Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mary Elvira Stevens....and me

Dear, dear readers:

Guess what! It's been just about five years exactly since I left Boston for a trip down the proverbial  Patagonian Road. Armed with a red backpack (generously "lent" to me by my brother), a copy of Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express (very worn by now but still intact!), and way too many clothes (isn't that always the way?), I boarded a plane for Guatemala City and opened a Blogger account. Patagonian Road was born.

Now, five years later, my life is what it is because of that Latin American year: I moved to New Mexico, a place that reminded me of the countries I'd fallen in love with. I kept up with my Spanish and also became an English teacher, permanently - a path I'd embarked upon during my Latin American year. I wrote a book, and it's being published next year by the Santa Fe Writers Project. 

And for all of this, I have Mary Elvira Stevens and Wellesley College to thank. I couldn't have ever taken this trip without the funding of the MES Fellowship, and if you're a Wellesley alum, I encourage you to apply. A rumor's been circulating for years now that you need to be under 26 and unmarried to get the fellowship - WRONG! You only need be a W alum...and you need to be at LEAST 25, which I think is smart. You're too reckless otherwise.

And if you're not a W alum...fret not! Countless other funding avenues beckon, from World Teach and the Fulbright Fellowships to a Watson and beyond. The point is, the money is there if you're willing to search, apply, wait, interview, wait, and maybe reapply. Same goes for the MES, Wendies - if you don't get it the first time, try, try again! For example, Meredith Sorensen applied twice, and her application - and, ultimately, her trip - improved as a result.

So I'll leave you with this, dear readers: my Mary Elvira Stevens personal statement. Over the years, many have reached out for it, and many more might like to see it. W or not W, dear readers, may you use my humble (but hey! ultimately successful!) stumblings as inspiration for the personal statements YOU write when YOU apply for travel dinero.

A note: I won't share my proposal, because frankly, it's inaccurate now, and anyway, it's tedious to read. And I won't share the budget, because it's outdated and probably, let's face it, not relevant here on my blog. (But my words of wisdom about grant budgeting are these: take your time, do your research, and pad. Pad. They could always give you less - and make it clear that you're okay with that. Individual inquiries related to my budgeting are welcome...visit my website to contact me. )

Without further adieu, my Mary Elvira Stevens Fellowship application's personal statement.


After graduating from Wellesley, I worked as as a front-desk receptionist at a hotel for six months, until I had enough money to purchase a ticket to Asia. I traveled alone there for six months, beginning my journey in Hong Kong and visiting Thailand, Laos, and India. I spent the most time in India, where I worked on organic farms, practiced yoga in ashrams, hiked in the Himalayas, and wrote. I fell in love with India’s crazy beauty, and the mix of exhilaration and fear I constantly felt there has fueled my writing ever since. I found that even the poorest people I met were willing to share what they had and always treated me with kindness, albeit not without some stares. I found it incredible that so many people could exist together in such close quarters, that hundreds of languages were alive in one country, and most of all that the Indian culture is truly an enduring one, whose roots will grow over any imperialist influences that have come along. Indeed, being in India changed my life and gave me something transformative to explore in my writing.

When my visa in India expired, I moved back to Cambridge and have worked full-time for the past year and a half as an associate editor for a small publishing company. I also began to pursue an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. The program requires that I attend twenty days of classes, lectures, and workshops in Montpelier annually. Between my trips to Vermont, I mail forty pages of writing monthly to an advisor, and receive letters and my marked-up work in response. My goal is to teach in a college classroom, since the MFA is considered to be a terminal degree.

Each day I sense that my time in India is slipping further and further away from me. I have to remind myself sometimes to close my eyes and remember being on those noisy streets, or on a beach with loping cows, or in those echoing mountains, where each day contained something I’d never seen, and never would again. My advisor, writer Philip Graham, wrote these words last night on his blog:

“The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered.” 

The trip I’ve outlined in my proposal will not only boost my credibility as a teacher and allow me to learn another language, but will also provide this unsettling sense of immediacy and the unexpected insight that fuels my writing. Because of my experiences in Asia, I know that a new place, a different place, will transform my internal landscape, forever rich in my mind and filling the page.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Festive Tidings!

I thank you God for this most amazing day, 
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, 
and for the blue dream of sky 
and for everything which is natural, 
which is infinite, 
which is yes. 

e.e. cummings

Wishing you peace, beauty, and joy in 2016.
Love, Kate

Sunday, December 6, 2015


The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty

You are sitting here with us,  
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.

You are yourself the animal we hunt  
when you come with us on the hunt.

You are in your body  
like a plant is solid in the ground,  

yet you are wind.

You are the diver’s clothes  
lying empty on the beach.  

You are the fish.

Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks


Give me something easy, I say to Peg, the head librarian. She juts her chin towards the farthest rack from the reference desk. Vida, she says. At this point in the semester, everyone's gruff, but Peg is always like that - at least at first, when you don't yet know that she's just got a really acute bullshit meter, and - in the beginning - you've got to prove yourself to her.

Anyway, I trust Peg. She thinks I am a good customer of the library, and she gives good advice. Sometimes, head librarians are the only ones you can trust. When all I needed was something lusty and artsy and crimson, Peg gave me Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon. When I looked like I could use a very tall glass of wine and a very easy read, she gave me Misty Copeland's Life in Motion. Once, Peg and I discussed Lily King's Euphoria for half an hour, gushing and gushing and, in the end, laughing snidely. I don't remember why. I think Peg reads at least one book a day.

And so when she says, Vida, I go and figure out what she's talking about. I scan the covers until I see the author's name: Vendela Vida. I haven't heard of her, and I'm sometimes intimidated by writers with exotic names. But it's a smallish book, and the cover pictures a woman walking beneath a Middle-Eastern looking arch. Vendela Vida: The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. I check it out.

As often happens, Vida languishes on the kitchen table until it's due back at the library. Laura from reference calls, as she does once a month or so, to remind me my book is late. I bring it back to Peg, and she checks it out again, and I take it home again and this time I read the jacket, the back cover, and then I turn to the back jacket and look at Vida: pretty, fortyish, vaguely sexy, vaguely foreign. I begin to read.

After about two pages, I close the book. No. Once, an agent told me that no one will ever represent your manuscript if it's in the second person. You, you, you, you, you, Vida's book goes, and I don't read any farther because no, no, it isn't me, it's you, Vida, it's you. I go upstairs and look up Vida's review on the New York Times. Parul Sehgal writes:

Ms. Vida has opted for the second person, hoping, it seems, that its intimacy might invite the reader to plunge more deeply into the story...There’s a temptation to set the book aside immediately, preferably with tongs. Resist the urge.

OK, fine. So she gets to break the rules. She has like three books already, after all.

I go back downstairs; I pick up Vida; I read on.

In the end, there's intrigue and mystery and little echoes of Beautiful Ruins, that fantastical (and fantastically popular, though I couldn't ever quite get into it) book by Jess Walter. There are relationships with "famous American actresses" who look radiant, radiant, but in real-life are predictably bitchy. There are predictable American tourists, and even a storyline I could predict: a baby, a sister, an escape.

Still, I read Vida's book word for word, page by page. Lush, rich detail, as one reviewer praised? I don't know about that - I'm not sure I ever quite saw Casablanca, where the story was set. And Lena Dunham, one of the more prestigious reviewers, claims there's great humor there, but I never laughed aloud. And I mean, the most beautiful part of the whole book is the Rumi quote from which the title - the diver's clothes - is drawn.

Yet there is something about Vida's book that snagged me and held on. I devoured it in basically one sitting (I did get up to pee and feed the cat and cook dinner and sleep and wake up). Still, in the morning I sat down with Vida before I even started the coffee, and by the time I read the final page, I was late for class. My heart was beating hard.

I love a book like that.

Thanks, Peg.

Friday, December 4, 2015

First Fiction

Dear readers:

After a long hiatus (whirlwind semester!) I'm back on Patagonian Road...but only to share my first published piece of fiction, 'Absence.'

Thanks to the Adirondack Review for editing and publishing, and especially to editor Angela Leroux-Lindsey and intern Erin Duffy.

And, thanks to my writing partner, Katharine Beebe, for reading this story more than once.

Happy winter, all! Think snow :)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Come one, come all!

Come on down, Santa Fe! 
It's the annual Santa Fe Literary Review reception from 5-7 on November 5. 

