The Jack Straw May Reading Series kicks off on May 1! I’m so excited to see my fellow fellows sharing new work and putting our voice and performance coaching into action. Each Friday evening at 7 pm, four writers (one prose writer and three poets) will perform their work. A suggested donation of $5 gets you a copy of the 2015 Jack Straw Anthology; a light reception will follow.
This year, AWP has been schmoozier, in a pleasant way, as I spent more time with readings, receptions, and lunch/coffee/dinner dates and less time with panels and the book fair. We took a break from the conference Friday night to see Mr. Burns at the Gutherie Theater, an apocalyptic play spanning from the near future to 75 years into the future, in which the surviving population tries to retell and recreate episodes from The Simpsons (particularly the “Cape Fear” episode) as a way of coping. Over time, The Simpsons evolves into totally weird, wonderful, and scary mythology. I highly recommend it!
The two panels I attended were excellent, and I’m posting my notes right over here:
Moderator: Michelle Brower, agent at Folio Literary Management
Panelists: Molly Fuller, Production Editor of Coffee House Press; Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press; Erin Harris, agent at Folio Literary Management; and Cal Morgan, Executive Editor of Harper and Editorial Director of Harper Perennial.
- Access to early and frequent publication (such as online) has allowed an enormous amount of creativity. Adventurous small presses are publishing successful works, and big houses are discovering writers earlier as a result. -Cal Morgan
- Small presses take on books that might not seem readily marketable from a big publisher’s perspective, but can maximize those books’ audiences. -Ethan Nosowsky
- Small presses can facilitate reviews that build the writer’s readership. -Erin Harris
- The reputation and backlist of a small press have cultural capital. -Molly Fuller
- Small presses are also an opportunity for seasoned authors to try something new. -Michelle Brower
- Many authors who work with both small and big presses are big supporters of new writers and facilitate connections. -Cal Morgan
- It was a relief to hear all the panelists are avid readers of small press books!
Examples of successes:
- Eiomear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, published by Coffee House after the author spent 10 years trying to get it published and being told the publishers loved it but thought readers wouldn’t enjoy it. You may already know the book is enormously successful.
- Erin Harris found short story writer Stacy Tintocalis after reading her collection The Tiki King, published by Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press, and discovered Brian Furuness, author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (Dzanc) after reading two of his stories in literary magazines.
- Graywolf Press published a 20-year retrospective of Geoff Dyer’s essays and was able to do so successfully based on its backlist of essay collections.
- Cal Morgan discovered Blake Butler after publishing his short stories in the blog Fifty-Two Stories; he went on to publish three books from Butler, and Butler connected him to more authors.
(Nb. The authors on this panel have multiple books out–see the link above for a more expansive list.)
Moderator: Michael Kardos, author of Before He Finds Her.
Panelists: Joy Castro, author of Hell or High Water; Chris Abani, author of Secret History of Las Vegas; Christopher Coake, author of You Came Back; Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour.
- Much of great literature (Beloved, The Great Gatsby) spins around a crime. -Michael Kardos
- Joy Castro explores the chasm between the ideal of legal justice and its reality. She asks: whose law? To control whose bodies is the law written? Who is permitted to get away with crime? Who isn’t? How does the aftermath manifest?
- The best suspense comes from characters: embed them with contradictions and set them loose. Don’t choose a main character who knows everything. -Joy Castro
- Misdirections and clues should all arise from point of view: different characters will pick up on different things. -Lori Rader-Day
- Think of pacing as interval training, alternating between intense, fast-paced, action-packed scenes and more quiet, emotional scenes. -Joy Castro
- Every story is a riddle. Stories trace an outline for the riddle of living. We don’t care about characters who are not fucked up. -Chris Abani
- Good art sets out to do something and does it. That’s all there is. There are no genres. -Chris Abani
- Finding the voice of the novel is key to finding the novel. -Joy Castro
- Structure is the skeleton of a book. Voice is its soul, its reason for existence. -Chris Abani
- If you’re a surgeon and remove the wrong kidney, that’s bad. You have so many opportunities to get your book right. -Michael Kardos
- Read two books then close your eyes. -Christopher Coake
- Write the book before you do research, then research what you need to know. -Lori Rader-Day
- Research a lot then forget it. Don’t write with your notes open; the divine details will come to you. -Joy Castro (My preferred approach…I love research and tend to pick stories that require it.)
- The only question you need is “Why?” -Chris Abani
Book Fair Loot!
I sprinted through the book fair in the last 45 minutes on Saturday. I managed to get something from every genre, as well something from every “genre” of book fair stuff: freebies, cheapies, full price-ys, a notepad, bookmarks, and even an adorable pinwheel from Pacifica Literary Review, fashioned from pages of poetry.
