Sunday, July 17, 2005

Google Madness
[from the secret files of N.A.*]

*Narcissists Anonymous

I. The Slippery Slope.

You try to be strong, to be patient, to take the zen view that worrying it will do no good anyway.

You try to take the advice of your editor, your agent, your friends, fellow writers, your shrink, your analyst, your podiatrist, your psychopharmocologist, your mother [that's how bad it's gotten: you're soliciting advice from your mother], that the best thing you can do now is to block it out and just work:Work on your next book. Work on your garden. Take up a new hobby. [Blogging, anyone?] Take up smoking.

You try to hear--I mean, really hear--those same members of your League of Support Professionals as they say, with that patronizing earnestness that makes you want to slit their well-meaning throats, that it's the Inner You that matters: you've written a great book, you're an artist, you can't let external circumstances over which you have no control become a measure of how you feel about yourself--

--and then you say, ENOUGH! Quit with the laying on of hands! I'm not going to spend the rest of my life in a womb or a plastic bubble or a sensory deprivation chamber. I'm a grownup, and
  • I'll smoke if I want to! And--
  • yeah, I know about identity theft & all, but SOMETIMES, dammit, I just don't FEEL like shredding my bills after I've paid them! And--
  • OK--they can legislate my obligation to wear seatbelts, but not since I was sitting in a fucking CAR-SEAT were they in a position to forcibly strap me in!!!

For a time, this declaration of independence feels freeing. Until...well, there's that clock, in the kitchen--boy does that sucker get loud, late at night when you're all alone. A little less deliberate, but no less maddening, is the slow plink-pulink-puuuuuh-LINK! of the faucet-from-hell as droplets land with unexpected percussive resonance in the basin of the sink. And then there's the irritating buzz of--whatzit, a skeeter?--and as you squash that skeeter and scratch at the one actual site of attack, suddenly it feels like you're covered with insect bites, or fleas, or some horrible skin disease, you're scratching madly at your arms and legs and belly, until at last you throw your head back and howl (again),


A junky needs her dope, a bulemic needs his Twinkies. Writers?

Well, what you'd prefer is real data, feedback, some sense that something is happening out there--anything?!?--with/for/in relation to the prospects for your forthcoming book... Absent that? Invariably, you'll look back on this as the moment where the wheels came off--that first time you typed that fateful URL into the Address bar of your computer and hit return. And so it begins.

The vigil....The stakeout....

The hourly sales-ranking check-in.

Gotta get that fix...It doesn't matter that the "data" Amazon provides tells you nothing, of course, or at least nothing you can make any sense of. In the weeks leading up to publication--a moment you've spent much of your life will be more often visited by the average writer than Nerve or Skank or PornPro or any of the other usual favorites.

And when Amazon fails to deliver the desired reassurance? Well, like those anti-drug lecturers always told us back in grade school: what starts innocently invariably leads to the harder stuff.... And so it goes: the little devil on the left side senses your weakness, taps you on the shoulder, and whispers those two syllables whose effects will prove ever more insidious, ever more seductive--


"Huh?" you ask.
That left-shoulder Beelzebub hisses encore:


And this, my friends, is when the trouble really begins: because once you've taken that maiden voyage--once you've signed your name into the log-book of that turbo-charged search-vessel--you've conscripted yourself to a life of hard labor on the turbulent seas of narcissism... For if you live long enough, and manage to create enough trouble (however minor), you, too, can run a Google search and find that somebody, somewhere, has written about you--an alumni magazine, a catalog for a writer's workshop, a piece of hate-mail identifying you as part of an industry wide conspiracy to fill-in-the-blank ...

Trouble is, no number's big enough... Believe me: I know.

II. A Cautionary Tale.

Friends: Tonight, at long last--having hit rock-bottom; and being beyond salvation, beyond dignity, beyond redemption--I raise my tchukus off this plain pine bench, stand before you all, and say,

Hi. My name is Max
and I'm a Narcissist.
A Hyperbolist.
A Google-Junky who's lost his way.

It's a familiar enough story. I started in the cowardly trade of publishing as a desk-jockey, a copyist, a scrivener with delusions of grandeur. In the beginning it was but a lark--a temporary gig, I'd say with a shrug, exhaling cigarette smoke with a world-weary roll of the eyes. Bigger things--Yale Law, UCLA film school, LSE, Iowa--were always just around the corner. But a decade passed, then another--there I was still, in my 8x8 cubicle with a partly-obscured view of the sotty brick wall across the narrow air-shaft. My hair thinned, then fell away; in the meantime my sedentary habits, combined with my love of Hostess Fruit Pies, wreaked havoc on my once-girlish figure.

Then--Halleleujah!--the new wave of reality television hit. Knowing myself ill-suited for an actual personality overhaul, but consumed, now, with the Lotto-like jackpot potential I'd witnessed so frequently during the Sweeps-Week finales of so many of the shows (to say nothing of a deep-seated [or is it -seeded?] desire to appear on David Letterman), I knew that my time had come. A mid-life makeover was nigh on the horizon. All I needed now was the vehicle through which to create an alternate personae.

Then, in the fall of '04, Time Magazine named Mark Sarvas "Man of the Year" and declared ours The Age of the Blog. And Mad Max Perkins was born.

At first, of course, it was bliss. The controversy! The accolades! None other than Maud Newton (who we'd call "legendary" if she weren't way too fly to wear that style) characterized BookAngst as "an indispensable source of information about the inner machinery of publishing. " The afore-mentioned Mark Sarvas declared "We can't remember a blog becoming indispensible as quickly as Mad Max Perkins' BookAngst 101 has." As "Max" I received mentions in the Denver Post, New York Newsday, the Boston Globe, Crain's New York. Even NPR wanted to know: who's this Mad Max fellow, and how do we get him on our show?

A month or so after the launch of BookAngst--it was late, I was hungry--I ran an innocent search through Yahoo or MSN. In the "search" field I typed

"Late night delivery, chocolate cake"
and hit return. The result failed to satisfy. So I turned then to another search engine.


I was so impressed with the results of THIS "chocolate cake" search that I tried Google another time: I typed in my own name. The result was predictably unsatisfying: it came back with a scant 17 matches, 12 of which rightly belonged to a San Diego-based attorney famous, briefly, for defending a serial killer.

Without giving it much thought, I typed in

and fell quite out of my chair. The number of matches read 652,003.


Dr. Grumpy O. Bookman recently presented a fascinating post on the subject of narcissistic personality disorder, which includes a list of tell-tale personality traits.

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • A need for excessive admiration.
  • A sense of entitlement...not justified by [his] attainments.

The list goes on. Every item fits me to a "t".


The particulars of my fall are too humiliating to repeat in detail--yet I cannot help myself... Suffice it to say that, as delighted as I was by my IGO [Initial Google Output], I was disappointed that my subsequent Googlings didn't reflect a similarly exponential growth pattern. As my number plateaued--flatlined, really--I spent more and more of my late-night hours trying to find new mentions of the good deeds of Mad Max Perkins. One hour a night became two, then three; this in addition to the time spent on new posts themselves, which became ever-more transparent in their desperation. I was begging for more links, for more mentions, for the bloggists' equivalent of column inches.

Cruel, fickle bastards all! They'd moved on! M.J. Rose's popularity grew and grew, while visitors to my site dwindled to a dozen or so a day. Maud, Mark, Sarah--they no longer paid any attention. The cruelist irony? In late 2004 I won Honorable Mention in the "Bloggist With A Bullet" category; in 2005, mine was named "Blahg of the Year." In barely eight months I'd gone from hot-stuff to has-been. I'd become completely irrelevant.

But the humilation doesn't stop there. So much Googling-till-the wee-hours left me with more than just pale skin and bags under my eyes. In March my supervisor called me into his office. After months of falling further and further behind in my work in the contracts department, he'd had enough. I was given two weeks' severance, plus a half-hour to pack up my things. I stole a stapler.

III. Endnotes.

Gotta get my shit together
Cuz I can't live like this forever
I've come too far & I don't want to fail
I've got a new computer and a
Bright future in sales

--Fountains of Wayne "Bright Future in Sales"

You know that old saw about how you learn who your real friends are when the chips are down? For a long time I'd been out of touch with my #1 touchstone, Dexter (aka Deadly Dee)--I figured he'd corralled a mid-six-figs contract for a whip-wicked comic memoir about life in the land of bookmaking (part THE INFORMATION, part Dave Eggers) and was now waiting in Paris with his new gang of celebrity pals to greet Lance Armstrong as he crossed the finish line of the Tour de France. So I was quite touched--humiliated, too, of course, but those who love you best tell the truest truths, even when it hurts--that, as I stumbled about in these, the last days of Max, Deadly Dexter appeared again:

you might get "sadly missed" on your tombstone, max, but by revealing yourself like some old flasher in the park you'll actually become what you really are, an anonymous cog in the satanic mills of book production, whose mid-life idealism crisis petered out into embarassing showmanship and the kind of ambiguity that makes me, for one, really fear for the future of publishing, if this is all that an insider's effort to change things leads to.... and now, at the end, you rely on hired wizardry and sleight-of-hand, like it was all a staged act to infiltrate your opposition. or maybe you're just the bloke who comes to do the magic tricks at the bloggers annual tea-party. you're quitting a sinking ship if you abandon this blog. shut the fuck up about who you are and keep fighting your corner like the real max perkins would've done. otherwise you'll just mirror your own executive career and let eventual world domination by one publisher takes its course. stay and help the writers, put a beret on instead, join the resistance to establish three things: split the multi-nationals back into indies, put a low ceiling on advances and get rid of the agent system. if you're not up to it then get off my screen for good and stop over-writing your final bow.

About this, Dexter is, of course, right: it is time for me to go, and I am overwriting my final bow, or at least taking too damn long to get it over with. And my posts have shifted--away from those of an insider asking potentially useful questions [about an industry moving further and further away from serving anyone well (including itself)]; tending instead toward easier, more clownish pieces that draw attention to Le Max rather than to Le BookAngst per se.

Narcissistic, that is, rather than something more broadly utilitarian.

On this front, I offer no apologies: it's hard work, this, even when the feedback has both been so energizing and made it so clear how great a hunger there is for some sort of industry perspective, for some sense that people on the inside aren't wholly disconnected from those on the outside.

I agree with Dexter regarding at least one of what he sees as our industry's three deadly ills (as articulated above)--the seemingly endless consumption of one publisher by another--when our only REAL hope is greater diversity & independence, not less. But there's finally nothing much that can be done about this by those of us among the rank-and-file, unless one has a Don Quixote complex and happens to be sitting on huge vats of capital, two variables that don't often co-exist.

If I had a particular goal when I started, it was to better understand how the machinery works, and to learn some new tricks of the trade--and I'm not sure how much we accomplished on that front, to be honest. The business is so f***ing hard now, and there's so much pressure on those working inside it, that either they don't have the time for (shall we say) pro bono discourse about (say) how to do some of the little things better; or they feel that giving away what few secrets they possess will put them at the sort of competitive disadvantage that might, soon, cost them their jobs.

Nonetheless, a whole lot of people--editors and publishers and agents and writers and others with industry experience in marketing & publishing (often under cloak of anonymity, which frankly served everyone well, me included)--DID share their expertise, on a whole lot of topics (midlist, anyone?), for which I'm enormously grateful.

