Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Sentence: The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.



I want my tombstone to read “She Lived Out Loud.”

The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White


Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Freebie: Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont


Congratulations to Lisa Murray and Rhonda Lomazow, winners of last week's Friday Freebie, The Bees by Laline Paull.

This week's book giveaway is Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont. Read on for more information about the book the New York Times Book Review called "a luscious, smart summer novel."

For fans of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore, and Curtis Sittenfeld, Among the Ten Thousand Things is a dazzling first novel, a portrait of an American family on the cusp of irrevocable change, and a startlingly original story of love and time lost. Jack Shanley is a well-known New York artist, charming and vain, who doesn’t mean to plunge his family into crisis. His wife, Deb, gladly left behind a difficult career as a dancer to raise the two children she adores. In the ensuing years, she has mostly avoided coming face-to-face with the weaknesses of the man she married. But then an anonymously sent package arrives in the mail: a cardboard box containing sheaves of printed emails chronicling Jack’s secret life. The package is addressed to Deb, but it’s delivered into the wrong hands: her children’s. With this vertiginous opening begins a debut that is by turns funny, wise, and indescribably moving. As the Shanleys spin apart into separate orbits, leaving New York in an attempt to regain their bearings, fifteen-year-old Simon feels the allure of adult freedoms for the first time, while eleven-year-old Kay wanders precariously into a grown-up world she can’t possibly understand. Writing with extraordinary precision, humor, and beauty, Julia Pierpont has crafted a timeless, hugely enjoyable novel about the bonds of family life—their brittleness, and their resilience.

If you’d like a chance at winning Among the Ten Thousand Things, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 7.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Book Radar: Neal Stephenson, Kris D’Agostino, Sebastian Junger



Book Radar rounds up some of the latest publishing deals which have caught my eye, gathered from reports at Publishers Marketplace, Galley Cat, office water-coolers and other places where hands are shaken and promises are made.  As with anything in the fickle publishing industry, dates and titles are subject to change.

From Publishers Lunch, news of the following book deals...

New York Times bestselling author (including the most recent Seveneves) Neal Stephenson’s Fall, pitched as a high-tech retelling of John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost featuring some characters from Stephenson’s Reamde, to William Morrow for publication in Fall 2017.


Author of The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac Kris D’Agostino’s The Antiques, a humorous family drama about three estranged siblings who return home, amidst a Hurricane Sandy-like storm, to sell an heirloom painting at their dying father’s request, only to discover their real fortunes lie elsewhere, pitched in the vein of Jonathan Tropper and Emma Straub, to Scribner.


Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, the follow-up to War, focusing on the stresses that veterans face after completing their service, combining history, psychology and anthropology as he investigates the “alienating effects of modern society,” to Twelve for publication in May 2016.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler


Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.




The trailer for Erika Swyler's debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is beautiful but initially puzzling: an animated oil painting shows, in rapid succession, a book opening, a hand dealing some cards, a girl falling into the ocean and presumably drowning (only to resurface), a house on a cliff crumbling into the sea, and a horseshoe crab washing up on shore. What looks like swirls of paint, fluidly shifting between images, are lovely to look at--like a Van Gogh come to life--but what does it all mean? Ah, but once we turn to a plot description of The Book of Speculation, the trailer begins to make sense:
Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival. One June day, an old book arrives on Simon's doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water-damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned--always on July 24, which is only weeks away.
The animation in the trailer is actually clay-on-glass media done by Lynn Tomlinson and it is, as I think I've said more than once, a gift to the eyes. Book trailers (or movie trailers, for that matter) don't always have to reveal themselves fully upon first watching. I like the way this one teases us, licks at our imaginations, and eventually leads us to explore the pages of Swyler's novel.


Monday, July 27, 2015

My First Time: Benjamin Johncock



My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Benjamin Johncock, author of The Last Pilot, a novel which People magazine says “transports readers to a time of Scotch-soaked bars, Walter Cronkite on the news, and astronauts as superheroes...Ingeniously plotted, deftly written, and engrossing.” Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press’ National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.

My First Publication

I’d been working on The Last Pilot for about three years when I heard about a new digital short story publisher being set up by a book editor who’d just gone freelance. This was 2011—the early days of mobile and apps—and I found the model intriguing. Digital-only short stories for 99p.

I’d never written a short story before, but I thought I’d have a go, see if I could get it published. It felt good to have a creative alternate to the novel, too—a counterpoint, if you will. I found it refreshing, and creatively stimulating. It was also an incredibly useful process. I learned how to build a house, which helped me with the creation of this skyscraper I was attempting…

I submitted the story, which was called “The Rocket Man” when it was finished. It was close, but didn’t quite hit the mark for the publisher. I sent it to Scott Pack, a book blogger (and publisher at HarperCollins in his day job), who had undertaken reading and reviewing a short story every day for a year. I knew Scott—I was a reader of his blog and we’d become friendly on Twitter, and I’d see him monthly at a literary night he ran in London. I also respected him. I knew if he reviewed it, he’d be honest. In fact, I think he said, If it’s shit, I’ll say so. So those were the stakes. Luckily, he didn’t think it was shit, and he said so. He gave it a very good review. He had one niggle though, and, as this was the niggle the digital publisher also had, I did another draft. Scott (and this will show you how generous he is) ran another review, based on the new version—and this review was freaking great!

A few days later, Scott forwarded me an email from the editor of a short story anthology called The Fiction Desk. I’d heard about them before. They published a beautiful, proper paperback book of short stories every quarter that you could buy from actual bookshops (as well as online). They also did an ebook edition for Kindle and iBooks.

Rob Redman, the editor and publisher, said he would be interested in taking a look at the story, if I felt like I wanted to submit it to them. I did. A few days later, these sweet, sweet words: If it's still available, I'd love to publish “Rocket Man” in our next volume. It was my first piece of published fiction, and it meant an awful lot. Rob did a couple of edits on the story and it was the most exhilarating experience I’d had with words. I loved the collaboration. And there was a contract! And payment! And contributor copies! Oh, happy, happy day! It was such a wonderful experience.

