Monday, September 29, 2014

Never Too Late to Write

Reprinted from an article published in Coastlines, Summer, 2014

My novel, What Came Before, took more than twelve years to write.
I’m not bragging about that. The book is only 242 pages long and it’s not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no Madeleines, so why did it take me so long?

Well, life got in the way.

My dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. My mother read me the Bobbsey Twins, and my dad introduced me to the dauntless Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At 12, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.

I was surprised in high school to find out that my Creative Writing teacher had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and more surprised when I won second place. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.

After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in English at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day.

Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.

As a trainee in a department store executive training program, I learned that the Junior Department in Del Amo was only a small segment of huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results.

As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not enough. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all new employees an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer?

Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other. Later, as a district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Strong characters in good stories have to want something. What pulls the reader along is how those characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.

Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. It taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything I do works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.

I began to write screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.

I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. Many of my pieces of both fiction and non-fiction have been published including sixty short stories, an eight-story collection about mothers and daughters called Pomegranate, a second collection almost completed, a novella serialized in Pure Slush’s 2014 project, and of course, my suspense novel, What Came Before. I’m 65 years old.  Thank goodness, it’s never too late.

 What Came Before

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Amazon Review of What Came Before by Rachael Warecki!

This review is from: What Came Before (Kindle Edition)

I started Gay Degani's "What Came Before" with the vow to read only a few chapters before heading to bed. Famous last words, those: I stayed up until I finished the whole book, I was so compelled to find out what happened next. "What Came Before" is lean, spare, and tightly plotted, without sacrificing any of its literary qualities. The protagonists are sympathetic and realistically flawed, the language is beautiful, and Los Angeles -- both the present-day city and the L.A. of the 20th century -- is lovingly and accurately rendered.

Abbie Palmer, nee Hart, is shocked out of her mid-life crisis when a woman named Olita shows up on her doorstep, claiming that they're half-sisters -- both daughters of former pin-up girl Virginia Hart, who committed suicide when Abbie was four. The next day, Olita dies under suspicious circumstances, and Abbie resolves to find out the truth about her mother's past while also solving the mystery of Olita's murder. With the help of Makenna, Olita's daughter and Abbie's potential niece, Abbie sets out on a cross-SoCal journey that takes her from Pasadena to the High Desert, encountering old Hollywood producers, civil rights activists, and vengeful singers along the way.

Degani flings readers into her plot head-long, and the story is fast-paced: Degani covers a lot of ground in just over 200 pages, primarily by focusing tightly on the mystery; at times, Abbie's relationship with her husband seems to fall by the wayside. That said, Abbie's relationship with her maybe-niece, Makenna, is fully realized and conscientiously developed, and I found myself rooting for the best of all possible outcomes for the both of them. My only nitpick is that sometimes information was repeated from chapter to chapter, but I suppose that's the result of the novel moving over from an online serial format. Definitely a book I'll be recommending to my other mystery-loving friends!

About Rachael
Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach for America '08 corps. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.

Find Rachael on Twitter: @RachaelLaWriter
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking with Len Joy about his novel, "American Past Time"

Len Joy’s first novel, American Past Time was released April 19, 2014 by Hark! New Era Publishing. He is the author of two short fiction collections, Casualties and Survivors. His work has appeared in FWRICTION:Review, The Journal of Compressed CreativeArts, Johnny America, Specter Magazine, Annalemma, Washington Pastime, Hobart, and Pindeldyboz. He is a competitive age-group triathlete. In June 2012 he completed his first (and probably only) Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Gay Degani: Your debut novel, American Past Time, is set in the middle of America (Missouri) in the middle of the twentieth century. Can you talk about what drew you to this era? Which came first, the All-American sport of baseball or the time frame?

Len Joy: The novel has a twenty year arc, and it covers the most tumultuous decades of the post-war era. The civil rights movement, the space program and finally the war in Vietnam are all part of the environment in which the novel plays out.

I wanted to write a story about what happens to a man and his family after the cheering stops. What happens when the hometown hero becomes just another guy punching a clock? What happens when our hero loses the respect of the son who thought he was perfect?

I knew I wanted to weave into the story, the history of the times in which I grew up. And I chose a small town setting because, in my experience, it is much harder to be anonymous in a small town. Everyone knows your story. That can be great when you’re the hero, and it can be tough when you fall off the pedestal.

I’ve always loved sports, and I have an appreciation for the perhaps undeserved attention young athletes receive if they are really good at what they do. In this era, baseball, more than football or basketball, was truly America’s pastime. That’s probably not true today.

The Midwest locale, the small town setting, and the baseball action all provided what I felt was the appropriate backdrop for what is a quintessentially American story.

GD: These are all very conscious decisions to create a “quintessentially American story” and that’s what you’ve done. Baseball also seems like the perfect sport for that era. You say you wanted to explore what happens to “a man and his family after the cheering stops.” Why did you focus on this idea?

