Monday, September 16, 2019

TBR: Once Removed by Colette Sartor

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?

The women in the linked short story collection Once Removed carry the burdens imposed in the name of intimacy—the secrets kept, the lies told, the disputes initiated—as well as the joy that can still manage to triumph. Some of these women possess the fierce natures and long, vengeful memories of expert grudge holders. Others avoid conflict at every turn, or so they tell themselves. For all of them, grief lies at the core of love.

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

The story I most enjoyed writing was “Malocchio.” My work usually includes bits and pieces of family lore, but this one contains the most. “Malocchio” is about my favorite recurring character, Rose, who’s based on my paternal grandmother. In it, Rose tells a story about starting kindergarten in the 1940s from a reflective first person POV, an unusual narrative perspective for me. I set the story in the city triplex where my great grandmother ran a dairy farm and raised my grandmother and where my grandmother later ran a sweatshop and raised my father and uncle. It was pure joy to imagine my brilliant, vengeful, loyal grandmother as a child. In fact, I loved writing Rose so much that she’s a main character in my novel-in-progress, Piecework, which is based on a murder my grandmother helped cover up in the ‘70s.

The story that gave me the most trouble was “Jump.” “Jump” involves estranged adult siblings, but the inspirational seed was a story my mom used to tell about how she and her brothers made a game out of jumping off the garage roof. I knew that scene would be more powerful told in the present rather than as a flashback or in backstory. I also knew that writing that scene in present day meant it would need to open the story, which in turn would require a decades-long jump in time from that first scene to the next one. Given how risky such a jump might be to pull off, I decided to really take some risks and play around with structure, which somehow led me to intersperse the scenes with text messages, which led to a draft so overly complicated that the story took me years to complete.

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

Publication was an extremely long road for this collection. I started writing short stories after I finished my MFA to give myself a break from writing a novel that will forevermore live only on my hard drive. I knew I needed to learn how to tell a better story, and short stories were faster to finish and easier to analyze than novels. So I started writing my own short stories and storymapped published ones, by which I mean I highlighted the different structural elements of my favorite short stories (e.g., all the dialogue in pink, all the present-day actions/gestures in blue, all the expositional backstory in green, etc.) to figure out how the stories were put together and why their structures worked.

Before I knew it, I was obsessed with short stories. That’s all I worked on for years. The problem was, I wrote about whatever came to mind without thinking about how my stories might fit together in a book. So when I started trying to pull together a collection, I realized that my stories weren’t sufficiently linked to feel compelling as a whole. Instead of finding a way to make them more cohesive, I just put my strongest stories first and last, buried the weaker ones in the middle, slapped on a title, and submitted the “collection” to contests. That approach resulted in a few nibbles but mostly generic rejections.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I forced myself to do the hard work of figuring out the connective tissue between my stories—not just themes, but also characters, settings, histories, timelines. I kept refining those connections, finished a few more stories, and worked with editor Matthew Limpede to ensure the collection felt whole. Then I forced myself to submit it to the Flannery O’Connor Award contest—one of the ones that had nibbled but rejected my previous efforts. A few months later, I got a text/ phone call from Lee K. Abbott to say my collection had won.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Show don’t tell is bullshit.

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

That I finished it. I’m only partially joking. I almost abandoned this book many, many times. I’m forever grateful to Matthew Limpede for encouraging me to finish it and to Lee K. Abbott for choosing it for publication.

How did you find the title of your book?

The title came from one of the collection’s stories, about a woman trying to find her place—if any—in her new boyfriend’s fractured family. That story and its title best embodied all my characters’ struggles to shoulder the responsibilities of family and intimacy without abandoning their own identities and desires.

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

Italian food, most definitely. Your question inspired this post about my obsession with food, which includes my mom’s sauce recipe: https://colettesartor.com/once-removed-my-food-obsession/

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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://colettesartor.com

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://ugapress.org/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780820355696

READ A SHORT STORY, “Bandit” (in a slightly different form): http://www.reduxlitjournal.com/2014/12/150-bandit-by-colette-sartor.html



Monday, September 9, 2019

TBR: As a River by Sion Dayson


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?

Greer Michaels has come home to tend to his dying mother - but this means reckoning with the ghosts of his past. Set in 1977 in a small town where family secrets are rooted in the traumatic history of the segregated South, As a River is a spare and lyrical exploration of our struggles to understand each other, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.