“The Rocket Man” was published in April 2011, and the anthology was called The Maginot Line. There are some tremendous stories in there. The title story, “The Maginot Line” by Matt Plass...“Exocet” by Andrew Jury… The anthology picked up some great reviews, too. And it was a real thrill to see it in the London Review Bookshop (one of my favorites). It served as a great calling card for me as well.

You can still buy the collection—there are a few print copies left (although not many—it sold pretty well) and it’s obviously available for Kindle and iBooks from Amazon and Apple respectively.

It was a hell of an experience, and I’m proud to have been published first by The Fiction Desk, which is still going strong. You can subscribe or buy individual copies of their anthologies here. And you can also submit your stories, too...

Author photo by Nick Tucker


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Sentence: The Stand by Stephen King


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


He was a hard, puritanical fellow with a face that looked as if it had been carved by licks of a hatchet.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday Freebie: The Bees by Laline Paull


Congratulations to Erin Golsen, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar.

This week’s book giveaway is The Bees by Laline Paull. I have two copies of the novel to giveaway--a hardcover version and the recently-released paperback--so I'll be picking the names of two lucky readers next week. Read on for more information about the book...

The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games in this brilliantly imagined debut set in an ancient culture where only the queen may breed and deformity means death. Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are an asset. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous. But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen’s fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds. Thrilling, suspenseful and spectacularly imaginative, The Bees gives us a dazzling young heroine and will change forever the way you look at the world outside your window.

P.S.  While you’re in the contest-entering mood, be sure to check out the special audiobook giveaway for the Watchlist anthology. Go here for details on how to enter.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Bees, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 30, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 31.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Writer at Work: Braver Deeds



The latest issue of The Provo Canyon Review has an excerpt from the novel I’m working on (the current title is Braver Deeds--from a poem by Stephen Crane--though in the past I’ve called it Crossing Baghdad, FOB Sorrow, A Walk in the Sun, and That Stupid Novel I Can’t Seem to Finish).

“The Wedding Party” in The Provo Canyon Review stitches together three different portions of the book which tells the story of a squad of soldiers making their way on foot across Baghdad in order to attend the memorial service for their platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Raphael “Rafe” Morgan. One of those scenes is a flashback to a conversation between Rafe and the platoon’s translator Hamid as they investigate the site of a mortar attack--a tragically-interrupted wedding party. Here’s an excerpt from the story...

Rafe knelt next to an overturned metal platter of food, a spill of rice coming from beneath in a delta. He touched the plate—as if to turn it over—but yelped and jumped to his feet, shaking his fingers. The tray was still hot, long after it had been seared by flame.

“So how did we get from ‘I do’ to this?” Rafe asked, sucking his fingertips.

“Wedding this morning. Bright and early. It was all very happy, all very good. Cheerful—laughing, singing, some dancing. Then they all came back here to the house of the bride’s family for the walima. Feast. You know ‘feast’? Is that the right word?”

“Yeah, like a reception,” Rafe said. “I get it.”

“In our country, men and women they don’t eat together,” Hamid said. “Men eat first, tell stories about the bridegroom, laugh a little more, maybe drink too much. Then the women eat, indoors, away from their husbands and fathers. Not as much drinking, but still lots of stories. That is how I think this one went today, how I see it in my head.” Hamid, the damn fool, was starting to get all misty-eyed and choked up.

He and Rafe stepped around a body part as he continued to narrate the scene. “Then, the proper time has passed, the groom comes to the women’s feast—he is shy and maybe embarrassed—and everyone toasts the couple with orange soda.”

“Orange soda?” Rafe asked. “That’s the tradition?”

Hamid shrugged. “Maybe it was Diet Coke. I don’t know. At my cousin’s wedding, it was orange soda.”

“Go on,” Rafe said. “Then what happened?”

“Then there was more dancing. Everyone’s together now. Men, wives, children. The very rich father, he’s hired a band, so musicians are playing loud and with joy. Drums, trumpets, cymbals. The bride and groom are in the middle of the street, holding hands, swinging each other around and around in circles.” Yep, no doubt about it: Hamid was crying. We could see that from where we were doing our work—pulling security, measuring craters, and marking the groom’s body parts with circles of spray paint.

Hamid pulls a once-white handkerchief from his vest. He wipes his face. “This goes on into the night, all the way to dawn. Finally, a neighbor gets tired of all the trumpets. He comes out yelling, firing his rifle straight up into the air. Nobody stops. They hear him, but nobody stops. The joy, it is too great. The neighbor, he’s still mad, but he goes back inside. Or maybe he gives up and joins them in the street. The kids I asked weren’t too sure about this. Anyway, about an hour later, a mortar—maybe two, maybe three—lands here in the street and—and—” He can’t finish. Hamid is done. The handkerchief is flying like a flag from his face.

Read the rest of the story at
The Provo Canyon Review



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Welcome to Welcome to Hard Times: E. L. Doctorow's First and Greatest Novel



In all the eulogies mourning the loss of E. L. Doctorow, you’ll read a lot about Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, World's Fair and The Book of Daniel—all justly-lauded novels by one of the great craftsmen of our time. But the passing of Doctorow at 84 on Tuesday, immediately sends me to my favorite of his works: his first and arguably greatest book, Welcome to Hard Times.

Here’s the setup: A cowboy rides into town. He enters the saloon; the swinging doors bang in his wake. He orders a drink, guzzles half the bottle, then reaches for the nearest prostitute. Without a word, he takes her upstairs and assaults her. When the girl’s lover intervenes, the stranger kills him. Then the cowboy steals a horse. Then he single-handedly runs all the frightened citizens out of town. Then he sets fire to the town and burns it to the ground.

