Monday, June 29, 2009

The Age of Reason

1946 was my freshman year at Adolph Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California. It was one year after the end of World War II, and the high school was bulging with returning servicemen – not to get their high school diplomas, but to begin college on our campus. There was no provision yet for all the veterans who wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill, and the crush of veterans eager to leave war behind and move forward in their lives was so intense that the school district was willing to split the high school in two: days for high schoolers, afternoons and evenings for veterans.

Everyone in school had a story about war to tell; mine was about Uncle Morrie, a bombardier lost on a bombing flight somewhere over the Pacific, neither plane, nor crew, nor Uncle Morrie ever found. I remember Uncle Morrie as thin, his eyes the same cherry brown as my mother’s. We saw him off at Union Station in Los Angeles, handsome in his uniform, kissing my mother goodbye, patting me on the head, smiling at everyone. Lost over the Pacific. Disappeared as cleanly as if he had never gotten on that train in Union Station and headed to meet that airplane, that crew, that death.

Concentration camps, Nuremburg trials, Holocaust newsreels, lost relatives in Poland, atom bombs, radiation sickness were for adults to ponder. Teenagers aren’t good at tragedy. We were sunk in the business of sock hops and who was going to win the talent show. We felt a little crowded by the veterans, many of whom showed up early for their classes and jammed the halls, and there were pairings between students and veterans, the inevitable result of off-kilter fraternization, but for the most part we were getting back to normal.

The school was built on Japanese farm land. When people wanted to disparage where we lived, they’d say we lived out in the bean fields, although there had been no bean fields since 1942 when the Japanese were interned. I don’t remember paying much attention to where all those Japanese farmers went, except for hearing references to places like “Manzanar” and “Tule Lake” on the radio. I’d like to think I thought about where they had gone, had even examined the rightness or wrongness of their going, but I didn’t. No one I knew did. All during the war we were exposed to news stories and photographs depicting all Japanese as grinning, barbarous, murderous sneaks with protruding teeth and bottle-thick eyeglasses.

I’d also like to think that that image was erased when the first Japanese boy showed up in one of my classes in mid-1946. His teeth didn’t protrude and he didn’t wear glasses and he showed no fear. He raised his hand in class and twirled his pencil with the nonchalance of the innately brave. No one knew what to do, what to say, he was so alien, so out of place, so associated with everything bad we had ever read or heard about the Japanese. I remember thinking that maybe one of his relatives had shot Uncle Morrie’s airplane out of the sky. I was embarrassed for him, wondered how he could come to class every day knowing that everyone was thinking that he shouldn’t be there.

No Japanese farmers returned to the bean fields until years later, and no other Japanese student returned to school except this one. Propaganda images faded, the war receded, but he stayed, came to class, made friends, won us over. The stubborn courage of his presence was for us the real end of the war.

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Queen of Annam's Daughter

The publishing world is in a muddle. Celebrities write “fiction” and get hefty advances while good books go unpublished and editorial staffs are pared and the phone doesn’t ring in agents’ offices.

“Are you still writing?” friends ask me.

“Of course,” I reply.

I wasn’t published until I was 50. I had been writing and rewriting and rewriting for four years. Every year at Thanksgiving my brother-in-law would ask me when I thought I’d get a book published.

“Soon,” I’d reply.

“If you were going to get published, you’d have been published by now,” he’d bite back. “Know what I think? You’re too old.”

Old at fifty. The new demographic: an army of fifty-year-olds languishing in old folks’ homes, winding macramé into pot holders, talking back to the television, putting their dentures in glasses before they go to bed, waiting for the kids to call, waiting for the grandkids to thank them for Christmas presents they don’t like. Waiting. On hold. Watching the calendar. Preparing to die.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” my uncle said when he turned up with the cancer in his ear and stopped doing everything he liked to do. “Can’t fight reality.”

In the six years it took my uncle to die, he could have done lots of things. He could have taken that longed-for trip to China, could have bicycled around Italy, could have dug out his old cornet and given a concert for his fellow Shriners.

Cancer didn’t get him. Age didn’t get him. It was his mistaken notion of what reality is that sucked the life out of him.

So while the publishers whimper and moan and have no idea what to do about their shrinking units, I’m writing a new book. Title: The Queen of Annam’s Daughter.

