Tag Archives: Chris Abani

Notes from #AWP15 in Minneapolis

13 Apr
Milwaukie Ave

Historic Milwaukie Avenue in Seward, Minneapolis. The first row houses outside of NYC, built by the railroads as worker housing.

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:

Small is the New Big: Working with Independent Presses to Build a Literary Career

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.

It’s a Crime to Skip this Panel: Approaches to Crime Fiction

(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

On research:

  • 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!

bookfairloot

Experiments in Perspective

29 Sep

My twelfth set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog explores writing from the perspective of characters unlike yourself, with insight from Jodi Angel, Chris Abani, and Keith Ridgeway’s great short story “Rothko Eggs”. Here’s how it begins:

A crucial lesson I learned early on in my attempts at writing fiction is that every character is you–and not you. Characters have parts of you inside of them because you wrote them. But they are still not you. Chris Abani once said in a workshop that readers will always wonder if your characters are you–even if your main character is a Chihuahua. There’s not much to do about this wondering except write the characters you want to write with complexity and empathy.

continue reading

The Best AWP Ever

7 Mar

photo (9)Forgive my hyperbole, but I really enjoyed AWP this year. Maybe it was because this was the fourth I attended, so it was less overwhelming. Maybe it was because it was in Seattle, so I got to see so many friends and sleep in my own bed. Maybe it was because I had a chance to read alongside some really lovely writers. Maybe it was because I got to bring M to the book fair on Saturday and he made many tired exhibitors laugh. I *did* have violent heart palpitations the weekend before the conference as I stressed out over the three readings I had, but somehow these subsided by Tuesday, and by Thursday it was one big love fest. Here are some highlights.

Notes on the Practical

On Thursday I attended Kristen Young‘s panel Like Sand to a Beach: Bringing Your Book to Market. Jarrett Middleton of Dark Coast Press gave a really informative overview of the publishing process, especially when it comes to distribution. I had no idea how scary a pre-sales conference is (when a publisher pitches the merits of a title to all the big guns of a distributor and they try to poke holes in your marketing plan). I also didn’t know that a book has about 90 days or one quarter in a bookstore before it gets returned to the warehouse. Karen Maeda Allman of Elliott Bay Book Company gave the bookseller’s perspective. My favorite advice of hers about author events is to “invite everyone you know, encourage them to bring friends, and invite your ‘Kevin Bacon’ friend–the one who knows everyone.” All of her presentation slides are available on this beautiful Tumblr. Author Jonathan Evison emphasized building communities and taking the time to invite friends individually to your events rather than through mass emails. He also said, “Even if only six people come to your B & N event in south Austin, take the events coordinator to the Cheesecake Factory afterwards and get her drunk. She’ll keep selling your books.” Finally, Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr gave an overview her experiences as a book publicist and of what she calls the “bookternet” — smart people being silly on the internet with sites like Last Night’s Reading.

A Controversial Panel

Friday morning I attended the panel Magic and Intellect. It was packed to the gills; magic must be popular! Something extraordinary occurred at this panel that so far one blogger I know of has recounted and it is worthwhile to read her account. I hope more people will write on it. I haven’t had the mind space to do so; I’m still processing. But I did come away from it feeling affirmed, that imaginative writing is necessary. Rikki Ducornet said, “The human mind & imagination cannot sustain itself in a constant state of emergency,” and Kate Bernheimer said, “Solutions in fairy tales often require radical acts. If you’re in an incestuous, abusive relationship, you might need to cut off your finger to use as a key to get out of a room.” And Rikki Ducornet offered this advice: “For a difficult book to be readable, ‘find a language that levitates somehow, that is scintillating'” (last quotation via Mackenzie Hulton on Twitter).

One Really Cool Thing from the Book Fair: Envisioning the Future of the Book

I cannot begin to describe the many, many books I acquired last week. So I will simply share one very cool thing, Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book & Paper Expanded Artists’ Books. They displayed a hybrid artist book with heat-sensitive ink and an embedded iPad; if you pressed your hand on the page, different words erased and different words appeared on the iPad. What alchemy.

Readings Galore

I had the pleasure of reading fairy tales with Maya Sonenberg, Rikki Ducornet, and Valerie Arvidson. I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly large room fill with people eager to hear stories. Somehow each of us included food in our stories–I hurriedly jotted the phrase “saffron buns and candied salmon” as Valerie read–and that made me immensely happy.

At Canoe Social Club, I read with Andrew Ladd, Michael Nye, and Wesley Rothman. I’d finished Andrew’s book What Ends Tuesday night and it had me sobbing by the end. In addition to making me think about the issues that got me crying, it got me thinking about the books that also made me cry like that–Sophie’s Choice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn— so maybe I’ll write a separate post on that topic. I picked up Michael’s story collection Strategies Against Extinction; of course I will read the story “Sparring Vladimir Putin” first because obviously. I can’t wait. Wesley is working on a collection that may be called Sub-Woofer–keep your ears peeled!

