CURRENY is Traveling. I’m Staying Home.

This spring, we went back to Isla Mujeres for our second time as a family and my third time overall. I left a copy of Currency at PocNa, the hostel where I stayed when I visited the island as a backpacker round about 1995. In the book, I pasted the same note that I have in the other copies I’ve sent out into the world:

As the author of this novel, it’s one of my great hopes for Currency that people will discover it while on the road. To that end, I’ve given some copies to traveler-types and asked them to leave the books, when they’re through, where other travelers can find them. If you’ve left or found Currency, I would love it if you’d leave a comment at Happy travels!

I think there are about ten or twelve books that are floating around the globe right now, with most of them, fittingly, in Southeast Asia.  I’ve received only one note from a stranger who has picked up a copy completely by chance, but the story that woman told, in the comments here, was worth way more than a box full of books; it put me on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok and then on route to Nepal. O World! I miss you! And Piv and Robin, I miss you too. When the two of them come alive for other people, it helps ease the sting—or maybe it just makes it more exquisite, which is perhaps the better goal. If anyone reading this is about to go on a trip and wants a copy of Currency to read and leave behind for someone else, let me know, and I’ll send you a copy

I felt sort of like a spy in PocNa, wandering around looking for the lending library I knew they’d have, wondering at the way things change and they don’t, checking out the tanned faces bent over glowing netbooks in the shade of the main courtyard.  (So many netbooks.) I inferred that a lot of hostelers were using the cushion of Isla and PocNa to recover from more strenuous travels, maybe staying on longer than they’d planned at a place with good wi-fi and a little night life. In 1995, still pretty fresh from the pristine beaches of Ko Chang, each of which could only be reached by boat, none of which featured accommodation other than thatched huts, Isla Mujeres felt urban to me, and almost unbearably commercial. I had never seen yachts and pleasure craft docked near a pier, and I had never had to pass by so many hulking hotels to get to a guesthouse.

But there were recognizable sorts at the hostel, and I quickly made the recognizable alliances, and with them I ended up smoking pot and traversing the more local side of the island for late-night conch and cheap snorkeling. Having found the bookshelf for freebies and slipped Currency among the offered titles—with the endless stream of wi-fi and the portable screens, how many fewer books do travelers read?—I headed back to the street, and I took great pleasure in standing in the entryway remembering the humiliation of having to be rescued from a communication problem at check-out by a know-it-all who’d annoyed me on these jaunts and who spoke Spanish. Mmmmmm nostalgia. I’m hooked on it. The then-and-now simultaneity is sometimes so physical it gives me vertigo, and I put my hand on the cement wall to steady myself. Meanwhile, Mark was waiting in the golf cart outside, dealing with the squabbling kids so I could have my moment. It was on the same island two years ago that he helped me come up for the name of this blog, The Next Youth Hostel. Get it? The journey, the journey. Still on it, in our way.

I haven’t been updating this blog much because my world keeps turning. Currency‘s been out over a year, so I’m not promoting it. I never intended the blog as a place to give personal updates, but to the extent that I did, now I use Facebook more than ever. And when I feel the call to write an essay, I write for The Nervous Breakdown because I love the community there, not to mention the eyeballs. I’ve posted essays about the my mom being on Facebook, the gang rape of the eleven-year-old girl, my reaction to the proposed opening of a breastaurant in my bucolic town, and my challenges with time.

I am quite time-challenged. I’m working on a new project—a memoirish type exploration that I’m vexed by and drawn toward—and every day I feel its hungry rumble for hours I don’t have. A fair number of those I need just to sit chin in hand and stare off into the past. What can I say? Pondering formative experiences is so attractive to me. This time the setting is closer to home. There’s a lot about sex and childhood and gender issues, those perennial favorites.

My History with Heroines

This past Thursday, at the invitation of SheWrites co-creator Deborah Siegel, I appeared at Women and Children First bookstore along with Teri Coyne, Audrey Niffenegger, Amina Gautier, and Emily Gray Tedrowe as part of a panel exploring modern-day heroines. I could diagram that sentence to show about twenty different sources of personal gratification: Women and Children First, where I spent many longing hours in the first years of my life in Chicago; SheWrites, a powerhouse site with an international membership; “at the invitation of,” which means I’m acknowledged as a real author by real authors, etcetera. (It seems a little uncool to be geeking out about my excitement, but one of the good things about publishing a novel in my forties after years of aspiring to it is that, although I have a lingering need to acknowledge my awareness of the uncoolness, I’m pretty genuinely OK with it.) To top it all off, the question the panel posed was Why Can’t Our Heroes Be Heroines?, a query that’s resonated with me for seemingly ever.

