Monday, December 17, 2018

Favorite Books (I Read) of 2018

As usual, this list is taken from the books I’ve read during 2018. Who cares what year a good book was published, really? I believe in buying lots of books and then letting them rise to the surface at the right time. I also believe in keeping this list to 10ish, so I’ve forced myself to be ruthless. What are the books I urged onto other people? The books that haunt me months later?

One difficulty with my list is that I try to keep it free of books written by my friends, which feels more honest to me, but I am lucky to have SO MANY accomplished and prolific writer friends! Also, in this age of social media, is someone I know from Facebook a “friend” or a friend? What if I met someone once at an event…are they my friend/“friend” and therefore excluded from my list? My imperfect solution is to keep a separate, unranked list of books I loved that I read this year that were written by my friends (below) and hope no one hates me. Also, I did let one book blur the “friend”/friend line to sneak onto the first list.

Presented in random order:

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson: I read this in a single morning and ached all day for these young girls. 

The Power, Naomi Alderman: Smart, dark, well-constructed…and a book you’ll want to discuss immediately with someone as you turn that last page. If you have a book club, this one should be required reading!

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones: This author is a dazzling reader/presenter of her work, so catch her if you can; this book is utterly absorbing, about a newlywed African-American man accused of a crime he didn’t commit and what happens to a fledgling marriage.

You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld: What delightfully dark and modern humor. Each story felt complete yet I longed to read more, more, more. Spin each of these stories off into a novel, please.

Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond: This non-fiction book made me queasy because the author totally—with verve and vigor—nailed each and every awful thing about the football industrial complex…yet I still find myself shouting, “Get him!” at my TV screen on Sunday afternoons this autumn. Thought-provoking in the best way.

Eleven Kind of Loneliness, Richard Yates: A reread of this classic story collection. I wrote in my book journal, “Like stepping into an Edward Hopper painting,” and I’m pretty sure saying more than that won't create a clearer picture of these bleak and human stories.

The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai: About the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 80s and a totally immersive book that will break your heart even as you can’t stop turning the pages. There’s a modern storyline interwoven, ensuring that we feel the ripple effects of this tragic epidemic.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn: Creepy, complicated characters doing creepy, complicated things. I found the TV show to be addictive, but the book topped the show. Really, I suggest checking out both.

Calypso, David Sedaris: Deep and hard exploration of family and loss. Yes, he’s funny, of course. But he’s so much more, and that final revelation will mule-kick you in the gut. I’d read many of these pieces previously in The New Yorker but encountering them arranged with an arc in mind gave new resonance. Also, I didn't think much about the title until I did, doing some minor research, and there's more and deep resonance with this choice.

Educated, Tara Westover: A memoir about a girl who grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, so beyond convention that the youngest kids never went to school. Yet the author manages to extricate herself from this insular world. Harrowing and relentless and brutal in its honesty: yet the author never neglects to treat even the villainous people with compassion and humanity. Extraordinary. If I had to select one book that was my favorite of the year, right this minute it would be this one. (Runners-up are The Great Believers and An American Marriage.)

The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani: I loved how the author of this novel captured the nuances of the uncomfortable relationship the domestic “employer” has with the domestic “employed,” the trickiness of outsourcing family labor traditionally done by women. There’s a dramatic and horrible opening…yet in my mind that almost isn’t even the point of this chilly and chilling book.

Descent, Tim Johnston: Depending on the kind of reader you are, you’ll pick this up for the literary cred and stay for the suspense, or vice versa. In any event, this book delivers both, multiplied by 1000, as a family deals with the abrupt disappearance of teenage daughter/sister. I defy you to close this book once you reach the last third! (This is the “friend” book that I fudged into this section because, well, just because I’m in charge here! And because I was reading it on an airplane and was GRATEFUL the plane had to circle for 20 extra minutes so I could finish reading it!)


How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman: A hybrid mix of fact and fiction, these stories and essays left me breathless, and not just because the author was in one of my fiction workshops at Johns Hopkins, but because the writing is that assured. (A debut!)