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

Though I am completely in love with my protagonist, Greer, the novel features several characters, as everyone’s story is intertwined with those around them. It was an interesting process getting to know each person.

I particularly enjoyed creating Ceiley, a curious teenager whose mother claims she was immaculately conceived. She has a burning curiosity about the world outside of Bannen, Georgia, so when Greer shows up in town after many years traveling the world she is obviously drawn to him. I found the unlikely friendship that develops between the two really touching.

The character I had the most trouble with was Caroline, the girl Greer fell in love with when he was sixteen. She was hard to get a handle on, maybe because she herself was a rebel and hates to be pinned down. She actually appeared in one of my dreams once, dangerous and livid. She was outraged that I was getting her wrong on the page. She was the only character who snuck into my subconscious to threaten me!

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

Wow, how long do you have? It has definitely been a long journey.

I queried agents for a couple years. Lots of feedback said that the novel was “beautiful, but too quiet.” (Quiet, beautiful novels are actually some of my favorites, but I digress).

I realized it probably made more sense to approach small presses, so I did. Another long process, but I was thrilled when it got signed in early 2015. Right when the production cycle was about to start, however, the press abruptly closed. Needless to say, I was heartbroken.

The novel then found its way to another small press who had agreed to take on some of the original publisher’s orphaned manuscripts. Though the intentions were good, they unfortunately didn’t have the bandwidth to follow-through on the commitment. It was frustrating; nothing ever advanced.

At that point, I put the book on the back burner. The querying and publishing gauntlet felt like waiting for others to bestow their approval upon me – a miserable feeling. I knew I needed to reclaim my own sense of agency. Yes, publishing a novel was a dream. But I had other dreams, too – ones that I could achieve myself.

I moved to Spain, a long-held desire and started blossoming again. Remarkably, my first summer here, in 2018, I received two emails from different publishers on two consecutive days. The first was an offer; my manuscript had been sitting in a Submittable queue at a small press for nearly a year.

The second message was from Jaded Ibis Press. While I had been delighted by the previous day’s news, something inside me immediately lit up as soon as JIP’s email arrived. I felt intuitively that I had finally found a home. Or rather, it had found me! They had heard of my manuscript from another press who had enjoyed it but didn’t have space in their catalogue. But unbeknownst to me, they had recommended the manuscript to Jaded Ibis, who reached out asking if it was still available.

I am certain that surrendering and becoming less attached to the outcome of publication made space for the abundance to arrive. It also highlighted, again, the importance of community and connection. You have no idea who your champions will be, but they are out there. Treat everyone with an open heart.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’m not a writer who ever has a clue about where the words are taking me. I don’t start with an idea or a plan; it begins with an image, or a sound, or a stray line of dialogue. This means I never know where I’m going.

Writing often feels like stumbling in darkness through a large, strange house. Trying to draw a blueprint of a place I have never been.

One of my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ellen Lesser, had a simple suggestion: inch forward in the dark.

The directive resonated. I absorbed it as a way to combat my panic about feeling lost in a foreign house. Stretch arms out in front of you, take tiny steps. Get to know the space. You might bump into things, run into a wall. So change course. You’ll eventually find a door. Open it! After a time you’ll come across a lamp. Switch it on. Suddenly an entire room becomes visible. It might be different than what you’d originally pictured. But it’s by continuing to explore and moving forward that you find the light.

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

The structure!

At first I thought As a River would be a series of interlinked short stories. Some chapters worked as stand-alone stories, but others just didn’t. I realized after awhile that I would have to break open the narrative and try a different approach.

I write in fragments and I had scenes written in all of these different time periods – 1944, 1958, 1961, 1973, 1977.  I didn’t know how to string all of these disparate scenes together.

What finally clicked was an idea that the wonderful novelist Sophie Hardach offered after reading a draft. She suggested that I think of narrative washing lines that I could string along throughout the whole book; I could then peg the scenes onto those lines.

So while things happen in different years, the complex structure I had been wrestling with suddenly had a simplified solution. 1977 became the “present time” of the novel and every chapter set in that year moves forward chronologically as you advance in the book. So straightforward and yet I hadn’t been doing that before – ha!

