The Writing Life

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! 

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.

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.

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)

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.