Monday, November 28, 2016

Notes on the Kaua'i writers conference


From October 31 until November 6 I attended the Kaua'i writers conference (http://kauaiwritersconference.com). It had two aspects, first four days of master classes, and then three days of the conference more broadly. The master classes consisted of groups of 15 students with one, or in my case two days each of two successive "masters" for a total of 75 participants. The conference itself consisted of various roughly one-hour sessions, sometimes in parallel for up to 150 people.

Kaua'i (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kauai) is a genuine tropical paradise, a relatively small Hawaiian island with a population of about 60,000. It happens my son is a middle school teacher there, which is one reason I attended.

Demographics: I was able to count the house for the master classes. Middle-aged women dominated them, like the conference.  The group was 80% women, only a few of them under 30. Some men  -my class happened to have 4. Five Blacks, considerably above the normal percentage in Kaua’i, and five Asians, considerably below. Faculty was all white except one Asian and evenly split between men and women.

My impression was that the most popular genre was memoirs by people who believed they had led interesting lives or, more often, had had interesting jobs or professions.

By and large I came away with a good feeling. I felt partly that it was useful but more broadly warmly towards it, unlike the San Francisco writers conference (http://thothbooks.blogspot.com/search?q=francisco), the only other such conference I have ever attended, which basically seemed to me like a tacky fair.

Luis Alberto Urrea (http://www.luisurrea.com) opened the conference proper with a truly inspiring speech about how he wrote to give voice to people without voices. He told, for example, about how when he was a young man he was doing charity work in the Tijuana dump (Not far from his birthplace). He was keeping a journal. A garbage picker came out of the dump and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was keeping a journal. The guy asked what that was. He said it was like a diary. The guy asked if Urrea would write about him. He replied that he probably would. Urrea commented that at that moment he did know weather they guy would hug him or punch him. Urrea is a big guy; I would think twice about punching him. The guy said that was good, he should write about him, tell that he was born in the garbage dump, worked in the garbage dump, and when he died they would bury him in the garbage dump. Wow.

But beyond that there was very little discussion of the purpose of writing.

Agents dominated this conference. Of the faculty of 21, seven were agents and another agent took a prominent role. The group leader for the second two days of my master class was not a writer but an agent. There were two panels on how writers and agents work together, to on how to acquire agents, and agents tended to dominate various broader panels.

 I was reminded several times of a friend of mine who writes thrillers.  He wrote a book proposal for a possible thriller about a Silicon Valley nerd who is transmitted by technobabble into Mayan times. He wrote a book proposal, sent to his agent who said that it was great, he could sell it, but he had a few suggestions. After two or three cycles of that sort the agent sent it to publishers one of which said it was great and they'd like to publish it but they had a few suggestions. After two or three cycles of that sort the book that resulted was about a group of eco terrorists who are fomenting climate change to increase the value of their property in Canada. What my friend liked about the whole process was he still had his original idea, which he also later wrote and self published with some success.

Except for two talks, the fact that the publishing industry is in turmoil or and perhaps far-reaching change because of electronic publication including a wide range of forms of self-publication mostly went unmentioned. It was usually as if this were 10 years ago and the New York publishing industry and paper books completely dominated publishing. The two exceptions were a an excellent, experienced and well organized talk on self-publishing and little presses by Terry Persun (http://www.terrypersun.com), and in the talk by Christina Baker Klein (http://christinabakerkline.com), which was billed as about her novel The Orphan Train, but in response to questions she gave a very intelligent and up-to-date overview of the publishing industry including self-publishing and e-books. I sensed that the parts are trying to ignore each other. She reported that when she gave a talk at a convention of independent bookstores she was instructed beforehand that she could not mention Amazon. She also spoke the memorable phrase, "There are so many gatekeepers."

Incidentally, I had read The Orphan Train, which I found soundly written but boring. I wondered how it had sold so many copies. I figured it would only be of interest to young teenage girls were who were disaffected with families, but it turns out there are four million descendants of the orphans on the trains.

