Monday, June 18, 2012

Rising Star: Novelist, Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

New, daring literary fiction alert! Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's debut novel is about a woman who takes her pyromaniac brother into her home after he is released from prison, where he spent twenty years for killing a family of four. As she attempts to help him in his rehabilitation, she starts slipping, becoming paranoid about his motives and losing touch with the peaceful life she had created. To find relief, she escapes into a nocturnal New York where the line between reality and dream blurs.

Q&A with the author of SPARK:

BG: Tell us a little about the press that published SPARK and how people can order it:

CEM: SPARK is being published by Engine Books. Victoria Barrett runs the press and does an amazing job. She has made a commitment to publishing no more than four books a year, at least half by women. Working with her has been a revelation. She puts so much attention and energy into each of her titles and produces beautiful books. She also works hard to create a sense of community. The Engine Books authors promote each other, cheer each other on. There's so much goodwill and support. I love being a part of it all. My novel will be released in late September and is available for pre-order now

BG: Your protagonist sounds like he might be unsympathetic. For many editors, this seems like it could be a turn-off -- even though some of the most culturally relevant protagonists have been unsympathetic, unreliable, even insane -- from  Holden to Humbert Humbert. What's up with that? I'm personally intrigued by an unsympathetic narrator; I think it's closer to life than the fairy tale stories as educated post-modern thinkers we've been taught to dissect.

CEM: I love unsympathetic, unreliable, insane characters! Really, I think few well-crafted characters are truly unsympathetic. They may do things that the reader does not approve of, or finds disturbing, but a skilled writer is able to evoke the reader's empathy anyway. The reader has to be willing to go on the journey with the character, though, and some readers don't like being taken outside their comfort zone. I do. I agree with you that these "unsympathetic" characters are closer to real life. We're all flawed; we all have good and bad sides. That complexity is what I find interesting.

BG: One of my favorite protagonists, Meursault from The Stranger is known for his cold, indifference to the world, yet The Stranger is a book that grows more and more beautiful each time I read it. I was thinking about Meursault in reference to SPARK. I've come to realize that Meursault is not a composite character, but there are shades of him in the human experience. Is this how you feel about the characters in SPARK?

CEM: Yes, definitely. Delphie, the pyromaniac, gets in trouble for giving in to his impulses. He then must work hard to shut out those impulses, to reprogram himself. He has to change so that he doesn't do any more harm, yet he loses an essential part of who he is. It's sad. His story is an extreme example of something everyone deals with. We all have desires that might not be "good" for us, some of which we control, others we do not. Our impulses can hurt others and ourselves, but they also can lead to amazing experiences, to living a full, self-actualized life. It's a push and pull as we negotiate society. How much of ourselves do we let come out? What aspects have we suppressed for so long, we can't even access them anymore? And what happens when those suppressed impulses break through?  

BG: How does landscape play a role in your novel? Not just physical landscape, but the cultural landscape in which the novel is set?

CEM: SPARK is set in New York, mainly in Brooklyn, and the city is a huge presence. One of the things I adore about New York is how layered it is. There's the shiny veneer that the tourists see, the flash and pop of Times Square. There's the New York for those with money, which is cleaner and more self-contained than for those without. There's the New York for those struggling to make it. There's the New York for those who have stopped struggling. Everyone co-exists, moving over and around and through each other. There are so many secrets, so many stories.

People talk a lot about "how New York used to be" - grittier, more dangerous, more free. There's a sense that something has been lost, some sort of truth. Everywhere seems to be gentrifying. I explore this change in SPARK and turn it on its head. Maybe the surface of the city has become better groomed, but New York has not lost its dark impulses. It's a very human place.

The author, Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

BG: As a writer, what's your practice? Do you write everyday or are you a binge writer?

CEM: I try to write every day. I don't stick to an exact schedule, but I tend to do my best work in the morning and early afternoon. I set myself a word count goal, usually 500 or 1000 words depending on what else is going on. I usually exceed that, but I set my count intentionally low for me so that I can feel good about going past it. Little tricks like that can really help. If I don't write, I become anxious. I need my time alone with my imagination.  

BG: You've got an MFA in fiction from one of the most prestigious (and expensive) programs out there. While there are fellowships available at a place like Columbia, they are uber-competitive and far and few between. To an aspiring writer who wants to pursue an MFA, what advice would you offer?

