Ten Questions for Putsata Reang

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Putsata Reang, whose debut memoir, Ma and Me, is out today from MCD. A “bridge of story” that Reang builds to close the painful divide between her and her mother, the book doubles as a war-torn family history. Reang was an infant in 1975, when her parents fled Cambodia after the nation’s fall to the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, an event catalyzed by U.S. military intervention during the Vietnam War. Growing up in Oregon with a refugee’s sense of “debt,” Reang narrates her struggle to meet her family’s high expectations—becoming a professional success as a journalist but a disappointment, in her mother’s eyes, as a gay woman. Reang interviews her mother to understand the events that shaped her both before and after the war. She also details her own coming of age as a reporter in the United States and abroad, including in Cambodia, where the joy of connecting with her extended kin is mixed with the sorrow of minimizing her sexuality. Publishers Weekly praised Ma and Me for its “nuanced mediation on love, identity, and belonging. This story of survival radiates with resilience and hope.” Reang’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Politico, the Guardian, and elsewhere. She has won fellowships from the Alicia Patterson Foundation and Jack Straw Cultural Center and held residencies at Hedgebrook, the Mineral School, and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She teaches memoir writing at the University of Washington School of Professional and Continuing Education.

1. How long did it take you to write Ma and Me?
Technically this was a four-year project, from the time I got my book contract to the time I turned in the last draft. But the truth is, I have been working on this story for the better part of twenty years. Or rather, I have been working around this story. I knew I wanted to write a story about my parents when I moved to Cambodia after receiving an Alicia Patterson Foundation journalism fellowship in 2005. I didn’t plan to write a book that focused on my relationship with my mother. I think that’s where stories sometimes find us, as opposed to the other way around. This story—exploring the disorienting nature of the debt and duty often felt by the children of refugees, with the added complexity of sexual identity—wanted to be told, and I was in a position to tell it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There is a profound emotional cost to writing memoir that no one but the memoirist knows. While writing this book, I knew I was engaging in something extremely vulnerable. But that means it was also, in some ways, the bravest thing I have ever done: to not only go backwards in my own life to know myself, my dreams, and motives—and translate that onto the page—but to ask my mother to go backwards too. My mother was often triggered by the questions I asked about her past, about how our family escaped the war in Cambodia, about her youth. When I was writing certain passages and chapters of the book, I was also triggered by being confronted with old wounds from my childhood. There is a third layer of being triggered, which is that now, after the book is done, there’s still more emotional exposure required. Now I have to talk about the book! Holding all the strands of emotion as they came up through different parts of working on the book was the biggest challenge, without a doubt. And now, giving myself the space and freedom to keep feeling those emotions is an even deeper challenge because my upbringing and my impulse has always been to control my emotions. Maybe the lesson here, for me, is to just feel. 

3. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ma and Me?
I had always believed that one of the reasons my mother and I were always butting heads when I was growing up was that we were so different. I was hard to tame as a child. I played rough in the schoolyard and came home with torn and dirty clothes. I was a wreck, especially for a mother who had several children to raise in a new country while learning a new language. Growing up, I had her wrong. I thought she was shy and reserved and didn’t know how to have fun. But that’s not actually true. Looking back with clear eyes, I see that my mother actually loved to have a good time and laugh and joke around, a lot like me. The reason we so often come into conflict is that we are very much alike. She once had dreams of becoming a businesswoman and traveling. I never wanted to be a businesswoman, but the traveling part we absolutely have in common. She has an innate curiosity about the world, just like me. She has wanted to follow her own path without someone telling her what to do, just like me. And in that alikeness, I’ve learned to love her and accept her with a grace I lacked before writing this book.

4. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of Ma and Me?
Writing was really only half the battle in wrangling the story of Ma and Me onto the page. The bigger battle had to do with interviewing my mother, which was treacherous territory. Even though my parents were open to sharing their stories with me when I set about formally interviewing them after my father’s heart attack in 2010, there was still both an enormous emotional cost and emotional labor in asking my parents to go backwards and excavate some of the most painful moments of their lives. I often felt sick to my stomach when I knew I had re-triggered my mother, and she would tell me she was too sad to tell me anything more, effectively ending the interview. Of course, there was joy, too, in their lives before the war, and I loved hearing those stories. But the grief was exceedingly deep; there was so much loss. The other part of the equation in pulling this memoir together was the research, which was frustrating as a journalist because I hit so many dead ends. Because of the war and genocide, it was a challenge finding documents and records that would either add to or support my family’s story. As a journalist, my instinct is to always find proof to match source interviews. But in this case, as in the case of many refugees’ stories, the stories live inside the survivors. That’s all we’ve got to go on. They are the only primary source available. That’s where the writer part of me had to accept that there isn’t always an official document to cross-reference for fact-checking stories when it comes to historical and personal narrative.

5. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My editor once told me: “You don’t have to put anything in this book you don’t want to.” When she said that, I felt so liberated. It felt like an enormous weight was lifted off of me because I had assumed, once I signed on the dotted line of my book contract, that I would have to eviscerate myself to succeed in this project. That’s not the case. There are plenty of hard truths in Ma and Me that were difficult to put down on the page, and then there are other truths that are mine, and mine alone, to keep. It’s a similar idea to a reference I make in the book to my mother having lost a baby when we arrived in the United States, but that is a story that belongs only to my parents. I have no right to it, not even as their daughter. Just as the reader has no right to every little thing in my life, especially if it’s not pertinent to the narrative.

6. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ma and Me, what would you say?  
I would probably ask myself a lot of questions: “Do you really want to do this? And if you do, are you prepared for the dark days that will surely come, when the pain of remembering drives you into a deep hole? Do you have the grit and guts to pull this off? Are you willing to believe in yourself rather than outsource that job to family and friends? Because you are the one who has to stay focused, stay interested and stay dedicated to the story more than anyone else. You are the one who has to show up for yourself.”

7. What are you reading right now?
I’m listening to Silvia Vasquez-Lovado’s memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain. It is completely breaking my heart, but there are enough crumbs to follow that I think will ultimately lead me to joy in the end. I am also reading Omar el Akkad’s novel, American War, which is aggressively addictive and intense to read at this current moment in our country and in our world.

8. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to write every single day when I was working on the memoir, for several hours in the morning and then again later in the evening in a small but exquisitely quiet office shed my wife and I had installed in the backyard during the pandemic. But I’ve slipped on my discipline recently. I’m giving myself a small break from long-form writing. I’m still writing short personal essays, which don’t require the extreme focus of long-form writing. I scratch out words and sentences and sometimes entire parts of stories on the backs of envelopes and notepads and then try to assemble these scattershot pieces into a coherent piece of writing. It’s not a very organized way to write, but it works for me.

9. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Unfortunately, it’s teaching memoir writing, which is terrible because I love my students and I love teaching. But what happens when you are immersed in your students’ personal stories—and those stories slingshot around inside of you—is that they start to crowd out your own story and what you want to say. A friend once told me you can either write or have a life, but it’s difficult to do both at the same time. And I would amend that to say that you can either write or you can teach. I haven’t found a way to make both work at the same time. But I want to continue to teach, and at the same time I desperately want to write.

10.  What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I don’t know if I have the quote completely correct, but it was Anne Lamott who said something on the order of: “One bad page a day leads to a book.” It’s such great advice for a writer, especially a writer who dreams of being published. Books do not write themselves. And it takes a superhuman commitment to stay in the chair and do the work. And doing the work doesn’t mean sitting down and pulling out a perfect story from thin air. It’s letting yourself write terribly, and laying those awful and embarrassing pages as a foundation to keep getting better. Let yourself have those bad pages, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” No one gets it right the first time, or second time. It took me ten drafts to get to a place of “finished enough” on my memoir. Just keep writing—the good, the bad, the ugly. All of it. One day you’ll look up from your computer and realize you’ve just finished a whole book.

Ten Questions for Vanessa Hua

5.10.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Vanessa Hua, whose second novel, Forbidden City, is out today from Ballantine Books. In this gripping first-person narrative, the 1976 death of Mao Zedong sparks a street celebration in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, where painful memories come flooding back to protagonist Mei, who must now reckon with her role in the Cultural Revolution. Readers track Mei’s upward trajectory from naive teenage peasant to Communist revolutionary to favorite acolyte and lover of Zedong himself. When Mei eventually becomes disillusioned amid Zedong’s lies and manipulation, she seeks a way to extract herself from the Chairman’s grasp. Publishers Weekly writes that Hua’s novel “finds a brilliant new perspective on familiar material via its story of a young woman’s brush with power.” Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars, was released by Ballantine Books in 2019, and Willow Books published her short-fiction collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, in 2016. A National Endowment for the Arts literature fellow and winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, among other honors, Hua is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

1. How long did it take you to write Forbidden City?
I began writing it in 2007, during my MFA program at University of California in Riverside. After I graduated, the novel went out on submission and came close to selling, but did not. Though devastated, I kept writing. I published my short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, and my debut novel, A River of Stars. I couldn’t quit this novel though, and it finally sold in 2016, as part of a two-book deal. I finished final revisions last year. All told, it took about fourteen years, about a third of my life!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Because it’s set in 1960s China, I did extensive research about Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, reading scores of books and news stories and conducting interviews. As I wrote, I sometimes got too much into the weeds about political machinations—the minutiae that muddled rather than illuminated the journey of my protagonist.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in my home office in the East Bay, with a view of a redwood tree and hills beyond, but I also belong to the Writers Grotto, a community with offices in San Francisco. My hours of power are in the morning, when I try to do the work most important to me, but I’ll write whenever my ten-year-old twins are at school or otherwise occupied. I write weekdays and often on the weekend, too. As a journalist, novelist, and creative-writing teacher, I’m always working on a writing-related task—even when I’m away from my desk. In the pool or on a run or walk is where the ideas bubble up from the subconscious, and I consider that time a part of my writing practice, too.

4. What are you reading right now?
Melissa Chadburn’s A Tiny Upward Shove, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s Big Girl, and Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Michael Jaime-Becerra is an amazing author and essayist who writes about the people and landscape of El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I’m a mother who teaches creative writing, writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, freelances, and is active in the Bay Area literary community. My time isn’t my own; I have a lot of responsibilities to juggle. Though I’m grateful for these opportunities, I have to remember to preserve and protect the time I spend writing fiction.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I’m grateful to both my agent and editor, who have helped me become a better storyteller. I always look forward to my editor’s letter and line edits on my novels, carefully penciled in. She’s taught me so much about characterization and finding the heart of the story, but she’s not prescriptive. To prompt a revision, she uses the acronym “OYOW”—“or your own words”—which reflects her trust in me. With her help, I can find a way through.

I also want to give a shout out to my copy editors and cold readers, who pointed out inconsistencies and inadvertent repetition in my novel. For example, I used the verb “gaze” dozens of times. Taking another pass, I realized I could cut many or else substitute another gesture. I use the keystroke control-F to find adverbs and other potential filler to trim, and now I’ll start checking for “gaze” in the future.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Forbidden City, what would you say?
Years ago, I was talking to a writer friend, and we agreed we didn’t need a life coach—we needed a psychic! Someone who could assure us all the rejections and drafts would ultimately lead to publication. Alas, no one can predict the future. If I had known about the twists and turns beforehand, I like to think I would have kept going, but maybe it’s better not to know. I suppose I would tell younger-me—the married journalist without kids—to keep going. To remember the joy, the satisfaction of writing itself, that is separate from publishing and all else out of my control.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I can’t pick just one! My longtime critique partners include authors Yalitza Ferreras, Angie Chuang, Kirstin Chen, and my husband, who isn’t a writer but is an excellent reader. I’m also grateful to the members of various writing groups I’ve belonged to, who’ve read draft after draft.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
My mentor at the University of California in Riverside, Susan Straight, told us to “hook each other up.” To care for each other, to share opportunities, and to go to each other’s readings. To have each other’s backs. Writing is a solitary act, and having a community with whom you can commiserate and celebrate helps you persist.

Vanessa Hua, author of Forbidden City.   (Credit: Andria Lo)

Ten Questions for Marwa Helal

5.3.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Marwa Helal, whose second poetry collection, Ante body, will be published later this month by Nightboat Books. In this innovative volume, Helal meditates on how to live both inside and against systems of oppression: patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and carceral government, among others. In lines that mingle pathos with bleak humor, Helal considers what it means, and what it costs, to belong—to the world, to nations, to one another. Deploying a poetic form she invented called “The Arabic,” in which verse is read from right to left in the manner of Arabic, Helal powerfully critiques the role of English in perpetuating global injustice. Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong called Ante body “a memorable and ferocious argument for radical fugitivity.” Nightboat Books published Helal’s first full-length poetry collection, Invasive species, in 2019. The winner of a 2021 Whiting Award and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, Poets House, and Cave Canem Foundation, Helal was born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, and lives everywhere.

1. How long did it take you to write Ante body?
Approximately five years. With lots of breaks for writing and research, and to make space for the work to take shape.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging thing was finding the right overall structure, which turned out to be the most fun and rewarding part of the process. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I try to keep a steady practice of writing daily morning pages, which lends itself to feeling like I am writing all the time.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m currently rereading Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat. As a teaching artist with PEN America’s Writing as Activism fellows, I’ve been reading a lot of June Jordan’s work.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
I trust these writers will eventually get their due recognition: Ana Božičević, a true genius and guide; Hayan Charara, whose latest book just dropped; as well as Zaina Alsous, Jess Rizkallah, Roberto Carlos Garcia, Kyle Carrero Lopez, Alejandro Heredia, and John Paul Infante. 

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
Impediments are excuses. I don’t have the time or privilege to make those. So, most likely, alternating cycles of anxiety and depression are my impediments, which writing helps to manage. See what I mean?

7. How did you know when the book was finished? 
I knew it was finished as I was writing, “WHO REAL؟” That was the poem that made the whole thing snap together. I could see I was making a book that read both ways. 
PS: If you call it “backwards,” it’s you who’s backwards.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ante body, what would you say? 
This book has its own life force. All you have to do is allow it to come together. It’s going to take care of you and a lot of people you don’t even know you care about yet.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
I’m grateful to have a few. Xan Phillips and Ricardo Maldonado are usually my first and last readers. I know I’m on the right track if Xan plays the language and wordplay back to me. Ricky helps me refine my vision and find that missing potential or extra energy for the poem. They’re both phenomenal writers, teachers, thinkers, and artists. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
“Don’t be so precious about it.”—Tracie Morris. Very liberating. We get it down to get to the next thing.

Marwa Helal, author of Ante body.   (Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Ten Questions for Soon Wiley

4.26.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Soon Wiley, whose debut novel, When We Fell Apart, is out today from Dutton Books. Set in Seoul, this brooding literary thriller explores the complicated relationship between Yu-jin, a young South Korean woman from a powerful family, and Min, a biracial Korean American who feels as out of place in his mother’s birth country as he did in his native United States. Chapters alternate between Min and Yu-jin’s perspectives to weave a story about the struggle to fit in while remaining true to oneself. After Yu-jin is found dead of an apparent suicide, an incredulous Min seeks greater insight into the woman he had been seeing, only to uncover further mysteries. Kirkus Reviews describes the narrative as “fueled by deep feeling and a powerful sense of place…capturing the despair of striving individuals pushed to the margins by conformist norms.” Wiley holds an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships in Wyoming and France. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and their two cats.

1. How long did it take you to write When We Fell Apart?
From start to finish, it took me around seven years to write When We Fall Apart. After I wrote Min’s chapters, I realized that I needed to include a second point of view. While this was a pretty daunting task, it was refreshing in the sense that I felt like I was writing a completely new book. I worked solely on Yu-jin’s chapters for about a year, and only after I’d really polished them did I go about fitting them together with the preexisting chapters from Min’s perspective. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was writing two books at once. I’m not sure if this was the most effective way to go about writing the novel, but working on each point of view individually really allowed for a full immersion in each character.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This might come as a surprise to some readers, but I found plotting the novel quite difficult, especially during the later stages of revision, when my editor and I were tweaking small things to raise the narrative tension or build suspense. Once you’re at that stage of editing, the process can feel a bit like pulling on a loose thread. Adjust one small plot point in the second half of the book, and you realize you’ve got to go back to the beginning and account for that change. When it comes to plot, the interconnectedness of every detail is immense.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Unless I’m traveling, I always write in my office at home. I do my best writing in the early morning and sometimes at night. I try to write for at least one or two hours. But depending on my work schedule, I might only be able to squeeze in thirty minutes a day. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to lean toward the philosophy of “anywhere, anytime, for however long,” when it comes to writing.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m a high school English teacher, so I’m always reading a lot of books. Right now, for work, I’m reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. For pleasure, I just finished Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and I’m now reading The Cold Millions by Jess Walter and Middlemarch by George Eliot.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Gosh, that’s a hard question—there are so many brilliant authors who have done or are doing amazing work. I’ve always felt like Evan S. Connell should be more celebrated. How Mrs. Bridge [1959] isn’t widely recognized as a masterpiece is somewhat of a mystery to me. For a more contemporary writer, I’d have to say Don Lee is an author who is certainly deserving of more recognition. His short story collection, Yellow, is just brilliant. And if you’ll allow me to squeeze one more name in: Michael Knight. His short story “Jubilee” in his collection Eveningland will absolutely wreck you.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
While I love teaching, I’d have to say that my job is probably the biggest impediment to writing. Time is the most valuable resource a writer can have, so if you’re trying to write while also working full-time, you really need to be dedicated and structured with your writing routines. That said, I’m lucky enough to have my summers off; so then the only real distraction from writing is the warm weather. It’s really hard to sit down at a desk when it’s a beautiful summer day outside. I also think writers are highly adept at coming up with all sorts of obstacles to their writing. If it wasn’t my teaching gig, I’m sure it would be something else that I was convinced was taking time away from writing.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
Good communication skills and honesty. Working with both an editor and agent requires a lot of trust, and those traits make trusting them with your work a lot easier. Having an editor and agent who will e-mail or call you back in a timely manner is immensely helpful, because writers are known to be a bit paranoid and frenetic—not speaking of myself, of course. After the actual writing and revising of a book, I think having a shared vision with your agent and editor is the single most important thing for a writer. Despite what we might like to think, books aren’t written by the author alone; there’s a whole team of people—editors, agents, and readers—who help shape the book into a finished product. It really takes a village. Knowing that everyone is on the same page and envisioning the same finished product makes the editing and prepublication process a lot easier.

8. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
When I first started working on what would become the novel, I was teaching high-school English at a school in Washington, D.C. I’d just moved to the city, and it was really the first time I’d had anything resembling a nine-to-five job. I was worried about how I’d get any writing done with the responsibility of a full-time gig, so I set about following a very rigorous and structured writing regimen. I was living in this great one-bedroom apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and I remember getting up around 5:30 AM each day, which meant that if I was at my desk by 5:45 AM I’d have almost two hours to write before catching the 7:20 AM bus to my school. My desk at the time was this mammoth slab of wood on two sawhorses that I’d purchased from some guy in Maryland and lugged back to the city in my pickup truck. What it lacked in drawers it made up for in sheer surface area. There was enough room for a huge external monitor, keyboard, and loads of books and scrap paper. I have these vivid memories of working at that desk in my dark living room in near total silence, before the city was really awake. While I worked, the room would go from this gloomy darkness to light gray, then to bright yellows when the sun would press through the blinds. I associate those early mornings in that apartment with the beginnings of the novel. I found it easier to write before the world really got moving. It took the pressure off, knowing that I could spend this time however I wanted because everyone else was either asleep or getting ready for work. I still write at the same desk, even though it’s completely impractical to have a desk without drawers!

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have a few friends from graduate school who I usually ask to read early drafts of my work, but really my wife is the person I trust the most. She reads fiction, but she isn’t a writer, and she never took a creative-writing class, which actually makes her the ideal reader. Writers aren’t always the best readers; we tend to get caught up in craft, and we can often see the strings being pulled. In other words, we can’t really read books like normal people. Whenever I give my wife something to read, I know she’s going to read it and critique it like someone who is looking to read a good story, and I think that’s a really valuable trait in a reader.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Two anecdotes come to mind. In Stephen King’s amazing book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I remember reading that a young writer will eventually come across a piece of fiction, read it, and think, “I can write better than this.” I’m paraphrasing, but that idea has always stayed with me. The attitude might seem a bit arrogant, but trying to write a novel is a completely crazy endeavor, and you’ve got to have that belief in yourself and in your work. I’m also a huge fan of E. L. Doctorow’s quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Writing fiction, especially a novel, is a huge leap of faith, and it’s easy to be discouraged when you look up from the page and realize how far you have to go. But if you keep your head down and chip away, page by page, chapter by chapter, you’ll find that writing a novel doesn’t feel so daunting.

Soon Wiley, author of When We Fell Apart.   (Credit: Rachel EH Photography)

Ten Questions for Dana Levin

4.19.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Dana Levin, whose fifth poetry collection, Now Do You Know Where You Are, is out today from Copper Canyon Press. Working in a variety of forms, Levin explores the disorientations of personal and political trauma through individual and collective transformation. She writes: “So many bodies a soul has to press through: personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic— // ‘Now do you know where you are?’” Investigating a broad emotional, political, and literary landscape, from climate devastation to the global pandemic, Trump’s tweets to Google’s memory, Levin calls on beloveds and ancestors, great thinkers and religions to piece together a map of existence. “Through the fog of doubt, Levin summons ferocious intellect and musters hard-won clairvoyance,” a critic for Publishers Weekly writes in a starred review. “This terrific book will ground readers in the art of questioning, even as the ground quakes.” Dana Levin is the author of four previous collections of poetry, most recently Banana Palace (2016). Her first book, In the Surgical Theatre, was chosen by Louise Glück for the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize and went on to receive numerous honors, including the 2003 PEN/Osterweil Award. Copper Canyon Press published her second book, Wedding Day, in 2005, and her third, Sky Burial, in 2011. Levin’s fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Library of Congress, as well as the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. Levin currently serves as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis, where she lives.

1. How long did it take you to write Now Do You Know Where You Are?
Six years, with the most intense phase being 2017 to 2020.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Oh, what wasn’t a challenge. Our collective conditions 2016-2020, my midlife crisis of creative confidence, leaving Santa Fe after nineteen years for the unknowns of Saint Louis—the whole book is this question.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I am a fitful writer: long periods of not writing followed by intense engagement. As a young writer I could only work in the early morning, but now it’s late afternoon and early evening. I write at home: I pace around, I sit on the floor of my living room, I move to the computer, I pace around, I sit on the floor, etc. I also do a lot of musing on my back porch.

4. What are you reading right now?
Paul Tran, All the Flowers Kneeling—one of the strongest debuts I’ve read in a while: The subject matter is intense and the formal chops are inventive and sharp. I also just finished reading Vapor by Sara Eliza Johnson, out this fall from Milkweed: wow. This quote! “My infidel, before the wind tears our flesh: one more photon for your tongue.”

5. Which poet, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Ted Mathys. Read his books Null Set and Gold Cure from Coffee House Press. Brainy, brilliant, grounded in the real in eccentric ways, always deep and surprising.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Distraction, impatience, and lack of discipline.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Pacing around my sublet in Saint Louis, Fall 2015, saying out loud the words “No,” “Yes,” and “Stop” over and over: to feel how they felt in my mouth, my throat, my chest.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When I removed all the pandemic poems written during that first lockdown. I’d submitted the final manuscript to Copper Canyon in April 2021, but hadn’t felt completely right with it. Then one day, in late May, sitting out on the back porch, I had a late-breaking Aha!—to let the pandemic be a kind of foreshadowed presence, rather than actuality. Many poems were already suggesting this: Pandemic showed up in poems written before 2020, as an idea, and in a 2017 conversation recounted in the poem “Appointment.” Once I removed the lockdown poems, the book just clicked into a shape that felt right. Then in Fall 2021, I put one pandemic poem back in: “Into the Next Eden.” This poem answered a call: I’d written a poem called “No,” and one called “Maybe,” and kept attempting a “Yes” poem that could never get going. Then I realized “Into the Next Eden” was the “Yes” poem! I love how all three titles—“No,” “Maybe,” “Into the “Next Eden”—answer the question, Now Do You Know Where You Are?

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have many initial readers, some who look at just one poem, some who engage whole manuscripts. For this book, the poet Gary Jackson was instrumental to my attempts at writing about race; Victoria Chang, to keeping the poems grounded in the strangeness of the ordinary. My sister, Caryn McCloskey, as well as Gaby Calvocoressi and Erin Belieu, offered encouragement to keep going (so crucial). G. C. Waldrep and Louise Glück are and have been primary readers for years: They are direct, they believe in my art, and they always tell me the truth, even when it stings.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
A paraphrase from Jack Kerouac: Don’t stop to think of the words, stop to see the scene better.

 

Dana Levin, author of Now Do You Know Where You Are  (Credit: B. A. Van Sise)

Ten Questions for Eloisa Amezcua

4.12.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Eloisa Amezcua, whose second poetry collection, Fighting Is Like a Wife, is out today from Coffee House Press. The formally inventive poems in Fighting Is Like a Wife reconstruct the love story and tragedy of two-time world boxing champion “Schoolboy” Bobby Chacon and his first wife, Valorie Ginn. In fierce visual poems that incorporate direct quotes from sports commentators and Bobby himself, Amezcua reveals the brutality and vulnerability of boxing, love, and poetry. “These brilliantly tactile, visceral poems excavate the relentless combinations of jabs and apologies that come from men who only know how to talk with their hands,” writes Adrian Matejka. “It takes a poet of exceptional empathy and uncanny dexterity to turn the difficult lives of Valorie Ginn and Bobby Chacon into verse as Amezcua has done.” Eloisa Amezcua’s first book, From the Inside Quietly, was published by Shelterbelt Press in 2018. A MacDowell fellow, her poems and translations have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Poetry magazine, the Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. She is the associate director of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and serves on the faculty of Randolph College’s low-residency MFA program.

1. How long did it take you to write Fighting Is Like a Wife?
I began drafting poems about boxing in June 2016, but after Bobby Chacon passed away in September of that year, the project that would become Fighting Is Like a Wife began to take shape. I drafted and revised poems up until the summer of 2021, so all in all it was about five years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The Valorie poems were by far the most difficult to write. There’s a lot of information about Chacon and his career available in newspaper articles, interviews, and video footage, but in all of the research I did, I was only able to find two or three direct quotes from Val. I wanted to present her as a full person—someone who loved deeply, who struggled in the shadow of the men in her life.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have a regular writing practice. I take notes often in a small notebook that I carry with me or as text messages to myself and I’m constantly thinking about form—how can I say the things I want to say in a way that surprises me (and hopefully the reader). When I do sit down to put those pieces together, it’s typically in the morning or while the sun is still out. I’m useless creatively after dark.

4. What are you reading right now?
An Oresteia translated by Anne Carson! I’ve always admired Carson’s translations, the way she cuts a sentence down to its essence and builds from there. Her translation of Elektra by Sophokles is just brilliant.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I think contemporary poets in translation (and their translators) deserve much more recognition! Lee Soho, trans. Soje; Tadeusz Dąbrowski, trans. Antonia Lloyd Jones; Ana Lúisa Amaral, trans. Margaret Jull Costa; Kim Hyesoon, trans. Don Mee Choi; and so many more!

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
To be a writer, the best thing someone can do, in my opinion, is read. Read everything. Read widely. Read and reread with an eye towards the “how” of the writing they love. How does this author build tension? How does time function in this essay? How does the poet elicit one emotional response over all others? How can I implement this into my own writing (i.e. craft!)?

If someone needs or wants to be enrolled in a formal graduate program to do this, they should. If someone can or wants to do this learning on their own, that’s great too.

7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Fighting Is Like a Wife, what would you say?
Don’t shy away from your obsessions. Keep playing. Be kinder to yourself.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
The book was finished when the amazing team at Coffee House Press told me I had to hand in the final draft. The project and the obsession continues. That’s not to say I’ll publish another book about Chacon or boxing, but I’ve been creating pieces in different mediums that are directly related to this book.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
It’s not one person but the community of writers—faculty, staff, students—at the Randolph College MFA program (where I teach) that I trust most with my work. It’s a group of thoughtful, supportive, active listeners and readers who have my best interest at heart. What more could a girl ask for?

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Take your time.

 

Eloisa Amezcua, author of Fighting Is Like a Wife.    (Credit: Amelia Golden)

Ten Questions for Dara Barrois/Dixon

4.5.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Wier), whose poetry collection Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina is out today from Wave Books. “[T]here are so many kinds of us / coming in various versions of ourselves,” she writes in the poem “Capitalism,” and it is to these various versions of ourselves that the poet applies her characteristic honesty and curiosity, reflecting on the self—as well as animals, books, skyscapes, movies, poems, other human beings—in songs of “love humor despair loving kindness love humor empathy / humor joy sympathy love kindness courage.” Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Wier) is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including In the Still of the Night (Wave Books, 2017), You Good Thing (Wave Books, 2013), and Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2009), among others. She has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, American Poetry Review, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives and works in factory hollow in Western Massachusetts.

1. How long did it take you to write Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina?
It’s usual for me to be writing more than one book at a time; my guess is Anna’s book unfolded over the course of around five to seven years start to finish. When I write a poem I’m not necessarily thinking of it as a poem for a certain book unless I’m working in a form (e.g. Reverse Rapture’s nine-line, nine-stanza poems; in progress since 2020, something I’m calling Is a Citroen Xsara Braque even imaginable? half-sonnet, half-prose); most of things take shape as they go along, because of what’s happening in the world and in my life, in others’ lives at the time. In fact I’m afraid if I self-consciously try to write a poem to fit a certain book I’m going to fail miserably.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Oh, god. It’s all challenging. Maybe I’d saychallenge came when trying to see the book’s title. I like how titles can do so much. They can set a tone, suggest a scene, take care of a situation, jumpstart something, imply alternatives. The place they hold is a powerful place, isolated up there all by themselves.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
19551967: everywhere, all the time, second nature, main preoccupation, unconsciously; I especially liked a cedar-lined closet with a typewriter stored on its floor, and a spot on the Mississippi River I thought of as my place to be at home.

19671970: anywhere I could find to be alone, not as often as I wanted, awkward writer’s self-consciousness awakening, by hand in lined journals, on Royal tabletop gifted me by my father.

19701980: anywhere with time and privacy, by hand in lined journals, and on Royal, often in rented rooms I’d turn into a room of my own and for keeping nearby books of all kinds, with a big dictionary on a dictionary stand across the room so I’d have to walk over to it, changing my mind as I walked, finding other words than the one I stood up to go find.

19801990: in a room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and then in a tiny place in Austin, Texas, then mainly in my room in my house in North Amherst, Massachusetts, usually between 8 AM and noon or 3 PM, when either my children or my work determined my hours, much handwriting in lined journals in between scheduled responsibilities.

19902014: often in my room at my husband James Tate’s house in Pelham, Massachusetts, anywhere from two to five or six days a week, typically from 2 PM on until what we wrote that day would be in shape enough for him to read mine to me and me to read his to him; with occasional interruptions for travel, switched to IBM Selectric then eventually to laptop, kept unabridged Merriam Webster across the room as usual, handwriting in journals especially on days when not in Pelham or on Royal desktop.

20152022: at any one of three tables and one desk in my house, I’d say about half of the day, most days, by hand in journal, on laptop, occasionally especially when not home, on phone usually in e-mails to myself.

As of March 7, 2022 I’m writing every morning for an hour or so on a long prose poem that I’ll hope to see to completion on March 7, 2023, and I’m writing the rest of any given day’s writing times on other books, poems, prose, in various stages of progress.

4. What are you reading right now?
Just as with writing I’m always reading more than one book at a time; this week those books include Herta Müller’s Father’s on the Phone With the Flies (2018) translated by Thomas Cooper, short aphoristic, surprising; Bianca Stone’s What Is Otherwise Infinite (2022), audacious, dauntless, the opposite of tame; Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983), this book’s first ten pages seem written for right nowone sentence: The final worst-case for all of us has now become the destruction, by ourselves, of our species.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Just this morning I was reading in Hyperallergic an article by Naz Cuguoglu called “The Art World’s Tainted Love for ‘Discovering’ Artists: The Case of Etel Adnan,” in which she rightly claims the art world, and by extension the literary world, claims to be righting wrongs of exclusion and underrepresentation while mostly ignoring reasons why recognition and wide appreciation occur in the first place. She quotes Adnan: “To be honest, I did not expect recognition. I was happy to keep going.”

Cuguoglu calls attention to and asks us to consider words such as discovery, finally getting their turn, forgotten, overlooked, and ignored. On a planet with a population of close to 8 billion, speaking over seven thousand languages, it has to be some kind of roll of the dice that determines who’s recognized and for what, when, and why, how, and what for. I hope everyone who writes begins by recognizing their own value and the value of the very act of their having chosen to write. I hope they pass their gift on to others who will in turn pass it on beyond themselves.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Are you with this question vesting in me the superpower I’ll need to see the one thing I’d change changed? I’ll pretend you arepoof!value not determined by money or data.

The diverse and unruly lives of artists and many of those who support artists can’t be summed up. Hundreds, thousands of independent and independent-minded people spend resources of time and money publishing others and sometimes themselves. Thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes fewer than ten writers and readers benefit. A circle of friends, a culture in common, unity from coincidental habitation in space, authentic and not institutionalized gatherings, these naturally celebrate and benefit from their close associations. Some of us are natural-born loners, in life, while addressing, in spirit, an unseen, unknown universal audience of beloved strange familiars.

The trail from private to public is complicated beyond summary. I’ve always taken heart from the story of a Barcelona-based poetry prize that awarded third place a silver violet, second place a golden rose, first place a real rose.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina?
The suddenness of its title appearing, it seemed, out of nowhere. And thank goodness.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When the title went on it.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Emily Pettit, my daughter, can claim that difficult role. I trust her every time. She has no problem questioning what always turns out to be questionable. I’m lucky to have her imaginative, principled, and quick understanding and her knowledge of all the ins and outs of poetry’s range. I trust her willingness to take on what has to be sometimes challenging, and I’m thankful for it.

I also trust strangers who are far away from my daily life, people I’ll never meet, never know.

And I trust a handful of friends I know it’s okay to send something new or in progressnot as often as I’d like, ha, for I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I’m not looking for advice so much as that scary electric sensation you get when you hit Send, or rarer still, drop something into a mailbox.

Knowing me, I’d like to send a lot of people a poem when I just finish it and am especially eager to have it seen by eyes other than mine, and taken in by another mind. But I resist it. I like the feeling of thinking of someone reading what I’ve sent, it tells me something. Picturing them reading what I’ve sent gives me insight into something I might want to do differently or feelings about something I’ve done being maybe okay.

And, of course, I trust every editor who’s ever published anything I’ve ever sent them!

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Ha, let me think…………

Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Wier), author of Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina.  

Ten Questions for Maud Newton

3.29.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Maud Newton, whose first book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, is out today from Random House. “I came into being through a kind of homegrown eugenics proj­ect. My parents married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together. This was my father’s idea, and over their brief courtship he persuaded my mom of its merits,” Newton writes early on in her debut, setting the stage for the story of her wildly unconventional Southern family, including her father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. Ancestor Trouble traces Newton’s attempt to use genealogy to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors has for all of us. “Newton takes this extraordinary journey not only for herself, but to illuminate this present moment in this country we all love,” writes Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. “‘Look,’ she tells us. ‘This is America. This is how we came to be.’” Maud Newton is a writer, critic, and former lawyer. Her writing has been published in Harper’s magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, Narrative, the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Granta, the Los Angeles Times, Oxford American, and elsewhere. Born in Dallas and raised in Miami, Florida, she lives in Queens, New York.

1. How long did it take you to write Ancestor Trouble?
I worked on it as a book for seven years, a little less than eight counting the months I spent writing an article about genealogy and my family for Harper’s. But if I’m honest, this is a tricky question to answer. I started writing about my genealogical research on my blog in 2007, and I’ve been writing about my family since I first learned to write.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Purely on a technical craft level, the most challenging thing was figuring out how to write about the different avenues I went down in the same voice I was sharing my family stories. The book centers on my family history but also considers genealogy; genetic genealogy; genetics, epigenetics, and ancient ideas about what we call heredity; psychoanalytic conceptions of ancestors and their importance for us; debates about intergenerational trauma; generational wealth; systemic racism; spiritual ideas of the importance of ancestors across the world and across time; and how we can use troubled family histories for the better. I knew I was asking a lot of the reader to follow me through all of this, and I did my best to write it all truthfully and without pretension.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I do most of my best writing in the middle of the night but I write at all times of day except the early morning. I’ve always been a night owl. When I was younger I wrote everywhere. The subway was a favorite venue. Nowadays I do a certain amount of writing in bed or in the rocking chair my great-grandfather made in the early 1900s that I like to sit in with my coffee in the morning. But even before the pandemic I’d worked my day job from home for many years, and between book and essay writing and holding down a job that also involves a lot of writing, for the most part I just shuttle between my writing desk and my work desk. Weekends are a break in the sense that I only need to show up at one desk. I have dogs who get me outside on walks every day, but otherwise I generally feel like I should be writing whenever I’m not.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Imani Perry’s South to America, Tanais’ In Sensorium, a story collection edited by Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan called Anonymous Sex, which is a sort of guessing game in that you don’t know which piece is written by which contributor. I’m also reading some books for my next project.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I love the essays of Sheree L. Greer, who writes about addiction, family, and much more, and I’m looking forward to reading her stories at book-length one day, in whatever form that takes.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Because of my other job and maybe also my general disposition, I’m a little more at a distance from writing communities and the book publishing industry than a lot of writers, so I don’t feel equipped to speak to the day-to-day, but I hope publishers will commit themselves long-term to the inclusivity they promised for BIPOC and LBGTQ+ writers in the summer of 2020. 

