Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Sentence: “The Jelly-Bean” by F. Scott Fitzgerald


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


Over east along the golf course a faint rug of gray spread itself across the feet of the night.

“The Jelly-Bean” by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Freebie: The Other Joseph by Skip Horack


Congratulations to Rhonda Lomazow, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies and A Brief Stop On the Road From Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg.

This week's book giveaway is a hardcover edition of the new novel by Skip Horack, The Other Joseph. Read on for more information about the book...

A masterful depiction of a life driven off the rails by tragedy and sin—a man now summoned by the legacy of a beloved, lost brother to embark on a journey in search toward understanding, happiness, and redemption. Haunted by the disappearance of his older brother Tommy in the first Gulf War, the tragic deaths of his parents, and the felony conviction that has branded him for a decade, Roy Joseph has labored in lonesome exile—and under the ever-watchful eyes of the law—moving between oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana and an Airstream trailer he shares with his dog. Then, on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, Roy is contacted by a teenage girl from California claiming to be his lost brother's biological daughter. Yearning for connection and the prospect of family, Roy embarks on a journey across America, visiting childhood haunts in the South to confront his troubled memories and history, and making a stop in Nevada to call on a retired Navy SEAL who may hold the answer to Tommy's fate. The ultimate destination is San Francisco, where a potential Russian bride and his long-lost niece await, and Roy may finally recover the Joseph line. With The Other Joseph, Skip Horack delivers a powerful, spellbinding tale of a man nearly defeated by life who is given one last chance at redemption—one last shot to find meaning and alter the course of his solitary existence.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Other Joseph, 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 May 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 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.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 32: “Moonless” by Bryan Hurt


      It took some doing but I finally made a white dwarf star like they’d been making out in Santa Fe. I made mine in my basement because basements are the perfect place to compress time and space. I slammed together some very high frequency energy waves and—ZAP!—a perfect miniature white dwarf. Even though it was very small for its type, no larger than a pushpin, it was extremely dense and incredibly bright. The star was so bright that you couldn’t look directly at it. Had to look above or below or off to the side and squint. One time I set myself the challenge of just staring at it for thirty seconds. Got a big headache, huge mistake.
      Density was a problem too. The star was dense enough that it drew small objects towards it. Tissue paper, curtains, the tail of my cat. Of course they all burst into flames. But at the same time it wasn’t so dense that it just hovered there above my table, an object fixed in space. It wobbled this way and that, wandering the basement, knocking against the walls, the floor, the ceiling, leaving burn marks everywhere. The last straw was when it set fire to my favorite Einstein poster—the one with his tongue sticking out, his messed up hair and goofy grin. I trapped the star in a box, put a padlock on the heavy lid.
      But stars are not meant to be kept in boxes.


          from “Moonless” by Bryan Hurt

And so, my friends, we’ve come to the end of our daily monitoring of the stories in the Watchlist anthology. It’s been a joy to dissect these 32 stories over the past 32 days, though I’ve only lightly skimmed the surface of what makes this anthology such a great one (my own contribution notwithstanding). I hope this countdown has sparked enough interest in Watchlist that you’ve gone out and secured yourself a copy. Today is the book’s official publication date (though readers scattered around the country have reported they already have it in their hands). I thought I’d wrap things up with editor Bryan Hurt’s story about a fellow who, in the midst of tinkering in his basement, creates a universe (you know, the sort of thing that happens to all of us while we’re waiting for our wives to call us to dinner). It started with a binary star system, built even further when the narrator’s cat “rubbed his cheeks against the sharp corners of the universe,” and, before you can say “Big Bang Theory,” there was an entire planetary system in the basement, including “a tiny scientist in a tiny white lab coat” with a telescope looking back up at our narrator-cum-god. The story perfectly captures the surveillance spirit of the anthology and I’m pleased to have Bryan Hurt close out the Watchlist countdown with this essay on how he came to write “Moonless.” He mentions he wrestled with the idea of including his own story in the collection, but I’m sure you’ll agree after reading “Moonless” that he had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Shoot the Moon

While I was editing and compiling the stories that would go into Watchlist I was completely unsure as to whether or not I would, or even wanted to, include a story of my own. On one hand I felt that I was obligated to include a story because Watchlist was my idea. If anyone had something important or original to say about surveillance vis-à-vis fiction shouldn’t it be the guy who, um, thought of the book? But on the other hand I didn’t want to come off as a complete narcissist, an editor who had set out to publish himself. Plus as the stories started arriving in my inbox I began to feel bowled over by them. Here was work--truly magnificent work--from all of my literary heroes. Even if I could think of something original/important/ socially or politically conscious/etc., no way did I want my own work stinking up the rest of the book.

I decided to deal with this conflict as I deal with most real life conflicts: I did my best to avoid it. I went to work, bought groceries, picked up my son from daycare, walked my dog, sent emails to Watchlist writers reminding them that the deadline was approaching soon, and pretended that I had nothing to do with it. They were the ones who had the hard task of writing about something as ubiquitous and important as surveillance, not me.

It was while I was doing all of this skillful avoiding that I heard the star story on NPR. I’d just picked my son up from daycare and we were driving home down Ocean Park Boulevard, through the crawl of Los Angeles rush hour, stoplights on every block. I knew this particular stop-and-go so well that its rhythms had imprinted themselves somewhere on my subconscious; I tapped the brakes or gas based more on instinct than on anything seen or heard. While I zoned out and watched the sun set into the not-so-faraway ocean, I became aware of the guy on the radio saying something about a lab in Santa Fe, Z machines, zaps, and manmade white dwarves.

