A Week in Culture: Maud Newton, Writer
June 9, 2010 | by Maud Newton
9:47 A.M. Wake early (for a Sunday). I still haven’t replaced the French press that shattered week before last, so I make tea the Muriel Spark way: warming the pot first, measuring out loose leaves, drinking from china. Absurdly precious, I know, but I give myself a pass because, really, if you’re going to start the day without coffee, you’re going to need to distract yourself somehow.
10:15 A.M. Pick up Memento Mori for dialogue inspiration and involuntarily become engrossed again. If I read to the end, that will make four times1 in as many months.
10:45 A.M. Open novel draft2 file on laptop.
10:48 A.M. Embark on the inevitable Sunday morning boondoggle: the outline is not only possible, but imperative. Purchase and download an iPad note-taking application. Pass an hour training myself to write with index finger.
11:55 A.M. Outline the story in this fashion.
12:45 P.M. Email PDF of “handwritten” outline to myself; notice how late it’s getting; castigate myself for wasting weekend writing time.
1:00 P.M. Return, with egg sandwich, to draft. Assemble revisions and notes. Set MacFreedom to shut down Internet access for four hours. Begin writing.1:45 P.M. Read assorted culture news—new mummies unearthed, Mark Twain’s unexpurgated bio to be published, oil still pumping unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico—on Twitter.
2:00 P.M. Half the day is gone now. Resume work on novel; work diligently for four-and-a-half more hours.
7:00 P.M. Max (husband) suggests leaving the apartment before the sun goes down. We walk to the local market and buy fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese, and chocolate—the five major food groups.
9:30 P.M. Dread resumption of office job in the morning. Regret all choices and circumstances that have led to necessity of having a day job. Recall A.O. Scott’s hilarious (yet sympathetic) indictment of Generation X in last week’s “Week in Review” piece on Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask. Track it down and reread. Reflect on the ultimate pointlessness of trying to escape the slacker mindset.
9:40 P.M. Begin drinking (bourbon).
10:45 P.M. Sit down with Max to watch the first episode of the second season of Damages, which arrived yesterday courtesy of Netflix.
11:55 P.M. Get into bed. (So virtuous! So old.) Start into Kingsley Amis3’ The King’s English, his (out-of-print) guide to modern usage.
7:43 A.M. Ugh, morning, and one too many hits of the snooze button. Make Muriel Spark tea, and drink it while thinking of Damages and of Jenny Diski4, the novelist and London Review of Books critic who’s a fellow fan of the show and whom I once interviewed briefly for my website about it.
8:00 A.M. Perform ablutions, listen to NPR. Oil spill, oil spill, oil spill.
8:40 A.M. On the way to the subway, remember driving to my late grandparents’ home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, though Panama City and Mobile out to Biloxi and Gulfport. If you hit Pass Christian, you’d gone too far. Even in the eighties, the coast seemed ruined to me, a Miamian, with its gray surf and tar balls and the netted preserves set up along the beach to protect nesting least terns from oil. It’s strange to feel nostalgic for a place I never really liked all that much. All the way to the train, listen to Jimmy Buffett’s “Down Around Biloxi” and his version of “Stars Fell on Alabama” on repeat.
8:50 A.M. Board train. Jot down a few more thoughts about Buffett and the spill and the “Redneck Riviera” for an Awl piece I’ve been working on.
9:00 A.M. Start to skim New York Times headlines. More oil spill. Put away phone.
9:03 A.M. Open The Essential Rebecca West, a collection of the now-forgotten5 novelist, critic, and New Yorker writer’s essays, and jump first to the piece on “The Novelist’s Voice.”
9:15 A.M. Arrive at work.
9:20 A.M. Make terrible coffee6.
9:30 A.M. Take a look at today’s tax developments. Plenty to do before today’s 2 o’clock news deadline.
10:30 A.M. Online grazing7.
10:50 P.M. Work, work, work.1:00 P.M. Go downstairs, buy a salad. Open novel file. Write.
2:00 P.M. Resume work duties.
7:00 P.M. Edit novel draft all the way home, while sitting on the first train and then while standing on the second. Once we’re far enough out into Brooklyn, I can sit again.
7:45 P.M. Open seven packages from publishers8.
