Monday, August 28, 2023

TBR: Trick of the Porch Light: Stories by Jessica Barksdale Inclán

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?


Trick of the Porch Light is a story collection full of small, odd situations populated with people who really want to understand their lives. Of course, they go about trying to uncover truths in ways that cause them more pain and perhaps less clarity, though at the end of it all, there is the glimmer for them, hanging just out of reach.


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


I’m not sure enjoy is the word I use when I am “into” writing something. It seems more like being embroiled or consumed or taken over by an idea or character or situation. I often come up with a character with a problem, and then I want to see how they can get out of it or recover in some way.


The story I feel so satisfied with is “I Would See Everything.” It’s a story I started a very long time ago, one that encompasses some of the issues I had as a younger mother, one with small children. My character, though, is recently widowed and trying to come to terms with the problems in her marriage (now forever unsolved) and the issues with her youngest child. She doesn’t know how she will figure anything out, but then, a glimmer.


The stories that caused me the most trouble were the titular story “Trick of the Porch Light” and “Murder House” because they are linked through setting and, fleetingly, characters. The larger story is in “Trick,” and “Murder” is actually a short story one of the characters in “Trick” is writing. It’s all very meta, but I wanted each story to stand on their own. I’m not prone to meta anything, so I spent a lot of time working on both.


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


For over twelve years, this collection of stories—in various states, with various stories, in certain and very different orders and with different titles—was a finalist, semi-finalist, and honorable mention (not to mention short and long-listed) fourteen times, and those were the contests I actually wrote down. All of these stories have been published, some very well, many have won prizes that have included money, a rare thing indeed. A couple were nominated for Pushcart prizes; another other academic awards.


And yet, I could not push this collection through to publication.


During this process, I received many lovely notes from editors. Some notes were not so lovely. One editor wrote me a very long letter about how my characters needed to get a grip! After all, he himself had lost an arm in Vietnam and still managed to have a good life. What is your issue, lady writer, he seemed to be saying.


What sustained me over the years were my readers, those people who helped me with various iterations and my faith in the individual stories. I also published novels and poems and individual short stories. But after a long while, I decided to give this collection one more serious push. For one, I considered all the comments from readers over the years, including the one from the man who lost an arm. I took out one story that he mentioned specifically, something I don’t regret. Then I gave the collection to two faithful readers for final comments, revised a bit more, retitled a few of the stories and the collection itself, and sent it out on its final voyage. This time, it all worked. Maria Maloney from Mouthfeel Press is giving Trick of the Porch light a home. Case closed.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


My first fiction teacher was Anne Lamott, back in the day when she was teaching out of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. I took two of her night classes and wrote the first draft of “I Would See Everything” for one of those classes (I still have the draft she read, and she wrote on the top “You are the real deal.” I should frame it).


One night when she was lecturing, she said, “Three hundred words a day, and in a year you have a novel.”


There is a math problem in there that works. She made sure to let us know that the first draft would be really horrible, but it would be a draft, something whole.


Three hundred words is doable, even during illness and upset and odd times. Also, often 300 words turns into more, sometimes many. But it can also just be 300. An obtainable goal that works. It wasn’t too many years after her class that I wrote my first novel Her Daughter’s Eyes, using her exact formula, this during a time when I was teaching five classes a semester, raising two small children, and trying to scratch out a writing life. And I think about her advice every day when getting ready to write.


How did you find the title of your book?


It wasn’t until I changed the title of “Trick of the Porch Light” from another, lesser title that I realized how the new title spoke to the entire collection. These stories are typically about home, a place that is familiar, and yet, look at the sleights of hand, the tricks, the mysteries right there in front of us in the places we call home.


I also loved the play on the old saying trick of the light. Adding porch in there really changed things. Maybe it’s a bit clever, too, which feels nice. But again, how many titles has this collection had? One was Tuna for the Apocalypse, but that short story no longer appears. Good title, though, right?


