Candid and Uncensored with Andrew Davidson and Karen Essex

            In their respective novels The Gargoyle and Stealing Athena, Andrew Davidson and Karen Essex both tell parallel stories that take place in two different time periods, intertwining the lives of people separated by centuries.  The books also explore common themes of the mystical, the mythic, karmic debt, the creation of art, and romantic love.   In a candid and uncensored phone conversation, the authors compare their writing processes and talk about the sometimes numinous, sometimes laborious procedure by which they create stories and bring their characters to life.

(Click here to listen to entire conversation: )

Karen Essexstealing athenaThe GargoyleAndrew Davidson

 

 

 

 

 

 

KE: Hi Andrew. When I wrote to you I said that Doubleday had sent me a galley of The Gargoyle before it was published and I read it…

AD: Right.

KE: … and I really enjoyed it…

AD: Ah, thank you.

KE: When Anchor asked me to participate in this dialogue, even though I am on a deadline, and I am rather far behind at this point, I was going to skim The Gargoyle again, but the truth is that I have now re-read every word of it, because I was just enjoying it way too much.

AD: Well, I apologize.

KE: So if I’m late on my deadline, I’m just going to say call Andrew Davidson, it’s all his fault.

AD: I think that’s a very wise… blame me, that’s the way to go.

KE: Uh huh, I will.

AD: Okay, good. Before we get into the question, what’s the deadline? Do you have another novel coming out? Or is it an article of some sort?

KE: I’m here in London, writing my next novel, which is a Victorian gothic novel, and it’s due in November.

AD: Okay, we’re going to come back to the question that you’re just about to get to, but my question to you before we get to that question is: how are you so unbelievably prolific? Because I just finished reading Stealing Athena, which was great, by the way…

1-KE-workinthebathroom

KE: Thank you.

AD: … and there’s a lot of words in it. How did you get another book out of your body so quickly?

KE: I am remarkably unblocked in most situations, though Stealing Athena was the hardest thing I ever wrote.

AD: Why was that?

KE: Well, it was because of the enormous amount of historical research that I had to assimilate, and then spit out into a narrative that didn’t sound like a history lesson.

AD: But still, Stealing Athena was only two years after the book that came before it, is that correct?

KE: Right.

AD: Wow. I’m sorry to get on this….

KE: Quite all right.

AD: But seriously I am in awe. I just don’t know how you can write that much.

KE: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because people always ask me what my process is, and I always say my method is the obsessive-compulsive method of writing. Which is, that once I get going on something, I almost don’t let it go. In a weird way. Someone once asked me if I took weekends off, and I just laughed, and I said, “I take my work with me to the bathroom.”

AD: Right.

KE: And I wasn’t kidding. I’m trying to correct these measures now, but….

AD: The interesting thing is that I write, I think, by that obsessive-compulsive method a bit as well, but what it ends up doing for me is dragging me off down alleyways that are incredibly fascinating, and I write twenty or thirty pages about, but I discover that it ends up being one paragraph in the finished work.

KE: Right. Well, The Gargoyle was your first novel. Correct?

AD: That’s right. Yes.

KE: And you wrote it without a deadline.

AD: Without any deadline whatsoever.

KE: Right. So I had the same experience. My first novel was Kleopatra, it took me about… it took me seven years from the time I thought about it and began to research it to the day I sold it, to what was then Warner Books. So… and I did a lot of research that took me down fascinating alleyways, which had nothing to do, in the end, with the finished book. But I’m here to inform you that now that you’re a big success…

AD: Yeahhh….

KE: … you’re going to have to learn to write faster. And you will.

AD: Okay.

KE: My experience has been that you now have a readership, and your readership is waiting for you.

AD: Right. But….

KE: So….

AD: …my feeling in my case is that, umm, I mean I’m certain that I could put something out in two years, but I don’t know if my readership would be happy with it, because I know I wouldn’t be.

KE: Right.

AD: Yeah.

KE: Yeah, this is… I think this is one of the issues that we novelists deal with, and I… This is what separates what I would call, for lack of a better word, a “career novelist”…

AD: Right.

