A guest! A guest!! The lovely and Talented Corey Campbell!!

Today's guest is Corey Campbell! Corey is a fabulous short story writer, and an unbelievably kind and patient Program Representative with the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

As a student of the program, I often had the good fortune of chatting with Corey, not just about my courses, but also about writing and the writing life. It was during one of these chats that I cornered Corey into being my guest...and she agreed!! Lucky me.

Check out her terrific work here...



1.) What drew you to writing short stories? What is it about the form that you like, and what is it that you find the most challenging?

In college I ended up getting a degree in filmmaking, though 2/3 of the way through that program I realized that a) I was too shy to direct people on a film set and b) what interested me most was the story itself, not the rendering of it for the screen. After college I began taking my writing more seriously, taking workshops at the Writer’s Voice in NYC and then the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

First starting out, I assumed I’d become a novelist, but short story workshops changed my mind. I loved entering a world for 15-20 pages, seeing some moment of emotional importance in a character’s life and moving on. I liked the freedom of it—that you could try anything in a short story, and if it didn’t work, no harm done, it’s easy enough to start another one. I think novel-writing would kill me, trying to orchestrate and sustain a plot over hundreds of pages. I don’t have the patience for it, or maybe I just haven’t found the right material yet. The challenge and joy of short stories is that they are such a distilled form, you really have to focus on the essential.

2.) Who are your influences? Are they other writers or do you get inspired by other forms of storytelling? For example, I myself am often inspired by the work of musicians, painters and modern dance. What about you?

Many, many writers are influences, or maybe I should say I like many, many writers—Flannery O’Connor, Susan Minot, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Antonya Nelson, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver. You can basically name all the greats. There’s so much to learn from reading their works—How do they approach a story? How do they distill it down to that essential element yet include enough texture and detail to give a sense of the characters’ entire lives?

And definitely I’m influenced by movies—David Lynch, Woody Allen, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”… I know I’m forgetting dozens of great ones. You get the sense of a great creative imagination behind these guys. Also, watching movies reminds you to write visually, to see the world you’re creating and write it in pictures. That’s been helpful—if I can’t visualize the location enough to move the characters through it, I’ve generally made a wrong turn.

3.) What kind of stories are you drawn to, and what is the single most important thing that you want your reader to come away with after having read one of your pieces?

I’m most drawn to stories that feel authentic and emotionally moving. You can think of short stories as a conduit for emotion. Maybe that sounds corny. (And that umbrella should include humor but not so much melodrama.)

I hope to think that readers see a strong sense of empathy and honesty in my stories. I generally don’t like when writers judge their characters or look down upon them rather than giving them room to be whoever (whomever?) they are. Even the sickest criminal has a human side and is worthy of narrative reflection.

4.) What does your writing ritual look like? And where do you like to write?
My writing ritual is in flux. I’m in a grad program, so lately I’ve been calibrating my writing ritual with the deadlines (which come up every three weeks). Typically, that means a few hours during the week after work and huge chunks of time on the weekends, especially right before a deadline. I definitely need to change this and would prefer to spend a couple of hours every day instead. (When I give myself 7 hours on a Sunday, for example, I tend to get the same amount of work done that I would in just two hours on a random Tuesday.) Lately I’ve been writing in my new-ish apartment in Koreatown. It’s on the 5th floor, so there’s a great view of the old 1920s buildings in the neighborhood. And my coffeemaker is nearby—very important for these never-ending sessions on deadline night.

5.) What are you working on now?
I just finished a 45-page essay about short story endings for my grad program. Hopefully, I’m finished working on it for good (advisors are reviewing it now, fingers crossed). Now I’m working on a short story I started a few years ago but couldn’t make work. I don’t want to go into the plot really, but there’s some suburban unrest and a possible element of magical realism, which I haven’t really used before. I hope I’m better equipped now to shape the story in the way it needs to be.

6.) What advice would you give to other writers?
Be kind to yourself. (In other words, beating yourself up over lack of discipline can be way counterproductive.) But at the same time, respect your writing enough to give it time and attention. It is and should be a priority. And when it’s really working, can be fun.

7.) Anything else that you would like to add...
Thanks for the interview!


The name game....

This post comes late, I know. I have been all consumed with revisions and renaming my new novel. My friend and mentor, hated the name "Homecoming", and my agent, wasn't too thrilled about it either, so I had to find a new one. Every time I took a break, I would jot down ideas for a new title.

I can name anything. It's one of the ways that I make my living, but when it comes to naming my own books...I am hopeless!! I want the name to say everything and I want it to be catchy and I want it to have a wide appeal, and I want, I want, I want...sigh. Let's face it, a great name can make all the difference, it can stop that browser in the book store from browsing and get them to actually pick up your book and turn it over to read the back, or better yet, open the first page and get so hooked on the story that they have to buy it!!

