Monday, January 29, 2024

TBR: Mom in Space by Lisa Ampleman

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 poems and a few lyric essays, Mom in Space addresses infertility, parenting, and chronic illness through the perspective of a woman interested in the history and biology of spaceflight. With an eye on both the intergalactic and the terrestrial, these poems take place on an Earth affected by climate change, nuclear waste, and racism: “We don’t have enough rare-earth / metals to build a fleet of starships. // We just have the rare Earth” (“Calamity Days”).


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


I enjoyed writing a lot of the book—when I tell people about the writing that happened in 2020 and 2021 in particular, I often just say in amazement, “It was so fun!” Of course, some of the poems tapped into emotionally challenging experiences (see below), but “Alpha,” for example, felt like wordplay and spending time with concepts that fascinate me, like the Van Allen belts of radiation and the radio waves that come from pulsar stars.


“Lava Tubes on the Moon” gave me the most trouble, in a way. I’d been wanting to write a poem with that title for quite a while, but that’s not usually how my creative process works, so I had a lot of false starts. Then I started writing a poem about my experience of miscarriage with my husband, thinking about what he might have felt, since so much of the book is me processing that and other things. I struggled to have those two concepts live in the same space together for a while, I struggled to revisit that moment in the hospital, and I struggled to figure out the poem’s form until I thought about really long lines (that would still fit on a 6 x 9 page of poetry) alternating with emptiness, gaps—tubes, if you will. Until the speaker brought out sweatpants and spinach dip, the poem felt very inert as well. I’m happy with how it turned out in the end, though I don’t know if it’ll be one I choose for readings because of how it brings me back there to that hospital bed.


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


Because I published my second book at LSU Press and they had first right of refusal for my next project, I knew there was a strong chance to work with them again—but that I had to do the work as if I was pitching to them for the first time. I loved working with them and was interested in doing so again. Once I felt like the book was ready, I sent it to James Long, curator of the poetry series. They sent it to a peer reviewer (university press!), who recommended to publish it with a few small suggestions for revision.


So, in my case, publication wasn’t as difficult as getting to the book itself—that’s more like the low point. After my son was born in 2015, I didn’t do much new writing. I kept submitting what became Romances, but individual poem drafts often failed. Then in 2019, I got notified by the Hermitage Artist Retreat that I’d been awarded a residency there—the kick is that I had never applied; they choose their residents differently. I was floored and flummoxed. I wasn’t sure at first I could take time away from my family. But I did, in February 2020, and I brought along a book about the Apollo program I’d been wanting to read since we’d visited an Apollo 11 capsule exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center. I got hooked and started writing space poems and reading more about spaceflight. Two weeks after I got home from Florida, the pandemic lockdown began, and the combination of time, fear (about the pandemic as well as a spinal arthritis I’d just developed), and space obsession put the book into motion at last. As I say in “Neil and Me and Work and the Body,” an essay in the book, “A pandemic raged, my body hurt, but I could escape to space.”


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


That a fallow period—which somehow is even listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary!—is okay. I’m loosely in such a place now, dabbling with a few things but between focused work. As I mentioned above, I was in a fallow period for years before things kicked into gear in 2020. Just till the soil and fill the well with reading, beauty, contentment, and perhaps other kinds of creative work until it’s time to enter an active time again.


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


At times while I worked on this book, I found myself writing down things I wouldn’t say out loud or bring up in conversation. I loved the rhythm of “My mother never taught me / to hover over the / public bathroom toilet” (the opening of “Public Intimacies”), but I was surprised that I’d put it into words, then in a poem, then submitted that poem to magazines, then included the poem in a book I knew might get published. I’m vulnerable in this book in ways that surprise me still. I wonder if part of that vulnerability stems from how much of the writing happened in the first year of the pandemic, when I had more time to be alone and introspective and feel like I wasn’t in the public sphere.


How did you find the title of your book?


