1.    What is the  title of your book?

The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior

2.    Where did the idea come from for the book?

The book emerged from a short story that I had written titled “Henry’s Fence.” The story didn’t work, but Henry was compelling to me, so I kept writing about him. As I explored Henry, he developed an obsession with Bunraku puppets and it turned out that he had learned about this art form from his German grandmother, who was involved in the performance of a sacred ritual in the basement of her country house. That discovery led to my imagining a secret, half-forgotten religious group that had connections both to some obscure branches of European Radical Protestantism and to Zen Buddhism as well as to theatrical puppet traditions from Japan.

3.    What genre does you book fall under?

The book is a quirky picaresque novel in flash fiction chapters.

4.    What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Four misfits are drawn to a beleaguered American town, where they re-enact a forgotten ritual with the help of ghosts, talking tattoos, Jack LaLanne, tall Mennonites, and a monkey king.

5.    How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft actually took several years, because the story kept morphing in such weird and crazy ways that I needed a couple of tries – and a lot of encouragement – to find the structure, and stay on the narrative ride as it got progressively wilder.

6.    What inspired you to write the book?

Henry did. But this character presented one enormous problem: how in the world do you tell the story of an oddball hero, whose salient characteristics are that he is very shy and modest?

That one stumped me until I started thinking about what kind of people would be drawn to such a quiet, unassuming person.

From that point on, Henry acquired a bevy of peculiar but talkative relatives and associates who became the helper-narrators of the story.


7. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

4 issues continually haunt this story and are explored in ways that I think will surprise you.

  • money. How much it matters and how little we talk frankly about it. How can fiction empower that conversation?
  • education and culture. The dismantling of educational and cultural institutions in the US. Are we going to let the whole thing collapse? If not, what are we willing to do?
  • God. Who or what is God? How do we encounter Him, Her, or It? How tolerant and open are we really of people who say they’ve got direct access to the divine?
  • moral growth. People can change for the better in surprising and sudden ways. How does such change occur? What makes it happen?


8.    Will your book be self-published or are you being represented by an agency?

Neither. A great new press — Urban Farmhouse Press – will publish my novel later on this year 2014 or in early 2015. It will be illustrated by the amazing Ann Brantingham, who published and did the cover art for my poetry collection How Formal?


9. In the comment section, please jot down your email so I can update you on upcoming book launch events and parties!

Dear Friends –rti_inlandia-logo

If you attended the wonderful Inlandia Book Fair held this past Saturday at the Barnes and Noble, Riverside, you will remember that I invited participants and guests to try their hands at the Ashberrian (or is it Ashberryian?) haiku: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables in each line of your poem. Make as many lines as you want for your Thanksgiving oeuvre.

Here’s an example of this sort of poetic line:

Thanksgiving turkey? Yes, it can be fabulous — if I don’t cook it.

Please keep your poems free of extremely dirty words, and of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism and the like.

Put them in a comment, and I’ll post — subject to moderation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PS — please support Inlandia by buying books at Barnes and Noble and using the special INLANDIA code: 11484482 — good through 11/28!




Hey there NaNoWriMo buddies!

How full is your novel?


  1. Do you have enough things?
  •  Make an inventory of every item in your wallet/backpack/purse/briefcase. Write 3-5 sentences for each item: what it looks/smells/feels/tastes like, where you got it and from whom/how long it’s been in said location and anything else that leaps to mind
  • Put at least 4 items in your novel. Put ALL of them in if you can
  • Make one of them into a weapon and USE it successfully AND unsuccessfully in 2 different scenes.


Variation a:

Your protagonist’s bag of groceries:

What’s in it? At least 12 items

Write a scene where she or he or they cook an unspeakably horrible dish with the ingredients


Variation b:

What’s in your antagonist’s closet? 6 items minimum

Write a scene in which your antagonist’s secret clothing fetish is revealed


2.  Do you have enough other Art Forms?

  • Make one of your main characters a bad poet.

Write 3 poems and put them in a scene. Formal poetry is best for this. How about a terrible sonnet or a string of truly horrendous haiku?

  • What play/musical/film are your characters producing/starring in/performing the music for/filming/ushering? Write at least 1 scene where something goes disastrously wrong or ridiculously, unexpectedly right. Or both.


3. Do you have enough points of view?

  • CHANGE Narrators

Make someone else tell the story from her or his or their or its point of view. Pick a scene that ISN’T crucial to the main narrator/protagonist. Open it up and see what’s there.


