My interview has been wiped away by time (that’s OK), but I liked the little paragraph I wrote ten years ago on Bloomsday, so I decided to reblog it now. Today I was able to retweet a pic of Joyce and Nora on their wedding day in 1931 (15 years after they met) and point out that Nora was wearing a cloche hat!
Being interviewed is a scary thing. The folks at 1st Author Interviews made it totally easy for me to answer some questions about my writing process and my recently published novel The Leaving. I think they did a great job. Take a look:
To all fans of Irish writing and Joyce… Happy Bloomsday. I still remember reading Ulysses for the first time, sitting in tall grass in a hot back yard in Sacramento, playing hooky from random classes at Sacramento City College during a long summer before returning to start college in Ireland. When I finally got to rereading Ulysses in college a couple years later, it wasn’t as much fun, even though our class did have Prof. David Norris, a flamboyant gay man and enthusiastic Joycean, interpreting it for us. The first time really swept me away.
Pride comes but once a year! This month we are emerging from a pandemic. It feels like we ought to be joyous and yet there is more anxiety in the air than joyousness, for the most part. (Although on June 1, when #PrideMonth started trending on Twitter, it felt great!)
To my dismay, I found out that a nice woman who particularly loved my lesbian historical novel set in Ireland, Time of Grace, and wrote to me about it a few years back, died of Covid last spring, along with her partner. She was a therapist in the Santa Cruz area and even a Facebook friend, but she slipped away without notice. This just seems incredibly wrong, somehow. I remembered that after our conversation I sent her a couple of signed copies of Time of Grace, and feel glad that I at least did that! I would not have discovered this had I not visited her page on her birthday, which just passed. A cousin of hers stopped by to let people know what had happened. There is no obituary, no trace of her on the internet. Her name was Ann Sisk.
On to happier matters. While I’m here, I wanted to mention a couple things in book news this month. First of all, the ebook version of Time of Grace is 50% off over at Smashwords for June, the only book sale I have going at the moment. (More to come in July with the Summer/Winter sale, of course.)
Meanwhile, Connecting the Dots: My Midlife Journey with Adult ADHD is on a monthlong promotion in audiobook format, so for the first time it is only $1.99 at three platforms: Google Play, Nook Audiobooks, and Apple Books! If you want to learn about women and inattentive ADD in a short audio, narrated by Daniela Acitelli, that only takes an hour… this is the time to do it!
It looks like we are fogged in here for the month of June in San Francisco. However, today the sun peeked out. Suddenly everything got a bit better!
Stay safe, everybody… and let’s hope we can ease back into “normal life” post-vaccines with a little more awareness. Perhaps we can even be nicer to each other.
You can’t keep a bad man down. That’s what sprang to mind when I read on Twitter yesterday that Blake Bailey’s infamous biography of Philip Roth, unpublished by Norton, had been picked up by Skyhorse Publishing and will be rushed to print in June. Apparently, the cover image is going to be the same.
But it’s really Bailey who proved himself to be infamous, not Roth. This contorted scandal had the literary world in knots last month. Shortly after reviewing the Roth biography and then learning about the scandal with what seemed like lightning speed, I wrote a piece that didn’t get published. (It’s somewhat self-revealing, as well… I think we’ve all had to examine our motives about this.) Bailey was someone from my generation, older than me of course, but due to my close and appreciative reading of his work I felt I knew him. However, as it turns out, I didn’t.
So here is what I wrote:
The Blake Bailey scandal whirled up out of nowhere last month. For me, that is. To the girls who he’d cozied up to at Lusher, the New Orleans magnet school where he taught in the 1990s, and then later harmed, Bailey had apparently been a subject of agonized interest for many years, as they followed his career while the memories of what he had done to them swirled inside their heads. And then there was Valentina Rice, the sweet-faced publishing executive he allegedly raped in 2015 while staying at the home of Times book critic Dwight Garner. He was the golden boy by then, writing Philip Roth’s biography, secure in his role. He must have thought he’d get away with it all. What I didn’t know, and what he carefully doesn’t divulge in his revealing, horrifying memoir The Splendid Things We Planned—which I read and loved back in 2014—is that Bailey is married to a psychologist. Perfect, I thought when I discovered that, just perfect. The perfect irony!
