Steam is up for sci-fi

It’s New Zealand Book Month and Amanda Witherell talks to one of Wellington’s newest and smallest publishers about how to print quality books and still be able to feed the cat.

You don’t, according to Stephen Minchin.

“I’ve lost chunks of money. It’s kind of depressing,” says the founder of Steam Press, which launched just two years ago and has a mere five titles to its name. Still, Minchin is smiling across a black coffee at Lamason café off Bond Street: perhaps because he’s specialising in something other publishers are tossing in the slush pile – science fiction by New Zealand authors.

“I think it’s what you need to do now, have that niche that you understand and that people recognise,” he says.

In some ways, he’s not alone. Amongst Wellington-based generalists like Victoria University Press and Steele Roberts, are some very specific, and successful, niche-holders: Huia publishes Māori authors, Gecko prints children’s books from overseas, Awa and Te Papa handle nonfiction, Bridget Williams’ focus is scholarly tomes. Now Steam Press prints science fiction, an evergreen genre for adventurous readers, but not of interest to publishers, though Minchin says he’s been flooded with quality submissions.

“I came at this as a reader and an author,” says the Wellington native who studied ecology at Massey University, but decided, as he puts it, “Science is one of those things that takes something you’re interested in and destroys it.”

Science fiction, however, is another story. Or novel – he wrote two while living in Japan, with his wife Ang, teaching English. “I sent them back to New Zealand and no one would publish them. No one wanted science fiction,” he says. His suspicion was confirmed while studying publishing at Whitireia. “We had a lot of publishers come and visit us at the course and it dawned on me that none of the New Zealand publishers were interested in stuff that I was writing and reading.”

Last year, Steam Press released three books, all of which have been favorably reviewed. The first The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse by Fredrik Brounéus, was picked up by German and Czech Republic markets. The second, Mansfield with Monsters, landed on The Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2012, elbowing amongst other short story collections by Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, and Witi Ihimaera. In it, authors Matt and Debbie Cowens rework Katherine Mansfield stories to terrifying ends. (They’ll read from the book at a New Zealand Book Month event, Words on the Wind, later this month.)

“I didn’t expect them to even look at it,” says Minchin of The Listener’s meaningful recognition. Though the book is in its third reprint, the endorsement hasn’t translated into a spike in sales.

That may be unfortunate reputation of New Zealand authorship. Kiwis like local literature in theory, but they aren’t burning through the pages, according to a 2012 Victoria University study by Pia White. Of 500 surveyed readers, only 23 percent reported often reading New Zealand fiction. The study also cited Nielsen BookScan numbers showing New Zealand books account for only four percent of the total fiction market.
Though Minchin is committed to publishing local authors, he agrees with the masses. His taste test is simple: “After I read it, do I want to buy it for someone else? It’s been a while since I did that with a New Zealand author. It’s all a matter of taste, but if a certain taste isn’t being catered to, that’s where I can come in.”

The same study found nearly 40 percent of readers are science fiction fans. Why not give them what they want? A story of Māori gods roaming Wellington streets probably wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for Minchin. Steam Press will release Summer Wigmore’s The Wind City later this year, after the launch of Joseph Ryan’s The Factory World, by another Wellington writer.

At the moment, it’s a nights-and-weekends labour of love, wedged between Minchin’s digital strategy work for Huia and Awa. He’s also a newly-appointed tutor for Whitireia’s publishing course.

“I occasionally get really down about it and then I remember that I actually enjoy it. I’m producing really cool books that otherwise wouldn’t have been produced. It’s a matter of not stressing about the money. I’m enjoying it during the day and then I’m awake all night, wondering how to feed the cat.”

Asked where he sees his business five years from now, Minchin says, “I’d like to keep putting out a couple books a year, selling rights overseas, and working for other publishers at least part time.”

Pretty much what he’s doing now…plus, feeding the cat.


Originally published March 6, 2013 in Capital Times. 


Diplomatic Ladies

Woods dons a traditional chador to pass muster under Khomeini, in Tehran in 1984.

An affair with H.G. Wells, hidden homosexuality, undercover spies, and coups before teatime, Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys is a page-turning account of what really goes on behind embassy doors. Not just a chronicle of juicy anecdotes, the book details the inherent sacrifices wives and partners make, such as the inability to pursue careers and the demand that they wine and dine as an unpaid part of the job. 
Only a true insider could have known the right questions to ask and author Joanna Woods spares few details in her own chapter “Supping with the Ayatollah.” In addition to accompanying her husband, Richard, to posts in Bahrain, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, the US, and Russia, she’s also a Katherine Mansfield scholar, the author of three other books, and says her love of reading made her enjoy every moment of research. Though she recently resided in Wellington, Woods answered questions from her native U.K.

When did you realise you needed to write this book?
What originally motivated me was a burning desire to write about my own experiences in Iran, where my husband and I spent seven years. It was one of the most extraordinary periods of my life and I have wanted to write about it for over a decade. As I struggled to find the right format, including a crack at a fictionalised version, it occurred to me that many other diplomatic wives must have equally interesting stories to tell and their inclusion would broaden the scope of my book enormously. Once I decided on this, the format fell into place quite naturally and I realised at once that I was on the right track.

I was struck by the amount of drama in these stories – did you have to cull a lot of information to get at these gems?
My eureka moment probably came in late 2008, when I was browsing in the legendary London Library, which I have belonged to for many years, and I came across Katy Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia. Her book is about British diplomatic wives, including some pretty exotic early figures, but I could see at once how some of New Zealand’s early posts in the Pacific could be as “exotic” as 19th century Kashgar, if only I could track down the stories.

What followed was about a year of intensive research. By this time I had decided to take a chronological approach, so that my book would not just be a random collection of stories, but rather a historical account of New Zealand diplomacy told from the wives ‘ perspective. I was also acutely aware that many of these stories would be lost unless someone wrote them down.

Were the women you interviewed eager to talk?
Virtually nobody I approached turned me down. People were equally generous with their letters and photographs and after many of the interviews I felt as if I had made a new friend. One of the things that helped enormously was that, after an interview, I always sent a copy of the transcript and undertook to remove anything that they wished they hadn’t said! This made people feel ‘safe’ and as a result they were far more open and relaxed with me. And virtually no-one changed a word of the transcripts.

I’m impressed by how many of these women were feminists, from the first diplomat’s wife Maud Pember Reeves to Marguerite Scott during the 1970s. In spite of all the spousal duties and decorum, is this a role where a woman can make her beliefs known? 
On the whole, diplomatic wives do not become directly involved in political issues in the countries to which their husbands are posted. Maud Pember Reeves was quite exceptional, but this was largely because she did not regard herself as a foreigner in England. She behaved as if she was a private individual at home. But diplomatic wives can help promote social justice and reforms indirectly, through supporting local charities, for example. They also have unique opportunities to mix socially with powerful figures in the host country and to influence their thinking, but the key to diplomacy is persuasion rather than confrontation. A woman who pushes her own views too hard at the dinner table might not be invited back.

Many of the issues raised in these stories are still issues, as revealed last March when MFAT proposed cuts to diplomats’ positions, pay and allowances, prompting envoys and partners to air grievances about the difficulties of their appointments, including the single salary situation. Did that conflict affect what you wrote? 
The whole sorry situation at MFAT began when I was already well advanced with the book and had no influence on my writing, but it’s made the subject matter far more topical than I had ever imagined and it has also served as a timely reminder of the major contribution that the wives and partners have always made to diplomatic life.

You are quite right that many of the issues that wives faced in the past continue to be problems today. That many of the partners are now male has changed things, however, and wives and partners are now far less engaged in the business of diplomacy. This does not alter the fact that many of them still sacrifice career prospects and financial advantages to accompany their partners overseas. It is also still tough on the children, despite the apparent glamour. Nevertheless a lot of progress has been made since the bad old days when wives were forbidden to work and in most places partners are now able to find some sort of employment, including within the Embassy.

Did you put a career on hold to be a diplomat’s wife? What would you have done if you’d been allowed?
If I had not married a diplomat, I would probably have started writing books 20 years earlier!

