Meet Duke

This is my baby boy.  His name is Duke and he is a basset hound.  He likes to eat, sleep, and play.  He chews cardboard to shreds and has a slobber flinging radius of several yards.  He suffers from a rather vicious strain of separation anxiety, which we are working on taming.  Otherwise, he is just the sweetest animal – friendly, loyal, and very playful.  Like all bassets, he is something of a monster, maybe an alien.  I mean look at those ears.  That can’t be right.

See?  Alien.

Whatever he is, he is the absolute best.  My fiance and I adopted him two months ago from the Basset Hound Rescue of Southern California: bhrsc.org.  We wanted a basset hound and when we started doing our research, we came across this wonderful organization.  They’re very responsible and well-run, and they take good care of their dogs.  Duke needed surgery a few weeks after we got him, and the organization actually covered the surgery.  If you’re thinking about rescuing a dog, I would highly recommend a rescue basset.

My plan for the foreseeable future is to work at a paying job for half of each year, and spend the other half at home, writing with dog.  (I am able to do this due to both the constant need for Japanese doc reviewers and the flexible nature of this sort of contract work.)  I am in the writing half of 2012, and Duke keeps me company while I type away on our couch (one corner of which is pictured above).  Since he is a big part of my life, and also a particularly cute one, he will make occasional appearances on this blog.

He is, like most dogs, illiterate.

#OccupyGaddis

Until this summer, I’d never participated in any kind of reading group that wasn’t explicitly an English class.  Since college, I’ve treated reading as more or less a solitary activity, and I think I’m okay with this as my normal mode.  I like to read at my own pace, and I don’t feel an immense need to discuss most books while I’m reading them.  Still, when Lee Konstantinou (novelist, LARB editor, professor, and my T.A. for Contemporary American Fiction in 2004) announced an online reading group for William Gaddis’s J R, I was intrigued.  I’d read and enjoyed Carpenter’s Gothic in college, and I’d always had a vague desire to read Gaddis’s longer works.  The Recognitions sat uncracked on my bookshelf when I purchased my copy of J R.  #OccupyGaddis also started around the same time as my obsession with Goodreads, and as I’d already been tweeting to no one about the books I read, I decided to give this online reading group a shot.  I joined, I participated, I occupied Gaddis.  I’m so glad I did.

For one thing, I loved the book.  It’s been years since I abandoned a book, so I was going to get through it whether I liked it or not, and I am happy I liked it.  Last year I spent two months reading The Adventures of Augie March; in 2010 I got bogged down in This Side of Paradise and Time’s Arrow, both short books that just couldn’t hold my interest for more than a few pages at a time.  The pacing of #OccupyGaddis helped a lot – I decided at the beginning that I would read other books at the same time, and I had no problem toggling back and forth between novels.  I think I might even keep this approach to long books in my solitary reading.

When I first opened J R, I had a fuck this moment.  I did a quick flip-through to look for chapter breaks or scene breaks or really any kind of breaks, only to discover that I was staring at 700+ pages of unbroken unattributed dialogue.  You know that feeling when you want to ride Splash Mountain but the line is a thousand times longer than you thought was possible and the sun is pouring itself right on your head?  Similar idea.  But I proceeded.  The first scene was fantastic, with Anne and Julia Bast (as interchangeable as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if I’m not mistaken) having an absurd conversation with the lawyer Coen involving a pretty soapy family history.  It was easy to follow after the first page or so, and I thought, “All right, let’s do this.”  A couple scenes later, I found myself scratching my head as about ten characters gathered in the principal’s office of J R’s school, where they all talked across each other while watching educational programming on television.  That was a hard scene to follow, and I have to say, I didn’t enjoy it.

At some point early on, I found the annotated scene outline on williamgaddis.org, which I am a little ashamed to say I had to use as a crutch for my reading sanity.  With this roadmap and a growing grasp on the style and characters of the novel, I started to enjoy J R immensely.  It was a difficult book – certainly one of the more difficult books I’ve read of late – but it was not at all impossible.  I’d say that the opening scene and the scene at the principal’s office represent the two levels of difficulty in the novel.  Most of the scenes don’t involve more than two or three people, and these are pretty easy to understand.  A few of the scenes are literary clusterfucks, which I like to think Gaddis meant to be chaotic and cluttered.  Someone should map out the entropy levels of the scenes in J R, add that to the website.

So J R takes some work, especially in the beginning.  I think I was about 200 pages in when I started reading for pleasure.  At some point, though, it became almost easy.  I stopped reading 10 pages a day.  Instead I took days to read other books and did my catch-up reads on J R in 50-70 page bursts.  The second half went by quickly, as many other Occupiers noted on Twitter.

There are many reasons to read J R.  It’s a damning portrait of capitalist America that is particularly relevant today; it’s a book with some real caché, that you want to look nice and creased on your bookshelf.  But the reason that got me through and made it all worthwhile is that J R is fun.  Not just fun, but fucking zany.  I mean look, the Pynchon comparisons are necessary and obvious, but I don’t think they do anything for potential readers put off by the apparent difficulty of the novel.  J R, more than any other novel, reminded me of Catch-22.  I was ten years old when I first read that book, and I listed it as my favorite until late into high school.  I remember laughing my ass off when someone promoted Major Major Major, and when Milo Minderbinder bought all the Egyptian cotton and coated it with chocolate just to try and unload it.  Do you guys remember all that?  How it was just the funniest shit you’d ever read in a way that was completely different from Roald Dahl?  J R tickled me in the same way.  I mean it was so ridiculous.  Dog-food-eating Dad.  Pre-Photoshop blackface.  Bast in that headdress.  The 96th St. apartment.  J R Vansant.  It was a laugh-out-loud ride with some serious things to say along the way.  Milo Minderbinder and his Egyptian cotton tax loss would’ve fit right in.

I loved J R and I had a great time reading along with all the other Occupiers on Goodreads and Twitter.  I liked seeing what others were reacting to, and sharing thoughts and favorite quotes through the hashtag.  I read Gravity’s Rainbow during my semester abroad in college, when I had no internet access off campus.  It was a reading experience that now seems antiquated (at least for the long, difficult books that demand some Google support), from a time long before Twitter, when book blogs were either not really a thing or totally off my radar.  I’m sure I’ll read many more books on my own, but I’d be open to doing this sort of online book club again.  Tweet @ me if you have ideas.

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PS. Other things read while occupying Gaddis:

1. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

2. The Song is You by Megan Abbott

3. How to Raise the Perfect Dog by the Dog Whisperer

4. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

6. Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

7. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

9. The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

10. 300 pages of Cryptonomicon, because Neal Stephenson passed through my local bookstore on August 8.  I am now almost halfway through and I’m giving it the J R treatment.  I’ve read Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn) and Death of a Salesman since finishing J R, and I’m going for Dare Me (Megan Abbott) next.  As you can see, I’m on a female crime novelist kick.

Other than Cryptonomicon, I stuck to relatively short/quick reads.  I got a lot more out of my reading this summer than I would have if I’d insisted on reading just the one book at a time.  I’d be curious to know what others read while reading J R.

Books for my 15-year-old brother

My brother Peter is almost 12 years younger than me (we have the same zodiac sign, which is noteworthy in an Asian family, if not exactly meaningful).  He’s a brilliant kid, smart and self-motivated with a good sense of humor and a great way with words.  His primary interests lie with science and sports, which are not my areas of expertise, but he’s read and enjoyed the books he’s read in school (Catcher in the RyeTo Kill a MockingbirdOf Mice and Men – the ones you would guess). He turned fifteen yesterday, and since he has all the video games he could possibly need, I gave him a stack of books.  He joked that they would be decoration for his new bookshelf.  Fair enough.  I have many, many books on my shelf that I won’t touch for a while, but they do inspire aspiration.

I got him seven books (about $100 with my members discount at Skylight Books).  I wanted to pick books that I’d read and enjoyed, that I thought would be appropriate for a fifteen-year-old kid.  At that age, my favorite book was Catch-22, which he already owns (and hasn’t read, but plans to read).  I think I was sixteen when I read As I Lay Dying and Lolita, and those are the books I generally credit with my lasting love of reading.  For Peter’s birthday, I picked books that were somewhere between Heller and Faulkner in difficulty.

1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This was the first book I thought to get him, since I associate it strongly with Catch-22 as a fun literary romp best read in one’s teens.  I think I read it in late high school or early college, shortly followed by Cat’s Cradle, which I liked even better.

2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I read this book my freshman year of college and it changed my life.  My novel is a response and homage to Chandler, and it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t read The Big Sleep.  I got this one for my brother for two reasons.  One, I want him to get some context before he reads my book.  Two, it’s a fucking excellent book, and it’s a reasonable read for a high school kid.

3. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Short stories are good for an adolescent attention span, and I enjoyed this collection when I read it last year.  The stories are fun and gothic, and shit happens that isn’t a series of epiphanies.  I wanted to make sure I gave Peter a few classics that he won’t necessarily read in school, and SlaughterhouseThe Big Sleep, and A Good Man fit the bill.

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

I read this one on my friend June’s recommendation when I was in eighth grade.  It is the first and only John Irving book I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure why.  I really loved this book.  It was long but pretty easy to get through, and the story was fascinating.  I remember it remarkably well, considering I haven’t touched it since Peter was a baby.

5. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is not my favorite David Mitchell novel, but I’m a lot farther removed from boyhood than my little brother.  I like David Mitchell’s style.  His prose is pretty and well crafted but very accessible.  In fact I’m thinking I could’ve gotten Peter number9dream or Cloud Atlas instead.  Maybe next year.

6. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I read this a few years ago and had mixed feelings about it to be honest.  I disliked the narrator and found the style a bit glib.  But!  It was a fun, fast, kind of epic read, and I loved a lot of things about it.  I liked the way it folded in history with a folkloric flourish, and it was certainly hard to forget.  Junot Diaz actually came to my school, and he was a great reader/speaker.  Also, I love this interview he did with the Boston Review: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.4/junot_diaz_paula_moya_drown_race.php.

7. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

As long as he’s reading a pile of books, he might as well hack into the latest Pulitzer winner, right?  Plus, this one’s beautifully written, easy to read, with an engaging short story format.  Also, I will not have my little brother growing up thinking only men can write great books, because it just isn’t true.

Since I am not the worst, most self-absorbed sister in the world, I did ask Peter in advance if I could get him books for his birthday.  He said sure, so I hope he reads some of these and finds them worthwhile.  My fiancé bought him a couple Grantland books to even out the reading material, and I’m sure he’ll get to those first, and that’s okay.

The Agent Process: My Data Point

Michael Bourne posted a thoughtful, honest, anxiety-inducing article over at The Millions, on navigating the world of literary agents: http://www.themillions.com/2012/08/a-right-fit-navigating-the-world-of-literary-agents.html.  I read the whole thing and felt incredibly lucky while I had unpleasant flashbacks of my year of continuous rejection.

I’ve had a few people ask me about the publishing process, and my experience has been that the hardest and longest part is finding a literary agent.  I am just one data point, but I want to share my thoughts on this particular ordeal.  I didn’t really know anyone who had gone through it when I started, and since I would have loved to talk to someone who had, I’m going to post this in the hopes that someone finds it useful.

Without gloating too much (this post will be mostly angst with a happy ending), I’ll say that I started the query process with no writing credits and almost no connections – the odds are not great, but it can be done.*  I finished the first draft of my manuscript in December 2009 and started querying in earnest in March 2010.  I signed with my agent Ethan on my twenty-fifth birthday, January 14, 2011.  It felt like a long time, but I know I was very lucky.

The first thing I did after finishing my manuscript was try to find a connection.  I had none, so I contacted someone I thought might be able to help.  I hand-wrote a letter to the headmaster of my fancy private high school asking if he knew anyone who could help me publish a book.  I slid it under his office door.  Does this sound ridiculous?  It absolutely was.  I had no relationship with my headmaster while I was in high school, and I had no reason to believe he would take an interest in me seven years later.  To my delight, he replied to my letter about a week later and put me in touch with another alumnus from my high school, a big agent at William Morris.  I queried her, and after more consideration than I deserved, she rejected me, listing a few good reasons.  This was extremely generous of her – she gave me some great criticism, pointing out flaws I later addressed with my current agent.  She wished me luck.

