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Feb 23, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

I write during the day, print out whatever I am working on in the evening and bicycle with those pages to my favorite Japanese restaurant where I alternate between a blue pencil and chopsticks. This transfer, from screen to paper, from solitary desk to public sushi counter, gives me the sense that I’m examining my writing with ‘fresh eyes.’ It is, of course, only an illusion that Tim Sultan, the writer, and Tim Sultan, the reader, are not one and the same but it’s an illusion that works for me. Needless to say, I am a very popular customer at this restaurant.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Some people walk their dogs before breakfast, I walk my coffee. Each morning year-round I put on a minimal ensemble—sneakers, a t-shirt or sweater, and shorts. Never trousers as being underdressed for the weather is of the essence. It’s circulation–of blood, of thoughts, of images–I’m after, not snug comfort. I descend from hearty stock that encouraged this sort of thing. I walk the half-mile to my favorite coffee shop, order a cup to go and return home through the park. I call this surveying. I survey the exercisers, the pigeon feeders, the dogs racing around with clouds of breath coming from their snouts—and I survey my life, my writing, perhaps chewing on an editorial conundrum that had me in a jam the previous day. Whatever my mind alights on. If I’m lucky, I return home with a new turn of phrase, a fresh idea, a missing word, and I take it from there. I can affirm that waking up the mind in this manner beats turning on a screen in the morning.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

“Look forward and don’t be afraid.”  I found this single sentence in a notebook that belonged to my mother. She had written it to herself not long before she passed away. The page leans against the wall by my desk where I regard that message and reinterpret its meaning every day. For writing, for life.

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Thoughtful, digressive, occasionally extravagant, empathetic

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher

I have read it more than any other book. I have read to myself, to friends, and at my father’s memorial service. I admire it like no other. For its naturalistic prose coupled with a grand imagination. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been a Vermonter…

Between Meals by A.J. Liebling

I think it was John Irving who once said that he always carries on him ‘a flood book.’ Something to read if he finds himself unexpectedly marooned. This is my flood book and more often than not, I stick a copy in my jacket as I’m going out the door in the evening. It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and begin reading without feeling one has missed a beat.   

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

A short masterpiece about an underground visionary with the tenderest of souls. Elegiac without being melancholy, profound without being solemn.

Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter

Sometimes one admires most the other. Salter’s style here is terse, understated, disciplined. His characters share the world with Edward Hopper’s subjects. We are ultimately on our own.

Learn more about Sunny’s Nights here.  

Aug 26, 2015 Editor’s Desk

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

I fell in love with Naomi Jackson’s debut novel about a matriarchal family in Barbados, The Star Side of Bird Hill, from the opening page. In short order, Jackson indelibly captures Barbados’ Bird Hill neighborhood and the two young Braithwaite sisters who have left Brooklyn to come and live there with their grandmother. From its very first line, Star Side plunges us in this very specific, very beautiful community: The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them.

Jackson’s first descriptions of the girls at the heart of this novel are also stunning. Dionne, the elder sister, is “sixteen going on a bitter, if beautiful, forty-five.” Phaedra, age ten, saw “her skin had darkened to a deep cacao from running in the sun all day in spite of her grandmother’s protests… Glimpses of Phaedra’s future beauty peeked out from behind her pink heart-shaped glasses, which were held together with scotch tape.” Before I turned to the second page, I was fully immersed in this place, and I felt I had known these girls for years.

Author Naomi Jackson grew up in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn and spent summers in Barbados with her family. There is a strong autobiographical element to Star Side, which explores themes of immigration and identity, motherhood and family, sexual awakening and coming of age, and mental illness and belonging.

After their mother’s breakdown in New York forces them into exile in Barbados, Dionne spends the summer in search of love, while Phaedra explores Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations. The girls’ grandmother, Hyacinth, is a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah. Hyacinth is a magical character, and the novel beautifully explores parenthood through her loves and losses. Her daughter Avril left Barbados for good when she fell for the girls’ father Errol. When Errol arrives to reclaim the sisters, the girls must choose between two worlds, as their mother once did.

It has been so gratifying to see in-house readers, booksellers, and reviewers connect with this lyrical narrative. Jackson’s Barbados captured our imagination, and her characters are unforgettable, especially the heartbreaking young Phaedra.The Star Side of Bird Hill is an Indies Introduce selection, and many of our independent bookselling partners told me at BEA how excited they were to get this novel into the hands of their more advanced YA readers, as well as their adult readers who love transporting, literary fiction. I look forward to seeing many more readers fall for Star Side and the very talented Naomi Jackson.

Read more about The Star Side of Bird Hill here.

Jul 23, 2015 Random Notes

If you’re in the New York City area, don’t miss the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks.  The show is on view until August 23, 2015. From their site:

Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat filled numerous notebooks with poetry fragments, wordplay, sketches, and personal observations ranging from street life and popular culture to themes of race, class, and world history. The first major exhibition of the artist’s notebooks, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks features 160 pages of these rarely seen documents, along with related works on paper and large-scale paintings.