Originally published on January 23, 2013 in Capital Times.

Looks make the musician

It was important to look the part: country singer Ron Hayward photographed at Desgranges Studio in Te Kuiti, circa 1949.

Ray Hayward’s stash of photographs is one of the great finds Chris Bourke uncovered while researching for his award-winning book Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 – now an exhibition opening December 13 at New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

Snapped professionally, 18 year old Hayward poses with his guitar looking every bit like an American country singer, even though his boots were made for walking around Taranaki.

“Those pictures gave me an idea of how much it was about looking the part,” says Bourke. “We took these overseas styles and made them our own.”

Similarly, Bourke recounts a great tragedy for any aspiring country musician of a certain era – nowhere to buy a pair of cowboy boots. Nola Hewitt, one of The Tumbleweeds out of Dunedin, augmented her gumboots with hand stitching, heels, and artful pruning of the boot tops for a professional photograph of the band, taken in 1950.

It’s one of the 60 images on display at the Portrait Gallery, alongside photos of audiences dancing to swing, casual snaps of jazz musos at Wellington cafes, and rock ‘n’ roll stars being mobbed by fans. The exhibition is a riff on the book: readers will recognise some images, however Bourke includes many new photographs uncovered since publication in 2010, as well as music-related ephemera – antique radios, sheet music of New Zealand songs, and yellowing copies of Radio Record, Playdate, The Listener, and Hot Licks, a musical magazine that predated Rip It Up. A portfolio of late 1970s photographs taken by Rip It Up founder Murray Cammick is also included.

“That magazine and Murray have been very influential to me,” says Bourke, who worked there for three years during the 1980s before becoming a broadcaster for Radio New Zealand, writer and editor for The Listener, and author of a biography of Crowded House. “It was run on a shoestring and many photos never appeared very large in the magazine.”

To see them displayed among the older work covered in the book is not a great leap, argues Bourke. “It was the beginning of the end of the culture cringe and Rip It Up played a role in that. There was a long period when people didn’t think local music cut it. It was like an inferiority complex. Blue Smoke shows what a fallacy that was.”

Bourke is keen to write another book exploring the early 1960s period when music went underground and leading up to the more liberating 1970s. However, he’s been busy preparing a 44-page publication for this exhibition, a rich coda of new information for fans of Blue Smoke, winner of three categories at the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards – Book of the Year, Best Non-Fiction, and People’s Choice.

“I’m finding things that I think, ‘Oh damn, I wish that had been in the book,’” he says.

The Portrait Gallery’s Elizabeth Alley first broached the idea of an exhibition, not long after Blue Smoke was published, and though Bourke is a first time curator, it wasn’t difficult to come up with images. “I got a lot of material from the musicians themselves who were happy to share it, whereas photo archives of old newspapers and magazines have priced themselves out of the market. You pay $100 per photo. That makes it completely unaffordable.”

Alexander Turnbull Library, however, was very generous with their archives and Bourke says he’s happy to help people knock the dust off their family heirlooms. “It’s important for people to dig out their grandparents’ photo albums because they might have material that’s historically significant and they don’t realise it.”

Asked if an exhibition like this would be possible 50 years from now, with so much material captured in bytes rather than boxes, Bourke says it could make his job even easier. “Digital photography and recording means there’s so much material saved informally. So much has been lost through photo albums and newspapers being thrown out. And YouTube…it’s almost going to be too much.”

Originally published December 12, 2012 in Capital Times. 

On the stage and off the page

If poems always sounded dull to you, do not go gentle into that good poetry slam – the words were meant for the stage, not the page and whoever excites the audience most, wins. This week the top 12 spoken word poets from around New Zealand compete for the National Poetry Slam, no music, no props, no costumes, and a three minute time limit. Two of Wellington’s top seeded bards tell Amanda Witherell how they wouldn’t be poets if it weren’t for slams, while two well-published poets question if they’re worth the ink. 

Traditional poets don’t have very nice things to say about poetry slams. James Brown, award-winning author of five poetry books and a Victoria University lecturer on the topic says, “It’s probably got a place somewhere, just let me know where it is so I can avoid it.”Fellow poet and Vic professor Harry Ricketts wrote a disparaging limerick after he attended an Auckland slam: “This poem’s almost all about me:/my body, my journey, my chi./The next line, it’s true,/makes a mention of you;/after that, it’s all me, me, me, me.”

Though he’s intrigued by the risk involved to perform a memorised poem on stage, he says, “They’re almost invariably egotistical displays. They have a performance aspect that’s usually integral and the people who have won are the people with the best moves.” Whereas, he adds, “A poem on the page has to do all the work on its own.”

And it’s not doing a very good job, says Randi Eaton. “We have to win back a generation to poetry. We lost them along the way. I didn’t grow up with poetry.”

Three years ago the novelist wouldn’t have called herself a poet, but she stumbled across poetry slams in Asheville, North Carolina, followed it up during a trip to Australia, and bested the rest in the Wellington heats to perform in this year’s National Poetry Slam.

She’ll be up against several national talents, including Ali Jacs, who won second place last year, then went on to found Poetry in Motion, a monthly spoken word event in the courtyard of Heaven Pizza.

Jacs spent a year touring the city’s poetry events before she launched her own and says, in spite of its growing popularity, “It’s a challenge to get my friends to come, but every single person who isn’t into poetry who comes says ‘that’s not what I expected.’ They love it.”

The same challenge holds for traditional poets. “Some are more open than others. Particularly, those in academia, there’s a feeling that what we’re doing isn’t real poetry. They don’t recognise it as similar to what they’re doing.”

Maybe they’re missing something – Poetry in Motion has outgrown the back courtyard of Heaven Pizza and will use the entire restaurant for this month’s gathering, on November 7 with Auckland’s Michelle Bolton, who’s in town to emcee the National Slam.

“People have a pretty solid idea of what they think a poetry show would be like and to be frank it’s pretty boring,” says Jacs, who always wrote poetry but never considered performing it until she discovered poetry slams while living in Saskatoon, Canada.

“The slam is a very different event. We are appealing for a younger demographic interested in a lively night out. Integral to spoken word and slam poetry is audience interaction. At a traditional reading the audience is really quiet. At a poetry slam the audience is encouraged to make a lot of noise and let the poet know what they think.”

That’s the part Randi Eaton loves. She never played sports, but she’s competitive when it comes to poetry and already planning her strategy – which poem to open with, which ones to hold back for later rounds. She’s drawn to slams because “something so calm and intellectual and academic as poetry traditionally seems, comes to life a little more when you have this competition.”

“I’d love to see slam poetry become pop culture. We’re getting away from the page,” she points out, with smartphones and iPads, and that’s the very premise of spoken word. “You can listen to music anytime, anywhere. You can read a poem anytime, anywhere, but that doesn’t happen. Maybe we don’t have the time or the patience to sit and read and this is entertainment, but it makes you think. My flatmate went to a slam and said afterward, ‘you know, I’m going to start painting.’”

Jacs self-published a chapbook, predominantly of her spoken word poems, and Eaton’s open to the idea, though she’s also drawn toward multimedia. “At this point, I’d like a DVD with a booklet of words. I have a lot of people who say after I perform, ‘can I see that in print?’ That’s where I see poetry on the page with a purpose.”

Originally published November 7, 2012 in Capital Times

A Kiwi bromance


Left: Bret McKenzie, behind the scenes. Top: Robert Sarkies directing. Bottom: Duncan Sarkies the writer. 

Two brothers are the brains and heart behind the new film Two Little Boys. Sitting together at Deluxe Café, sharing a brownie carefully sliced into equal halves, Robert and Duncan Sarkies tell Amanda Witherell how Duncan’s initial sketch of a novel about three bogans in a van driving around the Catlins becomes a film about the true meaning of friendship.  

The film stars Bret McKenzie as the meek, dumb Nige to Hamish Blake’s bullying but loyal Deano.

