Coming Soon

Just a brief note about what will be happening on the blog in the next few weeks.

REVIEWS include:
One Dance in Paris by Julia Holden, a quirky tale about a young woman from Massachusetts who chases the dream of the mother who died when she was young first to Las Vegas and then to Paris after a mysterious package arrives at her door.

Bright Lights, Big Ass by Jen Lancaster, sequel to her first memoir Bitter is the New Black.

And Interviews (In Their Own Words text interviews) with
Keith R. A. DeCandido

In Their Words: Patricia Klindienst (part 5)

Describe your ideal book signing. Is it in a large chain bookstore, or a smaller independent one? Is there a café? Do they have food and drinks that tie in with your book? What is the audience like?

Bookstores with cafes are the worst—blenders whirring, milk being steamed nosily, lots of mindless chatter and the clattering of plates and forks and spoons in the background. Libraries are marvelous. Some of the most wonderful occasions for reading, showing images, talking stories, and signing books have been in libraries. My hometown library event was unforgettable.
The best audience, no matter how small, is composed of people who are really listening. Looking up to see someone letting the tears come as I read or speak about the pain of loss for immigrants, or listening as people come to me and tell me a story from their own life as they tell me who to sign for—it answers the long lonely nights of writing when you have to hold your future reader in your head in order to keep going.

Small bookstores can be wonderful. When they have to run around to fetch more chairs it feels great. My biggest events were out west. In California at a famous garden, Filoli, 130 people showed up as I honored the two Italian gardeners, Maska and Mario Pellegrini, who had died before the book came out. Four generations of their family came, friends, neighbors, other immigrants, friends of mine from various parts of my life. Someone baked and donated all the biscotti; another family donated the Italian wine. It was amazing. Then on Bainbridge Island, a hundred people squeezed into the independent bookstore, Harbor Books, including many Japanese Americans who thanked me for telling Akio Suyematsu’s story, including the family’s internment at Manzanar—they laughed, asking me how I got him to talk to me; when they interviewed him all he’d talk about was strawberries.

For me, the best readings close with the members of audience telling stories. I invite them to, and it changes everything. At Filoli, people regaled each other with stories—there was laughter, clapping, crying, and a few moments of eloquent political exhortation reaching back to the story of Sacco and Vanzetti that opens my book. I’ve had my share of disappointments: two people, four; events planned a year in advance that end up competing with some huge local event. Everyone has such stories. It teaches you not to take it personally.

Tell us a bit about your current project. What’s it about? When is it coming out? Is it drastically different from your last work, or continuing a similar theme? What do you want prospective readers to know?

The current project doesn’t have a name yet. It comes out of a chapter my editor asked me to drop from the first book. It’s a lost piece of American immigrant history, the story of the man who decided he would devote his life and his fortune to rescuing all the Jews from Czarist Russia in the late 19th century told through the story of two young lovers caught in the vortex of historical events, whose lives in America he made possible. The lovers are the grandparents of one of my best friends. It’s a story of persecution, flight, exile, and love, interwoven with the story of one of the richest, boldest businessmen in Europe, whose scheme affected the lives of millions.

[go back to Interview, Part 3]
[visit the Publisher’s Website for The Earth Knows My Name]

In Their Words: Patricia Klindienst (part 4)

What are you reading these days? Or, what types of things do you like to read when you have time?

Writing nonfiction meant I got pulled away from my first love, the novel. I went so far out on a limb, so far from anything I was trained to think or write about, with this book, that I had a lot to read. History, horticulture, environmental writing. Now I’m starting a new book, one with roots in Europe and Russia, so at this moment, I’ve begun a European novel, The Radetzy March, by Joseph Roth, who wrote in the thirties, an exiled German Jew living in Paris. It sounds as if he was a great reader of Dostoevsky. It summons the world of the Hapsburgs, the AustroHungarian empire in its late days. The contemporary writer whose work lit a new way for me seems to follow in this tradition—I mean Sebald, the German post-war writer who emigrated to England and wrote astonishing works that hover on the line between fiction and nonfiction, gorgeously written peregrinations through the landscape of European history, all through the eyes of a narrator who seems always to have just recovered from some illness that has rendered him delicate, impressionable. I’m still telling other people’s stories in the next book, so I’m feeding my imagination, listening for the right voice for the next story.

I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s last book of essays. Aahron Appelfeld’s memoir is stunning.

Got tunes? What’s flowing from your headphones or speakers while you write?

Depends on what I’m doing. If I’m deep in writing, it’s silence I want—birds outside the window, wind, rain, the house creaking, the rumble of the furnace coming on to pump out the heat, the ticking of the baseboards in winter—but not music. Most of my music comes to me as a gift from friends and family. Yo Yo Ma playing Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites works for almost anything. I am not a music snob. I love it all and listen to it all, depending on my mood.

How do you start a project? Do you begin with a random idea or an urge to cover a topic, or does research inform your choices? Once you’ve got an idea, do you outline, or just write what comes?

Many years ago while I was working on a big project (when I was still a professor), a sudden insight into a text came to me in a flash—I grabbed a pad and wrote like mad till I got it all down, till the pressure was relieved, then went back to the main task before me. When I reread what I’d written, it was an entirely new, separate essay, and I published it—and never published the big thing I was writing. It happens that way every time—little tributaries of thought interrupt the main flow, and if I don’t pay attention, I lose some of my finest work. It’s like seeing out of the corner of your eye when you have to look straight ahead or you’ll lose your way. You train yourself to notice where your imagination goes, what riches it finds and brings you—if you don’t pay attention, it won’t keep bringing you gifts.

