Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Girlfriend's Best Weekend Retreat

By Cindy Bailey 4.18.08

At the start of the year, I set some ambitious writing goals and got a good head start on them. Then February happened. My whole family got sick, and all that could go wrong did. Needless to say, the writing didn't get done.

Lucky for me, I had planned to spend the first weekend in March at a women's writing retreat in South Lake Tahoe. Created and run by Jennifer Basye Sander—author, book packager, and publishing consultant extraordinaire—Write By The Lake, her intimate, four-person retreat, turned out to be the oasis of calm I desperately needed.

It was all Jennifer had promised, and more. Late night chats by the fire with a bottle of red wine? Yep, that happened. Walks by the side of the lake? Yep, we did that. A quiet room of ones own to focus and write? Definitely! Access to a publishing guru who can give feedback, advice, and answer questions? Most definitely! Delicious meals? Absolutely! I'm talking lobster ravioli one night, roasted chicken another, fresh split-pea soup and sandwiches for lunch, homemade bread, plus a trip to the local café for Sunday breakfast.

But what made this retreat supremely successful in my view was a combination of the setting, the company, and the way the retreat was run.

Jennifer's gorgeous, comfortable three-bedroom cabin just a couple blocks from the lake provided the setting. Each woman got her own bedroom with either a double or single bed and a basic, clutter-free desk at which to write. (This is huge .) The atmosphere was peaceful, quiet, and inspirational.

Perfect. But what really blew me away was the company. I got to spend the weekend with three talented, accomplished women—women who wrote magazine articles, produced Emmy-award winning television, and authored numerous books among them.

Together, we told stories, personal and professional; cheered and supported each other; and exchanged tips on career and craft. We shared this collective, creative energy that I found both intoxicating and empowering.

A lot of this success was due to Jennifer and the way she ran the retreat, with a perfect balance of structure and flexibility; encouraging discipline, while also accommodating play time.

From the start, Jennifer, a self-described happy, chatty person, got us talking about our backgrounds and holding us to task. This is how the retreat ran:

We met near Sacramento to carpool with Jennifer. Upon arriving at the cabin, we unpacked, had a snack, and went for a walk. Before dinner, Jennifer had invited a guest and neighbor, Barbara Curtis, a former book representative, to share her experiences about the book business while we sat by the fire with wine.

After a tasty dinner, Jennifer handed out packets, and we agreed as a group to get up around seven the next morning and start writing by nine.

After an informal breakfast the following day, we gathered in the living room with our packets. First Jennifer had us pull out a one-page contract on which we had to write what we promised to complete by the end of the retreat, and sign it.

Our packets also included a number of “writing prompts,” a sentence or two that starts a story we would complete as a timed writing exercise. We did two of these, and then (voluntarily) read what we had written. What we came up with on the spot impressed us all, and you could really hear the differences in our styles.

After that, we each disappeared into our rooms. Complete silence descended and we wrote for three hours until we naturally convened in the kitchen for lunch, around noon.

After lunch, we chatted and told more stories. We took a walk to a local store, and then returned to the cabin for another three-hour writing session before dinner, wine, and more gabbing by the fire.

All of us accomplished our writing goal by Saturday evening, and so we decided to use Sunday morning to share our work and get each other's feedback, which proved very productive.

After lunch, we packed and left.

It was such a fabulous, energizing retreat. I would do it every weekend if I could get away with it. I'd get more work done and have more fun doing it than at home with all the distractions screaming at me.

On the car ride back, I felt what one of the writers expressed: “I'm sad that it's ending because I know with the kids and job and everything else, I won't have time to do this again for a while.”

We all exchanged contact information, and parted. I left with fantastic, new friends and enough uplifting, creative energy to keep me persevering on my writing goals—despite whatever awaited me at home.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Mama Monologues and Truth Telling

By Cindy Bailey 3.26.08
Photo by Dilyara Breyer

If you want to hear essays that are raw, edgy, touching, hilarious, outrageous, and truly alive , then you have got to get yourself to one of these Mama Monologues put on by the Writing Mamas Salon. Motherhood never sounded like this before! These talented writers—who also happen to be moms ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies—are telling it like it is, and the result will blow you away, I swear.

Last Saturday evening, March 15, the Writing Mamas Salon presented their latest installment of Mama Monologues, entitled, “Motherhood and Mindfulness,” with special guest, Sylvia Boornstein , co-founder of Spirit Rock and best-selling author of Happiness Is an Inside Job . Book Passage and Spirit Rock also supported the event, which was a fundraiser for spiritual guides, Stephen and Ondrea Levine, who are struggling with medical challenges. Suggested entry donation was $20.

More than 60 people (including men!) packed the gorgeous hall of the Christ Episcopal Church in the hills of Sausalito to hear 20 writers and the guest speaker read from their work.

I was captivated not only by the content of the stories, but also by the variety of voices and styles, and the performance-like delivery these women gave. The evening was electric—and I'm not just saying this because I also happen to be a member of the Writing Mamas. Others in the audience felt it too. My only criticism is that, at three hours, the event ran a little too long.

Dawn Yun , founder of the Writing Mamas and an accomplished author herself, emceed the event. Here are some highlights:

In the story, “My Indiscretions,” Mindy Uhrlaub —a filmmaker who used to be in a rock band that opened for the Smashing Pumpkins—bemoans the loss of her sex life against the overwhelming duties of childcare, which she refers to as “slavery.” Uhrlaub admits that at the end of the day, “the bed is more appealing than what [her and her husband] might do in it.” Because she's horny at noon when her husband's at work, she begins an affair with a cowboy, meeting him at a local motel in the middle of the day. We're enthralled and uncomfortable until we learn that the cowboy is her husband.

Jennifer Gunter had us laughing out loud at her outrageous story, “Designer Vagina.” As an OB doctor, she's seen it all. Her hilarious essay reports on something that apparently is all the rage: injecting collagen in—and having plastic surgery on—your vagina. “There are two ways you can react to this: the first is, What the fuck?” Gunter goes on to say she understands plastic surgery if, say, “your labia has to be rolled up like Dumbo ears and tucked into your underwear.” She has less sympathy for younger women who are looking for a new aesthetic.

Not only was the material side-splitting, but Gunter's delivery was punch line perfect.

Lorrie Golden , a psychotherapist whose essays have been heard on NPR, opened her humorous essay, “Gratitude,” with the following: “This gratitude craze bugs the shit out of me.” What followed was not a rant, but an intelligent, honest look at what it means to have to be grateful all the time. “Life without cynicism and darkness is depressing,” Golden quipped. We laughed hysterically, but also found depth and meaning in her words.

Avvy Mar , a psychologist who's completing a memoir, read her incredibly moving story, “Impermanence,” which was about her realizing in a flashing moment that the life she had before was gone. That moment came to Mar in the hospital while waiting for her newborn to be checked out, and realizing it was taking too long, that something was wrong. Mar's beautiful, lyrical writing never fails to touch deeply. Wow!

After the readers, guest speaker, Sylvia Boornstein , took to the stage and enlightened us with her knowledge and spirituality. She told a classic Buddhist story, read from her book, and had us join her in a short, beautiful meditation. A peaceful ending to a lively evening.

Here were the evening's other readers:

Jennifer O'Shaughnessy read “Smooth Satisfaction,” a story about her husband's idea of a romantic weekend being to sand the deck

Shannon Matus-Takaoka read “You Know What Really Annoys Me About Toothpaste?” a smart, humorous piece about indecision

Lianna McSwain read “Jellyfish,” which was about her husband's insight of his son as a jellyfish

Kristy Lund read “Breathing Room,” which was about needing some!

Pru Starr read “Cheap Party,” a tale about a creative birthday party

Gloria Saltzman read “Still Life with Teenager,” a touching piece about life with teenagers

Laura-Lynne Powell read “Motherhood After Abortion,” which was about just that

Svetlana Nikitina read “Zen Bird,” a beautiful story about her child teaching her the meaning of Zen.

