Monday, August 29, 2011


The big bookstore, Borders, where I bought books, stationery, CDs, occasional DVDs, gifts, magazines, and heard fellow writers speak about their books over the years, has gone belly-up.  I visited what's left of it today, and found myself saying to anyone near me, "What a loss,"  "This is a tragedy,"  "What will happen to books now?"

I think I know, for myself, at least.  I'll order them, sight unseen, from, or electronically on my Kindle, based on some friend's suggestion or a great review in the Times by a stranger.  But I can’t browse them; I can’t turn the pages in advance, drinking coffee in Borders’ little coffee nook, or look at the pictures, if there are any.

Well, what’s so terrible about that?

The Kindle is a wonderful tool.  In seconds, free and out of the air, I can summon a chapter or so of nearly any book ever written, just by pushing a few keys.  Then, if the sample intrigues me, I can make it appear in its entirety in another few seconds, by agreeing to pay a small -- but increasing -- price, secured by my credit card number.  Easy, yes?

So why shouldn't Borders disappear?  And maybe Barnes and Noble after that?  And maybe all bookstores everywhere?  Who needs them?

I do.  Old fashioned me, who likes to cuddle a book, to write my name in it, with the date and place I bought it, who likes to guiltily glimpse the last page like a peeping tom, or rifle back and forth when I can't remember the name of the hero's brother or how he met his first love.

And I'm a writer, a writer of books.  Who will cuddle mine, write their name in them, scrawl in a margin: "What?" or "I love this!" or "Stupid!" or "Shopping list: Get stamps"?

My passion for books began early.   I remember reading my way through the children's section of the Port Richmond (Staten Island) Public Library, then begging, when I was about ten, to be given the special privilege of a grownup card, and reading  my way alphabetically through the grownup authors: Austin, Bronte, Cather, DuMaurier -- my taste a bit rococo -- Baroness Orczy, Sabatini, Dumas.  I remember how those books, fingered by so many, smelled, how the paper felt, heavy and creamy, the look of the glue on the bindings, the purplish date stamps, stuck on the end of a pencil, that the librarians marked my library card and the book with, a kind of ceremony that bound us, for two weeks if my memory’s right, together.  In those ancient of days the penalty for keeping a book overtime was a penny a day.  I used to walk home with as many as the library would allow – boy were they heavy! -- and keep them only a few days, a day apiece, to read them. 

When I got old enough to have my own money, I bought books with the lust of ownership, improvising bookshelves out of lumber and bricks in the earliest places of my own, later buying bookcases, and then having them built to order, covering walls up to the ceiling with books, trying to arrange them by title, by author, by category, until I gave up and just stacked them in the order that I bought them, and read them, and loved them.  Did I ever throw a book away?   I don’t think so.  I have school books from high school, from college, hundreds -- I’m afraid to say this: maybe thousands.  On a few shelves. I have copies of my own books, books I wrote, that have my name on the cover.  What’s that like?  That’s like seeing your name on a list of “those whom love of God hath blesst,” like Leigh Hunt’s Abou ben Adam.

 And will there be nowhere else in the world, nowhere beside my own bookcase, where my books can stand with their fellows, an army of crazy, besotted, dedicated “writers who write”?   Is that groaning sound as Borders comes down and gives up its books, its records, it’s very fixtures, the creaking and cracking of a dying part of the world?

Over the years I’ve almost gotten used to losing things, places, dear ones that I’ve loved...but I will miss Borders bookstore!


Monday, August 22, 2011


                                                          Men and women
                                                          made to fit;
                                                          who can doubt
                                                          the God of it?.            

I wrote this quatrain around the time of STEAL ME! and posted it yesterday as a

kind of place holder till I decided what I wanted to write next.  The next morning I

jumped out of bed, stumbled to the computer, and erased it.  I didn't know why I

felt so uncomfortable about it, but now I think I do.

The world has changed, and heterosexuality is no longer the single standard.  Yes, men and women do fit, and if there is a God at all, or a Goddess, or a Pantheon, the remarkableness of this method for pleasure and procreation should, or could, be ascribed to Him, or Her, or Them.  But that's not the only means of pleasing your chosen other.  In fact, it’s not even, any longer, the only means of procreation.  The world has changed enough for most of us to recognize that love is love, and the means of making love are creative and varied, and always have been, and exist between men and women, and men and men, and women and woman, and always have.  Always have.  The fact that I, or others, didn’t know that, or didn't recognize it if they did know it, has no bearing whatever on reality: it does.  It is.

Our world seemed flat once, and now we know it's round — more or less round.  My poem is dated, and its irony no longer "clever," as I thought it was when I wrote it.  I'm not facile enough to write another one more suitable to the age we're living in, but if I was, it might go something like this:
                                                Human beings!
                                                goodness knows,
[                                               regarding pleasure
                                                anything goes --
                                                as long as it’s mutually acceptable and
                                    represents the consent of all involved..

I know; it doesn't rhyme.   It's a different world.



Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hanging Bridge

Starting a new book is like putting one foot on the edge of a hanging bridge, not knowing what’s on the other side, or even if the other end is attached. 

