Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Freebie: I Refuse by Per Petterson


Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: Lions, the new novel by Bonnie Nadzam.

This week’s book contest is for I Refuse by Per Petterson. As a long-time fan of the Norwegian novelist’s work, I’m very happy to be giving away a paperback copy of this book, released earlier this year by Graywolf Press. As TIME magazine notes, “Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape paintingall shafts of light and clear palpable chill.” Read on for more information about I Refuse from the publisher’s website...

Per Petterson’s hotly anticipated new novel, I Refuse, is the work of an internationally acclaimed novelist at the height of his powers. In Norway the book has been a huge bestseller, and rights have already been sold into sixteen countries. In his signature spare style, Petterson weaves a tale of two men whose accidental meeting one morning recalls their boyhood thirty-five years ago. Back then, Tommy was separated from his sisters after he stood up to their abusive father. Jim was by Tommy’s side through it all. But one winter night, a chance event on a frozen lake forever changed the balance of their friendship. Now Jim fishes alone on a bridge as Tommy drives by in a new Mercedes, and it’s clear their fortunes have reversed. Over the course of the day, the life of each man will be irrevocably altered. I Refuse is a powerful, unforgettable novel, and its publication is an event to be celebrated.

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


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 29. 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.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund


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




After watching the unsettling trailer for the new novel The Crow Girl, I’ve decided to swear off the following: abandoned mental hospitals, dirty hypodermic needles, and girls with scribbled-out faces. I’m reluctant to fall asleep tonight because who knows what will show up. Maybe a tuxedo’ed man in a wheelchair sporting a pig’s mask who’ll lead me through the dark, dank corridors of my imagination. Or maybe someone will repeatedly plunge a needle into my forearm without taking anything out or putting anything in. One way or the other, I doubt I’ll be sleeping with bunnies, rainbows and prancing unicorns. The Crow Girl is the latest Swedish important to terrorize our shores after we’ve been repeatedly Stieg Larsson’ed and Jo Nesbo’ed half to death. The debut novel by Erik Axl Sund (the pen name of writing duo Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist) has a familiar plot. It pairs a detective with a therapist (been there) who team up to track down a child killer (done that), but what sets this novel apart is its pace and manner of unspooling the tension. As Lloyd Sachs writes in the Chicago Tribune, “This book’s engine never stops humming.” The novel’s trailer also runs on full acceleration, fueled by an industrial-rock soundtrack by Peace, Love and Pitbulls and enough shaky-cam shots to make The Blair Witch Project look like a slow ride across a smooth lake. One thing I’ll say about The Crow Girl’s trailer: it certainly sets the mood and gets readers in the right frame of mind before they enter the dark hallways of the 800-page novel. Welcome to Creepytown, Sweden—Population: You.


Monday, July 18, 2016

My First Time: Jamie Duclos-Yourdon


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 Jamie Duclos-Yourdon, author of the novel Froelich’s Ladder, which will be released by Forest Avenue Press next month. Steve Hockensmith, author of Holmes on the Range, had this to say about the book: “Half (extremely) tall tale, half picaresque quest, and all entertaining, Froelich’s Ladder paints a picture of the American frontier that’s more original—yet perhaps more true—than any I’ve encountered in a long, long time. Readers who appreciate the cockeyed historical vision of writers like Charles Portis, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan, and Patrick deWitt need to add Jamie Duclos-Yourdon to their to-read lists today.” Jamie received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Underneath the Juniper Tree, and Chicago Literati, and he has contributed essays and interviews to Booktrib. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


My First Cover

For a first-time author, cover art is a large part of what makes a book real, along with the satisfying thump you get when you drop it. The publication of my debut novel, Froelich’s Ladder, has been my first experience with cover design. My fiction has appeared in print before—in journals or on websites—but never has a graphic designer coupled his or her imagery to my words.

I had the good fortune to sign with Forest Avenue Press, which is independently owned and run by Laura Stanfill. This means I was deeply involved in the publication process, beyond the drafting and revising of the manuscript. I contacted other authors to request blurbs; I walked into bookstores to approach event coordinators; and I was asked to give my opinion on cover art. Had Froelich’s Ladder been acquired by a big-five publishing house, a functionary might’ve informed me, “Good news! Here’s your cover. It’s done.” Instead, I was introduced to Gigi Little.

Gigi has designed the covers for Forest Avenue Press’s entire catalogue, not that you’d be able to tell. Her aesthetic is fluid, matching her sensibilities to the particular novel she’s representing. Before I saw early layouts, I cornered Gigi at a barbeque and asked her, “How much of the book do you read? Like, a lot or a little? It’s going to have a ladder on it, right? I mean, it has to. I always envisioned the perspective of someone standing below and looking up. Not that you’ve got to do that. I don’t know, what do you think?” Gigi smiled, bought herself a little time by chewing, and essentially said, “I read as much as I need to.”

She would eventually design three separate covers—or, rather, she was in the process of designing a third cover when she delivered the first two. Cover #1 was closest to what I’d originally envisioned. It was the literal (which is to say, three-dimensional) view from underneath a ladder. The stiles were exquisitely detailed and vanished into the clouds, with strands of ivy weaved between the rungs. It was breath-taking; unfortunately, it was also reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk. I worried the reader would think I’d done a poor job of a modern retelling. “Where’s the giant? Where’s the golden egg? You suck, Duclos-Yourdon!”

Cover #2 was akin to a cartoon; it was two-dimensional with bright colors. I enjoyed its playfulness, but now I worried we were getting away from the genre of historical fiction. I decided that Cover #1 could work if we removed the ivy and played around with the font (which Gigi had also designed). Maybe I could go back and reference Jack and the Beanstalk—if not the premise, then a wink to improbable heights. Luckily, I had Laura to act as my intermediary. However well-intentioned these sentiments may have been, I easily could’ve offended Gigi by sharing my notes.



