I first taught a Lakeside Studio lesson from Garnett Kilberg-Cohen’s book, “How We Move the Air“ in 2010, thinking it was a collected-story memoir! (I had fallen down a linked-story rabbit hole with “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and “Olive Kitteridge.”) Only after our 2012 interview did I find out her “linked” stories are FICTION. D’uh. I’d like to think my mistake is a testament to how how deeply imagined and hence, fully felt, her writing is.
What Garnett says here about fiction is so cool and useful to everybody who is trying write stories that I quickly forgot about my gaff and seriously decided to do the same-linked thing myself.
Nancy Beckett: Congratulations on your linked-story collection, “How We Move the Air” and making so many, memorable pieces within one cover.
Garnett Kilberg-Cohen: Thank you for taking the time to feature my work.
NB: I admire your storytelling ability—especially the way you create sympathy for the main characters while activating the situation they’re in.
GKC: Thank you for noticing…
NB: Sympathy for a narrator who is a survivor, is one thing, or for a negligent character being the narrator, sets up a more complex relationship with the reader. But some of you narrators are disagreeable, self-pitying liars.
GKC: I am interested in how people make choices and how they view their choices; having a wide variety of characters—some sympathetic, some not—gives me more opportunities to explore how people think, feel, work and interrelate.
NB: Please elaborate on how that works in a linked collection?
GKC: I like the structure of a linked collection (sometimes called the novel-in-stories) because I think its fragmented nature better duplicates the way life works. A linear novel suggests stories are sequentially coherent–but actually, I think people’s lives and even the main events of people lives–are made up of an array of stories; in linked structures many disparate characters don’t always know each other or other sides of each other’s lives.
NB: As a writer/reader I personally love the subject of the dead. I loved the young woman in your 2nd story whose father killed himself, (and whose boyfriend is involved in euthanasia!) with real compassion? Is that the right word? You wrote about what happened in such a way as to let me draw my own conclusions. How do you DO that?
GKC: I think readers are more likely to draw their own conclusions when the old technique of showing rather than telling is employed. Readers think they reach their own conclusions from what they see—the way the characters look, talk, and act, and the details and images that surround them. Actually, the writer is controlling a lot of this—that said, all readers bring their own view(s) of the world and judgments to what they read. For example, Olive Kitteridge, one of my favorite linked collections has a main character (Olive) who some people have great empathy for, while others disdain her.
NB: In your 2nd story I also related to the search for identity through a father she never really knew—I mean beyond what you were supposed to know, or received from other people. I like how stigmas attached to her father (drugs, infidelity, suicide) kept him alive-in-the-minds of others so that she could eventually claim him as her own and separate or individuate or whatever its called.
GKC: Thank you.
NB: Do you consider some of your stories autobiographically linked?
GKC: I think the individual events that make up a life, is a series of shorts that overlap and interweave, not one continuous event. Although the stories are fiction (my own father died in his eighties and I have know people who have killed themselves—but never anyone close to me), my fiction is somewhat autobiographical, as it draws from events in my life and from those of people I knew, but the more substantial part comes from my imagination.
NB: Why did you choose Mayapple Press instead of a bigger press? Will you/they consider e-publishing?
GKC: I liked the books Mayapple put out. Also, large publishers are not as interested in collections as they are in novels and memoirs. I have been contacted by agents who see my work in magazines and are interested in representing me but than when I mention a short story collection, they say to come back when I have a novel or something they can market better. Mayapple is considering e-publishing.
NB: How do you build an audience? (Website/blog/speaking/interviews)
GKC: It is hard to build an audience without a large publishing house behind you, but I’ve done all of the things above, except a blog. I have given readings at colleges and bookstores, and I’ve been interviewed several places, including by Allison Cuddy on WBEZ. How We Move the Air did manage to make it on the SPD (Small Press Distributors) best seller’s list, which was great–but small fry compared to the commercial publishing world. I do need to get a website going but at the moment I’m a little shy about such immediate response to my work.
NB: Have you ever used your book in your classes?
GKC: I don’t use any of my books in class since it seems unethical to me to require students to buy their instructors’ creative work. I sometimes photocopy an essay or story I’ve published for a class, so they can see a sample of my writing (after all, I am critiquing theirs) but I don’t do that regularly. I think curious students will look up the work of their professors.
NB: Would you consider adapting your stories for a screenplay? (I’m thinking of Crash and other multi-thread films).
