My self-esteem is suffering. It has everything to do with NaNoWriMo, and only a little to do with writing.

It’s because I haven’t been reading.

You could say I am a bit of a “scorekeeper” when it comes to books read. I’ve never met a Goodreads reading challenge I didn’t like, and I’ve been known to waste many hours delving into the recesses of my memory to come up with the approximate date that I read a book in elementary school, so that I can add it to my Goodreads “read” shelf. There’s something immensely satisfying about getting “credit” for having read all these books, even if I didn’t enjoy them, or worse, if I barely remember them at all. For me, scrolling through my own “Read” shelf is also a way of taking stock: What have I been thinking about? What made me laugh? What am I now more inspired to do? I reflect on all these things when I review what I’ve been reading. As the music-nerd record collectors in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity attach heavy meaning to their stacks of albums, books I’ve read are an important part of how I validate how I’ve spent my time.

And now it actually is becoming a problem, because I haven’t read a book cover to cover since I started NaNoWriMo. I’ve started two (On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, coming out from Riverhead in January 2014; and On Writing, by Stephen King—both really, really wonderful books, deserving of rich praise and fast reading), and both of them languish on my bedside table, begging to be opened, read, tucked back into the shelf, added to Goodreads. Next to them are unfinished issues of Real Simple, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, and People Magazine.

I’ve been blowing off these books and magazines because a militant typist inside my head scoffs at me when I reach for them. “You should be writing. You’ll never win NaNoWriMo if you spend all your free time reading!” (I have exactly 19974 words, and I need 50K to “win.” I feel hugely behind schedule.)  So I skulk away from the books, but not toward the computer. I get sidetracked by my TV, Twitter, and my cat. Double guilt: no books read, no words written. The technical term for how this plays out is “shame spiral.”

On Monday morning, I decided that enough was enough. Instead of thumb-typing in my NaNoWriMo document as I took the subway to work, I played an audiobook instead: I Kiss Your Hands Many Times, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a family memoir that came out from Spiegel & Grau. It’s subject matter has nothing to do with my NaNoWriMo project: It is about an aristocratic Hungarian family in the first half of the 20th century.

The audiobook of I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is read by the author, and I was reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert, who also narrated the audiobooks for her memoirs. Both women have smart, warm voices—they are natural storytellers who bring their family stories to life in a way that makes them feel both rare and universal. Almost immediately, I started to chill out and get really into this book, which combines a sweeping romance with a great deal of historical research about complicated topics like anti-Semitism and Catholic conversion in Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon, and bourgeois values in Budapest during the interwar period. These were subjects I studied with great interest in college—I studied abroad in Budapest for a semester, living just a few blocks from the Dohany Street Synagogue, mentioned often in Szegedy-Maszak’s book. I rode the same subways that the author’s family did while living out these scenes, and the prose taps into that deep well of wonder I had as a young person delving into a new place, startled and amazed by what I learned of it.

My NaNoWriMo project does not take place in Hungary, but the main character is a college student far from home. Simply thinking about my own college memories brings up all kinds of things from that time I had forgotten about: How often I ate Subway sandwiches for dinner, because I didn’t know how to cook anything; how exciting it was to be invited to a party, and how much planning went into the outfit that I would wear; how easily I got lost when I went to a new city, not just because the city itself was new, but also because I didn’t yet know how to go to a new city—how to find out what I didn’t know.

This fall a discussion developed on the Book Country discussion boards about whether reading was “an acceptable procrastination technique,” and our members were almost uniformly in support. One member, Carl E. Reed, wrote that “Everything is grist for the mill when you’re a writer.”

I thought of that as I sat back down with my NaNoWriMo project this week. I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is an unlikely source of inspiration for my particular work-in-progress, but it remains one just the same. Carl and the rest of the Book Country community were right, and because of that, I’ve resolved not to feel guilty about reading during NaNoWriMo anymore. You never know how a good book might jumpstart your own Nano inspiration.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.



To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, Simon GarfieldNot long ago, my 25-year-old son told me something I never thought I’d hear from him. He wanted to write to a female friend he’d met recently in Portugal, but there was an obstacle in his way called technology. He wrote to her by email, and she replied, and then he wrote again, all within a day. But this was not a satisfying exchange; it was just too damn quick. What he envisaged when he first thought of writing was a genuine meeting of minds, a Henry Miller/Anaïs Nin or Kingsley Amis/Philip Larkin kind of thing. Perhaps romance would blossom, and perhaps it wouldn’t, but at least there would be some time to mull things over a little bit in an intelligent way.

