- Facebook Status, 12 Aug 2011
I had my first run in with a critic yesterday ... and I freaked. After a couple of hours and many tears, I calmed down and evaluated what the critic actually said. I then realized that much of it makes little sense. While I respect the time taken to read my novel, CENTERPIECES, and write the review as well as her honesty, I feel compelled to respond to a few of her comments and questions.
A little background:
Despite not being published by a major house, or having a trust fund, other famous creditials, or MFA, I've have been able to obtain quite a few reviews for my novels, ABERRATIONS and CENTERPIECES. I've also received many comments about Aberration Nation from highly creative folks including award winning and bestelling authors Joshilyn Jackson, Lisa See, Darin Strauss, Anneli Rufus, Antwone Fisher, Margaret Weis, Marya Hornbacher, Terri Cheney, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Melissa Walker, and Susan Cheever. Of all these reviews and comments, only one or two have included anything that could be construed as negative.
Being that I'm a sensitive, borderline drama queen, those couple of negative comments were devastating, but I got over it. Those minor ego setbacks luckily occurred after years of constant rejection from agents and publishers. Those are the folks I cut my teeth on. They thickened my skin and taught me how to barrel through at times when it seemed the world was laughing at my creative efforts.
Despite the pain involved, I'm always willing to hear constructive feedback, assess it, and then apply what I feel is useful to my work moving forward. I have operated that way for years, and have seen my work grow as a result. I respect that approach, and believe it's critical for the creative who wants to continuously improve and evolve.
With that said, in this case I feel compelled to respond:
"The author Penelope Przekop's second novel, CENTERPIECES, is a novel that bravely tries to be a historical fiction about Van Gogh, art and the creative drive, but instead turns out to the a twisted narrative that describes a stifling world of corporate ladder climbing."
According to the CENTERPIECES press release, "Penelope Przekop takes readers on a thought-provoking journey as corporate executives follow their creative urges in 'Centerpieces.'"
CENTERPIECES is not marketed as historical fiction. The novel is categorized on Amazon as Fiction / Alternative History. This is defined as:
Alternate history or alternative history is a genre of fiction consisting of stories that are set in worlds in which history has diverged from the actual history of the world.
My intent was not to write a historical novel. The intent was to write fiction based on the interesting facts of Van Gogh's death, and what transpired afterwards. My idea was to weave those facts with his creative temperament and my own observations about corporate life and creativity.
"Przekop herself, a 'global quality director,' for the pharmaceutical industry--a title as vague and important-sounding as many of the details in her book - is a business woman who 'stepped back' from her career to become a writer and painter."
My title was Director, Global Quality Management, with the global Johnson & Johnson pharmacovigilance organization. This is a common type of title within not only the pharmaceutical industry but also in many other service and manufacturing industries. Further, I don't believe the details of my novel are generally vague or important sounding (whatever that means). Those details that are vague were made to be so purposefully.
Of note, my current title is Senior Director, Global Quality Assurance & Training. Maybe she will like that one better.
"Chapters set in the latter part of the 19th century, however, in Van Gogh's actual time period (of which there are thankfully very few) are, however, written in an awkward style and are filled with odd thematic sentiments."
I spent months reading all available literature about Vincent and Theo van Gogh, including the lengthy letters they wrote to one another over many years. The writing style and thematic sentiments in the chapters set in the late 19th century were closely based on the style of written communication that Vincent and Theo used in their own personal writings to one another. This was fully my intention so while the comment is quite negative, I am happy to know that I succeeded in mimicking their awkward, overtly sentimental communication style.
"CENTERPIECES as speculation historical fiction feels misleading, as readers will not learn about the artist, his life or work, from reading it."
Again, the primary intention of the novel, clearly communication in the Press Release and jacket description, was not to teach readers about the life or work of Van Gogh. I'm not sure how the critic has misunderstood the entire intent of the novel. She states that the novel's few informative facts are listed chronologically in an afterward. The entire novel takes place after Van Gogh's actual death so the facts listed in the back of the book are those that occurred after his death. The novel is fiction woven around those facts. Again, alternative history ....
"Ironically, both men seem as miserable in their extended lives as they were in their real ones." (meant negatively)
This is like saying, "Ironically, she seemed as miserable in her later years as she was in her younger years." I don't see any irony in this. Long term happiness is never guaranteed. We all make choices based on the facts and situations that are presented to us. Of course, we should look to future outcomes as part of our decision making. Often we believe we are making the best choice at the time, only to learn later that we didn't realize all of the implications.
"Following the revelation that Ellis and Tom are Vincent and Theo, come a series of implausible and confusing events that lead us to believe that the brothers are vampires, or are at the very least vampire-like. This assumption is based on vague but foreboding dialogue about 'living in the light,' not wanting to 'return to the darkness,' a drug called 'teperaquin' that they supposedly need to stay alive and too much biting and killing to go unnoticed - though it does go unexplained."