Excerpt: “Good luck is in the air, so fat and juicy Anh can almost reach out and grab it and stuff it in her purse. No joke. Didn’t the fortune teller on Friday say good luck was waiting for Anh around the corner? Didn’t she say go buy Lotto tickets on Tuesday, Tuesday’s the day your luck is going to come and sit in your lap? Didn’t she? She even picked the store for Anh to go to to buy the Lotto tickets. The mini mart on Bolsa and Magnolia – not the one with the blue sign behind the doughnut shop – that one’s bad luck, she said – the one in the corner facing the noodle shop – and get there early, she said, so someone else’s good luck doesn’t swallow yours up.”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009
I can be found on Facebook, my blog
Nina Vida on Writing and ninavida.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blogging My Book

Until two months ago, my desk, computer, books, the hummingbird that perches on the tree outside my window and waits for my husband and me to join him in the afternoon so he can buzz our cheeks and nose and chin were the fill of my days. My little kingdom. My ivory tower. My husband and I and our hummingbird in a bower of roses. No need to advertise my books; their charms will carry them on bird wings right into the hands of readers.

Then shock! My seventh book, THE TEXICANS, published in 2006 to reviews like “luminous,” “radiant,” “should be required reading in the immigration debate” was being buried beneath an avalanche of books by writers who understood that books don’t sell themselves, who understood the market-boosting possibilities of the internet. Someone should have lit a firecracker in my ear when I gave up on society and started cozying up to that damn hummingbird.

Publish or perish? Well, I won’t perish if I don’t publish, but what will I do with all those millions of words skirling like windswept leaves into papery nests on desk and floor and chair? And what about my new book, the one my agent says she “loves SO much,” the one about the fractured lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Holocaust? Will some publisher out of some sudden burst of altruism overlook my dismal sales record and sweep me and my coffee-spotted pages into his/her arms?

And so I stepped out my door into cyberspace. I stepped tentatively, gingerly, not knowing the road, testing first one direction, then another. I dug deep into the online cosmos and finally came to a place unlike anyplace I’d ever seen or been told about, a virtual universe that anyone who loves books can enter, a stitched-together bazaar where book reviews, book recommendations, book giveaways, and book-reading contests bring readers together, where their emails and blogposts sail through the ether like confetti. I found the world of the book blogger.

I approached it as I would the study of a foreign language, memorized terms of art, examined book blogger profiles, studied their book lists to judge their reading preferences. And then I began sending out emails: a free copy of THE TEXICANS to any book blogger who would read and review it. My once silent email inbox soon hummed with activity. I ran out of books. I ordered more. I sent out copies of THE TEXICANS like bread crumbs and waited for readers to follow the trail. I happily responded to online interviews beamed to me from as far away as Malaysia.

My son-in-law is fond of telling me that no one reads anymore. Reading is dead, he says. Tell that to the book bloggers, that army of stalwart readers. They are oblivious to my son-in-law’s opinion. They are busy hunting down neglected books, consoling authors, cheering the winner of the last giveaway, mining publishers’ lists for the next good read, knitting friendships between people with no more in common than the book that keeps them reading until dawn.

So has any of my frenetic emailing and book-sending and interviewing increased my sales? I don’t know yet. It’s too soon to tell. But one thing I know: I’m out in the open, have shed my disguise. Anything anyone wants to know about me or my work can be found somewhere in Google-land or on my blog (yes, I’m even blogging), Nina Vida on Writing. I have laid myself bare. I have shucked the modesty. I am my own publicity mill, my innate diffidence sweetened by my genuine desire to connect with readers and tell them about my book.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Stacy Interviews me for Stacy's Book Blog

This week I asked the author Nina Vida to answer a few questions. She is the author of seven books and gives hope to anyone who thinks it is too late to start a writing career. Visit her website and her blog to learn more about Nina and her books.

Thanks for stopping by Nina!

1. You began your writing career after your children were out of the house and some encouragement from your husband. Can you tell us a little about how you became a published author?

When the children went to college, so did I, majoring in English, with no thought of writing anything more complicated than a grocery list. As part of my course work I was required to take a creative writing class. I said to myself, oh, no, creative writing, what do I do, what do I say. But I was stuck with it. So I wrote an essay about my sister, who had had heart surgery at age 38 and how it had affected the way I looked at life and health and everything else. The professor loved it, said it made her cry. My husband (who had been a Navy journalist) read it and said he thought I should try my hand at writing a novel. I had always been a fanatic reader, but reading a book and writing one are two very different pursuits, and I couldn’t conceive of myself as a writer, so I resisted. I told my husband that writers were born writing, they wrote books and poems in the cradle, that writing was a sacred profession, not to be taken lightly. He wouldn’t give up. Finally I agreed to try, and that was how it began. Every evening my husband read what I had written that day, and then we discussed it, and after a while I began to get the hang of it.

