Dec. 11 -- Off and On

This was not at all the day I planned. But then again, it was.

Yesterday--Dec. 10, 2007, when Off the Page was officially published--was filled with technological error. Or terror.

First, forty-seven emails that I wrote on the plane for sending once back on earth refused to go out on Monday morning. And so I spent hours (yes, hours) copying them into Yahoo’s Web mail, cutting and pasting and reformatting hundreds of e-mail addresses to announce the day's “Off the Page” interview with Marie Arana and Richard Bausch-—the kick-off to the book.

All afluster, I began my washingtonpost.com chat. About fifteen minutes in, I realized my name was showing up instead of Richard Bausch’s. As far as the world knew, the online audience was asking Bausch questions, and I was answering them in crusty-sounding man-speak.

Washington, DC: Why do you write?
Carole Burns: Fast answer: It beats coal mining.

Later, heading off to my friend’s, I realized I had no coins to call her when I reached her Metro station. I dialed collect. When told to hit 1 for instructions in English or 2 for Spanish, I aimed my finger for 1 but slid against 2.

I knew just enough Spanish to say “Carole” when asked my name. But poor Holly took French in high school.

Ring, Ring. “Carole, are you at Friendship Heights?”

Usted ha alcanzado Verizon Special Services. Una persona trata de alcanzarle hacer--”

“Carole?”

“--una llamada a cobro revertido. Su nombre es Carole. ¿Aceptar√° usted las cargas? Para aceptar, para decir si o--”

A confused Holly finally cried out: “This is Spanish!”

But then again, the day was perfect. Because behind all this ridiculous confusion—at the day’s center--was what has made Off the Page, for me, such a joy: listening to writers.

Bausch’s name did begin appearing, and Arana’s had been showing up all along. Arana admitted she has to play the fool when writing fiction; Bausch says he writes because he loves it.

It’s best in their words.

Question: Do non-writers enjoy reading what writers say about writing?
Marie Arana: A reader is as much a participant in a book as a writer, I feel. What was it that Alvaro Mutis once said? "To read a book is to be born again. You enter another mind's world and yet you are creating it yourself, in your own imagination."

Which says to me that I would be fascinated in writers' answers about their work, whether or not I were a writer myself. Reading is such a collaborative act, no?

Richard Bausch: Well, I'm not a non-writer (yet--gulp) but I recall that when I was very young and an avid reader and not dreaming I would ever put pencil to paper, I was also completely enthralled by every single comment I ever encountered by a writer about the work. And I never forgot one thing, not one slight dropped comment about the whole thing that I ever heard or read.

Indeed.

The mojitos I had that night, finally celebrating, were fabulous. But not as fitting, not as memorable (especially after the third mojito!) as Marie Arana and Richard Bausch, talking about their art.

Dec. 7, 2007 -- Web site, Live!

Step 1—The Web site goes live.

Although really, this isn't Step 1 to my first book, but Step 5,352, or something like that, if I had been counting.

Finally, there's a reason to launch http://www.caroleburns.com/.

And where does one begin? At the moment of my father teaching me letters using the looming headlines of The New York Post? At that first child’s poem only-a-mother-could-love about butterflies? At the notebook my junior year high school English teacher had us all keep, which she had us call our “Creative Eye” (or “I,” she told us). Zooming forward a few decades, my first published story in Other Voices?

This book alone has probably taken as many steps: Starting with that slow news day on the washingtonpost.com home page in the summer of 2003, when I began chatting with the Live Online editor, who admitted she was hardly ever able to have authors on the site’s online interviews anymore. “I could do a show for you,” I said.

Two months later, in October 2003, in an interview conducted by telephone in a council flat in Lincoln, England, because I’d been doing a residency in Scotland, Alice McDermott became my first “Off the Page” guest. Within the first few months, I interviewed Martin Amis, Paul Auster, Jhumpa Lahiri. Five months after that, a very savvy DC writer and literary editor (C.M. Mayo, thank you) said to me, It would make a fabulous book. Six months later, I began shopping around for an agent. It took a year and a half and countless revisions to my non-fiction book proposal (using Susan Rabiner’s Think Like Your Editor—another thank you!) I was told one morning: It’s going out the next day.

Norton bought it within the week.

I hadn’t written the book yet.

And so, with much joyfulness, bottles of Prosecco (the cheap person’s champagne, three of them since holding the first copy of the book in my hand two weeks ago), gleeful emails about possible reviews in prestigious magazines (to be mentioned if they ever come through) plans for book store events (Politics and Prose, Jan. 25) and new Live Online discussions ( Ha Jin this week, Marie Arana and Richard Bausch on Dec. 10, Andrea Barrett on Dec. 17), I introduce: Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between.