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Marion Winik: “I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets.” | Q&A

MarionWinik_webCUMeet popular essayist and former NPR commentator Marion Winik, author of the Shebooks August in Paris and Guesswork. In this fun get-to-know-you session Winik shows off her love of language, her quirky sense of humor…and a secret talent, to boot.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I teach at the University of Baltimore in the MFA program; I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and graduates for the last 15 years. In the ’80s and ’90s, I wrote technical manuals for a software company, and that job, though it may not sound interesting to everyone, was fun and challenging. I had the chance to work with a great group of people at the beginning of the tech boom—I had the very first Macintosh on my desk the day it came out.

Tech writing taught me the discipline I needed to be a writer. Before that, I really thought the whole career involved scribbling brilliant insights on napkins in bars at 3 a.m. As you can imagine, that only goes so far. To write 400-page manuals, you put your ass in the chair early and keep it there late and you type all day long and you certainly don’t bother waiting for inspiration. I’m not saying my work ethic is anything close to that now, but I definitely learned the basic procedures involved in producing a literary oeuvre comprising more than a few phrases.

I also worked for Stanley Kaplan test prep company for many years—I helped write and teach the SAT and LSAT courses at the New York headquarters and recorded tapes that were used in the centers around the country, and eventually I taught for them in Austin and New Orleans, too. Stanley Kaplan and his wife, Rita, were very much on the scene in those days; he was a character. He reminded me of my father, who was always giving you math problems and brainteasers and teaching you shortcuts for multiplying four-digit numbers and such.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I am an extreme Jewish mother, very doting and nurturing, cooking all the time, stuffing everyone’s faces, waiting on people hand and foot. People don’t expect me to be domestic.

Also, I am apparently much shorter than people expect me to be—I’m not sure why this is. I’m five-foot-three or five-three-and-a-half so it’s not like I’m teeny-weeny but I guess I somehow give the impression in my writing of being a towering giant. This is an especially common comment from people who used to listen to me on NPR or have heard on me on the radio now. Must be my big, deep voice.

Another funny thing is that people claim I often look totally different than I looked some other time they saw me and this can cause hilarious situations. The other night I had a guest speaker in my class; I invited her based on a great performance she did at my daughter’s elementary school. She kept asking me about this other storyteller we had seen. I didn’t know what she was talking about; finally she said, you know, the middle-aged white woman who told stories about dating. What? “Hey,” I told her, “that was me.” She was incredulous. “Were you wearing a hat?” No…maybe a little eyeliner. Apparently for me that’s a complete disguise.

What is your favorite word right now?

 This morning I got my A.Word.A.Day email—I love these emails; they come every weekday from Wordsmith.org—and learned that the word spoof comes from a card game invented by a comedian in the 1880s. I love that! I am crazy about words and have many favorites. Once I was quite excited about using prelapsarian in an essay. I love to read lists of patois and slang: Jamaican, Yiddish, the Urban Dictionary, anything.

What or who inspires you most?

My children. Having kids saved my life and keeps me going. I am very close with all of them—Hayes, 26, Vince, 23, and Jane, 13.  Motherhood is a never-ending inspiration for writing, because everything is always changing, not just when your kids are small but at every phase of life.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

I think there is an American-Jewish voice in writing, a slant on things and a type of humor, that might be the strongest real Jewish influence on me of any kind, since I was raised by agnostics who passed on only the worship of bagels and smoked fish. Discovering the work of Philip Roth and Grace Paley meant a lot to me.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I have a column at the website BaltimoreFishbowl.com that comes out every three weeks and I write book reviews for Newsday and Kirkus Reviews. I don’t have a big book project going or anything but if one comes to me, I’ll be thrilled.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

Let me start with some things I am not so good at. I am not good at walking and I fall down a lot, so as you can imagine I also suck at sports. I’m not so great at driving, either. I never remember to moisturize and am not skilled at putting on makeup. I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets. I don’t have much patience. I am not much of a gardener.
On the plus side, I can do a nice, long headstand.

Do you have a thought that you’d like to end with?

From William Saroyan: The most solid advice…for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.

