Monday, April 30, 2012

Sassy Author Q&A: Rebecca Moore, writer of Lunch in Brooklyn

The Princess recommends that you buy Lunch in Brooklyn here
Rebecca Moore, an old colleague of mine, has self-published Lunch in Brooklyn, the novel she wrote in the 90s about her years in middle school in the New York of the 70s. We excerpted it in Sassy and you can read more about what made the stories so great in this fan's blog post. Also check out some snippets of the book here. Rebecca was nice enough to answer my questions about her decision to publish the book all these years later. She was partially motivated by some Sassy readers who were anxious to know about what happened to these characters. 

Christina: So, we met through Pamela Christman, who I knew from a creative writing class at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center, and you knew from the Columbia graduate fiction writing program. That was, what, 20 years ago?

Rebecca: Pamela was definitely the link.  This could have been the summer of 1991, when I was working on the books for my thesis, or maybe sometime in the first half of '92.  

And I remember that you sent me Lunch in Brooklyn, and that it was based on your teenage years growing up in NY, and we decided to excerpt it. Or were we in a writer's group together, and did I first read it there? 

 Pamela, being a connector of people, may have told me that I should send you Lunch, but I think I sent you stories first because you published "Fooling Around with Neil" in July 92 and the rest followed.  

I remember some problems with the illustration that the art department commissioned. You were like, "this character would not wear a sweater vest," and I think we changed it. What do you remember about being published in Sassy?

I had forgotten about the sweater vest! Yes, that would have been dead wrong. I remember you were really nice about faxing me proofs to look at. We had a copy place in the bottom of our building and you would fax pages to me there and say we have to lose three lines for space or cut the drug mention. It felt collaborative rather than, here, you need to fix this or we're not gonna run it. I really appreciated that.  

Tell me what happened with Lunch in Brooklyn after that. I remember something about people wanting you to present date it.

I will have to see if I can lay my hands on my collection of rejection letters, which of course I saved along with the nice ones people sent into Sassy that you forwarded to me. I do remember being told to set it in the present, which would have been the 90s. It would have been so wrong! The book's time and place is a huge part of what it's about. You did not have the same kind of culture in the 90s as you did in the late 70s. People's parents and teachers in the late 70s were ex-hippies. I was listening to this radio show last night about Studio 54 and they were saying how it was right at this sweet spot between the pill and AIDS, with the apex of women's rights, gay rights, etc., and that's where the book happens. That suggestion meant that this person was missing the importance of the book's setting and that he or she was also underestimating the ability of readers to be interested in something that wasn't about their culture/setting. The idea of "swapping out" cultural references did not appeal to me. It sounded like a good way to suck the life and authenticity out it.

The other thing about the time in which the book is set is that you have society valuing self-expression and self-discovery, the drugs were an extension of that. Smoking pot was like an intellectual exercise as opposed to being deviant behavior. You also have this tension between the adults being pro-self-expression and the inherent conformity of the middle school mindset. They're saying be yourself and the kids are wanting to be like each other.

Another problem the book had was the age of its potential readership. It was not written as a YA book but because it was narrated by an 8th grader, and narrated in the moment, and focused on middle school issues, it was categorized that way. I think the lack of an overt anti-drugs stance would not make it a great YA book. I think it's more for 16 and up in that sense, though the friendship issues would appeal to younger readers, and the way we edited it for Sassy worked for younger readers.

Also it's episodic, I think of it as prose poem to a bygone era and it's about the state of being a 14-year-old girl. I got the idea for the format from Evan Connell's Bridge novels ("Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs. Bridge.")

Why did you decide to self-publish it? How did you do it? How many copies, and how are you selling it?

After the book made its initial rounds with an agent and we kept getting back the variations on the themes above, I moved on to other work. I wrote a novel, set in the 90s about some girls who play with a Ouija board and one of them gets too involved in it, called The Interior Ghost, and then I started researching a novel set in Coney Island. -- Do you remember going to the Mermaid Parade and riding the Cyclone? -- I had another book in the works, also set in late 70s, in Fire Island, with arson and a boat crash. And then we moved to London and I started working full-time and had kids, which leads nicely into your next question.

Oh, but wait. Why did I decide to self-publish? So we move to London for my husband's job--he's a journalist. Pamela Christman is there and she, being the connector of people that she is, has found a writing group, which I join. My story which had been accepted for Seventeen gets a kill fee. I give a couple of readings with our group, but then I start working and drop out. I can't find my voice, I don't know if it's because I am out of NYC or what but I no longer feel like a writer. At one of the readings, this drag queen is reading poetry and the poetry is pretty awful and it ruins the effect of the drag and it just feels tragic and I feel like I am failing a similar masquerade as a writer. A year later one of my professors from Columbia came to the school where I was working to be a writer-in-residence and it is embarrassing to encounter him in this way. Then we have kids and, you know how it is, shoes and a shower could be an accomplishment.

