Monday, April 30, 2018

WRITINGISM -- IS IT AN ADDICTION?

The interesting thing about being a writer is how close it is to drug addiction.  Did I just say that?  Forget it.  I didn't mean it. Look what I've started.  I see that look in your eye.  You're thinking I need a stint in writers' rehab.  It was a slip of the id.  I've read too many Anne Tyler novels and it's addled my brain.  

Millions of books have been written by perfectly normal people.  Were they all addicts? Of course not.  I don't know what came over me when you asked me why I write and I gave you that silly, unfounded analogy to drug addiction.  Of course, it isn't an addiction.  
Do I look like a falling down, spaced-out junkie? My hands don't shake when blank paper and a pen or pencil get too close.  Being in a room with a computer doesn't make my heart race.  I don't get the sweats when my Amazon ranking goes below a hundred thousand.  And believe me, I don't care how many books I sell or if anyone ever reads anything I've written.  It's the act of writing that intrigues me. Period.  End of sentence.

So you won't let me take back what I said about writing being close to a drug addiction?  Well, I don't need your permission.  I take it back.  Writing is a noble calling, one that I humbly and modestly and self-deprecatingly engage in occasionally, and that's all it is.  No addiction about it.  

What did you just ask me?  Are you talking about whether I have to, need to, must write every day and if I don't I have to be hospitalized?  Of course not.  And the rumor that I tried to spike Don DeLillo's drink when he and I were clients of the same literary agent is patently, absurdly false.  And it wasn't cyanide.  Where would I get cyanide?  And as far as comparing myself to other writers, I hardly ever read a book that I haven't written.  And I don't pay attention to who got the latest literary award.  Oh, I might glance at the list if I have nothing better to do.  I certainly don't look at Amazon rankings for anyone's books but my own.  As for feeling a little sick in the morning when I have to wait too long for my computer to boot up, the doctor says I should eat breakfast, that writing all day on an empty stomach aggravates my ulcer.  Know what I think?  I think there's something about the smell of computer paper in the morning that makes my ulcer act up.  I wonder if there's a nonallergenic computer paper available.

You really believed what I said about excessive writing being similar to drug addiction?  You're still stuck on that?  Well, ignore what I said at the beginning of this post.  It's not true.  Not even fuckingly, remotely, crazily true.  I just needed something to say when you asked me about what it was like to be a writer, and now you think you know something about me just because I was trying to be clever.  Haven't you ever tried to be clever and it backfired?  How about a joke?  Do you know when someone is trying to make a joke?  You don't?  And shut up about your Aunt Marilyn and her addiction to her typewriter.  I'm nothing like your Aunt Marilyn.  

So I write a few books here and there.  Maybe I don't eat or sleep or socialize, but it's a small price to pay for the elusive words that I manage to capture and put on paper every day, and if you persist in calling me a victim of writingism, as if it were a disease, go ahead, but that isn't me.  And, smarty pants, where did you find the made-up, idiotic word writingism, anyway?  I looked in the dictionary.  There's no such word.  

You're saying my writing is a compulsion and compulsion is part of addiction?  I don't buy it.  Isn't compulsion when you get carried away by an impulse and act on it even when you know that doing so will be harmful to you?  I don't see a trace of compulsion in me or in my writing.  Okay, okay, so I like to write more than I like to do anything else.  Is it a crime that I feel better when I'm writing than when I don't?  

You just asked if I read reviews.  No, I don't.  Not all of them, anyway.   Positive ones, of course.  Negative ones make my ulcer squeal.   

 And now that you have a slim, itty, bitty snippet of personal information about me, you think you know everything.  Well, you don't.  You don't know that I can certainly live a contented life without writing another thing as long as I live.  You don't know that I could be perfectly happy without putting one, single solitary word on paper.  You don't know that I could quit writing entirely if I wanted to, if I felt like it, if I really, truly tried.  And quit staring at me with that pitying look on your face.  I have a perfectly contented, happy life.  And I don't care if you believe me or not.  