4. Do you have enough Death and Mayhem?  

  • KILL somebody and/or stage a natural DISASTER


5. Do you have enough stories?

  • Have someone in the book tell a completely different STORY about SOMETHING ELSE





Once upon a time there was a girl who loved jellyfish. She loved them because they reminded her of a visit to the aquarium with her mother. Her mother said the jellyfish looked like dresses. The little girl never forgot this.

This is not my story. This scene is the beginning of Princess Jellyfish, a manga – Japanese comic book novel — that became a tv show and will soon be made into a live-action movie.

courtesy wikipedia

courtesy wikipedia

Manga has a way of being at once cute and deeply poignant – using childlike naivete as a powerful weapon for getting past our censors, and hitting on something deep.

I loved manga ever since I watched a tv show on local television called Astro Boy. The cartoon was based on a famous manga by the Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka. Astro Boy was a robot, who was a kind-hearted person with kind robot parents. He worked for a scientist, and he always tried to help. His stories were not like the stories I saw elsewhere on television. They were generally philosophical and often very sad. I remember one episode that featured a planet where Astro Boy was imprisoned by this oversized, but rather dopey robot that kept on taking his temperature, and putting him in bed. Astro Boy discovers a diary in which it is revealed that the robot has mistaken the robot boy for his human companion – a female astronaut, The pair had crash landed on the planet, and the astronaut had gotten sick and died.

This misguided caregiving – that looked at first so frightening – touched me, and now 50 years later, I still remember it and the accompanying suggestion that things are not necessarily what they seem, and that a behavior that looks at first like something brutish, repetitive and invasive, may be in fact an attempt to express the exact opposite.

courtesy wikipedia

courtesy wikipedia

Jelly Fish Princess makes a brief entrance in the manuscript that I am writing for NaNoWriMo. A Japanese woman from the distant past buys the manga and glimpses what the future holds for women and girls. This vision inspires her to take actions that she would never have undertaken under normal circumstances.

I like to think that the art that moves us also makes us braver. Princess Jellyfish is ultimately, to quote Lillian Behrendt, about what we love, and how important it is to love something. Bravely and unashamedly. The show’s misfit women who populate the broken down apartment building in Tokyo do just that. They are all people with strange expertises and enthusiasms. But the manga celebrates their fascinations and their talents.

The point is that without these interests, we are not truly human. Our odd hobbies and obsessions are grounded in our most sincere childhood loves, and these loves are the basis for all our creativity and our ability to connect with others.

This week, as we have rounded the corner on the middle of NaNoWriMo, I invite everyone to remember something they loved as a child as well as the person or persons you shared it with, if there was such a person.

Put that moment or moments in your book.

And let the love of that thing push you forward.

Happy creating.

Once upon a time there was a woman, who took the train to East Germany. She went there 3 times.

The first time she was a college student and she barely spoke German and she had a bad experience at the border when she didn’t understand that her passport number had been called.

The second time she had just gotten married and she went to the place where the two famous authors that she had studied in graduate school lived and taught. She went to their graves and saw their houses. She met poets who lent her books wrapped carefully in brown paper. On the 4th of July her hosts gave her carnations to mark the anniversary of her revolution. “Because,” the head teacher of the place she was studying at said to her.

“All the revolutions matter.”

The third time the woman went to East Germany, she met an editor who was married to a doctor, and she met writers, and other doctors. They discussed ideas and politics and travel and art. The woman’s new friends gave her beautiful books wrapped in brown paper. To protect the covers.  Because books are precious. Books are — to quote Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s mother — wealth.

Once long ago, the woman’s aristocratic grandmother whispered to the woman when the princely grandfather wasn’t listening. “The Russian Revolution saved Russia. The people were…” the grandmother sighed. “Destitute. Desperate. Their lives are better now, even if Communism is the enemy.”

There are many stories to tell about power and powerlessness. About what is good and what is evil. These all must be told.

But the story of empire is not necessarily about these things. That story is always a story about winners.  As such it is necessarily a story that self-congratulates, seeks to share its victory. Reproduce. Multiply.

Also simplify. In the stories of nation and empire, there is also the wish to make it all very simple.

The writer feels the tug of this simplicity. The wish to streamline, to use the dominant view, because after all, that view won.

Please don’t let the tug pull you over. Because in the other story may be something, there certainly is something, that needs to be considered. That needs to be suggested.



To read one person’s memory of East Germany, read Jenny Erpenbeck’s piece “Homesick for Sadness” in the Paris Review.

