by Susan Jane Gilman, March 27, 2009 10:52 AM
Alas, this will be my last dispatch for Powell's before my reading at the store on Burnside tonight...
As some of you may know, my new book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, is the story of a backpacking trip I took to China in 1986 that ended up disastrously. Full of exuberance (i.e. naivete and hubris), my friend Claire and I plunged headlong into the People's Republic of China, only to find ourselves caught in a modern-day Heart of Darkness. And we nearly didn't make it out.
As I've mentioned in an earlier blog, I'm telling my story in part because I wanted to puncture the myth of the brawny, triumphal American abroad. And yet, as I'm starting to tour the country, I'm finding that some parents are reading the book not so much as a great adventure, but as a cautionary tale. Its message: Don't let your kids out of your sight!
Uh-oh! Settling a pillow beneath my head, let me cry, "No! That is not what I meant at all!" Right now, thanks to our hideous economy, applications to the Peace Corps are up 30%, and more and more young people are opting to travel after college instead of trying to find a job.
And I can't encourage this enough. Go West! Go East! Go anywhere, folks!
In an ideal world (or my own, parallel little universe-and-queendom of Gilmania), all Americans would have enough time and money to travel abroad. Not only is this an exhilarating and mind-dilating experience, but as citizens of what is still the only Superpower on the globe, it really behooves us to get a sense of the greater world out there — a world that we impact every day with almost everything that we do.
I live in Europe these days, and ironically, the folks in the Old World experience the daily effects of our government far more palpably than we glassy-eyed Yanks do.
A small case-in-point: Until recently, every building constructed in neutral Switzerland was required to have a bomb shelter. Why? Because in the event of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Swiss figured that some of the missiles would inevitably fall short of their targets and land on Geneva and Zurich instead. (I shit thee not. Our apartment building, constructed ten years ago, has a bomb shelter. It now doubles as a storage locker for people's Christmas decorations and bicycles.)
Yet, for a bunch of flag-wavers and chest-pumpers, we Americans are strangely oblivious to this impact we have.
And so, when college students (or their nervous parents) ask me if they should travel after college, I say, Yes! By all means, go! Travel the world!
Never again in your life will you be so unencumbered, nor think that it's great to sleep on the roof of a youth hostel in Bangkok for only $6 a night. You will have the rest of your years to build a career, harness yourself to a mortgage and kids, and settle down. At this stage, you should have a magnificent combination of curiosity, energy, and innocence, combined with a heightened threshold for physical discomfort. Exploit this. As soon as you get a job promising a whopping two weeks' annual vacation, you're screwed. So get a backpack, defer the student loans, and carpe diem.
Certainly, it's likely to be cheaper than the cost of living in a major American city for six months. It'll be a better education than any university course. And hell, it beats unemployment.
As for where to go, I'd say go anywhere, barring war zones and places for which the State Department has issued serious travel warnings. Figure out what your comfort zone is, then step outside of it a mile or two.
That said, don't leap as blindly as I did two decades ago. Do some homework beforehand. Read about the culture, history, and current political system of wherever you're going. Be aware of how women are treated and how women travelers may be regarded (generally, it's a good idea to leave the shorts at home and get some gauzy cotton blouses to throw over the tank tops).
Above all else, learn a few words of the local language.
I've found "thank you" to be the single most important phrase to know while traveling, with "hello" and "please" running a tie for close second. Just by making an effort, you'll be treated infinitely better as a foreigner anywhere.
You do not need to be fluent. I'm talking about knowing the absolute basics. Carrying a phrasebook is fine. You will not risk looking like an idiot — you will look like you are trying to communicate, and this will be enormously appreciated. It is a sign of respect.
It is crucially important for anyone when traveling — but particularly us Americans — to be humble and polite when interacting with the locals. This sounds so simple and obvious, but so many Western travelers ignore it, it's staggering. They don't say "hello," or "do you speak English?" or "please." They either bark at people gruffly, or start pantomiming insultingly, and they get annoyed when the concessionary "hamburger" or "apple pie" on the tourist menu isn't on par with back home. They act boorish, then wonder why the locals treat them coldly.
