Monday, April 22, 2019

TBR: A Constellation of Half-Lives by Seema Reza


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



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

This project began as a series of second-person poems addressing an imagined (though not quite fictional) woman named Khadija, a mother living directly in the path of the Global War on Terror. There are letters to other American civilians, to my sons, to veterans, to my sisters and mother, to people I have hurt and to people who have hurt me. It’s about looking closely and searching what I’ve called “other” for my own reflection.

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

The poem I most enjoyed writing (which incidentally might also be the one that gave me the most trouble) was “Reckoning with Impermanence,” a not-quite-crown of sonnets. In 2016 I took a road trip up the coast of California with my then sixteen-year-old son, and was confronted with how tremendous experiences of beauty are also terribly sad. You want to enjoy them, but the whole time you know they are going to end and that gets in the way. But if you didn’t know they were going to end, you wouldn’t appreciate them. I’d been turning this over in my head, but when I took a Split This Rock poetry master class facilitated by poet Danez Smith, I found the space to grapple with this big question, to just ask and ask and ask it. It was terribly difficult to write, but it also helped me understand some things, to make a little more accepting of impermanence.

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

The collection was one of the winners of the Write Bloody Publishing 2017 manuscript competition, which went in stages—submit 5 poems, wait. Make it to the second round and submit 20 poems. I toiled on that twenty, turned off as much of my life as possible to just write and rewrite, then submitted the set and waited again. The Friday they were supposed to announce the winners I didn’t receive an email so I assumed I’d lost. I went to bed and woke several times with my heart literally hurting—I’d wanted it so badly, I’d worked so hard, I’d felt like the work was so strong. The next morning I dusted myself off and wrote a long reflective piece in my journal about how I got some good poems out of the process and that was the purpose of the entire exercise. I genuinely made peace with it. Then I got an email saying something to the effect of, “We’re sure you know by now that your manuscript was selected…” They’d announced through a video posted to social media, which I hadn’t watched because it was too sad that I hadn’t received an email. What an idiot! So that was the low and the high. Because by the time I realized the book was selected, I had genuinely come to terms with the idea that all that writing and revising I’d done had been for the sake of my own craft, so publication became this gift untethered from the effort.

How did you find the title of this book?

The title of the book is from a poem called “Quartering” and in that poem, the image is a reference to depleted uranium particles in a soldier’s body, the full line is “try not to see the glowing particles of depleted uranium/turning his body into a constellation of half-lives.” As the title it comes to refer to the constellation of lives the poems in the collection attempt to inhabit.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I once heard Brendan Constantine, who is one of the most scholarly, gifted poetry teachers I’ve ever witnessed, say “A poem is best viewed through the lens of its last line.” My drafts are always a few lines past that point, and I return to that bit of advice in editing and cut back to the image I want the reader to look back at the piece through. It’s been such helpful, practical advice, and I pass it along every chance I get.

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

To seek surprise is good advice—I’ve found that if I’m traversing familiar ground in my writing, I’m probably not taking any risks or writing anything interesting. In this collection, which I thought was about the role of the civilian in war, and about my experience of motherhood. But I also discovered how much I needed to write about being a daughter, and about the taboo and dangerous experience of female solitude.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Here’s a recipe! it’s actually from When the World Breaks Open, which is my first book. But I swear it’s so delicious. “Chicken Soup”: https://pitheadchapel.com/chicken-soup/

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR & BOOK: www.seemareza.com


READ TWO POEMS, “I Can’t Sleep” & “Muslim Community Center”: http://anmly.org/ap26/seema-reza/



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

TBR: Radiation King by Jason Gray

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




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

Radiation King takes us to the beginning and the possible futures of the atomic world we created at the start of the twentieth century. In a time when the Cold War has heated back up, these poems engage a past filled with Civil Defense and radioactive quack cures and a future that could bring a radioactive wasteland or limitless energy. The poems explore the world from the smallest atom of hydrogen to the giant Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula and find that the only thing that will save us is love for one another.

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

The “Atoms” poems—I’d say I enjoyed those the most. I wrote them in in February 2014, one a day, as a part of the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. I had not written much in the two years before, so the group as a whole brought me out of a slump, but writing each one, looking at the properties of individual atoms and then trying to shape a tiny poem that both called to those properties but then also went somewhere else—yes that was fun.

The “Color Is an Event” sequence was perhaps the hardest—it certainly took the longest to complete. I had the idea maybe a decade ago, and started working. Some came easy, but others took some hammering. I wanted them all to have different shapes, forms, etc. I tried to work into each poem where the pigments came from—I was working from a wonderful book, Color, by Victoria Finlay—but in some cases that was jettisoned as a quasi-narrative began to form, about a husband and wife and their children.

