Archive for February, 2010

Emily Gould Turns a Page

February 22, 2010

Emily Gould is a popular New York City blogger. She has a book, And the Heart Says Whatever, coming out in May. It’s a memoir/essay collection about, among other things, being a young writer in the big city.

Did you find it difficult to go from writing blog posts to working on a book-length project? It’s probably a generally accepted idea that everyone has their ideal writing length. Some people’s sweet spot is 140 characters and that makes them brilliant Twitterers or Tweeters or whatever the fuck you call it. And some people’s sweet spot is between 500 and 1000 words and that makes them a good blogger. And some people’s sweet spot is 70, 000 words and that makes them a novelist. I definitely thought of myself as a blogger. Not only that, but I thought that the more I edited something the worse it got. First-thought best-thought was something I believed in that turned out to be not true. Actually, it’s completely the opposite. I still do the impulsive bloggy writing, but I think of it as a different genre of writing that’s meant to be viewed in a different way.

What way is that? When you read something online it’s competing for your attention with every other thing that exists online at that moment. When you’re reading a book, you’re just reading a book. The choices in play are different. I think acknowledging that fact as a writer is going to result in different kinds of writing.

Did spending more time editing your work have a greater effect on things like word choice and sentence structure or on the ideas behind the writing? It’s hard to explain. When I read my book now I can see the cumulative effort that went into it and all the writing decisions I made. I really pared things down. I’ve been finding over and over with interviews that I can’t actually explain how I do what I do in any useful way. I do know that sometimes I’ll look at something I wrote when I was blogging professionally that I thought was really good and now I think it seems disposable. Blog posts are like turnovers: They’re delicious right when they come out of the oven but they pretty quickly turn into a desiccated husk.

Some of the places you wrote for had a very specific editorial voice. Has it been hard to find your own voice? That’s a really good question. I think I’ve actually always had a hard time fitting my voice into a house style. But it can be fun to have constraints. It makes writing like a puzzle — how can I do what I do within certain rules? But some constraints come more naturally than others. A friend of mine recently asked me to write a front of the book celebrity interview piece for a gay-ish style magazine and I couldn’t do it. It was too hard. It was a lot easier for me to just do my own thing. My own house style has superseded any rules that I was interested in.

You write a ton. Is quality control an issue? Yeah. I’ve been blogging a lot less over the past year. I don’t know if that has to do with working on a book and consciously deciding to do less bloggy writing. There’s a desire for immediacy that blogging satisfies for me — and I think it always will. That’s one of the problems with traditional journalism. I wrote a really long book review that I thought turned out well and there was a point after I’d been working on this thing for two and a half months when I was like, “I want people to be able to read it right now!” But then of course it wasn’t even going to come out for two months after I was done. It was this total blue balls feeling.

To what extent is your writing personality a conscious construction? I wish that I could construct a persona. I’ve talked to other people who do things similar to what I do and some of them very clearly said they were constructing an alternate self in their writing. I guess on some level that might make it easier to read negative comments about yourself. But whenever I’ve tried to adopt the attitude that my writing is being done by some other “me” it’s been really stressful. I couldn’t have a job where I had to do that all the time. It’s too exhausting.

Having finished a book, can you see yourself ever going back to blogging full-time? I don’t think so. It seems very been there, done that. I have a hard time keeping myself interested in things I don’t really want to do. If I can’t write about the things I want to write about, in the way I want to write about them, then I’ll make money some other way. There’s no point otherwise. It’s fun when you’re in your early 20s to prove you can get someone to publish your words, but once you get over that it becomes more about figuring out what’s important to you as a writer.

What’s the last creative thing you did? Wow. Last night, at around 1:30 in the morning, I got out of the shower and noticed that my cat had left a toy in the exact center of the bath mat — like a little gift for me. I thought, “Oh, you’re so generous and so thoughtful.” [Laughs] Thinking up that little scenario was the last creative thing I did — which is maybe a little embarrassing.

Sook-Yin Lee Says Yes

February 16, 2010

Sook-Yin Lee wrote and directed a movie called, Year of the Carnivore. I’m not sure when it’ll be in theaters. Soon, I hope.

She also hosts a radio show for the CBC called Definitely Not the Opera, makes music when she can, starred in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, and used to be a VJ on MuchMusic.

You get the idea.

You had to drum up the financing for your movie by yourself. Is there any way that the business end of making a movie feels like a creative endeavor? I can’t even pretend to know the business peoples’ areas of expertise, but the challenge for me is: “How am I going to articulate to them the elements of the film that I feel should be the ones to represent it publicly?” Things like, who cuts the trailer and designs the posters. The business people aren’t necessarily going to have the best ideas for those kinds of things. Actually, there are a lot of examples of posters that they came up with that I had to nix. I ended up presenting ideas to them that they liked. I tried to direct the way my movie is presented as much as possible.

