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 Dear friends,

Much has been happening these past few weeks in preparation for the launch of A Tale for the Time Being, and it's been a real team effort!

My friend & fellow filmmaker Bill Weaver and I shot a book trailer up on Cortes, with the backdrop of the brooding Pacific Northwest landscape and a lovely song by Le Mépris, which I listened to over and over again when I was writing the novel.

The trailer lives my homepage and on my beautiful new Facebook author page, which my friend Laura Trippi of Latrippi Designs made for me. If you "like" it, you'll be able to keep tabs on my tour schedule and the reviews as they come in, and find links to booksellers where you can pre-order the new book. I'll be uploading stories and pictures from the road, posting excerpts from the novel, and maybe some audio recordings, too…

Laura has also set up a tiny newsletter for me, which you can join here, or from the Facebook page, or from my website. I promise not spam you if you join. It's just another way of staying in touch, and I can let you know about readings, workshops, and other goings on.

And finally, Carole DeSanti, my friend, fellow novelist, and editor at Viking Penguin, is like a captain at the helm of a ship, keeping it, and me, on course!

It's been wonderful to be working with all my wonderful and talented friends to bring this book out into the world for all you wonderful and talented friends and readers. So thanks for your interest, and I hope to see you down the road!

Everything's up to date in Kansas City...

kansas city

Everything's up to date in Kansas City They gone about as fer as they can go They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high About as high as a buildin' orta grow.

Winter Institute - Kansas City, MO. Just about to head down to the Century Ballroom to the gathering of my tribe—booksellers and booklovers, from around the country. How cool is that?

But before I go, I just want to upload, quickly, this interesting bit of information: Kansas City was the city chosen by Google to launch their Google Fiber 1. For about $70/month, households here can have access to 1 gig/sec broadband speeds. This, according to Google Access General Manager Kevin Lo, is "more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have today."

Hmm. Last I heard, our Internet in the East Village of Manhattan was still down, after Hurricane Sandy.

Okay, gotta run...

Life is tough...and transient

Shambhala Sun just sent me the pdf of Norman Fischer's article, Life is Tough - 6 ways to deal with it, from the March issue of the magazine, so I thought I'd share it here. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it's a great article about the Lojong slogans, and his book, Training in Compassion, which I'm reading now, is even better. Today I'm studying slogan #2: See everything as a dream. Here's a little bit of what Norman says about it:

Everything is always passing away. That's just how it is in this world. As soon as something appears, in that same moment, it's already gone. Everything that exists in time is like this, appearing and disappearing in a flash. That's what we mean when we say "time is passing."

Now it is today. Where did yesterday go, and where is tomorrow now? You can't say. Nor is it really clear where today—where now—is. As soon as you try to figure it out, it is already gone. Since this is so, you have to wonder whether it was ever really here to begin with...

Reading this, I can trace so clearly the influence of Norman's thinking and teaching on A Tale for the Time Being. I can also hear the echoes of Dogen Zenji's beautiful fascicle "Uji" or "The Time-Being." After my mother's death, I spent several years studying these Zen teachings on impermanence, and the outcome of this study was a novel. Who could know?

This evening, as I was walking through the forest on my way back from a neighbor's house, life really felt like a dream. It was getting dark. The mist was hanging low in the trees. Drops of rain clung to the tips of the cedar boughs. The ground was spongy and deep, and the moss, clinging to the dark wet bark of the fir trees was brilliantly green. At least that's what I remember.

Norman writes that everything is a memory, even while it's happening. Research in neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain registers experience a moment after it occurs, so by the time it occurs to us that we're experiencing something, it's already over. Life, as we think we're living it, is always a dream. It's always an illusion. This sense of the fleeting and ephemeral is at the heart of the Japanese term wabi-sabi, which refers to the exquisite, dreamlike beauty of impermanence, simplicity and imperfection. This is an aesthetic ideal I aspire to as a writer.


Nothing is Wasted

Here's an article I wrote for the March issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine about turning problems into art.

When you’re a writer or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and it’s the artist’s job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude might sound a bit cold and calculating, but it’s not. Quite the opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and to transform our suffering into something meaningful.

<read more...>

The theme of the March issue is Life Is Tough, which is also the title of the feature article by Norman Fischer about transforming difficult situations into beneficial ones. The essay is based on his wonderful new book, which I'm reading now, entitled Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Lojong refers to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist mind-training methodology, described in The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind, by the twelfth century master Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. The seven points of mind training, each contains several pithy slogans, which are like taglines or exhortations to guide your practice.

