Monday, August 31, 2009


After being in a strange city for three months, I am home! I feel like the theme song from "Cheers". I have traded big bookstores, close toed shoes, lovely giant grocery stores, good pizza and the frisson of city life for the small town, gossipy drama of the island, transparent air, a warm ocean and green. When I first get back this island seems painted in Kermit the Frog, technicolor green.

It is lovely to be writing in a place where everyone knows what you are doing and is enthusiastically cheering you on. Unfortunately, the two questions are always, "Are you nearly finished?" and "When can I buy it in the bookstore?" Ummm "January 2011?" No one really likes that answer. It is the "2011" that sounds science fictiony far away. In 2011 I will be turning thirty-s... wow, I do not want to finish that sentence.

But honestly, it isn't far away. (Must wear sunblock and buy more wrinkle cream.) It is soon. My editor just wrote to say that she is sending her notes this week. Yikes. I feel like I am getting the most important report card of my life. Cross your fingers!

Friday, August 21, 2009

What Do You Do?

Yesterday in Barnes and Noble:

Random Man in Blue Hat sits down in empty chair next to a woman who is not drinking coffee and reading ten books at once. Among her books are a whopping new translation of 'Anna Karenina', Philippa Gregory's brand new, 'The White Queen' and Shirley Hazzard's 'Greene on Capri'.

Random Man in Blue Hat: "So what do you do?"

Priya: (also in blue hat) "Ummmm"

Random Man in Blue Hat: (Picking up Anna Karenina), "So you like Dostoevsky?"

That let me off the hook.

First of all, only in Los Angeles do people use that as an opening line. Not clever nor subtle, just a bald 'are you worth talking to' kind of question. Yuck. I did not know how to answer. I have written a book that is going to be published--so I will be a writer? I hate this question.

At Edinburgh, for years I lived with writers. Four comedy writers who wrote together: Jack, Jamie, Ewen and Dan. It was happy, noisy and very, very funny. When we all moved down to London I remember another friend asking Jamie what he planned to do now. "Write comedy," Jamie answered blithely. No hesitation, prevarication or deliberation. That was what they planned and wanted and so that was his answer. I love that.

It is somehow a trickier question for me. The two times in this very visually-oriented city I have ventured so far as to say that I write (using the verb and not the declarative structure of the noun), the person has responded with "Have I seen any of your movies?" Definitely tricky.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


So, my family rescues animals. A lot of animals.

Cats: Bert (a fat, mincing grey poufball), Churchy (who is all black and keeps getting locked in closets), The Black Cat (who has an anger issue), and my eccentric sister's two wierdy and totally unrewarding cats both with names starting with 'D' (Daphne and Dandelion maybe?) who never come out from under the bed and have a dreadlock problem.

Dogs: Gordon (the larger, elder statesman in possession of the bunny), The Major (small fusspot who lives on watermelon and radishes and wants the bunny). Plus honorary dog: The Peanut (Michelle's excitable somewhat spastic but lovable pooch).

Birds: Lots of wild chickens in Kauai who take their breakfast on our lawn, in particular: Fancypants, the adulterous rooster, Mama's Hen, an irresponsible teenage mom who keeps misplacing her babies and the Gay Roosters, a lovely, stable couple. Plus a number of serene Nene Geese who enjoy bagels for lunch.

Sea Turtle: That is a random sea turtle I met at Queen's Bath. He looked like he was over 150 years old and his name should be Clemance.

I thought I should mention them as roughly half the conversations in my family begin or end with the animals. Mama: "I have to go, Bert wants to get into the bathtub." To her, this is a perfectly reasonable sentence. Tuna: "You can't read that, The Major wants to sleep on it." My family are crazy about the animals. Some live in Washington DC, some live in NYC, some commute to Hawaii; it gets complicated.

I am currently living in the empty summer house in Kauai with the birds and on most days, Matt, Michelle and The Peanut. As I often have to move (to Summerbreak, Chad and Wendy's beautiful house by the bay--it is heaven) when the house is rented out and I often leave the island for the mainland and am planning to go back to the UK for research, animals are tricky. I have plastic, Walmart boxes. Lots of plastic, Walmart boxes. In go the books, papers, bikinis, beach towels, shampoo, clothes and if I am very lucky, my phone charger. These boxes reek of transient if very happy, limbo. The glorious in between of writing but not finishing. Hoping but not planning.

Animals denote a certain stability; a sense of being responsible and not just winging it. Michelle carries around a large diaper bag full of The Peanut's accoutrements. It gives her an air of motherly gravitas. As I begin research on this second book I feel a new phase of things beginning.