LJ: Many of us when we are young think we know what we want. We have dreams we pursue and we make decisions aimed at achieving our goals. We choose a path and if we don’t realize our dream, we just have to deal with it. How we deal with it can affect not just us, but our entire family. I was interested particularly in how a “failure” can affect the relationship between a father and a son and between a husband and wife.

I had a great relationship with my father. With both my parents. They were always there for me. They let me grow up and make my own mistakes, but I knew that they would always be there for me. I try to be that kind of parent to my children. Similarly, I think I’ve had a good relationship with my wife. She’s hung in there for forty years so I must be doing something right.

In playing that game of “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” for me, the idea of losing the respect of your children and your wife had to be at the top of the list. I wanted to explore that. How does someone deal with that kind of loss?

Most of us watch pageantry like the Olympics. It’s fun to celebrate the winners. Some have great stories, but for everyone up on the podium, there are hundreds who weren’t quite good enough or lucky enough. I wanted to tell a story about one of those folks who didn’t quite make it.

GD: You seem to have a stable life, strong relationships with the people that matter, which led you to approach this novel with the question “what am I afraid of?” The stability also makes me curious about your writing journey, when did you start, what made you want to write, what has stood in your way.  

LJ: I had some writing aspirations from an early age. I can remember I asked my mom to sign me up for a summer school writing course when I was in 6th grade and that was an unusual request because I would normally spend every day at the park or at the lake. I took a lot of grief from my buddies for voluntarily going to school in the summer.

When I went off to college I still had this inclination that I would be a writer. I don’t think it was the burning desire I see in many younger writers today. Maybe more than anything I liked the “idea” of being a writer. Anyway, I became an English major, but in my second semester I had one of my papers harshly critiqued (rightly so) by my professor and that criticism convinced me I didn’t have what it took to be a writer so I shifted my major to Economics and eventually went on to business school.

Thirty years later, after that aborted start, I got a mass mailing solicitation to take a creative writing course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School for continuing education. I enjoyed the course, found I had toughened up enough to accept helpful criticism, and I kept at it. That was ten years ago. Every summer from then on I went to a summer workshop. I started with the Iowa Festival (which I loved; great location, people, instructors; no pretensions;) and later on Tin House, Squaw Valley, Skidmore, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and last year, Bread Loaf. 

The advantage of trying to become a writer later in life is that for me I was financially stable and I could devote more or less full-time to the effort. The disadvantage, of course, is that I don’t have decades to figure it out.

Another advantage is that during my business career (I owned an engine remanufacturing company). I had to endure rejection from customers as well as challenges from suppliers, employees and the always helpful government agencies. After that experience the rejections from literary magazines, agents, and the occasional snarky comments during workshops just don’t bother me that much. 
However, one lesson I learned when I was a sensitive teenager was that it is important when we critique others to be sensitive to their feelings. We need to be honest in our feedback, but we have don’t have to be harsh or cruel.

GD: What authors or works have influence your writing over the years?

LJ: Hemingway and Fitzgerald were influences. I read most of their novels in my early twenties before I had serious writerly aspirations. Both of them had clean, spare styles, and they told engaging stories that transported me and kept me turning the page.

John Updike’s Rabbit books were also a major influence. He created a flawed character that I cared about. Each of those four novels came out at about ten-year intervals, and it was fascinating to follow the exploits of the characters as they aged.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read from Russell Banks. I don’t know if he has influenced me, but he has certainly impressed me.

I haven’t loved everything Joyce Carol Oates has written, but that’s because she’s written so much: forty plus novels, a ton of essays, reviews, and short stories. Her short story “Where are you going, where have you been?” gives me a chill every time I read it. It is also my candidate for the worse movie adaptation of all time.

I would love to write a novel half as good as The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry, my candidate for the best film adaptation of all time. I watched that film at least half dozen times when I was in college, although that may have been because of the scene where Cybil Shepherd strips on the diving board.

Elmore Leonard is also one of my favorites. I aspire to someday write with as much transparency as he was able to achieve in his stories. He never got in the way of his characters or the action.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

SoCal Voices: Gay Degani, Bonnie ZoBell, and Désirée Zamorano, Sept 5 Traxx Bar 7:00PM

Writ Large Press / DTLAB / #90for90 present

SoCal Voices: Gay Degani, Bonnie ZoBell, and Désirée Zamorano

Join us for the reading, conviviality and another terrific #90for90 event.

Three dynamic women read from their recently published novels. We tackle family drama, racial tensions and unexpected catastrophe.

Whaddya expect from SoCal Voices?

Friday, September 5, at 7:00pm - 9:00pm
@Traxx Bar at Union Station, 800 N Alameda St, Los Angeles, California 90012

For full calendar of events: