Novelist Becomes A Bond Trader: My Galleys Have Arrived!

Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  I love holding the galley in my hand.  I love the shape, the size.  It’s a beautiful object, a prelude to the book.

I first began thinking about this story on Easter in 2004.  I was at my mother’s farm and for various reasons a bond trader for a glittering Wall Street firm (I’m not allowed to reveal the name—but you’d know it) was there (I’m not allowed to reveal his identity either).  I chatted him up, curious to understand what it was that he did that caused him to earn so much money.   (A reputation preceded him: multiple houses designed by famous, dead, architects, multiple children all in private school.  He arrived and departed in a limo, ferrying him to and from New York, idling for him while he enjoyed the Easter festivities, his driver keeping the car warm.  My trader oozed bravado and money the way some ooze sex appeal.)  He traded mortgage-backed securities, (yes those things that no one had ever heard of and that did but still don’t understand—those things that brought the world economy to a grinding halt) had actually become a manager at this glittering firm high up in the clouds above Manhattan.  Traded what? People’s mortgages, pools of them.  Pools?  He told me all about the MBS market, about the slicing and dicing of vast pools of mortgages—mortgages bundled together to create giant bonds desired by insurance companies, retirement funds, foreign countries even.  Mortgages in all sizes and shapes were lumped together to create  enormous, astonishing wealth.  As he spoke I was fascinated, riveted really.  (Remember, this was 2004.)  These bankers took our puny mortgage debts (all the yous and all the mes with our unreliable spending habits and our uncertain futures) and amassed it and gambled on it, creating bonds and ultimately a market that at that time was bigger than the entire combined US stock markets, accounting for 8 trillion dollars of debt.  (Just 3 years later it would weigh in at 11 trillion.)  This was story line on an Olympian scale.  This was imagination at work, imagination with consequences—nothing less.

In a cultural that could allow this to happen, where did the artist stand?

Struck by my curiosity and enthusiastic questioning, the fact that I seemed to get what he was speaking about, he propositioned me: “If you give me 18 months I’ll turn you into a star trader.”

“Like Pygmalion,” I said.  “You’ll transform me—starving artist to Wall Street tycoon.”  It was 2004, those heady days.  Guys like this were tired of simply having made loads of money—that was common place as was the mansion that went along with it, the private jets and yachts.  They wanted to up the ante, have a little fun and in so doing truly distinguish themselves.  I liked the notion: Galatea, Eliza Doolittle.  Dear Money is what I did with it.

Dear Money is available for pre-order at: Amazon, Borders, and Indie Bound.

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Our Last Gourmet Thanksgiving

An Ode

Once again I am reminded of, and thus devastated about, the loss of Gourmet.  We’re off to Providence for Thanksgiving.  Many McPhees collecting at my cousin’s house to cook an enormous feast.  (Twenty-six of us this year.)  We arrive each year armed with Gourmet and the intention to cook many of the recipes, replacing the ones that interest us less with recipes from past November issues.  I have had more than a few friends ask what we will do without Gourmet.  I don’t know, is the answer.  The year of the Persian-influenced Thanksgiving (I still make the jeweled rice regularly) we made every single recipe.  We even bought the calla lilies used in the illustration to decorate the table.  I can’t help feeling that S.I. Newhouse will come to his senses, that he’ll bring Gourmet back.  It will come back.  It will.  In the meantime, we have this year.  Off we go, ready to roll our sleeves up and cook: Bacon Smashed Potatoes, and Toasted Cornbread Pudding, and Kale With Panfried Walnuts, and Oyster Casserole, and Braised Turnip Greens With Turnips and Apples, and Brown Sugar Baked Sweet Potatoes And Acorn Squash, Cranberry Celery Relish, and Bourbon Pumpkin Pie, and this is just the beginning.  My splendid, gracious cousin, her welcoming family, her parents, my parents (both sets divorced), our stepmothers, in-laws, a few of my many lovely sisters, all the children, even my cat—all of us in the kitchen, inspired by Gourmet: stirring, whipping, melting, rolling, stuffing, carving.  Happy Thanksgiving.

