Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest in Progress: An Interview with Jean Thompson

"Gossiping About Imaginary People”: An Interview with Jean Thompson
By Rachel Hall

Writer Jean Thompson [bio below] has been heralded as an American Alice Munro for her understanding of human nature and for the way her stories are as rich and satisfying as novels. In The Boston Globe, Bruce Allen writes that Thompson is “one of our most astute diagnosticians of contemporary experience, conflict, unhappiness and regret…She can encapsulate a life’s worth of disillusionment in a stinging, hurtling sentence.”

Thompson’s stories are also funny. One suspects it is the combination of astuteness and humor that makes her one of the writers David Sedaris celebrates in his anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Sedaris says this of her fiction: “If there are ‘Jean Thompson characters,’ they’re us, and never have we been as articulate and worthy of compassion.”

I first encountered Jean Thompson’s fiction in the anthology Matters of Life and Death, edited by Tobias Wolf in 1983. This was the assigned text for my very first creative writing class and a wonderful introduction to the contemporary short story. I loved especially Thompson’s story “Applause, Applause,” a story about the long friendship and competition between two writers. I was thrilled several years later when she was a featured reader at Indiana University where I was pursuing my MFA. Indeed, I am a proud owner of a signed copy of The Gasoline Wars, Thompson’s first collection, sadly out of print, though surely her current publisher plans to reissue it. Or is a collected works in the works?

In the interview that follows, Jean graciously answers some questions about her new novel, THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME, and writing in general.

One reviewer has called The Year We Left Home an epic page turner but it’s a very internal book too. Many of the characters, even those who don’t initially strike us as introspective, are self-aware. Which aspect of the writing—dramatic scenes or character thought—comes more naturally to you? Which is more fun to write?

Oh how I wish I could as easily write suspenseful drama as I can a character's internal processes. Psychology, or maybe it's just gossiping about imaginary people, is always a natural for me, drama might be more fun if and when I pull it off. I admire writers who can do clever plotting and make it look plausible, even slick. I guess I need to practice my car chase scenes.

I’m struck by how much of your writing examines relationships that aren’t romantic, but are long-term and as complicated as marriage. I’m thinking of the two writers in “Applause, Applause,” also Lynn and Anna in “Wilderness,” and Janey and the protagonist in “Throw Like a Girl.” While Chip and Ryan are cousins, their relationship in The Year We Left Home resembles these other friendships in its rhythm. They come together and separate but stay important to each other throughout. Can you talk about what interests you in this kind of relationship?

Another good and perceptive question. I'm drawn to complexities, in people and in relationships, and how they play out over time. Few of us are entirely blameless (or blameworthy) when it comes to navigating the expectations and disappointments of a long-term relationship. There's always a burr beneath the saddle. With Chip and Ryan, each has something the other lacks, and perhaps wants: Chip's freedom and range of experience and his very craziness, Ryan's ease of manner and worldly success. Yet they do seek each other out as touchstones, and even, in terms of their restlessness, as kindred spirits.

One reviewer suggested that The Year We Left Home reads like a chronologically arranged collection of stories. Did you think of it that way as you wrote or was it a novel to you? Are labels like novel, linked stories, novel-in-stories meaningful beyond marketing?

What I set out to do was write a novel using short story craft. That is, I wanted each chapter to have the same momentum and final impact as a short story might, without them necessarily being freestanding. And since the novel covers so much time, thirty years' worth, this episodic structure seemed a good way to go about it. Labels can serve an initial useful purpose - our impulse is always to categorize and sort - but I hope they eventually fall away as a reader experiences the book.

The Year We Left Home is your fifth novel. You’ve also written five collections of stories. How is your writing process different when you are working on a novel rather than stories? Which do you prefer writing?

I started out as a short story writer, as most writers of fiction do. And that form has always seemed to be a better fit for me, perhaps because gratification comes sooner, and perhaps because I like the possibilities for, see above, momentum and impact, as well as the discipline that the short form requires. It is a more or less finite box that must contain all the basics: conflict, engagement, action, resolution. Novels require more patience, and you must learn to reward yourself for shorter-term accomplishments, finishing a section or a chapter. There's also the greater commitment of time and resources. Richard Ford has said that beginning a novel is rather like getting married: if you can talk yourself out of it, you should.

What surprises were there for you in these characters’ lives? Anita, for instance, becomes a much more sympathetic character by the end of the novel. Did you know early on what she would encounter and how she would be changed by it?

I begin with a notion of a character, in this case, Anita, the hometown success with conventional aspirations, then look for ways to build on that notion. Possibilities reveal themselves. Some of this is based on exploring character, but just as often it has to do with plot development and my sense of what a reader might wish to read. We might wish to heap a few problems on Anita, perhaps because we want successful people to have problems. Just look at the tabloid coverage of celebrities. But what is true to form about Anita is that she's a winner, and she finds a way to win out in the end.

The Year We Left Home is an intriguing title. It suggests that everyone left home at the same time, but in fact, the central characters leave at different times, and some, like Torrie, not until late in the novel. Of course, there is also the mass exodus of family farmers that is the backdrop for the novel. Can you talk about titling and this title in particular?

Titling is seldom easy, but as I used to tell student writers, if you can't think of your own title, some editor or another entity will think of one for you. And you will like their ideas even less than your own. I think that titles need a certain stand-alone eloquence and must be interesting in and of themselves. So yes, "The Year We Left Home" does not translate into a literal year when everyone leaves all at once, but rather, the process of leaving, attempting to leave, and circling back again, for different characters at different times. And certainly there are those who never leave. But I wanted to work with the idea of home versus the wider, unknown world, the pull and tug of what is familiar and settled in our natures versus how we might reinvent ourselves in different circumstances.

Of all your books, which is your favorite?

Easy question. It's always the one I'm writing at the present moment, the page I just finished, the process currently engaging me, the hunt still on.

Helpful links:
More information about Jean Thompson: http://www.jeanthompsononline.com/
Buy the book
Jean Thompson’s previous guest post on this blog about finding the ideas for stories.
Rachel Hall’s previous guest posts on this blog about using letters in writing.

About: Jean Thompson is the author of five collections of stories, among them the acclaimed Who Do You Love? (a National Book Award finalist) and Throw Like a Girl, a New York Times Notable Book, as well as five novels including City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder, also a New York Times Notable Book and a Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection. Her new novel The Year We Left Home, which follows an Iowa family, the Eriksons, from 1973 to 2003,has received praise in the New York Times Book Review, People, Entertainment Weekly, More, Bust, among other publications.

