The water is full of Medusas!

nerja_beachDon’t go out in the water, an Irish woman called out to me in her Irish accent.  That’s what they call jellyfish.  I nodded and dived in for my long swim which I do every day.

The water was indeed full of Medusas and by the time I got out, the lifeguard rushed over to me (would he have rushed so quickly if I hadn’t been swimming topless? I wonder) and said I needed to be treated immediately.   My legs had huge stings on them and my ankle was swollen and had thick weals across it.  I’d be stung several times and I was actually a bit dizzy in the sun with all the stings.  I had some trouble getting to shore as one leg was barely operational.

I found my top and wandered over to the lifeguard station where he began treating my ankles and thighs.  I must say the Spanish lifeguard was good at his job.

By the way, it’s a myth that urine is helpful.  Lemon juice or vinegar sure.  Mark got me some Absolut which helped a lot.  What you do with Absolut which helps in these situations is you drink it.  A couple shots does wonders.

In Spain, we go to the fish market almost every day and buy our langostinos, pulpo and calamari.

We go to the bakery every day for fresh bread. The carrots in Spain are better than our carrots.

We have gazpacho and manchego, fruit and vegetables every day. When we go out, we drink sangria. Spanish wine is good and cheap.

Tomorrow we go to Seville for a couple days and the trip is winding down then. We fly to NY on Sat and then home.  I am going to be glad to be in our own bed for a few nights before I go to the Nebraska residency.

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 8:32 am  Leave a Comment  

Catapults vs Curtains, Girl books and Boy Books

Before my husband and I left for a writing vacation in Spain, we had dinner with Ron Carlson and went over our summer reading lists.  We discussed Lila by Marilyn Robinson, but I couldn’t imagine either man reading it.  My friend Jim Tilley, sure, but Jim’s an animal, he’ll read any smart book, but Ron and Mark, I was pretty sure wouldn’t make it through Lila which is very much a woman’s book.  I read Elena Ferrante’s book, My Brilliant Friend the first week of the trip.  It was fun, but I cannot imagine a man reading it.  Like Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, it gives us a world of girls.  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See gives us that girl world in China.  Women love these stories.

At the grocery store book level, women tend to read romances while men read action stories, but that’s a reduction of the idea that women crave romance while men crave adventure, stories that happen against a big backdrop.  Women live big lives outside the house now, so how does the split in literary reading continue?  Angela Merkel is arguably the most important leader in Europe and America’s on the verge of having a woman president.  How are we in the 21st century still stuck in gendered reading habits?

As an editor, you think about who the audience is.  Who is going to read this book?  The answer when it comes to novels is that women tend to read books by women and men read books by men; however, more women will venture into male territory than visa versa.

Women read because the story itself interests us, because the lilt of the language is familiar, and because it feels like the writer is talking to us.  Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Margaret Atwood are all writing stories I can walk around in and hear my heart beating.

                Most men would rather read Cormac McCarthy. When I hear a man say that he loves David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, I glaze over.  I know they probably like Pynchon too.   WASP with dough and gym time? I think.  Let’s write about being a junkie, being fucked up and let’s make it sound male and pathetic and narcissistic but cool at the same time, and I want to scream, Hunter S. Thompson did it so much better.  Men who’ve never had a problem their daddy’s money couldn’t solve usually love these books.  I want them to read Razor’s Edge, now there’s a book about living without Daddy’s money, but Maugham isn’t clever enough for these boys. But let’s get back to what men read and what women read.

Men like a story where something is actually happening.  Where something is going on.  Not just talk, talk, talk. They get enough of that at home. They need a break.  It doesn’t have to be fireballs and car chases, that’s in their favorite movies.  Even in a thinking man’s book, something needs to happen. I peeked into my husband’s book bag, and I saw a little stack of Murakami, Marquez and because he’s a cerebral guy as well a smattering of Calvino.   He likes a knife appearing in his stories; he perks right up then, somebody is going to do something bad in this book! Elena Ferrante would make him scream.  What are these little girls doing wandering around the town square?  That’s a story?  Give me guns. Cars. Chainsaws. Something falling or being blown up. Big stuff. Big and men go together. Something needs to happen, a big mashup otherwise why did we come to the racetrack?

There are stories that cross gender lines.  I read Dave Eggers The Circle on the train through Spain and then read all the reviews bashing it, saying that he didn’t get it right. But he did.  He’s writing about all of us in the electronic world who have to tell everyone about every little thing we do.  All of us who can’t unplug.  Who can’t bear to let a minute go by without checking in.  It’s a brilliant book.  Everyone should read it and then ask themselves why they don’t kayak more.

