So here we are. The tour of my blog is departing. Grab a seat if you want. Thanks to the so-talented-I-can’t handle-it Annie DeWitt for tagging me in this project. Her writing makes me jealous, inspires the shit out of me, and gives me hope that the humans might actually get it together some day.
Next week you’ll be treated to tours by Chiwan Choi, who the LA Weekly calls “The Jay-Z of Poetry,” and Elizabeth Greenwood, who I call the Blue Ivy of my heart.
More officially, Chiwan Choi is a partner at Writ Large Press, an LA indie publisher, and all its projects – DTLAB, PUBLISH!, and Grand Park Downtown BookFest. He is also the author of The Flood and Abductions. You can follow his weekly column, Literary Alchemy, at culturalweekly.com.
Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of a nonfiction book about people who have faked their own deaths, entitled Playing Dead: The Art and Folly of Pseudocide, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. An editor-at-large for The New Inquiry, her work has appeared in The Believer, Poets & Writers, Dissent, Al Jazeera America, Guernica, and the online editions of Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. She has received residences from the MacDowell Colony and a billion other places. She teaches in the writing program at Columbia University.
1) ON what am I currently working?
My big project at the moment is my family memoir, My Dead Parents, which was born from my once-anonymous blog of the same name. It’s exciting and daunting to be turning this project into a book. When I was just blogging, I would post letters and photographs my parents left behind and react to them, or share my experiences, memories, and constantly-evolving feelings about them, my childhood, whatever. What I wrote was contained to what I found in my mom’s house and what I found inside myself. Now that I get to write a book, I’m able to go way past these boundaries and go deeper into my parents’ story. The project is expanding so fast that I can barely keep up with it.
Right now I’m concentrating on research, and am clumsily learning how to be an investigative journalist. I’m reaching out to anyone and everyone who knew my parents, and tugging on every hint of a thread that I find as hard as I can. I spend a lot of time with Google. I’ve stalked my parents’ friends, colleagues, and ex-lovers on Facebook and LinkedIn, put out newspaper ads looking for people who knew my dad in the Minnesota towns he lived in after he immigrated, and, in one case where the Internet wasn’t able to help me, sent a snail mail letter to a man in Lagos who worked with my father. I assumed he wouldn’t receive it, but he did, and called me from Nigeria the day it arrived and told me he was thrilled I reached out. I continue to been shocked by how many people are interested in helping me, who want to talk to me about my parents or meet me and serve me home made soup. I hate the word “humbled,” but that’s what I’ve been, repeatedly. So many people have made time for me and my project just because they loved, respected, or were interested in my mother and/or father. The one person who is playing hard to get is one of my mom’s ex-boyfriends. She treated him like shit, to be fair, and he admitted that he has nothing nice to say about her so would rather say nothing at all. I keep trying to explain that’s okay and also kind of the point, but he’s not breaking. Which doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying.
I’m also traveling to fill out the story and add to it. I just got back from a trip through the Midwest, where my parents both lived when they were younger. I spent a lot of time interviewing their family and friends and being brain dead at the end of the day in Motel 6’s washing down beef jerky with Miller Lite. I had no idea how draining this process would be, as exciting and illuminating as it is. I use up all my bandwidth everyday. Now I’m off to Wales—I’m actually writing this at the airport—to spread some of my mom’s “creamains” (Gag, Lydia Davis, I am with you on that one, and on pretty much everything else) at a mountain in Snowdonia, where my parents spread my brother’s ashes so many years ago. I’m still recovering from the fact that I breezed through security with my mother in my purse. I was so convinced the TSA agents were going to think she was a lovingly wrapped bag of blow. I’m going to Ukraine in September, or at least, I’m planning to, and then will still have plenty of research to do and interviews to conduct stateside when I return.
The only actual writing I’m doing for the book at the moment is in a ratty journal. I try to be disciplined about reflecting at the end of a day of interviews or research. I don’t feel I can start actually writing the book until I have ALL the information, have talked to EVERYONE, and can spread out everything in front of me and mess around with it until I find an interesting and satisfying way to put it all together. There are so many ways to tell this story.
I also write short stories here and there, but at this point my brain is pretty tapped, so I’m mostly tinkering with old ones. I can’t imagine writing a new piece of fiction right now. Writing this, I’ve realized I don’t actually have any idea how to write a short story; it’s like I’ve never done it. My mind’s just not open to grabbing onto the stray pieces of conversation or strange behaviors or shifts in light that typically inspire my stories. I am, however, working on a screenplay with my good friend Jason Gurvitz, who is one of those LA writer-producer-director-actor hyphen hydra hybrids. Having the screenplay to work on, and another writer to work with when I usually spend so much of my time alone, and with really heavy material, is fantastic. I love our project, I love collaborating, I love Jason, and I just really love writing dialog. I really love writing screenplays, in fact, I just need to get a lot better at writing them better.