Last night, I spent time with new friends who probably love food more than I do. They’re all about the hunt. Forget the fancy pants, reservations-only eateries, they’re more into the hidden gems–L.A. institutions and incredible Korean BBQ in strip malls. Yesterday, we feasted on Greek food that was full of flavor and low on price.
While we were chowing, my friend’s husband and I talked for a good half hour about chicken. How to make it, the unlimited permutations, and the glory that is homemade stock. I made stock last week from a leftover chicken carcass, and believe me when I say that if my home could smell like chicken soup 24/7, I’d never leave. Anyway, we got to talking about cookbooks and I said that I got really into cooking in 2002 when I started to watch The Food Network. Ina, Giada, Mario, and Nigella–I spent hours learning recipes and technique, and I’d discovered a true passion.
So call me nostalgic, but I tuned into Ina today and she made this pasta recipe that nearly made me fall off my couch. I was hesitant because cream makes me violently ill and then there’s the issue of my fennel fatwa. However, I assure you that faux cream can be made and the fennel flavor is subtle, at best.
Trust me, you will want this pasta in your life.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Ina Garten’s Cooking for Jeffrey, modified.
- 1 cup cashews + 1 cup water + 1 tsp salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large bulb of fennel, chopped
- 2 large shallots, chopped
- 1 1/4 pounds sweet Italian sausages, casings removed
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 cloves)
- 1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 pound rigatoni
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
- 1 cup freshly grated Italian Parmesan cheese, divided
Now, we’re all about making the sauce. Saute the chopped fennel and shallots in a large pot (I used a Dutch oven) on medium heat for about 7 minutes or until the mixture is translucent and slightly browned. Add the sausage and gently break apart with a wooden spoon. DON’T overwork your meat by continuously stirring. It takes about 8 or so minutes for the pork to cook, so I come back every few minutes, break apart, stir again.
While that’s cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (read the package directions, and cook for a minute or so less). Drain the pasta and set aside.
Once the sausage is cooked through, add the garlic, fennel seed, red pepper, and wine. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the cashew cream and tomato paste and stir until completely combined. I like my sauce super thick and luscious (see Exhibits A and B, above and below), but if you like your sauce on the thinner side, you can add more wine or stock. And if you’re not feeling wine, you can use chicken stock, no big deal.
Add your pasta directly to the meat sauce and stir until completely coated. Remove your pan from the heat and you can add freshly grated parmesan (I used a vegan kind, which is actually pretty decent), and chopped parsley if you’re feeling it. Candidly, I was so into the pasta that I ate it directly from the pot and forgot about the parsley.
Chow down, people.
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Candidly, I started to resent putting myself out there so publicly, feeling odd when strangers seemed to think they know me based on what I chose to share online. I won’t return to this space daily or share to the degree of intimacy to which you’d grown accustomed, but I miss sharing the food I love to eat. I missed cooking.
2016 was a year worth shredding. This year, I resolved to wake from my sleeping life. The company that I’d started last year — a marketing collaborative — was starting to grow, and the novel I’d spent three years writing finally crawled its way into the world. For a while, I was comfortably coasting until I became comfortably uncomfortable.
For most of my adult life, food had been a passion of mine. I’d been an enthusiastic home cook and avid baker, and I’d spend weekends browsing bookshelves for the latest culinary tomes. I’d spend hours watching The Food Network when it wasn’t a reality show ratings grab. In 2006, a time before filters and iPhone photo-editing apps, I started snapping photos of the dishes I’d made with a pocket-sized Olympus camera. The photos were laughable — all close-ups and blurry shots under the glare of fluorescent kitchen lighting — but I didn’t care because nothing gave me greater joy than sharing the meals I’d made with others. Over the years, making food and writing about it on my blog had been a refuge, a way to recover from the day’s stresses and the slew of fire-alarm emails that never seemed to abate. I worked in a company where everyone acted like we were curing cancer, but really we were finding new ways to hock our clients’ wares on the internet.
Over the years, the meals I made became more ornate and complex and I invested in fancy cameras, photography and cooking classes because when clients are screaming at you on the phone all day long your stress-relieving hobby becomes a necessary lifeline — the thing that will stop you from stapling things to people’s heads.
Last year, all that hard work was rewarded with a handsome contract to work with an incredible company that sold premium kitchen appliances. Someone was actually paying me to do what I loved — make food, photograph and write about it! Nine months later, it occurred to me that I hadn’t bought a cookbook and I only made food for company. My fridge was anemic and I engaged in a torrid love affair with Postmates, sometimes seeing DoorDash on the sly. The work (make no mistake, professional grade photoshoots–working with stylists, pro-photographers–is HARD, and the mounting stress from it, somehow transformed the thing I loved to something I’d grown to resent. Years ago, someone asked me if I’d ever entertained the idea of going to culinary school or opening a bake shop, and I laughed because I knew the moment you made money from a hobby you loved, you’d strip away all the joy that comes from it. Food was sacrosanct until it wasn’t, and this year I made the difficult decision to let that project go.
Maybe I’m insane for abandoning the only consistent income I’ve had in years, but I love food. I miss it, and the idea that I’d become allergic to it was too much to bear. Not everything you love has to come with a paycheck.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. A lot of my work is dark, relentlessly so, and friends often joke that they couldn’t imagine me writing a book or a short story where someone didn’t die. It’s true, most of my characters meet their end in cruel, unimaginable ways. Nearly all of them are in some state of disrepair. Most carry their pain like armor, shielding them from really connecting with anyone in the world. But I love my broken people. I love writing small, dark experimental books because, like food, it gives me a joy that’s impossible to quantify. Let my marketing strategy work pay the bills while my writing helps me make sense of the world.
I secured an agent in 2006 when I’d finished my first book, The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here. Although my agent represented big, commercial books, I’d always felt that he nourished his creative side by working with me. He was my champion, editor, cheerleader, and truth teller. He was instrumental in helping me revise my second book, Follow Me Into the Dark, but I couldn’t shake the conversations steering me toward commercial books. A few other things didn’t sit right with me, and last month I made the difficult decision to resign my agent.
