Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Second Life for an Old Friend: posted on Red Room

In 1988 I wrote a novel about Mexico, Maximilian's Garden. My agent sold it to a publisher and shortly thereafter the acquiring editor left to go back to her old job as a journalist. The book, abandoned by its shepherd, became that most dreaded of objects, an orphan, passed from editor to editor in the publishing house until, like a game of musical chairs, it landed on some unwitting editor who already had plans for retirement. The book was published in 1990 - sort of - fell into a coma and died.

I thought about that novel often after that, wondered what I could have done to prevent its untimely death. Had no idea. None at all.

Let's back up a bit. If left to my own devices I'd still be writing books the way I wrote Maximilian's Garden, with ballpoint pen on yellow legal pad.

Now that that's out of the way, I can explain what happened to Maximilian's Garden.

"Check out this Lanier computer, honey," my husband said when the first monster home computers came out in the late eighties. "It's revolutionary, memorizes what you've written and prints it out."

He brought one home. I whimpered and whined. I told him I had my own way of doing things and what was I supposed to do with the thing, anyway.

Point of information: I've always been resistant to anything that involves understanding patent applications.

"Lanier offers classes in how to operate their machine," he said.

He's so reasonable.

I took a class. The Lanier wasn't revolutionary. Each page had a discrete, inviolable number of lines. Try to exceed them - such as when you edit and rewrite - and the maneuvering required to do so was so onerous it made my eyes cross.

I threw out the Lanier, the pen and legal pad and began using an electric typewriter, which had its own set of problems. But never mind.

The Lanier gave way to the personal computer. PC Magazine began arriving in the mail at our house.

"Look at this, honey," my husband said. "A personal computer is just the thing for you. You'll save time. You can rewrite to your heart's content."

A computer promptly arrived in my office. Bit by bit, arguing and complaining, I learned how to write on it. I had to admit, it did save time, and I could rewrite and rewrite and rewrite without destroying a single tree.

Then something called the internet turned up. A gimmick, I thought to myself. Who needs to e-mail someone when you can pick up a telephone?

Of course, in no time my husband had us hooked up to cyberspace.

"Look at this, honey, something called e-books," he said. "They put books on the internet."

I liked reading books with words on paper. My husband loves gadgets. He began reading e-books.

It wasn't until 2009 that I discovered that one of my books, The End of Marriage had been put on Amazon Kindle in 2002 by its publisher, who was one of the first to reserve electronic rights in book contracts. I had signed away electronic rights when I signed the book contract. Everyone did. No one thought there would ever be an advantage to owning electronic rights.

But I owned the electronic rights to Maximilian's Garden. It was a book about Mexico. Mexico was in the news.

I reread it. It was like meeting an old friend and picking up the conversation where you left off 20 years before. But 20 years ago I was still a baby writer; I didn't have the skills I have now. I decided to rewrite it, first page to last. I renamed it Children of Guerrero in honor of Gonzalo Guerrero, the first Spaniard to set foot on the Yucatan peninsula, the father of the mestizo.

So now Children of Guerrero is on the internet, an e-book that can orbit the world in a cometary flash of light. The business of delivering books to their readers is being reinvented as I write this. Who knows what magical discovery is on the horizon? All I know is that writers have been unshackled, their options expanded. Worthy books, long out of print, can be brought back and given second lives. With the internet nothing is lost. Books can't be orphaned or killed. They float through cyberspace, an unimpeded ghostly chorus of the reborn.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S MISTRESS, Part 2

Esther, more diminutive than I remembered from the night before, is at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, waving away smooth gusts of smoke with nicotaine-stained fingers. She stands up and gives me a kiss.

“Did you sleep well?” she asks.

“Yes,” I lie.

I wore two sweaters and a blazer to bed and was so cold that I imagined icicles forming on the ceiling above the bed.

“Do you like eggs? How about an egg and a piece of toast? Do you like jam? Deborah, do we have jam? No jam. I can give you a little piece of toast with butter. Deborah, do we have butter? No butter. Maybe there is still that honey I put in the back of the cupboard. I’ll go look.

