I grew up in Denver, Colorado where it never failed to snow on Halloween night. Which means, most of my Halloween memories involve my brother and me, wet and miserable, tromping along in three inches of sidewalk slush, moping because we had to wear our coats over (or worse, under) our costumes. Again.
I still love Halloween. I just like it better in Florida.
And now, a word from our sponsors:
Last night I saw a TV commercial that caused such a reaction in me that I nearly snorted lemonade right out of my nose. Let me remind you, I spent eight years as an advertising copywriter, so this feat is nearly impossible. And yet, it happened.
The commercial opens with a man in his pajamas alone in his double bed, and he is WAY over on one side of the bed.
Then, we cut to the bathroom, where a lonely “HIS” towel hangs forelornly on the rack, the matching “HERS” towel apparently packed up by the former Mrs. when she took the kids and moved in with her mother. Then, we hear the voice of Mr. Lonely Towel Guy saying, “after the divorce, I didn’t know how I was going to get back out there…”
Cut (immediately!) to a scene after the man formerly known as Mr. Lonely Towel Guy has apparently discovered the miracle that is JUST FOR MEN hair color: he is cruising along in a jeep alongside a giggling Bikini Babe, his newly refurbished hair whipping in the wind.
After some time bouncing around on the beach, and a bit of frolicking with Bikini Babe where Mrs. Lonely Towel Guy used to sleep, it’s clear all of Mr. Lonely Towel Guy’s troubles are over:
The hair dye has actually healed the pain from his divorce, in just FIVE MINUTES!
Don’t you fret, towel boy, I’m sure it wasn’t your impending midlife crisis, or your incessant whining, or the fact that you left your toenail clippings under the recliner every Sunday night that caused the rapid decline of your marriage — IT WAS YOUR HAIR! The former Mrs. Lonely Towel Guy just couldn’t take it any more!
Good GAWD, when you marry a man, for better or for worse, till death do us part, the LAST thing you expect is for his hair to turn gray! Am I right ladies?
If only you’d discovered that little box of magic a bit sooner.
And the tagline? Stay In The Game! That’s right, brothers of Mr. Lonely Towel Guy, the only thing standing between you and a hot Bikini Babe is a $7.99 box of hair dye. I recommend “Macho Man Mocha.” It’s just your style.
But maybe I should give Mr. Lonely Towel Guy a break: He’s sad, his wife left him, he still can’t sleep in the middle of the bed, he has to use that damned “HIS” towel every day because his wife took all the good linens, and he feels like crap. Maybe he just needs a little pick-me-up-in-a-box and the love of a stranger to get himself through the night.
I hang my head in shame as I write this, as it’s dawned on me that for the first time ever, I have become a complete failure in all-things-Halloween. My house is bereft of festive seasonal decorations, we practically have to do scissor-paper-rock around here to see who is stuck having to go get a pumpkin that no one wants to carve, and the inevitable all-nighters that had been a predictable occurrence in my life on the eve of All Hallow’s Eve are now a thing of the past.
I should back up and explain. As a child, I was the ultimate Halloween—and especially Dracula—junkie. I went from dressing in adorable costumes my mother made me straight to ashen-faced, bloody-fanged, cape-donning vampire-wear, and I only sought to improve upon the costume, year in and year out, for ages. My favorite cereal was Count Chocula; I couldn’t get enough of the Munsters. And The Count, from Sesame Street? Of course he was my favorite muppet.
I relished Halloween, and even though I’m definitely a wimp with really scary things, I was fascinated enough with vampires to enroll in a class in college titled “Literature of the Occult” (and stayed up all night reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula because I was too terrified to go to bed). Yeah, yeah, my father—a rabid University of Pittsburgh alum—cited that class plenty of times as an example of the lame “basket-weaving”-type classes he claimed Pitt’s arch-rival Penn State offered its students. [Truth is he was just jealous he didn't get to attend Penn State].
My Count Dracula days continued well into adulthood, ultimately yielding to parental fatigue: with small children I no longer had the desire or energy to deal with costumes for me for Halloween—I was far too consumed with ensuring that my children had perfect outfits each year. The kids and I looked forward to Halloween for months beforehand. Each August we’d trek to the fabric store (which is a real test of one’s stamina, as fabric stores are usually understaffed and overpopulated with fellow overly-ambitious crafters at holiday time). We pored through Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue patternbooks in search of the ultimate costumes for each of the kids.