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

The high is that it is being published; there was a lot of rejection before that, and a long period between this book and my first book. I wondered if I’d ever publish another. My first book came and went with little attention; I didn’t write much after it, but then I began to write the poems for this book and another manuscript concurrently (All Hail Our Lord and Savior, Grizzly Bear is the other, as yet unpublished ms.). It was difficult to watch my cohort of poets publish their second and third and maybe even fourth books in the time it took for my second to get picked up. Of course, many others aren’t even as lucky as I have been. I am very excited to share the book with the world now that it’s published. I’ve been dreaming up and working on companion pieces to go along with the book for a couple years, including two short films I made (viewable here: http://www.radiation-king.com). I feel like I made a little world, one I’ve been living in a long time.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write. Whatever you like, however you like, write.
Also: from John Berryman via W.S. Merwin: “if you have to be sure don’t write.”

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

I was surprised by what made the cut. I began several poems about various concepts in nuclear/quantum physics, things that seemed ready-made for poems, but many of them had to be abandoned. I’m fascinated by quantum entanglement, for instance, but my attempts to write about it were not good enough.

How did you find the title of your book?

The title Radiation King has a couple of roots: this is the name of the brand of TV Homer Simpson watches when he is growing up (seen in Season 6, Episode 10, “Grandpa vs. Sexual Inadequacy”). It was also used as a TV brand in the video game Fallout 3—whether or not the creators of the game knew of its previous use I don’t know. Neither of those things or TVs in general are referenced in the book—the phrase just took on a new life for me as I was writing the poems. I originally conceived of a narrative poem about the Radiation King, who was this imaginary figure in my head, a mythical figure that people in a distant future would say caused the nuclear war that had devastated the planet. Part-tyrannical leader, part-mad scientist, I imagined a future us telling stories about this person, conflating several factors into one person who could be blamed for the situation we found ourselves in. And though, in the end, no poem ever was written about the figure, I was always taken with the idea of writing poems from the future—warnings to the present about potential disasters.

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


There is also the Atomic Cocktail. I’m sorry to say that I have yet to try it.
Esquire’s recipe:
1 1/2 ounces vodka
1 1/2 ounces brandy
1 teaspoon sherry
1 1/2 ounces Brut champagne
cocktail glass
“Stir the vodka, brandy, and sherry well with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and add 1 1/2 to 2 ounces cold brut champagne. Garnish with plastic three-eyed fish from Simpsons playset….”

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK & AUTHOR:

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR PILE:

READ TWO POEMS, “Able Archers” and “U.S. Radium’s Finest Personnel Man to the New Recruits”: http://www.theamericanjournalofpoetry.com/v5-gray.html



Monday, April 8, 2019

TBR: Grievous by H. S. Cross

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?

Set in 1931 at St. Stephen’s Academy, a boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire, it’s about teacher John Grieves (nicknamed Grievous) and his student Gray Riding. Gray begins a secret correspondence with John’s 13-year-old goddaughter, Cordelia, while John is in love with her mother. The action—at the Academy and across England and the Continent—includes love, betrayal, illness, grief, Quakers, morphine, theater, and second chances.

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

I probably had the most fun with Guilford Audsley, a young actor who enters in the second half. He’s not one of the point-of-view characters, so I didn’t get direct access to his mind, but I enjoyed the effect that he had—with his infectious energy and ideas, his generous sense of play—on my rather knotted-up main characters. It was also fun to think up the four theater productions he helps create.

I think Gray Riding may have given me the most trouble when all is said and done, which is odd because he’s the character that I’ve known the longest and the one that in some ways is closest to me. He first slouched across the page when I was seventeen, and he was, then, that author-surrogate which exists in everyone’s early creations. By the time I got around to writing Grievous, Gray’s no-perspective emotional intensity had become grating and too often sounded melodramatic, sentimental, or simply tedious. He had to grow up—not age-wise, but he had to become independent from the adolescent feelings (mine) that had sparked him and find his own edge, all without losing the sensitivity and rawness that make him a bright, bookish, and difficult fourteen-year-old boy.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Get your protagonist into trouble and keep him there. To that I’d add, Let the writing get out of control and keep it that way.


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

The discovery for me was in how the events would unfold and be experienced, and in how the various points-of-view would mold the prose itself. There are eleven points-of-view in Grievous, and each character exerted his or her own control over the style. It was a constant surprise to watch these characters come to life, be independent from me and from my plans, and for them to think, speak, and behave stubbornly as themselves, refusing to fulfill the stereotypes from which they’d sprung.

How did you find the title of your book?

