Tag Archives: fiction collection

Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

Standard
Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

Today, Grab the Lapels welcomes Jodi Paloni to the Meet the Writer series. I’ve asked Jodi questions about her two very different graduate degrees — one in environmental studies and the other in creative writing — and you read about how poetry may serve a purpose to the poet, but doesn’t have to be published to have meaning. Read more about Jodi Paloni at her website; at the bottom of her site are numerous ways to connect with her on social media.


Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?

Jodi Paloni: I mostly write realistic fiction. I’ve published a collection of short stories and a number of other stories in lit journals on-line and in print, and I’m currently working on a novel, which is hard work, but very exciting. I love to read fiction and find that getting lost in a story provides both solace and wisdom. Novels provide me with an escape like nothing else. I want to make what I love, so I write.

But when I began to write in earnest — to actually put words on paper, look them over, work on them — it was October 2001 and I was writing poetry. My first marriage was unraveling and the Twin Towers had just fallen. The poetry teacher at the school where I taught held a workshop for anyone who wanted to come and process the national tragedy through writing. My oldest daughter had been born on September 11, 1993. She was eight when the towers burned down and troubled that something like that had happened on her birthday. I wrote my first poem about her, in celebration of her coming to be. It’s still my favorite poem of the hundred and fifty or so that I have written since.

But I don’t publish poems. I keep them private, like one would a journal. Some day I’d like to pull all of my poems out and take another look at them, along with the dozen or more I’ve written in the last few years. If I find something I like, I might start sending them out. I think it would be nice to have an artifact, a chapbook or a book, that embodies the work. Poetry, to me, is the distillation of a moment, a feeling, or an experience.

My poems are mostly about the natural world as a mirror into my interior life. In troubling times, writing and reading poetry is a balm, so I tend to turn towards poetry to process emotion. I also turn to poetry when I am moved by beauty. It’s an impulse. Writing fiction is more of a strategic process for me. I get to use the parts of my brain that are both generative and tactical. It’s like figuring out a logic puzzle: the brain expands beyond the boundaries of normal thought, but is also thoughtful about boundaries. I have to say, though, all forms of writing, even writing answers to these questions, is what I want to be doing most of my time.

IMG_4470

GTL: What is a graduate degree in Environmental Communications at Antioch all about? And did that degree affect your time spent in an MFA program at Vermont College?

JP: I haven’t thought about that degree for in a long time, but recently, at an Earth Day brunch, I found myself reflecting on my time at Antioch with great nostalgia. I earned that first masters in 1990 (wow!) almost thirty years ago.

I had gotten my bachelors degree in education in the early eighties, but didn’t love the idea of working in a classroom. I wanted to be outdoors, exploring the natural world, enjoying it and working to advocate for it. After a few years of teaching in environmental jobs, I decided to indulge myself in environmental study. I say indulge because a lot of the classes were held outdoors. I learned how to identify flowers, trees, and birds. I took one class called, Mammals of the Subnivean Zone, a study of the little furry creatures that stay alive all winter underneath the snow. I learned tracking. I saw Snowy Owls. I was in heaven. The communications part of the degree was about writing, and I read wonderful nature essays along the way, but mostly, it was about how to bring ideas we learned to others in the form of advocacy and policy.

In the end, I went back into teaching. I found a wonderful public school in Vermont where both place-based learning and literature was highly valued. I could learn and explore new ideas along with my students. I wrote poetry at night, after my own children were asleep. I dreamed of writing a novel and would sometimes lay awake writing scenes in my head.

I guess all of this it to say, I have two great passions, the outdoor world and stories about regular people. Earning masters degrees in both environmental studies and fiction was really an opportunity to immerse in what I love.

IMG_4992

GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

JP: I wanted to be a stage actress or a famous singer, a Joni Mitchell, a Stevie Nicks, a Carol King. I loved the stories the ballads told, and the rhythms, and I loved to sing. Plays and movies were just another form of the storytelling. Ha! I guess writing fiction allows me to wear the mask of my characters and become what they are on the page, so in a way, that is a form of acting — taking on someone else’s voice, imagining how they would gesture or move across their exterior backdrop. Poetry is akin to song lyrics. It’s musical, all about sound, too. Fantastic! I got to become what I wanted to be when I grew up, just not in the way I might have imagined.

GTL: What inspired you to write They Could Live With Themselves?