I swear on my advanced reader’s copy of Currency that ever since I was a kid, I have had a fierce wanderlust. And ever since I was a kid, I was a voracious reader. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve been looking for books about women and girls who were adventurous, who were traveling the world. Those books have been hard to find.

Thinking about what I wanted to say about heroines, I stumbled upon a dusty but distinct memory of standing in front of the biography section at my school’s library searching the spines and covers for a book with a female subject. It was the mid-1970s in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and I was in the third grade. We’d had a couple introductory visits to the library, but this was the first time that we could check out a book, and I was breathless and almost panicky with excitement. The librarian had probably lectured us on the import of this event for many minutes previous, exhorting us that the books we checked out were our responsibility, that’d we lose our privilege if we weren’t mature enough to care for them well. I’m sure I would have been sitting up ramrod straight through the whole speech, quivering with readiness to defend with my life any book I might choose. I was a good girl, at that point. I was passionate about following directions. If I recall, I had headed to the biographies at my mom’s suggestion, made on the eve of the big day.

But there I still was in the stacks, undecided and confused at feeling slightly let-down, when the librarian started urging us to make our choices because it was time to check-out. Not having found what I was looking for, my state of almost-panic crystallized into the pure form. When she urged us again, sternly–if we wanted to check out a book, we had to get in line NOW—I grabbed the only tome that looked like it had potential, a red cloth-bound hardback with a silk-screened silhouette on the cover in lieu of a title. The figure squinting off toward a distant shore had an undeniably masculine profile, yes, but the fancy hat and poufy costume allowed me to convince myself the person’s gender was indeterminate. Maybe I was holding a book about a strong-jawed, sea-faring lady.

The self-deception could only be maintained for a few minutes. Standing in line to get my book thumped, I turned to the title page and saw I had chosen a volume about William Penn. (In that author’s telling, not such an interesting character.) The next week, not giving up on biographies, I again followed my mom’s suggestion and told the librarian what I was looking for: something about a girl. She showed me the three biographies of women in the library’s collection: Betsy Ross, Florence Nightingale, and Molly Pitcher. That was it. In a few weeks, I read them all. Molly Pitcher was my favorite. She had fought like a man! But only in the stead of her husband.

I’m not saying that those of us who grew up in the 70s were devoid of female heroines. Women’s lib was affecting pop culture even if it wasn’t yet hitting my ill-funded elementary library. Girls like me had Sabrina in Charlie’s Angels. We had Princess Leia, who really kicked ass in that first Star Wars movie. And, obviously, like the legions before us and since, we had Jo, in Little Women. I must have read that book a dozen times, and every time I felt sick—throw up, take to my bed SICK—when Amy got to go to Europe instead of Jo. It was probably Little Women that put Travel to Europe up high on my list of life goals—I would avenge my heroine!—even as it introduced me to the non-fairy tale ending.

Of course, Jo wasn’t the sole plucky heroine in the children’s fiction section (at least at the public library; the elementary library really had a thin collection). There were other spunky girls in kids literature, too. Lucy, in the Narnia Chronicles, was the first one to walk through the wardrobe. Meg, in AWrinkle In Time, was the one to go rescue her brother. Laura Ingalls was anything but delicate or prissy. But when I was considering what books I might want to mention on the panel, I couldn’t recall finding many independent, self-defining, adventuresses as I moved into adult reading material around junior high. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time reading pulp: I was quite familiar with Jacqueline Susan’s oeuvre, for example. I was fascinated by a book called The Mating Dance that featured heaving bodices and S&M-tinged sex. On the other side of the spectrum, it was in high school that I began my life-long love affair with Edith Wharton, but, even if their clothes aren’t falling off at every turn, her characters are all caught in the prison of their gender. Wharton’s books helped me define my nascent feminism, but there was no one I wanted to emulate in those pages. Who I wanted to emulate were the characters in On the Road. That book blew my mind, and I spent hours feverishly underlining the same passages multitudes of other teenagers had feverishly underlined: “The only people for me are the mad ones!” When my father told his editor, Beth Hadas, that I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac, she sent him a book to give to me, Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson. It was a memoir about the years Johnson spent as Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend during the height of the Beat period, and I was fascinated with it. It was another book that helped me articulate some things I’d only up to then sensed about gender, and probably the first book I read in a genre I’m fond of to this day, what I call “I’m with the band” books, including one by that title. But taken as I was with it, I didn’t want to be Joyce, on the margins, waiting at home. I wanted to be, well, on the road. I wrote in “hitch-hike across the country” under “travel around Europe” to my list of travel dreams.