Anjie Reynolds read “Tree,” a poetic piece about what a tree has to offer

Rachelle Averback read “Be the Lighthouse,” which was about learning to let her teenager go

Kate McDonald read “Resurrection,” about her father's death

Kathleen Buckstaff performed “Mama, You're Rich,” a sweet tale of her love for her children

Li Miao Lovett read “Doubting Damn Doula,” a labor story about her misguided doula

Andrea Passman Candell read “The Mixing Bowl,” a piece about the idea of nurturing kids' interests into careers

Kimberly Kwok read “Young Moms,” which was about advising younger moms and the loss of one of her children

• Dawn Yun read “Remarkable Moments,” an essay about incredible life-after-death moments

Dark Readings, All Lit Up

By Cindy Bailey

I attended a book reading at Borderlands on Valencia this last Saturday. The genre was horror. Not my thing. But one of the readers, Maria Alexander, is an old writer friend from L.A., one I hadn’t seen in years. We used to work together at Warner Bros., crafting business documentation for them, while discussing our various creative writing projects on the side. Eventually, I moved to San Francisco and she started with another company, and life went on.

Now here she was, just down the street from me, reading one of her stories. So I had to go. (We writers have to support each other.)

Now, I’m very naïve about horror. When I think of it, I imagine blood and killings and body parts flying. I think of Halloween and Night of the Living Dead. I don’t, necessarily, think of good, quality writing. Yet that’s what I heard from the two women who read at Borderlands.

Maria and Loren Rhoads read stories from Sins of the Sirens: Fourteen Tales of Dark Desire, an anthology of dark stories from four female authors. I found Loren’s story moving—it created an eerie atmosphere that was palpable, complete with a solid sex scene. Maria’s story expressed intrigue and imagination; it was about a journal that writes back to it’s owner, advising him to kill the woman he writes bitterly about.

During the follow-up Q&A, I learned a little something more about my friend. Apparently, what turned her on to all things ghouly is having seen a horror movie on TV at the age of three. It blew her mind. In her words, she didn’t know that was not OK; her parents allowed it. The experience proved liberating for her. As a parent myself it made me think, hmm… maybe I should be careful to allow my son more freedoms...

Unfortunately, my life is such that I had to dash from the reading as soon as it was over, hoping to catch up with Maria later. But I appreciate what I gained from the reading by accident: a new found respect for the genre.

Way to go, Maria!

Getting to Know the Local Literati: A Round-up of Five Lit Journals


The east coast/west coast literary divide may still exist but it isn't the deeply cut chasm it once was. The literary community has morphed into a tangled web of relationships as writers and editors move around the country. More literary journals are now based on the west coast and the San Francisco Bay Area is home to several. Following is a round-up of five Bay Area journals, providing writers with information to help with submissions.

Driftwood: a literary journal of voices from afar was first published in October, 2005 by founder and editor Michael Colonna. Its tag line succinctly explains the journal's premise. Colonna's passion for the written word and his inability to find pieces about the foreign experience in American journals prompted him to start Driftwood . “I wanted pieces written in English that talk about the U.S. in terms of immigration or alienation (as well as) experiences that take place abroad,” he said. Colonna brings to his work his own international perspective; he is a native of Italy who has lived in the U.S. for 23 years, the last three in San Francisco.

When asked about how the journal has changed since its inception, he noted that his affiliation with the Abroad Writers Conference has been fruitful. Winners of its annual writing competition get published in the journal along with the unsolicited submissions. Where does Colonna see Driftwood in five years? He sees the journal being a point of reference for the international perspective. “A platform for the next Salman Rushdie!”

Writers' Tip: From writers, Colonna looks for pieces that “possess originality in approach and compelling characters…touch on the human side of the story and the struggles of humanity.”

In 2003 author Dave Eggers expanded McSweeneys, his independent publishing house, with the literary magazine, The Believer . Managing editor Andrew Leland came on board with the second issue; he said Eggers designed the first issue, which is still used as the magazine's template. Leland said it began as a “forum for longer, stranger things that ought to have been published but would be truncated or cramped in another venue.” The intention was to create a place that would support literary endeavors and creativity. Since its inception, it has expanded on a number of fronts: more art coverage, book reviews, and “theme” issues, which entail producing CD's and DVD's. A book imprint has now emerged from this multi-faceted venture.

Where does Leland see The Believer in five years? “We'll be publishing more journalism and we'll have more of a budget to send journalists on assignment...more theme issues and more interactive madness on our website.”

Writers' Tip: Leland said, “We're looking for energy, originality and intelligence in the submissions. The best pieces are marked by a seriousness without fussiness, and humor.”

Wendy Lesser started The Threepenny Review in 1980 because she saw a public need. “There were many writers and readers with no publications at their level on the west coast; they were all on the east coast,” she said. Lesser created the journal to serve the west coast audience. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of nonfiction and poetry writers she publishes still come from the west coast; the fiction writers come from across the country. Lesser laments that she receives far fewer nonfiction submissions, especially shorter essays for the journal's diverse “Table Talk” section.

Lesser realizes she has found a formula that works; the journal's content and overall format has changed very little over the 27 years. These days she is increasingly impressed with translation pieces and acknowledged that her new advisory relationship with Hunter College may spark a new source of submissions. Where does Lesser see The Threepenny Review in five years? “Where it is now…hope to stay the same.” In five years, it will be in its fourth decade of publication.

Writers' Tip: “For fiction, I look for a sense of voice that is coherent and is really speaking to me. There's no attempt to be objective in the selection process,” Lesser said. For non-fiction, Lesser looks for interesting pieces that also have a personal voice.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola moved his literary journal, Zoetrope: All-Story, from New York to San Francisco in 2002, five years after its inception and following recognition by the east coast literary community. It is a financially self-sustaining journal currently breaking-even, which is made possible by the many volunteers working with the small paid staff. The current editor, Michael Ray, joined Zoetrope: All-Story in 2001. He says that Coppola has a fundamental interest in storytelling and created the journal to support new fiction writers. It started out as a newsprint broadsheet similar to a small newspaper. It was hard to distribute and display so they switched to its current bound journal format in 2003.

Though unsolicited submissions are the primary source, some published pieces come from Zoetrope's Virtual Studio. This is a collaborative online tool allowing writers to receive feedback from others in the studio. Stories receiving very high ratings from this workshop process get noticed by Ray. Where does Ray see Zoetrope: All-Story in five years? “It will be doing great story-telling in a way that I can not anticipate. Maybe a new form of publication, a different manifestation but same high quality.”

Writers' Tip: Ray does not look for stories with broad appeal but rather searches for interesting, compelling ideas. “Ideally, half the readers (of any piece) would love it and half would hate it. This is better than everyone being ambivalent.”

ZYZZYVA may be considered the embodiment of the west coast mindset, if defined in purely geographical terms. Writers published in the journal must reside in one of the five states bordering, or actually in—as in Hawaii's case—the Pacific Ocean. Howard Junker, founding editor, started the journal in 1985 because “the west coast did not have a great literary magazine, except for Wendy's ( The Threepenny Review ) and that was more scholarly. West coast writers were under-represented.” He added that on a personal level, he needed something to do since he was not working at the time. Previously, he worked in communications for a large local company and starting a literary journal seemed like a good next step.

When asked how the journal has changed since its inception, Junker said in the early days he wanted famous writers. Now, he does not solicit writers and depends entirely on the slush pile for the pieces published. Where does Junker see ZYZZYVA in five years? “I'll be gone!” He says that he and ZYZZYVA 's board are not sure of its fate at this point. “It's remarkable that it has been able to continue for so long…so many people want to get published.”

Writers' Tip: Junker says that he does not look for anything specific when selecting pieces to be published. “I just want to see what the writer is saying.”

