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Thursday, March 31, 2011

The House of Words (no. 8): Doing what you want to do, 1

8.  Doing what you want to do

"Late 19th-century bookseller's sign
in one of three languages on the Rokin, Amsterdam."
Courtesy of Herman Brinkman
of Amsterdam, the Netherlands and
Is there been a cost to doing what you want to do? Yes, there is a price, particularly if you pursue your own path, and even more particularly if your path takes you down various windings--in my case, to novels on a variety of subjects and set in various eras, formal poetry, Southern fantasy marketed to a "young adult" audience (I still hate labels), epic poetry, and a whole lot of uncollected short stories that are not bunched in one place on the continuum that runs between what is called realistic and what is tagged as surreal, irreal, etc. For practical reasons having to do with business, a great many large publishers find consistency more valuable than exploration and change. 

So about that price: I’m not the least bit unhappy about it, although when I was young, it disturbed me. Came to terms with it, you see. I willingly pay that price because I just don‘t measure success in the same way that the marketplace measures it. In fact, success is a word that sits uneasily with beauty and shapeliness and art. 

* * *

The big houses of New York City and elsewhere are increasingly commercial, as their editors openly admit to writers. I’m afraid this is no longer a brave thing to assert. It is the stuff of casual conversation between writers and editors and is the subject of many posts and articles. The days of literary-minded gentlemen who wanted to contribute to making the high culture of their country and make a modest 3% profit are long gone. (For that matter, their beloved houses are all owned by overseas investors.) 

Anybody of reasonable intelligence and patience with a willingness to revise may attempt to write a commercial novel. If you are one of those who wishes to do so, I leave you to the field and to any pots of rainbow gold you find along the way, with the reminder that most competent commercial books aren't rainbows and don’t actually lead to a leprechaun pot spilling over with money. You might do better with scratch-off tickets.

But if you are mad to write and mean to hew to making the books you are meant to write, those books that will change you as if by alchemy and, one hopes, bring deep pleasure to others, then you may well have to relinquish any delusions of a publisher hoisting you toward raging popularity. This is a concession that must be made if you refuse to make other concessions to the marketplace. In fact, unless you are among the lucky souls whose creations are anointed as a lead book to a major house--that particular gold ring is another matter, although even it comes with no guarantee--you will probably not have to worry about what to do with any raging popularity.  Instead, you will be busy trying to let the world know that your book exists. And if you haven't done so already, that might be a good time to give up measuring success or beauty or shapeliness or art by worldly means.
To be continued...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The House of Words (no. 7): Luck (Marjorie Hudson)

5 birds, 3 eggs: Press 53
Cover artist Emma Skurnick
A Novello Literary Award Finalist
7. More on luck

Marjorie Hudson’s second book, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas: Stories about Yankees Moving South, is forthcoming on May 15 from Press 53. Doris Betts says “Hudson’s prose is pure as birdsong.” Visit her website here. Click on the title to sail onto her page at Press 53.

I e-met Marjorie after now-novelist and then-and-now bookshop manager Erica Eisdorfer told me that she had talked about my novel Catherwood in her first book, Looking for Virginia Dare (originally published by Coastal Carolina and now reprinted by Press 53.) And I still like to keep up with what she is doing. Some day when I am in North Carolina, I shall meet her. In the meantime, luck to her!

* * *

Marjorie's first book
came out in hardcover and paperback
from Coastal Carolina Press.
Now available from Press 53.
I think my big stroke of luck was getting a job at Algonquin Books in 1985 reading fiction. My job was to fix typos and fact check and run schedules. I was good at that. But the urge got stronger and stronger to write Southern fiction myself. So I quit my job and started doing it. For a Yankee, I've done well. I think my good luck started when I moved here. But that was because of a sign from GOD. A rainbow over a farmhouse for rent. I kid you not. I've had plenty of lousy luck too--ironies so brutal that only another writer could understand the pain--having the NY Times book page editor call, leave a message, but turns out he was fact checking a review of a rival book and was checking in with me as an expert--me, who wrote a book he was not going to review. Oh, the anguish! That's not bad luck really, it's just the convoluted system at work re: who gets attention. Other bad luck: having my publisher go out of business in an economic crash just as my first book was getting more attention and orders. What I do with bad luck? Sometimes I cry. But I've got a stubborn streak and I always get up and keep trying. My first book, Searching for Virginia Dare, is back in print and selling respectably. And the new publisher is publishing my debut fiction, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. Press 53 has just won a bunch of IPPIE awards, so I feel really fortunate to be associated with the editor and other authors.

I kind of like being obscure and brilliant. There's a lot of freedom in it, and great pleasure in the work. Wish there was a little more money in it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Video of "The Exile's Track" from THE THRONE OF PSYCHE

The wonderful Paul Digby has made another video!

There are two easy ways to see it. One, click on the title link above to fly to a larger video box at youtube. Or wander into the right-hand panel and watch a smaller version on this page.

This time the subject is "The Exile's Track," also from The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press, April 2011.) Evidently the Southerner in me sometimes tires of cold and winter, wouldn't you say?

The picture of Paul is not by his wife, painter Lynn Digby, but by friend Mary S. Jones. For me, it captures some of Paul's sense of fun and pleasure in life. I pilfered it from Paul's profile pictures on facebook.

Pre-orders are almost over for The Throne of Psyche . . .

The House of Words (no. 6): Lucky

This post may seem a little odd to those who have been with me through many editorial departures and books that were timed in some unlucky manner. Nevertheless, I shall simply vow with Emerson that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

* * *

I don’t regard myself as “special” or think that the world owes me any rewards. I am quite glad when it does toss me a gold star, but I do not wish to beg for one or demand one. This preserves me from a great deal of anguish.

Instead, I think that I am lucky.

I think this despite the fact that I am the absolute Beggar Queen of Orphaned Books (“Orphaned” book? That’s when your editor leaves before or during the launch period of your book. And then the poor offspring of your mind wanders the halls and offices, homeless, sitting in corners with the Little Match Girl, desiring only to be taken up to the bright and shiny Paradise of Readers.) You see, I now realize that a writer cannot do one blessed thing about randomness, a thing that includes editors seeing greener grass and unexpectedly jumping the fence, etc., and so these problems no longer concern me.

As I am capable of considerable dark denseness, it took me some time to grasp another little idea: I was given a gift. This gift is a great gift that makes me laugh and feel thrilled and sometimes weep. I jig as a partner to readers I will never meet. Sometimes I encounter people I become fond of because they have danced with me. Yet I did nothing to earn or win or deserve the gift. It is a free gift. You see? I am thankful. I am lucky.

That gift plus life events made me a maniacal reader in childhood and an obsessive writer later on. Also, I grew up in a family with many books, too, and with parents who cared about reading and writing. More luck!

I am nothing but happy that I was given this gift, a thing that has even transformed the tragedies and sorrows of childhood and adult life: those grits that can become pearls in the sea of words. In fact, I have a strong sense that it is while writing that I find the thread of path that allows me to escape the labyrinth--to move toward a sunlit redemption of my own bumblings, sins and errors, and the random "black swans" of life.

* * *

The circle rainbow was photographed by the appropriately-named Joy Butler (wish I had a joy butler in my butler's pantry, but there are only dishes and cleaning supplies) of Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia. Courtesy of Joy and

Monday, March 28, 2011

The House of Words (no. 5): Diana Wynne Jones

Death interrupts us in the midst of life, and just so it interrupts The House of Words. Here is Rebecca Beatrice Miller, my daughter, on the death of Diana Wynne Jones. I just imagine that this will remain for me the most beautiful and meanngful fan letter I know because it is a wonderful letter and because it is tied so tightly to the childhood of my middle child. Rebecca (along with her friends Jin and Lauren) was home on spring break when Diana Wynne Jones died. She wrote this letter shortly after returning to school.