JP: They Could Live With Themselves is a collection of linked stories about a small town in New England, based loosely on the small Vermont town where I lived for twenty-five years. My interactions with my neighbors and the landscape inspired me, for sure, and other stories I read, too. I pay attention to certain things­­ — nuances between people in a public place, gestures, objects, and am taken by a particular visual moment.

That visual moment is what I usually begin with — a lanky boy mowing a lawn, three teenage girls glommed together on a park bench, a pregnant woman sitting on a curb. I don’t write any notes or make a conscious effort to sit down and write about what I’ve just seen. The images just get stored in my brain.

I often begin a story when a first line comes to me, and I riff on that. Later, I’ll see something in a story that is a knock-off of an image in real life or one from a daydream. I love the mystery of how it all works. Once I had written a dozen or so stories that took place in the same town and found that characters were popping in and out of each other’s stories, I began to think of the ways I could do this with intention, and plan how the stories could be arrange in a linked form to give a novel-like experience of the read, while maintaining each story as a discrete piece. The stories take place over the course of one year, from May to May, in a small town. Readers can watch the evolution of the community as a character, too. It was fun.

IMG_6755

Jodi’s revision process for her short story collection.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

JP: I have a writing group that traverses place. We use Google Hang Out. We’ve met once a month, almost religiously, for six years. I also am very involved in my local writing community and the statewide alliance in Maine, which is fabulous, very active, and quite generous in spirit. I have to say, most of my friends are writers, or at least avid readers. We talk a lot about our lives as it relates to writing and books. I go to a few writing events a year, a conference or a residency. I’m currently in a poetry group and just joined two new prose groups, probably too many groups, but we’ll see. I do love spending a Sunday afternoon with three other writers discussing the work. Most of my social media connections are with writers as well, so I’m basically surrounded with writers and craft talk, books and publishing news. Works for me!

GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?

JP: Oh, wow! Great question, a tough one, too. Let’s see. A lot of my characters are pretty sad, and for good reason. I don’t want to be any sadder than I already am in real life, or as sad as some of them. Ha! Oh, dear. But just for one day, right? I like a character named Wren, a lot. She’s a single woman in her forties. Although she has had very sad events in her life, going as far back to a childhood, she seems to be on the mend. She’s figured out that it’s okay for her to be there for others and still find ways to take care of herself, to make peace with the fact that she actually likes living alone, and, I think, though I’m not absolutely sure, she’s about to hook up with someone who could become the great love of her life, a man named Addison, who lives in a fabulous Vermont homestead high on a hill overlooking the valley. Sure, I’ll be Wren for a day. I’ll pick a lovely spring morning when the sun is hot, but there’s still a hint of melting snow. The stream is rushing. Addison’s just said good-bye to his ex-wife, once and for all. Wren and Addison both have the whole day off. 😉

In fact, there are a number of my characters who, by the end of their stories, are about to embark on something better than where they began because they’ve figured out something important about who they are and who they want to become. I’d trade places with almost any of them if I could pick up where their story has just left off.


The winner of the giveaway, chosen by random, is Jackie over at Death by Tsundoku!

Giveaway: If you want to read about Wren and Addison and some of the other characters living in Stark Run, Vermont, leave a comment written to Jodi below to be entered into a drawing for a copy of They Could Live With Themselves. Currently, winners are restricted to United States due to the cost of shipping. A winner will be chosen at random at noon on May 5th.

They_Could_Live_with_Themselves_cover

 

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

Standard
Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch


Why We Never Talk About Sugar 
by Aubrey Hirsch

published by Braddock Avenue Books, 2012

Aubrey Hirsch, who we previously met in a Meet the Writer feature, dishes out 16 pieces of fiction in this collection. The key themes were physics, being stranded, childlessness, and illness. I especially applaud Hirsch for having these themes without pounding me over the head, telling me in an obvious fashion that her stories are related. She trusts her reader.

The power of belief was a major factor in the stories about childlessness. In “Certainty,” when two lesbians want to have a baby, Cris decides she wants it to genetically be their baby, and that with enough belief it could happen, despite a zero percent chance. Her partner thinks about probability and the meaning of love:

If Cris and I could have a child together, I knew that kid would be the best, most interesting kid on the planet. But I also knew we couldn’t. Every time we made love, Cris looked at me with this intense longing. She was trying to make it happen. I could tell. And sometimes, right before I came, I almost thought it was possible.

Here, I could feel the intensity of Cris trying to make something with her love (and dare I say I wanted to believe it could happen in Hirsch’s world?).

