Wednesday, September 27, 2017

"The Door of No Return" in South Carolina Review

My story “The Door of No Return” has been published in The South Carolina Review. There’s no link online at this time, but why not support a wonderful journal and buy a copy (see below)?

This story came about when I was part of a group writing to pieces of visual art. We were given a bunch of images and asked to pick four we could write about. I liked this picture because I’m often drawn to doors and paths. Plus, it was pretty. Plus-plus, I was certain I’d get my first or second choice. BUT circumstances led to me being assigned my fourth choice, which sort of annoyed me at first, and then stressed me out as I studied the artist’s work and realized that this “pretty picture” was part of a series about the Middle Passage. I knew I had to think hard about my approach to this image to do it honor, and in the end, I'm grateful for this assignment which pushed me out of my comfort zone…and I’m grateful to the South Carolina Review for publishing this piece.

More information about the artist, Keith Morrison: http://keithmorrison.com/
Keith Morrison’s Middle Passage series: http://keithmorrison.com/?page_id=874

Okay, if you’re desperate to read this story, send me a sweet email and I’ll send you a file: lesliepietrzyk AT gmail DOT com





Thursday, September 21, 2017

REVERSING THE RIVER: Serialized Novel Available

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my historical novel is being serialized this summer. REVERSING THE RIVER is set in Chicago, on the first day of 1900, when the city is completing a major engineering feat to reverse the flow of the Chicago River so the sewage moves downstream instead of into the city’s drinking water.

There are only a few more chapters to go, so now is a good time to jump in and get caught up.

You can find REVERSING THE RIVER on Medium: https://medium.com/s/reversing-the-river  There’s a small fee to register for Medium, which is LESS than the cost of a book AND gives you access to all of Medium’s great content. There’s also an audio file.

OR

You can download the Great Jones Street literary app on your phone/iPad; look it up in the Apple Store/Play Store.


Friday, September 15, 2017

My Fall Classes....Space Left for YOU!

I’m teaching two classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore in September…space for you and a friend still available in each! Both are appropriate for beginners or for more experienced writers. Let me know if you have any questions (lesliepietrzyk AT gmail DOT com).


Who’s Telling Your Story? Experiments in Point of View

Monday, September 25, 1 to 4 p.m.

Location: P&P's Classroom (5039 Connecticut Avenue, Unit #7)
Price:  $50 (10% off for members)

Point of view is one of a writer’s first decisions: Who will tell the story? And how? Everyone knows about first person and third person. But maybe your story or novel could benefit from a more unconventional point of view: collective first person or second person. We’ll talk about the possibilities (and challenges) of several POVs and then dig in with some writing exercises, which can be new or based on your work-in-progress. This class is also suitable for nonfiction writers, and writers of all levels of experience.

Recommended Reading:
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffery Eugenides (only chapter 1 of this book will be referenced)
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (only chapter 1 of this book will be referenced)
How to Become a Writer, Lorrie Moore (found the author's story collection titled, Self-Help)


*****

Right Brain Writing: Shifting Perceptions

Wednesday, September 27, 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Location: P&P's Classroom (5039 Connecticut Avenue, Unit #7)
Price: $45 (10% off for members)

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 how our perceptions shift, whether through altered landscapes, the passage of time, or being thrust into a different point of view. Is it we who have changed…or the world around us? This is a great class for beginners, and fiction writers 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!

Recommended Book:
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy
*Please note that although this is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.




Thursday, September 14, 2017

DMV Writers with a Book Ms....

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: Until November 15, 2017, Washington Writers’ Publishing House (WWPH) will accept manuscripts for entry in our annual book competitions, The Jean Feldman Poetry Prize and The Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize. Writers who live within a 75 mile radius of the U.S. Capitol in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia are eligible to enter these competitions. The winning manuscripts will be published in the fall of 2018. Visit www.washingtonwriters.org

This competition and this press have brought forth many excellent books, so I'll only point to a scant few of my favorites:

Kathleen Wheaton | Aliens and Other Stories
Brandel France de Bravo | Provenance
Patricia Schultheis | St. Bart’s Way





Monday, August 28, 2017

Your Low-Residency MFA Guide: Converse!

