Not all stories of runaways have to read like Go Ask Alice. Consider the case of Steve, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig:
The paperback edition of New World Monkeys is in stores Sept 7th–with a great new cover. And I’m thrilled to be reading from it at the Brooklyn Book Festival:
Sunday September 12, 2010
St. Francis Reading Room 11:00 AM
Brooklyn Borough Hall
Wrong Turns: Three fiction writers read from their books about characters who take a wrong turn in life, and can’t go back. Short readings followed by Q&A. Lauren Grodstein (Friend of the Family), Nancy Mauro (New World Monkeys) and Donna Hill (Getting Hers).
I’ll be part of a panel discussion/reading at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Newburyport Massachusetts, April 23-24.
Looks like a great event. Check it out at: http://www.newburyportliteraryfestival.org/index.htm
Last month, while the foliage reached incendiary peaks, I headed up to Germantown where a friend-of-a-friend had offered me her farmhouse for a week of undisturbed writing. I rented a car in Hudson and drove the last half hour to the house, following obscure, hand-drawn directions of highways and gravel roads. The house was situated in a sloping valley and was surrounded by fields of grain that stretched toward each horizon. Groves of trees stood here and there like reluctant guards in the windy corridor that ran through the property. I have to say, the first two days were peaceful and spectacular. Paragraphs were written. When night fell the blackout was as complete as a photographer’s darkroom. A wind rattled constantly, branches actually scraped up against the window panes. My hair quickly grew slick, my clothes grimy, and my eyeglasses turned opaque with grubby fingerprints. It was pleasing to fall into this untidy state; it meant work was being done. I was entirely alone. Or so I thought.
On the fourth day I decided to drive into Hudson and pick up supplies. Which meant groceries, chocolate, a teapot and wine. My hosts had left me an open a bottle of red, but that supply was running out. I set out in a clear morning, but on my return that afternoon the weather had changed. The rain began pelting down in mouthfuls and the wind butted the car aggressively along the open stretches of highway. When I reached the house I discovered a large tree had toppled in the wind—it had fallen diagonally across the road blocking the entrance to the property.
I left the car and went out in the sputtering wind and water to investigate. The thick, corded branches stretched across the road and mingled with the shrubs on the other side. I grabbed a bough and tried dragging the entire thing aside, but it wouldn’t budge. I suddenly understood the value of keeping a draft horse on hand. But what I did have at my disposal was the internet and a cell phone, and a few phone calls later I managed to track down the State Trooper’s office. They promised to send someone over as the light was already fading and they agreed no good could come from a giant trunk lolling a few feet below the rise of a hill. I remember feeling vaguely smug; though I hadn’t been able to move the tree myself I had, at least, the wherewithal to call the authorities. Indeed, it must have been a slow day at the State Trooper’s office because I spotted their vehicle from the kitchen window within half an hour.
It was time to toast this vague smugness. I took out the bottle of wine I’d just purchased. With an image of myself as a bespectacled pioneer of the woods I pulled opened the drawer that housed the corkscrew and came face to face with an enormous dappled field mouse. The animal’s ears were perked, his eyes luminous and wide as saucers, his front paws were spread before him in surprise, like the relenting victim of a stick-up. At his side lay the corkscrew. The only other thing I noticed in the moment before I slammed the drawer shut was that the critter was clamped dead in a mousetrap.
The thing about field mice is they’re huge. Forget the albino white, tampon-sized lab mice with their rabbit-red eyes. Or the dung-hued critters born to troll the subway tracks. Country mice are healthy, hefty and unmistakably mammalian.
As I mentioned, I slammed the drawer shut. I was pretty sure he was dead, though his wide-open peepers caused some confusion. “It’s a misconception—things do not necessarily die with their eyes shut.” my boyfriend told me on the phone. “Get some BBQ tongs and a garbage bag—just reach in and bag it,” he advised. But his input fell on deaf ears. A horrible trill of disgust ran down my back. Like Duncan I stood frozen in the kitchen. Then, remembering the State Trooper I turned for the door. Would it be so bad—so out of the question—to (politely) ask if he’d get rid of the mouse once he got rid of the tree?
I ran out into the yard, but when I reached the end of the driveway I saw that the tree was gone. And with it the State Trooper.
I would like to say that I rallied my courage, grabbed the tongs and bagged the mouse as I’d been (unflinchingly) instructed to do. I’d like to say I liberated the corkscrew, that I enjoyed the pinot noir and the rest of my week in the rolling, sloping, scenic wooded countryside. But that is not what happened.
“Use a fork,” my friend T___ said over the phone. “Push the corkscrew into the bottle with the prongs.”
The fact was, my country idyll was broken. Suddenly I heard scraping in the walls at night. I was startled one afternoon by the patter of small paws upstairs in the loft and the thunk of grape-sized wasps trapped in the windowpane. I developed a ritual of clapping and stomping before entering the kitchen in hopes of frightening away any feisty intruders. I avoided the drawer. There was something impossible about facing that creature again. The shock of such a small, furtive animal in a hidden place was too much to bear. My female bravado had fluttered, had sunk like a stone.
