Feminist Fiction: Turning the Tide

  

By Susan DeFreitas

***

December 28, 2016

It’s been nearly two months since my debut novel was published, and I’ve gotten some lovely reviews. Read It Forward noted the authenticity of my details, the economy of my storytelling (“as if Donna Tartt had been edited by Gordon Lish”). Rain Taxi wrote that my novel brings “contemporary environmental activism into the literary vernacular.” Powell’s Books—the largest independent book store in the world, which happens to be my local shop—made it a staff pick, going so far as to call it “a must-read.”

But it’s only today that a reviewer has finally said what has seemed obvious to me from the start, and that reviewer is Megan Burbank, the arts editor of the Portland Mercury.

“Complexity is exactly what’s missing from literary fiction’s current obsession with stories about activist circles. While an author like Jonathan Franzen might make bemusingly unexamined digs at his squatters and freegans . . . DeFreitas strikes a delicate balance, depicting social agitation as, really, what it is: a gradual, infuriating, complex effort performed by smart, dedicated, flawed humans to varying degrees of commitment and success.”

If you are a writer—someone who has labored long over words that no one else will ever read—this is the moment when your hand flies to your heart.

“DeFreitas carries this laidback realism through Hot Season, from seemingly minor details that build her rich universe…to the book’s complicated, relatable women characters. (The men of Hot Season are refreshingly peripheral.) From unhappily coupled Jenna’s fantasy of solo life on a ranch without men, to Rell’s levelheaded attempt to balance her political ideals with the practical demands of her life, to Katie’s dangerous attraction to self-mythologizing, Hot Season is really a book about women.”

Holy shit, I could not help but think, somebody actually got it.

It’s true, as Burbank goes on to note, that in many activist movements, women and other marginalized people are often drowned out by “swaggering white-guy hypocrisy.” True too that in activist narratives, as in activist circles, the voices of women have often been drowned out by those of men.

For me, the case in point is Edward Abbey’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey is the grand old man of American eco-fiction, an author who has inspired generations of environmental activists, and a larger-than-life character in the Southwest.

He’s also misogynistic as hell.  

The heroes of The Monkey Wrench Gang are Doc Sarvis, George Heyduke, and Seldom Seen Smith—a retired doctor, ex-Green Beret, and Mormon wilderness guide, respectively. The sole female character is Bonnie Abzug, a New York liberal with an exceptional bust line. Throughout the whole thrilling adventure, which (spoiler alert!) involves blowing things up and running from the cops, she complains incessantly.

As a writer who cares deeply about the West, I could not help but admire Abbey’s style, his gleeful subversion of the status quo (“Dr. Sarvis, with his bald mottled pate, was out on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway…”). Abbey held that the moral duty of a writer was to be a “critic of his own country, his own government, his own culture”—a stance I, a child of the 1970s counterculture, embraced. I loved his humor too: “Everything in this book is true, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

And yet I knew that if I was going to tackle similar themes in my fiction, I’d have to flip the script on gender. Moreover, Abbey’s fantasy of ecological retaliation—setting fire to billboards, blowing up bridges, and destroying construction equipment—while fun, struck me as fundamentally flawed. Real change, in my experience (as my protagonist Rell notes) is “nothing but long, slow, pissy work.”

But therein lay a challenge that I believe goes to the heart of the way that the novel, a male-dominated art form for most of its history, has been defined. Because if you don’t have the “money shot” of a dam blowing up, the climax in which your renegade heroes have a showdown with the bad guys—well, where’s the story?

Long, slow, pissy work may be the true work of civilization, but it’s also damn hard to write about.

I also knew that if I was going to push back against Ed Abbey, I couldn’t just make my female characters smart and capable at every turn (the foil of annoying Ms. Abzug). That would be falling into the trap of the “strong female protagonist”—which, to my mind, is no more than the sort of male hero we’ve grown sick of, but with boobs.

My approach was to write a novel with a multiplicity of female points of view. A novel in which, as Burbank pointed out, the male characters were “refreshingly peripheral.”

All of the main characters in Hot Season are female, and all of them are involved in the fight to save a local river—but their stances, ideologically speaking, range from timid to militant, starry-eyed to pragmatic, representing a whole range of personality types and developmental stages.

This was a college novel, after all. It was important to me that the young women in it were free to be both serious and silly, engaged with philosophy and politics but also preoccupied by romantic dramas (not to mention whether or not they would be able to find a job after graduation).

My overall goal with the novel, in terms of both the characters and their politics, was complexity—and here, at last, someone got it.

It does not surprise me that the reviewer who did is a graduate of Smith College, whose alumnae include Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A place, Burbank has noted elsewhere, “where women don’t have to apologize for being smart, where feminist ideals move from theory into practice.”

In fiction, as far as I’m concerned, moving from theory into practice means more than replacing male heroes with female ones. It means rethinking the way such narratives are structured.

Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps my favorite living author, noted in an interview with David Naimon that not only must a female author overcome a literary establishment that seeks to silence her at the time of publication, she must gain champions in order to cement her legacy, in order to keep it from being silenced in the years to come.