My phone was stolen my first night of this trip and because I couldn’t check in, couldn’t post pics on Facebook, the whole trip has been a lot better.  When I did post, it was about what I was reading and thinking and doing and I mostly just read and had the experience.  The Circle is an example of a book men and women could equally enjoy.  It’s a dystopian novel about what’s wrong with our culture crouched around a viewer screen as if it were the first campfire at the beginning of the world. Other examples of books either gender could read are Ron Carlson’s A Kind of Flying, T.C. Boyle’s The Women or Water Music,  George Saunders The Tenth of December, Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, The Diary of Anne Frank, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Ian McKuen and Somerset Maugham, Doris Lessing’s short stories, but most novels lean fiercely into the gender binary.

We as readers will have bigger ideas if we lean as far out of our comfort zone as we can.  We won’t discover what’s possible until we stretch past the edges.  The best books might be surprises.  Online dating hooks us up to a carefully collated version of what we think we’d like, but the best relationships aren’t like that at all, you find your way forward in the dark and you suddenly fall in love with someone who sees you as you wish you could see yourself.  Try a story outside your reading comfort zone; you might find yourself part of something that like Alice in Wonderland is both bigger and smaller than you ever imagined. “I can’t go back to yesterday because

Published in: on June 29, 2015 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Stung by a jellyfish!

Today I was stung by a jellyfish.  My stomach has big sting bites on it. Fortunately it was not a Portugese Man o’ War.  I wondered about it but I kept swimming out into the ocean because if you’re stung fatally by a jelly fish I was pretty sure my hustling in to shore wasn’t going to help anything.  It was still hurting pretty badly when I finished my long swim but then Mark bought me mint chocolate chip icecream cone! And then of course I felt better.  It’s Sunday, church bells are ringing, we’re still on vacation. We’ll be flying into NY on July 4th and landing at JFK amid the fireworks.

Published in: on June 28, 2015 at 9:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Who Cares About your Life? The overabundance of memoirs

“Europeans don’t buy memoirs,” I was told on my first trip to Frankfurt and reminded on every subsequent trip to Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. I asked why and got a series of answers none of which added up.  “We’re narcissists too,” one French publisher told me, “Just not as much as Americans.”  I’ve given this some thought.  Are memoirs an odd little subset of the American literary canon that Europeans just can’t be interested in?

In fact, there are a number of great literary memoirs that have been published in other countries.  Mary Karr, Vladimir Nabokov, Toi Derricotte, William Styron, Tobias Wolff, Alison Bechdel, and Maxine Hong Kingston, to name a few. “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” That’s the opening line of Woman Warrior, partly memoir, partly myth.  What Maxine Hong Kingston accomplished in this memoir, which has been translated into more than twenty languages, was to spin the personal into the collective, to discuss mothers and daughters, silencing and language, colonization that continues into the new world.   She did what memoirists should do, wrote very well about her own life in a way that echoed into the lives of millions.  That book made me want to want to light out for the territories, do something big, become a writer.

Confession is nothing new.  Most people have experienced the thrill of leaning in to whisper a secret. Telling a secret about someone else is easier than telling one about yourself.  But once you tell a secret about yourself it gets easier.  Ask anyone who’s ever been to confession.

Look at Facebook.  Americans post stuff on FB that nobody should be telling anyone let alone posting on the internet.  We post personal stuff, bathroom stuff, drug confessions, weird obsessions, dirty deeds, secret desires.  Americans want attention and will do anything to get it.

The memoir problem is this:  Unless reading your book is going to change your readers’ experience of themselves and the world, it isn’t worth writing.  If what you’re going to tell me is that your kids were born with some kind of problem, that’s not a book in itself.  Your parents weren’t nice to you? Not a book.  Your parents suffered from dementia, then died? not a book.  Any of these could be great books in the hands of a skillful writer, but just having those things happen to you is not worth a book.  We’ve all suffered.  In almost every family, there is one crazy person.  Some families are blessed with several.  Ask yourself if your book is going to change the world.

Good books are written from a deep connection to the life of the imagination and a serious attention to craft.  They also tell a good story.  One question worth asking is whether your life is really a good story or a series of happenings.  Did you make anything happen or did stuff happen to you?  In a good story, the characters set something in motion; they act on the world and on each other.  There are twists and turns. Unexpected events.   Many of the memoirs that are submitted for publication lack these qualities.