No time for that today. I am in a city--a mainland city with large, well stocked bookstores, for only four more days. Broken ribs or no broken ribs I am off to soak it up before I return to the relatively bookless island of Kauai...

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Good Body

I have been thinking about creative communities. How charged and comfortable and intimate and fractious and intense they are. When I worked for Eve Ensler, (I worked with her in London and New York and on tour with The Vagina Monologues and for VDAY and then was her dramaturg throughout the writing/workshopping of The Good Body) there was a wonderful sense of group effort. It was crazy. Long hours, fall down exhaustion, total absorption, one track mind crazy. But I loved it.

I loved the rhythm of rehearsing, writing, watching Eve go out on stage to try out the new lines she had just learned (we would still be running through new lines on our walk from the hotel to the theatre-she was amazing), and going up to the tech box with Arabella to furiously take notes through the whole show, and then meeting up afterwards to start writing again, sometimes until 3am. Eve's energy, enthusiasm, commitment and joy were boundless. I have no idea where she found the stamina to work like she did and then perform the show. My energy curiously seemed to be recharged by watching early morning episodes of Dawson's Creek and eating pineapples.

It was a community. We were together all the time. Peter (director), Arabella (stage manager), Tony (VDAY) and me. The constant current running through all our interactions was the show. There was an excitement and a family feeling of togetherness in a strange city (Seattle).

In the last few years, writing in Kauai, my thoughts have returned again and again to that time. To the familiar, rituals, cadence and short-hand speak of a creative community. Asking Tony whether he thought the obscure vegetable we use should be chard or kale; Eve reading bits aloud to wonderful Alison in the NYC office; Arabella giving Eve her calls to get onto the stage, the absurd giggling of the collectively exhausted. It was such fun.

On Kauai I teach and freelance edit but for the most part my writing life has been a solitary process; solitary with the exception of my ever patient editor mother who hears every word down the phone multiple times a day and sees every draft, bless her. My friends cheer me on but the day to day life in my head is mostly private. When asked how it is going I answer in broad generalities. Michelle is pleased for me when it is going well but not included in my worry that a pair of dancing slippers should be cherry red rather than scarlet. I have been thinking about that time of group enterprise and I realise now how very happy it was.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Just Put it out There

I was nervous about finding an agent. That is an understatement. I get nervous about wearing high heels or swimming in big water or driving without my glasses. I was terrified of finding an agent. Or worse, of not finding one. The Worry (as I thought of it) began to loom very large in my mental real estate, taking over whole city blocks and evicting former tenants left and right. It would jump up and down while I was trying to talk to friends about something totally unrelated. I would answer questions like, "Do you want half my papaya?" with "Do you think I will find an agent?" I felt disloyal, self obsessed and just plain weird. This was not me.

What I was really wondering was, "Is it good enough?" Is it worth asking a total stranger to take the time to read this? Am I just deluding myself that anyone other than my endlessly patient mother would want to read this? About that time, my wonderful friend Adriana (Ad) came to the island to visit. She is a terrific artist in London, fun, gamine, silly, frighteningly insightful and I had been missing her terribly.

"Just put it out there," she said with simple logic. "Tell people exactly what you are doing and what you want to happen and something will happen. Something will happen to you when you make yourself do it and something will happen in the world to bring you closer to what you want." I did not really believe her. It sounded a bit airy-fairy, if you just believe-ish. I wanted something concrete to happen, not good just thoughts sent out on cosmic airwaves. Cosmic airwaves took too long and anyway wasn't that what all my worry was anyway?

"Just promise me that you will do it," she said while she was packing up to leave and I was seriously considering hiding her passport to keep her on the island. "It can't possibly hurt and it will do you good to just say it as if it is going to happen. It will make you believe it." "I need an agent to believe it," I thought grumpily.

But I started to do it. At the farmer's market, at the beach, at foodland, at pilates, at the bakery. Each time got a bit easier, came more naturally and rang with more conviction. She was right. I changed. I hadn't really believed it. My worry was a deteriorating rather than ameliorating process. And so it started to happen...

what happened was miraculous and I want to write about it but I must wake up Noah from his Saturday afternoon nap and take him up on his offer to go and see The Time Traveler's Wife. I currently have a couple of broken ribs and am asleep by 930 and so we must go now...more tomorrow!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting Rejected

Everyone told me that when I left the lovely, cocoony writing stage that I would need to develop a thick skin. This seemed like a horrid, underfoot, planter warty sort of idea to me. My skin is not thick. I cry on my birthday. I cry when someone is angry with me. I cry if I am angry with someone. And my stomach churns in abject terror when anyone wants to read my writing. Not good.

