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“How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years” in The Nervous Breakdown

8 Jan

Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wassily Kandinski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am pleased with how fitting it is to have an essay called “How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years” in The Nervous Breakdown today. Here’s how it begins:

1.  Choose a horrific moment in history you know little about, in a country, Argentina, you know little about, but which seems to have troubling similarities to the here and now. Research for years. Images from the Dirty War sear into your mind.

continue reading

In other news, I made a handy-dandy card with all of my upcoming out-of-Seattle readings (as always everything is on my appearances page).

Anca L. Szilágyi on Tour for Daughters of the Air


Monkeybicyle’s If My Book

12 Dec

I’ve written an If My Book column for Monkeybicycle, wherein I compare Daughters of the Air to weird things. Here’s how it begins:

If Daughters of the Air were fruit it would be blood orange and pupunha.

If Daughters of the Air were cheese it would be Roquefort. Also: Kraft saved from a dumpster.

Continue reading

Brooklyn Book Festival 2017

22 Sep

From a mural in Coney Island

Last week I went home for the Brooklyn Book Festival and it was so lovely! Tuesday night, my parents took Michael and me to Malachy McCourt’s event at Greenwood Cemetery for his new humorous book Death Need Not Be Fatal. I love that the cemetery is also a literary venue with a club called the Death Café; the coordinator promises “the history of cremation has a few laughs.” Perhaps my favorite (non-funny) thing McCourt said is this, regarding his atheism:  the conception of hell is “ecclesiastical terror. I don’t want to hang out with the people who invented that.”

We also went to the Whitney Museum to see Alexander Calder‘s refurbished, motor-driven mobiles and “An Incomplete History of Protest,” an inspiring exhibit tackling art as protest from the 1940s to the present. The views from the Whitney are fantastic. It’s hard not to fall in love with New York over and over again.

On Friday, I took Amanda Thomas of Lanternfish Press on an instagram tour of Coney Island, one of the settings of Daughters of the Air (my first novel, formerly known on this blog as Dirty and releasing December 5!). Sunday was the big day for the book festival, and I was so happy to meet readers excited about weird fiction! Then that afternoon I took LFP’s publicist Feliza Casano on an instagram tour of Gowanus, another major setting of Daughters of the Air. Check out LFP’s blog post on the book festival here. I’ve included a few highlights highlights from Coney Island, Gowanus, and the festival right here:

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Stay tuned for more book news next week! And if you’d like to get that news right in your in-box, I’ve got a short and sweet monthly newsletter you can sign up for here.

A Humble Food Guide to #AWP16 in Los Angeles

20 Mar
The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore. Photo by Michael Kent.

Caveat # 1: I am an L.A. ingenue!

Caveat #2: I’m not even going to AWP this year!

But…I happen to be here right now, on a writing retreat while M takes a class for work, and I so enjoyed writing my little food guide to Seattle for the 2014 AWP, I thought I’d give this another spin, albeit with outsider humility.

I write to you from the Los Angeles Public Library cafe, which offers a Panda Express, TCBY, and a vendor called Food 630 which is closed and obscured by some potted plants. The scent of orange chicken is bringing me right back to my teenage field trips to the Staten Island Mall. Not incidentally, the downtown library has been a great place to hunker down and work. Free WiFi is not as ubiquitous here as in Seattle, but at the LAPL, the world is your oyster. I love libraries.

But,  I digress. Where do you eat? If you’re like me, downtown and car averse, there are several great options.

For breakfast, I cannot quit Pitchoun, a French bakery that will surely kill me. So far, I’ve enjoyed a plain brioche sprinkled with otherworldly-large crystals of sugar; a Kouign-Amann, more luscious than a croissant and oozing with syrup; a banana chocolate chip muffin, because, you know, it had some fruit on it; a pain au chocolat; and an almond croissant. Opt for the Kouign-Amann. It’s special.

As a New York transplant, I was very pleased to find Wexler’s Deli in the Grand Central Market.They smoke their own lox and pastrami masterfully. Their bagel is crunchier and less dense than a New York bagel, but it maintains a chewiness that saves it from being round bread with a hole in it. I did wonder whether there is an L.A.-style bagel, distinct from the holy New York and Montreal varieties. Indeed, this L.A. Weekly article confirms. If I were to return, I’d opt for corned beef on rye with a schmear of mustard and a pickle, which, I suspect, would hit a spot the bagel just so slightly missed. If deli food is not your thing, there are a bajillion other vendors at the market hawking foods of all kinds.


