Tag Archives: Fiction

10 Years, 10 Books, 10 Lessons

2020 is nearly here. As we reach the end of a decade, I’m grateful for the events that took place over the past ten years. For my kids growing up and becoming teenagers. For my divorce and remarriage. For a writing career that finally took flight. This seems like as good a time as any to contemplate the lessons I’ve learned from publishing 10 books in 10 years.

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Book 1: Captive, De Novo Prize Winner, C&R Press, 2011
I graduated from the now-defunct Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC in 1997. I wrote and published extensively in magazines (hundreds of them) but my first book escaped me. The manuscript for my first book Captive was a finalist or semi-finalist for 20 different poetry prizes before it won the De Novo prize, C&R Press.
Lesson: The power of perseverance. 

Book 2: Poets’ Guide to America, Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012
In the Spring of 2009, one of my best friends John Buckley let me know that he was starting to write poetry seriously and we decided to experiment with lines back and forth. Soon, we had a concept for a book: poems that take place in all 50 states. We ended up trading lines and ideas. John made me a better writer. He was a virtuoso of strangeness and Americana. We riffed on each other in a partnership that spanned nearly a decade.

Lesson: Writing can be fun.

Book 3: The Interrogator’s Notebook, Story Merchant Books, 2013
A book that came to life over a decade of workshopping it in my LA fiction writing group was accepted by an agent at William Morris. After a thirty page treatment and another draft, the agent left the business and I began looking for a publisher. At the time, I was working with Ken Atchity, a producer, on a film project and he convinced me to publish The Interrogator’s Notebook on his press so that he could pitch the film. It was championed at Paradigm Agency. and attached to a well-known Hollywood writer and director who wrote a pilot. It was pitched by Skydance Television and I still have hopes of the project being revived for screen.

Lesson: Sometimes it’s OK to not take a traditional path in publishing.

Book 4: Yankee Broadcast Network, Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014
My first word as a kid was Batman, allegedly watching from the Adam West TV show. Like many Gen Xers, I grew up with the heavy influence of television as did my writing partner John Buckley. We created a universe tied to our childhood and delved into parallel reality of TV shows we invented. It was a lot of fun and the funniest book I’ve written in a genre that can take itself too seriously.
Lesson: It’s OK in poetry to embrace pop culture subject matter. 

Book 5: Underdays, University of Notre Dame Press, 2015
After my separation, after getting whooping cough and getting laid off, after bottoming out and rebuilding my life, I took dozens of old poems and braided them with new lines, my older self conversing with my younger self. Unlike Captive, this book won the Sandeen Prize within months of sending it out.
Lesson: It’s OK to embrace hard times and dig deeper in your work. 

Book 6: Interrogations, Fomite Press, 2016
Similar to my first book Captive, this short story collection was a finalist for a half dozen fiction prizes before Fomite Press published it. I generally write one to two stories a year and the 20 stories in Interrogations (all published in literary magazines) span over two decades. So many memories and snippets from my life find their way onto these pages, including the short story that prompted me to write The Interrogator’s Notebook. 
Lesson: The power of perseverance (important enough to list twice). 

Book 7: Spectrum, C&R Press, 2016
A scene from the first chapter came to me as a dream in college. I wrote the first chapter at University of Michigan. I wrote the novel as my thesis at grad school at USC. The story of cloning haunted me so much that I wrote a second draft, then a third draft a decade later. I grew up reading and loving science fiction. The long creation process was worthwhile. This is my only book where I haven’t had a negative review.
Lesson: It’s OK to let your writing develop over time. 

Book 8: Lessons in Camouflage, C&R Press, 2018
The third time’s a charm. My third solo poetry book covers similar terrain as Captive and Underdays, weaving poems of war and familial strife, illuminating truth in difficult times. Even though this book did not win an award like my first two solo poetry collections, it’s the better book. It’s taken me over 20 years to get here and in publishing this collection I feel like I can move on to new projects.
Lesson: Writing is a craft and it takes hard work to get good at any craft. 

