Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Carry On Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I am 150 pages into Eleanor & Park and it’s official: I love it. I love Rainbow Rowell. I love Jennifer Niven. I love Young Adult. I wrote a Young Adult novel before really getting to know the genre, and I would say that I’m pretty much just scratching the surface with these books, but having finished All the Bright Places and now barreling through Eleanor & Park, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this genre, about how well-written, literary young adult could capture me and somehow, retroactively tell my thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. self that everything I felt and thought was totally valid and normal and – dare I say – fantastic. When an agent read the first ten pages of my novel, before I’d written very much of it at all, and suggested that I write it as Young Adult, my initial reaction was shock and, I’ll admit it, disdain. I didn’t want to be labeled a YA author. People wouldn’t take my writing seriously. We don’t write YA in MFA programs.

Holy shit, I was wrong. That agent probably wanted to tell me I was being ridiculous but instead, she took a deep breath and explained that readers grow up and keep reading the authors they loved when they were younger. And that – gasp – adults still read YA. They read YA to better understand their own kids, they read YA to remember being young themselves, they read YA because the writing is good. They read YA. Full stop.

I’m almost thirty-four and I would, in a heartbeat, read anything by Rowell or Niven, because after reading these two books, I trust them completely as writers. They draw their characters so well, so completely. They illuminate their feelings, their emotions, with writing that makes me feel what they feel, like all good writing should. These two Rowell books are next on my list!

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

I read the first few pages of this novel and it’s both mysterious and comical. I’m not sure how it’s both those things so I will read it to find out. An older widow who lives in a somewhat secluded beach house thinks she hears a tiger skulking around her den one night. The next morning, a stranger shows up, claiming to be a government caretaker, sent to wash her windows and make her lunch, to take care of her for a few hours a day. The premise is incredibly intriguing, the mystery intense but shrouded in mundanity. Very excited about this one.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel has been the subject of A LOT of buzz, and I’ve stayed away from most of it since I so often allow other people’s critical opinions cloud my own. But, the summary alone makes me super-excited to read it! Below is the full description from Penguin/Random House’s website:

“A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Advertisements
Writing through Trauma

Writing through Trauma

I have experienced my fair share of “the traumatic” in my life, some of which I didn’t even recognize as trauma for a good amount of time after it happened. Probably the most defining and pivotal trauma – the unexpected and violent death of my father when I was thirteen years old – has both shaped my life since then and provided the inspiration for my novel. With Father’s Day this weekend, and the imminent workshop I will be attending to critique this novel inspired by his passing, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about how I finally came to write this book that is both about him and not about him, and how writing it has changed me.

Every fall that I can remember, I would start to feel antsy and unsettled as the warm October days became chillier. As soon as November hit, I would inevitably snap at my loved ones more often than normal and cry more often than normal as well. I didn’t really realize the cause of this until, in November of 2012, I was finishing my Master’s thesis at the University of Oregon and had some bad news from a potential job prospect. The stress of writing the thesis plus the disappointment of losing a job threw me into a bit of a tizzy. Luckily, I had lunch with my mentor and, in the process of debriefing with him, I realized that one of the contributing factors to my spiraling out of control – or at least out of a sense of wellness – was that the anniversary of my father’s death was coming up. In fact, I unwittingly scheduled my thesis defense on the very day he was found, his official date of death.

It’s crazy to think that I didn’t realize it, but it makes sense. I had, for fifteen years, tried so hard to prevent his death from defining my life. I came to this conclusion fully when I recounted the realization to my therapist and she was shocked, not that I had this experience but that she had been treating me for months and I’d never disclosed that my father was dead, much less the traumatic way that we lost him.

Three years later, as my husband and I were dealing with his mother’s sickness and ultimate passing-away, I started writing poetry about her. I wrote about how I imagined she was feeling, how she must be existing in that liminal space between our world and another, how close we are all to being in her position. I made an error here – I submitted these poems to my workshop that semester. After reading the rightfully-scathing feedback from my classmates, I decided that part of the reason the poems weren’t quite working was because I wasn’t writing about the thing I wanted to be writing about. I should have been writing about my dad.

But, I don’t want his death to define my life! I was kicking and screaming that…what did I have to say? What is MY story? Not his, but mine!?!?

