Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Favorite Books Bookshelf, July 31, 2018

I recently was forced to move masses of books off and then later back onto their shelves for a carpet cleaning project, and it occurred to me that it might be fun for me to create a record of the books that are on my hallowed FAVORITE BOOKS BOOKSHELF at this particular moment in time. The shelf is pretty packed, so the rule is that I can’t really add a book without subtracting one. The other rule is that I have to remind myself that some of these books may not be the “best” book ever, but that it’s on this shelf because it hit me at the exact right time, or the reading experience was extraordinary in some memorable way that enhanced the book, or, well, because I don’t really care that this isn’t the “best” book ever. Also, for sure, some actually ARE the “best” ever. Usually, I have a sort of feeling as I’m reading and finishing. If I have to ask myself if a book should go on this shelf, I know it shouldn’t.

A few words to remind everyone that I’ve been around about as long as a sequoia, and I’m sure this list reflects to some extent a reader coming of age during a certain time/place. So be it. That is who I am. And this is my secret place where I separate the art from the artist and try not to worry about writers who might be dicks in real life. Additionally, I try not to put books by friends in this area, because those books get their own special shelves. And I (mostly) resist including children’s books.

I’ll also say that I have shelves of other books that I absolutely love! But usually there’s a little something extra that makes me send a book to this shelf. I’m really loathe to remove (or even reread) books that have been here for a long, long, long time…so if you’re going to question me in a deep way about why a book is here, it’s quite possible that I may not be able to answer to your satisfaction or even coherently. Suffice to say that typing each of these titles, touching each of these covers as I unshelved and reshelved did so much more than spark joy, as Marie Kondo suggests: Each book reminded me of who I was, who I am, and how I got to here.

Oh, and for those of you worried that you’re not finding The Great Gatsby here--!!—it, and The Catcher in the Rye, are in with the writing books, due to their outsize influence on me and my writing life.

Presented alphabetically here, but PLEASE don’t think I have them alphabetized on the shelf? What, you think I’m crazy?!? (Also, forgive me for being too lazy to italicize titles.)

Abbott, Lee K.: Love Is the Crooked Thing
Ansay, A. Manette: Vinegar Hill
Austen, Jane: Pride & Prejudice
Baker, Nicholson: The Mezzanine
Black, Robin: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
Bodsworth, Fred: Last of the Curlews
Boswell, Tom: Why Time Begins on Opening Day
Bronson, Po: Bombardiers
Campbell, Bonnie Jo: Mother, Tell Your Daughters
Canin, Ethan: The Palace Thief
Capote, Truman: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Cather, Willa: My Antonia
Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
Didion, Joan: Play It as It Lays
Doerr, Harriet: Stones for Ibarra
Downham, Jenny: Before I Die
Eliot, T.S.: Collected Poems
Ellis, Bret Easton: Less Than Zero
Eugenides, Jeffrey: The Virgin Suicides
Ferris, Joshua: Then We Came to the End
Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Pat Hobby Stories
Ford, Richard: Independence Day
Frazier, Ian: The Great Plains
Fried, Seth: “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” One Story magazine
Gilchrist, Ellen: Victory Over Japan
Hamper, Ben: Rivethead
Hemingway, Ernest: A Moveable Feast
Hemingway, Ernest: In Our Time
Hemingway, Ernest: The Sun Also Rises
Hemingway, Ernest: Winner Take Nothing
Hempel, Amy: Reasons to Live
Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day
Jong, Erica: Fear of Flying
Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
LaChapelle, Mary: House of Heroes
LeCarre, John: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
Lowell, Susan: Ganado Red
MacLean, Norma: A River Runs through It
McCarthy, Cormac: All the Pretty Horses
McEwan, Ian: Atonement
McInerney, Jay: Bright Lights, Big City
McKinght, Reginald: The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas
Melville, Herman: Moby-Dick
Minot, Susan: Monkeys
O’Connor, Flannery: The Complete Stories
Plimpton, George: Open Net
Porter, Katherine Anne: Pale Horse, Pale Rider
Richard, Mark: The Ice at the Bottom of the World
Salinger, J.D.: Nine Stories
Shipstead, Maggie: “Astonish Me,” One Story magazine
Shriver, Lionel: We Need to Talk about Kevin
Simpson, Eileen: Poets in their Youth
Smith, Patti: Just Kids
Stafford, Jean: The Mountain Lion
Strand, Mark: The Continuous Life
Swarthout, Glendon: The Homesman
Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
Townsend, Sue: The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole
Townsend, Sue: The Secret Life of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾
Updike, John: Pigeon Feathers
Wakefield, Dan: New York in the 50s
White, E.B.: Stuart Little
Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass
Wolfe, Tom: The Bonfire of the Vanities
Woodrell, Daniel: Winter’s Bone
Yates, Richard: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