I’ve been sewing with varying degrees of success since I was a young girl. Trust me when I say you’d never want to wear something that I’ve sewn—that is, something that needs to be perfectly tailored and hug your curves in all the right places. But when it comes to costumes, doll clothes, things that have a lot of wiggle-room when it comes to need for accuracy, I’m your man. My son’s first costume was a penguin—an award-winning (well, from the neighborhood Halloween parade) outfit that yielded him a cute little Halloween book as a prize and me the confidence to one-up myself from that day on.
Each year and with each child, my costuming ambitions grew exponentially. To the point that I was pulling all-nighters to ensure that the kids had their costumes perfected in time for the big night. Occasionally wrenches were thrown into the plans: an earlier-than-usual Halloween party the kids would get invited to; seams that refused to meet; fabric I forgot to cut on the bias and so it didn’t give when they wore it. My youngest daughter’s Carmen Miranda fruit hat was a disaster—I practically had to follow immediately behind her while trick-or-treating to prop the heavy faux fruit up.
But there were lots of successful ones—a very complex 8-piece Power Ranger costume, the Tin Man (and let me tell you, silver lame is something you never want to run a needle through), an elephant, a panda, a Dutch girl, a princess, another princess, a witch (and honey, my witches weren’t your run-of-the-mill cheapy black fabric draped; that baby was an Academy Award candidate witch costume). There was a bumble bee, a plush dalamation, a furry yellow Labrador retriever (this the year our labrador died), a black cat, a geisha, a genie, a bunny, a wizard, a tiger, a Lego Man, and the inevitable poodle skirted 50′s girls. In all that time, only once did I bother to muster up a costume for myself—with spare dalmation fabric I rendered a mediocre a Cruella De Ville cape for a party we were attending.
The holiday seemed to take on a life of its own. Aside from the costuming frenzy, we bought and read every children’s book on Halloween ever written. We learned to raid the library long before Halloween and keep re-checking out books. Eventually pumpkin-decorating became part of the mania. We sought out elaborate pumpkin patches with corn mazes and hayrides and we purchased enormous pumpkins for each of us to carve into elaborate patterns that took, well, patterns (complicated ones!) to design.
I admit as the kids’ grew older and their Halloweening enthusiasm went from a full boil to a gentle simmer, I heaved a sigh of relief. Eventually the pressure was off of me to out-Halloween ourselves each year. Until this year, when Halloween has been all but forgotten.
To what do I owe my lax Halloweening this year? Well, life seems awfully full right now. Certainly no more so than when I had three kids under the age of four. But in a more expansive way, time-wise. We just bade farewell to two French foreign exchanges students we hosted, which took up much of my October. Collaborations for marketing/publicizing my novel are gaining momentum. My son is gearing up for college applications. My kids have loads of extracurricular activities that keep us away from home frequently. Plus I kept waiting till I cleaned the place to decorate it, and so far, that hasn’t seemed to happen…And while decorating for the occasion was always fun, the house did become awfully cluttered each October, and putting-away afterward was always an anti-climatic let-down.
Some day I’ll tell you about the birthday cakes I used to make for my kids. The roller coaster; the dogs (one with a patch over its eye to match the black eye my daughter’s best friend had given her); doll cakes (my own favorite—the cakes where the Barbie stood in the middle and her gown was made of cake); the Cinderella castle (that collapsed as I finished making it at 5 a.m. and had to be propped up with sticks I gathered from the yard and whittled the bark from so as to sanitize them–the things you do under the cloud of exhaustion!); the camping scene complete with marzipan campers; five little monkeys jumping on the bed (including facsimiles of our cats in icing). Yes, there were all-nighters involved. Often there were two cakes per birthday (one for the actual birthday, one for the party). Glutton for punishment? You bet. Overachieving mom? Meh. Maybe so. A lot of fun memories now that we can look back on them with the clarity of a good night’s sleep? You bet.
Despite my early vampire fascination, I never got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and totally eschewed the trend toward vamp fiction that was the craze the past couple of years. But I have begun to inch my way back into dracu-wear. I needed a cowboy vampire costume for a conference I attended last year. Strange combination, for sure. But I used it as an excuse to indulge my former fashion passion with my favorite color, and the result was a pretty awesome black satin cape with hot pink lining (what can I say? Red is so not my color!). Perfect with pink cowboy boots…
I look forward to repeating these traditions some day with grandchildren, if my kids will indulge me. Nowadays I’ll reserve my all-nighters for writing deadlines. But in the meantime, there’s still time to break out the Halloween decorations. After all, there’s still one day left until the Big Night, right?
