“Pencil and Paper” — Author Lily King on her hand-crafted creative process

Lily King

Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at several universities and high schools in this country and abroad.

Lily’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award. It was translated into several languages.

Lily’s new novel, Euphoria, was released in June 2014. [Read my review here.] It has won the New England Book Award for Fiction 2014 and has hit numerous summer reading lists from The Boston Globe to O Magazine and USA Today. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.” The novel is being translated into numerous languages, and a feature film is underway.

Lily is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. (http://www.lilykingbooks.com/about/)

Lily King winkylewis-3617Photo by Winky Lewis

I write by hand with a pencil in a spiral notebook. That’s how I’ve been writing  ever since grade school, and it’s how I’m writing these words right now, though when it gets to you, all traces of that initial draft will be gone.

I like the feel of lead scraping onto paper; I like the way the pencil tip starts to slope in one direction, creating a thick side and a thin side, and how with those two surfaces you get a subtle calligraphic effect. I like the way my brain works when I have a pencil in my hand. Just holding it seems to make the thoughts come, like the way putting food in front of your mouth makes the saliva run, or just smelling coffee makes you feel more awake. On paper you can write in the margin or squeeze ideas in between lines; you can use arrows and balloons and carets to rearrange and to add; you can draw pictures of what you’re trying to describe and you can read what you’ve crossed out and realize the way you said it that first time was better than all the other attempts, and you can run on and on because writing by hand does that, makes your sentences long and serpentine, like a river whose ending you don’t see until you turn the last bend.

When I was in high school I took a creative writing class for two semesters, junior and senior spring. We had to hand in a short story, three and a half pages of “polished prose,” my teacher said, every Monday morning for five months. I would often wake up Sunday mornings with a story already running in my head, the voice of it clear and sure (the editor, that savage critic, wakes up more slowly), and I’d grab my notebook and pencil and start writing it down. I don’t have a lot of memories from high school that are warm or pleasurable to me now, but thinking back to those Sunday mornings writing a story due the next day is one of them.

Lily King winkylewis-3531 copyPhoto by Winky Lewis

I still write like that, at first, when the story is new and I wake up with it and reach for a notebook. It connects me to my younger self, that sixteen-year-old girl with a broken family, big fears, and terrible hair, writing, it would seem (if you could see her from a high corner of her room—a new room, because her mother just remarried and she’s moved into her stepfather’s house) for her life. Writing about her old family and her new families, writing about her father’s anger and second divorce and breakdown (they won’t take that story for publication in the school’s literary magazine, “too personal”, she’ll be told, though “write what you know” is the mantra in her CW class), writing about unrequited love of all kinds, over and over.

I write the first draft of my novels in pencil in spiral notebooks exactly as I used to write those first short stories. I start at what I think is the beginning of the book and move mostly chronologically through to the end. Occasionally there is a back story, or a side story, but mostly I move forward through the notebooks. I section off the last 20 pages of each one for notes, for ideas I have for future chapters or for chapters I’ve already written. These ideas can be general (“Everything needs to feel relentlessly claustrophobic in this house”) or specific (“Have him give her his dead brother’s glasses”). They can be whole scenes, lines of dialogue, a fragment of detail. When the notes start to accumulate and confuse me, I make a timeline by drawing a line across the top of a page and little vertical notches along it and I make a list of all the things I think will happen, little and big moments I am trying to get to.

Lily King photo - Version 2

E.L. Doctorow once said, in a Paris Review interview, that he tells his students that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The timeline is one moment followed by another, my few feet of illumination at a time. Some of those ideas, once I get to them, are ignored. Others I try out and quickly know they don’t work. I go down one road, then another. Often I have no idea where we’re going to end up. I know where I want the characters to be emotionally, but I don’t know yet what needs to happen to get them there. I thought my novel Father of the Rain was just going to have two parts, until I woke up in the middle of the night, the night President Obama had been elected, and realized there was a whole third section to the book. I’d handed in my most recent novel, Euphoria, to my agent when I was turning off a highway exit, late to meet a friend for lunch, and saw a whole new ending play out in my head. At the stoplight I scribbled it down on a pad I keep in my car.