In his article, Norman talks about the six Lojong slogans that pertain to transforming difficulty, but in the book, he goes into greater detail about all seven points and fifty-nine slogans, and offers ways of practicing with them. They are all very useful, very beautiful, and far more practical than writing novels.

Here's a list of some of my favorite slogans:

  • See everything as a dream.
  • Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
  • Be grateful to everyone.
  • Trust your own eyes.
  • Don't be a phony.
  • Abandon hope.
  • Don't poison yourself.
  • Don't be so predictable.
  • Don't go so fast.
  • Don't be tricky.
  • Be wholehearted.
  • Don't expect applause.

These are the ones I'm going to be practicing when I'm on book tour next month...

ALA panel & some thoughts on libraries

On Friday, January 25, from 4:00 - 5:15 pm, I'll be on a panel at the American Library Association's Midwinter meet-up to discuss the topic "The Novel is Alive and Well" with Seattle authors Terry Brooks, Ivan Doig, and Gregg Olsen. I'm looking forward to this because I love librarians, I have always wanted to be one, and I do believe that the novel is alive and well so talking to these guys about this topic should be fun. studentonperch

Regarding libraries—one of my summer jobs in college was in the library, where I was hired to put little magnetic theft prevention strips into the books. This required physically taking each book from the shelf and opening it in order to slip the strip into the spine. Needless to say, this was extremely time-consuming work, because how could you open a book without spending at least a few moments reading it? I remember the thrill of pulling books one by one from the shelves, skimming through them, and watching ideas form in my mind, triggered by these random juxtapositions. It was hugely exciting, and I kept a notebook next to me so I could write down all the stories that emerged. I'm surprised I wasn't fired, but now when I think about it, I imagine all of the other students hired to do this work were similarly occupied, and none of us were working with much efficiency.

That summer, in the library, I discovered the generative power of randomness, juxtaposition, and browsing. Browsability is something we are losing in the Internet age, where so many of our searches are controlled by algorithms, which deliver results that are pre-shrunk and tailored to what we think we want, or we've wanted before. How can we stumble across anything new? Google and Amazon doom us to the rut of our habitual mind where, as we find the same things over and over again, our interests narrow and we grow smug, believing that everyone in the world is just like us, like we are and used to be.

That summer I also learned the approach I still use to write novels, an approach that requires a high degree of randomness, juxtaposition, and browsability. It reminds me a lot of meditation, because it requires keeping the mind alert and open enough to allow disparate elements to filter in, accumulate, and combine into a story. Inspiration is this happy convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky and awake, you can notice and put to good use.

Prelinger stacks - photo by Peter Richardson

I started thinking about browsability several years ago in the Prelinger Library, talking to my friend Rick. Rick is an archivist and a maverick librarian, who started the Prelinger Library with his wife, Megan. Together, they have raised browsability to a fine art. The stacks are arranged in a way so as to maximize browsability. Here's how they describe it:

The main shelves are organized according to the library’s unique geospatial taxonomy. This arrangement system classifies subjects spatially and conceptually beginning with the physical world, moving into representation and culture, and ending with abstractions of society and theory. It can be summarized as a walk through a landscape of ideas, from feet-on-the-ground to outer space. Within that framework are dozens of associative links between subject sections, moving from site-specific, to mediated, to abstract; from particular to general, and from micro- to macro-. The geospatial system is set up in five rows, each row holding part of the structure in a consistent series of smaller sections. The system begins at the front of Row One and ends at the back of Row Five.

Each labeled section on the main shelves is a composed set of juxtapositions, bringing together government documents, periodicals, monographs, and occasional works of fiction, in greater or lesser order, to illuminate a subject area. Within these sets, the compositional structure is fairly loose.

If you haven't been to the Prelinger Library and you find yourself in San Francisco, you really should make an effort to go. And if you are going to be in Seattle next weekend and you happen to be a librarian, please come to our panel and say hi.

Rick, Megan & library patron

The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

My friend Sarah Sentilles tagged me to participate in The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors, a blog chain, a meme, a community, an ever-emergent and aggregating non-event that’s wending it’s way around the Internet. It’s authors tagging authors to answer ten questions about the book they’re working on. And it’s a nice way to acknowledge and bootstrap your writer friends.

Sarah Sentilles is a wonderful writer, feminist theologian, and the author of Breaking Up With God, a magnificent, funny, intelligent and heartfelt book about God, institutional religion and personal faith. Thank you, Sarah, for tagging me!

