This week’s guest for From the Front Porch: Creativity Interviews is John Grabowski. John has been following my blog since the early years (I started it in 2008!), and has been a frequent commenter. We developed an email friendship as he worked on his forthcoming novel, Entertaining Welsey Shaw. On his blog he has some really interesting things to say about the phenomenon of celebrity culture, which he addresses in his novel. John is one of the smartest and well-read people I know. Please welcome him to our Creativity Interviews.
Tell us a little about yourself. Perhaps what do you do for a living and where you live?
I live in Northern California and I’ve been a copywriter, a newswriter, and a novel writer. Right now I’m on the Marketing and Development Committees of the Peninsula Symphony as we are working to attract a broader and more affluent audience to this truly excellent orchestra.
When are you the most creative? (Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing?)
I’m a night owl. That’s when I generally get most of my ideas and do my best writing. Doesn’t matter where, really, as long as I can get my fingers to a keyboard. I tend to like the “white noise” of coffee shops, however.
When are you the least creative? (Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing?)
Mornings. I am not a morning person and never have been. Doesn’t matter how much sleep I get or when I go to bed.
What inspires you and why does it inspire you?
Other great art. Great ideas, different ways of looking at common things.
I don’t write fantasy or escapism. Everything I write is deeply-rooted in reality—often the most mundane reality that most people don’t pay attention to. So when someone can see that reality in a fresh and new way, I am inspired and want to do the same.
Share a favorite quote:
The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. —Emerson
What creative project are you working on now or do you hope to work on?
Getting dressed. Seriously, it’s 11am and I haven’t gotten away from the computer yet today.
Share a photo of something you find beautiful:
Name one of more of your favorite books. What do you love about them? If they changed your life in any way tell us why.
Of course knowing me as you do you’d expect to see a title by Deborah Eisenberg here. But she writes short stories, though they’ve been collected into books, so we can just assume at least one of these would be one of her titles, probably one of her last two, All Around Atlantis or Twilight of the Superheroes. I think she is the most important fiction writer working today because she is doing things no one else is but at the same time she’s doing it with a vocabulary that wouldn’t stump a high school student and she has probed the fringes of consciousness without resorting to any trendy new writing styles. She shows that direct simplicity can also be complex.
I also enjoy many of Alice Munro’s stories, though I do think Eisenberg should have won the Nobel for her greater breadth and insight. And you, Susan Gabriel, have turned me on to Francine Prose!
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is probably the best novel I’ve read that’s been written in the last ten years. I also enjoyed his follow-up The Dog, though the critics were pretty luke-warm on that one, for some reason
To The Lighthouse just blew my mind the first time I read it in the way it dealt with the most ordinary events with tremendous depth.
Richard Ford’s Bascombe Trilogy impressed me in similar ways. Or the first two novels did. I thought the third sputtered. There’s now a fourth Frank Bascombe book but I’m not sure if I’m going to read it. I think I’m sort of done with Frank.
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is an understated tour-de-force. And I love Milan Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and José Saramago, especially The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.
Name one or more of your favorite films and tell us what you love about it/them.
In literature I am drawn to realism—you might almost say mundane realism. Robert Altman’s films, or many of them, are of a similar nature. So are Ernst Lubitsch if you want to go really far back, especially the pre-Code ones.
Yet I also love the outsized aspects of Fellini, and 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita are two of my favorite films. They use fantasy to make a bigger point about realism.
So fantasy at the service of realism is fine. Fantasy for fantasy’s sake not so much, even if there’s a “moral” to the story. It’s usually a very simple moral.
Name one or more of your favorite pieces of art (painting, sculpture) and tell us what you love about it/them.
The Milk Maid by Vermeer, though to understand why you’d have to see it in person. The best prints don’t capture the impact. That’s true of any Vermeer.
Rembrandt’s self-portraits, especially the late ones. Same story. They seem to have a history that began before you entered the room to look at them and continue after you leave.
What were you like as a child?
Tell us about something you’re proud of having created, participated in, etc. (not your offspring, please!
This is going to seem ridiculously esoteric, but I intuitively figured out the “Circle of Fifths” in music without ever having it explained to me. I also distrusted a scholarly discovery that claimed a section of Beethoven’s music had been edited incorrectly all these years and had to be revised. Turns out I was right—the copyist made the “corrections” and Beethoven considered them wrong—they are!—and put back his original. But for several years some Beethoven scholars thought the “wrong” way was right and it was even recorded this way. I was never fooled, because that’s not how Beethoven thinks; it has nothing to do with taste.
What are you grateful for? (Today or in general.)
My health. A number of friends have had brushes with cancer or other disease and I have nothing to complain about. I am in good shape overall.
From JL’s Uncle Jessie Meme:
A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck & injury to turn off when it comes on the radio?
Hip hop. But really most pop.
A favorite show on television?
Don’t really have one.
If you could have anything put on a t-shirt what would it be?
The formula for the Unified Field Theory. I’d then win a Nobel in physics and be famous.
A favorite meal?
A talent you wish you had?
What’s on your nightstand?
