Jessica Anya Blau: My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s

Jessica Anya Blau 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

When most people think of women of the 1950s they think of poodle skirts, ponytails, and mothers wearing aprons with their hair stiffly molded into the shape of fancy dinner rolls. When I think of women of the 1950s, I think of some of my favorite writers. Here’s a list of my top four. Feel free to tweet this list and add all the women you noticed I missed.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith. Otto Penzier said of Highsmith, “She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.” Everything I’ve read about her makes me believe that to be true. However, she wrote some damn fine books that have given me weeks of great pleasure. Most people are familiar with Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, from the Hitchcock movie. I, too, love the movie. But the book is just as fabulous.  Read it, and then read The Price of Salt, my next favorite Highsmith book. Once you’ve finished those, it’s time to get to the Ripley series, including the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Francoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan. A film was made about Sagan’s life (it’s French, and I love French films but haven’t seen it yet). Her life was certainly cinematic—she had two husbands, many lovers, and a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy Magazine editor Annick Geille. Oh, and there was also the gambling in Monaco, the coma after the car accident, and the drugs and alcohol.  Her first novel (written before the drugs and alcohol, when she was only 18), Bonjour Tristesse, is a lovely, fun, quick read that will make you wish you could run to the French Riviera, rent a house, and write a character as wonderfully spirited as Sagan’s Cécile.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of gambling in Monaco or just being downright mean, like the two writers above, Gwendolyn Brooks spent her life writing.  By age 16 she had published 75 poems.  (I, on the other hand, was wearing a black crochet bikini and making out with boys on the beach at 16, flighty fool that I was!) I love reading Brooks’ work, and I love reading it aloud. Brooks’ poems are so beautifully rhythmic, you can do hand claps or jump rope to them. Start with the collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls. I promise, you’ll be a Brooks devotee after a single stanza.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor. No list of great writers—male, female, of any decade—is complete without Flannery O’Connor. There are many great books about her, her life in rural Georgia, her love of peacocks and peahens, her Catholicism and her premature death. They’re all fascinating; go read them. But first, read anything and everything she’s written. Start with the short stories if you haven’t read them already. Begin with the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. These stories contain characters that will stick with you like your extended family—people you’ll know and think about for the rest of your life.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of three novels. The Wonder Bread Summer, her third novel, won various “beach read” contests from NPR, CNN and Oprah.com’s book club. Jessica is the author of the 2008 bestselling novel The Summer of the Naked Swim Parties, which was named a Top Summer Read by “The Today Show,” The New York Post, and New York Magazine. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars Masters program, Jessica has published more than two dozen short stories. Her second novel, Drinking Closer to Home, came out in 2011. Her honors include a “Family Matters,” Glimmer Train Finalist in 2008, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship in August of 2003, the Santa Barbara Independent Fiction Contest Winner in July 1998, and the Eclectica Featured Writer in August 1997. Jessica was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. She earned a BA in French from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.

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Untranslatable: Writing Fiction in the Garden of Uncertainty — Or: Being uncertain is a quality that writers cultivate

Laura Long.public.Maine  Out of Peel Tree 2

By Laura Long

The artist is at home in the wilderness of uncertainty; you might say we cultivate a garden there. “I dwell in uncertainty,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Flannery O’Connor said the only experience a fiction writer needs is a childhood, and I suspect the baffled elements of a childhood are particularly good seeds. For example, when I was small, I obsessively wondered who my parents were before I was born. They rarely spoke about the past. Adult reticence, in general, shocked me. How could a person drive across the country, or go to war and back, or have survived the Great Depression, and have almost nothing to say about it? Now I know adults were busy with all the things that fill adult brains, and I was on a different wavelength. I was in love with the magic carpet ride of fairy tales. I thought adults had taken journeys and refused to share their stories. I imagined they kept the stories inside, like secret books only they could open.

So when one of my parents happened to sing, I listened intently to detect evidence of their past lives, which I was sure was present in their minds like a palimpsest of old paint colors on a wall, almost visible beneath the thin veneer of the present day. My mother sang a love song, but it wasn’t for my dad–who was it for? My dad sang a song about fishing, “You get a line, I’ll get a pole, we’ll go fishing at the crawdad hole. . . ” but when had he ever gone fishing? Silly questions. After a while–by the time I was in fourth grade and rational–I knew these were “just songs.” But in a way they weren’t “just” songs, because they came from a sense of pleasure and ease  and desire that was specific to the singer. The grain of the singer’s voice seemed to hold a secret key to personality and history. Singing conveyed an unspoken essence, almost a personal perfume.

