Friday, November 9, 2018

Best Thanksgiving Stuffing EVER!

I really think the headline says it all…if stuffing is the obvious highlight of your Thanksgiving meal, you owe it to yourself to give this recipe a try. Put away the bagged bread cubes, drop that Stove-Top! This is not a hard recipe, and I promise what emerges will be worth your time. In an ideal world, you might have homemade chicken stock, but quality canned will do. This stuffing can be made early and reheated in a microwave. You can stuff it in the turkey or not. Keep it warm all day in a slow cooker. Eat it all by itself all by yourself for dinner (as I have done). In short, it is THE BEST and it has NEVER FAILED TO DELIGHT!

Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from the beloved, still-missed Gourmet magazine, November 1992
(It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but I don’t put in the sausage. See the note below if you’d like to add the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the stuffing:
¾ stick unsalted butter plus an additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.

Make the stuffing:  In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. [In the original recipe, they tell us to “Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey. But the USDA now tells us the stuffing “should be mixed just before stuffing and cooking the turkey.” No one’s getting salmonella on my watch! Again, remember you can warm the stuffing in the microwave if needed.]

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more.

Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Note: Here are the instructions if you want to add the sausage: The recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. Add the sausage at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.

Monday, November 5, 2018

TBR: The Sound of Holding Your Breath by Natalie Sypolt

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe!  

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

My book is a collection of short stories, loosely linked by place; all are set in West Virginia, most in an imagined town called “Warm.” The characters are primarily working-class folks dealing with trying times in their lives and communities. There is a bit of love, vengeance, and murder.

Which story did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

I love when a story just comes to me, whole, as though it’s a gift, so my favorite stories are the ones that seem to just pour out in one setting. “My Brothers and Me” was like that, and it is one of my favorite stories not only for that reason, but because the characters—for better or worse—remind me a lot of my own family and I connect a with that protagonist. As for the second part of this question, I think all stories have their own challenges. The stories that are the “oldest” are probably the ones that gave me the most trouble when putting the collection together because I feel like I was a much younger, much different writer when I first wrote them, so getting everything to work together was a challenge.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I don’t know if I ever would have felt like my collection was good enough or ready to send out. My friend and an excellent writer, Laura Long, told me to send her my draft—which was an incredibly generous offer—and I did. I still can’t quite believe that she was willing to do that for me. She read and told me that I should send it to West Virginia University Press, which had previously published her collection. She essentially told me to quit thinking I wasn’t good enough and that women, especially, do that too much. So, I listened to her advice and sent my collection to Abby Freeland and she was encouraging. I cannot give enough thanks to Laura and other writers in my life who have been so generous with their time and support. I hope someday to be able to do that for someone else.  

One of my biggest challenges on my road to publication was getting permissions for some of the quotes I used in my stories. Luckily, I was able to secure permission to use an excerpt from a CD Wright poem for my epigraph but was quickly rejected by the Thornton Wilder estate when I requested permission to use some lines from Our Town. Apparently they never give permission, and I’ve heard from other writers since—like you, I believe, Leslie*—that they were also denied. Perhaps we should start a support group.

All in all, though, this might have been a blessing in disguise. I had to re-write the section of the story that used the quotes from Our Town and it actually turned out better.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I don’t know that I have a favorite piece of writing advice, other than to just write the truth, whatever that truth might be. I try to do that. I don’t mean I write non-fiction, but that I try to be true to the heart of the place, the people, the issues that I’m writing about. I can’t do more than that.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

So, I don’t know if the writing of the book was as surprising as some of the early reviews have been. One of my first reviews talked about my book as though it was the darkest piece of literature ever to hit the shelves. It was essentially “Violence, violence, everywhere!” It wasn’t a bad review—in fact, it was a good one—but it was surprising to me to see that this is what a reviewer thought my book was about. I thought it was about family, friendship, resilience, perseverance. Sure, there is violence, but that was only part of the story to me. I joked to someone that maybe that reviewer just didn’t get Appalachians. I sent the review to Laura to see what she thought since she’d also already read the book, and she said, “I just don’t think they understand the Appalachian sensibility.” Apparently, I’m a dark little thing and didn’t even know it!

How did you find the title of your book?

The title of my book is the title of one of the stories, “The Sound of Holding Your Breath.” This story isn’t necessarily the “star” of the collection, if there is such a thing, but the idea of people holding their breath, the waiting, the anticipation, the expectation for the other shoe to drop does, I think, represent the feeling I wanted readers to have. I think it also fits well with the really beautiful cover designed by Than Saffel. The cover has shocking, hot pink lettering, layered over a faded landscape (which is also layered under a film of notebook paper). Than said that his concept behind the cover was meant to evoke that feeling you have when the sun comes up after a terrible (or just difficult) event, when everything is just really bright and cheery for everyone but you. I really love that.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? Any recipes I might share?

No, but I wish there were! There are campfires in a couple of the stories, and people roasting things on sticks.



READ AN EXCERPT: the title story, “The Sound of Holding Your Breath”:

*Yes, I could be a member of this support group! The estate did not allow me to quote from "Our Town" in my novel A YEAR AND A DAY. I assumed anyone that rigid wouldn’t hesitate to sue me if I did anyway, so I rewrote and had to hope that most readers would be familiar with the few iconic lines I wanted to include (that I don't dare type out here!).

Monday, October 29, 2018

TBR: Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Korean-born adoptee Lisa’s identity issues are slowly wrecking her life. After an explosive argument with her best friend while they are in Seoul searching for their birth mothers, she takes an impulsive trip with a handsome stranger only to find herself in North Korea. Held captive in a palatial underground compound, Lisa must come to terms with who she is and where she’s going.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

The character I had the most fun with was Lisa’s half-brother Jonny, who is based upon a real historical figure. I wanted to get that balance of satirical and yet informative, and add a psychological glimpse into how a flesh-and-blood human being can become a brutal dictator. He is also an example of the ultimate unanswerability of the nature vs. nurture question that perpetually vexes adoptees: which part of me is embedded in my genetics and which part is due to my upbringing? The character who gave me the most trouble was Lisa herself. She is not me, but in writing her, I had to confront the same pain, alienation and confusion that I experienced growing up as a transracial adoptee.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The highs were writing it, which was cathartic, and its eventual acceptance by Unnamed Press, a fantastic indie press that publishes fierce, bold and highly literate works and who gave Famous Adopted People it’s perfect forever home. The lows were the many rejections I had to endure during the years-long submission process. My agent submitted it to 41 editors, and I myself sent it out about 20 times. (Unnamed Press was a cold submission, so writers take heart that manuscripts can make it out of the slush pile and onto an editor’s desk!) Rejection is caustic to the soul. But I took heart that the manuscript was never rejected because of the quality of the writing or any other fatal literary flaws, but rather because the individual editors just didn’t fall in love with the book. Quite a few claimed that Lisa was unlikable, which I took as editor-speak for the story doesn’t appeal to the soft middle of American culture and so we don’t want to take a chance on it.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Read the hell out of the genre in which you are writing. Read with a critical eye to see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just read for the story, read for all the intricate moving parts that go into making an effective piece of literature.  

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

I was surprised how intimate of a look I was allowing other people into my life. Though Lisa is her own fictional character, many of her experiences growing up as a transracial adoptee are mine. I’m a fairly private person and so it was somewhat shocking to find myself spilling my guts about my own personal pain.

Who is your ideal reader?

Besides adoptees, my ideal reader is a literary fiction buff who is willing to have the conventional view of adoption as a happily-ever-after fairy tale or a touching story of rescue and second chances challenged.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Food plays a big part in my book, which features a Japanese chef who strives to make western food to please his employer. Food also serves as a symbol of gross economic inequality which is so perfectly illustrated by North Korea, where a select few gorge can gorge themselves on luxury foods while the vast majority make do with subsistence fare in between famines. Food is also an important cultural marker, and I enjoyed exploring the different palates of international cuisine, the raw fish of Japan, the dumplings of China, the noodle soups of Korea, the creams and sauces of France, the simple comfort of a tuna fish sandwich. I’m a big lover of noodles, and though I don’t have any recipes to share, I can tell you that the best ramen place in the DC area is Ren’s Ramen in Wheaton, the best Korean fusion is Seoul Food in Takoma Park, and the best sour soup dumplings and liang pi noodles can be found at Northwest Chinese Food in College Park.



Monday, October 22, 2018

TBR: How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

How to Sit is a collection of essays and stories meant to represent a memoir or memory based writing. It is meant to confuse the line between fiction and nonfiction, while examining elements of my life and identity.

Which piece did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which piece gave you the most trouble, and why?

I really enjoyed writing “Thoughts on My DNA Results.” It’s my favorite piece in the collection because it is the one I had the most fun writing. I embraced my speaking voice and syntax completely. I went outside my comfort zone with structure, even including footnotes. I kind of just threw up my hands and decided I was going to go for something I felt was completely new and different. It’s the first time I ever explored speculative essay writing. This is where I am speculating on possible facts based on the information in front of me. For an essay on ancestry from someone whose ancestors were slaves, really the only thing you can do is speculate. And I had a lot of fun thinking about all the different stories my ancestors could’ve been a part of.

“How to Mourn” was the most difficult to write. It is was the most technically difficult because I wanted to play with point of view. Ultimately, it’s a craft essay wrapped up in the story about my grandmother’s death told in first person, but through third person. It’s complicated to say the least, but deceptively not hard to read and that took a lot of work. But, it is also one of my favorites and the essay that received a notable in Best American Essays.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Well…I think the highs and lows for me came in trying to conceptualize what this book would be and look like. Early on, I had this thought that I wanted to a chapbook that was flash creative nonfiction novella. That changed when I wasn’t getting any traction or bites. I was speaking to my friends Donald Quist and LaKiesha Carr and they asked me why I was so married to the idea of a chapbook and if I had enough pieces for a full length collection. They were the ones who encouraged me to go back to the drawing board, put the fiction and the nonfiction together and see what happens. This all coincides with learning about other collections that combine fiction and nonfiction. I had no idea that that could be a thing. After that, I submitted to a few open calls with independent presses because I knew that something genre-less with no defined bookstore shelf would be interesting to agents or big publishers. Luckily, I found Mason Jar.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Actually, something you told me, Leslie*, which was to write the stories that scare you the most. I really took this advice to heart when drafting the pieces in this collection. But, my question for you is, when those stories see the light of day, are we allowed to hide?

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Almost all of these pieces started off as memoir, or an attempt to write about a real life situation that happened to me. What surprised me were those instances where I realized that the way this happened in real life is pretty boring. I was surprised by those moments where I felt I needed to jazz it up and turn it into fiction because you always think that your life is much more interesting than it really is. And maybe at that time, that moment is full of emotion and tension, but later on when you are trying to reenact it on the page, its dull and “so what.” I wasn’t expecting that to happen as often as it did.

How do you approach revision?

I am a slow writer. I have no idea how people churn out think pieces or write so quickly about the news. 800 words can take me a month to write. This is because I edit as I go along. I revise what I’ve written before every time I pick up a piece of writing I’ve started. It is hard for me to do a quick and dirty draft. So, when I revise, my hope is that the piece is as close to what I want it to be as possible. That isn’t always the case. When I need to do a heavy revision, sometimes I start off by rewriting the entire piece. It helps to find holes or problems I did not see before.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

Nope. However, if you want to bring ME some food, I will eat it. I am more of a heater-upper than chef.



READ AN EXCERPT, “How to Sit”:

*Blushing! And always pleased to see former students leap forward so beautifully, sparked by something I have said.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

TBR: Carry Her Home by Caroline Bock

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe!  

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Forty-seven stories—from flash fiction to full-length works, deeply felt, autobiographical fiction—unfold across the decades from the 1960s to present day and reveal a family’s hopes and fears, truths and lies, and love.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Many of the stories are about this real character, Pop. Murray Blech. Veteran of the Korean War. Jew from the Bronx. A guy who marries, after a short tumultuous courtship, Louise Garofalo, an Italian-American from Maspeth, Queens, and whose joy turns quickly to tragedy. Even more so, Pop, in his heart is always running away, but ends up staying, for his children, because that is who is. He’s also a very good dancer. I loved writing Pop, I knew him well. In comparison, for Louise I had to research the contours of her life, walk the streets in Queens and Greenwich Village that I imagined she walked, listen to music from 1960s, practice the mambo, the dance she loves, and I’m a pretty bad dancer. Of course, Murray Blech and Louise Garofalo are my parents, and I am imagining their courtship and what came afterwards.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Many lows and one big high. I first tried to write this book as a linked novel-in-stories. No one wanted to publish it. The agent that represented my young adult novels (Lie and Before My Eyes) didn’t think she could sell it as linked short stories. I thought I could expand on the stories that were set in the 1960s, and that are the heart of this collection, but I couldn’t quite make it to a novel. The highs began when I started writing flash fiction, (fiction 1,000 words and under).  I started expanding outward with the characters, even naming one recurring character, Caroline. Naming the character after myself gave me permission  somehow to go deeper with the stories, to fill it what I didn’t know, or don’t, frankly, want to remember. These shorter stories began to be published in literary magazines. A year and a half ago, I decided as a goal to put the stories set in the 1960s with these flash fiction stories and see if they “hung” together, see if they felt like a whole collection—and they did. I decided to submit the collection myself to small presses. And one day last spring, sprinting to teach a class, I received a call from the wonderful publisher, Kathleen Wheaton. My collection had won The 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House and that as part of the prize they would publish my book.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

“Character is the very heart of fiction,” to paraphrase John Gardner. I always start with a voice in my head and think: who is this person? Why am I thinking about him or her? Why do I want to write about them, and by extension, why should a reader, any reader, care? Of course, if I think too much about this, especially the last question, I don’t write. So my other self-generated advice is: Write. Write more. Don’t think. See what happens with the words. Remember: you love words. Tempestuous, heat-seeking, full-bodied words often save you, and  your characters, from the void, from despair. Write.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

I wrote the stories in Carry Her Home over the last six years, and I was surprised that once I put the stories together that there seemed to be an arc from beginning to end—even the stories that are much less autobiographical, less personal, less drawn from my family, since not all are linked by blood. The whole is more expansive than its parts.

How did you find the title of your book?

Carry Her Home is the title of one of the works—a story told from Murray’s point of view about his wife, felled by tragedy, and how he wants, desperately, to carry her home from the state psychiatric hospital. I had to go inside another’s head and heart in this story. I broke apart writing this story. But it wasn’t the first title for the collection. It wasn’t the title I submitted the collection under—I went with a more neutral title: String Theory, the title of another story in the collection that the publisher didn’t think was the most resonant piece in the book, and she was right. When I suggested Carry Her Home, I knew it was the better, braver choice. I wish that I had named the collection that from the start.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

I’m half Italian (Sicilian) and half Jewish, how could there not be food? There are several stories in the collection in which Sunday dinner, appetizing and noshes are central. There is also a story about cake pans entitled, “Bundt Cake Pans.” So, here is the original recipe from my husband’s Grandma Ray for the most delicious Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake, which can made in a Bundt cake pan. I have added in parentheses a few notes from the times I have made this recipe. (Scroll to bottom for the recipe.)



NOTE: Caroline will be reading at Politics & Prose (main store 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington DC) on Sunday, October 21 from 1-2 pm. All are welcome!

Grandma’s Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake

¼ lb butter or margarine (unsalted)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (not fat free)
6 oz. chocolate chips

Cream together butter, sugar.
Add eggs and vanilla.
Sift together all dry ingredients.
Alternate sifted flour and sour cream into butter mixture.
Stir in chips.

Pour into greased round tube or spring form pan. Can use Bundt cake pan.

Mix topping ingredients then sprinkle topping over batter:
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)                      

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a tester comes out dry. Cool. (Enjoy!).

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TBR: Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe! 

We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

I have been writing about my travels to China for some time, but it has taken me years to actually become comfortable with widely publishing such material as the opportunity to travel to China has always been bittersweet for me. The two times I have traveled there, I have been hosted by the Chinese Writers Association, and they were very kind to me. At the same time, it isn’t a secret that there are a slew of native Chinese writers—those openly dissident and those not—that the Communist Party silences and jails. So if I am writing honestly about China and my time there, I cannot be writing only about the wonders, of which there are many. But what happens then when those people who have been kind to me read work of mine which is part critical of their country? (The other option, which I had been defaulting to, was to write nothing.) So that, as well as being bold enough to include straight nonfiction in the book, was the challenge for ANAGNORISIS.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

No low points writing this book. I will say that significant aspects of it were inspired by my disappointment over the reception of my last book, but aside from processing that frustration into poems, it was wonderful getting to work with a blk woman editor, Parneshia Jones, for the first time (a rare opportunity for anyone still, sadly).

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

The only writing advice I offer universally is that everything you write—any draft, any revision, any book—is only an attempt.  (I actually articulated this in a tweet recently that went shockingly viral—someone quoted it back to me at a reading.) And what I am suggesting is that there is no need to be particularly hung up on attempting something in your writing because the best thing you ever write and the worst are both only just attempts at articulating a vision—a try. And tries are plentiful for writers.

What was your experience ordering these poems?

