Monday, July 25, 2005
AMONG THE LITERATI
Bombay-born, Park Slope (Brooklyn)-based writer Suketu Mehta -- author of the book to your right -- Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found -- was one of the literary figures at this weekend's Master's Tea writer's workshop, which took place at the cozy-yet-air conditioned Chopin Theatre. Actually it was more like a publishing workshop, since we weren't there to critique work or do writing exercises but to learn from writers who know the publishing world.
In any case Suketu (who cowrote the screenplay for the Hindi movie "Mission:Kashmir" and the controversial, still unmade Kali film The Goddess that was slated to star Tina Turner [many Indians and NRI's* were upset that one of their gods was going to be played by an American sexpot / pseudoBuddhist]; the latter project has been put indefinitely on hold since producer Ismail Merchant expired last May) read from my copy of his book (woo-hoo! he signed it too!) and told the story-behind-the story of how he wove his own narrative into the massive amount of investigative work he did, which goes into the Muslim and Hindu mafia and their relationship to Bollywood, the police, the riots, and many other things that have confounded me about India. Yet it's also quite funny. If you haven't read it and don't have a lot of cash, it's definitely a must-read; go to the library or buy it when it comes out in paperback in September. It was up for a Pulitzer but lost to some Al Qaida book. The terrorists win yet again.
The heaviest hitter was agent Sterling Lord, who despite his name and Panama hat grew up in the Midwest (Iowa to be exact) and was Jack Kerouac's agent. He told stories about trying to sell On the Road -- amazing -- and is working on his own memoir. Sterling (which is my favorite name in the whole world right now -- I mean, you have him, the Velvet Underground's Sterling Morrison *and* Chicago poet and lottery winner Sterling Plumpp, to name just a few) recently unearthed a long-forgotten 1957 play written by Kerouac, called The Beat Generation, which was rejected by Lillian Hellmann and others way-back-when. It will be produced off-Broadway next March. In the meantime we got to see an excerpt performed by actual actors. Mr. Lord is not unlike Merce Cunningham and certain highly-evolved yoga teachers who actually do what they say; when you're with him you know you're in the presence of a master, and you feel calm and happy and like you can accomplish anything (it's not unlike getting a hug from Amma, only all he used was his voice and presence). He recommended a book for me to read and sent me away with the advice that good books take a long time to write.
The firecracker of the bunch was Obie-award winning playwright Robert Auletta (Broadway Play Publishing), who was a stitch to talk to and has written some amazing plays that among other things have dealt with Vietnam vets and vets of Gulf War (he told how his play The Persians didn't go over so well in the early 90's, but now people are digging it big-time).** We also heard from award-winning author Rachel Shteir (Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show) and bestselling investigative author and event instigator Wendy Goldman Rohm, who wrote that book about Bill Gates' evil dealings and four others.
Oh yeah, I was there because I'm, you know, trying to write a book or something. I actually learned quite a bit -- including how to find cheap archival photos! -- from the panelists and other participants, all of whom are also writing books. The conversations were amazing (as was the food). Sterling and Suketu and a 26-year old woman who just started a publishing company had some spot-on advice. But no conversation compared to the one that set the tone; it took place between me and another woman of my (un) certain age, who's a scientist, shortly after check-in:
HER: (pointing) Is that a magnetic bracelet?
MOI: (gesturing towards wrist) This? Yeah.
HER: My five year old has one of those.
MOI: (coiling and uncoiling the bracelet) It's great for fidgeting
HER: Yeah he does that too. And then he throws it against the fridge.
HER: (continuing) It sticks, you know.
MOI: Huh. I never thought of that.
HER: Are you attracted to men?
MOI: Uh. Yeah.
HER: Are they freaked out by you?
MOI: (thinking) Yes
HER: That's funny. They're freaked out by me, too.
HER: Do you have kids?
MOI: (looks up and counts) Nope
HER: How nice!
After reading from Striptease, author Rachel Shteir (who was wearing something quite low-cut) took questions from the workshoppers. Without irony the man who's writing a book about the time he lived with some African tribe and/or missionaries (it's not clear) asked if he could ask a personal question.
MAN: "Did you ever, you know, when you were in your office by yourself -- Did you ever, um.... Did you ever try it?
RS: You mean -- stripping?? My office is so small ---.
MAN: "I mean, I was writing about ear-piercing, so I went ahead and pierced my own ear..."
RS: Uh, no ---.....
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Well, would you do it for us now?
Laughter all around.
MAN: OK. I retract that question.
During one of the breaks I learned from a psychologist who's writing a book about keeping children of divorce from going mad that yes, there IS such a thing as reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder (summer depression). Ha!
Even more important, I found out (from a woman writing a book about how her great-aunt passed for German during the Holocaust) that Joan Cusack does indeed live in my neighborhood, in the exact house I've been pointing out for years to anyone who'll listen -- and she gives out candy on Halloween!
And yes, I managed to practice yoga before both sessions of the workshop.
As if that weren't enough (and believe you me, it was) I followed it up on Monday night by checking out a Chicago Authors Roundtable on blogging and the future of literature, which featured bloggers-cum-authors Wendy McClure and Erin J. Shea (both of whom keep fat blogs and wrote weight-related books; I wrote a profile of Wendy and she's awesome BTW) and Claire Zulkey (another 26-year-old!?) and two Kevins, Guilfoile (author) and Smokler (critic/editor). It was officiated by Gapers Block editor Andrew Huff. The panelists spoke a lot about the importance of having a blog to 1). attract a publisher/agent and 2). to help promote the book and subsequent tour. There was also some talk of the difference between blogs and "online journals" or some such shite, plus complaints about how they were some of the first bloggers and the rest of us are johnny-come-latelies, topped off by commiserating over how effing hard it is to blog when you're on a book tour. I feel your pain. For the record, there was zero overlap between the audience at that event (young, white, flabby and bespectacled) and the one on the weekend (older, thinner, wiser -- my favorite being the too-handsome Amish Mexican guy writing the book about the evil pharmaceutical industry). Unfortunately the panelists at the Monday workshop failed to explain how one goes about getting a book deal thrown into their lap... which may mean I must keep going to these things.
Interestingly, I was far more exhausted after the writing workshop than I usually am after an intense ashtanga yoga intensive. Hmmm....
And now I'm off to toss my bracelet at the fridge (so to speak) -- and see if it will stick.
*NRI = Nonresident Indian or Desi
**He did not have any advice re; Jack