Monthly Archives: August 2012

Writeliving Interview – Kellie Wells

Writeliving is excited to present an interview with Kellie Wells, author of the new novel Fat Girl, Terrestrial, just published by FC2.

Kellie Wells’ fiction is dense with language, existential quandaries, and dark humor, the way we like it. Below, Kellie gets the Writeliving treatment…

David Schuman

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

The Phantom Tollbooth and the Brothers Grimm were strong early influences. And old films, from the silents to the 50s, which I watched compulsively as a child on our old Magnavox television, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Billy Wilder, Dougals Cirk, Frank Capra. I watched the movies with my mother, who grew up reading Photoplay and knew the name of every actor, however peripheral or obscure. But writers: L-F Céline, Djuna Barnes, and Stanley Elkin changed the way I thought about language and helped me to understand what was meant by the word voice. Joy Williams and Bruno Schulz changed the way I thought about storytelling. And George Eliot. If I could Pierre Menard a book, it would be Middlemarch. And a great chaotic stew of so many others of course.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I wish I had some, insight that is. My creative process seems very higgledy-piggeldy. I’m not particularly systematic and each project is catalyzed differently, but I suppose the constant is my interest in language, the music of it, be it lyrical or stilted, the cadence of the words. As a reader, I’m often moved more by the effect of the sound of a sentence than I am by its content, because utterance is first and foremost sound, words intellectually onomatopoetic, at least that’s how I’ve always experienced them. So whatever ideas I have about story, about character, plot, action, they are generally grounded in sound.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I imagine much of the adversity I’ve experienced is of my own making. I am sometimes beset by the anxiety that it’s the height of arrogance to imagine I have anything meaningful to say, and then I’m paralyzed with self-consciousness, which is that thing many people have said is the enemy of, among other things, art, so what I do is pretend I’m someone else so that I can get out of my own way. Sometimes, though, even that doesn’t work because I’m pretty good at seeing through a bald hoax.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

On the night I was born, there was a storm that knocked the power out at the hospital, and my father had to carry my mother up several flights of stairs to a candlelit delivery room, where they discovered I was a footling, and the doctor informed my parents that I would suffocate if so delivered but he was going to try the then uncommon procedure of manually rotating the upside-down baby in the womb. Life on the outside has been less eventful.

About the Author:

Kellie Wells is the author of a collection of short fiction, Compression Scars, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, and a novel, Skin, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in the Flyover Fiction Series, edited by Ron Hansen. Her novel Fat Girl, Terrestial is forthcoming from FC2 in the fall of 2012. Her work has appeared in various literary journals, including The Kenyon ReviewNinth Letter, The Fairy Tale Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been awarded a Rona Jaffe Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writer’s Award in fiction. She is a congenital Midwesterner and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, where she teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Alabama.

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Poetry Spotlight – Allison Carter

I was reading the Summer 2012 issue of Fence and came across a poem from a series entitled 35 Breakfast Poems. The poems utilize repetition and have multiple layers of narrative. They also manage to use commonplace words, but to still evoke mystery. I was hooked and wanted to know more about the writer.

The poet is Allison Carter, a fellow LA writer, and it’s great to come across another treasure in this great city for writers (yes I said it!). Below, check out the first poem from Allison’s collection or, if you are an editor, ask her for the rest of the manuscript to consider publishing it.

– Martin Ott

From 35 Breakfast Poems

                                                                                            My love and I wake up early.

                                                                                                   We have gone on a walk,

                                               gone to the store, seen the doctor, watered the plants

                                                         and we are now only sitting down to breakfast.

1. Breakfast in the Design Hall of Portraits

Breakfast in the design hall of portraits starts

at 9:00 in the morning.

Whoever knows must dress to go to a diorama daily,

she must shrink. Breakfast in the design hall

of portraits lasts all day.

My sister who keeps waking up

behind Plexiglass knows

about it, gets dressed

in tiny clothes, brings her camera

for breakfast in the design hall of portraits.

 

She knows where we all went,

how our time was spent idly– She tells us.

Outdoors, we can only assume

that grandmother peers underneath, East–

we close our eyes halfway to see

the hairline vein of the edge of the eye in half-light.

