Los Angeles Times Book Prizes nominations announced

The Blazing World   department-of-speculation  Boy, Snow, Bird  A Girl is a Half-Formed ThingCitizen   LA Times Festival of Books 2015

The 35th Los Angeles Times Book Prizes nominees were announced today, with five finalists each in 10 categories. T.C. Boyle will receive the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award for his 30-year career as a novelist and short story writer, as well as founder of the creative writing program at USC, where he has taught since the late 1970s.

Three of the five nominees in the Fiction category are women whose novels received critical acclaim in 2014: Siri Hustvedt for The Blazing World, Jenny Offill for The Department of Speculation, and Helen Oyeyemi for Boy, Snow. Bird. [The links are to my reviews.] (The other nominees are the legendary Donald Antrim for The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories and Jesse Ball for Silence Once Begun.)

Women poets took the same number of slots in the First Fiction and Poetry categories.

In First Fiction, Diane Cook for Man v. Nature: Stories, Valerie Luiselli for Faces in the Crowd, and Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (which won the 2014 Booker Prize). (The other nominees are John Darnielle for Wolf in White Van and David James Poissant for The Heaven of Animals: Stories.)

In Poetry the nominees are Gillian Conoley for Peace, Katie Ford for Blood Lyrics: Poems, and Claudia Rankine for Citizen: An American Lyric. (The other nominees are Peter Gizzi for In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011 and Fred Moten for The Feel Trio.)

Two small presses from Minneapolis elbowed in on the big publishing houses in the nominations. Graywolf Press published Rankine’s Citizen and Ford’s Blood Lyrics: Poems. Coffee House Press published A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Faces in the Crowd. Graywolf is also the publisher of Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, a blend of investigative medical journalism and essay (which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently selected for his Year of Books reading project), and Leslie Jamison’s rapturously reviewed essay collection, The Empathy Exams (2013). Graywolf authors Eula Biss, Claudia Rankine, and Vikram Chandra (Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty) are finalists in this year’s National Book Critics Circle Awards (to be announced on March 12.

The L.A. Times Book Prizes will be announced at the Times’ 20th Festival of Books (to be held on the USC campus) on Saturday, April 18.

Untranslatable: Writing Fiction in the Garden of Uncertainty — Or: Being uncertain is a quality that writers cultivate

Laura Long.public.Maine  Out of Peel Tree 2

By Laura Long

The artist is at home in the wilderness of uncertainty; you might say we cultivate a garden there. “I dwell in uncertainty,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Flannery O’Connor said the only experience a fiction writer needs is a childhood, and I suspect the baffled elements of a childhood are particularly good seeds. For example, when I was small, I obsessively wondered who my parents were before I was born. They rarely spoke about the past. Adult reticence, in general, shocked me. How could a person drive across the country, or go to war and back, or have survived the Great Depression, and have almost nothing to say about it? Now I know adults were busy with all the things that fill adult brains, and I was on a different wavelength. I was in love with the magic carpet ride of fairy tales. I thought adults had taken journeys and refused to share their stories. I imagined they kept the stories inside, like secret books only they could open.

So when one of my parents happened to sing, I listened intently to detect evidence of their past lives, which I was sure was present in their minds like a palimpsest of old paint colors on a wall, almost visible beneath the thin veneer of the present day. My mother sang a love song, but it wasn’t for my dad–who was it for? My dad sang a song about fishing, “You get a line, I’ll get a pole, we’ll go fishing at the crawdad hole. . . ” but when had he ever gone fishing? Silly questions. After a while–by the time I was in fourth grade and rational–I knew these were “just songs.” But in a way they weren’t “just” songs, because they came from a sense of pleasure and ease  and desire that was specific to the singer. The grain of the singer’s voice seemed to hold a secret key to personality and history. Singing conveyed an unspoken essence, almost a personal perfume.

*

For me, writing fiction has remained akin to wondering about those songs, about how to tell stories that are somehow unspeakable. These days, we expect to find answers easily and clearly. Students need to know this? Test them. You don’t know? Google it. Who is that person? She’s on Facebook. It can be a defiant decision to let yourself have questions and experiences that make you feel lost, that make you aware of losing your bearings. You don’t know how to Tweet this wittily? You might be onto a story.

