“Indies First” and “Small Business Saturday” 2013

Let’s get small!

(Right now, on the inside I am the ten-year-old nerd listening to Steve Martin’s original standup comedy album on vinyl, hoping you get the reference.)

During the first-ever Sherman Alexie-founded “Indies First” campaign this Saturday, November 30, over a thousand authors will be volunteer booksellers at independent bookstores across the U.S. That’s a scary ridiculous amount of authors. I’ll be stationed at one of my local hangs, Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz, NY, from 1:00pm – 2:00pm.

The store asked me for a list of favorite titles I might be recommending, so they can have them in stock, and I’m hoping to pass on my love for these books to others. These include recent reads as well as books by friends that I honestly think are terrific. And of course, I’ll also be signing my own, the purchase of which are, ahem, an excellent way to up your gift game.

By the way, if you have an American Express card, be sure to register it to get a $10 credit on any purchase $10 or more at a small business on Saturday. That’s a free paperback!

Why do I think “Indies First” is such a nifty idea? Obviously, it’s important to support independent bookstores. We know all the myriad reasons why, and most of us have some extra reasons of our own.

For instance, I know that since the release of my debut novel over two years ago, Inquiring Minds has been a wonderful partner to me not just as an author, but also as a reader. They’ve hosted two book launches and a panel event for me, as well as events for other local authors I’ve been lucky enough to discover. I enjoy stopping in and chatting with one of the employees about what looks juicy on the “New Releases” shelf. I love that my daughters go straight for the closet-turned-magical-reading-clubhouse and dig into some picture books. I could really go on.

This gets me thinking more about the “Shop Small” and “Small Business Saturday” campaign in general.

When my husband and I lived in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, one of our favorite things about it was that we were conveniently close to all the “good shopping.” When we needed to kill a day, we’d head to the Americana mall in Glendale, with the fountains that dance to Frank Sinatra and the trolley that goes nowhere, or Burbank’s Empire Center, where we could eat at our favorite chain Mexican place, then hit Target and Lowe’s to fulfill all the Needs and Wants. When my kids were babies, we’d get them out of the house by taking a stroll to the Starbucks on the corner, followed by a time-killing jaunt through the CVS next door.

Sure, we patronized small businesses, too; there were plenty of independently-owned restaurants and boutiques in our hip corner of L.A. We had our places, and it always felt good to give them some action.

But it wasn’t until we moved to New Paltz, a college town in New York’s Hudson Valley thirty minutes from the nearest big-box store, that the idea of “shopping small” took on a much deeper and dimensional meaning. What it did, was it got personal.

Right now I’m picturing our Main Street. I see half a dozen businesses run by people I know because we’re friends, or our kids go to school together, or simply because I’m a regular. I see four times that many run by people I may not yet know personally, but know of through mutual friends or the local zeitgeist. I’m familiar enough with all these people to understand that this business of theirs — the restaurant, the gift shop, the coffeehouse, the hair salon — is a dream come true. I know they took huge risks to make it real, and continue to make great personal and financial sacrifices to keep it alive. I know that in most cases, it’s their family’s livelihood, and their success feeds into all our success as we live together as a community. Plus, I just really enjoy eating or wearing or gifting or decorating with something, and thinking of the very real person responsible for putting it in my life.

Then it occurred to me: although it gives me the willies to think of it this way, as an author I am also a “small business.” Writing for a living is a dream come true. I took huge risks to make it real, and yes yes to the part about sacrifices.

So I guess on Saturday, I’ll just be one small business helping out another small business, on a street lined with more small businesses. We’ll exist that day like we exist every day. Using our heads and hearts and hands, we make and we gather. Then we trade with our neighbors and everything just works.

The Great Big “My Book Is Out Today” Post

“You Look Different in Real Life” is out. In the world. That’s cool. (I’m masking how utterly verklempt and grateful I am.)

People I made, with the book I made.

On Release Day you’re supposed to, you know, talk up your book in a whole lot of different places in a professionally sanctioned me-a-thon. I’ve done some of that. It feels unterrible. I’ll do just a bit more with this list of “story behind the story” notions I would like to share with you.

