Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Newburyport Literary Festival

I'm speaking at the Newburyport Literary Festival this coming Saturday, April 30. If you're nearabouts (and awake early) come down and sit a spell:

Write What You Know: Personal History in Fiction
It's the oldest advice in the book: Write what you know. But it isn't always so easy to translate a memory or an experience on the page. Join novelists Michelle Hoover, Lee Houck and Steve Yarborough as they discuss how they translate their memories and experiences into fiction.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lucy, an excerpt: Part 4 of 4

From the kitchen, she eyed the lottery ticket.

The last square gnawed at her, its final, decisive shape still hidden. There was an urgency all through her body, a pressure building. She could break into a run at any moment, her muscles all pushed into a forward slant, coiled and compressed, like a spring. She could not wait any longer. She spread the ticket flat on the table, and with the coin clutched in her fingers, she scratched at the shiny surface. A palm tree appeared, curved cartoonishly to the left, with two coconuts nestled in the leaves—the whole thing looked practically perverted.

“Merde,” she said. She crushed the worthless ticket in her palm and threw it across the room.
Frustrated, she turned on the television, found the channel which showed game show reruns all day long, and settled back into a cushy leather armchair.

Match Game was her favorite. On the screen, Gene Rayburn crossed the stage wearing a disaster of a suit, and a tie that started out as red, was met halfway with a diagonal brown stripe, and ended with a diamond of pastel blue. He was a complicated, gangly mess, all legs and arms, completely devoid of the square-jawed charm that she preferred in a game show host. Rayburn was missing something—ego, perhaps, a broadness. He lacked fakeness. He never seemed in control of the game, rather he was running just behind it, trying to catch up to the celebrity panel, who never looked as if they had much at stake. “Mister Gene,” Lucy said aloud, “what sort of necktie are we wearing today?”

They spent countless Sunday afternoons, bleeding into evening and on into the night, on Helena’s frumpy sectional sofa, passing a bowl of popcorn back and forth, brushing salt and brewer’s yeast off their laps, sucking it from their fingertips—Helena’s nails thick and colorless; Lucy’s perfectly manicured in the old style, the pale half-moons left unpainted—solving puzzles and admiring (or not) the contestants’ clothing. Lucy wanted her friend home immediately.

Baroness crept into view, stretched her back toward the ceiling, and then sat silently in the doorway, not in or out of the kitchen. The cat stared at her with a look that was half boredom, half subtle judgment—engaged but still distant, remaining an external observer; Daniel sometimes called her The Auditor. Lucy thought perhaps she had been sent from heaven, or some greater place, to record the doings and misdoings of this particular household. The quality and consistency of meals provided. Toy mouse allotment, treat-time frequency. Crinkly plastic bag on the floor availability.

“Where is mother?” Lucy said.

Baroness merely blinked, as if she were seeing through a new pair of eyes.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lucy, an excerpt: Part 3 of 4

There had been two husbands. The first was a Swiss banker who came through Le Havre periodically on business. He was small-framed and wiry, not handsome in any particular way (but certainly good-looking in Lucy’s eyes) with long skinny fingers and a thin moustache. After almost two years of once-a-month dinners and urgent sex in his bland hotel room, with bad sheets and bad paintings, he whisked her away from her uncharming family when she was twenty-one. He provided her with a weekly allowance and a lovely two-bedroom apartment in the Marais, leaving her to do as she pleased. They always got along, and their sexual life remained interesting, even toward the end, but they could never build anything outside of their private life together. There was a separateness that never disappeared, something always felt out of place. Mutual friends never gelled. A pea nagged from under the mattress. Their relationship eventually became rather like that of siblings, and after a short and unsentimental conversation one morning, they parted.

