Monday, December 19, 2016

Flash Fiction!

I have a piece of flash fiction in the new issue of Phoebe, and they kindly put up a link. I wrote this piece in my prompt group (that’s right, in 30 minutes!) and the prompt words were “hammer” and “jacket” (15 minutes on each word). Also, I remember that I decided to try writing without quotation marks, based on a Facebook conversation I’d recently had about their use, and, honestly, that decision ended up feeling significant as I wrote. Advice takeaway: Change up your style!

There’s not much space for an excerpt without printing the whole story, so I’ll give just the first several lines:

You really hammer down the nail, my boyfriend says the second he swipes shut his phone call. Thank you? Not a compliment, he says.


Read the rest—which will take about about 2 minutes—here: http://www.phoebejournal.com/anything-you-want/

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Best Books (I Read) in 2016

Here are several lists, randomly ordered, starting with the best books I read in 2016 (ignoring publication date). I do not include books by friends on these lists, though, as you’ll see below, I did include a separate, brief list of some of the books my friends published during the year that I read. PLEASE don’t get mad if your book isn’t on there! I just really had to mention some of these books by beloved buddies, and it was hard not to open the floodgates….

And because I realize I didn’t do this write-up in 2015, I tacked on that list as well. I mean, why not? A good book is timeless, right?

2016

Tiny Beautiful Things (Dear Sugar) by Cheryl Strayed: What can I say that hasn’t been said about the wise and empathetic generosity of spirit that Cheryl Strayed brings to her writing? Advice for all of us, and a hug to make you feel loved, sweetpea.

Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris: New York City! Published in the 1980s, but researched to show us what NYC was like in 1945, at the crossroads of post-war America.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit: An exploration of love and loss and the creative life, one of the most brilliant books I have read. If I were to meet Rebecca Solnit, I would stare in wonder at her.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: I can’t resist a girl-goes-to-New-York book, especially when she works in a restaurant! Read this for the New Yorkiness and the food and the astute observations and less for the plot.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: A classic for a reason. From the very first page of the road unfurling, this story pulls us through the cynical underbelly of politics and the South. (Okay, I got a big bogged down in the family history section, but then I’m from Iowa, not the South!)

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles: Another girl goes to New York, and writes like the poet she is. Highly readable, so don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I would just read a sentence and set the book aside to ponder the language and its juxtaposition. I don’t get why this is called a novel, but who cares?

Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson: After he died this summer, I thought it was shameful I’d read only a couple of essays along the way…and I was right. These stories are stunning, especially the first two.

My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta: This is a flawed book, but when it was good it was very, very good—and inventive. A dark memoir told through a variety of forms, including lists and (especially brilliant) a dialogue with the TV show “Law & Order SVU.”

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker: I entered a phase of British/Irish writers while in residency at the Hawthornden Castle in Scotland and resumed my love affair with Pat Barker and her riveting novels about World War I. This is less-battle intense than the Regeneration Trilogy but no less harrowing. I inhaled it from the early shocker in the first chapter, as did two of my fellow writers in the castle! Bonus: It was exciting to be reading a copy signed by Pat Barker (one of my literary idols) that I found in the Hawthornden library.

A Bit on the Side by William Trevor: Another from the Hawthornden library. I’d read William Trevor in the New Yorker, but these stories were a revelation. I’m not sure if it was these stories all at once or that I was living somewhat in the landscape described, but the spare heartbreak of these stories was gorgeous. Please, sir, may I have some more? Luckily I can, despite his recent death…he wrote lots of books!

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes: Okay, I didn’t read all of this (I had to return it to the Hawthornden Library and head home). But what I read was a thrill. No wonder Britain is still recovering from this poet’s towering presence. (I read some Sylvia Plath alongside for balance and conversation’s sake.)