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
So many things, from both of them! But my editor encouraged me early on not to be afraid of what I thought of as the ghost-story aspects of the book. With a different kind of editor, this book could easily have ended up being a lot more cerebral and a lot less satisfying to me.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
It was easy to feel tender toward the world, committed to making the best and truest book I could, and not invested in the outcome while I was holed up working for so long. I hope to hold on to some of that spirit as the book moves out to find its readers. I’ll also miss all of my arcane research. I had never expected to immerse myself quite so deeply in Aristotle.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
That’s a tough question. I’m grateful beyond words to my friend Elizabeth Bachner, an incredibly talented writer and a fantastic conversationalist and thinker, who read many iterations of many parts of this book and always responded with gentle enthusiasm, no matter what a mess each draft was. She very rarely offered criticism, only excitement, and only in hindsight do I realize how much I needed that as I worked.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
One bit of advice I love from James Baldwin that rings true for me is that writers inevitably write out of their own experience. “Everything,” he said, “depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maud Newton, author of Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. 

Ten Questions for Roger Reeves

3.22.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Roger Reeves, whose second poetry collection, Best Barbarian, is out today from W. W. Norton. In vivid, haunting poems written with lyrical precision and elegiac intensity, Best Barbarian traverses the literary and social landscape to probe stories of climate change, anti-Black racism, catastrophe, love, loss, joy, and rage, transcending time and space, speaking to and through the work of writers such as Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Sappho, and Dante. “Borrowing and turning on its head the Western canon’s repeated warnings of civilization’s fall, Roger Reeves counters that the apocalypse ran contiguously with the inception and height of Western civilization because the white man’s rise was contingent upon the destruction of Black personhood,” writes Cathy Park Hong. “From that perspective, Reeves sees America as a necropolis to which he leads us―like Virgil―down into the underworld, where we meet the shades of Emmett Till, Oya, and Ezra Pound, among others.” Roger Reeves is the author of King Me (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a 2015 Whiting Award, among other honors. His work has appeared in Poetry, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Austin, Texas.

1. How long did it take you to write Best Barbarian?
That’s an odd question because I had written another book of poetry, one I’m still working on, while writing some of the poems in Best Barbarian. If am going to speak solely chronologically, Best Barbarian took nine years because King Me, my first book of poems, came out nine years ago. So let’s go with nine years for simplicity.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging thing about writing a book is thinking of “poems,” which are discrete art objects, as a book. I think of myself like a cabinet-maker. I like to make cabinets. I’m not an interior designer, which is what making a book is. When putting together a book, you must switch from making individual poems (which feel like books to me but that’s another discussion) to making something for which people will inhabit. In a book, the cabinets must fit in the kitchen. The vanity must slip into the bathroom and give you plenty of room to get to the shower. When making a book, you’re thinking about relations—how does this poem I wrote two years ago relate to a poem I wrote four years ago or two days ago?

Despite my reticence for becoming an interior designer, I enjoyed the process of putting Best Barbarian together. I structured the book more like a modal jazz tune with two very distinct solos, longer poems that were sections unto themselves—the middle of the book. The first and last sections announce the concerns, the melody and harmonics, of sorts. So when the book plays, it plays like one long song. You hear the original melody then you get these two solos, then you go back to the melody, but when you hear the melody again, it’s slightly different because the solos have changed your understanding of what the original melody was doing and could do.

What I also found difficult in writing Best Barbarian is what I find difficult in writing in general—giving up the poem, allowing it to go out into the world. I’m constantly tinkering, radically changing poems, asking it what else it has. I think this sort of process doesn’t always lend to making and publishing books quickly.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Where do I write: anywhere—at a desk, in an office, in bed, in the bathroom, on a run, in the shower, walking to the corner store, in an airplane. Though mostly, I write at a desk.

When do I write: in the mornings generally—first thing.

How often do I write: six days a week. I take off one day, sometimes two days, a week. I am often writing on several projects simultaneously, in several genres, so I do a bit of crop rotation. But if I’m honest, I’m writing everyday—changing a comma here, reworking a sentence.

4. What are you reading right now?
This morning I was reading Donald Revell’s White Campion and Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. Over the weekend, I had a hankering for some Elizabeth Bishop and reread Geography III (such a great book). I have also been reading Solmaz Sharif’s Customs and revisiting LOOK for an essay I’m revising. In terms of fiction, I have been rereading Morrison’s Beloved and Paradise. I’m excited to get into Gary Jackson’s book of poems Origin Story and Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Lorenzo Thomas. He was poet, born in Panama, raised in New York City, and taught at the University of Houston, downtown campus. His work straddled many writing camps and collectives. A few days ago I was marveling at this wonderful poem titled “Diplomacy,” which appeared in the African American literary journal Callaloo in 1999. Thomas does such an amazing job of thinking inside a poem. The last stanza of “Diplomacy” reads: “Nothing is gained, perhaps / Except to understand / The eye-piercing cologne men wear / To transact filthy business.” More of that. I wish his work was discussed and lauded more. I wish we understood how many Black poets were writing truly transcendent, timeless poems, but we’ll never get to see them because they ran into the buzz-saw of American racism and lived in and through American apartheid.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
If I could change one thing about publishing, it would be that poets could make a living just writing poems. And do nothing else unless they chose to. And that we’d have a wider, more generous notion of excellence. And, that we—writers, editors, presses—had more funding opportunities to put on more audacious programming and collaborations. 

7. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
I will miss writing “Something About John Coltrane.” I like the soloing that happens in that poem. It was the type of poem that felt amazing to be inside of it. I will miss reading the poems in proofs and realizing that indeed it is a book, and it’s a book that I always wanted to write, a book that surprised me in its vulnerability, in its reaching toward and addressing freedom.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When my editor at W. W. Norton, Jill Bialosky, said I couldn’t make anymore changes. But seriously, I’m always working on the manuscript up until the last moment. I want to make sure I’ve gotten the poems some place that I couldn’t see when I started them. I want the poems to journey somewhere emotionally, meditatively. I always think of the adage from Robert Frost—“no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader; no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” This adage has guided and continues to guide me

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have several trusted readers. Solmaz Sharif, Chris Loperena, and Monica Jimenez. They are my trusted readers and listeners because they have big ears; they can hear diverse and wildly different sorts of music. They also want more for the world, for the poem in the way that I want more.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Write. Get out of the way of the writing. Don’t make it precious. Sit down and get to it.

Roger Reeves, author of Best Barbarian (Credit: Ana Schwartz)

Roger Reeves Craft Capsule: Chicago 2015

Poet Roger Reeves presents “The Work of Poetry in the Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston: Towards a Klepto_Poetics” as part of the Craft Capsules portion of Poets & Writers Live in Chicago on June 20, 2015.

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Ten Questions for Eloghosa Osunde

3.15.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Eloghosa Osunde, whose debut novel, Vagabonds!, is out today from Riverhead Books. A tour de force of magical realism, the novel traces a vivid array of characters in Lagos for whom life itself is a form of resistance: “a driver for a debauched politician with the power to command life and death; a legendary fashion designer who gives birth to a grown daughter; a lesbian couple whose tender relationship sheds unexpected light on their experience with underground sex work; a wife and mother who attends a secret spiritual gathering that shifts her world; a transgender woman and the groundbreaking love of her mother.” Vagabonds! takes us deep inside the hearts, minds, and bodies of a people in duress—and in triumph—in a way that only the best fiction can do. “In Vagabonds! you will discover queer people finding ways to love each other in a society that outlaws queerness, and an explosive portrait of Nigeria that will blow your mind—in prose that feels so alive it practically vibrates off the page,” writes Lidia Yuknavitch. “A masterpiece.” An alumna of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, the Caine Prize Workshop, and the New York Film Academy, Eloghosa Osunde has been published in the Paris ReviewGulf Coast, Guernica, Catapult, and other venues. Winner of the 2021 Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the recipient of a Miles Morland Scholarship, she is a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow and a 2020 MacDowell Colony Fellow.

1. How long did it take you to write Vagabonds!?
Mm, my answer could be three years, or five months. I wrote the first short story, “Night Wind,”  as a standalone in 2017. I wasn’t trying to write Vagabonds! yet. I’d been working on something else—a better-behaved novel—and that was my main focus, even as I wrote and placed other short stories in publications. A while into doing that, I started to see my work more clearly, and also just paid attention to what I respect and don’t respect in stories, and why. It hit me properly in late 2018 that a book that moves like Vagabonds! is the specific kind of novel I would 100 percent want to enter the world with, and stand by for a long time. I think of that moment as the starting point of the manuscript, the nudge that got me started on sculpting this book. That process took about five intense months and then it was done.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Putting my complete faith in my work and a sure doubt in the voices inside and outside me that wanted me to play it safe. We talk a lot about the role of faith in achieving things, but I also believe in the power of doubt, especially here. So much of the book, so much of what I dared to allow myself to imagine was a direct result of me training myself to doubt certain stories and limitations I’d believed all my life. Doubt is a useful weapon to have on you if you’re in a world that will continue to tell you terrible stories about yourself, just because. It’s good to know who to trust, I’ve been learning, but also who to doubt. Getting a hang of this took time; getting used to the sound of my own voice took time; catching up to my inherent worthiness took time; becoming brave enough to write this book took time. That was harder for me than the writing itself.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Where: I write at home, from my bed or couch, because tables are too serious and I don’t get as much done on them. Taking the pressure off, for me,  usually involves a duvet. When: at night, mostly. Or in the dark—a situation I’m able to create in my apartment regardless of what time it is outside. Usually, I’ll have some music or rain sounds playing in the background, AC’s on—always. How often: as often as feels true, which is, at this point, almost everyday.

4. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W Moniz. The collection finds such an impressive equilibrium between vulnerability and restraint. I was reading Warsan Shire’s Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice in Her Head at the same time, which I’d been waiting for since I heard it was coming. I’m going into This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley now. I’m impressed already.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Arinze Ifeakandu. His stories are so particular about their pace, so sincere. There is no hurry there. Even beyond plot, I love admiring the skill it takes to collaborate with silence on storytelling, to let it know that you take it seriously enough to need it too. His book God’s Children Are Little Broken Things, out in June, displays this flawlessly. Preorder it! Logan February, whose poems affect me so personally. Pemi Aguda. Her books are coming.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
If there was something I could change about the publishing industry, it would be the abysmal pay gap that exists because of systemic racism. I think very often about the number of brilliant writers who get told no for vague reasons, who get told There is no market for this by people who begin with the conclusion that white markets are the main (or only) markets. It’s so obvious to me that there are multiple markets active at once, different demographics with purchasing power still heavily un(der)represented in print, and many readers of all sorts of stories who would reach for the books if they were actually there. Money is what allows people to (continue to) write without worry. So, because I’m so tired of hearing about how many writers I love—dead and alive—were severely underpaid for groundbreaking work, even when their names were everywhere, that’s the first thing I’d change. We need more range of experience, people of varying nationalities in positions of power, so that we can get more brilliant, textured stories out into the world. Oh also! I’d make sure people got paid their advance in less than four installments for sure. Three. Two. Whatever. Just not four. Bills are real.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
Certainty, for sure. My agent, Jackie, met and signed me off just one short story, one essay and a proposal for a novel. I have always appreciated this, because I know it’s the industry norm to wait on the finished manuscript before taking a chance—especially with fiction. She met me and knew. Kristi, who is Jackie’s assistant, has also just made my life so much easier with her sturdiness. Jessica Bullock, my UK agent, is ever ready to do what my journey requires, and my film agent, Kristina Moore, is this way too. The trait I value the most in my editors—Hi Cal! Hi Kish!—is also the same: certainty. Both editors read the manuscript and knew they wanted it exactly as it was, then worked with me on the book from inside that assuredness. I can see what a blessing that has been.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
Building the world it’s set in. I assembled this world with care, so I know how everything works inside it, even when it appears chaotic. I’ll miss fussing over the mechanics, but thankfully my next book is set there too.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I’m my most trusted reader, because I know all about the knot my interests form when joined together. I really respect my judgment, trust my taste and know I can be honest with myself in the readback about what doesn’t work. If I’m stretched by the story’s unfolding, moved by the places where all those interests overlap, then I know that the work is moving. If I’m not, it’s not. I always know the difference. My friend Joshua Segun Lean as well, who is the most attentive reader I know; my best friend Fadekemi, because she sees me and loved me for fifteen straight years, has been in my life long enough to know my truths from my lies; and my partner, who reads my work from a familiar place, with both seriousness and joy, and shares thoughtful responses that help me connect deeper with the work.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Please build heart work into your practice. Tend to your heart everyday and don’t just assume because you’re writing from the heart that you’re tending to your heart… Please please tend to your heart when creating the art our hearts need, the art that helps your family eat. We all deserve healthy hearts. Please believe. I’m trying to believe too.” —Kiese Laymon

Eloghosa Osunde, author of Vagabonds!  

Ten Questions for NoViolet Bulawayo

3.8.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features NoViolet Bulawayo, whose second novel, Glory, is out today from Viking. The novel opens onto a crowded square on Independence Day in Jidada, a fictional African country populated by animal citizens. Some animals attempt to escape the heat and leave early but are pushed back by military dogs—“violent, morbid beasts”—who later brutalize protestors who disrupt the Father of the Nation’s speech. Throughout the novel, Bulawayo expertly renders such dramatic set-pieces of dictatorship and revolution, while also zooming in on the stories of individual animals, their wounds and resilience. Both witty and harrowing, Glory is inspired by the aftermath of the 2017 removal of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, but the novel offers insight into the cruel absurdities of politics the world over. “Bulawayo keenly displays the perspectives of political players and the civilians who bear the brunt of their violence,” writes Publishers Weekly. “With satire that feels necessary and urgent, Bulawayo brings clarity to a murky political morass.” NoViolet Bulawayo is the author of We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books, 2013), which was a finalist for the Booker Prize and won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She grew up in Zimbabwe and lives in the United States.

1. How long did it take you to write Glory?
About three and a half years of the most intense focus I’ve ever had to pull off, an experience that reminds me that sometimes we write only because of those who make it possible for us to do so. I’m especially grateful to all who supported me during that time, including the then-director of creative writing at Stanford, the late Eavan Boland, who understood my near desperate need to go to the wilderness, and sent me off with such grace, understanding, and encouragement.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Writing against an unfolding public narrative driven by forces I couldn’t control sometimes complicated the story’s focus, raised questions like how much of new storylines to include or leave out, how to reconcile unforeseen traits or actions with a character I’d framed a specific way. Still, working through these issues gave me the opportunity to really push my imagination in interesting ways.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on the project, but I generally write when the draft that happens in the head is ready to come to the page. Whatever it is will normally tell me how it wants to be done; Glory demanded to be written every day, beginning in the wee hours of morning till about late evening. The first shift was the bed-shift (I insist on large, comfortable beds for this purpose); the second and the third shifts were divided between my apartment and an office. I must work in isolation because my process tends to be messy.

4. What are you reading right now?
Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, one of my favorite books to reread.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Far too many to mention. It’s strange to pick just one author when the world is full of incredible writers who aren’t recognized, but outside of the spotlight is where one finds some of the most surprising and exciting work.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
I’d get rid of the gatekeeping at every level so we not only have a fair system, but also one that reflects the real world.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Somewhere in the preliminary drafts (Glory was a monster of about 700 pages then) my editor mentioned in her comments to figure out how to maintain the steam; this really helped me keep my finger on the pulse of the story, and of course with the much-needed pairing and polishing.    

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Glory, what would you say?
I’d tell me to proper brace up; I wasn’t ready for how much this novel would demand.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My agent and editors are my trusted dream team; for their critical but caring eyes, for being ready to say what must be said, no matter how difficult, for their generosity, and most importantly, for understanding me. What they brought to Glory, and how they handled the project especially in its infancy, thoroughly humbles me. I don’t even know how to thank them.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Figure out how you work best.” ⏤Toni Morrison

NoViolet Bulawayo, author of Glory (Credit: Nye’ Lyn Tho)

2013 First Fiction Sampler

by

Staff

7.1.13

For our thirteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2013 issue of the magazine for interviews between Paul Harding and NoViolet Bulawayo, Karen Russell and Bushra Rehman, Nathan Englander and Bill Cheng, Curtis Sittenfeld and Anton DiSclafani, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinelo Okparanta. But first, check out these exclusive excerpts from the debut novels and story collections.

We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books, September) by NoViolet Bulawayo
Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press, August) by Bushra Rehman
Southern Cross the Dog (HarperCollins, May) by Bill Cheng
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead Books, June) by Anton DiSclafani
Happiness, Like Water (Mariner Books, August) by Chinelo Okparanta 

We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo

“Hitting Budapest”

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.

Getting out of Paradise is not so hard since the mothers are busy with hair and talk, which is the only thing they ever do. They just glance at us when we file past the shacks and then look away. We don’t have to worry about the men under the jacaranda either since their eyes never lift from the draughts. It’s only the little kids who see us and try to follow, but Bastard just wallops the naked one at the front with a fist on his big head and they all turn back.

When we hit the bush we are already flying, scream-singing like the wheels in our voices will make us go faster. Sbho leads: Who discovered the way to India? and the rest of us rejoin, Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Bastard is at the front because he won country-game today and he thinks that makes him our president or something, and then myself and Godknows, Stina, Sbho, and finally Chipo, who used to outrun everybody in all of Paradise but not anymore because somebody made her pregnant.

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. We have to stop once, though, for Chipo to sit down because of her stomach; sometimes when it gets painful she has to rest it.

When is she going to have the baby anyway? Bastard says. Bastard doesn’t like it when we have to stop doing things because of Chipo’s stomach. He even tried to get us not to play with her altogether.

She’ll have it one day, I say, speaking for Chipo because she doesn’t talk anymore. She is not mute-mute; it’s just that when her stomach started showing, she stopped talking. But she still plays with us and does everything else, and if she really, really needs to say something she’ll use her hands. 

What’s one day? On Thursday? Tomorrow? Next week?

Can’t you see her stomach is still small? The baby has to grow.

A baby grows outside of the stomach, not inside. That’s the whole reason they are born. So they grow into adults.

Well, it’s not time yet. That’s why it’s still in a stomach. 

Is it a boy or girl?

It’s a boy. The first baby is supposed to be a boy.

But you’re a girl, big head, and you’re a first-born. 

I said supposed, didn’t I? 

Just shut your kaka mouth, you, it’s not even your stomach. 

I think it’s a girl. I put my hands on it all the time and I’ve never felt it kick, not even once. 

Yes, boys kick and punch and butt their heads. That’s all they are good at.

Does she want a boy?

No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. 

Where exactly does a baby come out of?

The same place it goes into the stomach.

How exactly does it get into the stomach?

First, Jesus’s mother has to put it in there.

No, not Jesus’s mother. A man has to put it in there, my cousin Musa told me. Well, she was really telling Enia, and I was there so I heard. 

Then who put it inside her?

How can we know if she won’t say?

Who put it in there, Chipo? Tell us, we won’t tell.

Chipo looks at the sky. There’s a tear in her one eye, but it’s only a small one.

Then if a man put it in there, why doesn’t he take it out?

Because it’s women who give birth, you dunderhead. That’s why they have breasts to suckle the baby and everything.

But Chipo’s breasts are small. Like stones.

It doesn’t matter. They’ll grow when the baby comes. Let’s go, can we go, Chipo? I say. Chipo doesn’t reply, she just takes off, and we run after her. When we get right to the middle of Budapest we stop. This place is not like Paradise, it’s like being in a different country altogether. A nice country where people who are not like us live. But then you don’t see anything to show there are real people living here; even the air itself is empty: no delicious food cooking, no odors, no sounds. Just nothing.

Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled yards or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Dura walls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. 

At first we used to steal from Stina’s uncle, who now lives in Britain, but that was not stealing-stealing because it was Stina’s uncle’s tree and not a stranger’s. There’s a difference. But then we finished all the guavas in that tree so we have moved to the other houses as well. We have stolen from so many houses I cannot even count. It was Bastard who decided that we pick a street and stay on it until we have gone through all the houses. Then we go to the next street. This is so we don’t confuse where we have been with where we are going. It’s like a pattern, and Bastard says this way we can be better thieves.

Today we are starting a new street and so we are carefully scouting around. We are passing Chimurenga Street, where we’ve already harvested every guava tree, maybe like two-three weeks ago, when we see white curtains part and a face peer from a window of the cream home with the marble statue of the urinating naked boy with wings. We are standing and staring, looking to see what the face will do, when the window opens and a small, funny voice shouts for us to stop. We remain standing, not because the voice told us to stop, but because none of us has started to run, and also because the voice doesn’t sound dangerous. Music pours out of the window onto the street; it’s not kwaito, it’s not dance-hall, it’s not house, it’s not anything we know. 

A tall, thin woman opens the door and comes out of the house. The first thing we see is that she is eating something. She waves as she walks towards us, and already we can tell from the woman’s thinness that we are not even going to run. We wait, so we can see what she is smiling for, or at. The woman stops by the gate; it’s locked, and she didn’t bring the keys to open it.

Jeez, I can’t stand this awful heat, and the hard earth, how do you guys ever do it? the woman asks in her not-dangerous voice. She smiles, takes a bite of the thing in her hand. A pink camera dangles from her neck. We all look at the woman’s feet peeking underneath her long skirt. They are clean and pretty feet, like a baby’s. She is wiggling her toes, purple from nail polish. I don’t remember my own feet ever looking like that; maybe when I was born.

Then there’s the woman’s red chewing mouth. I can tell from the cord thingies at the side of her neck and the way she smacks her big lips that whatever she is eating tastes really good. I look closely at her long hand, at the thing she is eating. It’s flat, and the outer part is crusty. The top is creamish and looks fluffy and soft, and there are coin-like things on it, a deep pink, the color of burn wounds. I also see sprinkles of red and green and yellow, and finally the brown bumps that look like pimples.

Chipo points at the thing and keeps jabbing at the air in a way that says What’s that? She rubs her stomach with her other hand; now that she is pregnant, Chipo is always playing with her stomach like maybe it’s a toy. The stomach is the size of a football, not too big. We keep our eyes on the woman’s mouth and wait to hear what she will say.

Oh, this? It’s a camera, the woman says, which we all know; even a stone can tell that a camera is a camera. The woman wipes her hand on her skirt, pats the camera, then aims what is left of the thing at the bin by the door, misses, and laughs to herself like a madman. She looks at us like maybe she wants us to laugh with her, but we are busy looking at the thing that flew in the air before hitting the ground like a dead bird. We have never ever seen anyone throw food away, even if it’s a thing. Chipo looks like she wants to run after it and pick it up. The woman’s twisted mouth finishes chewing, and swallows. I swallow with her, my throat tingling.

How old are you? the woman asks Chipo, looking at her stomach like she has never seen anybody pregnant.

She is eleven, Godknows replies for Chipo. We are ten, me and her, like twinses, Godknows says, meaning him and me. And Bastard is eleven and Sbho is nine, and Stina we don’t know because he has no birth certificate. 

Wow, the woman says. I say wow too, wow wow wow, but I do it inside my head. It’s my first time ever hearing this word. I try to think what it means but I get tired of grinding my brains so I just give up.

And how old are you? Godknows asks her. And where are you from? I’m thinking about how Godknows has a bigmouth that will get him slapped one day.

Me? Well, I’m thirty-three, and I’m from London. This is my first time visiting my dad’s country, she says, and twists the chain on her neck. The golden head on the chain is the map of Africa.

I know London. I ate some sweets from there once. They were sweet at first, and then they just changed to sour in my mouth. Uncle Vusa sent them when he first got there but that was a long time ago. Now he never sends anything, Godknows says. He looks up at the sky like maybe he wants a plane to appear with sweets from his uncle.

But you look only fifteen, like a child, Godknows says, looking at the woman now. I am expecting her to reach out and slap him on the mouth but she merely smiles like she has not just been insulted.

Thank you, I just came off the Jesus diet, she says, sounding very pleased. I look at her like What is there to thank? I’m also thinking, What is a Jesus diet, and do you mean the real Jesus, like God’s child? 

I know from everybody’s faces and silence that they think the woman is strange. She runs a hand through her hair, which is matted and looks a mess; if I lived in Budapest I would wash my whole body every day and comb my hair nicely to show I was a real person living in a real place. With her hair all wild like that, and standing on the other side of the gate with its lock and bars, the woman looks like a caged animal. I begin thinking what I would do if she actually jumped out and came after us.

Do you guys mind if I take a picture? she says. We don’t answer because we’re not used to adults asking us anything; we just look at the woman, at her fierce hair, at her skirt that sweeps the ground when she walks, at her pretty peeking feet, at her golden Africa, at her large eyes, at her smooth skin that doesn’t even have a scar to show she is a living person, at the earring in her nose, at her T-shirt that says Save Darfur. 

Great, now, stand close together, the woman says.

You, the tall one, go to the back. And you, yes, you, and you, look this way, no, I mean you, with the missing teeth, look at me, like this, she says, her hands reaching out of the bars, almost touching us.

Good, good, now say cheese, say cheese, cheese, cheeeeeeeese— the woman enthuses, and everyone says cheese. Myself, I don’t really say, because I am busy trying to remember what cheese means exactly, and I cannot remember. Yesterday Mother of Bones told us the story of Dudu the bird who learned and sang a new song whose words she did not really know the meaning of and who was then caught, killed, and cooked for dinner because in the song she was actually begging people to kill and cook her. 

The woman points at me, nods, and tells me to say cheeeeeese and I say it mostly because she is smiling like she knows me really well, like she even knows my mother. I say it slowly at first, and then I say, Cheese and cheese, and I’m saying cheese cheeeeese and everyone is saying cheese cheese cheese and we are all singing the word and the camera is clicking and clicking and clicking. Then Stina, who is quiet most of the time, just starts to walk away. The woman stops taking pictures and says, Hey, where are you going? But he doesn’t stop, doesn’t even turn to look at her. Then Chipo walks away after Stina, then the rest of us follow them.

We leave the woman standing there, taking pictures as we go. Then Bastard stops at the corner of Victoria and starts shouting insults at the woman, and I remember the thing, and that she threw it away without even asking us if we wanted it, and I begin shouting also, and everyone else joins in. We shout and we shout and we shout; we want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away. The woman just looks at us puzzled, like she has never heard anybody shout, and then quickly hurries back into the house but we shout after her, shout till we smell blood in our tickling throats.

Excerpted from We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, published in May by Reagan Arthur Books. Copyright © 2013 by NoViolet Bulawayo. All rights reserved.

Corona 
By Bushra Rehman

“Abandoned Bread Truck”

Corona, Queens 
January 1985

Every few weeks, and really it could have been less, an abandoned car showed up outside our dining room window. The car would be left there sometime on a Saturday night, whole for just a moment before it would start to decay. Every morning after that, pieces would go missing. The tires would be the first to vanish. Then the windows would be shattered and the insides gutted. Finally, the engine lid would pop open and pieces would disappear. Then, as suddenly as the car had come, it would be gone. Its space wouldn’t be empty for long before another car would show up to take its place. 

On winter mornings, I would sit on the radiator by the window. Some days, it was the only way to stay warm. I would see the abandoned cars and imagine I was living in the desert, or the high distant plain, walking past the same dead animal, wolf, laid to rest on the sand and in the heat. I’d watch the way pieces of it would disappear, stripped by secret claws and beaks. Pieces would always disappear while I was asleep.

Then there was one day, a bitter January morning, when a bread truck delivering fresh Italian bread, stalled right outside of our house. The truck driver was a big Italian. He got out and cursed and kicked the truck. His curses made smoke in the air. He walked off to find a pay phone, but there was no working pay phone anywhere in Corona. He walked around the corner and disappeared. 

It was a snow day, and already children were coming outside to make snow angels and pretend they were skating on patches of ice. They came out in their boots and their cheap coats from Alexander’s. It was Julio and his friends who noticed the abandoned bread truck first. There was always a group of boys who moved around Julio like wobbly planets. 

I leaned against the window and watched them. They circled the truck, a child they were ready to gang up on. Julio jumped up to the cab and tried to pull open the door, but it was locked. His friends threw snowballs as if they were handballs. The white on white hit the metal and bounced off the truck. But soon even they got bored with that and wandered off to make trouble somewhere else. 

Across the street in the buildings, I began to see faces in the windows: the three old Italian ladies who always wore black, the young Dominican mothers of the kids in my school holding baby brothers and sisters on their hips. The bread truck had made the mistake of stalling on the street where all the abandoned cars were left. Everyone was watching to see what would happen. 

The old Italian ladies were the first to disappear from their windows. As if they had been given a signal, they all vanished from their different apartments. They showed up again, on the snow, like black crows on ice. I saw them creep up to the back of the truck. I ran to tell my mother. She was in the kitchen scrubbing the counters with Mr. Clean. 

“Ammi, something’s happening.” By the time my mother washed her hands and came back with me to the dining room window, there was a mob on the street. 

Julio had come back with his father and a crowbar. His father looked around for the driver, and when he saw no one, he popped open the back like he was opening a can of soda, then jumped into the truck. He was gone for a few minutes. We all waited, not knowing what to do. When he came out, his arms were full of loaves of bread. He threw an armful to Julio who ran home with it. 

Slowly, other people started coming to the back of the truck. The old Italian ladies were at the head, but behind them was the Korean grandmother, the young Dominican mothers, and other kids from my school. Some of them waited for Julio’s father to throw them bread. Others jumped in themselves and grabbed armfuls of Italian bread with or without seeds, rolls and whole loaves. They ran home hugging the fresh bread to their chests. 

I looked up at my mother, waiting for her to say something about the people in our neighborhood, but instead she said, “Put on your coat.” 

“Kya?” I said, afraid I would get in trouble if I had misheard. This was the same mother who made me walk back to the bodega on the corner to give back even five cents any time they gave me too much change. 

She said again, “Put on your coat and get some bread.”

When I got outside, it felt like someone had thrown a block party in the middle of the winter street. I had never seen my neighbors smiling at each other this way. I walked to the back of the truck, feeling cold in my thin coat. 

But the ice of January was nothing when Julio’s father put a loaf of steamy, soft bread in my arms. It was like a baby, a new baby, for us to have. The snow crunched under my feet, and I looked up to see my mother smiling down at me, her face pressed against the glass. 

Excerpted from Corona by Bushra Rehman, published in August by Sibling Rivalry Press. Copyright © 2013 by Bushra Rehman. All rights reserved.

Southern Cross the Dog
By Bill Cheng

“The Flood (1927)”

The rain kept on like a dust and it was the oldest boy G.D. who said it wasn’t nothing, crossing through the woods behind Old Man Crookhand’s. The wind swooped through, chattering the branches, and blew the grit against their faces. They put up their hands and trudged on, G.D. ahead of the others, cutting his switch into the bushes. Whack, whack. Come on, you babies, he said, and he whipped again, the vines and leaves opening around his blows.

They followed close, the boys wolfing on, whispering their jokes, trying to make the girls laugh and shiver. One at a time, they crushed across the underbrush, skimming spider vines and breaking off bits of sweetbark from the trunks to chew and spit.

The trail began to climb and G.D. bound up the hill in wide strides. At the top, he stopped and waited for the others. He could see Crookhand Grove, a cleft of cleared land that dipped below the path. At the center was the Bone Tree. It had been dead for years, its leaves rotting in a carpet around the trunk.

One by one, the others crowded around him. They gazed out into the grove and fell quiet. There’d been stories about dead Injuns and their ghosts living inside the hollows. The wind came through and the naked branches clattered. The gang looked at one another, then up at G.D. 

He spit a wad down into the grove. 

Keep moving, he said.

The mule path broke out into a clearing where the lumbermen had already come through. G.D. chose the tallest tree stump and mounted it. He splayed out his arms, waving the switch like a sword before touching the edge against his cheek—a nub of twig snagging on his tooth. It was time. His eyes drooped into lazy buttonholes, looking the others over. They fidgeted under his gaze, shifting from side to side, holding up their hands, rubbing rain into their fingers.

G.D. sized them up. Their ragged clothes, the yellow mud caked to their shins. A girl unbraided a slip of hair. Her small fingers eased through the knots. A boy dug his toes into the soil, trying not to meet G.D.’s eye. Another stood with his arms folded across his chest, shifting his weight from knee to knee. He spotted her. She was tall and willowy compared to the other girls. Her hair was brushed back and she sloped her shoulders as she tried to hide her size.

G.D. pointed with the switch.

Dora, he said.

The girl furrowed her brow.

Not me!

He moved the switch to the sharp of his smile.

Yes.

That’s not fair! I done it last time, G.D.!

You, Dora. Again.

It’s gonna rain, she said. I don’t want to get soaked.

G.D. shrugged and grinned at the others.

Best get started then.

G.D. brought the switch down against his leg. Thwack. They made a circle around her. He beat down again. Thwack. Thwack. The girl looked up but it was too late. Already the circle had tightened and they’d begun to sing.

Little Sally Water, settin’ in a saucer.

Rise Sally rise, wipe your weepin’ eyes.

The girl sighed, slumping. She hunched down on her knees and listened for the rhythm. Her backside bucked up, kicking out like a mule and swinging.

Shake it to the east, Sally.

Shake it to the west, Sally.

Shake it to the one you love the best, Sally.

Her frilled bloomers flashed out under her dress as she spun. The world swished inside her head. When the song ended, she righted herself and turned to see who she’d chosen. If it was a girl, they would have to start again, this time even faster as G.D. lashed out mercilessly with his switch.

Slowly the world glided back into place. She righted herself and saw him. He was big cheeked and wet eyed, and he was at least a good head shorter than her. The boy looked blankly at her through his long lashes. She’d seen him before. He was always so quiet, never laughed or cussed, floating behind the others like some tattered kite tail. He fidgeted now with his hands in his pockets, looking unsure of himself until G.D. nudged him forward.

Well, don’t just stand there looking dumb.

G.D. led Dora and the boy out to Crookhand Grove where the earth was cracked and split along the roots of the Bone Tree. They were alone, the three of them, caught under the storm clouds. Thunder sounded out like split wood and they looked cautiously at the little bits of sky coming through the branches.

G.D. took both their hands and grinned.

My, my, Dora. I never knew you was such a tasteful lady.

Dora slapped his arm and his eyes sparked.

I’m gonna count to a hundred. Then you come on out.

We know how it works, G.D.

G.D. winked at the boy and headed back to the clearing, arms crossed over his head. She could hear him beginning to count.

Dora smoothed down the sides of her dress. The boy was looking at a spider threaded between two branches. It sat fat and blood-filled in its web, its legs spread like fingers.

Dora could hear the other children starting in on their singing again. They had begun another round.

Well, come on then, she said.

Come on what?

Ain’t you played Sally Water before?

The boy plucked up the spider. He turned it over and watched its legs bicycle. He held it up to Dora and she made a face. Then he set it down on a trunk and watched it race up the bark.

You’re Billy Chatham’s brother, ain’t you?

The boy shrugged.

My uncle told me your brother was wild. That he loved up a white girl and he—Dora

stopped herself. The boy sat down against the trunk and started scabbing at the bark, pulling it away in chips. He put them together in a pile, counting them out in his palm.

What’s your name?, Dora asked.

Robert, he said. He seemed to think for a moment then he added, Robert Lee Chatham.

Dora looked back from where they came.

Well, let’s not take too long then. Come here, she said. Stand up against the trunk there.

He dusted the bark off and pushed his sleeves up to his elbow. They drooped back down, past his knuckles. His shirt was too large. It hadn’t been sized for him.

Now shut your eyes so you can’t see nothing.

Everything was still for a moment. Just the slow breath of the magnolias and the sound of mosquitoes making the air goosebump and tremble. He thought he could hear the other children laughing in the distance—their small twinkling voices in the breeze. Then he felt the kiss—the damp spongy pressing against his mouth, something cold skimming the underside of his tongue, warm air brushing against the slope of his upper lip. Something small and hard pressed into his hand. When he opened his eyes, the sky had split open.