The years pass. My father died in 2008. He was a photographer for Life magazine in the 60s and I find myself online looking for his work, as a way to grieve. One day I googled myself and came across this blog that had been written in 2006 by a woman now in her 30s who remembered Lunch and the other stories I had written in Sassy and wondered what had happened to me. Someone there posted a comment saying they had tried to get a copy of the manuscript from the Columbia library but no luck. And then Marjorie Ingall pops up and says she has no idea either but people sometimes asked her if she knew anything me. I'm thinking, really?? Me?? It's kind of eerie to find yourself the topic of speculation, but it's so cool to find out that I have readers. I leave a comment and become online friends with Christen, the woman who wrote the blog post. I tell her maybe I'd read through it again and tidy it up and possibly self-publish. And so I am about 2/3 of the way through when we decide to move back to America, which stalls things, but eventually I get back to it. Christen checks in now and then to see how things are going. In the meantime another former reader contacts me via LinkedIn and encourages me to release it and once I set up a blog for the book another reader posts a comment, describing herself as "one of the legion fans who’ve been waiting 15 years to know what happens next in Lunch in Brooklyn.” I reply and she responds, "I’m officially convinced that the Internet is a miracle now. Not that twitter and Amazon and being able to buy Japanese snack food online isn’t all great but being able to find and contact someone who’s work was incredibly meaningful to your adolescence is pretty much the best thing ever." And I have to agree, the Internet is a miracle!

So rather than trying to apply a more commercial format to it or make it into something it's not, I am putting it out there in the hopes that anyone who ever wanted to read more can and those who might appreciate the book's virtues are able to do so. It was like going back to the drag queen reading poetry and thinking, you know, maybe people will think you suck, but so what. It's better than not doing it. That's the kind of thing I would tell my daughter.

Right now the book is in a digital format only but I am intrigued by the idea of uploading it to the Espresso Book Machine, where readers can get on site paper copies of ebooks. They have one in the Brooklyn Public Library. I have to design a two-sided cover and make formatting changes. I think this will be a summer project. Maybe by then, there will be reviews to quote on the back.

To date I have sold 48 copies. My goal is 350. Obviously more would be great but at 350 I would cover expenses. I had to pay for the use of the subway map on the cover and buy ISBN numbers.

The book is available for Kindle on Amazon and in a variety of formats from Smashwords. It's in their premium catalog, which means it should be for sale on Barnes & Noble and from Apple in about a week.
Post a review of Lunch in Brooklyn on Amazon that mentions Fallen Princess and win one of 10 vintage Sassy/Nirvana stickers.Yeah, pretty sweet!  Email me ( the link of your review along with a mailing address.

Have you been able to get much writing done as a mom? I find it really hard, but I am always thinking about how and why I am not writing, and things I should write. It is like a constant tape of self-loathing in my head. Do you have any tips for me?

Stop the tape! Seriously, I have run those tapes in my head and nothing good comes of them. And they sink in. You know this. What would you have told a reader? What would you tell someone who walks around going "I'm ugly" or "I'm bad at sports"?

Your blog is great. You can still write.

When you have time to write, make some of that time for working on fiction or whatever else it is you want to write. I really think the only way to do it is make yourself sit and do it on some kind of schedule. Inspiration is when you're driving and get a great idea and you jot it down at the stoplight but the inspiration doesn't usually strike on schedule. Keep index cards or a notebook or even the notepad on your phone for the floating ideas and then take those to your desk. I'm sure you know all that.

That's the idea behind book groups, I think. It's moms claiming time for themselves in their schedules. You have to make dinner because I am going out to be with women. It's on the calendar.

A friend from my book group in London (where I kept my former writing life a secret) was in antenatal classes with Tracy Chevallier, who had then just published The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and she came to our group and talked about it. I asked how she managed to write this and have a baby at the same time and she said that she kept the scope manageable, the chapters short and the story kind of framed and focused by the picture and she used whatever blocks of childcare or naps she could get. I think that's what I like about writing a blog now. If I could transpose that to writing chapters of a book it would be good.

When I started my blog, What would the Wertis say?, it was actually just an exercise for work, to learn how to use Wordpress so I could help the middle school newspaper advisor set up a blog for her class. Writing a blog had not occurred to me. I had set up a vox account to leave a comment on Christen's blog about my writing but the blank page was daunting. But just to write something I did and then the more I did the more I started to notice things and sentences or phrases began to form and it was like something coming back to life. And it's like running, it's hard to start but at a certain point it feels bad when you don't. I'm going to read one of my posts on our local public radio station in a week and I'm excited about that.

