Monday, February 11, 2019

TBR: How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship by Eva Hagberg Fisher

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 book is, at its heart, about intimacy. With our work, with our most beloved friends, our families, our chosen families, our doctors, our colleagues, ourselves. It is about how I was loved so much that I was transformed from being a very lonely person into a less lonely person.

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?

I wasn’t aware of boundaries while I was writing, though now that it’s coming out I wonder what kind of covenants of secrecy I’ve broken with my family, my friends, etc. I did break one formal boundary, which was about time and foreshadowing: I kept foreshadowing the character Allison’s death, in increasingly present ways, which I did in order to mirror my experiential sense of her dying - which is that I kept knowing that she was going to die, and was still absolutely floored with grief when she did.

I love that your question indicates the presence of courage, but I’m not aware of being particularly courageous. I mostly feel scared a lot. But I wrote this book because I felt driven to, and I wanted to try to solve certain structural and creative issues that I had thought about a lot in terms of memoir as a genre, and I wanted people to get to meet, in some sense, my friend who had died, and so I didn’t really have a lot of analytical self-reflection about how brave or not the writing was while I was doing it. 

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

Ahhhhh so many highs, which are never high enough. A starred Publisher’s Weekly review. Being on various lists - Entertainment Weekly and Nylon’s top 50 2019 books list. Tremendously beautiful blurbs. Knowing that I accomplished my lifelong dream. And then lows - the only lows that I’ve felt have been entirely self-inflicted, and all about envy and ego and self-confidence. For instance, yesterday I got the February issue of O Magazine, and wasn’t in it (I hadn’t expected to be, but hope lights the heart forever), and I felt an acute sense of rejection and loss. I had to reach out and ask a friend with experience to remind me that I don’t need to be in charge of my book. I did my job, which was writing it. The rest is out of my hands.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It really helps if you need to write to live - I became a working journalist fifteen years ago and knew that if I didn’t land a pitch or file a story, I couldn’t afford rent. It compressed any creative fear that I might have had, and gave me a really pragmatic approach to writing. So when I sold my book, I just very pragmatically did my job and met my deadlines. I like a very clear exchange of work and money, and I like to need to write in order to afford my life.

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

How linear I was able to make extremely non-linear experiences. I have pages and pages of attempted structural outlines, and notes of conversations with my editor, and it felt like it was totally impossible to get a clear narrative out of the events that had occurred and the way that I felt about them, but here we are, with a story that goes from A to B to C, that has a beginning and an ending. 

How do you approach revision?

I wrote about 47 drafts - so I love revision. I approach it with a lot of enthusiasm - something I learned from working with editors for years. A good editor can feel like a miracle worker; my book editor is truly the best. With this, I went over and over and over the text until I felt like I had the basic map, and then I started doing chapter-level revisions, then got more and more granular. I would often email sections to myself and purposefully read them while I was distracted - on the BART or walking around - to see how it felt. For the last few months, I read it out loud to myself every night before I went to sleep to feel which sections dragged or felt boring/obvious. I wrote the book in many parts over a period of a few years, and I think that the last few months of reading it through / out loud smoothed out so many of the potentially rough edges.

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

The famous Milk Bar birthday cake cake makes two appearances!!!! When I was slipping into a coma, the last thing I thought to myself I wanted to do was - finally make that cake. Two years later, I did. It took three days but I did it! The recipe is here:

[EDITOR’S NOTE: You must click over and look at the picture of this cake!]





Monday, February 4, 2019

TBR: Learning To See by Elise Hooper

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, 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?

LEARNING TO SEE is historical fiction based on the life of pioneering artist Dorothea Lange. This novel tells the story of her transformation from San Francisco’s most successful society portraitist in the 1920s to a documentary photographer determined to show the truth of what was happening to America’s poor and disenfranchised in the 1930s and ‘40s.

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

Dorothea captivated me from the beginning because of the idealism that inspired her work, but she was a complicated woman who had to make difficult choices that placed many stresses on her personal life. I wanted to provide context for her work and life’s decisions so readers could draw their own conclusions.

I also enjoyed fleshing out painter Maynard Dixon, Dorothea’s first husband, because he cut a colorful figure, romantic and talented, but he was not necessarily what you would call a great husband.

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

An important source for me when learning about Dorothea Lange was an oral history she had done for the University of California. I had downloaded the  more than 300-page transcript from the online library and used it often. When I visited Lange’s archives at the Museum of California in Oakland, I realized the interview that I had been relying upon was abridged and the original was spread out over nine binders. I experienced momentary panic that I’d missed important information, but once I started reading through the binders, I saw that the unabridged version contained every word that was said. Every word, all the ummms, the nonsequiters, everything. So, whew, I realized everything was okay!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write what you would want to read.