Photo by Michael Kent.

Chelsea Kurnick introduced M & me to B.S. Taqueria, the casual sister to fancy pants Broken Spanish. The lemon-pepper chicken skin chicharrones were tasty, and I would venture to say you should go there just for the outstanding rice & beans, flavorful with fresno chilis & cotija & delightfully crunchy thanks to rice being toasted. I enjoyed my tongue tacos, but next time I’d try the clam and lardo. (The Duritos, alas, were much too spicy for me.)

An easy Metro ride up into Hollywood brought M & I up to the old-school gem Musso & Frank, which is not cheap but not as expensive as I’d feared. An elderly barkeep in a red jacket made me a $10 gin martini, with a carafe of excess drink thoughtfully stowed in a little bucket of ice. The clams & linguine dish was well worth the $22 price tag and a side creamed spinach brought me right back to 1987.

Thanks to Kima Jones, I did eat *some* fresh vegetables this week at Bäco Mercat: deeply satisfying “caesar” brussels sprouts and a delightful sugar snap pea & pear salad. Kima urged me to dig deep into the salad, lest I miss out on the heavenly layer of burrata at the bottom. Seattleites will also kvell at the bicycle-powered ice cream parlor, Peddler’s Creamery.

We ventured up to Mohawk Bend in Silver Lake, a $5 shared uber ride, for beer,  buffalo cauliflower, and a garlicky white mushroom pizza that was very good. This spot is great for vegans; everything on the menu is vegan unless otherwise indicated.

For a down to earth meal close to the convention center, check out The Original Pantry Cafe, a 24-hour cash-only diner established in 1924. My dad has been going there every year for the last 30 years, “a good meat and potatoes” place. I had Portuguese sausage & eggs, incredibly savory and rich,  which plunged me into a pleasant food coma.

For an entirely different experience, and a good escape from the conference, take the Expo Line to Culver City for the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Fabulists will love the exhibits on old superstitions, pseudo-science, and other tantalizing mysteries. (There’s a whole room dedicated to Soviet space dogs!) The rooftop garden is a magical oasis, where you’ll be offered tea out of a samovar, doves flutter under billowing awnings, fountains burble, and an abundance of ferns, palms, and birds of paradise will sooth your overtaxed eyes. Many thanks to Sean Michaels for the stellar suggestion.

That’s all kids. Play safe. Eat well. While you’re at the conference I’ll just be up here in Seattle sitting in the rain, munching on kale.


Titles of Novels I’ll Probably Never Write

8 Jun

I used to strong-arm my undergraduate students into thinking more about titles – not because I’m one for strong-arming, but because sometimes titles are a last minute concern, whereas I believe they’re essential to the writing process. It was important for expository writing students to focus their essays through thinking of apt titles, and it was important for fiction students to think about how a title can add sharpness and/or layers of meaning to a story. Donald Murray, a big teaching-of-writing guy, used to generate about 150 titles per piece. He allowed himself to be clumsy and awkward in order to find what was precise and just right. Whenever I told my students this, they would grip their notebooks in apprehension until I’d say, “we’re not going to generate 150 titles today, but we are going to generate 20.” They’d sigh with relief, then get antsy by the tenth prompt. Some were eager to share new titles at the end and others said, with arms crossed over their chests or with a twinkle in their eye, “My original title is still better.” In any case, keeping a list of titles to potentially write to, even if I never write the piece, is something I enjoy doing and find quite useful. That said, lately I’ve been collecting imaginary titles for novels that, in all likelihood, I won’t write. (I’m keeping titles of actual works-in-progress close to my chest for now.) Here are the imaginary titles:

The Sex Lives of Traffic Engineers

Young Jewish Men Arguing in Diners

The Sweat Pickle

The Fishmonger’s Uncle’s Tax Accountant

Hard Drinking Elsewhere

The Ghost of Obligation

The Ineffectual Perfectionist

People Alone in Cars Reading E-mail

Now you try!

