Monday, October 19, 2020

TBR: The Fear of Everything: Stories by John McNally

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?

 In the tradition of Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and T.C. Boyle, these nine tales feature shady magicians, dubious sleep study assistants, missing cats, demonic attorneys, and lonely latchkey kids.

 

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

 The story “The Creeping End” was a fun story to write because it began as three separate stories that weren’t working. But once I realized that they were three parts of the same story, I wondered if it was possible to write a story with three distinctly different tones. I subtitled it “a triptych,” and so the idea of writing a triptych unlocked the structural problems I’d been having trying to make it one linear and cohesive narrative.

As for the story that gave me the most trouble? Probably “The Phone Call,” but it gave me trouble in the most unusual way in that I wrote a draft of it in 1990 in one sitting, and then I lost the manuscript. I had printed it out and set it aside, but two days later I couldn’t find it. I was haunted by the story for twenty years, occasionally thinking that I would rewrite it, maybe turn it into a novella, possibly even a screenplay. But it wasn’t until around 2009 or so that I was asked to contribute to a Ray Bradbury tribute anthology, and the only idea of mine that was Bradbury-esque was “The Phone Call.” So I finally – twenty years later – revisited it. And that story set the tone for The Fear of Everything. (Side-note: When I was moving to Louisiana in 2013, I found the original version of “The Phone Call.” I was surprised at how many details from the original, which I had never read after writing it, made it into the version twenty years later.)

 

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

I submitted the book to two contests, and it was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award contest, but then I set it aside for another year. So, the low was my own lack of energy to do anything with the book during that time. I was going through a rough patch, and I didn’t have the energy to do anything with it.

A year later, I revised it again and decided to do something with it. Short story collections have limited opportunities to get published and limited audiences, but I wanted to take pride in the book itself, the product. I wanted it to look good. The University of Louisiana Press had a new publisher, so I approached him about the possibility of publishing it. Fortuitously, after the press accepted it, I was awarded a professorship, which comes with a stipend that can be put toward publication costs, so I asked UL Press if I could have a hand in making production decisions. For the first time, I was responsible for hiring a cover artist (Keith Rosson did the cover), hiring the printer (the printer I hired had done one of my previous books), and hiring a copywriter with whom I’d previously worked.  It was a stressful process, but it was also great fun to be that deeply involved in the book’s production, which wouldn’t have happened without the professorship. And I love how the book looks, so I’m happy with the final product, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Develop a writing habit. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s ten minutes or eight hours. Try to stay in contact with the work.

 

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

As a whole, the tone of the book surprised me. If anyone’s familiar with my previous books, they may be expecting humor, but this book, though not without humor, is much darker and stranger than my previous books. There are also fantastical elements here and there, which may surprise anyone who’s read my previous books.

 

How do you approach revision?

 My approach to revision is patience. The last story in this book – “Catch and Release” – took ten years. I wrote half of it in 2007, couldn’t figure out how to push it forward, set it aside for ten years, and came back to it in 2017 to finish it. When I was younger, I was in a hurry to get published, and I published some stories before they were ready. I’m 54 now. I’m not in much of a hurry for anything anymore. When I was younger, I placed the burdens of my life on the work I was doing. My logic went something like this: In order to get a job, I needed to publish, and the more I published, the better the job. These days, the publication of a story yields nothing for me except for the publication itself. If a story takes ten years, it takes ten years.

 

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THE BOOK HERE: https://ulpress.org/products/the-fear-of-everything

 

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://ulpress.org/products/the-fear-of-everything

 

READ A STORY FROM THIS BOOK, “The Magician”: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/463/the-magician

 

 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

TBR: Make Them Cry by Smith Henderson and Jon Marc Smith

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?

DEA agent goes to Mexico to bring in a cartel lieutenant and discovers a criminal conspiracy that stretches back to the US occupation of Afghanistan.


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

We had a really great time creating Tomás, the sicario who’s addicted to reading. He’s a killer and you’d be a fool to mess with him, but he’s also quiet and thoughtful and he spends all his spare time reading novels. He’s our fave, for sure.

The thing that gave us the most trouble was deciding where to begin. We actually began too late in the story and needed to delve into Diane’s story to properly lay out the world and this twisted tale.


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

We started this project over a decade ago, so it’s been quite a journey. It was first a screenplay that went through many iterations. After Smith sold FOURTH OF JULY CREEK, we decided to try to write it as a novel and, thanks to our awesome agent Nicole Aragi and ECCO, here we are.

As we mentioned above, we originally started the story in the wrong place. After all these years working on the thing, we had to start over again. That was a bummer. But that’s just how it goes. Writing can be incredibly inefficient and unpredictable. Story is the most important thing. It matters more than how tired or frustrated the writers are.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

If you can, write in the morning before you’ve had any media, but after the first few sips of coffee.


