Monday, February 24, 2020

TBR: The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense by Art Taylor

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

This collection gathers 16 of my stories from the 25 years (25 years?!) since my first mystery appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—though really you’d have to cut that quarter-century nearly in half to calculate my output, since it took about 12 years from my first appearance in EQMM (“Murder on the Orient Express” in 1995) to my second (“An Internal Complaint” in 2007). The title story is my most recent publication—in the January/February 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine—and the rest of the collection includes short stories that have won honors including the Edgar Award, the Anthony Award, and several Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. I’ve been very fortunate with the attention readers have given my short fiction.

Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

The opening story in the collection, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is possibly the quickest I’ve ever written a story—and oddly, possibly the one that people talk most about. Roxane Gay championed the story, which is structured as a recipe, and I’ve heard it’s been taught in creative writing workshops. I came up with the idea while my mind wandered during a Chicago concert my wife, Tara Laskowski, dragged me to. The next morning, I woke up, wrote the first draft quickly, showed it to Tara, revised it, submitted it before noon, and had an acceptance from PANK early afternoon.

That’s an anomaly for me—to say the least.

More like my pace: I wrote the first draft of “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74” in the early 1990s, and it finally appeared in print more than 25 years later—in the most recent issue of AHMM, as I said above. The first draft was 3,500 words, the final nearly 12,000, and in between it became one strand of a failed novel, reemerged as a novella of about 18,000 words, and… well, there were a lot of years spent putting that one aside, coming back to it, expanding, condensing, tinkering, tinkering, tinkering.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I’ve been very fortunate in this regard too. My publisher, Crippen & Landru, specializes in high quality volumes of short mystery fiction—both by classic authors and by contemporary voices. I’ve long admired the publishers, long dreamed of having my own work in their series; and I was honored when I heard that they’d been following my own career and thinking the same thing. Everything just came together.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It may be clich├ęd at this point, but Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” continues to resonate. I’m an extremely slow writer, but somehow, if you keep at it, you can get where you’re going.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Maybe because I’m a slow writer, partial drafts have sometimes languished for a long stretches before I’ve figured out where a story is going. I submitted the first half of “A Voice from the Past” to some workshop readers—it’s a story which revisits the legacy of hazing at a boys boarding school—and they responded with, “This is great!” and “What’s going to happen next?” And I had to tell them that I really didn’t know—didn’t know to the point that I finally put the draft aside. For nearly five years. When I came back and reread it, suddenly I saw the possibilities lurking in the small details I wasn’t entirely aware I’d folded in—what one character might have been doing, the extremes another character might go to, and how those extremes were rooted in the past. I often tell my writing students that they have to listen to their own work—to what their unconscious might be doing—to figure out what a story is really about, what to do with it. Often I think the best stories come out that way.

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?

I want to give a shout-out to Luke Buchanan, a North Carolina artist who created an original work in response to the title story—the painting now on the cover of the collection. Luke incorporated several specific elements of “The Boy Detective” into his collage here, and the whole image captures so much that mix of nostalgia and melancholy and uneasiness that I associate with the story myself—and with much of my own work generally.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

I didn’t realize it until I read through the collection at proof stage, but many of my stories feature cocktails! …and they’re occasionally pertinent to the plot, as with the gimlet in “The Odds Are Against Us.” Here’s that recipe:

Gimlet (borrowed from The PDT Cocktail Book)

2 oz. Plymouth gin (Art’s note: Plymouth makes a considerable difference here)
.75 oz. lime cordial (see below)
.75 oz. lime juice

Shake vigorously with ice.
Strain into a chilled coupe glass.

Lime Cordial  (downsized proportionally from the PDT recipe to avoid straining your zesting hand)

4 limes
8 oz. simple syrup

Zest limes, and combine zest with simple syrup. 

After 10 minutes, fine strain into a container and chill. 

Bonus recipe: You can actually make the recipe for coq au vin in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (linked below), but please take care to leave out the arsenic. 

[Editor’s note: I love The PDT Cocktail Book and we’ve made these gimlets many, many times!]





READ A STORY, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”:

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

TBR: The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

Both lyric and speculative, this poetry book imagines a human mission to Mars, the consequence of climate change and environmental ruin. The landscape of Mars is a canvas on which the trespasses of the American Frontier are rehearsed and remade. The collection is mostly concerned with the danger of the colonial mindset, as well as how environmental destruction and gendered violence are linked.

Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?

Poems that I found especially pleasurable to write include the sonnet crowns: “Deep Space Crown,” and “Backflash: Seven Catastrophes,” and “Fugue for Wind and Pipes.” I love the incantatory quality of a sonnet crown, how the last line of the previous sonnet becomes the first of the next, the calculation and geometry involved of making complete thoughts legible inside the form. 

I also had so much fun with the less “traditional” forms in the collection, such as the poems that use question-and-answer templates: “Red Planet Application,” and “Lost Exit Interview.”  Mixing registers of language—bureaucratic jargon and the diction from standardized tests with the elusive moves of lyric poetry—that was a great pleasure to me, very playful and freeing.

I don’t remember any poems being more troublesome than others, but putting together a book structure that made sense was maddening.  The original manuscript had three sections with the “Backflash” poems—those poems that give glimpses of the ruined earth, the consequences of climate change—all in their own section, midway through the book. In the end, I scattered those poems throughout the book instead, thinking of them as brief associative flashbacks, glimpses that occur fleetingly and with warning, more the way memory actually works. With the new structure, I had to shorten the book to make the temporal balance work, cutting a couple of poems I still kind of miss.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The process for this book was difficult, sadly.  The manuscript started finalizing or placing in contests as soon as I begin to send it out—a good sign!—but took forever to land.  There was so much interest from many presses, but it took a very long time to get a commitment: this is a big problem with the poetry contest model.

Then, I finally got the book under contract, but I had a bad experience with that publisher; I ended up pulling the book from them after some unethical behavior on their part. Finally, my manuscript ended up in the hands of Lisa Ampleman and Shara Lessley, who went wild for it. I’m so glad I ended up in their hands; working with Acre Books (the micropress at The Cincinnati Review) has been terrific so far.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

“Don’t write what you know; Write towards what you don’t know.” Even when you are using content or forms that you’re familiar with, I think pushing your focus towards what is mysterious or strange—about language, about people, about an event or experience—is the most important thing you can do. In this book, I really exaggerated this approach by creating a whole world and set of circumstances that were wholly imaginary.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Honestly, I can’t believe I got away with a lyric poetry collection that’s mostly set on Mars, and that some people are taking it seriously. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

How did you find the title of your book?

The title of the book comes from a fairly unremarkable two lines in the last sonnet sequence, “Wind for Fugue and Pipes.”  I like it for its lyric strangeness—how can you tear the tilt from the seasons, exactly?—but also for the ways in which it hints at climate change, the possibility of a planet thrown off-kilter, violently and irrevocably.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

I wish! Food is very difficult and rationed on Mars.  Any recipes are probably vegetarian, too, since animals can’t really survive there.

I think the only drink mentioned in the book would be whiskey in the first poem: alluding to the genre of the Western, those frontier cowboys are always getting drunk. And one of the poem sequences, “Flashback: Seven Catastrophes,” taking place in Indonesia, mentions eating fried rice and coffee, as well as American pizza topped with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  Sorry, I don’t have a recipe for that! Too bad.





Monday, February 3, 2020

TBR: The Cactus League by Emily Nemens

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Jason Goodyear, star outfielder of the Los Angeles Lions, shows up in Arizona for baseball spring training and his life go sideways. The book follows his descent through the season but also follows the ripples and ramifications of his misdeeds across the entire team and its fanbase. It’s baseball book that’s really about community, vulnerability, and the possibility of starting over each spring.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I had a huge cast of characters—a whole expanded roster, all their friends and girlfriends and coaches. That scale and scope came pretty easily—I guess I have a slightly encyclopedic tendency. Cutting that list down was painful! There’s a whole b-string of Lions infielders resting in a drawer.