SILVER GIRL Available at a Stock-Up Price of $9!

Passing along this information from my wonderful publisher, Unnamed Press:

Hunting Party by Agn├Ęs Desarthe and Tacky Goblin by T. Sean Steele are both officially out today, which marks 50 books here at Unnamed Press!

To celebrate, we're offering a 50% discount on our website for the next 5 days. Experience the books that made us, and take a chance on something new.

When we think about all of the years of work (from writing to editing to production and publicity) that went into each of our 50 titles and the wonderful authors who made them, it's almost hard to believe. We're going to enjoy this for a little while.

Have a look at our website, where the discount is in full effect, and most books are around $8 each. (INCLUDING SILVER GIRL!!!!!!!!)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Best Writing Books Ever...according to this writer!

Here are my favorite craft books on writing (in random order). Each came along to me at exactly the right time, and most are either highlighted the hell out of or stickied up. If you’re new to writing and even this curated list feels daunting, I’ll follow with a few quick thoughts on what I think each book is best for. (NOTES: These are not resources for how to publish. Also, because I mostly writing fiction, these skew that way.)

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner 
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
How Fiction Works by James Wood
Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood
Vivid and Continuous by John McNally
The Promise of Failure by John McNally
The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell
Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels & More
Crash Course: 52 Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide by Robin Black
The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life by Lori A. May
Naming the World edited by Bret Anthony Johnston [writing exercises]


Bird by Bird is like a funny, generous friend who says smart things and assures you it will all be all right. This is a good first writing book.

On Writing is also a good first writing book. There’s a memoir in the beginning about King’s horrific accident/recovery that feels tempting to skip, but I suggest reading it. Also, don’t listen to him when he says a novel draft should be completed in (I think) six months. I mean, REALLY??

John Gardner’s books are the one that will have to be pried out of my cold, dead hands. Everything I am comes from those books. BUT—I find that my low-res students at Converse often don’t like his “dictatorial” writing style which distresses me. I like his authority and confidence (and less so the focus on the male writer…a product of the time, alas).

Prose and Wood are great for learning how to close-read, and I’d say that some knowledge of Chekhov and other “ancient” masterpieces will be helpful. (Of course such knowledge is helpful anyway.)

You can find a very structural, “how to” approach in Building Fiction. Thrill Me is also helpful in approaching concrete topics. I like Vivid and Continuous because the topics addressed move beyond the “traditional” craft books, staking out new territory.

If you’re feeling lost and uncertain about yourself as a writer, I suggest The Promise of Failure. Also Crash Course, which intersperses writing tips with thoughts on managing your overall writing life.

And managing and shaping your writing life in a big-picture way is what The Write Crowd is all about.

Memoir Your Way offers creative approaches to sharing your life story.

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant thinker. The last essay in this book is something I refer to again and again; it’s not exaggerating that reading and rereading it informs my writing at its very core.

You can’t have a better guide leading you into CNF than the smart and generous Beth Kephart in Handling the Truth.

The Half-Known World is like listening to a series of intelligent and interesting craft lectures, which is what these chapters originally were (delivered at Warren Wilson).

Finally, Naming the World is the best of many prompt writing books/guides I’ve consulted. If I can only choose one, this is the one I’m snatching up.


Let me add that I know there are million more excellent books on writing—and that I own maybe a half-million of those. This is just my winnowed-down, whittled list…the life-changing list that I can’t live without, the list that if you were my student, there’d be some point where I’d exclaim something like, “I know exactly which book you need to read,” and I’m 99 percent sure would be one of these. 

Happy reading, and, more importantly, happy writing!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Flash Fiction Contest!