The second husband was American, a droll businessman from the Midwest. They were together for seven years, off and on—mostly on—and eventually they realized that they hated each other completely. Both admitted to twisted fantasies involving the unfortunate death of the other, poisonings or tragic parachuting accidents. His sagging features grew more prominent every season, his belly rounder and rounder until no belt in any ordinary store would fit him. He said it was her cooking, and somehow managed to make even that sound like an insult. And Lucy often started arguments on purpose. The divorce was painless at first and agonizing after.

There had not been children.

Lucy was the kind of woman who believed (Helena thought foolishly) that one can wear jewelry in silver, gold and copper all at once. Her bracelets jangled up and down her arm whenever she turned the page of a book, or pushed her hair, which was often frizzy and unkempt, away from her face. Helena realized—having been Lucy’s best friend for more than twenty years, and practically her only close friend in America—that older French women were allowed a certain freedom of behavior. A looseness of personality. If their lipstick was slightly smudged it was okay. If their hair was colored one shade too orange, their collar too severe, all was forgiven.

Helena was expected home some time in the afternoon. Lucy had come that morning to shower (she preferred Helena’s water pressure to her own) and spend maybe an hour making sure everything was put together, maybe get some soup going for dinner—an herb and vegetable concoction she was famous for; Helena’s favorite. There was an iron skillet on the stove, still shiny with butter from Daniel’s breakfast; he never cleaned up after himself. She could not determine what exactly he ate, the data were few and vague: a sticky spoon, no plate. She lifted the spoon to her nose, breathed in the bright smell of…marmalade, surely. She resisted the impulse to stick it in her mouth and suck on the tacky residue. Instead, she put the spoon into the sink.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lucy, an excerpt: Part 2 of 4

She grew up in Le Havre. Her father, whose job had something to do with city planning, was aloof and wooden, and he tended to his houseplants as Lucy thought he should have attended to his daughter. He talked to them each evening, wiped the dust from their leaves with soft kitchen rags, played the sort of music he suspected they preferred—Brahms, mostly, but sometimes Liszt’s Foust Symphony. They thrived.

Her Chinese mother (whose devotion, it seemed, was bought out of the back pages of an adult magazine, though Lucy was only willing to admit this once she reached her own complicated adulthood) spent most of her life cajoling the neighborhood housewives into playing Mah Jong, which they claimed was difficult to grasp, and took too much of the afternoon to play. Lucy thought it was probably her mother’s opaque instructions, not to mention the cluttered, dusty living room and her mother’s odd, off-kilter hors d’oeuvres: cucumber sandwiches with whole-grain mustard, broken hunks of hard, salty cheese. They stopped coming after a while, one by one claiming that they had other obligations, something at church, shopping, or simply ‘a conflict.’ Her mother eventually gave up; the phone quit ringing all together. With her husband’s savings she opened a flower shop.

As a teenager, Lucy worked there every day after school and on Saturdays. It was an endless parade of anonymous happenings, strangers impressing upon her the utmost importance of the event: funeral, birthday, anniversary, funeral, anniversary, birthday, funeral. Lucy took the job very seriously—she took any kind of work seriously—and her mood was often affected by the customer’s occasion. It was too easy to absorb other people’s sorrow; she sopped it up unconsciously. Four funerals in one day and forget it, she was cooked, wilted like a piece of lettuce. There was once two fiftieth anniversaries in the same afternoon, and so she rode her bike home elated, taking two turns around the neighborhood, breathing the air and laughing.

She bounced into the house, and her father asked if someone had filled her skull with meringue. She pulled her diary from underneath her pillow, where surely it was safe from marauding intruders, drew a radiant sun, and next to it wrote (in English, should her mother discover it) the words ‘silver dust’ and ‘orange glass.’

Her mother spent all day on the phone to China, crammed into a closet masquerading as an office, leaving Lucy the details, and after a few years every event felt the same. She learned to translate the fumbled, emotional orders: the uneasy fastidiousness of a memorial arrangement, an attempt to say something memorable, but afraid to come off as clichéd; the basic anniversary bunch, requested by husbands with bad taste who usually defaulted to whatever she thought best; the murky, inside-jokey birthday requests. There were men who wrote dirty messages to their mistresses and widows who sent flowers to themselves. In the end, no one ever complained that their arrangement was wrong, or not what they ordered, or unattractive. And no one ever called to say that their arrangement was gorgeous, or especially fragrant, or just perfect.