Once upon a time there was a woman who wrote a novel. It was weird and scary and she liked it and her family liked it and some friends liked it and her teacher liked it, but she couldn’t sell it because it was too violent and too sexual and then it had this big hole in the middle that didn’t make sense so she had a hot-air balloon and 3 graffiti artists and some Welsh separatists from Orange County invade in order to take up the slack.

courtesy Ann Brantingham

courtesy Ann Brantingham

Then she wrote another novel. This one was better (and funnier) and still quite strange and some nice people who lived in a farmhouse said they’d publish it.

So that was and is awesome.

But then it was time to write another novel.

Oh dear.

Novels are hard because they are big and when things go wrong in a novel, they go wrong in a big way. It’s not like in a short story where the last line doesn’t work or a sentence in the first paragraph doesn’t quite grab the reader. When things go wrong in a novel it’s like the whole first half of the novel is wrong, or the point of view is wrong or the time period is wrong, or the hero is wrong in the sense that you’ve picked the wrong person to be the protagonist. Which means you basically have to retrofit the building, which entails –as you know – tearing it down to the so-called studs. And we all know what’s going to happen.  A lot of expensive building material (aka words) are going to go into the narrative dumpster as the general contractor — you – talks to the home owner – also you – as well as to the architect – who is unfortunately, most definitely you – and says, “this is not going to work.”

“So why do it?” Her spouse and friends would ask her. “Why try to build this big thing when it scares you to do it, and a part of you doesn’t like to do it, and even when you like it, you may have to tear the whole thing down and start all over again?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She thought but did not say. “I just want to.” She thought but did not say she wanted to because novels – when they work – are still magic. Sexing the Cherry, and An Invisible Sign of my own, and The Fall, and African Psycho, and The Wind up Bird Chronicle, and My Life In Men, and White Oleander, and The Parable of the Sower, and The Diviners, and The Enormous Room, and Almost Dead, and so many other books that she just loved are these novel-thingies. And who wouldn’t want to come to the dinner party that those novels are going to? Short Letter, Long Farewell is bringing the appetizers. The Vagabond is bringing the dessert. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is bringing a brisket and the Mists of Avalon is bringing some incredible French fries. Hot dogs will be provided by – who else? – A Confederacy of Dunces. Gangsterland is bringing the gangsters and The Night Watch is bringing in security. Those books and others are all talking away to each other. Harry Potter and Meursault in a corner saying they don’t care. The Virginia Woolf of The Hours talking with The Invisible Man about how they DO care. The Character of Rain chatting with the Angel’s Game, Spirits of the Ordinary and Fahrenheit 451 about who knows what.

“Hey,” you say “– that’s a steal from that last book! Those books all talking to each other!”

Yes, I know.

But as the woman entered NaNoWriMo, she could hear those voices – the published, the unpublished, and the unpublishable; the good, the bad, the problematic, the silly, and the absolutely terrible – all squawking. She decided that the only way to create a little stillness, was to let the voices inside of her out. And to try to give them narrative coherence. Which won’t be easy.


But still – she had to try.


To join NaNoWriMo, click here.


Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed of bongos in basements. She’d seen a tv show about beatniks. They were strange people with sunglasses and berets and they beat on drums and they spoke weird sentences. The girls looked sharp in tight pants and long hair. They wore interesting jewelry.

The girl who was the dreamer thought “how different these people were from the people on American Bandstand!” The ABS people had great clothes – especially the girls. But they all looked so frozen. They seemed very unhappy. The people called the beatniks seemed – something – maybe not happy in a Leave it to Beaver kind of way. But not unhappy in a desperate Ben Casey sort of way. They seemed intent on something – on their music, on their speaking poem things that they were doing. They seemed intent on each other. There was this energy. And it made the dark basement they were in seem light.

In the girl’s dream, she was friends with the men who were smoking and the girls in their tight pants. She sat in the audience when they got up to sing their songs or say their pieces. She was a part of their gang.

She woke up thinking – “I wish I could do that. Whatever it is these people are doing.”

She went to a dance in a church basement a few years later. A boy she knew was in a rock band and he played the flute. He was better than the Jethro Tull guy. He could really play. She had that same feeling about basements. She wished she had a talent she could share.

Years went by. There was no money. So the girl became a teacher. And then finally, there was health insurance and enough money to live on and a place to live in and a man to live with in it and a child who lived in it too and who then grew up and moved away.

