Writers on Wednesdays: Ellen Sussman

Today’s post introduces “Writers on Wednesdays” by guest blogger Margaret Young. For her first post, Margaret interviews multi-talented author and teacher Ellen Sussman. 

author_photo_2010_hi_resEllen Sussman is the author of three bestselling novels – The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons and On a Night Like This as well as the editor of two of my favorite anthologies, Dirty Words and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave. She was the San Francisco Library Laureate in 2004 and 2009 and has received fellowships from many, many institutions including The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Napoule Art Foundation, Wesleyan Writers Conference and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She now teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Margaret Young is a freelance writer who works at being a novelist when she’s not teaching children music.  She lives in Palo Alto with her family and can be found Tweeting at @MargaretYWrites.

MY:  If you couldn’t be a writer, but you could be anything else and succeed, what would you be?

ES: I’d be a singer in a rock band.

MY: When did you know you wanted to be a novelist and why?

ES: I decided to become a writer when I was six. I remember climbing on to my brother’s bookshelves (he’s a year older), and copying the titles of his books. Then I’d make up a story to go with the title. One of my first short stories is called, “The Little Engine that Could.”

I loved reading and wanted to write stories like the ones I read. That never changed throughout the years. I’ve been singularly focused on this career choice. The only surprise was that I needed a day job. And luckily I have loved teaching writing as well.

MY: What has been your best moment as a writer?

ES: Publication of my first novel. I waited for so many years to hold my own novel in my hands. It’s a remarkable feeling. And I love that moment each time a new novel comes out.

MY: What’s been your worst or most disappointing?

ES: I’ve written two novels that didn’t sell. That’s hell. You spend a very long time creating characters and a story that you love. And after too many rejection letters, you have to tuck that novel away somewhere. It’s a killer.

MY: As well as being a best-selling novelist, you’re known as a top-notch writing teacher, if you could make your students follow one piece of advice what would it be?

ES: To find a writing schedule that works for you — and to stick with it! I most highly recommend daily writing, especially if you’re working on a novel.

paradiseMY: Your break-out novel French Lessons was set in Paris and your latest The Paradise Guest House is set in Bali. Do you feel like you’ve found yourself a niche as a novelist of Americans in exotic locations? If so, is this a good thing, a bad thing or both?

ES: I may not stick to that for all my novels but I’m liking it right now. I think that we learn so much about ourselves when we leave home. And I love using the exotic setting in a way that really matters to the story.

MY: Can you tell us about what you’re working on and what intrigues you about it?

ES: I’ve just finished a draft of a new novel. The working title is A Stranger at the Wedding and it takes place in the south of France. I’m exploring love again and family relationships. In this novel, there’s also real danger.

MY: One of the things you talk about in your classes is the importance of structuring the writing process. Would you describe a typical writing day for you?.

ES: I write for three hours every morning, five or six days a week. That’s sacred time for me — I never make a doctor’s appointment in the morning or meet someone for coffee. And if I’m writing a first draft of a novel, I’ll write 1,000 words a day.

Thanks to Ellen and Margaret for sharing this conversation with us (and Ellen, when your first album comes out, please let me know !) ~ Ina

Monday coffee: Announcements

Eisman-Semenowsky_Dame_mit_KaffeetasseOh, I do love Monday coffee. It’s a rare rainy summer day here in Northern California, and I’m drinking my coffee by the open window. Outside, some brave bird (I think it’s a phoebe) is singing away and inside, one of the cats (Spot, in case you were wondering) is making a concerted effort to sit on the keyboard (so far, I’m winning).

Today’s coffee is a note about upcoming events on InOurBooks.

