Pimping the Novel…

Harsh words, yes? No. Trying to sell one’s writing is an act of prostitution, the same as any other kind of solicitation. I’ve been working the strip, as it were, trying to get my work out there, and friends, newbies who have that Great American Novel fantasy, veterans, writers of the world, hear me: it is prostitution, plain and simple.

For example, I went to the fabulous Books by the Bay last summer, which was well publicized in an insert/booklet in the SF Chron, supposedly sent all over the Bay Area. My bio is in there, coincidentally in an upper left corner, the first one on that page, so if a person was flipping through and read that page, mine would be the one they’d see first. I saw an advance copy because our press did the print job. I’m in there twice, in the schedule and my bio, about two inches long. I am very glad about it, great placement and great distribution. Every little bit counts.

A certain bookstore owner (who thinks my name is Julie Parks, regardless of how many times I nicely say “Julia Park” right after she introduces me to people as such) asked me to sit in her bookstore booth. But if you sit, people ignore you, so I stood there for an hour and passed out my new shiny postcards to passersby like some sidewalk solicitor. Some people took the cards and went, “Ooh, ahh, sounds juicy!” Others took them, looked and handed them back. I sold one book thataway in an hour. Yes, we’re racking them up, I say racking!

I was scheduled to sign in the authors’ tent at 1:30 and went and sat, and they gave me a stack of books to sign (books, I must clarify, that I donated for the literacy of the masses). I signed all 25 of them, and they took the books away. One author across from us had a small crowd – Diane Johnson of Le Divorce/Le Marriage fame. The rest of us just chatted amongst ourselves because no one was coming in to get their books signed or even to talk to us. We tried to be philosophical.

Then I spied The Golden Ring. I mean the guy who used to be the book editor at the SF Chron and who used to give me books to review, who still has lots of clout. I have met him in person a few times but it had been at least two years since last I saw him. I pondered for about 30 seconds what to do: go talk to him, um, no, yes, wait, he’s leaving! I grabbed the handy copy of my novel that I’d brought, hoping to see him, and walked up, catching his eye. I said, “I don’t know if you remember me but I used to write book reviews for you.” He said, “Yes! Julia Park Rodrigues!” Yesss! I told him about my book and said I had one for him and told him to read just the first three pages, and if he liked it, to go on.

I can’t even express here how hard it is to foist your book on someone who clearly does not want it. It makes you feel like such a prostitute, but I’m hoping by just asking him to read a few pages, maybe it works better than anonymously sending it to him. Who knows what the best plan is? Anyway, he said, “I usually read the whole thing,” and he was very pleasant and suggested I give another copy to the current book editor (he’s moved on to be critic now). I was rather pleased that he remembered me, and he was really interested — or faked it well.

That made the entire day worthwhile — catching the Golden Ring. But as I was packing up, I realized that I had my huge nametag on my shirt. Uh, yeah, he sure did remember my name just like that. And he had my book and god knows if he even read it because no review ever appeared in the Chron and what am I gonna do, call him and make him tell me it sucked?

Is it saying anything about the nature of this business that I got more compliments and comments on my shoes than I did about my book? They were pretty fabulous shoes. I am thinking of offering a free pair of shoes now with every book.

I once spent three hours in a Christian bookstore for a book-signing event when some of my semi-spiritual prose/poems appeared in an anthology, going slowly out of my mind. I mean, I’m a Christian, a person with a deep spirituality, and some days I have faith strong enough to move mountains. Sometimes not. But the kind of Christians who run bookstores and are just so earnest, who pepper their conversation with “Praise God,” and “Thank you, Jesus,” well, Jesus, they give me the willies!

I’m an edgy Christian if anything, fairly irreverent, usually thinking something sarcastic about the choir or the fat lady in front of me, maybe even something off-color as the priest blesses the Communion wafer. I’m the kind of Christian who says “fuck” all the fricking time. I believe in honest sexuality, social justice, equal rights for everyone and saying what one thinks, and frankly, there are so many religious people out in the world who would rather quash those altogether, who want women and every other troublemaker (you know who you are) unseen, unheard, heads covered, eyes downcast, mouths shut. So many Christians are such right-wing fanatics, such unthinking drones who do whatever the Reverend Bob on Channel 27 says without thinking, like bombing abortion clinics or pelting unwed mothers with pig’s blood, quoting Scripture like some ticker tape, “Leviticus this,” “Ephesians that.” I call them KKKristians, with a K-K-K, if you see my point.

