Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Clock Starts Ticking

That is, the tenure clock. The holidays are officially over now, and I’ve started my first tenure-track teaching job. The way it works is, I have six years to impress the university with my teaching, publications, and service. Actually, it’s five years – the sixth is spent on having me evaluated. At the end of the sixth year, they (the university) decide whether or not to keep me (i.e., give me tenure).

So far, it’s going well. Last Thursday there was an all-day orientation for new faculty, during which we (the faculty) were fed salads and sandwiches, and told all sorts of useful things about teaching, tenure, diversity, and local art and theater events. A union representative made a brief appearance during lunch. Benefits department was missing – I hear they have their own orientation – so it’s a good thing I’d made a separate trip and got all the paperwork done. I’ve met lots of fabulous new faculty members – including several (gulp!) Russians. Some of them were bemused to learn that I’d been hired by the English department. A Russian? Teaching English? Come On! But what do they know, right? They teach math! Overall, though, all the people were lovely, and I fully intend to keep in touch with several of them – I just need to catch my breath first.

At the same orientation event, I got my parking permit. Parking here is torturous. I somehow got lucky on Friday and Monday. But today! Today was a nightmare. It took me around 40 minutes to find it. Not that I was being picky. I tried one lot after another – not matter how far from my building – and all of them were full. And it didn’t help that these lots – of various sizes, some very tiny – are spread all over the campus. By the time I got to my office, I had ten minutes to get to a lunch meeting that was at the opposite end of the campus, and as luck would have it, I was wearing heels. In short, a world of pain and blisters.

But aside from parking and the blisters, I’m perfectly happy. I love my new coworkers. I love my new office. (I’ve never had an office of my own before, and this one is spacious and light, with lots of shelves and cabinets, and a new PC and laser printer.) And I love my students! This afternoon I taught my first class – a graduate fiction workshop. It’s got six people so far, and all of them are delightful. I can’t wait to start reading their stories and novels.

And then, once I returned after this day of arduous walking (I mean, work), Movie Dictator emerged from his air-conditioned office and we watched The War On Democracy, a fantastic documentary about how America had worked over the years to overthrow various democratic governments in Latin American countries. Depressing as hell. It made me so angry I could almost understand anarchists. I’m thinking we might need to watch something light and silly tomorrow, like Harry Potter #4, or Live Free or Die Hard -- except, um, never mind, we'd already watched it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Bookshelves

Since my last whiny post, things, as if by magic, have picked up. Publicity things. Interviews are being scheduled. Print, radio, and even one (or two?) on local Boston TV. And because I’m the kind of person who can’t wing it, or at least sit back and enjoy the good news for as least a couple of days, I must prepare.

What questions might I get asked at these interviews?

One question that routinely makes my mind go blank is, Who are your favorite authors? (The last time was on Friday, during a reception for graduate students.) I usually begin with “Oh, there are so many…” and then trail off, lamely, wishing I was standing in front of my bookshelves.

Determined not to let this tricky question stump me again, I will try to answer it now. In advance.

I must start with the Russians. Because, let’s face it, that’s what everyone expects. But also, jokes aside, because it’s true: that’s where literature started for me.

And that’s where it gets tricky, too. For example: how can I possibly exclude Pushkin? I read him, with pleasure, every fall; memorized his poems for school; wrote papers on The Captain’s Daughter and Dubrovsky; and as for Eugene Onegin, I always preferred Tatiana’s second letter to Eugene (in which she effectively tells him to get lost) to her first one (in which she, the innocent soul, breaks the cardinal rule of dating and confesses her love). Pushkin must have been a huge influence on me. But was he my favorite?

Next comes Lermontov, another classic. Funny how he always seems to come on the heels of Pushkin. (My high-school friend, Sveta, would disown me for saying this. Not only did she love Lermontov, she knew everything – and I mean everything – about him, every bit of his biography, every place in Moscow somehow associated with his short life.) As for me, I memorized portions of his marvelous long poems – some for school, some for fun -- and I used to adore The Hero of Our Time. Still, at the risk of incurring my friend’s wrath – if she were ever to find this blog -- I must confess that Lermontov is not as close to my heart as Pushkin.

And what about good old Turgenev? I distinctly remember claiming him as one of my favorites. I was taken with his prose poems, his novellas, and his long unrequited love for the singer Polina Viardo. I loved Fathers and Sons, too, the first time I read it. But by the time we got done with it at school – with that endless talk of its revolutionary significance – all the magic was gone from it.

The question that comes up a lot is, Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky? (See also: Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald, and Paul McCartney vs. John Lennon. It’s the kind of question that assumes that all people can be divided into two types.) The first time I read War and Peace, I was twelve, and it was a very traumatic moment in my life. I was supposed to be in a school play about Pushkin (see above). But then I got chicken pox, and, my role being negligible, the play went on without me. I was inconsolable. Then I got my hands on War and Peace. In a manner of most Russian girls, I scanned through War and devoured Peace. But strangely, what soothed my heart the most was not the antics of Natasha Rostova, but the plight of Pier Bezukhov, his involvement with masons, and much later, his war imprisonment. It was with him, and not with the young Natasha, that I identified.

