Monday, September 26, 2022

TBR: The Witch Bottle and Other Stories by Suzanne Feldman

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?


From Depression era Mississippi to the suburbs of modern America, to the trials and tribulations of smart young women struggling to make a name for themselves in the arts, Feldman delves deep into the dreams and emotions of regular people and makes them beautiful and accessible. This prize-winning collection of short stories and two novellas, offers entrancing tales of redemption, betrayal, tradition, and rebellion. These narratives range in mood from "The Lapedo Child," a tale of discovery and liberation, to "The Witch Bottle,” a comic examination of a pair of obsessed next-door neighbors. “Untitled Number 20” explores life among women artists at the end of the Flower Power era and the beginning of the Seventies. “The Stages” is a meditation on one woman’s struggle for dignity in the face of divorce and untreatable cancer.


Whether it’s the end of a marriage, or a struggle for fame, the works probe issues that give us that “shock of recognition” that is the hallmark of great art—wonderful, absorbing fiction that will be read and reread for decades to come. 


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


The most fun story, I think, is the title story, "The Witch Bottle." I think I wrote it in three drafts, which is unusually fast for me, but it hit all the spots. It’s funny, short, and has a Twist at the end.


The story that went through the most revisions, and took literally years to write was "Goat Island," the final piece. It was about so much—family, art, and the struggle to deal with your family while you TRY to make art. It’s a very personal story, and it took a long time to make it right.


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


Well! The stories in this collection span approximately 15 years of me writing stories and sending them out to contests and publications. Some were published in amazing places, like Narrative Magazine. Some remained…unnoticed? But like they say, “You gotta play to win!” So I kept sending them out, one by one until I had enough for a collection. Then I sent out the collection until at last, the wonderful Washington Writers’ Publishing House chose me as the winner of their annual fiction competition, and here we are! One of the absolute highs of this book was getting to work with the artists, both friends of mine, on the cover, which we are all very proud of!


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Alice McDermott once said to me, “You don’t have to write that novel in order.”


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


Without a doubt, after spending two years in pandemic circumstances—lockdown, isolation and so on—winning the WWPH competition and seeing this collection out in the light of day was incredibly affirming. I don’t know if that qualifies as a surprise, but it’s a fantastic feeling.


How did you find the title of your book?


The title of the book is the title of the funniest story, which I thought would be appropriate. My ideal reader likes to laugh, likes to cry, and likes a good profound story to think about for years to come.


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


Sorry! The only food group in this book is Cheetos.










Monday, September 19, 2022

TBR: We Are Not Okay by Christian Livermore

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?


I grew up a shy little girl in a turbulent family sunk in poverty, violence, substance abuse and mental illness. I ate government cheese, suffered from malnutrition and struggled to defend my body against threats both outside the house and within it. And even though I made it out, I have suffered a lifetime of consequences since: excruciating health problems, fear and shame. Especially shame. In these deeply personal essays, I explore what it means to grow up poor in America and ask whether it is possible to outrun the shame it grinds into your bones. I excoriate the inhumanity in how the United States treats its poor and ask the nation to confront how growing up poor in America brutalizes us and warps our perspective on ourselves, on other people and on the world.


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


Hmmm, the one I most enjoyed writing. I have to say it's the one about my mother, Drugs My Mother Took. It's about what it was like to grow up with her as a practicing alcoholic and drug addict who also had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. It was chaotic and messy and heartbreaking, but she's also brilliant, interesting and incredibly witty, so it could also be hilarious and great fun at times, and as I was writing it I found that I was looking back with great fondness on all the fun things and not having any begrudging feelings about the not-so-fun things, which was nice and also revelatory for me. It was also great and very illuminating on a purely personal level because she participated, talked with me extensively before I wrote it, and gave me all kinds of information and amazing quotes for it, so I learned loads of things I didn't know and found out some hilarious reasons for many of the things she doesn't remember, like getting kicked out of Boston and told never to return and that she and my stepfather may or may not have taken me to Graceland.


