Monday, January 25, 2021

TBR: Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah

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 young Saudi couple moves to Cleveland to study in the early 1970s. When they divorce, the wife fears her daughter will be taken from her because of Saudi custody law. She disappears with the little girl, and the husband is left to search for his lost daughter.


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

I loved writing Haleemah, who is the mother of Muneer, the young husband. Haleemah is loosely based on my grandmother and women of her generation. My grandma was illiterate, a child bride, had 12 children. As the matriarch of our large family, she was loving and sweet but also sometimes petty and willing to pit one of her children against the other. In an early draft, I wrote a whole section from her point of view, and although later that section ended up being told in Muneer’s point of view, I was really able to get to know her.

Saeedah, the young wife who abducts her own daughter, was the hardest for me. Unpacking Saeedah’s motivations was such a challenge and a process. She’s one of the reasons this novel needed time to germinate. I wanted people to see the deep trauma her actions caused for Muneer, their daughter Hanadi, and others, while at the same time not painting her simply as a villain. That was hard!


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

I started Bride years ago when I first learned of a family friend’s reunion with his daughter, long after she’d been abducted by her mother. I workshopped some of the early pages but I never got real momentum, and then I set the book aside to work on another novel. When I finished that manuscript, I scrapped everything I’d written on THIS one and started over. That’s when I slowly started to figure out how to interweave the three perspectives of Hanadi, Muneer and Saeedah.

While my agent, Steven Chudney, and I were submitting the manuscript to editors, I ended up reworking it because of feedback we got. So, there’d be a low of “I need to rethink X and Y” and a high of “Eureka! I think I’ve got it.”

Tin House acquired the book last March, the same week my kids’ schools shut down because of COVID-19. It was a thrill to find Bride a home at such a well-respected indy house with an editor, Masie Cochran, who really loved it. Of course, back then I thought that by early 2021 we’d be back in person, but it’s still enormously exciting to have my first book coming out, no matter the challenges.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

My favorite piece of writing advice is not about novels at all, it’s about opinion writing. Former USA Today opinion editor John Siniff told me, “If no one would argue against it, it’s not an opinion.” Here’s how I translate his advice for fiction and essay writing: Don’t be safe, and find the things that only you can say.


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

The ending surprised me. I had long envisioned a particular way of ending the book, and then my editor suggested that I cut the last 20 to 25 pages. Now I think the place where the reader leaves the narrative is perfect.


How did you find the title of your book?

The book’s title is the nickname for Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where I grew up. I can’t remember exactly when I decided on the title, but it’s so poetic and speaks to so many of my novel’s themes. For me, the title also evokes the regional identity of the Hijaz, the part of western Saudi Arabia where Jidda is located.


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

Food definitely helps me tell the story and reveal the themes of Bride. As newlyweds, Muneer and Saeedah try to make their mothers’ rice and lamb recipes, and how they go about it tells us something about their marriage. Then, when mother and daughter are on the run in Ohio, Hanadi watches Saeedah make the Saudi version of shakshuka, but to Hanadi it’s just tomatoes and eggs. She doesn’t know the cultural significance of it. And when Hanadi finally meets her paternal grandmother in Jidda, the first thing Haleemah does is feed Hanadi, as though it’s Haleemah’s way of speaking her love across languages and making up for lost time.


Saudi-style Shakshuka

Chop ½ onion (or a whole one) and sauté in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile, peel a tomato (or two) and squeeze out the seeds and juice. Chop the tomato and toss in the pan. Sauté until the tomato thickens a little. Add two to three beaten eggs. Season with cumin, salt, and pepper. Swirl with a chopstick or spatula as the eggs cook. Eat with pita, white cheese, and zaatar. 








READ AN EXCERPT, “You Drive Me Crazy”:

Monday, January 18, 2021

TBR: Call a Body Home by Michael Alessi

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 stories of Call a Body Home explore the borderlessness between nature, violence and memory against the Appalachian backdrop of Virginias Shenandoah Valley. Its characters are working class parents, children and siblings struggling to maintain the familial ties and traditions that bind them together, even as time and trauma threaten to uproot them. By turns savage and soulful, Call a Body Home offers a portrait of the modern South and how we fight through hardship and grief to find a way home. 


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


The opening story of the collection, “Shrimp of the Dirt,” was the most pleasurable to write. I’m a sucker for stories centered around animals and natural phenomena, and this particular story, which revolves around two cicada emergences, gave me an excuse to do research on the ecology of the Shenandoah Valley where I grew up. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. The story also contains a few moments that are deeply personal to me, including the game described in the second section, which is based on a real game my mother played with me and my twin sister when we were children.


The story that took the most work was “Texaco Station.” Writing convincingly from a child’s perspective seems simple enough on the surface, especially if our first inclination is to present that point-of-view as limited, but the reality is of course more complex. Children are hardly limited in their ability to perceive deeper truths. It’s their ability to communicate these perceptions and turn them into agency that might be limited. On the latter point, I had to revise the ending several times before I was satisfied enough to leave it alone. Without spoiling anything, it rhymes with the ending of the story that comes before it, which I hope makes it feel as though the two moments are speaking to each other.