“Eggs are fine,” I tell her.

There is no honey. Deborah and her mother are now chattering back and forth in Yiddish. I understand most of what they’re saying. It’s about why there’s no butter or jam or honey. Deborah’s tone is snippily impatient, Esther’s is forbearing, sweetly indulgent. Old memories of mine – erased, I thought, by the distance of years – dart out of hiding. Images bombard me of a stifling apartment, Holocaust survivors staying for days or weeks, four people to a bed, people eating and talking at all hours. The doctor comes because I can’t stop vomiting. He says, My, my, she’s a very high-strung child, and takes everyone’s blood pressure before he leaves.

Esther fries an egg for me on the ruined stove. As she turns off the burner, the knob breaks and falls to the floor.

“We’ll hurry and write this book before the house comes down on our heads,” Esther says, and laughs a hoarse cigarette-limned laugh.

She wants to know about me. I tell her about my children, about my husband. I tell her about California and that we live a mile from the beach.

“The beach is deserted this time of year,” I tell her, “but this is the best time to walk along the strand and not get run over by a bicycle.”

She listens bright-eyed. I had imagined she would be a withered relic of the death camps, a human time capsule, buried in a house in Flushing and forgotten, but she bursts with life. I envision her as she must have been in pre-war Europe, a vividly present, sassy girl with a personality as unlocked as her daughter’s is shut tight.

A teenage boy, lank and dark-eyed, comes into the kitchen.

“My son the yeshiva student,” Deborah says.

He doesn’t look at me while Deborah tells him who I am and why I’m here. He’s bent at the waist, leaning forward as though about to pray, the yarmulke bobby-pinned to his brown curls pouting blank-faced at me from atop his bent head. When Deborah has finished talking, he raises up, grabs his books and is gone out the front door. I hear boys’ voices, loud at first, then fainter, then too thin to hear.

“Have you ever heard of Rabbi Schneerson?” Deborah asks me.

“I’ve read about him,” I tell her.

“Then you know he’s wisest rabbi in the world. He’s predicted the coming of the messiah. Soon. The meshiach will be here soon.”

Esther asks me if I’m religious. I tell her I’m not. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She prays at the sink before she sits down and eats a piece of dry toast.

I have the definite impression that both mother and daughter have decided they can trust me to be compliant, to listen to what they have to say, to write the book exactly the way they want it, and to get them enough money for plane tickets to Israel.

Before we go into the living room to get started, Deborah says offhandedly, “I tried to write the book myself, but gave up. I’ll give you what I’ve written. If you can use it, fine. If not, not.”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Guest Post with Nina Vida on Bloody Bad, a Book Blog

7/22/09

Hi everyone. I’m guest-posting, hoping Trin’s readers will stop and say hello, read what I have to say, maybe ask a question or two.

A question I’m always asked, Where do the ideas for your books come from? As close as I can come to an answer is to say that an incident or character calls out to me to be written. I begin without any plot in mind. It’s sort of like wandering into a store, looking around, examining the goods, and deciding what to buy. The actual act of writing is the catalyst that carries me forward. Each step unlocks another door.

What is easier to answer is where events and characters come from. They’re everywhere. Newspaper articles, experiences I’ve had, experiences someone else has had, people I meet, people I know, people others know and tell me about. Overheard conversations are a great source for dialogue. Lots of writers say they write in cafes, and I think they’re not writing at all, they’re listening in on the conversations going on around them and taking notes. Family members are a great source for characters (you have to alter characteristics so they don’t recognize themselves). And all that gossip at family get-togethers about who’s doing what with whom? Invaluable. A few times my sister has said to me, “The way you wrote that scene isn’t the way that thing happened to me in Ensenada at all.” Or someone will say, “I bet that policeman in ‘The End of Marriage’ is my Uncle Joe,” when it isn’t his Uncle Joe at all, it’s someone else’s Uncle Frank or George or Bill, or a combination of all three.

