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:





READ A SHORT STORY, “Bandit” (in a slightly different form):

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: 




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).





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