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

Harbaugh surprised us in that she went from being a secondary character in our first drafts to being the protagonist in this book.

 

How did you find the title of your book?

We found the title MAKE THEM CRY by thinking about the best way to get across what our protagonist does. Her expertise in the DEA is getting suspects to flip, to start cooperating. The way she does that is by burrowing into their soft-spots and getting them emotionally turn themselves over to her. She flips them by “making them cry.”


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

Tamales, tacos, frijoles, and beer.

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK HERE: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/make-them-cry-smith-hendersonjon-marc-smith?variant=32126227742754

 

READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHORS HERE: http://www.smith-henderson.com

 

READ AN EXCERPT OF THIS BOOK: https://crimereads.com/excerpt-make-them-cry/

 

 

Monday, October 5, 2020

TBR: Abjectification: Stories & Truths by C. Kubasta

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?

 

These stories are about intimacy and isolation; desire haunts and animates the characters. In trying to find connection, but maintain safety, and a sense of self, they tread dangerous ground. Sometimes saucy, sometimes uncanny, occasionally horrific, the narratives lead to the Terrible Place: close quarters and intimate conflict in sites of past trauma that determine the future. 

 

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

 

There are two stories I find myself thinking about over and over, “Freak Show” and “Boundaries.” In “Freak Show,” the couple Meghan and Jeff are trying to make a relationship separate from their pasts and the people they were in their small town – but they can’t. Distrust keeps showing up, a third wheel: as Meghan remakes her body, and offers forgiveness, Jeff can’t accept love-without-strings, or put his father’s “wisdom” out of his head. He imagines his girlfriend as monstrous, trying to consume him. In Jeff, I see a man caught in a trap – made by his father, patriarchal religion, himself – and he resents the woman trying to help free him, because he can’t free himself. I don’t know if writing this story gave me trouble, but it troubles me.

 

In “Boundaries,” I drew on many people I loved – from college days, and then seeing them again recently. I wanted to capture the feeling of sisterhood, and togetherness, and then break that in the story with all kinds of intrusions: people who don’t understand those bonds, and a supernatural force. Writing that story, I got to imagine the power of those relationships, and the kinds of violence it would take to destroy them. That sounds like a strange kind of pleasure – but writing about that destruction I knew what those whole things (people, and relationships) really meant to me.

 

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

 

My previous books have been poetry, and short novels – so a collection of stories was a little different. I would have liked to get a few more stories published before the book came out, but there wasn’t much time. Also, because some of the stories have some rather sexy bits, I’m a little less sure how to promote and share – (should I block my mother?) – (what about co-workers?) . . .

 

But this is my second book with Apprentice House, a student-run publishing house at Loyola Maryland, and it’s been a wonderful experience. As a teacher myself, I care deeply about giving students this hands-on practice with books & publishing, and they are wonderfully responsive. In particular, I LOVE my book cover! We worked together on ideas, and they found this very cool photography studio out of Finland with a modern take on a vintage cabinet card. Working with Apprentice House has definitely been a high.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

 

I just read a tweet that had a Creative Non-Fiction prompt: Write about the day your childhood ended. Ouch. I’m not ready for that yet, but I do recommend writing what scares you, what you think you can’t write, about the thing you think you’d never be able to read aloud . . . and all that. We need to write about things that matter, and our writing should scare us.

 

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

 

When I went back to look at my stories, listing themes and images, trying to think about structure, I was surprised how many featured dead mothers/ghost mothers/absent mothers . . . my mother is very much alive, and we’re good. I’ve also had many mother-like figures who have loved me and mentored me –smart, strong women in my life. (Maybe this is something I should talk to a therapist about . . .) Perhaps what I fear is the missing mother, or the mother who is there but not there – or, like the mother in “Hand-Me-Down” the mother who is dead, but refuses to be erased. As a non-mother myself, it’s interesting to me how often this mother-imagery comes up, and one reason I was interested in the idea of the “abject” in the book.

 

How did you find the title of your book?

 

My friend Jennifer and I were going back and forth about the title for the first story (now called “Morning After”) and I mentioned the idea of “Abjectification” – combining the theory of the Abject (from horror) with objectification. In that story, the unnamed woman wakes up under a bed, unsure how she got there, and sees herself – or someone who looks identical – being dragged unconscious down the hall, as a victim. They are wearing the same clothes, but the victim-self is bruised, bloodied. Time splits. I wanted to capture that moment of dislocation – being the self who sees herself as victim, but also wants to survive and disown the body being dragged down the hall. I said “Abjectification” was probably “too wonky” and “too academic.” But she (and to be fair, she’s kinda picky) liked it. And now I love it – it’s weird and original, and suggests all the things I want.