As for which essay gave me the most trouble, it's the essay about my father, My Father Died Today. I had kept all this stuff bottled up for years, swallowing and swallowing and trying to keep it all down, particularly things about my father, and that creates an incredible pressure and an incredible darkness, a feeling of darkness and ugliness about yourself and the world. You feel it rising in your throat 24 hours a day. But I really did not want to write the essay. I didn't want to even think about it. The impetus to finally start writing it was a question my master's degree supervisor, John Burnside, asked us in class one day. He asked us to think about the worst thing we had ever done to anybody, and my answer to myself was so much more complicated than that. It had to do with my father and the impact he had on me and how I dealt (or didn't) with that, the things I did and failed to do as a result of it all. Then over the course of several one-on-one meetings in his office we talked about our backgrounds and his first memoir, A Lie About My Father, and he kept encouraging me to write about my experiences. He said that we don't write these things for sympathy but so that other people will understand they're not alone in such traumas. I had an essay due in a few weeks, so I decided to take a crack at writing about my father. When I saw John the first time after I submitted it, he was so positive about the essay and so encouraging. I also noticed a lightness in my mind, the peace that came with finally saying it, so I decided to keep going. Ultimately, I wrote this collection.


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


The only low was the extraordinary number of agents and publishers I submitted it to who said no. They just didn't seem to get it, or they didn't think it would sell, or they thought that nobody wants to her about poor White people, which I think they're right about.


Once I found Indie Blu(e) they wrote back very quickly and said it resonated very deeply with them and accepted it. From that point on it's been nothing but highs. They are so talented and so insightful and empathetic and creative and capable. The editing was so smooth and drama-free and before I knew it the editing process was finished and the manuscript was with the editor-in-chief for final approval and the marketing director for a marketing plan. The editor-in-chief designed the cover herself instead of using a designer as she sometimes does, and I am not exaggerating when I say it is the best book cover I have ever seen in my life. It says exactly what the book is about in one image, and it's stark and high-impact and really stands out against a sea of books that are a riot of color. Indie Blu(e) are just amazing. They have given me the best publishing experience I've ever had. I'm also particularly delighted to have gotten a blurb from Junot Díaz. I was writing to all these sort of newish writers with maybe one book because I thought they would benefit as much from demonstrating that they're somebody who's asked to blurb books as I would from receiving a blurb from them, which would make them more likely to say yes. But it was instant rejections from the vast majority of them, who said they simply didn't have time, and from the rest, crickets. So, I thought, well, who would be my dream blurb? I thought of two people and the first was Junot. He's one of my favorite writers, so when he wrote back through his assistant and said he would be very happy to provide a blurb and here it is, I was dumbstruck and absolutely over the moon. Here's what he wrote: “A moving meditation on American precarity. If, as Baldwin has written, home is an irrevocable condition, We Are Not Okay argues that the same might be said for poverty. Livermore is sensitive, insightful and provocative and her book is not to be missed.” I mean, come on. That's amazing. I still go back and re-read it sometimes and think Junot Díaz likes my book, and then I giggle like a little kid.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Oh man, it's hard to pick a favorite, there's so much that's so important and there are so many great insights from so many great writers, but one thing I always make sure to tell my students is something that V.S. Naipaul's father wrote to him because it cuts to the heart of what isn't working in a lot of writing: "If you say exactly what you mean to say, you will have achieved style." This is not only true of style but also of clean writing. As writers we spend a lot of time trying to say what we want to say, and we keep adding words and adding words and adding words, when really the solution is almost always to remove them. A really clean, spare sentence can be devastatingly powerful, not in the way Hemingway did them (sorry, Hemingway fans) but in the way Baldwin and McCullers did them.


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


To be honest, once I really zone out and let go of control over what comes out of my pen, I'm surprised almost all the time. One minute I'm sitting there writing and the next I look up and it's two hours later and there are three or four handwritten pages of stuff, and I think, who the hell wrote this?


