One of the biggest cliches in any discussion of writing is “Why do you write?” It seems to be a question that won’t go away. I find it interesting, especially since nobody asks the plumber “Why do you plumb?” or the carpenter “Why do you carpet?”
But I’ll also tell you my answer, the same answer William Goldman gave in his excellent 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “I’ve got secrets!”
Secrets, you hear me, secrets! And I agree. I know things, big things. Things right under our noses, only I’ve assimilated and made sense of them and now I’m bringing them to you, wrapped in a nice candy shell of good writing, witty dialogue and poignant moments.
After all, isn’t this why anyone writes?
Actually no. The genre writers, I don’t think, care too much about this sort of thing. They write mainly escapism. I know I’ll get arguments—there are lots of people who find profundities in every Star Wars and Harry Potter installment—but I really believe genre is generally antithetical to discovery, to the search for truth.
Why? Because unless you break the rules of genre (and I love it when writers do—Jose Saramago is a great example), you have certain foregone conclusions. Most people find that sort of comforting; I don’t.
I don’t care for most westerns, but one of my favorites is The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne film. Why? Because Wayne, obviously the star, gets shot in the back two-thirds of the way through the movie. You don’t expect that in a Western.
Another is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There simply isn’t enough time to describe all the ways that one went against the grain.
By defying genre expectations, the creators are saying, “We’ve got secrets!” Because secrets keep the genres going! And going!
That’s why I write.
It’s lonely. When I was first starting Entertaining Welsey Shaw, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and fire was newly discovered, I read somewhere, on either the internet or a stone tablet, a quote attributed to Toni Morrison†: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, write it.
I liked that advice, and set out to do that. I was amazed no one had written the definitive ordinary-guy-meets-celebrity novel, a setup I thought was ripe.
But agents and publishers aren’t so lofty-minded. They want stories that are very close to what they’ve already published, so they can see it that way. Despite Ms. Morrison’s advice, most people don’t like to see something they haven’t seen before. Nearly every agent and publisher I showed the novel to wanted to know, immediately, what the “comparables” were, meaning, what’s “like it.” Some websites even gave examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Yeah, agents and marketers think far and deep.
Okay, it’s hard to blame them. The business is tough, and most books, like most movies and most recordings these days, don’t make money. So they’re being very careful about what they publish. At the same time, being this reactionary often means missing the next big opportunity. Once upon a time Ms. Rowling couldn’t find anyone who would publish a 500 page book with all text and no pictures aimed at kids. It does sound absurd, doesn’t it? What smart money would pursue that?
What all this means is fiction, particularly American fiction, is wedded to genre. It’s not as bad in other cultures. But I can’t help but feel sad when I see people reading predictable stuff over and over again. I can sort of understand why predictability is desirable—you want to know, when you invest your time, what you’re going to get. An old friend recently told me this is why she goes to Disney World again and again: you know how your vacation will turn out. You know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to react, what they’ll make you feel.
Me, I love surprises. I’d rather try something new and not enjoy it. For one thing, all the things I do love were once new experiences for me, ones I was iffy about. For another, well, as I said, I love surprises, don’t like the predictable. When I go into an action hero flick, I know they’re going to succeed in their mission—blow up the big battle station or whatever—but there will be a big loss…probably the most lovable character will die. But nothing subversive will happen.
I live for subversiveness. Art is created when the norms bump up against subversiveness and friction results. If we still weren’t shooting hero cowboys in the middle of the picture, we’d still be making Stagecoach. Nothing wrong with Stagecoach. There is something wrong with still making Stagecoaches in 2017.
Daniel Ferreira, my protagonist in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, has secrets, and they come out in his writings too. At the point we join him in the story, however, no one is interested in them anymore. He had one break-out book, when he was fresh out of college, Since then no one has been interested in anything he’s had to say. So he’s turning out schlock for third-tier magazines and newspapers, a hired gun.
That’s how Entertaining Welsey Shaw begins. You can read the rest of it, too, as it’s now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever method of delivery you choose, from drone to phone, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.