When I realized that Jason was going to be the backbone—he was already in every story, but his momentum and pull grew with each revision—I had to laser in on this very shy guy. He’s supremely private, an incredibly regimented athlete and reticent colleague. I wanted to preserve that opacity, but I also wanted to figure out where he’d show his cracks and what they would look like.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Being on submission is the pits. I was nervous and cranky and just certain no one wanted to publish me. But I remember talking on the phone to Emily Bell, my editor at FSG, about the book and she absolutely understood what I was doing—understood it and loved it and had ideas for how it could be better. I hung up with her and thought, “That went well?” It felt like an impossibly good first date. A week later she offered a preempt on the book.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Revise. Drafting and the intuition of new ideas is so important, but so much of the work of writing comes when you take that idea, pick it apart, polish it, discard it, revisit it, rewrite it, reorient it: I could keep going with the verbs that describe how important revision is to my process, but you get the idea.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

George Saunders, in his TPR [The Paris Review] Art of Fiction interview, talks about intuition steering the writing process. “The biggest thing I’ve learned about writing is that we tend to underestimate and marginalize the irrational, intuitive aspects of it.” I was working hard on this book—breaking rocks, revising line by line, structuring and restructuring for years—but I was surprised that some of my best, some of the biggest, decisions were intuitive ones. Like my Greek chorus began as a traditional one: a group of nameless observers, recounting the events of the past and foreshadowing the future. But then I realized the contemporary equivalent—a disembodied voice, speaking for a community, recounting the past, predicting next steps--that’s the marginalized journalist. That knocked the wind out of me.

How did you find the title of your book?

The Cactus League is the name of the major league baseball spring training league out in Arizona (the Florida league is the Grapefruit League). For people who know from baseball, the Cactus League is a quick-and-easy marker that this book is about spring training baseball. For the rest of us, I like the idea of a group of cactus, in cahoots. Cactus are prickly and desiccated and probably used to being on their own in the desert, but this notion of the “league” suggests some kind of fellowship. On some level, that describes my book. 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

There is a famous steakhouse in the book, Don and Charlie’s. It’s absolutely plastered with sports memorabilia, and they do a good prime rib, but the recipe isn’t so too complicated: don’t overcook it and add some drawn butter. Another character, Sara, is acting as something of a glorified a home health aide, and she’s learning how to cook for her person while on the job. She’s miserable at it—everything is either served raw or burnt to a crisp--but she’s trying!




Monday, January 27, 2020

Should Writing Teachers Suggest Students Abandon a Book?

By happenstance, I was in a folder of old blog files, and I found this piece that I wrote nearly 7 years ago…and thought, but I’m still pondering this question! So I did a couple of updates, and here we go…and, as noted, I’ve been pondering this question for a long time, so if you’re a current student of mine, please don’t freak out and imagine that I’m talking specifically about you and your work.

 My question: Can—should—I as a teacher tell a student not to write about a certain topic?

 I don’t mean out of a fear that a topic is taboo in society (ha, if anything is anymore) or because I personally don’t care for stories about family vacations. I also don’t mean the blanket statements that you find on the syllabi of many beleaguered undergrad creative writing teachers: “No vampires, no ghosts, no gnomes, no protagonist suicides to end the story.”

 There are several different times that trigger this question in my mind. First would be a story that (I’m guessing, but I know it’s a good guess) is very close personally to the student’s life in some way, but that’s a topic that is terribly overdone and hard to make fresh: an adult thinking back on his parents’ divorce, say, or two sisters cleaning out the house of their dead mother and discovering a so-called life-changing secret. Obviously there are always ways to make these stories interesting, but the student isn’t finding those ways (despite my excellent teaching skills, haha). Or maybe the student is a good writer—the skill is there—but the story itself is just plain dull. And is there a difference if by “story” what I mean is “novel-in-progress”? It’s one thing to work for several weeks on a 15-page story that’s trite, but a far different picture if the student is setting forth on a years-long journey to complete a novel that’s trite. 

On the other hand…do I really know with absolute certainty that this book will “never” get published? Is that the only goal for a writer? It shouldn’t be, though it seems that most students state that this IS their goal, of course. I wrote some novels that didn’t get published and learned quite a bit about writing from the experience. Wasn’t that enough? What would I have done if someone told me the stories were trite? Honestly, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the exact flaw of these particular works, but someone surely could have pointed out many other gigantic flaws during the process. Would I have listened? Would I have wanted to hear that? Would that have been helpful? 

In these situations, I often focus my teacher comments on ways to deepen the story and find more complexity, look at the hard parts of the story the writer is leaving unmined. When the story is too personal, that approach can be a problem, as the student writer may not want to discover (via a writing workshop) that, OMG, my relationship with my father is more challenged than I realized! They like their simplistic story as is, because that’s the story in their head. In real life that’s fine(ish), but not on the page. Is it my job to assist a student toward writing a dull, simple novel that (I know) will never be published? Is that a good day at the office for me?

