Author Michelle Brafman on “literary mamas,” writing mentors at the right time and place

Michelle Brafman   washing-the-dead

When my daughter was six years old, she desperately wanted to jump off the diving board at our community pool. All summer, she eyed her friends climbing up the ladder, walking the plank of the board, and flying into the water with glee. I tried everything to help her muster up the courage to take that leap. On one of the last days of the summer, my husband took her to the pool without me. I’d been staying home with the kids full time and had treated myself to a few hours alone in a dark movie theater. When I walked into the house and found a huge smile on my daughter’s face, I knew. “How did it happen?” I asked her. “Mrs. M.,” she said.

I was feeling pretty zen after indulging in a matinee, a bucket of popcorn, and a Diet Coke, but I still I felt a twinge. The big-hearted Mrs. M., now my friend Amy, simply walked next to my girl, held her hand, and offered the right words of encouragement before they jumped into the pool together. Boom. My daughter went off the board again and again. And I wasn’t there.

Sometimes we must rely on other people to mother us. And this is a very good thing.

My novel Washing the Dead is about a woman whose mother has an affair, causes the family to be exiled from their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, and then takes off. Half the book tells the story of Barbara Pupnick’s spiral into a dark place, and the other half recounts her journey back to the emotional and spiritual home her mother had burned down. But this is not the story I’m telling today.

Barbara survives her mother’s abandonment, largely because her former preschool teacher steps in to mother her. During her final year of high school, Barbara volunteers in her teacher’s classroom, babysits her son, and on the nights her mother sneaks out with her lover, accepts a warm meal and help with her calculus. Barbara’s mentor even takes her shopping for underwear.

This case of substitute mothering is extreme, but as my daughter’s diving board experience taught me, we find mother figures when and where we need them. My mother is a terrific reader and has dried my tears after some of my toughest rejections, but I find my most productive literary nurturing elsewhere. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all mother. What a relief for all of us!

My literary mamas are writing instructors, savvy readers, and/or writer-friends (actually male and female) who can read me and for me without any skin in the game. They might wonder while critiquing my fiction if in real life I’ve stolen a family heirloom from a dead aunt or lied to my husband, but they won’t assume it’s because I wasn’t raised well, and they won’t ask. They’ll simply probe, sometimes gently and other times firmly. They’ll hold my hand while I venture into what my friend Dylan Landis calls “the basement,” the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

And when my literary mamas read my memoir pieces, they’ll shine a light on my blind spots and take a tuning fork to the notes I’m not hitting, and I’ll thank them. We won’t do that messy dance we do with our mothers, where we ask them if they like our new haircut and they tell us, verbally or not, and then we get offended. My tone deafness won’t embarrass or anger them, and they won’t hedge about my bangs.

My literary mamas will listen to my publication woes, but they won’t take my rejection personally and rip apart the character of an agent or an editor they’ve never met. I’ll move on more quickly that way. They’ll wait for me to vent, and then they’ll brainstorm and sometimes make introductions. I’ll seek their guidance in writing query letters or blurb requests (with one literary mama I take straight dictation). They’ll throw gorgeous book parties after readings where they’ve beamed with perhaps not the pride of a real mama, but a joy devoid of the worry that I’ve written about them or that I will somehow humiliate myself.

I learn from my literary mamas, writers whose stories have taught me alternative ways to think about love, grief, redemption, and motherhood: Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Faye Moskowitz, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Brown, Lidia Yuknavitch.

The common denominator for all literary mamas on and off the page is that in their own way they inspire me to serve in this capacity for someone else, be it a student or a friend. The cycle continues, making me a proud literary grandmama.

Over the years, I’ve periodically thanked my friend Amy for teaching my daughter to jump off that diving board, and she’s looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering why I’ve held on to this anecdote for so long. My daughter has since found other secondary mamas — teachers, coaches, summer camp counselors, and random adults — who believe in her, who will coax her into taking various leaps. And I will continue to be grateful to them for doing for her what I can’t in that moment, even as a small part of me will be wishing that I could.

Michelle Brafman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at JHU’s MA in Writing Program, George Washington University, the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis’ New Directions Program, and workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. She is the founder of Yeah Write, a writing coaching business. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.

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24 Authors’ Favorite Books of 2014 (updated 1/4/15)

To wrap up 2014 in a suitable fashion, I asked several writers to share their favorite book of 2014 written by a woman. You’ll want to have your To Be Read list handy so you can jot some additional titles down. Although this completely random selection of writers did not generate a consensus choice, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Robin Black’s Life Drawing, and Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal came up a few times. Active links will take you to my reviews or the author’s guest essays written for Read Her Like an Open Book (RHLAOB). The contributors and I would love to hear your thoughts on their choices — as well as your personal favorites — so we encourage you to leave a comment below. And may 2015 be your best year of reading yet!

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

Three books by women come to mind as great favorites of the year: All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, about a young Vietnamese boy, his pet bear and his little sister, severely deformed  by Agent Orange. Moving and funny and surprising all the way through. Also, Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, a tense and honest book about a woman soldier newly home from war. And a book of short stories about the Philippines in World War Two called The Caprices by Sabina Murray.

Helen Benedict is a novelist and journalist, best known for her writing on injustice and the Iraq War. She is the author of six novels, including Sand Queen (Soho Press, 2011) and The Edge of Eden (Soho Press, 2009). The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2010) and Benedict’s other writings on women at war inspired the award-winning 2012 documentary, The Invisible War. Benedict has been a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism since 1986.  She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Ragdale Foundation, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy, and the Freedom Forum.

