Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Buy an LG, They Said; They're Great, They Said.

This is the story of a very-stressed-out lady who bought a new and relatively expensive front-loading LG washing machine and dryer to replace those that drowned in Katrina (she also bought the pedestals to raise them a foot off the ground, for obvious reasons). The lady moved back into her half-rebuilt house at the beginning of August. She was happy with her new LG washer: it was quiet, it had pretty lights and bells (no whistles, just bells), and it washed the clothes nicely.

Two weeks later, it quit working.

The lady—her stress level rising—calls LG. They say they’ll send a repairman.

They don’t.

The lady calls LG again and gets the local number for the repairman. But all she can get is his answering machine. Stress level rising ever higher, she makes numerous more calls to LG. Finally, five days later, the repairman calls. He does not come out to actually LOOK at the machine, but simply makes his diagnosis over the phone and says, “I’ll have to order a part.” “And when will that be in?” “I’ll call you.”

He does not call.

To cut a boring story short, it seems LG won’t send parts to the repairman because he hasn’t paid for past parts. The repairman says he won’t pay for past parts because LG hasn’t paid him for past warranty work. Yo! People! If you don’t like each other, get a divorce. But fix my #@$% washing machine!

Flash forward to the one-year anniversary of Katrina. The lady— stress level ever rising—is drowning in dirty laundry (which is admittedly better than drowning in dirty water). Not only does she have the clothes, towels, and sheets from the past two and a half weeks, but she would really like to be washing all the bedding, towels, clothes, etc. that survived the hurricane and can’t be used or put away until cleaned. Her last telephone call—when she burst into tears—seems to have stirred someone to action. The repairman (with the part!) arrives. He replaces the control panel. (Repairman: “It’s sure hot in here.” Lady: “That’s because the new air conditioner is broken.” Repairman: “Want we should fix the AC? We do AC work too.” Lady: “That’s OK; just fix the washer.”)

The new part is installed. The repairman quickly flips through the programs; bells and lights flash. The repairman leaves. The lady selects a load of wash from the numerous piles littering the house. She turns on the washer and goes to sit back at her computer (with a portable fan—see reference to air conditioner above). Ten minutes later, the washing machine’s bells and lights start flashing and ringing.

And it quits working.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Katrina Plus One

(Above: New Orleans underwater. Photo from Wiki Commons.)

A year ago today, Katrina devastated New Orleans. Oddly enough, last night turned out to be the grim anniversary that kept me awake and remembering most of the night. After all, it was on the 28th that we loaded up the cars and fled our home. It was on the 28th that we spread our sleeping bags on my daughter’s living room floor and lay down to listen to the wind and the rain beat up Baton Rouge, imagining how much worse it must be 70 miles to the east. It was on the 28th we realized that the miracle wasn’t going to happen, the storm wasn’t going to turn, our city wasn’t going to be saved.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning we lost power and with it all connection with the outside world (our cell phones had essentially quit working during the evacuation). The following week is a hideous blur in my memory, punctuated by a few stark moments: Sitting in a CC’s with Sam’s laptop, looking at online photos of the drowned city. A tearful telephone call (from a pay phone in Walmart) to my sister in San Francisco, asking her to please come get our mother and take her away from the heat and the helicopters and the unbearable tension of it all. A Fox reporter on Wednesday night announcing that everything in Kenner between the I10 and the lake was under 10 feet of water. It wasn’t true, of course, but I didn’t know that until we crept back into our wreck of a parish the following Monday. A foot of water is bad; 10 feet of water would have destroyed my house and absolutely everything in it, and killed my poor Press Cat. For four hideous days, that's what I thought had happened.

Anniversaries are peculiar things. Why mark this day? To remember those who died, first and foremost. But it should also be a time of affirmation, a commitment to the obligation to insure that such a thing is never allowed to happen again.

We are remembering our dead, and our pain, and our loss. But the degradation of the wetlands and barrier islands continues. The MR GO is still there. The levees are still 10 feet lower than scientists tell us they need to be. The city is still, for the most part, a deserted husk. Why? Because people are afraid to return, because they know that sooner or later it will happen again and nothing is being done to prevent it. Again.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hurry October

(Press Cat says, What? You think I need to go on a diet? I've had trauma; serious trauma.)