KE: … you know, from someone who has a story or two in them. I think that it takes a brain-shift, almost, to transform oneself into a person who can write to satisfy a readership. And I don’t mean that that’s the primary goal, that we should be feeding product to our readers, but I look at people who are writing thick, idea-driven books like Philip Roth, and John Updike, and the late Iris Murdoch—these are all incredibly prolific people.

AD: Really, really are.

KE: So at some point I think they made that shift. And I think that you’re at the beginning now, so I bet you that if we had this conversation in five years into the future, you wouldn’t be so concerned about it.

AD: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily—I completely understand what you’re saying, first of all—but I don’t necessarily know that it’s exactly what you’re talking about, as much as it’s just the different ways that people create. For example, I mean, in music, you’ve got, say, Leonard Cohen versus Bob Dylan. And at some point Bob Dylan was putting out an album every fifteen minutes, and Leonard Cohen puts one out every four years if we’re lucky.

KE: Um hmm.

AD: And that’s just how they approach it. And… recently, I’ve been going through the work of John Fowles. And I…

KE: Oh yes!

1-AD-writethroughidea

AD: … and I’m absolutely loving his writing, and the books are so different, and he, I think, produced only seven novels in his life. Well, I mean clearly, here’s a “career novelist” who is just not somebody who writes in quite that quick way. And it’s not better or worse, obviously.  The one thing I’ve discovered in this last year and a half, where I’ve actually been meeting professional writers, because I didn’t know anybody before that, is just that everybody works in ways that absolutely surprise me. When I talk to other writers and they say, “Well, this is my method, this is my process,” sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from blurting out: “REALLY? That works for you?”

KE: I think my favorite weird process story is that of Graham Greene, who got up early every morning, put on a beautiful suit, wrote exactly five hundred words, would stop mid-sentence, once he had reached his five hundred words, was often done by breakfast time, and then would go sort of be a social butterfly, go and hang out with his wealthy friends on yachts in the Mediterranean.

AD: Which is not a bad process at all.

KE: No. Why can’t I learn that one?

AD: Yeah.

KE: I don’t really see it forthcoming, but that’s the process I would most like to learn.

AD: And why can’t I learn it, either? Interestingly, in Stealing Athena, there’s—you talk about the “daimon,” the indwelling spirit inside people…

KE: Uh huh….

AD:  At one point during the writing The Gargoyle, I wrote a five-page tangent on the history of the word “daimon,” which obviously never made it in. In the finished version of The Gargoyle, the word gets referenced once. I needed to write my way through those five pages to know that it didn’t belong in the book at all.

KE: Um hmm. No, I can see that, and I—but I do think that the more that you experience the form of the novel, the more proficient you will be at not needing to go down those roads.

AD: Well, you know, we’ll have to have a conversation in five years and see if I’ve learned anything. (Both laugh.) All right, so let’s go back, I think I interrupted you mid-question, about five and half minutes ago, maybe a little more….

KE: Yes. Well, now that you’ve said that you don’t want to talk about personal things, I’m going to just pretend you didn’t say that and I’m going to ask you, if—because your book is so vivid—I’m going to ask you if you were ever, like your character, either a pornographer, or a burn victim, or a substance abuser.

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Touring from My Keyboard

Since the release of my new novel Undiscovered Gyrl, various facebook friends have asked whether I will be visiting their hometowns during my upcoming book tour. It’s hard not to reply with a hearty LMAO, because, let’s face it, the notion of a national book tour is very 2000.

Undiscovered GyrlThese days most novelists attend a single event, and it’s usually within twenty miles of their homes, and they are relieved, if not overjoyed, to leave it at that. The reason is simple: Nobody shows up to books signings.

I once dragged my girlfriend and our six-month-old son all the way to San Francisco for an event. Of the seven people who attended, one was a fan whom I had met on line, two were friends of hers, and another was an old high school friend whom I had not seen in thirty years. (I almost didn’t recognize him. He’s a priest now and his collar threw me.) That left three actual members of the reading public, or, as I like to call them, “Kindled spirits.”