 

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

 

At the beginning of the final story, “Boundaries,” the group is grilling out – they’ve been day-drinking, and it’s idyllic. Mid-summer in the Adirondacks. Before Sarah’s migraine begins to throb, before Kevin disappears, before the rest head into town to find cell service, and are told they shouldn’t be there – that those “are bad woods.” So if you want a delicious meal before things spin out of control . . .

 Center-cut salmon filet

Thinly-sliced red onion

Thinly-sliced citrus (whatever, but clementines, blood oranges, lemon are good)

Salt & Pepper

EVOO

 

~Arrange salmon on tin foil, sprinkle with S&P, layer with onion & citrus, douse with            EVOO

~Fold tin foil over top, tenting

~Place on grill and cook to desired doneness

~Serve with tossed green salad, and crusty bread + lots of wine

~Lock the door, and whatever you do, don’t separate from the group

*****

 READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK: https://www.ckubasta.com/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK:

Publisher: https://aerbook.com/maker/productcard-5665230-4208.html?brand_id=215904

Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/books/abjectification-stories-truths/9781627202756

 READ A STORY (OR TWO):

“Bluebeard’s Wife” https://www.dreampoppress.net/c-kubasta/

“Treasure Hunt” http://www.midnightlit.com/archive/volume-2-winter-2019/treasure-hunt/

 

 

Monday, September 28, 2020

TBR: Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories by Donna Miscolta

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?

 

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and civil rights eras, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories delivers the milestones of American girlhood—slumber parties, training bras, proms—through the eyes of “brown, skinny, and bespectacled” Angie, who learns early that pageant winners, cheerleaders, and the Juliets in school plays are always white, and that big vocabularies are useless in navigating cliques and clubs. Living Color traces Angie’s formation as a writer, from the diffident, earnest child who jots down new words in a notebook to the emboldened high school student publishing unpopular opinions in her new “loud-enough-to-be-heard” voice.

 

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

 

I loved creating Angie Rubio, endowing her with all of my insecurities but also giving her a sort of innocence – not a blamelessness or goodness – but an earnestness with which she pursues her goal of finding where she fits within her family, among her classmates, and in the larger world.

 

I had some trouble with Angie’s nemesis Judy Wiekamp. It was easy to paint her as Angie’s antithesis, but I had to remember that Judy had to have depth, had to be faceted, had to have humanity so that she wasn’t a caricature. I hope I succeeded. At any rate, I think the thorny relationship between Angie and Judy consists of complex, layered behaviors rather than breezy, one-note exchanges. While most of the revelatory moments belong to Angie, there are subtle insights into Judy as a full human being.

 

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

 

The lows were what many of us experience – rejections or unanswered queries that make you question yourself and your work. You’re about to give up or at least take a break from querying and submitting when you hear back from the small press you thought would be a good fit for your book. Relief, gratitude, and delight ensue. Jaded Ibis Press’s mission to publish “socially engaged literature with an emphasis on the voices of people of color, people with disabilities, and other historically silenced and culturally marginalized voices” corresponds precisely to who my protagonist is and what my book is about. That is definitely a high.

 

 What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

 

I like to remind myself often of these words attributed to Cynthia Ozick: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing. It acknowledges the self-doubt we all feel but implies reward through persistence.

 

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

 

Each story reflects a different year in Angie’s life, which means a slightly different way of looking at the world and Angie’s response to it. I was surprised at how comfortable it felt to write from Angie’s point of view as she progressed from year to year, grade to grade, each time confronting some new challenge or obstacle. What surprised me the most was that I wasn’t entirely aware that each story had at some level Angie’s inclinations as a writer, each story contributed to that not entirely visible aspect of Angie’s make-up. It wasn’t until the penultimate story that this was so plainly revealed.

 

 

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?

 

Almost every story contains some little nugget from my life. It’s the most semi-autobiographical thing I’ve written. And yet, it was so easy to separate myself from Angie and to let her take on a life and personality of her own. At the same time, I could still identify with her awkwardness, her mortifications, and her deep desire to find herself and her way in life. Even if my readers don’t happen to have had the experience of growing up as a skinny, brown girl, my hope is that they will connect with her as she negotiates the obstacles of microaggressions and her own wobbly self-esteem to emerge determined to claim a path for herself.

 

 

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

 

Unfortunately, school lunches and cafeteria fare are the foods primarily featured in the book – bologna sandwiches, little side bowls of steamed-to-death peas, dust-crumbly cookies, that sort of thing. Also, there are the menu choices at Bob’s Big Boy mentioned in one story. There is a bit of haute cuisine at the French restaurant Angie and her prom date go to where they eat “garlicky, squishy things.”

