Plot, Process and Keeping the Faith

We went over to Melissa Febos’ house for a serious schooling on plot, process and keeping the faith. Stay tuned for more from Melissa with the next installment: Green Tea, Seaweed Snacks and the Dungeon of Your Mind.  

On Plot

When I started off writing prose, I basically wrote prose the way I wrote poetry which is like combining words and rhythms and images in a way that please me.  Which is a good way to start but it does not a story make. Continue reading Plot, Process and Keeping the Faith

Stranger in a Strange Land

Matt Dojny
The Festival of Earthly Delights (Dzanc Books, 2012)
Read by Kate


The Festival of Earthly Delights takes the reader to the fictional southeast Asian country of Puchai, where the protagonist – lovable, accident-prone Boyd Darrow – tries to improve his relationship with his girlfriend Ulla. Ulla got a job at the Faculty of Theater Drama at Mai Mor College, where she’ll help produce the big talent show for Mai Mor’s annual Festival of Taang Loke Kwaam Banterng Sumitchanani.

Boyd’s neighbor, who he calls Mr. Horse (since he can’t pronounce his name) explains the Festival like this: It’s the “festival of enjoy the pleasant feeling of this saddest world by being drunken and kissing the neighbor and become carried away with dancing to traditional music, before you become dead and do not have a body for enjoying.” A festival of earthly delights.

It’s funny to watch Boyd be pushed out of his comfort zone. As recent (recovering?) expat, I enjoyed watching Boyd navigate new foods like delicious fae-dongs (deepfried gland of an animal);  garong, Queen of the Fruits (which by the description of its pungent smell sounds like a durian); and The Pleasurely Beast (raw beef with chilies and spices). The impact of the Pleasurely Beast on Boyd’s digestive system, too, hit close to home. People don’t talk about this, but ditching a pair of underpants in public is an expat right of passage.

The story is driven by Boyd unraveling relationship to Ulla, and his growing affection for his boss’ daughter,  Shiney, a Puchanese girl with a conspicuous birthmark. For the sake of convenience, Boyd and Ulla tell everyone that they are married, though the distance between them grows wider every day. He discovers that she took this job to escape her attraction to her boss, with whom she had been making out in the stairwell during lunch. He learns too that the boss, the handsome Shawn, had been here to Mai Mor, had recommended this job to Ulla, and had already impressed all the locals with his handsomeness and philanthropy.

Poor Boyd! The magic and kindness that Shiney brings into Boyd’s life and Ulla’s growing jealous are delicious, as the story builds toward the Festival of Earthly Delights of the title.

The Festival of Earthly Delights was inspired by letters Dojny had written to a friend during a real-live sojourn to Thailand with a real-live, at-the-time girlfriend.  The story is a romp, and, while this outsider-looking-in perspective could come off as exoticizing or exploitative, Boyd moves through the fictional Puchai with an endearing willingness to participate, allowing him to learn the real value of all that is unfamiliar.

A funny, smart vacation read, especially greats for expats and others traveling abroad.

How Smart People Lie To Themselves

Whip Smart: A Memoir by Melissa Febos
(Thomas Dunne Books, 2010)
Read by Kate

Melissa Febos’ 2010 memoir uses clean prose to describe some dirty subjects. Precocious in very dangerous ways since childhood, Febos attended The New School as an undergraduate. Despite having the pinched pockets of a student, Febos was also nursing a drug habit she developed in middle school. Money quickly became an issue.

Taking a job as a dominatrix in a New York City dungeon, Febos told herself it was not a sex job. She didn’t have sex. It was an acting job. (“On of the most reliably paying acting gigs in New York,” she told an inquisitive date). Besides she was curious. It was an anthropological experiment.

Febos had always hated the thought of being regular or normal or boring. And she felt empowered by secrets. She loved that she pushed past boundaries that most people never would. She loved having a secret identity, looking normal on the outside, and secretly twisting nipples for a living.

For the first part of the story, you are with her.  The Montaigne quote in her author’s note reads: “I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me.” Why not? Why not be open to every experience? And the details are so juicy. The spankings, the role-playing. And the enemas! I didn’t even know that was a thing.

Her lies and her charisma and her inherent power have enchanted you, the way they‘ve enchanted her serial best friends.