Submission information:

Driftwood: a literary journal of voices from afar
Fiction, non-fiction, travel essays, literary translations, photography, art
8000 words maximum; no email submissions
Mail to: Driftwood Press
4329 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94118

The Believer
Non-fiction, poetry
No length restrictions; email submissions only
Send non-fiction to:
Send poetry to:

The Threepenny Review
Fiction (stories), non-fiction (critical articles of books, theater, etc., “Table Talk” essays), poetry
Stories and memoirs 4000 words or less; critical articles 1500-3000 words; Table Talk 500-1000 words; poetry 100 lines or less; exceptions are possible; no email submissions
Mail to: The Editors
The Threepenny Review
PO Box 9131
Berkeley, CA 94709

Zoetrope: All-Story
Fiction (stories and one-act plays)
7000 words maximum; no email submissions
Mail to: Zoetrope: All-Story
Attn: Fiction Editor
916 Kearny Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Zoetrope Virtual Studio:

Publishes writers currently living in CA, AK, HI, WA, OR
Fiction, non-fiction essays, poetry, photography, graphic art
Material can be of any length; no email submissions
Mail to: Editor
P.O. Box 5900069
San Francisco, CA 94159-0069

Kimball at Kepler's

By George Powell 11.16.06
Photo by Antonia Kao

Christopher Kimball looks like what you would get if your recipe
ingredients were 1980s popcorn commercial star Orville Redenbacher
folded together with columnist/pundit George Will. It would come popping from the oven as a smart, no-nonsense, down-home master of giving his loyal following what they want: understanding what works in the kitchen and what does not.

That's precisely what he did during his appearance November 16 at the open-again Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, where Kimball was promoting the revised version of The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook .

The initial 2005 edition of the cookbook (which this writer has purchased) had a little bit of everything assembled in a loose-leaf three-ring binder, which had to be assembled by the buyer. The revised 2006 version is printed on heavier paper, has new front and back inside covers, five rings instead of three, and only needs the buyer to put the section dividers in the proper place. From my standpoint, it would be great if there was some lesser-priced upgrade path, but that's not an option.

Christopher Kimball has a New Englander's love of utility and simplicity (he lives in Boston and Vermont), and the clear and unrelenting focus he had when he founded Cook's Magazine in 1980 has remained a key to his huge success. After an early advertising-supported format was ditched, the magazine became Cook's Illustrated, and with 36 basic black and white pages every issue, circulation began to increase exponentially.

In between reading some of his e-mail to the overflow audience of more than 150 at Kepler's, for proof of that torrid circulation growth, Kimball revealed that Cook's Illustrated magazine was set to welcome its one millionth subscriber in January 2007. That's stunning growth from a subscriber base of just 25,000 in 1993.

Kimball, dressed the same way he is on his top-rated PBS cooking show, America's Test Kitchen , had on his usual bow tie and suspenders, and without any ado at all launched into sharing e-mail with the audience, then took questions, then signed his books. That was all there was. Before Kimball appeared, the audience was offered some appetizers prepared from recipes in the revised cookbook Kimball was promoting. But once Kimball stepped to the podium, it was obvious he was appearing not as much to promote a single cookbook as to enhance and reinforce the unique mojo that keeps Kimball at the top of an ever-expanding cooking show field.
Kimball also attributed his recent success to the increasing popularizing of cooking by the Food Channel on cable TV, as well as the added circulation brought to the magazine by America's Test Kitchen , now in its sixth year on PBS.

Then came questions aplenty that included convection ovens, baking, special diets, shallots, oven temperatures (calibrate your oven every few months), substituting in recipes and pie crust (“I could talk about that for hours,” Kimball said).

Keeping close to the subject at hand, Kimball revealed only a little about himself, stating that he started Cook's because “food magazines in the 1970s were a crock.” That insight has taken his company, Boston Common Press, founded with an investment of $500,000 to a publishing house with $20 million in revenue in 2002 and profits that year of more than $4 million. Kepler's had several cookbooks published by Kimball's company on hand for purchase and autographing in addition to the Family Cookbook Revised Edition , and the line for autographs after his half hour of answering questions was suitably long.

Also on this Western tour was Kimball's wife, Adrienne, who first met Kimball, she said, when she was employed as one of his assistants in the 1980s. Kimball also mentioned that his daughter, one of four children, was an excellent baker in her own right.

But that was as far as Kimball went into his private life. Some quick Internet research revealed a bit more, like the first album he owned was Meet the Beatles , his favorite movie is Murder, My Sweet , that he liked Grateful Dead music, and that his favorite sports team is the Boston Red Sox.

His range of interests besides cooking was best revealed in an answer he gave in 2005 to the question, “What four people (alive or dead) would you invite to dinner?” and Kimball's reply was “Calvin Coolidge, John Mortimer, Mark Twain and Billie Holiday.”

For his Kepler's appearance, Kimball, although a man of eclectic cultural tastes, chose to stick with what his audience came for and what he was best at doing, explaining what works and what doesn't when it comes to cooking. That has proven to be a most successful recipe.

Litquake 2006: Women Writing—Generations of Stories


As I walked through the Bubble Lounge in San Francisco's North Beach, I had to navigate around everyone who spilled from the chairs, ottomans, and couches, as well as those sitting cross-legged on the floor. This Litquake event featured ten local women writers whose ages spanned from the 20's through the 70's, each sharing a story from their life. The following are highlights from this event.

Sera Beak, who was the youngest in the group, read from her recently published first book, The Red Book: A Deliciously Unorthodox Approach to Igniting Your Divine Spark. She described how mainstream culture has a knack for trivializing aspects of spirituality; yet, she sees that people have a real hunger for and curiosity about spirituality. Ironically, pop culture has at times broadened the knowledge and interest in spirituality. She pointed out that it was Madonna who brought much attention to the writings of the Kabala. Beak also considers humor to be extremely important in life because it keeps us from taking ourselves and our beliefs so seriously. “Humor is the necessary tool for igniting your own divine spark,” she read with a smile.

Beth Lisick, co-organizer of the monthly Porch Light storytelling series in San Francisco, read from her fourth book, which will be released in February 2007. The book focuses on her humorous quest to answer the question, “Can I improve my life by going to gurus?” She wanted to experience first hand the fitness and self-actualization movements in the U.S. She relayed how she often felt intimidated “ by the twin lions of Pilates and yoga… as strength-filled cores mocked me on the streets of Berkeley.” Lisick commented on the creative new terms to describe exercise, such as body sculpting and boot camp. The plaque on her high school's wall not only commemorates her record-breaking long-jump track record but also the last time she did any cardio exercise—19 years ago. “I thought that having sex and chasing buses were the only reasons to exercise,” she said. Lisick wrapped up the reading with her realization that she was ready for striped dolphin shorts. She had signed up for a weeklong aerobic fitness cruise with exercise guru, Richard Simmons, who happens to wear the aforementioned shorts.

Bharati Mukherjee emanated a regal air as she read from what she called her “accidental autobiography,” Days and Nights in Calcutta . She is a professor of English at U.C. Berkeley and the author of seven novels. This passage was about her visit back to her homeland, Calcutta, decades ago while she was in her thirties. (The book was written at that time.) It was an entertaining reading that evoked Indian culture from days past. She was the wife of a western man with two American-born young sons, and this trip was about reconnecting with her family, whose lives were steeped in another era. The excerpt was about the byzantine series of locks on the home's cupboards, with hidden keys, that her mother had arranged in order to store and protect valuables from possibly dishonest servants. Even the simplest daily tasks required the locking and unlocking of the cupboards. “Locking (cupboards) was a way of locking in a belief about karma that assumes a disaster would occur,” she read. Mukherjee felt that her mother, in her own way, had wanted to create a sense of security for her geographically distant family. Yet, it was her mother who had struggled hard to ensure that she and her two sisters were educated in America.

Jane Ganahl, co-founder of Litquake, is an author and a newspaper columnist who wrote for San Francisco newspapers for 24 years. She read from her book, Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife , which will be released in February 2007. She read about the transitional time in her life where three things started to happen: she was about to turn 50, she was changing careers, and she started to become invisible to men. Having had a life filled with brilliant men, she talked about the difficulty of dating an “average” man. Ganahl spoke of her friends' well-intentioned efforts to match-make on her behalf. One man, whom she refers to as “Elmer Fudd,” was a museum curator and considered a good prospect by her married friends. She agreed to attend a dinner party where he declared surprise upon realizing that she wrote a column about being single and dating, because he thought she was “a serious reporter.” But what really unnerved her was that he had an ironed crease in his jeans and wore shoes with tassels, just like her father's shoes. She seems to know that she will find a brilliant man and “not a man who wears creased jeans.”