What is your favorite thing about Lunch in Brooklyn? What inspired you to write it? Do you feel differently about it now than you did then?
I think my favorite thing about it is the humor. The best thing about publishing it is that one of my middle school teachers wrote to me to say he had read it "with joy and delight," which was fantastic to hear. He was the inspiration for Mr. Carmen, the teacher who keeps sending Kate and Harry out into the hall on writing assignments.

The novel started as two stories. One was entitled "8th Grade" about girls behaving badly over the course of an unsupervised weekend. This is now the chapter of the book called Fifth Hex. I was trying to capture that weird edge of pushing against the boundaries of what you could do in the absence of parental supervision, the way girls that age want to be noticed and that feeling of immunity to real danger, the way you do things just to have done them. I think I wanted to show the way that girls go underground when they reach adolescence. They want to appear pretty and "normal" and have everything seem to come easily. I work at a school and recently was a chaperone on the 6th grade camping trip. I listened to the girls talk with each other and draw in the boys -- it was an ongoing  monologue of self-definition. So much energy is going towards defining yourself and practicing being yourself,  moving in a hydra of chatter and matching clothes, making themselves visible but in a very particular way, expressing socially acceptable/neutral problems like "my shoe is wet" rather than revealing true personality.

The other story was called "The Bubblegum Chain." It was about a tradition we had in middle school where at the end of the year the 8th graders would write a last will and testament and hand something down to a 7th grader to have in 8th grade. My friend willed me her bubblegum chain, which was 10 feet long and with gum wrappers that dated back to when we were in lower school. There was a poignancy in that that I wanted to express, how we were shedding our childhoods and stepping forward into adolescence.

If I were going to write a novel about middle school now I would be seeing it through the lens of motherhood and all the intervening years of experience. Back when I wrote it I had not really thought that much about middle school, but when you are writing fiction you need to stake out your territory and that was my territory: progressive school, 70s NYC, girls clomping around in clogs and trying to be cool. I was also writing stuff about college, but it was hard to write properly about adults as I had not lived amongst them for very long then.

I wish I had written it with a stronger plot line, like Harry getting kicked out, that could have thrown more things into motion. Maybe I'll try that in the future...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Princess Wishes Herself a Happy Anniversary

I began blogging on Fallen Princess on April 9, 2010, and now that I have been blogging for two years, I kind of feel like taking stock. So bear with me.

I didn't have any real plan for Fallen Princess. I started it on a whim after submitting an essay to The New York Times and receiving an automated response. I knew blogspot would be any easy way to get my writing out there again; it is so user friendly that even a technophobe like me can figure it out. So I threw the essay up as my first post and put it on my Facebook page. A friend, Jeff Johnson, linked to it on his blog, and some blogs picked it up. I realized that blogging could be a creative outlet for me, even if for a small audience, even if on a very unprofessional level.

I started out posting frequently, almost daily. Some of those early posts were really crappy. Some of my later posts were really crappy. Maybe they are all crappy. This is what happens when you have no editor. Certainly, although I have enjoyed a warm reception on the internet, there have been detractors, one of whom said I was like Andy Rooney with weaker rhetorical skills. That really hurt, as I have been a huge Andy Rooney fan my entire life, and we even went to the same college, where I received an A in the Logic class that I took. Another hater said simply "Woof." I flushed with shame, reading that alone in my office.

 I write about whatever pops into my head, and this may be a problem. The most successful blogs probably have very distinct focuses. When my father-in-law asked me what my blog was about, I stared at him in silence. Taking pity on me, he said, "Is it the perspective of a woman who used to be an editor, and now she is at home with her kids?" Yeah, that sounds good.

The post I had the most fun with was this May 2010 one about my Fresca obsession.  The post I wrote on the 20th Anniversary of my father's death meant the most to me, and I reposted it last year on the 21st Anniversary. I even had some guest posts from Mayim Bialik! I've written about my struggle to stop using profanitymortality,  pop culture, and my hatred of thong underwear. Body image is a frequent preoccupation, as is parenting (I like this one about my tooth fairy mishaps). I compared myself unfavorably to Tina Fey. An invitation to join AARP inspired a post. I published two items that were rejected by xojane--probably with good reason--just because I could. I did all of this without earning a single cent.

I slowed way down after three months. Part of it was due to the circumstances of my life. It was summer, the kids were home, and the room where I blogged was broiling hot. Part of it was because I am moody, and I get writer's block, and doubt my abilities, and sometimes I think I have cheapened myself by writing a blog as a hobby, when I also try to write for pay.

I thank you for reading, and for coming back, and for commenting. 

P.S. The New York Times eventually published a shortened version of that first post in the Complaint Box. I was not paid for that either.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Andrea Linett Book Alert!