Source: Wikimedia

To dive a little deeper, learn the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s partner, Suzanne Mallouk. In Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement, the reader is plunged into 1980’s New York City where the lovers meet for the first time. All about art, underground culture, passion and creative energy, this biography is gripping and transportive.  See below for an excerpt from the book.

“Sublime, poetic…A harrowing, beautifully told love story about two seekers colliding in a pivotal moment in history, and setting everything, including themselves, on fire.”—Rebecca Walker for NPR

“Stunningly lyrical . . . Original, insightful, and engrossing. . . . While filled with pop culture anecdotes art fans might seek—Andy Warhol and Rene Ricard both make appearances, for instance—Clement’s account is an honest love story above all else.”—Publishers Weekly

This excerpt is from Jennifer Clement‘s  Widow Basquiat, the story of the short-lived, obsessive love affair between Suzanne Mallouk and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Clement is former president of PEN Mexico and is the author of three novels and several books of poetry.

THE CROSBY STREET LOFT MADNESS

She irons the clothes, folds his clothes, places them in the same order on the shelf—the red sweater is folded this way and placed above the red shirt. She places the soap at an angle on the sink and always places the towels in the same order 1-2-3. She irons one shirt five times. She makes the bed three times and irons the sheets. If a sweater fades in the wash she cries. She never speaks and only answers questions or speaks in a panicky monologue:

“My mother was a spy in the war. They took her to see a woman with transparent skin. They could see her heart beating in there and her lungs and blood. They could see her eyeballs turning. This was a military secret. Nobody knows about this. And they would give the woman food— turnips, oranges, bread—and watch it all go down into her. This was a military secret. I heard about her when I was five and I thought she must have been very beautiful like a larva, but very scared. I kept looking at my own stomach and wondering what was in there. I chewed care- fully. My mother said she was a kind of Venus or virgin.”

At first Jean-Michel thinks this is funny and puts some of her words in his paintings. Then he tells her to shut up. He paints Self-portrait with Suzanne. He paints her speaking her chicken-chatter, “PTFME E a a a R M R M O AAAAAAAA.”

They do coke six or seven times a day. He tells Suzanne she can only wear one dress. It is a gray shift with white checks. He tells her she can only wear one pair of very large men’s shoes. He does another line of coke. Suzanne walks clunk- clunk-clunk, her feet wading in the shoes, around the loft. He tells her she can’t wear lipstick anymore. He says she can only buy groceries and detergents. Then he says no, he will buy them. He does another line of coke and paints Big Shoes, a portrait of Suzanne in big shoes. He calls her Venus. He says, “Hey, Venus, come and kiss me.” He says, “Venus, go get us some coke.” He writes “Venus” into his paintings and says Suzanne is only with him for his money.

Jean-Michel sticks black paper over all the windows so that they won’t know if it is day or night. “The day is too light,” he says.

Soon Suzanne stops cleaning and Jean-Michel stays at home all day.

Suzanne finds a place to live under a small table, like a small cat that finds a hiding place. From here she watches Jean- Michel paint, sleep and do drugs. He picks up books, cereal boxes, the newspaper or whatever is around. He finds a word or phrase and paints it on his board or canvas. A few times a day he crawls under the table with Suzanne and gives her a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes he pulls her out, has sex with her, and then puts her back under the table and continues to paint.

Sometimes Suzanne weeps a little and Jean-Michel says, “Shut up, Venus. I know what it is like to be tied up and fed, with a bowl of rice on the floor, like an animal. I once counted my bruises and I had thirty-two.”

Suzanne moves from under the table into a closet in the bedroom. In here there is a green trench coat, a pair of moccasins, black and pink pumps, a tin frying pan, a super­market plastic bag full of bills, two large boxes of chalk. Under one moccasin Suzanne finds a small box of birthday candles.

THEY DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE A CAR

Shortly after Suzanne moves into the Crosby Street loft Jean-Michel takes her to Italy. He is having a show at the Emilio Mazzoli Gallery in Modena. Neither Jean-Michel nor Suzanne knows how to drive a car so Jean-Michel pays to bring Kai Eric along to drive them around.

In the airplane Jean-Michel continuously gets up to do some coke in the bathroom. He says he has to finish it up before he goes through customs in Europe. He says he wants to open up the emergency door exit and jump on the clouds.

Suzanne has hepatitis. She cannot lift up her arms.

Jean-Michel sits beside her; he kisses and licks one of her arms.

“Beautiful arms,” he says. “Venus, I have to paint your arms.” He takes a blue marker out of his pocket and paints on Suzanne’s arm. He paints her humerus, ulna, radius and carpus. He writes “animal cell” on the inside of her wrist. He draws a ring around her finger.

“Now you are my wife,” he says.

 

Read more about Widow Basquiat here

Learn about the Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum here. 

Jul 7, 2015 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

As an editor, I always asked writers (of novels and even of picture books): “Who is this character in your head? Is he/she based on someone you know? Can you see that person doing what you have your character do?” As an author, I ask myself the same thing. Of course, all of one’s characters have a little bit of oneself in them, but I do find that having a specific image—of a friend, an acquaintance, a child, a person glimpsed on the subway—really helps me focus and be specific.