At this point, Gigi was still toying with a third cover design. I’d got a peek at her early sketches, after which I referred to Cover #3 as the Chaucer cover, because of its intricate scrollwork. Drawing inspiration from books released in 1871, the year that Froelich’s Ladder is set, Gigi wrote on her website:
I just love the ornate lettering and the fancy borders and, well, everything about these old book covers. What works of art. I loved the idea of doing a modern spin on them, something that retained the lavishness but also added a hint of the whimsy that is a part of the book. The two books I drew the most inspiration from were…The Count of Monte Cristo, published by George Rutledge and Sons, Limited. I wish there were an easy way to find out who created these covers. The listing where I found this book said that the book is illustrated with 20 etchings by M. Valentin, but the cover artist was probably someone completely different. The second is a book called Burns Illustrated. I know nothing about this book except that it was published in 1871 by Belford, Clarke and Company. I loved the typography and the title banner in this one. And the nearly non-stop ornamentation. I let myself soak in these fabulous book covers like some fancy, gilded bath, and I picked and chose what to glean from them, musing on how best to incorporate all the elements we needed, including a kick-ass blurb by Brian Doyle. Then I used a color scheme that was reminiscent of the classic red and gold but updated into something modern. Funny to be tootling around on Adobe Illustrator, making minute movements with a mouse, creating something electronically that nonetheless hearkens back to book covers that fabulous artisans created, more than a century ago, using such a very different process.

When Gigi shared the final Chaucer cover with me it was love at first sight. In a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, the vibrant colors will draw a reader’s eye—quite possibly from across the room. Beyond that, Gigi has captured the era, central metaphor, and overall whimsy of the novel in a static image. Me, I have trouble describing the plot in under three minutes; Gigi’s cover is the elevator pitch I never mastered. And, ultimately, it will contribute as much to the novel’s success as anything I wrote.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sunday Sentence: A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler


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


My daughter is so beautiful you can put her face on your dimes and quarters and no one could ever make change again in your goddamn country without stopping and saying, Oh my God, what a beautiful face.

“Letters From My Father” from
A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler


Friday, July 15, 2016

Reading With My Octopus Hands...Again



Overbooked, under-timed.

Yes, I’m reading with my “octopus hands” again. In the past three weeks, I’ve started new books like a salt water taffy addict unable to stop after unwrapping the first piece. Book after book keeps getting added to my currently-reading list. The truth is, I am enjoying every one of these books, each in their own way. Since we’re heading into the weekend and I have a little extra time on my hands (ha!), I thought I’d give you a quick snapshot of what’s currently passing in front of my eyes.

Not everyone can say what they feel in words, especially words on paper. Not everyone can look at a camera and make their face do what it has to do to show a feeling.
On the Kindle, it’s Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. I’ve meant to read Butler’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of short stories for yearsnay, decadesbut it has always somehow eluded my grasp. There’s always something newer, shinier, louder to snag my attention and good intentions fall by the wayside. Last week, I figured enough was enough. Damn the new Michael Chabon and full steam ahead into these stories of Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans. Collections of this size typically have one or two weaker stories; I’m halfway through A Good Scent and I haven’t found a single stinker. On the contrary, these tales are strong, strong, strong.

There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.
On the iPod, Timothy West has been reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers to me in his velvet-lined, dulcet tones. There are approximately 54,987 characters in this novel and it can be a chore to keep them all separate and distinct from one anotherespecially when one is only sipping at the audiobook in the short 12-minute drive to one’s workplacebut Mr. West more than fulfills his role as Best Audiobook Narrator I’ve Ever Heard in the way he fully inhabits each of Trollope’s residents of the fictitious cathedral city of Barchester. Over time, I’ve come to think of Septimus Harding, Mr. Arabin, Bishop Proudie (and his hen-pecking wife), the Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni and, especially, the oily Obadiah Slope as comfortable pieces of furniture upon which to sit. By the way, Barchester Towers and A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain are part of my five-year Essentials Reading Plan (on which I’m making decent progress).

The paradox of auto tourism brings the natural world close up but it remains, figuratively if not literally, beyond the windshield: closer but still removed, beyond the footlights...we often remain seated, passive, and virtual: spectators at least one remove from sensory participation in the mountain scenery. The outside is magnified yet we remain within a theater of glass walls, bodily detached. We love to sit, especially behind or above an engine.
Full disclosure: O. Alan Weltzien is a friend of mine and, consequently, I’ve been hearing about his “volcano book” for a number of years. When I say Exceptional Mountains was as high on my much-anticipated list as a climber summiting Mount Hood, I’m not exaggerating. Now that I have a copy firmly in hand, I’m happy to report the wait was worth it. The book is a fascinating and illuminating study of why and how we love, revere, and abuse our favorite Pacific Northwest volcano-mountains. A lifelong climber and outdoorsman, Weltzien takes us on a sociological, cultural, political and ecological tour of the slopes of Mounts Rainier, Hood, Baker, Adams, St. Helens and others. While visiting my daughter in Tacoma last week, I’d hoped to take a quick trip up to Mount Rainier, Exceptional Mountains in hand, to get a selfie (a “bookie”?), melding the wonderful cover design with the actual mountain itself; but alas, I never made it to the park. I had to settle for a distant, cloud-shrouded view of Rainier and comfort myself with the zoom-in, telescopic pictures Weltzien paints in his pages. I heartily recommend Exceptional Mountains to anyone interested in how we interact with our wild places.