I’m an outsider to the scandal, but in a way I was Bailey’s ideal reader. I loved his big, early biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, because they told stories of literary fame and fortune, sexuality, and human wreckage in such an interesting, empathetic way. I didn’t love Farther and Wilder (2013) quite so much, though I bought it in hardback. It’s the story of a melancholy character called Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend in 1944, and was a severe alcoholic and (married) closeted gay man all his life. Having just re-read TheSplendid Things We Planned, supposedly the story of the downfall and death of Bailey’s alcoholic, mentally ill brother, Scott, I see with a shock that Bailey wrote his own youthful alcoholism into that story too. He just wasn’t crazy. He was clever, calculating, and sane.
In the memoir, his own father accuses him of being a serious alcoholic at one point, his stepmother turns away from him in disdain… Bailey covers all this with what seems like transparency. But he is the only “good son” that his mother has, and so he tries to protect her from Scott’s abuse—by the end of the book he’s become the rescuer, the protector, the survivor. The stable one, by default. He has played many roles, hasn’t he? Mentor, too. The 13-year-old girls he was writing loving mash notes to in the 1990s don’t appear in this memoir, though. He had moved on. He’d finished with the grooming part and he’d completed all the “seductions” (as I’m sure he thought of them) that he could. It still astonishes me to imagine Roth reading this wild family history toward the end of his life, as he must have, chuckling dryly.
The funny thing is, I always assumed that Bailey had a secret life, or rather it flitted in and out of my brain every time I read his work. But my assumption was that he was interested in men, since he tackled male bisexuality with such compulsive interest and seemed eager to analyze such relationships. But perhaps this was a cover, too. He grew up around gay men in 1970s Oklahoma, where his bored expatriate mother, Marlies, the daughter of a German psychiatrist (!), needed some cultured company and got it where she could. There’s nothing wrong with growing up around a group of gay men—it must have been nice—but it certainly might have given Bailey a skewed idea of what it was to be a man, particularly as his distant lawyer father wasn’t home much and seems to have had his own demons that he cleverly hid. I guess I always wondered if Bailey would “come out”—the irony! Well, it’s been an alarming outing, all right. Now we see the narcissist who plied his young female students with Lolita and flattery, and read their private journals. They loved him because he paid attention to them. And me? I loved his work because I thought his ironic sensibility and tolerance for damaged alcoholic literary figures was remarkable.
And then this obsessiveness on Bailey’s part collided with a man who was still very much alive and bent on shaping his own legacy—Philip Roth (Philip Roth: The Biography, W.W. Norton, 2021—copies no longer available from the publisher). And here we see Bailey making mistakes. Under cover of Roth’s strong personality, the real Bailey peeks out, the one who had been a frat boy at Tulane. He’s openly contemptuous of Roth’s first wife, Maggie Martinson, a divorced waitress, who died tragically; he’s quietly scathing about Roth’s famous second wife, actress Claire Bloom. He’s happy to narrate story after story of Roth’s womanizing. Could he have glossed over it? He could, but it seems to me that he wanted to chew over what Roth got away with—which was a lot!
There are tiny hints of Bailey’s trademark empathy even here. He treats Roth’s older brother Sandy rather tenderly: an anxious man who wanted to be an artist but never quite made it, and married a “plain” young woman he felt sorry for, who died later of ovarian cancer. He treats Maggie’s confused young daughter “Helen” gently too, at least giving her a pseudonym. He likes the underdog. Philip Roth claimed to, as well. Yet Roth’s angry sense of entitlement comes through all too clearly—as does Bailey’s, in the stories that his Lusher students tell about him. His neediness for their attention is all too clear. Later, when he taught writing at the college level in Virginia, his students and peers found him negative to a fault. Like many men, he went into teaching for the wrong reasons and should never have been one, but it’s easy to say this now.