Excerpted from Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, published in May by HarperCollins. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Cheng. All rights reserved.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
By Anton DiSclafani

I was assigned to Augusta House. All of the cabins were named after the founders’ relatives—we had Mary House, Spivey House, Minerva House. Mr. Holmes led me and my father through the Square, but I trailed a foot or two behind so I didn’t have to speak. Mr. Holmes’s stride was enormous; he was tall and lanky and towered over my father, who had always been on the small side. Sam, who had shot up like a weed over the past few months, was taller than him now. Sam might be eating at the moment, or maybe dinner was done. Perhaps he was still wearing his day clothes: shorts and a button-down linen shirt, an outfit chosen to make the sun bearable. We never wore sleeves in the summer, but in Atlanta every man I’d seen had worn a full suit, despite the heat. Mr. Holmes wore a suit now, had emerged with Father from his office wearing a jacket.

My father walked quickly to keep up and wanted to leave his hands in his pockets, but kept removing them, instinctively, for balance.

I wondered if I would recognize the back of Father’s head in a crowd. Surely I would recognize Sam’s, his coarse, thick hair that Mother coaxed to lie flat every time she passed by, drawing a hand over his head by habit.

Mr. Holmes opened the door to Augusta House and walked through first, but before he did he turned and gave me a little smile; I could hear him tell the girls they had a visitor, and when my father and I walked in a moment later, five girls stood by their bunk beds, hands behind their backs, motionless. It was almost dark now, and the light from a wall sconce was the only source of illumination in the room. I thought it odd that Mr. Holmes, a grown man, had entered a cabin full of girls without knocking. But they had known he was coming. I wondered what else they knew.

“This is Theodora Atwell, she has come to us from Florida.”

The girls nodded in tandem, and a panic seized me. Did they do everything in tandem? How would I know?

“And this,” Mr. Holmes said, starting with the girl on the left, “is Elisabeth Gilliam, Gates Weeks, Mary Abbott McClellan, Victoria Harpen, and Eva Louise Crayton.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and all of the girls inclined their heads slightly. Elisabeth, the first girl, broke her stance and broke the order, and I was so grateful. These were just girls, like me. She tucked a piece of ash-brown hair behind her ear and smiled; her smile was crooked. She seemed kindhearted. I liked her blue eyes; they were wide set, like a horse’s. She would be my Sissy.

I wondered, in that dimly lit cabin that smelled so strongly of wood, what had brought each girl there. Or who had brought them.

We each had half of a bunk bed, a tiny closet, a washstand, a desk, a vanity. Our house mistresses roomed with each other in another cabin; we girls were to be left completely alone. I took my father’s hand, which hung by his side, and hoped the other girls would not think me childish. His grip surprised me, and then I knew it was true, he meant to leave me here. I tugged my hand free of his and stepped forward.

“I’m pleased to be here.”

My father kissed my cheek and pressed me to him in a sort of clumsy half hug; now I was embarrassed instead of sad, all these girls watching. Mr. Holmes turned his head politely. Then they left, and I stood there alone in this room full of girls and felt terrified. I was accustomed to the feeling of fear—it threaded itself through my brain each time I tried a higher jump—but that fear was accompanied by a certain exhilaration.

Now I watched the unreadable faces of all these girls and they watched me and I felt frightened in a way I had never felt frightened before. There was no place to go but here, no one to take comfort in except myself. I started to cross my arms in front of my chest but then an instinct told me to stop: I didn’t want any of these girls to know I was scared.

“Theodora?” the pretty girl with the full figure asked, and I remembered her name. Eva.

“Thea,” I mumbled. But I wasn’t from a family that mumbled. I cleared my throat. “Thea. A nickname.”

“Well, that’s better,” Eva said, and grinned. “Theodora’s a mouthful.”

I hesitated—was she making fun of my name? But then she patted the bunk beside her. “This is you. You’re my bottom.”

Sissy laughed. The sound startled, then comforted me. “Have you ever slept on a bunk bed?” she asked. “I have the bottom, too. It’s the worst, but you’re here so late.”

I pointed at my trunk, which rested at the foot of my bottom bunk; pointing was bad manners, now the girls would think I had none, but poor manners were better than explaining why I had come so late.

“My trunk’s already here,” I said.

“One of the men brought it,” Mary Abbott chimed in. Her voice was fragile-sounding.

“But not the handsome one!” Eva said, and Sissy laughed.

Gates turned from her desk, where she had been writing something—a letter? I wondered to whom—and I could see she did not approve.

“Oh, Gates,” Eva said. “Don’t be so serious. It’s just chatter.” Eva turned to me, languidly; she moved about like she didn’t have a care in the world. “There are two men here who do chores. One is very handsome. And the other . . . you’ll see.” I felt my face go hot, and quickly walked to my bunk so the other girls wouldn’t see. I blushed at the drop of a hat. I busied myself with my trunk, and after a moment I noticed that everyone was changing into their nightclothes. I changed out of my clothes quickly—no other girl had ever seen me naked. Only Mother, and she was not a girl. I was careful to hide the handkerchief as I disrobed—the other girls would think me childish if they saw I’d hidden a piece of fabric from my brother beneath my clothes. Or worse than childish: odd.

Our nightgowns were all the same—mine had been laid upon the bed—soft cotton shifts with V-necklines, a mid-calf hemline, YRC embroidered over our left breasts. Over our hearts. The nightgown I had brought with me was high collared, ankle length, ruffled at the wrists. It would have given me away immediately. Mother had told me that I’d be wearing a uniform, so I didn’t need to pack much; the idea had made me furious back home. I was going to be treated like everyone else! But now I was glad. I had not known my nightgown was all wrong.

The girls left in pairs—Eva and Sissy, Gates and Victoria—until only Mary Abbott and I remained. I had no choice but to follow. I didn’t want to ask where we were going, but I did.

“The privies. I know what you’re thinking, how can we not have a toilet in our cabins?” she asked. She dropped her voice conspiratorially: “They think it’s good for us.” Her accent was very Southern. Mr. Holmes had an accent, but I couldn’t place it—he spoke in clipped tones, the opposite of how everyone in Augusta House spoke. I didn’t have an accent, not compared to these girls. “But at least there’s indoor plumbing. And running water for our baths.”

I nodded at Mary Abbott, unsure of how to respond. I’d always had indoor plumbing, and running water.

Eva and Sissy passed us on their way back to the cabin, along with pairs of other girls from other cabins. We looked like ghosts in our nightgowns, and I hated this place, hated these girls, my first clear, unconfused sentiment since I’d arrived. I wrapped my shawl tighter around my shoulders and hated my mother.

The privies were spotless—I was grateful for that. I didn’t wait for Mary Abbott, rushed back to the cabin without once meeting anyone’s eye. When we’d passed Eva and Sissy, I knew by how they smiled that Mary Abbott was not someone I wanted to align myself with. I was already in bed when Mary Abbott came in; she looked at me for a long second, wistfully, I thought, but that was unreasonable, she’d known me for an hour and then someone entered the cabin, too young to be a woman, too old to be a girl. She barely looked at any of us. When she saw me, she nodded—“Theodora Atwell. Glad to see you’ve settled in.” And then she turned off our lights.

“Good night, girls,” she called as she left the room.

“Good night, Henny,” everyone called back, in unison.

The girls said good night to each other then, in sleepy whispers; I thought they were done when Eva spoke.

“Good night, Thea,” she whispered, and all the other girls followed suit, my name whispered five times, and it seemed astonishing that I knew which voice belonged to whom; it seemed astonishing that already these girls laid claim to me.

The last girl I had known was Milly, a neighbor, and she had moved away years ago. She carried a doll with her, always. I thought she was boring, which in my family was least what you wanted to be. Other people were boring; the Atwells were interesting.

Sam liked Milly, though. She would watch him tend to his terrariums, help him carve branches of trees into a more manageable size, listen with interest as Sam explained how his huge cane toad transmitted poison from the glands behind its eyes. Only Sam was able to pick the toad up; when I tried, it puffed to twice its normal size. Sam had a carefulness about him that animals trusted. People, too.

I did not like Milly there with Sam when I returned from a ride. And so I stole Milly’s doll and buried it behind the barn. She never came back.

Sam knew what I had done. I had been cruel, and Sam hated cruelty. I think he did not understand it, the impulse to harm another living creature. It’s why he couldn’t ride. The thought of pressing a spur into a horse’s tender side, or lifting a whip against a dumb animal—well, Sam could not imagine it.

He was ashamed of me, and I was almost ashamed of myself, but Milly was quickly forgotten, ground into the dust of a child’s memory.

A girl muttered something nonsensical, talking in her sleep.

“Shh,” Gates said, “shh,” and the muttering stopped.

In Atlanta, my father and I had slept in separate rooms. We’d never traveled alone before, so I didn’t know how to interpret this, but in my great big room I’d cried, and then slapped myself for being so silly and desperate: this was nothing, I told myself, take hold of yourself. I’d fallen asleep to the noise of cars underneath my window, wondering if my father heard the same in the room across the hall, wondering if he was even awake to hear it or dead to the world.

The cars outside my window had made me feel less lonely, though that was silly—the men and women in those cars were no friends of mine.

I wondered if Sam was still awake now, listening to the Emathla crickets. I wondered what else he had heard, today, what else he had done. Mother would still be awake, reading, listening to the radio; Father would still be driving if I had to guess, twisting carefully through the mountains.

I thought of my cousin, Georgie, and wanted to weep, but I would not let myself. I had wept enough for a lifetime. Two lifetimes. Three.

Excerpted from The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani, published in June by Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2013 by Anton DiSclafani. All rights reserved.

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Happiness, Like Water
By Chinelo Okparanta

“America”

We became something—an item, Papa says—in February, months after Gloria’s visit to the school. That evening, I was hunched over, sweeping my apartment with a broom, the native kind, made from the raw and dry stems of palm leaves, tied together at the thick end with a bamboo string. I imagine it’s the kind of broom that Gloria no longer sees, the kind that Americans have probably never seen.

Gloria must have come in through the back door of the flat (she often did), through the kitchen and into the parlour. I was about to collect the dirt into the dustpan when she entered. She brought with her a cake, a small one with white icing and spirals of silver and gold. On top of it was a white-striped candle, moulded in the shape of the number thirty-four. She set it on the coffee table in the parlour and carefully lit the wick. I set the broom and dustpan down and straightened up. Gloria reached out to tuck strands of my tattered hair back into place. I’d barely blown out the flame when she dipped her finger into the cake’s icing and took a taste of it. Then she dipped her finger into the icing again and held the clump out to me.

‘Take,’ she said, almost in a whisper, smiling her shyest sort of smile.

Just then, the phone began to ring: a soft, buzzing sound. We heard the ring but neither of us turned to answer, because even as it was ringing, I was kissing the icing off Gloria’s finger.       

Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspapers and have heard of them on the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing’, as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as if it is so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love’. But then I remember that evening and I cringe, because, of course, I know she can explain; she’s seen it with her eyes.

That evening, the phone rings, and if I had answered, it would have been Mama on the line. But instead, I remain with Gloria, allowing her to trace her fingers across my brows, allowing her to trace my lips with her own. My heart thumps in my chest and I feel the thumping of her heart. She runs her fingers down my belly, lifting my blouse slightly, hardly a lift at all. And then her hand is travelling lower, and I feel myself tightening, and I feel the pounding all over me. Suddenly, Mama is calling my name, calling it loudly, so that I have to look up to see if I’m not just hearing things. We have made our way to the sofa and, from there, I see Mama shaking her head, telling me how the wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.

Mama stands where she is for just a moment longer; all the while she is staring at me with a sombre look in her eyes. ‘So, this is why you won’t take a husband?’ she asks. It is an interesting thought, but not one I’d ever really considered. Left to myself, I would have said that I’d just not found the right man. But it’s not that I’d ever been particularly interested in dating men anyway.

‘A woman and a woman cannot bear children,’ Mama says to me. ‘That’s not the way it works.’ As she stomps out of the room, she says again, ‘The wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.’

I lean my head on the glass window of the bus and I try to imagine how the interview will go. But every so often the bus hits a bump and jolts me out of my thoughts.

There is a woman sitting to the right of me. Her scent is strong, somewhat like the scent of fish. She wears a head scarf, which she uses to wipe the beads of sweat that form on her face. Mama used to sweat like this. Sometimes she’d call me to bring her a cup of ice. She’d chew on the blocks of ice, one after the other, and then request another cup. It was the real curse of womanhood, she said. The heart palpitations, the dizzy spells, the sweating that came with the cessation of the flow. That was the real curse. Cramps were nothing in comparison, she said.

The woman next to me wipes her sweat again. I catch a strong whiff of her putrid scent. She leans her head on the seat in front of her, and I ask her if everything is fine. ‘The baby,’ she says, lifting her head back up. She rubs her belly and mutters something under her breath. 

‘Congratulations,’ I say. And after a few seconds I add, ‘I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.’

She tells me that it comes with the territory. That it’s been two years since she and her husband married, and he was starting to think that there was some defect in her. ‘So, actually,’ she tells me, ‘this is all cause for celebration.’

She turns to the seat on her right where there are two black-and-white-striped polythene bags. She pats one of the bags and there is that strong putrid scent again. ‘Stock fish,’ she says, ‘and dried egusi and ogbono for soup.’ She tells me that she’s heading to Lagos, because that is where her in-laws live. There will be a ceremony for her there, and she is on her way to help with the preparations. Her husband is taking care of business in Port Harcourt, but he will be heading down soon, too, to join in celebrating the conception of their first child. ‘Boy or girl?’ I ask, feeling genuinely excited for her.

‘We don’t know yet,’ she says. ‘But either one will be a real blessing for my marriage. My husband has never been happier,’ she says.

I turn my head to look out the window, but then I feel her gaze on me. When I look back at her, she asks if I have a husband or children of my own.

I think of Mama and I think of Gloria. ‘No husband, no children,’ I say.

The day I confessed to him about Gloria, Papa said: ‘When a goat and yam are kept together, either the goat takes a bite ofthe yam, bit by bit, or salivates for it. That is why when two adults are always seen together, it is no surprise when the seed is planted.’

I laughed and reminded him that there could be no seed planted with Gloria and me.

‘No,’ he said, reclining on his chair, holding the newspaper that he was never reading, just always intending to read. ‘No, there can be no seed,’ he said.

It had been Mama’s idea that I tell him. He would talk some sense into me, she said. All this Gloria business was nonsense, she said. Woman was made for man. Besides, what good was it living a life in which you had to go around being afraid of being caught? Mobile policemen were always looking for that sort of thing – men with men or women with women. And the penalties were harsh. Jail time, fines, stoning or flogging, depending on where in Nigeria you were caught. And you could be sure that it would make the news. Public humiliation. What kind of life was I expecting to have, always having to turn around to check if anyone was watching? ‘Your Papamust know of it,’ she said. ‘He will talk some sense into you. You must tell him of it. If you don’t, I will.’

But Papa took it better than Mama had hoped. Like her, he warned me of the dangers. But ‘love is love’, he said.

Mama began to cry then. ‘Look at this skin,’ she said, stretching out her hands to me. She grabbed my hand and placed it on her arm. ‘Feel it,’ she said. ‘Do you know what it means?’ she asked, but did not wait for my response. ‘I’m growing old,’ she said. ‘Won’t you stop being stubborn and take a husband, give up that silly thing with that Gloria friend of yours, bear me a grandchild before I’m dead and gone?’

‘People have a way of allowing themselves to get lost in America,’ Mama said when I told her that Gloria would be going. Did I remember Chinedu Okonkwo’s daughter who went abroad to study medicine and never came back? I nodded. I did remember. And Obiageli Ojukwu’s sister who married that button-nosed American and left with him so many years ago? Did I remember that she promised to come back home to raise her children? Now the children were grown, and still no sight of them. ‘But it’s a good thing in this case,’ Mama said smugly. She was sitting on a stool in the veranda, fanning herself with a plantain leaf . Gloria and I had been together for two years by then, the two years since Mama walked in on us. In that time, Gloria had written many more articles on education policies, audacious criticisms of our government, suggesting more effective methods of standardizing the system, suggesting that those in control of government affairs needed to better educate themselves. More and more of her articles were being published in local and national newspapers, the Tribune, Punch, the National Mirror and such.

Universities all over the country began to invite her to give lectures on public policies and education strategy. Soon she was getting invited to conferences and lectures abroad. And before long, she was offered that post in America, in that place where water formed a cold, feather-like substance called snow, which fell leisurely from the sky in winter. Pretty, like white lace.

‘I thought her goal was to make Nigeria better, to improve Nigeria’s education system,’ Papa said.

‘Of course,’ Mama replied. ‘But, like I said, America has a way of stealing all our good ones from us. When America calls, they go. And more times than not, they stay.’

Papa shook his head. I rolled my eyes.

‘Perhaps she’s only leaving to escape scandal,’ Mama said.

‘What scandal?’ I asked.

‘You know. That thing between you two.’

‘That thing is private, Mama,’ I said. ‘It is between us two, as you say. And we work hard to keep it that way.’

‘What do her parents say?’ Mama asked.

‘Nothing.’ It was true. She’d have been a fool to let them know. They were quite unlike Mama and Papa. They went to church four days out of the week. They lived the words of the Bible as literally as they could. Not like Mama and Papa, who were that rare sort of Nigerian Christian, who had a faint, shadowy sort of respect for the Bible, the kind of faith that required no works.

‘With a man and a woman, there would not be any need for so much privacy,’ Mama said that day. ‘Anyway, it all works out for the best.’ She paused to wipe with her palms the sweat that was forming on her forehead. ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ she continued. ‘And I even have the names picked out!’

‘What names?’ I asked.

‘For a boy, Arinze. For a girl, Nkechi. Pretty names.’

‘Mama!’ I said, shaking my head at her.

‘Perhaps now you’ll be more inclined to take a husband,’ she said. ‘Why waste such lovely names?’

The first year she was gone, we spoke on the phone at least once a week, but the line was filled with static and there were empty spots in the reception, blank spaces into which our voices faded. I felt the distance then.

Still Gloria continued to call, and we took turns re -constructing the dropped bits of conversation, stubbornly reinserting them into the line, stubbornly resisting the emptiness.

The end of that first year, she came back for a visit. She was still the same Gloria, but her skin had turned paler and she had put on a bit of weight.

‘You’re turning white,’ I teased.

 ‘It’s the magic of America,’ she teased back. And then she laughed. ‘It’s no magic at all,’ she said. ‘Just lack of sunlight. Lotsof sitting at the desk, writing, and planning.’

It made sense. Perhaps she was right. But it was the general consensus in Port Harcourt (and I imagine in most of Nigeria)that things were better in America. I was convinced of it. I

heard it in the way her voice was even softer than before. I saw it in the relaxed looks on the faces of the people in the pictures she brought. Pictures of beautiful landscapes, clean places, not littered at all with cans and wrappers like our roads. Snow, white and soft, like clouds having somehow descended on land. Pictures of huge department stores in which everything seemed to sparkle. Pictures in which cars and buildings shone, where even the skin of fruit glistened.

By the time her visit was over, we had decided that I would try to join her in America, that I would see about getting a visa. If not to be able to work there, then at least to study and earn an American degree. Because, though she intended eventually to come back to Nigeria, there was no telling how long she would end up staying in America. The best thing for now was that I try to join her there.

Excerpted from Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta, published in August by Mariner Books. Copyright © 2013 by Chinelo Okparanta. All rights reserved.

Ten Questions for Yanyi

3.1.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Yanyi, whose second poetry collection, Dream of the Divided Field, is out today from One World. Many of the poems in Dream of the Divided Field concern a separation of lovers, and the poet’s use of the second-person singular implicates the reader: “We get to the room and I’m dared / to agree: you’re the monster. / I neither lie nor tell the truth / for both of us.” Throughout the collection, Yanyi remains this attuned to relational dynamics, and troubles the reader’s expectations. In a Caesarean section, is it the doctor or the newborn that cuts the mother open? “My mother has a long scar from where I, or they, cut her.” Written with great tenderness and intimacy, Dream of the Divided Field reveals what we do (and do not) owe to others, and what we owe to ourselves. “Here is a book of the body, a book like no other,” writes Ilya Kaminsky. “Yanyi is a terrific poet, one who’s written for us a book to read when we wake in the middle of the night and need a voice that is filled with longing, truth, and delight of being, despite all the painful odds.” Yanyi is a writer and critic. He is the author of The Year of Blue Water, which won the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. His work has also been featured in Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, and at the New York Public Library. The recipient of fellowships from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House, he is the poetry editor of Foundry and gives creative advice at the Reading.

1. How long did it take you to write Dream of the Divided Field?
Active work on the book was between 2019 and 2021. The composting scraps, though, came mostly in 2018. For half of 2019 I plowed forward with an idea of a book without the book. Then summer came and there was a lightning moment, a moment when the cup overflowed.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
It being my second. There is a strange tension between fear and hubris. Fear of never publishing again—the Yale Younger Poets curse—and fear of running out of money and therefore running out of time. Hubris because having written one book, I thought I knew the way for another. What I wrote, how it was ordered, how I edited it—this book was completely different. I had to fumble through again. My comfort is in how that is the same.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have an office and I like to write in the early morning. But reality rarely follows intention. I still write almost anywhere, often on my phone or a notebook, chasing dreams or the dog. But in the office I will write in a word processor. Recently, in Adobe Garamond.

4. What are you reading right now?
The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers by Mary Norton and, intermittently, a translation of the I Ching.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
A few years ago I would have said Linda Gregg, but I feel as though she has been receiving exactly that. Linda Gregg led me to Laura Ulewicz, whose work is not currently in print, a fate that comes to many deserving writers for systemic reasons. Kazim Ali, who innovates hybrid forms from book to prolific book. I also love Agha Shahid Ali, a poet whose work challenges, eludes, and inspires me in lyric and epic ways. I would also say any work in translation, which makes up only 3 percent of all publications in the United States.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Sustainable instead of survivable wages for the stewards of the arts—the program coordinators, the teachers, the editors, the publicists, the booksellers, the critics, the librarians—the people who bring this work into their communities, without whom these poems would remain private words on the page.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
The first draft of this manuscript elegized a relationship. But then my editor, Nicole Counts, helped me find how it was also about homes, which helped me understand how it was about me—the book within the book. I learned that every book I write is about me, no matter what I think about it.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When I can read it straight through without reaching for my pen. This is a fleeting window: As I change, what I want from my writing changes. So the other part of finishing is to let it finish.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I rarely show single poems to others any longer. I know they are still cooking, so why serve the cake raw in the middle? I have a small group of friends who I turn to for full manuscripts. I will name one as an example, the Canadian writer Emma Healey, whose first book of essays comes out in April. I love Emma’s heart, her matrixed and tender intellect, and that we met in high school before any of this book business.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I think often of Toni Morrison saying that racism is a distraction. Evil is determined to convince me my life cannot be mine. It applies to so much else.

Yanyi, author of Dream of the Divided Field

Ten Questions for Jane Pek

2.22.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jane Pek, whose debut novel, The Verifiers, is out today from Vintage. As an ardent fan of mystery novels, Claudia Lin is almost too invested in her work at Veracity, a company that offers discreet investigative services to people using online-dating platforms. One day a client is reported to be found dead, and while Claudia’s superiors believe this is none of Veracity’s business, she secretly begins to explore the case. Through Claudia’s perceptive and entertaining narration, The Verifiers underscores the pitfalls and absurdities of modern technology. The novel is also an intimate portrait of a young, queer Chinese American person forging her own path. “A clever and thought-provoking mystery laced with wit and insights about technology and relationships, who we are and who we pretend to be,” writes Charles Yu. “Smart, twisty fun.” Jane Pek was born and grew up in Singapore. She holds a BA from Yale, a JD from New York University, and an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her short fiction has appeared in the Brooklyn Review, Conjunctions, Witness, and twice in Best American Short Stories. She lives in New York City, where she works as a lawyer at a global investment company.

1. How long did it take you to write The Verifiers?
A very long time…. I came up with the original premise for the book seven or eight years ago at this point. I worked on various versions of it during my MFA, got so far as to start submitting to agents—and then realized the book wasn’t ready and spent nine months overhauling it before going out to agents again. From there it took another year of revisions before I sold the book, and then several more months of editing.

2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I was living in Singapore for a year in between my job at a law firm in New York City and starting my MFA. While sitting on a bus and staring out the window, the thought came to me: What if there was an agency that verified people’s online-dating personas? I had recently heard a BBC Radio segment about wedding detectives in India who would be hired when a couple got engaged—typically by the parents of one or even both sides—to check up on the prospective bride/groom and their family. I thought it’d be interesting to apply that concept in the online-dating context.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Tying things up. Given that I was playing with tropes of the murder mystery, it felt essential to resolve the question of how the crime was committed, by who, and why—and how my protagonist Claudia Lin figures it out—in a way that was both surprising and satisfying, while keeping within certain parameters I set. That took a lot of head banging against figurative walls.

4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at my desk in my room. I’m not a coffee-shop writer, mainly because I’m constantly eating as I write, so I need a kitchen close by. When my partner sees me in the kitchen, I tell her that I’m still working because I’m thinking about my writing as I prepare my food. I write best in the mornings, but I try to squeeze in a bit of work in the afternoons and evenings as well. And I write every day.

5. What are you reading right now?
I’m always halfway through a number of books. Right now: Visitors by Anita Brookner, which I picked up because I was interested to read something about aging and what it’s like to grow old; Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho, a hilarious debut rom-com by a fellow Southeast Asian writer; The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North, which does such an amazing job of pinpointing those moments when a person’s interior world changes; and The Sports Gene by David Epstein, which looks at the science behind extraordinary athletic performance.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Rosalie Knecht—I loved her coming-of-age spy novel Who Is Vera Kelly? and I’m so excited that it’s now a trilogy.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
They have both said many insightful things in the course of this process. To pull one out: As we moved closer to publication, my agent, Julie Barer, told me that I should think about what is important to me, in terms of what happens with this book once it is out in the world. I hold on to that because there are so many books coming out all the time, and so many different indicia of external success and validation, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Verifiers?
How long it takes to publish a book! My day job is in law, and there everyone always wants everything done ASAP—an acronym I have come to revile. It’s refreshing, if also sometimes frustrating, that writing and publishing a book, from start to finish, is typically a multiyear journey.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My partner, Angela, because I know that if she doesn’t like something or thinks it doesn’t work, she will tell it to me straight.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Again there are so many. But one that I use as a guidepost in everything I write is that plot should follow character, versus character following plot.

Jane Pek, author of The Verifiers. (Credit: Angela Yuan)

Ten Questions for Angel Dominguez

2.15.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Angel Dominguez, whose epistolary poetry collection, Desgraciado (the collected letters), is out today from Nightboat Books. In the letters that comprise Desgraciado, Dominguez, who is of Yucatec Maya descent, speaks back to Diego de Landa, the sixteenth-century colonizer who nearly eradicated the written Maya language. It is not an easy task to conjure the dead: “It’s always this approximation that lacks a temperament,” writes Dominguez. “You lack a temperature. You lack a sense of woe. Sometimes, I fold you up into an idea. Sometimes, I let myself eat what’s left of you.” But the poet persists, and with each letter and repetition of “Dear Diego,” they refuse to let their voice go unrecognized. They challenge the dead man, but they also find their own “organs in the rubble.” They offer evidence of themselves and all the nuances of the legacy of colonialism. “Angelito’s letters to the pinche colonizer are portals, cenotes on the page that open up a profundo space in this Western void that allows our brown skin movement and luz and gives us answers to preguntas we have not been allowed to ask,” writes Josiah Luis Alderete. Angel Dominguez was born in Hollywood and raised in Van Nuys, California, by their immigrant family. They’re the author of ROSESUNWATER (Operating System, 2021) and Black Lavender Milk (Timeless Infinite Light, 2015). Angel earned a BA from the University of California in Santa Cruz and an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.

1. How long did it take you to write Desgraciado?
This project first started back in the summer of 2014 during the fabled Summer Writing Program hosted by the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I was fortunate enough to be taking a workshop with Farid Matuk and Susan Briante. That class opened me up to a lot of things that continue to open me and my work in unexpected ways. Farid gave us a prompt that was something like, “Write a love letter to your worst enemy,” and I could not think of a worse enemy than Diego de Landa. And so that first letter was written then and there: June 6, 2014, in Boulder, Colorado. The last letters/pieces, including the first line of the book, were written when we were down to the wire with proofs and edits in fall 2021. So all things told this book took seven years and some change to get to where it is now. Between the first and the last letters lives a whole other lifetime of the project existing as a chapbook with Econo Textual Objects, and there were countless fragments, files, and even whole notebooks lost to being alive. That’s what makes this book the collected letters.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I think among the most challenging things about writing this book was reckoning with what it means to be honest, not only as a poet and writer, but what it means to be honest as a human being living in the world. Determining how to best communicate the vast interconnected experiences of the interior. How do you reconcile hundreds of years of atrocities? How do you reconcile the constant colonization or neocolonization of the mind? How do you navigate a life in opposition to and in spite of systemic racism, with poetry? I don’t know. I think in all honesty the most challenging thing about writing this book was realizing that I was fighting a fight I could not win with poetry. Decolonization is a verb. An ongoing process and not an imaginary destination.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to think I needed idealistic conditions—the right space, pen, notebook, and so on—in order to write, and it was really in the writing of this book that I realized writing happens all the time, it’s just a matter of capturing the thing. I write anywhere/anywhen I can. I once took this practicum with Harryette Mullen over a snowy weekend in Colorado. She said, “Give yourself permission to write,” and that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do from that day on. Writing wherever the writing occurs. I’m always listening to wherever poetry/writing comes from, trying to catch whatever rogue language it might speak/sing or otherwise bring through to me. I think it also needs to be said that time spent thinking is time spent writing. Thinking is writing. In that way I’m always writing—it’s all part of the “project” whatever that might be in the moment of thought. It’s all attending to the cultivation of one’s own craft. That all being said, I’ll write wherever the writing arrives, whether at a table, desk, or on the road. But I recommend using a voice memo or pulling over; I do not recommend scribbling the thing while driving. I’ll write with whatever’s at hand, be it a notes app, notebook, receipt. The importance lies in capturing the immediacy of the thing. These days the writing has slowed down a bit, mutated into essays—like “A Backyard Funeral Afterparty para Latinidad” published by Open Space SFMOMA last fall—and little and not so little poems, stories, and dreams of other projects.

4. What are you reading right now?
Recently I’ve been reading Blood on the Fog by Tongo Eisen-Martin, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century by Gerald Horne, a book on the Caste War of the Yucatán by Nelson A. Reed, and Kit Schluter’s new translation of Rafael Bernal’s ecofiction His Name Was Death. I’m also really excited about Raquel Salas Rivera’s new book, antes que isla es volcán / before island is volcano, and Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta’s La Movida.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
There are far too many to name all at once. The names that immediately come to mind are: Jzl Jmz (fka Jayy Dodd), Francisco X. Alarcón, Joey De Jesus, Wanda Coleman, and one name that sticks out in my mind is Ronaldo V. Wilson, who is criminally under-celebrated/recognized for his contributions to poetry, writing, and art making at large. His two most recent works, Carmelina: Figures and Virgil Kills, are truly stunning and I hope they bring Ronaldo the flowers he deserves.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Capitalism! Which also happens to be the biggest impediment to everyone’s life. The systems and structures of power that prop up capitalism value these imaginary notions of capital and currency above human life, and that alone is impediment enough. The “Dow Jones” doesn’t have a pulse. People do. It’s like they think we’ll forget that if only we have enough distractions.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
I don’t have an agent at this time, so I’ll answer for what I value most in an editor: honesty, clear communication, and trust. Those three things all feel like the same thing to me, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with a number of absolutely stunning editors whose clarity and questions have helped my work grow in ways I wouldn’t have been able to make it grow myself. It has to be said: The first real editor of this work was Raquel Gutiérrez, whose editorial eye and kinship pushed Desgraciado to be a polished Obsidian Mirror and become a chapbook. In working on the final manuscript with Nightboat, I got to work with Andrea Abi-Karam, who pushed the book further toward becoming a reality, asking the tough questions and bringing in the importance of the overall energetic wavelength of the book, its shape, and flow.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
They had to take it away from me! In all seriousness, it was when I was on a Zoom call with Kit Schluter, who designed the book and worked tirelessly with me and the Nightboat team to bring together the cover you see today. I’d worked forever on this collage that appears on the cover, and when Kit sent over the proofs of the current cover, I just knew. This is it. This is the book.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
There are a few names that immediately come to mind, each with their own reasons for being a most trusted reader. My partner, Hannah Kezema, is a brilliant artist-writer and an obsidian-sharp editor—someone whose eye and ear I trust to tell me if something is actually garbage or worth salvaging. I also keep a close circle of artist-writer friends with whom I’ll check in about new work or work that’s going to print. I’m forever indebted to my Kin: Daniel Talamantes, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, Raquel Salas Rivera—who wrote the brilliant foreword for Desgraciado—Erick Sáenz, Domingo Canizales III, and MJ Malpiedi for always being so generous with their time and energy when it comes to reading/reviewing my work. I would be nothing without my Kin.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
It feels really cheesy to say this, but my high school English teacher Mr. Peter Chase once told me, “Write what you know,” and I’ve been trying to ever since.

Angel Dominguez, author of Desgraciado (the collected letters). (Credit: Kit Schluter)

Ten Questions for Sarah Manguso

2.8.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sarah Manguso, whose first novel, Very Cold People, is out today from Hogarth. The setting of Very Cold People, Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is cold in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Heavy snow blankets the streets in winter, but the town is cloaked in loneliness and secrecy year-round. Coming of age in this environment, the young narrator, Ruthie, lives in a dissociated state: “I spent those days feeling half-there, not quite committed to that life.” But she is nevertheless watchful, and through her eyes the reader is introduced to the nuanced class dynamics and legacy of violence in Waitsfield, and by extension, the many towns like Waitsfield in America. “Very Cold People knocked me to my knees,” writes Lauren Groff. “So precise, so austere, so elegant, this story is devastatingly familiar to those of us who know the loneliness of growing up in a place of extreme emotional restraint.” Sarah Manguso is the author of eight books. Her previous book, 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017), was named a best book of the year by more than twenty publications. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and O, the Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Los Angeles.

1. How long did it take you to write Very Cold People?
In 2015 I sent an e-mail to my agent that read, “I might be writing a novel.” I was testing myself, seeing if I could actually say that to someone. But I’d been wondering how to exorcise Massachusetts from myself for more than thirty years. Very Cold People finally did it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Leaving aside my received ideas about what a novel was. I knew the Massachusetts book had to be a novel, but I hadn’t begun writing any of my other books with any fixed ideas about their form. And of course the novel is not a form! It is a name for a very large number of possible forms. But for a long time I was terrified that knowingly writing a novel would trick me into producing a boring novel, the average of all existing novels. I got over the fear of writing an average novel only by writing slowly through that dumb fear until the book was done. As soon as I finished it the fear dissipated, and I immediately started writing another novel.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Wherever, whenever, and as much as possible. Until recently writing was a mostly interstitial activity for me; paid work and parenting and household management and illnesses took up most of my time, and those activities didn’t leave long stretches of time to write. But I was almost always thinking about writing, and I integrated the other parts of my life, as much as I could, into the writing. And I still do that.

4. What are you reading right now?
Samantha Hunt’s forthcoming The Unwritten Book: An Investigation.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I immediately freeze when asked to pluck a single name out of the panoply. American writers ought to read more work in translation, and Katie Kitamura has listed some excellent English-language publishers of translated work in her own Ten Questions interview. There are also plenty of English-language writers who are underrecognized. The way to find them is simple: Read small-press books. If you are able, go to independent bookstores, used-book emporia, book swaps, and library sales and browse the physical shelves. Don’t let an algorithm tell you what to read. Disobey the algorithm.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
At the risk of sounding coy, I’ll say that the biggest impediment to my writing life was recently removed from my life. I currently feel unimpeded.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
There are so many kinds of writers with all sorts of lives! I prefer to tailor advice to the individual, when asked. And there are so many different sorts of MFA programs now. But I don’t think an MFA is strictly necessary or sufficient.

8. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
That the anchor story, the main relationship depicted in the book, was between the narrator and her abusive mother. As soon as my editor said that, I realized it was true, and had been true all along.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Sheila Heti, who vigorously corrects my course when I stop writing like myself and start pandering to some imagined general audience. She lives on another planet where artists don’t worry constantly about money. The name of that planet is Canada.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
This isn’t exactly advice, but during the first semester of my poetry MFA, I confessed to my teacher Jorie Graham that I’d started writing short prose pieces and couldn’t stop and wasn’t writing poems anymore. I was disappointed in myself and felt that I was letting everyone down—my teacher, the program, and the foundation that was paying for me to become a poet. Jorie said, “So?” That one-word response gave me permission to write whatever I wanted to write for the rest of my life.

Sarah Manguso, author of Very Cold People.

