About Me

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My work can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, New Delta Review, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an Associate editor for Narrative Magazine. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Read This: "The Book of Laney" by Myfanwy Collins

We see the stories in the news, stories of mass shootings at schools, stories of lonely misfits planning their revenge on their peers, and we try to understand but always seem to fall short. In “The Book of Laney,” by Myfanwy Collins a similar tragedy occurs and the story unfolds to the reader through the eyes and heart of Laney, the sister of one of the shooters. Literature can take on the truth of violence in a way that film could strive for, but usually fails. In whatever medium chosen, it’s important that depictions of violence be met with consequence. In “The Book of Laney,” there are consequences for the shooters, their victims, their community and those loved ones left behind. In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel wouldn’t be the thing of beauty it is. In the hands of a lesser writer, the dark side of humanity wouldn’t be so acutely and artfully contrasted against its magnificent light.

It’s a novel that works on so many levels. These characters are so thoughtfully drawn, every nuance skillfully observed, that there is no question of their reality. In Myfanwy Collins’s previous novels, she’s proven to be masterful at rendering atmosphere and mood, and this latest work highlights her ability. The main character is thoroughly suffocated by the fallout of her brother’s actions, and that suffocation shows up in her thoughts, her loneliness, and in the new landscape she finds herself in. It is no accident that the novel is set during winter and that its heroine Laney is sent north to her grandmother who lives literally on the edge of society. It is an exile at once miserably unfair and necessary.

Collins is a poet. She writes in prose but her sentences sing. Her images, shockingly accurate and beautiful, are strung along on the forward motion of plot like sparkling jewels on a chain. She has the ability to render that which is nearly impossible to describe:

“I wore my brother’s crime like a second skin. It constricted me, tight like a snake’s skin I feared I’d never shed. That was who I’d become: The sister of a murderer. Not even being the daughter of the murdered could erase it. From that point on, my identity belonged to no one but West.”

She also uses metaphor successfully and wisely as in this passage:

“One photo of a fiddlehead pushing up from beneath the compost of leaves, bright green and delicate. I was touched by its strength and lost in how the light illuminated it. The fiddlehead had pushed up through the darkness and lived. Despite being covered over and forgotten through the long, cold winter, it had beaten the odds and survived.”

Young adults face difficulties that feel insurmountable, difficulties they feel they won’t be able to overcome or survive. In “The Book of Laney,” they will meet a young woman who feels the same way, a young woman who journeys through darkness and allows love to illuminate her, light to nurture her, until eventually she’s able to push up into wholeness again.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Read This: "Bittersweet" by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a writer of smart, literary work and even though her third novel “Bittersweet” is a suspense-filled page turner, it’s every bit as a smart and literary as her previous novels. It’s evocative, with its lush descriptions of setting, its ominous tone, and its willingness to examine wealth and class up close. “Bittersweet” is one of those rare books you’ll be compelled to read in one sitting.

Katrina: “Bittersweet” is your third novel. How did the writing of this novel differ from the others? How did the process of writing the previous novels inform the writing of this one? Was it easier?

Miranda: I came to this novel from a much different place than I’d ever written a book before; my second book had sold quite poorly, and then I’d tried to sell two novels, to no avail. So when I started thinking about Bittersweet, I was also thinking seriously about my career. Did I still want to be a writer? Was that still tenable? What did that look like? For me, writing the next book entailed choosing a story that quickened my pulse but that also had some legs in terms of sales potential. Given that very businesslike decision, I was surprised to discover that writing Bittersweet was so much fun! It was a real liberation to write a book that would be a gift of pleasure to my readers.

Katrina: Its plot is quite complex. There are many twists and turns. How did you keep it all straight in your head? How did you organize the material and keep the events organic to the storyline?

Miranda: I had multiple outlines for Bittersweet—one giant color-coded one on my wall, one on Ancestry.com (where I kept track of the whole family), one involving notecards (one color for each main character, each card held a “beat”), and a calendar that listed exactly what was happening on every given day in the book. But I also like to break the rules of my outlines, so I didn’t feel afraid of re-ordering moments or re-envisioning plot-points when the book needed it. A lot of that neatening up also came about in revision.

Katrina: How did the premise of “Bittersweet” first present itself?

Miranda: I had long wanted to write about my family’s house up on Lake Champlain, but I didn’t know what that story would be until I got a taste of the Winslows. They kind of just started gossiping in my head one day—about a cousin who had killed himself—and I realized that the fractured marriage of those (pretty atrocious) people and that (phenomenally beautiful) place would make for an interesting book. But it took a couple years to realize that that the book would only work if it were told through the eyes of the outsider Mabel.

Katrina: You describe so beautifully the setting of Vermont, a place I’m intimately familiar with. Why did you choose Vermont?

Miranda: My family has a place up on Lake Champlain; it’s the only home owned by anyone in my family that’s remained consistent throughout my life. I have a deep connection to the rhythms of that area—what the birdsong sounds like on a spring morning, the smell of the water, the thirst one feels after a sailboat ride on a hot day. I worked hard to make the place a strong character in the book, as realized as any of the people in it. It’s funny, because I love that place so much, but in the book it takes on a deeply forboding air, like the forest out of Grimm’s fairytales.

Katrina: I’m always interested in how a writer works, and more specifically, the revision process. Please tell us about how you revise.

Miranda: I tend to start with a pretty in-depth outline, which translates to a polished first draft. Once I have that, I enlist a few trusted readers, and ask them for notes. In the time it takes them to read and draft comments, I take a break from the book (usually to catch up with my life- my house is usually a disaster by this point, I haven’t answered emails for weeks, and my kid is desperate for me). Then once I’ve got notes back, I put them together, read the book again, and try to apply most of what I’ve heard onto the draft. Rinse and repeat, usually twice. Somewhere in there, my editor gets ahold of it and offers wisdom, encouragement and doubt, and we work the book together. I love revision, even as I want to pull my hair out. The chance to polish one’s project is such a gift.

Katrina: Without giving anything away, can you talk about how you came to such a surprising end? Was the end what you originally had in mind, or did you work it in?

Miranda: Before acquiring my book, my editor wrote me a note (via my agent) saying that she couldn’t stand the ending, so I changed it, and really, her suggestion about changing it was what made me realize she needed to be my editor. She was advocating for a shift in the book that I didn’t even know it needed until she suggested it. I don’t want to give anything away either, but let’s just say that in the original ending, the person who deserves his/her comeuppance didn’t get it. Once she insisted s/he should get what s/he deserved, I realized that there was another character lurking in the background of the book who I hadn’t used to his/her full potential. This character then presented his/herself as a means to getting the justice the reader wants, and it was so exciting to find that truth!

Katrina: Your book explores barriers between socio-economic classes, real and imagined, and is timely considering the state of our country, and the world, really. Mabel has this palpable longing to belong to this mysterious other world her roommate inhabits, so much so that she nearly shoe-horns herself into Geneva’s summer. What compelled you to underscore this longing?