Take note: we've changed locations for this year only, and we'll be in the West Wing atrium.

Contributors - shoot me an email if you wish to read!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bouquets for Kent Haruf

I encountered Plainsong years ago, right after college. I picked it up at the Harvard Bookstore, I think, or maybe it was gifted to me by a Cambridge friend. A housewarming gift, perhaps.

What I remember about that book are plain stories about plain people. Kent Haruf painted the Colorado landscape in a way that made me simultaneously hate and love it. There were no mountains in this Colorado, only scrubbed-out hills and windy expanses of nothingness, cold winter mornings and no central heating. Haruf’s characters see their breath in clouds. They are teachers, farmers, shopkeepers. Two characters are little boys, brothers, who witness teenagers having sex. An old woman teaches those two boys to make cookies. A pregnant teenager, shunned by her classmates, is taken in by a pair of old men, brothers too.

 In Haruf’s writing, I saw new possibilities for my own. He wrote about things slowly, with care, giving each of his character’s lives the kind attention it deserves. Any of them, you think as you read, might be any of us.

And so Plainsong is just what the title implies: a plain song, a song for all of our lives, a song that takes the grief and joy of being human and makes it holy.

When I saw Our Souls at Night on the library shelves, I didn’t yet know Haruf had died. It happened six months ago; he was seventy-one. Young. I read the first fifty pages of Our Souls at Night, and had thought to myself, Okay. I reminded myself I shouldn’t have expected Plaingsong, Haruf’s masterpiece. I still have a hard time finding a book I love as much, by Haruf or anyone else.

And then I flipped to the back cover and first looked at the picture: a slightly-wizened man, a working man, stared back. He resembles, I remember thinking, my Aunt Jane. His eyes were crinkly. I read the biography and in the last line I learned that he had died.

For a while I sat in the bed, Our Souls at Night in my hands. I hadn’t known it to be Haruf’s dying book. Outside, the crickets sang a dozen different strains of cricket. I thought of Plainsong, the gift of it, and the relief. Those ordinary, devastated, triumphant lives.

After a few minutes I returned to Our Souls. I read the story anew, the story of an old woman who invites an old man to come and spend the night with her. She is lonely, and she wants someone to sleep with. Not sleep with, but sleep with. A warm body is what she wants.

He agrees. He packs his things in a paper bag—toothbrush, pajamas—and goes to her house. They don’t sleep together, they sleep together, and a companionship forms. A love. It’s not about desire; it’s about companionship. It’s about knowing the end is coming, and wanting someone to be there in the months that come before. A young boy comes into the picture, and it’s like a child for the two of them, and they are good parents. They are natural parents, and they love the natural world, and they teach the little boy this.

In the end, Haruf devastates me another time. The man and the woman must part. The ending is a little hasty, and even enthralled I can see the mark, now, of a dying man. The scenes come together suddenly, the bad news broken hastily, the villain  suspiciously familiar.

It doesn’t matter, really. Haruf’s final message is there: his characters must agree to die alone, and the book ends in remorse. The story is a good-bye, to life and to writing.


Let us read Kent Haruf, and let us not forget the lessons he taught, for he has given us the gift of writing plainly. He took ordinary lives and made them extraordinary, and in those lives we also read our own.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Chin Up

Feeling downtrodden, fellow writers? A little weary of the daily rejections slowly filling your inboxes?

Read this, then, and let your gentle hearts be soothed.

What follows is a pearl from the magnificent, prolific Philip Graham:

Don’t give up too easily. Keep an essay you believe in out there in the running as long as you can. Be patient. I was rejected 11 times by The New Yorker before they accepted a story. One of my favorite stories, “Angel,” was rejected 25 times before it found a home, at the Missouri Review (and subsequently won a prize, was nominated for a Pushcart, and was included in a national “fantasy” anthology).

Believe in your work. Be stubborn. Wear down the dopes who don’t get it. Someone finally will. Your work is too good for you not to be its best champion.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dear Younger Self:

This summer's Wellesley Magazine had me weeping at the kitchen table at seven AM.

Dear readers, even if W has nothing to do with you, kindly skim the pearls of wisdom below, and then tell me this morning's tears weren't caused by hormones alone.