GKC: I would consider adaptation for a screen play. But so far, I have not been approached.
Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s awards include: Lawrence Foundation Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, Illinois Council of the Arts 4 times.
Her first story collection, *Lost Women, Banished Souls* is published by University of Missouri Press.
Publications include: American Fiction, Ontario Review, The Antioch Review, The Literary Review, and Other Voices. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
This is a summer-in-the-city pleasure not to be missed!
Come to LaSalle Street for 6 *Impromptu* sessions.
Generate new material,
Explore your works-in-progress,
Open your third eye under the night sky.
Cost $150.00 (I know, it’s affordable!)
…Oh yeah, and bring pen and paper, iPad, laptop or smartphone–
I met David Finch in a sketch comedy class I was teaching at the Second City Training Center. Back then he seemed hyper-intense about his writing results week to week. He loved comedy and worked hard on his sketches–especially the jokes. I realized that David was very serious about becoming a good writer. I invited him to visit the Lakeside Studio, which was enjoying it’s 11th year by then. I had no idea what a daunting challenge it was for David to show up that night, given his social issues, (re: Aspergers) But the workshop mitigated a lot of issues for us all and put process before personalities. The rest, as they say, is dumb luck.
First off, congratulations on writing and PUBLISHING your best-selling book “The Journal of Best Practices.” Do you feel like the book is what you set out to write?
David Finch: Thanks! This book captures the story of Kristen’s and my journey to reclaim our friendship and rebuild our marriage after we learned that I have Asperger syndrome.
NB: Aw I heard it’s rough when Asperger folk marry Neurotypicals!
DF: We were in trouble. But marriage is no picnic for a lot of reasons for a lot of people.
NB: Well, that’s why your story is such a good read. Plus it’s funny–and that makes everybody want to read it–because general audiences connect with painful honesty.
DF: Thank you. I’ve got awkward humor in my DNA.
NB: Okay, so you set out to write about making a better life with your wife; or at least getting your head out of your ass, trying.
DF: Yes, and so the book, “The Journal of Best Practices,” is exactly what I set out to write when I decided to “write a book”. However, the storytelling strategy is very different from what I had envisioned, for that matter, it’s different from what I had outlined in my book proposal for the book deal. When I began to work with my editor the narrative structure became a linear timeline with a clear trajectory.
NB: Let me interject–am I saying interject because you just said trajectory?
DF: Let’s not look at that too closely right now, I’ll go over it while I am shaving tomorrow.
NB: So when you decided to “write a book” you inspired a bunch of us (Lakeside Studio writers) to also want to write a book. I know that was beneficial to us but what, after you had your book deal in hand, did you gain from being in a writing group?
DF: From being a Lakesider for almost 3 years, I learned how to tell a story in a way that would compel people to keep reading it. Week after week, you (meaning you, Nancy) taught and reinforced lessons that I’m fortunate to have absorbed — lessons related to every aspect of writing, from framing to stakes to character portraits to time management to the importance of drafting.
NB: Aw shucks hon. You were “fortunate to learn” because you worked hard.
DF: Also, given the Lakeside Studio discussion format you rode shotgun on the other Lakesiders — call them denizens, minion, fellow writers, whatever — who, as my first readers, provided me feedback that wouldn’t let me off the hook and urged me on.
NB: Like what?
DF: Mary Scruggs, a fellow Lakesider, opened my eyes to what she called “connective tissue” — chunks of narrative that carry the story from one scene or expositional passage to the next, thereby rolling the story down the tracks. And Lakesider, Cathy Postilion, ruthlessly called me on my nasty tendency to shy away from the emotional pay dirt. She’d say, “Oh, fuck you, Asperger Guy. Don’t puss out on that shit.” It was brilliant! What’s not to love about being in a writing group.
NB: Nothing is not to love–I agree that my Lakeside Studio is an outstanding way to generate psychic material; but revising can be tough in a workshop.
DF: Revising is an entirely different proposition. I think until you’re really comfortable editing yourself, you’re better off working with an editor to help you achieve subsequent drafts. You can’t work in a vacuum. My editor, Samantha, happened to be brilliant and I trusted her instincts on how to modify and shape the narrative so that the reader would want to stay with me page after page. Generating is about getting everything that’s important to you out onto the page. Revising is about making that which is important to you somehow meaningful to the reader. Fine-tuning, then, is all about making the work as readable as can be.