My original idea with these books about St. Stephen’s was that the titles would be the names of the main characters. So, the first book was called Wilberforce because its protagonist was Morgan Wilberforce. Grievous was harder to title because it was difficult to settle on a single main character (there are arguably two or three). John Grieves was the frontrunner, but everyone felt that Grieves was a real downer as a title. I had a working title, Age of Grace, which had the advantage of sounding attractive and hinting at the narrative sweep of the book. I was never comfortable with that title, though, and deep down I wanted the title to be a name. At the traditional editorial lunch, my editor said he had a title idea, but he was reluctant to tell me what it was because it seemed too eccentric. I made him say it and then laughed because calling the book after John’s ironic, semi-mocking nickname seemed so cheeky and, from a sales perspective, so perverse. We mulled it over for almost two months: the sales team preferred Age of Grace because it was more appealing and because they had already started populating catalogs with it and didn’t want to muddy the marketing; as the editing process came to a close, however, I lost my tolerance for that title. It was lofty, classic, pretty, and just so appropriate that I couldn’t take it; meantime, I was falling in love with how weird, unwise, funny, and right Grievous sounded. In the end, I kicked the good-girl title to the curb, and thanks to the support of my editor and of the President of FSG, Grievous it was, wisdom be damned.


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

Most of the food at the Academy is disgusting, but when they go out to the Cross Keys pub, they all order the steak and kidney pie. I don’t have a recipe—it’s probably a secret—but all the characters agree it’s great. They like the spotted dick for dessert.

*****

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.hscross.com

TO ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE:

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

TBR: I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott

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: whats your book about in 2-3 sentences?

If you’ve ever had that “What the hell am I doing with my life?” feeling, I hope this memoir-in-essays will make you feel seen. It started as simply a collection of funny stories from my life, but the more I wrote, the more it evolved into a deeper look into the limits of perfectionism, the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood, and how much we all need to be able to reinvent ourselves in small ways from time to time. I’ve been getting emails from people saying it’s making them cry, but they swear they’re laughing, too.

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

The most fun essay to write was probably “A Letter to the Type A Person in Distress,” which breaks from the essay format a bit and directly addresses the reader. It appears midway through the book like a little half-time break. The first draft of it rolled right off my tongue in one sitting.

I struggled with “Wonder Woman,” the essay early in the book about the root of my perfectionist tendencies. In early drafts, I was talking out of both sides of my mouth, as if I couldn’t reconcile two conflicting angles. Sometimes it sounded like I was saying my perfectionism is my mom’s fault, and at other points I was letting her off the hook and saying it’s too easy to blame all our problems on our parents. A dear writer friend suggested I stop struggling and embrace the contradiction, which was great advice. So rather than pick one way of telling that story, I revised it so the story unspools both ways: I tell it once, then midway through I start over and tell it again. That approach served to illustrate something I really wanted to get across in the book: that multiple, seemingly conflicting, things can be true of us at once.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your books road to publication.

For a couple of years, the highs and lows came on a predictable cycle: start a new essay, struggle with it and fear that it’s garbage, then finally reach a breakthrough draft that really sings. Again and again, every time. Then there was the big high of selling the manuscript, which, once my agent took it out on submission, happened so much faster than I expected. Probably the lowest low was trying to summon the energy to make revisions based on my editor’s feedback. It wasn’t even difficult feedback! I was just absolutely wrung out from perfecting the manuscript to sell it, and I had such a hard time getting back into editing mode. Normally I love editing, so the fact that I was having trouble sent me into a spiral of self-doubt. My agent reminded me everyone goes through the same thing. She calls that part of the process “the pain cave,” and I’d say that’s accurate.

Whats your favorite piece of writing advice?

Air it out. Put some time and space between the drafting of a piece and each stage of editing. There’s a part of the writing process where you’ve got to slog through a piece daily, building it up and tearing it down word by word. But then comes a time to put it away for a while. After a break, you can see and hear what you’re doing with so much more clarity and perspective.

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

I was honestly surprised at how it came together as a memoir. At first, I thought the common element in these essays, other than my own voice, was humor — that this was just a pile of funny stories. But the more essays I wrote, the more I veered into less-funny territory, and the more I realized how much these pieces related to one another. It took me a long time to put them in the right order, but once I did, a narrative arc formed over the whole collection. I hadn’t really expected that to happen, but I was thrilled that it did.

Who is your ideal reader?

My dearest hope for this book is that friends will pass it around and word of mouth will help it find its way to its people. I mean, of course I’d love to say, “It’s for everyone!” but it’s especially for anyone who’s feeling a little stuck in one of those small crisis points that seem to come around about every five years in adulthood: the quarter-life crisis, the midlife crisis, the job-change crisis, the relationship crisis, the should-I-have-a-baby crisis… Anyone who has a decision to make about what to do next or is generally the type of person who stresses over doing the “right” thing — that’s someone who might need or enjoy this book.

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

Something called “hot buttered crackers” make an appearance in this book, and if I recall correctly, they’re made by tossing saltines in melted butter — and optionally, the powdered salad dressing mix of your choice — then baking the crackers until they crisp back up. This is not a low-sodium snack, and it is addictive. Proceed with caution.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I love these crackers so of course had to look up a recipe to share! https://www.southernkitchen.com/recipes/eat/piedmont-driving-club-s-buttered-saltines]

*****

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

BUY THIS BOOK SIGNED (AND PERSONALIZED!) FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE:



Work-in-Progress

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