Want smart and funny? Download Guesswork, Marion Winik’s irresistible collection of essays, only from Shebooks!

Originally published May 2014

Shebooks on NPR! | Listen

Lisa Morgan of WYPR’s The Signal chats with two Baltimore-based Shebooks authors, Jessica Anya Blau and Marion Winik, about Shebooks. This truly is the future of women’s e-reading…

Looking for short, fun, immersive reads? Try Mating Calls, Jessica Anya Blau’s smart and sexy short story duo, or Guesswork, Marion Winik’s collection of witty essays, only at Shebooks!

Nine questions about sex with Jessica Anya Blau

An Interview by Marion Winik

Jessica Anya Blau, author of the best-selling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, recently came out with a sexy new Shebook titled Mating Calls. Here Blau sits down with former NPR commentator and fellow Shebooks author Marion Winik (Guesswork) for a quick and dirty interview.

blau

Why do you like to talk about sex so much?

Well, I didn’t realize that I like to talk about sex so much. I like talking to people. I’m interested in people. And sex is a lot of who they are. So I’m interested in that.

Yes, but you seem to turn the subject to, say, labia, much more frequently than other people I know.

No, I don’t! Do I? But, really, aren’t labia way more interesting than, say, the water commissioner? Or…people’s kids’ lacrosse tournaments?

OK, if you’re not obsessed, then why “The Six Question Sex Interview”? You could be asking people about their protagonists and their metaphors and their literary influences, but instead you’re asking them about their orgasms!

Well, that wasn’t deliberate. What happened was I was interviewing James Magruder, who wrote a hilarious novel about growing up in the ’70s as a gay, horny, kid. And—

Sugarless! I just bought my third copy! I keep loaning it to people who don’t give it back.

Right, it’s a great, funny book. And when I was interviewing Jim, the subject kept turning to sex, and somehow it worked its way to a story he told me about being a young gay man and having some guy stick a candle up his ass—

Because Jim Magruder is that rare person who likes to talk about sex even more than you do. He’s told stories like that candlestick one in front of my kids at the dinner table!

Ha ha! OK, yes, so he’s willing to say anything anywhere. And I’m always willing to talk about other people’s sex lives. I don’t talk about my own sex life because I’m sort of shy about my personal life, and I have two kids. Anyway, I finished the interview with him and I titled it “Six Question Sex Interview with James Magruder.” The editors loved it and have kept it as a regular thing on the Nervous Breakdown ever since.

The Wonder Bread Summer begins, literally, with a large, exposed penis. I’m sure most readers will wonder, as they did with the ickier sex moments in your previous works, if there is an autobiographical basis for that. Did that, or anything like that, ever happen to you? How have you handled unwanted or scary male attention in your own life?

The opening scene happened in some version to me. I was working at a little boutique on the Oakland-Berkeley border, and as the summer progressed, I eventually realized that the boutique was a front for cocaine dealing. The owner of the shop seemed like a nice, cool guy. He dressed exquisitely and he wore a beeper. At some point in the summer he started pulling out his dick. No one was ever in the store, so he’d just unzip his slacks and whip it out.

It was sort of terrifying, and I was only 20 and wasn’t sure how to respond. He liked to talk about his dick while he was holding it out, and since I wasn’t sure how to act I did stupid things like laugh and say, “Oh, you should put that away because customers might come in.” You know, silly things like that. I found that from puberty on, there was a continuous stream of attention like that that I never quite knew how to handle.

It was a different time. We weren’t raised with the “unwanted touch” lessons that my kids have had. And it was rare to report that kind of stuff. I think that most women of my generation and all the generations above mine dealt with this stuff for a number of years. You deal with it until you become wise enough to look someone in the eye and reduce their power, their power over you.

So you’ve pretty much always been able to neutralize the ray guns?

Well, no, I was always fumbling and terrified, and I would laugh or make a joke or something. I mean, there was the teacher in high school who pushed his hard-on into my ass before class started and whispered in my ear, “I can’t wait until you’re 18, Blau.” I rushed away and never came to class early. And there was the teacher in college who showed up in my room when I was in bed sick and lunged at me on the bed, and I pushed him off and said something about having bronchitis or being contagious, oh and something about him being married, and he said, “My wife doesn’t mind!”