During the early days of the pandemic, my husband, son, and I spent a lot of time relaxing on couches together. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point in that era, my son (then four or five), was talking as he is wont to do while he plays games on his tablet. He knows I like space—I was probably reading a book about SkyLab or the shuttle program—and among the other slightly singsong-y things he said was “a mom in space.” I typed it into the notes app on my phone right away. So, I knew fairly early in the process what the title could be, and it probably shaped some of the work that happened after that.


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


Well, since I mentioned spinach dip above, here’s a pretty simple version.







SIGNED COPIES: Downbound Books






Monday, January 22, 2024

AWP24: Survival Guide!

And away we go! AWP24 is about to descend upon Kansas City, and maybe we won’t be as adorable as Taylor Swift cheering on the Chiefs from a toasty luxury box, but I'm pretty sure 10,000 writers can cut a wide swath through a town….

Time to update my AWP survival tips, honed after (yikes!) 20ish years of attending AWP conferences. "Survival guide" takes on a different feel in what is being called a "post-pandemic world," so my main point is to do what you need to feel safe personally and to take actions to protect the safety of others. For me, the risk of eating in a restaurant might feel personally worth it, but then how hard is it to sit quietly in a large room, listening to other people speak and wear a mask? My main tip here is to be thoughtful with regard to mask etiquette. 

Ten thousand writers is a lot of angst, need, and glory to pack into one convention center…here are my tried & true & freshly updated tips for success, based on my experience at past conferences:


Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast directed at you. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, despite their best efforts, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs). I suppose it’s hard to determine who is “famous” and so on…in any event, you don’t want to find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet, and so see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. And, in fact, official AWP does not sanction sitting on the floor because it’s a fire hazard and you’ll be creating a barrier to those who have accessibility needs. Not sure how they feel about standing in a herd in the back? The point is, don’t sit on the floor—be mindful of others if there’s a herd of standees, and arrive early.

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for an appropriate break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will flicker and fade). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on that editor’s panel.

There are zillions of panels. And there's an app. Sadly for me, I dislike apps and I miss the massive tome of information and the smaller printed guide. BUT! Time marches on. If you're not an app person, and maybe even if you are, I suggest taking the time NOW to go to AWP’s website and scroll through the schedule and select EVERY panel that sounds even moderately interesting, and load those into the “my schedule” feature. Keep that stored on your favorite technology (mine is a sheaf of printed paper…which may be smart since I often forget how/where to re-access “my schedule,” which requires logging in and somehow finding “my account”; I assume app people are more adept than I am).  Anyway…no point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend. Give yourself a couple of options at each time slot so that if a room is too crowded, you have an interesting alternative.

 I like to choose a variety of panels: people I know, people I’ve heard of, genres I don’t write but am curious about, topics I want to educate myself on. Stretch yourself. I also like to go to a reading in which I don’t know any of the readers, just to have a lovely sense of discovery! And don’t forget the ninety-trillion off-site events! (I suspect you’ll end up depressed if every single panel you attend is How To Get Published…remember, the way to get published, really, is to be an amazing writer. You’ll be better off going to some panels that will help you in that pursuit.)

Someone will always ask a 20-minute question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. Also, everyone is groaning inwardly anytime someone says, “I have a question and a comment” or anytime someone starts out by saying, “Well, in my work-in-progress, the main character is….”

Don’t say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends absolutely everything you’ve overheard during your offsite dinner.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.  Also, if you happen to get a chair at the bar, or, goodness, EVEN A REAL LIVE TABLE, hang on to it!!  People will join you if they see you’ve got a spot! Famous people! I mean it: the only reason to ever give up a table in the hotel bar is because the bar has shut down, you’ve consumed every bit of liquid in the clutter of glasses, and a beefy bouncer is headed your way. (Also, here’s a fun fact: AWP alcohol consumption often breaks sales records at hotels.) (Also, related, don’t forget that Sober AWP offers meetings.)