About: Rachel Hall teaches creative writing and literature at the State University of New York at Geneseo where she holds the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. New fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone Review and The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art. She has received honors and awards from New Letters, Lilith, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She is completing work on a linked collection of short stories entitled HEIRLOOMS.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: Simon & Schuster sent me a complimentary copy of The Year We Left Home which I sent to the interviewer, Rachel Hall, who was delighted to receive it but who is also a smart and tough critic. No easy ride here, despite the free book!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Giveaway Winner

Congratulations to Melissa, of Cedarburg, WI, who will be getting a copy of Robin Black's If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This., in honor of Short Story Month.  Thanks to all who entered.

I'm off to South Carolina, to teach in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College--yay!  There's a GREAT guest post set up for tomorrow, but after that, blogging will be light and/or non-existent, depending on internet access and time/energy.  I hope to check in a few times at least!

Happy Memorial Day--and a nod of appreciation to fallen soldiers.  Not many of us could do your job or make such sacrifices.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Guest in Progress: Tom Carson on His New Novel, Daisy Buchanan's Daughter, and Gatsby Himself!

Obviously, I am helpless to resist this forthcoming book: Tom Carson’s Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, an imagining of what happens post-Gatsby to Tom and Daisy’s little girl. The pre-pub praise is enticing:

“Tom Carson’s new novel is simultaneously an epic sequel to The Great Gatsby, a tour-de-force meta-narrative of the last 90 years of American history, and a dazzling feat of old-fashioned storytelling. The octogenarian narrator of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is by turns wistful, sarcastic, bemused, nostalgic, furious, and scathingly funny as she evokes — intimately, pungently, and in gorgeous detail — the best and worst century in human history (so far). She is the first great literary character of the new millennium, and her all-encompassing story is some sort of crazy masterpiece.”

— James Hynes, author of Next and The Lecturer’s Tale

Even better, the book is being published by Paycock Press, run by the fabulous Richard Peabody (DC’s literary heart and soul; read this recent Washington Post profile of him if you don’t believe me.)
And best of all, here’s a GREAT piece by Tom Carson that explores Pammy’s “birth” and offers some (scandalous!) thoughts on The Great Gatsby. Warning: You’ll be clicking on the “how to buy” link at the end of this piece!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Me
By Tom Carson

I really don't know what Fitzgerald fans are going to make of me swiping little Pammy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby and turning her into the octogenarian narrator of a 628-page novel that gallivants all over the 20th century and beyond. I wanted her to bear fictional witness to the whole shebang, from her stint as a war correspondent in WW2 (she lands on Omaha Beach on D-Day and is present at the liberation of Dachau) to her crotchety disgust with George W. Bush's appalling presidency. She's done time in 1950s Hollywood, West Africa in the early '60sas a U.S. Ambassador's wife and Vietnam-era Washington along the way.

This isn't even my first trip to F. Scott's attic. I'd borrowed Daisy Buchanan to star in an episode of my novel Gilligan's Wake back in 2003 and didn't want to try the same trick twice. But then a sentence I'd written fairly idly in the spiteful voice of the future "Lovey" Howell, Daisy's imaginary crony in the Jazz Age -- "Of course, her daughter, Pamela Buchanan, became a writer, and I suppose that's as good a way as any to fritter away your life when you're too homely to catch a man" -- started insisting it was an embryo. The next thing I knew, my grown-up Pam was sharing a laugh with Jack Kennedy after her bestselling book Glory Be got beaten out for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize by JFK's Profiles in Courage.

In plenty of people's eyes, this kind of bricolage is literary and for that matter historical parasitism. That's a legitimate take. I've never had any interest myself in reading, say, Lo's Diary. Maybe one reason Nabokov never learned to drive was that he just didn't want to deal with pathetic or obnoxious hitchhikers. On the flip side -- and I'm leaving myself out of this comparison, just noting the extremes --who'd want to tell Tom Stoppard that writing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead betrayed his lack of originality?

The test of any idea is what you do with it. In my case, I'm essentially a parodist. Can't help it, that's how my imagination smells the coffee. I sometimes compare these mashups of mine to the way an op-ed cartoonist will use Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner or Lucy grabbing the football from Charlie Brown to make a point about some real-world event. Both halves of the equation are instantly recognizable, hopefully the juxtaposition says something new about both, and as self-serving analogies go, that one seems less immodest than muttering to myself about how much skinnier The Oxford Book of English Poetry would be if most of the contributors hadn't had access to Greek myths as a trove of available characters, conceits and whatever.

What's funny that I'm also likely to disappoint any reader who picks up my novel thinking it's somebody's sincere try at a sequel to The Great Gatsby. And worse, wants to read one. My repurposing of Pammy either works or it doesn't, but competing with Fitzgerald would be either stark lunacy or a candid admission you don't mind peddling shoddy goods out of the trunk of somebody else's Rolls-Royce. I was poleaxed when one well regarded editor who rejected the book back in its thankless days of making the rounds of mainstream publishing houses complained that he'd been hoping for a fun novel about Tom and Daisy's sordid but high-stepping lives after l'affaire Gatsby and I hadn't given him that. It's not just that it's pointless to tell any writer what book he or she should have written. Whatever its failings, I knew the one I had written was a lot more conceptually interesting than the knockoff he was apparently hoping for.

Instead, I made sure to kill off both of Pam's parents early. The name "Jay Gatsby" never appears in the text. I happily murder Tom Buchanan right at the get-go by having his horse throw and maul him after he cheats at polo. Daisy sticks around a bit longer, but she blows her brains out with her Belgian second husband's revolver when her daughter is thirteen and we've got over 500 pages to go.

I wanted Pam to be an orphan, linked to but cut off from Fitzgerald's world in the same way the temporary charms of the Jazz Age were abrogated by the clatter and crap of the rest of the 20th century. For me, the vital thing about her fictional pedigree is that it gives her standing. She's a comic figure in some ways, but I wanted her to have some Joan of Arc armor when she challenges Dubya. It has to resonate when she imagines asking him, "Do you really expect me to put up with this shit?"

A 19th-century novelist would have concocted a family history that justified that kind of entitled disgust. Just making her Daisy Buchanan's daughter captivates me more, because I'm interested in the interplay between real American history and the fanciful versions that unspool in our heads. When Pam's in Hollywood, her best friend is Eve Harrington from All About Eve; it turns out that the screen version of Pam's silly war-correspondent memoir was the movie Eve announced she was ditching Broadway to star in. Maybe that's just fun and games, but I'm after something deeper when Pam acknowledges that one reason she hates Dubya is that he reminds her of her father.

As for my own lifelong entanglement with The Great Gatsby, any American writer who hasn't had to confront what it means to him or her at some point is one lucky fool. Most of us would probably agree that it's one of the most perfect pieces of fiction ever written, just in terms of technique. The line-by-line phrasing, the choice of incident and detail, the fabulous construction. It's perfect in the same sense that a Faberge egg is not destined to end up helping an omelet get made, and mea culpa.

