Many thanks to Virginia Escalante for her quick response to my need to reschedule my author appearance at San Diego City College, to enable me to go to New York to receive a Christopher Award for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. Thanks also to the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, One Book/One San Diego, The San Diego International Book Fair, Jazz 88, and other sponsors for making the 2009 Spring Literary Series possible.
Her face fell. Her eyesight isn’t what it used to be and she won’t be able to “read” my work except by listening, and she won’t be able to do that unless something happens that is entirely out of my hands. Perhaps one or both will end up as audiobooks, but I don’t know when.
My friend’s mother looks fabulous. I can’t believe she is 95. But there’s no point in pretending that the passage of time is immaterial. If she is to participate in my success the way we both would like, it needs to happen soon.
Just a few days after the party, my mood brightened considerably. The Kindle 2 (Amazon’s e-reader) had just come out with an experimental read-to-me feature. I listened to a couple of pages of THE FOUR SEASONS presented by a robot voice and was, by turns, pleased with how acceptable some of it sounded and cringing at how utterly awful it was in others. The voice wasn’t an interpretation by an actor or another skilled reader, but it was saying the words on the page nonetheless.
I got in touch with my friend right away. Did she know that any book that could be downloaded to the Kindle 2 could be read aloud? Not just THE FOUR SEASONS, but pretty much any book her mother might want to read? It felt as if the heavens were opening!
But where I had pictured blue sky, the heavens that opened did so only to pour down rain. The Authors Guild (of which I am a member) launched a strong campaign objecting to what they believed was copyright infringement. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me the Kindle application is more like asking someone to read something to you because the print is too small and you’ve misplaced your glasses. There’s no permanent copy, and the work is not being transformed into a distinct and tangible work in another medium. It’s just an alternative way of accessing a legitimately purchased e-text without using the eyes.
My guess is that the Author’s Guild is more concerned that a read-to-me feature could be improved upon to the point where it might actually rival the experience of an audiobook. This is a legitimate concern, and I’m glad they have it. But it’s my observation that generally people don’t own the same title in more than one medium, and if this is true, people would make the choice at the outset. A vision-impaired person would buy the audiobook. Others might buy either, depending on their preference, but they’re unlikely to buy both. The author gets one sale either way. For authors whose books aren’t available as audiobooks (most aren’t), the question I have is whether they would prefer non-reading consumers not to have access to their work at all. I suspect most will realize the read-to-me feature is likely to increase their sales because people who have difficulty reading will be a new source of customers.
Just a few days ago, Amazon announced that that authors with books on Kindle would be given the opportunity to opt in or out. Sounds as if they’re listening to authors, and that’s always good. I can’t wait to say yes to the robot voice. A beautiful and beloved friend is waiting.
“Are you okay over there?” my opponent calls out.
I’m a writer, so I love words. I couldn’t help but notice, when I spoke on a panel at theWest Hollywood Book Fair last fall, that almost all the advice I had for the audience could be summarized in words that started with the letter “S.”
I worked with this a little more to come up with the theme for a speech I gave on Presidents Day Weekend at the Southern California Writers Conference. I called the talk “My Years of Writing CopiouSSSSSSly: How I Wrote 20.5 Books in 10 Years and Remained Relatively Normal (I Think),” and here are some of the things I said about what writers need to have, be, or do to keep producing.
Sitzfleisch—A Yiddish term for—well, you figure it out. It’s the ability to stay put in your chair for long periods of time without jumping up to see what’s in the fridge, or who’s sent you e-mail.
Structure—A calendar with specific goals and deadlines (self-imposed are fine), and a work schedule (including quitting time) are really essential to keep from working too much. That’s a bigger problem for me than working too little, but I think it would work equally well in the opposite situation.
Stamina —Staying fit is crucial. I do tend to slack off on this when I’m in the middle of writing a book, but I try not to regress too much, since it affects my overall health, and that governs everything else.
Sanitation—Get out of the jammies and into the shower. Wash your hair, brush your teeth, and don’t forget to floss. Serioussssly!
Stretch–I have a small deck off my study, and amazingly, even going outside for a minute or two to think through a phrasing or a plot detail can have amazing results.
Side interests—Sudoku? Step class? Shopping? Calling on different parts of your body and brain is restorative.