They’re two mullet-rocking ‘90s era bogans who’ve always been best mates, until a third bro – Maaka Pohatu playing Gav, a cheerful, pothead-spiritual Maori – enters the picture. Deano can’t hang with the competition, but when Nige hits a Norwegian soccer star with his car, he turns immediately to his old friend for advice. Disposing of the body takes Nige out of his comfort zone and reveals Deano’s sinister side.

Shot in 36 days at more than 50 locations around Invercargill and the Catlins, incorporating live sea lions, penguins, and dolphins, it’s one of those comedies chocked with hilarious one-liners and unbelievable plot twists, which also contends with some real issues.

This isn’t the brothers’ first foray into filmmaking together – they created the 1999 low-budget hit Scarfies and initially Robert who produced the movie imagined something similar in cost, scale, and time commitment.

“Early on Robert and I were picturing it as a film,” says Duncan, who started scribbling character sketches back in 2006. It quickly grew to a couple hundred pages and he told his brother: “I really want to write this as a novel. I fell in love with being inside someone’s head.”

Though the brothers have been living in Wellington for more than 15 years and the film cast and crew is heavily populated with other Wellingtonians, the book is set in middle-class Dunedin.

“We weren’t in a little arts bubble down there. That explains the vernacular of the characters,” says Duncan, of their Dunedin childhood, which included trips to the Catlins. He revisited many of those places while composing the novel, imagining the characters riding with him. “I was travelling around with three invisible bogan friends,” he says, adding that he imagined the scene where Nige and Deano descend into a fight in front of a bunch of sea lions while sitting at that same beach and immediately drafted in his car.

His real life relationships were also an inspiration. “I’ve been involved in a couple of friendships where I was the Nige character, with someone dominating me,” says Duncan. “However, as a writer, I’ve got a bit of me in Deano, and a bit of me in Nige, and a bit of me in Gav. You can’t help but be your characters.”

Though he’d previously written award winning plays and short stories, this was Duncan Sarkies’ first novel and throughout its drafting, he says, “I couldn’t forget entirely about the film.”

It’s a very crazy film – there’s all sorts of bad language and bad behaviour. In order to make it we had to go to meetings with all sorts of lawyers and accountants, quite serious meetings. I was thinking, you’ve just given a lot of funding to….” Here he spins off into laughter.

“We always thought of it as a crazy rollercoaster ride of a film,” he adds. “We wanted to take it to places rollercoasters don’t always go. The challenge, as storytellers, was to do it without jolting people off the ride. It was definitely a fine line.”

Grounding the absurdity in reality was one of the constant tensions, helped along by the real scenery, the art department’s ability to wind back the clock to the mid-‘90s, and the actors – McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame, and Blake, who’s known for his role in Australia’s Hamish and Andy show – who naturally gelled on the set.

“If you bring great comedians like Bret and Hamish you want them to bring their take to it.” says Robert.

“It’s a layering process. The comedy they bring also comes from a real place. Even the comedy is rooted in truth,” says Robert. “I wanted to make a film that could have been conceived by Nige and Deano themselves and they’d love it.”

“And wouldn’t recognise themselves!” adds Duncan.

Both seem delighted with the results – which premieres nationwide on September 20, with a special preview and Q&A with the Sarkies in Wellington.

Originally published September 12, 2012 in Capital Times

Losing the West

Losing the West

“Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources”

By Amanda Witherell


Our society can’t continue functioning the way it does. Exploiting the natural abundance of resources in the western United States, without balancing the needs of nature, has lead to the myriad environmental problems outlined in The American West at Risk, a book recently penned by Bay Area–based geologists Richard W. Hazlett, Jane E. Nielson, and Howard G. Wilshire.

A thorough survey of environmental issues related to forestry, water, agriculture, mining, road building, outdoor recreation, waste disposal, military testing, nuclear energy, and warfare, the book was written from the perspectives of scientists, but told in such a way that the science makes the case for preservation by driving home the point that everything the human race depends on comes from nature. Ultimately, the authors stress that the solution is homegrown. “Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources.”

We caught up with Nielson and Wilshire by phone to discuss the book in anticipation of their visit to San Francisco this week.

SFBG It often seems like saving the world becomes an emotional or moral stance and less of a scientific one — or that’s how it frequently gets framed by opponents.

JANE E. NIELSON That’s right, and for no reason. Economics have become more important. One of the things we’re trying to say is the environment is the basis for our economic well-being.

SFBG Do you think that if people more fully realize that resources aren’t infinite, thriftiness will become more of the American lifestyle?

JEN It would be very desirable for people to realize that more, to have it taught in schools. How much time we have left to do that, I don’t know. I feel that once people do get an appreciation for the fact that life is going to be leaner, that the soil is really important, things can change very rapidly.

HOWARD G. WILSHIRE My pessimism is borne of the fact that they will have to respond quickly because we are on the brink of serious problems. Climate change is a big one and coping with that — the plans that are being endorsed now and pushed now by politicians and businesspeople — are that we’re going to have to find alternatives to cheap oil to keep on doing what we’re doing.

SFBG In the book you reveal a pattern of public commons being used to benefit a minority, whether its subsidies for big growers, cheap grazing rights, water rights for a handful of a farmers …

HGW It’s across the board.

SFBG How do we break these patterns of privilege, because it’s so ingrained it seems like an institutional problem?

JEN I have to tell you this is something that just sort of grew on us as we wrote the book. We knew about various subsidies, but the immensity of it and the pervasive pattern really only became clear as we progressed through the book.

SFBG It’s interesting that not only is there a pattern of subsidies, but they’re for a very small percentage of people.

JEN The whole history of land ownership in this country was intended to support the small person. The Homestead Act was supposed to give land to individuals, but most people failed at homesteading and there was no provision built in to prevent land from being gobbled up by big landowners.

SFBG So how can we flip this? Some of it is local, but for a lot of it these laws are federal.

HGW We have to take money out of the election system so we can get people free of monetary interest promoting their offices to do something useful. There are people who have the insight and the knowledge to know that we have got to stop this bleeding of our resources through subsidies.

Read the full interview with the authors here

Read Amanda Witherell’s full review of the book here

Originally published January 7, 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

The American imagination

The American imagination

Rose Aguilar looks for change on Red Highways

By Amanda Witherell

If you’re one of the 200,000 San Franciscans who voted for Barack Obama, maybe you’re staring at that map of red and blue states wondering, “How could 56 million people vote for John McCain? Why is there still this incredible swath of crimson belting our country?”

Similar questions have been burning in the minds of liberals since the 2000 election. In 2005, San Francisco resident Rose Aguilar turned them into a quest: “One night, after spending several hours online, sending articles to friends who were probably sick of me barraging them with e-mails and practically falling over political books and magazines I had yet to open, I realized it was time to leave my comfort zone. I needed to turn off my computer and get out into the streets to find out why people vote the way they do and find out if we’re as divided as we’re led to believe.”

Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland (PoliPoint Press, 221 pages, $15.95) is the result of Aguilar’s six-month road trip through reliably red states to ask people why they identify with one party over another, or vote for certain candidates, or don’t vote at all.

Aguilar, the host of Your Call, a public interest radio show on KALW, kept her mic keyed up and conducted hundreds of interviews as she and her boyfriend, Ryan, traveled by van through Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Montana. Some of these talks are with the hotel employees and restaurant owners one might typically encounter on a cross-country road trip. But Aguilar and her partner also venture to places they wouldn’t normally go — places that are mainstays in the lives of many Americans. Malls and churches provide the setting for much of the narrative, but the duo also attend their first gun show, chill out at a water park, and take in a bull-riding event. Nearly every experience is charged with politics — even at Oklahoma’s Bullnanza, Aguilar discovers riders who are heavily sponsored by the US Army.

Aguilar’s easy prose style, no doubt fine-tuned by her daily radio conversations, makes this part-travelogue, part-political inquiry a quick read, with a fine balance of visual observation, first-person anecdote (she outlines the challenges of roadside dining when you’re a vegan), and political fine-tuning. Aguilar discovers that most people like to talk about politics, but feel they shouldn’t. In Kerrville, Texas, she meets two closet Democrats, one who is a registered Republican because there are never any Democrats on the local ballot.