Writing fiction can feel like poring over words that aren’t translated into my usual English. In my visits to Scotland, where my sister lives, walking in the rain, and ducking in and out of it, is part of the texture of everyday life. Scots have many expressions for rain; “smirr” is a mist; “dreich” is a cold, miserable day when the rain is “coming down in stair rods”; to “skoosh” is to spurt, such as rain gurgling out of the downspout. These shift into metaphors: a misty “smirr” is a passing fancy; “dreich” describes a wretchedly boring person; “skoosh” is a spurt of anything, such as a spritz of perfume, or a squirt of lemon into a drink, which leads to “skoosh” as a Scottish word for lemonade. (“A glass of skoosh, please. I’ll sit outside, there’s just a wee smirr. Glad it isn’t dreich like yesterday.”)

Writing fiction entails trying to get the frame of mind of characters, the mesh of a person and the world they live in. A writer dreams into the texture of a character’s felt life, their consciousness. Suppose a character named Myra lived and died in Edinburgh; that’s the  basic plot–life happens. The writer wonders: what in Myra’s life is smirr, is dreich, is skoosh? That is, who drifts through in the smirr of Myra’s half-remembered dream; what dreich drags her down; and what skooshes, swooshes, and surprises Myra?

Writing fiction often feels like being being smack-dab in the middle of the mess of life. But somewhere in the mess is what matters. We read to see how a story gives shape to and makes sense of the mess. For example, how to describe a person realizing that he is not special, that any meanness the world dishes out might happen to him, indiscriminately? In War and Peace, young Nikolai Rostov is running away from a skirmish and realizes that a French soldier is about to kill him. “Me, whom everyone is so fond of?” he thinks, astonished. Death could happen to me?

To me, the best fiction describes the almost-indescribable. It asks questions more compellingly than it gives answers. In his timeless essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. . . what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”

*

My recent book Out of Peel Tree is a novel in stories, a delightfully flexible form. There’s an overall family saga, and most of the chapters can stand alone as stories. A few of the longer stories took years to write. The material would not take the shape of fiction easily, but these messy stories breathed down my neck (rather huffily and rudely sometimes), hummed in my ear, demanded completion. I often felt I was writing a fictional poem because I wanted to get to some essence of what words can’t say. I sought what poets may call the sublime, what transcends the ordinary, but my characters had to go through the muck of life to get there. They had to deal with each other, unlike the speakers in poems, who may address another but don’t really have to mess with them.

Here are some questions my characters asked: A child wonders, who was my mother when she was a teenager? A man on parole wonders, how can I stay close to my new lover, when I still feel the bars of the prison cell in my head? An old woman wonders, if I move to a new apartment, will the comforting ghost of my husband accompany  me? A woman wonders, now that my fiancé has cancer and I don’t want to marry him, how do I tell him? The stories don’t answer the questions so much as investigate the territory of the uncertainty.

I would like to write a book about creative writing just so I can have a chapter in the middle that consists of blank pages. The chapter title would be: This is where no one can tell  you what to do. There is no path through the snowy woods or the strange city. You figure out some big part of writing on your own–and keep doing so. I don’t know why certain characters with murky questions kept nagging me. But they did, so I tried to give shape to some passages in their lives, articulate a story implied by a haunting tune.

Laura Long’s first novel is Out of Peel Tree [my review], and her two poetry collections are The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems and Imagine a Door. She has published in many magazines, such as Southern Review, and been awarded Barthelme, Michener, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) Fellowships. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and teaches at Lynchburg College and in the low-residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan. She is working on her second novel.

Liz Prato: What’s So Damn Funny About Death?

Liz Prato  Baby's_On_Fire_

My mom died when I was 26 and she was 58. I loved her more than anyone in the universe, and I was devastated. She didn’t want a funeral, but did want a wake, so we had an afternoon party at my dad’s house. I remember standing in the kitchen, eating a tortilla chip that broke and fell into my blouse. I looked inside my blouse, found the chip lodged in my bra, and pulled it out and ate it. I then realized a friend standing on the other side of the counter saw me do it, and we laughed. Until that moment I had no idea I was capable of anything other than confusion and fear and unrelenting waves of I-will-never-see-my-mom-again grief.

When I was 44, I was sitting on the floor in my dad’s house—just steps away from where the tortilla chip incident occurred—with my dad’s ashes and my brother’s ashes in front of me. My friend Rebekah sat on the bottom step of the stairs. Together, we swathed my dad’s urn and my brother’s green cardboard box in bubble-wrap so they could be mailed to my home a thousand miles away.

