Twenty-five stories. Twenty-five original illustrations.

From a village in Taiwan to a Christmas teahouse in London, from the icy roads of Minnesota to the hollow streets of L.A.. . .


Q:  What is the book about?

RENSE : It is a collection of twenty-five short stories about people in various sorts of trouble.

Q:  What sorts of trouble?

RENSE : Slight trouble, major trouble, piffling trouble, sad trouble, veterinarian trouble. Marital trouble, car trouble, real estate trouble.

Q: Car trouble? Oh, right! The VW. "Beauty Knows No Pain."

RENSE: Yes. And Christmas trouble. Religious trouble. Head trouble. Foot trouble.

Q: Foot trouble?

RENSE: One story is about an ancient man who sells ice cream on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan. His feet hurt and his wife hates him.

Q: More summaries, please. . .

RENSE: Sure. Okay, uh, another is about a woman who runs away in the middle of the night. She is a teacher, but she abandons her house, family, students, and just drives away. Another is about a man who thinks he has a sister, but probably doesn’t. Another is about bad carpet cleaners. Another is about crows.

Q: : Crows? Are the crows in trouble?

RENSE : No, but they cause it.

Q:  (laughing) Okay. . .What are "strange places of the heart," exactly?

RENSE: They are all the places where so-called conventional love does not reside.

Q: What is the strangest story in the book?

RENSE : Perhaps one about sharks in the sky. Or perhaps a young woman who believes she is bathed in holy light. Or perhaps one about a reclusive bachelor who meets the woman of his dreams. But strange is in the eye of the stranger.

Q: What does that mean?

RENSE: Everybody's ideas are different.

Q:  Was that deliberate, the strangeness?

RENSE:  That's sort of like asking if trees are deliberate. I was trying to write what held my attention, and what I thought might be interesting.

Q: Why did you write the book?

RENSE : I write, therefore I am.

Q:  I mean, why did you write short stories? 

RENSE : I was too lazy to write another novel. That's really hard. (Rense is the author of The Last Byline and The Oaks.) Kind of like having a very long argument with yourself. In the end, it's a draw, and you're exhausted. This way, the arguments are shorter. I’ve always been a raconteur, going back to my childhood dining room table and extending through my years in newspapers. As a kid, I used to drive my father crazy. “Get to the point,” he’d bark. All my stories had points. I just thought they needed a little suspense. I didn't know it, but I was writing as a I spoke.

Q:  Writing as you spoke---that's very interesting. . .

RENSE: I still do it. In conversation, people get tired of waiting for me to find the right word. I'm better off writing than talking.

Q: There is tremendous irony, and oh, I don’t know, poignancy in these stories. An almost physically aching melancholy at times, and then something is just flat-out crazy-funny. And sometimes I think there is absurdity underneath the tragedy, and then I think, no, it’s tragedy under the absurdity.

RENSE . Just like life!

Q:  Was this by design?

RENSE :  Well, first, I'm glad you found some things funny. The last thing I want to be is overly serious. But no, I didn’t set out to make one ‘poignant’ or another ‘melancholy.’ Or another funny. Or combinations thereof. The story sort of determines the mood, and I don’t calculate the tone of the writing in advance. I write fast, and let the story move along. I just start typing whatever phrase first comes to mind, and usually, it works out. Makes its own sauce.

Q:  One of the things I love about the book are your titles, and some of your turns of phrase. I love the titles, “Too Many Rainbows,” and “Sharks in the Sky.” Here is one paragraph I just really adored: When she died, it was as if someone peeled back the fabric of the universe and revealed there was nothing there. No God, no stars, no cats, no music.

RENSE : Thank you very much.

Q: Do these things just come to you, or do you have to work hard on fashioning them?

RENSE : Uh. . .both. Having them “come to you” is a kind of hard work. Tom Waits said something about how songs find him, and his job is to be open to them. For me, it’s something like that, although I don’t want to make this into anything too grand. I’m not the first person to write a story. If I’m in a good frame of mind, and generally have a little caffeine, the machine sort of limbers up. If I force myself to write, it never works out so well.

Q: Was the collection always called "Strange Places of the Heart?"

RENSE: No. I was going to call it "Habit Trails." You know, like the pathways from kitchen to bedroom to bathroom found in houses were people have lived a long time, piling up stuff. But it sounded like some kind of dog food.

Q: (laughing) Why did you have the stories illustrated? That’s unusual these days. And who is your illustrator?