*

For me, writing fiction has remained akin to wondering about those songs, about how to tell stories that are somehow unspeakable. These days, we expect to find answers easily and clearly. Students need to know this? Test them. You don’t know? Google it. Who is that person? She’s on Facebook. It can be a defiant decision to let yourself have questions and experiences that make you feel lost, that make you aware of losing your bearings. You don’t know how to Tweet this wittily? You might be onto a story.

Writing fiction can feel like poring over words that aren’t translated into my usual English. In my visits to Scotland, where my sister lives, walking in the rain, and ducking in and out of it, is part of the texture of everyday life. Scots have many expressions for rain; “smirr” is a mist; “dreich” is a cold, miserable day when the rain is “coming down in stair rods”; to “skoosh” is to spurt, such as rain gurgling out of the downspout. These shift into metaphors: a misty “smirr” is a passing fancy; “dreich” describes a wretchedly boring person; “skoosh” is a spurt of anything, such as a spritz of perfume, or a squirt of lemon into a drink, which leads to “skoosh” as a Scottish word for lemonade. (“A glass of skoosh, please. I’ll sit outside, there’s just a wee smirr. Glad it isn’t dreich like yesterday.”)

Writing fiction entails trying to get the frame of mind of characters, the mesh of a person and the world they live in. A writer dreams into the texture of a character’s felt life, their consciousness. Suppose a character named Myra lived and died in Edinburgh; that’s the  basic plot–life happens. The writer wonders: what in Myra’s life is smirr, is dreich, is skoosh? That is, who drifts through in the smirr of Myra’s half-remembered dream; what dreich drags her down; and what skooshes, swooshes, and surprises Myra?

Writing fiction often feels like being being smack-dab in the middle of the mess of life. But somewhere in the mess is what matters. We read to see how a story gives shape to and makes sense of the mess. For example, how to describe a person realizing that he is not special, that any meanness the world dishes out might happen to him, indiscriminately? In War and Peace, young Nikolai Rostov is running away from a skirmish and realizes that a French soldier is about to kill him. “Me, whom everyone is so fond of?” he thinks, astonished. Death could happen to me?

To me, the best fiction describes the almost-indescribable. It asks questions more compellingly than it gives answers. In his timeless essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. . . what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”

*

My recent book Out of Peel Tree is a novel in stories, a delightfully flexible form. There’s an overall family saga, and most of the chapters can stand alone as stories. A few of the longer stories took years to write. The material would not take the shape of fiction easily, but these messy stories breathed down my neck (rather huffily and rudely sometimes), hummed in my ear, demanded completion. I often felt I was writing a fictional poem because I wanted to get to some essence of what words can’t say. I sought what poets may call the sublime, what transcends the ordinary, but my characters had to go through the muck of life to get there. They had to deal with each other, unlike the speakers in poems, who may address another but don’t really have to mess with them.

Here are some questions my characters asked: A child wonders, who was my mother when she was a teenager? A man on parole wonders, how can I stay close to my new lover, when I still feel the bars of the prison cell in my head? An old woman wonders, if I move to a new apartment, will the comforting ghost of my husband accompany  me? A woman wonders, now that my fiancé has cancer and I don’t want to marry him, how do I tell him? The stories don’t answer the questions so much as investigate the territory of the uncertainty.

I would like to write a book about creative writing just so I can have a chapter in the middle that consists of blank pages. The chapter title would be: This is where no one can tell  you what to do. There is no path through the snowy woods or the strange city. You figure out some big part of writing on your own–and keep doing so. I don’t know why certain characters with murky questions kept nagging me. But they did, so I tried to give shape to some passages in their lives, articulate a story implied by a haunting tune.

Laura Long’s first novel is Out of Peel Tree [my review], and her two poetry collections are The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems and Imagine a Door. She has published in many magazines, such as Southern Review, and been awarded Barthelme, Michener, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) Fellowships. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and teaches at Lynchburg College and in the low-residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan. She is working on her second novel.