I've even seen "uber-cool" backpackers do this, and it's hideous. Avoid ignorant arrogance at all costs. And if you want mostly hamburgers (or, conversely, to stick to your vegan diet) above all else, stay home.
Always remember that you are a guest in someone else's country, and that how you interact with them will likely color the way they view Americans in general. Be flexible and polite. Always err on the side of your most straitlaced, moral inner self.
That said, also keep your wits about you. In terms of behavior, don't do anything abroad that you wouldn't normally do at home — be it getting into a taxi without a meter or a pre-negotiated price, wandering off with strange men, buying drugs, flashing money around.
Do not go in with an agenda, either — be it converting locals to Christianity, proving how tough you are, or sticking to a rigid itinerary.
To be a traveler is to surrender. To go abroad is to forfeit control over your environment and your ability to navigate it. This always creates great anxiety within me at first — even now — and it might with you, too. (Or not. Everyone reacts differently.) But if you find yourself freaking out a little, know that it is normal and that it'll pass. If you "go with it," as they say, you may find yourself feeling more liberated than you ever did before. And keep a sense of humor. You're in for the ride of your life.
And lastly, I have to say this: take a book. Or two. There are loads of wonderful novels and memoi
by Susan Jane Gilman, March 26, 2009 10:37 AM
Last night, I kicked off the tour for my new book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
, with a reading at a groovy independent store outside of Seattle called Third Place Books
. I'd read there on my last tour four years ago; the owners are amazing, and this time, they really rolled out the proverbial red carpet for me.
A huge poster of the book jacket stood right at the entrance, a gleaming stack of 25 books was prominently displayed on the front table, and a hot cup of tea with lemon and honey was awaiting me at the podium for my ridiculously sensitive throat. Then, as if I were an arriving dignitary, they announced my reading in symphonic tones over the PA system to the entire store — the modern-day equivalent of heralds with golden trumpets. Da-tah-da-da!
A whopping 17 people showed up.
I stood there before a sea of half-empty chairs. Of the 17 people who did show, five were my friends, one was the store owner herself, and another was my media escort for the evening. So you can do the math.
In an instant, all the grand gestures of the store owners collapsed into failed expectations.
And, of course, I felt horrible — as if it was somehow my fault.
A scene like this is actually par for the course on a book tour, even in far better economic times. Each reading is like a wedding where you don't know if the guests — let alone the groom — are going to show up.
It's incredibly nerve-wracking.
And ironically, it's an experience you only get if you are very, very lucky.
Most writers these days don't even get a book tour. We are in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression; publishing — like every other industry except perhaps liquor and pornography — is in trouble; and Seattle itself currently has an unemployment rate of nine percent — higher than the mounting national average.
I am not writing this column today to be a prima donna and moan about my pampered little authorial life: OMG. You have no idea how hard it is being on the road. Oh no! Only 10 strangers attended my book reading. And every night I'm in a different hotel. Please. Cry me a river. I know only too well that the world should have my problems. And I'm pleased that at least 10 people unrelated to me did show up at all.
However, I'm writing today's blog for the same reason that I wrote Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven: to debunk a myth. Because even though only 10 strangers attended my reading last night, one of them still managed to tell me what I hear all the time: Oh, I would love to be a writer like you. I should be you, in fact. You're living my dream.
We writers hear this a lot — or variations of it. "Yeah, you're a writer? Must be nice, just typing for a living." "Oh, I am so jealous. You get to go to work in your pajamas, right?" And, one of my personal favorites: "So, are you, like, the next J. K. Rowling?"
A lot of people think that writing is not only glamorous, but easy — that if you can essentially talk, you can essentially write. Any idiot, in their opinion, can publish a book. Given some of the dreck that gets published, I sometimes worry that they're right.
The great irony of writing, like that of any art or sport, is that if you do it well enough, you make it look effortless. And then everyone around you thinks that it is effortless, and that they can easily do what you do, too, and so they talk to you condescendingly.
"You're a writer? No kidding?" they say. "You know, I was thinking of taking a few months off and writing a book myself."
Yeah? I always want to respond. Funny, I was thinking of just taking a few months off and practicing brain surgery...