Interspersed between the present time chapters, we fly back to the past or into a new character’s head. The latter was also a big surprise! I think of the first-person sections as “soliloquies.” Most of the book is written in close third person to Greer, but some characters demanded their own sections to speak for themselves. They were not who I would have expected, either. Everyone has something to say!


How did you find the title of your book?

I credit my publisher, Elizabeth Earley, for this one. I had been living with another title for years. One that evoked a kind of bittersweet nostalgia and came from some advice Greer offers Ceiley – but was really something he needed to hear himself.

My publisher wasn’t wholly convinced by the title, however. She thought we needed one that pointed to the river’s primacy in the story. Once I was able to let go of my long-held idea (you’ll notice the importance of surrender in my publishing tale!), I agreed with the wisdom in that.

The river is central to the novel, playing a crucial role in many of the character’s lives, as well as providing a literal dividing line. Bannen is segregated racially into East and West with the water as an actual physical barrier between the two.

But it’s not just a barrier. People also go there seeking freedom. It’s a source of both joy and pain.

My publisher and I brainstormed several different options for titles, looking at the many times I evoked the river for clues. At a late hour in the process Elizabeth went to a Buddhist monastery. She wrote me the next day saying that there was a sign on the wall that read  “go as a river.” And then the group did a long, silent walking meditation through the woods together and the monk said, “move as one like a river.” And so, she wondered: what about As a River?

She suggested other options stemming from that experience, too, but As a River immediately felt right to me. Its unadorned beauty. A simple elegance. It seemed to match the lyrical restraint of the novel’s style and leave space for interpretation. It offers an invitation to inhabit the river and its meaning. An important underlying tension in the book is the power of the unsaid, and I think the title points to that, as well.

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

I’m not a good cook myself, but some soul food and sweet iced tea would be perfect to get you into the book’s Southern mood! One of the novel’s culminating scenes sees an overflowing of dishes and drinks at a gathering. Food is steeped in tradition and provides the social glue.

So as to provide an idea, here’s a link to an iconic country cooking restaurant in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Mama Dip’s opened in 1976, around the same time as my novel takes place. You’ll find recipes for cornbread, BBQ chicken wings, cucumber coleslaw, among many others. Yum! I got hungry just typing that.

Link to Mama Dip’s recipes: https://mamadips.com/our-recipe/ 

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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://siondayson.com/

ORDER A COPY OF THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK:


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

TBR: The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion by Sonja Livingston


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?

Inspired by my unexpected return to Catholicism and my simultaneous frustration with its ongoing scandals and disappointments, THE VIRGIN OF PRINCE STREET chronicles a series of expeditions (including to a holy well in Ireland, a mobile confessional booth in Louisiana, a county jail on Thanksgiving day, etc.) as well as sojourns through memory that together explore my changing ideas about devotion.  That’s a very detailed way of saying that these essays use my encounters with fading tradition to help map and explore the tender terrain of the human heart.

Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble?

“Miracle of the Eyes,” looks at the phenomena of moving statues in 1985 Ireland. It also looks at the case of Ann Lovett, a schoolgirl who died giving birth near the Marian statue in her town and explores the desire some people (especially girls and women) have for miracles, especially when their lives are so dependent on the rule of man. Despite the heavy content, I loved researching the various ways people described seeing the statues move. Some saw Mary smile. Others saw her breathe or wink or cry. The essay begins with a litany of these observations, and much of my enjoyment involved incorporating the delicious sounds of all those Irish place names into the piece: Courtmacsharry, Kilfinane, Rathdangan.

Less enjoyable was “Devil’s Advocate,” which tells the story of a priest and nun who died in a 1967 fire. The priest ran into a burning church to save the consecrated hosts while the nun went in to be certain no children were trapped inside. But the story told after her death was that she followed the priest to aide him in his sacred task. Whether she followed or went in of her own accord may seem a minor point, but beyond the idea of obedience versus boldness, it highlights divergent notions of faith—did God exist in the Host or in the children rumored to be hiding in the church? I struggled because I didn’t want to disrespect their legacy or beliefs, especially as incongruities and issues of gender arose. They’re always arising if you let them. And I let them.

