Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Cover for My Novel!

My publisher today released the book cover for my novel, THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYTHING. In the publishing biz, this is considered big news. So I'm sharing it now, ahead of the book launch in March 2014. In my novel, a noir romantic comedy, an ailing angst-ridden journalist finds love in a Colombian doctor who helps him to conquer his fear of death -- before his illness conquers him. 

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported me with this enormous undertaking. Among the folks instrumental on the cover were, first and foremost, Karen Gowan, the WiDo Publishing managing editor, and the designer she works with, Steven Novak. Kenny Funk: Thanks so much for your help with the typeface and staying up so late working on it. Your suggestions inspired the final design. And to Robin, Karen, and all my friends, too many to mention, who rallied around like a focus group to give me just the right feedback to help narrow the choices.

I love the airiness of the cover design, especially the yin-yang symbol whimsically rendered as clouds, which embodies the novel's theme, The Opposite of Everything. The typeface has personality but doesn't overwhelm the design. A great balance, if you ask me

So that's the big news for today. I'll keep everyone updated as we reach the next stage in the process. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How My Book Title Grew from Seinfeld

I’m not a big TV watcher, but in the 1990s I was hooked on Seinfeld, the classic sitcom featuring Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. As I sat there splitting my sides, I hardly suspected the show about nothing would help me frame the theme for my novel, The Opposite of Everything, nearly two decades later.
One episode in particular, “The Opposite,” stayed with me long after it aired in 1994.
In it, George Costanza is so fed up with life he resolves to do the complete opposite of what came normally. He orders the opposite of his normal lunch, and introduces himself to a beautiful woman who happens to order the same lunch, saying “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” To his surprise, she is impressed and agrees to date him.
The “opposite” concept appealed to me as a novelist on several levels.
Through much of the 1990s, I felt as hapless as George. I was a busy New York City journalist struggling through stress at work, health problems, and a failed marriage. So when I sat down to write my semiautobiographical book, long after Seinfeld went into repeats, I drew on the opposite theme for inspiration. My struggle to write the book, like my life it depicted, was overwhelming. At times, I wanted to run away from both. Instead I fictionalized the trauma, viewing my life through a contrarian lens. The further I distanced myself from the situation, the less I felt like a victim.
Like George, my main character – Daniel Plotnick, an ailing divorced journalist based on me -- resolves to do the opposite of everything that hurt him. He dates a Latina doctor, who accepts his illness, whereas his first wife couldn’t handle it. Deciding to get remarried, he plots to make his second wedding the perfect opposite of his first. He cancels the caterer, corrals guests to cook, and replaces the priest with Buddhist monks.
Plotnick’s contrarian strategy collapses, however, when he undergoes chemotherapy during his wife’s pregnancy. Their side effects converge. They both turn queasy. He loses hair; she grows hair in new places. Something grows inside each of them. Ultimately, the birth of their daughter reaffirms Plotnick’s faith in a more benign growth -- the one to be nurtured with love and caring.

My book’s epigraph, naturally, is the famous quote by George Costanza:

It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I've ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat ... It's all been wrong.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Guest Blogger: Is It Just Me?

                                                         By Sophie Kalish
                                           (12-year-old daughter of David Kalish)

Everyday I have to deal with the two same things. My dad, and his best friend MacBook. I can’t exactly communicate with him. Asking him a question is easy. But getting an answer is not. He’s so focused on his work. His eyes are fixed on the screen. If I ask him a question he just stares blankly at his computer, as if I were saying a statement that didn't sound right. It’s like he's hypnotized.

But my MacBook "is not just a computer; it's my life," he tells me. So I guess I can’t complain. My point is, my dad is a writer. And that’s what all writers do. I figured out how writers think by watching the movies Larry Crowne and Mother. The writers all do the same: think, write, and try to publish. 

Luckily, after thirteen years of trying, my dad finally got a publishing company to agree to publish his first novel. “I thought that once my book was accepted by a publisher, I could just start working on my second novel,” he tells me. “But it’s not like that. I am doing a blog. I have to be active on Facebook. I am Tweeting. I have to organize my book tour. It feels overwhelming, and I hardly have time to work on my second novel,” he says. 