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Confession: I Can’t Spell

By the artist Janie Geiser, given to Mark and me as a wedding present

I have never been able to spell.  This is a humiliating fact for me.  I write fast and with a studied sloppiness so that the reader will think I have bad penmanship rather than bad spelling.  I can remember wincing many times, a burning humiliation.  Once even on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii at the observatory with twelve members of my family, including my father, an impeccable speller.  Up there, on top of the world, I left behind an incorrectly spelled word.  In the guest book we all noticed that a few days before us the news anchor, Tom Brokaw, had been to the observatory with his family.  Elegantly, they’d signed in and saluted fellow visitors.  Trying to be funny, I wrote something about us being up there too, but we, in our caravan, many children, one in diapers, were like the Joads.  I spelled it Jodes.  It’s up there with my signature, on top of one of the tallest mountains in the world,  if you measure the height from its base on the ocean floor to its summit.  It’s there in the guest book for everyone to see.  When I gave my father the manuscript of my first novel, Bright Angel Time, this was long before spell check, he said to me, “There are so many egregious spelling errors in here I don’t know where to begin.”  (He did enjoy the book.)  Meanwhile the manuscript was being shopped around to publishers, filled with pimples and blemishes and scars.  I can’t spell.  When I became upset in front of my father, frustrated with my spelling incompetence he comforted me, “Many writers can’t spell.  You don’t need to be able to spell to write.  Flannery O’Connor famously couldn’t spell.  Read her letters.  In fact, so many fine writers can’t spell. I always wondered if something were wrong with me since I can spell.”    It made me feel better for a bit, and I try to recall it when suffering a bout of spelling inadequacy.

The other day in one such bout, my father’s insight from years before not helping me out of it, I googled I CAN’T SPELL and found an article by Steve Hendrix, “Why Stevie Can’t Spell,”  from 2005 in the Washington Post. It was wonderful and funny and insightful and above all I am not nearly as bad a speller as he is!

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All I Want From Fiction Is A Trip — Edna O’Brien

I adore elephants.  This one reminds me of the sort of trip I’d like to be on.

“All I want from fiction is a trip. And if I don’t get that trip, I don’t care whether it’s [from] a man or a woman, I have no time for it. I don’t want to read a work that tells me a little about the world around me today. I know about the world around me. The standard of newspapers and journalism is far higher than the standard of most published fiction. So, what’s left to write about? I think feeling and emotion and all those things which are put very high on a back shelf are essential for mankind.”

Edna O’Brien

I started writing fiction after reading Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy.  The novels made me realize I had stories of my own to tell and that one could write from the point of view of a child for an adult audience.  By studying her I learned about descriptive writing and I learned how to walk the line between the perceptions of a child narrator and those of the adult reader.  After devouring O’Brien’s novels, I searched for other books from the point of view of children: Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson; What Maisie Knew by Henry James; Stop Time by Frank Conroy; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.  All were journeys through childhoods.  I wanted to take my characters on their own journey and so wrote my first novel, Bright Angel Time, using my own crazy childhood as the jumping off point for my imagination and my story, studying the techniques and styles of these authors I had come to love.  The trip always begins and ends with reading.

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Surprise Sisters

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Martha, Katherine, Vanessa

Vanessa was 4, Katherine was 6 and I was 5 when our parents fell in love and we became sudden, surprise sisters.  It’s not that I needed any more sisters.  I had 3 older sisters and 2 other (also older) new sisters belonging to my stepfather.  But Katherine and Vanessa were different.  They were so close to me in age—little girls with cool clothes and toys and who loved the same music (Diana Ross and Elton John).  They moved into my life, my house, my school.  On weekends with my father I was now put to bed with little, adorable Nessy. My father would tell stories, created just for the two of us: The Adventures of Farta and Vanasty.  We were a pair of traveling girls, flying across the world in our own small airplane with piles of cash that would get us into and out of trouble.  We didn’t want to fall asleep, though inevitably we did, longing for the next installment so we could see what became of us—how we paid off the crook just in time, fleeing into the bright blue sky.  But somehow he was on our tail, in his own small aircraft, gaining ground, with a scheme to entrap us.  Goodnight!  In the summer, Dad took us on our own special canoe trip, down the Connecticut River for an overnight camping, more Farta and Vanasty escapades.  I, being the youngest of the McPhee girls, now had Vanessa whom, I thought, I might be able to boss around.  My own little sister.  Not  a chance.

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Vanessa on the uneven bars.  I, on the lower left, look up at her with admiration.