Book 9: Fake News Poems, BlazeVOX Books, 2019
In 2017, I decided to write a poem a week using a news headline as the jumping off point during the first year of the Trump presidency. The rules where simple: I had to write one poem a week (n matter how I felt) and no rewrites after the fact. I wanted to catch a moment in time in these news poems, and I selected subject matter that reflected my own life as much as the world around me.
Lesson: Taking risks is part of writing. 

Book 10: Sharks vs. Selfies, Eyewear Books, 2021
The last few years I’ve come to realize in all the genres that I work in – fiction, poetry, screenwriting – that telling stories is what motivates me. Sharks vs. Selfies is a book of prose poem. The process of writing them is the most I’ve felt like my true self as a poet. It combines my imagination and love of weaving tales with a craft I’ve spent decades struggling to perfect. It’s a new direction and I’m excited for what the future will bring.
Lesson: Trust your feelings as a writer.

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Writeliving Interview – Rick Moody

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Rick Moody has enjoyed something of a rock star status in my old writer’s group, and is one of our most influential writers. I’m thrilled he took the time to share his writing life with us.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, Thomas Bernhard, Stanley Elkin, Lydia Davis, Don DeLillo.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

It changes a lot. The insight I offer you is this: there’s no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start all over again. Which is disappointing in a way. I feel as though I have to keep inventing the wheel.

How old where you when you first started writing?

Well, I started a few things in the 11-12 range, but I would say I didn’t really finish a story that was recognizably my own until 16.

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

My first novel was rejected something like 18-20 times before it finally found a home.

What project(s) are you working on now?

A new novel, a book of short stories, more essays on music, some poems about American presidents, maybe even a play . . .

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

I have a sideline as a not terribly effective songwriter and musician.

About the Author

Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. He also plays in The Wingdale Community Singers, whose recently released album is entitled NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH.

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Writeliving Interview – Nance Van Winckel

A year ago, I came back home from the AWP conference in Chicago energized to create community for myself as a writer, and to provide a forum for others interested in the craft and practice of writing. Through the Writeliving blog I have been blessed to connect with many talented and inspirational writers. One of those has been Nance Van Winckel: fiction writer, poet, and visual artist. I hope you enjoy her insights into her creative life and I recommend that you check out her new poetry book Pacific Walkers.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

With poets, I’d say Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Plath, Berryman, and Tomas Transtromer. With fiction writers, I’d say Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Chekov, and my newest love—Proust. These are writers I know I can repeatedly return to and each time find something new to admire—both in what their works have to say AND in how they say it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

About “process,” I wish I could say I had one. Each new writing project seems to demand a different manner of “making.” Possibly figuring out that new method of composition for each new project IS my process. I know I like, in poems, for the collections to be series, but how the poems will speak back and forth to each other—through what voices, from what tonalities and physical worlds—those issues I enjoy experimenting with. I probably keep only one out of every dozen separate poem drafts. I appreciate how a book project takes me into uncharted (for me) territory and requires me to learn what seems like a new kind of shaping. One of my first books of poem series, Beside Ourselves, came about largely through collage (of journal notes, a travel diary, and the fuzzy memories of a disastrous love affair), while this new book of linked stories, Boneland (due out in October), was an interesting experiment in trying to make a “family” of a cast of characters who’d populated some recent flash fictions and longer fictions. With both projects, I felt a certain stress that I wouldn’t be able to make each book coalesce; every time they threatened to implode I’d suddenly find a new little element that shed light on their commonalities.

How does writing both poetry and fiction impact the other genre?

I don’t find that the actual methods of making poems and making stories have much at all in common. In fact, in learning to write fiction, I found my first major hurdle was realizing that the organic process by which I’d always written poems was just not going to cut it. In fiction some small glimmer of a route—maybe not an ending, but some grip on characters and/or dramatic events—that sort of advance knowing was not going to hurt a story. Hell, it was going to help! Over the years as I’ve worked on stories, my poems may have become less narrative, or less primarily narrative. Fiction seems to have sucked some of that away. And no doubt my love of and frequent use of persona in poems may have helped me toward that full emersion into a character’s mind so crucial to stories.

