Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kyle's Top Ten Books of 2009

Last year I posted a "best of" book list that cheated a little. It included 17 "notable" books and the books weren't necessarily published in 2008--I just had to have read them in 2008. This year I've decided just to make a list of my ten 10 faves published during 2009. On the list are three Danish novels that I really enjoyed, one collection of stories, one novella, a novel-in-stories (if you can call it that), some English-language novels, and one work of nonfiction.

A note about this list: I didn't assign any order. I don't like rankings, particularly ones that are subjective in nature, and the judgment of books is always subjective.  And yes, the list no doubt reflects my tastes to a degree.

The list:

Julia Butschkow, Apropos Opa

Jakob Ejersbo, Eksil (Exile)

Matt Bell, The Collectors
Sherman Alexie, War Dances
Simon Fruelund, Verden og Varvara (The World and Varvara)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark & Termite
Dylan Landis, Normal People Don't Live Like This
China Mieville, The City and the City
Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
Dennis Drabelle, Mile High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Finding the Right Mental Space

With New Year's a day away, I decided to repost this one from August of 2008. Time to consider those New Year's resolutions! Look for my top 10 books of 2009 tomorrow.

How do you manage a busy daily life and still get some reading and writing done?

It's not easy. Since I started working for TWC I haven't really done much of either, though I steal snatches of time here and there to read. Once upon a time I wrote some fiction. Now I don't. When I sit down to try and write something, what comes to mind is all the stuff I need to get done that day. Thoughts zip around inside my brain--checklists of assignments, deadlines, work-related ideas.

I imagine this is not an uncommon experience for most people. How, again, do you counterbalance this effect? I've been trying to fight the lethargy by clearing my mind, giving myself a mental space in which to work. I've set up a daily plan that seems to be working.

1. Establish a routine. Each day, no matter what, I get up early and I read for at least 15 minutes. A good day is when I can read unencumbered for a full hour. (These are rare.)

2. Find a really good book. Three or so weeks ago I tried picking up three books that I just couldn't get into. Pattern Recognition, The House of Sleep, and BlackSwanGreen. They're all good books, I'm sure, but I wasn't quite up to the task of reading them; rather than taking me away from my problem, the books only exacerbated the problem. I think that's because you can approach some books better at certain times of your life. I read as a writer, which means that if I'm writing something that requires a youthful narrator I might go back to BlackSwanGreen to get inspired. But I'm not writing anything right now, so I just want to be entertained and learn something at the same time. Now those books sit together as a pack on my bookshelf. I see them staring at me now. There's no shame in starting a book and not finishing it. Remember, there are tons of books out there and more coming out daily. Over 400,000 books were published in '07 alone. Reading is an investment of time, and if you don't really like the book you're reading, why invest time in it?

3. Don't force it. If you sit down to write one day and it doesn't happen, accept it. Don't keep pushing. It'll only make you spiral into a bad day. Trust that there will be good days ahead. That's the nature of writing. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn't. Obviously you want to get the ball rolling so that each day is a good day. But stressing through a bad day won't get that ball moving. Which leads to #4.

4. Let go of the anxiety. A German friend of mine once told me that, when you're stuck on something, you need to just let it go. Find something else to do. What happens is you release whatever's bothering you. For a writer, this might mean stopping writing when you're stuck on something that you can't get over. Doing laundry, taking a shower, going for a brisk jog--all these things can take you away from your "stuckness" and actually get you back on track. BECAUSE by letting your mind wander you give it the chance to come back around to your dilemma and answer it for you. Albert Einstein, I'm told, got some of his best ideas while chopping firewood.

5. Be good to yourself. Find something fun to do when you're not working. I'm obsessed with baseball and, especially, the world's greatest baseball team: the St. Louis Cardinals. And my wife and I use Netflix to find good TV shows or movies we miss 'cause we don't have cable: "Homicide," "The Wire," "The Office,""30 Rock," "Battlestar Galactica," etc. Things that are entertaining (though educational for writers still). It's GOOD to have mindless activities from time to time. (I have some very smart and capable writer friends who play their Wii a lot.) No embarrassment or shame at all. I think this is a continuation of #s 3 and 4.

It's not always easy to follow these suggestions, I admit. I don't have kids, just an 11-year old lab, so when I get up in the morning I have the freedom to sit on my duff and read. But it's number 4 that is especially difficult for me. But I try. Right now my morning read is The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio. At first, I didn't like the book. The first two stories didn't grab me, but it's grown on me as the stories got better. The title story is excellent, and so is "Up North" and "The Scheme of Things." Worth checking out. My "night" read at the moment is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I'll write a blog post on this later on. This is one of those GREAT BOOKS that every writer (and American) should read.

So I've cleared my head enough to finish another translation. This one is by Jytte Borberg: a classic 1950s-style story in the vein of Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Borberg was a Danish author who died last year. Remarkably, she didn't start writing until she was in her forties--until that time her path had followed a "traditional" line; she'd raised a family, kept house, etc.--yet somehow, once she got started, she managed to produce over 40 books in her lifetime! As far as I know, she's never been translated into English. Regretfully, I began this translation before she died (she was 88) and I'd intended to write her and say, "I love this story and here's my translation!" But I was stymied by the language, to be honest. Her sentences, the rhythms, cadences are put down in a stylized manner which isn't in vogue anymore. And I was stuck for the longest time; I loved the story and loved the idea of translating it, but just didn't have the patience to sit down and try. Luckily, being stuck in my own fiction has opened up a channel of creativity on others'. Getting back to her story now just seemed right.

Eventually I'll get back to my own, but this is a good start.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest Instructor: C.M Mayo on the 3 Most Often Asked Questions About The Writing Business

Here's a helpful repost from November '08.

Today's guest is C.M. Mayo. She blogs over at Madam Mayo. C.M. is a popular instructor at The Center, and she's known to offer excellent tips on the craft, in addition to some practical tips that she posts on her blog. She's a fount of knowledge, in other words.

The Three Questions I Am Most Often Asked
About the Writing Business

# 1. I would like to publish a book. How do I find a publisher?The key thing to keep in mind as you begin your search is, what is your intention for your book? Do you want it to to place you among the immortal literary stars? Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job? Or, do you just watch to check "publish book" off your "to-do" list? And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher? It might be lickety-split easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork. Not to mention heartbreak. There are many good books on this subject, but the one I most highly recommend is Susan Page's The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book. Be sure to also read Thomas Christensen's excellent and very wise on-line article, "How to Get a Book Published".

#2. Do I need an agent?
Maybe. There is a book-length answer to this question, too. Again, I recommend Susan Page's The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book, which has an outstanding and very practical chapter on agents. Keep in mind that agents need to be able to earn a living, cover their secretary's salary, rent, supplies, postage, telephone, and all the other overhead involved running an agency. You might have written a very important book, but "important" might not translate into anything meaningful from an agent's point of view. The critics might love it, but if your advance is only $500-$1,000 (not uncommon, by the way), an agent's commission, net of expenses, is too small to have made it worth her time. Most scholarly works, almost all poetry and a lot of very good fiction and creative nonfiction are not represented by agents. So don't fall for the canard that you must have an agent. Watch out, too, for your ego. Too many writers use their relationship with an agent as a badge of status they find themselves unable to loosen once the relationship becomes problematic and/ or impractical. So, do your research.

Herewith a few on-line resources for finding out out about literary agents. Todd James Pierce's "Nine Tips for Finding a Literary Agent," reproduced on best-selling author Alan Jacobson's webpage, is especially good. Lynn Price, editorial director of Behler Publications, a well-regarded literary press, has a very thoughtful blog post on "Why Do I Need An Agent?" Writer's Center instructor Lindsay Reed Maines's guest-blog post on my blog, Madam Mayo, about her top 5 literary agent blogs will give you a sense of the business from an agent's point of view.

A note: whether you have an agent or not, in my experience, it is very helpful to join the Author's Guild. Members get a Trade Book Contract Guide, which goes through all that nasty "boilerplate" point by point, and incudes many negotiation tips. An abbreviated version is available free on the Authors Guild website. Also, for members, the Authors Guild's legal staff will review both book contracts and contracts with agents.

