5 min read

Writing, reading, traveling

Writing, reading, traveling
Painted Hills, OR

Dear friends,

I’m finally coming up for a little air after a busy year of traveling to Sea Ranch, to Whitley Heights, to New York City ,to Bend, to Venice Beach, to Topanga, to Laurel Canyon, and following research leads in spite of the rain and snow and other intensities in weather. I saw such beauty. I found atmospheres and settings for books I'm writing. I had the tremendous honor of presenting the National Book Critic's Circle award for Fiction to Ling Ma for her short story collection Bliss Montage.  I have been determined to find pleasure in the books I write: for research I rode on a funicular up to John Lennon's treehouse getaway and stayed in the gloomy but vintage-chic interior of the house where Sydney Prescott lived in Scream 3.

And then, after all my highflying, I was seriously felled by illness about a month ago, and hospitalized for a week, so I’ve been taking the time to sit outside with my matcha in the morning and listen to the rustling of the leaves, and feel the sun creeping across my back and realize how much I love this world, for all the chaotic messiness we humans sometimes seem destined to inflict upon it.

I have three projects underway—the small Afterwords book of criticism about The God of Small Things that I have been stalled out on a bit, a new literary suspense novel, and a short story collection. How We Know Our Time Travelers, which is scheduled to be published by WTAW Press in fall 2024.

The title story from How We Know Our Time Travelers, originally published in Alta, and performed a couple of months ago in Irvine by actress Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds) for Symphony Space Shorts on Tour. My friend H drove down with me. Afterward a group of older women approached us, wanting to know what to make of the ending, whether the husband of the narrator had truly time-traveled to find her, or whether she was mentally ill. One of them realized that I had left it ambiguous on purpose; it was extremely gratifying as a writer that they were determined to find out from me what I thought happened. The way Vangsness performed it, she preserved the ambiguity, tilting it, in certain more desperately voiced portions, towards the interpretation that the narrator is mentally ill. I like to think the right answer is time travel. It's the theme of the collection, too, how our bodies serve as time machines.

I drew a very rough, but blinged-out map as a demo for the painting and drawing class I taught at the kids’ school this year, and it is a map of the places featured in the suspense novel.

Three of the pieces I’m happiest with and hope you check out if you haven’t already are essays about literary California: one on the rise and loss of Printer’s Inc.; another essay on Whitley Heights and the Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank’s, which relates a bit to the history of screenwriters and their dashed dreams, an issue that’s been the center of film news with the WGA strike; and mostly recently a deep dive into the history and future of Litquake. I’ve gotten obsessed with literary institutions and how they survive, what makes they loved, and how the culture of a particular place affects that. The Whitley Heights piece was a dream ot research both in person and in books about William Faulkner and Gatsby and screenwriters. The restaurant and the house I stayed at, previously owned or rented by stars like Barbara Stanwyck (a block from where Faulkner spent his time with a mistress) show up in a pivotal scene of my book, which is strongly influenced by the history of subversives in Hollywood.

This is a crazy secret staircase from Milner to the Barbara Stanwyck house that features in the novel-in-progress

I also reviewed a few new books—Joanna Schwartz’s Shielded, Kelly Link’s White Cat Black Dog, and Jane Smiley’s The Questions that Matter Most.

I blurbed Head Above Water, a very good book by Shahd Alshammari that captures many of my own concerns around building a literary life with multiple sclerosis. It’s out this month from Feminist Press.

Of forthcoming releases, I have a few recommendations, but not as many as I had last year at the same time. I loved Winnie & Nelson, an astute, emotionally deft, serious-minded and Shakesperean biography of Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Benjamin Labatut’s The Maniac is absorbing, experimental around issues of fact and fiction, with an intensity of language that makes it memorable. I was pleased by the intensity of language and fascinated by the themes and up-to-the-minute quality of Sheena Patel’s merciless, but utterly engaging debut novel I’m a Fan, and it deserves quite a bit of attention; it reminded me a little of the late Jade Sharma’s funny and dark Problems. Paul Yoon’s short story collection The Hive and the Honey, with its light traces of the surreal, it’s interest in fighting, is exquisite, truly. I am also very taken with Han Kang’s intimate and unsettling Greek Lessons, about a teacher and student, each anguished at losing one of their five senses.

OH! And this might be one of the biggest work-related things I did all year, which was to interview the GOAT, novelist Percival Everett, as a stand-in for our usual California Book Club host John Freeman. I was nervous to interview someone whose work has been so influential to me. What if I didn’t like him? But someone or other must have vouched for my genuine, off-the-charts appreciation of his work and his ethos as a writer because it went well, I think. You can watch it here.

And now, I think, I’m going to sign off to go to The Stanford Theater, which has just reopened, to watch a Cary Grant double feature and maybe daydream about Bogie & Bacall, which I'm working on a review of this weekend.

Please write if you’re in the mood and let me know how you are and what you’re reading or writing or feeling.



Got the idea for a triptych of novels—the second I'm sketching out as I rewrite the first would be set here in McCloud, near Mt. Shasta.
John Lennon house with funicular —the funicular is critical to a chase scene - now I know what it feels like to operate one.
I'm going to spend the rest of my life chasing more moments of bliss. This one is from when I went to chase superblooms. We got snow and mudslides, and then the land, as if in protest, gave us this.