Guest Blogger Jessica Anya Blau: My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s

2013-07-10-JessicaBlau Jessica Anya Blau

When most people think of women of the 1950s they think of poodle skirts, ponytails, and mothers wearing aprons with their hair stiffly molded into the shape of fancy dinner rolls. When I think of women of the 1950s, I think of some of my favorite writers. Here’s a list of my top four. Feel free to tweet this list and add all the women you noticed I missed.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith. Otto Penzier said of Highsmith, “She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person.” Everything I’ve read about her makes me believe that to be true. However, she wrote some damn fine books that have given me weeks of great pleasure. Most people are familiar with Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, from the Hitchcock movie. I, too, love the movie. But the book is just as fabulous.  Read it, and then read The Price of Salt, my next favorite Highsmith book. Once you’ve finished those, it’s time to get to the Ripley series, including the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Francoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan. A film was made about Sagan’s life (it’s French, and I love French films but haven’t seen it yet). Her life was certainly cinematic—she had two husbands, many lovers, and a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy Magazine editor Annick Geille. Oh, and there was also the gambling in Monaco, the coma after the car accident, and the drugs and alcohol.  Her first novel (written before the drugs and alcohol, when she was only 18), Bonjour Tristesse, is a lovely, fun, quick read that will make you wish you could run to the French Riviera, rent a house, and write a character as wonderfully spirited as Sagan’s Cécile.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of gambling in Monaco or just being downright mean, like the two writers above, Gwendolyn Brooks spent her life writing.  By age 16 she had published 75 poems.  (I, on the other hand, was wearing a black crochet bikini and making out with boys on the beach at 16, flighty fool that I was!) I love reading Brooks’ work, and I love reading it aloud. Brooks’ poems are so beautifully rhythmic, you can do hand claps or jump rope to them. Start with the collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls. I promise, you’ll be a Brooks devotee after a single stanza.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor. No list of great writers—male, female, of any decade—is complete without Flannery O’Connor. There are many great books about her, her life in rural Georgia, her love of peacocks and peahens, her Catholicism and her premature death. They’re all fascinating; go read them. But first, read anything and everything she’s written. Start with the short stories if you haven’t read them already. Begin with the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. These stories contain characters that will stick with you like your extended family—people you’ll know and think about for the rest of your life.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Anya Blau’s latest book, The Wonder Bread Summer

Here’s how:

(1) Leave a comment to this article.

(2) Tweet about this article, including this short link: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-ds. Be sure to include @Austraphile in your tweet so I can confirm it.

The winner will be randomly chosen this weekend. Jessica will send the book directly to the lucky winner!

Learn more about Jessica Anya Blau at www.jessicaanyablau.com

My interview with JAB from September 2013 is here

My review of JAB’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is here

Guest blogger Vanessa Blakeslee: The Ten Best Books on Writing

Vanessa Blakeslee  Train Shots


Top Ten Books on Writing

By Vanessa Blakeslee

With the launch of my debut story collection, Train Shots, this spring, I’ve been reflecting upon the many mentors, workshops, and exchanges that have shaped me into the writer I am today – which resources I find myself revisiting, and why. Without staring too long at my bookshelves, these are the texts on craft and the artist’s life by wise masters of both sexes that have made the greatest impression. I predict I’ll return to them for years to come.

They are, in no particular order:

Aristotle’s Poetics: The great thinker’s nuts-and-bolts breakdown of dramatic basics, comedy and tragedy, lays the foundation for the plethora of narrative forms that arise through the centuries – the novel, short story, screenplay, graphic novel, and more. I urge my students to seek him out, with the promise that he’s accessible and best of all, a quick read – my copy contains just under fifty pages.

Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell: A confirmation of the universality of the “hero’s journey” coupled with the revelatory evidence and analysis of why, make this a mind-blowing, unforgettable read. Campbell gathers stories from myths and religions the world over, splits them open and lays them bare, so that while you’re wading through you know that this is a book you’ll want to return to again for its liberating power and insight. Have patience with the many examples; Campbell’s study, albeit dense, makes its revelations all the more worthwhile.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde: Similar to Campbell’s book in its broad spectrum of cross-cultural study and dense analysis, The Gift should be required reading for all artists. Hyde illuminates how throughout human history, art has been part of the “gift economy” and spends time on a topic many lofty “writing life” books, as well as those narrowly-focused on craft, sorely neglect – just why it’s so difficult for artists to earn a living by making art. You’ll finish this book emboldened and reaffirmed, able to see your vocation and the challenges that come along with it much more clearly.

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood: With her trademark sharp humor and lively wit, Atwood raises salient, scary questions and tackles them unflinchingly. A fan of Hyde’s book, she refers to and expounds upon some of his points from behind a writerly lens; refreshingly, she also addresses the pragmatic economic realities the artist faces. “Negotiating with the Dead” refers to the writer’s journey into the subconscious as akin to the shaman’s trip into the Underworld – one has to spend time in the dark, because that’s where the story is, in order to bring wisdom to light for the rest of the “tribe.”  The title essay on the spiritual task writers undertake gives me shivers in my belly whenever I read it – a stark reminder that beyond talent and discipline lies the question of character—the writer’s—and if he or she has the courage to remain submerged for long stretches, in the dark, facing all of our demons.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner: A longtime teacher of writing, Gardner’s language may come across as dated but his principles, examples, and exercises hold up resoundingly. First introduced to this text as an undergrad, I don’t think I grasped the full concept of Gardner’s “fictional dream” until years later; in the last semester of my MFA program I went back to him, this time gleaning wisdom anew. Ever since, I’ve found myself combing through his extensive list of exercises in the back of the book, and something about his casual yet pointed tone makes me feel like I could take on any of them—especially those I’d never before considered.    

