Friday, October 22, 2010

An interview with Heddi Goodrich

So, Heddi, when did you first notice you were a writer?

Hmm, odd choice of words there, but hey whatever. Though it might be more accurate to say, ‘When did you first realize you were a writer?’

OK, so when did you first realize you were a writer?

Or, hang on, maybe you should put it more like, ‘When did you first understand you were born to write?’

Yes, that one.

Hmm, good question. Let me think. It was probably this one day when I was walking home from elementary school, for my mother’s sake avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, and closely inspecting the autumn leaves scattered at my feet. I had the sudden awareness that in my internal dialogue I was selecting the most sublime words I knew to describe the inherent beauty of that very ordinary experience of walking down the sidewalk. I also realized that I had been crafting this type of internal dialogue for as long as I could remember.

Wow, that sounds awfully serious. And yet so much of your writing is funny. What is your secret to humor?

Easy. Gogolian specificity.

Googlin’ what?

Never mind. I don’t really want to give that much away. In any case, in real life I’m not very funny at all. Just ask my husband.

Does your husband support your writing career?

Absolutely. He has supported me every step of the way. He supported me financially and morally while I was writing my memoir. Then, after my first fifty rejection letters, he supported my head while I was banging it against the computer desk.

Did you know then that your memoir, Lost in the Spanish Quarter, would be such a humungous bestseller?

I sure did, from the moment my first ever reader, my husband, was spellbound by it. He said it was the best thing he'd read since The History of the Celtic Empire. Then my mom read it. It kept her up all night. So I knew I had a winner there.

What kind of people do you think respond to your book?

All sorts of people, really. People who travel, people who love Italy, people who obsess over their exes for five or more years.

There are some quite scary scenes in it related to the city of Naples, where your memoir is set. Do you think you’re putting people off visiting Naples?

People are put off visiting Naples regardless of what I say. In fact, the fewer tourists go there, the better. Naples is already crowded enough as it is.

Your memoir is rich in engaging dialogue. Do have any advice for writers trying to keep dialogue authentic?

Four things. One, people don’t always talk in full sentences. Two, people don’t always say what they mean. Three, try to end the dialogue with a cliffhanger. And four…

And four?…OK, moving on. Do you have any tips for memoir writers out there?

Yes. Don’t get too hung up on the truth. Truth is for boring people with no imagination.

What is your next book going to be about?

I can’t give that away yet, but let’s just say the next book has something to do with an Italian woman named Rita, a lost umbrella and first kiss. But not necessarily between the two of them.

What inspires you to write?

Real life. Small things like the pattern a cup of coffee leaves on the table. The strange symphony of the birds, the lawn mower and the car alarm we’re listening to right now. The way your lips go a bit tight when you’re thinking of the next question to ask me.

They do? It’s probably just my lip balm; it’s a bit…astringent. Anyway, do you have any tips for people with writer’s block?

Always keep a notepad with you because you never know when the inspiration is going to hit. Or when your kid is going to hit you with a harmonica – the notepad is a good shock absorber, if you know what I mean.

What are your favorite books?

Well, of course, as a writer I have an extensive list of much-loved books with obscure titles you’ve never heard of, some of them written in a foreign language. But I will tell you that my very first literary love was a humble book called Stone Soup. You know, the children’s story where a stranger knocks on the door and invites himself in with the promise that he can make the host soup with only a pot of water and a magic stone. Then, of course, he asks for some potatoes to improve the taste, then some cabbage, then tomatoes and so on. What really strikes me about this captivating work of fiction is the historical perspective it gives us of the times in which it was written. Boy, people sure were hungry back then. Also, the story speaks to me specifically as a writer in that I’m a bit like that starving itinerant with only a stone in his pocket: I don’t really have much to offer but I manage somehow to cook up a very very large stew.

Clearly, you’ve a very well-spoken and talented writer. Do you have any other talents that you think your readers would like to know about?

I cook a wicked bolognese. I’m pretty good at sewing on buttons. I speak twelve words of Vietnamese. And I can curse like a truck driver in Neapolitan.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Happiness is...

I must confess I didn’t ever plan on writing this. This posting simply doesn’t fit into my plan. I have a list of topics to cover over the next twenty-two weeks and happiness simply isn’t one of them.