Breakfast in the design of portraits consoles my sister.

 

We stay there all day, all week.

Around the wooden table, my sister and me,

We get our own pair of antlers:

venison breakfast in the design hall of portraits.

 

Sometimes we stand on the heavy table to stretch

our hamstrings, bend sideways to stretch our ribs,

gaze past the stars past the roof to stretch

the neck that carries our brains that need

to stretch and stretch—

 

Breakfast in the design hall of portraits is my invitation only.

 

Can you please pass more coffee

to me?

 

(At 7:00 in the evening we light the lights.

Portrait photographs are devils, so handsome at night.)

 

Previously published in Fence.

 

 About the Author

Photo by Harold Abramowitz

 

Allison Carter is the author of A Fixed, Formal Arrangement (Les Figues Press) and Here Vs. Elsewhere (forthcoming from Insert Blanc Press) as well as several shorter collections, including Sum Total (Eohippus Labs), All Bodies Are The Same and Have The Same Reactions (Blanc Press) and Shadows Are Weather (Horse Less Press). Allison teaches creative writing to adolescents and adults suffering from Eating Disorders in Los Angeles, CA.

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Writeliving Interview – Madison Smartt Bell

It’s a pleasure to present our next Writeliving interview—Madison Smartt Bell. The first book of Madison’s I read was Soldier’s Joy after I left the Army, and I resonated with the subject matter of returning home and the true nature of brotherhood. Enjoy!

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Just about everything I read, from the Narnia Books through Mark Twain through Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren in my middle teens, and the other great Southern writers of the period (Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Ellen Douglas, and in the next generation Madison Jones, Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews).  Next the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky especially, whom I read in college for the first time.  My interest in Chekov came later (still can’t figure out how he did it… and suspect most people can’t).  I read a certain amount of Francophone literature and recently have really been rejoicing in Stendhal and Flaubert, along with Haitian writers like Marie Vieux Chauvet, Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor, Yanick Lahens, Evelyne Trouillot and Edwidge Danticat (though Edwidge does write in English).  Latter-day influences outside of these categories include Mary Gaitskill, William T. Vollmann, and Denis Johnson and Robert Stone.

For hands-on effect, George Garrett, whom I knew first as a teacher and for a long time after as a friend.  Garrett was adept with many different styles and genres of both poetry and fiction.  He taught me many things by instruction and by his example—importantly, not to fear trying anything, and to keep an open mind toward your own work and also work by your students.

Andrew Lytle I had the good luck to know from childhood on.  He paid attention to my published work toward the end of his life and was a remarkably penetrating and original reader of it.  I listened to what he said with great care.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Like most people, though not all of them know it, I tend to compose in a state of light trance.  There are different ways of getting there.  Self-hypnosis, consciously undertaken, is one.  Many writers’ rituals, I believe, amount to self-hypnosis unconsciously undertaken.  In First World culture we usually think of inspiration as coming from within, but in many other cultures it comes from without, a possibility which is built right into the word “inspiration” if you look it closely. At an extreme one may reach a state resembling spirit possession (my travels in Haiti taught me that), or if your belief system prefers, a radically altered psychological state.

Andrew Lytle said, you put yourself apart from yourself, and enter the imaginary world.  After that it’s easy enough—you just describe what you find there.

I have written a good deal about these matters, e.g. in my textbook Narrative Design (http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell/nardesign.html) and also been written about in this context:

(http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/04/madison-smartt-bell-color-of-night.html).

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, I was never a big fan of Norman Mailer’s work, with the exception of The Executioner’s Song.  I met him once, late in his life, and was surprised, and touched, really, by the kindly interest he took in me.  There’s one thing he said (long ago, I read it in my twenties), which I’ve always valued.  I paraphrase:  The difference between a novice and an experienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day.

When I first read that line, I really couldn’t work on a bad day.  Now I can.  And given the state of publishing and one thing and another, a middle-aged writer’s got a decent supply of bad days coming.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Practically everything.  I don’t trade in my own secrets.

