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/

Rebecca Makkai on the varieties of Literary Mansplaining

Rebecca Makkai 2013 Hundred Year House paperback Music for Wartime

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as the short story collection, Music for Wartime (2015)Her story “The Briefcase” was recently anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s high school literature textbook, Collections.

Makkai is smart, observant, and sharp-witted, and it is reflected in her writing, including this piece written for Read Her Like an Open Book (and originally posted on September 29, 2014).

You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here and my interview with Rebecca Makkai here.

In this essay, she addresses an issue that continues to bedevil smart, accomplished women, especially writers. 

Few things have spoken to my soul like Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the essay that indirectly gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”  And it’s no coincidence that Solnit’s key anecdote was about publishing – specifically, about a man not understanding that the seminal book he was lecturing her on was actually one Solnit herself had written. Although mansplaining exists just about everywhere, there seems to be something special about the writing world – maybe it’s that women are, you know, using their voices – that brings out the closet mansplainer. When women articulate issues within the publishing world, or issues they’re facing in their own careers, there’s always someone there to explain that this is not a real problem, or that the solution is oh-so-simple.

Of course #NotAllMen are mansplainers. Of the male writers and critics and bloggers I associate with, I’d put it at around 2%. But all it takes is one person peeing in the pool.

These are the varieties of literary mansplaining I see on a daily basis, both online and off:

“Let me tell you how the publishing industry works.” I get this one not from fellow writers, but – far worse – from acquaintances whose knowledge of publishing is limited to an article they read two years ago about Kindles. “You get a bigger percentage of sales from ebooks,” they say. “So you should be happy!” Or they’ll tell you about the one and only novel they’ve read in the past two years, and act shocked that you haven’t heard of it. “It’s very important! Read it and get back to me and tell me what you think.” And I’m always so grateful for this, because I have nothing in my to-read pile! I’m fresh out of ideas!

“Stop being surprised” / “What did you expect?” In which a woman says / posts / writes about something truly troublesome – unfair VIDA numbers, let’s say, or Amazon hijinks, or academic sexism, or a rat infestation at a writers’ colony — and a man eagerly jumps in to comment with something like “Yep. Get used to it. Them’s the breaks.” Which really adds nothing at all to the conversation, when you think about it. It’s simply a way of saying “Oh, yes, this issue? I’m five steps ahead of you on this issue. Ha-HA!”

 “Just lighten up / give up / grow a pair” A close cousin to the above, with the lovely addition of moral judgment against indignation. If the criticism had come from a man, it would be righteous anger, or thoughtful analysis, or warranted fury. From a woman, it’s irrational and shrill and must be stopped. (The giveaway here: the true mansplainer can only avoid use of the word “hysterical” for about twenty seconds, and/or three tweets. Hang in there long enough, and it’ll come out.)

“This wouldn’t be an issue for you if you would just…” …write more book reviews, write more nonfiction, write more commercial fiction, change your name to something more pronounceable, go with a smaller publisher, go with a bigger publisher, accept that critics are jerks, ignore the haters, ignore your editor, ignore your reviews, stop caring about your career, stop thinking about it too much. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Here is my writing advice, o world!” This is a subtler and more insidious one – an exercising of privilege that is surely invisible to the privileged. Certainly there are times (like, you’re hired to speak to a conference) when an audience is waiting with bated breath for your wisdom. But shouting out, unbidden, on social media, your lesson of the day (“Here’s a little craft tidbit for you, folks…”) – I don’t know how to explain that it’s a manifestation of gender privilege except to say that I see men do this on a daily basis, and I’ve never, ever seen a woman do it. And come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen white men do it. Straight white men. Hmm… (1% of them, at most. But boy howdy are they loud.)

“Despite never having read your work, I’m going to assume that whatever issues you’re facing in the publishing world are due to the fact that you must be writing ‘domestic fiction,’ which – hey! – should certainly be given its due! I read an Alice Munro story once, and I loved it!” Sure you did. Also, define “domestic fiction.” Fiction with a house in it? So you mean, like, The Corrections? No?