As ravening fire rips through big stands of timber
high on a mountain ridge and the blaze flares miles away,
so from the marching troops the blaze of bronze armor,
splendid and superhuman, flared across the earth,
flashing into the air to hit the skies.

I cannot recall when I first read The Iliadjunior high? my first year in college?but it is far enough behind me that I knew I needed to revisit Homer to refresh my memory of Achilles’ Adventures in WarLand. When my editor at Grove Atlantic, going over his notes on my new novel, mentioned The Odyssey in the same breath as Braver Deeds, I turned to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad to determine just how delusional my editor really was. I don’t remember which translation I read back in my younger days (Richmond Lattimore? Robert Graves?), but I’m confident that Fagles’ translation leaves them in the dust: bloodied, broken and mangled. These lines are alive and writhing and make for hardy sailing through the Trojan War. Bernard Knox’s introduction is lengthy, but also very enlightening. I especially liked this summation: “The Iliad is a poem that lives and moves and has its being in war, in that world of organized violence in which a man justifies his existence most clearly by killing others.” P.S. I still think my editor is delusional when he calls my novel Homeric, but I love him anyway.

But by night Martin sat alone, tousled, drinking steadily, living on whisky and hate, freeing his soul and dissolving his body by hatred as once hermits dissolved theirs by ecstasy.
This has been my Summer of Sinclair. Starting with Main Street and moving through Babbitt and now Arrowsmith, I’m hitting Sinclair Lewis’ greatest hits (also part of my Reading Essentials plan). Up next: Elmer Gantry and then I’ll wrap up with Dodsworth (I don’t have the time to read the entire Lewis canon, for Pete’s sake!). While Arrowsmith isn’t as scathingly satirical as Babbitt and Main Street, it shows a definite maturity in Lewis’ ability to develop his characters. I’ve gotten so deeply involved in this saga of scientist-doctor Martin Arrowsmith trying to find a cure for disease that when I mentioned I was reading it to my wife, she said, “Oh, just like the rock band.” I’ll admit I had a Stupid Moment right then and there; somehow, I’d never made the linguistic bridge between the rockers and Mr. Lewis (though, according to at least one source, the novel was not the original inspiration for the band’s name).

He had...“an extraordinary energy of speech, a very great diversity of ideas, a certain air of frenzy in his look, speech and gait, a frenzy half comic, half melancholy.”
Throughout my Sinclairian odyssey, I’ve been using Mark Schorer’s 1961 tremendous (and tremendously-thick) biography as my roadmap. I’m taking my time with Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, trying not to get too far ahead as I read Lewis’ major novels in chronological order. Schorer strikes the right balance of scholarly reportage, respect for the author’s work, and forthright, painful honesty. To wit, the first sentence of the biography: He was a queer boy, always an outsider, lonely.


Poem Taking Place Before Lights Were Electrified
A man at a round table, his work boot
heeled on the rung of his chair,
his head in a black plate of blood.
I could see the bottle and the pan bread
through the blazing pine knots;
I watched the man who just shot him
walk the puncheon floor
bellowing My brother, my blood...
hoist the man onto his back
and stumble into a fine, filthy snow.

Ten lines, sixty-eight wordsand yet, C. D. Wright manages to pack a novel’s worth of story into that one poem. And, man, that phrase “a black plate of blood“ will stick with me for a long time. Shallcross, published after the poet’s sudden death in January this year, is easily one of the best collections of poetry I’ve read this year (and I’ve read quite a few). In these pages, she pushes the boundaries of form while never losing the reader in a jimble-jumble of show-off poetics. One long sequence, “Breathtaken,” documents the murders in New Orleans across a two-year time span and the spare, haunting way she describes the victims’ bodies comes at us like startling flashes from the camera of a crime-scene photographer. It’s sad, sobering, and should be mandatory reading for every member of Congress. My favorite part of Shallcross, however, is the section called “40 Watt,” from which the above poem is taken. Each one of them reads like notes for a Raymond Carver short story; they are fascinating in their precision and compression. Worlds within worlds.

     I’m thinking of ending things.     Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates. There’s not much I can do about it. Trust me. It doesn’t go away. It’s there whether I like it or not. It’s there when I eat. When I go to bed. It’s there when I sleep. It’s there when I wake up. It’s always there. Always.
A late entry into my “Oh-My-God-I’ve-Already-Got-Too-Much-To-Read” pile, Iain Reed’s creepy novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things has held my attention for the past two days. I was initially attracted to the book not only by those unnerving opening lines quoted above, but also by the blurb by Nick Cutter (author of The Troop), who said, “Here are some near-certainties about I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Number One: You’re going to read it fast. Over the course of an afternoon or an evening. The momentum is unstoppable—once you start, you won’t be able to stop. And Two: once you race to the end and understand the significance of those final pages, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.” Well, I haven’t finished the 210-page novel in one sitting, or even in two days (I blame my octopus hands), but I am certainly thinking about it during nearly all my waking (and troubled-dream sleeping) hours. I’m midway through and I don’t know where it’s heading, but there are enough odd, scary things getting under my skin that I think I’ll probably swallow the rest of this book-pill today. No guarantee of sleep tonight, of course.


Friday Freebie: Lions by Bonnie Nadzam


Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: Emotional Rescue by Ben Greenman.

This week’s book contest is for Lions, the new novel by Bonnie Nadzam. I teased you with a sneak peek of the book yesterday, and now I’m giving you a chance to win a copy. Mike Harvkey, author of In the Course of Human Events, had this to say about Lions: “Set in a rural heartland town so close to death its few remaining residents mingle with ghosts, Lions is a wonderfully original and unsettling novel about the stories we tell ourselves, the lies we tell each other, and the dreams we all cling to in this place called America. Bonnie Nadzam crafts novels the way born storytellers spin yarns around the campfire, her patient, hushed voice drawing us ever closer until she's convinced us of the impossible.” Read on for more information about the book...

Bonnie Nadzam—author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning debut, Lamb—returns with this scorching, haunting portrait of a rural community in a “living ghost town” on the brink of collapse, and the individuals who are confronted with either chasing their dreams or—against all reason—staying where they are. Lions is set on the high plains of Colorado, a nearly deserted place, steeped in local legends and sparse in population. Built to be a glorious western city upon a hill, it was never fit for farming, mining, trading, or any of the illusory sources of wealth its pioneers imagined. The Walkers have been settled on its barren terrain for generations—a simple family in a town otherwise still taken in by stories of bigger, better, brighter. When a traveling stranger appears one day, his unsettling presence sets off a chain reaction that will change the fates of everyone he encounters. It begins with the patriarch John Walker as he succumbs to a heart attack. His devastated son Gordon is forced to choose between leaving for college with his girlfriend, Leigh, and staying with his family to look after their flailing welding shop and, it is believed, to continue carrying out a mysterious task bequeathed to all Walker men. While Leigh is desperate to make a better life in the world beyond the desolation of Lions, Gordon is strangely hesitant to leave it behind. As more families abandon the town, he is faced with what seem to be their reasonable choices and the burden of betraying his own heart. A story of awakening, Lions is an exquisite novel that explores ambition and an American obsession with self-improvement, the responsibilities we have to ourselves and each other, as well as the everyday illusions that pass for a life worth living.

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


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 22. 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 14, 2016

Front Porch Books: July 2016 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.


Angels of Detroit
by Christopher Hebert
(Bloomsbury)

It may not be a rule that a novel about Detroit should contain an automobile in the first sentence, but in the case of Christopher Hebert’s new novel, the first two words “The car” seem wholly appropriate and foretell good things to come. Angels of Detroit is a big book, as in “epic big,” and I’m looking forward to settling into the passenger’s seat in the months to come.

Jacket Copy:  Once an example of American industrial might, Detroit has gone bankrupt, its streets dark, its storefronts vacant. Miles of city blocks lie empty, saplings growing through the cracked foundations of abandoned buildings. In razor-sharp, beguiling prose, Angels of Detroit draws us into the lives of multiple characters struggling to define their futures in this desolate landscape: a scrappy group of activists trying to save the city with placards and protests; a curious child who knows the blighted city as her own personal playground; an elderly great-grandmother eking out a community garden in an oil-soaked patch of dirt; a carpenter with an explosive idea of how to give the city a new start; a confused idealist who has stumbled into debt to a human trafficker; a weary corporate executive who believes she is doing right by the city she remembers at its prime—each of their desires is distinct, and their visions for a better city are on a collision course. In this propulsive, masterfully plotted epic, an urban wasteland whose history is plagued with riots and unrest is reimagined as an ambiguous new frontier—a site of tenacity and possible hope. Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert's magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time.

Opening Lines:  The car was a late-model Oldsmobile, the interior dank and musty, and the driver bore the distinctly sweet, rotting smell of overripe bananas. Lucius was his name. Thick dark hair sprouted from his knuckles in wild tufts. They were in southeastern Kansas, heading east as Patsy Cline quavered through a pair of broken speakers.

Blurbworthiness:  “A Dickensian collection of Motor City characters bent on personal survival and rebuilding what they can...Ambitious, well-paced, observant—Angels of Detroit is a first-rate novel of flawed but admirable characters who want a brighter future in what one of them calls the new Old West.”  (Shelf Awareness)


We Show What We Have Learned
by Clare Beams
(Lookout Books)

I’ve harvested a bumper crop of short story collections this month; so many good-looking ones keep turning up on my front doorstep...much to my delight. Chief among them is this debut by Clare Beams which comes with a front-cover endorsement by Joyce Carol Oates (“wickedly sharp-eyed, wholly unpredictable, and wholly engaging”). I am wholly ready to enter these stories (one of which, “World's End,” I already read—and loved—in One Story).

Jacket Copy:  The literary, historic, and fantastic collide in these wise and exquisitely unsettling stories. From bewildering assemblies in school auditoriums to the murky waters of a Depression-era health resort, Beams’s landscapes are tinged with otherworldliness, and her characters’ desires stretch the limits of reality. Ingénues at a boarding school bind themselves to their headmaster’s vision of perfection; a nineteenth-century landscape architect embarks on his first major project, but finds the terrain of class and power intractable; a bride glimpses her husband’s past when she wears his World War II parachute as a gown; and a teacher comes undone in front of her astonished fifth graders. As they capture the strangeness of being human, the stories in We Show What We Have Learned reveal Clare Beams’s rare and capacious imagination—and yet they are grounded in emotional complexity, illuminating the ways we attempt to transform ourselves, our surroundings, and each other.

Opening Lines:  “A transformational education,” the newspaper ad had promised, so we went to the Gilchrist School to find out whether that promise could include me. With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.

Blurbworthiness:  “An elegant and assured debut, packed with confident prose—and stories with novel-like wholeness in the way of [Alice] Munro and [John] Cheever. The stories are imaginative and flecked with darkness and subtle societal commentary in the manner of Margaret Atwood; the characters are complex and rendered with psychological acuity. Smart, savage, and compulsively readable.”  (Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women)


Monsters in Appalachia
by Sheryl Monks
(Vandalia Press)

Skimming through the first lines of Sheryl Monks’ stories, one thing becomes very clear: this is an author strong with voice (that impossible-to-be-taught quality good writers bring to the page, the je ne sais quoi of style). Here are just a few, randomly-chosen openers from Monsters in Appalachia:
     It had come a sudden shower. 
     This old girl wasn’t much to look at, but she took a shine to me that wore me down after a while. 
     She hears the dogs coming round now, bugling louder as they draw near, bawling out in unbridled rapture.
Indeed, I’m expecting plenty of “unbridled rapture” in the pages to come. These are stories I can take a shine to.