"But that is the point," Leslie (known in the family as 'the Bun'), one of my oldest friends and a writer herself said. "Why else are you doing this?" Why was I doing this? Because I loved the fibrous, wordy feeling of constructing a story. Because I was not sure what else I wanted to do. Because I had finished my doctorate and did not want to teach. Because writing this book is what I seemed to be doing. There was a lack of volition about the whole thing. Not in an artist in the garret, in a blousey white shirt, dying in the snow in Paris sort of way but in a happening without my being able to do anything about it kind of way. Not as sexy.

I knew that there would be rejection at every stage: agent, editor and (cross my fingers) at some stage, reader. I knew this but was not prepared for the shocking, wind knocked out of me hurt of being rejected the first time. My wonderful, eccentric, quirky sister Tina (called Tuna in the family, which drives her bonkers) is in publishing. I can't quite get it into my head that she is out of middle school but I suppose that is how it is with little sisters. She met a quite high powered agent at a literary conference in Los Angeles, where I happened to be staying with my boyfriend Noah. On the spot, she told this woman about me and my manuscript and this woman invited me to send it to her personal email. Yipee! I was delighted.

After over-examining every word and just generally panicking, I emailed my cover letter, synopsis and the first 50 pages to her assistant, and put my painstakingly handwritten thank you note (a small, thick cream card with applique pink dancing shoes--seemed right at the time) in the mail. I was particularly delighted that this woman had said that she normally prefers manuscripts in the post but was so excited to read it she wanted me to email it right away. After two days of happy back and forth, chatty emails, she asked me if I would mind forwarding her the rest of the manuscript and giving her an exclusive for three weeks while their resident historical fiction specialising agent looked at it? Was it possible that I could just skip the much vaunted, horrific, soul destroying agent search? My boyfriend Noah and I went out with my sister to celebrate. I was over the moon and fizzing with relief.

The next day was a long, generous and detailed rejection sitting in my inbox like a great goose egg. The historical fiction agent loved, loved, loved my prologue and could not stop showing it to people but was not taken by the style of the book. If I would like to re-write the manuscript, change the format and re-send it, she would be delighted to take a look. It hurt.

"If she didn't understand the book then it would have been the wrong agent in the end" the Bun said. I did not believe her at the time. "It was only the first one! There are so many out there," Michelle said. I didn't really listen. "That sucks." Tina Tuna said. They were all right of course but at the time it was dreadful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blank Paper

I have been in a curious sort of limbo this summer; waiting for my novel that is not yet a novel to return to me from my Touchstone editor (who is wonderful-I was so worried it would be someone completely intimidating but she is lovely!) and generally not quite sure what I was supposed to be doing.  So I decided to begin work on the next book.  Seemed audacious and absurd to begin my 'second' novel when my first is in its manuscript infancy but no one here but us chickens so off we go.

After furrowing and fretting, taking a census and driving my friends bonkers (Michelle in particular was fully prepared to kill me), I finally chose my second subject and decided to leave wonderful, smokey, cosy Restoration London for early 20th Century,  pre-during-post WWI London.  Dommage.  I miss the wacky 17th Century health cures and impressive foundation garments.  

And I am now back in the research phase and am faced with...blank paper.  Lots of blank paper.  Blank paper sucks frankly.  I know that I must believe that eventually it will be covered with well organised, and cross my fingers, coherent research notes but right now it feels huge and just so...blank.  Well, the only way blank paper becomes un-blank paper is...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Scribble Scribble

When I started this novel that I thought would never actually become a novel, the hurdles seemed endless--absurd, gigglefit endless.  The agent, the publisher, the editor and then of course, writing the book.... 

So I decided not to think about it.  After completing my doctorate (well my doctorate but not my revisions) I moved from Pimlico, London, back to the North Shore of Kauai and ignored all that lay ahead.  What better place to write about 17th Century London than Hawaii?  Made perfect sense.  It also was my only option as writing a book that was not yet a book did not pay terribly well.  So back into Kalani, my parents' empty summer house (empty that is until it is rented by hordes of tourists who boot me straight onto my friend Michelle's couch or my beautiful room in my hanai mom Wendy's beautiful happy house by the sea) to write. 

I was lucky and had done a huge hunk of my research for the book amidst my far-reaching PhD research and armed with the Complete 10 Volume Diary of Samuel Peyps and 300 auxiliary texts, photos, etchings and old maps, away we went.

My mother is an editor and she always says in her wonderful mixed metaphor way: "Nose to the grindstone.  Scribble Scribble."  Not looking up, holding my breath, total immersion, a winter ocean, loving encouragement and three years later...a first draft.  The Orange Girl.  One hurdle safely cleared.  Zillions to go.