 

Robin Black by Deborah BoardmanPhoto by Deborah Boardman

Robin Black

I have had an incredible reading year. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and the Old Filth trilogy by Jane Gardam were both new to me and both – in very different ways – gave me a three book immersion that will stay with me always. But my “you should read this and may not have heard of it yet” choice is An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore, the story of an Amish woman who is taken on a perilous journey from Lancaster County heading to a perhaps illusory Idaho composed of dreams of expansion and seclusion, both. The story is based on Moore’s family history and it’s a powerful, intimate look at a culture into which “foreigners” can rarely glimpse. And for nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim, takes us into an elite “university” in North Korea – speaking of cultures many of us can’t glimpse. It’s informative for sure, and also heartbreaking.

Robin Black is the author of the acclaimed short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) and the novel Life Drawing (2014), which was chosen as the favorite book of 2014 by Beth Kephart and Dylan Landis (see below). Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “On Learning to Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book for Their Wives,” was the second-most read post in 2014. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives outside Philadelphia.

 

 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

Jessica Anya Blau

I was thrilled when I discovered that Dylan Landis’s new book, Rainey Royal, was all about my favorite Landis character, Rainey, a girl who makes some unforgettable cameo appearances in Landis’s first book, the collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This.  In Rainey Royal we follow the title character from age 14 to 26—the years when she is navigating a profoundly messed-up adolescence while experimenting with her tremendous powers of beauty, talent and youth. Rainey is infinitely alluring and sometimes startlingly dreadful. She’s a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew intimately.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of the bestselling novels The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). In May 2014, she was one of the first authors to contribute an essay to RHLAOB, “My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s.”  She grew up in Santa Barbara, California but lives in Baltimore and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.

 

Kim Church

Kim Church

2014 has been an amazing year for books. I can’t single out a favorite, but I’d like to mention a couple that surprised and delighted me:

The Game We Play, a debut story collection by Susan Hope Lanier (Curbside Splendor). Lanier, a photographer, writes with an eye for close-up, using the smallest objects to talismanic effect. These are growing-up stories about characters trying to form themselves when everything around them is deformed. The game conceit that unifies the collection (most obvious in the final story, “At Bat”) is a nod to Lanier’s love of baseball, which she calls “the perfect game because it is complex in its simplicity. There is drama in every pitch if you watch closely enough.” The same could be said of these stories—minutely observed, deceptively simple, emotionally complex.

Are we allowed to mention books by men? If so, I recommend All I Have in This World by Michael Parker (Algonquin), about a couple of down-on-their-luck strangers who go in together on a used Buick Electra. I love the mesmerizing rhythm of Parker’s sentences. And I’m a sucker for stories about unlikely friendships.

Kim Church is the author of Byrd, which was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books and long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Kim earned her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her J.D. degree from UNC School of Law. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in ShenandoahMississippi ReviewPainted Bride Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere.

 

 pamela erens by miriam berkleyPhoto by Miriam Berkley

Pamela Erens

I was taken with so many books published this past year. In fiction, these included An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Life Drawing by Robin Black, The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, Orion’s Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Danceland by Jennifer Pieroni, Life In, Life Out by Avital Gad-Cykman, and Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. In nonfiction: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, The Other Side by Lacey M. Johnson, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, On Immunity by Eula Biss, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.

But if I had to pick the one 2014 book that I have been returning to the most in my thoughts and in conversation, it would be The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The final long essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” knocked me out. It’s an exploration of representations of and beliefs about and the experience of female suffering, and the bottom line is that Jamison made me see her subject anew. She advanced the conversation, so to speak, and it seems to me that books yet to be written are going to be shaped by hers. I want to add that I think that something of the same is true for Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

In 2015, I plan to get to at least two 2014 works in my to-read pile that I know will engage me: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, a follow-up to her powerful 2011 collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan trilogy.

Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was published by Tin House Books in August 2013. It was a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune
Editors’ Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. In April 2014, Tin House Books reissued Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times,Vogue, Elle, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and The Millions. For many years Pamela was an editor at Glamour magazine.

 

 lisa_gornick

Lisa Gornick

My shout out goes to an elegant piece of long-form journalism and literary criticism by Kathryn Schulz, “The Story That Tore Through the Trees,” published in the September 9th issue of New York Magazine.

Schulz masterfully weaves together an account of how Norman Maclean, a retired University of Chicago literature professor, began at 73 what would become his posthumously published and wildly influential Young Men and Fire about the tragic Mann Gulch conflagration; the stories of the thirteen smokejumpers who died in the fire and the three who survived; an examination of the split-second decision of the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge, to light a match and fight the looming flames by encircling himself with those of his own making; and her analysis of how Maclean mythologized the events of that day in a way that  spoke to American themes of conquest and purification, but evaded the fundamental ecology of fire.

“To love a book,” Schulz writes, “is to acknowledge the power of stories to move us; but we should also acknowledge that not every story moves us in the right direction.” Schulz’s story, though, does move us in the right direction. Both an intellectually muscular piece of writing, encompassing science and cultural history, and a classic story of men in battle — the kind of writing usually associated with male writers like John McPhee — her essay lays bare the impact of romanticized notions of masculinity on our views of nature and on policy making. I was inspired that it was written by a woman.

http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/mann-gulch-norman-maclean-2014-9/index5.html

Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador), a novel which touches on the history of the early smokejumpers. Her collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, will be published in June, also with Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Gornick wrote a fascinating essay for RHLAOB about the sources of inspiration behind Tinderbox

 

Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington

My favorite book of the year is Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading – carefully, deliberately and slowly. How does she make this a wonderful read? A master herself, Prose breaks down the process into words, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, character, dialogue, gesture, with brilliant examples culled from hundreds of books. Unlike James Woods’ How Fiction Works, which cites 81 books, only 8 by  women, Prose is much more democratic. Her final chapter, “Reading for Courage,” is worth the price of the book alone.