The phenomenon of closeted politics recurs as Aguilar travels deep into red state territory. She also criticizes the media for failing to adequately portray America’s nuances. “We breathe the same air, we live under the same political system, we’ve probably seen the same television and news shows, and most of us grew up going to public schools,” she writes. “Yet because we might vote differently once every four years, we find ourselves stereotyped in the national media and separated by red and blue borders.”

While exposing the impact of political peer pressure, Aguilar also encounters jarring social inconsistencies — billboard advertisements for strip clubs compete with signs for mega-churches throughout Dallas. With an awareness of such juxtapositions, she seeks a deeper truth in her talks with gay conservative environmentalists in Montana, Republican funders of local Planned Parenthood chapters, and a pro-war Texas vegan. Their tales make her book an important piece of evidence on America’s political complexity. Red Highways uncovers a country full of fierce individuals prone to herd mentality.

Aguilar finds islands of unquestionable compassion. Speaking with churchgoer Bob Bartlett after a service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church in Austin, she asks him: ‘I noticed that this is a progressive church. What does that mean exactly?

‘It means we’re open to everybody’s thoughts and we’re open to everyone, no matter what your nationality is or what your religion is or what your sex is. We like all of it.’

“CNN or MSNBC should send a reporter here to challenge stereotypes by doing a segment about religious Republicans who attend progressive churches in conservative-leaning states. This one wasn’t hard to find. There must be others,” she concludes.

In a Sept. 29, New Yorker article revisiting Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays written more than 50 years ago, Louis Menand wrote, “A key perception in The Liberal Imagination is that most human beings are not ideologues. Intellectual coherence is not a notable feature of their politics. People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness.”

Menand goes on to point out that such assumptions need critical attention. Perhaps now, as the country decompresses from two years of campaigning that resulted in the election of the first black president to lead this diverse, complex, and deeply wounded populace, as people who voted Republican are already speaking about their pride in this historic moment, and as political commentators are already talking about the “purpleness” of the country and blurring of hard lines between states and political stances, writers and reporters like Aguilar will start to look more closely at who we really are. Red Highways deserves a place in the library of modern political Americana.

Originally published November 12, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

High trees and high seas

High trees and high seas

Two books track modern-day explorers of new worlds

By Amanda Witherell

REVIEW Readers should always use extreme caution when approaching books that employ words such as passion and daring in their titles. Cliché and hyperbole are nigh. Drama and awe have been forcefully injected.

So it is with Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. In this account of how a ragtag band of scientists and tree lovers discovered the true heights of California’s coastal redwoods, Preston relies on the inherent edginess of the fanatics he’s writing about to entertain the reader through some 300 pages of otherwise bland prose.

Preston deserves props for sniffing out a good story, as he did with the sheer horror of the Ebola virus, achieving best-seller status with his 1994 book, The Hot Zone. Few people have actually ventured into the upper limbs of what turns out are the tallest trees in the world. The unique, complex characters who do so carry Preston’s story. Michael Taylor is deeply disturbed by heights but driven to find the tallest, most insurmountable tree. Steve Sillett, a depressive scientist, is fearless enough to attempt anything in these trees — including making love to a fellow researcher in a hammock suspended 350 feet off the ground. Using the tree-climbing techniques of arborists and the surveying technology of geologists, Sillett and Taylor lead teams of researchers to locate hidden ecologies in the canopies of coastal redwoods, discoveries that refute many commonly held assumptions about these still relatively unstudied trees.

The natural world is where humans turn to regard their own greatness or smallness, and writing about nature can and should be a daunting task. It’s easy for authors to get lost in the science and sacrifice the initial spark of wonder that ignited their interest. As the world becomes more thickly coated with the works of our own creation and the marvels born of some still-unknown other lose ground, these sparks are crucial for humanity. Unfortunately, Preston will find no home in the hall of masters where Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry reside.

Preston barely succeeds at keeping boredom at bay by letting the characters’ lives drive the story. His descriptions of the trees are encyclopedic, his vocabulary limited, repetitive, and uninspiring, and this fascinating subject perishes in his hands as his language fails to achieve the great heights of these trees. He writes as if speaking to a child: “What seemed real to him was the trees. The redwoods were overwhelming in their reality.” Another source of irritation is his habit of ending a sentence with one word, only to open the next with the same. “He thought that there was something fragile about Steve. Steve was a restless person, driven, passionate, intense, and he always seemed to be running out of time.” This character description should give aspiring writers with visions of tony bylines in the New Yorker, where excerpts from this story first appeared, faith that anything is possible.

Alec Wilkinson, also a longtime New Yorker contributor, has crafted a much better read. Within the first pages of The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, the reader is assured that an inimitable subject is in the hands of an artful composer.

Wilkinson employs a narrative arc similar to Preston’s, opening with the basic life story of his primary character. Poppa Neutrino’s, however, is anything but a simple tale to tell. A charming iconoclast, he has many mottos, and one of them is “Until I’m stopped permanently, I’m unstoppable.” Wilkinson bears this adage out, relating the life of the 74-year-old man in chapters so varied they could be separate books about entirely different but loosely related people.

Born in San Francisco in 1933, Neutrino lies about his age to get into the Army and tells the truth to get out. He grifts his way around the Southwest, spending time in and out of jail, eventually stumbling into family life. He is the founding leader of the First Church of Fulfillment in New York — “the only church in the history of the world that didn’t know the way” — and the Salvation Navy in San Francisco. For several years he tours the country with his band, the Flying Neutrinos (his wife and children). Eventually, he takes to the sea, traveling from New York to Ireland with his wife and two friends on a raft made primarily of trash. By the time Wilkinson meets him, Neutrino is singing for money in Santa Monica and working on a play he thinks will permanently alter the game of football. He’s also preparing to “break the scrap barrier” by sailing across the Pacific on another trash raft.

The only consistency in this story is Neutrino. And Neutrino’s only true constant is change. In the course of demonstrating this, Wilkinson dodges trite language and stereotype as gracefully as a flying fish. Describing a Mexican border town where he’s visiting Neutrino, he writes, “Over everything lay a powdering of dust, and each time a bus passed I could feel it set an edge on my teeth.”

Both Preston and Wilkinson enter into and invest themselves in the lives and futures of the characters they write about — Preston, himself a tree climber, becomes Sillett’s research assistant on a trip to Australia, and Wilkinson is soon a confidant, witness, and friend to the otherwise solitary Neutrino. To become a part of the story is an increasingly overlooked no-no in the field of journalistic nonfiction, and neither Preston nor Wilkinson adds much to his tale by inserting himself, but their presences don’t detract either.

There’s an old bargain that occurs between writers and the readers they serve. Any time a spine is cracked and an opening page creased back, an invitation has been offered and accepted. With the same sense of excitement and anticipation that prefaces a good party, an adventurous trip, or a first date, the reader should stand on the threshold of a book with no real idea of what is to come.

It’s unfortunate that while Preston undoubtedly spent wells of time researching, interviewing, and gathering details for his story, the presentation feels rushed, like that of a 10th grader patching together a diorama on the night before the science fair. Wilkinson’s book, however, upholds the long tradition of good reads. It’s the kind where the pages are hastily turned until the reader quite abruptly creases back the last. As Neutrino floats over the edge of the horizon, we are left wondering what’s to come and hoping Wilkinson will be on hand to let us know.

Originally published May 30, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

On the bright side

On the bright side

Bjørn Lomborg tells climate-change worrywarts to chillax in Cool It

By Amanda Witherell

The most masterful crafters of fiction depend on the deliberate omission of details. Ernest Hemingway, in a 1958 interview with the Paris Review, called it the iceberg of a story, an eighth of which pierces the surface, known and visible, while an untold reality remains submerged beneath the narrative. This art of absentia served Hemingway well, layering his stories with nuance and mystery. The icebergs in Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming serve their author’s purposes too, but they’re likely to melt under the glare of critical scrutiny.