Did you feel like you were taken seriously by the business people? I think so. But it’s funny, there is a perceived notion that the business people don’t want to try and deal with the creative people directly. The producer is the liason. I made the mistake of emailing people directly and my producer was like, “They don’t want to talk to you!” I didn’t understand why not. But I guess the idea is that sometimes what they have to say might piss you off and for the sake of maintaining a good relationship with the artist, they’d rather have a middleman.

Is it hard to accomplish the artistic goals you set out to achieve with a film at the same as staying open to other people’s input? I imagine you want to be somewhere between democratic and dictatorial. I wanted to maintain a sort of creative purity but also impose almost a military structure at the same time. I was pretty diligent about trying to get people to fully understand my ideas for various aspects of the film. I’d make files, almost like dossiers, that I’d pass out. They’d have lists of music I was listening to at the time when I was thinking about a character; photos of strangers who had hair I liked that I thought would be good for the character; clips from films I liked. I’d give these style guides to the key creative people who were working with me. I think they appreciated the direction. But I broke rules all the time. I’d be dragging furniture all over the set and people would be like, “Why is the director touching the props?” Because to them it meant that the propmaster wasn’t doing his job. But I was just trying to guide everything.

Do you come from a creative family? My parents lived through revolution and war and death in China. So that I think breeds some creativity. My dad is also a really great storyteller and loves acting. There was a point in his life where his sisters said that he couldn’t consider acting as a career and had to go into engineering. My mom’s creative too, but she never got a formal chance to express herself. She used to make these wood sculptures. She was an explosive person. I don’t think I would be driven to make art if not for having a sort of tumultuous childhood.

What was the last creative thing you did? I’m wrestling with it right now. Sometimes the creative process is pure pleasure and sometimes it makes me want to like, kill. I think my obsessive compulsive tendencies solely manifest themselves when I make art. The other night I was stumped by technology. I couldn’t get the computer to work correctly. I have this gorgeous handmade blue scarf and I took that — I was so angry at this machine — and I just wanted to strangle myself. I stopped squeezing when I could feel my pulse in my temples. I was writing a pivotal scene in the next movie I’m working on. It was an argument between a dead ghost father and the live daughter. It’s key. I’m sitting there re-enacting the screaming, the arguing, trying to come up with dialogue. It’s so easy to make arguments sound histrionic and stupid. I threw my computer against the wall. I felt like the shittiest screenwriter ever. Usually it’s more fun than that.

Gabrielle Hamilton Will Have Her Crow Now

February 8, 2010

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef and owner of a great restaurant in New York City called Prune. You should go if you can.

Do you remember when you realized that you had a knack for cooking? That you were better at it than other people? I never had any sort of a-ha moment. Cooking was not a discovered skill for me. I got chromosomally born into it. From birth I was saturated in kitchen life, kitchen chores, and a deep and close association with food — and with washing dishes. I have a French mom that could’ve been a cook for sure. She was not making shitty meatloaf, you know?

Where do your ideas for new dishes come from? Do you just wake up and say, “I’d like to make that?” Or are you thinking of holes that need filling on the menu or stuff that you feel confident will sell?? [Laughs] Are you asking if I make food based on concern for the customer? I make food based on my own cravings. I don’t invent anything ever. It always comes from somewhere in the universe; from somewhere in the idiom. I’m just singing the same love song as everyone else, but hopefully in my own voice. Can I go back to what you were asking about before?

Sure. I didn’t have any big moment where I realized I could be a cook, but I do remember having a moment in the 2nd grade. I was at school and we were carving pumpkins, and the way I was holding a knife, I was holding it almost like it was a paring knife. I remember looking around and seeing all the other kids struggling with their knives. I thought, “I know how to hold a knife and how to use it.” I was aware of having a weird skill set for someone that age.

Do you ever make something that turns out terribly? We just had a bust last night. We were trying to put something together and I was like, “This is not working.” I don’t know if you’ve ever clearned squid, but they swallow their food whole. It’s funny to pull an entire fish out of the body cavity of the squid. I thought, “That’s really funny, I should do that with a dish.” So I filleted a fish, shoved it back inside a squid with its tail sticking out, and fried it. It was fine, but then I got ridiculous. The dish also had stewed squid, the stuffed squid, and stuffed mussels. It didn’t work out. In the end only one component was really great. I did some editing. Cooking is a lot like editing sometimes actually. You get all the words on the page and then you weed out the crap.