For example, on one of my research trips to Texas before I began to write “The Texicans” I met Dr. Milt Jacobs, a native Texan and amateur historian. He took my husband and me out to dinner at the Barn Door in San Antonio (fabulous steaks; and I don’t get a commission for mentioning that – not even a free dessert), and after dinner we went over to his house to see his Texas memorabilia, a fascinating collection of photographs and letters. Sort of offhandedly he said that he had an ancestor who walked from the East Coast all the way to Texas. On foot. Walked. Across the plains. By himself. Dr. Jacobs’ casual remark was the spark that created the character of Joseph Kimmel in “The Texicans.” A man hardy and stubborn enough to walk from New York to Texas deserves to be the hero of a book.

Another question I’m often asked is how long it takes me to write a book. I do so much rewriting and work at so many other things at the same time that I’m never sure how long a book takes to complete. About 15 years ago I wrote a novel about a 17-year-old Jewish girl who escapes Lithuania one step ahead of the Nazis and ends up in Shanghai, where she enters the dark world of the black market and becomes a rescuer of abandoned children. Including the time spent on interviewing Shanghai refugees and making a research trip to China, the book took almost two years to complete. My agent sold the book, the publisher loved it, the editor loved it, and a few months later the publisher cancelled it. No explanation. I put that book away and wrote three other books that did get published: “Goodbye Saigon” (optioned for film by 20th Century Fox/Dick Zanuck), “Between Sisters” and “The End of Marriage.” Two years ago I pulled the book about Shanghai out of the drawer, rewrote it and named it “Lilli.” I also changed agents. We’ll see what happens with this version.

Sometimes I’m asked what my writing routine is. I don’t write for any set number of hours a day, but I do think about writing all the time. Sometimes an idea wakes me up at four in the morning and sends me upstairs to my desk. Sometimes for days I do nothing but write. Sometimes for days I do nothing but read or work in the garden.

About a month ago I came to a crucial point in a novel I’m writing and needed more time to think about it. My husband and I also wanted to spend some time with our three granddaughters, who are 17, 16 and 12. Their summer schedules are hectic: the 17-year-old is getting ready to leave for NYU in September, the 16-year-old is in a volleyball league and the 12-year-old is on a water polo team. It required a logistical feat to get them all together at the same time. The three of them slept in our guest bedroom (they didn’t want to be apart), giggling late into the night, the hum of their voices reminding me of the toddlers they once were. Days were spent doing whatever they wanted to do. We played miniature golf and went to the beach and ate and shopped and kissed and hugged and laughed, and I was sure I could feel the hours ticking away until they were too old to want to spend time with us. I was also sure that sometime in the future one of them will say, “The girl in your new book is me, isn’t it, Grandma?”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S MISTRESS, Part 1

A few weeks before Thanksgiving I got a telephone call from a producer who had optioned one of my screenplays. He wanted to know if I knew much about the writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I told him I knew that Singer was a Polish Jew who wrote in Yiddish, that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, and that his novel,”The Slave” was one of my favorite books.

The producer asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about Singer’s 30-year relationship with his mistress (I’ll call her Esther), that the woman’s daughter (I’ll call her Deborah) was looking for a writer.

“Esther is a Holocaust survivor,” he said, “and Deborah told me she’d be more comfortable confiding in a Jew. I told her you were Jewish, and that cinched it.”

“Sounds intriguing, but I write fiction.”

“From what the daughter told me this is more fantastic than any fiction a writer could dream up. Singer was eighteen years older than Esther. She was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She married another survivor she met in a Displaced Persons camp in Europe and divorced him when she came to the States. She had Deborah then and was destitute. Singer offered her a job as his translator. She had been a poet in Poland, spoke seven languages, and when you hear what Deborah has to say about her mother’s affair with Singer, you’ll realize that she was the inspiration for the character of Masha in the movie of Singer’s book, ‘Enemies: A Love Story.’

“Is this a vengeance book, a woman scorned?”