Though Hot Season is a work of realist fiction, I claim Le Guin’s fantasy novel Voices as a blueprint. Voices is marketed to YA readers, with a cover suggesting no more than fan fiction set in Middle-Earth. But what lies within those covers is one of the most subversive works of feminist fiction ever written—one in which the “money shot” of conventional confrontation, when a subjugated society rises up against its colonial masters, and its attendant bloodshed is, somehow…averted.

The tension between societies, between moral positions, between cultures, which drives the story like a steam engine, is never, in fact, consummated. The war, however righteous, never reaches a flash point, preserving the lives of all concerned. It is speech—both rhetoric and poetry—that turns the tide, at the moment of highest tension.

That, to me, is revolutionary.

The climax of both Voices and Hot Season is the opposite of a “money shot.” It reverberates, again and again, through the lives of many characters, through many perspectives (call it a series of multiple orgasms).

In Voices, as in Hot Season, there’s a nod toward the classical (male-defined) structure of the novel, which mandates direct confrontation at the point of climax, and yet the text subverts it, in favor of the truth: civilization, our greatest achievement as a species, is not defined by violent confrontations.

It is defined by the less showy stuff, which is ultimately more real—the long, slow, pissy work that, ultimately, turns the tide.

***

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in the Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014). In 2014, her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award.

A graduate of Prescott College, DeFreitas has a background in marketing and publicity for green businesses, and from 2009 to 2012, she covered green technology for Earthtechling. Her creative work reflects on and incorporates themes related to the environment, sustainability, and the natural world. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband.

Randy Susan Meyers on Likable Characters, Betty Crocker, and Excusing Violence

  

A few years ago, when speaking about my then-just-released novel, Accidents of Marriage, a reporter mentioned how surprised she was by her negative reactions to one of the main characters—the wife—and how she “provoked” her husband. The reporter sympathized with the other main character, the husband, and understood his raging. The next day, participating on a book festival panel, the moderator spoke of the husband in the book as a virtual out-of-control monster and his wife as a frightened woman battling emotional abuse.

That they had opposite reactions pleased me. Making characters as nuanced on the page as we are in life is a priority—plus, just as an author’s belief system colors their work, readers bring their own experiences as they judge the characters we create. (Like how as teenagers, girls found their favorite Beatle; mine was George. I’ve always been drawn to the quiet ones.)

Nevertheless, I’ve noted a troubling undertone in reactions to novels about domestic violence—about whether a woman (or man) “deserves” to live without verbal, emotional, or any other sort of abuse. In Accidents of Marriage (where I used multiple points of view: a wife, a husband, and their 14-year-old daughter), Maddy is married to Ben, a man with a hair-trigger temper; she never knows what will set it off. When he’s charming, he’s terrific: funny, smart, and capable. Irate, he’s terrifying: raging, critical, and blaming the world for his troubles.

Relationship interactions aren’t static in life or in novels. Sometimes Maddy placates, working hard to keep her children unaware of the problems she and Ben face; other times she gives in to her frustration and edginess and answers back. Plus, she’s messy, a working mother with three children, who’s rarely (if ever) on top of the unending chores facing the family. When life becomes too much, she’ll carve off a slice of a Xanax. But is any of that equivalent with “deserving” to be screamed at, raged at, or to be driven at speeds that petrify her? Did she “deserve” to end up in an accident that changes her entire life?

For years, I worked with batterers, criminals, and men ordered to a violence intervention program, and the hardest nut to crack was convincing them of this: one’s violence, one’s temper, or one’s temperament doesn’t need to be contingent on another’s behavior. We must control ourselves. To wit, we scream at our spouses and children—rarely do we verbally attack our bosses no matter how much they enrage us. Why? Because our bosses have power over us, and we, in fact, do have control—it’s all about whether we choose to use that skill or not. And yes, it takes work.

Which brings me to the likable character. There’s been a debate in literature (especially when the author and/or main character is a woman) about whether a book should be judged on the likability of a character, which flies in the face of what I want in a book: to be fascinated by the men and women populating it, to root for them to change, and for them to get through their crucibles as unburned as possible.

And with the “bad guys”? I want them to own up to their deeds and pay for them.

In Accidents of Marriage, the only innocents are the children. (And they have their extremely unlikable moments. Is there a child who doesn’t?)

Which brings me to Betty Crocker.

When I worked in domestic violence, we spoke about working against the Betty Crocker Syndrome (Betty Crocker representing the impossible “perfect woman”) and the overwhelming importance of teaching the public, the men we worked with, and those in the field how we should never judge the behavior of a perpetrator by the personality of their victim. Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody learns (not children, not adults) through terror.

Terror is the abuser’s tool. It’s how they offload their own defeat. It’s how they release their own negativity on those around them.

It’s never a tool for building family. Not in life, not on the pages of a novel. The very best way to comport oneself is to follow the moral code you’ve built for yourself and not allow it to be mutable based on another’s behavior.

It’s hard work to get there in life or on the page. But that’s what I want in the novels I read and write: stories of imperfect men and flawed women taking the long, hard journey.