"But on the positive side," he tells me, "I’m connecting with old friends and former co-workers who I haven’t talked to or seen in years. And that’s a good thing. It makes me feel more connected. It makes me feel part of the community."

So he does know what he’s talking about and I understand how it feels to write because I write also. And if a question gets handed over to me while I’m writing, I can’t exactly answer. There's just too many ideas floating in my head. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Top Eight Reasons for Writing

Why do I spend copious amounts of time searching for my story, rearranging words, fiddling with dialogue — isolating myself until my wife threatens to leave me for someone who pays attention to her?

For help in answering this mystery, to calm my fears and restore peace to my family, I undertook research into what motivates authors, including those far more famous than me.

“Writing is its own reward” – Henry Ethelbert Miller

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it” – Truman Capote

“A wounded deer leaps the highest” – Emily Dickinson

“There is no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write” – Terry Pratchett

Can’t say I agreed with everything I uncovered through research. But it did get me thinking about why I sacrifice so much time and goodwill from family and friends to rearrange dictionary words “into the right sentences,” as British novelist Somerset Maughem puts it.

Here’s those top eight reasons:

1. Obsession With Perfection. I cite the sage advice of Leo Burnett, the advertising guru: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.” I’m so far from perfect it’s not funny, but in writing, perhaps, I’m a little less imperfect. Writing is where I’ll struggle until it hurts, hit my head against the wall until I bleed. All that self-punishment has, over many decades, made my sentences crisper, my plots sharper, my characters more credible, my themes wackier. In other areas of life, my skillset has stagnated. I’m a mediocre pool player, an OK ping pong player. I can roast a chicken, but I’ve never braised anything or cooked eggs sous vide. But writing stands out.

2. Fear of Humiliation. I think of asking a Doubting Thomas to read my work, or emailing a manuscript to an agent. The image that comes to mind is of dancing buck-naked on a stage with the crowd laughing, perhaps throwing tomatoes, at a big hairy mole on my buttocks. And yet: dance I must. For here I am with my blog, dancing again. Risking humiliation. To ease my fear of humiliation, I strive for perfection (see Reason No. 1), even as I fall short.

3. Hunger for Glory. Beyond that pile of rejection slips rising Katmandoo-like from my desk, to mix cliches, is a vision of the golden ring I’ll clasp when my ship finally comes in. Here’s what I’m fighting for: to be published. Recognized. Respected. To feel less self-deprecating.

4. Everything Else Feels Boring. It’s true. Often I’m watching a movie, window shopping, sitting at a restaurant, or whatever, thinking: I could be writing. I could be dreaming up new worlds. I could be making up jokes for my characters to tell. My characters, in short, spice up my ho-hum life.

5. My Most Terrifying Reason. That my life is less interesting than my fiction. That my characters are nicer, more complex, funnier, and braver than anyone I know. That I’ll die from boredom if I don’t write. That every day is a retreat from the gray monotonous death I fear for myself in a world without written words.

6. My Least Terrifying Reason. We’re all familiar with the “runner’s high” that long-distance runners feel after they get over “the hump.” For me, it’s the state of meditative excitement as I get swept up in the writing process, the hours flying by. I scarcely remember the rest of my life is on hold, bills unpaid, dinner uncooked. This pleasure comes too seldom, however.

7. Flashes of Recognition. The joyful happiness I feel when a reader laughs at a comic moment in my story. Or gets misty-eyed after reading a poignant passage.

8. Cleaning My Plate. When I was a kid my mother always made me finish dinner. Similarly, I get anxious when I’m surrounded by unfinished pieces. I think of broccoli sitting untended on my plate, going to bed without TV. That’s why I feel relieved, right now, finishing this list.

Of Crabgrass, and Letting Go

For the first time since moving upstate ten years ago, I have made peace with my crabgrass.

It spreads across our half acre of lawn like a pale dishrag, smothering any remnants of Kentucky Blue Grass. It masses against my house. Its unruly blades poke up as if Mother Earth were giving me many middle fingers. And I’m starting to be OK with that.