Specificity is the skeleton key that unlocks the doors of good writing. When a character speaks, the language must be specific to her; she must not be able to speak any other way. When a character makes a choice of beer or shaving cream, he must own those choices; they must come from everything else I know about the character. I think hard about what a character would reach for in the fridge, and why. None of that reasoning, of course, should show on the page (unless it’s a plot point). But as a writer you need to know if it’s boxers or briefs, sports bra or push-up, for every character. You have to know where the hidden tattoos are, and the scars.

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

I write copy! That’s the first thing I do. I write what you would find on a jacket flap, or the back cover of a paperback. When I was an editor, and especially an assistant, writing copy was always the most enjoyable part of the job. The better written the book, the easier it is to write copy, even when the book has a challenging structure or tackles difficult ideas. I write copy to see where the story is going. Usually I can eke out a whole first “act” for a book by pretending I’m writing the flap for the finished draft. If a first act emerges and I’m interested in seeing where the story goes, I’ll give it a try as a book.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

While writing Enchanted August, I almost always wore headphones and played birdsong or “nature sounds.” Those soundtracks let me believe that I was in Maine. I would go to YouTube and find videos with hours of recorded sounds of the outdoors. You have to be careful not to play the same one too many times or you get to know what nuthatch is going to start calling out after which rumble of thunder, but other than that, it’s a great way (for me) to escape city sounds or household sounds or sounds at the café where I usually write.

And a shout-out to that café: It’s The Hungarian Pastry Shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I started going there when I first came to New York in 1981 and basically never stopped. The Pastry Shop is located just a few blocks from Columbia University, so it’s filled with people studying or reading or writing. It’s almost like a library. There’s no internet service and there are no electrical outlets, so you can only write as long as your computer charge lasts and you can’t get distracted by going online. If you go to the Pastry Shop for a visit, don’t be disappointed that the coffee isn’t great, but do order an ishler. Two hazelnut cookies filled with chocolate mousse and covered in dark chocolate. A sumptuous reward for a good afternoon’s writing.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I never thought I wanted to write but I have been writing since I was very young. I used to write Regency romances when I was about eleven or twelve, about characters named Charles and Caroline who bore a marked resemblance to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. (I read Pride and Prejudice in one sitting when I was eleven years old. My mother thought I had been out at the neighbor’s all day, when actually I was upstairs reading through lunch and dinner. I came down to the kitchen in a daze and have essentially never recovered.)

I began working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company right after college. I wanted nothing more than to be an editor, and I was, for many years. After a while, editors, especially of children’s books, tend to take on the writing mantle. I helped artists write their picture books. I turned out quickie celebrity bios. I wrote a couple of Pokemon chapter books. (“I choose you!”)

Then in 2004 or so, I wrote two early readers under a pen name, Margaret McNamara. Too Many Valentines and 100 Days (Plus One) were set at Robin Hill School, and over ten years the stories stretched into a thirty-book series. Then, I began to write more picture books about things like pumpkins, apples, George Washington, poetry, and a heavenly library. (If you’re interested, you can find out more on my website.) Just a few years ago, I so wanted an author of mine to write a book from Tinker Bell’s point of view that I stole my own idea and wrote a six-book series called the Fairy Bell Sisters, about Tinker Bell’s little sisters, who live on an island in what many would recognize to be Maine. Their success (and I mean the fact that I finished them all, on time, and they were beautifully published) led me to be emboldened enough to write Enchanted August.

Describe your writing style in five words or less.

If you mean how I write in terms of process: Must. Not. Edit. While. Writing.

Read more about Enchanted August here.

Jun 15, 2015 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

I start by keeping a “dossier” on each character: the usual basics like their age, hometown, birth order, the contents of their fridge. I snoop around—showing up at their tenth birthday parties (then their sixteenth and their fortieth). I write diary entries in their voice. Later in the process I’ll write the same scene from each character’s point of view—a tip I learned from hearing an interview with Jonathan Lethem.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Running helps my writing—both require a lot of endurance. My favorite runs cross both bridges and bodies of water. I find that after a long run, I’m just too physically exhausted to be overly self-critical when I sit down to work, which then makes the writing flow more easily.

park
Patricia Park – Photo: © Allana Taranto

 

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I’ve known pretty much since I first learned to write. My first (unpublished) manuscript was called Messy Bessy—an illustrated series about an unkempt schoolgirl who grows up and has twenty kids. In elementary school I wanted to be a writer slash nun, but I was afraid the church would make me censor my writing.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

Daydream about your characters. That way, you’re still doing work on your novel even when you’re waiting for the subway, at the gym, on line at the grocery store….

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

I try not to write about an experience until after I’ve been away from it for a few days (or years). Otherwise you gain no perspective on it because it’s so immediate. Also, you tend to sound whiny. So I’ll write down the facts of what happened immediately in my diary, but then I file them away, and later—much later—I can reflect on that experience in the context of a larger narrative.

Describe your writing style in five words or less.

A chocolate-covered broccoli. (Wait, what?)

Read more about Re Jane here.

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