Isn’t this a family blog?
What’s something about you that would surprise us?
Check out John’s blog here.
Please take a moment to let John know what you appreciated about this interview. Be sure and check out the link to his blog, too. If you’re feeling too shy to comment, consider sharing this post with your friends on your favorite social media platform. Thanks! xo
P.S. A quick note about the title of this series, From the Front Porch:
Here in the South, we love our front porches. They are where we get to know our neighbors and take a load off with our friends. Ideally, I would invite John here to my house, we’d sit with a glass of iced tea, and I’d interview him while a cool breeze moved through the oaks, accompanied by the sound of two rocking chairs squeaking on the floorboards. Instead, I’ll ask you to use your imaginations. I hope you enjoy the breeze!
Susan Gabriel is the acclaimed southern author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower (named a Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews) and other southern novels, including Temple Secrets, Grace, Grits and Ghosts: Southern Short Stories and others. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina.
Note: I am not affiliated with these people in any way and have not even tried this product. But I do think this is where writing is headed, for a great many people, as publishing houses clamp down more and more on what they’ll put out there, fearful of anything except “sure fire” hits. Watch this rather interesting and effective promotional video to see for yourself.
What do you think? Do you think self-publishing on a large scale is a good thing or a bad thing? Do we need “gatekeepers”? And are editors and agents really “gatekeepers” in the true sense of the word, or are they more like arbitrarily-placed people whom we have to game and whose prejudices we have to bypass (when we could be busy writing)?
Comment below and share your thoughts or experiences.
It sounds like a scene from Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Many scenes, in fact. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most sought-after actresses in the world, says she is in fact lonely most of the time.
Lawrence said in a magazine interview recently that she spends most weekends home and has a hard time meeting people. That is indeed tricky to do when you’re more famous and worth more than literally every other person you come into contact with.
This mirrors what other A-listers—Kristen Stewart, Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley, Claire Danes—have said about their lives in the past.
“I feel like I need to meet a guy, with all due respect, who has been living in Baghdad for five years who has no idea who I am,” Lawrence said in the interview, adding, ““I am lonely every Saturday night. Guys are so mean to me. I know where it’s coming from, I know they’re trying to establish dominance, but it hurts my feelings. I’m just a girl who wants you to be nice to me. I am straight as an arrow.”
It’s hard for most of us to believe that someone with everything—money, fame, looks, glamorous friends—could be unhappy. For that matter, it’s hard to believe they could be lacking anything in life.
This was the very premise that got me writing Entertaining Welsey Shaw, the thought that people who look like they have it all so often don’t. After all, why would someone like that feel insecure? Or unhappy. As Lawrence herself says:
“It’s strangely exhilarating, because you keep trying to fight for that validation. You want to have [validation] before you get married, so that you don’t seek it out once you are.”
This need to be validated sounds familiar. Claire Danes has famously said, “People confuse fame with validation or love. But fame is not the reward. The reward is getting fulfillment out of doing the thing you love.” And also, “Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness that I have found.”
The major theme of Entertaining Welsey Shaw is how, despite her incredible success, she is lonely and isolated. I find it odd that novels and other fiction featuring celebrities rarely deal with this side of their lives. They’re usually portrayed as imperious, egocentric, mercurial…everything but vulnerable. Of course this is the image they have to project, as it’s part of their brand. And the cynical contrarian in me says they may sometimes overplay their “ordinary guy/gal” as well, because that’s good for their brand too. After all, nobody likes a star who is constantly reminding us how much better than us she is, no matter how clean her bowels are.
Jennifer Lawrence may know this too. She’s hardly the first star to claim she spends date nights home alone, watching TV and maybe spooning some Haagen-Dazs. We like to believe this. It makes it seem like we could sit down on the couch next to them and maybe have a conversation. Now change that to sit across from them in a coffee shop and talk about everything and anything in your life and you have the very premise of Entertaining Welsey Shaw. It’s a premise I think a lot of celebrities would be able to relate to. —I wonder what Jennifer Lawrence would think of it?
Usually I don’t reblog other people’s stuff, but I really enjoyed this post by Curtis Sittenfeld, so here it is. Take it away, Curtis. (I particularly like no. 14, and wonder if no. 13 is true.)
Ten years ago, my first novel Prep came out. Three novels later, here’s what I’ve learned about the publishing industry and writing since then.
1. When it comes to fellow writers, don’t buy into the narcissism of small differences. In all their neurotic, competitive, smart, funny glory, other writers are your friends.
2. Unless you’re Stephen King, or you’re standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody you meet has ever heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised.
3. At a reading, 25 audience members and 20 chairs is better than 200 audience members and 600 chairs.
4. There are very different ways people can ask a published writer for the same favor. Polite, succinct, and preemptively letting you off the hook is most effective.