At the back of my notebooks I keep a log, a punch clock of sorts. When the writing day is done, I write the date and how much I’ve written. A good day for me is 3-5 notebook pages, but there are days, many, many days when I don’t write that much. Some days I write one page, or a half page, or one line. I do not force myself to stay in the chair until I’ve written a certain amount. I cannot do that. I know there are writers who force themselves to stay in the chair until they’ve written a certain number of words each day, but those writers, I am certain, don’t have children who need to be picked up at school. I try not to beat myself up about the days of few words. A lot of work is being done that is not writing, a lot of thinking, note-taking, and listening. Because the imagination is always working, churning up something. It’s the writer’s job to listen carefully.

Lily King IMG_1936

No one else can read my handwriting with much success. I can barely read it myself. It is small, mostly finely calibrated squiggles. Sometimes I have to trace these marks later with a pencil to figure out what I’ve written. But the transfer of my handwritten words to the computer is my favorite part of the process, and the most valuable. It is the closest I can get without weird anachronistic imitation to the days when writers had to retype each draft before handing it in to their editors. That step, rewriting every sentence, holding each word up to scrutiny, deciding what is good enough to go on the computer and what needs to stay in the notebook, is essential. And it’s joyful. Before this, when the page is blank, writing is scary and stressful. The unknowns too great. And afterward, there are too few unknowns, and things feel locked in place and small changes can unravel too much fabric. But in this stage it’s still fluid, not yet set, still receptive to reshaping. When I type in that rough draft I can hear it like I did not hear it as I was slowly, day by day, writing it, and like I will not hear it again as I read it over. I can hear it and play with it—it is both a fully creative process and a fully editorial one. It is the one time when the critic and the creator are both working full steam and in harmony. The rough draft relies solely on the creator, the critic banished from the room, while the future drafts demand more and more from the critic and less from the creator who shrieks at every change and chop. But in this step they are in balance. They are a team, passing the ball up the field easily and swiftly.

Sometimes I type up each chapter when it’s finished. Sometimes I go months without typing a thing. Once I spent sixteen weeks putting a whole notebook and a half onto the computer. Eventually everything gets transferred and printed out and read and edited, read and edited, many times.  The notebooks have been forgotten by then, pushed off the desk, flung in some corner of my study like empty chrysalises, dry husks of words.  The story has moved on, the scrape of pencil against paper forgotten. Until the next time, the next idea, the next Sunday morning when a new story starts spooling out and I have to try to catch it before it’s gone.


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EMPIRE DAY depicts cultural challenges of WWII refugees resettled in 1948 Australia

Empire Day   Diane Armstrong

Empire Day

By Diane Armstrong

4th Estate/HarperCollins: Sept. 1, 2011

My discovery of Empire Day was fortuitous.  I came across it as a daily e-book special on sale for $1.99. While I rarely find a book I want to read in such offerings, this one caught my eye because of its setting: Sydney, Australia in 1948. My Twitter handle of @Austraphile tells you all you need to know; I snapped it up.

Empire Day takes place over the course of a year, from Empire Day in 1948 (observed on January 26, and now called Australia Day) to the following January. It depicts a year in the lives of several residents of Wattle Street in the working class Bondi Junction neighborhood of Sydney. Wattle Street serves as a microcosm for a rapidly changing Sydney (and Australia generally) as Australia welcomed waves of immigrants, many of them refugees, following World War II. Seemingly overnight, Australia began a transformation from a white, Christian outpost of the British Empire in the South Pacific to the ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse nation we know today.

Armstrong orchestrates the interactions of the locals and the “New Australians” with sensitivity and historical accuracy. We meet Verna Browning, the retired, white-haired friend to all, and her son, Ted, a young and idealistic journalist working for the local scandal sheet; Kath, a single mother abandoned by her husband to raise their four boys, including Meggsie, who faces a dread disease of the time; and Maude McNulty, the 90-something sharp-tongued gossip of the street.

Into their block-long part of the world come Eda, a Polish Jew, and her teenage daughter, Hania, who had been adopted and raised by a Catholic family but then reclaimed by her birth mother and brought to Australia; Sala and Szymon, a newly married couple, also Polish Jews, struggling to adjust to each other and to Australia and pulled in different directions; Mr. Emil, a shy and secretive gentleman with seemingly odd habits, whose wife and two children had died in the Holocaust; and Lilija, a beautiful young Latvian woman whose overprotective parents refuse to let her date the smitten Ted Browning. All of the immigrants carry the burden of secrets from the Holocaust, one type of “Sophie’s choice” or another, guilt, heartbreak, or desolation, along with the hope that Australia — so different from their European world that it may as well be another planet — will offer them a chance at a new and safe life.