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK AND AUTHOR: https://donnamiscolta.com/

 

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://www.indiebound.org/search/book?keys=donna+miscolta

 

READ AN EXCERPT, “First Confession”: https://crate.ucr.edu/first-confession/

 

Monday, September 21, 2020

TBR: Look at Him by Anna Starobinets. Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young

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?

In this groundbreaking memoir, Russian writer Anna Starobinets chronicles the devastating loss of her unborn son to a fatal kidney defect. After her son’s death, Starobinets suffers from nightmares and panic attacks; the memoir describes her struggle to find sympathy, community, and psychological support for herself and her family. Look at Him ignited a firestorm in Russia, prompting both high praise and severe condemnation for the author’s frank discussion of long-taboo issues of women’s agency over their own bodies, including the aftereffects of abortion and miscarriage on marriage and family life.

 

What part of the translation process did you most enjoy? Why? And what part was most challenging, and why?

I loved working with Anna’s voice. For a memoir about the loss of a child, there’s a very great deal of wit and even humor in the book, most of it supplied by the authorial voice. In some chapters, Starobinets uses the device of “splitting in two.” Each of the two halves—the frantic, frightened one and the cool, detached woman observing her—will weigh in. Anna’s self-portrait is carefully crafted, but also apparently unvarnished. We watch a distinctly fallible, terrified mother face an impossible choice: kill her baby now, or watch him die in agony later?

 

The subject matter of pregnancy, not to mention pregnancy loss, was challenging. People who learn Russian as I did, in college, rarely learn terms for women’s bodily functions, childrearing, traditional women’s work, or basic domestic rituals—you have to pick that stuff up elsewhere. And how should one translate the cutesy names of children’s toys, diapers, and related items (by way of example, how would you translate something like “Linkimals Smooth Moves Sloth” into another language?)? But I think the hardest moment of this book for me to translate was the scene when Anna is in the hospital waiting for the hormones that will start her labor—and the termination of her pregnancy—to kick in. The nurse advises her to watch a movie, but the only thing she has stored on her laptop is an old Soviet musical version of The Three Musketeers: lots of prancing horses and plumed caps and singing cavaliers. The title of the chapter in Russian – the chapter in which Anna will lose her son forever—is taken from a line in one of the songs that literally means “It’s time, it’s time.” It took me forever to wrestle that short verse of the song into anything approaching song lyrics in English that could supply an appropriate title for the chapter—I finally came up with “Bye-bye.”

 

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

The book deals forthrightly with an impossible dilemma: what to do when your unborn child is diagnosed at 16 weeks with a fatal birth defect and, moreover, likely to die in excruciating pain no matter what you choose. One option: late-term abortion. I was pretty sure no major American publisher would touch such a book—there are only a handful of books on this topic in existence, in fact. In the end, I was lucky to find the small wing of a university press that specializes in Russian literature. However, going with a university press has meant a great deal of do-it-yourself work to publicize and market the book. Fortunately, the greater Russian-language community in the US has enthusiastically embraced this project; most have already read the book in the original. The virtual book launch will span continents and time zones—it includes author Anna Starobinets (Moscow), scholar Muireann Maguire (Exeter, UK), and the amazing Russian émigré literary bloggers Olga Zilberbourg and Yelena Furman of Punctured Lines (California)—and me in the Washington, DC, area. (NOTE: You may register for the 9/26/2020 book launch here.)

 

 

What's your goal when you start a new translation project?

I want to make something beautiful. I’m a poet myself, and a lot of my translation work is getting Russian-language poetry into English. There are many different schools of thought about what translation should be, but my goal is pretty simple: I want to make the work sound as if it had been written in English. In terms of larger prose projects, I choose books that I love myself, and authors I admire. My last book project before this one was the fiction of a political prisoner in Azerbaijan, a book called Farewell, Aylis. Its author, Akram Aylisli, is being persecuted today in his own country simply because of the fiction he chooses to write. I seem to gravitate towards controversial projects—as if by translating them I could write a wrong or negate an injustice. In the case of Look at Him, I’m hoping that both sides in the abortion debate will find a little bit of common ground in this beautiful and heartbreaking memoir. That’s a pretty quixotic notion of the power of translation—but it makes me very proud of what I do.

 

Some people think of translation as the mechanical transmission of words from one language to another. What makes this particular translation a work of art?

I suppose it’s possible to make even a sublime work in the original language tedious and unpleasant in English—that’s on the translator, of course. Any good translator takes into account things like tone, the sort of language used in the original—are the insults witty or vulgar, for example? If the narrator is a child, do they speak in a child’s voice (and if not, why did the writer make that choice, and how can it be conveyed in English)? A particular problem in translating from Russian is that Russian grammar lends itself to very long sentences, much too long for the tastes of most native English speakers. So, translators try to shorten those sentences. But in the last book I translated, every time I tried to shorten a sentence, I discovered that I was hacking apart one of the classical figures of speech—climax, antimetabole, chiasmus—so I had to find a way to keep those rhetorical units together. Translating is very much a kind of handicraft—the original author gives us the raw material, of course, but it’s up to the translator to shape and polish the work in English.