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


The biggest challenges with a manuscript like this one were 1) recognizing that it should be a chapbook, and 2) finding a publisher willing to take a chance on a very short collection of stories. While the chapbook has a rich history in poetry, it’s certainly less common for prose writers to publish very short collections, though things are starting to change. Call a Body Home began as a full-length collection of stories, but as I revised the project, I began to obsessively cut out stories I wasn’t satisfied with and shorten those that remained. At first, I was dismayed: even though it felt like each new, shorter version of collection was tighter and more cohesive than the one before it, it also felt like I was getting farther and farther away from a length where the project would be publishable. 


That feeling changed once I attended a reading by Kathleen Rooney shortly after Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk was released. She shared some advice that helped her as both a writer and publisher (at Rose Metal Press) who often works in shorter, experimental prose: approach the world of publishing not as a ladder you have to climb to place your manuscript with the largest possible venue, but rather as an ecosystem of lily pads, big and small, that you can hop between, depending on which venue is the best fit for your project. If you look at her career, she’s been prolific in publishing books across a wide range of genres and lengths this way, and recognizing her success gave me the confidence to stop conforming to the standards I imagined a larger publisher might want in a project, and instead follow my gut, cut the manuscript down to its simplest form, and hope to find the right lily pad. It took some time to do both, about 2 years, which was probably the low point in the journey.


There are maybe a half dozen independent presses that consider chapbook-length collections of stories, and I count myself as extremely lucky to have worked with Mason Jar Press. Michael Tager, Ian Anderson, and Heather Rounds are compassionate readers and supremely talented at what they do, and they quickly became champions of my work and my vision for the collection, which they picked as the winner of MJP’s 5th anniversary chapbook contest. Getting that news was certainly a high, even if the pandemic upended everything just a few months later. Throughout all the challenges this last year posed, Michael, Ian, and Heather went out of their way to make me feel deeply involved in each step of the publishing process. I’m beyond grateful to them for their help in bringing Call a Body Home into being.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


This is going to sound bizarre, but its Dont forget to make your drug dealers do the dishes.” You could insert any personal or professional title into this phrase, but this is the version I received from my first mentor, Hanna Pylvainen, in the context of an undergraduate workshop discussion about a story where the characters behaved purely as facilitators of plot. Her point being: your characters are meant to behave like people, so take the time to get to know them through their everyday routines, however ordinary they might seem. The action doesn’t have to be remarkable for you to discover specific and surprising truths about your characters.


Another piece of advice from the same workshop: “Your competition is the laundry.” Readers have their own chores and routines that might threaten to interrupt their reading at any moment, so the onus is on you to keep them engaged. When it comes time to revise, it helps to ask yourself the question, “Is this scene/paragraph/sentence going to hold the attention of a reader who is also thinking about the laundry they have to fetch from the dryer?” 


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


There were a few times where I got to that point, but one moment that stands out came at the end of “Goshen Pass” where I describe one character touching his wife’s scars, with his fingers “tracing their topographic map of a valley, searching for a sign of home across a distance too great to tell.” That line wasn’t anywhere on my radar when I was writing the scene, but it emerged more or less as written, and changed the way I saw the story. Once I had that line, the characters, and the larger questions of the collection about home, belonging and grief, all clicked into place. For that reason, I arranged the sequence of stories so that “Goshen Pass” sits at the heart of the book. 


 How did you find the title of your book?


I’ve always struggled when it comes to titles. Call a Body Home takes its name from the second story of the collection, which didn’t even have that title until just before I submitted the manuscript to Mason Jar. Originally, it was titled “Sow.” I was looking for a title that could give voice to the themes of the collection, one of which is the pull of home, which is especially strong in the Appalachian mountain communities I write about. There’s a moment where the character at the center of the title story, a girl who has been left behind with the rest of her family after her mother runs off, experiments with “testing gestures, such as slapping her brother when he tells her to chew with her mouth closed, hoping to find one that might summon their mother back from her new home.” That desire— to call her mother back home, to be made whole with a family and an ancestral place—rhymed with the imagery contained in the last line of the story, and once I saw how the former motivated not just her character, but a majority of the characters in the collection, I realized that it had to be the title. I like that it carries more than one meaning—it can refer to both the act of calling a person home, and finding that home within ourselves.


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

 In the first story, “Shrimp of the Dirt” (linked below), I mention a few simple cicada dishes. Here’s a recipe courtesy of Richmond chef John Seymore: 


Blackened Cicadas with Grilled Onions and Peppers

4-6 servings



30-40 cicadas (gathered as they emerge from the ground, remove heads, legs and wings)

1 red pepper, thinly sliced

1 green pepper, thinly sliced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. butter

Salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 Tbsp. blackened seasoning:

1 1/2 Tbsp. paprika

1 Tbsp. garlic powder

1 Tbsp. onion powder

1 Tbsp. thyme

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tsp. oregano

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper




In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups water to boil. Add cicadas and boil 4-5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Grill peppers and onions until al dente, season with salt and pepper. Set aside.


Heat saute pan until hot. Add olive oil, then cicadas. Saute 1-2 minutes. Add blackened seasoning, onions and peppers. Saute 1-2 minutes more. Finish with butter.


Serve over grits as a substitute for shrimp.








READ A STORY, “Shrimp of the Dirt”:



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