In addition to this compelling mix of cultural conflicts,  Armstrong has crafted a suspenseful mystery: How have Nazis and Fascists made their way to Australia despite a screening process intended to keep them out? Ted stumbles onto this story when interviewing newly arrived immigrants and pursues it into a refugee camp near Albury, in the countryside between Sydney and Melbourne, and, through a clever twist, right into Wattle Street, where one such person has settled right under his nose.

Empire Day is a well-written, fast-paced novel with a large cast of complex characters, all of whom have a story to tell (or to keep secret). Armstrong has done an especially admirable job of depicting the lives and mindsets of the Jewish immigrants; as it turns out, Armstrong emigrated to Australia from Poland as a nine-year-old in 1948.

Armstrong’s three novels (Winter Journey and Nocturne, as well as Empire Day) have been compared to those of Maeve Binchy and fellow Australian Geraldine Brooks; I would place Empire Day halfway between those authors’ approaches. At $1.99, this was one of the best book bargains I’ve ever encountered. You should not hesitate to pay more for this moving and memorable novel that captures a time, place, and people so well.

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Writer Alexander Chee on his three years reading only women

Alexander Chee

Readers of this blog should read Alexander Chee’s essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (October 12, 2014). “Gender Genre” describes the three years Chee spent in his early 20’s reading nothing but fiction by women. You can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/books/review/gender-genre.html?ref=review

Chee is a poet, essayist, and novelist who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Wesleyan University. He currently serves as associate fiction editor of the online literary magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. His first novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2002. His second, The Queen of the Night, is due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015.



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Author Caroline Leavitt on Literature and Litigation: “My Life in Lawsuits”

caroline leavitt

Everyone knows the lawsuit story about The Help, right? Kathryn Stockett was sued by a family housekeeper, more than a year after Stockett gave her the book to read. The housekeeper claimed that despite the fact that this was fiction, her likeness, image and stories were used without her permission. Because the housekeeper had known about the book, and because her right to sue was past the statute of limitations, the court threw the case out.

But still, there’s that question: Who was right? Who really owns a life?  No one lives in a vacuum. We are all bumping up against and being impacted by other people all the time, and to really tell our stories, sometimes we have to tell a little of theirs, as well.

Fiction, of course, is safer than non, but still, it can’t save you from threats. My very first novel was my very first lawsuit. Meeting Rozzy Halfway, about two sisters growing up in the ’60s in Boston, about mental illness and identity, was based partly on a girl I knew and partly on the intensely close relationship I had with my sister. It was about Ben, Bea and Rozzy Nelson, an All-American Family with a golden girl daughter who becomes schizophrenic. Right before the book was due to be published, the buzz was deafening. I was in every newspaper, slated for radio, and all over TV. And then a letter came. A family, with almost the same names, Ben, Bea and Rozzy Neiman (that’s not their real last name, but it’s close enough), whose daughter Rozzy was schizophrenic, were suing for invasion of privacy.

Meeting Rozzy Halfway

The Neimans thought I was telling their story. I was tempted to laugh it off, because I didn’t know them or their story. “Do you really think I’d be so stupid to use their real names?” I asked my then publisher.

“People can sue for whatever they want. You don’t want them suppressing your novel and losing all this great buzz.” The questions from the lawyer started. Did I know them? (No.) Had I heard about them? (No.) Was my story even a little about them? (No.) Was I absolutely sure? (Yes.) In the end, because they didn’t want to go to court, the publisher pressured me to change their names in the paperback edition, a book I can’t look at now, without feeling slightly sick. I never heard from these people again.

There’s a wonderful Annie Lamott quote, “If people don’t want you writing about them, they should have behaved better.” But I began to know the rules. You always change names and appearances and even occupations. Change the city, if you can, too.