My whole family was dead. I had to clean out our family home in four days, before it went into foreclosure and was auctioned off by the city. I thought of a time when we were 16 and my dad and brother were out of town on a business trip. Rebekah and I were upstairs, in my dad’s bedroom, watching our pupils in the mirror to see if we could notice them dilate (oh, did I mention we were stoned?). The doorbell rang, so we started downstairs. We both stopped on the stairs. We could see my dad and brother standing outside. They had come back from their trip early, but because we had the chain lock on the door, they couldn’t get in.

“Hold on!” I called, while Rebekah ran back to my dad’s bedroom to hide the bong.

I let them in. “We got finished with our business early,” my dad said.

Don’t act high, don’t act high. “It’s great to see you!” I said, probably with too much enthusiasm. “You’re going to have to give us a little time to clean up your bedroom, though. We have our stuff all over it.”

“Sure, no problem,” my dad said cheerfully, and sat at the kitchen table reading his mail.

I raced upstairs to my dad’s bedroom. Rebekah had opened the windows and was walking around waving her hands through the air like a spastic magician. This is what we spent the next twenty minutes doing, walking around waving our hands, until we were convinced my dad’s bedroom was pot-free.

Twenty-eight years later, we’re sitting at the bottom of those stairs, wrapping my dad and brother’s ashes in bubble wrap. I started laughing. “Of all the times we’ve been in this house together, I don’t think we could have ever predicted doing this.”

“I know, right?” Rebekah said and cracked up, too.  I know she remembers every single goofy incident (parties and boys and school truancy and tons of laughter) that ever occurred in the house since we were kids.

Right that minute, her husband walked in the front door. “What’s so funny?”

“These are my dad’s ashes!” I hooted, pointing to the blob of bubble wrap.

As I’m telling this story, I have no sense if you are laughing, too. Or if you’re mortified (so to speak). That uncertainty is one reason I think death writing is so consistently bleak. We are afraid of how it will be taken, of how we will be perceived if we ever insist there is anything funny hiding inside the devastation. We worry it will seem disrespectful.

Of course death, itself, is rarely funny. One of the stories in my new collection, Baby’s On Fire, features a recovering addict whose father was killed when a coconut fell off a tree and hit him on the head. The narrator knew it was the stuff of cartoons and he watched as people tried to muffle their guffaws when he told them the story. But his grief, his loss, was quite serious.

On the other hand, when my mother-in-law told me and my husband how her 94-year-old father died, we laughed our asses off. He had been given dire medical news predicting he would never walk again, so he stopped eating and drinking. My mother-in-law, Gaynl, was asleep in her parents’ guestroom when her mother woke her up and told her he was gone. Gaynl fully expected to see her father lying in bed, under the covers, lifeless. A body, but no longer a soul. But when she walked into his bedroom, she found him standing upright. He had somehow gotten out of bed, was walking towards something, and then just stopped. Permanently. Well, if that isn’t weird enough, Gaynl’s mother said it just wouldn’t be proper for him to be standing there like that when the folks from the funeral home arrived. So Gaynl had to wrestle the body of her dead dad back into bed and arrange him so he looked like he’d gone peacefully in his sleep.

Of course, a lot of what makes this story funny (to me and to Gaynl and to my husband, at least) is the context. This probably wouldn’t be remotely hilarious if it had happened to a child, or someone else who hadn’t engineered their own dignified death. And the fact that Gaynl’s mother was so concerned about propriety at such a time added to the ridiculousness. But it points to how irrational people get when someone dies (grief being a form of insanity, and all), and that can create some downright silly circumstances.

Also, people—when they are alive—are wonderfully, freakishly weird, and whether that weirdness is discovered for the first time, or it just gets made bigger and brighter when they die, it can be pretty comical. I mean, you tell me: How should I have reacted when, while cleaning out my dad’s closet after my whole family was dead, a friend ran across my dad’s penis pump? Yep, those two phrases—“my whole family was dead” and “penis pump”—were just in the same sentence.

We suck at death in our culture; that’s not exactly breaking news. We don’t talk about it often, and when we do it’s in whispered euphemisms. Despite its constant inevitability, we are nonetheless surprised when it happens.

We are always surprised by how it feels.