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

The lows were all in the writing! Not the act of writing but the idea of the writing about Catholicism. The Church did not make it easy. Every day a new report of abuse or backward thinking emerged. I tossed and turned for the three years I wrote these essays and have never been so uncertain of my subject. In terms of publication, the path was surprisingly straightforward. The collection is being released as part of the American Lives Series at the University of Nebraska Press. The real high was that the editor, Alicia Christensen, was open to hybrid essays (lyric and journalistic) that explore such a highly charged, divisive, and increasingly politicized topic.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I can’t remember who said it and just googled to no avail. Alicia Ostriker, maybe? Anyway, the advice is this: The job of the artist is to trust her obsession. This is so massively reassuring. It means I don’t have to try to make sense of caring about an old church or a tradition that’s so obviously flawed. It implies that doubt and insecurity are part of the thing and that my only job as a writer is to stick with whatever has snagged my heart, to honor it, and see it through.

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

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed incorporating elements of literary journalism. I’ve always written personal lyrical pieces that rely on an interplay of language and perception, but these essays required more active engagement with the world outside my head. I suddenly found myself riding shotgun with a Cajun priest in a mobile confessional booth, for instance, or traveling all over Buffalo looking for a missing Virgin Mary statue. I had to channel my inner Nancy Drew and totally loved it.


How did you find the title of your book?

The title is inspired by my search for a missing statue from my childhood church in Rochester, NY. As Catholic churches close in cities throughout the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Mid-Atlantic, their contents are sold off, stored, or sometimes discarded. When I returned to church and did not see the blue-cloaked Mary I grew up with, I decided to track her down. This was undoubtedly a foolish thing to do, but foolishness has its place, and the searching for the missing Virgin Mary turned out to be a perfect way to explore the American Catholic tradition as it continues to decline and change.

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

How can I decide between Cajun-Fried Frog Legs, Irish Root Soup, Buffalo Pierogi, or Baklava from Tarpon Springs? I’ll keep it simple and sweet and go with Pouding Chômeur from Quebec. (Advice for late summer: serve w/fresh peaches and vanilla cream).


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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: http://www.sonjalivingston.com/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:



Monday, August 19, 2019

TBR: The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott


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?

The World Doesn't Require You is a fairly fractured pass through the fictional town of Cross River, MD, which was founded in in 1807 after the nation's sole successful slave revolt. It's eleven stories and novella that features the musical son of a God, “doorbell ditchers,”, mobsters in love, human sacrifices, warring academics, a cow who chews human faces, underground railroad reenactors, and a few other things. 


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

The answer to this question is the same story: “Rolling in my Six-Fo’—Daa Daa Daa—With all my Niggas Saying: Swing Down Sweet Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride. Hell Yeah.” I couldn’t stop laughing when I wrote that story. I had a lot of fun with absurdity and taboo imagery. It gave me trouble precisely because I was playing with taboo racial imagery. I had to keep making sure that, though the imagery was often shocking, that I didn’t tip into writing a story that was nothing more than shock value. I kept cutting until that was the case, but I had to keep asking myself if I was reinforcing bad ideas. If I had enough depth to redeem the story. I think I pulled it off, but in a thousand different ways—ethically, morally, craft-wise—it wasn’t easy.

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

Some of these stories were difficult to get right and many were dead in the water many times over. I had to grow in my skills, but also emotionally and in maturity to bring many of these stories to life.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It’s worth it to try to live by Zadie Smith’s wonderful advice: “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” I use the word “try” because it is a damn hard thing to do.  

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

I always thought that one of my characters, Kin Samson, would be the focal point of my writing, but every time he takes the stage, he minimizes himself. He is in this book and he was in my debut, Insurrections, but his role in both books is much smaller than imagined. I finally figured out that my focal point, my recurring character, is Cross River itself. What returns most often is the locations and the culture of the town. This understanding has changed how I approach my fictional homeland in everything I am writing now.

How do you approach revision?

Many of these stories are very old and were sitting just because I couldn’t get them over the hump. Even if I wasn’t actively working on them, they were turning in my mind. For some pieces it might be a matter of letting them go for five, ten years, checking in on them every so often until it’s time for them to come alive.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?) [Editor’s note: This one’s a doozy!]


Just wolf. It’s a delicacy in Cross River, MD.

MAN’S BEST FRIEND

4 whole onions, husks and all.

7 ½ cloves garlic, again, husks and all.

