Monthly Archives: September 2008

Knight of Wands

Today’s Facebook Daily Tarot message for me is:

“The Knight of Wands card suggests that my power today lies in rising to the occasion. I keep my options open and am ready to ‘use it or lose it.’ I set trends or may be considered a ‘fashionista’ and I initiate exciting opportunities to get attention, conquer fears, enhance reputation or image, or to express or inspire liberation–often by extreme measures. I am empowered by ambition or the ‘zest in quest’ and I transform through charismatic communication of passion.”

A fine and fitting omen. Today is my last day at the theater festival. I am officially open for business as a freelance writer and marketing/public relations consultant. I’m thrilled, terrified, and hopeful about beginning this next chapter of my life.

What Sort of Apples Are These?

We have a massive, two-story tall apple tree that’s now loaded with motley, but edible sweet-tart fruit. Do any of you know what sort of apples they are? What might I do with them other than make a 1000 pies?

Summer People-Free Great Barrington Farmers' Market

Husk cherries from the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market
and Truro beach treasures

The market was heirloom tomato heaven this morning. We townies were smug and smiling about having the place to ourselves again.

Interview with James Collins

James Collins is the author of Beginners Greek, which the New York Times dubbed “a great big sunny lemon chiffon pie of a novel.” His beautifully crafted, literate romantic comedy was a New York Times bestseller and published in the U.K., as well as translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Israeli, Hungarian, and Dutch.

James was formerly an editor at Time and Spy and has contributed to The New Yorker and other magazines. He grew up in New York City and now lives in Virginia with his family. Beginner’s Greek was his first novel.


Gina: I know this is your first published novel, but had you written other fiction? How long did you think about writing this book before you finally sat down to write it?

James: About twenty years ago, when I was in my late twenties, I was encouraged by a friend to write a short story, really just for fun, which I did. (I can still remember the first line: “On a clear day in early spring, the buildings in New York, seen from a distance, seem oddly still, flat and unreal.”) Other than that, though, I had written no fiction since twelfth grade before starting work on the novel.

I guess you would say that I had been thinking about writing a novel since I was seven years old. As for this novel specifically, there were a couple of germs of ideas that I was turning over in my mind for a couple of years, but I didn’t really concentrate on the book or start thinking it through until I actually started writing it.

Gina: How did your background as a journalist and editor impact your approach to the novel?

James: I think my experience as a journalist and editor was important in a variety of ways. Most simply, the training of writing on deadlines helped me to force myself to get the words down, even if I was struggling. Then, I had had a lot of practice cutting and rewriting pieces quite dramatically, heartlessly and quickly, and having those muscles, I think I was able to work over the manuscript of the book much more effectively. I think too that it was good to have written a lot of expository prose. That was especially useful in my case, since the novel is in the third person and it has fairly long expository passages, but in almost any novel except the most impressionistic the writer is presenting information or making an argument at certain points, so being able to write expository prose well is a good skill to have, even if you use it only to make the skeleton of the passage.

Also, I think working in journalism helped my sentences. Poets are supposed to be the most precise writers and journalists are supposed to be the loosest, but I am astonished how often I read lines in poems that are far vaguer and poorly written than would be allowed in a good piece of journalism. In journalism, you have to be pithy, you have to be precise about details, and you have to dump the images that are just too awkward and wordy—all good habits for a novelist.

What I have said above relates to the mechanics of writing, but I’m sure the reason you asked was because you were interested in the broader and deeper ways in which working in journalism affected my writing of the novel. That’s harder to describe. I guess the simplest thing to say was that journalism reinforced the bias I already had toward narrative and realism. In journalism you go out and find out stuff about the real world and then you use that material to tell a story. I enjoyed doing that and I suppose that over the years I became more convinced that in novel writing, too, it was important to tell a story and to bring in aspects of the real world, or at least for the author to show some knowledge of the real world. I am not dogmatic about this, and Beginner’s Greek is by no means totally realistic, but overall, I prefer novels in the realistic, narrative tradition.

Gina: What were your models/inspirations for the structure of this book?

James: My inspirations for the structure were Shakespeare, Wilde, Wodehouse, Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and any number of others. Really, I just took what I thought was the basic structure of comedies: two young people in love; perhaps another couple that serves as a contrast to the first; complications and twists and surprises.

Gina: I find the cover of the hardback to be singularly appealing and I’m not entirely sure why. Retro, yet not and the surprising green hair. Did you have a hand in the design?

James: I agree that it is a wonderful image: sort of pop and bold but also elegant. I can’t take any credit at all for it, though.

Gina: Have the movie rights sold?

James: There have been discussions but nothing has happened.