RENSE : It is unusual these days, I think. I’ve always loved illustrated short stories, going back to Hugh Lofting’s wonderful drawings for “Dr. Dolittle” when I was a kid. N.C. Wyeth’s fantastic illustrations for Stevenson remain vivid in mind. Thurber, of course. I happen to have a friend who is a lifelong stage designer for opera and musicals, Keith Snider, and he liked the stories. Said he wanted to try a few sketches, and I liked them so much that I asked him to do the whole book. I’m so happy he did. Honored, really. They're fanciful, stylish. I think they suit the stories well. And he also did the cover.

Q:  The cover is great.

RENSE: I'll tell him. Thank you.

Q: There is such a range of characters in the book. I hate to use the overused word, "eclectic," but it fits. I adored Francine, the woman who loved dessert and worried about Buddhism, and I loved the two girls in "Uncle Ice Cream." They were a scream. Then there is the poor guy with MS---I forgot the character's name---

A: Chance Marvel.

Q: Yes. Great name. And the old man alone in his house after his wife died, the bachelor who just wanted to fix juke boxes, oh, and I was moved by the woman flute player who couldn't lift her arms anymore. The one that really hit me hard, though, was Mina, the songbird in "Too Many Rainbows." I guess my question is. . .are these people real? They seem real.

A: They are based in some instances on real people, but I emphasize based on. The girls in "Uncle Ice Cream" do not exist, but I knew two girls with their names who were friends. I wanted readers to feel they were meeting people, not just reading about characters.

Q: Well, for me, you succeeded.

A: That's very nice to hear. Thank you.

Q: And having read your novel about growing up, The Oaks, I noticed that the Bogle family is back. . .

A: (laughing) Yes, Charlie and Jake and their old man are in one story. And there are one or two---two---Oaks tales. I've got a million Bogle stories. I've thought about writing a book with that as theme, and probably title.

Q: Why did you self-publish?

RENSE : Ah, that question. The manuscript was circulated to a few publishers and agents, and received form-letter rejections. Some of the stories were individually circulated to magazines and what is left of “literary journals,” and were rejected. A very generous friend  handled all this, as I need to save my energy for writing. I felt obliged to collect a fair number of rejection notices before self-publishing.

Q:  Pretty fatalistic attitude!

RENSE :  Thank you.

Q:  If they were rejected, well, they must be no good, right? (Laughing.)

RENSE : Right. Exactly.

Q: Really, why were they rejected. Did they give reasons?

RENSE: Well, the letters were all standard lingo along the lines of "It's terrific, but not right for us." You know. It's like Seinfeld---"It's not you, it's me!" In my view, they were rejected because they did not fit the subjective standards of certain literary journals, which amounts to one person thinking, “Eh.” Or maybe two. That's fine. Mostly, they were rejected---by publishers and agents---because, I assume, they were not deemed marketable.

Q:  If they are good stories, why aren’t they marketable?

RENSE : First, everywhere I turned, I was told "no short story collections." Nobody wanted to even look at them, period. No agents, no publishers. Why? I was simply told there is no demand. Second, quality of writing is incidental when it comes to getting published. Ninety percent of the consideration---make that 99 percent---is whether something can make money. That’s it.

Q: Hasn't it always been this way?

RENSE: I don't think so. There used to be literary agents who were looking for good writing, and good writing was the criterion for marketing viability. Pascal Covici is an obvious example. Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, Clifford Odets, Gene Fowler, Arthur Miller, Shirley Jackson, many more. He shepherded these writers, and many more, though none of them pandered to so-called niche markets. Not that way today. It’s all niche markets and money. It’s part of the tyranny of demographics and marketing that has dumbed down most aspects of culture, reduced everything to “saleability,” “accessability,” “resonance.” Pandering. Triumph of the till.

Q:  Wow. Pretty cynical, some might say.

RENSE: Some might say Justin Bieber is talented.

Q:  (laughing) But there are fine books being written and published---

RENSE : Yes. But you don't necessarily find them on the New York Times bestseller list. And many are simply not getting published. I would say that most books are not books anymore. They are book-product. They are conceived, designed, and exploited as product, not literature. Everything is based on the question, is there a “target demographic?” And what is the “target demographic?” Almost all publication has become niche marketing. If you don’t fit an obvious marketing niche, you don’t get published. You don't get an agent.

Q:  Like what niches?

