Friday, April 29, 2016

A Big Day Over at Redux

It’s been a busy week, but maybe you’d like to wind down with some good reading? Redux, the online journal that I founded*, marks its 200th "anniversary" this week—that’s 200 posts of creative work since we started in August 2011. In honor of the big day, I posted links to the 10 most popular stories/poems/essays that we’ve published, along with some other favorites.

Let the reading begin:

*Redux features previously published literary work that is not available in a print book or elsewhere online.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Lying within the Lie" My Interview in The Collagist

I was interviewed by the wonderful online journal TheCollagist about my short story “One True Thing.” The story appears in THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST (and online, in The Collagist), and in my mind is infamous because:

~It’s 40 pages long!
~It uses 10 different points of view!
~It takes place at a writers’ conference “no one” would recognize!
~I discovered something utterly crucial and foundational to the story an hour after I thought the story was finally one would ever guess that this was the last puzzle piece.
~It took me more than a year to write and figure out this story, and I  joke that the experience nearly killed me.

Here’s a tease from the interview:
 I love writing (and reading) second person stories, but I agree with the craft lecture here, that it’s a tricky point of view to carry off and that it’s dangerous to use that POV in an MFA workshop. (Maybe the word isn’t so much “dangerous” as it is “tedious”…because at least half the allotted workshop time will be spent talking about how two-thirds of the class despises the second person.) I love the first person as well, but I’m mindful that if third person is the standard and default choice of POV, there must be a legitimate reason for choosing the first person. For me, that reason is often unreliability. While all fiction technically is a lie, I especially love lying within that lie, it seems, making me very fond of unreliable narrators.

Here’s the story (in case you haven't bought my book yet!!):

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Where Should You Hold Your Off-Site Event at AWP DC?

I don’t know. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, which is a 40 minute metro-ride away or a 6 mile/50-minute rush hour traffic trip by car. Also, I don’t plan events for a living, so I don’t keep track of spaces for rent. I don’t know the cool hipster bars with party rooms. The bottom line is that unfortunately, I have no idea who you should contact to talk about hosting your reading/party/slam/mock prom/happy hour/wake for rejected panelists/shots contest. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about it, unless, ahem, you’ve invited ME to participate in your event. And, honestly, I suspect that many of your DC friends feel the same way I do. (Or maybe they are nicer than I am.)

Still I understand that you may know less than I do! And I understand that I should be a gracious host to those of you coming to our metro area nest February. So here are some resources and suggestions that will help you find the perfect location.

First and foremost:
Metro. Make sure your off-site event is near a metro stop. The Convention Center is at Mount Vernon Square, which is on the Yellow and Green lines. On one side of the convention center there are some inexpensive interesting options to consider, but on the other side there are a lot of fancy restaurants, so you might want to branch out to…

Gallery Place/Chinatown. This stop is on the Yellow, Green, and Red lines and serves Penn Quarter. There are a bajillion restaurants and bars and tourists and teenagers and sports fans around here, because this is also where the Verizon Center is. You might want to check to see if the Wizards (basketball) or the Capitals (hockey) are playing, because if they are, everything will be a little more crowded. Also, there could be a major concert at the Verizon Center…let’s hope not. But maybe make sure.


Staying on the easy path of Green/Yellow, you can also look to Shaw/Howard; U Street; Columbia Heights; or Petworth. There definitely are fun and funky and less expensive options for food/bars in these neighborhoods, along with fabulous bookstores like the original Busboys & Poets and Upshur Street Books. To my (lazy) mind, though, your offsite event is sounding like a trek if I have to go past U Street…which means it better be at an amazing spot to get me there. Logan Circle is a current hotspot for restaurants and is between U Street and Dupont Circle.

Speaking of Dupont Circle, from Gallery Place, you can go sideways along the metro on the Red Line to Dupont Circle…but to my (lazy) mind, having to transfer trains is another irritant. If I were you, I’d really try to stay on that Green/Yellow corridor, which is sooooo convenient to the Convention Center. (Unless, I don’t know, Sherman Alexie is reading at your off-site event? I’d metro all the way into Maryland to see him!)

The really fun neighborhood is called NoMa and I don’t see it as being convenient to the Metro…but it’s not too far from the Convention Center, so if your guests are Uber/Lyft folks, that’s a good option because there are LOTS of bars and restaurants.

Either way, Metro offers a very handy “Trip Planner” service on where you can put in addresses and find your exact route via public transportation, including WALKING DIRECTIONS from the metro station so can see how much of a hike your site will be. [Edited to note that for the near future, Metro is undergoing "SafeTrack" which is a rolling series of station closures/service disruptions. You can find a schedule here: ]

I will go out on a limb and say that in general, taxis in DC are disgusting. Uber/Lyft are good options--but do remember that traffic here is horrific. Walking could be tough in February (on the other hand, it could be 75 degrees and lovely in an alarming way). I know there are buses and a robust BikeShare program...but I bet 99% of your potential attendees will not be brave enough to hop on a bike with their AWP totebag slung on their shoulder.