#3. I have just published a book. Can you offer any tips about promotion?
Without delay, buy these two books: Joseph Marich's Literary Publicity and Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life. The first is by a PR pro, the second by a long-time successful novelist. With these words from the wise, you may well save yourself a lot of time, hassle, and if not heartbreak, then needless heartbreak. On-line, there are some excellent marketing tips on the webpage of Word Tech Communications, a poetry publisher. (I vehemently disagree about the advice on review copies, however.) As for an Internet presence, yes, it behooves you to have a webpage and, if you're up to it, a blog, and if you can stand it, a facebook page as well--- and to have all of these started up in a thoughtful manner at least six months to a year before your book comes out. That said, "better late than never." Finally, why be shy? My mantra is, book promotion is not self-promotion, it's book promotion. Once you have a book, it's not all about you; it's about your agent, your publisher, their hard-working team, booksellers, and ultimately, obviously, and most importantly, readers.

UPDATE: See also my 2008 Maryland Writers Conference handout on Writers Blogs: Best (& Worst) Practices.


C.M. is the author of the forthcoming novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books); Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (Milkweed Editions), and Sky Over El Nido (University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her many other awards include three Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, three Washington Writing Prizes, and numerous fellowships, among them, to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her work has appeared in many outstanding literary journals, among them, Chelsea, Creative Nonfiction, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Paris Review, and Tin House. An avid translator of contemporary Mexican literature, she is also founding editor of Tameme and editor of Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. For more about C.M. Mayo and her work, visit

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Dangerous Joy of Pagan Kennedy

On January 30, Pagan Kennedy will return to The Writer's Center for the first time in 28 years. She will be one of two special readers at our 33rd birthday celebration (the other is Carolyn Forche). I wrote this piece for the winter issue of The Carousel and I thought I'd post it during the off week between Christmas and New Year's (when The Writer's Center is closed).

When she was a student at Holton Arms high school in the late 1970s, Pagan Kennedy says she was a little “weird.” She was a voracious reader with a curious intellect, the kind that makes others either envious or afraid. After her first year of college, in 1981, she decided she’d enroll in a fiction writing workshop at The Writer’s Center.

The decision would have a tremendous impact on her life.

“I went into college thinking I was going to work with animals,” she says, “but the teacher was very supportive. He made us tell stories out loud, and that gave me the confidence to see myself as a writer.”

The story she told during the class was about farming slugs in Argentina. “There were these giant slugs that had to be farmed by Slug Boys,” she remembers. “The slime was used as super glue.” The story proved extremely valuable to her development as a writer. “I now had this story and I started to tell it to friends. Writing suddenly wasn’t this thing you did in school.”

Though she doesn’t remember the name of the workshop leader, she remembers the feel of the workshop. “It was part of the effervescence of the 70s hippy community: a hands-on crafty empowerment movement that writing was a part of. It wasn’t just about going on to becoming a professional writer. It was community based and small, not ambitious in the American way. That appealed to me.” And when the workshop was over, the instructor ran out to the parking lot after the final class and told her to keep writing.

She did. During the 1980s, she became the Queen of ‘zines by publishing a string of small chapbook-like editions that explored the crazy ephemera of modern life during the Reagan-era from a young woman’s point of view. She credits her experience at The Writer’s Center with those early efforts; the focus on craft and the focus on telling a good story well, no matter the size of the audience—these were the driving forces behind the ‘zines. Though she’d never imagined she’d make a career of writing, those small ‘zines drew national attention. Among the many who noticed was a young Bethesda Chevy Chase high school student, Andrew Gifford, who in 1999 went on to found his own publishing company—the Santa Fe Writers Project.

“Pagan Kennedy’s early work was inspirational to me,” Gifford says. “Not only did it drive me to create my own ‘zine, but her quirky, journalistic approach influenced the voice of the publishing company I started in high school—the prototype of the one I run now. I looked for the weird, the off-beat, the experimental writers. I still do.”

In 2006, Gifford approached Kennedy and asked if she was interested in publishing a book with him. The result was a collection of nonfiction essays called The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories, a collection of essays about the kind of rugged American individualist that appeals to Kennedy: people trying to make the country and the world a better place.

Much like Kennedy herself. With a successful writing career including ten novels (and a short-listing for the prestigious Orange Prize), award-winning nonfiction books, and now a teaching gig at Dartmouth College behind her, she looks back fondly at her short time at The Writer’s Center.

“I was such a weird kid,” she recalls. “But that workshop was when I realized my weirdness could be a plus instead of a minus. I could share my weird world with people.”


Pagan Kennedy is the author of ten books in a variety of genres- from cultural history to biography to the novel. A regular contributor to the Boston Globe, she has published articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including several sections of The New York Times. A biography titled Black Livingstone made the New York Times Notable list and earned Massachusetts Book Award honors. Her most recent novel, Confessions of a Memory Eater, was featured in Entertainment Weekly as an "EW pick." Another novel, Spinsters, was short-listed for the Orange Prize. She also has been the recipient of a Barnes and Noble Discover Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Smithsonian Fellowship for science writing. Visit her online at

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bethesda Short Story and Essay Contest

Merry Christmas everyone. Here's something for you.

It's that time of year again: Time for Bethesda Urban Partnership and Bethesda Magazine's Essay and Short Story Contest. Winners will be honored at the Bethesda Literary Festival, April 16-18, 2010. Deadline to submit is February 26, 2010.


Essay Contest  
Topic: What is your approach to life? Reveal your personal philosophy.
Requirements: Essays should be limited to 500 words or less. Submissions must be sent via email as Microsoft word attachments to The writer's full name, mailing address, phone number, and email address must be in the email and on the first page of the story itself. Submissions without this information will be disqualified.

Residents of Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia are eligible. The contest will take entries in two categories:  Young Adult (grades 9-12) and Adult (ages 18 +). Writers must specify whether they are entering the young adult or the adult contest.

Questions? Please email or call 301.215.6660.

Short Story Contest

Topic: Open
Stories  must be limited to 4,000 words or less. Submissions must be sent via email as Microsoft word attachments to The writer's full name, mailing address, phone number, and email address must be in the email and on the first page of the story itself. Submissions without this information will be disqualified.

Residents of Montgomery County, MD and Upper NW Washington, DC only are eligible. The contest will take entries in two categories: Young Adult (grades 9-12) and Adult (ages 18+). Writers must specify whether they are entering the young adult or the adult contest.

Questions? Please email or call 301.718.7787 ext 207

For more information, visit or


First place: $500 and published short story & Essay in Bethesda Magazine.
Second Place: $250
Third Place: 150
Honorable mention: $75

The first place winner will also receive a gift certificate to The Writer's Center

Each second, third, and honorable mention essay and short story will be published on the Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Urban Partnership Web sites. Up to 10 finalists in each category will be honored during the Bethesda Literary Festival.

Young Adult winners receive: $250, first place; $100, second place; $50, third place. Bethesda Magazine will print the first place essay & short story.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays from all of us at The Writer's Center! Thanks for making 2009 such a great your at First Person Plural AND at The Writer's Center. 2010 should prove even better--with a new Web site, new initatives, and wonderful opportunities on the way. For example, don't forget that January 4th is the deadline to submit to Lee Gutkind's Master Workshop in Creative Nonfiction (where else can you get the opportunity to learn from the master?). And for female veterans and active-duty personel, there's an opportunity through our Ann Darr Scholarship.

First Person Plural will be on a kind of hiatus from today until January 4th, when we start posting our member submissions. In the meantime, I plan on reposting some old faves for your reading pleasure.

There's still time to submit to Member Month on FPP. If you're a member and would like to tell your story during our Member Month (the entire month of January in the run-up to our 33rd Birthday Celebration with Carolyn Forche and Pagan Kennedy), then by all means submit your stories to me. All I request is between 4-500 words about your experiences here at The Writer's Center.

We'll see you back here in January. The Writer's Center will reopen on January 5th at 10:00 AM. In the meantime, if you'd like to view our workshops or register for one of our events, you can do so right at You can also see last minute gift ideas from The Writer's Center right here.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Just What is Turducken Anyway?

In Case you Missed it
by Norma Tucker

Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving while savoring an avocado and tomato omelet at a new eatery in tony downtown Bethesda, Maryland there was a moment when I thought, I can’t digest another morsel of food. I didn’t heed that visceral warning. In my right hand, I held a slice of French bread spread with delicious French chocolate. I bit into that “another morsel,” and instantly I knew. I had tipped “the angle of repose.”

That weighted morsel offended the precarious balance of my digestive system. I felt an immediate sensation of spinning followed by a long twenty-four hours of anguished nausea. Not the existential metaphysical nausea Jean Paul Sartre writes about – the real thing, the one we all know, as we open cola or ginger ale bottles and let the liquid go flat before drinking to calm our queasy inners.