About the Author:

Madison Smartt Bell has published more books than he has fingers and also plays a number of fretted instruments, poorly.  He teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

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Recycled Reads – Revolutionary Road

I live less than a block from my neighborhood Goodwill in Los Feliz, the same one I’ve donated used books to for years. Recently, for the first time, I decided to browse the selection of books there, and found a treasure trove of authors and titles that had been jettisoned from book shelves. Many of the offerings had been popular in past decades,  and I became interested in whether some of these books withstood the test of time.

For my first Recycled Read, I’d like to review Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I had high expectations from the blurbs by Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams on the back cover. Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, and Richard Yates has been attributed to be an influence on writers such as Raymond Carver and Andres Dubus.

So how did Revolutionary Road hold up nearly 50 years after first being published? For me, it was a mixed bag. It was a novel that did not seem to know itself. The doomed relationship of a dysfunctional couple that relocates to the suburbs is undercut by the author’s insistence to veer away from its most powerful scenes. Yates alternated between the close third-person perspective of his main protagonists Frank and April Wheeler to a confusing mix of minor characters. The title Revolutionary Road also seems to suggest it is a novel of place, but it barely scratches the surface of the dynamics within its Connecticut suburban neighborhood.

The novel is at its best in the tense, active and sometimes volatile scenes starring Frank and April. At their core, they are two people who do not seem to know themselves or each other, lonelier in each other’s company than they would be otherwise as they try to fit themselves into some idyllic world that does not exist. WW2 hovers  in Frank’s oft-repeated war stories, but his defining characteristic is fear in himself, his family and his vision of how to be a man. April’s only joy is in acting for the local neighborhood theater company, but she slowly comes to realize that she has been acting every day for years, and poorly at that. Both Frank and April are burdened by the illusion that they are special, different from their neighbors as they plan an exodus to Europe so that Frank can find himself.

The author intrudes, however, with an additional layer of commentary, alternating between sometimes very short scenes with minor characters, an opening salvo in third person plural, and an ending with a minor character turning off his hearing aid to close the curtains. There is also a heavy-handed catalyst in the form of a man who has been deemed crazy, and asks the questions the couple is afraid to ask each other.

The plot veers between the domestic and business worlds of wife and husband with marital affairs, poor decisions, and a remarkable lack of focus on the couple’s two kids. Without a dramatic engine propelling us forward, we are unprepared for April’s unwanted pregnancy and the decisions that drive the novel to its tragic conclusion, told in many voices.

Perhaps it is the author’s intent to keep the main characters at arm’s distance and there may well be others who feel differently about this book, and its place in the literary cannon (on more than one best 100 book list). Regardless of how the story was told, Yates was one of the first to focus the novel on the everyday plight of suburban families, and this subject matter has since spurred many great stories and books.

Feel free to agree, disagree, or to add to the conversation.

Martin Ott

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On Being Hard

Publishers Weekly has posted a list of the ten most difficult books selected by two editors of The Millions. These books may be difficult to read, but they aren’t difficult to own, and you get the same reward. I have a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and when someone sees it and asks me if I’ve read it, I just regard them curiously.

David Schuman

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Cool Interactive Kids’ Storytelling Project

I’d like to recommend a kids’ interactive storytelling project – All Fixed Up – that is close to its money raising goal on Kickstarter.

This children’s book app is designed to encourage kids to explore, discover, and create — as well as to help them deal with complex emotions about a parent who’s away at work.

Martin Ott

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Writeliving Interview – Laura Kasischke

I am excited to introduce the next writer in our interview series – Laura Kasischke. She is talented and prolific in the forms I love most (poetry and novels). She also calls the mitten state, where I grew up, home. Laura was also kind enough to recently provide a blurb to John F. Buckley and myself for our upcoming book Poets Guide to America.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