I grew up among academics. This is probably why I fell for Bailey’s work. For the past couple weeks I’ve been conflicted over the negative stories, the alarming headlines, his two books with Norton being canceled and delisted from Amazon. For a writer, what a nightmare! It’s a horror when something like this happens to someone you like… and I’m not the kind of person who has many questionable male friends to whom I give the benefit of the doubt. I did think Blake Bailey was solid, for whatever reason. When I read Eve Crawford Peyton’s harrowing story, though, I realized that this is really the last word I need to read on the Bailey affair. (Note to Bailey: perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to rape your most brilliant former student a month before her wedding.) I’ve taken down my review of his Roth biography, which I wrote just before this scandal exploded, and I won’t buy any of his books again. I don’t know what his future holds: A divorce? A suicide? A stint in rehab? A long, drunken decline? In America, you fall fast and then bad things happen to you. I know from his memoir that he’s terribly concerned about his image, so this fall from grace must be absolute hell for him. And yet, here’s the kicker, the thought that he probably savors: he almost certainly won’t be brought to justice for the crimes he got away with, because in America in 2021, women’s lives and bodies still don’t matter that much.
When I was young, as a queer teen in conservative 1980s Ireland, I remember obsessively reading biographies of Oscar Wilde. After Wilde’s own career-destroying scandal broke in 1895, the Reverend John Mahaffy, the provost of Trinity College Dublin (both Wilde’s, and my own soon-to-be alma mater, as it happens) declared firmly, “We no longer speak, sir, of Mr. Oscar Wilde.” Chilling, I thought. That was the last straw, for him, a man who’d liked (indeed, mentored!) Wilde as a brilliant student and tried to help him, sending him on to Oxford to greater things. I thought it was awful, disgusting, that most of Wilde’s old friends and acquaintances distanced themselves from him, before and after prison. I was younger and more naive then. I understand now just a little bit of the horror they must have felt at this sudden glimpse into a sordid reality they did not want to contemplate.
Occasionally, I will pick up a library book (and I vow to do this more, post-pandemic). I wanted to review a striking, mostly forgotten novel by 20th-century English author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), whose long life spanned almost a century and who was a committed Communist, in addition to being a musicologist, a feminist, and a lesbian in a long relationship with another woman, Valentine Ackland. Unlike many “political writers,” Townsend Warner writes with great sophistication and elegance. Her work seems to owe a loose debt to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Joseph Conrad—and I believe she ought to be placed along with them rather than considered a minor novelist. (Penguin is reissuing new editions of all of her books in England, so perhaps this will happen.)
The Penguin UK cover of ‘Summer Will Show’ is very different from the NYRB American one, but equally valid!
Summer Will Show (1936), Warner’s historical novel of the French revolution of 1848 that transcends its genre, is split into four parts, and I found them very different as I went along. I struggled with the first part, where the unlikable young aristocrat Sophia Willoughby loses her two children to smallpox; then, once she gets to Paris, I started to become interested. Sophia’s estranged husband, Frederick, proves to be an astonishingly shallow and contemptible character, but at first one barely gleans this from the elegant, elliptical prose that seems to hide as much as it shows. I was reminded again and again of Henry James (and perhaps Joseph Conrad) by the indirect telling and “showing.”
Warner had a wild talent, but a cold view of human nature, so this book seems far more interested in the sights and smells of shabby mid-19th-century Paris than any kind of idealistic portrayal of comradeship or love. The revolt isn’t coherent, it’s a mess. Sophia’s relationship with Frederick’s older bisexual Jewish ex-lover, Minna, is also messy, but we’re to understand that it’s the only taste of real happiness she’s ever had. The final scenes are breathtakingly suspenseful and agonizing, as the women are torn apart at the barricades. I am not convinced by the very last scene, but I do believe that Sophia has found her place in the world.
By putting two women in love at the center of a novel ostensibly about political tumult, Warner was doing something revolutionary, and she must have known it.
I was thrilled to see on Smashwords that three of my ebooks had sold to the Sacramento Public Library via OverDrive. OverDrive has been around since at least 2014 and is a distributor for libraries to purchase ebooks. As far as I know, all you need to do if you can’t find one of my books in your library catalog is locate the ISBN on the book listing and request a librarian to make the purchase. They very often will! I recommended my lesbian historical novel Time of Grace to the San Francisco Public Library this way, via an online suggestion form, and they purchased it for the system. (You can also browse the Overdrive site itself, where all my books appear. You can plug in your local library and see if they have my books. And here are instructions on how to borrow right from OverDrive. It’s funny that as a devoted author and reader of ebooks, I’ve yet to actually borrow one.)
I decided to check the Sac Public Library site and here is their catalog page for me. The ebooks are available in either Kindle or epub format. Pretty cool. My latest book, Once You Are Mine, seems to be appearing in a few libraries right now! Perhaps that’s because it had a BookBub promo in April.