There's a mystique that surrounds writing. Many people seem to think that we authors just sit down at our desk, get hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration, and have words of perfection just pour out of us. The process, to them, is a combination of innate talent and speaking in tongues.
Once in a very great while, this actually does happen to me. I sit down to write, and the words just flow, as if I'm channeling them. But 98% of the time, they don't. And what's more, when the words do flow effortlessly, chances are that I'm producing some really world-class drivel.
Yeah, talent is important. But it's like anything else. If you don't practice and hone it, fuggedaboutit. Even Michael Jordan did something like 300 lay-ups a day. The secret to great writing, in the end, boils down to four words: Ass in the chair. If you're not sitting down and just doing it, eloquence is moot.
The reality of being a "glamorous" author is this: for years on end, we are not on book tours. For years on end, we are not being published. For years on end, we are sitting alone in a room somewhere, staring catatonically at a blank notebook or a blinking cursor. We write and delete, write and rewrite, and the bulk of our efforts will never see print. We have no colleagues except for the relentless little voices in our head that tell us one day that we are unsung literary geniuses, and the next day that we are total shit — and who are we kidding? What we're writing is really, really terrible. We should just go and become a hairdresser instead.
Mark Twain once observed that "A classic is something that everyone wants to have read, but that nobody wants to read." The same may be said of writing: "A book is something that everyone wants to have written, but that nobody wants to write."
Let me be clear: There are far worse jobs to have. Coal miner, toll booth clerk, firefighter, nurse, assembly-line worker, toxic waste specialist, and brain surgeon all come to mind. Writing is neither high-stakes nor mind-numbing nor physically dangerous, though we do seem to have a predisposition for alcoholism and suicide. (Though, hey: who doesn't?)
And I'm happy just to be employed, period.
But make no mistake about it: writing is a lonely, arduous, insecure, and often thankless profession. I've written two bestselling books so far, with a third just being launched, and not only am I not rich, I never get to see the full fruits of my labor.
Yeah, I get to hold my published books in my hands, which is a thrill, but I don't ever get to see people actually reading them. I can't follow folks home after they've bought a copy and hover over them, watching them turn the pages, witnessing their pleasure or revulsion. I will spend anywhere from two to four years writing a book. And then, once it's finally publishe
by Susan Jane Gilman, March 25, 2009 2:16 PM
Well, maybe not so fast...
Today marks the official beginning of my book tour to promote Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. For those of you who haven't been personally bombarded with publicity and Facebook invites and so forth, the gist of my book is this:
In 1986, my friend, Claire, and I, newly graduated from Brown, decided that we wanted to be the new female Kerouac, Byron, and Odysseus all rolled into one. We planned an epic trip-around-the-world beginning in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for about all of 10 minutes.
There were no direct flights to Beijing at the time. China had limited electricity, few phone lines, and an economy and infrastructure that seemed frozen in the late 19th century. This was pre-Tiananmen Square China; the nation was still in a state of isolation and lockdown.
Claire and I spoke no Mandarin and knew nothing about Asia, but we were young, hyper-educated, and ambitious, and we wanted to go where no one we knew had ever gone before. And so we just thought, "Hey. Let's go to China. How hard can it be?"
Well, we found out. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is the story of our descent into a completely different world ? where we found ourselves hungry, disoriented, and stripped of everything familiar. Idiotic with culture-shock and kept under constant government surveillance, we got into some serious trouble. So serious, in fact, that the Chinese military police stepped in and we eventually had to flee the country.
(But trust me, it's a laugh riot...)
Anyway, as I started doing radio interviews yesterday, a lot of people asked: Why did you choose to write about this two decades after it happened?
Well, I have a sense that what happened to us in China 23 years ago is strangely relevant to what a lot of us are experiencing right now in America, if not around the world today: a crisis... A sense that everything we've taken for granted and counted upon is suddenly gone... massive disorientation... panic... worries about how we're going to survive...
One crisis may have taken place in rural China, while another began on Wall Street, but emotionally, it's similar stuff. And a book about surviving the seemingly insurmountable seemed important to me to write.
