Wednesday, August 24, 2005



Ellen Meister is rapidly on her way to literary stardom. Her debut novel, GEORGE CLOONEY IS COMING TO APPLEWOOD is due for a 2006 release from Morrow/Avon. It tells the story of three women whose lives are thrown together when Hollywood announces plans to film a movie in their children's schoolyard. A suburban resident of Long Island herself, this is a world that Meister is quite intimate with. And the book promises ample doses of pathos and humor. But does George Clooney actually make an appearance in it? I guess we'll have to pick it up to find out, but I have a feeling that even if he does, the real stars of this novel will be her leading ladies: Lisa, Ruth, and Maddie.

Ellen is also very well published with short fiction, much of which can be found on the web. Often gravitating between funny and heartwrenching, you won't be sure what "type" of story you'll be reading because of her range and diversity. But you will always be riveted and blown away by the end of it. A short sampling:
"Back To Sleep" , "Mrs. Esserman's Eggs", "Blue Shirt" "Womb-o-matic" "A Crack in the Foundation", "Tighter Abs in Six Weeks".

1) Who are some of your favorite writers, and how do you think they've influenced you?

I once met a man who called himself a writer and said he didn’t read any fiction because it might influence him, and he wanted all his work to be original. I’ve since learned that he’s not alone, that there are other writers who feel this way.

I’m sorry, but this is one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. Every single damn thing I read makes me a better writer in some way. And it doesn’t make my work derivative. I do pick things up, but only the things that make sense to me. I suspect it works the same way for all writers.

I guess this is my way of saying I’m influenced by all of them. My favorites? It depends when you ask me, as that shifts, but Richard Russo, J.D. Salinger and Richard Yates are staples, which probably sounds odd coming from a writer of (ostensibly) popular women’s fiction. The long list of others at various times includes Steve Almond, Melissa Bank, Jennifer Crusie, Mary Gordon, John Irving, Susan Isaacs, Wally Lamb, Ann Lamott, Elinor Lipman, Elisabeth Robinson, Tim Sandlin, Maryanne Stahl, Jennifer Weiner and Lolly Winston, to name just a few off the top of my head.

2) What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?

My greatest strength might be keeping the reader engaged. I tap dance my little heart out to entertain. I’m also told I’ve got a pretty good ear for dialogue.

Weakness? Probably descriptions. I don’t particularly like reading long descriptions, so I don’t write them, and probably wouldn’t be very good at it if I did.

3) You've written novels and short stories. Which would you like to focus on in the future?

Novels. I don’t even have to think about that.

4) "George Clooney and Other Secret Longings of the Applewood PTA" tells the story of three suburban women and their secret lives. How did you initially come up with the different plot-lines? Was it like a flash where it all came to you, or was a it a slow simmer where the different aspects all came together? When you set out to write your first novel, was it important to you to focus on female leads, or did it just progress that way?

Such good questions wrapped into one! First off, I only just found out that the legal department at HarperCollins pulled the plug on the title—I’m not allowed to use George Clooney’s name. I’ve been frantically brainstorming on new titles all week, and my current frontrunner is Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. I haven’t yet heard whether my editor likes it, so it’s up in the air.

Anyway, I’m in awe of people who say they get the ideas for their novels like a bolt from the blue. Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I get a germ of an idea—sometimes it doesn’t even wind up being the main plot point. Some tiny thought just gets lodged in my head and I decide I have to explore it further.

For this novel, I was immersed in the PTA at the same time that I made the life-altering decision that I was going to start writing a novel, which I had wanted to do my whole life. I had so many feelings about being a part of this complicated group of women with all its strange dynamics, that I wanted to explore it in a book. At the time, there were no thoughts about whether or not this would be a marketable concept. I just wanted to write a book I felt like reading.

From there I struggled to come up with something central that could happen to these women, something big that would affect the whole PTA, and each of them personally. There’s a local woman I know who’s a location scout for movies and TV commercials, and that stimulated the idea of bringing a movie—and a big, sexy Hollywood star—to their town.

