Posted on 8 December 2013 | 1 response
Strange and lovely. The new issue of Mid-American Review (Volume XXXIV, Number 1) is now out in the world. We’ve got a lot of good stuff in this issue, including stories about attempted tiger dissection, dresses the color of robin eggs, and Sasquatch costumes, plus two essays (“The Red Essay” and “A Blow to the Head for St. Louis Barbecue”) that are incredibly inventive and beautiful and strange. And hey, if you’re a subscriber and got this issue in the mail, there’s a 50% chance I was the one to seal your envelope. The life of a literary magazine editor is a glamorous one indeed.
‘Tis the season for literary hope. I know it’s easy to get discouraged about sending work out to literary magazines, and sometimes it feels like these journals don’t actually publish anything they find in the slush. If that describes you, let me share a few bright spots: First, the Mid-American Review definitely reads all submissions, and the general submission pile is where we find just about all the work we publish. Next, while I can’t reveal any details yet, a magazine I’ve very much admired for years (and one I consider big-time) may very well publish one of my pieces — and yes, it’s something that came to them through the general slush. Finally, Michael Alexander Chaney put together a list of “top lit mags that REALLY do publish emerging writers,” which includes some excellent publications. So have heart and send out your work!
Merry Christmas, here’s some booze. Hey, look – The Millions put together a gift-idea list for writers that actually isn’t awful. What literary-minded friend wouldn’t want a bathrobe, booze, coffee, bookends, or a handwritten letter? For anyone out there keeping count, I’m particularly partial to #4, #7, #8, #11, #14, #16, and #17.
Effortless writing, guaranteed! Last week, I noticed some guys in high-vis vests walking around my Cleveland neighborhood. Were they selling something? Conducting some sort of utility work? Nope — they were distributing free pens in a bizarre, door-to-door pen promotion (see below). In any case, the pen was attached to a flyer that promised the user will “experience effortless writing.” If only, pen. If only.
Posted on 26 November 2013 | 2 responses
Last Friday evening, I gave a reading with the poet Dan Rzicznek at the Happy Badger in Bowling Green. The Happy Badger is a cozy place filled with Christmas lights and delicious things things like pumpkin soup and maple lattes, so it was clearly the perfect place for a reading. Plus, we had door prizes (from Big Fun in Cleveland), which is something I definitely recommend for any literary event. Give me one reason why you wouldn’t gift your audience members with stick-on mustaches.
I read my story “Wedding Season,” which was published by Flyway a few years ago, and “To Elizabeth Bishop, with Love” from Living Arrangements. Dan read an assortment of amazing poems, including a range from his chapbook Vine River Hermitage. But one of the best parts of the night was simply enjoying some food, drinks, and conversation with my MFA buddies and our very own Sherry who made it out for the reading! (Sadly, I failed to think of getting a photo of the two of us together.)
Here are the first few lines of Dan’s poem “Vine River I.” You can read it in its entirety here, but I wanted to share at least a taste:
He holds the map up to the mountainside,
a thing in the sky turning to earth.
To be a map of a face without lines,
to be a turning thing in the sky.
A line on the map means hunger—
a room filled with mounted deer and birds.
All in all, it was a lovely night, with plenty of people from the BGSU community coming out to hear some fiction and poetry. And for that, I’m grateful.
Posted on 21 November 2013 | 4 responses
Today, I’m happy to share some international flavor on the blog through a Q&A with the author Catherine McNamara. Read on to learn her thoughts about walking the line between guerrilla book hustler and glittery author, having more to say but using less to say it, attempts to enter the market sideways, why you need to listen to your own voice, the challenges short story writers face, adventures in genre hopping, and more.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and has lived in France, Italy, Belgium, Somalia, and Ghana. Pelt and Other Stories, a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize, was published in September 2013. Her stories have been published in Wasafiri, Short Fiction, Wild Cards: A Virago Anthology, A Tale of Three Cities, Tears in the Fence, The View from Here, Pretext, and Ether Books. Her erotic comedy The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy was published in April 2012. She lives in Italy.