It's also one of the two or three novels I'd practically memorized by college. But even at my peak of infatuation -- and this is where some of you may start reaching for a garotte -- I was mystified that Gatsby himself never charmed me. No other Fitzgerald hero is so fundamentally humorless. He's most touching when his pomposity ends up making him sound forlorn, sort of like Elmer Fudd in his virile youth. When you think about it, it isn't all that convincing that Daisy Fay would ever have fallen in love with him, unless the uniform did all the work back in Louisville in 1917. It's interesting that Fitzgerald can only make him come across as a noble sort of chap compared to the Buchanans by denying him any gift for making himself entertaining, something Fitzgerald doted on in life.

Anyway, once I got older and the book's permanent lodgment in my brain began to shift around -- you know, like, we'll never get rid of that big sofa, hon, so how about we try it in the den this year? -- the more I realized it wasn't just Gatsby's personality that put me off. It was his whole project, which is magical and moving in the fairy-tale abstract and absolutely toxic as recommended behavior for adults. There are hints here and there in the text that Fitzgerald knew this, but he's too ardent for the dream to make Gatsby culpable. It fascinates me that the utter narcissism of Gatsby's agenda doesn't get more attention in the boundless critical literature -- especially from feminists, since it's a very male notion of martyrdom. In the world as I know it, smart women flee those moony-eyed and self-appointed "saviors" like antelopes at the Indy 500.

You remember that famous summing-up: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." It's gorgeous from first word to last, but as an assessment of blame, it's moonshine. Good old James Gatz is the one who shows up and starts knocking things apart without any consideration of the consequences -- including the effect on poor, trivial Pammy, may I note as her advocate and stenographer. To whatever extent we're meant to judge these people as human beings and not just figures in a tragic ballet -- and Fitzgerald did believe in moral verdicts in fiction -- is Daisy backing out of a future with him really so unforgivable?

That's why I gave Daisy a speech in Gilligan's Wake describing the book she wants to write -- all about "a tyrant and a dictator who carries your head around on a stick even though he calls it his banner, because he's in love with himself but he can never admit that, and so he makes you his idol and loves himself, adores himself, worships himself for having one." In terms of grappling with the costs -- not just the beauty-- of romantic behavior, Tender Is the Night rings a lot truer to me in later life, its alleged structural "failings" and all.

So even though Daisy isn't a sequel to Gatsby, I suppose it is an answer of sorts to a book whose artistic magic I'll never stop being entranced by and whose pitfalls as a guide to life I'll never stop arguing with. My heroine is an 86-year-old broad who looks back on a long and gaudy life and decides she wouldn't swap it for anything. She too lost the one great love of her youth, and so what? "I wrote three books, saw a war, rode an elephant through the Pink City." One of my favorite bits is Pam's caustic comment on reading Gatsby itself: "Picture Daisy's dim life at forty with her bootlegger suitor and you'll see what a crock the whole thing is."

Of course, in her world, The Great Gatsby isn't a novel. It's Nick Carraway's unpublished memoir of her mother, which has gathered dust for eighty years when it's rediscovered among his effects, bearing the mysterious title Under the Red, White and Blue -- one of Fitzgerald's last-minute prepublication inspirations, which fortunately Maxwell Perkins ignored. Pam admits to being unprepared to learn that her parents' old friend -- and her own guardian in her bewildered adolescence, which is a bit of autobiographical three-card monte in terms of my relationship to Fitzgerald -- was such an astonishing writer. Since she's vain of her literary acumen, she boldly ventures her opinion that, under another title and published as fiction, Under the Red, White and Blue might very well have become some sort of small classic.

Pre-order the book

Read more about the book at http://daisysdaughter.com/
(There’s a link to the first chapter on this site.)

About: Tom Carson is the author of Gilligan’s Wake, a New York Times Notable Book of The Year for 2003. Currently GQ’s “The Critic,” he won two National Magazine Awards for criticism as Esquire magazine’s “Screen” columnist and has been nominated two more times since. He also won the CRMA criticism award for his book reviews in Los Angeles magazine.

Before that, he wrote extensively about pop culture and politics for the LA Weekly and the Village Voice, including an obituary for Richard Nixon in the latter that the late Norman Mailer termed "brilliant." He has contributed over the years to publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the Atlantic Monthly. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Clock. His verse and other random writings can be found at http://www.tomcarson.net/.

In 1979, he was the youngest contributor -- with an essay on the Ramones -- to Greil Marcus's celebrated rock anthology, Stranded. With Kit Rachlis and Jeff Salamon, he edited Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough: Essays In Honor of Robert Christgau in 2002.

Born in Germany in 1956, he grew up largely abroad at the hands of the U.S. State Department. He graduated in 1977 from Princeton University, where he won the Samuel Shellabarger award for creative writing. A former resident of Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, he now lives in New Orleans with his wife, Arion Berger, and can be found all too often at Buffa's Lounge on Saints' days.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Giveaway and Beer Anthology ISO Submissions

Whew…and now, back for life in America:

Don’t forget about the free giveaway of Robin Black’s AMAZING collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. In fact, I recently heard from one of my friends who read the book upon my insistence: she now is buying up copies for her friends! Reading these stories is a rich, deep experience—this book is dark chocolate and red wine, as much as you want, no calories and no hangover.  Believe me.

Anyway: to enter and to read the rules, go here: http://workinprogressinprogress.blogspot.com/2011/05/short-story-month-book-giveaway.html



How could I not pass along a call for submission for an anthology about beer?

Yeast of Eden, an anthology of stories inspired by beer, is requesting submissions.

1,000 to 7,000 words, fiction or nonfiction, September 1, 2011 deadline.

visit http://www.beeranthology.com/  for more information.

Can I just be a tease and mention that I have something awesome planned for tomorrow's guest post?  And for next week!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Work in Progress: This Realm, This England, Part 2

Here’s the rest of my (excessive!) write-up about our recent trip to London. More crying, more pudding…and if you missed Part One, you can find it here:


Day 4: Woke up early (for us) so we could get to the 11:00 AM service at the Queen’s Chapel at Savoy, which featured a lovely choir and cherubic young soloist with an angelic voice. We were also gratified to learn from the very welcoming ushers that the church had a special stained glass window to honor the cathedrals in Washington, DC, that had stored the church’s silver during WWII. Interesting to start a church service with everyone singing “God Save the Queen,” and it’s no wonder that she’s living such a long, excellent life with so many prayers sent her way. Again, we loved doing something that felt a little bit British.

Off to the National Gallery to admire art. Having been to Westminster Abbey and the chapel, we spent more time than we might have typically with the medieval and Renaissance religious paintings. And, yes, I found a reason to cry here, too: at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Cartoon,” which is a study for a painting. That face…this hardly does justice, but it’s still beautiful even online.