So I think I’m speaking on behalf of many authors when I say judge us on our lousy writing, our bad grammar, our lack of plot, our sloppy syntax, and our purple prose. But please, don’t expect all of us to feature Betty Crocker. Sometimes we want to get inside the head of the Carmela Sopranos. The complicated women. The women we hide inside; the women we live with.

Bio

Randy Susan Meyers’ novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence — and a long journey from idolizing bad boys to loving a good man. After years working in social service and criminal justice, Meyers published her first novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, a story of the aftermath of domestic violence. Her fourth novel, The Widow of Wall Street, will be published on April 11. Meyers and her husband live in Boston, where she teaches writing at Grub Street Writer’s Center and Writer in Progress in Northampton. Her novels have twice been chosen by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as “Must Read Fiction.”

A Reading List for Men Who Talk to Me About Hemingway

  

By Angela Palm

At AWP this year, I was caught off guard when a young, white male writer said to me, “I’m surprised you’re not more well-read.” I was surprised, too — because I’m an author and editor and thus well-read through the nature of my chosen profession. Surprised, because over the course of my reading life, which is longer than his by at least a decade, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Surprised, because all day while I work in my home office, I’m surrounded by mounds of books that I’ve read or will soon read.

The young man and I had been talking about the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” in George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, and he brought up a short story by Ernest Hemingway to make a point about what short stories ought to invoke and how. I admitted to having read just three books from Hemingway’s oeuvre—none of them story collections, and none of them recently. That’s when he made his claim.

I walked away from the conversation stunned, without formulating a defense, and later it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d been told that I’m not well-read. Last spring, I was chatting with a white male musician about literature, and he, too, expressed similar surprise that I had not read the books that he held dear. This time, the authors were Marcel Proust and, again, Hemingway. I confess: I haven’t read Proust at all. And I’m fine with that.

When I thought about why I hadn’t read the works these men read and loved, and why they had no qualms about assessing my readership as subpar based on whether I had read these works, I realized that I hadn’t often sought out many works by white, cis, male writers since I’d been made to read them as an undergrad. It’s not that I find them problematic (though they sometimes are) or uninteresting or unworthy of reading—I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books—but I do feel I often already understand the human and worldly concerns frequently expressed in those works because I’ve been taught to consider them since I could read English. I’m hungry for other concerns, other voices, other characters. When selecting books to read for pleasure, I gravitate instead toward works by women, queer writers, and writers of color. This, to me, is being truly well-read.

I find that I most want to read contemporary stories about women, written by women who are writing right now, alive right now. Stories that are not only well-written, engaging, and full of heart, but also that inspire or influence my own writing in some way.

So, here are five short story collections by women that impressed me or motivated me in some way. Five books I couldn’t put down, a few of which I’ve read more than once.

* * * * *

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Press, 2014)

I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work about five years ago via Twitter. I had come to Twitter in search of an online writing community and access to what indie lit journals were publishing. I began reading Leesa’s flash fiction online and was blown away by how she finesses a sentence, impresses a mood, a universe of joy and pain and longing, upon the reader. The way even her half-page flash stories gutted me. Her characters’ heartbreak became my heartbreak. Leesa’s work reminds me that every sentence can slay, ought to slay, and that life’s too sopping wet with intensity and love and disappointment and miscommunication and things said and not said to waste words on lightweight sentences. When Every Kiss a War came out from Mojave River Press, I bought two copies.

Almost Famous Women by Meghan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2014) 

I heard Meghan Mayhew Bergman read a short story from her second book, Almost Famous Women, at a reading in our home state of Vermont. Meghan had studied the lives of women who were, well, almost famous or lived lives adjacent to fame in some way but were in their own right worthy of fame, giving them new life through her stories. My favorite story in this collection is “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period.” (Norma Millay was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s younger sister.) Meghan’s stories bring fascinating women out of obscurity and put them in the spotlight, and she inspires me to seek out and tell the unexpected tales, the stories no one has heard.

The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

I met Hasanthika when we were Bread Loaf fellows last year and I fell in love with her work instantly. Her debut collection moves between Sri Lanka and the states, contending with the aftermath of civil war at home and abroad, bringing to life a cultural history and trauma I previously knew very little about. Here we have characters old and young, connected and scattered, presented with humor, hope, and certain beauty as the world changes and exhales. Hasanthika writes the way I hope to write fiction: coming right up to the matter at hand, unflinching. And her stories’ endings, to my mind, are masterful examples of how to close. They seem, somehow, to contain the entire world.

Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, 2016)

Robin and I were paired for a string of readings last fall because our first books were released the same month, were both Indie Next picks, and we both live in Vermont. Robin’s stories have a lyric, musical quality to them. When I heard her read the line, “The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, ‘Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o,’” from the story “Creek Dippers,” I knew two things: we were going to get along well, and I had to buy that book immediately. Now, when my sentences start sounding too mechanical, I open to a random page of Half Wild, and I remember the way words can sing—in a manner both half wild and wholly unexpected.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (Dock Street Press, 2014)

Sara Lippmann is another writer I discovered on Twitter. The short stories in her collection, Doll Palace, often span only a handful of pages but somehow manage to precisely capture the modern lives of girls and women. Sara’s writing shows me, again and again, how narrative voice can propel everything from character to plot. Take these two short sentences from a story called “Tomorrowland,” for example: “Enthusiasm is contagious. I worry my daughter will meet a nice man.” Many of the stories in this collection are written in the first person. Whenever I try my hand at that point of view, I return to the dog-eared pages of Doll Palace to remember how to say things without saying things. How to lead a story through first-person point of view without directing.

* * * * *

If I could rewrite my responses to those men, I’d say, “Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mia Alvar, and Roxane Gay? Sandra Cisneros or Louise Erdrich? No? Leesa Cross-Smith or Robin MacArthur?” I’d give them this list. I have no doubt I’ll find myself in this position again—cornered by a man heralding Hemingway. Next time, I’ll be ready to reframe the accusation, quick with my response.

 

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press), an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor. angipalm.com/

1999-2013: The Short, Sad Life of an Unsuccessful Novelist

  

By Margaret Verble

I noticed my first symptom in 1999. A tingling in my fingertips. An odd feeling, like they were trying to grasp what they couldn’t reach, or, maybe, trying to run away. Definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I, however, was doing exactly what I thought I should be doing: running a consulting business, playing tennis, vacationing in places that suited my self-image. Still, the tingling persisted. There was something wrong with me.

When I wasn’t on the road working, I began hibernating. My basement den is nice. Equipped with a computer, exercise equipment, and TV. The exercise equipment and TV didn’t alleviate the tingling. The computer keys, though, had a soothing effect. That’s what those fingers had been wanting to do. Tap, tap, tap, and so on.

And on. I spent every spare moment I had from 1999 through 2007 in my basement den at that computer. That’s nine full years. I decided early on that I could run a business and write fiction. But I didn’t have time to run a business, write fiction, and talk about writing fiction. The only person I discussed my writing with was my husband. He was also a consultant; but, when we’d fallen in love, he’d been the Poet in Residence for the Metro Nashville School System. David had once had a fine mind for literature. I’d had a fairly good one. But, you see, we’d chosen, instead, to earn a living.

To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

By 2007, I’d produced a couple of novels. And had tried to get agents for them. But I had no success at that. I began having other symptoms. A sinking feeling. A tenderness. Maybe, a perpetual pout. I decided I couldn’t get a novel published alone. I needed help. I used the handy computer and looked on the Internet. To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

I picked my first workshop on the basis of dubious criteria. 1. It had to be near New York, as even down in a basement in Kentucky it had come to me that the action is up there in the City. 2. It had to be near enough to drive to, as I fly too much for a living. 3. It had to offer critique sessions, because I had to know if I’d been wasting my time. 4. It needed nonfiction offerings, so I could entice my college roommate to go with me.

We picked The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and I was assigned Roxana Robinson as my instructor. I read a couple of Roxana’s books, as I wanted to be sure she could write. (She sure can.) I took the books with me, as you can’t expect anyone to take an interest in you if you don’t take an interest in them. Roxana critiqued my manuscript. After I left our session, I read what she’d inscribed on the title page of her novel, Sweetwater, “For Margaret, Already a good writer.” That’s what nine years in a basement will do for you. You have to write to be a writer. And write. And write. And so on.

You also need a mentor, because nobody, I mean nobody, is successful alone. Roxana was kind enough to try to find me an agent. But agents are running businesses and have agendas of their own. None of the ones we tried wanted to take me on. I was discouraged. Kept writing. By then, not really by choice. By addiction. In July of 2008, I wrote in a journal, “I thought I’d found an agent for my fiction. But I’ve just opened a letter that says I’m wrong about that. Likes the writing. Doesn’t know where to sell it. He’s not the first. I’ve failed at this so much that disappointment feels like destiny calling. Hard work isn’t enough. I need that confluence of forces called Luck.”

Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night.

In October of 2009, I wrote, “If I were inclined toward discouragement, that rock would be rolling me down a hill. Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night. I still haven’t found an agent. I may have lost sight of the line between perseverance and futility.”

In February of 2010, Roxana came to Lexington for a book appearance. On that trip, she suggested I try writing short stories to build some credentials. I’m a novelist at heart; I didn’t want to do that. And I was busy. I had a contract with the NHS in the U.K., and a new British partner who was going through treatment for cancer. I was also exhausted and frightened. I didn’t take up Roxana’s advice until the next year.

In January of 2011, I wrote my first short story, “The Teller,” and sent it off to the Arkansas Review. I didn’t hear anything for months. I finally followed up with the editor, Janelle Collins. She told me the story was in the “Maybe” pile. But on August 13, she e-mailed me to say she’d accepted it. The news gave me validation and hope. It justified all those years down the stairs.