* * *

Dear Diana,

This is the letter I’ve been meaning to write to you for--years now, I guess. But mostly since this August, when I heard that you were going off of chemo. I thought then that I’d write you a letter, and maybe, if it was you I was writing to, I’d finally be able to explain to someone just how important you’ve been to me. But I waited until it was too late. I know it’s a cliché, but I even remember saying to someone that I felt like by putting off that letter, I could stretch out your life, because you couldn’t die before I sent it to you. For the past eight months I kept thinking about how sad I’d be when it finally happened. But I think that I didn’t really believe that it would. I definitely didn’t realize how sad I’d really be.

When you’re a kid, it’s not like you don’t think about death. But you’re running on insufficient knowledge, and it’s puzzling and kids don’t tend to dwell on things that confuse them. Up until a certain age, I just kind of assumed all the writers I was reading were dead. Weird, since I live with an author--one who is perhaps more alive than most people. Like you were, Diana. That’s why when I read Howl’s Moving Castle for the first time, I wanted to remember your name. I guess that was the age when I started thinking about writers, their lives and writing processes. That’s when I started wanting to write seriously. I think I wrote my first real short story in third grade, the same year I read Howl’s Moving Castle. I remember something vague about a child in a big house, something about being caged. A cliff by the sea, and a boy who turns into a bird.

So I remembered your name, and I talked to my mom (who gave me the book) about you, and she brought me more books. Charmed Life and the rest of the Chrestomanci quartet (because it was just a quartet back then), the Dalemark sequence, Dogsbody, Eight Days of Luke. I still think that The Homeward Bounders is one of the most devastatingly sad books I’ve ever read, and the characters all seem so ancient and real. But there’s one book that I always go back to--of course, it’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve read it so often. I don’t own a copy, I always check out the same old one from the library next to my house. The first time I read it, I was so tense and excited that my fingers tore little arch-shaped holes in the bottom edges of the pages. I like to read it again and look at the holes I made in the library copy so long ago--more than ten years ago--and wonder if anyone else read the book and touched the holes and wondered who made them.

From then on my childhood was a romance with the weird and wonderful, and I couldn’t get enough of your stories. Diana, you had this incredible way of saying so much with so little, so that as I read I had these little “oh” moments that were unlike anything I found anywhere else, and still are. You trust the reader in a way so few writers can: cleverly, yet modestly, with an unaffected enthusiasm that sweeps us away.

I don’t know if you’d remember this, but I sent you a letter once. More of a card, really--it was a piece of paper all folded up, with a picture of Tony from Magicians of Caprona dressed like Punch, with a big red nose. I’m not sure how old I was, but I’m thinking the drawing wasn’t too great. I don’t remember what was inside. I think I was too shy to write very much. It must have been when I was about eleven or twelve, a little before I first heard that Howl would be made into a film--a Miyazaki film, no less, of whom I was already a fan. (I was ecstatic, to say the least; at first I thought it couldn’t be real.) I think it was then because my mom was sending letters to you, and that’s when The Curse of the Raven Mocker was being written. I remember you read it, and you said you loved it, you loved how different it was next to the majority of the children’s fantasy genre. I remember that letter. I remember you saying that my picture was on your trophy shelf. I wonder how long it stayed there, and I wonder how crowded your shelf was then compared to later, when you must have gotten letters in floods. I was so happy though.

Diana, when people asked me who my favorite author was, I always hesitated, even though your name was the first one to come to mind. The truth is that you were more than a favorite author to me--you were not even in the same realm as other authors any more. You had a shrine in my heart where I placed the memory of the first moment that I opened one of your books, frozen, inviolate, forever. Your stories became a part of me in a way no other stories ever did. They spoke to me about loss and loneliness and helplessness and frustration, but they also made me laugh and sigh with happiness. You told me that childhood and life are hard, but things aren’t always what they seem and you find reasons to keep on going. Your books were a whisper of darkness and a dream of adventure. When I was happy or sad or sick of life I wanted to read Diana. Each time a new book came out, I had to have it. I brought five of your books to college with me, because I couldn’t stand not to have your words with me--a place without Diana doesn’t feel like home. You taught me a certain special kind of writing philosophy, the kind that said that children’s books don’t have to be dumbed down, that the best books are loved by adults and children alike, and by other authors. But most importantly, your books said loud and clear that you only ever wrote what you wanted to write. Remembering that freedom in thought that you had, the cheerful way you trampled expectations, makes me sadder than anything else. You weren’t merely a childhood favorite author; you were unique in all the world.

When I heard you had died, I didn’t just shed tears. I cried like a baby, helplessly and with abandon. I cried for about an hour, hiccuping until I couldn’t breathe. I was shocked at how I cried; I still can’t really fathom it, but in a DWJ sort of way I understand perfectly how I could have been touched and changed so much by a woman 57 years my senior, in a country I have never visited, who I never met.

Authors have a special kind of relationship with their readers. As creators, they have a tiny sort of godhood: a reader of stories usually never sees the writer’s face, or speaks with him or her, except maybe through letters. Likewise the author’s fate is led by a faceless mass of unknown number, sometimes buoying their spirits with letters and pictures. There is love between these two halves of the equation, a kind of devotion or loyalty that I feel doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world. And I think it’s because of the nature of writing. When you read a book, you’ve got a direct line into someone else’s head; you’re literally reading their thoughts, even if they were refined and crystallized into this form.

Diana, thank you so much for giving me your thoughts, for teaching me so much, for helping me, for lending me your dreams and nurturing my hopes. Whenever I felt disgusted with the world, frustrated at life, or simply helpless, your words comforted me. This is the bitterest goodbye I’ve yet had to make, because at times I’ve thought that you were a sort of guardian angel to me.

I think you must view the afterlife in a funny way, so I won’t say too much--but hopefully, someone nice is paying attention and will make sure that you see this. If nothing else, Diana, just know that you made a little girl smile.


Diana Wynne Jones, 12 August 1934 - 26 March 2011

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Illustration: The cover to Howl's Moving Castle shown here is the same as the library copy Rebecca mentions.

"The Nesting Doll" from THE THRONE OF PSYCHE

Here is a link to a second video by Paul Digby. I did not embed because Blogger is sulking, alas. Paul has made images and music for "The Nesting Doll," first published in Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency and forthcoming in The Throne of Psyche from Mercer. Go to: Click on "The Nesting Doll." (Illustration courtesy of and curiousmoth.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lenten literary confession

Hello, friends and passers-by and Desirable Rabble from here and yon and kindly unknown people from around the world who come and go here peacefully without a whisper and also my mother--

Today is not a writing day. Today is a traveling day. This afternoon I am taking our three visitors from Bard College back to school while the rest of the family does quite nicely without me, or so I trust. It is also Sunday, and it is Lent, and so before departing I shall make another literary confession. (Feel free to make your own in the comments.)

You know those lists people are always making, the ones where poets write down their 10 Rules for Poetry to tell you what words are OFF LIMITS to poets, or should be? You know what I'm talking about--words like heart and soul and darkling and alabaster and whatever other words strike the list-maker as likely to end up in the sort of poem you will surely find on a blog page called Flowers of Inspiration Amid the Thorns of Motivation or some such.

