Category Archives: Book release

Taking Flight: On WINGS OF WAX, #MFA programs, & Finding Your Voice #MondayBlogs

WingsofWaxcover

 

March Madness is nearly upon us, dear readers. No, I’m not referring to the NCAA basketball tournament, though I will try to find some time to watch a game or two while conducting a publicity tour around the publication of my debut novel, WINGS OF WAX. Work and leisure balance, right?

WINGS OF WAX is scheduled to hit retailers on Thursday, March 10th, two weeks prior to the release of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2, the sequel to Nia Vardalos’ wildly successful 2002 film about the loveable Portokalos family. The movie’s opening date coincides with Greek Independence Day, March 25th, so next month is shaping up to have quite the Hellenic flair. In looking forward to March, I’m also compelled to reflect on the past, waaay back to 2009 when I was a second-year graduate student struggling to find my story in a Creative Writing MFA program.

In 2008, I began graduate school studies at Mills College in Oakland, CA. I spent the first semester feeling my way around campus, taking lit classes and reading novels. I was in a critique group, but didn’t do much writing, primarily due to the fact that I entered the Creative Writing program with what I thought was a completed novel: an urban Oakland tale of a young man coping with the loss of his murdered brother. Each week I submitted sections of this story for feedback. For the most part, my work earned positive response from fellow writers. I seemed destined to cruise through the next couple years in route to earning my degree. Not quite.

Despite the early praise of my novel draft, I didn’t feel tied to the story. In reading over the work, it seemed as though someone else had written it. The characters and circumstances didn’t interest me, though I didn’t want to admit that to myself. Besides, I figured that if my colleagues enjoyed the work, I must have been doing something right.

Fast forward to the second semester at Mills. The same writing excerpts which had previously earned praise were panned this time around. My new critique group’s professor, a well-accomplished novelist who shall remain unnamed, marred my workshop submissions with red pen—truly mightier than the sword—to the point that I began to think of the page as my flesh; the crimson streaks across it akin to fresh wounds.

Each week in class, this professor peered at me across the room, her raven eyes brimming a predatory ferocity below equally dark bangs. She and uttered things like, “You need to do a better job inhabiting your characters. Your people aren’t real yet. This story reads like a TV show.”

A TV show? Ouch!

Unless someone is comparing your story to the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men for instance, no serious novelist wants to hear that their work is mere television without the pictures.

“You need to write from a place of authenticity,” my professor went on to say, “Write your story. The word is all that matters.”

As harsh as this professor could be, I began to realize, after shoving my ego out of the way, that she had the best of intentions. She was pushing me, like any good teacher or mentor, to do the work and get better. I know she didn’t mean I needed to literally write my story, but, in some sense, that’s what I began to do.

Heading into the final year of grad school, I gave much thought to the notion that despite the emphasis on the ancient Greeks’ contributions to world culture, there seems very little written in regard to modern Greek culture, and the experience of Greek-Americans in particular. Of course we do have the movie MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ stellar novel MIDDLESEX, but what else? The more I considered this, the more compelled I felt to write from my own experience, not in the sense of writing an autobiographical story, but in respect to joining other Greek-American artists in illuminating our heritage.

I began WINGS OF WAX fall semester of 2009, though it wasn’t called WINGS OF WAX at that point. “Flight Paths” was an early title. The earliest draft of the story began with Angelo standing outside of an exotic bird shop, his dreaded place of employment, while pondering the world beyond his inner-turmoil. In fact, the novel’s early incarnations were almost entirely focused on the protagonist’s interiority; a kind of stream-of-consciousness depiction of a young man’s deepest insecurities and anxieties as he tries to forge a place for himself within the local Greek community.

I started the story with no outline, though I did have a vague idea as to how it would end. The writing came fast and easy. It was a fun project—the book I should have been writing all along; the novel I had finally given myself permission to produce. Above all else, that was the greatest thing I gained from the program. Even my old professor, the toughest of critics, saw potential. She told me to keep pushing, to continue forging deeper into the story’s truth. That seems to be the most valuable aspect of attending an MFA program: You allow yourself time to write and read, and in doing so you find your voice.