I’m also happy to discover that Twitter *can* work for authors. Shulem Deem, author of the memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press) followed me on Twitter several months ago; I was intrigued by the premise of his memoir, which is about leaving the Hasidic Jewish community; and his was the first book I bought at the fair. Can’t wait to read it.
See you in L.A. in 2016!
I’m really looking forward to teaching a new short story class at Hugo House about Anton Chekhov and his influence on modern short story writing. So many craft techniques in wide use today originated from Chekhov, and I learned a lot deeply engaging with his stories. In fact, my story “Old Boyfriends” started out as an imitation of the structure and themes in “Gusev“. In addition to reading iconic stories from Chekhov, we’ll read Mavis Gallant and Jhumpa Lahiri and Ehud Havazelet, and try our hands at a range of techniques. Here’s a micro-lesson preview of the class. I hope to see there, Mondays 7-9 pm, starting April 27!
Every year around this time, my post on finding a literary agent at AWP gets more hits. And thus I’m reminded that I will be attending the conference again. I love the Twin Cities, and Mike and I are doubling up with a visit to his dad, so my approach will be considerably chill. I probably won’t have time to visit the Walker Art Center, one of my favorite museums (in the world?), but my chief goals include: multiple visits to Cecil’s Deli for Jewish food and a fleeting drive-by glimpse of the Paisley Palace. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts is also well worth another visit.
Blintzes, books, and Prince–what could be better?
I do have some literary events:
- Thursday night at 8:15 pm at The Nicollet, I’m reading at Literary Wilderness, a benefit for prison writing programs around the country. The theme is is WILDERNESS, so be prepared!
- Saturday afternoon, 3-5 pm at Boneshaker Books, I’m reading with the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, which accepted a batch of my writing prompts into their CREDO Anthology.
And a number of panels caught my eye:
- Small is the New Big: Working With Independent Presses to Build a Literary Career
- No Shame: Sex Scenes by Women, About Women
- Ekphrasis Goes Prose
- Chekhov’s Gun: How to Make Surprise Suspenseful
- It’s a Crime to Skip This Panel
- Yes, Writing Is a Job: People Who Get Paid to Write
- Historical Fiction and Fictional History
- Fascinated or Haunted: Why We Continue to Write & Rewrite Fairy Tales
For last year’s book fair, I had a laser beam focus on small presses to submit my first novel to. This year, I don’t have that particular laser beam, or any particular laser beam. I’m sure I’ll come home with an unwieldy pile of books and I’m sure I’ll pile up their spines in a picture, right here, just for you.
Over on the Hugo House blog, I’ve got a mini-lesson previewing my upcoming one-day class at the Henry Art Gallery. The excerpt of class reading I chose comes from the opening of Mercè Rodoreda’s novel Death in Spring, which is the new book integrated into Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E. (The first book was J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine.)
Death in Spring is a stunning novel, for its poetic language, lush imagery, and its tackling cruelty among humans as well as violence in nature. Rodoreda was a Catalan writer living during Franco’s dictatorship, and the novel can be read as a metaphor for that regime or for any oppressed society.The violence is also of mythological proportions, and the beauty of the language helps make reading it bearable. This technique was something that was made explicit for me by Rikki Ducornet speaking at an AWP panel on “Magic and Intellect”: “For a difficult book to be readable, find a language that levitates somehow, that is scintillating.”
The class will go beyond this topic, delving into the many layers of Ann Hamilton’s monumental show, on our relationship to animals, the sense of touch, and being touched–emotionally and intellectually–through the private act of reading. Death in Spring will definitely bring home this last idea of being touched–being moved in profound ways by another’s experience and creation.
One of the weirdest short short stories I’ve ever written, “Cauliflower Tells You,” was published today on Monkeybicycle. It happens to be my 33rd birthday, so this is an excellent birthday present from the universe. Here’s how it begins:
Cauliflower perches behind your ear and talks to you in a tinny voice.
Elements of this story have been floating around in my head for some time, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. (Like “Raven in a Jar,” I had an atmosphere first, then a story.) Then one day this past fall, after immersing myself in Anne Carson and Haruki Murakami, and after eating a rainbow cookie, and after finding myself on the couch with the flu, this story poured out into a notebook, following the intensely strange logic of a fever dream.
I’m over the moon. My story “Raven in a Jar” is in CICADA’s “Tricksters & Thieves” issue. CICADA is a YA literary magazine, part of a family of children’s publications. I used to subscribe to Cricket. In fact, I think Cricket was the first place I submitted my work. I was in the fourth grade, and it was a poem about Ottawa, I think. Not that I’d been there, yet.