There is a strong hand at play in all my books’ structures, but with ANAGNORISIS in particular I wanted to curate a very specific experience. The movement away from, or out of, the State and psychic violence of early 2010s America to China (with the nonfiction passage serving as a bridge) and then back, bearing new perspective, is the same geographical and emotional journey I endured writing the book. One Amazon reviewer—bless them—wrote “[t]he beginning sequence of poems was compelling in its language and flow of raw, yet lyrically refined frustration and rage […]. The energy of the first half seemed to fade and I was left, however guiltily, to grind my way to the end.” That is exactly the point, though. I was not trying to, nor do I believe I have to, sustain a rage for the entirety of a book. At some point, that would become more performative than a true reflection of my honest processing. So the fish tastes like fish—its strong notes and subtlety. Sorry.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

So speaking of food, while I cannot cook a lot of it, the thing we ate the most in China was actually Corean (Korean) food—barbeque & bibimbap. (There is actually a poem about dining at a North Corean restaurant in the book.) Done well (and I know the difference now), or at least done with an attention to tradition, I can’t recommend it enough.

Japchae is a great Corean dish that is easy to make at home. With the nod to tradition earlier, I would recommend this preparation video by food blogger Angela Minji Kim:



Friday, October 5, 2018

Fall Classes!

Maybe I’ll see you at one of my two fall single-session classes??

Saturday, October 13
10:30 ~ 12:00 noon
Fall for the Book Festival
George Mason University

Have you always wanted to write but couldn’t quite find the courage to pick up a pencil? Or perhaps you’re a secret writer, scribbling stories in private notebooks, compulsively filling the pages of your journal? This supportive, hands-on workshop with Leslie Pietrzyk will give you courage to write and direction about how to proceed. Through discussion and writing exercises, participants will learn some basic techniques of fiction/memoir writing. The goal is to leave with a couple of promising pieces to finish at home. Bring a pen and lots of paper or your (charged) laptop!

Note: This class is appropriate for beginning and intermediate writers.

This is a ticketed event. Tickets are $40 and may be purchased from:


Monday, October 15, 2018
6:30 ~ 9 PM
Politics & Prose Bookstore
$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 the variety of items we own or have owned along the path of our lives. Can we love a “thing”? What happiness (or sadness) might “things” bring? 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.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Nest of Writers

By Clay Snellgrove

On our way to a New Year’s party at the close of 2016, my wife Erin and I discussed our plans and goals for the year ahead. I wanted to put more time into my writing, treat it more like a passion and less like a hobby. After years of wanting to put a local writing group together, 2017 would be the year I found a couple other people to make it happen. I had my buddy Lou committed, but I needed at least two more.

Erin reminded me about two new friends she’d met during her year in Junior League.

“They will be at this party. Jessica published a book and gets paid to do freelance. And Kristin had a funny blog post I read. She put on Facebook she wants to write more.”

Erin pointed Jessica out, and I rushed over. To my delight, she was a quick, “Yes.” My writing group had three. Just one more, and I’d nail my New Year’s resolution two hours before the ball even dropped.

I had to hunt for Kristin. I cornered her and made the pitch. She tried to pass but eventually agreed. I’m guessing she just wanted to get rid of me and enjoy the night, planning to say, “no” later. When I sent the first email to set the date of our first meeting, Kristin balked, politely backing out. I stayed on her, and begged Jessica to talk her into coming.

A few weeks later we met for the first time.

Lou and I arrived, having emailed everybody 10 pages of novels we were starting that reflected the competent teaching our respective graduate programs in creative writing provided us. Jessica, the only professional writer in the group, sent out a clean, easy to read start to a memoir.  Kristin’s submission came in a little short, five pages and some change, with a note, “I’m definitely afraid of this process. Be gentle. It’s been a long while since I’ve written and even longer since I’ve written anything of real length.”

I liked Lou, and while I didn’t know Jessica well when we started the writing group, I’d soon call her a good friend. Reading their submissions was fun and interesting. They possessed solid fundamentals of the craft, and reading their work was like sitting down to have a drink with them, which in both cases is an evening well spent.

When I opened Kristin’s five pages, her stab at a memoir, the experience was different. From the first sentence on, I read Kristin’s work with a clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. Each paragraph reached up and grabbed me by the throat, daring me to laugh or cry. Pretense and refinement be damned. Kristin had game. The submission would have drawn the ire of an editor or English teacher; it was a bit messy. But what a mess it was!

Over the next few months I was greeted by ten new pages from Lou and Jessica every two weeks. Kristin would send five, maybe six, and she even missed sending anything for one group meeting, showing up empty-handed, but still willing to give her thoughts on our work. We begged her for more pages, tried our best to motivate her. I would have said I was trying to hold her accountable, but really, I was hooked. I just wanted more of her story.