By last night, Ernesto’s track had been shifted east, but we are going ahead with first-stage preparations in case there’s a shift back. At this point, that means doing the things we should have done before, like pre-staging certain items up at the lake house (i.e., litter boxes, litter, and cat food), and buying a couple of extra cat carriers. See a theme here?

Last year we evacuated with only five of the family’s six cats. Press, our super shy, ex-feral, pale ginger tom (he loves to be petted as long as you’re sitting down and let him come up to you—reach for him and he’s gone), couldn’t be caught and was left to endure a weeklong nightmare in a flooded house (fortunately the house has two stories and I’d also put out food and water on the second floor, “just in case”). This year we have knock out pills. We’ve also acquired a little waif named Missy that we started feeding after Katrina and that my mother has now adopted. So, seven cats. I need a bigger car.

I’ve organized my manuscript materials, but I’m still going through papers. One of the things I’ve yet to replace is the big four drawer file cabinet that drowned in Katrina, so half my files are still in the storage room up in Baton Rouge, half in Iron Mountain boxes here, and nothing has been filed for a year.

Of course, the garage is still filled with rebuilding materials, which means there’s no place for the garden furniture, etc, that was stored in there last year. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. But the most dangerous time here for hurricanes is from mid-August to the end of September, so we still have some tense weeks ahead of us. Hurry October.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Just... No.

(Above: Katrina making landfall in Louisiana, from Wiki Commons)

I’m spending the day cleaning my office, which is still a jumble of papers and half-unpacked boxes. Why? Because there’s hurricane headed into the Gulf, and early projections have it aiming straight at New Orleans.

Okay, I know it’s early days yet. These things rarely go where they first say they’re going to go. But I’m sorry, I can’t be blasé. I know there’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control. So I’ve bypassed worry and gone straight to panic.

I keep thinking, I can’t go through that again. I can’t see these antiques I’ve worked so hard to repair destroyed. I can’t see these walls I’ve built up with my own hands turned into moldy mush. I can’t go through it again.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

An Insidious Trend

(Above: my daughter at, um, Yale.)

Want to write a bestseller? Write a good book. That used to be the advice given to ambitious new authors, and there was a time it was more or less true. But today? Want to write a bestseller? Go to Harvard or Yale (or Hollywood), lose any extra pounds, get a nose job or cheek implants if required, and then dash off a mediocre manuscript and send it in with your spiffy resume and a photo. Quickly. Before you turn thirty-five.

Something insidious is going on in the publishing industry. It started with marketing departments and the idea that novels are easier to sell if the author has a “platform” and can be “branded.” With this discovery came a shift in the power to decide which manuscripts are bought and which are rejected, with marketing departments trumping editors on the basis of a manuscript’s “salability” or lack thereof.

So what constitutes a platform? Well, being a former Secretary of Defense makes a good one. William Cohen’s new thriller, DRAGON FIRE, is described by Booklist as “leaden” and “clunky.” If anyone other than Cohen had written it, he’d probably have received a form rejection letter. Instead, this leaden clunker is being given a mammoth advertising budget and huge print run.

Cohen’s book at least has one redeeming feature: those willing to wade through that clumsy prose filled with stock characters will be given an accurately rendered peek into the behind-the-scenes workings of our government (at least, I assume so; I haven't read it). But Secretaries of Defense writing lumbering thrillers are (thankfully) rare. So what is a publisher to do? Why, cash in on the nation’s obsession with wealth, youth, beauty, and the elite, of course.

Thus in the last few years we have been subjected to an avalanche of ho-hum books written by young graduates of Ivy League schools (or youngish professors at Ivy League schools). Failing an Ivy League background, an author might still be in the running for bestsellerdom as long as he’s young, relatively attractive, and preferably a doctor or a lawyer (again, the allure of the elite).

Publishers aren’t the only ones responsible for this trend. A popular women’s magazine recently ran an article on six female writers; all were young, attractive, and from elite backgrounds. A coincidence? I don’t think so. Authors are routinely selected for appearances on television talk shows (Oprah being the exception) not because they’ve written a good book but because they look good on television. And then there’s the magazine LUCKY, that actually recently asked NY book publicists to recommend an attractive female author between the ages of 25 and 35 for an upcoming feature. Content or quality of books not important.