 Another tricky time that makes me wonder about whether I should tell a student to choose another topic is when the student is turning in competent stories about, oh, married couples in Washington, D.C., but I happen to know that in real life this person has an amazing past of some sort that would provide material that I, as a writer, would KILL to have access to. When I mention this interesting other stuff they might write about, there’s usually a response along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and sometimes, “I would never write about that,” or the the full stop: “Not while my mother is still alive.” I always murmur some sort of encouraging something and say, “Maybe someday you’ll be ready for that” and reiterate that I, personally, think that stuff would make an AMAZING book or story, and we go back to the competent stories. While I harbor hope that someday they’ll be ready and that I’ve planted a seed, I’m still sort of sad watching them struggle away, mired in competency, when they could soar. 

And what about the student who isn’t a very skilled writer (yet) who is determined to tackle a giant subject—sometimes personal—that he/she just isn’t able to handle right now? I long to say, “Can’t you practice writing on a smaller canvas for a little while? You’re not Tolstoy (yet).” On the other hand, none of us are, and what’s the harm? I think a lot about this one while I’m writing up critiques that focus on first level things—commas, details, characterization—when on a smaller canvas, this same poor writer could also start learning about bigger issues like structure and conflict that would better serve the writer-in-training. 

Now, I also keep an eye out for a writer who is tackling a story that’s perhaps not theirs to tell (ahem, American Dirt <>). But even this situation makes me uncomfortable, as no one technically “owns” a story, so instead I bring up the complications in choosing to write about an experience well beyond one’s real-life parameters and outline the literary culture’s current response to such projects and suggest the publishing pitfalls that may be ahead and offer excellent resources like Alexander Chee’s response to the question “Do you have any advice for writing about people who do not look like you?” <>. But should I tell this student NOT to write American Dirt? 

Our culture is so bound and determined not to harbor any quitters…is this why students feel that need to plow through these novels that aren’t working?  Is there no way to bow gracefully and admit defeat? To step back and gather new resources before returning into the fray? To pause, instead of constantly plow forward? And yet, I’ve said it to classes a thousand times: Writing a novel is a marathon…sometimes you don’t feel like writing, but you just have to…persistence will triumph over raw talent. Blah, blah, blah. I know I even use the word “plow.” Often.

 I remember meeting a very accomplished writer who told me about a time in her MFA days when she had been struggling for months on a novel, bringing in chapters to workshop, and finally her instructor spoke with her privately and said, “You know, you just shouldn’t be writing that. It’s not a novel.”

 “Wow,” I said. “That must have been hard to hear.” 

The accomplished writer said, “Actually, it was very useful to hear. I stopped writing that novel and wrote something else instead.”

 Could it be that simple?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Etiquette for Post-MFA Life

This is a rerun, but my craft talk at the last Converse MFA residency was about life 

after the MFA, so I got to thinking about this old post, which I think is still relevant. Here are my thoughts, especially directed to those navigating post-MFA life. 

First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and think about how to stay connected with them.

Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:

DO reread what I said and take to heart that word: occasional. Don’t overdo it.

DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and acknowledge his/her publishing successes.

DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued (unless invited, which I'm pretty sure won't happen).

DON’T write only when you want/need something.

DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.

DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)

DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.

DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed (encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing blog? DO send an email offering something to your teacher!

DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart. Saying thank you is FREE!

DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own and find your place in the community.


I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.” Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them, either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.


I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)

And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your MFA program for the rest of your writing life.

Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP bar or Treman after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about something illegal or an abuse of power.)

In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.


Here are a couple of suggestions from some helpful people on Facebook:

DON'T write your former professors to ask questions you can google, and definitely DON'T ask vast questions that cannot be easily and quickly answered (i.e. "how does self-publishing work and should I do it?").

DO offer this advice to your buddies who are still in the program...I'm guessing that this information will be even momre helpful earlier in the program, so you can plan your exit strategy.


You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening emails from former students. But one last tip:

DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily and proudly buy it!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

TBR: Farah Rocks Fifth Grade (Book #1 in the Farah Rocks series) by Susan Muaddi Darraj

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences? 

