Monday, May 21, 2012

Writing Staycation

A Staycation Junkie

by Sheila Walker

As soon as Zahara Heckscher’s November 2011 Writing Staycation ended, I immediately signed up for the April 2012 session.

I’ve been working on a memoir about my experiences in Cameroon in Central Africa for so long that I cringe to think of the generation of MacIntosh on which I began it. I became a cultural anthropologist as a result of my first trip there, and have returned to do fieldwork, attend cultural events and always to visit the family with which I lived when I was nineteen and beginning the journey that marked my life.

My problem isn’t writers block. It’s rather a lack of continuity in a life characterized by a sometimes incredible amount of international travel -- thirteen trips overseas in 2011. The continuity and intensity of the five consecutive days of staycationing, rather than the usual once a week for several weeks, was exactly what I needed. That we met in the sunny Zora Neale Hurston Room also seemed planned with me in mind since Zora is my heroine as an African American anthropologist best known for her popular writing. I felt like I was in summer daycamp.

Each morning began with a prompt of some sort to get our creative juices flowing. It was usually someone’s inspirational words. Sometimes it was fruit -- a pomegranate the first Writing Staycation I attended and a pineapple the second, which we were to contemplate with each of our senses, and let the experience flow into our writing. Whereas some in the group waxed poetic (if one can wane poetic, that’s what I did), each fruit transported me to experiences related to my manuscript.

The pomegranate brought me images of visits to NY’s Chinatown at age four where, in addition to being intrigued by a fruit so much more interesting than oranges and apples, I began the fascination with other peoples and cultures that led me to Cameroon and to being an anthropologist. The pineapple reminded me of the shock of some Cameroonian villagers at my amazement at seeing a pineapple grow for the first time. How, they wondered, could someone from a presumably developed country not know such things that they took for granted? That was one of my many lessons about the relativity of who’s developed and who’s not and by what criteria.

A major benefit I got from the Staycation was Zahara’s critical reading of parts of my manuscript and of my agent query letter and proposal drafts, and her quick, supportive, and constructively critical feedback. She gave me a sense of the importance of what I have to say, suggested elements to highlight and augment, and demystified the proposal-writing process. Noon lectures by authors, bloggers, agents, and others enhanced the value of two intensely useful weeks, as well as leading me to other Center classes and workshops to pursue paths that got their start in my two Writing Staycations.

I’ll be back as soon as my schedule allows. Just call me Staycation Junkie. I’ll see you in the Zora Neale Hurston Room.

(Writing Staycation meets Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 4 through 8.)  Please click here for more details.

Write Your Way to the End: A Profile of Emily Miller

Write Your Way to the End: A Profile of Emily Miller
by Robert Bausch

I was scheduled to teach a workshop in Aspen, Colorado. One of the manuscripts sent to me in the weeks before my flight was a brief chapter in a novel by Emily Miller. It was a scene in a car
with a father and son. The story is told from the father’s point of view, but what is memorable from that scene is the excruciating awkwardness of the father, his sincere need to avoid conflict,
set up against his son’s distant, disrespectful attitude. What the father says to his son engenders the kind of response he is getting—taken a certain way, and that is how the son takes it—but the father’s intentions are not at all what the son perceives them to be. It’s a car ride, mostly. Not much happens in the scene in terms of physical action. But the conflict in that scene is as gripping as any I’ve encountered in years.

Once the workshop began, I took Emily aside and asked her, “What are you doing here?”
I told her she could easily teach a workshop herself. She told me she’d been wrestling with the
first 100 pages of this novel for a long time. She wanted to get response to it in a workshop
setting. She thought it might help her finish it. Emily, I could see, had no faith in what she was
doing. I told her just to write her way to the end, to trust that prodigious talent and see what she’s
got when she’s done with it.

A few days after I got back from Aspen, I sent Emily an e-mail that said simply, “WYWTTE.” I had written that on a sheet of paper and taped it to my computer, and then I thought of her and decided to remind her of what I’d told her.