NB: I believe that in the process of generating and revising you became a writer too. Do you agree with that?
DF: Yes, that’s true.
NB: And could you elaborate on the difference between writing and becoming a writer?
DF: My first night in the workshop, I looked around and thought, “Oh, no, I’m surrounded by intellectuals.” My plans were to write about bathroom mishaps and people with funny-sounding names, and that would be enough. Sensing, perhaps correctly, that I wouldn’t be allowed to get away with shallowness, I decided to hand myself over to your Lakeside method and be brave with my introspection.
NB: Obviously intellectuals can bullshit as well as the next person but I think Lakesiders have a serious stake in each others work.
DF: I learned in our weekly gatherings that readers know when you’re punting, when you’re avoiding the meat of the story. You might not be aware of it yourself as you’re generating the material, but the audience certainly knows. The willingness and skill to give up the goods is, perhaps, what makes a person a legitimate writer; creative writing comes from a deep and pure need to express.
As for the difference between writing and becoming a writer, you explained it to me this way: You become a writer when what you’re writing transforms you.
NB: I couldn’t PAY people to say this shit.
DF: No, I believe I paid you. People are hesitant to call themselves a writer until they publish their work, or until they find themselves supported, financially, by the writing. I get that, but I prefer your way of thinking. If you’re writing to achieve some transformation—be it a different point of view or new perspective, or just to flush out the shit that’s backing up on you—then you’re writing for very good reasons. If you act on a sincere desire to explore the content, then it’s almost impossible not to be transformed by what comes of it.
NB: “Journal of Best Practices” is a memoir about your relationship with your wife Kristen, who by the way, I think is a damn good writer—remember that funny story she wrote about piling in the VW with her girlfriends? Anyway, how has your relationship with Kristen changed as a result of writing about yourselves?
DF: Well, first of all, yes—Kristen is a damn good writer. She’s smart and funny, and she gets why things are funny. I love that piece about the car shenanigans, and you’ll be thrilled to know that she is now blogging on my website.
By writing about our situation honestly and with a sense of discovery, I was afforded these astounding new perspectives, which led to greater understandings of the circumstances underlying our relationship. I was finally able to concede, for instance, that she did, at one time, feel let down by our once-suffocating marriage. So I explored that, and I discovered who she thought I was, and why she felt so let down when she realized I wasn’t exactly that person.
NB: Ding, ding, ding, sounds like everybody’s marriage to me.
DF: Kristen and I talked A LOT about the things I wrote in my essays, as I simply tried to make sense of our relationship. Writing a situation down on paper helped me to make sense of it. It was suddenly impossible to resent each other over that horrible fight of 2007, for example, because we understood each other better as a result of the writing. That’s just one example, but thanks to the cumulative effect of doing this over the course of a few years, I am happy to say that we are closer now than ever before. Yes, a book came out of it, and that’s fabulous. But more important, I have my best friend back. I’m a better husband because I write. I’m a better dad because I write. That’s powerful.
An interview with Lucinda Blumenfeld, President, Lucinda Literary LLC
During those long nights spent deep in the writing trenches it is easy to let your mind wander to thoughts of making it big. But what many new authors don’t realize is that the journey from completed first draft to getting booked on the Rosie Show is a complicated and lengthy one. Luckily for us I spoke with Lucinda Blumenfeld, president of Lucinda Literary LLC and agent extraordinaire, to have her set the record straight on the role of agents, how they can help your book thrive, and why blogging is more important now than ever.
Nancy Beckett: Lucinda, welcome to Writing with Nancy. I hope your business finds writers in Chicagoland.
Lucinda Blumenfeld: Thank you; it’s an honor. I hear you have great comedy writers here.
NB: What do you think are the myths most widely conceived by writers?
LB: Myth 1: “Because I have an agent, I have a book deal (in the horizon). It’s just that the horizon looks cloudy.”
Fact: No savvy agent is going to take you on if he/she doesn’t believe your book will sell! But you won’t see in your author agreement with an agency that your book might very well not sell. Myth unraveled: all agents I know have not sold books (in the plural). And anyone in the industry will tell you the marketplace is more restrictive than ever, though better than it was a few years ago, before eBooks could bring a whole new revenue stream, substantially added value.
Myth 2: An agent is like a real estate broker. His/her job is to sell my book.
