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Grace Krilanovich: What it's like being one of 5 under 35

December 7, 2010 | 11:03 am

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The people at the table in front of me sat motionless, staring at a far-off place to my left, all bereft, faraway gazes. They were looking at the giant monitor behind me, showing the National Book Award proceedings, but the effect was still straight out of a Bergman film.

Things were a little more springy at the kids’ table, where I was seated with the other four of this year’s National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honorees: Sarah Braunstein, Téa Obreht, Tiphanie Yanique and Paul Yoon. The table was set with fine china emblazoned with the Cipriani logo in gold: a Deco bartender fixing a fabulous martini. As a centerpiece, artfully arranged, were stacks of books that had been selected as finalists for the National Book Awards: Karen Tei Yamashita’s "I Hotel," Nicole Krauss’ "Great House," Patti Smith’s "Just Kids"....

The 5 Under 35 had had our own event, two days prior at the powerHouse Arena in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. The National Book Foundation’s annual reading and party, featuring five authors under the age of 35, is now in its fifth year and serves as a nice, festive kick-off for National Book Week -- and, if you’re one of the authors, it is also a dazzling, nerve-wracking entree into a national stage. With a huge crowd full of formidable book people -- including our selecting authors, past National Book Award awardees and finalists -- the air was thick with the implicit notion that, once each had introduced us in glowing terms, singing our praises in a genuinely awe-inspiring way, we would then have to get up there and deliver the goods, i.e., read the words that all this fanfare was geared around.

Outside, a taco truck was serving up free eats, and upstairs, a photo booth was set up with fun, random props. People took turns hitting each other with neon green fly swatters for the camera. I felt surprisingly at ease; my head cold, which had worsened, seemed to be a buffer against any inflated expectations and pressure in my own mind. I was free to enjoy the laryngitis, an added special effect on my reading voice that someone afterward said “really works for you.”

Now, at the NBAs proper, I was in a celebratory mood, feeling like I’d crossed a threshold where I could finally stop fretting about my own book. My novel, "The Orange Eats Creeps," which I’d obsessed over every day for six years, (three writing and three “querying”) now took on an abstract, distant glow. It had launched; the book was its own thing now. People I didn’t even know picked it up in distant cities, and they actually dug it, talked about it, brought their cool disarming takes. Only in my mind did the book retain any vestiges of its shadow self: the monstrous stapled and taped drafts or the half-dozen hand-scrawled notebooks, or the brick-sized stack of rejection letters, tied with a gingham ribbon, sitting in one of my desk drawers.

It all seemed worlds away from this fine china and this gold chair and the elegant-beyond-all-measure Cipriani Wall Street where the big event, the National Book Awards Dinner and Ceremony, was in full swing. I stared up at the elaborate coffered ceiling and dome encircled by the signs of the zodiac. Naturally. This was way out of the realm of the obscure indie existence I’d anticipated for my novel, a short, messy romp through a psychotic dreamspace with a lizard demon beckoning a crescent moon on the cover. I had no illusions about it having mainstream appeal.

It began as a wager with a classmate that I couldn’t write a story about a roving gang of Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies. I’d long harbored a curiosity about fiction, how people did it, and was in close proximity to a few big “N” Novels taking shape as a student in the MFA writing program at CalArts. I thought that lowering the bar by devising a wild B-movie pretense, descriptors literally drawn from a hat, would limit and define my options and direct the path ahead. So I had the quasi-Roger Corman framework, which was crass and campy, equal parts "The Lost Boys" and "The Boxcar Children," and I wrote in secret, all the while telling myself and those around me that I was an essayist.

I obsessed over the book nonstop; it was great for what became my overall project of incorporating everything I had ever heard, saw, felt, read about or thought into a novel that might read like a transmission from the subconscious itself. I frontloaded it with a grab-bag of objects and emotions. As things cropped up, I’d jot them down in a small notebook, sometimes while driving. Long treks up Interstate 5 were great for this. Sooner or later, into the draft it went: people who buy repossessed storage units, senior center pancake breakfasts, yard sales, the Donner Party, soup made from pond water and lily pads, hippie beaches.

