THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES explores female friendship amid cultural conflicts in Jordan

The Confusion of Languages

By Siobhan Fallon

Putnam — June 27, 2017

$26.00, 324 pages

Siobhan Fallon made a huge impression on me with her debut story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), about the experience of military wives living at Fort Hood, Texas, and the men who leave them and later return in a range of challenging mental and physical states.

Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood and now resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, returns with her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring uprising in May 2011. It is the story of two American women whose military husbands work at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Cassie and Dan Hugo have been in Jordan for a while and are asked to serve as mentors to a newly-arrived (and newly married) couple, Margaret and Creighton (known as Crick) Brickshaw. Cassie has mixed feelings about mentoring Margaret, but she soon decides that a new friend, with a baby in tow, would be a good thing so far from home.

The plot is set in motion when Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor rear-end car accident. Margaret is astonished the local police officer ‘s brief, on-the-spot investigation concludes that the accident was her fault. Cassie’s explanation that in Jordan the woman is always at fault, as a legal and cultural matter, falls on deaf ears. An embassy guard, called to the scene by Cassie, explains that Margaret simply needs to go to the police station to complete some paperwork admitting fault, and the embassy will take care of everything after that. It’s Jordan, and they do things differently here. Upset, Margaret decides to go home first so she can change, feed her baby, and then go to the police station while Cassie babysits. But the hours pass and Cassie does not hear from Margaret, nor does Margaret respond to Cassie’s increasingly perplexed and agitated texts. Cassie begins to worry about her naive and emotional friend.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. 

Before long, the plot of The Confusion of Languages becomes as much a thriller as a cultural exploration and character study. Fallon tells the story through Cassie’s first-person narrative over the afternoon and evening of May 13, 2011, and Margaret’s journal, which Cassie discovers and then reads while she waits for Margaret to return from the police station.

Cassie soon learns that Margaret has a secret that could change everything.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet. Slender, blonde, and pretty, and seemingly extroverted, she is in fact carrying two heavy burdens. Margaret is loquacious, effusive, kind-hearted, and curious, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. But, as we soon learn from her journal, she is also introspective and something of an intellectual.

She is struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer and an oppressive childhood. She has placed all her hopes on her new life with Crick and their baby, Mather. Crick, the ultimate warrior, is trying to fulfill his sense of duty toward Margaret despite complications in their past.

Can this small-town girl find her way as a military spouse in the Middle East? She finds life in Jordan chaotic and difficult to understand. So, at the same time she is studying Arabic, she is also obsessed with the meaning of words in English, writing their definitions in her journal. She attempts to impose order on the chaos of the world and her life, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan’s complicated culture are often met with stubborn resistance and her determination to do things her way.

Cassie is coping with her own sense of loss in not being able to have a baby, and it is driving a wedge between her and Dan. Cassie is methodical and reasonable where Margaret is impulsive and unpredictable. Their friendship is erratic, moving from a developing intimacy to perplexing distance without any pattern.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan and to teach her about Jordanian culture, especially expectations regarding male-female interactions, are often met with stubborn resistance and Margaret’s determination to do things her way, without concern for Jordanian and Muslim customs. Margaret is certain that her warmth, kindness, and American “can do” approach will be sufficient in every situation.

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions.

But she is mistaken. Her innocent attempts to form friendships with Saleh, the maintenance man in her apartment building, and Hassan, a widower who works as one of the entrance guards at the embassy and who teaches her words and phrases in Arabic, lead to confusion and misunderstandings that go beyond “the confusion of languages.”

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions. Margaret eventually rejects Cassie as her guide to Jordan, preferring to find her own way and place her trust in her new father-figure of a friend.