Catherine’s collection, Pelt and Other Stories, was published in September with the small British press Indigo Dreams Publishing. (For a taste of the collection, read “Nathalie” online.) Catherine is currently doing an extended blog tour and sharing her stories through readings and literary festivals in England and Italy.
I interviewed Catherine to learn more about her writing and publishing experiences. Let’s see what she has to say:
1. Pelt is your first published short story collection, and it follows your erotic comedy, The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. How would you compare the experience of publishing your first book to this collection? Did you learn any lessons during the publication process for The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy that you made use of for Pelt?
When The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy came out I thought the world would adore my book, that reviews would be scattered across global newspapers, that copies would leap off bookshop tables and that I would sell gazillions of copies. Alas – it has been a lot of hard work. No newspaper reviews though many encouraging online ones; copies not always available in big bookshops and most sales through orders; sales have been good but I won’t be buying the Maserati. In fact most of the time I’ve felt like Catherine McNamara’s secretary.
When Pelt and Other Stories came out I was a lot more savvy and relaxed. My expectations were more realistic, I wasn’t half as fragile – even though the material means so much more to me. I knew I would feel more like a guerrilla book hustler than a glittery author. And I just went with it. The second time around I was more confident with reading and talking in public (though I’m still on a learning curve), and I felt more authentic. I never felt at home with the romance-writing crowd because I knew DLC was too quirky and didn’t really fit into their models. Whereas with short story writers I feel completely at ease, as though we are speaking the same language.
But the DLC experience helped me learn how to put myself out there – write festival proposals, synthesise my work quickly and perhaps even consider myself a writer for the first time.
2. How long have you been writing short stories? Can you describe your process of writing the stories in this collection?
I’ve been writing and publishing stories for over twenty years, with lots of breaks for everything that must be done in between. I didn’t really have a very sophisticated approach in the writing of these stories. Normally I wait until I have an idea that really excites me – or even a shifting or event that I’d like to work towards – and I won’t write a thing until I know I have time ahead and a good first sentence in mind. Then nothing can drag me away from it. I never have a clue how it will end up. Or if I do, for sure it will change completely.
I think in the past I was a lot wordier and often wanted to bathe my reader in words and images. Now I think I have more to say, and try to use less to say it. I love shaping a story. I love reading The Paris Review interviews to see how other writers work. Most of all I like being on my own trying to nut it all out, particularly whether a story has legs to stand on.
3. How did Pelt come to be published? How did you settle on which stories to include and in what order? What was the editing process like?
It’s notoriously hard to have a collection accepted so my ‘tactic’ was to have as many stories published as possible, while I produced something more commercial – The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy – and tried to enter the market sideways, if you like. As my publisher is a small press that publishes a lot of poetry, I knew I could interest them in a good short story collection if I worked hard with DLC and showed them I was a viable author. Pelt was semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011 so that helped.
I tried to include the stories that bounced off each other and eliminated a few that didn’t seem to fit. Some of the stories are interlinked. However there is one strand that goes chronologically and there is another that goes backward. I went crazy trying to order them and lived with 18-20 bits of paper on my mat for weeks, trying to settle on a sequence. In the end I worked forward from ‘Pelt’ which I wanted to begin with, and then backward from ‘Volta’ which I wanted as my last piece. I also didn’t want to clump the African stories together, and had to separate male/female narrators and 1st/3rd person stories. I was a mess and very boring to speak to during that period.
Most of the stories had already been published so there was less editing to do than the novel, but we still worked for a long time. I despise editing.
4. In Pelt’s title story, you draw a strong line of tension between the narrator, who is pregnant with Rolfe’s baby, and Rolfe’s estranged wife. The narrator watches Rolfe take up with the wife again and recounts her growing turmoil through controlled, steady prose. What was your experience writing this story – how did you develop or settle on the narrator’s voice, what were your goals for the story, and when did you know how it would end?
I remember I had one rare morning sans enfants and the voice of the narrator came through very fast. I had no goals, just a voice, a setting and the character’s determination to retrieve her man. I remember I wanted to show up Western and African ways of ‘keeping’ a man, and I wanted humour (I was very puzzled when my first reader said there was no humour!). I don’t ever write to a plan and was on a train to Florence the week after with my notebook, when I had an idea for the hot oil scene and once I’d written that I knew it was finished. I remember sitting there very surprised with my pen and everyone in the carriage staring at me. (continued…) Read more
Posted on 19 November 2013 | 2 responses
• When Mark Brazaitis told the MFA students, on the opening night of Winter Wheat: “Pick a life that helps you write … but pick a life that also lets you live.” And: “Don’t put a deadline on when something gets published.” And: “Sometimes you need time off [from the work] so you won’t offend your lovely first draft self.”
• Getting spooky during Katrin Tschirgi and Catherine Carberry’s “Haunted Places” workshop and, through a writing exercise, more fully understanding one of the places from my childhood that continues to haunt me today.
• Learning about The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things in the aforementioned workshop.
• Frantically writing 26 original magical realism writing prompts just hours before leading a workshop. Anyone who says creativity can’t be forced by deadlines is wrong.
• Getting all magical with my fellow first years, Jackie Cummins and Liz Breazeale, during our magical realism workshop.
• Hearing Matt Bell summarize his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: The wife sings objects into being, including a second moon; there’s a “fingerling”child who lives inside the father; there’s a squid, and a giant bear … and from there, things start to get weird.
• Sitting in the live audience for Matt Bell’s podcast with Summerbooks, where among other things, he suggested it’s dangerous for young writers to ask themselves, “What does it mean?” and instead should ask, “How do you feel?” He also pointed out that too many stories submitted to lit mags seem to end with “people looking out into the distance and feeling a feeling. ” You can listen to the podcast here.
• Manning the table of presenters’ books at the book fair, an experience that taught me I love using a portable credit card reader to charge other people for buying books. It’s so satisfying. (A bit less satisfying was when I ran my own credit card through the reader, but at least in that case, I got to keep the books.)
• Successfully creeping out the brave souls who showed up to my “You’re Creeping Me Out: Letting Your Narrator’s Dark Side Shine” workshop. Thank god for 1) a solid background of creepy real-life experiences to pull from 2) lots of excellent and creepy fictional pieces to use as examples, including “A Real Doll” by A.M. Homes, Lolita, and even Nightlight, the Harvard Lampoon’s Twilight parody and 3) that my audience was more than willing to be creepy themselves. Not too shabby for a 9am workshop.
• Participating in the following exercise in Sarah White’s “The Ethics of Nonfiction” workshop: Write down three memories — the first three memories that come to mind at this moment. Now, step back and consider possible connections among those memories while keeping the following questions in mind: What’s going on in your life right now? Does the past speak to the present? Do you see any connections? I surprised myself through this exercise…and really, what else does a writer need but to surprise herself?
All in all, Winter Wheat was a success. And now it’s back to reading Mid-American Review submissions…
How are you surprising yourself these days?
Posted on 12 November 2013 | 7 responses
I met Vanessa Blakeslee in August 2012 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. On the first day, we both stood studying the wall of attendee photos when Vanessa introduced herself and said she recognized my photo from my Poets & Writers articles, which I’m sure will go down in history as the first and last time anyone recognizes my photo in that way ever. In any case, it was one of those meetings that seemed to spark an instantaneous friendship. Before long I was admiring (and envying) Vanessa’s writing in workshop, and she became one of my best Bread Loaf buddies.
I also came to know Vanessa as a hardworking and talented writer whose fiction, poetry, and reviews have been published widely. Now, I’m happy to announce that Vanessa’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, will be published in March by Burrow Press. I got my hands on an advance copy of this collection, which features Ask Jesus figurines, deadly train collisions, a troubled adolescent boy who threatens to slaughter a pet rabbit, a pop star’s downward spiral, and much more. I interviewed Vanessa to learn more about her writing journey, how this collection came to be, and the eerie catalyst that set the title story of her collection into motion.
