On December 3 at 7 pm, I’m reading from my novel PARALEGAL at the Jewelbox Theater in Belltown. This performance culminates a year+ of work on a project whirred forward by support from 4Culture and Jack Straw Cultural Center, for which I am very grateful. I’ll be joined by four fantastic Jack Straw Fellows whose work intersects with mine, on the topics of art, money, and desire: Bernard Grant, Emily Bedard, Matthew Schnirman, and Martha Kreiner. Please come!
My short story “I Loved You in New York” is being released as a chapbook in alice blue books’ fantastic series SHOTGUN WEDDING. It’s a story about cities (New York, Montreal, D.C.), bodies, relationships, history. It glances fleetingly at Coney Island, George Grosz, James Brown, and, uh, Marquis de Sade. This is the fourth volume of the SHOTGUN series, a special double issue which includes my dear friend and excellent poet Janie Elizabeth Miller, as well as Dennis James Sweeney, Lillian Ruth Nickerson, Amy Ratto Parks, Brian Cooney, Stephen Danos, Sarah Gallien, Will Gallien, Evelyn Hampton, Graham Isaac, and Ashley Benson.
I’ll be reading an excerpt from the story at Vermilion on October 22 at 6 pm as part of the Seattle Lit Crawl–our event is called Quick & Dirty. The chapbooks will be available at Fred’s Wildlife Refuge during the after party’s mini-book fair. You can also pick up a copy at the Seattle Center during Short Run, a small press and comix expo, on October 31 11-6. I expect the Seattle Center on Halloween to be super fun! Finally, you can also snag a copy via Etsy.
Many thanks to Amber Nelson for giving this story from my in-progress collection MORE LIKE HOME THAN HOME a home.
I picked up Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees at Boneshaker Books during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Usually, I skip a book’s introduction, dive right into the fiction, and read the introduction afterwards. Kollontai’s work is a rare look at the Russian Revolution, and since I’m also reading Dr. Zhivago, I wanted to get some background on her. This may have marred my reading experience.
The introduction made me crave reading more history, and perhaps Kollontai’s nonfiction. Her fiction served to illustrate the feminist causes she fought for, and so in reading the short story “Sisters” I felt biased against the artistry of the story, about “a deserted wife and a prostitute who find a common bond.” (Let me back up and say I think if the explicit aim of the writer is to illustrate a political cause, it would be more effective to write nonfiction. That isn’t to say fiction must be apolitical. Pretty much all art is political. I believe a fiction writer should make story primary. The politics arising out of the story tend to emerge in a more complex, satisfying way when you don’t set out to illustrate a specific agenda. Let the story drive.)
Set in the 1920s, “Sisters” is a frame story in which someone at a “delegates conference” is being confided in. The storyteller has left her husband, has nowhere to go, and fears she may have to resort to prostitution. After her daughter’s illness, she was laid off from her job. Her husband, an executive in a government trust company, has taken to coming home drunk. She would like to work and he would like her to stay home. Things get worse when their daughter dies; he brings prostitutes home. The woman is horrified, humiliated, ready to run the second prostitute out of their house–but she sees a desperation in this sad young woman’s eyes, and as they talk, realizes she is an educated young woman without money or shelter, starving, anguished. The storyteller realizes that if she hadn’t been married, she’d be in a similar situation. She leaves her husband and…is at risk at being in the same situation. The story illustrates a pressing issue that Kollontai had to fight for relentlessly, that women’s rights are an essential part of the revolution. She ended up in diplomatic exile for much of her adult life.
The story is affecting, in the way that if someone you met told you that story you would care and be concerned, and want to do something. So in this way, the story achieves a goal. However, the story is mostly told in summary, in the way that someone might relate their tale in real life, not told in scene, with the kind of sensory detail that draws you closer to the humanity of the characters. It feels one step removed. And so I didn’t love the story, and I wouldn’t press it upon anyone unless they were digging into the subject matter–the issues of feminism and Communism, the struggles of people living in Russia after the Revolution. I’ll add as another caveat that is the third piece in the book. I did not read the first two and do wonder if the book is “front loaded” with stronger stories. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, check it out if it intrigues you, and let me know what you think.
This series on Women in Translation continues next week with a Duras novella and will finish at the end of August with a couple surprise books of contemporary poetry, review copies I was delighted to receive in the mail.
Autumn, that busy literary season, starts a bit early for me, with three readings coming up this month, and more to follow September through December. As I promised on King 5’s New Day Northwest (!!!), I will channel a young Jack Nicholson in at least one reading this year.
- Wednesday August 19, 7:30 pm: Family Affair is a family-themed cabaret at the Rendezvous in Belltown. Jack Straw fellows Clare Johnson, Matthew Schnirman, Bernard Grant, Ross McMeekin, Jeanine Walker, and I will regale you with all things family.
- Thursday, August 27, 7 pm: Dock Street Salon at Phinney Books in Phinney Ridge/Greenwood. I’m reading alongside Angela Fountas. Prepare for a dark fairy tale.
- Friday, August 28, 7 pm: Jack Straw at the University Bookstore. Ross, Matthew, and I take on the U-District. After party on frat house row not included.