3 green peppers, please do not substitute.

½ lb. shrimp with their shells intact.

1 cup lemon juice.

3 tablespoons sea salt.

3 tablespoons freshly ground cracked pepper.

2 tablespoons nutmeg.

A dollop, just a dollop, of ketchup.

3 ½ tablespoons cinnamon.

½ tablespoon Italian seasoning.

8 ½ dashes bitters, Mad Chef Jimmy Capstone brand. (This is important. A fool, a family member of some closeness, once attempted to substitute Angostura or another brand and it was obvious to me. I never ate from or spoke with this person again. Perhaps I may bring her this dish, prepared correctly, to her deathbed when the time comes. But without Capstone brand, you have not really prepared, Man’s Best Friend, properly.)

18 pineapple rings.

Cherries, makes no difference how many.

1 bottle low-end fortified wine, preferably Ripple, Cisco or Crazy Neegs (please do not confuse this with Crazy Ninja, which is a malt liquor and not a wine. While other wolf dishes call for Crazy Ninja, this one would be ruined by the thick, bitter drag of malt liquor.)

1 wild dog—go ahead and call it a wolf if you must do so to assuage your guilty heart—hair and eyes properly removed. (Some prefer to remove the head altogether. The West Indians often save the face as well as the paws and use them to prepare a tasty Wolf Souse—see recipe on page ____.)

The essence of seasoning is found in touch. It is not enough to spread spices onto meat—that is the way of the amateur. One must massage the dead animal as if it is being loved. As if it is being soothed. Think about this poor beast’s last moments: grazing perhaps. Perhaps sipping from the Cross River. Perhaps running about. Maybe hunting. Whatever it was doing, it did not expect to be killed by gunshot. Or perhaps by a knife slitting the throat. If it caught wind of you, wolfer, then fear, anxiety and adrenaline shot through that animal in beams like lightning. It probably tried to desperately avoid its final moments. You’ve felt that fear, right? Passing through you in a sort of wave. We often induce it in ourselves because our civilized lives are so tame and staid. We go to scary movies, ride roller coasters. Some of us seek adventure on the streets or go off to wars and revolutions. Some live in warzones and have no need to re-create that feeling, as it is ever present. They seek to escape it, but can’t. Ask an Iraqi who lived in Baghdad in 2002. Or go to the Southside of Cross River on a night when minor kingpins feel the need to defend the fiefdom of their tiny half blocks. Every living thing has felt the tingle of that pang shooting from the pit of the gut to every point in the body. It turns out that feeling has a taste and that taste in the dog you are about to consume is so, so delicious.

            But to properly taste it in the dead beast, one needs to take the seasonings: the spices, the powders, the vegetables, the liquids—everything—and knead it into the dead wolf’s flesh. It matters not what order you do things or if you do it at high altitude or low altitude or while standing on your head, just do it. Pretend as if you are easing this beast’s suffering. Do whatever you need to do to get through this task. There is nothing more important. Leave it. Let it marinate. I don’t care. Sing to it. Pray over it. Hold it up on an altar next to the Buddha. Shit, smoke buddha, blow marijuana smoke rings into the dead wolf’s unmoving face if you like. I do not care what you do. I only care that you give this deceased animal the proper love. That it’s thoroughly cleaned and skinned and massaged. Or don’t skin it. The fatty wolf skin can be quite tasty when properly prepared.

            Bake at 375 for several hours or until, when pierced with a fork, the juices run clear as the Cross River at noon on a summer day. Or eat this dog cold and raw in the manner of our ex-slave ancestors, faces painted with skulls, sitting on tree branches in the Wildlands holding guns, waiting for enemies to attempt to re-enslave them long after the danger had passed.

            Why didn’t anyone tell them to relax? To live their lives. To go fall in love. Have sex. Produce children. Raise them with the proper love and care. Instead they shot dogs and ate them bloody and raw, sharing their favorite pieces with each other—the livers for sober thought, the hearts for courage, the brains for wisdom. And this is fine as long as one never forgets the purpose and essence of touch.

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LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.rionamilcarscott.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781631495380

READ A STORY FROM THIS BOOK, "David Sherman, the Last Son of God": https://midnightbreakfast.com/david-sherman-the-last-son-of-god




Monday, August 5, 2019

TBR: First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers

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?