As noted, I choose not to include books by my friends on my list, but it seems like I can certainly mention a few books by friends that I read (and loved!) in 2016:

Traveler’s Rest by Keith Lee Morris: snowy, spooky novel
Crash Course by Robin Black: short essays on life and writing
Echoes of the Tattered Tongue by John Guzlowski: wrenching poetry about his parent’s experiences in a German slave camp in WWII
You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman: linked stories about a woman trying to carve out a life for herself
Invincible Summers by Robin Gaines: Claudia’s father dies, and this 60s-70s era Detroit family falls apart
Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst: a DC couple hopes a parenting guru can save their autistic daughter at this off-the-grid New Hampshire camp
Ghosts of Bergen County by Dana Cann: Ghosts, a dead child, and heroin…a potent combination
Heirlooms by Rachel Hall: linked stories about one Jewish family’s escape from WWII-era France and the burdens they carry into America

As noted, I see that I didn’t put together a list last year, so because I’m compulsive and a completist, here we go, minus the commentary because I have some Christmas tasks to get to!

Best Books (I read) in 2015

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay [essays]
The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald [unfinished novel]
The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing [non-fiction]
The Unspeakable  and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum [essays]
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link [stories]
Redeployment by Phil Klay [stories]
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel [novel…and I’ll butt in to say, this may be the book I’ve recommended the most over the past two years]
The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic by Lucy Jane Bledsoe [essays…the first two are a little slow IMHO…give it a chance!]
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger [non-fiction]


And some of my favorite books by my friends in 2015:


Pasture Art by Marlin Barton [stories and a masterful novella]
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski [novel]
My Coolest Shirt by W.T. Pfefferle [poetry]
Count the Waves by Sandra Beasley [poems]
Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman [novel]
Flying Home by David Nicholson [stories, set in DC]


And onward to 2017! I’ve got stacks of books I want to read, but even more exciting is to think about the random discoveries waiting ahead! Happy reading, everyone!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Milkweed Editions Reading Ms. in 2017

One of my favorite small literary presses has just announced its 2017 reading schedule for unsolicited submissions. Milkweed Editions, based in Minneapolis, publishes top-quality fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry books, and their submission windows are small…so plan ahead!


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Scotland!

Since today is misty, and since I'm finally organizing my photos from Scotland, how about a few pictures here? (Okay, how about 18? That's a few, right?)


These will be ready to drink in, oh, fifteen years or so.



A view from Edinburgh Castle: 


So excited to be invited to a private whisky tasting at the Balmoral Hotel! Thanks, Scotch...the best whisky bar in Edinburgh!!


The Last Drop...before your head was chopped off at the guillotine across the square.


Yes, this cheese was as good as it looks!



Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson...Scotland's favorite writers from its past...as seen in:



I became obsessed with stags.


And whisky. And smoked salmon:



This monument to Sir Walter Scott is the largest monument to a writer in the world:

I knew I'd love Hawthornden Castle when I saw this stag outside the garden door:


Did a lot of good writing in this chair:


Lunch was delivered in these cute little baskets:


Another good chair for writing in, this one in the library, where I wrote surrounded by a wall of Paris Reviews:



Isn't this inviting? Residency applications are due in June, though you will have to write to the administrator to have a paper application mailed to you...no internet applications, so plan ahead! Thank you, Mrs. Drue Heinz, for providing this magical castle for ordinary writers like me.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Memoir Your Way: Making Memoir More Inclusive by Joanne Lozar Glenn

I'm delighted to offer blog space to Joanne Lozar Glenn, a  member of my beloved prompt group, who has come out with a fantastic new book that expands the boundaries of memoir beyond the written word.... (If you're wondering if this book might make a good gift for the unconventional memoirist in your life, the answer is YES: it's beautifully produced with lots of lovely full-color photographs and welcoming, reader-friendly design!)