Within just a few years after high school, I had accomplished both those things, but I had felt like I needed a guy to accompany me. It wasn’t until I escaped from that guy in Barcelona and met two different independent women on the way back to England that I began to think I didn’t need male protection, that I could travel by myself. Coincidentally, my friend Sari, was at almost that exact same moment traveling in Egypt alone, and I hung on her words about it when we were roommates that fall. So it was the real women who showed me that I could go to Asia all by myself. And I know that my experience inspired other women I’ve met to not wait around for a companion if they have an itch to move.

There are times now, as a middle-aged person who’s been supporting myself and my family for years and who checks in on a dozen blogs written by women who are independently traveling and working around the world, when concerns about female agency seem dated, at least when it comes to middle-class white Americans, but the SheWrites panel got me back in touch with a wider-lensed view. It also got me thinking again about Robin, the protagonist in Currency. She’s a flawed character who makes some really bad decisions. She does not ultimately triumph. But I admire her willingness to take herself far, to get herself out of Florida, to get herself out of a job that she hated, and all without using her sexuality. I deeply admire her willingness to be for Piv, when she can, the provider, to be the pilot that takes them both to the great beyond. She doesn’t take her place by the red-hot cannon only after her husband gets shot down. She’s out there fighting for herself, on her own behalf. Especially when I was sixteen, or twenty, or twenty-five, it would have meant a lot for me to find a book like the one I wrote.

Anyway, it was a pleasure, in preparing for the panel, to think back on my reading history, and it was a lovely synchronicity, after several days of wandering the dusty stacks in my mind, to hear Audrey Niffenegger read the short story upon which her new graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, is based. It’s a lovely book that will resonate with anyone for whom reading has been important and for anyone who likes to wander dark streets by themselves.

Made in Thailand

The excellent music/lit blog Largeheartedboy allowed me to create a Currency play list for their Book Notes feature. I’ve always seen western music as playing an important part of Piv’s identity, and it certainly has been an important part of mine, so this was a fun assignment. For one of the entries, the song “Made in Thailand” by the Thai band Carabao,  I found I had a lot to say. I edited it down for the play list, but I’m reposting the full thing here, because it gets at a lot that’s important to me—the super-vivid memories I still have of my long-ago trip, the differences between the wifi present and the analog past, and the tension between east and west that I tended to see everywhere, whether or not it was unambiguously present.

“Made in Thailand,” Carabao

When I first went to Thailand in the 1994, one thing I found that I hadn’t expected to was a campfire scene. All over the country, it seemed, in the more bucolic locations, Thais and tourists could be found gathered around an evening fire, everyone singing along to a Thai guy playing guitar. If the campfire circle included more than a couple Thai people, there’d often be a segment where they sang Thai songs and the foreigners just listened. It was a relief, in a way—a relief not to have to strive for the universal, not to feel the taint of cultural imperialism in the fact that universal meant John Denver. And I thought I detected relief in the Thai voices as well, surer singing in a native language. The Thai song I heard most often was fierce and proud with a slow, pounding rhythm. It contained an English phrase, “Made in Thailand,” and it listed the names of the old Thai capitals: Sukhothai, Lopburi, Ayutthaya, which gave me a thrill. I could recognize them! I’d been there! I liked the song’s sense of protest, believing it was criticizing tourists, the commodification of the culture. I tried to ask the Thais around the campfire about the lyrics’ meaning, but their answers were vague. Sometimes this seemed due to the limits of their English. Sometimes it seemed they were being polite, not wanting to recount lyrics that were telling my kind to sod off.

The way I heard it sung,  “Made in Thailand” was the antithesis of the warbling synth pop that was commonly heard in shops and restaurants and busses, and it became my mission to find a recording of it, to add a local band to my trip’s soundtrack, which otherwise consisted of the three tapes I carried in my backpack to play on my Walkman on long bus rides: PM Dawn, Freakwater, and Pavement. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to explain what I was looking for to the cassette tape sellers at local markets, I found a guy who could write out for me the name of the artist in both roman and Thai script: Carabao. The next time I was in Bangkok, I went searching. The vendors on Khao San, backpackers’ row, didn’t have it, but they liked that I was looking for it, and they told me where to go. I wove my way there, to a series of little streets filled with young, arty Thais, close but yet far from the tourist ghetto. Just being there made me feel hipper myself, and the tapes and CDs were sold in an air-conditioned shop, not a market stall. With the sales clerk’s help, I found what I was looking for, an album by the same name as the song, released in 1984 but still popular. I treasured this cassette tape for years, until it was destroyed in an apartment fire.

