Monday, February 20, 2017

My First Time: Bren McClain

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Bren McClain, author of One Good Mama Bone. She was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, on a beef cattle and grain farm. She has a degree in English from Furman University; is an experienced media relations, radio, and television news professional; and currently works as a communications confidence coach. She is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and the recipient of the 2005 Fiction Fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission. McClain won the 2016 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress for Took and was a finalist in the 2012 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novel-in-Progress for One Good Mama Bone. McClain will be touring throughout the South as well as in other parts of the country. To learn more, please visit her website, her Facebook page, or connect with her on Twitter or Instagram.

The First Time a Story Chose Me
and What I Learned

It was June 1994, and I was living in midtown Atlanta. My next-door neighbor, a man named Ron, called me to his front porch. He was white-haired, deeply sun-tanned and drove a white convertible Cadillac. I had never had a long conversation with him in the nine months I had lived beside him.

He motioned me towards a white wicker chair, lit a cigarette and said, “I’ve been carrying around a secret since I was a boy, six years old. My mama made me promise I’d never tell a soul about what happened this one night outside of Birmingham. And I’ve been true to that.” He took a long drag and blew smoke into the air, so hot the smoke had nowhere to go. “But I can’t be true to it no more. I turned 60 today.”

I swallowed and wanted to tell him “Happy Birthday,” but I could not talk.

“I’m only telling you this,” he said, “because I know you’re a writer.”

I wrapped my fingers around the end of the chair arms and squeezed. It made a squeaking sound.

He proceeded to tell me his mother woke him from sleep that night and summoned him to the kitchen, where their neighbor was lying on their table. She was having a baby. Ron’s mother delivered it, made him watch, and then did something horrible, forcing him to be a part of it.

Sitting there on that porch, Ron did not cry, but I thought he would. I told him, “I’m sorry.”

This was the first time a story chose me, the first time I would write something not made of what is known as “whole cloth.” Before then, I had made up stories, let my imagination run wild. But here was this man handing me a story. And what a story it was.

I left the porch and told myself I should make notes, so I wouldn’t forget. But I dared not write one word down.

It would be six years before I did. I would be in Assisi, Italy, taking a writing workshop with acclaimed writer Dorothy Allison, who gave us a prompt to write about a mother. That afternoon I sat in the open window of my room, looked out over the 12th-century buildings still standing and wrote these first lines: One night my mama came to my bedroom door and said, “Emerson Bridge, you come with me. You come with me right now.” She was talking fast and loud.

I wrote the entire scene, just as Ron had described it, from little Emerson Bridge’s point of view. When I read it aloud in class the next day, Dorothy’s eyes on fire, she said, “Kick some butt, McClain.” I would write the entire book, spinning forth from that opening scene. I fell in love with the mother as I wrote, named her Sarah Creamer, and came to understand why she did what she did, which I will tell you now. She delivered the baby, then dropped the baby on its head on the floor, and then made the little boy help her bury it in the back yard.

No one else fell in love with Sarah. In fact, many called her a “monster.” I had written a failed novel. A brilliant editor told me, “We don’t see the love you have for Sarah on the page. We see her full of inadequacy. Show us her magnificence. In fact, begin with it.”

I realized I had to transform what happened that night. Ron never said, but in my heart, I knew the baby was the product of an affair between his father and the neighbor lady, whose husband was off at war. In writing that first version, I had come to know that Sarah felt inadequate as a mother. What if she delivered the baby, and her neighbor refused to take the child, fearing her husband would kill her and the baby when he returned. And what if Sarah had to push past her fear of inadequacy and do the right thing by the child and take him?

I threw out 95 percent of what I had written and rewrote the book, casting Sarah as the hero she did not yet know herself to be. That book became One Good Mama Bone, published this month by Pat Conroy’s fiction imprint, Story River Books.

I learned a valuable lesson. A story may have chosen you, but it doesn’t have to remain that exact story. It could be used as starter dough.

What a gift this man, Ron, gave me. Thank you, sir.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

The flowing sugar gown of Lady Liberty descended like drapery upon a Chinese pagoda, inside of which, in a pond of candy floss, swam miniature fish of chocolate.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Underworld by Kevin Canty

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Kevin Canty, The Underworld. I have a hardcover copy to give away to one lucky reader. Deborah Reed, author of Olivay and The Things We Set on Fire, had this to say about Canty’s novel: “The Underworld pierces with busted hearts, broken families, and the gristly days of work and drink that bind them. A lovely, melodic, and unsparing look at small-town life in the West.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

In The Underworld, Kevin Canty tells a story that begins with a disastrous fire inspired by a true incident in an isolated silver mining town in Idaho in the 1970s. Everyone in town had a friend, a lover, a brother, a husband killed in the mine. The Underworld imagines the lives of a handful of survivors and their loved ones: Jordan, a young widow with twin children; David, a college student trying to make a life for himself in another town; Lionel, a lifelong hard-rock miner as they struggle to come to terms with the loss. It’s a tough, hard-working, hard-drinking town, a town of prostitutes and priests and bar fights, but nobody’s tough enough to get through this undamaged. A powerful and unforgettable tale about small-town lives and the healing power of love in the midst of suffering.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Underworld, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 24. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Souvenirs and Other Stories by Matt Tompkins

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

There’s a family of mountain lions living in my basement.

“Seeking Advice and/or Assistance
re: Mountain Lions”
from Souvenirs and Other Stories by Matt Tompkins

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Stories of Frederick Busch

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

I was nine years old, and starting to age.

“The Settlement of Mars” from The Stories of Frederick Busch

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday Freebie: Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff

Congratulations to Lynn Koeppen, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.