  • Wednesday will bring us an exclusive interview with Ellen Sussman, acclaimed author of the  recently published The Paradise Guest House as well as two previous novels French Lessons and On a Night Like This, courtesy of our guest blogger and journalist, Margaret Young. Spread the word on this interview – Margaret asks the fun questions you’ve always wanted to ask your favorite author but hadn’t the nerve
  • Friday is going to bring us one last prompt for the Brighter Light challenge for our young entrants (and with the help of any of our young-at-heart readers who’d like to join in) as well as a special acknowledgement for the participants of the original challenge.
  • And we’ll be starting our new “indie publishing” feature, “A Day In The Life” as we move into July, for insight into working with small publishing houses and self-publishing options.

MilchschaumgesichtI’m so looking forward to these weeks ahead, and I hope you are too. But now, I’m going to sit down with this coffee, open a document, and write in the cool air of a perfect Monday morning.

Have a lovely day, everyone! ~ Ina

Summer submissions #1

Westpark 6809“Summertime…and the living is easy”

 –George Gershwin, from “Porgy and Bess”

Summertime is easy, isn’t it? Lemonade and salad for dinner and a yard sprinkler for entertainment. However, if you’re a writer of small things – essays, poems, stories – summer can be a harder time to submit work to be considered for publication*.

For U.S.-based writers, this is partly because many lit mags are published by colleges and universities, using  faculty and student love, labor, and time; as the institutions go quiescent in the summer, so do the lit. mags. But more generally, the publishing world is a bit becalmed, probably because the folks who manage all those innovative print and online venues finally get a chance to travel, fulfill family commitments, go to writing workshops & retreats, and even get some sleep.

The Fish Footman and the Frog Footman from "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" (1865)

The result is that it’s a little harder to find places to send stuff. If you’re on Duotrope, the familiar refrain, “We do not read submissions between June and September,” can get a little depressing. So to make the summer easier for those of us who are going into submission mode, I’m going to try to provide periodic updates on venues that are looking for summer submissions. And with that, today’s picks:

  • The Labletter: originally a project focusing on Oregon writers, they’ve broadened scope and publish poetry, prose, and art, on the edgy end but still accessible. Their next deadline for submissions is July 15th.
  • NANO Fiction: a great venue for flash fiction generally, their NANO Prize contest is open until September 1st, winners to be announced end of that month
  • WhiteKnucklePress: a project from team members at Right Hand Pointing, White Knuckle Press publishes e-chapbooks of prose poems. This month’s chapbook is terrific, and better yet, they are once again open to submissions as of June 1st.
  • And speaking of Right Hand Pointing: RHP is always looking for new poetry and they use a rolling-acceptance model. Currently, they’re reading for their non-themed August issue and a themed September issue on “Beds, Bedtime, Bedroom, Sleep.”
  • Writers Rising Up: if you’re a nature writer or an eco-focussed poet, this group publishes honest, non-sentimental work about the beauty of the natural world. They have contests year-round; they’ve just opened to submissions for next year’s WRUP calendar with a deadline of August 1st.

Okay, now I’ve got myself  all fired up – if you have any other venues that are looking for work over the summer, please come share it with the rest of the InOurBooks community – we really want to hear about places you love to read and share great work ~ Ina
Flowers in the Sun (3708636941)
*Andrea isn’t here to tell me if this is also the experience of novelists and other book-length writers. If you’re in that arena, do you find summers more difficult for submissions? Do agents tend to have their vacation emails on? Are publishers slower to read work over the summer?

Monday coffee: Creatives in their Summer Shoes

Childe Hassam - Summer Sunlight (Isles of Shoals) - Google Art ProjectWow, it’s summer. One minute I’m putting away New Years’ party hats, and the next minute Spring has one foot out the door and that foot’s in a sparkly, beach-worthy sandal. Posted word counts on a favorite writers’ groups are rising as if reaching for the sun; Facebook and Twitter are filled with exuberant verses about newly-fledged orange-throated finches, nights of stars and cicadas, and tip-toes rushing over hot sand.