Two break-ups in one month — talk about yanking off the training wheels and driving the bike into a tree. Last month felt like tears and scraped knees. Fear — of not getting a new agent or another paying client — was what tethered me to discomfort. Fear bound me to relationships that weren’t serving me, and the only upside was the consistent knowledge of this discomfort. It’s relatively easy to settle into the things that prevent you from moving forward because what if I’ve traded discomfort for creative and financial ruin? The unknown is also a kind of cancer, one that gnaws away at you until there’s nothing left. Until you start doubting your worth and ability to reclaim the joy you perhaps took for granted.
I’ll be honest — I’m anxious. I’m querying agents after ten years and I worry that I won’t find the right match. I worry that I’ve given up financial security and what if I can’t keep my deal flow going? So far, I’m doing okay–I have an exciting 5-week gig leading the marketing side of the Los Angeles Review of Books/USC Workshop, I have a pretty consistent client based in NY, and I got a fun cat gig that keeps me smiling.
But a part of me, in a smaller voice, says, what if you don’t fail? What if you find an agent who loves your work for what it is rather than what he or she wants it to be? Fear locks all the doors. Stepping into the unknown empowers you to break the doors down and jump, feet-first, to the other side.
Now, on to the chicken!
- 4 chicken thighs, skin on, bones in
- Juice and zest of one lemon
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 sprigs of thyme, minced
- 2 springs of rosemary, minced. Add two more for garnish at the end
- Salt // pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 400F. Make sure your chicken is at room temperature and you pat the skin dry. In a large bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, zest, minced rosemary + thyme, salt, and pepper. Toss until all thighs are coated with the mixture. On a large baking sheet, add the chicken, bone side down. Roast for 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 375 and roast for another 10-15 minutes. Allow your meat to rest on the sheet pan for a few moments before you serve. I made my chicken with roasted potatoes, or you can add chickpeas (tossed in salt and pepper) to your sheet pan when you start cooking the chicken. I LOVE chickpeas and have no shame about adding them to any recipe.
I haven’t been to this space in a while because for the past year or so I’ve lived much of my private life offline. There’s something strange that happens when people read your words for years and feel like they know you (in an edited way because they come to know you by what you share) but they don’t. Not really. They know a version of you. I struggled with that tension quite a bit. Combined with trying to sustain a consistent stream of work (freelancing is hard and I’m drowning in graduate loan debt), and thinking about my second book while I completed my third–I noticed that coming here I had little to offer. Simply put, I didn’t have it in me.
Today I woke early and decided what I did want to share–what I’ve been reading! Reading has been a tremendous stress reliever and I’ve been reading one, sometimes two, books a week. And no, they’re not the same ten books you see on every spring reading list because I often discover authors or books far past their launch buzz. I’m also frustrated that the same ten books give massive hype while the rest fall to the wayside. Perhaps I’m…biased. I’ll leave it at that.
On to the books!
Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: Someone recently asked me to describe Yiyun Li’s work and I said, she’s the Chinese Jhumpa Lahiri. I realize saying that is reductive and gives off the wrong impression, so I immediately explained that like Lahiri, Li feels caught between two languages and cultures. Lahiri spent years learning Italian, a language that liberated her or at least shifted her away from the Bengali/English tension. Yiyun Li made a conscious decision to abandon Chinese and not have her books translated into Chinese, but the pull of homeland is a constant and is at the core of her essay collection.
It’s strange to call this book a memoir because while the events are true (Li battled suicide depression and was hospitalized twice), there exists a semi-permeable wall between reader and author because Li doesn’t seek catharsis in the usual tell-all style, rather, she tries to make sense of it rationally and intellectually through conversations with dead authors who’ve shared her illness. This is the story of her literary life and how she uses it to cope with the constant pull to darkness. Is writing not my way of rehearsing death? Li writes. There are so many reasons I loved this book, mainly because it was a realistic portrayal of someone suffering from depression every day. The neat 3-arc narrative that presents a life where the illness or pain or grief is finite is so antithetical for how people with mental illness survive their day. For Li, it’s a continuum, an ongoing understanding, and conversation.
If you suffer from depression or just love literature, you will LOVE this book.
An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey: What starts as a recollection of a near suicide attempt to navigating the world of art, love, infidelity, and the many skins (or masks) we wear, An Arrangement of Skin deconstructs those masks in an effort to get puncture through oneself. From her mother’s macabre bedtime stories and a friendship with a tattoo artist who believes what you write on the body is an expression of that self to her fascination with taxidermy, Journey manages to usurp traditional images centering on dismemberment and metamorphosis. She makes the grotesque beautiful, and I’ve really encountered an essay collection that felt…new. This was a swift read and well worth your time. I’m baffled that it hasn’t been covered widely.
Outline by Rachel Cusk: To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Rachel Cusk until I read this recent profile. I’m drawn to complex women who may not necessarily be sympathetic or, more importantly, don’t want your sympathy. (Brief parenthetical: This Jill Abramson interview is spot-on and reinforces that women leaders are often judged by how “nice” they are.) Apparently, you either really love Cusk auto-fiction style or you think she’s the most selfish person on earth. I’m in the former camp and I purchased all of her books. Outline is a life told through conversation. We follow a novelist (and I dare say cipher), Faye, who’s teaching a creative class one summer in an oppressively hot Athens. The ten conversations she has with people she meets along the way (her seatmate on her flight to Athens–a man who’s lived much of his life in regret, a one-hit wonder novelist, an insecure nuevo-famous author who uses her celebrity as a means to mask her emptiness). Through each of these stories and the novelist’s interpretation and retelling of them, we know more a woman trying to find her identity through the filling out of an outline. The conversations she has gives her shape and depth.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez: Sure, this was published ages ago, but it’s new to me and damn near broke my heart. Reading this book now felt fortuitous as it invites you to be empathetic to the immigrant experience. I’m not going to start with all the fear and hate-mongering after Agent Orange was elected, but we are ALL immigrants–unless we’re Native American. But I digress. Henriquez’s remarkable debut, told from varying points of view, outlines the immigrant perspective in a small Delaware town. From cultural adjustment to learning English idioms and feeling homesick for the familiar, you have a sense of what people give up to come to the United States. What spins the plot into motion is a well-off Mexican family that moves to the states after their daughter, Maribel, sustained brain injury as a result of a slip and fall accident. Soon after they move, Maribel (who’s an outsider) connects with a local boy, Toro, who sees in her a kindred spirit. Their Romeo/Juliet-type love unravels all of the characters to devastating effect. I loved this book so much, not only because of the exceptional writing but because you see how “Americans” treat people of color who were born here and people who come from abroad. If you pick up any of the books from my list, I suggest you start with this one.
Liar by Rob Roberge: Okay, I promise this will be the last book about mental illness, but this is a GOOD ONE. After a lifetime of heavy drug abuse/alcohol abuse and frequent concussions, Roberge learns that he’s developed a progressive memory-eroding disease. The notion that he’ll one day start to lose memories, stories–the core of who he is–devastates him, and he makes a point of using writing as a means of documentation of a life but also a catharsis for the inevitable end. Selfishly, I also love books that are not told in a linear fashion (so you have to work harder and be committed to the narrative–must everything be handed to you? I often think), and I think the structure evokes the feeling of disassociation, abject terror, and the need to commit everything to paper. I read this after Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir and it was refreshing to read a book about an addict told from the vantage point of perspective and age.
Compartment 6 by Rosa Liksom: It’s possible that a book can be relentlessly dark and laugh-out-loud funny. An unnamed Finnish woman leaves Moscow for Mongolia by train after having suffered heartbreak. However, there exists little time for grief when Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov is your compartment mate. A former soldier, Vadim is rude, vulgar, violent (he attempts to force himself on the woman several times and only stops when she beats him with her boot), drunk, and the woman’s unlikely companion. There is no startling plot revelation, but the journey, what’s revealed about the Soviet Union in a specific point of time, and how one copes with loss, is the real draw.
Also recommended: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees–I’m half-way through the collection and it is stellar.
When you ask me what influenced the creation of a novel about intergenerational mental illness and abuse, our sexist perception of the “good girl”, and the lengths children will go to forge a family, I offer this…influence doesn’t have a single point of origin.
Listening to Ted Bundy for two days in a cold room in Southern California does things to you. You play the interviews over and over until Bundy’s slow, assured drawl beings to disturb you because it’s oddly comforting. You’re surprised by his voice, the ease, and coolness of it. The patrician charm of it. How he considers his words before he says them, how he hits his consonants like a melody. For a moment, divorce yourself from the man who took meticulous care of the skulls he collected, how he witnessed the skin pale and crack. If you can forget the monster that is Ted Bundy, you might think to yourself that this is the sort of man you’d want to meet. Remember, Bundy was a man who once studied law. Bundy saved countless lives as a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline.
There exists no binary. Watch him. He’s witty, self-deprecating, and beguiling.
Let’s just get a map out, he says when asked to recall where he buried the remains of the women he murdered. Let’s see what we have. We have to get down to business here. I want to be as specific as I can be. Was it a burial, an officer asks. Yes, yes, a burial, Bundy affirms. I gave them a burial.
This is the savagery of the psychopath: the ease in which they assimilate and shift masks based on whom they need to manipulate. They’re brilliant at mimicry. Studies suggest they have the capacity for empathy; it’s just a muscle they willfully allow to atrophy. It’s easier to feel nothing that bears the weight of guilt, sorrow, remorse, compassion, and empathy. It’s easier to be cruel and it’s work to be kind.
When I write I start from the place of a character. I build out an entire person, the complexities of their world, and I follow what they do on the page. For my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, I knew almost all of my characters before I got to the page. When I created Kate, the educated, genteel, soft-spoken baker, she was only fully realized after I locked myself in a room with Ted Bundy. Because it’s horrifying when the kind person you’ve known for years, the blushing girl behind the counter serving your muffin, is actually callous and calculating; she’s someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the depraved, feels joy when others are suffering. It’s scarier when you don’t see your villain coming.
This is what all those women must have thought. When Bundy feigned broken limbs and disability to lure women to his car, they probably thought this is someone who is in pain rather than a monster who delights in inflicting it. Imagine the space between Bundy, the charming, handsome man on crutches pleading for help and the man who takes a lead pipe to your head. That’s the terror.
It was only when I met Ted Bundy through a computer screen did I see Kate, a woman who uses a veneer of innocence and society’s sexism to navigate through monstrous acts, relatively unscathed.
Who didn’t fall in love with Alice Morgan, a prodigy who studied dark matter distribution and murdered her parents and dog just to see if she could get away with it? A brilliant woman, a player of games, although I imagine that Vegas would fail to challenge and amuse her because she’s someone who would usurp the adage the house always wins. Alice Morgan would’ve torched the joint before the first hand was even dealt.
I struggled with sex in my book. How much of it do my characters use to get what they want? Basic Instinct bored me because it was all sex and no intrigue. There are four women in my book, all in various stages of beauty and undress, and while some of the characters use sex as an obvious weapon and as bait, some, like Alice, simply offer a suggestion of it. Sex is not on the table but it’s not entirely off, either. It’s one of many weapons in her arsenal that she’d use if and when the occasion called. At first glance, perhaps you wouldn’t think Alice to be conventionally hot (personally, I’d disagree) and maybe her body wouldn’t put you on pause, but there’s something about her that sucks you in. Like a black hole. Her ferocity and intellect are bewitching. However, it’s that ease — like Bundy and fly tape: a seemingly harmless object that will seduce, trap, and kill you — that excites you. There’s something sexually thrilling in that dichotomy (the harmless and the murderous), which made Alice an easy model for two of my characters, doppelgangers Kate and Gillian.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the old deaf artist who painted savagery on his walls. There was a need to correct the serene and sublime, to undo the harm that portraits of refined gentry had done, and the artist was something of a fakir drawing out the barbaric. A still-beating heart held in one hand and a scissor in the other. The artist made a mural of the macabre, replete with Viejas conjuring, a Sabbath, and a mad Greek devouring the limbs of his newborn. The child is rendered in a chilling white, but all I can remember is the cavern that was the father’s mouth. — From Chapter 1 of my novel.