There were the numerous penises that came out—a housemate’s brother’s, for example; while talking to him alone in a room, he just whipped it out. I remember that it was extraordinarily pink. And he was a great-looking guy, someone I probably would have hooked up with until that moment. When he pulled his dick out, I just laughed nervously and then lied about having a boyfriend.

My God, there was the guy who delivered pizza to my friend’s house when her parents were out of town when I was only 13. He was 24 or 25. He sat next to me on the couch and whispered in my ear all night, and I was terrified but transfixed. He used words I’d never even heard up to that moment.

Eventually I did figure out how to neutralize these unwanted encounters. The people who do these kinds of things choose well; they don’t choose people who are onto them. And after experiencing and studying people for so long, you can figure out who’s who pretty quickly.

I can see how those experiences played out in the development of Allie, who has a sexually abusive boss and an emotionally abusive boyfriend. But, you also give her one off-the-charts amazing sexual experience. 

Well, yes, because great sex is great, right? She has sex with Billy Idol, and it is purely joyous sex. And he doesn’t force it on her, he asks her. And, of course, she says yes. Wouldn’t you? I think sex can be incredible with anyone who is genuinely interested in you as a complete person. Great sex is one of the biggest joys on earth. I mean, don’t you feel better and happier when you’re having sex? It’s a wonderful way not to think, a way to eliminate neurosis and self-centeredness, eliminate the me me me me me from your consciousness. It’s great to be out of yourself.

Yes! But does great sex have to be with a rock star? Doesn’t great sex make us all rock stars?

Absolutely! And when you’re in love, the person you’re in love with is like a rock star. In the book, Allie has great sex with her boyfriend before he dumps her. But that sex is in the past—it happened before the start of the book, she only remembers back to it. Maybe the best thing about sex is that it is all equal. There’s nothing about being a rock star and going on world tour that makes you any better when it comes to sex. What’s wonderful about Billy Idol and Allie is that they both see the experience for what it is. She has no illusions of running off and marrying him, and he has no illusions of being worshiped. Yes, she’s starstruck at first, and even during the event, but each of them is coming to it in a totally genuine and honest way.

This interview originally appeared on the Nervous Breakdown.

 

Jessica Anya Blau is author of the Shebook, Mating Calls

Mating Calls

Shebooks: A Love Story

Shebooks author Marion Winik sits down to interview Shebooks co-founder and editorial director Laura Fraser about her past, her passion for publishing and the impending Shebooks revolution.

 

laura-fraser

I probably don’t have to tell any Shebooks readers that it’s harder than ever to publish a book through traditional corporate channels. And certain categories — like collections of essays — have become virtually extinct, a situation which affects me directly. When I started out telling personal stories as a commentator on NPR in the 1990s, there was a lot of interest in the essay — publishers were looking for the next David Sedaris. These days, though venues have opened up online for individual pieces, and we continue to see themed anthologies on various aspects of parenting, eating, divorce, travel, etc., it’s very rare to find a collection of essays between covers by anyone other than, well, David Sedaris.

This situation made me an eager recipient of last fall’s call for submissions from Shebooks — a new publisher of short e-books by and for women, designed to be read in under two hours. One of the categories they were looking for was collections of essays. Hooray! My first collection, Guesswork, eight essays circling the topics of memory and identity, was part of the launch group in December 2013, which also included books by Jessica Anya Blau, Hope Edelman, Suzanne Paola, and Shebooks co-founder Laura Fraser. Bestselling author of An Italian Affair, Laura’s Shebook is a collection of essays about Italian food called The Risotto Guru. Here’s our recent e-conversation.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me how Shebooks came to be? Last I knew, you were a memoirist on the love-and-pasta beat.

As a writer, I’d been increasingly frustrated about how there are fewer venues for long-form journalism, it’s harder than ever to publish long books, and top-shelf magazines like the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic keep ignoring women writers (70% of their bylines are men!). I was speaking at a journalism conference with my long-time friend and editor, Peggy Northrop–we’d worked together at Vogue, Health, More, Organic Style, Real Simple, Glamour, and other places where she’s been a top editor–when there was a panel of guys discussing the opportunities for long-form journalism with the short e-book model. I turned to Peggy and whispered, “It’s the same guys.” She whispered back, “Someone should do this for women.” And the lightbulbs went on.