“Let me explain how much I’ve done for you, female writer.” This can range anywhere from the benign but egocentric (“I’m so glad I wrote that one review of Alice Munro for the Winnipeg Free Press during the Reagan Administration, because look where my patronage has gotten her!”) to the deeply disturbing (see: the recent saga of Ed Champion). Toward that more disturbing end, there are some male bloggers and critics out there who seem to see praising women writers as the equivalent of buying your date a fancy dinner in 1962. In both cases, they seem to expect something afterwards. Eternal gratitude? Instant acceptance? Love? Sex? It’s hard to tell. And in cases like Champion’s, if perceived “favors” are not returned, the critic turns vicious.

“Your experience is false.” There is no male privilege in literature, there is no white privilege in literature, Martin Amis is not a sexist, Phillip Roth is not a sexist, 9/1 is a reasonable breakdown for the National Book Award nonfiction long list. You are imagining sexism, because I do not believe myself to be a sexist.

“Ah,” someone out there says, “that’s right. I remember reading about this in a magazine. When women complain, they don’t really want their problems solved. They just want to vent. They want someone to listen to them.”

No, asshat. We would love the problems solved. All the problems. It’s just that unless you’re my editor or my agent or my department chair, you’re not the one who’s going to solve them. You aren’t saying anything we haven’t already thought of. No one, male or female, wants someone to come in and pat them on the head and tell them the solution is actually very simple, and the solution is to stop worrying about it. Would you do that to a male colleague? Would you – on the roughest days of your life – want someone doing that to you? The difference between the sexes here isn’t that women want shoulders to cry on. It’s that only women have to put up with people handing them facile and belittling solutions (that aren’t really solutions) to their problems.

So… What to do? If you’re a woman, you already know your choices. Keep your head down and ignore it, or stick your neck out and fight it.

If you’re a man, a regular, fabulous man, keep being awesome. But if you think you might be guilty of mansplaining: Ask yourself, honestly, if this is what you’d say to another guy. If you’d accuse him of hysterics, if you’d attempt to explain the world to him, if you’d assume that because you praised his book once, he must owe you undying gratitude. Or if you’d think that his problems must not really be problems, or feel so proud of yourself for offering the most reductionist solution.

And if you still can’t help it, try to use your mansplaining powers for good, rather than evil. Best Buy is always hiring.

Celeste Ng addresses Asian-American women writers “hiding in plain sight”

Celeste-Ng
Celeste Ng

 

Inspired by an incident in which an author event promoter told her he had trouble finding Asian-American writers for his speakers series, novelist Celeste Ng has written a much-needed and extremely valuable piece for Salon providing just that information. Positing that, contrary to common wisdom that there are only a handful of such women, Ng proves that there are hundreds of noteworthy Asian-American writers hiding in plain sight. Ng interprets “Asian-American” in the widest (and most accurate) sense: not just East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), but Southeast Asia and South Asia (India, Sri Lanka).

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/01/there_arent_a_lot_of_you_out_there_what_lets_fix_our_female_asian_american_writer_blind_spot_now/

Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was chosen by Amazon as its 2014 Novel of the Year. [My review is here.]

 

Nina McConigley
Nina McConigley

 

Other Asian-American writers have recently become stars in the literary firmament. Nina McConigley’s short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, won the PEN Open Book Award in August (given each year to two authors of color to help promote racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities). Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Dos Passos Prize. Jhumpa Lahiri, perhaps the most famous Indian-American writer (her debut, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000), experienced continued success with her 2013 novel, The Lowland, which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award.

 

mira-jacob      Vaddey Ratner
Mira Jacob                                      Vaddey Ratner 
Yang Huang
Yang Huang

Other Asian-American women writers who have received attention, acclaim, and awards in the last few years include Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane), Mira Jacob (The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing), Jean Kwok (Girl in TranslationMambo in Chinatown), Yiyun Li (Kinder Than Solitude), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors), Lan Cao (The Lotus and the Storm), Hanya Yanagihara (The People in the Trees), Soniah Kamal (An Isolated Incident), Karen Shepard (The Celestials), Vaddey Ratner (In the Shadow of the Banyan), Julie Wu (The Third Son), Marie Mutsuki Mockett (Picking Bones from Ash, the just-published Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey), Yang “Linda” Huang (Living Treasures), Kristina McMorris (The Pieces We Keep), and Margaret Dilloway (How to Be an American Housewife and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns).

And this list is just a few grains of sand on a long beach.

DEPARTMENT OF SPECULATION’s unique narrative creates thought-provoking reading experience

department-of-speculation   Jenny Offill

Department of Speculation

By Jenny Offill

Vintage Contemporaries: Oct. 7, 2014 (paperback)

192 pages, $15.00

Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation is a unique reading experience in a time when that phrase is overused and rarely accurate. In this slim volume, Offill has managed to capture two experiences central to the lives of most people: the tension between living the life we dream of and the life we actually have, and the arc of a marriage (in this case, infatuation, bliss, established partnership, emotional distance, communication breakdown, adultery, and attempted rehabilitation and renewal of trust).

The wife is a novelist with one book to her credit, but she is struggling with her second. She agrees to ghost write a book in order to stay busy and generate income. Her husband is an accomplished musician. They live in New York City, where they are raising their young daughter. Their life is alternately fulfilling and frustrating. She recalls with regret and yearning that she had once wanted to be an “art monster,” dedicated to living the life of a true creative artist, without the restraints of a mundane existence of work and family.

But the wife’s intellectual and career ambitions remain unfulfilled when she is pulled off that track by the demands of motherhood and marriage.

The baby is colicky and doesn’t sleep well, leading to frazzled nerves all around. “And that phrase—‘sleeping like a baby.’” Some blonde said it blithely to me on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.” But a mother’s love is programmed and undeniable. “But the smell of her hair. The way she clasped her hand around my fingers. This was like medicine. For once, I didn’t have to think. The animal was ascendant.”

She hopes her marriage will be her sanctuary, but its ability to provide that security has faded. “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.”

Her unhappiness persists. One day while walking, she finds a book called Thriving, Not Surviving in a box on the street. “I stood there, flipping through it, unwilling to commit. You think that the mental anguish you are experiencing is a permanent condition, but for the vast majority of people it is only a temporary state. (But what if I’m special? What if I’m in the minority?),” she wonders. The wife is recognizably complex: sensitive and thoughtful but neurotic and self-indulgent.

“She has wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn’t dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue.”

“Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days.”

A battle with bed bugs only exacerbates the marital tensions. They receive Christmas letters from his relatives, but “my husband won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead.” She imagines the letter she would write.

Dear Family and Friends, It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes. With love and holiday wishes.” One can see why her husband won’t let her send one. He is perplexed by his wife’s personal and professional disorientation.

The husband and wife are reasonable and unreasonable, pleasant and difficult, loving and hurtful, just like a real couple. When the husband has an affair, they attend counseling, which the wife dubs “The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings.”

What makes this book unique is that Offill does not tell the story of this couple in chronological order or in any narrative form the reader is likely to have encountered. Instead, she has chosen to start in the present without revealing the status of the marriage and then allow the wife to narrate in a quasi-stream of consciousness that approximates the way our minds move back and forth through time to encounter experiences. It is a strongly interior experience.

The narrative moves among a range of perspectives: a present-tense narration of a past event, a flashback that reflects on the consequences of an event, an introspective moment that blends past, present, and future. Through it all, the wife presents pieces of the puzzle in seemingly random order, which the reader sorts and organizes into a coherent picture of the couple’s life.

Reading Department of Speculation is a dizzying experience in part because of the narrative approach, but also because Offill’s narrator is emotionally and intellectually unpredictable, always searching for sense in the world and her life. Her range of thoughts and emotions mirrors the way people actually experience love and marital tribulations: as a storm crashing through one’s life, turning one’s entire personal world upside down. The alternately introspective and sardonic narrative voice is masterful.

When you finish Department of Speculation and mentally arrange the pieces to form a coherent whole, you will be tempted to re-read the book immediately now that you have the big picture. When you do, the intelligent, gem-like writing sparkles even more brightly and makes more sense – or at least as much sense as can be made out of life.

BRIGHT SHARDS OF SOMEPLACE ELSE announces the arrival of a distinctive new fictional voice

Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Bright Shards of Someplace Else: Stories

By Monica McFawn

University of Georgia Press: Sept. 15, 2014

164 pages, $24.95

 

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Occasionally I come across a book that is more challenging than most to review. It’s not because it’s a bad book and I don’t want to write a scathing review; in those cases I just don’t bother with a review (life’s too short to be mean-spirited about a book). It’s because the work is so distinctive or pleasantly perplexing that I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings about it into words.