I pushed those questions and second-guesses from my mind and decided to just go with it, to free-write whatever came to me. I wrote seven-thousand words, the opening chapters of a novel about a girl, not unlike me, on a quest to find her missing father. In writing that opening, I had to admit that, although he had been physically gone from my life for years, I had been seeking him, looking for him, from the very moment we put him in the ground. His death, it wasn’t my life, but it was a HUGE part of my story, a huge part of the story of my life.

So, I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I edited. I revised. I rewrote. I shared the book-in-progress with people. I rewrote more. I cut huge chunks of what I wrote. On and on and on.

Although the novel is completely made-up – truly, it is not just memoir parading as fiction but is fiction in the realest sense – the protagonist suffers through much of what I did and, undoubtedly, every time I wrote about the father in the book, I thought about my own. The last 15 months, over which time I composed the text, off and on, have not been easy. During the weeks that I intensively wrote – sometimes, up to ten thousand words per day – I found myself feeling depressed, edgy, easy to snap. Other times, I felt as though I was in a totally different world, separated by some gauzy wall from my husband, my family and my friends.

But, I forced myself to write, revise, and rewrite.

Now, on the other side of the experience, with a moderately polished manuscript and the major tenets of the plot in place, I no longer feel the tense, antsy-ness that I did, consistently, while I was writing. As Father’s Day approaches, my husband said, Whatever you need this weekend, just let me know. And when I thought about what I might “need” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need anything. Writing about this trauma, as difficult as it had been, actually exorcised so many of the negative and painful feelings I’ve had over the years, and has truly brought this odd sense of peace to me.

I never thought it would have been possible.

In the days, weeks, months and years following this personal tragedy, I could not write about it. I could barely talk about it. But, not addressing this thing that had become such a major part of my story really stifled my ability to write about anything. In suppressing this one event, I had to suppress everything. I don’t know exactly what flipped the switch in me, to make me feel like I had permission to write about the sadness I’d experienced. I’ve mentioned David Vann before and I will again here to say that his novel, Legend of a Suicide, freed me so greatly. The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith also made it permissible for me to write about the grief I had inherited. I am so, so grateful that these authors, and others, had the guts and courage to write about their hardest things, so that I may have found that same courage. Once they opened my eyes, I was able to really look around and see how much of the art in the world is a reflection of the artist’s experience. It seems like a super-obvious thing to realize, but it took me a while to get there.

And if I ever get the book published, if I ever get into a position where I can teach a class about writing, I would want trauma writing to be a part of it. We all have traumas, large and small. We should write them. I’m so glad I did.

Happy Father’s Day!

 

Why am I so interested in Daddy Love?

Why am I so interested in Daddy Love?

I picked up the Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Daddy Love, when I was in the library last week.

(I have this compulsion. No matter how many ordered books I’m coming to pick up, I always scan the shelves to find something else to add.)

I have only ever read one other book by Oates, the novella Black Water, based on **a true story** which deals with the death of a young woman who had been having an affair with a powerful, married man. Daddy Love interested me because, like Black Water, the novel focuses on a deviant topic of interest to contemporary readers. The plot could be described as the inner lives of victims of kidnapping and sexual assault. The character, Daddy Love, abducts five-year-old Robbie from his mother’s care in a parking lot in Michigan and over the next six years, trains him to be an obedient son while also raping him. The novel is not quite as explicit as Ramsey Bolton’s attacks on Theon, i.e. Reek, in Game of Thrones, but still, it’s explicit enough to disturb even the most morbid of readers, i.e. me.

But, I read it because I write stories like these, about these deviants and their misbehaviors. One of the stories from my thesis collection, formerly titled “Photo Shoot,” and in the process of being revised/rewritten, follows a fourteen-year-old girl named Sophie who must move to a new town before starting her freshman year. She and her mother move to escape the nasty legacy left by her father, who seduced, photographed and sexually assaulted girls in Sophie’s class. The story will hopefully show Sophie picking up the mantel where her father left off, turning from a victim herself into one who unwittingly becomes a perpetrator.

By the end of Daddy Love, Robbie is out of Daddy Love’s grip but the reader is left with the sense that he still craves the type of relationship he had with his abductor. Robbie is much changed by the brutality of his captor. My hope, in my story, is that Sophie will be much changed by her father’s actions as well, to the point that I reader, despite their desire to feel sorry for her because of the pain she’s suffered, will also feel an inkling of fear, as the reader will know how dangerous she will become.

