Monday, March 31, 2014

Two New Stories Published!!

Oh, what a rush of excitement, to have two new stories out at once!  I believe I could definitely get used to this….

“I Am the Widow” is published online, for free, right here, in a fabulous journal called r.kv.r.y.  The story is short, but it’s rather relentless (to use one of my favorite words for intense writing), so my feelings won’t be hurt (much) if you decide to skip it. 

The opening:

Just like at any movie or TV funeral, his casket gets put up front, set under specially focused lighting, parenthesized by yardstick-high sprays of white gladiolus. Plump velvet kneeler in front of him, velvet curtains behind. Top half of the box open, so we can see his face. If we want to see him dead, that is, if we want to look right at death. There are plenty ducking their heads, twisting necks around and staring up high into the ceiling or deep down through the carpeted floor. Not me. Right off, I grab hold of his hand, entwine my fingers around his, not because that feels so great but because it unnerves the people circling me. Hell yeah. I’m grabbing a dead man’s hand. I’m grabbing my dead husband’s hand. Maybe I won’t let go. Maybe I’m going crazy.
I’m certain I’m going crazy. I’m certain I am.... 

“r.kv.r.y. comes from the dictionary definition of the word recovery: an act, process, or instance of recovering; a return to normal conditions; something gained or restored in recovering; obtaining usable substances from unusable sources.”

You can read the editor’s note with more information here and the submission guidelines here.


My story with the enticing title of “Slut” just came out in a fantastic print journal, Cimarron Review.  This story, too, might be a tiny little bit relentless, though in a sneakier way.  Here’s the opening:

Nicole chose the restaurant: King Street Café in Old Town Alexandria, not too far from her house, easy parking. At the very least, she knew she’d get a good meal out of the night. She didn’t ask her friends for advice because she didn’t want them to know she was going on this blind date.
 Ben said he’d seen the restaurant written up by The Washington Post and thought going there would be fun. He used the word “fun” a lot in their phone conversation, which made her nervous. “Sounds fun,” he’d say, or he’d conclude a story with, “Yeah, that was a fun time.” She couldn’t pinpoint what it was, maybe that “fun” wasn’t a very masculine word or that it wasn’t very mature. Either way, she wasn’t anticipating a “fun” dinner. But she had committed, and she was proud of herself for setting up the meeting for Thursday night at six o’clock—even a stealth date was a date....

Here’s the journal and how to order a copy (or subscribe), should you wish to do so.

Here’s more information about the journal:

“One of the oldest quarterlies in the nation, Cimarron Review publishes work by writers at all stages of their careers, including Pulitzer prize winners, writers appearing in the Best AmericanSeries and the Pushcart anthologies, and winners of national book contests. Since 1967,Cimarron has showcased poetry, fiction, and nonfiction with a wide-ranging aesthetic. Our editors seek the bold and the ruminative, the sensitive and the shocking, but above all they seek imagination and truth-telling, the finest stories, poems, and essays from working writers across the country and around the world.”

Submission guidelines can be found here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seattle! If I have to die eating, may it be here....

Oh, the shame of having a fabulous trip to Seattle and not writing it up while it all fresh in my mind.  Perhaps that’s one way of editing myself, to wait three weeks and see what I still remember.  In my defense, I’ve just spent ten days at the amazing Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) where I immersed myself in my novel-in-progress (which is starting to feel more like a novel and less like a 200-page mess).  There were two days of magical writing, where ideas and sentences flowed like a river, and eight days of the more brutal hard work of pushing, prodding, and hoping—which is a pretty good ratio, I’d say.

Anyway…time to catch up on Seattle, where I went to the AWP conference, the largest gathering of writers in the country.  I believe they’re up to 13,000 of us in this one place.  Thank goodness Seattle was up for the task of absorbing us and making sure we all got enough excellent food and liquor.

