That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

I had never heard of Jennifer Niven before, and after having read her novel All the Bright Places, I am absolutely convinced that there are, literally, one million or more amazing writers out there who I’ve never heard of because, how I had never read her before is a mystery. This novel killed me. Killed me. I have been reading a lot of Young Adult lately because the novel I wrote and am preparing to query is YA, focusing on how one high school girl deals with the uncertainty and pain of a missing family member. All the Bright Places is similar in that the main characters, high school seniors Finch and Violet, are both suffering: Finch struggles with the way he sees and feels the world; Violet is traumatized by the death of her older sister. They meet, at the beginning of the book, on top of the school bell tower, presumably as they both contemplate suicide. The novel is told by Violet and Finch in alternating chapters.

Niven’s novel is a great example of a work that deals with a difficult, BIG topic – suicide – and a number of associated sub-topics – bullying, popularity, high school drinking, adult indifference – that does not beat the reader over the head. Yes, these topics are very important, they are timely, the should be talked about, but the novel is not didactic or editorial at all. I was completely captivated by her characters, their realistic and highly individualized personalities that were not quirky or interesting but were just true, as if they couldn’t be any other way. Violet, for example, wears her sister’s ugly eyeglasses, the ones that looked so great on Eleanor but look silly on her, because she is trying so desperately hard to hold on to someone she’s lost. The eyeglasses aren’t a gimmick. They are a totem for this character.

The novel could have been too-much, overly-sentimental, but Niven is expert at getting in and out of emotional moments with impeccable timing. For example, in a Violet section, she looks at her mother and contemplates her role in the family, her genetics:

“Eleanor looked more like my dad and I look more like Mom, but she and Mom had the same gestures, same mannerisms, so everyone always said, ‘Oh my God, she looks just like you.’ It hits me that my mother may never hear that again.”

UGH! And then she leaves the subject. It’s such a sad, sad thought, sad for the mom whose daughter is dead, sadder still that the 17-year-old sister/living daughter has to realize it, and even sadder that it’s just one of the many facts of her life in the aftermath of Eleanor’s death. And we know it is just one of the many facts of her life because after she states it, she matter-of-factly begins talking about something mundane. Niven gets out of that sad sentiment just in time, without lingering. The effect is crushing (in a good way).

And this book is not really a mystery, and yet, I had to keep turning the pages, to find out what would happen next. I think it’s because I’m rooting so hard for the characters, not because of any of the sad stuff that’s happened to them, but more because of how interesting they are, how much they deserve to become adults, because they’ll be good ones, good people, empathetic, creative, interesting. Reading this book really felt like what I imagine being a parent is like, being just so excited and invested in watching your kids grow up and fully inhabit the person they are meant to be.

Talk about #BookGoals!

Such a great read, and a reminder that YA is just a label, that great writing is great writing. Period.

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Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

I recently read “The Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, and then followed up on it by reading her interview about the story with the New Yorker. I was in awe of how, in the story, she created setting without me even noticing it, she transported me to this weird, otherworldly place and she set up dynamics between the main character, Cillian, his family and the kids at school. In the follow-up interview, she talked about the story, “From the Fifteenth District,” which inspired her a bit, saying, “In [the story], the dead are haunted by the living. One ghost complains that her widower husband keeps calling her “an angel”—she hates this bogus, patronizing word.” This idea caused her to come up with the bog girl. I’m always trying to understand how to be inspired, so that I can continue to build a repository of fresh ideas.  Having a long list of ideas means that if I am ever bored with something (i.e. my thesis!!), I don’t have an excuse to stop writing. I can just go to my list and start something new. I’m also thankful/excited to find a writer I’ve never heard of!

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

I am excited to read this novel, despite the fact that the plot seems like something we’ve all read before: a mom who works part-time must start working, juggling family issues, work and love. I actually love new, fresh takes on stories like these. Here’s a short description:

“In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in–and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers–an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life–seems suddenly within reach. Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn.”

I’m really trying to make sure that I read both literary and commercial fiction (I’d call this commercial…) in order to see what makes a book like this compelling. Usually, the answer to that question is THE WRITING, THE WRITING, THE WRITING! So, I’m reading it because I’m somewhat interested in the subject matter, and I’m interested in the commercial health and prospects of a well-written book. I’ve been very impressed by novels that I consider peer to this one – Liane Moriarty is an author that comes to mind – and I hope that A Window Opens is another novel, and Elisabeth Egan another author, to whom I can look up.

Tin House Novels-in-Progress

Finally, I am reading a stack of 25-page novel excerpts, while around the country, 11 other folks are being required to read my novel opening. I am so excited to be going to this workshop/residency, so excited to be in a class with Dana Spiotta and so excited to have Michelle Wildgen as a mentor. Did I say I’m excited????

Well, I’ve taken an almost two-month break from reading and critiquing workshop stories, and I’m a bit out of practice. But, I know the drill. Read read read. I will hopefully read them on the way to and from St. Louis and Chicago on a mash-up Barry’s birthday-Barry’s presenting at a conference-Chicago Cub’s game road trip! And I’m excited to see the final manifestation of all of these novels-in-progress, whether its two, ten or twenty years from now!

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.

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.

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!

The UNO Publishing Lab & Each Vagabond by Name

The UNO Publishing Lab & Each Vagabond by Name

Last fall, I took my favorite course of my MFA, a Publishing Institute run by UNO Press. The course requirements included reading through a slush pile of submitted short story collection and novel manuscripts, picking ones that gave me the feels, ones that I felt were publishable, ones that could make it in the world. The class then debated all of our favorites to select the one we would work on editing and publishing. That selection turned out to be Margo Orlando Littell’s Each Vagabond by Name, a novel about a one-eyed bartender whose life is disrupted when a group of wandering gypsies roam into his small Pennsylvania town.

You can check out our process on the Lab’s website!

Littell came to New Orleans to launch the novel at the Tennessee Williams Festival this past March. It was amazing to listen to her give a reading from a book that we as a class closely read and edited. I learned a lot from working with her manuscript. She used short vignettes at the beginning of chapters to build setting and create an air of mystery. She slowly revealed backstory about the damaged characters’ pasts in a way that wasn’t tell-y or overwrought. It was all well-integrated into the story.

And she taught me another very important lesson. She trusted the editing process completely and gracefully.

Today is the Publication day for Each Vagabond by Name. If you’re looking for an engrossing, fast-paced but substantial summer read, I can’t think of a better book! Go buy it!