That’s the writer’s job – to illuminate the aspects of the human condition that surprise us. That grab at our hearts. That make our breath rush away from us. It’s a writer’s job to unveil the human experience as fully and unflinchingly as possible. To see and hear and feel the details that surprise us about life and about death.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that writers should add humor to their grief writing simply to make it easier on the reader or to sell more books. I’m not claiming that “Laugh Your Ass Off” should be added to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous Five Stages of Grief. After my family died, friends would make well-meaning suggestions like “You should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog! It’ll cheer you up.”

The thing was, it wouldn’t. There were times when the aftermath felt so bleak that I knew I wouldn’t be able to crack a smile at something others found utterly hilarious, and that would leave me feeling even more desolate. The kind of humor I’m talking about happens organically. That’s the beauty of it—we don’t make it happen. And after something sad that we had no control over happens, there’s something magical about something enjoyable happening that we had no control over, too.

I’ve been writing about those small magics ever since my mom died—in my stories, in my essays, in my memoir. I do worry that parts of my memoir are “unrelentingly bleak.” I assume no one will want to read about how painful it was to watch my dad and brother descend so quickly into mental illness and addiction that I could not help them and they could not survive.

I am aware that the “funny parts” don’t happen until after they die. It wasn’t until then that I was able to experience a release. Notice I say “release” – not relief. It’s different. It’s not Whew—things are finally better! It is the clutch of the inevitable momentarily liberating you from fear and uncertainty and “Ohmygod, I can’t handle this anymore.” It’s your muscles releasing their death-grip on your weary spine—even if for only a moment. It’s an unbridled laugh bursting from your lungs.

Whether you are a writer or a reader, rejoice in those small breaks from the pain, because that is what keeps us alive. And come on, is there any other way to respond to finding your father’s penis pump?

Liz Prato’s short story collection, Baby’s On Fire, is forthcoming from Press 53 in May. Her work has appeared in over two dozen literary journals and magazines, and she edited the anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Excerpts of her recently completed memoir have been published by The Rumpus, Subtropics, Summerset Review, and Nailed. She lives in Portland with her husband, a bookseller, musician and writer, and their furry feline friends. http://www.lizprato.com

PRETTY MUCH TRUE a sobering examination of the price paid by those on the home front of the War on Terror

Pretty Much True   Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane

Pretty Much True

By Chris Jane

Penxere Press: Jan. 18, 2015

260 pages, $12.95

The last several years have seen women writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, addressing the manifold issues involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, in general, distinguished by a focus on the experiences of returning soldiers and the effects on those on the home front of the “War on Terror.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follow a male and female soldier, respectively, as they try to negotiate the emotional land mines of civilian life in a home they no longer recognize. Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War offers a multi-faceted look into virtually every aspect of the war through several dozen pieces of flash fiction. Siobhan Fallon’s story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, explores life on the Fort Hood army base following the Iraq invasion in 2003. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a sensitive coming-of-age story about a girl whose father is fighting in Iraq. Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen depicts the Iraq experiences of a female soldier facing harassment from all quarters.

The latest addition to this impressive collection of fiction is Chris Jane’s Pretty Much True, an intensely focused look at the life of Mia Sharpe, a young woman who is coping with loneliness, anxiety, and depression after her long-time boyfriend/almost-fiance, Jake Lakeland, is deployed to Iraq as part of the invading forces. Mia is living near the base in Tennessee, where she has few friends and little in the way of a support system. Formerly a part-time college English professor, she has walked away from her work in frustration and taken up cab driving as a stopgap measure.

Pretty Much True follows Mia as she struggles to maintain her spirits against an onslaught of worries. Is Jake alive and will he return as the man she loves? How can she earn a living from her unpredictable income as a cab driver? What is she to do about her friend Denise, the wife of Jake’s best friend William, who appears to be straying? Why is she having difficulty developing a relationship with her neighbor Safia, whose nationality she is unable to determine? How will she manage to tolerate Jake’s manipulative mother, Olivia?

But the most intriguing aspect of the plot is Mia’s tentative friendship with one of her regular fares, “Doctor” Gary Donaldson, a damaged Vietnam vet who alternates between two realities, only one of which he shares with Mia. Donny is an intriguingly complex character who provides an ominous picture of one possible future waiting for Mia.