We then walked around the fancy shops on Jermyn Street—I couldn’t believe there was a whole STREET devoted to men’s shoes, shirts, and cologne; Steve was loving it—and on Old Bond Street. No wonder the British men are noticeably more fashionable than the men (and women!) I see around DC—shocking that a bespoke suit might look a wee bit snappier than a rumpled pair of Dockers, isn’t it?

That night was our fancy dinner at Scott’s, a seafood place. It was good—and certainly buzzing—but I did resent having to pay a “cover charge” to sit down at a restaurant! We had oysters, which were thrillingly brinier than the oysters we usually eat around here, and we both had Dover sole, which was excellent. Emboldened, we ordered a side of carrots here, too, and they were also superb. What do those British cooks to do to carrots, I wonder? Keeping in the pudding track, Steve had Bakewell pudding for dessert, and I had rhubarb/apple pie with a scoop of clotted cream the size of my fist. Yes, I ate it all.

Day 5: I’m starting to worry about having to leave. I never want to go home. I want to move into the Savoy. I’m starting to say “lovely” to everything.

We finally get to the Globe Theatre and take a tour. I cry when we step inside the building and I see the stage and the ground area. It’s also shocking to learn how recently this building opened—1997—and that it’s an American actor who spearheaded the drive to get it open (Sam Wanamaker; a struggle of 25 years to fund and build it)—and that in Shakespeare’s time, the play was presented to the actors in the morning, they rehearsed a couple of hours, then put the show on that afternoon—and only that one time! Great and inventive gift shop…I end up with an edgy “Alas poor Yorick” T-shirt. Steve goes for a “What fools these mortals be” coffee mug.

Back across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral and another audioguide. Even with hordes of people and a zillion school groups, this cathedral is spectacular. I’m a new Christopher Wren fan—interestingly, the first architect to see a cathedral to completion. And he developed an instrument to measure a flea’s eye! We walked up the 247 narrow stairs to the Whispering Gallery in the dome—but skipped the 514 more to the top for the view of London (the sign that said “Stairs are narrow and winding and YOU CANNOT CHANGE YOUR MIND and turn around” was convincing; Steve, not a fan of heights, was actually convinced after one minute in the Whispering Gallery). It was moving to be reminded of the Blitz and the bravery shown by average British citizens—a team of people spent nights in the Cathedral during WWII so they could put out any bombs that hit the church. I cried at Nelson’s tomb: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Tea at the fancy Dorchester Hotel! Finger sandwiches! (Cucumber, egg, salmon, chicken, cheese.) Scones! Clotted cream! Jam! French pastries! I’m not sure one is supposed to pig out on finger sandwiches and scones, but they let us, so we did…in an elegant way, of course.

Dozing…and then to the Beaufort Bar in the Savoy Hotel, which specializes in champagne. Mmmmm…bubbly! We try not to think about how many pounds we spent in one day on beverages.

Day 6: The allure of tea, ordering WHATEVER WE WANT for breakfast, and reading the Daily Telegraph has not waned.

We reverse gender roles: Steve goes shopping, and I go to the British Museum (which is an evil vortex of 10,000 school groups all filling out worksheets about mummies). Once I dodge the mummy room, I’m in Babylon, Assyria, and many other REALLY OLD places, where I see letters on clay tablets, jewelry, dishes, a piece of Gilgamesh (dating roughly 2000 B.C.). Then I discover rooms about the Romans in England—and am seeing now that I can finance my new life in London if only I manage to discover a “hoard” of silver that was buried in England back in the early A.D.s. Illegal to keep such a find, of course, but it’s still tempting, given that people are today digging up stuff like that! (Read here about some Roman silver from the Brackley Hoard, a group of over 300 coins discovered in 2005 by a metal detectorist on agricultural land in Northamptonshire, England.) It could happen….

The Rosetta Stone was amazing. Egyptian statues strewn all about were amazing. The room done up as a 19th century museum was amazing. I cried when I saw the display of Grecian urns set up as if in the original museum (founded in 1753) and imagined John Keats seeing such an urn and deciding to write “On on a Grecian Urn” (though I’m technically not sure of the origin of his poem).

I also liked the recent items: great displays of Victorian jewelry and dishes…same type of stuff as what was displayed about the ancient cultures—so things haven’t changed all that much through the centuries. A culture is its plates.

Meanwhile, Steve happily sprayed his hands with every British cologne known to man, talked suits and shirts and cufflinks, found the food at Fortnum & Mason, and came home with a number of exciting edible, smellable, and wearable treats. It’s not clear if he cried.

Commence dozing.

And the theatre! I was so tired that I thought, “This had better be some amazing play.” And it was: War Horse. I had been dubious despite the uniformly excellent reviews, perhaps because descriptions included the words “heart-warming” and “horses brought to life by giant puppets.” Really? Puppets? Call me a believer: the puppets were amazing; you could not believe the level of study and detail that made skeletal puppets the size of a horse—operated by humans in full view—become totally horse-like. The puppetry was so beautifully amazing that I cried the moment the first foal appeared on stage. And since the play was about World War I, I cried about that, too. And since it was about WWI and how horses were sent to take part in the war and had—of course—very poor conditions to deal with, I cried the most about that. Luckily, the play was so heart-warming and so beautiful that practically everyone in the theatre—even the stiff upper lips—were crying by the end. It’s playing on Broadway now: GO SEE IT!

Day 7: Steve tried kippers at breakfast, which he loved. We strolled around Covent Garden and the neighborhood. Then it was into The City to meet a British business associate of Steve’s for lunch. Have you heard how British people often are good drinkers? Believe it. We met this guy at The Wine Library, which was an amazing place, tucked in a cellar filled with—guess!—wine! No tables, but benches and stools and a lovely, small buffet of various terrines and cheeses (mmmm…hare terrine! Some sort of fish mousse!). The star attraction is—guess!—wine! You stroll through the cellar and pick out a bottle, which is then opened, decanted, and served. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Oh, heavenly.

I’m embarrassed to record what all was consumed. Suffice it to say that it was a Hemingway-esque afternoon, and that port was involved. And, you know, when you spend all afternoon drinking wine—followed by a few quick beers—it really feels different than drinking at night. On our way from the wine to the beers, we saw a glimpse of the Roman wall. I got to say it one more time: My God, things in this country are OLD!

And what fun to get to chat with a Londoner. He took my multitude of nosy questions in good spirit and explained to me why I was tacky (yes, they use that word) for reading the Daily Telegraph. He offered nuance on the darts tournament we had seen on TV one evening. He explained the difference between Manchester United and Manchester City (and made sure to brainwash us into hating Manchester United). Basically, he taught us everything we need to know so that we can fit in when we move to London next week.

