Culture

Baltimore Onstage in Black and White

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“Baltimore in Black and White,” now playing at the cell theatre in New York, was inspired by playwright Jason Odell Williams’ experience of being a kid in Columbia, MD, having an extremely diverse group of friends and growing up making [good-natured] fun of one another. When he got to high school at McDonough, he says “everything was segregated – people were sitting at different tables. It was weird.”

The play was developed from a scene Jason wrote while working at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. At EST, he was given two actresses to work with for a night of vignettes, a white actress and a black actress. The scene he wrote takes place at a bus stop – while the women wait for the bus the black woman reads heady prose and the white woman raps to her headphones. The scene was performed at EST to a great response from the audience. After Jason completed his first play, “At a Loss,” his wife and frequent collaborator, Charlotte Cohn, a Broadway actress who has appeared in several productions at Center Stage, suggested for his next full-length he revisit the bus stop sketch. While a version of this scene remains in “Baltimore Black and White,” those characters are supporting the larger story in which we watch an interracial couple, a black man and a Jewish woman, move through life together from the playground, to an awkward reunion at an ATM and ultimately to their wedding night. When I asked Jason what he looked for in a good night of theatre he said, “I just want to be entertained – whatever that may be, I want to be excited.” When I asked him about his own plays, his response was that he wrote “what he would want to see.” Jason says, “I want people to laugh for a long time and then maybe be a bit moved and then think.” After seeing “Baltimore in Black and White,” I assumed race would be a major issue in Jason’s other work, but he told me that while all of his plays are comedies they are all very different in theme and tone. A question for you: Given Jason’s long-standing ties to our city, and the fact that he’s writing about this place, shouldn’t his play next come to Baltimore? –Fia Alvarez

“Baltimore in Black and White” plays thru May 21st at the cell theatre in New York.
Baltimore native Fia Alvarez studies playwriting in the graduate program at Juilliard.

Film Fest Standouts

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Our past visits to the Maryland Film Festival have left us surprised, shocked, entertained, engaged — but never bored. The cinematic celebration returns this weekend, and features films both foreign and domestic, short and long, classic and cutting-edge, odd and odder. Our picks for some must-see screenings are below; check out the full schedule here.

 

Meek’s Cutoff
Saturday, May 7 (8:30 PM)
Charles Theater
Kelly Reichardt, a rising star in American independent film, explored the subtle tensions of daily life in the Pacific Northwest in her films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy to a low-key, memorable effect. Now, she turns her attention to that classically American genre, the Western, and we can’t wait to see the results. This film follows a wagon train of hopeful settlers (most notably Michelle Williams) searching for safe passage through the Cascade Mountains in 1845.  Low supplies, an untrustworthy guide, the sudden appearance of an Indian — Reichardt’s quiet subversion of Western conventions makes for a fresh and startling story.

My Joy
Saturday, May 7 (11:00 AM)
Charles Theater
Looking to recapture that feeling of dread and exhilaration that last year’s film fest hit Dogtooth left you with? Our pick for bleakest story on the screens this year is Ukranian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s ironically titled My Joy. At once a day-in-the-life depiction of Georgi, a truck driver, and a dark commentary on the madness of post-Soviet society, My Joy is provocative, brutal, and thrilling.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Friday, May 6 (1:30 PM) & Sunday, May 8 (2:00 PM)
Charles Theater
Or maybe you’re over bleakness.  Earlier this year, A. O. Scott noted that Uncle Boonmee’s “contemplative mood and genial, curious spirit….encountered in an appropriately exploratory frame of mind [could] produce something close to bliss.” Exploratory is the key word here; this lush Thai film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, features surreal touches, including ghosts, spirits emerging from the jungle, and other shadowy beasts.

Alloy Orchestra Presents Masters of Slapstick
Sunday, May 8 (11:00 AM)
Charles Theater
A film festival tradition, the Alloy Orchestra writes and performs original scores to accompany silent films. This year is your chance to watch their embellishments of a series of short films featuring everyone’s favorite wordless masters of physical comedy: Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Photo by Rich Riggins, courtesy Maryland Film Festival

Announcing Donated Media: MD SPCA

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Baltimore Fishbowl’s Donate Media Program gives one-year of free media to a selected non-profit. This year’s recipient is the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Learn more about the Donated Media program at the bottom of the page. 