Memoir Your Way: Making Memoir More Inclusive

By Joanne Lozar Glenn

One fall afternoon a few years ago, several colleagues and I were enjoying brunch and sharing stories related to our work with other writers. We soon realized that each of us was creating memoirs in interesting and unconventional forms: cookbooks, scrapbooks, quilts, and more—forms that haven’t traditionally been considered part of the genre. It was an “aha” moment.
Memoir wasn’t just for writers. Memoir could be for everyone.
That moment grew into a book—Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story Through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels, and More (Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2016)—that we hope inspires “history-keepers” to view and create memoir in ways they’d never thought of before.
As memoir creators, teachers, and crafters, we see these history-keepers in our classrooms every day. They are mothers and daughters hoping to preserve family traditions, recipes, and the stories they and their children tell. They are immigrants seeking to bridge their old and new lives and veterans eager to record their war experiences. They are older people revisiting the adventures of their youth, and younger people working it all out as they mine their experience. Our book suggests alternative “containers” these story-keepers can adapt to their purpose.
Extending the written memoir form to cookbooks, comics, quilts, and other multimedia storytelling formats includes rather than excludes would-be memoirists who are not writers. It encourages them to preserve their histories while still adhering to the key principles of memoir:  memoir is a slice of life remembered and reflected upon, and it is always two stories—the memory, and the meaning we make of it.
As memoir writers know, crafting a memoir can be surprisingly satisfying. By bringing our memories into the world in a concrete form, we can step back and see our experiences in a different, and often healing, light. Why restrict this satisfaction to those who have a talent for writing? The last sketch, the last stitch, the last drop of glue can open the door to a whole new way of seeing and even being.
Beyond that, this:  Memories fade, and sometimes history is rewritten. If those memories are not preserved, they’re lost forever.
When we turn memories into memoir, we build a bridge between the past and the future. What better way to do that than to encourage innovative, less text-centric ways of saying, “I was here. I mattered.”?

 

More information about Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story Through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels, and More (Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2016):

https://www.amazon.com/Memoir-Your-Way-through-Writing/dp/1510707514

 

ABOUT: Joanne M. Lozar Glenn (writing workshop and retreat leader) is a member of The Memoir Roundtable, which includes co-authors Natasha Peterson (graphic novelist), Linda Pool (quilter), Nadine James  (children’s literacy consultant), Katherine Nutt (teacher and scrapbooker), and Dianne Hennessy King (food editor and memoir writing teacher).  Their book Memoir Your Way is available in softcover and e-book from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com  


 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Linked Stories, Novels in Stories, and "No-Fault Fiction": Rachel Hall & Michelle Brafman Talk Process

Sometimes I have very brilliant ideas, and if I do say so, this might be my very brilliantiest! Two lovely friends each have published a new book, one a collection of linked stories, the other a novel in stories…so who better to conduct their own interview about the ins and outs of linkage, stories, triptychs, “no-fault fiction,” and how to balance the promotion/writing/life.

OUR WRITERS
 Rachel Hall’s collection of linked stories, Heirlooms, was awarded the BkMk Press 2015 G.S. Sharat Chandra prize, selected by Marge Piercy. Her stories and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Lilith, New Letters, and Water~Stone. In addition, she has received awards and honors from publications such as Lilith and Glimmer Train, and New Letters and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, as well as Ragdale and the Ox-Bow School of the Arts where portions of Heirlooms were written. She is Professor of English at the State University of New York-Geneseo.
 Michelle Brafman’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, the minnesota review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and numerous other publications. Her debut novel, Washing the Dead, was published by Prospect Park Books in April of 2015, and her second book, Bertrand Court, a novel in stories, is set in Washington, D.C. and was published in September of 2016. She has taught creative writing at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program, the George Washington University, and in smaller workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. In 2003, she founded Yeah Write, a writing coaching business.