First Cosmic Velocity creates an alternate history of the Soviet space program in which the first cosmonauts are successfully launched into space but are unable to return to Earth. To hide the fact that the cosmonauts die in orbit, the Chief Designer recruits twins, keeping one on Earth to pretend to be their deceased sibling. The novel follows two of the earth-bound twins, Leonid and Nadya, as they grapple with their doubts and regrets over what this ruse has cost them.

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

I love writing characters who are least affected by emotion. I know this is contrary to what you’re supposed to do, but my taste in fiction has always been off-kilter. So in the novel, I loved writing the enigmatic government agent Ignatius. She’s always in control of the situation and always possesses knowledge greater than everyone around her. When she has a moment of empathy, however, I think it’s that much more striking. Ignatius is a major but not a main character, and in general I like to write side characters. I love when someone outside the main arcs of the story offers wisdom or revelation. They’re observers, able to view the happenings from an interesting critical distance.

None of the characters gave me too much trouble, but Nadya was the one I revisited most often. She’s been made detached and strange by the circumstances of her life, but I didn’t want to fall into any of the tropes associated with her archetype. Despite her detachment, she drives the most important action toward the end of the novel. I wanted to make sure that from very early on she had the agency and the strength of personality to do that.

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

It took me two novel manuscripts and four years to find my wondrous agent Annie Bomke, and then about another year for her to find my equally wondrous editor Sara Minnich. By the time the novel is published in August, it will have been “in progress” for over five years. I know that’s not necessarily long in terms of book publication, but it’s evidence that patience is perhaps the most important virtue a writer can have. I worry how many outstanding writers just didn’t stick with it because they couldn’t push through the slog of years. Be resilient, y’all!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

All writing advice is suggestion. Every rule can and should be broken, on occasion. I want to read writing that strives to discover what words are capable of doing. There will be no discoveries and no surprises in writing that strictly sticks to the so-called rules. Yes, writing advice is great! But advice never applies to all people in all situations. The rules are simply what’s worked for previous writers. Writers in the future will draw from tricks and techniques that haven’t even been articulated yet.

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

I’m usually pretty clueless when I start a writing project, so surprise is my natural state. But some surprises are better than others. In First Cosmic Velocity, several parallel structures emerged that I’d not planned. There’s the main storyline, which accounts for probably 90% of the novel. That storyline alone could have been the book. But it’s the other elements that I think pushed the narrative into more interesting territory. There’s a series of flashbacks to a main character’s childhood. Within that flashback, there’s a folktale told by the character’s grandmother. There’s a recurring communication with one of the cosmonauts in orbit. All these elements interact with each other and reflect off each other and create an aggregate meaning greater than any single storyline.

How do you approach revision?

George Saunders had a great observation that revision allows his writing to be better, smarter, and wiser than he is. I love that. My brain has a limit to the depth of work it can produce on a first pass. Through revision, though, it has a chance to reprocess information, make new connections, and explore fresh ideas it can only consider in relation to the ideas already on the page. This is the act of discovery again. So early rounds of revision aren’t just polishing language and tweaking structure. I want to return to the material and allow myself to discover the implications I’d missed, the seeds of ideas I didn’t allow to sprout. I’ll always be a doofus to some degree, but my work can be better than that. Revision is where your own writing can teach you things you didn’t already know.

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

There’s a fair amount of vodka drunk in my novel, and I think that’s a good addition to any book club. As far as food, I did include one meal, based on a menu my ex-girlfriend got from a Russian acquaintance. I’ve never eaten anything from the menu and am intimidated by Russian food in general, so I don’t know if I can endorse it. My research indicated that the Russianness of a meal is directly proportionate to the amount of dill used in its preparation.

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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR AND BOOK: www.zachpowers.com





Monday, July 29, 2019

TBR: We Love Anderson Cooper: Short Stories by R.L. Maizes


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?

IWe Love Anderson Cooper, characters are treated as outsiders because of their sexual orientation, racial or religious identity, or simply because they look different. A young man courts the publicity that comes from outing himself at his bar mitzvah. When a painter is shunned because of his appearance, he inks tattoos that come to life. A Jewish actuary suspects his cat of cheating on him with his Protestant girlfriend.

