CrimeReads: How I Stopped Worrying About The Rules And Learned To Write A Mystery Novel

Thanks to CrimeReads for featuring an essay on my journey to writing Skin Deep.

One of my greatest thrills as a college student was when I was let into the intermediate-level creative writing workshop. You couldn’t just sign up and walk in—you had to submit a short story good enough for the professor to deem you worthy. That first day, I sat around the rectangular table with my future colleagues and was handed a set of rules for the class. It’s been almost thirty years since I laid eyes on this single xeroxed sheet, but I can still remember one of them: You will not write stories about serial murderers, or even regular murderers.

CrimeReads

Starred Library Journal Review of Skin Deep

Check out the nice review of Skin Deep from Library Journal!

Despite her Asian features, her father really is Irish, her mother Norwegian. Her name is Siobhan O’Brien, never mind everyone’s surprise when trying to gauge the incongruity between her face and that moniker. Short answer: Siobhan is a Korean-born, upstate New York–raised transracial adoptee. At 40, she’s just inherited a private investigation agency since her boss of two years has suddenly dropped dead (of natural causes). The business has enough banked to last three months, or she could sell and net a comfy $20,000-ish. Inexperience aside, she chooses to stay open, and her first case turns out to be a doozy: to reunite her late best friend’s younger sister with her missing teenage daughter, Siobhan will need to infiltrate a radical womyn’s group at a nearby college, agree to trespassing, check into a yoga center, get poisoned by mushrooms, avoid a multinational billionaire’s posse, and, in between, maybe even risk falling in love.

VERDICT: With just the right mix of clever twists, endearing charm, looming threats, and contemporary issues (identity, privilege, cultural appropriation, the ugliest parts of the beauty trade), literary novelist Woo (Love Love) debuts quite the absorbing new mystery series, hopefully with multiple volumes to come.

Reviewed by Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC , Jun 12, 2020

Library Journal – https://www.libraryjournal.com/?reviewDetail=skin-deep

11/2/2018 7:30pm: The Washing Society/Loads of Prose

Attention, friends and strangers who happen to live in the vicinity of NYC!  I’ll be at the Anthology Film Archives on Friday, 11/2 at 7:30pm, to take in the screening of the film The Washing Society and afterwards, I’ll be doing a reading in support of Emily Rubin‘s Loads of Prose.  My story is titled “The Best of the Vest,” and if you want to know what it’s about, come on by!

Here’s a trailer for the movie.

The Washing Society (trailer) by Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs – 2018 from Lynne Sachs on Vimeo.

And here’s all the info you need for the event.

THE WASHING SOCIETY/LOADS OF PROSE
Screenings and Readings
Thursday and Friday November 1, 2 at 7:30

ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES
32 2nd Ave NYC NY 10003
212-505-5181
http://anthologyfilmarchives.org

The Washing Society
by Lizzie Olesker & Lynne Sachs
2018, 45 min, digital

Film Notes

SPECIAL SCREENINGS: ARTISTS & SPECIAL GUESTS IN PERSON!

Featuring laundry workers Wing Ho, Lula Holloway, and Margarita Lopez, and actors Ching Valdes-Aran, Jasmine Holloway, and Veraalba Santa.

THE WASHING SOCIETY brings us into New York City laundromats and reveals the experiences of the people working there. Filmmaker Lynne Sachs and playwright Lizzie Olesker collaborate to observe and investigate the disappearing public space of the neighborhood laundromat, and the continual labor that happens there. The intersection of history, immigration, and underpaid work is woven into the film’s observational moments and interviews, along with the uniquely public/private exchange of dirt, lint, stains, and money. The juxtaposition of narrative and documentary elements creates a dream-like, yet hyper-real portrayal of a day in the life of a laundry worker, both past and present.

Screening with:
Lizzie Olesker & Lynne Sachs DESPERTAR: NYC LAUNDRY WORKERS RISE UP (2018, 5 min, digital)

SPECIAL GUESTS:
Thurs, Nov 1:
Historian Tera Hunter, whose book TO ‘JOY MY FREEDOM depicts the 1881 organization of African-American laundresses in Atlanta, and Mahoma Lopez and Rosanna Rodriguez (Co-Directors, Laundry Workers Center), will join us to discuss justice in the workplace.