As for Dostoevskiy, he’s someone I appreciate more than love. Besides, as my father always reminds me, he was an anti-Semite.

Chekhov, on the other hand, is someone I include on my list of great influences without reservations. I especially love his plays -- all these mismatched souls, unable to connect to the ones they love. They will never get to Moscow. They will never see the sky full of diamonds, no matter how hard they try.

So who do I have on my list so far? Pushkin, Chekhov, War and Peace. Add to that some poetry by Nikolai Gumilev and Marina Tsvetaeva (plus her sister’s memoirs). Then, moving into the years of Socialism, add some Babel, and Kharms, and of course, Bulgakov, with his Master and Margarita and White Guard.

As for contemporary Russian writers, I’ve read my share of Pelevin and Sorokin, but it’s Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and her gruesome, dark, pitch-perfect satires I must go with. And lately it’s been also another Lyudmila – Ulitskaya – whose wonderful novel, Kukoskiy’s Case, has not been translated into English yet, and whose new novel I’m just about to start.

This, I believe, concludes my Russian list. Which, now that I look at it, seems woefully inadequate. Maybe it’s time to re-read much of what I have just written about here.

In any case, stay tuned for the review of my “English” bookshelves...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

But Is It Enough?

Up until, say, yesterday, I wasn’t too worried. I was mostly thinking about the novel-in- progress, and not so much about the Last Chicken, which is coming out in just over a month.

Then last evening, as I was sorting through old Poets & Writers articles, I felt a twinge of panic. Each publicity-themed article had its own horror story: a hapless writer, who’s thrilled to be published; an editor who’s also thrilled, at first, but then loses interest; the book that goes unnoticed by reviewers and public. I’ve read about this predicament so many times, but does it mean I know how to avoid it?

I’ve done my homework, which is to say I’ve read several books and articles on publicity, took notes, made lists, forwarded tons of useful info and contacts to my editor and publicist. I’ve set up a bunch of readings, to which I recently added Hartford, CT (9/11), New York (10/01), Seattle (11/20), LA (11/16), and San Francisco (11/27, 11/28). My publicist says that reviews/newspaper coverage is a lot more effective than readings. I’m sure she’s right. So far, I know of two scheduled reviews: LA Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Still no readings in Pittsburgh.) I’ve compiled a huge e-mail list of friends and acquaintances – for when the book is finally out. I even have postcards!

But is it enough? Am I forgetting something important, something essential that can make a huge difference? Should I be writing letters to libraries? contacting book clubs? approaching people randomly? If so, how? And when is the best time to do all of these things?

This morning, I saw something called AuthorBuzz, a system that promises to notify “375,000 readers, 3000 library systems (reaching over 10,000 librarians) and over 2500 booksellers.” Price? $985. Another feature, called Book Clubbing, promises to put you in touch with 7000 registered book clubs. Price? Another $985. I don’t think I can afford either.

But I might try another online thing, BookTour.com, which claims to connect authors and potential audiences. The good thing, it’s free. The not so good thing? I have no idea if it works.

Does anyone know what else I can do?
With one month to go until the pub date, I’m hoping for your advice!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Before School

Suddenly, the summer is all but gone, and it’s making me anxious. On the 23rd, I have an all-day New Employee orientation at UConn, and the following Tuesday, I teach my first class -- i.e., the holiday is over. Suddenly, the syllabus needs to be tweaked. Suddenly, I have no decent clothes to wear to work. Suddenly, where did the summer go?

I have this idiotic idea – I realize – that everything needs to be finished before school starts. The car needs to washed and vacuumed, and the break light needs to be fixed. The first draft of the novel needs to be completed (no chance!). Various papers filed. Old magazines sorted through and recycled. Etc. Etc. I love arbitrary deadlines. Actually, no, I don’t love them, but I torture myself with them. Deep inside, I know that the deadline means nothing and that I’ll probably be more efficient once work starts. I’m not that good with a lot of unstructured time.

Still, I’m trying to do as much as I can. For example, last week I finally went to pick blueberries. And peaches. There are tons of farms around here that grow fruit and vegetables and let you pick your own.

Also, last week we finally met up with the person who knows how to set up a voice-recording studio (for Movie Dictator), and as a result, I’ve ordered lots of various equipment that he will then help us set up.

Then, of course, there’s writing… which is hard. I mean, novels are hard. I’m knee-deep in my novel, and it feels like I’m knee-deep in a swamp. I hope it’s normal. I hope it’s not that different from writing a short story – when I’m slogging through a first draft and it’s awful. It’s an ugly, unreadable mess, spiraling out of control. Then, one day, as if by magic it all comes together in my head, and there’s suddenly clarity, and I know that this will be a story. So I’m hoping it’s like that with novels, except it takes much longer to get to that point of clarity.

In the meantime, I’m reading lots of Russian books. (I ordered a whole stack of them recently, and since my novel is set in Russia, reading and thinking in Russian is helpful.) And I’m still hoping to go hiking one of these days – maybe even tomorrow! This area is full of forests and hiking trails. And we probably need to take a trip to New Hampshire sometime this weekend – as Movie Dictator is almost out of Marlboros. And finally, sometime next week I need to gather up my courage and go clothes shopping – which is somehow more scary than getting lost in a forest.