Welcome to Welcome to Hard Times, Doctorow’s first novel. Published in 1960 (and made into a not-as-good movie starring Henry Fonda in 1967), it’s a grim look at the Old West. There’s nothing pretty inside these pages; but once you start reading, I dare you to set the book down again. I’m practicing what I preach: this morning, I picked up the novel and started re-reading it for the third time. Everything else on today’s to-do list can wait.

The cowboy with no name is known simply as the Man from Bodie and once he destroys the North Dakota town of Hard Times (those events listed above all happen in the first chapter, by the way), he rides off into the horizon…momentarily leaving the rest of Hard Times’ diverse set of characters to pick up the pieces. Welcome to Hard Times centers on how the town (if that’s what you can call a few ramshackle board-and-tarpaper buildings) is rebuilt from its ashes.

It’s also about how the oppressed citizens rebuild their hope in the wake of complete disaster. While the Man from Bodie is rampaging through the early pages of the book, the stunned and frightened citizens go jelly-legged—especially after the MFB’s first victim, one brave man who dared to confront the villain with a single stick of wood, comes reeling out of the saloon doors with his head bashed in and dies before the sun goes down. There is no High Noon Gary Cooper here, Doctorow seems say as he illustrates that famous saying: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Doctorow is pretty heavy on the symbolism here—the Earth is scorched, the phoenix rises, the will of man triumphs. As in his other novels like Ragtime, Doctorow celebrates the endurance of the American spirit. If you’ve read those books, however, and come to Welcome Hard Times expecting to see historical figures like Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp woven into the narrative, you’ll be disappointed. Here, the Old West is pure invention and it’s pure terror. I’ve never met a literary cowboy as fearsome as the Man from Brodie—think Jack Palance in Shane….then multiply him by ten.

One of the things I like best about Welcome to Hard Times is the control Doctorow has over the language, as sure and firm as a well-seasoned cowboy in the saddle who refuses to let the bronc get away from him. The book opens with two great paragraphs that plunge us right into the middle of the action in no-nonsense fashion:
       The Man from Bodie drank down a half bottle of the Silver Sun's best; that cleared the dust from his throat and then when Florence, who was a redhead, moved along the bar to him, he turned and grinned down at her. I guess Florence had never seen a man so big. Before she could say a word, he reached out and stuck his hand in the collar of her dress and ripped it down to her waist so that her breasts bounded out bare under the yellow light. We all scraped our chairs and stood up— none of us had looked at Florence that way before, for all she was. The saloon was full because we watched the man coming for a long time before he pulled in, but there was no sound now.
       This town was in the Dakota Territory, and on three sides—east, south, west—there is nothing but miles of flats. That's how we could see him coming. Most times the dust on the horizon moved east to west—wagon trains nicking the edge of the flats with their wheels and leaving a long dust turd lying on the rim of the earth. If a man rode toward us he made a fan in the air that got wider and wider. To the north were hills of rock and that was where the lodes were which gave an excuse for the town, although not a good one. Really there was no excuse for it except that people naturally come together.
The narrator is a middle-aged man named Will Blue who is the de facto mayor of Hard Times, a hardscrabble place one tumbling sagebrush away from a ghost town. Blue’s also a coward, and that makes all the difference to the fate—and eventual redemption—of the town and its residents. Blue must not only reconstruct his town, he has to rebuild his character. When one of the working girls Blue had tried to enlist into assassinating the Man from Bodie with a stiletto calls him on his cowardice, he is shaken to his core. Recovering from her severe burns, she summons Blue to her side:
       “Take care of me Blue?” she said softly.
       “Yes Molly, if you allow.”
       Still smiling she said “Mayor”—whispering so that I bent down and put my ear almost to her lips—“if I had that knife now I wouldn't drop it. I would stick it in you and watch the yellow flow.”
       For a moment I didn't understand, I could not reconcile the words with the smile on her face. But I looked at her and saw what a sweet smile it was, full of hate, and I felt as if I had been swiped to the ground by the paw of a big cat.
As a reader, I’m paw-swiped as well. Just look at the tense juxtaposition at work in those words: “what a sweet smile it was, full of hate.” E. L. Doctorow sure knew how to boil his sentences, didn’t he?

Reading this book—with its mythic clash between good and evil—reminds me of cinematic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven and, especially, HBO’s Deadwood. Interestingly enough, Doctorow was inspired to write this first novel after working as a script reader for Columbia Pictures in the late 1950s, an era when cowboy movies were all the rage. However, Doctorow cleverly turns the horse opera stereotype on its head. If you're not a fan of sagebrush prose, don’t let the notion that this is a “western” dissuade you from reading this short, intense book. This is closer to Joseph Conrad than it is Louis L’Amour.

I read Welcome to Hard Times long before I’d heard of Doctorow’s other (more popular) novels. Maybe it’s all part of that “first and favorite” syndrome where the initial impression of a book (or film or song) is the best one, but even now as I return to the pages of Welcome to Hard Times for the third time, I see I wasn’t off in my assessment: this is great literature which should be mentioned in the same breath as Ragtime, et al.

If you’ve never read anything by E. L. Doctorow, the sad occasion of his death is as good a time to start as any. By all means, start with Ragtime or The Book of Daniel, but when you’re through there, don’t forget to pay a visit to Hard Times.


Monday, July 20, 2015

My First Time: Janis Cooke Newman


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Janis Cooke Newman, author of the novels A Master Plan for Rescue (now available from Riverhead Books) and Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln, as well as the memoir The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption. She is also the founder of the Lit Camp writers conference.  Click here to visit her website.

My First High-Wire Act

Every day I spent writing my new novel—A Master Plan for Rescue—I felt like I was performing a high-wire act without a net. I suspect this is the way most novelists feel when they work. But for me, it was a completely new experience. Though A Master Plan for Rescue is my third book—and my second novel—it was the first time I’d ever written a book without a contract. In fact, for most of the seven years I worked on Master Plan, it was also the first time I’d written a book without an agent.