Jacket Copy:  The characters within these fifteen stories are in one way or another staring into the abyss. While some are awaiting redemption, others are fully complicit in their own undoing. We come upon them in the mountains of West Virginia, in the backyards of rural North Carolina, and at tourist traps along Route 66, where they smolder with hidden desires and struggle to resist the temptations that plague them. A Melungeon woman has killed her abusive husband and drives by the home of her son’s new foster family, hoping to lure the boy back. An elderly couple witnesses the end-times and is forced to hunt monsters if they hope to survive. A young girl “tanning and manning” with her mother and aunt resists being indoctrinated by their ideas about men. A preacher’s daughter follows in the footsteps of her backsliding mother as she seduces a man who looks a lot like the devil. A master of Appalachian dialect and colloquial speech, Monks writes prose that is dark, taut, and muscular, but also beguiling and playful. Monsters in Appalachia is a powerful work of fiction.

Opening Lines:  All the children had been given away, and now Darcus Mullins found herself driving the curving road up toward Isaban to look again at the burning slag heap.

Blurbworthiness:  “A fresh, new voice in contemporary fiction, in stories of teenage angst, bonds of family, motherhood, and contradictions of middle age. Always surprising, these stories conjure both sorrow and mystery with intimate, loving detail.”  (Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek)


A Bloom of Bones
by Allen Morris Jones
(Ig Publishing)

In the past, I’ve sent out literary APBs for authors whose early works I loved but who then seemed to fall off the publishing radar. I was about to issue one for Allen Morris Jones because I loved his debut novel Last Year’s River and thinking about it conjures up something like the fireworks excitement with which a shy wallflower-y teenager remembers the taste of a first kiss. I should add that Allen lives less than 100 miles from me, just over a mountain pass, and I see him frequently at book events around Montana...so I know he has fallen off the radar; but it has been too long of a dry spell between novels from him (perhaps Allen feels the same way himself). And thenBOOM!an e-galley of a new novel (his first in 15 years) landed on my Kindle, courtesy of Edelweiss. A Bloom of Bones shoots straight to the top of my TBR queue. The literary cops can ignore that APB and head on back to the donut shop.

Jacket Copy:  Eli Singer, a rancher and poet in remote Eastern Montana, sees his life upended when a long-buried corpse—which turns out to be a murder victim from Eli's childhood—erodes out of a hillside on his property. This discovery forces Eli to turn inward to revisit the tragic events in his past that led to a life-changing moment of violence, while at the same time he must reach outside himself toward Chloe, a literary agent from New York whom he is falling in love with. In the tradition of such classic western writers as Thomas McGuane, James Lee Burke, Ivan Doig and Jim Harrison, A Bloom of Bones is a poignant and moving exploration of family, community, and the echoing ramifications of violence across generations, as well as a genre-subverting literary mystery.

Opening Lines:  I said, “That big bullet went right on through, didn’t it?” It was too cold to snow but still it was snowing; a thin sheet of gauze twisting around the porch light.
     Buddy kicked through frozen marbles of blood, scattered them, swept them aside with his boot. He knelt and rose, hoisting the body across one shoulder. Voice muffled by a wool scarf, he said, “Leaking?”
     “What?”
     “Is he leaking anywhere?”
     “I don’t see it.”
     “All right then.”
     “That big bullet went plumb through, didn’t it?”
     “Will you quit with the goddamned questions? Just for once?” A gentle man, Buddy rarely cussed, seldom rebuked, never raised his voice. I stood abashed, one breath from tears. He inhaled hard through his nose, shifted the body on his shoulders. “Let’s just get this done.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Allen Jones’s A Bloom of Bones is simply riveting. Always lyrical, often wise, filled with vitality, and the promise that love and loyalty can surmount the darkness in our lives. I couldn’t put it down.”  (Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life)



Lions
by Bonnie Nadzam
(Grove Atlantic)

At the start of her new novel, Bonnie Nadzam tells us, “There were never any lions.” No, but there is some gorgeous, evocative prose in those opening lines which describe a decayed town in Colorado (see below). By the promise of those sentences alone, this will be a haunting, memorable novel to savor.

Jacket Copy:  Bonnie Nadzam—author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning debut, Lamb—returns with this scorching, haunting portrait of a rural community in a “living ghost town” on the brink of collapse, and the individuals who are confronted with either chasing their dreams or—against all reason—staying where they are. Lions is set on the high plains of Colorado, a nearly deserted place, steeped in local legends and sparse in population. Built to be a glorious western city upon a hill, it was never fit for farming, mining, trading, or any of the illusory sources of wealth its pioneers imagined. The Walkers have been settled on its barren terrain for generations—a simple family in a town otherwise still taken in by stories of bigger, better, brighter. When a traveling stranger appears one day, his unsettling presence sets off a chain reaction that will change the fates of everyone he encounters. It begins with the patriarch John Walker as he succumbs to a heart attack. His devastated son Gordon is forced to choose between leaving for college with his girlfriend, Leigh, and staying with his family to look after their flailing welding shop and, it is believed, to continue carrying out a mysterious task bequeathed to all Walker men. While Leigh is desperate to make a better life in the world beyond the desolation of Lions, Gordon is strangely hesitant to leave it behind. As more families abandon the town, he is faced with what seem to be their reasonable choices and the burden of betraying his own heart. A story of awakening, Lions is an exquisite novel that explores ambition and an American obsession with self-improvement, the responsibilities we have to ourselves and each other, as well as the everyday illusions that pass for a life worth living.

