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June 2010

Odds and ends
21 Jun 2010

 -- Slate's Double X anointed "This Is Where We Live" as their book of the week, dubbing it "enthralling." I'm flattered, ladies. Thank you!

-- The San Francisco Chronicle ran my review of Bret Easton Ellis' "Imperial Bedrooms." In a nutshell: "Ellis is either so deeply enmeshed in his own creepy little insular world that he can't write his way out of it, or else he is such a genius that he's created an entire parallel universe that folds and unfolds on itself like some kind of Escher print."

-- I've added a reading in Laguna Beach, at the wonderful Laguna Beach Bookstore. July 28, 7 pm. If you live anywhere in the vicinity, come say hello!

An Epigraph, Unused
21 Jun 2010

When I wrote "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," I thought it would be a nice character detail if Janice Miller drove around town cheerfully humming a song from her youth. I ended up structuring the novel's first chapter -- which takes place on the day that Janice becomes unfathomably rich, and is simultaneously dumped by her husband -- around the song "Happy Together," by the Turtles. ("Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night" etc. Trust me, you know it). I wove the song into the entire chapter, starting with the second paragraph of the novel, using it in different places to trigger memories from Janice's past, her optimism for the future, etc. 

This was all well and good until my editor asked me if I'd secured the rights to the song. 

Oops.

My editor gently enlightened me to the fact that I needed permission to use these lyric snippets -- that, in fact, there are entire law firms that deal almost exclusively with this kind of thing. So I hunted down The Turtles' law firm, and got in touch. It turned out that the rights-holder (ie: the songwriter who composed the tune for the Turtles) was fine with me using the song ... as long as I paid him a chunk of money. A chunk of money so sizable, in fact, that I began immediately to rethink using the lyrics at all. Unfortunately, the surgery on the novel would have been so extreme that I decide to suck it up and just pay. Which is why you see the "Happy Together" lyrics all over the first chapter, and I stopped drinking lattes.

So I learned my lesson, right? It's true, I did. With my second novel, "This Is Where We Live," whenever I felt the urge to quote a song lyric in the text, I stopped myself and asked whether it was vital to what I was trying to achieve with the book. Uniformly, the answer was no. I managed to write a whole book (and one about a musician, to boot) without extensively quoting any song, and I don't think it suffered as a result.

But I did have an epigraph. Since "This Is Where We Live" was inspired in part by a Robert Frost poem called "Directive," I thought I would use four lines from the poem as my epigraph. "Great," my editor responded. "So, do you have the rights?"

Oops.

It turns out, the whole permissions question also applies to poems, essays, other novels -- pretty much any text from which you quote more than two lines. You'd think that after 15 years as a professional writer, I would have known this. Somehow, I didn't. And this time around, I had a baby with a college education I needed to save for, so the idea of spending the money was far less appealing. An epigraph would have been nice, but it certainly wouldn't be missed if it wasn't there. As a result, anyone who buys "This Is Where We Live" will notice that there is no epigraph. My daughter will get a month at Harvard (no pressure, kid), instead.

As a side note - Whenever I now read a book that quotes extensively from songs, or poems, or other books, I always wonder whether that person shelled out a small fortune for rights, or whether they personally knew those musicians/writers/poets and somehow received permission gratis. ("Lit" by Mary Karr, for example, is chock-full of poetry, but I imagine she got most of it for free from her fellow poets.) Perhaps this is the new literary bragging rights: Free words from famous people.

In any case, I'm fairly certain that it's fine to publish the epigraph here. If not, I'm sure I'll hear from Robert Frost's lawyers. Until then, here it is, for your edification, my epigraph:

Weep for what little things could make them glad
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough
.
-- "Directive," Robert Frost. 

A playlist, and a filmography
17 Jun 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times Paper Cuts blog published my playlist of songs that inspired the character of Jeremy in "This Is Where We Live." (Click to read the whole thing, but a few highlights: "You Stood Me Up" by Benji Hughes, and "Your Love Is Mine" by Holly Golightly).

In order to be fair to Claudia, I thought I'd include her list of favorite films here. 

1) The Graduate - Transcendent. Hard to believe that Hollywood once green-lit movies this smart and edgy. Plus, the rare ending that's totally subject to interpretation. (Has the couple just done something amazing, or doomed themselves to lives of misery? You decide.) This one's for you, Mrs. Robinson.

