Welcome to GIBBIN HOUSE!

When I first started this blog about the misadventures of a nascent author, I had only a small novel under my belt, titled Gibbin House. The building that bears the name is a fictitious postwar era safe-house, as many might have existed, and the London home of my motley crew of exiles. I could not anticipate then the degree to which I would join its ranks of writers and artists, but since publishing my book in 2011, I have had the greatest privilege of opening my own art gallery and of exploring my love of the written word through visual poetry and paper sculptures. Yet much like the girl who first started blogging two years ago, I suspect I don't know what I'm doing half the time. As such, Gibbin House remains a refuge for ramblings...and on occasion a haven for little triumphs.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Visual Inspirations - Cafe Hawelka - excerpt and historic images

Rather than simply post excerpts, I thought I might be more fun to also show the images that inspired many of the places, artists, paintings, etc I included in my book.  And so here is the first of many:

Postcard I bought of Cafe Hawelka  (Photo by Pierre Vallet)

At the first church bell chime beyond the Schottenring, I ran faster than I ever had without my life depending on it.  I am sure I could not have borne another minute alone, waiting there under the fractured shadows of the scaffolded dome, counting down to nine o’clock.  But now released, I broke into a furious sprint towards Café Hawelka, through vacant squares and cobble-stone alleys, where the military patrols glared suspiciously at me but gave the meager young woman no credence, until at last I held the coffeehouse’s tell-tale yellow globe light in my view.  By the time I desperately tore open the café’s heavy door, my thin bangs had plastered my forehead, and I emanated that insidious stink again.
Fortunately, the smell proved no match for Café Hawelka’s tawdry stench of soiled velvet, dishwater, and stale tobacco.  I breathed freely. 
Sweet liberty. 
Now to find her through the curtains of nebulous smoke.  My mother was not the easiest person to distinguish next to the ebony paneling of those corner banquets.  With her dark hair and a thinning frame that very nearly melted against the black background.  The effect of it never failed to elicit a shiver of anxiety. 
Please be here or I’ll never forgive you.     (p.5-6)

The opening scene of GIBBIN HOUSE takes place in one of Vienna's most renowned coffeehouses (and that's saying something), Cafe Hawelka.  A bohemian enclave pretty much since 1945, it seemed the perfect settting for a moody, smoky tete-a-tete between mother and daughter, as the latter discovers she is about to be sent away to London to begin a new life.  Being that this is her last impression of the city before she leaves, Anka will from here on in picture Cafe Hawelka whenever she thinks about her mother and the distance growing between them.

Cafe Hawelka (Wikipedia)
She writes about Vienna in the last gasp of summer, about the bathing crowds off the Danube Island shore, the outdoor restaurants with their shabby, striped umbrellas, the pungent linden trees, bearing their final powder blossoms down on the city’s shoulders.  She explains she writes inside Hawelka’s, which I could have guessed.  The image of her small figure at the corner table, drinking her Ersatz-Kaffee, surrounded by smoke plumes, dingy art placards, and debates on politics, is emblazoned on my brain.  (p.142)

Now, you might wonder how of Vienna's hundreds of cafes, I settled on this one?  This small, dark establishment doesn't seem at all characteristic of the coffeehouses the city is so famous for.  
Let me preface my explanation by saying: I love love love Viennese coffeehouses!  The glorious ceilings, the cigarette stench, the waiters in black bowties, the little glasses of water, the marble table tops, the tortes oozing whipped cream, the murmur of conversation, and of course, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee:) ahhh...
Naturally, when I went to Vienna to research the book in 2002, I enthusiastically visited every coffeehouse in the guide book (and proceeded to consume sinful quantities of pastries).   Every place was a revelation in its own right, elegantly appointed, sumptuous epicurean citadels of culture...but when I walked down a narrow alley in the old center at 10 PM and stumbled on this angsty, claustrophobic, awesome little cafe, I could just smell the history - the imperial wear and tear was written on the face of the pocket-sized octogenarian proprietess, who stood dressed in black at the back, commandeering her staff.  Clearly, Hawelka wasn't some renovated ultra-cafe, a remodeled museum...despite it's obvious popularity it was gritty, it was real. 

Cafe Hawelka (Wikipedia) - I confess I made up the part about the globe lights outside...
  The moment I got back to Miami, I did my homework.  Turns out Hawelka had had the same owners since 1939.  The year they bought the place, they had to close it down because of the war.  In the meantime, Vienna was bombed to smithereens (80,000 tons alone in February and March of 1945).   But would you believe, when the Hawelkas returned to their cafe after the war, it didn't have a single broken window, eventhough everything around it lay in ruins!