You see, despite my dishevelled hair and tattered boots, deep down I’m a very structured person. First of all, my socks always match. Secondly, every morning I drink my tea from the same cup with the little grey pussycat on it. Thirdly (OK, I’ll stop with the linking words here), I pack my son’s lunch to rigorously cover the four food groups in their correct proportions. When I walk into class, I come armed with not only a meticulous lesson plan but also a bag filled with items for every possible incidental: scissors, Blu-Tack, whiteboard pens in four colors, tissues, water, stamps, anti-aging cream, cat food. (You just never know.) And before writing, naturally, I plan out the entire structure of the piece, including the examples I’ll mention. As if that weren’t enough, I also secretly rejoice in the satisfying symmetry of my first, middle and last name all containing double letters.

Being structured may not sound like much fun, but it does give me the license to go with the flow, if I choose to do so, and now and again to completely let loose: to, say, eat Raisin Bran at lunch, drive barefoot, stay up till 10:00 p.m., or change the topic of this week’s writing.

The inspiration for this piece is the ‘Happy Prize’ awarded to me for writing excellence by the über-talented blogger Noemi from Tazzina di Caffè, the acceptance of which entails making a list of ten things that make me happy. Of course, it’s a daunting task to choose 10 out of the 143,000 things that bring happiness. So my acceptance speech for the Happy Prize will begin by getting out of the way a few of the most obvious happy-makers.

Happiness is...

1) …the sound of rain on the roof

2) …the smell of newborn puppies

3) …burritos

4) …not having to suck in your stomach anymore because you’re pregnant

5) …scratching a mosquito bite till it bleeds

As you can see, the list could go on and on in this fashion for an embarrassingly long time. So instead I’ll narrow down the remaining five items on my list to those relating only to writing or language.

Happiness is…

6) …structure. How else can you write a 185,000-word book in seven months while working part-time?

7) …the ‘undo’ button on the computer. It’s something I constantly forget is non-existent in real life; for instance, if you spill granola all over the floor, you actually have to get out a broom and sweep it up.

8) …learning new words you never knew you needed. Like Triones, apparently another name for the Big and Little Dipper. Or noctilucous, shining in the night. Or, in Italian, zerbino, the humble doormat. How is it that in my ten years of living in Naples, not once did I require the use of this term? Astonishing, because now I literally cannot survive without it.

9) …learning cool trivia from sanitary pads. The waxy strip protecting the adhesive on Libra-brand pads is printed with the most scintillating knowledge. Frogs never drink. A cow produces 40 glasses of milk a day. Chicken soup was believed to be an aphrodisiac in the Middle Ages. Clouds fly lower during the night than during the day. The great thing about these trivia gems is that you can drop one casually into conversation and when, thoroughly impressed, your fellow interlocutor asks where you learned such a fascinating fact, you can say, “I guess it’s just something I’ve always known.”

10) …my toddler asking “Happy?” He poses this ungrammatical but perfectly intonated question every time a character in a book or film displays any sort of emotion on their face.

My answer is usually something like, “No, he’s angry,” or “No, he’s sad,” having interpreted his question to mean, “Is he happy? What is he feeling?”

Or he might look at me endearingly and ask, “Happy?” after whacking me over the head with his toy elephant. I interpret this to mean, “Are you happy that I hit you?”

My answer is, of course, no. Then I pretend to cry.

But my favorite instance is when, after an elephant or gorilla beating or perhaps for no reason whatsoever, I get a big sloppy kiss – replete with suction, saliva and teeth – smack on my nose.

“Happy?” he asks me.

Yes, happy! Indeed, it’s children who teach us the true meaning of happiness.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Super SPLENDIDO new different approach query letter REVISED #16

“I know you’d rather I was dead. I’m hardly alive...”

Just like that. Out of the blue. The email she’s been waiting three years for. There’s no “Dear Rebecca” to prepare her, to soften the blow. Catapulted like that, her heart falters before beginning its slow hammering descent as she reads on.

Rebecca thought that running to the very bottom of the earth, New Zealand, would help her forget and move on. But three years of voluntary exile from her family in America and friends in Italy have been nothing more than one long silent prayer for this email. This veiled apology from the love of her life, Elio. The one who, at this very moment in the shadowy half of the globe, is probably succumbing to the fitful sleep of the guilty.

But was Elio alone to blame for the collapse of their seemingly indestructible love? Could their environment have played a part – the crumbling Neapolitan ghetto they called home? The Camorra-infested Spanish Quarter had been her drug of choice, far more enticing than the Moroccan stuff her fellow university friends smoked. She used to roam that labyrinth without the inherited fear of the locals, ferreting out all the cryptic customs and underground passageways with the same thirst she had for linguistics. It took meeting Elio, a geology major from the provinces, to understand that she didn’t really belong in Naples – not so much when he pointed out to everyone at that rooftop table that they were living next to one of Earth’s most dangerous volcanoes, but rather when his gaze met hers and splintered through every vein in her body. From then onward, where she belonged was with Elio. But until graduation could unmoor them from that mad port city, love was their only defence against its crashing ceilings, tremors, and washing machines thrown festively over New Years’ balconies.