As for places: Here is a list of party rooms available via Yelp. I make no endorsement beyond the fact that in general, I have heard of these places and they look like legitimate, interesting spots to me.

(Watch out because there are ads sprinkled throughout that look like the vetted listings but aren’t.)

This list looks okay to me, too—maybe a little more restaurant-oriented than bar-oriented:

A final thing to remember: ACCESSIBILITY. Please be considerate and ask the site you’ve contacted if it is accessible to everyone. What would be worse than someone getting to your event and discovering a barrier in the form of a steep flight of stairs and no working elevator? Or discovering that the bathrooms are all in the basement?

Happy event planning…see you in February!!

Monday, April 25, 2016

“Writers Write, Every Day, No Excuses”: Interview with Dana Cann about GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY

I first met Dana Cann when I was teaching a novel workshop at the Writer’s Center back in the olden days. He was a wonderful writer, devoted to the craft, and exactly the kind of person you want to stay in touch with after class. He wrote a piece for Work in Progress that remains one of my favorite guest pieces to this day—“200 Words and a Cloud of Dust”—outlining his approach to getting the work in, day after day, even if only 200 words at a time, even if only 15 minutes at a stretch. And now, proving the power of discipline and showing us that 15 minutes a day IS enough, here, happily, is his first novel: GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY.

I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I’m dying to (and I had a tantalizing tease when we read together recently at Johns Hopkins; upcoing reading dates are listed below). Here’s the publisher’s description:

Gil and Mary Beth Ferko moved to Bergen County thinking they would lead a typical suburban life: Gil commuting daily to Manhattan; Mary Beth a stay-at-home mom. But after a hit-and-run accident kills their infant daughter, Mary Beth becomes a shut-in. When Gil reconnects with a high school classmate, Jen, she introduces him to heroin. As his dependency on the drug grows, his downward spiral puts his life in danger and his career in jeopardy. Mary Beth has also found an escape—first in prescription drugs that numb her senses, then in the companionship of a mysterious girl who heightens them. And Jen is also haunted. Years ago she witnessed a man she had just met fall from a rooftop. She walked away from the accident and has been tormented since by the question of why she did so. As her quest to rectify that mistake collides with other mysteries and traumas, all the characters must face the fine line between fate and happenstance.

And here are some nice things that people are saying:

Publishers Weekly: "Cann’s novel is an impressive, accomplished effort, nuanced in its depiction of complex interpersonal drama and eerie elements of the supernatural." Full review.

 Bret Anthony Johnston: “Dana Cann’s characters are so complicated and vulnerable, so profoundly human and wounded, that they linger in the reader’s memory like family snapshots. This is a courageous and revelatory novel, the beginning of a gifted writer’s long career.”

And on to my short interview with Dana:

Usually I ask authors to describe their book in 10 words or less, but since I heard you at a reading effectively describe the book in 140 characters, let’s do that! (I’ll spot you the words of the title, if you’d like.)

A private-equity guy and his wife, a recluse since their baby’s death, confront grief amid addictions and the company of a mysterious girl.

I’m always interested in point of view…how and why did you choose the POV you did?

GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY utilizes a third-person, limited point of view. Each of the three principal characters—Gil, Mary Beth, and Jen—is a point-of-view character, and the shifts in point of view typically (though not always) occur at chapter breaks. Third-person limited, with multiple point-of-view characters, is a pretty conventional way to write a novel. When I first started writing GHOSTS, my intention was to utilize a third-person omniscient point of view, where the point of view could shift more fluidly from character to character, but I quickly nixed that ambition when it became apparent that the number of choices I’d need to make would increase exponentially. Plus, I was confusing the generous, smart readers in my writers’ group. I don’t aim to confuse readers.

Plot or characters? Which comes first for you? Or is it something else?

Definitely characters. However, GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY has a pretty intricate plot. This was a surprise for me, when the plot began to emerge as I was writing the novel during a particularly fruitful residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I had a plot! I’d never written anything with an intricate plot before. I was about halfway through the first draft at this point, and I had to circle back to the beginning to capture my new discoveries. Some early readers have noted that the characters are well developed, while others have noted that the plot is well developed. I like to think that this is a novel that promotes both elements in equal measure, that neither takes a back seat to the other.

You have been part of a writing group for sixteen years, which I find an impressive length of time. Can you tell us more about your group and speak to its benefits (and any drawbacks)?

My writers’ group, which currently consists of seven fiction writers, has been invaluable to me. It forces me produce new work because I have deadlines every few months, it provides me with smart and generous feedback on my work, and it allows me to read the work of my peers critically, which is an important skill for a writer to hone. There are few drawbacks I can think of. Maybe one is that novel chapters are more difficult to critique than short stories, since novels are often written over many years, and it’s difficult for a critique group to read a chapter or two at a time every few months.

We formed the group from a short story workshop we took at The Writer’s Center in (I think) 1999. We meet once a month. We’ve had remarkably little turnover over the years. Four of the original six members are still in the group. We’ve now published five books (three novels and two story collections), plus several dozen short stories in literary magazines and anthologies.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard, and how did you apply it when working on GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY?