Chris Jane has written a riveting character study that convincingly depicts the distress experienced by those still at home while the people they love are halfway around the world in harm’s way, often incommunicado for weeks or months. The supporting characters are realistic, the plot arises organically from the characters and conflicts, and the dialogue is pleasantly idiosyncratic. The novel’s strongest feature is Mia’s narrative voice, which holds us to the spot and forces us to confront what this 12-year-long war is really like for those who are entangled in it – and what their lives will be like when it is officially “over.”

If you’re wondering about the book’s title, the source is Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains the now-famous lines, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

OF THINGS GONE ASTRAY offers a captivating journey through loss and rediscovery

Of Things Gone Astray   tlc tour host

Of Things Gone Astray

By Janina Matthewson

The Friday Project/HarperCollins: Feb. 3, 2015

288 pages, $19.99

I was contacted in January by TLC Book Tours to determine my interest in reading and reviewing several books they would be promoting over the next few months. Three books in particular piqued my interest, none of which I’d yet heard a word about. One of them was Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson, an actress, playwright, and screenwriter from New Zealand who has been living in London for the past three years (“along with half the population of New Zealand,” according to her bio). The whimsical cover art of a young woman turning into a tree and the cryptic synopsis about a group of people waking up one day to find that something crucial in their lives has gone missing made for an irresistible combination.

It turns out my instincts were sound; Of Things Gone Astray is a captivating, thought-provoking, and bittersweet novel that deserves a wide readership.

The narrative rotates among a cast of characters, each of whom has lost something seemingly incapable of being lost. Elderly Mrs. Featherby wakes up to find the front wall of her house gone; there are no crumbled bricks and building materials on the ground, just a missing wall. Cassie, a young woman in love for the first time, waits at Heathrow Airport for her girlfriend Floss to arrive home from a trip to Brazil, but she never arrives. Cassie is so stunned that she refuses to leave the Arrivals terminal until Floss appears. Eventually, she puts down roots into the terminal floor and begins to turn into a tree.

Delia, detoured in the middle of her master’s degree in Fine Arts to care for her infirm mother, has suddenly lost her sense of direction; she can’t even negotiate her own neighborhood without becoming hopelessly lost. Robert, a young husband and father, arrives at his office only to find that the building is gone, and appears never to have been there in the first place.

Marcus, a renowned pianist, sits down at the piano in his music room and finds that the keys are missing. Jake has moved from New Zealand to London to live with his father Anthony following the accidental death of his mother. Their relationship is tentative at best, as neither seems to know what to make of the other, and Jake also struggles to fit in at school.

Not surprisingly, we learn that each character has suffered a real loss with which they are not coping effectively. They are still in one of the early stages of the grieving process, usually the denial stage, and the manifestation of their loss forces them to take more drastic action or rely on others to help them.

The characters’ responses to their utterly perplexing situations are plausible under the circumstances, and the storyline generates a great deal of sympathy and interest in seeing what will happen next. We learn their stories as the multiple narratives open up, and each one is a compelling scenario.

As the novel progresses, some of the characters encounter each other and inadvertently aid the other person by providing something that person needs, even if it is just a new insight into their situation. The clever plotting and sympathetic characters make what could have been an awkward or implausible story into a touching and involving novel.

Matthewson deserves particular kudos for her sparkling dialogue, which does a cracking job of capturing the modern English sensibility. At times, Of Things Gone Astray is laugh-out-loud funny, especially in the scenes featuring Robert and his wife Mara.

Of Things Gone Astray is a complex web of a novel that reads much faster than its subject matter or title would suggest. While it is superficially whimsical, beneath the surface lies a novel with serious concerns on its mind.

Read the reviews of the other bloggers on the blog tour for Of Things Gone Astray here

On a related note, you might also enjoy this song written by Matthewson’s friend from Christchurch, New Zealand, singer-songwriter Amy Grace, for an online playlist to go with Of Things Gone Astray. Grace has a lovely voice. 

THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL’s haunting tales of Vietnam announce the arrival of a gifted young writer

Frangipani Hotel  Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

By Violet Kupersmith

Spiegel & Grau (paperback): Feb. 17, 2015

$15.00, 240 pages

Vietnam. Most Americans of a certain age are still haunted by the Vietnam War all these years after the war that nearly split the country in two. The Vietnamese are undoubtedly confronted with the ghosts of the Vietnam War as well, 40 years after the U.S. military left Saigon. A third group is also dealing with that conflict, even though they were not even alive at the time: the children of the Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. Her bicultural upbringing eventually led Kupersmith, while a student at Mount Holyoke College, to begin writing stories about the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and the folk tales the latter told her.