The evening provided an entertaining variety of voices and generational perspectives that were laced with grace, humor, and wisdom.

Stephen Elliott Rises Above It All

By Cindy Bailey 10.9.06
Photo by Lydia Lunch

Considering his upbringing, Stephen Elliott should be hooked on drugs. Or selling his body for money. Or maybe even dead. That's what one might imagine of someone who left home at 13 to live on the street, and a year later become a ward of the court, spending the rest of his youth in various group homes, surrounded by chaos and violence, shooting heroin and practicing sadomasochism, among other misadventures.

But instead, Elliott rose above his circumstances. Inspite of everything, he earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Illinois and a Master of Arts from Northwestern University. He wrote his first novel, Jones Inn , when he was just 21 years old, and followed that with A Life Without Consequences and What It Means to Love You , all while working mostly odd jobs. Around the same time, Elliott beat out approximately 1,100 other writers to earn the prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, from 2001 to 2003, where he taught creative writing and wrote his critically acclaimed novel, Happy Baby .

He went on to write a book on politics called, Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process , to edit the Politically Inspired anthologies, of which there are two, and to create the popular Progressive Reading Series, which takes place at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco every month, as well as in other select cities. His most recent book is My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up .

Now that's impressive.

I met Elliott at the Atlas Café in the Mission District. He had just biked there from his office at the Writer's Grotto, and was thankful the area had no hills. I started by explaining that I had seen him on a panel of memoirists a few years back and was impressed with the way he answered questions, saying, for example, “No, I didn't really have any trouble getting published.” He seemed not to be making himself out to be the victim writer who must struggle and suffer to make it. Instead, he was just sitting down and doing the work, and his efforts were paying off.

I found this perspective refreshing. This is what he had to say in response:

I think there is definitely too much focus on the publishing side and not enough focus on the writing side. …The most important thing to being published is to write a book. People are so worried about who they know, and who their agent is, and they haven't written a book yet. So first write the book, and then worry about the publishing.

If you write a good book, it's not hard to get it published. … There's a million people out there looking to publish a good book. That's the easy part.

I'm so glad you say that. I think there are a lot of writers out there, but there are not a lot of good ones.

And even ones that are good, a lot of times they're indistinguishable. What is it about the story you're telling that's different from the story everybody else is telling? It's competently written, but is it different enough? Do we need it? …

I think that's really important. In my first couple novels, I really focused on the group homes that I grew up in. There are very few people that come out of those places and write books about them. … It's something I know that a lot of people don't know about. I can talk about that. …

The last couple books deal heavily with S&M [Sadism and Masochism, or sadomasochism]. I approach S&M in an open and interesting way, an honest way. People rarely do that, and so it's different. I feel that for people who want to read interesting literary books about S&M, there's not that many books on the shelf, so I can contribute to that.

I read that you started writing at 10. How is it that you came to write? Did you want to be a writer?

I started writing when I was 10, and I had no intention of being a writer. But I was a very sad kid. My mother was dying. She had multiple sclerosis, and she just laid on the couch all day, dying. My father was not around very much; I didn't like him anyway. There was a lot of screaming in my house, and I started writing these poems. What I was really trying to do is communicate. I had things to say and I didn't know how to say them.

I actually believe there are two types of writers… those that love literature and the kind that like to communicate. I like to read, but that's not why I was writing.

So what I would do is tape these poems all over my wall. The walls of my bedroom were covered in poems, like wallpaper. Until one day my father tore them down, and that was the end of that. But I used to go to my friend's house and read my poems to his mom, and she made copies of them and sent me them recently, so I have a lot of these old poems I wrote when I was 12 years old. … Terrible. The worst poetry you've ever seen.

That's OK. That's how you start.

I have other friends, like my friend Mike, who says he has tons of writing that I wrote when I was 16, boxes of it. So I was writing compulsively, continually writing in these notebooks because I didn't know how else to communicate. I would be embarrassed to be so effeminate, to be so sensitive as to tell people how sad I was, so I just had to write it all the time. That's my theory. I don't really know.

When did “just writing” and compulsive writing turn into actual stories and craft?

Somewhere in college I started writing short stories. Basically, the poems just got longer. But I always rewrote them, a lot. … It's with these stories in college that I really fell in love with rewriting, and that became what I liked more. I really wanted to get something on the page so I could start messing with it.

I went to Amsterdam. I ended up staying and missing a semester of school and working in a live sex show in Amsterdam.

Yeah, I read that chapter [in Happy Baby ].

That chapter is pretty much all true. … So I write this story about that when I get back, and I enter it in the school contest at the University of Illinois, and I win. I win like $1,000. It's a big contest, right? All of a sudden I'm in with all the creative writing people, and English majors want to be my friend. But they're all thinking this is what they want to do. They want to get MFAs. They want to be writers. That's not what I was thinking at all. …At some point I started thinking maybe I would write advertising. I was thinking of what I could do to make money. I never thought I could write novels.

Then I wrote a novel. Basically, I was doing heroin and documenting this, writing about doing heroin with my friends, and then I would come in and read these pages I'd written the day before, and we'd have a good laugh. It would be interesting, and this became my first novel, Jones Inn .

So you just wrote a novel.

I wrote a novel, but really it's just a journal, just me writing, and it was not very good. I was 21 years old, and I was working as a stripper and shooting heroin and writing these notes. It's raw, but it's not a good novel, and it should never have been published.

Did you do a lot of rewriting?

I did, but it's still not of the skill level that would be required to write a good novel. I was just not there yet, you know? I had a lot of belief, like I believed I had written something new and original, and it was better than [anything] anybody else had ever written. I thought that I had written the first book ever about heroin. So that was ground-breaking.

But actually it was this awful, 100-page… It was very clumsy. Fortunately a very small publisher that I met at a poetry reading published my book, and they misspelled my name, which at the time really bothered me, but later it was great, because I never told anybody about [that book]. It wasn't until Happy Baby came out that I admitted I had this novel.

… But still, that didn't make me think I was going to be a writer. I didn't get paid anything for that [he was paid in copies]. …

Did you start to think of yourself as a writer with your next book, A Life Without Consequences ?

No. I thought that maybe I would publish it. Once you write something, you try to publish it. There's something very organic about that. … I'd send my poetry to magazines, and they'd get published, but it wasn't anything I thought I'd make a living doing. I saw the books that people were making a living writing, and I wasn't writing that kind of a book. I didn't think there was a big enough audience for my writing. [And] I was only capable of writing what I wanted to write and nothing else. …

What was different about writing [your third book], What It Means to Love You ?

It came right out [in three months]. I spent a year or two rewriting it, but the book just came right out, every day. It's the only book I've written in the third person. … It's got a really great plot. [But] people hated this book. It never came out in paperback. It got a couple of reviews and they were awful. It's very poetic. It takes a lot of liberties with the language. It's repetitive often. A Life Without Consequences is not that poetic. It's more what you'd normally read.

With Happy Baby, did you choose your writing style or voice consciously, or did you come into it organically?

I came to some decisions about writing. I got a Stegner Fellowship at this time. I sent these two books, A Life Without Consequences and What It Means to Love You , to the slush pile at MacAdam/Cage [publisher]. They bought both of them. About a month later, I had also applied for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and forgotten about it. It was one of those moments in which I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I never thought I'd get it. The next thing you know, I've got two books coming out and thirty thousand dollars a year to write. Now I'm a writer.

All that happened just before Happy Baby came out.

Oh, yeah. The Stegner enabled me to write Happy Baby , which was a very deliberate book. It's my best book. I'm very proud of Happy Baby . I think it's the best thing that I'm capable of writing. I don't know that I'll ever write anything better than Happy Baby . I said some things I wanted to say in that book, and I paid a lot of attention to language. What I did in that book is decide I wasn't going to be poetic. I was going to be minimal.