 

What kind of accommodations, if any, have you made for English-language readers? Did you change the book's title in translation?

There was obviously a bit of contextualization needed—the system through which medical care is accessed and delivered in Russia is very different than the systems familiar to American readers. Some of that context was delivered in the translation itself—inserting a clarifying adjective or phrase, for example, where none was needed in the original—but in the end I wrote a short translator’s introduction with a basic outline of how things work in Russia. The title is the same in both languages, but I had to adapt things like the song lyrics I mentioned before to make music in English.

 

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

There’s a terrifying episode in the book when Anna suffers a severe panic attack during the short walk to pick up pizza at her neighborhood café. And for months after the loss of her son she’s unable to swallow food—her throat just closes up. She finally starts to recover her health and her spirits when she follows a therapist’s advice to go to Greece and eat olives and feta cheese. “Olives and Feta Cheese” is the title of that chapter, in fact.

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHORhttps://starobinets.ru/eng/

 READ MORE ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: https://katherine-young-poet.com/anna-starobinets/

 ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://slavica.indiana.edu/bookListings/Three_String_Books/Look_at_Him

 

 

 

 

Monday, September 14, 2020

TBR: Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard

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 few years ago, it fell to me to clean 50 years’ worth of hoarded stuff out of my mother’s house. As I dug through it all, I realized I was far from alone—and I got to wondering why so many of us wind up drowning in clutter. Contemporary society likes to shame clutterbugs, but clutter has been around since at least the Industrial Revolution—and it’s a systemic problem more than a personal failing.


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?

To get at the bigger problem of clutter, I had to start with a painful private experience—the squalor my mother wound up living in. Early on, it felt like a betrayal to take that hidden shame and put the squalid details out there for the world to see. As I heard more and more cleanout stories, though, I realized that my mother’s situation, which felt uniquely awful to me, was part of a much bigger problem. I took heart from the idea that by sharing it, and sorting out how it got so bad, I might help lighten the load for other families. That gave me the courage to keep going, even when the going was painful.

 

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

So many twists and turns! Nothing about the process unfolded the way I expected it would, and I’m sometimes amazed the book exists at all. I started work on it as a lifeline of sorts while I got my mother’s house cleaned out and ready to sell. I was stuck in a terrible job. It was a miserable time all around, and it was only out of sheer desperation I managed to finish the proposal. I worked with an agent for a while and we got nowhere. Friends advised me to drop the project. But I felt compelled to keep going, and wound up taking the proposal out on my own. A friend put me in touch with Dan Crissman, my wonderful editor at Belt Publishing. He’d been through a similar cleanout with his parents and understood why I needed to write this book. Working with him and with Belt has been a dream.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

There’s so much wisdom out there—I’m a big fan of Jon Winokur’s @AdviceToWriters Twitter feed, which serves up great quotes from lots of writers worth listening to. The two pieces of advice I give myself most often are “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done” (a somewhat kinder version of the “butt in chair” mantra) and “Get out of your own way”— meaning don’t let that inner critic get to you while you’re writing.

 

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

How hard it is to write a book—even one that is “refreshingly concise,” as Kirkus described mine. And at the same time how satisfying it is to be able to stretch out and really explore ideas in a way you just can’t in a shorter-form piece of writing.

 

Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is anybody who has struggled to bring order out of domestic chaos, and has wondered why it is such an ongoing fight. You are not alone in the struggle, friends.

 

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

 My mother was a fabulous cook and baker. She probably owned 500 cookbooks and all kinds of specialized cookware, most of which I donated. One of her specialties, though—and one of the things I most miss her making—was Swedish coffee bread, from an old recipe handed down from my grandmother Alberta. The pecan-roll version was a staple of family Thanksgivings as long as I can remember, and the smell of cardamom still makes me nostalgic for Mom in the kitchen.

 

SWEDISH COFFEE BREAD [Alberta Nilson]

 

2 cups milk, scalded*

6 Tbsp. shortening, melted

2 packets dried yeast or 2 yeast cakes

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

2 beaten eggs

5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

12 cardamom seed pods, seeds removed and pulverized

 

*Note: If using dried yeast, scald only 1 2/3 cups milk and use 1/3 cup warm water to dissolve yeast.

 

Directions:

 Dissolve sugar in scalded milk and let cool to lukewarm. Add yeast, beaten eggs, melted shortening, salt, and ground cardamom seeds. Add flour gradually, beating a long while after each addition to develop gluten. Dough should be soft, not too stiff. Knead gently. Place in a greased bowl and let rise til double in bulk. Shape into two rings or braids and bake at 375 degrees on lower rack for 23 minutes. [My mother would sometimes sprinkle coarse sugar on the loaves before baking.]

 For pecan rolls: If you want to make pecan rolls, leave out the cardamom seed. Take a muffin pan and put some light brown sugar, melted butter, and chopped pecans in the bottom of each muffin tin. Add a ball of dough to each, let rise, and bake about 12 minutes.

 *****

 READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK: www.jenniferhoward.com

 ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://beltpublishing.com/products/clutter-a-history

 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

TBR: Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine

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?

Road Out of Winter is a novel about a young woman who’s grown up working on her family’s marijuana farm. In an extreme winter, she leaves home, only to become the target of the leader of a violent cult because she has the most valuable skill in the climate chaos: she can make things grow.


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

There is a young single mom in the story, like me, but unlike me she’s very outspoken. I loved writing her anger. I have a tendency to keep things in, but she lets you know, and I love that. It was therapeutic, writing her. A friend of mine who is also a survivor pointed out that she behaves as survivors sometimes do—no survival is the same, as no person is the same—lashing out, keeping people away to protect herself. She is what I want to say but wasn’t strong enough to at the time.


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

We actually got an acceptance right away, which shocked me. We had a big list of publishers to try, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about MIRA Books, and that first phone call with Margot Mallinson. I knew she was the editor for my book. She saw it and she saw me.

I was very nervous about gate-keeping. That’s something that has happened a lot to me, and to many other writers who are poor or disabled, women writers, writers of color. I’ve had editors tell me I didn’t understand the words I used, editors that inflicted negative stereotypes into my writing about poverty, that changed my storytelling and therefore my story. But Margot told me straight-off as an editor the most important thing for her was to preserve my voice. She trusted me to write the book with my language, my intensity, my emotion. MIRA allowed me to tell the story the way it needed to be told, and I don’t think some editors or publishers would, especially with me being who I am.

I live below the poverty line in a rural place, I’m physically disabled—I’m never going to be accepted by a certain establishment, no matter how or what I write or am truly capable of. So I’m going to keep going, and do it how I can. Doors open in many different ways. Some of them are held open, some of them open with keys, some of them are pried open with knives. Just get in and hold the door for others.


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

The story didn’t go where I thought it would. I really planned Road Out of Winter to be cross-country book. But the characters just got stuck. What I intended to be a small scene, an encounter with a dangerous group, ended up being a huge deal. And I was so surprised, I actually left the manuscript and walked away for almost a year. Then I came back, re-read it, realized: oh, they never get out of Appalachia. And finished it. It finished itself.

Sometimes it takes that time to complete a piece. Sometimes you have to walk away for a time. I don’t usually write about where I am—emotionally, anyway—but where I have been. Books need that reflection. Books, for me, are about looking back.

How did you find the title of your book?

I owe my title to the writer Jennifer Key. She came up with it in a brainstorming session. My title was originally The Grower, which I liked because the novel starts with the main character’s stepdaddy—so the reader might think the title is about him. He’s the grower. But it turns out, no—it’s this young woman. She has the power. She has the skill in this new winter world that people fight over, kill for.

My publisher wanted a title that was more dynamic, implying the journey that this book takes, and the danger. I fell in love with Road Out of Winter because there IS no road out of winter, no way out, nowhere to go to escape climate chaos—just like there is no road out of poverty. All my characters live in intergenerational poverty. And there is no one cure. No one way out.  You keep moving to survive.


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

Deer meat and fried potatoes, which I ate soooo much of when I was spending a lot of time out on a farm! The characters get sick of it, as I did. That said, potatoes fried in butter with onion is probably my favorite dish of all time. My fiancé is Chicano, and we joke that we’re going to open a restaurant that blends Mexican and Appalachian cooking. I like simple, “trash” foods, things you can find in the woods like ramps, ground cherries. Ground cherry pie is the best thing I have ever baked. Chicken of the woods mushrooms also make an appearance in Road Out of Winter. They’re my favorite. You can spot them because of their bright orange shade. Fry them in butter.


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://www.alisonstine.com








Monday, August 31, 2020

TBR: In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays by Rebecca McClanahan

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?

Can we pretend it’s a high-rise elevator (it’s a New York City book, after all) so that I can take 3 long sentences? I’m pushing the elevator button now. Here goes:

Alternating between brief vignettes and sustained narratives, this memoir-in-essays tracks the heartbeat of New York through the ears of a newcomer: in overheard conversations on park benches, songs and cries sifted through apartment walls, and in encounters with street people dispensing unexpected wisdom. Having uprooted their settled life in North Carolina to pursue a long-held dream of living in Manhattan, the author and her husband struggle to find jobs, forge friendships, and create a home in a city of strangers. The 9/11 attacks and a serious cancer surgery complicate their story, merging the public with the private, the present with the past, to shape a journey richer than either could have imagined.