Laura Harrington spent 25 years writing for the theatre, and in 2008 she received The Kleban Award, given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” She took time off to write her first novel, Alice Bliss, which explores the impact of the Iraq War on the home front through the eyes of a young girl whose father is halfway around the world. Harrington contributed a powerful essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War,” to Read Her Like an Open Book in March 2014. 

 

 Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart

This is an impossible task. I thought 2014 was an exquisite year of work by writers taking broad and beautiful risks.

For compression and the elegance of the time it portrays, Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/12/dear-thiefsamantha-harvey-reflections.html

For a fascinating perspective on a desperately unwinding woman, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/08/nobody-is-ever-missingcatherine-lacey.html

For a book richly steeped in the twin geographies of movable time and malleable possibility, Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/02/wonderlandstacey-derasmo-reflections.html

For a beautifully paced story about the private wants that are rarely spoken, Robin Black’s Life Drawing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/life-drawingrobin-black-reflections.html

For a harrowing and brave and deliciously odd story of a woman who is trying to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/dept-of-speculation-jenny.html

And for a timeless, genre-less autobiography in poetic prose, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

Beth Kephart is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham/Penguin, 2013), Small Damages (Philomel Books, 2012), and Going Over (Chronicle Books, 2014), a YA novel set in Berlin during 1983. Chronicle will publish One Thing Stolen, set in Florence in April 2015. Kephart maintains a blog, Beth Kephart Books, and reviews books for the Chicago Tribune. Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “Urgency. Please.” last August was one of the most-read posts of the year. 

 

 Dylan-Landis

Dylan Landis

Life Drawing, by Robin Black, contains one of the keenest, most distilled passages about marriage I’ve read: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” All of Life Drawing is penetrating, disturbing and, at a couple of points, shocking. It’s the story of friendship and betrayal, told from the point of view of an artist, Gus, whose marriage to a struggling writer, Owen, is shadowed by her past affair. The writing is beautiful, the plot is taut, and the voice is both intimate and wise.

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the linked story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a Newsday Ten Best book.

 

 caroline leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. It’s a raw, gutsy portrait of a dangerous upbringing and of a young woman finding her place in the world. It’s also unlike anything I’ve read before.  Plus, the language is gorgeous.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and seven other novels. Her many essays, stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. Her next novel, Cruel Beautiful World, will be published by Algonquin in 2015. Her guest essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “My Life in Lawsuits,” was one of the top 5 posts in 2014. 

 

 Lisa Lenzo

Lisa Lenzo

From the minute I began reading Making Callaloo in Detroit, I felt as if Lolita Hernandez had taken me by the hand and the rich cadences of her Caribbean characters were leading me with their voices. After I finished the second story, I thought I knew what the next stories would be all about, and I was perfectly pleased to follow Hernandez further, down similar roads. But then the third story took me into a wholly different zone—an auto factory in Detroit– and I realized that Lolita Hernandez has more than one type of story to tell me. So if you want to smile as well as be surprised, pick up Making Callaloo in Detroit, open to its first page, and let this wonderfully talented writer lead you into her spicily seasoned, often sensual, sometimes gritty, and always rewarding realms.

Lisa Lenzo is the author of Strange Love (2014), a novel-in-stories published by Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. Lenzo’s first collection of stories, Within the Lighted City (1997), was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press.”Strays,” from Strange Love, won the 2013 short story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review. Lenzo contributed an essay for RHLAOB on turning real life into fiction. 

 

Paulette Livers

Paulette Livers

First impulse answer: Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s follow-up to Gilead and Home. I stopped and made myself scour through all the other wonderful books I read this year to be sure I wasn’t reflexively going to an author I adore. But Lila gave me everything I want. Compelling voice, deep interiority that manages to remain mysterious—sometimes even to the narrator herself, which is the best kind of mystery. Robinson’s mastery of the craft never falters, something the reader only discerns when she is forced to leave the vivid and continuous dream that is first-rate fiction, and attend to life around her.

Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize 2014 and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and Chicago Writers Association’s Fiction Book of the Year. Her work appears in Southwest Review, The Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, and elsewhere, and can be heard at the audio-journal Bound Off. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Livers lives in Chicago. Livers contributed a powerful piece to RHLAOB, “How NOT to Write a Political Novel,” earlier this year. 

 

 Laura Long

Laura Long

I was enchanted by the boldness and precision of The Drum Tower, a novel by Farnoosh Moshiri about a family in Iran at the cusp of the 1979 revolution. At the center of this lyrical, psychologically astute novel are Talkhoon, a young woman confined to the Drum Tower basement, and her violent uncle, Assad. Moshiri reveals the madness of a revolution and of individuals, and a search for knowledge that includes the mythic bird Simorgh. This is the fourth novel by Moshiri, who fled Iran and lived in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India before relocating to the U.S.

Laura Long is the author of the novel-in-stories, Out of Peel Tree (West Virginia University Press/Vandalia, 2014) and two collections of poetry. She is the Geraldine Lyon Owen Professor of English at Lynchburg College in Virginia. She earned her BA in English/Creative Writing from Oberlin College, MAs in Anthropology/Folklore and English/Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.

