Tuesday, January 28, 2014


NEWSFLASH!! I have a new website, www.sagnier.com, and to paraphrase a memorable Seinfeld quote, it’s real, and it’s spectacular.
The new site is important because it really does represent what I do and have done, where I come from, what my influences have been, and, hopefully, where I’m heading. It has all sorts of modern (to a Luddite like me) gizmos, such as a 45-second embedded video of me expounding on how I write; there are links to writers I admire, to my family--I am the least creative of a truly classically creative bunch--and to avocations outside of writing and reading. Music, for example, and bands I’ve played and recorded with. There are photos, quotes, excerpts from books I’ve done, and even a couple of laudatory comments about my √©critures.
I should add here that a secondary yet important function of this website is to allay the terminal embarrassment I have suffered from my prior website, a thing I banged together about 15 years ago and have never, ever, updated. The old website has been banished to the Great Ether Out There, and hopefully will never be downloaded or seen again.
My friend and writing colleague Vicki VanArsdale put it together. Yes, that is her real name, without the space between the Van and Arsdale, and I suspect that at some point in the future, someone will want to buy her name and put it on a brand of cosmetics, or maybe a line of baked goods and brownies. Should you need help putting a site together, check hers out at www.vickivanarsdale.com. This is a shameless plug for a talented lady and I am not ill at ease making it. Vicki and I were in close email contact during the entire creative process. I provided as much data as possible, and we both dug around the net to find additional bits of info that would enliven the site. Plans are to make it a flowing thing, easily up-datable and as full of information as possible; in other words, it will be an ongoing work-in-progress.
I particularly enjoyed putting together the list of favored writers, and it struck me as I was drafting it that I’ll never be able to voice my thanks to such luminaries as John Updike, Vance Bourjaily, Honor√© de Balzac or Earl Thompson. Thompson, in particular, was a major influence. I read his Garden of Sands, Tattoo and Devil to Pay trilogy at least six times. The story of Jack MacDeramid, a boy growing up in the Dustbowl and coming of age in New York, should be--but sadly is not--a classic. Thompson never garnered the fame of a Capote or Mailer, and his later life is shrouded in mystery. He was 47 when he died in Sausalito, and though he’s almost forgotten now and his books are out of print, they’re well worth finding.
I’m hoping the site will encourage some readers to look into the works of writers no longer in fashion. Few people, at least in the States, are familiar with Francois Villon, a poet of the Middle Ages who vanished mysteriously when he was 32. Or Guy de Maupassant, reputed to have invented the short story and still occasionally reviled for having the temerity to write La Maison Teyllier, the tale of a small-town brothel and its amiable workers and clients.  
The website put me in touch with my past. My late sister, Florence Aboulker, was a noted French novelist and feminist. My surviving sister, Isabelle, writes children’s operas that are produced all over the world; my late uncle was a friend of the composers Ravel and Poulenc, and possibly the best interpreter of their works. Researching the website allowed me to find them again, and for that I’m grateful.   

