This summer Pale Hearts was featured on American Bookfest.
I’m so grateful to all the readers who’ve told me they enjoyed the book! Thank you for taking the time to read it and share your kind words. I always appreciate Amazon or Goodreads reviews too, if you have a few minutes to comment on the book. It helps other readers find the book, and it helps me as I continue to write!
This fall I’m leading another writing workshop at the Lawrence Branch of Mercer County Library. It will be on September 15 at 10 a.m., and the subject will be description. We’ll talk about how to use descriptive language to make your writing vivid.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman posits that information-transmitting media are never value-neutral vehicles of content. Rather, the nature of media inevitably shape the content they communicate. In other words, you can’t communicate the content of a book on television. The nature of television would necessarily alter the message of the book.
Postman further argues that, as our society has shifted from printed to televisual communication, the content and quality of public discourse has suffered. This shift is driven by the fact that television, as a medium, is best suited to entertainment. As a result, everything else is transformed into entertainment so that it looks good on television.
I was born after Postman’s book was published, so it’s hard for me to judge how much society has truly changed. To some extent, it seems that people have probably always trivialized serious, complex matters and/or spent large amounts of leisure time engaged in frivolous pursuits. What has definitely changed is the immediate availability of entertainment at any time and any place, as well as its explicitly addictive design. Perhaps because of this, entertainment is often seen not as an accompaniment to life, but as a serious life pursuit in itself.
Witness how TV is the center of most homes. Other furniture is acquired and arranged in deference to the television. In living rooms, the chairs and couches face the TV instead of each other–implying that the living room’s purpose is not conversation, but watching. The TV holds privileged status over any other activities that try to exist in the same room. If you’re reading a book, playing a game, or practicing a musical instrument, none of that matters as soon as someone else wants to watch TV. The TV takes over the space with its noise and flashing images, which often leak even into other rooms.
TV shapes interactions even when people aren’t in front of the screen. At any given social gathering, one of the most common topics of conversation is television. No other activity is as universal or unquestioned. People say they “have to” catch up on episodes. They force themselves to try TV shows that are popular, even if they don’t like the show at first. Many people say they don’t have time for x meaningful activity (exercise, writing, learning a new hobby), and then in the very next sentence bring up the latest episode in a popular TV show.
I don’t have a TV. I dislike to the extent to which the internet and social media already distract me from things that matter, and having a TV would only exacerbate this phenomenon. It seems more and more that we’re defined by what we choose to pay attention to–and while it’s not possible to completely ignore it, I aspire to pay as little attention to entertainment as possible.
One thing I’ve learned in my sustainability classes is that sometimes “green” solutions aren’t always so green. By solving one problem, you might be creating another. It’s essential to evaluate entire lifecycles and supply chains to determine whether one solution actually has less environmental impact. Here are a few examples:
1) Electric vehicles: Because electric vehicles don’t require gasoline, they might seem like a good way to lower carbon emissions. But it all depends on how the electricity is generated. In a country where most electricity is generated by burning coal, you’ve defeated the purpose. If the electricity is generated from solar and wind power, the electric vehicle is actually powered by a sustainable energy source. However, things get even more complicated. This article points out several other factors that affect the overall environmental impact of the electric car, such as the rare metals that are acquired through destructive mining practices. Only a detailed analysis of each stage of the car’s production, use, and disposal can reveal whether electric cars are actually an improvement.
2) Artificial Christmas trees: I was glad when my parents bought their first artificial Christmas tree, thinking it would prevent the cutting of real trees. Several years later, this artificial tree had shed most of its needles, and my parents decided to throw it out. That was when I had a horrible thought: where do all the disposed artificial Christmas trees go? It turns out plastic trees in landfills aren’t the only problem. According to this New York Times article, fake trees often contain polyvinyl chrloride (PVC), “which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.” Moreover, you’re not actually doing harm by cutting down a real Christmas tree. They’re grown as a local , sustainable crop, providing jobs and tree cover.