Nowadays, the internet reduces mystery. With the translated lyrics widely available, I can see they’re not an admonishment of tourists; the song could care less about tourists, and my belief that Carabao was singing about me reveals the narcissism that’s a frequent companion to liberal guilt. They lyrics are more an admonishment to Thais who are too willing to see value only in foreign-made things. Piv certainly falls into this category. He wants to master foreign ways, to win over foreign women, that’s where he sees his fortune rising, the arena in which his dreams will come true. The Thais are known for being such nice people. Pleasure-loving, polite, pleasure-giving. I found that to be true. But there’s a knowingness, as well. I liked this song because it captured that.

Currency on TV

Last night, my excellent editor Gina Frangello was a guest on the TV show Chicago Tonight. Along with home-grown lit stars Audrey Niffenegger and Brigid Pasulka, Gina was supposed to recommend summer reads. Mark and I recorded the program, and I was all atwitter to see my friend and my book on the little screen. But we didn’t fast forward to the books segment. I haven’t watched TV in a week, maybe two, and I haven’t watched a local news broadcast like Chicago Tonight in who knows how long. It was relaxing and fun to sit back and be presented with the local take on local events, with the gentle host Phil Ponce setting a tone and pace not often seen on MSNBC or the Comedy Channel. I can see why people used to do this, I thought.

And then, it was time! Gina looked great, sitting there with a neat stack of half dozen books by her elbow. And there was Currency, in a dignified position at the bottom of the pile because of its generous trim size, title nicely visible on the out-turned spine. Mark and I were drinking glasses of Grand Marnier, and we clinked them. But within moments of the segment, I began to worry. There was no way no how these three authors were going to have time to tout five or six books each, not with the leisurely retro mode of the show. What, there needs to be all this literary banter? (“Is there an optimal length for a summer read?”) And why was Audrey Niffenegger chatting so relaxedly about God’s Behaving Badly. Just give a soundbite, lady! Phil Ponce was pitching the titles to the guests, and the first one he tossed at Gina was Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. Oh no, I thought. Oh well. Maybe they’ll show them all at the end, said Mark consolingly. Brigid Pasulka had a lot to say about Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods. Would they get a chance to mention even two books each?

Why, yes, they would. Yes, they did. And there was the handsome host whose countenance I had admired on the sides of buses saying, within earshot of rock star Audrey Niffenegger, “Tell us about Currency, by local author Zoe Zolbrod.” Look, I’m not going for blase, here. I’m collecting authorial thrills, and that was one. Gina knocked it out of the park.

Just in case you don’t believe me, a video of the books segment can be found here.

And below I’m listing of all the books on the docket. Actually, I think I’m going to pick up Bad Marie. And Cardboard Gods sounds sort of brilliant. I already know Stations West and Some Girls are great to get lost in—and I’ve had the privilege of reading with both authors as well as with Marisa Matarazzo, another of Gina’s picks, on my book tour. Who has time to watch TV?

Gina Frangello’s Picks
Bad Marie– by Marcy Dermansky
Currency– by Zoe Zolbrod
Commuters by Emily Tedrowe (coming July 1)
Stations West by Allison Amend
Some Girls by Jillian Lauren
Drenched by Marisa Matarazzo

Audrey Niffenegger’s Picks
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Misfortune, Wesley Stace
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Time and Again by Jack Finney

Brigid Pasulka’s Picks
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker
The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson
Collected Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Review Round-Up

Well, Currency‘s been officially out for a little over six weeks now. I’ve read from it maybe a dozen times in a half-dozen different towns. I’ve gotten some reviews and done some interviews. I’ve been absolutely drunk on the kindness and enthusiasm of friends and acquaintances, and, despite attempts to keep my focus on my many book-related blessings, I’ve also succumbed to moments of despondency over the rest of the world’s utter indifference. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to anyone. I shouldn’t be checking the Amazon ranking. But, um, I can tell you Currency is at #559,688 as I type. Anyone want to boost my number? From what I can discern, a single purchase vaults it above 100,00 for a day or so.)

Anyway, I thought I’d round up a list of links to some of the press I’ve received, so I have it all in one place.