Years ago I visited the Prado during a storm. All because I wanted to see Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. Late in life, Goya painted 14 paintings of madness and the macabre on the walls of his home. They represented his fear of insanity, his bleak view of humanity, and the fulfillment of our darkest urges. Imagine being greeted with the barbaric and terrifying when you stepped into someone’s dining or living room.
Possibly the most iconic of the Black Paintings is a portrait of Saturn devouring his son. I remember standing in front of the canvas for nearly an hour, mesmerized by something so utterly horrifying, but at the same time I thought of something different. What if Saturn was protecting his son from the evil and treachery of mankind?
It’s the dual nature of murder as hate and murder as sacrificial love that drove me to write some of the horrible things the mothers in my novel do to their children. Many of the characters in Follow Me Into the Dark suffer from mental illness. When Ellie is temporarily institutionalized for trying to bathe an infant Kate in bleach, she rationalizes her heinous act as one of love:
In the morning, I tell the doctors that they’ve got it all wrong; I don’t hate my daughter. There will come a day when I will have to hand her over, when she will emigrate from my husband’s house to her husband’s house, and her name will change and her body will breed, and on it goes. The incident with the bleach was my attempt to scrub the man out of her. Wipe the slate clean.
“Don’t you see,” I say. “The thing with the bleach. What I’m trying to tell you. What you need to know is this: I’m trying to get my daughter back to zero, but I ended up burning her. No one gets it; no one wants to.”
They are wrong, of course, unimaginably so, but it was only until I saw what a parent can do to a child (see also Euripides’ Medea) through the lens of illness and insanity did I conceive of the dual acts of hate and love the mothers in my book inflict on their progeny.
What happens to children who are isolated from parental love, locked away in an isolated boarding school in South Africa with nothing other than books and a vivid imagination to give them shelter? Sheila Kohler, in her exceptional novel, Cracks, balances a landscape of ethereal beauty with cold, cruel violence.
One hot summer, a beautiful aristocrat, Fiamma, vanishes into the veld. Decades later, at a reunion, thirteen members of tightly-knit swim team gather to reminisce on the weeks leading up to Fiamma’s disappearance. As the memories and secrets unravel, we learn the horrific, violent lengths adolescents will go to when faced with obsession, jealousy, sex, and maternal longing. I loved this book primarily because the children are lost, rudderless, their sense of what it means to be a woman and a mother comes from the books they read. Their barnacle-level attachment to their swim coach, Miss G., demonstrates how desperately children need familial love. The characters in my look don’t understand love because they’ve lived in homes robbed of it. So they try (and fail) to create a home and this failure is their ultimate devastation.
I’m never quite sure whether people are interested in what goes into the creation of a book, so perhaps this is merely an exercise in me documenting what drove me to write my second book and debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark.
Upcoming Events: I’ll be in New York next week for some readings. Come on down!
“The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.”
― Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
There she goes in her threadbare Willy Loman suit, hocking her life like it’s a vacuum cleaner she’s desperate to unload. The clock ticks, tick tock, tick tock, and she’s got quotas to fill. So she tells one story after another, cuts herself open so her insides match her outsides, exposed, barbed, until someone writes and says, how do you take yourself so seriously, so publicly? Another writes: your book would’ve been better had you loved your mother. Still another: He’s your father. Just call him already. She could hear them heave their collective sigh when they type their comments because isn’t the solution obvious? Before, there was only the one life she had to bear, now it’s the multitudes, the peanut-crunching motley lot, who give her instructions on how to live her life. Kind of like the housewife tearing through the appliance manual, reading aloud the instructions for use, word for word, to the saleswoman who came knocking at her door. This is how you hold the vacuum cleaner. This is how you turn it on.
Since when does lying yourself out to bear become an invitation to parent, fix, and solve? It seems as if everyone’s become Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip, erecting their “The Doctor Is In” lemonade stands, solving problems for a nickel.
Last year, she torches the suits and hurls appliances out of three-story windows. I’m done with all that, she says with an ample hand rub, confident, semi-confident, not confident, perhaps catatonic. Instead, she spends her days living her life in perpetual rewind, thinking about a time when it wasn’t as horrible as it is now. Make no mistake, it was always horrible, but back then it was sufficiently tolerable. Her life is a colossal mess of pain. Instead of offering compassion, asking what they can do, the peanut crunchers are relentless with their desire to repair. Their collective voice overpowers hers. Spouting platitudes neatly arranged on Pinterest boards, they shout: Be positive! Be strong! Don’t be so negative! Get over it!
She wonders if it’s possible to throw strangers off third-story virtual windows. Someone writes: When will she stop writing about her mother? Like, get over it. Because there’s a limit to how much of her sadness and grief others are willing to bear. There goes that clock again, tick tock, tick tock. The time allotted for her depression is running out. Time for a new state, a new emotion. Time to be someone other than what she is or how she feels. But don’t worry — they’ll be there for her when her sadness is in the past tense. When she’s the comeback kid, all toothy smiles and donning new suits. Their collective sigh is palpable. The thank god she’s normal again.
She wrote to make sense of the world. She wrote because the act of writing, and sharing what she had written, made her feel less alone. There’s something powerful about the company of strangers in the moments when you need it most. She read poems and blog posts on the Internet and nodded through tears because someone else felt exactly as she had. Never did she dare interrupt the private, primal aspect of that space because publishing isn’t synonymous with intimacy. It isn’t an invitation to come into someone’s house and rearrange all the furniture. So, for a time, she didn’t write or wrote things that only a few people read. She receded. And in that withdrawal, she discovered a different kind of catharsis, the feeling that aspects of her life were hers and hers alone, not some kind of Sizzler buffet where everyone felt entitled to their piece, where it was a given that you’d take your tray, share, and shuffle along.