Second Shift, essays, Susan Tekulve: Travel and food explored with a nuanced, observant eye, evoked in exquisite language.

Monsoon Mansion, Cinelle Barnes: A ravishingly assured debut memoir by one of our Converse MFA grads who grew up in dire circumstances in the Philippines and who found a way to survive to tell the tale, elegantly. (A debut!)

Sad Math, poems, Sarah Freligh: The type of poetry I love most of all, accessible yet resounding with heartfelt depth, like the continued quiver of a tuning fork.

The Second O of Sorrow, poems, Sean Thomas Dougherty: The Rust Belt gets so much clear-eyed, deeply honest love here that it’s impossible not to see beauty, not to feel an endless ache.

The Promise of Failure, John McNally: A smart and honest memoir/craft book about the author’s (and our) ongoing struggles with the writing life and how failure fits into that life (and any life, really).

The Incurables, Mark Brazaitis: Tough linked short stories about tough people trained to be stoic; the title story is especially incredible.

Crumb-Sized, poems, Marlena Chertock: Don’t let the science motif intimidate you; these poems are personal, revealing, and stunning. And a gold star for the lovely book design!

This Could Hurt, Jillian Medoff: I think the workplace is under-represented in literary fiction, especially when I see the riches available when one of the primary characters is a sharp-eyed female corporate boss lost in New York City’s rat race.

The Accidental Bride, Janice Harayda: When you want a totally light-hearted, amusing & charming but also SMART book about wedding woes!

First Comes Love, Marian Winik: A harrowing & deeply honest memoir about being in love with the wrong person who is also exactly the right person.

Carry Her Home, Caroline Bock: Linked stories about grief and family and a New York of the past. (I first met the author in one of my classes at Politics & Prose!) 

The Balcony, Jane Delury: France, the French, and lots of food! For some that might be all you need to hear! For the rest, this novel-in-stories is an elegant evocation of a house in France and its complex history. (A debut!)

Monday, December 10, 2018

TBR: We Can Save Us All by Adam Nemett

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?

Welcome to The Egg, an off-campus geodesic dome where David Fuffman and his crew of alienated Princeton students train for what might be the end of days: America is in a perpetual state of war, climate disasters create a global state of emergency, and scientists believe time itself may be collapsing. Funded by the charismatic Mathias Blue and fueled by performance enhancers and psychedelic drugs, a student revolution incubates at The Egg, inspired by the superheroes that dominate American culture. As the final superstorm arrives, the students toe the line between good and evil, deliverance and demagogues, the damned and the saved. 

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

I really enjoyed writing Haley Roth, the female protagonist of the book, probably because she was the most challenging to write. She’s both the moral center of the book and yet she operates in a moral gray area, but ultimately she’s the heart of the story and maybe the one true superhero. She’s funny and complicated and resilient and an all-around badass. I credit my editor, Olivia Taylor Smith, for encouraging me to add a substantial number of pages—mostly from Haley’s POV—fairly late in the editing process. I think this freedom to write and push for a longer book not only made Haley’s character more compelling, but really brought the whole story together in an important way.

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

The book took 12 years—nearly 13 by the time of this writing—to reach publication, so there was a large quantity of both highs and lows. I wrote a piece of flash fiction in late 2005 that got published in an anthology called The Apocalypse Reader. This first taste of publication was a huge high that gave me the confidence to turn the short story into a novel. I wrote most of the first draft during my MFA program at California College of the Arts (my MFA experience was another highlight) and finished it at a Vermont Studio Center residency in 2008. I spent a few years revising and tightening it up, and then began looking for an agent in 2011. It took a long time to find representation, and this was a low…but also an important part of the process. Each time I got a rejection, it usually came with thoughtful feedback on how to revise, plus an offer to resubmit. So I’d spend months or sometimes years making these revisions—typically major revisions of the story structure and how we move through time in linear vs. nonlinear ways. Eventually after losing track of each other four years earlier, I got signed by Noah Ballard at Curtis Brown in early 2017. He and I did one more big revision and then he sold the book to The Unnamed Press in late 2017, at which point I did another pretty substantial revision with Olivia. Working with Unnamed has been a massive high—the kind of personal attention and support that’s come with an independent press, their appetite for “challenging” material that doesn’t fit neatly into a particular mold, and they’ve generated a lot of publicity and brought the book out to a wider readership than I ever imagined. It took a while, but I feel extremely lucky to have landed with my agent and my publisher.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’m not sure who said this originally (I should probably find out) my one of my CCA mentors, Tom Barbash, relayed a piece of advice: a great day of writing is one where you get your character from the kitchen to the living room. That’s it. For me, writing is very incremental, just consistent/persistent effort to get a few more pages and then do the same thing again the next day and the next and then go back and fix that and push a little further. That piece of advice helped me realize the discipline necessary to work as a writer. Joyce Carol Oates (my undergraduate thesis advisor) also once told me, “You might be just masochistic enough to be a real writer,” so I think that stuck with me and plays into how I perceive the writing process, for better or worse.