The MDSPCA Executive Director Aileen Gabbey kicks off the program with her interview below.

What is a typical workday like for you? Our mission is to help pets and people, so I need to stay focused on that. Recently, most of my time has been devoted to opening our new building, which was very exciting! Now, I have the fun of sharing that with our supporters! I’ll give tours of our new building; I’ll share happy stories with the media; I’ll spend time with staff and volunteers on our annual goals. I also spend time working with fellow directors in our Baltimore shelter alliance. Right now, we’re doing a big joint spay and neuter event together, which has been just great.

What is the most important thing the Maryland SPCA accomplished in 2010? The new building is definitely the big highlight! Our Board worked tirelessly on the campaign and our Staff worked wonders while we were under construction. While all of this was going on, we also opened a new wellness clinic, adopted almost 3,000 pets, neutered over 8,000 dogs and cats, and took in over 1,200 animals from the BARCS city shelter. We don’t sit still!

What is your highest/most ambitious goal for 2011? Hardest challenge? We want to keep focused on helping pets and people and each year we want to help more and more. This year, we want to increase our spay and neuter surgeries by 10%. We want to help more pets through our wellness clinic. I guess our challenge will be to let people know we still need help. Despite the success of the new building, we still have animals inside who have lots of needs!

Share some inspiring animal news! One of my favorite dogs recently was Stewie. He’s a five-year-old Lab we took in from the city shelter. Not only is Stewie older, he’s also blind. There is no time limit for an animal’s stay at the MD SPCA, so we know it takes a little longer for older or handicapped pets to get adopted. The dogs go out several times a day with our volunteers. I frequently saw Stewie out with his volunteer friends, warming his face in the sun. It took a few weeks, but, Stewie finally got adopted! I’ve attached his picture the day he went home with his new mom.

What can Baltimore animal lovers do to help the MD SPCA most effectively? Come help and spread the word that we need help! We don’t receive any operating funds from the government or the ASPCA. That surprises a lot of people. We rely on kind-hearted people to donate and volunteer.

How many pets do you have? And, are you sometimes tempted to adopt your rescues? People assume I am going to have a full house! My husband and I actually have just one dog and one cat, both from the MD SPCA. I try not to overdo it. But, I have to say, it is really tempting sometimes when I see the cute faces as I walk through each day!

 

Tight Genes

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Turns out Kate Middleton is 13th cousin, thrice removed, of Maryland’s own Francis Scott Key, the same fellow who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” we now know, thanks to news of the book, The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton, just released by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. While the several-hundred-year study, which detangles Middleton’s roots since 1521, doesn’t sound like a page-turner, pages do deliver amusing proof that the pretty princess, 29, is also loosely related to Colonial Maryland governor Sir Thomas Bladen, George Washington, General S. Patton, and talk-show-queen Ellen DeGeneres, among other famous folks. Which makes a person wonder if every one of us isn’t distantly stitched to someone famous (or infamous). Connections, once you start tracing bloodlines, abound. Check it: Baltimore native Elizabeth “Betsy” Bonaparte married Emperor Napoleon’s weak-willed brother, Jerome, in 1803–Napoleon I hated Betsy and did not invite her to set up house in France; Jerry, though he dug her, dumped her in 1805. Liz’s son, Bo, was the first president of the Maryland Club. (Although we can’t confirm if any of his relations still live in town. Anyone?) Baltimore style-setter Diana Warfield Daly is distantly related to Wallis Warfield Simpson, the de-throwning diva with the best-dialogue in “The King’s Speech” and the best-style ever to hit the royal family. Johns Hopkins Cardiologist James L. Weiss is the distant second-cousin-twice-removed of Harry Houdini. (Is that where he gets his life-saving magic?) If you knew you had old ties to someone history-book big, like Abraham Lincoln, how cool, right? On the other hand, what if you were related to John Wilkes Booth? We’d love to know who’s related to whom. Tell us what you know on the community page or below in comments…

Baltimore Rhino Makes A Splash

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In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a thousand-pound rhino living on the rocky land beside the Jones Falls River. It is a beautiful gray creature, awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and flat out surreal, positioned amid an urban setting.