Monica McFawn’s debut collection is such a book. She submitted a selection of her stories to the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction contest and was named one of the two winners for 2014 (the award is given out biennially to two writers).  And there is good reason for that: although it is still early in her career, she is already writing at an impressively sophisticated level. The result is this collection (published along with Karin Lin-Greenberg’s supremely entertaining Faulty Predictions).

McFawn, who teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, possesses a fiercely idiosyncratic intelligence that is revealed on nearly every page of this eleven story collection.  A few stories  (“The Slide Turned on End,” “Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps,” “Ornament and Crime”) reminded me of the quirky hyper-modern stories of Karen Russell and Ramona Ausubel (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of George Saunders). In these cases, McFawn provides her eccentric characters with unique challenges that make for compelling reading even as they keep the reader confused or off-balance.

“The Slide Turned on End” is a brilliant exploration and mockery of scientific and academic research pretensions in which a former biologist and DNA expert becomes convinced that abstract art appeals to us because it captures the essence of our physical selves. He soon becomes a professor of art and a cause celebre in certain circles. A journalist meets with him for an interview, in which O’Hara explains his theory, known as “micro-aestheticism. ”

“‘I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves–and our origins–the cells, platelets, and our amoeba ancestors–in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art.  We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.'”

“O’Hara went on to compare this who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoa, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.”

Eventually, O’Hara persuades the journalist to provide him with a drop of blood so they can examine her own “abstract art” under the microscope. This experiment requires the use of a new blood stabilizing agent called Ethiphet. Soon the journalist is experiencing O’Hara’s theory firsthand and discovering new insights into art. But matters do not progress in the way one might expect.

In McFawn’s more traditional stories, she uses her pen as a scalpel to cut to the heart of her characters’ foibles, and in doing so, she tells us much about ourselves.

In the opening story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” Grace, a twenty-something oddball is baby-sitting a nine-year-old boy described by his mother as “different,” “special,” and “high-maintenance.”  She is told that young Andy is not to use the phone. Grace soon learns that Andy is a highly capable negotiator; he likes calling salespeople to practice. After speaking with a termite exterminator, Grace asks him if he’d like to try clearing up a mistake on her phone bill with a call to customer service. What’s the harm? But one call leads to another as Andy straightens out Grace’s messy life. “Adult lives spread out before him like big sloppy maps that their owners could not refold.” But the evening doesn’t end quite so well.

In “Dead Horse Productions,” the owner of a boarding stable passes away, leaving her son Bill to attend to matters. Despite his mother’s mid-life discovery of a passion for horses, Bill knows or cares little about horses. He is faced with a dead horse in the middle of winter and calls upon Fran, a former riding student who had become an acolyte and employee of his charismatic mother. They engage in a tense debate regarding how to move the frozen equine from the pasture. Fran wants to use a special massage she’d learned from Bill’s mother that would relax the muscles and allow the carcass to be moved more easily; Bill suggests using the backhoe.

“She was afraid of trying the backhoe. Afraid it wouldn’t work–because if the full force of the machine bore down on the carcass and nothing happened, the floating horse would have moved into a more certain plane of paranormal. Afraid it would work–and his mother and her massage would have been bypassed, overthrown, disregarded, unneeded, unheeded–it would be, for Fran, a death of a god. No, the backhoe would not do. The dead horse was no doubt a mystery, no doubt a problem, but there were many mysteries and many problems, and if you had to forsake something to solve each one you’d have nothing left for your trouble.”

To Bill “the dead horse was a mystery, to be sure, but it was a mystery that had overstayed its welcome. There had been mysteries and inexplicable things throughout his life….One could learn to live with these mysteries, but a dead horse, in all its corporeal fact, could not be endured.”

This encounter between two people incapable of understanding each other leads to a revelation for each of them.

“Key Phrases” finds the manager of Journey’s End Memorials (“our company made videos of deceased loved ones to play at funerals or wakes”) attempting to find a way to fire an incompetent employee, with little success.

In “Line of Questioning,” a college English professor is questioned by the police regarding the nature of his relationship with a former student who has been found murdered. Here McFawn plays with the conventions of such plots and again finds something new to reveal.

“Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge” allows McFawn to demonstrate her impressive knowledge of the equestrian field. Judy and Marti own Heart’s Journey, a horse rescue ranch. Despite their successful business partnership, they have different philosophies of horse care. They retain two large animal veterinarians, Dr. Jim and Dr. Merrill, one Old School and one progressive, whose philosophies align with that of Judy and Marti, respectively. They are faced with the question of what to do about a seriously ill horse with a special talent for painting (yes, you read that right).

