Monday, May 22, 2017

Etiquette for MFA Grads

This is a rerun from last year, but since we're back at graduation season, I think it's worth another run:

Okay, I’m not really the official Miss Manners of the writing world. But for graduation season, I’d like to offer a few thoughts directed to new MFA grads who will now be navigating the mysterious world of Writing Biz on their own.

First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and think about how to stay connected with them.

Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:

DO reread what I said and take to heart that word: occasional. Don’t overdo it.

DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and acknowledge his/her publishing successes.

DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued (unless invited, which I'm pretty sure won't happen).

DON’T write only when you want/need something.

DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.

DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)

DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.

DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed (encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing blog? DO send an email offering something to your teacher!

DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart. Saying thank you is FREE!

DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own and find your place in the community.

***

I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.” Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them, either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.

Don’t.

I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)

And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your MFA program for the rest of your writing life.

Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP bar or Treman after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about something illegal or an abuse of power.)

In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.

***

EDITED to add these suggestions thanks to some helpful people on Facebook:

DON'T write your former professors to ask questions you can google, and definitely DON'T ask vast questions that cannot be easily and quickly answered (i.e. "how does self-publishing work and should I do it?").

DO offer this advice to your buddies who are still in the program...I'm guessing that this information will be even momre helpful earlier in the program, so you can plan your exit strategy.

***

You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening emails from former students. But one last tip:

DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily and proudly buy it!


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New Essay on "Widow Confidential"

I’m very pleased to have a personal essay posted on a new site, Widow Confidential, designed to help widows navigate the journey of grieving after losing their spouse. My piece is about figuring out where to bury my husband after he died young and unexpectedly. (Which reminds me: do your loved ones know your after-life wishes…and are they written down?)

Here’s the opening:

My first husband died of a heart attack when he was 37. With an unexpected death, often no plans are in place: no will, no list of songs for the funeral, no cemetery plots pre-purchased. Making arrangements is not scrambling for paperwork tucked in the back of the drawer with the bank statements. There are loose ends and hard decisions to resolve during this time of emotional crisis.          All I had to go on was remembered casual conversation about after-death options we’d had during ten years of marriage….




(People sometimes ask me if I left things out of THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST. I didn't necessarily leave this out--but I decided I couldn't write about this incident fictionally, so I guess that's a different form of "leaving out.")

Monday, April 24, 2017

Learning His Way In: Jim Minick on his new novel, FIRE IS YOUR WATER


Interview by John Newlin


Fire is Your Water, Jim Minick’s first novel, is a compelling story of love, faith, forgiveness, and compassion, related from several points of view.  Set in the farmland of central Pennsylvania near the end of the Korean War, the author explores, among many things, family, man and nature, the Biblical gift of healing, and what it means to love unconditionally.

Jim Minick is the author of five books, including The Blueberry Years, winner of the best Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association.  He teaches at Augusta University and in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.

Questions:

JN: Jim, this novel reflects many aspects of your childhood.  Was it always going to be a novel, or did you originally envision it as a memoir of your childhood?

JM: It started out as nonfiction. In 1983, I was burned in an explosion similar to the one that happens later in Fire Is Your Water. I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about that, published in Now and Then Magazine (Summer 2002) titled “Flash Burn.” Though I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to make a larger book about that time and place, when I worked pumping gas on the PA Turnpike. And I also had these other family stories about this place and another fire, stories from before I was born, and so it took me at least four or five years of wandering in the wilderness of words to figure out that, hey, fiction would allow me to combine these stories IF I could figure out how.

Part of that “how” was connecting these stories by collapsing four generations of people into two generations, and thirty years of stories condensed to three months. The larger part of the “how,” though, was figuring out the connecting thread, which eventually I found to be what happens to a faith healer when she loses her faith and her ability to heal. That became the driving question.

JN: Have you ever met or known a person who possessed the gift of healing?

JM: Ada Franklin, the main character in Fire Is Your Water, is based on my great-grandmother, Ida Franklin Minick, who was a powwow doctor in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. She could remove warts, stop blood, and take out fire, like Ada in the novel. And she did enter a burning barn with her daughter-in-law, who was severely burned in the process. And after, Ida was not the one who healed my grandmother’s hands—another relative did. So that got me thinking about why and what happens if faith is lost. I’m pretty sure that did not happen with Ida, but it opened a door for me.

Some other family stories about Ida—like of healing a bleeding cow by saying the chant through the phone—I was able to use in the novel as well. Ida died when I was four. My first memory is of sitting on her lap. So, to answer your question, I wish I had known her better, and in a way, this novel helped me imagine a little of her life.

JN: You spent fifteen years working on this novel.  Did you at any time “give up” on the project?  If so, what do you see as having impelled you to finish it?

