cue the chariots of fire theme song: a woman has written a novel!

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I can’t write or think about anything else except for the fact that I’ve finished a draft of my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark. Words cannot express how proud I am of this book, which took four years to develop and over a year to write. What started out as a strange story about a woman setting another woman’s hair on fire morphed into a book about familial love, physical and emotional hurt, mental illness, feminism, identity and loss. The story centers around two broken children, Kate and Jonah, and how they bear the weight of two generations of mental illness and abuse (and I’d say collapse as a result of it). While the story and characters are important, I’m excited about the novel’s form. I’ve created a nesting doll, triptych structure, where I’ve employed alternating voices and allusions to speeches (think: Jim Jones, the cult leader, not the rapper; Ophelia’s final soliloquy to Hamlet, among others), poetry (think: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nick Flynn, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, etc) and lines from novels that serve to provide a deeper cultural, moralistic and sociological context for the reader.

I sent the draft to my agent, so here’s hoping for good news. However, I have to keep reminding myself that the achievement is in finishing a book of which I’m proud, not the industry that happens as a result of it.

books you need to be reading

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People often ask me about my time in Columbia’s MFA program: what workshop was like, and what about all those incredible teachers. However, mostly I grumble about student loan debt, my addiction that overshadowed a great first year in the program, and how my return had been marred by a new crop of writers, who were obsessive about technique and line writing. In retrospect, I was far too young, at 24, to walk into a program and have my writing ripped to shreds by complete strangers. I had no formal training, no sense of technique; I didn’t “publish,” I majored in finance and marketing in college, and I had just left an investment bank where I told my managing director that MFA wasn’t an acronym for Masters in Finance.

That first year, in 2000, was exhilarating, and scary, and unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I got into the program by writing a series of stories about my mother, and as I sat through scores of classes taught by famous teachers, it suddenly occurred to me that I was rough around the edges. I thought a story wasn’t a story until someone suffered or died. I mostly read the dead because that’s what I’d been exposed to all my life. I had no inkling for anything in contemporary literature.

I do remember the writer who called me that night in Long Island. Her name was Judy Budnitz, and I asked her several times during the course of our conversation whether this was a practical joke. No, she assured me, she had been on the committee that decided who would be admitted to Columbia, and she called me personally because she thought my work, while raw, had promise.

When I arrived, I was exposed to so many names it was dizzying at first. Everyone read more than I did. Everyone had subscriptions to The New Yorker and everyone wanted to get into Harper’s, The Paris Review, and Granta. As I breathed through the sheer terror of it all, the fear that I would be “found out,” that Judy Budnitz was wrong after all, I soon discovered a host of writers whose stories would remain, even after all these years. Even after all this time.

Judy is an extraordinary, magical writer. She reminds of Kelly Link, Borges, Jeanette Winterson, Steven Millhauser, and Barthelme, in the way that she’s able to create worlds we couldn’t imagine. Her stories are a mix of the fantastic, the illogical made sense, and the sublime. If you want to be transported read Nice Big American Baby, If I Told You Once, Flying Leap.

It would be reductive to say that Beth Nugent and Thisbe Nissen write coming of age stories, because what they create, the texture of their landscape, is so much more. A friend introduced me to both writers, and I was blown away by Nugent’s City of Boys, and how she can write about sex, love and power so violently yet so quietly. And I remember reading Thisbe Nissen’s Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night when I first visited San Francisco, and fell in love with her voice, how she managed to navigate a world where bandaids were repeatedly ripped off, when young girls and women experienced first loves and hurts. These are two authors you’ll want to hold onto, and much like me, curious if they’re still writing.

I discovered Deborah Levy later, but her hypnotic and strange novel, Swimming Home, of a family unraveling in the presence of a beautiful and dangerous interloper, is one you’ll ravage.