“Could you mercy kill a dying animal like your novel’s protagonists do?”
Not a chance, I say. I’d happily enter a schoolyard brawl before volunteering to put a creature out of its misery, much less pick it up with BBQ tongs. And when I think of women like Lily (killers of wild boar, bearers of tire irons) I am reminded of what a work of fiction can do for its author. How it becomes an exploration of qualities we do not posses and risks we are unwilling to take. Just think how spectacular it must be to one day find yourself in possession of female bravado—that elusive and screwy audacity, the bright red flare of courage.
Recently I was interviewed for the Big Orange Slide, an online magazine for and by folks in the ad world. The interviewer, after reading my novel, asked me, “Could you mercy kill a dying animal like your novel’s protagonists do?”
This was an interesting question. It actually got me thinking about bravado. But not the swagger and heft of male courage—that defining quality (or lack thereof) that marks a man from cradle to grave. Instead my thoughts turned to the infinitely more interesting female bravado. Where does it come from? Whose got it and how is it deployed?
When I asked women friends to recount their experiences with feminine boldness, the schoolyard brawl inevitably came to mind. That catty rite of passage from which one participant emerges clutching a tuft of her opponent’s hair. Others cited their days on the corporate scene and their lipsticked, neck scarved, Hilary-esque battles in the boardroom. One woman mentioned a recent episode involving the shameless use of elbows during the release of the new Jimmy Choo line for H&M.
Sorting through the stories it’s safe to say that at its most physical, female bravado is somewhat unexpected compared to its male counterpart and more likely to be exhibited under conditions of stress. Whereas male bravado, like the pheromone, is something that’s given off freely. In fact, during many periods in history female courage remained downright unnecessary; what decent woman in genteel society would be required to perform tremendous acts on her own?
Well, my novel New World Monkeys begins with an act of female bravado. Duncan and his wife Lily are driving upstate to their summer home. It’s close to midnight when a wild boar leaps from the bushes in front of their car. The collision leaves their front grille crumpled and leaves the bleeding, squealing wild boar beneath it, dying. It becomes clear to Lily that this animal must be euthanized. Preferably by a park ranger. But it’s close to midnight, their cell phone is dead and they are completely alone on the desolate country road. The only course of action left is to put the animal out of its misery themselves and so Lily hands her husband the tire iron.
Here, Duncan faces a horrible moment, one that will haunt him for the rest of the novel: He freezes. He does not take the tire iron. His male bravado abandons him. Later he will berate himself, knowing a real man would have slaughtered the boar, strapped it to the hood of the car and took it home to roast. But in fact, it is Lily who summons the necessary courage and brings the tire iron down on the back of the pig’s skull.
Could I mercy kill an animal? Before answering the interview question I decided I should first examine my own recent country experience—a week in an isolated farmhouse in upstate New York.
To Be Continued
Behind the Book Reading Series
Join us on Thursday, November 12th, 2009 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at KGB Bar, when Behind the Book hosts another evening of free readings by exceptional writers, Stephen Elliott, Nancy Mauro, and Brian DeLeeuw.
WHEN: Thursday, November 12th, from 7:00pm to 9:00pm– FREE
WHERE: KGB Bar, 85 East Fourth Street
(between Second & Third Aves.; take the F/V to Second Ave. or the 6 to Astor Place).
Stephen Elliott– is the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries,published in September 2009 and Happy Baby, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lion Award as well as a best book of 2004 in Salon.com, Newsday, and the Village Voice. The Adderall Diaries received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. Elliott’s writing has been featured in Esquire, The New York Times, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading 2005 and 2007, and Best Sex Writing 2006. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. He is the editor of the literary blog, The Rumpus.
Nancy Mauro– has worked as a copy writer and creative director in Canada and the United States. Her first novel, New World Monkeys published in September 2009, has received critical praise from USA Today and The Observer’s Very Short List among others. She is a fellow and recent graduate of University of British-Columbia’s MFA program in creative writing. Ms. Mauro is the recipient of several Ontario Art Council grants as well as Canadian Council grants for emerging writers. Her work has been nominated for a McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, received gold at the Western Magazine Awards, and placed in the international Toronto Star Fiction Contest.
Brian DeLeeuw– is an editor at Tin House magazine and a contributor to the web site ThisRecording.com. His debut book, In This Way I Was Saved: A Novel was published in August 2009 and received critical praise from the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal (starred review). It was also featured on New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix and Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life blog. His essays, poetry, and other writings have appeared in various publications including City Magazine, Tin House magazine, and Powells.com. Mr. DeLeeuw attended Princeton University and received his MFA from The New School.
Marshal Zeringue’s enlightening Page 69 Test asks authors to crack open their book to, yup, page sixty-nine and write about how the passage found there represents–or doesn’t represent–the rest of the novel. I was asked to try it out on New World Monkeys, and what do you know, page 69 is all about a pervert named Lloyd! Check it out: