A couple weeks ago, a fellow author friend came to town, and we had a great time talking over afternoon drinks. I’ve always been really impressed with the way he handles being a public figure—especially how clear and unapologetic he is with his fan base about who he is and what he writes. A lot of readers love him. A lot of readers don’t. But he’s a good dozen books into his career, now, and very successful by any measure; he did that by cultivating a fan base that loves what he writes. And more importantly, loves what he loves to write.
As the reviews for The Girl in the Road keep trickling in, I’m struck by how powerfully it makes people feel. The critical reviews have been almost universally positive (see here!), but individual readers are sharply divided. However they feel about it, they feel very strongly. To me, that’s a good thing. As my sister Clare once said: When I have a strong reaction to art, in any direction, it’s very useful for me to know, insofar as it teaches me what kind of art I want to make.
I’m working on Novel #2 and it’s very tempting to satisfy everyone, to take each furious Goodreads review to heart and say, “I should be clearer this time,” “I should make it simpler,” or “I should leave out the uncomfortable parts.” But that’s the road to hell. I know that. My work isn’t for everyone; no one’s is. But those for whom it is?—wow, it is really for them. I keep hearing variations of “I’ve never read anything like this,” “I’ve waited my whole life for this book,” and “This is the future of literature.” And then they tell everyone they know about it. And that makes me so excited for the future. I have fans. Or as I like to think of them, companions.
So for all of you wondering what kind of writer I’m going to continue to be, here’s a handy list of ten things that probably won’t change:
1. Unreliable narrators.
2. Polyphonic POV.
3. Ouroboral plotting.
4. Genre promiscuity. Literary, science fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, thriller, fantasy, ghost, horror, erotica, mystery—all of the above.
5. Frank, graphic, sometimes joyful, and sometimes uncomfortable depictions of the lived experience of sex.
6. No easy distinctions between what is “real” and “not real.” (That’s a whole other post, for later.)
7. Fidelity to my characters’ emotional truth, whether that makes them “likable” or not.
8. Lots of non-English words that aren’t italicized.
9. Lots of non-Western references and settings.
10. Shitloads of ideas. Sorry, NPR.
So if these things aren’t for you, no worries! Go forth and read whatever it is you love.
But as for those of you who are on board? Welcome. I have so many more stories to tell you.
My visa was approved. It’s official. I’m going to Iran.
I picked up my passport at the Fed-Ex delivery station on South Alston last night. I tore the envelope open in the tiny lobby area and drummed my feet and shrieked like a little girl. Then I called my contact at the Embassy of Pakistan (which acts in the interests of Iran) and left him a tearful thank-you message on his voicemail. It’s really hard for Iranians and Pakistanis to get visas to the States. They didn’t have to be as awesome as they were. But they were. I’m grateful for that gesture of goodwill.
I’ve been asked a lot why I’m going. The simple answer: I want to. The more complicated answer: travel is essential to my creative process, and I go wherever I feel the universe is pulling me. In the last few years, through strange twists of fate, I’ve made several friends who happen to be Iranian (including several of the badasses behind this video), and just got more and more intrigued by the country itself. It’s pulling me there for a reason. There’s some story that will find me.
There’s actually a mini-surge of tourism underway that the Iranian government is encouraging. If you’re interested in going, you need an entity in Iran to sponsor you for a visa, and for my part, I can’t recommend Cyrus Travel Agency more highly. They—specifically, my contact there, Babak Kianpour—have been amazing in getting me squared away. (I’d already blown $60 on iranianvisa.com—they are SCAM SCAMMY SCAMMERS! Do not use.) I’ll be traveling with him and a guide, Mohammed, the entire time, which is fine by me, even though it’s not my usual mode of travel, given that I’m American and I don’t speak Farsi. I want to be a respectful guest. More than that, Babak and I have talked about my being a sort of “cultural ambassador,” and so he and Mohammed are planning meetings with artists, writers, and musicians around the country.
I do know one phrase in Farsi, kheili mamnoon, or “thank you so much.” I think I’ll be using it a lot in the coming days.
Recently I had a conversation with a male friend about the theft of nude photos of various celebrities. He wondered how I could think it was a sex crime, given how much I’ve loved to take and share similar photos with partners over the years—that this was apparently a contradiction or a “mixed message.”
The common denominator of the two situations is so obvious, I’m surprised I have to say it: agency.
I’m not a celebrity. And even if I were to become famous, it wouldn’t be for my body.* If photos of me ever did surface, though, what would bother me more than them being out there is the violation of agency with regards to the person I sent them to. I know exactly what I’ve sent to whom, and when, so it wouldn’t be hard to figure out the source. And as far as I know, all those sources are decent human beings.
So if it was done intentionally, I’d want to know why. We’d have a talk about it. If I got the sense that his intent was to embarrass me, or to use the images as a kind of trophy, or some form of revenge or control, I would at the very least name him publicly, because I’m perfectly clear on the fact that the shame is his, not mine.