Speaking of famous people or former teachers or friends…do not say something like this in one long breathless opening sentence right after hugging/fist-bumping hello: “Great-to-see-you-can-you-write-a-blurb-letter-of-rec-piece-for-my-anthology?” Ask for favors AFTER the conference! I mean, unless you enjoy that uncomfortable moment and awkward triumph of trapping someone into saying reluctantly yes in the hopes that then you'll go away.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, definitely do spend some money! These journals and presses rely on OUR support.

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all those heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center or the UPS store at the convention center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad-looking journals, abandoned by the grad students who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

Try not to approach the table of each journal at the bookfair with this question: “How can I get published in your journal?” Also, I recommend avoiding this one: “How come you didn’t publish my poem/story/essay/screed?”  Try instead: “What a beautiful journal. Please tell me more about it.” Even better: “I’m thinking about subscribing.”

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at one AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors of The Georgia Review gaze on.

Pre-arrange some get-togethers with friends/teachers/grad student buddies, but don’t over-schedule. You’ll run into people, or meet people, or be invited to a party, or find an amazing off-the-beaten-track bar.  Save some time for spontaneity! (Yes, I realize that I’m saying “plan” for spontaneity.)

Don’t laugh at this, but bring along Purell and USE IT often. Even before Covid, post-AWP social media updates are filled with writers bemoaning the deathly cold/sore throat/lingering and mysterious illness they picked up at AWP.  We’re a sniffly, sneezy, wheezy, germy bunch, and the thought of 10,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives what’s left of the CDC nightmares.

 Along the lines of healthcare, don’t forget to drink a lot of water and pop an Advil before going to sleep if (haha…if!) you’ve been drinking a little more than usual. (Also note that AWP offers a daily 12-step meeting open to all in recovery. Please take care of yourself.)

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. Also, the food on the convention floor is consistently overpriced and icky…you will starve if this is your entire diet. KC is the home of legendary barbecue! An awesome art museum! Baseball's Negro League Hall of Fame! Please leave the convention center!

Bring your cellphone charger and maybe even a portable charger. Or maybe you like huddling around electrical outlets?

 I can’t believe I’m writing this: I miss the Dance Party. It was a good way to work off stress and reenergize after a long, sometimes daunting day after too many snubs, imagined and real. I mean, I’m sure there are all kinds of interesting undercurrents and nuances out there in the depths of that packed dance floor…but also, on the surface, it can just be FUN. I would love to see it return. In the meantime, look for ways to handle YOUR stress that do not include camping at the hotel bar: the quiet room/s, prompt writing, a long walk, yoga.

This is a super-secret tip that I never share, but I’ll share it as a reward for those who have read this far:  there will be a bathroom that’s off the beaten track and therefore is never crowded. Scope out this bathroom early on. Don’t tell anyone except your closest friends the location of this bathroom. Wear your mask in every public bathroom, and if you doubt me, google "toilet plumes."

Finally, take a deep breath.  You’re just as much of a writer as the other 9,999 people around you.  Don’t let them get to you.


Monday, January 15, 2024

TBR: Greenwood by Mark Morrow

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. 


Editor's note: I'm making an exception to the site's policy of excluding self-published books, because Mark is a dear friend and a long-time member of my prompt writing group of 15 years and because he's a fantastic writer and because I think his journey toward self-publishing is illuminating for all of us, with an honest discussion of the biz side of agents/NYC editors. (If you would like to read more about our prompt group, you can check this link.)

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Unlike Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, the characters in this book of connected short stories are perfectly happy to live in their hometown and to fully embrace the quirky, baffling and often contradictory behaviors of their fellow citizens. It’s a book that celebrates human connection and the hope found in the simple act of accepting we are all part of a mostly well-meaning but flawed collective humanity. It’s a book that is ultimately an open invitation for its readers, no matter their origins, to come home again for a long overdue visit.


