens me up more to finding connections in my day-to-day life. If I can see myself in these fictional characters, why not the guy next to me on the bus? The woman on TV with the fundamentally different political beliefs? People of different backgrounds and cultures and experiences—and to think someone might read my stuff and find their secrets, somehow, within it? It blows my mind.
Here's the secret about my Hulk story: for a long time, the relationships I had in my head were more fulfilling than those I had in real life. At the time, I was reading a lot of Kafka, and he does this thing where he gives a concrete, visual image to an abstract feeling or concept. Don't want to go to work? Okay, now you're a cockroach. The justice system is fucked up? Okay, here's this whacked-out machine. I thought, Let's give this secret of mine a concrete image. Let's give it the Incredible Hulk.
I have conversations all the time with people about the fictional characters they want to have relationships with (and/or sleep with). Can there be a comment section at the end of this interview and people can write in their list? Everyone's got a list. Mine goes like this:
1. The Hulk
2. Indiana Jones
3. Seven of Nine
4. Jose Arcadio
5. Luke Duke.
Luke Duke? Really? Okay...his hair is kind of jaunty.
For those of you reading this: I know you've got a list. Share it at the end of this interview. Don't be prudish.
Read the rest of the Megan Stielstra interview at HYPERTEXTMAG.COM.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Hundreds of characters are rumbling around my brain. Last night was my final class of the spring semester and, over the last three weeks, I read over 1,000 manuscript pages. My brain feels swollen, character-logged. They’re packed sardine-close up there. They pop up in my dreams, bump into me at Trader Joe’s, swerve around me in crosswalks, chat me up at the dog park. I see an elegant older woman, hair freshly set & washed, Kleenex tufting out of the sleeve of her cashmere sweater, and think: that’s her. That’s the character that seduced her sister’s husband. She’s standing right next to me, in the frozen food section. I want to ask her if the plot really spooled out that way, if the dialogue seemed right, if the point of view did justice to the story. I want to know if we made the right decision to publish her story. I want to touch her. See if she’s real.
I settle for standing next to her, gawking, as she leans in to snag a bag of frozen mango. My stare catches her attention (in the story, she’s a retired law professor, after all). She whips her face toward me with just the right combination of irritation and inquisitiveness, “Yes?”
I mumble something about mango, lean in, grab a bag and hold it next to my face like a prize. She probably thinks I’m crazy. She probably thinks I’m a Chicago-area gypsy; that I’m sizing her up, preparing to snatch a fat wallet out of a sensible handbag.
How do you switch from that imaginative world -- where you’ve been steeping -- to real life? I mean, really? How do you?
It’s worse with your own work. This morning, I was finally able to get back to a section of my novel-in-stories. I’d neglected my characters. Missed them terribly. For their part, they were pissed. And who could blame them? It had been two months since I’d visited. All the usual obstacles prevented me from opening the document: jobs, chauffeuring, doctor and dentist appointments, student conferences, soccer practice, PTA meetings, etc., etc. Solid Mt. Rushmore commitments. Then there’s the I-need-to-do-that stuff like cleaning the cat box, walking the dog, wrangling tumbleweed size dust-bunnies, folding laundry. You know: that stuff. The stuff that piles up to become roadblocks between my writing and me.
Rereading the work from a few months back, I found that it really worked. The dialogue flowed. The point of view and narrative distance and dueling plotlines seemed spot-on. Today, though, those same characters wouldn’t play nice. Their dialogue felt flat, stilted. The point of view felt all wrong. The writing wasn’t going well. I had been looking so forward to this first day back to writing. And it sucked. It really did. My characters didn’t seem happy to see me at all.
At ten-thirty, I broke away from my agony to take my mom to her wash & set (i.e., Mt. Rushmore commitment). She got in the car and looked at me, “You look tired.”
She’s so small. She reminds me of a tiny bird in the bucket seat, “What?”
I take a deep breath. I raise my voice, “I said, thanks.”
She ignores me and plucks two letters from behind the visor, “You didn’t mail these? I’ll get a $20 late charge. I don’t want a $20 late charge.”
“I’ll mail the letters.”
“I’ll mail the letters.”
“After I drop you off. “
“I’ll mail the letters after—“
“I heard you. You don’t have to yell.”
“But you said, What?“
She flaps her hand, “I heard you.”
She’s irritated. I’m irritated. We’re snapping.
After an hour or so, I pick her up. Her hair’s been washed and set and sprayed into a golden, impenetrable helmet. Her entire demeanor has brightened. Her grey eyes snap. She clutches my arm as I help her into the car. Her hair looks nice so I tell her so.
