UNDERWAY

WRITERS ANSWER:

What are you working on? What’s on your desk?

ROBERT OLMSTEAD

I’m working on a relentlessly bleak and terminally sad novel set in late 19th-century northern Quebec. Some days it goes okay and some days it doesn’t.

MEGHAN DAUM

As for what’s on my desk, seeds of both a second novel and a sesame bagel I ate weeks ago, a yoga class schedule I have never consulted, discarded pages of the screenplay adaptation of my first novel, The Quality of Life Report. Note to screenwriters: when you get to page 163, move the wastebasket closer.

STEWART O’NAN

I’m about two-thirds through a first draft of a novel about a woman who’s waiting for her husband to get out of prison. He’s doing twenty-five-to-life for second-degree murder, and the book follows her from his arrest to the moment she feels he’s really back home with her and the two of them are truly together again. So in a way it’s a romance that also follows her necessary and difficult movement from innocence to experience. Unlike prison life itself, which attracts tons of media coverage, being a family member on the outside is a hidden world, and because of that, I think the book has a large non-fiction component, realistically laying out for the reader what it’s like. So I’m doing a lot of research, talking with women in that situation and figuring out the arcane and frustrating ways of the New York State Courts and Department of Corrections. Another six or seven months and I hope to have a draft together. At that point I’ll show the manuscript to the women I’ve been talking with to see if what I’ve written mirrors their experiences.

HARRY MATHEWS

I’m revising a memoir of the early seventies: how I got stuck with a CIA rep and what I eventually did about it.

PAULA FOX

I am working on stories set in eastern Europe where I spent time right after World War II, along with some older stories. I hope to put together a collection.

JONATHAN AMES

I’m working on my new novel, Wake Up, Sir! It’s about two-thirds done, and is an homage—at least in my mind—to P.G. Wodehouse. An anthology I’ve put together of the memoirs of transsexuals, tentatively titled Sexual Metamorphosis—though The Book of Sex Changes would also be good—still needs editing work. And a collection of my essays is in the computer, dormant, with such possible working titles as: Everybody Dies in Memphis or I Love You More Than You Know. Also on my desk is Eric Bogosian’s one-man play Notes From Underground, which I need to learn since I’ll be performing it for the whole month of May at PS 122 in New York City, with Eric Bogosian as my director, so I had better not try to change any words.

LYNNE TILLMAN

I’m working on a novel called American Skin—on sensitivity and insensitivity, Americans, history, animals, friends, enemies, food, etc. etc.

RABIH ALAMEDDINE

What’s on my desk? Clutter, more clutter, and damn clutter. I have changed desks and continents (San Francisco to Beirut), but the clutter follows me. I am working on a novel, but have been stuck for a while. I have about 100 pages. I have the story, the plot, everything but the structure, and without structure, all I have is clutter.

PICO IYER

A few years ago, when America was basking in unprecedented prosperity, and computers were being hailed as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, I decided I needed to visit the poorest countries in each corner of the planet, much as I had earlier visited most of the countries covered by the Department of Treasury’s “Trading with the Enemy” act (assuming that they were the ones I would never hear about, or never hear truths about, at home). And so I went to Yemen, to Haiti and Bolivia, to Camdodia and Laos and Ethiopia and Tibet, and in the process went into strange and unexplored places in myself, jetlagged, 12,000 feet above the sea, light-headed and unsettled. This series of journeys into the subconscious, or at least into the areas of our lives where we lose all sense of orientation, and don’t know right from left (or right from wrong)—which stops off to meditate at a Zen temple with Leonard Cohen and to talk about suffering and hope with the Dalai Lama—should be out next year.

The real project that is consuming me now, however, is writing a whole novel in the voice of a woman (and seeing the world through the eyes of someone as different from me, I suspect, as an Inuit or a Nepali). A traveler, I always think, is someone who is not so much interested in exotic destinations, as in the pull of the unknown, and the mingled fascination of the Other. So my great adventure currently is voyaging into the other gender and trying to see the world I know from the other side of the bedroom.

AIMEE BENDER

I am working on an as-of-yet untitled novel from the point of view of a teenage boy. Violence, guilt, shame, glee? Disturbed kids on the brick wall, Nevada, debate club, animals. Germany, vice principals, plastic cubes and mayors.

ZADIE SMITH

My desk is covered with school work. I’m taking a class on Jane Austen and Henry James, and a class on literary theory. In between I’m writing a book of essays on the novel. The subtitle of the book is “Essays on Fiction and Failure”; the essays are concerned with the ethical impulse in fiction as I find it expressed in the 20th century novel. At the moment I’m working on the introduction and the first chapter. That’s about E.M. Forster. Basically, the book is a very gentle exploration of a suggestion of Iris Murdoch’s: That the literary impulse and the impulse towards the Good fail and succeed along similar lines. It’s an old fashioned book in that way; it suggests that elements of a novel that we would describe as aesthetic failures are actually ethical failures also. Some of the other writers in the collection are Kafka, Zora Neale Hurston, Updike, Vonnegut, Salinger, Kingsley Amis, David Foster Wallace. And there’s one poet in there as sort of epilogue—Philip Larkin. I made a decision to only work on the writers I love. There comes a point where it becomes exhausting to continue pretending that A Room With a View is not your favorite novel.

DANIEL HANDLER

I have a large desk. It used to be a doctor’s examining table, I’m told. On it are pages from a book I’m finishing which is somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. The book is about love, and accordingly there are some books I’m using as research, one on magpies and three children’s books about volcanoes, as well as two legal pads on which the book is being written. Also, there is a pile of notes and manuscript from the new Snicket book I’m working on, a copy of a play by Don DeLillo which I might adapt for film, pages from an index I’m rewriting (long story), a fax from someone about a new literary magazine, a small box I stole from my college library where I keep business cards, an iPod somebody gave me for Christmas, a coaster from a favorite bar (Would you believe?), a toy chimney sweep from my childhood, a bright red bowl of thumbtacks, a photograph of my wife and me, my computer, a Mexican folk-art triptych thing I use for holding paperclips, three paperweights, a metal can full of pens and pencils, four unsharpened pencils rolling around loose, a piece of paper with “Richard Thompson, mariachi band” written on it to remind me about something, a glass of water with no ice in it, a 1950s typewriting instructional tool, one more pencil which makes five unsharpened pencils rolling around loose, and the new double CD by The Clean, Anthology, which I’m really loving. Right now the song “Whatever I do is right” is playing.

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