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


“Marilee’s Fishpond” is ostensibly the story of a goal-oriented and insistent wife who wants her habitually procrastinating husband to “get off the dime” and build the fishpond he had been promising to build in their generous backyard. It’s a story that reflects the 37-year relationship I had with my strong-willed and goal-oriented wife. It’s a thinly viewed nod to my wife’s ebullient and get-it-done personality that close friends who have read the book noted without any prompting from me. Especially in this passage:


For Stewart’s part, he didn’t think of himself as a procrastinator, but as someone who gave things what he called “due consideration.” It was a fine point they had long ago agreed to disagree on. As for Marilee, she thought of herself as a doer: someone who put important tasks on a punch list in her head where they stayed, spinning around like a ham-and-cheese sandwich order clipped to a short order cook’s ticket wheel, insistently spinning and endlessly worrying until the order was pulled down, cooked, and plated.


It’s a story that celebrates how a deep and abiding love can exist between two people who approach life in such fundamentally different ways. This dynamic of the couple’s seemingly divergent personalities is layered upon the clear devotion Marilee and her husband Stewart have for one another. It is what makes this a sweet and loving story. And also, one of my favorites in the collection.


The story that was hardest to write was the signature story, “Greenwood.” What began as a story to put a frame around the town and its history, traditions, and governing societal structures quickly grew into novella dimensions. Scaling the story back to a more reasonable length was a challenge requiring me to leave behind many refined and well-crafted manuscript pages. As always, the cutting was a blessing in disguise.


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


Greenwood was originally written to fulfill a long-promised request by my friends who had enjoyed my posts on social media, mainly about my travels and life’s many adventures and misadventures, mostly taken with my adventurous wife. It was also written to fulfill a promise to my writing group who, much like Stewart in “Marilee’s Fishpond”, had insisted it was time that I “finished something,” although this prodding was done less insistently, and a bit gentler than Marilee could ever muster. When Covid happened, I took it as my best opportunity to make good on my years of promises.


I wrote throughout the Covid years and ended up with 12 completed, loosely connected stories – this idea of connecting them dawned on me after completing perhaps three stories. Once the stories were completed, I spent a few months refining these connections and linkages and sent the manuscript to an agent friend who I simply asked to “let me know if this is any good.” After about a week, she called me back and excitedly told me she “loved” the book and wanted to represent it. This was not something I expected at all.


After a few months of reworking the book and a professional editing of the manuscript, my agent began sending query letters to her editor list. I was surprised how relatively quickly – just a few weeks – the editors got back to my agent. I was also surprised that they had actually read it and even better gave me thoughtful feedback, most of it positive. Unfortunately, after a few sentences of praise and/or light criticism, came the “take a pass” let down. Here is a good example.


Thanks so much for sharing Mark Morrow’s collection GREENWOOD. Morrow strikes a wonderful balance of levity, pathos, and wit, echoing some of the best Southern fiction writers of the fifty years. He has great success in portraying the town of Greenwood as a physical location, a spiritual condition, and a strong extended metaphor. That said, we’re going to pass on this. It’s a wonderful collection but we’re not looking to acquire short fiction at the moment. We’re really just targeting memoirs and novels. Thanks again for thinking of us for this. We’re certain it will find the right home. Please keep in touch if there’s anything else you think we might be interested in!


One of the New York editors I classified as clearly aspirational at the outset, said the collection was “well-crafted, poignant … and thoughtfully composed.” Another New York editor “appreciated” the “earnest sensibilities” of the characters and “abundant Southern mood” and in general all liked the book. However, these positives positive impressions were followed by well-warranted criticism, mainly that the stories needed more cohesion and momentum or in one case “were not perfect.” The editor’s take a pass sendoff came soon after.


My agent had better luck with a well-regarded regional publisher who called my agent within a few days to schedule a meeting to talk about getting the book before the editorial board. This was exciting and I thought we’d found a home for the book, but as it goes, this round of encouraging news ended with a take a pass judgment as well.