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


One story that once appeared in the collection is titled Starving, and it is really about food or sustenance: a woman stands in front of her fridge and thinks about meals and food. She also thinks about her baby that died. There were recipes in that story, but not too many in the stories that remain in the collection.


I am a vegetarian, and I have to adapt many, many recipes for my purposes. Here is a chili that I make topped with cornmeal biscuits that uses Impossible Burger—Beyond Burger works, too. My husband and I cook a lot, and he has most of our favorites on his recipe website. Here is the Cast Iron Chili and Cheddar Biscuit Recipe link but feel free to look around!













READ A SHORT STORY, “Monsters in the Agapanthus”:



Tuesday, August 22, 2023

TBR: Come with Me by Erin Flanagan

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?


COME WITH ME is about a newly widowed mother who falls under the sway of an old acquaintance whose friends have a history of disappearing.


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


There are two point-of-view characters in the book—Gwen Maner and Nicola Kimmel. Gwen is the protagonist and came pretty easily to me—she lacks self-confidence, an affliction I also suffer from—while Nicola was harder to figure out, and ultimately, more fun to write. Nicola is one of those friends who gets a little too close, a little too fast, and I had to write her three different ways before she really came together.


In the first version, her chapters were in the “now” of the story, and I really loved her snarky interior voice, but she wasn’t magnetic enough to have so much sway over Gwen. It occurred to me that the voice of hers that I loved was only in her head, so in the second version of her chapters, I wrote her saying all the snarky things she’d only been thinking and she became way more charismatic. The problem then was that, once she said everything she was thinking, her chapters just became a rehashing of what had already happened.


It wasn’t until the third round—when I started writing chapters from Nicola’s past—that things started to crystalize, not only from a narrative standpoint, but as a way for me to understand and empathize with Nicola and see what she really wanted and what her pain was. This resulted in a much more interesting character arc and moved her from just being an antagonist to, I hope, something more interesting.


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


This is the first time in my career that I wrote a book after it was under contract so I had a pretty strict deadline. It was exhilarating knowing someone wanted the book, but terrifying too. I had six months to write it, and three of those months were when I was teaching full time, so there were no days off. I had a sense the book would take me about 350 hours based on previous novels, so I broke it down and got to work. But I’m definitely a bit of a pantser, so it was a lot of cutting and writing more, cutting and writing more before I really figured out the story. So for this novel, it was mainly “highs” not lows, but there were a lot of nights I just laid awake running the story through my head, hoping I could make it work.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I know most people offer the best advice they’ve been given and not their own advice, but I’ve found a secret that’s so transformed my writing that I’m going to break protocol and share my own favorite hack. As I said, I often lack self-confidence, so the fact I’m giving my own advice rather than someone else’s should give you a sense how much I believe in it.


That said, it’s probably not the sexiest answer you’ll ever get, but my favorite piece of writing advice is to track your writing, both time and task: what you are working on, and for how long each day. After a while, you’ll start to see patterns—how long things take you, where you tend to procrastinate, how you can become more efficient, even how you can ward off despair.


For instance, when I wrote the novel Blackout, the first draft took 88 hours, but I wrote that over 13 or so months. The entire book, through beta-readers, research, and edits was 497 hours over 21 months. In other words, only 18% of the writing time took over well over half the months of writing. What did I learn? That I hate writing first drafts and will procrastinate like hell.


So when I started Come with Me, which I mentioned was under deadline, I decided I’d write 1k words a day during the semester, and as soon as summer hit, I’d raise it to 2k. I finished that first draft in two and half months, and it clocked in at 91 hours. So I shaved off months and months but spent about the same amount of time with my ass in the chair.


I also know now that a big edit takes me about 60 hours and I usually have to do a few rounds of that, but again, now that I know how long it takes, I can chip away as needed. When I start to despair how a project is going I think, lady, you’re only 150 hours in! Of course it’s rough! You’ve got 200 hours to go to make it better!