Yet I felt also an urgent desire to debunk the myth of the swaggering American abroad.
My friend Claire and I had first gotten the idea for our trip to China when we were drunk and eating chocolate chip waffles at four o'clock in the morning at the International House of Pancakes. "Hey," we cried giddily, pointing to the paper placemats that read "Pancakes of Many Nations," "why don't we eat pancakes of many nations in many nations?"
That was how the idea for our epic trip-around-the-world was born. I am not kidding. Our entire international adventure was basically predicated on three inebriated words: "Go for it!"
I was reminded of this viscerally in 2003, when I heard President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld making the case for war against Iraq by saying that it would be "a cakewalk" (again with the food...).
I turned to my husband and said, "Iraq's going to be a 'cakewalk'? What are they ? two 21-year-old girls sitting in an IHOP?"
That's when I thought: Uh-oh: better get writing again. Someone should paint a responsible portrait about what it's really like to plunge headlong into a foreign country that's vastly different from your own.
We fabulous Yanks can be so flippant about traveling abroad. We seem to have the idea that we can just show up and prevail. Of course, we'll be welcome. Of course, we'll be able to manage in a completely different setting. Of course, we'll have fun / be triumphant / get valuable stuff. Everyone speaks English, don't they? Oh, we'll just figure it out as we go along...
And sometimes, this is the case. But at least as often, it's not. Certainly, our recent foreign policy is proof of this.
But it's not just political ideologies that promote this myth. We writers are just as guilty. In the past decade or so, we've produced scores of bestselling books about how someone, say, just decided to buy a Mediterranean villa somewhere and renovate it ? or just decided to join an ashram ? or to study Tuscan cooking ? in order to get over a heartbreak or a midlife crisis or find themselves. Whole cultures and nations have been portrayed in our books largely as charming and entertaining laboratories for our own self-discovery and enrichment.
At least until this economic crisis hit, adventures abroad were becoming the newest conduit for a personal makeover.
I suppose this is all an outgrowth of America's traditional "Go West, Young Man" credo (Which was also problematic, of course. Massive apologies to the Native Americans.). Our sense of adventure, of just picking up and going, our new frontierism ? all of this is part of our national psychology. And admittedly, it has contributed to our great success as a nation at times, too. We're daring. We're exuberant. We're bold.
And it's good to be curious. Lord knows, our last president might have been a lot wiser if he had traveled abroad extensively before he took office.
But the flip-side of this adventurism is arrogance. And when arrogance is coupled with naivete, it can be particularly lethal.
I should know. Read Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and you'll see just what a bad idea it is to head into a developing Communist country equipped with only a backpack, the complete volume of Linda Goodman's Love Signs, a bag of M&Ms, and an arsenal of hubris.
The author returning to Beijing in 2005 to retrace her steps from two decades
by Susan Jane Gilman, March 24, 2009 9:55 AM
Questions for you:
1. Do you know the name of a woman famous for having an illicit affair who was the inspiration for a character in two different novels, one by Jay McInerney, the other by Brett Easton Ellis?
2. What is the book most often stolen from public libraries?
3. And while we're at it, do you have any idea who Norman Mailer head-butted just before an appearance on the Dick Cavett show?
Yeah. Well. Maybe you know the answers. But I didn't.
Last night, I kicked off my book tour for Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven with an act of altruistic masochism. Slice, a fledgling new literary magazine, was holding a fundraiser. Their brilliant idea? Have teams of authors, editors, and agents go head-to-head in a "Literary Trivia Showdown" at an experimental theater space in lower Manhattan.
Sound good? As an author, I would be on a team with Jonathan Lethem, Chip Kidd, A.J. Jacobs, and Darin Strauss — amazing writers (and lovely human beings) all. We'd be going up against a team of crackerjack editors — two of whom, Les Pockell and Amy Einhorn — have edited me for years (and thus know just how little I know, especially in the world of spelling).
The third team would be a bunch of five agents.
I wasn't too worried about the agents, since I figured they'd need to kiss up to us authors and editors alike, seeing as we're their bread 'n' butter and all. It would be for them, I assumed, sort of like playing golf with the President of the United States. No matter how good you are, you want to make sure you don't win. It just ain't in your best interests.