Back to school time already…which reminds me that the application deadline for the low-residency MFA program at Converse College, where I SOOOOO HAPPILY teach, is fast approaching: October 1.

So, if you’re thinking about an MFA, here are some links to help you start thinking about Converse:

Here’s why I personally love this program! (Bonus: some thoughts from Lisa Hase-Jackson, one of our grads, on why she decided to get an MFA.)

Here’s an interview with our director, Rick Mulkey, who talks about the benefits of a graduate writing program. (This is part 3, but the links for the first two parts are at the bottom.)

Are you nervous about being a student, for any reason? These pieces by two of our first semester students, Frances Neville and Edmund Schubert, will help allay your concerns.

Do you still have concerns? Here’s where to find answers and where to direct any and all questions. Scroll down to the bottom for “contact us” and find Sarah Gray, Associate Director.

Are you ready to apply? GO HERE!


Hope to see you in South Carolina in January!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Colson Whitehead, Mohsin Hamid, Lev Grossman to Headline 2017 Fall for the Book

Fall for the Book’s 19th annual festival will run from October 11-14 at George Mason University and locations around Northern Virginia. National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, will kick off the festival on October 11 at 7:30 p.m. in Harris Theater on Mason’s Fairfax campus. Also reading in Harris Theater will be Mohsin Hamid, author of the New York Times bestselling novels Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist on Friday, October 13 at 7:30 p.m., and Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians trilogy—now a hit show on the Syfy channel—on Saturday, October 14 at 5 p.m. to close out the festival.

Other major writers will include poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, author of Headwaters, nonfiction writer David Shields, author of Other People, novelist Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs, and poet Tarfia Faizullah, author of Seam.

The festival will also welcome a robust list of poets, historians, novelists, memoirists, children’s authors, YA writers, cookbook authors and more. For the first time, Fall for the Book is partnering with the City of Fairfax’s Fall Festival on Saturday, October 14, to bring a day of literary and artistic events to audiences from throughout the region. For a full list of authors, visit www.fallforthebook.org or download our free app from your app store.

This is Fall for the Book's nineteenth year, and events are free and open to the public. Last year's festival attracted over 22,000 attendees to our readings, panels, workshops and exhibits. More information about Fall for the Book can be found at our website: www.fallforthebook.org

Here's the complete schedule:

And here are a few friends/friends of friends/Facebook friends/writers I ESPECIALLY recommend checking out:


Fiction

Tara Campbell
Mollie Cox Bryan
Marita Golden
Elizabeth Hand
Dave Housley
Matthew Klam
Elise Levine
Margot Livesey
Virginia Pye
Melissa Scholes Young
Amber Sparks

Poetry

Kim Roberts
Ellen Bryant Voigt

Publishing

Joanne Lozar Glenn
Anna March


History & Biography

Andrea Pitzer
Michael Sims

Memoir & Creative Nonfiction

Douglas R. Dechow
Timothy Denevi
Anna Leahy

Monday, August 14, 2017

What Writers Talk about When They Talk about Short Story Writing

Looking up something for something, I came across this list of quotations about writing short stories, and they are so brilliant and so inspiring, that I absolutely had to drop the something I’m working on and share these IMMEDIATELY. I suggest that you drop everything and read them right now!

Here are few of my favorites:

A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

“A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” – David Sedaris

“Most stories we tell in real life are under 500 words. You’re at a party, everyone has a glass of wine, and suddenly you have the floor. You throw out your little story like a grenade. ‘Once I knew a guy who…’ And if you have any social graces at all, you probably keep it under 500. So my advice would be this: Don’t get all up in your head thinking short-short stories have to be poetry without the line breaks. Don’t put on your beret. Just tell a story, an actual story. Quick, while they’re still listening.” – Rebecca Makkai



Monday, August 7, 2017

Creating a Community: A Conversation with Andi Cumbo-Floyd on Using Social Media Effectively


By Carollyne Hutter  

Social media can be so helpful to writers, offering ways to connect with other writers, bringing in fresh audiences for their work, and generally, helping with the business side of writing.

