Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Plot – Jeffrey Eugenedis and Women’s Fiction

I am a fan of Jeffrey Eugenedis. Aside from the Michigan connection, I enjoyed the scope and craftsmanship of this first two books The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

When The Marriage Plot came out, I bought it in hard cover, read it immediately and went to see the author read and answer questions at my local bookstore Skylight Books.

There are many things to appreciate about the novel. At the reading, Jeffrey spoke about how a central premise drove his work, and that he wanted to write a novel about marriage in the style of writers such as Jane Austen.

The novel is well written, the characters are believable and the details of their life are vivid. Jeffrey convincingly writes from a female point of view, and I appreciate everything about the novel except the overall affect it had on me: I was let down. This intimate coming of age story, the author’s specialty, left me annoyed as I did not resonate with the main character Madeleine Hanna. I think much of this is personal preference and perhaps intended by the author as this young woman was relatively pampered, lost in a fog of academia, and not particularly self-aware. Madeleine’s troubles were minor compared to those of my own college friends, and the novel itself felt minor because of my personal experiences.

However, a thought provoking essay “On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women” in yesterday’s The New York Times Sunday Book Review by Meg Wolitzer got me to thinking about my reaction to the novel all over again. In her essay, Meg explores the classification of women’s fiction and if Jeffrey’s novel would have gotten the same reception if written by a woman. Meg explores everything from the packaging of the book to the cultural bias surrounding female novelists.

This morning I reviewed my own bookshelf, and found that I owned more books by male authors, a larger trend in fiction than in poetry. Do I have a bias? Did my teachers? Do publishers? And what exactly is women’s fiction – why is it a category at all? Perhaps this is the plot we should be thinking about.

Martin Ott

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Adrienne Rich: Song

In honor of the passing of poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, I thought I’d share a haunting poem from her National Book Award winning collection Diving into the Wreck:

Martin Ott

Song

You’re wondering if I’m lonely;

OK then, yes, I’m lonely

as a plane rides lonely and level

on its radio beam, aiming

across the Rockies

for the blue-strung aisles

of an airfield on the ocean

You want to ask, am I lonely?

Well, of course, lonely

as a woman driving across country

day after day, leaving behind

mile after mile

little towns she might have stopped

and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely

it must be the loneliness

of waking first, of breathing

dawn’s first cold breath on the city

of being the one awake

in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely

it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore

in the red light of the year

that knows what it is, that I know it’s neither

ice nor mud nor winter light

but wood, with a gift for burning

1971

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Are Publishers in Their Own Hunger Games?

Yesterday I went to see The Hunger Games with my daughter in a packed theater on opening day. She had read the book, one of our rules for seeing a movie based on a novel. Because I am also currently working of my own young adult novel, I’d also read all three of Suzanne Collins’ books in the Hunger Games series as research.

Yes, and even though some of the audience did hoot for the next Twilight movie trailer I found myself enjoying the movie, just as I had the books. I remembered my own love of science fiction and literature at my daughter’s age, and it is clear to me that The Hunger Games has more in common with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or even William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, than most young adult novels, teenage love triangle aside.

Of course, one could argue that this is nothing new as many books in the 19thvCentury such as The Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Jungle Book had already begun a trend that appealed to young readers.

The fact is that the young adult genre continues to grow, and the line is blurring across genres not just for the readers, but the writers as well. Kristen-Paige Madonia, in a panel on debut novelists at the 2012 AWP conference, confided that she had thought she had written an adult novel, but her agent had convinced her to pitch it as a young adult novel instead.

We also now see novelist as varied as Michael Chabon to Clive Barker writing in this genre. One agent that I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation about representing my novel “Interrogator’s Notebook” finally told me that she (and her agency) weren’t taking on literary novels right now to focus on young adult titles.

Many publishers are focusing efforts on this genre as well, along with bookstores, to survive in their own hunger games vs. television, video games and smart phones. And those angry birds can be fierce!

Ultimately, I believe that anything that provides thoughtful material and well-written prose to young readers – and their parents – will ultimately help fiction writers of all genres as the love of reading (in my case and for most writers) becomes a lifetime passion.

Martin Ott

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Crazy Stuff You’ve Done – Grist for Writing

I got a call last week from a producer interested in potentially developing a screenplay I’d sent him – “Twain” – based on the idea of two brothers rafting down the Mississippi River for very different reasons. It turns out that the producer had grown up on the Mississippi River, and had a similar dream as the protagonist to raft down river with a family member starting at the headwaters.