Sunscreen—Take time out, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Find a pool to jump in or a patch of grass to sit on. Think “vacuoussssss.” Try not to think about what you’re writing, but even if you do, it will still feel like a change of pace.
Skin—As in “Superthick.” Learn to laugh at your reviews. Reading them aloud in a whiny voice helps.
Self-Confidence—writing well is never easy, but you can do it. Remember, it’s just a draft until it’s published.
Spellbound—This is something you have to be. You have to find your subject enthralling. Your curiosity needs to be boundlesssss.
Seniority—Writing is one of those things where it helps to have some years under your belt. Tell yourself that all that wisdom is why you need a larger belt.
Say “When”—at some point you have to say “I’m finished with this.” When you’re agonizing over commas, that’s a good clue.
Supporters, Sidekicks, Soulmates—Self-explanatory! If you’re lucky, you have a supportive family and friends, like I do. Another source of support is a writing group. I don’t participate in these because I get too wrapped up in my own work to pay quality attention to anyone else’s (I have difficulty reading even published books when I am actively writing), but many people find sharing works in progress essential to their productivity.
I asked people in the audience if they had any other “S” words of advice, and I got three good ones:
Sleep–I can’t believe I didn’t think of this. Maybe it’s because a good night’s sleep is rare when I’m in the middle of a book, although I do find that very often I wake up ready to rip with a new idea I must have been processing during the night.
Sucks!–Give yourself permission to write badly when that’s the best you can do. Or jump forward and write something that isn’t going to happen for another twenty pages or so, and go back and fill in the rest later
Speak–though I tend not to talk about what I’m writing until I’ve finished the first draft, one person in the audience said that it helps him to tell his story out loud, since it often gives him insight into what to do next or how to make it better. He told me afterwards he used to do this on long car commutes with his friends, but eventually he found himself driving alone, so he changed his ways!
Fellow writers out there in the blogosphere–got more?
Sometimes a photo says it all. Here I am with my good friend Pamela Shekinah Perkins, who was writing her own book around the time I was debating whether to write UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. Both our books came out roughly the same time, hers from Wiley and Sons, entitled THE ART AND SCIENCE OF COMMUNICATION. She’s the one I acknowledged in the back of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH as having “cajoled and challenged” me to take the leap as a writer that UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH required. She’s also the founder of the Human Communication Institute (www.hci-global.net) Think we’re glad to be friends? I am so proud of her.
I’m spending the weekend up in the San Bernardino mountains working with my son, Ivan Corona, co-founder of Singularity Pictures (http://singularitypictures.com) on a video about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. That’s him, to the right, on location for another project. I have two equally strong professional identities, one as a writer and the other as an educator. I started teaching writing at the college level more than thirty years ago, and whatever I’m doing, I’m always tracking how it might be of use to students. I’m thinking now in terms of two contributions I can make through this video.
First, I learned a great deal about writing by taking on the multi-year task of writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, which was, among other things, my first book for an adult audience, my first full-length book, and my first experience working with someone else on a project where I was the writer. With content as interesting as that in UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, it’s easy to overlook the other story of any book, which is how it came into existence–how a writer decides to take on a project and the initial decisions that have to be made once that decision is reached. Voice, point of view, interwoven narratives, and the different and occasionally conflicting demands of storytelling and historical accuracy are all things I know a lot more about as a result of writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. I would like to share my perspectives as its author with high school and college students taking composition classes, as well as book groups or other audiences interested in writers and the writing process in general.
Second, as a result of a number of recent mandates, a great deal of effort is going into improving classroom instruction about the Holocaust. My new video project, “A WORLD ENTIRE,” is intended also to work as part of this new curriculum by providing background information about the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, the Vilna ghetto, and Jewish resistance. Talking about my own experiences writing about the Holocaust may also help students open up about the subject themselves. To make this project maximally useful for teachers across the curriculum, the video will conclude with about a dozen topics for class discussion or writing assignments.
My plan is to provide this roughly 20-30 minute video free of charge to schools and other groups interested in using it for non-profit, educational purposes. Ivan and I are also working on a short introduction to the video, which will be posted on YouTube. We’re still several months away from completion, so I hope you will check back for updates.