The agents allocated obsessive attention to the first page of novels. The theory is: the way novels sell is this: the customer goes into a bookstore, picks up a novel, opens it to the first page, is then hooked or not – only if hooked buys the book. When I asked an agent if he believed this, and commented that I could never remember doing that, but rather I bought books on the basis of reviews or recommendations from friends I trusted. He replied that he did not know if it was true but he knew publishers believed it and so it may as well be true. As was occasionally mentioned, people go through a similar process on Amazon, which tracks your every click for marketing purposes so Amazon knows the answer to my question for its readers. In general agents prescribed a first page focusing on the protagonist who has at that moment a sense of urgency about something or other.

There was a panel by authors who had been involved with Hollywood and the Hollywood came up several other times. No one suggest the possibility of non-Hollywood movies. On the whole the experiences were difficult although Baker-Kline is happy about the plan for a movie of The Orphan Train. The most difficult negotiations were over Jamie Ford's novel The Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_on_the_Corner_of_Bitter_and_Sweet), in which all important characters are Asian except for one black man. This is a problem for Hollywood, which does not want to undertake a movie unless it has a slot for a "bankable" actor, that is a Caucasian actor. Urrea, who has not completed a deal, reported a fabulously wealthy producer commenting to him, with self-conscious irony "I'll turn you into a whore yet."

There was a master class and one session on screenwriting. The session consisted of playing a number of clips and commenting on structural features. The clips tended to be extraordinarily cliché-ridden and stereotypical Hollywood box office successes including, for sooth, Ben Hur. As far as I could tell, all the movies were from Hollywood. Surely there are things to be said about screenwriting of good movies.

Priya Parmar (http://www.priyaparmar.com) is an interesting example of the attention to the relation between authors and agents. She and her agent did a presentation on the subject. Her agent was not part of the regular faculty and was described to me as a very important New York agent, but I've forgotten her name. Parmar looks about 16 but is 40 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/for-priya-parmar-a-career-as-a-novelist-wasnt-even-in-the-plans/article22606030/). I found her novel good and interesting and she talked enough to show that she was intelligent and interesting, but mostly when there were hard questions she handed the mic to her agent. I had a slight feeling of seeing Svengali and Trilby.

Short stories got short shrift. There was virtually no discussion of them except a presentation on the subject by the indefatigable Jonathan Mayberry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Maberry) who is a publications industry unto himself.  He reports that he publishes about a million words a year. He sees short stories as improving market particularly in anthologies.

I never heard a non-US writer or publisher mentioned. I did not hear poetry mentioned.   I heard no complaint about pressure on writers to continue series.

The writer's discomfort with Hollywood constraints made me reflect on their feeling about publishers constraints and my perspective as a reader.  I'm not a fan of Hollywood movies, not that there is not a good one occasionally, but it is definitely the exception for me. I watch a lot of movies, generally not from the United States. Likewise I seldom read novels that have been on the New York Times bestseller list. I read five by presenters preparing to come to this conference. Two I thought were pretty good, as good as the novels I generally read, which are mostly from outside the United States or from the past. The other three were soundly written but not interesting to me. They are the product of rather stringent process, a lot of gatekeepers as Christina Baker Klein commented, particularly of course the first page, which really has rules as intricate as a sonnet, as do query letters and book proposals.  Nor are the gatekeepers reliable. We all know the stories of Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Gray being turned down on numerous occasions and those of us who know writers all read unpublished books or books published in very limited printings that read better than most of what appears in the stores. I heard writers complaining about Hollywood strictures but no one here complained about the similar New York publishing strictures. Yet if you want to get fame or money or readers in the United States it is a game it is useful to play. It is not necessary to play because people are getting fame and money on readers via a wide range of sorts self-publishing these days.  But that involves the burden of self-marketing. But so does working with big publishers. These are not new thoughts; every writer that does not have an established market is harboring them. I have a novel in hand that, as it happens can be tweaked pretty easily to fit the strictures (or so I imagine). That is, it can be tweaked without destroying its meaning for me as the meaning of his novel would be destroyed for Jaime Green by Hollywood casting a Caucasian star. Not everyone has that luxury.