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

That it actually got finished and published. And that real other human beings are now reading it and enjoying it! It’s what I’d always dreamed about, but still!

How do you approach revision?

I approach revision as a natural part of the writing process, one and the same. I’m producing new paragraphs and pages, and I’m getting rid of old ones that don’t sound as good this week as they did two weeks ago. I think time plays an important role—what feels great the night it’s written may not work so well two weeks later, and for me it’s important to allow for that fermentation period to see if something ends up being right. But I also love the revision process—some writers dread it—so I don’t mind reworking things for months and years, because I’m constantly learning new things throughout this process—about the story and about myself and what I actually believe.

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

The main food from my novel that jumped to mind is a Batman sheetcake, and that probably won’t work for these purposes. So I’ll mention a traditional survival superfood that shows up in the book: pemmican. You can read about pemmican online, but it’s kind of the OG energy bar, and can be consumed for years or decades if stored properly. It’s based on dried meat, a bit like jerky, except it also contains fat and typically some kind of dried fruit or nuts, so it’s a more complete food source that survivalists claim to be able to live on for weeks. Recipes online vary, and I’m no expert, so Google around a bit. But here’s the basic idea and two recipes I stole, one with lean meat and one with already-dried meat, both from 




Recipe # 1
  • 4 cups lean meat (deer, beef, caribou or moose)
  • 3 cups dried fruit
  • 2 cups rendered fat
  • Unsalted nuts and about 1 shot of honey

Meat should be as lean as possible and double ground from your butcher if you do not have you own meat grinder. Spread it out very thin on a cookie sheet and dry at 180 degrees F for at least 8 hours or until sinewy and crispy. Pound the meat into a nearly powder consistency using a blender or other tool. Grind the dried fruit, but leave a little bit lumpy for fun texture. Heat rendered fat on stove at medium until liquid. Add liquid fat to dried meat and dried fruit, and mix in nuts and honey. Mix everything by hand. Let cool and store. Can keep and be consumed for several years.


Recipe # 2
  • 2 lbs dried beef (see recipe 1 for drying instructions)
  • 1.5 cup raisins
  • Beef suet

Grind meat to fine pulp in a blender. Now add in the raisins. Chop this mix enough to break up the raisins and mix in well. Melt the suet to a liquid and pour into the mixture, using just enough to hold the meat and raisins together. Now allow this to cool slightly. Put this into a pan and let it cool completely. Next, cut the pemmican into strips, then divide it into bars of about 4” long by 1” wide. Bag these separately and you can store them for several months.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

New Piece of Flash Up on Cleaver Magazine!

I drafted this in my prompt writing group, when the words we wrote to were, first, “winter” and then 15 minutes later, “distance.”

Here’s the opening:

Like you’re supposed to hate winter, with its cold and mountains of snow and how slip-walking on ice is a bitch and all that shit. Honestly, I love it. Honestly, I’d move to Alaska or the Arctic Circle or the South Pole if anyone would let me. In another life, I’d beg to be a penguin. Or a polar bear, except they’re going extinct. Jase is staring at me like he always does when I’m not talking, like I’m supposed to entertain him with “scintillating” chatter 24/7, and whenever I’m not doing that I’m only a girl who’s failing in some deep and significant way.