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

Since my book is a hybrid (a memoir-in-essays) rather than a collection of essays, it’s difficult to separate my process of writing the independent essays from my process of shaping the full book, but I’ll do my best: “Signs and Wonders,” the opening piece, was fun to write, as it represents the briefer, voice-propelled essays in the book. For me, this kind of essay comes naturally, as I can snap into my musical history (I was a vocalist) and delight in the sounds and rhythms of the lines. This is not to say that I don’t attend closely to the language of the longer braided, segmented, or narrative essays as well. But because longer essays require so much revising and reordering and reshaping before they are finished—a process that often stretches into years—I tend to remember their hard labor rather than the more joyous moments that were of course part of their making as well.


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

Oh dear, do I have to? Chronicle the lows, I mean? Following up on the “hard labor” note above, I prefer to be like those women who claim not to remember the pain of childbirth. Suffice it to say that it was indeed a long road we traveled—the book and I—on the way to publication. But each step (or misstep, perhaps) brought the manuscript closer to the book it was destined to become. I guess what I’m saying is that the highs and lows merge in my memory. Both were necessary, as I imagine they are for all writers who are committed to remaining on the long road of writing, wherever it may take them.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Writing begets more writing. Meaning grows on the page. And this, from William Faulker’s Nobel speech: “. . . the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about . . . “


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

Every sentence I write is a surprise; I’m always amazed to witness words growing into sentences and then paragraphs or stanzas and then, if I’m lucky and hang on long enough, into whole poems or essays or stories or books. However successful or flawed the final product might be, the process itself always feels miraculous to me. Imagine: we writers have only the alphabet to work with, yet so many possibilities arise! As for this particular book, what surprised me was how organically related the essays actually were, once I discovered the threads that connected them. Though the pieces vary in length, timeline, form, and thematic emphasis, they all touch on what I imagine as the soundtrack—or heartbeat—of my New York experience. I was delighted when early readers of the manuscript heard this soundtrack. Their responses led me to the final title of the book: In the Key of New York City.


Who is your ideal reader?

In some ways, my ideal reader is always the same for every book: a reader who is willing to step into the pages with me and complete the transaction I’ve begun. I covet readers who are emotionally smart, who can do the work that I believe readers want to do: to make the text their own in any way they can. In the case of this book, of course I hope to touch any reader who has some connection to New York. But I hope that the book’s reach extends beyond that—to anyone who has ever been uprooted or who has felt like a newcomer or outsider, who has longed for connection, and who has been lucky enough to experience a place that changed them in remarkable ways. Maybe that’s reaching too high, but that is my aim. I am grateful to each and every reader. Readers make books possible.


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

In one of the essays, I write about offering my homemade cookies to New York apartment neighbors—and the Con Ed guy—to entice them to become friends. Sadly, the scheme didn’t work too well, but the cookies were excellent! I used the traditional Toll House recipe for chocolate chip and the inside-lid recipe on Quaker Oats for the oatmeal ones, which were the Con Ed guy’s favorite, by the way.

[Editor’s note: Here’s the recipe for the chocolate chip cookies…a favorite in my house!]



READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.rebeccamcclanahanwriter.com


READ AN ESSAY FROM THIS BOOK, “’And We Shall be Changed’: New York City, September, 2001”: https://kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/remembering-911-web-feature/selections/‘and-we-shall-be-changed’-new-york-city-september-2001/



Monday, August 24, 2020

TBR: Etiquette for Runaways--A Novel by Liza Nash Taylor


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 sweeping Jazz Age tale of regret, ambition, and redemption set in rural Virginia, New York and Paris and inspired by true events, including the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935 and Josephine Baker’s 1925 Paris debut in Le Revue Nègre.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why?

I think that bad characters are fun, since we can have them act out things the rest of us (hopefully) repress, like fantasies of revenge, and throwing stuff. The trick is to make these characters sympathetic or likable in some way so they don’t come across as melodramatic stereotypes, right? My character Dora is a street-smart petty thief and probably a sociopath, but she’s generous with the spoils of her pilfering, and she’s a lot of fun at a nightclub.