2. How was the writing experience different from your first book to your last?
The writing experience from the first book to the seventh was a tremendous learning curve. Whatever talent a writer has, nothing worthwhile is accomplished without craft, and craft only comes with writing, writing and more writing. Which is what I did. I kept writing, and with each book I struck out farther from shore, began exploring stylistic tropes, began thinking in terms of imagery and metaphor, but always wanting to tell a story and tell it beautifully.

3. What is the best writing advice you ever received?

The best writing advice I ever got was from my husband at a time when prospects for getting my first novel published looked bleak. “Your time will come,” he said, “and in the meantime where else can you get all these cheap thrills?”

4. How do you feel about the new electronic readers? Do you have a Kindle or plan on buying one?

I don’t have a Kindle, but my husband does, and he loves it. I’ve learned never to say no to anything new, but right now I still like the smell of a book and the feel of the pages turning beneath my fingers. I even like the dog-eared look of a well-read book.

5. You’ve written books in a few different genres. What is your favorite genre to read?

I read mostly literary or mainstream fiction, but an author who uses language distinctively, who has genuine insight into his characters, who uses dialogue in a realistic way, and who knows how to tell a story without padding the book to death with unnecessary exposition – that’s my kind of author, my kind of book.

6. I love quotes. Do you have a favorite?

A favorite quote: Take nothing on its face; take everything on its evidence.

7. What are you currently reading?

I just finished “The House on Fortune Street” by Margot Livesey.

8. If you were trapped in the life of one fictional character who would you choose?

Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice,” because she’s so smart!

9. And finally, what are you working on right now and do you have a book hitting the shelves soon?

I’ve recently finished work on a novel about Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II.

Monday, June 8, 2009

An Interview with Sylvia Plath's Ghost


Sylvia and I sat across from one another in Ruby’s Diner at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier. I ordered two diet cherry cokes, and when the waitress brought them to the table Sylvia said huffily that ghosts don’t eat or drink, and then she stared grim-faced out the window at the fishermen. After a few minutes of staring she turned to me, grim face erased, and remarked in a sweet little voice that she wished she could remember what fresh mackerel pan-fried in butter and olive oil smelled like.

I didn’t want to hurry her, but I was worried about taking up a table with nothing but cokes in front of us. It was eleven in the morning and the sun was out, which meant we only had a half hour before the lunch crush began and people began to line up at the outside desk to put their names on the list for a table. If there’s anything that makes me blotch-faced in embarrassment it’s inconveniencing anyone, so I made up my mind to talk fast, get in as much of an interview as I could before the manager came over and asked us if we were going to order something for lunch, which would not only have turned me blotch-faced, but also incoherent. I tend to get very embarrassed when anyone questions anything I’ve done or implies that I’m not being fair or good or decent.

Me: Shall we start?

SP: Yes. But I won’t answer any questions to do with suicide or orphaned children. Take it or leave it.

At the utterance of the word “children” she seemed to lose herself for a moment, but only for a moment. She quickly regained her unsmiling, emotionless pose and didn’t even appear to notice the little boy at the booth to our right rolling a cardboard Ruby’s Diner motorcycle across the table. She kept her head turned toward me and aimed her laser-beam gaze at a spot somewhere in the vicinity of my right eyebrow. No glassy-eyed reveries, no hint that she would rather be somewhere else. One thing I have to say, for a woman in her seventies she looked pretty good, almost as good as she did in the picture on the cover of the book, Ariel’s Gift, where Ted is holding her around the waist, a stubbly grin eating into his cheeks, a glaze of impatience in his eyes, and Sylvia is leaning slightly to the right, her tawny hair in an adorable wave, a teeth-baring smile spanning her plump cheeks. She was even wearing the same white blouse and print peasant skirt. The only difference that I could tell was that now her former ruddily healthy complexion had the pale sheen of someone who has spent too much time indoors.