Lomborg, a Danish statistician and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, examines the problem of climate change through the lens of expense, and according to his calculations, the public benefits of cutting carbon dioxide emissions aren’t worth the cost. If we really want to improve future conditions, he contends, we should pay more attention to social problems like hunger and disease, causes that have been relegated to the status of ugly stepchildren by the new hype around saving the climate. Early in the book he concludes that, calculated in purely economic terms, the Kyoto Protocol is a “bad deal.” Every dollar spent cutting carbon emissions translates to 34 cents of “good” — a term he neglects to define.

Whatever his definition, it demands investigation. Lomborg is, after all, “the skeptical environmentalist,” as he first made plain in 2001’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, which was roundly debunked by scientists and Lomborg’s avowed fellow environmentalists. The Union of Concerned Scientists got concerned with his optimism about the state of the natural world and convened a panel of leading experts, including biologist Edward O. Wilson, water expert Peter Gleick, and climate modeler Jerry Mahlman to delve into the details of his data. They determined that his conclusions were drawn from an artful manipulation of facts disguised by a narrative deftly criticizing other artful manipulators of facts.

In Cool It, Lomborg attempts to defame the doomsday scenarios presented by respected environmentalists and thinkers such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and James Hansen by focusing on their offal: the potential positive impacts of global warming. He points out that more people die from cold-related deaths than heat-related deaths and wonders why no one’s talking about the fact that fewer people may freeze to death in 2050.

Lomborg never denies that climate change is occurring, but he proffers interesting statistics to show that things aren’t as bad as has been reported, and he blames the media for distorting facts by employing easy iconography — hurricanes, Mount Kilimanjaro, polar bears, Antarctica. And it’s true: the media often go for the easy image — such as Time‘s cover photo of a polar bear bereft on a chunk of ice, which played a role in bringing the term “global warming” into the common vernacular. Lomborg, by the way, made that same magazine’s “100 most influential people” list in 2004.

This influential person writes with cool-headed assurance that global warming will not adversely affect polar bears any more than hunting them does, that some populations of them are actually increasing, and that evolution will equip the fittest for the future. He writes, “Yes, it is likely that disappearing ice will make it harder for polar bears to continue their traditional foraging patterns and that they will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.” His back-of-the-book footnote to that statement reads: “The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment finds it likely that disappearing ice will make polar bears take up a ‘terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.’ ”

And the hawks begin to circle. In a recent interview with Lomborg,’s Kevin Berger said, “But you edited the quote. The whole thing goes like this: ‘It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.’ ” Lomborg defends himself by saying he talked to a different expert.

While it would be easy to discredit the remainder of the book based on this exposé, there is some worth in Lomborg’s reminder that we’ve been asleep at the wheel on far too many social problems, such as clean water, hygiene, disease prevention, and hunger. He isn’t wrong when he says that solving them would better equip populations for dealing with climate change. But further tugging at the roots of his footnotes is almost unnecessary because Cool It is virtually devoid of fully explored ideas.

For example, at a 2004 meeting the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a consortium of economists headed by Lomborg that think tanks on global challenges, drew up a global priority list of issues we should be addressing rather than shuttling cash toward cutting CO2 emissions. Ranking third is increased trade liberalization — code language for more NAFTA-type agreements, which have proved detrimental to developing countries. And what exactly is meant by number five, “development of new agricultural technologies”? Genetically modified organisms? Newer, stronger, somehow nontoxic pesticides? It’s hard to believe an environmentalist might promote pesticide use, but in his chapter on eradicating malaria Lomborg writes, “Concerns from Western governments, nongovernmental organizations, and local populations make it hard to utilize DDT, which is still the most cost-effective insecticide against mosquitoes and, properly used, has negligible environmental impact.”

Such a statement underscores Lomborg’s priorities when it comes to health — both human and environmental. His definition of cost gives primacy to cold, hard cash at the “negligible” expense of humans and their environments. Likewise, when the discussion turns to ratifying Kyoto, which he claims — without much explanation — would cost the US economy $160 billion a year, the price tag refers solely to the cost of disrupting business as usual.

“If we try to stabilize emissions, it turns out that for the first 170 years the costs are greater than the benefits,” Lomborg writes. But for the past 200 years we’ve been doing business on the cheap — and that shouldn’t be our baseline cost of existence. What’s the true cost of a species? Do we really know until it’s gone? What about the other negative environmental impacts of business as usual? Or the positive impacts of, say, more public transit to reduce car trips to reduce emissions? Plus, a decrease in the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas means more than just a decrease in carbon emissions. It means less mining, less drilling, less invasion into remote or protected areas questing for new ores. It means fewer oil spills, less mountaintop removal, less ground, water, and air pollution for the communities that have the misfortune of being sited in the backyards of industry.

In the book’s conclusion, Lomborg pushes for a $25 billion investment in research and design for alternative technologies. Seven times cheaper than adopting the Kyoto Protocol or establishing a rigorous carbon tax to encourage less CO2 emission, R&D investments are, in Lomborg’s economic rubric, a better deal.

Of course, there are already operational solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal units, vehicle-to-grid electric cars, and biodiesel recipes that could be more aggressively produced and adopted. But in Lomborg’s eyes they’re too expensive, bound to be replaced by superior technology, and thus a waste of money, to invest in now — he brushes aside economists who contend that prices will drop as demand increases. And beyond offering no ideas on diminishing the use of fossil fuel, he in fact encourages burning more in the communities that aren’t yet — though the sole upside to fossil fuels is economic cost, and the only cap on price is the perception of abundance.

He also fails to acknowledge that we can’t have both. We can’t have an increase in alternative technologies and an unabated use of fossil fuels. To actually deploy alternative technologies in the market — the hoped-for end result of all that R&D — would require the fossil fuels to step aside. This would, in turn, cut CO2 emissions. One must necessarily replace the other. There isn’t room for both. It’s like trying to put ice in a glass that’s already brimming with cold water.

One could argue that any adoption of alternative technologies would cover increased use, but that ignores what numerous researchers have pointed out: we should be universally deploying simple, effective, already established energy-efficiency measures. For the past 30 years California has done this, and despite projections and escalating energy use nationwide, the state’s needs have only increased in lockstep with the population — about 1 percent a year. Lomborg doesn’t aggressively push for energy efficiency, despite its cost-savings popularity with the same economically driven corporations, governments, and individuals likely to elevate Cool It to biblical status.

Lomborg criticizes as too extreme and costly proposals by Tony Blair and Gore to slash CO2 emissions by 50 or 80 percent respectively. Similarly he writes, “Restricting transportation will make the economy less efficient. Cutting back on hot showers, plane trips, and car use will leave you less well-off. It will also reduce the number of people being saved from cold, it will increase the number of water stressed [people], and it will allow fewer to get rich enough to avoid malaria, starvation, and poverty.”

Is it too bold to ask people to foreswear some of the excesses they’ve enjoyed, to put to bed some creature comforts, to fundamentally change the way they perceive living in the 21st century if they hope for a 22nd century for their children? Lomborg doesn’t ask these questions, so Cool It becomes more of a distraction than a contribution at a time when environmentalists should be busy promoting solutions, not debunking the carefully crafted fables of Lomborg’s dollar-driven theses.

Originally published September 25, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

An Interview with Meg Tilly

An Interview with Meg Tilly

by Amanda Witherell

Don’t ever pass up a chance to see an actress read her own writing. Watching Meg Tilly turn up her faint lisp to read the words of the 12-year-old titular character of her novel Gemma, with tears and terror in her voice when the girl is kidnapped by a pedophile, was so captivating it was hard to believe we weren’t out in the woods at the scene of the rape, not sitting in a room above City Lights Bookstore.

I first heard about Gemma from Charlotte Sheedy, Tilly’s New York agent who’s fostered successes like Eve Ensler and Daniel Handler (and is also the mother of Ally Sheedy, another ‘80s actress who fell off the map). She was talking about this book that she just couldn’t get anyone to publish — it was too graphic, too intense, too much for the mainstream publishing houses to touch. Naturally, I was curious. When I heard it was written by an actress I hadn’t thought of since the last time I saw The Big Chill, I was even more intrigued.

