Real Life, Part I

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There is a moment in reading something terrific where we lock in.  One minute, we are people holding books, and the next we are transported. This phenomenon, the forgetting of the self, is what I’m in it for. 

How does it happen? There’s an idea out there that this particular magic occurs when the prose is tethered to reality. A writer channels her life, and the words gain power. There’s something to this idea. I’m reading now Nina Renata Aron’s spectacular memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls (how’s that for a title, right?). In it she writes: “Every few days, I’d clean our bathroom, wiping with Lysol-drenched paper towels the delicate spray of dried blood that lay over most surfaces and reminded me of the spatter of colored dye on the outside of a jaw-breaker, the first layer that makes a white paste in your mouth as you suck it away.”  Stunning, yeah? And I do believe Aron could not have written this line had she not cleaned blood or eaten a jaw breaker.

But we find passages of such stark detail in works that are not based on personal lived experience as well. In, for example, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, the author writes: “The beating room had a bloody mattress and a naked pillow that was covered instead by the overlapping from all the mouths that had bit into it.  Also: the gigantic industrial fan was the source of the roaring, the sound that traveled all over campus, farther than physics allowed.”

(sorry that blood is the theme here—I’m picking out vivid moments, and blood is vivid.)

Whitehead’s book is about an abusive boys’ reformatory school in Florida which is a fictionalized version of a real school, but which Whitehead certainly did not attend.  I want to go back to what I said about Aron, and to her words.  Although I’m sure she’s eaten a jaw breaker, and cleaned blood, that doesn’t mean that the jaw-breaker image occurred to her while she was doing it, or every time. Writing, even memoir, is not documentary in the way that a film or a newspaper article is. And even if works draw on lived experience, the alchemy of how that lived experience makes it to the page is unpredictable, unquantifiable.  The magic, that way words can transport you, happens because of words, that Aron chose to put the jawbreaker image there, with its suggestion of innocence, but also violence (jawbreakers are a pretty violent candy, yeah?) that’s how the magic happens. And, for sure, Whitehead did his research and collected details, but then he made them language. He chose ‘naked’ to describe the pillow, with its suggestion of vulnerability which also speaks of the boys’ vulnerability. Experience filters into work, but not directly, and always through the medium of language. In my next post, I’m going to talk about some unexpected ways that my real experience filtered into The Likely World and some ways it deviated from reality.

Final version…and how to win a personalized Advanced Reader copy for yourself

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Crazy days, am I right? Right about now, I was supposed to be finalizing travel plans, packing my suitcase and preparing to hit the road for my book tour. Book tours are traditionally one of the big ways an author gets books into readers’ hands, reaching out beyond the circle of friends, and those people who read book reviews. I am thrilled to be partnered with so many great bookstores & organizations to do virtual events (shoutout: Titcomb’s Bookshop, Brookline Booksmith, Writers & Books, New York Writer’s Workshop, HWS and others). I am thrilled to be launching on 8/4 live at the Fingerlakes Drive-in. But I need your help to get The Likely World to the readers who will love it. What can you do? I’m glad you asked.

Below is a list of this week’s asks. Help me out, and I’ll enter you in a drawing, to be held on 7/20, for a personalized version of the Advanced Reader’s Copy of the book (the one with all the typos still in it.) I might even tell your fortune!

Just do one or more of the below. Each action gets an entry, so do more and get more chances to win!!

Report back, or just trust me to keep track. xoxox Melanie

  • follow this blog–and like! and comment! It’s lonely in the days of social distancing.
  • repost the pre-order link on this page
  • follow me on instagram or on twitter
  • If you live in the finger lakes, reserve your tix for the 8/4 launch

How to Find a Little Project to Sustain You

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Writing a novel will make you crazy if you didn’t start out that way. Each day you wake up with it on your shoulders. Occasionally, it slides off and what lands on the page is its own reward. But, in my experience that’s one day in thirty. The rest of the time, you’re carrying a backpack full of rusty salvage and your job is to build a large hadron collider out of it. Because it’s not actually a large hadron collider, no one but you really cares if you do it or not. At least, that’s how it was for me.

As a mom, step-mom, wife and teacher–as a human who really would prefer to live a happy life–I had to find intervals where I could be done with something, even if the something was not actually the novel. These were my little projects.

I think we could all use little projects right now, so I’ve been thinking about which ones work, and which ones got dropped or ended in frustration. It started with an inventory. What is a project?

1)It’s a thing you make yourself, that you can finish and look at and say, I made this. Right now, my husband it building a magnificent shed for me in the backyard where I’ll be able to write even, say, in a pandemic. I have a friend who takes photographs. I saw her capture three heart-shaped stones by a little secret pool. I have another friend who made a calendar, one drawing for each day of the month. These projects (literally, in one cases) are heart projects. Sure, my husband comes in from the 80-degree weather covered in sawdust sometimes, gulps a gallon of iced tea, and then lies on the floor by the air conditioner for an hour, but at some point, the shed will be done, and we can go inside of it. I should say, because he’ll read this, that my husband’s shed is actually a Big Project. You know, for the record.

2) It’s limited. The calendar project is a great example. My friend had a finite number of drawings to make, and then it was on to the next thing. One of my projects was to follow the Democratic Nomination by putting a yarding for each candidate into my front yard and then endorse the candidates in a short post. I endorsed all of them, but yes, I had a favorite and no, it was not the nominee. I also really like planning things, like travel, parties, secret gifts.