Eudocimus Ruber Wading KL

InOurBooks is also jumping into summer. We’ve got a special event for the Brighter Light challenge participants. Wednesday connections are in the works; we’ll be posting info on places to send work over the summer. AND we’re fortunate enough to have some unbelievably fun interviews with writers including novelist and Stanford teacher Ellen Sussman and writer Joan Hamilton, courtesy of guest blogger Margaret Young (@MargaretYWrites on Twitter).

But most of all:  we’d love to hear about what you’re planning for your creative life this summer; we’d want to blog about what’s most on your summer-mind. Our poll is below, so put on your favorite summer shoes (even if that’s no shoes!) and let us know what’s upcoming for you! ~ ina

" 12 - ITALY - Ice Coffee 2

Longer days, brighter lights

La Rebeyrolle, (Creuse, Fr), sur le chemin de St.jacquesAbout six months ago, visitors to (and bloggers on) this blog were writing away at the Brighter Light poetry challenge designed and provided by my co-blogger, Andrea. It was a lot of fun, and I met some of the most amazing poets, adult and not-yet-adult, and read some incredible, creative, interesting work.

The challenge has been on my mind because of something my spouse pointed out to me recently.

My son, K.,  (and I) dropped out of the Brighter Light contest early on. He was going through some Stuff at school and didn’t have energy to think about words. But then, about a month ago,  I was putting away dishes and realized I was hearing his little voice from the livingroom. I came out of the kitchen, and there he was, reading a short poem by Michael Dickman to himself, out of a New Yorker that my husband had left on the table. It was kind of…eerie.

The light over the lighthouse (5001033535)When K. was done, he read it aloud again, asked me about some of the phrases, and then went into a rather thoughtful silence. 

Apparently, this was the start of something.Each day, K’s taken a little time to read poems out loud to me (or my spouse) or (mostly) to himself. The floor is littered with random books of poetry, opened and upside down. He’ll recite some Jack Prelutsky or Spike Milligan (he’s memorized one about a baboon that sends him into fits of giggles). He’s grabbed me a couple of times and asked me to type “a poem I’m about to make up,” and the poems are (trying to put on my objective, non-mom, hat) interesting. This is a part of a recent one:

your colors melt and mix
until they make one red stripe
across the long screen

I didn’t have a theory about why this was happening until my husband looked up from his computer and said, appropos of nothing, that it usually takes K. about six months to really process anything he’s been thinking about (which drives his teachers absolutely bats). And then he asked me what K and I had been doing about six months ago.

Ah ha.

Maybe the challenge did illuminate the world of words for K.  I realized I got a lot out of the challenge too, as I get a lot out of all of the challenges I read and/or enter. I get to ingest a lot of amazing poetry. I see new ways of looking at a single picture. I am reminded that I like a much wider variety of poetry than I usually read. In Andrea’s challenge, I got a very visceral reminder of why artistic coaches tell you to “reach for your inner child:” there wasn’t a young person involved who didn’t bring his or her own light to the writing.

Gdansk-RobertStadlerSo, friendly readers, now I’m curious: what do you get out of challenges and contests that go beyond the obvious? If you and a young person in your life participated in the Brighter Light challenge, what came out of it for your young person ? if you are a young person who was involved in the challenge, what did you find out about yourself, about the adults in your life, about writing, and poetry, and life?

Monday Coffee: A little wisdom from Calvin and Hobbes

Almost from the moment of its first national publication, “Calvin and Hobbes,” the comic strip about a little boy and his “stuffed but very real” tiger had a huge fan base. Part of its popularity was the really thoughtful access to childhood that Watterson provided to his readers, no matter how far back our childhoods were. But part of the comic’s popularity, I suspect, was its insight. Hobbes, stuffed tiger or not, got to the heart of matters simply and plainly (as when Calvin chides him for his lack of ambition and Hobbes points out that while Calvin is annoyed, Hobbes is happy in the sunshine). Sometimes Calvin plays that role – sad that adults can’t see that in tearing down forests to build human homes the animals in the forest lose theirs, or suddenly aware of how playing “war” is, in the end, kind of boring.