Let’s face it, unless the author has won the Pulitzer Prize, was once President of the United States, or once shared a cigar with him, no one bothers with book events except the novelist’s friends, and the friends of his friends. This is not to say, however, that we no longer tour. We do, only its all done in an entirely new way that saves thousands of gallons of jet fuel and spares the author myriad humiliations.

In fact, you’re attending a book event right now. I know what you’re thinking: “How is it possible? I’m not breaking my ass on a folding chair, there’s no sour wine in my hand, no cheese cubes sweating in the corner, no frizzy-haired bookshop owner standing in back with a wolfish grin and shining eyes, laughing and clapping at everything Allison says.” Welcome to the brave new world of the virtual book tour.

When my publicist first asked me if I was interested in blog touring, like any self-respecting media whore I said: “Of course I am. When do I start?” I wanted to add “What the hell’s a blog tour?” but I was too embarrassed, so I asked a novelist friend instead. She said that during a set period, starting with the launch of my book, I would be invited to write something for various bookish blogs, with interesting names like dantescolon.blogspot.com or readuntilithrowup.net.

Most often the bloggers (primarily young females) would send me a list of questions to answer at my leisure, but sometimes I would be given an assignment, such as “List your five favorite movies and why,” or “If you were force to choose between Shakespeare’s work being obliterated from human memory or a Chinese village being swept into a raging river, killing roughly one million people, which would it be and why?”

My friend said that she preferred the interviews, although it always makes her smile when they make it sound as though they’re sitting in the same room with you. The first question will begin, “Thanks for joining me, Allison. You look terrific. Is that chair comfortable? Would you like a bottle of water?” She said she is always tempted to type the reply: “Thanks for having me, but what’s up with your hair? Is that a reverse mullet?”

Well, it turns out that my book tour was much better than what she described. I have enjoyed every minute of it, in fact. How could I not? I was answering friendly, insightful questions from serious readers, all the while keeping my carbon footprint down to a meager size 8.5. So far I have made appearances at the following sites:

Pop Culture Junkie (8/4 to 9/5)

Tales of a Ravenous Reader (8/6)

Shooting Stars (8/7)

Ticket to Anywhere (8/10)

Bermuda Onion (8/11)

Okay, now that we’ve established that it was good for me, was it good for the blogmasters? I would love to hear from you all. Did traffic at your site increase or were there suddenly tumbleweeds blowing down the information superhighway? What was the feedback from your readers? Did they promise to rush out and buy the book? Please, let’s keep the dialogue going! It’s lonely here at my desk.

Oh, and, by the way, since no one asked, I would save the Chinese village.

*Allison Burnett  is the author of UNDISCOVERED GYRL and Christopher, a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and The House Beautiful. Allison also wrote the upcoming movie Fame.

The Best Years of Your Life

Every year at this time, just as the summer heat is reaching its most suffocating extremes, I start to look forward to going back to New England for another year at college and finding relief in the looming autumnal chill and academic high jinks. The problem with that, though, is that I’ve been out of college for two years now, and that annual retreat is no longer an option for me. It’s a rotten feeling.

Since I loved my time at college, I spend most of August and September clawing for memories of my favorite classes, most colorful professors, and those Friday nights that I never quite remembered even in the first place. Luckily, the perfect tonic does exist for all of this pathetic yearning: the campus novel.  I guess it’s something of a shadowy genre—you probably have to really want it to exist to recognize it in the first place—but all that’s really required of a book to be considered a campus novel is for its main action to take place in and around a college setting.

As a genre, it’s been around since the 1950s, and it boasts works by the likes of Mary McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth. My interest in campus novels pares that list down quite a bit though; I like to focus on the more acidic, tongue-in-cheek side of the spectrum. The campus novels I love pull the curtain back on the wretched foibles of academia and out every last shortcoming they can. It’s these uproarious exposés—not some idealized, soggy reveries—that drop-kick me back in time and satiate the wild hunger I have for my salad days.

So, without further ado, here’s some of my recommended back-to-school reading for those who won’t be going back to school.