 

Rebecca Makkai 2013

Rebecca Makkai
While I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about my favorite novels of the year, I haven’t had much chance to gush about two strange and miraculous debut story collections: The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, by Heather A. Slomski, and A Different Bed Every Time, by Jac Jemc. Slomski’s work reminds me of Etgar Keret — surreal and even fablelike — until it doesn’t. Her final story, “Before the Story Ends,” while slightly experimental in point of view, is realist and devastating, a counterbalance to everything earlier. Jemc’s experimentalism is often more verbal; I sometimes feel like she’s getting fresh with the English language in the backseat of a car. And her characters are hungry, desperate, illogical people. But this works, and the stories work. I kind of want to set these two collections up on a date. They’d have gloriously weird children.
Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House (Viking/Penguin, July 2014), is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Makkai’s short fiction was selected for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House (her story “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” is featured in the Winter 2014-15 issue), Ploughshares, and New England Review. Her first story collection, Music for Wartime, will appear in July 2015. She teaches at Lake Forest College and in Sierra Nevada College‘s MFA program, and runs StoryStudio Chicago‘s Novel-in-a-Year workshop.

 

lydia netzer

Lydia Netzer

My favorite book written by a woman and published in 2014 was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott. She writes so brilliantly about female spies in the Civil War, from the battlefield to the bedroom, I was completely caught up in the story of these four women. Learned a lot, laughed, gasped — this book was captivating.

Lydia Netzer is the author of two novels that are almost as smart, quick-witted, and quirky as she is. Shine Shine Shine, about astronauts, autism, marriage, and the struggle to be normal, was named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2012. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (2014) is about two close friends who decided to raise their son and daughter together and then separate them with the intention of having them fall in love and marry as adults. 

 

Ann_Packer_2008

Ann Packer

Angela Pneuman’s gorgeous coming-of-age novel Lay It On My Heart knocked me sideways.  Charmaine Peake is the 13-year-old daughter of a self-proclaimed prophet in a small Kentucky town. When her father suffers a breakdown, Charmaine and her mother, the hilariously and yet compassionately drawn Phoebe, have to take up residence in a trailer and navigate the intimacy forced on them by their new circumstances. (And you thought your mother had poor boundaries.) At the same time, Charmaine starts junior high, one of a handful of church kids in a large secular community. One of my favorite scenes occurs toward the end of the book, when Charmaine has an encounter with an older teenage boy who has been tormenting her on the school bus. It’s an unforgettable interlude: dirty, funny, and excruciating in the best way. By turns darkly comical and deeply moving, this intense and beautiful novel is cause for celebration and also no surprise to readers familiar with Pneuman’s stellar first book, the short story collection Home Remedies. Angela Pneuman is one of our best.

Ann Packer attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two national bestsellers, the novels Songs Without Words (2007) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002), which won a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Swim Back to Me (2011), a novella and five short stories. Her next novel, The Children’s Crusade, will be published by Scribner on April 7.

 

 steph-post

Steph Post

My favorite book written by a woman in 2014 is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Munaweera has been compared to Michael Ondaatje, but her work–lyrical, fearless and unrelenting–has set Munaweera onto a pedestal of her own. Her unflinching tale of women warriors, survivors, and refugees of the Sri Lankan civil war is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. Quite simply, Island of a Thousand Mirrors took my breath away.

Steph Post is a novelist (A Tree Born Crooked, Sept. 2014), short story writer, editor, reader, teacher and dog lover. Her essay for RHLAOB, “Writing Under Fire,” was published in November. She lives in Florida. 

 

 Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye

Euphoria, by Lily King, is a cleverly constructed novel about a love triangle between three brilliant characters, each an anthropologist in New Guinea, competing in intellectual prowess and love. The woman scientist in the mix is based on extensive research about the great Margaret Mead, who readers may recall from old textbooks. But nothing about Nell is musty or dull—in my opinion, she’s more vibrant and distinct in mind and body than any female character in recent fiction. [King’s essay for RHLAOB about her creative process, “Pencil and Paper,” was her first-ever contribution to a blog and one of the highlights of the year.]

Virginia Pye’s second novel will be published by Unbridled Books in Fall 2015. It is set in North China in 1937, twenty-five years after her first novel, River of Dust, took place there, and tells the story of an American missionary widow and her teenage son as they try to escape the escalating war with Japan and the dramatic rise of Communism. She wrote for RHLAOB about the writer’s ever-expanding skill set in “Hawking My Wares.” 

 

 robinson_roxana with book cover

Roxana Robinson

My nomination is Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her Naples trilogy. The novels begin in impoverished post-war Naples, in a community infested by the Camorra. The author calls herself Elena Ferrante, but doesn’t make public appearances, and so has created a mystery around herself. But whoever she  is, this writer is brilliant, savage and relentless. In her trilogy starting in Naples in the  1950s, she traces the deep lines of connection between crime and family, violence and children, deception and women, and shows the devastating consequences of corruption. Interestingly, because of this writer’s refusal to appear in public, rumors have sprung up about her real identity. The claim is made that she’s a man. Really? Why would you say that? Because she’s so good? Because it’s impossible to imagine a woman writing so well and so candidly about something so savage? Honestly, I can’t see any reason for these rumors except misogyny.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta (2013), Cost (2008), and Sweetwater (2003); three collections of short stories, including A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2007); and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1987). Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s Magazine, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, BookForumBest American Short StoriesTin House, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and is the current president of the Authors Guild.

 

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Leora Skolkin-Smith

My favorite book this year was Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day. Profound in both form and content, this overlooked novel deserves center stage.

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the novels Hystera (2011) and Edges (2005), which was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Paley’s own imprint at Glad Day books. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Hemingway Award by Paley. Skolkin-Smith was raised in New York and Israel and earned her BA and MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.