Cappucino

by Ashleee

So it’s unsurprising that any graduation address Watterson would give would be something special. As the lovely article at BrainPickings reminds us, in their brief overview of Watterson’s graduation speech to the Kenyon College class of 1990. Much of Watterson’s advice is advice that artists, especially those of us in the “budding” stage of our artistic careers, could use. The whole article is here, but I’ll leave you with a quote from the man who took five years of rejections before being offered a chance to publish one of the best comic stripes in the English.

“Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work.”

The fun…is in the work. A good thought for Monday, I think.

~ Ina

Monday coffee: A Little Jack Prelutsky this morning

Cappuchino latte art

By Blanka Novotná

My son loves Jack Prelutsky. I can’t blame him – I love Jack Prelutsky, too. One of my top five of his poems is “My Dog May Be A Genius.” If you don’t know it, you might want to go and borrow or buy the book of the same name (if you’re embarrassed to buy a kids’ poetry book for yourself please feel free to tell the clerk it’s for my kid 😀 ). So in honor of National Poetry Month and the man who, after Shel Silverstein, has done so much in recent decades to keep poetry alive for kids, I give you my off-the-cuff poem about Spot.

My Cat Is Not a Genius
After Jack Prelutsky’s My Dog May Be a Genius
SpotHelpsMom
My cat is not a genius;
of that there’s little doubt.
As soon as I have let him in,
he wants to go back out.

He has fresh food right in his bowl
but prefers all human cheeses,
even though he throws them up
and emits such nether breezes.

He sheds black fur on my white shirt
and white fur on black jeans.
He won’t attack his knit toy mouse
but bats stray coffee beans. ‘

But when he sits upon my lap
and covers me with fur
I can’t help merely loving him
just for his rumbling purr.

So, yes, he sheds insanely
and he makes an awful mess,
but we love him very dearly
though he’ll never master chess.

Happy Poetry Month, friends – Love from ina

Monday coffee: Writing “happy”

Mahlzeit für einen Binturong

By 4028mdk09 CC-BY-SA-3.0

This silly looking beast is a Southeast Asian Bear-Cat. Otherwise known as a binturong.

Binturongs are distant relatives of civets. They walk low to the ground, have prehensile tails and are the size of a very large dog. They waddle like raccoons, except when they leap straight up in the air (all four paws off the ground) to jump on ducks. No, not kidding. I had the pleasure of meeting one at the San Diego Zoo – he was one of their “Animal Ambassadors.” He did, as binturongs are reputed to do, smell exactly like Fritos.

20130311-150354.jpgI often hope that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) got to meet a binturong. With their funny tufty ears, their habit of hanging upside down from tree branches to sleep, and their spray of whiskers, they are as close to a Dr. Seuss animal come to life as anything on Earth.

Our friend, Linda, is having a terrific contest in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday. The contest ends on the 16th of March. If you haven’t joined in yet, please do – even if you’re not “a real poet.” Dr. Seuss is for everyone.

I haven’t, myself, written a poem for the contest yet. My six year old has, but I haven’t been able to. Why? Partly because I’ve been overworked, but mostly because I’ve been a bit blue – a delayed effect of a lot of kind of yucky stuff from the past couple of months finally sitting down on my head.

Young pet bear cat in Taman Negara Malaysia

By Bart Van den Bosch CC-BY-SA-2.5

Until today, I have been waiting to “feel happier” before trying to write my Seussian poem. Which is why I ended up looking up pictures of binturongs. And it was when I found this little guy that I realized that…as a writer, you can’t always wait to be happy before you write. Because sometimes it’s the act of writing, the being at one with your creative nature, that is happiness. I’m happy when I’m writing – even when I’m grumpy about what I’m writing or even just bored. So instead of waiting to write until I am happy, or trying to jolly myself into happiness, I’m going to write myself happy. In fact, I’m going to do it now. This post is just by way of thank you to Linda H., and all the other writers I know (at PA friends, and HMPDYWT, and Posted Asides), for reminding me, however indirectly, that to be happy, writers…we write.