Kristin’s voice was savage. A few famous writers including Thomas Wolfe and Lee Child have said good writing comes from the scribe opening a vein and bleeding onto the page. Kristin’s pages dripped crimson from top to bottom. Each new chapter she sent required a large chunk of emotional energy to read, the affecting images and keen insights sticking in my mind and gut for days after.

As summer approached, busy schedules and family commitments made meeting difficult and producing the pages to share stressful. Our bi-weekly meetings fizzled, but my new nest of writers had given me some much needed critique and inspiration with regards to my novel, and I plodded away without their input and finished my first draft. Lou finished, edited, and published his novel, while Jessica scrapped her project, kept freelancing, and went back to the drawing board on a new passion piece.

As for Kristin, I would have said she was burned out had she not always been so funny and full of life.

Our writing group met for drinks one evening. It was the first time we’d gotten together without bringing our work to critique. We toasted as friends and fell into conversation. Before we split up that night I had to ask Kristin if she were continuing to write on her memoir. Lou and Jessica perched closer, eager to hear if more pages might be available. We were all jonesing for a fix.

“I’m too happy right now,” she said. “Writing about that shit just brings me down.”

Her eyes danced. I could tell there would be no more pages. I felt the same touching sadness right then that I experienced watching the finale of Lost. But at the same time, I wanted to cut my eyes at her with a sneer of annoyance, the same look I gave the TV when Journey started to sing and the final episode of The Sopranos went black. Like those TV shows, Kristin’s fifty pages had scored with me. They were cool and affecting and left their mark. Like all great art, her story, the way she crafted it, wore away the calloused skin over my senses, making me feel more human.

A year later a new installment of Kristin’s writing would rattle me. The Facebook post informed me and her wide circle of friends that a rare form of cancer was ravaging her body. Every few weeks she brought her honesty to our newsfeeds and laid it down. Kristin’s updates were grave, but she still had the gift. The writing was raw and gutted me but had me laughing at times through the tears welling up behind my eyes.

There was a moment when I thought about all the pages Kristin will never write; her condition hasn’t improved. But the thought was fleeting. I’m a writer in good health, and everyday stories flash through my mind that I will never write. My focus returned to what I knew she had written, those fifty pages to which only three of us were privy. Great art, masterfully written stories, are worth the effort whether they are read by three people, 3,000, or 3 million.

I’ve written my stories for going on two decades. I spent two years on a novel that I could not find anyone to publish. Only my family read it. Erin told me what she liked and what she loved about that novel one day as we hiked a mountain trail. And that might be the greatest highlight of my writing life.

When Kristin ignored her fear and discomfort to write for our little nest of writers, the result was something awesome and truly unforgettable. On those days when she holds her “dick of a disease” at bay long enough to open herself up to her friends to share her current story online, I am reminded of the power of the written word, and I’m determined to continue writing. Thinking about Kristin, which I often do, I start thinking that everyone should put every ounce of who they are into at least one sentence or one paragraph, into a letter or a story. Then share it with another.

Clay Snellgrove owns and operates Bases Loaded Baseball and Softball school in Middle Tennessee. He earned an MFA from Converse College and is the author of the novel The Ball Player.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

TBR: Sonja Condit, The Banshee of Machrae: One Death in Seven Stories

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and, from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

MURDER and FIRE and REGRET. Okay, you wanted sentences: Emmy Fane has a boyfriend and a best friend, Kalen and Jessa Machrae; she loves them both and will do anything for either one of them. After Kalen has a car accident that leaves him severely brain-damaged but alive, Jessa intends to kill him because she can’t stand to see him this way, and Emmy has to decide: is she going to help Jessa or stop her?

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Lilly Machrae is both. I knew that the bridge where Kalen had the accident was going to have a local legend, but at first, I thought that was all. There was just going to be a story, and Emmy would offload some of her guilt onto the story. If the bridge was haunted, it’s not really her fault that she was on the phone with Kalen when he crashed. The ghost did it. As the book got longer, Emmy identified with Lilly more and more, and began to tell some stories from Lilly’s point of view, so I had to let Lilly be a real person. The hard part was that her story had the potential to become a complete cliché: mill girl seduced and abandoned by the owner’s son. Nobody wants that. When she started calling up demons, she moved into another area of potential cliché, which is why that part of the story is told by her brother, who doesn’t really understand what he’s seeing and doesn’t even know the word ‘coven.’