“Raven in a Jar” gestated slowly, starting with my first visit to Victoria, B.C., in my first winter of the Pacific Northwest. I knew I wanted to write something about that place, had a clear sense of atmosphere, but it took another year for the story to emerge, inspired in part by the Haida myths about the Raven Who Steals the Light, and several more years of expanding, cutting, expanding, cutting, focusing…you get the idea.
Here’s how the story begins:
Young mouth in a hard line, Lala bundled her wool coat tightly around herself as she crossed the narrow pebbled beach at the foot of the bluffs. Her pockets and boots were stuffed with provisions — crackers, tins of sardines — and she lugged an exceptionally large jar filled with her grandmother’s custard. She extracted her father’s pocketknife and cut a boat from the dock near the house, rowing away. Sea gulls squawked and whooped. Dive-bombed.
I worked on revising this story as a part of my Made at Hugo House project, the story collection MORE LIKE HOME THAN HOME. Happy this story found a fantastic home.
I haven’t posted story snippets to this blog in a long time, but I had such a wonderful time this morning at a generative workshop for the Jack Straw fellows, I wanted to share one here. We discussed our writing concerns and what we’re dwelling on now, and the general theme among us all had to do with connecting dots and making leaps. Kevin Craft, our curator, then offered this concept he learned from Heather McHugh about hypotaxis and parataxis–the causal-oriented and the free associating, waking logic and dream logic.
Then he pitched the Story Spine exercise, which originates from improv. It’s a basic exercise offering a rigid structure for a story that is then written quickly, using free association. The stakes are low. I used the basic plot of the novel I’m working on now, which made the exercise feel somewhat mechanical, though the final step seemed to open up for me a more expansive way of seeing the ending–something I will continue to ruminate.
Then Kevin asked us to do the exercise in reverse. I decided not to write from my novel and just let myself go. This version of the exercise was very fun. And I can see why you need to go forward first, to feel the mechanics of an unfolding story, and why thinking backwards can allow the writing to get wilder. Here’s that backward story I wrote:
And ever since that day, she held that stone in her mouth before bed, as a reminder. Finally, she chose a slick green stone on a rocky beach strewn with sea vegetables. And because of that, she went to the coast, to look at something wild and open and to fill her lungs with salt. Because of that, she felt all tied up in a box, a sensory deprivation tank. Until one day she crouched in on herself into the tightest ball. And every day she tried to be smaller and smaller. Once upon a time, she didn’t want to be seen.
One month into this program, and it is already so helpful and generative and amazing.
There’s one day left in our Baby Kentagyi campaign! Over on Facebook, Mike and I have been posting, drip by drip, Top Ten Reasons Why Mike and Anca Will Be Great Parents. Here’s that list, all in one place. If you’ve been thinking about donating, now’s the time. And thanks so very much. This is the last day.
Top 10 Reasons Anca and Mike Will Be Great Parents:
#10: It’s not fair that Anca should be the only one subjected to Mike’s puns and corny dad jokes.
#9: Anca reading Goodnight Moon to a blank wall is starting to get creepy.
#8: Our chocolate collection is not going to polish itself off – we’ll need help!
#7: Now that Mike is sleeping through the night, Anca will need someone else to keep her on a 90-minute sleep cycle.
#6 We need a better excuse to put meat in a blender.
#5: Pacifiers make us nostalgic for our days as ravers.
#4 We can’t keep going around burping strangers on the bus. King County Metro has a three-strike burping rule, and we’ve been warned.
#3: A two-person conga line is pathetic.
#2 Mike’s outgrown the Baby Bjorn and has given Anca a hernia.
#1 Because of you. Because of the network of family and friends who have supported us through this journey, and who we know will help us foster a loving, nurturing home for our future little one. With one day left in our adoption fundraiser, we’ve received 62 contributions totaling $6,665. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
This is the last of the fundraise-y posts! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m looking forward to writing about the home study process next, which is what we’re doing through early February.
I’m very happy to have been chosen for the 2015 Jack Straw Writers Program by curator Kevin Craft. This is a great program in Seattle (though folks from Portland; Vancouver, B.C.; Olympia; Walla Walla and elsewhere in the region have participated) giving writers training and experience with recording, presentation, and author interviews as well as encouraging the development of new work and providing new venues for sharing their work with the public.
I’ll be using the program to continue developing my second novel, which I’m calling Paralegal for now, though that might change. We had a very nice orientation last night, and it was really lovely to hear snippets of poetry and fiction from each of the eleven other fellows! Stay tuned for the public readings (starting in May and continuing through the end of 2015) and a podcast featuring excerpts from my reading and author interview.