It was all very disappointing, but at the same time I was buoyed by the positive reactions I’d gotten, and so I returned to my original plan – self publishing. I called an independent designer I’d used for years when I was a developmental editor who had walked many of my clients through the process. I turned the project over to her. She arranged editing by an excellent editor who offer excellent suggestions for improvement. I made the changes and two months later the book was published on Amazon.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


My first writing teacher told us that “ideas are a dime a dozen, that’s the easy part. Starting and finishing a book based on your idea … well, there’s the rub. It’s harder than you think.”


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


The most surprising (and satisfying) aspect of the process was what I learned by facing down the many moments when I thought I had “nothing” and “nowhere to go” with a story line. Not so much the classic writers block where the author is in complete despair and worried that it’s all been a waste of time, but more the “lost in the wilderness” feeling. When this happened, I simply put the story aside and determined to come back to it later. And of course, something always did come to me eventually. I thought it was a good lesson for living life, as well as useful in the finishing of a book.


How did you find the title of your book?


Choosing the title of the book, Greenwood, was somewhat random and the decision was made out of necessity. Most of the stories in the collection were begun as prompts in my writing group. I would often write about characters who lived in a small town, but I’d never really specified a town where the characters lived. When I began bringing the stories together, I mentally clicked off familiar towns from my native South Carolina and I simply chose the town of Greenwood because I liked how it sounded. Just like that, the characters had a hometown.


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


Sorry, no Ritz Cracker casserole recipes to share.








READ AN EXCERPT FROM THIS BOOK:, and click on “Read the Preface.”


Monday, January 8, 2024

TBR: The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration by David Nicholson

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 Garretts of Columbia is a warts-and-all family history that begins with an African who bought his freedom in 1819 and continues with the stories of my great-grandfather and his family. “Papa,” as I call him in the book, was a lawyer, newspaper editor, and teacher. Oft-sued for libel, he was a quixotic idealist once dubbed black South Carolina’s “most respected disliked man.”


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


The introduction, titled “Confessions of a Weary Integrationist” is as close to memoir as “The Garretts of Columbia” gets. That said, I often tell the reader what people in the book thought or felt, so there’s a fair amount of imagination and interpretation. If I broke any boundaries, it was in recounting family stories told at the holiday table when certain older relatives were a little tipsy.


Courage? Nah. I waited till anyone who might complain was gone.


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


Publication was relatively easy: The first university press I sent it to accepted it. But “The Garretts of Columbia” was decades in the making. Sometimes I thought I’d never finish. I spent time in many archives and countless hours online, grateful that so much had been digitized. At one point, the MS was more than 200,000 words—much too long! Part of it’s now another book that begins with my grandparents’ courtship and their move to Washington, D.C., as part of the Great Migration.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Must I choose one? The bulletin board above my writing desk is feathered with index cards and scrawled notes. Flannery O’Connor said, “You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” Edgar Allen Poe said, essentially, make every word count. And Katherine Anne Porter and Miles Davis gave me hope. She assured me that, while writing can’t be taught, it can be learned. And he said, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”



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


Sometimes the insights I came to, such as the notion that my great-grandparents were Black Victorians. Sometimes what I discovered about them. Papa, my great-grandfather, was a pugnacious sort—he was twice attacked on the street because of his editorials, and he once punched an AME bishop during a dispute! Some sources say he was the first person sued after South Carolina revised its libel laws. Not surprisingly, he was fired from his teaching job and his wife—I call her Mama in the book—had to go to work. She became supervisor of her county’s rural colored schools (as they were called then), driving from hamlet to hamlet to evaluate teachers, conduct literacy drives, teach home ec to farm wives, and oversee the construction of schoolhouses. At age 51, she learned to drive, braving narrow, rutted roads in a Ford “touring car” because she had so many schools to visit.


And their children: One wrote a musical with Langston Hughes in the 1920s. (It was never produced.) Another taught for nearly two years in Haiti during World War II.



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


This is a book about men and women who believed in the possibility of America, even when America did not believe in them.


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


Apart from a description of two Thanksgiving dinners early in the book, there’s no food to be found. Sorry!











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