I am thrilled to welcome Ellen Litman as my guest on The Debutante Ball today. Ellen is the author of the glowingly reviewed The Last Chicken in America. In the The New York Times Book Review, Maud Newton said, “Ellen Litman’s elegantly constructed web of stories about Russian-Jewish immigrants living in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh… is warm, true and original, and packed with incisive one-liners.” George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill and Steve Almond have also all lavishly praised her work. Ellen grew up in Moscow, where she lived until 1992 when her family immigrated to the United States. She earned her MFA at Syracuse, won first prize in the Atlantic Monthly 2003 Fiction Contest, was awarded the 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, as well as a fiction fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (that’s our connection. I met her at the Wisconsin Book Festival the year she was a fellow over a great dinner with Charles Baxter and Richard Bausch). Her stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007, Best of Tin House, Triquarterly, Ploughshares and elsewhere. She is now an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut.
In her post today, she shares a fascinating inside look at what happens when you read your work close to home.
When the Neighbors Don’t Love You by Ellen Litman
October is the month of spooky activities: haunted houses, haunted hayrides, trick-or-treating, playing with a display of battery-operated skeletons at your local Home Depot. Or, if you are a writer, doing a reading in your hometown.
In my case, the hometown was Pittsburgh — not my real hometown (that would be Moscow), but an adoptive one, where my family immigrated to in 1992. My parents have lived there ever since, and now I was going “home” to read from my first book, The Last Chicken in America, a novel in stories about Russian immigrants. I had set the book in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, and it seemed like a good idea to do a reading there. Didn’t all writers read in their hometowns?
The early reviews had been positive, and in my pre-publication euphoria, I somehow imagined the real Squirrel Hill falling in love with its fictional image – or at least showing up for the reading. Never mind that I myself haven’t lived in Pittsburgh in 12 years. Never mind that I rarely visited, or that when I did, I felt ambivalent at best. None of that occurred to me at the time. A reading was arranged at the Squirrel Hill branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, in the heart of the neighborhood I fictionalized. It was scheduled on a weekday, at 1 o’clock, and I kvetched to my publicist about this unfortunate timing, not seeing yet how this was maybe a blessing in disguise.
What happened next was, some angry former neighbors came out of the woodwork. They had read the book (or so they claimed) and decided they were in it. Therefore, they hated it. They hated me, they hated every character, and they hated the fictional Squirrel Hill. So much hatred! Really, it was just one Russian family — and most of them hadn’t lived in Pittsburgh in many years — but for a while they made so much noise with their semi-anonymous messages and threats, that it seemed like a lot more. Suddenly Squirrel Hill didn’t seem like such a welcoming place. My father said I should expect some angry people at my reading. (Did he know for sure? No, he said, he was just speculating.) My mother said they were just jealous.
Normally, writers want readers to identify with their characters. But it’s a little strange (and creepy) when the readers begin insisting they are the characters. True, when some of the stories were first published in magazines, my parents would play the game of trying to guess who inspired which character. And occasionally they would forget that it was fiction and say, “Wait a minute, you never mentioned that you didn’t like our house” or “You didn’t tell us about that boyfriend you had in Boston.” Then they would remember: Fiction!
I think all fiction, even the most fantastical, is inspired by reality. It’s inevitable. And in some cases it’s more obvious than in others. Were some of Jane Austen’s neighbors angry at her? I imagine so. Was there an actual woman that inspired Anna Karenina? Possibly. Does it matter? Probably not. Would we think any less of the novel if we discovered that in fact there was a woman Tolstoy based his novel on? That she lived and loved and in the end committed suicide? Perhaps there was more than one?
The point, I think, is that our experiences are kind of universal. People come to America and struggle to assimilate. Immigrants and Americans alike experience loss, sickness, disintegration of their families. Heartbreak isn’t unique to Squirrel Hill. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about publishing The Last Chicken has been the e-mails I got from some fellow Russian immigrants — people I’ve never met, people who’ve read the book and liked it and for whom it felt true.