The sadness in the stories involving multiple sclerosis were the ones that broke my heart. In “No System for Blindness,” a daughter stays with her father as his disease worsens. Some symptoms are permanent while others can be managed. When he wakes up blind, they cross their fingers that it will pass. Just the description of the two eating breakfast, and the careful way Hirsch shows us that the father is blind, gave me chills (and made me want to cry):

He stares past me, to my left, tapping the table in search of his glasses. There is powdered sugar in his beard. It makes him look older. He places his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. There is a greasy white streak across one lens, but he can’t see it.

An impressive part of Hirsch’s stories is her knowledge of physics. The formulas and ideas read more like poetry and were a way to talk about life and relationships. As an example, a young man gives a woman a birthday present, even though it is their third date, because one should always give birthday gifts. His present?

“It’s a picture of subatomic particles, through an electron microscope. The technical term is ‘hydrogen event in a bubble chamber.’ It’s what happens when two particles are smashed together at very high speeds. This one’s from the accelerator at FermiLab. The lines and spots are tracks made by the explosion.” He runs a bulky fingertip along one of the swirls. “See?”

What a moment, yes? My first thought, albeit inappropriate, was, “Why hasn’t someone given me a hydrogen event in a bubble chamber?” Hirsch has this way of bringing the reader into at least one of the character’s shoes in each story, grounding us 16 separate times.

I want to thank Aubrey Hirsch for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

Standard
Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

Troglodyte by Tracy DeBrincat
published by Elixir Press, 2014

Tracy DeBrincat, whom we met in a Meet the Writer feature, writes characters that are people of the earth, the kind who will comment not on ideas, but appreciate bodily processes as something to which one should pay attention. Her stories take readers to a perhaps uncomfortable place we thought we left behind when we became “adults.” I still remember a joke my uncle told me when I was a kid: two woman are hoeing potatoes in the field when one woman pulls a potato from the ground, looks at it, and says, “This looks like my Issac’s taters.” The other woman responds, “That big?” and the first says, “No, that dirty.” Ha ha ha, right? Where did this “low-brow” humor go, and why did we once like it so much? I loved that joke. DeBrincat reminds me why.

Even though Superbaby of the short story “Superbaby Saves Slugville” was “historically, a fantastic crapper,” he held it all in to keep his aunt from visiting her boyfriend while washing the cloth diapers. The family notices Superbaby is backed up, so he’s sent to the doctor. His sister isn’t sure what this trip to the doctor’s means for Superbaby: “‘Does that mean he’ll poop now?’ Trina wonders about this every morning, making great snakes that don’t break, snakes of beautiful stink and rich color.” I’m thoroughly grossed out by the passage, but let’s be realistic: how many children (or, hell, even adults) haven’t been fascinated by the various characteristics that come out of their anuses. DeBrincat calls us out on thoughts we keep hidden to remain “normal,” and makes us acknowledge who we can be from time to time.troglodyte

The collection isn’t only made of “poo stories,” though. Her descriptions are quite lovely, even if the subject matter isn’t beautiful. This was a feature I loved of the collection. In “Gardenland,” Chichi returns home with her ex-husband Vince after she runs into him at a diner. She realizes she wasn’t “cured” of him when they divorced, that he’s still the same asshole she knew then: “Chichi pricked her ears to hear that piece-of-shit’s voice–the meaningless promises that flew like swallows from his red velvet tongue. She’d done time chasing after those birds, holding crumbs in her open hands while they hopped this way and that. When Chichi looked up he was there, all of him and so much of him was so much the same. The impudent slope of his shoulders, the Gothic lettering on his faded black T-shirt, the way he stood legs spread wide, like his nuts were too big to do else-wise.” Vince’s physical presence is animalistic, as if he weren’t meant to wear pants because his testicles are so….there (I’m personally picturing hairy coconuts). But he’s also capable of the sweet words of a man who leads a woman around. DeBrincat’s characters are often full of contradictions that make them pleasing to experience on the page.

Tracy DeBrincat’s collection stirs the pot of personalities and boils up the most unpredictable bunch ever. Whimsical, laugh-out-loud hysterical at times, Troglodyte is a must have for any larger-than-life woman who finds herself making decisions for happiness’ sake when sanity isn’t an option.