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

As I wrote this novel between 2015 – 2017, the political climate of our country shifted in a way that felt very relevant to Dorothea Lange. She was a figure who experienced a major awakening during the 1930s and her work reflected her activism.

As I took part in the Women’s March in 2016, I couldn’t help but think that Dorothea would have loved to have seen so many women taking to the streets and raising their voices to support marginalized Americans. I also found myself surprised (and disheartened) that so many of our current day issues are similar to what was happening in the 1930s and ‘40s, but Dorothea’s belief in the power of helping people through storytelling inspired me and kept me uplifted. Her storytelling took the form of creating images, but storytelling can come through many different creative forms and it’s more important now than ever to keep talking and learning from each other.

How did you find the title of your book?
The working title of this book was LANGE for a long time, but I came across an interview with one of Dorothea’s grandchildren in which the she described how Dorothea always told the kids that “seeing” was a learned skill and that it was important to “learn to see.” My editor and I thought this idea captured the book so we went with it.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Ha, I think Depression-Era food is best left alone. 




Monday, January 28, 2019

TBR: Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist: Stories by Colleen Kearney Rich

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?

THINGS YOU WON’T TELL YOUR THERAPIST is a collection of flash fiction about people with secrets. Everyone in the book has something to hide and the reader gets a glimpse into their private moments.

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

The story that was the most fun to write was “Petty Cash.” I wrote the first draft in a Kathy Fish online Fast Flash workshop. What I love about those workshops is that you are writing fast and don’t have time to do a lot of second-guessing about the story’s viability. It came out pretty much intact, and I love that. I wish they all just flowed like that and that I knew immediately where the story was going.

The title story gave me the most trouble. I have always wanted to write a list story, but I just couldn’t make it work in that form. I’m very happy with the resulting story, but I still haven’t written a successful list story. Maybe this year.

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

The highs are probably also the lows. I submitted the chapbook to a lot of contests and had to recompile the manuscript each time to meet the contest’s submission rules (page counts, table of contents, etc.). It was finalist in in the Black River Chapbook Competition at Black Lawrence Press and on the short list for the Santa Fe Writers Project awards. I didn’t win. These are two of my favorite publishers, and I would love to work with them one day. It was really rewarding to know some people out there liked the book enough to make it a finalist.

While I was at the Hambidge Center in Georgia for a writing residency, I decided to submit it during Finishing Line Press’s open reading period. They were interested in it. They are primarily a poetry publisher, but the format works with flash. Several of my stories are a single paragraph.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style still has some of the best writing advice there is. One I live by is: Omit needless words. Writing “tight” in both fiction and nonfiction is critical. Omitting needless words and tightening up other’s writing is a big part of my day job as a magazine editor. I know it is heart breaking to have to “kill your darlings”(another great piece of writing advice from William Faulkner), but it is necessary if you are writing for an audience. Readers don’t have a lot of patience so I feel it is important to not waste their time. One of the things I love about writing flash is the paring down of the text so that every word matters.

I am a fiction editor at Literary Mama, and I think overwriting is what causes a lot of stories to fail. Sometimes I can see the bones of the story that the writer is trying to tell, but they are writing all over the place.

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

I was surprised at how many dogs show up in the book, and I am still really puzzled by it. I don’t have a dog. I am more of a cat person. In fact, my elderly cat is sitting here with me as I type this. Good thing she can’t read. I need to write more cat stories.

How do you approach revision?

For me, getting distance from the work is a big part of revision. I do like putting things away for a little while. When writing, I am so immersed in the scene that I really can’t see typos or missing words. When I take a break from it, it breaks that spell and I can see everything so much clearer. I also have a writing group that I rely on. It is really valuable to have those early readers to flag things that they are confused by and get a general reaction to a piece.

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

Belgian waffles! In one of the stories that takes place at a diner. But, like the woman in the story, I don’t make them at home. I have recently shopped for a waffle iron but haven’t taken the plunge yet. Do you have a waffle recipe? I would like to find a good one.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t make Belgian waffles, but I swear by the classic waffle recipe in The Joy of Cooking, my go-to cookbook since the olden days. And let the record show that I’m afraid to use that whole cup of butter…half a cup feels daring enough. Recipe:




Monday, January 21, 2019

TBR: Meteor by C.M. Mayo

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, 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?

Meteor is a pocket-constellation of persona poems. In other words, these are not memoir but confections of the imagination. They are also— to steal part of the title of an anthology in which the title poem appeared— my goodbye to the Twentieth Century. (That anthology was American Poets Say Goodbye to the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal.) I think of this collection, starting with “Meteor” and ending with “The Building of Quality,” as my song to and of the twilight of the Pax Americana.

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?