RENSE : Well, I didn’t write about a culturally conflicted woman who is, let’s say, Asian-American, and entitle the story, “Hot Dogs and Rice.” I didn’t write about a woman victim of childhood sexual abuse who returns to her tiny Midwestern home town to find the mysterious reason she must now run for mayor, and the Nigerian dwarf who helps her.

Q:  You’re being facetious?

RENSE :  Only somewhat. Books by women about women caught between cultures, books by women about women dealing with sexual abuse and bizarre backgrounds are huge, lucrative niche markets, if that isn’t an oxymoron. And by the way, most readers are women, and most agents are women, and a lot of small publishers are women. You can check the figures, I don't remember, offhand. This is just the reality today.

Q:  But what's wrong with that? I mean, writing about those subjects?

RENSE : Nothing wrong at all with the subject matter. To the extent that it squeezes out other subject matter because it is deemed more profitable is the problem, I think. Would Steinbeck be published today? And then a lot of general contemporary fiction just strikes me as goofy. I mean, try reading book flaps of best sellers. Lily couldn't remember her father and mother, but she remembered the mysterious man who gave her a pickled herring in 1962. After a fish dinner in middle age, she suddenly is thrown back into a world long forgotten, and sets out to rightfully reclaim her title as Duchess of Lichtenstein. They often read like parody, like something from The Onion. They're fall-down funny.

Q:  But I see that you wrote about a lot of women. . .

RENSE : More than half of the stories in my book are about women. Including “culturally conflicted” women, and in one case, a victim of sexual abuse.

Q: Really? That's surprising. Why did you write about women?

RENSE: Why not write about women? There is so much crass exploitation of women in media, often with the complete complicity of the women involved, by the way. And this stereotypical notion in film and TV and literature of the "strong woman" usually boils down to a character behaving badly, indulging the same ugly traits that ugly male characters indulge. I wanted to focus, at least somewhat, on women of integrity, courage, depth, perseverance, kindness.

Q: Some of them are tragic figures---


Q: And some are really heroic, in their ways.

RENSE: I think so.

Q: And some aren't so nice.

RENSE: Just like life!

Q:  Why did you stop circulating the manuscript and individual stories?

RENSE : At some point, you get down off the cross. I’m not one of these people who spends ten years collecting rejections before finding a publisher. I gave it a shot over the course of a year or so, thanks to my wonderful friend and de facto agent, Janet Dackow, and that was enough for me. You know, the way I look at it, I only have x-number of years to write and publish, and to paraphrase the old beer commercial, I want to reach for all the gusto I can get. Besides, I have total control over what I write, and what I publish. I like that.

Q:  What, do you dislike editors?

RENSE : No more than I dislike eating live lizards. Theoretically.  

Q:  (laughing) Why?

RENSE : Well, I’ve had some very good editors. I've had many who were every bit as incisive, bright, delicate, knowledgeable, and devoid of ego as, say, Dennis Rodman.

Q:  O-kayyyy. What is your writing method?

RENSE : I drive to a place in Gardena called The Tea Station. It’s a Taiwan joint, and reminds me of Taiwan, where I was fortunate enough to live for a while. I drink ‘Eight Treasures Chyrsanthemum tea,” which has a low dose of caffeine, and once it fires me up, I write for four or five hours in the afternoons.

Q:  I meant your writing method, as in how do you come up with subject matter, form ideas, and so on.

RENSE : Ah. Some stories are based on real events, though changed, extrapolated, and some are made up.

Q:  Can you give an example of each?

RENSE : “The Lost Lid” is based on an actual event. Based on. “Uncle Ice Cream” is entirely made up except for the bare outline of the central character, who exists, or existed.

Q:  I loved "Uncle Ice Cream"---those two girlfriends, again, are so sweet!---and I loved “The Lost Lid!” It was funny, and touching---took you to another world. Where is that teahouse in England?

RENSE : To quote John Lennon, turn left at Greenland. Or right, I guess.

Q:  No, really.

RENSE : I made it up.

Q:  You made it up? There was so much detail, you must have visited some place like it.

RENSE : I wish. I’d like to be there right now. Seems like a good place to write.

Cordelia Wong-Rogers is a Santa Monica writer. Her books include "The Marquis Chimps: the Real Story," "Notes My Bulgarian Nanny Left Me," "Women Who Stood Erect," and "Tomorrow is Another Yesterday." She lives with her partner, a therapist specializing in parrots who have outlived their owners, and their two children, Zoe and Chloe.

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