My first book—a memoir about adopting my son from a Russian orphanage—was sold on proposal. The credit for that mainly goes to the serendipity of timing. It was the tail end of the 1990s, and publishers were snapping up memoirs as fast as they were snapping up anything to do with adoption.

My second book—a historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln—also sold on proposal. Likely because my publisher was fairly sure there was no chance of me losing my way in the middle of a book about a person who had already lived her life.

I realize it sounds enviable, to work on a book—a novel, particularly—and know for certain it will see the light of day, know it won’t end up attracting dust bunnies under your bed or stored in the cloud with that Jack Johnson music you never listen to anymore.

But here’s the thing about selling on proposal. Once you swallow that final drop of celebratory champagne, you actually have to sit down and write your book. And you have to do it on someone else’s timetable.

When I sold the novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, I promised my publisher the finished book would be 350 pages long and that it would take me a year to write it. Eight months after signing the contract, I was 500 pages into a first draft, and had barely gotten her husband elected.

Between that time and the eventual publication of my 700-page book—which did not happen for another two years—I endured an extremely uncomfortable lunch with my publisher (who repeatedly threatened to cancel my contract), the dissolution of my marriage (the blame for which, admittedly, I can only partially attribute to my book), and a six-month period during which I wrote seven days a week, leaving the house only to drive my son to and from school.

Never again, I decided.

So when I began writing the book that would become A Master Plan for Rescue, I showed none of it to my agent. I didn’t even talk to her about it. Which was fortunate, as less than a year into the process, she and I parted ways.

Writer friends offered to introduce me to their agents. But there was something freeing about not having anybody looking over my shoulder, not having anyone—even my own agent—waiting for me to finish a book. No thanks, I told my baffled friends. But I think I’m going to go it alone until this manuscript is finished.

Two years in, I stopped writing altogether, and spent a couple of months thinking about my novel. I got out my copy of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story—the book I’m always telling my students to look at—and looked at it myself. I did all of his exercises about character desire, about want and need, about the opponent. More than once, I threw the book across the room, because Truby’s pedantic tone can be so damned irritating. But when I returned to writing, my plot held together as if it had been fashioned in some realm of inevitability, as if the things I made happen could never have gone any other way.

After another year, one of the characters I thought would be minor began to tell me more of his story—I’d always been skeptical when writers would say this kind of thing, and now I was saying it—and the whole book broke open in the most amazing way. Six months later, another character told me 80 pages of his story—which I eventually ended up cutting. But something of having written it stayed with me every time I came to put him on the page, and his character was better for it.

The point is—for once—I had time for this. Time for all the twists and turns of writing fiction. The strange paths and weird detours and blind alleys that on occasion, actually lead someplace. Like to a better book.

I have always believed that writing a novel is a leap of faith. And while I didn’t have the safety net of a contract, somehow through all the years of working on A Master Plan for Rescue, I had faith my characters would find their way into the world. And now, because of the generosity of a writer friend who offered to introduce me to his agent, because of a publisher willing to take the leap that even a finished manuscript represents, they have.

I would never tell any writer to turn down a publisher who comes dangling a fat (or even a not-fat) contract for an unfinished book. But I would tell every writer that it’s difficult to do your best work when one part of your brain is constantly running the calculation of months remaining against pages written.

I suppose the point is that what we do as writers is meant to be risky. We do our best work when we take chances. And to truly risk something on the page, means having the time to make mistakes. It’s all a high-wire act anyway—all the more impressive when done without a net.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Watchlist for your ears: an Audible giveaway


We are being watched. That this statement probably no longer shocks is itself somewhat shocking. But ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s massive, clandestine surveillance program in June 2013, we’ve been inundated with news—seemingly every week—about yet another aspect of our once-thought-private lives that is now subject to some kind of scrutiny. Since the Snowden revelations, we’ve learned that the post-9/11 U.S. government or one of its allies has been reading our emails, listening to our phone calls, and watching nearly everything we do on the Internet—Facebook posts, Google searches, instant messages, World of Warcraft gaming sessions. Nothing is hidden, everything is on display.

That’s from editor Bryan Hurt’s introduction to Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest.  The anthology has just been released on audiobook and I have 10 free downloads to give away, so I’m holding a special two-week contest. Ten lucky reader-listeners will soon be putting Watchlist in their ears.  In case you missed the earlier 32-day countdown here at the blog, the “persons of interest” contributing short stories to the anthology include Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, David Abrams, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.

If you’d like a chance at winning one of the digital downloads of the Watchlist audiobook (which requires an Audible membership--though I think they offer free trial memberships), send an email to


Put WATCH AND LISTEN in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please. The contest remains open to entries until midnight on August 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.


Friday, July 17, 2015

In a World Without Mockingbirds: What if Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s First and Only Book?


Note: In 1957 the J. B. Lippincott Company purchased Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Editor Tay Hohoff, although impressed with the story, thought it was by no means ready for publication. During the next couple of years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally became what we know as To Kill a Mockingbird. But what if the publisher had accepted Go Set a Watchman and printed it as submitted? What would the reaction have been at the time? Would Mockingbird ever have happened? This is how I approached my reading of Go Set a Watchman. It wasn’t easy to read this new book in a world without Mockingbird—which is such an unstoppable force of culture—but I blocked it out and concentrated on Go Set a Watchman as a singular work of art. Here is that hypothetical review as it would have been written in 1960.

Harper Lee’s debut is a puzzling mess. Go Set a Watchman is akin to a misbehaving toddler gleefully turning sink spigots on and off, but instead of Hot, Cold, Hot, Cold, we get Good, Bad, Good, Bad.

One the one hand, we have a Southern Gothic; on the other hand, we’re given a Civil Rights polemic. Other literary personalities which possess and torment the soul of Go Set a Watchman: the Generation-Gap Novel, the You-Can’t-Go-Home-Again Novel, the Coming-of-Age Novel, and the Religious-Tract Novel. It strives for much, but ends with little. This is a manuscript draft still in its toddler years that begs for a good paddling from an editor (spare the rod, spoil the story, I say). This novel is on its way to becoming a better book. It’s not there yet, but with the simple uncapping of a red pen, it could actually be something great. It’s a shame that somebody on Publishers Row felt compelled to rush this Watchman to print. Like its characters enjoying an evening on the front porch, it should have set a spell longer.

Ms. Lee, according to the dust jacket, was born in Alabama and now lives in New York City—in much the same fashion as Go Set a Watchman’s too-clever-for-her-own-good heroine Jean Louise Finch. As the novel opens, Jean Louise is traveling back home to Maycomb County, Alabama with “a delight almost physical.” There is a comic encounter between Jean Louise and a Negro porter when she locks herself into a fold-up sleeping compartment and the steward must extract her. It is the first, but not the last, uncomfortable intersection between the races in these pages.

Waiting for her at home is a coterie of characters as die-hard Southern as a plate of hush puppies and crawfish: her father Atticus, a lawyer whose job as a parent primarily consists of being in the right place at the right time with the right bon mot; her Uncle Jack, a level-headed eccentric who lives in the past (“He’s so far out of this century he can’t go to the bathroom, he goes to the water closet.”); Aunt Alexandra, a staunch Methodist who believes it’s always better to give a man a stone before you feed him bread, so as to improve his character; and Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s childhood crush who aspires to be her husband, as long as his racism doesn’t get in the way. Not present in the welcome home party is Jean Louise’s brother Jem who, we’re told in the first chapter, “dropped dead in his tracks” of a heart attack on the streets of Maycomb several years earlier.

The characters are interesting and amusing each in their own way, and indeed Ms. Lee knows her people inside and out and communicates that well on the page. Unfortunately, they’re encumbered with dialogue that, at times, moves with all the alacrity of a turtle sunning itself on a swamp log. The novel trots along brightly in its early pages, but turns heavy, logy, and sermonic in its latter half, right around the time Jean Louise discovers her father and fiancĂ©e attending a “citizens council” meeting which has been called to determine how to deal with “the NAACP problem.” The council’s membership is comprised of “ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one hundred per cent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.” It is not the Ku Klux Klan, but it is close—only the thin barrier of a sheet divides them. Ms. Lee holds nothing back in her reportage of the dialogue at this gathering—including, and especially, the racist comments of guest speaker Mr. Grady O’Hanlon who renders his opinions of the “woolly-headed” members of society in such despicable terms that—well, I couldn’t bear to repeat them. Let’s leave it at this: “woolly-headed” is the gentlest of names spewed from his horrible mouth. Methodists and the easily-offended are advised to keep their distance from these pages.

The meeting marks a turning point in Jean Louise’s visit. The scales fall from her eyes and she sees her beloved, upstanding father as something worse than a racist: a hypocrite.
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.
It is more than Jean Louise can bear. There is frequent vomiting in the succeeding pages.

The character of Atticus Finch is a complicated and seemingly-contradictory one: a life-long saint, in the eyes of Jean Louise, his armor is now tarnished and dented. The excuses for his racist views, as fed to him by Ms. Lee, may come across as feeble and grasping, but I suggest they make him all the more human. Who among us doesn’t have skin that looks one way, but blood that pumps another? Atticus may despise the ill-treatment of men, no matter the race, but he “goes along to get along.” Peer-pressure racism. This doesn’t sit well with his daughter. More vomiting ensues.

Go Set a Watchman slows to a crawl as Jean Louise seeks counsel from friends and relatives, trying to understand how the characters she’s come to revere could turn into monsters. “We have to do a lot of things we don’t want to do, Jean Louise,” Henry says, adding a few pages later: “I’m only trying to make you see beyond men’s acts to their motives. A man can appear to be a part of something not-so-good on its face, but don’t take it upon yourself to judge him unless you know his motives as well.”

Dissatisfied with platitudes, Jean Louise continues to go around town, reeling from one agony to another:
What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked?


Part of Jean Louise’s problem lies in the fact that she is a traitor who has converted to the Northern way of life. With its loose living, its integration, and its boiled New England food, the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line has, in the eyes of good Maycombians, corrupted Jean Louise’s once-genteel soul. Jean Louise is now too uptight and uppity and if only she could learn to slow down and savor the good (segregated) life, she would have an easier time of it. “I am oppressed, Atticus,” she sighs. “Then go back to New York and be uninhibited,” is her father’s answer. Even Henry is baffled by Jean Louise’s inability to understand the Southern Way:
“You’ve got to make up your mind to one thing, Jean Louise. You’re gonna see change, you’re gonna see Maycomb change its face completely in our lifetime. Your trouble, now, you want to have your cake and eat it: you want to stop the clock, but you can’t. Sooner or later you’ll have to decide whether it’s Maycomb or New York.”
Go Set a Watchman is, at heart, a novel of the Civil War; its combatants just wear different colored uniforms now.

Ms. Lee works hard to make this an Important Book. Her points—and there are many—are well-taken, but their power is dulled by long stretches of dialogue and thought-bubble asides from Jean Louise, who serves as our tour guide through this post-Reconstruction South. Her thoughts on race relations are provocative and arguments are tossed back and forth like speeches at a college debate club tournament. The message of tolerance is received, but it’s delivered with thunderclaps.