It was only at this point that I started querying left and right.  In retrospect, I should have mixed that one agent in with dozens of others from the start, but I knew nothing about the process.  I educated myself using Google, found Agent Query, and wasted money on a physical catalogue of Literary Agents that I could have culled online.  I read a few threads on Absolute Write and kind of got going.  I made a spreadsheet (I rarely use Excel, but this was very helpful), listing agencies, agents, email addresses, and little tidbits I could use to personalize my query letters.  I made a point of querying a few a day for a while, and I kept track of my query dates and query statuses in my spreadsheet.  It was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even get to the agencies that didn’t accept e-queries.

In this first wave of queries, I hit around three dozen agents and got five requests for partials/fulls.  I was thrilled with this success rate, and I remember thinking, “Maybe it will be this easy.  Maybe this agent will read my book and fall in love and we’ll sell it before graduation.”  Ridiculous.  So ridiculous!  But it’s hard not to fantasize when you’re dealing in dreams.

I got my first rejection on a full manuscript on March 31, 2010, which was my then-boyfriend-now-fiance’s birthday.  It was the first time I’d gotten feedback on the novel as a whole, and it was a short letter that said, “Although you have a thrilling story, I did not fall in love with the characters as much as I had hoped for.”  I was devastated.  I picked a fight with my boyfriend and cried a lot and basically ruined his birthday.  (I did make him a cake and a pizza from scratch after I realized I was acting out like a child.)  Until that rejection, I thought my book was really good and that if someone would just read it cover to cover, things would fall into place.  Of the remaining agents, one never replied, and another replied with a rejection when I followed up nine months later.  One responded to a follow-up with a request to resend – she said she’d forgotten all about it, and it was the right decision to nudge her (nudging agents is a topic for another blog post, probably by someone who knows more about it than I do).  She eventually rejected me when Ethan offered me representation and I forced the decision.

I signed with Ethan in January 2011, but my relationship with him started in March 2010, when he responded to a query I had sent to another agent in his agency.  He asked for a partial, then requested a full two months later.  A week after that, he emailed me to say he enjoyed my book, and asked to speak on the phone.  We spoke, and he invited me to come to the agency office to talk about the manuscript.  I put on my best interview dress and took a train to New York a few days later.  We had a long conversation about books (I was reading Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and had the third volume of 1Q84 in a shopping bag – the office was very close to Kinokuniya, and if I’m being honest, I also thought it might impress him) and then he gave me his extensive notes on my manuscript.  Looking back now, I can see that my first draft was severely lacking in several departments, such as character development and plausibility.  I’m lucky that Ethan saw a kernel of something he could work with because it needed help and I was too close to see it.  He gave me a lot of praise, but noted that he couldn’t take me on unless he knew I could edit my writing.  I left feeling hopeful, and told him I would get him some sample chapters and a revised draft in the fall.  In between, I studied for and took the California bar.  I sent him my first revision in September 2010.  He sent me an email in December 2010 apologizing that he hadn’t gotten to it yet, but that he planned to very soon.

That stretch from June to December was pretty stressful.  Because I had met with Ethan, I felt very much that he was my one point of entry into the publishing world, and I kept thinking I would never succeed if he decided to drop me.  At various points, I thought he had rejected me silently, and that I would never know for sure what had happened.

With Ethan’s help, my manuscript had become a lot more presentable, and I decided to send out a new round of queries, between December 2010 and January 2011.  This time I emailed around two dozen agents, and my success rate was much higher – my query letter was stronger because my book was better.  By the beginning of January, I had partials or fulls out to six different agents.  (I used a connection to get in touch with one of these agents – when I went to my fiance’s swearing-in ceremony, I met one of his co-workers, who, coincidentally, had been in my dorm our freshman year of college.  His mother was, incredibly, Lisa See.  We talked and she referred me to her agent.  Nothing came of it, but it would be weird to omit this anecdote.  As Michael Bourne notes in his article, the easiest way to get an agent is to know someone who can help you.)  On January 12, I received an offer of representation from a well-known agent who wanted me to take my book in a more commercial direction.  He was a bigger name, but by that point I was quite attached to Ethan.  He understood what I was trying to do, and he knew how to push me to do it better.  I followed up with Ethan and he offered me representation on the spot.