Gina: What’s next?

James: I have just begun work on what I think is a promising reported story for the New Yorker, and I hope that works out because I definitely want to continue to do journalism. Then I have a lot of ideas for fiction and have started working on a couple of things, one which would probably be a story and the other a shortish novel. They are set in New York among the same kind of people as the characters in Beginner’s Greek, but they aren’t comic—to the contrary, in fact. One reason people seemed to like Beginner’s Greek was that it was so optimistic, and I worry about alienating my legions of fans by revealing my true pessimistic self, but for the moment I’m carrying on.

Ang Lee Needs More Hippies

There will be another Taking Woodstock casting call tomorrow from 10am to 8pm at the Lebanon Valley Speedway Clubhouse (1746 Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY). According to this article in the Berkshire Eagle, the film plans to hire 6,000 extras at $100 per day — in particular, the casting director is recruiting college-age-looking 18-to-30-year-olds who pass for members of the 1960s counterculture. I’m still waiting for my call to play a disgruntled townie. Meanwhile, Annalena got her hair trimmed in anticipation of her first day of high school, but it’s still long enough if Ang needs an underage hippie.

Festival of Books at Spencertown Academy Art Center

September 5-7 and 12-14, 2008

The third annual Festival of Books at Spencertown Academy Art Center (located just over the border in Spencertown, NY) is a celebration of books and reading for the whole community. The theme this year is “The Immigrant Experience in American Literature and History.” Over twenty distinguished writers of memoir, poetry, fiction, and journalism will read and discuss their work within a larger conversation about previous generations of immigrants who came seeking the American Dream and the experience of more recent immigrants in the post 9/11 world.

The stellar lineup includes Yassin Aref, Russell Banks, Da Chen, Laura Chester, Stephen Downes, Mary Gordon, John Fass Morton, Rebecca Flowers, Alan Gelb, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Elizabeth Hess, Lucia Nevai, Julia Pomeroy, Ariel Sabar, Sadia Shepard, Carl Strock, Mark Teague, Lily Tuck, and Shelia Weller.

There will be panel discussions, readings, and book signings, a gallery exhibition of book art by Buzz Spector, children’s events including a visit from Clifford, the Big Red Dog, and a giant book sale of over 10,000 new and gently used books. Lots of free events. Click here for the full schedule.

New York State Writers Institute Offering Free Workshops with Rebecca Wolff and Lydia Davis

The New York State Writers Institute is offering the following free workshops led by Rebecca Wolff and Lydia Davis. The noncredit workshops are open, on a competitive basis to the community-at-large, as well as to members of the University community.

Mixed-genre or Hybrid Writing Workshop
offered by Writer-in-Residence Rebecca Wolff

New York State Writers Institute Writer-in-Residence Rebecca Wolff will conduct a workshop in mixed-genre, or hybrid writing during the fall 2008 semester. Too often we find ourselves distracted from the real work of creative expression by over-concentration on definitions of form and style. Is it a prose poem or a very short story? A poem or an interview? A memoir or a novel-in-verse? Journalism or creative nonfiction or could we call it simple “prose”? In this workshop participants will view texts with generous eyes that see more similarity than difference. Participants are encouraged to bring in projects that have already begun, as well as to develop new ideas within the context of the group.

The workshop is scheduled for eight Monday nights (October 20, 27, November 3, 17, 24, December 1, 8, 15) from 6 to 9 p.m. The class will take place on the University at Albany’s uptown campus. The workshop is offered free of charge for non-credit, and will be limited to ten writers. To be considered, submit manuscripts to the Writers Institute according to the guidelines listed at the link below. Due to the volume of manuscripts received from previous workshops, we must insist that you follow the guidelines exactly.

Fiction Master Class Workshop
offered by MacArthur Fellow Lydia Davis

New York State Writers Institute Distinguished Writer-in-Residence and MacArthur Fellow Lydia Davis will conduct a Fiction Master Class Workshop during the fall 2008 semester. The workshop is intended for advanced writers —writers who have at least one publication in a literary journal. It will be an intensive five-session workshop.

The Fiction Master Class Workshop is scheduled for Tuesday evenings (November 4, 11, 18, 25, December 2) from 6 to 9 p.m. Classes will be held on the University at Albany’s uptown campus. The workshop is offered free of charge for no credit, and will be limited to ten writers, made up of both non-University writers and a few UAlbany students who are enrolled in the English Department’s Masters or Doctoral programs. This workshop is not open to students who have taken it previously.

For application guidelines, click here.

Thanks to Bess for the forwarding the info. I won’t be able to attend the workshops myself, but they seem like wonderful opportunities for somebodies.

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