jacket copy smallerSwan Huntley’s debut novel We Could Be Beautiful is as literary and character-driven as it is a cleverly plotted page-turner. Forty-three-year-old Catherine West grew up with money. Eighty thousand dollars gets directly deposited into her bank account each month from the family trust. She owns an apartment in the West Village and spends her days with her masseuse or shopping for designer clothes. At an art gallery she meets William Stockton, who is rich, handsome, and happens to be an old family friend. As they fall in love and then plan their wedding, Catherine’s mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, faintly remembers sinister things about William’s past, including a letter from a nanny stating, “We cannot trust anyone…”

I found myself completely immersed in the world Huntley created, and not just because I read We Could Be Beautiful while living in Manhattan this summer and surrounded by the types of characters she details perfectly on the page. As scary as it is the narrative felt possible, maybe because Huntley wrote from experience. After receiving her MFA from Columbia University, she lived in a commune in Brooklyn and worked as a nanny for a family in Soho. Today, she lives in Northern California, where she was when I called her for this interview about We Could Be Beautiful.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 7.37.52 AMEdan Lepucki’s characters in her debut novel California are living during a time of duress. When I met the author, so was I. Cal and Frida coexist alone in the woods after the collapse of civilization. When Frida gets pregnant they go in search of others, but the community they encounter is full of secrets and peril. My catastrophe occurred when my writing mentor committed suicide. Personally, I was devastated, and professionally, I was lost, until a friend led me to Edan. She gave me a safe place to write again. I signed up for classes with Writing Workshops LA, the company Edan founded and runs from her home in Berkeley. A staff writer at The Millions, she previously published the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me and her stories have appeared in magazines like Narrative and McSweeney’s. While being smart, witty and outgoing, she is kind and generous to emerging writers. I promised Brad Listi this interview would entail “two blonds talking about death and destruction,” since California takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. He was all for it. Don’t tell him, but when Edan came over to my place for Brown Butter Peach Bars (like Frida, I like to impress people with my baking skills), the conversation never grew dark. In fact, we hardly quit laughing. This is that interview.

seattle-awp-starbucks-logoThis week in Seattle (Feb. 26 to March 1), at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 writers will congregate in what has become the largest such literary gathering in America. There will be more than 450 panels on every aspect of professional advancement, and a bookfair hosting more than 650 exhibitors, each of whom will pay a hefty fee to be seen among fellow indie presses. A parallel conference of countless off-site events will occur simultaneously, so that anyone with any gumption will have an opportunity to read and promote themselves.

15,000, you say? Does that boggle the mind? Do the colossal numbers to which this professional guild has grown signify the health or sickness of writing?

I’m not really cut out for having a nemesis, let alone the literary kind, but I acquired one in graduate school a decade ago, and he’s been difficult to shake ever since. This is in part because he’s gone on to become wildly successful and rich and well-known and I have not. It’s a lesson in humility I do not wish on anyone, and it’s taken me years to get past my pettiness in order to write about it with any semblance of perspective.

Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
~ Mark Twain

 

The debate regarding a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry is getting really old. Those of us who care about the art of poetry are quite aware of each side’s stance—on the one hand poetry is treated as a calling (Anti-MFA; the romanticism of outsiders who lead reckless lifestyles and who place the judgment of a “successful career” as a poet into the hands of posterity), on the other hand poetry is treated as a career (Pro-MFA; careerism, wherein schooled poets explicitly strategize with other schooled poets, publishing each other’s poems and books in order to stay on track to tenure and/or to maintain a recognizable status of “success”). Without a doubt, the Pro-MFA side is the sovereign of literary publications and the publishing system. It is for this reason that the Anti-MFA side comes off as the aggressor in this debate; the Pro-MFA side deflecting its opponents’ jabs with an aloof air of boredom, or at times with an agitated sense of exasperation. The bottom line is that this debate, this nonsense, must be brought to closure. And so, please bear with me as I rehash a few issues here in a swift attempt to finally, and thankfully, put an end to the MFA debate.

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])

 

1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

Writing non-fiction used to be hard.  Journalists would spend months researching a topic, pulling their hair out with the devastating thought that their careers might be over if they got the story wrong.  Memoirists would contact the subjects in their books, haunted with the idea that getting the facts wrong might damage someone’s life or career.

This email was written to Justin Benton in December 2009 in response to his essay “How to Disappear Completely.”

 

Dear Justin,

Again, thanks for your essay.  I’d been toying with the idea of deactivating my account, and your essay was the tipping point.  Since deactivating, I’ve gone through all sorts of emotions and experienced various things.  I figured I’d give myself permission to email you.

FB is not healthy for people like me.  I joined for the wrong reason–purely self-promotional.  To sell my book.  And I went at it aggressively.  (I had something like 620 friends at the time of my deactivation.)  The more desperate I felt about my book sales and thus my prospects for selling my novel, the more actively I campaigned for friends.  Then I felt bad because people were posting about their lives–genuine, heartfelt–and all I posted were articles I’d written and good reviews, etc.  So I tried to throw in a few pithy and/or heartfelt posts now and then, or comment on other people’s posts–to disguise my blatant self-promotion.  And I just found myself thinking way too much about what to post or what to comment–instead of what story I might write.

I found that FB was a black hole of massive time suckage.  The voyeuristic writer could spend hours poking around on FB.  I knew too much about people–all of this useless information rattling around.  And some of it was very personal information–but I knew it in an impersonal and artificial way: a fellow writer’s mother committed suicide; the “friends” who went into labor and gave birth; mothers in distress with toddlers and newborns, lonely and seeking empathetic listeners, or complaining about the monotonous parenting drill; a “friend’s” relationship drama, which kept me guessing as to his latest love triangles; a “friend’s” struggle to stay off booze; another “friend’s” attempt to appear sexy and hip, posting sad, provocative photos of herself.

FB enhanced my misanthropic tendencies.  The “friend” getting her MFA at a well known college, trying to sound wise and hip and cool, posting photos of fat people at Wal Mart, all to further enhance her hip persona. The “friend” who referred to her children as “kidlets” in every one of her super upbeat and therefore tremendously sad postings.  “They’re people,” I wanted to tell her.  “Don’t demean them with that awful term that’s meant to be cute, but in the end reveals your own desperation.”  It seemed as if everyone was shouting, “Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m important!  I’m somebody!”  And it just got so noisy.  And it made me sad.  And then I was doing it as well.

The only temptation to go back on FB has come when I’ve received good news about my book.  I want to post it, in a gloat post, so that others can comment, and slap my back. But when I think about the glut of other writers self-promoting on FB, I realize that it probably doesn’t help that much with book sales.  In fact, with some of the more well-known writers I’ve friended on FB, by reading their daily postings and twitterings, I’ve found myself less likely to want to read their work.  I won’t name any names–but there’s something off-putting about needing constant attention, and the mystery of a writer is killed.

I did have two people contact me in a where are you email, why’d you quit FB because I enjoyed reading links to your articles, etc., and I directed them to you essay and my comments as an explanation–but so far, that’s it.

With two young children and a busy schedule, I have minimal time to read and write–and quitting FB has been liberating, allowing me to refocus.  I’m relieved.  I feel tugs of FB withdrawal, but I remind myself that just because I don’t post about my book receiving an accolade, doesn’t mean it doesn’t count or didn’t happen.  The tree did fall in the forest, and I don’t have to direct every one’s attention to it.

I hope I have the capacity to stay off FB.

Thanks.

Best,

Victoria Patterson