3) Recycling: For the environmentally conscious among us, it’s reassuring to toss a plastic bottle or container into the recycling instead of trash. But there are some uncomfortable truths behind recycling: it’s expensive and consumes a lot of energy. Some of it ends up in the landfill. Much of our plastic waste isn’t recyclable in the first place. And, as pointed out in Cradle to Cradle, a game-changing book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, recycling doesn’t solve the root problem. It still relies on our society’s default product lifecycle: take resources, make a product, and dispose of it (“cradle to grave”). Recycling slows that process down by a step or two, but it doesn’t alter the overall arch. A better answer would be to shift our products toward a circular model, where waste is designed out and every element of a product, even its packaging, can be put toward productive use.
Sometimes, when my to-do list grows longer and longer, I feel like I can’t possibly write until I clear all of the other tasks. I plan to allocate a few days just to focus on the chores. Then, when they’re done, my mind will be free for writing.
It never quite works out that way. As soon as one thing is completed, two more replace it. I never get as much done on chore days as I hope. The to-do list is never defeated. Instead it morphs over time, leaving me frustrated at how much of life is given over to administration–mundane tasks that keep everything running, but steal huge amounts of time in the process.
I first started writing seriously in the months after I graduated from college. At the time, I didn’t yet have a job, and that was when I started keeping track of the hours I wrote each week. At first I found it difficult to write for more than two hours per day. I figured I had time to build up my endurance. One day, however, I had a realization. If I couldn’t make myself write for more than two hours when I was as free as I’d ever be, then I wasn’t really being serious at all. I had to make better use of my time. I’d never be that free again.
This revelation was unfortunately true. I have never had enough time to write. Even during my wonderful four-week residency last year, I was filled with a sense of desperation. I wrote eight hours a day, wrote until my fingers hurt and I couldn’t think anymore. I knew that, as soon as I went back to real life, it would be so hard to find the time. There are always other, more important things to do. Always. Lately my to-do list has gotten alarmingly long, and it’s tempting to put aside writing until all everything is done. I wish I could clear the decks so I’d have the time to focus on my novel like it deserves.
Writing, especially fiction writing, takes a certain kind of irresponsibility. You have to find the will to set aside more important things. For people like me, this is difficult and anxiety-inducing. But there will never be a good time to write. You have to write when you’re uncomfortable and hurried and anxious. If you wait, you’ll never write a thing.
Calling all central NJ writers and readers! Join me for a fiction talk at Mercer Country Library (Lawrence Branch) at 10 am on April 21. I’ll be discussing description: what does it accomplish, and how can you use it to make your own writing more vivid? My focus is on fiction, but similar techniques are applicable to non-fiction as well.
A few months ago, I had the great fortune to be a Visiting Artist at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. The center is located in New York Mills, a tiny, wonderful town in the middle of rural Minnesota. Despite its small size, New York Mills has a vibrant arts scene. The Center hosts concerts, art exhibits, classes, and a gift shop stocked with crafts by local artists. It also has a Visiting Artist program. Each artist is in residency for 2-4 weeks, living alone in a cheerful yellow house near the center of town.
My residency was scheduled for 4 weeks in November and December 2016. I flew from Boston to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove the three hours to New York Mills. As soon as I set foot in the artist house, I felt a sense of peace and excitement. There was a scrapbook filled with journal entries from the artists who’d stayed there before. The house had a small kitchen, a bedroom, and two work spaces with large desks, perfect for writing. Once I’d stocked up on groceries, I holed up inside (frigid temperatures helped!) and wrote, drafting about 100 pages of my novel-in-progress. I met lots of interesting, friendly people around town–artists, writers, the local baker, a taxidermist. I learned about dark house spear fishing and the local boat factory. I also held a workshop, participated in a reading, and visited 3 English classes at the high school. It was a fruitful and creative month.
Finally, my talented photographer friend Kate Kearns took some lovely photos of me and my book last fall. I’m just getting around to posting them now because I’ve been preoccupied by several life changes, including a move. But, finally, here they are!