“She says no, that Esther doesn’t want to hurt him or his wife, that she’s agonized over it for the past few years and now that he’s dead she’s decided it’s time to tell the story. Mother and daughter are broke. They need the money. If you agree to do it, Deborah wants you to go to New York and stay with them for as long as you need.” He laughed. “From what the daughter said, it seems that Singer was something of a sexual athlete.”

“Is the mother willing to go into all of that?”

“No holds barred. The straight scoop. Diaries and photographs and letters. Full cooperation. And Deborah contends that Singer got many of the ideas and material for his work from Esther, that she was victimized twice, first by the Nazis and then by Singer.”

I had made my first solo trip from California to New York ten years before to meet the editor of my first book. At that time I was such an inexperienced traveler, that my husband, worried something would happen to me en route, had me call him when I got off the plane, when I got to the hotel, and when I got to my room. It was as if I were a kindergartener on my first day of school, except that he didn’t pack a snack or tie my shoes.

This second solo trip had my agent worrying about me. Is this woman’s story for real? Who are these people? But go, please go, it’s irresistible.

I was on a plane to New York the next day.

Deborah picked me up at the airport, a tall woman in her forties, with even features and a mane of auburn hair. She was dressed for cold weather, a stylish scarf wrapped around her neck (I was dressed for California and didn’t own a scarf). She insisted on carrying my bag, told me she had gone to the wrong gate, “what the hell was wrong with the airport putting the wrong gate up on the board?” gave me a hug and said she was happy I had agreed to do this.

She had parked her battered Chevrolet in the airport lot.

“My mother is on welfare and food stamps,” she said as she drove through the rain swept streets. “This is a desperate move on our part. We have no money. What my mother and I have to say about Singer has never been said before. It will be a shock to everyone, but a good shock, a shock worth money. He ruined my mother’s life and mine as well. I want to go to Israel to live, get out of New York, take my mother away. We can forget everything in Israel. I get a few days of substitute teaching, but it’s not enough. My husband and I are separated. My daughter lives with him, so you’ll have her bedroom. The house isn’t much. As a matter of fact, it’s falling apart. I don’t have the money to fix anything. Wear socks and a sweater to bed. The heat isn’t working. It gets cold at night.”

I wasn’t prepared for cold weather. I was sorry I hadn’t brought the coat I bought the year before that I had never worn because it never gets cold enough in California for a coat. I also wasn’t prepared for the extravagance of hope that Deborah had placed in me. I felt overrun, outtalked, although I did manage to say that my agent wanted to meet her and her mother, and that nothing was settled yet, that I’d have to see how much story there was, and then there was the contract to be agreed to, and, well, let’s just see what happens.

She wasn’t kidding about the house. It was a wounded relic of a 1950’s brick faux-Tudor in a housing tract in Flushing, its walls gouged and scarred, the kitchen a half-remodeled ruin of missing appliances and broken cabinets. Bales of twine-wrapped newspapers moated the dining room table, the uneven rampart of old news planted beneath the windows as though to protect against invasion. In the living room frayed drapes cloistered the scatter of furniture and a reek of tobacco and gribbines floated up out of worn upholstery as from the windings of talliths in some ancient talmudic study hall.

There was no sign of Esther.

“Where is your mother?” I asked.

“She reads most of the night and then sleeps on and off all day. She knows you’re coming. She should be up soon.”

My bedroom was upstairs, a cell-like narrow room, the only sign of Deborah’s absent daughter a few abandoned stuffed animals on the single bed. The door had no doorknob, merely a reamed-out hole stuffed with toilet paper. I was startled to find myself in this strange house, this strange room, and overwhelmed that Deborah expected me to produce a book that would rescue her and her mother from the final teeter into the abyss.

There was a phone in the hall. I called my husband..

“I haven’t seen the mother yet.”

“Say the word and I’ll get you a flight home tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll let you know.”

When I went downstairs Esther was there, standing in the door to the kitchen. A diminutive woman in a cotton house dress, a wild ruff of gray hair partially tamed by a plastic head band, her long-ago beauty reviviscent in the barely lined face and crushed-ice blue eyes.