I'm glad I got my MFA, and Columbia was a good choice for me (partially because it got me to New York). The degree has enabled me to teach, and I made many good friends in the program who are still my best readers. But I don't think an MFA is required to strengthen your writing or have a writing career. There are many wonderful private and community workshops (like Sackett Street, where I teach) and informal writing groups that can be just as helpful.

One thing my friends and I often talk about is how we wish we'd been better prepared for the realities of a writing life. My program taught me very little about the business side of things - rejection, contracts, book promotion, juggling priorities, paying the rent. I learned what I know from being out in the trenches, which is probably the best way to learn. Still, more discussion of the practicalities would have been nice.

I would advise aspiring writers to think long and hard about why they want to pursue an MFA. Do they want to teach? Work with a particular writer? Spend a few years away from the "real world?" All of these are valid reasons, but if you don't have a clear sense of what you want to get out of an MFA, you probably shouldn't do it. The cost should be considered carefully, too. Writing is very rarely a high paying career path, so the debt will most likely be carried for a long time.

Thanks, Courtney. I can't wait to read SPARK! xoxo 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rising Star: Jeweler and Creator/Owner of Bijulesterie, Jules Kim

Forget the A-list celebrities downtown designer Jules Kim has outfitted with her exquisite head-turning jewels; this bohemian flower child trapped in the body of a supermodel inspires all of us to adorn our bodies with her edgy new collection, Il Futuro. With the opening of her flagship showroom in the belly of the Bowery, Bijulesterie, you can experience an appointment-only jewelry consultation. “There’s a tension that builds as you descend into my new showroom,” explains the designer. “You let go of the stress of your day, and once you start trying on the pieces …” Jules flashes me a coy smile, and I can see how clients fall under her spell. “The client has an intimate, undivided collection of moments inside my four cool walls. It’s not an ordinary retail experience, which is based on the client being vulnerable and then experiencing satisfaction,” explains Kim. “And I don’t design based on the season or trends. My jewelry will last forever. You could bury it and dig it up in 1000 years.” For years, Bijules jewelry has primarily been about gilding the body with ornaments, but with the opening of her showroom, the designer is taking the brand beyond the flesh and creating an organic, inventive, and artistic experience. She calls her Bijulesterie a “spatial interpretation of the work.”

Aside from her innovative aesthetic in jewelry, which has been worn by Beyonce, Rihanna, and Rooney Mara in the 2011 film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Kim is a savvy businesswoman who is well aware of who is ripping off the designs she showcases on her website. Of this, she dismissively says, “My clients know where to get the real thing.” Subsequently, she’s known as being tough in the business. But, she points out, when you’re dealing with male-dominated diamond vendors, some who won’t even shake a woman’s hand, Kim says, “What do you expect me to be?”

Additionally, she has an extensive silversmith background because, as she explains, “You have to understand your medium, how the metal moves.”

So far, her signature pieces are the Nail Ring,™ Handlet, (a bracelet for the hand) the Bar Ring, and the Bony Knuckle Ring. One of my favorite pieces of the Bijules brand is the Nail Ring™ Bling Privee, which has a concealed diamond (facing the person wearing it, as opposed to a traditional diamond ring, where the diamond is facing the public). “It’s like lingerie,” says Kim. “Only for you.” What’s fantastic about the Nail Ring™ is that it’s totally functional and won’t slip off, and Kim will customize her pieces to meet each client’s personal aesthetic.

Here’s a quick Q&A with the designer:

BG: What’s your inspiration?
JK: Different parts of the body.
BG: What goes into creating a collection?
JK: People can become super obsessed with what they wish they could have. I like to make things that will become peoples’ icons.
BG: For the jewelry novice, what’s your advice on how to build a jewelry collection?
JK: Respect the element of comfort. You must be comfortable with the jewels on your body. Start simple, going one piece at a time. There’s a world of opportunity in the art of adorning yourself. Then, gradually, learn how to diversify. Push the elements of style and play with different shapes and colors.
BG: How should people store jewelry?
JK: That’s up to you. I have a porcelain lotus flower candleholder by my bedside. But my whole apartment stores my jewelry; I have a coo-coo clock with necklaces hanging from it.
BG: What’s the best way to care for jewelry?
JK: Every piece is different based on how your body chemistry works with the metal. But, a great trick is to use a soft bristle toothbrush, soap, and warm water. The piece will look new afterwards.

To make an appointment at Jules Kim’s Bijulesterie, send your name and contact information to or meet the designer in person at Select Summer Fridays, a party hosted by Kim and Katie Longmyer at Le Bain on the rooftop of the Standard New York 3-8 PM through August 31