What I got back was an e-mail that said, “It took me several hours to figure out what
WYWTTE stands for. I get it. And I will.” Of course what it stands for is “Write Your Way To
The End.”

Every day after that, when I sat down to work on my book, I’d e-mail Emily first.
WYWTTE. That’s all. Over the rest of that fall, through the winter, and into the following
summer, I’d ask Emily for a “status report.” She’d ask me how my work was going, so I’d send
her a status report too. At one point I wrote to say, “I should probably quit sending you these e-
mails; I’m probably getting to be a nuisance.”

She wrote back and said, “No, don’t. It really is a help to me. And I think I’m helping
you, too. Go team.”

Emily finished her book that August. I’ll let her tell you what happened after that:
I spent the next four months doing two or three big revisions. In January I decided it was where I wanted it to be. I was ready to look for an agent. From everything I'd heard in my writing life, I braced for months (if not more) of frustration and discouragement. To my great surprise, things happened very quickly. One of the agents I queried in the first batch asked me to suspend my
search for 10 days while she read it. She promised she'd get back to me the coming Monday, which happened to be Valentine’s Day and, as promised, that Monday morning I got an e-mail from her saying she loved the book and wanted to try to sell it. The only change she wanted me to make was the title. (It was
Gold. We changed it to After Augustus, which has since been changed again.) I was of course ecstatic. The very next week she sent it out to eight. A few came back right away with interest. I spoke to two editors on the phone on Tuesday, and ended up accepting a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Wednesday.

A two book deal. Her first book, Brand New Human Being, will be published June 12,
and she is now beginning work on the second. And I think when she gets going on it, she will remember to write her way to the end. ¶

This profile has been updated since its original publication in the summer 2012 Workshop & Event Guide.


Robert Bausch was educated at George Mason University, earning a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A., and he says he has been a writer all his life. He has taught at the University of Virginia, American University, George Mason University, The Johns Hopkins University, and Northern Virginia Community College. He has also been a director on the board of the Pen Faulkner Foundation. In 2009 he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize in Literature. For more information, visit

photos by: Patrice Gilbert (Miller); Matt Briggs (Bausch)

Monday, May 14, 2012

BookTalk: Double Indemnity

BookTalk: Double Indemnity
by Art Taylor

James M. Cain’s first two novels—The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity
earned both sharp notoriety and enduring acclaim for the author, a Baltimore native. Postman, first published in 1934, was a sensational bestseller, despite (or perhaps because of?) being banned in Boston, and the book famously inspired Albert Camus’ own first novel, The Stranger. Double Indemnity, serialized in 1936 and published as a novel in 1943, cemented the author’s reputation as one of the finest crime writers of his generation, a master alongside contemporaries Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Both books were adapted into now-classic film noirs, and a third novel, Mildred Pierce—was recently given fresh life as an award-winning HBO miniseries.

This spring, Double Indemnity gets its own update with the East Coast premiere of a new stage adaptation running May 30–June 24 at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. In conjunction with that production, The Writer’s Center will host a BookTalk event on Sunday, June 10, at 12:30 P.M., focused on Cain’s novels, the various film adaptations, and the local production. As a preview of that talk, the program’s moderator, fiction writer and critic Art Taylor, posed some quick questions of each of the panelists. Check out their responses below, and come join us on Sunday, June 10, for more of the discussion!

Maureen Corrigan, Georgetown University professor and book critic for National Public Radio and The Washington Post

Taylor: How well do Cain’s books hold up against today’s crime or noir novels? Having taught Cain in the college classroom, how have students’ responses surprised you in any way?
Corrigan: Cain is still the crime noir master against whom all other writers must measure themselves. Fate, fall guys, femme fatales, and fast cars: Cain mixed them all up in a California cauldron steaming with sexuality and bad poetry. Yes, that’s right: “bad poetry.” The amazing thing about Cain is that he wasn’t a great literary stylist. Anyone who doubts this judgment should compare the ending of the novel Double Indemnity to Billy Wilder’s film version. Cain’s finale is infected by dopey symbols (“the moon,” that shark!) while Wilder’s ending is elegantly restrained by comparison. My students are sometimes surprised to find how wincingly bad Cain’s literary flourishes can be, but they revere Cain for the doomed mood of his stories and his ingenious “No Exit” plots. Cain’s novels are a product of The Great Depression. Given our ongoing Great Recession, Cain’s writing—particularly its focus on what desperate people will do for a buck—is more socially relevant than ever.

Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-winning author of six novels, including most recently The End of Everything.

Taylor: At a noir-themed evening sponsored by City Light Books a couple years ago, you commented that James M. Cain’s novels provided your first glimpse at adult love. What impact did Cain’s books have on you—both as a young reader coming of age and as a young writer entering the world of noir?
Abbott: I grew up loving the famous film adaptations of Cain, their brooding sense of desire run amok. It made adult desire seem so overwhelming and dangerous. But nothing prepared me for The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I first read in my early 20s. It felt like forbidden
terrain. The way it’s structured—as a confession—made it feel like Frank, the narrator, was whispering a secret in my ear, an almost unbearable intimacy. It made me think of the power of noir fiction to let us into not just the unconscious of the book but also our own unconscious. It fueled everything I wrote after that.

Con Lehane, Writer’s Center instructor and author of the Brian McNulty mystery novels, including most recently Death at the Old Hotel

Taylor: To what degree do you look to past masters of crime fiction as mentors of sorts in crafting your own novels?
Lehane: When I first began writing crime fiction, I was inspired by the California hard-boiled triumvirate—Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. I didn’t directly model my writing on them; the influence was more subtle for me, possibly subconscious, but it was very much there. I didn’t come to the noir writers until after my first book was published—although I was well aware of some of the movies, particularly those made from Cain’s books. If I had come to them earlier, I wonder if I might have written a different book, because I do feel an affinity with noir writers—Cain, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Derek Raymond, and others.

Blake Robison, Producing Artistic Director, Round House Theatre
Taylor: As part of its mission, Round House Theatre has mounted stage adaptations of many great works of literature—this season’s offerings already included Fahrenheit 451 and Pride & Prejudice. How does it change your approach when there’s already been a successful—even legendary—film adaptation of the book you’re adapting to the stage, as with the production of Double Indemnity ahead?
Robison: It’s an interesting question with a double answer. When describing the adaptation to the public, we do take the famous film into account, since it’s a reference point for many people. In our creative work, however, we steer clear. This adaptation looks to the source material for inspiration—namely, the novel by James M. Cain—so that is our primary inspiration. The play has to work as a play first and foremost. There will be variances from the novel. Some characters won’t make the cut, scenes might be moved to different locations, and so forth. We want audiences to experience the story in a heightened, theatrical context. ¶

BookTalk: Double Indemnity will take place on Sunday, June 10 at 12:30 P.M.
First published in serial form in 1936, James Cain’s Double Indemnity is the inspiration for Billy Wilder’s classic 1944 film of the same name. In this special panel presentation moderated by fiction writer and critic Art Taylor, mystery novelists Megan Abbott and Con Lehane join National Public Radio book reviewer Maureen Corrigan and Round House Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Blake Robison to discuss why the book remains one of the defining classics of the hardboiled genre. Participants are encouraged to attend Round House’s production of the play May 30–June 24.
Tickets: TWC Members/Students/Round House Subscribers $10; Non-members $15

This article was originally published in the summer 2012 Workshop & Event Guide.


Art Taylor’s short fiction has appeared in several national magazines, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and North American Review; online at Fiction Weekly, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly; and in various regional publications. His story “A Voice from the Past” was an honorable mention for the 2010 Best American Mystery Stories anthology. His story “Rearview Mirror” won the 2011 Derringer Award for Best Novelette. He regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post and contributes frequently to Mystery Scene, among other publications. For more information, visit

Photos by: Drew Reilly (Abbott); Kyle Semmel (Corrigan); Paddy Lehane (Lehane); Stan Barouh (Robison); Tara Laskowski (Taylor)

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Million Little Details: the Career of a Book Designer

A Million Little Details: the Career of a Book Designer
by Maureen Punte

If you’ve read a book and didn’t stumble over the text, or notice things like ragged paragraphs, widows, or rivers, you can thank the careful skill of the books’ designer for bringing it all together. As a book designer with over 35 titles to his credit, Jay Naughton has worn many hats: copy editor, photo manipulator, illustrator, production coordinator, marketing person, accountant, and business manager.

