Chicken Lit

October 17, 2011

Image of Maria Dahvana Headley, author, with snake

Our Cleo: Maria Dahvana Headley, author of Queen of Kings, in a quiet pre-show moment with friend

The “Up Late Reading” variety show organized by the Seattle-7 writers, which took place Saturday night, Oct. 15, proved to be a raging success, and came off without serious glitches. No one fell off the stage; no one’s garments malfunctioned. Garth “Racing in the Rain” Stein and I were co-emcees. We had a fine old time trying to be debonair, energetic and glib, while attempting with mostly great aplomb to avoid introducing the wrong acts at the wrong time. High point: A Garth and Erik tango.

The show provided a marvelous opportunity for writers to humiliate themselves. We had a poet in a chicken suit, charmingly leading us deep into the ways of chickenhood; we had a visit from Cleopatra, who brought along a rather large rubber snake; and we listened in awe as our own Jennie Shortridge belted out a wonderful rendition of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” adapted to the writing life. Her hub backed her on guitar (and pulled off the opening descending riff with absolute perfection), along with the Jose “Juicy” Gonzales Trio, who did heroic work throughout the show helping fill awkward pauses with some truly lovely jazz lines. I urge jazz fans to pay a visit to Juicy’s website, and listen to a few songs—it’s good stuff, the kind of music you want playing on your stereo when you kick back with a good glass of bourbon on a cold Seattle night.

Importantly, the show and its associated silent auction brought in about $10,000 in charitable contributions to further the cause of literacy.

And may I just say in closing, the whole thing was terrifying. The last time I’d been in a stage performance of any kind (other than giving talks about books) was in sixth grade, and I still remember the unalloyed fear I felt when I peeked out through the curtains and saw the packed auditorium. That moment often comes back to me in nightmares, as does the classic dream where I’m supposed to take the SATs, but cannot find the right room.

I was terrified all day Saturday, anticipating the further terror I would feel that night. I kept muttering, “Thank god I’m not a Broadway actor. How do those people live?” To occupy myself and keep my mind off my coming doom, I baked an elaborate French apple pie, home-made crust and all, which used up every pan and utensil in the kitchen. I destroyed at least one saucepan when I incinerated a cup of milk that was supposed to be brought to a gentle boil. I was a culinary black hole. Gordon Ramsay would have had a field day. Although I suppose to him it would be a field-greens day.

What also helped was repeating over and over to myself that it’s good to step out of your comfort zone now and then. It’s a good thing. A good thing.

I survived. And the pie was great.

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Attention All! Herewith, News of a Writer’s Conference Like No Other

October 7, 2011

Poster for show to follow writer's conference Oct. 15

After the day's writing, it's show time!

Any writer who’s interested in tuning his/her skills might want to sign up for a one-of-a-kind writer’s boot camp sponsored by the Seattle 7, a group of writers—many more than seven, actually—that funds various philanthropic pursuits. Called “Write Here, Write Now,” the conference starts promptly at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, with welcoming remarks by yours truly. It lasts all day, and culminates in an evening of music, acting, comedy, and other forms of self-mortification on the part of the various writers doing the teaching.

What makes this conference different is that it’s not a conference for talking about writing, it’s for writing. Throughout the day various professional writers will teach quick 10-minute sessions on all manner of writerly skills. For example, I’ll teach the first session, called “Killer Opening Paragraphs,” wherein I’ll pass along as many personal insights as possible in the 10 minutes allotted. Each session will be immediately followed by 45 minutes of, wait for it, writing, during which attendees will deploy the skills and concepts covered by the instructor. (So bring a laptop, pen, pencil, pad, iPad, iPhone, stenographer, Dictaphone, whatever.)

We’ll also have break-out sessions, where your writing will get the personal attention of Seattle 7 members. For example, we’ll have a “Tough Love Room,” where we’ll tell you what you don’t want to hear, and a “Validation Room,” where we’ll tell you what you do want to hear. We’ll also have a room devoted to polishing written dialogue, wherein you’ll be asked to stand up and read your work aloud, for critique by the writer in charge. (And by the way, nothing helps a writer improve his/her prose as much as reading it aloud, before a critical listener.)