But in terms of something in particular that surprised me in the writing of We Are Not Okay, what I didn't expect was the sense of relief and liberation I began to feel by getting it all off my chest. As I said, I had bottled this stuff up for years, and I didn't realize the degree to which that was weighing me down. I was worried that writing about it would feel incredibly exposing and humiliating, and I worried what people would think about me and that I would regret it and feel great shame. But the opposite happened. I felt remarkably liberated. You know that feeling when you've overdone it on cardio, you've been on the treadmill or the bike or the ski machine for like two hours, and you get off the machine and feel instantly lighter, like you're walking on air because of the relief of not working your muscles so hard for that long? It feels like that. I feel like I'm not carrying all that poison around inside me anymore. Robert Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder and struggled for years about what to tell and what not to tell, and in his poem “Epilogue” he writes “Yet why not say what happened?... We are poor passing facts, warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.” That's what writing this memoir has been—giving each figure their name, which means of course naming their actions, and that goes for me, too. Naming my actions, the things I did and failed to do and shouldn't have done, and trying to be really honest about it and not try to make excuses, to say instead mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I feel as though I've done as honest a job of that as I am currently capable of, and I have been surprised about how that has freed me.



How did you find the title of your book?


I had been racking my brain trying to come up with a title, as I always do with everything I write, and when I do that the title is always terrible, just terrible. So, like I always do, I stopped thinking about it. And then one day a while later a friend and I were talking about the state of the United States, its poor healthcare coverage, even with Obamacare (which the Republicans gutted thanks to a tie-breaking vote from Democrat Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, home to so many insurance companies), its lack of a social safety net and concomitant lack of social trust, mass shootings, the potential for violence always bubbling beneath the service, etc. This was before Joe Biden won, and thank the gods he did, but it all still applies because it's a systemic problem, not something one president can fix. And I said something like "We're really in terrible trouble. We are not okay." And my friend and I both looked at each other and simultaneously said, "That's the title."


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


Government cheese. LOL. Good luck coming up with a recipe that makes that palatable.


But in terms of recipes, my grandmother grew up in the Depression, when everybody was poor so there was no expectation that anybody feel ashamed of it. She continued to make Depression meatballs (half meat, half bread) and other foods like that for the rest of her life, and she fed them to me my entire childhood. So here's one of my favorites, with the typical "measurements" old people use that leave you having to guess what they mean:


Potato pancakes (she was Polish, so that's the kind she made)


Potatoes (enough)

Egg (maybe one, maybe two, depends on how many potatoes you're using)

Milk (just a bit)




Oil for frying


1) Finely grate the potatoes. My grandmother used a box grater and did it on the small grate edge that turns it into a slurry.


2) Add an egg, mix well. If you think it needs another egg, go ahead and add it. (I usually find it's fine with one.)


3) Add a tiny bit of milk, just enough to turn the potatoes and egg into a batter.


4) Salt, pepper and parsley to taste. (Or not. If you don't like them, absolutely you can leave them out.) Mix to combine.


5) Heat some kind of vegetable oil in a skillet. She used cast iron, and so do I, but any skillet will be just fine. She used old-timey vegetable oil, I use safflower or sunflower oil. You could also use olive oil, but it doesn't give it the traditional flavor. Flick a drop of water into the skillet. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough and ready to fry with.


6) Pour dollops of batter into the oil (careful; you don't want oil spattering in your face). They should be no larger than the size of a drink coaster (a bit smaller is better). I use a ladle and pour slowly until I have the size I want, but you could also use a tablespoon and spoon in the batter a spoonful at a time.


7) Fry. Cook one side until it's fully solidified, and I like to wait until it's got a nice toasty brown color. Then flip. Obviously do this gently because you're dealing with hot oil. Cook to desired doneness. I like it when they get nice and brown and there are lacy bits all around the edges, but do cook them however you like them.