And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Each of the three parts of this novel are set in different places and each has its own set of characters. I’d have to say that my main character, May Marshall, brought me the most grief. I went through two agents, an MFA program, and several workshops and classes working on this novel. My friend Mary Kay Zuravleff (who’s a fabulous teacher and author) told me early on that May needed to have more agency. She was right. With each revision and draft May’s character became more complex and conflicted. She found her own voice, and I was surprised at how much I was able to tap into my own memories of feelings—especially shame and social anxiety—and attribute those emotions to her. Sometimes that means delving into those locked drawers and reliving some painful stuff. In some cases, I found myself wondering why I continued to hold onto some of this old crap. But we do, don’t we? And here, look! It’s has a use, at last. As it turned out, May develops agency as the plot progresses, and maybe I was also developing some agency as a writer. In the final edits with my publishing editor Jen Pooley, May learned to speak up for herself and make a stand. Agency ended up being a primary theme in the story, and every scene seemed to tie back to that one thing. But it was a process and as a writer, I needed to give myself permission to write a character who is flawed and vulnerable.

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

As I said above, this book took a lot of revising. I even did a big revision after it was under contract. It took a whole year for me to get my publishing contract once it was negotiated. During that time I didn’t touch the manuscript or even look at it, so when I did go back in with my editor I had fresh eyes. So that was something of a blessing, I suppose. As I said before, I submitted this manuscript in 2016 and signed with an agent. When it became clear, after almost a year that our separate visions for this story diverged, we split up, the manuscript having never been sent out to publishing houses. It was tough, and I had a lot of self-doubt. I had to revise and submit all over again. After I found a new agent the manuscript went out right away and took about six months to sell. During that time I finished my MFA and a second manuscript, which is a stand-alone sequel to ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. I was fortunate that my agent, Mark Gottlieb, brokered a two-book deal for me.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Let constructive criticism marinate.

While I worked on this novel I was getting my MFA, and I was learning SO much about dialogue, and character, and pacing—everything! It seems now like every lesson and workshop and advisor is represented in the final product. Taking constructive criticism can be tough, but I leaned that sleeping on it always helps. My first, gut reaction is usually feeling wounded or defensive, or misunderstood, and when we feel that way I think we stop listening. I know I do. The writer’s ego needs to go wait in the car while we get about the business of sifting through suggestions and criticism, picking out what resonates and implementing it, even when it’s hard and we’ve heard something we know is true (but didn’t want to spend the time fixing) like changing from third person to first person, or something huge like that—and once you accept it it’s actually a relief and you can get back to work with purpose.

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

Endings! In both of my novels the endings didn’t reveal themselves to me until I was about three-fourths of the way through. I realized, once I had an ending, that I needed to know my characters more deeply before their behavior could be predicted. I needed to let them fall down, and make stupendously stupid choices even while I was (silently) yelling, “No! Don’t DO that, you idiot!” or something similar. When the endings came to me, they weren’t tied up in a pretty bow. Life seldom is.

How did you find the title of your book?

ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS was not the original title. I liked my first title, The Thin End of the Wedge, but it proved, alas, to be problematic. It was a British idiom I first read in Nancy Mitford’s fabulous 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love. As proclaimed by her character Uncle Matthew Radlett, “the thin end of the wedge” denotes a seemingly insignificant event or action certain to lead to catastrophe and ruin. So, being that the phrase was British and somewhat antiquated, most Americans had never heard it. So it had to be explained, which involved describing not only the meaning of the idiom but also the source. This became tedious. People’s eyes glazed over before I even got to start describing my plot. Then, adding on to that, there was an ongoing issue of the title being repeated with the wrong wording. The title was THE THIN END OF THE WEDGE, but people kept saying “The Thin EDGE of the Wedge.” I got tired of correcting, then going on to explain the meaning, source, etc. as eyes glazed over. So after this happened several times, I asked my publisher if we could re-think it, and they agreed.

I pulled a lot of hair out, wondering, What makes a title great? If I figure it out, maybe I’ll write a book about it titled, Titles for Dummies, or similar. Here’s what I do know: good tiles are evocative and intriguing. Many of them challenge us to puzzle out their meaning—what the hell is a clockwork orange? What was the curious incident/ the something wicked? Those phrases would entice me to pick up the book and have a closer look, and maybe read the cover copy.

So, the final title comes from several references in the story to Emily Post’s premier guide to manners: Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, which was first published in 1922. My main character would have owned a copy. At several points in the story she wonders what Mrs. Post would do in similar circumstances.

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

Yes! I have a signature cocktail called a Bitter Blow. The book is set during prohibition, and at that time people were coming up with creative cocktails to mask the flavor of corn liquor. In the book it’s described this way: “Shadblowberry cordial, moonshine, soda water, and a dash of bitters.”  Shadblow berries are sort of a cross between a blueberry and a currant. My dogs eat them off the bushes in our yard. I’m working on translating this into a modern-day recipe. I’m thinking it will be something like a Cosmopolitan with Cassis instead of cranberry, or something similar.

*****

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

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://www.blackstonepublishing.com/





Work-in-Progress

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