Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Next Big Thing—A Meme for Writers

By Zinta Aistars

My desk in the Cottage on the Hill
When author Kristina Riggle approached me about participating in The Next Big Thing, a meme for writers, I said, "Huh?" And then I said, "What's a meme?" And then I said, "What's the Next Big Thing?"

Kristina is a terrific author, very prolific, and she wrote about her new book coming out in November, The Whole Golden World, as her contribution to this meme. Meme, it turns out, means something like a game of tag for a cultural idea spreading in a viral manner from person to person. 

Well, that's a lot of next big things. Each writer tags several other writers after answering a series of questions about that work in progress. But who am I to argue? Any one of us may produce the next big thing, and because of my work with The Smoking Poet, an online literary magazine, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a great many wonderful writers. It would be easy to tag a few. I would love to know what my favorite writers are working on!

Okay, I'm in.

But what about MY next big thing?

For those of you who have been my faithful (or sporadic) readers of this blog for the past year or two (oh you adorable people), you know that I have not just been writing, but living my next big thing. I moved to Z Acres, a 10-acre century-plus-old farm in southwest Michigan, in March 2012, and I am a pig in mud. And woods. And pond. And field. And Cottage on the Hill.

I fell in love with this place even before that, and with each day that I wake up on this land, and each night that I go to sleep here, I love it more, and my roots sink ever more deeply into this place. Place, that particular place we come to call Home, is a powerful thing.

Me and Venus de Milo in snow
Being bi-cultural, a Latvian born in America, raised within the Latvian culture and with English as my second language, I have perhaps a stronger appreciation for Home than most. My parents were ripped away from their home during World War II, and I was taught to think of Latvia as my home, too, even if I was born in the U.S. With a great many trips there, sometimes living there for short periods of time scattered over the years, the sense of home on the Baltic Sea took in me.

I felt at home in Latvia; I felt at home in the United States. At the same time, I felt homeless.

Where do I fully belong? At some point in my life, I had to claim one place, one place I could call mine, and know that I would not leave again. I had changed addresses in my life more than 30 times, and I was tired of it. I will not move again. At Z Acres, I am, at long last, Home. I suspect it's no coincidence that these ten acres in many ways remind me of the landscapes of Latvia.

So, over this past year of living here, I have felt that special power of being rooted in place. As an artist, as a writer, I could feel the creativity coming up through my newly rooted self, come up through my blood and into my heart, into my mind, into my spirit, and it has demanded to be released in artistic expression.
Z Acres, my muse

From this big thing, finding a permanent Home, from that warmth and security and peace, from the quiet of country living, a new project was born and is now in progress. I call it, tentative working title: ZILA.

1) What is the working title of your current/next book?
Zila is a feminine version of "zils," which means blue in Latvian. It is the name of the narrator for the book. Not a real name, but a nickname.

2) Where did the idea come from?
I led into that, didn't I? Since my first three books, all in the Latvian language, were published, I have been playing off and on with various ideas for new projects. None have really stuck with me, or subsequently me with them. Reasons have varied, but I long ago learned to listen to my heart and follow where it leads me. Living at Z Acres has meant listening to the voice of the land around me, and also to accept the healing it offers. I feel I am something of a medium between this beautiful land and the paper I write upon, telling its story and how it wraps up with mine.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
This kind of question makes me smile. I think of Zila as an autobiographical novel, which, of course, doesn't really make sense. An autobiography is nonfiction, a novel is fiction. One is truth as we know it, the other is well-told lies. I would argue, however, that all art, in whatever medium, is autobiographical. That includes novels about little green women on Mars. We instill our character with our own life sense, our own values, and that all stems from our own life experiences.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
While writing to me is a very visual process, putting on paper what I see in my mind, I can't say that I have visualized it as a movie on the silver screen. I see the character of Zila (can you tell I have a thing for Z?) in my mind in ever more elaborate detail, which means she is unique and not with the face of any actress I know. Really, I think such things, if ever, come later, and perhaps more in the mind of an agent than in mine.

Meanwhile, since I also enjoy photography, I have considered adding photos from Z Acres to the manuscript, adding that element of nonfiction intertwined with fiction. I love the idea of blurring that line.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
After a lifelong search for Home, Zila finally finds that one place that can hold her—but discovers that having a safe oasis in the world can open up many unsafe meanderings in her mind, back over time.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I would begin by looking for a traditional publisher, probably, although I am fascinated to observe and read about the self-publishing adventures of other writers. There is something to be said about keeping control, even as there is much to be said about the overall lack of quality in far too many self-published books. A good editor is absolutely crucial. 

