I’m back home after a whirlwind trip to LA, where Kelly and I visited our homies at Red Hen Press. Though the two of us could likely have come up with just about any excuse to hop down to LA in order to immerse ourselves in the literary community surrounding Red Hen founders, Kate Gale and her husband Mark Cull, we actually had a legitimate reason for this trip. Kelly and I were graciously invited to visit the press by Kate and Mark in order to learn more about how a literary small press operates, and to share some of our new-school sales, marketing, and publicity ideas.
Kelly and I always have a good time travelling together and we’ve gotten pretty good at it over the last few years, so I knew that no matter how our trip went, I was sure to have at least a little fun. Staying at Kate at Mark’s home along with several teenagers, cats, dogs, bunnies, chickens, birds, and one iguana was a blast. I, who has forever loathed all things feline, even fell in love with a paraplegic cat named Corky, who quickly became my very favorite, my new beloved, among all those many rescued animals in Gale/Cull household.
Kelly and I learned A TON about the publishing world—life-changing, mind-blowing insider details about how running a publishing company is exponentially more challenging than I’d anticipated. I know I can speak for Kelly when I say that our intensive three-day education on publishing made us both feel simultaneously more daunted and more thrilled to dig our heels in deeper as we move forward in the literary world. Happily, I was able to find a teensy bit of time for reading and writing; I even sorted out a major component of my novel’s most complicated storyline late one night while discussing the ins and outs—quite literally—of quantum mechanics.
A few nights before I left for LA, I finished reading Geoffrey Becker’s “Hot Springs,” and was so revved up by the book’s unconventional storyline that I felt I had to start reading at least a few pages of something new before turning out the lights. Since I was too cozy in my bed to get up and peruse the bookshelves in my office, I picked the book in my nightstand that happened to fall within closest reach: Janet Finch’s White Oleander.
I’d seen the film adaptation a few years ago, but I didn’t even realize I owned the book until I pulled it from my nightstand. I’m wary of books that have landed on Oprah’s book club list, as they seem to be pretty hit or miss, and also because I prefer to choose and purchase books that appeal to me on my own (we all know how much I recoil at being told what to do). I began reading White Oleander, and though it was already by that time past midnight, I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading. I blew through the first five chapters without even looking up to scan the clock, entirely consumed by the richly poetic storytelling and Finch’s uniquely Californian authorial voice. Reading the exquisite literary quality of Finch’s writing inspired me to work harder on my own novel; it reminded me that I can do better. I know I’ll likely need to just continue slogging along until I’ve completed this shitty first draft—just get it all down at least in some form–but when it’s time to sweep through the draft in a revisions extravaganza, I plan to use Finch’s luxuriously lyrical tone as my guide. I’m capable of writing better quality of work than what I’ve given to my novel so far, and I look forward to the moment when I begin to make that sweep through Fitz, infusing it with all the creative goodness I can muster.
On the last night of our visit, after several excellent meals and lots of laughs with Kate and Mark, Kelly and I were thrilled to attend Red Hen’s reading series at the Annenberg Beach House. Jenny Factor, Francisco Aragon, and Chris Abani read their fine work, facilitated by Poetry Society of America’s current executive director, Alice Quinn. The reading was pure magic, and Kelly and I were lucky to hobnob with several poetry greats including Chris Abani, Douglas Kearney, and Kim Dower. And then there was Janet Finch, sitting in a white bean bag chair at the front of the room. Bashful and tripping over my words, I shook hands with Ms. Finch and spoke with her for a few minutes, totally star-struck. I wanted to tell her everything—that I wish I’d read her books sooner, that I can’t stop circling and highlighting and dog-earing the beautiful passages in her book. Of course, I mostly just told her what an honor it was to meet her, and grinned like a big dork.
What I was most hoping for from this trip, above all else, was to light a literary fire in my brain and in my heart again. My novel has been languishing, my poetry awfully quiet in the background of my increasingly chaotic life of late. Sometimes I need a trip like this one to give me a swift kick in the ass. Watching Kate and Mark successfully juggle their teaching gigs, the press, their own writing, their kids, the animals, and the stifling LA heat, I feel like I have some catching up to do.
Back home in a balmy Seattle today, I returned to work feeling content with the fact that though I may be too busy and exhausted to get much done tonight, I’ve got one long and empty weekend ahead of me—one I plan to fill with research and writing and maybe, just maybe, dog-earing some of my own beautiful passages.