I have a number of interesting conversations with writers. For example I talked a couple of times with a physician that works for the Social Security Administration rather than practicing – presumably evaluating claims for disability – but her primary interest was combining Native American medicine with astrology. I quizzed her some on Native American medicine and she seemed to have a broad knowledge reflecting understanding that what they practice depended on their culture and local geography. She was writing a memoir and was worried about its reception among her astrologer friends who might condemn her for her turn towards Native American medicine.

A guy I chatted with was a short middle-aged man, a little rotund with a round face and balding head, a semi retired patent attorney. He writes romance and erotica for women. He drew a sharp line between erotica and porn but I did not understand what it was. He was intelligently articulate about how to construct such novels, for instance when to follow the woman's point of view and when to follow the man's. He gave an interesting account of when he told his wife and each of his three sons that he was pursuing writing romance and erotica and portrayed interestingly their very individual reactions. He has a friend who writes porn but has never told anyone else that he did it, except my informant because he consulted him on a legal matter. He has a wife and family and has a problem accounting for the income stream without letting them on his little secret.


This is only the third year of the conference, and it is larger than it has been before. Many ragged ends showed, mainly having to do with the schedule, which, since I first heard of the conference, constantly changed and changed from day to day even hour to hour when we were in session.  I had to make an expensive alteration to our airline flights on that account. Meals provided by the hotel varied from very good to poor. There was a luau with fire dancing that impressed me but with mediocre food. My son, who has been to many luaus, joined us and commented that luau food was generally bad and that this particular set of fire dancing, was second rate. However, unlike the big-deal San Francesco writer’s conference, the mics worked and presenters generally knew how to use them.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Can Make You Happy

