“AmWriting” — Chrissy Kolaya talks with Christine Sneed and Alison Umminger about the challenges of the writing life

A huge thank you to Read Her Like an Open Book for giving me a chance to talk with two writers I deeply admire and think of as my literary big sisters, Alison Umminger and Christine Sneed. — Chrissy Kolaya

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Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival. Her first novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. [Read my review here.]

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Alison Umminger is a professor of English at the University of West Georgia.  Her short fiction has won the Lawrence Foundation award from Prairie Schooner, and been published in numerous journals.  American Girls is her first novel.

Christine Sneed -- Adam Tinkham
Christine Sneed‘s stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, and a number of other publications.  She is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. She lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches for the graduate creative writing programs at Northwestern University and Regis University in Denver.

CK: Would you each tell us about your new book?


American Girls
Alison: American Girls is about a 15-year-old who steals her mom’s credit card and runs away to L.A., where she researches the Manson girls, hangs out on a television set with her sister’s boyfriend, and becomes a little less shitty than she was at the start of the novel. It’s low on plot and heavy on voice/atmosphere, and I originally conceived it as a kind of love letter to Los Angeles.

The Virginity of Famous Men

Christine: The Virginity of Famous Men, my forthcoming short story collection, will be out in mid-September. In “Beach Vacation,” a mother realizes that her popular and coddled teenaged son has become someone she has difficulty relating to, let alone loving with the same maternal fervor that once was second nature to her.

In “The Prettiest Girls,” a location scout for a Hollywood film studio falls in love with a young Mexican woman who is more in love with the idea of stardom than with this older American man who takes her with him back to California. “Clear Conscience” focuses on the themes of family loyalty, divorce, motherhood, and whether “doing the right thing” is, in fact, always the right thing to do. The title story, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” explores family and fortune and picks up a year and a half after Little Known Facts, my second book, left off.

CK: California looms large in both of these books! I’m curious about the idea of revisiting your own literary territory as Christine does in her title story. Christine, would you talk a bit about the experience of returning to these characters? What are some of the challenges and rewards?

Christine: It was a lot of fun to imagine my characters from Little Known Facts a year and a half after where that book ends. A few people had asked if I was going to write a sequel to this novel, and I don’t have plans to – other than this short story. I guess the challenge of writing about them now is whether or not I remain faithful to the tone of that novel and portray them in a believable way. I hope I succeeded. The reward was that I again had a good time writing about fame and its effects on the relatives of the famous.

CK: One of the things I find especially encouraging about the writing world is the work writers do to build and maintain vibrant and supportive literary communities, both in person and online. What are some of the most inspiring/creative things you’ve seen others do to build literary community?

Christine: I love that on Twitter there are hashtags devoted to reading picks, e.g. #fridayreads and #amreading, which I think can generate a lot of buzz for many authors.

In Chicago, where I live, there are more than 50 “live lit” series, one of which I used to help direct and curate, Sunday Salon Chicago. Due to the number of reading series in any given week here, so many writers are able to read new work, sell books, meet other writers, and in some cases, create lasting friendships and working relationships.

There’s a lot of support for writers in this city, in general, and also, quite a few independent bookstores with staff devoted to promoting the books of local authors. Much hand-selling goes on, and I think more and more writers and publishers see this as a key factor in a book’s success.

Alison: I think some of the online communities (the functional ones) are pretty amazing for sharing information and encouraging folks along the way. The NaNoWriMo is pretty awesome for getting folks motivated in the midst of their busy lives — and I love hearing about some of the mini-retreats that groups of writers arrange for working collectively, with a team atmosphere. Writing can be so lonely and isolating, and yet I think a certain amount of feedback along the way is essential.

CK: What are you most proud of doing to build and maintain literary community?

Christine: As mentioned above, I helped to organize Sunday Salon Chicago for two years, which was a labor of love for everyone involved. Like many recurring reading series, my co-organizers and I couldn’t pay our readers; we didn’t charge admission for the readings, in order to reach the widest audience possible, and we weren’t paid for our work either.

On my website, I also do Q and As with writer friends who are promoting new books. It’s a lot of fun, and it helps get the word out to a few more people who are likely to pick up these titles and share them with friends, too.

Alison: Well, I feel like I am part of a “little writing group that could” that includes Maggie Mitchell and one other member — three of us worked on novels together, and two have made their way into the world since our group’s inception. I also joined a group called the Sweet Sixteens this year, made up of hundreds of folks with debut YA and MG novels. I’m mid-way through reading sixteen debut novels, and that’s been a wonderful way for me to get to know other YA writers.

CK: Alison, did you always imagine yourself writing for a young adult audience or has your audience changed throughout your writing career?

My agent had been telling me for years to try YA, but I have a lot of trouble thinking of books in terms of genre. I happen to love writing books about younger characters, because adolescence is so intense and so many things happen for the first time. I feel like Anna’s story happily fits what YA is right now, and I’m thrilled to be part of the lively and diverse YA community.

CK: In the razzle-dazzle of book promotion, it can seem to readers and emerging writers as if you must be one of the lucky few who’ve won the talent-and-good-fortune lottery. What were some moments of struggle for you along the way, and what advice can you share with writers who find themselves reading this while in the midst of one of those challenging moments?

Alison: Well, the distance from my “I want to be a writer” moment to a hardback with my name on the spine was 23 years, so I’d say I’m a walking advertisement for persistence. I wrote a literary novel before this one that was rejected by at least 40 publishers, many of whom genuinely liked it but saw no larger market for the book. That still kind of breaks my heart, but the marketing aspect of books is very real, and I think writers need to be realistic about what that means. I’ve had students who are very talented, but very niche writers, and I encourage them to look for smaller presses and not be discouraged if agents aren’t lining up at their doors.