I got a few more short stories published after that. But I still didn’t have an agent. And I still hadn’t given up being a novelist. By the fall of 2013, I’d finished a new novel, Maud’s Allotment; but by then, I knew I had cancer. Informed by the pathology report after surgery for something else. My cancer surgery had to be delayed until I’d healed enough to be cut open again. I went on to Scotland to work because I had a commitment there, and because, when you’re in business, if you’re not actually dead, you have to show up. While I was in Edinburgh, I had a bad meal alone, and a short story rejected by e-mail. You get the picture here: cancer, rejection, bad food, and half an island away from my partner. I e-mailed Roxana. Mentioned only the bad food, rejection, and novel. She e-mailed me back. Said her agent was taking new clients. To send her, Lynn Nesbit, a hard copy.

When I got back to the U.S., I had two days before surgery, but I mailed that manuscript off. When Lynn sent a request for an electronic copy, I was somewhere in the bowels of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, too ill to sit up. My best friend brought my computer to me, moved me up in the bed, and helped me hit the right keys. When luck comes knocking, you have to answer immediately, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many pain meds you’re on.

Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see.

I was two days out of the hospital, still heavily doped, and sitting next to a bag of urine hooked over a drawer when Lynn called. She said she thought my book was “About 85% there,” and, before she tried to sell it, she wanted me to send it to an editor she would pick. I tried to sound coherent, and Lynn said she’d call back with a name. When we hung up, I looked at the bag of pee. Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see. Cancer puts things in perspective.

But the sailing has been smooth seas from there. The editor, Adrienne Brodeur, had good judgment and was helpful. I slowly regained my health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the book, and, Lauren Wein, my editor there, has been lovely to work with. Maud’s Line (the title was changed in New York) has a Pulitzer Finalist badge on the paperback cover, and is selling. I have a new manuscript with Lynn right now.

Fifteen years isn’t really a long time to learn a complicated task like novel writing. It really isn’t. It’s not painting by numbers. That unsuccessful novelist is dead and buried. For now. I am alive and healthy. Again, for now. My fingers still tingle. But I’ve gotten used to that.

* * * * *

This essay is reprinted from The Authors Guild Bulletin, Winter 2017.

Margaret Verble is a successful businesswoman and novelist. Her consulting work has taken her to most states and to several foreign countries. Upon the publication of her debut novel, Maud’s Line, Margaret whittled her consulting practice down to one group of clients, organ procurement organizations, tissue banks, and eye banks, to devote the rest of her time to writing. Maud’s Line was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is available in hardback, audio, and paperback.

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised Maud’s Line as “[a] novel whose humble prose seems well-suited to the remote American milieu it so engagingly evokes: the Indian allotments of 1920s Oklahoma.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a compelling story peopled with flawed yet sympathetic characters, sharing insights into Cherokee society on the parcels of land allotted to them after the Trail of Tears.”

 

ORPHAN TRAIN’S Christina Baker Kline on the genesis of a novel

christina-baker-kline   pieceoftheworld_frontcover-003   bird-in-hand

Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Orphan Train (2013) spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of this novel for young readers, Orphan Train Girl, will be published in May. A collection of Baker Kline’s essays on craft will be appearing weekly in a new column in Poets & Writers.


Under the Influence

When I’m working on a novel I become obsessed with its themes, and look for inspiration anywhere I can find it. Paintings, photographs, films, poems, essays, novels — everything I take in is filtered through the lens of my current obsession.

Recently I opened a file I kept while working on my novel Bird in Hand. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, handwritten and typed pages, poems torn out of magazines, Post-it notes in soft yellow and acid green. One 2″x2″ fragment — the bottom of a “To Do” list — has only this, in my handwriting: Don’t worry about starting. Just begin. No story is too large to tell. (Did I write these words, or was I quoting someone? Either way, I must have found them inspiring.)

Leafing through this file, I can trace the genesis of my ideas. The scrap of paper, for example, with phone numbers on one side and “Four danger signs for a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, emotional withdrawal” scrawled in black pen on the other. Below this I wrote, “Is this novel a love story or a tale of betrayal? Is it about finding your soul mate, or losing everything you hold sacred? How can the two stories be the same?”

 

Visual Stimulation

For years, a tattered newspaper clipping fluttered on the wall in my office. Leafing through The New York Times one day, just as I was beginning to work on a new novel, I had come across a full-page ad. The image floored me. I’d begun writing about a young couple, Ben and Claire, both expatriates living in England, who befriend another American named Charlie … who falls in love with Claire. Who may or may not be falling in love with him. This picture in the newspaper perfectly encapsulated the complexity of my characters’ situation.

A couple on a park bench sits close together, facing away from the viewer. The man has his arm around the woman’s back, his hand resting protectively on her shoulder. The woman’s arm extends along and behind the bench, and her open palm rests on the hand of a man on the other side, who kisses it tenderly. All the markers of romantic Paris — the French restaurant awning, the folded newspaper (Le Monde), the European car in the background and the baroque details of the streetlight in the foreground, a smattering of pigeons, even the man’s black turtleneck and the woman’s plaid skirt and sensible heels — contribute to the illicit thrill of this image.

Does the man on the bench have any idea that his girlfriend/wife is being unfaithful? Did she and the man kissing her hand plan to meet at this place, or was it happenstance? For that matter, do they know each other, or is this a spontaneous moment of anonymous passion? Did the photographer happen on this scene, or was he, perhaps, hired by the man with his back to us on the bench?

The image is shocking in its seeming casualness, in the brazen, in-broad-daylight transgression taking place before our eyes. I was fascinated by the contradictions: the woman so clearly part of a couple, yet making herself available to the man behind her, her demure pose contrasting with her open, searching palm. The man’s body language, too, is contradictory; he sits casually reading the paper, one leg crossed over the other, but his eyes are closed in passion as he kisses the woman’s palm.

Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways. Claire loves her husband, but she finds something different with Charlie — a passion she’s never felt. Charlie respects Ben, but is blinded by his love for Claire. And when Claire’s best friend from childhood, Alison, comes to visit and ends up engaged to Charlie, things spin even further out of control.

This novel is called Bird in Hand. When I sent the final manuscript to my publisher, I took the faded newspaper clipping down and put it in a cardboard box, along with the handwritten first draft of the novel.

Non Sequiturs: Finding Literary Inspiration in Stream of Consciousness

l-e-kimball-author-photo  Seasonal Roads

By L. E. Kimball


I’m not sure who came first, but it must have been either Chevy Chase or Steve Martin. It was too early for Tim Allen, though he comes often. Not Steve Martin, though. The last time he arrived in my dreams, he never went on at all. Just hid under my desk because he said if he came out, I’d force him to have sex with me.

I assured him I only wanted him to fix the oven.

I always have trouble with Steve, it seems. And that’s unfortunate because I always have such hopes for us. There was this one night he showed up (he was our next door neighbor and we all had sloping front lawns in the dream neighborhood) and he was exasperated because the trees and bushes—everything and anything he tried to plant–slid down out of his yard into a big pile in the road, accordion-like. We were used to this in our own yards. But Steve thought this was my fault; I thought so too.

                                                 “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

I dream about comedians. Lots of them. But I dream most often about Steve Martin or Tim Allen.

I write about comedians, too, sometimes, as in the excerpt above. Even when I don’t, they influence me and therefore, they influence my writing.  Once in a writer’s workshop, the members read my comedian story (above) and they said a character (and by inference the author who wrote it) must be a total narcissist to dream about famous people, comedians notwithstanding. But I can only say that when I watch them, the good ones, I realize I am looking at the smartest people on earth, that in order to understand the nuances and subtleties of comedy and language, they must be brilliant—and I suppose I identify with their neuroticism, their angst, their sadness. They influence me because even though they realize that tragedy and comedy are a heartbeat away, and they might even argue there is no difference between them, they do laugh and they make me laugh, and laughter is the only thing that gets me through this life.

 Tim Allen showed up one night and we spent the night looking for hood ornaments. Like in his book, I’m Not Really Here. Everywhere he turned there were hood ornaments. He looked at me seriously at one point. Comedians, he told me, are the only people who know that The Divine Comedy is a journey from Heaven through Purgatory ending in Hell, not the other way around. I wasn’t sure what Heaven and Hell had to do with hood ornaments.

But I was thinking how my comedian phenomenon itself is synchronistic in nature. Well, maybe it isn’t, I guess they’d have to really show up in my bed to qualify, but it seems synchronistic just the same.

                                                 Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads

 

All comedians are philosophical but none more so, it seemed to me, than Steve Martin and Tim Allen. Steve Martin studied philosophy; Tim Allen has obviously done the same in at least some limited context. Woody Allen and Robin Williams come to mind . . . .

But regardless, my fascination with comedians is something that needs to be said about me.

So one night I was lying in bed contemplating a character I wanted to write about whose husband had been cheating on her. The relationship was toxic, yet neither could let go of it.  Failed? Maybe. Yet toxic or not, nothing is truly “failed” until it is over, or so I was thinking. As I was pondering the complexity of this, I looked over and saw my husband snoring away in bed with me, mouth wide open, inhaling with enough force to rattle the walls and pull the curtains from the windows. I thought about how people in bad relationships sort of “feed one another” and I started to laugh. A short story, I think to myself: comedian sections interspersed with a second person Kafka-esque magical realism that might depict the paradoxical, sad (yet humorous) nature of toxic relationships, of marriage—a story where the woman sees her husband as a metamorphosed giant amphibian bug, the two of them trapped in a maddening purgatory…

 

You sleep naked now. Before he had insisted on it. Now it’s your personal revenge.

Next to your bed stands an oak nightstand that once belonged to his mother, dark, heavy grained, upon which rests a delicate lace doily, a pair of dime store reading glasses, a few books written by women he refers to as your “harpies” (Atwood, Oates, Moore, Proulx), and a book called Trout Stream Insects, an Orvis Streamside Guide. Oh, and that collection by Kafka you stumbled along at the library reading selection of the month.