- Thursday, September 10, 6 pm: An extra special Jack Straw event at the It’s About Time Reading Series in Ballard, themed around Jack Straw, a leader of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. These insurgent peasants traveled throughout southern England, gathering followers, opening prisons, killing lawyers and telling stories. As I’ll be reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress Paralegal, I’ve been tasked with covering the “killing lawyers” portion of the evening. Martha Kreiner will give a craft talk on opening prisons. L.J. Morin and Clare Johnson will gather all the followers and tell all the stories.
- Thursday, October 22: Lit Crawl Seattle. Bazillions of writers take over the city. I’m excited to read at Alice Blue Books’ Shotgun Wedding event. Details TBA.
- Saturday, November 2, 2 pm: Jack Straw at the Central Library downtown. All 12 Jack Straw Super Stars read poetry and fiction nuggets of gold.
- Thursday, December 3, 7 pm: Pay Dirt at the Rendezvous in Belltown. To celebrate my 4Culture grant, I’ll be reading from my novel Paralegal alongside fellow Jack Straws Emily Bedard, Matthew Schnirman, Bernard Grant, and Martha Kreiner. We’ll dig up the dirt on art, money, desire, and making a living.
(No, I didn’t shamelessly tag a zillion things in this post…Okay, yes I did.)
- All Talk: Dialogue Intensive, a one-day class, meeting September 26, 1-5 pm.
- Second Helping: How Food Improves Your Fiction, a one-day class, meeting October 24, 1-5 pm.
- Visual Inspiration, a six-week class at the Henry Art Gallery, meeting Thursdays, 6-8 pm, September 17-October 29 (no class October 22–that’s Lit Crawl!)
I’m also happy to offer writing coaching. If you’re interested, email me at anca (dot) l (dot) szilagyi (at) gmail (dot) com, and tell me what you’re working on and what kind of coaching you are looking for, and we’ll go from there.
August is Women in Translation Month (WITMonth), designed to encourage readers, reviewers, publishers, and translators to explore more books in translation by women. If you’ve been following the VIDA count, then the grim statistics around women in translation (gathered diligently by Meytal Radzinski) is, unfortunately, not a surprise: women writers comprise only about 30% of books translated into English. As I’m passionate about cultivating a diverse literary ecosystem, this is a project near and dear to my heart. And though I’m happy WITMonth is an annual event, I’m getting started right now. Because there are SO MANY good books and I’m sure there are SO MANY MORE out there waiting to be picked up by a publisher and gobbled by readers.
I immediately pulled all the books from my shelves that fit the bill. I made a read pile and a to-be-read pile. Of the read pile, I’d like to make some recommendations, for those of you who’d like to join me in WITMonth. Read these books! And I’ll be diving into the to-be-read pile and writing about the gems in that pile in August. Read those books too! Let’s talk about ’em!
Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from Catalan by Martha Tennent (Open Letter, 2009). A gorgeously written and harrowing novel about cruelty among humans and violence in nature.
Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2005). A dark, slender novel about a woman abandoned by her husband spiraling into terrifying psychological territory, with a helpful dash of absurd humor and redemption. After devouring this book, anything else was VERY difficult to get into. So good. This brief review in The New Yorker is spot on. I have not cracked open her more recent Neapolitan series, but it is definitely on the docket.
The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (Biblioasis, 2012). Another dark novel. I’m sensing a trend? This metafictional work explores Argentina’s Dirty War. I reviewed it for Ploughshares.
Death as a Side Effect by Ana Maria Shua, translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). As I note briefly in my review of Heker’s novel, Shua‘s is “dark and wry and screwed up in the best possible dystopian way.” Is it weird to quote myself? Oh well.
Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books, 2004). I adore Archipelago for focusing on translation and producing truly beautiful books. Dreams and Stones is probably the least dark book on my list, a kind of treatise on cities and imagination.
Mile End by Lise Tremblay, translated from French by Gail Scott (Talon Books, 2002). I read this novel a few times, starting in a class in college on literary Montreal. It’s set in the neighborhood I lived in while at McGill, which may be part of my attachment to it. And, yes, yes, this is another dark story, about an obese pianist at a ballet school teetering toward psychosis.
The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller, translated from German by Michael Hoffman (Metropolitan Books, 1996). Muller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature, paints a grim picture of life in Romania under Ceausescu. The language is highly poetic, and I’ve been working on an essay about it (among other things) for quite some time. In fact, the assignment I’ve given myself for the next few weeks is to cut that essay up paragraph by paragraph to figure out how to keep going with it.
Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012). Told from the point of view of an unnamed young woman, this is the story of Romanian refugees who travel through Europe as circus performers. Yes, yes, dark. But also with absurd humor. (Some criticize Muller for being humorless. I say, bah. Read her still. Not everything is funny ha ha.)
Phew. That’s a lot of recommendations. There are more in my pile. I may write more about them. More likely I will tweet my favorite bits from them in August. But not just August. Probably all year. WITForever!
My To-Be-Read Pile. Stay tuned for reviews & more !
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!
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.