South 85, the online journal of the Converse low-residency MFA program, is holding its first-ever writing contest…for flash fiction. First prize is $500 and the deadline is August 15, 2018. Blind submissions only, and here are the rest of the details:

Monday, June 18, 2018

Essentials of the Writing Life: Gratitude

This is not one of those posts where I talk about how lucky and grateful I am (though I most certainly am lucky and grateful). Instead, this is a post where I (gently?) suggest that expressing gratitude to others is part of the responsibility of being a good literary citizen.

It’s not as though these are the only ways to express gratitude, but these are some of my practices:

1.     Thank the editors who publish your work. An email is fine, but a handwritten note is even more notable (if you can find a mailing address!). Did someone read a zillion manuscripts to select yours? Did someone take time to offer suggestions that improved your work? Did someone correct your typos? Did someone tweet about the new issue? Did someone do all of these things for no or little pay?

2.     Thank your teachers. A spoken thank you is fine, an email is better, and a handwritten note is a true gift. Did your teacher spend a lot of time reviewing your manuscript and making notations? Did your teacher spend time preparing a class that was smart and logical and organized? Did your teacher treat you as a writer, as a professional? Did your teacher do this for (trust me!) never enough pay? (And here’s my plug for a special thanks for those teachers who work on your thesis. No one’s going to say no to a small, thoughtful gift!)

3.     Thank your community. A spoken thank you from time to time is fine, an email is better, and a mention in your book’s acknowledgments is the best of all. As you write, try to keep a running list (no, that’s not going to jinx whether the book will be published or not; instead it’s a way to be reminded of how many people are rooting for you; also, on a dark day, it’s a pleasant fantasy to envision those names in print). Spell people’s names correctly. Spread a wide net: it’s FREE to say thank you in print.

4.     Thank anyone and everyone who organized an event you participated in, whether you were the headline speaker or you were a paid participant. I promise you that behind each five minutes of “event time” lurk a million phone calls/emails/stressed-out-moments/worry-nightmares/meetings/misunderstandings-needing-to-be-straightened-out/on-the-fly-decisions/etc. Thank that head person who everyone sees on stage with the mic, and also thank those behind-the-scenes people holding clipboards. Thank your fellow panelists/moderator/reader/attendees. A spoken thank you is fine, but if you want to be invited back to speak, a written thank you will be special.

5.     Thank editors and agents who go out of their way to offer constructive advice via a personal rejection. They are busy-busy-busy and they don’t have to offer their thoughts to you. I bet they will remember you. And thank agents/editors you meet via pitch sessions. A thank you note is really going to stand out amidst the tide of query letters. (Obviously, special thanks to YOUR editor and agent! But everyone knows this already, right?)

6.     Thank people who write letters of recommendation or suggest you send something to their agent or who say “use my name” at XYZ literary journal. Spoken or email is fine, but best of all is to turn around and be the person who will write letters and offer connections. (Special thanks to anyone who writes a blurb…again, no one’s going to say no to a small, thoughtful gift!)

7.     Thank the people who host you at writing residencies, the people who have the titles printed on business cards but also the people who clean the rooms and landscape those pretty grounds and manage the paperwork. Spoken is fine, but a follow-up note will stand out. When your book comes out, if it’s appropriate, send along a signed copy for their library.

8.     Thank bookstores that carry your book. Thank bloggers who promote your book on their blogs. Thank writers who interview you. Thank librarians who put your book in their newsletter.

9.     Thank readers. Thank audiences. Thank anyone who forked out money to buy your book or hauled themselves to the library to check out your book or anyone who spent time reading your book or your story or your poem. I think we all know that there are countless other things these people could be doing with their time/energy/money, and they chose YOU. Wow. Is that living the dream or what?

10.  Thank your family, either the biological folks or the family you’ve created. They didn’t ask to be dragged into the writing life, and they are making sacrifices, too, whether it’s being written about or taking up the slack at home or shifting finances so you can enter that contest or a thousand other things that families do. They are doing these things because they love you, but also they deserve thanks. A hug is fine, but spoken is best. Let them know that you see how they are contributing to your pursuit of your art.