At the age of 51, I’m letting go.

Of the lawn. Of my precocious daughter, who is twelve going on twenty. And of my novel, acquired by a publisher early this year only after I coddled it for thirteen years, afraid to let go of trying to perfect it.

I remember the stages I passed through to get to this point. How it felt for me giving up the idea our grass should look like a golf course.

Growing up on Long Island, I learned weeds are bad — to be controlled, pulled up, and generally reviled. I think of Billy Joel’s lyrics about his suburban dad who “never lets the crabgrass grow too high.” So when my wife and daughter and I moved upstate in 2003 to our four-bedroom house on a half-acre, one of my first calls was to a lawn care company.

But the applications of herbicide, announced in cautionary yellow flags stuck in my lawn, made me nervous. As our puppy and daughter played on the lawn that first summer, I worried about liver cancer. I imagined weed poison stunting my daughter’s growth. The second season I told the lawn company to skip some treatments. Seizing the opportunity, crabgrass sprouted around the edges of our property. The next season I thought of my own slow-growing cancer, which I’ve battled for many years. I fretted over poisoning the water and earth, for the sake of aesthetics. Something snapped in me. I cancelled the lawn care company. The hell with the neighbors. The crabgrass was ecstatic.

At first I saw the spreading patch-quilt as a blemish on my reputation. I figured my neighbors were judging me. I’d return to my house under cover of darkness, when the lawn was invisible, like a criminal returning to his lair. I looked forward to fall and winter, when the crabgrass slept. I particularly liked snowstorms which blanketed everything under a carpet of sameness.

But time, and crabgrass, marches on. Today it stubbornly shimmers across our lawn, a jade-green testament to what happens when you let go. Oh sure, some patches of Kentucky Blue poke through here and there, ghosts of an old life, reminders I was once locked in battle for control of my lawn.

But no longer does it make me feel like a failure. 

I’m reminded of other areas in life. I think of my daughter, my impulse to try to control what she does and where she goes. I tell her she must practice cello and piano before her playdate. I forbid her from eating a marshmallow fifteen minutes before dinner. She reminds me she excels at music and always cleans her plate. Sometimes I flash back to her Jewish mikvah for comfort.

She was six months old, when the rabbi told me I had to submerge her in the ritualistic pool for three seconds. I had to let her go. Like God commanded Adam and Eve to go from the Garden of Eden. Like Moses beseeched Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I held her tiny body against my bony chest. I dropped her. She gazed up at me through the water
with pale eyes. Her tiny arms flailed, seeming to wave goodbye. By some automatic reflex, my hand jerked and scooped her back up and clamped her to my chest. Through the din of her screams, the rabbi checked his stopwatch and smiled sadly, shaking his head that not enough time had passed. By the third try, though, I finally got it right. My daughter was Jewish.

Letting go of my novel, which I started when my health was in crisis, was especially hard. I could have tended to it until the day I died. But when a publisher offered me a contract early this year, I gave up the notion of perfection to someone who was not me.

I’ve learned that change comes in patches. First crabgrass appears along the edges of driveway and on lawn fronting the street, in the sunniest parts of the lawn. We try to fight it with herbicide.

But this year crabgrass has won. And in a backward sort of way, so have I.

The Butterfly Effect

Where are all the monarch butterflies this year?

Last summer, my daughter Sophie pretty much ran a butterfly nursery in our house. She filled a big jar in our kitchen with dozens of monarch eggs she found clinging to milkweed plants in our neighborhood. Soon the jar was crawling with striped caterpillars. After a month of munching on milkweed, and growing like crazy, one after another would attach to the inside of the jar and stiffen into a chrysalis.

I’ll never forget the sight, two weeks later, of a new butterfly breaking free from its papery prison, uncrumpling its orange-and-black wings. After an hour or so, we’d stare awestruck as the butterfly pushed off from our backyard deck, fluttering into the air for the first time. It was as if we ourselves were borne on that breeze, soaring into the unknown.