I have read about a few very successful, big name writers who have walked away from six-figure contracts and have published and marketed their own books. Certainly, the world of traditional publishing has changed, and continues to change, immensely. I may take a closer look at both options once I reach that point of readiness.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Still writing it! And then there will be the second draft, the third, the fifteenth …

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Goodness, I hope none. None than I have read. All right, all right, I'll relent here a bit. I read a lot of nature books, memoirs, people deep in nature and how they connect. One book that really stood out with its beauty and honesty is Siesta Lane: One Cabin, No Running Water, and a Year of Living Green, by Amy Minato. Annie Dillard is forever an inspiration, especially her nonfiction, but I wouldn't dare to compare.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've already answered that question in bits and pieces throughout the previous questions, but nothing has made this more possible than place. This is a story of place and of belonging.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
An excerpt, surely! Here you go:

Absolute silence.

But no. It takes a moment for the ears to lose their inability to hear. A moment to disperse the sirens, the blaring horns, the constant human chatter, the unending simmer of sprawl, houses upon houses and buildings upon buildings and roads crossing roads swimming in sound, buzz and bump and blather, cacophony never ending. The ears become deaf. Cauliflower ears boxed useless by NOISE.

A moment of sitting still here. Just a moment, and the ears shyly begin to open again. Deafness dissolves. And there, the faint hum of insects in the grass. The chatter of an irritated squirrel. The caw of a crow and then all its brothers. The mewling of a cat bird in the bush, fooling you. The burping of bullfrogs encircling the pond. The odd trilling, almost prehistoric, of sand cranes in the field beyond the trees—and if you listen to the breeze in the tree tops, you’ll notice that it makes a different sound depending on the tree. The tall pines shush as they wave from side to side. The walnut tree with its rows of thin leaves on a long stem, softly rustling one against the other. The willows bend into the breeze, swing like a woman’s skirts, and chatter like moving water.

Sit still a while longer, ears open now in wonder, and you will hear how the world is filled with music. Next, your skin begins to feel that same breeze, its tickle and caress and glancing kiss, and your eyes widen to a thousand, no, a million shades of light and shadow, of a rainbow of color, even there where you once saw only green, brown, gray.

A thrill runs through your body, head to toe, and you must move, must move, rise to walk the land, sensing the slight inclines and dips in the earth, the occasional hard edge of stone beneath, the soft spots where rodents have tunneled unseen, your step sinking slightly where below, life there, too, teems in constant flow. Tall grasses brush against your shins, and your fingertips touch the tops of the grasses lightly, feeling the wave pass through your body, you, the grass, you, the wind, you, the earth, you, the hum of the insects and the chatter of the squirrels and the ancient trilling of the cranes, you, the earth crumbling where you tunnel through to emerge again, you, whole.

And now to tag another batch of writers to pique your literary interest:

With Joe Heywood at WMUK

Joseph Heywood is a Michigan writer that I met some years ago when doing an author interview on WMUK radio, an NPR affiliate station in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had read his Woods Cop mystery series, based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and I love his work. It's a series firmly based in place, it's fun, it's funny, it's serious. He writes about an area I respect and love since my childhood, and I admire how immersed he gets in his subject matter, spending much of his year living in the UP, riding along with woods cops.

Jeanne Hess is another Kalamazoo, Michigan, writer whom I have known for many years, since I worked at Kalamazoo College. It's a small liberal arts college that really is different from any higher education institution you could stumble across. K's claim to fame is study abroad, not just for a few weeks, but for months, even a full year, giving students an education that far exceeds anything you could get in a classroom. Jeanne fits that description, too. She has been teaching physical education at K going on three decades, has also been a chaplain there, but what she does far exceeds anything you'd find in a gym. I'm no sports fan, yawn, but when I read Jeanne's book, Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, I was blown away. Now I get it: why sports have turned me off at the same time that I am drawn into the hero's quest that happens in sports. She has a really important message, and I hope people listen.

Chris Killian, yes, is a Kalamazoo, Michigan, writer, too, only he isn't. The world is his oyster. By now, you're also getting the idea that Kalamazoo produces some pretty incredible talent—and you're right. Something in the water, maybe, or all those local craft beers, or mind-thriving institutions, but Chris is working on something really, really incredible. That's all I will say about that, the rest is up to him, but Chris caught my attention when he drove a van called Harry around the swing states during the last elections, talking to, you know, YOU, on the streets, in the cafes, in the bars, in the laundromats, wherever you are, day in and day out, to report on what you were thinking about the elections. Now, he's back home and writing like a man on fire. I've been honored with a glimpse at that on-fire manuscript, and I still haven't picked my jaw up off the floor.

Visit these writers next week to read about the next big thing on their desks, leaving wisps of steam on their heated-up keyboards, coming soon to a bookshelf near you.

1 comment:

  1. Love the excerpt! I can hear the sounds, feel the breeze, I know the sounds of the have described them expertly...made me want to read more. Hope you finish this story soon! I wanted to share some of my thoughts from my "camp in the woods" house with you. is one of the blogs I've written that I hope helps you to see what I've been trying to say...we have such similar thought, but expressed uniquely! Sorry to be a pest...I've just been enjoying reading your stories! It's not often that I find someone who thinks about their home the same way as I do. Blessings to you today.