11.  Thank writers just for being writers. Send an email to the author of a book you love (don’t get hung up on getting a response or the “right” response). Thank them by writing a review of their book on Amazon or giving it 5 stars on Goodreads. Thank them by telling your friends/book club/relatives about their book. Thank them by reading widely and deeply and appreciating those hard-fought words; thank them by closing a book in the deep heart of the night as you sigh and think, “This.”

Monday, May 28, 2018

Join My Prompt Class at Politics & Prose Bookstore on 6/13!

I’ll be offering another, all-new section of my popular Right Brain Writing prompt classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in DC (Connecticut Ave branch) on Wednesday, June 13. I’d love to see you there…we have a lot of fun, and get some really interesting writing down on the page.

Right Brain Writing: The Art of Losing
Wednesday, June 13
6:30 p.m.– 9 p.m.

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 variety of losses we have encountered in our lives, the large and small absences that inform our landscape. Elizabeth Bishop calls it “the art of losing”; where is the art in saying goodbye? 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. Note: new exercises!

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy

*Please note: Though this is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Cancer Cowboys" & Ticking Clocks: An Interview with Tim Wendel by Mary Kay Zuravleff

I had the pleasure of reading twice recently with author Tim Wendel and hearing about his new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia. Tim has a wonderful way of speaking about his work, and I was fascinated to learn more about early cancer research and the controversy surrounding medical practices now taken for granted. Naturally, I wanted to hear more! So I’m pleased to present this interview with Tim conducted by author Mary Kay Zuravleff:


Tim is the author of THIRTEEN books, which include novels inspired by Cuba, baseball, Cuban baseball, and World War II, nonfiction books, and even young adult books. He’s an incredibly versatile writer, who’s been a celebrated journalist as well as a beloved writing professor in the Johns Hopkins M.A. program. His latest book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia is an amazing, sad, uplifting tale of his family’s loss to leukemia of his brother, Eric, back in the late 60s. He was the fourth of six kids, and Tim is the oldest, the first-born. From the book cover: “Part family memoir and part medical narrative, Cancer Crossings explores how the Wendel family found the courage to move ahead with their lives.”

David Maraniss has called your work “a winning mix of science, biography and mythology,” which aptly describes this book.  How did you weave together the science, biography, and mythology? (For example, you brought back the memory of when people wouldn’t even say the word “cancer,” which was part of its mythology.)

First, David is being very kind. He’s been a great friend of my work, along with Ken Burns, David Granger, Frank Deford, Cathy Alter and so many others over the years. Always great to have folks like that in your camp.

As a writer, I dislike being pigeon-holed. For example, some say I’m just a baseball writer. OK, I do enjoy the game and it plays well on the page, but I’ve done a nonfiction book (Summer of ’68) and a novel (Castro’s Curveball) with the sport as the backdrop and they play out very differently. In the case of Summer of ’68, I moved sports to the foreground during one of the most tumultuous periods in our nation’s history. With Curveball, the conceit was what if Fidel Castro had pursued baseball more seriously? If so, the world as we know it would have been much different.

So, I think you’re keeping an eye out for those connections, places where different elements come into contact. In my new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest to Cure Childhood Leukemia, I needed to find the places where the treatment of my brother Eric for leukemia intersected with the procedures and new philosophy of the so-called “cancer cowboys” – the doctors who took this form of cancer from a death sentence to a 90 percent cure rate. Once you open yourself up to such possibilities, there are many more than you realize at first.

Your brother Eric was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1966, when he was three years old. And his story is a tale of miracles and also just-missed opportunities. Because his diagnosis came at the turning point from doctors seeing their duty as offering palliative care and aggressively experimenting with drug combinations to put leukemia into remission. Tell us about the prognosis then and what it would be like now for a child with his diagnosis?

The odds of a child surviving acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the form of cancer my brother had, have been greatly improved. My daughter Sarah was at Georgetown Medical School when I began Cancer Crossings. She’s the one who pointed out that the survival rate went from 10 percent to 90 percent during the 1970s. That really turned my head and I went in search of this small group of doctors who did it. Many were in their mid to late 80s by then. And when they told me how much opposition they faced from the medical community, how they were called killers, poison pushers, misfits and, yes, cancer cowboys because they dared to try something different when it came to leukemia, well, I was hooked. I had the elements of a family memoir and a medical detective story. And with the latter, there was fierce opposition to what the cancer cowboys were trying to do. Until this point, many in the medical community refused to take on cancer. It was that daunting. But the cancer cowboys pushed ahead and many of the advances we take for granted today – chemotherapy cocktails, the blood centrifuge machine, etc. – are a result of their work.