From the end-line, I see that what I really hoped to do was to expand--for my own sake, if nothing else--my sense of what constitutes Our Community. And in this regard--speaking for myself, if for no-one else--I'm enormously pleased by the outcome. As Max I've made friends I'd never have made as not-Max, and feel, now, part of a universe that's much larger and much more generous than I'd understood it to be previously. The rise of blogs generally made it inevitable that a more intimate and honest discourse would emerge, one way or another; but I'll always be thrilled to have been an active part of that conversation, and to have had the excuse to get a close-in view of the passion and intelligence of so many lit-bloggers (there are way too many to mention individually), who if nothing else have demonstrated that books--and readers--are alive and well. And, deserved or otherwise, I take a modicum of pride at having perhaps spurred the emergence of other industry-bloggers such as Agent 007, Sepulculture and Miss Snark.

As for me? I'm off to work the program, the 12 steps of Narcissists Anonymous. And to apply myself, whole-cloth, to the business of being an editor. I'm not quitting a sinking ship; I'm just stepping down from the quarter deck (I was never officer material in the first place), and resuming my duties as deck-swabber first class. I return--refreshed and rejuvenated--to "fighting my corner" in the way that suits me best: one book, one author, at a time.


P.S. If there's a use for it, BookAngst 101 may, in some limited capacity, continue to exist--as a forum for other industry-folk, say. News on that score to come at a later date.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Max Unmasked

Bloggers ("Blahgers"--Mark Sarvas, TEV) Panel, BEA June 2, 20
05. From L-R: Moderator Mark Dressler; Michael Cader; M.J. Rose; Max the Unmasked; and Robert Gray

As our time together reaches its end, I feel a great sense of relief that I can finally reveal my true identity. It's funny: in the comments to the Mighty Mouse/Fuller Brush post (wherein I dispelled the rumor that I might, in fact, be Karl Rove), an astute reader called me "poncey"--from which he then (rightly) extrapolated that I must be "a Brit." In the months since, I was apparently successful in disguising my poncey-ness--but that early reader had been right all along.

I must say I'm disappointed, a bit, that nobody "got" the hint made so explicitly with my BEA get-up! My costume was variously identified as representing Gandalf; Merlin; and Professor Dumbledore on crack--yet the truth was right there under your noses! That's the trouble with you kids these days--you've lost touch with your roots! I see you on the subway ("and walking all over/Manhattan") as you rock out to Britney singing her version of SATISFACTION ("a man comes on to tell me/how tight my skirt can be") without a clue about where that song came from in the first place!

But here's one more chance, dear people! Instead of telling you my identity, I'll give you one last try at figuring it out for yourselves.

Step One: Look at the picture (above) taken at BEA--notice the fellow in the pointy hat?

Step Two: Now look at this album cover. Notice, again, the fellow in the pointy hat...
Monday, July 11, 2005

A Cry for Help (or: Notes from the Dark Side)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you'll welcome, without judgment, a new lost soul, who comes before us here at LitBloggers Anonymous to ask for forgiveness for sins past & future.

Ladies and Gentleman, this individual claims to have been, in a more glorious past, a member of "The Editors' Club"--described (so aptly) as
that group of talent-finders and dream-makers who instinctively know what the fine readers of the world will embrace.
But at a certain point our poor Anonymite lost the way, and began to exhibit all the tell-tale signs... Took to watching television (network television!) till all hours of the night; to selling, without remorse, books received via "bigmouth" mailings to the Strand; to admiring, then acquiring, jewelry and wristwatches and eye-wear of a far more gaudy nature then had ever been the case before; and discovering, over time, that the idea of picking up the lunch tab at Michael's was becoming more and more repugnant. The final straw came when, after screaming mercilessly at a poor overworked editorial assistant (and ENJOYING it), this individual realized that there was no horror in the world so horrible as writing YET ANOTHER PIECE OF CATALOG COPY.
And it was at that moment that another member of that rapscallion breed was born. No, but we must refrain from judgment! Please, all:
Welcome Agent 007!
I have not yet seen the (expired) union card, so I cannot vouch for or verify said (former) membership in the esteemed Editors' Club. There is, however, something about the cadences of Agent 007's inaugural posting that suggests at least a passing familiarity with the secret handshakes and the ol' wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more! insiderisms known only to We the Gatekeepers of [etc]...