Gina and I were in the fantastic courtyard of Austin’s boho chic Hotel San Jose when she looked up from her iPhone to tell me that all-round indie-lit star Jonathon Messenger wanted to interview me for TimeOut Chicago, and with the way the sun was hitting the garden’s huge yucca plants, or whatever they were, this probably constitutes my most glamorous author moment yet. I thought the interview turned out well. Here’s a link to it.

And remember when I was so happy when The Chicago Reader ran a good review? Well, I just about cried for joy when I read this one in NewPages, a site that celebrates all things independent in literature. “What follows is a tour de force portrayal by a serious author of the realities of modern-day smuggling and those involved in these activities. Currency not only succeeds in its scope and in-depth research, but also in in its fluid, energetic, and intriguing prose.” I think I’ve discovered my next tattoo. (You have to scroll down to find Currency, but along the way there are lots of intriguing reviews along the way.)

I was also very excited by this review on A Traveler’s Library, because I’ve admired that site for awhile as one of the few that combines a literary aesthetic with a focus on travel. Writer Vera Marie Badertscher says, “I would call it a good summer/beach read, but don’t want to diminish it. I also predict that it will be standard fare in every backpacker hostel in Southeast Asia before very long.” Ah, that is one of my fondest wishes! This enthusiastic review by Danielle E. Alvarez on GoBackpacking, a site for independent travelers, would seem to head the book in the right direction.

But, man, it’s mostly looking to be a hard slog. I wanted to give away some copies of Currency to readers about to embark on trips, with the request that they would in turn leave the book where another traveler would find it. When Jeannie Mark from the well-designed, well-written travel blog Nomadic Chick contacted me about doing an interview,  I thought her site would be a great place to launch the traveling book idea. She loved it, and we designed a contest. Jeannie did a great job with the interview (which is here) and the promotion for it, but we received fewer entries than I had prizes to give away.  (Here’s what she had to say about that.) So, if it’s that hard to give-away a novel to an audience that it’s pretty much written for… sigh. (By the way, I’m still trying to get this idea off the ground. If you’re going on a trip soon and want a free copy of Currency to read and then leave somewhere, click here.)

Still, even if it’s an uphill climb, the internet makes networking with traveler-types easier than it would have been ten years ago. Emily Gerson at the site Maiden Voyage Travel just did a nice interview with me. I talked about publishing with small presses on travel writer Alexis Grant’s super-useful and professional writing blog. And I identified another site that hits my target audiences,  The Lost Girls, which is run by three women who quit their NYC media jobs to travel and blog around the world. (Their book by the same title came out around when Currency did. It’s at #3,382 on Amazon. Not that I’m counting. Not that I’ve noticed they have a list of national reviews on their Amazon page that’s as long as my arm.) I was grateful to see Currency‘s pretty cover and a good review on their homepage last week, right here. The reviewer is the only one so far who didn’t love Piv’s voice, but she was nice about it.

Not so nice was this review in Chicago’s NewCity Lit. I stumbled upon it just the other day, but I reckon some of my friends might have seen it and not told me about it.

Well, actually, I just reread it to post it here, and it’s not terrible. And, you know, I used to be the first to say that if reviewers give everything a sunny two thumbs up, then what’s the point. But I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s so hard to complete a full-length work. It’s so hard to get it published. To find an audience. And then you’re going to dismiss it in a couple of sentences? It might be preferable to say nothing.

On the other hand, today I learned that a review of Currency that was supposed to run in a national print publication got pulled. I can’t help but wonder if it got pulled because the reviewer couldn’t be entirely positive. Better no national press at all than that?

Whatever. Better this—a book in hand, people reading it—than nothing, of that I’m sure. The good reviews I received before the not-good one did help inure me, and I was fairly well steeled for the indifference of the majority: I knew a book by a first-time author from a small press wouldn’t be met with trumpets. I knew having a platform was important, and that I didn’t have much of one beyond my supportive friends (whose numbers, thanks in part to the book, are growing). It’s been a journey, a real journey, in the best sense of word. No matter how much you read about a place, it’s different when you visit it. No matter how much you prepare, you’ll be swept along on some currents you can’t control. I always feel lucky when I get to go on a trip. And if you liked the book and spread the word, that would make me happy, too.

Cross-Cultural Couplings

First off, let me say that Currency officially hits the streets right about now. Dear visitor, I beg you not to judge this book on the absence of a dedicated web site. It is a hundred times better than its web presence, and although there’s little excuse for that in this day and age, isn’t it preferable to the reverse? Currency is exciting yet thoughtful, sexy yet serious. Yet fun! For real, you will want to take this book with you on vacation. But don’t take my word for it, you can read this review, or this advance praise. Or watch this book trailer. Etc. The following blog post was brought to you by the above shameless self-promotion!