I want to thank you Tracy DeBrincat for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Loss of All Lost Things #BookReview #ReadWomen

Standard
The Loss of All Lost Things #BookReview #ReadWomen

Amina Gautier’s short story collection was sent to me by fellow blogger Bill Wolfe at Read Her Like An Open Book. Although it sounds ridiculous, I accidentally won a copy when I commented on a book review blog post about this collection. Knowing I wouldn’t have time to read Gautier’s book this year, I passed it on to my talented former student, Jennifer Vosters. Jennifer previously reviewed Tides and This Time, While We’re Awake at Grab the Lapels. Please welcome Jennifer back — her review is below!


Amina Gautier’s 2016 short story collection (Elixer Press), named for the third piece in the mix, is aptly titled The Loss of All Lost Things: fifteen stories of varying lengths, all chronicle different (yet noticeably similar) experiences of loss and the “losers” who must live with it, losers familiar enough to haunt us when we look in the mirror. In The Loss of All Lost Things, one gets a sneaking suspicion that Gautier is writing not just about “everyday people” but her readers themselves, their families, their neighbors, with grim precision. And while one must admire Gautier’s unflinching insight, it’s enough to inspire some measure of discomfort, even discouragement, after a long reading session. In such a long collection rife with pain and failure and distance, the reader wears out before the writer does.

Perhaps, rather than “short stories,” a more accurate description of Gautier’s work would be “snapshots,” because the author has an uncanny ability to make readers feel that we’re given privileged access into a slice of a person’s private life: that messy, borderless thing that often comes without clear arcs or conclusions or epiphanies — making it all the more beautiful when a real one comes along. The gems of this collection are when Gautier seems to have concentrated on doing precisely that: “The Loss of All Lost Things,” “Resident Lover,” “Cicero Waiting,” and “Most Honest” stood out for their honesty, sharpness, and tautness, almost photographic and with no words wasted. These read effortlessly, as if all it took to get the words down was a click of the shutter. There was none of the heavy-handedness that slackened some of her more obvious attempts to shock or to preach (“Lost and Found” and “Disturbance” were two of these).

Gautier wins when her prose is delicate, focused, and restrained, and when her characters speak for themselves rather than for her. The pieces flounder when she tries a little too hard to get a point across, such as in her attempt at dystopia in “Disturbance,” which in addition to being heavily expository also passed glaring judgment on current events with very little subtlety.

gautier

As a whole, the collection’s primary fault is really being too long… or, rather, too unvaried for the number of stories and pages it spans. Within the fifteen thematically linked stories, Gautier returns again and again to searing losses that with repeated exposure somehow become dull. (Whether they lose their vigor because these repetitive losses are so enormous or in spite of it, I am not sure.) Failed marriages, abducted children, and empty relationships appear and reappear like characters in a continuing saga, except we do not learn new things about them with each cameo. Gautier compounds this sense of déjà vu by putting the majority of her main characters in the same career field (higher education, which also happens to be the author’s) and the same dissatisfied-to-the-point-of-depressed tone that weighs on a reader’s mind — and concentration — after a while.

Yet Gautier does something in a few of these pieces that seems increasingly rare in literary fiction: she allows for a small ray of hope. Not always, not everywhere, but in a choice few stories she opens the possibility of healing, to keep her work from delivering a damning and robotic prognosis of recovery after loss. Even better? The hope is a hint, a whisper, not enough to undermine the tragedy of the rest of the work, but just enough to cling to as an alternative to the otherwise bleak picture of damaged existence she paints over and over.

Despite the repetition, there are enough beautiful moments and interesting characters — and a tender, brutal honesty that may be Gautier’s signature — in The Loss of All Lost Things to make the collection worth reading. My advice? Read each story individually, carefully, with time to digest between. Because as a collection, The Loss of All Lost Things can drag; story by story, it stings (and you’ll like it).


Jennifer Vosters is a 2016 alumna of Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, where she studied English, Theatre, and Italian. She is currently working as an actor in Milwaukee and excitedly diving into the sizable reading list she’s compiled over the last four years.

Meet the Writer: Robin Parks #AuthorInterview @ShadeMountainPr #food

Standard
Meet the Writer: Robin Parks #AuthorInterview @ShadeMountainPr #food

I want to thank Robin Parks for answering my questions. Her short story collection, Egg Heaven, published by Shade Mountain Press, is set mostly in diners and eateries in Southern California and explores the folks who people those places. Parks is also the Managing Editor at Referential Magazine.  Learn more at her website.

Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your book, Egg Heaven?

Robin Parks: There is a lot of food in it to make up for the sorrow. Plus, if you’ve never been to a Southern California beach, these stories will take you there; also, to the great California desert where a Jewish diner gathers dust and tumbleweeds. Sorry, yucky food there. Ketchup packets. That stuff.

egg heaven

GTL: What was the hardest part of writing your book?