The girl who was by now a woman and an older woman at that heard about this basement near her house. It was a famous basement where rock musicians played and where important artistic people got their start. She went with a friend and sat in the dark and heard people say their pieces. Heard a young man play guitar and talk about his family. She looked at the light bulbs, glimmering in their shades on the sidelines of the room. She thought about the book she wrote with poems in it. She thought about the book she wrote with a big story in it. A man she knew well got up and read a scary funny story about a hit man killing a doctor. A beautiful girl came up and read a scary funny story about axe murderers. Another man told about how big cities can hurt you but that teaching who you are can help everybody.

The girl watched the people from her table. The friend that she brought was an artist. Siting on the other side of her was a famous poet wearing jeans and interesting jewelry.

All that was missing were the bongos.

Once upon a time there was a woman. Once upon a time there was a man.

They were old. Not Alzheimers old. Not Baucis and Philemon old. But old.

Wait a minute you say. That can’t be a story.

Why not?

Because only young people have adventures. Have sex. Make discoveries. Are beautiful.

Well, you have a point. But couldn’t these old people – given that they have all their marbles and all their limbs and are somewhat curious about existence – still have it in them to have adventures?

No! Well, maybe. I don’t want that story to talk down to us, or tell me what to think or be incredibly long winded or have anything in it that says “when I was your age.”

Fair enough.

Once upon a time there were two old people. They had done some things and seen some things. And they wondered “what can I do now?” They went back to school. One of them graduated. They wrote books, they volunteered, and yes they had sex.

Oh God!– just don’t describe it.

Ok – anyway – they took walks. And they realized that time was beginning to work differently for them. The world began to spin faster. This didn’t make them want to move faster. Quite the contrary – it made them want to slow down.

Now I’m bored.

The slowing down made every moment including this moment, luminous and effervescent. The way the wind rustles through leaves in the fall, how the tweed of the seat feels rough against your hand. The smell of winter – fresh, dry, tobacco-y—remains in your hair.

The old people had a tree that almost died. It got brown, but then the woman went and talked to it.

It can’t be time to die yet, she said to it.

The tree decided to get green again. The brown parts stayed brown, but the green grew.

I think we are like that, said the woman to the man. We can’t fix the brown parts, but we can still grow around them.

I’m going to get a Masters Degree, said the man.

I’m going to write another book, said the woman. She went outside and stroked the tree.

It was still growing – green needles soft to the touch, its death conquered for a time.

Are you done?

Yes. Can you smell the winter coming?

No. Wait – maybe. A little.

“I vowed I would never live in another city”, he said. “I vowed I was done with their grids and their money. With Wall Street and Christopher Street. With a city built on greed and graft and the pretensions of lineage.”

“Well,” she said.  “Then I know a city you can go to that is nothing like that.”

He sat with her in the swank coffee shop as the buses and the taxis roared by.

She said “finish your coffee and close your eyes.”

He thought this was strange but he was used to strange things, and he was used to strange things coming from her – the sister he had who was not a blood relation – or at least he didn’t think she was.

He put his espresso cup down. It was a good brew and it had been finely ground and the water had been extremely hot – the way it needs to be to make a really good espresso. He folded his eyelids down, and tried not to squint through them, which he did when he closed his eyes because he was always rather nervous. He just was. It was who he was and he would never change, probably.

“Imagine,” she said.

“Imagine a tangle of hair. A tangle of ribbons, a tangle of angel hair pasta. How the tangle is always a sort of circle, a wannabe spiral, but there are knots that keep the lines from going around and around there are sub-knots inside, and twists in the yarn or the ribbon or the hair, and spokes sticking out of the knots. Imagine those knots with small spaces and cracks, because that’s why it’s a knot in the first place. There is space for the untangling if you could just insert a needle or a fingernail and then you could make it all straight.”


He shifted in his seat.

“Stay still,” she said. “There’s a beauty to the tangle. An unexpected shape to it, a logic to it, and always a doorway, a garden, a courtyard where a child plays with a doll, and there are levels to it. Imagine there are steps going up and through the knots and the twists.”

Suddenly he saw a child – a little girl in an impossible doorway, a door curved and built into a wall that curved and the little girl was going up the stairs inside and calling Ama? Ama? and she looked at him, not afraid but penetrating, as if he were a well-known and expected visitor. And as he turned he saw a garden filled with roses – like the ones belonging to the woman he loved but whom he could not have – climbing over a wall, and he was going up and then down a – what was it? – a set of stairs and then a path, but it wasn’t a street like he knew streets to be – it was so crooked and winding. Shooting off to either side was a gate to a church – impossible enormous – hulking on the other end of yet another gate, and then steps going down to someplace.