At the time I was working on a series of very short stories based on misinterpreted scientific facts. I figured that if I got the facts wrong I would arrive at some kind of science fiction, a genre that I love but always felt closed out of when I tried to write. The rules for these stories were simple: find something scientific that interested me, follow it wherever my imagination took me no matter how off course that was, and include one common character, Dr. Hu, as a long-running pun. For “Moonless” I had other goals too, more technical and probably somewhat dry: write a story with a fairly clearly defined external conflict, escalate it as much as I could. I like writing to prompts because they impose the illusion of order on an otherwise disorderly process; they allow me to trick myself into thinking that I know what to do. The bonus in this case was that the story had nothing to do with surveillance, there was no pressure to try to write it for Watchlist. It was just a story about a guy who made stars in his basement, who made tiny worlds and tiny people and watched over them as if he were a god: nothing surveillance-y about that.

My point here is that I wrote my surveillance story by tricking myself into thinking that I wasn’t writing my surveillance story. I did the work I had to do by doing the work that I wanted to do instead. I think that writers often feel certain obligations when writing (“I need to write about THIS;” “my character needs to do THAT; or the worst: “my writing needs to be IMPORTANT/GOOD”) that do a lot of harm, create inhibitions, stifle the imagination, and make writing no fun. There aren’t many places in life that you get to do whatever you want to do, but the page is one of them. If not fun exactly, or not fun 100% of the time, then writing should at least be something like freedom. As a writer, I feel that my only real obligation is to write what I want. In the end that’s why I decided to include “Moonless” in Watchlist. It was the surveillance story that I wanted to write. I hope that it doesn’t stink up the rest of the collection, or at least not so bad that you can see the wafterons rising off.

Bryan Hurt is the author of Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and will be published later this year. His fiction and essays have been published in The American Reader, The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New England Review, Tin House, and TriQuarterly. He lives in Colorado and teaches creative writing at Colorado College.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 31: Thirteen Ways of Being Looked at by a Blackbird SR71” by Paul Di Filippo


      We stopped digging vertically in our pursuit of a life free from surveillance when we reached one mile straight down into the bosom of the earth, and began to excavate laterally. With that single perpendicular shaft the only access to our refuge, we finally felt safe from all prying eyes dominant on the panopticon surface. Now we could begin to build our surveillance-free society.

          from “Thirteen Ways of Being Looked At By a Blackbird SR71” by Paul Di Filippo

Taking its inspiration from Wallace Stevens’ iconic poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Paul Di Filippo's story is a fitting way to close out the Watchlist anthology. (Yes, I know this is only the 31st story I’ve featured here at the blog; I’ve saved editor Bryan Hurt’s story for the final blog post tomorrow.) In his story, Di Filippo (author of The Steampunk Trilogy) presents us with a baker’s dozen of surveillance-themed vignettes. Though none of them are directly connected by character or plot, each of them strikes a warning, like the clapper of an alarm bell, about our state of being watched. Make no mistake about it: Big Brother, Eye in the Sky, street cams, webcams, binocular lenses peeping through half-closed blinds--whatever or however, someone is watching our every move and tracking our very keystrokes. In short fictional bursts, Di Filippo writes about “eyeball spoofing,” cloaking garments, “phablets” that yell at schoolkids to do their homework, and “ineradicable, military-grade, self-replicating smart dust” that turns the world into “the Totally Transparent Society.” And, oh yes, there are flocks of drones watching us--not unlike in Stevens’ poem: “The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.”


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 30: “Second Chance” by Etgar Keret


      On the face of it, it seemed like just another service--innovative, revolutionary, monstrous, call it whatever you want but when you came right down to it, Second Chance was the greatest economic success story of the twenty-first century. Unlike most great ideas, which tend to be quite simple, the idea behind Second Chance was a bit more complicated: Second Chance gave you the opportunity to go to one particular critical moment in your life, and instead of having to choose either one road or the other, you could continue along both.

          from “Second Chance” by Etgar Keret, translated by Miriam Shlesinger

Etgar Keret’s contribution to the Watchlist anthology makes a perfect companion piece to T. C. Boyle’s story, “The Relive Box.” Both deal with regret and missed opportunities, and both are terrific pieces of fiction, sharp as icepicks which skewer our pretensions through and through. I'm a long-time fan of Keret’s flash fiction and “Second Chance” is right up there with the creme de la creme of his canon. It moves swift as a lightning round on a game show and makes its point sure as a preacher jabbing his finger at his congregation. He had me pinned to the page...all the way to the Keretian punchline at the end.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Monday, May 18, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 29: “Viewer, Violator” by Aimee Bender


      It was the third week or so since the museum had re-opened, for as you may know, we had to close down for several months last fall due to a problem with people touching the work. We had an influx of visitors who liked to feel the texture of the paint or the slopes of the sculptures and we were not equipped to deal with them.

          from “Viewer, Violator” by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender (author of The Color Master and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) is a subversive writer. While she’s entertaining us with a short story told from the perspective of a museum docent leading a group of restless visitors through a gallery, she manages to sneak in a very telling message about a viewer’s relationship to art--both visual and tactile. Do you like to touch, or do you like to watch? “Viewer, Violator” begins with a chatty narration about keeping your hands to yourself while on the museum tour, but then detours into a story, told from the narrator’s perspective, about the head of the museum who receives a mysterious canvas from a benefactor. Lines and splashes of paint seem to appear out of nowhere on the painting until finally the museum director thinks she’s going mad and keeps up a 24-hour surveillance on the painting in order to catch whoever is tampering with it. In the end, Bender makes a compelling point about how art is truly in the eye of the beholder.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



My First Time: Diana Wagman


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 Diana Wagman, the author of five novels, most recently Life #6. Edan Lepucki, author of California, had this to say about the novel: “Life #6 intrigued and delighted me from the first paragraph, and for two days I read it everywhere: at meals, in the bath, in line, while driving, you name it. I loved the wit and despair of its heroine, and the way the past—with all its attendant desires and trauma—wouldn't let her go.” Diana's second novel, Spontaneous, won the 2001 USA Pen West Award for Fiction. Her fourth novel, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Salon, Black Clock, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She is an occasional contributor to the LA Times. Click here to visit her website.