Feed Me anthology

A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Grief Diet,” for an anthology called Feed Me. (http://issuu.com/rhpg/docs/feedme_excerpt_fin) The essay was about a time, over 20 years ago, when I was so tortured by the sudden death of my fiance, that I thought the only way I could outrun my grief was to get involved with someone else. So I did, only the person I chose happened to be so emotionally abusive, so toxically cruel, that the only reason I stayed was because I knew if I left, I’d have to grieve for the man I had really loved. Oh, what a price I paid, though. My abuser/boyfriend wouldn’t let me eat (I whittled down to 95 pounds), stalked me on the street to track me, opened and read my mail, and even went into my computer when I wasn’t home and rewrote parts of my novel, adding a Groucho Marx joke because “it wasn’t funny enough.” He woke me up in the middle of the night to whisper, “Marry me,” and wouldn’t let me sleep until I said, “yes,” though I meant no. God. No, No. No. He hated my friends and didn’t want me to see them, and when I saw his friends, he accused me of flirting with them, so he didn’t want me to see them, either. He hated the way I dressed because it wasn’t girly enough for him. He hated that I didn’t cook, that I didn’t like the same books and music he did. I got skinnier and skinnier and so unhappy, my mother flew up from Boston and begged me to leave. My friends finally staged an intervention, and I left him. The grieving began again and yes, it was terrible, but in the end, it was better than being with him. And it lead to a new life.

When I wrote the piece, I didn’t use his name, or his physical description, or anything that could have tied him to the piece. I hadn’t heard from him in years. We had never shared a single friend, but then the book was out, and I put my excerpt up online, on my blog, on FB, and suddenly, over 20 years after our relationship, there was a call from the publisher’s lawyer. But to my surprise, it wasn’t him. It was another terrible ex-boyfriend, who was sure the essay was about him, and who wanted to suppress the book and my blog, because everyone would know it was him. “There was more than one boyfriend like that during that time,” I told the lawyer. Still, he called the publisher and the editor so many times, they told me they wouldn’t take his calls or emails anymore. In the end, he was sent away, but it left me shaken.

But is it easier if you get permission?

Well, um, no.

I wanted to write an essay for a friend’s anthology about infidelity, and I wanted to write about my first marriage, a terrible time that involved my husband’s betrayal, my best friend’s betrayal (she orchestrated my husband’s liaisons with his other woman), a murderous shrink, and a dead dog.

The Other Woman anthology

It was years later. I was ridiculously happy with a new husband, a child, a home, a career, and I had forgiven her. I told her I wanted to write about that terrible time when everything fell apart for everyone. Was it all right with her? “Oh, please do it,” she said. “I can tell you so much.” And she did. She cheered me on when the essay landed in an anthology, The Other Woman, when it was picked up by New York Magazine for its special Love and Sex issue, called “High Infidelity” (http://nymag.com/news/features/2007/sexandlove/30914/), and when I was invited on The Today Show twice to talk about infidelity and betrayal. But then I got a film option and a play option based on the anthology. Suddenly, there was a nasty message from her, threatening to use every cent she owned to take me to court, to ruin me, to stop me from stealing her life. “How dare you?” she said. “Who do you think you are?”

I was stunned. I had asked her permission and she had given it. I hired a lawyer who looked at the case and said there was none. She had known about the project years and years ago and had not sued. Her name, her profession, her appearance — all were changed, and legally, that is all that was needed.

She was silent after that.

To me, the interesting things in life are the relationships between people. Everyone’s life intersects and bangs up against the lives of others all the time. How could I possibly tell the story of my life without mentioning the people who impacted me the most, in both wonderful and horrific ways? Writers are magpies, and we collect details about people and we use them for fictional characters. Sometimes people see themselves, but sometimes they don’t. My mother swore she was a character in one of my novels (she wasn’t), and my sister never saw our girlhood in Meeting Rozzy Halfway. The only way you are truly safe is that you cannot libel the dead. At least as far as I know.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, and wants to assure you that none of the characters are based on you.


