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Archive for the 'Original Essays' Category

Powells.com interviews and original essays

Summer Friction

I was crying or almost crying for most of Fun Home: The Musical — I already loved Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, and I've always been a sucker for the way musicals make melodrama catchy. The song that got me most was "Ring of Keys," a song about a primal moment of identification: Sydney Lucas, playing a young Alison, is at a luncheonette with her father, and a butch delivery person comes in. She's never seen a woman that looks like that before — with her "short hair...dungarees, lace-up boots" and her significantly hefty ring of keys. I lose it within the first few bars. It's this beautiful moment of admiration and discovery, a sense of possibility and opening up.

Watching Lucas perform this song, letting my tears brim and spill over, I almost believe that it's my story. I want it to have been my story. I want to claim that prototypical queer narrative: that I was a tomboy who hated wearing dresses. That I fell in love with my best girl friend in second grade. That I saw a butch lesbian in a diner and a ...

Like Every Other Survivor

Note: Join us at Powell's City of Books on Saturday, August 29, for an author event with Ellen Urbani.

I have an uncommon penchant for aligning myself with disaster and death.

Tornadoes and wildfires and armed guerrillas have chased me. Riptides have caught me. Earthquakes have knocked down the walls around me. Pestilence has rained upon me in the form of scorpions and tarantulas and men with ill intent. Cholera and tuberculosis and other assorted ailments landed me in hospitals so often that for quite a while I made myself a home there.

I cozied up beside hospice beds in the terminal units — it is how I once earned my money, paid my mortgage, put gas in my car. I have cradled others' hands in my own when their blood stopped pumping through them, and I have listened to last breaths and the words that came before them.

It is an uncommon privilege to be introduced to death before death decides to introduce himself to you , and I endeavored, always, to be a good student.

I have absorbed many lessons from tragedy and from the end of other people's lives.

I ...

Ramona Quimby Yogurt-Marinated Chicken Thighs

Note: Join us at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on Wednesday, September 16, for an author event with Cara Nicoletti.

As a kid, I read for two reasons: the first, and most common, was to escape from my everyday life by imagining a different one — to read about people and places that I didn't and couldn't know. When I wasn't reading about castles and orphanages and talking animals, though, I read to understand my own world, to affirm that the feelings I was feeling were true and that the experiences I was having were normal.

I grew up in a large family, always looking for stories about siblings that felt real. I loved The Boxcar Children, but they were so terribly nice to each other. Same went for the All-of-a-Kind Family and the March sisters of Little Women. But when I discovered Ramona Quimby and her family, I felt like someone had cracked open my head and my home and peered inside .

With the Quimbys, Beverly Cleary created a family that is deeply normal without being dull. They struggle and laugh ...

Just Passing Through: Embracing the Covered Wagon Mind-Set

When people learn that I recently spent a long summer riding 2,000 miles across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon pulled by mules, they invariably ask the same question: "How did the adventure change you?" Unspoken, but deep implications are embedded in that question, especially from family and friends. Maybe I have stopped drinking or lost weight. Maybe four months of camping on the plains of Wyoming and Idaho delivered me to inner peace. One of my closest friends, aware of my love of the American West, was even disappointed when I returned to live in New England. "I just figured that you'd find a little ranch out in Wyoming and settle into a completely new life," Cindy said. "It's a better ending to the story."

There were, of course, smaller changes, but these mostly just affirmed the person I was before I left. Hiking through the sage brush thickets and confusing Rocky Mountain foothills, using just a compass and a bearing on the Platte or Sweetwater rivers to find the trail ahead of me, satisfied my lifelong passion for difficult navigation challenges. I've been a reasonably competent ...

The Blind Spot of United States History

The most frequent question readers ask about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is "Why hasn't this book been written before?" I'm flattered by that question, because it's the one I ask about texts that deeply move me; at the same time the information, argument, or story is new to me, it seems that it was already hidden in the recesses of my brain or heart, a truth. I knew the story I wanted to tell when I set out to write the book, part of Beacon Press's ReVisioning American History series, but that didn't make it easier to transfer to paper. Writing and rewriting, I discovered the story, just as my readers do as they read it.

But why hasn't this book been written before? We believe we don't suffer censorship in the U.S., but we do. Rather than being mandated by the government, historians self-censor in response to institutionalized policing of the parameters of what's acceptable and what will be marginalized. William Burroughs's narrator in his 1984 novel, The Place of Dead Roads, observes that "people are not bribed to shut up ...