I couldn’t agree with you more about the difficulties in traditional publishing, particularly for collections of essays. But is the short e-book model catching on? I’ve heard of Amazon Singles — but that’s about it. How do we know readers want (or will accept) these mini-books? Are they even “books” in the standard sense?

What initially made us interested in the short e-book model was The Atavist, which publishes one short e-book per month, and developed the model for creating a platform for long-form journalism in a world where there are fewer and fewer places to publish at a satisfying 7000-10,000 word length– a deep dive into a subject.

There was a huge need for the short e-book. What happened in the publishing world is that magazines devalued themselves by charging only $9.99 a year, or something far below production costs, in order to boost circulation and sell the numbers to advertisers. Consumers got used to paying next to nothing for journalism. The Internet, of course, made that situation worse, with places like the Huffington Post that pay zero, nada to writers. So people are used to getting short content for free. Meantime, there are fewer and fewer places to publish long-from journalism–the feature wells in women’s magazines are shrinking, great magazines like Gourmet have been put out of business (because that $9.99 model was not sustainable in a recession, as advertisers fled), and then, of course, the top-shelf magazines publish 70% male writers.

However, people will still pay money for a book. So the short e-book is the way to sell long-form journalism, short fiction, novellas, and collections of essays. Plus, with more and more of us reading on mobile devices, it’s a satisfying length. We’re all so busy that it makes sense to read a short e-book sometimes, particularly on a mobile device. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to curl up in bed with a long novel, but it’s great to read short e-books when you have less time.

Also, as someone who teaches writing, I can say that many memoirs ought to be about 100,000 words shorter than they are. People have great stories from their lives, but not necessarily stories that are long enough to be published as books. So you get a lot of really padded memoirs. Why not trim them down to a fast-paced, great read?

I certainly agree with that. Often even very good memoirs are just too long! The Liars Club – too long! great, but too long! Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – you too!

Looking at the launch group of Shebooks, I believe I see five fiction and six memoir/essay collections — no long-form journalism yet, right? What can we look forward to here?

We have a few long-form journalism pieces in the works, but it takes more time to develop these stories. We’re hoping to partner with some groups that fund investigative stories on issues that affect women, and we are actively soliciting more pieces.

For now, Shebooks are selling for $2.99 each. How will it work once the subscription model kicks in, and when will that be? This part is just as revolutionary as the short books — can you tell us how you came to this idea?

We come from the magazine world, so we know subscriptions are a good business model. Women are used to subscriptions to all kinds of things, from Weight Watchers to Bacon of the Month, and it makes a lot of sense for books–you can always have as many as you like at your fingertips, to browse when you’re getting on a plane or looking for something to read before bed. Our subscription service will be up in spring.

How will Shebooks compete with regular books for bestseller status? Or will they?

We’re a completely different publishing model. It’s kind of like how is the artisanal ice cream company that sells organic fig ice cream with walnuts or salted dark chocolate ice cream with almonds going to compete with Haagen-Dazs vanilla? There’s room for both, but some customers are going to become addicted to Shebooks because they’re so darn good. We’re all about quality, and about commissioning the best women writers out there to write original stories that you can’t get anywhere else.

We’ll create a little boutique reading environment in our reading app where you can go, close your eyes, and pick a book that you know will be a good read. We have years and years of experience in knowing what women like to read, understanding quality writing, and we’re bringing that to readers who crave it and don’t have the time to go through everything on Oyster or Amazon or ScribD to find it. We’re also providing short reads that fit women’s busy lifestyles. If you’re boarding a plane and want something to read from Chicago to Cleveland, just turn on your device and you’ll have plenty of great reads to choose from, and you really can’t go wrong.

Thanks, Laura. It will be fascinating to watch all this unfold — and how cool to be part of the avant garde.

This interview originally appeared on TheNervousBreakdown.com http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/mwinik/2014/01/interview-with-shebooks-editor-laura-fraser/