Poets have a great fear of the smarmy. It's partly why many poets were so happy at the end of the last millenium to write drab, broken, etiolated poems and then read them in a low drone. Such practices seemed entirely to remove the dangerous possibility of smarminess and place that risk somewhere beyond the moon, which was, after all, another forbidden zone. Somehow nobody noticed that those poems were just a variant form of the smarmy. Partly it was the dearth of readers, a thing that came about because many of the poems were so very unappealing to the general populace, also known as people: those beings who used to read, love (note forbidden word love), and memorize poems.

So. You know the lists I mean. And now to confess: I find these lists both horrible and irresistible.

I feel a great desire to rush off and make my own (No use of the word NEWT! No uttering the word SPORK! Off with their pointy heads!) but usually I manage to control the Red Queen and the Dalek in me. But what I cannot, simply cannot rein in is a raging desire to use the forbidden word.

It is for this very reason that I have just written a poem featuring the word gossamer.

* * *
Please scroll up and down to see the new videos of "The Nesting Doll" and "A Fire in Ice."

"Billiard ball" photograph courtesy of and Gábor Suhajda of Budapest, Hungary.

"A Fire in Ice" from THE THRONE OF PSYCHE

Thanks to anyone who views or chooses to share this video created by Paul Digby. Here is the youtube link, which gives a larger, sharper picture plus embedding code:

"A Fire in Ice" is a riposte to a poem by Billy Collins, "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."

THE THRONE OF PSYCHE shipped from the mill on Friday. It is now available for pre-order and will be shipping from Mercer University Press soon.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


The House of Words

The new series is getting lots of reads and some interesting comments. I can see that I definitely ought to do a "best of comments" post in the end. I am going to keep the series to Monday through Friday postings, so it will be back in a couple of days.

The Throne of Psyche

Hardcover and paperback books shipped from the mill to Mercer University Press on Friday, so they will be available at independent and chain bookshops and for order in the near future. That means pre-orders are about done, so if you are a pre-ordering discount (amazon or etc.) sort of person, you had better order soon (more accurately known as now, perhaps--I am unsure when such things stop.)

Videos for The Throne of Psyche (thank you, Paul Digby!)

Paul Digby, that saintly fellow, is finishing up a number of videos on poems from The Throne of Psyche. Music and photography by Himself. Thank you so much, Paul--I am glad you are a friend of Psyche.

Watch for links soon!

The Palace at 2:00 a.m.

I have added the most-popular-posts gadget, and that means that a list with clips can be found below the archives. Bemusing: qarrtsiluni is very, very popular, far more so that I realized. Not only does "16 Reasons" lead all posts, ever, but right now several other qarrtsiluni-related posts are in the top ten.

Moreover, two from the recent Advent/Christmas series are in the top ten as well; that is especially helpful to note because it suggests that one doesn't have to do a formal review to attract people--just an introduction to the person and an excerpt appears to please. Jeanne Larsen's book of poems makes the top ten, and as a fellow poet-novelist I find that encouraging. Makoto Fujimura is also interesting to people: not surprising, as Mako is a fascinating person. Now-librarian-historian-teacher Susan Leberman is also high on the list, a thing I find curious and rather wonderful, as she is full of pep and feels things deeply and wears wonderful hats. That she is not a champion speller only adds to the charm.

What I hadn't paid any attention to is the popularity of palace characters, particularly the Pot Boy, who has not made an appearance in a long time. He has several posts in the top ten. If anybody wishes to write him with requests for posts or with "Dear Pot Boy" questions in the realm of advice for the lovelorn or on in-laws, and other pesky difficulties, feel free. He has long fancied himself as a sort of castellated Dear Abby.

Marly on the road

Tomorrow I make the swoop to Bard College, returning three rambunctious and well-fed college women to their proper places at school.

Pax tecum, Diana

Late addition: There have been some tears around here for Diana Wynne Jones, our daughter's very favorite writer. We remembered her books and the marvelous blurb she gave me--so generous--and the time when my daughter sent her an illustration...

Friday, March 25, 2011

The House of Words (no. 4): Persistence (Peggy Leon)

4. Persistence

Here’s Peggy Leon on persistence. Peg just published her second novel, A Theory of All Things, with a fine small house, The Permanent Press. I bought mine after her reading at The Green Toad in Oneonta, but you can get yours almost anywhere--and look for her first book, Mother Country, as well.

"Five wildly creative siblings are drawn back into each other’s orbit during a crisis. Along the way, Leon lets each character take turns telling the story and stitches together their collisions via e-mails, texts and telephone conversations, maintaining a healthy balance between tart humor and touching drama. Quirky, funny and eminently readable." —Kirkus

Hear that? Eminently readable. From the famously grumpy reviewers at Kirkus.
And now, Peggy Leon on that curious quality, persistence . . .

* * *

Peggy Leon's first novel
from Permanent Press.
Persistence is always admirable in oneself and annoying in those around us. For me as a writer, it's the nagging inner voice, the "are we there yet, are we there yet" that keeps me barreling down the interstate to the end of a writing project, no matter how doomed the trip seems along the way. I am much more willing to listen to the inner voice than I am to the two voices piping from the back seat on the long drive to spring break in warmer climes. Persistence keeps me sending out manuscripts, shrugging at rejections, and sending out a few more. In the endless job of trying to be published, I hear my mom's voice, circa my teenage years, Sunday afternoons: Did you pick up your room? Yes. Did you empty the dishwasher like I asked? Yes. What about the plants? Watered. The living room needs to be dusted. *Pause* Okay, I'm on it. There's always one more task, one more place to send some writing out to . . . and then after that, there's still another.

I'm not sure I could be a writer without a higher than average level of persistence; it's the only way to balance the impressive amounts of procrastination that I seem to also possess. Every time I sit down at the computer, an interior battle rages, angel (persistence) on one shoulder, devil (procrastination) standing on the other, just like a 1950's cartoon. The moment my fingers hit the keys, procrastination whispers in my ear, the siren song of laundry to be folded, of kitchen drawers that suddenly need to be sorted by function or material, of grouting begging to be mined and refilled. Gentle persistence soothes, "A line or two. You'll see. You'll feel so much better. Laundry? You hate laundry . . ." Then, procrastination rears its little, horned head, "What about the kitchen drawers? Plastic is mixing promiscuously with metal! It's an assault on decency!" Who will win the field today?

There are so many voices in my head, it's a miracle I ever accomplish anything. But, wait. Here's another little voice, Marly's... "Remember you promised to write a couple of paragraphs on persistence for my blog." It's the third reminder. That woman is persistent.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The House of Words (no. 3): Metanoia: Marsha Parker

3. Metanoia: Marsha Parker

Marsha Parker is a grand example of someone who turned away from publishing and made a different sort of creative life. The passage below is as she wrote it, minus one lovely compliment now marked by an ellipsis. (Thanks, Marsha!) At the start she is referring to a request she made for a very particular sort of poem; I wasn’t sure I could fill the request. The only other cryptic thing is a reference to her life in England. I would guess that her memory may be slightly off in what she says about her agent—yes, they get a cut, but the more painful slash from her paperback rights would have been the customary 50% to the original publisher.

Marly: I’d like to know why you quit the world of publishing, how you switched the focus of your creative life, and what you think about it now, looking back.