The vagueness around their being vampires was intentional as my goal was not to write a "vampire" novel. Of course being a vampire is implausible. It's fiction. Teperaquin is a drug that enables them to be in the light, not to stay alive. There is very little biting and killing in the novel, and the details around how those were covered up was relevant to the novel.
"Przekop doesn't seem to realize she has on her hands an interesting novel about the mentalities, professions, and industries that unnecessarily stifle creativity, and created as a distraction too many artificial moments of interest."
I do realize what I created. Apparently, the critic didn't realize what she was reading. As for "artificial moments of interest" that is the critic's opinion. From my perspective, every detail and scene in the novel served a specific purpose, althought every reader may not "catch" every detailed, complex connection upon first reading.
"Is Mimi a stripper simply so Przekop could write a juicy chapter describing Mimi's sexuality?"
No. The novel includes one scene about Mimi's stripping. Mimi's being a stripper is important for her characterization and the plot. It is how she knows Ellis and Tom, and why she does not tell Holly that she knows them. This night job is part of her characterization, which ties into her telling everyone that she's a vampire. All of this is necessary to the plot with regard to what happens at the end of the novel.
"Why does Holly, who longs for emotion, color and life, turn away from Van Gogh when he reaches out to her with the truth about his unnatural life?"
Her disbelief and assumption that he is mentally ill is realistic. I deeply long for emotion, color and life, but if someone told me they were Vincent van Gogh, I wouldn't jump for joy and accept it with no questions or hesitation. If I were already involved in a romantic relationship with that person, their belief that they are Vincent van Gogh would be both disturbing and conflicting.
"Why would Vincent, who ended his own life, wish to be immortally unhappy?"
See my response above regarding the choices we make in life. Why would a woman marry a man who then made her unhappy for the rest of her life? On the wedding day, I'm sure she though all her dreams would finally come true. Despite our best intentions with choice making, there are often negative outcomes that we didn't foresee.
"Why would he become immortal only to allow himself, for 200 years, to be ordered never to paint again by his brother?"
The initial decision that he would not paint was part of the plan that he, Theo and Johanna created together. The evolution of that decision is based on many factors that are clearly explained in the novel. Theo's power over Vincent in the novel is based on the dynamic that evolves due to Vincent being responsible for making Theo a vampire (without his consent) and thus making him lose the woman he loves. I believe that the dynamic is based on realistic physcological and emotional relationship factors that are true to life, and follow the actual personalities and dispositions of Vincent and Theo van Gogh (based on my extensive research).
"Why would Vincent keep alive the brother who stifled him with his faith, devotion and lack of understanding?"
If the critic is referring to Vincent making Theo a vampire, her assessment about their relationship is inaccurate. Theo was Vincent's primary support throughout his life, and his closest friend and relative, despite any relationship difficulties they may have had.
On another level, no matter how much a sibling might drive you nuts, would you let them die if you had the chance to save them? Further, if you were both healthy, would you just kill them off because they were causing you trouble? I think not. Should we all just kill our relatives and spouses during tough times?
In conclusion, it appears that this critic has misunderstood CENTERPIECES on multiple levels. Perhaps that is my fault as a writer, and perhaps it's unprofessional to respond to the review. However, based on the reaction of my other reader, I'm confident that the book, press release, and actual novel are not as misleading as she found them to be.
And I am not as dumb as she has assumed.
I admit that I'm highly emotional, sensitive, impulsive, and sometimes immature. However, I have diligently worked for years on my craft, and am proud of my accomplishments. I stand by my novel, CENTERPIECES, and believe I've succeeded in accomplishing my goals with the project.
If you're interested in reading the novel to decide for yourself, I'm posting the entire book here on Aberration Nation over the next few weeks. Links to the available chapters can be found on the sidebar. I'm not promoting the book as much as I could due to my current focus on art, but I do hope that a few folks will read and enjoy it.
One critic wasn't crazy about my novel. So what?
You can read her review here.
To read the CENTERPIECES press release and back cover copy, go here.
To start reading CENTERPIECES on line, go here.
I started out as a journalist, writing for newspapers in Cambridge, MA, right out of college. I then moved to New York City in my mid-twenties to go to Columbia Journalism School and began writing for various national magazines. Imperfect Endings is my first published book. I also have an unpublished mystery and am currently working on a novel. I still write for magazines and newspapers.
Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?
I like to say that I come from a long line of failed writers, although that is not entirely fair. My maternal grandfather was a journalist and novelis,t and my grandmother was an aspiring playwright. My mother was also a writer, although she never published. She did, however, spend hours every day holed up in her study writing. She really modeled for me what it meant to live a “writer’s life.” She used to help me write my school papers when I was growing up and was hugely supportive of my creative writing. Another gift from both parents was their decision to never own a television. Reading was always my escape and entertainment.
This may sound strange, but my best creative ideas almost always happen when I am in the shower or out on my bike. I think these are the places where I can stop “thinking” and just let my mind drift. I’ll be daydreaming and suddenly have a really great idea for a new project or have some huge insight into something I am writing. In fact, sometimes the ideas come so fast and furious when I am out on my bike that I have to either pull over and write them down or – if I don’t have a pen and paper – memorize them so I don’t forget. Then as soon as I get home, I write them down.