Me: First, I have to tell you how much I admire you. I’ve read everything ever written by you or about you. You can’t know what The Bell Jar meant to me. I read it over and over and over. All I could think of was how much alike we were, kindred spirits held hostage in a culture that repressed women. And then at the end of your life, that remarkable poem of victory.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

SP: And do you know what I remember? Cooking. I was an A-plus cook. An epicure. In all things. Writing, cooking, flower arranging, interior decorating, fashion… I knew exactly how long my hems should be and whether a headband was better than a barrette. I never advertised any of it. No one liked a know-it-all woman in those days. Women were supposed to be modest and unassuming and were vilified for any display of overreaching or self-aggrandizement. I tried to repress my individuality, but it was a struggle. I had none of my mother’s selfless mercy. But I learned. Oh, how I learned. I broke myself in two. I became chameleonic. With strangers I was prim and well behaved unless speared with sharp knives. With my mother I was alternately loving and vicious. I hated her for not understanding. I mainly hated her because my father was dead instead of her.

Me: I didn’t want my mother dead, but I certainly loved her and hated her at the same time. She was disappointed that she had two difficult daughters instead of two ordinary sons. She would have known how to raise ordinary sons.

SP: What surprises me now is how many of us there were, all of us fighting our natures, hiding, pretending, acting as if everything was so fucking perfect. Anyway, I like your intensity. That’s why I agreed to the interview. You’re the only one who’s managed to snare an interview with me since my death, although a lot have tried.

Me: Intensity. Hmm. I appreciate that. Anyway, I can’t believe I’m here talking to you. Do you know that when I read The Bell Jar I went crazy with relief because I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did? Would you believe that at 15 I wore pancake makeup and slept with steel curlers in my hair and went with my girlfriend to the 49th Street Corral and danced with strange men in cowboy boots who called me Babe and that I never told anyone that I got straight A’s in school?

SP: Wasn’t the struggle to be a goody-two-shoes a fucking mess?

Me: It was. I look at my daughter and my granddaughters and marvel at the opportunities they have. There’s a whole history of women’s struggle that they don’t know anything about, a blacking out of what I once thought would be a communal memory.

SP: Have you ever had shock therapy, where wires are glued to your head and then they zap you with electricity and it feels as if you’ve been hit by lightning?

Me: Never have.

SP: You’ve never felt as though your skin had holes as big as thimbles and that every day they grew a little bit larger until your body felt as though it had turned into a big pit full of rocks and gravel?

Me: Well. Sometimes. Once in a while.

SP: You see what you just did? You pretended to be crazy so as not to hurt my feelings. What a fuckingly stupid thing to do. Unsaid words bottle up inside and in time come out in ways you might not like. Never mind, I can see you don’t know what I’m talking about. No one ever did. That was the problem, the reason I wrote all that poetry, I was trying to understand what was wrong with me, trying to explain myself to myself, and there was all that oblivion just a few feet away that I could crawl into if the pain got too intense. I vacillated between the two: oblivion and poetry. Which poem was your favorite?

Me: Should I recite it?

SP: Of course.

Me: Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

SP: Lovely. You know, at the end when I had finished the Ariel poems I knew I was a genius. No one could take that away from me. A goddamn genius, and most of my poems were rejected before my suicide. Can you believe the stupidity of publishers? Ted always said they prefer their heroes and heroines laid out on their biers. Or maybe I said it. It’s hard to remember.

She had a dribble of spit on her upper lip. She licked it away, shook her head and sighed.

SP: I’ve been told that my fans keep defacing Ted’s grave.

Me: They blame him for your death. Do you?

SP: You know what they say. All men are dogs. Don’t look so stricken. I didn’t say that. I said you know what they say. There’s a difference. My death was perdurable, a dripping of water on granite. Who can say which drip bore away the last scrape?

It was then I noticed the scar on her cheek. In 1952 she took sleeping pills, crawled beneath her mother’s house and was found three days later, unconscious but alive. It was a minimal scar, an exotic scar, a scar that made me think of love bites and self mutilation. I had the sudden urge to confess something I had never confessed to anyone. I stumbled around at first, unsure how she would receive it. She had the reputation of being insensitive when confronted by the problems of others, and when cornered had been known to draw blood with her rapier tongue. I decided to risk it.

Me: I have to tell you something.

SP: Well, smash bang, whose interview is this?

Me: Sorry?

SP: Never mind. Go ahead.

Me: With the recession and all, publishers are firing editors and cutting book lists. I’ve had seven books published and suddenly I’m facing a brick wall. Sometimes I think I should just give up, throw out the file cabinets and computer and take up ballroom dancing. Sometimes I feel the pressure to do something rash. Sometimes standing at the edge of a cliff, I have the weird feeling that I want to jump. I don’t, of course, because I have excellent impulse control. Still, just thinking about it frightens me.