Marsha: You . . . warned me that poems don't just happen--neither does prose, least of all digging into those ancient opaque glass jars full of spiders, nettle, coon droppings. Seeing my young face peering back at me from the back cover of the book [Ghosts] only reminds me of where the photo was taken. I was scrubbing freshly dug carrots in the sink at my old farmhouse. A friend, Bruce Williams, a photographer, took the photo. In the first shot I had a big brown egg balanced on top of my head. I wish that Dutton had used that photo. Egghead, trying to hatch a new life.

I wrote two novels after Ghosts, submitted both to my agent, Ellen Levine; her response was tepid. She presented one to Jane Rosenman at Dutton, equally tepid response, so I decided to cut my losses, and found work as a journalist, until The Scarlet Letter took off. It provided a steady income, and I enjoyed designing without anyone else telling me how to tweak this or that. One of my worst memories of publishing was having to be told to put sex into my book. I doubt that my mother ever read it because of that (my father died in 1975, before it was printed in 1982. Thank goodness.)

I've never ever returned to the novel-writing part of my brain once I realized that I could survive off the grid and didn't need New York or Oxford to get by. I felt so awkward in NYC. When Ghosts was published I was back in Wisconsin living on a small farm, feeling a bit high and full of myself, 28 years old, still poor, recently divorced, yet feeling so free and flush with the $10K advance, and then the sale of the paperback to Berkeley for $25K (agent got most of it). I found an old log house to restore, and previous passions for architecture, art history, textiles (love to touch and feel what others touched and felt centuries ago) re-emerged.

* * *

Photograph: I found this picture of Marsha holding newborns Antioch and Lebanon in a letter from 2006.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The House of Words (no. 2): To persist or not to persist

2. To Persist or Not to Persist

Hey, there’s a reason that most books are not about writers! Oh, there may be a coming-of-age novel now and then—covering that period of a writer’s life when he or she is not yet a writer, and therefore packed with homely and interesting non-writer events. Often these are events (or people--parents, often--those people who love us and attempt to save us from the garret)that get in the writer-protagonist's way and stand as mighty obstacles that must be opposed or crossed or circled in order to go forward.

Once the heroic act of evading or battling these opponents is past, writers spend a lot of time sitting in the corner and typing. Many of them spend hours in the corner clutching their respective malfunctioning heads and wasting perfectly good afternoons of sun and frolic.

Is this interesting from the outside? I shall tell you.

No, it isn’t.

No matter how absorbing the work is, the act of making it is probably not what we as readers want to read about. So books about writers tend to stop where the writer catches a glimpse of the promised city of garrets glimmering in the distance. Soon he or she will be sitting in his or her own poky corner and scribbling away--or perhaps clutching the recalcitrant head. And that ending, combined with the thought of the many books writers make that are not about writers, may possibly suggest to you that there is a world packed with lively pursuits, out there.

So if you decide to quit the word trade and do something else entirely, never feel bad about it. Life awaits you.

After Ghosts, Marsha Parker left the world of publishing despite the fact that she had a fancy agent and was touted as extraordinarily promising, and then she built a very different world for herself. Now she had met some setbacks, but all writers meet setbacks of some sort. Why did she take her toys and march away to the West? She wasn’t crazy about the publishing scene. Not crazy about it in the least, in fact. It occurs to me that she probably wasn't crazy about the fact that a movie appears to have been made (roughly based on the book and with the same title) without any mention of the fact to her--and therefore without any author royalties. And she certainly wasn’t fond of what people said she needed to add to her books.

What did she do?

She and her then-husband built the marvelous Smoke Ham Farm (with restored Finnish and Scandinavian outbuildings, full of charm and character and history.) Marsha raised obscure, finicky breeds of sheep that were always trying in the most exciting manner to flop over and die or to give birth in the middle of the night, and she established a regular menagerie of other animals (and peacocks! I want some!) She started a business that allowed her to travel, write, and use her creativity in ways that would have surprised her younger self. She runs an online site called The Scarlet Letter where she sells, among other curious and interesting things, her own museum reproduction needlework samplers based on work from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, books, and antique European and American needlework samplers. I admire the fact that she didn’t like the publishing scene and therefore just strode away; I admire what she has done since.

That admiration doesn’t keep me from respecting and admiring friends who made another choice. In fact, I know people who wrote book after book before the first—or sometimes the second—came along. Those are brave, persistent souls with a touch of the Mad Hatter that allows them to stay on at the great Tea Party, moving round and round until they find a small or large piece of buttered luck.

At many points I could see three choices in front of most of the other young writers I knew—persist and take joy in the work, be a bit of a melancholic looney (the worst choice but often taken, depression being one of the substances swirling in the writer's magic ink bottle), or give up and do something else.

Why did I persist?

Let's ignore my raging obsessiveness for a moment. Let's ignore a rather mad ability to dream while in the middle of mayhem, quite helpful to a writer-mother of three. Those slightly abnormal qualities assist, but they don't explain. Let's also ignore the fact that I'm not irreplaceable in any of my working capacities except as the writer of my particular books and as the mother of my particular children. And in both of those areas, perhaps I could do better. In fact, I hope to do so.

Why did I persist?

Because I am in love with playing with words and learning to make (for a writer is always starting over) stories and poems. Very simple.


Illustration: Sampler by Susan Singleton, kit for sale at The Scarlet Letter. "Designed after a mid-eighteenth century New Hampshire sampler, this piece is delightfully naive with its oversized animals, insects, and birds. Around 1760, the New-Hampshire Gazette began publishing advertisements for girls' schools, placed by female instructresses, emphasizing a curriculum of practical as well as decorative needlework. While this sampler is atypical of most of the recognizable schools of New Hampshire (i.e. the bird and basket designs of Canterbury, the dark green linsey-woolsey grounds on samplers of Dover, and the house and barn samplers of Portsmouth), it is significantly stylized to suggest that it was taught by a particular teacher, who could have been advertising for more pupils at that time. Stitches used in the sampler are cross, back, and satin. Stitched on 35 count linen, it will measure approximately 15" x 22-1/4", and is recommended for intermediate level needleworkers."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The House of Words (no. 1): On writng and publishing

The House of Words: On Writing and Publishing

In which Marly-and-friends answer questions that readers and writers young in the craft often ask, with musings on persistence, giving up, luck, doing what you want to do, home and the writer, print publishers, the internet, and other topics of interest…

1. Print publishing: persisting and giving up

Much in the print publishing world is random. Good things are “black swans,” highly unusual events. So are bad ones. This element of being a writer is impossible to control and is a given of the vocation.

My most memorable good black swan? It ought to be winning a national award, I suppose. Probably more dramatic was parting with my second agent, being entirely too busy to look for another, and then receiving requests for books from seven publishers in quick succession. I was being lazy, and yet fruit kept dropping into my lap. I could say that it was a reward for my persistence, but I could also say that it was luck and coincidence. My most memorable bad-swan example: The Wolf Pit came out right at a major historical event (9-11), its editor departed before pub date, and it was on the very same list at Farrar, Straus & Giroux as The Corrections, that air-eating monster of a book by a man who shoved his foot in his mouth in a way that entertained the nation whenever said nation was not busy reading books about terrorism (in consequence of that same major historical event.)

To combat the truth and the mighty power of randomness, a writer can only persist. Write what one cares about in one’s own way and ignore the randomness of the publishing world. Write for joy. Ignore the scene and trends and keep writing because a writer is only a human being who is writing, and to stop means that one is no longer a writer. Alternate possibilities: become a frothing lunatic (bad, but it happens); give up (better.)