Writers write, every day, no excuses.

This may be more mantra than advice, which probably makes it more valuable, since it’s something you can tell yourself and believe in. Writing is like physical exercise—the more regularly you do it, the easier it is. While writing every day is fabulously terrific advice, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not as disciplined as I should be in following it. The truth is that sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes I have excuses. Sometimes I make excuses. Sometimes I feel like watching a baseball game on TV.

What really got GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY over the finish line were two residencies at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. For a writer like me, with a day job, to be able to take two or three weeks at a time to do nothing but write was huge.

For more information:

Upcoming events in the DC area:
April 30: Reading at Politics and Prose, 6 pm, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW WDC
May 6: Reading at Barnes & Noble, 7 pm, 4801 Bethesda Ave Bethesda, MD

Dana was born in Santa Barbara, California, and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. He's worked in commercial banking, corporate finance, and restructuring. His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and their two teenage children. Dana teaches fiction workshops at The Writer’s Center. Ghosts of Bergen County is his debut novel.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Short Story Good News!

My short story “Shadow Daughter” won second place in The Hudson Review’s fiction contest!  It will be published in an upcoming issue, which is a thrill and an honor. (I’ll keep you posted.)

Here’s a little teaser from the opening:

            In college, in the early eighties, money was why I didn’t smoke, drink, or do coke. If I wanted to, I found boys.

            “He’s not good enough for you,” my best and only friend Jess might suggest, her suggestions always commandments. “His face is boring. And that bad breath. Like a dragon. What do you see in him?” 
            I spouted clichés about still waters running deep while remembering how the boy drove me to a blues bar on Howard Street, putting down a twenty for as many shots of Wild Turkey as I wanted while the music pulsed my skull. If I thought about that, I wouldn’t think about later, kissing him in his car, when he panted his dragon-breath into my ear and across my eyelids. Or when, with the sun coming up, I trudged to my dorm and its fluorescent-bright, group bathroom, where I jammed two fingers deep into my mouth, crushing hard against the back of my tongue to make myself puke, the way to avoid hangovers, to not feel rotten the morning after. 
And here’s more info about the contest and the other winners:



The Gettysburg Review just came out with its summer 2016 issue, which includes my story “Give the Lady What She Wants,” set in Marshall Field’s department store in 1980s Chicago:
             In an ideal world, Jess’s mom said she would see Jess at least once a week. In an ideal world, Jess said she would see her mom at most once a month. They didn’t say these things to each other, but to me, separately. I didn’t ask, they volunteered, each using the words “in an ideal world.” This happened on the same day, when Jess’s mom met us at the big Marshall Field’s department store downtown for shopping and lunch. It was early February, the lull before midterms, and Jess hadn’t told her parents about her new boyfriend Tommy, so she warned me to keep quiet. But she wanted a new dress for Valentine’s Day that would knock his socks off, “or better yet, his pants,” she said. 

            I, the college roommate from Iowa, was invited last-minute, because Jess’s sister Linda dropped out, claiming shopping was bourgeois, an opiate for the masses like T.V. and sports. “She stopped washing her hair,” Jess’s mom reported, “and now it’s baking soda instead of Crest like someone normal. She says she’s not going to college, she’s moving to Vermont to make yogurt out of goat milk or maybe it was spin yarn out of goat hair. Who can keep up?”

            We were at lunch in the Walnut Room on the seventh floor, where we’d gone straight off before shopping because Jess’s mother said she needed coffee, but she ordered a glass of white wine. Jess and I had Tab. Jess ordered a chef’s salad with oil and vinegar dressing, and her mother started out talking about salad but switched to chicken pot pie. They told me I had to have the Marshall Field’s special sandwich so I did. I was hoping toothpicks with those frilly cellophane tips came jabbed into it, which wasn’t very sophisticated, but I guess they reminded me of my little sister, because she loved them and also the plastic swords spearing the fruit in our father’s old-fashioned at birthday restaurant dinners, and maybe I was thinking about her back in Iowa, her face twisting into sadness when I got on the Greyhound after Christmas break. I’d pressed my hand on the cold window because I’d promised her, but by the first traffic light I was fiddling with my Walkman. 
The current issue isn’t posted yet, but it will be soon, and you can buy a copy of the journal print or online here:

Also, perhaps you’ve noticed the same characters mentioned in each of these stories. Hmmm….I wonder what that could mean?? Might there be a larger project??? I think I’ll stay a little mysterious a bit longer on that topic!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

L.A.: My AWP16 Experience, with Food Commentary at the End

Well, it feels already as if AWP16 was a thousand years ago, but all I have to do is open up my little pink notebook to be reminded of all the wisdom I soaked up in the excellent panels I attended. (Note this article that talks about how taking notes by hand is preferable to typing notes on a laptop!) I’ve been trying to follow a self-invented method of panel-selection that has been working well for me:

--One panel that I think will be inspiring
--One panel with friend(s) who will appreciate I’m there (often this overlaps with the others)
--One panel about a topic I know very little/nothing about
--One panel that is a reading by people I don’t know/may not have heard of
--One panel that focuses on a single writer/narrow topic
--One panel that will directly inform my writing in some specific way

I couldn’t get to all of these since I was ON two panels, which took up a certain amount of time and energy (and if I weren’t actively involved in talking/listening/looking attentive, I would have scribbled pages of notes because the other panelists were so smart!). So, given that I had less time for panel-going, I’m really excited about the choices I made, and in an effort to retain information in my brain, here are some of the highlights of my paraphrased, scrawled notes from 3 panels I especially enjoyed.