 

lee-upton-april-2010-closeup

Lee Upton

One of my favorite books released in 2014 is The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (NYRB Classic) by the Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001), best known as the author and illustrator of children’s books featuring charmingly blob-like creatures called Moomins.  The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first full-scale English translation of Jansson’s stories for adults, bringing together work written over the course of twenty-five years.  Often these fully original, beautiful stories are about the small changes that transform a life from the inside, changes that may be imperceptible to others and baffling to the person experiencing those changes.  Jansson tends to write about artists—sculptors, cartoonists, illustrators—who reveal an obsessive dedication to precision, a dedication much like, apparently, the author’s own.  Many of her characters love silence and solitude.  Sometimes they encounter animals, and those encounters, closely observed without sentimentality, elicit admiration for the animals’ feral qualities. (Her animals tend to bite.)  In “The Monkey,” a pet monkey acts out a sculptor’s own urges.  When the monkey, off her leash, scales a tree in winter, the sculptor’s observations make for a keen portrait of artistic ambition:  “You poor little bastard.  You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Jansson frequently asks questions.  Here’s a sampling, plucked from the slowly whirling weather systems of several stories:  “What is it that’s happened to me?” “What shall we drink to?”  “What are you angry about?”  “What is it that’s wrong?” “What do you want?” “What’s life about?”  The funny thing about these limpid, bracing, fierce, and yet welcoming stories: they create the sensation of our being enclosed and alone in a quiet place. Distractions melt away and we may begin, like Jansson, to think about fundamental things.

Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. Her sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottlesrecipient of the Open Book Award, is forthcoming this year from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  A professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College, she is the author of thirteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island, and a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy.  Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.

 

Laura-van-den-Berg

Laura van den Berg

[If I had to pick] a favorite, I’d say All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a brilliant examination of death and sisterhood and survival.

Laura van den Berg 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 Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG in February 2015. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 

 

 

Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White

My favorite 2014 book by a woman was Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Because her previous novels, Gilead and Home, both claim a spot on my Favorites of All Time list, I anticipated this new novel with barely-contained glee. So, it’s no surprise that I loved it. Perhaps Lila is more narrow in scope than the others and in fact, I spent the first section wondering if readers who were new to the series would love it as much as I was. The main character, Lila, is the same who appears in those previous novels and this new one focuses on her version of the story we already know. But then I stopped wondering, and became captivated by Robinson’s evocative writing and Lila’s world. Robinson is a master of the subtle, a soft-focus spotlight on the frailties and wonders of human feeling, and a creator of one of the most beloved characters I’ve ever known, John Ames. The unlikely love story between this elderly minister and the guarded Lila will squeeze your heart into a pulpy mess. In a good way.

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published in June 2014 by Authonomy, an imprint of HarperCollins. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she earned an MA from DePaul University. White wrote an essay for RHLAOB about the novel that changed her life, Lolita, last May. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, four children, and two badly trained dogs.

 

 Joan_Wickersham

Joan Wickersham

I’ve admired the novels of Deirdre Madden for years. Her latest, Time Present and Time Past, is proof that a novel of ideas doesn’t need to be ponderous — it’s a deft, brilliantly economical meditation on memory and the limits of knowledge, and it is also a deeply sympathetic, charming, subtly shaded family portrait.

Joan Wickersham is the author of the memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Mariner, 2009) and the short story collection The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story (Knopf, 2012). Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe. Wickersham has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

National Book Awards fiction longlist includes Antopol, St. John Mandel, three more women

The UnAmericans   Molly Antopol

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes   Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

The National Book Foundation announced the longlist of 10 nominees for the 2014 Fiction award today. Unlike the controversial list of nonfiction nominees released yesterday (nine men and one woman, with no memoirs or essay collections), the fiction list is an impressive group, divided equally between men and women.

Much-admired and often-awarded writers Jane Smiley (Some Luck, due Oct. 7) and Marilynne Robinson (Lila, also due Oct. 7) lead the list, which also includes well-regarded writers Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), Anthony Doerr (All The Light We Cannot See), Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories), Richard Powers (Orfeo), and Rabbih Alameddine (An Unnecessary Woman).

The fiction committee also nominated debut story collections by Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans) and Phil Klay (Deployment), and the first novel by Mountain Goats lead singer John Darnielle (Wolf in White Van).

Read my reviews of The UnAmericans here and Station Eleven here.

Reviews of Some Luck and Lila are forthcoming.

Guest blogger Mary Kay Zuravleff: Out of the mouths of teen daughters oft come literary gems

Mary Kay Zuravleff

Who wants to join a year-long class to revise their novels? Optimistic that if I build it, they will come, I spent yesterday drafting a course description and syllabus. Of course, I also spent the day with my teenager and in a freelance consultation on a memoir and trying to learn Excel and and and. When the dog needed a walk, I decided we all needed one, and I did what all mothers do, which is everything at once. Any more, I’m not even sure I could do one thing at a time.

The dog was no help, but the daughter—oh, the daughter was magnificent. Our topic was short novels that my hypothetical class could not only read but also dissect. To better understand their own novels, we would isolate all the working parts of a few good books, starting with the first line. Generally speaking, the entire book is in the first line. The entire book is also in the point of view, verb tense, structure, plot and subplot, characters, language, and ending. Come to think of it, I should probably be teaching a course called Mapping the Novel Genome.

Eliza and I took turns urging Zelda along—the dog is twelve now and it’s 90 degrees here, so putting one paw in front of another is something of a chore. Meanwhile, my daughter started listing short books for my consideration. “What about To Kill a Mockingbird?” That was her opening suggestion! Most excellent idea and daughter. I’d been wanting to reread Harper Lee’s masterpiece, which in addition to being short is also a first novel. And not only that, many first novelists gravitate to that structure: an adult looking back on a traumatic childhood experience.