THEIR FABULOUS BOOKS!
Heirlooms (by Rachel Hall) begins in the French seaside city of Saint-Malo, in 1940, and ends in the American Midwest in 1989. In this collection of linked stories, the war reverberates through four generations of a Jewish family. Inspired by the author’s family stories as well as extensive research, Heirlooms explores assumptions about love, duty, memory and truth. More information: http://www.rachelhall.org/
Bertrand Court (by Michelle Brafman) intertwines seventeen luminous narratives about the secrets of a cast of politicos, filmmakers, housewives, real es­tate brokers, and consultants, all tied to a suburban Washington, D.C. cul-de-sac. Linked through bloodlines and grocery lines, they respond to life’s bruises by grabbing power, sex, or the family silver. As they atone and forgive, they unmask the love and truth that hop white picket fences. More information: http://www.michellebrafman.com/

AND THE CONVERSATION:

RH: You've written a novel, Washing the Dead, besides this collection of linked stories. Did you consider writing Bertrand Court as a novel? How, in your opinion, are linked stories different from a novel? What did the genre offer you that the novel form didn't?
MB: I started writing Bertrand Court about fifteen years ago, and at that point I was pretty dedicated to the short story form. That said, I’d read Amy Bloom’s collection Come to Me and fell in love with the idea of writing stories in triptychs. After I’d completed several such groupings of stories, it became apparent to me that all of my characters belonged to the same universe. I had a lot of fun exploring these connections. If I’d written this book as a novel, I’m not sure I would have had the freedom (or maybe the skill) to write about this fictive world from so many different perspectives. I think I also would have felt compelled to tie up loose ends with each of these characters, which I didn’t feel I needed to do here.
It’s funny that you asked this question, though, because as I was reading Heirlooms, I kept thinking that your book was a true “novel in stories.” At times, the book felt like a novel to me, yet each story stands on its own. So now I want to know why you choose this form for your book.  
RH: I love the idea of triptychs!—I may use that for the project I’m working on now. Groups of three are satisfying in a way that a pair isn’t. This also makes me think of Alice Munro’s triptych in Runaway which Pedro Almodóvar has adapted for the film Julieta, and which I’m eager to see.  http://flavorwire.com/590931/nyff-2016-pedro-almodovar-on-the-challenges-of-adapting-alice-munro
As far as the linked story form for Heirlooms, I started out thinking I was just writing the first story, “Saint-Malo, 1940.” Then, as I was working on something else—a novel, actually, that I’ve abandoned—I realized there was another story I wanted to tell about Eugenie and Saint-Malo. I gave myself permission to take a day off from the novel (I was on sabbatical from teaching that year) to write that story. When I was done, I understood I had bookends: the first and last stories. I thought I’d turn to Heirlooms when I finished the novel, but I eventually realized that I didn’t really know how to write a novel. Stories, I understand. So in writing Heirlooms in stories, I guess I sort of tricked myself into writing a novel-like book. I’m surprised when people call it a novel, but not at all displeased.
MB: You tricked yourself into writing a novel! Wonderful. And thanks for the heads-up about Julieta! I forgot to mention how much I was influenced by Munro’s The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, a wonderful novel in stories about a mother and daughter.   
RH: Lots of linked collections look at families and family stories. Do you think this subject matter is particularly well suited to the genre of linked stories?
MB: I’d never thought of it that way, but yes, I do think that the subject matter is well suited to the genre. Family dynamics are so complicated and juicy and steeped in history, and this form allows the writer to mine these complexities in a different way. For example, you can write a full story about an important piece of family history, whereas in a novel, you might have to rely on a flashback and in turn worry about slowing down momentum of the book.
I’m also a big fan of exploring triangles in relationships, and I think this form lends itself to writing from each “point” of the triangle. I like the term “no fault fiction,” where the reader comes away from a story understanding all characters’ motivations for behaving the way they do (often badly). Readers might not like the characters any better, but they’ll have a context for their actions. You did a masterful job of providing a larger psychic, social, and historical context for your characters’ relationships. I really felt the emotional heft of the family legacies they shouldered. How did you leverage this form to convey all of this? How did you select the moments that would tell this very big story? (Or the stories between the “bookends” you mentioned earlier?)