1) There’s much of me in Justine, and vice versa. While I gave Laurel from “The Beginning of After” my good-girl-itis and the instinct to keep emotions pressure-cooking inside, Justine got my snark, my body image struggles, and my love of sneakers. I adore her. I adore that she’s not perfect, and that readers may not fall for her right away. Because I believe a character has got to earn that, dammit.

2) I watched a lot of documentaries for research, especially ones about teens. Here are five which had particular impact and still stay with me:

“7 Up,” “14 Up,” and “21 Up.” Michael Apted’s brilliant series, now clocking in at “56 Up,” obviously inspired this book’s premise. These first three movies are plain stinkin’ fascinating, and they include the cutest accents and haircuts.

“The Education of Shelby Knox.” Shot over the span of several years, Texas teenager Shelby Knox evolves from a conservative Southern Baptist to discovering her voice and calling as a liberal women’s activist. I was riveted.

“Billy the Kid.” Filmed “character” portraits don’t get much better than this. I watched this long after Rory was alive and breathing on the page, but you might notice a resemblance of quirk.

3) The character of filmmaker Lance is named for Lance Loud, from the 1971 PBS documentary series “An American Family.” You can’t see this series anywhere but in a few bootleg YouTube videos (although you can enjoy “Cinema Verite,” the HBO dramatic film version), but I did a lot of research on it as I was developing the story. If you’re unfamiliar, “An American Family” is widely considered a precursor to reality TV in America, documenting several months in the lives of an upperclass Santa Barbara family called the Louds. It was pretty epic. Bill and Pat Loud broke up on camera. Their oldest son Lance was one of the first openly gay people to appear on U.S. national television (and went on to be a magazine columnist and musician). Thinking about the Loud kids, who were mostly teens when the series was shot, and how this experience might have shaped their lives, drove a great deal of my early brainstorming. I also learned some intriguing stuff about the filmmaker-subject relationship and you see some of that with Lance, Leslie, and the gang in the book.

4) I love that because of the book’s premise — that these teens were chosen by documentary filmmakers when they were six years old — I could hand-pick certain character “stereotypes,” because that’s what the filmmakers would have done in order to maximize their range of subjects. The fun part was shaking those stereotypes up, then breaking them open to see what was really inside.

5) When I was writing this, I didn’t expect to later be writing a companion short story from Keira’s point-of-view. But Holy Character Development, am I glad to have been given this opportunity. Read “Playing Keira” before you read YLDIRL and you’ll have inside information that Justine does not; read it after, and I think it’ll close a nice circle. Either way, it’s only 99 cents and you’ll never look at a pineapple the same way again.

6) And finally. Documentary film premise or not, for me this book is about two things: self-identity and friendship. Probably because they’re two things I thought I’d have all figured out by now, but…well, sh*t. So what can I take, for myself, from the experience of writing this book? I’ve learned that the insecurities and drama of friendship don’t go away when you “grow up.” They get even more complex, actually, and that sucks. But I think, with experience, you just get better at recognizing which relationships are worth fighting for. And also, every person you get close to, no matter how long she or he stays in your life, has something to give. Sometimes we have to dig a little for that, but it’s always worth the dirty fingernails.

When it comes to identity, I look at this book and my journey with it, and am reminded that (fortunately) the way we see ourselves is not the whole picture of who we are. We’re slightly different to each person we share the world with, whether it’s intimately or casually or randomly online. Put all those versions together, and it’s still not anything absolute. It’s just information. I guess the trick is to stay curious about who we are, to never stop trying to figure it all out. In the end, that’s what keeps us spiritually alive.

Justine, Felix, Rory, Nate, and Keira belong to you now. Go forth and read! But first, enjoy the brand new “You Look Different in Real Life” trailer. It makes me smile and tap my toes, and I hope it does the same for you.


Thankful for drama in my life

I recently got caught up in my local school budget election. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that the whole thing was a suckfest, just like it was a suckfest for most school districts across the U.S., and will continue to be for a while. Or longer. Funding for public education in America is a twisted, broken thing and I can only hope that folks are finally angry enough to spark some fixing. I’m just thankful to the people in every community — the school boards, the administrators, the teachers and staff and parents — who are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances.