8) Transfer cooked pancakes to a paper towel or tea towel to absorb the excess oil. Let rest a minute.


9) Eat 'em! I have them with a side of sour cream, which is how my grandmother always did them, but you can also use applesauce (or anything you like, actually).








ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: (although it will be available on Bookshop, Amazon, all the usual places, and I would also encourage readers to order it through their local independent bookstore)



Monday, September 12, 2022

TBR: Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn

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?


Fixed Star interrogates what it means to be caught between two identities intersected by multiple landscapes, politics, class systems, and the personal sense of being both drawn and cut-off from one's roots. The book is arranged in a series of spirals: a pair of sonnet coronas whose lines twine through the collection, as well as lyric, and prose poems. Braided through the collection are the voices, and echoes of Shakespeare, John Cage, Muriel Rukeyser, John Keats, Normando Hernández González, and others who accompanied me on a decades-long journey across the terrains of Cuba, Spain, Florida, and Pennsylvania.


Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why?


The sonnet coronas were the poems I enjoyed writing most. The sonnet was the first received form I ever fell in love with, and I love everything about it, the 14 lines, the volta, the containment. In the coronas I found the leaping off of the last line of the previous sonnet to create a new sonnet was right up there with the deep play I consider necessary for me to make poems.


Which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?


The most difficult poem to write was “How Do You Say Orange?” and that was because it was the first time I had written about being the daughter of an immigrant, about how the Spanish language was used in our home after we moved from Florida, the shame of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and revealed (to me) my long held resentment of that shame. At the time it felt risky to reveal so much about our family dynamics.


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


The best high of the book was learning it was being published by JackLeg Press. I remember every detail of the afternoon when I received the news from Jen Harris and Simone Muench. Most vividly I remember being so moved by Simone’s comments and how I felt so seen. There may have been some tears. I was so thrilled to learn I would be press mates with Maureen Seaton! There were other highs along the way like learning it had been a finalist for The Colorado Prize for Poetry at a time when I was feeling pretty dejected, and other finalist or semifinalist nods for different versions of the manuscript always filled me with gratitude for the readers who continued to push it forward. The lowest point was when I stopped sending it out. I was going through a dark period creatively due to other obligations that required my full attention so I wasn’t generating any new work. Somehow I got it into my head that as long as this manuscript wasn’t published I was still writing. I suspect I was terrified I couldn't make poems anymore and this collection would be my last. I did begin to make new poems eventually, and was finally able to let it go and send it out.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


“Don’t be afraid to write crap.”


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


This is a great question! The entire time I was writing this book I thought I was looking for my tribe, my people, my identity, the people I belonged to, and not until I finished it did I learn that my true people, my true tribe, were other poets and writers.


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


I think I would like readers to know a little of the background story, the impetus behind the collection. My father was a captain in the Cuban Revolution, and my parents met when he was transporting arms for Fidel Castro through the border town of Brownsville, Texas, where my mother lived. Once Castro took power and revealed his true intentions of dictatorship rather than democracy my parents flew to the United States where my father became a US Citizen. I was born in Hialeah, Florida, and spoke Spanish for the first five years of my life. I began school at a time when “English only” was encouraged by the school system to bilingual parents, and I lost my facility with my first language. Cuba was rarely spoken of in our home for fear it would upset my father and as a result knowledge of my heritage was also lost. So this book was written as a quest to discover my lost heritage, to honor my ancestors, and to uncover the costs of assimilation.


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


Mangos, Black Bean Soup, Cuban Pernil (roasted pork shoulder) & Congri (black beans & rice) all make an appearance in the book. Now I’m hungry.


Here’s a recipe for Cuban Pernil:










READ TWO POEMS FROM THIS COLLECTION, “My Body as a Communist Country” AND “My Body as The Tropicana Nightclub, 1952”:






Tuesday, September 6, 2022

TBR: The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman

 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?