People don’t talk much about quitting, and that’s exactly what I want to talk about here. Because a question that comes up often for a writer of any age is whether it is the hour to cease, give up, pack up the toys, and flee the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (i.e. that pesky randomness again.)

I would like to play devil's advocate and praise flight for a moment. Giving up is good in some ways--more time for other pursuits, more time to chase something else with end results that are not as aggravating as what happens after the writing (which involves publishing, which can involve various agonies, and also marketing, which often involves keen frustration.)

Giving up writing is easier than persistence because--surprise!--nobody much will mind if you give up. It's not like giving up a job with a salary; there are few reproaches, and in fact many of your near-and-dear will heave great buffalo sighs and snort with relief. People will be glad to think that you may be a solvent person some day, rather than a struggling writer with the usual garret, heaps of foolscap, and bargain Toshiba laptop.

When I was much younger and shot through with despair and anguish and other black humors, I often thought of giving up as a writer. But giving up turned out to be hard; I just wasn't any good at it.

Nevertheless, I approve of turning one’s back on something and walking away in style. Since I approve, you can guess that that’s exactly what I did, long ago. That's human nature for you, a stuff that tends to look kindly on its own wayward decisions. I turned my back on achieved tenure-and-promotion at a time when such prizes as professorial salary-with-bennies were rare--right about the scarcity of hen's teeth, and everybody knows those little gleamers are hard to find. Nobody thought I was doing the right thing. In a worldly sense, it was definitely not the right thing. My luck was that I had both some hard-earned savings and a pronounced unworldly streak.

Turning one’s back on something can mean to face something else, to go somewhere new, to have a transformed outlook. Metanoia. It’s not the end.

* * *
Stay tuned for 24 more posts on persisting, giving up, and other topics. Photograph courtesy of and Jenny Rollo of Sydney, Australia.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mike-diary: On the Markets

Dispatches from Indochine

I have just eaten a durian.

For the morally correct among you, those who view your stomach as your servant and not your master, this statement will be meaningless. But from the gastronomes who read this there may be frank envy. You see, the durian is perhaps the most storied of produce. Large, spikey, it is a Jupiter among the tree-fruits. And like Jupiter it is the subject of many tales, such as the Indonesian train car that had to be abandoned when a bag of durian was forgotten aboard overnight, or the Indian couple whose marriage bonds withstood poverty, sickness and just plain time, only to be severed by the wife's implacable appetite for this most pungent of fruits. For the myths about durian touch upon its two primary powers; its tender flesh, compared to creme brulee, and its powerful odor.

Let me state that both of these myths, as is the usual property of all myths, are hooey. First, the smell. Imagine a mango and an onion fell deeply in love and decided to grow old together. Now imagine this greengrocer's romance occurred in a paper bag on your kitchen counter in August. If you were to part the seams of said bag and breathe in the coying rot of the mango and the acidic tingle of the onion, you would not be far off from knowing the durian. One smells it on the streets here. It is usually cut up in slices because it is a big fruit and really, a whole one is more than can be mastered by anyone. And while the smell is unpleasant, it is not hold-your-nose-and-run bad.

As to the flavor, that too has had over-vigorous marketing. The mango is not as rotten, there is a pleasant vanilla quality, and the onion just glowers a bit in the background. Certainly not the thing I would throw my wife over for.

A fine surprise was the pomello. This citrus looks for all the world like an orange who converted to the faith of the Old Order Amish. It is a Christmas tree green and one could be forgiven for not thinking it fully matriculated. But cut open the modest covering and you will see a vivid orange interior. I had the good fortune of having the hotel bartender press my bag of six pomello. It produced a precious small pitcher of the most beautiful-tasting juice. Similiar to grapefruit but less acidic, and with undertones unlike anything I've ever tasted. Why this delicious fellow is not widely available in the US is a mystery to me. Indian River Growers take note!

Longon fruit are a personal favorite. I've had them before and dearly love them. I would not consider too much of an affectation to travel to Indochine once a year just to have a plateful. They are like leche but easier to eat and more flavorful. They are known locally as "dragon's eyes" because of the black pit. You can walk into any tavern in Saigon and plop a kilogram of longon on the bar to share and be rewarded with an afternoon of stories, jests, and other entertainment.

I have had seedless mango for the first time. They are about the size of a goose's egg with thin skin and a very mangoey color. Perhaps it was the surroundings, perhaps it was the company, but I have never had a sweeter mango. There is a chitinous flat sheet instead of a pit and none of the typical hairy strands that make the mangos we usually get so toilsome. Because they bruise easily, I am sure they are poor travelers, and that is a loss to the wider world.

* * *
Photograph courtesy of Nico van Diem of Gories, the Netherlands.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A second scrumptious book with Clive Hicks-Jenkins

The Book of Ystwyth will be the most splendiferous poetry book on the planet come May! Until then, it's definitely The Throne of Psyche, thanks to a scrumptious jacket by Clive Hicks-Jenkins himself. The Book of Ystwyth is profusely illustrated, with poems by the late Catriona Urquhart, writer and dear friend of Clive's, as well as Dave Bonta, Callum James, Andrea Selch, Damian Walford Davies, and me.

Clive is an inspiring friend and a favorite penpal of mine, and I am out-of-all whooping glad to be associated with him on a fourth project. Trala for dancing a dance across the lines of the arts!

These cover and interior images are pilfered from a feast for eyes and mind--Clive's artlog here. It is a grand place to visit, one of the sites that makes the web magical.

O wonderful,
and most wonderful!
and yet again wonderful,
and after that,
out of all whooping!

--William Shakespeare

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Reminder: pre-order discounts ending soon

If you are a discount shopper and want to purchase The Throne of Psyche, know that pre-order prices for both the hardcover and paperback will be evaporating soon! Thanks for supporting my place in the world of books by reading here and by reading and purchasing my books.

Book information via amazon here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

C.R.A.S.H. Japan

Artist Makoto Fujimura, who has one foot in the states and one in Japan, suggests this group for disaster relief donations.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The words, the world, the birthday--

Today my mother is 82. I know that I said she would be 83, but it turns out that she is a mere sprat of 82. Math was never my strong suit, I fear. She is hosting my eldest son for his spring break and weaving on her big new loom and doing I-don't-know-what. Probably she has been spending a good deal of time cooking for Ben.

In her honor I have written a Precious Wentletrap poem, "The Fool Thinks of Precious Wentletrap as Morpho." Shocking: this is my 132nd The Book of the Red King poem. Who would have thought when I wrote the first one exactly five months ago?

But now I must hie me from the e-felicity of the web and drudge in the flesh because tomorrow we are fetching and then hosting Lauren, Jin, and Rebecca from Bard College. For ten days. And the house upstairs is something akin to the wreck of the Hesperus. Welcome to my little disaster, dear young women!

Nevertheless, I am feeling irrationally joyful. Which is madness.

My heart is broken into little shiny pieces by what is unfolding in Japan and Libya and many other places. I just read a story about one group of human beings murdering another group (a large family, mostly children) in their beds and then setting off fireworks and giving out sweetmeats in celebration. I read another story about one group of human beings who murdered some families under cover of an inspiring and supposedly peaceful revolution. All these groups were divided by the way they worship God, and I am wondering where the love is in all these terrible acts of persecution that go endlessly on. When will the family of humanity learn to love?