And there’s currently a contest going on. Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a haphazard encounter between our Everyman Daniel and a famous, elusive celebrity. Tell me an interesting encounter you’ve had with a celebrity, either traveling incognito or in full view. The best story (judged by me) wins a free hardback copy of the novel–a $27.99 value as they say. The link is here—https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2017/03/24/giveaway-get-a-free-copy-of-entertaining-welsey-shaw-for-entertaining-the-rest-of-us-with-your-story/.
Good luck! And remember, genre is fun but surprises are better.
† I always say “attributed” because there are a lot of quotes that were not said by people who are famous for saying them, even well-known quotes.
I thought I was reading an interview with Welsey Shaw.
But I wasn’t. She’s Cara Delevingne, and I’m amazed I’d never heard of her before.
She’s a fashion model, and she belies all the stereotypes about such models: she’s smart, funny, curious, and a terribly articulate and searching.
And one of the things she keeps articulating is how lonely her life is, and that being famous and in the spotlight constantly doesn’t make you less alone. Just the opposite, in fact. Ms. Delevingne often says she feels terribly alone.
Like Welsey she’s had some explosive outbursts. Welsey goes off on everyone inside a Manhattan Starbucks. For Ms. Delevingne, a security search at a train station in Paris caused her to erupt and call the agents names. After being detained an hour she apologized, and was sent on her way.
No explanation why she went off. But people like her are under lots of pressure (not that that’s an excuse, but…) and often it’s the small things that do it, something Daniel Ferreira learns when he gets deeper and deeper into Welsey’s life. A casual brush could bruise a career, a slip on a late night talk show could end it. Friends become foes in the blink of an eye, people use you for who you are, and if you fail to please them you are labeled a “biiytch.” And through all this, you’re supposed to always, unfailingly smile.
Delevingne’s said she battled with depression during her school years but managed to turn her life around with the help of writing and yoga. But it hasn’t worked as well as she’d hoped, apparently. After a devastating breakup recently, she has told her family that she might end up walking away from fame. And friends say she is now depressed worse than they have ever seen before. As her mother observed, “One minute she’s surrounded by friends, the next she’s all on her own jetting across the world!”
I confess I once considered an ending for Entertaining Welsey Shaw where Welsey, miserable in her alone-ness, took her life. Just writing left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. But a number of celebrities in the spotlight—particularly, for some reason, young women—have made this decision. I truly hope Ms. Delevingne finds her way out of her darkness, and rediscovers happiness soon. Perhaps a break from fame might have a therapeutic affect. It does for Welsey, in the ending I finally opted for for the novel.
Food, glorious food!
There’s a lot of eating in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. The last third of the novel is an orgy of meals—long, expensive meals. And there are quite a few before then, too.
Fancy meals. Meals in expensive New York City restaurants. One in Welsey’s private penthouse on Park Avenue. And several pot lucks in small-town Callicoon.
Perhaps not a novel to read if you’re on a diet.
EWS is about conversation and social interaction. And in our culture, and most others, conversation and social interaction center around eating and drinking. Especially eating.
Eating says a lot about who we are. It’s one of the best ways a writer can define character, geography and social status.
I thought of this the other day after coming across a discussion of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the context of its many feasts. Food plays a major role in that novel, and not just as background. Flaubert’s characters are frequently eating, and the way they eat reveals their characters. Charles’s bad table manners demonstrate his lowly class, something that repulses Emma. But Emma herself sucks her fingers and licks the bottom of a glass, betraying her pretensions of sophistication and her more base side. And when Emma goes to the ball, the table manners of the nobles and the expensive foods in the scene signify their sophistication.
But aside from social refinement, food manifests class. The types of food, of course, signify this, but the fact that, say, Rouault sends Charles a turkey every year defines his character. For the lower class, food is a form of love, as it could be argued, it is in Entertaining Welsey Shaw for Anne, who is constantly worried about how and what Joseph eats. She is constantly meddling in his nutrition, reading the labels on the frozen packages in his refrigerator. Joseph begins sneaking junk food the way a smoker sneaks cigs, tossing the wrappers in a neighbor’s can. With Welsey, he has fun eating. Although Welsey is an actress and has to worry about her weight and her appearance, she seems to be one of these women who truly can eat anything (or at least many things) and not worry too much about how it sticks to her. I hate these types—don’t you?