Ten Questions for Lan Samantha Chang

2.1.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lan Samantha Chang, whose third novel, The Family Chao, is out today from W. W. Norton. Written as a homage to The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Family Chao is a philosophical murder mystery with richly imagined characters. At the heart of Chang’s telling are the three brothers James, Ming, and William (also known as Dagou, meaning, big dog). Each has a distinct personality and relationship to their tempestuous father, Leo, and each comes under scrutiny after their father is found dead. Set in and around the family’s Chinese restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin, the novel dramatizes the unique fault lines of immigrant family life. “Devastating and searing, laugh-out-loud funny and profound, Chang’s latest novel is infused with beautiful, evocative writing that will quicken your heart and mind,” writes Jean Kwok. “A masterpiece.” Lan Samantha Chang is the author of two previous novels, Inheritance and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, as well as the collection Hunger. A recent Berlin Prize Fellow, she has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa City.

1. How long did it take you to write The Family Chao?
The earliest sentences in the novel were written more than fifteen years ago, in 2005 or 2006. After one hundred pages I could tell I’d started a book with multiple perspectives. I put the project aside after I moved to Iowa. Between my job and becoming a parent, I didn’t have time to tackle anything complicated. When I took it up again around 2013, I realized that the book would be an homage to The Brothers Karamazov. I dumped almost all of the early work and started over.

2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Here is the seed from my writing log: “The story takes place in one night: It is a huge dinner party.” The idea of a dinner party raised many questions for me. Whose party was it? What happened at the party? And what did everybody eat? It was a wonderful, loaded situation.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There were two big challenges to writing The Family Chao: First and foremost, The Brothers Karamazov is a towering masterpiece of world literature. The very idea of writing an homage to that book was daunting, and it took me more than a year to put aside my fear of attempting it. Second, it was a challenge to find time to write. During the academic year I had to carve out half an hour here, an hour there.

4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I lived alone for the first fifteen years of my writing life. I married at thirty-nine, and at forty-two I found myself living in Iowa with a husband and daughter, working full-time running a program of almost a hundred highly gifted graduate students. I had to get away in order to dig into the novel. For six years I went to residencies twice a year. At the residencies I would write in bed, sometimes waiting long days and evenings until the real world quieted down and words came to me. My husband is a visual artist, and he understood. When I came home from one of these super-infusions of creative time, I would work for maybe an hour a day until the next residency.

5. What are you reading right now?
I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov. While writing my novel I couldn’t look at it for five years; it would have been impossible to sit with my own frail project in the face of that masterpiece. Now that my book is coming out, I get to enjoy Dostoevsky again.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Hundreds of them. Every year good books fail to get attention while the world focuses on only a few. But since you asked, the late James Alan McPherson deserves many more readers. He was one of the most brilliant and least self-promoting writers I’ve ever met.

7. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
My job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is both an inspiration and an impediment to getting my own work done. The Workshop is a very special community of highly gifted emerging writers, and it’s inspiring to read their fiction and to get to know them. I work with assistant director Aleksandra Khmelnik, and it’s our job to try to protect their time and space from a world of academic bureaucracy and financial stress, to provide support so that they can get work done. It’s hard to write when so many people are depending on you to make it possible for them to write.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Family Chao, what would you say?
“You will be very surprised at how much you will change and grow during the writing of this project. You are going to find yourself moving in directions you never thought possible. Just enjoy the process. It’s going to work out.”

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I eventually relied on a number of friends to help me with this novel. After nine drafts on my own, I sent it to two writer friends. They had entirely different reactions. What this taught me was that the ninth draft was neither one thing nor another. I had to move it in a definitive direction before it could come into itself. After two more drafts I sent it to several other friends. One helped me think about the community perspective; another brilliantly suggested ways to make the story even closer to the bone. A number of issues came up in our conversations. For example, how could I balance the different points of view? How to include perspectives of the female characters in a novel about brothers? Ultimately I had to figure out the answers myself, but I might never have defined the problems if I hadn’t shown the novel to others. For example, a former student explained to me that most young people don’t use the expression “make love” anymore. This led me to consider how fiction has evolved since I started writing. I’m beyond grateful to everyone for reading the book.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
Lately my husband and I have been watching Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary reworking of the material used for the film Let It Be. The documentary follows the Beatles through a couple of weeks as they come up with new material for a performance—and the album Let It Be. There is something so inspiring about seeing this process. The members of the band come in to work every morning. They spend hours—days, weeks—messing around, playing other peoples’ songs, arguing, trying out riffs or lyrics, patiently waiting for new ideas to come to them. There’s something amazing about watching music you love being created through experimentation. Sometimes an iconic progression springs full-blown as if from nowhere, and you realize that it wouldn’t have been possible without all of the hours spent trying things out. It’s a cliché, but I suppose the best advice I’ve heard would be, “Just keep trying.”

Lan Samantha Chang, author of The Family Chao. (Credit: IfeOluwa Nihinlola)

Ten Questions for Tochi Onyebuchi

1.25.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Tochi Onyebuchi, whose latest novel, Goliath, is out today from Tordotcom. In the world of Goliath, humans are more segregated than ever. The most privileged have absconded to space colonies, while those who remain on earth suffer from the fallout of climate change and at the hands of “cyberized” police. In one scene on earth, a group of laborers look on as a friend is evicted by a “large metal sphere with arms like a spider.” Up in the colonies, a space-dweller named Jonathan convinces his lover, David, to move down to New Haven. “We’ll be like the pilgrims,” he says. With these contrasting worlds and a large cast of characters, Goliath offers a new staging of urgent issues of race and class. “Onyebuchi sets fire to the boundary between fiction and reality, and brings a crumbling city and an all too plausible future to vibrant life,” writes Leigh Bardugo. “Riveting, disturbing, and rendered in masterful detail.” Tochi Onyebuchi is also the author of the Beasts Made of Night series and War Girls series. His novella, Riot Baby, was a finalist for a Hugo, a Nebula, a Locus, an Ignyte, and an NAACP Image Award, and won the New England Book Award for Fiction and an American Library Association Alex Award. Among his degrees, he holds a BA from Yale and an MFA in screenwriting from the Tisch School for the Arts.

1. How long did it take you to write Goliath?
The short story that served as its seed was written in the summer of 2013. No one wanted to buy it, so I let it sit for some time while working on other things. But I realized that the world and the characters had more to say and do than could be captured in a single short, so around the end of 2014 I returned to it and began writing some of the scenes that would become the “SUMMER” section of the book. I worked on it periodically since then.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I knew the scope I wanted it to have. Inspired by books like Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, I knew I wanted it to be a big book, physically and emotionally, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have the translation software to know what “big” would turn these characters and this setting and this narrative into. So much of the writing process was figuring that out.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Anywhere, all the time. Or, rather, whenever I’m not answering e-mails, which is an increasingly small amount of time. I used to write whenever—between classes, after finishing homework, during train commutes, and so on—back when the administrative work of “being a writer” didn’t overly intrude on the act of writing. But now I’m much more subject to the vagaries of “time-sensitive” e-mails, which means the “write when I can” has taken different shape. All of which is to say that there’s no rhythm or routine to my writing. I do it because I love it, which means I don’t need to be self-cajoled or self-bullied into doing it. I can’t avoid writing, not just because it pays my bills, but because it’s the thing I love to do more than anything in the world. It’s compulsion. It’d be easier for me to stop talking than to stop writing.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m doing some work-related reading that I can’t quite talk about, but next in my queue is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I’ve wanted to get to it ever since I first picked it up in 2016, but events conspired against me. I recently finished Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon and found myself surprised by the humanity thrumming underneath the literary pyrotechnics and the kinda math-metal post-modernism of the text. Definitely more accessible than Gravity’s Rainbow.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
John Crowley. Which is maybe weird because he’s very much a revered figure for certain few generations of science fiction and fantasy writers. To be honest I think a lot of my picks might fall prey to that dynamic of being acclaimed in SFF, but poorly known outside of it. Crowley completely demolishes what may be a lingering prejudice against SFF: that the genre prioritizes plot over prose, that you can’t find some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language there.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Ah, the MFA Question. I loved my MFA program but for reasons that were specific to the program and that make me realize my MFA experience was, in many ways, a unicorn experience and not at all what appears to be the norm. My background is prose; I’d been writing it since I was maybe eight or nine or ten. By the time I was MFA age, I knew how to write a book—a publishable book, in fact—even if I hadn’t sold one yet. But I wanted to know how to write for film. I wanted to know how to write for TV. And I didn’t want to spend a decade and a half figuring it out, so an MFA in dramatic writing was an accelerant for me. It helped, I think, that I received instruction in a thing I didn’t already know how to do—I’d written a few features and some TV stuff before, but I was like a kid kinda messing around on the piano, not able to read sheet music—as opposed to something I was pretty sure I could do at a more-than-competent level. Another component was that my class was extraordinary. I had titanically brilliant writers for classmates, writers who’ve gone on to write for shows like Vida and The Underground Railroad. One classmate, in fact, wrote the script for Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised. What served as foundation for our experience was the abundant love we had for each other. It was nothing but support in those workshops. We cheered each other in class, praised each other, celebrated each other, even as we pushed each other to improve. I’ve since discovered that a lot of MFA programs are not like that, and that even our year in that program was unique. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. There’s a lot of writing stuff you can learn for free. I think the utility of a program can come from doing one in a field you’re unfamiliar with, where it can feel like you’re actually learning something new as opposed to being told what to do differently in a field you may already know. It’s easier to get pride out of the way for me that way.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
The ability to meet the story where it lives. Folks in those positions sometimes submit to the temptation to turn a client’s story into what they think it should be. But I think part of having real vision and talent in those positions is seeing in the story the best possible version of itself and having your tuning fork ring at the same frequency as the writer’s. I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to worry about marketability or about audience or about all the externalities that can determine or thwart a book’s success. That’s the ambit of publicity and marketing departments. The goal of the editor-agent dyad, I think, is to make the author’s book its most actualized self.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Goliath, what would you say?
I don’t know that I’d say anything. Novikov self-consistency principle notwithstanding, I’m still too frightened of potentially altering that boy’s course. So I’d just watch and smile.

9. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
Working on a book at all. Returning to the distinction between writing and being a writer, there’s a period after a book is written where processes attendant to publication begin to take over. Promo work begins, maybe adaptation talk ramps up, an ecosystem grows around the thing. As lovely as all that is and as blessed as I feel being able to live in those spaces, it’s not writing. The thing I’ll miss most about working on this book is working on a book, period. I take consolation in the fact, however, that there is more writing on the horizon.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Fail brilliantly.” I think I got that from Elizabeth Bear, but I may be misattributing it. But that’s gotta be it. Felt like I was being given permission to do the dangerous thing, the weird or unconventional thing, the thing I wasn’t quite sure I could pull off. Writing at the edges of my abilities thrills and terrifies me, and it’s in those moments that I feel most connected to whatever higher state or power this writing thing puts me in communion with. The advice isn’t just to do the dangerous thing, it’s to put all of your ability, your wisdom, your knowledge of the craft, your experience, all of that into the effort. Stretch yourself as far as possible. Who cares that you didn’t get the moon if you come back with a fistful of stars?

Tochi Onyebuchi, author of Goliath. (Credit: Christina Orlando)

Ten Questions for Weike Wang

1.18.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Weike Wang, whose second novel, Joan Is Okay, is out today from Random House. By her own account, Joan is not a creative or social person. An ICU doctor in New York City, she prefers numbers and the company of machines. “Machines can tell you things that the people attached to them can’t,” she says. Then a series of changes force her to confront her life anew: Her father dies, her mother travels from China for what is intended to be a temporary visit, a new neighbor moves in on her floor, and a crisis descends on New York City. As Joan navigates new and uncertain terrain, she offers up subtle, yet startling insights on work, family, and identity. “Unflinchingly, Joan Is Okay challenges some of our fundamental views on home, belonging, family,” writes Ha Jin. “A smart, quietly engaging novel that is also warm and moving.” Weike Wang is a graduate of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her doctorate in public health. She received her MFA from Boston University. Her debut novel, Chemistry (Knopf, 2017), won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and Wang was selected as a 5 Under 35 honoree of the National Book Foundation. She lives in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write Joan Is Okay?
In total about three years. Coming up with the idea, though, took about two, which I’m not including in the total because I was writing something else during that time, a failed novel about two friends. I kept getting stuck and discouraged. Then one of the friends began to interest me more and this character went on to become Joan, while the other character slowly morphed—and was trimmed down—into Joan’s neighbor.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There are two most challenging things to book writing in general, and Joan Is Okay was no exception.

1. Not knowing where you’re going in the middle and perpetually wondering if you should give up. Middle equals muddle—what Peter Ho Davies calls it in his fabulous book about revision, which I’ve just finished.
2. Working through the crazy inefficient process of writing and being asked, almost immediately upon bumping into someone I know and who knows I’m writing a book, “Hey, how’s that book going?”

For this book in particular, a challenging aspect was the incorporation of certain present-day events, without letting those events consume the story. But no spoilers here, so you will have to read and find out how I did it!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at home, at my desk, on a desktop, surrounded by cups of fluids like coffee, hot water, sparkling water, and later in the day, wine. I prefer to write in the morning before anyone else is awake and when it’s still dim outside. Then throughout the day, while I’m working/teaching, I will jot down ideas for the next morning on a small white pad that I keep next to my keyboard. During the editing process of Joan Is Okay, I got up at 6 AM for many months to write. If I’m immersed in a project, I will write every day for as long as I can. For all housekeeping matters like buying more paper towels, dog food, and so on, my husband will try to catch me before I get to my desk. He says once I’m at my desk, I tend to disappear and not acknowledge him. I don’t disagree. I can’t write with anyone else in the room. I can’t write in new, exotic locales or in public locations. Which rules out libraries, coffee shops, artist communes, writing retreats in dilapidated castles—basically any place inspired writers are supposed to write. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I was reading The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies over the holiday break. It was recommended to me by a writer-friend, Linda Feng, and now I highly recommend it to you all. Davies studied physics in college so with that STEM similarity between us, I found his analytical approach to revision both reaffirming and insightful. The book is short but packed with craft wisdom that’s worthy of close study. Before that I’d—finally—finished As I Lay Dying. The previous times I’d tried to read that book, I embarrassingly never made it past page fifty. I wasn’t sure what Faulkner was trying to do, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny—he was—so I would put the book down. Once I got over myself and finished the book, I knew I would never forget it. But this semester in particular I wasn’t able to read as I would’ve liked, beyond the occasional magazine short story. Because of how adjunct teaching works—you get work when you can and when you get it you feel obligated to accept—I had a three-class load plus a handful of graduate theses to advise. In total I was reading two to three hundred pages per week of student work. That much reading of nascent writing can slow a person down, can make her want to just zone out in front of a television or any white noise producing bright light.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Hard question. The writers whom I read and love are all fairly well known in the literary world. If I’m thinking fantastically, I suppose I would wish for literary fiction writers to see the same kind of wide recognition that more commercial writers do, like J.K Rowling. I only mention J.K Rowling because whenever I introduce the concept of creative writing to someone unfamiliar with it, they always ask or joke if I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling. In the short span of a conversation, we might never move past J.K. Rowling. I’m either her or I’m not. And sometimes that can feel like an existential crisis, which I’m sure many aspiring literary fiction writers experience when faced with external confusion around their ambitions and questions like what is literary fiction and why is it important?  

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Yes, but at the right time. Don’t do it straight out of college. Don’t do it because you don’t know what else to do or as a way to tread water and escape “real life.” Do it because you’re deeply interested in pursuing a writing career, a teaching career, and can handle feedback, however critical. Do it because you’re ready to put in whatever it takes to improve as a writer and reader.  

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
During our many calls about Joan, and as we kept pushing back deadlines, my editor Robin Desser reminded me a few times, “Weike, you can only do a book once.” That’s an obvious point, but also an important one to remember. Publication is always desirable though not at the expense of quality or what’s best for the story.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
I will miss thinking about Joan and her world every second of every day, even when I wasn’t writing, even when I didn’t want to think about her, even in my sleep. But I also won’t miss this so much—a character’s ability to usurp the writer’s entire mind, and to stay there for an unknown amount of time, maybe years, like an unwelcome guest who offers nothing, but also a guest I desperately wanted to please and get to know.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My husband. He’s usually my first and last reader. How I function is anything I want him to read I paste directly into an e-mail with the subject line Please Read Now. Often, he does read it right away or within the hour because he knows I can panic and then delete too much. He is a very careful reader and helps me pinpoint what exactly I want to say. For Joan Is Okay, he’s had to read hundreds of my e-mails. Not so surprising, most of that novel was grammar-checked by Gmail, and I often found myself editing a scene I’d just sent my husband via e-mail, via another e-mail. My husband says living with a writer who has access to this type of technology is incredibly difficult. So, I try to make him look good when I can, like in this question.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
No best, just a few, collected from generous teachers I’ve had along the way:

1. Trust the process.
2. You do just have to sit down and do it.
3. Don’t be afraid to knock down your house of cards, i.e. start over.

What I like to tell my students on the first day of class: I come from a research-centric background, and writing is a lot like research. In the beginning, what you don’t know greatly surpasses what you know, and while that can be daunting, it doesn’t stop true scientists from pushing forth and testing ideas. Similarly, a writer has to be willing to take risks and be uncomfortable for a long time, tinkering, fixing, rearranging in the dark, before a story starts to take shape.

Weike Wang, author of Joan Is Okay. (Credit: Amanda Peterson)

Ten Questions for Edgar Gomez

1.11.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Edgar Gomez, whose debut memoir, High-Risk Homosexual, is out today from Soft Skull Press. In the first chapter of High-Risk Homosexual, Gomez recalls a trip to Nicaragua at thirteen in which their uncles attempted to curb their queerness and train them to be a man. But Gomez admits the mission was not one-sided: “What would always nag me, though, beyond anyone else’s complicity, is my own. As much as my family wanted me to be a man, I wanted it more.” Here and throughout the memoir, Gomez reckons with both the world and themselves, examining their memories and identities with unique tenderness and honesty. Back home in Florida, and later in California, they continue the difficult work of becoming. Always questioning and seeking, they model how to embrace and build a queer future. “High-Risk Homosexual is a keen and tender exploration of queer identity, masculinity, and belonging,” writes Laila Lalami. “Edgar Gomez writes with honesty and humor about the difficulty of straddling boundaries and the courage of finding oneself.” Edgar Gomez is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Their writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Longreads, Ploughshares, and the Rumpus. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of California in Riverside, they live in Queens, New York.

1. How long did it take you to write High-Risk Homosexual?
I worked on it off and on for around seven years, which sounds wild, but a lot of that time I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I was still trying to figure out how to tell a story. When I started I didn’t know about things like plot, or characters having motivations, or stakes, or structure, or how to manage time, or really anything. It was a learning curve. One of the reasons it took so long is because those things weren’t discussed in many of the early nonfiction creative writing classes I took, which was a real disservice to me, because those are tools that every memoirist needs to know, not just novelists. Don’t get me wrong, we did have some useful conversations about ethics, about research and stuff like that. But that was all big picture. I needed to know what a scene was first. I was totally lost during many of those years.

2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Oh god, this is something that I used to be super embarrassed of that now makes me proud. So when I say the book took around seven years, it’s because I’m counting a few chapters that I started writing while I was an undergrad. One of them is “Boy’s Club,” which is about a night I went to a gay bathhouse when I was twenty-one. I remember that at the time I wrote that story, I needed to come up with something for this creative nonfiction workshop I was in. I really wanted to go to that bathhouse, but I was too afraid and had a lot of shame around my queerness, so I sort of used the workshop as an excuse. In my mind, I was like, “Okay, I’ll get to see what it’s like there, but I’m going to treat this like it’s journalism.” That way, I’d get to go, and I’d also be able to pretend like it was just for the assignment and maybe that way my classmates wouldn’t judge me. Even so, I wasn’t that naïve. I knew some people in my class would still probably judge me. I knew they’d see through my little act. That’s what I’m proud of. That I did it anyway.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Figuring out my intended audience! Early on I wanted it to do too much for too many people. I was trying to satisfy my classmates in my workshops, all queer folk, all Nicaraguans, all Puerto Ricans, all Latinx folk, the publishing industry….There are so few queer, Central American memoirists. I felt this pressure to represent us all, and I also thought, “If this isn’t successful, when will another one of us get the chance?” Part of that is valid, but another is actually quite egotistical of me. I mean, I struggle enough representing myself. Once I realized that this book couldn’t be everything for everyone, that it was unreasonable to put the weight of the entire industry on myself, I was free.

4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Wherever I can, whenever I can, and as often as I can. In the beginning I wrote a lot at Starbucks and cafés, because I still lived with my mom, or else in extremely loud environments and I found more peace there. That, or I was working several jobs and hardly ever home, so I treated them as little writing sanctuaries between shifts. For that reason, it bugs me when I hear people make fun of “Starbucks writers.” It’s like, okay? You have stability and a nurturing space to write? Is that not enough? Why do you have to come for people who don’t? That was where I wrote before the pandemic. Now I mostly work in my bedroom with the door closed. I need to write something, even if all I do is tweak a sentence, at least twice a week, or I start getting this itchy feeling in my brain. My ideal writing session begins at around noon and runs about five hours, which is when I start getting lightheaded because I probably haven’t eaten.

5. What are you reading right now?
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde and I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez. I’m taking in Sister Outsider slowly because Audre Lorde packs so much into her writing and I don’t want to miss anything. I like to chew over her ideas for days. I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat is a collection of short stories about bisexual Puerto Rican men. Reading it a little faster, but also definitely don’t want to miss anything….

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Minda Honey. Her forthcoming memoir, An Anthology of Assholes, is going to be everywhere—trust. Vulnerable. Heartbreaking. Hysterical. Nuanced. Compulsively readable but never easy. What Minda does with words is magic. Know her!

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
Both my editor, Sarah Lyn Rogers, and my agent, Danielle Bukowski, are genuinely good people. Sarah is especially patient with me. Maybe I think that because I’ve been socialized to feel like a burden, but she always takes her time to walk me off the edge when I start panicking and is all-around reassuring. Danielle is great and so supportive. One of the first things she told me when I met her was that she’d never ask me to write about trauma. Oddly, that made me more comfortable writing about trauma. In general I’ve had a lot of anxiety around publishing because I’ve internalized the gatekeeping that’s been put in place to keep people like me out. I’ve worried about being perceived as difficult to work with for objecting to anything, or “risky” because of what I write about or trivial because I use humor in my stories. But they’ve always had my back.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started High-Risk Homosexual, what would you say?
Your writing is important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world. Make sure to prioritize other parts of your life, too, especially your friendships. Your words can only support you so much. That, and don’t stress about the rejections. In retrospect I’m grateful for nearly every story rejection I’ve gotten. Those stories weren’t ready. I write much better now.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I’m grateful to be in a writers group with Minda Honey, Natassja Schiel, Asha French, Elizabeth Owuor, and Natalie Lima. They’re the only people I’m showing my early drafts to right now. There’s a lot of reasons why I trust them, but number one is that I respect their work. I love what they write. I truly enjoy their art. I don’t take that for granted. You have to be in community with people you admire.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I can’t remember who said this or in what context, but it’s something I think about a lot, especially when I’m writing something I’m worried will never make it beyond a Word doc on my computer: “You have to make yourself undeniable.” I like that it acknowledges that not everyone will love your work, but at the same time asks you to make it so good they can’t reject it.

Edgar Gomez, author of High-Risk Homosexual. (Credit: Joseph Osborne)

Craft Capsule: Bisexuality on the Page

by

Christopher Gonzalez

11.1.21

This is no. 113 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

In a review of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) for the Atlantic, Caleb Crain writes of the character Felix, who is identified in-text as bisexual, “I came to think of his bisexuality as a bay leaf that was said to have been added to the soup but hadn’t been.” To Crain, the matter of Felix’s bisexuality “goes largely unsubstantiated.” Fascinating! And I mean that sincerely. I do not wish to debate or analyze the role of bisexuality within Rooney’s novel specifically, but I think this nugget of criticism, the idea that queerness must be substantiated on the page, is a far more interesting discussion to have.

When I started writing the stories that became my debut collection, I wasn’t fully out yet. I began writing the oldest story, “Half Hearted,” about a man who fears his heart may devour itself, back in 2015. I was a senior in college and just figuring out that I was maybe, kinda, could be into men. In my first drafts, the protagonist, Hector, was straight, lonely, and in love with a woman, living his life in a fog of isolation. It was a mess. I tried writing it in the second-person, in the first, and in the third (which is where I landed). I tried and failed writing it as a piece of flash fiction. Nothing stuck. But later, when I was in the process of slowly coming out to myself and then friends, I decided to make Hector queer and turn his love interest into a man. Something clicked into place. I finally figured out how to finish his narrative. The story was less about loneliness and more about his fear that he might not be able to open himself up fully to another person, to the intimacy he most desired. This same fear roiled inside of me.

This is not to say that swapping out names is the key to making something queer. That switch was a first step for me, but not an end point. And the more I wrote, the more I wondered if queerness wasn’t something I needed to try so hard to make explicit; the emotions I explore and interrogate in my fiction will always be inseparable from my place in this world as a bisexual man of color. Whether any particular story of mine is about lovers of the same gender, different genders, or friendships without sexual attraction, I still feel they are layered with a humming pulse of queerness—in the portrayals of intimacy and desire, in the characters’ longing hearts, in their fierce uncertainty.

Labels can be valuable, after all, without them, there will always be a chance that a character intended as bisexual will be read as gay or straight. But how much does this matter? And if labels are included, is it an invitation for readers to test their validity? Is that a test one can truly pass? Is any of this actually the point of fiction?

I only ask questions, because I honestly don’t know.

Just as my writing has shifted and grown over the last seven years so has my relationship to my queerness. And so, it’s possible my stories about bisexual characters may feel surface-level to another reader, perhaps one that is more familiar with a wider canon of bisexual fiction, or perhaps one expecting it to look like something else entirely. What that something else is, I’d love to know.

 

Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.

Thumbnail: Hossein Rivandi

Craft Capsule: On Writing Fat Characters

by

Christopher Gonzalez

10.25.21

This is no. 112 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

You might consider it a bit of a cop-out that I open my short story collection I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021) with an author’s note: “Every narrator in this collection is a bisexual Puerto Rican cub with the exception of one—in that story, the narrator is gay.” And maybe it is! What started out as a joke I made on Twitter became a necessary signpost. Make no mistake, I beg, these characters are not Latinx in the vague sense; they’re Puerto Rican. They’re queer, yes, but with an experience more specifically rooted in bisexuality. All these elements are important to me, though perhaps the word with the most weight, pardon the pun, is cub. (I also considered using bear. In any case, situating their body sizes and type within a queer framework was vital to the project.) I have consumed so much queer media focused on bodies that were white and slim, or muscular and white, or tall and white, and I wanted my fat bisexual characters of color to exist in all their realities without an ounce of doubt from the reader.

You could say I’m unnecessarily defensive. I am. It was hammered into me as a young writer that the cruel default in fiction is characters who are white and straight and cisgender unless marked as some kind of “other.” What, then, becomes the presumed default for the body?

Writing the body is absolutely a matter of craft. How much should we foreground physical description, particularly when it comes to the narrator? I’ll admit I’m quite lazy on this front. I prefer to keep my details lean. First-person narrators don’t need to weigh themselves or stare in the mirror and describe the shape of their gut, unless, of course, they must. Jeans may fit snuggly, or a jacket may not close, or a zipper may break. I think there are times when such incidents work, but can our fat characters exist without the body becoming a playground for everyday violences? The fat body can be greatly loved as well, and the language for describing it can be lush, velvety, and serve the narrative—in which case, yes, bring it on. I’ll gulp up every word! But what if that’s not the project either?

With my own book, I wondered if I could write characters for whom fatness was not always an immediate concern. Could such a point be highlighted in fifteen stories side by side? I chose to create my own baseline and, on the matter of when and when not to include descriptions, I ultimately landed on: It just depends. I’m most hyperaware of my own body in specific situations—during sex, while eating among friends, or while trying on clothes, to name a few. Where does it feel most natural for a character to take a beat to consider their own body? And what is illuminated when you do mention it?

These questions were also on my mind while reading Jaime Cortez’s phenomenal and hilarious debut story collection Gordo (Black Cat, 2021). The main character’s nickname “Gordo” does a lot of the heavy lifting (again, sorry, sorry) in establishing his physique, and his size is mentioned by other characters offhandedly or more pointedly in arguments, but I was primed and much more interested to look at the observations made by Gordo himself. In “Ofelia’s Last Ride,” the final story in the collection, Gordo reflects on his body during a visit to Mexico: “Normally, I don’t like it when people tell me I’m fat…I better get used to it, because here in the barrio everybody and their dog are going to remind me I’m fat. People who don’t even know me call me Gordo.” Later, he describes how the only outfit he has to wear to a funeral doesn’t quite fit over his stomach. This scene feels so perfectly placed: Life and death, the end of childhood. A familiar frustration against a new loss. The comedy of a too-small shirt. The moment also serves as a continuation of his earlier thought, that his fatness is always there, a fact of his existence. I then revisited Gordo in the stories where his body wasn’t directly acknowledged. I considered how he moved through the narratives, always visible whether he was a passive observer or active participant. The full picture we get is this tenderhearted kid who is overwhelmingly kind and sincere, and alive with laughter.

After reading Gordo, I felt more confident in my decision to prompt readers of my book. I want them to have a similar kind of understanding from the jump. These characters grappling with loneliness and heartache and anxiety, who fuck and love and contain anger, who are frustrated by their own inability to takes risks, who, yes, love or at the very least feel passionately about food, are all fat. Their fatness is neither an obstacle to overcome nor portrayed in an overly positive light. Their fatness, like mine, just is.

 

Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.

Thumbnail: Bruno Dias

Craft Capsule: Body in the Mirror

by

Susan Stinson

3.22.21

This is no. 92 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was an undergraduate, I saw a call for writing about fatness for the anthology Shadow on a Tightrope: Writing by Women on Fat Oppression (Aunt Lute Books, 1983), which became a feminist classic, still in print decades later. I was a young writer who very much wanted to be published. I had been fat all my life. I knew that the shape of my body had been central in defining the shape of my life, but I had no language for how to write or even think about that. The cultural tropes for fat women were virulently dismissive. I knew that they did not represent who I was. The hate language that was regularly shouted at me on the street didn’t either, but I didn’t know how to start to say anything else.

Soon after I graduated, I moved from Colorado to Boston. I got a job at a drugstore and started figuring out how to be a writer. I gave myself the simple assignment to look in the mirror and try to describe myself accurately and, to the best of my ability, without judgment. I chose to do this naked, but the exercise can be equally powerful if the writer is wearing clothes.

It proved to be enormously difficult, both emotionally and because I found that I had extremely limited options for language with which to describe my body. I have said elsewhere that it took participation in grassroots feminism and reading great poets (for me, Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman) before I could find my belly with my hands and write that it was soft to the touch. Eventually, though, I got there. This is from a lyric essay in my chapbook of poetry and essays, Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women:

My belly pours, hangs, moves, grows hair, shines in marks that fall like fingers curing up around its sides. I am loose, I hang. There are not enough names for the places where my fat gathers on me; there is belly, thigh, hip, chin, but no simple way to say soft-mound-between-breast-and-arms, or low-full-folds-that-are-sides.

I didn’t just observe my body. I also touched it.

I take my belly in my hands. It’s warm. My fingers feel cool, but quickly warm, too. It has a good weight, is soft. I sit very still, and feel the pulse in my thumbs, then find the pulse in the place of my thickest fat. It’s delicate and regular, there, yes, there, yes, there. It comes from the underside where my palms are resting, from the left half and the right half, from veins that curve out the with rest of me. This is not dead lard. It’s my body. It’s my living fat.

Writing Belly Songs opened a vein of literary exploration that eventually resulted in three novels. It changed the way I move through the world too. Having language for fatness—for that aspect of my body I had once understood to be too shameful to speak of—allowed me to begin to know, say, and be more fully who I am. All of that anguished silence was distracting. Living with less of it makes me more present for every other aspect of life. I’ve written about other things, but I know that I’m not done with this topic.

This exercise is useful for any writer. The body is the vessel for all sensory knowledge. Describing one’s physical self with accurate, nuanced attention is like plugging into an electrical socket. There’s a charge. If a writer runs into obstacles to finding language for his, her, or their specific body, then the strategies that arise from grappling with that, or even just touching it lightly, can be revelatory. It has been for me.

 

Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Thumbnail: Oscar Blair

Craft Capsule: Queer Characters Who Behave Badly

by

Peter Kispert

2.15.21

This is no. 88 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It did not occur to me, while drafting the stories in my debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), that they might ever become a book. I had not considered anyone would ever read or judge or enjoy or review my writing, beyond some appearances in literary magazines. After a few years of writing stale straight characters, I had finally begun to write queer stories featuring queer people, who to my great relief felt alive on the page. Late at night on my bed, a dim bulb flickering in the kitchen, screen light white on my face, I conjured it all up, and let my heart lead. In my fiction, I tried to articulate the truth.

But the “truth” felt slippery, uneasy. My queer characters, as I found them, were often a mess of wiring: self-sabotage, deception, jealousy, rage—crackling in ways that risked flame. In various ways, in different stories, I can still recall the experience of channeling these things as I wrote. Underneath the elation of finishing a story, I wondered: Why am I writing this? I sometimes feared my rendering of queer characters who behaved badly would be confused as an endorsement of that bad behavior, but nonetheless the work consumed me.

While revising I returned to the question of why my queer characters were behaving badly. I held my ear to each scene to see if I could hear a human sound inside. I didn’t want to presuppose that these characters were liars, but many shared a painful compulsion for self-betrayal. It did make me wonder: Does a writer make decisions on the goodness or badness of their characters, and why? How?

One reflex I noticed in drafting was to complicate a one-dimensional character by working away from either direction. This character is “bad” and so should have “good” characteristics. This character is “good” and so we must find a flaw. But I found this approach yielded rote shattered vases, reminiscent of my two-dimensional straight characters, and tended to render in a kind of permanent sketch. A more holistic, embodied approach—without judgment—transported me into their lives, which rang with a conditional joy I found exquisitely rich. I had to let them breathe.

Many of the stories in my book feature a protagonist or narrator whose deceptions serve a great self-betrayal. They must be masculine enough, or successful enough, or have friends because they don’t, or even merely have histories that suggest these things, in order to be or feel deserving of the love they chase. Often the lies become the stuff of these characters’ undoing. They mean the best but fail in their pursuit.

It is sometimes suggested that we write to free ourselves, but this has never interested me. The great freedom of the page was that I did not have to run from what I felt, or once had. Acknowledgment of complexity felt like a kiss. Fiction, stories, had been where I went to be honest, through queer characters who had begun to habituate, at times compulsively, their desires to betray themselves. Imposing a sense of goodness on a character flattened them, suffocating a tenderness and kindness that I found my characters do often possess too. In the middle of Indiana, in the middle of the night, I trained my gaze on only what felt true. From that feeling, eventually, the book emerged.

 

Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.

Thumbnail: Evie S.

Craft Capsule: Creating a Seasonal Writing Practice

by

Khadijah Queen

1.4.21

This is no. 84 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The pandemic, social uprisings, and a volatile political climate—superimposed upon family and work responsibilities, as well as health challenges—has made a regular writing practice impossible over the past ten months. Essays I pitched early in the year didn’t materialize, and only a handful of terribly sad poems arrived in usable condition. The one longform piece I did finish—a zuihitsu that appeared in Harper’s—was about the pandemic, written in April and May as I worried terribly about the health and safety of family members who were sick, and some who are still frontline workers. As a relatively prolific writer, with six published books since 2008 and four more currently in various stages of completion, I’m trying to see my current lack of time and energy to write as a side effect of all that’s happening in the world, but I don’t want to give up on a regular writing practice. To that end, I want to reenvision possibilities for that practice while taking into account the new reality. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to adapt to complicated circumstances; I’ve tried many different kinds of writing practices over the past two decades. My early years of writing consisted of recording lines on my lunch breaks and during lulls at my day jobs, and a few minutes in my car before entering the house in the evening. When my son got older, I somehow managed six years of a daily writing practice, usually a half hour at 5:30 AM with a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin. When I had an emergency appendectomy in 2015, my writing routine tanked as I recovered. Slowly I built back up to weekend flurries, and that lasted long enough for me to complete my fifth book. Then I wrote during intensely concentrated weeks and months for three and a half years of doctoral study, resulting in one book of poetry, the first draft of a memoir and a 270-page critical dissertation by the end of 2019. After all that writing, all I wanted was a break, so I took a couple of months. Then the pandemic happened, and the writing—didn’t. As a person who really needs an intentional writing routine, I felt at a loss. 

How, with mounting caregiving, health issues and work responsibilities, would I fit in regular writing time? I struggled for months, until I hit upon the one thing I hadn’t tried yet—seasons. Thinking in terms of seasons avoids the specificity (and requisite pressure) of calendar dates and days of the week. A seasonal practice could preserve writing goals more gently and flexibly. It might include thematic prompts—write about lightness and travel in summer, or perhaps reflect on freedom; focus on renewal and revisit the pastoral or the aubade in spring; delve into darkness, list modes of comfort, and maybe address grief in winter; autumn writing might spotlight transformation and beauty. Autumn is my favorite season. I love wearing knee boots and turtleneck sweaters and leather gloves, love the early October riot of color in the trees. You can of course define for yourself what each season means. Collect keywords over the year that can provide lasting inspiration. 