Friends, whether this individual is honorable or not (and if Agent 007 is truly an agent, we can be sure that Honor is more a flag flown than a way of walking), there is no doubt that we must respond to this cry for help. Please, I beg of you: pay a sympathetic visit, and offer a few kind words, and remember:

There, but by the grace of God...
Saturday, July 09, 2005


Credit cards have gone missing. Keys have been copied. Inappropriate voice-mail messages have been reported...
To Whom (etc):

If you are approached by someone representing himself as "Max" or "Mad Max Perkins," proceed with caution. If contact is made, steer conv. if possible away from media-related topics--known triggers include "David Letterman," "Amazon dot com," "Google," etc. We have no reason to consider him dangerous; however, kindly decline his offers to buy you lunch, housewarming gifts, etc.

P.S. As soon as we find him, he WILL be fired.
Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Promo Gizmo Halo Cool

M.J. Rose, known by many in these parts as the industry's most persistent voice regarding the need for publishers--and authors--to be pro-active in terms of the marketing of books, has once again put her money where her mouth is. This week the paperback of her Anthony-nominated thriller THE HALO EFFECT comes out from Mira, and--not surprisingly--MJ refuses to settle for the status quo. Among other marketing initiatives (which she writes about at her blog), she hired VidLit to produce a movie-style promo.

Let me say, emphatically, that I think it's a knockout. (If anyone thinks VidLits can only work for funny books, think again.) I was so impressed that I had to track her down and ask her a few questions.

MMP: I loved the HALO VidLit--wonderfully evocative and atmospheric, and it definitely makes me want to read the book. Are you happy with how it turned out?
MJR: Not to overuse the word, but I'm thrilled. I'd seen a lot of Liz's work and knew how well the form worked for humor, as you pointed out, but this was the first thriller she worked on. I couldn't be more pleased.

How involved were you in making it?
MJR: I brought the idea to my publisher and they loved it. And then they blew me away when they signed up to do not one, but three - one for each of the books in the series (July 05, Jan 06, July 06). Knowing that they were going to be putting so much behind this effort, I really wanted to come up with some unusual marketing ideas with the Vidlit once it was completed. But creatively, it was Liz Dubelman's creativity that made it work and her talent that pulled it off.

How long did it take to produce?
MJR: Liz at would be the one to ask--I suspect she can adapt to different timetables. But mine took about three months.

What did it cost?
MJR: Liz charges by the minute--not minutes of her time, but minutes of finished product. It's in the ballpark of $5000 per minute.

How is your publisher using it?
MJR: First we came up with the idea of doing blog ads for the book that link to the Vidlit. So for the next two weeks ads will be all over the blogshpere. I'm thrilled (that word again) that Mira decided to do this. It's pretty innovative and required them to be willing to test an unproved concept. In addition there are some huge email lists that the Vidlit company itself markets each Vidlit to. My ppublisher is also looking for some other innovative venues for this one and future Vidlits but that's under wraps until we know for sure. I do have it on my laptop which I show to everyone I can stop in the street, on the train, at the nail salon, etc., (no, just kidding).

So you're feeling pretty good about this?
MJR: Very. It sure does seem to me like there's a different level of excitement this time than there has been for any of my previous books. Mira has totally supported this novel; everyone from the sales force to the publicity department has been terrific. Yeah, I'm thrilled. (That word again). The icing on the cake is that the book became an international bestseller today. Another first for me.

And what's this "Blog-a-Thon" promotion?
MJR: I got five sponsors to agree to donate a combination of a dollar each to Reading Is Fundamental. So for every blog that links to my VidLit, RIF gets $5. My goal is to get 500 blogs, which translates to $2500.

The campaign is called "Good Books/Good Cause" and if it's successful we'll see about expanding the program to include other authors too. I'm working with publicist Lauren Cerand.