“Not bad,” she nods. “You mailed the letters?”
“What letters?” I say loud enough for her to hear.
She doesn’t even acknowledge the ruse, “Thank you, honey.”
I jump into the driver’s seat and we’re off. Something has shifted. Could be her. Or me. Don’t know. Don’t care. I want to kiss her cheek.
Three writing hours before I have to pick up the kids from school and I attack the writing with new vigor. The characters are softening under my touch. They’re unfolding. They’re cooperating. They’re damaged and scared and broken and lonely and betrayed. They start talking and I listen. They react and I get it down.
Something similar to the conversation I’d had in the car with my mom makes its way into a scene. It becomes a memory, an internal perception, of the main character: an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother has committed suicide.
There’s this unbreakable link between my real and imagined worlds. Magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, straight up lit fiction: for me they all come from something. It might be a glance. The turn of a phrase. The way an older man tips his hat. It’s all there. Even when I’m running at 90 mph, unable to write, I’m hoarding the moments, jotting them down in my journal, so that when I finally get in front of the screen, I put them to work.
It’s that cotton-candy spin to combine the feather-light and weighty moments. I just have to notice them. And, some days, that’s about all I can do.
“Literature is nothing but carpentry… Both are very hard work. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood… I never have done any carpentry, but it’s the job I admire most.” --Gabriel Garcia Márquez
My dad had two workshops: one in the basement and a smaller one in the garage. Bright red vice grips and glue stood ready to mend broken broom handles or busted toys. Band saws, table saws, rip saws, crosscut saws, safety glasses, a broom and dustpan, chisels, sand paper, chalk lines, awls, wood glue were organized on his own custom-made shelves and tables made out of two-by-fours and plywood. It smelled of sawdust and glue and sweat. He built desks and chairs and trellises and even a greenhouse big enough to walk in where we started our vegetable garden seedlings.
Right now, I’m looking at his WWII army medals. They are framed and hang above my desk. At the top, there’s an Expert Infantryman pin. Below are his gold and black US Army and shoulder patches. Next his service badges: a Bronze Star, Good Conduct, American Campaign, European African Middle Eastern Campaign, World War II and Army of Occupation medals. His Army rank bars and cording are below those medals and a small gold plate that reads "T/5 Walter Maul HQ BTRY 559th AAA AW BN" anchors the entire thing.
I suspect that he built things to reshape the reality he had been handed. At 19, he and his battalion crossed the English Channel seventeen days after D-Day in June of 1944. In December of 1944, the 559th found themselves retreating from Germany’s massive counter-attack – the Battle of the Bulge -- where over 19,000 Americans died, some 47,000 were wounded and 23,00 went missing. I didn’t know that then because he wouldn’t talk about it. But I know it now because I’ve spoken to his buddies in the 559th and read-up on the battle.
Márquez knows what he’s talking about when he says that reality is hard as wood. For four years, my dad’s reality consisted of battles and terror and death. I still have photos of concentration camp rooms with barely-clad bodies piled ten-feet-high in corners: the spoils of a newly occupied Germany.
When I was 19, my dad left my mom. He left my mom but he left our family, too. I didn’t know it then but I wouldn’t talk to him for over 20 years. I still can’t believe it. Twenty years. Two decades. Over 7000 days. Over 168,000 hours. Too many minutes. Countless moments. It’s a hard reality (not as hard as others’ realities, I know). I’m not proud of it.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” is, hands-down, one of my favorite novels. I feel slightly overwhelmed when I consider the work Márquez put into its structure, language, imagery, metaphor, tone, handling of time, and the way he juggles parallel story lines. It’s interesting that he says, ‘With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood…" because Marquez cloaks a fictional Macondo in moments of dream-reality. And, although I remember the themes of war and conflict, I mostly remember how Márquez used those themes to influence his craft of character development, how he made the relationships between characters so real you could feel it, and how deeply they loved and hated. Have you ever tried doing that? If you have, you know it’s hard work. Hard as wood. Maybe harder.
Right now, I’m only four chapters into my novel-in-stories. I try not to think about how much hard work I have yet to do. It’s overwhelming but exciting and a great challenge. I’m grateful for it, though. I mean, what would I do if I wasn’t able to re-shape reality? If it came at me and I was just supposed to take it? That’s why we write and paint and stitch and draw and dance and make music and sing and do the millions of things humans do to mold reality into something we can, in the end, recognize as life.