I finally had to get a smartphone last summer. I’d resisted for years. I hate the idea that gadgets are now controlling our lives, and I actively try to resist the internet’s intrusion into mine. I had a little texter phone for five or six years and it was great.
Then, the day before I left for a multi-month trip to Canada, my dad found out my phone “might not work” there. I don’t know the technical details, but the gist was I wouldn’t know if it would work until I got there. I was traveling to Newfoundland alone, so this was sort of a problem. Before I knew it, my mom was explaining phone cases to me and showing me how to use the plain black one I got. My poor texter was stuffed in the glove compartment and I was on the road with my new device.
Of course, the devices themselves aren’t all bad…for the most part. It’s true they’ll track your every move by default, unless you adjust the settings (or at least they allow you to think you’re adjusting the settings). But there are aspects of the phone that I’m really enjoying. I’ve downloaded a couple of exercise apps that are fun to use and might get me to work out more.
My favorite is the audiobooks. With Overdrive or Hoopla, you can check out audiobooks (or ebooks) from your local library. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about being read to. It frees you up to do other things at the same time—cook, clean, etc. all those annoying chores that would otherwise feel like time badly spent, but which now feel worthwhile because you’re reading at the same time. Also, it doesn’t strain your eyes. I am concerned about my nearsightedness getting worse as I age, mostly because I stare at computer screens so much. My job usually involves looking at a computer, and then I look at the computer even more when I write. So reading paperbacks worries me. The audiobook solves that. Another thing: I used to hate the slowness of the CD audiobooks, which I sometimes listened to on car trips, but with the smartphone audiobooks, you can increase the speed to 1.25, 1.5, or even 2 to use your time more efficiently.
Of course, the benefits are only worth it as long as you don’t get addicted to the phone. I didn’t download an email app, so I won’t be tempted to check my email all the time. For the same reason, I haven’t downloaded any social media apps. I recently read an interesting/disturbing article about how smartphones are actually designed to be addicting. It’s not that surprising, really; it makes commercial sense, and commercial activity is the highest value in American society.
It’s getting harder and harder not to have a smartphone these days, but always remember to protect your humanity and your real life. Resist tech companies’ efforts to make you into an obedient screen addict—use your smartphone as a tool, not an end in itself.
Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.
Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.
I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.
So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.
I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented. That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.
Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.
The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.
Looking for something to read? I have recommendations!
Die a Little (read twice), Dare Me (reread), Queenpin, and The Song is You by Megan Abbott—Abbott is one of my favorite suspense writers. She’s somewhat like Tana French, with plots that twist and turn right up until the end. Her gorgeous prose verges on the poetic. I’m pretty much obsessed with her novel Dare Me, a murder mystery involving high school cheerleaders.
Jurassic Park (reread), Prey (reread), and Disclosure by Michael Crichton—I can’t get enough of Crichton’s tales of sci-fi technology gone wrong.
The Privileges and A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee—Dee writes literary examinations of family life. His novels are quietly gripping, the drama unfolding in well-contained jewels of sentences. The Privileges is a rarity—an entertaining, almost voyeuristic literary novel about a wealthy family involved in various suspicious exploits.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen—A humorous novel about a shallow, corrupt “biologist” and his failed attempt to murder his wife. This light read also has a surprising environmental component, with a plotline about an evil businessman who pollutes the Florida Everglades.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang—A Korean woman becomes a vegetarian, only to face social censure from friends and family. This short novel is at once weird, surreal, and moving. Definitely worth reading.
Euphoria by Lily King—A love triangle between anthropologists is a fascinating basis for a story, and King executes it perfectly. This book has it all: drama, sensuality, and keen observations. I also love that it features characters’ career ambitions, a topic that doesn’t occur much in fiction these days.