We continue to publish a couple each year that we feel fall really resonate.  This fall it’s Paul Cummins, Confessions of a Headmaster about the founding of Crossroads School.  When Paul explains to one parent that he can’t give his daughter weed to sell at school, the dad argues that he wants his daughter to have quality weed.  Paul reminds him that it’s illegal and George Carlin kindly agrees that no weed at school is probably best.  It’s a book about a subject that concerns parents in urban areas, why public schools for the most part no longer provide our kids with a good education.  I don’t expect the Europeans to buy it, but I’m interested in personal stories that resonate out into the larger world.

I love good memoirs and so does the American reading public.  Think about yours before you write it.  Writing a book takes a long time.  Make sure you’ve got a great story that’s going to blow your readers’ skirts up.

Kate Gale is the author of the memoir, On the Eighth Day God Created Horses about growing up in a brutal Christian cult in Southern New Hampshire until she was eighteen.  It is making the rounds of New York publishing houses.  The last line of the book is, “If you cannot be a hero in your own life, whose life are you waiting for?”

Published in: on June 27, 2015 at 9:57 am  Comments (1)  

Nerja Caves and Aqueduct

imagesWe explored the Nerja Caves today.  They don’t let you see the cave paintings. They say that the caves have been inhabited by humans for more than 20,000 years, and hyenas have spent some time in the caves as well.  The whole place is enormous.  You feel like the darkness is swallowing you. They are 32 metres high.  Three huge galleries stretch away into small rooms. We hiked out to the caves and walked all through them and then got lunch.  We got a tomato salad, fries, Manchego and olives. Mark had a beer and I had a glass of white wine.  We paid 7 EU for that lunch.  We hiked by the old aqueduct which is kind of amazing as well, hanging against the sky.

Tonight Mark made paella again and we had some Spanish wine.  Good Spanish wine is about 8 EU. Great wine like we’re having tonight is 14 EU.  Of course, there is some spectacular stuff that’s even more, but I’m cool with great.

We’re writing well, getting a lot done.  So far, I’ve written a piece for Huffington Post

a piece for The Guardian and a piece for O Magazine.  So one is accepted, the other two hanging in the balance. I’m on to the next project. We’re writing well and we like this little town. It’s very laid back here. Tomorrow I’m going swimming again.

Published in: on June 26, 2015 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

I love this picture of Gore Vidal and my former hero Anais Nin


Vacation is about breathing and dreaming. It’s not about planning every single minute and getting the most out of it.  I’m reading a collection of short stories by Gore Vidal, Clouds and Eclipses.  Vidal was vilified by the American literary community for being gay.  I remember meeting him when I was president of PEN and he was being honored.  “Ursula,” he called out to LeGuin.  “I’ve read everything you’ve written.” It still brings tears to my eyes thinking of that.  We live in a world that lacks generosity.  And not the way writers mean.  Writers think if he/she would just publish me, all would be different, but it isn’t quite like that.  It’s actually helping people and not always thinking you are better than other writers.

Money creates a bit of a cushion.  Without a cushion, you’re often sitting on a rocky coastline which is still better than a cornfield if you ask me. You can see the waves.

The Mediterranean is dirty.  People say the Southern California coastline is dirty and the waters are polluted. Sure, I once swam for two hours in the ocean at Redondo Beach and had to go to the hospital because my eyes were literally gelling over because of all the bacteria, but I’ve never done a lot of swimming in the Med that didn’t send me scurrying for antibiotics. I am shimmering on the edge of the need for penicillin. I’m going to try to hold out until I’m stateside.

The house we are staying in has a laundry machine and racks for drying clothes. The rest of the world is not so much into dryers.

Okay, you can read the whole article, but 10 reasons that Europe is kicking our ass besides the fact that we have to deal with the Christian right which let’s face it is like Scientology, more into mind control than logic.  It’s like the only part of Spock they picked up on was the part where he does that hand thing and makes you go to the ground.  That’s just if you’re the bad guy or you’re Kirk and you’re being stupid.  The essence of Spock is logic, my friend.

Okay, here we go with the 10.

  1. Lower Incarceration Rates
  2. Less Violent Crime Than the U.S.
  3. Better Sex Education Programs, Healthier Sexual Attitudes
  4. Anti-GMO Movement Much More Widespread
  5. Saner Approaches to Abortion
  6. More Vacation Time
  7. Universal Healthcare

8.Greater Life Expectancy

  1. Mass Transit Systems
  2. Europeans More Likely to Speak Foreign Languages

Published in: on June 25, 2015 at 11:32 am  Comments (1)  

We need to write.