What're you up to so far? How many blogs are on board, I mean.
MJR: We just sent out the first wave of letters to bloggers this morning and there are three more waves to go out. But as of 2 PM today [Wednesday] about twenty-five people have written to say they are already putting up the links.

Who's your editor at Mira? You know me--always looking to get in a plug for a good editor if I can...
MJR: She's not just good, she's wonderful. Margaret O'Neill Marbury, who is executive editor at Mira Books. You know, everyone loves to talk about all the first novelists who get the big push and how lucky they are. That I'm getting this sort of push on book five, well, I'm incredibly appreciative, and I have Margaret to thank.
Saturday, July 02, 2005

Stars & Stripes: Kim Ponders, Femme La Guerre

Kim Ponders is author of a literary novel coming out from HarperCollins this fall called THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT. It retraces the tumultuous life of Annie Shaw from childhood—as the daughter of a Vietnam-era fighter pilot—through to her becoming a pilot herself. Kim—and, perhaps not by coincidence, Annie too—served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. Mad Max “sat” with Kim Ponders recently to talk about books, gender, self-promotion and life in the armed forces.

Max: When I say “the armed forces,” I mean, of course, the literary community. Have you ever encountered so savage an enemy as a writer wronged?
KP: Savage, certainly not. Writers are a cultivated, crafty lot, though we might think savage thoughts.

Did you grow up wanting to be a pilot, or a writer? Or none of the above?
KP: I grew up wanting to survive. I had no plans to be a writer or flyer until those opportunities came before my eyes, which they did, roundabout the out years of college. What I am is an opportunist, and if something looks captivating, I’ll go for it.

And which career have you enjoyed more? Or is the jury still out?
KP: Writing, certainly. I work my own hours and don’t have to get my uniforms pressed.

Annie Shaw, Air Force pilot. Kim Ponders, Air Force pilot. Hmmm. Care to provide a de rigueur disclaimer about the difference between life and art?
KP: Hemingway said ‘Write what you know.’ John Gardner said, ‘Write only from your imagination.’ Now, I ask you, who’s better known?

Your honor! The witness is being non-responsive! Will you please direct her to answer the question?
KP: Not non-responsive. Crafty. Yes, counselor, I grew up in circumstances very similar to those I describe in the novel. And the scenes that occur before and during the war are based on things I saw and witness, and yes, experienced—because those scenes I chose were, I think, the most evocative and the most telling. I wanted to get at what I thought was the essence of what it’s like to be a woman flying in the Air Force. For the record, I was an aircrew member with AWACS, but not a pilot.
[Ed. note: Here's more back story regarding the writing of her novel.]

The opening sections of THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT reminded me a bit of Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club. Did you read that book?
KP: Of course. It’s a great book. Our lives were not terribly similar. I grew up in Massachusetts, not East Texas, for one thing. My father was a grandiose man and a mystery to me, and my mother died when I was very young. But Mary Karr strikes me, at least from her memoir, as a survivor. The key, the gift, I think, is to be able to internalize things and then articulate them, spit them out again. That’s what Mary Karr did and what I tried to do with THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT.

And then Annie Goes to War. I can’t think of any novels that tell about war from a woman soldier’s p.o.v.—is “soldier” right, by the way, in your case?
KP: No, in this case, it would be airman.

But re: the point of view—and I don’t mean to diminish novels about war written from a female civilian point of view, but are there others about a soldier’s experience from the point of view of a woman? Other than, say, thrillers?
KP: Not that I know of, at least in English. The Russians had women fighter pilots in WWII, and the Israelis have had them for years. Perhaps there are novels from those countries.

What’s the best soldier’s-experience-of-war novel you ever read?
KP: Hands down, it’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I’m not sure if that’s a novel—it might be linked stories. In any case, it’s a phenomenal encapsulation of what it must have been like for a vet to come to terms with Vietnam. In terms of pure novel, I’d choose A Farewell to Arms or Catch-22.