And audiobooks? I currently have two out there. Connecting the Dots: My Midlife Journey with Adult ADHD is my top-seller. It’s available widely, both in retail outlets like Chirp (only $5.99) and Google Play, and via Audible, where it can be purchased with your monthly credit. You can get it via Bibliotheca as well, or Scribd, to name a few. Or newer mobile outlets like Bookmate. Sadly, the audio version of Time of Grace is only available on Audible and Apple right now. I’d like to change that as time goes on!
Anyway, this longtime library-lover is very pleased to see her ebooks getting picked up by libraries here and there. Thanks to all the hardworking librarians out there, and to the readers who request and borrow my books!
This was what my kitchen looked like last month, with the fruit trees outside in the terraced back yard pressing in at the window. Things are greener now. The cedar waxwings are taking their last bites at the red berries on the toyon before flying off to parts north. I just wish it was less windy!
I have been very conflicted and upset by the Blake Bailey scandal, so much so that I wrote a short piece about it. It’ll either appear here or somewhere else. Because it’s so topical, I decided to submit it to a couple of places. Last week I thought about it every day. I removed my review of Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth that had briefly appeared here. It just felt right to do so, especially after reading Eve Crawford Peyton’s heartbreaking essay in Slate, “I Was 12 When We Met.”
Lastly, this caught my fancy today. Billie Eilish is featured in British Vogue and the accompanying article is really good! Just coming out of her teens, she makes some excellent points about how abusively teen girls are treated in our culture. One only has to think of Matt Gaetz’s and Blake Bailey’s recently revealed exploits to see that that is true. She’s highly intelligent, funny (I loved her “Ringo, what’s up?!” at the Grammys), and a true musical talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s queer as well, but that will unfold or not as time goes on. I like the way she simultaneously displays her intelligence and her sexuality in the photo shoot. (Plus, corsets are sexy.)
The Smashwords annual weekly sale starts today and runs through next Saturday. I have two ebooks on sale, A Knight’s Tale: Kenilworth, my medieval romance novel, and my latest contemporary M/M romance, Once You are Mine. They’re highly discounted! Check them out.
Reviews have been generally good and perceptive for Once You Are Mine, which I finished in late December 2020 and released into a still floundering—and politically toxic—pandemic world. One reviewer called it “dystopian fiction brought to the m/m genre,” which I found interesting. My view of the world may be too dystopian to write romance with strong heroes or heroines; I’m more interested in flawed LGBT characters who find enough strength within to keep loving the person they have fallen for. It is an internal type of journey.
An early reviewer touched me by writing, “This story grounded me. It reminded me of trust, hope, and the joy in all the little things. Thank you for this story.” Another reader found it beautiful and healing.
Some reviewers felt the love story strongly. Writer Gina Genovese wrote: “The main character, Alex, is a 20 year old man right out of jail, looking for a fresh start. As usual, West masterfully brought me into his world, and made me feel his struggles and challenges with an unnerving vulnerability. I grew to care for him more and more each chapter, and struggled with him as he reckoned with his past and made choices for his future. Without any spoilers, West did a great job expressing the passion of rushed love and the tidal wave of emotions that come with it.”
The big news is that we have passed 500,000 Covid deaths in the U.S.
The shocking thing is that I have not written about Covid since sometime last March. But that’s not too surprising. While the disease has not carried away any of my loved ones yet, it has been the backdrop to my days. I have barely been out of the house except to vote last November, and to grocery shop, and to go to the library once. With the news about the variants that are now quietly upon us, we have to live with the paradox of things seemingly improving (cases down, deaths down), while experts like Dr.Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics in Seattle, tell us that there is likely to be a surge, perhaps in the fall. He points to Peru as an example of somewhere that was hard hit, recovered somewhat, and then suddenly hard hit again. Will that be us?
With a sense of disappointment, I have observed two Democratic governors falling from grace during this difficult time. I wrote earlier with enthusiasm about Andrew Cuomo. His measured calm was a big help during the early days of the pandemic. He seemed to see the big picture. But did he? Now it appears that, while keeping his own elderly mother safe at home, he made the reckless decision to send seniors back to nursing homes while still recuperating from Covid—and hide the true numbers of deaths that ensued. Some 15,000 seniors died; families did not know that the governor’s actions had endangered their loved ones. He has recently been caught threatening an assemblyman who happens to be of Asian descent… in what is clearly not a first-time offense for him. Update: As of February 28, Cuomo has now been accused of sexual harassment by two women who worked for him. One, Charlotte Bennett, was only twenty-five and is also a sexual assault survivor. Her story sounds like textbook sexual harassment by a man she initially saw as a mentor. What’s clear is that Cuomo created a very incestuous working environment in Albany, where top female aides covered for him and normalized his verbal abuse and predatory behavior.