The Confusion of Languages probes the ramifications of these misunderstandings and the characters’ good intentions gone awry. Both Cassie and Margaret are good people, but they are flawed and deeply human. Here, as always in good fiction, that is what makes for a memorable novel. Although their alternating perspectives create a rich, insightful character development, I was occasionally distracted by the nature of Margaret’s journal, which seems overly sophisticated and literary for a journal but, admittedly, does make for a more compelling read. Fallon is reportedly now at work on a novel about foreign laborers in Abu Dhabi, so she appears to be carving out a niche as the novelist of the expat experience in the Middle East.

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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.”

 

THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages


The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

How connecting with early readers through my “Reader Feedback and Serialization Project” helped me improve and publish my first novel

Charmed Particles  Headshot

When I finished writing my novel, Charmed Particles, and was ready to begin the search for an agent to represent it, I wasn’t new to the agent-hunting business: a few years earlier I’d tried and failed to find an agent for the first novel I’d written; I heard over and over again “There’s some lovely writing here, but I don’t think I can sell this.”

In retrospect, I’m glad that first book never made it out into the world. In all sorts of ways, it wasn’t ready—I was still learning how to write a novel. But when I put that book aside (a painful and difficult decision at the time) and began work on a new novel project, I knew I wanted to do something different when the time came to take the book out into the world in search of an agent and then a publisher.

I wanted to know what the experience of reading the book would be like for readers, and I knew this would be especially important given the subject matter for this new novel: particle physics.

Charmed Particles tells the story of the events surrounding the U.S. government’s attempts to build a scientific tool—a particle accelerator–called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) during the late 1980s. Communities under consideration as locations for this facility were wary of it—a giant circular tunnel system built under their homes, schools, and farmland. They worried about whether it was safe to be living on top of such a thing. The project was begun in Waxahachie, Texas, but ultimately abandoned to the great frustration of the particle physics community. Many scientists argue that had the project gone forward, confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson (often referred to as the God particle) would have occurred much earlier and on American soil instead of in Switzerland at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But that description of the book is perhaps deceptive, because while those events inform the novel, the story is really about the people—two families in particular, who find themselves grappling with ambition, curiosity, and uncertainty against the backdrop of this controversy as it unfolds in their town.

So I knew that I had a previous failed attempt at publishing my first novel, and now I had this second novel on a challenging topic. What to do to give this strange little book a fighting chance out there? Well, I thought back to the issue of salability. To the challenge of getting books into the hands of readers who will care about them. To the importance of writing books that will resonate with readers, not just with other writers.

At the time, I was teaching a course on the history of book publishing, and we were studying the way many of Dickens’ books originally went out into the world as chapter-by-chapter serializations published in periodicals. I was also thinking about something I often tell my beginning creative writing students: that what matters isn’t what you intended to do with the piece, but rather what the reader’s experience of it is.

So here’s what I came up with: The Feedback and Serialization Project

Here’s the initial pitch I made, via Facebook, word of mouth, and sign-up sheets I circulated at a few works-in-progress readings I gave:

You’re invited to participate in the Feedback and Serialization Project

What is it?

A weekly e-mail that will include between one and three short chapters of Charmed Particles, my novel-in-progress, for you to read and respond to. The goal of the project is to

  • Provide an innovative opportunity for community involvement with and participation in the arts
  • Provide an opportunity for me to connect with a community of readers and to learn from the feedback these readers offer as I revise the manuscript.

Why?

The writing life can be lonely, especially while in the midst of a large, several-years-long project, and writers often get feedback on our work only from other writers.  For me, the project is an experiment in avoiding the pitfalls of being a writer who writes only for other writers and an opportunity to connect with a large and diverse audience. I especially look forward to feedback from those participants who identify as readers but not as writers.

How will it work?

I will share the novel in weekly chapter installments, giving readers time to respond to the work via e-mail. I’ll then be incorporating feedback and suggestions from participants into a revision of the novel in preparation for submitting it to literary agents and publishers.

What kind of feedback should I give you?

Anything. From “Hey, you forgot a comma here” to “I forgot who this character is–you might need to remind readers” to “Oh, man this book is a snooze-fest!” For those of you who haven’t before critiqued a manuscript, this may feel strange and perhaps a bit uncomfortable, but writers are used to hearing feedback (often negative) on our work, and it’s what helps us make our work better. And it’s helpful, too, for us to hear about what is working or what’s almost working. So have at it!