But the nursery is closed this summer. Sophie can’t find any eggs clinging to milkweed in our neighborhood or, for that matter, any monarchs fluttering around. The air feels strangely empty. So where are all the butterflies? What does their lack mean for us, and the world?

We googled for answers. Turns out there’s a paucity not just in upstate New York, where we live, but across North America. Various factors are blamed, including extreme weather resulting from climate change, milkweed plants lost to farm herbicides, and the loss of winter habitat in Mexico. Researchers noticed last December that the monarch population wintering in Mexico covered less than three acres – the smallest area ever recorded. In 1996, the number of butterflies in the area was eighteen times greater, disturbing evidence the decline is a long-term trend and not just the result of seasonal events.

What does it mean when a symbol of freedom diminishes? Scouting for clues to this deeper question, I reread a Ray Bradbury story, “Sound of Thunder.” In it, a hunter travels back in time on a guided safari to kill a T-Rex – and mistakenly strays off the path and squashes a butterfly. Upon returning to the present the safari group finds the world drastically altered by the seemingly innocuous death of a single butterfly. Words are spelled strangely, people behave differently – and a fascist dictator has been elected ruler.

Last I checked Obama is still president, but the lack of butterflies this year affects us in large and small ways. In our kitchen, there’s one less jar fil
led with interesting stuff. Discouraged, Sophie takes fewer bike trips scouring milkweeds in our neighborhood. We miss the awesome sight of a majestic butterfly flapping away for the first time.

My memories of last summer remain vivid, but one day they’ll recede. I think of my flying dreams. We all have them. Last one I enjoyed was about a year ago, after an empowering real-life event – a literary journal published a short story of mine. But when I was young the dreams felt more real. I’d awake from such dreams, nearly convinced they’d taught me how to fly. It had something to do with jumping sideways in the air, like a pole vaulter without a pole, then latching onto a breeze.

“In my class everyone used to have flying dreams, but they barely do anymore. But I had one a month ago,” Sophie tells me. She had more when she was younger. At the age of six, half a lifetime ago, she dreamed fairies gave her wings and painted them, but she woke up before she could fly.

At what point does a memory recede into dream? We await the monarch’s return for an answer.

Social Media for Dogs

Every day, several times a day, our two dogs, Tilly and Luna, post on the canine equivalent of Facebook.

They sniff lampposts. Bushes. Tree trunks. Sidewalk curbs. Then they post their comment, so to speak. Later in the day, they check the
same site to see if another dog has commented back. They often comment on top of that comment. Certain sites draw more traffic than others.

I don’t mean to disparage Facebook by comparing it to a urine-soaked lamp post. I use it all the time to stay in touch and get the word out about my upcoming novel. I merely seek to be instructive. Analyzing canine behavior, I believe, can help us harness the power of social media more effectively – and teach us to pull back when we grow obsessed with it.

If dogs were people, for instance, they’d be social media addicts. My silky terrier sniffs a tree like she’s smoking opium. She loses all sense of the world around her. She doesn’t respond to my pleas to hurry up so I can get home and start dinner. A jillion thoughts must fill her little mind. Then, with the utmost care, she squats.

I can only imagine what our furry friends are saying through social media:

Bruno (7:39 a.m.): That was an interesting post, Rover. But it’s time for mine to blow yours right off the map.

Rover (10:30 a.m.): Great to hear from you, Bruno. But your comment was so stupid I squirted all over it.

Tilly (3:21 p.m.): Hey you bastards – I’m a bitch!

Rover (5:58 p.m.): OMG! Choose me!

Fido (9:10 p.m.): Don’t listen to that bastard – I’ll make you happiest!

Sure, our methods are more high-tech. “Urine scent” and “social media proficiency” are rarely spoken in the same sentence. We blog on Facebook and Twitter; dogs use fire hydrants. We post pithy sayings, family photos, and birthday invitations; dogs tap kidneys. But a core commonality crosses both species: dogs and humans seek to mark their territory as distinctly as possible, harnessing physical and intellectual abilities evolved over tens of thousands of years.

Clearly, the “aim” of dogs is as noble as ours: to unshackle themselves from isolation, reach out to community. Connect with others they haven’t physically met. Extend their world through the senses.