I once was complaining about my lack of creative output to my friend,  former roommate and Sassy colleague Andrea Linett. "I want to write a book," I whined during a Facebook chat. "So write a book," she responded.

That Andrea is a can-do kind of gal. She doesn't laze about trying to blame the normal chores of everyday life for holding her back. Andrea has written a book, I Want to Be Her!: How Friends and Strangers Helped Shape My Style. It comes out 9/1, but go pre-order it now on Amazon. She wrote the book while running I Want to Be Her, her own excellent personal style blog, and holding down high-profile fashion jobs, such as her current fancy gig at Michael Kors. Good on ya, Andrea, as the Australians we used to work with liked to say.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Some More Reasons I Have Not Been Writing

Hello. Last night I read about a 57-year-old woman who is publishing her first, critically acclaimed novel. She wrote it while her triplets were at school, partly by preserving their school time as her writing time. She refused all lunch invitations, for one thing. An optimistic person would have thought: see, this lady made it happen at 57, so there's still time for me! However, I am not a glass-half-full kind of gal, so her story merely added to my self-loathing for not writing a critically acclaimed novel, or any novel. I am not as industrious as she; I neither refuse lunch invitations, nor do I have triplets.

I thought I would take a break from not writing to explain why it is I have not been writing. There are many activities that require my attention. For example:

1. Just a few minutes ago, I was busy with what my mother refers to as "paperwork." "Paperwork" can take her days and hours. She files her own taxes, which she is meticulous about, and balances her checkbook with precision. Does anyone under the age of 70 balance a checkbook? This seems unlikely. I did it for awhile in my 20s, because mom had me convinced that bouncing a check had dire consequences: people from the bank would actually come to my studio apartment and repossess my scratchy Castro Convertible. But then the ledger wasn't balancing properly, and rather than get to the bottom of it, I just started blowing it off. I am not really a financial wiz; nor am I known for overspending. I do have a vague idea of how much is in the account. Balancing seems archaic to me, sort of like burping babies. I never did that either, and my kids appear reasonably unharmed by this omission.

Anyway, in my case, paperwork involves:

a) Filling out forms (80 percent of what I do as a parent). My husband has filled out zero forms; I have completed approximately 1 billion. Barely a day goes by that I don't realize that some form has to be handed in. Permission slips for field trips, camp registrations, soccer and tennis signups, insurance forms. Sometimes I feel like I will shoot myself in the head if I have to fill out one more form. Today I found myself re-submitting an insurance claim that I had already submitted but was rejected because of some technicality.
b) Writing checks. Many, many checks. Some of which are late.
c) Answering emails.

2. House cleaning. When I was working full time in the city, I hired some ladies to clean my house once a week for $85. Also, they would occasionally ruin and break things at no extra charge. After I stopped working, and both kids were in school full time, I limited the service to every second week, and they started charging me $100 (retaliation?). Then a couple of months ago, I calculated that I would save $2600 annually by cleaning the house myself. I let the ladies go. They had grown unreliable; also, I had a false sense of confidence in my cleaning abilities, descended as I am from immigrant domestic help. I also thought it would be good for the kids to clean their own rooms, as I did at their age. We can't have them getting all spoiled and soft, and graduating from college not knowing how to operate a vacuum. Their great-great-grandparents were professional cleaners, goddammit. And my husband said he would help too. To that I say, HA!!!!

3. Calling my old, infirm mother, and feeling guilty that she is old and infirm and that I cannot drive on the highway to visit her. That's all I can say about that right now.

4. Driving kids to various sports practices (on local roads).

5. Wasting time on the internet.  Like with this funny video by Denis Leary. I don't imagine he fills out many of his own forms.

6. Going to the supermarket. As in, right now.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Kim France Blog Alert!

This is exciting. Kim France has a new blog, Girls of a Certain Age. She is the founding editor of Lucky, and an excellent journalist. Back in the day, Kim was a colleague of mine at Sassy. I italicize Sassy, because I was raised to italicize magazine names, even though copy editors have informed me that AP style leaves magazine names in roman type, indistinguishable from the surrounding verbiage. This seems a mark of disrespect; in light of the internet beat down that magazines have been taking, I will continue to italicize in deference to their once mighty reign. But I digress.

I italicize colleague because it was a word Kim liked to say back at Sassy--correctly, to refer to writers with whom she would fraternize and discuss important writer matters.  I inexplicably found her use of the word colleague hilarious. Poor Kim. I even wrote a little item discussing that she was wont to use proper English. We printed it with a fetching photo of Kim. I don't think she minded; she had it framed, and it sat on a shelf in her apartment, as I recall.

Anyway, check out the blog! It's for older ladies, but anyone will find it entertaining and diverting.

Off you go.