Excerpted from Dear Me: Letters to My Younger Self, the four following excerpts are part of a brilliant, thoughtful compilation of letters distinguished alumnae wrote to their graduating selves.


As you commence into the world, let me whisper in your ear that the most satisfying accomplishments in your life will be decades in the making. Balancing patience and impatience takes practice; don’t quit before you’ve properly begun. You will come to appreciate the slow build of change, the delayed gratification of getting things right, and the small payoffs in between. Nothing worth much will reveal itself quickly; the end result is never the end.

 - Ophelia Dahl


I don’t think there is any way to prepare for tragedy, and my only advice about what to do if it strikes is to take care of yourself. Do what you can to survive, for yourself and for your children. But one piece of advice I would give to any young woman starting out: Prepare for your future with the knowledge that tragedy can strike anyone. In my case, it was violence, but it can be in the form of accidents, illnesses, even divorce. And if it does, always be in a position where you can provide for yourself and your family. If you can’t, you will face a tragedy within the tragedy.

 - Carole Beebe Tarantelli


Make it your job and priority, all the days of your life, to help those black people who have not had your opportunities or experiences. Every morning, look in the mirror and say, “I refuse to accept the expectations of the entitled.”

 - Shirley Taylor Haizlip


I ended up choosing a marriage partner because he was smart, witty, and good company. Never before had I dated a man who suggested that we go hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Harvard or see Racine’s Phèdre performed in the original French. But I wasn’t in love. My brain told me that one does not spend one’s married life in bed. So when he declared his passion for me, I made the mistake of listening to my brain and not my heart. When I walked down that aisle my legs were brave, but my heart was wobbly. That marriage was a big mistake. Three children and five grandchildren later, I realized happiness often comes disguised as disaster.

 - Maude Haleztine Chaplin


Brava, W Magazine, brava.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tango Slide

Check it out, everyone!

My travel essay, "Street Tango in Buenos Aires," at Your Life is a Trip, Judith Fein's chic, place-based site for stories from around the globe.

Thank you, Judith, for your editorial prowess, and thanks also to Ellen, for making my words look so lovely.

Enjoy this sunlit eve, dear readers. Summer on!

Monday, August 10, 2015


Real quick everyone: 

It has come to my attention that some of you out there have not yet encountered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you have not inspected her closely, dear readers, please run and do not walk to your nearest library, hurry to the front desk, and request Americanah

Americanah with an H, that's right. Just do it. Just do it.

In a way you're lucky in that you missed having to request it at the library right when it came out and then wait and wait and wait for months, like I'm doing (patiently) for H is for Hawk.

By the way, if you live in Santa Fe and have checked out H is for Hawk from SFCC, please return it! Please! Return it!!!

Anyway, or Americanah is available on Amazon for $6.14 used. It's probably better to own your own copy anyhow. I gave mine away to the lovely Penelope, and she damn well better have read it.


Meanwhile, enjoy these panting dog days, dear readers! Sip lemonade and fan yourself with that good book you've got there in your hands. Soon enough we'll be aching for this kind of heat, and you know it.

Summer on!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Saba Sulaiman on Revisions, Fair Use, and the 30-Draft-Rule-of-Thumb

Meet Saba Sulaiman, everyone! Recently profiled as a hot new literary agent in Writers Digest, Sulaiman came under my radar through a mutual friend. She's proven enormously helpful as I wade through the murky waters of query letters, agents, publishers, and all that lies beyond - and, she's willing to share her insights with us here today!

According to Writers Digest, "[Sulaiman] was born to Pakistani expatriates in Sri Lanka and studied...modern Persian Literature at the University of Chicago, where she got involved with editing the department’s academic journal. 'And it finally hit me—working closely with writers to hone their craft; seeing a piece of writing from its inception through to its eventual publication; and advocating for what I believed was stellar prose worthy of recognition—this was my calling. So I interned at various newspaper and magazine publications, worked as an editorial intern at Sourcebooks, and then wound up at Talcott Notch, where I’m excited to begin my career as a literary agent.'"

Below, please find Sulaiman's useful answers to my blundering questions.

How do I get my book agent-ready? 