And yet, and yet . . . I look out the window at the light on the snow and the gazebo covered with dried Dutchman's pipe vines and the blue sky: I see the world and that it is good. Only we human beings pry and shift it from the axis of what is right. All the same, whoever you are, I wish you a glad St. Patrick's Day, with an imaginary card showing the saint whirling about, chasing the snakes out of Ireland, blessing the world with his love. May all the metaphorical snakes be chased out of your country or be changed to something higher--little winged dragons that lift and fly against the sunset, singing words of great sweetness.

I am thankful that my mother was born on this day and that I was given the lovely gifts of consciousness, the desire to make, and words. And that, despite all, streaks of joy like burning arrows pass through me.

Want Morpho? Start here with Wikipedia, where the image was found. (Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March Madness

I must be feeling a little jaded...


Japan, firefighters,
Libya, rebel fighters--
Spring inspiration.

Salamander, cold
On a stone that gathers moss...
All around, March fires.

Obama-san's spring:
What a social calendar!
Stance: "above-the-fray."**

*from The Huffington Post:
The president's bracket is fairly safe, with two 1-seeds and two 2-seeds advancing to the Final Four. The lowest seeded team in his Elite Eight is 3-seed Georgetown. Last year, Obama correctly picked North Carolina to win the tournament, and he provided commentary during the CBS broadcast of a Georgetown-Duke basketball game in January.

**As, from The Huffington Post, "Obama Executes Above-the-Fray Strategy On High-Profile Issues," etc.

The salamander was just for fun, and to have another bit of kigo and kireji. Nothing quite as inactive and droopy as a cold newt or salamander. The butterfly was a social butterfly, in honor of all politicians with booked-up dance cards, busy with visiting Blackhawks and so on while the world crumbles.

Photograph courtesy of and Rudy Tiben of Enschede, Netherlands: "The Pleiades Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) butterfly at Emmen Zoo."

"Elegy for Japan"

"This 17th Century masterpiece by Tawaraya Sotatsu of Matsushima has now become, in my mind, an elegy for Japan." --Makoto Fujimura Click to see a larger image. Freer Gallery of Art.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wroth, wroth with Ted Hughes

Dear, dead, evidently-irresistible Ted Hughes, there I was sailing along, enjoying your unscabbarded lines, the force of your word-twisting, your leaps like a salmon who tosses up rainbows. And you broke it! You broke my reading! Why on earth did you write that poem? No, no, I know why. Not a good reason. But why did you keep it?

With luck, I shall be an old woman in the future. Ideally, I shall be a spry, creative, generous, and busy woman like my mother, who is almost 83 and just bought a new 4-harness loom. She is spunky and creative and beautiful, my mother.

And what did you go and do? You made up a horrible, silly pastor and had him preach nonsense to group of old ladies: "to the old women's faces / That are cold and folded, like plucked dead hens' asses." Even aside from the fact that you had to point out that a plucked hens' ass would be a dead hen (yes, I could see that, dear sir), I am ticked. Well ticked. I know no old woman in the universe who deserves for her face to be compared to a plucked (dead--you liked to pluck them living, did you?) hen. I resent your poem and your preacher and your old women.

Hey, I even resent it on the behalf of poets. This is not satire; it is just mean-spirited. You are supposed to love the world, you poets! Love it. Cherish it, even when it is buffalo-headed and obtuse. Do your best by it. Don't turn a bunch of old ladies into a pack of hen butts because of some idiot pastor that you make up when you have an axe that needs grinding! Don't grind axes! Don't even turn old ladies into hen butts if you didn't make the poor man up! Leave him and them some dratted humanity, will you? Love them, love them, love them: be a Flannery O'Connor if you have to and show their inner freak before you give them the sword of your illumination. But love them!

I think I will have to wait until tomorrow to read any more of your poems. Or at least a few hours. Did I tell you that I like a lot of your poems? Maybe I will just reread this little one called "Welcombe."

But don't tick off a future old lady by lovelessness!

There is more.

I also resent this on behalf of the chickens. Chickens and I go way back. I am fond of chickens. I have a chicken pact with Howard Bahr (although I'm afraid I may have broken it now and then.) The chickens do not want their plucked-naked butts stuck up on old ladies' shoulders as faces. (They are said to dislike surrealism. I believe this is true.) They do not! I speak for the chickens!
There, you see? The future old woman speaks.

She's a little strange, but she knows whereof she speaks.

I think maybe she will have to go work out some energy in a poem now. Good-by.

* * *
Photographs courtesy of 5 chickens and a cat by Tijmen van Dobbenburgh of the Netherlands. Convocation of Bantams by Loretta Humble of Malakoff, Texas. The chickens were from Tennessee.


Ghosts by Gaslight available for pre-order

Ghosts by Gaslight
(Harper, forthcoming September, 2011)
Edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers

1."The Iron Shroud" by James Morrow
2."Music, When Soft Voices Die" by Peter S. Beagle
3."The Shaddowwes Box" by Terry Dowling
4."The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder As Experienced by Sir Magnus Holmes and Almost-Doctor Susan Shrike" by Garth Nix
5."Why I Was Hanged" by Gene Wolfe
6."The Proving of Smollett Standforth" by Margo Lanagan
7."The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star" by Sean Williams
8."Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" by Robert Silverberg
9."The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons" by John Langan
10."Face to Face" by John Harwood
11."Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism" by Richard Harland
12."The Grave Reflection" by Marly Youmans
13."Christopher Raven" by Theodora Goss
14."Rose Street Attractors" by Lucius Shepard
15."Blackwood's Baby" by Laird Barron
16."Mysteries of the Old Quarter" by Paul Park
17."The Summer Palace" by Jeffrey Ford

Wee piece on The Beastly Bride from that bold and energetic reviewer (and anthologist), Rich Horton:

The Beastly Bride is devoted to stories about shapeshifters. My favorites were Christopher Barzak's "Map of Seventeen", an engaging story about a girl, Meg, and her older brother, who has just returned home after some time away -- bringing back his lover, another man -- and, given the theme of the book, different in another way than being gay; and "The Salamander Fire", by Marly Youmans, which naturally enough concerns a glassblower who falls in love with the title fire creature, only to be concerned about her lack of a soul. I also liked stories from E. Catherine Tobler, Lucius Shepard, Carol Emshwiller, and Tanith Lee.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mike-diary: Cockfight at Yen Son

I must say that I do not perceive my husband as he was portrayed in the "plump and red" story earlier, nor as he paints himself here. His long blond hair may be gone, and he may be a little cuddly around the middle, but I say that he's cute. While he is off in Vietnam as a volunteer academic neurologist, he is, however, a wild man who has, indeed, hunted in the Yukon and the Crazy Mountains. He also has had a plethora of other hobbies--hand quilting and repairing key-wound antique toys and endlessly on.

Dispatches from IndoChine

The Viet Namese have a mythic past. A romantic liason between a goddess and a dragon produced these people of the eastern coastal plains. The goddess' legacy is seen in the fair face and form of the Vietnamese ladies. And the dragon's blood courses through the veins of the indominable men, each a warrior-king, who protect the motherland from the rapacious world.

With a degree of complexity that only an Asian would choose to place upon an idea, the element of the noi, the dragon is everywhere. The word means river, and this has some resonance, in that rivers, like dragons, are sinuous and powerful and give life to the people. The noi in Ha Noi refers to this. The name of the capital means "Land Between the Rivers." But the dragon sons of Vietnam were not satisfied with such a largely peaceful emblem of their dragon-ness, so they sought a more hot-blooded symbol of the dragon. And what better place to turn when one was looking for a surrogate dragon than to chickens. Well, roosters specifically, the ga noi. This proto-chicken is of ancient lineage and his bearing attests to his barnyard noblity. His fierce mien, his red, naked head, chest and legs and his proclivity to kill any rival caught glancing at his womenfolk all mark him as, if not sired by dragons, at least touched by the dragon spirit.