Next up: “Or Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Everyone’s already read it, probably.” Another gem. It’s enlightening to take apart a well-constructed book that has made it to the top of everyone’s list and to revisit technically a book you read for pleasure. All that and humor too—really, it was a great idea. Maria Semple uses quirkiness to serve her plot, which is rarer than you might think. So many writers confuse imagination with outlandishness. As with everything else, there needs to be a reason that a character has two heads or that gravity no longer works in your fictional universe.

I was still playing out the joys of Bernadette when Eliza said, “What about that book about the girl growing up in the South? It’s on the bookshelf by your computer.”

That bookshelf is for some of my favorites. “Ellen Foster?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I read that.”

So I was doing something right. Ellen Foster, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is also a first novel, and there’s reason to believe that if either were released today, it would be classified young adult. The winning voice that Kaye Gibbons conjures for Ellen Foster and the character’s clear quest—to get herself adopted and to be rid of her dad—could well-serve a revising writer. I still remember the malaproprisms Gibbons invented for Ellen: her dying mother suffered from “romantic” rather than rheumatic fever as a child, which underscored not only the mother’s weak heart but also her horrific marriage.

The hits just kept coming: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I chimed in with Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Unlike the first three suggestions, which Eliza had read, these were books on her wish list. Now they were on mine, too. I was only planning on choosing three novels, and if you haven’t noticed by now, every single book she proposed was written by a woman. To be fair, she’d recommended Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451, great short novels, which I’d rejected because I wanted to stick with realism, and I’d suggested The Great Gatsby, which she rejected because she didn’t like it. Did I need to find a novel written by a man because it was written by a man? Frankly, I’m always paying attention to keeping my lists balanced—I serve as one of the curators of the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series, which aims for a diverse and thrilling mix of writers. Eliza didn’t think it was important, and certainly literary journals, national newspapers, and writing conferences don’t break a sweat including a representative number of women.

Which is why I was surprised at her final suggestion. “What about a Terry Pratchett book—any one of them.”

Here was the only proposal that didn’t fit. Pratchett writes long, clever fantasy novels, and our entire dog walk we’d been discussing the need for short, realistic books. That’s when I remembered her surprise when she discovered that Terry Pratchett was a man’s name. Back then she’d told me that he wrote so well, she’d assumed he was a woman.

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! (FSG, 2013), named a 2013 Notable Book by the Washington Post, which called it “a family novel for smart people.” She is also the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, which won the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and she is cofounder of D.C. Women Writers. www.mkzuravleff.com

 

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer? Part 2

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. So I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

  1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?
  2. What are you currently reading?
  3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the responses that follow, each of which includes books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Part 1 of this feature was posted on July 20, 2014 and can be found here

 

Katie Crouch   Abroad

Katie Crouch, author of Abroad

Recently Read: The Blindfold  by Siri Hustvedt. This legendary writer’s first book. In this novel-in-stories, Iris Vegan is an impoverished graduate student in New York. I love how having no money is met with fear and utter despair here, which is such a very real phenomenon. So many times in novels characters say they’re broke, but being a woman alone with no money in New York invokes a special sort of peril. The book has some wonderful twists, during one of which Iris cross dresses, and another when she has a brush with madness. She also falls completely for the wrong man. It’s a truly wonderful psychological thriller.

Reading now: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma. It’s about a young adopted Chinese woman in the U.S. who returns to her homeland to research her family, and how that choice reverberates throughout her life and her current fractured clan. The writing is out of this world.

Going to read: The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai. I’ve heard great things about this one. Plus it’s spooky, and I love spook. Great writing? An English manor house? Twisted characters? I’m sold.

[My review of Abroad is coming soon.]

Kimberly Elkins   What is Visible

Kimberly Elkins, author of What is Visible

What I read recently that impressed me: David Samuel Levinson recently published a stunning novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, that really knocked my socks off.  The book manages the nearly impossible feat of being a page-turner while still embracing literary writing of the highest order.  The novel is populated by unforgettable characters, and the secrets abound and rebound.  Trust me, you want to read this one!

What I’m currently reading: I am, in general, often afraid of poetry–modern poetry, anyway–afraid that it will make me feel stupid for not understanding its obscure tropes and labyrinthine metaphorical conceits, and so when I find a poet whose work stirs me in ways that I both can and cannot understand, and yet is still accessible, then I am smitten.  Rita Mae Reese’s The Alphabet Conspiracy is such a book. Reese uses dictionary entries as the jumping-off point to uncover, and to rediscover, messages of the soul encoded in language, and the results are gorgeously engrossing.

What’s up next on my reading list: I’m eager to read Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Marie Celeste, another historical novel based on real people and events:  the Marie Celeste, a ship which vanished in 1872, and the storm stirred up by young Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about it.  Martin’s Property is one of the finest, most stirring novels I’ve ever read, and was key to showing me what historical fiction could be at its best.  There’s nothing like learning from a master, page by page, line by line.

Siobhan Fallon   You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone

Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Was recently impressed by: Anything and everything by Valerie Trueblood. She is a master. We ought to all know her name; she belongs on that lofty shelf with Annie Proulx and Grace Paley. Her stories are wide sweeping worlds, everything captured in a handful of pages, and they astound. They also inspire; I always want to write, and write something completely different and new, as soon as I finish one of her stories. My favorite collection is Marry or Burn, but her latest, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, is also great.