Part One: Friday Night Blights

978-0-679-78148-6The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis   I may be a little biased because the school depicted in Ellis’s second novel is actually a thinly-veiled Bennington College (the infamous liberal arts college of iniquity and my alma mater), but the shrewd depiction of what hedonistic zombies co-eds become when night falls will surely ring true for many. Employing the impossibly jaded first-person voices of a handful of narrators, Ellis really nails the numbing effects of living in an isolated social environment and delivers a searing portrait of how truly, despicably self-obsessed college kids can be. Inconsequential minutiae are obsessed over with positively rabid devotion, while things like classes, social decency, and the future hardly seem to matter at all. Ellis’s emotional wasteland is a bit over-the-top, but I have to, woefully, admit that some passages might as well have been pulled from my journal sometime around my sophomore year’s second semester. Conflicting narrative accounts of the same events only help to establish the hazy, claustrophobic atmosphere where nothing is what it seems but everything is too real to handle. While not quite Proust’s madeleines, the stench of cigarette butts in half-empty Solo cups stokes the memory just as well.

Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt   Another gem set at a pseudo-Bennington (but really, it could apply to most liberal arts colleges, if not all academic institutions), this one is decidedly less relatable with its murder-driven plot. That doesn’t mean the overall mood of it won’t hit home, though! Like The Rules of Attraction, the emotional erosion of cooped-up college students comes into sharp focus. But, unlike Ellis’s numbed drones, Tartt’s students are dangerously passionate about their studies. Granted, I was never driven to murder over my dedication to my area of specialty (English Modernism so rarely prompts bloodshed these days), but there is something frighteningly relatable about the lengths these characters go in the name of intellectual curiosity—and how much further they go to cover it up.

Despite their often dark subject matter, these novels so gamely throw the very real moral deficits of college students in the reader’s face, making them impossible to resist—whether you loved college or not.  And so what if these are technically cautionary tales? Does any college experience not end up as one?

Next time: Faculty Fumbles . . .                               

scowlDavid Archer is a publicity assistant at Vintage Books & Anchor Books. He graduated from Vermont’s Bennington College in 2008 and hasn’t gotten over it yet.

Try it, you’ll like it– no, really!

Working in books, it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked for recommendations.  Generally, I’m happy to oblige—I get to read amazing books every day, and I’m happy to share the wealth (as are my colleagues, as you’ll see from this blog).  But it should be noted that there are certain social risks to sharing your tastes with others.

Rachel Donadio wrote a great piece in the New York Times last year about biblio-deal-breakers that captures just how high the stakes can be when it comes to sharing books.  While we haven’t all experienced a breakup over Pushkin, several in-office conversations made it clear that when recommending books, it can be best to tread lightly.

Meghan Deans, marketing assistant and blogger extraordinaire, comments, “I used to give books as gifts as much as possible, and I always tried to give books that I have read and have loved. I thought to myself what a thoughtful gift-giver am I! Except there was this selfishness component, you know—I loved this thing, you had better love it too, and also validate how smart I am for liking it.”

FRAUD by David RakoffAfter giving away copies of Fraud by David Rakoff, and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, she says she “had to cut it out because I got way too nervous after giving these books. I always wanted to hear back that people had seriously loved them and that these books spoke out their souls, but that was mostly not going to happen!” She’s recommended her latest favorite, The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, “up and down and crossways, but now I’m terrified to buy anyone a copy. The people who have read it on my recommendation have mostly liked it, but not necessarily committed to it the way I did. It’s intimidating to push books on friends and family! When you really respond to a book it’s on such a gut level—what if it turns out your friends don’t like your guts?”

Publicity assistant David Archer—for whom this post marks his debut on the Sun & Anchor—has had similar experiences with The Waves by Virginia Woolf. He told me that, “like a crazy person, I’ve always kind of absorbed certain books into my own persona. They aren’t just my favorites—they’re aspects of my very being! While this fact, in and of itself, is rather tragic, things always become far more gruesome when I recommend those books to others.” For him, this is illustrated in his pushing of The Waves upon his friends: “Never mind that it isn’t easy, or that my pitch for it sounds like stilted flap copy for an undergrad thesis, or that I had been asked to recommend light, summer fare! I don’t recommend it to my friends because I think they might like it, but because The Waves is it for me and I feel that once my prey has turned the last page, we will be forever linked ever so closely.”