Chris Abani and Chang-rae Lee did a wonderful reading and conversation. I already read The Secret History of Las Vegas (it’s powerful!), but hearing Chris read the opening and another section concerned with fairy tales gave me shivers.

I got to read with 13 others affiliated with the Univesity of Washington MFA and  the Cambridge Writers Workshop. We filled up Victrola’s back room and then most of us retired to Coastal Kitchen for drinks, snacks, and exquisite corpse. Coincidentally, I sat beside someone I’d only known through twitter and had no idea would be there. The future is now!

In the lovely subterranean Alibi Room, I got to see the UNC-Wilmington alumni reading, which featured several friends and which introduced me to the wonderful work of Rochelle Hurt and Kate Sweeney. You should check out their respective books, The Rusted City and American Afterlife. 

Finally, read Paul Constant’s take on the conference here, which includes high praise for my Furnace co-conspirator Corinne Manning and her Alice Blue chapbook “A Slow and Steady Eruption.” Hooray!

What I’m Doing During #AWP14

26 Jan

This year, I get to go to AWP in my hometown for the second time. The first time was also my first time at AWP ever, in NYC. That was where I decided to apply for MFA programs because, as the nice woman I met there said, “You’re helping no one by hating your job.” Since that fateful, overwhelming experience, I went to the conference in D.C., bunking up with my MFA classmates in a fancy hotel room, and then to the one in Chicago, staying with my lovely mother-in-law and kvelling over the downtown Jewish deli she took M and I to, Manny’s.

Last spring, I went to a panel on proposing AWP panels at Richard Hugo House right after folks came back from the Boston AWP (which I skipped because a woman and her wallet needs a break). I proposed a panel that did not get accepted, but I also was fortunate enough to be on a panel that *did* (thank you, Maya Sonenberg!). So I am on my very first AWP panel. And to top it all off, I put together an off-site event to celebrate the release of my friend Andrew Ladd‘s debut novel, What Ends.

WITHOUT FURTHER ADO: WHAT I’M DOING DURING AWP

Artwork by Rikki Ducornet http://rikkiducornet.com/work/

Artwork by Rikki Ducornet
http://rikkiducornet.com/work/

Official panel description on AWP site

Facebook Invite (why not?)

AWP FB invite4Facebook Invite

Of course, there’s so much more I’m doing, but these events are what I’m directly involved in. If you’re curious about what other Hugo House instructors are up to, I compiled a list of panels for Hugo House’s blog.

And here’s a few panels I’m most definitely excited to attend:

Like Sand to the Beach: Bringing Your Book to Market

Magic and the Intellect

 A Reading and Conversation with Chris Abani and Chang-rae Le

Are you going to AWP this year? What are you most excited to see and do?

Stay tuned for my highly idiosyncratic gustatory guide to Seattle, for all your cheap food and drink needs.

Background Reading for a Novel-in-Progess

18 Apr

I’ve been feeling anxious about the many things I’m juggling at the moment, so I just did a “brain-dump,” hashing out my immediate deadlines and less imminent ones, projects where I owe work to others and projects where I owe work to myself, and when in the coming months I will be able to do that. This is something I do from time to time, but having just finished auditing the ArtistTrust EDGE program, I have a few more tips and resources under my belt, with healthy reminders about making time for the writing and valuing that work. I feel a lot better. Of my own projects, there are a handful of short stories that I want to develop further, a handful to submit (or continue submitting), and a general plan to arrange the collection (in hard copy, not in my mind, which I’ve pretty much done) in September.

Anxiety-reduction aside, the brain dump also got me excited about looking ahead to my second novel. I wrote a quick, rough sketch of about 115 pages last April and put it aside to simmer. I took a number of inspiring and invigorating classes at Hugo House in March, including Chris Abani‘s class on voice and Sam Lipsyte‘s class on keeping a story going. Now, I’m taking Peter Mountford‘s excellent class on narrative structure, and had a really productive workshop of my synopsis and first chapter. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into the main conflict of the story before I set out to rewrite with more intention. And I’m excited to keep reading novels that I think will feed this book. For my first novel, I read countless books. I wish I had kept a more careful list all in one place, but my notes are scattered over many notebooks, and it would take me some time to sift through the pages to put it all together. I pretty much read anything I could get my hands on that was from or about Argentina and seemed remotely related, as well as a number of books that used magic realism in some way similar to how I tend to write it. I’m trying to be more organized about my second novel.

So far, here are some of the works feeding into Novel # 2. If you have any recommendations that fit into the nodes developing here, feel free to leave a comment!

Not pictured: Grisham, Le Carre.

Pictured left to right: A Convergence of Birds, An Almost Perfect Moment, The Brooklyn Follies, The Map and the Territory, Bleak House, Billy Budd and Other Stories, Just Kids, The Emperor’s Children, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, The Big Short, Lives of the Artists. Not pictured: some legal fiction by Grisham, some spy fiction by Le Carre.

Related posts:

  1. On Reading
  2. End of the Story
  3. Narcissus and Goldmund
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