Miranda: Well, I think it’s universal really, the desire to belong to the perceived “inner circle.” I didn’t know I had such a drive in me until I realized that nearly every book I love to read has this theme somewhere at its core. Even if we disdain someone else’s perceived wealth/ good fortune/ luck, more often than not, we still want a piece of it. That’s probably why we disdain it in the first place—I find that envy is almost always at the heart of such insecurities.

Katrina: Who are some of the writers who’ve influenced you and your work?

Miranda: I love this question and it’s always excruciating to answer! In the case of Bittersweet, the books that influenced it directly were Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Katrina: Which part of the writing of a novel do you consider the most fun?

Miranda: Oh, it’s that dreamy imagine-y moment when you’ve barely written a word but your mind and body is full of the promise of the book to come. You don’t yet know all the things that will go wrong, all the parts of it that won’t work according to plan, all the bits that are uncooperative. You’re still just purely in love.

Katrina: How do you juggle writing and family?

Miranda: I have an amazing partner who shares nearly all of the domestic duties, from childcare to dishes. I have only one kid who is five and incredibly independent and patient, the kind of kid you can say “I just need five more minutes” to and who will acquiesce. I have a sister and brother-in-law who live a ten minute walk away and are enthusiastic and available for last minute kid-duty. We’ve found incredible childcare providers who’ve nurtured the kiddo when we’re unable to. And I’ve resigned myself to being okay with a messy house most of the time.

Katrina: Any words of wisdom for other writers?

Miranda: Be stubborn. I think bull-headedness is one of the most important traits a writer can have. No one wants to buy your book? Write another one. That’s what being a writer entails. It’s not always rewarding, but when things work out better than you dreamed, you’ll be glad you kept on keeping on.

Miranda's website: http://mirandabw.com/

Monday, May 12, 2014

Read This: Bones of an Inland Sea by Mary Akers

I've known Mary and her writing for years. Her work is sharply intelligent, creative and passionate. Nature and science play a prominent role in her work and though the narratives speak of the laws of science, they are not always bound by them. Mary is an accomplished author, a three-time Bread Loaf scholarship recipient, and this is her third published story collection. Mary is one of those writers who just gets better and better while at the same time staying true to what makes her storytelling special. I hope you get a chance to read her latest collection, "Bones of an Inland Sea," if you haven't already.

Q: The stories in this work are connected, either by the sea, or by science, or by the characters who are all related in some way, some of whom show up again. How do you classify this work? Is it a novel-in-stories or a linked collection?

Mary: Labels are tough, aren’t they? I never know what to call a thing I’ve made. I’m the queen of blurring genres and styles. And frankly, it’s the spaces that exist between the labels that are most interesting to me anyway. When I was first writing “Bones of an Inland Sea,” I referred to it as my marine ecology collection. Before I had even written the first word, I imagined a group of stories all connected by the sea. But when I completed the first version of the manuscript in 2007 and shopped it around to agents, I had no takers. Then I read three wonderful, tightly linked collections (that their respective publishers never called collections): “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” “Olive Kitteredge,” and “Let the Great World Spin.” Those three books really made me rethink the loose connections in my stories. So I made a conscious decision to strengthen “Bones” by assigning the existing stories to a group of repeating characters and have the stories follow a narrative arc. This required extensive reshaping, reorganizing, reimagining, and the addition of four entirely new stories to more tightly link the whole. The result ended up as something I like to think of as a composite novel.

Q: In these stories the sea plays an important role, both terrifyingly powerful and magnificently beautiful. What is your relationship with the ocean?

Mary: In a word, complex. Also mysterious. A lifelong love affair. I feel utterly at home in the ocean, all the while understanding that at any moment she could turn on me with ruthless force and indifference. The ocean is a lover you always understand could kill you, and yet you can’t stay away.
Early in my college career, I set out to be a marine biologist: chose my college based on their graduate program in marine biology, took lots of biology and science courses. Then, halfway through, I failed a botany class, met clay, and switched my allegiance to fine art. I became a potter—a career I pursued for more than ten years, but always I loved the ocean. In the 1990s I worked for a marine ecology study abroad program in Turks and Caicos but felt it was poorly managed. In the late 1990s, I joined forces with a co-worker from that time in the TCI and together we co-founded our own marine ecology school in Dominica that operated for ten years.

To help me understand my theme, I will adopt a song that embodies each book—just in my mind, but it exists there as a touchstone. And an observant (and musically savvy) reader could find song references in each of my books. For my first collection, “Women Up On Blocks,” it was Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away) by The Rolling Stones. That book is full of stories of longing, of characters who feel trapped by circumstance, love, or duty. For “Bones of an Inland Sea,” it would be a toss-up between Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd and A Pirate Looks at Forty by Jimmy Buffet. I relate to the lines, “Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call. Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. You’ve seen it all.” And of course the title of my strange logbook story “Treasures Few Have Ever Seen” is a line that’s taken directly from that Jimmy Buffet song.

Q: In the way you successfully inhabit many different voices and many different settings, and cover different themes and premises, “Bones of an Inland Sea” reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” What was the most difficult aspect of such a varied work?

Mary: Thank you. I’m thrilled with the comparison. And you must be an especially observant reader because I actually looked to “Goon Squad” as a guide when I was trying to convince myself that what I wanted to achieve with “Bones” could be done. “Goon Squad” is linked by theme (the music industry) and also by repeating characters, two of whom really carry the book. It contains stories that shift point-of-view in the middle, a second-person narrator story, a first-person plural story, a story set in the future, and even a Power Point story. It was a thrilling book to read and I wanted to be as fearless and open in structuring my book as Egan had been in hers. I had the theme of the ocean and then after-the-fact I linked the characters. I ended up with three main characters: Leslie, Jack, and Dani. They each have multiple stories in the book, and like “Goon Squad,” we track them over many years and changes in circumstance.

Q: A family tree of characters speaks also to the way we are all related however distant or tenuous the thread. How did the idea come to you?

Mary: Honestly? I had to make the tree for myself. There were so many dates and details and connections that were crucial to each story and couldn’t be fudged—the webcam in “Like Snow, Only Grayer,” for instance. I wanted that story to take place in 1994, but there was no way that was going to work with a personal webcam and the webcam was crucial to the whole turning point of the story. Even setting the story in 1996 was pushing it, but in the end I had two military installations make the connection by webcam and it became at least plausible (the military used webcams before they became widely available to the public). Leslie’s father Quinn also had to witness the Bravo hydrogen bomb testing in The Marshall Islands for that story to work, so he needed to be an older father. And Leslie was caught up in the Asian tsunami later in life, so there were inflexible dates (based on real events) that had to correlate with the ages of my characters. That’s one of the big challenges of using real events, but I believe it’s very satisfying for readers when you make it all work.

Q: These stories are so rich with intelligence and imagination. Every sentence is polished and clear. The settings and situations beautifully rendered. The characters flawed and interesting and fully formed. Please talk about your revision process. How much were these stories revised? Over what period of time? How do you approach revision?

Mary: Wow. Thank you for that. As for how long the collection to took write…um, ten years? Maybe? Like childbirth, I think I’ve blocked out the uglier details. I do know that I started Viewing Medusa in 2003 and that became the first story of the new collection and the book was published in 2013. After I decided to more tightly link the collection, I found that I needed to write a few additional “connecting” stories to tie everything together and bridge some gaps. So in the last three months before the book was finished, I cranked out four brand new stories. They’d been in the hopper of my mind for years, but still needed lots of coaxing to come out.
What’s interesting about the process of writing these later stories is that I didn’t overthink them and I didn’t have time to heavily revise them over months (the way I usually work). I made a conscious effort to trust my gut and trust that readers could handle some tricky transitions. Not only are readers smart, but they like to feel smart when they read, so I just threw myself headlong into writing the quirky sorts of stories that I would like to read. For readers who are curious as to which stories I wrote this way (it would be interesting, I think, to examine the difference in style), the newer stories are “Treasures Few Have Ever Seen,” “Vieques,” “Collateral Damage,” and “Madame Trousseau.” I really had fun with them. At that point in the writing, after so many rejections from agents and editors, I just felt that it was time to write for me. If it was all going to be rejected anyway, I might as well have fun writing it. Readers can judge for themselves if that approach was successful or not.

Q: Which story was your favorite to write?

Mary: Maybe Viewing Medusa was my favorite to write. I wanted to have a narrator who was not the main character—a Nick Carraway sort of character. And I had to believe in that story more than the others because it kept getting rejected no matter where I sent it. I submitted to 120 journals before it finally found the right home at The Good Men Project. Before they accepted it, the story won an award, earned me a prestigious fellowship…and took 119 nos to get to a yes. The moral of this story’s story? Don’t give up.

Q: Who are the writers you look to for inspiration when writing short stories?

Mary: Margaret Atwood is probably my biggest literary influence. I’m a huge fan of her work. I feel like I really get it when I read her stuff—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, all of it. It speaks to me. Two of her story collections, “Wilderness Tips” and “Bluebeard’s Egg,” thrilled me as a twenty-something reader, well before I had any ambition to write professionally. And then “The Handmaid’s Tale” absolutely rocked my world when I was a college student.
Ray Bradbury’s writing has been a great source of influence and inspiration that I’ve only recently come to recognize. I first read “Something Wicked This Way Comes” when I was young and impressionable, at about the age of 12, ironically the age at which Bradbury himself has said that future writers are forming the obsessions that will follow them for the whole of their writing lives. He wrote two great linked story collections, “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” and of course the wonderful dystopian “Fahrenheit 451,” all of which I devoured as an early reader.
At about that same time, I read lots of Edgar Allan Poe. His short stories always felt linked, if only by the specter of death and the dormant macabre inside us all.
On a somewhat related note, I loved to watch The Twilight Zone on television when I was young. Those episodes always felt like visual short stories. The characters changed week-to-week, but they were linked through their exploration of bizarre and abstract issues of the day. I think you can find influences from all of these sources in my body of work in general and in “Bones of an Inland Sea” in particular.

Q: Going back to the variety, which simply amazes me, how did you embody such disparate voices?

Mary: Well, now that’s the fun of writing, isn’t it? Becoming someone else for a time. Writing is immersive in the same way that reading an engaging book is immersive, but it’s also imitative because you inhabit the life of another. Instead of reading the book you want to read, you are writing the book you want to read. It’s like method acting—but for introverts. I get to inhabit a character, think like him, talk like him, be him, but thankfully no one watches my transformation.

Q: You read so much in the news lately about the ongoing battle between theology and science. Your book seems to not only make room for both, but also embrace science, the quest to understand everything, while at the same time own our incapability of knowing everything. Which of your characters would you like to meet in the afterlife and why?

Thank you. I’m glad this came across. It’s a good description of my approach to life: inclusion.
As for who I’d like to meet? Josie, perhaps—the jellyfish researcher—but I think the afterlife she’s earned would probably be some version of comeuppance hell, so maybe I don’t want to meet her, and certainly not there. Maybe Dani, who I became very fond of, or Jack who I really understood on some basic level. Say, here’s a thought. Can I have them all at a giant heavenly cocktail party for a few hours? Just me and my characters hanging out …Unless of course they are coming to the party so they can hold me accountable for their difficult lives. It’s tough being the omniscient creator of a cast of troubled, unruly characters.

Q: If you could change one thing about our impact on the environment right now, which would it be?

Mary: Plastic, hands down. I would go back in time and uninvent it. Yes, plastic has made many things easier, cleaner, more convenient, more sterile, fleecier, less immediately sharp and dangerous, but it is wreaking havoc on our world. The oceans are littered with plastic, and it photodegrades, which means the pieces just break down smaller and smaller in sunlight, but they stay chemically the same. So sea life of all kinds—birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates—are ingesting tons of the poisonous stuff (if they aren’t getting trapped by it and drowning). The beaches are littered with plastic. (It used to be seaglass—pollution still, but pollution that at least broke back down into silica—essentially sand.) Each of the world’s major oceans has a massive garbage patch trapped and floating in its gyre that grows in size every year. The farthest point from any major landmass, Midway Island, is nothing but a plastic trash collection site. Tragically, Midway is the primary nesting site for albatross, and their chicks die in the thousands from being fed by parents who’ve mistaken plastic cigarette lighters or bottle caps or assorted gewgaws for brightly colored fish or squid. The plastic fills their stomachs but it doesn’t break down or pass through their systems so they slowly starve to death while their bellies bulge with indestructible plastic. What’s even scarier? The chemicals found in common household plasticware (and therefore also found in our landfills and waterways) mimic estrogens in the environment. Fish and amphibians are already feminizing. Can humans be far behind? (Hint: that’s the subject of my new novel.)

Your life is full; you’re a writer, an editor, a mother, a wife. How do you weave everything into your days?

Mary: Am I? Do I? Honestly, it’s all a blur. I don’t know how I do it. Or even IF I do it remotely well. (Please don’t look in my kitchen right now.) I really don’t know how any of us do it, but we somehow manage. Secretly? I believe we should all just slow the heck down and get off the crazy hamster wheel that is Modern Life. Unplug. Go for a swim in the ocean. Plant a butterfly garden. Take a walk in the woods.
While we still can.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Read This: What the Zhang Boys Know by Cliff Garstang

I've known Cliff through his writing for over a decade now. We met virtually through an online workshop site and literally in a real-life workshop at Bread Loaf in 2006. I've admired Cliff's straightforward, elegant writing for years but in his latest novel-in-stories, "What the Zhang Boys Know," it seems that straightforward elegance has become richer, in both a narrative sense and an emotional one. Cliff can write from any point of view, whether from a child's, a woman's, or a foreigner's, to list a few found in this novel, with authority and verisimilitude. If you haven't yet read this beautiful novel of disparate characters connected by an elegant mansion turned into condos on the crumbling edges of D.C., then you're in for a treat when you do. I asked Cliff a few questions about the novel and his process:

K: You have quite an amazing background. Among other things, you have worked as Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in D.C. with a focus on China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia. How did your work, and the time you spent in East Asia, inform this novel?

C: Since joining the Peace Corps after college, my work has always had an international bent to it—first in private law practice and then in the World Bank—so it’s natural for my fiction to reflect this interest of mine as well. I used to do a lot of work in China, so it didn’t surprise me when a Chinese character popped into my head when I was conceiving this book. More specifically, though, when I began planning for it, I had just returned from a work trip to Nanjing where I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. It was incredibly moving, and that visit helped shape the story.

K: In the opening story, “Nanking Mansion,” you begin with a chaotic scene in which the narrator is surrounded by “all the people he knows in America” then you circle back to help the reader become acquainted with those people and also help him understand how they came to be standing in the foyer of Nanking Mansion. How did this structure idea come to you? Did it present itself in the first draft?

C: It did present itself in the first draft. In fact, originally, it was even more chaotic and included all the characters in the book. The current version is trimmed down so that the reader gets a feel for the cast without being overwhelmed. The scene is a reaction to two things. My first book, In an Uncharted Country, which is a collection of linked short stories, ends with a story in which most of the book’s characters appear at a 4th of July Celebration. It seemed to be a good way of drawing the book to a close. Because Zhang Boys was conceived as a novel in stories from the beginning, I wanted to begin with a scene in which most of the book’s characters would be introduced. The other impetus was an essay by Sven Birkerts that suggested the modern story needs to create a new world for the reader without relying on assumptions. The scene, I hope, accomplishes that, complete with chaos.

K: Is there a real Nanking Mansion from which you drew inspiration? When did you know the mansion would be a central character and the other stories would be connected by it?

C: Although all of the human characters in the book are complete figments of my imagination, the building itself resembles the condo building where I used to live in DC, although with a different name. As soon as I realized that my characters would be the building’s residents—very early on in the process—the building also became a character.

K: Many of the residents of the mansion are artists of some sort. Was this intentional? What does it say, if anything, about our society here in America, that often our artists are left to survive on the fringes?

C: It was intentional in the sense that I was trying to be true to the neighborhood as it existed at the time. We had a real mix of artists and business or government people in the building and in the neighboring buildings. But I was also thinking about the people who observe the world and those who participate in it. To some extent, the artists see things more clearly than others do, and I think they were useful for that. And certainly artists, like other communities in America that I also tried to represent in the book, are often marginalized.

K: What or who was the inspiration for the “Face in the Window”? Was there a particular artist you had in mind? How did you come to decide on the omniscient point of view for this story? Were there any challenges for you in using that pov?

C: No particular inspiration—no artist, no artwork. Having said that, I suppose abstract art in general was the inspiration, or, rather, the ability of the abstract artist to see clearly something that the rest of us may miss. I chose the omniscient point of view because I wanted to show the reader things that the painter couldn’t see, including moving forward in time. When I started working with it in this story it was exhilarating. I sometimes felt as though I were running alongside the painter, who is a runner. Because I don’t think I’d ever done anything omniscient before, it might have been hard to strike a balance at first so that the main character’s consciousness doesn’t overwhelm the story.

K: Which story was the most difficult to write? Easiest?

C: The easiest was “Counterpoint,” in the sense that I wrote it one amazing sitting—like no other day of writing I’ve ever had. There was revision, of course, but remarkably little. The first story, “Nanking Mansion,” was very difficult because at that point in the writing I wasn’t sure what the book was about. So a lot of thought went into that story, work that paid off by making the rest of the book much easier to write.

K: I’m always interested in revision. Would you share some of your insights and habits regarding the process of revising?

C: Like most writers I know, I firmly believe that revision is the key to good writing. If you’re going to revise something, though, you have to have something to work with. So I like to pour words onto a page when I’m creating a first draft and hope that I will have the discipline to cut and shape and rewrite in a later stage. With this book, after the painful writing of the first story, I had what amounted to an outline of the rest of the stories. I had a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and wrote first drafts—very rough, for the most part—of all of the remaining stories over the course of four weeks. When that was done, I saw clearly the shape of the book, and knew what I needed to do to polish and revise. I began to revise one story at a time, because I was also sending stories out for publication in journals. So that process was working through each story sentence by sentence, reading them aloud, searching for the right rhythm and the perfect word. I’d finish one, submit it to a journal, and move on to the next. The process of revision was many times longer than writing the first draft. Of course.

K: Which story and which character are your favorites?

C: I usually don’t write about children, but here I do, and so I might say that Simon and Wesley are my favorites. As for stories—I think “Nations of Witness” is my favorite, for several reasons. I hesitated to answer this question, but let me turn it around. Which story and which character are YOUR favorites?

K: I liked many of your characters. One of the strengths of the novel is that they’re all so different. Though Simon is the one for whom I have the most empathy, I suppose Feng-qi is my favorite. He seems the most earnest, and perhaps even the most complex, even as he seems unaware he’s still mired in grief. As for my favorite story…This is a difficult one. I admire the first one for its depth and structure, and “Last Lilacs” is quite moving. That said, I would have to say my favorite of all is “The Replacement Wife.” It’s authentic, moving and surprising. So my next question is how easy was it for you to write from the female pov?

C: Not as difficult as I thought it would be. I had also written from the female point of view in my first book, and have been told that it worked well. In the case of “The Replacement Wife,” I think I understood Jessica’s dilemma, and while her medical problem is female, her range of emotions isn’t, particularly.

K: Which leads me to another question. The voices and characters are all so different. Do you have any tricks, any revision techniques, that help you nail down the voices?

C: One of the things I like most about writing short stories is the opportunity to inhabit many characters. I’m not an actor, but I think the process of writing the multiple voices is similar to what an actor does in moving from one role to another. In fact, one of my first writing teachers recommended Stanislavsky’s book An Actor Prepares because it offers some tips for achieving emotional authenticity, even if the character’s actual experience is foreign to you. I may not have felt the specific pain the character has felt, but I have felt pain, and so I try to tap into that feeling. Also, of course, on most of these stories I sought feedback from trusted readers, and that’s often crucial in measuring whether the desired effect has been achieved.

K: What’s next? What are you working on?

C: I finished a novel last year, set partly in Virginia and partly in Korea, and I'm looking for a publisher for that. And now I'm working on a novel set in Singapore--a mix of historical and contemporary action. Plus, I'm also working on a new collection of flash and longer stories. Lots to do!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Books I Read in 2012

Books Read in 2012

The World We Found by Thrity Umvigar

Running the Rift by Naomi Benarom

The Good American by Alex George

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

The Odds, A Love Story by Stewart O’Nan

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penny

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

The Dreaming Girl by Roberta Allen

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy (read aloud to my son)

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Heft by Liz Moore

How it All Began by Penelope Lively

Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Wildwood by Colin Meloy (read aloud to my son)

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (read aloud to my husband)

This Will Be Difficult to Explain by Johanna Skibsrud

Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross

Volt by Alan Heathcock

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer

This is Not the Tropics by Ladette Randolph

The O’Henry Prize 2012 (favorites: The Deep; Eyewall; A Birth in the Woods)

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

The Invisible Tower by Nils Johnson Shelten (read aloud to my son)

Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter

Ladies and Gentlemen, Stories by Adam Ross

Animal Farm by George Orwell (read aloud to my son)

Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo

Goliath by Susan Woodring

In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Stand Up That Mountain by Jay Erskin Leutze

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Grolick

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

The Witch Doctor’s Wife by Tamar Myers

Mice by Gordon Reese

Boleto by Alyson Hagy

The Nobodies Album by Carol Parkhurst

Drowned by Therese Bonman

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon

This is How by M.J. Hyland

Shelter by Frances Greenslade

The Adults by Alison Espach

In the Woods by Tana French

The Likeness by Tana French

The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

When the Night by Cristina Comencini

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

Gone by Cathi Hanauer

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards

In Malice Quite Close by Brandi Lynn Ryder

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandell

The Revisionist by Helen Schulman

Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (read aloud to my son)

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner (read aloud to my son)

Faithful Places by Tana French

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs (read aloud to my son
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke Brunt

All Women and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones

Dirt by David Vann

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

The Unwanteds, Island of Silence by Lisa McMann (read aloud to my son)

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

The Yard by Alex Grecian

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Afterwords by Rosamund Upton

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I Am Holding Your Hand by Myfanwy Collins

This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky

Brain on Fire by Susanne Cahalan

*There were a few I began but put aside for various reasons and there was one I read but the quality of writing was so poor it left me feeling a bit gray, so I didn’t include here…

Monday, July 02, 2012

A Conversation with Susan Woodring

"Goliath" by Susan Woodring, is an elegant, character-driven novel, about the impending death of a small-town and the characters' large-hearted attempts to revive it. "Goliath" is successful both in scope and depth and I was moved to ask Ms. Woodring for her insights on writing it.

Katrina: You handle the omniscient point of view expertly. I can understand why you chose it; it’s the best point of view in which to capture the spirit of “Goliath.” Is this a point of view you usually use? What are the advantages? What are the challenges?

Susan: I think I’ve used omniscience only once before Goliath, in a short story that ultimately failed. However, I’ve long been fascinated with it. . Some years ago, I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina and loved it. Not only did it feel authentically and wonderfully Russian (I spent some time teaching English there many years ago), but it also used omniscience in this sweeping, beautiful way. I also read The River King by Alice Hoffman, and the opening pages are magical and fairytale-like in the novel’s use of omniscience and I ached to try it myself.

I like the flexibility in distance I have with omniscience. I can pull way, way back—speaking from the sky in many scenes—but then come zapping down, into my characters’ heads, and especially that of Rosamond, the main character. This allowed me to “see” the characters and their town from so many different angles.

I like how omniscience can create the sense that the reader and the narrator are very close—we’re in this together—while the story becomes something they observe from a distance, like a play on a stage. With Goliath, I really wanted, too, to create a sense of isolation for the town of Goliath. I wanted the reader to feel like he/she is peeking into Goliath—a sort of existence unto itself.

Omniscience is, of course, a pretty complicated point of view, one that isn’t used that much in contemporary fiction. It’s a bit of a risk; many readers simply don’t like it. When I was working on Goliath, though, it felt very freeing—daring in a foolish way—and I remember feeling like I was always holding my breath. I was all the time thinking, “This will never work, this will never work,” and “I’ll never get away with this,” but also, “What the heck.” It was such fun; I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

Also, I feel like taking this sort of risk with point of view allowed me to give myself permission to take risks in other areas. For example, I used a few supernatural elements. These—which included a ghost—were edited out later, but still, I feel like experimenting with them stretched the story (and the writer) in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Katrina: I’m always interested in process. What is your office like? Do you write by hand or type? Do the drafts come to you in a linear way or do the scenes arrive and you arrange them later?

Susan: Oh, my office is a disaster. We painted it this odd reddish-pinkish color (play-doughish, if that makes sense) because the color looked good in the can—not so much in real life. I have a bookcase with a writing ledge and there are a few more bulging bookcases and piles of papers around me. My knitting basket is at my feet. Also, my kids’ homeschooling stuff is slowly taking over the room—computers and art supplies and so forth.

But, my laptop is tiny—it’s actually a netbook—and so I’m pretty transportable. I often head over to my in-laws’ with my kids—they play and I write in the spare bedroom. I hit coffee shops on Saturdays, when my husband is home to keep the kids.
I begin jotting down ideas and snatches of dialogue or characters’ thoughts in an unlined notebook and move onto my laptop when I feel like the story or the scene I’m working on are firm enough to start drafting. I usually don’t know exactly where the story is going, but I do have a vague sense of where things will end. I often have a visual image of the last scene. (I had the epilogue to Goliath in mind from the very beginning.) I do a lot of revising, but it’s usually in chunks and while I’m still drafting—it takes me so long to figure out what the story is really about. Especially with longer works, I really like using a lot of characters, so often in drafting, what I’m doing is figuring out why they all belong in the same book.

Katrina: “Goliath” is rich with details and complexity. Did this richness come with revision? How long did Goliath take to write? How many revisions did it go through? Did the first draft differ greatly from the end result? If so, in what ways?

Susan: Goliath began in 2006 as a NaNoWriMo novel set in the wake of the JFK assassination. It was initially centered on Hatley, a door-to-door salesman who ultimately took on a secondary role in the book, and it was only in later drafts that it became a story about a factory town. I didn’t really have a good sense of it at all until I discovered Rosamond, and even then I didn’t really know what the story was going to feel like until I wrote the first scene, with Vincent Bailey discovering Percy Harding’s body.

I believe that from that moment—when I had the first scene and my main character—it took about two years to write. My editor at St. Martin’s, Elizabeth Beier, was so, so brilliant with the changes she suggested—I feel like the process of taking her recommendations and re-working the book taught me so much about fiction-writing, particularly about novel-writing. For example, Elizabeth really pushed me to get the book, with so many, many characters, to really focus on Rosamond. In her editor’s notes, she said, “I firmly believe that the best and most successful novels not only have terrific writing and great characters, but (even if it’s subtle, barely seen) an imagined outcome in the reader’s mind that they either long for or dread.”

Katrina: I know you are the mother of two children and that you home-school. How do you find the time to write? Do you have any advice for stay-at-home mothers who want to work writing into their lives? Any nifty tricks?

Susan: I don’t sleep!

Well, not really, though that’s been part of my equation for far too long. I’m starting to feel the effects of this, though, and it ain’t pretty.

I used to say I get up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. I no longer do that—I just can’t. But, I have found I can get up really, really early—sometimes even like two-thirty or three—and write for several hours once or twice a week. Otherwise, I cobble together time when I can get it. My in-laws also local and retired and WONDERFUL. They keep my kids for two afternoons a week, plus they take in my whole family, husband included, when I go out of town for book events and conferences. It’s an amazing blessing. I come home from a trip with only my own laundry to get caught up on—my mother-in-law has done the rest.

Also, my husband really gets how important this is to me. I take off most Saturdays for three-to-four hours’ of writing time. And, during the school year, I have a babysitter (also wonderful!!) who comes in one morning a week.

I have no nifty tricks. Sometimes, I’ll get asked about this at a post-reading Q and A, and I say that I throw handfuls of Froot Loops to my kids, like breadcrumbs to pigeons, rather than stop writing to feed them. I had to quit saying this, though; I had a group that looked completely horrified until I explained I was joking.

Katrina: Your teens, Vincent and Cassie, are fascinating. I find teenagers difficult to get right, but you make it look easy. Did you find these two characters difficult to embody?

Susan: Oh, Katrina, thank you so much! I think I identify with teenagers—especially the kind who live on the fringe of things--because in my heart of hearts, that’s who I still am. I am horrendously self-conscious. It took me years to get up the guts to wear open-toe shoes—toes are so vulnerable-looking, don’t you think?—and I still lie awake every night, cringing over the things I said to different people during the day.

Also, I’ve always been drawn to adolescents. I used to teach middle school and found my students so adorably neurotic. This attitude helped a lot with Vincent, I think: I really identified with his mother who tries so, so hard to help him. Who tries to understand him but really, just can’t. As far as Cassie goes, I always picture a former student of mine when I think of her. I knew the student when she was much younger than Cassie, and her situation is different, but her plucky defiance, with such an unreachable sadness underneath—I totally got that from my old student.

Katrina: Vincent is challenged to swallow things. It seems, symbolically, not in any conscious way, he chooses to swallow living things in order to forget about death. What was the inspiration for this?

Susan: Ooh, Katrina! That’s great! I honestly never thought of it like that. Yay!! (It REALLY helps to have smart readers….)

I thought of him more as his trying to become something else. I think he really feels overcome by what he witnesses at the first of the book and by the growing distance between him and his father. He craves a different mode of existence, maybe.

The actual inspiration for this is pretty gross. One morning, I killed a cricket in my living room, and, picking its squashed body up with a paper towel, I really looked at the thing, saw how meaty (forgive me!) this little creatures was. I don’t know how I went from that to deciding Vincent was going to try swallowing it. I suppose we sometimes write about the things that frighten us, don’t we?

Katrina: “Goliath” has a lot of symbolism. Were you aware of the symbolism as you wrote or was it all a surprise?

Susan: Yes and no on both counts. I had the name of the town before I realized it was going to be, in some shape or other, a kind of David-and-Goliath story. And, the cardinal paper knife just seemed like the kind of thing Rosamond would pick up at the drug store as a gift for Percy’s family. From there, I suppose I picked up on birds in the story when I could, and they became symbolic. The best kind of analogy or symbol, of course, is the kind that is a surprise. That feels unplanned and serendipitous. I believe our subconscious minds work very hard--both in our ordinary lives, and in the stories we tell ourselves—to construct meaning and to form ties between seemingly disconnected entities. Our job, then, is to more or less get out of the way, and to clean up the excess afterward.

Katrina: Goliath is a character itself. Did you intend this? What were the challenges in creating the essence of a town?

Susan: I think that, for me at least, point of view and character and setting develop at the same time, in tandem. They are linked in messy and intricate ways from the very first. The events of the story and its shape flow from these first three. So, I can’t tell you which came first: Goliath as a character or the omniscient point of view. I do believe that if I had begun with a different point of view, Goliath would have ended up being a very different entity. Maybe it would have been “only” the setting of the book. I don’t know if I would have been able to see the town as a whole if the point of view had been focused only on, say Rosamond.

The greatest challenge in creating Goliath was in portraying a sort of quintessential small town that is recognizable as such, but at the same time, making Goliath unique and believable. I wanted to capture the feel of a small town—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without making it feel like a clich√©.

I liken it to creating a character of a particular age, especially child characters. You want your made-up seven-year-old to think, act, and talk like a seven-year-old, but you also want your character to be an individual. Your aim is to create a unique being and not an every-seven-year-old. I had the same thoughts when creating Goliath.

Katrina: Which character was the easiest to write? The most difficult?

Susan: Hatley, the prodigal husband and father, was by far the hardest character for me to write. I needed for him to say certain things, though he also didn’t seem like that character that would just come out and say things. Every Hatley scene was about me making him say, “hello,” and “I stole a spoon,” and my editor pressing me to make him say and do more. I really had to push that man.

The easiest character to write? I really don’t know. I enjoyed different aspects of different characters. I enjoyed writing about the encyclopedia salesman because he was cute and young and unsuspecting. I liked writing Agnes because she reminds me, in many ways, of myself, all that early-twenties angst I think so many of us face during that period of our lives. I liked Rosamond’s courage and her determination as well as her awkwardness and her inability to see what she really needed/wanted. Oh, and Clyde! I loved working through the Clyde and Rosamond scenes, and the Clyde and Ray scenes.

Katrina: There’s this part in the book in which Ray is preaching about Jericho and Vincent is in
the garage with his father and the focus switches back and forth between both scenes. It’s an interesting technique that added tension. Was this an intentional choice?

Susan: I think this goes back to what I was saying about taking risks. I trusted the story to carry the omniscient point of view, and when the story wanted to do something like this—there are actually a few scenes with these kinds of cut-takes—I let it. I hate it when writers talk like that—about what the story “wants to do—but I don’t know how else to explain it. One very important thing I learned (or think I learned) while writing Goliath: trust the story. Follow it.

Katrina: The end is beautiful and transcending. How did you come to that particular end?

Susan: I knew the epilogue from the beginning. I don’t know how else to say that. I saw it almost as soon as I saw the factory or the woods behind the high school or Rosamond herself. Before Vincent found the body, the end had already been written, or at least imagined.

Katrina: What's next?

Susan: My agent is reading a new manuscript at this very moment! I'm very excited about it; I hope he likes it. Like Goliath, it's set in North Carolina, but with this story, the setting is a little farther west, in the mountains. I'd say that Goliath focuses on community with marriage and family being secondary, but I think this new one is just the opposite. It's really about marriage and love. Something that was really fun about it for me was that there are two concurrent stories taking place, one in the present and one in the past.

Katrina: Sounds wonderful. I can't wait!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

North Carolina's Amendment One

Ever since Amendment One passed in my adopted state of North Carolina I’ve been trying to understand and integrate the complexity of feeling around the issue, both in myself and my community. For it is a complex issue. Though the amendment seemed to be quickly boiled down by both sides to a simplistic gay rights issue, the amendment also snuck in a host of other human rights questions: the ability of two elderly people to live together in dignity with their civil rights intact, the rights of children of unmarried couples, the protection for an unmarried partner from domestic violence. These issues aside, the one that took center stage was whether two people of the same sex could live under the same protections and with the same rights that two people of the opposite sex take for granted. And the majority of voters of North Carolina gave a resounding, a disappointing, No.

I love my adopted state. North Carolina is where my writer self feels most at home. North Carolina is where I met my husband, the love of my life. North Carolina was where my youngest son, now 10, was born and is being lovingly educated and embraced by community. North Carolina is full of people who care for their state, work hard every day to provide for their families, give countless hours of volunteer time to their communities. That said, I was initially deeply saddened by the outcome of the passing of this amendment. Saddened because I’d hoped the majority of the people in this state, my adopted home, had moved beyond a fear and misunderstanding of homosexuality, had moved beyond hating one group of people based on a perceived difference, had moved beyond singling a group of people out and declaring them unworthy of God’s love and protection, and finally, perhaps most disturbing, declaring them unworthy of the law’s protection and consideration.

