First Fictions , continued

Reading the blog (or online diary) that Caren Lissner C’93 updates daily tells you nothing—and everything—about the 31-year-old newspaper editor. Her entry for 5/20/03: “Woke up, put clothes on, went to work,” is also her entry for 5/21, 5/22, and 5/23. Once in a while, she’ll mix it up by not going to work, or a friend will write in to object to the dullness of her blog. It’s the quintessential anti-blog, and Lissner created it in reaction to the hundreds of overblown blogmasters who clutter the Internet with their wide-ranging political views. Lissner, a Hoboken resident whose day job is editing the Hudson Reporter chain of weekly newspapers, calls her humor “Seinfeldian,” and her debut novel, Carrie Pilby (Red Dress Ink), has been described as “the first true anti-chick-lit novel.” The main character, Pilby, is a 19-year-old prodigy who, once freed from the womb of academia, struggles to exist in a world where social skills—of which she has zero—are as important as intellectual ability.

Did you always want to write?

I can’t not write. I always have story ideas. I’m writing in my head when I’m not writing on paper. Since I was 12, I wanted to write a book, and it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realized publishing is so hard to get into, it could take me until I was in my seventies to get a book published. I realized it might never happen.

How did your Penn experience affect your writing?

I got heavily edited at The Daily Pennsylvanian in my three semesters beat reporting for them, so they taught me a lot about writing clearly and concisely. I also wrote a humor column at the DP called “Pretty Sneaky Sis” for three semesters and some commentary for The Philadelphia Inquirer. One column was on the electronic sign that wraps around the top of the PECO building. I was so excited when they made the message wrap around the entire thing instead of having a different message on each side. I was so happy that the machine could communicate with me from my dorm room.

How did you come up with the character of Carrie Pilby?

I started thinking of the moral dilemmas people have and thought it would be interesting to see society through the eyes of someone who’s smart but not socially skilled. She analyzes everything intellectually. She leaves college, and without the structure of academia, she doesn’t know what to do next.

Isn’t it risky to write such an extreme character?

Not everyone is going to like her, and I’m prepared for that. The people who do like her are the people who’ll remember what it’s like to think in black and white, and to be so sure about everything. They’ll remember what it was like before they learned to adapt and make compromises so they could fit in better.

Carrie Pilby is being shopped around to film production companies. Who do you think should play her in a movie?

All the people in my writing group say Thora Birch. I think a young actress with dark hair and glasses.

Red Dress Ink publishes novels geared toward the Bridget Jones-esque chick-lit audience. What do you think of being associated with this publishing trend?

It’s interesting that there’s a market for all of these books, and I think it’s because women have so many choices now. Our lives in our twenties and thirties aren’t just about finding a man to marry. And though Carrie Pilby is a little different—it has more of an edge—I have to be grateful for this trend, because without it I wouldn’t have been published so easily.

Who are your favorite writers?

I do have fiction writers that I like, but I’m more influenced by nonfiction writers. I like Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for the New Yorker. He had a delicate hand, he didn’t feel the need to embellish. There’s an economy of words in his work. I also like Kevin Smith [writer/director of Clerks, Chasing Amy, and other films]. His way of writing dialogue is really great—he captures peoples’ verbal tics and inflections.

What are you working on now?

My second novel, Starting from Square Two, will be out in 2004. It’s about a 29-year-old New York woman who lost her husband a year and a half before. He was her college sweetheart and she’s never had to date in the real world.

Writing about being a single woman living in New York isn’t that much of a stretch—I didn’t have to do a lot of research. My next novel will be about characters that aren’t anything like me—it isn’t something I wanted to start without having publishing contacts.

“Say Something Smart”

Just because I’m smart doesn’t mean I have
a complex axiom on the tip of my tongue.
I mean, I do, but it’s not just because I’m smart.

“You ever been here before?”


The woman behind the desk peers at me through small round glasses. I don’t know what her problem is. Everyone in this office has, at some point, never been there before.

She gives me three forms to fill out, including a W-4 and a confidentiality pledge, and this wastes 20 minutes. If only the rest of the job is like this.

Then she hands me two hulking toothpaste-white stacks of paper. “The lawyers need you to compare them word for word,” she says. “A full read. It could take a few hours.”

Dad has gotten me work legal proofreading, which he says pays well and can be sporadic. I can work night or day. I’m smarter than 99 percent of lawyers, so it should be easy.

I reach my cubicle, which has a drawerless desk. This is even lower in the office furniture hierarchy than a drafting table. Behind me, an old guy in squarish glasses is reading two documents, his eyes swinging from one to the other.

He looks too old for me to consider him for a possible date. But who knows? He’s bald and unthreatening looking. Maybe I can figure out how to flirt, lure him to dinner, and then I’ll have satisfied the second requirement on Dr. Petrov’s list. That would leave me with three requirements to go.

I look over my desk. It’s rife with supplies. Someone has taken a long piece of yellow legal paper and colored in every other stripe with red flair pen, and then completely filled in the remaining stripes with Wite-Out. And that person has also drawn a box in the left-hand corner with blue ink. It’s an overgrown U.S. flag. It must have taken a good half hour to do.

A supervisor comes in to further explain my task. The first document I have to look at is an original. The second document is a version they got by scanning in the first one and printing it out. But sometimes, when they scan documents in, the new copies that get printed out accidentally have extra commas or extra letters in them, due to dirt on the scanner, marks on the original document, or something else.

So my job is to compare the original and the printout, word for word, making sure they’re exactly the same.