Oates, in Daddy Love, really tows the line between enough and excess in her descriptions of the torture and assault that Robbie undergoes. But the descriptions are necessary to ensure that the reader knows the extent to which he was abused. I am taking some lessons from this novel in the revision process of “Photo Shoot.” How much do I need to explicitly state what Sophie’s father is guilty of and how much can be inferred? How much does Sophie need to cross over into similar behavior in order for the reader to develop that sense of fear, that sense that Sophie is capable of similarly disturbing actions? How quiet can the story be while still instilling the feeling that something dangerous will happen?

Beyond picking up lessons for my own writing, I enjoyed Daddy Love for Oates’ play with time – she repeats the first few scenes of the story before the abduction takes place, as Dinah (Robbie’s mom) and Robbie are in the parking lot. This repetition reminds the reader that there is a moment – in this case, Dinah being slammed in the head with a hammer – after which there is no memory. The repetition creates the sense that Dinah is replaying, over and over, that which she can remember, because there is so much that she can’t.

Oates also plays with voice and point of view within sections, moving from one character’s POV to the other. Robbie and Daddy Love also have other identities, created out of their own psychological necessity, and Oates moves artfully between them. The characters themselves are also specific and richly drawn, but in very sparse prose. (The whole novel clocks in under 300 pages.)

One more lesson, though, that I took away from this novel, is the importance of an engrossing narrative and believable, interesting characters in a mystery. At its heart, this novel is a mystery, among other genres, because the reader is wanting desperately to know what is going to happen to Robbie. Will he completely forget himself, his parents, his previous life? Will Daddy Love kill him when he reaches puberty? Will he ever be normal again? But, the novel was so engrossing that I didn’t rush through simply to find out the end, to answer these questions. I really sat in the pages, sat with the language and with the story as it unfolded. It was too complex a tale to just be wrapped up neatly. (Although, it did end a bit too quickly for my taste…)

I’d totally recommend this novel, but not for the faint of heart!

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

One really trying piece of advice that I really struggle hearing is, “Don’t measure yourself against others,” or some variation of that. I get it, I get it. Writing is hard enough without constantly comparing myself to someone else and their success. But, on the other hand, agents and publishers want to know how my work will fit in on bookshelves in stores large and small. What’s the genre? Who writes like me in that genre? What books are similar? Agents need this information to decide if they even want to read a book, to sell the book to a publisher and to match writers to appropriate editors. Publishers need this information to find appropriate marketing plans and connect new authors to established ones. They even have a word for this! Comparables.

They have this concept in real estate, too; it’s how we know how to price a house before putting it on the market. We ask, what have other, similar (or COMPARABLE) houses sold for?

My reading list this week is in part designed to help me answer that question!

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I didn’t know about Abbott until a local writer here in New Orleans selected The Fever as a Maple Street Bookstore Book Club book. Since then, I attended a craft talk given by Abbott at the Tennessee Williams Festival, and have nosed through some of her other work. Abbott’s books straddle the Young Adult/Adult Fiction genres, like I think my novel does, and they also contain mysteries. In my dreams, my  novel is like a cross between Sarah Dessen’s coming-of-age tale, The Truth About Forever, and Megan Abbott’s mysteries. But before I claim that comp in writing, I want to make sure I’m familiar enough with both authors’ bodies of work. Also, Abbott’s books are just plain fun.

Plan BHow to Talk to a Widower, and This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I’m reading Tropper for another project I’m working on, in which a twenty-something woman who has followed all the rules decides to start taking risks by saying, “YES!” whenever given a choice. Tropper’s rompiness in his work is something I’m interested in emulating for this new project (a novel titled Standby), and I think his focus on plot and story will help me chart out the narrative for my main character, Erica.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Having never read any Young Adult until I, somehow, wrote a YA novel, I am now devouring popular, well-written, borderline literary YA novels so that I can really understand the category and the people within it. Rainbow Rowell comes very recommended, so I thought I’d start with this classic love story. The novel is set over the course of one school year, as is mine, so I’m hungry for lessons there as well.

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

I’m still trying to figure out how people write short stories, so I picked up Straub’s collection to see how she did it.