A short story by Jan Alexander

An undisclosed location in New Mexico, 2027

Welcome to New Pathways.  My name is Sonia Delarosa. I’m the founder of this workshop.   I’m 43 years old, and I’m a happy person.  Stroll around here and you’ll see lots of others who are happy.  You can identify our graduates by their “Trump Pride” buttons and their smiles. You’re here because you’re liberals and you think you can’t bear another day of President Trump’s reign. But you’ll learn that even you can re-educate yourself, with some help from me.
Ten years ago, I was miserable too. In fact, I wept uncontrollably on the New York subway that day in January, 2017 when President Trump was inaugurated.  I thought this can’t really be happening.  No doubt you all felt the same way—otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
That’s right, I was one of the last of the working people living in New York and burrowing underground like a gopher every day, before the city became the first Trumpistan, Inc.  Real Estate Investment Zone for global billionaires looking to diversify their holdings and was closed off to fulltime residents.  Back when I lived in New York I was an aspiring writer making what we used to call a creative salary—that’s a joke, I see you get it. I worked at a magazine and in my spare time I was writing the novel that was going save humanity.
So that day of the inauguration, I was on the subway and all around me were other young liberals on their way home to Brooklyn—and I wasn’t the only one sobbing.  There we were, a subway car full of people with advanced degrees in literature, sociology and history making less money than the managers at our neighborhood Starbucks. We started talking. We all thought President Trump was going to mow down the crumbling brick walkups where we lived.  We feared he was going to deport people because of their religion and get the country into a war we could never win. And we dreaded, absolutely dreaded, having to look at his disgusting face everywhere. The sneer.  The peroxided- balding-Elvis hairdo, the albino rhinoceros-in-pancake-makeup face.   Someone drew a cartoon of his sneer and passed it around. 
Now, though, when I see my President sneering I feel nothing but pride.  All of my early predictions came true, but I’ve stopped blaming Trump and learned to love him.  You’re going to love him too, by the time you graduate from my workshop.  
I see from your applications that a lot of you came here from Detroit.  I lived there too—it seemed like the only place to go after a bomb demolished my apartment building. At the time I thought my life was over;  I was one of the many poor but hip New Yorkers who was sure it was a Trump conspiracy when the bombs went off in the New York Times building, and then in the old residential buildings all over Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I believed, sincerely believed, that the bombers were just hired thugs disguised in kuffiyehs so they’d look like Muslims.  Remember the rumors that it was all a master plan to get the war started and incidentally wipe out the affordable housing?  I was furious—I walked around gnashing my teeth and sobbing and wishing I had a gun so I could destroy the guilty parties—when luxury towers rose up, with armed guards around Manhattan and Brooklyn, and there was nowhere to live in the outer boroughs because they were all combat zones.     I heard that the whole Muslim family who’d run a store on my corner back in Brooklyn had disappeared, and I blamed Trump. Just as  I blamed him when Shiites and Sunnis, jihadists and moderates from all over the world managed to find a united cause, attacking our country.
I was still screaming about conspiracy in 2020—I was convinced it was yet more hired thugs who planted the bomb that killed Elizabeth Warren after she won the election that year. Especially when President Trump made his big announcement and said, “This is war, my friends. Have you noticed the enemy has invaded and no one is safe? Until we kill off every single one of the enemy, democracy takes a back seat.  I’m going to remain the President and the Commander in Chief. Because no one else is tough enough.”  
By then, I’d settled in Detroit, and things started to get worse for me. There weren’t many jobs for writers unless you were willing to work for the Trump and Adelson-owned media, which I wasn’t. So I got a job making lattes for minimum wage—and you remember how all the minimum wage earners started disappearing after Trump created the private-sector Trumpistan Police, Inc.  in 2021? They didn’t publicize their new laws at first, and there were all kinds of offenses that no one knew were crimes until they were charged.  
I was a week late with my rent, and the Trumpistan Police came after me. So there I was in a place they called a reform camp. But that awful place was where I saw the light.
Everybody in the camp was poor.  All their crimes were failure to pay some bill or another. We didn’t have showers or plumbing and it stank of filthy bodies and stale urine.  We got watered-down macaroni and cheese once a day,  and a lot of inmates were so hungry they stole food from the officers’ mess hall—we’d hear shots in the night and figure someone else had been caught trying to steal food.  We also had these daily intake sessions with police social workers.  My social worker said to me, kind of shouting and sneering, like they’d all been trained to do, “Oh, so you have a masters of fine arts?” By then, of course, MFA programs had been banned on the evidence that they caused poverty.
The social worker asked me, “What do you think of your bunkmates?”