And just as dogs can become so obsessed with urination they disconnect from the world, it’s easy to become lost in Blogger, buried in Tweets. Our obsession with the virtual community isolates us from the actual one.

As a social media newbie, I find myself spending hours each day to check for incoming and update my pages promoting my debut novel-- instead of writing my second one. I have less face-to-face experiences with family and friends. I even read fewer books. My daughter says I don’t listen to what she’s saying. Even now, hypnotized by my computer, writing this blog, I hardly hear my dogs scratching at the door to go out, sending a signal they need to tap a kidney or two.

Time to end this blog before the carpet needs cleaning.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Words of Wisdom from Richard Bausch That are Worth Sharing

Try not to think to much in the first rounds of work, try not to categorize it right away--because it's possible to shut something wonderful away by closing any avenue of choice. Just think of it as EXPRESSION. And let it be whatever it tends to over time. I've had four separate "short stories" end up being novels, because that was where they led. If you think of it as expression, it's a little less daunting, at least for me.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fact Meets Fiction. Discuss.

This morning, as I posted news about a literary event of mine in Greenwich Village on Sept. 30, I had an epiphany: I’m about to read at a New York City café, from a novel that’s partly about reading at a New York City cafe.
And the reading depicted in my book is based on a real-life reading I gave in 1999.
My life echoes my novel, which echoes my life.
Let’s walk through this. A central scene in my book, The Opposite of Everything, takes place at Eureka Joe’s, a now-defunct coffee house less than a mile away from CorneliaStreet Café, where I’m actually reading Sept. 30. Fourteen Septembers earlier, in fact, I also read at Eureka Joe’s – and met the woman who would become my wife.
Just like in the novel.
Fact meets fiction. Meets fact. Over coffee. Discuss.
I remember that real-life evening in 1999 at Eureka Joe’s like my own face. It was autumn, chilly outside. I climbed the stage of the Chelsea coffee house and nervously gripped the podium. I scanned the crowd for Ingrid, an olive-skinned Latin woman, 30s, lush mane of blondish brown hair. I’d only seen a photo of her. It was to be our first date, and I was sweating bullets. I’d invited her to a reading of mine – without telling her it would be a public airing of my turbulent life, of which she knew little.
And where the hell was she? Just minutes to go before my turn to read, she hadn’t shown yet. I shuffled my manuscript and swigged water to coat my dry throat.
This was just a few years after my divorce and cancer diagnosis; I’d been taking creative writing classes to help me sort through my feelings. Ingrid and I had been exchanging emails for several weeks after I posted an ad on an online dating site. She was a doctor from Colombia, training to be one in the United States. Wary of scaring her off, I didn’t mention anything to her about my struggles. But then I had the brilliant idea to invite her to my literary reading.
I was about to find out in a big way how she’d react. But she hadn't shown up yet.
The lights dimmed over the audience. I set the woman’s photo on the podium, next to the manuscript. Clasping the microphone, I cleared my throat.
“This is a story,” I began, “about my life.”
As I read of my brush with divorce and disease, I spied a woman entering the half-dark coffee house who resembled the photo on the podium. She held a photo in her hand, presumably of me. As I stood gazing out, I felt as if I were reciting to her, throwing out a test to see if she could handle my life. My first wife couldn’t. The relationship had collapsed under the pressure of an ill husband and an uncertain future.
Later, as we chatted over beers, she told me her car had overheated in the Lincoln Tunnel on the way here. Luckily she had a jug of anti-freeze in her trunk, a towel to delicately unscrew her hot radiator cap, and the steady practiced hands of a primary care physician from Colombia. She’d made it. She also asked me if the story I told was true. I said Yes. A strong woman, she could handle a lot of things. Less than a year later we were married.
This story, as I mentioned, forms the basis for the relationship at the center of my novel. In my novel, as in my life, the protagonist’s wife accepts all of him.

Ironically, though, when I stand up next month before listeners at Cornelia Street Café, Ingrid won’t be there. Not this time around. As a family doctor with her practice near our upstate New York home, it’s tough for her to get away on weekdays.