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SOME LUCK captures the essence of American life in the 20th century

Jane Smiley -- Some Luck

Some Luck

By Jane Smiley

Knopf: Oct. 7, 2014

$26.95, 416 pages

Jane Smiley may well have the most diverse body of work of any American author in the past quarter century. I would argue that the consistent excellence of her work, whether in the form of novels, novellas, stories, or nonfiction, makes Smiley an excellent candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature (since that is in the news this week). While she started off with two “Midwestern” novels (Barn Blind in 1980 and At Paradise Gate in 1981), she quickly shifted gears to write Duplicate Keys (1984), a dark suspense novel about friendship and betrayal set in Manhattan. Following the powerful novella and stories in The Age of Grief (1987), Smiley took her readers to 14th century Greenland in her haunting version of a Norse saga, The Greenlanders (1988). (Smiley had been inspired by the year she spent in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar.) Following this dense Scandinavian epic, Smiley returned to domestic fiction with the novellas Ordinary Love & Good Will (1989). In just a decade, she had proved herself to be an expert chronicler of (mostly American) relationships, as well as an impressive prose stylist.

Smiley became a household name with A Thousand Acres, the story of a dysfunctional Iowa farming family based on King Lear. It became a bestseller and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It remains her best-selling and best-loved work, for good reason. It’s brilliant and unforgettable. The follow-up, Moo (1995), was a hilarious and pointed satire of academia set on a land-grant college in Iowa, based no doubt on her own experiences studying at the University of Iowa and then teaching at Iowa State University (where she was on the faculty from the early 80s to the mid-90s).

It was starting to look like Smiley had decided to make Iowa her version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Joyce’s Dublin. But she moved away, literally and figuratively, from 20th century Iowa and environs with her next book, a historical novel with a plucky heroine, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, in 1998. Smiley then explored her passion for all things equine with one of her best novels, Horse Heaven (2000). Good Faith (2003) probed the people and problems of the real estate world with good results. A short biography of one of Smiley’s literary heroes, Charles Dickens, was published the same year. She continued her nonfiction work with the insightful and idiosyncratic Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) before returning to fiction with the “contemporary Hollywood” novel Ten Days in the Hills (2007) and another historical novel, Private Life (2010), an intense character study of one woman’s life from the 1880s to World War II. Most recently, Smiley has published five YA novels (2009-2013).

Which brings us to Smiley’s latest novel, Some Luck. After nearly 20 years of fiction set elsewhere, she has returned to her most fertile ground, the farms and small towns of Iowa. The first in a planned trilogy entitled The Last Hundred Years, Some Luck follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa from 1920 to 1953. The novel is organized in 34 chapters, each one covering the key events of one year.

We first meet 25-year-old Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna as they try life on their own farm. In short order, children begin to arrive: the self-possessed and “enterprising” Frankie, sensitive homebody Joey, short-lived Mary Elizabeth, angelic Lillian, bookish Henry, and quiet Claire. In the early going, we are presented with an intimate view of farm life, marriage and family, and the world of the 20s and 30s. Smiley shifts the omniscient point of view among the characters, putting us in their minds and back pockets as they go about the seemingly prosaic business of living.

As a result of the book’s structure and Smiley’s roving perspective, Some Luck gets off to a slow start. Between pages 50 and 100 you’ll wonder if it’s just going to continue at the same leisurely and relatively uneventful pace (though the writing is lovely and filled with insight into a variety of characters, always Smiley’s strengths).

But as the years and “small” experiences accrue, the characters develop into people you feel you know personally, and Some Luck gains a potent cumulative effect. The rest of the book moves at a faster tempo and readers will find themselves immersed in the Langdon family’s lives. A slow opening for what will be a 1,200-page trilogy is a small investment with a satisfying payoff.

Some Luck is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath in the way the narrative alternates between a close-up view of one family’s life and a wide-angle view of the larger world they live in despite their seeming isolation in rural Iowa. Their daily lives are centered on surviving as a working farm family: planting, harvesting, coping with unpredictable crops, equipment, and weather (lightning storms, blizzards, and drought), finding their place in the local community, raising five very different children, and getting along with their English and German in-laws. (Some Luck is also a timely reminder that German and Scandinavian immigrants continued to speak their home languages well into the 20th century, even as they acculturated to the New World and became Americans, and that the various European cultures had a powerful impact on American culture that we take for granted today.)

But the Langdons are affected by events in the outside world like the Depression, World War II (in which Frank serves in Africa, Italy, and France), and the early stages of the Cold War and the communist witch hunts.