There’s a guy who used to live up the street from me; he and his wife are both KKKristians in that very sense. She told him she didn’t need a car, that she would rather do the shopping on her bicycle, that she didn’t want the temptation of going outside the home so easily. She always wears little frumpy dresses and aprons and earthy sandals, and she never cuts her long graying hair, and she homeschools their little daughter who is just going to grow up to be the biggest freak on the planet. One day the wife invited me for a cup of tea, and I accepted like an idiot, and damned if she didn’t start haranguing me about why I was in grad school, why I was neglecting my children and not harkening to God’s word. Damned if her praying for me didn’t feel like her preying on me instead.

It’s an interesting line that I’m walking – how to be a feminist with a spiritual side, how to write sincerely on matters of faith and still keep my edge. That Saturday, I sat in the Christian bookstore and signed my books, and tried not to be oppressed by the sugar-sweetness of all the Precious Moments statuettes that say “Jesus Wuvs You” and all the little bracelets and tchotchkes saying, “What Would Jesus Do?” and wondered, “Yeah, what would Jesus do?” He’d probably spin on his heel and walk out (a copy of my book under his arm), disgusted with the hypocrisy and intolerance and bigotry that permeates the air these days. What should one expect to find in a religious bookstore? I don’t know. It gives one pause, that’s all I can say.

The deal with book signings is that you have to kick ass on the pre-publicity, get out the word everywhere and bribe people to show up with music, free food, strip teases, circus sideshows, etc. And you still won’t have people lined up out the door unless all your friends come en masse. You also have to sit up straight, dress well, buy cookies, provide freebies, make eye contact with everyone who passes, and make conversation with all of them. Including the one guy with a Navy Seals T-shirt on who starts out talking about your book and ends up ranting against abortionists, homosexuals, and those devils in Washington who want to take away our guns and make more laws that restrict our freedom. Hey, I talked with him and he bought a book, but if there was ever a moment when I felt like a whore, it was that one.

Advice to aspiring writers: Get used to it.

Big Time

News, friends: we are going into syndication, of sorts. Yes, Modern Muse is now appearing in two counties. I just talked to the local newspaper today and they are interested in running the column here, which means three additional cities. My evil empire is growing – bwahahahaha! I’m working on another round of book-tour stuff: readings and signings around the East Bay and Sonoma County, with an updated edition of my novel planned for later this spring, near the one-year anniversary. I will post a link to the schedule of readings/signings in case anyone feels inclined to attend. I’ve been invited to sign at Books by the Bay again, and I believe we’re getting a booth for Scarlet Letter Press at the NCIBS Oakland trade show in October. Lots of book buyers for major chains there…One hopes for major success.

That and the plan for the lit zine keep me busy. Oh, yeah, and the newspaper and the kids, not in that order. I spent several hours this week getting entries organized for the CNPA (California Newspaper Publishers Association) awards. We entered 10 categories, from spot news to columnists, as well as layout and design and general excellence. It would be very gratifying to win some kind of award, whether individually or for the whole staff. Very nice indeed. They are a dedicated crew, as I’ve said here before, and they make the 100-mile daily trip to Alameda worth it.

Now, for a change of topic, how about something exciting, like…escrow fever? Yeah, I’ve got it — my house for sale is in escrow, and oy vey, it is giving me conniptions. I am sitting here just waiting for it to end so I can move on to the next phase of life. It’s due to close in February sometime, if all is well. (And it had better be — eek.) I have been scanning the newspaper and keeping an eye open for the perfect house, whatever that is. Kind of like the perfect mate — you don’t know you’ve found one sometimes until there s/he is, right in front of you. I figured that the perfect house would insinuate itself upon my consciousness like a faint wisp of perfume, that it would call to me, seduce me, and I would fall in love the moment I saw it. And it would all happen organically, not via a forced march through the classified section.

The other day I found it — my Perfect House. My daughter was staying the night at a friend’s house, and when I dropped her off, I started chatting with the mom, and it came out that she was a Realtor, and I mentioned that I am Looking (for a house, it is implied), and she said the magic words. “Oh, there’s a place in (town) that’s a real fixer-upper. It’s going for $250,000, but there’ll probably be a bidding war. But you don’t want a place like that…”

Oh, don’t I? I started salivating. My mind started racing. I got into my car and drove to the street where the house was and cruised it like a perv looking for victims. At least, I’m sure that’s what the neighbors thought as I very slowly rolled down the street, looking intently at all the houses. Just two had signs out front, one for lease, one for sale, and the for sale one was no fixer-upper. Bugger! I went home and gnawed on my knuckles overnight, and literally could not sleep, thinking, “Why am I even thinking of this? My house hasn’t closed escrow. I don’t have the money to put down yet. If I get the house and my other deal folds, I am screwed. I could be bankrupt. I will have to live in a cardboard box. With my kids and two cats. But if I can get the house, I could (everyone say it with me) fix it up! Paint the walls! Lay tile! I can landscape! I know how to do all those things! I AM WOMAN!! Hear me roar!”

