I wake up early. I'm going for a hike with Julie Orringer, a new friend. We hike a trail that will take us over a mountain and eventually leads to a beach we both love, a beach with dark sand and few people. Halfway up the mountain, a biker warns us that he just saw a bobcat a mile up the path.
"What are you supposed to do if you see a bobcat?" I ask, not really expecting Orringer to know. (I call her "Orringer" and she calls me "Vida." I have no idea how this started.)
"You're supposed to make a lot of noise, throw rocks, and slowly walk backwards," she says.
I ask how she knows this. She says she read it in some book. Orringer's the kind of person who will read The Audubon Field Guide to Northern Californiaand War and Peace in the same sitting. At the point in our hike when we're warned about the bobcat, I've already asked her about both.
Orringer's short story collectioncomes out next week, and my novel came out today. We're with the same publisher, and the people there have decided to send us on part of our book tour together. I could not be more pleased because a) I like her work and b) I feel like I'll be in competent hands. Her bobcat knowledge is a perfect indicator of her attention to necessary precautions. With Orringer as my travel companion, I feel prepared and protected against any danger. Surely she will come armed with whatever's needed: sunscreen, an extra jacket, a flare gun.
My students at 826 Valencia are fond of her, too. At 826, which is home to a nonprofit writing lab, McSweeney's, the Believer, and a pirate-supply store, I teach two workshops to high-school students: one on reading and writing short stories; the other on writing college entrance essays. The classes are free and the students are motivated: They come on their own time, after school, during the summer. They possess skills and a Panglossian outlook I'd kill to have.
During my short story workshop this June, I had my students read 10 short stories, among them Orringer's "Pilgrims." After they'd read the story, Orringer came to the class to answer their questions. My students—about 15 of them, mostly public school sophomores and juniors—loved her. I know this because when the four-week workshop was over, I asked them to fill out evaluations. A typical evaluation:
Q: What was your favorite reading assignment in this class?
A: "Pilgrims" by Julie Orringer.
Q: What was your favorite part of this class?
A: When Julie Orringer came to talk to us.
Q: What would have made this class better?
A: Reading more stories by Julie Orringer.
When Orringer and I get to the beach we see a cliff with a strange oval opening. We try to throw rocks through the opening. We fail at that. And we never see a bobcat. But as we walk back to the trailhead, the fog breaks—a good sign for the start of the day. Men on horses pass us by.
Midmorning to mid-evening:
Believer interviews I edit today: Matthew Derby's interview with Stephen Malkmus; Joe Loya's interview with Mark Salzman; Ben Ehrenreich's interview with John Banville. Ehrenreich's interview includes a "Banvillean Glossary." A random selection:
Dandle: to move a child lightly up and down on the knee (Shroud, Page 217).
Estaminet: a cafe where smoking is allowed (Shroud, Page 131).
Popliteal: of or pertaining to the hollow behind the knee (Ghosts, Page 240).
Stravaig: to wander about aimlessly (Book of Evidence, Page 59).
Mid-evening to library closing time (9 p.m.):
I try to get a couple of hours of writing in every day. I write by hand, in thin composition books. Whenever I can, I write at the library. I used to work at this same library, shelving books. Photos and letters occasionally—more often than you'd think—slipped from the pages of books as I replaced them. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I couldn't resist reading the letters. They weren't letters from or to anyone I knew. On average, more of them were about sickness than romance.
I'm working on a novel that takes place in Lapland—the northern part of Scandinavia. I went there last summer and came home with a bunch of photos of my watch. I guess I was trying to show that it was 11 at night and still light out, that it was 3 in the morning and nothing had changed. Lapland has stray reindeer like some cities have stray dogs. I saw a lot of reindeer sitting inside the goal posts of soccer fields or walking across the road, right in front of a bus. Lapland's full of reindeer, saunas, drunk Finns—man, do they like to drink—and lakes the temperature of ice cubes. I spent a lot of time taking saunas and jumping in lakes—they say it's good for the circulation. I came home with reindeer antlers, female ones. They're very small, as if they'd come from a dwarf reindeer or were somehow shrunk. I hung them on my wall. I like the shadows they cast at night—thin straight lines that point in all directions.