Shaping The Story

From Stephen Koch’s wonderful and very useful Writer’s Workshop.  He was a professor of mine at Columbia University.


“In Chapter 1, we pointed out that the Latin root of the word invent means “to discover.”  Writers do not make up stories. They find them.  They uncover them; they discover them.  Sometimes they find them in the real world.  Sometimes they find them in the depths of their imaginations.  In either case, they invent stories by finding them and, conversely, they find those very same stories by inventing them.  Which comes first?  That’s the elusive part—the interplay between making it up and digging it up.  Your imagination will not always know the difference.”


I find it incredibly helpful to remember and remind myself that stories don’t come out of thin air, that they are discovered. Koch’s book is enormously insightful.  I recommend it to all writers and teachers of creative writing.


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Life Is Sweet: Interviewed By Maribeth Clemente, A Prose-Writing Telluride Ski Instructor

What a lot of fun.  I love Telluride.  I loved meeting Maribeth Clemente.  She was the ski instructor of some friends’ children. They invited my son to join the instruction — lucky son, then lucky me.  Maribeth and I discovered we were both writers.  Over the summer she read Dear Money and interviewed me for her show.  Great questions and lovely insight.  A bonus: she’s helping arrange my return to Telluride, to The Wilkinson Public Library next March.

Click to link and listen

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My Brilliant Bombshell Of A Sister

Jenny, my sister, is now reviewing for Bookslut, the brilliant book review site.  She has a column called The Bombshell. Read it and enjoy.  Also be aware: she’s about to launch her own site any day now:

At the end of Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poet’s genius as: “…a hidden life like a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom. The poetry it fueled,” she advises, “must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, dangerous.”
It gives me enormous pleasure to inaugurate my Bookslut column, which I have entitled The Bombshell (bomb-shell: a shattering or devastating act, event, etc.; a fair-haired person, esp. a woman, of startling vitality or physique. -OED), with Gordon’s bombshell of a book about one of literature’s greatest bombshells, who also happened to be a flaming redhead.

click here for more

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Art, Money, & Character: Literary Agent, Cullen Stanley, Challenges Martha McPhee About Dear Money

Cullen Stanley, Literary Agent: Janklow Nesbit

CS: I’ve heard you describe India Palmer’s transformation from writer to trader as a Pygmalion story. Could you elaborate on that and why you selected this kind of transformation for your protagonist?

MM: I was propositioned by a Wall Street trader and he said if you give me 18 months I can turn you into a trader. This struck a chord. It was 2004. He’d been explaining the mortgage-backed securities market, and I thought it tapped into a very American concern. The idea of real estate and the American dream of home ownership, that it had become available to so many more people. I was curious about mortgage-backed securities and felt it was rife with metaphor. People all across America were buying real estate they couldn’t afford believing that it would appreciate in value and tomorrow the value of the house would increase and they’d be rich. One of those something-for-nothing, get-rich-quick schemes that was being sold as an opportunity available to everyone without much understanding that values can also plummet. I was particularly interested in this American desire that places a bet on the belief that tomorrow will be a better day. This irrepressible optimism became a right that was played out in real estate.

Simultaneously I was interested in the idea of the artist chucking it all for money, and through this taking a look at the intersection of art and commerce. In this world of ours that cares so much about money, where does the artist stand when worth is based on the sum of your income? Additionally, we seem to want our art to make us feel good, to pacify.  I wanted to look at the ugly truth behind these two conflicting desires, exploring all this with a Pygmalion trope.

CS: Is India Palmer representative of you? The book is written in first person and like IP, you’ve written several books. Would you say DEAR MONEY is autobiographical?

MM: Certainly it is in some regards. I believe all novels are autobiographical in one way or another. I chose to make IP a novelist because I wanted to look at things that concern me as an artist, as a writer, as a mother, as a person living in the world, primarily the issue of money and what you give up to be an artist.  I wanted to use myself (and all of my desires) as a foil, make fun of that part of me that I also see in many others.  Also, I wanted to capture what it can feel like to be in a world of wealth while creating something ephemeral that doesn’t seem to be valued. The first question I’m asked by many is “how are your book sales?”  That, of course, is a stand-in for “are you making money?”  I wanted to look honestly at that feeling of longing — for the dress in the window, of wanting to partake of the dessert tray — as it collides with the desire to make art.  But then, what I wanted to do with equal urgency was to put on a different mask, a very different mask. The photographer Cindy Sherman comes to mind – the way she photographs herself in many different disguises.  I wanted to assume the role/mask/disguise of the bond trader to look at the other side, to look at the life not lived, and to explore the pursuit of that longing IP has, follow it to the dark end of the road with a bit of wickedness thrown in for good measure.

CS: IP could be considered an unlikeable character, the way she trades art for filthy lucre. What is your attraction to IP as a character?