Loni Murrow, a 36-year-old bird artist at the Smithsonian in DC, returns to her hometown in the wetlands of northern Florida to care for her ailing mother. There, she gets hints that her father's long-ago death is not what she’d always thought. The swamp and its creatures lead her toward a solution she’s not sure she wants, but can’t resist.  


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


The character I had the most fun with was Mr. Barber. He was an old friend of Loni’s father, and was present in early drafts, but in later drafts he started to pop up in interesting ways that I hadn’t anticipated. He is someone she thought she knew when she was a child and her father was alive, but in the present-day part of the story, his erratic comings and goings are alternately comical and scary.


The character who gave me the most trouble: Probably Delores, the botany librarian at the Smithsonian. I knew she had to be in the book, but early readers wanted to cut her scenes. They didn’t understand what she was doing there, thought she was extraneous. But my editor Jackie Cantor said, “I think you need more Delores.” And that gave me the permission I needed to work harder on Delores and to weave her subplot seamlessly into Loni’s story.


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


Well, the highs came at the end, when Jackie acquired the book. Not only that, she “got” the book. She understood who the characters were and what the movement of the story had to be. The back-and-forth I had with her was highly constructive, because she was so invested in the novel.


The lows, of course, were all the rejections before the book crossed Jackie’s desk. But every writer has to put up with that. I told someone recently—your story just hasn’t passed in front of the right eyes yet! So keep sending it until it does.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Well, there’s the Frank O’Connor idea that a story is the point past which nothing will ever be the same. And then John L'Heureux’s thought that in fiction, only trouble is interesting. But I think the one I quote the most is from my former teaching colleague Hache Carillo: “All you want to write (dramatic pause) is the moment!”


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


The one character everyone responds to is Adlai. What surprised me was the way Loni fights her attraction to him, even though they’re drawn together by a shared love for the natural world. What else surprised me? I guess Loni herself, because I didn’t know when I started writing that she would become such a badass. I mean, she draws birds. That’s kind of a quiet profession. But the girl shows incredible courage in this story.


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


I guess I want booklovers to know that while the plot summary might draw readers in, my goal is to feed them something delicious the whole way through, word by word, without ever letting on that there is a writer behind the words. My gauge of success is when a reader is completely immersed in the dream of the story, without every wanting to come up for air.


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


Yes. Loni’s mother Ruth has a capacious herb garden, and she has learned all of the folkloric uses of the plants she grows. Calendula, or marigold, is a showy yellow flower, but it’s also edible, and called by some “Herb of the Sun.” At one point, Ruth considers making a calendula cake to give the younger Loni a sunny outlook. I have tested the recipe, and while I can’t swear to any mood-enhancing properties, it did taste really good.


Elsewhere in the narrative, there’s also an egg salad that contains a supposed herbal love potion, but I’ll let readers imagine the proportions in that recipe, and venture there with caution.


Calendula Cake Recipe

by Ruth Morrow, fictional character/kitchen tested by Virginia Hartman, author of The Marsh Queen


3 cups cake flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

3 cups sugar

1 cup butter

6 eggs, separated

½ pint sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup calendula (marigold) petals, fresh or dried

          (Be sure these are grown without pesticides)

Fresh marigold flowers, for garnish



Grease and flour a large tube pan.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Dust the calendula petals with a bit of flour until lightly coated. Set aside.

Separate the eggs.

Cream butter and sugar until smooth.

Add egg yolks one at a time.

Sift flour with soda and add alternately with sour cream.

Beat egg whites to stiff peaks.

Fold in egg whites in three stages, sprinkling a third of the calendula petals in each time.

Add vanilla.

Pour batter evenly into the tube pan and bake for 1½ hours.

Cool on a cooking rack in the pan for 30-40 minutes. Then turn pan over to extract the cake onto one plate, put another plate on the bottom, and turn the cake right side up.

Garnish with whole marigold flowers and serve warm or at room temperature.








ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: I hope folks will walk into their favorite independent bookstore and ask for the book. But if they’d like to order it online:









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