Back for our last meal: Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, an elegant, British restaurant that opened in 1828 as a chess club and now features giant roasts being wheeled around and carved tableside. We took a hunk out of one of those—fabulous! And can one be rhapsodic about horseradish sauce? This one was worth rhapsody. Continuing the pudding theme, we shared treacle pudding for dessert.

Day 8: WHATEVER WE WANTED for room service breakfast, and off to the dumb airport. I cried.

To conclude:
The only bad thing was that my allergies were still kicking up, even from London trees. And cars don’t seem to hold pedestrians in the moderate regard that the U.S. does; I was mildly terrified every time I crossed the street. Literally, those are my only complaints about London.

And finally: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Samuel Johnson…whose house we passed by on one of our walks.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Work in Progress: This Realm, This England, Part 1

Despite being an English major, immersed in English literature, I had never been to England. Now that I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation in London, I can only bemoan that it took me so long to get there.

Reader, I loved it.

I’ve always considered New York “my” city, the indisputable place of “where I’d live if I had millions of dollars.” Now I’ve got to amend the game to “where I’d live if I had millions of pounds.” I’m already feverishly plotting a way to get back—and soon.

To help stave off my depression at being back at boring old home, here’s my trip recap. (Yes, excessive and overly detailed…as much as I admire the British spirit, I can’t quite embrace restraint just yet.)

Day 1: We arrived at Heathrow, and I literally loved London from that moment. Everywhere was a sense of order! Rules! Politeness! I felt a strong and immediate kinship; I just instantly knew this was a place for me.

It helped that we stayed at an amazing hotel, The Savoy (first opened in 1889; in Covent Garden), which recently reopened after an extensive remodeling.. We were upgraded to a larger room—always nice; and also a good trick so that the guests don’t then complain about the crash of the bottles for recycling hitting the dumpster early each morning. From the beginning, The Savoy was known for its cascading showers, and the modern interpretation of that is to brag about the size of the showerheads in the bathroom, and they aren’t kidding: this thing was the size of a pizza. Best hotel shower ever!

Our room wasn’t ready, so the hotel treated us to our first English tea—thank goodness the server took pity on us and taught us proper pouring techniques; by the end of the trip, we were pros. After a restorative cuppa, we walked along the Thames—no rain!—and when the lack of sleep set in, took a boat ride which was helpful in orienting me to the bridges and neighborhoods. The boat was peaceful until a school group boarded and the top deck filled up with boys proudly wearing new lime green Yankees baseball caps. In spite of the commotion, I teared up when I first spotted Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. And Big Ben was…well, ever so much more than just a clock! I teared up then, too.

A nap, and our first British food at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill: Steve’s steak pudding in suet crust was excellent, and somehow the simple side dish of carrots managed to be the best carrots I’ve ever eaten.

Day 2: Our hotel package included breakfast, which meant we returned to the lovely and elegant Thames Foyer and were allowed to order WHATEVER WE WANTED from the breakfast menu. !! I asked several times—“Really? Whatever we want?” So—tea, fresh squeezed orange juice, and—of course—the English breakfast, with scrambled eggs (sort of an odd texture, but I adapted), sausage, smoked bacon, ham, grilled mushroom and tomato. How I loved the toast rack! How Steve loved getting salmon royale—eggs benedict with smoked salmon. Clearly we would have to walk off those nine million lovely calories…

And walk we did: to Trafalgar Square. To Buckingham Palace. (It’s massively huge. I mean, really, does one family need all those bedrooms?) To St. James Park (the British ducks were adorable). To 10 Downing Street. (“It’s America’s White House,” we overheard a tour guide explain to his group, after which everyone dutifully took pictures.) I later read in the Daily Telegraph—the paper I loved reading every morning for its odd stories about bee swarms settling inside car doors and its rigorous attention to the poor woman who was beheaded by a vagrant—that the Camerons actually live in 11 Downing Street because it’s bigger, but I didn’t know that then, so stared only at 10.)

We took a thousand photos of Big Ben, all of them straight into the sun. Admired the Houses of Parliament. Stood in a long line at Westminster Abbey (thanks, Kate and Will!).

The Abbey was worth the wait, and, of course, I felt very familiar with it, having watched the royal wedding. (Official programs available in the gift shop…yes, I bought one!) We audio-guided our way through the Abbey, just stunned at the beauty of it, and how OLD it was. That was my constant theme, muttering, “Everything here is so OLD”? And the other constant theme: crying. I cried at the Poet’s Corner. I cried at the War Poets: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." I cried at T.S. Eliot: "The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." I cried at Shakespeare: “…Leave not a wreck behind.”

To recover from the crying, we went to the famous American Bar at the hotel and had some amazing cocktails, including a fabulous White Lady. (Recipe here)

Indian food for dinner at the Masala Zone—perhaps not the most authentic place in London, but a thousand percent better than what we used to. At least I didn’t cry there!

Day 3: After another breakfast in which we ordered ANYTHING WE WANTED, we bravely rode the city bus--!!—to the Tower of London. We thought about taking the Yeoman Warder’s tour, but between the herd of 250 people following him about and my inability to understand the nuances of the bellowed accent, we went with the audioguide again, and were pleased. We saw the prison with its graffittied walls where political prisoners languished (better to be there than beheaded, of course) and learned that the guards back then hedged their bets in terms of treatment, since they were never sure who might end up in power again. We saw the Crown Jewels—good lord! There was a 530-carat diamond the size of an egg! I was on board with all the coronation traditions and egg-sized diamonds…but then I got to the Imperial Crown of India, which was worn ONCE, when King George V went to India and no one wanted to let the Crown Jewels leave the country, so they made a whole, huge special crown just for this ONE trip. It was never worn again, and frankly, I don’t think it would be so terrible to sell off pieces of that and, I don’t know, donate it to the Globe Theatre or something. (Scroll down for a picture)  Saw the famous ravens. Fell in love with William the Conqueror’s White Tower…it was so OLD, started in 1078. After several hours of exploration, we were exhausted. So, what better time to go walking?

We walked across the Tower Bridge and got to see it open, for the anachronistic “Dixie Queen.” On the other side of the river, we strolled along…curious about something we’d noticed in the guidebooks, and, frankly, seen labeled on every single map: Vinopolis. The guidebook described it as a wine bar…which at this point sounded more restorative than tea.

On and on we walked. When we finally arrived, we paid for a package of 6 wine tastings and a Bombay Sapphire cocktail (and that was the smallest package!), and entered the wonderful world of Vinopolis…which was inhabited by young British girls tottering about on stiletto heels in packs of bacherlorette parties complete with blinking tiaras and sashes that read “the future Mrs. John Williams.” We consoled ourselves with imagining that we were actually doing something that British people might do—in fact, we might have been the only tourists there. We did have some decent wines in our tasting, though there was one unfortunate, still-makes-me-shudder choice of a white from South Africa that tasted exactly like green peppers.