She took both of my hands in hers and cocked her head mischievously.

“Don’t worry about anything,” she said. “I will be the worm to catch the fish.”


Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Age of Reason

1946 was my freshman year at Adolph Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California. It was one year after the end of World War II, and the high school was bulging with returning servicemen – not to get their high school diplomas, but to begin college on our campus. There was no provision yet for all the veterans who wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill, and the crush of veterans eager to leave war behind and move forward in their lives was so intense that the school district was willing to split the high school in two: days for high schoolers, afternoons and evenings for veterans.

Everyone in school had a story about war to tell; mine was about Uncle Morrie, a bombardier lost on a bombing flight somewhere over the Pacific, neither plane, nor crew, nor Uncle Morrie ever found. I remember Uncle Morrie as thin, his eyes the same cherry brown as my mother’s. We saw him off at Union Station in Los Angeles, handsome in his uniform, kissing my mother goodbye, patting me on the head, smiling at everyone. Lost over the Pacific. Disappeared as cleanly as if he had never gotten on that train in Union Station and headed to meet that airplane, that crew, that death.

Concentration camps, Nuremburg trials, Holocaust newsreels, lost relatives in Poland, atom bombs, radiation sickness were for adults to ponder. Teenagers aren’t good at tragedy. We were sunk in the business of sock hops and who was going to win the talent show. We felt a little crowded by the veterans, many of whom showed up early for their classes and jammed the halls, and there were pairings between students and veterans, the inevitable result of off-kilter fraternization, but for the most part we were getting back to normal.

The school was built on Japanese farm land. When people wanted to disparage where we lived, they’d say we lived out in the bean fields, although there had been no bean fields since 1942 when the Japanese were interned. I don’t remember paying much attention to where all those Japanese farmers went, except for hearing references to places like “Manzanar” and “Tule Lake” on the radio. I’d like to think I thought about where they had gone, had even examined the rightness or wrongness of their going, but I didn’t. No one I knew did. All during the war we were exposed to news stories and photographs depicting all Japanese as grinning, barbarous, murderous sneaks with protruding teeth and bottle-thick eyeglasses.

I’d also like to think that that image was erased when the first Japanese boy showed up in one of my classes in mid-1946. His teeth didn’t protrude and he didn’t wear glasses and he showed no fear. He raised his hand in class and twirled his pencil with the nonchalance of the innately brave. No one knew what to do, what to say, he was so alien, so out of place, so associated with everything bad we had ever read or heard about the Japanese. I remember thinking that maybe one of his relatives had shot Uncle Morrie’s airplane out of the sky. I was embarrassed for him, wondered how he could come to class every day knowing that everyone was thinking that he shouldn’t be there.

No Japanese farmers returned to the bean fields until years later, and no other Japanese student returned to school except this one. Propaganda images faded, the war receded, but he stayed, came to class, made friends, won us over. The stubborn courage of his presence was for us the real end of the war.

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Queen of Annam's Daughter

The publishing world is in a muddle. Celebrities write “fiction” and get hefty advances while good books go unpublished and editorial staffs are pared and the phone doesn’t ring in agents’ offices.

“Are you still writing?” friends ask me.

“Of course,” I reply.

I wasn’t published until I was 50. I had been writing and rewriting and rewriting for four years. Every year at Thanksgiving my brother-in-law would ask me when I thought I’d get a book published.

“Soon,” I’d reply.

“If you were going to get published, you’d have been published by now,” he’d bite back. “Know what I think? You’re too old.”

Old at fifty. The new demographic: an army of fifty-year-olds languishing in old folks’ homes, winding macramé into pot holders, talking back to the television, putting their dentures in glasses before they go to bed, waiting for the kids to call, waiting for the grandkids to thank them for Christmas presents they don’t like. Waiting. On hold. Watching the calendar. Preparing to die.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” my uncle said when he turned up with the cancer in his ear and stopped doing everything he liked to do. “Can’t fight reality.”