All night long, like manic mice, these thoughts chased each other up and down the hallways of my mind. In the morning I put on my cheeriest, devil-may-care tone, and, as if just by chance, I called the mom/Realtor to ask, what the heck, where exactly is that house? I had to leave a message and bit my knuckles again until she called me back. “Oh, you don’t want that house,” she said. But she gave me the address. I jumped into the car and zipped over there again.

I couldn’t find the house. I went back and forth on the perv-crawl again, and finally got out and asked a neighbor, who was assiduously building rock pyramids in his front yard, where was the house for sale? “Oh, you mean the dump?” he said. Uh, yeah, that’s the one. “You’re looking at it.” I still couldn’t see. He led me next door to a lot that was three feet high in grass, with a high fence across it. It looked like it belonged to the house on either side. But closer up, I could see an orchard in front and the shape of a house behind the fence. “You can’t go in,” he said. Indeed, the gate was padlocked. “Some woman was here yesterday and she fell and hurt her leg.” Apparently there was a lot of garbage on the property. I was disappointed about the padlock but went up to the fence, made of old, knotty wood, and peeked through a hole. There it was, a very dumpy beige stucco ranch house with aluminum windows, about as undistinguished a property as you could ask for. The front picture window faced the street. And the window was like a terrarium — you could see a mountain of garbage piled against it. There was no space at the top; the house, as the neighbor explained, was literally filled with garbage. And rats. And honeybees. Apparently a Crazy Lady had lived there till it filled up. Then she lived in a tent in the orchard. Then she lived in the driveway in her van. There was an outbuilding completely filled with empty cat and dog food cans. When Crazy Lady left, so did the cats and dogs and then came the rats. The house was unlivable and needed to be torn down.

Uh-huh. And for this, the lucky buyer would pay a quarter million dollars or more? And be grateful?

Needless to say, I walked away from that fun house. Yes, I’m looking for a fixer-upper. But even I am not that desperate. I felt exhausted just thinking about it. I went home and took a rest, and slept that night much better, with the ease of a person whose fever has broken.

Tender is the Night…

..and my poor feet after a day of heels. I just reread last night’s post and realized that if one is unfamiliar with my writing style that one might have missed my underlying sarcasm and the self-deprecation that haunts my every sentence. So all that talk about “there weren’t no Chinese in these parts” was an expression of awe, not of racism, so get over it, dude.

We — my daughters and I — have moved back (only I am moving back; they’re all just along for the ride) to whitest rural Penngrove after three years in Alameda, midtown to West End, and before that almost ten years in suburban but integrated San Leandro, and before that, crack heaven in Oakland (literally — we lived next to a liquor store at East 20th and 23rd Avenue. We were burglarized over and over again, had criminals fleeing the police through our yard and once found a loaded gun on the garage roof. Also picked up hundreds of crack baggies off the sidewalk in front and a dealer used to stash his stuff in our front yard. Nice.) A few jumps back put me deep in the Mission and the Excelsior districts of San Francisco, where I polished my street Spanish, and before all that, why, I was in lovely Penngrove, sucking my thumb and wondering how the hell I was gonna get out of the sticks and make it to the Big City.

Ergo, Penngrove looks mighty white to our eyes.

These are taboo subjects for us, you know. We aren’t supposed to notice race, or write about it, especially when we’re white, because that makes us racist. We can’t even discuss it because there is this assumption that behind the cupped hand, there is an inner core of prejudice. Race is only allowed as fodder for discussion for people of color. And that’s OK, but you know what? There are issues of racial identity for Caucasian people, too. Issues of the white bread syndrome — we are bland, we have no culture, we have no heritage to fall back on, we who are Heinz 57. (Notice how I say “we” when this time I actually don’t mean “we/I,” I actually mean everyone but not particularly myself because I do have a culture and heritage…proud to be Scottish and English! Luckily, I speak the language already.)

Well, clearly, I digress, and I have already run out of enthusiasm for that topic because it isn’t one I’m passionate about…is there a lesson here? Well, yes, several, the primary one being:

Write about what you love or hate — whatever brings out the passion in you.

