Home      Q & A

What are the things that drive you crazy as a writer?

When an agent or editor asks me, why can't you write more like someone else...and they give an example of something they read and loved from 10-20 years ago. This is like a lover asking you, why can't you kiss more like my ex? Or even worse, "why can't you simply be my first love?" And I want to tell them, why don't you simply take the time to discover who I really am and what I can do?

Now seriously, I read an interview with Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft, and apparently it's something that happens in all the fields that require invention: "One of the things that drives me crazy," said Nadella, and I couldn't agree with him more "is anyone who comes in from the outside and says, “This is how we used to do it.” Or if somebody who’s been here for a while says, “This is how we do it.” Both of them are such dangerous traps." 

What are the things that drive you crazy as a person?    

Ever since I became I writer, I've been feeling in dire need of creating a pen name for my personal life, and I am not even famous. My writer persona makes my real life persona difficult on many levels: People read my works as detectives trying to find clues on who I am, when I would simply like to know if they liked what they read, as a story, not a confessional. They take invention as a veiled account of some personal story every single time. There's a high degree of invention in what I write, believe it or not. Others are afraid that I am going to write about them, while others beg me to write their story, and in both cases these are the people I have no interest in writing about. Even my potential employers dislike the idea of having someone who has such a strong identity apart from their job, especially since most normal people's identities are defined by their job. This is the reason why I've worked mostly for myself in recent years, although it gets lonely, and I often miss belonging to a larger team.   

How do you pick your subject matter?

I usually start from an idea, not a story. I leave the idea percolate in my mind for a while, and I start imagining how can I dramatize the idea...until one day it becomes clear (in my head) and I write it down. In doing so, I include many bits and pieces from real life and past experiences, but not in a linear way. I might create a character like someone I met recently, who interacts with a character molded on someone I briefly met or just saw ages ago. I 'percolate ideas' for a long time, but I write very fast: I wrote a full length screenplay  (Weekend at the beach) in only 3 days, My Life on Craigslist in only 6 weeks, etc... When it all clicks inside my mind, putting it on paper is easy. I hate re-writes, (because I like to focus on the next idea), but I have to do it. Hemingway said that first drafts are always shit. Yes, because they are just a sketch. After I put down the entire story (very important) I add layers on the initial thought, cut down the excess writing, and finally go through the grueling effort of copy editing. One of the most difficult things for me is finding beta readers who can give me an educated, valuable, first feedback. If anybody reading this wants to join my group of beta readers, email me.  

What do you think about the women fiction label?

First of all, I've noticed that men tend to like men's fiction because naturally, it better expresses their ethos, and women tend to prefer women fiction because it is molded on their emotions.

Both sides tend to disparage the other side, men more so than women because they have a historical advantage in world literature and had more access to education in the last 2000+ years. Women writers try hard to enter the 'boys club', because most juries, editors, critics, and decision makers in publishing are still men, so they tend to favor the style that they feel more comfortable with, male fiction, which is simply called fiction.

The first big big challenge for women writers is that each time there is love and romance in a book, and most novels have a bit of passion, their books are relegated to "chick lit" or "romance" category, which is a very restrictive realm, one that comes with lots of unwanted strings attached. This is a stigma and a publishing constraint that men who write about a love affair don't have to worry about (e.g. Philip Roth's "Dying Animal". Had it been written by a woman, the book would have been relegated to the 'romance' category, and taken less seriously by readers of literary fiction.)  

The second challenge once a book is relegated to "romance" (because there is some romance in it among other things): mainstream publishers will pressure the women authors to a tried-and- true romance formula, which is very confining for an authentic writer. Here's a rejection letter I received from a big publisher, which explains it all: 

Below is our Romance Criteria:

 ·        a heroine the reader can relate to
·         a hero she can fall in love with
·         an authentic world gets created, and you want to stay there
·         a "hook” we can sell with
·         the author has a career arc (meaning a plan for at least three works in a series)
 
Though Kitty is an interesting character, her many and varied relationships (not all of them wholesome), and the fact that she doesn’t end up “happily ever after” with any of them would make this very a hard sell for the Romance market.