Fat chance. He soon found that email, wonderful thing that it is in so many ways, is rather too instant for gestation and deeper thoughts amassed over time; wait a week to return an email and people think you’re dead. And so my son’s relationship with his potential new friend petered out as quickly as it formed. He could, of course, have maintained the correspondence the way we’ve done it for a handful of years before email – pen, paper, envelope, stamp, postal system – but he’s 25, busy with filmmaking, and the thought of spending money on a stamp and then having to catch the last post had long ago begun to seem rather Victorian to him.

He told me this story when I was almost at the end of my new book about the history of letter-writing, and, magpies that writerly fathers are, I couldn’t help but put it in the epilogue. The ability to correspond slowly was another important thing sacrificed to brilliant technology. I added it to the list of other things we stand to lose when we abandon letters: an ability for secret intimacy; an ability to document our personal history in a meaningful way (more meaningful than just arrangements and links to cute cat vids); an ability to uncover secrets in attics years later; an appreciation of the beautiful – lovely paper, careful handwriting, emotion on a page that may be treasured or burnt.

Everyone writes a letter differently; everyone writes an email that looks the same. Fairly obvious really, and this has clearly been a slow decline over two decades. In To The Letter I wanted to emphasize how important this transition really is. I argue that it’s the biggest loss of the digital revolution, more significant than the loss detailed in my last two books about typefaces and maps.

So what will we miss most? And what will I miss most?

Love letters, obviously. Partly this is because I’m very happily married, so no new love letters for me beyond fuzzy things from my wife in birthday cards. But I really mean the idea of love letters, and their memory. My book is a trail of passion from the 12th century onwards, taking in misbehaving nuns, errant cartoonists and smitten poets, and you’ll detect their moistness on every page. There’s also a compelling (I hope) sequence of letters written during the Second World War that tracks the beginning of a beautiful and lasting relationship (I know it endured, because I obtained the letters from the correspondents’ son.)  Could they have written the way they did by email? No. Personally I’m just glad that I still have letters in shoeboxes from former beaus – almost all of which I will probably never read again. But like those kisses on the bottom, I’m glad I got ‘em.

Soon I think we will even write condolence letters by email or text. This is the last empire to crumble, and most of us have the good sense to mark a death by getting out the envelopes. But for how much longer? I’ll give it a decade or two before people start sending ‘so sorry to hear’ from a tablet.  And then it will become socially acceptable, and we’ll shrug and say how much easier and certain it is, what with postal deliveries not being what they were etc.

Condolence letters were where it really began for me with letters. My dad died 40 years ago when I was 13, and that’s the first flood of post I can remember, jamming our thin letterbox in the weeks after his death with Basildon Bond and slightly perfumed pastel-colored rectangles. Many of them said very similar things, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that friends had made the effort to sit down and gather kind thoughts about someone they loved or admired, and then wrote about him in a personal way in their own unpixelated hand. Touch has a memory. I still have those letters.

 

 

 

 

 


Beautiful Americans, Lucy SilagHalf the fun of NaNoWriMo is the breaks you take to update your word count on social media. Last weekend, I happily tweeted out my latest stats, hashtagging them with #NaNoWriMo. Then, I clicked through to see what others had just tweeted about it.

Imagine my dismay when I saw that two friends of mine from graduate school were just at that very moment engaging in a Twitter conversation about NaNoWriMo—and not a friendly one. Literary writers both, they were mocking the idea of anyone being able to write a novel in a month. One friend went for a cheap laugh by calling it “National Delete a Novel Month.”

I do not usually take people to task over differences of opinion on social media. But this time I felt compelled to intervene.

“You shush!” I tweeted at them. “I’m doing it!”

Immediately, my two friends apologized for any offense, which made me laugh, and then forgive them. They are both kind, funny people—snarky, but in a charming way. Their NaNo–naysaying was harmless. But the exchange stuck with me. Why do some writers resist the idea of NaNoWriMo, not just for themselves, but as a cultural phenomenon? What is it about binge-writing that is so distasteful to the “serious writer”?