Let’s also pause here and define “writing goals.” For me that’s mostly meant books, and that hasn’t changed. But I’ve had to think smaller when it comes to productivity even as I continue to envision larger projects. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, maybe I’ll choose a single element to work on, such as order, or beginnings and endings. For a seasonal practice, choosing writing goals that can be adjusted as needed, and granting yourself the easement of non-specified time to work, seems more than reasonable right now.  

If you have an impending deadline in early February, maybe you’ll work only on the coldest days, when outside pursuits aren’t accessible. In summer, if you enjoy writing outside like I do, choose the sunniest days to work on a patio, or at a socially distant café. If you have a deadline that isn’t urgent, try softening it. Make one date—or date range!—for a first draft, another for draft two, another for draft three. After each draft, especially if it’s spring, buy yourself fresh flowers. Get as much done as you can, then reward yourself with an evening walk or morning drive, weather permitting. These are just a few basic suggestions, and you can adjust goals (and rewards) as you go along. I happen to like dark chocolate, so that’s my default treat. Make a list of yours and have it ready along with those seasonal keywords. I firmly believe we need as many reminders as possible that part of the work of writing is allowing for mental space, for infusions of beauty, for intentional nourishment—physical and otherwise. During these incredibly challenging times, I would wager that flexibility rules the day. Don’t abuse grace, of course; communicate clearly and continue to commit to due dates with integrity, but also make use of kindness—given, and received.

 

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Thumbnail: Oliver Hihn

Craft Capsule: Writing Hot

by

Jordan Kisner

11.30.20

This is no. 80 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was a writing student, a professor once commented to me that my writing was a little intense. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and he wasn’t unkind, but it was something like “Your writing is always at eleven,” or “Your writing is always just so hot-blooded.” 

This comment elicited a mixed reaction at the time. I wasn’t proud. I didn’t sense that this was a compliment. He was giving me a note: Learn to tone it down sometimes. It felt respectful in its way, as if he were saying, “Okay, you can write like your hair is on fire, but make sure that’s not the only thing you can do.” Which is a good and teacherly thing to do, to discourage a student from leaning too heavily on the thing that feels good, to point out tics and habits. But as a young writer—a female writer, a queer writer—to hear an older male professor note that your work is unrelentingly intense can set off a clamor of questions, insecurities, suspicions, irritations, doubts, shames. This is maybe especially the case when the young writer is writing (as I was) about her own life and self, the source of this overmuchness. 

So I was a little embarrassed, concerned that “intense” was code for melodramatic, maudlin, tacky, purple. Childish. Overfeminine. Hysterical. But also, I wanted to be an intense writer. What was the point of writing if it wasn’t vivid and compelling, if it wasn’t transporting, if it didn’t make you rock back in your seat? I wrote then, and write now, I suppose, to express an intensity to the condition of being, an aliveness that feels full and bewildering. 

After that, though, I spent several years trying to write in a way that was hot-blooded, or full of feeling, but also somehow cool. Writing that was fierce and ardent while being unimpeachably in control of itself. I’ve tried a few ways to do this over the years. The first, maybe, we’ll call The Didion method: Bury feeling in a near-hysterical radiance of detail or texture when describing absolutely mundane things like sock brands; directly reference imminent emotional breakdown (or past breakdown) in prose so deadpan and commanding it seems like possibly a complex joke. Then there is what we might call The Nelson: Go straight to eleven, get poetic and hot about sex, love, heartbreak, pain, and then stave off accusations of mawkishness with theory and academically rigorous discussions of the sex. 

I love both these methods—and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson—but lately I’ve been thinking about what you lose when you insist on cooling down your prose. Early this summer I had a conversation with Ocean Vuong on my Thresholds podcast during which he spoke about his reclamation of prose that some might dismiss as purple. “I am interested in using a style that a lot of men have deemed too prissy for them to use in the present,” he told me. “It feels like drag to me—to be extra! There’s too much glitter because we want to be blindingly present and seen.” He was speaking about the historical moment when emotional and beautiful writing was deemed feminine and therefore less worthy, and the way that as a [queer] man he might begin to excavate and subvert that. He reminded me, also, that you can find fun and even joy in just going ahead and writing at eleven, writing hot, writing like your hair is on fire—to be blindingly present and seen.  

 

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas. 

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Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs. 

4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1 

5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills. 

6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.

7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.

8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.   

9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay. 

Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection. 

Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now? 

10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass. 

11. I started off as a fiction writer. 

12.  I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down. 

Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys. 

13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic. 

14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die. 

15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud. 

16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.

17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.

18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear. 

19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way. 

20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop. 

I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all. 

For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place? 

I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it. 

 

ENDNOTES

1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2
2. Except what my parents call each other. 
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in
From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978). 
5. “The Secret” in
O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). 
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. 

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Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

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Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

by

Carter Sickels

3.30.20

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: The End

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.30.19

This is no. 45 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When do you stop revising? How do you know when a poem is done? The short answer is that I consider a poem done once I have committed it to memory. I learned this from a revision exercise I borrowed from Danez Smith who, in turn, borrowed it from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The exercise begins: Open to a blank notebook page or Word document and rewrite the poem you are working on from memory. Following this initial rewrite, Van Clief-Stefanon’s exercise contains a series of prompts intended to clarify what is important to the poem, what it needs more of, and what is extraneous. Even without the prompts, rewriting from memory can, on its own, provide such information; what you remember will usually turn out to be what is essential to the poem, whether that is an image, a narrative, a line-length, a sound. If you remember the whole thing, it stands to reason that the whole thing is essential. 

Poets often analogize the writing of poems to other artistic practices: sculpture, pottery, the making of boats. Embedded in each of these analogies is a different perspective on when to let a poem go. Has a particular affecting figure been etched from the raw material of language? Is the poem both beautiful and functional? Has it carried you—or will it carry your reader—somewhere new? But I tend to think of writing poetry as being less like art making and more like a biological process, like life making. Poetry is a place where I develop, a skin I make in order to make myself. Once I have outgrown it, I can examine the poem from all angles. I can learn new things about it and about who I became inside of it. I can polish its exterior, but there is no way for me to get back inside.

This account of poetry can seem like a rather dismal proposition, especially for those of us who give readings, who return again and again to poems that have already taken shape. It sounds like I am saying that the poem and I were briefly alive together and then, once it has been put down, the poem is no longer living. A reading, in this account, is nothing more than a display of dead language. But here is how I think about it: In the third episode of BBC’s Life Story, there is a vignette about hermit crabs’ elaborate, communal ritual of changing shells. Once a hermit crab has outgrown its shell, it does not simply discard it and move on to the next. Rather, it waits for a critical mass of its fellow travelers to gather and arrange themselves into a line by size order, so that they can transfer shells, one to another. The biggest crab moves into an empty shell on the beach, the next in line takes the big crab’s newly abandoned shell, and on and on down the line until everyone’s soft interior, hopefully, has new room in which to grow. 

What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as “fixing.” Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I. This perspective on poetry helps me to grow, helps me remember that I can be done with something and that it can be imperfect—it can be a shell with a hole in it—but that it might be precisely what someone else is looking for. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Thumbnail: Maximilian Paradiz 

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.25.18

This is no. 36 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As writers we all have specific goals when creating our fictional worlds. Some writers value plot, others value humor. Some prioritize beautiful sentences or abstract ruminations about the state of society. When I write, my goal is to construct characters full of depth and complexity. I don’t need readers to agree with my characters, but to understand the why behind their actions. 

When I created Haemi Lee, the female protagonist of my novel, If You Leave Me, I focused on developing this complexity so that my readers would know her intimately. At the beginning of the novel, Haemi is a sixteen-year-old refugee during the Korean War, and by the last pages she is a thirty-two-year-old mother in 1967. By covering a wide swath of time, I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed. As I wrote, I considered how she would behave as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and lover. I considered her temperament. Growing up without means in a conservative time, there would be strict social and gendered guidelines placed on Haemi. I wanted her to bristle against those rules. The problem, I discovered, was that an imperfect female protagonist is often labeled unlikable. 

The first time I heard Haemi described this way was in workshop. I was surprised. It was a gendered remark, and I hadn’t been expecting it at the graduate school level. When did we ever question the likability of male characters? Complicating matters further, when did we question the likability of female characters when they were written by male writers? I simmered in silence as my classmates discussed Haemi Lee. (As the student being workshopped, I wasn’t allowed to speak.) Jisoo and Kyunghwan, my two male protagonists, were not always likable and yet the focus remained on Haemi. Why did she need to be likable when her male counterparts were not? Why were we concerned with the likability of women anyway? Who among us are always likable?

This conversation led me to consider the trope of the “unlikable female character.” I prickled at the phrase, the silly term that asserts female characters are valued for their docility and amiability. I decided that I couldn’t let other readers’ apprehensions about Haemi’s likability soften her. Haemi pushes against the social expectations of her time by not hiding her feelings, by wanting an education, and by speaking freely of the difficulties of motherhood. Haemi is giving and selfish, kind and callous. She is concerned with the welfare of everyone around her while also deeply concerned with her own happiness. If I succeeded in my writing goals, my readers will not always like Haemi, but they will feel deeply for her. They will want to guide her, argue with her, and root for her. 

When writing, our concern should not be a character’s likability, regardless of gender. As the writer, our focus should be on making the character feel true. When my students hesitate at revealing their character’s flaws, I encourage them to dig into the messy, ugly parts. Flaws are what make fiction interesting and realistic. Though we may not love our flaws, they are crucial for characters. When a student worries about the likability of their female characters in particular, this is what I tell them: We need more unlikable female protagonists to deepen the way we consider women in our society. Literature teaches us. Literature makes us question and broaden our understanding of the world. If “unlikable female” means a realistic, imperfect, complex woman, then we need to write as many of these characters as we can.

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Tao Te Ching

by

Simon Van Booy

6.13.18

This is no. 30 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The biggest little book in China is called the Tao Te Ching. One of its most famous sayings is Wu Wei, 無爲, literally, doing nothing or non-doing.

Whereas some people have used this to imbue passivity or laziness with spiritual significance, I think it has something to do with wholeheartedness.

The child at play does not stop to ask herself, “Am I playing?” She is not aware of time, nor constrained by it. Imagine you get so deep into writing, that you forget you are writing. The story just flows from you, through you, and out into the world.

How can you get to that place? Where the act of writing is so much of part of you, it’s effortless. A process of instinct rather than thought—

The first step is to give up the idea you will ever fail, or ever succeed. Prepare to serve only the needs of the story. Then move your hands, breathe.  

Have faith.  

Laugh.  

Cry.

Sleep.

Dream.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Metaphor

by

Sandra Beasley

4.4.17

This is the seventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

A friend of mine, a poet, was trying to figure out what bothered him about a draft of my poem. “A poem should be like a wall,” he told me. “You build it brick by brick.” He pointed out that, in his opinion, key bricks were missing.

I didn’t share his vision, but I admired that he had one. I’ve come to value developing a metaphorical model for your genre. A model can help you identify your goals, name your struggles, and proceed toward success.

Perhaps you follow the lead of “stanza,” the Italian word for “room.” You come to think of each poem as a house. How do the rooms differ in function, size, and occupancy? Where does your central drama take place? What comprises your roof?

Perhaps you come to think of your essay as a harp. Each researched fact glimmers, an available string in a golden frame. But you can’t play them all at once. Only in choosing which notes to highlight, and how to sequence them, can you create music.

Personally, I always think of memoir as an egg. I’m protective of the inspiring memory, smooth and undisturbed in its surface. But I have to be prepared to break the egg. I have to make the idea messy before I can make a satisfying meal.

Perhaps your novel is a shark. Perhaps your villanelle is a waltz. Perhaps your short story is a baseball game. Don’t adopt my metaphors. Find one of your own.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Egg in My Pocket

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.21.17

This is the first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

As a project for school, my thirteen-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: Keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes you up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg—he named it “Pablito”—I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

Carrying an egg around is like writing a novel. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the novel is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it, you get nervous. It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed. Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. Keeping it intact requires patience, time, attention—and, most of all, commitment. This concept applies to any stage of the process: The egg is both the idea that you nurture long before you begin to write, and the writing itself, which must be fostered and sustained.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Tolstoy’s Short Chapters

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.28.17

This is the sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Anna Karenina is more than eight hundred pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many three-hundred-page books?

As I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. This makes sense, considering it was published in serial installments, from 1873 to 1877, in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense—a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk—which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’m tempted to put it down, but then I riffle ahead to find that the next chapter is only three pages long. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door.

Three pages. I can do that—as a reader and as a writer. 

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Beware the Indeterminate “It”

by

Sandra Beasley

4.11.17

This is the eighth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Beware the indeterminate “it,” I often say, when fine-tuning a draft.

But that word is so convenient. “It” carries the football from the previous sentence. Whatever “it” you just defined, you’re sticking with it for another ten yards, right?

Except that you’re fumbling the play. Too often, relying on “it” dissipates your language’s energy. Circle every “it” that leads off a sentence. Revising to avoid these instances will force your verbs into action, and clarify your intent.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes an indeterminate “it” will remain, one that has earned its place on the field. The pronoun can be strategic—signifying not just gender neutrality but an absence of comprehension or known name, a fumbling toward meaning, the building of suspense.

In the right hands, “It” can be a potent force. Just ask Stephen King.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Form of Salvation

by

Simon Van Booy

6.20.18

This is no. 31 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you start thinking creatively, it’s like releasing a live animal—a new species of mischief that cannot be contained to just one area of your life. Creativity is not like a machine that can be switched on and off. And therefore it does not end when you stand up from your desk after a few solid hours of work.

Ever wondered why you feel the urge to roller skate through a shopping mall listening to Abba? Leave strange notes on the doorsteps of strangers? Eat apples standing up in the bath, naked, with the window open?

Now you know. Creativity is a form of salvation.  

If we could limit creativity to just one area of our lives—how would we ever manage to convince ourselves to climb back in the rocket, and blast off again and again and again, to those distant galaxies of unwritten narrative? 

And stop worrying about getting published. You write because you’re obsessed with telling a story in a way that no one else can. Focus on that. Only that. Everything else will take care of itself.  And, please, for my sake—don’t ever think buying a plastic skeleton from a medical supply store then holding it up to the window when people walk past is a waste of time.  

Being a writer means opening your whole life to creativity. It is a commitment to overpowering fear with imagination and compassion for yourself, as well as others. As a person who writes you’ll be a better mother, son, best friend, aunt, cousin, coach, or bank teller. Because learning to write is learning to see, and striving to see beyond is perhaps the only hope for our species.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice

by

Simon Van Booy

6.27.18

This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.  

I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.  

When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.  

Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.  

Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.  

1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.

2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.

3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs. 

4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake.  Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it. 

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Research

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.11.18

This is no. 34 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I began writing If You Leave Me, my forthcoming debut novel, I settled upon the premise quickly. Inspired by my family’s history, I knew I would open with Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee living in Busan during the Korean War. Though the story was rooted in truth, I was eager to let my imagination take over. Scenes came to me fully formed: Haemi on a hill overlooking the makeshift shacks of her village; Hyunki, her sickly younger brother, walking to the market alone; a network of aunties whispering about the front lines, fear prickling their voices raw. Through Haemi and the characters around her, I wanted to explore how years of devastating loss and violence could warp a person’s psyche, body, and view of the world.

How would I write about 1950s South Korea, when I was born in Queens, New York, in 1987? I wanted to represent this period accurately, so I began intensive research. In the library, I took dutiful notes about that critical day on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South. I learned about the political climate that had catalyzed the start of the war. I jotted down the different weapons each army used, the timeline of events. As I gathered these facts, I started to see a change in my writing. I was more specific, surer about the world that Haemi, Hyunki, her best friend Kyunghwan, and her suitor Jisoo were surviving in. 

In my graduate school workshops, I was pleased to find that my research created a strong foundation for my novel. The dates and facts were clear. However, a new problem arose. In my critiques I saw the same question asked in various forms: What does this refugee village look like? What is Haemi wearing? What materials are the makeshift shacks made of? Though my readers were not confused about the circumstances of the war, I wasn’t yet conveying what it felt like to live in this tumultuous time. 

On my next trip to Korea I interviewed my maternal grandmother, who had been a teenage refugee during the Korean War. With a notebook in my lap, I asked her when she fled her home, what she ate on the journey south, what she wore, where she lived, and more. Back in America, I returned to the library. This time, I read ROK soldiers’ memoirs so that I could develop Jisoo’s and Kyunghwan’s experiences. I pored over photographs of civilian refugees, of the markets that formed during the years-long stalemate, and of the shacks constructed from corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood. My sentences became richer, laden with sensory details. I lingered over descriptions of food, clothing, the buildings in Seoul, the fields in the rural outskirts of South Korea. In workshop I was able to anticipate my classmates’ questions about the physical world. The novel was coming together, I thought. I had finally done enough.  

Or had I? The more I wrote, the more I became curious about Haemi’s psychology. I wanted to explore the way violence, gender expectations, poverty, and family circumstances shaped Haemi’s life in the years after the armistice. In order to do so, I needed to develop her interiority so that readers would empathize with her. I returned to the library, eager to read memoirs written by Korean women who had come of age in the 1950s. However, I found none. Where were all the women? The answer both frustrated and fueled me. They had not been valued during this period of history, and thus, their voices had not been preserved. 

What happens when there is no research to guide your way? Determined to continue, I got creative. I read studies about the history of social and gender hierarchy in South Korea; I watched movies and documentaries; I examined the linguistics of trauma and depression in the Korean language; I returned to my grandmother for her opinions on mental health. I also turned to fiction, reading novels about women living through conflict in other countries. Finally, I considered what would happen to me if I had experienced the trauma of Japanese colonialism, Korean independence, and war before the age of twenty. I imagined how my frustrations would manifest in the domestic sphere. I empathized until I knew Haemi completely.   

Over my journey of writing If You Leave Me, my research took many forms. From reference texts and history books to films and novels to my grandmother’s own experiences, the process was more diverse than I’d expected. My favorite part though, was ending where I began—with my writerly impulse to imagine, to create characters, to tell a story.    

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Research

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.11.18

This is no. 34 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I began writing If You Leave Me, my forthcoming debut novel, I settled upon the premise quickly. Inspired by my family’s history, I knew I would open with Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee living in Busan during the Korean War. Though the story was rooted in truth, I was eager to let my imagination take over. Scenes came to me fully formed: Haemi on a hill overlooking the makeshift shacks of her village; Hyunki, her sickly younger brother, walking to the market alone; a network of aunties whispering about the front lines, fear prickling their voices raw. Through Haemi and the characters around her, I wanted to explore how years of devastating loss and violence could warp a person’s psyche, body, and view of the world.

How would I write about 1950s South Korea, when I was born in Queens, New York, in 1987? I wanted to represent this period accurately, so I began intensive research. In the library, I took dutiful notes about that critical day on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South. I learned about the political climate that had catalyzed the start of the war. I jotted down the different weapons each army used, the timeline of events. As I gathered these facts, I started to see a change in my writing. I was more specific, surer about the world that Haemi, Hyunki, her best friend Kyunghwan, and her suitor Jisoo were surviving in. 

In my graduate school workshops, I was pleased to find that my research created a strong foundation for my novel. The dates and facts were clear. However, a new problem arose. In my critiques I saw the same question asked in various forms: What does this refugee village look like? What is Haemi wearing? What materials are the makeshift shacks made of? Though my readers were not confused about the circumstances of the war, I wasn’t yet conveying what it felt like to live in this tumultuous time. 

On my next trip to Korea I interviewed my maternal grandmother, who had been a teenage refugee during the Korean War. With a notebook in my lap, I asked her when she fled her home, what she ate on the journey south, what she wore, where she lived, and more. Back in America, I returned to the library. This time, I read ROK soldiers’ memoirs so that I could develop Jisoo’s and Kyunghwan’s experiences. I pored over photographs of civilian refugees, of the markets that formed during the years-long stalemate, and of the shacks constructed from corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood. My sentences became richer, laden with sensory details. I lingered over descriptions of food, clothing, the buildings in Seoul, the fields in the rural outskirts of South Korea. In workshop I was able to anticipate my classmates’ questions about the physical world. The novel was coming together, I thought. I had finally done enough.  

Or had I? The more I wrote, the more I became curious about Haemi’s psychology. I wanted to explore the way violence, gender expectations, poverty, and family circumstances shaped Haemi’s life in the years after the armistice. In order to do so, I needed to develop her interiority so that readers would empathize with her. I returned to the library, eager to read memoirs written by Korean women who had come of age in the 1950s. However, I found none. Where were all the women? The answer both frustrated and fueled me. They had not been valued during this period of history, and thus, their voices had not been preserved. 

What happens when there is no research to guide your way? Determined to continue, I got creative. I read studies about the history of social and gender hierarchy in South Korea; I watched movies and documentaries; I examined the linguistics of trauma and depression in the Korean language; I returned to my grandmother for her opinions on mental health. I also turned to fiction, reading novels about women living through conflict in other countries. Finally, I considered what would happen to me if I had experienced the trauma of Japanese colonialism, Korean independence, and war before the age of twenty. I imagined how my frustrations would manifest in the domestic sphere. I empathized until I knew Haemi completely.   

Over my journey of writing If You Leave Me, my research took many forms. From reference texts and history books to films and novels to my grandmother’s own experiences, the process was more diverse than I’d expected. My favorite part though, was ending where I began—with my writerly impulse to imagine, to create characters, to tell a story.    

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable

by

Steve Almond

12.13.17

Last summer I wrote a review of Who Is Rich? (Random House, 2017) by Matthew Klam. The novel is narrated by a man named Rich Fischer, a self-loathing husband and father who conducts an anguished and antic affair with an equally unhappy infidel.

Shortly after I turned in my review, I heard the book discussed on the radio. The segment opened on an odd note. “Rich is a hard man to like,” the host began. I sat back in astonishment—the notion hadn’t even occurred to me. But a quick survey of prepublication reviews revealed that this was, in fact, the consensus view: Rich was whiny, selfish, unsympathetic.

These complaints, it should be noted, weren’t generally directed at his adultery, about which he is so racked with guilt that he attempts to kill himself twice. No, his central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

And yet when I survey the books that inspired me to quit journalism and take up fiction two decades ago, every single one features protagonists who are “hard to like” in the exact same way: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Airships by Barry Hannah, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

My predilection for destructive and discomfiting characters arose, in part, from my years as an investigative reporter, which I spent tracking con men and corrupt cops, shady developers and sexual deviants.

In my reporting, the central danger was detection by the authorities. In literature, the danger was self-revelation. The question was why people messed up their lives and, when they got going, the lives of those around them.

This question began with the characters, but it extended to the reader. Spending time with folks who were morally flawed and ruthlessly candid, who had thrown all manner of caution to the wind, was thrilling specifically because they enacted my own repressed urges. I didn’t just want to rubberneck their misdeeds. I felt implicated by them.

As I turned all this over in my mind, I began to realize why I’d found the scolding critiques of Rich Fischer so vexing. They weren’t just sanctimonious or shallow. There was something cowardly in them, a mind-set that positioned fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.

***

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years on this question of likability, as well as an adjoining anxiety: how important it is that characters be “relatable.” One of the flash points of this debate emerged from the critical reception of Claire Messud’s fierce novel The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013), whose narrator, Nora Eldridge, spends much of the book railing against the forms of feminine duty she has internalized.

When an interviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora” because of her “unbearably grim” outlook, Messud’s reply lit up the Internet. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” she demanded. Messud went on to cite a dozen famously repellent male characters who are rarely, if ever, subjected to such a litmus test. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she concluded, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

Messud was hailed for confronting what we might call the fallacy of likability, and the ways in which female authors are expected to cleave to this notion.

One of the most fascinating reactions came from novelist Jennifer Weiner. In an essay published by Slate she noted, rightly, that many readers come to fiction hoping to spend time with characters they admire. And she argued that the creators and consumers of such characters shouldn’t be looked down upon.

But Weiner’s defense of likability was undermined by her own resentments. Likable, she insisted, was a code word “employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.” Her response was to tell Messud that her work sucked.

“There’s no payoff,” Weiner wrote of The Woman Upstairs, “just a 300-page immersion in the acid bath of Nora’s misery, her jealousy, her lack of compassion, her towering sense of entitlement.” Weiner felt Messud had willfully crafted a character to whom no one can relate.

The irony was that Nora elicited such vehement reactions precisely because readers related to her too much. They felt implicated, both by her impotent rage and the despair lurking beneath her grievances. “Above all, in my anger, I was sad,” she confesses. “Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate.”

What I’m getting at here is that the debate about likability ultimately boils down to sensibility. Nora Eldridge’s view of the world, and her place in it, is too dark and intense for some readers. When they pick up a book, they want to be transported to a sunnier precinct, or a more exotic one, with a friendlier companion. They seek a refuge from the anguish of their inner life.

There’s no right or wrong in any of this. It’s a function of what sort of experience we’re after as writers and readers.

***

There’s another unspoken factor in all this: the market. If you’re an unpublished writer seeking representation, and you submit a manuscript with an abrasive protagonist, chances are you’re going to hear from agents concerned about likability. The whole reason Lolita was originally published in France, and nearly three years later in the United States, is that Humbert Humbert’s panting hebephilia was abhorrent to American editors.

Cultural and literary standards evolve, of course. But financial anxieties are forever. Which is why agents and editors remain wary of characters they fear readers will find off-putting. In a world where reading books is itself a marginal activity, one performed in defiance of the perpetual racket of digital distraction, why risk losing sales?

I spent weeks, for instance, arguing with my editor about the section of my memoir, Candyfreak (Algonquin Books, 2004), in which I developed the irrational conviction that I had testicular cancer during a barnstorming tour of U.S. candy bar factories. My editor argued, quite sensibly, that this disclosure made me a lot less likable as a guide. What’s more, it dampened the giddy mood that prevailed elsewhere and guaranteed the book would never be adopted in school curriculums.

The reason I insisted on its inclusion was that I saw my self-diagnosis as an integral part of the story, a symptom of the depression that had reignited my childhood obsession with candy.

I don’t mean to imply that highlighting the repellent traits of a character is some shortcut to literary depth. That’s as foolish as the notion that scenes of graphic violence or sex will magically yield drama.

Some years ago I began a novel about a shameless right-wing demagogue who decides to run for president (I know). The response I got from readers was that my leading man, while fun to hang out with for a little while, was ultimately oppressive. It wasn’t that my leading man had the manners and conscience of a shark but that he had no subtext, no dreams or fears animating his outsize appetites. Nor did he hew to the path of so many unlikable protagonists, the Emma Woodhouses and Ebenezer Scrooges, who are forced to confront their flaws and wind up redeemed in the bargain. My man was self-regarding without being self-aware.

Such a figure might plausibly thrive in the world of politics (again, I know). On the page, he quickly degenerated into caricature. 

***

But what about those characters who refuse to evolve or offer up much in the way of vulnerability? I am thinking here of our most famous villains: Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden. These figures, though not technically protagonists, dominate their given worlds.

They do so because they’re willing to violate moral norms and thus wind up driving the action of the story. They’re also fearless in apprehending the nature of the world around them, even if they deny us access to their own inner lives. Most vitally, they embrace the transgressive aspects of their selfhood, the ones we anxiously inhibit so as to appear more likable.

Consider Melville’s Captain Ahab as he stands upon the deck of the Pequod, roaring out the true nature of his mission. “If man will strike, strike through the mask. How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me,” he tells his crew. “I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and…I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Tell us how you really feel, Ahab.

The reason readers like me gravitate toward characters like Ahab is that, not very deep down, we know ourselves to be equally charged with wrath, besieged by private doubts and grudges, and thus enthralled by those who dare to speak truth in a world overrun by personal forms of marketing.

The rise of Internet culture has only magnified the allure of such figures. Most social media platforms revolve around an elaborate effort to generate “likes” by presenting an airbrushed version of our lives and values. What grants trolls their magnetic power—whether they lurk online or in the White House—is the unacknowledged force of our own suppression.

Moral perfection is admirable, after all, but deadly dull in a literary character. I think here about the figure of Jesus Christ as we encounter him in the New Testament. He says and does all the right things. But he only comes alive as a character in those rarely cited verses when his revolutionary ire and human needs come into view.

The most shocking moment in the Gospels takes place a few days before his appointed end. On the way to Jerusalem, he stops in Bethany, where a woman lovingly anoints his head with perfumed oil.

The act angers some of those who witness it, including Judas Iscariot, who asks Jesus whether the expensive oil could have been put to better use if it was sold and the money given to the poor. “The poor you will always have,” Jesus replies. “But you will not always have me.”

It’s a moment of sensual indulgence and unvarnished pride that’s astonishingly out of character for Jesus. By my reckoning, he’s never more likable. 

***

I don’t expect this piece will do much to settle the question of likability. It’s one of those disputes into which writers will continue to pour their opinions and anxieties.

And that’s probably a good thing, if you think about it. Because we happen to be living in a historical moment ruled by unlikable characters. Take a look at our political and popular culture, at the angry voices emanating from our screens, at the seething violence in our discourse.

As writers, it can feel pointless to engage in literary endeavors when the world around us feels so combustible, so fragile. But I would argue that it has never been more important for writers to engage with the questions literature seeks to answer.

If we are to reclaim our country from the dark forces determined to divide us, to sow discord and cynicism among us, we must first seek to understand the darkness within ourselves. That means turning to stories in which we encounter characters actively engaged in the struggle—and sometimes failing—to contain their unbearable thoughts and feelings.

The urgent question isn’t whether we like these folks. It’s whether, in coming to know them, we come to know ourselves any better.

 

Steve Almond’s book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country is forthcoming in April from Red Hen Press.

His central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

Polite Need Not Apply: A Q&A With Mary Gaitskill

by

Joseph Master

12.11.17

Mary Gaitskill doesn’t believe literature should have to be polite. Do a Google image search of the author and you’ll see a succession of penetrating gazes—pale, wide eyes you just can’t fend off. Gaitskill’s writing, which has earned a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner nomination, has a similar effect. The author whose most recent book is a collection of personal and critical essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017), is best known for her fiction, having previously published three novels and three story collections. Gaitskill has been labeled “The Jane Austen of sickos,” a moniker that supposes her fiction—famous (and in some circles probably infamous) for its enjambment of sexual brutality with sensuous lyricism—is debauched. While her prose can at times appear as icy as her stare, waves of empathy, soul, and B-12 shots of humor course beneath the surface. From her first book of short stories, Bad Behavior (Simon & Schuster, 1988), which became widely known for “Secretary,” a story of sadomasochism and desire that was made into the 2002 indie film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, to her most recent novel, The Mare (Pantheon, 2015)Gaitskill’s fiction has always been ferocious, but not for the sake of brutality. The fireworks are in the vulnerability of human connection, not just the spectacle of sex. When she talks about her craft, Gaitskill’s eyes brighten and she smiles often. If you are fortunate enough to speak to her about Chekhov or Nabokov, as I was, you feel thankful for her clairvoyant insights, for her mastery of opinion—for her energizing confidence in what makes a good writer.

In an interview you once said, “Literature is not a realm of politeness.” What’s your style in the classroom? Are you the conditionally supportive teacher or the unconditionally supportive teacher?
I’m sure most people would call me conditionally supportive. I don’t really know what I’m like. I mean, I can’t see myself from the outside. People have described me as blunt. I’m not always, actually. I mean, I’m not always as blunt as I—

As you want to be?
as I might be if I were actually being blunt [laughs]. I’m blunt if I think there is no other way to be. I think my teaching style has also somewhat changed. And again, it’s hard to see myself from the outside. But I think I’ve learned how to be critical in a better way than I used to. In the past, I was so uncomfortable in a position of authority. I had never had a job before where I had any authority at all. My generation is notoriously uncomfortable with authority. That’s why we are terrible parents. I mean, I’m not speaking personally. I am not a parent. But it’s a thing—my generation makes awful parents. Because they’re so busy trying to make their children happy and be a friend to their children and make everything in their life work out that they end up just smothering them, basically.

All unconditional! I guess psychologists would say you need one unconditional and one conditionally loving parent, right? There’s a balance.
I had a similar problem teaching. But, it didn’t show up in the same way. I was just so uncomfortable having to be the authority. And I knew that I had to be. So the things I would say would come out much more forcefully than I actually meant them. It translated into harshness. And it was actually coming from a place of real discomfort and insecurity. But I don’t think the students knew that. Maybe some of them did, some of the time.

I remember a former writing professor, Chuck Kinder, always driving home the principle of Chekhov’s smoking gun. This West Virginian drawl saying, “If there’s a gun, there had better be gun smoke.” What’s your smoking gun principle? Do you have a rule?
I don’t, actually. I think there are very few rules that can’t be broken. I think there is only one that is very difficult to break. I have seen it broken, but not very often. It’s that something has to change. From the beginning of the story to the end, something needs to be different. The only time I’ve ever seen it successfully broken was a Grace Paley story called “A Conversation With My Father.” But as a general rule, something has to change. There has to be some source of tension. And even that can be subtle. Even in the language itself. You know the Flannery O’Conner story “Everything That Rises Must Converge”?

Yes!
The blood pressure. It’s mentioned in, I think, the first or second sentence. The blood pressure is the number-one thing.

Earlier I asked you which short stories of yours I should read, and you immediately responded with “Secretary.” You said you considered it one of your best. So I started there with Bad Behavior. That was your first book. You were thirty-three when it was released. How long did it take you?
About six years.

A first book is like a band’s first record, right? You have your whole life up to that point to write that first collection of words. And you release it. And then people tell you who you are. They say, “Oh, you’re the masochism writer,” or  “you’re the next Dylan.” It can be kind of crushing. Then you have, what? A year? Five years? You have such a shorter time frame to follow it up. What was the difference between writing Bad Behavior and your second book, the 1991 novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin?
Well, there were a couple of things. I had actually started the novel before I sold the story collection. I had written maybe thirty-five pages and stopped, because I just didn’t know what to do. And the reason I picked it up again was because I was in a publisher’s office, and they didn’t know if they wanted to buy the collection or not. And the guy said, “So, do you have a novel?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah I do.” And he said, “What’s it about?”

And I just started talking about these girls. And they were like, “Oh, ok.” And they wanted to do a two-book deal: the short story collection and the novel.

Well, that certainly worked out.
It didn’t have to do with the process, though. It was much more complicated. Because when I was writing Bad Behavior I could always say to myself, “It doesn’t have to be good. No one is going to see it.” That actually made it possible for me to go forward. I said that to myself literally every time I sat down, repeatedly. “It doesn’t have to be any good. No one will see it.”

Like The Basement Tapes. Dylan and his band didn’t mean for anyone to hear them. They were just hanging out in Woodstock, recording music they never thought would see daylight.
It’s a very helpful thing to say to yourself. And I didn’t have any expectation of how it would be received, either. Whereas with Two Girls I could not say that. I knew people were going to see it. And actually, for the first time, I was self-conscious about how it would be seen. And I felt a desire, an obligation almost, to please certain readers. Because I knew who had liked Bad Behavior and I knew why they liked it. So I was uncomfortable about disappointing those people, perhaps. I tried as hard as I could to put those feelings aside. But it was very difficult.

That had to be jarring.
It was.

Had you ever thought about your limitations as a writer when you were working on that first collection?
Oh, yeah! I thought I was terrible.

You thought you were terrible?
That was the other thing about Two Girls that was different. It was that I had never tried to write a novel before. Short stories are—some people say they are harder, but I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because it’s just a smaller space to deal with. I mean, some are quite capacious. It’s not that they are easy. I don’t find them easy. But a novel? It’s like I was a cat that had been in a house all of its life, and all of a sudden a door was flung open. And I was flooded with sights and smells and was crazily running over in one direction wondering what was going on there and getting distracted. And then running in the other direction. It was a total feeling of freedom. But I didn’t know what to do with it. It was very hard to figure out what I wanted to pay attention to and how to structure it. And stories are way more manageable that way.

Being flooded with sights and smells. Yes. So appropriate, because your fourth novel, Veronica (Pantheon, 2005), is flooded with sights and smells and senses that overlap and eclipse each other. Let’s start with the origin myth that opens the book —the dark folktale told to the narrator, Alison, by her mother. Alison revisits this story for the rest of her life. It haunts her. At one point she admits that she felt it more than she heard it. At what phase in the process of writing this novel did you write the beginning—this story that keeps coming back?
I added that later.

Was there a Lebowski’s Rug moment, when you arrived at this origin story and added it, and it really brought the whole room together?
Honestly, it was because someone who read a draft of the book said it reminded them of the tale The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf. It’s Hans Christian Anderson. And I said, “Really, what’s that?” And I went and looked it up. And I agreed. I thought it was perfect.