Farah Hajjar is a smart, funny fifth grader who is protective of her little brother, who has learning challenges. She’s applying to an exclusive magnet school for sixth grade, but when a bully starts harassing her brother, she wonders if it’s better to stay where she is. She hatches a plot to solve the problem on her own, which causes havoc for everyone who loves her, including her parents and her best friend.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Farah’s character itself was fascinating to create – she was originally based on my daughter (who is, in fact, the one who asked me to write a book about a Palestinian American girl like her). But then, as all characters do, she began to take over the story in her own way. She was funnier than I thought she would be. And more stubborn.

The character who was the biggest challenge to write was Samir, because I wanted to make sure I represented him accurately. He has learning challenges because he was born pre-maturely; at the same time, he’s smart and very witty. In other words, I wanted him to have a distinct personality, and to make sure that his learning challenges didn’t consume his entire story. There were also details I didn’t know, about how schools incorporate special help for kids who have certain needs, so that took some careful research. In addition to reading books, articles, and websites, I talked to friends who had children with learning challenges. I hope I got Samir’s character right. He is a big figure in the book – an important member of the Hajjar family.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Writing about Palestinian American or Arab American characters is difficult in its own way. There are so many questions: Are you representing the community accurately? Is your depiction authentic? Are you sentimentalizing things that should be discussed with more rigor?

But then you run up against the way that the publishing industry views our community. In general, I have noticed a trend in the publishing industry (it stems from that the fact that, though there are many wonderful, well-intentioned editors, the the industry itself is not diverse). So publishers do want stories by writers of color, but often they prefer what we call “crisis” or “trauma” stories. They want stories of Arab American women who are facing racism, sexism, etc. There are tons of books on this topic, and it’s very important.

But guess what? Kids of color deserve to see themselves in books in which the characters who look like them are living happy, healthy, normal lives. They need to see themselves facing the same problems every American kid confronts. For example, in this first book in the series, Farah is dealing with a bully in her school, and the adults are not paying attention; which kid hasn’t experienced this? They all know how scary it can be to get on that school bus when there’s a bully on board.

Another difficulty I had was the fact that this is my debut children’s novel. I feel very lucky to be working with Capstone Books – their book list is already so diverse, and they are very open and inclusive. But I had a lot to learn about writing for children. My editor, Eliza Leahy, is phenomenal. She really helped me make the transition from writing for adults to writing for the 8-12 year-old age group. It’s a different world in many ways – and I had a lot to learn about it. She was a patient and helpful teacher. I think I revised my first draft seven times! And it’s only 20,000 words! I definitely felt myself “stretching” as a writer in the same way you do if you’re a poet who tries fiction, or if you’re a novelist who tries to write a play.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Well, my least favorite piece of writing advice is “write every day.” That is virtually impossible for many people to do. I mean, a lot of us have jobs, kids, family obligations. Who can actually write every day unless they’re wealthy and outsource help for housework, childcare, etc? So what I will say instead is something that worked for me: Make time for your writing life every day. If you can write, write. Some days you won’t be able to. But maybe you can read that new book by a writer you admire. Revise the first few pages of a story? Maybe you can sit with a blank page and work on a character sketch for a character. Maybe you can read an article on writing better dialogue. Maybe you can make a list of journals or contests where you want to submit your work.  In other words, spend time every day filling the well that is your writing career. I do this by making an appointment with myself every day; I wake up very early and sit with my coffee and my books and notebooks for a couple of hours, before the rest of the house wakes up. Some mornings are productive; others are just me, daydreaming, reading, thinking. It’s all good. It all counts. It’s all part of the process.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book? 

I was surprised by how important it was to me that I depict Farah and her family as working class people, dealing with the realities of life for the working class. They’re not technically poor, but they’re on the edge. Their security is precarious.

Furthermore, it was vital to me, as I kept writing, that Farah be aware of her family’s money problems. Many books show kids feeling secure in their family’s financial situation – the evidence of that is in what you don’t see in the book: the character never worries or talks about whether or not mom and dad have money. It never comes up in their minds.  For Farah, it does – and to me, that is quite authentic. Kids who grow up in poor and working class families are hyper-aware of their parents’ money woes. I wanted Farah to be that character that many young readers will recognize.

How did you find the title of your book?