My First Novel

I used to be an unhappy screenwriter. I’d gone to school for film, studied screenwriting, and worked hard. I wrote seven scripts, each in a genre everybody—or at least somebody—was sure to want. I had a murder mystery, a romantic comedy, a buddy film, a family drama, and a cop movie. I poured over the trades and the newspapers, reading reviews, checking out what was popular, what was marketable, what would sell, sell, sell.

Three years after graduation, I couldn’t even get my agent on the phone. He wouldn’t take my call so I could fire him. I had no meetings, even my friends had stopped reading my work, and I was beginning to hate writing.

I grew up writing. When I was seven, I arranged a special spot, called my writing place, under the desk (why under? why not use the desk? as if writing isn’t difficult enough) with a pillow and pads of paper and my favorite pencils and a dictionary. I burrowed into my writing place and wrote stories, a penguin lost on an iceberg, a cowboy without a horse, a witch with a princess for a friend. It was fun. I loved it; I looked forward to huddling with my imagination.

But I grew up and I wasn’t a good student and anyway in the public schools I went to there was never a creative writing assignment. I kept writing stories, but secretly. I could no longer fit under the desk, so I wrote in my bed at night. And I still loved it, but I didn’t show it to anyone. I knew it was drivel, typical teenage angst.

Then, in college, I thought about writing and foolishly thought screenwriters made money. I could write for movies. I loved movies and it was a craft. I could work at it and figure it out and write high-concept, moneymaking scripts and still keep my secret stories that were now, I believed, the typical drivel of a twenty-something woman.

Seven screenplays. Each one carefully constructed to star the most popular actor of the moment and to tell the story everyone wanted to see. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. Eventually I despaired. I stopped reading the trades. Stopped going to the movies. I’d sit down at my desk—I wrote on top of it now, on a computer—and stare at the screen. But I’d think, why bother?

And then a friend, Janet Fitch, unpublished at the time, well before the amazing success of White Oleander, took me to her writers’ group. The leader gave an assignment, one word that we were supposed to free write about in only six lines. It was very loosey-goosey and I went home with the word, “blue” and immediately put it out of my mind. I didn’t do that kind of writing. I was much more calculating than that. But a few days later, sitting at my desk and not writing, I typed the word “blue.” A picture came to me, of a woman in a blue world, with a blue car and a blue couch, wearing blue jeans. And then I imagined this woman totally encased in a blue bag. I began to write.

I wrote in prose. This wasn’t a movie; it was not marketable. No actress would want to spend the majority of the film in a blue bag. It was just a story, and it got to be a bigger story, a story I really wanted to tell.

I continued writing screenplays, actually rewriting the ones I had, trying to make them more sellable. That was my work. But I ran to the computer every extra chance I got to work on this story. I didn’t know what it would be, but I had to write it down. It was fun. I loved doing it. I dreamed about my character, Martha, at night. She whispered in my ear as I was driving carpool or doing laundry or packing lunches in the morning. No screenplay had ever taken hold of my mind, my thoughts, my heart, the way Martha did. I started turning down social invitations to stay home and write.

It took a long time. I still felt despair over my screenplays. I had a meeting with Meg Ryan’s producer, it went well, and for a moment I was buoyed, excited, but then they never called. My mother died suddenly. I was very sad, and the book was my solace. Her death changed it. Martha’s mother became my mother. The story had depths that weren’t there before. Martha had a past. This blue bag became the logical outcome of all that had happened to her before.

I was bereft when I finished the draft. I wanted to keep at it, but the story was done. I couldn’t say any more. I gave it to my husband to read. His job is to say, “It’s great,” which he did. So I sent it to my older sister. She’s a big reader and I wanted her to tell me it if it truly was a novel.

What she said was “I don’t know.” She liked it. She recognized Mom and our stepfather, some scenes from the past. She thought it was interesting, and she’s a college professor and a wonderful teacher and she wanted to help me. She offered to send it to an English professor friend and I said no. I hadn’t written it for that. I wrote it for me, because I had to, because I loved doing it, because Martha wouldn’t let me stop.

I didn’t give the book to anyone else. I didn’t tell my silent screenplay agent I’d written it. It was just there and I thought I’d do something with it one day. Months went by. Three to be exact. And on July 17th, the phone rang and I answered.

“Diana Wagman?” The woman caller had a strong southern lilt. “I’m from the University Press of Mississippi and I’d like to buy your book.”

It was the friend of my sister’s, who taught English and also was the Editor in Chief of the press.

I almost fell over. I didn’t know my sister had sent it to her. She had to reassure me she had actually read the book I had written, that she didn’t have me confused with someone else. She said, “I can feel your love in this story.”

The first true writing I did, not to sell, not to make money, but out of pure love, was the first thing I sold. That the established, experienced editor of that press wanted this very rough, unprofessional novel is a testament to the old adage: write from the heart.

The coda to the story is that the editor and I worked on that book, sometimes page by page. I learned a lifetime’s worth of writing knowledge from her. The book came out and was very favorably reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. The next day, the phone rang and it was a producer wanting to option my book. He hired me to write the screenplay. The first real money I ever made from screenwriting was because of this book.