-and-

Don’t be afraid of the difficult topics, the ones we’re not supposed to talk about or mention. Again, press what hurts, dig for the gold. It’s in there.

I have written about all kinds of things and am revving towards longer works which are yet more shocking. Like what? Like my affair with a Catholic priest (see Tongues of Angels), albeit fictionalized. Like various erotica about various erotic subjects (available on request). Like my most recent short fic about a little girl longing for her (female) teacher. Like the first chapter in my memoir about the priestly affair — not shot in soft focus this time, oh, no. Like a series of reality-based essays about parenting — again, no Vaseline and pink light. All real. And so many more stories cooking on the back burner…

This is the real thing, friends, what we should be aiming for. Do it right, the big story, the hard stuff — consider it a challenge. As my friend Gerry the Scottish poet once said to me, “We stand or fall on our own honesty.” Indeed.

Chinese Food

…for dinner led me down the path of memory. I stopped just off the freeway and ordered food to go, and while I sat and waited, the waiter brought me a steaming porcelain cup of green tea. It was too hot to hold with my bare hand, so I pulled my sleeve over my hand and held the tiny cup in the mitts of my own clothing to drink. It didn’t take long for my food to arrive.

When I grew up in Penngrove, there were no Chinese restaurants; there were no Chinese, either. There was one Japanese-American family and no one else of color I can recall. That was how integrated and diverse Penngrove was. When I got to high school in Petaluma, the largest recognizable ethnic group besides the white Americans was the exchange students. Yes, Hans and Michael and Yosef stood out like sore thumbs in their lederhosen and clogs. We broke the white kids down into groups — the Italian kids, the Irish, the Germans, and the few outsiders, spit on and tormented in the hallways, who were punk rockers (it was late 1970s). And there were a few who, inexplicably, wanted to be low-riders; we called them the wannabes and skirted them in the hallways, clearly confused by their seemingly random choice of identity. There were a few boys who were called fairies who ended up embracing their orientation (amazing that they turned out so well despite the torment of the masses), and there was one guy who took his Bible everywhere in a leather zipped case and preached to us at lunch. I’m sure by now he has a lovely wife and a bunch of kids and he surfs the Internet to look at gay porn after the wife has gone to bed. Just guessing.

Moving back to Sonoma County, I find that it is not the sticks anymore, but it is still pretty white. In fact, it’s an awful lot like Marin County, and just about everyone I meet seems to have moved here from there. It used to be all dirty pickups with gunracks. Now it’s giant SUVs and megapickups with luxury cabs that seat six. An amazing number of Mercedes and Hummers in the school parking lot. Not like it used to be.

I don’t like all the development that has cropped up in the past 20 years, eating up the hayfields and pastureland. I compare it to Burnham Woods or the coming of the huorns, encroaching on the green fields. I used to be able to get from my boyfriend’s house in Petaluma to my parents’ place in 8 minutes at 10:55 p.m., just barely breaking curfew by driving about 90 up Old Redwood Highway. I remember when the Phoenix was a movie theater. I was here when they filmed “Heroes” with Sally Field and Henry Winkler at the old Greyhound station, which is no longer that but I think a mailbox place now – 4th and C Streets? I remember when the police station was a mortuary. When the outlet mall was a brown field. My brother used to slaughter cattle at the feedlot on Old Redwood Highway just as you head north from town. He’d come home with his clothes stained brown from blood, and tell us tales of how they used the cows’ tongues to clean the carcasses, and how they fooled the health inspectors.

The spring of my senior year I was a waitress at the Boulevard Bowl Coffee Shop, and my boyfriend was a champion bowler. I remember the night he bowled a 300 during league play and the American Bowling Congress sent him a diamond ring. Some nights we’d go to the empty trailer which was the band’s practice shed and I’d sit on a packing crate while they thrashed their way through sets of songs, each one nearly identical to the last. My ears would ring all the way home. Some nights we partied and I remember driving home out Ely, or maybe Adobe, which are so straight that they could have been laid out by Romans, and closing my eyes, long blinks during which I clearly dreamed, then opened again to find myself closer to home. The car seemed to know the way, and how to stay on the road.

Before that I worked at the deli near the little park between Western & Washington on the Boulevard – it was called Perry’s but is now something Italian (Domenico’s?). My dad was their bookkeeper back then. I remember the town before poor Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered, and watching the whole thing unfold on TV in San Leandro. My eldest daughter suffered horrible nightmares about it. I kept seeing familiar faces on TV when the volunteers and cops were interviewed.