I keep telling Mark:  What you think this is the wheel of fortune? You think you can.. leave the table? Thanks Kate, off to sunny Spain…you think I’m gonna have that? You really think I’m gonna have that, ya ponce. All right, I’ll make it easy for you. Are you gonna do the job? It’s not a difficult question, are you gonna do the job, yes or no? 

Sexy Beast….

We’re in the town of Nerja ; this trip has a lot of travel and not as much writing till now.

We got into town from Granada and got into the little place we’re renting near the beach. We unpacked and then late in the evening, made paella with calmari, mussels, prawns, clams. M’s good with the paella, and the tomatoes are very fresh here. We listened to Maria Callas and I stayed up half the night reading Dave Eggers The Circle for an article I’m working on for the Guardian. I wanted to not like this book. Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer always seemed to me along with Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerny as writers who were writing for a whole group of smart rich wonderful urban young men who I do not know.

Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Edwidge Danticat, Janet Fitch, Jeanette Winterson, they are writing for my people. Also Ron Carlson, T. C. Boyle, Percival Everett, I like stories in which people struggle. Not just because they’re women but also because they are not privileged. Robinson’s Lila is a story that I know like my skin.

But this book, everyone should read it.  Everyone in America anyway.  It’s everything that’s wrong with FB and social media in general.  Eggers doesn’t need me to like the book though.  Tom Hanks is making it into a movie.

We drink sangria and read poetry. The sand is full of people by afternoon. One has to get up early.

We never dress up in Spain because we don’t need to.

There aren’t any clouds.

In the streets they stare at my legs but it’s too hot so I keep with the dresses down to the thighs but at the beach, the women are topless.

We are glad to do our laundry and cook our own food.

On vacations like this, we dream a lot.

Once we can cook, we make salads. We have langostinos which are messy and best eaten with your hands. The tomatoes are thick and meaty. We compare our terrible childhoods, but from here they seem faraway like reading a mystery or watching a pirate boat at sea through a long glass. The pirate ship is tiny and after a while, you keep drinking rum and maybe you imagined the pirates.

We couldn’t live like this all the time. I’m going to read Alice Munroe and Gore Vidal next. If we travelled more, we would see all the way down the deep well of our own souls. You don’t need to post anything on Facebook. You could just read and write. You could think. You have to get away from the screen to actively think.

Published in: on June 24, 2015 at 10:29 am  Leave a Comment  

At Five in the Afternoon


“I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace,” Lorca said.  The Fascists killed him for that and for being a queer poet. He was 38 when he was dragged into the hills of Granada, shot and buried in a grave with a couple anarchist bullfighters.

Here in Granada at our hostel, they are playing, “Here is the answer to a never ending story.”  The whole place smells like food and wet earth; there are many plants and vines growing; it’s kind of a thick dusky smell in the air.

In the square while we drank sangria, they were playing “Welcome to the Hotel California,”
which ladies and gentleman has been vacant since before the Eagles penned the song.

The hostel is 800 years old and is all marble floors and walls with a courtyard in the middle with a small marble basin fountain.  These fountains are in many courtyards.  The older folks seem to just sit around the courtyards all day.

Stephen would love this place.  It’s the kind of hostel which smells like food because someone is always cooking in the kitchen.  The local beer is called Alhambra, it’s like suds but good suds when you’re out walking the town and you’re getting hot.

Part of the town is gypsy caves built into the hillside. We walked through the cave dwellings, past the gypsy flamenco bars, which were hollowed out caves inside but all white doors and windows outside.  That’s probably the area where Lorca was shot.

The Alhambra, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain fell to Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492, and they were ready for more conquests.   The Muslims had given Jews special status and called them “People of the Book,” but when Alhambra fell to the Christians, the Jews had to leave the country or convert. Hundreds of thousands left.  Many Muslims had converted, but the rumor was that Jews were crafty and many were only pretending to convert while still practicing their religion.  Based on this suspicion, Isabella requested the Pope’s permission to found the Spanish inquisition. It lasted until Napoleon ended it in 1808 and was officially over in 1834.

Granada is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve even seen.  The roads twist and turn through tall buildings. The sky is pieces of blue hanging between these buildings; the moon is a sliver over the palace of the Moors. Many Jews, gypsies and Moslems moved to the mountains, lived a cave life.

Lorca said,

There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers’ battle with the heavens that cover them.

The two elements the traveler first captures in the big city are extra-human architecture and furious rhythm. Geometry and anguish.