Shortly thereafter, my agent called. “Saw you in the Times,” he said and I fired him.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 28: “We Are the Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun


      We were paid to be cautious, to keep the slipstream of information flowing at all costs, even if it meant removing some of it from the world.

          from “We Are the Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun

Yesterday, I had lunch with a woman who, due to an unspeakable accident years earlier, had lost her sense of smell and taste. With as much tact as I could muster, I tried to get her to describe what life was like but, either because she thought I was probing out of a sense of pity or because it really did unearth painful memories, she dismissed her condition and tried to change the subject as soon as she could. All I could get out of her was that life was “bland.” Sure, I felt pity for her, but I was also morbidly curious: what would it feel like to be robbed of these two senses? Bland, indeed. That’s why I found it an interesting coincidence that today’s featured story from the Watchlist anthology is about a team of workers who are trained to sniff videos. “We Are the Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun is set in an undefined near-future when technology has progressed to to the point where scents can be programmed into online clips and a person’s every movement is tracked through Quantibands worn on the wrist. Renton, the story’s narrator, works at the Olfanautics complex outside Nairobi: “My main job was to monitor the whyffs that users considered suspicious or objectionable.” Like if someone posts a video of a birthday cake that literally smells like shit or a bucolic shot of “a trickling stream might reek of decomposition.” The short story is a fascinating and frightening look at where we’re headed with technology and our neverending quest to please all the senses. But, like my lunch with the woman yesterday, it still makes me a little sad to think of a world in which some possibilities might be limited or perverted. I mean, when I’m eating birthday cake, I want to be carried away on a nirvana cloud of sugar to a place that triggers happy memories. I can’t imagine living in a world without a nose.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Sunday Sentence: West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan


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


Across the hall lived an obese woman who sold her screams to the movies and treated them to free samples, rehearsing at all hours.

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 27: “Strava” by Steven Hayward


      Strava is a smart phone application invented by Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey, a pair of friends who were crewmates in college and missed competing with each other after they had moved to different cities. Early in 2009, they realized GPS data had become specific enough to identify climbs based on elevation and distance and that it should be possible to record people’s times and compare them. This is what Strava does. It tracks your movement. It tells you how fast and how far you ride and compares you to the rest of the world.

          from “Strava” by Steven Hayward

Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do own a Fitbit and regularly check my daily progress of steps and calories, as monitored by the little rubber band on my wrist. Why do you ask? Okay, sure, maybe I’m a little obsessed with tracking my mileage and perhaps I’m just a tiny bit competitive with my “Fitbit friends,” but at least I’m nothing like Tim Babcock in Steven Hayward’s story in the Watchlist anthology. Tim, 44 years old and trending toward “morbidly obese,” has just been introduced to the Strava app by his doctor, a pseudo-Olympian who also likes to claim “King of the Mountain” hill-climb victories while biking around Colorado Springs. Tim Babcock’s wife also happens to be into competitive biking, and her route sometimes includes “rest stops” near the doctor’s house. Now, thanks to Strava, Tim can track his wife's movements. I think we all know where this is headed, don’t we? Steven Hayward gradually tightens the suspense in a short story that’s also a cautionary tale about how our fitness trackers can sometimes be hazardous to our health. “Strava” made me look at my Fitbit in a whole new light.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Freebie: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies and A Brief Stop On the Road From Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg


Congratulations to Lewis Parker, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.

This week, I have a nice bundle of books from Other Press to giveaway to one lucky reader. The trio of new releases includes The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies and A Brief Stop On the Road From Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg. The latter is hardcover, the other two are paperbacks. Here's more about each of the books:

The New Yorker says of The Meursault Investigation: “A tour-de-force reimagining of Camus’s The Stranger, from the point of view of the mute Arab victims.” He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name—Musa—and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach. In a bar in Oran, night after night, he ruminates on his solitude, on his broken heart, on his anger with men desperate for a god, and on his disarray when faced with a country that has so disappointed him. A stranger among his own people, he wants to be granted, finally, the right to die. The Stranger is of course central to Daoud’s story, in which he both endorses and criticizes one of the most famous novels in the world. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.

In The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay, Booklist says, "Andrea Gillies offers a lot of food for thought about love, memory, and the lies we tell ourselves." What happens when you can’t see that the man you married is actually the one you love? For her whole life Nina Findlay has been in a love triangle with two Italian brothers, Paolo, whom she married, and Luca, with whom she was always in love and who remained her best friend throughout her marriage. Now Nina faces the future alone—estranged from Luca and separated from Paolo, she escapes to the tiny Greek island where she honeymooned twenty-five years earlier. After an accident she finds herself in the hospital telling her life story to an eagerly attentive doctor. As their conversations unfold she comes to understand the twists and turns of her romantic life and the unconscious influence of her parents’ marriage on her own. "The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay is at once lyrical and riveting. Unfolding on a radiant Greek Island, with darker echoes of Scotland and Norway, this lushly transporting, thoughtful novel moves through overlapping time periods in an intricate series of themes and variations. Despite its graceful cadence, it courses with suspense; Andrea Gillies has given us something rare, an exquisite page-turner." (Hilary Reyl, author of Lessons in French)

A Brief Stop On the Road From Auschwitz, the shattering memoir by a journalist about his father’s attempt to survive the aftermath of Auschwitz in a small industrial town in Sweden, won the prestigious August Prize. On August 2, 1947 a young man gets off a train in a small Swedish town to begin his life anew. Having endured the ghetto of Lodz, the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the slave camps and transports during the final months of Nazi Germany, his final challenge is to survive the survival. In this intelligent and deeply moving book, Göran Rosenberg returns to his own childhood to tell the story of his father: walking at his side, holding his hand, trying to get close to him. It is also the story of the chasm between the world of the child, permeated by the optimism, progress, and collective oblivion of postwar Sweden, and the world of the father, darkened by the long shadows of the past. "Destined to become a classic...Göran Rosenberg has written a calm yet passionate account of events after Auschwitz, a memoir that should be read by anyone who ponders the infinite questions of good and evil...With A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz, Rosenberg has not only given us a necessary book but, by confronting unspeakable sorrow with courage and reason, he has created a masterpiece marked by great intelligence and equally great emotional intensity." (Arts Fuse)

If you’d like a chance at winning all three books, 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 May 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 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.