Only about 800 more words to go, so you might as well read the rest, here.

Monday, December 3, 2018

TBR: Suitcase Charlie by John Guzlowski

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?

One day in 1956, a suitcase with a chopped-up, blood-drained little boy is found on a street corner in Chicago.  Then another is found on another street, and then a third and a fourth and on and on.  Two Chicago Police Department detectives – guys with their own personal traumas – are assigned to solve these crimes. 

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

The characters I enjoyed the most are the two cops: Hank Purcell and Marvin Bondarowicz.  I loved reading gritty, noir detective novels like Mickey Spillane when I was a kid and James Ellroy’s take on that genre when I was in my 30s and 40s, and I tried to pack as much of that into the novel as I could with a twist.  It’s no longer 1960 or 1980, so I tried to give a 21st century spin to 50s noir.  My main cop is Hank Purcell who is not only hard-boiled to the max, he’s also a loving father, a terrific husband, and a WWII vet walking around with all those PTSD memories.  There’s an emotionality and a gloom to him that mixes nicely, I think, with the noir world he inhabits.  I also like Marvin.  He’s ultimate noir.  Although Jewish, he doesn’t respect Jewish people or anybody else he runs across whether they’re black, white, Puerto Rican, straight or gay.  Mixed with this meanness of his is a tendency to be very, very funny.  The recent Kirkus review of the book highlighted this aspect. 

The most trouble?  The villain.  The guy who butchers these kids.  The book is loosely based on a series of actual murders that occurred in Chicago in 1956 and 1957.  I was around 9 when these took place, and they taught me that the world was a place to fear.  Writing about the villain brought back a lot of those memories of when I was a kid and I would be sitting on a stoop in my old neighborhood with my pals and we would start talking about Suitcase Charlie.

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

The low?  The book was accepted by a small publisher who at first did a great job of promoting the book.  Sales were good, reviews were good, amazon reviews were good.  Then I gave the publisher the second Hank and Marvin mystery, Little School Boys.  The publisher was having trouble at that point with sales and eliminated promotion.  I didn’t know this when I signed the contract.  There was no promotion of any kind.  I shouldn’t tell you this but the novel sold about a dozen copies.  There were no reviews. Nothing.

When I complained, the publisher said, if you don’t like it buy yourself out of the contract for the two novels.  I did. 

The happy ending to this is that I almost immediately found another publisher, Kasva Press.  The press is very hands on, very committed to making the republishing of Suitcase Charlie a great experience for me and my readers.  Kasva has also committed itself to the publicaiton for the next two Hank and Marvin mysteries:  Little Altar Boys and Murder Town.  And they’ve also agreed to publish my novel about two German lovers in WWII, Road of Bones.  I had this novel with another small publisher also.  The publisher kept putting the novel off from one year to another.  Originally it was supposed to appear in 2012.  And it never got published although I was under contract.  Ugh.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’ve got two pieces of advice:
  1. Always be writing.
  2. You don’t need any stinking writing advice.

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

For me the novel was a fantastic time machine.  Suitcase Charlie is mainly set in the neighborhood I grew up in in Chicago, the Humboldt Park area where I lived from 1954 to 1975.  Writing the novel allowed me to go back in time and visit people I knew and loved as a kid and places that meant so much to me, the park, the schools, the street corners where I played. 

How did you find the title of your book?

That was the easy part.  That’s what we called the serial killer who was killing kids in Chicago and dumping their bodies in the parks when I was a kid.  We pictured him walking with a suitcase down the street at night and just dropping it here or there.  A lot of times, we’d be sitting on a stoop at night talking or joking or singing, and one of the boys or girls would look down the street and see somebody carrying a bag or a suitcase, and say Suitcase Charlie, and we would know fear.

By the way, the guy who did a number of these murders was finally captured but it wasn’t until the early 1990s.