I’m starting to write a new book now, a novel about a family, The Blues; I think that will be the title.  Everything is ahead.  I hardly know them yet; they can morph and change a thousand times till something, I don’t know what, tells me “That’s who they are.  I know them.  I can count on them.”  Of course I can’t.  As the writing and the thinking goes on they can still defy me and change, become other people, do what I won’t allow them to do, peter out and die…anything.  But the moment my figurative foot is on the imaginary bridge, the book is in motion, the journey has begun.

The first words: “Everybody chooses the wrong person.  Sometimes it works out.”  (Or should it be “everyone?  Or should it be “the wrong partner?”  Or should it be....?)

I will be wandering now in strange territory, together, maybe, with the characters, or maybe they will be strangers, unknown to me, to be discovered, or discarded, or changed, given bigger roles or smaller, loved, killed.

What power I have over them.   And they over me.

When I first start I have a vague notion of where I want to go -- but how to get there?  Sometimes I think, “I can do this in a year.”  Sometimes it is never, ever done; the end of the bridge is darkness; I lose my way.

And then there’s the voice – the voice of the book itself, which is my voice, and yet not.  If it comes in a kind of rhythym the book begins to write itself; I am the pen, the fingers.  And if there’s no voice – drudgery, hours and days of sitting mindless, waiting, “alone on a wide, wide sea.”  Nothing matters.  Stupid daily life takes over.  Maybe the journey will start again.  Maybe never.

This minute, writing this right now, I feel ready to start, to type the opening words: “Everyone (yes, everyone) chooses the wrong person....  I put my foot on the hanging bridge, and I’m afraid, yet giggly, giddy with excitement.  The bridge quivers a little; maybe it’s not anchored; maybe I’ll fall.

But maybe it will be the smoothest, most glorious time I ever had, maybe it will be wonderful, hungrily read, understood, appreciated, loved....

The bridge seems strong, as though it was made of steel.  There’s sun on the other side.  Avanti!  Let’s go!  It’s beginning!


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Last Words, First Words

The last word my Aunt Lillie ever said was “Mama.”   She was in her sixties, in Mount Sinai, dying.  She hadn’t seen her Mama since she was four years old.  The cancer that sapped Lillie’s life had killed her mother, too, at 34.

In writing, first words and last words have huge importance.  The first words a character speaks in a play, even if it’s “hello”…ah, but should it be “hello,” or “hi,” or “Yo,” or “Good afternoon?”; the possibilities are endless. These words are the audience’s first inkling as to what the character is about.  They should, if the writer is skilled enough, link somehow to the very last words that character speaks, better still, to the last words of the play itself.  The audience doesn’t need to know this; perhaps it shouldn’t.  Like the last notes of a piece of music, the beginning and the end of a play, or a story or a book or a poem, for that matter, should have a sympathetic resonance in – if I can draw this analogy shamelessly further – the key signature of the whole.  Do I mean that if the first word is “hello,” the last word might be “goodbye”?  Maybe.  Or maybe that’s too obvious.  It’s what the skill, the intuition, the – dare I say art? – of the writer should decide.

Not every writer knows this, not even the good ones.  Some do it by instinct, and couldn’t for the life of them tell you why the beginning and end seem right together, but they do.  If they don’t, if they jangle, if the end has no relationship to the beginning, then the work, whatever it is, is like an uncooked meal; it gives you indigestion.

In life, first words are often Mama, or Dada, or Gimme, or Light.  And last words – well, they can be as telling as Gertrude Stein’s: “What is the answer?” and then:  “Well, then, what is the question?” or Henry Thoreau’s when asked if he’d seen the Other World: “One world at a time, one world at a time.”

How much these last words tell about their subjects!   How much the first words and last words of a literary work tell about what comes between, and the skill of the writer who chooses them.

If I were writing this – and I am – I would tell you that my Aunt Lillie’s first word in this world was very probably the one she died on: “Mama.”

A Beginning . . . .

An old love's birthday just passed -- and it seems good to begin this conversation about him, whoever he was. This former love was hugely interesting to me. There was something about him that seemed unknowable, unpredictable, that I could never capture and contain. I wanted to own him, but feared always that if he chose to, he could own me.

This is what he looked like: tall, consciously in shape, careful about his clothes, hairy where you could see and where you couldn't, blunt-faced and handsome -- women took notice of him, and he knew that. He had what the Wife of Bath in Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES had that marked her as sensual: a sliver-sized gap between his front teeth. I have always liked that. He had a grinny, superior smile. It took years for the warmth between us to flare up into fire, and in the meantime we thought and thought and fantasized about each other.

People often ask a writer: "is this story about you, your own life?" The answer is nearly always "Yes," and "No," and "I don't know."

If you read STEAL ME! you will meet him there, or a version of him. As the movies say, any similarity between the characters in this story and real life is purely coincidental. But that, of course, is a lie. Sausage isn't pork loin and meat loaf isn't steak. They are far from the same thing, but there's a relationship. The events in STEAL ME! are fiction, a fantasty. The book is wild and funny and a little crazy, but there's truth in it too -- at least that's what I think -- truth, or some human thing I found out, or think I did, about love and marriage and men and women in the years we knew each other. It took a long time to write the first line -- "He looked so sweet standing there..." and then came the story.

The first line of the new, new, newest idea for a book I'm working on is this: "Everyone chooses the wrong person. Sometimes it works out."

What, I wonder, will that book be about?