Friday, April 01, 2011

Visiting Chabot

A few weeks ago I visited Chabot College to talk about my novel Woman of Ill Fame with an English classroom where--gasp!--the wonderful instructor, Danielle Maze, had assigned it. Who ever woulda thought prostitute Nora Simms’s story would be thought of as a textbook?

The students asked really thoughtful questions and I enjoyed that challenge of being slightly put on the spot for things I didn’t instantly know the answer to.

I think the best question of the night was about craft: “Why did you choose to start the story the way you did? At the beginning you can’t tell right away what’s going on, and who’s involved, and you keep reading to have it unfold.”

That’s a great question. I don’t know what spurs the first moment of a novel. I do know a lot of advice says, “Start writing, and then you’ll probably discard the first 20 pages and begin where the story really starts.”

All I knew was, my novel had to start with Nora arriving in San Francisco, and it made sense that she’d use every last second to make money the best way she knew how. I hadn’t really thought of that beginning sex scene as cryptic, or that one is initially unsure what’s happening. I’d have to look at it again (that book was two babies ago!)…but the underlying question is more global than that: “how do we choose to relay information?”

Some writers might well have chosen to say, “Nora Simms lay on a rice bag, having sex with the galley mate as the ship docked” (which is the scene), but instead I chose a more subtle approach to keying the reader in to what was happening. It’s instinctual, and it’s just how people innately decide to write scenes. I never really think about different options for starting a scene; I just start. My mind knows what it wants to do, right or wrong. I’d be curious to know if other writers consider and abandon different approaches before starting.

Two other interesting things arose out of that classroom visit. One was that someone asked me to sign her book, but it was a library book. We laughed a bit for the idea that I could inscribe it, “Dear library patron…” In the end, I wasn’t enough of a scofflaw to sign the book on the title page, but I did write a little secret message at the back on my author photo page. So if you take Woman of Ill Fame out of the Oakland Public Library, you may happen to get that copy.

Another signing issue arose when someone handed me a book that I had previously signed! He must have bought it off Amazon. I had written, “Dear X, Good luck with your writing career!” so it was probably someone I briefly talked to about their writing aspirations. Unsure what to do, I chose the goofy route, crossed out the woman’s name and instead wrote the current man’s name, and wrote something silly in the margins around my original message.

I’m sure this has to have happened to other authors before since I’ve noticed something: most people open your book to the first page, not the title page, to be signed, making it likely they wouldn’t notice the book was already signed. Which actually makes better sense: it’s typically a page with more room for a message (sometimes completely blank), whereas the title page has many elements to contend with.

Anyway, it was fun to talk about (and think about) Nora Simms again. Thanks Chabot students and especially thanks to instructor Danielle Maze.

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