I’m supposed to do this for 210 pages.

It seems like there must be a faster way to perform this task in this era of technological advances. No wonder lawyers charge $400 an hour. They’re paying proofreaders to sit and play Concentration.

I lean back in the hard chair and close my eyes. Within a minute, I have my answer. But I can’t use my easier system until Oldie behind me goes to get coffee. Which, I soon find out, he does every ten minutes. And it takes him ten minutes to do it. My father thinks I don’t want to work, but the truth is, no one else is really working. It’s a big sham. No one says anything about it because they’re doing it, too. There are still tons of secrets in the world to which I am only just becoming privy.

While Oldie is gone, I take the top page of my original, put it in front of the top page of the new copy, and hold them both up to the light. They match exactly: not a line, word or dot out of place. So these pages are fine. I put them both down and move on to the next pair. I hold them up to the light, and there’s not a stray line, word or streak. This probably takes two percent of the time it would take to read the whole thing.

When I finish, I leave the document a third of the way open on my desk so it looks like I’m in the process.

I use my extra time to think about a lot of things.

I think about why, if the highest speed limit anywhere in the U.S. is 75, they sell cars that can go up to 150.

I think about whether the liquid inside a coconut should be called “milk” or “juice.”

I think about why there are Penn Stations in New York and Maryland but not in Pennsylvania.

I think about Michel Foucault’s views of the panoptic modality of power, and whether they’re comprehensive enough and ever could be.

Behind me, Oldie picks up the phone and taps at the buttons. He asks for someone named Edna. On the one percent chance this won’t be completely boring, I eavesdrop.

“Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you,” he says. “I called Jackie this morning, but she wasn’t there, but Raymond was. So Raymond tells me he’s home because he has all this sick leave saved up, you know, because teachers are allowed to accumulate their sick days, and so this is the third Friday in a row he’s taken off from school, and he was getting ready to go to the Poconos to ski. He was practically bragging about it. And I say to him, ‘Raymond, that’s lying. Sick days are if you’re sick.’ Yeah, he’s cheating the kids. I know. I know. So he backs off and says, ‘Well, I only do it once in a while.’ And I say, ‘Raymond, excuse me, but you just said you did it three Fridays in a row, so don’t back off now.’ Do you know why our daughter married someone like that? He’s amazing, bragging like that. Amazing. I said to him, work ethics like yours are why America’s going to pot. Because everyone tries to get away with everything.”

Eventually, he hangs up.

“Excuse me,” I say. “I couldn’t help overhearing. You’re annoyed because your son-in-law was goofing off. But you were just having a personal conversation on the phone for 20 minutes when you were supposed to be doing your proofreading. Isn’t this a little hypocritical?”

There is nothing more fulfilling than watching people get caught in the thick, coarse gossamer of their own hypocrisy.

Oldie is stunned. “We’re entitled to breaks,” he says, but his voice is quavering.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

Oldie sniffs, “I don’t see why it’s any of your business,” and returns to his assignment.

I rest my eyes a bit, as there are no new assignments. Behind me, I hear a fax machine whirr, and the choppy sounds of someone’s discordant clock radio. Soon a guy with dark, tufty hair pokes his head into the room. He looks around but apparently doesn’t see whom he had hoped to. He’s ready to retreat, but then he notices me. “Hey,” he says. “You a student?”

“No,” I say. “I graduated. I’m a temp.” I’m barely able to hide my elation at the diversion. Oldie gives us both a sneer.

“You just in for tonight?”

“Far as I know.”

He extends his hand. “Douglas P. Winters. Front desk dude.” He sniffs and wipes his nose with his arm. There’s something appealing about ending your sentences with a snort. I also get the feeling he’s smart and slumming. I can spot an underemployed lazy intellectual anywhere.

“Carrie Pilby,” I say.

“You here till morning?”

“I guess so.”

“So you said you graduated already. But you look young.”

“Oh,” I say. “I am. I skipped three grades in elementary school.”

“Really?” he says. “Say something smart.”

Ugh. I hate when people do that. It’s like finding out someone’s part Puerto Rican and saying, “Say something in Spanish.” Just because I’m smart doesn’t mean I have a complex axiom on the tip of my tongue. I mean, I do, but it’s not just because I’m smart.

But I decide to play along. “I think that the influence of Kierkegaard on the works of Camus is underestimated. I believe Hobbes is Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption.”

Doug stands there for a second. “Wow.”

I don’t tell him that I stole the whole thing from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I read one day when I had three hours to kill.

Oldie looks back at both of us. “You two gonna do any work tonight?”

“Why don’t you call 60 Minutes and rat out your son-in-law?” I ask. He sniffs and goes back to his work.

“Come outside,” Doug says. “I’m out front.”

I follow him through the glass doors into the waiting room, which has plush chairs and golden letters on the walls bearing the name of the firm. Doug motions to an armchair next to the security desk, and I sit.

He opens a bag of pistachios and pours a few onto the table. “So,” he asks, “you got a boyfriend?”

I wonder if he’s asking because he likes me, or he’s just making fun of me because he knows no one would want to be my boyfriend. “No,” I say nervously.

He cracks a pistachio on the table, then opens it like a tulip. “You just kind of play the field?”

“Mostly, I sleep.”

Reproduction with the permission of the publisher, Harlequin Books S.A. Copyright© 2003 by Caren Lissner. All rights reserved.

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Robert Cort
Carrie Pilby
Caren Lissner
The Song Reader
Lisa Tucker



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© 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03