Want to know what the book’s about before you sign on?

Set in a fictional prairie town in which the two overarching industries are a colonial American living history facility and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics, Charmed Particles tells the intertwined stories of two families.

Abhijat is a theoretical physicist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory. His wife, Sarala, home with their young daughter, Meena, focuses her energies on assimilating to their new American culture.

Meena’s best friend at school is Lily, a precocious child prodigy whose father self-identifies as “the last great gentleman explorer” and whose mother, a local politician, becomes entangled in efforts to stop the National Accelerator Research Laboratory’s plans to build a new Superconducting Super Collider.

The conflict over the collider fractures the community and creates deep divides within the families of the novel.

Interested in participating?

If you’d like to be part of this experimental project, you can sign up by e-mailing me or contacting me via Facebook with the e-mail address you’d like me to use.  And thank you!

So, that was it! People kindly signed up, started reading, and offered lots of good feedback as the project went on!

Why feedback from readers as opposed to writers?

Writers spend an awful lot of time talking to one another, showing one another work, and giving one another feedback. While this is immensely helpful (not to mention generous on the part of other writers, who often don’t have a lot of spare time on their hands to do this sort of thing), it struck me that it might also be a little insular. That by doing this, I might only be getting a sense of what the book was like for other writers, but not for readers. I work in academia, and because we spend so much time talking to and working with specialists, we sometimes find it challenging to translate our work to a general audience. (Incidentally, this communication challenge also ends up being one of the central themes of the book.) I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here. As a writer, I care about writing books that challenge readers, but that also invite them in and engage them.

Who participated?

By the time the project began in the summer of 2011, my volunteers included members of our small town’s Kiwanis club; several former high school classmates; former students (who got a kick out of having the tables turned and getting to critique their professor’s work!); a local banker; the woman who used to own the house my family and I now live in; our university librarian; colleagues from across campus, in English, chemistry, biology, and political science; former coworkers; former college classmates; a high school student; and some of the physicists I’d interviewed during my research for the novel.

What kind of advice did you get?

All sorts! Little things like “I’m finding this sentence challenging as written” to “this chapter felt slow,” but what was especially cool (and unexpected on my part!) was that everyone brought their own areas of expertise to the project. One reader, Nancy, is a soils scientist, so she caught an obscure agricultural error I’d made. A former high school classmate, who’d had some run-ins with mean-girl types pointed out that initially, she wasn’t sure whether she or the character Sarala should trust another character–Carol’s– intentions. This helped me realize that while I knew that Carol genuinely cared about Sarala, the reader needed a few more clues about that along the way.

Were there any other unintended challenges or benefits?

Writing the “Want to know about the book?” section for the project description helped me practice the pitch for the book I’d use in my query letter to agents–that horrible moment when you have to take a 300-page thing you wrote and boil it down to a pithy two-minute elevator pitch!

I also mentioned the Feedback and Serialization Project in these query letters to agents, hoping it might pique their interest and help the book stand out from the rest of the submissions they received.

But by far, the most important benefit for me was that the project built an engaged and supportive community around the book. As any writer knows, the process of writing a book and looking for an agent and then a publisher can be a long, lonely, and discouraging process. But this project meant that I had a team of readers who were invested in and rooting for the book, who were hoping–right along with me–that it would find its way to an agent who believed in it and a publisher that did, too. (And it did! Hooray for Eleanor Jackson and Dzanc Books!

Every weekend when I stopped in to our small town’s lone grocery store to do the week’s shopping, there was Tom, calling out from behind the butcher’s counter, “Hey Chrissy! You found a publisher for your book yet?” On campus, as I taught and graded, friends and colleagues checked in to see how things were going with this other part of my work life.