I don’t know if there is a boundary between poetry and fiction, but if there is I broke it. Many of of these poems I had originally considered flash or micro fictions, and indeed a few were originally published as short stories— but then I had too much fun chopping up and arranging stanzas! Does this take courage? Yes and no. Yes, because making any art takes courage; there is always the risk that someone, for whatever bizarre or valid reason, may attack your work. On the other hand, no, this does not require courage. I’m old enough to realize it’s just sad that someone who would attack my work doesn’t have anything better to do. In my experience, those who attack other artists are even better at attacking themselves.

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

It was mostly low, as in deep down in the salt mines, nicely preserved. These poems were written by a younger poet who moved on to writing tomes of nonfiction and an epic historical novel and, somewhere in there, edited a literary magazine and a collection of Mexican writing in translation. From my informal polling of published poets it can take many, many, many and multitudinous submissions before a book of poetry gets published. Let’s just say, that sounds believable to me. In the poetry world a common path to publication is to submit your manuscript to a contest to be judged anonymously—your name and address and any other identifying information stripped off the manuscript. I submitted the manuscript to contests, but irregularly, lackadaisically. About a year ago I decided it was time to make this happen and, bingo, it did. Linwood D. Rumney, author of Abandoned Earth, who selected Meteor for the Gival Press Award for Poetry, and whom I look forward to meeting one day, I send you showers of lotus petals!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

If you want to do it, you’ll do it. If you want to watch TV and scroll through social media, you’ll do that. You could train a giraffe to ice-skate, if you really wanted to. Now whether there’s a market that wants to fill a stadium to watch your ice-skating giraffe, that’s another question. And the market isn’t everything. Sometimes the market is just stupid. I’m thinking of Roman entertainments. They liked to watch giraffes getting gored by rhinos.

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

The same thing that has surprised me in writing all of my books, that there is a door in consciousness that opens.

Who is your ideal reader?

Someone who can contemplate nuance and ambiguity and, above all, see with the heart.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes* I might share?)
No, but I will be delighted to share my recipe for baba ghanoush. Roast a bunch of eggplants whole. When cool, peel off the skins. With a fork, mash the eggplant with tahini, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil, and plain good quality yoghurt. This will look like a nasty grey mess, but that’s OK, it tastes great. Sprinkle parsley and paprika on top for both added flavor and color.



READ A POEM FROM THIS BOOK, “In the Garden of Lope de Vega”:

NOTE: Look for C.M. Mayo at the AWP Conference in Portland in March!

March 29 ~  Gival Press 20th Anniversary Celebration Reading event, 7 PM

March 30 ~ signing at the Gival Press table in the bookfair, 10 AM - 11:30 AM

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Plan Ahead for February!

Another class I'm excited about, especially since it's in my own town of Alexandria at the beautiful Torpedo Factory arts center!

Thursday, February 21, 2019
CBAW + Torpedo Factory Art Center Creative Writing Workshop
Hosted by Community Building Art Works and Torpedo Factory Art Center
6:30 PM ~ 8:30

No creative writing experience required! Join Community Building Art Works for our monthly community building creative writing workshop in partnership with the Torpedo Factory Art Center. February's workshop will be led by author Leslie Pietrzyk. Doors at 6:30, workshop begins promptly at 7 pm.

About the Workshop: Scene-Building: Making Your World Real
Learn some tricks and tips about how to create lively, interesting scenes that will make your readers feel right there with you. Appropriate for prose writers at all levels of experience. (And poets who want to play with prose!)


Friday, January 11, 2019

January Prompt Class at Politics & Prose

Join me! This class is always fun and productive...beginners welcome, as are more experienced writers.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019
6:30-9 p.m.
Right Brain Writing: People
Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the people in our lives—the people we know, the people we think we know, and, of course, the deepest mystery of all: ourselves. No writing experience necessary! This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer.

More information/registration:

Monday, December 17, 2018

Favorite Books (I Read) of 2018

As usual, this list is taken from the books I’ve read during 2018. Who cares what year a good book was published, really? I believe in buying lots of books and then letting them rise to the surface at the right time. I also believe in keeping this list to 10ish, so I’ve forced myself to be ruthless. What are the books I urged onto other people? The books that haunt me months later?

One difficulty with my list is that I try to keep it free of books written by my friends, which feels more honest to me, but I am lucky to have SO MANY accomplished and prolific writer friends! Also, in this age of social media, is someone I know from Facebook a “friend” or a friend? What if I met someone once at an event…are they my friend/“friend” and therefore excluded from my list? My imperfect solution is to keep a separate, unranked list of books I loved that I read this year that were written by my friends (below) and hope no one hates me. Also, I did let one book blur the “friend”/friend line to sneak onto the first list.

Presented in random order:

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson: I read this in a single morning and ached all day for these young girls. 

The Power, Naomi Alderman: Smart, dark, well-constructed…and a book you’ll want to discuss immediately with someone as you turn that last page. If you have a book club, this one should be required reading!

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones: This author is a dazzling reader/presenter of her work, so catch her if you can; this book is utterly absorbing, about a newlywed African-American man accused of a crime he didn’t commit and what happens to a fledgling marriage.

You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld: What delightfully dark and modern humor. Each story felt complete yet I longed to read more, more, more. Spin each of these stories off into a novel, please.

Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond: This non-fiction book made me queasy because the author totally—with verve and vigor—nailed each and every awful thing about the football industrial complex…yet I still find myself shouting, “Get him!” at my TV screen on Sunday afternoons this autumn. Thought-provoking in the best way.

Eleven Kind of Loneliness, Richard Yates: A reread of this classic story collection. I wrote in my book journal, “Like stepping into an Edward Hopper painting,” and I’m pretty sure saying more than that won't create a clearer picture of these bleak and human stories.

The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai: About the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 80s and a totally immersive book that will break your heart even as you can’t stop turning the pages. There’s a modern storyline interwoven, ensuring that we feel the ripple effects of this tragic epidemic.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn: Creepy, complicated characters doing creepy, complicated things. I found the TV show to be addictive, but the book topped the show. Really, I suggest checking out both.

Calypso, David Sedaris: Deep and hard exploration of family and loss. Yes, he’s funny, of course. But he’s so much more, and that final revelation will mule-kick you in the gut. I’d read many of these pieces previously in The New Yorker but encountering them arranged with an arc in mind gave new resonance. Also, I didn't think much about the title until I did, doing some minor research, and there's more and deep resonance with this choice.

Educated, Tara Westover: A memoir about a girl who grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, so beyond convention that the youngest kids never went to school. Yet the author manages to extricate herself from this insular world. Harrowing and relentless and brutal in its honesty: yet the author never neglects to treat even the villainous people with compassion and humanity. Extraordinary. If I had to select one book that was my favorite of the year, right this minute it would be this one. (Runners-up are The Great Believers and An American Marriage.)

The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani: I loved how the author of this novel captured the nuances of the uncomfortable relationship the domestic “employer” has with the domestic “employed,” the trickiness of outsourcing family labor traditionally done by women. There’s a dramatic and horrible opening…yet in my mind that almost isn’t even the point of this chilly and chilling book.

Descent, Tim Johnston: Depending on the kind of reader you are, you’ll pick this up for the literary cred and stay for the suspense, or vice versa. In any event, this book delivers both, multiplied by 1000, as a family deals with the abrupt disappearance of teenage daughter/sister. I defy you to close this book once you reach the last third! (This is the “friend” book that I fudged into this section because, well, just because I’m in charge here! And because I was reading it on an airplane and was GRATEFUL the plane had to circle for 20 extra minutes so I could finish reading it!)


How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman: A hybrid mix of fact and fiction, these stories and essays left me breathless, and not just because the author was in one of my fiction workshops at Johns Hopkins, but because the writing is that assured. (A debut!)

Second Shift, essays, Susan Tekulve: Travel and food explored with a nuanced, observant eye, evoked in exquisite language.

Monsoon Mansion, Cinelle Barnes: A ravishingly assured debut memoir by one of our Converse MFA grads who grew up in dire circumstances in the Philippines and who found a way to survive to tell the tale, elegantly. (A debut!)

Sad Math, poems, Sarah Freligh: The type of poetry I love most of all, accessible yet resounding with heartfelt depth, like the continued quiver of a tuning fork.

The Second O of Sorrow, poems, Sean Thomas Dougherty: The Rust Belt gets so much clear-eyed, deeply honest love here that it’s impossible not to see beauty, not to feel an endless ache.

The Promise of Failure, John McNally: A smart and honest memoir/craft book about the author’s (and our) ongoing struggles with the writing life and how failure fits into that life (and any life, really).

The Incurables, Mark Brazaitis: Tough linked short stories about tough people trained to be stoic; the title story is especially incredible.

Crumb-Sized, poems, Marlena Chertock: Don’t let the science motif intimidate you; these poems are personal, revealing, and stunning. And a gold star for the lovely book design!

This Could Hurt, Jillian Medoff: I think the workplace is under-represented in literary fiction, especially when I see the riches available when one of the primary characters is a sharp-eyed female corporate boss lost in New York City’s rat race.

The Accidental Bride, Janice Harayda: When you want a totally light-hearted, amusing & charming but also SMART book about wedding woes!

First Comes Love, Marian Winik: A harrowing & deeply honest memoir about being in love with the wrong person who is also exactly the right person.

Carry Her Home, Caroline Bock: Linked stories about grief and family and a New York of the past. (I first met the author in one of my classes at Politics & Prose!) 

The Balcony, Jane Delury: France, the French, and lots of food! For some that might be all you need to hear! For the rest, this novel-in-stories is an elegant evocation of a house in France and its complex history. (A debut!)


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