Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

Emilia Bassano Lanyer: Was she the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets?

     

 

By Charlene Ball

 

Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer, and why does she matter?

Emilia Lanyer lived during the time of Queen Elizabeth I and two other monarchs. She published a book of poetry in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in which the title poem makes a strong argument for women’s equality. The book also contains the first country-house poem in English, and it is prefaced by dedications to nine prominent women, thus making Emilia the first woman in England to seek patronage and identify herself publicly as a writer. And on top of all this, she may have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I was thrilled when I learned about Emilia. I was in graduate school, and I heard historian A.L. Rowse give a talk about his theory that she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. He “discovered” her when he was researching the casebooks and journals of the astrologer Simon Forman, and he decided that she must have been the woman Shakespeare describes. Copies of her book had been languishing for four centuries in several British and American libraries, but Rowse’s 1979 edition of her poems and his claim about her relationship with Shakespeare brought her into the public eye.

However, Rowse’s view of Emilia was basically misogynistic, even though he allows that she was the best woman poet of her age. He called her “a bad lot,” “no better than she should be,” and assumed that she was promiscuous, based on no evidence other than that she had been the mistress of one man, possibly the lover of another, married to a third, and obsessed about by a fourth. Most scholars followed Rowse’s view until the 1990s, when feminist historians and literary scholars began writing about her.

The facts we know about Emilia are these. She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Baptista was the youngest of the Bassano family of musicians and instrument makers who were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to be Court musicians in England. The Bassanos may have been secret Jews, converts who outwardly conformed to the Church of England but practiced their religion in secret.

We know from one of the dedications in her book that Emilia was educated in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. From the astrologer-physician Forman’s casebooks, we learn that she was mistress for several years to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen. She married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer, a royal musician. She was mother to two children, Henry and Odillya. Henry lived to adulthood, became a Court musician, married, and had children. Odillya died in infancy. From Forman, we also know that Emilia visited him in 1598 and again in the early 1600’s for an astrology reading. Forman developed an erotic fascination with her and she seems to have had some sort of relationship with him that stopped short of sexual involvement.

Other things we know from Emilia’s book: she spent time at a country house called Cookham Dean with Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and the Countess’s daughter, Lady Anne Clifford. Emilia probably served as a waiting gentlewoman or a music tutor. Her poem about the place called “The Description of Cooke-ham” describes her time spent there as idyllic. This poem happens to be the first country-house poem published in English. A country-house poem is a sort of bread-and-butter letter in verse, thanking one’s host for an enjoyable visit and praising their home. Until recently, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson has received credit for the first such poem, although Emilia’s predates his by five years.

Emilia published her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in 1611, becoming one of the first women to publish a book in England. It contains the title poem (which means “Hail, God, King of the Jews”), “The Description of Cooke-ham,” and dedications to nine noblewomen, plus two more dedications: “To the Vertuous Reader” and “To All vertuous Ladies in generall.” She adds an afterword, “To the doubtfull Reader,” explaining how the title came to her in a dream. As far as we know, Salve Deus is her only book.

What makes Emilia unique as a writer is that, in dedicating her book to nine prominent women, she was seeking patronage the way a male writer would. Patrons would pay an author for a dedication if they liked the work (10 pounds was the going rate). It was rather like applying for a grant from a foundation today. Seeking patronage shows that she saw herself as a professional writer.

Being a professional writer didn’t mean what it does today, by the way; it was not necessarily a path to fame and fortune. Emilia asks the astrologer whether she will become a lady, not whether she will publish a book. Nobility circulated their writings in manuscript, not bothering to publish. Commoners who wrote sought patronage, often with an eye to employment. Shakespeare put considerable effort into acquiring a coat of arms and in buying up land and houses, and not so much into publishing his works. He seems to have wanted to become a gentleman of property, not a poor player and scribbler of public entertainments.

My novel, Dark Lady (She Writes Press, 2017), depicts Emilia and Shakespeare as having an affair. However, no proof exists that Emilia knew Shakespeare. But what if she did? But what if a bold, proto-feminist author also had a love affair with the most famous poet of all?