You recently shared a photo on Facebook that showed a former writing instructor predicting – back in 1999 – that you would one day publish a book. Can you fill us in on the story behind that message and how it ties into your writerly beginnings? How did you develop into the published author you are today?
As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by play-acting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. But by high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. The comment on that early story draft I recently posted was from Phil Deaver, my first writing instructor, and I can remember stepping out of class, reading those words and the affirmation they gave me about where my talents and sensibilities remained. I must have saved his remarks for a rainy day when I needed encouragement, although of course that old story draft had long since been forgotten, until I cleaned out some files recently. Taking that photo of those prophetic words next to the ARC of my book was one of the most surreal and quietly powerful moments ever—proof that against all odds, you have the power to realize your wildest dreams. Success is a matter of focus and action.
I also think it’s crucial to mark those moments of affirmation on your journey. Because the road is a long one, and not for the faint of heart, though you don’t realize this when you’re young, and it’s perhaps better that you don’t. Celebrate your successes, even those as brief as a remark on a job well done, for they have the potential to fuel you as an artist for a long time, months even. The most important thing, if you’ve got the talent and an attitude that’s open to growth and grunt work, is perseverance.
In the collection’s title story, a train engineer is at the controls when his train strikes a young woman on the tracks. As someone who’s lived practically on top of train tracks for years, I found myself wondering about such train-related fatalities. What kind of research did you do for this story? Any train facts you can share with us?
The impetus for “Train Shots” arose during a dinner conversation. A woman who was dating a train engineer mentioned how he’d been having a difficult time lately—apparently his train had struck several suicide victims within a couple of months. I became fascinated by this right away, and thought about how this was a conflict few people likely think about. My first attempts at telling the story fell flat, however.
What follows is one of the strangest experiences that has ever happened to me. One afternoon I sat down to redraft the story. I had written the first paragraph or so, where P.T.’s train strikes the young woman, but then stopped, thinking to myself, “I have no idea what comes next, how the railroad companies handle suicides. I’ll have to do some research,” and so forth. It was about four o’clock; I had a package that I needed to send to the post office, so I decided to do that.
Now the same tracks which run through Winter Park cut right across from the Maitland post office, up the road from my condo. I dropped off my package, and on the way home I noticed the train, a freight, had stopped in an unusual spot, right behind the library. Police cars parked alongside. A chill gripped my stomach and I slowed the car. It couldn’t be, I thought. But I found myself pulling over.
In an eerie, dream-like daze, I walked up to the front of the train where a railroad employee stood. I asked what had happened, if someone had been hit. And he said yes, a young man from the neighborhood, apparently going through a rough patch in his life, had committed suicide not forty-five minutes before. And then the railroad worker, with hardly any prompting, proceeded to explain to me exactly what happens when a person commits suicide on the tracks—how the engineer slams on the emergency brake, and issues an immediate statewide alert. He told me everything I needed to know to write the story. In disbelief, I wandered to my car, past the yellow tape and the tarp covering the spot where the body had lain, went home and finished the scene.
As writers we speak all the time about the process of writing fiction—of what we are doing to form it. But what we speak of far less is how the daily happenings of our lives work on us and breathe into the vision taking shape, because there’s an uncanny interplay between the two. Writing, like life, has a way of working on you, no matter what your spiritual beliefs. (continued….)
Posted on 7 November 2013 | 2 responses
Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Once Upon a River, American Salvage, Q Road, Women and Other Animals (and owner of this fantastically redone kitchen — follow the link to hear her advice on why writers should live in cheap, messy houses), visited Bowling Green a few weeks ago to give a reading and share some of her writerly advice. I boiled down some of Q&A answers in a handy top 10 list. Enjoy:
10. I think it’s a good sign as a writer if your house looks miserable.
9. I knew that to get by in this industry, I’d have to be scrappy.
8. If you’re going to write, you have to keep writing when you’re up or down. I wrote the second half of American Salvage assuming I had no writing career.