Walked home—might I say that there has been NO RAIN this entire time?—and Steve dozed while I read the entire Tower of London guidebook. (Ask me anything.) By the time we got moving again, the pub we wanted to go to was no longer serving food, so we ended up at an “American”-style steakhouse in the theatre district called Sophie’s that was satisfying and served up some excellent desserts: sticky toffee pudding and rhubarb fool.

To be continued....!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Ancient Life: Articles I Ripped Out of The New Yorker, 6--Fred Flintstone as Seen by an English Major

More articles I saved from The New Yorker (yes, I'm a walking advertisment for the magazine...but does that mean the fiction editor will take my phone calls?):

“Shouts & Murmurs: How Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life”

By Larry Doyle
May 15, 2006

This defies being excerpted, so please go read the whole thing. But, okay, just a flavor:

…Through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet.

What makes Fred run? Wilma, light of his life, fire of his loincloth. His sin, his soul. Wil-ma.

When you’re with the Flintstones.

“Oh, Fred,” Wilma said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”


And so he beat on, fists against the granite, borne back ceaselessly into the past

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Ancient Life: Articles I Ripped Out of The New Yorker, 5--Hollywood Animals (Literally)

More New Yorker articles I am compelled to save....
“Popular Chronicles: Animal Action”
The movie-star treatment for nonhumans
By Susan Orlean
November 17, 2003


“According to the American Humane guidelines, no animal actor should have to work like a dog. For instance, if an ape is on set for more than three consecutive days the production must provide a play area or a private park where the ape can exercise and relax. When a bear is working on a film, anything that produces smells that might bother the bear -- cheap perfume, strong liquor, jelly doughnuts -- must be removed from the location. Only cats that like dogs should be cast in cat-and-dog movies. No individual fish can do more than three takes in a day. Also, under no circumstances can a nonhuman cast member be squished. This rule applies to all nonhuman things, including cockroaches. Karen Rosa, the director of American Humane's Film and Television Unit, was discussing this particular guideline one day last summer. "If you show up on set with twenty-five thousand cockroaches, you better leave with twenty-five thousand cockroaches," she said. I wondered if she extended the same welcome to cockroaches at home. "A cockroach in my kitchen is one thing," Rosa said. "A cockroach in a movie is an actor. Like any other actor, it deserves to go home at the end of the day."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Ancient Life: Articles I Ripped Out of The New Yorker, 4--Lunch in Chinatown

Continuing my series of articles I ripped from the pages of The New Yorker and saved in a semi-organized notebook:
“Letter from Mott Street”
By Calvin Trillin
February 24, 1986 (yes, I was four years old, reading The New Yorker!)

(just an abstract, alas!)


I don’t know what the other citizens in the jurors’ assembly room were thinking about, but I was thinking about Chinatown….

I was calculating how many minutes it would take me to get to an elevator, descend to the first floor, and cover the two or three blocks between the courthouse and Chinatown. I was wondering whether I should try to make it to a dim-sum joint on East Broadway I had been meaning to check out or should go only as far as a promising-looking seafood restaurant on Elizabeth. I was trying to figure out if it could really be true that my route back to the courthouse would take me right past the place where I buy the tiny Chinese cakes whose taste I can describe only as what madeleines would taste like if the French truly understood these matters. It’s amazing how quickly time passes when you have a lot on your mind.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Ancient Life: Articles I Ripped Out of The New Yorker, 3--Lucinda Williams

Hey, kids: in the olden days, before the internet, if you wanted to “save” a magazine article, you didn’t bookmark it, you ripped it right out of the pages of the magazine (hopefully, this wasn’t a magazine you were reading at the doctor’s office or the library). I have a notebook of articles* I ripped out of various magazines, and while I’m away from the blog, I thought it might be interesting to look back at some of those that I took from The New Yorker:

*I have stories and poems too, but apparently those notebooks are buried somewhere in my scary storage area.

“Profiles: Delta Nights”
A singer’s love affair with loss
By Bill Buford
June 5, 2000

(unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing)

Ouch! you think after you’ve heard Lucinda Williams for the first time, this girl has gone through some shit. Her songs are not traditional rock and roll, if only because they are more written, more preoccupied with the concerns of language and image, than most rock tunes. They’re not country, although there is an occasional twangy country element. They’re not folk, even though “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” her 1998 album (and her first commercial success), got a Grammy award for the best contemporary-folk record of the year. And they’re not blues, even though they are informed by something that might be described as a blues attitude.

This quality of being both on thing and another (and yet another) is at the heart of Williams’s achievement—thus the knotty, contradictory labels she gets stuck with, like the blackest white girl in Louisiana (or the white woman with a black man’s soul), or Raymond Carver with a guitar (because of her stark narratives), or a female Hank Williams.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Ancient Life: Articles I Ripped Out of The New Yorker, 1--Golden Gate Bridge

Hey, kids: in the olden days, before the internet, if you wanted to “save” a magazine article, you didn’t bookmark it, you ripped it right out of the pages of the magazine (hopefully, this wasn’t a magazine you were reading at the doctor’s office or the library). I have a notebook of articles* I ripped out of various magazines, and while I’m away from the blog, I thought it might be interesting to look back at some of those that I took from The New Yorker:

*I have stories and poems too, but apparently those notebooks are buried somewhere in my scary storage area.

[Oh, and don't forget to enter the book giveaway: http://workinprogressinprogress.blogspot.com/2011/05/short-story-month-book-giveaway.html]

“Letter from California: Jumpers”
The fatal grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge
By Tad Friend
October 13, 2003



Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before. Ken Baldwin and Kevin Hines both say they hurdled over the railing, afraid that if they stood on the chord they might lose their courage. Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

Kevin Hines was eighteen when he took a municipal bus to the bridge one day in September, 2000. After treating himself to a last meal of Starbursts and Skittles, he paced back and forth and sobbed on the bridge walkway for half an hour. No one asked him what was wrong. A beautiful German tourist approached, handed him her camera, and asked him to take her picture, which he did. “I was like, ‘Fuck this, nobody cares,’ ” he told me. “So I jumped.” But after he crossed the chord, he recalls, “My first thought was What the hell did I just do? I don’t want to die.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Don't Miss: Stolls, McLaughlin, Feitell

Here are some can’t-miss events:

My friend and fellow writing group member Amy Stolls will be reading from her new novel The Ninth Wife:

Sunday, May 15, 2011
Reading, 1:00 pm
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC

I read The Ninth Wife in progress and can safely say that it is HILARIOUS. From the website:

What sane woman would consider becoming any man’s ninth wife?