But the editors? It's their job to know more than writers. And my current editor, Les Pockell, knows just about everything. And I mean everything. He's a guy who goes into a Japanese restaurant and orders in Japanese, and then converses casually with the wait staff in Japanese. And he isn't even trying to get laid. His daily functioning intelligence is slightly higher than that of, say, the entire nation of Sweden.
And another one of the editors, Amy Einhorn, was the first editor to buy my books and publish me — which means, of course, that she, too, is a genius.
And so I had to prepare to humiliate myself before the greatest minds in the business and an audience of at least a hundred that included some of my closest relatives.
A dirty little secret of mine is that although I'm an author, and I even do a monthly book review show on the English-language radio station in Switzerland (World Radio Switzerland, if you care), I actually know almost nothing about literature. Or trivia.
I'm not saying I'm not intelligent. Because I am, really. I refuse to do that horrid girlie number of playing a ditz. But my gorgeous brain also happens to be a sieve. I absorb much, but retain very little once I'm done using it. The quadratic equation? Poof! The name of the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 2001? Poof! What happens to Holden Caufield at the end of The Catcher in the Rye? Poof! again. And I've read that damn book six times.
I read roughly half a dozen books a month. I will love them. I will read them as if in a fever — in bed, oblivious to time, completely transported and enthralled. I will tell everyone who calls that they have to read these books; I will order copies for them.
But a few days after I finish and the book is replaced on the shelf, it's as if the fever breaks, and I remember nothing. I forget not only the main characters in the book, but the plot twists, the title, and even the name of the author.
I'm always amazed by people who say things like, "Oh, that's like that scene in Crime and Punishment, you know, when Raskolnikov runs into..."
And all I can think is: Crime and Punishment? That's Dostoyevski, right, not Tolstoy? And isn't that the one where the guy kills his landlord? Oh, wait, that's an Eddie Murphy sketch I'm thinking of...
The only trivia questions I might be able to answer correctly under duress would be those based on either astrology or Rolling Stones.
Needless to say, when the literary showdown finally took place, there were no questions on either of these two subjects. The house was packed, the mood was raucous, the teams were pumped, the rules kept changing, and the emcee kept mispronouncing names of literary figures and book quotes, which made for a particularly interesting twist.
The authors, editors, and agents were all seated at separate tables and supplied with an assortment of noise-making materials. We were supposed to wait for the question to be completed before pouncing, but that quickly fell by the wayside. And so the evening quickly took on an absurdist, Jeopardy-esque quality, in which the emcee would say, "Okay, in 1932, this novelist —" and before he could get any further, the editors would squeeze their car horn, the agents would blow their air-horn, and we writers would ring our reception bell, and everyone would begin shouting out not only the answers, but re-phrasing and completing the questions. It was like a literary showdown as conceived by Eugene Ionesco.
I sat there among four of the preeminent writers of my generation, plinging our bell in an adrenalin frenzy while shouting, "Camus! Harpers magazine!"
But instead of thinking, Wow, isn't this amazing that I'm here with Jonathan Lethem, Chip Kidd, AJ Jacobs, and Darin Strauss, putting our heads together for the sake of literature, all could really think was: Ple
by Susan Jane Gilman, March 23, 2009 10:01 AM
So, in order to embark on my tour for my new book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
, I've had to fly back to the States from Geneva, Switzerland (or Kitscherland, as I call it), where I currently live. This sounds fantastically glamorous, and let me tell you, it is. After waking up at 5:00 a.m., getting dressed, racing to the airport, then disrobing for the security check at 6:30 a.m., I got herded onto the plane, then sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half because the French air traffic controllers had decided to strike.
Since Geneva is surrounded by France on three sides, it's fairly impossible not to fly over French airspace en route to the US. And so we sat. And sat.
The French, as you know, take their unions very seriously. Striking (staging "un greve," as it's called) is pretty much the national pastime. Unions are powerful and often sacrosanct. And they're largely responsible for the amazing and ultimately unsustainable French quality of life that so many of us envy — the 37.5-hour work week, the socialized medicine, the little goodie bags that toll booth clerks hand out to vacationers on the auto routes during national holidays.