I wanted to write about Emilia from a perspective sympathetic to her as a woman of her time. So my novel shows her not only as mistress and lover to two important men—one the most famous writer in the world—but also as a thinker and writer concerned with serious issues who published a book when few women did so.

I portray her as a woman, a mother, concerned with economic survival, struggling against misogynistic attitudes and laws that restrict women’s lives. I show how the great events of the time affect her—the Armada, the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Gunpowder Plot. I show how her relationship with the poet from Stratford inspired her to write. And I show how her friendships with other women are central to her life, helping and sustaining her, giving her acceptance and the courage to write her truths.

***

Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.

Photo credit: Libby Ware 

Janet Benton: How keeping a diary changed my life, as a daughter and a writer

  

There are a lifetime’s worth of influences underlying any novel, including my own debut, Lilli de Jong. But one fundamental influence was this: My mother kept a diary. And thus began my understanding of the power of writing to oneself.

I grew up in an old Connecticut town, a semi-rural place with a few remaining farmsteads and a growing population of commuters to job hubs in Connecticut and New York. Our house bordered a swamp, and I met my best friend there most afternoons to explore plants and snails, worms, and a modest creek—a wending, narrow, rock-filled place that we found fascinating.

I loved my mother dearly. In my early years, I loved watching her in action: seated before an easel, silently spreading oil paint across a canvas; standing in the kitchen, cooking from recipes she followed with care; engaging in animated conversation with friends. I watched her freckled, pretty face when she was yelling, crying, laughing, reading. When she read, her face was open and soft.

When I wasn’t watching, she kept a diary.

People may have viewed a housewife’s diary-keeping then as a cute past-time—a way of elevating the purported trivia of her life or, at best, a way of finding company. But diaries are powerful. They offer a place where muffled voices can tell their truths. Diaries are tools for digging up what we know and for laying claim to what we find.

My parents divorced when I was nine. Even before my father moved out, mothering and keeping house were no longer central to my mother’s life. She’d already blasted free of the confinement of being a housewife in suburbia, married to an often silent man. Yet I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted to think that, at least in private, she considered me central. And somehow I figured out that she was keeping a diary. She kept the book in her bedroom; perhaps I came in once when she was writing.

After the divorce, she sometimes stayed out till late at night, doing exciting and important things I didn’t understand. More than once I went into her bedroom, pulled open the door of her night-table cabinet, took out the cloth-covered three-ring binder she wrote in, and scanned its pages. My mother’s scrawl was nearly incomprehensible to me, as she’d been a left-handed person in a school system that made her hold a pen in a bizarre manner to conform. But I managed to find out some of what she thought and felt about her art, her lovers, her nighttime dreams.

These matters were not what I was hungering to find. I was searching for my own name. Now and then I found it in a note about me doing some out-of-the-ordinary activity. “Janet left for camp today.” “Went tonight to Janet’s play.” I don’t remember finding more than a few sentences.

I stopped looking. Because when I read her diaries, there was no denying that she was the central character of her life. This was not what I wanted to believe. Inevitably, such a realization occurs in every relatively healthy mother-child relationship; it is important to understand—for those who were lucky enough to have had the opportunity, to some extent, not to understand—that one’s mother doesn’t exist as the sun to one’s earth. She is her own planet. In some circumstances, at some ages—or perhaps in some secret part of ourselves, always—it hurts to know this.

Still, I must have appreciated the candid way my mother wrote of what concerned her. I must have seen that a diary was a place for truth-telling. Because I decided that a diary was a place I needed to have. At ten, I created my first one, folding blank paper in half, stapling it in the middle, gluing fabric to its front and back. My parents were divorced by then, and divorce was uncommon in our little town. My dad was just about to marry the second love of his life, which shocked me; I didn’t like to know that our family was truly never going to cohere again. I needed a private friend. I wrote my first entry on the evening of that wedding.

My relationship to the page wasn’t immediately confessional. Like someone in the early stages of a courtship, I was coy. Within a year or two, however, I needed the pages of my diaries more than anything. I needed somewhere to be real.

Diaries are subversive by nature; they contain points of view that can’t be expressed publicly. If we want them to, they can hold anything we feel. As such, they are a particularly meaningful tool for anyone who’s not ideally situated in life.