JM: “Set aside” is a better phrase than “give up.” Attention got pulled to other projects, so in that fifteen years, I wrote my other four books, plus taught full-time. At some deeper level, I think I knew I wasn’t ready yet to write this book, so I had to learn my way in, through other genres first, and then through extensive reading and studying of novels I admired, like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

JN: I love the way you weave the character of Cicero, the raven, into this love story.  It adds a wonderful dimension to the novel.  When you first conceived the idea for the book, was this perspective something you had in mind, or did that idea come along later on?  Oh, and can ravens be taught to talk???

JM: Cicero and the idea of a talking bird came much later, maybe two-thirds of the way into writing this. I was taking a fiction writing workshop with Darnell Arnoult (an excellent teacher and writer), and I knew the other main character, Will, loved birds, so I kept playing with that idea, trying to figure out how to develop that passion of his. Then I remembered reading an essay, also in Now and Then, about a person growing up with a talking crow as a pet, and that, along with Darnell’s encouragement to just experiment, let me walk through that door of magic realism to find Cicero there waiting to chew my ear off, literally.

And yes, many birds, especially “smarter” species like ravens and crows, can learn words. I collected several funny stories from fellow birders about such. One ornithology professor told of a raven a friend of his tamed in grad school. The bird loved to say, “Nevermore,” AND he loved to drink. When he got too tipsy, he’d just repeat, “Never, never, never….”

When Cicero heard this, he wanted to file an animal abuse report until he realized that this happened decades ago.

JN: One of the themes that struck me about the novel was the hint of loneliness, that of Ada and Will, two characters whose lives appear for much of the novel to be heading away from lifetime relationships.  It’s a topic that you addressed at length in The Blueberry Years.  As writer, farmer, and homesteader, your life clearly involved working in isolation for great periods.  How do you deal with that aspect of your life? 

JM: The older I get, the more curmudgeonly I get. And in this society of hyper-social-media-over-connectedness, it’s not easy to find real, meaningful friendships. But it’s necessary to remember the difference between loneliness and solitude.

Writing itself is a solitary endeavor, and so, it’s important to enjoy and embrace that solitude, and to understand how it differs from loneliness. Almost always, I’m lonelier in crowds or cities than in the woods. Thankfully, I’m married to my best friend and I’ve found some great community through writing and teaching. And doubly thankfully we have access to the great antidotes to loneliness in just getting out in the company of trees and birds. I cannot imagine a world without trees and birds (and bass and beavers and bats and beetles). That might be the ultimate and saddest form of loneliness.

JN: Having written your first novel, do you see yourself as gravitating to writing more fiction?

JM: My current project is nonfiction. After that, yes, I have at least two ideas I want to pursue/have started, both fiction.

JN: I know you’ve been researching how a community was ravaged by a tornado in the 1950s.  Have you ever considered using that research as the basis of another novel instead of a nonfiction account of that devastating event?  Or maybe both?

JM: Yes, early on, I considered making this current project about a devastating tornado into a novel—it’d be a whole lot easier, that’s for sure. But I’ve collected many hours of conversations/interviews with survivors of this tornado, and the more I listened and worked with their stories, the more I realize that the best way to honor them and their stories is through nonfiction. That genre, for me, at least, somehow best captures their story.

JN: Any final lessons or surprises from writing Fire Is Your Water?

JM: Faith comes in many shapes. Doubt too. Respect—even embrace—that. And listen to the birds.

Or as Eubie Blake said: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind - listen to the birds. And don't hate nobody.”

*****

More information about Jim Minick: http://www.jim-minick.com/wpdev/

Listen to Jim read a chapter of Fire Is Your Water: http://www.jim-minick.com/wpdev/writing/fire-is-your-water/


Buy the book through IndieBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780804011846

*****

ABOUT JOHN NEWLIN

John Newlin’s work has been published in Short Story America, Independent School Magazine, South85 Journal, and Night Owl Journal.  He is the Review Editor for South85.




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Richard Peabody on the Writing Life; or, Where's the Money?

On the Writing Life
By Richard Peabody

(Note: I read this on Richard’s Facebook page the other day and just had to share it with a larger audience.)

Saw all of these threads today about “I gotta get paid” for my writing, when I get published. Naïve egotistic daydreams about the writer’s life. Like that old commercial 15 years ago where an unseen narrator for an insurance company asked—what can you depend on? And a woman writer says, “My royalties.” 

There are no royalties for 80% of the people writing books. (Journalism is a different animal.) But the writing world has been just as impacted by the Net as the music world.  Nobody wants to do this forever for free.

That is when I usually speak up and say things like—they’re still paying writers the same amount of money they did when F. Scott was writing in the 1920s. Most people I know who do sell books to the corporate NY bigs get somewhere between 2 to 10 thou for an advance. The newbies don’t seem to realize that an advance is actually an advance on sales. You don’t have to pay them back if you don’t make the $ back. But the bigs do tend to lose interest in you as a possible meal ticket. 