7. I didn’t know I was ballsy enough to write a book with “American” in the title. That’s something a guy would do.
6. Many people in this world would like to think that the people I write about do not exist, or don’t want to know they exist.
5. In a short story, you can suspend disbelief and be more extreme in a way you can’t in novels.
4. In revision, you have to do something until it feels right, until it feels done and feels finished.
3. I write a really bad story and then I make it good.
2. In this life, you’re only going to have a couple of good books. Make them count.
1. Take your time. Keep working on those stories … all we can do is work hard on them and make them as good as we can.
Are you making it as good as you can?
Posted on 29 October 2013 | 10 responses
Sometimes I really lean on that saying “better late than never,” especially when it comes to finally posting wisdom from a writer like George Saunders. After the reading at the University of Toledo last week, my fellow fiction MFAers and I headed back to Toledo the next morning for a special Q&A with Saunders. Aside from revealing that he spends about six hours a day working in his “writing shed,” where he often rotates among several in-progress stories based on which one he suspects will be the most fun that day, Saunders offered even more insight into the writing life. Here’s a taste from the Q&A:
On what he wants from a story in progress: “I try not to want anything for it. I want it to not stink. I want you to not stop reading it.”
On the finicky nature of writing: “It’s such a conditional profession. [A piece of writing] is great on Wednesday and you come back on Thursday and it’s all shit.”
How to evaluate your own writing: “The trick is to be in touch with your own reading sensor so you know where the power is.”
On making choices: “When you’re in your room and two choices present themselves, go for the one with more energy.”
On turning his work over to be critiqued: “I don’t give it to anyone until it’s really really late in the game … Stay with it by yourself for a long time. It will get better and better.”
On revision: “Revision is the superpower of writers. A writer who doesn’t revise isn’t going anywhere. If you’re really content with your revision process, you’ll never have writers’ block. You can just blurt shit out.”
On what really matters: “Praise is dangerous. Criticism is dangerous. Fix your eyes on the real goal — writing better.”
On trying and failing: “There’s a high degree of chance [in publishing]. Don’t feel badly if it turns out you can’t do it. But to try it is a holy thing.”
On Tenth of December: “The best person I am is in that book. That book is so much smarter than me, kinder than me.”
His goal as a writer: “I’m going to try to break your heart.”
Posted on 21 October 2013 | 4 responses
Earlier today, my MFA fiction cohort and I headed to the University of Toledo to hear George Saunders read from Tenth of December. (If you haven’t read it yet, you are missing out on victory laps and dressed up poles, the frozen and the thawed, escapes and spiderheads, girls waving on backyard lines, and so much more.)
After reading, Saunders went on to discuss how he begins stories and when he hopes to find his endings, his very particular literary medical condition, his 90-120 revisions of “Tenth of December,” how the New Yorker helped him cut that same story from 14,000 to 9,000 words, why revising is a higher level skill than writing, how to encourage audience participation in a Q&A (“It’s always awkward at first. But it turns out that the first person with a question has the most sexual energy in the room”), and more.
Here are a few snippets from the evening:
On what’s most important: “I try not to believe in plot, character, theme … for me, if I keep my eye on language, all those things come automatically. When I think about plot, it’s too scary.”
On his process: “My process is so simple as to be embarrassing. I deconceptualize it was much as possible. I read what exists [on the page] as neutrally as possible … anytime I feel a theme coming up, I try to push it back.”
On beginning: “Once you get in the story and it starts communicating with you, you’re in the race … Now I’m committed. I’ve narrowed down the 360 degrees of opportunities.”
On writing about characters unlike him: “We have the capability of imagining those people because they exist in us in some way … The thing about fiction is we are all connected.”
On writing in other genres: “I wrote a couple of screenplays, and they are written.”
On his influences: “I had this medical condition called the Hemingway boner for many years.”
On when he knows how one of his stories will end: “The best case is when you don’t know until right at the end.”
