Anne Landsman on the curse of the second novel

Anne Landsman has published two books, The Devil’s Chimney and The Rowing Lesson (just out in paperback). Below she writes about the difficulty of embarking on a second — and now, a third — novel.

A filmmaker friend of mine recently described the completion of one of her films, and her attempts to begin the next project, as something akin to a divorce. “The world as you know it is gone,” she said, “And you have to start all over again.” This applies to finishing a book as well. For me, fictional characters — either in my own work or in the work of others — are as real and lasting as the people they’re fashioned from, and I say my goodbyes to them at the end of reading or writing a novel with a tremendous sense of loss.

More painful, however, than separating from one of your characters, is the prospect of creating a new one from scratch. There’s a clear recipe for making a real live human being, but there’s no such blueprint for a person who lives and breathes solely on the page. The alchemy of dreaming up an Emma Bovary or a Harry Potter is deeply mysterious, something that has to be teased out of the writer’s psyche over time, with a great deal of patience and forbearance. For many of us, the process starts with hearing the voice of the character, as he or she sails toward us out of the fog of our unconscious. None of this is easy to quantify, or describe, but you know when it’s not happening, and the fog remains still and impenetrable.

Many authors talk about the difficulty of writing their second novel, or getting to that place where the next story begins to flow. As Anne Lamott points out in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “The beginnings of a second and third book are full of spirit and confidence because you have been published, and false starts and terror because you now have to prove yourself again.” I certainly had my share of false starts and terror after the writing of The Devil’s Chimney. I’d been listening to the profane, irreverent voice of my narrator, Connie, for so long that I could hardly imagine writing in another idiom. Since the novel was well-received, it felt a little frightening to leave behind what had worked before and to venture into the unknown. In the beginning, I clung to Connie’s deaf sister, Gerda, and began writing about her and her children.

On a family trip to South Africa, I visited Worcester’s De la Bat School for the Deaf and interviewed several teachers there, and back in New York City, I started taking a course in American Sign Language. I read several memoirs written by the hearing children of deaf parents and decided that the book was going explore that world, and tell the story of a South African woman who grew up being her mother’s ears. I’m not sure whether or not it was the difficulty I experienced trying to learn how to sign (being good at languages is absolutely no help in this regard), or whether I got lost trying to figure out the differences between American Sign Language and South African Sign Language, and then how to describe this non-verbal method of communication in words, but I began to feel defeated, frustrated and confused. I had the fragment of a chapter written in the voice of Gerda’s daughter which felt as if it was going nowhere. And then somehow, Gerda’s family doctor showed up, a brusque, Jewish man who was short and bossy and had a lot to say for himself, and slowly Harry Klein — who would even eventually guide me through the The Rowing Lesson — came to life. Continue reading…

Wednesday night: GYWO meets Authoritarian Idol

Burned out on election talk, yet unsuccessful distracting yourself from it?

I’ve finally given up. If you, too, are ready to embrace the inevitable, come out to Maxx Klaxon’s (some say he bears an uncanny resemblance to your friend and mine, Maximus Clarke) Authoritarian Idol extravaganza tomorrow (Wednesday) night at Monkeytown.

It may be the only time you get to see the Get Your War On videos on the big screen(s). It will definitely be the only time you’ll see the candidates competing in a game show.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm, and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

MON OCT 27: At The Half King, “Dexter Filkins is among the best foreign correspondents at work today, and has reported extensively from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (where he continues to work today.) The Forever War is his searing and personal account of the rise of the Taliban, 9/11, and the Iraq War as he saw it unfold on the ground in the very places these events took place—imbedded with Marines as they stormed Fallujah to overthrow Muqtada al Sadr’s army in 2004; at a soccer field in Kabul, before 9/11, witness to an execution and amputation carried out by the Taliban; at the World Trade Center on that fateful day when lower Manhattan resembled, for a moment, the war-torn countries from which he had been reporting.” 7PM, FREE. Also, ” High Energy Performance Poetry & Prose” at Bluestockings. 7PM, FREE.

TUE OCT 28: At Bellwether Gallery: “I, Caligula! An orgiastic October surprise of cocktails and virgin sacrifice in honor of the new book by Caligula (and Cintra Wilson) Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny…” With Cintra Wilson, Bradford Louryk, Mike Albo, Shelly Mars, Peter Freschette, Charles Busch. Noted: “SPECIAL PRIZES FOR THOSE DRESSED IN HIGH CALIGULAN DRAG. NO KNIVES!” 7 – 9PM, FREE.