In Arabic, “hajjar” means rocks or stones, and in the book, you learn that Farah’s friends have called her Farah Rocks since they were all in first grade together. So it seemed natural to continue from there, to play on the word “rocks” – it’s a word with a double meaning, and it seemed a fitting way to reflect the Arab American experience: there are layers of meanings.  The first book is Farah Rocks Fifth Grade; it’s a 4-book series, and each book’s title follows this formula.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Well, of course, in any book about Palestinian or Arab Americans, there will be a lot of food! As you might know, because I’ve been vocal about this on social media, I really dislike the way hummus has been repackaged into some kind of gourmet food. It’s sold in stores and doesn’t even taste very good, and there are all sorts of horrifying variations, like red velvet hummus and guacamole hummus. And it’s expensive! Hummus costs just pennies to make at home, and it takes less than five minutes. So yes, Farah is sharing the Hajjar family’s recipe in a special bonus section of the book! [Editor's note: This hummus is fantastic!!]



Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Best Books (I read in) 2019

Yes, yes…I know these books were not necessarily published in 2019. But it’s my list, so I can organize it as I please! Every year I cull down the books I’ve read over the year to 10ish or so of my favorites. Because I don’t want to stress myself out or hurt anyone’s feelings, I choose not to include books by friends or even “friends” I interact with on social media; instead, I list books I’ve read (and loved) that were written by friends in a separate section. And I’m sorry if I’ve bought your book and not yet read it…I’ll get to it. One of the great pleasures of reading is finding the exact right book for the exact right time and place and mental space. (That’s why I’ve always got at least 250 unread books ready and waiting!)

So, in no particular order:

Dare Me by Megan Abbott: Megan Abbott gets lumped into the mystery/thriller sections, but no one is better about writing about women and girls and power and secrets and friendships. Yes, dead bodies show up, but Abbott’s work is really about group dynamics, and Dare Me may the best of all, exploring the dark world of competitive cheerleading. Read the book before you watch the new series on the USA Network. (Now that I’ve typed that, I’m stressed out, wondering if You Will Know Me is better than Dare Me. Hmmm…read them both!)

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld: Dark and elegant, literary and gripping, a book you can’t put down. There’s a missing child, so beware if that’s a trigger for you, but Denfeld finds the humanity in each character. The ending is something of a miracle, and that last paragraph makes me tear up, just thinking of it right now.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: This book had been on my shelf forever, and it was my experience last year with falconry that finally got me to crack open the cover. What a stunning memoir, weaving together the author’s grief over the death of her father and the way she copes with this loss, by training a beautiful, wild goshawk named Mabel. I’m not usually one for long passages of descriptive writing, but I would listen to Macdonald describe the pavement on a strip mall parking lot. Luckily, she chooses instead to describe meadows and birds and trees and nature. An exquisite eye, a singular memoir.

*The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: Keep reading, even if you think this doesn’t sound like your kind of book! A group of 22 men meet once a year to re-enact the horrifically iconic football moment in the 80s when Lawrence Taylor tackles quarterback Joe Theismann and his leg gruesomely snaps as millions watched on Monday Night Football. (Do NOT google this video.) The book has a tight focus—this one weekend, at this one hotel where the men gather—but the point of view is expansive, touching (I believe) each of the men. (That’s right: 22 POVs!) And while it’s helpful to know something about football, this book is really about men and love and the meaning of ritual and aging and nostalgia and so much more. *Tied for my most favorite book of the year!

Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty: A lyrical memoir of grief set (mostly) in weather-wracked Provincetown, MA. Doty’s lover has died of AIDS, during the height of the epidemic, and how can one find the words to convey such a loss? How can one find a way to continue living? Metaphors of the natural world and the landscape of Cape Cod feel one thousand percent fresh here; Doty is a highly-regarded poet, and each word in this memoir feels perfectly, effortlessly selected. Possibly the best grief memoir I've ever read.

The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey by Toi Derricotte: Hard questions about identity and race. Not a single easy answer, only difficult self-revelations leading to more difficult questions. Feels to me as relevant today as it was when published in 1997. If you responded to Citizen by Claudia Rankine, you’ll respond to this book…and if you’re me, you’ll actually prefer Derricotte. (Did I really just say that??!!) 

The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Griffels: My husband randomly picked up this book in an independent bookstore in a town we were visiting, loved it, and suggested I read it, especially as I was touring through the Midwest this summer. I loved it too: essays about growing up in the “Rust Belt”—which is a place not an oft-annoying political voting bloc—essays that muse about the area’s rise and fall, and what it means to live in a place that used to “make things.” If you grew up as a Cleveland Browns fan, there’s an essay in here that you can’t miss!