The Dystopian Novel

The Dystopian Novel

This past semester, I took an amazing class called Disaster Literature that, yes, was as depressing as it sounds. We read a number of novels that dealt with life amid disaster, whether it was realistic or fantastical, in the past or in the future. Titles included The Wild Palms by William Faulkner, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Paradise by Toni Morrison and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of the central questions we discussed throughout the semester was about the role of fiction in questioning and possibly changing modern, political control over such things as geography,  human biology, immigration and agriculture.

I am a sucker for books like these, generally. After all, I often joke that reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a welcome respite from togetherness-time on a recent family vacation. Having the novels put into conversation with one another and with larger socio-political questions really helped illuminate their importance in how we, as citizens, build narrative about our current situations, whatever they may be, and how we relate to citizens elsewhere, whether they are in the same country as us or across the globe.

Given my research in West Africa about underrepresented writers, it makes sense that I am always on the lookout for what’s going on elsewhere, what people are writing in far-flung places, languages I can’t read, etc. Words without Borders and Brittle Paper are two great resources for discovering new writing from underrepresented voices. So, I am thrilled to see the New York Times writing about authors from the Middle East that may not reach a Western audience without this type of coverage.

The article, “Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel,” by Alexandra Alter, highlights dystopian novels that are being written by authors as a way to talk about taboo and outlawed topics. She brings us into the struggle of publishing as a commercial endeavor in the face of the disdain and anger of those in power. As with the writers in Mali, who had to think about publishing avenues when selecting the language in which they would write, publishing houses in these precariously governed countries must consider the consequences of publishing work in totalitarian regimes. This quote, from Alter’s article, demonstrates their strife: “We are concerned now with what we publish,” said Sherif-Joseph Rizk, director of Dar al-Tanweer Egypt, an Arabic publishing house. “If something is banned, it does create commercial problems.”

But as one of the writers says in the article, dystopian fiction can provide an outlet to say what is not possible to say. Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue, explains: “Fiction gave me a very wide space to say what I wanted to say about totalitarian authority.”

Similarly, the writers we read over the course of the semester in Disaster Lit were doing the same, using fiction to express the hard realities and truths about the society in which they were trying to live. I will have to add these names to my summer reading list!

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

I didn’t even know I was pitching my novel. I was a teenager on the cusp of pubescence ejaculating all over my pants without even knowing what was happening.

The first time, I had volunteered for a local literary conference. One of the perks of volunteering was a free meeting with an agent and an editor. I guess I didn’t know how to use google back then – two years ago – or I was just mightily suffering from impostor syndrome so I didn’t prepare AT ALL for the meeting with the agent. Instead, I binge-watched The Mindy Project and avoided the conference except for my two ten-minute meetings. Needless to say, they didn’t go well. I had a very disjointed, multiple-perspective manuscript about a Bangladeshi girl and a British college admissions counselor, ten pages of which the agent received before our meeting.

When I met her, she was cozily sipping a glass of wine, all turtlenecked up in the hotel bar. I blabbered through an introduction, did not pitch at all – was that what I was supposed to be doing? I literally had NO IDEA – and finally, this very kind woman asked out loud what she had written on the first page of my manuscript. What is this novel about? What is its structure?

I had no idea.

Before I ended our meeting, a good five minutes early because I had nothing to say, I put myself out there and asked the one question that had really been plaguing me for the last fifteen years: Is the writing any good?

Yeah, she responded. The writing’s great.

I asked her – I seriously asked her – like, on a scale of one to ten?

What cheek! For shame! But this is where I was at! Insecure. Sad. Unmotivated. No confidence. As bumpkin as they come.

She told me it was probably a seven, which inflated me, but then she said, A seven isn’t good enough. It’s got to be a ten. 

This exchange was exactly what I needed. I had talent. I could write. This attempt at it, a dart thrown blindly against a wall, with no thought for craft or story, it was ok. It was a seven. A ten felt within reach.

Hopefully, this agent does not remember me.

The following year, I attended the same conference, with a lot more confidence – my novel-in-progress had won a prize, which shocked me – and a meeting with an agent from my dream agency. Dream. Agency. Again, I wasn’t quite sure that I was pitching anyone, because the manuscript wasn’t finished. I had written 7,000 words or so, had no idea where it was going and was deep into my second year of my MFA program, the semester that has been the most challenging thus far.