I got really into minimalism. I was reading all this Raymond Carver and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. I hated Raymond Carver when I was in college, and now I was reading [him] and thinking that is exactly what I'm trying to do. I was loving it. I was loving Jesus' Son , in which [the author] tells so much in one word. I started asking, can I do that in one sentence?... Really, every sentence in [ Happy Baby ] I was thinking about, obsessing over. …People [would ask] why, and I wasn't going to answer. It was all show don't tell.

Which I really appreciated.

…There's another thing, too. There are two rails. One was what I was trying to do … with the language, and the other is that I was trying to write about sex for the first time, which entirely changed my life in every way. …People seem to get one or the other. If you like the book, you like it because you relate to what's going on with the language, or you like it because somebody is speaking honestly about S&M—the desire and the good and the bad of that.

You handle very charged material so eloquently. … No matter how you feel about S&M, you really feel for these characters, or at least I did.

I hope so.

On the subject of voice, you've written a political book, and you said somewhere that people wouldn't recognize you as the writer behind this book, and I wanted to ask why.

It's a totally different style.

Were you deliberately writing—

Yes, and now I'm reacting to Happy Baby , which is totally minimal and very successful, I feel. People always relate to minimalism; minimalism will always work. But as a writer, as an artist, you always want to keep messing around. You want to play with language. So now [with Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process , his political book] I'm going in the entire other direction. It's maximalism. … It's a continual exploration of every possible idea into its umpteenth conclusion. …

I read that you didn't dream you could make money at writing. So what aim or goal did your writing have for you, then?

It was just this thing I did, this hobby. I enjoyed sharing it with my friends. My last girlfriend said that writers are disclosure junkies, which I thought was really funny. I think what she really meant was [I'm] a disclosure junky. … But the urge to purge yourself and tell everything—it's just this grasping need, this desire for attention and affection. It's show and tell at school. It's dancing around. So that's what I did in my free time. It's fun to make a living as a writer because I'm getting paid for doing what I do in my free time, but it also puts a weird pressure on as well. I should probably be pursuing some career where I can actually buy a house or something, you know, have a family.

You can do that with writing.

Not at this rate.

It's hard work. That's one of my questions coming up. You told me your history a little. So when did you see yourself as a writer professionally? When did you say “I am a writer?”

When I sold those two novels to MacAdam/Cage was probably the beginning of it. And when I got the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, which was an anointment or—not anointment. Or this vindication or verification?

Validation, maybe?

Validation, yeah. You're now a writer. And I knew from that point on that if nothing else, I could always get a job teaching creative writing.

You've already answered this: “Why do you write?” You're just compelled to do it, right?

Right. Except that now, I'm trying to pay bills with it. As a Stegner writing Happy Baby , I probably worked on it eight hours a day, every day, and when I was done, it was like coming out of a cave. Now, I write about three hours, maybe four, as long as the coffee is good, and then I do other things. That's basically how much I was writing before when I had a job. I'm pretty sure that if I had a job, I wouldn't write less than I'm writing right now, unless it was a job that took all my head space.

So when would you say you started “making a living as a writer?”

When I got the book advance on those two novels, then I was making a living as a writer. They gave me $36,000 for the two, so $18,000 each, which was enough to last me two years or so. [The Stegner stipend would come nine months later.]

Wow, you can make money last; that's impressive in San Francisco.

You can, you know.

That's true. There's a way you can do it.
I mean, I'm not particularly frugal, I just don't buy anything. I don't worry about who's buying the drinks, I don't worry about my coffee or donuts or whatever, I just don't buy furniture. Things like that. I try to keep the rent low.

Before you were making a living as a writer, how did you support yourself? I read that you had a variety of jobs.

A lot of jobs. Yeah, I was a bartender, I was a ski bum. I was bartending up in the mountains and skiing all the time. That's when I wrote A Life Without Consequences . I was a stripper for a year. I was a barker for a live sex show. I did a lot of waiting tables. I worked in a youth hostel when I first got to San Francisco, and I temped a lot. I tutored on the law school admissions test and the business school admissions test, the GMAT. I taught logic classes, which I loved. If I could just teach logic I think maybe then I would like teaching.

When you were doing all these jobs how did you discipline to do your writing?
I tell my students a lot that writing is a great hobby. People say how do you find time to write. You know, everybody has a job when they write their first book. Every first book is written while doing something else. I don't know why you'd write a novel ever thinking you'd make a living at it. I really don't think that should ever be the point. Very few novelists I know do it. Jim Shepard teaches. … Bharati Mukherjee teaches at Berkeley. These are writers who have won awards. John L'Heureux, who wrote 30 books or something has been teaching at Stanford for the last 50 years or god knows, a hundred years, maybe. He's probably 180 years old. I mean, even Tobias Wolff is teaching at Stanford. You think they're just writing, but they're not. They have jobs.

So what would you consider to be your first break as a writer? Would it be publishing the books or the Stegner Fellowship?

The Stegner Fellowship is probably more important than publishing the books because it enabled me to write Happy Baby , which I wouldn't have written without meeting people like Tobias Wolff and mentoring. Just these talents, and these workshops with the best emerging writers in the country, like Tom McNeely, Tom Kealey, Andrew Altschul, Elizabeth Tallent. When these people critique your work it's really helpful, you know? I don't know that I'd ever want to be in a workshop ever again, but two years of it is really good.

I hear they're really brutal.

You can get your head around it. … Any great writer has to be able to accept criticism, take what they can use, not take what they can't use. If you can't do that, then you're incapable of taking criticism. You either take all of it and then your writing is destroyed, or you take none of it and then you can't grow. … [If you're offended by criticism] in a workshop, no matter how awful, …then there's something wrong with your filter, and if you don't fix that filter, you'll never be a great writer.

That's true. It's very important to be able to know which criticism will make your work stronger and which won't work for your piece.

It's a big distraction. You really shouldn't expect more than ten percent of the criticism to be relevant, but you have to go through one hundred percent to find that ten percent.

How would you describe your work process? Do you write every day?

I write every day. I also have a project. Starting is always the hardest thing. I just sit down and try. Recently, I've been doing a lot of writing in these smaller books [he shows me a small notebook with tiny scripted print in it]. I write a lot of it by hand, and then I get on the computer and transcribe what I've written in my pad. And then I start expanding it.

Recently, I've been using a live journal. …

Do you choose decidedly what topics you're going to write about or do you organically let something come up and then see what you want to build on?

I don't know the difference between those two things, right?

OK. Well, I'll come up with ten ideas, and I may choose one to write about. Or other times I may be just writing in my journal and something will just ring with me and I'll decide to expand that.

I do both of those, too. Sure. Usually I'm working on a couple of things at once, and I never really know which one's going to go.

When you write about these very charged scenes from your life, are you able to-– well, you obviously are because you've written and published on them-–take sufficient distance to be artistic about them?

I hope so.

Sometimes, does it get too close? For example, do you write a scene and then walk out of your house all depressed because of it and think, oh-my-god I've just relived this, why am I doing this?

Yeah, that happens all the time. It can be very depressing. I needed therapy with Happy Baby . There were times when I was writing Happy Baby I got in really dangerous situations because all my sexual urges, all my masochistic urges, were sitting on the surface. Before, I had buried them, and they would come out every couple of years, when I would do something dangerous. When I was writing Happy Baby , it was every day. … My last girlfriend carved possession on my side and she misspelled it. That was for me the metaphor. That said everything about that relationship and what I was doing and what was going on.

…[But] I never forget the reader. … I'm not writing for somebody that's so curious about me that they want to know everything about my day. You know, Bukowski said that. Bukowski, who did nothing but write about himself, was totally aware that the reader did not give a shit about Charles Bukowski.

So he made himself interesting.