But not everyone will feel that way. And that’s normal too. I knew, when I was writing it, that I could never accurately depict Squirrel Hill and the immigrant experience. (Besides, what does it mean to be accurate in fiction?) I knew I could only express what it had been like for me. On the day before the reading, as my father drove me from the airport, he said that while he read the book with interest, it didn’t represent the way he’d felt during our early years in Pittsburgh. Fair enough, I said. Maybe one day a book will appear that will represent his experience. Who knows, it might be already written.
As for the reading itself, none of the angry neighbors materialized. It could be because of the timing (1 o’clock, remember?), or because it’s much easier to send anonymous messages than to stand up in a room full of people. Or maybe – more likely – because no one actually cared enough. Which was all right with me. The reading went fine. People came (some Russian, some American); they listened; they asked good questions. They even figured out that my mother was in the audience, and she got to stand up and answer some questions as well. They made me feel at home. At one point, a cell phone rang and a woman proceeded to answer it and carry a brief conversation. For some reason she walked to the front of the room as she did it – I guess, she figured the sound quality was better there. Sure, it was a bit distracting and, um, weird. But hey, homes are supposed to be a little dysfunctional.
The debs are hard at work editing, copyediting, writing new manuscripts, waiting to hear on submissions, attending writer’s conferences and hob-nobbing with all kinds of important people. In other words, there is much deb news in the making, but none to report this week.
But, if you’re looking for something, Deb Jen has an essay on a regional NPR affiliate. If you are or have been a parent of a teen, you might relate…go here and scroll to the bottom, look for Jenny Gardiner and link where indicated.
Guest Author Series:
We are thrilled to have author Ellen Litman guest blogging on Monday October 29th. Ellen’s novel, The Last Chicken in America, was released this year to great acclaim and she is also the award winning author of numerous short stories, and an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut.
Renee Rosen’s fabulous book, Every Crooked Pot, has gone into its second printing. Yahoo Renee!
Sara Gruen, bestselling author of Water For Elephants, recieved the Carl Sandburg Literary Award this week. Congratulations on this great honor, Sara.
Author Eliza Graham, whose debut novel Playing With The Moon was released this summer, is featured in a great interview this week at www.literarymama.com.
I’ve never really been scared of things that go bump in the night. Sure, when I was little, I had the occasional paranoid conviction that something was lurking just outside my bedroom window or under my bed or in my closet. But somewhere along the way, life just ripped that fear out of me.
It’s actually the scariest things that ever happened to me that have made me primarily convinced I don’t really have anything to fear. When I was 21, living in Cambridge, England and home alone one night writing a story (by hand, just to date myself), I looked up and out the un-curtained window. I thought I perhaps saw someone out there but, since I’ve been nearsighted nearly my entire life, I’m fairly accustomed to thinking I see things I do not (or not seeing things I should). My glasses weren’t nearby at the moment which means I’d probably lost them, something I do fairly regularly. I told myself I was being silly and went back to writing my story.
I finished my story, which means that probably three to four hours passed and ten to twenty cigarettes were smoked. I looked up and still felt it was possible I saw something move in our back yard. I got up and walked toward the window, peered outside. Oh yes, there was definitely some movement going on but I couldn’t make out what it was until I pressed my nose against the glass and I saw…
A naked man standing there masturbating. Yes, in my back yard. When I was home alone. I yelled at him to go the hell away (conveniently, when I get scared, I get angry), grabbed my keys and ran out the front door to a neighbor’s, where I called the police and waited until it was light out to go home.
Then there was the time in high school (for no discernable reason, I’m telling this tales in reverse chronological order) when I was up in Lake Tahoe with two friends. We accidentally locked our keys to the house and car in the house. But across the street there seemed to be a lot of festivities going on. So we knocked on the door and asked to use their phone to call a locksmith (to those of us who wonder how we ever coped with anything before the invention of cell phones, this is one of those experiences that should make you grateful). Yet at that moment, they seemed like a lovely group of people — eclectic, to be sure, but friendly and happy to offer their pasta.
But it turns out they were happy to offer more.
Once we’d been there for about an hour (finding a locksmith on a Saturday night in Tahoe wasn’t as easy as you might think), the group suddenly made a circle around us, grabbed hands and started chanting. In tongue. I thought it was the end of my life, or at least the end of a life that was going to make any sense. But we ran out of there, called the police and begged them to knock down our front door, which they did. We drove back to Marin County clutching each other and screaming when we played Paul Simon’s “Graceland” (which had some chanting on it) tape.