Book design is something Naughton fell into. A self-proclaimed “software junkie,” he taught himself the latest programs—including a fad at the time, desktop publishing. Like others, Naughton was amazed that a person could produce print material at home. After learning the software, he started taking on side jobs designing things like menus and newsletters.

He later worked as a writer for the National Lampoon website. When the company got a book deal, Naughton was asked if he could produce the book. Having worked at a nonprofit producing books, he felt he could try. Although he wasn’t actively marketing himself, this led to more work from the publisher and others.

As for his design skills, Naughton says he just picked them up, “I’m not trained at all. Again, it’s just having an eye for what looks good and what doesn’t.” It’s a modest answer from someone who knows what makes for a strong book design, “If the typography and design draws too much attention to itself, you’re taking away from the fact that it’s a book someone should be reading, not a museum piece someone should be admiring.”

At his height, Naughton was producing a new book every three weeks. This requires a detailed plan. After receiving information on the size of the book, the page count, and the word count, he would lay out four or five sample chapters for the client. For some projects, he was given a few days to sit and think about the layout. For others, he sat with the authors working out ideas on the spot.

For Naughton, book design is a constant dialogue. The designer has to be open to what the author wants because ultimately it’s the author’s book. It’s also about being prepared for revisions because “final text” doesn’t necessarily mean “final.” Naughton explains the trouble one small change can cause. “If [the author] changes one word there, boom, half of this paragraph’s on the next page. None of your pictures line up, your captions are gone.”

In addition to his work on the National Lampoon books, Naughton worked on a series that included a biography of John Belushi. Belushi’s widow, Judith, a co-author on the book, had one layout request: make it look like Rolling Stone. Belushi had appeared in the magazine many times. This required some research on Naughton’s part. Knowing how the magazine was laid out, and more importantly what typeface they used, was crucial. He went through thousands of fonts on his computer. For each one Judith said it wasn’t right. He wound up buying the font.

The book included pictures from Belushi’s life. Judith sent Naughton a trunk of scrapbooks, Polaroids, and notes. However, there were pictures Judith and co-author Tanner Colby wanted in the book that weren’t in the trunk. It was up to Naughton to track these down. This meant calling John’s old friends and Universal Studios for movie stills. Each item had to be cataloged, scanned, and cleaned up in Photoshop. As Naughton points out, “It’s a million little details,” so staying organized, both digitally and physically, is essential. All of this became Naughton’s job because, as he says, “If someone uses a snippet of something you have to know, it shouldn’t fall on the designer’s shoulders, but if I’m the only one who can do it I kind of have to.”

When the recession hit, Naughton’s clients started going out of business and the book design projects went away. This hasn’t concerned Naughton in the least. As a designer and freelancer, he says you have to know what’s happening. Much like the Internet boom and rise of purchasing music online, Naughton sees the time of the e-reader as exciting, “I think you’re going to see more interactivity in books, stuff you can’t do on paper, to justify the cost of buying it on Kindle or iPad or Nook—little animations, photos, links, or sounds. Who knows? I’m diving into that now to see what happens.” As for the books that he designed, Naughton has been asked to send the materials so e-versions can be produced. ¶

This article was originally published in the summer 2012 Workshop & Event Guide.


Maureen A. Punte is a web specialist at The Johns Hopkins University. She holds a B.S. in Visual Communications Design from Stevenson University and an M.A. in Publications Design from University of Baltimore. Having worked at The Writer’s Center as the art director, and as a freelance designer for seven years, she is now one of the managing principals and weekly blogger at the consulting group, Radar Collective.

photo by: Charles Jensen (Punte)