So he fictionalized it enough to make his life interesting. He was an artist, but the only paint that he knew how to use was the paint of his life. And I'm that way too. I don't really know how to write fiction. But I do recognize that I have to make my own story interesting enough so that others would want to read it. I think that's important for a writer. Your mother's not reading this.

What have been your biggest challenges or obstacles in your career and/or writing process?

Well, I don't know. Probably when I finished Looking Forward to It. I just went into this massive depression. I didn't even recognize it. Total writer's block. I couldn't write for a long time. I was just written out.

…I felt that I had basically written a masterpiece in Happy Baby ; it had gotten some very good acclaim. But had it done enough for me? Was I happy? … And then I had written this book on politics, which I think is also very good. I don't like all my books. I like three, and I don't like three. Those are not bad odds. But I was running out of money. Not only had I written on this election, but I created a whole foundation to help John Kerry win. I put together this operation in Ohio. I got all these writers to go to Ohio and do voter registration readings at colleges, and—

That is really cool.

It was really cool, but then we lost the election. And the book was done, and I had written my story. I was out of the closet. There was nothing more to say about my sexuality. It was just over, and I was blocked. I didn't care. I didn't want to write about politics, I didn't want to write about myself. I had to figure out a way to make a living.

I was in a really bad place. I couldn't write. I really didn't want to teach classes anymore. I asked myself, what do I want to do? And I couldn't really come up with an answer to that.

Now I have some answers. It didn't really seem like it was going to go away. I have an ability to get very sad. I think that millions of people suffer from that, but it can be totally paralyzing. I kept losing weight, and I couldn't eat. I didn't know how to talk to my friends about it. Basically, what happened is that I got in a very intense relationship which inspired me. I started writing about that. That's basically the new book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up .

…And now I've got a lot of things I'm working on, and they're going pretty OK.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

Yeah, sure. Mostly I just worry about who's going to pay me so I can keep writing these books; who's going to allow me to write what I want to write and give me a monthly stipend for the next five years.

That's a great perspective, because as you know, many are looking to publish something, to get the money first, and see how they can fit their writing into something that's needed.

If you're in your twenties, you should be working. You should be working and writing on the side. That's what most every writer does. At some point, if you need extra time, go do an MFA, as long as you don't have to pay for it. That'll give you two years to focus. Pat Walsh, my old editor at MacAdam/Cage, used that. He wrote a book about writing, something like 83 reasons why a book won't be published [ 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might ]. The very first point on why you won't be published is because you haven't written a book yet. This is the truest thing anybody has written about publishing and writing. Just go work and go write your book.

What advice would you give a writer who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Don't follow in my footsteps. [Laughing . ] You don't want to do that. You'll end up overdosing on heroin and having a bunch of meaningless relationships. I don't think you want to do that.

Maybe not so specifically, but you said some things already, like write the book first.

Write the book. Keep writing. The terrible thing is how many people are published and they're unhappy with it. It's really a tragedy. …There's no way you should be less happy after you publish. Publishing should be this positive thing in your life. So I just think you should always keep in mind why you're writing, why you wanted to write.

…Write the book you want to write, and keep writing as long as you want to write and it's fun. As long as it's a positive thing in your life and helping you grow, then keep doing it. And when it's not don't do it anymore.

That's great advice. So, what does the future hold for you?

I'm working on three different things. I'm working on a screenplay of Happy Baby . (I've always been interested in film.) I'm working on this very long, personal essay about suicide and depression and my generation, and the intersection of Britney Spears and someone who only dates sex workers, and all these other things.

Probably the largest project I'm working on right now is an oral history of myself. Because I grew up in group homes, I know a lot more people than average. You had friends growing up, but we only had friends. We didn't go home for dinner. It's only us and there were a lot of us. We were … much more dependent on each other than is normal for a group of kids.

… So with the oral history, it's partly about learning about myself and partly about getting their stories. I'm asking them about me, but it's always their stories that come through, and their stories are fascinating. …

That sounds like another book.

And that's the book I'm working on. It's my memoir, but it's told in the voices of other people.

Gary Hart Calls Upon Democrats at the Stanford Bookstore

By George Powell 9.27.06
Photo by George Powell

For a person who has never been president, or even his party's nominee, Gary Hart projects a presidential aura. Approachable, personable, but with a touch of “Hail to the Chief.” For those who are still a bit unfamiliar with Hart and his background, sitting in the audience of about 50 at the Stanford Bookstore Sept. 27 would have made you want to remember more, know more.

The man (who will be 70 in November) has been a U.S. Senator from Colorado (1975-1987), written 17 books, is a professor at the University of Colorado, and finished a strong second to Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.

The book he's currently promoting, The Courage of Our Convictions: A Manifesto for Democrats , is passionate, erudite, and liberal in the very best sense of the word, reflecting the traits of its author.

Hart left both lectern and microphone unused as he stood before the audience to deliver a pithy summary of the book's thesis.

Hart's book, by his own admission, was written to answer a question he was constantly having to answer, “When are the Democrats going to say something? What do the Democrats stand for?”

In the book's introduction, Hart says: “What do we stand for indeed? It has become painfully apparent that the great Democratic Party, the dominant party of the 20th century, the party that led America through two world wars and much of the Cold War, has become mute. The best Democrats lack all conviction, or at least all courage to state what those convictions are, while the worst conservatives, those full of passionate intensity, fill the vacuum in governance.”

The answer, according to Hart, is to return to the tried and true principles of four great Democratic presidents—Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—and not to shy away from their considerable accomplishments.

Hart says early in the book: “Franklin Roosevelt established a national community based on social justice. Harry Truman created international networks that repaired the damage of World War II and defeated communism. John Kennedy recaptured the ideal of the republic and the sense of civic duty. Lyndon Johnson recognized that all citizens are entitled to equality before the law. To expect to enter this pantheon, the next Democratic leader must now undertake all these tasks.”

Given the near total moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration, the task should be easy. But Hart finds a big challenge in the articulation by Democrats.

In 2006, it's now apparent that during a political campaign, the only way to cut through the cacophony of competing voices in today's infinite information space is to adopt a single, easily repeated, unified message. The Republicans, thanks in no small part to campaign guru Karl Rove, have such a strategy down pat. The Democrats, according to Hart, do not.

Hart theorizes that swing voters will not listen to any specific plans of a political party until they know where that party stands and what it stands for.

According to Hart, the current Republican stance is “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” Democrats, Hart says, once had “purpose, integrity and honor,” but support of civil rights in the 1960s along with the Vietnam war shattered the “heyday” of the Democratic Party.

Hart himself is in a good position now to push the Democrats into forging a unified statement of principles. But he also was in a somewhat better position in 1987, and he faltered. The early front-runner that year, Hart was derailed by the Donna Rice affair, involving allegations of infidelity which forced him to drop out of the presidential race. By the time he returned in time for the New Hampshire primary in early 1988, he garnered only a smattering of votes and Michael Dukakis became the Democratic choice.

This smashup in Hart's career was not mentioned in his bookstore appearance. It's as far away in time, nearly 20 years, as President Bush's alleged drinking and coke-snorting, and Bush was selected president in 2000.

If Hart had been president, things might be different for the Democrats. However, circumstances have led to a different outcome, and whatever happened in Hart's past does not change the fact that he has something important and necessary to say today. The Democratic Party would be doing itself a favor to heed his cry.

Voices from 9/11


I could not think of a better way to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 than to hear from voices not usually heard in mainstream media. This month's Progressive Reading Series at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco's Mission District featured five local authors who read essays or book excerpts about their personal experience with 9/11. The evening was also interspersed with readings of much shorter essays selected from website submissions for this event. It was a grim reminder that the rippling effect of 9/11 has forever altered the collective (and individual) consciousness.

The first reader, Laura Fraser, an author and member of the Writers' Grotto, read a story about a man who she had briefly dated prior to 9/11. He ended their courtship at their last meeting and was set to leave for New York in a few days to attend a business meeting at The Windows of the World on the morning of 9/11. He perished that day. The story took a surprising turn when the man's former girlfriend, and executor of his will, contacted her to discuss his death as well as another secret life that he had led unbeknownst to Laura. Though Laura knew little of this man, 9/11 made his story broader, albeit darker.