The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese-American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.

In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.

Although the stories are always intriguing, the collection’s strengths are its mood and voice. Kupersmith manages to maintain a sense of mystery and foreboding throughout the book’s 240 pages, holding the reader’s interest with stories that explore the parallel worlds of the real and the supernatural, and the frequent occasions on which they intersect. Whether set in the streets of Saigon and Hanoi — crowded with a cacophony of people, scents, and sounds — or the fecund Vietnamese countryside, these stories are sticky with the oppressive heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. But Kupersmith’s greatest gift is her facility with the voices of all these characters, young and old, Vietnamese and American, as they tell their stories within her stories.

The opening title story is set in a faded early 20th century hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is narrated by the young front desk clerk, Phi, whose Uncle Hung owns the hotel (and has recently taken to calling himself “Mr. Henry”).

“The Frangi itself is a seven-story deathtrap, with four-footed things scurrying around inside the walls and tap water that runs brownish. If you slammed a door too hard the entire thing would collapse.”

A blustery American businessman intent on seeing the real Hanoi checks in and slowly befriends Phi, who speaks enough English to serve as his interpreter. Phi then encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman staying in one of the rooms, although she cannot be found on the guest register and no one else seems to know she is there. When the American and the apparitional woman meet, the American’s desire to know Vietnam takes an unexpected — and yet somehow fateful — turn as the past claims its hold on the present.

“Skin and Bones” tells of two adolescent sisters in Houston who are sent by their frustrated mother to spend part of the summer with their grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thuy has become one of those all-too-common overweight American girls, and her older sister, Kieu, is sent along to keep an eye on her. When Grandma Tran fails to show up at the airport to pick them up, they’re not overly concerned, and they find their way to her house. Grandma is unusually distant and quiet, so the girls, resolutely American and utterly bored, find ways to entertain themselves.

Thuy sets off to explore the neighborhood and finds herself drawn by an irresistible scent of cooking food. The source is a run-down stall on wheels selling Banh mi, “the Vietnamese sandwich [that] was one of the more positive souvenirs of the French colonial era.” The proprietress is an old woman whose face is hidden beneath a large conical straw hat and who speaks softly accented English.

Over the next few days they develop a friendship of sorts, although the woman’s side of their conversations is often cryptic. She is particularly interested in Thuy and her mother and whether they identify as Vietnamese or American, at one point saying, “She is far away, isn’t she? In another world, you could say. And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn’t your own.” You should be hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone about now.

In “Little Brother” a loquacious long-haul truck driver tells the riveting story of the strangest trip he ever made. While making a delivery at a hospital in Saigon, he is persuaded by an alluring nurse to take a dying patient, Minh, with him on his return trip south so the man can die back home in his village. He is advised that it would be best if he didn’t speak to Minh on the long drive. Needless to say, the irrepressible driver is unable to bear the quiet – or his nearly catatonic passenger — for long. When he asks what the hospital was like, Minh lifts his head and replies, “Filthy. Vile. Foul. There were no healthy people to talk to and I was always hungry.”

Minh then persuades the driver to share his life story, since he has undoubtedly seen so much in his twenty years on the road. As darkness descends and they drive through a seemingly endless stretch of desolate countryside, one of Vietnam’s “many worlds” makes its presence known, just as the elderly vendor in “Skin and Bones” explained to young Thuy. There are ghosts of all kinds in Vietnam, from ancient times, the French colonial era, and the war, and all seem restless.

“Guests” concerns twenty-something Americans working in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a reversal of the “land of opportunity” theme. Mia works in the immigrations department of the U.S. Consulate and dislikes Vietnam, to which she has been able to adapt. Her boyfriend, Charlie, teaches English at the Australian International University and has adapted exceptionally well; he had a Vietnamese girlfriend prior to meeting Mia. While Charlie and many Americans like him explore the many sides of Vietnam and take advantage of the uninhibited and inexpensive night life, Mia becomes increasingly preoccupied, both with a feral cat that keeps climbing up to her apartment window, crying and scratching the window frame, and a young Vietnamese man named Tuan, who is enamored with her. Their attitudes and actions take them in opposite directions, with Mia finding that part of Vietnam will always be with her, for one cannot leave even the new Vietnam without being deeply affected.