After many terrible suggestions, I think I just might have it...a name that makes people go...yes, I want to read that! I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, it's back to revisionland.



Yesterday morning I sent my manuscript to a fabulous and brilliant writer friend, who read my ms and got back to me with notes all in one day!! I was beyond thrilled with the feedback and with the great suggestions at what could be strengthened and drawn out more. I have pages and pages of notes and am so excited about revising my novel, that I can barely stand it!

I used to hate revisions. Somehow revising meant to me that I wasn't doing something right. That the work wasn't good enough, or that I wasn't talented enough, and now I look at revising as an opportunity to really strengthen my work. As this is my second book, I have a little more knowledge, of just how competitive the book world is, and what it really takes to make a novel stand out amongst the countless manuscripts all vying for a few spots on a publishers desk.

This novel was exhausting to write. It was challenging technically and complicated emotionally, and that last thing I expected was to find a second wind when it came time to revise, but I have. Today after a long walk with the pooches, I am going to get down to revising...with an enormous cup, okay, second cup of coffee. I can not wait!!


Amazing Author: Maggie O'Farrell

It's Tuesday and I am bringing you another amazing author interview, courtesy of the amazing author Caroline Leavitt.

Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. Look for her new book Pictures of You coming out from Algonquin this November 2010.

or me, there are certain books that you feel compelled to reread every year. After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell was one of those books that I carried around with me because I couldn't stop reading it. She has an astonishing new book out, The Hand That First Held Mine, and already it's getting dog-eared. Tracking two different London women, fifty years apart, the novel meditates on memory, art, longing, motherhood--and loss. I was thrilled that Maggie offered to answer some questions. Thank you so much, Maggie.

In many of your novels, you veer from the past to the present, with multiple perspectives. Do you believe we can ever escape our pasts—or recover from our secrets?

It’s not so much that we can’t escape our pasts – we are our pasts. We’re made up of every experience we’ve ever had. I think life adds layers to us, like different strata in rock. Everything is embedded in there, visible or not.

I was about a quarter sure that I knew what was going to happen in this novel, and then was thunderstruck when I got to the truth. Did you know this was going to happen before you wrote the novel or did it just come to you? And are you one of those writers who do like to know?

The central mystery of the story was clear to me from the book’s inception: everything else had to be fitted in around. I don’t generally plan my novels to every last detail before I start; I know writers who do but I prefer to work things out along the way, with just a few ideas in place before I begin. The challenge for me is to link these ideas together. One of the things I like best about writing is when you think the book is going in one direction but then it takes off somewhere else. It keeps you on your toes when your characters assume a life of their own; it’s also a sign that you’re doing something right. So I started with the idea of two women living fifty years apart in the same city but everything else evolved along the way.

The novel talks a lot about what it means to balance being an artist, a lover and a mother, which felt as difficult to modern day Elina as it does to Lexie in the past. Do you think it’s possible to have it all, or do you think something always has to be given up in the process? You’ve also held a variety of jobs starting out, from chambermaid to cycle courier. Did any of your own early struggles find their way into the novel?

I’m never really sure what that phrase “have it all” means. I’m uneasy with it, for some reason, probably because I suspect there’s something deeply misogynistic buried in it: you never hear it used for men, do you? It’s usually applied to women who have dared to have a career and children. The cheek of it. It is possible, of course, to work and to be a mother. But that’s not to say it’s easy. It’s a struggle and a constant act of planning, juggling and compromise. You have to decide what’s important – what to keep, if you like – and what to lose (in my case, a tidy house, orderly laundry cupboards, organised accounts have been sacrificed, not entirely reluctantly). Elina and Lexie aren’t me, in any sense, but of course there are elements of my experiences in them. Like me, Lexie arrives in London from a rural background to become a journalist. And the scenes with Elina and her tiny baby are drawn from my time with my newborn son.

I was fascinated that the book was also about how and why and whom we love and the choices we make because of that emotion, from the shock of love for a newborn to Lexie’s devotion to Innes Kent who helps transform her. In many of your novels, love goes hand in hand with secrets. Do you think love can ever be easy, or is it just the nature of love to be elusive and complicated?

Human beings are very complex creatures so any form of interaction between them is going to be fraught with uncertainties and ambiguities. Loving another person is easy and also alchemically strange. But I would say that the relationship between Lexie and Innes is remarkably uncomplicated: she loves him, he loves her. Yes, there are complications, as in every relationship, but if that bedrock is there nothing much can threaten it. The difficult bit is finding someone you love who loves you back. If that’s in place, everything else can always pretty much fall in step, don’t you think?

Elina and Lexie live in the same London, but fifty years apart—which makes it a different London—there’s that sense of dislocation like when you wake up and it takes you a while to recognize your room. I loved that you mentioned that these two women hear each other’s echoes over time. Do you believe that such echoes are possible or was this a (brilliant) literary device?