“Imagine,” she said. “A city that is a tangle. A spiral caught in on itself.”

And the thing was: he could not only imagine it. He could smell it, taste it. there was a priest in a long black gown, kissing a woman. What religion was this? And he walked and suddenly he was in a long corridor filled with vendors. And he could smell food, perfume, saw old men sitting in chairs playing chess. And he walked past a tiny storefront selling wooden elephants, and another selling candy, while a boy with a wheelbarrow called out welcome welcome would you like some fruit? Melons, berries? The best the best.

And then again he turned a corner and the street – if you could call it a street – went up and up and up, winding and circling, till he came upon a metal door, and the door had letters on it, but he couldn’t read them, and across from that a jeweler placing necklaces and candlesticks in a window.

Where is the top and where it the bottom? He was breathless he was thirsty. Come in said a woman in a long white robe. Come and drink. He went through the door and walked through her tiny apartment, and ended up on a balcony overlooking countless other balconies and above them the sky – a brilliant pure blue.

Not all cities are based on the urge to conquer through finance. She told him, holding up a glass of tea.

He drank.

What city is that? he said.

And she said what city do you think?

And he said the name that people dismiss or hate or love.

“Remember your vision,” said his sister, as his espresso cup clattered to the floor. “Seek the city in the city. Seek the tangle. Seek the knots and the impasses. For there only is the real way out. And the real way in.”

He got on a plane that afternoon. His passport was in order. He didn’t need shots.

Once upon a time there was a school.

I’m bored already. I don’t want to hear a story about a school. I’m sick of schools as places where stories happen. Muggles or non-muggles. I don’t care.

Once upon a time there was a high-school.

Worse! I don’t care about what goes on at some stupid suburban high-school or some stupid rich kids private school. And I for sure DON’T want a story about some inspirational white person who is middle class and who “changes the lives” of the poor underclass persons who are not like that inspirational white person. Freedom Writers! Argh!

Once upon a time there was a university.

Ugh. Nothing even happens there except – in the olden days professors and students used to hook up. But that was boring too. So no one does it any more.

Once upon a time there was a medical school.

Wait – are there dead bodies in it?

Once upon there was a laboratory at a research center.

Seriously? No way, not unless something blows up!

Once upon a time there was a shopping mall that was the only structure that survived an unnamed global disaster.

Now you’re talking.

I told her I wanted to write about Big Carl.

“Who the hell is Big Carl?” she said.

She was unimpressed when I told her that Big Carl was and is a giant tuba.

“Where is it?” she said

“In a storeroom above a music store,” I said. “I think.”

“Why would anyone want to make that?”

I couldn’t quite explain that sometimes people make things just to make them, and since the tuba is already quite an enormous instrument, making one that’s even bigger could be funny.

“I think it was a publicity stunt,” I said, but to be honest I couldn’t really remember the article. All I could think about was the picture. A giant tuba with a tiny man standing next to it, getting ready to blow into it.

“I think I’ll need a third lung,” said the man who was going to try to play it. That was the last line of the article.

The other thing I remember was that Big Carl is apparently NOT the world’s largest tuba. It’s like the 3rd biggest tuba and all these other giant tubas were made in Germany.

Which for some reason makes complete sense to me.

“Also—“ I said, as she raised an eyebrow at this whole ridiculous story. “It’s got different valves or something than a regular tuba making it more like a bugle.”

“Well then it’s a bugle for crying out loud,” she exclaimed. “It’s not a tuba at all!” She shook her head at me.

“But it’s SHAPED like a tuba,” I said. “It LOOKS a great deal LIKE a tuba.”

“Well, then it’s a bugluba or a tubugle or a Butugle or a Tugba but it’s not a tuba!

At this point we just started laughing.

“Why are those words so hard to say?????”

Some hysteria broke out.

But back to Big Carl. Whatever it is, isn’t it great that such a silly thing exists?

I hope it comes out of the store room and the man with the third lung plays it, and I hope the other German giant tubas come to the United states, and that they are displayed someplace prominent like Lincoln Square, Union Square or Times Square (the rectangle being a nice complement to the circular strangeness of the tuba), and that on New Year’s Eve, they all simultaneously BLOW.

Oh, and there’s also some connection between Big Carl and John Phillip Sousa. Which also somehow makes sense.




You can find out more about Big Carl here.