So how do you make money in the arts? What is success in the arts? Two questions I’ve seen a lot in the Trump era. 

First of all there’s no $ in the arts. And there’s no $ in poetry fer sure. That’s why most poets and writers teach for a living. 

Could you make more $ self-publishing? Maybe. A lot of writers I know have started selling individual stories online at a couple bucks a crack. And they make a bit of $ that way. There are the what—1% of stories where somebody breaks huge like the Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray authors, whose fanfiction was free on the internet in the early days. 

So, should AWP have panels on how to actually handle $ as a writer? How to develop a business sense? Yeah. 

There are some big lit mags that pay for work. There are some indie publishers who do. This is when I mention that I’ve been publishing people for 40 years and lose about $5 thou per project. I can’t pay people.  I can’t even produce the magazine without other starving artists willing to do web work, desktop work, or editing work, for “Art Rates.” Because we are a tribe and take care of each other in ways that we can so the project materializes. 

When people tell me they’re starting a lit mag I always tell them not to. If they’re word addicts (like most of us) then they can’t not do it. But when they say, I have to make money on it. That’s when I turn off. Cuz nobody does. Cuz that’s such a rare thing I can count the number of litmags or indie presses who make money (sans grants or university support) on two hands. Which is why most mags or presses have the lifespan of Mayflies.

Even friends ask why I bother if all I do is lose money? 

Because keeping this going for 40 years has been something I know how to do. Because it’s satisfying to throw a lifeline to struggling writers, forgotten writers, to shoot the bird to the powers that be even in the lit world or the academic world.

You want to make it? Well, drop into B&N (who are also near death) and see what’s on the fiction shelves. Nothing by people I consider the masters of 21st Century Fiction. No Kathy Acker, No Lance Olsen, No Harry Mathews, No Jeanette Winterson, either. 

So, you could write NF, or YA and make $. Maybe. But I think the genre writers in mystery and SciFi and Romance have the right idea—whip out a book a year. Don’t screw around trying to write the Great American Novel. You have to have product in the pipeline. It’s like Lucy and Ethel with the conveyor belt. That’s how it works. If one of them hits, they reprint the past. If you last long enough, you’re back in print. The corporations just need product to make into movies.

Beyond that? Why continue? A question I ask myself every day as both writer and publisher.

Because it’s all I know how to do. Because it’s not about publication, or $, or reviews. It’s about making/doing. And if you don’t see that. If you’re like the rare bad eggs I’ve encountered in some of my classes during 25 years of teaching fiction, who just want to be Stephen King by tomorrow, then bag it now before you break your heart.

It’s like being a tuba player. Every year the graduate music programs graduate what--another 100 tuba players? And they enter a job market where fewer and fewer orchestras can make it. A limited niche. Do orchestras even have more than one tuba player?

“Show me the money.” Yeah. Good luck with that. 

I heard recently that the boyfriend of somebody I published said I’d ripped off her story and was keeping all of the money. How naïve can you be?Might have been her first or second ever publication and she was in great company. The book sold okay. 

Did I break even? Not even close.

Well, then you must be nonprofit?

Nope. Well, yes of course, but not officially. We’re supposedly for profit.

But then you can’t get grants?

Correct.

Well, at least you get to write losses off on your taxes.

Err, for the first 3 years and then after that the IRS considers your press a hobby. Nothing to be taken seriously.

Well, you could go public?

Sure, and get kicked off your governing board, which also happens all of the time in the art, movie, music, and literary world. 

Which brings me to Allen Ginsberg who didn’t make any $ until the end of his life. That’s how it happens. Same for Paul Bowles. You last long enough and they notice. Slip you some change. Kind of like being the George Blanda of literature. And then off into the sunset.

So what is literary success? Some think it’s about Tenure, editorial positions, the blockbuster movie deal, hanging with who knows? 

I think it’s about heart and soul. I think it’s tribal. I think it’s keeping poets and writers afloat. Giving them hope. Something rare these days. I believe that good writing has horizontal success and lasts through the years. People who make $ tend to achieve vertical success. I mean does anybody bother reading Jaws any longer? 

Maybe people should ask different questions? Like why do some lit mags take 2 years to make a decision on your work? 

Or maybe Rimbaud was right. Maybe we should all just run guns.

______
ABOUT RICHARD PEABODY


Richard Peabody is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor (or co-editor) of 23 anthologies including A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation. Peabody taught at Johns Hopkins University for 15 years. His new book is The Richard Peabody Reader (Alan Squire Publishers, 2015).

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Flash Fiction!

I’m going to be the guest editor at SmokeLong Quarterly next week (4/10 ~ 4/16), which means that I’ll be reviewing all the flash fiction that’s submitted during the week and selecting my favorite for publication and an author interview.