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke: For years I’d heard about this slender volume of letters, and picking it up, one is tempted to ask, what’s the big deal? In short, Rilke’s advice applies to any artist and his words are ones you’ll hunt down in the middle of the night, in despair over a career rejection or in doubt over a project in medias res. For a time Rilke served as secretary to the sculptor Rodin, and a keen reader can tell that these are spiritual insights gleaned from his observations of working with the great master.

Writing Alone and with Others by Pat Schneider: I was first introduced to this soulful and practical book at a training session for Amherst Artists and Writers, and have returned to it again and again. While the latter half of the book is geared to those who want to lead writing workshops, you won’t find better prompts anywhere else to jump start your own writing, or your students’ or peers’. Heartfelt and reminiscent of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Schneider wins out for her welcoming attitude and wisdom, clear how-to’s for teachers, and range of cross-genre exercises to suit any setting or mood.

Lectures on Literature by Vladmir Nabokov: Collected from his series of novel lectures given at Cornell, these close-studies are indispensable for understanding plot, sub-plotting, theme, and more via analysis of novels as diverse as Mansfield Park, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Swann’s Way. You can absorb his points without having read the novels themselves, although of course having familiarity with some if not all will greatly hammer home his illuminations. I’ll probably revisit this one before sitting down to write my next volume, and strongly urge you to do the same.

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor: These essays on regional writing, teaching literature, and the writer and religion compiled from O’Connor’s unpublished papers are oft-cited among literary writers, and with good reason. Like Atwood, O’Connor delivers her take with sharp humor and straight talk, and what she has to say will stick to your bones if not irk you at times. Yet I find myself driven back to this book, if only to hear O’Connor in her own voice as she boils down storytelling to the heart of the matter.

Rhythm in the Novel by E. K. Brown: This hard-to-find, out-of-print paperback ranks up there with Nabokov’s book if you can find it. Published in 1950, Brown’s essays shine a narrow beam on what sets the novel apart from other forms—its unique treatment of time (for a novel cannot be read in one sitting), how it must employ the unifying devices necessary to create resonance. He discusses how symbols arise and change as a novel progresses, the culmination of which is his essay on A Passage to India, which breaks down how all of these devices are at play in Forster’s masterpiece.

Attack of the Copula Spiders by Douglas Glover: I was fortunate to study one-on-one with Glover at Vermont College back in 2007, and he pointed me to several of the books on this list (Nabokov, Brown, plus a few others), for which I’m forever grateful. I know I wouldn’t have managed to draft my first novel successfully without their expertise on form and technique. Glover’s own essays on writing rate just as highly—namely “How to Write a Novel” and “How to Write a Short Story.” Lucky for you, these plus a handful of others are gathered in Attack of the Copula Spiders (if you’re wondering what’s that? even more reason to pick up the book). Glover’s dissections of literature are as practically illuminating as they are refreshingly—and often simply—brilliant. Other essays include “The Mind of Alice Munro” (yes, please) and “The Drama of Grammar.” Especially noteworthy is his mind-bending final essay titled “Don Quixote, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Meditations on the Ideology of Closure and the Comforting Lie.” Glover’s is the best “craft book” to come along in years—and, I’ve just realized, has managed to make itself #11 on this Top Ten List. A worthy bonus indeed.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, was released in March, 2014 by Burrow Press. Her writing has appeared in The Southern ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. For more information, visit www.vanessablakeslee.com or http://burrowpress.com/train-shots/.

A conversation with KIND OF KIN author Rilla Askew: Turning issues into great fiction

Rilla Askew  Kind of Kin  Kind of Kin paperback

I recently reviewed Oklahoma-based writer Rilla Askew’s powerful 2013 novel, Kind of Kin, on the publication of the paperback version (since the hardcover came out in Jan. 2013, before this blog existed).  http://wp.me/p3EtWm-80  I had the opportunity to speak with her several times recently and we finally managed to have a conversation “on the record” for Read Her Like an Open Book. She is so smart, so articulate, so passionate, and so down-to-earth that I both respect her immensely and like her a hell of a lot. She’s good people, the best that Oklahoma has to offer.