Then, at 7:00 that night, the real show begins. Called “Up Late Reading,” it’ll feature music, parody, comedy, writers in chicken costumes, and at least one erotic—or nearly so—reading. And the performers will be the very writers who savaged your self esteem during the day. Garth “Racing in the Rain” Stein and I will be the emcees. And, here’s the thing, we will be wearing tuxedos.

So sign up now. It’s all free. As in no charge. If you want to donate used books, that’s great. If you want to donate money to be dispersed by the Seattle 7 to various Seattle philanthropies, that’s even better. Disclosure: None of the writers involved will earn a penny from this venture. Nor have they received contributions from the Republican or Democratic parties, or from the banking and pharmaceutical lobbies.

Everything takes place at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 South Alaska St., Seattle, 98118.

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Light at the End of the Tunnel, if Not Necessarily in the Skies Over Seattle

August 14, 2011


Image of Seattle at five p.m. on a gloomy summer day

Seattle summer sky, from the deck of the Bainbridge Ferry, taken July 7 at 6 p.m.

Many of you have very kindly offered suggestions to help me drag myself out of the “dark country of no ideas.” You’ve told me about felons in your families, race riots in Tulsa, Okla., sunken ships, and assorted strange events in strange places. One of you suggested I write about the Peace Corps., others have gone the other direction and urged me to write another book set in the Nazi era.

Meanwhile I’m happy to say that my own flailings are starting to yield some promising ideas for which, as my agent puts it, I’ve begun “gathering string.” My wife and daughters can’t wait, especially my youngest daughter who is the only one still at home and thus gets to hear me complain at length. She assures me, however, that such behavior is typical of me in this phase, that everyone has come to expect it, and therefore no one really pays much attention. This daughter is an excellent reader and writer (she’s circulating a novel of her own, as a matter of fact, entitled Revenge is Fat Free), and she has proven to be a marvelous sounding board for the various unformed ideas that I am repeatedly jotting down in my idea journal. Let me just say, there is no assessment as crisp and acute as that of a seventeen-year-old girl.

She’s the kind of reader I never was in high school. She just finished reading Beloved by Toni Morrison, which she read of her own volition, and what book did I just finish? Black Sunday, by Thomas Harris, who is best known as the author Silence of the Lambs. In my defense I’d just like to say that Black Sunday is one crackler of a thriller. It was first published in 1975, so none of the characters carries an iPhone or Droid or MacAir, but otherwise it holds up extremely well, thanks to the author’s ability to maintain a razor’s edge of suspense until the very last page. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the book to be eerily prescient, with a threatened act of airborne terrorism at the center of the action.

This same daughter has got me reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I’m thirty pages in and thoroughly hooked. She’s also recommended The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, which I, a promiscuous reader from way back, have also begun reading. For any of you who harbor big dreams but have had to cope with the nay saying of all those tedious souls who never once allowed themselves to dream, this is the book for you.


Summer in the City

I don’t know how your summer has gone thus far, but ours out here in Seattle has been rather strange. Ordinarily we expect that starting about the first week of July the weather clears, the sun shines bright all day, and temperatures range from the mid-fifties at night—great for sleeping—to the mid-seventies by day, with zero humidity and no mosquitoes. Such idyllic weather usually persists until well into October.

This summer, however, has been rather gloomy. We’ve had a few thoroughly nice days, but even the nice days have begun with a lot of morning cloud cover. Not fog exactly, but also not rainclouds. Just…bleh.

As a consequence, blackberries are very late this year, and rosemary plants all over town are yellowing and getting bony. My local nursery tells me this is because there has been so little heat this summer (unlike in the rest of the country), and that rosemary plants need heat to drag nutrients from soil. I don’t know if this is correct or not, but it certainly seems plausible given the cool dreary character of this summer. As for tomatoes—forget it. None. Zilch. It’s August, and all we find here are those pale things that are better suited for playing handball than slicing and cooking.

Still, all in all, I’ll take cool and dreary over hot and humid any day.


And a quick note: To all of you alert readers who helped nail a couple of typos in my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, thank you! Please be assured that thanks to the earliest readers we were able to fix the typos long ago, in time for subsequent printings. And I am happy to say there have been many such printings. Already there are 400,000 copies of Beasts in print, a personal record, meaning the book has done better, earlier, than even Devil in the White City. Which is gratifying indeed.

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