As to where these ideas come from, I think they emerge from the psychic soup that exits on the right side of my brain somewhere. This is the place where experience, memory and emotion all intersect and where the raw materials of creativity are manufactured.
With regard to your new memoir, Imperfect Endings, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about? When did you realize that you wanted or needed to write about your mother's wish to die?
To be honest, I kind of backed blindly into my ah-ha moment. I initially had an idea for an autobiographical novel that involved three sisters, as I was interested in exploring my experience growing up as the youngest of three girls with two very intense older sisters who fought over my soul from the moment I was born. I thought it would be interesting to have my three “characters” face a crisis in their adult lives that would stir up all the old childhood animosities and alliances.
My mother had recently taken her own life after struggling with Parkinson’s for many years and there had been a great deal of strife between the three of us, so I made this event my “crisis.” I wrote about 50 pages of the novel and my agent at the time suggested I make it a memoir and write about what really happened. After some initial hesitation, I switched to nonfiction and almost immediately, the voice, tone and structure of the book fell into place.
Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?
For me, part of being a creative person involves spending a lot of time alone. It allows me to enter into that dreamy, freeform state of mind that fuels my writing. This way of working does not really jibe with the current model of productivity in our culture, which is very results-oriented. And there are times, especially when I doubt that whatever I am working on will ever see the light of the day, that I start to wish I had an actual job where it was someone else’s responsibility to tell me what to do all day.
I have also struggled over the years with the competing demands of being a mother and a writer. Especially when my kids were small, it was sometimes hard to justify taking time away from them in order to write. But I had the memory of my mother doing this to bolster me, and my intuitive sense that it would be better for all of us in the end if I made time for my creative life.
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?
There have been times when my chronic under-earning has been a source of tension in my marriage. The truth is, most artists don’t make much money unless they are in that elite group who -- through exceptional talent, perseverance, or luck -- hit the financial jackpot. But having finally published a book and done pretty well with it, the tension has eased and my husband is more proud of my book than anyone else!
Overall he has been incredibly supportive of my life as a writer, both financially and emotionally. As for the other people in my life, most or them are under-earning creative people as well and we all “get” each other perfectly, even when we work in different mediums.
Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?
I still find myself setting new goals in terms of how I work. Three hours of writing every day, for example. Or, three pages a day. Or doing my writing first thing in the morning. But then I always end up abandoning these protocols. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the evenings when my daughter is doing her homework and my husband is catching up on emails. And I’ve come to realize that I am actually more of an intermittent marathoner than an everyday kind of steady as she goes person and I have come to accept this process, as chaotic as it can sometimes feel. I always feel incredibly envious and inadequate when I read about writer’s intensely disciplined lives. That is not me.
How has writing Imperfect Endings and dealing with the issues described in the memoir changed you and your ideas about life and death?
I think the actual experience of talking about and planning my mother’s death with her – and being there when she took her own life -- changed my ideas about life and death. For example, I no longer fear dying the way I once did. I have been through it with my both my parents in such an intimate way and there is a kind of beauty and logic to death. While we all want as much time as we can get, especially if we are healthy and enjoying our lives, the actual physical process of dying does not frighten me.
But I do think that writing the book allowed me to understand the events I describe in a new and deeper way. I really struggled with what it meant to be a “good daughter.” How should you respond when your parent says they want to kill themselves? Talk them out of it -- or help them do it? Writing the book allowed me to wrestle with that question and see where I landed and I hope that readers will want to take that journey with me.
I often think about the difference between writers who seem to attack it from a business perspective (i.e., James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, etc.), versus those who seem to be simply driven from a deep need to write regardless of business concerns (i.e., J.D. Salinger, Pat Conroy, etc.). How would you describe the differences between these types of writers? Where do you fit in?
I think all writers, including Salinger and Conroy care how their books are received. In fact, I think Salinger was so crushed by the negative reviews of Catcher in the Rye, it’s one of the reasons he became a hermit and stopped publishing! I think we need to be careful not to romanticize the “pure” writers who don’t care about publishing, money and success. Just because you are driven to write and passionate about your craft, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a critical and commercial success.
That said, I agree that there are very successful commercial writers like Clark and Patterson who write to a certain formula because it sells and these writers tend to be less literary. But these writers succeed because there are a lot of readers out there who like what they write – readers who might not read otherwise – and so power to them.
I see myself as someone who writes because it is the only thing I have found to do, besides play music, that really makes me happy but yes – absolutely -- I want to be successful at it!
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?
Enjoy all the good moments along the way. They are the best life has to offer. Don’t postpone happiness as you wait for a big payoff--the raise, the house, the car, the proposal, the perfect weight, the perfect dress--because even if it happens, it will turn out to be just be another good moment along the way. Embrace all of life’s small pleasures and be open to the humor and beauty in the daily parade.
If I had to express my philosophy on how to get the most out of one’s life, this would be it.
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