One of my bunkmates was a woman who weighed 280 pounds and had snake tattoos that undulated when she moved because there was so much loose flesh on her arms.  She’d voted for Trump in 2016 because he wasn’t afraid of speaking out about what everyone around her was really thinking.  Another bunkmate was a born-again Christian who’d voted for Trump too, and in the camp she was ranting that the worst thing about the place was that people were going to form homosexual bonds and never go to heaven.  She told me that if I had any perverted ideas I should know she kept a pistol under her pillow. That was one thing they let everyone have in the camp; they had a canteen where they sold guns on easy credit terms.  
So when the social worker asked me what I thought of the bunkmates it didn’t take me long to concede, “They’re riffraff.”
“You see?” the social worker said. “If they weren’t so ugly they wouldn’t be poor. What’s wrong with you? ”  
 You don’t hear much about the disappeared.  My tattooed bunkmate got a bullet in the head because she had diabetes and she couldn’t afford the insulin they sold at the camp canteen. The police came and got her and told her they were going to put her out of her misery.  But I turned out to be someone they could re-educate. I started wandering around in this trancelike state, talking to myself and all I remember saying was, “It’s my fault I’m poor.”
That’s when I got the idea to start a company of my own, offering workshops and a safe space for the remaining liberals, or at least those who, like you, could afford to come.  Because I had a business plan, they let me out to pull myself up by my bootstraps.  They warned me that if I failed I’d be back, so I had a big incentive. I came out here to New Mexico and I hid in the guard’s cottage in someone’s vacation ranch. That’s how I survived for six months. Then slowly, I began to make it.
I’ve grown to love it out here and I think you’ll love it too. The Muslim armies haven’t invaded lately, and you have a lot of space before you get to that half-an-acre point where it’s legal for a homeowner to shoot you.  The 20 kids who were shot at the amusement park last week, and that guy who shot all the inhabitants of the senior citizens’ home, well, you know, stuff happens. But mostly it’s peaceful here.
You’re going to feel immortal when you get out of my training class. You probably saw in the literature that the $10,000 you paid for the week includes a fully registered AK-47 of your own. We’ll issue it when you complete the course.  I know, you’re the kind of people who don’t believe in having guns.  But you’re going to walk out of here re-educated and re-born, and you’ll be happier for it.
I’ve been doing this a few years now, and I know a few things about you. The clients who’ve  come to me always hanker for the good lives they used to have.  You used to be dot.com executives or tenured professors in San Francisco, or non-profit lawyers in New York, or TV producers in L.A., before all those cities became Trumpistan Real Estate Investment Zones.  You’ve managed to keep going and keep on as affluent liberals in the heartland, but you’re miserable, right?
Yes, I figured that. For 10 years now you’ve been waking up every morning in a shivery sweat. You’ve been thinking you can’t bear to look at that sneer again. Maybe you had Muslim friends who didn’t want to go to war and no one knows where they are now. Or you employed a sweet-tempered nanny who taught your children mariachi tunes and wanted to become a music teacher—and then she disappeared. And we’ve all lost people we loved in bombings.  I’ve been there too.
Well, here’s what we’re going to do this week. We’re going to talk about rewiring your sense of logic. Nearly all suicide bomb terrorists on our soil are Muslims. Therefore all Muslims are terrorists.
I see some hands up. Yes, you in the third row? Of course, you say but what about all the mass shootings by Americans who aren’t Muslim? We’ll rewire you for that too. You’re going to feel a lot less worried when you have your own automatic rifle.  
And that brings us to the part of your brain that all of you turn to pretty much every time you hear the news or see people getting herded out of their slum neighborhoods. The over-developed empathy part.  Do you know what it’s really like in a ghetto? Did you know that every single low-income person in this country started smoking crack at the age of 12? Then they start making meth and selling heroin to pay for their crack habit. If you give them welfare they’re just going to have more money to spend on drugs. We have statistics to prove that there’s plenty of drug money circulating in the poor parts of town. They’re just hiding their cash under the mattress. You’ll believe our statistics by the end of this week.
More questions, comments? Yes, hand up in the back. . I’ve heard that one lots of times. You feel like you’ve spent ten years in a country ruled by a big bullying jerk. You feel that he’s such a larger- than-life narcissist that he had to run for president and pillage the world instead of just taking Viagra.
You’re quite right, our beloved president has psychological problems.  Trust me, this week you’re going to learn to love him for his flaws. For him, money and power fill an emotional  gap the size of Las Vegas; underneath it all he’s afraid of being worthless as a human being. You’ll come out of this workshop feeling good about yourselves because you’re helping him feel deserving. The way I look at it, I’m here talking to you as an altruist who’s made a lot of money helping others become altruists.  
And here’s a question for all of you: Do you why President Trump feels so entitled? Tell me what your gut feeling says.  Don’t think about the answer too much. Remember, thinking is what’s made you miserable. You’re here to break your thinking habit. 
Yes? You say he feels deserving because he’s decided he is and once he decides something is so, he doesn’t ever question himself. You’re absolutely right. And all of you, you’re going to love how easy life is when you stop asking questions. Especially when you stop asking yourself questions.
Now I think this is a good time to rise and stretch. We have a mantra that will help relax you. Everyone stand. Raise your arms, bend side to side. Now repeat after me, “I love helping Donald Trump.”