MM: My first attraction to her is that she’s somebody who is driven, determined. She’s scrappy, she’s game. As I was writing her character, she made me think of women characters in literature I enjoy a lot: Lily Bart, Becky Sharpe, Undine Spragg, and Scarlet O’Hara. Who would those women be today? I don’t find these characters unlikeable. I find them interesting and I find they describe an historic period.

Additionally, I would never have thought this at the start of the novel, but it seemed to wind up that India became a metaphor for the endgame of capitalism. I don’t think you can begin a novel with that kind of premise – it was an accident – but it turned out that way.

But I would also like to add that I do not judge India. I think we have gotten to this place in society, in our world as a collective whole. We are cogs in a system and many of us to some degree play a part. India as a writer contributes her part alongside the banker. This is not to say that you can’t lay blame at the feet of bankers, brokers. I just think that is a little too easy and I enjoy complexity. I appreciate the bigger picture and we’ve all bought into it – or most of us – in one way and another.

CS: Do you ever find yourself judging other characters in literature? Are there characters that you dislike?

MM: I want to be entertained and provoked to thought by character. I don’t judge them. I watch them, though I confess I thought Emma Bovary was a complete brat and I struggled to relate to her predicament but I was very young when I read that novel and idealistic. So perhaps this is because I couldn’t see her in her historical context or understand yet what time can make of us.  Funny enough when interviewed by Michael Silverblatt for KCRW’s Bookworm (a terrific interviewer, one of the smartest book people I have ever met) he likened attributes of IP to Emma Bovary.  I’m about to re-read Madame Bovary and look forward to thinking about her again. She’s a product of her time and he, Flaubert, was ahead of his time. Becky Sharpe isn’t admirable in a classic sense like Dorothea in Middlemarch or Melanie in Gone With The Wind, but I love to watch her as she tries to get what she wants, her skill at manipulation. Thackeray draws her very well and at the end he punishes her. She gets her comeuppance. I can be more critical of the author and the judgment an author makes of his characters, especially when she or he doesn’t have sympathy for human foible. I want the author to show some sympathy with the character’s limitation. This elicits recognition from me as a reader. The range and scope of humanity is what appeals to me about character and the author’s engagement with character.

CS: Emma in DEAR MONEY accepts her husband’s risky career change. She seems to be the antithesis of India, someone who accepts what life gives her.

MM: Well, CS, I must stop you first to point out that you describe Will’s career change as “risky.” He’s a man who gives up a secure position earning money to become an artist; yet India, who gives up an insecure position as an artist for a secure position earning money, can be characterized as “unlikeable” for her pursuit of “filthy lucre.” There’s something sexist there. This also raises another point: we ask our artists to be pure and above material desire. Is that realistic? Is that fair? Historically, there are so many artists that desired money. Twain (“Lack of money is the root of all evil.” or “We have the best government money can buy” and Melville — famously come to mind.  It is that exact perception that I’m engaging.

Consider, too, the countless novels that are all about the artist needing and desiring more. Look at New Grub Street by George Gissing, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, The Masterpiece by Zola. I really could go on and on. The Way We Live Now by Trollope. So money and the arts, it’s delightful to have fun with this theme.

Back to Emma: Emma couldn’t sustain a whole novel as a main character. She’s someone I’d love to be because she is completely grateful and content with what life hands her, like Melanie. But watching characters pursue what they want, whether they get it or not, is the momentum behind most fiction. Just think for a moment of Clyde (such a great name for him) in An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser or again of Lily Bart, who I don’t believe would commit suicide today. As it happens both of them want money and we watch them as they pursue getting it.

CS: Yes, but wouldn’t you say that both of those characters get their comeuppance in the end? Clyde is condemned for murder and LB kills herself.

MM: Clyde committed murder, he should be punished. Lily Bart, as I said, I don’t believe she’d commit suicide today. In writing DM, I was not interested in punishing, in making a tidy, moral ending. In DM, I wanted to step inside this other world, but also a world filled with wanting, the ugly truth, our America, one of hubris, explode it, open it up, toss it into the air, and leave it suspended there like fireworks to be observed.

CS: Is this why the reader of DM doesn’t know what IP chooses to do at the end of the novel: write a book or tear down a house?

I’m not sure I’d agree that the reader doesn’t know – that’s up to each reader. Sure, I leave it open – but I believe the clues are there. As I said, I didn’t want to give answers and a neat, tidy conclusion. I know what she does. Or I have an idea of what I think she does, but my ambition was to leave it to the imagination of the reader and hopefully in that provoke thought about where we are as a culture. Has she missed it all, or is she going to sit back and watch the fireworks, as Theodor says she will, and then turn around and write a book of this story, a memoir of sorts of her time on Wall Street at the height of the housing bubble?