The online journal SmokeLong Quarterly (http://www.smokelong.com/) is one of the premiere publications for flash, which they define as up to 1000 words. Because I’ll be reading blind, even if you know me, you’re free to submit your work. (Or you can submit your work any old time, of course…it doesn’t have to be for ME! Plus, the editors review all the work, so it’s possible your story may not catch my eye, but that it’s exactly what someone else is intrigued by.) 

And, I always like to promote a journal that allows FEE-FREE submissions.

Here are some thoughts the editors offer in the submission guidelines, which really end up being a pretty good primer on what makes good flash fiction:

The SLQ aesthetic remains an ever-changing, ever-elusive set of principles, but it most likely has to do with these kinds of things:
  • language that surprises
  • narratives that strive toward something other than a final punch line or twist
  • pieces that add up to something, oftentimes (but not necessarily always) meaning or emotional resonance
  • honest work that feels as if it has far more purpose than a writer wanting to write a story
We have a special place in our hearts, more often than not, for narratives we haven’t seen before. For the more familiar stories—such as relationship break-ups, bar scenarios, terminal illnesses—we tend to need something original and urgent in the writer’s presentation.

Here’s where to go:
~For more information: http://www.smokelong.com/


~To read some of my personal favorites from Smokelong:

 “Txaj: A Prayer” by Jeanne Jones ~ http://www.smokelong.com/txaj-a-prayer/
“Straight Lines” by Ryan Werner ~ http://www.smokelong.com/straight-lines/
“Gram Pouts with Duck Lips” by Allison Pinkerton ~ http://www.smokelong.com/grams-pouts-with-duck-lips/








Friday, March 24, 2017

My Upcoming Classes at Politics & Prose

I'll be offering two different classes this spring/summer at Politics & Prose bookstore...love to see you there!


In the Beginning: Get Your Story Off to a Great Start!

Wednesday, May 24, 1 to 4 p.m.

Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
(202) 364-1919

Most writers know they have to hook their reader starting with the first paragraph they write, but how? What are the elements that make a great beginning to a story or novel or memoir? Setting, dialogue, flashbacks, conflict…all can be effective tools when used properly or can turn readers away. We’ll examine these strategies and others as we explore ways to strengthen our opening pages. Everyone is encouraged, though not required, to bring 16 copies of the first two pages of one of their works in progress, for some hands-on advice. Fiction, memoir, and nonfiction are welcome!

Best American Short Stories 2016, ed. Junot Diaz and Heidi Pitlor
Specifically, these stories:
“Treasure State” by Smith Henderson
“Garments” by Tahmina Anam
“The Suitcase” by Meron Hardero



*****


Right Brain Writing – Time and Eternity

Session 1: Thursday, June 15, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
~OR~
Session 2: Tuesday, June 20, 1 to 3:30 p.m.

Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
 (202) 364-1919

Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the passage of time as witnessed through our daily lives while also exploring how time relates to us in a larger, more spiritual sense. No writing experience necessary!

This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer. Note: new exercises!

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. by J.D. McClatchy
(Specific poems to be read in class.)

*Please note that this book will be used for all Right Brain Writing classes and that although it is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.





Friday, March 17, 2017

Catching Up on Some Good Writing News

Several of my Facebook friends feature "good news Friday," and while that's more of a collaborative effort, I'm going to take over my own blog (which I think I'm allowed to do??) to share three bits of good news in my writing life:


~I don’t think I ever posted the link to my new story in The Hudson Review…because why? Either I’m lazy, which is likely, or I’m still feeling so overwhelmed at seeing my work in this journal, which is iconic and historic and a place I once worked at as a lowly editorial assistant way back when, so to see my own writing in these pages, in this font is, well…overwhelming.

Excerpt from "The Shadow Daughter":

            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.


(I’m also oddly shy to reveal that the story took second place in the fiction contest!)

Note: Part of this story is taken from one of the writing prompts in my prompt group..."a ton of luck."

*******************

~THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST is now available in paperback! This development was not an automatic thing as general readers may assume; rather, both printings of the hardcovers sold out and so the demand was high enough to call for a paperback edition. So, THANK YOU everyone who bought a hardcover…now, feel free to buy paperbacks for your friends!


University of Pittsburgh Press link: https://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36596

**********************

~Much more about this later, but my novel, REVERSING THE RIVER, set in Chicago on one day in 1899 when years of engineering resulted in reversing the flow of the Chicago River, will be appearing on the Great Jones Street literary app!

Read more about the app here (and download it for free to your phone): https://www.greatjonesstreet.press/

I’ve already got a couple of stories on the app—which bills itself as “the Netflix of short fiction” and boasts “1000 stories in your pocket”—and it’s exciting to be part of the vanguard, as Great Jones Street pushes us into thinking differently about our relationship with story and reading. The future is going to be so much more than drones and driverless cars, folks!