At this point, this is what I'd recommend: if you can, join a critique group, or, better yet, apply for a position in an intensive workshop. You need as much feedback as you possibly can. Of course, this depends on how serious you are about getting this book published -- I understand how taxing and thankless this stage of the writing process can be, and you have to be really dedicated to see this book through all of it's future versions. Most successful authors have around 30 fully reworked drafts of their book before it's finally ready -- not that you necessarily need that many drafts, but it's something to keep in mind.

My memoir is set in a specific time and place. As I revise and revise, my concern is that the book and its story will grow 'dated'. 

Don't worry about that too much. A well-done memoir should feel relevant regardless of what time period it harkens back to. It actually might be useful to make this one of your aims as you revise -- make sure your subject doesn't sound dated in your treatment of it.

How do agents/editors feel about authors who use quotes? I want to include more words by a few writers, namely Eduardo Galeano (who passed a few months ago). How do you view authors who quote other authors?

The question is, how are you using the quote? Because it all depends on whether or not it's fair use, which can be a very, very ambiguous thing. If they're just quotes before chapter beginnings, I'd day you should be fine, but otherwise, it might depend. Here are some useful online resources that might make things clearer:




Personally, if they're just short, one line quotes before chapters, or before the book begins, I'm okay with it -- and it should fall within "fair use." But I generally like to keep other quotes/song lyrics out of an original, debut manuscript, just because it can get complicated very fast. And at the end of the day, by using this material, you’re basically increasing the publisher's cost of buying your manuscript, because they would have to potentially buy the rights to all the quotes you use.

Does it make a difference if the author being quoted has passed? 

Even if the author is dead, he/she has an estate that continues to receive royalties. Now if an editor falls hard for your manuscript, he/she may advocate for their bosses to budget high for your book, but that’s a huge risk to take. Editors have to draft Profit and Loss statements for each of the books they bring to their acquisitions board meetings, and if they’re already setting aside a chunk of money just to buy these extra rights, that puts your book at a guaranteed disadvantage. So I'd strongly advise you not to use too many quotes, and find other ways to achieve what they were doing in your narrative. 

Thanks, Saba Sulaiman! May our paths cross again - and in the meantime, happy reading!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer love

Happy August, dear ones. Summer on!
Photo courtesy of brother Dave McCahill. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Anne Boyer on Not Writing

[Writers: to fall in love, please read immediately] 

Thanks to Book Forum for posting and to Philip Graham for sharing  Anne Boyer's poetic list-style essay on the seldom-discussed topic of not writing:

It is easy to imagine not writing, both accidentally and intentionally. It is easy because there have been years and months and days I have thought the way to live was not writing have known what writing consisted of and have thought “I do not want to do that“ and “writing steals from my loved ones” and “writing steals from my life and gives me nothing but pain and worry and what I can’t have” or “writing steals from my already empty bank account” or “writing gives me ideas I do not need or want” or “writing is the manufacture of impossible desire” or writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.

—Excerpted from Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press, 2015): "Not Writing" and "What is 'Not Writing'?"

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I had just finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed—a book that made me laugh, weep, and write earnestly into the night. Next I mused over In Some Other World, Maybe, a smart, very trendy, and ultimately memorable novel by Shari Goldhagen. I was having a blast. These women writers were feeding my summertime soul, and I wanted more. I wanted something fresh, something that would make me think, but not too hard. It is summer, after all.

Euphoria, Lily King's newest, had been sitting on the kitchen table for about two months. Before Wild and In Some Other World, I'd gone through a reading drought, so to speak. Do you ever have those? All through a hectic semester and a month-long road trip across the country, library books languished on my kitchen table. I unwound with LL Bean catalogs, Every Day with Rachael Ray Magazine, and The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks. Some choices we just can't explain.

In any case, finally. The moonsoons had arrived, bringing to a blessed close my reading drought. I poured a glass of wine and took Euphoria outside. For a moment, I watched the setting sun and inhaled hot pinion.

Then I opened the book, and almost immediately my world fell away, replaced swiftly and fully with King's. Euphoria was a different animal than anything I'd recently read, and I understood immediately that King writes at a whole other level than most. Above being a storyteller, she is a sort of research-artist, a painter whose pigments include facts, dates, and theories. She is a setter of well-researched scenes and well-considered characters. She is a master of point of view, structure, and restraint. An hour and a half later, my full glass of wine had some flies in it. The sun had set, and I realized I was cold.