Watchlist Countdown, Day 26: “Dinosaurs Went Extinct Around the Time of the First Flower” by Kelly Luce


      Mr. Ukaga wanted her on the horse again.

          from “Dinosaurs Went Extinct Around the Time of the First Flower” by Kelly Luce

Mr. Ukaga likes to watch. Mr. Ukaga is a repeat customer (“always the same love hotel, always Tuesday”) and though Tara admits she’s bad at escorting, there is something about the man which makes her say yes to his requests again and again. He’s a family man living a double life in Tokyo, but Mr. Ukaga also has a fetish which Tara (a Canadian Jew who slid sideways into this call girl gig) agrees to indulge: he likes to take Polaroids of her lady parts. Kelly Luce’s story in the Watchlist anthology is graphic in its description of the love-hotel rendezvous, but Luce (author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail) also manages to drill down to the heart of her characters with very little fanfare or throat-clearing. Tara wonders what Mr. Ukaga does with all the photographs--does he keep them hidden in a shoebox somewhere, does he post them to secret online fetish groups?--but in the end, she realizes it doesn’t matter because she’s found rebirth in the very click and whirr of his Polaroid camera: “It was strange: ever since Mr. Ukaga had started taking the pictures, she’d felt different. Not just more visible but more solid. As if he were bringing her to life with his gaze.”


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Thursday, May 14, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 25: “Transcription of an Eye” by Carmen Maria Machado


JUDGE JUDY: So you got a cold sore. So what?
SAKSHI KARNIK: And then it began to bubble and blister and then it erupted.
JUDGE JUDY: So. What.
SAKSHI KARNIK: And there was an eye there.


          from “Transcription of an Eye” by Carmen Maria Machado

I'm not what you’d call a fan of Judge Judy Sheindlin (I can barely tolerate the bombast of Dr. Phil coming from my wife’s TV in the other room), but thankfully Carmen Machado is. In her Watchlist story, she delivers a hilarious satire of courtroom shenanigans and, along the way, makes a razor-sharp commentary on how we’re constantly under surveillance--even if it is through an eye in the middle of a cold sore. In her guest blog post below, she explains how she came to write “Transcription of an Eye.” Your witness, Carmen...

On Surveillance & Abuse & Judge Judy

The worst part of learning about the government’s mass-surveillance program was that I wasn’t surprised, and that—not the reveal itself—was horrifying. I am constantly returning to that reaction, the numbness of it, the shame of the numbness, the horror of the numbness.

What the numbness means, at least for me, is that to allow the realization of the surveillance state to fully occupy my conscious brain would be too overwhelming. I would be paralyzed by fear. So I go about my days—lived, like most people my age, partially online—as if everything is ordinary. I know, logically, that nothing I do on my computer or phone is particularly private, and that I should act accordingly, even if the truth of this is grotesque, even if it merely flits through my subconscious and never quite registers how it should. But how did it get to be this way? How did a kid who read 1984 with such acute terror become so accustomed to this state of being?

I think a lot about abuse, and how so much of abuse (on large and small scales) is not about physical violence or concrete wrongs; it’s about training. It’s about call-and-response, reinforcement, managing expectations. A person who is told often enough that she is worthless or crazy, for example, will eventually come to believe she is—and that makes doing awful things to her that much easier. In the same way, we are told that nothing on the internet is private; that if we’re not doing anything wrong we shouldn’t be worried if someone is tracking our movements, and so on. I have been hearing these ideas as long as I can remember; it is no wonder that they feel right, even if they’re odious in the extreme.

So when I began to think about a story for Watchlist, I was immediately drawn to the idea of surveillance on a micro-scale: that same surveillance normalized in our everyday lives by technology companies and government sources, when applied between individual people, might appear more terrifying. Constant surveillance of one individual person by another individual person tracks more clearly as abuse. Sometimes, it takes the political sphere drifting down into the personal sphere for an idea’s defects to become obvious.

As for form: I have always been a fan of Judge Judy. (I’d say the show is a “guilty pleasure,” but I have decided to eliminate that phrase from my vocabulary; it’s a real pleasure, for which I feel no embarrassment.) I always watch the episodes very closely because I’m fascinated by their construction: there are layers and layers you have to get around, mentally, to approach something resembling the reality of the situation. There’s the layer of the episode’s cut and edits, the layer of the highly polished persona of Judy herself, the layer of awkward, untrained performances by the litigants, the very presence of the camera, the gulf of time and space between them and the viewer—and once you get around those layers there’s something else happening: people’s experiences and personalities and vulnerabilities laid bare. I’ve seen people experiencing true suffering, peoples with agendas, cruel people. Every so often, someone seems so evil I have to turn the episode off. Even if the construction of the show is artificial—as artificial as any other kind of “reality” TV—there’s a beating heart at the center and I am constantly drawn to it.

My favorite part of Judge Judy is the bit at the end when suddenly Judy is gone and the guests are, presumably, asked to speak for a minute about their opinions about the verdict (though whatever they’re asked is not shown on camera). The result is a torrent of unfiltered words—some of it so rushed as to be incoherent—and the camera cuts back and forth and back and forth between them as they spit barbs, laugh, cry, make dramatic statements, or swear so much it’s just a long, drawn out bleep. Without Judy, they get their final words in, or languidly agree with the verdict, or do whatever it is they feel they need to do, and in that moment the viewer can get even a little deeper, because a level or two of artifice has been stripped away. It was while watching one of these end sections that I got the idea for the form of my Watchlist story.

And so the result is “Transcription of an Eye”: an episode of Judge Judy that isn’t an episode of Judy Judy, in which paranoia passes from abuser to abused, and spreads on to the reader—an infection that feels impossible to stamp out.