RH: I also love the idea of no-fault fiction! I’m certainly going to introduce this concept to my students. I’m always looking for ways to get them to explore character without judgment.
As far as which moments became stories in Heirlooms, I worked intuitively, recalling family stories, digging into some, but not finding a clear way in, moving on to something else. I did have access to old photo albums and copies of letters and those provided jumping off points. Near the end of the writing, I realized I needed certain stories like “White Lies” which would pull together a lot of history, and was therefore hard to write.
This question made me remember that I learned another family story after I’d sent off my manuscript. This story isn’t something that would work in another time period or in another book, so it’s a missed opportunity. I think of that story every now and then, like a friend I’ve lost touch with—did you have stories like this, stories that you thought of later or wish you could add? Is this maybe one of the difficulties of the linked story genre—when do you stop?
MB: Yes, when to stop? There’s always that one killer detail that surfaces too late in the game! I tortured myself with this while editing my first book. Because Bertrand Court sat for so long, I had the chance to revisit “friends I’d lost touch with” and write two brand new stories from the perspective of existing characters who seemed to be calling out for a turn to narrate. For example, in “Two Truths and a Lie,” in the aftermath of their father’s death, two sisters, the screw-up and the golden girl, play a game that demands they shuck these tired family labels and truly see and be seen by one another. I’d written a good deal about the “perfect sister,” and it was a lot of fun to write from the pov of the self-proclaimed “family fuckup.” I also wrote the new stories to perhaps serve the same function as “White Lies,” meaning they filled in gaps and threaded together one of the triptychs.
Switching gears, how has it been for you to release these characters and their stories into the world? Have you learned anything new about your book from your readers?   
RH: It’s been thrilling to have this book out in the world. I’ve been really touched by responses from readers, who say that the stories made them think of their family stories in a new light. And sometimes these people tell me their family stories of WWII and that’s been interesting. One gentleman gave me a box of letters from his great aunt, because he thought her story would interest me—and it does! I’ve been surprised—and pleased—that readers say they couldn’t put the book down. I didn’t think I was writing a suspenseful book. As a reader myself or as a movie viewer, I’m not good with suspense—It makes me too nervous! I understand, of course, that fiction should propel the reader along, so I’m glad Heirlooms does that for readers.
I know you’ve also been busy giving readings and traveling--first for Washing the Dead and now for Betrand Court. I'm enjoying the whirlwind, too, but I'm wondering when does one write? And you've been doing this non-stop, it seems for a couple years! How do you do it?!
MB: WOW. This gentleman’s willingness to surrender his family heirloom speaks volumes about how he (and others it seems) are connecting with your book. I’m not surprised. I too love when readers respond to my books by sharing stories of their own. That’s the best part. I’m still a little shocked when someone (who is not related to me) tells me that they’ve read my book. I hope that never wears off!
My readers’ feedback has also taught me a great deal about what works (and doesn’t) in my writing. I find this energizing, but I do struggle with transitioning between speaking to audiences about my books and settling back into “the chair.” During lulls in my schedule, I’ve been able to write essays and chip away at revising my novel, but now it’s time to seriously roll up my sleeves. What about you? Have you been able to think about your next project amidst the flurry of promoting your book? 
RH: I love giving readings, talking with book lovers, and getting to see old friends and former students at events. That’s been so rewarding, but I’m also feeling antsy, the way I do when I haven’t written for a while. I know I need to get back to work on new stories, but I haven’t been able to write fiction while promoting Heirlooms. Like you, I can write essays, but fiction requires a different head space for me—quiet and calm, which is, I’m realizing, the exact opposite of promoting. I’m thinking that a residency in the near future would be a good way to sink back into fiction.

More information:

HEIRLOOMS/RACHEL HALLhttp://www.rachelhall.org/


BERTRAND COURT/MICHELLE BRAFMANhttp://www.michellebrafman.com/





Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hiatus

Work in Progress will be on official hiatus until mid-November.


(Speaking of November, don’t forget my favorite Thanksgiving stuffing recipe, found here!)

Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.