Thursday, October 11, 2012

Litcrawl Reading

It's Litquake week in San Francisco -- 850 authors reading at 163 events all around town. And Saturday is Litcrawl, a reading extravaganza that happens in three phases from 6 to 9:30 pm. If you aren't local and thinking when's the best time to visit San Francisco, the weekend of Litcrawl is always a good choice. The city goes mad for literature!

This year, I'll be reading at an event hosted by my friend, a wonderful writer Peg Alford Pursell. The reading is called "Tzara's Hat" and is inspired by Dada art. A few weeks ago, Peg has gathered all the readers in her home for a live writing session. Each of us came up with a word that we wrote down on a scrap of paper, and then we went around pulling these words from a hat and writing for three to five minutes on each word. The idea was to come up with a complete piece of flash fiction in that time--a piece of fiction that included each of these words in the order pulled from the hat. We would then revise these flashes before the actual reading.

I know writing from prompts is popular among poets and among some (experimental) groups of fiction writers. I have not had much experience with it in my own writing--when I started, I would set out prompts for myself, but they were vague (write something funny!) and I never held myself very strictly to the formality of it. This exercise turned out to be a lot of fun--in an odd way, the story ideas I came up with were based on memories from deep within my subconsciousness, experiences and feelings I had not thought of in many years. I enjoyed this exercise very much.

We'll be reading from 6 to 7 pm on Saturday, October 13, at Four Barrel, a coffee shop at 375 Valencia Street. More details are here, on the Litcrawl site. Please come and hear us read these stories, and be as surprised as we were when we shared first drafts with one another about how different these stories turned out and how wonderfully they represent each writer's strengths and interests. Here's a hint: our list of words included "popcorn" and "alien" :)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods

One great book I read during this trip was Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods. Published by innovative & Other Stories Press in London, UK, this is a wise and humorous send-up of contemporary corporate culture. The plot--the top layer of meaning--has to do with an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman Joe, who, unable to sell a single Encyclopedia, starts a business capitalizing on his erotic fantasy. He imagines having sex with women stuck leaning out of the window and whose upper body is invisible to him. He conceives of "lightning rods," a contraption that he installs in office buildings to provide top salesmen necessary "release"--and hires women to service these contraptions accordingly. It's a naughty book, a book fully aware of the feminist critique of the masculine gaze that disassembles a woman into discrete body parts (breasts, buttocks, legs, vagina), accepts this property of the gaze for granted and pushes it to its practical limits. Men are constantly thinking of sex--why not provide them with a practical option to satisfy their desires, as a part of Sexual Harassment policy, no less? DeWitt pokes fun at the legalese and euphemistic language of corporate America, lightheartedly picks at the commonplace understanding of male sexuality, and touches at issues of power and domination and the nature of personal and professional success.

Lightning Rods was written in the late 1990s and it took more than a decade for it to find the right publisher. Finally, New Directions in the US and & Other Stories in the UK took up the book. & Other Stories is a two-year old innovative press that aims to publish primarily works in translation but also a few English-language originals. I've heard about it for the first time from my friend Yvette, who became a member of their team of readers. The press aims to bring out four books a year and asks readers to subscribe like they would to a magazine. I joined after examining the titles they already brought out--and a couple of weeks after I subscribed one of their books, Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, was longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I haven't read this one yet, but I definitely look forward to reading more books from their exciting catalog.