I could go on. But it’s weird — I was drawn to Alameda by its familiarity — similarity to Petaluma. And now I’m back, and it is so different — and so much the same. I knew it like an intimate friend, and now I go back and find that a grocery store has become the school district headquarters, but some of the same teachers are still teaching at Penngrove Elementary School and at my high school a million years later. There’s Chinese food available down the street — and a Starbucks, an Applebee’s, a Burger King, a Subway. All the delights of any suburban strip mall.

Incredible.

Advice to aspiring writers: Never underestimate the power of memory.

The Desperate Hours

I spent the weekend running hither and thither, in pursuit of about 20 different things and accomplishing just about one of them. On the horizon we see no fewer than ten bareroot roses, haphazardly leaning in the garden, begging to be planted. We see Mt. Laundry, defying me to conquer its mighty slopes. We consider the state of our sheets (hey, it’s cold, we’re not sweating, nobody in there but me)…(and the cat). We contemplate the dust bunnies — or shall we just call them dust oxen? We see the filth of the commute in dried dribbles of grime on our vehicle; it is only a matter of days before some wicked yet observant child graffitis those dread words on the back window. My office in my new house is a shambles of boxes labeles “Important Papers” and “Office Supplies,” and one doesn’t know where to look for one’s tax documents, for example, or one’s daughter’s birth certificate, and one’s paid bills are in a sliding heap on one’s floor. Not a pretty sight.

The weekends without children seem to hold some incredible promise. It is much like those rare hours of sudden silence when the girls were just babies. In the afternoon, God willing, the baby would fall asleep and the house was silent. The hour or two (unplannable because you never knew how long you had) would open up like a gift, and I would have to decide what I would do to capitalize on the time. And then I would find myself paralyzed by indecision: should I mop the floor? Make phone calls? Run outside for fresh air and some quick yard work? Take a nap myself? Attempt to write?

The desire to write was always there — it was my fondest goal, the one least accomplished when my girls were small. It is because (drumroll, please) You Cannot Force the Muse. The Muse will not be called. Just as you can’t just go out the door and run, you must warm up before you break the four-minute mile, the writer must prime the pump before the novel will flow. I think that takes dedication and practice, and a routine of writing at a certain time of day for as many days as possible. But baby days are not really good writing days; at least, they weren’t for me. I would lay the baby in her crib (and the toddler, too), and want with all my heart to sit at the typewriter or computer or even with a pad of paper and write poetry — but it just wouldn’t come.

Instead, the poems came in the middle of the night, or in the shower, or in the car, or in church, or having sex with my husband — all inopportune times for seizing a pen and beginning to write. And if you wait till the time is proper, the moment is gone, the Muse has fled, and your efforts pallid and limp. And the reality was that I was just too tired to do anything when those rare hours came. I usually just took a nap or read magazines because I was too exhausted to be creative on demand.

That was then; this is now, and now my days are chock full of writing, editing, driving, organizing, and managing all the etceteras of being a working single parent. The visitation schedule is that the kids go visit their dad every two weeks for the weekend, unless of course they don’t want to go, or have a birthday party or sleepover or competition or game. When the kids are home I don’t work on the weekends, meaning I don’t cover politics or events or whatever is happening in town; I’ll just do what I can on the computer or by e-mail around kid and family stuff. I often work most of the weekends when I don’t have kids; I schedule workshops or go to evening performances, etc. because there are no kids to worry about — no complaining that they are bored, no leaving them with babysitters. I try to get most of the odious stuff done on those off weekends when I can do it uninterrupted and save our weekends for fun stuff like movies or visiting with family friends.

So this weekend dawns brimming with promise: I can get the house clean, I can fulfill the demands of my job, I can satisfy the extracurricular activities I have given myself, and yes, I can get going on the novel! I can! I think. I might. I should. I must.

I didn’t. Dust oxen still here. Poor roses still weeping derelict in the garden. Only half a mountain of laundry conquered. Nary a fresh word written on the novel. Or the memoir. Or the other writing projects. But I did organize my office at last. I filed almost everything. I emptied all the boxes and put away all the office supplies. I separated the stuff I need for teaching, for book promotion, for the new lit-zine, and for future projects. I have an in-basket for bills and a place for important papers. And I can see both the floor and the top of the desk.

I did not make it to the symphony. I did not make it to the writer’s group meeting. I did help my eldest daughter with her first-person essay for English 1A, and I did make it to my board meeting Sunday morning. I haven’t written a word, but at least the slate is clean, the palate cleared. Now, with a little organization at my fingertips, I am ready to roll.

Query: will I?