There have been so many influences, it’s pretty difficult to single something out. Even the poems/stories/novels I’ve read and disliked have influenced me. That’s the great thing about calling yourself a writer:  everyone else is just wasting time reading trash and lying on the couch, but I’m studying my craft! I think every poem I read as a child, or had read to me, was a factor in my wanting to write poet. I was so jealous of anything and everything that made its way into print. But when I was in college, I fell in love with Yeats and Plath and Dylan Thomas; Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. Those writers, of course, have influenced us all.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Before I begin a poem, I usually have some idea what it will concern, but it’s during the writing process that I figure out its form, so I guess you could say my process is associative. If I sit down to write a poem, and the associative process doesn’t work for me, no amount of revision will ever help it.  I don’t, of course, write a great first draft–I need to revise a lot–but if I don’t figure out, in that first draft, what the poem *is*, I never will. With novel writing, I just sit down and write every day, and every novel I’ve written has been written differently–Some have been plotted;  some have been intuited;  some worked out, loosely, in a first draft, and others too a hundred grueling revisions.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

My first novel is under the bed. No. Actually, it’s long lost. I worked on that novel for years, and finally had to admit that it wasn’t going to be read by anyone but me.  I started a new novel, and called that one my ‘first.’

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I’m a conspiracy theorist. I’m one of those people reading those websites you hear about and listening to those radio stations. If I ever talked about my actual opinions to anyone sane, well….Let’s just say, I don’t, except with a pseudonym….If you and I sat down to talk about politics, I would spare you my thoughts…

About the Author:  

Laura Kasischke has published eight collections of poetry and eight novels.  She received the National Book Critics Award for her collection, Space, in Chains.  She teaches at the University of Michigan.

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Lying to Librarians and Post-It Review

I went into the public library here on the Outer Banks, which is where I’m spending a few weeks before returning to the neo-Dust Bowl. I didn’t pack any books for the trip, thinking I might try not reading for a change. But nothing shields your face from the apocalyptic sun like a good book, so I borrowed my mother-in-law’s library card (she lives here year round, at least until all of this is under water—see link below). My first thought was that I might take out Karen Thompson Walker’s Age of Miracles, because I’m in an end-timey state of mind ever since reading this: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

 But it wasn’t in, so I selected a few other books from the new fiction stacks—including Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, which I had wanted to read back when it came out and then completely forgot about until I saw it sitting there. I asked the librarian if I could use my mother’s card—I don’t know why I said mother and not mother-in-law. I guess it was partly that it seemed over-complicated to get into the whole “in-law” thing, but also I think I’m more comfortable when there’s a tiny bit of dishonesty involved in my transactions.

The librarian informed me cheerfully that the card had expired, but if I could just give her my mom’s birthday, she’d renew it. “Um,” I said.

The librarian was a nice older woman with the most sensible haircut I’d ever seen. Anyone could have this haircut—man, woman or child, in times of peace or war. She blinked at me pleasantly, expectantly. “I’m blanking.” I said.

The truth is, I have no idea when my mother-in-law’s birthday is. Which makes me a bad son-in-law, I guess, but certainly a horrible son, which is what I was pretending to be. “It’ll come,” she said. “I know what that’s like. I call it a senior moment.”  There was nothing condescending in her tone. I would have preferred there had been, I think.

I spent a few more moments staring up at the fluorescent lights. Finally I said I didn’t know it. Didn’t know my own mother’s birthday. The librarian looked at me and clucked her tongue. She knew I was lying, that I had essentially come to the library to take books under false pretenses—to steal. Perhaps I had even murdered someone. She seemed to be reaching for something under the counter, a panic button that would summon local law-enforcement. I was literally sweating, which means sweating during a criminal act involving literature.

“Not a very good son, are you?” she said. “No,” I said, with a rush of relief. She didn’t think I was a book thief, just a bad boy. “We’ll forgive you this time. Do you at least have her address?” I had to look in my phone, but I had it. It granted me some legitimacy, having the address in my phone. I even held it up to show her. As I left with my books she said, “You should do something nice for your mother today.”

I did do something. I did it for my fake mother, my real mother, and mothers everywhere. I read a book. Isn’t that the kind of thing mothers want from their sons, to be a good boy and be quiet and go read a book?

Someone had placed a post-it on the title page of the Auslander book. “It’s really weird! –MGT” Is that something people do—leave reviews in library books? I liked getting it, as subjective and misleading and obvious as it may have been. But it was comforting to get this communication from another borrower, kind of like finding a floating message in a bottle. Before I return Hope: A Tragedy, I’m going to annotate this review, just to keep the conversation going.

David Schuman

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