SP: I told you no references to suicide.

Me: You brought it up first. You said the poems were rejected before your suicide.

There it was, the rapier flick of tongue, the darting irises, the looming siege. And then suddenly she recovered, lowered her eyes momentarily, let emotion seep away.

SP: I’m not in the mood to argue with you.

Me: But you used the word suicide first. Don’t say you didn’t. Nothing I ever read about you said you were a liar.

SP: All right. I used the word suicide.

Me: Thank you.

SP: Back to the poem. If you were to give it a grade, what would it be? I don’t even know you and I want your approval. That’s really sick, isn’t it? Anyway, what grade would you give me?

Me: An A. And as long as we’re talking about suicide…

BP: We weren’t.

Me: You broke the agreement.

SP: Oh, please.

Me: Why did you kill yourself?

BP: Death lived behind my eyes all my life. It winked at me -- a leering wink, a knowing wink. I couldn’t shut it off.

Me: But there were periods when you were okay. Was it like a meteorite? You were fine one day and then the next day you woke up and everything was destroyed, so you said to yourself it’s time to go?

SP: I was always in pain.

Me: And all that moaning over your father’s death, writing poetry about it, I never understood that part at all. My father didn’t die, but he might as well have. He didn’t speak to me once I was old enough to know what a fraud he was. Not a word. Not a sentence.

SP: And you think that didn’t affect you?

Me: I don’t know. I don’t write about him. I don’t think about him any more. I’ve excised him from my life. Your father was in every sentence you ever wrote. And then you married a man whose betrayal was like your father’s death.

SP: You think I married Ted because of my father?

Me: I didn’t say that.

SP: Well, I didn’t. Do you know how hard it was to find a man who didn’t care that I was as talented as he was?

Me: I found one.

SP: Well, lah de dah, lucky you.

Me: I didn’t mean to upset you.

SP: Look, this interview was your idea, and I don’t even know who the hell you are. Who the hell are you?

Me: I told you, a girl just like you.

SP: We’re no longer girls. And for Chrissakes, would you just speak your mind, say what you think and be done with it? I know you think you could have lived better than I did, that you could have figured it out. Well, maybe you could and maybe you couldn’t, but I didn’t have a Bell Jar to read, and all that fucking poetry I wrote and all that love that I poured into everything with such intensity that it made me loonily, screamingly, frustratingly insane because nothing was ever as perfect as I wanted it to be, nothing could ever be as perfect as I wanted it to be, with a father who died and left me and a mother who hovered and cooed and drove me crazier than I otherwise would have been.

Me: But taping doors shut and putting your head in the oven isn’t something one does on the spur of the moment.

SP: You just said you sometimes feel like jumping off a cliff.

Me: But I don’t.

SP: Have you any idea what it’s like to be so out of control and know how out of control you are, to feel as though you are on a sled going ninety miles an hour and no one can hear you screaming and you’re afraid you’re going to crash and die, and you want to crash and die? Do you?

Me: I absolutely, positively was enraptured by your poetry.

SP: Enraptured? What kind of a stupid word is that to use? Are you trying to make me angry?

Me: I’m trying to identify with you. We’re the same, you and I. Apart from the talent and fame thing, that is. Both of us children of the fifties. But I didn’t do what you did, and I don’t think having a father die and disliking your mother and even having a husband walk out on you – my God, men are all over the place, better men than he was -- and if you had just had a few psychotropic pills you would probably have stopped wanting to off yourself, and wouldn’t have scarred your children for life. How could you have calmly left milk and bread out for them to eat when they woke up in the morning without a mother? How could you have done such a horrendous thing? It infuriates me that you did that, infuriates me that we lost you so young. It just blazingly, fuckingly, maddeningly infuriates me.

I had to take a few moments to let my face unblotch and my pulse simmer down. I was surprised that Sylvia seemed unaffected by my outburst except for a small twitch at the corner of her mouth.

Me: Well, it’s been incredible meeting you. And before you go I thought maybe you could give me a few quotes that my blog-readers might enjoy, those who’ve read The Bell Jar and your poetry and have lost a father and hate their mothers and have been betrayed by their husbands and…

SP: Carpe diem.

And that was it, both of us now on the verge of tears, sitting there while the tables filled up and the manager glared at us and the fishermen on the other side of the window cast silvery threads toward the sun.

Nina Vida copyright 2009