Carmen Maria Machado is a Nebula-nominated fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, AGNI, The Fairy Tale Review, Tin House’s Open Bar, NPR, The American Reader, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her stories have been reprinted in several anthologies, including Year’s Best Weird Fiction and Best Women’s Erotica. She has received the Richard Yates Short Story Prize, a Millay Colony for the Arts residency, the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing, and the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 24: “The Witness and the Passenger Train” by Bonnie Nadzam


      A man stands alone in the black night watching a passenger train speed past. Its yellow-lighted windows are splashed with colored hats and coats; flashes of silverware and glassware; with shoulders in black jackets and bright wool sweaters; with pointed and rounded and upturned noses. Three men in hats are drinking glasses of beer. The children dunk strips of buttered toast in cocoa. An old man snores like a happy pig, his mouth open, his giant milk white teeth exposed. A young mother pulls a picture book out of her giant purse. Everybody on the train is warm with that consoling feeling of being on an adventure.

          from “The Witness and the Passenger Train” by Bonnie Nadzam

“The Witness and the Passenger Train” is both the name of the Watchlist story by Bonnie Nadzam (author of Lamb) and the title of an academic paper by husband-and-wife scientists Dr. Flame and Dr. Flame, the central characters in Nadzam’s story. If I understand it correctly, the basic thesis of the Flames’ paper is that the train passing in the night owes its very existence to the fact that the man standing alongside the tracks is witnessing it. In other words, we create what we see and the world is whatever we imagine it to be. This leads to all sorts of boxes within boxes within boxes as we go deeper into Nadzam’s mesmerizing story (a story which, naturally, she herself created and we brought into existence by passing our eyes across the little black ants of text on the page). Eventually, we find ourselves up in space, floating weightless with Dr. Flame and Dr. Flame as they peer through a telescope back to Earth where, when they zoom in, they can see themselves standing in a field looking up at the night sky, at the stars, at a spaceship in which they look back at themselves. Yeah, mind = blown.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 23: “Making Book” by Dale Peck


      They were in the living room when I came downstairs. Even I have to admit we’ve got a pretty fantastic living room, which is centered around these two absolutely amazing Chippendale sofas facing each other. I mean, my dad restores furniture for a living, and he’d done nothing but the best job on those sofas. In particular, the leather on them was like butter, which on the one hand feels especially soft but on the other hand means you sort of have to watch yourself when you sit on them, or else you’ll just like slide right off them. But anyway, my mom and dad were sitting on the one sofa and I sat down on the other one. In between the two sofas is this coffee table, which my dad always calls contemporary to the sofas--which means it was made at the same time they were, but he’s not sure who made it--and like right on top of the coffee table was a pair of underwear, and the fly was facing up, and like right on the fly were these stains. The underwear was mine, the stains were mine, too, and if I mention that I was fourteen then I don’t think I have to say anything else.
      “Have a seat, Boo,” my dad said, even though I was already sitting down.


          from “Making Book” by Dale Peck

If I tell you that stained underwear is the least of Book “Boo” Davis’ worries in Dale Peck’s story in the Watchlist anthology, and if I tell you there is a VCR and a tape of Boo’s best friend Ace Ferucci making out with a “stacked brunette” in the sand dunes at the local beach (filmed by Boo himself from his hiding place in the bushes), and if I mention there are instances of ice-cube-sweating glasses placed on antique coffee tables (without coasters placed beneath them--the horror!), and if I say there are bridge games and drinking and general adult misbehavior, and if I tell you Boo’s parents also have a VCR tape (a sex tape--of themselves) and it’s called Making Book and they actually plug it into the VCR and press Play while Boo is sitting right there with them (the horror, the double, triple horror!), and if I further mention there are unbidden erections in shorts (in plain view of your mother) and that even this is not the most gut-flustered moment of the story....well, then, you’ll really have no choice but to surrender to “Making Book,” won’t you? Peck (author of Visions and Revisions) has done something outstanding here: he’s created a world that doesn’t feel created. It smells like Teen Spirit and rubs like summer sand caught in your crotch and sounds like every Mariah Carey ballad that ever made you weep in the privacy of your bedroom and it is glossed and slicked with a nostalgia you may or may not feel (but comes with a sticker that reads “100% Genuine--Guaranteed or Your Money Back”) and it is simply one of the best damn stories I’ve read in like forever.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Monday, May 11, 2015

My First Time: Martha Woodroof


Photo by Charles Woodroof
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 Martha Woodroof, author of Small Blessings (now out in paperback). Martha was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows. Click here to visit her website.

My First Brick Wall

Around 1970, I auditioned for and got a job as a small-market TV talk show host. I did this in spite of (because of?) my second-ex husband’s expressed opinion that I couldn’t pull it off because I had no experience in either television or talk show hosting. After this, for a decade or so, I firmly believed I could do anything professionally that I wanted to. All I had to do was suit up, show up, and let the games begin.

Sometime in the late 80s, I accidentally backed into radio – how is another story – but what’s important in this story is that I immediately fell in love with radio feature reporting. It had everything I’d loved about television – permission to talk to people I’d otherwise never meet – without any of the drawbacks. Television is such a production, so burdened with lurking cameras and other people standing around and very bright lights and me sitting there all dolled up with perfect hair and makeup. All of which tended to make ordinary people (as opposed to politicians and movie stars) nervous and careful, and so not nearly as relaxed and forthcoming as they might have been in a more low-key situation. Whereas in radio, there’s just me in jeans and a T-shirt, one tiny recorder, and a microphone that is forgotten as soon as the conversation rolls.

So, anyway, off I shot into the magical world of radio feature reporting. I went up in an ultralight, hung out at a migrant labor camp with a part-time prostitute who dreamed of working in an office, shocked fish, hunted coons at night, enjoyed the music of a dozen-membered elementary school marching band that featured (as I remember it) five triangles. No one edited me. I did what I did and on the air it went.