As you read her responses, you will see that she is a natural — and gifted — storyteller, an explainer par excellence. While this might be the longest interview I’ve posted, I think it reads the fastest because Rilla is a compelling writer and speaker. You just have to listen to her. If you haven’t read Kind of Kin, I encourage you to do so in the strongest possible terms. It is an important book that doesn’t fall prey to the polemical indulgences and heavy-handedness of most serious, contemporary issue-oriented novels. It is first and foremost a terrific story, well-told.

We discussed the influence of Oklahoma on her writing, the inspiration for Kind of Kin and the process of writing it, her reading life and the authors who have inspired and influenced her, and the growth of book clubs, author appearances, and social media and their impact on writers and publishing.

You were born and raised in Oklahoma and still live there. It seems to be in your heart and soul and thus in all your writing (as Mississippi was with Faulkner). What about your home state speaks to you and demands that you tells its stories?

In my heart and soul, yes. That’s a perfect way to put it. The pull of Oklahoma is so powerful to me—the harshness and beauty of the landscape; the fierce wind, sky, weather; its complex, violent, and paradoxical history; and the disparate cultures that have come together here all make for an inexhaustible source. Like Faulkner and his little postage stamp of native soil, I’ll never exhaust it. I moved to New York thirty years ago, and my husband and I still divide our time between Oklahoma and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, but Oklahoma is always “home” in the truest gut-level sense.

In particular it is Oklahoma’s race history that grips me. I see the state’s narrative as a microcosm of the larger American story, distilled, transmogrified into a more intense, compelling, and in some ways grotesque version of itself. From the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, when Native peoples were forced here from their homelands in the 1830s, to the dramatic Land Runs of the 1880s, to the great oil boom and Tulsa Race Riot of the early 1920s to the mass exodus of poor whites during the Great Depression, Oklahoma’s story, like America’s, has been one of migration, restlessness, land hunger, violence, decency, deception, faith. It’s also the story of the coming together of America’s three founding races, Black, White, and Indian, and the resulting clash and cohesion of that narrative underpins all my work.

What motivated you to take on the issue of illegal immigration in Kind of Kin? Were you writing out of anger, frustration, disappointment, or some other emotion(s)?

These same themes, Oklahoma as microcosm, have continued into the twenty-first century as the state’s Hispanic population grew. In 2007 the Oklahoma legislature passed what was then the harshest anti-illegal immigration law in the nation. (This was three years before Arizona passed their SB 1070 that received so much national attention.) I’d written Fire in Beulah about the Tulsa Race Riot, and I knew well that it was not just individual racism and prejudice that led to that horrific conflagration, when some 10,000 whites stormed into the Black section of Tulsa and burned it to the ground, killing an untold number of people, though the best guess is around 300. It was also legislation, laws passed by the state, that targeted a specific group—specifically the laws of racial segregation which were the very first laws passed by Oklahoma’s new legislature as soon as it became a state. The racial prejudice carried into Indian Territory by white southerners was encoded into law by Oklahoma lawmakers. And this new immigration law, HB 1804, was designed to target Hispanics, there’s really no other way to interpret it, and indeed there was a great exodus of Hispanics from the state soon after it went into effect because of the climate of fear the law produced.

Then too, I was raised strongly Southern Baptist in Oklahoma and know well how the dominant culture here considers itself Christian. This is especially true of many state lawmakers. Yet they had passed with large majorities in both houses this law that could and would target families and individuals. The law made it a felony to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants—essentially made it a felony to be our brother’s keeper, to be a good Samaritan, to do the things that Jesus taught. Irony is not even quite a sufficient word for that.

And finally, my niece was married to an undocumented Mexican man who got stopped by Tulsa police for a driving infraction, was held for immigration, and deported. I saw personally what happens to children when their daddy is there one day and vanished the next, what happens to spouses, to families.

So I had a sociopolitical worldview, a spiritual worldview, and a personal family experience, all of which forged my opinion of the law itself. I hadn’t thought I’d write a novel about it, though. I just thought somebody should. I kept saying to friends: you should write about this. Somebody should write about this.

Then one morning in February 2008 I woke up with Dustin’s voice in my head, quoting his Aunt Sweet, saying: “Your granddaddy is a felon. He’s a felon and a Christian. He’s a felon because he’s a Christian.”

And the work unfolded from there.

I was particularly impressed by the seamless way you wove a contentious social, political, and economic issue into a complex and compelling family drama. The story never turns into a polemic; the focus is always on the very human characters and their dilemmas. As a writer with a strong socio-political bent, how do you combine the two strands?

One of my favorite novels is Richard Wright’s Native Son. In the early part of the novel, where we stay with Bigger’s story, live his fear and rage, his powerlessness and violence, the myriad ways he is buffeted and stressed by America’s race history, I’m moved as a reader, and I understand on the powerful, experiential level that fiction affords much more than I can articulate, not only about Bigger himself , through Bigger, and it’s in this way, that, as Flannery O’Connor said, the best stories resist paraphrase.

But in the later chapters, when the novel becomes a mouthpiece for Wright’s political views, the fiction fails. As a reader, I lose interest. The human story is diminished, Wright’s ideas take precedence, and the book devolves into a polemic. This could be said of some of the other great writers of that era as well, and because I do hold strong political and peace-and-justice views, I’ve tried to watch out for that in my work.

I have heard from a very few readers—usually those with a more conservative worldview—that they do find Kind of Kin to be one-sided. One Goodreads reviewer said the Christians and immigrants are all good and the lawmakers and law enforcement are all bad. I had certainly hoped I was offering a bit more nuance than that, though I’ll confess it is true that I use the sheriff’s blustering for comic effect. (But then nothing Arvin Holloway does is as outrageous or harmful as a certain Arizona sheriff I could name.)

I wanted to speak to the fact that immigration is a deeply complicated issue, with no simple solution, but no doubt my personal feelings bleed through. Still, I tried not to make it a polemic, and the book certainly doesn’t purport to offer any answers. It simply says that human beings are affected, families are affected, little children are affected by laws that lawmakers make.

Can you describe your writing process, from the genesis of the book’s theme or concept through writing and revising? Who, if anyone, reads your earlier drafts? Do you belong to a writers’ group?

A novel for me always begins with the ‘thing’ I want to write about: Oklahoma’s immigration law in Kind of Kin, the Tulsa Race Riot in Fire in Beulah, the dispossessed and downtrodden during the Great Depression in Harpsong.  Usually the thing I want to write about also determines place and era. Next come the characters whose story I’m going to tell. Then I start researching and drafting the novel.

I go to the library in whatever place I’m writing about and look at microfilm files of newspapers and periodicals for the period. A lot of the details of everyday life in Harpsong came from my parents, who grew up during the 1930’s. I’ve been listening to their stories of the Depression all my life! I drive around the landscapes I’m writing about. I buy books and books and books related to the subject and time and place, and I immerse myself in all kinds of things—politics of the era, newspaper ads showing what they wore and how much they paid for bread or washing powder.  For Kind of Kin I spent a lot of time at the capitol in Oklahoma City learning how the Oklahoma legislature works. Sometimes the research itself leads me to story elements, and sometimes what I’m writing in the story tells me what I need to research and find out about.

It takes me a long time to draft a novel, and I do an incredible amount of revising as I go along. I wish I could write a looser first draft and then go back to revise the whole thing, but the fact is, if I’m not happy with the language on a sentence by sentence level, I can’t go forward. I just have to keep honing and shaping the language to make it right. Thus it takes me three to five years to write a novel.

I have four primary readers. My husband Paul Austin reads the work as I’m drafting it. Often I’ll show him pages or even paragraphs as they’re finished, and he gives me excellent feedback, especially in terms of dramaturgy and character motivation, because he’s an actor and director and all-around man of the theatre, so he knows well how conflict and rising action and climax and character intentions work.  My sister Ruth Brelsford reads passages in larger chunks, but still in early draft forms. She doesn’t give me feedback but serves as that reader out there waiting to hear the story, waiting to find out what happens next. She helps me keep the narrative moving.

When I have a completed or nearly completed draft I share it with my friends Constance Squires and Steve Garrison in Edmond, Oklahoma. They’re fiction writers, teachers of writing, and long, long time friends. They both have such deep knowledge of how fiction works and a keen sense of my work, my intentions, and they also know Oklahoma well and true.

The four of us exchange work on an ongoing basis, Connie and Steve and Paul and me. My husband is a writer, too—primarily of plays, poems, and essays. We work together as a foursome, sitting around the living room, three of us giving feedback to the fourth on a full draft of a novel or play or story. We’ve been doing this for over a decade. It’s the closest thing to a writing group I have.

What did you think when Odyssey Bookshop in Massachusetts selected Kind of Kin as its First Edition Club book for January 2013? (That is how I discovered the book immediately after its publication.) What was that experience like? How do you like author appearances and book signings generally?