People are starting to discover the beast, as they hike, bike, make out or smoke up, near the bucolic stream. “Wait, is that a rhino?” one guy asked himself aloud; another woman snapped a photo with her cell and texted a message.

To be clear: The rhino isn’t real, but looks so from afar. Chad Tyler, 29, exhibit designer at the National Aquarium, placed it there this spring. The artist sculpted the piece from foam and concrete, over a period of patient weeks, setting up studio in a Ruxton barn. Fishbowl talked to Chad about his process and vision for the unique, eco-conscious project he calls, “There’s a Rhinoceros in the River.”

FB: So, how did you become inspired to build this rhino for Baltimore?
CT: The Rhino was born of an idea originally conceived in the car while driving back to Chicago with Jowita (yo-v-ta), my amazing fiancé. Ever since we were introduced to the lower Jones Falls River valley when we moved here ten months ago, I have been in love with it. I have always been drawn to these landscapes that almost don’t seem to fit into their context, that challenge your expectations of the natural environment, and where the intersection of the manmade and nature is so seamless and integrated. Think Northerly Island in Chicago, a former airstrip, famously bulldozed overnight at the bequest of Mayor Daley. The airstrips are piled on the edge of the island, rebar, concrete, and all. Some of the old concrete lighting foundations still exist, some of the taxi-ways can be found buried by the tall grasses grown through its cracked pavement. …To me, the Jones Falls River is so much more interesting because of all its layers. Because it is this living thing, moving about the concrete rubble strewn about its banks, banging against stone walls meant to contain it–[flowing] beside and through old mills that borrowed its water to operate, underneath bridges built high to avoid being swept away…and eventually 70-feet beneath an eight-lane highway that borrows the rivers fluid design. A river seemingly obscured from view and unknown to many. The intersection of culture, history, and industry is great inspiration to me.

Having spent a number of years designing exhibits and experiences built around animals, water, and conservation, I have come to think a lot about the question of why people visit zoos and aquarium to view these animals. What is about this facilitated experience of nature that brings audiences back, time and time again? Why are we so often wrapped up, in love, with the iconic and exotic animals from the other side of the globe? I found myself in the library looking at the history of Baltimore, the Jones Falls River and the industrial development on its banks. I began to connect an interesting chronological correlation between the foundation of the Baltimore Zoo and the expansion of the cotton mills after the Civil War. The mills’ rapid growth and increased demand on the river, the manipulation of its banks, the construction of higher bridges; a certain destruction or manipulation of nature, and in kind a newfound desire to view exotic nature through the lens of a zoo, was really interesting to me.

Wait, why a rhino?!
My original idea was to sculpt or replicate a number of the world’s iconic animals. The panda bear, the giraffe, the hippo, the moose, a congress of antelope, the zebra, the rhinoceros, etc. convening on the banks of the Jones Falls as if to discuss the state of things. With obvious limitations I [singled out] the rhinoceros, the third largest terrestrial mammal, a seemingly solitary creature, built strong and yet possessing a certain compassion in its eye, almost sympathetic. I love some of the myth behind the rhino: Supposedly [adept] at detecting a fire, it runs into the forest and heroically stomps it out — a guardian to its neighbors.

What was your sculptural process like?
I began the process of sculpting the rhinoceros by first making a scale model out of plasticine, an oil-based clay. I then translated the model to a giant block of expanded polystyrene foam also known as EPS foam in a good friend’s barn in Ruxton. I basically whittled the big block of foam with a 16-inch hand saw, referencing back to the model, until I got it right. Once the form was complete, I coated it in a custom mix of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete to seal it and to create the details, color and texture.

What was the project’s hardest challenge?
Definitely the process of transporting it to the river and installing it. Once I finished with the concrete, I split the whole thing into three separate pieces. With the help, in total, of 15 volunteers across three evenings, we managed to move the pieces to the site, down a root-strewn, rocky slope, down a five foot flood wall, and across a hundred feet of boulder and gravel-laced river wash!