Posted on 14 October 2013 | 5 responses
In honor of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize, I’m sharing the first story of hers that really hit me hard. Here are the opening lines of “Boys and Girls,” which appears in her collection Dance of the Happy Shades:
My father was a fox farmer. That is, he raised silver foxes, in pens; and in the fall and early winter, when their fur was prime, he killed them and skinned them and sold their pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Montreal Fur Traders. These companies supplied us with heroic calendars to hang, one on each side of the kitchen door. Against a background of cold blue sky and black pine forests and treacherous northern rivers, plumed adventures planted the flags of England and or of France; magnificent savages bent their backs to the portage.
For several weeks before Christmas, my father worked after supper in the cellar of our house. The cellar was whitewashed, and lit by a hundred-watt bulb over the worktable. My brother Laird and I sat on the top step and watched. My father removed the pelt inside-out from the body of the fox, which looked surprisingly small, mean, and rat-like, deprived of its arrogant weight of fur. The naked, slippery bodies were collected in a sack and buried in the dump. One time the hired man, Henry Bailey, had taken a swipe at me with this sack, saying, “Christmas present!” My mother thought that was not funny. In fact she disliked the whole pelting operation — that was what the killing, skinning, and preparation of the furs was called – and wished it did not have to take place in the house. There was the smell. After the pelt had been stretched inside-out on a long board my father scraped away delicately, removing the little clotted webs of blood vessels, the bubbles of fat; the smell of blood and animal fat, which the strong primitive odor of the fox itself, penetrated all parts of the house. I found it reassuringly seasonal, like the smell of oranges and pine needles.
And here’s how Cheryl Strayed reacted when she received a letter from Munro during the early days of her own writing career:
A shaky, sickening glee washed through me and then drained away almost immediately, replaced by a daffy disbelief: Alice Munro had written to me. Alice! Munro! Those two words were a kind of Holy Grail to me then: the lilting rise and fall of Alice, the double-barreled thunk of Munro. Together they seemed less like a name than an object I could hold in my hands-a stoneware bowl, perhaps, or a pewter platter, equal parts generous and unforgiving. They bore the weight of everything I loved, admired and understood about the art and craft of fiction, everything I ached to master myself.
Congratulations to Alice Munro on a well-deserved win.
What’s your Holy Grail?
photo: matt knoth
Posted on 9 October 2013 | No responses
Are you ready to be creeped out? Perhaps magically creeped out? Do you live in the general Great Lakes region? If so, Winter Wheat, the Mid-American Review Festival of Writing, held Nov. 14-16 at Bowling Green State University, might be just the thing. I’ll be presenting two sessions — one on my own about creepy narrators (if you’ve read Living Arrangements, think the narrator of “The Ballad Solemn of Lady Malena,” aka the man obsessed with an elite figure skater) and one along with two fabulous members of my MFA cohort that surrounds magical realism. Here are the full descriptions:
“Genre Bending: Adding a Dash of Magic to Your Realistic Fiction”
Friday, November 15
Presenters: Liz Breazeale, Jackie Cummins, and Laura Maylene Walter
Taking a cue from authors including Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and Kevin Brockmeier, this session will examine magical elements in otherwise realistic fiction. We’ll discuss and practice techniques writers can use to incorporate a touch of the unreal in the everyday world of their characters. Participants will have the opportunity to put into practice what they’ve learned through writing exercises designed to spark some literary magic.
“You’re Creeping Me Out: Letting Your Narrator’s Dark Side Shine”
Saturday, November 16
Presenter: Laura Maylene Walter
Sometimes, the most interesting narrators are the dark, the depraved, the illicit, or the dangerous. In this session, we’ll examine examples of fiction written from the point of view of such “dark” characters. We’ll also consider why these characters are compelling, discuss how to effectively tell a story in a creepy character’s voice, and address common pitfalls writers may encounter when creating these narrators. Participants will have the opportunity to respond to writing prompts during this session to let their own dark sides shine.
Hope to see you there. Bring your dark side.