Me, I’ve always been a fan of binge-writing. I wrote my first book, Beautiful Americans, in a series of Saturday afternoon binges. I was 23 years old, just out of college, and new to New York City. My fiancé, who was then my boyfriend, got up at 5am every Saturday for his shift at Borders at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. So every Saturday I was left to my own devices, since I didn’t have many friends in the city yet. For the first few months, I’d spent those days reading, or looking at Myspace. I’d always said about myself: “I could write a book if I tried.” Since I had some time on my hands, I decided to try.

Early drafts of that book, Beautiful Americans, were really terrible. My favorite TV show at the time was Lost, and because of that I was enchanted with the idea of my characters flashing back to really involved, harrowing scenes from their lives before they’d all met. There were about twenty main characters, and none of them were very likeable—they stole, lied, and cheated, and always with a snotty attitude. Not only that, the characters were 17 but spoke like they were 23 and just out of college—like their author. Best of all, the novel took place in Paris, a city I was not at all knowledgeable about or even particularly admired. Every time a character encountered the city around them, they remarked how much it smelled of urine.

Luckily, I was young and not very self-aware, and thought that if I was having fun doing something, I must be good at it. For hours at a time, I typed away at this manuscript, completely living in its world for the whole day. I never attempted to make it a part of my everyday life, because binge-writing was so engrossing. When I finished a draft, I binge-revised it. It went on like this for months, binge-writing and binge-revising as it made its way from pipe dream to agent to published book.

There were so many drafts of Beautiful Americans. I cannot tell you how many, because I lost count after 20. I wrote, rewrote, and copyedited that thing until it was a very, very distant cousin of the original manuscript, a cousin so far removed that they weren’t of the same species.

I recently heard a famous, National Book Award-winning writer describe her early days in this way: “I wrote my way to a new life.”  Beautiful Americans, and those long-ago Saturdays I spent just pouring out the words, not worrying if they were good or bad or even spell-checked, led me into a new life, too.

Even before I published the Beautiful Americans books, they gave me so much. Because of that first manuscript, I saved up for a research trip to Paris so that I could fact check the book before it was sent to publishers, and on that trip I started to finally see what was so enchanting about the City of Light, now one of my favorite places in the world. Writing that manuscript brought me into contact with a community of writers here in New York, which brought me friends in my city. Most of all, writing those drafts proved right something I’d always had a hunch about: I could write a book if I tried. Not everyone knows that about themselves. I do. It’s a great feeling.

I wouldn’t know what that felt like if I hadn’t started somewhere, and binge-writing on Saturdays, like Wrimos are doing all through the month of November, all over the world, is where I started.

Many “serious writers” are suspicious of NaNoWriMo because of how they painstakingly labor over every word of prose. Wrimos just let the words fly. How can something be good if so little thought is going into its construction?

Don’t be fooled by this. These are simply two ways of going about the same hard work, and arguments about which is the better way are silly.

What we do know is that one of these types of writers is spending November feeling like they are moving boulders uphill, and the other feels like they’re riding a bike downhill with no hands, whooping (or tweeting) are the whole way.

I’ll happily take the latter.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.


The Lair, Emily McKay

The second book in the series, out now!

A lot of people assume that since I write vampire novels, I must be fascinated with this particular variety of the undead. Mmmm … yes and no. There are certainly elements of vampire mythology that I find curious. I’m interested in how our perception of vampires has changed over time. But would I want to be a vampire? No. In fact, hell no. Here are my top reasons why vampirism is not for me:

  1. Eternally undead = eternally bored – I could probably get on board with the whole not aging thing (Nobody wants wrinkles, right?), but frankly the idea of never dying kind of freaks me out. Forever is a long time. I mean, wouldn’t you get bored? Are really supposed to believe vampires experience no existential angst? But maybe I just read Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit at a formative age.
  2. What if I’m an unattractive vampire? Forever? – Here’s the part where I sound vain and frivolous. (Just thought I’d warn you.) I’m still working on loosing those last ten to twenty pounds. What if I get turned before I reach my goal weight? If eternity is boring, then eternity  fifteen pounds from my goal weight … well, that just seems very disappointing. (Actually Adam Rex wrote an interesting YA about this very issue called Fat Vampire. Check it out!)
  3. Diet – and speaking of diet, don’t you think that all blood diet would get boring? I don’t even like to eat the same breakfast cereal too many days in a row (except Lucky Charms) so I can’t imagine eating the same meal every day for, oh about …eternity