I searched the web extensively, planning elaborate meals, usually off the actual menus at the real restaurants, both named and unnamed in the novel, that the characters visit. Of course, I don’t know if these items were on the menus back in 2008. When I couldn’t completely visualize I went to online videos to contemplate appetizers such as Caviar and Crème Fraiche Buckwheat Cornets. Then I decided not to use them. I planned and replanned meals because, like Flaubert, I wanted to tell a story partly through food. (For reasons that probably only make sense to me, and even then only on alternate Tuesdays, I substituted savory cheese truffles with chives, pecans and goat cheese instead.)
Drinking, of course, goes with food, but there’s very little alcohol in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. There is, however, coffee, which is probably the most romantic non-alcoholic drink there is. True it’s prosaic coffee, consumed in a Starbucks, the most common place for coffee on earth, but that’s why I wanted most of the story to take place in a Starbucks: it’s the most ordinary place on earth, and here Joseph, our protagonist, encounters the world’s most elusive celebrity. There’s something extraordinary—and this is the idea that fascinated me from the first day and made me want to start writing this thing—about the idea of being able to talk to this incredibly famous person separated only by a very small round table. Two extremely different worlds that nearly, nearly touch.
But it’s as close as they’re likely to. The Internet is filled with pictures of celebrities going to Starbucks for their caffeine fix. Standing in line in one of their New York or LA stores may be the most likely way you’ll ever encounter a celebrity, though buried in their hoodies, wearing sunglasses or without their stage makeup, as with Welsey Shaw, you likely won’t recognize them. It’s amazing to me the hold Starbucks seems to have on the famous set, although perhaps we just get more photos of them coming out of that particularl coffee shop because it’s the most well-known and ubiquitous. Perhaps Robin Wright loves some small beanery in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and Jonah Hill swears allegiance to an out-of-the-way spot in SoHo, but what we see in the media is countless celebs getting succor from the mermaid. Which is why I never considered setting Entertaining Welsey Shaw anywhere else.
One final aspect about all the eating in the novel. One of my favorite character-defining moments comes near the end: Joseph has actually gotten to see Welsey’s highly-private Manhattan penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. Towards evening she decides to order dinner from a fancy Italian restaurant. He, thinking he should, orders something elaborate; she gets the spaghetti and meatballs. As he sits cutting his veal and mushrooms, she slurps her pasta and gets tomato sauce all over her face. At that point he gets it: Welsey, robbed of her childhood, is having it now. That’s the key to understanding her. (They’ve also just spent the afternoon sitting on the floor playing the game of Life, with its little plastic cars and stick figure-people.) That’s one of my favorite moments in the whole novel, and food, glorious food plays a major role in defining it.
The other day I was at a restaurant listening in as a group at the next table talked about their favorite books.
This always gladdens me. I love to hear people discussing books with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for movies or rock bands these days. But what I heard next made me sad.
One of the women was praising some novel she’d just read, and she sold it by saying, “It’s short. You could finish it today if you started. And it’s real easy. A quick read.”
…Why in the world would that be a virtue?
Now, I understand War and Peace is daunting to all of us. I still haven’t gotten to it. (My wife’s better than I am.) But why do we want assurances we won’t have to spend long with something we’re supposed to be enjoying?
Can you imagine someone saying, “Star Wars The Force Awakens is short. You could see it and be back here in an hour. A quick flick”?
I’ve also heard many a “book lover” say they were intimidated by thick books?
Why, I wonder? Is there some sort of prize for finishing off more books. Do people get paid commissions to read? If a book is five times thicker than the average book, maybe there’s five times more good stuff in it. (Maybe not, and I’ve read some rambling tomes that needed an editor, but still, the size alone won’t persuade or dissuade me from approaching a book.)
But if you enjoy reading, why would you want it to be “quick”? (It begs all sorts of analogies…well, okay, just one.)