Tilly made her author debut twelve years ago with Singing Songs, the story of a family destroyed by physical and sexual abuses. Though initially billed as fiction, Tilly now says the book is far more true than false.

Gemma, however, is pure fiction she says, although by the way she talks about the characters “dropping in to her,” one could argue it’s more like she’s haunted by ghosts. The raw, uncensored book is told in chapters of alternating perspectives — the lecherous captor and his increasingly despondent victim. At times, the book is difficult to read, but only the faintest hearts could put it down without finding out what ultimately happens to the characters.

Tilly ended up footing half the bill for its publication with Syren, a small independent press. She expects she won’t make much money from the book — she’s donating 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Gemma to children who live through and with the problems her character faces.  She’s said that being “Meg Tilly” has helped and hurt the book’s popularity, but most of the people who’ve come to see her during the nationwide tour are there because of the story she’s reading, not because she almost won an Academy Award.

Off stage, Tilly projects a certain shyness, that’s countered by bouts of utter candor and confession. We met at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California on a warm afternoon in October, while she was touring with the book.

Gemma has been likened to Lolita, and after I read it, I went back and read Lolita again, and I was struck by how both books have such strong voices. I’m curious why you decided to write it the way you did, with the two perspectives of Hazen the captor, and Gemma the victim.

Charlotte decided I was going to write it. I was in a writing group — I belong to a couple of them — and the exercise was to write from the voice of the “other.” If you’re male, write as a female; female, male — and someone who is the polar opposite of you. So, first off my step-dad flashed in front of me, and then my mom’s boyfriend of twelve years who was also a pedophile and very violent, my step-grandfather, and another person who had molested me when I was a child. So, I had all these men piled up behind each other.

And everybody’s writing, you know how it is in those writing workshops, the pens are flying and the pages are flipping… and I can’t write anything. I’m just sitting there. I don’t know what your childhood was like, but sometimes you’re fine and you’re cool and you’re going along and everything’s mellow and then it just comes and bites you in the butt. It was one of those moments. So I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t write anything and luckily time ran over so I didn’t have to read my nothing, cause I had nothing on the page. Nothing.

I drove home and my heart was just banging away. And I was too agitated to go to bed. It was about 11:00 by the time I got home, so I went to my writing room and I just circled and circled, and then around 2:00 a.m. Hazen’s voice dropped in. And he told me about the first time he had sex with Gemma. And I just wrote it. And when I finished I was shaking and I felt like I needed to take a shower. Really disturbed, but I knew that it was a true voice.

I kind of fiddled with it and fleshed it a bit and made it into a short story that I sent to Charlotte with a bunch of other short stories that I had written because that was a comfortable way to go. And she told me short story collections are very hard to sell. Then she said, “But there’s one of those that’s a novel.” And my stomach drops, and I’m thinking please, don’t let it be the Gemma one, please don’t let it be… and she says, “That’s the one.” And I’m like, “No, anyone but that one!” And she says, “That’s a book. You have to write it.”

She’s my agent and I respect her enormously and I wouldn’t have finished Singing Songs, my first book, if it hadn’t been for her confidence in my voice. So I was trying, and I added a little bit more, and I got to page fifteen and I thought that’s it, that’s it, that’s all I can do! I hate being in this guy’s skin! I don’t want to write a book from here, I just don’t.

Were you already writing it from just Hazen’s voice or from both?

Just from his. I didn’t have her. It was 2001, Canadian Thanksgiving, and I had the turkey stuffed and in the oven and I was working on pies — I always do three pies because the recipe makes that much dough — and the phone rings and it’s Charlotte. She said, “What are you doing, Meg?”

I said, “Oh, I’ve got the turkey in the oven and I’m working on the pies…” and she says, “Get out of the kitchen and write that book!”

She wasn’t calling to wish you a happy Thanksgiving?

No! She’s in America, she didn’t know.

So, I said, “Okay,” and I finished up the pies and I went. Charlotte can be quite abrupt. And it took me around a week after that — I was just circling it, trying, and really resistant, and then all of a sudden, Gemma’s voice dropped into me. And I was like, ohhh, now I can write the book. Once I had her voice as a balance to his, a balance to his love story, his view of acquiescence, what he thinks is consensual — that she’s just playing games, she’s a little lollipop slut. As a balance to that, you’ve got Gemma and the cost of what his version of events is. So that the same moment is given with two totally different ideas of what’s going on. That was when I knew I could write the book.

Was it difficult writing from the voice of a child and making it seem authentic?

When I wrote Singing Songs, Emily and David were around the age that I was when the abuse started. So, that helped me there, but when I first started Gemma in 1999, Will was nine, and by the time Charlotte tore into me on Thanksgiving, he was eleven. So I was around kids that age, although I just dropped back into myself. A lot of things that happened to Gemma — not the really, really hard things — are things that are… you borrow as a writer from yourself, too. Like, her not being friends with the girl who was her friend because she realized she loved the life and not so much the girl, that happened to me. You remember those times in your life. Or Gemma’s travel? I did that myself. Certain things are part of you. I think also that’s where an acting background helps. You can drop back in with your senses to different times and stages in your life.

Once I heard her talking to me, it was like ah ha, okay, I can do this now. It was hard, because at times, when you get really deep into a first draft, it becomes, in a way, almost more real than your day to day. I had to pull myself out, because of my kids — I had two at home at that time, not just the one. It starts working in my subconscious mind, so that one or the other would shake me awake, talking, and I’d hear their voices and I’d hear how they talk, so I’d write it down, and then sift through and take out the bits that I could. They would help me. That’s how details would come, like that she had a pet turtle — she was telling me she had this pet turtle that she named Boxcar Julie.

But it was really scary when I’d wake up and he’d be talking to me, in that voice. It freaked me out. I didn’t get much sleep. But, once I got her voice it was like a runaway train. It was a really exhausting time in my life because I have pages and pages of just writing in the dark when they’d wake me up because they wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. It sounds very schizophrenic, but it’s just part of diving in deep to the creative process. Once I finished the first draft I did eighteen more go-throughs with it, but it stopped waking me up at night.

The book is entirely propelled by voice, the whole plot. There’s no setting, or any of the setting is just through the voice. Was that a deliberate decision?

Nothing I do is deliberate. It’s all instinctual because that’s what I have. I read a lot, but I didn’t… it’s just when it feels right in my belly. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know what it is. A lot of times I feel a little embarrassed when people give me compliments because of some choice I made, because I didn’t really make it. It just sort of made itself.

I think a lot of writers have that instinct and that’s what makes good writing. How difficult is writing for you? Is it something that you have to be really disciplined about?

I do have to be disciplined about it. Because when I get in my writing head if I’m really into a new project I’m sort of here, but I’m also stopping conversations or writing things down on scraps of paper or looking for lost pieces of paper. Usually what I do, on a regular school day I get up at 6:45, make Will hot breakfast, my husband drives him to school, he comes back, I put the tea on, we both take our tea, and then we go up to our writing rooms and just write.

Does your husband read your stuff?

Uh huh.

Everyday or when you’re ready?

Well, actually it depends. We’ve gotten more comfortable as we’ve been together longer. In the beginning, no. A little bit, but very carefully, very fragile. Everything’s wrapped up in it because if you don’t like my writing that means you don’t like me, and if you don’t like me that means you’re going to leave and you’re going to fall in love with someone else.

I know, writing relationships don’t always make it.

Well, we had met at a writing workshop, and it was personal stories, so we started off on a very no-holds-barred, absolute truth, your darkest and happiest, so we knew each other in that way, so there weren’t any real big surprises, because you write about all the stuff you don’t want to admit in life.

What a great place to start a relationship.

Yeah, actually that particular workshop, there have been three different couples who have fallen in love and met over the course of it.

Wow, they should market it.

I know! Because you really get to know each other.

So, but now I’m at a comfortable stage where when I get a chunk of stuff, around ten or twelve pages I’ll read it to him, not so much for… well, sometimes I’ll see something that’s right there that’s missing, but also to hear it out loud. I didn’t know, but I talk when I write. I went to this other writing retreat and we had 24 hours of silence, so you’re just supposed to write, but I kept hearing this voice. I didn’t know that I talked.