I had the first afternoon to explore on my own, and it was oysters all the way:  a wonderful selection of six at Cutters Crabhouse, and then I won’t tell you how many at Elliott’s Oyster House, which was an oyster bar I will dream about for the rest of my days.  Let’s just say, I ordered six, and they were the best oysters I’ve ever had—each unique, each bright, each with lingering mouth-feel and taste.  I may have ordered more after that first six…but how many more will be my little secret!  Perfect wine pairing, and very friendly waiter (everyone in Seattle was super-friendly—buzzed on coffee?).  I didn’t want to ever leave.  I’m sorry to say that I’m pretty sure that west coast oysters are the best.  And this place was so serious about oysters the menu included information about how they were harvested! (For the super-serious, here are my selections: Otter Cove, Penn Cove, Hama Hama, Fanning Bay [can’t read the handwriting!], Eagle Creek, Calm Cove.)

I walked through the Pike Place Market and the surrounding area and truly almost went insane because I wanted to eat EVERYTHING!  It was overwhelming, and I wish I had four stomachs like those lucky cows.  I tried some chowder at Pike Place Chowder, pastry at Piroshky Piorshky, and stared longingly at the ginger beer place, the cheese place, and a thousand other places and produce stands.  I cracked when I found the Copperworks Distillery, and tried a small (honestly, VERY small) sample of gin and bought some interesting-looking, amber tonic (Bradley’s Kina Tonic) that Steve later noticed was featured in the new issue of Imbibe magazine (yes, there’s a magazine for mixologists).

There had to be some space between all this eating, and woman does not live on food alone…she needs books!  I found the deservedly famous Seattle Public Library, which is an architecture wonder and—if the crowds are an indication—a vital part of the fabric of the city.  Seriously, this building is so beautiful and such an incredible showcase for the vibrancy of books that I almost cried as I rode the artsy escalators to the top floor for a fly’s eye view of the city through the glittering glass panels.  Of course I bought a ton of stuff in the gift shop. (See below for some photos I took with my NEW smartphone!!!)

That night, I met up with some fabulous Converse students at the Taphouse Grill, which had about a zillion beers—seriously, out spot at the bar faced a solid and vast wall of beer taps—and then hung out with more Converse folks at Wild Ginger, a Thai and Thai-inspired restaurant that created one of the most perfect appetizers I’ve ever had, which basically was a salmon curry compacted and distilled to its essence, all wrapped up in a banana leaf.  I had made a big production of how I don’t like sharing food and wanted my own…but when I got this dish, it was so incredible that I had to force bites upon other people so they could try it and I could watch their faces when their tastebuds got the hit.  This is why they trusted me when I ordered ginger ice cream for dessert to share, and that, too, was incredible.

Another dinner highlight was Miller’s Guild, located in a hip-happening hotel (not part of the conference hotel selections!) that was also one of Seattle’s oldest buildings (1926).  The restaurant was known for some sort of famous wood grill that looked very fiery and intense.  So I had to get beef—so tender and lush—but the most memorable aspect of this wonderful meal (with another fabulously friendly waiter!) was the cask-aged gin old-fashioned.  Yes, a GIN old-fashioned.  If you’re not up on current mixology experimentation, aging spirits for several weeks in a wooden cask is the new thing—flavor and color is added, and what flavor!  This was about as perfect a drink that could exist.  I was so enamored of it (and knew Steve would want to know everything about it) that the friendly waiter sent over the friendly bartender who answered every question I had—which gin, which bitters, what kind of sugar for the simple syrup.

Did I mention that people were friendly?  And that Seattle actually can be gloriously sunny, and when it is, people are even friendlier?

This might not come as a shock to you, dear reader, but it was a shock to me that I felt sick on Friday night, something sudden and drastic.  And—brace yourself—I HAD TO MISS A MEAL!* The horror, the horror.  But I hear that the Purple Café and Wine Bar was wonderful.  Next time (and there will be a next time; despite my extended stay due to weather, I am not done with Seattle).

Caution prevailed food-wise the next day, Saturday, which almost broke my heart.

And then the gods intervened in the form of a snowstorm in Washington that delayed my Sunday flight until Tuesday.  And, lucky for me, I was stranded with a DC friend who also had not had her fill of Seattle!