I honestly feel like knowing this about my writing habits has become a secret weapon that I use only against myself.


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


I love this! It’s such great advice. I love love love being surprised by a story. I think in this book, the thing that surprised me the most was how empathetic I felt toward the antagonist. I knew I didn’t want to demonize her, and I was well-prepared to be charmed by her, but I didn’t think I’d end up feeling her desperate need for love on such a visceral level. I wrote this book partly to explore how smart women end up in these less-than-healthy friendships, but what I discovered was why some people want to control others. It was eye opening to say the least.


Who is your ideal reader?


My sister, Kelly Hansen. She’s a smart-ass woman who reads constantly and widely, but most deeply in crime fiction and thrillers. She is ready to be delighted by a book and has little to no interest in being a fiction writer, so while she’s willing to be wowed by a great sentence, she’s reading mainly for story. Also, since she’s been in my life since day one, she gets every Easter egg I put in my books—those little details that probably don’t really make a difference to most readers beyond rounding out the believability of the story, but that she knows intimately.


For instance when Clyle Costagen drinks a Lord Calvert and Sprite in Deer Season, she knows that’s our dad’s drink. Or when Nicola wants to have “matchies” in Come with Me, that’s because I’m always delighted when Kelly and I have the same purse or notebook. Or when Gwen says salmon has the “wow factor” that’s me talking about how every road-trip lunch needs a surprise. These little things delight us both to no end.


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


It’s surprising how little food there is in this book considering how much I ate at my computer trying to figure out plot problems. But Nicola eats a chicken Caesar salad for lunch every day at work, and Gwen begins to do this too. It’s a throwaway detail, but one I thought spoke to the character. There’s something sad about someone eating the same thing every day. It says something about the level of control she has over her food intake and shows she takes no real pleasure in eating, which strikes me as pretty sad. In the book, Nicola orders this salad from a deli, but here’s my cheat recipe for a super quick and tasty chicken Caesar:


Romaine hearts – cut don’t tear to save time

Store-bought Caesar dressing (Marzetti is my favorite)

Store-bought croutons (which you should eat as you’re assembling)

Pre-shredded Parmesan (not grated)

Meat from a rotisserie chicken (preferably Costco)

Boom, that’s it. Gwen would probably recommend you open the rotisserie chicken in the Costco parking lot and eat at least one leg while crying in your car.









READ AN EXCERPT OF THIS BOOK: excerpt of book [click on "read sample"]


Monday, August 14, 2023

TBR: The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs by George Singleton

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?


It’s a collection of stories. Most of the characters work in some kind of made-up non-profit. Some of the characters appear and re-appear in subsequent stories, so it’s thinly linked.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why?


I invented this guy named Julian Walker—whose father calls him Cock Walker (as in “cock of the walk”). Julian’s father makes the family go to polo events. He introduces himself to wealthy polo-goers as a painter—they assume he’s a visual artist, but indeed he’s a housepainter.  Julian’s mom get a little too drunk, his father disappears, and Julian has to drive the family car some 40 miles home.


I like to write dad-and-lad stories, with an adult narrator looking back at a time when his parents acted curiously, or questionable in terms of ethics.


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


A slew of these stories were written at the beginning of the pandemic. I was on a real tear there for a short while.  I didn’t really have any low points.


Whats your favorite piece of writing advice?


From Shannon Ravenel: “A great story’s ending kisses the beginning.”


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


I didn’t know how difficult it would be to come up with viable, mostly-believable nonprofits.


Who is your ideal reader?


I think my ideal reader is a college-educated, slightly liberal, person with a sense of humor. It might be important to own that “willing suspension of disbelief.”


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


No real recipes, but one story is narrated by a chef/restauranteur who runs a place called Periodic Farm-to-Table and Chairs. He’s big into gumbo and étouffée, plus makes kimchi out behind the restaurant.













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