More From L. A.

The group of authors at the Beverly Hills Literary Escape had plenty of interesting conversations–on-stage and off-stage–last weekend. A few of them have stuck in my head.

One of the nonfiction writers mentioned that writing is “abject misery.” It was a man, not that gender is necessarily important there. Another male writer on stage agreed. I was squirming in my seat in the front row. And, onstage, I could see one of the four panelists twitching in her seat. (One really frustrating thing about panels is that you’re competing for talking time. It’s like pushing your button first on Jeopardy–even if you know the answer, it doesn’t matter if you don’t jump in fast enough.) The frustrated author was Indian novelist Thrity Umrigar, and we had a long talk after the panel was over.

It turns out Thrity has the same reaction I do to writers talking about what torture writing is. And that reaction is: Shut the hell up. Writing is a dream job, and if you think it’s not, there are plenty of people out there filing papers or tarring roofs or laying asphalt. It’s an amazing gift that someone would pay you for making up stories. I think plenty of writers–like me and Thrity–are deeply happy and fulfilled when writing. I write because I love it. That’s not to say that there aren’t tough days and pages or chapters that don’t flow and questions that keep you up at night. But those moments of frustration don’t come close to equaling the sheer thrill of discovering your story.

As Thrity said, there’s this mystique of the torture writer. (That always make me think of Hemingway, but it goes back much further than that.) It’s cool to be miserable writing, to be tortured by your craft. I suppose it sounds more serious, more intellectual. I suspect that in some cases it’s attractive to women. And I know that some people do genuinely hate writing, even though they make their living at it.

Anyway, I think it’s crap.

I’ll go back to Thrity one more time. We also talked about how one of the men–there were some gender divides on this panel–said that he tries not to think about his books when he’s not writing. “How do you not think about it?” Thrity asked. “I think about what I’m writing all the time, while I’m eating or showering or doing anything else.”

That’s me, too. I don’t how you would turn off the switch while you’re writing a novel. I don’t sleep well when I’m writing a first draft–there are dozens, maybe hundreds of questions circling my head. Everything during the course of the day filters in as it potentially relates to my story. My husband says something funny–hmm, could that go in the book? My dog falls off a chair–could that go in the book? A woman wearing gold shoes walks by–ah, a perfect detail.

Finally, a little preview of what I want to talk about next. I was on a panel with Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters. She’s lovely, and her book is maybe even lovelier. It’s a stunning novel set in Vietnam, with a female photojournalist as the main character. A few weeks ago, my friend Liz asked me what I thought about the whole to-do over Franzen and the number of men versus women on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Then she asked, “So what women should be on the cover of the Book Review?”

Well, one obvious answer is Tatjana, but…oh, yeah, she was on the cover of the Book Review for this, her first novel. Here’s the review. I’ll write my own review later this week.

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