“I would love to work in a flower shop,” Helena said, an hour after having met Lucy in line at the market years ago, back at the beginning of their friendship—they decided to have a cup of tea. “To be surrounded by so much beauty all the time,” she said. Lucy was enjoying the conversation so much, that when it came time to refill her cup, she neglected to replace the teabag, and for five or ten minutes drank only hot water laced with a brown cube of raw sugar. “But you have your paintings,” Lucy told her. Helena said the paintings were more like bills that needed to be paid, or else they were watched pots of water waiting to boil.

Lucy said that as for the flower show, indeed it was very beautiful. What she didn’t say—or had learned not to say after telling the story to heaps of reporters and having it read quite differently in print—was that when you work in a flower shop, you are constantly reminded that none of the flowers are for you. The blooming jungle encroaches—fronds of sweet alyssum, frangipani, St. Christopher’s lily—and you begin to disappear. She thought it was a little childish, and was embarrassed to admit that she felt that way.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lucy, an excerpt: Part 1 of 4

I'm currently working on a new novel, and although I wrote this for it, I'm afraid it doesn't belong. So, here is a chunk of writing, presented in four parts over the next week or two.

Lucy Laurent stood in the middle of the living room naked underneath an ivory bathrobe, dripping water onto the floor. She had a wrinkled lotto scratch-off in one hand, a grimy quarter fished out of the bottom of her purse in the other, her body poised in a feminine rictus of anticipation: poised, articulate and sturdy. The coin warmed in her hand, seemed almost to sweat in her fingers. Her heart began to thump; she felt the pulse of blood pressing behind her eyes. Thoughts crowded her. Miles of deep black ocean is separated from endless blue sky by only the smallest molecular skin. Exactly when does water turn to air? Are surfaces beginnings or ends? Perhaps they are their own breed entirely. Lottery jackpots, car accidents. Brain diseases. We are always one flashing instant away from a new life.

Lucy took the edge of the quarter and pressed it to the flat silver panel of the ticket. She scratched back and forth, concentrating, moving fluidly from one side to the other, leaving no stray bit of gray. The printing came off in rubbery curls which stuck to the moist knot of her fist, and when she tried to brush them away foggy streaks appeared on the glass tabletop. First, two fat piggybanks appeared, bursting with green bills and grinning, their eyes morphed into shining dollar signs, almost possessed; Lucy blew air through her cheeks and groaned. The possibility that there could be another hiding underneath the third square was too much to consider, and her mind began to swirl with ideas, with new and ornate futures.

“Okay,” she said out loud. She took a deep breath and laid the ticket on the corner of the end table.

Lucy did not need the money. She was not exactly rich, though she once had been—two apartments in Paris, a Spanish-style beachside sprawl in Miami, a small farmhouse in the South of France, where she went when she didn’t want to be bothered—and as her career slowed down, she sold them all to younger, richer actresses whose breasts seemed to get larger and larger as the years went on. She lived comfortably, mostly off residuals from a French television series in which she starred. “Les Trois Reines” ran for five seasons in the early eighties, and was still in syndication around the globe, translated into twenty-three languages at Lucy’s last count, sometimes airing three or four times daily. The critics called the show predictable and derivative; audiences loved it.