Did you just say you think I need an intervention?  Ho, ho, ho, that's a laugh.  You're the one who needs an intervention to suck all the crazy ideas you have about writers and the writing life sucked out of your brain.

You want to give me your Aunt Marilyn's psychiatrist's phone number?  Are you serious?  Haven't you been listening to a word I've said?  I've written a whole post on what a writer is and you still don't understand one thing about it.  Where do you think all those burning shards of wisdom we writers put between covers come from?  How would you know anything about the stomachache I get when I stare at a blank page or the feeling of euphoria that comes over me when I print out a chapter of my new book.  How would you know about the all-night writing binge, or about waking up at four in the morning with an idea so gorgeously inventive and clever you nearly break a leg running up the stairs to your writing cubby to memorialize it, or the feverish waking dreams of words and sentences and paragraphs that turn you momentarily deaf and blind to the world around you?  

You're sorry?  You beg my forgiveness?  Well, that's better.  Want some advice?  Until you become a writer and can experience what I experience, and know what I know, keep your cockamamy ideas and your interventions and your Aunt Marilyns to yourself.  I'm a writer.  I write.  And if I suffer from writingism, I can handle it on my own.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ruminations on the Life of an Elderly Aunt

Aunt Amy was my father's younger sister.  She was sophisticated and aloof, and, although slightly pinched-face, was good-looking in her elegant jewelry and designer clothes.  We were never close.  She was from the rich side of the family.  I was from the working-class side.  She lived in Encino, I lived in Huntington Beach.  We rarely saw each other.

 She called me after the 1975 earthquake.  She was in her sixties then.  

"I'm homeless," she said.  "My apartment was squashed and I might have to live in my car."

"Come here," I said.

"I'm fine," she said and hung up.

She called me a few years later.  Twenty, to be exact.  

"I fell and broke my wrist, but I can still play the piano," she said and hung up.

  Her only daughter had died by then and she had no grandchildren.  She was obviously reaching out to me.

I invited her to a 4th of July party at my house.
  
She didn't show.    

I called her that night to ask what had happened.     

"I got lost," she said.  "I had to keep stopping to ask directions, so I turned around and went home."

"I think it would be good if you moved closer to me," I said.  "I have a friend who lives in Leisure World in Irvine.  You can buy your own apartment, and you'll be only fifteen minutes away from me." 

She surprised me by taking my advice.

I helped her move into a large condo in Leisure World.  It had a bucolic view of the Irvine hills.  There was a nurse on duty in the building and breakfast and lunch were available in the dining room.  I took her shopping once a week, and Duke and I had dinner with her several times a month.

She had been an avid bridge player.  I arranged for her to join a bridge club.

"No one will play with her," the organizer of the club told me.  "She can't remember the cards.  She insults the other players."

She wanted a computer.  "Everyone has a computer," she said.  "A person is left out if they don't have a computer."

Duke got her one, and showed her how to use it.  She couldn't remember what he told her.  There were endless calls to Duke complaining that the computer was broken, it was no good, it didn't work.

She couldn't hear the telephone ring.  Duke bought her an answering machine.  She couldn't remember how to play back her phone messages.

I called a registry and hired a caregiver to be with her during the day.  No one lasted more than a week. As each one departed, she would curse them and try to bar the door.

She lived in her condo in Leisure World for thirteen years.  She didn't lose reality all at once.  It happened a bit at a time.  It was like the sun going down.  Inexorable.  Unstoppable.

I found a board and care home for her near where I live.  I would take her for a walk in the afternoon, and afterward she would sit in a chair and sleep until dinnertime.  She lost her contankerousness.  She turned sweet.  She let me kiss her.  She smiled at me.  She said she was going to vote for Obama.

We had a small party for her on her hundredth birthday.  She didn't recognize anyone, but she seemed happy.  She held the greeting card from President Obama in her hand until it was frosting-spotted and creased.