Sunday morning, I jumped back on the food wagon with a wonderful breakfast at the bar of Lola, a happening breakfast/brunch spot with an hour long wait, unless you lucked into a seat at the bar, as I instantly did (as if the food gods felt sorry for my prolonged compromised state).  Awesome bloody marys, and the bartender was pouring them out at a rate of about one every two minutes.

I walked to the Seattle art museum and took a guided tour of the Joan Miro exhibit which was informative.  I liked the museum overall, especially a wild and wonderful exhibit of African art.

My friend and I taxied up to the Capitol Hill area for drinks and dinner, and what a night!  One of the best food experiences I’ve ever had.  This was the night of the Oscars (on west coast time, remember) so there were no crowds, which made for a pleasant evening. First stop:  Tavern Law, a craft cocktail bar, with a thoughtful menu and a—guess what!—friendly bartender (thank you, Michael)!  I had to try a gin drink with egg white, since that’s something you don’t find at most bars (making a drink properly involves much, much, much shaking, which is hard on the arms and rotator cuff), so I had the Lusty Lady, which was delectable without being cloying: Genever gin, cranberry juice (I think…fuzzy notes!), egg white, and something lavender…actual lavender? Lavender simple syrup?  For my second drink, the bartender went off-menu for me, making a drink he had invented that involved—I kid you not—blue cheese tincture and saffron tincture. How does a drink work with blue cheese, you wonder?  Amazingly!  (I mean, as long as you’re a blue cheese fan.)  There was an earthy after-glow that was surprising in a delightful way.  (See Steve’s “Two at the Most” column for more on Tavern Law.)

Alas, we had to get some real food, so we walked to Lark and settled into a wonderful booth and had one of the best meals I’ve had, EVER.  The waiter spoke my language immediatelywhen he came to tell us about the menu and that everything was a “small plate” and that most people got three things.  Three!  Yay!  Exactly what I wanted to hear…though it was hard to pick three.  I decided a focus on fish would make sense, so I started with a yellowtail tuna Carpaccio that was bright and melted on the tongue.  And my friend had heard the char was to die for, so we both got that and if dying is anything like what that char tasted like, sign me up!  (For the super-serious, the dish is actually called:  “Arctic Char with Brussels Sprouts, Smoked Butter, and Rye Salt).  So beyond lovely…lovely times infinity.  (This is where I wish I had been taking notes, but I always find that it’s much more fun to simply eat and enjoy the moment.)  I felt guilty for so much indulgence that I asked the waiter for a vegetable recommendation, and he suggested the Bloomsdale spinach sautéed with Meyer lemon butter.  Any spinach with its own special name had to be something worth checking out, and it, too, was AMAZING!  If I could only have one meal in Seattle, Lark would have to arm-wrestle with oysters at Elliott’s.

On Monday, I walked back up to Capitol Hill, which was an interesting city walk and gave me a stronger feel for the real town, away from the tourist/convention life of downtown.  I came across about 1000 coffee shops and tiny restaurants that were begging me to eat something…more heartbreak as I pressed onward, to The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s (deservedly) famous and amazing bookstore.  I had decided that I would spend as much time as I wanted to, looking at books, reading staff recommendations, and my mission was to buy books by people I didn’t know or know of, books I hadn’t heard about…to just explore and go wherever that led me.  So, two hours and six books later, I emerged as if from a dream.  This is probably the best bookstore I’ve ever been in (I guess if I could only go to one, it would have to arm-wrestle The Strand in New York City), and certainly one of the best bookstore experiences.  (You can read about one of the books I bought and read, The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout, here.) 

For a light lunch, I picked Oddfellows Café, a hipsterish, brunchy vibe in an old, restored Odd Fellows building from the 20s or so.  The salad was…amazing!  And scrambled eggs with cheese on homemade biscuit with homemade strawberry jam was…amazing!  The eggs were such that the cheddar had melded into them, as if into its own form of food product.  So yellow!  And walking back to the hotel, I came across a dog park, so I people/dog-watched in the sun, which is—surprisingly, since I’m not really a dog person—is one of my very favorite city activities.