I already made a favorable impression on this agent when I introduced myself at breakfast, hours before our meeting, and suggested we meet in the hotel bar (thanks Agent #1 for that idea!) instead of the dark, windowless ballroom, for our consultation. She shifted all of her meetings to the bar because of that suggestion. By the time I went to meet with her, I had already had one fair-to-middling meeting with a different agent. I didn’t know what to expect. I sat down. She praised the eight pages she read. She said she loved it. She actually said the words, Let me be your agent.

I don’t think I’m making that up…

I didn’t do a great job of pitching her, because I hadn’t thought about the manuscript’s destiny enough. She suggested I find a container for the timeline – a school year – and that I write it as young adult. I hadn’t ever considered that before, but the more I worked on the revision, the more sense it made. She advised me to take some more time to work on the manuscript, get some more pages completed, then query her when I felt ready, in a few months.

But, this was Dream. Agent. This was A. Big. Deal. This was The. Big. Time. And I fumbled.

I took some of her advice, but made the mistake of writing to her the following Monday – too soon – and directing it to the email address we’d been using to communicate about our meeting. I didn’t follow the submissions guidelines on her agency’s website. I didn’t let her advice germinate. I didn’t do enough revision and rewriting. I was that little boy, again, with some weird, sticky substance all over my pants.

I did, though, follow her advice about the content of the book. I spent about six months thinking it over, mercilessly cutting passages that were in the excerpt that won the prize, reading YA authors and authors whose work straddles the line between YA and literary fiction – which is where I’d like to see this book. She gave me great advice. The best advice. I’m so glad I met with her, even if I fumbled completely. Her advice propelled me to finish the full draft I have now.

And now, going into another year of conferences and potential meetings with agents, I will have my pitch practiced, I will have questions to ask – about my work, my query, etc., but also about agenting, publishing, writing – and will trust that, if I learned this much from these two dismal failures, I can keep failing, at least to a degree.

Even though I hope I won’t.

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

I am currently **trying** to write/revise/rewrite short stories for my thesis/short story collection (first draft due date = December 1) and so in the spirit of reading relevant things, I will be turning to short stories for some inspiration. First stop, Alice Munro!

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro

I have read a bit of Alice Munro, most recently her collection, Too Much Happiness, which included the short story, “Wenlock Edge.” The setting of the story, like much of Munro’s work, is so totally commonplace, but the turns the story take are diabolical and dark. Think, young girls naked at dinner at the home of a wealthy, older man and the intentional drowning of an annoying camper. I saw parallels between this story and what I hope to accomplish in my collection  – the devastating and the mundane mixing together, basically. So, I dug up this anthology of her stories for more inspiration.

Buttony” by Fiona McFarlane

Since reading the NY Times review of The High Places, I’m pretty excited to read anything by this author.

Crab Orchard Review & Glimmer Train & Virginia Quarterly Review & Tin House Magazine

One of my major, major goals this year is to go submission-wild. To do that, I need to have some polished work, of course. I look at my Submittable page now and am embarrassed that I ever sent stories out to such publications as the ones listed above, n+1, Guernica, etc., when they were so obviously and totally not ready. On the other hand, I’m glad I did, because I can see them and think about how much I’ve grown and advanced as a writer, despite the noise in my head that tells me I haven’t. (SHUT UP!) But, I have also built some confidence through submitting, first off, because it is a way of interacting with the writing world, and secondly, because, for all my rejection, I’ve actually gotten some good feedback as well. I’d just like to be a little smarter about it, sending stories out when they are closer to ready, to publications that actually may be interested. So, I have a bunch of back-issues of these magazines, and many others, that I will be reading to try and find a home for some of my work.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I read this book once and it, well, ravaged me. Filled with images that slay, this book gets me.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

I don’t know where this recommendation came from – some interview I was reading, I’m sure – but I picked it up and read the first story, “Next Door,” which made me feel very sad, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why it made me feel that way. In my work, I am sometimes too explicit about what I would like my readers to think or feel, and that story was the opposite of explicit. I had to really pick it apart to understand why it made me bummed. (Bummed in a good way, that is…)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I’ve heard that this book is fantastic for general inspiration and advice.

And finally, I will, will, will read the short story collection of my thesis director, More of This World or Maybe Another, which she (Barb Johnson) wrote while a student in the UNO MFA program, and M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magicso I’ll know what I’m up against as I defend my work in the spring!