CRASHING THROUGH: CONFRONTING WRITING BARRIERS AND REBOOTING YOUR WORK, with Robin Black, Dylan Landis, Natalie Braszile, Steven Schwartz.

Natalie gave herself permission to write 1000 bad pages, permission to not understand what was going on for a year as she struggled with a novel.

Dylan went through 6 years of being blocked and offered this advice on how to get through those dark days:
1.     Keep writing
2.     Switch genres
3.     Nurture yourself, and don’t blame yourself
4.     Write in the presence of others [I can attest to how powerful this practice is…when she lived in DC, she and I had “writing dates” in a local coffee shop, which were very fruitful.]
5.     Take notes on other things going on in your life, in case you might write about them; she called this the “decoy project.” [I may be misinterpreting, but I believe that she meant, also, that if there is some specific and large thing going on that is preventing you from writing, to keep notes on that thing.]
6.     Instead of trying to “crash through,” maybe back off.

Steven Schwartz said, “You have to save yourself in this business over and over and over again…mostly, you have to save yourself from yourself.” His advice for re-setting:
1.     No internet [while writing, not FOREVER! That’s my interpretation, anyway!!]
2.     Don’t show drafts until you’re ready.
3.     Write in the AM before you feel 100% conscious…try to catch yourself off-guard.
4.     Give yourself deadlines and get an enforcer.
5.     Forget family. [Hmmm…that is all I wrote, and I don’t think he meant divorce your spouse and abandon your children and never call your mother, but rather to not worry about their opinions about your writing.]
6.     Accept the loneliness…accept that you may feel lonely with the work during this off-kilter patch, but that you would feel equally lonely without writing.
7.     Remember that you’re always writing, even when you’re not.
8.     Stop for the day in the middle of a sentence, so you can jump back in later.
9.     Keep multiple projects going.
10.  Time your time: too much time can be as dangerous as too little time.
11.  Think about why you wanted to write in the first place.

Robin Black spoke about finding a motivator, how writers are often people who felt silenced in their early lives and how wanting to be heard can be an early motivation. On the other hand, once that first book is out there, the writer may lose a bit of that early fire “to be heard” and need to find another motivation—which, in her case, and surprising herself, ended up being a deep desire to impress a particular writer, to create a book that could do that. As she said, “It’s okay to own the part of you that wants to be heard, wants to be admired.”

WRITE ME RIGHT: IDEAS AND RESOURCES FOR WRITING DIVERSITY with Najiyah Maxfield, Yvonne Mesa, Valarie Budayr, Tamara Gray, Brenda Bradshaw.

[Unfortunately, I walked in a little late to this and missed introduction, so I’m very lax on who said what, so I won’t have the comments nicely attributed as I did in the above panel. Sorry!!]

If you are writing about a community that is not your own, you need to:
1.     Remember that we are never objective observers
2.     Ask yourself what you are bringing into the picture consciously and unconsciously.
3.     Ask: Am I the right person to tell this story? (and face the inner tension this question may stir)
4.     What is your intentionality? (the panelists suggested that when you are feeling uncomfortable, then you’re on to something)

They all emphasized the urgency of the stories of multi-cultural people and the dangers of giving such stories a “western worldview” and western problems. To avoid this pitfall, be sure to do a lot of research—but you must move beyond the initial archetype to find the people. You need to move beyond looking to the “consultant” and stretch yourself into researching the culture as a whole, including the group’s experiences and history…and to examine these things from the point of view of this group, NOT from your Western view. (The book A Different Mirror was recommended as a way to gain a base of understanding of the difference between these views.)

Remember that a country by itself is not monolithic, and ask yourself how your character has developed BECAUSE of this history.

We got an amazing list of questions to ponder—a blueprint of developing characters, really—and were left with this thoughtful reminder: Always approach diversity in your characters from this point: “I want to honor and appropriately convey your experience.”

NO FACTS, ONLY INTERPRETATIONS: AN EXAMINATION OF THE MULTIPLE POINT OF VIEW NOVEL with Eric Sasson, Anna North, Rebecca Makkai, Julia Fierro, and a guy named Jay who isn’t listed in the official program I’m copying this info out of, alas!

[This was a moderated Q&A format, so it was hard to keep track of who said what, so, again, sorry that this is mostly a mash of information!]