RP: Like any other writer, I wanted my words to always, always cast a loving light on my characters. With short stories, every single sentence holds the character it its hands, offers the character up to the reader: “Hi, love me!” Mostly this is so easy. But sometimes…not so much. Dread sets in, you know? Have I made my characters less than they are? Not proven them as deep and subtle and strong as they really are? Oy.

GTL: What are your current writing projects?

RP: My current writing project is Managing Editor for my husband as he drafts his memoir. You won’t believe how beautiful his writing is!

GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

RP: This is like asking about the first time you had a good time in bed. It really is! Hmmm. There were a few good times leading up to this one, but this one lasted a looooong time and I remember it vividly. I had the story “Home On the Range” in my head — at least the main characters, whom I found while wandering around a thrift store in Long Beach, California. But when I knew I was ready to begin writing the story, I walked fast in my neighborhood every morning composing that First Sentence in my head. It was soooooo much fun. Sooooo exhilarating. Like touching someone beautiful for the first time, only again and again in different spots, for the first time. I just kept walking and starting over, walking and starting over.

Ummm, I have to admit I ended up with not my best First Sentence ever, but maybe it wasn’t really the First Sentence I was so awash in. Maybe instead it was that I knew — knew! — that First Sentence was going to lead to something good. I was embarking on a good story. I’m sure most writers feel this rush, that something good is going to come of this impulse: the girl, the sky, the spot of blue, what he muttered…. Why else would we go on?

robin parks

GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

RP: Alive? Okay, too dark. But truly there is a reason there is so much food in my stories. I grew up in households where there just wasn’t anything to eat. I write about it in “Thanksgiving,” an essay in The MacGuffin. So yes, let me give a reader something to eat, or something to fill that soul longing empty grasping hunger. Love? A moment of love. A moment of love will save anyone’s life.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?  

RP: Shade Mountain Press (listen up, women!).


Special Note: Robin Parks’s publisher, Shade Mountain Press, is now accepting submissions from African American women until September 1, 2016. If you, or anyone you know, is interested, please head to the guidelines page!

Meet the Writer: Joanne C. Hillhouse #writerslife #authorinterview

Standard

I want to thank Joanne for participating in the “Meet the Writer” series. You can read more about Joanne on her blog or Facebook page. Also, check out the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize – a writing programme Joanne C. Hillhouse founded in 2004 in Antigua and Barbuda.

What kinds of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I do a bit of everything; as a freelance writer, you kind of have to be open to taking on different types of writing projects. What I really love, though, is creative writing – fiction and poetry, and especially fiction. Not just the books I’ve written (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the MoonlightFish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and coming soon Musical Youth) but I just enjoy experimenting within the story writing form, short and long. Much of what I write is character driven and distinctively Caribbean with (I like to believe) universal resonance – because I do believe the stories that are about the human condition can cross over without having to be diluted. I want to keep telling those stories, tell them more. But I also want to continue experimenting, challenging myself. So I’ve tried my hand, within the short story format especially, at everything from noir to fairy tale. And that’s what I wish I could do more of…just new and interesting things. Like fantasy; how cool and what an interesting challenge it would be to create a wholly distinct and totally believable world from scratch. I’d like to try that someday. I hate boxes, labels, limitations, so I just want to keep being creative.

oh gad.jpg

In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

I’m not sure. I mean, I’m not a product of an MFA programme, but my love affair with literature has been a lifelong one, fed inside and outside of the classroom. At the tertiary level, I’ve done writing and literature courses, though my Bachelors is in Communications, and post-tertiary I’ve done workshops like the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami, the Breadloaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College, and Texas A & M Callaloo Writers workshop at Brown University. And I hope to do more of that kind of thing. But I think more important than “academia,” for me, has been this passion for reading and writing, and growing and being open to the opportunities to be mentored in person or on the page…because I do believe a lot of what I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from reading…I love to read.

In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

I wrote a poem once called “Stealing Life,” and that’s it in a nutshell. It’s not a conscious act, most of the time, and it’s not a linear relationship, but life feeds my writing; without life there’s nothing to write, is there?

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

I’ll let you know when that happens.