Andi Cumbo-Floyd lives in rural Virginia working as a writer, editor, and teacher, and a farmer. She uses various social media to create a supportive online writing community, promote her writing, expand her editorial / critique business, and advertise her onsite writing retreats on her farm.

When my clients ask how to use social media effectively, I always say: create conversations and build a community. Sounds simple, but many organizations fail to do this well. Andi, on the other hand, does a seemingly effortless job of making social media warm, inviting, and supportive. I’m a member of her online writing group and although we converse through computers, tablets, and phones, Andi creates such a heartfelt community that it feels like we’re meeting over coffee and chatting about our work. How does she do it?

Andi was kind enough to discuss social media with me and answer my many questions.


Carollyne: Which social media are you active on?

Andi: I am active on Facebook with my personal page and three business pages, once for each my websites—Andilit, God’s Whisper Farm, and Our Folks’ Tales.  Plus, of course, the writing community.  I also have a Twitter page that I use less robustly but do share regularly there and retweet. I also post photos from the farm and often of books I’m reading over at Instagram.  I’ve set up profiles on most social media sites, on the advice of Jane Friedman who recommends a presence everywhere even if you don’t use the medium particularly, but these are the ones I use most.

Carollyne: How do you use the different social media and for what purposes?

Andi: I’m not super great about dividing myself into categories, so I don’t have very solid guidelines for what I share where, which some people advise against.  I, however, like to be my integrated self as much as possible.  I only post about writing, or farming, or African American history and genealogy on my respective FB pages, and Instagram is mostly farm photos and bookish photos. On Twitter, I do tend to do more about racism and history there, but not exclusively.  So, I have leanings in certain ways, but ultimately, my goal is to be myself everywhere.

In terms of purpose, I pretty much hope to connect with people in a genuine, engaged way everywhere. I love people—introvert though I am—so I love meeting them and finding ways that our lives speak into each other.

C: In what ways is social media helping your writing and your business as a writing consultant, editor, and teacher?

A: Honestly, social media is at the heart of my business. I get clients through the groups I organize. I meet other writers and build strong relationships that often lead to business through social media. I’ve hired others I’ve met through social media.  It’s a fundamental part of how I do my work. . . but that’s been a long time coming. It’s taken years of being available online, of being intentional about cultivating true relationships with people, relationships that are not driven by a “I hope they will hire me” mentality.  I find that kind of thinking to be really gross, honestly. Rather, I’d rather be myself, get to know people, make what I do known, and let people find me for the work if they think I’d be a good fit for what they need. 

C: You’re an independent author. How do you use social media to promote and sell your books?

A: I typically set up launch teams for my books and use social media both to communicate with them AND to promote the book through them.  I share new covers or interviews I do about my books, and when they are forthcoming, I use memes and all the standard things to promote. I have tried sharing reviews as a way to bump up sales and get more reviews, but I don’t do that much anymore.

Honestly, after the initial push when a book comes out, I mostly don’t promote it much directly on social media. It feels disingenuous to me to do that, and I also know that social media isn’t the greatest venue for book sales.

That said, I’m also not shy about sharing what I write. . . after all, if I didn’t want people to read it, then why bother publishing.

C: What advice would you have for other writers using social media?

A: Be consistent and be genuine.  If you post regularly, people will look for what you share. But you also can’t just throw things into the void and then disengage. You have to really respond to people – every comment if at all possible in as genuine a way as possible.  And then, just be yourself. Share what you love (and a little, tiny bit of what you hate on occasion.) Be honest. Be open. And be wise – make intentional choices about what you share and where you share it.

C: I’m a member of your wonderful online writers’ group. Why did you establish the group?

A: I started it because I heard so many writers saying they didn’t know how to connect to other writers, and I’d felt that way myself.  I wanted to create a place where writers could make friendships and business relationships with other people in the field.  At first it was a pay-per-month deal, but a few months after it began, I decided to make it free because I enjoyed it so much. There are paid components – critique, workshop groups – but the heart of the group is free to any writer who wants to join, and I love that.