What do you hope viewers take away?
First and foremost, my hope with this project is to draw a smile to the face of the passersby. My hope is that once this happens, they may [stop and] see something they haven’t noticed before. I hope the project might encourage some to think differently about the river and our relationship to it… I would love if it has the ability to encourage some of the viewers to become advocates or stewards of the watershed through involvement in cleaning and protecting the river with an organization like Blue Water Baltimore. Getting involved by joining a trash pick-up event, an invasive species clearing day, or maybe by marking the storm drains on your block can help protect the watershed and continue to build an enduring relationship with the river.

Pot-Smoking Parents

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Remember teen parties in the seventies and eighties? A thick cloud of smoke would envelope that cute, smart boy you’d been eyeing in math? That kid was going places. He was also getting high.  Guess what: Now in his 40s or 50s, cute math guy has revived his habit, however, these days he keeps it well under the radar.

We talked to a few part-time puffers, none of whom would speak on the record (um, it’s illegal). Despite the stereotype that recreational drug use is an inner city problem, it is alive and well in the suburbs. “Weeds,” it seems, may be more fact than fiction.

But is it all in good, stinky fun, or are there significant consequences to pay? We invite you to comment below.

Over the holidays, Lauren, 44, attended a black-tie dinner party in her suburban neighborhood. White linen and gleaming silverware adorned the table. Crystal glasses foamed with champagne. Later, without being obvious, the white-collar dinner host invited guests to join him on the patio to share a joint.

“I’m surprised by the option of pot at a party, but then I think, well what did we expect?” Lauren says. “The facts are: We grew up in the 70s, listening to Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat and Deep Purple.  Pot was ubiquitous then. It’s not such a leap.”

Jill, 45, who lives in the Greenspring Valley, but grew up in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a hippie mom and businessman dad, agrees that late-night joints are about as common as cashews on the party scene of late.

“I think pot’s definitely on the upswing, and has been for several years,” Jill says. “Why? We’re suddenly dealing with middle age. Life is hard, with these midlife questions, and with the suck-y economy. A few years ago, everybody was trying to have four kids with bows stuck to the sides of their heads, wearing their adorable Lily smock dresses… My peers are getting real lately—I hear them talk about it; they’re giving up on perfection. They’re getting more realistic, and therefore more self-medicating.”

Jill sees marijuana as a healthful alternative to heavy drinking, which invites a hangover, and often conjures histrionic emotion in public settings.

“Among my friends, getting wasted on wine is a daily occurrence,” she says. “I see so much alcoholism among my peer group, it’s scary. To me, pot is a lighter alternative, one that is considered taboo only because it’s illegal. Look, as you move into adulthood, you’re going to pick a poison… And I’ve seen alcohol be more destructive in people’s lives.”

Many doctors and drug counselors still consider recreational pot to be a serious gateway drug, especially for younger people.

“I think [pot] can be a gateway drug in that exposure to mood-altering substances, especially at an early age, is often also exposure to the drug culture itself,” says Chris Ciattei, certified associate counselor in addictions for the Howard County Health Department. “However, nicotine and alcohol could be gateway drugs as well. It all depends on what gateway you are talking about. I have seen recent research on rats that suggests that cannabis use alters neuronal pathways and may make one more vulnerable to opiod abuse.”

Certainly, marijuana’s illegality makes it much more of a societal taboo than alcohol. It’s not something people discuss openly at Starbucks. For parents of underage children, the second controversy is an ethical one: The notion of hypocrisy becomes a provocative issue with which to grapple. Average parents, who have forbidden their kids to smoke or drink, are asking themselves, “What happens if the kids bust us for similar behavior?”

Though Lauren, who lives in Ruxton, didn’t try pot until she was 21, and afterward sampled it only a handful of times, she stopped for good once her kids were old enough to wander through her social events, identify such behavior, and be influenced by it.

“It freaked me out too much to think of my kids catching me,” Lauren says. “Therefore, I’m done. Imagine the embarrassment you would feel, and the credibility you’d lose if caught.”