Or was Elio’s elderly mother to blame? With that disapproving stare she fired from under her kerchief, even the chickens ran behind the farmhouse in a panic. Still, her threats to take away Elio’s inheritance – the land – seemed as much hot air as the Saharan scirocco. Should Rebecca instead pin it all on his spontaneously collapsed lung? It truly broke him, made him cling to her like a drowning man. Yet he still wouldn’t give up cigarettes. Could she blame, then, those Marlboro Lights he held so thoughtfully, like a pen, between his lips? Should she blame herself, for loving him too much?

“Dear Elio…” Rebecca writes back, triggering not only the narrative of their past but also a new heartfelt correspondence. Before long, their emails develop into something more than a mere search for answers. A brief reunion in Naples makes Rebecca understand they are indeed being handed a second chance. But should she take it and risk going back to everything she’s been running from?

While telling a true story of love and loss – in part through authentic emails translated from Italian – my memoir Lost in the Spanish Quarter paints a very real and intriguing portrait of an Italy much of the world is unaware of.

Originally from Washington D.C., I spent ten years growing up in Naples, where I earned an honors degree in languages and literature. I now live in Auckland, teaching English to polytechnic students and Italian to my toddler.

Please find enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for your prompt rejection. (Unless, that is, my kind blog readers can first provide me with some valuable feedback to make this query letter totally rock!)

I truly appreciate your time in considering my query.

Sincerely,

Heddi Rebecca Goodrich

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Unsquare my query letter

They say that to stir things up in life sometimes you have to “think outside the square”.

My house isn’t very square and, as far as I know, neither is my brain. Come to think of it, I’m not very square either, though I have been known to do some square things like write a thesis on the sociolinguistic aspects of political correctness. However, I’ve come to realize that the query letter I send out to entice literary agents is most definitely, undeniably, square. As square as a 52-year-old dad attempting hip-hop moves in a business suit at his daughter’s prom.

I’ve already rewritten my basic query letter fourteen or fifteen times, so much so that My Documents reads like an inventory of oven cleaners: Query Letter, New Query Letter Template, NEW New Query Letter, SUPER NEW New Query Letter, BEST Query Letter, Better Than Ever Query Letter, SUPER SHORT Query Letter, Different Approach Query Letter, NEW IMPROVED Query Letter, NUMERO UNO.

Writing a great query letter is a tough, demoralizing task. The general advice floating around out there is that your query letter should be confident, courteous, stylish, straightforward, bold, captivating, personal, professional, informative and witty. In one page. Trying to be all these things at once is a bit like attempting to do that yoga posture where you bend one knee and keep the other straight, square your hips to the wall and face the door, point one arm forward and the other back, tighten your pelvic floor, loosen your shoulders, constrict your throat and relax your face. In tight pants. (It is no coincidence that this pose, as yoga fans will recognize, is called the Warrior Pose.)

In addition, in your query letter you need to: provide a hook, summarize your book, provide its title and genre, state its word count, outline your main characters, show an understanding of your target audience, include a salutation and a closing, exhibit your writing style, state your qualifications, explain why you’ve chosen the agent, intrigue them, list your publications, follow the agency’s submission requirements, thank them, and knock their socks off. Still in one page. Which is a bit like being asked to do the Warrior Pose wearing oven mitts, with a cat curled up on your head and a tea set balanced on your bent knee, while you attempt to blow bubbles into an ice cream sundae through a straw in your nose. Naked.

But I don’t give up easily. I’ve torn up my old query letters (a metaphorical act, given the digital age we live in) and started afresh. This time, instead of trying to adhere to all those rules, I’ve tried to follow the wisdom of Madagascar’s Alex the Lion, who advises Marty the Zebra to: “Throw out the old act…Make it up as you go along. Adlib. Improvize. On the fly…Make it fresh.” That is, think outside the square. Be exciting. Be different. But still be, you know, cool. With this in mind, I’ve started writing a new query letter, which, after a mere nine and a half hours, is nearly complete.

Once I’ve added the finishing touches, I hope the only issue I’ll have with my new letter will not be whether or not it is capable of luring a literary agent but simply whether it should be called “NEW NEW SUPER BEST Different Approach Query Letter” or “My Query Letter Unsquared”.