Those old tales are soul crushing and beautiful, but also scary as hell. It’s scary being a kid.
Right. Because everybody’s bigger than you. And they are weird! [Laughs.]

You’ve mentioned a soul-quality in writing. I’ve read interviews where you break it down to the molecular level. I guess it’s a voice quality, right? This energy. How did you find that? And how in the world do you teach that?
I don’t know. How did I arrive at the voice quality?

Yes. This energy in your writing, the music of it. The way you describe these grotesquely beautiful things. It’s your voice. What all MFA students want so badly to get, I think, is their own version of that.
I used to tell students, “I want to see it how only you can see it. I don’t want to see it how a hundred people would see it.” I was basically telling them not to rely on shared perception. There isn’t anything wrong with shared perception. It can be a beautiful thing, and I think music relies partly on shared perception, or it assumes a certain kind of shared perception, rightly or wrongly. Because you feel, in a group of people, that you are hearing it the same, although you’re probably not. You feel that commonality. Slang. Expressions. There are certain things that make shared perception beautiful. You can’t have a conversation without it. But when you’re reading a story, it’s a different thing. It’s much more intimate. It’s much more like…you’re wanting to get the pith of what that person feels and sees. It’s more like that.

Music plays a huge, great part in Veronica. What’s your soundtrack?
You mean, what music do I listen to?

Yes. When you’re writing, or on the train with your headphones. What are you listening to?
I’m really sorry to say this, but I don’t have those things. I don’t like that. I don’t want to walk around listening to music and not listening to what’s happening. It’s bad enough that I’m glued to my phone. I’m not going to go there with music. But right now I’m also at a disadvantage, because I don’t have a good sound system. So I’ve been listening to music on my computer and I just don’t like it as much. Like, when I had a good sound system, I used to put on music and just walk around, drinking a glass of wine, just listening to it.

In your writing, you slip in and out of time seamlessly. In Veronica, you’re like a time bandit. We’re talking a really adult version of Madeleine L’Engle. The book spans decades of Alison’s life—from her teenage years in Paris in the 70s to New York in the 80s, where she meets Veronica, and she’s narrating when she’s in her fifties. There are certain sentences that stretch between two different moments. Considering the amount of time the book covers, there has to be a level of trust—in your own ability to do that, but also that the reader will trust this time machine you’re driving. Was that hard to do? Did you question that?
Yeah, I did question if it was a good idea or not. I was afraid it would be too arty, or just too hard to follow. Yeah, I wondered about that.

For me, that kind of movement through time made everything move faster. It made my heart beat faster, especially as the book went on.
Well, thank you. I did it, for one thing, well, I felt like I had to blend the times because the book is focused on something in the past, and the narrator is in the present. But also because I was at an age where I felt like time was blending for me, personally, in a way that it hadn’t before.

How so?
I think when you get to a certain age, and for some people it may be in their forties or for other people it may be in their sixties—I’m not sure—but I think for everybody it happens that your relationship with time changes and you see the future or the present, and it becomes like a palimpsest for the past, and you just kind of blur things. And it’s not necessarily in a confused way, but sometimes it is. Like, you can talk to very old people and they’ll think something happened. Recently, my mother thought that her mother gave her the book, Born Free by Elsa the Lioness. And that’s not possible. My mother wasn’t alive when that book was written. But in her mind it absolutely must have been that way. She’s blending something. I think that starts to happen in middle age. Not in the sense that you’re confused, but that your connections of when things happen in time, spatially, are just different.

So, let’s talk about sexuality. Never have I read fiction regarding sexuality that made me feel quite the same way—that way I felt when reading Veronica.
When you say “that way,” what do you mean?

As a male, reading about sex—this beautifully painful account of health, illness, death, with all of this sometimes brutal sex—I felt my own mortality. I became very aware of my heartbeat and my breathing. Thinking about all the cigarettes I had smoked a long time ago. It made me anxious. It hurt. And I saw all of this through the eyes of Alison, a model, who is absolutely nothing like me. At all. I related to it. Absolutely, in the moment, related to it. And it’s hard enough for me to be in the moment, ever.
Me, too.

At one point Alison says she sees how men can look at pictures and feel things. She’s trying to see the world through the eyes of the other, and reading the book as a man, I was doing the same thing backwards, through her eyes. Have you found that the reaction to your writing has been starkly different along gender lines? That men have a different response? Like, me, how I am getting super uncomfortable talking about it with you right now?
Oh, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. I don’t really know. Someone wrote an article about how horrible she thinks men are when they write about me. And it’s true that some male critics have been unusually nasty. But it’s also true that once, a long time ago, for my own curiosity, I went through all the reviews and divided them into male and female. And then I added up where the most negative ones came from. They came from women. So, I think women are more likely to relate to my writing in a superficial way, because most of my characters are women. I don’t really know if there is a predictable breakdown.

I thought my last book, The Mare, would not be read by men at all. The Mare is all female characters with specifically female issues. And there isn’t a whole lot of sex in it. Even the horses are female. But men read it and liked it. I mean I don’t know how many. I can’t really say for sure. I am thinking, though, that some men seem to view it with horror that seems gendered.

Recently, Veronica was republished in England and my editor decided to have a personal friend of hers write an introduction. I can’t remember the guy’s name. He’s an English writer whom she says is very respected, but I’ve never heard of him. And he spent a lot of time—and he was a fan, apparently—talking about the horrifying, degrading imagery that I use about men. In one of these horrifying examples, Alison was thinking about a guy, and I hope you don’t mind me using this language. She’s having sex with somebody, and she can feel his asshole tingling on the end of his spine. In the context of writing, that does not seem especially degrading or at all degrading to me. If you were saying that to someone, it might be different, depending on who they are and how you said it. But the idea of somebody thinking that, in private, in a fictional novel, I don’t understand. I scratched him doing the introduction and I did it myself. And I wrote back to [my editor] and said, “Has this guy ever read Philip Roth or Saul Bellow? What makes him so shocked by this?”

In conversation it might be a shocking remark, but not in a novel, in somebody’s head. And that’s what I mean by politeness not applying to literature. There’s a different standard than at a party. I really did wonder if he would have reacted that way if it was a male writing about a female he was having sex with.

Well, I think there is maybe a double standard when it comes to writing about sex. Men might get more of a pass, right? And I’ve never read anything about sex that was written quite like that.
Thanks. Except I would normally disagree with that. I think women get more of a pass. For sexist reasons, actually, sexuality is considered the purview of women. It’s like women’s area of authority. Women can write really dirty things without being criticized as much. Are you aware of Nicholson Baker’s book The Fermata?

No.
It’s a pretty dirty book. It’s a fantasy book. Have you read him at all?

No, I haven’t. I guess I should.
Beautiful writer. Line by line, probably the best writer in America, in my opinion.  Line by line, though, not by the whole content, necessarily. Well, The Fermata was one of his lighter books. He’s better known for Vox, because Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky read it together. Or for The Mezzanine. But The Fermata is about somebody who can stop time, and he uses it to take women’s clothes off…

Oh! Yes…he masturbates on their clothes?
He masturbates, but he doesn’t do it on their clothes. My, that book got outraged reviews. People said it was violent, degrading, disgusting. It was none of those things. It was a totally harmless fantasy. And I think if a woman had written it, it would have been different. Have you ever read Natsuo Kirino?

No. You know what? Not only have I probably not read any of the books you’re mentioning, I’m probably going to get a big complex about it. 
No. Don’t worry. I’ve hardly read anything. But Natsuo Kirino, one of her books that I really like, in one of the final scenes is this guy who has been stalking her and finally gets her tied up and he’s planning to torture her and he’s cutting her and he’s raping her. And she actually responds to him. But she’s actually tricking him. She ends up killing him. And he almost likes it. She cuts his throat and he dies slowly. I don’t remember the words, but it’s almost like he says, “I love you” in the end. If a man wrote that scene, he’d be considered the equivalent of a murderer. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in public.

Well, I guess I’ll have to read that now…
It’s true, though. I think women are allowed to be much more outrageous sexually, in general, than men. What some of the male critics, who have been nasty, are responding to—and this one guy said that reading me was like being sodomized by an icy dildo—

Um, does he know what that’s like?
[Laughs] Oh, I suspect he doesn’t. Because if he did, he would never make such a ridiculous comparison. But, in a way, it’s a huge compliment, because I have never read anyone in my life who would make me feel even remotely like that. So he must think I’m some kind of badass.

What I think makes people like that uncomfortable isn’t the level of sexual detail. I think it makes them feel emotionally uncomfortable. Because they feel emotionally exposed. Lots of people write about sex very graphically.

Switching gears, you really describe the beauty and sometimes ugliness of voices. The sound of them. And you do it visually, too. Alison will describe how something looks as a sound. Are you the kind of person who can be enthralled, or just totally turned off, by the timbre of someone’s voice?
Oh yeah. I’m really, really voice responsive. When I was very young, at home, in the other room doing homework, some guy came to see one of my sisters. And I was so revolted by his voice, I could hardly bare to listen to it. And when he left I walked in the room and I said, “Who was that?” And I said, “He’s a horrible person.”

It turned out he was, actually. He had sexually molested somebody and later he made obscene calls to one of my sisters. I’m not saying I can do that all the time, but I am very voice reactive. And I can even fall in love with somebody just by the sound of their voice. I mean, I may not stay in love with them [laughs]. And it might not mean they’re a wonderful person. Although, interestingly, when I first heard my husband’s voice, I didn’t like it. But that changed. I’m not completely wedded to that impression. But it does mean something.

I read you once say that Debbie from “Secretary” was no older than eighteen. And I thought, “Wow. What an erudite, literate eighteen-year-old.”
Really, you think?

Oh yeah. That first-person narrator in that third-person universe? Totally.
It’s pretty simple, I think.

But what we can get to here is the idea of the reliability of a narrator. In Veronica, you use the first-person narrator, and you nailed the trust—the narrator was so reliable. How do you confer that trust? What advice do you give students to find that place?
I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, “Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me?”

With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.

Would you agree if I were to say that you are hard on your readers?
I don’t know [laughs]. It probably depends on the reader. I’m sure some people read my stuff and think it’s fun. And some people might think it’s boring.

Your writing? Boring?

Sure. I think Bad Behavior is boring, quite frankly. I had to read it for an audio book. I was just like, “Oh…”

For some readers it is hard. I guess I do know that for a fact. I’ve seen complaints. I’ve seen people talk about how hard it is. So it must be. But it’s not something I set out to do.

I guess we have a theme here, of conditional versus unconditional. Reading your work, I found it very hard on the reader. Not in a pejorative sense. I found it absolutely conditionally loving. It gives me everything I need, but as you once said, there is a thin line between absolute excitement and humiliation—and you thrive on that line.
I said that?

Yep.
Where?

I think in New York Times Magazine, actually.
Wow. I never read that one.

You’re tackling incredibly emotionally intense, sexually intense, illness, health, and death…
It’s true. That line.

It’s so interesting that you bring that up because a student of mine just workshopped a story; the ending is a scene in which the male character is really ashamed of his body and his girlfriend is really beautiful and she decides she wants him to pose naked for pictures. And it’s a potentially very powerful scene because it can potentially be a very horrible experience. And he’s just so uncomfortable. It would be very much a thin line. And it could be one of those things where it could be great or just really, really awful. Or both.

I’d say great and awful at the same time would be the goal, right?
Oh, yeah. For a lot of people, yeah. Because it’s the whole picture.

I think that’s what I would say about your writing. 
Well, thank you.

 

Joseph Master is the executive director of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mary Gaitskill, whose most recent book is the essay collection Somebody With a Little Hammer

(Credit: Derek Shapton)

Where the Past Begins: An Interview With Amy Tan

by

Alison Singh Gee

10.13.17

This past summer, while speaking on a panel at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, Amy Tan surprised an audience full of aspiring authors with an admission: “There are times when I think to myself, ‘I’ve lost it completely,’” she said. “‘That’s it. It’s over. I will never write again.’” She shook her head and added, “It took me eight years to write the last novel. It seems like with every novel, it gets harder and harder.”

Tan, the author of six novels, including The Joy Luck Club (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), as well as two children’s books, struggled with writing her last novel, The Valley of Amazement, first exploring one storyline for about five years, ditching much of it, and basically starting over, finally completing the book some three years later. Published by Ecco in 2013, the novel followed the odyssey of a young biracial courtesan as she searches for her American madam during the early twentieth-century in China.

As she grappled with her voice on the page, her public voice—on Facebook, notably—was becoming pointedly more personal and urgent, poking at topics that ranged from the whimsical (her beloved terriers and her latest sculptural haircuts) to the controversial (politicians she despises). In post after post on social media, Tan examined and confronted the world around her and the world within her. It was during this period that she began e-mailing with her editor, Daniel Halpern at Ecco, who she started working with on The Valley of Amazement, a little more than a decade after Faith Sales, her longtime editor at Putnam, died in 1999.

Halpern would send Tan a question, and the author would fire off a witty retort, or sometimes a very long missive. Once, for instance, Halpern asked the writer for a synopsis of her yet-to-be-written novel and Tan shot back a four-thousand-word response about why she hates writing synopses. All of these missives had a vital quality in common: spontaneity.

Buoyed by the vibrancy of their dashed-off e-mails, Tan decided to write a memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published this month by Ecco. The book collects Tan’s unguarded, free-flowing writing in response to family documents, personal photographs and journal entries she had collected throughout her life, which began in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she grew up the daughter of immigrant parents from China. The results of this personal research deeply surprised the author. In examining photographs of her grandmother and the clothing she wore, Tan discovered that her grandmother had most likely been a courtesan. In rereading letters she and her mother had exchanged before her death in 1999, the author realized they had remained close, even during the times that Tan tried to distance herself, and that her mother had felt that her daughter had truly understood her. The relationship between a mother and a daughter has formed the basis of much of Tan’s work, from The Joy Luck Club, which consists of stories about the experiences of four Chinese American mothers and their daughters, to The Bonesetter’s Daughter (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001), about an immigrant Chinese woman and her American-born daughter.

Tan, who readily admits that in writing her novels she labors over every sentence, discovered something vital about her writing process: that if she just shut out her self-conscious voice and wrote, she could capture something vital, intimate, and authentic on the page. “Writing this book was very painful,” she says. “But it was exhilarating, too.” 

I recently spoke with Tan about her approach to memoir and how this shift in process changed the way she views her fiction writing. 

You’ve written six novels, two children’s books, and one collection of essays. A memoir is a departure of sorts. Why did you decide to switch literary camps?
I would say I was lured into writing this book. It was the suggestion of my publisher, Dan Halpern, who thought I needed an in-between book—as in, between my novels. At first he thought we could put together a whole book of our e-mails. I said, “That’s a terrible idea.” But he kept insisting that it would be good. We could turn our e-mails from when we were first getting together into essays about writing. Then I looked at them and said, “This is never going to work.” And he finally agreed.

But by then this book had already been announced. And I was stuck writing it. At first I started writing something esoteric about language, but it was coming out all wrong and stiff. So I decided I was just going to write whatever comes to mind. It was going to be a memoir but it was going to be spontaneous.

But you’re known as a literary craftsperson, laboring over every sentence. How did you decide that spontaneity was the way forward?
This was one of the things I learned about creativity. You have to let go of self-consciousness. When I started thinking about this book, I knew that if I felt self-conscious while writing, it would probably come out bit by bit and it would not be as honest.

So I told Dan I would send him fifteen to twenty pages of writing every week. I imposed this crazy deadline on myself. I was just writing spontaneous sentences and not doing much in the way of revision. And this is what came out.

Throughout the writing of this book I was both excited and nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to find. It was like when you go to the circus and you’re about to see the next act. You’re looking forward to it but you’re also scared out of your mind. You’re worried that the trapeze artist is going to die. The process had a suspense to it. Even though I was writing about my life, here, I was writing about what I felt about certain experiences. There’s a difference between a narrative of facts and what happened in your life.

This was about what I felt about certain experiences and the association of that experience with another, and another beyond that. It was about who I am as an adult and reflecting on the core of these experiences.

What was your process? How did you organize the mining of these moments in your life?
I had collected all these things from my family and my own life, not ever thinking that I would write from them. I am sentimental; I have things from my high school, like my student-body card. I had like eighty boxes of this stuff in my garage. I kept them with the idea that I would one day go through them and get rid of a bunch and keep a couple of things. Then I thought, I will just pull something out of the boxes, and if it intrigues me I will write about it. So the process was: I stuck my hand in a box and what came out I wrote about.

It wasn’t as though I had it all lined up, like I wanted to write about this and this. The process was surprising, shocking. It was exhilarating, a mix of emotions. It brought about those things you get out of writing—you know, you have these epiphanies and discoveries. It was an affirmation of why we write.

How did this differ from writing your novels?
Writing fiction allows me the subterfuge of it being fiction. I can change things from real life. I can still go to an emotional core but not as intensely.

Fiction is a way to bring up emotions that I have and to get a better understanding of the situation. But I found that writing memoir brought up ten times the amount of emotion I have while writing fiction. This was truly an unexpected book. I kept telling Dan, “I hate this book.” It seems so personal, like an invasion of privacy. It’s as though I let people into my bedroom and into my darkest moments. I haven’t had time to really meditate over this as I would have liked—you know that word: process. I haven’t even had reflection time to sort out my emotions.

You seem to have lived a remarkably dramatic life and so did your mother, so did your grandmother. Your grandmother was likely a courtesan, one who committed suicide by swallowing raw opium. Your mother, in choosing to leave behind an abusive husband in China, also had to leave her daughters behind as she moved to America for a new life. And I read an article in which you mentioned that you had been sexually molested as a child, held up at gun point, experienced the death of both your father and older brother within six months of each other, and lived with a mother who threatened to kill herself on many occasions, and threatened to kill you with a cleaver on another occasion. In taking stock of this generational trajectory, did you have it in your head that you would one day make sense of all this as a writer?
Well, that’s what I was doing all along with my fiction. I was writing about things, and these moments would come up spontaneously, intuitively, naturally, as part of a narrative in which I was trying to make sense of a story.

For example, when I was writing The Joy Luck Club, I was writing to understand my mother more. But not to the extent that I did in writing this particular book—there was so much turmoil. When I examined for this memoir, in a very concentrated way, what it was like to live with my mother and her suicidal rages, it was so painful. The horror of seeing her put her leg out of a car and knowing that she might possibly die.

Is it meaningful to your memoir writing that your mother, who you’ve described as your muse, died almost two decades ago? How has that freed you to write autobiographically?
I wonder every once in a while what my mother would have thought about the things I wrote in this memoir. Would she have been upset or really happy? Would she be angry? When she was alive, anytime I wrote about her, even when I wrote terrible things, she was thrilled because it was about her. I could have written that she tried to kill me, and she would have been delighted. She’d say something like, “Now you understand how I feel.” My mother was an emotional exhibitionist.

My father, a minister, would have been wounded. In this book I wrote these things about him being sincere but shallow. He depended too much on the pat phrases of the Bible. Rather than truly feeling what somebody was going through, he wanted to solve things and be a good minister. He was so blind to what was going on in his own family. He didn’t have compassion for my little brother and me and what we might have been going through.

Was there difficult material that you left out of the book? If so, how do you feel about that decision now?
We took out about ten or twelve pieces and there was one, actually, that I debated over. Dan and I agreed that it was a little too risky. It was a letter I wrote to a minister based on having been abused when I was fifteen by their youth minister. This person I was writing to was not the minister when this happened. My point in the piece was that his church is a house of worship and it’s a continuous fellowship. I wrote that he is proud of the story of his church but he has to add this to its history. His house of worship has a stain on it.

I finally said, “We have to take this piece out. It goes off the path. It doesn’t enhance what I’m trying to write about.”

Are you happy with that decision or do you regret it?
I’m happy with the decision. Sometimes you write something and it becomes almost retribution, a desire to get even. In this memoir, I could have written about betrayal. I could have written about people who deeply wounded me, but why? I could have written about the fact that my mother went through her life feeling betrayed and that is a mark she put on me. I now have very strong feelings about betrayal and condescension. But I don’t want betrayals to be a dominant part of my life, and if I had written about them I would have given them more importance than I wanted to give them.

How did you push past your emotional blocks to include difficult information and lines of questioning?
In this book I say something about writing and honesty. And it has to do with spontaneity. If you are going to get to some emotional core and truth, you have to write spontaneously. You have to let go of that frontal lobe that says, “Oh, but my father will read this.” You can look at your writing later and say, “Oh my God, my father is going to kill me when he reads this, or he’s going to kill himself.” And then you will know what to leave in or take out. Or you wait until your father’s death. But if you start out in your writing having these concerns, maybe you are writing things that are vindictive. Or maybe you are not ready to write these scenes. Maybe you need to write them later. Maybe you need to take it from a different angle and it will come out in a different way. But I think that if you always write with compassion and understanding, then you stand a good chance of having that person understand why you are writing this. That you weren’t trying to be vindictive. Being vindictive is an automatic no.

Will you take this technique of spontaneity back to your fiction writing? How else will this foray into memoir affect your work as a novelist?
I always thought as I wrote fiction that I was making discoveries, deep discoveries. I was surprised by how much deeper these went as I was writing this memoir. How much more trouble the memories are and how much more risk I had to take to go into it.

Fiction offers us a subterfuge—I keep using this word—it’s almost similar to donning a costume when I go onstage as a ridiculous singer [as she does as a member of the literary rock band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, whose other members have included Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, and others]. If I wear the costume, I can do ridiculous singing because it’s supposed to be in the guise of a silly person.

I am much closer to who I am when I am writing fiction, but there is still a separation. I write my fiction in the first person but writing memoir is truly first person.

I wonder if, in writing fiction, I am going to be as close to the material now, as I was as writing the memoir. With fiction I will still have that protective mechanism. For my memoir I fell into this safety zone of fiction when I wrote that memory of being in the car with my mother as she threatened to commit suicide. I had to write that in the third person. At first, I wrote it in the first person and I had to take it in the third person because it was so painful. I could only get it out in the third person.

At the same time, I think that writing fiction can be very fun. It allows you to be reflective, and at the same time and there’s the art and craft of fiction that I like. So I don’t think I would ever continue to just write memoir.

You mention that you have a “messy narrative style,” that you might start a novel using one voice speaking from a particular period of time but then you shift to another voice speaking from another period of time. Does this have to do with the dual narrative you lived with your mother?
This seems to be true about every book I’ve written. I start in the present and then go into the past. I think this has to do with an interior sense that whatever is happening in one particular time has a connection to another. I’m really fascinated by what that connection might be.

It’s not always a direct connection. For example, my father was a Christian minister and very devout. That does not mean that the connection to me was that I became a Christian minister or very devout. But what it did do for me was made me question what I do believe and why. And also that I am interested in having a purpose in life, rather than a random one. 

At Squaw Valley you said something surprising—and probably very buoying to many writers—that sometimes you face a blank page and think that you have lost the ability to write another word. But then you start to write again. What’s gets you over that hump and onto writing the next page?
I sometimes have this existential dread that I will never write again. Or, I’m not a writer, or this book isn’t going anywhere. Everyone is going to be disappointed. It makes me sick. Then I just say, “Get over it, you are not the end of the world.”

I’m not a disciplined writer at all. I would never want to convey that and make other writers anxious.

What happened with this memoir is that I gave myself a self-imposed deadline—fifteen to twenty pages a week—and I allowed myself to write bad pages. That’s the thing. Allow yourself to write bad pages and just continue to write spontaneously and in that writer’s mind. Write as much as you can without self-consciousness over bad sentences. Write knowing it’s going to be imperfect—that’s important. Just press on. You might look at it later and maybe you have to throw everything away. But there might be something in there that is valuable, that you can keep.

What three or four qualities make a “literary writer”?
Ah, that’s a terrible term. It has triggered a response equal to what the word “liberals” has attracted from Trump supporters. Being a literary writer might mean that you think you’re better than everybody else, or what literary means is that you’re incomprehensible to about 90 percent of mainstream readers.

But, okay. A literary writer is serious about craft, and doing something original, writing a story that contains an important idea. Literary writing has an important theme and it comes through naturally, logically, imperatively.

What qualities make a superstar writer?
Luck. And some kind of style. There is a great deal of luck involved. You have to get recognized and read. You’re lucky if your book falls into the right hands and if it didn’t come out the day after 9/11. Beyond that, it is having established a voice that people enjoy or want to hear from and being able to provide that.

Superstar writers are not necessarily the best writers. Some have written the same book over and over again. They may have a formula that readers want. Superstar writers have that down. They can be depended upon to deliver what readers like to read. I’m not counting myself as a superstar writer, by the way.

What’s next for you?
My new book is a novel, The Memory of Desire. It’s a book that I dreamed up. The structure, the characters and the setting—they literally came to me in a dream. It is so gratifying to get the setting down. For me, it’s a major part of starting a book. But keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. 

 

Alison Singh Gee is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Hong Kong-India memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, about her comical and complicated relationship with her husband’s family palace in Northern India. She teaches creative nonfiction and literary travel writing at UCLA Extension. Find her at Facebook.com/AlisonSinghGee.

Amy Tan, whose new book is Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published by Ecco in October.

(Credit: Julian Johnson)

The Heart of the Novel: Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner

11.6.17

If you want to lose and then find yourself in stories of modern family life, look no further than the fiction of Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner. Both authors peer into the beautiful messiness of contemporary America by way of its homes: the high stakes of our daily rituals, the turmoil beneath serenity, the white lies and longings that hold it all together. Puchner is author of the beloved story collections Last Day on Earth (Scribner, 2017) and Music Through the Floor (Scribner, 2005), as well as the novel Model Home (Scribner, 2010), which won the California Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Montemarano is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Book of Why (Little, Brown, 2013) and A Fine Place (Context Books, 2002), and the short story collection If the Sky Falls (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Now he’s celebrating the release of his third novel, The Senator’s Children, published this month by Tin House Books. Centered on two sisters who have never met, it is an intimate family drama about a political scandal and the personal aftermath. Puchner read an advance copy and was enthralled. “This engrossing, brilliantly structured novel takes a familiar situation—the implosion of a presidential candidate’s career—and creates a thing of heartbreaking beauty out of it,” he writes. “By asking whether forgiveness can conquer blame, and whether we might even be able to treat strangers like family, The Senator’s Children feels like exactly the kind of novel we need.”

So Eric Puchner and Nicholas Montemarano got in touch, and what started as an e-mail exchange in the fall of 2017 turned into a literary deep-dive. The two discussed scandals and second chances, finding the heart of the novel, and blurring the personal and political.

Eric Puchner: The Senator’s Children feels like a departure for you in terms of material. One of the things I admire about it, in fact, is that you take a familiar subject, one that’s sort of ripped from the history books—the infidelity of a presidential candidate and its ramifications on his career and family—and find a brand new story to tell.  What compelled you to write about a political scandal?

Nicholas Montemarano: This novel does feel like a departure in some ways—I never expected to write about a political scandal—but in other ways, it continues a preoccupation of mine. So much of what I’ve written—I realized this only after I completed The Senator’s Children—is about families, specifically how they cope with the aftermath of tragedy. My first urge to write this novel came after listening to a late-night talk show host lampoon a politician whose career and life were falling apart. I was compelled less by the fact that this man was a politician and more that he was a public figure being mocked when privately he and his family must have been in great pain. I had an especially strong reaction to the audience’s laughter. I may have been the only person in America, for all I know, who felt sorry for this man, his wife, and his children. We like to see the mighty fall, and then we love the redemption story that often follows. But this politician—the one who was the butt of so many jokes—there wasn’t going to be a second act for him. Not a chance, not after what he did. I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of life would be like for a person who had become such a pariah.

EP: That’s another thing I admire about the book, the sympathy you show each and every character—not only David, the disgraced senator, but also “the other woman” who in some ways conspires to take David down. Was there a particular character you found hard to empathize with at first? Who was the trickiest character to write your way into?

NM: David Christie was unfaithful to his wife while he was running for president—and while she was battling cancer. Can you feel sympathy for someone who did that? Well, that was one question I set out to ask in my novel. The answer, for me, was surprisingly immediate: yes, of course. The challenge, then, was to bring out those aspects of David that might evoke empathy in readers. On the other hand, Rae, the woman with whom David has the affair—she was more of a challenge. In early drafts, she wasn’t very sympathetic. She was too interested in cashing in on the affair; she wanted to write a book about it and still hoped, years after the affair, to win over David. But she struck me as a caricature, a cultural footnote you might see on a reality TV show (in fact, I had her on a reality TV show in the first draft). So I had to dig deeper and allow her to be flawed—she can be needy and self-absorbed—but sympathetic. In her case, her saving grace is that she loves her daughter.

EP: We’ve been talking about David and the other woman, but the novel’s called The Senator’s Children. For me the emotional heart of it is the story of the two sisters, Betsy and Avery, who don’t know each other because one of them is the living proof of their father’s scandal. It’s just such a fraught, thematically rich situation. Did you know from the beginning that you would focus on David’s two daughters and their very divergent trajectories in life? And that these trajectories would eventually cross?

NM: I was just talking about this last week with my students. I showed them the pages in my notebook from 2011 when I wrote down my first thoughts about this novel. It was called The Senator. But a few weeks later, the working title became The Senator’s Daughter because I decided that its focus—and its narrator—would be Avery, the daughter born from the affair. I wrote the first paragraph—which no longer exists in the novel—and then one page later in my notes, I wrote: The Senator’s Children. I could see myself changing my mind and discovering what the heart of the novel would be. Even at that early stage, I knew who David Christie’s three children were and that his two daughters, estranged from their father to varying degrees, would collide late in the novel. I wrote pages of notes about them. It’s amazing to me that, after five years and so many drafts, much of those first notes I wrote about them remain true. Some things we know from the very beginning, and other things we have to write our way towards knowing.

EP: I wonder about that in relation to the novel’s structure. Another thing that impresses me is the way it moves so unexpectedly through time, toggling between the mid-eighties, the early nineties, 2010, and (in the final section) 1977. I found this to be the source of a lot of the book’s poignancy and power. (In some ways, it feels like the real subject of the novel is time and its irrevocability.) Was the jumping-around-in-time structure something you knew you were going to have from the beginning, or is it something that evolved during the drafting process?   

NM: I really like what you just said about time and its irrevocability—yes! If I had to choose two words that seem to capture my books thus far, they would be: time and regret. What is the life span of a terrible mistake? Can time heal even our deepest wounds? Or do those wounds fester and multiply? I’ve written three novels, and all of them move around in time. It’s difficult for me to imagine writing a novel that doesn’t; it just feels natural to me. As a reader, I’m drawn to nonlinear narratives. Many of my favorite books—The Things They Carried, Jesus’ Son, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—jump around in time. Or skip ahead, like the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Or move backwards like Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things, one of my favorite novels in recent years, includes surprising flash-forwards. Time jumps can be so powerful. We’re here, then suddenly we’ve jumped ahead, or back, and important things happen in that white space. I remember turning the page to Part Two of your novel, Model Home, and seeing that time had jumped ahead a year—even a small time jump like that excites me. I’m like, what did I miss? What happened between those two pages? The ending of The Senator’s Children, the final jump back in time—as soon as it happened, it thrilled me; I knew it was right.

EP: I want to ask you about the language in the book, which feels whittled down to its very essence—there’s a kind of spareness to it that feels evocative and hard-boiled at the same time.  Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of Babel’s dictum that “only a genius can afford two adjectives to a noun,” except that it seems to me you’ve decided to get rid of adjectives altogether. Is this ultra-spare voice something that comes easily and naturally to you? Or, like Isaac Babel, do you “go over each sentence, time and again,” taking out anything extraneous?

NM: Eventually, I had to give myself over to sparer prose. During revision, it won me over and convinced me that it would be best for the novel. The first draft was bigger, louder, stylistically and formally explosive, multiple narrators, very voice-driven. With each draft, more of that fell away. The aspects of the first draft I was most enamored with were exposed as just that—writing I was too enamored with and attached to. The revision process was one of whittling down me, so to speak. The novel couldn’t be about me being a good writer or making some interesting moves; everything had to be at the service of the story. And so with each revision the novel became quieter and more intimate. Whenever my editor and I spoke about the later drafts of the novel, we always came back to intimacy—that was the novel’s strength, she kept telling me, and I came to believe her. It’s amazing to see how much the novel changed through revision—more than any other book I’ve written.

EP: Speaking of change, the biggest change that happened between your writing of this novel and its publication was the election of Trump. You wrote the novel before Trump’s infamous Hollywood Access tape, which—unlike David’s indiscretion—didn’t end up crushing Trump’s chances at the presidency and makes the Monica Lewinski scandal seem almost quaint. Has Trump’s ascendancy changed your perspective on the novel in any way? Would you write the same book in 2017?

NM: I would. Trump, of course, has reset almost everything when it comes to politics. But families—it seems to me that they remain the same. And I really see The Senator’s Children as a family novel more than a political novel. I set David’s run for the presidency in 1991 and 1992 mostly by necessity: I needed Avery, his daughter outside his marriage, to be in college during the present narrative in 2010. But setting the political scandal twenty-five years ago turned out to be interesting. I had a chance to revisit some of the political sex scandals around that time. In the case of Gary Hart in 1987, a photograph brought down his run for the Democratic nomination. But during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to overcome allegations of infidelity and win his party’s nomination and the White House. David Christie’s fate was closer to Hart’s. Or John Edwards’s in 2008. Some readers of The Senator’s Children have told me that the political world depicted in my novel feels, in the Age of Trump, like a throwback to a more civil time. Politics, of course, has always been a rough sport—and a fascinating one. But I’m a writer more interested in the private—what happens behind closed doors when the shit hits the fan, how families cope, how people lose each other, or hold on.

Novelists Nicholas Montemarano (left), author of The Senator’s Children; and Eric Puchner.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice

by

Simon Van Booy

6.27.18

This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.  

I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.  

When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.  

Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.  

Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.  

1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.

2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.

3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs. 

4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake.  Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it. 

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Infinite Distance, or The Starry Archipelagoes

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

3.6.18

This is no. 28 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I remember being told a story when I was a student, though all these years later I wonder if it can be true. The course was in Modern Art History, and we were studying Bauhaus. My professor told us that on the first day of class, the Bauhaus teacher gave each one of his students a single sheet of paper. The assignment, he said, is to fold the paper in such a way that it can support the weight of your entire body. Some succeeded; some failed. But it is the assignment itself, the sudden and impossible challenge of it, that struck me—that one simple, blank page had to hold up the weight of your entire life. I then recognized something I’ve never recovered from, some true and awful thing about being a poet and a poet’s relationship, not to words or the beauties and meanings words offer, but to the blank space those words are written on, to the page: that one must learn to trust that its thin, near nothingness can bear the burden of a life. I realized that the poet has the simplest answer. You do not need to find the strongest method of folding, you do not need an intricate architecture of support; you just leave the page as it is and step onto the blankness.

Now I see that poetry intensifies the latent properties of the daily mundane into symbolic potency. The words on the chore list lend themselves to the desperate reverie of “Ode to a Nightingale.” A pencil makes its marks in the margins of the books I teach, and as the semester unspools day by day, and poem by poem, chapter by chapter, I sharpen the pencil and it grows shorter; I see this object of mere utility is also a mortal clock, and that the pencil’s beauty is a strange humility revealed in the seldom felt fact that it is, among all the objects I live my life among, one of the few that will disappear before I do. Walking to my Intro to Poetry course, I’ve come to realize—I hope, I fear—that the day’s lesson on some point of poetic craft is something other than what the definition in the Literary Dictionary holds, and is, instead, a complex consciousness, a vital form, a means of living a life. I know that sounds impossibly grand, but I think it’s true—that metaphor can be a philosophy, and metonymy a form of faith.

To help my students grasp such possibilities I ask them to take out a blank page of paper. The question is how to get from one corner to the opposite corner in the quickest way. The immediate reaction is to take a pencil and draw a straight line from corner to corner. But then some student figures it out and, leaving the pencil where its point stands, bends the opposite corner under its tip, letting the pencil ride across the distance without leaving a mark, for it has not “moved” at all. That is the discovery of metaphor. It helps us cross the distance we cannot imagine. And if it is as they say—those star-gazers, those physicists, those astronomers—that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, nor now is the sun, nor the Milky Way’s own black hole, but that all is in the red-shift, and flees from us in every direction at increasing speed into infinite distance, and between us and all we might love, as Emerson would have it, there is “an innavigable sea,” then metaphor becomes something other than the answer on the midterm, an implicit comparison between unlike things. It becomes a way to recognize the isolate nature of our condition, and a means of countering what otherwise could best be described as our cosmic loneliness. If the cost of the consciousness that language lends us is the inevitable sense of our separation from what it is we speak of, who it is we love, what it is we desire, then metaphor short-circuits that sad consequence and shuttles us—though we hardly feel the corner of the page slip under our feet—across the abyss of the universe. Is that hyperbole? Maybe. But sometimes the universe is just the living room. Sometimes the universe is nothing more than room A113 in Microbiology, where every Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 to 1:45 I teach my class. That doesn’t mean the distance to cross is any less. If infinity has any lesson, it’s that every part of it is also infinite: chalkboard to student’s desk; word on a page to word in a mind. 