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

Aside from trying to ride out the waves of grief over certain loved ones’ deaths—notably my younger sister and father, I think these last couple of years may have presented the biggest challenge. I wake up worrying over my 87-year-old-mother and 97-year-old stepfather, trying to track on all the parts of their lives I now attend to FOR them: their meals, meds, doctors’ appointments, bills, etc. Not ever having had children, I have never really been responsible FOR other people before. It was not easy to step into this role. Writing has always been on the front burner for me, and all else that made demands of me I pushed onto back burners. Now I’m learning to be another kind of person, someone with a modicum of patience who can step up, as it were. To do so I had to quit worrying that I might lose a story if I didn’t immediately sit down and write it. Now I trust that if I lose a poem or a story, probably another one will come along in its own good time. I remember something Grace Paley said: “I don’t have a career; I have a life.” I’m not sorry writing was on the front burner for me for fifty years, and I’m not sorry it can’t be right now.

Can you tell us anything about your new poetry book Pacific Walkers?

In my mid-20’s I was a newspaper reporter, and some of the narrative voice and dramatic situation of these poems incorporates that world, a journalist’s responsibilities to facts, as well as the constrictions of time (deadlines) and space (number of words).

People put up signs for their missing pets; milk cartons carry photographs of missing children. But what of those who are found (dead) but NOT missed? These unidentified bodies are the persona’s immediate “story.” Several of the poems quote information from the Spokane Medical Examiner’s website, detailing information on specific John and Jane Does. Does turning such stories as these into news-bites eventually create a numbing effect on most of us? How is it possible for a human being to go completely un-missed? The book questions how well facts can render the “truth” of these sad lives. It seems a strange irony too that the bodies have no names but the particular items found with the bodies do. Pacific Walkers, for instance, is the brand name of a pair of boots found on one of the John Does. America’s anonymous dead. For me, their status as unnamable makes them all the more haunting. And perhaps their ghostly presence in the world suggests the eventual anonymity of most of us. We may leave behind descendants and/or names on tombstones, but ultimately we too become unknown.

Incorporating some of my visual art (digital photo-collage), I have created a 1.5 minute film offering a glimpse into the book’s world.

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

Lately I’ve been putting very spare poems on walls! I’m tagging back with my own little poetic bits of text among the graffiti and street art I find along my urban walks. But only digitally so. I have a new website devoted to this photo-collage work.

About the Author

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Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review.

She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press.

She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson.

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I ran across this post when contemplating my own short story writing, and a collection I have been editing and circulating. Even though my manuscript has been a finalist three times, it feels like a daunting task to get a short story collection published.

– Martin Ott

The Short Review

Two blog posts caught my eye this week, both dealing with the question of publishing short story collections. Over at Beyond the Margins, Becky Tuch’s post is titled “Nice Short Story Collection. But Do You Have A Novel?’, a phrase very very familiar not only to me, I suspect! She says:

Reviews of and praise for short story collections abounds. Yet today’s short story writer is often met with discouraging words from industry professionals and even fellow writers. At a recent dinner, a friend told me of a well-known writer who had completed a short story collection and a novel. The publishing house which would acquire his work said that they would pay him one amount for his novel. For his short story collection and his novel together, they offered him the same amount. Evidently, the house had valued his story collection at $0.

Over at the Canadian Lemonhound

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Writeliving Interview – George Saunders

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We’re proud to present an interview with the great George Saunders. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any living writer that David and I collectively like more. Hope you enjoy.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My father was one big influence, just in the way he tells stories: fast, funny, dark.  But always under the surface was this idea that people were interesting and worthy of attention.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Well, I try to keep everything as open and low-concept as possible – that is, I try to keep the big ideas to a minimum and concentrate on making a compelling and entertaining surface in the language, trusting that everything else – plot, theme, meaning – will take care of itself.