I think such echoes are always possible. Ten years or so we bought a house that needed a great deal of renovation. It was over a hundred years old and we knew from the deeds of the house that we were its sixth owners. At one point, a wall separating two bedrooms caved in and it was possible to see five layers of wallpaper, like skins of a onion. There was the original Edwardian wallpaper, right next to the plaster, a heavy gold-and-red pattern, and five others had been laid over it, at one time or another. So although I knew nothing about the house’s five previous owners, apart from their names, I now knew their tastes in wallpaper. And that they had stood once in this room, as I was doing, deciding what colour to decorate it and would it suit gold or green or blue or lilac?

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?

Um. No mortification necessary.


Finished Drafts

I have been working away like a maniac on finishing a draft of my new novel. It is strange to say that it is a first or a second or third draft, as I rewrite and revise constantly while I am writing. It is however the first time that I have put it all together and it can be read, completed from start to finish and that is an exhilarating and terrifying thing!!

I finished this weekend and when I was done, I felt like I had pulled an all-nighter, the kind where you have had so much coffee to drink that your head is buzzing and you are exhausted. Too exhausted to sleep. It's a feeling that has been a pretty constant one in the process of writing this book. It has been demanding and difficult and really challenged me as a storyteller, and I am so thrilled that it is finally all coming together.

Yesterday, I crept around the apartment as my husband read my manuscript. He was reading it in 100 page chunks, and then we would talk about it, which I loved. But last night he plowed through the last 150 pages and I was on pins and needles, anxiously waiting to hear what he thought and if it worked. I hoped he liked it, I hoped he thought it made sense, I hoped, I hoped, I hoped.... And he did.

When he finished the last page and fell back on the couch exhausted, I felt overjoyed, that it wasn't just me who found this book to be an emotional marathon, but my reader as well. That's what I hope for as a writer, that what I have been working to communicate comes through and that the experience of reading it, is just as rich as the experience of writing it.

Now it is time for some more gentle revisions and then I will send it off to a dear friend to comb through and my pages and get tough on them. Then more rewrites. But I am so close, and I am just thrilled. Thrilled, and exhausted and wide awake, all at the same time.


Amazing Author: Anne Lamotte

It's Tuesday and I am bringing you another amazing author interview, courtesy of the amazing author Caroline Leavitt.

Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. Look for her new book Pictures of You coming out from Algonquin this November 2010.

Anne Lamott should be a national treasure (complete with a holiday named after her.) Her book on writing (Bird by Bird) is required reading for any budding writer (or anxiety written pro), her book on having a child (Operating Instructions) should be tucked inside every diaper bag, and her novels simply soar. Her newest, Imperfect Birds, returns to one of her earlier novels, Rosie, to tell the story of teenage drug culture and parents being terrified for their the safety of their kids. It's as remarkable as she is--and thank you, thank you, Anne for answering my questions.

Of all your books, this one was the one that absolutely terrified me. It was so raw, so real (plus, I’m the mother of a 13 year old who worries about the future endlessly) and yet, it also was, to me, the most spiritual of your books, too. Would you say this is because in those dark, scary moments, that’s when there is light (if you can notice it?) Or that being tested give us an opportunity to reveal our best (as well as our worst) selves?

When we are faced with really frightening developments in our lives, like loss or a bad diagnosis or a lost child, we get stripped down to what is true and essential--and this is the most spiritual place we can arrive at. And then to be deeply loved in such a raw and undefended state--without armor, routine, and the ability to Fake it--is the absolute definition of Spiritual.

Knowing Rosie (from your novel Rosie) as a child and then seeing her as a teenager here also made this book more nerve-wracking for me. Because Rosie was the child of an alcoholic mother, I was sure Rosie would never want to have anything to do with substance abuse. Is this usually the case?

There's no such thing as "usually the case". Kids with alcoholic parents have a genetic predisposition to be alcoholics or substance abusers. I really have not observed a "norm". What I've observed in Marin is high-achieving kids with seemingly ideal family circumstances, who have lost their lives, minds, futures, to high risk behavior. We just lost another gorgeous 17 y.o. Marin girl last weekend, about to graduate, who got drunk with her girlfriends about 20 minutes from my home, fell off the cliffs into the ocean, and washed up near Muir Beach.

doesn’t believe in God, though she does seem to have a belief in some things, and there was that powerful scene in the sweat lodge where she feels a glimmer of something larger than herself. Do you think it matters whether you do or you don’t believe, as long as you are open to the moment? And that being open to one moment, like in the sweat lodge, might make you open to more moments?