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Patricia A. Smith on her Debut Novel, The Year of Needy Girls


“It felt far riskier to sit down and finally get the book done than it did to train for triathlons or bike rides.”


By John Newlin

          Patricia A. Smith’s widely acclaimed debut novel, The Year of Needy Girls (Akashic Books 2017), uses abduction, abuse, and murder; same-sex relationships, homophobia, and community paranoia to construct a book that immediately grips the reader. 

A veteran teacher of fifth graders, high school, and college students, Ms. Smith has experienced first-hand how a single incident can create an atmosphere of homophobic hysteria.  Her novel shows how devastating the fallout can be for innocent LGBT members of those communities.  Ms. Smith has taught eleventh grade English and Creative Writing at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, Virginia since 2006.  She is working on a second novel. 


          JN: As a teacher who happens to be lesbian, have you experienced any of the same attitudes your protagonist, Deidre Murphy, does in your novel?

PAS: Well – I haven’t experienced exactly anything that Deirdre has, but yes, in my early days of teaching, I definitely experienced homophobia in the school where I taught (it’s pretty well chronicled in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories -- Alyson Publications). In the early days, I was made to feel that coming out to the students would be a liability for both me and the school. Luckily, around that time, I met Kevin Jennings who founded GLSEN. I was able to get involved in that group from the beginning and doing so saved my teaching life. (I also chronicle that in the new One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Educators Speak Out About What Has Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t—Beacon Press). I have faced some similar attitudes from parents, too, but mostly, I feel pretty lucky.

JN: Your novel has many threads to it.  One of them is the relationship between SJ and Mickey, the neighbor who sets up the kidnapping of Leo Rivera.  What was your goal in doing that?

PAS:  I was interested in playing with the idea of these characters both being misguided—SJ, for example, having a difficult time believing that Mickey could be guilty of such a horrific crime and at the same time, not quite believing in Deirdre’s innocence. Both Deirdre and SJ see the world in misguided ways, too—they each have blinders on and seem incapable of seeing what is truly right in front of them. 

Plot-wise, I wanted a way for Mickey’s path to cross with Deirdre’s and SJ’s, and after interviewing a police detective and finding out that many criminals are narcissistic, I thought of having him learn to read so he could find out what was being said about him. Once SJ becomes his reading teacher, she finds it terribly difficult to imagine that the same guy who is learning to read can possibly be the same person who has lured Leo Rivera to his death. There was a point in writing the book that I had SJ’s and Mickey’s relationship go even farther than it does, but I felt SJ was becoming much too unlikeable and so I cut it back.


          JN:  What was the process you used in creating the character of Anna’s mother, Frances Worthington? 

PAS:  Hmmm…well, she is a very familiar “character” to me after having taught in two private schools. One thing that is very familiar to me is Deirdre’s feeling out of place in a private school. I very much felt like that when I taught at The Pike School in Andover. I didn’t know anything about that “private school life” though I attended Wesleyan University (where I also often felt out of place). And though I truly think that most of my discomfort stemmed from my own insecurities, there were definitely people—often mothers—who exacerbated this feeling in me. That’s how I think of Frances Worthington.

JN:  This novel, you have said, was several years in the writing.  Would you take us through some of the major benchmarks of that process?  Was there a turning point when you knew you’d finish it?

PAS:  That’s a great question. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the benchmarks. But – because I teach full-time, I did a lot of writing in the summers, and for many years, I made sure that I had a writing “retreat” of some sort to attend, often of my own making. I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico with writing friends a few years ago and that summer, I figured out the structure of the novel—a huge accomplishment that allowed me to move forward. Another summer, I spent a couple of weeks in the mountains in Floyd, VA, and wrote most of the second section, “October.” At some point after that, I realized that if I really wanted to have a book out, it was up to ME to finish. (Crazy right? Like, why did it take me so long to figure this out?)

Years ago, I wanted to participate in a triathlon. I had done lots of cycling, but I’m not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. But I trained and I completed a few triathlons and then several century (100 mile) bike rides and long-distance, multi-day rides. I started to ask myself: why I could train for those events and complete them, but I couldn’t manage to have the discipline to finish my book? Certainly all that training also required discipline. What was different about the book? And I think that because I’m not an athlete, I gave myself permission to fail. I knew I wasn’t ever going to win a triathlon. And simply completing the long-distance cycling was good enough for me; my time didn’t matter. But because I did see myself as a writer, I think I was too scared for a long time to finish the book—because what then? What if people hated it? It felt far riskier to sit down and finally get the book done than it did to train for triathlons or bike rides.


JN:  You use a shifting limited omniscient point of view to tell this story.  Did you ever consider employing a different point of view, or even focusing entirely on one character, Deirdre, for instance?

PAS:  I think I always wanted the book to be told mainly from both Deirdre’s and SJ’s points of view. My hope was to show the reader their blind spots they both have. I like reading multi-POV books!