And when, at long last, the book came out in November 2015, there was a crowd of people who were excited right along with me (and perhaps also a bit nervous, as I was!) to see how the book would do out in the world as the publicity team worked to help Charmed Particles find its way to readers and reviewers.

The participants in the project were from all over—Washington, DC; Wisconsin; Illinois; Alaska; and Texas—but the largest number of participants came from the small rural town where I live and work. Because of this, in many ways it felt especially like the whole town of Morris, Minnesota, was as excited about the book as I was. When the book finally came out, the local paper ran a huge story about it. (Link: http://www.morrissuntribune.com/news/3877628-family-and-physics-part-debut-novel-morris-author). The local library ordered 10 copies and hosted a series of book group events around it.

Morris Public Library Book Club event

The high school creative writing teacher invited me in to her classroom to talk with her students.

pic from Morris high school gig 1  pic from Morris high school gig 2

pic from Morris high school gig 3

My dentist’s office sent me a congratulations card signed by every person in the office, from the dental hygienists to the receptionists!

card from Morris Dental clinic

I’m hugely grateful to all of the participants in this strange experiment! You’ll find them listed by name on the book’s Acknowledgments page. In all sorts of big and little ways, they helped to make this a better book.

Would you do this again?

Absolutely!

Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her debut novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. 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 has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival.

Author Photo: Nina Francine Photography

Laura van den Berg on the complex writing process behind her debut novel FIND ME

Laura-van-den-Berg   Find Me

Laura van den Berg’s first novel (after two acclaimed short story collections), Find Me, was published in early 2015 and has just been issued in softcover by FSG Originals. It was named to “Best of 2015” lists by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, Booklist, Bustle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Baltimore City Paper, and Book Riot, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and has just been named to the longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A detailed bio of van den Berg follows her essay. 

Writing a novel is not easy. Of course, I knew that going in—certainly when I began Find Me I did not think, “Hey, this should be easy!”—but as someone who had written only short stories, save for a few half-hearted 50-page stabs at novel writing, I did not appreciate how hard it would be until I was in deep. I wrote the first draft of Find Mein roughly six months, in 2008. I turned in my final edits to my publisher in May 2014. What was I doing with all that time in between?

If you were to compare that very first draft of Find Me and the finished book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single sentence that carried over from the initial version to the final one. In the six months I spent drafting Find Me, I worked in a frenzy, writing straight through, following every impulse as it occurred to me, no matter how misguided—just as I would when drafting a short story. The result? A hideous 300-page mess.

It took me years—literally years—to understand what I had put on the page and why and what it might become, let alone what it should become. I’ve certainly had short stories that were hard to write, that took me years to write, but I’d never before felt so completely overwhelmed by a fictional landscape and its many possibilities and glaring flaws. And yet my heart was sunk into this story, and into the narrator, a young woman named Joy, and so on I went.

The years that followed were a mix of trial and error. A few knots were successfully unfurled; others were pulled tighter; new ones appeared. I would spend six months or a year writing in one direction only to realize that direction was hopeless and that I needed to delete and begin anew. That was the hardest part for me: the lost time, existing in that unfinished state, with the uncertainty of knowing if I would ever finish and, if I did, what kind of book I would have on my hands.

This process continued even after I was fortunate enough to sell Find Me and to get wonderful notes from my editor. On the one hand, I was so excited my book was going to be out in the world, but on the other I wanted to make sure what I put out into the world represented the absolute best I could do at that time. The novel has a two part structure—the first part is set in a hospital in rural Kansas; the second part is set on the road—and in the summer of 2013, I went to a writers’ colony in Key West feeling queasy about the second part.

One of my biggest mistakes had been holding on to things that weren’t working for way too long, for not letting go sooner, and now I knew I was running out of time. “Write the book you want to read” became my line to myself. In Key West, it was brutally hot and I was plagued with insomnia and most days I would walk to the ocean to swim because that made me feel awake. One morning, in the water, I knew with uncommon certainty that I needed to cut the second part and start over. Totally. And so I did.