Your parents’ response to his first remission was to buy a big old sailboat for their family of six children and to not only go for sails but to sail all the way across Lake Ontario, from Buffalo to Toronto, an a Saturday and sail back home on Sunday. You wrote in Psychology Today that “We coped with my brother's struggle against leukemia by doing instead of talking.” Tell us how that seemed then and how it seems now, as a parent, looking back on your family’s response?

Few things make you feel as vulnerable as becoming a parent. The core emotion is you want to protect this new being you’ve brought into the world. To realize, decades later, that my parents also dared to have family adventures, even with a kid with leukemia in tow, kind of blew my mind. My parents taught us to really live in the present. We jammed as much as we could into every day. We sailed to the far horizon on Lake Ontario, which is a huge body of water, in the summers, and skated and played hockey in the winters. They let their son with ALL play hockey? Kind of crazy isn’t it? But it all kind of worked and us kids learned so much in the process. For example, my father made sure we knew how to read the wind, to realize that it’s always changing direction and velocity. Of course, that makes you a better sailor, but it’s also a great way to look at life. In a way, Cancer Crossings focuses on my parents when they were at their best, and that’s a good thing for any kid to be reminded of.

I always tell my students to be mindful of having a clock in their book, and you have many ticking time bombs in yours. Of course, there’s Eric’s illness. On the other end, a kinder clock, is  your own daughter in medical school learning about those pivotal years that changed the outcome for leukemia patients. What was that like, her bringing you that discovery?

I knew I needed to do right by this request. My daughter genuinely wanted to know more about my brother, his doctors, this quest to cure childhood leukemia. I guess it’s another example of how being a parent opens you. I mean I couldn’t really shrug this off. My daughter wanted to know something important about my past and it was up to me to find some of those answers. Would I have written such a personal story, with a steep learning curve for me about medical procedures and meds, without her request? Probably not. But the fact my daughter wanted to know made it very important from the get-go.

Another clock is ticking with the doctors—they were racing to find treatments or even a cure and then when you decided to write the book, there’s your race to find them and interview them because they’re getting on in years. Can you talk about those two clocks—the doctors early careers and talking to them now?

Time running out or running down in any work creates urgency, heightens things across the board. I hadn’t planned to have two clocks ticking, they were there, right in front of me. One was the race to cure a deadly disease before more kids died. But I soon realized that many of the cancer doctors and nurses were getting on in years, too. How much longer would they be with us? All of them were very forthcoming in our conversations because I think they knew when they passed on much of this incredible success story, the details about a modern medical miracle, would go with them. Indeed, several of the cancer cowboys died in the weeks leading up to the book’s release. My hope is some of their message lives on in these pages.

Early on in the book, you mention that Cancer Crossings is a departure for you, being a book that’s focused on medicine instead of sports. But you have written about teams overcoming obstacles and great odds. The doctors at Roswell Park certainly qualify as a group of people trying to do something that nobody thinks they can. What do you think draws you to such stories?

I’ve always been intrigued by how successful groups and teams work, especially when they are made up of different personalities and viewpoints. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said writers and artists are drawn to particular stories or themes. How they are part of our DNA and we have no choice but to keep returning to them. Early on in writing Cancer Crossings, a good friend pointed out that I was doing it again. That the only real difference this time was I focusing on an elite group of doctors instead of a memorable team of ballplayers or hockey stars. Either way it was a group of underdogs, only this time they were daring to take on this shapeshifter of a disease. When he told me that I remember thinking to myself, “OK, I can do this.”


Buy Cancer Crossings:

More about Tim Wendel: www.timwendel.com



Mary Kay Zuravleff’s latest novel, Man Alive!, was named a 2013 Notable Book by The Washington Post. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The AtlanticLos Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, and The Washington Post. She is the founder of NoveltyDC, which offers master classes on the novel and manuscript consultation.


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