Recently I posted images of the cover and some proof pages of the German translation of THE FOUR SEASONS, and just last week I heard from the French translator, Jacques Guiod, who tells me he is also finishing up. The Spanish translator also has written to tell me that she is starting work in March, so it appears that THE FOUR SEASONS will be out in 2009 in at least three foreign languages. Translation rights have also sold for Portuguese and Turkish at this point, but I have yet to get status updates on those two. My niece Melanie tells me she can’t wait to come to hear me do a reading in Turkish, but I think I’ll have to limit my foreign language activities to reading the dedication in German to my partner, Jim, and my sister, Lynn. If there’s such a thing as malpractice of a language, I think the Germans have a good case!
Jacques sent along a few photos that I’m posting here, one of himself and his wife in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, and a beautiful one of the Pieta, taken from the Venetian lagoon. The view of the Pieta is particularly gratifying to me, since the fog never fully lifted during my trip, and the details on his shot are so crisp. The actual site of the Pieta is the Metropole Hotel (on the right of the photo, you can see the five stars and the first two letters of the sign). The alley between the two buildings leads to the Piccolo Museo della Pieta, where instruments and other artifacts from the cloister are kept. Definitely worth a visit! On the side of the building of the Pieta is a plaque to Vivaldi, praising his years of work with the coro.
Until my next posting, auf wiedersehen, hasta luego, and a bientot…
Cheers to my friends Nancy Regan and Carolyn Shaw. Nancy finished THE FOUR SEASONS and left it on the couch for Carolyn to read. Harry, the new Corgi pup, gave it an interesting review, finding it “tasteful,” “easy to tear through in one sitting,” and “offering much food for thought.” Woof!
The cancellation of Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, An Angel at the Fence, affected me personally because, if not for timely criticism of an early draft of Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, I might be facing something similar.
For those of you who may not be following this story, the pivotal event of Rosenblat’s book is being saved from starvation at Buchenwald by a girl who threw him apples over a fence. It’s a great love story, since many years later in New York he accidentally reconnected with the girl, and they eventually married. The problem is, he has now admitted he fabricated the story.
“So what?” some have asked. It’s a great, uplifting story, and memory is a tricky thing anyway. Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, has a succinct reply. “If you make up things about parts, you cast doubts on everything else,” Lipstadt recently told a reporter. “When you think of the survivors who meticulously tell their story and are so desperate for people to believe, then if they’re making stories up about this, how do you know if Anne Frank is true? How do you know Elie Wiesel is true?” She’s right. If someone wrote about being wounded at Midway but wasn’t actually there, no one would offer this as proof the battle never took place, but such denial happens all too easily with the Holocaust.
My research partner in Until Our Last Breath is the son of two Holocaust survivors, now deceased, whose role in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania, forms an important part of the book. Jews who fought back are rarely the focus of Holocaust books, and I had more than enough documented facts to write the historical parts. The problem was we wanted a stronger narrative focus on this one particular couple’s story than the known or inferred facts allowed. Since this personal element of love and resistance distinguished this book from others, we initially made the decision that I could write as if they experienced certain things personally, when all we actually knew was that such things happened in places they were. After all, if what I wrote was generally true, all I was doing was making the book a better read, no?
No. And here’s where my praise of critics comes in. They did exactly what critics sometimes need to do: they panned the manuscript. A number of publishers turned it down out of discomfort with the fictional feel of parts of it. Good for them! I am genuinely grateful. Individuals close to the family gave even more pointed feedback about the need to stick to the facts. At that juncture I understood that, well-intentioned as we had been in including what only could have happened, the book fed the denial that Lipstadt warns against.
It would be nice if we’d gotten it right the first time. It’s never pleasant to be wrong about something in which one has invested a lot of time and effort, and I can attest to how tedious a major rewrite can be. This was a case, however, where what at first felt like a burden turned out to be a blessing. I wish for Mr. Rosenblat’s sake, that he had been similarly blessed.
I’ve worked with editors for many years and agents for a few, and I know the importance of having an open mind about something as personal and fraught with ego as one’s own writing. I know the down side also–that criticism can undermine fragile confidence and wreak havoc on a writer’s voice, but today I would like to say thank you to those who, by their willingness to give me feedback I haven’t always wanted to hear, have had a constructive influence on my writing.