Speaking of: I’ve done a few promotional interviews recently (one with myself, up at The Nervous Breakdown), and in them I’ve talked for the first time about the liaisons I had with Thai guys when I was traveling, and how they influenced the book. Up until now, although I’ve written about how loaded can be the attraction of tourists for local people in much poorer countries and about my awakening to the charms of Thai men, I’ve kept pretty quiet about my actual affairs.

There are lots of reasons for this reticence, I think. For one thing, I was involved with someone back home at the time; we had not promised monogamy, but still. Then I met the man I would marry, and it no longer seemed cool to go on about past lusts. But I think the crux is that I was embarrassed by these relationships. I was embarrassed that there was more than one, that they started to become a pattern. I was embarrassed by the disapproving looks that came from many quarters—from people who had seen the pattern play out, or who thought someone was taking advantage, or who simply found the combination of the two of us unsavory for any number of reasons. I could imagine quite a number of reasons.  Now, trying to sort through stuff, I wonder if these embarrassments weren’t sharper because they reminded me of a racially-charged situation in my junior high years, and also because my attraction to Asian men might have a connection to something even further back, and sticker. I could probably write a whole memoir unpacking this stuff like a set of old dishes, wondering over the continued, solid existence of things I haven’t seen for so long and reading the newspaper the items were wrapped in, amazed by the prices of years gone by, or by the wars that waged then, and so absorbed in the past that I wouldn’t notice my hands pricking from the dust until they were on fire.

Over the years, to feed or understand my fascination, I’ve sought out fiction about cross-cultural relationships, ones that include a difference in race and privilege. There’s The Lover, of course, and The Quiet American—I love The Quiet American. Less well known is When Mountains Walked, by Kate Wheeler, about a woman who has an affair with a revolutionary in Peru. I highly recommend it. And The River Sweet, by Patricia Henley—she writes so well about guilt-ridden Americans and other countries.

But the best book on the topic I think I’ve read is The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. That novel just dissects—so lyrically, so incisively; well, she’s Nadine Gordimer—the currents between a well-off South African white women and the Arab man she takes up with, an illegal immigrant. The needs of both, the hungers of both, the anger, the role of family and future and sex. It’s pre-9/11 but it presages 9/11. It’s one of those books I can read again and again, just in wonder that anyone could know all that, and say it so perfectly.

My Great Editor, Interviewed

Now that CURRENCY has been published, a number of people are asking me tactful versions of the question How come this took so long? and Why with a small press? In this excerpt from an interview with Leah Tallen, Other Voices editor Gina Frangello explains better than I ever could. You can see the full interview at Knee-Jerk, and if you read it you’ll see that patience reaps rewards, and that I just might win the prize for having the world’s most passionate and talented editor. Gina has a new short story collection out this spring, SLUT LULLABIES, and we’re going to be promoting our books together in Chicago, New York, LA, Iowa City, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere. Shameless self-promotion time. Come to see us! Become a Facebook fan! Buy a book!

OV is getting ready to release a new book this month, right? Can you talk a little about Zoe Zolbrod and her first book Currency?

This novel has been a long time in coming, and I’ve been acquainted with it since the late 1990s. I fell in love with it in a writing group when I was still in grad school. I thought Zoe was going to make a million dollars and become a rock star with Currency, that’s how much I loved it and the other people in our writing group loved it. But the publishing world being what it is, that’s not what happened . . .

I think a lot of editors in New York were spooked by the fact that half the novel is narrated by a Thai man, Piv, whose English is not perfect and has a heavy Thai flavor. I mean, it’s a big chance to take, I admit. Publishers might think, What if this isn’t authentic? What if it offends someone? What if some reviewer says they don’t buy it and suddenly that is the party line? Editors at the big houses have shareholders to answer to and they’re not big on risk. They don’t live by their guts anymore. But I felt like I knew Piv in a way that transcended politically correct rules like that. He was one of the best characters I’d ever read in contemporary fiction. That’s not to downplay Robin, his American lover, who is an extremely strong and complicated character herself. But I felt like Piv was someone I had never met before on the page. When Zoe’s novel started getting rejected and agents started walking away, I was stunned.

