The novel

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.