Inside the Writers House

Inside_the_Writers_House_w._Sung_J._Woo

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of talking with Rutgers students via Inside the Writers House.  The event was conducted via Skype, which was great because not only did I not have to drive down there, but folks could also lay eyes on one of my cats.  We talked about my books and literature in general, an hour of stimulating conversation.  My hearty thanks to Alex Dawson who invited me and put the whole thing together.

One thing that Alex asked was if I could provide the students a writing prompt.  If you are unfamiliar with this concept, it’s basically just a little something to get the writing juices flowing; Writer’s Digest has an ongoing repository of them.  For mine, I read them this little short-short story:

I didn’t know your grandma would show.  How could I?  You said your grandma was out shopping, but boom, “Hi David, how’s your family?  How’s your job?” so I had to sock away all six balloons, and fast.

And your grandma is quick.  Darts around, up and down, old lady’s got top-notch vision.  Saw through my brown box that has two disco balls and says, “What is that?”

What could I do, Mary?  I had to show it.  And it wasn’t my fault.  It was your fault!  If you had rang just half an hour ago, our party would still…

I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t shout, but I know I’m disappointing you.  I know how much you want this to go smoothly.  You know that, right?  You my girl, baby.  Good days, bad days, always.

Anyway, so I say to your grandma, “Happy birthday, Mrs. Mills.  You got us.”  So your grandma looks around and says, “How many chairs in total?”  Wants fifty chairs.  So I gotta run out and bring back thirty additional chairs.  And now your grandma is looking at my music, what I was gonna play tonight, and says, “No, this won’t do, David.  It’s simply not a party without Lady Gaga.”

Mary, my darling, haul your ass, pronto.  Your grandma is nuts.  And I’m going crazy.

Do you notice anything odd about this story?  Perhaps the title will give you a clue: “A Surpris(e) Birthday Party.”

The e is in parenthesis because that’s the only occurrence of that letter.  Yes, this story does not feature a single use of the letter e.  This type of writing is called Oulipo, and I must thank J. Robert Lennon for introducing it to me.

J. Robert Lennon’s See You in Paradise

Ilogo don’t write book reviews often — in fact, I’m lucky to write one a year.  But there’s one author I’ve reviewed more than once, and that is J. Robert Lennon.  If you haven’t checked out his latest, please do.  You’ll be thoroughly entertained.

From the always wonderful Fiction Writers Review.

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See You in Paradise: Stories, by J. Robert Lennon

“Lennon not only balances the mundane with the fantastic, but makes the fantastic feel mundane in the context of this world”: Sung J. Woo on Robert J. Lennon’s new collection, See You in Paradise.

Maybe it’s strange for a reviewer of a collection of short stories to say that he is not a fan of short story collections, but I want you to know where I’m coming from. Don’t get me wrong—I love short stories. I love their intense focus, their fleeting brevity, an entire world contained and expressed in a few thousand words. What I don’t like is reading one after another by the same author, because I get tired of hearing the same voice over and over again. Also, reading another short story after having just finished one can feel like climbing a new mountain, because I have to get acquainted with another set of characters, and the setting is different, and so is the situation, and I miss those people from before…can’t they just come back and give me a break, please?

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Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

It’s a little late for some spring cleaning, but that’s what I’m sort of doing right now.  This was a review of J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar that I wrote more than a year ago.  It was supposed to go somewhere else, but I blew the deadline and it didn’t make sense for them to post it, so it has basically languished on my hard drive for all this time.  Better late than never!

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Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

Graywolf Press
205pp

I’m worried about Elisa Macalaster Brown, what she’s doing, where she is.  I’m worried because she’s not where she’s supposed to be, nor is she who she’s supposed to be.  How this happens is as quick and merciless as a car accident, and in a way, it sort of is one, because that’s where it occurs.  Elisa is driving east from Wisconsin, after visiting the gravesite of her dead teenage son.  Her Honda has a crack on its windshield that runs from the lower left hand corner to eye level – which, for reasons unknown, disappears.  Suddenly there’s mint gum in her mouth.  Elisa herself is slightly fatter, wearing stockings when she should be wearing cutoff jeans, and all I’ve described so far takes place in the first fourteen pages of this remarkably compressed, remarkably sad novel.

Part of what makes this speculative fiction work so well is Lennon’s use of the strong authorial voice.  The end of the first chapter ends with this sentence: “Everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes.”  That’s Lennon telling us how it’s going to be right from the beginning, that he is in complete control and everything that happens, no matter how improbable, will also be inevitable.  (Sherlock Holmes would be proud.)

Another narrative technique Lennon employs in service for the suspension of disbelief is the present tense.  I don’t know about you, but when I think of novels written in the present tense, John Updike’s Rabbit books come to mind.  Here’s what Updike had to say about it in an interview (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/upd0int-5):

 I loved writing in the present tense. It has become a bit of a cliché now among younger writers, but at the time it was a bit of a novelty, and certainly a novelty to me. There’s kind of a level, a speed, you can get going without the past tense[.]

I haven’t written much in the present tense, but every time I do, it startles me to see how much more force there is in the writing.  The present is explosive and immediate, and since Familiar is a novel of discovery, not that different than, say, Jason Bourne’s story (a man waking up and not knowing who he is), the present tense is the right choice here.  Instead of suffering from amnesia, Elisa has “displace-sia,” of being in a world that is not exactly hers.  So as she moves through her not-quite-new life, we are discovering all that has changed with her, and because of the immediacy of the tense, we get very much more caught up in Elisa’s predicament.  Even though this novel is packed with Elisa’s internal thoughts and metaphysical ruminations of her situation, it just feels fast.

One of the highest compliment one writer can pay another is that he wishes he’d written the book he’s reading.  I absolutely felt that at times as I laughed and groaned my way through Familiar.  There’s just so much juicy stuff here in this alternate world of Elisa’s: her son is not dead, an acquaintance is now her best friend, the guy at the frame shop is no longer her illicit lover.  The scenes where Elisa returns to work, to fake her way to her office, pretending to know what she’s doing in her job – these are scenes any writer would love to write.  They are all so full of possibility and drama, the lifeblood of all great novels.

Beware, though – this is not a happy-go-lucky book.  Elisa doesn’t quite end up in Tony-Soprano-limbo-land territory, but there are no easy answers for anything or anyone in this novel, much like life.  For a book that deals in the fantastic, it is terrifyingly ground in reality.  Elisa’s eldest son may have never died in this alternate timeline, but that doesn’t mean her broken family is any less broken.

Lennon, who’s shown brilliance in both longer works (Mailman, an intense character study) and tiny stories (Pieces for the Left Hand, a collection of one hundred short-shorts that are gemlike in both form and content), has written a deeply unsettling book in Familiar.  As always, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

For further reading:

Two Upcoming Events, Plus Paperback Cometh

In five days, the paperback edition of Everything Asian will be hitting the shelves.  Pick one up!  Tell your friends!  And if your friend is Oprah, be sure to give her a copy!

Anyway, back to reality.  Tomorrow I’ll be visiting the West Windsor Library in Princeton Junction for an event titled “Studio Scrawl: The Art of the Short-Short Story.”  I did this presentation at Pingry for their students a little while back and it went over well, so I’ll once again be singing the praises of J. Robert Lennon and his awesome short-short stories.  If you still haven’t read Pieces for the Left Hand, man, am I jealous.  I wish I could read it for the first time all over again.

Next Friday at 9pm (7/23), I’ll be at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Mouth to Mouth Open Mic featuring Ali Wong and yours truly.  It’s my paperback launch, so come on out for some good literature and comedy.