I warn you, fellow writers: in King's presence you'll be humbled, whoever you are.

Of King's fourth novel, Emily Eakin of the NYTimes writes, "[Euphoria] is rife with such visceral imagery and pungent with the stink of disease, foul breath and unwashed bodies." Eakin adds that "The threat of violence and death looms from Page 1." The review closes with this: "In King’s exquisite book, desire — for knowledge, fame, another person — is only fleetingly rewarded, and gratification is inseparable from self-­deceit."

Ms. Eakin, I must politely disagree with it all. Well, all except the exquisite. Euphoria is certainly filled with visceral stink and foul breath and the threat of violence, but this after all is a book about white anthropologists traveling the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1933. What did Ms. Eakin expect? In her vaguely coy (but ever stylish) review, she overlooks what really roots the reader to Euphoria: the book's humanity. A sustained, dynamic current of sensuality and desire runs beneath the whole story, connecting each character and scene. This is the Copula Spider Doug Glover was talking about: bodies, sweat, pain, want, over and over again. Desire may be fleetingly rewarded for the characters, as Eakin claims, but for the reader the effects endure.

Speaking of want, it's immediately clear in Euphoria what every character wants. I've heard this is something you're supposed to do in fiction: understand what your protagonist wants most in the world, and tell your reader. In Euphoria, one character wants more than anything to learn. Another wants a place to call his own, and a woman to join him there. A third wants—well, I guess there is one character whose desires are less clear. Maybe he wants to forget. Maybe he wants never to leave the Sepik River.

It's all in the book, my lovelies, it's all in the book, so best not miss out on this lush work of art. King will take you to a place you've never been, a muggy, buggy place you won't want to leave. Weird, I know, but just trust me on this one. Euphoria looks short, like maybe you'll finish it in one night, but I assure you, dear reader, you will not.

Friday, July 24, 2015

You'll Never Walk Alone

Read my writing at The Millions!

Thanks to Philip Graham for the nudge, and to C. Max Magee, for making my essay look gorgeous.

And, thanks to Katie Thebeau for her images.

Onward and upward!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ken Budd on Agents, Publicity, and Writing About Those You Love

Meet Ken Budd, everyone! He's the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. The memoir chronicles travel, volunteering, and the death of Budd's father.

Over the past few days, I've had the chance to chat with Budd - we covered agents, publicists, publishers, and the question every creative non-fiction writer wants to ask: To what extent can we write about the people we love?

In a New York Times opinion piece published in 2013, Budd writes:

"I wrote a memoir in the aftermath of my father’s death, and while the book was many things — a search for meaning, a travelogue, the story of my adventures as a global volunteer — it was largely a book about Dad. I was measuring my life against his, telling his stories, making him the ghostly muse in my midlife crisis, and I wondered if I, too, was doing some kind of wrong."

He adds, "My father never asked to be on display. And what we as memoirists choose to display — what we insist is essential to display — is an easy source of conflict. Dad grew up poor, never went to college, yet reached upper management with high-tech firms on both coasts. I wrote about this. It defined him. It fueled his drive and ambition. It defined me. I always felt like the lite beer to his stout ale."

It was a privelege to get to know Budd, whose answers to my questions were honest and useful. He agreed to let me share some of his insights with you, my dear readers. May Budd's words bring hope and inspiration to writers everywhere!

How did you get the idea for the book?
I was about a third of the way through my journey when I thought… this might be a book. I had volunteered in New Orleans and then Costa Rica. At the time I was working at AARP The Magazine. The then-travel editor had assigned a story on volunteer travel that wasn’t working out and I said, “Tell you what: I’ll write about my experiences in Costa Rica. If you want to run it, fine. If not, no big deal.” The ensuing article got a nice response and after that I wrote a book proposal. I sought an agent and got turned down four or five times before finding the right person.