2) Jules et Jim - French New Wave at its finest. A strange and stiff yet touching film about two friends who both love a dangerous and wild and ultimately suicidal woman. (In fact, she's a bit of an Aoki character.)

3) Sin Nombre - Hard to believe that a film about a Mexican gang member escaping over the border into America by riding atop of freight trains could be so beautiful. But it is, and it's also a love story, and it's also a nail-biter to boot. This is the kind of serious yet entertaining movie that Claudia longs to make.

4) Lost In Translation - Dreamy, ruminative, and directed by Sofia Coppola. A movie that feels like a long, wistful sigh.

5) Laurel Canyon - Frances McDormand is fantastic as a cool music industry mom who seduces her son's fiancee. Bohemianism and perpetual youth gone amok. Perhaps a warning tale for Claudia?

6) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - One of the best movies ever made about the beauty and devastation of love. Plus, a soundtrack that really gets under your skin.

7) Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice -- Yes, this is a movie about wife-swapping, but it's also a very funny movie about marital discord and the human need for connection.

8) Some Kind of Wonderful - Not the most famous John Hughes film, but the one that Claudia watched twenty times as a teenager, dreaming of the day she'd be as cool as Drummer Girl. At one point, she fantasized about getting a little star tattoo on her shoulder, too. Fortunately, she thought better of it.

9) Rosemary's Baby - A horror film, but a sneaky and smart one --  a gothic psychological thriller that's ultimately about the evil in urban life.

10) You Can Count On Me - Another Sundance movie, this one about a wayward brother who comes home to stay with his older sister and her son. Beautifully acted and very poignant (funny, too), it explores the roads we don't take, plus the struggle between being responsible and chasing our dreams.

"I put my characters through hell"
14 Jun 2010

Latimes
 ... this is what I told Steffie Nelson, a lovely writer for the Los Angeles Times, who proceeded to write a very nice profile of me regardless of my authorial cruelty. I also told her that I like "putting characters in moments of moral ambiguity and seeing what they do." My poor characters should probably get together and form a support group.

The photographer spent about a half hour snapping pictures of me in my garden, in which I was smiling about 98% of the time. The photo they chose, naturally, was one of me looking extremely serious. Pensive. Ruminative. Perhaps -- you might even surmise -- feeling a tad bit guilty about my crimes against my characters. 

Don't be fooled. Deep down inside, I was laughing.

Back in the New York Times
9 Jun 2010

A long, long time ago - as in, three years ago - I used to write frequently for the New York Times. I took a little hiatus, partly because the grind of journalism was, well, grinding me down to nothing; and partly because I wanted to focus my creative energy on my second novel; and partly because I got pregnant and had a baby and, well, nothing makes journalism more challenging than a screaming infant who interrupts your interviews just when you're getting to the good part.

But eventually I finished the novel, and the baby got old enough to make it easier to work, and I began to have wistful memories of chasing deadlines and hacking my way through phone interviews. All of which is to say -- I'm back! On Sunday, I had a feature in the New York Times Style section, a profile of the blogger and (former) Senate candidate Mickey Kaus, who is a very colorful character. (Go ahead and read it online for free.) It turns out I kind of missed journalism. Sort of. A little. It's more fun than changing a dirty diaper, I'll tell you that; and almost as fulfilling.

Trade reviews: The agony and the ectasy
7 Jun 2010

Booklist
 The trade reviews for "This Is Where We Live" are all in now. For those of you who have no clue what a "trade review" is, these are the four book reviews that come out in advance of a book's publication, published in trade magazines that are read by booksellers, librarians, and other vendors who then use these reviews to make ordering decisions. Written, for the most part, by anonymous critics, the reviews are also circulated widely and generally help set the tenor of what's to come.

Let's review, shall we?

Library Journal: "Brown's follow up to her biting debut is another addictive read. This telling look at how the current economic crisis affects one family shows that Brown is no one-hit wonder." They gave it a starred review.

Kirkus: "Brown's tart second novel couldn't be more timely... a cringingly funny satire of love and money among the artsy class."

Booklist: "Brown proves adept at fully inhabiting both male and female characters in her sympathetic portrait of a troubled marriage. She also elevates her material with sharp commentary on the current economy while gamely tackling what it means to be a "grown up" and how our idea of who we think we should be gets in the way of who we really are. At once playful and heartbreaking, this novel never feels less than wholly true."

Great, right? I'm downright bursting with pleasure. 