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Comments on Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Cleopatra had four children known to history. The eldest, Cesarion, was the son of Julius Caesar. He disappeared around the time that Augustus conquered Egypt, and historians presume that Augustus ordered his death because he had a more legitimate claim to be Caesar's heir than did Augustus himself.  The other three were children of Marc Antony, whom, Shakespeare omits to mention, was actually married to Cleopatra.  The two elder were twins, Selene and Alexander.  Selene is the heroine of this book. No likenesses of her endure; the bust above is of her mother. They had a younger brother named Ptolemy. Augustus took them to Rome as young teenagers after his victory over their parents and paraded them in his triumphal march.  He then gave them to his sister Octavia to raise.  He later marred off Selene to a Juba II, whom he appointed king of Mauretania (roughly today's Morocco).  Juba II had been educated in Rome and was a distinguished geographer and writer.  Alexander and Ptolemy mainly drop from history after the triumph.  Today's historians generally assume that Augustus had them killed because they could be nuclei of a conspiracy against him by Marc Anthony's clan, but there is a suggestion by a historian writing about 200 years later that they accompanied Selene to Africa with Juba II.

 I usually write about the plot, characterization, and prose of a novel. But for a historical novel something else is necessary. I'll call it setting. Setting has various parts -: physical setting; the customs, ceremonies, infrastructure, clothing of the time; and psychological setting, the social structure and self-image in which people shaped themselves.

The prose of this novel is not prone to errors, but it is flat and uninteresting.  It is prose that is successful by not taking chances. The force of words and images never makes you say to yourself, ah, that is what that means.

Material and customary setting is meticulously painted. I'm no more than a knowledgeable layman about ancient Rome, but I know enough to see that the author has done her homework and displays it very effectively. The heroine travels early in the book from Alexandria where she has reached the age of 13 to Rome where she gets a tourist-like chance to check everything out including an excursion to Capri. She arrives during the period when Augustus was converting Rome from the city of brick to the city of marble, as he self congratulatorily boasted, and the author does a fine job of showing the physical process. She's also up on what Romans wore, the various festivals, the formal relations of social classes.

The frame plot is a historical question: What will Augustus do with these young people?  There are two sub plots: one is the sort of romantic intrigue typical of young adult novels, and the other is a highly visible slave rebellion in which several patrician characters a take a compassionate interest. They are reliably exciting sub-plots for young adult novel, but not Roman plots. In the end it turns out Selene at first hated Juba II due to misinformation, and then had a crush on him.  We have lots of good documentation of the love life of upper class Romans of this period, from Catullus through Petronius and many others. Lots of people fell in love, but not with the people they had been married off to.

Slave rebellions were chronic during the Republic and early Empire.  Spartacus', which preceded the time of this book, is only the best known. They were not something the patricians as a class felt sympathy for. The heroine and some of her friends feel weepy about the slaves and all poor people. Of course individual Romans may have felt the same way, but this is not characteristic of the society.

Augustus rightfully feared conspiracies against his life and power, but they came from the patricians, the senatorial class, not from the populace, as portrayed in this book.  That's why he had Cesarion and Alexander killed, so they could not be the nuclei of patrician conspiracies.

Selene's thoughts and feelings center on the suffering caused her by Augustus killing her parents, sympathy for the oppressed, her love interests, and self-realization. She is a graphic artist and budding architect. These are the interests of privileged American teen-aged girls. As I understand classical Roman culture, a typical girl like that would be interested in fulfilling her duty to her clan by marrying and running a household and in maintaining her reputation. I cannot stress enough the importance of reputation to self-image. I remember reading Shadi Bartsch's The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, where she discusses what Socrates meant by the Greek words that we translate as, “Know thyself." Our current popular culture gives them a kind of Freudian dig; they mean something like we should have a deep understanding of our inner nature. As I understand it, what Socrates meant and Roman people meant was:  be able to see yourself as others see you. In a way the opposite.

So, from the viewpoint of portraying the self-image and consequent interests of Roman or Hellenistic characters, this book is bogus. But what does that matter? Is the job of a historical novel to produce characters that are true to the culture of their time rather than ours? Especially considering that empathizing with the self-image of an ancient civilization so different from ours is hard both for the author and the reader. The book, instead, gives the intended reader an attractive perspective to survey externals.


But I think it does matter in this sense -: the more deeply we feel what personhood meant in a genuinely different society, the more we are broad and deep human beings. This book lets us look as through a window at history and does a good job of that, but we do not step through the glass.