8:00 P.M. Home alone tonight. Spicy red lentils, and best effort to date at replicating Khyber Pass’ Panir Sabzee salad: watercress, mint, basil, scallions, radishes, feta, and a thin yogurt dressing that I still can’t get right.
8:30 P.M. While eating, continue reading9 Amis’ The King’s English.
9:00 P.M. Tinker with draft of Awl piece, which isn’t coming together.
10:00 P.M. Novel, novel, novel.
11:30 P.M. Light blogging.
12:30 A.M. More Amis. He regrets the loss of “fortnight” to “two weeks,” but is only mildly withering about it, saying the replacement “is less idiomatic and duller but as always gives everybody one less word to remember and is at any rate American."
7:43 A.M. This tea rigamarole is too much effort for too little stimulant on a weekday morning. Why in God’s name haven’t I ordered a new French press yet?
8:00 A.M. BP’s latest plans for combatting the oil spill make Carl Hiassen’s idea—plugging the hole with oatmeal—sound clever.8:40 A.M. On the train I read “Agreeable,” the latest excerpt from Franzen’s forthcoming novel10.
9:10 A.M. This morning’s coffee flavor: French Roast. I swear, it’s like choosing between the cherry and orange fluoride11 at the dentist.
9:15 A.M. Today’s tax developments. A case, a couple of laws, and some nexus provisions I need to revisit.
11:30 A.M. Online grazing again12.
12:00 P.M. Back to the tax law.
1:00 P.M. Venture out to buy a Bahn Mi and Vietnamese coffee. I get lucky and am in and out during a lull.
1:15 P.M. Eat the sandwich and drink the elixir—yum!—and work on the novel. I’ve written this dinner scene at least twenty different ways over the years, and now that I’ve cut it down by three-quarters, I think it might be working. Or maybe I’m just hopped up on caffeine.
2:15 P.M. Corporate income tax nexus research. I’d be happy to explain what this means, but you’d stop reading.7:30 P.M. Sláinte on the Bowery with Alex and Lindsay. We start drinking before the greasy snacks I’ve ordered arrive, and soon I am drunk, although I’ve only had two glasses of wine. Already my upper lip is going numb and I’m intermittently shrieking in the Floridian-Texan-Southern accent I semi-jokingly slide into with friends on these occasions. We’re gossiping about people we mutually loathe, so all is well, but I am already aware of the need to modulate my voice and try to keep the gesticulations to a minimum.
9:30 P.M. Four glasses. Lindsay: “Maud, when you publish a book, you’ll like everyone.” Me, imperiously waving (and sloshing) drink for emphasis: “No, I won’t.” Alex, calmly, matter-of-factly, amusedly, exhaustedly: “Yeah, no, she won’t."
10:45 P.M. Five glasses. I’m too woozy when the check arrives to prevent Alex from handing over his credit card; I think of getting up and chasing down the server, but I’m afraid I will trip or won’t be able to compute the tip and sign my name. Thanks, Alex. It’s on me next time.
11:00 P.M. Somehow manage to board train with Lindsay. Drunkenly regale her with “ideas” for television show we can write together.
12:10 P.M. At home, Max very kindly tolerates my drunken monologue. Needless to say, no further writing gets done. On Kingsley Amis’ theory that you can’t really be that intoxicated if you remember to hydrate and take aspirin, I pour myself water and carry it and some pills to my bedside. Then I fall asleep without making use of either and with my glasses still on.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Maud Newton's Culture Diary. Newton won the 2009 Narrative Prize for an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, “Generational Curses.”
- By now there are passages I could almost quote from memory—especially the post-funeral scenes involving the writer with rheumatoid arthritis slouched over “two sticks,” making his way among the funeral flowers as the other elderly characters goggle at him. The novelty of the Scottishism ("sticks” rather than “canes") tickles me, of course, but it’s the perfect, deadly repetition of the word—all the glimpses of the “clever little man doubled over his sticks"—that makes this section so funny.
- Recently I realized that the project I’ve been working on for several years is actually two different stories, so I’ve hacked it up and am aiming to finish the first book by the end of the summer. Now that the scope of the thing is more tightly defined, I’ve started to wonder if an actual outline—something I haven’t attempted for a couple years—may now be possible.