We sure live in a rush-rush-rush culture, which is part of what Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about. We don’t take the time to see what’s going on around us. Right in the opening chapter, when Daniel sees the famous actress in a Starbucks for the first time…
I’m sitting by myself, leafing through a picture book bought after a long meeting and a long lunch. If anyone would look up, they might notice that Welsey Shaw is standing here. True, she’s in faded jeans, scuffed brown boots, violet scarf and green sweater. Someone at a table behind her gets up and shoves his chair right into her buttock. She jumps. He excuses himself without really looking at her face. He and his companion, a matronly Asian woman with short, spiky hair that belongs on her daughter, leave their cups and teabags on the table. They have an air about them that says they are only slumming here. She folds up a laptop much newer and sleeker than mine, sticks it in a leather bag and they are off.
I blink, and Welsey Shaw is still there.
I’ve often wondered how many famous people have passed me by that I didn’t notice because I was in a hurry to get to somewhere. And sometimes we’re not even in a hurry for a reason. We’re just in a hurry because it’s our default setting.
Not only do I not want to rush through a book, I will, if it’s good enough, go right back to the beginning and start again. It’s amazing what you notice the second time around; indeed, if it’s great fiction, you can’t grok everything the first go, and you’ll read a completely different book with the second pass. This isn’t true of something like, say, Gone Girl, but Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis will yield treasures in repeated readings. In fact, that’s the idea. Deborah Eisenberg sometimes spends years crafting a single story. I don’t think she’d want you to skim through it in an hour. I’ve read some of them half a dozen times, and with each reacquaintance they’re so different I almost wonder if she doesn’t sneak into my house and alter the text when I’m asleep.
So when I hear people, like these women, selling a book by bragging how short it is, how fast it reads, how you don’t have to spend a lot of time with it, I have to wonder what their point is? If a book (or a record, or a movie) yields up everything quickly and easily, I kind of feel like I’ve been jipped. There’s supposed to be more to it than that, isn’t there?
What do you think?
Saw this wonderful post (thank you Sondra Gorman Rossi!) and thought I’d share. These would look good on any tree. I particularly like Nos. 10, 12, and 17. The original link can be found here.
17 Bookish Ornaments For Your Christmas Tree
Last year, my boyfriend and I decided to buy our very first Christmas tree together, and as part of the new tradition, we decided to exchange ornaments. Instead of a couple of kissing animals or a silver heart, I was delighted (and a little surprised) to find that my man knew me well enough to buy me a bookish ornament for the Christmas tree. It was a delicate white orb hand-painted with the artwork of one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, and it was the best gift I got that year.
If it were up to me, all holiday decorations would be book-themed., and I’m not just talking ornaments either. The traditional green wreaths would be replaced by an oversized book page wreath, and I’d exchange my mom’s silver nativity scene with a Whoville figurine set, complete with the Grinch, Max, and a little Cindy Lou Who. I would even swap out my cut-and-trimmed evergreen with a Christmas tree made out of books, because if I had an entire tree made out of books, it wouldn’t matter what presents went under it. Unfortunately, my love for books doesn’t override my family’s intense love of traditional Christmas decorations, so instead I have to sneak my literary-love onto the branches of the tree instead, and it’s just about time to start decking the halls.
From your favorite children’s book characters to origami book pages, here are 17 book-themed ornaments for a literary Christmas tree all you own.