Sometimes I wish I was that twenty-four-year-old kid rediscovering books all over again. Feeling overwhelmed and excited by all the possibility. I’m trying to recreate that for myself now by walking into a bookstore and thumbing through the stacks in hope of discovering someone new. For now, I’m content with ordering novels from Elisa Albert, and hoping that Nicole Krauss comes out with a new book sometime soon.

when our words are the loudest sound

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There’s the smell of her voice. Mouthfuls of smoke and the spearmint gum she cracked and chewed. Metal from the coins and a small key she hid under her tongue. Some nights, late, it’d smell of blood gone dry — a cut on the lip, a cracked tooth — but also of something old. A cultivated staleness, a certain kind of loneliness that makes the whole of her mouth cavernous, as if she’d feret the life right of you. Take all of you in. They asked me to write a poem in fifth grade about my mother. Focus on a detail, something specific, they said. This was a time I swallowed voice, when hers was the loudest sound, and although I was nine I didn’t know how to describe my mother, which is to say the only way that I thought of her was to conjure her voice, and how it reminded me of a storm. So I did that, wrote a haiku, counting the syllables on one hand. Letting the words form and settle, and I handed in a sheet of paper where I likened my mother’s voice to thunder:

Crashing through the night
Roars filled with evil laughter
Lightning veins the sky

But maybe I should have written what her voice smelled like. That would’ve been more accurate; it would’ve gotten me closer. Someone asked me how I know how to do what I do, how I’m able to understand the world through writing about it, I never know how to answer that because this is something I’ve always been able to do. As I child my mother told me about the rules: Never cry. Never be vulnerable. Never be afraid. Never love anyone. So I lived much of my life like that, swallowing voice and practicing coldness. But my notebooks were a refuge, and I wrote out my sorrow like song, like sermon, and I remember what reading fiction first felt like. How I moved from the simple detective novels or stories of lithe blondes wearing pearls and fretting over their finery to leaning up against my locker reading John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and John Updike. From a city that perpetually glinted to the genteel homes in Connecticut where there existed a mudroom, I got lost, deliriously so, in the darkness of other men’s words. In a junior high school filled with girls took for granted their expensive denim and fine hair, I read The Catcher in the Rye and felt awakened. I felt as if someone was talking to me, a friend pointing to the scribblings in their binder and saying, this is me laid out to pasture. This is me, too. These men wrote about loss, something I understand far too well. They wrote about masks, and how a whole society subsisted on the delicate maneuvering of masks. Everyone was on the verge. Everyone was frightened of the emptiness underneath. They built this beautiful, idyllic world that was determined to ruin. As if you decorated a house with lush carpets and tasseled pillows to discover that you neglected to build a floor, thatch a roof.

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And then the thunder. And then the storm. And then the ruin. Does the story always start with, and end with, loss?

I wrote stories about girls who hung themselves from shower rods, girls who slept on linoleum floors as roaches skittered past, girls who inched out onto fire-escapes to read to escape the junk sick. Ceremoniously, guidance counselors held my typewritten stories and inquired about troubles at home, to which I’d shake my head and laugh and asked to be returned to class.

Of course there was something going on at home. There was always something going on at home.

When I first read Catcher, Bullet Park, The Sun Also Rises and Rabbit Run, I connected with the characters, but strangely enough I became fixated on the author. I wondered how he did it. Here I was, thirteen years old, ripping pages out of books and trying to diagram a story. How did someone create a whole world of hurt when I was only able to create a city of it? A house of it? And over the years reading gave me power, allowed me to find my voice, and although it’s been years since I’ve read the authors who unzipped my eyes open, I regard them with a certain kind of tenderness.

And then I think about how the most advanced yoga students actually go back to basics. They re-learn poses, break them down and rearrange them all over again. And after watching the horrific biopic that was Salinger today (it was so bad I can’t even talk about it), I was inspired to re-read his stories.

To revisit the girl who was thirteen, creating fiction.

love.life.eat of the week

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I plan to make a lot of yummy treats this weekend, and I’m thinking that this goat’s cheese cake with figs + honey will top the list | As I continue to pare down my possessions to only that which is loved and necessary, the simplicity of this lovely abode intrigues me | Somewhat of a voyeur, I always love peeking into a writer’s room, especially Jhumpa Lahiri’s place in Rome. You know I’ve already pre-ordered her book, The Lowland, and it’s as much anticipated as season three of Homeland. True story. | I purchased two of Everlane’s Seed Stitch sweaters, and they are perfection. Lightweight, cozy and forgiving for those of us who don’t possess taut abs. | Lauren Grodstein’s magnificient The Explanation for Everything: A Novel is on my lap and I’m subsumed. I’ve read all of Lauren’s books (a fellow Columbia alumn and friend), and her writing is superb.