Wasn't it hard to get an agent? First I mailed my proposal to an agent here in DC. I had a slight connection: a colleague of mine had assigned an article to one of this agent's clients. I mailed the proposal and got no response - not even a form rejection letter. After that, I decided I needed connections. A travel writer I know was nice enough to introduce me to his agent. She passed, but recommended to me three agents she knew. They all passed as well. I think they saw potential in what I was pitching, but they were all older, established agents who weren't willing to invest themselves in my idea. They did, however, provide feedback on the proposal when I asked them, which helped me to strengthen the pitch. I'd reached a dead end when an agent pitched me a story at AARP. I said, "Hey, would you be interested in looking at this?" She did, and she was the right person. She was younger than the other agents I'd spoken with and she invested herself in the project. So if you want an agent, I'd suggest making connnections with other writers and asking if they'll make introductions.

How did the shape of the book change after you got an agent? I had originally proposed the book as more of a travel memoir. My agent convinced me that the real story was the fatherhood issues: the sudden death of my father and my struggle to accept that I would never be a father myself. She was right, so I revised the proposal and wrote a sample chapter. We got offers from [two large publishing houses]. After that, I volunteered in four more countries. So my editor made a leap of faith. She bought the book based in part on the sample chapter, but there was no guarantee that the rest of my travels would be memorable.

What did you do to promote the book? Everyone I knew who'd written a book said I would need to hire a publicist, and that's what I did. I got some publicity help from [my publisher] for the first month when the book came out, but publishers today just don't have the money for much beyond that. The publicity firm got me on 50+ radio shows along with some print and online interviews, and I wrote some byline pieces. If I had it to do over again, I'd hire a publicist long before the book came out, rather than after.

How was the book received with your family and friends? Was anyone hurt or put out? [A friend of mine] said, "I have a friend who wrote a memoir. It was a really beautiful book. None of his family will talk to him anymore, but the book was terrific." So that worried me. When you're writing, it's such as isolated process that you're not really thinking about the work being published and someone actually reading it. When my editor read the first draft, she said, "It's good - it's so honest." And I thought... Honest!? Oh shit! Honest isn't good!

What are you working on now? Most of my writing is still tied to the book, even though it came out three years ago. Most recently I wrote an online piece for National Geographic about criticism of volutourism. My primary focus, however, has been on developing a digital TV project tied loosely to the book. I did a fair amount of TV when I was at AARP, and the publicist I hired suggested that TV should be the next step. So I developed a TV proposal, and six months ago I signed a co-production agreement with a producer I'd met. The show would be a 12-episode series; each episode would focus on a different location and a particular quirky, giving-back project. We shot a three-minute trailer and developed an outline of episodes. After talking with some agents, we've decided to pursue it as a web-based series. We can maintain more control and build an audience, which could possibly lead to a network deal down the road. By this fall we'll be working with a company that will try to sell sponsorships.


In his NYTimes piece, Budd writes:

"If you’re gonna do something, do it right. That’s the approach I took in writing the memoir. And yet I discovered something curious once the book was released: even though it’s my story on the page, readers see it through the prisms of their own lives. For all of a memoir’s exhibitionism, your tale is interpreted by readers to suit their own needs, their own experiences, their own journey. It’s a type of literary scavenging: they keep what serves them and reuse it for new purposes.

But it is still your story. And in telling mine, I grew closer to Dad. He became not more dead, as Lewis warned, but something entirely different. He became more real."


Thank you to the lovely and talented Tara Lakowski, who introduced me to Budd. Lakowski's story collection, Bystanders, will be published by the Santa Fe Writers Project next year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is the Warmest Color is timely, sensual, smart, and emotional. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film explores women, hunger, and what it means to be a lesbian—or not—in today's open-minded world. Love will always be a rose—beautiful, expensive, potentially dangerous—and in that, Blue is nothing new. But for anyone who has ever wondered what lesbians do—in and out of bed—Blue is a must-see. Be warned: you'll weep, laugh, and blush madly. Not one to watch with your mother, methinks...but then again, I don't know your mother.

Released in 2013, Blue begins as a slow-moving movie, paced more for a 1980's audience than that of today—though the French, perhaps, are less device-addled and ADHD-plagued. And yet Blue quickly reveals that the French, in many ways, are less many things than we Americans are: less addicted, less guilty, less repressed. The characters love preparing and eating food, making love, drinking wine, lying in the sun, standing in a park, cuddling on a bench. Pleasure is taken at every turn, and as a result the actors boast clear skin, bright eyes, and toned midriffs.