Bess Gray is a thirty-five-year-old folklorist and amateur martial artist living in Washington, DC. Just as she’s about to give up all hope of marriage, she meets Rory, a charming Irish musician, and they fall in love. But Rory is a man with a secret, which he confesses to Bess when he asks for her hand: He’s been married eight times before. Shocked, Bess embarks on a quest she feels she must undertake before she can give him an answer. With her bickering grandparents (married sixty-five years), her gay neighbor (himself a mystery), a shar-pei named Stella, and a mannequin named Peace, Bess sets out on a cross-country journey—unbeknownst to Rory—to seek out and question the wives who came before. What she discovers about her own past is far more than she bargained for.

The Ninth Wife is a smart, funny, eye-opening tale of love, marriage, and the power of stories to unlock the true meaning of home and family.

More details (and laughs) at Amy’s website; be sure to check out the FAQs: http://amystolls.com/


My friend and former writing group member Ann McLaughlin will be reading from her new novel A Trial in Summer:

Sunday, May 22, 2pm
The Writer's Center,
4508 Walsh St., Bethesda, MD

Saturday, June 11, 6pm
Politics and Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C.

I read A Trial in Summer in progress, and loved learning more about San Francisco in the 1930s. From the website:

Lorie Bronson, an idealistic college freshman, arrives in San Francisco in the summer of 1939 with her father, who is the judge in the deportation trial of a longshoreman and labor leader. San Francisco is full of contrasts from the luxuries of Nob Hill, where the family is staying, to the dangerous docks that Lorie explores. Lorie misses her dead mother and resents her father’s new wife. A passionate photographer, Lorie disobeys her father and goes down to the docks to photograph longshoreman at work and in strikes. She meets Dave Rafferty, who says he is a longshoreman, and Lorie talks to him about the trial. But Dave turns out to be a company spy, who steals her camera and endangers both the trial and her father’s career. In surviving her own trial during the long summer, Lorie learns about labor and social justice and achieves a more mature relationship with her father and a clearer sense of herself.

More information: http://www.annmclaughlinwriting.com/


If that’s not enough, poet/writer Sandra Beasley will be emceeing the Story/Stereo event at The Writer’s Center and promises that it’s going to be an amazing event!  Emerging Writer Fellowship recipients Merrill Feitell (Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes) and Susanna Lang (Even Now) will read. Musical guest: The Cornel West Theory

Friday, May 20, 2011 at 8:00 PM
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
P: 301.654.8664

I met Merrill Feitell at Bread Loaf, and she was awesome, and Sandra is no liar—so I’ve put this one on my list of,“I Desperately Want To Be There.”

For more information: http://www.writer.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=838

Monday, May 9, 2011

Work in Progress: My Storytelling Debut and High Stakes

Here it is! It’s about nine minutes or so (curious how a five-minute story can mysteriously grow longer under that intoxicating spotlight…).

OR: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eavvO3B0Kn4

It was a fun night, and I was honored to appear with many fabulous performers. (You can see their stories—and stories from Story League’s first show—at this YouTube site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eavvO3B0Kn4; updates will appear daily for the next week.

I’m not sure what exactly I “learned” by doing something new and difficult for me, unless it was that one should push themselves into doing new and difficult things from time to time.

Also, I enjoyed thinking about writing and storytelling from a different perspective. For example, this story actually had quite a bit of material preceding the point where I start talking. I quickly decided to cut that out, realizing that here is the point where the real story actually starts and that all that background was unnecessary. When you’re standing up there in front of a bunch of drunk people, you really need to grab their attention and hang onto it. That’s the same principle in written writing of course, but when it’s you up there instead of words on the page, the stakes feel infinitely higher.

Another scary aspect is that in this form, the stories are all true. It’s you right out there, you telling your own story, you who have to take the audience from start to finish. Again, high stakes.

And, ultimately, that was my favorite thing about this experience: the reminder that all stories, whether spoken or written, should involve very high stakes.

Special thanks to the show’s producers and Story League’s founders: S.M. Shrake and Cathy Alter.

If you’re interested in storytelling—either giving it a go yourself or attending future shows—you can “like” the Story League Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/#!/StoryLeague) or learn more at the website: http://www.storyleague.org/

All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close up….

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Short Story Month: Book Giveaway!

Maybe not as firmly established as National Poetry Month, but May is Short Story Month, thanks to the efforts of a number of bloggers and writers. (“Because we said so” IS a good enough reason, actually!)

No, no, the real history of National Story Month is told by Dan Wickett (founder of Dzanc Press and the Emerging Writers Network), which you can read here: http://fictionwritersreview.com/blog/the-origins-of-short-story-month-a-guest-post-by-dan-wickett  (scroll down; there was a lot of white space at the top). And be sure to check out the Emerging Writers Network blog, where there will be a post about a different short story collection every day during the month: http://www.emergingwriters.typepad.com/.

And how does all of this affect the price of tea in China? (Oh, such an oldie-but-goodie.) In honor of Short Story Month 2011, this blog will be participating in the Book Giveaway Project. It’s simple: as you may recall from a previous post, I loved Robin Black’s new collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. So if you send me an email (directions below), you’ll be included in a drawing for a copy of the book to be sent to you.

This special giveaway has been organized by The Fiction Writers Review (http://fictionwritersreview.com/) who has corralled a number of blogs that will be giving away books for free. You can find the participating blogs (and links so you can enter the giveaways) here: http://fictionwritersreview.com/blog/2011-collection-giveaway-project

The Book:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black. Stories I desperately wish I had written: no fancy gimmicks like odd points of view, no talking animals, no vampires, no hipsters in Brooklyn. Solid, tense, deeply complex and intensely emotional stories about various forms of loss; Black is a smart and empathetic writer. I read this book while I was on retreat at VCCA, and it changed the way I wrote. When I got home, I immediately added this to my “favorite books” shelf. When I later met Robin and heard her speak at the Conversations & Connections conference, I was agog and wanted to write down every word she said about writing. (Read more about that here: http://workinprogressinprogress.blogspot.com/2011/04/conversations-and-connections-wrap-up.html) So…a book I truly, truly, TRULY love and admire.

You can read more about the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Loved-You-Would-Tell-This/dp/0812980689/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1304603401&sr=1-1

And read more about Robin here: http://robinblack.net/

The Rules:

1. Send an email to Lpietr@aol.com and put Robin Black in the subject line.

2. Include your mailing address. (Sorry, that I am too cheap to ship the book outside of the U.S., so U.S. only.)

3. I promise not to add your email address to any list; your email will be deleted following this contest.

4. The winner will be determined randomly. (If you must know, I number each email in order, then ask my husband to randomly select a number…voila, the winner!)