Okay, on the the ten questions:

1. What is your working title of your book (or story)?

A Tale for the Time Being is the final title, but it took me a long time to find it. I wish I could say that I came up with it myself, but I can’t. My husband thought of it. I had several not-so-good titles—actually, they were pretty awful—and I was racking my brains, combing through dictionaries, the thesaurus and Bartlett’s for inspiration, scribbling long lists of words and evocative phrases, following Oliver around the house and reading my lists  out loud, while he listened, politely, wincing as the ideas got worse and worse. Occasionally he would venture to make a suggestion, which I would quickly dismiss. Weeks passed. Then finally, one night, when he was taking a bath, he called out, “I’ve got your title.”

Something in the way he said this made me pay attention. I went to the door and opened it. He was lying in the tub, reading the latest issue of New Scientist magazine. “What is it?” I asked.

“A Tale for the Time Being,” he said. “That’s your title,” and then he went back to reading his magazine. He was right. I couldn’t believe it. I repeated it a couple of times, then went upstairs to email my editor, who agreed. Everyone agreed. It was the title.

Later, when I asked him how he’d come up with it, he shrugged and said it was self-defense.

2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A semi-fictional novelist named Ruth, living on a remote island in Desolation Sound, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a troubled Japanese teenager washed up on the beach, and assuming it’s debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, sets out to discover all she can about the fate of the mysterious schoolgirl named Nao.

Ugh, not a very elegant sentence, I’m afraid.

3. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Many places, but Zen Master Dōgen is a good place to start. Dōgen was a 13th century Zen teacher who wrote several essays on the subject of time, and I happened to be studying these when Oliver sent me the link to an article about Japanese maid cafés. (He’s always sending me useful links, including one to a New Yorker article on quantum computing, which ended up in the book.) Soon I was immersed in the world of Japanese cosplay, manga, animé and pop culture, and from there, I became interested in the problem of bullying and teen suicide in Japan. At the same time, I was reading about kamikaze fighters during World War II, thinking about 9/11, watching the war on Iraq unfold, and living my life on a remote island with my husband and my cat. And cooking soup. And then the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit and the nuclear reactors at Fukushima melted down. Somehow all these factors, and more, came together and the novel was born. Inspiration is a convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky, you A) notice, and B) appreciate, and C) incorporate and turn into something new.

4. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Books are time beings, too. I started writing the first draft in 2006 and worked on it for two years. In 2008, I decided it was hopeless and I abandoned it. In 2010, on a whim, I started working on it again and finished a draft in early 2011. So that makes three years, so far. Then I was in the process of submitting the manuscript when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Overnight Japan was a different place, and the world was different, too, and the novel I’d written was no longer relevant, and so I withdrew it. I spent several months thinking about what to do, and then in May I threw half of the manuscript away and started to write again, and a year later, I finished. So excluding the two years when it sat untouched on my computer hard drive, and including the editing time, I’d say it took about five years, but I don’t think it’s really accurate either, because some of the material I can trace back to 1999, and even earlier.

5. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think I answered the what part of this question, above, so I will focus on the who. My novelist friends inspire me to write so I can continue to hang out with them and talk shop. And in particular, Karen Joy Fowler inspired me to finish this book. She read the first fifty pages of the rewrite and called them “audacious,” which was the best affirmation I could have hoped for.

Of course writers I don’t know, but whom I admire, inspire me to write books, too: Jane Austin, Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Setouchi Jakucho, David Mitchell...the list goes on and on.

My husband, Oliver, inspires me to write books. He has a very interesting mind and sees the world in ways that astonish me.

Readers inspire me to write. Without readers, books don't exist.

6. What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction? Mainstream fiction? Speculative fiction? Philosophy?

7. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh, boy. It’s not a genre book, so I don’t know. People tell me that there are some parallels between A Tale for the Time Being and Murakami’s newest novel 1Q84, but I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know. I’m waiting to read it until mine is published.

8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s represented by an agency and will be published by Viking Penguin in the US and Canongate in the UK. It’ll be coming out on March 12, 2013, which also happens to be my birthday.

9. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have absolutely no idea.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

It’s funny! I mean, it’s also serious and has a lot of serious and tragical things in it, including bullying, suicide, war, philosophy, and quantum mechanics, to name just a few, but it’s also funny. So don’t get scared off by all the heavy stuff. If you cry, I promise you will laugh a lot, too.