She died six months later.  She went peacefully.  No arguments.  No curses.  No deathbed scenes.  She just left.  

 I had always thought someone else would end up with Aunt Amy's care.  Her daughter probably, or my mother.  But they were both gone.  I could say my connection to this difficult, enraging, and sometimes endearing woman was a fated, better-late-than-never, gentle twining of two hearts.  Maybe it was, but it was also a valuable pull-the-mask-away peek into a future that awaits us all.   


Saturday, April 14, 2018

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

Sometimes I’m asked how long it takes to write a book.  I usually reply that there’s no good estimate.  When that doesn’t satisfy, I joke that it’s like a pregnancy, no less than eight months, no more than nine.  I don’t mention “Lilli Chernofsky", the novel that took me 26 years to complete.   

In 1990 a convention of Old China Hands, Jewish refugees from Hitler who had survived the Shanghai ghetto, was held in a hotel in Anaheim, California.  I lived nearby, so out of curiosity I attended one of the public events.  It was a raucous, joyously emotional gathering, lots of tears and laughter and reminiscences.  The personal stories were overwhelming.  I was hooked.  Over the following months I met and interviewed twelve survivors and taped their stories of escape from Europe and the life-altering drama of existence in the Shanghai ghetto.  Among the people I interviewed was a man in his late seventies who was living in a condo in Leisure World in Orange County; he had been a classical violinist in Europe and ended up leading a jazz band in Shanghai.   Another one was an insurance executive I interviewed in his office in Los Angeles; he had spent his youth in Shanghai and was curious as to why anyone would want to know anything about it.  Another was a woman in her sixties who agreed to meet me at a cafĂ© in the Northridge Mall; she told me about a childhood in Shanghai that still caused her nightmares.  Another was an elderly woman and her daughter who met me for lunch in Marina del Rey and after a slow, awkward beginning, told me about their escape from Hitler and what their lives had been like in Shanghai.  There were more interviews.  Even a letter from a man in Australia.  I soon had a drawer full of interview tapes.    

I knew several things about the book before I started:  it would be a novel; it would hew close to the information I had gleaned from survivors; it would be about how people survive calamitous events and whether they survive honorably or by betraying others; it would be an adult novel that could also be read by teenage readers, for at the novel’s heart would be the young Lilli Chernofsky and her stunning metamorphosis  from sheltered seventeen-year-old to complex heroine. 

By 1997 the novel (then titled “Escape to Shanghai”) was finished.  I gave it to my agent.  She didn’t want to represent a book about Jews or the Holocaust or World War II.  I changed agents.  Several tried to find a publisher for the book, but with no success.

I contacted Spielberg’s Shoah Project and asked if they would like to add the taped interviews to their collection.  They said they only used interviews for the Shoah Project that they themselves conducted. 

Being a fiction writer means being philosophical about the fate of one's work.  Although attachment might not diminish, reality must be served.  So I put the books and tapes in the drawer and began writing a book about Texas.  

In 2006 "The Texicans" was published by Soho Press.  After that there were a few false starts on other books, but always in the back of my mind was the unpublished novel about the Shanghai Jews.  It nagged at me that I had made a promise to the survivors I interviewed that I would write a book based on their experiences and when the going got rocky I had given up.  So I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer. and began to revise.  

I don't know what changed.  My fortunes, possibly.  The zeitgeist, maybe.  But in 2016 I sold "Lilli Chernofsky" to Brick Mantel Books.  It was published in January of 2018 and will be featured on the Jewish Book Council's list of recommended books.  

So writers everywhere:  Open the drawer, dust off the bedraggled manuscript, look at it with a gimlet eye, make revisions -- slash-and-burn revisions, if necessary -- and then humbly, proudly and determinedly take it to market.  