- Although his Lucky Jim is probably one of my top ten comic novels, I didn’t fall in love with Amis until recently, when I started reading Everyday Drinking, a reissue of his essays on one of my favorite subjects. That collection is as witty, and as straightforwardly, intelligently, and unpretentiously written as the best of Twain’s nonfiction, and now I can’t wait to read about all the “linguistic barbarisms” that set old Kingsley off. Tonight’s highlights: correcting Fowler, usage God, on the difference between “ale” and “beer"; an attack on “the one-word travesty” alright, which is “always and altogether all wrong."
- Diski’s latest book, The Sixties, is a slender, candid, and remarkably perceptive little volume about the legacy of the free-love era—the inevitable-in-hindsight mutation of hippie liberalism into libertarianism—and I start to wonder what she would make of A.O. Scott’s take on Gen-X and his notion that Lipsyte’s The Ask is, so far, our defining novel. I should ask her, in the interview I’ve been saying I want do about The Sixties, and no doubt I would if I weren’t such a slacker. Commence self-loathing loop.
- I can’t get on board with her dismissal of Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh (who, she says, “never in all his days let loose his satire on any subject that has not been mocked in Punch for the last seventy years"), but I enjoy her contemptuous take on her former lover Ford Madox Ford ("lying, worthless and untrustworthy” though “loyal in his devotion to letters"), who wrote some good novels but was also a dick to the immensely talented Jean Rhys, and feel a sinking sense of identification with West’s claim that all the other writing assignments she took on detracted from her power as a novelist. Except West was a bona fide novelist and journalist and I—well, anyway, I’ve sworn off any new evening or weekend plans or new assignments until mid-September.
- The machine uses one small plastic canister for each cup and runs hot water through it. Periodically I convince myself that one of the other flavors is better than the one I’ve been drinking most recently on desperate mornings. Today I’m back to the “breakfast blend."
- Neil Gaiman praises Ray Bradbury. Colette remembers her childhood library. Elizabeth Kolbert notes the contrast between the country’s strangely apathetic response to the BP spill and the fury that greeted the much smaller 1969 Santa Barbara spill, which motivated people to stick their gasoline credit cards on skewers and set them on fire. The Pet Shop Boys are transfixed by the view from Charles Dickens’ London bedroom; I look back at my post about a mildly disappointing visit to the house and am surprised by how negative I was about it. Bookmarked: a new Jonathan Franzen excerpt (the second from his forthcoming novel) in The New Yorker.
- The Henry Roth I requested goes into my to-be-read pile. The other eleven are relegated for now to the stacks against my living room wall. I’ll look at them more closely later.
- I’ve been wondering what Amis would have made of Twain, and I think I have my answer. In a section on Americanisms, he dismisses “anything that could be called American literature,” saying, “What I and other non-Americans want to say to American novelists and poets is Come off it, off your stilts, off your high horse. Be natural for a change, which is not the same things being colloquial or writing in a ’pure’ style, but beware of writing in any special writing way, a way that you would never speak.” To me, Twain’s essays are conversational in the best way, but I bet Amis would have disagreed. He probably saw Twain as the exemplar of everything that’s wrong with American writing, but I don’t care, I love Amis anyway (even as I hold a grudge against Orwell for his scornful attitude toward Twain).
- Like much of his fiction, it has a detached, abstracted quality, so that the protagonist often feels more like an idea than a person. Still, her predicament is unusual—a girl who’s talented at sports is reviled in her family’s smug, artistic-intellectual household, and encouraged by her social-climber parents to shut her mouth about a terrible thing the son of a prominent family does to her—and by the end I’m sufficiently interested and invested that I’ll probably read the book. (Overall, I enjoyed The Corrections, apart the parents.) I’m glad I didn’t get around to the first excerpt, “Good Neighbors."
- I could go downstairs and buy a cup of something decent, but the prospect of an unplanned encounter with other human beings is too daunting when I’m in novel-writing-agoraphobia mode.
- At Twitter, some back-and-forth about Iris Murdoch’s novels and about all the backlist books I would have bought for iPad in the past three weeks had the titles been available. The British Library puts together an exhibition of maps that changed the world. Jacques Cousteau’s grandson dives into the oil spill, denounces BP and us all. Somerset Maugham’s biography finally appears in the U.S., reminding me that I still haven’t gotten around to the copy my friend Jessa left the last time she visited. Book Expo is starting, but I’m in writing lockdown mode. (Except for tonight. I made plans to get drinks with my friends Alex and Lindsay months ago.)