Reading now: Right now I am reading Lily King’s Euphoria for the second time, and I very rarely reread a book when there are so many out there on my ‘list’ to get to. But Euphoria is everything I wish I could put in the novel I am currently working on— a tortured love affair combined with the examination of human behavior and how cultures clash. Euphoria is also filled with beautiful, insightful writing and electric tension. King is terrific.

Up next: Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen, just released. Rebecca’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, came out around the same time as my collection of stories, and we became fast friends thanks to social media and a panel (and shared hotel room!) at the 2011 AWP in Washington, DC. She’s an all-round lovely and magnificently talented woman. If you’ll excuse me, I am going to open up her new book right now…

[My review of You Know When the Men Are Gone is here.]

Patry Francis

Patry Francis, author of The Orphans of Race Point

I was afraid I might not have time to do much reading while I was promoting my novel [The Orphans of Race Point], but the opposite has proven true. Every time I do an author talk or a reading at a bookstore, I discover another book or two or three that I simply must have.

Recently, I’ve been telling everyone I know about The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, Long Man by Amy Greene, and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Though they are very different, they all have strong protagonists — and a lot of heart.

My current read is The Blessings by Elisa Juska. It was recommended to me by two friends who recently heard her speak here on the Cape and did not disappoint.

Booksellers have convinced me I must not miss: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra or Daphne Kolotay’s Russian Winter. Those are up next for me.

[My review of The Orphans of Race Point is coming soon.]

 mira-jacob   Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m reading The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Next up are Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits and Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas!

 Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal

Recent: Robin Black’s Life Drawing. Suspenseful, gorgeously lyrical portrait of a couple whose marriage, shadowed by an old affair, is painfully tested again. I love it especially for lines like this: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Current: An advance copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I haven’t read Gilead, which this follows, but I’m an ardent lover of Housekeeping, and this seems nearly as beautiful and intimate. She has a lovely fluid way of looping back and forth through time, creating layer upon narrative layer.

Next: Maybe Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny. Or Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. Or the new Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words.

[My review of Rainey Royal is coming soon.]

rebecca-makkai-

Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

I just read Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, which is not just beautiful but important, the kind of book that teaches us empathy.

I’m reading Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody, which is a bit like The Westing Game for adults. (That’s a high compliment. It’s so fun that I’m shirking all nonessential duty to read.)

I was blown away in the bookstore by the first page of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’d heard it was amazing, but I wasn’t prepared to be knocked clear across the bookstore.

[My review of The Hundred-Year House is coming soon.]

 Virginia Pye   River of Dust

Virginia Pye, author of River of Dust

I just finished Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek.

Right now I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (all 900 pages) in an ongoing way as research for my next novel. I’m also reading The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe and Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long. I tend to read more than one novel at once.

I’m looking forward to reading Bret Anthony Johnson’s Remember Me Like This and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

The research book by Spence — a history of modern China — is like ballast. The rest is for pleasure and to see what’s being written well right now. There are so many more books I’m not mentioning! These are just the ones of the moment.

I also always have an Audible book on my iPod for when I’m out walking the dog or on long car rides. Right now, I’m entering the magical, fully-fleshed out world of Bleak House, where I expect I’ll be for months. Kind of a treat to hear those wonderful British accents and to enjoy Dickens’ humor and impeccable language. The man could write.

[My review of River of Dust is here.]

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg, author of Home Leave

I just finished Celeste Ng’s book, Everything I Never Told You, which I found intricately plotted and deftly written. I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance (5)”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You.

I’m currently reading The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell and The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, and I plan on reading California by Edan Lepucki and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

[My review of Home Leave is here.]

Tomi L. Wiley

Tomi L. Wiley

I just finished Bloodroot by Amy Greene, and before that Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (in between some John Greene, but he’s not a woman). I just bought Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House two days ago – excited to read it. Up next is either Elizabeth Gilbert [The Signature of All Things] or Abroad by Katie Crouch. Reeeeeeally looking forward to the new Tana French.

A Conversation with Mary Vensel White on THE QUALITIES OF WOOD

Mary Vensel White  tlc tour host

See my review of The Qualities of Wood here. And be sure to enter to win a copy of The Qualities of Wood (details in the review).

The Qualities of Wood is your first novel, but if you’re anything like most writers, it’s not the first book you’ve written. Can you tell me about your writing background leading up to this book?

I started out as many writers do, I suppose, with a diary or notebook. But when I think about what influenced my writing from early on, I always think of reading. Yesterday, I saw a quote by Sandra Cisneros, who claims she became a writer not because she went to school but because her mother took her to the library. I’d have to claim the same: my journey to writing started with lots of books, and the library, and a mother who read. And you’re right, TQOW is the second novel I completed. The first is called Sissy Longlegs and it’s about a young woman who tracks down her biological mother, thereby altering the path of the three women involved—the girl and both of her moms. I still think it’s pretty good, actually, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it. I had no formal writing training, although my degrees were in English so there was lots of reading and literature analysis.

Most readers aren’t familiar with your publisher, Authonomy, which is a new venture of HarperCollins. How did you come to be published by Authonomy? 

I came to Authonomy.com in 2010, I think, and posted part of my novel for critique and feedback from other writers. The site offers a review by a HarperCollins editor for the five most supported books each month. By March of 2011 I had received my review, which was quite positive. Up to that point, few books had been published by HC as a result of being “discovered” on the site. I realized that, but still thought it would be helpful to have a professional opinion. Plus, the collateral benefits of participating in the site were great—meeting other writers, giving and getting advice on writing, etc. I actually had an offer from a small press for the book around the time I got my review from HC. Shortly after the review, I was contacted by Scott Pack, who had just taken over the Authonomy site and coincidentally, was the editor who initially reviewed my novel. They were planning to start a digital-first imprint, he said, and wanted my book to be the first. They hoped to publish 10-12 titles a year and from those, take a few to print based on performance. And so, mine has eventually become one of the digital editions that will now be in book form too.