It’s clear this is a divisive issue. People seem to feel so passionately one way or the other that manners have been forgotten or discarded and accusations and vitriol have bubbled over into an otherwise sane discourse. But I wonder, in all of this back and forth, if people have taken the time to put faces to the issue. Surely, in this day and age, the people who pushed to pass this amendment and who voted it in must know someone who’s gay. A friend, a relative, a child. If not, surely they know someone who will be adversely affected by such restrictive rewriting of our Constitution. I wonder if they took the time to think, How will such an amendment affect my neighbor, my daughter, my mother-in-law, my son’s friend? I wonder if they asked themselves, How will my words of hatred and prejudice affect my community?

My oldest son, now a young adult, is gay. He’s brilliant, hard-working, caring. He’s a beautiful young man with a beautiful soul. I’m immensely proud of him. He no longer lives in North Carolina and I can’t help but feel protectively relieved he wasn’t here to read all the hateful articles in our local paper. And yet, I’m not giving him enough credit. He has had to deal with prejudice and judgment every day of his life and doing so has made him an incredibly strong and admirable human being.

I voted against Amendment One. I voted against it because there is no place for government in the bedroom. I voted against it because it’s wrong to limit or deny civil rights to our fellow citizens. I voted against it because it comes down on the wrong side of human rights. And I voted against it because one day, I don’t want my son to go through the frustration and pain of being denied access to his partner’s hospital room because their partnership is not recognized by the law.

I believe in God. I do not, however, believe in the ability of religious dogma to accurately and fairly interpret God’s intentions and I find all attempts to do so not only highly suspect, but arrogant.

Change in the issue of gay rights has been a long time coming. And it is happening. As people open their hearts and their minds, acceptance is spreading. I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the last thirty years.

Two days ago, I felt disappointed and disheartened. Those feelings have eased and left me with a feeling of hope. Because I suspect most of my adopted people who voted it in did so because they believed they were doing the right thing. Because most of my adopted people did not resort to hatred. Because I know the intrinsic good of humanity has prevailed in the past and will prevail in the future and it is these kinds of situations, the ones that boldly push important issues right up to our faces, that inspire us to deal with them, to consider them thoughtfully, sometimes even reconsider them, with heart, until eventually love and acceptance win out.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Read: "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Once in awhile I discover a book that, after reading, inspires me, on a deep level, to be fearless in my own writing. I’m not only referring to the writer’s courage to render the ugly and unfortunate aspects of human nature and the world, but also, and maybe even more so, the fearlessness to offer the beautiful, the honorable, the heart-on-a-sleeve kind of writing that feels wholly authentic and much like a message from a dear friend insisting, “These are the things I love about life, and I love you enough, dear reader, to share them with you.”

This is what the dozen stories within this accomplished collection seem to be: love stories. Stories of unabashed, deep, awakened, intelligent, love. Love for animals, love for the Earth, love for children and parents and partners, and ultimately, love for life itself, however messy it gets. The writer of these stories has an enormous capacity for deep feeling and she isn’t afraid to use it.

The characters are not without fault, however, and love doesn’t show up for them without cost or in the expected ways. They have burdens, they’ve made mistakes, but even so, they face the next day with eyes and hearts wide open.

In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother travels to Myrtle Beach with her young, precocious son, to a roadside zoo. She’s on a mission to hear her deceased mother’s voice one last time, a voice that is held indefinitely, she hopes, in the throat of a surly African Gray, her mother’s beloved pet. In “Saving Face,” a young veterinarian struggles both to forgive herself for the accident that left her disfigured and to allow her fianc√© to love her, imperfect as she is. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the narrator must decide whether to take a morning-after pill which would appease her own adopted world view and that of her radical boyfriend, a self proclaimed human exterminist, or listen to her instinct and her heart, both conditioned by generations of mother-love.

Beyond theme and emotional depth, beyond clear, beautiful language, strength of voice is most noticeable. Most of these stories are told using the first person point of view, and though there is intelligence and an uncanny awareness in each female voice, each is distinct, each is memorable. Many of the women wrestle with forgiving past mistakes, reflect on what motherhood means, view caring for animals and people a priority, and feel a deep responsibility for the well-being of the planet.

“Birds of a Lesser Paradise” is a book I’d love to press into the hands of friends and strangers alike, saying, “Please read, and be transformed.”

* Review first appeared in the March 4th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Monday, February 27, 2012

Read: "The Dreaming Girl" by Roberta Allen.

"The Dreaming Girl" is a slim, poetic novel that lured me into its dream and didn't let me go. Set in Belize, its unnamed characters, the girl and the German, are drawn together against the lush backdrop of paradise and all of its unique inhabitants. The girl dreams her way through life until she meets the German, and her attraction, and consequent love for him, forces her out of the safety of her dreams. The German, with a girlfriend at home, finds himself surprised by his desire for the girl and initially resistant.
The prose in "The Dreaming Girl" is spare, yet Roberta Allen knows how to set a mood with the blank spaces, and there are plenty of sharp insights to be unearthed. It's an honest, beautifully rendered metaphor for the birth and death of love. A spectacularly gorgeous read.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Pedestal Magazine

I'm honored to have a story in the latest issue of The Pedestal Magazine, guest-edited by the amazing Terri Brown Davidson. Randall Brown also has two beautiful short fiction pieces in the issue.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Read: "Echolocation" by Myfanwy Collins

Be prepared. Haunting, mesmerizing, "Echolocation" is a page-turner you will not be able to put down until you've reached the end. It's the story of four women connected by family and the bleak, harsh, land of northern New York. Some have escaped, but they're all brought together again by tragedy and secrets they thought they'd left behind. There's Auntie Marie, dying of cancer, the two girls she raised, Geneva and Cheri, and Renee, Cheri's mother, who ran away to Florida not long after Cheri was born. Cheri returns to help Geneva with their aunt, and Renee shows up unexpectedly with a secret that will change them all.

The characters in "Echolocation," men and women alike, are flawed in the best, most fascinating, ways, and though they make mistakes, they are not beyond redemption, not beyond our empathy. Collins clearly loves her characters, weaknesses and all, and that authorial love elicits a similar compassion from the reader. These four women are fierce. Auntie Marie's devotion to Cheri and Geneva is as strong as her devotion to God; Cheri is determined in her self-destructive desire to deny her feelings; Geneva's strength in carrying on with life after a devastating accident is remarkable, and Renee finally discovers she's capable of caring for another more than herself.

This is a complex story, told with an assured, deft hand. Collins is a master at weaving story lines together in an artful, spare way. Every word is well-chosen. Every nuance is perfectly placed. "Echolocation" is literary fiction at its finest.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January Reading

These are the books I read in January:

"The World We Found" by Thrity Umvigar
Beautifully written story of the strength of women's friendships.

"Running the Rift" by Naomi Benaron
*Review to come

"The Good American" by Alex George
Deftly written story of a family's journey to becoming American. The author, a recent English immigrant, has written a Great American Novel.