Brief note of disclosure: I’ve just joined Amazon Affiliates, as I tend to recommend a lot of books on this space. I’m using this service to pay for annual maintenance of this site, and I’m only using the links for products I have purchased. I’m just tinkering. If you don’t dig and I don’t dig, I’ll change the situation.

new books on my bookshelf

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Yesterday, I spent the day with Julia, an old friend and a luminous spirit. We spent a leisurely afternoon talking about yoga, anatomy, inspiring women and their transformation, living a life of truth, being humble, dismantling the ego, and of all the books we absolutely adored. From nibbling on croissants to strolling through the East Village, our conversation took us to one of my favorite bookstores in the city: McNally Jackson. McNally’s that rare gem of a bookstore that merges a cafe-type atmosphere, sweet baked goods, and the best books you never thought you wanted but absolutely need in your life. While Julia forged friendships and snacked choice magazines, I walked around the bookstore, ravenous, and here you’ll find my loot.

Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (novel) | Kate Christiansen’s Blue Plate Special (food/memoir) | Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus (novel) | Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast (food memoir)

ON MY RADAR. CHOMPING AT THE BIT, ETC.: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland | Nelly Reifler’s Elect H. Mouse State Judge | Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything | Abby Geni’s The Last Animal | Aimee Bender’s The Color Master | Kathryn Davis’ Duplex | Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters

shelf trophies: books I love, from me to you…

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Joan Didion’s The White Album + Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Everything from Didion’s writing process to water plants and Haight Ashbury, her essays are biting and will propel your own personal velocity | Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her: on adultery, love, heartbreak and the spaces in between | Claire Watkin’s Battleborn: dark, mythic, glorious and severe short stories focusing on the Nevada landscape | Claire Messud’s The Hunters + The Woman Upstairs: a novella and a novel that speaks to brilliant women the verge | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go: a family wrestles with the death of its patriarch | V. Nabokov’s The Eye: what happens after an affair jolts you into the afterlife | Krys Lee’s Drifting House: unflinching and graceful stories centered on the Korean-American experience | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove: magical stories that test your imagination and suspend disbelief | Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments: a meditation on memoir, movie-making and memory | Alice Munro’s Dear Life: this is her final book and it needs no introduction | Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home: how a disturbed interloper interrupts a fragile house | Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family: a swift, enveloping novel centering on the bomb that is the next door neighbor | Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: a graceful meditation on loss |

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read until you pass out, read until you can hold the book no more

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While I white-knuckle and practice patience {insert cackles and guffaws} while I await my friend’s opinion of my in-progress story collection, I’ve been devouring books and writing at a frenetic clip. Perhaps making up for lost time? Who’s to say. If I can give you any advice, it would be this: put down your phone and pick up a book. Any book. Just read.

“grow a vagina,” and other sorted bits from a strange, wonderful week

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I jumped in the river and what did I see? Black-eyed angels swam with me. A moon full of stars and astral cars. All the things I used to see. All my lovers were there with me. All my past and futures. And we all went to heaven in a little row boat. There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt. – Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”

Months ago, someone asked me if I was happy. Define happy, I said, tapping on my keyboard, deliberately immersed and evading. Not once did I glance up from the black keys, even when he pressed my computer shut, even when his voice crescendoed like a note held for too long left to stand and uncomfortably linger, when he repeated, Are you happy? I couldn’t look up, couldn’t, because I had to admit that I’d settled for a life of comfortable discomfort. I’d settled for less than extraordinary. I’d settled for a life anesthetized. I’d settled for something less than what I once had.

I’d have to admit that I mother-fucking settled.

So I looked sideways, fixated on a window across the way and the papers flying out of it. Apparently, the wind got hold of an empty desk and had its way with it. Papers fluttered out, scattered, and inevitably made their descent. You can’t catch me off guard like that,I said. He laughed, and wondered aloud why I couldn’t answer such a simple question.

Either you’re happy or you’re not.

After what feels like a lifetime of breathing underwater, barnacles attach themselves to hard surfaces: the sides of large ships, the backs of whales, or the shells of some turtles. And they remain, attached, grabbing at the living, the beautiful creatures that sally past. Sessile, complacent, they simply survive off of the remains of others. They take what they can get. They mother-fucking settle.

How is it that I had become the one thing I spent my whole life scraping off? How did I miss waking each morning to finally see half my face, my body, covered in the things? How did I become blind that I had become a sticky, spindly thing, affixing myself to a desk, to a series of websites, to a feeding routine? How is that I stopped moving? Breath sputtering out, a body giving way, a heart in the ether.

How is that I had become what I had become?