What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

At some point, you have to let it go, happy or not; at some point, you’ve done all you can with it. Sometimes that means filing it, never to be seen by the public; and sometimes that means putting it out there and letting it continue on its journey without you. The thing is, though, the act of writing is what makes me happy; I feel so blessed (okay, sometimes cursed, but mostly blessed) that I have this talent and I want to keep growing it. So, when I half-joke about not being happy with what I’ve written, it’s not meant to be falsely humble or overly critical, it’s a reflection of my desire to keep surprising myself. So, in that sense, I’ve been happy with everything, but I’m not satisfied. I do a fairy tale, for instance, and I try it out on the kids, and I take their feedback to heart and I work it out, and I submit it to a contest, and it earns honourable mention…and I’m happy, happy happy happy….but what more could I have done, you know. Or, I do a young adult script and its second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction…and I’m happy, happy happy happy…but what more could I have done? I’m very driven…and it’s not about what tier I’m on because I’m still very much a writer on the hustle… it’s about feeling like I heard the character right and told her or his story right; that’s what matters to me, and I’ll fight for that. That someone read something I wrote and was moved by it is what matters to me, and I’ll treasure that…but I’m always about, “What more could I have done?” I’m far from feeling comfortable.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

Until Oh Gad! I had pretty much convinced myself that my family didn’t read my writing, or at least had the grace not to discuss it with me if they did, so that I could pretend they didn’t…that’s changing, and all the uncomfortableness that comes with that, especially when the realism has them, and this applies to friends and family and random strangers, giving me the side eye…the hmmm… though truthfully that type of response goes all the way back to my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend…from my sister telling me how much the tanty character, modelled on our tanty, made her cry, one of my favourite responses to date, and not because I like to make people cry, but because I like when readers have a real moment with what I’ve written… to people asking if the boy’s story was my story, though I’m clearly a girl…so on the one hand, yay, you’ve done your job, but on the other hand, hello, it’s fiction. But I have to say, in my world (Antigua and Barbuda, in the Caribbean), being a writer, wanting to be a writer, it takes a bit of going against the grain, and I have to say both friends and family have been supportive… even when they don’t get me…or understand this journey I’m on.

Meet the Writer: Bonnie ZoBell #writerslife #interview

Standard
Meet the Writer: Bonnie ZoBell #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Bonnie for answering my questions! Read more about Bonnie here and check out her virtual book tour that we put together here!

bonnie banner

The beautiful banner my husband created for Zobell’s book blog tour tour last year

What was the first story you ever wrote about?

It was a story called “The Bridle Path,” published in some obscure magazine. At least this is the first one I can remember. It was a story about kids and class and racial distinctions, but apparently the magazine that published it was made uncomfortable by some of it. They renamed one of the main characters intentionally nicknamed “Whitey” to “Whitney” without talking to me about it and other changes along those lines.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

How long do you have? I had more majors in college than almost anybody I know. The fact is that I’m slow and methodical, which works well with writing and teaching, but not so good for waitressing, which I got fired from when several customers wrote letters of complaints about me at the Bon Marché lunch counter in Spokane, Washington.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think it’s some of both, to be wishy-washy about it. I think some of it is instinctive, but even much of that is shaped by our backgrounds, what we grow up to value, our experiences, and so on. I think you can learn to be a much better writer, not so much from books on craft, I’m sorry to say, but by reading as much as you possibly can.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

Statistics. There was the WHY? factor. Why did I need to know this? (because for about a week in college I’d decided to go into fashion merchandising and it was required). But probably the biggest reason is that my brain works in a completely opposite way. I didn’t get it.

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m finishing Richard Peabody’s awesome Blue Suburban Skies, full of all kinds of strange and wonderful characters and stories.  And I’m starting Roxane Gay’s painful and beautifully-written An Untamed State.

Are you writing anything right now?

Since my new book, What Happened Here, was just released by Press 53, I’m mainly writing interviews like this one and trying to get more people to read it. Soon, I will go back to a novel I started a long time ago. I’m looking forward to that!

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Standard
The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

Standard
Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for answering my questions. You can find more about her work on her website or her tumblr, LitStop, which Nadiya says, “is more of a parking spot for bits and pieces from the books I’m reading.”

What was the first story you ever wrote about?
I had toyed with the idea of being a writer for most of my teenage and adult life, I just hadn’t been serious about it. I had numerous story ideas jotted down, and many false starts which still sit unfinished.  I still come across them sometimes in notebooks. I think partly because I was lazy, partly because I didn’t really believe I could do it, partly because I had no idea how to. Which is one of the reasons perhaps I veered toward translation: because the ‘how to’ part of the storytelling had already been taken care of.