Caroline Paul, a former San Francisco firefighter, an author, and a Writers' Grotto member, read of her encounter with another firefighter, Andy, from Brooklyn. Andy's strong dedication to firefighting prompted him to spend one day of his family's vacation in San Francisco riding the fire engine on Paul's shift, an unusual request. Andy and the San Francisco firefighters respectfully exchanged stories in the hopes of one-upping each other. Despite his easy-going demeanor, it was clear he was in another league as his stories confirmed New York's reputation as having the most dangerous, severe fires in the country. His ride on the engine happened weeks before 9/11. Paul did not share whether she knew of his fate, but for her, he was the face for all New York firefighters.

Joyce Maynard, a local author, was the only featured reader who actually was in New York on 9/11. Arriving in New York September 10 to visit her son at NYU, she stayed on afterwards. “Wait for a story to come,” she said, which is her advice for writing students. Her story came to her when she stumbled upon a flyer about a 13 year-old girl who was looking for her mother. Maynard wrote a fictionalized account of this girl and her family; the reading took us to the girl's classroom on 9/11 morning with images before, during, and after the news was announced in the school. She read about the girl's longing to see her mother again and her imagining of her impending move to California to be with her father. This heartfelt, fictionalized account of 9/11's impact on one young girl's life felt very real.

After the break, Tom Barbash read from his non-fiction book about 9/11. His friendship with the Chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, the investment-banking firm located in the WTC that lost the vast majority of its employees, provided him with a unique window. Barbash interviewed the Chairman's driver, who spoke of standing with the Chairman on the sidewalk in the shadows of the WTC ready to enter the building when the first plane hit. Both the driver and the Chairman survived. Barbash quoted another survivor of the firm who said, “I can't look at my wedding pictures anymore because most of my wedding party has died.” At a meeting at the firm, management decided to read the number of survivors per department, rather than deaths. The list started like this: 1/36, 4/86, 16/140, 2/36. Barbash captured the depth and breadth of 9/11 through the tragic losses of this one firm.

Geoffrey Nunberg, local author and linguist, read from his writings about the language used in the media and government after 9/11. He noted how different media outlets chose specific words and discussed its effect on framing 9/11 in the national consciousness. Nunberg said that the San Francisco Examiner called the terrorists “Bastards” while other newspapers used words evoking an earlier era with words like “dastardly” and “nefarious.” President Bush became extremely fond of the word “evil” soon after 9/11. Nunberg noted how the political right in this country co-opted, very effectively, the word “patriotic” even though most liberals are patriotic too. According to Nunberg, the lapel pin of the American flag later embodied this newly found patriotism, initially a symbol of agreement with the Bush Administration agenda.

It's likely that the majority of those attending the reading were not in New York on 9/11. But these readings reminded us that the sense of loss would never go away, no matter where you were that day.

Jason Leopold Delivers the Truth at Book Passage

By George Powell 8.24.06
Photo by George Powell

Journalist Jason Leopold has been dogged by controversy and excess much of his relatively short career in the national spotlight. In fact, he has by his own admission had a rather adversarial relationship with his own life. And that's precisely why he makes such a good reporter in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Leopold came to Book Passage in Corte Madera the evening of Aug. 24 to promote his new book, News Junkie . I for one was surprised at Leopold's youth and the small size (about 25) of the audience. Given the author's proclivity for being in the forefront of two of the biggest stories so far of the 21st century—Enron's corporate criminality and the investigation surrounding the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame—I had expected a bigger crowd.

Leopold is still covering the Plame affair for, and a still-sealed indictment by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of a person or persons unknown has left Leopold dangling, since Leopold wrote that the person was (according to his sources) presidential advisor Karl Rove.

But Leopold is not shy about going mano a mano with the Bush Administration and the attempts to sandbag his reputation that have come with it. The visceral thrill a reporter gets from nailing down a big story, no matter what the odds, has never been demonstrated better than Leopold does in News Junkie . In fact, the rough equivalence between the powerful rush of a cocaine high and getting a front page bylined story in a major newspaper is a main theme in the book.

Leopold showed the same “let-it-all-hang-out" attitude in reading an excerpt and answering questions about his career and his many scoops, holding back nothing and including the most sordid details.

He read from Chapter 9. “White Lies.” By his own admission, it was the first time he had read that part of his book before an audience, and the narrative pulls no punches:

“He [Jason's father] doesn't get it. Never did. He thinks I can just flick a switch and turn off those images of his fist punching my face or dragging me by my ear through the snow. I couldn't. I thought about it every day. Part of me wanted to take the train to his office on 30th Street, wait for him to walk out and beat him senseless with a crowbar. The other part of me wanted to see him and give him a hug.

“… I hadn't spoken to my family for nearly three years. They didn't know I went back to rehab or that my marriage nearly fell apart or that I nearly killed myself again.

“… The only thing I knew about electricity when I started working at Dow Jones Newswires in April 2000 was that AC/DC didn't mean Antichrist/Devil's Child. But the great thing about working in journalism, particularly for a wire service where every second counts, is that you're forced to figure it all out while you're writing a story. The hands-on experience is more valuable than a college degree.”

While sitting listening to Leopold read all this and more, I thought the excerpt he picked was a bit too long and so personal it nearly made my head ache the way it can when you eat something too cold too fast.

But after reading the entire book, laying open his personal and professional life as he did, made the entire saga more compelling. A reader can see how, behind his mild-mannered exterior, resides a real bulldog of a reporter who would and had done almost anything to get a story and get it first. It's a tradition as old as journalism, a living cliché straight out of The Front Page and His Girl Friday .

Unfortunately in the corporate-controlled major media today, “If anyone tries to report the truth, they're going to come down on you,” Leopold told the audience.

That's because the mainstream media is “timid,” he said, and, never being one to take the word of an authority figure unconditionally, he dug beneath the public relations gloss in pursuit of the truth.

But after both personal and professional knocks, Leopold now recognizes that at the same time he was trying to pursue the truth at all costs professionally, he was running away from it in his personal life. This book attempts to rectify that attitude with a warts-and-all account of his professional and personal life and let the truth reveal itself. News Junkie goes a long way toward capping that lifetime adversarial relationship Leopold has had with himself.

Progressive Readings Rock

By Cindy Bailey 8.14.06

Wow. What an electric evening at the Progressive Reading Series Monday night at the Make-Out Room. Hosted by local author, Stephen Elliott , this monthly series is a literary fundraiser to help support Democratic house candidates running in 2006. And it is popular!

You can see why. For a contribution of between $10 and $20, you get to see five or six outstanding authors—local and national—read from their work in an intimate nightclub setting, complete with cocktails from the bar and a disco ball overhead. Past series have featured the likes of Pam Houston, Jonathan Franzen, and Jane Smiley, to name just a few.

This month's reading, the eighth one in the series, lit the packed house. Featured authors included Ann Packer, Bucky Sinister, Susan Steinberg, Justin Chin, and Glen David Gold, with special guest, comedian Will Durst. Not only did they read, at turns, entertaining, interesting, funny, rich, absorbing prose, but most had commanding stage presence. Everyone at the bar—even those in the back—kept hushed and quiet throughout, trying to capture it all.

After much hanging out and cocktailing, Stephen Elliott took to the stage to make some announcements before introducing the first reader. He let us know that the opponents of two of the congressmen they had been supporting dropped out. Cheers from all!

First reader up was Ann Packer , author of The Dive from Clausen Pier , who read a personal essay on politics. Following the presidents from the time of her birth to the present, she shared how her attitude transformed from a-political to involved. It was Reagan, she said, “who cured me of any indifference I had.”

Bucky Sinister , author of Whiskey and Robots, jumped on the stage in his usual energetic way. His readings are typically lively, all-out performances, and this one proved to be no less. He first read about his hilarious “date with Wonder woman,” cautioning us that craigslist is great for a lot of things, but not for dating. Apparently, he would soon learn, the plane this woman owned was invisible except to her. “There had to be something,” he said.