We were reminded upfront that point of view dictates everything that follows, that there is no such thing as the absolute truth. One advantage of shifting POV within a novel is an added investment by the reader, who enjoys connecting the dots and feeling more deeply involved as information and meaning accumulate. From a writing standpoint, alternating POV sections can mean never getting bored or running out of things to write about.

While multiple POVs may not allow us to find “the truth,” they help us acknowledge that there is no single truth and that perhaps everyone is allowed their own truth and own experience.

There was a fascinating discussion about the challenges and rewards of writing outside your life—i.e. cross-racial, -gender, -sexuality. “I worry too much about writers worrying too much,” said Julia, giving us authority to write those characters who aren’t “us” and telling us to do the work to create that character as a person. Jay reminded us that empathy and imagination in trying to understand the way someone else thinks and lives are tools for all of us. And we were reminded to always read “across” ourselves too—which we should do anyway, but especially if we are working to create characters who are different from us in these key areas.

The panelists talking about experimenting with POV in various ways, and it was noted that a wonderful call to arms is reading a story/book and thinking, “I want to try that, too!”

On a practical level, Julia suggested that if you’re writing multiple POVs to have a different notebook or computer document for each major character, to do some work and keep some background outside the pages of the story. Jay recommended that we populate our world and “sometimes a voice will jump out at you.” And Rebecca said that at a certain point the writer will have to make some hard, cold decisions to get these voices right—for example, who talks in short sentences, who makes jokes (they can’t all be funny). She also suggested that if you need to cut the book, to look for ways to fold characters into one another and combine them.

And they all agreed that we should not worry too much about the publishing biz while we’re writing these big, sprawling novels of multiple points of view. You may get the old “can you cut a couple of characters” from agents and editors, but Jay had the last word, which was along these lines: “Follow the enthusiasm. Look for the agent/editor who loves the book you WROTE, not the book they want you to write.”


And it would not be a full AWP wrap-up without a few comments about food and beverages:

Musso & Frank Grill has been in Hollywood since 1919, and the menu is a little old-fashioned in that great way where you can order a King Alphonse (a drink found in my favorite short story, “Pet Milk”) and a Brandy Alexander. Wonderful steaks, perfect martinis, and so much atmosphere! This is where Fitzgerald and Faulkner hung out…and it looks like the bar hasn’t changed much since those days.

Park’s Barbecue was our introduction to Korean barbecue, and thank you, patient server, who explained what all the lovely pickled things were in the nearly a dozen bowls that accompanied our incredible beef, cooked right at our table.

Having lived in Arizona for three years, I am a total Mexican food snob, so I was excited to get to Guelaguetza, which offered Oaxacan food, including mole the color of the deepest park of midnight, that I would lap up off a plate right this minute if I had some. We also ordered fried grasshoppers! (Not bad, but I wouldn’t lap them up off a plate.) (And look! I just discovered we can order mole online!!

Church & State was in the transitional neighborhood, and driving though these streets lined with old warehouses and observing the (massive) homeless population was a worthy and uncomfortable counterpoint to this lovely French bistro that offered amazing falling-off-the-bone lamb shank and lush chicken liver mousse. As always, I am grateful for the randomness of my good fortune…

…and for the reminder that no matter how lucky I am, I am not a Getty and never will be…and so I can also feel gratitude for being allowed to view the Getty art collection in a building and grounds that are a work of art themselves, at the stunning Getty Center. (Great lunch in the fancy restaurant there, too!)

L.A.: I loved your sunshine; and your smiling people; and the way you made me walk around smiling at everyone, too; and your vast expansiveness, as if there are a million separate and thrilling stories tucked away here, waiting to be uncovered.

Monday, April 18, 2016

ACK: Two Books, Same Title!!

I could not resist asking Robin Gaines for permission to repost this piece about every author’s worst nightmare: ANOTHER BOOK HAS YOUR TITLE!!


By Robin Gaines

 “You can be the moon and still be jealous of the stars.”—Gary Allen

Dear Alice Adams:

You don’t know me, but I’ve been stalking you on the internet like a creepy, jealous girlfriend ever since I found out your debut novel, Invincible Summer, is coming out in June. You see, my debut novel, Invincible Summers, (yes, my Summer is plural) will be published in June, too. What are the chances? What are the odds? I don’t know about your manuscript, but mine sat in a drawer for several years without sunlight?

Through primitive detective work (Google) I discovered that not only are you gorgeous (author photo), and smart (BA in Philosophy from the University of Bristol and MA from the University of Manchester), but your publisher, the Hatchette Book Group, says your book is “breathtaking in scope,” and “sure to be the book of the summer.”

Not that I thought my book would be the “book of the summer,” but I did cringe, then sulk, then whimper a little visualizing family and friends buying your book instead of mine. Alice Adams? Maybe that’s a pseudonym Robin forgot to tell us about. Or having someone put both titles up on social media with everyone weighing in. Like what version of the song, “A Natural Woman,” is better? Or what Kardashian has the biggest (nicest?) ass, and including Rob?