The first story I actually completed was called “A Journey in the Night.” I wrote it in two days after I ran into someone I knew on a long-haul bus. The person had pretended to not recognize me and walked right past. I had felt a little bit hurt. At the time I would tend to think that I was a particularly unlikable person, and I was actively trying to be positive about myself and stop myself from thinking like that. So later, when thinking about the bus encounter, I tried to imagine scenarios in which someone’s rude behavior really had nothing to do with me; from those thoughts the story emerged.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be a journalist for a while (my icon was Nellie Bly), I wanted to be a science writer (Carl Sagan!), I wanted to follow in and go beyond the footsteps of Indian Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen and hop trucks all across Asia and write about it, I wanted to edit a magazine and a run a literary salon at the same time as writing my novels. The kind of writing I wanted to do changed as I grew, but the fact of writing was constant.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think it is most definitely a combination of both. I do think that innate talent is necessary, but I also believe that there are many ways to hone that talent. One of those ways can be to go to writing school. This is not to say that this is the only way to hone your talent—but it is one way.  I think my thoughts went immediately to MFA programs because there’s been so much talk in the past couple of years trashing and defending MFA programs; but when I really think about it, writing is largely an act of learning. Writers who do not go to formal school—and they are absolutely the majority—learn their craft through observation, reading (obsessively!), through the give and take of conversation and debate and community building. Which of these activities is not learning? We learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the craft of writing in many ways. I was a writer before I went to writing school, and now that the school part is over, I’m still a writer. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend an MFA program—but it would not have stopped me from being a writer if I hadn’t. 

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

My least favorite class was a phonetics class I had to take as an undergraduate. The class itself was boring, and the teacher was fairly disrespectful of the students, where she made fun of their English accents (this was in Bangladesh where English is not our first language) or made inappropriate comments on their clothing. She decided to go after me, where she would call on me in class by saying things like, “You, the girl sitting in between two boys.” Or, “You, the girl wearing the short blouse.” It got to the point where she threatened to fail me at the end of year. She couldn’t, of course, because her class only counted for 5% of the total and it while it affected my total score, my passing or failing didn’t depend on it. I still marvel, however, especially now that I have been a teacher myself, at any teacher losing their professional calm to the extent of letting it become personal with a student.

Are you reading anything right now?

I am reading Margaret Atwood’s climate-dystopia The MaddAddam Trilogy, and marveling, as usual, at the imaginative reach, the range of distinctive voices, the tight control of time–moving back and forth and sideways. I’m also rereading a novel by a friend, Shaheen Akhter, called Beloved Rongomala (which is in Bangla but World Literature Today published the first chapter translated by Mahmud Rahman, which can be found here.

Are you writing anything right now?
I just finished the last story of my linked collection called Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories. Now I need to polish them all a little more, and send them out to my handful of trusty readers. Then, the big one: agent search time!

Bystanders #readwomen #bookreview

Standard
Bystanders #readwomen #bookreview

Bystanders: stories by Tara Laskowski

published by the Santa Fe Writers Project, May 2016

Bystanders contains 13 short stories, ranging from 5 to 25 pages in length. Given the title, I started looking for the bystanders right away. The first story is easy; a woman sees a man in his car hit and kill a boy on a bicycle. Other stories are more difficult, making the game of finding a bystander more akin to Where’s Waldo. People might be bystanders of their own lives. A cat might be a bystander to messy human interactions.

Bystanders would have been a great book to use in a literature class I taught about 4 years ago that I dubbed “The Twisted Domestic.” I was teaching at an all-women’s college, and I wanted to show my fresh(wo)men that domestic life wasn’t just bliss or violence, that the shades in between were quite difficult. We read books like For Sale By OwnerThe Dangerous HusbandIn the House, Cul de Sac, and The Book of Ruth. First I noticed that many stories in Bystanders were about new mothers. Then came the husbands who were trying to survive domestic life, too. Sometimes, there were young women who might throw a wrench in marital happiness, but the way the relationships merged or deflected weren’t predictable.


shapiro   hamilton   baby


Bystanders has a few themes that tie it together nicely, making the characters and plots memorable. Few collections do that for me. Basically, an author’s best stories in one book don’t make a great collection, to me. Aside from domesticity, Bystanders had a lot of wind/storms. The wind was constantly kicking up, making me leery and wondering what would happen next. I wondered if the wind was a purposeful choice, or a happy coincidence. I remember when I wrote a novella for my master’s degree, everyone kept asking why the characters were always doing things with hair — combing it, playing with it, shaving it — and I had not realized they were doing so.