It’s been over a year and a half since I signed with Ethan, and everything has been pretty easy since then.  We edited together and sold the manuscript to St. Martin’s (that was also a process, but a less difficult one that I may cover in a future post) less than a month after it left the house.  Getting Ethan on board was the most difficult and most essential part of my publishing journey.  I think writers and artists of all stripes struggle with the same persistent fear that we don’t have talent, that people will laugh behind our backs when all our efforts lead to nothing.  I still have that fear, but it’s become a lot more manageable since my 25th birthday.

Anyway, this is my agent story, and I hope it’s been somewhat informative.  The process went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, but it still felt long and painful while I was in it.  There’s an easy parallel to dating here.  I haven’t been single for a while, but I remember sitting around staring at my phone, waiting for texts from guys I didn’t even fucking like.  It was terrible, and the agent process was terrible in a similar, magnified way.  There were times when I sat staring at my inbox waiting for the smallest communication because I’d put out dozens of missives and a response could come and crush me or change my life at any time.

So.  If you’re about to start querying, just know that it is a frustrating, soul-crushing, and sometimes fruitless effort, but that if you succeed and get the right agent, it will be the hardest part to get through.  Also, if you need someone to talk to, I will answer emails.

Good luck.

steph

*I did have one hook, I think, though no one has said as much.  I was a Yale Law student, and I think that prestige sticker might have given me a little push.  On the other hand, I’m guessing I would have been in better shape with an MFA or any sort of publication to my name – as I found out when I was roundly rejected from every MFA program I applied to during my 3L year, no one in the literary world gives a fuck if you went to a fancy law school.  And why should they?

Content

Hi guys.  It’s been a long time since I attempted to maintain a blog, and I’m feeling kind of stupid, kind of shy.  I write almost every single day, and I even tweet once in a while, but I feel a bit silly sitting down, trying to generate content that I can sticker onto the infinite wall of the internet.

I’m twenty-six years old.  I signed up for Facebook in 2004, when I was a freshman in college.  For the first couple days, I had one friend, who threatened to defriend me just because it was in his power to leave me completely alone on the internet.  Under “Interested In,” I listed Women and Men, because though I’m a straight woman, I was “Looking For” Friendship.  My one friend poked fun of me for my little mistake, but I maintain that it was logically sound.  My sophomore year of college, my friend June introduced me to youTube.  We spent a whole evening watching the dozen or so popular videos on the site.  I remember in particular the Chinese Backstreet Boys, the two young boys lip-syncing to I Want It That Way while a third friend plays Starcraft in the background.  I thought of those Chinese Backstreet Boys again when I watched this video a few weeks ago:

This kid is amazing.  I’d never heard Countdown before, but I’ve watched this video about a dozen times.  It’s been viewed about 1.2 million times since July 9, which, let’s be real, is a huge number.  But look at what went into making this thing.  Hours of dancing, months of editing, that adorable face, and perfect synchronization with a professional music video that cost several adults a staggering amount of time and money.  This kid will never enjoy the internet fame of the Chinese Backstreet Boys.  2005 was a different time, when people actually paid attention to what you said online because not that many people were talking.  I mean, remember when there were no food blogs?

There is so much great content on the internet that it’s impossible to consume even a tiny percentage of a percentage of the stuff that’s directly relevant to my interests.  And yet here I am, creating more content.  This is where I introduce myself.

I’m a writer, author of a novel called Follow Her Home, which will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in April 2013.  It’s available for pre-order on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Follow-Her-Home-Steph-Cha/dp/1250009626/.  The cover looks like this:

The fact that I’m bringing a book into the world should tell you a lot about me.  One of those things is that I have a sturdy ego, that I believe against all odds that I have unique and interesting insights to share, and that people would do well to pay attention to me.  I do believe these things.  I don’t think there’s an author in the world who could claim greater humility with a straight face.  The road to publication is too steep to allow for shaky self-confidence.

So yes, I am starting a blog, and in this blog, I will share my thoughts and feelings, on books mostly, but on food, occasionally, on my dog and my city and my life.  I hope to get to know other writers and readers through this blog, make a few internet friends.  I’ve admitted that I have a writer’s ego (and I will admit, too, the hideous corollary yen for validation), but I like to think that I am otherwise pleasant enough.

Thank you for reading.  Hope it wasn’t a waste of your valuable, limited time.

- steph