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

There is a discussion of czarnina, a traditional Polish duck’s blood soup in one of the early chapters.  A suspect has some in his refrigerator, and it makes him look really really suspicious to my two cops.  I would give you the recipe, but the soup is just too disgusting.  It requires about 4 cups of duck’s blood. 



Sunday, November 25, 2018

TBR: Virginia Pye, The Shelf Life of Happiness

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 characters long for that most elusive of states: happiness. One reviewer called these stories bittersweet, and I agree they combine heartbreak and joy in equal measure. A young skateboarder reaches across an awesome gap, both physical and emotional, to reconnect with his disapproving father. An elderly painter executes one final, violent gesture to memorialize his work. A newly married writer battles the urge to implode his happy marriage. And a confused young man desires his best friend’s bride and, in failing to have her, finally learns to love. In each story, my characters aim to be better people—and some even reap the sweet reward of happiness. 

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

I most enjoyed writing the old artist character, William Dunster, in the story White Dog, because he’s cantankerous and befuddled and more than a little bit drunk, yet also wise. He observes the other characters and the manicured setting in the Connecticut countryside with an air of detachment, seeing through the gallery owner’s vanity and his wife’s unhappiness. Basically, Dunster can’t turn off his bullshit detector, so he’s thinking what we all might be thinking if we allowed ourselves. Plus he’s especially smart about art. What matters most to him is “the ongoing lover’s quarrel with the work.” A part of me feels that way, too.

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

This book has a lot of good karma behind it, or maybe a better word is kismet. It was runner up for the Press 53 short story collection prize twice and Kevin Watson, the publisher and editor, wrote to me soon after the second time to say they should publish the collection. But for some reason I never got that email. About six months later, I wrote to him to suggest the same thing. And later, I was delighted to have one of my closest friends create the beautiful cover. We’ve also gotten the most moving responses from writers who I admire enormously. The whole thing feels like a happy labor of love.  

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write. That’s about it. Just sit down and do it. The process will teach you things that no one and nothing else can. Trust that you’ll improve with practice. Assume you’ll write many things, so don’t get too attached to one. But mostly, just write.

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

I wrote these stories over a ten-year span, and while I sensed they had something in common, it wasn’t until I started to pull them into a collection that I discovered the theme of happiness—or the theme of the search for happiness. I realized that each story, in its own way, was about that striving, that universal longing.

How did you find the title of your book?

Strangely enough, the title was originally from a story that didn’t make it into this collection. I had written a short short set in a grocery store, where a woman is on the phone with her brother, who is at the hospital with their dying mother. The woman wants to escape the sadness of losing her mother by noticing simple things like the brightly lit fruit, but instead, all she can see is how everything is tainted with sorrow and decay. She thinks about the literal shelf life of grocery items, and the phrase shelf life of happiness crosses her mind.

Fast forward to when I put together this collection and I realized that story, while one of my favorites, didn’t fit because it was told in the first person and all the others were longer stories in third person. But I realized that the idea of a shelf life of happiness fit with many of the stories. It struck me that an altogether different character named Gloria Broadhurst, who is a bit of a grand dame, might actually say that phrase aloud, because she’s clever and wrestles unabashedly with her own unhappiness. Gloria would feel comfortable making a pronouncement using that phrase. So I plugged it into that story and then changed the title of that story to Shelf Life of Happiness.

This helps to illustrate my earlier writing advice: assume you’ll write a lot and it’s all yours to mess with, tear apart and build back up, ruin and perfect, and enjoy!

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

You’ve stumped me on this one. I never noticed that my stories are so lacking in food! Off the page, I love Italian dishes (and was just there again this summer and had some amazing meals), and Moroccan, and French, and Indian; you name it, I like it! But in my stories, my characters clearly need to eat more.

I see that only one character has a food recollection: the mother in Her Mother’s Garden shares a distant memory of a meal she had on a cliff-side restaurant in Greece. She’s never mentioned it to her daughter before, which only makes the daughter feel more desperate about holding onto her mother before it’s too late. So food, in this case, shows how private pleasures are often kept hidden, even from those we love, and how the longing for happiness and connection can attach itself to even the most pleasant of reflections.




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!).


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