Next to the books there is a square jewelry box your own mother gave you—made of glass the color of purple oxidized blood. It has a matching lid that is attached on two sides with antique brass hinges, the bottom lined with plushy white satin—stark against the red glass—and on top of the colorless satin the daily ritual:  the results of today’s foraging.

Not too extensive; certainly not a collection as diverse as what is featured in the Orvis Guide:  a couple mosquitoes (one you slapped after it had sucked a bit of blood from your kneecap), a medium-sized house fly, a papery mud-colored moth, and two tiny gray spiders … not the real fuzzy kind because, after all, that could be a little too much.

All dead.

Oh, and tweezers. You always need tweezers.

                                                    “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

There is some connection to luck—or lack of it—tied to writing for me. Some connection to the universe, a cosmic energy or whatever you want to call it, something one must “tap into.” Talent is involved– we writers always think there is at least some of that—and certainly fortitude. But synchronicity is part of it: that place where luck and fate meet faith.

You might, however, think luck and fate are antithetical to one another. I’m a mixed philosopher type, believing neither in determinism or indeterminism. (Mills maybe?) Causal relationships between one event and another somehow still related to volition/signs/luck/opportunity.  If three people are thrown into the sea, the determinist might say it’s all fated so he might as well not swim. The indeterminist might think it is all chaotic chance and not swim either, but a mixed philosopher, according to Mills, might swim until a boat or plane showed up. Now the determinist will stubbornly argue that the mixed philosopher only believed he had some control over the outcome because he was raised to believe it, while someone else believed they had no control because he (she?) was raised that way—or circumstances had conspired—so he or she couldn’t believe, but these are still, he’ll argue, all causal relationships. Well, OK, maybe, but I maintain that if a person believes a thing—for whatever reason (perhaps just reading Mill) – he might, nevertheless, actually change the course of events.

So these days, despite the nagging feeling that I really might be fated to believe in Mill and ultimately have no control over anything at all, I believe anyway.  And this belief has led to the next insane belief:  that someone out there at some point might indeed connect with my work—and therefore save me!

 

Your friends tell you straight out. About wine bottle and glasses on innocent shopping sprees, back rubs in chance moments they’d spent alone with him. Vague suggestions you had better keep him satisfied. 

Once you protected them from him. Now you no longer bother.

He doesn’t do confrontation.

You left the orange peels in the sink again, you say. No reaction. You’re tracking mud all over the house. Not a flicker. I don’t like it when you drink every night in front of the kids. Nope, not even an up-yours, kiss-my-ass kind of look. Nothing. What was it Margaret said? A riddle:  What is more powerful than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich lack it, and if you eat it, you die?

Nothing.

The answer was nothing.

                                                     “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

Synchronicity. Jung coined the term and defined it as “meaningful coincidences” (if those coincidences occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related). I’d have some pressing life question or writing conundrum on my mind and suddenly someone on TV or in the grocery line would be talking about something completely unrelated to my problem and yet would seem to have the answer to my life/writing dilemma. This seemed to necessitate a sort of mindful living, a sort of Buddhist-type tuning into yourself while simultaneously turning outward to the universe around you. And that necessitated, in turn, an underlying sort of optimistic outlook toward life and my work that belied outward appearances to the contrary.

 

Why is it always funnier to watch someone doing something asinine if they run by a window or a door, far away? Like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm. Watching him wrassling that snake down the lawn looked so much funnier through the window with his wife unaware of his predicament than it would have up close and if she’d seen it—

That private joke with the audience.

Maybe it’s easier to laugh at people from a distance.

                                                        “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

So on this particular evening, I had seen Chevy Chase in Fletch, dancing with the animated characters in one scene and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I giggled. Full of a synchronistic black humor myself, I sat up and finished the entire story in three hours. Here is the ending:

 

You remember the insects—how they hatch over rivers in the early evening.

Mate and die.

These days comfort comes only in your ritual. You do it not just for you, but because you know he needs it, has come to depend upon it as much as you do. He snores and heaves, mouth hanging open like usual. Pink sticky tongue oozing out of the gash that is his mouth, all of it vibrating with the shuddering gasps of his next breath. You’re tired and you think maybe tonight you’ll just skip the whole thing. But it’s the only thing left for either of you and it must be done.

You lift the tweezers from the bedside table, open the glass lid of the box and poke through the assortment. You look over to see if there is any further change in him. His teeth seem shorter, mouth bigger. Thumbs? Does he have thumbs? It’s something you’d like to know, but his hands are tucked underneath him.

What will it be? You decide on the mosquito, the one you slapped this morning while reading Margaret Atwood, and using the tweezers, you pick him up gently by one papery wing. Is he quite dead? Maybe a wiggle or two. You drop it then—carefully onto his tongue. As far back as you can manage.

Then it’s gone with hardly a falter in his breathing. What will it be next? Maybe the spider next. You lift one, a semi-fuzzy, grayish-brown one, by one of its back legs, hold it suspended over his waiting, eager mouth. You wait, you wait, keep waiting…

You drop one more insect—the moth—into his eager, greedy mouth.