C: Your writers’ community is so warm and supportive, which is difficult to do with an online group. How do you create such an atmosphere?

A: Oh, thanks for those kind words. I’m not sure how that happened – I think it’s partially the nature of the people in the group, partially the fact that I try to be very present there, and partially the fact that I don’t tolerate any disrespect or ugliness in the group. . . or really anywhere in my online spaces.  For me, every interaction I have with a person – on my good days – is about honoring the person on the other end – be that in person or through a screen – and I hope that comes through in the community. 

C: We all learn from failures. Are there any activities connected to your writing work that you tried on social media that were not successful?

A: Yeah, for a while I was trying to post several times a day in all the places that I am via social media, and honestly, it was exhausting and felt very forced. I was using a scheduler and just pushing out content, and I was drained by it every day. So I stopped and found that I could be present every day if I just set out to do that, and that I could share more honestly if I shared when I felt I had something worthwhile to share.

C: Social media can be quite a time sink, especially for writers. Do you have a schedule when you’re active on social media or another way to limit your social media time?

A: Oh glory, I wish I did have a schedule because it is a time-sink. I’m honestly online most of every work day.  It’s not the ideal. But I find that if I get my posting done or scheduled in the morning then I’m mostly checking in and responding to folks throughout the day, which I do enjoy and find important to build real relationships online. 

In the evenings, I sometimes get up images, which works well since lots of folks are online after their day jobs. But by then, I’m pretty much hands-off on the computer or phone.
                                                                        ***

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer who lives at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 38 chickens, 6 goats, 4 dogs, 4 cats, and 3 rabbits. Her books include The Slaves Have Names and Discover Your Writing Self. She writes regularly at andilit.com, godswhisperfarm.com, and ourfolkstales.com


Carollyne Hutter, www.HutterWriter.com,  regularly writes on environmental, international development, and scientific topics for both adults and children.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

COVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here's the new cover for SILVER GIRL, which will be out in February 2018. I am THRILLED!


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My Online Novel, Serialized!




Here’s where you can access REVERSING THE RIVER, my historical novel set on one day in Chicago at the turn of the (previous) century, when the citizens of Chicago completed their massive engineering project to literally reverse the flow of the Chicago River to ensure safe drinking water.

We meet Jozef, a Polish immigrant who is struggling to care for his newborn son and understand his complex relationship with love and family, and Lucy, an affluent young woman who is learning the secrets behind her recent, hasty marriage. How will the course of their lives be reversed on this momentous day?

So…I’m not sure if you can go directly to that link or if you’ll have to sign up for Medium first (do it! It’s a cool site!). You can also download the Great Jones Street literary app and look me up by name (that’s ZYK, not yzk!).

New chapters will be released weekly…or so I hear!

If you try this, and it works—or doesn’t—or you have questions/problems—please let me know. I’m just as curious as you are about how this all will work out! The one thing I know is that it’s a darn good book, and I’m very proud of it.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

My Great Jones Street Story on Kindle (in case you're not into apps)

This is why people look themselves up...I didn’t realize that one of my Great Jones Street* stories was also available on Kindle…here’s the Amazon link (99 cents): 

Here’s the opening to the story (which I started in my prompt writing group):

TILL DEATH DO US PART

I’m meeting my stupid father “pre-performance” at the Kennedy Center bar on April 15. Which happens to be his wedding anniversary to my stupid mother. I know, who gets married on tax day? Who meets their kid on his wedding anniversary? They’re not married now, but still. I’m supposed to be there at 6 pm sharp. That’s how he still talks, like he’s a hundred-and-ten years old, like people say “sharp” every two seconds. I don’t even know what show we’re seeing, ballet or symphony or whatever. He brings the tickets.


I shoot for 6:15. He’ll be late. Plus, it’s a bar and I know I look like I’m at least eighteen, but I’m fifteen, and sometimes people act like I’m a child and sometimes I catch grown-up men staring like they want to hike my skirt with one hand and fuck me, like they’re imagining no underwear in the way. Anyway, either makes sitting around a bar waiting for his entrance exactly what I’m not in the mood for.