But that’s only one way to think, only one literary term, only metaphor. There are other terms to heap your faith inside. Like metonymy, that form of substitution of a name or attribute for something closely associated with it. Think of noble Queequeg in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Royal prince, the prophets of his tribe tattooed on his body the entire epistemology of his people; his body bore the signs and symbols that held the secrets of his tribe, prophecies and histories, facts and faith. It’s a beautiful image, the body as Holy Book—of course, Queequeg left his people before those prophets could teach him how to read what on his body was written. He was himself a book he could not open, illiterate to the answers he bore, outcast from the knowledge that marked him, unrecognizable to himself by the very marks that identified him. Queequeg gets very sick. He has the carpenter make him a coffin. Instead of resting in his hammock, Queequeg gets each day into his coffin, and looking at the symbols etched on his body, carves each one onto the wooden lid. Not knowing how to get to his people’s heaven, he trusts some divine spirit will be able to read those mystic marks on the coffin itself, and take him where he most wants to go, the starry archipelagoes. I know you’ve been told the earth is round; so have I, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe Queequeg’s coffin would float out to the horizon, and there, where we assume one drops behind the curve of the earth to continue a ceaseless circumnavigation of the globe, the heavens reveal themselves as metonymic, and what seems like unbridgeable distance is actually not, but is continuous, contiguous, a near substitution for what once seemed impossibly far away, and the noble prince will find his way to heaven, not because his soul has been lifted there from the wreck of his body, but because that frigate-coffin has sailed all the way to the distant islands of those stars. Metonymy says that what seems apart is not apart at all, but is instead a part, as one tile is a part of the mosaic whole, and connected to the whole image of the world, though one can’t see the picture fully oneself.

Some other eyes can read it; some invisible hand can take you, too, to the starry archipelagoes.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Hundreds of Eyes

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.20.18

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I practice two arts—the poem and the essay—and I’m not good at keeping them apart. There are times, I admit, when poetry feels to me the primary vehicle of thinking, an epistemological experiment in consciousness itself, demonstrating line by line the way in which those wondrous wounds of the senses inform the mind, and the mind must work to find a word that fits—not recognition, but cognition. In this sense, the poem is the thinking that can happen only outside the mind, and the poet is one, so paradoxically, eavesdropping on her own innermost self (though the innermost is no longer exactly inner). It’s monstrous work. I mean it’s work akin to Mary Shelley’s monster fleeing through the woods and, bending over a puddle there, seeing the moon in reflection, hearing the wind in the branches, and seeing for the first time his own face. The poem’s thinking is fateful in just such fundamental ways: It does not recognize, it realizes.

And the essay, that mode of taking measure, that rational or reasonable weighing of a life, has become for me beauty’s own labyrinth. I suppose a maze is monstrous work, too—knowing those myths of the Minotaur. But sometimes I think the essay is a maze with no center at all; it is instead a bewildered initiation into what John Keats calls, in “Ode to Psyche,” the “untrodden region of my mind,” that place one finds only by getting lost.

Such wonderings have led me to think much on what I consider the most fundamental aspect of craft in each art: the line of the poem, the sentence of the essay. (One might argue the word is the fundamental aspect of both, and that might be true, but a word is a world of syllable and breath, of potency and chance, and carries, as Leibniz describes the monad, its complexity all within. I’m not sure I know how to think about words—a strange thing, I know, for a writer to admit.)

 

I. Lines

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I can’t remember where, wrote down a thought I’ve never been able to shake loose: “Every line of a poem must be a poem.” I find this to be awful advice, by which I mean, advice that is full of awe—awful because it is so true. I apologize to my students when I repeat it them. I fear it could so burden every moment in a poem that the poet feels paralyzed, unable to forge any path into the wild blank of the page. But maybe that is just how it should feel, just that helpless, but a helplessness mined through with some urge to make in nothingness a world entire, a poem.

Emerson’s insight has unfolded in a number of ways in my thinking about poetry. If every line of a poem is a poem itself it must mean that every single line in a poem truly written contains within it all it can say, has exhausted somehow the resource of its perception until, by the last word, there is some silence that cannot be spoken past. It means each line of the poem possesses a knowledge and vision that is, in its way, wholly revelatory—a means by which to see the world anew, a way to grow a new set of eyes. Each line is a plank upon which the mind builds its whole edifice of reason—and for the length of the line, it holds.

But then, as Emily Dickinson offers it,

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

That last stanza of her great poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” reads to me as the lived experience of reading a poem—that plunge through every line that is itself a world entire. And of the “Finished knowing—then—,” I’ve never known if it means she has ended in knowledge, or if knowing itself is at an end.

I suppose the answer may be both, for it reveals the most astonishing aspect of the line when every line is itself a poem: that each line of a poem makes a claim for some sense of the world entire, a sense of which that line is the primary example, and then that singular sense is subsumed into the larger vision of which it is but a part. Then the poem may be the place Emerson suggests it is, where we “stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.” I imagine the poem also this way: a peacock with tail outspread, and the phosphorescent circle on each feather an actual eye. The poem lets us see through every eye. Then it is, as Wallace Stevens has it, that art in which “hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.”

 

II. Sentences

Emerson’s own essays are exemplary of the next suggestion, an extension of his poetic insight: Every sentence of an essay must be an essay. It might be worth going further, and to alter Stevens’s lovely line, to make the essay that art in which “hundreds of minds, in one eye, think at once.” The bond between logos and logic that seems to drive the sentence through its argument to essay’s conclusion may be a more tenuous thread than one cares to admit. Keats knows this, as over and again he examines the fraught relationship between beauty and thought, summed up nowhere more succinctly than at the end of his letter, written in 1817, to his brothers, in which he defines negative capability. There he concludes: “This pursed through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” This obliteration of thought by beauty is something I’ve long pondered, but even more so as my own writing practice has turned to essays of lyric literary reverie and investigation. If Dickinson is right, and I think she is, that “This World is not Conclusion,” then the beautiful sentence might work to frustrate the considered logic of the essay’s larger aims, if not to obliterate them completely. I can imagine the mind as a knot trying to untie itself from within its own complexity, and though it may look from outside as if nothing’s changed, what’s inside has loosened its intricate ravel; I can see the sentences in an essay acting in just the same way.

Sometimes craft isn’t advice or technique, but simply a suggestion—a way of thinking, a method of approach. That is, craft can be revelatory of condition. When it is so, a poem teaches us what it is to think, and an essay teaches us what it is to see. We thought we’d entered into different lessons entirely when we picked up the book we’re reading, but when we put it down—whether it is essay or poem—we find both mind and eye opened. Not that it’s easy, in the end, to tell the two apart. 

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: The Craft of Humility, the Craft of Love

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.13.18

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.

But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.

For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.

It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.

 

I. The Craft of Humility

I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.

I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.

Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.

 

II. The Craft of Love

Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.

I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.

We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.

Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.

Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.

That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:

If they be two, they are two so 
As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.

Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Left Brain, Right Brain

by

Sandra Beasley

4.25.17

This is the tenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

 

***

I attended a high school geared toward professions in science or technology, so I have an active analytical streak and crave objective rubrics for understanding the wildly creative poems, stories, and essays that I read. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

One of my mentors, Gregory Orr, articulated four “temperaments” of poetry in a 1988 essay titled “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” You can envision these facets of craft as quadrants, positioned on an X-Y axis. To the left, limiting impulses: “Story” in the upper quadrant and, below it, “Structure.” To the right, impulses that extend limitlessness: “Music” in the upper and, below it, “Imagination.” Though designed for poetry, I find these temperaments useful for prose as well. As writers, we each typically favor two of the four in our work. Which temperaments bring you to the page? Which come easiest to you? Which do you need to consciously strengthen in your work?

This system gives us a way to articulate differences in aesthetic without ranking them. I’m relieved to set aside presumptive hierarchies. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Targeted Revision

by

Sandra Beasley

4.18.17

This is the ninth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.

***

“Too many hours of revising—to no clear end!” my student complains. He is tired. He feels like the poem never really gets better. There’s always more work to do.

Welcome to revision: the arbitrary realm in which we debate “the” versus “an,” “this” versus “that.” Spend an hour putting a comma in. An hour later, take it out.

Part of the problem is that we complicate the revision process by making our aims abstract. One big revision, we promise ourselves, will make the poem “better.” Don’t privilege “better,” which is a meaningless term. Assign clear and objective tasks. Devote one round of revision exclusively to heightening your imagery, another to reconsidering your verb choices, a third to playing with lineation or tense.

Think of each revision as an experiment. Often these experiments will feel like evolutionary progress, and you’ll keep their results intact. Not always, especially as you near the end of the revision process. When the new version fails to appeal—when you find yourself resisting, reverting, defending an earlier choice—you are locating the poem’s true form. You are identifying what makes this poem yours, and yours alone.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Scourge of Technology

by

Tayari Jones

1.23.18

This is the twenty-second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The cell phone is the worst thing to ever happen to literature. Seriously. So many great fictional plots hinge on one detail: The characters can’t connect. Most famous is Romeo and Juliet. If she just could have texted him, “R, I might look dead, but I’m not. Lolz,” then none of this would have happened.

In my new novel, An American Marriage, both e-mail and cell phones threatened my plot. Here is a basic overview: A young couple, Celestial and Roy, married only eighteen months, are torn apart when the husband is wrongfully incarcerated and given a twelve-year prison sentence. After five years, he is released and wants to resume his old life with her.

A good chunk of the novel is correspondence between our separated lovers. In real life, they probably would have used e-mail. But the problem, plot-wise, is that e-mail is so off-the-cuff, and there is so little time between messages. I needed to use old-fashioned letters. Their messages needed to be deep and thoughtful, and I wanted them to have some time to stew between missives. But who in their right mind (besides me) uses paper and pen when e-mail is so much faster and easier?

The fix was that Roy uses his allocated computer time in prison to write e-mail for the other inmates, for pay. As he says, “It’s a little cottage industry.” He also explains that he likes to write letters to his wife at night when no one is looking over his shoulder or rushing him. 

So look how this fix worked: You see that even though he is incarcerated, his is still a man with a plan. The challenge was to figure out how to avoid e-mail in such a way that it didn’t read like I was just trying to come up with an excuse to write a Victorian-style epistolary novel.

The cell phone was harder to navigate. Spoiler: Celestial has taken up with another man, Andre, in the five years that her husband is incarcerated. A crucial plot point, which I will not spoil, involves Andre not being able get in touch with her. Well, in the present day there is no way to not be able to reach your bae, unless your bae doesn’t want to be reached. Trouble in paradise is not on the menu for the couple at this point, so what to do? I couldn’t very well have him drop his phone in a rest-stop commode!

To get around it, I had to put Andre in a situation in which he would agree not to call Celestial or take her calls—although he really wants to. Trust me. It’s killing him. But he makes an agreement with Roy’s father, who says, “Andre, you have had two years to let Celestial know how you feel.  Give my son one day.” Andre agrees and has to rely on faith that their relationship can survive. The scene is extremely tense and adds suspense to the novel. I had to get up and walk around while I wrote it.

I predict that future novelists will not grapple with this quite as much as we do, as technological advances will be seen as a feature rather than a bug. But for now, you can still write an old-fashioned plot that doesn’t involve texting or tweeting—you just have to figure out a work-around that enhances the plot and understanding of your characters.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

 

 

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Gin and Scotch Tape

by

Sandra Beasley

5.2.17

This is the eleventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Years ago a distinguished poet hosted our class’s workshops at her home in Virginia. The house was perched on an incline; down the hill was her writing cabin alongside a pond. We met at her dining room table and tried not to be distracted by the hawks swooping outside the windows.

A student brought in a draft that compared the scent of gin to Scotch tape. Setting aside all other matters of theme or craft, the discussion lingered on this comparison. The simile was bright and original. But was it accurate? That only a few in the room had ever sampled gin, and even then only of an aristrocrat variety, did not aid our analysis.

Reaching her limit, the professor sprang up from the table. “We’re settling this,” she said. She walked into the kitchen and retrieved a roll of Scotch tape. She went to a corner of the dining room, opened a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle. She walked the gin around the table so we could sniff accordingly.

Lesson one? To compare the scents of Scotch tape and gin doesn’t quite work, because the former obscures the latter’s floral qualities.

Lesson two? Always be prepared to have your simile put to the test.

Lesson three? Never let a turn of figurative language, no matter how vivid or clever, hijack what you’re trying to say. I can’t remember who wrote that poem, or where its heart lay. I only remember the gin and Scotch tape. 

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Real Time vs. Page Time

by

Wiley Cash

9.26.17

This is the twentieth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Several years ago I worked with a student who was writing a novel about a guy training for a career in the sport of mixed martial arts. The novel was exciting and interesting, and the writing was strong and compelling. Until the fighting began. The minute the bell rang and the fists and feet started flying, the pace of the narrative turned glacial.

This may come as a surprise to you; it certainly surprised me. The talented author was actually a former MMA fighter, so it seemed impossible that he was unable to write an exciting fight scene. Then I realized that fight scenes are rarely exciting on the page. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, a fistfight is a process, and processes rarely make for compelling reading. Second, fistfights are exciting because they unfold in real time, which is wholly different than page time.

I want to talk about process first. Process is part of our daily lives, and many of the processes we undertake are performed through rote memory: brushing our teeth, making coffee, pouring cereal. These processes aren’t very interesting, and they don’t really need to be written about in detail. Readers may need to know that your characters drink coffee, eat cereal, and brush their teeth, but they don’t need to see this happening. Telling them it happened is enough. This is an example of when telling should be privileged over showing. But sometimes you may want to show a process, especially if it proves a level of expertise. Perhaps you’re writing about a character who is skilled with firearms, and you want to show that level of knowledge and skill. Perhaps you should have a scene in which the character goes through the process of breaking down and cleaning a firearm.

Most often, when readers start down the road of reading about process they’re not interested in the process itself; they’re interested in the outcome. The fight scenes in my student’s mixed martial arts novel are a good example. While the scenes were very technical and showed the same level of skill and mastery that I just mentioned, as a reader I quickly became bogged down in the descriptions of the movements, and I lost a sense of the movements themselves. I found myself skipping through the process of the fight in order to discover whether or not our hero won the fight. I realized that as a reader I was more interested in the outcome than I was in the process. The scene hinged on the result of the fight as an event, not on the act of fighting.

Not only were the fight scenes weighed down by process, they were also slowed down by the act of reading. Let’s step out of the ring. Think about the fights or dustups or schoolyard shoving matches you’ve witnessed. How long did they last before someone stepped in or called the parents or the teachers came running? Thirty seconds? A minute? A few minutes, tops? These events almost always unfold very quickly. The movements are fast; words are exchanged at a rapid clip. Your eyes and ears are able to take in the movements and the verbal exchanges simultaneously. Now, imagine trying to portray these events verbatim on the page. Think about how many words would be required to nail down both the movements and the dialogue. It would take much longer to read that scene than it would to witness it.

There’s an old writerly saying that dialogue isn’t speech, but rather an approximation of speech. Sometimes, this is true of action, especially in terms of process. 

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Active Dialogue

by

Wiley Cash

9.12.17

This is the nineteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

When I work with new writers, one thing I often notice is their lack of faith in their dialogue: They don’t trust that it’s strong enough to stand on its own. They feel that they must add something to really get the point across. These writers add action words to their dialogue tags in an attempt to hide any flaws they fear may be hiding in their characters’ verbal interactions. In other words, they do everything they can to make certain that the reader gets the full import of what the characters are attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to communicate.

Often, and unfortunately, these action words take the form of gerunds. Let me follow this with a caveat: Gerunds in dialogue tags are not always a bad thing if they’re used purposefully and sparingly. I use them. Other writers I admire use them. But if I’ve used a gerund in a dialogue tag then I can defend it because I’ve already spent a good deal of time trying to consider whether or not to use it.

The gerunds in dialogue tags that bother me are the ones that are clearly there to underpin weakness in the dialogue. This happens when writers feel they need an action to complement a line of dialogue. Here’s an example:

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders.

Let’s add an adverb and make that gerund really awful.

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders nervously.

The writer (in this case, me) felt the need to add that gerund (and perhaps the adjective as well) because the dialogue itself was pretty weak. “What do you mean?” is a boring question. Anyone can ask this, but your character can’t just be anyone. He has to be a particular person with particular turns of phrase and particular movements (what are often called “beats” in dialogue) to flesh out what he means.

Let’s give it another try, and this time let’s write a better line of dialogue that essentially says the same thing as our original, just more clearly.

“What am I supposed to say to that?” He shrugged his shoulders. “What does that even mean?”

I tinkered a little with the original line and split it into two, but I divided the two lines with the beat of action. I feel like my two lines are pretty strong, and they seem particular to this person, whoever he is. Because my dialogue is strong, it doesn’t need the support of action. So my action can stand alone.

The action also does something the dialogue cannot do. It illustrates visually what the dialogue means verbally. The phrase “What am I supposed to say to that?” is a phrase of exasperation, so the action takes this a step further and shows exasperation. The follow-up question of “What does that even mean?” amplifies both the original question and the action.

If I had kept the gerund shrugging it would have combined the dialogue and the action, which crowds the reader’s mind in asking her or him to do two things at once: see and hear. Let’s focus on asking one thing of our reader at a time. The act of reading is not the act of movie watching, which often requires viewers both to see and hear at the same time. Literature and film cannot do the same things in the same ways.

The gerund shrugging is also a weak action word because it does not have a clearly demarcated time of beginning. How long has this guy been shrugging? After all, we enter the word “shrugging,” and presumably the dialogue, as the shrugging is already under way. On the other hand, when we read the line “He shrugged his shoulders” we are entering the action at the moment it begins. It has not been unfold-ing since an indeterminate moment in time. The action feels particular, as if it is caused by the line of dialogue that precedes it. It gives us a chance both to digest the dialogue and imagine the action. It does not ask us to do both at the same time with the confusion of wondering when the shrugging actually began. This is deliberate writing. We should all be deliberate writers.

I want to close with a few lines of dialogue from my upcoming novel, The Last Ballad. In this scene, a man has just come up a riverbank and met a small boy standing at a crossroad. The boy is staring down into a ditch where his injured dog is lying. The man asks the boy where they are.

The boy lifted his eyes from the ditch and looked around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” the boy finally said.

“Gaston,” he repeated. He looked down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

The boy shrugged.

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here.’”

I worked really hard on this scene. I wanted it to communicate an edge of laconic strangeness. The boy’s poverty has rendered him a bit provincial. The man’s travels have rendered him a bit wistful. I purposefully separated the actions from the lines of dialogue and cordoned them off in their own sentences.

But what if I’d used gerunds?

“Gaston,” the boy finally said, lifting his eyes from the ditch and looking around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” he repeated, looking down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here,’” the boy said, shrugging.

Written this way, the scene unfolds too quickly. The boy gives his answer about their location before getting his bearings. The man’s quizzical repetition of the word “Gaston” is marred by his deliberate action of looking down at the boy. The words and the actions do not go together. They must be separated and addresses and experienced on their own terms.

My advice is this: Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it.

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Rhyme and the Delay in Time

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.27.18

This is no. 27 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It snowed last night. Not much. Just an inch or two. But this morning there’s a strange fog in the air. It isn’t like a spring fog, thick in the vision, obscuring the trees and houses across the small field. It must be frozen crystals in the air, some breath the dormant grass gathered and sighed out, or the wedding dress a cloud took off and let drop down to the ground—a dress that is no more than texture in the air. It faintly glows, like it’s holding light inside of it, like it’s slowing light down. It’s morning when I get to see what it is to see.

I’d also like to hear what it is to hear, to listen in on listening.

Over the course of many years of working on the page as best I could, reading wherever it was bliss took me, writing to catch up to those glimmers other poems taught me to see by, I began to distrust that divide I grew up being schooled in: tradition vs. experiment, conservative or “quiet” poetry vs. the avant-garde. Reading George Herbert, John Donne, and John Keats; reading Emily Dickinson, Sappho, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; reading Homer, Virgil, and the Greek pastoral traditions; reading anonymous poems for graves and for fields—all made me think that tradition might root itself down in the very humus of experiment. And, as humus and human are cognate, I began to suspect that the age-old tropes by which poetry functions—image, metaphor, metonymy, symbol; line, meter, music, rhyme—radically include us in that tradition of experiment that poetry might be described as. Trope, after all, comes from the Greek tropos, and means a turn, direction, a course, a way; but it also means the character of a person, the peculiar temper that makes one who one is; it also means the way the strong wind might move through a pine tree; it also means the way a winter morning’s fog might pause even the speed of light. I mean to suggest a simple thing, though I’ve learned the simple is often bewilderment’s own maze, that the tropes by which a poem moves through itself are not the musty pedantries of literary dictionaries, but are themselves fundamental forms of consciousness, the very means by which a poem comes to know itself, and by extension, the very means by which we come to know ourselves as well. The trope can wake us in the way the eye open wakes us—suddenly, there is light, and the first step of the day is into vision: an image. Or, take rhyme: Rhyme can make of the mind a wind-chime. 

I have no verifiable proof, just a sense from twenty years of teaching, more of reading and writing, that rhyme has become one of those aspects of tradition most easily derided. I can understand how it happened. Teaching now a lower-level poetry-writing workshop, I notice how often the weakest poems are strongest in rhyme, and the first advice, to not let the end sound of the line drive everything the line must do, inevitably makes the poem better. One of the unintended consequences of the workshop model may well be a drift away from the power of traditional tropes. The pressure put upon a single poem to achieve itself most successfully diminishes the larger work of thinking about what the work of poetry is—a work that requires the very failures, poem by poem, that necessitate thinking across the entire span of one’s efforts. The push, or the desire, to be “original,” to have a “voice,” to “make it new,” might deafen us to the latent, collective, anonymous consciousness that resides in something as simple-seeming as rhyme. There is something in rhyme—I think I can hear it, though it’s hard to describe—that speaks to the ongoing crisis of the human condition from the dawn of mind to now. It’s like an echo. But unlike that echo in stairwell or tunnel, in cave or gorge, it doesn’t get quieter as it moves through time. In rhyme, the echo gets louder.

So it is I often rhyme my poems, though it might not be obvious. I’ve come to trust there’s something in the ear’s own intelligence that leaps ahead of the conscious, analytic mind in a poem that rhymes, as if the hidden promise of a chiming sound sets forth in the poem a fate-like assurance that what is to come, though yet unseen, will welcome you. So quietly, but so familiarly, rhyme suggests that to move forward, as one must, into what one doesn’t know, will be okay. If so, rhyme offers itself as some form of existential assurance, is tuned in, and so attunes us, to fears and hopes so entwined with the human condition, we forget we even need to speak of them: that in what feels to be the chaos of the blank future, there is a cosmos, an order, into which we’ll fit. It is not exactly a means of survival, but a trust one will survive.

Rhyme also works within and against time. I can imagine in a poem heavily end-rhymed—say a Petrarchan sonnet with its octave of ABBAABBA, or Dante’s lovely, enveloping terza rima of ABA BCB CDC—that the surety of those sounds counters the awful, inevitable flow of mortal life in one direction. Then the poem that makes its claims about love’s immortality, or memory’s eternity, is no cloying euphemism, but an enacted audacity in the poem’s very fiber. That rhyme works as does mythic time, returning us ever again to a point we’ve never truly left—the day that is all one day, world’s onset, the syllable now, sun’s instant of light—even as, line by line, we recognize too that we do not get to remain in that golden light of origin. We can hear in the poem that mythic life of eternal return, and in hearing it, live within it, even as the poem accompanies us in that other recognition, that line by line we move to what end is ours. Rhyme puts a delay in time. It makes us understand what otherwise would feel an impossible paradox: that we live in time, and time doesn’t exist. And though I’m not exactly a religious man, it gives me one version of how heaven could work. It’s just a poem, just a rhyme, a single-syllable that, scanned, has no stress and rhymes AAAAAAAA…forever.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).           

Craft Capsule: The Craft of Humility, the Craft of Love

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.13.18

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.

But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.

For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.

It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.

 

I. The Craft of Humility

I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.

I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.

Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.

 

II. The Craft of Love

Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.

I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.

We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.

Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.

Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.

That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:

If they be two, they are two so 
As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.

Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Every Novel Is a Journey

by

Tayari Jones

2.6.18

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Last week I wrote about how I came to make Roy the protagonist of my new novel, An American Marriage. The decision was frustrating because I came to this tale seeking to amplify the muffled voices of women who live on the margins of the crisis of mass incarceration. So imagine how hard it was for me to make the Roy’s story the main color of the take and relegate Celestial’s point of view to a mere accent wall. It nearly killed me. I was prepared to pull the novel from publication.

Luckily, I had a craft epiphany.

Roy is a great character. He’s like Odysseus, a brave and charismatic man returned home from a might battle. He just wants to get home and be taken care of by a loving wife and sheltered in a gracious house. His voice was very easy to write because he is easy to like; his desires and decisions make it easy to empathize with him. He is a wrongfully incarcerated black man. What decent person wouldn’t root for him?

Celestial was bit more challenging. She’s ambitious. She’s kind of stubborn. And most important, she isn’t really cut out to be a dutiful wife. Back when she was the protagonist of the novel, I used to say, “I am writing a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated…” and everyone would expect the novel to be about her fight to free him. And it wasn’t. It was about her decision not to wait.

On the level of craft, it just didn’t work. For one thing, you can’t write a compelling novel about what someone doesn’t do. (There is a reason why Bartelby doesn’t get to narrate his own story.) Second, as I wrote last week, Roy’s crisis is just too intense and distracting for the reader to care about any other character as much.

So, what to do?

I foregrounded Roy. He is the protagonist and readers find him to be very “relatable” (my very least favorite word in the world). I took Roy on the journey, and I invite readers to accompany him. As the writer, I came to the table understanding that the expectations put on women to be “ride or die” are completely unreasonable; furthermore, there is no expectation of reciprocity.  But rather than use Celestial’s voice to amplify my position, I allowed Roy the hard work of interrogating his world view, and the reader, by proxy, must do the same.

The result is a novel that was a lot harder to write, but the questions I posed to myself and my readers were richer, more complex, and I hope, more satisfying.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Finding the Center

by

Tayari Jones

1.30.18

This is the twenty-third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

My new novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit.

I was equally interested in both their stories, but for some reason early readers of the manuscript were way more interested in him (Roy) than her (Celestial.) At first, I was convinced that this was sexism, plain and simple. Men’s stories are considered more compelling. To try and make Celestial more appealing, I tried to give her a more vibrant personality. But regardless of the details I added to embroider her, beta readers still felt that she was “undeveloped” and that Roy was the character who popped. It almost drove me crazy. Finally, I realized that Roy held the readers’ attention because his problem was so huge. (He’s wrongfully incarcerated, for goodness sake!)

Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted), I read stories by my favorite women writers who write beautifully about women’s inner lives. I checked out Amy Bloom, Antonia Nelson, Jennifer Egan. How did they manage to make emotional turmoil so visceral? In these writers’ hands, a small social slight can feel like a dagger. Why couldn’t I do this in my own novel?

I found the answer in the work of Toni Morrison, for all answers can be found there. It’s a matter of scale. There is a scene in The Bluest Eye where the lady of the house is distraught because her brother hasn’t invited her to his party, although she sent him to dental school. By itself, this is terrible and totally worthy of a story. However, in the same frame is Pauline, the maid who has suffered all manner of indignities in an earlier chapter. In the face of Pauline’s troubles, the matter of the party seems frivolous.

With this, I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story. Although Celestial’s challenges as a woman trying to establish herself in the world of art is intense, the fact of Roy’s wrongful incarceration makes her troubles seem like high-class problems and to center them in the novel feels distasteful to the reader, like wearing a yellow dress to a funeral and fretting over a scuffed shoe.

The solution: I made Roy the protagonist. Celestial’s voice is still there, but she is a secondary narrator. It was a hard choice because I was drawn to her story in the first place, but it was being drowned out by Roy’s narrative. Finally, I had to stop fighting it. The protagonist of An American Marriage is Roy Othaniel Hamilton.

It took me five years to figure this out. Of course, every craft solution makes for new craft obstacles. I’ll talk about the fall-out from this shift in my next (and final) Craft Capsule, next Tuesday.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Writing “After”

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.16.19

This is no. 43 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The day after the 2015 AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, another poet—seemingly out of nowhere—sent me a poem by Mary Oliver. They said it was because, when they read it out loud, the voice they made (or tried to make) was mine. Instantly I loved the poem, “October,” and I told them so. Still, because “October” made its way to me the day after terrible news, it also unsettled me. It moved me, but at the same time I felt the need to move against it. 

As in many Mary Oliver poems, the speaker attends to the natural world and her place in it. She asks, “What does the world / mean to you if you can’t trust it / to go on shining when you’re // not there?” By the end of the poem, it’s clear that the speaker has decided, at least for now, that in order to truly love the world, she has to be reconciled to the fact, the beautiful fact, that it will (that it ought to) go on without her. That the world will not at all be diminished by her not being there to witness it. The poem ends: “so this is the world. / I’m not in it. / It is beautiful.” 

The speaker of the poem wrestles with her own attachments to herself. She is trying to let go of her importance, to get out of the way. But by addressing a “you”—presumably a reader—in the poem, she makes an argument that extends beyond herself; she stakes out an ethical position. Most days it’s one I would agree with. Most days I would have left the poem unbothered. But on that day after the shooting, feeling acutely all of the ways in which the people I call mine are told they do not have a claim on the world in the first place—are dispossessed, are rubbed out—Oliver’s call for self-diminishment felt plainly, profoundly wrong. I wanted to see what would happen, therefore, if I used the structure of Oliver’s poem but turned the argument against itself. This experiment resulted in “Bad News, Again,” a poem that rewrites “October” but asks the first, urgent question embedded in Oliver’s longer one: “What does the world mean / if you can’t trust it to go on?” 

A handful of the poems in my new collection, Dispatch, perform similar experiments, insofar as they try to redirect contemporary poems I love to different ends. As a result I feel very anxious about the new iterations of old conversations about plagiarism, theft, and ‘after’ poems that have surfaced online in the past few years. Anxious, in part, because I did not have a developed sense of the ethics of such a practice when I first took it up. I still don’t. However, these conversations often seem to miss that there are multiple reasons one might “steal” or “borrow” or “deface” another’s work. There seems to be an assumption that the only potentially defensible motive for imitating another’s work is a sense of uncomplicated admiration. But when is admiration ever uncomplicated? What if, for example, you suspect the work you admire does not respect you, or cannot conceive of you? What if your admiration is not only enabling but also deeply injurious? What if, in this case, theft and/or defacement might be an ethical response? 

In an oft-cited passage from The Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot insists: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In my defense, I do not think that I have written a better poem than Mary Oliver, not by any measure, but the point was to make her work consider me. It seems to me that is what love demands.  

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Ordering the Story Collection

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.22.19

This is no. 38 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I always read short story collections in order. Maybe this is because my earliest infatuations happened via mix tape (and by mix tape, I mean a CD that I burned or that someone burned for me, with songs meant to convey something deep and unspeakable). Unlike with a cassette, one could, in theory, set the CD player to random, but this would break an unspoken rule. The point was to put on your headphones, lie on your bed, and think about the person who made the mix for you. You’d hold the handwritten track list and listen to the songs in their intended order, so you could figure out what this person was trying to say. You paid close attention to the lyrics, the tone, the transitions. A successful mix tape meant never forgetting about the “author.” How exactly did they feel about you? Did you feel the same way? Maybe you hadn’t before, but now, alone in your room with all those perfectly chosen songs, maybe you were charmed. 

Assembling a short story collection is a daunting process: Often the individual pieces have been written as unique, standalone works, edited by staff with varying aesthetics at different literary journals, and published over a span of years. The earliest version of my collection, Black Light, wasn’t really a collection—it was just a bunch of stories I wrote and published between 2005 and 2017. It took my terrific agent to help me see that one of the stories was actually the beginning of a novel, that two others needed to be combined into a longer piece, and that one story had a voice too abstract and confrontational to fit in with the rest. Once these decisions were made, the stories that we kept had a kind of reverberation with each other. A musicality.

In an informal poll, my friends who read collections tell me they don’t read in order. They start with the shortest story, or the title story, or they read in reverse order or at random. This is all fine—unless the stories are linked, order shouldn’t make or break a collection—but when I was putting Black Light together, sequence became very important to me. I love the way my favorite collections bend time, pull me in and out of different worlds, immerse me in a situation for thirty pages and then toss me out. 

I had three very long stories and three very short ones and half a dozen in between. I liked the idea of giving moments of reprieve, little spaces to breathe, so flash pieces often came after the longest ones. Everybody knows how important the first track of a mix tape is, and I wanted to start my collection with my most affable narrator. In the story “Guts,” Sheila is bewildered by new circumstance: She’s recently fallen for a medical student, and suddenly she sees sickness and beauty everywhere she looks. This newfound empathy overwhelms her, and in that way she’s a great proxy for a reader entering the strange world of the collection. All my stories deal with similar themes—game playing, escapism, desire—but I had strong ideas about how to move through the different voices of the remaining narrators (urban and rural, child and adult, male and female, queer and straight) in a way that felt balanced and varied to me.

On the first call with my editor, before we’d even made a deal, she talked about her vision for the collection. She liked the order, the way the stories “sang” to one another. She compared her favorite collections to music: She wanted this book to feel cohesive and unified, but never repetitive. Like a perfect mix tape, she said, a book of short stories should make the reader fall in love. I knew then that I’d found the right person for my project.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Elegy

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.23.19

This is no. 44 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Elegies speak to both [the living and the dead], forced to negotiate the impossible ethical demands of a genre that strives neither to disrespect the memory of the dead nor to ignore the needs of the living.

Diana Fuss

Each November, for nearly a decade, I have written a poem marking Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual day of mourning for trans people lost to anti-trans violence. These poems are almost uniformly bad, but the most recent one, “Anti-Elegy,” made its way into Dispatch. I hope it will be the last of them. 

I find this occasional writing practice a confusing one—shameful, consoling, deadening, and, somehow, like feeding a tiny fire. From the beginning, I have known all of the critiques of TDoR: It has historically enabled white activists to extract political capital from the deaths of primarily Black trans women; the frame of “anti-trans” violence obscures more than it explains about the curtailing of trans feminine life; TDoR circulates “the trans woman of color” as a dead figure and therefore strips her of her life, her worlds. Still, it also is true that I came to understand trans as something it was possible for me to be when my high school’s tiny gay-straight alliance erected cardboard tombstones in the hallway to mark those trans women who had been lost. Trans became an intimate possibility in reference to strangers’ deaths. For this reason, trans has always felt, to me, entangled with elegy. 

The classic elegy—at least as I understand it—has a three-part structure: lament, praise, consolation. First you express deep sorrow over someone’s passing; then you praise their life, usually in idealized terms; then you provide some consolation for the living. Poets and scholars have long debated the ethics of elegy—whether an elegy can ever provide the consolation it promises, whether and under what circumstances we ought to make use of the dead, whether mourning enables or precludes political action. The answer to each of these questions is, of course, it depends. Still, there were two sentences from Diana Fuss’s Dying Modern: A Meditation on Modern Elegy on my mind the November I wrote “Anti-Elegy,” sentences that prompted me to return to my own questions about for whom and to what ends the elegy works. In the first, Fuss argues that the effect of elegy is “not merely to recognize the dead but also to bring them back to life.” In the second, she affirms R. Clifton Spargo’s claim that “ethics and elegy…both typically view every death as an injustice.” 

TDoR, too, is structured by these general claims: that it is important to keep the memory of individuals alive—to keep them with us—and that each entry on the list of the dead is an injustice. Undoubtedly each death on the list is the outcome of an injustice, but I’ve become increasingly suspicious of the idea that death itself is unjust. Often what is unjust is everything that preceded the end. What is unjust is the terms of living. There is something deeply unsettling, that is, to the insistence that someone ought to be alive in a world that did little to support that life. There is something deeply unsettling, therefore, about Fuss’s characterization of the elegy as a genre that strives to reanimate the dead, to bring them back. 

I find “Anti-Elegy,” as the product of these reflections, to be unsettling; its questioning of the elegy inevitably involves questioning the terms by which I came to understand myself as trans, by which I came to understand myself. Perhaps for this reason “Anti-Elegy” is formally an unsettled poem; it asks question after question and does not ever arrive at answers: “Who am I to say rise?…who am I to say, dance // with me here a little longer?” Driving this accumulation of questions is another question just beneath the surface—the poem is really asking, over and over, Should this poem exist? Should this poem exist? It depends. But this is, for all of us, an important question to ask of our work before we put it into the world. 