This screenplay was co-written with Keith Kowalczyk (we met while at the MPW Program at USC). I shared with the producer how Keith had attempted to build a raft by hand – inspired by his love of Mark Twain – in an attempt to travel the length of the Mississippi River.

While Keith’s raft may have sunk almost immediately, the story had stuck with me a long time and I had suggested it as the basis for our next collaboration. Yes, Keith readily admits that it was crazy to try what he did, but he had been driven by a passion that carried a broader resonance.

There have been periods in my life where I did a whole bunch of idiotic stuff, and I find myself reimagining these experiences and placing them in the streams and tributaries of my own writing. These can include impetuous trips and friendships, unwise personal decisions and relationships, and the bizarre things you find yourself occasionally saying or doing. Of course, there is a whole lot of crazy that comes to us naturally in the forms of our families.

As far as the phone call, I’ve learned from experience not to have any expectations in the process of pitching and finalizing creative work. What I can take from my conversation, however, is a reaffirmed belief in the value of tapping into the crazy stuff you’ve done in the writing life.

Martin Ott

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Steam Laundry – A Review

I ended up with a copy of “Steam Laundry” in a chance meeting at the Red Hen Press booth at the AWP conference in Chicago. I had just finished having a photo of me snapped by one of the wonderful editors at the Los Angeles Review, who had been kind enough to publish my short story No One, about a reckless man in a small town in Alaska, when I met Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. I quickly learned that Nicole was from Fairbanks, the city I was born in, and I found out that her genre bending “novel in poems” Steam Laundry was based on the true story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, the sixth woman to arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska in the gold rush of 1903.

Nicole told me that she found letters, receipts, tickets and other items belonging to Sarah Ellen Gibson in the archives of the Rasmuson Library, and ended up drawing her story from them and actually placing some of the items into the book itself.

As a poet who also writes novels, and a fourth generation born Alaskan from a gold mining family that had made a similar journey to Fairbanks to find fortune, I knew I was hooked and immediately asked the author to sign my copy after purchasing it at the booth. It turned out to be from Boreal Books, a new imprint of Red Hen Press.

The book starts with an electric poem River Town, and the lines: “The men who became street names meet in a saloon in the afterlife.” From that point on I knew I was hooked. I did, however, discover that I needed to adjust the way I read the remainder of the book.

To carry the complex narrative thread of Sarah Ellen Gibson, her alcoholic husband, sons, and two perilous journeys first to the Klondike, then to Fairbanks, many of the remaining poems were letters back and forth between family members, and had as much in common with fiction as poetry.

I couldn’t read this book as a series of poems, but rather as a complex and dramatic story with poetic sensibilities. And I was not disappointed. There is plenty of drama for fiction lovers, painstaking accuracy for history buffs and wonderful lines throughout in the letters:

“On the Docks of Dyea, men outnumber stones.”

“At the scales in town, men empty their bags, every grain a world of labor, but there’s more money to wring it out of their pants in the laundry or dance hall.”

“I knew this marriage was too rough to be smoothed by time or creek water.”

My father was visiting this week from Fairbanks, and when I told him the plot of the book he told me dryly: “It sounds like Fairbanks now.” This statement resonated with me, as well. Much of the fortune from the gold rush days, then later from the oil pipeline, ended up in the pockets of companies selling supplies, housing  and providing vices to those seeking their fortune.

This history lesson plays itself out time and time again in American life, not just in Alaska, as we see the house in Vegas and entities such as Goldman Sachs making money in every scenario while their clients get rich and poor in a seemingly endless cycle. This spirit of gambling is impossible to wash out of the fabric of American life, as much as it was for Sarah Ellen Gibson to try to clean the stains out of the clothing of sourdoughs in the Steam Laundry that she ran as a way to make ends meet as her family’s dreams of gold churned to tragedy.

Martin Ott

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Car Writing

Yes, we Angelenos spend too much time in our cars. I have used my commute to try to learn Mandarin and Portuguese, to devour books-on-tape and New Yorker fiction podcasts, to switch between NPR and shock jock conservative radio, to make up rock songs and sing badly and proudly.