He read a second piece about a donut shop in the Mission that no longer exists, and kept us in stitches throughout.

How appropriate, then, to follow-up with Will Durst , the political comedian, who kept our laughter going. He gave us a few famous stupid Bush quotes, such as, “… they will stop at nothing to harm America, and neither will we.” If Bush doesn't read, he joked, “then what? Do they use puppets to teach him about foreign dignitaries?”

During the break, author and co-host, Andrew Altschul , introduced Stephen Elliott's latest book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up , of which advanced copies were available to us for a donation to the event's cause. Other authors also donated books to sell for donations.

Altschul then introduced Susan Steinberg , author of Hydroplane and co-chair of the Department of English at USF. Apparently admired by her students, one of them in the audience shouted, “We love Susan!”

“This is not political in any way,” she warned of the piece she chose to read, an excerpt from a novel in progress. She then proceeded to mesmerize the audience with powerful language and full characters. And what a provocative story! I felt as though I were swirling in the main character's head, dizzy right along with her.

Poet and author of Gutted , Justin Chin , explained that he cut and pastes his poems to create new ones, “So this one is for this reading.” Out poured thick, rich language and imagery that continued for pages. We leaned in to catch every word, trying to absorb the onslaught of images and ideas before the next ones came. Just beautiful.

Last, but certainly not least, author of Carter Beats the Devil , Glen David Gold , started by telling a humorous anecdote about L.A., where he had been living just before moving back to the Bay Area. He then read a fun, humorous essay about, well, let's just call it being a little obsessed with his standing as a writer. With perfect expression and humorous timing, he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, [pause] I Google myself.” He went on to talk about his obsession with a website that reviews books in sandwiches. “Did I get five sandwiches?” he wondered. About his Google recovery, he reported, “Oh, it's one day at a time.”

Stephen Elliott closed by announcing the special 9/11 show that will happen next month, encouraging us to come. “It's a patriotic thing to do.”

Wild Women Writing: A Treasure of Tips from Travelers' Tales' Larry Habegger

By Cindy Bailey 5.1.06 (for 3.1.06)

The first Wednesday of every month, the Wild Writing Women host a free literary salon with a featured speaker at the Monticello Inn in San Francisco, and – as with so many other events – I kept meaning to go but didn't.

And then finally, after a year, I did. On March 1 st . That month, the Wild Writing Women featured Larry Habegger to speak on the art and craft of the personal travel story. Famous for starting up the award-winning Travelers' Tales series ( ) along with James and Tim O'Reilly, Habegger is also an accomplished travel writer. I had heard him speak at San Francisco's LitQuake, and I remembered I liked him. I really liked the Travelers' Tales books, too.

The salon would start at 5:30. I had just enough time to make it. There was only one problem. What would I do with the three-month old baby sitting on my lap? (This, by the way, is the reason I'm only getting to a write-up of the event now. Who knew having a baby would consume so much time you'd be lucky to sneak in a shower, let alone find a moment to write?) Either Julien came with me, or I didn't get to go. I had no choice.

I strapped Julien to my chest and ran out the door. At the Monticello Inn, it was easy to locate the salon by the 30 or so writers (both men and women) mingling in a cozy section of the lobby. The room had cushy couches and chairs, warm rugs, and a fire place. Wine was being served. Julien had fallen asleep, and so I sort of pretended he wasn't there, grabbed a glass of wine, and took a seat near the back.

Julien, however, did attract attention. Pamela Michael, one of the Wild Writing Women and the host of that night's event, asked me if this was the baby's first salon (bless her), and Larry Habegger approached to ask about Julien and chat about traveling with young children, which we agreed is doable.

After socializing ended, Michael took to the microphone and made some announcements. She then introduced her guest, telling how she had interviewed Habegger for the travel show she hosts on KPFA radio here in San Francisco.

Habegger opened with a colorful story, the details of which are a blur to me now. I believe it began with how he knew Michael, and how he was on his way to the interview when one of Berkeley's crazy people harassed him, truly frightening him for his life. Interestingly, the topic of his radio interview was safety while traveling, and the point of his story now was that safety is relative. You might just as likely be killed in some sketchy, foreign land as you would walking down the street here at home.

His story served as an opening for, and a perfect illustration of, his first writing tip, which was that a travel story should be part essay (the point you want to make), part memoir (the telling details about your experience), and part conversation (which I took to mean, making the story relevant to your audience). I had never heard it put that way before, and found this to be a clear and fresh perspective on an age-old art.

Other writing tips he shared:

• Write for yourself always, and then (afterwards) change the form to meet requirements.

• Apply fictional techniques to your stories.

• Write to your life message; in other words, consider what you want others to get from your writing.

For when you're just starting out, Habegger had these tips:

• Be the best writer you can be.

• Be as professional as possible when dealing with editors. (Know what they want and have your contact information.)

• Get to know as many people as you can in business (because access is just as important).

• Read.

After his talk, he read from the latest Travelers' Tales book, doing what one of his contributors did at LitQuake: he read only part of a story, leaving you to salivate for the rest. So of course, you had to buy the book!

During the follow-up Q&A, Habegger shared more tips in the form of common mistakes writers make: overwriting, becoming too personal so that it's all about you (it has to be about something bigger), weak language, weak story, and a few others.

His talk was both practical and engaging. A treasure of valuable tips. I sensed – from our conversation earlier and from his talk – that Habegger is a warm, generous person and teacher.

Just as the event wrapped up, I felt a stirring on my chest. Amazingly, Julien had slept through the entire talk. He must have known how desperately I needed the escape.

When I got home, I realized that the question I should have asked Habegger is how in the heck do you write with small children. That did not seem doable. I'm sure he would have had some sage advice for me on this, too.

For the next monthly salon, check out . If you want more of Habegger's pearls, consider taking one of his classes. See .

Cafe Prague

By Wayman Barnes

I have been to a lot of poetry open mics in my day, but never one like the one at Café Prague. This reading is … different. There is no stage. No microphone. No sign up sheet. Nothing to tell you that something is happening.

The host sits at a table in the middle of this restaurant. He speaks in a loud, bombastic voice, so there is no way to ignore him. People who are there just to eat the goulash find themselves in the middle of a show whether they want to be or not.

As I walk in, there is a thin, timid man with a long beard begging to be allowed to read. The host is being obstinate, but, finally, after much negotiation, lets him perform. As the bearded man performs his poem, the host makes comments, jokes, asides, and grunts of approval or disapproval for each line of the poem. I keep expecting someone to tell him to shut up, but no one ever does. It soon becomes apparent that he does this all the time. Each poet gets heckled in turn, and it is all just part of the show.

Café Prague is a restaurant/coffeehouse in North Beach near the City Lights bookstore. The interior is dark and the staff friendly (and cute). The menu is filled with a variety of Czechoslovakian dishes. I order the apple strudel, but make note to return sometime for some dumplings or goulash. Both look very yummy. During the poetry reading, the place is very full. I can't tell who is there for the reading and who is there just to eat. Whenever one poet finishes reading another poet stands up and asks to read. If the host says it is all right, the poet performs at their table. I wonder what the nonpoetry people make of all this. Is it just taken as being part of the San Francisco experience?

Which, I must say, is part of its charm. It feels like what I'd imagine the readings to have been like back in the days of the beatniks. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a similar type of reading taking place in this exact same coffeehouse. There may have even been a loud, opinionated host critiquing each poem's worth, heckling the poet, and spouting off on the politics of the day. All while people are sitting around trying to enjoy their dinner. I can't imagine a reading being any more Beat than this one. (Maybe, if there were berets, bongos, and finger-snapping happening, but as far as I know, that was just the Hollywood version).

If you were around back when North Beach was the center of the Beat universe, please go to this reading and tell me if it is anything like the readings back then. For those people like me, who have spent lots of time reading about the Beats and wishing you could have been around back then, go to Café Prague. It might be as close as you'll get to be a part of that history.

And the apple strudel is good, too.