This year, people remind her that she has a book coming out so…start dusting off those suits because people don’t buy a book, not really, not completely, they’re also buying the author and the story they’re pitching. Not everyone can be Elena Ferrante. Not everyone has the luxury of saying, read my book if you want and deal with it on your own terms, but I don’t come with proof of purchase. She scrolls through her blog, which has gathered a considerable amount of dust and shakes her head no. She looks at her Instagram because she likes sharing pictures and smaller aspects of her life, but people write that they miss the kind of person she used to be, one who gave of themselves so often, so publicly. Soon she develops an allergy to living part of her life online because that’s what’s required of her if people want to read her book. If her agent wants to sell another one.
Lately, she’s got a heavy case of nostalgia. She longs for the days when the Internet was a black void of Geocitiess pages, where you wrote and the audience was smaller and the comments a less pithy. When people didn’t expect that in exchange for them giving you their attention, they had the right to walk into your home and rummage through the cupboards. I don’t like these cookies, why don’t you buy these instead, they offer. But don’t eat too many of them (suggestive wink!). She considers this age of attention and ownership, and thinks that if this is what’s required (one barter for another), she’s reticent to share at all.
Instead, she thinks about dead bolting all the doors.
Last year, I sent my father a text: I think, I just might, end my life. I sent another: I’m sad. All the time. I can’t go outside because the sun hurts my eyes. The winter sun was an assault, I longed for New York and its palette of stormy greys, because the act of moving, crawling, from one room to another had become something of a victory. The days repeated themselves with minor variations. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. I watched torture films and considered them comedies. I wondered why everyone made such a fuss over Pasolini’s Salò because I’d seen worse play out online. My body was a house and it was in the throes of a four-alarm fire, yet I slept through the sirens and the flames. I played normal when a friend from New York visited, and when she left I spiraled downward. I wrote a story about ending my life, published it here and immediately deleted it, but I woke the next morning to a text message from my friend that if I didn’t call her right this second she would call the police. Another friend called me from work whispering through tears that she was scared. I was scaring her. Could I please…get help? I could hear the hurt in her throat and I said I was fine, just fine, because weren’t we built this way? Wear the happy mask until it smothers us, yet still we smile all the way to the grave? Our practice of fake glee is our own private torment. This was a time when I ordered razor blades off Amazon because I was nothing if not efficient.
My father never responded to my texts. That was February 2016. But this isn’t a story of getting better, it’s about the heartbreak that comes as a result of it.
My father is not my biological father. I learned last year, via a Facebook message from a relative, that my real father was black and kind and excised from my mother’s life. But this isn’t a story about biology, rather it’s one about the people for whom you were once grateful that they didn’t share your chemistry. The people you loved who did the unthinkable — break your fucking heart.
I met the man whom I’ve come to call my father when I was twelve and my first memories were of him hunched over a stove, making me braciole steaks and boxed macaroni and cheese. He worked at Belmont with the horses and met my mother, who waitressed in the diner across the street. Theirs was an affair of love letters, his giant script falling out of the lines as he professed his love to her. He called her “Brooke” after Brooke Shields, and sometimes I laugh because I will always be known to him as Lisa, a nickname given to me by my mother because her first husband found Felicia too difficult to pronounce. But this story isn’t about names given and taken back, erased, crossed out or written over. This is the story about a man who stuck around for longer than he should, and everyone thought he did it for me.
War binds you. Once more into the breach, and like that. Tim O’Brien wrote: They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.
There was no platoon or armaments of battle. The war we endured was a private one, on a quiet block in Valley Stream, New York, and my father and I clung to one another, desperately, because the woman we loved had morphed into a terrifying, violent stranger. She was no longer Brooke or mom, she had become something…else. But this isn’t a story about my mother — I wrote about that, and was stalked and called a liar by my mother’s second child, as a result of it — for she is a dark country to which I never want to return. No, this is about me and my father, barnacles, unhealthy attachments, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us is the barnacle and the host. Is it possible for two clingers to affix themselves to one another? Is it conceivable to be tethered to that which you soon seek to escape? I think about that now. Often.
Our memories were built on minor escapes. I’d close my eyes while he drove a Jeep, a Cadillac, another Jeep. We left our home when things got too dark. We were children making a break for it! We were running away! We stayed late at Wendy’s and picked over the salad bar. I ordered two double cheeseburgers, plain, and a biggie fry at McDonald’s. We shared packs of chicken nuggets from Roy Rogers on Sunrise Highway. Isn’t it strange when one’s fondest memories are of fleeing? I think about that too. Sometimes. Not as much.
He grew older and I grew into a role I assumed for much of my adult life — a difficult woman who never fully recovered from her first and only true hurt. I drank hard in my 20s. Always with the wine lips, he said, shaking his head, worried I’d be a repeat of the woman who had come before because hadn’t I learned? No, not really. You repeat that which you love, even if that love makes you believe that love and loss are the flipside of the same coin.
There was a time we didn’t speak for five years. My father and I had cultivated a way of conflict avoidance. We knew bad things happened, we just didn’t talk about them. We never really talked about my mother, we talked around her, obsessed over her as if she was at a remove, like a painting you would occasionally visit in a museum but weren’t permitted to touch. We would abide by our way of coping for the greater part of three decades.
When I told my father I was moving to Los Angeles, he was displeased. I joked: I’ll probably see you more than I do now. But still, he was unnerved. He didn’t believe I would move until I did. Until we spent a winter morning in Cold Spring Harbor where we passed the hours watching men bait and catch fish. Did he think proximity protected us?
Five years ago, my best friend of nearly a decade excised me from her life. No emails, no phone calls — it was as if I had ceased to exist to her. We spent nearly every waking hour in each other’s company, so much so that our mutual friends talked about how unhealthy our relationship had become. Two broken women cleaving to one another in hopes of finding a whole. It occurred to me, years later, that she likely ended our friendship because we had run our course. Our friendship was based on what we didn’t have rather than a becoming. How do you tell someone that the foundation of your decade-long friendship was built on co-dependence, a fear of being alone with ourselves and our most disquieting thoughts? That we sustained on nostalgia because we were getting better and realized we didn’t have much in common and little to say? Ending a friendship because you realized you lacked one is infinitely more painful than breaking a love that was real and persistent.