In the six years it took my uncle to die, he could have done lots of things. He could have taken that longed-for trip to China, could have bicycled around Italy, could have dug out his old cornet and given a concert for his fellow Shriners.

Cancer didn’t get him. Age didn’t get him. It was his mistaken notion of what reality is that sucked the life out of him.

So while the publishers whimper and moan and have no idea what to do about their shrinking units, I’m writing a new book. Title: The Queen of Annam’s Daughter.

Excerpt: “Good luck is in the air, so fat and juicy Anh can almost reach out and grab it and stuff it in her purse. No joke. Didn’t the fortune teller on Friday say good luck was waiting for Anh around the corner? Didn’t she say go buy Lotto tickets on Tuesday, Tuesday’s the day your luck is going to come and sit in your lap? Didn’t she? She even picked the store for Anh to go to to buy the Lotto tickets. The mini mart on Bolsa and Magnolia – not the one with the blue sign behind the doughnut shop – that one’s bad luck, she said – the one in the corner facing the noodle shop – and get there early, she said, so someone else’s good luck doesn’t swallow yours up.”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009
I can be found on Facebook, my blog
Nina Vida on Writing and ninavida.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blogging My Book

Until two months ago, my desk, computer, books, the hummingbird that perches on the tree outside my window and waits for my husband and me to join him in the afternoon so he can buzz our cheeks and nose and chin were the fill of my days. My little kingdom. My ivory tower. My husband and I and our hummingbird in a bower of roses. No need to advertise my books; their charms will carry them on bird wings right into the hands of readers.

Then shock! My seventh book, THE TEXICANS, published in 2006 to reviews like “luminous,” “radiant,” “should be required reading in the immigration debate” was being buried beneath an avalanche of books by writers who understood that books don’t sell themselves, who understood the market-boosting possibilities of the internet. Someone should have lit a firecracker in my ear when I gave up on society and started cozying up to that damn hummingbird.

Publish or perish? Well, I won’t perish if I don’t publish, but what will I do with all those millions of words skirling like windswept leaves into papery nests on desk and floor and chair? And what about my new book, the one my agent says she “loves SO much,” the one about the fractured lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Holocaust? Will some publisher out of some sudden burst of altruism overlook my dismal sales record and sweep me and my coffee-spotted pages into his/her arms?

And so I stepped out my door into cyberspace. I stepped tentatively, gingerly, not knowing the road, testing first one direction, then another. I dug deep into the online cosmos and finally came to a place unlike anyplace I’d ever seen or been told about, a virtual universe that anyone who loves books can enter, a stitched-together bazaar where book reviews, book recommendations, book giveaways, and book-reading contests bring readers together, where their emails and blogposts sail through the ether like confetti. I found the world of the book blogger.

I approached it as I would the study of a foreign language, memorized terms of art, examined book blogger profiles, studied their book lists to judge their reading preferences. And then I began sending out emails: a free copy of THE TEXICANS to any book blogger who would read and review it. My once silent email inbox soon hummed with activity. I ran out of books. I ordered more. I sent out copies of THE TEXICANS like bread crumbs and waited for readers to follow the trail. I happily responded to online interviews beamed to me from as far away as Malaysia.

My son-in-law is fond of telling me that no one reads anymore. Reading is dead, he says. Tell that to the book bloggers, that army of stalwart readers. They are oblivious to my son-in-law’s opinion. They are busy hunting down neglected books, consoling authors, cheering the winner of the last giveaway, mining publishers’ lists for the next good read, knitting friendships between people with no more in common than the book that keeps them reading until dawn.

So has any of my frenetic emailing and book-sending and interviewing increased my sales? I don’t know yet. It’s too soon to tell. But one thing I know: I’m out in the open, have shed my disguise. Anything anyone wants to know about me or my work can be found somewhere in Google-land or on my blog (yes, I’m even blogging), Nina Vida on Writing. I have laid myself bare. I have shucked the modesty. I am my own publicity mill, my innate diffidence sweetened by my genuine desire to connect with readers and tell them about my book.