Alas, his prey proved a little wilier than expected, and he “watched copies of The Waves gather dust on friends’ shelves, the spines betraying nary a crack. Once, I even barreled into a friend’s room and demanded to know why he hadn’t read it yet—did he have any idea how much he was hurting me?! Naturally, he just shrugged and explained that it was only a book and I shouldn’t take it so personally. Gag.” Now Archer sticks to recommending books that are “a little less charged,” which he says works because “I don’t expect it to be a transformative experience between us.”

Associate Director of Publicity, author, and book-recommender Sloane Crosley—who is actually quoted in the NYT piece cited above, unbeknownst to me before writing this—subscribes to this practice as well, noting, “I have certain books I like to keep piles of in my office because everyone likes them.  Or, rather, no one has ever asked me what the Hell I was thinking after I recommended them.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroHeat by Bill Buford (and Heartburn by Nora Ephron while we’re on the topic).”

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonThe Secret History by Donna Tartt978-1-4000-7877-6Heat by Bill BufordShedding some light on why the recommender/recommendee relationship can get a little fraught, she goes on to note that “it can be a little risky just because the recomendee has to live with a book in a way he or she doesn’t have to live with an album or a movie or even an art exhibit – you can’t just walk out. Go get lunch. Pretend it never happened. It takes time and about 40 pages of patience to get into most books–fiction especially. With so much to read sometimes recommending a more obscure and beloved book can feel less like you’re doing someone a favor and more like they’re doing you a favor.”

I think it’s safe to say that fellow publicist and book-recommender Jen Marshall agrees with this assessment—she told me she’s “ridiculously careful about books that I recommend to friends. Because I know how crazy mad I can get if a book recommended to me is less-than-advertised so to speak. I hate wasting time and money.” Sadly, many of these disappointing tomes are acquired with honorable intent: “Every so often I do what I consider ‘professional homework’: I go to the bookstore and buy books from other publishers that have received recent, impossibly wonderful (or at least interesting) reviews from various publications.

Armed with USA Today’s bullish review of a big, witchy summer novel, she sets off, eager for what sounds like a smart-yet-fun read but gets just the opposite in her opinion. “I’m furious that I actually paid for the thing! In hardcover! Without a discount! Grrrrr.” Some of her favorite recommendations come from Sarah Weinman at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and a recent example of a book recommendation gone right is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: “I’m so happy to have paid for that novel that I’d gladly send the author a separate thank-you check just to keep her in tea and cookies as she writes her next one.” When making her own recommendation, she tries to stick with “brilliantly written crime novels that are like (one assumes) crack. Can’t get enough and you fall through the pages like Alice down the rabbit hole. Or Pride and Prejudice, because that novel never, ever disappoints. Even on the 67th reading.”

Editor and yet another veteran book-recommender Zack Wagman’s biggest problem when it comes to bestowing literary advice is staying in the present: “Because I’m reading so many manuscripts so quickly, I’m often at a loss when people ask me what I’ve read.  Either the books are completely forgettable, or they won’t be coming out for a year or two. It’s embarrassing since I really do love recommending good books.” He’s come up with the great solution of creating a “semi-regular ‘Reading Newsletter’” that he sends out to family and friends. The list is varied, “some thrillers, literary stuff, and book-club-friendly fiction”—and they are all currently available for purchase. He notes, “I’m not sure if people buy books from it, but at least when they ask me what I’ve read recently, I can say ‘Didn’t you get the newsletter?”

So, what about you? Any harrowing tales of book-giving gone wrong? Heartwarming tales of book-giving gone right? Leave a comment below to be entered to win one of our favorite Vintage/Anchor titles of all time—you’ll love it, I promise. For a bonus chance to win, re-tweet @VintageAnchor’s mention of this post.  We’ll track down the winner next Friday, August 14.