Which is not to say the images couldn’t ever be shared. One could ask. One could always ask. I might say yes and I might say no. But in either case my agency is honored, and that is the point. Apparently the violation of agency is part of what makes these stolen photos hot to those who look. Which makes me sick to my stomach. Hey, call me crazy, but it’s really sexy to me when someone wants to share a sexy picture with me; and it’s really not, when they don’t. Kind of like when it’s sexy when someone wants to have sex with me, and it’s not, when they don’t.
So don’t look at the celebrity photos. We live in a society where half the human population has to deal with constant challenges to their agency over their own bodies, and it’s ultimately a source of tremendous harm to us all, men and women alike. Be part of the solution. Be decent.
*That said, if anyone is doing some kind of Nekkid Novelists calendar, I am so in.
Self1: I DON’T WANNA WRITE TODAY.
Self2: Tough shit, niña.
I’m always surprised when people ask me whether I avoid reading other books—or even avoid art altogether!?—while I’m writing. I do the exact opposite: while drafting, I’m hypersuggestible, and consume art in absurd quantities and combinations. I let that mix with whatever feels most resonant in my personal life. Out comes new art.
I love that so many critics comment that The Girl in the Road is unlike anything they’ve encountered before, because to me, it’s so clearly a patchwork of direct influence. Meena’s extended inner monologues on the Trail are a direct imitation of the chapter My Expedition from Norman Rush’s Mating. The overall spiral structure, of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The theme of matrilineal violence, of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The vibe (for lack of a better term) comes from the music of Meshell Ndegeocello and Angelique Kidjo. And what I was processing in my heart, during those years: The trauma of mother loss. The fear of abandonment. The temptation toward violence. The seduction of attachment. The beauty and ugliness of sex.
So. Art comes from the combination thereof? The kneading and blending? In a hyper-suggestible state, everything I read or see is somehow exactly what I need—an answer to a question I had, or didn’t even know I had.
The ingredients of Novel #2 so far are: All my morning pages from Belize. Mozart’s symphonies, No. 35-41. “Cheater’s Prayer” by Chris Martin. Lars von Trier’s Dogville. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. The Twelve Dancing Princesses illustrated by Errol Le Cain. The Chronicle of the Ancient Maya Kings and Queens by Martin and Gruber. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle. Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen.
And what I’m processing in my personal life now?…The imminent sense of time running out. The longing for the other world. The thinness of reality. The concept of geo-vocation. The fear of death. The love of sex.
The grass being greener, always, elsewhere.
Recently I watched an interview with Takashi Miike, the director of the much-adored Japanese horror film Audition. The interviewer kept asking him what effect he wanted to achieve with his audience. He kept saying variations of, “I can’t control what others think, I work to please myself,” but it’s as if the interviewer didn’t believe him, or didn’t want to accept that art can come from a place of such apparent selfishness.
Whereas my question is, “How can it not?”
When I’m writing, I ask myself three questions:
(1) Does this excite me?
(2) Does this delight me?
(3) Is this true?
…and if the answer to all three is “yes,” then I know I’m on track.
I don’t know how other writers work. But that’s how I work. They’re all simple yes-or-no questions, and they cover intuition, creativity, and integrity, respectively. If the answer to any of the above is “no,” over the long term, excepting the necessities of drafts and exposition, then I know I have to change something.
And it’s great as a mantra.
does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true does this excite me does this delight me is this true…
Warning: this post is pure process porn.
The last time I talked with my editor, I told him I wanted a school bell app for my iPhone. That way, I could set up all my daily activities in discrete time intervals, like in grade school. It was so easy then! When the bell went off, it didn’t matter what I was doing, I had to put down the math worksheet, put away the coloring, go on to the next class, sit down, and re-set my brain.
He made a noise that roughly translated to why in God’s name would you do that to yourself.
Maybe because I’m a discipline freak?
This is drafting time. I’m pouring the foundation of the house. It takes a lot of discipline. At present, I have six daily rituals. If I do four out of the six—two of which have to be (1) and (2)—I count it a successful day. See? You thought I was cruel and exacting toward myself. Au contraire. I am fair and beneficent.
(1) Morning pages. Two pages of stream of consciousness. It’s summer, so I do them out on my balcony in my underwear and hope that none of the passersby on the sidewalk below can see me.
(2) A thousand words of the new novel. Sometimes it feels like I’m giving birth to angels. Sometimes it feels like I’m vomiting up yesterday’s breakfast.
(3) Gym. Or as I like to call it, my daily gender performance. My goal is to increase my butt several cup sizes.
(4) A half hour of Spanish translation. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Fernando at the gym, who doesn’t speak English, but I could make myself understood in a very limited way, and it felt batshit amazing.
(5) A half hour of research reading. Here’s the current stack. It’s like my compost bin of ideas, fermenting.
And sometimes I see friends.
And sometimes I see lovers.
And sometimes I go out on my balcony to throw pieces of bread to the birdies on my roof.
There is a time for everything under the sun.