Opening Lines:  If you’ve ever really loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything. Once you see it, you see it everywhere. It looks out at you from the stillness of a rail-backed chair. From the old 1952 Massey-Harris Pony tractor out front, its once shining red metal now a rust-splotched pink, headlights broken off. No eyes.
     Picture high plains in late spring. Green rows of winter wheat combed across the flat, wide-open ground. The derelict sugar beet factory, its thousands of red bricks fenced in by chain-link clotted with Russian thistle. Farther down the two-lane highway, the moon rising like an egg over the hollow grain elevator, rusted at its seams. To the north and west, the sparsely populated town. Golden rectangles of a few lit windows floating above the plain.
     They called it Lions, a name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it had been first imagined, then sought and spuriously claimed. There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass. The wind scours it constantly, scrubbing the sage and sweeping out all the deserted buildings and weathered homes, cleaning out those that aren’t already bare. Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it. The horizon makes as clean and slight a curve as if lathed by a master craftsman. Nothing is hidden.

Blurbworthiness:  “Here comes Lions: a glittering dust storm, spinning every fantasy of the West, of small town America, together with the truth of a set of lives as real and precise as our own. Sweep us, up, Bonnie Nadzam, we are all yours.” (Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here Except All of Us)


Moonglow
by Michael Chabon
(Harper)

My typical six-word response when I get my hands on a new Michael Chabon novel: “Hello, boss? I’m calling in sick.”

Jacket Copy:  The keeping of secrets and the telling of lies; sex and desire and ordinary love; existential doubt and model rocketry—all feature in the new novel from the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Moonglow unfolds as a deathbed confession. An old man, tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, tells stories to his grandson, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried. From the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of a New York prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of “the American Century,” Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring and his most moving.

Opening Lines:  This is how I heard the story. When Alger Hiss got out of prison, he had a hard time finding a job. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School, had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes and helped charter the United Nations, yet he was also a convicted perjurer and notorious as a tool of international communism. He had published a memoir, but it was dull stuff and no one wanted to read it. His wife had left him. He was broke and hopeless. In the end one of his remaining friends took pity on the bastard and pulled a string. Hiss was hired by a New York firm that manufactured and sold a kind of fancy barrette made from loops of piano wire. Feathercombs, Inc., had gotten off to a good start but had come under attack from a bigger competitor that copied its designs, infringed on its trademarks, and undercut its pricing. Sales had dwindled. Payroll was tight. In order to make room for Hiss, somebody had to be let go.
      In an account of my grandfather’s arrest, in the Daily News for May 25, 1957, he is described by an unnamed coworker as “the quiet type.” To his fellow salesmen at Feathercombs, he was a homburg on the coat rack in the corner. He was the hardest-working but least effective member of the Feathercombs sales force. On his lunch breaks he holed up with a sandwich and the latest issue of Sky and Telescope or Aviation Week. It was known that he drove a Crosley, had a foreign-born wife and a teenage daughter and lived with them somewhere in deepest Bergen County. Before the day of his arrest, my grandfather had distinguished himself to his coworkers only twice. During Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, when the office radio failed, my grandfather had repaired it with a vacuum tube prized from the interior of the telephone switchboard. And a Feathercombs copywriter reported once bumping into my grandfather at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, where the foreign wife was, of all things, starring as Serafina in The Rose Tattoo. Beyond this nobody knew much about my grandfather, and that seemed to be the way he preferred it. People had long since given up trying to engage him in conversation. He had been known to smile but not to laugh. If he held political opinions—if he held opinions of any kind—they remained a mystery around the offices of Feathercombs, Inc. It was felt he could be fired without damage to morale.


Swimming Lessons
by Claire Fuller
(Tin House Books)

There are several mysteries at the heart of Claire Fuller’s second novel: Did the woman drown? If not, is she still alive and stalking her family? But if she did succumb to the waves, why did she leave messages on scraps of paper hidden inside books? I love novels that peel away layers gradually, like a literary onion, drawing readers deeper and deeper into the truth (or apparent truth). I can’t wait to start slicing into Swimming Lessons.

Jacket Copy:  From the author of the award-winning and word-of-mouth sensation Our Endless Numbered Days comes an exhilarating literary mystery that will keep readers guessing until the final page. Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband Gil about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides each in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan. Twelve years after her disappearance, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Sexy and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious and complicated truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

Opening Lines:  Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.

Blurbworthiness:  “Claire Fuller is a master of the psychological mystery. In her most recent novel, Swimming Lessons, no one is running around with a gun and no physical violence occurs. And yet damage happens. Families are cut to the bone. And lingering wounds are left festering into adulthood. This is a work that explores the very nature of forgiveness: how much should be forgiven before it becomes a burden, or before it becomes a secret life inside you until you can’t even forgive yourself? It’s a deliciously written story within a story that isn’t over until the last page has been turned.”  (Pam Cady, University Book Store)


Monday, July 11, 2016

My First Time: Jayne Benjulian


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 poet Jayne Benjulian, author of Five Sextillion Atoms. About the collection, Daniel Tobin wrote, “Diamond edged, fiercely honest, Benjulian’s work pulses with lyric intensity.” David Wojahn called it ”a highly distinctive and gripping book notable for the ways in which it combines the stories of family history with larger matters of public history ....Benjulian has terrific skills as a portraitist and satirist.” Benjulian served as chief speechwriter at Apple; Teaching Fellow at Emory; Visiting Professor in the Graduate Theater Program at San Francisco State University; Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France; and Ossabaw Island Project Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary and performance journals. For more about Jayne and her work, visit her website.