The next semester, my final at Mills College, the story finally began to take shape to most closely resemble the novel that it is today. At least in the sense that it’s no longer a stream-of-conscious narrative as Angelo’s struggles are reflected in how he interacts with the world around him and outside of his head. This makes for, apparently, a more compelling read.

As graduation neared, I submitted for approval my thesis, sixty pages of a new novel draft, a Greek-American narrative now titled WINGS OF WAX. In the months after earning my degree, I completed the draft. I then spent the next several years revising the book, listening to the valuable opinions of my peers, and sharpening the story’s structure. I submitted the novel to publishers and agents, racked up some rejections, and did some more revision work. I sent it out again, almost signed a deal or two, but they didn’t pan out. Finally, seven years after the story idea sprouted in my mind, WINGS OF WAX is on the brink of soaring into readers’ hands at last courtesy of Seattle’s Booktrope Publishing. I found my story, and a publisher, and had a lot of fun in the process. In reading the novel, you might find that it is your story, too.

CityWingsproWide

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March Madness: On #MyBigFatGreekWedding2 and New Novel Release Date #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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People Change. Greeks don’t.

That’s one of the statements flashing across the screen in oh-so-appropriate blue letters across a white background during the My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 trailer which, at the time of this posting, I’ve watched upwards of a half-dozen times. As brief as the proclamation is during the two-minute preview, it contains–like much of the content in the first movie that was an unexpected smash hit back in 2002–a shimmer of truth amid the shiny gloss of Hollywood exaggeration. Of course Greeks as people, like anyone else, change and evolve, but our cultural values and traditions remain a constant; unaltered in time. A distinction is made in the film trailer between “people” and “Greeks” because the culture is larger than life: a living, breathing technicolor mosaic of language, customs, history, and ethnic consciousness that often, in the eyes of both non-Greeks and Greeks alike, puts us on par, for better or worse, with the mythical heroes of our ancient epics. That can be a grand burden to bare, so films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which simultaneously celebrate and poke good-natured fun at our enduring identity, are a joy to watch. Sure, I know some Greek-Americans who didn’t like the first movie, complaining that we don’t go spraying Windex on everything. But those folks, in my opinion, take themselves too seriously. Despite the few flaws of the first film, it was a treat to see our culture depicted on the big screen.

My mother tells stories of Americans flocking to the theaters in the 196o’s to catch acclaimed movie adaptations of ancient Greek dramas like Antigone and Elektra, as well as modern stories such as Zorba the Greek. Having seen DVD versions of these films, I don’t know if they were actually smash hits in their time, but they apparently drew a significant audience interested in Greece and Greek culture. Growing up in the 1980’s and ’90’s, I can’t recall many Hollywood depictions of the Greek experience–whether ancient or modern–aside from Shirley Valentine, and John Stamos’ Jesse Katsopoulos character on the popular TV sitcom Full House. So, when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out in 2002, I had to see it. It was a great movie–cartoonish at times, but consistently charming and fun.

Then I began to notice the phrase “It’s Chic to Be Greek!” commonly appear in the media. Greek culture in America–beyond the yearly food festivals that occur in most major cities–was all the rage once again. We Greeks have always been a proud people, but at that moment we, for the most part, stood up a little straighter as our time on the silver screen had arrived after long hiatus.

Now, the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding is scheduled for a March, 2016 release. My novel Wings of Wax, in a stroke of fortuity (wink, wink), will also be released that same month. The book was originally supposed to come out in December, but the publisher is taking more time to plan marketing strategy and build momentum to ensure Wings of Wax receives the best possible launch. I’m excited to have my debut novel hit shelves in the same time frame of Nia Vardalos’ film release. We Greeks stick together. Thank you, faithful readers, for sticking around, too!