Overheard in the Ladies Room at Pacific Place

2 Jan

Over the holidays, while waiting for the restroom, I overheard this exchange and have been so enraptured by it (read to the end to feel the rapture) that I’m convinced at least one person, if not multiple, could write a short story, if not a novel, from this tender seedling. Please do share if you do!

“Mommy, it’s not coming out.”

“Well,” says the mother, from a neighboring stall, “you don’t want to eat your fruits and veggies. That’s what happens when you don’t eat your fruits and veggies.” Time passes. “Are you ready? Do you want my help?”


The mother flushes, exits her stall. “Get out,” she says, “so I can come in.” A big brother, about seven or eight but large for his age, comes out, smirking. A gold earring, maybe it’s a stick-on, gleams in one of his lobes. The mother enters the stall. Clucks her tongue. “Why isn’t there a toilet seat cover?” She sighs, loudly.

“Mommy,” the big brother says, face near the closing door, eyes half-closed and dreamy, “I love you.”

If you liked that, here’s another inter-generational overheard, in Florence:

The Winter Garden

23 Dec

Photo by George Szilagyi

I’m teaching myself about plants. Last week, my dad and I traipsed through the Washington Arboretum, in search of its Winter Garden. It is not a garden to rush through – anything faster than a stroll and you’ll miss it. The colors are not flashy –  no effusive bursts of pink, no huge swaths of dizzying color. But if you stand still a minute, and take a look around, you notice a few things. Paperbark Maples, losing swaths of bark, are silky brown on the outside and a luminous golden-yam on the inside. I resisted the urge to tear off a sheet. Shrubby dogwoods have slender, fiery tips, a lovely crimson in the blue hours. And, odd snowberries, Symphoricarpos albus, are white puffs afloat gray bushes. I want to say they look like yogurt-covered raisins, but that description, though accurate, seems lacking in intrigue. They’re also called ghostberries, as the waxy, spongy puffs last throughout the winter, munched on by quail and grouse and other fauna of that ilk. Some sources claim the berries (also called drupes – neat word!) are toxic to humans causing that standard nausea-dizziness-vomiting thing, while others claim that poultices of snowberries might have certain curative properties, perhaps for sore eyes. I think I’m going to stick to just admiring their small, bulbous presence, among the other odd berries of a Northwest winter, with their deep reds and juicy blue-blacks, along with the bright, rosy-orange pomes of crabapples.

Incidentally, if anyone talented at dress-making wants to make me a sheath dress inspired by the bark in the photo above, I’d be a happy little elf.

Fun for Grammar Nerds

30 Apr

In my last graduate prose workshop, we’re doing some hardcore sentence diagramming. As I procrastinate my next and last set – diagramming all sorts of slippery complex sentences – I’ve looked back to our first more innocent-seeming exercise, one that is great fun, and comes from Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Take a three or four word sentence and expand it to at least fifty words while maintaining the original structure of doer-doing-done to. Then analyze the relationships between modifiers.

Here’s the original sentence we used: Carly baked the cake.

Here’s my sentence:

Knowing how to mesmerize with a flick of the whisk, Carly (that impudent strumpet), deftly and deliriously and, above all, viciously baked the illicit cake of mango and plum and angel food and acid on which we unknowingly gorged ourselves (foolish gluttons) and by which we lost at least one day. 

Give it a try – see what you come up with!


Here’s my analysis (the levels are somewhat indistinct as my days of doing sentence trees are long ago and far away):

Level 1

“Knowing how to mesmerize with a flick of the whisk” and “(that impudent strumpet)” modify Carly, extending her role in the sentence. The first phrase adds to her agency, putting special emphasis on the knowledge of her abilities in the kitchen while the parenthetical comments on her more nefarious intentions – all the while keeping a lighter tone (“impudent strumpet” is not to be taken too seriously) so that it isn’t yet clear whether what she has done is so bad.  “Deftly and deliriously and …viciously” define how Carly baked; these adjectives extend the idea of her skill as well as give a sense of her state of mind and manner of action; the last adjective continues the thread of blame begun with “impudent strumpet”.  “Illicit…mango and plum and angel food and acid” define the type of cake and extend the idea of something nefarious, with the final noun, acid, completing the idea. The last two clauses (“on which…” and “by which…”) also modify the illicit cake by showing its effect on the first person plural narrator and showing how Carly tricked them rather unethically.