Monday, July 25, 2016

Going off the Mainstream Publishing Grid

I've gone off the publishing grid.  Fired my agent.  Dived into the digital waters.  I've put an original work on Kindle Select.  Title:  The Queen of Annam's Daughter.  It's a sequel to my novel Goodbye, Saigon, published by Crown in 1996 and purchased for film by Twentieth Century Fox. Since it's an ebook there probably won't be any reviews in the mainstream press, but I've had some excellent reviews that never did anything for sales, so I don't think I'll be missing anything.    

When my first novel was  published by Macmillan in 1986 I had never heard the word "midlist." By the time my third novel was published I was informed that if I didn't reach a certain sales number I would automatically become "midlist" and that that wasn't a good thing.  I flirted with becoming a midlist writer through seven published books as my advances became smaller and promotion evaporated, until finally my then agent informed me that I had become that dreaded of all words, "midlist."    

I figure I'm not getting any younger.  I'm told digital is where it's at.  I confess that I made a lot of money on the Goodbye, Saigon movie deal.  It's time to venture out on my own.

The Queen of Annam's Daughter was published on Kindle on July 5, 2016.  Too early to tell how it's going to do.  It's $2.99.  I'll be emailing free copies for a while.  Let me know if you want one.  My email is shenina@aol.com.

Meanwhile I'm working on a new novel.

I'll keep you posted.
www.ninavida.com

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Second Life for an Old Friend: posted on Red Room

In 1988 I wrote a novel about Mexico, Maximilian's Garden. My agent sold it to a publisher and shortly thereafter the acquiring editor left to go back to her old job as a journalist. The book, abandoned by its shepherd, became that most dreaded of objects, an orphan, passed from editor to editor in the publishing house until, like a game of musical chairs, it landed on some unwitting editor who already had plans for retirement. The book was published in 1990 - sort of - fell into a coma and died.

I thought about that novel often after that, wondered what I could have done to prevent its untimely death. Had no idea. None at all.

Let's back up a bit. If left to my own devices I'd still be writing books the way I wrote Maximilian's Garden, with ballpoint pen on yellow legal pad.

Now that that's out of the way, I can explain what happened to Maximilian's Garden.

"Check out this Lanier computer, honey," my husband said when the first monster home computers came out in the late eighties. "It's revolutionary, memorizes what you've written and prints it out."

He brought one home. I whimpered and whined. I told him I had my own way of doing things and what was I supposed to do with the thing, anyway.

Point of information: I've always been resistant to anything that involves understanding patent applications.

"Lanier offers classes in how to operate their machine," he said.

He's so reasonable.

I took a class. The Lanier wasn't revolutionary. Each page had a discrete, inviolable number of lines. Try to exceed them - such as when you edit and rewrite - and the maneuvering required to do so was so onerous it made my eyes cross.

I threw out the Lanier, the pen and legal pad and began using an electric typewriter, which had its own set of problems. But never mind.

The Lanier gave way to the personal computer. PC Magazine began arriving in the mail at our house.

"Look at this, honey," my husband said. "A personal computer is just the thing for you. You'll save time. You can rewrite to your heart's content."

A computer promptly arrived in my office. Bit by bit, arguing and complaining, I learned how to write on it. I had to admit, it did save time, and I could rewrite and rewrite and rewrite without destroying a single tree.

Then something called the internet turned up. A gimmick, I thought to myself. Who needs to e-mail someone when you can pick up a telephone?

Of course, in no time my husband had us hooked up to cyberspace.

"Look at this, honey, something called e-books," he said. "They put books on the internet."

I liked reading books with words on paper. My husband loves gadgets. He began reading e-books.

It wasn't until 2009 that I discovered that one of my books, The End of Marriage had been put on Amazon Kindle in 2002 by its publisher, who was one of the first to reserve electronic rights in book contracts. I had signed away electronic rights when I signed the book contract. Everyone did. No one thought there would ever be an advantage to owning electronic rights.

But I owned the electronic rights to Maximilian's Garden. It was a book about Mexico. Mexico was in the news.