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

Although it can be really hard to be a young writer, I’d advise trying not to think in terms of “overcoming adversity” but, rather, trying to use those experiences to train oneself in learning to think like a writer.  So, I can remember times when I found myself in a strange or difficult or even somewhat degrading work situation, and writing was miles away – but I always felt (or tried to feel) like if I was noticing, then I was working.   That is, the young writer can do a little mental switch, and think: “Ah, so this too is part of America,” or “So this too is part of life – these feelings that I’m having and all of these physical details I’m seeing around me, and the reactions of the other people in this situation – are all interesting.”  Not easy to think that way, but if you can nurture that tendency in yourself, it becomes a sort of armor.

How does your background in geophysical engineering impact your writing?

One huge way was that it got me out into the world.  I worked in the oilfields in Asia and that was really where my political ideas were really formed – seeing all the suffering and beauty and inequality.

In what ways does being a teacher affect your writing?

I really like being around the talented young writers we get at Syracuse.  Last year we got 520 applications for 6 spots – so the students are just incredible writers and human beings.  I  also like having to revisit the classics I teach (mostly the Russians) and finding new depth in them.

About the Author:

George Saunders, a 2006 MacArthur Fellow, is the author of seven books, including the “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation”and the forthcoming “Tenth of December,” which comes out in January.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

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Easy Does It – Chad Harbach and Tracy K. Smith

Recently, I decided to read a novel (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach) and a book of poetry (Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith)  at the same time. I read a chapter, then a group of poems, and continued this pattern over the course of several weeks. I discovered similarities – things I mostly liked and occasionally disliked – about both works. I also found a few lessons.

Lesson #1 – Don’t Shy Away from Well-Traveled Terrain

As writers, we are often told to explore new subject matter and forms. However, there are some subjects that are universal for a reason and strike chords. The topics of baseball in The Art of Fielding and outer space in Life on Mars speak to the geek in me. At different times in my life, I was obsessed about both topics, and I’m not the only one. Both writers find a way to treat these well-traveled topics in a fresh way, while still managing to keep an ease and simplicity in the work itself.

Lesson #2 –  Simplicity Does Not Mean Shallow

OK, I’ll admit it. As a fiction writer and poet, I got a bit jealous by how easy The Art of Fielding and Life on Mars were to read. The “effortless” prose and poetry felt very much like watching an athlete like Kobe Bryant gliding to the rim.

Neither writer adorned their works with words that called attention to themselves. Chad used the very familiar setting of college life to paint vibrant scenes without a lot of additional prose that took away from the sharp dialogue. Tracy often used simple metaphors (e.g. The Universe Is a House Party) to build her poems around.

While each author occasionally annoyed me – The POV charecterizations in The Art of Fielding were sometimes too shallow and there were a couple of clunkers (very bad poems) near the end of Life on Mars – I found myself excited and engaged with both works.

Lesson #3 – Ignore the Reviews and Make Up Your Own Mind

There were plenty of reviews available online and friends who wanted to share their opinions about each book. It’s always this way with books that have “buzz” and I needed to work hard to avoid finding out too much about them in advance. Of course, if you are reading this blog, it’s OK – no spoilers here!

– Martin Ott

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Sex as a Way to Get to Know Your Characters

When a friend forwarded a link  from Lit Reactor on Writing About Sex, I read it eagerly. It contained a few good tips on ways not to embarrass yourself while in the act of writing about the act.

However, the same night, I found myself putting the finishing touches on a sex scene in a novel, and I thought about it more deeply. Why did I have this scene in the book?

Unless the plot hinges on it – which it sometimes does in the case of infidelity or sexual obsession – I realized that a sex scene provides insight into your characters, and what they are like in a primal and, sometimes, vulnerable moment.

Sex is an intimate way for you and your readers to get to know your characters.

Martin Ott

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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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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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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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