Fri, Nov 2:
‘Loads of Prose,’ a reading series staged in laundromats, presents authors Emily Rubin (STALINA, 2011), Sung J Woo (LOVE LOVE 2015, EVERYTHING ASIAN, 2009), and Christine Lewis (Organizer, Domestic Workers United), who will read their stories of hidden labor and the challenges of our changing neighborhoods, where infrastructures are crumbling due to the visceral and economic demands of gentrification.

And here’s a bit of lovely trivia — I watched the film Private Life this afternoon, written and directed by the always wonderful Tamara Jenkins.  It’s currently playing on Netflix, and how cool is it that the Anthology Film Archives is featured in the film!  Check out the screencap.

Private Life (2018)

Active Adverbs

Whenever things don’t go well on the writing front — that is, I find myself doing anything but writing when I’m supposed to be doing exactly that — I pick up my copy of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.  He’s been my corrective for quite some time.

He’s a deceptively simple writer, a master of the unfettered prose.  And I swear, every time I read him again, I pick up something new.  Like here, a passage from the first story in the collection, “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern.”  The story is about a new kid in class and his teacher, who thinks she’s helping him out, except she’s accomplishing exactly the opposite.

The last children to leave would see him still seated apologetically at his desk, holding his paper bag, and anyone who happened to straggle back later for a forgotten hat or sweater would surprise him in the middle of his meal — perhaps shielding a hard-boiled egg from view or wiping mayonnaise from his mouth with a furtive hand. It was a situation that Miss Price did not improve by walking up to him while the room was still half full of children and sitting prettily on the edge of the desk beside his, making it clear that she was cutting her own lunch hour short in order to be with him.

Adverbs are bad, we are told.  And yet, “seated apologetically at his desk” and “sitting prettily on the edge of the desk” — these adverbs are so active, so alive, that I think no, you absolutely can and should use adverbs, just like this.  Sparingly, strategically deployed.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I did not know who Andrew Sean Greer was until I heard he’d won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, and I continued to not know him and his sixth novel Less until I heard him read an excerpt in the New Yorker Radio Hour.  That was it; I was sold.  That short story was about Arthur Less, a nonfamous writer invited to Turin, Italy, by a minor literary prize, and it ran from one hilarious moment to the next.  Greer is one of these incredibly blessed people who just write funny.  Like how he describes the airplane lunch: “Tuscan chicken (whose ravishing name reveals itself, like an internet lover, to be mere chicken and mashed potatoes)”.

There are two things about Less that bear mentioning on a craft level (because they are absolutely crafty in the best sense of the word):

1) Greer sprinkles flashbacks judiciously throughout this novel, and he’s quite deft in the way he sneaks them in.  Example: in the last chapter, there’s this part: “…he sees a few people waiting on the dock, and among them — he recognizes her through her clear umbrella — is his mother.”  It’s not his mother, of course; rather, it’s a woman who is wearing a very similar scarf.  But this moment of misrecognition gives the reader the perfect way into this memory.

2) This novel is narrated by an unnamed character, one who acts in an omniscient manner about 95% of the time, but then there are these startling confessional first-person moments.  It’s so smart — Greer gets to have his cake and eat it, too, because he has the flexibility to play god and go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and yet he also preserves the closeness of the first-person narrator when he wants to deliver an extra helping of heart.

This is just a wonderful novel, gentle and loving and funny and sad.  Unlike many literary novels, things actually happen in this book, lots of things, tons of things.  It is, after all, a travelogue of sorts, with Less jumping from country to country, continent to continent, to avoid his former lover’s wedding and his impending 50th birthday, so there’s serious propulsion in the narrative.

The writer Greer reminded me most was another favorite of mine, Brian Morton.  Fans of Starting Out in the Evening or A Window Across the River will find a great friend in Less.  I can’t wait to read the rest of Greer’s fiction.

Modern Love Podcast 102

credit: Michael Buckner/Deadline; Brian Rea/The New York Times/WBUR

Folks, this is one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me.  The Oscar-nominated duo behind last year’s film The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, teamed up to perform my New York Times Modern Love essay.  It’s this week’s episode, which is doubly special because it’s Valentine’s Day!

Here’s the podcast!!!

Much thanks to the great people at WBUR (where Modern Love the Podcast is made), especially Caitlin O’Keefe who was gracious and patient as I prattled on during our interview.  Also thanks to WBGO for hosting me and providing crystal-clear communication between Newark and Boston.  Huge thanks to Dan Jones and The New York Times for publishing my essay in the first place.