WED OCT 29: “2 days before Halloween…6 days before the election… 1 night of politics and pop culture: IDOL TALK. Featuring videos and performances from Maxx Klaxon, David Rees, R. Luke DuBois, Rusty Ward, and more! Find out how we got from ‘gentlemen’ to ‘terror’ in 43 easy steps; Eavesdrop on the political banter of your favorite clip-art office workers; Learn who America’s greatest superheroes are voting for; Groove to the beat of Bill O’Reilly’s rage; See the shocking season finale of ‘Authoritarian Idol.’ Come on out (and bring your friends) for the four-screen multimedia experience, Monkeytown’s excellent food and drinks, and this fall’s best night of political art and entertainment! NOTE: This event is one night only, and seating is limited — reservations are strongly recommended! RSVP online. 8:30-10pm, $7 ($5 with politically-themed costume!).” Highly recommended.

THU OCT 30: “William Carlos Williams wrote: ‘It is difficult/to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.’ Join the contributors to the Wave Books anthology State of the Union: 50 Political Poems to get the news in Linda Pollack’s Habeas Lounge in the week of the Presidential election.” With John Ashbery, Eileen Myles, Nick Flynn and others in the Amie and Tony James Gallery at The Graduate Center, CUNY. 6:30PM, FREE.

FRI OCT 31: I would not be described as a “festive holiday” person. Last night over over an exquisite meal at the charming French diner, Zucco, a pal and I were discussing which sucks more, Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day and I was just like, ugh, draw! I am, however, going to make a rare exception to my usual practice of ignoring the day completely by attending this lecture: Marina Warner on “Enchanted States” at The Graduate Center, CUNY‘s Martin E. Segal Theatre. Noted, “Marina Warner explores the manifestations of traditional magical thought in contemporary culture and media. Marina Warner is a Professor of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, and the author of several studies of belief and narrative, most recently Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century.” Awe-some; I’ll dress up as Titania for that. 4PM, FREE.

WEEKEND: Don’t miss the Los Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) celebration at the National Museum of the American Indian, easily one of New York’s best and most underrated museums. At MoMA, check out “Batiste Madalena: Hand-Painted Film Posters for the Eastman Theatre, 1924–1928″: “In advance of seeing the films themselves, and influenced by his passion for particular performers, Madalena would work from still photographs and press materials to create one-of-a-kind posters promoting his larger-than-life subjects—all on a scale that could be clearly seen from streetcars passing the theater’s poster vitrines. His work brings unexpected color and a new perspective to the iconic stars and films of silent cinema’s mature period.” With a companion film series starting next month.

This week’s soundtrack: The Chromatics do “I’m on Fire.”

Eternal OUP disclosure

As you know if you’re following along, earlier this month I attended the 80th anniversary celebration of the Oxford English Dictionary in Oxford, England.

Oxford University Press covered my airfare and lodging expenses.

Although I normally decline freebie offers from publishers as a matter of course, I accepted the press’s invitation for several reasons.

Chief among them: I personally view the OED as an institution rather than your run-of-the-mill book. I’m a documented longtime admirer. And I wanted to see how the dictionary works up-close, especially now that it’s gone electronic.

I’ll make this disclosure from now on when I mention an OUP book, but please understand that I do this in the interest of avoiding the appearance of impropriety, and not because I believe the trip has affected or will affect the way I read or write about books published by the press.

My posts about the trip (so far) are here, here, here, and here.

The Witches, Demons, & Thieves trivia quiz

Thanks to all who came out to Housing Works for our Witches, Demons, and Thieves Puritan Halloween party last night. I’m on deadline, so no time for a recap, but we had fun.

For those who couldn’t make it, here’s the kinda-on-theme trivia quiz we handed out. The best part — aside from William Boggess’ questions — was that the winner, Leah, leapt out of her seat in amazement when told she’d won (with 8/10). She was so excited, I felt like a preacher at a tent revival, but I resisted the impulse to commence the laying on of hands.

1. Which New England author wrote, in praise of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” “It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin”?

a) Henry James
b) Edith Wharton
c) Herman Melville
d) Harriet Beecher Stowe

2. Witches aren’t unique to New England. According to Roald Dahl’s book The Witches, they are most plentiful in Norway. Identifying Dahl’s witches is a little more of an exact science than it was in Salem, however. Which of these characteristics do Dahl’s witches not have? (Contributed by William Boggess.)

a) They are hairless, forcing them to wear itchy wigs
b) They are toeless, making it nearly impossible to wear fashionable women’s shoes
c) They have cobalt blue saliva, so they can never spit
d) They have extremely hairy legs, so they must always wear long pants

3. It was Puritan custom to let a house struck by lightning burn down, in deference to the will of God, while trying to preserve the other dwellings nearby. Which sometime admirer of Cotton Mather made a scientific discovery that called this practice into question?