In “Turning Back,” a young Vietnamese-American woman from Houston who works the night shift in a small Asian market meets a very strange old man with a story that will take her places she never imagined existed. And once again, the spirit of Vietnam is shown to be a shape-shifter with seemingly unlimited powers.

The closing story, “Descending Dragon,” is a short but pithy observation on the power of immigrant grandmothers to maintain and wield their power to great effect even when it appears to others to be long gone.

2014 was a banner year for short story collections, including debuts. Of particular note were Phil Klay’s Deployment, which won the National Book Award, and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which was nominated for an NBA. Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel is a powerful and persuasive opening statement from a young writer we are certain to hear much more from; the only question is whether she will be able to move beyond her personal connection to Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American immigrant culture to wider concerns. I’m willing to bet she will manage that transition.

Laura van den Berg on the complex writing process behind FIND ME

Laura-van-den-Berg   Find Me

Laura van den Berg’s first novel (after two acclaimed short story collections), Find Me, will be published on February 17. It is one of the “buzz books” of early 2015 and has already received rave reviews from several key publications; van den Berg was interviewed about the book on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon on February 14. For more background on Find Me, see my Winter 2015 Fiction Preview. A more detailed bio of van den Berg follows her essay. 

Writing a novel is not easy. Of course, I knew that going in—certainly when I began Find Me I did not think, “Hey, this should be easy!”—but as someone who had written only short stories, save for a few half-hearted 50-page stabs at novel writing, I did not appreciate how hard it would be until I was in deep. I wrote the first draft of Find Me in roughly six months, in 2008. I turned in my final edits to my publisher in May 2014. What was I doing with all that time in between?

If you were to compare that very first draft of Find Me and the finished book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single sentence that carried over from the initial version to the final one. In the six months I spent drafting Find Me, I worked in a frenzy, writing straight through, following every impulse as it occurred to me, no matter how misguided—just as I would when drafting a short story. The result? A hideous 300-page mess.

It took me years—literally years—to understand what I had put on the page and why and what it might become, let alone what it should become. I’ve certainly had short stories that were hard to write, that took me years to write, but I’d never before felt so completely overwhelmed by a fictional landscape and its many possibilities and glaring flaws. And yet my heart was sunk into this story, and into the narrator, a young woman named Joy, and so on I went.

The years that followed were a mix of trial and error. A few knots were successfully unfurled; others were pulled tighter; new ones appeared. I would spend six months or a year writing in one direction only to realize that direction was hopeless and that I needed to delete and begin anew. That was the hardest part for me: the lost time, existing in that unfinished state, with the uncertainty of knowing if I would ever finish and, if I did, what kind of book I would have on my hands.

This process continued even after I was fortunate enough to sell Find Me and to get wonderful notes from my editor. On the one hand, I was so excited my book was going to be out in the world, but on the other I wanted to make sure what I put out into the world represented the absolute best I could do at that time. The novel has a two part structure—the first part is set in a hospital in rural Kansas; the second part is set on the road—and in the summer of 2013, I went to a writers’ colony in Key West feeling queasy about the second part.

One of my biggest mistakes had been holding on to things that weren’t working for way too long, for not letting go sooner, and now I knew I was running out of time. “Write the book you want to read” became my line to myself. In Key West, it was brutally hot and I was plagued with insomnia and most days I would walk to the ocean to swim because that made me feel awake. One morning, in the water, I knew with uncommon certainty that I needed to cut the second part and start over. Totally. And so I did.

When I left Key West, the version of Find Me I took with me was much closer to the final book, though some significant edits still lay in my future. I called all my missteps and detours “lost time” above, but I know that’s not really true, since all those detours played a part in getting me to where I needed to be, and I don’t think it would have been possible to skip over them. They were necessary, in their way.

So I am grateful to this book. I learned a great deal from it. I am in the early stages of a new novel project now and I know that “write the book you want to read” is a good line to listen to. I know that if I get that queasy feeling I will hit “delete” and never look back. I know detours are necessary sometimes and that very few of the sentences I’m putting down now will remain and that I am in no particular rush.

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize XXIV

Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2013. The Isle of Youth was named a “Best Book of 2013″ by over a dozen outlets, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine; it was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Award, and received both The Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize.

Her first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG on February 17. She lives in the Boston area.