JN:  One major challenge for a writer is how much introspective material to use in writing a novel or story.  How did you create the balance you did in writing Needy Girls?

PAS:  Hmmm…again good question, but I’m not sure I can answer that specifically! I wrote many, many, many drafts and read them all out loud. I tried to be conscious of pacing, to make sure the introspection doesn’t weigh or slow down the story, so I hope I achieved that here. I also follow the advice to write the book you love to read—and I definitely love reading about characters’ inner thoughts. For my Fiction I class, I use Janet Burroway’s The Art of Fiction and I read and re-read the section on balancing scene and summary and tried to apply that to scene and action vs. introspection.

JN:  I hope it’s all right to say so, but though your subject is vastly different, I was reminded of the writing of Jodi Picoult, many of whose novels are also set in New England, and whose work frequently focuses on families.  Have you read her work?  If so, did it have any influence on your own writing?

PAS:  I have read some Jodi Picoult – and there was one novel in particular, Salem Falls, about a teacher and his students that I read while I was writing The Year of Needy Girls. I’m not sure if it influenced my writing directly but I’m sure I kept the experience of reading it tucked away in my head while I wrote. I do admire her ability to keep the story moving.


JN:  It’s clear from the outset that Mickey Gilberto is one of the perpetrators.  What prompted you to reveal that on the first pages of the novel?

PAS:  I never conceived of the novel as a “whodunit.” My plan was always that the book would be about the result of Leo’s disappearance. Because this is Deirdre’s story, ultimately, I didn’t see the need to withhold Mickey Gilberto’s identity or his innocence or guilt.

JN:  As a teacher of writing myself, I’ve always struggled with how to assign and evaluate student writing in ways that encourage students to be as productive as possible without overwhelming me as their teacher.  How do you deal with that challenge?

PAS:  How do I deal with the dilemma of what to assign students? Well—I’m not sure I deal with it well! I teach both Fiction I and Fiction II—and my Fiction II students write 100 pages (that’s their goal) in one school year, so roughly 25 pages a quarter. I teach six writing classes—my American lit classes are also dual enrollment composition classes—so at end-of-quarter times, I’m crazed, reading portfolios and papers.

Well, OK, here’s one thing I do: in my Fiction II class, they have 750 words due to me every Tues (class meets Tues/Thurs and every other Fri). I don’t necessarily read those. Students must email them to me by class time on Tuesday. If they do it, they get 100. If they don’t, they get a zero. Keeps it simple. The idea is to keep them writing. The 750 words can be part of their “novel” or not – it doesn’t matter. I just want them to write.

          JN:  One of your reviewers said she hoped you’d write a sequel.  Can you tell us anything about the new novel you’re working on?

          PS:  I’m working on a book about two women—one a Senegalese woman named Fatou N’diaye and the other an American woman named Erin O’Rourke. The book opens with Fatou walking back from getting water at the well near her village in the Casamance region of Senegal, when she steps on a land mine and loses a leg. As a result, she is flown to Mass. General Hospital, in Boston, for her rehab and her prosthetic leg.

Erin O’Rourke grew up in Newton, MA, the only daughter of a career military man. She has three older brothers. Erin goes to MIT and becomes an engineer. She works for Accudyne Technologies in Cambridge, MA—a military contractor and maker of the timing device used in the landmines. Her path will cross with Fatou’s. That’s as much as I can say right now!

          JN:  Thank you so much.  I know a great many of us are looking forward to your next book.

*****

John Newlin, an MFA graduate of Converse College, is the Review Editor of South 85, an online journal.  His story, “First Date,” recently won an award in Short Story America.  His essays and reviews have appeared in Independent School Magazine, South 85, and Night Owl.


Find the book on Amazon and via Chop Suey, an independent bookstore based in Richmond that offers signed copies.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Social Media and Community Outreach Editor Needed for Beltway

The editors of Beltway Poetry Quarterly seek a third co-editor to join us. Although we do periodically receive grant funds, this is largely a volunteer position, with a commitment of between 2 and 10 hours a week (depending on the publishing schedule). We seek a Social Media and Community Outreach Editor, so we are looking specifically for someone comfortable working with Twitter, Facebook, and Wordpress, and someone interested in helping to connect the journal with other DC-metro area arts groups.

We will consider applications from anyone interested in DC poets and the rich history of the region’s literary communities. We are particularly interested in hearing from poets of color, poets of minority ethnicities and religions, LGBTQ poets, poets with disabilities, women, poets who speak more than one language, and poets who are first- or second-generation immigrants.

To apply, please send a letter of interest (with information about any prior editing, arts administration, grant writing, or communications experience), and a resume of one or two pages.



Thursday, March 2, 2017

District Lit ISO Flash Fiction & Writing on Disability

Founded in 2012, District Lit is an online journal based in DC, MD, and VA, with these exciting opportunities for writers.