5. Blurbs achieve almost nothing, everyone in publishing knows it, and everyone in publishing hates them.
6. But a really good blurb from the right person can, occasionally, make a book take off.
7. When your book is on best-seller lists, people find you more amusing and respond to your emails faster.
8. When your book isn’t on best-seller lists, your life is calmer and you have more time to write.
9. The older you are when your first book is published, the less gratuitous resentment will be directed at you.
10. The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career.
11. The farther you live from New York, the less preoccupied you’ll be with literary gossip. Like cayenne pepper, literary gossip is tastiest in small doses.
12. Contrary to stereotype, most book publicists aren’t fast-talking, vapid manipulators; they’re usually warm, organized youngish women (yes, they are almost all women) who love to read.
13. Female writers are asked more frequently about all of the following topics than male writers: whether their work is autobiographical; whether their characters are likable; whether their unlikable characters are unlikable on purpose or the writer didn’t realize what she was doing; how they manage to write after having children.
14. If you tell readers a book is autobiographical, they will try to find ways it isn’t. If you tell them it’s not autobiographical, they will try to find ways it is.
15. It’s not your responsibility to convince people who don’t like your books that they should. Taste is subjective, and you’re not running for elected office.
16. By not being active on social media, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. That said, faking fluency with or interest in forms of social media that don’t do it for you is much harder than making up dialogue for imaginary characters.
17. If someone asks what you do and you don’t feel like getting into it, insert the wordfreelance before the word writer, and they will inquire about nothing more.
18. If you read a truly great new book and feel more excited than jealous, congratulations, you’re a writer.
19. Fiercely, fiercely, fiercely protect your writing time.
20. It’s OK to let your book be published if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be published if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.
21. Talking about how brutally difficult it is to write books is unseemly. Unless you’re the kind of writer who’s been imprisoned by the dictatorship where you live and is being advocated for by PEN American Center, give it a rest.
22. Books bring information, provocation, entertainment, and comfort to many people. You’re lucky to be part of that.
23. Sometimes good books sell well; sometimes good books sell poorly; sometimes bad books sell well; sometimes bad books sell poorly. A lot about publishing is unfair and inscrutable. But…
24. …you don’t need anyone else’s approval or permission to enjoy the magic of writing — of sitting by yourself, figuring out which words should go together to express whatever it is you’re trying to say.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland. She is currently working on a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Ohio.
He comes in every day—you can set your watch by him—and sits down to read a novel he’s toting. Brainy guy, one of those “beautiful mind” types whose IQ probably tops out on the far right of the bell curve. One day he has Moby-Dick. The next time it’s Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Then it’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Infinite Jest. You’ll never see him reading Twilight or Jodi Picoult.
I was talking to him the other day, in this coffee shop we both frequent. I almost hate to do this—talk to him, that is. He’s a pretty private kind of guy; you an tell by the body language he wants to be left alone. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of people who are as interesting, so I do engage him in conversation sometimes, occasionally.
He had just finished Moby-Dick for the umpteenth time. He enjoyed how it was a novel of ideas, how it rambled and meditated on all sorts of ideas and issues. We started talking about our favorites when I mentioned that so often when you tell someone you’ve read or are reading a particular novel the first thing—usually the only thing—that want to know is “What’s it about?”
In other words, he said, they want to know about the plot.
Exactly, said I.
He fairly bellowed, “Plot is overrated!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
To me it’s not What’s it about? as it is How’s it about?
I don’t believe plot is really all that hard. Sure there are some works of fiction with amazingly intricate plots that dazzle me, but a good voice will always impress me more than a complex plot. There are almost mechanical ways to construct plots. Of course there is the shadowy, imprecise concept of genius, which resists all formula, but in a lot of ways plot is like rhythm in music—almost mathematical, chartable.
But what makes one voice so compelling that it stays with you your whole life, haunts you? Why is it Beethoven wrote in sonata form just like hundreds of other composers in his day, but it’s not the other composers we remember? Why am I listening to the Archduke Trio right now as I write this, still finding new twists in a work that’s over 200 years old?
Why does the opening of Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Presents” astonish with its novelty:
The waves go on and on—there is no farther shore; a boat here and there in the dark water, a cluster of fronds, an occasional sunset. Cheryl closes her eyes and the warm night blue water rushes out around her. “Think it’s really like that?” she asks. Cheryl’s voice is arresting—low, and with a city accent that gives each word the finality of a bead dropping into place along a string; sometimes strangers to whom she speaks pause before responding, and look, if they haven’t looked before. “Think it’s really that blue?”
“Blue?” Carter glances down at his shirt. “Nothing’s this blue. Not even this. It’s the lights in here—make everything vibrate.” He tips the little glass bottle in his hand and spills a neat white line from it onto his forearm, which he extends to Cheryl with balletic solemnity.
I have to admit, after an opening like that, I don’t care what the story is “about.”
Back to my friend at the coffee shop. Today he had a new one; he was sitting far away and I couldn’t read the title, but it was thick and no doubt challenging. Its author no doubt created a whole universe of laws, of causes and effects as unique and detailed as the actual universe we live in, Einstein’s universe, Bohr’s universe. Think of literature that way. Like the real universe, it becomes a lot more interesting when you do.
“Plot is overrated!” I can still hear him bellowing.
Preach it, brother…