    The Farm, Emily McKay

    The first book in the series

  4. Holidays – Sure, there are no guarantees that vampires even celebrate the basic holidays, but if they do, what do they eat? Does drinking blood mean no Peeps? No Cadbury eggs? No Halloween candy??? I wouldn’t want to live like that. And no turkey at Thanksgiving? (Assuming these are American vampires.) No way!
  5. I’d end up hopelessly unhip – In the end it comes down to this. I don’t think I’m cool enough to be a vampire. I don’t think I could be an ultra cool and charasmatic vampire like Lestat. I don’t adapt to change that well. I’m not even middle-aged yet, and I already use the phrase “Well, when I was young…” entirely too often. Can you imagine how bad that would be after two hundred years? Or four hundred? “You have allergies? Bah! Back in my day we had the plague!”

In the end, I guess I’ll just have to stay human. Unless I lose those last fifteen pounds. And someone makes Peep flavored blood. Then, we’ll talk.


Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story, J. Maarten Troost

As we end 2013, the Penguin staff celebrates and recommends some of the outstanding books you may have missed this year.

J. Maarten Troost is the acclaimed author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages. His third foray into the South Pacific Islands is his newest memoir Headhunters on my Doorstep. Funny and witty, I found myself laughing out loud on every page.

Following in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, Troost island-hops to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Kiribati and Samoa. In between bizarre observations of the local color, touching personal reflections and his ongoing struggle to stay clean, Troost makes the reader feel at ease, feel like they are there with him (the best kind of travel-log) and even tells the story of how he came to get his first tattoo…when he was over the age of forty – and sober! I want everyone to read this!!

- Beth Parker, Associate Director of Publicity, Gotham and Avery Books


The Lair, Emily McKayNow that the second book in the Farm series is out, I get a lot of people asking me which book was harder to write. Of course, the truth is, all books are hard to write. There’s the grueling emotional toll that writing takes on you (and if it’s not emotionally grueling, you’re not digging deep enough). And then there’s the sheer willpower it takes to sit your butt in the chair and put fingers to keyboard. That’s the same for every book. And then, there are the problems that are unique for every book. Each story taps into your fears and emotions in a different way.

When I wrote The Lair, the opening action of the book takes place at Base Camp, where the teenagers who are part of the rebellion are living. It’s winter. They’re in the mountains. And all of civilization has collapsed around them. I spent a lot of time worrying about how to feed these two hundred plus imaginary people. It’s a world without grocery stores! A world without fast food! Where is the food coming from?

The question doesn’t even take up that much of the book. It’s just something I thought about a lot. It got in my head. I found myself creeping out of bed in the middle of the night to research how to stockpile food. Did you know you can have a year’s worth of food drop shipped to your house? Did you know you can make a candle out of a can of Crisco? Did you know it’s still possible to get scurvy if you don’t get enough vitamin C? This is the kind of information that can really mess with your head.

Then one day, I went to the grocery store and they were completely out of zucchini. I freaked out, sure this was a sign of the coming apocalypse. So … um, yeah. I sort of started stock piling food.

But here’s the thing about book-related insanity: it comes and goes. Now that my Lair-related crazy has passed, my brief foray into prepping has allowed me to make a generous donation to my local food bank. That’s a good thing, right?

I’ve moved on to other forms of crazy, now. Like wondering whether evil monsters will ever invade our world from a parallel universe. And if they do, will grocery stores still operate?


The Sister Season, Jennifer ScottI started writing in 2000. The very first novel I completed was a women’s fiction mystery—a huge manuscript—set on a farm in rural Missouri. I had no luck with that novel. I was a horribly inexperienced writer, and it showed. But just the act of finishing a novel planted a deep desire, and I was determined to one day become a published women’s fiction author.

Over the next six or so years, I wrote another three women’s fiction novels. I was writing a weekly humor column for The Kansas City Star at the time, so I decided to try humorous fiction. Each novel showed improvement over the one before, but none had quite the right magic to really work. All fell flat. It seemed at times that I would never get published, but I was still determined to keep learning, and keep trying.