But before we reach that point, we’re treated to what is Ms. Lee’s strongest suit: her sense of comic timing. In Go Set a Watchman, she can toss off a barbed witticism with as much finesse as her Southern sister, Flannery O’Connor. Most of the humor centers on the peculiarities of the South, as seen through the reformed eyes of Jean Louise:
In Maycomb, one drank or did not drink. When one drank, one went behind the garage, turned up a pint, and drank it down; when one did not drink, one asked for set-ups at the E-Lite Shop under cover of darkness: a man having a couple of drinks before or after dinner in his home or with his neighbor was unheard of. That was Social Drinking. Those who Drank Socially were not quite out of the top drawer, and because no one in Maycomb considered himself out of any drawer but the top, there was no Social Drinking.
Or take these lines from when the Finch entourage goes to church:
There’s nothing like a blood-curdling hymn to make you feel at home, thought Jean Louise. Any sense of isolation she may have had withered and died in the presence of some two hundred sinners earnestly requesting to be plunged beneath a red, redeeming flood.
The other forte of the novel comes in the many flashbacks involving Jean Louise’s brother Jem and a strange little boy named Dill (given name: Charles Baker Harris). Ms. Lee has a keen eye for capturing the joys, the hurts, and the confusions of childhood. In these scenes, summer afternoons stretch endlessly and are only broken by lemonade on the porch, playacting adventures from Tom Swift or re-staging a visiting minister’s church revival. The lush sentimentality in these scenes is warm and pleasurable. The childhood memories of Jean Louise (“Scout” as she was known then) are oases of enjoyment in Go Set a Watchman. One almost wishes Ms. Lee would write an entire novel set in the 1930s version of Maycomb. Maybe in her next novel.


Friday Freebie: The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar


Congratulations to Melissa Seng, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby.

This week’s book giveaway is The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar which will be released in paperback by Harper Perennial later this month. Here’s more about the book from the publisher’s jacket copy:

From the critically beloved, bestselling author of The World We Found and The Space Between Us, whom the New York Times Book Review calls a “perceptive and...piercing writer,” comes a profound, heartbreakingly honest novel about friendship, family, secrets, forgiveness, and second chances. An experienced psychologist, Maggie carefully maintains emotional distance from her patients. But when she meets a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, Lakshmi is desperately lonely and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store. Moved by her plight, Maggie treats Lakshmi in her home office for free, quickly realizing that the despondent woman doesn’t need a shrink; she needs a friend. Determined to empower Lakshmi as a woman who feels valued in her own right, Maggie abandons protocol, and soon doctor and patient have become close friends. But while their relationship is deeply affectionate, it is also warped by conflicting expectations. When Maggie and Lakshmi open up and share long-buried secrets, the revelations will jeopardize their close bond, shake their faith in each other, and force them to confront painful choices.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Story Hour, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 24.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

The New War Novel: I'd Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby


I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them
by Jesse Goolsby
Reviewed by J. A. Moad II

I’ve spent two decades reading, critiquing and writing about war literature, and for the first time in years I found myself pausing to reread passages, reflecting on the language and lingering over a page as the images of I'd Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them washed over me. By the time I finished reading this rich and compelling new novel, I realized something significant had occurred: the expectations of the genre have been transformed. The debut of this novel by Jesse Goolsby, nearly a decade and a half since 9/11, marks an important literary event. I’ll never view the fiction of our current wars in quite the same way.

As much as I wanted to reflect on this novel from simply a war literature perspective, I realized that doing so would be a disservice. Unlike much of the fiction emerging from a decade and a half of war, this novel defies expectations and transcends what many readers often expect from the genre. It not only captures the veteran experience, but it delves much deeper, mining the human longing for connection, a yearning for acceptance and the search for identity in this Twenty-First Century version of America. As the daughter of one Veteran reminds us in the book, “We’re only what we’ve been. What you want to be means nothing.”

Goolsby takes us on a journey with three soldiers. We’re transported back and forth across the years, from their shared time in Afghanistan to their days as boys growing up in a fragmented society, and to their lives years after the war. Through layered prose that resonates throughout the novel, he renders the complexities of young men transformed into soldiers. Unsentimental, with vivid and precise imagery, what emerges is a finely woven American tapestry — depictions of people struggling across the nation, from the East coast to the West, the small towns, landscapes and broken places within these young men, the soldiers they become, their families and the communities that helped define them. And yet, at its core, the work is about relationships, fathers and sons, lovers, sisters, mothers, and daughters, each of them rooted in a longing for acceptance and the desire to redefine a life forever altered by soldiers going off to war.

The novel examines the repercussions of our decisions as both individuals and as a nation. As a writer who understands the emotional toll of serving, Goolsby forces us to gaze unflinchingly inside the lives of these soldiers, the people who surround them, and the places they call home. Like all great literature, the work asks as much from the reader as it gives, prompting us to question, who are we, and how do move ahead in the aftermath of everything we’ve seen and done? As one character informs us:
He now knew that the pain of war, of the past two decades, of yesterday, would never recede all the way; the hurt simply finds new things to infect, things he has always loved—Christmas lights, interstate signs, hunting campfires, baseball games—but happiness and release also live somewhere among these things. He knew it was just a matter of finding them.

Whether it’s betrayal, the call of the sirens, sexual abuse, or the trauma of war, I'd Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them examines the enduring mental and physical pain that resonates across generations. Goolsby’s piercing insights into these men’s lives allows us to walk alongside them — to discover what they and their families can teach us. Their experiences become ours, and what we discover and rediscover along the way is that joining the military is always about absence, about the search for a definitive experience, departure and loss, the changes that ensue, and a return to a place each soldier once called home. Each day becomes an attempt to reconcile between the life they once knew and a present that is inextricably scarred by their experiences.

This novel shows us all the scars, reminds us of the broken parts within each of us, and the fragile world on which we try to ground ourselves. It is a reminder that whenever we return, we listen for the call of our name, for some hint that we matter, an echo of who we were, always and forever searching for ourselves across the years in a place we’ve lost along the way.


J.A. Moad II is a former Air Force C-130 pilot and English Professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He currently serves as the fiction editor and blogger for the journal, War, Literature & the Arts. His fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. He is the recipient of the 2014 Consequence Magazine Fiction Award, and is currently editing a draft of a novel about an American military in a not too-distant future. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota with his family and flies for Delta Airlines.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.