At that time, I ran a magazine, not a press. Then later, when I launched the press, we published books of short fiction exclusively. Only a little over a year ago did Stacy and I decide to launch the Morgan Street International Novel Series, and we kept getting all these submissions . . . but I couldn’t get Piv out of my head. I hadn’t even seen Zoe in a couple of years, and Stacy had never read the novel, so I was terrified of getting Zoe’s hopes up and not coming through—I knew she’d been through enough with this project. But I had to ask her for the manuscript so Stacy could read it. I think I was as nervous as she was, waiting. Luckily Stacy fell as deeply in love with this work as I had, and that was that.

How does Currency represent OV’s mission statement?

The Morgan Street International Novel Series grew out of an anthology we did in 2007, that Stacy edited, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection. That book featured thirty writers from all over the world, some published for the first time in English and others already major writers like Josip Novakovich, Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret. In that book, we made an explicit point of defining “culture” through relationships—in other words, while Nepalese culture may be very interesting to an outsider, it is not exotic or even always thought of as “culture” per se, by people in an insular community within Nepal, if that makes sense. A lot of books have explored this-or-that culture, which is important, but we wanted to explore culture as a more shifting, active thing, defined by people interacting and realizing their differences, in both positive and negative ways, and grappling that to figure out who they are. Zoe’s novel fits in with that way of exploring culture perfectly.

At the magazine, we’d always had an interest in international fiction, but through the anthology project we really realized we wanted to keep going with it—that we didn’t feel like the dominant publishing industry was offering enough fiction set outside the United States, only a few heavily promoted titles a year that became “the” Indian novel or “the” Afghani novel, etc. We wanted to provide more options, even if in a limited way given the size of our list.

CURRENCY’s first review


It’s a crazy-ass thing to want to publish a book. The work it takes. The struggling to figure it out, to process the criticism, to make it better, make it better, make it better yet after the umpteenth person has said “not quite right for us” or just “not quite.” And then if you’re lucky enough, and the manuscript gets set and bound, some reviewer—should your luck hold out and you garner one’s attention— might dismiss all your efforts in a few sentences. I think I was most terrified of this happening to me in the Chicago Reader, which has been my paper of record for the twenty years that I’ve lived in this town, and which is not always nice. So—whew—a weight lifted off my shoulders when I read this review. What if there had not been a “but” after the “maudlin”? What if there had not been a “rather than” before the “irritating”? But there was. Thank god. Thank Julia Thiel. My hopes are that this “but” and “rather than” will shield me from any darts that may yet come my way.

And now, some shameless self-promotion: Join the Facebook page! Come to see me read when I’m in your town!


Zoe Zolbrod

OV Books, $16.95

“Part of my job is to read your face,” says Piv, a young Thai man who befriends travelers and sends them to local businesses in exchange for a commission from the owners, at the start of Currency. Zoe Zolbrod’s debut novel alternates between Piv’s perspective and that of Robin, a young American itinerant who can’t bring herself to leave Thailand even though she’s long since run out of money. When the two meet and decide to go into business together, buying jewelry in Indonesia and reselling it in Thailand, it briefly seems plausible that both their business and their budding relationship will work.

But then Robin discovers that her credit cards are maxed out. Her first move is to ask her dad for a ticket home, and Piv’s instinct is also to cut his losses. He solves the money problem, though, by convincing an acquaintance to involve them in an international smuggling operation. Their work becomes progressively more dangerous, but the real tension in the story is always rooted in whether Robin and Piv can trust each other. Even as they fall deeper in love, each expects a betrayal. The conceit could easily become maudlin, but Zolbrod’s deft character development and graceful writing avoid the pitfalls. Even the fact that Piv’s narration is riddled with the small grammatical errors and odd turns of phrase common to nonnative English speakers comes across as appropriate rather than irritating. —Julia Thiel

Smoking: A Dream Come True

It’s settled: The release party for CURRENCY is going to be at The Hideout on May 16, from 5:00-7:00. A string of exclamation marks cannot express how unduly happy I am. During the last few months, it’s seemed that the securing of this particular venue has had about as many ups and downs as my decade-long struggle to get the novel published.

You know, I will admit that early on in the struggle to get published, I had dreams of worldly success. I dreamed that I might actually sell the book, as in get some real money from it. Not sick money, not mad money—even in my starry-eyed youth, I never set my sites too high—just some, enough. The number became more specific after my son was born. The year he turned two, the manuscript first made the agented rounds of the big houses and my employer started insisting that I work five days a week instead of the four I was barely managing. I figured if I could get an offer in the mid five figures, I’d have enough to take that job and shove it, at least for a year or so, at least for long enough to cobble together some kind of modestly remunerative professional writing life. And I was willing to hustle: I’d do magazine features! I’d happily teach undergraduates! Anything, as long as paying the bills and caring for my kid would not be at such hot war with me getting writing time.