But the depth and quality of this memoir come from Febos honest depiction of her descent into drug addiction. You are really worried for this girl. And she writes about Alcoholics Anonymous, and you think, Hallelujiah, until she starts lying to them too. A turning point comes when she confesses her relapses to her sponser, who laughs and says: “Of course you relapsed and lied about it. You’re a junky!”

Talk about a convincing and unreliable narrator. The revelation hits you seemingly the way it hit her.  She’s a liar! She’s not in control! She’s not okay. She starts to see her work differently. Of course it’s a sex job! The women she works with are not empowered feminists, but wounded and vulnerable and maladjusted.

And yet she can’t give it up. She tries, but the real world is hard. And who would she be without it? That these are the same rationalizations that kept her on drugs for so long, ratchets up the drama

Whip Smart excels at the unreliable narrator, but also at letting the narrator learn over the course of the book. It’s hard to talk about a memoir the same way that we talk about fiction, but the book works because the character arc is believable and engenders empathy for Melissa / Justine.  Febos also delicately balances the titillating with the horrifying, the funny with the sad, and the lies with the introspective truths for a well-paced, smart catharsis of a read.

Truths, Tales and Children’s Books

Leonard Marcus is a historian of children’s book literature, and has written biographies of children’s book authors including Margaret Wise Brown of Goodnight Moon, and most recently Madeline L’Engle, of A Wrinkle in Time among other novels.  We met him for salads at Heights Cafe in Brooklyn Heights.

On finding his first subject

I was looking for a subject and one night I was in the village, there was a bookstore that a lot of people browsed in called Marlborough books and I saw Goodnight Moon.  So I read it and it struck me that it was real poetry.  It was so distilled.  And I thought it was so miraculous that she wrote this poem that a two year old could respond to.  And that I was responding to.

Then I read the flap and they made her out to be this glamorous figure.  So then I began to explore whether there had been anything written about her.  Margaret Wise Brown.  She started publishing in the 30s.  And she died at 1952 at 42.  So she was like this comet.  She had this short, brilliant career.

[Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon] took ten years.  And at a certain point, I said to myself – it would be crazier not to finish it than to finish it.  You gather all the facts and then you realize you still have to make a story out of it.  It’s almost the same as writing a novel except you can’t make anything up.

A budding historian
One of the appeals of children’s books for me is that they are almost always illustrated.  As a child I used to clip political cartoons from newspapers and make albums out of them.  I saw them as art that was being thrown away and I didn’t think they should be.  So it was like being a 10 year old curator.  It’s sort of funny that as a child you might be doing something that you continue doing.

On his first interview
With this friend of mine in 5th grade, I started a newspaper which didn’t last very long.  We thought we should have an interview in every issue.  So I wrote a letter to the Mayor of the town, this was Mount Vernon NY, just north of the city.  And he wrote back and he said sure.  So I went over there with a friend and we were ushered in there by a policeman and he couldn’t have been nicer.  His name was P. Raymond Sirignano.  So his nickname was Patsy.  I sat down right next to his desk and the top drawer of his desk was open.  There was a big button that looked like it was a campaign button but really it was a joke button.  And what it said on the button was: Fat Lips Patsy. And he saw me looking down on it and what he did was slam the door shut.  So that was my introduction into the business of being an interviewer.

On telling the truth:
If something is verifiable and it’s coming from someone who knew the situation well and is willing to say it in print, then I think it’s important.  I don’t think something that I would want to do would be to bring somebody down.  But I think it humanizes someone to present them in a very complicated way.

On willing to be lucky:
If you go into the situation knowing enough of something, then you can recognize the good luck that comes your way sometimes.

When I started writing my book about Margaret Wise Brown, I went to the library to see what had been written about her.  I saw one article in Life magazine from when she was alive, in 1946.  And I was paging through it and on the second page there was as photograph of her in front of little wooden cottage in manhattan.  There were a few of these things in New York, these little hidden houses.    She was just the person to find something like that.  She used it as a writing studio.

After she died, the house was going to be demolished.  Somebody bought it and wheeled it down to Greenwich village and saved it.  And it’s still there, on Charles street.  When I saw the picture of that house I recognized it because I was living next door to it.

On process:
The main thing is this total immersion leading to a feeling that I have internalized the subject.  And then I can start writing.  And then this wonderful thing happens where you have a lot of facts that you’ve accumulated and they start forming a relationship.  They suddenly start almost vibrating and you see what they mean.