What was unique about the experience of being an Authonomy author?

After all this time, I would have to say that the very best part of being published via Authonomy is the network of friends and support I’ve gained through the process. Writing is such an isolated vocation and it’s been great to share the pitfalls and triumphs within the community. I’ve made some good business connections and some great friends through Authonomy. And I truly believe that participating in the site by critiquing and ingesting the critiques offered to me really improved my editing process and enriched my perspective in many ways.

What inspired the characters and plot of The Qualities of Wood?

When I wrote the book, my husband and I had just moved to Chicago. It was my first experience living in a big city and I started thinking about the ways setting can influence people, especially an urban surround vs. countryside. Would people behave the same in both? Would they be more in touch with their natural, or animal side, when surrounded by the natural world? Really, the first inspiration for the book was the thought of Vivian’s airplane touching down amidst that unfettered green, the expanse that would possibly cause her to look beyond her previous, day-to-day hassled existence in the city. As for the plot, I was very interested in playing around with the notion of genre, of writing a mystery that wasn’t really a traditional mystery, but more the story of the greatest mystery of all: the human condition. In the same way that things perhaps aren’t what they seem for Vivian, they wouldn’t be for the reader either. That was my goal.

I enjoyed the complicated nature of Vivian and Nowell’s four-year-old marriage. They are close, but often struggle to communicate and experience many misunderstandings. Vivian has too much time on her hands and not enough occupying her mind since she’s not working. Nowell is prickly, secretive, and defensive, which makes him a more complex creation and also inherently suspect in the mysterious goings-on. I’m interested to know how this relationship developed in your imagination and during the writing of the book.

I was pretty newly married at the time, and thinking about the break that occurs between childhood and adulthood. At some point, we try to figure out our childhoods and move forward and yet, most of our relationships seem to relate, one to the other. Marriage is a big step that can really force this break, as we join or really, create a new family and leave behind the old one. I wonder, sometimes, about perception and whether any person can truly understand another. The brief separation and move from city to country disrupted Vivian and Nowell’s marriage and made them see each other in a new light. This is an endless process in relationships, I think, but maybe the first big shift for them.

I was impressed by how quickly you established a sense of foreboding and how consistently you were able to maintain it. You had me figuratively crossing my arms and examining the motives, body language, and behavior of every character (even Katharine!). Early on, I was wondering whether the residents of the town were going to turn out to be straight out of Twin Peaks or just regular ol’ people from a small town. (For the record, I live in a town of 15,000 about 20 miles outside of Bakersfield.) How do you go about creating that feeling and mindset in the reader? What’s the key to establishing and controlling tone, which is so crucial in a book of this kind?

There’s something about small towns that make them desirable locales for fiction. I am no stranger to Bakersfield because I grew up in Lancaster, which had a population of 37,000 in the 70s before the aerospace boom propelled it towards its current numbers. But it definitely felt like a small town when I was growing up. The Antelope Valley Fair was the biggest event of the year; we had one movie theater and no shopping malls. In TQOW, the small town setting helped in terms of controlling the tone of the story. Vivian feels somewhat cut off from things, with only so many sources of stimulation coming her way. Writing the story from her perspective was key, too. Because she is suspicious and becomes increasingly agitated, the reader feels that way.

I loved the use of the woods behind the Gardiners’ house. They act as a buffer between their property and the land of the laconic and seemingly threatening Mr. Stokes. Chanelle Brodie’s body is found there, which is central to the story because it sets the plot in motion. And, of course, we can’t ignore the powerful symbol of the woods in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Can you describe the meaning of the woods and what you had in mind in making this location so crucial to the novel?

Again, it comes back to setting for me. It was the primary impetus for the book and I wanted the surroundings to be almost like a character within the story. The woods symbolized a literal break from Vivian’s existence within the house and the grass-covered land surrounding it. A different setting, a different world, a place where maybe people behave differently. A place where the natural world is difficult to ignore because it looms overhead and presses up against you. Growing up in the desert as I did, it was easy to build this wooded, leaf-filled land into something larger-than-life, to imagine it as somewhat idyllic yet dangerous too.

Are you considering setting a novel or story in Orange County, for instance, in Newport Beach or Laguna Beach? I’m surprised that more novels aren’t set in these distinctive locales, with their unique sub-cultures and strong sense of place.

Actually, I just finished a collection of stories set in southern California. The setting has to meld with the project and for this one, southern California’s unique structure, with its patchwork quilt of cities connected by freeways, seemed a perfect complement to the stories, which are about the unlikely connections between people and how archetypal stories can be upended in a modern setting. Some of the characters live in LA County and some in Orange County; I know people like to think these two are so distinct and separate and yet one bleeds into the other in cities like Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Cerritos. And I think there may be more stories set in California than you think!

What books and/or authors have inspired you, both as a reader and a writer?

See Mary Vensel White’s guest blog post about the book that changed her life.

The writers who cause me a shiver of excitement with the release of a new book (or new translation): Per Petterson, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson. These three could write about toast and I would be enthralled, probably. My favorite books include Anna Karenina, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and as you know, Lolita. Biggest influence on the writing of TQOW: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Book that would have most influenced TQOW, had I read it before writing: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And three books I read recently and highly recommend, all story collections (read more short stories!!!): This Close by Jessica Francis Kane, This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila and Burning Bright by Ron Rash.