The story’s highlight is a brilliant depiction of how a horse’s mind operates. “To live in a horse’s body is to experience a perpetual loop of sensation, as if each nerve ending were being plucked in a pattern….Then, of course, there are the eyes, set on the side of the head. It is like being on a themed ride at an amusement park: everything to the side is thrilling and bright, but the area right in front of the car is black. Your world is peripheral. The blind spot in the center of your vision is your center, dark and certain, a void you can retreat to whenever you want.”

The collection closes with one of the strongest stories, “The Chautauqua Sessions,” in which a successful country songwriting duo, lyricist Danny and singer-guitarist Levi, reunite at a studio in the Appalachians to try to recapture the magic of their heyday. But the chemistry is altered when Danny’s son, Dee, a recovering drug addict, arrives to reconcile with his father. Levi and the ranch-studio’s manager, Lucinda, give Dee the benefit of the doubt, but Danny has seen and heard it all in his long history of coping with Dee’s addiction. Is Dee really clean and sober? Can music bring them together? Will Danny risk making himself vulnerable to more suffering in yet another attempt to save Dee? Danny’s plan to get rid of Dee so he and Levi can work results in an unexpected but entirely plausible series of events that will change everyone’s lives.

Monica McFawn’s stories are not easy reads with simple conflicts and pat resolutions. She leaves a lot to the reader to infer on the way to reaching a final impression of a story’s meaning. While some stories in Bright Shards of Someplace Else are less successful than others, McFawn is always intriguing and thought-provoking, and the quality of her prose is never an issue. This is a smart, ambitious collection of stories by a writer whose initial acclaim is certain to grow.

A Tree Born Crooked author Steph Post: Writing Under Fire

steph-post  A Tree Born Crooked

Steph Post is the author of the recently published novel A Tree Born Crooked. She lives, writes, and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. Connect with her at http://www.stephpostfiction.com. 

BOOK GIVEAWAY! To win a SIGNED COPY of A Tree Born Crooked, share the link to this post on Facebook or Twitter (by using the links at the bottom of this post) and leave a comment below with your Twitter handle or email so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be chosen randomly on Friday, November 7. You can also use this short link in your share/tweet: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-nH

 THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. The lucky winner is Courtney Whisenant of Lacey’s Spring, Alabama. Thanks to everyone who participated! 11/8/14

For me, the dreaded question of “What’s your book about?” has always been paralyzing. Most people who ask are looking for about a ten-second synopsis, even shorter than an elevator pitch, and I find it challenging to sum up an entire novel, an entire year’s worth of work, in the amount of time it takes a person to unwrap and start chewing a stick of gum. Or check a text message. Or look over my shoulder at something more interesting. All of which that person is most likely doing while I’m trying to explain one of the most important things I’ve ever created in my entire life.

I’ll admit that I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve distilled my novel down into short, easy to manage, 21st century sound bites that hopefully catch a spark in the listener’s eyes, depending on what he or she is into. Southern. Literary. When the eyes start to drift, I ramp it up. Thriller. Crime. Guns. Then I narrow it down, hone in on what the reader is really looking for. I’m getting somewhere. Florida. Dirty Motels. Alcohol. Road Trips. Banana Moon Pies. I sold a book last week just because the woman had a huge crush on Timothy Olyphant (well, who wouldn’t?). She had no idea what my book was about, but she hauled out the cash as soon as she saw the word “Justified” on the cover.

So I thought I was nailing it with the sales pitch. I was feeling pretty good about it. And then I had a true deer-in-the-headlights moment the other day. The question was the same as always — “what’s your book about” — but I froze. “Um. Er. Stuff. And then some stuff happens. To these people. In this place. And then some more stuff. There’s all kinds of stuff in the book. Yep. That’s right. Lots of stuff.” I don’t have to tell you that I lost that sale…. But it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to pitch my novel. It’s because I suddenly couldn’t remember which novel I was talking about. And now an entirely new author challenge has been thrown my way: how to balance promoting a novel, shopping a second, and writing a third. All without losing my mind.