Well, most of those dreams, even as dreams, have died. My job provides our family’s health insurance and most of our income, and I read plenty about the dismal economics of publishing today. I accept that there’s no peace treaty pending between my writing life and the rest of it, that I just have to get more skilled in the trenches, and I’ve become more convincing when I tell myself that economic justification isn’t necessary. No, it’s the deeper satisfaction of seeing a personal project come to fruition that I’m fueled by now—and it is deep, and I am fueled. But during the ups and downs of booking The Hideout, it’s become clear to me that there’s still one external reward I’ve been holding out for, one very clear image I have of success. It’s smoking a cigarette on The Hideout’s porch after having had a book release party. That, to me, will equal a dream come true.

Now, I quit smoking on December 31, 1998. And I have truly kicked the habit, save for the special occasion. (Ah, for the special occasion.) But the sense memory of nicotine haunts me like an old lover. Or like all the old lovers. All the old friends, the eras and places and discoveries of youth. CURRENCY, too, is wrapped up in this acrid cloud of nostalgia: I smoked my way through Southeast Asia and wrote most of the first draft during a time when I sat at my desk at home and puffed away. Who, even among smokers, lights up inside now? It’s a freaking part of history, like horse-drawn carts. To further out myself as old: I have also enjoyed cigarettes on domestic flights, in college dining halls, and at the desk of my first office job. And of course I smoked—a lot—in the more typical places: bars.

I realize that smoking in bars is no badge of wizened coddgerhood, that up until 2008 anyone in Chicago could. On the eve of the ban I really longed to go on a cigarette tour of the scenes of old crimes and say a proper good-bye, but I was six months pregnant. Missing this last boat has left me with an unresolved yearning, and The Hideout’s front porch is about as close as it gets to public indoor smoking: There’s not that lovely stale air, but you can simultaneously sit down, hold a beer, light a cigarette, and converse. At first unconsciously, I’ve come to believe that this comfortable compromise, this celebration of the old in the manner of the new, is the single best way to mark the occasion of CURRENCY’s publication.

I’m not so aged that I took up smoking without knowing it was poison. In a way, the paradox has always been part of a cigarette’s charm: This will kill you, but doesn’t it make the moment sublime? Ah, yes. Yes, it does. Let the beautiful sad music play. My youth is behind me. I can no longer live for the moment, for only myself. In more than one sense, I do not have much time. But I do have this family, this life, and soon, I will have published a novel. A single cigarette still tastes divine.

And if it’s raining or something? If there’s construction on Wabansia and The Hideout’s porch is torn up? If I have bronchitis, or the cops shut the deal down because there is probably some ordinance against it? Well . . . could happen. We’ll see.

But, won’t you please join us at The Hideout on May 16? Which, by the way, is a request I can only make thanks to my friend Martha Bayne, who, in addition to being a stalwart smoking partner since the time when ten dollars would buy you a carton of Camel Lights, also knows how to make all kinds of good things happen there.


With CURRENCY‘s release date only about two months away, I feel like I’m at the tail end of a veeeeeeeeeeeery long pregnancy, and labor has just begun. The final proof has been completed. Events are being set up. Preorder is available. A Facebook page has been created. (Please become a fan.)  And thanks to Max Wentzel, The Eternals, and Lisa Meehan Williams, there’s even a book trailer posted on YouTube. It’s really going to happen!

Here’s the jacket copy:

Piv and Robin are not such an unlikely  match. Piv, a small-time hustler in Thailand,  and Robin, a twenty-something back-packer from the United States, have always dreamed big dreams. What begins as a traveler’s affair in Sukhothai quickly intensifies, and the young lovers envision an idyllic future together, traveling the world. Their plans are thwarted in Bangkok, however, when Robin runs out of money, her credit is denied, and she may have to leave Asia and Piv behind. Desperate, Piv turns to Abu, a charismatic businessman acquaintance, for help. Thus begins Piv and Robin’s foray into exotic animal smuggling. Soon they find themselves amid an international crime ring that may have even darker underworld ties stretching from Kenya to Russia. Under the scrutiny of the traffickers who employ them, with investigators hot on their trail, and idealistic dreams unraveling fast, Piv and Robin must face the consequences of their individual struggles for identity, as well as the cost of their mutual desires.

“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl