Beth Mayer and Her Award-Winning Collection

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Beth Mayer’s stories have been published in The Threepenny Review, The Sun Magazine, and The Midway Review. Her debut story collection won the 2019 Hudson Award from Black Lawrence Press. I was delighted to ask her some questions about her beautiful collection. 

VP: We Will Tell You Otherwise focuses on the act of telling. Each of the individual story titles includes the verb to tell. How did you come to realize that was a central theme of these tales? And how did you choose the title of the collection?

BM: When I write, my characters boss me around and engage with my obsessions, curiosities, longings, and fears. It’s a lovely and surprising and personally challenging process. As I launched and drafted and revised each of these stories, I did not write toward a unifying theme. Only later did I recognize the urgency of each character’s telling, their longing to be heard. One line from what I now consider the title story kept humming—“I Will Tell You Otherwise”—then announced itself as the heart of the collection. When that shined out so clearly, the whole book made sense. This allowed me to re-engage with every story, like a discovery.

VP: And who is the “we” of the title? 

(Mark Riddle Photography Studio)

(Mark Riddle Photography Studio)

BM: In my mind, the "we" in the title certainly includes the individual speakers from each story, along with the whole of their collective voice. However, as the author, I count myself among the “we” who needs to tell my stories and be truly heard. But I also hope to leave this notion of “we” open for readers. Maybe some will identify with the teller in one story. Others may feel like part of the collective. Perhaps for some the title is a larger clarion call. 

VP: The stories are wonderfully varied and unique, but all take place in the Midwest. You poke gentle fun at the Midwestern habits, behaviors, and mores of your characters. What does it mean to you that they all come from that region?

BM: In many ways, I am a proud Midwestern. Growing up, I didn’t enjoy an expansive world-view or experience other regions of the country. My examination of Midwestern values, limits, generosity, brilliance, fears are as much internal as they are a critique. In my life and in my writing it is not my business to point at anyone and say “you should be better,” but rather to challenge the deepest regions of my experience and imagination. This comes from a stance of love. So, the people who inhabit the place I come—me among them—are worthy and beautiful and flawed, just like humans on the rest of the planet.

VP: Many of these stories mine the fertile territory of families. You convey complex relationships between parents and children, and between siblings of all ages. I sensed in each story that the characters come from a people.Can you say more about what your characters gain from the interconnectedness within families and also how families entangle them? 

BM: Our deepest human longing, I think, is to be known. But there is a cost to this arrangement, isn’t there? That interests me. What are those costs and why do individuals choose to engage—or not—with others? On what terms? I have empathy for how our experience, character defects, and fears can block us from authentic intimacy.

VP: How did you come to write short stories? I’m always curious about the path to publication of a debut book. How has your writing journey unfolded? 

BM: Some of the stories in this debut short story collection were born when I was pursuing my MFA. Early drafts of these appear in my MFA thesis. I want to be transparent about my process and pace here, because I know how it feels to wonder how long something might take, to worry if a book will ever be done and find a home. After graduate school, as a working mother with school aged children, I found that while I was able to keep reading—which I did, widely—I was only able to devote specific seasons of time to my writing. During these deliberate seasons, I engaged with a writing group, the Loft, and writing friends as I revised, tossed, wrote new stories, and worked on my evolving manuscript. Looking back, I am so glad that my book was not picked up sooner. I love this collection now. I believe in it. When I say “ten years,” this is what I mean.

VP: So many writers feel pressure to write novels when they’d rather stick with stories, but the publishing industry prefers longer works of fiction. Are you working on a novel or are you happy to continue with story writing? 

 BM: Yes, and isn’t that unfortunate? As I writer, I got this message a few times as well. But here we are, and my book is in the world. That was the work I needed to do, which wasn’t about what might sell in a certain market. So be it. My love for short stories is undeterred. And? I am working on a novel now because that is the shape of the story I want to write. 

 VP: Whose short stories do you admire and like to read? Whose stories do you think most resonates with your own? 

 BM: Alice Munro is a master who inspires me. I also happen to admire her as a woman, living her full, rich life, and without apology. I love Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Karen Russell, and Carmen Maria Machado.

 VP: Anything else you’d like to share about your collection or your life as a writer?

 BM: I am grateful to Black Lawrence Press, my friends, my teaching colleagues, my family. And you! Thank you for your kind words and astute questions. This interview was a pleasure. 

Black Lawrence Press (author/purchase page: https://www.blacklawrence.com/we-will-tell-you-otherwise/

Website: https://bethmayer.com/

Twitter https://twitter.com/bethjmayer

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/bethmayerauthor/ 

 

 

Happiness Through Fiction: A Shout Out to the Imagination

Happiness is in. Advice on how to achieve it fills volumes on bookstore shelves. Some of these books rely on scientific research. Others refer to the wisdom of the ages and sacred texts. They urge us to pursue ambitious life goals. Or jump off the hamster wheel and ditch our career goals entirely and relish simple pleasures instead: eating well, breathing deeply, meditation and exercise. Hunker down at home with those we love, or embark on daring adventures to distant shores. Face our fears. Do our bucket lists. Ditch all lists. Give up. Give in. Give back. Don’t give a fuck. Or fuck a lot. All in the pursuit of happiness.  

The titles alone promise verifiably achievable outcomes: The Happiness Curve.The Happiness ProjectThe Happiness Hypothesis10% Happier. While others offer a looser, more free-form approach: Stumbling on HappinessThe Art of Happiness.Authentic Happiness. Each promises something hopeful, lasting and, most of all, real. 

And yet, in my way of thinking, happiness can best be found outside the realm of reality. Let me explain. Over the course of more decades than I’d like to admit, I have reliably found happiness through reading and writing fiction. I’m convinced that happiness is unconsciously absorbed into the bloodstream through words—words that transport us into the imagined hearts and minds of others. Fiction offers a window into the human soul and psyche. If done well, the inner lives of characters remind us of what it means to be human. 

What we read doesn’t necessarily need to be happy. The literature I was raised on reveled in quite the opposite.Madame Bovaryis a tragedy. Anna Karenina, a disastrous tale. In Chekov, you can search a long time for a happy ending because the characters are so flawed. They are vain and puffed up with self-importance, blind to their own follies, crippled by unrequited love, and often just plain silly. In other words, they are human. 

Reading about such weak and lovelorn characters has helped me all my life to stay alert to my own flaws. The more current characters in A Little Lifeswim in their own unhappiness, while in The Sympathizerthe protagonist remains stoical in the face of his life’s conundrums. Great literature of every era explores human imperfection and sorrow, helping us to recognize that our own lives are more balanced by comparison. 

Any reader would understand the recent scientific study that proved that empathy is increased by reading fiction. That seems like a no-brainer to the bookish set. It went without saying that reading made our lives richer; our ability to love deeper; our understanding of the human condition more profound. It feels silly articulating what my parent’s generation and all the generations before took for granted. But in today’s climate, while so many other voices are screaming for attention, it’s worth remembering that reading a good work of fiction is not only not a waste of time, but a deeply human activity. One that, through the decades, has helped us to know who we are. 

As a writer, penning fiction has also helped me to know myself and, therefore, as the philosophers opined, to know happiness. The stories in my collection, Shelf Life of Happiness, are about characters of widely different ages and genders, told in voices quite unlike my own. They aren’t autobiographical, but like many fiction writers, I transform what I have experienced into imagined truth. This process of unconsciously inventing from life has helped me “process” painful moments. When something is bothering me, I make up stories to tame it and ultimately let it go.

At a rocky moment in my marriage, I traveled to Rome with my husband and two children and walked on the literally rocky terrain of the Forum, teetering on the edge of marital discord and even rupture. Not long after our return, I sat at my desk and in my story, Crying in Italian, I created an unhinged wife and mother who wanders off from her family and is seduced by the sight of young lovers in the Roman ruins. She longs to be free of the constraints of her life—jettisoning her husband and children for what she imagines is a more passionate existence. She literally stumbles and, without giving away the ending, finds herself on the precipice. The writing of that story helped me with my footing in my marriage and my life back home. It didn’t solve my problems, but by imagining a woman who risks all, I didn’t have to. And dear reader, I’m happily married to this day. 

Writing my long story HerMother’s Garden, which was also inspired by real events, helped me through the loss of my parents. Some years ago, they sold the house where I had grown up and it was subsequently torn down. But worse, the stunning garden my mother had cultivated for over forty years was bulldozed. Rhododendrons heavy with magenta blooms, pink climbing roses crowning an arbor, royal blue iris standing at attention beside a shaded pool where golden carp circled at dusk were all relegated to memory. Then came the illnesses, the falls, the strokes, and finally, death, first my father and then my mother. Like other members of my family, I tried my best to process this period of sorrow. But only by writing a story about a daughter’s attachment to her mother’s garden, and the sad experience of watching her parents age and her childhood recede, was I able to move forward.  

Writing this story hollowed me out and left me feeling spent, but the surprising end helped me to stand again on my own two feet. After many drafts, I came to realize that the daughter needed something specific to happen to make her understand she must leave the haunted landscape of her childhood. Nudged off the garden path, she finally steps outside the cloistered loveliness of her mother’s garden—as did I.

After finishing that story, I felt quite different, not only about my past, but my future. I hope readers will feel similarly when they read it. A good work of fiction should leave us better prepared for what we face off the page—not in a prescriptive way, but by enlarging our human understanding. The tales we read, and those we write, should be rich with a dark, nourishing soil—to continue the garden metaphor—that allows us to thrive and grow upward into sunlight. 

According to Professor Laurie Santos in her PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life—the most popular class in the history of Yale University—genetics shape roughly 50 percent of our chances for happiness, while ten percent is dictated by circumstances beyond our control. But the final 40 percent is determined by our thoughts and attitudes. Novels and stories that infuse themselves into our consciousness and reshape how we see the world can tip that crucial 40 percent towards happiness. 

Though, in the end, perhaps simple happiness is one of the least rewards of reading and writing fiction. A deeper, more profound understanding of life through literature can outweigh all of this year’s self-help bestsellers promising easy rewards. For as we go in search of greater meaning in life, we can do no better than to open a good book of fiction and let ourselves remember who we are at our most complex and real. 

A Third Book About to be Born

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Parents of large families understand that while each birth is unique, they do get easier with practice. I suppose the same could be said for book births as well. My third book of fiction, Shelf Life of Happiness, is due out next month and though the thrill is the same, the panic isn’t.

Still, by working again with an indie publisher, a lot falls to me to create an audience. Here’s some of what I’ve been doing to get ready for publication.

Several new essays about the collection will appear on line around publication date. Look for them in The Literary Traveler, Beatrice.com, and other publications forthcoming.   

Interviews with me will appear at Bill Wolfe’s Read Her Like an Open Book, Leslie Pietrzyk’s Work-in-Progress blog, the Fiction Writer's Review, Deborah Kalb’s Book Q and A's, and more. 

I’ve added my collection to Goodreads and Amazon, and my publisher has added it to other book venues as well. 

My publicist has set up events at bookstores around Boston and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived for many years. I’m always interested in visiting book clubs and other literary settings, so please be in touch. (See the Events page on my website for details.)

10/11: Richmond Launch at Page Bond Gallery, 5-8

10/23: Cambridge Launch at Porter Square Books, 7-8:30 (with Lindsay Hatton)

10/25: Newtonville Books, 7-8

11/13: Belmont Books, 7-8:30 (with Laura van den Berg)

1/10/19: Arlington Author Salon, 7-9 

If you can’t make it to one of these events, please consider ordering a copy from Press 53 by September 15 and I’ll be happy to sign it for you. Just click here: Shelf Life of Happiness.

Beth Castrodale on her New Novel, In This Ground

Congratulations, Beth, on the publication of your new novel! Before we chat about In This Ground, I’m curious to know how long you’ve been writing and if you have any other novels tucked away in drawers, like so many novelists, myself included? 

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BC: I started writing fiction in grade school. Back then, I created a lot of staple-bound, illustrated books featuring kids or families who wandered into haunted houses or other creepy places. After that, until I reached college, I didn’t do much writing beyond what was required for school. 

In my early twenties, I began composing short stories and sharing some of them in fiction workshops. But I didn’t take a crack at a novel until a few years after I graduated from college, and the product of those efforts is moldering in my basement. 

After years of working on this novel, I decided to put it aside, because I could never get its various storylines to hold together, even after drawing on insights from several thoughtful critique partners. That was a tough moment, because I worried that all those years of effort amounted to a big waste of time. But looking back, I realize that I really had to go through those multiple cycles of writing, rewriting, and rethinking that first book to come to some understandings about what a novel is, and isn’t. That experience taught me more about writing—and perseverance—than I can say.

Right now, I don’t have any other books in a drawer/basement. But I do have a novel that I’m actively working on, and I’m hoping to shop it around in a year or so. [Check out a brief description of Broken Sisters on Beth's website.]

Beth Castrodale

Beth Castrodale

VPIn This Groundis set in a graveyard and tells the story of a former indie-rocker who takes a job as a gravedigger in the cemetery where a former fellow band member is buried. What led you to choose such an unusual setting for a novel and profession for a protagonist?

BC: Cemeteries have fascinated me since I was a kid. Back then, a friend and I would wander the graveyard near our homes, reading the names on the stones out loud, and making up stories about the lives we imagined these people to have led.

The idea of cemeteries containing countless stories lingered at the back of my mind for a long time, surfacing a few years ago as an idea for a story collection or novel, one that would bring together the tales of people who are buried in a particular cemetery or who have some other business there. 

In my early days of working on the manuscript that became In This Ground, I had the idea of a gravedigger, Ben, being the central character. To me, Ben felt like the perfect connection between the living and dead within the world of the cemetery where he works. He tries to do his best by those buried there, by their friends and loved ones, and by members of the larger community.

At the same time, Ben is dealing with struggles of his own, the most daunting of which is his guilt over the death of the former bandmate who’s buried where he works.

VP: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Any haunting graveyard experiences you’d like to share? 

BC: I ended up researching several topics for the novel—among them, the day-to-day responsibilities of gravediggers and other cemetery workers; green burials, which the central character, Ben, hopes to offer; and the challenges of keeping a non-profit cemetery financially and infrastructurally viable.

The most fun I had during the research process was shadowing a gravedigger, Bobby Burke, for a day. Although I personally haven’t had any haunting or strange cemetery experiences, Bobby definitely has. Especially at night, his cemetery has been the site of everything from drug deals to voodoo rituals. The paraphernalia of these rituals—headless chickens, rum bottles, burned-out candles, etc.—are left for grounds workers to clean up in the morning.

I also had a lot of fun researching the controversy surrounding the exhumation of a renowned nineteenth-century vagrant, a.k.a. Leatherman, in Ossining, New York. This dispute ended up inspiring a plot strand in the novel.

To give you some background, in 2010, the Ossining Historical Society, which maintains the cemetery where Leatherman was buried, announced plans to move his grave, which was believed to be dangerously close to a busy highway. The Historical Society also wanted to have Leatherman’s remains scientifically investigated to determine, among other things, his national origins. 

But the plans to exhume Leatherman and examine his remains ran into huge opposition from those who believed that these actions would constitute serious violations of his privacy and dignity. The opponents’ arguments really fascinated me, and I loved how they got at the notion that entitlement to privacy—and to respect for one’s personal space—doesn’t necessary expire upon death.

I put Ben at the center of a similar controversy, because it really tests his beliefs about what it means to be doing his best by both the living and the dead: what he sees as his most important mission at the cemetery.

VP: Your previous novel, Marion Hatleyis an historical novel set in small town Pennsylvania in 1931. Did that story require a lot of research as well? How different was it for you to write about a time period outside your experience and a story set in the present?

BC: Yes, that novel also required a good deal of research. Because the title character, a seamstress, creates an innovative corset over the course of the novel, I had to investigate the status of foundation garments—and what might be considered innovations in them—at the time of the novel.

Also, because another central character experiences flashbacks to his experiences in World War I, I spent a lot of time reading about the experiences of veterans of that war.

For me, one of the challenges of writing a novel set in 1931 was making sure that characters’ language and mannerisms were appropriate for the time. That meant staying on the lookout for anachronisms of every kind.  But the greatest challenge I faced writing Marion Hatleyalso applied to In This Ground: trying to tell a compelling story while doing justice to characters’ interior lives and struggles.

VP: What types of novels do you tend to like to read? Does it matter if they are historical or contemporary? I’m just curious what feeds your own writing. 

BC: This ties right into my previous point in that I’m most taken with novels and story collections that, while telling a great story, take a deep dive into characters’ interior lives. (To my mind, the master of this kind of deep dive is Alice Munro.) It doesn’t matter to me whether a work is historical or contemporary.

VP: Tell us how you started Small Press Picks, your much-respected blog that reviews books from independent presses. How does it enlighten you as a writer, not to mention as a reader?

BC: Small Press Picks grew out of a few different concerns I had back in 2013, when I founded the site—and those concerns remain today. Mainly, it’s gotten harder and harder for most fiction writers to get reviews, but it’s especially challenging for those whose works are published by indie presses (as I can attest myself). At the same time, indie presses are putting out loads of compelling, thought-provoking literature, and they’re willing to take chances on new voices and on stories and subjects that diverge from the mainstream. 

Through Small Press Picks, I’m trying to play a very small part in supporting those efforts and to draw some much-deserved attention to indie presses and their authors.

Everything I read for Small Press Picks enlightens me in some way as a writer. For example, although my narrative style tends to be more conventional than experimental, I think some of the more experimental books I’ve read for SPP have pushed me toward testing new approaches to time sequence, point of view, and other aspects of the craft. 

VP: What else would you like us to know about In This Ground? I’m excited to read it and I want others to be psyched, too! 

BC: I can’t think of any other big points to make. But if anyone would like more details about In This Ground,my writing challenges and adventures, or my other books, they can visit my website: https://www.bethcastrodale.com/.

Finally, thanks so much for your kind words about In This Ground, Virginia. And thanks for taking the time to interview me! 

About Beth:

Beth Castrodale has worked as a newspaper reporter and book editor. Her novel Marion Hatley (Garland Press, 2017) was a finalist for a Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from Southeast Missouri State University Press, and an excerpt from her latest novel, In This Ground, was a shortlist finalist for a William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Award. (In This Ground will be published by Garland Press in September 2018.) Beth recommends literary fiction on her website SmallPressPicks.com, and she has published stories in such journals as Printer’s Devil Review, The Writing Disorder, and Mulberry Fork Review.

Order In This Ground at: http://garlandpress.com/store/#!/In-This-Ground/p/105597774/category=0

Good Karma: What Goes Around Comes Around for Writers

I’m super happy to share the good news that my former mentee, Margaret Grant, has just published her first story in The Kenyon Review! I’d call that an auspicious start to a writing career, but as is so often the case, what appears to be a debut is just a highlight in a hardworking writer’s life. Margaret has been writing for years, tucking away novels into drawers, as I’ve done myself. She was a fine writer when we met, which made my task of encouraging her pretty simple. 

When I signed up as a mentor in the AWP Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program, I was sent an number of short stories by mentee applicants. I chose to work with Margaret because I admired the clarity and precision of those first pages of Arrieta 410—the story, I’m gratified to say, that’s  now published. Her language showed great restraint, suggesting she already edited her work well. We started talking on the phone once a week, and over the course of a semester I read and commented on many of her stories. I encouraged her to go with her idea of a linked short story collection, which is now near completion and will be a fine first book. 

But I’m particularly happy that Margaret is now published in The Kenyon Review because just six short years ago I first met and worked with Nancy Zafris as my mentor. Nancy was the former fiction editor, and still advisory board member, of that esteemed journal. Nancy generously helped me with my debut novel, River of Dust. After it was published I went out to The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where I spoke to the students about my writing career up to that point and the helpful relationship with Nancy.  

What goes around comes around, more so in the writing world than just about anywhere. The encouragement I received from Nancy has now been passed along to Margaret, and we’re all the lucky beneficiaries. Please check out Margaret Grant's beautiful story at The Kenyon Review on line and you’ll see what I mean. And pass along good karma, wherever you can! 

Shelf Life of Happiness

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I’m thrilled to share that my next book, Shelf Life of Happiness, will be published this October. The nine stories in this collection were written over a span of ten years and all deal with the way that happiness can get lost in the elusive desire for something more in life.

Though the stories aren’t autobiographical, they do steal situations and conundrums from my own life. I really did travel with my family to the ancient ruins of Rome and I may have seen a couple kissing there, but unlike the character in my story, Crying in Italian, I wasn’t interested in ending my marriage as a result. But in that story, I wanted the reader to feel the tension that comes from travel and the longing to be someone we aren’t—someone with a wilder, more passionate life, when as tourists, lugging our way through foreign lands on tired feet, we’re anything but.

In Redbone, the artist of that name has finally achieved success in his career and yet in his final moments, he sees that he’s sacrificed far too much to ever enjoy it. In my eponymous story, a newly married, young writer is afraid to admit to his own happiness, having spent so many years longing for a woman who he knows would be bad for him.

I, too, have spent far too much time longing for something—especially when I was younger: success or recognition or whatever I imagined might make for a richer life, one more fulfilling than my own. I was sure there was something that could make me happier, even though I also simultaneously knew that I was already happy.

Truth is, I’ve been happily married for thirty plus years and have two grown kids whom I adore, and various other reasons to know that all is well with me. I think that’s true in part because I’ve had fiction to explore the worlds that tug at me and attract me and make me want to turn my life upside down. The longing to disrupt, to go in search of that elusive “something more” has been satisfied through both reading and writing fiction.

Hopefully Shelf Life of Happiness will help readers assess their own happiness and be reminded that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. We might just already have what we want.

Jodi Paloni’s Collection Reveals Small Town Life

Jodi Paloni’s linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, has been called wise and brave. Quietly observant and written in deceptively simple prose, she explores the hidden lives of the citizens of a fictional Vermont small town called Stark Run. This debut book was runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and published by Press 53. As always, I’m interested in the path to publication for a first book. How did this collection take shape and now that Jodi lives and writes in Maine will that wild and beautiful state become the focus of future work?

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VP: Over how many years did you write the stories in your collection?

JP: In a sense, I think the writing of They Could Live With Themselves about a small New England town was in the works long before I sat down to write them. I’ve been “gathering” personal experiences that fed the well of this project for years. That said, I started working on fiction in earnest back in 2010 during my MFA program at Vermont College. I finished the final story about three weeks before publication date in the spring of 2016. “The Physics of Light” was an add-on to the original manuscript. That is not to say that I worked on the book steadily for six years. And many stories originally slated for the book didn’t make it into this collection.

VP: Were you aware that you were writing a collection as you wrote the individual pieces? At what point did you realize it?

JP: Virginia, the thing is, I’m fascinated by the imagined place, Stark Run, which is based on a conglomerate of three towns in real life, places where I’ve lived. After I read and admired Olive Kitteridge, Winseburg, Ohio, and How the Devil Chose New England to Do His Work, and a number of other linked collections about small towns, I wanted to achieve the kind of read that left me both enamored with each individual story, but also left me touched by the greater whole. It came naturally to think about characters in terms of relevance to place. Place was the kernel and the stories grew from there.

VP: Your stories are interconnected, with the same characters appearing in different stories, weaving an intricate web of tales that together create the town of Stark Run, Vermont. Do you feel that some of your characters are more central to the collection than others? And do any of the stories feel more pivotal for the whole book?

Jodi Paloni

Jodi Paloni

JP: That’s a tough question because some characters show up a lot more than others, but others are people who hold the town together, yet hardly appear. Take Maeve Bellamy, the esteemed English teacher. She has her one story, is rarely mentioned elsewhere, but she has taught, or perhaps will teach, almost every character in the book. So in my mind, once we see her, and know her, her presence looms.

I guess if I had to zero in on a central character, I’d say Sky Ryan becomes somewhat of a “rock star” in the collection. He played supportive roles all along. My editor at Press 53, Kevin Morgan Watson, said he wanted Sky to have his own story. So in the final hour, I wrote a story from Sky’s perspective. In retrospect, his story takes on the whole of the collection. His voice becomes the collective voice for the town. I suppose the final story, “The Physics of Light,” is pivotal. Some would say it concludes. Others would say it left them wanting a sequel.

VP: The themes of loss and change are subtly explored in these carefully drawn portraits. I’m curious if there are certain writers you admire for their ability to reveal character in such an understated way?

JP: There are so many writers I admire for a variety of reasons and it’s difficult to pin any one to a particular aspect of my writing. I’ll just say that I love the way in which both Raymond Carver and Alice Munro deal with domestic drama in their stories, though I would never want to insinuate that I’ve achieved their level. Then there are particular stories that slay me: “Araby” by James Joyce, “Immortalizing John Parker” by Robin E. Black, Alistair Macleod’s, “The Boat,” and “Rana Fegrina,” by Dylan Landis. There really are so many great short stories out there.

VP: I’m always curious about how authors of collections chose the order of their stories. Was this a joint decision with your editor? What helped you place them in this order?

JP: The stories begin during spring, the month of May, and go around a calendar year ending the following May. This was purely accidental until I made it part of the plan, making a few adjustments–––nods to weather, a name changed here and there to make linkages linear and logical, etc…I found that becoming strategic in ordering stories was super fun. The collection could have started in September, or perhaps in January. At one point, my early readers all voted on opening with “Molly Sings the Blues,” a story chosen by Pam Houston for Whitefish Review years back. Molly sets the stage for the place, sets a tone, and introduces a few of the players.

VP: I’d love to know what you’re working on next. Will you be venturing into other landscapes or staying close to home with another book set in Vermont?

JP: Well, since writing TCLWT, I moved from Vermont to the coast of Maine. Here, I’m working on a mother/daughter story collection set in Maine, and a novel, also set in Maine. I tend to work on pieces set in the place where I am located. It helps me to immerse in setting and tone.

I can sit in a coffee shop and listen to conversations and find the “place-ness” in the characters, too, if you know what I mean. The trick is I’ve only lived here two years, whereas I had lived in Vermont for twenty-five. I knew small town Vermont, at least some aspects of a particular population.

The good news is I have some “born and bred” Maine readers who have already volunteered to read my Maine drafts and check me out for authenticity, which feels good. They’ve also said that TCLWT could have been set in Maine, so maybe small town rural New England has enough in common to carry me. Best to just “get er done” and figure the rest out later.

Leslie Pietrzyk on How to Build a Writing Life

Leslie Pietrrzyk and I met at the wonderful Virginia Center for the Creative Arts years ago and really hit if off. I enjoyed her first two novels and waited eagerly for the next. But as she describes in this interview, sometimes writing takes longer than we hope—and publishing even more so! But her experience shows there are ways to build a writing life, even when you’re not publishing. Her advice here is spot on and so important. Luckily for us all, she kept writing and her moving short story collection, This Angel on My Chest, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published last year. As she describes, she wrote it pretty much on her own. But Leslie is not an isolated writer. Her work is known and much admired. She’s a bright and generous star in the constellation of writers out there today.

Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk

 VP: Your two wonderful novels—Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day—came out some years ago. I read them and admired them both. And for many years, you published short stories in top notch literary magazines. But if I remember correctly, you had a hard time placing a third novel. But then, something miraculous happened: you won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and your stunning collection, This Angel on my Chest, was published this year. That prize is lucrative, well-publicized, and confirms the winner with a good degree of literary respect. So the sudden success of your short story collection must have given your career a great second wind. Can you talk about the fallow periods and the successes in a writer’s life? Is there something that you’ve learned from your experience that would be helpful to other writers about the ups and downs of what we do?

LP: A second wind, indeed! After publishing A Year and a Day, I wrote two novels that weren’t published. I was placing short stories and essays in literary journals, but I wanted another book. It’s tough to work so hard and not feel rewarded, especially when surrounded by accomplished, amazing writer friends. And on Facebook, all we see are the successes, so it feels as though “everyone else” is publishing a book and “everyone else” is having such an easy time of it—even as we understand this is not logical or even true. It can be really tough when you’re in those trenches…tough to get out, tough to keep going.

I’m not sure what helpful advice I have, ultimately, beyond keep at it. Identify the people who believe in your writing and don’t dismiss their kindnesses. Stay part of the writing community; don’t run away in shame or terror. Start new projects: I worked on my literary blog; I started an online journal for previously published work (Redux); I started a neighborhood prompt writing group. Change up your writing—your style, your content; push some boundaries and go for broke. Read excellent books.

Or not. Do none of those things.

I wish there was a clear path through those tough times. I only know what I did, and I’m not sure if what I did was helpful or was just what I did. “Write” is, I think, the answer to any question I face, so in retrospect, I’m most proud of myself for continuing to write.

VP: The impetus to write the stories in This Angel on My Chest seems particularly personal. All stories are somewhat autobiographical, if not in subject matter, than in feeling or thought. But your stories cut close to the bone of your own experience. Can you describe how you came to write them, or what the process of writing them meant to you?

LP: I didn’t really think I would write overtly about Robb’s death; I had written one story shortly after he died (“Ten Things”), and I had written about the grieving process in my novel A Year and a Day, which is set in Iowa and is about a 15-year-old girl whose mother committed suicide and the year that follows that tragedy. So I pretty much thought I was done…until a breakfast conversation at VCCA (where you and I met!!). I was chatting with a poet who was teaching a class about the literature of subcultures, and I thought it would be an interesting writing assignment to try writing about a subculture. In my studio, I scribbled out some ideas and once I saw “young widow support group,” I knew that would be hard for me to write about, and that I must. That story became “The Circle,” and as I was working at it while on the residency, I started keeping a long list of other memories and incidents from that time in my life that I wanted to write about. At the heart of each story was “one true and hard thing” from my experience, so yes, this is a highly personal book.

VP: Writing seems to have been a part of your recovery from loss. And winning the award for this third book must have felt like a great affirmation of your efforts as a writer, but also as a confirmation that when we write from the heart we’re more apt to deeply connect with readers. Your book certainly does that, and has been successful as a result. Does success change how you think about your work? Was there freedom in writing those stories when you weren’t sure they would be widely read? Have your ambitions changed over this period—can you take a breather now, or do you feel more pressure to capitalize on your recent success?

LP: I mostly wrote this book in secret, which I think was immensely freeing. My long-time writing group was dissolving, so they read only a couple of the stories. I felt that what I was trying to do—link a collection of stories through incident, with each story about a young husband who has died—was kind of an insane project. Who would do this? How could I make such a book work? Because it was such an unconventional approach, I didn’t want to hear voices in my head asking why I was doing this or how it wouldn’t work—or offering their solutions. I guess I sensed that the only way to figure out the puzzle of the book was to write it. That was scary, though, because for much of the time I had no idea what I was doing.

It’s hard for me to speak of “success.” To my mind, the book was a success without the external validation: it was the book I wanted to read after Robb died. Obviously, no book is perfect, but I found my way through the writing and emerged with the book I would have wanted to read after Robb died. But…I loved winning that big prize!

I’m just thinking now that the content of the book is very personal, as I noted, but also because the press takes the book as the judge has selected it, there’s no further editing. So the book is also personal in that it truly is a book written by ME, with very little outside input.

I’m not sure I would ever take a breather as a writer—there’s always another story to explore. And in our secret hearts, don’t we all dream of a shelf of books with our name on the spines? In the beginning, when I was growing up, I couldn’t imagine anything more remarkable than having a book I’d written in a library.

VP: How has being a teacher of writing helped you with your own writing? You have many dedicated students whose work you’ve helped shape. What does it feel like for you when they succeed?

LP: What I love most about teaching is being surrounded by smart people who want to talk about writing. My favorite kind of class is the kind where there are lots of questions, especially the sort of questions that make me think hard and run off to go research the answer for them. I love when I feel challenged by a class that wants to know more and to understand the craft more deeply. (I’m a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and I teach fiction in the MA in writing program at Johns Hopkins University.)

VP: What are you working on now? And any other advice for aspiring writers?

LP: I have a new novel that I need to re-re-revise for my agent; it’s set in 1980s Chicago, about a complicated female friendship between two college girls. And beyond that, there’s another novel dancing in my head, and I hope to get to that one this fall, when I’ll be in Scotland at a writing residency. (I can hardly believe that’s for real!!)

I love to give advice and could offer aspiring writers a million thoughts. But I’ll keep it simple here and quote one of my favorite writers and writing teachers, Richard Bausch: Write until something surprises you. That’s when you know it’s good.