The ga noi was first mentioned 700 years ago. It seems that, once again, the Chinese were threatening the northern border of the Viet people. Through numbers and persistence, it appeared the Han might this time succeed in suppressing the Free and Patriotic People of the Dragon. And what of the Viet army; why were they faltering in their duty? Because of chicken fights. It seems that the Viet army, rather than engage the enemy with the ferocity demanded by the occasion, spent their days in camp drinking rice wine and watching chicken fights. Well, really, if you were given the choice between a head-throbbing drunk and some blood sport on one hand, and the risk of being impaled on a spear, which would you select? But the Viet general would not listen to such unpatriotic reasonableness and penned a strong letter to his men. He wisely exhorted them to adopt the philosophy of the ga noi, and encouraged his men to put on their fighting spurs and tread upon the hated Han. And history shows this call to emulate the mighty bantam had its good effect, much to the pain and embarrassment of the Chinese.

The ga noi is the product of a fierce hen; then the poults pass through a series of selection stages based on features such as the thigh-shank ratio, the pattern of scales, the diameter of the neck, etc. But perhaps the most discussed attribute of the ga noi is "the stare." If you do a Boolean search on the internet linking "ga noi" and "stare" you will find a lot of interesting pictures of chickens staring at cameras. For a moment, consider the long history of the depictive arts, from the Caves of Lascaux to my Kodak Easyshare. Then consider the span of communication technology, from the smoke signal to the advent of satellites and transoceanic cables. That this millennial progression of two great human endeavors might culminate in teenage boys taking pictures of yard fowl staring at a camera is the best evidence that I have ever encounter proving that God exists, and is at heart a very whimsical fellow. The stare is supposed to reflect the unrelenting desire of the bantam to spur his opponent to death. It is akin to the stare down at the beginning of a boxing match. But boxers can tell you why they stare--with chickens one is left with an uncomfortable degree of speculation. Perhaps they are just wondering if something might be edible.

Despite the much debated value of the stare, there are several champion chickens who have lost one or both eyes in the ring and continue to go on to trample opponents. So the value of the stare is perhaps exaggerated.

I very much wanted to watch the chicken fights while in Hanoi. At this point let me confess that I am an unrepentant celebrant of the bloody past times. Hunting, coursing, cockfights, horse racing, bullfights: I find the pageantry, history, and plain thrills so great as to supersede any moral borborigmy that might arise from the more humane among us. I do draw the line at dog fighting, which is rather like wrapping pate in bacon, simply too rich an exercise not to expect to later regret.

I put out a call to practically every Vietnamese waitstaff, bellhop, cabbies (who in general are very poor in their English skills and not the least repentant), and desk staff. I even asked one of the physicians at the Tropical Diseases Hospital, who responded with a look that suggested I might as well have asked if his sister might be free for an hour or two later that evening. The responses were typical in their Vietnameseishness. An elide to other topics, or just misunderstanding. If I pressed the point, perhaps the more ill bred among them might admit that cockfighting did exist, but only among young men, or only during Tet, or only, if I would pardon the term, in the country.

So it was with some gladness that I meet Phoung, the 20ish year old girl who cleared dishes in the hotel breakfast room. She was fresh enough from the village not to know what should have been embarrassing, and she was so thrilled to misuse the English language with me. Yes, her brother was quite hot for the fighting chickens and yes, there were some fights in Hanoi, both professionals in arenas and talented amateurs at impromptu match-ups in the park. We quickly made a deal. I would take her out to eat if she would take me to the cockfights. The next night was chosen, I would meet her in the restaurant of the hotel at 7 p.m.

The next day I had a day trip to Ha Long bay and, suffice it to say that the Vietnamese buses do not have an orderly timetable. I arrive to meet Phoung at 9 p.m., red with rushing, embarrassment, and natural ruddy complexion. But Phoung was unperturbed. Her boss chided me for making her late, but young Phoung just seemed eager to express herself for the next few hours in almost magically unintelligible English.

We headed out. She led the way down alleys that seemed progressively darker and more dangerous. I was so elated! Image being a staid, fat, middle-aged American Sunday School teacher walking close at hand with a very pretty 20 year-old woman down madly twisting side streets in an exotic land on the way to a chicken fight. If a wizard promised to turn me into James Bond, I could not have been more thrilled.

We exited a foot path between two tenements and came upon an open square with what looked like a French colonial bus garage in the middle. Crowds of people milled around and I thought, "This must be the chicken fighting arena!" We elbowed our way through the crowds. I was clearly the only Caucasian for a pleasingly great distance. We came to the entrance. I looked inside but there were only stalls of day old fish and used trousers. We walked past the building and behind it there were a series of dining arrangements one might describe as one bump up from an hibachi on the sidewalk.

"I am now hungry" Phoung said, in her first interpretable phrase since we left the hotel. Through signs, charades, and attempts at human language she made it known that the dinner part of the deal came first.

"What should we have?" I asked.

She looked at me as if she suddenly doubted my intentions, then plucked and flapped her arms.

Good enough.

Cam Ga means chicken with rice and Cam Ga was soon on the plastic stool which served as our table. I thought I was quite facile with the old chopsticks, but Phoung offered a few master class pointers.

Then we started on the chicken. By "chicken," I mean the few titanium shreds that decorated the plate of chopped bones offered with a confidence I would have not exhibited if I put the plate in front of a raccoon. The phrase "ga choi" popped from Phoung's mouth between sucking marrow from the long bones. I gnawed on what would be considered breast meat and tried to understand her point. It wasn't until I followed the direction of her chop stick and looked at the painted bed sheet that formed the back wall of our restaurant that a whisper of understanding arose. There was depicted, with some degree of love and honest passion, an illustration of two game cocks, one cock-a-doodling in victory and the other x-eyed in defeat beneath the winner.

"I don't understand, are the fights behind that sheet?" I asked.

But while Phoung did not understand what I said, as happens often in Viet Nam, a voice with an Australian accent piped up behind me.

"The fights are in Yen Son, which is about 30 km from here".

I turned around to find a table of Vietnamese looking at me. Without a face to attach to the voice I turned back to Phoung, who was eating the shredded green onions that accompanied the chicken.

"They send the losers here to be cooked up."

I turned around quickly and realized one of the Vietnamese I had dismissed as an unlikely Australian was wearing a baseball cap that said "Melbourne".

"They cook the losers here?"

The Melbourne guy answered "Yes, that is why they are so stringy and tough. They are tough birds. And why waste a good chicken?"

I thought the "good" part was open to debate, but acknowledged in my heart that poor people are usually efficient.

The Melbourne guy--let's just call him Melbourne--went on to explain that the ga choi, dead fighting chickens, were especially sought after and were thought to pass their attributes of ferocity to the diner. Having chewed on one I can attest this contained some element of truth. But there was no chicken fighting here. Miss Phoung had somehow amalgamated the idea of dinner in exchange for the cockfights to dining on a participant from the pit.

Phoung was finished and "tin tin," the check was called for. I was surprised to find this was an ungodly expensive meal by Vietnamese standards: about $20. Melbourne explained that one paid a premium for ingesting the essence of the fighting chicken. Phoung, in her most lucid language yet, remarked that we should get back; her boyfriend was coming by on his moto to pick her up at the hotel at 11. There was a little chicken left, and she asked if she could have it for him.

