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!!]


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.SusanMuaddiDarraj.com

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: https://brevitymag.com/nonfiction/torn-muscle/

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!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Best Stuffing in the Universe!

It’s that time of year (already), where my thoughts turn to stuffing! Here’s my favorite recipe (posted yet again—because it seems I won’t be content until everyone in America makes this stuffing). 
Hope your Thanksgiving is fabulous! And I know that the holiday season can be hard for many people for any number of reasons, so if you’re currently in that space, I wish for you a moment or two of grace and safe passage through to the other side.
Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from the beloved, still-missed Gourmet magazine, November 1992 (It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but in an uncharacteristic nod to heart-health, I don’t put in the sausage. See the note below if you’d like to add the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
§  1 cup all-purpose flour
§  1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
§  1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
§  1 teaspoon salt
§  1 cup milk
§  1 large egg
§  3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the stuffing:
§  ¾ stick unsalted butter plus an additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
§  2 cups finely chopped onion
§  1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
§  2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
§  1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
§  1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
§  ½ cup thinly sliced scallions
§  1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.
Make the stuffing: In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey.

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more.
Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Note: Here are the instructions if you want to add the sausage: The recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. Add the sausage at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

TBR: All My People Are Elegies by Sean Thomas Dougherty

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?

After a furious series of rejections from dozens of literary magazines, I spontaneously decided to write back to them.  I improvised in real time epistolary public responses on Facebook over a six-month period that began Dear Editor. But this book is less about the literary arts than it is about how we use language to separate or join us, it invites the reader in to participate in my life and my family, in my work as a caregiver, about alcoholism, working class bars, neighborhoods, gun violence, and the world of people struggling to live in the cities and towns along Lake Erie and then some. 

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

Honestly this was my favorite book I ever wrote because the writing itself was a kind of performance in real time witnessed by a live audience over months.  I drafted each of these in the little Facebook box.   Has anyone written a book that way?  I mean Patricia Lockwood wrote her poems on Twitter.  Someone must have written a book on Facebook.  As a former performance poet, I loved this sort of anticipatory live audience. Once I started the project, my friends on Facebook urged me on.  They were incredible.  People also started to participate by posting their own rejections and tagging me.  The project created a sort of community of failure where we all shared and by doing so kept writing and going forward.  Social media can be so negative and back-biting, but for someone like me who lives far from any big literary center, it is a way to participate and make positive communities.  The book crisscrosses various prose genres of the essay, letter, and prose poem, sometimes in the same piece. 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Cheryl Strayed: “Write like a motherfucker.”

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

Honestly, that anybody thought these pieces were anything at first.  I was just performing.  I was clowning.  But often in writing, when we are wearing masks or engaging in a kind of maquillage, it gives us the distance and temperament and then permission to open and dive into our deepest wounds.  For me the Dear Editor, the epistolary letter quality of responding to editors real and imagined, created in me a tone part priestly confessional, part therapy, part Al-Anon group meeting.  To speak to and for and back to this authority figure took me places I never thought I would write or imagine, particularly the pieces about my own family or about the murder of my friend young Jose Rosario.

How did you find the title of your book?

It may have been Al Maginnes, it was someone on Facebook—more evidence of the collaborative nature of this project, who pointed out the line to me in one of the pieces one night as a good title .  The title I think speaks to so many of us who are working folks, who deal with issues of health and aging.  Eventually you reach a point later in life where the elegies outnumber the odes.   Where your dead friends outnumber your living ones.

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

I want them to know they aren’t alone as writers, as people.  We are all out there struggling everyday to live decent lives of hope and honor, we fail everyday together.  And that is something, something to hold on to, and lean on each other, as citizens, as artists, as people.  My readers are my people. 

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

Pierogi are the preferred food.  This book deals a lot with alcoholism.  Ironically a good bourbon or Vodka is probably best to appreciate it.  Pour a little out for our brothers and sisters gone before you read it.


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.seanthomasdoughertypoet.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE: https://books.nyq.org/title/all-my-people-are-elegies


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

TBR: Melanie’s Song by Joanna Biggar

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?

The five women who traveled together to Paris in the 1960’s—whose story was told in That Paris Year—retain a close bond although they have gone their separate ways. Now it is 1974--the era of Watergate, Viet Nam, and post-Woodstock—and the narrator, J.J. who has become a journalist, realizes one among them is missing. The search for Melanie sweeps from hippie communes to high society, the California coast to Africa and the South of the Civil Rights Movement, always accompanied by the soundtrack of the times. The quest becomes not just to find where Melanie is, but who she is.

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

The most enjoyable character to create was the central character, Melanie. She was a creative challenge because she does not actually appear in the book, so exists through letters, journals, newspaper articles and the impressions of others. Also, she becomes increasingly complex and elusive, hence remains at the heart of this mystery. The most difficult character to create was the old-time hippie Moon. I did not want him to be a caricature but to still keep his blowhard attitude as he revealed himself to be very different from how he first appeared.