Another theme is ghosts or spirits. Some stories, like “The Monitor,” suggest there are actual ghosts hanging around. Others, like “There’s Someone Behind You,” which sounds like a set up for a ghost story, have people pretending to be ghosts. There are ghosts of the greatness people used to be, or what they could have been. For a collection not about ghosts, there are a lot of haunting vibes in these stories.

Many of the endings didn’t sit well with me. I went back in forth, wondering if I was demanding unfairly for the author to wrap up the stories with bows, or if she was cutting short the plot. In the end, I settled on this: the endings often come too quickly, leave me with too many questions, and gave me the sense that I stopped reading in the middle of a chapter. The stories that ended on firm footing weren’t packaged and handed to the reader, but they felt like a conclusive place, one where I wasn’t confused to turn the page and see a new story title.


kelcey parker

culdesac   lynnkilpatrick


I did like that the author gently played with narrative styles. These different styles were both accessible and fun. For example, in “Half the Distance to the Goal Line,” the narrator tells us, “Don’t judge Diane, she feels guilty enough.” Ahhh, the old talking-to-the-reader narrator, the one we see in books like Vanity Fair, is one of my favorites. In one paragraph, the narrator tells us what Diane is thinking, then what Jack is thinking, then what that narrator thinks. Weirdly, the narrator is described as “we,” like a group of people, as if the narrator represents all the other kids from high school judging a few of their peers.

There was also some terrific imagery in Bystanders. In “The Oregon Trail,” a husband, wife, and their toddler are near the Red Desert in Wyoming when their car breaks down. A truck pulls up with two teenage boys, and this is where it seems like things could go bad. One boy looks at the wife and smiles. She feels, “his smile was like peeling back a can of Friskies — cold, sharp, metallic, with a whiff of something foul underneath.” Now, perhaps this sounds stupid, but I was wondering what that smile would look like, so I tried it myself, slowing pulling back the corners of my mouth like I was carefully opening a can with a sharp lid, and immediately got it. It was terrifying.

laskowski

More great imagery is in “There’s Someone Behind You.” Ruthie, the mistress of a dentist, is going a bit nuts from being the other woman. She buys some peanut butter and drives to her lover’s home, because she knows he isn’t there:

The peanut butter is good, and as she drives through William’s neighborhood Ruthie eats more and more of it with her fingers, digging out gobs of it. She wonders if William has called yet. Oh, what would he do if he knew what she was up to! And how annoyed he’d be about what the sugar was doing to her teeth!

The story “The Monitor” is about a woman struggling with her newborn baby. What I admire most about contemporary domestic fiction is how brutally honest it is about babies and motherhood. The things people used to not say is now all over the printed page. Think about it: Doris Lessing wrote the horrifying story “Room 19,” but not once did the narrator tell her children she didn’t want them. Instead, she quietly committed suicide, but we get what’s going on. Here is what the mother, Myra, in “The Monitor” thinks about her baby:

She found herself weirdly creeped out by her child — how wrinkled she was, how delicate, how helpless, rooting around Myra’s breasts in the middle of the night like a parasite, staring off into space.

Sure, moms aren’t telling other people what they think of their kids, but they’re finally telling readers. Great imagery can change our perspectives about new babies. I’ll never forget the description of the newborn son in Paula Bomer’s short story “Baby” as being the first I’d read that was honest. Just after the baby is born in the hospital:

His tiny ears looked like two miniature, crinkled vaginas, his eyes were hooded and dark, and his head was as pointy as a birthday hat. He looked nothing like her. He upset her so much that she cried and asked that he be taken to the nursery.

Are you as appalled as my “Twisted Domestic” students were? I must say, that 18-year-old young ladies thought this was the devil’s writing, but as I get older, I hear more frequently — especially on “mommy blogs” — that being fed a dishonest tale about domesticity is incredibly damaging to one’s sanity. And in Bystanders, struggling mothers often felt alone, and like failures.

Despite some endings that left me wishing there was more, I would recommend Bystanders as an excellent addition to contemporary fiction that looks at the home lives of men and women. Laskowski gives an honest portrayal from male and female perspectives that proves to be at times unsettling, but always about persistent, memorable individuals.

I want to thank Tara Laskowski and her publisher for sending me a reviewer copy of Bystanders in exchange for an honest review.