Rather I regarded Vanessa.  She seemed to know much more, as did Katherine.  They became closer to me than my own sisters at that time (just enough older, my sisters had moved beyond make-believe). It was with Vanessa and Katherine that I did many things for the first time.  We ran away together, sleeping in the back yard until it became too dark and scary and filled with strange, haunting noises.  We smoked our first cigarettes together.  We were 8, 9 and 10.  (Don’t tell my children.)  My father smelled the smoke in the garage and came out there and said to us, “If you’re going to smoke then smoke in the living room in front of us.”  We never smoked again—well sort of.  We played a game called “Normal Day” in which we tried to sort out the adult world.  It was a game like house.  We were married to Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and OJ Simpson.  (OJ was everywhere—towels, sheets, commercials, dogs even were named OJ.)  Our homes were in the woods behind our house, forts made from branches and twigs, boulders for chairs.  We could stay in there forever.  We had loads of credit cards and long lunches and we exchanged husbands with astonishing ease, using sophisticated words like affair, adultery, tryst.   Normal Day.

Childhood passed and we started to move apart.  Vanessa began doing things before me.  she had her first serious boyfriend long before I had mine.  When high school finished, she moved far away to college.  She married.  She had babies.  She bought a house.  Katherine followed her.  I watched them from afar, always with the same admiration, as they negotiated the real adult world.  Now I only see them, at best, once a year.  But they are vivid and dear nonetheless, little girls the three of us in rhinestone t-shirts dancing across the living room to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which my own children listen to now, laughing, as we did, at the horny black toad.  Katherine and Vanessa, opening my heart, teaching me how much room is in there, how it is bottomless and boundless like that glove in the children’s story that all those animals can fit inside.

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Katherine and Vanessa as adults, flanking Yolanda, my stepmother

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Book Group: What We’ve Been Reading, And Some More Ruskin

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By the artist Jane Gennaro who has a show at Rogue Space until November 14

(drawn after our Paula Fox evening)

I was invited to join a very serious book group. There is no chat (or not much) of husbands, children, school, plastic surgery. Just the books. Since joining last January we’ve read: 2666 by Roberto Bolano (I was surprised to love this, to be swept into his wild imagination); A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul and his biography The World Is What It Is by Patrick French (Naipaul is completely nuts and brilliant); Joseph Mitchell’s Up In The Old Hotel (all together the pieces were too similar and some felt fabricated) alongside Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (captures an era in New York irresistibly); Don Quixote translated by Edith Grossman (what fun. I gave it to my father on tape, unabridged—he listened to it twice and bought the book so he could read it too); and finally How Fiction Works by James Wood and, because it inspired Wood, John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. As I said in an earlier post a little bit of Ruskin goes a long way. But there are many delightful passages. I love that he is always distinguishing between the great artist and the inferior, that he has rules for everything and then tells you to disregard them.

A few passages:

“Now remember, nothing distinguishes great men from inferior men more than their always, whether in life or art, knowing the way things are going.

Your dunce thinks they are standing still, and draws them all fixed; your wise man sees the change or changing in them, and draws them so,—the animal in its motion, the tree in its growth, the cloud in its course, the mountain in its wearing away.”

“If a great man is not in a hurry, he never pretends to be; if he has no eagerness in his heart, he puts none into his hand; if he thinks his effect would be better got with two lines, he never, to show his dexterity, tries to do it with one.”

“The other laws, if you think over them, you will find equally significative; and as you draw trees more and more in their various states of health and hardship, you will be every day more struck by the beauty of the types they present of the truths most essential for mankind to know; and you will see what this vegetation of the earth, which is necessary to our life, first, as purifying the air for us and then as food, and just as necessary to our joy in all places of the earth,—what these trees and leaves, I say, are meant to teach us as we contemplate them, and read or hear their lovely language, written or spoken for us, not in frightful black letters nor in dull sentences, but in fair green and shadowy shapes of waving words, and blossomed brightness of odoriferous wit, and sweet whispers of unintrusive wisdom, and playful morality.”

I could write many more, but won’t.  He teaches the reader to be patient and to look, to observe, to care.

Last night, I made a roast pork loin infused with maple and sage and wrapped in bacon and served it with a Persian jeweled rice.  (The recipes will go up when I have time.)  For dessert: almond cake with raspberries and cream.  The almond cake recipe is on this site.