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stupid Eating

For the past 48 hours I have indulged in a binge of stupid eating. Let me explain.
Stupid eating is a deep winter affliction, occurring mostly from late January to March, when the days are short, overcast, brutally cold and largely useless.
It snowed here a couple of days ago, just a few inches but enough to render the area spastic. Schools close; the government hunkers down and hibernates like an overfed groundhog. People go a little crazy driving, and they hoard: orange juice, Bounty towels, milk and eggs and toilet paper.  The media screams. A couple of years ago, the Washington area was the victim of a snow-locaust (so clever!) and now every time a flake falls, the headlines holler. Have I mentioned that it is 15° outside, and that with the wind-chill factor, it feels like 14°?  And that I worry constantly that my 20-year-old furnace will die in the middle of the night, causing me to freeze to death in my sleep? All this leads to stupid eating.
I work from home. It’s a very nice, small home, I might add, built in the mid-60s when energy was cheap, and so the windows are single-panned and the doors drafty. In winter, a candle placed on a sill will flicker. I wear too many clothes. My office is my basement, cool in the spring and summer months but frigid otherwise. It’s there I write, I rewrite, I edit, I ponder the next page, create and destroy plot lines and characters, and generally have an excellent time, so excellent, in fact, that on occasion I will neither see nor speak to anyone during the day. Some people find this sad and somewhat alarming.  I do not. I don’t watch daytime TV; this is a morally reprehensible habit that can lead to brain-death. I vacuum and dust and polish and make sure the toilets are Tidy-Bowled. I sweep the kitchen three or four times a day. I do the laundry; I check to see what’s in the fridge, or the pantry, or the cabinet where I no longer keep a collection of one-pound bars of dark chocolate. The latter have been replaced by trail-mix in an utterly useless effort to cut down on calories. I decide a piece of cheese is well-earned and in order, perhaps with a slice of that multi-grained bread which looks much better than its taste, and the tiniest bit of Prosciutto ham. And some mustard, of course, to tie it all together. Stupid eating. It is the only thing to do when one is snowed in and inspiration has either run out, or is threatening to abscond if not given a treat.
Not that being homebound is a prerequisite. One reason for the obesity epidemic in America, or so I have read, is that seven out of 10 hardware stores carry food items. So do all service stations, Office Depots and Staples stores, pharmacies, Walmarts, Autozones, TJ Maxxes, bicycle shops and Toys-R-Us. We are awash in food, and bad-for-us food, at that. And over-eating, like all addictions, is neither a matter of low morality nor of self-control. We are programmed to eat. In times of stress or unhappiness, when we are lonely or frustrated or simply bored, we eat. We crave sugar, fat and salt, and the foods that offer such combinations are almost impossible to resist. Especially in winter.
On top of it all, I am somewhat of a food hoarder. Blame it on being a postwar child in Paris, France, when food was scarce. I believe in having many cans of soup in the cupboard, and at least four pounds of frozen fish-sticks and chicken nuggets in the fridge. It’s important to have enough supplies on hand--potatoes, carrots, vegetable stock--to make six quarts of boeuf bourguignon at a moment’s notice, or maybe a tasty bouillabaisse. This makes me feel safe in a cold and dangerous world. I eat stupidly because I am momentarily uninterested in doing anything else. Yesterday, for example, I spent five hours working on a book I have been commissioned to write, and a couple more hours on two books of my own.  I struggled with the dialog of a play I am writing. I ate another piece of cheese, the last ounces of some excellent home-made beef stew (with a dash of Indian spices, if you please), and two turkey breakfast-sausages from Costco. Also, a chorizo from the Latino deli. And a handful of trail-mix, in lieu of the missing chocolate.

The silliest part of all this is that I go to a gym five or six times a week to get rid of my excess poundage.

Both Aristotle and Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote of man as an essentially rational being. I completely disagree. We are irrational, bombastic, destruction-prone and wasteful. We foul our own nests, are prone to catastrophic miscalculations and have little respect for what we do not understand. And we stuff ourselves at every opportunity. Stupid eaters.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The New Book

There’s something totally thrilling about typing out the first few pages of a new book.  Will it fly? Will it have legs? Will the characters develop well enough to stand by themselves eventually, and even question their author’s choice of actions for them? Will the plot come full circle without resorting to some silly deus ex machina loophole, as do so many bad novels? Or, as often happens, will it peter out after 50 or 100 pages and be relinquished, with others of its ilk, to the back of the book closet? Every author has great ideas that came---and went--to naught. It’s part of the trade.

For a writer, a book is a world, and he or she, for all good purposes, is that world’s creator and god. In time, the writer speaks of the characters as friends. They have a backstory, if only in the author’s mind, and their existences, their lives, are certainly more important than those of real and passing acquaintances. After a while, the book’s development transcends fiction and becomes reality. Winston Churchill, no slouch in the writing department, once wrote, “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

I have a friend who recently finished writing a novel, and for months that was all he could talk about. It got to be boring, but necessary. When you choose to create an entire world, peopled by the men and women forged by your imagination, and you hold these people’s fates in your hands, well, what else can you possibly think about? These are your children, the offspring of your mind’s fancy. Without you they become orphans, purposeless phantasms blown apart by the slightest breeze.