At Thanksgiving dinner, we feasted on turducken, artichoke and sausage dressing, caramelized onions, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and pineapple, mashed potatoes prepared by a Czech guest, marzipan cake, creamy gelato with peach tart, sauces, gravies (this list, just a sampling; there was more). The day after, on Friday, with my children, their spouses, and my grandchildren, we spread all the leftovers on the kitchen counter for a mammoth family lunch. On Saturday before I left my New York family to head back to my home in Bethesda, I picked on the cold, odd shaped pieces of turducken in its foil pan. Satiated, I pushed it away.

What is turducken, you may ask? I did. I thought perhaps it was a town in Ukraine or an Eastern European last name no one bothered to change to something like, Tucker. (I sat next to a man on the bus trip to New York whose last name is Turkenbrodsky. I think there’s a kind of cosmic action at play here). Actually turducken is a food, a boned chicken stuffed into a boned duck, both stuffed into a boned turkey with wings, cornmeal, sausage, apple and nuts or bread stuffing between the layered bird.

Supposedly the concept for this dish is centuries old. Its contemporary form is traced to Maurice, Louisiana at a place called “Hebert’s Specialty Meats.” Hebert’s began producing turduckens in 1985 when a local farmer came in the store with his birds and asked Hebert’s to prepare them as he described. Now Hebert’s produces about five thousand a week. If you visit Maurice, you’re cautioned to drive slowly, you may miss it. If you do, you can keep on driving to the branch of Hebert’s at The Galleria in Houston, Texas

I’m thinking of serving turducken at my annual Chanukah party, the one time of the year I gather together in my home members of both my immediate and rarely seen family and a few displaced friends. I usually make brisket using a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, but it’s hard work to prepare for twenty-five (give or take) people: shopping and schlepping pounds of this dense meat, searing and seasoning, cooking, cooling, slicing, marinating, reheating. I thought I’d do chicken this year, the way my Granma Tarses did – cooked to an unbelievable tenderness and flavor. My cousin, Carolyn in Texas, told me the secret to success for this type of chicken dish is lots of onions. Granma added soft meatballs to the final cooking. I would skip the balls. My guests won’t be able to taste my nostalgia.

This musing about food is exacerbating the last remnants of my nausea. Maybe, I’d feel better if I had not succumbed to the hand-made white chocolate confections my cousin Mark from San Francisco makes. He visited me later on Sunday as the queasy was moving up and down my digestive system. I refrained from the white chocolate during his visit, but somehow my hand got into the container the next day, as I started to feel the queasy recede.

I talked to my friend Sharon with whom I had lunched. She, too, suffered from her last morsel, though she thinks it was the coffee. We each had ordered the same type of omelet (could the three eggs have come from a turducken) our only difference was that she drank regular coffee with milk, and I had black decaf. When I saw her the next evening at our book club meeting, we were both drinking tea.

Back to the land of Turducken. There are a number of mail order producers on the web touting turducken as a Cajun specialty. I located only one local store that sells them. Frozen at about fourteen pounds costs seventy-nine ninety-five, or they will put together a fresh twenty-two pound one for a hundred fifty. (Talk about tipping the balance). Nostalgia may cost less, but turducken is an experience, an opportunity to create new nostalgia (not to be confused with nausea). But our ever nouveau seeking society will probably add a goose to encase the turkey and a squab to fit into the chicken. Wonder what they’ll call it. I think I’ll have another cup of tea.

Norma Tucker has blogged at First Person Plural here and here. She is a native of Baltimore, Md., now retired after over a twenty-five year career in higher education administration. She served at a Maryland community college, a women’s college, in associations, and in university and international institutions. She is now fulfilling her long-time desire to write short stories, a memoir and essays with occasional ventures in poetry. She has participated in numerous workshops at The Writer's Center.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Letter to Governor O'Malley

Hello, everyone. Last week I was at a special meeting with Maryland Citizens for the Arts (MCA). There, I learned a few things about arts funding in the state. Learned, too, about this advocacy opportunity that I thought I'd share here on First Person Plural. Consider printing the following letter out, signing it, and sending it as soon as you can to the Governor. He's a wonderful supporter of the arts (I understand he's in a band; we should get them to play at Story/Stereo!). But with this letter show him how much we all support the arts here in Maryland. You can view the letter also on MCA's Web site.

The Honorable Martin O'Malley


State House

100 State Circle

Annapolis, MD 21401-1925

Dear Governor O'Malley:

Thank you so much for your strong support of the State Arts Council budget this past year. Arts employees, Board members, and volunteers are both relieved and appreciative that the amount allocated to the Maryland State Arts Council was not reduced in the last round of budget cuts announced on November 18th. I want to thank you for once again recognizing the importance of the arts to the people of Maryland. As you can imagine, the funding organizations receive from the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC) is vital to their current programs and future plans. Arts patrons and supporters are also incredibly thankful for your continued support since ultimately, they benefit most from your promotion of the arts.

In the coming weeks, I understand that decisions will be made on the FY 2011 budget you will submit to the General Assembly at the 2010 Legislative Session. During the 2009 Legislative Session, the Maryland State Arts Council's FY 2010 budget was reduced from $16.5 million to $13.5 million, and that amount was fixed at that same level for FY 2011 in the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act (BRFA). We respectfully ask that you please keep the MSAC's funding for FY 2011 at the FY 2010 level of $13.5 million, as delineated in the BRFA.

As you know, the vast majority of the $13.5 million slated for the MSAC is distributed across Maryland in the form of grants to organizations facing significant challenges due to the economic slowdown. Even the most fiscally diversified organizations are being hit with substantial decreases from most or all of their revenue streams. All organizations rely heavily on the MSAC grants as a stable source of income that is helping them get through the recession.

Again, thank you very much for your strong leadership in supporting the arts through this economic crisis.


CC: Mr. Matt Gallagher, Chief of Staff

Mr. Christian Johannsen, Secretary, DBED

Ms. Hannah Byron, Assistant Secretary, DBED

Ms. Eloise Foster, Secretary, DBM

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review Monday: Stitches

by David Small
W.W. Norton
336 pages
ISBN: 978-0393068573

Reviewed by Chris Hobson

Graphic novels rarely interest me. The last one I enjoyed was Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween, but that’s mostly because I have a man-crush on Batman. I’ve tried reading the classics of the genre – Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s 300 – each time finding the brilliant pictures and gravity-mocking action off-putting, their kinetic panels leaving little to the imagination. So when I picked up David Small’s Stitches, a critically acclaimed “autobiographic” novel about an abused boy who grows up to be a famous artist, I thought: well now, this might be interesting.

Then I read it.

Small’s childhood makes Dante’s descent into the inferno look like a mad lib.  The story unfolds in 1950s Detroit, a city on the knife’s edge of collapse.  Small’s father, a radiologist, floats through life in a haze of preoccupation and pipe smoke.  He seems more like a houseguest than a father, barely uttering more than a few words to his wife and sons.  Small’s mother, the more outgoing of the pair, bashes cupboard doors closed in a passive-aggressive attempt to be noticed and, hmmm…I feel like I’m forgetting something.  Oh yeah!  She turns out to be a closet lesbian who burns Small’s favorite books for no apparent reason. 

Not to be outdone, Small’s grandmother, a psychopath who applies a Midwestern work ethic to torturing her family, makes Dick Cheney look like Shirin Ebadi.  She eventually goes insane, locks her husband in the basement, tears off her clothes, and tries to burn down her own house.  Hoorah!  Small’s writing style is matter-of-fact, matching the desolation of his spare, black-and-white watercolor drawings; when his grandmother has her breakdown, he tells it like it is: “A neighbor saw the smoke.  Saw her dancing around and phoned for help.  Papa John was saved and Grandma was taken away to the state insane asylum.”  Mental illness does to Small’s family what the Hindenberg did for luxury blimping.

The coup de grace comes when young Small develops a lump on his neck.  At first his parents ignore it; they’re social climbers who’d rather take a spin on their rich doctor friend’s yacht (on which are raised flags festooned with pictures of martini glasses) than attend to their son’s health.  But they finally succumb to their friend’s pleas to cut out the offending cyst.  After a series of operations (assisted by a ghoulishly-named anesthesiologist, Dr. Blyss), the doctor succeeds in removing the growth, though he extracts a few of the boy’s vocal chords in the process.  You got it: the kid’s now a mute.