The black honey from laurel flowers is a real thing, by the way, although in real life it’s red, not black. It’s actually sold as a recreational drug in parts of Turkey.  

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

It’s a strange book. It isn’t really a straight-through novel—there’s an opening novella and then it splits up into clusters of stories in multiple possible timelines and alternate realities. The first part, Flashover, was published in a small magazine and nominated for a Pushcart, so that was great. But I didn’t even try the traditional publishing route. It seemed obvious to me that this book needed a small publisher who would understand and appreciate it. I sent it directly to a few, and I also went the competition route and sent it to both short-story collection contests and novel contests (since it’s both). With a competition, at least you know someone’s reading; it doesn’t go straight into the no-thank-you file. It came in second at SFK Press’s novel competition, and Steve McCondichie, the publisher, liked it so much he decided to publish it. SFK has been great. The editor, Eleanor Burden, asked me some hard questions about the morality of the central question of euthanasia, and whose life is worth living, and who gets to decide that, which made me go deeper into Emmy and Jessa’s motivations and greatly improved the book. 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I think that quality comes from quantity. Put words on the page. Lots and lots of words. Sooner or later, some of them will work. That’s a favorite, and another one is, don’t save anything. Don’t hold anything back for later. If you think of a great idea for a throwaway moment, use it now! If you think of a wonderful name for an insignificant character who will walk through a book and be gone in two pages, use it and let it go. Pour it all out. Only an empty cup can be filled.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Going into the book, I did not at all intend to write the historical parts. (Actually, I didn’t expect anything; I just wrote the stories as they occurred to me.) Suddenly this modern South Carolina story had pieces beginning in China in 1897. That surprised me. I didn’t know I needed to go that far back. Also, I don’t know anything about early 20th century China, and I also didn’t research it, because the story is third-hand: Emmy tells the story as she remembers being told it as a child by Eldred Machrae, who told it as he remembered it from his mother, who was certainly lying about some things. Consequently, the historical reality doesn’t matter all that much. If I had researched it and made it more truthful, it would have been less authentic to the way family stories are passed along.

How did you find the title of your book?

The title was hard. For a long time, I just called it that book thing. I knew the title of the first part, Flashover, and I thought maybe that was the title of the whole book, but it didn’t seem to fit. Strangely, even as the whole book was nameless, the titles for the stories and sections were easy, and I kept taking chapter titles and trying to use them for the whole book. Roadside Cross was my second choice, but then I would have had to find a different title for that story. The Banshee of Machrae was the title of a story that I ended up cutting, so then I had an orphaned title, and it seemed to fit. Also, who is the banshee—is it Lilly or Emmy? I don’t know. It could be either.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? Any recipes to share?

There’s surprisingly little food. I’m sorry! You can buy mad honey, but you probably shouldn’t, since it’s, you know, literal poison. As the Machraes are a Chinese-Irish-American family, any combination of Chinese-American food and Irish food would be great! There’s also a scene with lemon bars which almost but not quite turns into murder. This is my favorite lemon bar recipe. Whatever you do, don’t look at the calorie count per serving. Some things are better left unknown.

BUY SONJA’S BOOKS (and her stepmother’s, who has the same name!) FOR YOUR TBR PILE:



Monday, September 10, 2018

TBR: Sherrie Flick, Thank Your Lucky Stars

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Thank Your Lucky Stars is a collection of 50 flash fiction and longer stories that lean a little dark and weird.

Which story did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

I loved writing so many of these stories, but the one I’m most proud of these days is “Dance,” which was also in the awesome anthology Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Booze and Butter. I’ve always wanted to write a story with a roving third person close point of view. Richard Yates does this in Revolutionary Road and Toni Morrison does it in Sula and it always seemed like unreachable literary magic. When I set out to write the story for the anthology (it was assigned to me by Sam Ligon with a ridiculously tight deadline), I finally realized that I understood enough about point of view to give it a go. That’s when Viv and Matty showed up on the page along with a taxidermied deer head. One of the requirements of the story for the anthology was that it had to have either pie or whiskey in it. I was happy to comply and include both.