Most novelists know about Odyssey’s First Edition Club, but I’d had a bit of firsthand knowledge of that wonderful independent bookstore, too, from when I taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2001. Although Amherst has some of the best bookstores around, I still drove over to South Hadley when I could just to enjoy the atmosphere at Odyssey and peruse the shelves. So it felt like a very special honor when I learned that Kin had been selected for the First Edition Book Club. It was a delight to travel there from Oklahoma and sign so many copies that I knew would go out in the world to unknown places (like Bakersfield!) and unknown readers (like Bill Wolfe!). It was also a pleasure to meet readers, listeners, who came out on a snowy frigid night in January to hear me read. At least one writer who came that night has become a Facebook friend, and we saw each other recently at the AWP conference in Seattle.

I always have a good time at author appearances and signings, whether the gathering is small or large. I enjoy reading for audiences because it satisfies the old actor in me, but above all, I like meeting with readers. You know we work in such solitude, and we send the story out there without knowing how it’s received, a message in a bottle. Yes, we do get to know what some readers think through Amazon or Goodreads reviews, but many readers do what I do with a book—simply read and savor and experience and never contact the author to say, “This meant something to me.” So I’m especially grateful for readers like you who not only read and savor but write about and share.

I really love the opportunities I’ve had to talk with readers—whether at signing events or meeting with book groups. It’s a delight to me to engage with that third party in the magic of fiction, to talk with the great imaginer, our partner in this endeavor: the reader. There’s first the author and second the characters, and third and most-important, the reader, without whom the writer and characters are nothing.

I’m very aware that the full life of the work happens precisely one reader at a time. If I’m doing my job right, the reader feels engaged not with me but with the characters, that lived life of the mind, the imagination. When I get to meet someone who says, “This story meant something to me, these characters engaged me,” I’m moved and happy.

Are there any plans to turn Kind of Kin into a movie? It seems very cinematic to me. And there are certainly a lot of great roles in it that would be perfect for a strong ensemble cast. I could see Alexander Payne doing a nice, understated job bringing it to the big screen (rather than having someone with more commercial sensibilities turn it into a melodrama).

Ah, I wish, I wish. More than one reader has commented on the cinematic nature of both Kind of Kin and Fire in Beulah, but I’ve not had any filmmakers approach me yet.  Your idea about Alexander Payne is a terrific one. I’d love to see what he would do with Kind of Kin.

What is your take on the recent gender equity issues in publishing and media coverage of literature? How can we get more men to read fiction by women?

These are good questions, and I’d like to have some helpful thoughts to offer, but alas, I don’t. I recognize that there is gender bias, and I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of it from time to time (there are some reviewers, in particular, I could name), but it’s not something I spend a lot of energy on—largely, I think, because I hardly have enough time and energy to get my own work done.

This is one reason I’m so grateful to people like you who do pay attention, and who declare, as you do with your blog and other articles, that women writers are worthy to be read! The fact is, I think one of the best ways to get men to read more fiction by women is exactly what you do on a daily basis, which is read and review it, and also to point out how much they don’t.

Has the tremendous growth of book groups and book blogs had an impact on your book sales or your experience as an author who is “out of the spotlight” in Oklahoma?

I’ve had delightful experiences with book groups. I visit them every chance I get, whether in person or by Skype or by answering their questions via email. Whether the growth of book groups and book blogs has had an impact on sales for me, though, I really don’t know. This is another one of those areas I probably should pay more attention to but don’t. All I know is that I enjoy book clubs tremendously when I get the chance to join them, and that your blog, in particular, has been a great boon to my spirits. I guess sales results remain to be seen.

What authors have had the greatest impact on you as a reader and/or writer? Why? What classic or favorite novel would you like to put in every reader’s hands?

In the beginning it was the great Southern white writers who most influenced me—Faulkner, as you may have surmised, and Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. The next wave of influence was the powerful mid-century African-American writers whose work changed America itself, American letters, and, once I began to read them, my entire understanding of the world: Richard Wright, yes, and that great Oklahoma-bred author Ralph Ellison, and most significant for me, James Baldwin. A number of American Indian writers have also had a profound influence on me, especially Joy Harjo, Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya, and Sherman Alexie.

Classic works that I would put in every reader’s hands would be Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, James Baldwin’s two collections of essays Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, and his remarkable, utterly moving story “Sonny’s Blues.”  

What have you read in the last year or so that really made an impression on you? Who deserves more attention? Are there any “young” writers you’re especially impressed by?

Ben Fountain’s fabulous collection of short fiction Close Encounters With Che Guevara stunned me with its force, its fierce intelligence, its powerful reminder that the U.S. is not the center of the world. I was captivated by Louise Erdrich’s The Round House—for me, it was the kind of reading experience where the characters stay resonating with me all day as I go about my ordinary life, and I can’t wait to get back to them when it’s time to go to bed and read at night.