1. The Grinch Ornaments Collection
Grab one or grab them all, but make sure to include a Grinch ornament on your Christmas tree this year. It will go with your annual reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, anyways. (Grinch Ornaments Collection, $13-20, Macy’s)
2. The Hobbit Book Ornament
Book covers can be stunning works of art, especially this one of The Hobbit, and especially when it’s in miniature ornament form. The colors complement the brilliant green of the Christmas tree, too.(The Hobbit Book Ornament, $11.50, Etsy)
3. Jane Austen Doll Ornament
Is it a doll, is it an ornament? Better — it’s both! And you can also get Elizabeth, Emma, Darcy, and other beloved characters from the wonderful fictional world of Jane Austen. Get them all, we won’t judge.(Jane Austen Decoration Doll, $14 92, janeaustengiftshop.co.uk)
4. Goodnight Moon Ornament
Everyone has a favorite picture book, and if yours was Goodnight Moon, then your Christmas tree needs this ornament featuring reproduced artwork from the book. It’s green, red, and very nostalgic. It doesn’t get more Christmas-y about this. (Goodnight Moon In The Great Green Room Ornament, $14.95,Hallmark)
5. Golden Snitch Ornament
There are dozens of Harry Potter-themed Christmas ornaments out there, from Hogwarts house-themed ones to Harry figurines, but these snitch lookalikes take the cake. Golden and winged, it’s almost like they were made to become Christmas ornaments. (Golden Snitch Ornament, $13.95, artfire.com)
6. Ulysses Book Ornament
There is no better way to honor your favorite author than by adorning your tree with pages from their book. This glass globe filled with Ulysses book page ribbon is simple yet elegant, and it comes in Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and much more. (Ulysses Book Ornament, $3, Etsy)
7. Shakespeare Caricature Ornament
Who could make your Christmas tree more dramatic than William Shakespeare? No one, that’s who, and although this ornament doesn’t come with blood feuds or star-crossed lovers, it does come with an adorable caricature version of the Bard, and that’s good enough for this Shakespeare nerd. (Shakespeare Caricature Ornament, $20.20, Zazzle.com)
8. Book Club Ornament
Make all of your book club babes happy with the gift of an adorable ornament celebrating your literary gatherings. It’s pink, it’s sparkly, it’s books. It’s perfect. (Book Club Ornament, $8.95, Hallmark)
9. Library Card Ornament
If you love books, then chances are you love the library, and even bigger chances that you have one or two lost “due by” cards lying around your house. Make them into kickass ornaments, or better yet, buy these handmade fabric ones for a Christmas tree your school library would envy. (Fabric Library Card Ornament, $12, Etsy)
10. Vintage Typewriter Ornament
Books and writing go hand in hand, and so will your annual Christmas tree decorations and this vintage typewriter ornament. It’s perfect for both the reading and writer in you. (Vintage Typewriter Ornament, $38, Grump’s)
11. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Book and Ornament Set
Another ornament that honors a favorite from childhood, this The Very Hungry Caterpillar set even comes with a board book. Give it as a gift to a young one, or, better yet, keep it for yourself and pretend you’re still a kid. You can never really outgrow picture books anyway. (The Very Hungry Caterpillar Book & Ornament Set, $19.99, Joss & Main)
12. Book Stack Ornament
A stack of books — this is the ornament staple that every true book-lover should have. You already have stacks on your night stand, on your bedroom floor, and on your many, many bookshelves, so why not have them in your tree, too? (Book Stack Ornament, $6.99, Amazon.com)
13. Mini Leather Book Ornaments
These mini book ornaments are not only adorable, they’re functional, too. You actually write in them and leave notes inside for your friends, family, or even for Old Saint Nick. You’re never too old to write a letter to Santa, right? (Mini Leather Book Ornaments, $18, Etsy)
14. Mockingjay Ornament
If you thought Katniss’s mockingjay pin looked good on her hunting jacket, wait until you see it hanging in all its golden glory in the branches of your tree. This ornament is so epic, it might even be tree-topper worthy. (Mockingjay Ornament, $17.95, Hallmark)
15. Classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Ornament
From tote bags to framed prints, the art from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandlooks great on just about everything, including your tree’s branches. Add it to you ornament collection, and “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” will take on a whole new meaning. (Classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Ornament, $6,Etsy)
16. “Read More Books” Snowman Ornament
Show your guests how you really feel about books with this snowman ornament that knows what’s really up. (Read More Books Snowman Ornament, $13.99, Amazon.com)
17. Origami Book Ornament Set
The pages from books can be made into a lot of things, but these folding origami starburst ornaments are a stunning and unique take on book decor that will make your tree look literary and stunning. Just don’t put them too close to the Christmas lights — they are paper, after all. (Origami Starburst Book Ornament Set, $45, Etsy)