You’re working on a cookbook right? It’s not a cookbook. It’s narrative. I’ve got one more edit left to go.

Do you see any similarities between the way you cook and the way you write? No. I’m a much better cook. I’m much more practiced. That writing stuff is so hard. God. I used to grimace reading my stuff over. I actually went to grad school for writing; at the University of Michigan. I had gotten there from a life in kitchens. I remember arriving and meeting my peer group and they were already deep in their writerly angst while I was thinking, “This is so awesome! We get to write!” I’ll eat my plate of crow now — it’s hard making sense of all that human condition crap. Then there’s getting your words right. And writing is isolating and cooking is all about being with other people. So yeah, I’m a much better cook.

What’s the last creative thing you did? It’s so mundane: I created some new desserts that are funny and quirky. One is a cold candied whole orange. You know how Chinese restaurants give you an orange for dessert? I can never eat fresh fruit after a meal. It’s counterintuitive to me. So I made a version that’s cooked. It’s a whole orange that’s been simmered and candied. It’s cold but not raw. I think it worked out well.

Levi MacDougall Builds It Backwards

February 1, 2010

Levi MacDougall comes up with jokes that are funny and thoughtful. Other jokes of his are thoughtful, then funny. Still more are both at the same time, but only if you turn them inside out.

He used to put on a weekly sketch comedy show that I would go to and laugh at — in a good way.

Now, when’s not performing stand-up, he’s writing for a TV show: Important Things with Demetri Martin.

Presumably, he does other, non-comedy related things.

Do you and your audiences agree on which of your material is funniest? Maybe 85% of the time they’re laughing at what I thought was funny, but how much they’ll laugh I find impossible to guess. The most interesting thing to me, though, is when people find a joke funny for a different reason than I did, or when they’re laughing at something that wasn’t part of the punchline. That’s exciting in a way because when it happens it feels like the audience and I are both discovering something.

Do you come up with jokes differently depending on whether or not they’re going to be delivered by you or told by an actor? The initial process is the same in that it starts with throwing a bunch of thoughts on paper and making sense of it later. The main difference in writing for someone else is the refining process. When I’m writing for myself there are no limitations. But the show has very specific limitations in that each episode has a theme. There’s enough leeway within that structure that I can usually fit any good idea I have into it, but it does turn into a riddle-solving sometimes. There’s more, “How can I make this work?” and a little less strictly joke writing. And for whatever reason, writing for the show, my writing tends to be more about volume. I’m just trying to come up with as many jokes as I can.

Do you tend to write the punchlines first? Pretty much. It’s rare that a joke falls into my head as a fully formed idea with a set-up and a punchline. Most of my jokes tends to start as a notion that I then need to contrive into a finished joke. A lot of the time I’m finding a way to make my weird ideas work within the standup set-up/punchline equation. I end up doing a lot of reverse engineering.

You work long days at the show. Are you still coming up with good ideas thirteen hours into your writing day? Working so long is kind of nice in a way because it reduces the pressure to be creative immediately. When you have the time to generate stuff, you’re eventually going to come up with things that you can use. One of the bggest problems I’ve had in the past is stopping before I give an idea a real chance. I’ve gotten better at writing anything that comes to me instead of cutting off ideas because I thought they were too stupid or annoying. That doesn’t mean all the material is better, but when I can just do enough work, something usable tends to come out.

How does the city where you live affect the jokes you write? Being in different cities definitely affected the comedy. The stakes have gotten higher in every city I’ve lived in. I can’t imagine starting in L.A. knowing that someone from NBC could be sitting in the audience. I was glad to start out in Calgary. There’s no sense that you’ll get discovered out there. I liked that. If you fail, it’s a whole new audience the week after. I think that’s a huge advantage. The ramifications of your jokes will go no futher than the show at which you tell them. I remember I was scared making the move to Toronto. I thought there’d be TV people in the audience all the time. But no one’s being discovered there either. I had a lot of freedom to develop naturally without wondering what other people who could affect my career might think. Hopefully I can fabricate that same feeling here in L.A. If I’d started out here I think I would’ve been distracted by idea that industry people who maybe had very different motives than I did for favoring certain stuff would be watching me. Sorry, do you hear something strange?

No. Maybe we have a bad connection. Are you in a convertible? A little roadster? It sounds like there’s some motion going on.

I wish. That would be awesome. I like the idea of you interviewing me while driving around in a convertible. Hey man, what ever you need to do to get into the right headspace. I can respect that.

What was the last creative thing you did? I saw a dog in the back of a cube van on the lot where I work and there was a sign nearby. I was entertained by the wording of the sign and I took a picture. About 11 minutes ago I put that picture up on my website.