I think about this because what if my relationship with my father — three decades in the making — was based on dressing our mutual wounds? What happens when the wounds finally heal? What then?
With my mother, I expected everything. There were no surprises. When she resurfaced in my life after a fourteen year absence, I was hopeful and cautious but not surprised to discover that she was a dressed-up version of the woman I used to know. But this silence from my father was shocking, deafening. I told my therapist: I didn’t see that coming. Acquaintances, strangers on the fucking internet, showed more compassion, I said. How do I forgive him this? Would I consider calling him, my therapist asked. Replaying our history even the question exhausted me. I can’t always be the adult in the relationship, I said. I did all this work and he’s never met me halfway, and I don’t want to talk around, above or below this. I need to say I wanted to die and you weren’t there for me when I needed you most without him changing the subject. Because that’s what we always did — changed the subject, drove around in cars, ate fast food — we had grown masterful in escaping, except this time I wanted us to stay put because I had endured the hurt and lived through it. He read that I wanted to die but he never read how I desperately want to live. Every moment of every day until my heart gives out.
What happens when the fortress we so assiduously built to protect us comes crashing down? What happens when the fortress is gone and there’s no pain to bind us, no lines to draw in the sand, no us against them? What happens if we learn that our relationship was built on fear, fear of being alone, fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of being lesser than, instead of love? What becomes of us then?
Boomers will be our ruin, was our constant refrain in the late 90s. This was a time when we actively practiced our apathy, regarded the internet with a mixture of interest and suspicion, and carried cellular phones the size of small bricks. We survived grunge (barely), witnessed a 70s comeback (no thanks), and shirked off our over-generalized Gen-X moniker. We weren’t fragile unique snowflakes, but we didn’t aspire to be our parents either, and it would take a new generation of upstarts to fix the mistakes we initially made with the internet (remember the epic implosion of 2001? My unemployment checks sure do) and show us that everything we were taught to believe about work, success, and life, was far from gospel.
For seventeen years, I worked in an office. I did what I’d been told to do or mimicked generations past — I worked hard and paid my dues, knew my place in the hierarchy and adhered to it, and believed an Odyssean commute and a matching 401K were the “only way”. I never conceived of a career outside the confines of a cubicle until I learned that corporations couldn’t guarantee a safety net or protect you from market and industry volatility, and even though you were constantly reminded of your value and worth during the annual corporate retreats and holiday potlucks, your livelihood was predicated on a P&L. You were only as valuable and indisposable as a company was profitable. You existed for as long as a company could bear the weight of you.
In 1997, I graduated college with a plan: work in finance for 10–15 years, get married, have kids — the whole whitewashed nine-yard. Just stick to the plan, I told myself because this singular version of a dream, one that had been photocopied by multitudes, was the only way. Right?
Until I learned that I loathed finance. You could be good at something and still cry in bathroom stalls. My work didn’t challenge me, the dress code (yes, back then we had a suit dress code with only Fridays as a reprieve) was daunting, my coworkers all hailed from the same Northeast schools, and I became curious about this “Internet thing”. I spent nights and weekends navigating AOL and dial-up service (remember when no one could reach you because you were online? Good times.) and using my financial and accounting skills, I launched a small business where I bought designer clothes and accessories from outlets and samples sales in New York and sold them online. I did this successfully for two years, but still didn’t believe in the safety of going out on my own. I’d relegated my business to a side project, that thing that would steer me away from finance and I could mail my paper resumes to new companies in new industries. During this time, I managed to fit in getting my master’s degree in Fine Arts — the antithesis of my “safe” Bachelor’s of Science degree.
My plan in 1997 was a graft that didn’t take, an implanted organ rejected by its host. My views on marriage shifted — I cared less about the white dress and the fanfare and confetti and instead wanted a partner, regardless of the paperwork. I also realized that I didn’t want children, which made marriage at the time a trickier proposition. Instead, I wanted my career and my novels. I worried less about the whitewashed life and figured that a partner would eventually materialize.
By 2013, most of my views of success were usurped. Millennials annoyed me initially with their impatience toward hierarchy and their seemingly abnormal professional velocity. There seemed to be an urgency in this generation that hadn’t existed previously. I kept thinking know your placeuntil I began to wonder what is “your place”? I was reminded of how I hated being silenced in the room when I had good ideas simply for the fact that I was under 30. I wanted to work hard, true, but I also wanted to contribute and be respected even if I hadn’t yet gone gray. I’d spent time around smart and creative millennials, who had great ideas and worked hard, but believed one could take control of one’s success, that one’s identity was not inextricably bound to their title. I saw them leave and start their own ventures and at first, I was shocked (though mostly afraid), but that fear turned into envy because I thought: I could do this too. So I left a job that made me unhappy to venture out on my own.
At first, I thought, oh, I’ll probably consult for a few months and get a job. Fast forward three and half years later.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that will instruct you on how to be successful as a freelancer. I’m not here to add to that noise, other than to say yes, it’s important to discern if this kind of work is right for you as opposed to being seduced by the glamour of working from home (it’s not glamorous, rather, it’s often isolating), getting experts like bookkeepers and lawyers are tantamount, and being smart about your offering and value proposition (i.e. what you do and why you do it better or differently than the freelancer down the block), know you have to have multiple projects going as a hedge and you have to always be pitching, closing, etc — these are all important and elucidated elsewhere in excruciating (and necessary) detail.
I turn 41 this weekend and it took me a really long time to be okay with not having a plan, of playing the days as they lay. That I’m not a failure because I didn’t cleave to what I had thought defined one’s personal and financial success and realized that definitions aren’t binary. That you can fail and fail better.
Sometimes I look at my peers or those who are younger than me and I think: they have it together. They bought a house, they live debt-free, and their life isn’t an artful navigation of student loan officers, creditors, and creative accounting. And for a moment I step into that comparison trap and before the claws snap I fall back. That’s their life, their definition of happiness, their path — not mine.