The two worlds and narrative strands come together as the children grow up. Some of them leave for big cities with their manifold opportunities, while some choose to remain closer to home. Watching the older children fall in love, choose their spouses, and begin to raise their own families is one of the simple pleasures of Some Luck.

One of the delights of Some Luck is the narrative voice, which seems pleasantly old-fashioned and folksy in its descriptions of characters and events. It is the perfect voice with which to tell this tale. There is some lovely, affecting writing here, particularly when the narrator places us inside one of the children’s minds and in the descriptions of the farm and surrounding country. The osage-orange hedge that Walter plants between the house and working farm provides a powerful symbol for the Langdons and their struggle to survive and thrive in an environment that is hostile in more ways than one.

Despite the many strengths of Some Luck, it is worth noting that the rigid structure of yearly chapters results in a paradox: we establish a close connection with most of the characters, yet at times the narrative keeps us at a distance. Events fly by with only brief notice, or a major event in one chapter is mentioned briefly, if at all, in the following chapter. This can create a temporary emotional disconnect from the narrative. As one reviewer pointed out, Smiley occasionally sacrifices in depth what she gains in breadth.

Additionally, although many pages are devoted to the life of first child Frank, he is essentially self-absorbed and aloof and thus not an especially sympathetic character with whom to travel for 30 years. While his life is indeed interesting at times, he often seems removed from it, and thus the reader is held at arm’s length once again. Other characters are more intriguing: Rosanna’s restless younger sister Eloise, who moves to Chicago and marries a communist; fifth child Henry, who begins to assume a larger role late in the novel when he is sent off to college to become a doctor but finds he prefers literature, languages, and medieval history; and two spouses, Frank’s wife Hildy and Lillian’s husband Arthur. There is reason to believe they will take on larger roles in the next two books.

Ultimately, though, Some Luck possesses a cumulative power that makes the characters and their lives resonate with you after you’ve closed the book for the last time. I suspect that this effect will gain increasing power in the second and third novels. The resulting trilogy may well end up being one of the definitive depictions of American life in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

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2013 Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on her FAULTY PREDICTIONS

KLG Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review of September 26 is here.)

Tell me about the Flannery O’Connor Award application and selection process and how it led to the publication of this collection.

The Flannery O’Connor Award is sponsored by the University of Georgia Press and each year two winners are selected and their books are published the next year. All the collections submitted are first sent to four or five preliminary judges, who each read their batch and then pass on a certain number (I believe about ten manuscripts) to the series editor, Nancy Zafris. Then Nancy chooses two collections from the collections given to her by the preliminary judges. Once my collection was chosen, I worked with Nancy on revisions to the stories and then worked with a copy editor on smaller issues. Finally, I was able to give some input into the cover and design.

I love the wide range of characters in your stories: high school students (“Editorial Decisions” and “Half and Half Club”), college professors (“The Local Scrooge”), two Chinese immigrant women engaged in a power struggle (“Prized Possessions”), a bus driver coping with drunk and disorderly college students on Halloween (“Designated Driver”), an emotionally distant brother reluctantly helping his sister find a bridal gown during the annual Running of the Brides sale at Filene’s Basement (“A Good Brother”), a pair of senior citizen housemates on a crime-stopping mission inspired by one’s psychic messages (“Faulty Predictions”). What inspires or comes to you first in your stories, an idea about a particular character, a specific conflict, or a theme you want to explore?

Each story happens differently for me, but one element I never start with is theme. I believe themes emerge, especially in revisions, but I think it’s dangerous to start out a story intending to write about a certain theme. I tell my students to let the literature folks think about theme and for the creative writers to worry about telling a compelling story.

Sometimes I start with conflict. For example, for “A Good Brother,” I was reading an article about the Running of the Brides, and I thought, “Who would be really pissed off by this?” And then I came up with the character of an uptight brother that has to take his sister shopping for wedding dresses. And not only does he have to go shopping for wedding dresses, but he has to be in the middle of all this chaos and has to miss a golf outing for this event. Once I came up with the protagonist who’d be disturbed by this event, the conflicts kept unfolding.