I reread it. It was like meeting an old friend and picking up the conversation where you left off 20 years before. But 20 years ago I was still a baby writer; I didn't have the skills I have now. I decided to rewrite it, first page to last. I renamed it Children of Guerrero in honor of Gonzalo Guerrero, the first Spaniard to set foot on the Yucatan peninsula, the father of the mestizo.

So now Children of Guerrero is on the internet, an e-book that can orbit the world in a cometary flash of light. The business of delivering books to their readers is being reinvented as I write this. Who knows what magical discovery is on the horizon? All I know is that writers have been unshackled, their options expanded. Worthy books, long out of print, can be brought back and given second lives. With the internet nothing is lost. Books can't be orphaned or killed. They float through cyberspace, an unimpeded ghostly chorus of the reborn.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S MISTRESS, Part 2

Esther, more diminutive than I remembered from the night before, is at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, waving away smooth gusts of smoke with nicotaine-stained fingers. She stands up and gives me a kiss.

“Did you sleep well?” she asks.

“Yes,” I lie.

I wore two sweaters and a blazer to bed and was so cold that I imagined icicles forming on the ceiling above the bed.

“Do you like eggs? How about an egg and a piece of toast? Do you like jam? Deborah, do we have jam? No jam. I can give you a little piece of toast with butter. Deborah, do we have butter? No butter. Maybe there is still that honey I put in the back of the cupboard. I’ll go look.

“Eggs are fine,” I tell her.

There is no honey. Deborah and her mother are now chattering back and forth in Yiddish. I understand most of what they’re saying. It’s about why there’s no butter or jam or honey. Deborah’s tone is snippily impatient, Esther’s is forbearing, sweetly indulgent. Old memories of mine – erased, I thought, by the distance of years – dart out of hiding. Images bombard me of a stifling apartment, Holocaust survivors staying for days or weeks, four people to a bed, people eating and talking at all hours. The doctor comes because I can’t stop vomiting. He says, My, my, she’s a very high-strung child, and takes everyone’s blood pressure before he leaves.

Esther fries an egg for me on the ruined stove. As she turns off the burner, the knob breaks and falls to the floor.

“We’ll hurry and write this book before the house comes down on our heads,” Esther says, and laughs a hoarse cigarette-limned laugh.

She wants to know about me. I tell her about my children, about my husband. I tell her about California and that we live a mile from the beach.

“The beach is deserted this time of year,” I tell her, “but this is the best time to walk along the strand and not get run over by a bicycle.”

She listens bright-eyed. I had imagined she would be a withered relic of the death camps, a human time capsule, buried in a house in Flushing and forgotten, but she bursts with life. I envision her as she must have been in pre-war Europe, a vividly present, sassy girl with a personality as unlocked as her daughter’s is shut tight.

A teenage boy, lank and dark-eyed, comes into the kitchen.

“My son the yeshiva student,” Deborah says.

He doesn’t look at me while Deborah tells him who I am and why I’m here. He’s bent at the waist, leaning forward as though about to pray, the yarmulke bobby-pinned to his brown curls pouting blank-faced at me from atop his bent head. When Deborah has finished talking, he raises up, grabs his books and is gone out the front door. I hear boys’ voices, loud at first, then fainter, then too thin to hear.

“Have you ever heard of Rabbi Schneerson?” Deborah asks me.

“I’ve read about him,” I tell her.

“Then you know he’s wisest rabbi in the world. He’s predicted the coming of the messiah. Soon. The meshiach will be here soon.”

Esther asks me if I’m religious. I tell her I’m not. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She prays at the sink before she sits down and eats a piece of dry toast.

I have the definite impression that both mother and daughter have decided they can trust me to be compliant, to listen to what they have to say, to write the book exactly the way they want it, and to get them enough money for plane tickets to Israel.

Before we go into the living room to get started, Deborah says offhandedly, “I tried to write the book myself, but gave up. I’ll give you what I’ve written. If you can use it, fine. If not, not.”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Guest Post with Nina Vida on Bloody Bad, a Book Blog

7/22/09

Hi everyone. I’m guest-posting, hoping Trin’s readers will stop and say hello, read what I have to say, maybe ask a question or two.