Lucy never intended to be a great actress, just a working one—she once laughed out loud when she heard another actor talk of the indignities of doing your own laundry unless of course the part called for it—and the celebrity that came with a television career was both flattering and unpleasant. People named their babies after you, they wrote detailed sob-story letters asking for money, they acted like you were old friends. But restaurants often brought complimentary champagne, and she always got the best hotel rooms. Lucy was rather legendary in Europe though no one recognized her in California—the show was deemed “too French” for Americans. That was okay. Strangers did not expect her to be funny on command. (The show had been recently released in a DVD box-set, which Lucy habitually and mistakenly called DDD. It provided a new audience, a younger audience, and she had once or twice been recognized by admirers here and there—if she spent the day in San Francisco, for example—all of them proclaiming that they were her “biggest fan.”)

Overall, she was happier now than she had ever been, which in itself was something to be happy about, the gradual upward slope which proved so elusive, a life not benchmarked by weddings and children and other standard charts of successes, but more what she felt was the real deal.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Lots of Shows

In the last few weeks, I've seen a lot of theater. It felt like the old days. Back then, I saw things three times a week. I eagerly awaited the New York Times special section on The New Season. I circled things that I didn't want to miss. At some point, I lost bandwidth. Most things I saw were bad, or average. I felt like spending more time at home. But lately, I've been out in the world again, taking it in. I'm reminded how much theater can be a conversation--how it can be the leaping off point for having conversations. Hooray for New York theater! (And TDF!)

John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown
This is Mr. Leguizamo's fifth solo show, and I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything left to tell. He's a fantastic performer--his energy is the driving force here, his charisma--not the material, which, if you've seen his solo works before, you've already heard most of this. It's really a great show, funny, charming...I just wish it were a little deeper, a little more....everything. After two hours of great, the show ends with a mixed-up phone call bit that felt, to me, kinda lame.'s still great! Right?

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
The new Tony Kushner play is so fucking exciting, so much fun, and deeply moving. In (very) short, it's about a guy who calls his family around him so they can vote on his impending suicide. As with any Kushner work, it's about everything else--desire, family, betrayal, love, hope, and yes, capitalism and socialism. The second act reaches a near unintelligible cacophony of arguing, and I remember thinking that very few other plays have felt so alive on stage to me. And nobody--Nobody--does hope like Kushner. Back in January, I saw the Signature Theater's revival of Angels in America, which is maybe, despite its subject matter, one of the most hopeful works of the 20th century. But, this play, I felt, is less hopeful. I felt like the playwright is older, more weary, less sure. And that was perhaps the most devastating part of the "play." It's 4 hours, deeply sad, sometimes hilarious, full of messy characters you find hard to love. Go.

The Other Place
Laurie Metcalf stars in this new play by Sharr White at the Lucille Lortel, for the MCC Theater. I'm so glad Ms. Metcalf has been on stage so much in the last few years; she is an actress of incredible strength and transparency. What's true in this play is really the question--and, in the end, I found myself asking the question of the playwright whose decision-making I question a bit. There is a scene at the end which plays a bit too MOTW for my tastes--and feels a bit like he's trying to rescue the play from an unhappy ending, which is what is really called for here. But, the set is beautiful, the actors are great, Ms. Metcalf is extraordinary.

The Book of Mormon
It's as good as they say it is. If you're looking for a night of big laughs and beautiful, precisely-executed musical theater, then rush out. (If you can get tickets.) You can find 100 other reviews about how great it is--and it is really great, Tony's galore come June, you watch. But I will say a few other things 1) it's not half as offensive as it should be, or could be. In the end, I think the writers settled for a musical that will make tons of money and tour forever. They're smart enough to play to a Broadway audience in a Broadway house, not a midnight-in-the-village audience, know what I mean? 2) The two leads, though wonderful alone, are missing something in their scenes together...their duo-chemistry is a bit deflated. 3) You can only do a musical about the Mormons because punchlines about them aren't in bad taste because they haven't been persecuted throughout history. You can't do "The Torah" or "The Koran" and say how insane all the mythology is, you'd be thrown out of town for racism and anti-semitism. It helps that Mormons are (generally) white, too. But...ultimately, I think the writers all know this, and they've made a big, hilarious, sometimes-moving--and here's the important part--new and original--musical.