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”

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

TBR: Dan Elish, The Royal Order of Fighting Dragons

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?

THE ROYAL ORDER OF FIGHTING DRAGONS is a comic adventure for kids that appeals to all ages. Ike Rupert Hollingsberry is an everyday 6th grade New York City kid. Except for one major thing: his dad was a famous actor who died on the set of a kids’ TV show called The Fighting Dragons. At least that’s what Ike thinks when the book begins. Turns out that The Royal Order of Fighting Dragons is a real organization and the TV show was just a cover. Now young Ike is next in line…to be their leader.

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

The characters I enjoyed creating the most were, in a way, the most difficult, too. That’s because as the plot developed Ike needed to have five sidekicks, major kid characters to help him on his quest. They are: Elmira, a genius-blogger-dragon-expert nerd; Diego a goofy guy who claims to speak to animals; Kashvi, a mechanical whizz who can fix anything; Alexandro Lafcadio Cortesi, a handsome, confident boy from Rome; and finally, Lucinda O’Leary Smith, a swashbuckling girl from the outback of Australia. 

It can be difficult to do scenes with lots of different characters. Each voice must be distinct and recognizable to the reader even from unattributed dialogue. So it’s a challenge. That was the hard part. The fun part was creating these quirky kids.

I also had fun creating the villain, Theodore Opal, a New York City real estate developer who bears more than a passing resemblance to someone who may or may not occupy the White House. Just sayin’…

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

Suffice it to say, it took a long time – a period of a couple of years – to write a good draft of this book. I had help from friends, my wife, my kids, and my agent. Also, my cats.

Then – sad to say and I’m STILL NOT SURE WHY – the book was rejected at a few places. All with exceedingly polite, even enthusiastic, notes. Was it maddening? Yes. I fumed, I railed. But my agent believed in the book and so did I. Soon enough, it found a home at Vesuvian Media, a fantastic new press. I feel very well taken care of there and am thrilled. The book looks utterly fantastic. So sometimes the journey is rough but the landing is very happy.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

To just keep on going. You will be surprised by how much you can produce if you write a little bit (or a lot) every day. Try not to get discouraged. Realize that whatever you’re working on is going to take lots of rewriting and polishing to get right. Don’t expect the first draft to be good. Just have faith and keep revising. If you’re serious about the work, the quality will get there.  

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

Working out the plot mechanics took a lot of thought on this one. Some of the plot has to do with an Order of Fighting Dragons which dates to the time of King Arthur. I was very surprised to discover how Merlin (who may or may not be a character in the story in a modern guise) figured into the tale.

Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is any enthusiastic boy or girl who likes Roald Dahl, Harry Potter or the Lightning Thief, age 7 to 15. But honestly, I think this book has wide appeal for later teens and adults, too. I’ve had very positive reactions among all age groups. Hey, my mother-in-law LOVED it.

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

Well, Thaddeus, the head dragon keeper, likes to drink a non-alcoholic concoction called Dragon Ale but I never do specify exactly what is in it except cinnamon and thirty other rare spices from England. [Editor’s note: Aha! Sounds like a secret recipe!]



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