A question I’m always asked, Where do the ideas for your books come from? As close as I can come to an answer is to say that an incident or character calls out to me to be written. I begin without any plot in mind. It’s sort of like wandering into a store, looking around, examining the goods, and deciding what to buy. The actual act of writing is the catalyst that carries me forward. Each step unlocks another door.

What is easier to answer is where events and characters come from. They’re everywhere. Newspaper articles, experiences I’ve had, experiences someone else has had, people I meet, people I know, people others know and tell me about. Overheard conversations are a great source for dialogue. Lots of writers say they write in cafes, and I think they’re not writing at all, they’re listening in on the conversations going on around them and taking notes. Family members are a great source for characters (you have to alter characteristics so they don’t recognize themselves). And all that gossip at family get-togethers about who’s doing what with whom? Invaluable. A few times my sister has said to me, “The way you wrote that scene isn’t the way that thing happened to me in Ensenada at all.” Or someone will say, “I bet that policeman in ‘The End of Marriage’ is my Uncle Joe,” when it isn’t his Uncle Joe at all, it’s someone else’s Uncle Frank or George or Bill, or a combination of all three.

For example, on one of my research trips to Texas before I began to write “The Texicans” I met Dr. Milt Jacobs, a native Texan and amateur historian. He took my husband and me out to dinner at the Barn Door in San Antonio (fabulous steaks; and I don’t get a commission for mentioning that – not even a free dessert), and after dinner we went over to his house to see his Texas memorabilia, a fascinating collection of photographs and letters. Sort of offhandedly he said that he had an ancestor who walked from the East Coast all the way to Texas. On foot. Walked. Across the plains. By himself. Dr. Jacobs’ casual remark was the spark that created the character of Joseph Kimmel in “The Texicans.” A man hardy and stubborn enough to walk from New York to Texas deserves to be the hero of a book.

Another question I’m often asked is how long it takes me to write a book. I do so much rewriting and work at so many other things at the same time that I’m never sure how long a book takes to complete. About 15 years ago I wrote a novel about a 17-year-old Jewish girl who escapes Lithuania one step ahead of the Nazis and ends up in Shanghai, where she enters the dark world of the black market and becomes a rescuer of abandoned children. Including the time spent on interviewing Shanghai refugees and making a research trip to China, the book took almost two years to complete. My agent sold the book, the publisher loved it, the editor loved it, and a few months later the publisher cancelled it. No explanation. I put that book away and wrote three other books that did get published: “Goodbye Saigon” (optioned for film by 20th Century Fox/Dick Zanuck), “Between Sisters” and “The End of Marriage.” Two years ago I pulled the book about Shanghai out of the drawer, rewrote it and named it “Lilli.” I also changed agents. We’ll see what happens with this version.

Sometimes I’m asked what my writing routine is. I don’t write for any set number of hours a day, but I do think about writing all the time. Sometimes an idea wakes me up at four in the morning and sends me upstairs to my desk. Sometimes for days I do nothing but write. Sometimes for days I do nothing but read or work in the garden.

About a month ago I came to a crucial point in a novel I’m writing and needed more time to think about it. My husband and I also wanted to spend some time with our three granddaughters, who are 17, 16 and 12. Their summer schedules are hectic: the 17-year-old is getting ready to leave for NYU in September, the 16-year-old is in a volleyball league and the 12-year-old is on a water polo team. It required a logistical feat to get them all together at the same time. The three of them slept in our guest bedroom (they didn’t want to be apart), giggling late into the night, the hum of their voices reminding me of the toddlers they once were. Days were spent doing whatever they wanted to do. We played miniature golf and went to the beach and ate and shopped and kissed and hugged and laughed, and I was sure I could feel the hours ticking away until they were too old to want to spend time with us. I was also sure that sometime in the future one of them will say, “The girl in your new book is me, isn’t it, Grandma?”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009