Would I love to be out of debt? Absolutely. Do I regret going to a fancy Ivy League school for a graduate degree when I could’ve saved money and gone somewhere equally good and local? Sure. But right now, right this moment,I have a business that makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I write the books I dream of writing, and I’m healthy (finally), sane, and the things I want will come…eventually. Right now, I focus less on a “plan” and more on living the best and most mindful life I can live. Right now, I focus on giving back and using my privilege to help others. Right now, I focus on living.
I read this quote today (I’m not a fan of Kerouac, but felt it appropriate):
And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.
You could look at it and think, that’s morbid, or you can view it as a call to live.
Snapped at Proof Bakery in Atwater Village. Their sandwiches are Nicole Kidman to-die-for levels.
Last week, I told an old friend that the only way I’m leaving Los Angeles is in a body bag. It’s morbid, but sometimes the extreme makes an impression. Two years ago, I told everyone I knew that I was moving across the country because I wanted physical and geographic space. Part of me wondered if I would love the place I’d always liked visiting. I don’t drive or have a license–will not having a car in a city defined by its freeways and car culture be a problem? (No.) Would I fall into the caricature my east coast friends worried about? (No.) Would I miss the seasons? (No, but I sure do miss the rain.)
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 15 months and my only regret is that I didn’t move here sooner. I spent the first year living on the Westside, in Santa Monica, because I always wanted to live by water. Although it’s a beautiful, walkable city, it’s crazy expensive (think New York rents) and not particularly convenient. I’ve learned that if you don’t live within a 5-mile radius of someone, seeing people can become a challenge, especially when it can sometimes take 2 hours to travel 12 miles. Most of my friends live in mid-city or east, and most of my doctors are in Beverly Hills, so I’d sometimes sit in a car for 45 minutes en route to a check-up. But I digress.
I’ve lived in New York all of my life and its compact, navigable. Once you know New York, you know it, and I’ve become one of my generations that lamented the New York of their childhood. Now, the city feels like a whitewashed episode of a fancy television show–all expensive shops and heels on cobblestone. Even the places in Brooklyn where I knew as a child have become one line of Starbucks, yoga studios, and long-term tourists. I know these are sweeping generalizations, but it’s been hard to see the loss of a city’s character. Soho turned into a shopping mall. Mom and pop shops replaced by H&M. And while L.A. has its own gentrification issues (hello, Downtown?), it seems larger than New York with neighborhoods completely untouched. I think people have a certain impression of L.A. because of West Hollywood, Venice, and Santa Monica, but it’s more than that (god, I sound like an infomercial). There’s so much to see, so much to do. A few months ago, I traveled to The Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena, and I felt as if I was in another country. The museums are incredible, so much so that I became a LACMA member after the Guillermo del Toro exhibit. I’ve seen authors read downtown and in Silverlake. I’ve seen local artist exhibitions so far east it took me 90 minutes to get home, and a new friend of mine composes poems for outdoor operas. Perhaps everything still feels new and I’m that long-term tourist, but every weekend is a new adventure here, a new village to suss out, new burger joints and taco stands to test out.
Much of my work this year has revolved around creating visual stories for brands, which is a fancy way of saying I help brands architect and tell their story in a way that doesn’t sound contrived and cuts through the clutter. I only work with brands I believe in and people who view our relationship as a true partnership rather than a vendor assigned a PO, and I’ve been privileged to meet (and learn from) some extraordinarily talented people. I’ve also moved apartments (that cost of living thing), and since I spend a great deal of time at home, working, I want to make the space as inviting as it can be. That means going to flea markets and sales (hello, Pasadena!), as well as visiting some fancy shops to window-shop and sometimes buy items for my client shoots or for my home. I’ve rounded up some of the places I’ve been recently, and know this is an ongoing list since there are far more places to see!
I found Midland on Instagram, and the carefully curated shop in Culver City lives up to the photographs. The two owners were event planners and after sourcing one-of-a-kind and local artist-created pieces for their clients, they decided to open a shop offering their finds. The shop is small but impeccably edited and styled. You’ll find handmade ceramics and delicate jewelry alongside flowy dresses, hard-to-find perfumes, and soaps, salts, books, toys, and Turkish towels. I tried the perfume snapped above, and I didn’t think it was “me” until I found myself sniffing my rest every few minutes and I decided to go back and pick up a scent that few others have — a mix of tobacco, bourbon, and roses.
Another shop I found via Instagram was Rolling Greens Nursery, and my god, this place is beautiful. The above shot doesn’t do it justice. Here, you’ll find artists who offer up tailored real and faux arrangements for your home, a vast selection of greenery, as well as an abundant shop of cookbooks, ceramics, perfumes, candles, textiles, and decorations you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I haven’t had a Christmas tree for most of my adult life, but I started investing in ornaments and seasonal decorations to make my home a little warmer this holiday season (supplementing my finds with tons of great stuff I scored at Target!)
I’ve only just discovered DTLA Art’s District (perhaps because downtown reminds me of Dumbo and going there hasn’t really been my thing), but one of the greatest spots I found was Guerilla Atelier (above snap)–a cabinet of curiosities. From their website:
Juxtaposing exclusive hand crafted brands with the beauty and rawness of a 1920s warehouse, there is the distinct feeling of being in an intimate old world Paris salon rather than a traditional retail space.
I was privileged enough to meet the charming owner, who loves the macabre as much as I do. He’s stocked the space with well-known and obscure items, and the finest collection of Taschen books I’ve seen. My greatest find was the
Dalí cookbook, which has only recently resurfaced in print. You’ll easily spend an hour paging through their incredible display of coffee table books, each adorned with a glove for browsing pages.
If you’re an avid collector of vintage and minimalist furnishings and decor, you will love Hammer & Spear (above three photos). Also located in the Art’s District, but a little out of the way from the slew of shops and open-air markets, you feel a sense of warmth and coziness as soon as you enter the space. While the rich, dark hues just against my predilection for a lighter, cooler palette (I felt as if I needed a smoking jacket and a roaring fire), I loved their collection of writing tools (notebooks, pens, and other accouterments) and I fawned over their uber-pricey rug collection (I don’t think I’d ever spend five figures on a rug but to each their own). I did take home a reindeer hide, which was sustainably sourced from Finland (akin to leather, they used all of the reindeer as opposed to harvesting from farms), as well as a few ceramic mugs for a friend.