Pet Sematary (twice), The Shining, It, The Shawshank Redemption, Revival, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – So, true confession, I’d never read Stephen King before this year. Perhaps because of my contrarian spirit, I often feel reluctant to read authors who seem universally popular. Since someone in my writing group always has one of his books in her purse, I figured I’d finally give him a try. Wow, was I missing out! He’s a fantastic storyteller. I’m particularly impressed with how easily he establishes characters. Some of the novels have lots of characters (It, especially). As a writer, I was skeptical about each new character introduction, only to find myself caring about the character and his/her world just a few pages later. He also has an uncanny knack for writing about children. His ideas for stories seem endless (obvious, but as a newcomer, I had fresh appreciation for it). The stories in Bazaar of Bad Dreams were so varied, ranging from the promised creepy stuff to morality tales to an unexpectedly hilarious story about a “Fourth of July arms race” in Maine.
Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia—As a former way-too-stressed teenage overachiever, I love reading admissions novels. Usually they feature some good-hearted brainy kid trying to make it to the Ivy League. Kanakia’s novel is a refreshing take on this genre. Reshma is a scheming anti-heroine, willing to resort to various dubious methods for getting into Stanford. Not only does the novel entertain with her twisted exploits—it also features metafictional elements and, on top of it all, surprising, touching moments of revelation. This is a memorable debut novel.
Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel—Another excellent YA novel with an intelligent female protagonist… Teenage Sarah longs to break out of her role as an astronomy nerd. During a summer vacation to Cape Cod, she tries on a new identity and finds a boyfriend. Because he’s in college, she lies about her age. Eventually her lie spins out of control. Loved it for the characters, who are all memorable and lovable—especially Sarah, even when she makes bad decisions.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane—This fantastic debut novel follows the life of an elderly woman who lives alone. One day, a government worker unexpectedly arrives, claiming she was sent to care for her. The setting and the thin line between real/unreal make the story feel dreamlike. It’s a mesmerizing book, gorgeously written and unforgettable.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (reread)—This is one of my absolute favorite classics. Reading Melville feels like having an erudite, intelligent friend explain the world to you. This book is full of wisdom, play, and deep love for both man and nature. Do not let your life pass by without reading this.
The Love of a Good Woman and Dear Life by Alice Munro—What is there to say, really, besides that Munro is one of the great short story writers of our time.
Little Children, Nine Inches, and The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta—Perrotta writes engagingly about suburban life. The Abstinence Teacher follows a high school sex-ed teacher and a devout Christian convert—a juxtaposition that could easily become stereotyped and predictable, but which Perrotta handles with admirable care and sympathy. Little Children is a fantastic novel about an affair between parents of toddlers. Nine Inches is a story collection.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert—For those of us who tend toward literary snobbery, it might be tempting to write off the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t do it! This awesome novel reminded me somewhat of Euphoria (above) in its focus on a woman’s career in science. The main character is a 19th-century botanist. Full of ambition, adventure, and historical detail, this is a novel of great warmth and intelligence.
Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver—Despite its clickbaity title, this is a well-observed novel about urban women in the years after college graduation. Silver chronicles early-twenties life with care and humor, sadness and surprise.
How to be Both by Ali Smith—It’s sort of hard to describe this novel, which juxtaposes a teenage girl grieving her mother and a 14th-century artist. It’s weird and wonderful, experimental and moving.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (reread) and The Finishing School by Muriel Spark—Spark writes with wit, warmth, and humor. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an incredible portrayal of that nebulous but defining influence, the elementary school teacher. The Finishing School is an amusing satire about private school and writers.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)—I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread this dark and twisted college novel. It’s an entertaining tale of intrigue and murder. Tartt is incredible at description, dialogue, and secondary characters. This book is made by all its of perfect little details–it feels like you’re reading in HD.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (reread)—Wharton chronicles an illicit romance among late 19th-century New York City elite. That makes it sound shallow, but it’s actually a novel of great subtlety, sensitivity, and beauty. Wharton is a master of social commentary, humor, and tragedy.
Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America by Richard Brewer—This book covers the history of land trusts, which allow for private land conservation in the United States. It also includes substantial chapters on current practices in land trust administration. This is an important text for anyone hoping to join or volunteer for a land trust. Of particular interest is the chapter on urban sprawl, one of the biggest threats to open space in America.
Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen—A memoir about the author, written by her graduate school friend. Chang is best known for her book The Rape of Nanking, which exposed this wartime atrocity to western audiences. She was an ambitious writer who’d published three acclaimed books before she committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. Kamen’s biography is a sensitive portrait of a brilliant, complex woman.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim—Kim writes of her harrowing escape from North Korea into China and, eventually, South Korea.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo—I came to this book expecting to hate it. I heard about it through an essay on LitHub, which described KonMari’s barbaric attitudes toward books. As a book hoarder, I felt outraged, and I decided to learn more about this horrible person. Spoiler alert: two months later, I’d gotten rid of perhaps fifty bags and boxes of stuff, and everyone remarked on how amazing my room looked without the clutter. I still marvel at KonMari’s weirdly infectious spirit. I started out reading about her with full-on enmity, only to become a real “konvert.” It’s obvious she’s not much of a reader, from the callous way she describes maiming books to her assertion that thirty (thirty!!!) books is enough. Yet her guidance on how to deal with stuff is spot-on. Reading her book was a revelation. I suddenly realized I was surrounded by tons of stuff I didn’t use or even like that much. Once I got rid of it, my space felt so much better. Highly recommended for anyone who struggles with clutter!
Journey of a Thousand Miles by Lang Lang—The autobiography of the famous pianist. The chapters about his childhood and his struggles with his father are fascinating.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold—Essential reading for any environmentalist/conservationist…Leopold originated the idea of a “land ethic”—treating land not as property, but as something with intrinsic value. We’re far from achieving this, but it’s an important concept and an eventual goal. Leopold also writes with reverence about spending time in nature and appreciating land.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis—I grew up in a Christian community where you were told to “just have faith.” I always hated that; it’s not an acceptable answer for “why.” Lewis’s book is one of the better intellectual arguments for Christian faith that I’ve come across. I particularly liked his discussion in the initial chapters of the origins of morality.
The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx—A cultural study of two traditional images in American writing: the machine and the garden. Marx traces these conflicting ideals from the founding of the country through the early twentieth century. There are some fascinating analyses of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fitzgerald in relation to nature/machine imagery.
God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin—The author explores the interesting subculture of an evangelical college.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal—This is a shocking tale about a serial imposter. A German man managed to impersonate his way into the richest circles in America, eventually taking on the identity of a supposed Rockefeller. This true story wouldn’t translate well to fiction, simply because it’s so outlandish and utterly weird.
The Radioactive Boyscout by Ken Silverstein—Last year I read The Boy Who Played with Fusion, a biography of Taylor Wilson. That book repeatedly referenced this one, so I decided to read it. Unlike Wilson’s story, this is a tale of scientific talent gone wrong. It’s at once sad and fascinating.
Once Upon a Time by J. Randy Taraborrelli—As a Hitchcock fan, I became interested in Grace Kelly and saw this book in the library. It’s about her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. While her life is portrayed as a “fairy tale”* in popular culture, things weren’t really so happily-ever-after.
Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink—This is a helpful book for those of us who feel like we could lose a few pounds. It talks about how much habit influences our eating, and offers concrete advice on how to reduce your food intake. The main (uplifting) takeaway is that even small changes can have a positive effect.
Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer—An expose about Adam Wheeler, the student who cheated his way into and through Harvard. He was discovered in 2010, when I was still in school, and it was a huge scandal across campus. Julie Zauzmer (formerly of The Crimson) does a great job investigated all the details of his intriguing case.
Our Town and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder—No one seems to talk about Wilder these days. I hope that will change. He was a major literary figure during his lifetime, winning three Pulitzers, two for plays and one for fiction. Our Town is old-timey and nostalgic, and the Matchmaker is a charming comedy. I’m curious to explore his fiction.
*I find it weird and sort of amusing that we use the term “fairy tale” to connote happy endings. Actually, most real fairy tales have horrific, gruesome endings.