Christine: I think you have to learn to manage your expectations when it comes to a book’s sales and reviews – i.e., how many copies will sell and how positive the reviews will be (provided you get reviews, which certainly isn’t a given, especially with mass market periodicals).

You can never predict what will happen, as obvious as that sounds. I wish it were easier to earn a steady living from writing, but it’s extremely difficult, and I keep reminding myself of something my friend and fellow writer Karen Brown said recently: “The next book!” as in, the next book will be the one that breaks through in a way that will allow you to stop having to scramble so much for teaching work and other paying gigs and permit you to focus more on your writing.

CK: What advice would you give your younger writing self?

Alison: Your real life is pretty separate from and far more important than your work, so don’t put so much value on being a published writer. And enjoy the process of writing the book — that’s the real fun part.

Christine: As I said earlier, learn to manage your expectations. No book’s trajectory can be predicted. The writing has to be the focus, always.

CK: What’s next for each of you? 

Christine: I’m working on a new novel and a little bit of nonfiction and short fiction. In the fall, I’ll be doing some readings in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin to promote The Virginity of Famous Men.

Alison: I’m working on another YA novel, also a realistic contemporary piece. It’s very early in the drafting process, so I’m trying to stick with it even though the book isn’t exactly talking to me right now. Pants to the chair method, as my dissertation director so wisely once told me.

CK: I love to root for the underdog. What’s a book or author that you’d like to see more folks fall in love with?

Christine: Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling is an excellent book that I recently read that was published in May by an independent Chicago press, Curbside Splendor. I loved Alison’s book too – American Girls (UK: My Favorite Manson Girl). I hope it finds readers far and wide. And your novel, Chrissy, Charmed Particles.

Alison: In terms of YA, I just loved Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black, and I’m super excited for the brilliant Dana Johnson’s story collection, In the Not Quite Dark, which is out this month. She’s one of the best short story writers out there, and I hope this finds its way onto lots of reading lists this summer.

CK: Thanks so much, Alison and Christine! Thanks Bill, for hosting our Q&A and for all the work you’re doing to bring together readers and literary fiction by women!


Photo of Christine Sneed: Adam Tinkham

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JUVENTUD a thought-provoking coming of age story set against complexities of Colombia

Juventud cover  Vanessa Blakeslee 2014

Juventud

By Vanessa Blakeslee

Curbside Splendor: Oct. 27, 2015

$15.95, 338 pages

As serendipity would have it, I ended up reading two books set in South America back to back. After a steady diet of fiction set in the U.S. and Europe, spending time in Colombia and Brazil constituted a much-needed change of scenery for my Westernized imagination.

Juventud (Youth) is Vanessa Blakeslee’s first novel after a stellar short collection, Train Shots. The standout story in that book was set in Costa Rica, so it’s not surprising that she would write about the manifold issues of life in Colombia at the turn of the millenium.

The story is narrated by its 30-year-old protagonist, Mercedes Martinez, who guides us through a multi-level coming of age story. The novel begins in 1999, as she looks back 15 years to the period in her life when everything changed. Mercedes is the 15-year-old daughter of a wealthy Cali landowner and an American mother who long ago fled to her home country. She adores her father, dreams of her long-absent mother (about whom she knows little and has had no contact with), and frets about her social life. She is, in other words, a fairly typical adolescent.

Mercedes’ opening observations set the stage for the textured depiction of a young woman navigating a complex set of conflicts in her personal life and her homeland.

“Along with most of the professional- to upper-class, I moved through my daily routine largely unaffected by their troubles: one in five residents out of work and unemployment rising, the streets jammed with listless young men, guerillas and government still at war after four decades, one- to two-million Colombians displaced from their villages by the bloodbaths….Otherwise, the disparity outside my windows didn’t faze me much. I was still mourning the loss of my first crush, whom I’d met at a Valentine’s dance and whose parents had swiftly enrolled him at a military school in the United States a few weeks later, after the FARC [the dominant rebel army] captured and assassinated three indigenous-rights activists, all American. That was my luck, I thought, almost sixteen and still no boyfriend. Like any teenage girl, I yearned to fall in love. Beyond that, I had few desires.”

Soon Mercedes meets Manuel, a handsome 21-year-old activist and devout Catholic, who shows her the brutal reality of the economic and cultural woes of her country. She experiences an awakening of her social conscience and now views the desplazados (displaced ones) who camp on the fringes of her family’s sugarcane plantation with new eyes. But a greater awakening awaits her, as the social justice work of Manuel causes her to examine her assumptions about her father and the past he has left shrouded in silence and misdirection.

As Mercedes becomes increasingly involved with Manuel and his activities, the fog of her youth lifts and she begins to see more clearly the circumstances of her privileged life, especially the precarious nature of her father’s financial success and social status.

An explosive event (no spoilers here) forces her to flee to the United States. The second half of Juventud follows Mercedes as she navigates culture shock, completes her education, and moves into life as a young professional. Her memories of life in Colombia remain a powerful presence and an unshakable part of her character. Her mother may have been American, and she may have lived there from age 16 on, but she is Colombian. After 15 years, events call her home, where she confronts the truth about her father and the life she thought she understood.

Blakeslee has written a multi-faceted novel that combines a coming of age story, a socio-political exploration of modern Colombia, and a sympathetic fish out of water story full of cultural conflict. It seems well-researched and accurate (to the extent I am able to judge that) and never struck a wrong note in its detailed descriptions or crisp dialogue.

What struck me as I read Juventud was that, with some judicious editing, it would make a terrific Young Adult novel about a time, a place, and a set of social and economic issues that the adolescents of 2016 know little or nothing about but would certainly find involving and enlightening.

Juventud is a satisfying and thought-provoking read, intelligent fiction that informs as it entertains.