When I left Key West, the version of Find Me I took with me was much closer to the final book, though some significant edits still lay in my future. I called all my missteps and detours “lost time” above, but I know that’s not really true, since all those detours played a part in getting me to where I needed to be, and I don’t think it would have been possible to skip over them. They were necessary, in their way.

So I am grateful to this book. I learned a great deal from it. I am in the early stages of a new novel project now and I know that “write the book you want to read” is a good line to listen to. I know that if I get that queasy feeling I will hit “delete” and never look back. I know detours are necessary sometimes and that very few of the sentences I’m putting down now will remain and that I am in no particular rush.

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize XXIV

Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2013. The Isle of Youth was named a “Best Book of 2013″ by over a dozen outlets, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine; it was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Award, and received both The Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize.

 

Aline Ohanesian discusses her fictional exploration of the Armenian genocide in ORHAN’S INHERITANCE

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Raffi Hadidian
Raffi Hadidian

Aline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumni of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance will be published by Algonquin Books on January 19.

What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were? (This is certainly the case with many Jews like myself.)

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

What is the trick to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

I’m not sure I would call it a trick. Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? Being an Indie Next pick, an Amazon Top 25 of 2015 book, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, the Center for Fiction first novel nomination?

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the passionate readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.

 

WE ARE CALLED TO RISE captures intersection of lives in the real Las Vegas, inspires with humanity

We Are Called to Rise paperback U.S.  we-are-called-to-rise-UK paperbackUK

We Are Called to Rise

By Laura McBride

Simon & Schuster: April 28, 2015

320 pages, $15.00

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The first half of the book introduces us to the lives of the main characters in alternating chapters. Avis is forced to cope with her hotel executive husband’s surprising request for a divorce when she should be overjoyed with the return of her son Nate from Iraq. He has completed police academy training and is about to join the Las Vegas Police Department. Nate’s young wife, Lauren, is even more thrilled to have him home. But something about Nate seems off. He’s impatient, prone to angry outbursts, and abusive to Lauren. So while Avis tries to determine where her marriage went wrong and what she should do next, she tries to save Nate and his marriage.

Bashkim is a sweet-natured, bright boy who is thriving in school and keeping a watchful eye on his little sister, Tirana. His parents own an ice-cream truck, a seemingly failsafe source of income in the Nevada desert; yet the Ahmeti family is in financial trouble. But his father was a political prisoner in Albania and remains hostile and even paranoid. He has isolated the family from everyone, including the local Albanian immigrants. Bashkim’s mother attempts to hold the family together and serve as a buffer between her husband and the children but bears the brunt of her husband’s discontent.

Army Specialist Luis Rodriguez is being treated at Walter Reed Hospital for a head injury and PTSD after two traumatic incidents in Iraq, which have left him wracked with guilt. He hopes to return home to Las Vegas to live with his abuela(grandmother), who raised him, until he can figure out what his options are.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. The conclusion, while perhaps stretching the boundaries of plausibility somewhat, is emotionally fulfilling.

McBride’s ability to fully inhabit each of these characters is an act of supreme authorial empathy. The four narrative voices are distinct, idiosyncratic and, most importantly, instantly credible. You will love some of these people and respect others, but you will care about all of them. They are as real as your friends and neighbors.

Another strength of We Are Called to Rise is the pacing. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace.

There is a paradoxical sense of foreboding and hope in these pages; one feels the plot strands coming together inexorably, but McBride’s tone and the reader’s inherent optimism combine to maintain a feeling of hopefulness. These characters have such big hearts and good intentions that one roots for them despite knowing that circumstances rarely turn out as one would like; life so often chews up and spits out people that it can seem as if that is its purpose. But when we doubt the presence of God or an overarching purpose, we can find it if we look for the people who are trying to help. Readers will find those helpers in We Are Called to Rise.

My only quibble with the book is the overuse of names in dialogue. People simply do not use each other’s names this often when they’re talking. It occasionally detracted from the otherwise believable and mostly natural-sounding dialogue.