Possibly one of the fanciest home decor shops I’ve visited was Apartment at The Line (see below for bathroom #goals). Located amidst the trendy, upscales shops on Melrose Place in West Hollywood, the two-room shop perched above street level, styled as an apartment, may burn bonfires in your wallet, but it’ll give you smart home decor ideas. From bath oils, soaps, perfumes and bath and body to modernist furniture and tailored clothing (think Pragmatic, Alexander Wang, etc), if you are a minimalist at heart (raises hand), you will love this space. They have a sale going on, so if you have the cash money, live your life. I’ll be paying down my credit card debt over here.
Do you have any favorite spots in Los Angeles? Great flea markets and small shops? Let me know as I’m always in the market for discovery.
Lately, I’ve been feeling allergic to blogging and social media. While it’s a tool I use in my professional (non-writing) life, it’s one I’ve abandoned when it comes to my personal life. I’ve spent years putting a lot of myself out there and over the past year I’ve felt a need to pull everything back. I’ve taken most of my channels private, and as you can see from the lack of updates on this space, my heart isn’t necessarily in it. So, I’ve decided to only publish when it feels right. And this morning, as I’m starting the fourth revision of my third book, I thought it might be helpful to give you a peek into my writing process. I hope you find this helpful! 🙂
And yes, this is me, before coffee. And the writer I blanked on? Denis Johnson.
The final draft of my second book, and yes, I still print things out.
When you write a book, your first thought is: Can I do this? Can I be obsessed with something to a degree that it’ll sustain me through hundreds of pages of revisions, years of deleting and rewriting drafts? Will I allow characters to inhabit my life for a period that doesn’t have a defined end? Can I write this without considering the business of publishing? Can I write knowing this may not be sold or read?
You ask yourself whether you can see the story and the fate of your characters all the way through. And after you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, now that the book is written and you’ve exorcised your obsession by committing your characters to a page, you then ask yourself: How do I get better? You keep asking yourself that question every time you come to the page.
I’ve written and sold two books and I assure you the process does not get easier, but I often think about the line from the film Heat, when Michael Cheritto’s character says, For me, the action is the juice. For me, the reward is worth the stretch. I could probably offer more of an astute philosophy, quotes from great writers on the process of writing books, but it all boils down to this: the reward is the composition of the work itself, rather than external validation, which may or may not happen (in fact, I’m expecting criticism of my second book due to the nature of the violence), praise or criticism that is fleeting and soon forgettable. You write what consumes you. You write to make sense of the world. You write to explain it. You write to make your voice heard when it feels you’re the smallest person in the room.
Last year when I moved to California, I wrote my third book in a month. The velocity shocked me, honestly, because it took me eight years to start a second book, two years to write and revise it, and nearly a year to sell it. A new book for me is akin to bloodletting–it’s never easy, it’s often confusing and painful, but then there’s that MOMENT. The switch. When the story falls into place and your characters surprise you in the smallest (and arguably most powerful) of ways. My book always starts one way and ends up becoming what I hadn’t planned or intended. I lost count of how many times I gut-renovated my second book–the structure was problematic, the payoff non-existent, and a few of the characters felt one-note.
After three years, I found a structure that actually worked. And this happened AFTER I sold the book.
This is all to say that writing a book doesn’t come easily to me. So when I sent my first crude draft to my agent, he wrote back that it was way too dark–even for me. And more importantly, the story wasn’t as powerful as it could be. So I revised again, and two more times. Cut 100 pages. Added 70, and the like. And even when I sent the latest draft to my agent the book didn’t feel like it was working. The only section I felt drawn to are what I call the “Alice stories” — a series of connected stories documenting the strange relationship between an adult woman in New York and a depressed teenager in Los Angeles. It deals with the voyeuristic nature of social media, what we edit and reveal, and how strangers are sometimes profoundly connected than the people in your “real” life.
My agent came back and confirmed what I already knew. After an hour of brainstorming, we both agreed that I needed to cut nearly the entire book except for 40 pages. He then timidly suggested I do the one thing I loathe doing — a plot outline.
I’m not knocking the plot outline or outlines in general. They’re often necessary. In what felt like the thirtieth revision of my second novel, I had to map out the timeline and character actions so I wasn’t confused. But here’s the thing–I write from the point-of-view of the character. I’m not a plot writer. I obsess over fictitious people to the extent that I know their whole world down to whether they can stomach mushrooms, mittens, or clowns (three things I hate). I create character maps and sketches. I pin images of people so I can see my character. Then, and only then, do I let them go out into the world (or in the actual case, the page) and see what they do. I write stories scene by scene and the characters advance the plot.
I’ve rarely engineered the reverse. So plot outlines, for me, are the equivalent of taking spin classes when I’ve always done yoga. I’ll invariably fall off the bike, parts of my body will be sore, and I’ll likely make a mess of things. This may sound crazy but drawing out a plot is harder than writing the actual book (at least for me). But I did it because it was necessary and I need to exercise different muscles to get this book where it needs to go.
In four pages over two exhausting days, I mapped out my third book. I only “know” one of the characters, Alice, but I don’t even know her completely. I know these characters in parts, so directing them forward felt Herculean. But I did it, and my agent was kind and gave incredible feedback.
So here I go. I’m starting a new novel next week, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The book follows the strange obsessive relationship between a thirty-year-old woman and a fifteen-year-old suicidal teenager, who happens to be the daughter of a film star on the decline. The book combines the voices and locations I know (New York, an adult woman) with those I’m slowly discovering (Los Angeles, teenagers). And with everything I write, there’s always something nefarious at work. Characters are flawed. Bad things happen. But unlike anything I’ve written previously, this story will end on a note of hope.
Because sometimes light doesn’t exist, even if it’s not within your reach.