Disability, Medicine, and Illness Special Issue 
While we are always open to work from writers with disabilities, this themed issue will highlight poetry and nonfiction about living with disability, illness, or medical treatments. We want writing and art about chronic illness, disability (visible and invisible), medical histories and procedures, recovery, and the body in all its forms. Send us your rawest poetry, powerful CNF, and embodied art.


Guest Judge: Jen Stein Hauptmann
Poetry: 1-3 poems; <100 lines; prose poetry welcome
Prose: creative nonfiction, less than 800 words
Fee: NONE
Reading Period: February 12 - March 15, 2017


Spring 2017 Flash Fiction Contest

We are hosting an inaugural flash fiction contest. The first place flash fiction story will appear on District Lit’s website. The winner will receive $200, publication, and a copy of the judge’s book. The second and third place finalists will receive a copy of the judge's book and possible publication in District Lit.

Contest Deadlines and Fee

Submissions will be accepted March 1 – May 1, 2017. All submissions must include a $5.00 reading fee. The winner will be announced late summer 2017.

Submission Guidelines

Each submission must be 750 words or less and submitted through Submittable. Multiple entries are accepted, but each entry requires a separate reading fee. Your name should not appear anywhere on your submission. Any identifiable information will automatically disqualify your story from consideration.


Guest Judge
Santino Prinzi will judge. Prinzi is the Co-Director of National Flash Fiction Day in the UK, the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine, a First Reader for Vestal Review, and a reviewer of flash fiction collections for Bath Flash Fiction Award. His debut flash fiction collection, Dots and other flashes of perception, is available from The Nottingham Review Press. His short stories, flash fiction, and prose poetry have been published or is forthcoming in various places, such as Great JonesS treet, Litro Online, The Nottingham Review, Ink Sweat and Tears, CHEAP POP and Flash Frontier. To find out more follow him on Twitter(@tinoprinzi) or visit his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com. Family, colleagues, and students of the judge are ineligible to win


Please submit your work at http://districtlit.com/guidelines


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Books Alive! Conference...April 28 & 29

I’ll be participating in this conference and am passing on this early registration info from the organizers:


Hey all DMV Writer friends.. Last day, March 1, to sign up for the Early Bird rate for the 5th annual Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference on April 28 and 29th at the College Park Marriott... There will be loads of writers, editors, and LITERARY AGENTS there (every registrant can speed-pitch up to 3 literary agents). It's a terrific conference if you're ready to learn more about publishing, or if you're ready to get your novel or nonfiction book out in the world. It's organized by the nonprofit Washington Independent Review of Books. If you are a member of the Writer's Center in Bethesda, put in the coupon code WRITERSCENTER and receive an additional 10% off. 

Register at www.wirobooks.com today and save... hope to see you there!!

Monday, February 27, 2017

ISO Poets to Read in DC

The Joaquin Miller Summer 2017 Poetry Series is accepting submissions for its Sunday readings in Rock Creek Park. Small honorarium.

Send 5 poems, a paragraph bio, and an SASE for reply only to:


Rosemary Winslow, Co-director
Dept. of English
Catholic University of America
Washington, DC 20064.


Postmarked by March 31. No emails please

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Survival Tips for #AWP17!

Survival Tips for AWP17!

Welcome, writers, to our nation’s capital! You will fit in here, with our town’s culture of perfectionist strivers and intellectual conversationalists. DC is a city that reads (the nation’s third-readingest city, according to this study)…though some may prefer wonky policy books to lovely volumes of poetry. We dress in black or Ann Taylor, are verbal with excellent punctuation skills, freak out at a flake of snow, don’t mind being thought of as “the East Coast elite,” have a chip on our shoulders about New York City, and celebrate our diverse community. We welcome newcomers and tourists, as long as they stand to the right (never the left!) on our Metro escalators…and we don’t like you-know-who either.

So, twelve thousand? Fifteen thousand? A LOT of writers surging into town for #AWP17! You won’t be wearing matching T-shirts like the spring school groups, and don’t want to look like tourists, I know, but take that moment to soak in what tourist DC does best: grand old monuments of glimmering stone, most beautiful in dusky twilight. They have endured, our democracy will endure (fingers crossed), and you can endure and prevail at AWP! Here are my tips for success based on my experience at past conferences:

Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast directed at you. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs), so you may find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet; see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. If you are stuck on the floor, hold your ground with a big bag and/or coat to get yourself some extra space. Whatever you do, do not be nice and squeeze over…those panels can seem VERY LONG when someone’s knee is wedged in your ribs. (Any resulting bad karma will be worth it.)

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for an appropriate break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will instead incinerate). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on the editor’s panel.