All this to say I have recently begun writing a new novel, and I’m excited.

This project is uncharted territory. All I have right now are three brothers who decid to go into business together. They all have different expectations on what this partnership will bring. There are some vague notions attached to the not-yet-conceived plot. There will be love and humor and sex and conflict, because that’s what books are made of. Hopefully, the brothers will develop minds of their own and enter into dialogs willingly. Their conversations will make sense and be fun to read, their interactions believable. They will do, generally, what I suggest, but in their own way, and all I will have to do is watch and take notes. They may rebel, God bless ‘em, and take off on unexpected tangent, and I plan to do everything to encourage that. I will document the twists and bends of their lives and may nudge them from time to time in the right--or wrong--direction.

This is made more exciting by the fact that I’ve just signed on with a new literary agency that will represent my work. I’ve had agents in the past, and my most recent experience was not a happy one. I’m hoping this one will be different. These guys seem enthusiastic about my writing, which, frankly, makes me really feel good.

So off I go on another adventure.  I’ll keep you up to date. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Nasty Little Thing

Seen on the high-definition screen in the hospital examining room, the tumor is an ugly little thing, a malevolent growth like a tiny sea anemone emerging out of the wall of my bladder. It is several shades of red and pink with a crenelated top and a darker colored center. There is, luckily, only one this time, but its presence will require yet another bout of surgery, the seventh, I think. By now, I am familiar with the drill.

“I don’t know what you did in your earlier life,” says the urologist/surgeon who has just finished performing the cystoscopy, during which a tiny tube with a camera at its tip was inserted in my urethra. “Your bladder seems to be a garden for tumors.” Just my luck, a poetic surgeon with horticultural insights.

The surgery no longer frightens me. It’s a simple procedure. I’m knocked out and the surgeon goes in, chops the thing out, and washes my innards with a solution that will hopefully kill any stray tumorous cells. If, after a biopsy, the tumor is found to be cancerous, I will go for a six-week BCG course, during which my bladder will be flooded by a solution that includes sheep tuberculosis cells. No one quite knows why this seems to work on bladder cancer, but it does.

It’s no fun, though. The treatments are usually performed once a week in the morning and burn like hell. They leave me wiped out, and the rest of the day and the following a.m. is pretty well shot too.  Still, the alternative is even nastier. “We’ve had people who get operated on and then don’t come back for the check-ups as they should,” said one of the urology nurses. “A year later, they’re in crisis and we have to take out their bladder.”

I was a mess prior to the latest cystoscopy, having somehow persuaded myself that the next prognosis would be dire. Two surgeries ago, the situation was a lot more dicey; the doctor had found three tumors growing close together, and he thought the cancer might have invaded the muscle walls, which would have made recovery unlikely. He did what surgeons do and managed to excise everything nasty, but, he told me later, it was touch and go.  This time around, he thinks, should be fairly minor compared to earlier procedures.

Still, as much as I hate to admit it, I am getting reconciled with the fact that tests, surgery, and recuperation, might very well become a standard part of life. Neither the exams nor the cutting bother me as much as does the healing, which seems to take a little longer each time.  In fact, it seems I’m not completely mended from the last operation, which was in late September, so I’m hoping that I’ll be given a little more time before the seventh intervention.

Oh, before I forget. A main cause of bladder cancer is smoking. I stopped smoking 16 years ago and still got it. So if you’re smoking, just stop. Now. Really.

And one more thing. The person with the illness or affliction is allowed to say, “It could be worse.” You cannot, so please don’t succumb to the temptation. You can agree, nod your head, mutter encouragement, put a reassuring hand on a dejected shoulder, but those four particular words, in that given order, are not for you to say. Never, ever. Got it? Good.