Ciattei says there’s further reason for concern, beyond bad impressions. First, kids who witness their parents using drugs and alcohol are much more likely to try pot themselves. In addition, children who discover that their parents have lied to them or made an irresponsible decision are likely to have lingering trust issues.

“Most addicts I treat have family histories of substance abuse,” Ciattei says. “Children do model behavior they see in their home. [Additionally,] children shape their early views of the world based on what they experience in the home. In an environment where clear boundaries and honesty are not present, trust cannot be established. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is pure hypocrisy, and adolescents will pick up on that in a second.”

Marla, a North Baltimore resident, has been very strict with her kids about drugs, alcohol, dating, and schoolwork. When her teen son caught her smoking pot last summer, she wanted to evaporate with the fumes in the air. Marla wasn’t sure what to say to him, so in the moment, she simply apologized. The regret lives on. And she still worries about the message she sent that evening.

“Too many times I hear of parents getting caught by kids, especially kids over 16,” she notes.

Marla says her pot pals generally know how to control and conceal their marijuana use, to hide the practice from colleagues and neighbors who’d disapprove, and to purchase the drugs from “safe” sources. They bring pot to “certain” parties, where they feel ultra-safe. They think of the joint as their now-and-then martini. She says she fears the danger is not that parents will become addicted to this forbidden treat—the threat is not to their careers or relationships, it is to their kids.

“Parents realize that if they want to get high, they have to do so in a private place at home, which happens to be that same secret at-home spot where kids seek to engage in their own forbidden behaviors.” explains Marla.  They end up finding the parents’ stuff: a leftover pipe, a lighter, a half smoked joint, she adds. Ciattei agrees the bigger threat is to the young person in the equation—namely because a parent may not be genetically vulnerable to addiction the way her child very well might be.

“Biologic vulnerability, or genetic pre-disposition to addiction is a very new field of research,” Ciattei says. “…[However,] a human organism is either vulnerable to having their neuro-chemistry hijacked by a flood of feel-good chemicals, or has the ability to have a good time without the use of a pharmacological hammer. Research in the field of alcoholism is close to identifying an ‘addictive gene.’”

Additionally, Ciattei notes that habitual marijuana use may negatively affect a young brain still in the growth process.

“Recent research suggests that cannabis use, especially habitual, has a negative effect on the growing adolescent brain with regard to memory, cognition, learning, pre-frontal cortex development, and higher risk of psychiatric disorder development,” he explains. “It should [also] be noted that most addictions develop in late adolescence and early adulthood, prior to the full development of the brain around age 25.”

Jill expects that marijuana will someday soon be made legal nationally a decision she eagerly awaits, because, for one thing, it will remove the stigma that makes parents feel like hypocrites and even criminals.

Marijuana remains illegal. Though a bill to approve medical marijuana passed the General Assembly last month, Maryland Secretary of Health Joshua Sharfstein called for more testing on the issue and Governor Martin O’Malley agreed. It’s likely frozen until next session.

Even if the bill never becomes law, pot is incredibly easy to get. Rumor has it that many North Baltimore marijuana buyers often obtain the drug from a weekend warrior who can be found playing a popular local sport. Husbands generally procure it from the same man, who plays weekend games and sells his supply at this time. But where does this athletic, clean-cut fellow make his original buy? From a supplier in Philadelphia who grows a range of hydroponic grades, party pot, mellow pot, etc, in his basement, they say.

For Lauren and Marla, it makes perfect sense to stay away until their kids are out of the house, and perhaps old enough to face similarly tough questions as parents of utterly impressionable little ones.

“If my kids asked me if I smoke pot, I’d lie. If my kids caught me, I’d be like, ‘Once you’re 21, you’re allowed to make your own decision; you do it before and you’re dead meat,’” adds one party guest of Jill’s, a joint dangling in her hand.

ArtWalk 2011

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Art to Go: The time has come for the (artist) chicks to fly the coop. The Maryland Institute hosts the 2011 commencement at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Monday, May 16th, at 1:30. The graduating seniors’ corresponding art show deserves its reputation as a fantastic place to snag cool work on the cheap. Campus-wide exhibition will be open to the public Friday 11am-8pm, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from 11am-5pm. About 400 students will present their work. Participating departments include illustration, graphic design, painting, fibers, and photography.
 