Until I was a mother, I kept a diary for myself, gradually filling two old trunks with notebook after notebook. I carted these trunks from one coast to another, from apartment to apartment to house. They sit in my home office now, growing more fragile by the year. They say, “Open us! Claim us!” But I’m afraid. Do I dare to feel again what I felt back then? One day, I’ve often thought. I’ll see what I can make from all that.

When I became pregnant, I stopped filling notebooks with stories from the life of me. I began writing to my baby-in-progress. After my daughter’s birth, I continued writing to her future self in notebooks. But my own truths about adjusting to my roles as mother and wife became awkward, difficult. They seemed traitorous. I did write them in my own diary, a little, but time was scarce, and I wanted to write the novel that was coming to me. For the next dozen years, I wrote that novel instead.

I’ve long loved well-wrought novels that convince me the narrator is writing to a diary. Their immediacy creates tension, and by nature they allow readers close access to the diarist’s mind—an intimacy that satisfies. The diary novels I’ve counted as favorites include Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and two by Geraldine Brooks: Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders.

So it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that the first novel I’ve finished of the four I’ve begun—the first one I was willing to put eight or nine thousand hours into—is a diary. Lilli de Jong keeps it during a transformative four months of her life: from the last weeks of her pregnancy through her first months of learning to be a mother.

Women have long kept diaries. The published American women’s diaries I’ve seen from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are telegraphic in nature, describing visitors, work accomplished, the weather, and financial transactions; they rarely contain feelings. In some cases, more intimate sections may have been deleted by grandchildren or other editors who compiled the published versions. But no doubt many diarists didn’t feel that such things should be entrusted to a page.

An artist, though, may be more likely to know that such honesty is transformative. Beginning with her diary, poems, and paintings, my mother, Suzanne Benton, became powerful. She turned 81 last January on the stage of the Women’s March in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a huge crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was introducing the city’s mayor, Rick Kriseman, because it was she who had conceived of that city’s march, had drawn people together to make it happen, had worked long days and nights to co-create the largest march ever assembled in St. Petersburg, with an estimated twenty-five thousand people.

“We know what we have to do,” she called out. “We know the path ahead is ours. Did the Berlin Wall fall because the government thought it was a good idea?” (The crowd shouted, “No!”) “Did the civil rights movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (“No!” again.) “Did the second-wave women’s movement start because the government thought it was a good idea?” (A large and rumbling “No.”) “We were a lot smaller than you, and look at what we did . . . Rights are not given—they’re won. So be brave, have courage, look out for your friends, for your neighbors, for each other . . . We’re going to stand together. We’re going to email, we’re going to call, we’re going to sit in on those legislators who have no moral compass, who go with the wind. Well, we’re a hurricane. Watch out, and hear us roar!”

Amid applause, Mayor Kriseman took the microphone and read a proclamation naming that day, January 21st, as Women’s Rights Day in St. Petersburg.

This large life my mother has claimed was not what others expected of her. She, too, had to win her rights. But that’s another story.

I saw my mother’s genius and her courage up close. By example, she taught me that making art is a process of healing, of inventing oneself, of telling one’s stories. She taught me that we create ourselves continually, and that being true to yourself can connect you with others in meaningful ways. As for those who are uncomfortable with this, one should stay too well occupied to notice. My mother showed me that making art offers a way to face and transform whatever life offers. She taught me that making art is a form of perpetually rescuing oneself.

Rescuing herself is precisely what Lilli de Jong does by keeping a diary in 1883 Philadelphia. She matters in those pages, and this helps her believe that her concerns should matter in the world. Her notebook-writing helps her stay honest with herself—and strengthens her voice. Keeping a diary sustains the dear and courageous unwed mother I invented, a young Quaker named Lilli de Jong.

I hope her story will move its readers, bringing them close to her mind and heart, as diary novels can do this like no others.

bio: Janet Benton is a writers’ mentor through her business, The Word Studio. Her debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to keep her baby amid fierce prejudice. Visit http://www.janetbentonauthor.com to learn more.

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.”