Vladimir: Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

Estragon: I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir: That’s what you think.

How is it that his words were a blinding sunrise I didn’t want to see? Over there is a cloak, it’s darkness. Cover me with it. Can you hear me? And the note fell, got caught up in a larger song played in perpetual repeat (needle lifted, placed back on the record, again, again) until the song was so loud it threatened to explode in on itself. Head to knees, this is what they tell you when planes crash, but they neglect to mention that you’ll complete from the impact. Why did his words need to be the sun that was the plane that was the remains of you scattered along the ocean?

A head lifts, a word holds and plays out the scene, looks for places to hide but there are none. And the cold, No.

No, I’m not happy.

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There was so much to fear, so much to doubt. So the days past, a succession of sunrises and footfalls. My eyes have been getting accustomed to the light, but it’s been a long journey out. And this is the journey everyone wants tidied up and finished, all two hands clapping and, sigh, that’s over with. People don’t want to sit in the uncomfortable spaces; they don’t want to hear the I am afraids and I don’t knows. Instead, they press for 140 characters of light; they interrupt, they say, You’re just being dramatic.

Oh, am I. Being dramatic. Is that it?

This was a strange week of huddled shoulders shuddering. Of cards laid down, of new hands played, of a deck that keeps on with its shuffle. Easy, easy, you got her too high. But it was a, how about we shudder together? How about our shakes turn into a dance, a song, that we’re desperate to sing? Smiling, I said, I like that.

Yesterday, a man leans in, all the way, and says, Felicia, you’ve got to grow a vagina. I can’t think of anything else that takes a harder beating. I winced, withdrew, and he laughed, and said he was paraphrasing Bette Davis, about balls being nothing but soft tissue and all that. But a vagina! A vagina was a courageous thing, it took no prisoners, and so on.

I wasn’t used to such directness and coarse language, and I still recoil a bit as I type this. Did he have to say VAGINA? I guess he did because I’m still thinking about it. His words, our conversation, shook the windows and splintered some of the wood and glass. It reminded me of The Angel of the Odd exhibit I saw in Paris — all that fear trapped on canvas, desperate and wanting. Goya, Ernst, Milton, Blake, Goethe, Shakespeare — artists who slipped into darkness, saw savagery plainly for what it was, and transformed it to color, type, and voice. It reminded me of my meeting with my agent, who shook with excitement when I said that my writing is scaring me. I’ve been waiting for your writing to combust, he said. He knew my frustrations with Sky, knew I was confined by traditional narrative, knew I wanted to go somewhere strange and dark, a world far from linear. Yet, there was this word, courage, and I had yet to understand its meaning. It reminded me of a man who told me that if I keep dodging what eludes me, I will always be my own ruin.

It’s only when we say our fears out loud do we find a way to move past them. Otherwise, it’s an ocean that threatens to swallow, to curl us under.

My life is about to take some strange, miraculous turns, and instead of drawing all the blinds and shuddering alone, I sent notes, made calls, asked if my shoulders could have some company.

And it feels good, to open my eyes, have it all hurt. To finger the bruises. It feels good to shudder and shake alongside…

the journey that will change you

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It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety. ― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

A few weeks ago, a friend folded my hand into hers and said, This trip you’re about to take, it’ll change you. You’ll come back changed in some remarkable way. As someone who shies away from an abundance of touch, I laughed and said, I’m not already remarkable? To which she responded, You’ll be remarkable in a way that you can finally see. Since then I’ve been thinking about what my friend said and how the strange and unsettling — Germans call it das unheimliche, the sense of the uncanny, the opposite of what is familiar can have the capacity to make you see what has been in front of you all along.

Every few years I return to this quote from Orwell. Over the years I’ve developed a fondness for it, because I’ve gone to the dogs; I’ve endured the war, the carnage and wreckage, and have come out on the other side victorious. Shaken, but a survivor still. I don’t know how that is, really. How I always have the capacity to rebound, how I’ve been so resilient all these years, but this year I challenged myself to abandon the comfort that I had known because I wanted to feel unsettled. Never have I sought out war, summoned it like a fakir, but my head and heart are the clearest they’ve ever been and I found myself whispering, now.