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

I had a lot of fun writing “A Cat Called Grievous.” The humor is so dark and it bumps up against magical realism, though a blogger recently included it in a list of realist stories about animals. It’s a feminist story, but never lectures the reader.

“Ghost Dogs” is about a woman who has lost hope and was very hard to write. A colleague who read an early draft told me it lacked contrast. She compared the story to a painting that is so dark you can’t make out the images. Following her advice, I found ways to lighten up the story. In some cases that meant flashing back to times in the main character’s life when she was surrounded by love.    

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

A particularly low day was one on which I got rejections from three agents who had read the full manuscript. I had high hopes for each of those agents, and the rejections body-slammed me, especially coming together. One of the agents said I’d never find representation because there was no market for short story collections. That made me determined to press on, but only after eating most of a vegan chocolate cake. I saved one slice in the freezer, telling myself I would eat it when I signed with an agent.

A high point was when my agent sent the manuscript out on a Friday and three publishers expressed interest in acquiring the collection on Monday.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

A teacher of mine once said he couldn’t think of any student who stuck with writing over the years, working at it and honing her craft, who didn’t find success. I love this because it shows that writing is not an inborn talent that either you have or you don’t. Instead, writing is a skill that you develop over time with great effort.  

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

Putting the collection together, I chose from stories I wrote over a ten-year period. I was surprised by some of the older ones. They possess a rawness that I like and perhaps have moved away from as revision has become the focus of my writing. I was careful not to over-revise the older ones I included, not wanting the original impetus for them to get lost, or for them to present with perfect manners.

How did you find the title of your book?

In the title story, “We Love Anderson Cooper,” a boy comes out as gay at his bar mitzvah service. Later that day, his mother says to him: “Why didn’t you talk to us first? We would have understood. We love Anderson Cooper.”
                                                                                                                     
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

In “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” food is an important character in the story, which takes place during Christmas and Hanukkah. Fragrant latkes (potato pancakes) remind the main character, Barry, of his childhood. When his girlfriend, Anette, bakes Christmas cookies, Barry feels as if her holiday is taking over the house. Barry’s cat falls for Anette when she prepares fish stew.

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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.RLMaizes.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR SHELF: https://www.rlmaizes.com/book-we-love-anderson-cooper

READ AN EXCERPT, “A Cat Called Grievous”: https://electricliterature.com/how-to-become-a-cat-lady-4f81290d7bd9



Monday, July 15, 2019

TBR: A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell

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?

A Girl Goes into the Forest is a collection of hybrid stories and fables that examine the mythos of the American girl. Immersing readers in forests both literal and metaphorical, this book illuminates love and loss by exploring the complex desires, contradictions, and sorrows of daughters, wives, mothers, and those who love them.

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

“Goodbye, Roller Coaster” was one of those rare stories that wrote itself, the first draft, that is. The experience of transcribing what comes out of nowhere and then later reading and taking it in, is one of those fundamental pleasures: to see a momentary texture of one’s mind. In contrast, “You Can Do Anything” was a story that I grappled with for ages. I wanted to get across the emotional pain and suffering underlying the fussy, cautious, and controlling nature of the male protagonist, to make him if not lovable at least relatable, and I found this challenging to the degree that I wanted to give up on him—but I couldn’t.

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

There’s been a straightforward path to publication that’s been singular and wonderful. I wanted to publish A Girl Goes into the Forest with Dzanc, and showed the manuscript only to that publisher, who quickly read and accepted it, to my profound pleasure. My publisher has been beautifully supportive and I couldn’t be happier. It’s been a realization of a dream, and I know how lucky I am.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

One of my mentors, Kevin McIlvoy, once spoke of how necessary it is to have more than one writing project going at any given time, and while he might not think of that as advice, I took that idea in and it’s served me well. With all of the activities and work that go into supporting a book as it makes its way out in the world, I need to have the making of art to return to, to keep me grounded in what’s most important. Having projects underway to turn to is a lot like picking up the partially knit sweater to work on without having to plan—what should I make: scarf, hat, other? What kind of yarn, what color, what gauge needle, and so on. The story is there, begun, waiting for me to pick it up.

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

Initially, once I understood that I was writing about the mythos of the American girl in our patriarchal system, I was surprised to find seeping into the book stories about the damage done to boys in this destructive system. That’s what led, I believe, albeit unconsciously, to my incorporation of lines from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” to structure the book.