It seems right—for both of you.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

“Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads


L. E. Kimball has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Washington Square (New York University), Orchid, A Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Lynx Eye. Her first novel, A Good High Place, was published by Switchgrass Press. Her second novel, Seasonal Roads, was published by Wayne State University in 2016. She has also had creative nonfiction published in dozens of national publications such as ByLine, Exceptional Parent, and Country Almanac, and she’s been published in the op-ed section of The Detroit News. Author Lisa Lenzo reviewed Seasonal Roads for Read Her Like an Open Book on August 15, 2016.

Lynn holds a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA, both from Northern Michigan University. She is currently an Assistant Contingent Professor at NMU.

Writing Out of Rage: How Sexual Politics Inspired “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”

This essay was originally posted on March 30, 2015, but it seems appropriate to post it again as 2016 crawls off into the sunset.

Keija_Parssinen_-_credit_Shane_Epping  Unraveling-of-Mercy-Louis-hcc-226x342

By Keija Parssinen

The advice goes that you shouldn’t compose an email while angry, but what about a novel? Can good art emerge out of rage? I’d argue that the answer is yes, but that’s because I was a flaming nova of fury while writing my second book, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. In an interview with the NEA Arts Magazine, Toni Morrison said, “Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.” Maybe that’s why I sat down in early 2012 and started The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I didn’t like what was going on in our country, not at all. And I wanted someone to hear me roar.

It was election season, which meant that Republicans were attacking reproductive rights with increased zeal. But suddenly, the politicians weren’t just injecting themselves into the private health decisions of American women. They were also weighing in on sexual violence, to horrifying effect. In Missouri, where I live, Todd Akin infamously coined the term “legitimate rape,” when he told a local TV station: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has way to try and shut the whole thing down.” The comments might have been laughable, the unhinged croakings of a drunken uncle at a reunion picnic, but Akin was running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to represent about three million Missouri women, and so his comments were deeply disturbing. Indiana’s Richard Mourdock soon blundered his way into the conversation, saying that even when a pregnancy resulted from rape, God intended it, and therefore, a woman should be forced to carry the baby to term.

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, a planned pregnancy for which my husband and I were grateful. But the pregnancy evoked complicated feelings in me. I became hyperaware of the fact that suddenly, my body was not my own. Beyond the fact that people openly commented on and touched my body lay the fact that, if for some terrible reason I needed an abortion after twenty weeks, I would not be able to get one. The local Planned Parenthood clinic stopped doing the procedure at all that year. As my husband and I trekked to the doctor for our prenatal visits, I felt like Akin and Mourdock and Romney were there in the doctor’s office with me, micro-managing my pregnancy. I wondered how anyone—particularly any man—could have the gall to believe he should be a part of this intensely personal journey.

As the year wore on, the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases gained national attention. I cried tears of grief for those girls who lost their innocence so violently, and so publicly. And I cried tears of rage for how the respective communities responded to the crimes: by shaming the girls, excusing the boys, burning down houses, driving families out of town.

Throughout all of this, I wrote. Every day, heavy with the pregnancy, I sat down and wrote the story of the girls of Port Sabine, Texas—a community much like Steubenville, or Maryville, or Anywhereville, USA. In my story, I made the girls fierce—strong, smart and athletic—but I made the town a powerful oppressor, interfering in the natural development of its young women out of fear of their nascent sexuality. A fear that runs deep in this country, all the way back to Salem and the Colonies.

I wrote out of rage, and I wrote out of fear, hearing my teacher Elizabeth McCracken’s advice that “revenge is a fantastic reason to write” as I typed. “Don’t tread on me or the girls or women of this country, you Tea Party motherfuckers,” I would think as I wrote another scathing chapter. At times, I worried that my anger would somehow affect the baby growing inside me, so I did yoga and meditated, to try and counterbalance the high emotion that fueled the writing.

The morning of January 18th, 2013, I emailed a draft of the novel to my agent. Later that day, I gave birth to my son. It was a time of great happiness, and relief. I was glad to let go of my anger for a while, and embrace the special joy a wanted baby brings. But while I breastfed and snuggled my sweet infant, I found my thoughts wandering to the still burning world outside my door. And I thought about my characters, particularly the teenage mothers. Here I was, a thirty-two year old woman nurturing a son I wanted with all my heart, but still, it at times felt impossible. As I struggled with sleeplessness, difficulty nursing, and a body I no longer recognized, I understood viscerally the need for women to be able to make the decision to have babies on their own terms. Because it is the hardest thing we will ever do, and because it can be financially and emotionally devastating if you’re not in the right place in your life.

When my agent returned the draft to me with her comments, I was able to approach the manuscript with the cool detachment necessary to shape an angry screed into something more subtle, more artful—and hopefully more affecting. As we gear up for another election season (groan), I want to send a copy to Akin and Mourdock, Santorum and Cruz, Romney and Bush, and anyone else who has ever reduced women to second-class citizens by denying them domain over their bodies, not just to show them the devastating psychological effects that such a message has on young women, but to introduce them to some kick-ass female characters whose complex thoughts and desires might just shock the imbeciles into the realization that women are fully realized human beings, too.