Devising new and ingenious ways for staving off writer’s block: surrealist methods, cut-ups, substitutions; I even fashioned a deck of fortune-telling cards to divine the path my narrative should take. After a while, even these strategies for beating the lulls became just another way to procrastinate.

I thought of it as taking stock of my youth, of things I saw and heard about, integrating a little local lore about the notorious Santa Cruz murders that had multiple Manson-esque serial killers operating simultaneously in the early '70s -- leading to the town’s sensationalistic distinction as the “Murder Capital of the World.” But the idea of setting it in my hometown was paralyzing, too potent, even though I haven’t lived there for several years, so the Pacific Northwest would be a suitable literary stand-in. The vibrant indie rock scene of the '90s Northwest and the outsized personalities scattered throughout the '70s and '80s punk rock landscape proved irresistible to draw from as influences. There will never be anybody else quite like GG Allin or Wendy O. Williams, or Texacala Jones, Lux Interior or Henry Rollins.

I was open to anything, maybe too open. My friend Sam suggested I try Holosync, a meditation soundtrack that’s supposed to unlock your inner cognitive powers. Or was it psychic powers? Either way. Sure! Why not? Outwardly, it just sounds like thunder and rain, but underneath, these subliminal tones are tapping into your cosmic potential. A couple 30-minute sessions of this was great for getting in the zone. Plus it seemed thematically consistent with the story I was writing, about homeless teens with ESP running amok in a dystopian suburban wilderness.

I spent countless hours agonizing over not writing, till I read that Henry Miller was an epic nap-taker. “The more snoozes I take,” he said from his cabin in Big Sur, “the more work I do. It pays off.” From the beginning, I took great pains to write things I wouldn’t say out loud, things that shocked and embarrassed me. Haha, I thought, I’ll have to take that out before the finished draft! (Note: It’s still in there). I had a habit of just writing whatever, and then daring myself to keep it. I started doing that more and more until I had a draft that I was sufficiently mortified by. What if they think it’s about me?

Of course it is. But it’s most certainly not.

And what if I finish the book and then have to decide what to do with it? The predicament of it being received well or not well. Which do I prefer?

Years of near complete rejection had prepared me for a tough slog -- that, or utter indifference, or vehement admonishment, or some combination of all three. Who wants it? Almost no one.... (How sick we make ourselves with this line of reasoning.)

It was a night like any other when I was feeling strangely exhilarated and aimless, stalking around the apartment on a late September evening, not even feeling like one of my procrastination naps. I plunked Lou Reed’s "Berlin" down on the turntable. It’s my favorite album, but one I hadn’t listened to in several years, strangely, or maybe not strangely because I’d clocked enough listens in my teenage years to last a lifetime. After only the third or fourth song the phone rang and it was my publisher, telling me I had been named as one of five authors under the age of 35 by the National Book Foundation. The novelist Scott Spencer, a finalist in 2003 for "A Ship Made of Paper" and in 1980 for "Endless Love," chose me. After it sank in a little bit and I realized it was for real, happening to me, my book, (this book) I knew it had changed everything. The destiny of the novel, which I’d come close to scrapping a little more than a year previous, had just gotten a great deal brighter.

And now...the second book -- itself fraught with all kinds of nagging questions, clichés all: Could I have used the mojo up? or forgotten how to write? These days, I’m sitting down to work with this and other baggage, a heavy weight to bear that I still wouldn’t trade for what the opposite might be, an abiding Dude-like calm, where there need not be any more words written at all. All right, I say, summoning the strength, trying to wrap my mind around this task, the abstraction of writing a novel, Bring it!

-- Grace Krilanovich

Krilanovich, who works at the L.A. Times, reads in Seattle on Thursday and at the Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Photo: Grace Krilanovich. Credit: Jaesung Lee

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