But they're also colossally paralyzing. The nation is like a group of kids playing a game of "freeze." Someone shouts "greve" and everything stops at once in mid-motion. To wake up one morning to find the entire public transportation system of Paris shut down is slightly surreal. My friends there are used to it. They sigh, then say, "I guess I'll take the bike to work."
No such options were available at the Geneva airport, however. Eventually, our plane did take off, though. It flew over France, collided with nothing, and eight hours later, I found myself in Newark.
Spare me the Jersey jokes. Coming back home through Newark is always a thrill for me. In France and Geneva, the immigration officers are so formal and tight-lipped, they're practically fossilized. Mm. Bonjour Madame, they sniff disdainfully, as if they've just smelled something acrid.
At Newark, though, they not only talk, but tawk — in that full-blown, attitudinal, gum-chewy accent of my Noo Yawk homeland. Leafing through the pages of my passport, they say, "So, you're Gilman, huh? So what? You, like, here to visit your family or sumpthin'?"
"Sure," I say. "Why not."
"So, is dis business or pleasure?"
"You tell me."
"Ay, we hear you," they say, chuckling. "So, you bringin' any food in from Switzerland? Any chawklit?"
"Is 'chawklit' a food?" I say. "I thought it was more like, I dunno, a high-class pharmaceutical."
"Oh yeah?" (Laugh again.) "You got any for us?"
Okay, so if my last name were Rashid, they probably wouldn't be so nice.
But what I love most about coming home is the banter, the playfulness. We Americans, I've discovered, never shut up — and I, for one, can't get enough of it.
When my husband, the Amazing Bob, and I first moved to Geneva in 2002, I couldn't begin shedding my red-white-and-blue skin quickly enough. Oh, how I wanted to assimilate, to become a cultured, erudite, sophisticated European!
American culture seemed to me to be nothing but a big, plastic, supersized mall full of fast food, trashy television, and obese gun-nuts. The Europeans, on the other hand, had classical architecture, fine wines, and seven weeks of vacation. We'd spawned Rush Limbaugh, they had Alain Ducaisse.
And yet, after a year or so, I found myself missing American exuberance, our candy-striping, sunny-faced, star-spangled Can-Do-ism. Our happy informality. More than anything else, I missed our out-sized, confessional, emotional incontinence. I missed the way that Americans just talk.
We Americans don't give a shit if your great-great-great grandmother back in Dumfries once showed her ankle to a vicar, or if your name has a "von" in it, or if you went to one of the Grandes Ecoles. We don't care about your pedigree. As far as we're concerned, pedigree is for dogs.
We just want to have a conversation — even if we're, say, working at immigration control at Newark Airport: Yeah, you got some Swiss chawklit? My wife, you know, loves that stuff. Me, I'm strictly a Reese's Pieces guy. You know, gimme a bag of Reese's Pieces and a bottle a Rolling Rock, and I'm set...
One opening, and we're off.
The women spritzing perfume at Macy's, the clerk at the dry cleaners, the plumber at the hotel, people on buses, at newsstands, sitting beside you on the Amtrak to D.C.: if they're not talking to someone on their cellphones, they're tawkin' to you.
And I love it. Oh, do I miss this abroad: The outpouring of stories. The great, primordial ooze of personality and accents and anecdotes. For a writer, it's Nirvana.
Unless they're mentally ill, Europeans don't natter away like we do. Maybe because they've all been at each other's throats for 3,000+ years, or because they're all living on top of one another... I don't know. But I do know that for all our own shortcomings, we Americans are still an amazingly warmhearted, garrulous bunch. We're loud and proud and big, and we're friendly as hell.
And as soon as I got into the taxi at Newark to head into Manhattan, I heard it, the music of our fabulous yapping — guys from Bayonne were calling into a local radio station to bitch. And what were they bitching about, ironically? The unions, who are threatening to go on strike later this month.
"Ah, they're all a bunch a' lazy bastards who don't do nothin'," one of the callers declared. "I say fire the whole bunch a dem."
Ah yes, I'm