Monday coffee: Glorious words, or The Secret Life of Twitter

Blue Dacnis, Dacnis cayana - Flickr - Lip Kee (1)

by Lip Kee cc2.0

First, a note, and then, a sort of confession. The note: Linda, one of our writing friends, posted a great question (as in, really great question) for those of us who participated or followed along in the Brighter Light Challenge. Please stop by so we can share our experiences!

And  now, pleasant duty over, it’s time for that little confession. For someone who lives right in the heart of Silicon Valley – like 10 minutes north of Adobe and 15 minutes south of Facebook – I was very slow to create a Twitter account. I just could not see the point of it. Sometimes, people described Twitter in a way that made it seem like being mute witness to lonely shipwrecked folk helplessly throwing messages in bottles out to sea from millions of individual deserted islands. Other times, I imagined that it was like standing in the middle of Grand Central Station yelling at every passing patron while each of them yells their thoughts into the big, echoing chamber as we passed one another. Either way, it sounded less than appealing.

What finally forced me to get a Twitter account was an acceptance of a  poem by an online magazine that asked authors to include in the bio 1) a web address and 2) Twitter “handle” (what you’re called on Twitter). Well, then. So I gritted my teeth and did it.

And…like most things I balk at, I am enjoying Twitter immensely (this willingness to balk at enjoyable things is, I’m told by those who know, related to my astrological sun sign). There is lots of great get-started advice for writers on creating a Twitter platform for yourself (among the ones I can recommend: Robert Lee Brewer’s starter advice, Debbie Ohi’s writer’s guides, Nathan Branford’s how-to which makes me wish he was still with a lit agency so I could write something he’d want to agent). But what can get lost in all the technicalities (though all 3 blogs mention it) is how RELAXING Twitter is.

Déferlement St-TugenRelaxing? Yes, actually When I first created my Twitter account, I found people I love to read (Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Richard Blanco, Steve Martin, Eric Idle, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry  to name a few) and signed up for their tweets. And now, when I need a break, I just log onto Twitter and read. It’s not like being overwhelmed by random people yelling at you. It’s more like standing at the edge of a cool ocean of WORDS as the tide’s coming in, feeling clean air and fresh, blue water, washing over you. These are people I chose, for their wit, intelligence, and vocabularies, with interests and causes and I get to just…listen. As Humpty Dumpty says, “That’s Glory for you.” And it is – it’s glorious. It’s like a private word-concert. If you’re on twitter, or if you’re about to give it a try, and if you are/do please let me know – I’d love to follow your wonderful words, too.

In which we reappear

Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, magician poster, 1899

Of all the illusions professional magicians proffer to their public, I still fall hardest for the gosh-darned rabbit trick. You know, bunny goes onto some kind of  fancy plate, someone puts a large domed cover over her, and Hey, Presto! The cover is lifted and no bunny! And yet, ten minutes later, a wand waves over the magician’s hat, and he pulls out the same bunny, looking slightly apologetic, but none the worse for her illusory adventure.

I’m feeling a bit like the bunny, emerging from a dusty, black, shiny hat. Both Andrea and I have had  a few of Those Sorts of Weeks, but that’s (knock wood) done and we’re getting ready to get back to our writing lives.

I wanted to say thank you to all the friends who checked in through FB and Twitter to make sure that our brief disappearance from the blogosphere was just that and that Andrea and I were fine.

Rabbit 0068And to all the participants in the Brighter Light challenge who’ve been waiting so patiently for the outcome, the results are ready!  In fact, they would be announced immediately except that Andrea’s beautiful island has been hit by a power and internet outage (yikes!) which means she can’t access our blog. Andrea will be back with us in about a week. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep us all entertained with some cute animal pics or a little soft-shoe. Gosh, it’s good to be back and to “see” all of you !