There have been many cuts to the extracurricular activities at our well-rated high school (Top 4% in the country according to Newsweek! Hollah!). Each one hurts, and each one hurts differently to different people. For me, the one that pierces deepest is the Drama Club. They spared the annual spring musical but the fall play is gone-o. If you sense another one of my stories coming on, you’re right.

I’ve spoken often about how I’ve always been a writer, a little kid pounding out poems and short stories on an IBM Selectric and then, later, a TRS-80 computer. When I talk to students at school visits, I show them my old journals and discuss how writing gave me a voice when I could barely summon the courage to ask someone for directions. Writing was The Thing that made me feel unique, shaped my dreams for the future, and helped me figure out who I might possibly be. But it didn’t happen without the help of some other experiences.

I was totally okay with playing a leper in my camp production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Really, I was.

I was also (and still am, proudly) a theatre geek. I loved watching it, performing it, creating it. As a child, I was always pretending to be someone else. I could sing well and liked being onstage, but when it mattered, my lack of confidence always betrayed me and I never got any of the roles I auditioned for in school productions. I settled for being in the chorus and getting an occasional solo. The summer after 8th grade, I went away to performing arts camp and came back a little louder and braver. I started high school and found my way to the Drama Club, a group of kids who, like me, hovered on the fringes of social radar. We were neither popular nor persecuted, but all had that “there’s more to us than meets the eye, if you’d bother to know us” thing going on. When we did a production of “The Crucible,” I had a few lines as Mercy Lewis, one of the girls who pretend to be victims of John Proctor’s witchcraft (yes, just like Meg in “The Beginning of After”). I didn’t think I wanted the lead or even a big part. I accepted the roles I’d been given, the roles that said again and again, “You’re good, but you’re not special.”

Then, in the spring of sophomore year, something happened. Our Drama Club adviser decided to stage a pair of one-acts by Harold Pinter, one of which was a deeply weird play called “The Room.” The main character, Rose, is nervous and insecure, conflicted and full of repressed emotion. In other words, she was me. For whatever reason, our adviser saw that and gave me my first leading role. Rose carries that piece and I worked incredibly hard on it, so grateful to finally be center-stage-special. I believe I did her justice, in my 15-year-old way. The following fall, I got cast as a lead again, as Martha in “The Children’s Hour.” Martha is nervous and insecure, conflicted and full of repressed emotion. Okay, yeah. There’s a pattern here. But I killed that part.

As Martha Dobie. Please excuse the bad suit.

Playing these two roles, crawling inside the words written by the playwrights and finding the cores of these women, helped me see some new things about myself and what I was really afraid of. I became less afraid of it, and opened up. I relaxed and got out of my own damn way. I knew what it was like to finally be part of a whole and exist in a group that’s working toward the same thing. I became friends with people outside my little clique, people I never would have spoken to otherwise. This confidence spilled over into my writing and the subjects I tackled. The rest of my high school career looked quite different after all that.

When I got to college, too many new things tempted my time and I never circled back to drama. Which makes me very sad, in retrospect. But I honor those Drama Club years by recognizing how they gifted me skills I’ve relied heavily on in my professional and personal lives. As in, the way I hear dialogue in my head and can write it to sound natural. Being able to really build a character and live in his or her skin. Getting up the nerve to speak in large groups and not die of embarrassment. I could go on, but I’ll just say that I believe the research about how being involved in a theatre production helps students get better at creative problem-solving, social interaction, and cooperation. There are times when I honestly don’t think I could have become a working writer if I hadn’t also been a performer at one point.

Here in my town, the Drama Club is not going gently into that good night. There are efforts afoot to raise the money needed to keep it going, along with many other arts programs. Because people Get It. This stuff Matters. My story is far from unique and actually, relatively dull, if you look at how significant and even life-changing an impact the performing arts can have on a young person. But I tell it as part of a promise that I, for one, will continue to fight to make these opportunities available to those who want them. Those few years are forever a part of me and everything I do now.