Do you remember in the spring of 2013 when Life After Life, Lthe title of both Kate Atkinson and Jill McCorkle’s books, were released within a week of one another? I love both author’s work and thought, Ugh, that has to suck. Who’s not doing their job at the publishing houses? Stuff happens, I guess. My book was picked up last year by the indie publisher, ELJ Publications, and I couldn’t be happier over their enthusiasm for my work. And we’ve already established how Hatchette, a much larger publisher, is loving on your book. Let’s just say we’re both pinching ourselves to have such spirited cheerleaders. Am I right?

I’ve preordered your book and can’t wait to read it. But I have to be honest; I wished your Invincible Summer  had vampires or superheroes, so the fear of comparison wouldn’t exist. Instead, it appears our characters and themes are more similar than not.

We both use the Albert Camus quote, In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer to kick off the general mood.
So, there’s that. Then the tagline from your publisher: “Four friends. Twenty years. One unexpected journey.” My story centers on Claudia Goodwin’s crazy journey over seventeen years.

“The courage we find within ourselves to keep going in the most difficult of circumstances is one of the central themes,” you said in an interview. Ditto for Claudia.

You went on to say, “It’s also about sex, politics, drugs, religion.” And, “. . .growing up, moving on, and finding your way back home.” Amen. We must have had sister muses looking over our shoulders while writing our books.

I’d like to think we both have similar aesthetics in what we like to read and how we see the world. I’d like to think that one day we’ll meet and share stories of our own particular journeys. Celebrate each other’s birthday with a card. Become Facebook friends. Is this weird? Do you ever get to Michigan? Or I could have an excuse now to visit London more frequently if we become BFFs.

Okay, I’ll settle down.

Writing to you has been cathartic. I think my worry-wart thoughts of yours versus mine have subsided. Now it’s about enjoying the ride and making new friends along the way, and I hope you are one of them.

Thanks, Alice, for reading this far and letting me vent.

All the best to you. Good luck with your Invincible Summer.

Robin Gaines

P.S. Do you have a title yet for book #2? And what’s it about? My second book is nearly done. Jeez, what if . . . . . . No! What are the odds, what are the chances it happens a second time?!?

Read more about Robin Gaines and HER Invincible Summers:

Friday, April 15, 2016

National Poetry Month: Some Favorite Poems

I invited the Converse low-res MFA students and graduates to share a favorite poem (or two) in honor of National Poetry Month, which is every April, and I am loving the passionate responses I received. 

Please, everyone, all of us, don’t think of poetry as something exclusive to a special occasion or something to endure to pass an English class or something to make a bit of a fuss over each April…think of poetry as Kafka thought of books: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” A single poem can wield that force. Keep reading, and you will see.


Sarah Cooper
"Permanent Marker"

My all-time favorite poem was written by a fellow Converse College MFA graduate, Sarah Cooper. As "Permanent Marker" is a list poem, here is a list of reasons why it is my favorite:  

1. I love lists as a form for poetry or prose. 

2. I am afraid of being forgotten. That Sarah Cooper's poem is an act of remembrance, of leaving something behind in someone's honor, affects me deeply.

3. As David Wagoner says: "You've noticed you don't die / All at once. Some people like me/ Still offer you our songs..." or carry you with us in other ways.*   

4. The smallest things become sacred relics after a loss. For me: Aunt Sally's mittens. Sweaters knitted by Grandma Mary. Granny's recipes. James's collar. Jaime's ballet shoes. Tapes from our old answering machine. Cards and letters and emails and photographs.

5. I have seen eroded headstones and sunken grave markers. Even when "permanent markers" fade, there will still be love. This is sad and beautiful and true.

     *from David Wagoner's "Plainsong for Everyone Who Was Killed Yesterday"

Lauren Housman is a writer, transcriptionist, editor, and budding historian. She is currently working on a World War II-era biography. She holds a BA in Language Arts and Literature with a concentration in Writing from the University of South Carolina (Aiken, SC) and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Converse College's Low-Residency MFA Program (Spartanburg, SC). 



“Pink Hollyhocks”
Diane Gilliam Fisher

“Pink Hollyhocks” tells the story of a miner's wife and a quilt that is the "onliest pretty thing" she owns.

When I read the poem, it was powerful enough to nearly knock tears out of me by weaving together character, setting and pathos.

Fisher solidly grounded me in time and place while nailing the narrator’s voice with words like “onliest” and “feedsack,” or lines like "I quilted every inch, stitches no bigger than a speck of meal."  

And then those closing lines.

All of this despite a word count clocking in at just a shade over 250 words. Stunning.

Travis Burnham teaches middle school science and has taught college level composition. He currently lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, but he grew up in Massachusetts, is from Maine at heart, and has lived in Japan, Colombia and the Northern Mariana Islands. He has been published in South85 Journal, Aoife's Kiss, Bad Dreams Entertainment, and SQ Quarterly, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College.