That is, until I read the Publisher's Weekly (PW) review, which has this to say: "Married 30-something artists Claudia and Jeremy Munger are the unlucky anchors of Brown's shaky sophomore novel.... The gauntlets the Mungers face verge on Kafkaesque, yet the novel proceeds with painful earnestness." Oh. I suppose I can be comforted that the critic finishes with a back-handed compliment: "There are lovely small moments—Claudia's awkward run-in with a former student, for instance—that give hope that the undeniably talented author will find her footing again after this flawed effort." Thanks, I guess?

Part of reconciling yourself to life as an author is coming to terms with the fact that there will always be someone out there who hates your book. Hopefully, not a whole lot of someones. And hopefully not someone who has undue influence on other people. But it's nearly inevitable that at least one of the trades will hate you: Last time around, it was Kirkus that hated my book, and Publisher's Weekly who loved it. 

Most reviews -- even the bad ones -- you can (kind of) shrug off. But what makes a bad trade review so painful is its online ubiquity. The trade reviews (particularly Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus) get reprinted *everywhere*. The very first review you read on Amazon, for example, is the one from Publisher's Weekly, which gets prime placement at the top of the Editorial Reviews section. It doesn't matter if the New York Times Book Review puts you on the cover and anoints you the next great literary superstar -- PW still has the first (and often, final) word. This means that your average Amazon browser will be quickly convinced that TIWWL is "shaky" and "flawed" (per PW), unless they persevere and click further to read the good reviews and discover that someone else thought it was "addictive" and "cringingly funny" and "heartbreaking." 

Am I complaining? A little. But not really. Because what counts most, in the end, is the readers who do love your book -- those "someones" who not only enjoy it but pass their love along, recommending your book to like-minded folk with similar taste. The worst reviews in the world, after all, didn't stop "Sex In the City 2" a small fortune at the box office; surely Philip Roth and Barbara Kingsolver and Jennifer Weiner have survived a few bad trade reviews and gone on to the bestseller lists anyway. So hopefully one anonymous critic at PW won't scare off too many potential readers. I can only hope that there are more -- and at the moment I'm batting 75% -- who like it enough to counter the criticism. 

After all, as they say, chacun à son goût. I can live with that.

Look at me journalism
2 Jun 2010

The cover story in CJR this month is by Moe Tkacik (formerly of the Gawker empire), who describes her journey from earnest (if inexperienced) investigative journalist to jaded confessional blogger. This is her take on what's happened to journalism in the last decade: 

 When the Internet forced journalism to compete economically after years of monopoly, journalism panicked and adopted some of the worst examples of the nothing-based economy, in which success depends on the continued infantilization of both supply and demand. At the same time, journalism clung to its myths of objectivity and detachment, using them to dismiss the emerging blogger threat as something unserious and fundamentally parasitic, even as it produced a steady stream of obsessive but sneering trend stories on the blogosphere.

I find this an interesting assessment of the state of journalism today. What she doesn't really address, and what I find even more depressing, is that the Internet exposed the public's voracious consumption for gossip and opinion in all forms, essentially decimating "real" journalism. No wonder the blog has risen triumphant.

 The vast majority of the journalists I know who have lost their jobs as reporters and columnists at newspapers & magazines (online or other) -- jobs they lost because of the tanking economy and the dismal finances of the media -- have typically ended up at blogs making a fraction of what they used to make for work that is half as serious as what they used to do.  The film critic does TV recaps, the investigative reporter writes short news items about entertainment industry scandals, the feature writer writes opinion pieces for her own web site, the essayist twitters because no one will pay to publish his pieces anymore. 

No wonder it's become a "look at me" media economy -- when you're already sinking not only into unemployment and poverty, burnishing your "voice" and "brand" may seem like the best shot at avoiding invisibility and irrelevance altogether.

That said, there are plenty of interesting new endeavors that I find inspiring, places where the Net hasn't destroyed journalism but is enabling it - like the new Bay Area Citizen, which is taking over where the SF Chronicle has failed; or the  non-profit journalism endeavor ProPublica, which works with bigger institutions to fund serious investigative reporting.

Still, whenever I talked to my journalist friends, the reports I hear are grim. I feel fortunate to have started a second career as an author: I can still do journalism when I feel like it (or need to be), but I'm not dependent on it the way I was before. I can remain at least slightly detached from the struggles of an industry that I still love, but no longer rely on for financial or emotional fulfillment.