Eventually, I strayed away from women’s fiction. My fifth novel was a young adult novel, about the aftermath of a school shooting. To my surprise, it sold. And so did the next three after that. In 2009, after nine long years of rejection, I became a published young adult novelist, writing under the name Jennifer Brown.

But even though I was published, and I loved being a young adult author, I wasn’t published in women’s fiction, and that dream still burned in my heart. I wrote another women’s fiction novel. While it was better, it still wasn’t quite good enough.

Five women’s fiction novels written; five failed. I began to suspect maybe it was time to finally give up. To admit that I would never achieve women’s fiction publication, and that maybe I should just be happy writing it…for me.

So I regrouped. I went back to the farm that featured in the very first novel I’d written back in 2000.

It was the farm of my childhood—a bit of acreage in Pleasant Hill, Missouri that my family owned, across the road from another piece of farmland owned by a close family friend. As a child, my every Sunday was spent on that farm, working, relaxing, eating. It was a place of comfort for me. A place of adventure. A place where my imagination could run wild. A place that meant family and friendship and the beauty of the Midwest, in all of its glorious seasons.

The land is still there, and still ours, but my family stopped regularly visiting the farm in the 1980s. But it’s still as fresh to me in my mind as it was when I was ten years old. When I revisited it in my fiction, I brought some characters—sisters—who had been as long removed from it as I had been. I wondered if they could experience the magic that I had felt there so many years ago. To me, the farm itself became a character in the story. A wise, comforting, healing force in the sisters’ lives, just as it was a shaping force in mine.

That second farm story was The Sister Season. Finally, after 13 years of trying, my first women’s fiction was finally born. I believe it was the power of passion, persistence, and personal past that all came together in just the right way for me to finally achieve my dream.

I hope readers feel the same enchantment as they follow Claire, Maya, and Julia through the Missouri fields as I felt in those same beloved fields so many years ago.


The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, David Nasaw

American Experience JFK, Part 1 aired last Monday, November 11th, on PBS. This was the first of a two-part documentary honoring the life of John F. Kennedy, as we remember his life on the 50th anniversary of his assassination on Friday, November 22nd.

Historian David Nasaw is featured throughout the documentary as an expert on JFK’s life. Nasaw is also the author of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Live and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, a “brilliant, compelling” (The New York Times Book Review) biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, selected by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year and a 2013 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Biography.

PBS’s American Experience JFK, Part 2, continued November 12th on PBS, and can be viewed online. This section examines Kennedy’s inauguration For an in-depth look, we suggest Thurston Clarke’s Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. The documentary also talks a lot about Jacqueline Kennedy.  Acclaimed biographer Sarah Bradford explored the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the woman who has captivated the public for more than five decades in America’s Queen, now available with a new cover.

For more books about the life of JFK, take a look at:

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, Thurston Clarke

Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America, Thurston Clarke

If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History, Jeff Greenfield


The Lair, Emily McKay

The second book in the series, out now!

Ever once in a while someone asks why I decided to write my own take on vampires, especially since there are so many other books out there.

I was sitting in a writing workshop … oh, probably four years ago. The workshop was on world building and the presenter talked about how important it is for all the elements to make sense. At the time, I thought, “Well, the world in some vampire books doesn’t make any sense. If the vampires are really smarter, faster and stronger than us, then why are they in hiding? Why haven’t they taken over the world and started farming us as food.” And then I thought, “Someone should write a book where that happens. I’d totally read that!” And then I had that aha moment. “Hey, I should write a book like that!”

Ever since the vampire craze started (again), I’ve been missing scary vampires. So I knew I wanted to write scary vampires. I grew up watching Dark Shadows (which seemed really scary at the time) and reading Ann Rice. I wanted to be scared again.

The Farm, Emily McKay

The first book in the series

I don’t think the vampire market will ever go away completely. Vampire mythology speaks to something deep within us. Our fear and our delight in vampires is a metaphor for complex issues that terrify us. Whether you’re looking at the medieval vision of a vampire as a bloated corpus or at Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires are more than just the monsters that terrify us (or seduce us). They’re the parts of our own nature that scare us the most.

Here are some of my favorite vampires:

  • Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Thomas from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • George Hamilton from Love at First Bite (so cheesy and just so much fun!)
  • Gary Oldman as Dracula

Who are your favorite vampires?