So here’s to getting lost and finding myself away. Three countries, three planes, countless trains, new friends and old, and all the miles in between. Things will be quiet here for the next few days, but watch for oodles of photos, eats, and everything in between.

when the heart suddenly stops

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Would your fear be any less and would you see that you had been chosen to help the sun rise? ― Nick Bantock, Alexandria: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin & Sabine Unfolds

It occurs to me that every time I feel as if I’ve lost my way, I return to children’s books. I like to finger the thick, glossy paper stock, pour over the illustrations, and tumble, head-first, into a world, a life, that is simple and complete. As someone who fancies herself a writer, I remind myself that children’s books are perhaps the most difficult genre one could write for its success is predicated on the quickening of a child’s heart. As the three acts swiftly unfold, the child becomes petulant, impatient, grabbing at pages two, three at a time, because they want to know what’s next.

How does the story end?

Possibly I return to children’s books again and again to remind myself that there’s still magic in the world. That in every end there is a beginning. Our lives are something of a metronome, a mimicked heartbeat, a series of stops and starts, and in between the acts, between the breaths, there blooms something magical and new. As the years press on, our once wide eyes press shut and it’s easy to ignore the magic. We accept blindness as a current state, we slouch our way through our days, and the world morphs into a bleached-white version of what it once was.

Hold on, hold on tightly
Hold on, hold on tightly
Rise up, rise up
With wings like eagles
You run, you run
You run and not grow weary
-U2’s “Drowning Man”

Every day I wake and tell myself that there is color. That the world is worth seeing. That life is worth fighting for, even when your heart suddenly stops and shatters from the inside. Cutting everything in its wake. Because don’t we deserve to leap, lurch, race, fly? Don’t we deserve to preserve something in those books we once read? Replace the heartbreak with that quickening we use to love?

What’s next? What’s next? For the past three months this question is a spectre at every shared meal, email, text message. Recently, I spent two hours at Delicatessen (home of my beloved cheeseburger spring rolls, truffle fries and kale salad) pontificating on this very question with an old friend, but finding no real answers. After a heartbreaking, tumultuous exit from a job I once believed I loved, I’m too busy surveying the wreckage and assessing the damage to figure out what’s next.

Instead, I plan to spend this month knee-deep in introspection. I’m off to Europe next week and I’m taking my books, camera and heart, and I hope to return stronger. I hope to return seeing the magic once again.

I hope to return to a fast-beating heart.

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Delicatessen
Delicatessen

love.life.eat. of the week: on my bookshelf

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Years ago, for a time, I worked in book publishing. I got the job because I’d edited and published a mildly-successful literary journal, was relatively well-read, and had a way of marketing my non-traditional experience to make my fit into the large house, to which I was applying, a seamless fit. It was 2006, and many in the industry were reticent to approach social, or even understood the seismic shift in how consumers wanted to connect with content. The definition of influence was securing a Times book review, and much of my work was misunderstood or marginalized. But I’d started to notice people on the subway reading books on mechanical devices; I saw how meaningful conversations between passionate readers online not only sparked interest for a book, but cultivated a community we’d only known in book clubs. Towards the end of my tenure, the tide had shifted and publishers sought out my counsel on how to place books in a reader’s virtual lap, but by then I’d changed. As someone who was part of a committee that decided which books to acquire, I was exposed to the more unseemly bits of the business. Books were bought not because of the beauty of the work, but for the means the author had in promoting it. Words like platform and newsletter subscribers were bandied about, and all this time my friends, brilliant writers, struggled to get their manuscripts sold. Tension mounted to the point where the idea of reading a book for pleasure made me violently ill.

Revered since my childhood, books had morphed into a grotesque creature, a changeling, and I abandoned my shelves for months. It would take me two years to wash off the sludge, two years until I could take pleasure in holding a book in my hand.

I say this because for the past three years I haven’t read as much as I wanted to and it was killing me. After twelve hours in the office, if it was a choice between sleep and thumbing through a hardcover, sleep was always the victor. And my poor beloveds gathered dust on the shelves and I frequently skirted conversations with my writerly friends because I was so far removed from the gems that made their way online and in-store.

Until now. Once an ardent devotee of American literary fiction, I’ve noticed that my affection for genre has changed. From reading Going Clear to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to the scores of cookbooks and food memoirs clamoring for coveted space on my bookshelves, my book collection has evolved in step with the woman I’m becoming, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

So this week’s love.life.eat. will focus on books. Books I’m taking with me to Europe come April. Books I love. Your book recommendations… so, spill it!

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Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life | Caitlin Moran’s How to be Woman | Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts: Stories | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife: Stories | George Bellows | Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go