After a year or so, I won a regional AP award. This, I thought, meant I had this radio feature reporting stuff down. I mean, you can’t win a regional AP award without being really, really good, right?

Wrong...

I met NPR’s Wendy Kaufman at a summer party at someone’s house in Charlottesville, Virginia. Somehow, the two of us found ourselves out on the back porch, engaged in a high kick contest being judged by novelist John Casey. I don’t remember who won, but I do remember talking to Wendy about NPR, which was only just emerging as a true power in broadcasting.

Confession time: Back then, I had only the foggiest notion of what NPR was. But this didn't stop me from listening to everything Ms. Kaufman had to say about the power of storytelling in reporting. Yes! I thought, the relevance of news is not so much what happens as much as it is how what happens plays out in people’s lives. I agree! I agree! I should be doing features for NPR!

It didn’t occur to me to start anywhere other than the top, so I phoned up Jay Kernis, now a producer with CBS Sunday Morning, then NPR’s producer of news programming.

If there’s one thing I really do have a natural talent for it’s for phoning people up. I seem to have been born knowing that the secret of telephone success is to: 1) be cheerful and confident, rather than timid and beseeching; 2) if you’re asking for something really big, ask for it in stages; and 3) get on and off the phone before the person to whom you’re talking has time to wish you’d get off the phone.

As what I wanted was to freelance nationally for NPR, what I planned to ask Jay Kernis for was a meeting to talk about doing this.

On the phone, Jay asked questions about my resume, which was realistically about as thick as a Kleenex. I realized quickly that asking for a meeting was too much, so I switched to asking if I could call him back. We’d had, as I remember it, a nice jolly, short chat. Why not, he kindly said.

So I did call back, several times; always getting on and off the phone before we’d talked long enough to gum up his schedule. Finally, Jay Kernis and I discovered we both liked to rock climb, and I got my meeting.


Confession time again: Just because I’m happy to charge into situations where shyer people fear to tread, doesn’t make me completely immune to nervousness. So as was my custom in those days, I medicated my nervousness with all new clothes... down to my underwear. Not that these new clothes were anything special, mind you, but they were bought just for this occasion, and this turned them into emotional armor.

So, the day came when I and my new clothes braved the Washington beltway and motored into NPR to meet with Jay Kernis. I brought with me way too much tape, all one long, rambling conversation with an old bluesman. It was hardly edited and of wavering sound quality. Jay listened, shook his head and said something like (again, as I remember): You are a brilliant interviewer, but you don’t know anything technically. Go away and learn something and then come back.

I could have been crushed by the first sentence of Jay’s assessment – the you-don’t-know-anything part. I could have concluded that, like Icarus, I had reached too high and gotten myself melted back down to my appropriate size. And indeed, in spite of my new underwear, I did think about being crushed and humiliated while driving back home.

But then it occurred to me that the realty was that I didn’t know anything technically. And that what Jay Kernis was saying to me was that I had talent, but no chops. And if I wanted to play in the big leagues, I had to have chops. Absolutely, categorically, no exceptions. In other words, I couldn’t charm, or schmooze or bluff or even talent my way into the big leagues. I had to work in order to get there.

Voilà, my first professional brick wall.

Now, as to how this all relates to writing my first publishable novel...

I taught myself how to write novels by writing novels. Small Blessings is actually my fourth.

Characters and setting and dialogue have always come easily to me; plot and pace – i.e. novel-writing chops – not so much. The first three novels were me doing the Jay Kernis-inspired hard work of getting yet another set of chops; getting good enough at something I really wanted to do to be able to do it in the big leagues.

By the way, in case you’re interested about what happened to me and radio after my meeting with Jay Kernis...

I went to work and got much better technically and then came back to NPR for two different freelancing stints. The first one, in the late eighties, was short, as I still wasn’t quite there yet with the chops. I went away again, had my mid-life train wreck (with alcohol and pills), got myself straightened out, and came back to public radio at the beginning of this century. At that point, I had sufficient chops to garner regular freelancing assignments on books and publishing from NPR, working as a direct-report to the Arts Desk.


Watchlist Countdown, Day 22: “Ether” by Zhang Ran


      “The finger-talking gathering welcomes you, friend.”

          from “Ether” by Zhang Ran

Zhjang Ran’s story in the Watchlist anthology reminds me of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, with its alternate universes and shadowy doppelgängers. “Ether” is set in the future (maybe 30 or 40 years?), in an age after “the Internet degenerated into senselessness and everyone tossed aside their complicated smartphones for basic phones that could only make calls.“ The story’s narrator is a self-described ugly, balding man in his mid-40s who lives alone, drinks too much, and works a mindless job at The Department of Social Welfare. One day as he’s walking along the rain-drizzled street in his city, he’s nearly knocked over by a group of hoodie-clad people running from the police. One of the hoodielums grabs the narrator’s hand and writes a quick message, fingertip to palm. Later, after giving it some thought, our man realizes it’s an address. One thing leads to another and soon the friendless, balding, unhappy narrator finds himself in the dark basement of an abandoned building sitting in a circle with silent, faceless strangers who communicate by writing on each other’s palm, passing messages like the old game of Telephone. Zhang’s story is one of the longest in Watchlist, but it never flags in its suspense and intrigue.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.



Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chatterbooks: Recipes for a Beautiful Life by Rebecca Barry


—Meet Rebecca Barry: mother, writer, wife, self-distracting procrastinator who makes clay cats and mermaids instead of working on her novel. Meet Rebecca and Tommy, a charming, witty couple who love, fight, kiss-and-make-up, and then start yelling at their toddler sons to stop peeing on each other. Meet Rebecca Barry–she’ll make you laugh on one page and maybe get a little misty-eyed on the next with this new “memoir in stories” which is full of hilarious dialogue, recipes for things like “Angry Mommy Tea,” and tips on how to fool your kids into picking up their toys (scare them with stories about a green-toothed fairy named Gladys who steals un-picked-up toys at night). Normally, I’m allergic to how-to books. And those allergens always flare up when I’m in the Self-Help sections of bookstores—sneezing fine mists all over the most seemingly sincere manuals encouraging me to keep my garage organized and to be a better pet owner—and I must quickly evacuate the area. So why didn’t I a-choo! all over Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories, with its many chapters all beginning with “How to” (“How to Lose Your Baby Weight,” “How to Manage Sleep Deprivation,” “How to Talk to Your Children About Santa,” et al)? Oh, that last one, yes, yes! I sneezed a true LOL all over that chapter as I read about Rebecca’s vain attempts to prepare her children, Liam and Dawson, for the realities of Old St. Nick (“I have ambivalent feelings about the myth of Santa. On the one hand I don’t like the way it indoctrinates children at such an early age with the idea that Christmas is all about getting presents. On the other hand, to say that Santa’s not coming make a pretty good threat.”). After making a snowman, the ever-rowdy Liam and Dawson decide to climb a tree in the backyard while Rebecca is trying to get them ready for a Christmas party.
      “Time to go in!” I said. “Time for a bath!”
      “No bath!” Dawson said.
      “Come inside,” I said.
      “No, Mommy!” Liam cried.
      This went on for a while until finally I shouted, “Liam and Dawson, get down from that tree or I’m going to call Santa and tell him not to come to our house forever.
      Which was when a fire truck pulled up in front of our house and a tall man dressed as Santa got off the back of it. “Ho ho ho!” he said.
I totally LOL’ed over that one—and I am not, I repeat, am NOT an LOL’er. Barry’s timing is so spectacular in that passage, and many other passages all throughout the book; that’s just the one that springs immediately to mind. Speaking of timing, that’s really what Recipes for a Beautiful Life is all about. As I mentioned earlier here at the blog, I have been waiting for this book for nigh on seven years now, ever since I first read Barry’s debut, Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories, in which I rhapsodically enthused: “Later, at the Bar is less about inebriation than it is grasping at second, third and even fourth chances for better lives. This is inspiring fiction which just happens to be set in a room filled with smoke, sad songs and slurred words.” But that was seven years ago, and though I try to be a patient fanboy, I did often wonder what the hell was going on with Ms. Barry. Had she given up writing? Had she had a Life-Changing Experience (everything from cancer to lottery-winning sprang to mind) and given up writing? Had she been working on the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and making devious plans to pass it off as a “new book by Harper Lee”? As it turns out, two of those three were fairly accurate. Motherhood and quitting secure, well-paying jobs in the city and moving to upstate New York and buying an old fixer-upper (“a big, square, brick Italiante built in 1865”) and Motherhood Part 2 and struggling to write a follow-up novel to Later, at the Bar and yelling herself hoarse when bedtime for the boys rolled around—well, it all added up to a “Calgon, take me away” interstate pileup of stresses which Barry writes about with seeming effortless grace and humor in the pages of this new book. I say “effortless,” but it’s apparent when reading Recipes for a Beautiful Life that nothing comes without struggle—in her life and in ours (which is her point: “all we thought we wanted was a simple, beautiful life, but what we ended up with was a rich, messy life”). As I wrote elseweb: Recipes for a Beautiful Life is the book Rebecca Barry wrote while she was on her way to write another book–and, frankly, I think it’s the most beautiful thing that could have happened to all of us. There is more I could write about this “accidental” book—so much more, like: disastrous family vacations to the Caribbean, heartwarming family Thanksgiving dinners, helpful recipes for overworked parents (“Just-Eat-Your-!@#$!-Dinner Kale Chips”), quips about drinking (“Third snow day in a row. I need ten thousand margaritas.”), believing in yourself even when your dreams are shattering, and that breath-catching heart-stopping moment when you look out to the back porch and see your perpetual-motion son quietly eating blueberries from a cup while he watches the rain fall into the yard—and there is just no way I could pack everything I love about Barry’s book into this small space, so I’ll just say—with firmness and a little catch of emotion in my voice—you need to go discover her writing for yourself. Don’t make me reach through the internet, grab you by the collar and drag you down to a bookstore to buy Recipes for a Beautiful Life, because you know I’m currently reading a how-to manual on how to do just that very thing —


Chatterbooks is a stream-of-consciousness, pop-eyed, one-sided conversation about books I’m reading (or have just completed). Less of a review, and more like David Foster Wallace tossing back shots of espresso, or a mental patient pacing his rubber-walled room, or a horse spitting out its bridle and halter and galloping free across the meadow and over the horizon.


Watchlist Countdown, Day 21: “Lifehack at Bar Kaminuk” by Mark Chiusano


      The company was called FicShare. The idea behind it was that people could use the content on their Kindles or iPads that their friends or family weren't using--they could stream it, like Slingbox did for TV. At the moment you were limited to a maximum of five ShareBuddies, but the plan was for up to ten. The online interface was much slicker than the regular e-reading experience, and the ultimate goal was a community of readers, sharing and recommending texts. Marginalia would be transmitted, and book chats were easy to initiate. Anderson was the editorial side of the startup. Sometimes, Anderson worried that if it really succeeded like everyone else in the company thought it would, it would destroy the reading economy.

          from “Lifehack at Bar Kaminuk” by Mark Chiusano

For days after reading Mark Chiusano’s brilliant and terrifying story in the Watchlist anthology, I gave my Kindle and Kobo e-readers a wide berth. Were they really as evil as Chiusano (author of Marine Park) made them out to be in his story, set in the near future? Well, no, the devices themselves aren’t the bad guys in his fiction; it’s the human forces at play behind them. I won’t say anything else, for fear of spoiling “Lifehack at Bar Kaminuk,” but let’s just say that turning pages with a finger-swipe across a screen just got a little scarier.


Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  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.