*This post was compiled by Publicity Assistant Sarah Cantor, who is still somewhat scarred by her father’s lack of enthusiasm for The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.*

The Overflowing Beach Bag – Part 1

Each summer, I get childishly excited at the prospect of what to read on my summer vacation. I could, of course, blame my enthusiasm on my profession — as a book editor, I read so much for work that it’s often hard to make time to read for pleasure. But truthfully, that’s not really the whole story: I am somewhat embarrassed to say I’ve always been like this, and my job has only made it worse.

So, what should you pack in your summer beach bag? Today’s installment: The deliciously big, long, messy, wonderful novels that you won’t want to put down.

Warning: These novels are the kind that make you want to skip a meal or two. They’re the ones that might make you ignore your friends/significant other/family when they try to talk to you on the beach, or suggest an afternoon of exploration or shopping in some lovely nearby town. Last summer, the book that held this position for me was Abraham Verghese’s CUTTING FOR STONE, and when it rained for three days straight on Cape Cod, I was secretly happy to be able to stay in bed with a blanket and immerse myself in Verghese’s masterful story of twin brothers, medicine, and the entirely absorbing world of Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from the 1950s to the present. Ten others that share this mantle are, in no particular order:

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem so grounds you on Brooklyn’s Dean Street in the 1970s that when he veers toward the fantastical, you buy ever second of it. An urban masterpiece of friendship and heartbreak.

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Adichie writes some of the best characters going and in this novel, which won Britain’s Orange Prize and was shortlisted for the NBCC award, she allows readers to understand the origins and events of Nigeria’s terrible Biafran War, through two remarkable sisters and the men who love them.

THE ROTTER’S CLUB by Jonathan Coe: One of the funniest, warmest, most heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read. High school friends in Birmingham, England in the 1970s come of age together; when you finish it, you’ll immediately want to read THE CLOSED CIRCLE, a sequel that takes place twenty years later.

ACTS OF FAITH by Philip Caputo: Geopolitics come alive in this novel set in Sudan by one of our finest journalists turned novelists. Caputo understands better than anyone the ways that religion, corporations, government and greed intersect during a humanitarian crisis; and he writes great characters too.

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith : A literary ode to E.M. Forster’s HOWARD’S END. Smith uses Forster’s classic novel as a template for her own, which she sets at a thinly disguised version of an Ivy League university, in what is a fabulous satirical novel of race, class, and gender writ large.

MATING by Norman Rush: “Had Jane Austen been in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1980s, MATING is the book she might have written,” says Amazon.com. A meditation on the meaning of love and romantic relationships, Rush’s novel, which won the National Book Award in1991, is one of my all-time favorites.

A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry: Few novels are as stunningly beautiful as this one, about four strangers thrown together in an unnamed seaside city in India in 1975 and the friendship that develops between them. It reads like Dickens in India. If you liked “Slumdog Millionaire,” this book will amaze you.

THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN by Claire Messud: A brilliant comedy of manners about three friends on the cusp of 30 in New York City as the 21st century begins. Messud is eagle-eyed and precise about the entitlement and aspirations of her characters, as well as the world they live in, and every detail is perfectly drawn — including an excellent twist at the end.

THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst: Britain in the 1980s comes to life in this Booker-Prize winning novel about Nick Guest, aspiring James scholar, a gay man discovering his own sexuality in a very straight Tory moment in Britain. One of my favorites scenes involves a dance-off with Margaret Thatcher. . . and Hollingurst writes, line by line, some of the most exquisite sentences I’ve read.

THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE by Haruki Murakami: You can’t go wrong with what remains my favorite of Murakami’s long books featuring Toru Okada, the pasta-cooking jazz-listening hero; his signature disappearing cat and wife; a prostitute of the mind; a fabulous scene at the bottom of a well; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.

Next up: Short, quick, steamy summer reads to whip through in one afternoon.

*Lexy Bloom is a senior editor at Vintage/Anchor and a paperback junkie. At age ten, she packed a trunk filled entirely with books and brought it to summer camp. Family and friends have never let her forget this.*