Were you in a room with other people?

No, I was in my bedroom, but it was so jarring. I write by myself all the time and I’d never noticed, but when there’s so much silence and the whole house is quiet and then all of a sudden you hear yourself. I didn’t realize I talked out loud.

So, when I write something, initially a lot of it is longhand, but a lot of it is on the computer too, once I get their voices. But then when I’m on the computer I can’t see it clearly. I have to print off a hard copy and then I can see things to fix them. And then comes the next stage of reading it out loud because then you hear things that you don’t catch, you notice when something doesn’t roll right off the tongue. You hear things more glaringly.

Who did you write this book for? Who do you imagine as your audience? Do you imagine a reader?

I wrote this book… for me. And for Charlotte’s belief that I could write this book. But mostly, for me. Also, it’s sort of my middle finger hoisted high at the pedophiles who abused me and my loved ones growing up. When I first wrote it, I used the name Hazen, and then the name that my stepfather had, but then I found out that one of my half-brothers had switched his name back to that last name, so I had to change that because I didn’t want him to think that I was naming him. But it was very satisfying to have the Hazen character have the name of my mother’s boyfriend for 12 years who was a pedophile and really, really abusive. I was kind of hoping that he would read it and say hey, wait a minute, that psychopathic pedophile is me! And take me to court and then I’d be able to say, yes, it is. Although, he’s different. That guy was older, and he had a missing middle finger, and different preferences.

The first writer to hope for a libelous situation.

I know! Well, then I decided with this, people say why did you decide to re-release Singing Songs, copping to it, but when I came out with it I just felt like it was the first thing I’d ever written and I didn’t want anybody to know it was based on me and my family. But now I think, I’m 46-years old. Why am I so embarrassed about what I come from? That’s what I come from. It’s part of me and I’m really proud. There’s other kids out there who come from challenge and if they can say wow, look where she came from and she has this successful happy life, I can have a good life too. I don’t have to get addicted to crystal meth or become a streetwalker. There’s two ways to go and I was at that dividing point myself where I would have gone this way or I would have gone that way and I made a choice. In a way I want to speak to kids out there to say you can make a choice. If you go the path of self-destruction you’re letting them win. They only have power over your life as much as when you’re there physically with them, and then there comes a time when you leave. Yes, it’s going to bite you in the butt sometimes and it’s going to be hard, but you can change, you can break the cycle, and you can have a good life. And you can be successful. If anything, it gives you problem solving skills.

Like I’m a real good problem solver. When my step dad’s bursting out of the bedroom, penis flapping, ready to beat somebody, I could find a hiding place like that — and good ones! So you feel triumphant, you know. I figured out I could jump out the window. I could climb out on the roof really easy because it had this sticky stuff. And he was afraid of heights, so he could never get me up there. He could have the biggest boner in the world and I’d be safe because he was scared. So there are ways you win.

So, it’s for people like me. I’ve just been on book tour for a little while, but I’ve had a lot of people come and thank me privately and tell me their stories.

Pedophilia and child molestation are in the paper every day — any paper you look at, there’s some story somewhere, whether its Mark Foley, JonBenet Ramsay, Catholic priests, there’s something everyday.

It’s huge.

Do you think it’s bigger than people recognize?

It’s bigger than people are willing to recognize. When you think about the statistics, they say it’s one in three girls, one in seven boys, by the time they hit eighteen, they’re going to be sexually assaulted. Okay, I think the boys are equal to the girls. I think with boys it doesn’t get reported because people worry about their young child growing up in schools where — it’s stupid, but the worst insult you can give some guy is, Oh, you’re gay, you’re gay. They throw it around. My son says, I’m not, but why do they think that’s an insult? It’s that sort of mentality.

I think parents don’t report it. But I think it’s more equal. And when you think, the average pedophile, this is the US Justice statistics, will molest between 30 to 60 children before the police catch them. They can molest up to 380 in their life.

I sit in a crowded room, I sit in a restaurant, I go to a show and I divide the audience into three, and I say one third of these people have been sexually assaulted before they hit the age of 18. One third. So, if you’re sitting at a table with six people and everybody’s dressed and looking so beautiful with their pearls in their ears and you think, out of this luncheon of six ladies, at least two have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. It’s huge. People say, we don’t want to talk about it because they’re so scared they don’t want to face it, but the fact of the matter is that when you’re teaching your child to cross the road, you teach them to look both ways. More children get molested than hit by cars. When you think about it, how many people do you know when you’re sitting at a table of six that have been hit by a car? Parents are always like, look both ways… but they don’t say the simple things that kids need to know if somebody tells you they’re going to kill you or kill your pet or kill your parents if you tell. Or if somebody touches you, or shows you their privates, that’s the first step. There are so many things, and you can do it in a way that’s not scary to the kids but protects them so that they know how to talk.

Have your kids read Gemma?

My daughter has. My older son has. The younger one has dyslexia. I’ve read pieces to him, because they help me choose which pieces to read for the reading, and they know what it’s about. I don’t know if he will, if he can yet, but maybe. His reading is getting better and better.

There are some really graphic scenes. Did you ever consider reading any of those, or do you think it’s too much for a public setting? I mean, some of them are hard enough to read on your own…

I did consider it. These ones I read do touch on it, because he does rape her in one, but I think that it might be too much for some people. I didn’t want to back away from inside his mind, because that’s the way he thinks. I probably could have gotten a publisher if I’d whitewashed it and sanitized it, but to me this is the way Hazen thinks. I don’t have to sell books. I don’t have to have a big writing career, but I do have to speak my truth and I didn’t want to Pollyanna him to get published.

So there were publishing houses that would have published it if you’d made changes?

There were ones that were interested. There was one editor at Simon and Schuster who loved it, and he couldn’t get the support he needed. They were too scared of the material. The two women that he gave it to found it too disturbing. Then there was another one who wanted in Bloomsbury, in London. She was very passionate about the book. Again, she couldn’t get it past the next level. I’d never met her, but she wrote me and said you must know, it’s not you. You must know, you’re a wonderful writer. Of course, you feel like maybe it isn’t any good. You always do, even though she gave it to other people who also said, wonderful writing, but there’s not a market for this or that. But it is actually selling pretty well. So, it’s kind of cool.

I couldn’t put the book down, because I was so worried about Gemma when I was reading it.

Yeah, me too. That’s why I had to finish writing it. Quick.

I was curious about the ending. Did you ever think of any other ending?

Oh yeah, I had another ending. I had it go on and then I wrote that last bit, and I was like oh, oh my god, that’s the ending. And I felt bereft. I thought I had another week to ten days of writing — I had somewhere else I was going, I don’t even remember where I was going, but I was like, no, that’s it. Because you don’t know, all you can do in life is hope, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t tie it up in a pink bow, that’s not life, but you can offer a bit of hope. But that’s all it is. You don’t know how Gemma’s going to end up. There are people in my position who went the other way, who end up on the street.

When I wrote Singing Songs, there were people who wrote me from prison saying how did you know my life? I couldn’t tell them it was my life, too. You go either one way or the other, because the damage that these pedophiles do, male and female, is so huge, and if you feel like you can’t speak about it and you feel like it’s your own dirty secret instead of their dirty secret — until you step in with your power and say no, this doesn’t belong on me, this isn’t mine to carry, you’re keeping their secrets because of your shame. It’s not your shame. It’s their shame and it belongs in their lap.

It was such painful, tense reading. I had my shoulders up around my ears. So tense. But there is a payoff — it isn’t completely depressing.

Yeah, that was important to me. There was a couple of editors who liked it a lot but didn’t want it to have… but I couldn’t write the book if I didn’t have that, because I believe in that. Look at my life — I believe solidly in that. My intention isn’t just to depress people. It’s to offer something that there are ways to pluck joy out of the hardest situations. Pluck the blessings. But it is tense. I wanted it to be.

I ran Gemma by a book club and their response was so overwhelmingly positive — the parents and the teenagers, 15 and up, they wanted to march onto the publishers and force them to publish it.