Why Blogging Takes a Backseat or, the Birth of a New Book!

I can offer the best good excuse from any writer: my manuscript ate my blog! I’ve ignored this blog shamelessly because my writing brain has been elsewhere—in another far-off, purely fictional, land. I’m thrilled to share that I have completed a strong draft of my long-time-coming manuscript, Sleepwalking to China. I’ve sent it off to my agent for the second time. Technically, she’s read it three times, the first being almost a decade ago, but that’s another story. Or perhaps it's the same story. Because while some novels come forth in tidy, easily delivered packages, this one has been birthed slowly over several lifetimes.

But before I explain: here's a visual to prove I’ve been working:

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I outlined and and reshaped and outlined some more, using my trusty and colorful 3 x 5 cards. I used them also for River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix, but this time, they were especially needed to keep my story from sprawling.

There are some scenes in this novel that I first wrote when I was fresh out of graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, many, many years ago. Those scenes are what attracted an excellent agent to the book in its earliest incarnation. Since then, it has gone through several other agents and many transformations. I cannibalized it to create my debut novel. My second novel was inspired by it, too. So naturally, now that those books are both out in the world, I had to return to this unsolved story.

It’s a novel inspired by my family, felt by me, and yet wholly invented. It’s fiction that has fermented and changed in scent and taste and feel over time: it’s from a good vineyard in a good year. At least that’s my hope as I raise a glass and send it on its way.

Grateful not Griping in Final Days before Launch

In the final days leading up to the launch of Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I'm busy writing. That seems logical, since I'm a writer. But now is not the time to work on another novel, but instead on short guest blog essays, literally hundreds of email invitations, Facebook and Twitter comments and shares. Writing as basic communication is needed at this time. Fielding invitations to do book events. Encouraging old friends and new to come to those events. Sharing whatever bits of wisdom I can offer about books and writing and life on the blogs of colleagues who I now consider friends. I am pedaling as fast as I can on the publicity bicycle that is this part of the writing life. Pedaling and peddling, so I can then enjoy the long coast down hill that will be the pleasure of sharing my second novel. Because as soon as I finish all this communicating via email and social media, I will share Dreams of the Red Phoenix—in person! I have sixteen book events set up and more in the works. Most of them will take place between October 7-November 5. My launch happens in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived for seventeen years until quite recently. Followed by other launch events at Porter Square Books in Cambridge and at the Concord Bookshop in Concord, MA, where I currently live and grew up. I love how homecoming will be woven into each of these settings. I feel embraced already by old friends who I'd love to see and vice versa, whether I have a new book or not. In other words, this is going to be really fun!

But then I hit the towns where I know fewer people, but still hope to see some familiar faces: Providence, Rhode Island, New York and Brooklyn, Washington, DC, Asheville, North Carolina, Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina. I feel incredibly grateful to the bookstores and other venues that have invited me. They take a risk on a lesser known writer and I don't want to let them down. I have my talk ready. My readings picked out. My slideshow in the works. I hope to welcome and entertain and connect with any readers willing to listen.

I hear some writers gripe about this public part of being an author. To me, it's all gravy. I look forward to the events, even if only a two or three people show up. Those are two or three people who have given me an their time on a weeknight when they could be home watching TV. And if they buy the book, I'm even more grateful for their generosity.

In the last twelve days before the pub date for Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I'm delighted with my publisher and thankful for their publicist who has helped every step of the way. It's almost time to fly. Or take the train. Time to meet and greet. Time to share. Not just the book, but myself, in a way that is real and honest and enjoyable.

Capturing Memory and Change in Writing

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Change. Change. Change. It’s a kick in the pants. It’s good for you. It makes you grow. It’s hard, but worth it. Since deciding to move, I’ve heard or thought of every cliché about change imaginable, and each one rings true.

After seventeen years in Richmond in the same wonderful house, my husband and I recently moved to Cambridge. We raised our kids in RVA, but we live now as empty nesters. We evolved into our adult selves in RVA, and we are now those people we became. I wrote five novels in my Richmond study overlooking the backyard and little fishpond. Now I’m at a desk in a modern home on a narrow side street in Cambridge with a view of treetops and an old farmhouse across the way.

As best as I can tell, the move is good, though hard in ways that pull me up short.

Before moving, I asked our Richmond house painter to remove and preserve the doorjamb where our kids’ heights had been written. In our new home, I stand at a loss in the living room with the strip of wood in my hand. It's pictured here in the back of my car on moving day—too precious an item to trust to the movers. And then again here in my new home, without a wall yet to hang it on.

Because the question is: what do I do with it now? What do we do with our most cherished memories?

That’s where books come in—novels and stories that try to capture the fleeting nature of life. The inevitable losses that are not always sad, and the rising hopefulness that change can create as well.

A close friend sends me sad, yet excited, texts as she drops off her daughter at college. Another friend posts a sad, yet excited, photo of her son as he heads off to his first day of kindergarten.

How do we make sense of the simultaneous optimism and sorrow that accompany each new stage of life? Writers fill the blank page, composers go to their instruments, and artists of a certain ilk pick up their brushes—each of us attempting to wrestle with change.

If I’m lucky, that scribbled-on stick of wood bearing evidence of the past has in it a poem not yet written.

Author and Blogger David Abrams Does it All

After the great success of his debut novel, Fobbit, I wanted to check in with David Abrams to see what he's working on next. I've come to rely on his daily book blog, The Quivering Pen, and when he stopped posting earlier this year so he could focus on his own writing, I grew curious. David is such a vital and generous presence in the literary community, I was intrigued to learn how he manages to do it all--pen books and oversee an important and much-read blog. Here is his answer to the time management conundrum that all writers face: David Abrams--color--by Lisa Wareham PhotographyI'm a people pleaser.

Before you go saying, "Hey, that's great!" let me stop you by saying, People Pleasing has ruined my soul. Oh sure, it's all well and good on the surface: putting others first, altruism, the wisdom of New Testament Bible verses, etc., etc. But all that Others First philosophy means I put my own needs in second, third, or last place. I spend so much time thinking-slash-worrying about what others think and feel and need that it leaves precious little "Me Time." (To my dear wife who might be reading this: please note that I will ALWAYS put you first--just wanted to clear the air on that.) Whenever I am reading another author's manuscript for a blurb, championing a new writer's novel on Twitter, or spending hours writing a Quivering Pen blog post about literary trends, it means I'm not working on my own writing. Don't get me wrong: I blurb/Tweet/blog because I want to and because I feel passionate about what I'm reading. But the truth is, no original words of mine are being written during this time.

So, when you ask how I prioritize my work, my response will probably be: "as an afterthought." Occasionally, I'll go through bouts of creativity where I'll shake off this malignant thinking and get down to work on the manuscript waiting, dusty, in the bowels of my hard drive. The truth is, those one-off periods of inspiration need to be the rule not the exception. I'm trying to get better. I really am.

I thought I was halfway to the cure at the beginning of this year when I nailed up the shutters on my blog, The Quivering Pen, saying that I needed to Blog Less, Write More. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

That golden period lasted for about four months. I tinkered around on the novel--long overdue to my editor--which I've been trying to write for two years, and I started three short stories, which remain in tattered fragments on my computer. I did a lot of staring out of my office window and distracted myself by reading books by Michael Chabon, John Kennedy Toole, and Emily St. John Mandel which I'd been putting off for far too long. I drank multiple cups of coffee, I stared out the window, I tinkered.

Then I snuck back to the blog like an adulterous husband drunk-dialing his mistress in the middle of the night.

My problem is that in addition to being a People Pleaser, I'm also a card-carrying member of the Procrastinator's Club and am professor emeritus at the College of Spread-Too-Thin. I take on too much and end up doing none of it to perfection.

I suspect I'm not alone at these clubs (I see several of you nodding your head in sympathetic recognition). It's comforting to be in a society of many, I suppose--but warning lights are flashing red right now: comfort leads to complacency, complacency is the first rest stop on the highway to hell.

I'm sorry, but I must leave you now. I must get to work--the selfish, ego-driven work of writing my own damn words. How to get there? I don't know, really. The creative life comes with no owners manual, no instructions to insert Tab A into Slot B. Giving up the blog, saying "no" to blurb requests, taking a Twitter vacation--those aren't the remedies (I've already tried all of those things). Sleeping less and rising earlier in the morning? Maybe, but I'm already throwing off the covers at 4:30; don't know if I can crack open my eyelids any earlier than that. Making the novel-in-progress the first thing I turn to in the morning? That's a start. Better time management? Of course.

If I'm honest with myself, if I look the mirror man in the eye, I'd have to say that the best first step is moving past the fear: the fear of failure, the fear of letting others down, the fear of wasting time at the keyboard. Instead, what I really need to be afraid of is failing to please myself. That's it. From now on, I'll try to be a Me-Firster.

Just as soon as I finish this blog post...

 

David Abrams is the author of Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic, 2012), a comedy about the Iraq War that Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic” and named a Top 10 Pick for Literary Fiction in Fall 2012. It was also a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, an Indie Next pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a Montana Honor Book, and a finalist for the L.A. Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Abrams’ short stories have appeared in Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press, 2013) and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53), anthologies of short fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other stories, essays and reviews have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Salon, Salamander, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, Consequence, and many other publications. Abrams earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career that took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife. Visit his website at: www.davidabramsbooks.com

Author photo by: Lisa Wareham Photography

Michele Young-Stone: Finding the Light in the Dark

Above-Us-Only-SkyMichele Young-Stone’s first novel, The Handbook for Lightening Strike Survivors established her as a new and distinct voice in American letters. Her second novel, Above Us Only Sky, is now out and is every bit as original, heartfelt and lovingly written as her first. It is a magical novel about a family of women separated by oceans, generations, and war, but connected by something much greater—the gift of wings. Both novels offer whimsical, imaginative stories that balance danger and the dark side of life with an uplifting spirit. Lydia Netzer, author of the Shine, Shine, Shine and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Skyhas called, Above Us Only Sky “...a raw, beautiful, unforgettable book that folds unfathomable horrors and unfathomable love into a story of incredible power." I've had the pleasure of getting to know Michele when we were neighbors in Richmond. When her first novel came out, I interviewed her, her editor, and her agent at a James River Writers event. Michele has a sparkle to her that is evident in person and on every page she writes. I'm delighted to interview her here.

VP: Your second novel is set both in the present in America and in the past in Lithuania during WWII. I’d love to know how you accomplished your research for the historical scenes. Was that a difficult part of the process of writing for you, or did you enjoy it?

MYS: I enjoy researching. Although reading articles and first-hand accounts of Stalin’s purges was emotionally difficult, it also fed my creativity and my desire to show that in the greatest darkness, some light remains.

VP: So much in the book world today is dictated by marketing strategies. Above Us Only Sky could be marketed as a literary novel, as fantasy or magic realism (because it has those elements), or as an historical novel. What do you think about such labels? Do they work in the author’s favor or are they limiting?

springheadshot2MYS: It’s also a YA novel! I don’t mind labels. I don’t think about them. I write my books and let marketing folks label them as they see fit. I think I’ll always fall under the umbrella of magical realism because I see the world in a magical way. I recently realized that magical realism is nothing more than perception. When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Booby; he lived in the train station in Crewe, Virginia. I also used to cook for the queen of England. Imagination is everything in fiction. My life is magical. I feel God when I’m by the ocean, and I live by the sea. When I write, I impart my worldview.

VP: The Handbook for Lightening Strike Survivors made a big splash when Target chose it for their shelves. Did you feel much pressure as you wrote the second book for it to do as well?

MYS: Yes and no. We writers always put more pressure on ourselves than any editor or agent could ever apply. I was worried about the sophomore slump; I was worried about writing something as well-received as The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, but more than anything, I wanted to keep growing and evolving as a novelist. I wanted to write something grand, reflective of my developing style, but I try not to think about how well my book is “selling”. I try to revel in the art itself, in the book, the ISBN number, the accomplishment of telling a compelling story.

VP: I’m curious about the way your first novel leads into this second one. What elements do you think the two novels share?

MYS: Well, interviewers have pinpointed those elements for me. I never realized that both my novels have protagonists who have major turning points at age sixteen. Both novels tell parallel stories. Both novels have unusual quirky male characters, and both novels explore multiple story perspectives. There are so many similarities, including the theme that art is a form of salvation.

VP: I’m sure your readers would love to know what you’re working on now.

MYS: I am working on a book currently titled G or The Great American Novel, about Gloria Ricci, a young woman who grows up with ghosts after her mother’s twins die at birth. As Gloria searches for love in the 1960s and 70s, she finds it first in another young woman and next in a gay young man, neither route acceptable in American society. The novel spans post WWII America up to the 1980s. It is a story about ghosts and love, about bending versus breaking, and about young girls burning in the 1960s.

VP: Any advice for aspiring writers, or writers who are working to sustain their careers over time?

MYS: Have faith. Write because you love the act. Write because you can’t imagine not doing it. If you want to publish, keep working. Keep trying. The business side of writing is a necessary evil (or not). It’s up to you. If you want to publish traditionally, you’ll have to be part of the ever-evolving world of publishing and wear a less flamboyant and more practical hat. Some people can wear both, and some can’t.

Novels as Ultimate Expression of Free Speech

In his Commencement speech at Dickinson College earlier this week, author Ian McEwan, spoke about the importance of free speech: "Let’s begin on a positive note: there is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality."

He went on to say..."The words associated with Voltaire (more likely, his sentiments but not his actual phrasing) remain crucial and should never be forgotten: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

His argument for free speech is strong, but for me the most compelling aspect centered around the role of novels to help us understand differing points of view—a necessity in a divided world.

IMG_2053"In making your mind up on these issues," McEwan said, "I hope you’ll remember your time at Dickinson and the novels you may have read here. It would prompt you, I hope, in the direction of mental freedom. The novel as a literary form was born out of the Enlightenment, out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, on earth whose mind the novel cannot reconstruct. Totalitarian systems are right with regard to their narrow interests when they lock up novelists. The novel is, or can be, the ultimate expression of free speech."

In 2013, Scientific American reported that researchers at The New School had found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling:

"Literary fiction...focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships.... This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves."

As I complete a third novel set partially in China during a distant time period, I am again reminded of the correlation between exercising the muscle of the imagination and an overall feeling of empathy, not just in the reader as he or she absorbs a novel, but in the writer who creates one. Compassion seems to be a natural bi-product of literary sharing: that delving inward that creates a bond with others.

I know my life is made richer in meaning, and more daring in action, because of the novels I have both read and written.

Anjali Mitter Duva’s Debut Novel of Ancient India

At The Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference earlier this month, I enjoyed an historical fiction panel featuring several authors, including debut novelist Anjali Mitter Duva. Bret Anthony Johnston, author most recently of the brilliant novel Remember Me Like This, offered these words about Anjali’s book: Faint Promise of Rain is a gorgeous book, a story that is at once spare and lush, wrenching and restoring. The characters are so fully realized, so keenly nuanced, that they linger with you long after the last page, like the sweet smell of a recent storm.”

VP: It was great meeting you at The Muse and Marketplace in Boston. I gather you’ve been involved with Grub Street for some time. What have you gained from being part of a writers’ organization? How has it helped you as a writer?

AMD: I owe so much to Grub Street. Honestly, the workshops, the instructors, the camaraderie I gained from that organization are what enabled me to take the leap and turn my writing into more than just a hobby. In 2007, I took my first workshop at Grub. It was Lisa Borders’ ten week Novel in Progress class. There were twelve of us, all writing our first novels, all doing so while juggling jobs, children, life. I was mid-way through my first draft, just starting to admit to myself I was writing a book. That summer was my first experience in showing my writing to perfect strangers, people knew nothing about me, and very little about the setting of my book, 16th century India. It was a tremendously validating experience. Of course my chapters needed work, but the class, and the instructor, genuinely enjoyed and admired many aspects of my writing, and provided tremendously helpful feedback. They made me believe I could do this.

When the class ended, I was afraid to lose the camaraderie and the feedback. It turned out I wasn’t the only one. I’d hit it off with another participant, Crystal King, writer of historical fiction set in Rome, and we decided to continue to meet, on our own. That was the start of a fabulous writing group that grew to include two more members, Jennifer Dupee and Kelly Robertson. We have been meeting every two weeks for seven years now, and we go on an annual writing retreat in June. These women have become dear friends, and have seen me, and supported me, through the entire writing and publishing journey. And I met them all through Grub Street classes.

Then there’s the annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace. I met my agent there in 2010—in fact, that year I met two agents who both offered to represent me—and for the past two years I’ve been honored to be a presenter as well as an attendee. The conference is like a shot of writing adrenaline for me. I get to let go of all my other responsibilities, immerse myself with my “tribe” of literary folks, meet up with old friends, make new ones, learn from craft and business pros, and now, share some of my own learnings. I feel very fortunate to be writing in the Boston area, where there’s such a strong literary community.

PHOTO: Penny Lennox

PHOTO: Penny Lennox

VP: Your novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is set in Rajasthan in 1554. How did you decide to write a novel set in India?

AMD: I am half Indian, and grew up going regularly to India. In 1985 we lived there for a year, and traveled a lot. One of our destinations was Rajasthan, a desert state in the Northwest part of the country. It is a magical place, truly. Citadels and temples rise out of the sand, the sky is a searing blue, the textiles are jewel-toned, the history is colorful and full of legend. When I returned there with my husband in 2001, I felt that magic again, and I knew I needed to set a story there.

That year, I also began my study of kathak, one of the classical dance forms of India. Kathak is a storytelling art, and its history parallels that of India. With origins as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples, it was brought into Muslim courts and became an entertainment art under the Mughal Empire. It flourished, in part in courtesan circles, until the British outlawed it in the 1860s. After some decades underground, it resurfaced as India resurrected its national arts during its struggle for independence. Today, it’s a dynamic, mesmerizing art form performed on stages around the world.

What I learned through studying the dance and co-founding a non-profit dedicated to it led to a desire to write about it. And as a branch of this art form has roots in Rajasthan, there it was: the story I wanted to write had found me. I set Faint Promise of Rain during a time of transition in Rajasthan, at the start of Muslim rule in India, and am now working on Book 2, which takes place at the end of the Mughal Empire and the start of British rule.

VP: Was it very difficult to research such an early time period, or did you find it liberating to write a story set so long ago?

AMD: It was, as you suggest, rather liberating. I did a lot of research, of course, but there’s not very much written about that period of time in Jaisalmer, the town in which the story is set. I did a lot of reading about that time period in general, about the Mughal Empire, about the legends and myths relevant to that part of the world. Part of my research had already been done by the time I started writing: my visits to Jaisalmer. The images and impressions of the city were vivid in my mind, and the fact that it is a historic site and very protected means that not much has changed, physically, inside the citadel. No cars are allowed, very little construction is possible. If you remove the cell phones and power lines, the city looks much the way it did 500 years ago. Much of my research ended up being about the dance itself, including the kinetic experience of studying it, being on the dance floor, learning the movements. What was most difficult was ensuring that I had the fauna and flora right; that I didn’t use expressions or words that had not been coined at the time, that type of thing. But with access to so much via Internet, all this is feasible.

VP: You’ve done a great job of sharing your novel with a broader audience. Can you offer suggestions to writers at the beginning of their publishing journey?

AMD: Anyone who publishes a book these days undoubtedly learns a lot. My main advice to pass on to writers just beginning their journey is this:

“To thine own self be true,” as Polonius tells Laertes in Hamlet. Write the story you want to write, how you want to write it. Seek out the publishing experience that makes the most sense for you and for your personality, be it traditional, partner publishing, self-publishing. Don’t do things just because you feel pressure that you “should.” Focus on activities that give you energy, and try to avoid those that suck it away.

Think creatively. There are a lot of new opportunities out there, for publishing, for marketing. Those who get noticed, other than producing great work of course, are those who break the mold a bit, do things that people don’t expect.

Become a part of a literary community, and be a literary citizen—through classes, with a writing group, by attending literary events, by supporting other writers, by buying from bookstores. There is tremendous energy and inspiration to be gained through this, and in addition to benefiting the entire community, these activities help build a writer’s network. And as any newly published author will tell you, a network is key.

Learning from Authors as Scholars of Writing

Screen shot 2015-06-08 at 9.57.25 PMLast weekend, I ventured into the literary heart of my soon-to-be home city. Boston’s Grub Street is known nationwide as a excellent place for aspiring writers to learn every aspect of the craft and art of writing. Their annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, is certainly impressive, though not intimidating, because the staff and volunteers go to great lengths to welcome participants. I met writers at the beginning of their journeys, first time authors, as well as highly respected editors and agents. But the highlight for me was talks given by two seasoned and brilliant writers who I think of as scholars of writing. Here are a few tips gleaned from them.

In her workshop, Roxana Robinson, author most recently of the moving novel, Sparta, described how successful literary fiction shares five key elements:

  1. A new world that entices the reader to see even the familiar as different and new.
  2. Beautiful language, which doesn’t mean flowery. Each sentence must have a rhythm of its own. A clear voice and point of view create a bond between writer and reader.
  3. Sympathetic, though not always likable, characters, whose humanity is accessible.
  4. Conflict, which is essential, otherwise the story dries up. Conflict brings characters to life.
  5. And finally, change, which can take place in the reader, not always in the characters. The reader must be changed in some way. Without that, there is no point.

Emotion, Robinson stressed, guides fiction writing. We write because something moves us. Passion, rage, fears, or joy drive the writer forward.

Charles Baxter, author of novels and short story collections and two important books on the craft of writing, spoke articulately about so many aspects of writing that I can only distill a few of his ideas here. He focused on how writers create momentum to move their stories forward and keep readers caring about the characters.

To achieve this, he described Request Moments, when characters have something asked of them by other characters, or even by God, which they have no choice but to accept. Hamlet and Macbeth both begin with Request Moments that then propel the action forward.

Another dramatic catalyst is what Baxter called The One Way Gate. These are moments in a narrative when your character can no longer turn back and must take action or come to a new realization. Sometimes a minor character can push the action forward by saying what no one else will say, or by revealing motive or intention of the other characters.

The Ticking Clock also propels the action forward. How long do the characters have to do what they need to do? If the timeframe is infinite, there is no dramatic tension. Sometimes The Ticking Clock can be subtle—the brief mention of grey hair in Chekov’s Lady with the Lap Dog helps to explain why the protagonist’s feelings are suddenly more complicated and fraught than ever before.

Baxter’s talk was wonderfully rich with references to great literature, as was Robinson’s, who posted her favorite examples of great novels on Facebook. While I loved the whole conference, I was especially grateful to these seasoned authors, who reminded me, and I think others, of the most profound reasons why we write.

Elizabeth Evans on Sustaining a Writing Career

PHOTO: Steve Reitz

PHOTO: Steve Reitz

Elizabeth Evans’ fourth novel, As Good As Dead, is a compelling, suspenseful tale about a friendship between two women writers. Charlotte and Esme become best friends while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but jealousy and competition lead to a betrayal that ends the friendship. Twenty years later, their connection is revived and proves even more destructive than before. Bharati Mukherjee has called Evans “a masterful storyteller,” and the exquisite psychological tension in this novel shows us why.

VP: As Good As Dead vividly reveals the experience of young writers in graduate school who must navigate their insecurities and jealousies, as well as their deep and meaningful connections to each other. I’m curious if their experience was at all similar to your own at Iowa? Have you ever tried to write about the young years in a writer’s career, or did you need the distance of time to capture it?

EE: It was good for me to be at Iowa, to be with other people who believed—as Charlotte put it—in the importance of making “one sentence after another do what you wanted them to do.” In some ways, however, my experience was quite different from that of Charlotte and Esme—and the rest of my classmates: I started out in the Iowa Workshop as a twenty-five year-old divorcee with a tiny child at home. I was like Charlotte in some ways: I am half-deaf and very shy, which meant that I could feel isolated. Yes, I sometimes suffered from resentment and insecurity—Why did so-and-so get that prize? Why did I get so drunk at that party?—but I trusted absolutely that I was writing stories that I needed to write and giving the stories all that I had to give. This probably explains why no workshop criticism that the stories received ever rocked my sense that I was doing the right thing.

(Also, during my second year, I worked with teachers who were very excited about my work, and that was awfully nice.)