Level 2 (modifiers of the modifiers)

“impudent” modifies strumpet, highlighting the blame, but not quite condemning her yet.

“above all” modifies viciously, highlights the blame more intentionally.

“unknowingly” modifies gorged, mitigating the speakers’ involvement in the cake-eating.

“(foolish gluttons)” modifies ourselves, defining the role of the speaker in the sentence.

“at least one” modifies day, extending the idea of the speaker not knowing – the exact loss of time is unclear (which perhaps puts into question what exactly happened).

Level 3 (last layer of modifiers – I am less sure of this layer)

“of the whisk” modifies flick, illustrating just what the flirtatious action is – how it is her kitchen tool that is an extension of her conniving hand.

”to mesmerize” modifies how, showing what Carly action knows.

“foolish” modifies gluttons, extending the idea that the gorging was ignorant of the illicitness of the cake.


29 Jun

It’s a balmy 59 degrees in late June Seattle, about nine degrees warmer than the average temperature in January, February, March, etc…And yet, I love this cool weather, and how every evening the clouds pattern differently. Last night, a giant paw streaked pale pink, blue, gray-white across the sky.

My reading list for the summer was ridiculously unrealistic, then I changed it and it is still ridiculously unrealistic, so there’s no point in putting it here. But I will say that I’m reading War and Peace and Suite Française and they make for interesting companion pieces. There’s a scene in the latter that refers to a scene in the former, about troops and villagers crossing a bridge (and Suite Française, in case you don’t know, is about Parisians trying to leave Paris in World War II), and I got a certain twinge of readerly satisfaction from having so recently read the scene the more contemporary characters were talking about. The same sort of intersection gave me a similar twinge a couple of years ago when I was reading The Travels of Marco Polo (which I still haven’t finished) and The Decameron (…also unfinished, for shame…) and both mentioned the same story of an old monk in a cave, this time without making direct reference to predecessors. I love picking up two books, supposedly at random, and finding those connections across centuries. Seeing the reference in the more contemporary World War II novel somehow made the wartime scene in Tolstoy more powerful, for being still relevant, and also had an ironic effect on the character speaking about the scene, who didn’t yet experience fleeing Paris and didn’t seem to take that prospect seriously.

On that intertextual note, here’s another little piece I wrote this past quarter extending the myth of Prosperine. (The extension part begins with “In Hades…” and everything that precedes it is just to refresh your memory about what went down in that story.)

Ceres implored Jove to return Proserpine to her. Jove replied that Proserpine may return, so long as she has not eaten anything in the underworld. But Pluto had given Proserpine seeds of the pomegranate, and she had eaten those glistening seeds, so she was bound to spend part of the year in Hades and part of the year on Earth.

So, the months she spent in Hades became our autumn and winter, full of thistles and bramble and numbing snow. And the months she returned allowed us spring and summer– cherry blossoms and dogwoods, blackberries and huckleberries and rosy-hued nectarines and black plums.

In Hades Proserpine was dulled by dark winter. Pomegranates, with their juicy red-jeweled, bitter-centered seeds, were still on offer. Pluto sliced open this fruit and offered her a further wedge. Proserpine hesitated, tempted by this momentary distraction from underworld tedium.

“I want you to enjoy your time here,” Pluto said, still struck by Cupid’s quiver, still enraptured by Proserpine. “Please enjoy this fruit.”

“I can’t,” said Proserpine. “I know I’ll be further bound to this place. I know what will happen.”

“I’ll use my powers to prevent it. Longer summers, more lush vegetation. I promise.”

Proserpine knew that Pluto, struck by Cupid’s quiver, would keep his promise. She ate another wedge of pomegranate seeds.

Above, a confused Ceres watched the oceans rise.


5 Dec

It’s getting to be finals season, and I find myself tiring of business casual. I wore corduroy pants to work today– corduroy being a fabric near and dear to my heart– and walking around the unusually quiet English department reminded me of a piece I wrote back at McGill on a similar topic.

Silliness aside, I’m thrilled because I just got an e-mail from The Western Humanities Review informing me that my short story “The Boarder” has been accepted for publication! Hooray!

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