Two books that came out in 2013 that I completely loved, that are written by friends of mine, and that, though they have received good attention, deserve even more of the world’s notice are Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff and The Virgins by Pamela Erens. Though they are very different novels (the former being about a child psychiatrist being struck by lightning and the latter a novel about a transgressive love affair in an elite boarding school), they share a wicked, knowing, language-drenched intelligence that makes me savor every sentence even as I’m carried along with these complex characters in a story that keeps me wanting to know what happens next. I encourage your readers to check these writers out!

I would also encourage readers to check out the writer Constance Squires. Her first novel Along the Watchtower came out in 2011, a wonderful coming of age story about an ‘army brat’ growing up in Germany and Oklahoma, and her short fiction appears regularly in a variety of journals. She’s a friend of mine, yes, but she’s also a writer to watch!

What are you working on now? Do you write short stories or essays while you’re working on a novel? What do you like about both the long and short forms? Will you try the YA market like so many other authors have in recent years?

I have two novels brewing, but just now they are both on a back burner, and they’re both so nascent that I’m hesitant to talk much about them, except to say that one is set in the Cherokee Nation around Tahlequah, Oklahoma, during the 1970’s, and the other is set in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII—a bit of range there. I don’t in fact know if either of them will turn out to be the next novel, in terms of what comes out next. Some other story may nudge its way to the fore, as Kind of Kin did.

I can’t work on other things while I’m at work on a novel. I’m a slow writer and I need full immersion in the era and characters and material of the longer works, so I just have to stay with it. But because I’m teaching just now and doing lots of travel, I’m not ready to go into the deep immersion a novel requires, so I’ve been working on shorter pieces—primarily nonfiction. I’ve had a couple of essays appear in recent months, one  about rattlesnakes in Tin House and one about tornadoes in TriQuarterly. Good ol’ Oklahoma subjects. I’ve just finished a piece on racial profiling, ways I’ve seen that phenomenon play out in my godson’s family, which I hope will appear somewhere before long.

By instinct and habit and reading passions, I’m most essentially a novelist, but I do like writing essays. I haven’t tried my hand at stories much in recent years, although that’s where I began as a writer, and my first book, Strange Business, was a collection of short stories. I have trouble narrowing my focus to the sharp focus short fiction requires, have difficulty making it about this moment in a character’s life, this distilled essence. I always want to make it about too many things. I admire the masters of short fiction and love to read them, but it’s not a natural fit for me. My latest story, “Ritual,” published in a recent issue of St. Katherine’s Review, came in at 10,000 words—that’s pretty long for a short story.

I doubt I’ll try the Young Adult market, though I’d never say never about anything having to do with writing. But I seldom read YA books, don’t think I have a natural feel for it—though the YA lovers in my life, my goddaughters and nieces and nephews, keep me apprised of what’s happening. You never know.

What is your daily routine, both in terms of writing and your “regular” life? In other words, what’s a day in the life of Rilla Askew like? What are your non-writing interests and activities?

Just now I’m teaching at the University of Arkansas and am traveling a lot between Fayetteville and southeastern Oklahoma, where Paul and I have a home and my parents live. With so much driving and teaching, that’s about all I’m doing just now. But the semester will be finished in May and we’ll return to the Catskills, where Paul operates the Liberty Free Theatre. I’ll get back in the writing groove, and frankly, when I’m working on a book, that’s about all I do. As someone (Jane Austen? Virginia Woolf?) once said: “A writer wants an uneventful life.” Has to be so, at least for me, otherwise I have no space in my head for the work. So the simplest answer to ‘What’s a day in the life like?’ is this: not much.

I try to get up very early to write, and I stay with it as long as I can (I’ll have to give myself a self-imposed timeout from Facebook come May!), and when the day’s work is finished, I walk two miles on our country road. If Paul has a play running, I’ll go see that in the evening, or visit with friends, or read. When I’m doing research for a novel, much of my reading is not for pleasure but really directed toward the work. We don’t have regular television but do have Netflix via the internet so sometimes I’ll watch shows in the evening, but I know I do better to read.

That’s it, that’s the rhythm: rise early, write, walk, read. Oh, and eat, of course, and do laundry, and all the ordinary things, but it probably looks pretty boring from the outside. The routine is interspersed with trips to Brooklyn to see my godchildren or into Manhattan to see plays or go to readings or trips to Oklahoma to see family and friends. A good life, if unglamorous—or anyhow, it suits me.