Harper Lee’s new novel can’t help but be a disappointment. Go Set a Watchman has a pole vault in hand, but it is bound to fall short of the high bar set by To Kill a Mockingbird. Readers have built such a wall of love around Mockingbird--a high, impenetrable wall--that any interloper who comes along, claiming the same pedigree, is immediately at a disadvantage. Fair? No. Inevitable? Yes. It doesn't help that Go Set a Watchman has a curious and rather dubious history. As the New York Times notes: “Though Watchman is being published for the first time now, it was essentially an early version of Mockingbird. According to news accounts, Watchman was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957; after her editor asked for a rewrite focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Ms. Lee spent some two years reworking the story, which became Mockingbird.”

I plan to start reading the Novel Everyone’s Talking About later today, and I’m going to give it a fair shake, but I’m a little worried about the rumblings I’ve heard from early reviews. Apparently, Go Set a Watchman transforms the beloved, square-jawed Atticus Finch character into a racist in his later years. Go Set a Watchman is set twenty years after the events of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel when Scout, now a grown-up Jean Louise, returns to Maycomb County, Alabama to visit her aging, ailing father. If what I’ve read is true, that visit will leave a sour stain on readers’ cherished memories of Atticus Finch, the character who was once voted the all-time seventh-greatest hero in literature. These are the times when I wish I could live in that proverbial cave so I could block out all the unnecessary noise surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

Here’s how I see it (in these last remaining hours before I actually read the book itself): I feel like a guy who’s just been told his favorite uncle--a smart, kind man who always told the greatest stories around the Thanksgiving table--has a son no one in the family had ever met. “Wonderful!” I think. “If he’s anything like his dad, I can’t wait to meet him.” And so I set a date to have this newfound cousin over for dinner, anticipating the fun times we’ll have together. But then, just before he arrives at my house, people start emailing me links to stories about Cousin Jack--disturbing accounts of unseemly behavior, lurid tales of his disreputable character, hints and allegations, scandals and rumors--all leading me to think he’s nothing like his father. One anonymous correspondent goes so far as to say, “You’ll wish he’d never been born.” As I set out the cheese-and-salami tray and uncork the chardonnay a few minutes before Jack is due to ring my doorbell, I try to push these negative insinuations from my head. I need to give him the benefit of the doubt. Having never met the guy, I feel he deserves a clean slate from the first handshake. Still, I know I’m in for an uncomfortable evening, given all I’ve been hearing.

Frankly, this video--a PBS American Masters “coda” from filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy who brought us the documentary Harper Lee: Hey, Boo--doesn’t do much to set my mind at ease. In fact, my trepidation is captured, unwittingly, by Lee’s dapper British agent Andrew Nurnberg when he says, “You can imagine, on the one hand, I was very excited that this existed; and on the other hand, as a professional, I was very wary because nobody ever knew about this. Perhaps this was something that shouldn’t have been published, perhaps this was something that wasn’t up to scratch....And the last thing you want to do in our profession is to milk something, or get enthusiastic about something that isn’t up to par.”

So, as I open the book to the first page, I am both excited and wary. But mostly wary. I have a feeling someone is about to kill my mockingbird. And we all know what Miss Maudie had to say about that: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”


Monday, July 13, 2015

My First Time: Tom Williams


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Tom Williams, the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don't Start Me Talkin’, and the new short story collection, Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. His fiction has appeared in such online and print venues as Boulevard, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, Florida Review, and Cream City Review. Williams is the Chair of the English Department at Morehead State University. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and their two children.

My First Short Story Collection

I blame Raymond Carver. I blame Bobbie Ann Mason. I blame Reginald McKnight, too. And while we’re at it, Lorrie Moore and Sandra Cisneros—if you consider The House on Mango Street, as I did, back in 1990, a collection of stories. Of course, had I not taken a workshop with Lee K. Abbott, I might not have been exposed to so many authors who made their literary debut with short story collections: Buddy Nordan and Steve Yarbrough, Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg, to name a few more. I would have likely succumbed anyway in Houston, where I not only studied with Mary but also James Robison, and, learned, like many of my peers, to overlook or outright ignore novels and memoirs (they weren’t even a thing until Tobias Wolff and Beverly Lowry invented creative nonfiction). Instead, we shared with each other the slim volumes of Rick Bass, Pam Houston, Mary Gaitskill, Dagoberto Gilb, and Carolyn Ferrell.

Later, there were my contemporaries, those I came to know after I graduated from U of H and began my first academic job. The author of three published stories (it was a lot easier to get a job back then) and a creative dissertation yearning to be a collection, I reveled, as a reader, in the accomplishments of Cris Mazza, Jessica Treat, George Singleton, Tom Franklin, Junot Diaz. Kevin Brockmeier, Thomas Glave, Jhumpa Lahiri. ZZ Packer. As the so-called writer I was, however, I read one page with admiration, the next with envy. Some of these people were younger than I. When would my turn come?

It didn’t help either that the past offered so many remarkable debut collections: Goodbye, Columbus. Hue and Cry. The Little Disturbances of Man. Gorilla, My Love. Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Uncle Tom’s Children. In Our Time. Hell, before all those gigantic and ponderous best sellers, James Michener appeared on the scene with a modest collection (and soon Pulitzer Prize winner and source of Broadway and Hollywood musicals), Tales of the South Pacific. And who can overlook those titles that, while not first book length fictions, helped establish their writers in the pantheon? A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Nine Stories. The Magic Barrel. Lost in the Funhouse. Airships, oh my god, Airships. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Distortions. Rock Springs.

I could go on.

But I hope by now the reader has figured it out: somewhere in my early writing life I became consumed by the idea that my first published book of fiction should be, had to be, a collection of short stories. Perhaps it was the sheen of all those Vintage Contemporary covers. There was also the parallel between the record album and the story collection—we still listened to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Nevermind and Exile in Guyville then. Story collections possessed, frankly, a greater degree of cool than novels. Tom Clancy wrote novels. Lydia Davis wrote stories. Whom did you want to hang with? Furthermore, one assumed novels were always flawed, even a slim and elegant number of the most delicate construction. A short story collection, with eight to a dozen winners (previously published in all the right journals) could near perfection, a state which all we word-worriers were so eager to achieve.