I have always thought of writing as a war. In addition to being an author and editor, I teach high school students how to write. When we get ready for the state writing test, my students have their battle faces on. During writing boot camp, we plot out sneak attacks, counterattacks, revision strategies, grammar arsenals, weapons of diction, hand-cramping survival tactics, and the ultimate ways to blow up the enemy (the state-appointed essay scorer) and win the war (be eligible to graduate). Some of my students look at me warily and edge away, some roll their eyes, but those who struggle with writing get it. Those who struggle and those who have the demon of a novice writer stirring deep inside of them.

Whenever I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I always feel like I’m deep in the trenches. I’m slogging away, looking out over no-man’s land, wondering if I’ll ever see daylight again. It’s messy and can be disheartening, though filled with explosions of brilliance and moments of adrenaline-fueled panic and triumph. I sit in front of my notebook or computer and imagine what people out in the “real world” are doing. Having fun. Going to parties. Interacting with other human beings. But I’m stuck in the trenches with gritted teeth, banging out chapters because the characters won’t let me sleep until I’m finished. Sounds like fun, right?

Now, I’d give anything to be back, safely ensconced in my trench, shutting the rest of the world out with only my notebooks and my keyboard, my music and my dogs for company. But there’s no going back. I’m running across the field now, grenades being lobbed in my direction from all angles, bullets whizzing past my head, the ground on fire. I thought writing was a battle. No. Writing is a walk in the park on a summer day. Being an author is a battle. Being an author is a fight to death.

Instead of being able to focus, with blissfully intense tunnel-vision, on one story, I have three jostling around in my head at all times. My debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, was just published in September. I had moved on from the story and its characters in the year’s time from writing to publishing, but now the world of Crystal Springs and its bedraggled inhabitants are right back in the forefront again (and being packaged into ten-second pitch-bites). During this past year, I wrote another novel, so on top of promoting one book to readers, I’m promoting a second book to agents and editors. And then I’ve spent the last three months working hard on research for my third novel, which I hope to begin writing this month.

So when the unassuming reader asked me what my book was about and I provided the elegant response of “stuff,” what was really going through my head was a frantic moment of trying to remember which book they were asking about. The one with the crazy Pentecostal preacher or the one with the Alligator Mafia? Or the tattooed snake charmer? The one set in rural Florida or in a traveling carnival? Wait, is there mythology in this one or is that the one I’m working on now? Literary, noir, Southern Gothic? It must have all shown on my face, because the potential buyer of A Tree Born Crooked carefully set the copy down and backed away slowly.

Three books, one part-time job as an editor, one full-time job as a high school writing coach, occasional forays into book reviewing and short story writing. I’m not claiming to be a multi-tasking soccer mom, but I do have a lot of writing- and reading-related activity going on. I’m taking fire on all sides, so it’s time I created a new battle plan. Hunkering down in the trenches just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Reserve the weekends for working on the new novel. It’s the most important thing, and will always be the most important thing, because writing is, well, the point of being a writer. Period.
  • Do everything else (promoting, querying, blogging, tweeting, editing, reviewing, teaching, living) during the week.

Also:

  • Stop sleeping.
  • Forget about ever having a clean house.
  • Teach my five dogs how to take themselves for a walk.
  • Tell my husband that I’ll see him sometime. Maybe in the next year. Possibly.
  • Ditto to all my friends.
  • Hold off on having kids.
  • Pretend holidays don’t exist. (Plus side: save money to buy wine)
  • Sell the television.
  • Buy a wine cellar. Fully stocked.
  • Remind myself over and over that I’m an author not because I have to be, but because I want to be. I’m doing this because I love it. It’s frustrating and irritating and painful and heart-wrenching and has completely ruined my social life forever. But I love it.

And I’m open to suggestions. For now, I’m suiting up, checking my ammo, and heading into battle.

Flavorwire’s “50 Excellent Novels by Female Writers Under 50”

Book-related lists are everywhere (including on this blog), but some are more equal than others. On August 7, Flavorwire published a list of “50 novels by female writers that everyone should read.” Fifty novels makes for a long list, but I have to say that this is an outstanding selection of novels and writers. You can’t go wrong here.

I especially second their recommendations of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Jennifer duBois’ A Partial History of Lost Causes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning, Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, and Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge.

http://flavorwire.com/471139/50-excellent-novels-by-female-writers-under-50-that-everyone-should-read/view-all