I’d like to add that we’ve only read one woman (Paula Fox) in the year I’ve been with this group.  This raises questions for me that I’ll address in a later post.  In the meantime, please look at the comments on my previous post to see the beginnings of this discussion.

Jane's image

One more by Jane Gennaro

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The Center for Fiction Annual Benefit & Awards Dinner

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The Finalists were:

Phillip Meyer, American Rust

Patrick Somerville, The Cradle

Paul Harding, Tinkers

Yiyun Li, The Vagrants

John Pipkin, Woodsburner

And the winner is:

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Last year’s winner, Hannah Tinti, was the chair of the committee of judges and gave a thoughtful speech about why each book was selected and how each deserved to win.  They were all lovely debuts.  As one of the five judges, I enjoyed the experience completely.  There were many terrific first novels and reading so many of them across the summer, I was reminded of how lonely and also hopeful those days of writing a first book were.  It seemed this year so many of the debuts had multiple points of view and could move around and across great swathes of time with ease.  Woodsburner is a fiction inspired by a real event: a forest fire accidentally started by Henry David Thoreau in 1844.  Pipkin crawls inside this dramatic day and brings it, vitally, to the page.

The party was a good one.  My favorite surprise was Chuck Palahniuk, a figure so iconic for my students.  In his buffalo leather pants and with his terrific sense of humor, he presented the Maxwell Perkins Award to Gerald Howard.  He made fun of himself, his editor with a nerdy, boyish good sense of fun.  My students love him because through Fight Club he ignited their desire to read.  As Palahniuk said last night, “Because of Gerry there are a lot more readers out there.”

Another fun surprise was being seated next to the lovely Brettne Bloom, the agent for Patrick Somerville.  As it happens, she was a student of my sister Sarah’s at Emory University, studying art history with her.  Sarah gave Brettne two pieces of advice some ten years ago: 1) Always read The New Yorker if you want to learn how to write well.  Read it every week; 2) Go into publishing.  I am stumped by the second piece of advice — Sarah’s an art historian, what does she know about publishing and recommending it as a career path? — but Brettne took the tips to heart and has done both.

I’ve come to The Center for Fiction only recently, through my friend Rene Steinke.  It’s a wonderful organization, directed by Noreen Tomassi.  I can’t think of many places that support fiction writers of all levels and exclusively.  Fiction writers are fortunate to have it.  Check it out on-line and visit it when you’re in New York:

17 East 47th Street, New York, New York  10017

www.centerforfiction.org

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Africa (for Barack Obama), A New Song From Charles

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Image by Antar Dayal, a good friend of Charles’s

 

Africa (for Barack Obama)

Charles, my cousin, writes:

“Rod and I finished Africa on Saturday and he will mix it down this week

Our most ambitious song yet with drums and Martin acoustic guitar , clavinet and piano , three vocal tracks and electric guitar
I like it so far and look forward to hearing the mix myself
Too much fun. Choosing next song.”

Wheelchairs and Guitars

Wheel Chairs and Guitars

See earlier post, What Makes Me Smile, to learn how Charles and Rod collaborate and to hear more songs.

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A Little Bit Of John Ruskin

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The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin

My sister, Jenny, says a little bit of Ruskin goes a long way.  Here are two little bits:

“Now a stupid painter would represent, for instance, a drinking-glass beside the hand of one of his figures, and because he had been taught by rule that ‘shadow was darker than the dark side,’ he would never think of the reflection from the glass, but paint a dark grey under the hand, just as if no glass were there.  But a great painter would be sure to think of the true effect, and paint it; and then comes the stupid critic, and wonders why the hand is so light on its dark side.

“Thus it is dangerous to assert anything as a rule in matters of art…”

O.K. that’s enough Ruskin for now.  I’ll save the second bit for another day.

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Birds, Savages, & Children

French words

From A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler, 1926

FRENCH WORDS. Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth—greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion & good manners. That is the guiding principle alike in the using & in the pronouncing of French words in English writing & talk. To use French words that your reader or hearer does not know or does not fully understand, to pronounce them as if you were one of the select few to whom French is second nature when he is not of those few (& it is ten thousand to one that neither you nor he will be so), is inconsiderate & rude…. Every writer who suspects himself of the instinct should remember that acquisitiveness & indiscriminate display are pleasing to contemplate only in birds & savages & children.

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