Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ned Vizzini, It's Kind Of A Funny Story

I was excited and anxious to get my hands on this book because of the subject matter. It's Kind of a Funny Story is about a teenager who is depressed and suicidal and checks himself into the hospital.

The novel spans the five days Craig, the narrator, is in the psychiatric unit. It's very well written and at times, funny. I’ve suffered from depression for a long time and there are moments when I feel like I’m the only one who knows what its like to experience the cycle of feeling sad and distressed. Me -and maybe Sylvia Plath.

I think this is going to be an important novel to thousands of both teens and adults. I can imagine Oprah doing a show on teen depression and referencing this book. It was a really good read, fast paced and I couldn't put it down.

The story was based on your own experience in a psychiatric ward. Why did you make Craig fifteen years old rather than a guy in his twenties?

I enjoy writing about high school because it's such a primal arena for human conflict. But there's another reason that I made Craig fifteen instead of 23, the age I was when I entered the hospital. It's because these days, fifteen-year-olds face the pressures that I faced at 23. Their academic environment has turned into a college-industrial complex with kids competing to get into the right preschool, let alone the right after-school internship.

The ability of Myspace to make instant, small-scale celebrities has led to many people expecting a fan base when they leave high school. If you slip, as Craig does, you can quickly fall into hopelessness, as if you'd lost a career in your 20s.

What were you like as a teenager? And how have you changed since then?

As a teenager, I thought I had problems, but I had no idea. I thought that not being able to get a girlfriend was the be-all and end-all of human difficulty. I was also frenetic, constantly coming up with projects, writing, starting websites, pursuing anything that interested me. As I've aged, I've encountered much bigger problems, and I've become a lot more plodding. I'd like to think I've become wiser as well, and I'm working towards being the man I'm supposed to be, but sometimes I'm not so sure. Jeez. This is like therapy.

How much of the story was true, what did you fictionalize? And why did you choose to base it on your own experiences rather than write a non –fiction account of what you went through?

About 85% of It's Kind of a Funny Story is true. I really did want to kill myself and I really did go to the psych hospital, and I really did have the experiences that Craig has in the book (most of them), and I really did have a moment where I decided that it was better to live. What didn't happen were some of the more salient plot points: the love triangle, especially.

I chose to fictionalize so that I could add those elements without lying about myself. I also wanted Craig to be younger than me, so that I could add in some 20-something insights about being a teenager. Maybe when I'm 30 I'll have insights about my 20s.

What kind of music do you listen to when you write, if any?

When I write, I like to listen to music with long songs so that a song hasn't ended and I've written a few sentences. That means jazz--Miles Davis--and also opera. But I still go back to Weezer and Nirvana from time to time. These days one of my favorite bands is a country act from Brooklyn called the Useless Bastards.

The last page of the book is really good, it's powerful and positive and we really feel like Craig is going to pull himself together. Have you re-read the novel since it was published? If you did, what do you think?

I haven't re-read It's Kind of a Funny Story since it was published, but I read it over a number of times for editing, and I do like the ending. I like it especially because I really did have a moment like that, a moment where I decided to live. Unfortunately it hasn't been all gravy from that point on--sometimes, it's been very difficult.

I have the book around and I do hope that I can turn to it sometime in the future to give me help when I'm feeling depressed. That's really what it's there for--to help people and to tell a story and to show you that no matter how bad your life is, there's humor in it and there's life in that humor.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Debra Dean, The Madonna's Of Leningrad

I began this book on the way home from my vacation and read it in one day. Debra Dean depicts a vivid image of war- torn Russia, of the slow destruction of the Hermitage and the people whose lives are changed by war. Her writing is so full and dramatic, you cannot help but conjure up images of the very paintings she writes about.

Being a huge fan of painting and art, I especially enjoyed the glimpses of the paintings Debra richly describes, it's as if you are being given a personally guided tour. This is not a book for those of you looking for a humorous, beachy read. The Madonna’s of Leningrad is a serious novel, heavy in content and tone. Debra Dean’s writing is lovely and poetic and there is no doubt she has talent. It's hard to believe this is her debut novel.

I enjoyed the details and history you provide for the reader being as it is a part of the past I don't know much about. I have a much greater understanding and curiosity after reading The Madonna's of Leningrad.

How long did the research process take you? How did you go about such a daunting task as gaining detailed insight into the paintings of the Hermitage as well as the history of those affected by war?

There’s that old saw of creative writing classes, “Write what you know.” One could hardly be less knowledgeable about a subject, going in, than I was, but I loved doing the research. It’s a wonderful diversion when the writing gets jammed up to be able to turn to a book and read for awhile.

When I started researching, Google was not my default mode, so I went to the university library and used interlibrary loan to borrow histories of the war and journals of the siege and art books about the Hermitage collection. About midway through three years of researching, the Hermitage constructed a wonderful website – at least, I like to think it wasn’t there all along. I remember coming home one afternoon, absolutely giddy, and telling my husband, “there’s a website, and you can click on a map of the museum and it brings up revolving video of each room you want to look at.” Up until then, I had been trying to reconstruct the museum in my head with the books, a pretty impossible task.

From beginning to end, how long did it take you to write the novel? And how many agents did you submit to until you signed a contract for representation?