The only organic part of the process was that it was clear from the beginning that there would be three female protagonists. I’m not sure why that was so evident, but there you have it. I did struggle to develop personalities and backgrounds for these women. I wanted at least one of them to be someone who left behind a serious professional career to raise her children, so I made Maddie an ex-attorney. Each character had to have a conflict so she could ultimately have an arc, and I gave Maddie a troubled marriage. But I didn’t want her husband to be an insensitive jerk or a womanizer or anything that typical, as it turns me off that so many writers are quick to make the man the bad guy and the woman faultless. So I created a couple who are just out of synch. She’s tremendously emotionally-needy, and he’s too caught up in his work to wrap her in assurances. They do love each other, but have forgotten how it works.

Since I’m from Long Island, I wanted at least one “Jappy” character—someone rich with gawdy tastes in hair, clothes, jewelry, the works. But it was important that she have something huge and painful in her life that wasn’t evident on the surface at PTA meetings. So I gave her a husband who became disabled from a stroke. To temper the sadness with humor, I gave him brain damage that makes him sexually uninhibited and unaware that he’s impotent. He has a tendency to ask strange women for sex.

As this character is loud and brash, so I wanted my third to be shy and a bit timid. She was the most difficult one for me to write, as her personality traits are furthest from my own. I had to work the hardest relating to her and understanding her pain. I even wrote a full short story about her before even starting the book, just to get to know her better.

I guess this my 500-word way of saying that it was indeed a slow simmer.

5) From reading a lot of your short fiction, I notice that you're very adept at delving into both emotionally wrenching territory, and just as talented at a "lighter" touch with bursts of charming humor. Do you try to balance out your work this way? And also, which do think is more "serious" and/or difficult when it comes to writing: drama or humor?

Thanks, Susan. I do like to switch back and forth between pathos and humor, as they’re equally interesting to write.

For the most part, I would say that humor is much more difficult to write. The timing is so critical that it has to be set up perfectly to work. And of course, there are times I know a funny line is called for, and I have bubkes (nothing). Worst case scenario, I walk away from my computer and crack my head against a wall until a joke jars loose.

The novel I’m working on now has a character who’s a comedy writer and has a joke for everything. Why did I do this to myself? I go crazy making him funny.

6) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?

Hm. Physicist Richard Feynman, maybe. Or John Lennon. Maybe Groucho Marx? Might be fun to pour gin for Dorothy Parker, get her to dish on the Algonquin Round Table. I can’t decide.

7) One CD, one book, one DVD and a desert island. What book, CD, and DVD do you take?

Wait, I’m stuck on a desert island and you want me to think books and music? You give me too much credit. Couldn’t I just take George Clooney? Or if he’s not available, Steve Hansen?

8) Other than fiction writing, what's the biggest lie you ever told?

“I couldn’t eat another thing.”

9) You can't have both: Would you rather have respect from your peers and critical acclaim (but not making cash from writing), or would you rather be a bestselling author with the fat coin?

Best selling. I’d rather appeal to readers than to critics.

10) You get a bonus question, because much like your writing in how you combine drama and comedy, you combine two of the most revered traits. So which do you think has served you better over the years: Your beauty or your brains?

That’s the most flattering question ever! Honestly, I didn’t grow up feeling beautiful OR brainy. I was a strange and lonely kid, with self-esteem stuck at zero. In high school I started to write, and I was pretty good. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t such an idiot after all. That’s what helped pick me up and start seeing myself in a different light. By the time I went away to college, the glow of self-confidence was just starting to show. It was then that people—guys, anyway—first reacted to me as an attractive woman.

So the answer is brains. It all starts and ends inside our heads, doesn’t it?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Quiction Online

Here's a nifty site that updates weekly: Quicktion Online serves up some great weekly flash fiction. This week, check out some gems from Ellen Meister, Beverly Jackson, Kathy Fish, and Steve Hansen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Emerging Voices

LBF Books out of Pittsburgh has just now put up the order form for their collection of stories, Emerging Voices. Early orders get 20% off, for a total of twelve bucks plus shipping. Stories and authors included in this collection are:

Sun Worshiper (Eric Rives)
All That Glitters (David Coyote)
You Ought to Write a Journal (Jeanette Harris)
Surfin’s Easier When There's Water Involved (Cheryl Crossan)
Sexual Peak (Dawn Irene Dare)
Explorer Channel (Gayle Arrowood)
A Woman Scorned (Sherry Allyn Norman)
Greenhouse #5 (Lisa J. Cihlar)
The Old Woman (Pieter Mayer)
The Door Behind My Door (Kim Despins)
The Assaulters (Mike Ripley)
A Phoenix Rising (Gary Hill)
Secrets and Lies (Jennifer Celaks)
Greatness in Small-town Rural Nevada (Suzanne Chipman)
Music in the Mist (Kathryn Walsh)
One Step Closer to Hell (Andrew Dallas Ferrell)
Double Play (Michael W. Graves)

Check it out at LBF Books, and please support these talented up-and-comers.