He’s always late. He’s a very important man in Washington, DC, always “running behind,” with some assistant whose whole job is texting bullshit about how late he’ll be. Delete.


*Great Jones Street is a fabulous literary app, available for free download via Apple or Google/android: “the Netflix of short fiction.” Details here: https://www.greatjonesstreet.press/



Thursday, June 29, 2017

"Beware of Historians": Historical Research for the Fiction Writer

I wrote for the AWP Writer’s Notebook about my experience doing historical research for REVERSING THE RIVER, my novel set in 1899 Chicago, about to be released on the Great Jones Street literary app (free to download for Apple & Android!).

The piece is called “Eight Things This Fiction Writer Learned about Historical Research,” and here’s an excerpt:

Number 1: The concept of “enough.” Perhaps the most important thing that the writer should remember is that one single word: “enough.” There is “enough” research when you’re writing fiction. You’re not going to learn everything about your time period, and, frankly, you don’t need to know everything: you only need to know “enough”—enough to tell your story in a believable way. You’re not writing an authoritative history; you’re writing a STORY. People are reading your book to see what happens next to your characters, not so they can understand trends in Elizabethan England. So, beware of historians. Historians think you should know everything. You really only need to know “enough.” I know what kind of carriage my character Lucy rides in and what the road is like, but I don’t know if there are still posts to hitch up horses in the street. I don’t know if rich people in Chicago preferred black horses or brown horses. Sure, it would be nice to know those things, and if I did, I might throw the information into the story, but it’s not relevant and it’s not necessary....


And here is the rest:

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Deadline to Enter Drue Heinz Literature Prize is 6/30!

My writing life changed when THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST won this contest—and no matter how many times I express how grateful I am to University of Pittsburgh Press and Mrs. Drue Heinz (benefactor), it will not be enough! The deadline for entries is June 30…please do consider entering if you have a collection of short stories.



The Drue Heinz Literature Prize Call for Submissions 2018

https://upress.submittable.com/submit



The University of Pittsburgh Press announces the 2018 Drue Heinz Literature Prize for a collection of short fiction. The prize carries a cash award of $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press under its standard contract. The winner will be announced in December or January. No information about the winner will be released before the official announcement. The volume of manuscripts prevents the Press from offering critiques or entering into communication or correspondence about manuscripts. Please do not call or e-mail the Press.


Eligibility



1.


The award is open to writers who have published a novel or a book-length collection of fiction with a reputable book publisher, or a minimum of three short stories or novellas in magazines or journals of national distribution. Digital-only publication and self-publication do not count toward this requirement.




2.

The award is open to writers in English, whether or not they are citizens of the United States.




3.

University of Pittsburgh employees, former employees, current students, and those who have been students within the last three years are not eligible for the award.



4.

Translations are not eligible if the translation was not done by the author.




5.

Eligible submissions include an unpublished manuscript of short stories; two or more novellas (a novella may comprise a maximum of 130 double-spaced typed pages); or a combination of one or more novellas and short stories. Novellas are only accepted as part of a larger collection. Manuscripts may be no fewer than 150 and no more than 300 pages. Prior publication of your manuscript as a whole in any format (including electronic) makes it ineligible.




6.

Stories or novellas previously published in magazines or journals or in book form as part of an anthology are eligible.



7.

Manuscripts may also be under consideration by other publishers, but if a manuscript is accepted for publication elsewhere and you wish to accept this offer, please notify the Press immediately. Manuscripts under contract elsewhere are no longer eligible for the Prize.



8.

Authors may submit more than one manuscript to the competition as long as one manuscript or a portion thereof does not duplicate material submitted in another manuscript.




Dates for Submission





Manuscripts must be received during May and June 2017. That is, they must be postmarked on or after May 1 and on or before June 30.





Format for Electronic Submissions


1.

During the submission period (May 1 - June 30) simply click the link above. You'll be taken to our secure submittable.com web page where you'll find easy-to-follow instructions:



2.

Manuscripts must be double-spaced and pages must be numbered consecutively.




3.