My First Editor

My first editor’s name was John. Bless his heart: he was a patient soul and young, though I was younger still. It was his second job. He had just arrived at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Magazine from The Chicago Reader. I proposed an essay on modern dance. I don’t remember what samples I showed him, no doubt several pieces from a now-defunct magazine called Brown’s Guide to Georgia, where I had envisioned writing travel articles as literary essays. My last assignment for Brown’s Guide had been a piece on Southern photographers for which I had driven around Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina identifying little-known photographers and characterizing each one in an epigraph followed by a paragraph and examples of each photographer’s work. In every house in which I’ve lived since, I hang in my work space a black-and-white portrait of me with my feet up on my graduate school desk taken by one of those photographers. A viewer can see a window behind me, a bookshelf, dictionary, back of a desk lamp, notebooks—hard edges framing the curves of my arches and waves in my hair. That photographer disappeared without a trace—I thought—until I Googled him and found that old article posted on his website.

My strategy for examining modern dance was to interview my friends, who danced with me a in a small troupe called The Dance Group, also now defunct. I had a theory, which was that dance in Atlanta was primitive compared to dance in New York because it was held back by the dominance of the Atlanta Ballet and a conservative attitude toward arts in the city. I urged audiences to support daring work and choreographers to take risks with bodies and space the way I had witnessed choreographers like Trisha Brown doing in New York. Under John’s guidance, I re-wrote the entire piece at least four times. He must have seen something in me to make it worth his effort. Perhaps he decided if I was the kind of writer who would stay with the process of revision no matter how arduous, I was worth the investment. Why else would he have tortured himself? When the essay was published, he handed me five copies and told me what terrific work I had done. Now I want to call him and say, you did incredible work: thank you. I remember him, his red hair and freckles, but I can’t recall his last name.

I stashed my magazine copies in a trunk—I was close enough to my college experience to still have a trunk—and I didn’t look at the essay for a decade. The truth is, the gap between the glorious prose I had imagined and the essay I wrote made me sick. I had read Joan Didion, Martin Duberman and Henry James on American culture, and I had fallen short.

And thus it has been ever since. Once I publish a piece, I see that it has not lived up to my vision of what it might be, and I vow to make a leap in my next work. If I have matured as a writer, it is largely owing first to dissatisfaction with everything I write; and second, to accepting that the drive to approach closer and closer in execution to the work as it is imagined is the preoccupation of art.

The turning point in my thinking about creative dissatisfaction arrived much later in the form of Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, a little book given to me by a painter. In that work, I read that the leap from one project to the next is precisely the space in which artists learn their craft. Making leaps in art is not so much about perfecting the painting/poem/book on which you are working but learning what you can carry into the next project, take apart, drill down into, blow up. Art and Fear saved my life.

When I am tearing myself apart for not accomplishing more in my first book, it is a gift to remember what I have learned while writing it. What if Picasso had been satisfied with his “blue” or “rose” period paintings? When we speak of artists, we are speaking of people who keep pushing against the boundaries of their own capabilities as distinct from those who find a formula that sells and are motivated to polish and repeat it.

For several decades after my Atlanta Journal assignment, I continued to write to make a living, moving from one feature article to the next, and then to copywriting and speechwriting. The pearl I kept was my insistence on revising, even if the task at hand was a headline. When I began to place poetry at the center of my writing life, I was already in the habit of relentless revision. I cannot always see all that might be changed or take a draft to perfect resolution, but I know when there is more work to be done. I cut without mercy. Sometimes, assessing what I have written and revised as pretty good and only pretty good, I drag it to my “bits & pieces” folder, the equivalent of stashing it in a trunk. But “pretty good” may be a condition the artist must tolerate in order to keep making art.

In “Education of the Poet,” Louise Glück illuminates the necessary place of dissatisfaction, uncertainty and fear in creation:
My father wanted to be a writer. But he lacked certain qualities: lacked the adamant need which makes it possible to endure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting, the discrepancy, which even the great writers live with (unless, possibly, they attain great age) between the dream and the evidence.
The poet and scholar Daniel Tobin told me that Yeats, among the most musical of poets, composed his first drafts in prose. The fact that Yeats began so far from where he ended is sustaining. I dream that I will feel the snap of recognition and discover in the closing lines of a poem something I did not know in the moment I wrote the opening lines. I dream that in the writing of my next book images murky and distant—events I hadn’t remembered, connections I hadn’t made—will reveal themselves...that subsequent books will unmask life the poet of Five Sextillion Atoms did not see. Some of these dreams will come true. Some won’t. I will wrestle with each new venture, and that wrestling will charge my brain in a way that public recognition does not. My first editor was a formative force for the editor that developed within me, the one obsessed with the orchestration of thought and feeling she will never achieve. It is not a great trait for making friends or winning over students who want their own work to be realized by workshop’s end, but it is an important quality for making an art that is fragile at the level of the word and line.

I did Google John + Atlanta Journal + Chicago Reader and found John Fleming. After leaving The Atlanta Journal, he worked as performing arts critic for the Tampa Bay Times. “Dance is,” he wrote in one of his articles, “probably the most abstract and therefore hardest performance to write about.” I understood then, why he had worked with me so fiercely: he had admired what I was trying and failing and trying again to say.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith


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


We have one life each and one death. What comes between birth and death is up to us.

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith


Friday, July 8, 2016

Friday Freebie: Emotional Rescue by Ben Greenman


Congratulations to Lisa Murray and Ben Gabriel, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: Champion of the World by Chad Dundas.