McBride has used the setting of suburban Las Vegas effectively. A longtime resident, she shows us the real Las Vegas, where working people live, love, go to school, marry, and raise children. Its neighborhoods are both Middle America and sui generis.

“Most Las Vegas children don’t grow up quickly. They aren’t fast like their coastal counterparts. In Vegas, children pass through their novel environment unconsciously, lacing up their cleats or humming to the radio while a parent maneuvers through the traffic on the Strip; while bare-chested men thrust pornographic magazines at open car windows, while women wearing a few feathers leer seductively from billboards, while millions of neon bulbs flash “Loosest Slots in Town” and “Babes Galore.” And still the children don’t notice. They’ve been taught not to notice, and it’s only the transplanted ones – the children who arrive from Boston when they are nine – who think to tell their friends back home about the naked billboards, the “Live Nude” signs, the doggy-sex flyers.”

“The families just off the Strip – the ones occupying mile after mile of nearly identical stucco houses – live conservative lives at home. Dad might be a dealer, mixing with high rollers at Caesar’s five nights a week, Mom might be a waitress, wearing a butt-skimming skirt at forty-seven, but home is for another life….It can be cloying, it can be surprising, but after a while, it simply becomes the way it is. And the good in it, the old-fashioned neighborly niceness of it all, is one of the reasons people stay in Vegas, stay even if they can’t explain quite why, even if they tell their friends they hate it, that the place is a dump, that off the Strip there is nothing to do, even if they worry about schools and bemoan the lack of art and feel stranded in the stark vastness of the Mojave Desert.”

As a lifelong Californian with two family members who’ve lived in Las Vegas for 15-20 years, I can vouch for the fact that this is as accurate a description of the real place as you will ever read.

Roberta, who provides the closest thing to an objective viewpoint, describes how these children go off to war, having been raised in a city with a large military presence.

“In Las Vegas, armed forces recruiting centers dot the landscape like Starbucks shops, across from every high school, near every major intersection. Everyone knows someone in the military. Thousands of people live on the base at Nellis; many thousands owe their livelihoods to it. Schoolchildren thrill to the roar of Thunderbird air shows, commuters estimate their chances of making it to work on time when they see four jets return to base in formation each morning.

“We send our children off, knowing that they will grow up, thinking the military will give them security, hoping they won’t be hurt, praying they won’t die, believing that ours is a patriotic choice. And our children come back with that war deep within them: a war fought with powerful weapons and homemade ones, a war fought by trained fighters and twelve-year-old boys, a war fought to preserve democracy, to extract revenge, to safeguard oil, to establish dominance, to change the world, to keep the world exactly the same. Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, these children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

McBride can write up a storm and, like the gods of old, she can throw down one perfectly aimed lightning bolt after another. At one point, Nate attempts to describe to Avis what it was like serving in Iraq. His explanation is the most comprehensive fictional depiction I have yet encountered of what it is like to fight in that complicated conflict and how it feels to come home to a completely clueless civilian population with the war still going on in your head.

“You can’t imagine, Mom. What it was like there. What we had to do. I thought I would die every day. Every hour…. You’re afraid of the kids. You’re afraid of the old ladies. You’re scared as hell of any rock you can’t see around, any building with a hole up high, where a gun might come through. You’re looking for it all the time. You’re seeing it even when it isn’t there…. And then you get back. And you’re home…It’s like a dream. Only you’re still so damn jittery. And I’m still looking for that hole in the wall up high, and the rock, and the kid with the bomb. I’m looking for it all the time. I can’t stop. If I hadn’t been looking when I was there, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here, Mom.”

Ultimately, though, McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

“It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

We Are Called to Rise will carry you away for a few hours, break your heart, and then put it back together tentatively, the fragile pieces held together by hope and love and the little things that matter.

This review was originally posted on June 3, 2014 to coincide with the publication of the hardcover edition of We Are Called to Rise