Ginger Hamilton Caudill in HERSTORY

Herstory - What I Learned in My Bathtub...and More True Stories on Life, Love, And Other Inconveniences is due out October, 2005. In it, you'll find a nonfiction story titled "Hair Today" by Ginger Hamilton Caudill about her adventures with baldness as a result of breast cancer treatment. Do check her out!

Bad blogger!

Teenagers, I've been lax. I've fallen a bit behind with the blog, but I do have some more good stuff to come, including some more super-duper interviews with some really interesting writers. So please check back when you've got the chance, I hope to be getting some of those completed in the next few weeks. Until then, everyone relax, and enjoy the waning days of summer.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Beverly A. Jackson

After several years of running one of the classiest and most revered lit mags in the country, publisher/editor Beverly Jackson is closing up shop at Ink Pot. (for a full explanation, see here.) The magazine was a constant source of enrichment for readers, and a prized jewel for writers. With its gorgeous artwork, lush poetry, and high quality fiction, it was both an online venue and print market that showcased some of the best talent in the literary world. They were also a boutique publisher in the form of Lit Pot Press, Inc., offering some of the most cutting edge fiction and poetry books around, such as Terri Brown-Davidson's Marie, Marie, Hold on Tight, Joseph Faria's The Way Home, and the latest, Bloodletting & Fruits of Lebanon, novellas by J. Eric Miller. (a recent interview with Miller can be found here.) Ink Pot the magazine takes its final bow this October, though the website will remain online for another year and they will continue to sell single copies of their books.

But don't expect Ms. Jackson to slow down. An avid blogger, poet and writer herself, I expect we'll be hearing much more about her as she gets back to chasing her own muses. She already has an amazing, jealousy-inducing list of credits for both her poetry and fiction, including such high-cachet magazines as Night Train, Bonfire, Prairie Dog, Neo, and Riven. Online, you can find a full list of her work right here. But a few of my favorites are her recent entry into the Absinthe Literary Review (Eros and Thanatos issue) with "The Day Room", her 2004 Best American Short Story nominee "The Dead", her first place contest winner for Tattoo Highway "La Cucaracha", and "A Trip to the Grocer's".

The force of her stories and often dark edge in her writing are seemingly at odds with her classy and generous personality. But the graceful prose is a perfect match. See for yourself.

1) Who are some of your favorite writers, and how do you think they've influenced you?

I have loved very diverse writers—from my childhood and teen years: Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene, and a romance writer Frank Yerby—to college years: Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger—to adulthood (spanning decades): Albee, Tom Robbins, Oates, Joan Didion, TC Boyle, Jim Crace, John Fowles, Cheever, -- oh, there’s just too many I love. I doubt that any one writer has directly influenced me while I think perhaps the whole of their creative bravery gives me the courage to set words to paper.

2) What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?

I can’t see assets or strengths in my own work. I only see that it is never finished, never quite what I intended, and never good enough or true enough. It’s my biggest flaw, my lack of confidence.

3) When you would be looking at pieces with an editor's eye, did you ever catch yourself thinking, "Damn! I wish I'd written that!"? And were those the pieces you were most likely to then show off and publish? Or did you try to keep a more "universal" appeal in mind? Also, Lit Pot always had incredible artwork – was that reflective of your own personal tastes, or do you just have a keen eye?

Almost every excellent piece I read, I wish I’d written! I so love the work, and so relish the fine
output of good writing that I do covet it, cherish it in my heart. I wanted to publish everything I liked. I really didn’t consider universal appeal. My staff could talk me into things that they thought were worthy if it wasn’t my taste— but on my own, I only chose work I loved or near-loved. I have an incredible staff of editors who are also writers who sensed immediately what Ink Pot was all about, so most often we concurred. Part of my thrust was to publish newcomers and help nearly-there writers to have the confidence to keep writing. That was the real joy in all of it.