T.S. Eliot
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I first heard this poem in high school. My determined AP English teacher read it from the front of the class, sitting on a stool, in his distinct, raspy voice, lingering in all the right places. Even though I was too young to grasp all of it at the time, the imagery of fog as a cat and the tripping, lyrical lines were enough to pull my attention from the cute boy next to me and the catty girl behind me. It was enough to hold my attention and make me wonder. Its repeating lines and echoing phrases have inspired my own poetry for many years. My favorite lines come to me every time I walk upon the beach, or when I dare to eat a peach. I will most likely insist my children inscribe "She measured out her life with coffee spoons" on my tombstone.

Gwen Holt is an MFA student at Converse College studying YA Fiction. She is the author of two steampunk novels for young adults and a senior editor at the Hugo nominated webzine, Quantum Fairy Tales.



Noah Warren
"Cut Lilies"

The way I know a poem will stay with me forever is when I have a physical reaction to it. It makes me smile wide or it makes me clench my fists or it makes me squeeze my eyes shut tight. “Cut Lilies” by Noah Warren makes me fight to breathe. The description of the physical presence of the “hundred dollars” worth of lilies in one room is cloying. It fills my lungs: “And in close darkness the aroma grows so sweet, / so strong, that it could slice me open. It does.” And then, when the scent of the flowers seems inescapable, when the loneliness they indicate seems overwhelming, suddenly the speaker is outside. You might think that the fresh air would offer relief, but no. “I’m not the only one that love makes feel like a dozen / flapping bedsheets being ripped to prayer flags by the wind.” My breath catches on these lines, every time.

Gabrielle Brant Freeman is currently making herself crazy and enjoying every minute of it trying to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month. Her first book, When She Was Bad, will be published by Press 53 in the fall of 2016.



Kim Addonizio

I knew it was going to come down to one of two poems: "Glass" by Kim Addonizio and "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" by David Trinidad. And while, stylistically, the Trinidad poem has probably influenced me as much, I'm picking the Addonizio piece. Here's why:

When I read Kim Addonizio's "Glass" for the first time, I was exhausted. I had rifled through most of the emotions I'm capable of having and some of them twice or three times. And it immediately hit me: this is it. This is what a poem could be. This is what a poem should be. This is what I want my poems to be. Detailed. Social commentary. Sad. Funny. Compassionate. So vulnerable. So brutally raw that you can feel the speaker nearly explode by the time you get to the final lines, where she writes

I want to tell you something,
come close I want to whisper it, to pour
the words burning into you, the same words for each one of you,
listen, it’s simple, I’m saying it now, while I’m still sober,
while I’m not about to weep bitterly into my own glass,
while you’re still here—don’t go yet, stay, stay,
give me your shoulder to lean against, steady me, don’t let me drop,
I’m so in love with you I can’t stand up.

I've read this poem at least 100 times and it still gets me the same way. I love the "come close, I want to whisper it" part. It's so intimate, just drawing the reader in until the speaker is confessing his/her innermost thoughts to only one person, the reader. I could go on and on and on about this poem, but I'll spare you. Yeah, definitely this poem.

David Colodney holds an MFA in poetry and creative writing from Converse College, and has written for The Miami Herald and The Tampa Tribune. His poetry has appeared in Gyroscope ReviewKentucky ReviewNight Owl, and others. He lives in Boynton Beach, FL with his wife, three sons, and golden retriever.



Wallace Stevens
“The Emperor of Ice Cream”


“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
Richard Wilbur

My favorite undergraduate English professor, Ed Sims, introduced me to "The Emperor of Ice Cream," the now classic lyrical poem by Wallace Stevens.  The entire poem zings, buzzes with dynamic language, and I particularly like: "...and bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds."  To me, the content of the poem stands in bold contrast to its title, and I love the effect.

The other day I posted on Facebook an excerpt of another of my favorites, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," by Richard Wilbur, and I love that poem for many of the same reasons---it's startling images and bold language: "The eyes open to the cry of pulleys..." the image of clotheslines strung between tenements and the sensory appeal of the first words of the poem.  The opening sentence concludes with the increasing depth of meaning: 
        "And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul 
         Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
         As false dawn."

John Newlin is a third semester MFA student in fiction writing at Converse College.  He taught English at Eaglebrook and Tower Hill Schools, where he was also the Head of Middle School.  He writes reviews for Nightowl Journal and serves on the editorial staff of South85.