We want our politicians to be protectors. Sadly, they often seem to be most adept at protecting themselves, their image. California’s Gavin Newsom, who appeared so bright and nimble at the beginning of the epidemic, made an obvious blunder when he was caught dining indoors with a large group at uber-expensive restaurant The French Laundry in Napa last year. But what’s been more disappointing is how he has handled the vaccine rollout, and even his own Employment Development Department. He has stepped up in the sense that he has made himself quite visible at press briefings, but it’s become more obvious as time has gone on that no deep thinking has informed his decisions. Everything is done in a careless and slipshod fashion; in some cases, many thousands of innocent people have had to wait months for their unemployment claims to be reinstated at the EDD after their accounts were frozen (and billions, of course, have been stolen from the EDD due to fraud). Newsom has distanced himself from the chronic problems at EDD; after appointing a new director at the beginning of 2021, he simply doesn’t take questions about it now.
The vaccine rollout is another example of people simply wanting to know when they will get their shots. For a month or two there, the whole process seemed utterly compromised. Now, with federal dollars being poured into large vaccine sites around the state, there is perhaps light at the end of the tunnel… but there is currently an endless wait to get vaccinated for people who are under 65. (It has been astonishing and a bit of a wake-up call to see how much the State of California depends on federal money for any kind of effective programs.)
There is an ongoing effort to recall Newsom that is likely to qualify for the November ballot. I won’t be voting for that. I have endured too many Republican governors in my 30-plus years here! But I think some of us are hoping for a better Democratic candidate in 2022. Meanwhile in New York, Andrew Cuomo is in disgrace; he may have his emergency powers stripped from him. His story is one of hubris, whereas Newsom’s is one of ineptness and complacency: a nice man and a good performer who doesn’t have the leadership skills the job needs and over-promises by default. What he does bring to the table is candor and energy. Update: You can see an example of one of Newsom’s recent press briefings here—he’s in Southern California almost daily!
We will soon pass 50,000 deaths here in the state. Which begs the question: Has California ever had a woman governor? I don’t believe so—and I think it’s time.
I wanted to do a belated review of a memoir I bought last summer and finished late last year, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove, currently $4.96 on Kindle).
Hard to write a short review of this gorgeous book. I’ll say that what I got out of it most were not the reflections on Helen Macdonald‘s dead father, a London journalist, which were sometimes poignant but a bit fragmented, and not the protracted musings on the strange, unconventional author of The Once and Future King, T.H. White, though I loved them, but the amazing descriptions of the author, a young academic, training her goshawk, Mabel, in the Cambridgeshire countryside.
She can contemplate Mabel tearing into a partridge or rabbit, and it’s gripping. She runs underneath through golden stubbled fields as Mabel soars above, and most of the time she’s anxious about Mabel or sure she’s doing it wrong, but there is such a beautiful dynamism to these descriptions of what is left of the English countryside (quite a lot, as it turns out). I absolutely loved that part. I felt connected to the wildness and the archaic, obsessive absurdity of what Helen was doing.
After patient months of training, I learned, the goal is to fly the hawk free, with the understanding (though not the certainty!) that it will come back to you:
Flying a hawk free is always scary. It is where you test these lines. And it’s not a thing that’s easy to do when you’ve lost trust in the world, and your heart is turned to dust.
The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.
As she writes provocatively, “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all.”
I liked the steady care that she conveyed for Mabel, as opposed to the unhealthy power games that White played with his hawk, Gos, who finally abandoned him one stormy night. Helen, to be honest, seemed at times a somewhat miserable and neurotic person (although maybe less of an outsider than she portrays herself as), but nature has a way of bringing out the most authentic and, ultimately, powerful sides of us.
The book did take a while to read. Once I got into its rhythm, though, I was motivated to finish. I’m looking forward to reading more of Macdonald’s work.