It was with all this and more in my mind that I passed many a bookless year trying to craft my collection. I sent off a copy of my dissertation to the Drue Heinz or Iowa competition sometime shortly after graduation but little came of that, save for the debit from my checking account for the submission fee. Undaunted, I wrestled the next group of stories into into various book length manuscripts, which I submitted to contests. Individual stories saw their way into print, yet I saw little to indicate my talents at short story writing matched my ambition. No runner up or finalist accolades for my collections. No inquiries from smaller presses or agents. For a time I left behind short story writing entirely and drafted a novel (oh, the shame I felt when I walked past my copies of Dubliners and Labyrinths) but its fate mirrored that of my story collections, and I wondered if I might not get a turn, any turn, at all.

Did I ever get close? Let’s say a terrific and uncommonly helpful writer (he’s named somewhere above) once told me he would aid me as best he could to get that debut collection in the world. Imagine I wasted no time in mailing him a copy, which he then praised and said I should send it with his recommendation to one university press who still published fiction. Pretend that press said no and the author recommended another university press, who kept my stories almost a year before offering some faint praise and a big fat no thanks. (At least they returned the manuscript.) If I didn’t think ninety-five percent of the writers my age have a similar story, I’d pull this one out at every AWP and just wait for the free sympathy drinks to come at the hotel bar.

In the end, though, what prevented my publishing a debut short story collection should be counted as a success: I published a novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice, which had once been part of a collection. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little bit sad watching my dream of book publication come at the expense of my dream of a debut story collection. This is ridiculous, of course. There is never a time to say no to a book being published when the publisher’s not a scam artist. I’m so grateful that book came out. I’ve heard from real readers that they feel the same. And I’m honored that my second book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, a novel (that coincidentally started as a short story), is on bookshelves other than my own.

So it is now—nearly three full decades since I harbored the dream of seeing a short story collection come out—that my wish has come true. While in no way my first written collection, it is my first published collection: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. And as the good people at Texas Review Press have done such amazing work to get it ready, I feel it is my most representative book, constructed of tales as recent as two years ago and others conceived of and written in the previous century. Moreover, its existence clarifies to me exactly why I once viewed the debut collection as so indispensable to the writing life: the short story itself was and still is a form only a writer cares about. No one in the seat next to you says on the plane, “You’re a writer? Lemme tell you this idea I have for a short story.” Your third cousin doesn’t say at the reunion, “Living with my fourth wife was stranger than any short story you could write.” Yet when I made my commitment to writing fiction, it was through a short story. A bad one. One that even revised I could only muster a B plus from a generous instructor. Yet that achievement established, in my mind, the notion that I could do this again. That I might even do better. Which is why when those stories I read—“Where I’m Calling From,” “Shiloh,” “Uncle Moustapha’s Eclipse,” “How to Become a Writer,” “Hairs”—led me to the books they could be found in, the stories I wanted, no, needed to tell, started to appear.

So forgive me for getting a little lyrical and nostalgic: but the book I hold in my hands, my first published collection of stories, seems to have on every page some emblem of the writer I was when I didn’t know what I was doing, when every story I read entered my imagination in a way that altered what I might do with characters, plots, point of view, scene and setting. Don’t get me wrong: I think I’m a pretty good novelist. I want to write more. My best book might be a novella. But the short story got to me first. It made me want to be the writer I am today.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Sentence: “The Sick Wife” by Jane Kenyon


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.*


               Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers
               in the cars of the prosperous.


“The Sick Wife” by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise: New & Selected Poems


*I’m going to break my rules this week with a note of explanation. For the past six weeks, I’ve made my way through Otherwise in deliberately slow fashion so I could savor Jane Kenyon’s poetry. Today, I turned the last page--an act of both joy and melancholy, as happens whenever I finish a great book and am loath to leave it. “The Sick Wife” is the last poem Jane wrote before her death. I’ll turn this over to her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who writes in an Afterword positioned just before this final poem:
     Jane died of leukemia on 22 April 1995. The disease was diagnosed in January of 1994, in a virulent form; chemotherapy could induce remission but could not sustain it, and only a bone marrow transplant (BMT) offered hope for extended life. In October of 1994, we flew to Seattle where the Fred C. Hutchinson Cancer Center takes on hard cases. A new marrow from an anonymous donor was infused on November 18th, Jane was discharged to a Seattle apartment December 20th, and we returned to New Hampshire with good hope on 24 February 1995.
     For six weeks her blood counts improved. She was weak and impaired, as expected after a BMT; it would take a year for her to recover. She could read little, and she could not write because an anti-rejection drug disabled her fingers. Nevertheless, she began work on this book, proposed by Graywolf in November as she underwent the transplant. Jane wanted to omit early poems that she had later outdone, and slighter things from all her books. Following her directions, I photocopied selections from her books and assembled new uncollected poems; she had published six, and there were fourteen more in her study--more finished poems than she had remembered. She intended to complete the book as her strength came back. But on 11 April 1995, bloodwork revealed that leukemia had returned. There was nothing to do and she died eleven days later, at home in our bed as she wished.
     In the first five days of her dying, we finished this book. I read her titles of poems selected and omitted. I read passages aloud when I argued for the inclusion of a poem she doubted....
     Of the twenty finished new poems, only “Eating the Cookies” came after her illness, on the occasion of my mother’s death in March of 1994. In late May and early June....[Jane] enjoyed a good patch. Her mental and physical energy allowed her sessions at her desk. After readmission to the hospital, 21 June 1994, she finished no more poems.
     She started one in March of 1995, back in New Hampshire before the leukemia returned, but she did not survive to finish it. On March 8th, with Jane slowly improving, I left her for eight hours. Our friend Mary Jane Ogmundson stayed with her, and Jane dictated a draft of “The Sick Wife.” Typed, it lay on a reading table beside her chair. On several occasions she dictated a revision, and a new draft replaced the old. She would have made more changes if she had lived. I put it here as her last word.