Heimito von Doderer, Dorothea Zeemann and Wolfgang Fleischer at Café Hawelka.  Photo by Franz Hubmann

Owing to this, Hawelka quickly became a watering hole for intellectualls and struggling artists, who according to Rick Steves, paid with paintings for their coffee.  I think I some of their work is still hanging on the walls.

Leopold Hawelka, 2008 (Wikipedia)
But what really amazed me was the realization that the sweet old lady I had seen was indeed the original owner, Josefine Hawelka!  Sadly, she has since passed on, but I'm grateful to have at least for a night been witness to Cafe Hawelka's incredible history.  As for her husband, Leopold, he recently celebrated his 100th birthday! 
Einspaenner (The Full Wiki.org)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tribulations of a Self-Published Author: Day 28

The 'Launch' Hangover - Now What?...

When you first begin writing those early chapters of what you imagine will be an unforgettable piece of literary fiction - over which agents in Hollywood will eventually sell their second-borns to option a version starring Audrey Tatou - how many of you can't help picturing that oh-so sacred moment?  You know, when the ribbon is finally cut, the foam boards mounted, the queue formed in honor of your amazing accomplishment?  I'm speaking, of course, of the 'Launch'. 

The Launch.  You build it up in your mind as you muddle through late night revisions.  You picture Bridget Jones charmingly mispronouncing your name as she taps the piercing microphone.  Or Tom Hanks scraping all the caviar off your hors d'oeuvres plate (because naturally, your publisher has pulled out all the stops).  You piece together ensembles...will you go for the 1950s Harper Lee car-coat look?  Or perhaps something more sophisticated - Sophia Loren in a black turtleneck and tweed, a la 'Cassandra Crossing' circa 1976? 

Perhaps you don't fantasize at all.  JK Rowling's success never enters your thoughts.  You're all about the work.  You're Norman Mailer.  Henry Miller.  A slightly more gregarious David Foster Wallace.  Your table is strewn with crumbled up yellow legal paper and spilled bottles of scotch.  Your mattress is crawling with bed bugs, or in any case, really really itchy.  Maybe you haven't wondered what it would be like, to stand there in your best party dress, the publishing world's sardonic gaze upon you, thinking...damn, I've made it!

Well, I have clearly thought about it many times, have run the whole process over in my head, the day I'd find out it was all really happening, and the day the advance would come in.  I'd cry at the sight of my books lining a B&N shelf.  I'd phone into talk shows, and ride on a book tour, through towns inhabited by envious ex-boyfriends, who'd grit their teeth as I inscrutably signed their copies 'Best of luck."

Except that I'm obviously not currently on a book tour, or torturing past paramours, as far as I can tell.  Because, as it happens, I didn't get 'published' after all. 

That is, after nine years of working in the shadows, I decided to omit the soul-crushing search for an agent, and instead published my opus myself.  It didn't immediately occur to me that taking such a step was the equivalent to throwing an eraser against the proverbial blackboard (I still feel the chalk dust settling upon my sandalled toes.)  In other words, no one was going to 'handle' me...I was setting out on this all on my own...and the Manhattan book store launch, well...

Alright, so it's been quite fantastic so far, not nearly as dismal as I feared.  My friends and family, in particular, have been exceedingly supportive.  As it turns out, people are astonishingly anxious to be given a reason to praise you.  It's all rather affirming, and I have to say that when the day of my Launch came at long last, I felt more loved than ever could have imagined.

And I think I did it all pretty well.  I was coifed and manicured.  I wore a blue and navy pleated vintage style cocktail dress with heels that would have made Betty Page proud.  The launch took place inside my family's new gallery on opening night.  We had press coverage and sponsorships.  I had my foam board poster at the ready, sold most of my inventory, and to my knowledge only mispelled one name (for which I am mortified and blame the seventh pomegranate martini.) 

But now it's a week later, and I'm forced to take stock of my progress: 

Launch, check. 

Support of friends and family, check.

Amazon store, check.

Self-indulgent blog and other cross-pollenating social media forums, check.

My face plastered in high-res jpegs across Miami's society pages, oh yeah, check.

New York Times Best seller list and Audrey Tatou in the title role of Anka Pietraru, the Romanian mute chased into exile in postwar Europe, er, still a ways to go...