You’ve recently launched a blog, FEMME LA GUERRE—“A take on modern war and the American military from an ex-Air Force flyer turned writer and—can we say it (Gasp)—Woman.” That “(Gasp)” is really part of the subtitle, by the way. Why “Gasp”?
KP: People who knew me from early in my life couldn’t believe I’d joined the Air Force. And then, there I was, an outspoken woman aviator who also read books. A real enigma. In fact, I never gave a second thought to being a ‘woman’ through all this. I just did what I wanted to do. All the arguments surrounding women in the military have always sounded irrelevant. Why should it make a difference that I’m speaking from a woman’s perspective?—and yet, that seems to make all the difference in the world.

So what is this blog, anyway—a publicity stunt for your novel, I assume?
KP: (laughs) Damn straight! It’s the converse of “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

That went way over my head.
KP: Well, there are a lot of literary novelists out there writing literary fiction about firemen and cops and soldiers and housewives and schoolteachers, whether they’ve actually been any of those things or not. And it doesn’t matter—if they’re good, I mean—whether they’ve lived the life or not.

But in terms of marketing a book?
KP: Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of novels by someone with my background. And everyone says how hard it is to get attention for literary fiction, and it is, obviously. I’m proud of my background, proud of my military career and I feel like I’ve got something to contribute to the public conversation—especially now, with a war on. And if it happens to help sell some copies of my book, too, then great.

In one of your posts you write about the four soldiers—women—who were killed in Iraq last week.
KP: Yes, four women were killed—3 marines and a sailor--in an ambush on a convoy last week. And this incident has everyone up in arms again about whether women should hold combat positions.

Did you have any particular reaction to this news? Different than, say, news that four male soldiers had been killed? I know that the p.c. answer is supposed to be, No, all death is a tragedy--but surely, as someone who served yourself during the first Gulf War, you identified with these women in some fashion, no?
KP: My first (emotional) reaction was one of frustration and sadness. I feel terrible for their families, for all the kids who’ve lost parents over there. But I think your question is a little leading. P.C. or not, I feel the same sense of helpless loss for each of the almost 2000 deaths that have happened. The fact that four women died—the most during a single incident to date—doesn’t effect my emotional reaction, and it doesn’t effect my politics. My second reaction was that, damn, this is going to reignite the issue of ‘women in combat’ that had Congress stirred up last month. I think it’s wrong to resurrect such a complicated argument based on a tragic event and expect the outcome to be some rational solution. The U.S. desperately needs a sane, intelligent national debate on whether and how women will serve in combat. Unfortunately, we’ll never have this debate if the only time it ever comes up is when a crisis occurs. What we don’t need are more emotional knee-jerk reactions, more simple sound bites. The issue itself it not at all simple.

You also talk about a movement afoot presently designed to curtail the number presence of women in combat zones. I read about this in the New York Times, and it mentioned an Army general who was in FAVOR of such a bill. The article indicated that women in the military seemed to take the opposite view--that is, they were in favor of making their presence in such situations more (rather than less) the norm. What's your guess about the mindset of women serving currently? What's your own view?
KP: It’s a complicated situation. The Army isn’t advocating putting women in direct combat positions, but in ‘combat support’ positions. It’s complicated because of the way the Army is redesigning their combat force to be more responsive to asymmetric threats. They want lighter, more mobile units to move around with their own support (i.e. intelligence) personnel—which are by definition ‘support’ positions and frequently women. The problem is that because these units are on the front lines, the ‘support’ positions are coming under direct fire, and firing back. But I believe it’s a political, rather than a military issue. The Army cares about one thing: winning the war. The generals in charge care not a dime about the issue of women in combat. At least I hope they don’t. I hope they’re thinking about the best way to win the war tomorrow. Administrators, policy makers, politicians—these are the people who make the issue confusing—rather that being the leaders they’ve signed up to be, they’re too busy polling the voters to put their spin on the issue. It’s frankly gone beyond the issue of whether women should participate in combat. They do—and they have to. There ain’t enough willing men to fill the roles. Oh, well, I guess we could open the draft. Perhaps that’s a better solution.