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Focused and spare, the haunting story of an African American boy in the 60s who unfairly ends up in a horrific juvenile facility. Equally awful is the depiction of regular life outside the facility under Jim Crow laws. (Based on a real institution in Florida that for years covered up countless deaths of young boys.)

*The Blind Side by Michael Lewis: Another football book? Well, yes—though this book is much more than a book about football. It’s a book about the education system, white privilege, money, class, how college recruiting really works, how NFL recruiting really works, and the myriad ways talented kids fall through mile-wide cracks. If you’ve got in mind that dopey “white savior narrative” movie starring Sandra Bullock, THIS BOOK IS NOT THAT. That storyline is tucked in, and of course that’s what Hollywood would choose to focus on, but on the page, no one escapes Lewis’s sharp eye, and he is both merciless and merciful. A thorough reporter, but also a superb narrative writer. *Tied for my most favorite book of the year!

Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton: More football?? (Confession: I’m writing a novel about a football player.) Anyway, this classic is a bit dated, but still hilarious and smart about football and what makes a “team.” Paris Review editor George Plimpton is a charming and self-deprecating narrator/reporter who goes “undercover” at the Detroit Lions training camp for the 1963 season…okay, so no one believes the skinny guy who went to Yale is a professional football player. But he manages to blend in enough to hear all the good stories, and he even finds himself out on the field, playing quarterback—!!


Here are the books written by my friends that I loved reading this year:

Crude Angel by Suzanne Cleary: Smart, sharp, and funny poems by my fabulous Converse low-res MFA colleague/roommate, tackling a range of subjects to include Morgan Fairchild’s lipstick.

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye: Lovely short stories that take on the writer’s most challenging topic of all, happiness. Yes, a collection can be cohesive without being linked. This is one to study if you’re assembling your own collection.

Stay by Tanya Olson: Masterful poems, especially the long poem “txt me im board” that takes us through a hairy airplane ride through life and death and art, with these lines I love so, so much: “God takes no poet / until his best poem is written / You my friend will save us all.”

Meteor by C.M. Mayo: Gorgeous prose poems that offer a sense of narrative, along with an extraordinary wash of language and images.

Anything You Want by Geoff Herbach: Hilarious and voicey YA book about the world’s most heart-breakingly optimistic boy, by my new Converse MFA colleague! For all the humor and deluded optimism, these characters have a tough road, and the author pulls no punches. I loved this book in 2019, but wow, would I have really loved it when I was 14, back in 19-mumble-mumble.

The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose by Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade: Incisive essays for people who don’t think “feminist” is a bad word co-written, back and forth, to various prompts, by two of the most creative writers I know. (Denise is yet another fabulous Converse colleague, and Julie has visited our program several times!)

The Lightness of Water by Rhonda Browning White: Gritty and voicey short stories set (mostly) in Appalachia by my Converse MFA fiction thesis student! I admired these stories when I worked with Rhonda on her thesis, and to see the whole collection honed to a razor's edge, makes me as proud as can be. (debut)

Be with Me Always by Randon Billings Noble: Blazingly honest and elegant essays about the ways things and absences haunt us. If you don't believe me, you can read a very short essay from the collection right here...and thank me later:

One Night Gone by Tara Laskowski: Two storylines intertwine and intersect in this fabulously atmospheric mystery about a missing girl set in an East Coast beach town, seen in the full onslaught of summer in the 80s, and then in the eerie off-season in contemporary times.

Scattered Clouds: New & Selected Poems by Reuben Jackson: Real DC of “Chocolate City” days, jazz, Trayvon Martin, and modern life tinged with elegiac undertones create a powerful brew. (I played Ellington as I read, which was just perfect.)

Once Removed by Colette Sartor: This collection of short stories won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award, and it’s easy to see why. Lush and aching, each story is a deep dive that could be its own novel. I didn’t want this book to end. (debut)

~~Happy reading in 2020--and happy new year to all!~~

I'm guessing that Work in Progress will be quietish (if not fullly quiet) until mid-January, when I'll start up with another round of author interviews. As always, thank you for reading this blog that now contains more than 2000 posts!


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