As for writing about the young years in a writer’s career—I can’t say why I didn’t ever do it before. I wrote about my experiences in my journals, but it didn’t occur to me to write a story about young writers and the Iowa Writers Workshop until I needed those elements as fuel and setting for the drama of As Good As Dead.

VP: You’ve received wonderful accolades for your writing—including an NEA Fellowship, the James Michener Fellowship, and a Lila Wallace Award, among others. I’d love to know more about your path towards publication. Did you identify as a writer when you were a girl? At what age did you start to receive encouragement?

EE: Even as a little kid, I felt that poetry mattered. I memorized poems and tried my hand at writing my own at a fairly young age. It seemed like an essential activity. My older sister and I used to go to the library to find poetry books, and after I showed my sister some of my own poems, she showed them to her best friend. Their praise—and some praise from my mother, too—gave me a boost. In high school, I had a very small, very informal creative writing class, and the teacher said that I had talent. In college, I won awards for writing fiction and poetry.

VP: What role do you think your awards and institutional support has played in helping to shape your career?

EE: I like to think that I would have kept at my writing without the awards. Making money and being famous—those weren’t big draws. It was the creative process itself, and, then, ultimately, the act of completion: distilling something from the confusion of life and containing it in such a way that, like fuel in a lantern, it provided illumination. I think there is something to what Eudora Welty said, though, that writing was a bit like making jam. You made some and people said, “Mm, that’s good,” and so you make some more.

VP: In your Acknowledgements, you thank your daughter for being a good reader of your drafts. I’m curious about your process. At what stage in the creation of a novel do you share it with others? Who else in addition to your daughter gets to weigh in?

EE: I always take a story or a novel absolutely as far as I can before I show it anyone (I endorse Frost’s idea that we have to be “secret in order to secrete”). My husband is my first reader. He’ll almost certainly suggest some worthwhile changes. After I’ve incorporated those, I will show the work to a few trusted readers. This will invariably mean more edits. My agent doesn’t see the work until these steps are completed.

VP: I’m sure you’re terribly busy with book events, but I wonder if you’ve had time to start on the next novel. If so, can you share about it?

EE: I am very close to finishing a novel about a man who gets stuck on an island in Canada with the adult-daughter he scarcely knows. I don’t think I should say more (see Frost, above).

VP: What advice would offer an aspiring writer today? Do you think it’s a good idea to get an MFA? What else is crucial for writers to know now?

EE: While social media may be important for marketing your work, it is not crucial to your development as a writer. It would be good to locate a few good readers who will give you honest, careful feedback on your work. If you can’t find a few good readers in your community, consider an MFA program (despite comments to the contrary, I’ve never seen evidence that MFA programs homogenize student writing).

It is crucial that you write often and read great literature. We all need lots of exposure to good sentences and well-built stories. Reading the best works will help you learn how to read your own work as if you did not write it; only then will you have a good sense of when your work fails or succeeds.

(Elizabeth's author photo by Steve Reitz)

Reading as a Writer

As I prepare to move out of our house of seventeen years to a much smaller one, I need to narrow down my library. Although the move isn’t for months, I've started to look at my bookshelves with a critical eye. Some shelves hold poetry collections from high school and undergraduate years. The bulk of the others are fiction: novels and short story collections arranged in no particular order, crammed side by side or tucked every which way. How had I not noticed what a mess my books had become? IMG_1959I hadn’t noticed because my bookshelves aren't for show. They are receptacles for books I've read and, for the most part, will never read again. Although I hadn't noticed it before, and it's a sacrilege to admit, my bookshelves might as well be trash bins or garbage heaps, because in most cases when I’m done with a book, I’m done.

Once I faced this hard cold fact, I suddenly felt liberated to say good bye to old favorites. In a frighteningly short period of time, I started to pull titles off the shelves and stacked them into boxes to take to my local used bookstore, Chop Suey Books, for some cash. They would surely want these brilliant titles I had once loved. As I packed away Brick Lane and The Beautiful Ruins, Her Fearful Symmetry and The March, The Weissmans of Westport and Florida, I remembered how much I had enjoyed and admired each one, and yet I didn't need them any longer.

Writers read for particular reasons. At least I do, although often that reason remains vague at the time. I appreciated the humor and voice in The Weissmans of Westport; the structure of an elaborate ghost story in Her Fearful Symmetry; and how love infused the opening sections of The Beautiful Ruins long before the two lovers ever meet. When I read each of these books, I was searching for some lesson about writing, and in each case, I found it.

Although I can't always put a finger on why a book works for me at a given moment, when it isn't working I'll jettison it without pause. I've never been able to be a member of a book group because I need to read what I need to read when I need to read it. I think that sounds a little selfish, but I wonder if many writers feel this way: secretly self-involved as we troll through other titles and consciously or unconsciously steal what we can.

The books that I'm keeping on my shelves when we move are the ones that for some reason I can't quite part with. Most are classics: Madam Bovary, The Good Soldier, Plainsong, In Country—because I have read and reread them and may do so again. I need to have those books around on the off chance I imbue their lessons by just having them near.

A friend asked if the act of purging my bookshelves was depressing. Didn't it make me face the impermanence of our efforts as writers? She has a point, but for some reason, I'm finding it heartening to notice the endless stream of titles that we absorb and then leave behind. Every book I give away has meant something to me. It gives me hope that my books can enjoy the not so small privilege of being on someone else’s bookshelf—even for a short time.

A Second Book is Born!

A second book confirms that the first wasn’t just a fluke. A second book means you’re not a flash in the pan. A second book means…well, that since you wrote another one, you can do it again, and again, and again. I'm so excited to share the news that Unbridled Books will publish my new novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, in October, 2015. I was lucky enough to work with the same editor who edited River of Dust. Greg Michalson is a seasoned, skilled and sure-handed editor. When Greg suggests a paragraph should go, then it should go. When he doesn’t get my meaning, then I’d better believe my meaning’s not clear. In other words, this book was greatly improved and deepened because of Greg’s fine efforts.

As with River of Dust, I wrote the very first draft of Dreams of the Red Phoenix in twenty-eight days. Just twenty-eight days! I’ve been trying to figure out if writing first drafts in precisely the same number of days might have something to do with the stages of the moon, or a woman’s cycle. There must be some mysterious force at work, because in both cases I felt driven and blessed and somewhat on fire.

I started on December 2, 2012. I have never tried to write anything between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Normally the only writing I do in those months are grocery lists and wish lists for the kids. But, for some reason, I had been plotting the novel in my head for weeks, maybe even months, and I went ahead and started it in early December. I stopped writing during the busiest of the holiday days when we had houseguests, but picked up again between Christmas and New Years and then hit full stride in first weeks of 2013.

But a first draft does not a novel make. It took many months to revise, including the summer months when I set it aside. When I returned to it in the fall of 2013, I zeroed in and we had a final draft by early 2014. Despite the rapid start it still took a full year to come to fruition.

Still, a year is quick for a literary novel. And while I can’t assume the third and fourth and any future books will come so easily, I do now have this precedent of fast starts and slow, careful finishes. With Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I had a story that was burning to be told and then I received some excellent help in telling it. Fingers crossed that the third will be so easy.

A Premier Publisher of Rich Literary Quality: Unbridled Books

I am honored and proud to be an Unbridled Books author. In their Indie Spotlight column, Ploughshares literary journal focuses on the co-publishers of Unbridled: Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson.

Here is how the interview begins:

With my editor, Greg, and Cake!

With my editor, Greg, and Cake!

“Unbridled Books was founded in 2003 by co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson, who together have more than 50 years experience in publishing plus a terrific track record for finding and promoting literary fiction that sells in the commercial market. Self-described as an independent publisher focused on producing books that are “moving, beautiful, and surprising,” Unbridled’s list is an international patchwork of well-told tales set everywhere from Cuba to Iceland to Afghanistan, as well as America coast-to-coast. For the Ploughsharesblog, Ramey and Michalson share the secrets of their indie success as well as what makes a writer Unbridled.” Check out the rest at Ploughshares Indie Spotlight.

My editor, Greg Michalson, says he had “a blast” working on my book. I had one, too, working with him! The man knows how to make a book stronger and I've learned so much from him. Here we are holding an incredible cake version of River of Dust!