Each submission must include a list of all of the writer's published short fiction work, with full citations. You will be given an opportunity to enter this information into a field in Submittable.



4.

Manuscripts will be judged anonymously. Therefore, the author's name, other identifying information, and publication information must not appear within the manuscript. Only your uploaded manuscript is visible to the judges.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Happy News!

The happiest news, really: I’m thrilled to report that my next novel, SILVER GIRL, is going to be published by Unnamed Press, a fabulous small press based in L.A.  It seems entirely possible that the novel will be out in the winter of 2018!!

In a fortuitous turn of events that indicates that this pairing absolutely has to be destiny, I actually conducted an interview with Unnamed Press in 2014, so you can read how fabulous they are right here: http://www.workinprogressinprogress.com/2014/04/favorite-small-presses-unnamed-press.html


I’m working on my “elevator speech” about the book, but here’s an attempt: Set in the 80s, SILVER GIRL is about a destructive friendship between two girls from very different backgrounds who end up at a fancy college in the Chicago area…set against a backdrop of the Tylenol murders, when someone stuffed cyanide into Tylenol capsules and returned them to the drugstore shelves (which one could do because this was before product packaging was sealed; actually, this is WHY intense product packaging came about).

Here’s the opening:

            My roommate arrived first, staking her claim. Probably someone told her do it that way, her cum laude mother or Ivy League dad or an older sibling or cousin in college. I had no one telling me anything. So I didn’t know to take the overnight bus to Chicago from Iowa instead of the one arriving late in the afternoon, meaning when I unlocked the dorm room door I saw a fluffy comforter with bright poppies already arranged on the bed along the wall with the window, cracked open to grab the only breeze. Several dozen white plastic hangers holding blazers and skirts and blouses filled the closet with the door where F.U. wasn’t gouged into the wood.

            I rubbed my fingers along the grooves of those letters, imagining a deeply angry freshman girl digging a nail file from the clutter of her purse, carving those letters into the wood while at the library her roommate wrote a smart paper about Jane Austen or blew her boyfriend in a car parked by the lake or spray-painted acorns lustrous gold for table centerpieces at a sorority mother-daughter tea. I hoped my roommate wouldn’t be that angry girl.

            Also, I hoped I wouldn’t be.


 Here are two chapters that appeared online, in slightly different form:

~~~“Headache,” in WIPS/Works (of Fiction) in Progress Journal: http://www.wipsjournal.com/leslie-pietrzyk-headache-a-chapter-excerpt-from-the-novel-silver-girl/

~~~“Shadow Daughter,” in The Hudson Review: http://hudsonreview.com/2017/01/shadow-daughter/#.WUmdTWjytPY

So much to do to bring a book into the world…and please, please do let me know if there’s a reading series or bookstore or party at your house that you think I should know about! I’d love to do a reading and see YOU there!



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Flash Fiction in The Collagist!

So thrilled to see one of my new pieces of flash fiction up in the June edition of The Collagist: “What We Know of the Animal” was written in my prompt writing group, and revised later, of course.

The two prompt words were “dating” and “curtain,” and here’s where to read the result (which will take you about three minutes, tops):  http://thecollagist.com/the-collagist/2017/5/19/what-we-know-of-the-animal.html

Here’s the first paragraph, in case you need more information before committing to that three minutes:


"No one says dating anymore." Thirteen-year-old Stephanie is always proud when she's able to correct an adult, especially her father, who's barely listening. To be honest, he barely listens to most conversations, so she shouldn't feel particularly special or at all dissed, though whenever she's with him, she feels both. He's gifted with the politician's ability to sustain lengthy, complicated, even heartfelt conversations while barely listening; questions, answers, words are an empty flow, like the whooshing sound spiraling through a seashell.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Complex Machinery of Space Shuttles & Love: An Interview with the Authors of GENERATION SPACE: A LOVE STORY


By John Newlin

Generation Space: A Love Story
Stillwater Press, 2017



Anna Leahy and Doug Dechow have written a superbly crafted dual chronicle of their love affairs with space exploration and each other.  Generation Space: A Love Story is as good a history of the space program as any to be found.