Early birds can survey (and purchase) work first at ArtWalk, which takes place Thursday night, May 12 at 5pm. ArtWalk gives the public an opportunity to stroll around and mingle with the students, who will be tethered to their exhibit for the night. Tickets for ArtWalk run $25, and a reception with food and alcohol follow at 8.

Anyone and everyone will have an opportunity to buy art from the graduating class throughout the weekend. You never know, you could walk away with the next Grace Hartigan. Pieces for sale will be designated with a price tag. There will also be a master price list of all artwork for sale through the MICA store (
Get a sneak peak at some of the work by students, faculty, and alum at
http://www.mica.edu/Browse_Art.html

Or check out my work at http://www.kristinhughesdesign.com/illustration!

Reading, The Solitary Vice

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Introducing “On Culture,” a new column by super-thinker Mikita Brottman, chronicling the weird and wonderful world of Baltimore, with special focus on fascinating small things oft overlooked.

This is an extract from my book about reading, The Solitary Vice (Counterpoint). I wrote the book partly in response to my work teaching literature to art students at MICA. My students read all the time, though they often do so in ways I found difficult to recognize (for example, they read online, on their laptops or phone screens, or via e-books). This led me to re-think some of my assumptions about reading, and literacy in general.

It’s about as difficult not to judge someone by the books (or lack of them) on their shelves as it is not to judge a book by its cover. But I keep trying, and I think I’m getting better at not jumping to conclusions. After all, books can be all kinds of things to all kinds of people—they can be tools, guides, investments, manuals, home décor, work, produce, or just a messy pile of clutter. I try to remember, too, that not all readers accumulate books. Some see no point in keeping books after they’ve read them, and will sell them, or give them away. More and more people are getting into the habit of reading e-books on their laptops or BlackBerrys, and more and more libraries are being converted to electronic form. Though it may well turn out that the portable, private form of the book—the kind we can hold in our hands, and cradle in our lap—continues to provide, for most people, the ideal fulfillment of immersion in another world, this doesn’t mean it’s the only way this need can be satisfied. Deep immersion is a style of reading which, in itself, is a by-product of the growth of the novel—traditionally considered to be a grand, fictional creation to be read at a leisurely pace, and in a private setting. Novel reading is certainly well suited to the lap or the bed, but other kinds of reading require different postures.

Mikita teaches literature and film studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Baltimore Novelist Jessica Blau Talks to the Fishbowl about Her New Book

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Jessica Anya Blau is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her Masters in fiction. Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Maryland. She has been awarded scholarships from Bread Loaf and The Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and fellowships from Johns Hopkins University and Sewanee. Her stories have won numerous awards and have appeared in notable magazines and anthologies. She is also the author of the novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.

We talked to Jessica about her much praised sexy second novel, Drinking Closer to Home (Harper, 2011), a funny and ambitious family story inspired by her own Santa Barbara peeps.

Fishbowl: Your laugh-out-loud funny + super moving second novel Drinking Closer to Home is inspired by your real life. Exactly how much is whole-cloth true? Overweight, “lesbian” cat, Maggie Bucks, a real family pet?

Jessica Blau: All the animals are real and I used their real names. I figured they wouldn’t sue me. I did take liberties, like putting dead animals with ones that are still alive. Gumba is dead now. And so is Jasmin. Little Carl White might be dead now, too. I never ask about her. Fat, nasty Maggie Bucks is still alive and getting fatter every day. She’s the size of an ottoman. It’s gross. And there’s a new cat who came in since the book was published. His name is Fweddy Wobitzer. He’s like some rude, spoiled boy who wears knickers with a ruffled shirt, and prances around like an entitled prince. But at least he’s better looking than Maggie Bucks.

FB: Who was the most difficult character to write, and why? The easiest, why?

JB: They were all fairly easy—they were based on my family so their voices and actions are embedded in my head. Anna was the most fun character to write because she behaved so badly at times. She does the most drugs, has the most outrageous sex, and is the most outspoken. All that stuff’s pretty fun to put down on the page.