My schedule very rarely involves long stretches of uninterrupted time, and I always make sure to have a notebook wedged into the side of my passenger door next to an umbrella I refuse to use the few times it rains here. This past weekend, I left the batteries of my car on while at the gym, a dual symbol of getting to “that” age when mind and body become sluggish together.

AAA told me that I had a half hour wait, and I decided to go ahead and work on a poem. The first lines came immediately:

The president asked the dictator

to be his wingman on the Ark,

the last of their race in a floating

fortress buoyed by melted icecaps.

The line length is influenced by the width of my small notebook, and I was lucky enough to get a draft written before my tow truck driver came with cables.

I have since edited and worked on the draft of a what I hope is a promising poem “Diplomacy” that explores two former world leaders looking to negotiate their way into young women’s beds after they have lost their status.

At other times, I have tried to use a tape recorder while navigating through traffic, but I get far too distracted to actually write while I drive. I also think that car makers should include a flip-out tray like airliners for laptops as I have also been known to type of few paragraphs of a story while waiting for my daughter to make her way to the front of her school.

Is it just me, or do other writers find it uncomfortable to type with your computer wedged between your stomach and the steering column?

Martin Ott

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The Intensity of The Cincinnati Review

Every year, I end up purchasing approximately twenty literary magazines. Some of these are favorites I read cover to cover. Others I browse. And I always try to branch out with a few new magazines each year based on friends’ recommendations.

A couple of weeks ago, my long-time writing group pal – fiction writer Jen Bergmark – suggested that I take a look at The Cincinnati Review, and I was hooked from the first page of the winter 2012 issue (8.2) – the poem Shimmer by Philip White. In this poem, the line “the hurt that’s building here will turn into something…” foreshadows the entire issue.

The poetry throughout is first rate, driven by an intensity that the editors cull by including poets who utilize direct address, and topics of pain and hurt. In Tara Bray’s Doubts of a Striving Contortionist, she blends the physical and metaphysical with lines such as: “Yes, only my heart’s contorted, and each day the body outlives its trauma; my prayer, the dignity of shaping what is dying into something dying.”

Aside from enjoying the writers’ use of language, I am drawn to the gritty subject matter. In Nance Van Winckel’s  To the El, she turns a scene of a woman trying to get through a turnstile with her metal walker into something more universal – a nation that is itself stuck in many ways.

Some of our best poets bring fresh work to the pages, including poems that I ended up reading multiple times by Todd Hearon, Julie Sophia Paegle, Kevin Prufer, Laura Read, Lloyd Schwartz, David Wagoner and G.C. Waldrep.

The fiction, if anything, keeps the intensity burning brighter with eight satisfying stories by six writers. In Kate Finlinson’s The Jesus Party, we are titillated and horrified by a narrator dressed up as the Lord and Savior to make some money at a kid’s party. The narrator is literally oozing with unrequited love that seeps out in lines such as “It destroys me a little bit to watch women make sandwiches” and his inability to keep himself from hitting on the mother of the birthday girl.

Three pieces of flash fiction by Thomas Israel Hopkins manage to be absurdist, political and fraught with physical peril all at the same time. In Our Libretto Conundrum, we discover the true story behind lines such as: “I think about the great man’s biography sometimes; times like right now, as I sit in a traffic jam that I am confident has resulted from yet another librettist motor cycle crash.”

And I dare anyone to be unmoved by Steve De Jarnatt’s Mulligan, a multilayered wonderful mess of a story from the multiple perspectives of those trying to deal with a Nebraskan law that encourages people to drive to its borders to drop off unwanted children.

The reviews and artwork by Antonio Carreno add to the ambience, and we are graced with nonfiction by Martha Collins that introduce us to the dreamscape of poet Ngo Tu Lap, along with five of his poems that move masterfully from village life to global concerns.

At the end of this issue is a nonfiction piece by Joshua Harmon that juxtaposes the nostalgia of a little known rock band Section 25 with the nuclear proliferation of the United States and the Soviet Union. This piece I resonated with personally because of my decision to leave military intelligence after an offer to be part of a peacekeeping force to dismantle Soviet nukes in order to go to the University of Michigan to spend far too much time enjoying similarly obscure punk-influenced bands such as The Minutemen.

This issue of the Cincinnati Review is concerned with the truth of our world and the human condition, and the danger of this approach is melodrama in the hands of lesser writers and editors. I encourage potential readers to go ahead and take this risk.

