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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

#10 Wendy Dale

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

Wendy just started working at an animal rescue organization as a filmmaker/translator but even while surrounded by 24 lions, she took the time to answer our questions. As always, in the presence of the bizarre, she shines through. Please read the fantastic interview below and learn about a great author as well as a great person. 

1. What comes to mind when you hear, “Mourning Goats?”

I think it’s pretty obvious. You’re referring to the famous Sanskrit parable in which Shiva leaves his goats unattended all night and later comes to regret it, the moral being that it’s not worth crying over lost goat’s milk.

2. I hear Internet connectivity is less than common in Bolivia, where are you connecting from today?

Ah, but there’s where you’re wrong. People tend to think that Bolivia is a backward country stuck back in the adobe age. First thing you should know: I have a pet cat, not a llama. Besides, Bolivians have really embraced new technology. Within a block of my house, there are three cafes offering high-speed Internet connection for less than fifty cents an hour. Not to mention that nearly all of my Bolivian friends have a FaceBook page. Around here, it’s even pretty common to see women in traditional dress (bowler hat and all) reach into the rainbow shawls on their backs and pull out a cell phone. Granted, they usually answer in their native tongue Aymara.

Though in all honesty, I’ve been here for five years now—and I still don’t know what an iPhone is.

3. Which do you prefer, fiction or non-fiction, in both reading and writing?

I will always love fiction. Even in writing non-fiction, I always rely on novel-writing techniques. Maybe it’s true that reality is stranger than what lies in any author’s imagination, but I still think it takes fiction to truly explain our world to us.

4. If I remember correctly, you are the reason fellow Mourning Goats interviewee, Craig Clevenger, got his book The Contortionist’s Handbook, in the hands of Chuck Palahniuk, how did this come to be?

It’s a long story that began when I came across a three-paragraph excerpt of The Contortionist’s Handbook on Amazon and knew I had to have the novel. I got to the last page and was simply blown away.

I’d never written to an author before and I had a lot of false illusions about the kind of life they led. I imagined Craig to be wealthy and famous, figured he was probably dating a supermodel. But when he emailed me back, it turned out he worked at Borders. I’ll never forget his comment: “There’s nothing worse than watching a person pick up your book, look it over, and then put it back on the shelf.” He added, “Writers are the only people who get royalty statements and eviction notices on the same day.”

This was devastating news, especially since my own book was slated to be published in a matter of weeks. At the time, George Bush was just starting to launch his war on Iraq and I felt helpless to do anything about what I felt to be a grave injustice. So I set out to right another wrong: the fact that a genius author could barely afford his own rent—his indie publisher hadn’t even given him an advance. And if I recall correctly, his first print run was just 2,000 copies. Or maybe it was 4,000.

It occurred to me that the only difference between Chuck Palahniuk and Craig Clevenger was that Chuck had lucked into a movie deal and had gotten tons of exposure for his book. While Chuck was busy brushing shoulders with Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter, Craig spent his evenings working in a bar. My idea was this: If I could tap into Chuck’s audience, letting them know about The Contortionist’s Handbook, maybe Craig’s luck would change.

It was a crazy idea. Still, I needed to go through with it, partly because Craig and I had begun to correspond via email, but mostly out of a need to believe that it truly was possible to achieve some sort of fairness in this world.

I sent Craig’s book to the guy who ran Chuck’s website, and nothing happened for months. When I bugged him about this, he brushed me off with a comment about receiving lots of books and being all-so-busy at the moment.

Four months later, I got an email from Craig. He had included a link and a single line of text: “I could kiss you right now.”

There wasn’t any hidden sexual message there — Craig and I have never been more than good friends. But when I clicked on the link, I was led to an audio file, Chuck Palahniuk himself talking about Craig’s book, something along the lines of “This is the best fucking book I have read in five, no make that ten years.”

The rest is history, as they say. To be totally honest, I’ve never been prouder of anything else I’ve achieved. That was the day I felt I actually did something truly noteworthy.

To end this long story, let me just add that Craig and I have remained incredibly close over the past seven years. In fact, last March he visited me in Bolivia, crashing for three months at my place as he worked on his latest novel.

5. Where have your siblings and parents ended up? With everything I’ve read in your book and on your site, I can only guess everyone is scattered all over the world. 

I come from a family of nomads. It’s always been complicated explaining to friends about my travel plans for the holidays. When I get asked where home is, I usually respond, , “I don’t know yet. I’ll have to ask my parents.”

Ten years ago, when my parents were figuring out where to go next, fate stepped in — in the form of a travel guidebook. My mother came across the line “the city of the eternal spring” and uprooted the family to Cochabamba, Bolivia — without even having visited the place first.

This probably gives you the wrong impression of who they are. My mother loves floral print dresses and my dad buys his sneakers at Wal-Mart. In fact, they recently moved to a suburb of Albuquerque where my mother is a reservations agent for Southwest and my dad runs a home business, selling mineral samples over the internet. His site is www.dalerocks.com, which I love — my dad really does rock.

As for my siblings: Catherine runs a nursery school in Manhattan, Richard is a prison guard in Arizona, and Heather lives in Abu Dhabi — to be honest, I still haven’t quite figured out what she’s doing there. I imagine she must have gotten her hands on a guidebook.

6. You wrote employee newsletters for an aerospace company for a while, what was that like and how did you get into it?

I learned about the position from a posting on the job board at UCLA (I was in college at the time). My only writing experience up to that point was editing a student newsmagazine, but I bluffed my way through an interview.

I hated the job, but I was just twenty years old, was earning good money, and got to think of myself as a “professional writer,” even if the majority of my day consisted of informing employees what they could expect for lunch that day in the cafeteria.

7. You are an emmy nominated writer for The New Adventures of Mother Goose, do you think you’ll do anything like this again? 

Do you mean write about Mother Goose again? To be honest, I don’t have any plans to do so in the immediate future. Though I do work on film scripts from time to time.

8. You currently live in Bolivia, what do you like most about living there, least?

Cochabamba is a city of a million people with breathtaking colonial architecture, a near-perfect climate, and tons of great places to eat. I live in a two-story house with 30-foot-high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and wood floors — and my monthly rent is less than what many people in the States spend on a gourmet, five-course meal.

If I had one complaint, it would be that I still don’t know what an iPhone is.

9. Your agent for Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals was Stephanie Lee, is she also your agent for fiction? What’s it been like working with her?

Stephanie has been a friend, mentor, and therapist to me. Plus, how cool is it to have an agent with tattoos and pink hair? She has represented all of my works thus far. Sadly, she left the business a year ago. I haven’t yet looked for her replacement, mostly because I haven’t yet finished the proposal for my newest book.

10. Are you going to be focusing on fiction now, or do you think you’ll ever go back to another travel book? 

I don’t know that I’ll write about my travels again. But my latest project is a memoir, the story of seven years I spent living in a Mexican barrio in Los Angeles, titled American Wetback: An Immigrant in My Own Country.

11. Your book, Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals, was laugh out loud funny to me, especially the way you portray your Mother, with lines like, "Your father has become a jalapeno-chili-pepper farmer in Honduras." Is she as funny as your portray her or is it more of a situational humor?

I wish I could take credit for great writing when it comes to describing my mother, but the truth is that I simply followed her around with a notebook, jotting down everything she said. I was born to strange parents, something I hated as a child, but a fact that has turned out to be a huge plus for my writing career. I still remember an early comment from an editor after reading Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals: “That family is a goldmine.”

12. Can you tell us about your memoir classes on mediabistro.com? Do you think you’ll be doing more?

This year I tried my hand at teaching for the first time, and it’s been amazing watching other writers advance in their work. I really believe in writers helping out other writers — especially in an era in which publishers are more and more reluctant to publish books without an obvious commercial angle.

However, teaching has also been a huge drain on my time. Just today, I swore I’d never do it again — until I opened up my email in-box to find that my students had pitched in to send me an Amazon gift certificate for $180. That really got to me.

13. On your facebook page you mentioned that you voted this year in Bolivia, what was that like? 

It was kind of fun, actually. I think the poll workers assumed I was lost at first — I was the only blue-eyed girl in the place. (Here I’m also considered blonde, even though any red-blooded American would label me a brunette.) What followed doesn’t exactly make for a gripping story: I picked up a ballot, marked a few X’s, and deposited my slip into the appropriate box.

I voted for Evo Morales, who is making history as Bolivia’s first indigenous president — a man surrounded by controversy. I liken what is happening here to the Civil Rights movement in the States, but in a way the evolution in Bolivia is even more profound. This is a country that has been defined by centuries by a strict class system like nothing most Americans can even conceive of, and it’s exciting to watch the process of change, history taking place right in front of me.

14. I’m guessing that voting there means you are a full-fledged Bolivian citizen now, yes? Any thoughts on coming back to the states? Anywhere else?

I’m not a citizen, just a permanent resident. I’ve lived here for almost five years and while I’ve ventured outside the country — I spent three months in Argentina, took a quick trip to Chile, and lived in the Peruvian jungle for two months — I haven’t been back to the States.

When it comes to figuring out my future, I refer you to a quote from my first book: “For a brief while, I considered the possibility of becoming a ‘planner’ instead of (what would the opposite be? Oh yes...) a ‘fun person.’ ” In other words, I have no idea what comes next.

15. What did you think of film school in Cochabamba? What was it like writing and directing?

I know it sounds weird—I lived in L.A. for eighteen years and didn’t even think of studying film until I arrived in Bolivia. What I like most is that all film is independent here—and there is also a lot of talent.
Though there are a few perils. My first photography teacher spent most of our class time warning us of the dangers of having our cameras stolen. He constantly insisted that the most important skill a director of photography could possess was martial arts training—and forced us to spend hours doing push-ups on our fists.

16. If you got one piece of advice before you started writing Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals as well as your new fiction novels, what would it be?

I refer you to what Craig Clevenger said to me during our first correspondence, the comment about receiving royalty statements and eviction notices at the same time.

However, I’ll add something else, what I always try and drill into my own writing students: The path is filled with rejection—but it’s not impossible. The number-one reason that agents reject proposals is that a book simply isn’t good enough. I’ve met a lot of talented writers who submitted their works without truly polishing them first. You may have sparkling prose and a compelling idea, but if you don’t fully understand the concept of structure, you have no business trying to publish your book.

17. You’ve had a few interesting experiences with prisons, what’s one of your favorite stories? Did I hear that you were in last year for being an, “undocumented foreigner?” 

That sure put a damper on my Friday night! I had forgotten to bring along my I.D. and got picked up at a bar in a raid designed to round up illegal foreigners.

In a very strange twist of fate, at the immigration office, I later ran into a friend (a long-haired tattooed musician I never imagined to be working for the government). But he helped me out with all my legal hassles and introduced me around the office. A few weeks later, I’d become buddies with nearly everyone there, and many of my subsequent Saturday nights were spent over cocktails at my house in the company of immigration officials.

18. If I had the money, I would do the Bolivia tour you offer on your website, has anyone taken you up on it yet? What was it like? 

On a lark, I decided to offer a tour of Bolivia, but in the end, I never found the time to go through with it. I really need to update my sorely out-of-date website. Though Craig Clevenger did get my unofficial tour. I guess you should ask him what it’s like hanging out with me in Bolivia.

19. On your facebook page, I see that almost all of your family is on facebook, even Grandma Barbara, what do you think of the way that communication is going with social media?

For a nomad like myself, I love how easy it’s become to stay in touch with my friends in out-of-the-way places. Then again, there are a lot of ex-prisoners I’d love to avoid—would you believe it? Even they have a FaceBook page.

That reminds me: When I was hanging out with my immigration buddies, one of them told me about rounding up a Colombian suspected of drug trafficking. The guy’s friends had already been arrested, but he claimed to have no idea who they were. Then my immigration official friend pulled up the Colombian’s FaceBook page, a picture of them all drinking beers together.

20. You have a lot of things on the burner right now, what do you see happening in the next five years for Wendy Dale?

A while back when a friend was struggling over the decision to get married, I told her that it wasn’t such a big deal, that if it didn’t work out, she could always get divorced. “In fact, I’m thinking of getting married too, just so that I can say I’ve had the experience.” I didn’t have a boyfriend then, but I haven’t given up hope. If you know of any viable candidates, let me know.

Thank you!

1 comment:

  1. Everything Wendy said is true, except about me not dating a supermodel. Because I totally am. Seriously.