FB: How did you get so expert at writing funny and convincing sex scenes? Would you say the awesomely detailed sex scene is becoming your trademark?

JB: I’m glad you think they’re awesome!  I think that I don’t even realize I’m writing a sex scene, in a way.  So I approach them the same way I approach any scene—from an interior place, feeling the characters, seeing the movie run in my head.  I was on a sex panel at the Baltimore Writers’ Conference and so I had to actually sit down and think about how I write sex scenes. What I discovered is that writing good sex is like writing good dialogue.  More than anything else it should reveal character.  So, rather than writing a play-by-play (hand on breast, hand on penis, etc.), which would come off sounding pornographic, the writing should focus on the internal lives of the characters (someone worried about greasy hands sliding right off a breast, etc.).  The scene should show who these people are and what it’s like to live in their bodies at that moment.  Does that make sense? I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re not freaked out by sex and just write it like any other scene involving two or more (or less!) people, then the writing should be equal to all other writing in the book.

FB: Your own one-of-a-kind mom is alive and well, but she is ill in the novel — did this poignant element of the story bring your family closer, or were you already great long-distance friends (as the closing Q&A suggests)?

JB: I’ve always been very close to everyone in my family. There are periods when we’ll drift out, but we always drift back in again. It’s a “no-obligation” family—you don’t have to show up for anything, you don’t have to call on birthdays, etc. (In fact, everyone in my family seems to forget birthdays). So when we see each other, it’s because we really do want to see each other.

FB: Would you have been able to tackle this deep life material so generously and humorously at an earlier point in your life, do you suspect?

JB: That’s a good question. I do think I was ready for this story when I wrote it and certainly couldn’t have written it earlier. It took a lot emotional distancing to look back on stuff that did happen and be able to tell it as a narrator and not as a participant. For most of us, the readiness comes with the distance. If you’re too close, still feeling it in your gut and the backs of your eyes when you tell it, then it might come out sounding like junior high diary entries, ie: “Oh mah gawd!!! You’ll never believe what happened!!!”

FB: Is it less intimidating to write a story inspired by your West Coast fam from the faraway reaches of Baltimore, MD?

JB: I think it’s easier to write about California from the faraway reaches of Baltimore. The distance helps me see it from more of an outsider perspective. My brother lives in Amsterdam now, my sister’s in Boston, and my dad’s in New York City. Only my mother is still in California, in the house that shows up in the book.

FB: Is your next novel, which I’ve read has mystery/thriller flavor, inspired by your own life as well? Give us a teaser synopsis.

JB: The next novel is 98 percent fiction. It’s about a good girl, 20 years old, who does something really, truly stupid and bad. The novel is essentially the unraveling of the knot she finds herself in. It takes place in Berkeley and Los Angeles—two very different but equally cool cities.

FB: Will you write a Baltimore-based novel sometime, do you imagine, and if you ever did, what would it be called?

JB: Well I do love Baltimore, so I love the idea of a Baltimore book, but I’ve never thought of writing one. I’m not sure why. Maybe if I title it now, the book will come to me. Okay, here’s the title: High Ponytails, Hot Weaves and Headbands. Of course I’m commenting on the hairstyles that run the gamut from Hampden to Guilford. But, that’s no good, is it? Okay, how about this: Running Reds. Only a Baltimore person would get that. After 15 years here, I’m still not used to the fact that you can’t drive immediately on a green light because you have to wait for all the red-light-runners to finish flying through the intersection.
 
FB: Have you sold this current novel as an ebook?

JB: It is available as an ebook. And you can get it on Kindle or Nook. I have a Nook that I use when I travel. It’s a lot lighter than five books.

FB: Do you think that most dedicated fiction readers will primarily read electronically in 10 years, and what will that mean for the publishing industry?

JB: I have no idea. Really, there are so few things I know in this world. When I was 19 I thought I knew everything. When I was 29 I thought I knew a lot but not everything. Now I realize I know very, very little. This is okay; it just means there’s more to find out.

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