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Underway

WRITERS ANSWER: What’s on your desk? What are you working on?

Underway

Various
18 Snaps

I’m presently working on two books of stories. Had a Good Time is built around my extensive collection of picture postcards from the first two decades of the twentieth century. I’ve collected these cards not so much for the pictures on the front (although the images are quite interesting, too) but for the messages written on the backs. Before telephones were common, people would sometimes pour their hearts out on the postcards they wrote. I have a wonderful collection of these very brief but highly intense and suggestive messages from people long since dead. So I’ve chosen my favorite ones and I’m picking up the voices off the cards and writing the fully imagined stories.The other book began when I visited Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) a few years back. I went to the War Crimes Museum and saw a guillotine that the French used until their departure in 1954. I read about the guillotine and discovered that during its heyday at the end of the nineteenth century there was much speculation (and even experimentation) over the possibility of enough blood remaining in the brain to sustain consciousness for a time after decapitation. My book will have two epigraphs, one from a French doctor expressing his belief that consciousness actually persisted for one and one-half minutes, and the other from a hand-book of speech pointing out that in a heightened state of emotion people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. So I’m filling the book with very short first-person stories—each exactly 240 words (1.5 times 160)—that will represent the final outburst of internal monologue in a severed head. (I’m doing both famous and obscure—John the Baptist, Marie Antoinette, and Nicole Brown Simpson as well as, for example, Claude Messner, a homeless man who laid his neck on a train track.) For a time I was calling the book Talking Heads, but cooler heads prevailed and now it’s Severance.

Robert Olen Butler

I just finished a John Ritter obit and I haven’t put away my Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 DVDs because I needed to watch the episode “Ted,” in which Ritter quite wonderfully played the serial killer robot dating Buffy’s mom. The day before that, I polished off a radio story for This American Life about the marriage of the late Johnny and June Carter Cash so I have a copy of the Louvin Brothers’ record Satan Is Real lying around. It has maybe the greatest album cover of all time, in which Charlie and Ira Louvin sing in hell as the Devil stands behind them poised to bash their brains in with a pitchfork. I was listening to it because when Johnny was a teenager he hitchhiked to a Louvin Brothers live radio show and requested a song for his mother and that song was “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” which was written by June with her mom and sister. And then there’s the original cast recording from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins; I’ve been writing about a really swell production of it I saw in the Berkshires this summer and how the next morning at my bed and breakfast’s mandatory breakfast with strangers I kept going on and on about the singing Squeaky Fromme. Also, I have here a McKinley Memorial souvenir yo-yo. The other night at Luna Lounge I read my Assassins work in progress (which has a bit about the moment the McKinley assassin Leon Czol- gosz met anarchist Emma Goldman) and tried playing with the McKinley Memorial yo-yo onstage but let’s just say I won’t be trying my hand at prop comedy again too soon. So: dead presidents, dead singers, dead actor. Gee, if only a pattern would emerge from these wildly disparate items so that others could grasp what’s on my mind. There is, I should mention, a crumpled carton of soy milk, the cancer-fearing girl’s cereal-moistener of choice. Just because I like to write about dead people doesn’t mean I want to become one.

Sarah Vowell

I like looking at art books at least as much as reading literature, and I’ve recently spent a lot of time with Wolfgang Tillman’s View from Above, and the catalogue for the upcoming Philip Guston Retrospective. I’ve also been reading a lot of Haggadahs. As for work, I just found an old cast-iron sewing table, with a foot pump that sets a large wheel on the side in motion. Once attached to the sewing machine by a cable—thus powering it—the wheel now spins freely. I set my laptop where the sewing machine used to be, pump my legs as I write, and find it much more easy to concentrate.

Jonathan Safran Foer

I’m working on a novel called the bodies between us. Among the things on my desk that seem most relevant to it are: a postcard of Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field” in Quemado, New Mexico; a photographer’s loupe, that magnifies things to eight times their original size, which I’ve been using to look at the leaves on the willow in a postcard of the grounds outside a Spanish mission in San Diego, and at the pattern on a summer dress worn by a sullen young woman in a photograph from Robert Frank’s The Americans.There are some books here: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights; Louise Bourgeois’s Drawings and Observations, opened to page 127; Jonathan Schell’s The Village of Ben Suc; Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims’s Four Hours in My Lai; and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

And on a piece of paper I’ve copied the definitions for the words “swath” and “aftermath” from a 1931 Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, scribbled the phrase “figure/ground,” and the word “ravine” with a line drawn under it, and under the line, the word “girl.” And here, I’ve written the English word “massacre” with the Vietnamese word “ma” and “sách” next to it. “Ma” meaning “ghost.” “Sách” meaning “book.”

Lê Thi Diem Thú Y

Over my desk hangs a plaster cast of my naked torso, spray-painted gold. I made it when I was pregnant with my third child, Ida-Rose. It’s pretty impressive— vast and kind of scary in its maternal pendulousness. Unfortunately, Rosie was the smallest of all my babies. I kind of wish I’d done the belly cast when I was pregnant with Zeke, who was a full two pounds larger at birth than his younger sister.

There are two photographs hanging on my wall. One, in sepia tones, torn at a corner, was taken almost ninety years ago. It is of a row of seven girls, carefully ranged in order of age, from the youngest toddler in white ruffles and lace, to a young woman in late teens, her hair newly rolled on the top of her head, her blossoming form meticulously encased in corsets and dark taffeta. Underneath this photograph hangs another. This one is in the vibrant pastels of vintage sixties Kodachrome. Seven women lavishly attired in full-length gowns, each a different parrot-hue, shoes dyed to match. Their smiles are broad, their lipstick bright, and their grey hair rinsed in delicate gold, red, even blue. The youngest is perhaps forty, the oldest defying sixty to claim her.

These women, my grandmother and her sisters, were universally known from their infancies until their deaths at ages that defied statistics and insurance adjusters, as the Bloom Girls. They were beautiful, quixotic, complicated women, together and individually transforming themselves from the daughters of a sweatshop owner who waited his entire life for the son he was sure he deserved, into arbiters of fashion and social success in Jewish Montreal of the twenties and thirties. The Bloom Girls spoke every day, at least once a day, each of them to all of the others, and spent their entire lives alternately celebrating and chafing against the bonds that knotted them together.

The novel I am working on, named after the women whose well-shod feet I’ve spent my life trying to fill, is shaped out of the raw material of their lives. Because in our family a good story always takes precedence over the truth, the book is very much the work of my imagination. However, the main stories around which I have erected the scaffolding of my plot are true.

Ayelet Waldman
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