The germ of this novel was a short story I started in 1995. It quickly became apparent to me that the scope of the story was too large to be contained in the short form, but I couldn’t imagine how my life would allow space to write a novel, so I put it away. It continued to reemerge, to pester me, though.

When I finally decided to commit to the novel, I wrote it over three summers between teaching, and bought myself one spring term to finish it off. I already had an agent – she had taken me on when all I had was a collection of short stories and no promise of a novel – and she encouraged me to pursue this book. It took me a long time to write it, but when it was done, it sold over a long weekend.

What inspired you to write about Russian history? Did you always have an interest in this era?

I saw a documentary on PBS on the Hermitage Museum, and I was stunned to hear about this brilliant collection of art, and this amazing history of the siege. I had read Russian literature - Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin - but beyond a pass at Solzhenitsyn, I was unfamiliar with the Soviet period. I think it’s partly a function of being a Cold War baby.

If you could hop into a time machine and travel to another time period, what era would you choose to visit and why? I love the innocence of the fifties and the way the everything changed going into the sixties.

I have to choose one time? When I lived in New York, I had recurring fantasies about being able to time travel there (I loved the Jack Finney novel), but I wanted to stop at each decade. I’m greedy that way. It’s why I was a bookworm as a child – I wanted to go everywhere. Having said that, I don’t know that I’d want to stay in most parts of history for more than a short visit. I really like hot showers and good dental care and having choices.

The book deals with heavy themes such as war and mental illness. Inside Marina's brain she was living in another world, another time and place and it was really sad. Sadder is that many are affected by the disease with no cure or understanding.

Did you study Alzheimers or know anyone who has been affected by this disease? And I wish Marina had shared her story with her daughter, Helen. Why didn't she?

I did a little research on Alzheimer’s, but unfortunately, most of what I know, I observed first hand: my grandmother died of the disease.

I wish Marina had shared her story with her daughter, too. But characters don’t always behave the way we might wish, any more than living people do. Marina and Dmitri, like so many immigrants of their generation, turned their back on a painful past and started over.

I think this is even more the norm with those who came of age under the repression of Stalin: many of the oral histories of the women who survived the siege have really only come to light in the past few years. I met a woman in St. Petersburg whose grandmother survived the siege, though she lost three children to starvation. She told me that as a child, she asked her grandmother if she had eaten people, but the grandmother would say only that terrible things happened.

The book was not light and silly. Are you a serious person? I'm guessing you are rather introverted, probably the quiet person standing alone, making observations at parties…?

I met a group of booksellers last fall in San Francisco, and one of them remarked that I wasn’t at all who she had expected, given my book. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask how I was different, but I suspect people are a little surprised to find that I have a sense of humor. I was an actress, so I learned to be comfortable in the public arena. But I’m also very private; I need quiet time to recoup.

What topics interest you for future novels? Can you tell me what you are working on right now?

This is where I’m going to be private and introverted! I do have an idea for the next novel that I’m playing with, but it is still in the early, amorphous stages, and talking about it commits me in ways that aren’t good for the writing

Friday, March 17, 2006


I'm going to admit something to you right now. I received Shaking Her Assets is a humorously written novel about a girl who loses her boyfriend and her job and comes up with an idea for a business over drinks with her friend. The idea is so crazy and far fetched, surely it cannot be successful but Rachel has nothing to lose. The comic book heroine on the cover comes from a coworker who creates cartoons of Rachel and her funny little escapades while running her thriving business. This book is for those of you who enjoy humorous womens fiction. Not science fiction. I'm so embarrassed! Robin and Renee, forgive me!

Miss New York Has Everything is the title of Lori Jakiela's hilarious memoir. Lori grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, PA hoping to live the life of Marlo Thomas from That Girl. Instead she ended up as a flight attendent, living in a cramped New York City apartment and realizing that flying isn't thrilling, sophisticated or fun and that life usually doesn't turn out like we planned. If it did, I would be living in a modern Greenwich Village loft with my photographer boyfriend...but that's me. And we are talking about Lori here.

I found myself giggling at her descriptions and circumstances. I identified with the big dreams of a girl living in a suburbia, hoping for a future that was glamorous and exciting. I'm still waiting...

So...what would happen if I interviewed Jake Gyllenhall and rumors began to swirl that the two of us were romantically involved? Ah! I'd love that, but my husband wouldn't. That's the premise of Kristin Harmel's novel, How To Sleep With A Movie Star. A celebrity interviewer wakes up in an actors bed after meeting with him and the rumor mill begins churning full force after the two are seen together in what appears to be post coital bliss.

Tabloids go wild with the story of a hunky movie star falling for a non-celebrity, normal girl and mayhem ensues! The book is a quick read and it is a fun story for those of us who love the whole tabloid-movie star-real life entanglement.

Hollywood Hussein is written by Ken Baker of US Weekly fame. In this book, he creates a satirical situation where President Bush hires a group of paparazzi and a tabloid journalist to capture Saddam Hussein. All the while conversing with Arnold Schwarzeneggar.

The exchange between James Lipton and Gwenyth Paltrow had me laughing out loud. And it didn't take much to figure out who socialite London Marriott really was.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Im back...

I've been on vacation for the past two weeks but I'm back now!

While away I read several books which I will be talking about and linking to. I'm very excited about some of them because there is nothing like a great novel to escape into. Check back soon!