Yes, I do think there an many many ways to opening our hearts and awakening to the present--and Presence. To seek this presence, of a deep rich reality, the shimmering Now, is to find it. And then some commit to developing this sense of Life, and other people keep hitting the snooze button via workaholism or multi-tasking, which is absolutely life-destroying

For me, the novel was about the reality we create for ourselves—i.e. Rosie’s reality is that what she is doing
isnt so wrong, but James and Elizabeth reality about what she is doing is really something different. Rosie lies, but so does Elizabeth to James. You nail the fierce love parents have for their kids, and the pain when those kids start to pull away into their own lives (as well they should) and their ignorance of the pain it causes their parents. How do you think it’s possible for anyone to really know the truth and reality of someone else’s life? And is there a way we can be better at it?

I don't know that we can really understand what it's like to be another person's, but we can see when people are exhibiting self-destruction and deceit. Parents have to be willing to risk not being the coolest parent on the block, in order to set healthy boundaries, and to impose appropriate consequences for lying, stealing, smoking, etc. A lot of parents so desperately need their kid's affection that they (maybe unconsciously) don't see what their kids are up to--don't see the cries for help, the out-of-controlledness. They don't want to fight with their kids, or have their kids pull away, and so they keep their heads in the sand, or get it to come out OK in their minds--ANYthing that will keep the appearance of closeness: anything to avoid making waves. But as I said, another 17 year old died this weekend.

I’m intensely curious about process, so can you talk a little bit about yours in writing Imperfect Birds? And can you talk about what you are working on now?

Well, novels as you know are a lot harder than stories or essays--it takes close to 3 years, and you never quite know what you're doing. I really try to commit to my characters, and capturing each one's voice and truth, instead of committing to a finished novel. It can be a nightmare for a lot of the process, because you're trying to keep so many plates spinning in the air. So I just to get a day's work done everyday. I let myself write incredibly shitty drafts. I ask one or two cherished writer-friends for feedback. I read novels, to see how other people handle tough stories of being human, and in families, and community; how we survive unsurvivable loss, how we grow, how we age, how we heal, how we keep our senses of humor. And I write everything over, and over, and over; and rely DEEPLY on great editing.

What question didn’t I ask that I really and truly should have?

You could ask how Sam is doing! He is 20 now, a student of industrial design at an art academy in San Francisco, and he and his girlfriend have an 8 month old baby boy, who (along with Sam) is the apple of my eye. His name is Jax; my grandma name is Nana.


Creating new traditions...

I am from a mixed faith family. My Mom's side is Jewish, my Dad's side is Catholic, and my grandmother was a seeker who studied just about every religion growing up, and shared what she felt was the best of each of them with me.

I will freely admit that as a child it could be very confusing, as I desperately wanted to belong to one or the other, but as I got older, I began to really appreciate that my family hadn't give me any easy answers in the faith department. Well, they had given me one. Love. Love and let live. If something works for someone, good. As long as that belief is full of love and doesn't condemn or alienate, or hate on anyone else, than fine. In other words, they taught me to respect my own beliefs and to respect others. Like my grandmother, they supported my curiosity into other faiths, beliefs and philosophies and never insisted that I had to name what it was that I felt. There was, and still is, a general understanding that we all have our own way of seeing things, and that is a good thing.

One thing we all liked to do though, is get together to mark the holidays and hang out with each other over good food, and great desserts. And so this year far away from my Canadian family's Passover Seder/ Easter dinner, my husband and I kept our own little tradition alive, by having a a dinner with the two of us, reading from the Haggadah that was give to me by best friend's mother as a child, and eating a splendid meal that I bought from start to finish from The Larchmont Larder. This too is a bit of a tradition, as my mother stopped cooking for all of us and started ordering instead as we got older! And on Easter Sunday, we were invited to a neighborly Easter get together, with about a dozen people who live on our street, and it was fabulous!

I love honoring traditions and keeping them alive, and I love finding ways to do so that feel honest and true to who I am and how I live my life. What about you? do you have any new traditions that you love...say a "birthday week" or something special?


Catching my breath...

I know it's Tuesday and that is the day that I bring you another Amazing Author interview, but this week I am going to encourage everyone to read through the interviews that I have already posted if you haven't had a chance and promise that next week I will be back with a great interview that Caroline Leavitt did with Anne Lamotte.

If things are a bit out of order with the blog this last week, it's because so am I. I have been working non-stop on a big freelance project that needs to be done by Thursday. It's for a new company, which means that everything is being formed for the first time, the personality, the tone, the way of communicating ideas, everything is being shaped from scratch, and it is such a thrill to be get it on the ground floor and be a part of a launch. It is also a tremendous amount of work and everything else has taken a back seat. My novel that is calling to me, the paper work that is piling up on my desk, my closet that is bursting at the seams and needing to be organized...all of it, must wait. There are just two days left to go and then everything, and everyone else that needs me, can have my attention again. But until then, I am like a horse with blinders on, racing to the finish line. A tired, over caffeinated, horse. Giddyyup!!
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