Things come to me. This book came to me after hours of staring at the photograph I talk about in the prologue. There’s another book waiting to be written that also grew out of a photograph. That one is about my father, radar, and World War II.

I never outline unless forced to. And then I hate it. Usually I hear a voice, and when I catch on that I’m hearing a voice, I get to a piece of paper and a writing implement, and try to let it come out clear. Usually normal thinking gets in the way.
Big ideas come in a flash. Then you work like a dog to chart the way to and through what arrived on the wind, whole and beautiful, and elusive.

A childhood memory loaded with power, a tiny moment on the playground in fourth grade, just found relief in a short essay in a volume on encountering genocide, “Eichmann on the Playground.” I know it will become a bigger piece later—but I got the tent stakes in, so it won’t blow away now.

[go back to Interview, Part 2]
[continue to Interview, Part 4]

In Their Words: Patricia Klindienst (part 3)

Do you write in longhand first, or do you compose at the keyboard? Tell us about your preferred pens, ink, paper, or platform and program.

I usually begin everything writing by hand, with a pencil—Ticonderoga #2s are my favorite, but I’ll take a round pencil over them anytime. Every year I go to my favorite copy shop in New Haven to ask for a few. I hoard them, using them till the nub is so short I can’t grip it anymore. The paper is a lined white pad, standard size, with a margin down the left side, where I make notes of things to return to later. I buy the pads by the dozen. If I want to use a pen, it has to have a very fine point. But I like pencils, because I can erase. It keeps me humble. And I love the soft sound of the act of writing on paper. It’s so different from the clicking of a keyboard. Once I’ve broken through the surface, which takes at least half an hour of writing, I’ll write till the idea has come clear. The next stage is going to the computer, moving from the stuffed chair to the desk. But what could be more constraining than writing inside the box of a computer screen? Forced to write left to right, top to bottom, rather than drawing with a pencil—literally sketching ideas, in any shape you want on a page. I print drafts and spread pages on my table, so I can see more of what I’ve written, and draw all over it, moving things around, seeing what it is I’ve made. So for me, it’s very physical, the act of writing, and it includes having to get up and move around, when ideas are coming but the words aren’t, and movement releases the part of my imagination that, freed, will bring me the words. Then, back at the desk, I can work with them.

As for technology, I am usually way behind the curve. I just got a new computer for the first time in 25 years, the new MacBook Pro, which is a beautiful, sleek laptop that I hook up to a big monitor, so I can now see two pages at once. This is like going from a scooter to a Maserati. My other new one was the first IBM PC, which I bought in 1982 to write my dissertation at Stanford. Someone at the law school invented a footnote program that spread like wildfire through the campus. Those were the days of five and a quarter inch floppy disks—which really were floppy—and you had to put this piece of silver tape on the notch at the top left corner to “write protect” your work. In the between the bulky, “computer grey” PC and this lightweight silver slip of a thing, I relied on used computers my sister and niece would send me every couple of years, when they’d update.

I made the switch from PC to Apple in the late 90s after working a job that forced me to learn the Mac. I resisted at first, but then fell in love with the ease of the operating system. I use that big, baggy, monster, Word, because it’s become the standard, but I remember the elegance of WordStar with the fondness usually reserved for one’s first love.

What do you consider a “full day’s work” of writing? Do you measure by number of hours, or number of words? Do you spend time doing mundane chores so that you don’t have to write?

A full day’s work is whatever it takes to get a piece of work done. I’ve had days when I wake up and a whole piece is there, and I can hear it, so I go to the chair or the desk and capture it—or reach for a pad and pencil right there in bed and write it out, and go back to sleep. In the morning, I type it up, fix it till the internal itch is relieved. That’s a great day, a day when I can walk away early and feel satisfied.

Working on the book was work—may days and nights I had to make myself do it. You sign a contract, you feel the pressure of deadlines, though they can be pushed back, they can’t be deferred indefinitely. Five hours of intense work could be a whole day, but there were lots of ten to twelve hour days, and nights when I woke up at 2 and wrote till 4 then went back to sleep, a problem having been solved when I stopped staring at it, jaw clenched.

I don’t think there’s one way to do this, though you have to be honest, disciplined, work hard, get things done in the way that makes sense for your life. You also have to know when to walk away. I had to learn, many times over, that it’s better to stop on a bad day, and do other useful things so that the next day would be more productive.

Who doesn’t practice avoidance? I love Mary Oliver’s essay in Blue Pastures about interruption—it’s not the neighbor coming over to borrow mustard or sugar, it’s ourselves, interrupting our deeper selves in the act of concentration, fleeing from giving ourselves over to the work. So yes, I do mundane chores, but actually, my favorite work day is one that includes intervals of physical work, domestic chores—making a pot of soup, doing laundry, pulling weeds, pinching wilted leaves off the plants, musing, is what it is, aided by not being fixed to one place.

Then there are the days of finish work—the equivalent for a carpenter of screwing switch plates to the wall—when I’m formatting, correcting punctuation, fixing typos, long hours at the machine. Then I turn the volume up loud and listen to great rock and roll.

Dancing is always good when you get stuck, or when you get something just right, or when you reach the finish and hit “save.”

[go back to Interview, Part 1]
[continue to Interview, Part 3]