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My Husband is a Poet: It’s Poetry Month

A Crossing

From them the dust and from them the storm,

and the smoke in the sky, and a rumble in the ground;

and from them the very sky seeming, from afar, parabolic;

from the curve or girth beyond the eye’s reach;

                                                            from/across/& through—

a beautiful level and fertile plain—

with soggy bottoms of slender allium

or nodding onion the size of musket ball,

white, crisp, well-flavored; from the high grass stretching 

                                                            into tomorrow

the welcoming committee assembles & gathers—

each dark visage a massive escarpment

that stares out of bewilderment;

—from their river crossing, and from somewhere

                                                            inside the huff, hieratic ohm—

the beck-and-echo, returning call

of calves mothering-up; from the dark script

of the herd, frequently approaching more nearly

to discover what we are,


                                                            with/across/& to

the cataract of time:

this steady, animal regard,

this gaze of theirs, the size and scale of it,

so amassed,

arrests the men, who look them back

                                                            as they must/& do/& will—

from a bookcase, from a window sill.

From Empire Burlesque  by Mark Svenvold

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For Writers, Plots Emerge With Time

Mona Simpson, at Hofstra for The Great Writers Great Readers series, put it quite simply: “The older I get the more interested I become in plot.”  Why?  Because with time life’s plots reveal themselves unequivocally.  One begins to understand that while there may be as many stories as there are people, there are a finite number of plots. Patterns emerge, but it takes a life of gossip and talk about those lives to begin to recognize those selfsame patterns—and how they might in some way become useful to a writer of fiction. The most popular girl in highschool becomes a prostitute in her twenties.  By her thirties she’s in rehab for drug addiction.  In her forties, you hear through friends, she’s married to a banker, living on Park Avenue.  Marriages end, dreams fail, friends die tragically, murders (yes even murders) occur, sickness fells a young mother, careers skyrocket, fame graces a few fortunates, hardwork pays off and also it doesn’t, children grow up and bring along their own new plots, the prince and princess for whom your maid also works ends up blowing their astronomical wad, leaving a trail of debt in their wake.  By the way, these are all true stories.

When I wrote my first novel, Bright Angel Time, I did not care about plot at all.  My professor at Columbia University’s MFA Program in Fiction, Robert Towers, kept asking me, “Where’s this going, Martha?”  I can still hear the faint drawl of Texas in the sound of his words, still see him puzzeled, sitting at his desk.  By this point in his life, he must have known many plots—his own and those of others.  I knew only the stories of my childhood.  They were abundant and fertile, but still truncated.  Time hadn’t had its way yet with these lives and I didn’t quite appreciate the extent of pleasure and destruction that could and would occur.   So as a young writer, by default really, I cared mostly about language.  I recall a student in workshop saying, “Martha’s language is too rich, like a dark chocolate.”

Thinking about plot, I realize I have come to care about it much more too.  Dear Money, my latest novel, has plot as its engine.  It was a challenge I set for myself.  I wanted the book to be linear (all of my previous novels were anything but linear) and I wanted there to be a clear forward momentum—a character wanting something and going after it.  (By the way, I also didn’t want anyone to die, and I almost got away with that: there are only two deaths in the novel.  Both are insignificant—if you can say that about death—to the storyline.)  What I hadn’t understood was that age led me to this.  The plot of Dear Money in some ways follows that of Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself a variant of the “stranger comes to town” sort—in this case a big wheel in Wall Street offers a modern-day “flower” girl (a middle-aged, mid-list writer) the chance to chuck it all and step into the world of the mighty and the powerfully rich during a foolish decade in which the plots of the mighty and the powerful seemed to obliterate everthing else.

Dear Money Book Trailer: Let’s Blow It All

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I’m Honored To Present Mona Simpson






Mona Simpson is coming to Hofstra University on Wednesday, March 10 at 7PM to read in the library’s Cultural Center Theater.  You are welcome to join us.

In 1988 my father introduced my sisters and me to Mona. We were all living in New York City then and so was Mona. She had recently published her first novel, Anywhere But Here, and my father had read it, loved it, and given it to his girls because he thought we might love it too. He met Mona at Princeton University where he teaches.  That year she was the fortunate recipient of a Hodder Fellowship.  I’ll never forget how I devoured her book, realizing as I read it that I had to be a writer too, that I wanted to study it, each sentence to see how it was made. And I will never forget the dinner at my sister Laura’s old apartment on 108th Street, meeting this spectacular woman whose work I so admired. We became fast friends, shopping together, running together, being single in New York together.  I looked up to her, asked her about writing, trying to glean from her the big lessons of this career.  Generous and loving and kind, after a while my father referred to her at his fifth daughter.  Young writers are so fortunate if they have a role model.  She was mine.  She and her work, without doubt, drove me to have the courage to write my own fiction. 

Now all these novels and years later, I bring Mona Simpson to Hofstra University’s Great Writers Great Readings series because I want to share her with my students and the larger Hofstra community. I know she will inspire all.  Please come.

Next in the series is the poet Rosanna Warren on April 14th.  Same place.  Same time.


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