Lastly, thank you to my wife Dawn and my mother, who provided the fodder for my essay. 🙂

SI Tennis Mailbag, Grammar Edition

I’m back in the Sports Illustrated Tennis Mailbag, this time with a grammatical gripe!

 

The text:

Dear Jon, I got a bone to pick with tennis players, especially American and British tennis players. My beef is simple: the pervasive misuse of the adjective “aggressive” in our beloved sport. You can be aggressive, but you do not play aggressive—you play aggressively! I understand if non-native speakers don’t realize the distinction (Rafa is especially fond of leaving off the -ly) but in your podcast with Jared Donaldson, he says, “play aggressive” (10:08 mark). He was talking about Rafa, so perhaps it’s contagious. Jared’s not alone—John Isner’s guilty as well.  And it doesn’t help that even journalists are making this errorQ. This match, Jelena played very aggressive.” Granted, these writers may be foreign, but still. We need to aggressively rescue this adverb from further grammatical degradation!
—Sung, Washington, N.J.

Read Jon Wertheim’s response!

Haiku and Reviews: Saga, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window

A Horn and a Wing
star-crossed lovers in wartime
trying to save their child.

I don’t read comic books often, but I think it’s about time I started to, because if they are anything like Saga, I’ve been missing out big time.  Saga is written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, and it’s been going on for years (the title of the series is very apt) — since 2012.  I just caught up to the last issue, #42, and it is a humdinger.  Even though this story takes place in another world, in space, the kind of stuff you’d expect from comic books, it is extremely accessible and very much a story for our times.  It’s got elements of Romeo and Juliet and Star Wars, and it’s just an epic, epic story.  Great characters, exciting storylines, what we love about fiction.

She drives her car as
if the road does not exist.
All for a picnic.

A single suitcase.
Pink gown, pink slippers, for night.
Then we hear the scream.

Old movies, these two.  Both by Alfred Hitchcock, and both starring Grace Kelly.  To Catch a Thief felt a bit more dated than Rear Window; it is definitely the lesser of the two films, though still quite entertaining, especially the scene where Kelly drives Cary Grant to a picnic lunch.  Even though I’d seen parts of Rear Window before, I never actually sat down to watch the whole movie from start to finish, and I must say, I think it’s my new favorite Hitchcock (Vertigo was my previous #1).  Not only are the lines hilarious (especially Thelma Ritter’s Stella but really, all the characters), the movie is really about movies — how we all are voyeurs when we watch.  The script is impeccable, the balance between humor and suspense just right.  Also, there are times when Grace Kelly here is so incredibly beautiful that I almost had to avert my eyes!  What great casting — she had to be the perfect woman, and she delivers in form and function.  This is a very difficult part for Jimmy Stewart to play, too, as he’s stuck in that wheelchair and so much of his acting is subtle expressions.  There are so many scenes where he has no one to act against, just himself with his camera or his binoculars, reacting to what he sees.  Rear Window is just a gem of a movie.  Roger Ebert, as always, does a fantastic job of reviewing this film.  Watch it, and then read him.

Interview in Slice Magazine

The lovely folks at Slice were kind enough to conduct this interview with both myself and artist Dina Brodsky.  Last fall, they published our work, Desert Places, in the magazine, and now you can read it online in addition to the interview.  Here’s their intro:

After all of the pieces for an issue of Slice have been edited, we send them over to our art director, Jennifer K. Beal Davis, who then strikes up a dialogue between art and prose. Jennifer and associate art director Matt Davis have a knack for selecting artwork that invites the reader to look at a story, an essay, or a poem in an unexpected way.

When writer Sung J. Woo mentioned that he’d written some stories that were inspired by Dina Brodsky’s paintings, we were immediately intrigued. What if we could capture an even more deliberate conversation between writer and artist?

We published “Desert Places,” which is posted below, in Issue 19 of Slice. What follows is an interview between Sung and Dina about their collaborative creative process.

Read on!

[link]

Columbia Journal: Cycling Guide to Lilliput (11-13)

Check out the latest batch of my ekphrastic endeavor in Columbia Journal, the magazine published by Columbia University School of the Arts Graduate Writing program.  It’s available online, three little interrelated stories inspired by the fantastic paintings of Dina Brodsky.  FYI, the first ten of these flash fiction stories can be found in Juked.