I asked the same “Who would this really piss off?” question when I wrote “The Local Scrooge.” For three years I lived in Ohio and would sometimes go to an ice cream place called Jeni’s in Columbus. They have this menu in brightly colored chalk on huge chalkboards with all of these unique ice cream flavors (like goat cheese with fig and wildberry lavender) that I found exciting, but I started to think about a type of character who would find these kinds of flavors exasperating. Then I started thinking about what else would bother this character, and I realized that complicated drinks in coffee shops would drive him crazy. And then, thinking about coffee shops and ice cream shops, I knew that this character would abhor tip jars, and I started to ponder what sort of character could be so enraged about tip jars that he’d—very inappropriately—bring one to his job. I came up with a college professor demanding tips from his students. So one thing just kind of leads to another oftentimes as stories unfold for me, but stories can really start anywhere or with any sort of spark.

You have so much empathy for these wonderfully eccentric and very human characters. How do you get inside these people and decide how to present their flawed attempts to fix themselves, others, and/or the circumstances they find themselves in?

I think fiction can really teach us—as both readers and writers—empathy. I’m most interested in characters who are flawed and might make bad decisions, but whose motivations we understand. I love being able to inhabit characters’ minds, which is why I generally stay away from the objective point of view. I think the big question I ask when writing is “Why is this character this way?” For example, the grandmother in “Prized Possessions” is judgmental and critical, but ultimately, as her backstory is revealed, I hope readers come to understand that she just wants to be appreciated by her family and to have an important role in the lives of her grandchildren.

How did you choose the title story? Is it the central story thematically, your favorite story, or just a good umbrella label for the collection? (“Prized Possessions” and “Half and Half Club” also seem like they would have been appropriate titles.)

I looked at the list of all the titles of the stories in the collection, and there were some that could just be crossed out as the title of the entire collection because of either their vagueness or specificity (“Bread,” “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” “Late Night With Brad Mack”). I contemplated the titles that were left and decided that “Faulty Predictions” applied to all the stories. I think all the characters believe their lives or relationships are going to progress in a certain way, and something happens in each of the stories to contradict these “predictions.”

I noticed in the Acknowledgements that three stories (“Late Night with Brad Mack,” “Half and Half Club,” and the title story) have not been previously published. Are these your most recent stories? If so, do they reflect any particular/current preoccupations and/or approach?

Yes, those were three most recently written stories. I tried to get them published before the book went to press, but I just wasn’t able to with the time constraint. I wrote all three of the stories when I was teaching during the 2011-2012 academic year at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Boone is a fairly isolated town in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The second semester I was at App State, the poet Toi Derricotte visited and gave a reading, and she read a poem based on an experience she’d had as a young woman on a train. There was a character in the poem who didn’t realize that Derricotte was black and made a disparaging comment to her about another black passenger on the train. She spoke about how some people are in the position of always being aware of race, while others don’t ever think about race at all or believe they can be flippant about it.

After she read the poem, Derricotte asked the audience how many people thought about race on a daily basis. She asked for a show of hands. About three or four people in a room of maybe sixty students raised their hands. The raised hands belonged to the few students of color that were in attendance. I realized then that I’d been thinking about race a lot more in Boone than I ever had before.

Boone was probably the least racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived in some small towns and places that weren’t very diverse, but I’ve worked at colleges and universities that were able to draw somewhat diverse faculty and students. But the faculty, students, and non-university people who lived in and around Boone were almost all white.

I’m half Chinese and half Jewish and I’m pretty sure there was no one else in Boone like me. So I set “Faulty Predictions” in Boone and created a character who hasn’t known anything but this fairly homogenous town. She has a granddaughter who’s mixed race, and she wants to connect with this girl but can’t allow herself to. This woman is clearly a racist, but I also wanted to show that she is a product of her environment and living in an isolated place and not being exposed to people unlike her has, in a way, ruined her.

I wrote “Half and Half Club” right after I wrote “Faulty Predictions,” and that story is also concerned with race, once again in an environment where there isn’t much diversity. So, yes, I definitely see connections between these two stories. “Half and Half Club” is also one of the longest stories I’ve ever written, and I think I was writing toward a novel; lately I’ve been wanting to tell larger tales than a short story can contain.

How did you and your editor decide which of your stories to include in Faulty Predictions? I see from your website’s list of stories that you have many others.

The stories in the collection are the stories I’d submitted originally. Nothing was swapped out. Nancy Zafris and I worked on the order a bit. The first and last stories stayed where they were, but we shuffled everything else around, trying to make sure stories that were similar (in terms of characters or point of view or types of endings) weren’t right next to each other.