The story that gave me the most trouble is not in the collection. Seriously, it was almost in the collection. I’d been working on it for almost 20 years and still I had to take it out because it just wasn’t working. But the one that was equally troublesome and also took me 20 years to finish is the long story “Open and Shut.” There’s a kind of continuous present in the story that always kept me coming back to it, but I just couldn’t get the characters to be likeable enough. I feel pretty good about that story now though.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The manuscript for this story collection resides in a folder on my laptop that is labeled “2012 Story Collection.” That’s when I first pulled together what I thought would be one story collection from all the stories I’d written and published over the years. As I put together the collection it became clear to me that some stories just didn’t fit. They had a different, darker, and weirder tone. Plus, I had way too many pages for one manuscript. So I slowly put together what would become my debut story collection Whiskey, Etc. The outtakes went into a second Word document and I soon realized that they worked together in a different way and they became Thank Your Lucky Stars (It wasn’t titled that then though. I think the title then was Fucking Beautiful, a great but not really practical title). I sent both manuscripts to an editor who had requested them at a university press and they sat with her for two years. Two years. Yep. I queried every 6 weeks. Yep. 

Eventually both manuscripts were declined. That’s when I made a big list of small presses that had an interest in/history with publishing flash fiction. I asked around, got some recommendations, and started sending just Whiskey, Etc. out to contests and presses—at least 15 places, maybe more. I’m not sure why I didn’t send the TYLS manuscript out but it might have had something to do with it not really having a good title and also that the really bad story was still in there and I didn’t feel as confident with it, even though the editor who held both collections for two years said it was the stronger manuscript. Whiskey, Etc. was accepted and published by Queen’s Ferry Press, which then kind of imploded a year later. In the mean time, I’d revised and sent an as yet not correctly titled manuscript to a bunch of contests and publishers. Christine Stroud at Autumn House Press liked it and agreed to publish it. In the meantime, Autumn House also agreed to pick up Whiskey, Etc. So now both books are published by Autumn House, which is nice and tidy. The two books are the same size and make a sweet matching set for your bookshelf.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It came from Tim O’Brien and it’s very simple but it has helped me tremendously in revision. He said, “Don’t forget to look around.” And he meant look around in your head and in your scene when you’re writing. Don’t get too myopic. What does your character see, really see?

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How many pieces of flash fiction you need to write and revise in order to have a book-length collection. Between the two collections there are 107 stories. Most of those have been published. Typing that just made me very tired.

But that’s probably not what you meant. I love when characters take off and just say stuff that I personally would never say or do. I love when they kind of get away from me and out of my head and I just follow behind. That happened to great extent with the story “Monkey Head.” It was a much different story even from when it was originally published in Thumbnail. When I revisited it in the collection I realized Katey Lynn was more messed up and more complex than I’d made her previously and it was really exciting to dig back into that story.

How did you find the title of your book?

This manuscript had many titles along the way. So many I don’t think I can remember them all. One was Fucking Beautiful, which I mentioned above, another was Mind Body Heart Lungs, which is the title of the story that I ended up pulling from the manuscript entirely. I still love that title and maybe someday 20 years from now I will finally finish that story. Another was Open and Shut, which is another story title but also very boring. How I Left Ned and Other Stories was another option, again a story title and this was a contender down to the finish line. For a while I had Thank My Lucky Stars as another title option and I liked it but it never seemed quite right. 

And then my friend the amazing writer Chuck Kinder read the manuscript. Chuck is the best titler in the world. He actually suggested quite a few title changes for stories within the manuscript while he was going through it (suggestions that I took), but my main challenge to him was to help me find a title for the whole thing. He suggested Thank Your Lucky Stars and that shift from “My” to “Your” just made it click. It makes a connection to the reader and it looks better typed out.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes you might share?)

Oh yes. I’m a big baker and cook and I also teach in the Food Studies program at Chatham University so I’m around food ideas and theories on a regular basis. There is a lot of corn in the first story “How I Left Ned.” The corn itself kind of becomes a character there. And there’s a lame microwaved baked potato in that one, too. In “Dance” Matty spends his days baking so we see him make a pear pie as well as raspberry, walnut mascarpone hand pies. There’s fried chicken and espresso, diner coffee and those rotating displays you find in diners with a selection of pie. There’s a dinner party with wine, garlic mashed potatoes, and steak. There are Pittsburgh women pinching pierogis and birds pecking at crumbs. There are gardens and a kind of film noir/American musical mash up of chopping onions for dinner. Thai takeout, Grapenuts, bakeries, coffee shops, cafes, tea, whiskey, Scotch, and beer.

As far as a recipe goes: The hand pie recipe is in the Pie & Whiskey anthology if anyone would like to check that out. My pear pie recipe is as follows below (scroll to the page jump).




Click for recipe: “Matty’s Pear Pie”


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