If we’re lucky, one poem leads us to the next. In this case, “Anti-Elegy” led me to write “All My Friends Are Sad & Bright,” a poem that is technically an elegy, but which leaves the dead in peace. Certainly this isn’t an answer to the “impossible ethical demands” of elegy, but there is something to be said for a poetics of trans/Black/queer life that takes death as its impetus, but not its object, that mourns but also (and because of this) hopes. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: In Praise of Writing in Longhand

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.29.19

This is no. 39 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

This sounds made up, but in my high school you could substitute a typing class for gym. As a bookish, lazy teenager, this was perfect for me. The class was called Fundamentals of Keyboarding, and we spent all semester doing home-key practices and speed drills. Near the end of each session the teacher would hand us some random page of text—it might be instructions for building a birdhouse or a page of a novel—and it was our job to type it, print it, and staple it to the original. I wasn’t great at a lot of things in high school, but I turned out to be a terrifically fast typist who rarely made mistakes; I loved holding the papers up to the light, seeing my words perfectly overlap with those on the handout. 

As an exercise in my first fiction workshop, the professor asked us to type a short story by our favorite writer. The idea was to feel the words come through our fingers, to pound out the rhythm of those admirable sentences ourselves. I still find typing immensely satisfying—it’s relaxing, almost a form of meditation. I like the mechanics of it, the way each letter translates to a physical movement, to a clicking sound, to a shape on the screen. I also have terrible handwriting. It’s barely legible and embarrassing, like someone has dared me to use my non-dominant hand. 

When I’m writing fiction, I’m typing on my laptop into a document, using the features meant to make things easy: cut, copy and paste, backspace. It’s convenient, it’s fast, and it’s the preferred method for most of the writers I know. I do a lot of pre-work in my head, by sound, so by the time I sit down to write, I have at least a few sentences ready. In the completely new sections, I’ll get into a flow, typing as fast as I can think, then doubling back and reading each sentence aloud. I’m constantly making changes as I go: correcting errors, substituting or cutting words, shifting whole sections around on the page.

But every once in a while I’ll get stuck, hung up on some fundamental, propulsive element of the story, like I’ve reached the end of the thread. Maybe I’m insecure about what comes next, paralyzed by doubt. Or maybe there’s a problem with a sentence I can’t work out on the screen, something tangled about the rhythm or syntax. As much as I hate it, the best thing I can do in this situation is pull the problem out of the computer and write it down.

All the usual disadvantages of writing in longhand become advantages: It’s slow, it requires more mechanical effort, the words must come in order with no easy erasures. I also have rules for myself: no crossing things out or moving/inserting words. If what I’ve written is wrong, I have to skip a line and write it again. If I realize halfway through a paragraph that a sentence belongs at some earlier point, I start the whole section over. When I’m writing things down, I press too hard and my hand cramps, so I have to take frequent breaks. This slow-building repetition lets me see the work differently. Writing in longhand is also uniquely tactile—there’s the feeling of the pen in my grip, my hand drifting across the page. I’m forcing my brain and body to connect with the story in a new way. 

Once I solve the problem, I’m eager to open the document on my computer. I’ll type in the revised section and move on, fast at the keyboard, back to the easy rhythm and familiar feel, until, inevitably, I come to the next snag. 

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: A Form of Salvation

by

Simon Van Booy

6.20.18

This is no. 31 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you start thinking creatively, it’s like releasing a live animal—a new species of mischief that cannot be contained to just one area of your life. Creativity is not like a machine that can be switched on and off. And therefore it does not end when you stand up from your desk after a few solid hours of work.

Ever wondered why you feel the urge to roller skate through a shopping mall listening to Abba? Leave strange notes on the doorsteps of strangers? Eat apples standing up in the bath, naked, with the window open?

Now you know. Creativity is a form of salvation.  

If we could limit creativity to just one area of our lives—how would we ever manage to convince ourselves to climb back in the rocket, and blast off again and again and again, to those distant galaxies of unwritten narrative? 

And stop worrying about getting published. You write because you’re obsessed with telling a story in a way that no one else can. Focus on that. Only that. Everything else will take care of itself.  And, please, for my sake—don’t ever think buying a plastic skeleton from a medical supply store then holding it up to the window when people walk past is a waste of time.  

Being a writer means opening your whole life to creativity. It is a commitment to overpowering fear with imagination and compassion for yourself, as well as others. As a person who writes you’ll be a better mother, son, best friend, aunt, cousin, coach, or bank teller. Because learning to write is learning to see, and striving to see beyond is perhaps the only hope for our species.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Minor Characters

by

Carter Sickels

4.27.20

This is no. 58 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Families, however troubled, have their own unique way of functioning, like a single organism that holds its secrets, memories, habits, and narratives close. In my new novel, The Prettiest Star, the central story is about the Jacksons, who are learning to be with one another again after twenty-four-year-old Brian, who has recently found out he is HIV-positive, returns home after six years away in New York City. I wanted the novel—which is told from the perspectives of Brian, his younger sister, and his mother—to wrestle with internal family dynamics, but I quickly realized, in order to understand the Jacksons individually and as a family, I also needed them to engage with characters outside their immediate circle. 

Early on, I sent Brian’s younger sister, fourteen-year-old Jess, to the public swimming pool with a couple girls on her softball team. I had to get her away from her parents, brother, and relatives in order to understand how much the family secrets weigh on every moment of her life, but also to see Jess with more clarity—what makes her tick, what is she like? At the swimming pool, Jess feels both bored and uncomfortable around her teammates, who are only interested in impressing boys. When a couple of boys approach the girls, the scene also reveals a spark of resistance and sass in Jess I didn’t know she had. These minor characters brought tension and texture to the narrative, but also gave me insight into one of my major characters.

Sometimes, minor characters develop into key players—perhaps not quite major characters, but close. When Nick Marshall showed up in my novel, he was a minor character who quickly grew into one of my favorites and earned more time on the playing field. Nick is an outsider—a loner, a hood. He’s from a poor family, his parents are divorced, he smokes and drinks beer, and he’s a talented artist. Nick engages Jess outside of the sealed family, where she forms another life. When she’s with Nick, she shows a side of herself her family doesn’t see: rebellious, talkative, and flirtatious. Jess and Nick discuss death, dreams, disappointments. Without Nick, not only would major plot points vanish, but also Jess’s complexities and layers would recede. And in order for Nick to be believable, I had to spend time with him, I had to develop him the same way I did the central characters—figuring out his background, his personality and hobbies, his dreams and fears and joys.

Not all characters must change, and in fact, many of them won’t. But they still demand attention and need to be written with specificity and precision. Maybe readers will only catch a glimpse of their true depths because in this particular novel, these minor characters exist in order to reveal another facet of the protagonist, advance the narrative, or build tension—but we also sense they are complex, mysterious beings who could easily walk out of the pages of this book into a different one that tells their story, in which they are the stars. 

I tell my students to make their characters talk to and mingle with one other—don’t let your characters exist in a vacuum. If you’re stuck, or need a different way of looking at your story, bring in a cranky neighbor, an old flame, a great-aunt, a salesman, a bad date. How does your protagonist engage with this person? What do they say, what do they think? What’s their body language? Often it’s the minor characters who reveal something unexpected and surprising about the central characters, and sometimes, these minor figures catch the light in way that makes you want to listen closer, to follow them home and learn more.

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Joel Filipe

Craft Capsule: Catalogues, Cetaceans, and Casey Kasem

by

Carter Sickels

4.20.20

This is no. 57 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

My second novel, The Prettiest Star, examines America during the time of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when the U.S. government, churches, schools, and families turned their backs on gay men who were dying. I was a young teenager during that time. I remember Ryan White on TV, the jokes at school, the rampant homophobia. For my research I read many books, newspapers, magazines, oral histories. I watched feature films and documentaries. I talked to friends. Much of the research was difficult and heavy and sad. 

But I also needed to study and compile those seemingly more frivolous details that are actually crucial to capturing a specific time and place: the clothes, music, movies, hairstyles, and so on. My personal memories of the 1980s helped, but for inspiration, accuracy, and veracity, I knew I had to explore a variety of archives to lead me into the past.   

If you grew up in the 1980s, you may remember the JCPenney and Sears catalogues. The size of phone books, they arrived in the mail with each new season. The most important was the Christmas catalogue; when I was a kid, I pored over the newspaper-print pages of toys and wrote up a detailed list for Santa. My parents had thrown out our copies years ago, so I ordered a few from eBay. When the catalogues arrived, they smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. One of them featured model Cheryl Tiegs wearing a safari-style jumpsuit and cuddling with a Bengal tiger kitten. The catalogues made excellent coffee table books—my guests flipped nostalgically through the pages, laughing at the absurdity. 

There were pages and pages of fashion: watches with bright bands, women posing in leotards and leg warmers, very serious men in silk pajamas. I studied the clothes and shoes my characters would wear, hairstyles. I learned the cost of things: men’s warm-up suit, $37.99; sheepskin car-seat cover, $99.99; answering machine, $179.00. The pictures helped me design my characters’ homes, too: the heavy peach drapes, the harvest-gold oven. Which objects would show up in my characters’ rooms and closets? One of my narrators, Jess, who’s fourteen, wears a Walkman to escape family tension and secrecy. I remembered the art of making mixed tapes, the sound of the rewinding cassette, the feeling of the foam on my ears. 

At antique and secondhand stores, I hunted for old magazines and found copies of TV Guide, People, and Life. Online research opened up a world of music videos and TV commercials, sound bites from Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40, and eighties photographs of malls, SeaWorld, and high schools. On a wall in my office, I hung a picture of a tape store at a mall next to a found photo of an old woman in her kitchen, which reminded me of one of my characters. Along with all the found photos, I hung xeroxes of Nan Goldin’s brilliant photographs documenting the queer and artist community of 1980s New York—all the pain and loss, and love; Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of queer life and the West Side Piers in the seventies and eighties; and William Yang’s heartbreaking portraits of gay, HIV-positive men. And, because Jess loves whales, I tacked images of orcas that I’d cut out of the issue of National Geographic she would have read in 1984. 

It’s easy to get lost in the writing. I enjoy the hours and hours of research and immersing myself in the world of the novel. For me, the pictures on the walls and photographs and catalogues create a collage of visual reminders, a kind of map that inspires me to step inside. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Daniel Schludi

Craft Capsule: Multiple Points of View

by

Carter Sickels

4.13.20

This is no. 56 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, The Poisonwood Diaries by Barbara Kingsolver, The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson, People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman, There There by Tommy Orange. All of these wonderful novels use multiple points of view and weave a tapestry of voices, with each character relaying their own version of the story to tell a broader narrative of family, place, or community.

My novel The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, follows Brian Jackson, a young, gay, HIV-positive man, who leaves New York City to return to the rural small town where he grew up and where his family still lives. When I first started writing, I wrote from the point of view of Jess, Brian’s fourteen-year-old sister, about the day Brian returns. Then I wrote sections from Brian’s perspective: What was it like to come back to the home he couldn’t wait to escape? A few months in I wrote a chapter from their mother Sharon’s perspective and suddenly realized I would need all three voices to tell this story of shame, secrets, and silences, and the complicated ties of familial love and betrayal. Writing from Sharon’s point of view gave me another angle into the story—a complicated, troubling one. Sharon is the voice of restraint and denial. She loves her son, but her worry about what neighbors and God will think get in the way.

Despite its reputation, first-person point of view is not easy to pull off. My first creative writing teacher, the brilliant Eve Shelnutt, had very strong opinions about writing, and she warned me to not even try first-person narration until I’d written at least twenty or thirty stories in third person. First-person narration seems easy to write because when it’s done well, the voice sounds intimate and authentic—we believe. But as the writer, you’re making particular choices about diction, syntax, and rhythm, so that you create a voice that sounds natural, but isn’t, most likely, exactly how that character would talk. 

Juggling multiple first-person narrators created another challenge: The individual voices must sound unique and separate, yet their differences should not be so obvious that they draw attention to the artifice of first person. For my three characters, in addition to trying to capture their voices through word choices and syntax, I paid attention to their interior lives: How do they think and feel, how do they view the world, and what is important to them? Their emotional timbre and interiority led me to their voices: Sharon’s denial, Jess’s youthful savviness, and Brian’s hurt, fear, and anger. Brian is the anchor of the novel, and his sections were the most difficult to write. A couple years into the process, I figured out that if I framed Brian’s sections as video diaries—he uses a video camera to document his last summer, and directly addresses the viewer/reader about his experiences as a queer man living during the AIDS epidemic—I could set his chapters apart, and reveal him at his most vulnerable, artistic, and honest. Moreover, the dated video diaries serve as a ticking clock; like so many young gay men, Brian will not survive this plague, but he wants to bear witness and document for posterity.

Alternating between characters chapter by chapter also informed my approach to the writing process. Some days, I switched between characters—an hour with Jess, then an hour with Brian. This approach gave me a better sense of how the novel worked as a whole. And it was sometimes a relief to move from one character to another, to get out of one character’s head and dive into another’s. On other days, I spent the hours intensely focused on a single character—immersed in one voice, one side of the story. I followed a similar approach when I printed out a full draft to revise—I read aloud all the Sharon chapters together, then all the Brian chapters, then all of Jess’s. Did the characters’ voices sound consistent? Did they carry their sections? Did the characters have their own individual narrative arcs? Then I arranged the chapters in the correct order and read my novel from beginning to end, paying close attention to how the alternating voices built tension and created momentum. 

Writing a novel with multiple first-person narrators was challenging, but it also brought me a lot of pleasure and joy. I tried to fully inhabit my characters—to write from a place of empathy while digging deep into their flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.  

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including GuernicaBellevue Literary ReviewGreen Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jason Leung

Craft Capsule: Cut for Time

by

Carter Sickels

4.6.20

This is no. 55 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you’re reading a good novel, you’re not usually thinking about the passages the author cut, the intense revision process, or all the pages the author wrote in order to get to The Writing. These sweaty, often clumsy and inelegant pages don’t show up in the book you’re holding, but they were essential to finishing the novel.

My first novel, The Evening Hour, about Cole Freeman, a small-time drug dealer and nurse’s home aide living in the coalfields of West Virginia, took six years to write. The novel uses third-person limited narration, but in order to figure out Cole, I filled up notebooks with him speaking in first person—this voice wasn’t strong enough to carry the novel, but it revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings. I also wrote monologues for the other characters to learn how people viewed Cole. I did not intend for any of this “extra” writing to go into the novel, but it was invaluable—a way for me to gather information about Cole’s family and community, and better understand his conflicts, secrets, and desires. 

I’ve kept writing journals for years; they’re a hodgepodge of personal memories, ideas, quotes, observations. A few years ago, when I team-taught a novel writing class with the author Alexis Smith, she wisely suggested keeping a journal dedicated solely and entirely to your novel—nothing goes in unless novel-related. 

My new novel, The Prettiest Star, took around four and a half years to write. Most of this time, I was sitting at my desk, typing on my laptop. But I also filled up four Decomposition Books with material. These novel-notebooks are raw and intimate, brewing with my questions, concerns, ideas. They contain crucial writing around and behind the novel, the words and scraps of ideas and shimmers of light that spill beyond the pages of the manuscript. They’re a form of play, and all writers need time to play. Now that the novel is finished, they’re an archive, and a reminder of how messy, exhilarating, joyful, and confounding the writing process is, a mix of hard work and faith and a little bit of magic. 

Found in the pages of my notebooks:

• Lists of scenes to write
• Character sketches
• Character freewrites and monologues: their dreams, hopes, fears, memories
• Chapter outlines
• Lists of clothing, movies, TV shows, music 
• Descriptions of characters’ rooms
• Hypotheticals: What would happen if this happened, or that
• Timelines
• Blueprints of houses
• Maps of the town
• Early working titles 
• Lists of character names, street names, restaurants
• Lists of objects from the eighties (sticker books, Rubik’s Cube, etc.) 
• Notes on important events, imagery, or places to return to (i.e. the abandoned drive-in)
• Questions, questions, questions—about characters, plot, structure, themes. How does Jess find out Brian has AIDS? How do the rumors get started?

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Jon Tyson

Craft Capsule: Researching IRL

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

3.2.20

This is no. 51 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“I was slow to realize that if we write what we know,” writes Margot Livesey in her book The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing, “research could help me know more.” I retweet this quote, but add the comment: “So can reporting.” 

I never wanted to be a reporter or a journalist. The word journalist had always conjured the image of someone in black dress pants and sensible shoes. Journalists, if femme, definitely carry purses, and all of my purses are collecting massive cat-fur bunnies at the bottom of a closet that mostly houses an air conditioning duct. But there came a time when I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the hellmouth of the culture wars that were to become the forces that shaped the 2016 election opened, and all around me I saw things I could not explain—the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia’s culture of rape was released, then “debunked.” A Black UVA student leader was badly beaten and the campus was flooded, not with empathy, but with racist celebration. Two girls, one white and cis, the other Black and trans, went missing to vastly different results. The fiction I was working on began to seem limp and pointless in the face of such blatant evil and abject confusion. I began—as any good millennial might—on my phone. I Googled murder and why people do it, I Googled white supremacy and why people do it. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that the answers I sought weren’t there, not on that screen and not in that small enclosed car interior that held only me. They were somewhere else, with someone else. 

This is what reporting means: You pick up the phone and dial a number and ask the person on the other side some questions and write down or record what they say. Or you get in a car and drive to where that person lives. They let you in and you look around at their house and taste what their water tastes like and then you ask them questions and write down or record what they say. That’s it. That’s the magic. 

For it is magic. You ask the right person the right question at the right time, and they’ll tell you something that has never before been told in the history of the world. Where do we think the information on the internet comes from? At some point, some person who knew a true thing told that information to another person, and they wrote it down. Of course, many people may say many true things that contradict each other, but that is true too. You write down or record what they all say. 

I am not sure why so many literary writers who otherwise enjoy making truth eschew reporting—so hard! So scary! And I could write a whole other screed on the dangers of what so many of us often do: link to a story that links to another story that links to another story the original basis of which is maybe untrue or maybe just a single source that nobody bothered to fact-check—but that is for another day. Suffice it to say, reporting has become a key tool in my nonfiction, not because I have any particular skill for the process, but because I don’t mind picking up the phone (Jewish upward mobility patterns) and seeing what happens. There is a particular joy in knowing you don’t know, in acknowledging that your imagination and experience do not contain what is necessary to say the truest possible thing. If you are not careful, reporting may, as it has for me, become a kind of addiction because once you start knowing what you don’t know, it is nearly impossible to stop.

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’sGranta, the Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Sylvie Rosokoff

Craft Capsule: Stillness and Silence

by

Mimi Lok

1.20.20

This is no. 47 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I am one of those people who enjoys reading articles about the rituals and habits of writers. Partly because the articles acknowledge the work and commitment that goes into writing a story or a book, and partly because they demystify the process a little. But I’ll admit that I’m also reading because, in the same way that I’ve clicked on BuzzFeed listicles of household items that promise to magically increase my happiness quotient, I’m often hoping for a quick fix when I feel stuck or unproductive. 

I’ve repeatedly thrown myself too eagerly into a new writing ritual, hoping it will unlock something and then inspiration will flow. I’ve tried only writing at certain times of day or night. I’ve tried maintaining an immaculately organized desk, pens and notebook neatly lined up along the table’s edge. I’ve tried writing in the dark cave of a closet, and in front of a window, the view ideally green and leafy, though a view of a brick wall, it turns out, is fine too. One writer I know cannot work without the bustle of people around her, which becomes a reassuring sort of white noise. I often like a quietish room with faint sounds of human life, but have also been able to write with a teenager playing video games next to me. Total isolation, I’ve discovered, feels claustrophobic and lonely. 

I’ve come to realize that, rather than striving to create the best atmosphere for writing, what really matters is creating the conditions for pre-writing. Silence. And by silence I don’t mean the absence of external noise, but of internal noise. As Kimberlee Pérez describes it, silence is “a point of entry into deep listening.” 

So how does one create silence? One way is through meditation.  

I consider myself a lousy meditator. Not that it’s a competitive sport or anything, but I am the first to admit I could do it more often, and for longer. Still, more than taking a walk, or going for a run, or taking a shower, or eating a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits, I’ve found that meditating helps my writing. When I meditate, I’m definitely not turning over a writing problem in my mind. I’m just trying to pay attention—trying being the operative word—to nothing but my breath. In, out. In, out. It’s bloody difficult to do. Only when I invite stillness do I have to contend with how cluttered and hectic my mind really is, like a monkey on amphetamines jumping from branch to vine to branch, ooh what’s that over there, I’ll swing onto that roof as well, oh no! I’ve landed in pigeon shit, oh well, look, banana! (This is what 99 percent of meditating is like. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.) And I never expect epiphanies, but sometimes in that monkey mess or in very rare moments of equanimity, thoughts will shoot up from the depths and break the surface. 

Afterwards, I am most definitely not full of clarity or calm. But I usually find I have a little bit more space in my head, and I’m a little bit more alert. I might not return to the writing straight away. I might make a cup of tea first, or leave it until later that day, or the next day. But when I do return to the page, I encounter the work, more often than not, in a slightly different way, the path ahead cleared of whatever obstacles were previously blocking it. Or maybe the obstacles were previously invisible to me and now I can identify them. 

Meditation is not a quick fix, or a hotline to call up in a moment of crisis. Like writing, it requires practice so that the mind gets used to stilling and quieting itself enough to listen. It’s like going to a mental gym, and even if 99 percent of the time my thoughts fly all over the place, the practice does eventually translate into a kind of discipline of the mind when I’m writing, and helps me to stay in the moment of the story—to focus and immerse myself, and to listen for what comes next.  

How to meditate:

  1. Turn off or silence your phone and put it in another room.
     
  2. Set an analog timer for fifteen minutes.
     
  3. Find a sitting position (chair, cushion, stool, etcetera) that you think you’ll be comfortable in for that duration.
     
  4. Close your eyes and focus on your breath in the space between your nostrils and your upper lip. (Sometimes I like to count my breaths up to ten, then start over so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m breathing into the howling abyss of eternity.)
     
  5. If you feel your mind stray, breathe in and out more deeply for a few breaths, then return to normal breathing.
     
  6. If you feel your mind stray, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just return to your breath with the gentleness and patience you might employ if you had to guide a lamb or a small child away from a cliff edge.
     
  7. Rinse and repeat until the timer goes off. 

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Chi Tranter

Craft Capsule: Stillness and Silence

by

Mimi Lok

1.20.20

This is no. 47 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I am one of those people who enjoys reading articles about the rituals and habits of writers. Partly because the articles acknowledge the work and commitment that goes into writing a story or a book, and partly because they demystify the process a little. But I’ll admit that I’m also reading because, in the same way that I’ve clicked on BuzzFeed listicles of household items that promise to magically increase my happiness quotient, I’m often hoping for a quick fix when I feel stuck or unproductive. 

I’ve repeatedly thrown myself too eagerly into a new writing ritual, hoping it will unlock something and then inspiration will flow. I’ve tried only writing at certain times of day or night. I’ve tried maintaining an immaculately organized desk, pens and notebook neatly lined up along the table’s edge. I’ve tried writing in the dark cave of a closet, and in front of a window, the view ideally green and leafy, though a view of a brick wall, it turns out, is fine too. One writer I know cannot work without the bustle of people around her, which becomes a reassuring sort of white noise. I often like a quietish room with faint sounds of human life, but have also been able to write with a teenager playing video games next to me. Total isolation, I’ve discovered, feels claustrophobic and lonely. 

I’ve come to realize that, rather than striving to create the best atmosphere for writing, what really matters is creating the conditions for pre-writing. Silence. And by silence I don’t mean the absence of external noise, but of internal noise. As Kimberlee Pérez describes it, silence is “a point of entry into deep listening.” 

So how does one create silence? One way is through meditation.  

I consider myself a lousy meditator. Not that it’s a competitive sport or anything, but I am the first to admit I could do it more often, and for longer. Still, more than taking a walk, or going for a run, or taking a shower, or eating a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits, I’ve found that meditating helps my writing. When I meditate, I’m definitely not turning over a writing problem in my mind. I’m just trying to pay attention—trying being the operative word—to nothing but my breath. In, out. In, out. It’s bloody difficult to do. Only when I invite stillness do I have to contend with how cluttered and hectic my mind really is, like a monkey on amphetamines jumping from branch to vine to branch, ooh what’s that over there, I’ll swing onto that roof as well, oh no! I’ve landed in pigeon shit, oh well, look, banana! (This is what 99 percent of meditating is like. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.) And I never expect epiphanies, but sometimes in that monkey mess or in very rare moments of equanimity, thoughts will shoot up from the depths and break the surface. 

Afterwards, I am most definitely not full of clarity or calm. But I usually find I have a little bit more space in my head, and I’m a little bit more alert. I might not return to the writing straight away. I might make a cup of tea first, or leave it until later that day, or the next day. But when I do return to the page, I encounter the work, more often than not, in a slightly different way, the path ahead cleared of whatever obstacles were previously blocking it. Or maybe the obstacles were previously invisible to me and now I can identify them. 

Meditation is not a quick fix, or a hotline to call up in a moment of crisis. Like writing, it requires practice so that the mind gets used to stilling and quieting itself enough to listen. It’s like going to a mental gym, and even if 99 percent of the time my thoughts fly all over the place, the practice does eventually translate into a kind of discipline of the mind when I’m writing, and helps me to stay in the moment of the story—to focus and immerse myself, and to listen for what comes next.  

How to meditate:

  1. Turn off or silence your phone and put it in another room.
     
  2. Set an analog timer for fifteen minutes.
     
  3. Find a sitting position (chair, cushion, stool, etcetera) that you think you’ll be comfortable in for that duration.
     
  4. Close your eyes and focus on your breath in the space between your nostrils and your upper lip. (Sometimes I like to count my breaths up to ten, then start over so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m breathing into the howling abyss of eternity.)
     
  5. If you feel your mind stray, breathe in and out more deeply for a few breaths, then return to normal breathing.
     
  6. If you feel your mind stray, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just return to your breath with the gentleness and patience you might employ if you had to guide a lamb or a small child away from a cliff edge.
     
  7. Rinse and repeat until the timer goes off. 

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Chi Tranter

Craft Capsule: Living Images

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

3.9.20

This is no. 52 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Lynda Barry has this thing about images; she says they’re alive. The writer and comics artist’s philosophy on making art is difficult to explain because it’s so true—but I’ll try. Find an image from your memory that’s alive and then draw or write it, she says, whichever is more your thing. Anything can be an image. Your first phone number when you say it out loud, a flash of an old notebook with a snowman in it, a brick wall you saw yesterday. 

Almost all of my projects have started from images. For my nonfiction book, The Third Rainbow Girl, it was the image of three women hitchhikers: two on one side of the road, the third on the other side and heading in the opposite direction. For my short story “Fat Swim,” it was the image of a little fat girl looking through a chain-link fence to watch a group of fat women in bathing suits happily playing together in a pool. I cannot remember if Lynda Barry says this or if I say this, but the key to turning an image into a narrative is to ask: Into what life does this image come? For whom is this image urgent?

It doesn’t sound like something Lynda Barry would say. It sounds too pragmatic, and too focused on making an image into something, something you can package and sell, and LB isn’t usually that into somethings. Her books on the craft of writing and drawing, What It Is, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and Making Comics, are much more focused on the nothings than the somethings: the places where memory crashes up onto the sand of the present and leaves a shadow impression once it’s retreated, the spaces in childhood for abject despair that just never get filled in, the ways that ghosts of childhood play can morph and change and haunt us, telling us our ideas and feelings are not even worth recording. Of all these books, What It Is has the most to say about images and the craft of writing. I know exactly where this book is in my house at all times. I can see it now, downstairs on the biggest bottom bookshelf nestled up against the fancy Aperture catalogue, with its big smooth cover and its slick pages, once textured collages LB made with her own hands but now the regular thickness of regular paper. 

For a while I kept a notebook of three images from my day and made my writing students do the same. They could be images from the present or from the past: a red sneaker against a silver background on Philly’s El train, the look on my old cat’s face when he stuck his nose in my ear to wake me up, or whatever else came up that day. When I was empty sitting down to write at my desk, I could flip through this image catalogue and see what caught, what still felt alive. I should probably start doing that again. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’sGranta, the Los Angeles Review of BooksAmerican Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Guillaume Paumier

Craft Capsule: In Praise of Drastic Measures

by

Mimi Lok

2.3.20

This is no. 49 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It can be helpful, at a certain point in a writing project, to change up elements that previously felt off limits. One of these elements is setting. 

About ten years ago I came across a short news article about a woman in Japan who’d been arrested for sneaking into a man’s home and living in his closet. When the police asked why she’d done it, she said that she had nowhere else to live. I tried to find out more, but every piece I found recycled the same couple of paragraphs. It didn’t make sense to me that there wasn’t more to the story—there was so much more I wanted to know. I kept thinking, Who is this woman? 

Her story became the basis for my novella “The Woman in the Closet”—the final story in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. For the longest time I’d kept the setting faithful to the article, to both honor the inspiration for the story and to help ground my fictional extrapolations in a culturally and socially specific context. But when I was working on the manuscript with my editor, Sunyoung Lee, we grappled with a couple of issues with the story. First: The other stories in the collection focused on Chinese characters. This story, with its Japanese protagonist and setting, was an outlier in that sense, and I twisted myself into knots trying to connect it to the rest of the collection. Maybe the protagonist, Granny Ito, was half Chinese? Or maybe she was Chinese and immigrated to Japan? It all felt rather strained. The other issue with the story was that, as careful as I’d tried to be, I’d still tripped up on certain details that Sunyoung, whose husband is Japanese, pointed out were culturally inaccurate, such as the kind of soup one would serve a guest in a certain situation. The casual reader wouldn’t have caught it, but someone familiar with Japanese culture and customs would, and I didn’t want to have anything in there that would be a distraction. I was prepared to go through the story again with a fine-tooth comb to try and catch other inaccuracies, but then Sunyoung asked, “Is there a particular reason why it’s set in Japan?” I bristled at the notion that it could be set anywhere but Japan, but at the same time my defense of the choice sounded, well, defensive, when said aloud. Sunyoung asked me to consider changing the setting, and if it didn’t feel right then we’d stick to the original and figure out how to make it work.

I relocated the story to Hong Kong, changing the names, locations, cultural references, and so on. Almost immediately I felt the story clicking along with more ease. But I soon encountered a different issue: Hong Kong, unlike Japan, doesn’t have tent villages, and tent villages feature prominently in the story. Then I thought, But it could…in the future. Given the increasing wealth disparity in Hong Kong and the city’s ongoing instability—though the current protests hadn’t started yet when I wrote this story—I decided it wasn’t at all beyond the realm of possibility. So the story moved from Japan to Hong Kong, from the present to the near-future, and Granny Ito became Granny Ng. Just like that, the story was infused with a different, subtly futuristic kind of energy that rippled back through the other stories in the collection—stories that also jumped around in time and place, but which all occupied the past or present. Ending the collection with a story set in the future felt right. Even now, when I imagine the two versions of the story next to each other, I see the original through a slightly dim, faded Polaroid filter, and the final version with the clarity of a bright, blue sky.                   

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: Voice in the Epistolary Story

by

Mimi Lok

1.27.20

This is no. 48 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Epistolary stories can be tricky to pull off—they can seem contrived, awkward, or precious. There’s often a delicate balance at play when calibrating the reader’s awareness of the form and their immersion in the world of the story. In the case of letters, the letter writer’s voice, in this regard, is crucial. It’s a bit like being driven by a guide through an unfamiliar landscape—you’re looking at the scenery and at people going about their business, aware that you can only see so much through the windscreen and passenger side window, but you’re okay with that because you know you’re in a car. But what you don’t want to be thinking about is how broken-down or fancy the car is, or how your guide is driving, because you only tend to notice someone’s driving when you’re worried they don’t have full control of the vehicle.

I wrestled with voice a lot in my epistolary story “The Wrong Dave,” which appeared in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. The protagonist, Dave, a soon-to-be-married man in London, embarks upon an illicit correspondence with Yi, a wedding crasher he briefly met several years ago in Hong Kong. Yi contacts him out of the blue, grief-stricken after a death in her family, and Dave suspects she’s writing to the wrong Dave. Still, he decides to continue writing to her. From this point in the story on, the reader, like Dave, sees Yi entirely through her e-mail exchanges with Dave, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her.

Writing this story, I considered how letters allow for absence and omission, and how those elements can help fuel a fantasy of someone you don’t know that well. E-mail is such a strange, inadequate medium of communication, and because so much is left out and what remains is magnified, sometimes way out of proportion, it becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and obsession. So while we see the various external and internal aspects of Dave’s life and follow him around a fair bit, I wanted the reader to have limited access to Yi. I wanted her to be tantalizing to the reader as well as to Dave—not exactly in the same way, but enough to believe why Dave would be so drawn to her. 

The e-mails brought out the very different ways in which Dave and Yi express themselves and what that says about why they’re writing to the other person. Yi’s e-mails are almost an unfiltered stream of consciousness—you get the feeling she’s not even thinking about what she’s writing—but Dave is extremely neurotic and careful about every word, as if he’s worried he’s going to expose himself in some way. For Yi, she wants to be seen—she uses the e-mails to try and make a human connection—but she’s also screaming her grief and anger into the void. It was really freeing for me, someone who tends more towards Dave’s type of e-mail neurosis, to write in Yi’s voice. Dave, however, definitely hides behind the medium. Its remove from the physical world, combined with its immediacy, lets him continue to feed his secret correspondence and romanticizing of Yi, completely free of consequence—or so he thinks.

The limited access to Yi leads the reader, like Dave, to project various ideas about the kind of person she might be, or the kind of person Dave might want her to be—the difference being that the reader is more aware of this projection than Dave himself is. She says so much, but to what is Dave really paying attention? And in Dave’s case, there’s the dissonance between the insight the reader has into his life and the vastness of what he chooses not to reveal about himself in his e-mails. 

So, in the case of epistolary stories based on letters, it’s important to understand why the characters are writing to each other, what kind of language is particular to them, and what the form reveals or hides—and how that squares with what you want revealed, or hidden from, your reader.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Thumbnail: Joanna Kosinska

Craft Capsule: Voice in the Epistolary Story

by

Mimi Lok

1.27.20

This is no. 48 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Epistolary stories can be tricky to pull off—they can seem contrived, awkward, or precious. There’s often a delicate balance at play when calibrating the reader’s awareness of the form and their immersion in the world of the story. In the case of letters, the letter writer’s voice, in this regard, is crucial. It’s a bit like being driven by a guide through an unfamiliar landscape—you’re looking at the scenery and at people going about their business, aware that you can only see so much through the windscreen and passenger side window, but you’re okay with that because you know you’re in a car. But what you don’t want to be thinking about is how broken-down or fancy the car is, or how your guide is driving, because you only tend to notice someone’s driving when you’re worried they don’t have full control of the vehicle.

I wrestled with voice a lot in my epistolary story “The Wrong Dave,” which appeared in my debut collection, Last of Her Name. The protagonist, Dave, a soon-to-be-married man in London, embarks upon an illicit correspondence with Yi, a wedding crasher he briefly met several years ago in Hong Kong. Yi contacts him out of the blue, grief-stricken after a death in her family, and Dave suspects she’s writing to the wrong Dave. Still, he decides to continue writing to her. From this point in the story on, the reader, like Dave, sees Yi entirely through her e-mail exchanges with Dave, who becomes increasingly infatuated with her.

Writing this story, I considered how letters allow for absence and omission, and how those elements can help fuel a fantasy of someone you don’t know that well. E-mail is such a strange, inadequate medium of communication, and because so much is left out and what remains is magnified, sometimes way out of proportion, it becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and obsession. So while we see the various external and internal aspects of Dave’s life and follow him around a fair bit, I wanted the reader to have limited access to Yi. I wanted her to be tantalizing to the reader as well as to Dave—not exactly in the same way, but enough to believe why Dave would be so drawn to her. 

The e-mails brought out the very different ways in which Dave and Yi express themselves and what that says about why they’re writing to the other person. Yi’s e-mails are almost an unfiltered stream of consciousness—you get the feeling she’s not even thinking about what she’s writing—but Dave is extremely neurotic and careful about every word, as if he’s worried he’s going to expose himself in some way. For Yi, she wants to be seen—she uses the e-mails to try and make a human connection—but she’s also screaming her grief and anger into the void. It was really freeing for me, someone who tends more towards Dave’s type of e-mail neurosis, to write in Yi’s voice. Dave, however, definitely hides behind the medium. Its remove from the physical world, combined with its immediacy, lets him continue to feed his secret correspondence and romanticizing of Yi, completely free of consequence—or so he thinks.

The limited access to Yi leads the reader, like Dave, to project various ideas about the kind of person she might be, or the kind of person Dave might want her to be—the difference being that the reader is more aware of this projection than Dave himself is. She says so much, but to what is Dave really paying attention? And in Dave’s case, there’s the dissonance between the insight the reader has into his life and the vastness of what he chooses not to reveal about himself in his e-mails. 

So, in the case of epistolary stories based on letters, it’s important to understand why the characters are writing to each other, what kind of language is particular to them, and what the form reveals or hides—and how that squares with what you want revealed, or hidden from, your reader.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also th