So you had a whole book club read it?

Yeah, because Charlotte said maybe a young adult publisher, she said sometimes young adult can handle things others can’t. The young adult book club said nobody under 15, and I didn’t want a YA (a young adult rating) on it — then you’d get the precocious readers, the 12- and 13-year-old readers who, once they hit a certain age they round the corner and read everything. I wanted this to be an adult novel, because I really feel strongly that it shouldn’t be anyone under 15. Although, when I gave my reading last night there was a girl there who was 14 and her mother said, “She’s already read it. She’s 14 but she’s going on 21.” And the girl said, “And I really, really loved it.”

And she came to me after, and she was kind of shaking, and she said, you know, I don’t read. I’ve never been a reader. But I picked up Gemma and I started to read it and I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never read a book, just like read it and couldn’t stop. And she said, but you know what, that was two weeks ago, and she smiled really proudly, and she said, since then I’ve become a reader. She said I’ve read at least three books a week, and I’ve never been a reader, my whole life. She said, you’ve caught me in this whole world.

That made me feel real good, even though she’s 14 and if she hadn’t already read the book I probably would have said, I’m sorry. There were some other children there and I said that they had to leave. I don’t want to give anybody nightmares or scare them or give them more information than they’re ready for.

How did you start writing?

I started writing when I was 29 or 30. I’d gotten pregnant with Will. I was in a relationship with Colin Firth, who’s an actor, and he was gone for most of that year. My daughter had hit the age I was when I started being molested and David was the age when the stepfather came into our lives and we started getting beaten. I had played the happy childhood all my life and people really didn’t know, unless I was with my brothers and sisters and sometimes people would have a couple drinks and start talking, between us, just certain incidents that happened, but never the really bad ones. So then what happened was as they were growing up I kept seeing flashes of my own childhood that I’d kind of stuffed down. It was like a scrim, and everything was seen through those sorts of filters. I started asking questions for the first time in my life about how these things could have been allowed to happen, and the enormity of what actually happened. Whereas I’d always thought oh, that’s just family, everybody has their challenges. Now, I was like, no, when we were in the doghouse, we were in the doghouse. It’s not just a phrase. You had to live in the doghouse and you weren’t allowed out except to go pee and you couldn’t go in the house to use the toilet because you were in the doghouse. And you only got a peanut butter sandwich and you got your beatings. You were in the doghouse. I couldn’t get my mind around the things that happened, looking at my own children and me creating this nest for them. So I started writing.

How did your writing affect your relationships with your family?

Oh, not good. When I first came out with Singing Songs, I said, oh, 100 percent fiction, because I’m such a fabulous writer I can just pluck these things from the ethers. Actually, I was Anna. When I told my editor we were pretty close to the end of it and I said actually, you need to know, this is my life and I need help now fictionalizing it. So we met in San Francisco, Carol DeSanti — she’s wonderful. We stayed in a bed and breakfast and we just locked ourselves inside for three days with an atlas and figured out ways to blur the edges. I changed sexes, birth order, one child taken away here and added there. Different places. We did that but then I spent the whole book tour afraid… I didn’t enjoy any part of it because I was terrified that somebody would find out the truth. Terrified. At that point only one family member was speaking to me and I have a very large family.

But now, coming out now, I was nervous. I wrote to everybody, or called the ones that were talking to me, and said I’m not going to lie about my life anymore. I love you all very much. I won’t talk about your experiences or what happened to you but I need to tell the truth about my own. I was going on book tour with Gemma and I didn’t want to have to lie when they said well why do you write about this disturbing subject, what do you know about pedophiles. I could say I have close personal experience with four. So I needed to, not because I need to bare my soul to the world, but because I needed to speak to this.

Two-thirds support me. One-third don’t speak to me and I’m probably as good as dead. One of my stepsisters wrote back and said, I’m really proud of you. I always thought it was really ironic with that James Frey, he’s selling fiction as biography and you’re selling biography as fiction.

There were twelve years between Singing Songs and Gemma. Were you working on other projects?

I was writing. I have seven completed manuscripts in my closet.

Oh my.

I know. I write a lot. Seven days a week usually. I have to write at least four days a week. When my kids are in town from university I’ll take a few days off but I do go in usually seven days a week, so of course I’ve got all these manuscripts. I do rewrites and rewrites. It’s fun. Some of them — I had to learn how to write fiction. Gemma is fiction. There’s huge chunks of me in her, but Gemma is absolutely fiction. I was never thrown in the trunk of a car. I never heard to endure the quantity and the quality that she did. Mine was just incidents that happened over my life – the beating was pretty regular – but the actual sexual abuse, I didn’t have it nearly so bad.

I wanted to read something — this is from Donna Tartt in her novel, The Secret History, one of her characters says: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I’ll ever be able to tell.”

I was wondering, after I read both Singing Songs and Gemma, because they subject matter is so similar, are there other stories you want to tell?

Well, I can do fiction now. My next book is a young adult book. Kathy Lowinger, she’s with Tundra, which is part of McClelland and Stewart, she had read Gemma and said not appropriate for young adults, but would you write a young adult, and I was like, hmm, I’ve never thought of that.

So I wrote Porcupine. This one is about a young girl, her father goes peacekeeping in Afghanistan. She’s Canadian. He gets killed and her mother falls apart, just unravels, and it’s her trying to hold the family together.

It’s fiction, but there are parts of my life — like the two kids, Jack and her little brother Simon, the rattlesnake is going to bite the dog, so Jack kills the rattlesnake with a stick and then they bring it home. That happened to us, but then I have the grandmother cooking the rattlesnake for dinner. Instead, we cooked the rattlesnake and ate it, because we were hungry and we heard rattlesnake tasted good!

Where were you? Where did you grow up?

That was in Hayfork, when that happened. It was really actually quite tasty. But then when people say, well, what’s rattlesnake taste like. When I was describing it before, I was like oh, well it tastes like a combination of rabbit and squirrel. And they’re like squirrel? You eat squirrel? And I’m like, oh, that shouldn’t have come out! You know, cause that’s when you’re still acting all tough, you’re like, yeah, I’ve eaten rattlesnake. And then you see their expression, and you’re like check. Meg — don’t tell people you ate squirrel when you were little because you were hungry.

It’s funny, because we were once offered a ride in a private plane from LA to New York, me and one of my sisters. And the limo picks me up — I don’t live this fancy life, but every once in a while you get a taste of it — and as we’re driving along I see a dead squirrel on the road and I’m thinking oh, my god, when I was a kid if that hadn’t been dead too long we would have cooked it, eaten it. So I say to my sister on the plane I saw a dead squirrel on the road I can’t believe we used to eat those as kids. And she says, bony little critters. And we’re sitting on this private jet with these cashmere throws, with people serving you whatever you want, talking about how there was only a mouthful on the thigh, and then its just all ribs. Only good for flavoring rice really.

That’s hysterical.

There are a couple manuscripts I’ve written that were during my transitional period from being able to write fiction and personal stories, when even though I thought I was fictionalizing, they aren’t camouflaged enough, and because I’m writing about a period of time when I was more in the pubic eye and there are other pubic figures, I’m not prepared to publish those. So I’ve written a lot of books, and I’ve been growing as a writer, but most of them people will never read. And going out with book tour with this, doing all the publicity, and going on The View — Rosie’s so beautiful. Oh man, she’s amazing. She was so kind to me — but anyways feeling so naked and vulnerable, I’d call my husband and say I don’t like doing this. I’m just going to write and keep putting them in my closet. Who knows… I don’t like being out there. I might keep publishing or I might just keep writing and when I die, I told my daughter, you can publish anything you want.

Do you think you’ll ever act again?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. But you know, I try not to say never, because something comes along and everybody’s like Oh, I thought you said you quit for good. I do get scripts and offers sometimes, even now. Not as much as I did before. Every once in a while somebody will find a way to get to me because I don’t have an agent anymore. My boy’s still in school and I made this commitment to raise him to adulthood as safely and as well as I could. He’s got another three years.

Originally published November 2006 on Bookslut