5. It’s okay to enter if you know me. But don’t blame me if you don’t win—see above.

6. The deadline to enter is Friday, May 27, 5PM EST.

7. If you don’t include your mailing address in your email, your entry will be deleted.

Happy Short Story Month!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Link Corral: C.M. Mayo on Decluttering Your Writing; Jesscia Anya Blau on Fear and Loathing; Fully Funded CNF Fellowships to VCCA

C.M. Mayo offers some great insight into the balance between too much and too little when it comes to descriptive writing (and more):

“So, how to distinguish needed detail from clutter?

“I like to use the analogy of interior decorating. Let's assume the purpose of the living room is to host a tea party. So you decorate it in order to make your guest feel welcome, to make her feel both charmed and comfortable to come in, sit on the sofa, and enjoy a cup (or three) of tea. That will be challenging if the entrance is blocked by five beat-up sofas and, say, a washing machine. It will also be challenging if you've left last night's pizza cartons on the coffee table.”

Read the rest of her excellent post here: http://madammayo.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-decluttering-or-integrity-of-design.html


From an interview with novelist Jessica Anya Blau:

"I do like scaring myself when I write—writing about something that I might not want to say aloud. And often that’s the best writing."


"My writing time is very limited, no time to dilly-dally, so when I sit down I just push ahead no matter how pathetic the writing is."

Read more here: http://writersinnerjourney.com/2011/05/the-5-question-author-interview-jessica-anya-blau.html

Two fully-funded fellowship opportunities at VCCA.  But hurry, the deadline is MAY 15:

The Goldfarb Family Fellowship
Established 2000
2-week residency
Accepting Applications Through May 15

Provided through the generosity of writer, literary agent and former board member Ronald Goldfarb, The Robert and Aida Goldfarb Art Law Literary Fund sponsors a fully funded two-week fellowship and is given annually to the top creative non-fiction applicant.

On your application, please note that you are applying for a Goldfarb Fellowship.

2001-2010 Recipients: Douglas Crandell, Xujon Eberlein, Sue Eisenfeld, Jean Harper, E. J. Levy, Richard McCann, David Morse Storrs, Maureen Stanton, Cheryl Stayed, Tiffany Trent

Komaki Fellowship
Established 2010
2-week residency
Accepting Applications Through May 15

This fellowship funds a two-week residency during the fall scheduling period (October through January) for a nonfiction writer whose work celebrates the behind-the-scenes story of an activist striving to make his or her vision of a more perfect world a reality. It should capture the powerful and positive changes effected by inspiring social activists such as Martin Luther King, or engage a social issue in an uplifting way as Randy Shilts did with Harvey Milk.

On your application, please note that you are applying for a Komaki Fellowship.

For more details and to apply: http://www.vcca.com/main/special-programs/programs-now-accepting-applications

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book Preview: Orientation by Daniel Orozco

I went to an excellent reading last night at the Writer’s Center. Part of the PEN World Voices Tour, three writers were featured: Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Leila Aboulela, and Daniel Orozco. All were wonderful readers and writers, but I’m focusing on Daniel Orozco, since I met him many years ago when we were both scholars at Bread Loaf.

I’m so pleased to see that his first book will be officially out in June: Orientation and Other Stories. I’ve been admiring Dan’s work for years and have been eagerly waiting to see his book ever since I read “Orientation” in an edition of The Best American Short Stories. It’s an eerie “first day at work” story narrated by an unseen, unknown narrator. It’s exactly what you get on the first day at any job, and yet the routine is rendered here in such a way as to make the skin crawl.

Here’s the first paragraph:

“Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go.”

It’s one of the few contemporary short stories I’ve read that I would deem “truly memorable.”

Last night Dan read from a story called “Hunger Tales,” which is composed of four sections, each with a character who becomes extremely hungry at an inappropriate moment, and the audience alternated between practically rolling in the aisles with laughter and squirming with delicious (haha) discomfort as things got tricky on this blind date. (I think I see a writing exercise coming on…write about a character who is hungry at an inappropriate moment.)

I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I’m totally confident in giving this book my highest recommendation. But here are some early reviews (the book will be officially released in a few weeks; I’m so happy I bought a live copy last night!):

Here’s Caitlin Hill’s thoughtful review for The Writer’s Center: http://thewriterscenter.blogspot.com/2011/04/book-review-orientation-by-daniel.html

She writes:

"Orozco’s debut collection unsettled me. I read the collection in one sitting and then sat still for several moments, trying to understand what I had just experienced. My first impulse was to decide whether I liked the collection, before I remembered that is never the point. In this case, however, I had no ready answer, and I became consumed by it. I’m still not sure if I “liked” Orientation, but I am sure I will read it again, I am certain I will recommend it, and I won’t soon forget its stories."

I hope Amazon doesn’t mind my swiping their review, because it also captures the flavor of Dan’s writing:

Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2011: You would be hard pressed to find a more consistent collection of short stories than Daniel Orozco's Orientation: And Other Stories, which gives us a surprising glimpse into lives that are too strange for a novel, but too fascinating to ignore. "The Bridge" tells us about bridge painters, who must, with some regularity, talk people down from throwing themselves off bridges. "I Run Every Day" profiles a boy whose embrace of isolation and his jogging routine leads him to commit a terrible act. But "Hunger Tales," the stickiest story in the book, is a series of deeply affecting vignettes about how the things we eat can make us feel guilt, loneliness, and comfort all at the same time. Orozco, whose work has been featured in McSweeney's, Harper's, and Best American Short Stories, recalls the melancholic tone of Dave Eggers (especially if you've read his short stories in How We Are Hungry) paired with the wit of George Saunders and a trace of Joyce Carol Oates's dark humor. But Orozco’s voice is unique, even if it is universally felt. --Kevin Nguyen

You can pre-order the book and/or read more here: http://www.amazon.com/Orientation-Other-Stories-Daniel-Orozco/dp/0865478538/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304430401&sr=1-3

Monday, May 2, 2011

Short Fiction Contest

I’ve got some longer posts up my sleeve, but for a hurried Monday, let’s keep it short:

American Short(er) Fiction Prize

This contest highlights great work in shorter fiction--stories of 1,000 words or fewer, to be exact.
First prize receives $500 and publication.
Second prize receives $250 and publication.
Judged by the editorial staff of American Short Fiction, a literary quarterly based in Austin, Texas.
Submissions accepted online via the ASF Submission Manager.

A Few Salient Guidelines

1. All entries must be unpublished and their length must be 1,000 words or under. Please type and double-space.

2. The entry fee is $15, payable via PayPal [http://www.americanshortfiction.org/paypal.html]. When you have paid the entry fee, you will be given access to the Submission Manager to submit your work.

3. You may send up to three shorts per entry, but make sure they are all combined into ONE file for uploading. Each individual short may be up to 1,000 words, so the file can contain a maximum of 3,000 words.

4. You may enter as many times as you like. Each separate entry requires its own entry fee of $15. (Please refer to the previous guideline.)

For full guidelines, please visit http://www.americanshortfiction.org/short-shorts


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