Being Icarus: On #Halloween, Book Releases, & #GreekMyth. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope #writer

"Icarus" by Frank Frazetta

“Icarus” by Frank Frazetta

I’ve got my wings, the apparatuses fitted to my back with wax, and I’m armed with the wise advice to avoid soaring close to the sun. And still I lose momentum, unable to resist the gravitational pull, my biggest danger not that glowing orb in the sky but the firm ground below it. I can’t afford to crash, so I just keep treading air. To hover is enough for now.

It’s mid-October. Not only is Halloween looming in the near future, but my debut novel, Wings of Wax, for which I revealed the cover last week, is scheduled to hit shelves in a mere month-and-a-half! I’m ecstatic, and somewhat frazzled as I scramble to tie-up loose ends, do what I can to build momentum for release day. The closest thing I can compare the feeling to is anticipating an exam that you know you’ve studied for, though it’s down to the wire and you worry there’s more you could do to prepare–take another glance at those flash cards, try to decipher the chicken-scratch scrawl passing for notes in your binder. The deadline looms, and though you’re reasonably confident in your ability to ace the test, nevertheless the beads of sweat moisten your forehead.

Still, I’m more joyous than nervous. I’ve been waiting a long time for this opportunity, this moment, and it’s almost here. The knowledge of that fact has been a beacon as of late, guiding my flight as I glide through some stormy skies. I’ve recently encountered some turbulence in my personal life, but the book release date is keeping me centered, giving me something to look forward to as I weather these clouds, confident that they’ll give way to blue skies again eventually. And, hey, it’s almost Halloween.

I must admit I’m pretty indifferent to the 31st of October. Not since a child have I really dressed up, and who needs Trick-or-Treating when you can just go out and buy your own candy? I’ve spent the past few Halloweens at home, handing out snack-sized Snickers bars to kids dressed as everything from I-Phones to classic vampires. The funniest, and often most clever, costumes tend to be worn by parents toting infants. Last Halloween, I opened the door to find on my porch a mother dressed as a kangaroo, her baby peeking out of her pouch in full “joey” regalia. Then a Facebook friend posted a photo of her little one dressed as a pea pod, which I thought was pretty great. These sights always inspire to me to reflect on my own costumes of years past. I’ve been a zombie, a vampire, a werewolf. I remember trekking to pre-school in a devil costume, proudly touting my trident; my artist-mother having creatively painted my face with little flames. I wish I could find that photo. It was a cool get-up for a four-year-old.

Around that same era of my childhood, I often wore a navy-blue knit cap with plush silver wings sewn to the sides. Despite being named after the Hellenic sun deity, I proudly went around like a young Hermes, messenger god in the ancient Greek pantheon. No matter that it wasn’t Halloween, I was determined to fly. Such desire is still with me today.

October 31 is a time to play pretend, create your own character as we writers do every time we start a new story, begin a new book. In one sense Wings of Wax is a story about costumes, about the personas we adopt and wear until we learn how to embrace our authentic selves. In another sense it’s a story about flight–actual and metaphorical–and the heights we’re able to reach when stop sabotaging ourselves from getting off the ground. So this, Halloween, inspired by Angelo’s plight in Wings of Wax, I will be Icarus. A wiser, more cautious Icarus, staying wary of the sun’s heat.

I’ve long been passionate about Greek history and mythology. It’s from where my name originates, after all. As I may or may not have mentioned in a previous blog, there was a period in my childhood when my dad would relay to me from memory excerpts of Homer’s Iliad as a bedtime stories. I believe those epics influence my dreams, the ones that arrive during both sleep and waking hours. In autumns past I flirted with the idea of being a Spartan warrior for Halloween. Another year, I considered crowning my head with an olive wreath to go as an ancient philosopher. I never seemed to get around to assembling those outfits, however.

But this Halloween I will be Icarus, a version of him without the tragic descent. Maybe I’ll purchase a pair of wings. Or perhaps I’ll forgo a costume once again in favor of simply focusing on the idea of flight and reflecting on the  meaning of the Icarus myth. Either way, I will keep soaring, and I in staying airborne, I have all of you to thank: My friends, my loved ones, my family, my readers. This is a journey we take together. You keep me strong, you keep me lucid. We’ll reach this grand destination together.