Anna is an English Professor at Chapman University.  Her collections of poetry include Aperture and Constituents of Matter, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize.  Doug, a librarian at Chapman University, is the co-author of SQUEAK: A Quick Trip to Objectland, Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, and The Craft of Librarian Instruction.  They have written the Lofty Ambitions blog together since 2010.

JN:  When I began reading the book, I thought, this is going to be overwhelmingly technical, a slog through mind-boggling scientific and mechanical terminology and detail.  One of your great accomplishments is that you produced a book ABOUT a highly technical subject without overpowering your reader with scientific minutiae.  How did you do that?

Anna and Doug:  That’s terrific to hear because we wanted to strike a balance in which we acknowledge that a complex machine like the space shuttle is a collection of interrelated scientific and engineering facts without the reader being distracted from the story by jargon. We thought about this book as a story—our story and the story of the Space Age. And we thought about people—characters—as an important way for this story to come alive for readers.

In Generation Space, we talk about why particular shuttle launches were scrubbed, for instance, and try to convey how caught up we were in learning about mechanical parts like a GUPC or a thermostat because they were an integral part of our story of seeing—and not seeing—launches. We want readers to feel a sense of learning NASA lingo right along with us and to understand how quickly some of the basic jargon became natural to us as we immersed ourselves in the newsroom culture at Kennedy Space Center. We kept in mind, too, that there are a lot of space nerds out there who already know RTLS means return to launch site and we hope they are reminded that, at some point, they had learned to talk and think in such terms, that they carry this terminology in their minds. Of course, we didn’t talk about all of the 2.5 million parts in the shuttle configuration sitting on the launch pad, but we wanted to give a sense of how intricate the shuttle was because that had everything to do with how amazing it was to see one actually rise from the ground into orbit.


JN:  Collaboration in writing a book or poem has to be tricky.  Would the two of you comment on the process as well as some of the challenges you faced (and overcame) in writing Generation Space?

Anna and Doug:  It is tricky for any two writers to collaborate, and we don’t recommend anyone begin with a big project. For us, collaborating as writers was very much wrapped up in being a couple romantically as well, so that probably doubles the risks as well as the benefits. We joke that we haven’t figured out how to share the task of doing laundry—we each do our own—and that may be because we don’t care much about laundry. When the stakes are low, why increase the risk of discord?

That said, we started with a small writing project and a big reward years before we tackled Generation Space together. On a lark, we sent an abstract to a call for conference papers about World War II. It was accepted, so we drew from our dates at aviation museums to write about the theory and practice of how museums display WWII aircraft. Figuring out how to write together allowed us to travel to Amsterdam. And then, we spun that writing into a book chapter and an article in Curator. That early validation made us think we were onto something.


JN:  It struck me as I read Generation Space that both of you were able to maintain your own voice while at the same time crafting a piece without a jarring difference of style while shifting from one point of view to the other.  Are your writing styles naturally similar?  Was this something of a happy accident, or was it a conscious effort on your parts to create this stylistic consistency?

Anna and Doug:  In a way, this issue of voice has been thorny for us. We had developed what we call a together voice—the one we’re using now in this interview—for Lofty Ambitions blog. When we started that project in 2010, we would have weekly date nights at a local watering hole and write our posts together sentence by sentence. In the process, we got to know each other’s voices and negotiating ways to represent both of us authentically. Figuring out who “we” are meant more than just writing together. And with that ongoing reference point of the other, we each honed own individual voices too and understood that we each notice and value sometimes very different things.

An early partial draft of Generation Space was in our together voice. We liked it, but readers didn’t trust it. No one believes we can agree on a single way to look at something. Ultimately, we admitted that we needed the two perspectives, we remembered things differently, and we find meaning in different ways. So, the lack of a jarring difference probably stems from years of writing together and, as couples do, hashing through topics over time so that we became more similar generally. Over time, we end up agreeing a lot but definitely maintain our distinct opinions and turns of phrase, too.