Before I submitted the collection, I did a lot of thinking about what stories to include because, as you mentioned, I do have other stories. When I first started submitting to prizes for story collections in 2006 when I graduated from my MFA program, I included every story I’d written that had ever been published. I thought that publication was a stamp of approval and meant the story needed to go in a collection. But over the years I’ve thought a lot more about how collections work, and I’ve also realized that because my stories are set in many different places and have a lot of different types of characters, they need something to hold them together. I tried to choose stories that have a similar sensibility to include. I think these stories are alike in terms of voice and tone, and they all have (I hope!) something funny in them.

 How do you find time to write while working full time as a professor at Siena College?

I certainly write more during the summer and other breaks from teaching than I do during the school year. I do, however, get inspired to write when my students are excited about a topic we’re discussing in class. For example, last semester I taught a class on experimental fiction and we read several stories that were written so they progressed backwards chronologically. Several of the students in the class tried to write their own stories whose chronologies worked this way, and I so appreciated the way they grappled with the form and its challenges. It made me want to go home and try my hand at the same technique.

 What books have you particularly enjoyed recently that you recommend?

A book I read recently and loved was Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Brunt does such a great job of creating a teenage character who feels realistic and vulnerable and true. And the ending of the book is a real knockout. I don’t want to give anything away, but that book had the most emotionally affecting ending I can remember reading in a long time.

I also recently read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which I actually tracked down because of your glowing review on this site. That book and the characters have stuck with me, and I keep thinking about the incredibly effective way Ng employed omniscient point of view to allow readers to know and understand the secrets the characters keep from each other. It’s not a point of view I’ve ever been able to use successfully, so I’d like to go back and reread and really examine how Ng accomplishes what she does.

Right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s an epistolary novel, entirely in the form of letters of recommendation written by a professor of English and creative writing. It’s hilarious because it does such a good job of depicting some of the particularly ridiculous aspects of academic life.


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MAN ALIVE! explores the life-changing effects of a lightning strike

In honor of today’s publication of the softcover edition of Man Alive!, I am re-posting my review from February 2014.

Man Alive paperback 10-7-14

Man Alive!

By Mary Kay Zuravleff

Picador: Oct. 7, 2014

304 pages, $16.00

We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.

Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. One minute the family is about to get something to eat, and the next, Lerner is flying through the air and landing flat on his back on the sidewalk.

In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings.  And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.

As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni? What happens when the man you love is still there, right in front of you, apparently the same man he has long been, and yet he is not at all the same? Toni alternates between caring for and about Owen and being philosophical about their circumstances specifically and the role of accidents and health issues in the wider world. Driving home one day, Toni “loops through neighborhoods of oversize homes and early Bethesda cottages, knowing than mansion and rambler alike hold life-threatening illnesses, precarious finances, or the simply syrup of unhappiness that is part of every family recipe.” She is “as contrary as a magnet: some days, she clings to his side, full of love and gratitude; others, she’s repulsed by him.”

Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She describes Fitzgerald High School in Bethesda-Chevy Chase on Back to School Night: “Banners in the atrium advertise the school clubs, from Nerdvana Tutoring and Home the Helpless to Gluten Free to Be You and Me. Ricky edited Great Scott!, the school’s literary journal, with Mr. Holt, and he was in Infinite Jesters, a math club.”

She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. While in the hospital, he struggles to walk on his damaged left foot while wheeling along his monitors and bags of fluid. “His body has been divided up among the many specialists,” writes Zuravleff, “each of whom gets a bodily function, limb, or organ. Some of them get his machines, which give off the green, green graphs of home.”

The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Readers get to know Owen and Toni intimately, for better and worse, as they are not always the most likeable or sympathetic characters; they are like real people, frustratingly unpredictable and multi-faceted. One of the pleasant surprises of this book is the realistic marital sex scenes; it’s nice to see a long-married couple engaged in spirited bouts of love-making that are both very sexual and crucial to keeping their relationship glued together.

Man Alive! is a character study of an eccentric and prickly couple struggling to overcome especially challenging circumstances. While the cleverness of the writing occasionally gets in the way of the narrative by reminding the reader how smart and funny Zuravleff is, it is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.

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