Re the artwork: I never took my writing seriously, though I’d written all my life. I had a creative urge—that much I knew. I was an actress in New York for a few years. I did a lot of crafts (including opening a shop/school called “Sheepish Arts” which sold needlepoint yarns and macramé materials) when I was married and also keeping house. (don’t you love old fashioned words like ‘keeping house?’) Then later, I studied painting in L.A., and always loved doing collage, acrylic abstracts and pastel portraits. My oldest friend once said, “you know I love your art, but you really should go back to your writing.” That astounded me. I never thought anyone even noticed. I took her advice and started writing again. But the love of art and hand-made crafts is always with me. I wanted incredible artists and poets(so many unsung!) to be featured in Lit Pot and Ink Pot as well as writers.

4) While working on Lit Pot/Ink Pot, I'm wondering if your own creative energy for writing took a nosedive. Did you often find yourself overwhelmed with the "job" and therefore unable to write? And, more importantly – are you looking forward to getting back in the rhythm and being able to write?

Actually, I think I got more serious work done while I was working on the journal than I did before or since. There’s a momentum that gathers with the ‘dream,’ being immersed in such creative endeavors and surrounded by others who are working so hard toward like goals. I got 35,000 words of a novel done in my spare time (of which there was none). What did seem to take a dive was the writing of poetry which had always sustained me. But editing and publishing during that almost five-year stretch changed everything in me. I wouldn’t be surprised if my DNA has changed, so I am rather looking forward to what will happen with solitude and free time. I’m not quite there yet. Ink Pot Issue No. 7 is on the fire, and I’m still in the midst of a kind of mourning. I don’t want to reverse the outcome, but there is an odd kind of celebratory sadness at the loss of what we shared and built together.

5) Running a magazine is a very "giving" sort of endeavor that requires quite a bit of generosity of spirit. Was this something that you think kept you going – the happiness you got from giving a boost to up-and-comers, or was the drive more about giving something to the readers? And now that you'll be going back to writing, do you think you'll find that same sort of reward in producing your own work?

Our whole mission was to support writers by getting their work read, and by treating them to the respect and consideration they deserved and so often did not receive at the hands of other publications. We refused to keep writers waiting for longer than one or two weeks (and usually less) for acceptances and rejections. We really wanted to support talented unknowns as well as put out a high quality journal that would attract a following. Our choices leaned toward dark and edgy literary work and we didn’t apologize for the narrowness of our tastes. A following did grow miraculously and so by following our own mission, we found both rewards.

6) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?

I might have answered this very differently a few years ago, but today I must say that it would be
thrilling if I could sit down with Herman Melville, after we’d had a large bottle of wine (so he could get past the gender and era differences.) I read Moby Dick for the first time this year, and it was a love/hate relationship that has now even attached itself to my novel in progress. Also since I’m a little tongue-tied around celebrities, I think he’d hold up the fascinating conversation all by himself.

7) One CD, one book, one DVD and a desert island. What book, CD, and DVD do you take?

CD – Lee Morgan’s “Night in Tunisia” (jazz trumpet)

Book –"The Complete New Yorker : Eighty Years of the Nation's Greatest Magazine" (not yet published, but I’ve got it on order. That should keep me busy for awhile.)

DVD – Wim Wenders’ (1988) “Wings of Desire”

8) Other than fiction writing, what's the biggest lie you ever told?

Well, see, I think that most of ‘real life’ is a lie, and that fiction is where we find the ‘real truth.’
That’s why I love writing and writers, and all art for that matter, because it is where truth lives, from my point of view. I mean, in life, don’t we all feel like frauds? Or is that only me? If you read physics or quantum mechanics, you know that what we ‘see’ isn’t real; you know from psychology that we all wear masks and are different personalities depending on who we’re with; we know from history and economics that society is fraught with misinformation, spin, advertising, propaganda, myth, and lies. But somehow when you read and write good fiction, an authentic self leaps out of the bullshit, to deliver the real goods. That’s how I see it anyway, which is why good art is so hard to find and so hard to do. So the biggest lie I ever told is ‘my whole life’ in one way or another. All the posturing, pretending, and civilized intercourse that one does to keep from screaming and biting off the faces of the people who don’t ‘get’ who you are. But then if they read a good story . . . suddenly they see something they never saw in you before. It’s magical. I married twice. One was an artist. One was an actor. No accident, that.
And I think it’s why readers read . . . we’re all hungry seekers of truth.