I suppose in a sense it was inevitable. In the music industry, the rise of MTV shifted the emphasis away from musical ability, toward appearance and sex appeal. Recording executives realized that untold millions would rather listen to the computer-enhanced breathy twang of a blond bimbo than to a gifted, well-trained singer with a beautiful voice and a plain face. So why should we be surprised that something similar is happening to books?

In the early years of the twentieth century, writers were seen as intellectuals or adventurers or both (think Ernest Hemmingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald). Or they weren’t seen at all, trusting to the strength of their voice and storytelling ability to gain them readers. Today, of course, the number of dedicated readers has plummeted. Only a book that appeals to traditional non-readers can hope to rack up the sales record of something like The Da Vinci Code, and traditional non-readers obviously have much in common with the music-buying public. They might require a “high-concept” to entice them into buying a book, but there is no need for it to be well executed. All that’s needed, evidently, is a photo of a young, relatively photogenic author on the back and a bio testifying to his or her elite status.

The problem with all of this is that while these kinds of tactics can sell a lot of a certain book in the short run, the longterm effects on the publishing industry will be disastrous. Wonderful books are being rejected largely because their writers don’t fit the required image, while the weak, the graceless, the mediocre are being enthusiastically snapped up and rushed into print on the strength of their authors’ platforms.

All too many of these authors are one-book wonders. Either their second book is too hopelessly awful to be saved even by the massive editing that made the first book publishable (as is rumored to have been the case with the second book penned by the authors of The Nanny Diaries), or the book makes it into print only to be shunned by you-won’t-fool-me-again readers.

I remember a former editor telling me about her trials and tribulations with a certain young rockstar’s “novel.” The project went through two ghostwriters, then hit a snag when the rockstar refused to sit still long enough to listen to the book being read to him (he couldn’t read it himself because he was functionally illiterate). The publishers reasoned that the rockstar had to at least have heard the book in order to be able to promote it, so the whole deal fell apart. But the rockstar kept his huge advance.

It occurs to me that if celebrities can hire ghostwriters to write their books, then an overweight, over-the-hill writer from an ordinary background ought to be able to hire a celebrity—or a young, attractive graduate of an elite school—to be his or her public face. At least then we’d all be getting better books.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Misery Tour

We took what locals have begun referring to as a “Misery Tour”  on Sunday. Lately I’ve been encouraged when we go to Napoleon or Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. The streetlights on the entire route are now up and running, there are many FEMA trailers, lots of signs of rebuilding. I’d started feeling pretty good about the city’s future. Until Sunday.

We got off the Interstate at Elysian Fields. The streetlights were all working, although there were still many boarded up houses and closed businesses, their vacant front windows marked by a dirty water line. The telltale hatch marks of the rescue teams were still there, along with their tragic commentaries. (One dead black lab…) But still, here and there were houses with spiffy new coats of paint, new wicker chairs on their front porches. As we turned onto St. Claude and drove through the Bywater district, it got worse. Then we crossed the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth Ward.

Temporary stop signs still control traffic at major intersections. Electric poles lean at drunken angles, their wires dangling. Downed trees, their branches long dead and whitening under the fierce Louisiana sun, still half block some roads. Abandoned boats litter points of high ground. Most houses are still vacant, with no sign of life or reconstruction. The Ninth Ward is a largely African-American part of town, which has led some to portray Katrina as a mainly black tragedy. But if you drive through the Lower Ninth into St. Bernard parish, you’ll find yourself in Chalmette and Violet, a largely white area. And here the devastation is unimaginable.

Here are transformer stations standing empty. Cemeteries with their tombs knocked awry and split open. Mile after endless mile of shattered, empty homes. No blue tarps, no FEMA trailers, no people.

As we drove past these endless, silent testimonials to personal pain and loss on an epic scale, I found myself thinking of other devastated cities. Beirut. Baghdad. The ruined German cities I remember from my childhood in Europe in the Fifties.