Is the General being a chauvinist, or are there reasons why women SHOULDN'T be on the front lines, other than not wanting to be killed? Which obviously is a desire that transcends gender lines...
KP: No, he’s being a realist. Most men are stronger and faster than most women. Fewer women than men can meet the challenges of the front line work. Not all women belong on the front lines—but some do. Some can carry their weight (and others’ too). And, by the way, there are plenty of men who don’t belong on the front line.
No other reason—biases, trauma in POW captivity, sexual issues on the battlefield—strike me as valid reasons to keep women out of combat. All of these things take place with or without women present, though nobody wants to talk about it.

You served on the front lines as well, during the first Gulf War, correct?
KP: It wasn’t the front lines. I flew in a combat support role with AWACS. We flew in well-defended positions behind the line of battle.

How many other women served with you then?
KP: There were a fair number of women flying in those positions with me. I’d say about 10 – 14% of the crew force was composed of women. It’s probably about the same now.

At the time, wasn't there an even more explicit exclusion of women serving under those circumstances?
KP: Yes, women weren’t allowed to fly fighters. After the Gulf War, Congress lifted that ban and the Air Force and Navy started recruiting heavily to get women in fighter cockpits—this, again, was a political issue. Some of the first women in cockpits probably shouldn’t have been there, but the two forces wanted to look responsive to the new allowances. Now we’ve not only got more women in fighter cockpits, many of them are in senior rankings and have combat experience under their belts. They’re getting a lot more respect these days for being strong, competent pilots. And they give up a lot, too. It seems to me that most successful female senior officers are either single or divorced, while their male counterpoints are married with families.

How did your male colleagues—“colleagues,” I guess you can tell I never served in the military—how did the male soldiers treat you?
KP: They mostly treated me fairly and with respect. During a flying mission, a good crew is one that’s extremely professional. You can be horsing around, cracking jokes thirty minutes before take-off, but in the air, we always worked closely and very well together. If anyone ever took any heat in the air, it’s because he or she wasn’t doing the job properly....On the ground, it was sometimes another story. I spent many nights on deployment to Saudi sitting alone in my villa, reading or watching movies. On some crews I was “one of the guys,” but on others, I didn’t quite make the cut. I taught myself French on one of those trips.

So all that stuff about the macho “Top Gun” culture is just Hollywood B.S.?
KP: No—dealing with the fighter pilots was a whole different story. They weren’t used to working with women, like the AWACS and tanker crews were, and you really had to prove to them that you were tough and competent if you wanted their respect.

For instance?
KP: In 1994 or so, we were flying in a Canadian exercise called Maple Flag. All the flyers—over 200 of us—would brief in a big room before the mission, and then we’d all debrief afterward, with someone different leading the briefings each day. Well, I was the only woman in that crowd of Americans, Brits, and Canadians. Every pilot who got up to give the debrief started with a joke, and the joke was always sexually offensive. I sat there listening to them for 2 weeks, and on the last day, I was offered the opportunity to run the debrief. So, when I stood up, the whole room sort of hummed and went quiet. So, of course, I had to tell a joke. And I did. I made it the most sexually offensive joke I could tell at their expense. What do you think they did? They laughed ferociously, and gave me a standing ovation, and wouldn’t let me buy a beer all night.

Beer’s good. I don’t know what the hell the difference is between “brief” and “debrief,” but I’m going to let you take that secret to your grave. When’s your book coming out?
KP: September 20, 2005.

And there you have it—buy now, buy often! We’ve been speaking here at BookAngst Radio with novelist Kim Ponders, author of THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT. You can read all about her at Femme La Guerre and at Kim

Ed note: We tried our best to link to BookSense, but weren't able to find the book listed there at press time--perhaps because publication date isn't till Fall '05. This may well be remedied by the time you read this. Use this link to navigate the BookSense site on your own.
A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."