Okay, now, here is when I get to tag some of my wonderful writer friends.

  • Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, who has written one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, We are all completely beside ourselves, which will be published in May of this year. Karen will post her answer here.
  • Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of Hiroshima in the Morning and Why She Left Us, who is working on a wondrous new novel, which I’ve had the privilege of reading in an early draft! She will post her answers here.
  • Laurie Frankel, who I hope will write about her new book, Goodbye For Now, a remarkable love story about a software engineer who invents a way for people to email their dead loved ones. which will be coming out in paperback soon. She will post her answers here.





Hapa-Palooza is a very cool festival for all of our hapa/hybrid/half-blood/cross-bred/métis/mestizo/mixed-race/halved-and-doubled selves. It's a celebration of mixed-roots arts and cultures, and goes from September 12 - 15. And to kick things off next Wednesday, Wade Compton, Julie Flett and I will be reading and talking with Sandra Singh about identity and writing and other interesting things. The event is called Mixed Voices Raised, so please come join us. It's at the Vancouver Public Library and its free!


How to Re-Occupy Your Mind - writing workshop

This writing and meditation workshop is a benefit for the very cool 826 Seattle, a nonprofit space traveler & literacy drop-in center, and the Seattle chapter of novelist Dave Eggers' 826 National network of writing and tutoring centers. 826 Seattle sponsors an adult workshop series, entitled How to Write Like I Do, as a benefit for the kids' programs, and okay, the hubristic title kind of makes me wince, but I promise that in How to Re-Occupy Your Mind I will not make you write like I do. Instead, I will help you write like you do, only better. Here's the workshop description:

So, you love to write, only these days all you ever seem to write are texts and email. You don't have time, and even if you did, you no longer have the ability to focus. Sound familiar? It's time to intervene. In this workshop you will receive practical training designed to re-focus your writer's mind through meditation and to bring an awakened creativity to the page.

The other very cool thing about 826 Seattle is that it's also houses the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., so if you want to pick up a dark hole starter kit, or stock up on uncertainty  (essential for writers) or some replacement quarks, or a t-shirt or hoodie, plan to come early, because the shop closes at 6:00pm, when all good astronauts should be in bed.

Vortext! a 3-day writing workshop at Hedgebrook

Vortext is a very special three day women's writing workshop that I'm going to be leading, along with Dorothy Allison, Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth George, Jane Hamilton, and Gail Tsukiyama on June 1 - 3, at Hedgebrook. This is an outstanding line-up of writers, and the only problem is that I'm teaching, too, so I can't  sign up and participate in the the other teachers' sessions. However, I'm honored to be included, and it promises to be an amazing three days of writing, learning, lectures, open mikes, conversations and community. I know space is limited, and it's really a once in a lifetime opportunity, so please sign up!

editorial assistance

This is my bad cat, Weens. When I took this picture, he was helping me edit the manuscript for my new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, which you can see, glowing on the screen behind him. He is lying on top of my Chicago Manual of Style, and also on top of In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist, written by Hiratsuka Raichō (1886 - 1971), founder of the Japanese feminist literary magazine, Seitō (Blue Stocking). In the Chicago Manual of Style, I was looking up the proper format for foreign language footnotes, appendices and bibliographies, of which there are many in this novel. In Raichō's autobiography I was reading a poem, written by Yosano Akiko for the inaugural issue of Seitō entitled "Rambling Thoughts." Raicho quotes the first few lines, and so will I:

The day the mountains move has come.
Or so I say, though no one will believe me.
The mountains were merely asleep for a while.
But in ages past, they had moved, as if they were on fire.
If you don't believe this, that's fine with me.
All I ask is that you believe this and only this,
That at this very moment, women are awakening from their deep slumber.
If I could but write entirely in the first person,
I, who am a woman.
If I could but write entirely in the first person,
I, I.

Weens lives entirely in the first person. He is a male, but even if he were a female, he would live only in the I, and only in this very moment, because he is a cat. He views my typing as an utter waste of serviceable fingers that could be more gainfully employed in rubbing the irregular white patch on his nose, in between his eyes. He doesn't care a bit about the proper format for citations, in fact, he drooled all over them. There are sharp claws on the end of that outstretched paw, just outside the frame of the picture, and when I took this picture, he was trying to use them to snag my wrist and pull my hand to his head. I knew if I ignored him, he would fall back to sleep or walk away in a huff, and then I could get some work done, but he succeeded, and I succumbed. How could I not? There is no way on earth to write entirely in the first person. There is only I, and I.