In a week, it will have been a year since Katrina struck. I came home saddened, angry at a government that could cause this destruction by its mindless pandering to big oil and certain business interests, and then just walk away, and ashamed. Very, very ashamed.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Why Derivative Tops Original

A glimmer of good news: an editor is interested in my thriller, THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT.

This is obviously better than a rejection, but it’s only the first step. It’s far too early to get excited. There was a time, not so long ago, when editors had the power to buy the books they liked. No longer. Now book purchases must go through the dread Committee. Not only must all the editors at a house be excited by a book (and optimistic about its sales potential), but the marketing people are brought in, too. If the marketing people can’t “see” how they will market a book, they can kill its purchase. This obviously favors books that are imitative and can be pitched as the “new Da Vinci Code” or “Sex in the City meets Friends” over books that might be wonderful, but would require the marketing department to actually work hard and be original.

If you think I sound like I don’t like marketing departments, um.... A few years ago I wrote a book called Confessions of a Dead Romance Writer. It wasn’t a romance, it was sorta a suspense but not exactly, it wasn’t a mystery, it was…different. My agent loved it. Half a dozen editors loved it. So did their colleagues. But in one house after another, the book’s purchase was killed by the marketing department who said they wouldn’t know how to market it. That book is still in search of a buyer.

So I am only cautiously optimistic. My optimism is helped by the fact that two houses have already rejected THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT for being “too commercial.” Presumably that means it’s something the marketing people should find easy to sell. Yet I’ve heard it said that editors these days only manage to purchase one out of every five books they want to buy. Not the best odds.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Treading Water

It’s the ol’ One Step Forward, Two Steps Back routine. The week before last, I went up to the lake and wrote pages and pages of manuscript. All excited to type up the fruits of my labor and press on with my rough draft, I came home and…got sick. Spent the entire following week in bed, too groggy-headed even to write. I’m now on the road to recovery, but my sense of panic has crept back.

What I’m reading…
THE STORM, by Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, about what went wrong before and after Katrina, and why, and how it’s all going to happen again because the US Government is doing NOTHING to fix the lethal combination of problems they’ve created—degradation of the wetlands, loss of the barrier islands, the Funnel caused by the Intracoastal Waterway and the MR GO… Probably not the most comforting reading as we head into the danger zone of the hurricane season! A popular sign around town: Make Levees not War.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Lake House Effect

I’m back from the lake and happy to report that my productivity far exceeded my wildest expectations. I’m not sure how many pages I wrote, since I was writing in long hand and I haven’t typed it up yet, but I’m now feeling much, much better about being able to meet my deadline.

I’m not entirely certain what aspect of the experience contributed to such a steady outflow of creativity. I can’t say it was the lack of distractions, since while I was up there I also managed to unpack, wash, and put away all the kitchen stuff (of which there is much; Steve had enough glasses and plates in storage to outfit half the restaurants in the French Quarter). Lack of the Internet undoubtedly helped. The calming inspiration of the beautiful lake contributed. Being able to write through the late afternoon and evening, late into the night—always my most productive time, but normally reserved for family—surely played an important part. Perhaps it simply all came together with a strong sense of obligation to focus that came from the knowledge I was taking time away from my family and the house.

Of course, the experience was not without hiccups. A house deep in the woods of the dark wilds of Louisiana can be a scary place late at night for those of us with overactive imaginations and memories of Deliverance. One night I came to the scene where someone sneaks into the house to try to kill my sleeping hero, and thought, umm, I’m skipping this chapter!

This week will be spent typing up my outpourings—and of course trying to bring calm to the chaos that is this half-rebuilt house we’re living in. But at least that sense of creeping panic is gone. This book WILL get done.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Writer Retreating

I’m off to spend the rest of the week up at the lake. It’s difficult to leave the house so soon after moving back in, especially with so much still to be done, boxes to be unpacked, things to be organized and put away. But my deadline is looming, and it will take several intensive, marathon sessions if I’m to have any hope of finishing The Beast (otherwise known as Why Mermaids Sing).

I’ve never done something like this—left my family for a week to concentrate on writing. It’s something I’ve fantasized about, especially when my deadline loomed and family interruptions and distractions were driving me crazy. Now we shall see if it really works.

See you next Monday!