The brisk walk back went, well, briskly. And pretty silent. I dropped her off with her boyfriend in front of the hotel. He looked mighty unpleased to see me, and I thought I saw a little of the chicken staring at a camera in the youth. But he seemed fully placated by the remains of the ga choi, and even patted me on the shoulder and offered an "American good" before putting away, Phoung sitting sidesaddle on the back, texting. She looked up and waved and smiled just as the moto rounded the corner.

There is a place called The Kangaroo right next door to my hotel. The smell of a grilling hamburger wafted out the kitchen vents. I could not say I was filled with the essence of the ga choi. And I dearly hungered for a hamburger.

* * *

Photograph (picked because it is a dragon and yet a bit cockish) courtesy of and Nelson Syozi of São Paulo, Brazil.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mike-diary: an Asian Christ

Here's a bit of Lenten musing on religion in Asia, Christianity in particular. Like any discussion of religion flung out into the world, it will probably find a welcome and scorn in equal measure. Feel free to comment, either way! And thanks to those who have written emails about Mike's journal jottings--pleased to have some notes from interested novelists and readers.

Dispatches from Indochine (3/6/11)

Christianity holds a funny place in Asia. We really thought it hadn't taken. Perhaps this was because Christian missionaries always seemed to do better in places with more primitive religious traditions. It seems to be easier to turn an animist into a Catholic than say, convert a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. So while the effort was made, it seems to have been more of a pro forma operation. Translating some scripture, implanting some missionaries (poor, almost comic creatures in most modern westerners' eyes), building some small churches, in general "flying the flag" but not really opening fire with a cannonade of theological debate or forced conversions à la Cortez.

But after the colonial powers contracted, after Europe convulsed through two wars, after secularism became the fashion in places like Portugal and Scotland (once the hot, moist birth canal of missionaries), Christianity kept perking along in Asia. In some places, like Japan, it is mostly the educated, traveled upper class that embraces the Cross. In others places, such as China, it is the bon succor of the oppressed. In some places, like the Philippines, everybody is Christian. In Vietnam it is the faith of the middle class.

And they are not shy about their faith. In Saigon the most happening place on a Saturday night is not the night clubs like Apocalypse Now or Saigon, Saigon. It is the square outside the Cathedral Notre Dame. A rather large crowd gathers there at the heart of every weekend to pray the rosary for hours. Their Buddhist neighbors show up too, if only to watch or set up food stalls. And on Sunday morning the churches themselves are packed. The 9:30 a.m. service I attended held perhaps 1200 people, not counting those in the transepts or in the narthex. And new churches are being built all the time. The Church of St. Paulo and St. Pierre is just as large as Notre Dame and was only completed 6 years ago. And it was packed at noon. Packed.

So as Europe ages and secularizes, some westerners fret about the fate of Christianity. And I have no doubt that Europe will be Islamized. But since it will be a conquest of the already dying, I think that will be a hollow victory for the Muslims. Already, on any given Sunday, more Christians go to church in the country of China than in the continent of Europe. And the percentage of Christians is growing in every growing Asian state.

We owe this largely to the fervor of the Koreans. Much like the Irish of the Dark Ages, the Koreans have evangelized abroad during dark times, taken great risks and I would now credit them with a great harvest. They are still active and, along with Filipinos, are probably the most active force proselytizing among Muslims.

So if Christians lost, say, Sweden and gained China and India, who would not say it was a net gain? It only requires that we westerners understand that Christ is more than what we think he is. Perhaps we should be ready to accept him with an Asian face.

Photograph of a doorway from the "old town of Hoi An, Vietnam" is courtesy of and Dutch photographer Timo Balk of Melbourne, Australia.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mike-diary: Cold Beer with The General

I just read Nhân Dân newspaper and Vietnamnet, and Hanoi seems to be fine--I was a bit concerned on waking to the fearsome earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The world is stirring again, and nature is not our friend, alas, but a force that destroys and breaks the heart.

Here's another peek at Mike's adventures in Viet Nam. I am wishing that I had kept on an online travelogue when we were in Cambodia and Thailand. I don't even know where my journal is...

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Dispatches from IndoChine
Cold Beer with The General

Last night I ate at the Café de Paris for the second time. Since the P-- V--folks seem a little scattered I have been on my own several nights. The Hotel keeps one's passport, and the police check a couple times a week to keep track of foreigners, but I am otherwise unwatched except for the Spotkovs, P-- V-- volunteers who have been here 6-7 times. Without a Vietnamese speaking person to come along, I am less eager to eat Vietnamese food, and I was glad to have a chance to eat French food. It was grilled homemade sausages, perfectly spiced and served with a mustard sauce. The texture of the sausages was unusual and I asked what the casing was filled with. Tripe! Very tasty.

Also, the hospital (St. Paul's) was undergoing a surprise accreditation inspection and did not need me, so instead I went to The Tropical Diseases Hospital and Ban Kea My hospital. Both very modern and up to date.

Today I was free and walked around the old quarter. The streets are very confusing and often change name right in the middle. If you stop to look at a map you are immediately overrun by touts of all kinds, so to study a map requires going into a café, having a beer and proceeding along, which can leave one very tipsy after a few course corrections.

I was sitting in the Café So 5 in Hang Vai. It was a seedy, very cheap place with just two tables and a dozen chairs spread on the sidewalk. A Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up to the curb. There is a uniformed driver and body guard in the front and a Generalish looking guy and a girl, maybe 12, in the back. The driver and guard get out and clear some motos to make room to park, and the General (for want of a correct term) and the girl get out and sit at the other table. The girl immediately notices me and says "Hello" in almost accentless English. Another car pulls up and 4 other officers get out and sit with the general and his daughter and start drinking iced coffee and smoking cigarettes. The girl has something that looks like a NY egg cream.

The men are apparently not interesting to her, so the girl turns around and starts talking with me. She speaks good enough English, maybe a little weak in vocabulary. She asks if I would like to see the music list on her Ipod. My daughter will be glad to know there are Arcade Fire fans in Hanoi. She tells me she is taking English in school, from which her father picks her up everyday, but likes to practice.

At this point her father asks her some questions. I am in a sports coat and tie, so I am clearly not a backpacker. With the daughter as interpreter he asks me where I am from and what I am doing in Hanoi. I tell him what I do and who I have met. Apparently he knows, or has heard of, the head of the peds hospital who I met yesterday and he nods his head in recognition. He asks my opinion about the quality of care and I answer, quite honestly, that I thought it was good.

I ask about him, and the daughter translates his rank as "a little General." I notice he has 4 stars on his epaulets, and I notice the name on his ID is Ngyeng, which is more common than Smith in the US. After they finish their ice coffee, I propose to buy a round of beer, which for the 8 men would run about $4. They look surprised and readily accept. Beer bottles here are big, 450 ml, so we each have a tall pint, and the men all ask me questions about the US, what it is like there. They have a good idea from television but seem to want to know if it is an accurate depiction. The General seems especially proud of his SUV and I tell him anyone in the US would like a Land Cruiser too. He seems pleased with this.

When the beer is done they feel a need to offer me something, but I need to get back to the hotel. As a face saving compromise I take a couple of cigarettes. We part on good terms. I give the cigarettes to some moto drivers at the next corner.

Photograph courtesy of and Hoang Anh Vu of Caen, Normandie, France.