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

This is a seldom-told tale, but with Alan Squire as my publishers, it was actually a joy. They had published the first book in what will be a trilogy, and were committed to the project. Working with Rose Solari and James J. Patterson is a writer’s dream. Like iconic editors from the past (think Maxwell Perkins), they are dedicated to developing a writer over time, and from book design to editing to promotion, their team is first-rate.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’ll stick with the wisdom of my favorite book about writing, Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird in which she praises the completion of “the shitty first draft.” At the beginning of a project, it’s so important to get your aspirations down on paper and not freeze up by over-editing yourself and strangling your baby before it’s born.

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

The narrator, J.J., in the first book dedicated herself to finding out the truth about her friends. In Melanie’s Song, she continues on the quest for truth using the tools of a journalist. But she discovers that “the facts” never tell the whole story, that the truth is ever-changing, and only by accepting that can she—can anyone—really grow.

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

There are meals and wine throughout the book (this is California after all), but the most memorable meal is Thanksgiving dinner at Gran’s old house in Pasadena.

                                              INFAMOUS STUFFING MIX

Recipe for a 10 lb. bird
  1. Two packages of seasoned stuffing mix
  2. 1 ½ to 2 cups melted butter
  3. One cup milk (adjust according to how moist you want dressing)
  4. Four or more stalks of chopped celery
  5. One lb. sautéed mushrooms
  6. Two cups chopped walnuts
  7. Two cups chopped onions
  8. Two cups seeded raisins
  9. Two tbsp. sage (or more)
  10. Salt and pepper to taste
Add melted butter/milk to stuffing mix. Then add the other ingredients. Make a day ahead, adjust  seasoning and butter/milk for right degree of moisture.
Add butter to cleaned cavity of bird, then stuff, tress and bake according to instructions. If there is stuffing left out of the bird, put in covered casserole and bake for last hour or so of cooking time.



Monday, November 4, 2019

TBR: Jesus in the Trailer by Andrew K. Clark

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?

Above all else the poetry in Jesus in the Trailer evokes a cogent sense of place.  Whether addressing police violence on the cobblestone streets of Savannah, the loss of a loved one to dementia, or coming of age in a trailer park in Appalachia, my poems address matters of faith, death, love, lust, and the beauty of the natural world, while not masking the pain of Southern history.

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

I think the book breaks boundaries with regards to how modern society thinks about religion, particularly the notion of the “gospel of prosperity” in modern Christianity.  This is the idea that those who are God-like are blessed with wealth and success, and that if you are not blessed those with things then you must not be sufficiently pious or religious.  The title itself tries to decry this with the idea of Jesus appearing in a trailer park.  I think the best poetry from this collection emerged when I allowed myself to write about religion and hypocrisy without holding back.

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

I begin submitting the manuscript in late 2017, after workshopping most of the poems with multiple writer friends and mentors.  I had several cases where I was a semi-finalist in a contest, or notes from publishers suggesting that I was “close” to ready.  All the while I kept writing new poems, revising the manuscript, trying to focus on the order of the poems, and replacing weaker poems.  I received word at the end of 2018 that Mainstreet Rag was interested in publishing the book.  I had another publisher interested at the same time, which is often the case, and went with MSR based on their long-running reputation in the poetry world.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice? 

Of course we all know that to write well we need to read – a lot.  But one of my writing mentors suggested when I was in the midst of a fiction manuscript, to read tons of poetry; if writing poetry, read lots of fiction.  I don’t know why, but it really works well for me, seeming to fire something different in my brain when I need it.

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

I was surprised by how often religious themes came up in my writing, way back before I had a title. I was raised in a conservative religious tradition, a world of tent revivals and camp meetings, but it wasn’t what I wanted to write about necessarily.  Something opened up for me when I just allowed myself to go there.  I also was surprised that I could write love poems that were readable and popular at readings (the cynic in me didn’t think poems about love could be “good”).

How did you find the title of your book?

In deciding on a title, I asked my critique partners and mentors which titles they liked of maybe a half dozen. Over and over, folks preferred Jesus in the Trailer to the other options.  I felt some of the other poems actually represented the body of work better than the title poem, but it does capture several of the book’s themes well. 

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

Food doesn’t come up a lot in the book, but one poem talks about my ninny’s biscuits and cornbread.  I don’t have any recipes, but if you make gravy for your homemade biscuits it must be with white flour, bacon grease and whole milk (along with water, salt and pepper).  I know there are other gravies, but you really shouldn’t let them anywhere near a biscuit if you have any self-respect.


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR:  http://www.andrewkclark.com

READ SOME POEMS FROM THIS COLLECTION: https://www.andrewkclark.com/writing


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