Voices in the Ocean

In 2010, the year dolphins came into my life, I spent my days working in midtown Manhattan, on the 36th floor of a big, impressive office building. I had a big, impressive job. At a glance, my situation was wonderful, enviable. Below the surface, however, the story was different. I was numb. I dragged myself around, and I wondered if I would ever feel happy again.

Eighteen months earlier, my father had died of a massive heart attack. I was often alone, but I never felt lonely because my father was only a phone call away. He was always there, dispensing wisdom and humor and love — until suddenly, he wasn't. I felt as though the ground had opened up and swallowed me and no matter how much time passed, I would never make it back to daylight.

The one place that seemed to offer solace was Maui. I'd lived there briefly, on the island's blustery north shore, while reporting my book, The Wave. Even when the trade winds were howling the air felt softer in the middle of the Pacific, far from the scouring energy of ...

You Are… Who?

Writing a book is an unnatural act of communication.

Speaking to a person, or even to an audience, is an interaction. Very different styles are suited to an expert, a curious layperson, or a student on assignment... or to a one-on-one, a salon, or a lecture theater. When we do those things, we get feedback — including lots of nonverbal feedback — in real time, and we tailor our message accordingly. Often the most important feedback comes from the look of the audience. We see whether we are engaging their interest, making them laugh, or putting them to sleep.

Writers, on the other hand, do their basic work in solitude. An author directs his or her message to... umm — well, the answer to that question is a crucial decision, which shapes the process of creation. In my new book, A Beautiful Question, I came to answer that question in an interesting and unusual way, as I'll now explain.

A Beautiful Question evolved from something fundamentally different, namely a public lecture. The original lecture was titled "Quantum Beauty," and it was delivered at Darwin College, Cambridge University. It was ...

Your Imagination, Your Fingerprint

When I was in grad school, a teacher told our workshop that if a published novel is 300 pages, the writer had to generate 1,200 along the way. I didn't buy it. Maybe it took this teacher 1,200 pages to find the right 300, but I would never have to produce such excess. I'd maybe need, say, 307. Then I'd move some commas around, get all thesaurus-y with the adjectives, maybe test-drive a new font. But 1,200 to end up with 300?

No way. Not me.

Now that I've published five novels, I know that she was spot on. But what I would have never been able to predict about my process was the importance of the 900 pages that an end-reader will never see. They aren't wasted. They are vital, just as important as the 300 that are bound and placed on the shelf.

Really, novelists are writing two books simultaneously.

The first book is that 1,200-page draft, though it's probably never actually 1,200 pages at once, but parceled out from remix to remix. This all-seeing draft is bulbous and overwritten, with nonessential scenes and flights of exposition ...

Suffer the Children

A fellow writer wants to know more about something I've written, something centering on a child's body at the center of the storm of war. She asks, "Why bring violence and sexuality so close to the body of a child?" Her eyes blur and magnify when she says it. I can hear the flutter of worry in her voice. We are both mothers. We have both lost children.

I take a long time answering.

Let me start over. We are in a bar. Two menopausal women writers. Our middle-age barnacles up around all the newly formed couples swimming in and out between booths and things like colorful fish. The teeming-with-life bar waters slide right through us. We could be somebody's mother.

I don't know what my writer friend is thinking, but I suspect it's something about protecting children. I suspect she's worried I've gone too far this time. It's a fact that her writing is exceptionally loving and giving. It's a fact that her books make people feel good. And we need that. A lot. I am grateful for her writing and giving. I often wish I could write something similar, ...

How Authentic Is Modern Yoga?

My decision to embark on The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, began with a question.

I'd been practicing yoga since my mid-20s, when I spent six months in India. Returning to New York, I launched a career as a political journalist, regularly covering the depredations of the American right. I was spending much of my life immersed in a world of paranoia and rage, and yoga became my refuge. But as much as I loved it, I strongly suspected that some of what I was hearing in yoga classes was bullshit. Despite rhetoric about yoga's ancient pedigree and spiritual authenticity, I knew that the sweaty, fast-paced style I was practicing in Brooklyn is hard to find in India, at least outside of tourist zones and rich, Westernized urban enclaves. The yogis I saw in India were gaunt, dreadlocked male mendicants performing torturous austerities — lying on beds of nails, standing on one leg for days on end — meant to obliterate their links to ordinary life. How had their techniques morphed into a method for ...

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