Fact: When writers believe this a natural, human confusion occurs in their mind…my agent is responsible for selling my book (not manage all the crises that arrive once the book deal happens, offer career strategy, market and network for you, broker ancillary deals around your book, like television, for example, broker professional relationships for you, legally and emotionally and financially protect you—all of which make an agent more landlord than real estate broker. But all that’s in parentheses are as much an agent’s work as the effort to sell.
Myth 3: An agent is not an editor. (There’s a trick here)
Fact: You’re right. An agent isn’t an editor. But agents play editors all the time. We need to share their eye, and we need to share the workings of their brain. This is where “platform” becomes the most overused term in the industry, but it’s a word writers should know and be able to claim, before approaching any agent.
Myth 4: “I do not need an agent.”
Fact: Most authors need to be walked through the process. They need someone to verse them and possibly handle rights; they need editing help, which good agents provide; they need marketing insights, which many agents can inform; they still need legal, emotional, and financial protection. Who wants to go through this alone?
My hypothesis is that both parties will benefit: agents will once again have that primary relationship with authors, with less bureaucracy, and authors may see more negotiating power in terms of agent commissions in eBooks-only representation.
NB: Beyond demonstrating an audience, what else can a writer do to cut through the slush and get an agent’s attention?
LB: Writers need to analyze the competitive context of their books, yet so many writers live in ivory towers, a necessary job evil that can prove problematic, isolating writers from the marketplace. No agent wants to tell an earnest, hardworking writer, “your book has already been written!” Consider before you query: are there other similar bestsellers or critically acclaimed books out there, but yours is somehow different? Or you can mention a recent popular film (it was probably adapted from a book). You should name these sources within the introduction of your query letter to an agent. And I’ll mention something I personally look for— an author who names his or her literary influences for the book right up front. If I share the writers’ tastes, I’m more inclined to read the material.
Keep query letters short. No overshare, just enough to pique our interest. At the entry/query level, presentation may be more important than the writing itself, if you don’t inspire someone to read it.
NB: How do you consider your agency different?
LB: My diverse background in publishing, largely in corporate marketing, lent me both online training and new media interest. I think it’s challenging and exciting to work with all kinds of non-writers, in the traditional sense, from bloggers to businesspeople, PhDs to celebrities, those who already have the book idea but can’t find the right to message it, either to a publisher or a reader.
My particular role in the new, digital era of publishing is to work with writers looking to grow their audiences, and coach them through best practices for social networking, offline networking, and messaging from both a marketing and book standpoint (these are usually different). I lend, along the way, a love for and thoroughness in editorial development and presentation, my marketing experience and publicity connections for the strongest platform possible. I think this combination of offering a publishing education, along with marketing consulting, social media training, and publicity connections, is a wave of the future I certainly won’t be the only one to jump on. I’m also thrilled to now offer authors eBooks-specific marketing, and a fantastic web developer who can build author sites from the ground up. I can then project manage ongoing site promotions for you, inform and edit blog content, manage your mailing list and newsletter distribution, and determine who’s coming to it. My value is transforming a creative vision into virtual reality.
Lucinda has worn many hats in publishing as a literary agent at Fletcher & Company, a marketing manager at Scholastic, and as a publicist at HarperCollins.
Recent projects include leadership debut Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders, by Rajeev Peshawaria, YA novel The Time-Traveling Fashionista by Bianca Turetsky, and historical novel The Moment, by Douglas Kennedy.
The Women’s Voices Fund was established in 2005 by 100 founding members to support the work of women playwrights at The Denver Center Theatre Company. Interest from the fund, which now totals almost $700,000, is used to commission, workshop and produce new plays by women. The fund is a national model and continues to grow each year.
Sonia Taitz: Thanks! IN THE KING’S ARMS is a story about a girl whose parents came out of Eastern Europe as Jewish Holocaust survivors. While her parents live among their own in America, speak with foreign accents, and fear outsiders, Lily longs to travel out and see the best university in the world. The people she meets at Oxford are rich, privileged and sometimes snobbish. Lily is torn between two realities, especially when she falls in love with an English boy from an aristocratic, anti-Semitic family.
Beckett: So how does it feel to write autobiographically-based characters?
Taitz: It feels very satisfying to write about what you know and what you passionately feel. I wrote this novel a few years after I left Oxford. The characters, however, are combinations of people, and the events in the story are largely fictional. Creating art out o the jumble of reality feels amazing, and is the real reason I write. All the details come together in the service of a larger and more enduring truth.