And the last meal:  Blueacre Seafood, where I had another really excellent salad (lavender-infused goat cheese!) and, of course, finally, SALMON with a brown butter sauce and almonds and dried cherries. Ah, so this is what salmon really can be?  Again, sign me up!  And for dessert, salted caramel pot de crème, so rich and luscious I regret to this day that I had to leave behind two bites.

And off to the airport the next day, sitting on the plane with my friend for entertainment, my amazing book to read, and time to digest it all before hitting DC and snow.

Oh, the AWP conference….right.  That was fabulous too…learned a lot, talked a lot, listened a lot, ended up with a lot of journals, saw a lot of cool people, had a lot of fun doing my four-minute reading of this story.

*Please note that on these extravaganzas I do not typically eat three meals a day.  Otherwise, you’re right, I would explode.  But it was awful to have to miss a planned meal (not to mention the fine company I was supposed to dine with).

Here are some pictures of the public library (uh-oh...I've got a smart phone now, but I'll try not to get out totally out of control):

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Discovery! The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

I remember back in the olden days as a child, going to the library and simply grabbing a book because it looked interesting…not because I’d heard of it or the author or because “everyone” was reading it.  I decided to take this approach during my recent Seattle trip—extended several days thanks to weather issues; more on this later—when I had the chance to visit the (rightfully) famous Elliott Bay Book Company book store in the fun and funky Capital Hill neighborhood.

My mission:  buy some books, preferably west coast-oriented, that I had never heard of, by people I had never heard of.

I spent a delightful two hours wandering the aisles in what is, truly, the most inviting bookstore I’ve ever been in.  Lots of room, lots of face-out books, lots of books period.  I took my time because I had it—nowhere to be, nothing to do (also like the olden days)--pulling out anything that caught my eye due to title, color, randomness.  I read and pondered the staff recommendation tags, which were exceptionally well-written and descriptive.  I ended up with an armload of books—okay, one was by someone I had heard of—but all of my books focused on either Seattle or the west.

The one I selected to read on the airplane home was The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout (first published in 1988, at the end of the author's life).  On the cover is a picture of a sod house on the prairie so it’s no surprise I was attracted.  And then the premise:  it’s the 1850’s and four women lose their minds during the hard Nebraska winter and must be escorted back east where they will be sent back to their families or an asylum.  A hale and hearty young (by our standards) spinster steps up to this sad and difficult task, enlisting the aid of a claim jumper everyone wants run out of town or worse.

I worried this book might be sappy or overly sentimental but by the bottom of the first page, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be when I read this line in a litany of woes suffered by one particular family of homesteaders: 

“Then one of their oxen got the warbles, worms under the skin. You could cut open the swelling and douse the worms with coal oil to kill them if you had any coal oil. Let be, the worms would suck the very soul out of the ox, Line [the wife’s name] was sure, and come spring, yoked up, it would fall down dead in the field, the poor creature.”

By page 9, something so horrific happens I can’t tell you what it is.  And that’s just the beginning.  I lost track of how many times I gasped or murmured, “Oh my god,” as I read.

This book is totally unsentimental and is definitely the dark side to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that I so loved back during the days I was wandering the Iowa City Public Library.  People go to the outhouse here, and how people suffer—from events, from nature, from others, from bad luck and poor decisions, from the fact that it was damn hard to scratch a living out of that unforgiving land.  

The book is well-researched, and every now and then I felt that research weigh a bit heavy, but mostly what I learned was fascinating, the bits of history that fall through the cracks (for example, now I know both how to jump a claim and how to roust a claim jumper).  The narrative is spare but with moments of immense beauty—like the landscape, I suppose—and just when I found myself doubting an authorial craft choice midway through the book, it paid off and wrenched my heart almost beyond reason.

I see this book is going to be a “major motion picture” with Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank (good luck making her “as plain as an old tin pail”), and a number of famous people.  Do yourself a favor and read the book before they prettify things up…though this story is so powerful, I hope even Hollywood can’t wreck it.

Here’s more information about the author, Glendon Swarthout, who seems to be defined as a “western writer”; many of his books were made into movies.  Time to stop ghettoizing writers!  Bring this book into the canon!  Read some sample pages here and decide for yourself.

Then buy yourself a copy…here’s the Elliott Bay Book Company link.


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