Anyway, you might not make it through all three hours of Blue, and that would be okay. The first hour is satisfying in itself. The first ten minutes are. But the movie in its entirety is a lesson in patience and its subsequent reward, for those who sit through Blue are paid handsomely.

Blue tells the story of pouty-lipped, 15-year-old Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who lives in France with her parents. They serve her wine at dinner (while the American audience sighs...if only the US could be that mature) and in the mornings, Adele goes off to high school exhausted and tousled. For the first thirty minutes, the movie goes on like this: Adele is a hearty eater, smokes cigarettes on her way home from school, and has sex with a cute guy at school who takes an interest.

Of cute guy, Emily Greenhouse, in her New Yorker article "Did a Director Push Too Far," writes, "Early on, Adèle tells a suitor that she likes languages—the word is langue. It’s the same word, in French, for “tongue,” and the camera hardly ever leaves hers: her mouth, her rude chewing, her sucking, her wails." Langue, langue. It's a theme that pervades the film. Anyway, predictably, the sex between Adele and suitor is uninspired and, by the end, pretty sad—a vacant look in Adele's eyes and all that. Still, something tells us that this behavior is nothing new, and this is not the first time. Something else tells us there's much more to come.

The movie's first turn comes when Adele, late at night and alone in her room, conjures an image of the cute blue-haired gay girl she passed in the street. Subtle and fine, this scene is erotic and transcendent. Blue hair is there, and then she's gone, and Adele is left alone with her body. From there, the movie picks up, though there remain many long camera shots of Adele's pouty mouth.

Eventually, in a lesbian bar of a caliber that surely only exists in France, or in a French dream, Adele meets blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). Their meet-cute is sexy and smart. Adele is almost painfully earnest, and so, so young. Still, the scene grips and holds.  What follows is one of Blue's crueler turns, arriving in the form of Adele's so-called friends. They have seen Adele with blue-hair, and they accuse her in the schoolyard of being lesbian. They taunt her mercilessly—almost unconvincingly—and a crowd forms. Adele, so obviously gay, turns red in denial.

From there, Blue chronicles the lives of Adele and Emma. Adele's sexual awakening—her true one, not the one she's faked all this time with men—takes place in the form of many long sex scenes with Emma, the first famously seven minutes in duration. Do not, I repeat, watch this with your mother. Let's just say that the women go from casual to serious fast, and then they have made a life together. They throw parties together. Adele is the object, constantly, of our gaze and Emma's.

Greenhouse's New Yorker piece goes on to expose the director as a slave-driver: "Seydoux and Exarchopoulos said that the shooting had been unbearable and they would never again work with Kechiche. The French union representing the film industry spoke of deplorable conditions for the crew. Seydoux [...] said she felt like a 'prostitute.' Exarchopoulos described a 'horrible' continuous take in which Seydoux hit her over and over, leaving her raw."

Of Blue, the New York Times writes, "It’s a three-hour movie about women, a rare object of critical inquiry perhaps especially for American men working in the male-dominated field of movie critics. The truth is we need more women on screen, naked and not, hungry and not, to get this conversation really started."

Scathing reviews, forced prostitution, and director brutality aside, the truth remains: Blue is an astonishing film about women, beauty, and sex. Three hours passed quickly, and when Blue was over I wanted more. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Take a little trip

Sometimes I visit the places I’ve been to before. Driving in the afternoon heat of tourist traffic, I return to a red beach in India where I watched the sunrise with strangers. I think of the silence at the waterline there. 

    Or as I'm pumping gas, I go to the hill in Baños, where I walked and walked through the green, through the fields and wet woods, and could see everything from the top: the way the mountains cut into canyons and water flowed. I'd had a broken heart then, and the shard of it is forever embedded in my memory of Baños. 

    In line at the grocery store, I go to the streets of Buenos Aires on a night when the musicians were out and we sipped beer from the same bottle. I leave my life, my job, the things I need to do, and I send my mind to the places I have been. 

    Don’t we travel for this? Don’t we all want something we can keep with us forever? Travel teaches us each the same lesson: that our lives don’t have to be the way they are.