Beckett: Is there anybody you completely made up?
Taitz: Most everyone has a little bit of someone I saw or heard, but I guess the acting teacher, Shelagh Eveline Fanning, is completely made up. I know plenty of people in the theatre who are bombastic and charismatic like her, but most of them are male. Fanning is big, brash and female.
Beckett: I love the structure of the book. The chapters are very short. How did you come to this form?
Taitz: It is seen in a lot of modernist literature. I probably got it from Kurt Vonnegut, whose work I love (and whom I was lucky enough to meet). I like to be direct, brief, get into and out of a scene: Blackout. Maybe Sam Beckett is also an influence.
Beckett: You have a first book, *Mothering Heights*–I think that’s such a funny title—and you said you were going to publish that as an e-book in the Spring. How do you do that?
Taitz: That’s what I have to find out. Everyone loves the title; it’s memorable. People are still asking about this book, which still has great word of mouth (especially after O: The Oprah Magazine quoted from it this year as “one of the best things ever said” about motherhood). I think It would be great to put it out there again. It’s a satirical look at the excesses of modern parenthood, with a soft, personal ending. I’m going to try to have it ready by Mother’s Day.
Beckett: Are you a performer? Would you ever adapt MH into a one-woman show or play?
Taitz: I did do some acting at Oxford, and if I could get my nerve up again, that would be great. I have another memoir coming out (hopefully next year) that could lend itself better to a one-woman show. It’s a complete memoir of my life as the child of immigrants. The working title is WATCHMAKER’S DAUGHTER. I’ll announce the publication date on my website soon.
Beckett: You have worked in the theatre too. How has humor influenced your ability to become a writer?
Taitz: The playwrights I love most have used humor. As I said, I love Beckett, but also John Guare, Christopher Durang, and a wonderful writer from Yale Drama who died young – Harry Kondoleon. I love people who can maintain humor in the midst of tragedy, who show both sides at once.
Beckett: Do you have any advice for a comedy writer or playwright who might want to write prose?
Taitz: I would tell them they have the best asset of all – the perspective to see the comic nuances of things. Franz Kafka used to laugh hysterically when he was writing his paranoid material. The only caveat I’d add is that there is a smaller market for comic prose than for the more serious variety – readers seem to want to get deeply involved in “story,” and sometimes irony makes some of them unsure of the author’s tone. I don’t let it stop me; there’s humor in everything I write. Even my upcoming memoir about growing up with Holocaust survivors (who never stopped talking about it) is funny and sad and hopeful, all at the same time.
Beckett: Tell me something about your publisher, and their distribution.
Taitz: I adore my publisher, a small house called McWitty Press, which is based in New York. It was founded in 2002 by two editors who had been very prominent in Time, Inc. – Elly McGrath and Paul Witteman (McWitty’s name is a combo of theirs). Elly McGrath also worked as a Senior Editor for Conde Nast. She has a keen eye and a huge heart. The press does fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. They’re distributed by Perseus/PGW, and I love them too. They are devoted to getting quality books by small, independent presses to the reading public
Beckett: What is it you want from writing books?
Taitz: I want to open my mind, heart and soul into a story, and to reach other people’s minds, hearts and souls. I want people to feel that they’ve come on a journey with me and that we’ve discovered a gorgeous secret inside of life. I actually believe that the deeper you go, the more astounding the beauty. It’s odd, given my background, but I do think I’m an optimist.
Beckett: Is this a bad time to get into publishing?
Taitz: Everyone says so, but maybe it’s not. Over time, we did see small quality presses eaten up by large conglomerates, and small bookstores driven out by big box stores. But now, everything may be getting small again – with websites such as this one, many wonderful small presses, increasing access to books through Amazon, ebooks and the like. Put it this way, it has always been a bad time to get into publishing if you want fame and fortune. But putting those two goals aside, more and more voices are being heard.
Beckett: Heard any good jokes lately?
Taitz: This one is a Rodney Dangerfield classic, which I heard recently:
“My wife and I were so happy for the first twenty years! [Pause.] Then we met.”
IN THE KING’S ARMS is very romantic, and the main characters do meet at about age twenty. But when I heard this joke, I couldn’t stop laughing. I think anyone who’s been in a long relationship can appreciate its brilliance. And if you can laugh and cry at the same time, I think you’ll like my work.