My most recent book is my first novel. It’s called Results May Vary and it is about teaching high school in Los Angeles, California. The entire story takes place in one 24 hour period and follows one student and one teacher through a day in the life at a large urban high school. The Santa Ana Winds are blowing; it’s fire season, and the kids are taking their state standardized tests.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born in Washington, DC. I grew up in New England in the Boston area; this definitely informs my novel in cool paradoxical ways because the Los Angeles urban landscape is so different: futuristic, apocalyptic, and set in one of the most culturally diverse cities on earth. But kids have nothing to do here. It’s a desert for kids. In New England we canoed after school, swam in Walden Pond, or took long walks through the woods. In L.A. it’s shopping malls and gang turf.
My mom was active in the Civil Rights Movement. I started writing poetry early on, and a lot of it was about the struggles for social justice I saw going on around me. But I also wrote my first fiction. A friend and I wrote a complete Man From Uncle novel; we decided on a plot and each wrote every other chapter and then combined them. Alas, it is long lost, but it was a substantial effort; probably 150 pages! Completely immature; very exciting.
When I was fourteen, my family moved to California. The change in the quality of the schools was immediately apparent. After high school I discovered I wasn’t ready for university life, so I dropped out of UCLA and spent a few years in Europe where I traveled and worked without a green card, occasionally dodging immigration authorities. Mainly I lived in France and England, working odd laboring jobs with émigrés from all over the continent. It was the best education I ever received and it was free. But eventually I came back to Los Angeles and I did finish school. I also became politically active again. I worked with a coalition of church groups helping refugees from war-torn Central America, and tutored and counseled immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Then I became a teacher. It eclipsed anything I had done up to that point in my life. I fell in love.
What inspired you to write this book?
Irony inspired me to write this book. What would life be without irony? After teaching high school history and English for twenty years, one thing became crystal clear: School is more about adults and their political battles than it is about kids. A good school inspires some kids and elevates them; allows them an E Ticket ride into society, but a bad school crushes other kids and eviscerates their dreams. Even worse, a bad school sets up kids for a lifetime of failure. These are not rhetorically derived dramatic metaphors. This is the literal truth. It’s why public education is experiencing such turmoil right now. All No Child Left Behind does is measure it. Of course all too often the direction of a given school is determined by old nemeses, poverty and ignorance. In big urban areas, too many schools are not acting as agents of change or improvement; rather, they are factories which reproduce these terrible effects. The operative word is standardized, as in the testing regimen, but this kind of drive towards standardization pervades the whole school culture as well. Imagination and creativity have no chance in such a setting.
How did you choose the title?
In a way there are two titles. First, the disclaimer, results may vary, has become the cultural “excuse” for the whole society. It is the ultimate essential expression of ducking and avoiding taking responsibility for anything. It sums up a central existential nightmare for modern societies, in my view. In the case of this story, it lets the schools and the adults in them off the hook.
Second, inside the novel, Results May Vary, the student protagonist is writing her own novel, called Claims to Innocence. These “claims” are, for her, the myriad excuses the adults around her come up with to justify their participation in a system which gives her certain opportunities but also serves paradoxically to punish her creative spirit. For her the words, claims to innocence, are an expression of irony.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
I was unable to get anyone interested in such a story and in the idea of telling it in a fiction format. I was watching the way the publishing industry has been changing right before my eyes with the advent of the Internet, Amazon’s publishing ventures, Joint Venture Publishing, lulu, tablets, etc. After many turn-downs and looking over lulu, I decided on a joint venture contract with Strategic via their Eloquent Press label. I’m still not sure it was the right move, but I’m in it now and have more books underway, so I’m looking at all avenues. I think that’s where publishing is heading: off the single track of the traditional house into multiple tracks in multiple mediums.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I have always been a writer. I write poetry almost every day. This was my first serious venture into fiction. I had always dreamed of writing a novel. Beyond the Man From Uncle effort. Doing this was one of the hardest things I have ever done and one of the most satisfying. What I realized as I started writing my drafts is that living in the consumer society, I have been infected with hackneyed expressions and cliched thinking; claims to innocence, in other words. So the early drafts become the process of flushing those toxins out of my system. It’s a bit shocking. All my life I have graded history and English papers and made students do rewrite after rewrite. I consider this process to be cosmic payback.
Do you have any writing rituals?
There is only one writing ritual that counts. The others are all claims to innocence. It is this: Write Every Day for at least an hour.
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Charles Dickens always had the coolest names for his characters. I followed his lead. I got some heat for it from friends who read the manuscript but decided to go for it anyway: the principal is Headgear (no comment), the teacher is Miller (ordinary). The student name, Grace a la Seine, is more complicated choice. In Los Angeles schools there are so many so-called Latino kids. Many of the kids from quote unquote Mexico have a French influence. Labels are such misleading things. I hope the names of the characters illuminate the story line.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
The main thing I learned is that writing a book is hard work. There are no shortcuts. And I will never again take editing for granted. I still teach, and now when I ask a student to rewrite something, I do so with new eyes. But I still do it. It’s a necessary part of the process. The other thing I learned is that the most important element for a writer is Voice.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
That’s one of those questions. So to be honest, nothing. But to answer the question: I would be more consistent about writing at least an hour every day. Even if you just sit at the desk and stare into space, it’s the most important thing.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
I enjoy many types of books. I’m reading Sylvia Nasar’s book on economics right now. Her book about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, was so great. She has a real gift for making complex ideas accessible and she has a wonderful Voice. I teach history so I read a lot of history. And historical fiction. I adore science fiction and mystery. Or Barry Lopez. I recommend The Eight by Katharine Neville. I play chess and there is chess in that book, but also there is time travel and the French Revolution. It’s a marvelous book.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I am working on three books: one is a collection of interviews of teachers teaching in classrooms in Los Angeles right now. What they see, where they see things going. The other two are children’s books for a young age group. So I am working on different fronts, so to speak. I am also writing a Memoir about growing up in New England.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Write Every Day for at least an hour.
Explore all available avenues for publishing: there are so many choices now.
Look for irony. It is all around you and it belongs in your writing.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
I would like to say high school kids and teachers first. After that, readers who are interested in getting an inside view of what’s going wrong and right in our schools without having to read a dry education journal or listen to a cliched radio or TV story.