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!).


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