Mary Oliver
“The Summer Day”

It’s funny that I don’t recall where or how I first read or heard this poem. Not in school, though I think it might be a perfect poem to encounter in those late teen years, when the rush of reality is whipping and swirling. But, honestly, I think it is a perfect poem for one’s twenties, and thirties, and for all the years beyond. There is no day, it seems to me, that could not benefit from being reminded of the timeless thrall of nature and the greater (and tinier) world surrounding us; not a single day that might not be better spent feeding sugar to a grasshopper, watching the precision of its jaws and its “enormous and complicated eyes”; not a single day where the poem’s final question should not make us catch our breath, in hope, in anguish:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

AWP16...Now What? How to Organize Yourself Post-Conference

I published this article last year, about what to do in the afterglow of AWP and how to organize yourself once you’ve settled back into the real world. The advice applies to the aftermath of any writing conference, really, but since I’m staring at a totebag of swag and business cards, I think the piece is worth revisiting, planning to follow my own good advice:

You had an amazing time at AWP15. You snagged seats at the best panels and readings, collected armloads of swag/books/journals at the bookfair, connected with old friends, and made new friends at the bar or elsewhere. Your selfie with the Mary Tyler Moore statue got 52 likes on Instagram. Now it’s back to home and the same old routine. How can you keep that conference energy going with the real world pressing hard?
My post-conference plan tackles business and writing. I’m usually a checklist-wielding tyrant, but this plan is flexible, without deadlines, meaning it’s not too late to adopt some of these strategies.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

AWP16: Maybe Book Marketing Can Be Fun!

Editor's note: If you are looking for #BookPR resources, please go here.

By Rachel Hall

I didn’t do yoga for writers at AWP ’16 in Los Angeles, nor do I know anyone who did, but this offering on the official schedule reveals the tone of the conference this year. Put another, possibly more L.A.-way, I felt the good vibes, man.

Seriously, there was a decidedly holistic approach to the panels I attended—even those about publicity and marketing. I hardly expected that, but was pleasantly surprised. Like a lot of writers, I imagine, I have considered marketing and publicity necessary evils, the icky part of writing. And also somehow embarrassing, for if my book were any good, I wouldn’t need to hawk it, would I? It would sell like a pink-frosted cupcake or feminine protection—something delicious and irresistible or an absolute essential. Though my first book is coming out in the fall, (, I was initially resistant to the panels on publicity and marketing, pitching and promoting, because much of the advice I’ve received up until now has been overwhelming: Do Twitter! Do Goodreads! Do a newsletter! A blog--You should absolutely blog!

If I hadn’t met Michelle Toth on the shuttle from the LAX, I might have missed the inspiring panel she moderated: “Book Launch Confidential: Marketing Made Smarter, Not Harder.” In the conference schedule, the panel promised to teach writers “to draw on strengths as they align [marketing] activities with values and priorities, becoming advocates for their work while finding energy and joy in the process.” Michelle is a former Grub Street ( Board member; the founder of SixOneSeven, a small press; a novelist; and a human capital professional. She’s also really smart and organized, as were her panelists and Grub Street authors: Lynne Griffin, Michael Blanding, and Eve Bridburg. By posing important questions such as “why do you write? What do you want to accomplish? What brings you joy and energy?”, the panel eased my anxiety, and it was fun—yes, fun! The Grub Street approach encourages writers to be honest about their goals, something I find difficult but that I now see is essential to developing a plan and measuring success. This panel was the opposite of icky. It was illuminating and empowering and thought-provoking. (If you missed it, I understand that the panel was taped for an AWP podcast, so you may be able to listen at some later date.)

Thus inspired and centered, I attended a panel on pitching to bookstores and literary festivals, “Winding Up for the Pitch.”  This wasn’t something I had really considered before—but what fun these festivals sound like! Presenting at one would certainly bring me joy, I decided, especially if they have food trucks.

The other panel I attended was a discussion on competition and creativity. The presenters were Lynn Pruett, Lorraine López, Blas Falconer, and Ansel Elkins, all winners of prizes, honors and awards. This panel explored whether competition and success fuel writing or hinder it by making us hyper-aware of audience expectations. The presenters were smart and funny and honest about the ways competition and its attendants--jealousy and envy and anger—can hamper writing. It was a necessary reminder to step back from the noisy competition and get back to the writing, the real work, as well as the real fun. I appreciate the work of VIDA and newer groups such as WWS (Women Who Submit). Obviously women writers should take themselves seriously and should be taken seriously and treated fairly by the gatekeepers, but it was helpful to be reminded that publication isn’t the only reward. It’s one aspect of the writing life, not the whole story.

Besides these panels and the yoga, the wide aisles in the book fair and the expansive conference center made for a mellower AWP, too. And the Southern California sunshine, the mountains in the distance, the blue, blue sky? These pleasures were lovely and fleeting: I returned to Western New York in snow. But back home, I’m still contemplating all I learned about balancing the many aspects of the writing life.


Heirlooms is an exquisite and thrilling collection. In fearless and incandescent prose, Rachel Hall traces the fragile resilience and quiet horrors of those displaced by war. She happens to be writing about the Second World War, but these are stories that speak to the essential human experiences of exile and loss and survival. Heirlooms captures what it is to be a refugee, and an immigrant, with a delicacy and precision that delights and haunts.
--Steve Almond

Read an excerpt from Heirlooms.


Rachel Hall is the author of Heirlooms, selected by Marge Piercy for the 2015 BkMk Press G.S. Sharat Chandra book prize. It will be published in September 2016. Her stories and essays have been published in a number of journals, most recently in Midwestern Gothic, Lilith and Fifth Wednesday. She writes, teaches, and attempts to tweet in Western New York. Follow her @Rach_H_writer or on


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