Martin Ott

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T.C. Boyle at Skylight Books

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to support my local bookstore, Skylight Books, a short walk from where I live in Los Feliz. Earlier this week, I went down to get a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I haven’t been able to get out of my head after hearing the author read a portion of it at the AWP Conference in Chicago.

While at the bookstore, I decided to get T.C. Boyle’s 13th novel now in softcover, When the Killing’s Done, as I had already planned to go to his reading on March 8. The book itself is vintage T.C Boyle, a writer who purposefully puts his characters in conflict with themselves, each other and their natural surroundings. It was reminiscent of other books of his that I’ve enjoyed such as Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain, and his themes as a writer are drawn from his interests in history, evolution and ecology, the complex scenarios that play their way out as people, plants and animals are introduced to new environments and each other.

These themes are multilayered throughout When the Killing’s Done and seep into passages such as this one: “And her condo—over-priced and under-soundproofed—occupies the war zone between the freeway out front and the railroad tracks out back, a condition she’s been able to tolerate for its access to the beach and the cool night air, and the option, which she almost always takes, even when it rains of sleeping with the window open and a blanket wrapped tightly around her through all of the seasons of the year.”

This sentence contains with it all that is great—and sometimes vexing—about T.C. Boyle. His long sentences are layered, as is the plot of this narrative that takes place over generations, with shipwrecks, tragedies, and questions about human nature and the natural order. In order to create this tapestry that weaves through time, and with long sections of backstory, T.C. Boyle relinquishes the immediacy of the main narrative thread between a scientist Alma Boyd Takesue looking to protect endangered species on California’s Channel Islands and Dave LaJoy, an activist opposed to the killing of any animals whatsoever. Because of T.C. Boyle’s insight and dark humor into the true nature of his characters, the immediacy of the suspense building from scene to scene is replaced by the feeling, like in a Greek tragedy, of impending and inescapable doom.

T.C Boyle didn’t read any passages from his novel. Instead, he read a short story, Los Gigantes, that is available on Skylight Book’s podcast, and was featured in last month’s The New Yorker. The brilliance of this story, set in an unnamed country, contains the same themes of evolution as the novel in a way that makes me certain that this author is one of our own natural treasures: as adept in short stories as novels, taking on themes relevant to our times, a writer unabashedly writing about important things.

Martin Ott

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World War Z – A Review

 A literary zombie novel? Is this really possible? Ever since my friend Andy convinced me to read Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter I have tried to keep an open mind to crossover genre fiction. Coming back to Los Angeles from the AWP Writer’s Conference in Chicago, I stopped at one of O’Hare’s Barbara’s Bookstores and discovered that I liked the store’s taste in books. It also didn’t hurt that the kid at the counter was halfway through Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which he was reading between ringing up customers. I had read more than half of the 20 or so recommended books displayed, and decided to give World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks at try.

OK, so maybe literature and zombies may have more than just a casual connection if the movie quote “Are you really trying to seduce me with literature during a Zombie apocalypse?” is any indication. I ended up devouring the whole novel much like a zombie biting into human flesh during my flight back home. Now as a writer, I can never just “enjoy” a book…I had to ask myself why I liked it so much.

After all, even for its solid first person writing throughout, the book had a couple of major flaws. An unnamed narrator is introduced at the beginning of the book, looking to compile the narratives of dozens of different eyewitnesses during the Zombie Wars, and the voices all sound the same as they outline scenes of what took place during a decade-long engagement. This consistent voice made the person narratives seem impersonal. Also, the choice of narrative structure – starting at the end and flashing back to the beginning – took away any real suspense that the zombies were actually going to make humankind extinct.

How then can I recommend a book that is a bit too impersonal and without suspense? It is because there is magic in the short vignettes that describe – in great imagination and detail – the skirmishes with zombies. These narratives cover almost every continent and take place in woods and city, on islands and underwater, below the earth and in outer space. The writer has an acute political understanding and an eye for dark humor, perhaps honed working for Saturday Night Live. He outlines the follies of armies and governments in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude in a way that has you engrossed, engaged and believing that this zombie war actually happened. One of my favorite vignettes is a compound of movie stars that broadcast their location in an encampment that is taken down not by zombies, but by their beloved viewers storming their safe haven because they would not stay out of the limelight.

Throughout the morose tragedy, we recognize the true nature of humanity, and come away feeling that we have learned a little bit about ourselves in the process. This is what literature does. Even with zombies.

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