3) It has an audience built in. People who cook for their projects know what this is like. My brother gave me a chicken once–actually, it was a rooster, or as one can say in French without making a dirty joke, a coq. He was working on an organic farm, and they couldn’t sell the scrawny birds, so he brought one home to me. For three days, I marinated the rooster in red wine. Yes, it was dead already, though maybe someone wants to marinate a live bird in wine. Could be funny. And then, I served the meal to him–my brother, not the rooster. Project over, audience built in.

3) It’s challenging in some way, but builds on your existing skill set. I’m not at all crafty, but over the years, I’ve taken a couple of sculpture classes and I realized clay is really a good medium for people who are bad at art, because it responds to trial and error. You can work it, and work it and work it again. So, for a gift once, I made an action figure of a then-boyfriend. I used a pre-exisiting action figure body from a toy, and made the head out of clay. Is that weird? Yes. Did he like it? No. But, it did really, really look like him.

4) It’s got an element of fun in it. I like, for example, to plan elaborate hoaxes or practical jokes. My friend Maria and I once sustained a whole imaginary romance on Craigslist for a summer. Then, in the finale, we went and impersonated the romantic partners at a pre-arrange and public location. Was anyone following our missed connection? I still don’t know. But with Maria as my audience and co-conspirator, I had audience enough.

Maybe your project is physical–you want to canoe each of the Finger Lakes. Maybe it’s intellectual. You want to learn French. Maybe it’s altruistic–you want to collect masks and distribute them to reckless college kids while they guzzle beer. Or maybe you don’t know yet. If that’s you, I’d encourage you to do your own inventory, make your own list of qualifications. The heart of it is that it can’t be a should. It has to be a want.

“An artifact from an alternate reality”

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The Likely World centers around fictional drug called cloud, packaged and eaten off a plastic spoon, which wipes users short-term memories. It’s an antidote for regret–that awkward thing you said, the bad move on the first date, the toilet paper on the shoe. Poof! The experience vanishes from your mind. Perhaps, if users only ever used it to erase awkward moments, it wouldn’t do much harm. But cloud addicts, like real people, experience trauma. And the impulse to wipe away such a dark stain is irresistible.

Over time, addicts shed possible lives, the things their forgotten selves might have done, had they carried the bad memory through to healing. And the stains don’t go away–not really. They are embedded in the muscles, in the tissue.

In the time of COVID-19, there’s been lots of talk about alternate realities. The dark timeline is trending on Twitter. How did we get Trump, Corona virus, and a national movement of 1968 proportions all in a single era? It feels impossible. Today, I asked Coco what she’d be doing if we could cancel COVID for a day. “I’d go to school,” she said. And then, “I sound like a total nerd.” This, truly, is the dark timeline wherein our children long for the classroom in June.

The title of this blog post comes from an article on David Sedaris, the humorist and author of ten books, in the New York Times. If you don’t know him, you should. He’s hilarious. He had a 45 city tour planned for his summer book release–the eleventh, now all cancelled. He has a closet full of fancy clothes he’d intended to wear on stage–now artifacts from that better timeline.

I didn’t have 45 cities on my tour, but I had ten. All of them have become virtual, and I was on the cusp of cancelling the launch, planned as an elegant party/reading for the book’s birthday, August 4th. I don’t want to whine, but I really wanted that party. So many friends, so many members of my family have contributed to this epic project. I’m 48, and I’ve been trying to write this book all my life. I wanted to celebrate, but that celebration, I knew, was in another timeline.

Enter Bridget. Bridget is a friend who plans events for Cornell, and I was possibly actually whining to her. We were at an idyllic spot for it, socially distanced along the bank of Flat Rock, a wading area above Ithaca where our two daughters were tubing contentedly on a sunny day.

“We could do it outside,” I said. “Tables far apart. I could shout really loudly.” I knew. I knew better. But it was hard to let go.

“What about a drive-in?” Bridget suggested.

In a moment, she saved my book launch. Friends, this is going to be epic. The world’s first drive-in book launch (as far as I know.) There won’t be canapés, but there will be popcorn. I’m going to give away merit badges, swag. I might do a comedy set. Afterwards, you and your family can stay and watch “Say Anything” on the drive-in screen.

Fiction is always about alternate realities, the might-have-beens and the it-could-possibly-bes. Here we are, in a summer we never foresaw. Shall we make a little joy in it?

Tickets are free, but you have to reserve in advance. If you like, you can buy a copy of my signed book when you get the ticket.

Chapter One

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Fun fact: when I was little, I had auditory hallucinations. I can remember them very clearly because they were quite particular and persisted to my mid-teens. I never told anyone back then.

The good news: they didn’t tell me to murder anyone, or that I was God. In fact, they were seemingly quite benign: after a microsecond delay, in my mind, I heard my words repeated back to me in a high, mocking voice. It was something like what happens when your cell phone echoes you while you’re talking, but if your cell phone thought you were a complete idiot and hated your guts.

Eventually, this curious phenomenon ceased, and it’s never happened since, but I think whatever is weird in my brain is related to my writing process. At its best, I hear my characters speak, and I have to listen.

I was driving in my car when the narrator of The Likely World first spoke to me. I didn’t pull over. I reached for the nearest piece of paper and, as I drove (sorry Route 89!) I transcribed the first few words. The paper was a drawing by Coco and that act, writing and driving, is still in the final version of the novel. You can read chapter one right here. While you’re here, if you like, you can take a look at the marketing campaign, and pitch in with your opinions.