There are zillions of panels: When you pick up your registration badge, you’ll get a massive tome with information about all of them, and also a shorter schedule that’s easy to carry around. Take some time right away to read through the tome and circle the panels you want to attend on your master schedule. Then ditch the tome. Better yet, go to the AWP website now and scroll through the schedule tome and decide now where you want to be when. And best of all, use the “my schedule” planning feature on the online schedule to mark the events you’re interested in and keep that stored on your favorite technology (mine is a sheaf of printed paper…which may be smart since I often forget how/where to re-access “my schedule,” which requires logging in and somehow finding “my account”).  Anyway…no point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend. Give yourself a couple of options at each time slot so that if a room is too crowded, you have an interesting alternative.

Someone will always ask a 20-minute question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. Maybe even write it down first, before you start to endlessly ramble. If you are “that person,” everyone will mimic your annoying question to their friends in the bookfair aisle, and your career is over.

Don’t say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends what you’ve overheard over your offsite dinner, embellishing as necessary.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.  Also, if you happen to get a chair at the bar, or, goodness, EVEN A REAL LIVE TABLE, hang on to it!!  People will join you if they see you’ve got a spot!  Famous people!  I mean it: the only reason to ever give up a table in the hotel bar is because the bar has shut down, you’ve consumed every bit of liquid in the clutter of glasses, and a beefy bouncer is headed your way.

Speaking of famous people or former teachers or friends…do not say something like this in one long breathless opening sentence right after hugging hello: “Great-to-see-you-can-you-write-a-blurb-letter-of-rec-piece-for-my-anthology?” Ask for favors AFTER the conference! I mean, unless you enjoy that uncomfortable moment and awkward triumph of trapping someone into saying yes.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance, and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, do spend some money! These journals and presses rely on OUR support.

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all those heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center or the UPS store at the convention center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad-looking journals, abandoned by the grad students with hangovers who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

Try not to approach the table of each journal at the bookfair with this question:  “How can I get published in your journal?” Also, I recommend avoiding this one: “How come you didn’t publish my poem/story/essay/screed?”  Try instead: “What a beautiful journal. Please tell me more about it.” Even better: “I’m thinking about subscribing.”

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at one AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors of The Georgia Review gaze on.

Pre-arrange some get-togethers with friends/teachers/grad student buddies, but don’t over-schedule. You’ll run into people, or meet people, or be invited to a party, or find an amazing off-the-beaten-track bar.  Save some time for spontaneity! (Yes, I realize that I’m saying “plan” for spontaneity.)

Don’t laugh at this, but bring along Purell and USE IT often.  For weeks after, post-AWP Facebook status updates are filled with writers bemoaning the deathly cold/sore throat/lingering and mysterious illness they picked up at AWP.  We’re a sniffly, sneezy, wheezy, germy bunch, and the thought of 12,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives the CDC nightmares.

Along the lines of healthcare, don’t forget to drink a lot of water and pop an Advil before going to sleep if (haha…if!) you’ve been drinking a little more than usual. (Also note that AWP offers a daily 12-step meeting open to all in recovery. Please take care of yourself!)

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. 

This is a super-secret tip that I never share, but I’ll share it as a reward for those who have read this far:  there will be a bathroom that’s off the beaten track and therefore is never crowded. Scope out this bathroom early on. Don’t tell anyone except your closest friends the location of this bathroom.

Finally, take a deep breath.  You’re just as much of a writer as the other 11,999 people around you.  Don’t let them get to you.

*****

If you're interested, I will be on the following panel. I’ll be reading from “Slut,” a story included in my collection THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, that first appeared in Cimarron Review and which I rarely read.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2017
4:30 pm to 5:45 pm
Liberty Salon I, J, & K, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four

Cimarron Review: 50 Year Anniversary Reading. (Leslie Pietrzyk, Adam Clay, Brenda Peynado, Yun Wang, Toni Graham) The Cimarron Review brings together four previously featured writers from across fiction and poetry to celebrate fifty years of publishing the finest stories, poems, and essays from working writers across the country and around the world to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

*****

And if you'd like to let you-know-who know what you think about him...here's an overview of some planned protests: 

http://flavorwire.com/598503/writers-plan-to-protest-and-lobby-at-awp-conference-in-d-c

*****

Finally, for the best drinks in town, here's my spot (more suitable for an intimate twosome ro foursome, not a giant crowd): The Columbia Room, not too far from the Convention Center. Splurge on the full-out tasting if you've got the $$ and time or enjoy a drink or two in the Tasting Library or Punch Garden. I promise you will thank me!! http://columbiaroomdc.com/

******
And I wasn't kidding about that Metro escalator. Stand to the right and walk on the left.

*****
And this very important P.S.: Check out what DC writer/poet Sandra Beasley has to say about navigating AWP and DC. Her restaurant tips are spot-on! http://sbeasley.blogspot.com/2017/02/so-if-youre-going-to-awp.html


Work-in-Progress

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