If this were fiction, even the casual reader would note the ham-handedness in the boy’s no longer having a voice in what happens to him.  After all, the only sound he can make after the surgery is the guttural “Ack!” of a Velociraptor.  But when clichés occur in reality, they take on a malevolence fiction could never muster.  Inasmuch as this book seems bent on depressing its audience, this plot point works splendidly.  Spoiler alert: it’s all downhill after the operation: eventually Small ends up an orphan living in a dilapidated drug den.  Like you didn’t see that one coming.  

Don’t let small children or optimistic grandmothers near this book: it’ll ruin their whole lives. 

But if there is a bright spot to the book, Small’s haunted drawings made an impression on this reader.  In one sequence, a fetus floating in a jar of alcohol comes alive and chases the boy through a hospital and, you know, that’s just cool.  But there is no heart here, just a web-laden chest cavity where a boy slowly rots.  Note to anyone who doesn’t want to die a little inside: leave this book off your Christmas list.


Born in the foothills of the Appalachians, at the headwaters of the Ohio River, and at the navel of the known universe, i.e. Columbus, Ohio, Chris Hobson has published nothing since he spent way too much money getting a fancy-sounding degree.  A late bloomer, none of this bothers him.  He has written several screenplays that went nowhere and a gigantic novel that collapsed on itself one night and died of asphyxiation.  When he’s not working hard at his public relations job, he enjoys watching movies, hangin’ with his wife, and writing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Discovery Friday: Glimmer Train

Today we feature Glimmer Train. I've been familiar with Glimmer Train for many years. I think I was in college when I first started reading it. To my lights, it's one of the best literary journals out there for fiction writers. They publish new and established writers in a very quality format. As part of our regular Friday exercise in literary discovery, I've asked one of the co-editors, Susan Burmeister-Brown, a few simple questions. After reading the interview, go have a look at Glimmer Train's Web site. And the next time you're at The Writer's Center, pick up a copy of the journal in our bookstore.

Glimmer Train has “only” been around since 1990, but in that time you’ve not only published some of the biggest names (and many up-and-coming names) in contemporary American fiction, you’ve also established Glimmer Train as one of the most indispensable literary journals in the country. When you started 20 years ago, what was your goal?

Our goal was to bring a different sort of story to print. In the 80s, many literary short stories were rather cool to the touch. We were looking for literary work that was more fully engaging. That remains our focus.

How has the literary journal scene changed for you during that time?

This is a particularly poignant time to be asked this question. So many journals are shutting down, it’s heart-rending! On the positive side, online journals are making a stronger presence. While the printed page is something pretty special (enduring), the important thing is for there to be good outlets for literary work, for writers and for readers.

“In a year’s time,” you write in the winter 2010 issue of Glimmer Train, “you give more than $45,000 to writers.” With all the changes happening for literary journals today, that’s a shocking (but wonderful) number. Though I can’t prove it, I think Glimmer Train must be one of the biggest supporters of independent fiction writers in the country. Can you talk a little bit about how you manage to achieve such success while other journals are falling by the wayside?

Glimmer Train was a dream for us, and has been our life work for 20 years now, supported largely with personal funds from the beginning, so perhaps people know they can count on our continued commitment to writers and readers. And the 571 contributors whose work we’ve presented know how much we value their stories and, in fact, the writers themselves. We hope it shows in the publication. I think even those writers whose work hasn’t yet made it into our pages know that we two sisters read and value their work. So maybe in part what we have is a mutually appreciative relationship; there is a sort of pact between readers and writers and the editors who publish stories. We are utterly dependent on one another and we know it.

In each issue of Glimmer Train as far back as I can remember, you’ve published photographs of your contributors—often of them as children. That’s unique. How did it come about?

We decided from the beginning that we wanted author photographs to reveal the essence inside. Childhood photographs offer that because they haven’t yet learned how to compose themselves for the camera. Even when children think they are putting on their “camera face”, their true selves are leaking through, and those true selves are the ones that later write the stories.

What is the single most important thing a writer should know before submitting to Glimmer Train?

Have faith in your work. And check our guidelines. (Sorry, that’s two. :-)

In what ways can readers of this blog get involved with Glimmer Train?

They can read the wonderful literary short fiction published in Glimmer Train. Subscribing supports the writers and helps support a publication that has always welcomed the work of emerging writers. And your readers can let us read their own stories. Stories are, obviously, the heart of Glimmer Train.

The Writer's Center's Director, Charles Jensen, Elected to Emerging Leader Council

Photo: Shyree Mezick

The Writer’s Center is pleased to announce that its Director, Charles Jensen, has been elected to the Emerging Leader Council of Americans for the Arts. He will serve a three-year term beginning January 1, 2010.

As a member the Council—the sole member representing the literary arts—Jensen will be part of a team that helps steer the development of new initiatives and opportunities for arts professionals nationwide. He will represent Montgomery County and D.C. area arts professionals and their organizations on a national level, serving as a liaison. In Montgomery County alone, more than 400 arts organizations (and 1200 plus individual artists) will gain from his participation on the Emerging Leader Council.

"What Charles Jensen brings to the Council is an emerging leader serving as the director of an established organization," says Mitch Menchaca, Director of Local Arts Agency Services at Americans for the Arts, "and he is a working artist, he sees with the perspective of the artist and the arts manager."

Now in its 10th year, the Emerging Leader Council is a nationwide body that assists Americans for the Arts in the promotion and development of emerging arts professionals. Of the Council and its new members, Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, says: “The Emerging Leader Council serves an important role in helping Americans for the Arts carry out one of its primary goals of strengthening an informed leadership. These seven new council members have each excelled at leadership within their own communities, and we are thrilled to welcome these bright and accomplished individuals to the national council.”

What is the Emerging Leader Council?
The Emerging Leader Council (ELC) is an elected advisory body to Americans for the Arts and assists in developing programs and resources to promote the growth, development, and sustenance of emerging arts professionals nationwide. ELC members are provided with singular professional development opportunities to engage in the field on the national level; build new and dynamic relationships with colleagues; learn firsthand about new programs, resources, and tools from Americans for the Arts; design and implement programs for their peers; and be recognized on the Americans for the Arts website.

About Americans for the Arts:
With 45 years of service, Americans for the Arts is the nation's leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America. It is dedicated to representing and serving local communities and creating opportunities for every American to participate in and appreciate all forms of the arts by fostering an environment in which the arts can thrive and contribute to the creation of more livable communities; generating more public- and private-sector resources for the arts and arts education; and building individual appreciation of the value of the arts.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Adele Steiner: The Young Writers' Corner

As always, many thanks to everyone at The Writer’s Center for yet another opportunity to feature the work written by young people in my Fall 2009 creative writing workshop for 8-11 year-olds. The workshop was entitled Kids Write for Kids.

In this workshop my students wrote a children’s picture book that could be enjoyed by readers in their age group. They wrote creative fiction in prose and narrative verse, and they also wrote a separate collection of poems.

The poetry was inspired by word play, art, and especially by a recent snow storm. As a result, they reflect the time of year quite nicely, so I chose to include them in this installment of The Writer’s Center’s Young Writer’s Corner. Enjoy!


(a Renga)


flakey tiny stars

in a winter wonderland.

Snow—wonderful and white

Children play outside—

Small diamonds.

Resting on her love, her heartbeat

lifts the snow flakes slowly,

and we find them on the earth.

Cat’s paws tread

softly over grass

in whispers.

Snow melts.

Water flows, runs

to the stream.

White flakes

Happy children

Soft and white

Soft and flakey

No school.


It comes when autumn leaves.

It covers her as she dresses for spring

In a garden of white.

Mia, Gauri, Isabel, & Adele

When I’m writing, I have the power

to see the world and what is beyond me.

The pen quivers and shakes

like a slithery snake

with my imagination.

People will love my creation.

Mia (age 8)

Two Mysterious People

In the dark night sky,

Two people walk by,

But I don’t now why.

I don’t think you can see,

But their faces are lit with glee.

Gauri (age 9)

The Eclipse

When the face dies, it glows

through too many freckles, and

hair shines with gold

in the moonlit night

when no one need have fright.

Isabel (age 9)

Adele Steiner leads workshops for kids at The Writer's Center. She holds a B.A. & M.F.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing (University of Maryland). She's an instructor at Montgomery College, a Poet-in-the-Schools poet, and a Maryland State Arts Council grant recipient, In addition, she's a veteran Artist in Residence at Georgetown University Hospital, and the author of Freshwater Pearls, The Moon Lighting, and Look Ma, "Hands" on Poetry. Her work has appeared in Wordwrights, Maryland Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Smartish Pace, Promise, and So To Speak.

13th Bay to Ocean Writers Conference Announces Speakers & Conference Registration

James Michener, John Barth, and Gilbert Byron – all experienced success as writers using the Chesapeake Bay region as inspiration for their penned words. This winter,aspiring and established writers from the region will have the opportunity to learn from 23 experienced authors, poets, film writers, writing instructors, editors, publishers and agents at one of the region’s premier educational seminars – the 13th Annual Bay to Ocean Writers Conference at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, MD on February 20, 2010.

Registration for the conference will be from December 1, 2009 through February 12, 2010. Advance registration is required as past conferences have sold out. The program is sponsored by the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association, a nonprofit organization supporting writers and the literary arts across the Delmarva Peninsula.

The largest number of expert speakers in the conference’s history will address writing craft for prose and poetry, inspiration, publishing, marketing and up-to-date uses of the Internet.

Over 1,000 writers from five states have attended the event over its history. Due to its popular response, this year’s conference will increase its capacity to 175 attendees. Registrants will be able to sign up for five of 19 session offerings.

Among the writers addressing writing craft are Barbara Esstman, internationally published and awarded author; novelist Kathryn Johnson, author of 41 books; Khris Baxter, screenwriter, producer, and script consultant; New York film maker David Garrett; award-winning author and instructor Kate Blackwell; mystery novelist and teacher Austin Camacho; and William O’Sullivan, award-winning essayist and senior managing editor of the Washingtonian Magazine.

A variety of sessions will explore getting your writing ready for publishing, selecting publishing options and using literary agents. Presenters include Richard Peabody, editor of the 34-year old Gargoyle Literary Review; Jamie Brown, founder, publisher and editor of the Broadkill Review; John Ellsberg, poet, teacher, publisher, and member of the Editorial Board of The Delmarva Review; Melissa Rosati, a 15-year veteran of the New York publishing industry and is a leader in “e-learning” education; editor, writer, and publishing consultant Ally E. Peltier; Gregg Willhelm, director and editor-in-chief of Apprentice House, the country's only campus-based, student-staffed publishing company (based at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland); and literary agents Jeff Kleinman, of New York, and Laura Strachan, of Washington, D.C..

With the Internet changing daily, speakers Leslie Walker, a previous editor at The Washington Post and Knight Visiting Professor in Digital Innovation at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism; online writer and blogger Mary McCarthy; and author Mindie Burgoyne will explore Internet trends, writing online for pay and marketing your writing using the "big 5" social media networks.

Two “free write” workshops will be led by instructor and award-winning author Maribeth Fischer, of Rehoboth Beach, DE. Melanie Rigney, writer, previous editor of Writers Digest, and current copyeditor for The Delmarva Review, will remind writers why they wanted to become a writer in the first place by stretching their mind in painless, invigorating ways!

Poets will enjoy a number of new opportunities at this year’s conference including a panel discussion lead by Pulitzer nominated poet and writing instructor Sue Ellen Thompson, along with three other award-winning poets, Anne Agnes Colwell, a poet and fiction writer; Ellen Wise, published poet and Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow; and Meredith Davies Hadaway, poetry editor for The Summerset Review. Thompson will also lead a 90-minute Metaphor Workshop for up to 15 poets.

This year’s conference will again feature expert manuscript reviews for $40 each, a book store, and will present the winners of the Bay to Ocean Writing Contest. The contest, sponsored by ESWA, will honor first-rate writing in short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, with submissions due December 1, 2009.

The cost for the 2010 Bay to Ocean Writers Conference is $89 for adults and $55 for students and includes a continental breakfast, refreshments and a networking lunch. Advance registrations will be accepted online from December 1, 2009 to February 12, 2010. For complete information, visit the website, or write Bay to Ocean, PO Box 544, St. Michaels, MD 21663, or call (443) 786-4536.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday Review: Transition by Iain Banks

by Iain Banks
Orbit (U.S)


Reviewed by Brenda Clough

Opening a novel for the first time is like getting into an unfamiliar car. You're going to be spending some time here. Are the seats comfortable? Is the engine going to turn over and run smoothly?

In this analogy, Transition by Iain M. Banks is a high-end Porsche. This is not your father's Oldsmobile! You are sitting behind the wheel of a powerful and sophisticated vehicle, but it is not a cushy ride.

You have to pay attention to get the full benefit out of Transition. Multiple viewpoints, hops through time and space, a complex plot delineated by unreliable narrators -- it takes a little while to get used to the fast, challenging ride. But this baby was built by a master artificer. Banks never loses control of his story, a convoluted account of intrigue and betrayal among interdimensional travelers in an infinity of alternate Earths. And wow, there's a powerful imaginative engine under the hood.

The pure virtuosity of the novel makes it less accessible. This work was not written for newcomers to the science fiction genre, and is not suitable for younger readers (if it were a movie it would definitely be R rated, shading towards X). But if you can see what the writer is doing, it really is a pleasure to watch the whole thing come together. If you are an experienced driver and there are no radar traps, sometimes a Porsche is the perfect vehicle.

Brenda Clough has written seven novels, including her most recent, Doors of Death and Life. Her short stories have been published in numerous magazines, including Analog SF Magazine and the anthology Starlight 3. Other work has appeared in SF Age, Aboriginal, Marion Zimmer Bradley Magazine, and many anthologies. She was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award in 2002. Her next workshop at The Writer's Center is Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy in February. Find her on the web here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Awards & Announcements

I'd originally intended to post about web resources for writers. But The Writer's Center is pleased to announce some really terrific related news, so I'm going to hold off on that for another day.

Three items:

First, the songwriting duo of Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer--who lead a songwriting workshop here at The Writer's Center--have been nominated for yet another Grammy Award (they've already won two), this time for Best Musical Album for Children for their album "Banjo to Beatbox." Congrats to them.

Member Dylan Landis, who recently read at The Writer's Center as part of Story/Stereo #3 with Brian Gilmore and Zomes, has been awarded a literature fellowship from the NEA. Which is awesome news. The complete list of winners is here.

And finally, Charles Jensen, The Writer's Center's director, has been named to the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leader Council. This is a prestigious council that serves as a kind of national "steering committee" for Americans for the Arts.

Really great news from The Writer's Center community. Congratulations to all!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The "Godfather" of Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, and Jawbox Frontman J. Robbins Highlight Winter Season

The Writer's Center is stoked about its 2010 winter events & workshop season. We've got more workshops--including new workshops--across all genres, and we've even added a couple new ones this past year. We're also pumped by Lee Gutkind--the "Godfather of Creative Nonfiction--and his arrival at The Writer's Center. He'll teach a master workshop AND we'll host the official relaunch of Creative Nonfiction right here. Then there's J. Robbins, frontman of Jawbox, who will perform as part of Story/Stereo on February 19th. Keep reading to see what we've got in store for you this winter.


This winter we've expanded our corps workshops by bringing in the "Godfather" of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, who will offer a master workshop in the form. And Emerging Writer Fellow Marianne Villanueva will teach a visiting writer workshop on Using Memory in Memoir and Fiction in February. Those of you interested in screenwriting will be happy to know that we've got even more workshops in this genre this quarter, including a new documentary screenwriting workshop with David A. Taylor (who should know something about documentary films: His documentary "Soul of a People" is featured on the Smithsonian Channel and his winning plenty of accolades). All writers should be interested in Buzz Mauro's new Reading Your Work: Public Speaking, a workshop designed to make writers better performers of their work. Writer's Center staff had a foretaste of this workshop this past autumn--and let me tell you, it was amazing, and fun. I may take the workshop myself. Folks interested in comedy can get their fill with former comic Basil White in his Applying Standup Comedy Techniques to Your Writing workshop.

Selected January workshops include Creative Fiction: Internet (Bausch), Improv and the Writer (Jacobs), New Year's Resolution Workshop (Block), Songwriting: Digging Deeper (Fink), Writing the Personal Essay (Toutant), Words Out Loud: Writing for Radio (Davis), Starting a Documentary Film Project (Taylor), Dramatic Storytelling for Trial Lawyers (Baxter), How to Write a Grant Proposal (Seitchek), How to Talk the Talk: Focus on Dialogue (Pietrzyk), and Extreme Novelist (Johnson).And a second session of Extreme Novelist.

Here's the special deal for readers of this blog: Mention this blog post when you register for a workshop and you can get $50 off ANY six or eight-session workshop. That's right, $50. The only restriction to this is that you cannot register for your workshop online and get your discount. Right now our Web site simply won't accommodate special deals.


We continue our trend of adding offering more and terrific events (we think, but we're admittedly biased). The complete list of events can be found at If you're on Facebook, please consider becoming a Fan of The Writer's Center. Each week we send one event update (and occasionally offer special deals. And we like to engage our community by encouraging conversation.

Some highlights:

On Sunday, January 17, poet David Gewanter (War Bird) joins Wayne Karlin (Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and Living in Vietnam).

On Saturday, January 30, Writer's Center "alum" Pagan Kennedy returns and is joined by internationally acclaimed poet Carolyn Forche at our 33rd birthday celebration. This event is the only charged event of the season. $20. But it's a catered event and it should be tremendous. Both authors are featured in the current issue of The Carousel, and I may repost those features as we move closer to the date.

Beltway Poetry Quarterly celebrates its 10th anniversary on February 7.

Story/Stereo: A Night of Literature and Music has two dates:

February 19 with Marianne Villanueva (Mayor of the Roses) and Steve Fellner (All Screwed Up), along with musical guest J. Robbins. J. Robbins is the frontman of Jawbox. Jawbox reunited for a special show on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night. You can view that video on the DCist's Web site here.

March 19 with Kathleen Flenniken (Famous) and Anthony Varallo (Out Loud) with a musical guest TBA.

American Ensemble Theater, a new theater founded by workshop leader Martin Blank, will present a staged reading at The Writer's Center on February 26. More info can be found at their Web site.

Mark your calendars for a Creative Nonfiction inspired event called Writing the Future, which will be held in conjunction with a new rollout of Creative Nonfiction magazine with Lee Gutkind. See Gutkind on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on the above link.

And finally, don't forget--especially those of you out in northern Virginia--that we have some really great events out in Leesburg as well. These are part of our The Writer's Center at Leesburg First Friday events at the beginning of each month. One event includes C.M. Mayo in March, and more will be announced as they come in.

Good writing and reading! We hope to see you early, and often, in 2010.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Perils of Book to Stage Adaptation

by Susan Land

The day before Thanksgiving, at the Hampstead Theatre just north of London, I dragged my husband to a one-man show he enjoyed, based on a memoir I read last winter and absolutely, positively, with all my heart and soul adored. Though relieved that Mark liked I Found My Horn, I wasn’t just disappointed in the adaptation, but irritated in a way that kept me up at night trying to figure out why. I’d laughed, hadn’t I? I’d enjoyed the music. I even play the horn. (Badly.)

I’ve also taught courses in reading memoirs and memoirs-in-progress, and I’ve learned:

1) Beginning with humiliation works better than beginning with triumph.

2) Readers expect writers to own up and grow up.

3) Readers want an Ah ha moment somewhere near the end of the story, a summing up of a piece of a life. Like a goody bag at the end of a successful birthday party, the moment doesn’t have to have anything of intrinsic value in it to be greatly appreciated.

4) British memoirists don’t dwell on their inner pain with the same candor as American writers.

I Found My Horn is based on the memoir, The Devil to Play, by Jaspar Rees. The memoir focuses on a middle-aged man’s return to the horn he’d abandoned after leaving high school, and the relationships between man and horn, and between horn and history. The book is frank, funny, touching, and very proper. No explanation for the divorce that triggers the crisis that leads to the horn. No romantic pining. No railing at the gods.

The pleasure of The Devil to Play is in the wit and melody and tender, humbling, raging, all-consuming love Reevs feels for his horn.

In the one-man show, the private life left out of the memoir is filled in with a mixture of the actual memories Jonathan Guy Lewis, the adaptor-actor-horn-player, and with Lewis’s dramatic embellishments. We hear him rant about meaningless and the pain of leaving his marriage and sons, and we watch him press the bell of the horn against his groin while wearing only his boxer shorts. He blows and grunts. It isn’t pretty, but it is pretty humiliating: see Item 1.

About halfway through the show, Lewis, playing Rees, reveals a secret humiliation from the past that makes the story more dramatic - and less true. But we get to see him take on the demon nervousness and ultimately triumph: Item 2.

He also gives us a long raunchy scene with Mozart and Mozart’s friend, the first known great horn player and a successful cheese merchant. In fairness to Lewis, live theatre needs to be bolder than print. There’s no time to reread, rewind, reflect.

For the all-important Item 3, Lewis, clothed, gives us a terrific ah ha wrapped up in a performance of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 3, embellished with trills and little declarations about doing the best you can and feeling good about yourself. The only thing is, in the book he never learned how to trill!

So whose story is it now? Lewis is listed in the program as the first author, Rees the second.

I have no trouble at all with truth passing itself off as fiction. Fiction is always a mix, and Grace Paley, for one, felt that everything was fiction, because no one could really capture the non.

But non-fiction, once it has introduced itself as such to, say, this vulnerable reader, cannot just decide to make itself more attractive to others without leaving her dwelling on her pain: Item 4.

So, heartbroken, I seek solace with greater faith than ever in the honest joy of fiction. A good short story will never betray you with untrue trills!

Susan Land MA (Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars), Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction (Stanford University), has received three Maryland Council on the Arts Fellowships, and published fiction in many journals, including The Washington Review, Other Voices, the Florida Review, West Branch, and Missouri Review. So To Speak nominated her story "Amenities" for a 2006 Pushcart Prize. She had written and recorded a personal essay for NPR's All Things Considered, has a short story in Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction By Washington Area Women, and a chapter on teenagers and games in Like Whatever, the Insider's Guide to Raising Teens.This winter, Susan Land is offering a workshop on reading and writing short stories. Reading and writing longer short stories.

Look for a future book to stage colloboration with Round House Theatre, coming this May.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Seal Woman Sold to Schocken--and a call for FPP submissions

A brief post today. First a congratulations is due to workshop leader Solveig Eggerz (previously interviewed on this blog). Her first novel, Seal Woman, has been sold to Shocken Publishing House in Israel. The book will soon be translated into Hebrew. Those of you who subscribe to World Literature Today will find a positively glowing review of her novel in the most recent issue.

In other Seal Woman news, it has been chosen by the American Association of University Women as a book club pick for the month of January.

Now, a call for submissions:

Are you a member of The Writer's Center? Would you like to write a first person account of your experiences at The Writer's Center? Could be one workshop in one quarter, or multiple workshops over many years. Could be just about anything TWC related. During the month of January, I'd like to publish nothing but Writer's Center member accounts of their experiences here. Every day. All month.

If you're interested, all you'd have to do is write about 4-500 words and submit the piece to me, Kyle Semmel, by January 1st. I'm available to answer any questions you may have as well.

Review Monday: Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation

The Origin of the Species: A Graphic Adaptation
Authors: Michael Keller, Nicolle Rager Fuller
Publishing Date: October 2009
Publisher: Rodale Press

Reviewed by Brenda Clough (originally appeared at Book View Cafe)

2009 is the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin’s birth, and also the 150th anniversary year of the publication of his famous The Origin of Species.  So what better way to celebrate than a graphic novel edition of the great work?
DarwinThe big problem of Origin for the modern reader is that, well, it was written 150 years ago, by a Victorian gentleman of great learning who was anxious to make an airtight argument by using many, many examples.  The book itself can therefore be charitably described as dry.

Any method of getting the work — one of the cornerstone volumes of modern science –  to be more accessible is therefore to be applauded.  This graphic novel edition  includes information about Darwin’s research, the scientific controversy, and lots of other ancillary material.  Also, some information really is better seen than described at length in text. — do you want to read about the difference between those finch beaks, or to see it?

Wouldn’t this be a great addition to a science classroom library?

Brenda Clough has written seven novels, including her most recent, Doors of Death and Life. Her short stories have been published in numerous magazines, including Analog SF Magazine and the anthology Starlight 3. Other work has appeared in SF Age, Aboriginal, Marion Zimmer Bradley Magazine, and many anthologies. She was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award in 2002. Her next workshop at The Writer's Center is Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy in February. Find her on the web here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Saturday Morning Post: Member Patricia Valdata Wins Gold Medal for her Novel

Congratulations to Writer's Center member Pat Valdata, who recently received lofty honors for her novel The Other Sister. Here's the press release that was sent to us:

Elkton author Pat Valdata received a gold medal and was inducted into the Hungarian Association’s Árpád Academy on Saturday, November 28, at a black-tie event in Cleveland, Ohio. Valdata received the honors for her second novel, The Other Sister, which chronicles the lives of Hungarian Catholic immigrants over a 50-year period. 

Valdata, who grew up in the Hungarian-American community in New Brunswick, New Jersey, drew on family stories, personal experience and extensive research to produce the novel, which one reviewer calls “a vivid and richly detailed story of the immigrant experience in America.”

According to Dr. John Nadas, president of the Hungarian Association, the Árpád Academy honors “those valuable and extraordinary works which promote the Hungarian spirit, and to professionally evaluate, and to recognize, elevate, and promote those works, with the intention of keeping the Hungarian spirit alive and energized.”

The Other Sister explores family relationships of three generations of Hungarian immigrants during the first half of the 20th century. United by language, custom, and religion, the first generation of immigrants forms a tight-knit community. Succeeding generations discover their own unique challenges to balance their heritage with life in American society. Their personal stories are set against a background of larger social issues, including world war, the influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Valdata, who lives in Elkton, Maryland, received an MFA in writing from Goddard College. Her first novel, titled Crosswind, was published by Wind Canyon Publishing. The Other Sister was published by Plain View Press. She also writes a column for Cecil Soil, articles for Chesapeake Bay, and has a poetry chapbook titled Looking for Bivalve (Pecan Grove Press).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fail Better: Barbara Esstman Interview's's Thom Didato

Today, workshop leader Barbara Esstman interviews Thom Didato of Thom once took workshops here at The Writer's Center.

Barbara Esstman:

I didn't know the Beckett quote until I read the back of your card ("Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."), but it reminded me of a great Lucille Clifton poem about writing that ends with "Though I fail and fail, this giving of names is my job." Failure as a constant is part of writing that often comes as a shock to novices. How did you choose Failbetter for the name of your on-line lit mag (and what were the runner-up choices?) How does Failbetter reflect on your ideas of writing and what you like to publish?

Thom Didato:

We’re often asked about the origin of our name which I always think is a good thing because a good name does go a long way of distinguishing a literary publication from the sea of ”reviews” or ”journals” out there.

As to why we chose it…Well, our mag initially evolved out of a popular New York reading series called “failbetter presents” that was curated by one of our founding editors, David McClendon. David was kinda a disciple of the Gordon Lish school and the series had many great readers. I initially approached David about the idea of starting a mag and ten years later failbetter is still going strong. Thus, in a way we didn’t choose the name, it chose us.

The meaning behind the Beckett quote is much debated, and in my opinion, misinterpreted. A lot of folks see it as some sort of self help / perseverance proverb. I don’t think of it that way (nor do I fathom did Beckett). And while I’m hesitant to provide our official interpretation of the quote (I’m sure even my colleagues and I might not agree) I believe the mere act of failing is the point, and said act may result in something truly original. Wow, that sounds pretty pretentious, eh? Well, let’s just allow the mystery behind Beckett’s words remain an enigma, much like the man himself.

What would you like our readers, members and the world to know about And since you'll inevitably be getting submissions -- at least one or two -- from our writers, what are you looking for in a story?

Again, I think you would get a different answer from each of my fb colleagues, whether it be from Andy Day the co-publisher of the mag, or from our section editors. I used to say we were looking for character-driven fiction where something actually happens – but with a decade under our belt, and the changing of section editors, I think the one constant editorial slant is that we seek that which is at once original and personal -- something that could only come from you.

As an old person still struggling with basic computer functions, I'm terribly impressed that you had the foresight to start an on-line mag before on-line mags began taking over the world. What was your thinking 10 years ago? What have you changed or adjusted over this decade? How has this contributed to your survival during a time when other lit mags have been vanishing at an alarming rate?

I laugh at the assertion that we had any foresight at all. We had foresight -- only in hindsight. As I have admitted in the past, when we started failbetter, finances were a definite factor, not because we didn’t have the money (though we didn’t), but rather because we had seen several of our fellow editors start up print magazines, only to go belly up after an issue or two. That seemed like such a waste, not only in terms of money, but also for the poor writers they had published whose work was soon relegated to the used-bookstore bins (or worse yet, the trash). For us, it wasn’t merely a question of money, but of longevity and impact.

In general, the technological change over the past decade has been insane. Yes, first we were a bunch of luddites, cutting and pasting and using html-made-easy programs like Front Page and the Dreamweaver. And the mag itself has gone through several face lifts in design. Somewhere along the line we changed from html to php, started to integrate better data base usage and an online submissions system. Eventually even our publishing schedule was effected by the way folks used the web, transforming us from singularly published quarterly to releasing each work on an almost weekly basis until it culminates in an issue. We’re still by no means on the cutting edge of online technology and one must always walk the fine line between becoming too fascinated with the method over the sake of the substance. We’re constantly asking ourselves about some new technology and whether or not it will be truly useful (“Should we have a ‘share this’ button? What about a Facebook and Twiter presence? Perhaps change the “from the editors” section to a blog… All of which, might I add, we’ve done.) Now the big thing is to get our publication out/away from the computer – with e-book and iphone editions, and a soon to be 10th anniversary Kindle edition.

How do you put out with a staff in cyberspace? Is there a 'real' office or only a virtual one? Do you get together in person occasionally or is this completely a net operation? If so, do you know what the other staff members look like?

We’re all very, very close facebook friends… Seriously, in most cases we have personal or professional connections. Initially, we all lived in New York City which was great as far as editorial meetings – though sometimes produced a rather costly bar tab. Nowadays my colleagues live on the east coast, west coast and points in between. The office is indeed a virtual one, with an online submissions system where we can weigh in on the slush, and an onslaught of emails and conference calls to get all the work done. is running a 10th anniversary novella contest. How great is that? Publishing-wise, novellas are usually too long for magazines and too short for book publishers. No one's even quite sure how long a novella is, or what it is exactly. What can you say to would-be submitters? What should they know about novellas before they submit their manuscript to the contest? Maybe even before they start writing their manuscript?

Let me quote our own blog for this answer: “The novella is an unduly neglected form. Death in Venice, Heart of Darkness, Miss Lonelyhearts—would any of these find its way into print today, if it came from any but a well-known author? For traditional publishers, the fixed costs of making a book are too great an obstacle—to justify this outlay, a book has to sell for a price higher than most buyers are willing to pay, for a text that may come in at “only,” say, fifty pages. So what of the new Billy Budd or Seize the Day? Will it sit forever, unread but by one, on its author’s hard drive, or in his Moleskine? No! We’ve opined before about epublishing’s unique ability to give new life—bring new readers, in loads—to fiction in all its forms. Now we’d like to do our bit to revivify this great, if lately unloved form. How can we afford to publish a novella, when our print peers can’t? Because for us, the economics are different. It costs little more to code up a 15,000-word work than a 500-worder, and the storage and distribution costs are identical. As to your, the reader’s, cost—how much time you’ll need to spend, to read a novella online… If it’s good enough, that’ll be time well-spent. And if we’re right that the lack of outlets has kept too many good novellas from being published, and others from being written, we shouldn’t have much problem turning one up.”

So dear writer, send us what you’ve got!

You once took workshops at TWC—my workshop, in fact—so can you tell us a little bit about your experiences at The Writer’s Center? How about the writing group that was a spin-off from the workshop? Of course, we're hoping TWC engendered multiple epiphanies and revolutionized your life; but if not, just some practical observations will do on how a place like this can be useful to new writers.

That may have been the first workshop I ever took and it was a great one. Indeed, I’m indebted to TWC for saving me from a listless life as a government bureaucrat (though I have to admit there are plenty of such professional souls who have far more creativity than those who claim to be an ARTIST!) That class not only got me to start putting words to paper but how said words should or could appear. And yes, for a number of years after that class, about 4 or 5 of us would meet and share our various stories and excerpts...Of course, the writing pursuit lead me to more classes and more writing groups. TWC is great not only because it provides a resource for like-minded literary souls, but serves as a catalyst for being creative. Now, I’m not sure it engendered multiple epiphanies, but perhaps did lead me to the universally-known-but-little-followed maxim – “Do what you love and love what you do.” Of course, it took me about 20 more years for that to finally sink into my thick head, but I can thank TWC for planting the seed.

What have you done since (besides -- like that wasn't enough. Are you still writing? Does your editing get in the way of your writing? How disruptive is a four year old?

You know, I should mention that the same rule that applies to writers also applies to literary publishers, and that is: don’t quite your day job. After leaving DC I moved up to Brooklyn, first worked in a bookstore (and got a lot of writing done) but then thought I should get a more professional looking job title and went into publishing. In many ways, that was disaster (both to my writing and to my psyche). I spent a couple of years editing cat murder mysteries (where the cat was witness to, or the perpetrator of, murder!) and Christian romances (usually involving a Canadian Mountie who lost his way by taking a wee bit too much of the drink). Then I went to work for one of the larger houses (which was hauntingly reminiscent of my days in government). Thankfully, I ended up at a little literary non-profit called the Council of Literary Magazines and Press (which kinda serves as a defacto union for hundreds of literary magazines and presses). I continued to write and got about a dozen short stories published in small mags, wrote a novel, got an agent, fired an agent, abandoned another novel and started a third…and then came the kid and the relatively recent relocation to good olde Richmond, VA.

Truth be told, in the past years I’ve spent most/all of my creative energy on failbetter and have taken a break from my writing. That used to make me feel guilty but I am quite content to consider myself an editor/publisher for now (though undoubtedly I will return to writing). Meanwhile, my wife continues to humor my failbetter ways (both emotionally and financially). I was lucky enough to land an academic job at Virginia Commonwealth University where I coordinate the graduate programs in English and teach a couple of undergraduate courses a year (including one on literary publishing). I’m somewhat satisfied (never really satisfied with anything) with my literary life and perhaps most importantly have managed to prevent my four year old son from becoming a huge NASCAR fan in a town that has no professional sports teams.
It’s good times all around.

Thom Didato is the publisher of failbetter an award-winning online literary magazine. He lives in Richmond, Virginia where he currently teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and administers their graduate programs in English.

Barbara Esstman is a National Endowment for the Arts, VCCA and Virginia Commission for the Arts fellow and a Redbook fiction award winner, among other distinctions. Her two novels, The Other Anna and Night Ride Home, were published by Harcourt Brace and HarperCollins and are in numerous foreign editions. Both books were adapted for television by Hallmark Productions. She co-edited an anthology, A More Perfect Union, published by St. Martin's Press, and has taught extensively in universities. Her next workshop at The Writer's Center is Advanced Novel and Memoir.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mini-Interview: Dylan Landis

This Friday, December 4th, Dylan Landis will join poet Brian Gilmore, author of Jungle Nights & Soda Fountain Rags (Karibu Books), and Baltimore band Zomes at our Story/Stereo event at the Center (Click for details/to register).  Dylan' most recent novel-in-stories, Normal People Don't Live Like This, was recently reviewed on this blog by Poet Lore's managing editor, Caitlin Hill.

Dylan Landis has published fiction in Bomb, Tin House, Best American Nonrequired Reading and elsewhere, and has won the California Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Writers@Work Fellowship and special mention for a Pushcart Prize. A former journalist, Landis covered medicine for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and interior design for the Chicago Tribune, and has written ten books on decorating and other subjects. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Caitlin was given the opportunity to ask Dylan all those burning questions that came up while she was enjoying the book.  The interview is below.

Did you start off this project knowing you wanted to write a novel-in-stories, or were they separate short stories that began to come together, or were you planning on a novel or something else entirely?

I didn't mean to write this book at all! I was trying to fix a novel about my main character, Leah, at age 22, called Floorwork, which looked at one time like it might sail through the stratosphere. Four agents wanted it, but when it didn't find a publisher I realized I needed a deeper grasp of Leah's past--her adolescence, her family, her yearnings and motivation, the seeds of her sexuality. 

I'd just started writing short stories—about Leah, to know her better—so that's how I researched her, and her mother. I wrote her at twelve, thirteen, fifteen. The stories got published; some won prizes. At some point I realized: here's half a book. And with every story I tried a new assignment. Write in third person. Write in past tense! That was weirdly scary. Write about Leah's mother. Write about sex, death or God without using clichés. Write about a man—that was the final story. 

Rainey is a fairly minor character in the life of the piece as a whole (though her presence lingers long after she vanishes from the narrative). Why did you choose to start the collection with Rainey’s story? 

When you meet Rainey, in "Jazz," she's half-trapped beneath her father's best friend. He's thirty-nine. She's thirteen. She thinks she thinks she seduced him with her sexual power, but when she says, "Richard, get off," he keeps her pinned, exposes her breast, and goes farther. Is it rape? She doesn't know. Is she powerful or powerless? She doesn't know.

What if you'd first met Leah, in"Fire," which opens with Leah so frightened by Rainey's bullying that she lashes out? You'd have such a neat handle on Rainey: You'd meet her as a bully, and then, when you see her molested, the bullying would make sense. I'm wary of things making sense. Flipping the stories seemed to stir up silt. Silt is what you're after in fiction, right? Now the book opens with the power question. What is power, for a teenage girl? If Rainey thinks she's powerful in "Jazz" but is in fact a victim, then who has power in the bullying scenes? Who has more or less power than she believes throughout the book?

You mentioned power, and figuring out who has it, or lacks it, throughout the book.  While reading, I kept thinking about issues of "control:"  Helen's issues with food and need to decorate her space, Leah's OCD, Bonita's seeming lack of control over her girls and her comfort with it (and the power that has over Helen), Rainey's sexuality and the control it gives her and takes away, etc, etc.  Are there other themes or issues that you feel tend to come up more often than not in your writing? Similarly, are you typically interested in examining women's lives, or did that just spring out of your interest in understanding and exploring Leah?

I write stories to find out who a character is, and how her life is about to shift—not to explore issues. But I do invest a piece of myself in every character, and then distort or exaggerate or invert that piece until it becomes, I suppose, a theme (much as I dislike the word). Control, power, all aspects of sexuality, mothering and fathering, good girls, bad girls, intense friendship, guilt, grace, violence, the redemptive power of art. I'm interested in characters who can't quite articulate their feelings—it creates an interesting box for me to work within.

And it simply took a long time to start writing about men.  I'm enjoying it immensely now, but I still know women better.  Testosterone—what is that? 

As an embarrassingly inconsistent writer, I am always curious about other writers' habits.  Do you write every day?  Do you have requirements for yourself, such as a particular writing space, a time of day, specific music or rituals you engage in to get you into the writing headspace?

I have nerve damage in my hands, so either typing hurts, or the keyboard and pen feel high-voltage, or both. Unfortunately, when work presents itself I want to do it now, and I'm a compulsive reviser. So the problem lies in not writing, or at least in not typing. I'm doing three  online interviews this week and reading a friend's manuscript. I love revising, even when the work goes slowly and badly, as it usually does. I love typing. It's the closest I'll get to playing the piano. I forget to eat. If I had rituals I'd forget them too.

What I'd really like to do for a ritual is chain-smoke, but that's not happening.  

It sounds like I work all day. I get hurt that way and have to stop, so there's no routine whatsoever. I read. I talk to writer-friends about writing. I'm helping a poet with cancer launch her book; any ideas? I'm fairly distractable—by my husband, consignment shops, MAC stores, any opportunity to fly to LA, coffee, Facebook, the cat, newspapers, bookstores, readings, good interview questions, and the computer. Just no TV. 

What other writers or artists inspire you?  Any books you return to over and over? 

I revisit Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor, waiting for the part about how an act of violence triggers the moment in which grace is extended to a character. For grace, if you are not religious, think: a moment of transcendance. After Flannery, I sometimes reread Angels by Denis Johnson, to see grace made flesh by a different writer. It's almost unbearable.  

I recently read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison for maybe the 11th or 12th time and I still couldn't teach that book. It's so layered and complex. It continually teaches me about Story. I go back to As I Lay Dying to learn about point of view—I've been trying to diagram the POVs in that novel, but the diagram is nonsensical to anyone but me. Cormac McCarthy I'm slowly rereading in chronological order. I thought I was rereading him to keep myself focused on undertow, but no, this time through I'm watching for some of the brushstrokes he uses to reveal character.  

My memory's lousy. That's partly why I reread: to hold onto things. 

I just read The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman. It left me breathless with its beauty. How anything can be  so still, yet so urgent, is beyond me.  

Are we going to see Leah's novel one day?  What's next for you? 

I'll revise Floorwork, transpose it from first to third. A chapter that ran in the New Orleans Review got special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize, and Normal People has gotten such a good response that I suppose Floorwork, as a sequel, could conceivably get a second look. But revision would be a pleasure. I'll do it whether my agent feels hopeful or not.

First, though, I'm deep in a new novel about a woman named Mary Mallon who came here from Ireland, age fifteen, in 1883; became a terrifically good cook; and was quarantined in 1907—as  Typhoid Mary. She hated that name, which the press gave her, and she denied to her death that she carried the typhoid germ. Only three people died due to contact with her—hardly an epidemic, though she tested positive. Did she know, deep down? And what does it mean to be guilty or innocent? Clean or unclean? What does it mean to be—even if she disbelieved it—that powerful?