I once told a man I was pregnant (when I wasn’t) with another man’s child, hoping he would hate me (thus relieving me of my cowardice to break up with him.) Instead he wanted to marry me and raise my child. That was a lie wrapped in a selfish lie, wrapped in a likely debacle. If I write the story, it will be the truth about that lie. Does that make sense? Or is this just another lie?

9) You can't have both: Would you rather have respect from your peers and critical acclaim (but not making cash from writing), or would you rather be a bestselling author with the fat coin?

Respect from my peers and critical acclaim! No contest. For people with full stomachs, money is the biggest lie of all.

10) Bonus question: So what are you working on right now creatively, or what do you plan to delve into in the near future?

Well, the novel is sitting, waiting. It’s a series of past tense short stories wedded to a present tense narrative that I am tweaking to form into a novel— and whether I’ll be successful or not is yet to be seen. It is called “The Loose Fish Lessons” (Loose Fish being a reference fromMoby Dick):

1. A fast fish belongs to the party fast to it. (nearest to it)

2. A loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

"...these two laws touching Fast Fish and and Loose-Fish will.on reflection be found in the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence . . . what are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What are all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish too?"
Moby Dick
Herman Melville

My book is a non-chronological story of a woman’s journey to reconcile with family and self. Or maybe with truth. Or both. There’s a lot of lies in it at the moment. I have a long way to go but it’s my project for the near future. But who knows? Life is full of surprises. I also have a screenplay that needs a rewrite, and another to finish. And I haven’t written a poem in months. It’s a smorgasbord of words ‘out there.’ I tend to ride the horse in the direction it’s going, so I’m just planning to finish the last Ink Pot, and then get up and giddyup.

You ask all the good questions. And you sure give head-swelling introductions. Thanks for the interview, Susan.

Monday, August 01, 2005

"Let's hug it out, bitch!"

This isn't so much about literature as it about television. Specifically Sunday nights on HBO.

I don't mind telling you, they were losing me. I still turned it on and watched, but I wasn't so thrilled anymore. "Six Feet Under" just got to be too much of a hassle at times, and last year, "Entourage" really didn't thrill me at all. Was I all excited about watching Lisa Kudrow in a new Larry Davidish show? No.

But lemme tell you. I could still list a few grievances about Entourage, but what's the point? I kept watching cause I like Jeremy Piven and he won me over right away. And this new season? I dig it! It's sharper writing with more of an arc with the whole Aquaman thing and Johnny Drama cracks me up. And Piven? He's still the best. If you don't know what the title of this thread is all about, it's about Piven and one of his best lines on the show.

Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback? Out-fucking-standing. The woman is nearly unrecognizable as Pheobe, and she has the self-conscious ticks down perfectly. Val is a great character, not because she's so loveable, but precisely because she's sort of an asshole, ok, a huge asshole, but that's just her and somehow Kudrow pulls her off as this one big huge exposed needy nerve that's at the same time trying to shelter and hide that hurt and need. It's some pretty good shit, is what I'm saying.

And Six Feet Under? Man, I got to totally hating Nate. Just loathing the bastard and his existential crises all the time. So what happens in the middle of the final season? Nate finds peace and they whack the son-of-a-bitch!! I LOVE IT! Now that's some great television, kids.

I wasn't loving you much these days, HBO. But with some tight (Entourage), uncomfortable (The Comeback) and gutsy (SFU) writing and two great actors (Piven and Kudrow) you've still got me watching. We're back on track now, baby. So let's hug it out, bitch!

Jim Ruland's Big Lonesome

And, in keeping the man-fest I apparently have going on here today, I give you the biggest news of all:

Jim Ruland has a collection of short stories that will be available soon from Gorsky Press. It's titled Big Lonesome, and I've read several of the stories and all were marvelous, so I'm sure the collection is outfuckingstanding. It's now available for pre-order at Amazon. Get yourself some great literature right here: Big Lonesome.

Don Capone's new blog

I see my pal Don Capone has a new blog up and running. Visit it! Capone's Hit List.

Matt St. Amand in Frigg

The new summer issue of Frigg Magazine is up, and it looks gorgeous as always. (They've really got tremendous artwork in every issue from LA Enoaraf, and sometimes some guest artists.) And Matt St. Amand's story, "Hadley" is not to be missed.

Supreme Court by Edward Moore

Edward Moore has a really unique and cool new flash posted at Flash Me Magazine. It's called Supreme Court.