"The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey
A hybrid of the retelling of Jane Eyre and a tale drawn from Livesey's own childhood and young adulthood. Atmospheric and highly readable. Even if you haven't read Jane Eyre, you'll enjoy the story, the characters and the language.

"The Artist of Disappearance" by Anita Desai
Three beautiful novellas. I'm a huge fan of Desai's elegant writing and sensibilities.

"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova
Gripping story of a professor slowly losing her life as she knew it to Alzheimer's.

"American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar
This is one to read. It's the story of a young man raised in the Midwest by parents of non-praticing Muslim parents. When his "Aunt" Mina arrives from Pakistan, her devout faith shakes everyone up. Funny, tragic, insightful, refreshingly daring, this is a great read.

"Stay Awake" by Dan Chaon
The stories within this collection are grim and frightening in the best way. One of my favorite short story collections. A real stand out.

"The Odds" by Stewart O'Nan
O'Nan is one of my favorite writers. This story of a couple on their second honeymoon in Niagra Falls trying to save their finances and consequently their marriage is amazingly tight and so well done. Loved everything about it.

"The Invisible Ones" by Stef Penney
I enjoyed this mystery involving a group of elusive gypsies.

"Other People We Married" by Emma Straub
Loved these stories! Superb wrting, fresh imagery, and intriguing characters.

* These are not reviews but rather quick notes I made about each after I finished with it.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Read: The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

The Torres-Thompsons live in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Scott Torres’ software executive job has enabled him to provide his wife with a view of the Pacific and his boys with the kind of toys that inspire the maid to name their bedroom The Room of a Thousand Wonders. With the help of a gardener, a nanny and a maid, Maureen is able to teach art as a volunteer at their sons’ private school and stay home the rest of the time with her three children. When Scott loses money in the stock market, however, he’s forced to let go of the gardener and the nanny, leaving the cooking, cleaning, and baby-sitting to Araceli, the tall, dour-faced Mexican maid who was “more likely to ignore you when you said hello in the morning or to turn down her eyes in disapproval if you made a suggestion.”

Disagreements over money ensue and when the last argument wreaks havoc on the marriage, the two go their separate ways to lick their wounds: Scott to a coworker’s and Maureen to a spa with only her young daughter in tow. Both parents neglect to inform Araceli of their plans or their whereabouts and soon she feels compelled to take the boys into LA to search for the boys’ paternal grandfather, a decision which will impact her standing not only in the household, but also in the country.

“The Barbarian Nurseries” offers a hilarious look at our solipsistic culture and a poignant reminder of the Mexican immigrants who live among us, often invisible, taken for granted, and ultimately powerless. Tobar uses the omniscient point of view effortlessly, allowing the reader to see Araceli, a surprising, larger than life character, through the eyes of a multitude of people, people who perceive Araceli either as a victim or a criminal depending on their particular biases and agendas.

This novel is a comment on immigration in today’s volatile socioeconomic environment, a comment on our relentless desire as a nation to accumulate and consume more and more, and a comment on the pliable circus our media has become. Tobar’s love for his characters is obvious and none is without culpability of some degree. Intelligent, provocative, this book is loads of fun to read, and though the reader will be confronted with some unflattering truths, he can still come away from the experience entirely hopeful about humanity.

*Review first appeared in the December 18th edition of The Pilot

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Read: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

These days you can go to a sex offender registry and learn where the convicted offenders live in your area and how many there are. What the site can’t tell you, or at least, doesn’t at the moment, is the exact crime each of these registered offenders was convicted of. Without this information, you’re likely to lump all of them into the scary child molester/abductor category and not give them another thought. At least that’s what I did, until I read Russell Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin.”

When I first heard Banks had written a novel featuring a convicted sex offender as his main character, I was skeptical. I’ve read his work before, I know how absolutely brilliant Banks is, but man, asking a reader to sit with one of the most deplorable kinds of characters for over 400 pages was asking a lot. As a reader, I wasn’t sure I could do it and as a mother, I wasn’t sure I could stomach it. Then one day, I picked up “Lost Memory of Skin” and read the first sentence, then the first paragraph and the first page, and the second, and so on, until I realized I was hooked. Because, in the end, the fact that Russell Banks writes about the down and out in our society with intelligent, highly readable prose kept me reading.

I learned there are various shades of gray in the matters of sex offenses and there are many levels of offense. For instance, a child molester and an eighteen year old who has sex with a minor (even a year younger counts here) both get labeled as sex offenders. There is no public differentiation. And with technology in the picture, there are more and more ways young people can make mistakes that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Such is the case with Banks’ protagonist, the Kid. In the course of the novel, we learn why the Kid is an outcast and living under the bridge with the rest of the area sex offenders. And it is through Banks’ skillful characterization, his ability to go places most of us would turn away from, that we can come to have empathy for him. Not only is there a human story here, but there’s also a mystery: a professor of sociology has decided to interview the Kid and he has a hidden past of his own, a past that soon catches up with him. Banks has us questioning the Professor’s motives right to the end.

Compelling and beautifully written, this book is an important and timely read.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

There’s nothing pretty about poverty or the cruelty of dog fighting, however Jesmyn Ward writes about both in her latest novel, “Salvage the Bones,” with spectacular beauty.

Esch, the narrator, is fifteen and living in a small Mississippi town along the Gulf with her alcoholic father and her three brothers, one of whom loves his pit bull beyond all reason. Esch, enthralled by the myth of Medea and Jason, begins to see the story mirrored in her own life, in her dealings with Manny, the young man she imagines she loves, and in her brother’s dog, China, whose instinct to kill seems to be fiercer than her instinct to nurture. Motherless, Esch is left the only girl in a house full of males, and when she figures out she’s pregnant, she tells no one.

Ward structures the book using time. The story begins twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and each chapter is a separate day. We’re all familiar with Katrina’s devastation so tension is already built in, but Ward doesn’t stop with a little bit of trouble. She gives us characters so poor they’ll eat Ramen Noodles uncooked and chase them down with a packet of dry spice. She gives us a father stuck in his grief; a pregnant narrator who’s too young to be savvy in affairs of the heart, and a mother pit bull raised to fight, all on top of the category five hurricane bearing down on a family unequipped to properly prepare.

The story gripped me from the start and there were a few moments in which I found myself holding my breath, but what elevated this story from compelling to an absolute must-read was the quality of language:

“Daddy said that Randall and Skeetah and me came fast, that Mama had all of us in her bed, under her own bare burning bulb, so that when it was time for Junior, she thought she could do the same. It didn’t work that way. Mama squatted, screamed toward the end. Junior came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower. She touched Junior just like that when Daddy held him over her: lightly with her fingertips, like she was afraid she’d knock the pollen from him, spoil the bloom. She said she didn’t want to go to the hospital. Daddy dragged her from the bed to his truck, trailing her blood, and we never saw her again.”

Despite all the tragedy, this is a hopeful book, a testimony to the power of love and community. Currently, “Salvage the Bones,” is a finalist for The National Book Award, and this is one reader who’s rooting for it.

*Review first appeared in the October 30 edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines
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