JN:  At one point Doug says, “…and I wouldn’t be sure about Anna without these last few years together” (260),  and Anna says, “I’d reshaped myself, and Doug and I had become closer than ever before” (229).  This is an extremely personal question, but can you compare briefly the difference in your relationship before and after your immersion into the exploration and experience of the shuttle launches and landings?  I guess I’m thinking about how two very independent people with somewhat parallel but very different careers can forge a lasting and loving relationship with each other.  What’s your secret?

Anna and Doug:  In 2008, we moved to California. That Thanksgiving, we drove into the desert to see a space shuttle land. The following Thanksgiving, we eloped. In our minds, these events are all of a piece. We’d fallen in love twenty years before we married, and there are all sorts of ways it’s difficult to grow into adults as a couple. Moving to California was a conscious choice to start a new stage together. Looking out at the tarmac at Edwards Air Force Base to see the shuttle moments after it had been up in space gave us a sense of being situated between the past and the future.

In the book, we open with the line, “Ours has never been a conventional love story.” Even before we knew we wanted to be academics or had much sense of career paths, we discovered early on that we both enjoyed research, travel, and writing. Over the years, these interests—the next trip or move, the next question or blog post—have underpinned our relationship. As a writer or as a couple, you never master it once and for all. The next place or the next writing project presents different challenges and different opportunities. In order to stick with it, a person has to get a kick out of the process itself. And each experience reshapes you a bit. Our secret may be that we’ve been willing to reshape ourselves.


JN:  Have the two of you developed any ongoing relationships with any of the astronauts you met on your journey?

Anna and Doug:  The first time we met astronauts together was an unexpected accident that we recount in the book. We mostly talked with astronauts in our role as journalists. We talked with a few astronauts—Charlie Duke and Mike Barratt, for instance—more than once, and we’ve talked with Garrett Reisman informally as well as in our official roles. Over the last several years, we’ve found astronauts to be amazingly engaging, intelligent, quirky folks. In other words, they are just the sort of people we’d like to hang out with. But we run in different circles, and astronauts are relatively rare among us. Only twelve men walked on the Moon, and fewer than 550 people have been to space.


JN:  Doug, have you heard anything in response to the application you sent in to NASA?

Doug:  As I expected, I was not among those applicants brought to Houston for in-person interviews last fall. I knew when I applied that, if I made the final cut, I would have to be the oldest astronaut candidate ever selected. Don’t get me wrong, that would have been amazing.

The new class of astronauts should be announced very soon. I won’t be among them. The average age for an astronaut candidate is thirty-four. I talk about the magic astronaut age and timing in Generation Space. I actively pursued becoming an astronaut early on, then missed the most obvious window. What a different life I’d have lived if I’d been able to clear my ears during a physical when I was eighteen. But I can’t imagine a better mission for my life than the one I’m on right now—and I wouldn’t have met Anna. I’ll be cheering the new group on—on to Mars.


JN:  Do the two of you plan to collaborate on another book?

Anna and Doug:  Long before we started writing Generation Space, we had talked about writing a book about particularly intriguing aircraft. Last fall, we were fellows at the American Library in Paris so we could get back to that project. As we answer these questions, we are getting ready to head back to France for more research in the amazing history of French aviation and for the International Paris Air Show. We’re not sure how this research will pan out—isn’t that why any couple sticks with it? Isn’t love a long-term research project in which we create something that didn’t exist in the world before?

JN:  So true!  We look forward to learning of your new adventures.

***

MORE INFORMATION:

INTERVIEWER BIO
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.







Friday, May 26, 2017

Write Prompts with Me at Politics & Prose Bookstore!

I’ll be teaching a prompt writing class at Politics & Prose Bookstore in June, and I’d love to see you at one of my sessions. Beginners and experts are welcome.

Here are the details:

Right Brain Writing – Time and Eternity

Thursday, June 15, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Location: P&P's Secondary Classroom (5039 Connecticut Avenue, Unit #4)

OR

Tuesday, June 20, 1 to 3:30 p.m.
Location: P&P's Secondary Classroom (5039 Connecticut Avenue, Unit #4)

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!

Book:
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. by J.D. McClatchy
*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.



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.




Work-in-Progress

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