In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.

From Echo Light

What We Do During War

Mornings more love.  Breakfast then.

Cafe con leche.  Trumpets in the street.

To mark passing soldiers.  Geraniums.

Spain marching.  Inside breakfast.

Jack’s legs around her in the afternoon

Sunlight washing his loins. She all red hair.

Strawberries by the bed.  Cream in and out.

Emily was reserved and he had to break that.

The street full of geraniums.

Lorca’s blood spilled out onto the pavement.

The soldiers feet marched by.  Emily heard a cry,

thought for a moment it was her own.

English papers would declare Lorca

dragged from his house and killed.

Masses of red geraniums grew over the street.

The sun very bright in Spain.

Published in: on June 22, 2015 at 8:50 am  Leave a Comment  

Moonrise over Alhambra

Day 8 Barcelona

Barcelona is the city of Gaudi.  But oddly, it took quite a while for the city to take to him.  Picasso loathed his work which was clearly ahead of its time.  Orwell hated his work and wished the revolutionaries had blown it up.  Gaudi died in a paupers’ hospital and because he worked from his imagination, it was impossible to finish his work as he would have wished.  Now, you walk around Barcelona and see evidence of his flamboyant style everywhere.  We’re in the area they call the Rambla which has a lot of tourists most of them Italian and German.  We’ve seen very few Americans this trip.

We are taking the night train to Granada but even though we’re married, we are not allowed to sit in the same car.  The Spanish forbid it.  They believe married couples should be kept separate when on trains.  You think I’m kidding? I’m not. I didn’t even want to go on the train if we couldn’t be in the same car, but Mark really wants to go to Granada.  The town is well known for the palace of Alhambra but I was willing to pass on that.  I want to drink champagne and pretend to be Jane and Paul Bowles, although now I’m thinking since both of them were gay maybe I can bring champagne into the girl car and he can bring some into the boy car and we can pretend all we like. The moon is rising over Alhambra.  We’re ready to be in Nerja for a week, get to some writing and thinking.   I read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  It isn’t my thing but I can see why people love it.  I can’t get into excitement about childhood love affairs and childhood friendships.  I liked Cat’s Eye because the main character moved on from all that.  I’m not interested in girls and their cliques, but everyone loves the book, it’s so Italian.

Published in: on June 21, 2015 at 6:06 am  Leave a Comment  

You will see many wonders. A cow on top of a building.

Okay, we haven’t seen a cow on a building, but still.  We have seen odd things this trip including a torture chamber in the dungeon at the castle of Meung Sur Loire.  Long before 50 Shades of Grey made torture fun for dating couples, torture chambers were all the rage in Medieval castles.

Day 1-3 Paris—the robbery, I would not recommend Paris to anyone. It’s dirty, crowded, over run with tourists and literally filthy with pickpockets.  Sure, the museums are nice, but basically it’s an unfriendly city that gloats as you lose your shirt.  Our hotel was nasty.  I sat in the stairway emailing my daughter cancelling my credit cards. Then we left. We saw the Louvre and went up the Eiffel Tower.  Paris was gone and we were on the train.

My friends gave me the following items which I miss:

Lisa: the purse and the change purse

Elise: my 7 year pen

Kate Coles: my really cool silver space pen

Sasha: business card case with letters on it

Mark: wooden hair pin and Little Prince phone cover

Darlene—the inside purse for organizing my stuff

I like thinking about having friends.

Days 4-5

Staying with Darlene in the middle of France, visiting the castle and having the most amazing French food.  Sheep jumping the fence into her yard.  Her willow tree reaching long green fingers into the yard; her house like a sunflower, opening and petalled and full of serene joy.  A house with a lilt and a hum.

Days 6-7 Avignon

We went to the pope’s palace and there were several popes  who lived there while the papacy was in France.  We walked all the way around the walled city of Avignon in less than an hour and a half. The papal palace was a fortress for the popes; and they felt extra safe within their fortress which was inside the walled city. The fortress has walls that are 17-18 feet thick.  That makes for a formidable fortress built into a rock.  The city originally had a moat.  I really like the idea of living in a house with a moat because then you’d have to cross a little drawbridge just to exit your domain.  Most people don’t have a moat, so if your house had one, it would dominate the moat-less houses.

Day 8 Barcelona

Kind of a nice city, but very crowded.  The feeling is that you are part of a large party.  I like the feeling of Barcelona.  I like a party city that isn’t trying to strip you down and take your money.

Published in: on June 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

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