This week’s book contest is for Emotional Rescue by Ben Greenman. Subtitled Essays on Love, Loss, and LifeWith a Soundtrack, the book has garnered early praise from the likes of Questlove, who says: “Reading Emotional Rescue is like peeking into a stranger’s playlist when he’s not around, and then talking to him about it when he is around. Music is the kind of thing that should be felt, discussed, and digested, and Ben Greenman does that here—all the while making the case that pop music (all kinds of it, from hip-hop to country, from power-pop to blues) teaches us everything we know about human relationships. I have always known how much he cares about pop music, and now I know why.” Emotional Rescue will be released in early August but I have a hardcover copy available for one lucky reader now. Will it be you? Here’s more about the book....

What songs have made up your life’s soundtrack? Which have captured your every mood and deepest sentiments? Pop music, like no other form of entertainment or art, is capable of articulating our feelings, desires, joy, and pain. In a few soul-grabbing minutes, artists from every genre—from Little Richard to Lou Reed, Willie Nelson to Wu-Tang Clan, Sly and the Family Stone to the Rolling Stones—can help us understand our place in our own lives. This collection of short, sharp essays by New York Times bestselling author Ben Greenman (Celebrity ChekhovMo’ Meta Blues), organized around a thematic playlist of songs, serves as a reminder of the lyrical power of songwriting and the sonic ability of pop to capture the human experience. Greenman’s wit, insight, and honesty are as sweet and satisfying as the hits (and the deep cuts) at the center of each essay.

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


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 14, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 15. 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.


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis


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


The guinea pigs, awake and nibbling, were making a sound like that of a wet cloth rubbed on glass in window.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis


Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday Freebie: Champion of the World by Chad Dundas


Congratulations to Dona Bailey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman.

This week’s book contest is for Champion of the World, the debut novel by Montana author Chad Dundas. I have two copies to give away to two lucky readers. Listen to what Jeff Guinn, author of The Last Gunfight, had to say about the book: “Here’s one of the finest first novels in years, a gritty tale involving professional wrestling, bootlegging, and the byzantine strategies of cold-blooded conmen and desperate grifters. If the subject matter strikes you as too quirky, think again. My advice to anyone who loves brilliant storytelling is this: read Chad Dundas’s Champion of the World.” Keep scrolling for more information about the novel...

Late summer, 1921: Disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean has spent the past two years on the carnival circuit performing the dangerous “hangman’s drop” and taking on all comers in nightly challenge bouts. But when he and his cardsharp wife, Moira, are marooned in the wilds of Oregon, Pepper accepts an offer to return to the world of wrestling as a trainer for Garfield Taft, a down-and-out African American heavyweight contender in search of a comeback and a shot at the world title. At the training camp in rural Montana, Pepper and Moira soon realize that nothing is what it seems: not Taft, the upcoming match, or the training facility itself. With nowhere to go and no options left, Pepper and Moira must carefully navigate the world of gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions, in the hope that they can carve out a viable future. A story of second chances and a sport at the cusp of major change, Champion of the World is a wonderful historical debut from a new talent in fiction.

If you’d like a chance at winning Champion of the World, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest is only open to readers with a U.S. mailing address. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 7, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 8. 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, June 30, 2016

Living in the Flux: The Glimmer Train interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly



I’ve been enjoying the latest issue of Glimmer Train Stories, reading it in small doses each day so I can stretch out the experience. (Full disclosure: one of my stories, “A Little Bit of Everything,” can also be found in these pages.) While many of the stories are outstanding, for me the real centerpiece of the Spring/Summer 2016 issue (#96) is Kevin Rabalais’ interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, the husband-and-wife team behind The Tilted World. Tom is also the author of the short story collection Poachers and the novels Crooked Letter Crooked Letter, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk; Beth Ann, a poet, is the author of Tender Hooks, Unmentionables, and Open House.

I thought I’d share some of my favorite portions of the interview because they have a lot to say about the writing process—especially doing research for historical novels (The Tilted World, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk are all set in times past). I’m at the very beginning of a writing project which is set here in my adopted hometown of Butte, Montana in the early 20th century, so Tom’s comments really resonated with me.

Here he talks about writing Hell at the Breech, which is set in Alabama in 1897:

When I read the newspapers of those times, I would get both high and low language. Whenever someone wrote an article for the paper, he was generally trying to show off. If they wrote for the paper, they were educated. So instead of writing that the passengers were “spitting” in the rail cars, the writer used the word “expectorating” just to show off a bit.

I think that a certain kind of research would only give you that surface quality. You have to go deeper into it and try to find diaries or letters. That’s where people talk the way they really talk. There, you’re catching people when they’re naked. You can look at old photographs and see the way people are stiff. Compare that with the way they sit on their own front porch. As a novelist, you need to write about your characters not as though they’re posing for that photograph but relaxing on their front porch.

*     *     *

Here’s Tom discussing Smonk, which he says is “my favorite of all my books and the one that sold by far the worst,” and how it compares with the composition of his earlier novel:

With Hell at the Breech, I started in the middle and wrote toward the end and then came back to the beginning. I did a first draft of Smonk in ten days, two hundred pages in ten days, and then it took me a year and a half to fix it. I’ve now learned that’s how to write a novel. Start and don’t look back until you get to the end, even if you know it’s all wrong. You can always fix it later, but you have to follow the momentum. You need to be able to judge the whole animal, which you can see and weigh as opposed to just having pieces of it. If you’ve got a whole big quilt, even if it’s missing pieces, you can still see how to fix the corners.

*     *     *

I’ll let Beth Ann have the last word. When Kevin Rabalais asked the couple “What keeps you both excited about writing and about literature?” she replied:

It’s the narrative impulse—simple, yet essential. That’s why we’re on earth. The world is this flux of events and noise. The writer’s job is to live in the flux but to perceive a shape in it, to find the story and to trace the arc of the human experience. Narrative gives shape and meaning to life.