a) Jonathan Edwards
b) Benjamin Franklin
c) Silence Dogood
d) John Winthrop

4. Strings of deaths in families led to the belief, in 19th Century New England, that one of the dead had transformed into a vampire and was returning at night to feast on everyone else. In the most famous of these cases, when Mercy Brown’s brother became ill soon after her death, their father ordered the girl dug up. Finding her oddly well-preserved, and her heart full of fresh blood, he cut out her heart, burned it, and fed the ashes to the boy, who died anyway. What very contagious disease do scientists say was actually killing these people? Continue reading…

A Q&A with Hannah Tinti about Salem & good thieves

Tonight at Housing Works, I’m hosting Witches, Demons, and Thieves, a Puritan Halloween celebration (costumes optional) featuring authors Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief) and Kathleen Kent (The Heretic’s Daughter), and artist Michael Aaron Lee, a friend whose magnificent forest paintings I first praised here a couple years ago.

Last month I posted a mini-interview with Kent, and now here’s a short talk with Hannah Tinti, whose book Junot Díaz has called “a lightning strike of a novel — beautiful and haunting and ever so bright.” The author is, he says, “a 21st century Robert Louis Stevenson, an adventuress who lays bare her characters’ hearts with a precision and a fearlessness that will leave you shaken.”

The Good Thief opens in an orphanage in 19th century New England, where a one-handed orphan named Ren knows he has little chance of being adopted, and that he will eventually be sold into the military. He consoles himself by stealing small objects — a priest’s book, a wishing stone — and tucking them away. But the charismatic Benjamin Nab turns up, claiming to be Ren’s brother, and adopts him.

The charade lasts only till they’re far enough from the orphanage that Nab doesn’t deem it worth bothering with. “‘I’m not your brother,’” he tells Ren, after they’ve stolen a horse and wagon from a farmer who fed them and put them up for the night. “‘I know,’” says the boy, who’d still been hoping. Soon Ren is embroiled in a series of increasingly sinister criminal schemes that culminate in digging up bodies for medical research, and have the boy despairing for his soul.

The story is pure fiction, but Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, where reminders of the sins of the past were ever-present. And although the author says she realized intuitively while writing that Ren was missing a hand, she also traces his disability to something that happened to her in kindergarten. This being New England, recess was held in a church graveyard. One day, while playing, Tinti tripped and fell against a fragile slate headstone. A shard went right through her wrist.

In interviews you’ve spoken about growing up in Salem, where Hawthorne was born, witches were sentenced to death, and the Puritans’ legacy lived on not only through memory, but concrete things: the graveyards, the witch museum, the pieces of china you’d dig up in the yard. “One of my first jobs,” you told New York, “was working at the witch dungeon, basically a basement filled with torture devices used on witches. So my book doesn’t feel that morbid to me.”

Despite your natural desensitization over time to the darker aspects of New England’s history, I wonder if as a child you were frightened by the Puritans’ vision of God, or at the thought that so many people were found guilty of consorting with the devil and sentenced to death. I ask because Ren’s fears about sin and damnation are so complex and immediate.

I was raised as a Catholic, and went to Catholic schools, so God was a big part of my life. Particularly when I was a small child, my relationship with God was very close and personal. I definitely drew on this to write Ren’s character. I was taught by the nuns that God saw everything I did, read all of my thoughts. That to even think of committing a sin, was a sin — whether or not you acted upon it. But I must say that when I prayed to God, I really felt like I was having a conversation with him. I also suspected that God was a lot more understanding than the nuns and priests were making out. This spirituality fell away as I got older.

Regardless, I completely understood where the Puritans were coming from. My parents had explained the history of the witch trials, and that most of it was spurred on by land disputes and old family grudges. When I was a little girl, what frightened me the most about the Salem witch trials was that God stood back and let innocent people die. I’d been taught that God would always deliver justice, and so I had to alter my understanding. In my mind, I rationalized it, and compared God to my own parents. Sometimes they caught me doing something bad, and punished me, but more often than not, they were distracted and I got away with it. In The Good Thief, Ren describes God as a benignly neglectful gardener, pruning His roses and ignoring the weeds, and then one day He notices an encroaching tendril, and His anger comes down mighty and fierce, and He pulls the whole bed out, weeds and roses together.

I’ve read that you set out to write an adventure story that you yourself would want to read — one that, among other things, would keep the reader wanting to know what was going to happen next. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of your childhood favorites, and of course The Good Thief has been compared with his work, and with Dickens’. Donna Tartt has also named Stevenson as a formative influence. I know your tastes are eclectic — recently you mentioned Northline, a favorite book that you called “completely spare and beautiful” — but what are your thoughts about the value of plot, an aspect of the novel that is often dismissed as shallow in literary circles nowadays? Continue reading…