How did you find the title of your book?

I wish I had a good story to tell about how I came to the title, but I don’t recollect that part of the process, and perhaps it was a deeply submerged process. I can say only that when it came to me, I couldn’t let it go. I liked that it shared a similarity to jokes that begin like so: “A dog walks into a bar . . .” This was pleasurable because of that implicit lightness and the playfulness since, of course, there is also the shadow of that playfulness implicit in the act of a girl going into any forest. We’ve all internalized the dangers of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example: According to an article published in the Smithsonian Magazine that discusses how scientists used phylogenic methods normally reserved for studying the origins of species to analyze the tale, there exist at least 58 versions of similarly themed stories around the world, from Japan to Africa to Korea.

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

It turns out that even when I think I’m not thinking much about food in this book, I’m thinking of food! There’s fudge with marshmallow and nuts, there’s roast beef, a cake with pink frosting, gingerbread man cookies, tomatoes, apples, hazelnuts, margaritas, key lime pie, smoothies, white Russians, vegetable soup. The story “Confection” centers on lemon sherbet, so here’s a recipe: https://www.joyofbaking.com/LemonSherbet.html

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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR & BOOK:




READ A STORY, “A Girl Goes into a Forest”:



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

TBR: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

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 debut novel follows a seventy-five-year-old Southern woman as she writes an inventory of her family’s heirlooms. Those possessions end up telling a different story than the one she intended, about her family’s troubled history in rural South Carolina. My book explores the way we often engineer family narratives to suit our personal needs, and it examines how the objects around us that we imbue with meaning have stories to tell about us, too.

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

The voice of my first-person narrator, Judith Kratt, was a pleasure to create. She’s a sharp-tongued, compellingly flawed older woman. Frankly, she’s difficult. And I consider that a compliment. Early on in my life, growing up in South Carolina, I had decided that if you were a Southern woman, it was in your best interests to be difficult!

Judith’s father, Brayburn Kratt, was an uncomfortable character for me to write because he does some pretty awful deeds. I tried to approach him with empathy, to understand why he moves through the world in the way he does and why Judith still admires him.

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

My novel is based on a piece of my family’s history—a murder that happened in my family two generations before me. In early drafts, I attempted to write a faithful retelling of that story. But the problem was that I knew how that story ended. There was no sense of discovery, and it showed in the manuscript. Once I freed myself from the details of the real-life event, my revised manuscript took off. I had sent one of the early drafts to agents and ... crickets. But once I overhauled the manuscript, I signed with my (wonderful) agent almost immediately.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

To follow your intuition when writing as if you’re composing a piece of music. Kazuo Ishiguro offered this advice when he gave a craft talk at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a literary arts nonprofit in Denver.

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

I was surprised by how much my first-person narrator’s voice evolves over the course of the novel and how she comes to see that, even if her voice is the predominant one, she’s not necessarily the center of the story.

Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is one who isn’t afraid to slow down and savor a book. I hope that my novel’s plot will keep readers wanting to turn the pages, but I also hope that readers will feel compelled to slow down and enjoy the measured Southern pace of the prose.

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

There’s a family dinner table scene in the middle of the book that is fraught with tension. (Aren’t all family dinner tables fraught with tension?) That meal has a citrus-inspired Southern menu, including pork tenderloin glazed with orange marmalade; asparagus with flecks of orange zest; and a dessert called Orange Supreme or Orange Fluff, which is a concoction of mandarin oranges, crushed pineapple, and cottage cheese. I’ll include the recipe for the dessert, but I’ll admit that it might be an acquired taste! [See below…]

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READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR AND THIS BOOK: www.andreabobotis.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:  https://www.tatteredcover.com/book/9781492678861


*****

Orange Supreme, or Orange Fluff
A Southern citrus dessert, perfect for summertime
Featured in the novel The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

Serves: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 small can mandarin oranges, drained
  • 1 small can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 package orange-flavored gelatin (like Jell-O)
  • 8 ounces frozen whipped topping, thawed
  • 8-12 ounces cottage cheese, small curd (may want to drain)

Instructions

Pour all ingredients into a large bowl and stir to combine.
Refrigerate for several hours before serving.


Work-in-Progress

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