Men writers and their men heroes don't have to worry about being wholesome and end their romances happily every after and about turning their book in a series if they want to land a big publisher. To the contrary! 

Here's what one of them commented about this (under condition of anonymity): 

"That's shit, you don't want to write books like that. It's like crap sitcom tv, trash trash trash. Escapism, no social consciousness, reinscribing stereotypes and norms, not a single original thought--just another tired attempt to imagine the ideal of liberal freedom for the everyman. No, you don't want to write books like that."

What can I say? We try, but the market wants different things from women writers. And many female readers who grew up with the formula, are expecting it too.  

What are some of your favorite books of all time?

Night by Ellie Wiesel, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Lolita by Nabokov, Gone with the wind by Margaret  Mitchell, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, the Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.  

Who are your favorite novelists:

American:  Nabokov, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chuck Palahniuk, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Jennifer Eagan, etc. 

English: Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, J.K. Rawling…and so many others.  

European: Thomas Mann, Maupassant, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Camus, Selma Lagerlof.   

Romanian: Camil Petrescu (The Procustean Bed) Radu Tudoran (The Prodigal Son), Marin Preda (Morometii) and Ionel Teodoreanu (At Medeleni).

What book had the greatest impact on you?

The I Ching, the Chinese book of change, I discovered it at the age of 21 and it has become my ‘Bible’. Speaking of novels, Gone with the wind when I discovered it at the age of 14, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and The Night by Ellie Wiesel, I read them in my early 30s.

Who are your favorite women authors?

Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton, Ayn Rand, Erica Jong, Jennifer Egan and Candace Bushnell – I loved her first collection, Sex and the City.   

Who are your favorite American playwrights?

Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, John Patrick ShanleyDavid Margolis, and Neil LaBute.

Who is your favorite American filmmaker?

Woody Allen. I  think he is a modern Charlie Chaplin, only funnier and more clever. In terms of brains, he's a national treasure.  

Who are your favorite poets?

Rumi, Charles Baudelaire, and Nichita Stanescu (Romanian). 

Who are your childhood heroes?

Winnetou by Karl May, a German author, Scarlet O’Hara, and Le Petit Prince.   

As a teenager, did you have a favorite book?

Yes, Nostalgia by Mircea Cartarescu, a Romanian author translated to English. I was also fascinated by the Arab "1001 Nights". 

What books are on your coffee table?

I don’t have a coffee table.   

Disappointed, overrated, or not good?

Many of the books highly recommended by critics.  Many of the books in the New York Times best seller lists.

Do you remember the last books you put down without finishing?

Certainly. But I can’t mention names without creating enemies.

Did you grow up with a lot of books?

Yes, my parents Dinu and Despina Grigorescu had about 2-3 thousand books. When I grew up in Romania most of the people with a college degree had bookshelves with hundreds of books.  I was surprised when I moved to the US and noticed that the bookshelves brimming with books were a rarity in most people’s homes.

If you could translate one book from Romanian or adapt it to screen, what would that be?

The Prodigal Son, by Radu Tudoran.

Name 5 things you like in prose and 5 things you dislike?

Likes: Intensity, humor, humanity, ideas, and atmosphere.
Dislikes: Long descriptions, formalism, pomposity, coldness, banality.   

If you could meet a writer dead or alive, who would be and what would you like to know?  

Camil Petrescu, a Romanian novelist. I would ask him what was the secret of his character Fred Vasilescu.  He abandons the woman he'll continue to love all his life (Miss T), and to whom he'll leave his fortune after death, without an explanation. 

Name a quote from one of your writings that best represents you so far?

"I don't believe that life is a number's game. I believe in the moment of grace," Kitty Roman in Dream Junkies. 
 
One last thing?
 
Now, if I think about it, maybe Fred Vasilescu left Miss T because ultimately he believed more in the number's game than in the moment of grace.