My point is this: scary things happen in life, always when I’m least expecting them. And somehow my psyche seems to understand that spending time being scared of things that probably won’t happen is silly. I’m lucky enough to not have nightmares (of course, now that I wrote that, I’ll probably start having them). And I have a streak in me that seeks out the scary things — invades the personal space of the crazy person yelling on the street just to see what he’ll do, walks through the bad areas, spends six months helping the formerly homeless and incarcerated inpatients at a free rehab in downtown L.A. put on The Wiz (a production none of my friends would come to because they were too frightened by the neighborhood).
Things that go bump in the night? I say, bring them on.
I can remember one of the first times that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was young- I’m going to guess around 11 or 12. I was at the library and had gathered my weekly haul full of Choose Your Own Adventure books and possibly a Judy Blume or two. I was waiting for my mom and I wandered into the adult section of the library. I pulled a Stephen King book off the shelf- Salem’s Lot. Think Our Town meets Dracula. On a whim, I added it to my stack and went downstairs to check out.
Our hometown librarian was a serious woman with almost no lips at all that she would keep pressed into a thin pale line. She must have saved millions on lipstick. She took the books from me and then held out the King book as if I had handed her a warm bag of dog poop. “You don’t want this book,” she said. “This is a nasty book.” Instantly my desire to read this book grew by a factor of a thousand. I turned to my mom for back up. My mom took the book, read the back and then said to me. “This is a scary book. It’s all make believe, but it might be scary. Do you think you can read it and keep in mind that it is pretend?” I assured her given I was now a worldly wise age in the double digits, I could read the book without being scared. My mom gave her approval and to the librarians great dislike I was allowed to get the Stephen King book. I felt very mature as I walked out of the library with my first adult book. To think that I would be scared of a book. Words on paper. Made up stories. Pfffft.
That book scared the pants off of me. I can remember sitting up in bed straining my eyes to see through the dark as I waited for the vampires to come and get me. My ears were trained to a razor sharp awareness as I tried to tell if the sound I heard was the furnace turning off or the soft hot breath of the undead. I knew I couldn’t go into my parent’s room because I had told my mom I wouldn’t be scared. I would have to tough it out on my own.
I knew the book was pretend. I knew that someone, this King fellow, had made all of it up. How could he make something up, and make it so tangible that it felt real? How cool would that be? To make your own world and invite other people inside? To make them feel whatever you wanted them to feel?
In that instant I knew I wanted to be a writer too…. unless the vampires got to me first…
There was some talk of extending the topic of “being bad” just for me, since I had Amanda Eyre Ward as my guest last week and therefore missed a golden opportunity to reveal sordid details of my past and poke fun at myself for the sake of entertainment—mine and yours. I was eager to do so and had great plans for something funny, dark and maybe just a little bit deep. I was even going to incorporate this week’s topic, bump in the night, and tie it all up with a clever bow for you.
And then I saw Meg Tilly.
Specifically, I saw Meg Tilly do a reading from her new YA novel, Porcupine, in a funky indie bookstore, Type, in Toronto tonight.
I saw Meg Tilly read and there is no point trying to be clever after that.
Forget The Big Chill and Agnes of God and anything else to do with Hollywood, which Meg left in the dust long ago. Meg can WRITE! (I realize I’m behind some of you in this realization—I just found out.) Not only can Meg write but she is absolutely riveting as a reader.
I’ve been to lots of readings lately, some awful, some fabulous. Good or bad though, I’m always very aware of the author—aware of the author as a separate entity from their book. But Meg just…became her book. She channeled the book, filled the room with it, brought the entire world of her twelve-year-old heroine to us so vividly that I breathed with her, felt everything and heard the words as if they were coming from inside my own head.
This is the first reading I’ve seen where there seemed no barrier between the writer and the words, no barrier, even, between the words and the thoughts. It wasn’t about “acting” or “performing” or any of that stuff. It was grounded, instinctive and beautiful and it totally blew me away.
Porcupine has been released by Tundra Books and I urge you to run out and get it. And if you can somehow get Meg to read it to you in person, you’ll have trouble being clever for a couple of days, but it’ll be worth it.