This week’s contest is for Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff. Here’s what Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi, had to say about Questioning Return: “The brainy, conflicted heroine of Beth Kissileff’s heart-stirring debut novel Questioning Return goes to Israel to interview Jews who have come home to a tradition once lost to them. The process launches her on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic adventure that will change your understanding of what it means to truly belong. An eloquent and absorbing achievement.” Keep reading for more information about the novel...

A year in Jerusalem questioning American Jews who “return” to Israel and to traditional religion changes Wendy Goldberg’s life forever. Every year, 700,000 Americans visit Israel. Wendy Goldberg spends a year in Jerusalem questioning the lives of American Jews who do “Aliya”—a return both to Israel itself and to traditional religious practices. Are they sincere? Are they happier? The unexpected answers and Wendy’s experiences (a bus bombing, a funeral, an unexpected suicide, a love affair, and a lawsuit) lead her to reconsider her own true Jewish identity. The ambitious graduate student is certain she’s on the path to academic glory. But from the moment her plane takes off Wendy is confronted with unanswerable questions of faith and identity. As she becomes immersed in the rhythm of Israeli life, her sense of distance from it fades. Her ability to be an outside observer terminates abruptly when a student commits a horrible act immediately after his interview with her. Wendy is not sure how or if she is implicated in his action, but in her search for understanding, she is led to knowledge and love in unforeseen places.

Be sure to check out Beth’s “My First Time” essay here at The Quivering Pen.

If you’d like a chance at winning Questioning Return, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Books for Dark Political Times: Michael Copperman’s Library

Reader:  Michael Copperman
Location:  Eugene, Oregon
Collection Size:  Five hundred books
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  I Have a Dream: The March on Washington by Emma Gelders Sterne
Favorite book from childhood:  James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Guilty pleasure book:  Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

My personal library is small. I live in a converted garage and rent out the rooms of my house, and I have boxes and boxes of books away in storage and in my office at the university. My awkward little secret is that I am often not much of a reader of contemporary fiction—I tend to read poetry as one consumes fuel, and keep those books thrown about the living room, where just now I am reading the collected work of Langston Hughes as if it might save my life. With everything else, I am immensely selective, and more likely when I am deep in work and process to reread something essential to me which speaks of mystery than I am to begin the latest NY Times bestseller. For instance, I have read Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours, five times, and would gladly begin it again. I have read the collected stories of Chekhov two or three times, and these days, every couple months I read his great short story “The Student,” an irreducible and indescribable little short about immanence, which in that story is the suggestion of imminence in the absence of wisdom, meaning, and God.

I keep the books which I am intending to read in a stack atop the rest on the right shelf on one side of the bed—books by friends or acquaintances, gifts, books which I feel I need to read or should have read. Sometimes books jump the queue that demand attention—on top now is a book by my great-grandmother, the writer Emma Gelders Sterne, I Have a Dream: The March on Washington which was published in 1965.

Recently I pulled that book from my father’s shelves of all Emma’s books as if drawn to it—to find a note from my father to me, his unborn son, five years before my birth, charging me with bearing on his grandmother’s legacy of writing, activism, compassion, and justice. As this is one of Emma’s books I did not read in my childhood, and speaks of a strength and solidarity and rising up I feel I may need to summon now, in these dark political times, I am excited to begin.

Atop the left shelf are books I’ve pulled from the shelves because I needed to read them as I work to complete an essay or my novel-in-progress—usually books which have been a long love of mine, or have particular resonance. So it is that Cesar Vallejo, translated by Roberty Bly and James Wright, sits atop that shelf. Vallejo, the music of my heart on big sad days of reckoning. So it is that Hamlet, has been set to the top, too, in this bitter winter, as has Willa Cather’s Five Stories, perhaps her least known work, but so large in lyric and retrospective force. I turn to these books as if to a holy book, a source—they do not directly instruct me, but their art and ethos are somewhere so near to what is in me as I work that they show me a way.

Michael Copperman is the author of Teacher, a memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. He has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. Visit for more information about Michael and his book. 

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Nice Things People Have Said about Brave Deeds

Exactly six months from today, my second novel Brave Deeds will be out in the world. I’m very proud of this book and hope those of you who read it will find it to be even better than Fobbit (though, in truth, it’s a horse of a slightly different color―a little more sober and serious than the screwball tour of duty experienced by Chance Gooding Jr., Abe Shrinkle, et al). And if you don’t find it’s your cup of tea, that’s okay; I’ll just work harder to make the next book even better yet.

Some early readers have already chimed in on Brave Deeds and I am eternally grateful for their comments. They are all busy artists and for them to take time out from their schedules to not only read the book but say nice things about it means the world to me. It’s true: a writer is kept afloat on the rough seas of publishing and bookselling by the community that supports him or her beneath the waves.

First, a synopsis of what waits for you on the pages of Brave Deeds:
Spanning eight hours, the novel follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. Cut off from all communication with their company headquarters back on the base, they find themselves struggling to survive in an inhospitable landscape. As the men make their way to the funeral, they recall the most ancient of warriors while portraying a cross section of twenty-first-century America: sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but subject to the same human flaws as all of us. Drew is reliable in the field but unfaithful at home. Cheever, overweight and whining, is a friend to no one—least of all himself. Specialist Olijandro, or O, is distracted by dangerous romantic thoughts of his ex-wife. Fish’s propensity for violence is what drew him to the military and could be a catalyst for the day’s events. Park is the quiet one, but his quick thinking may make him the day’s hero. And platoon commander Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos is stalwart, yet troubled with questions about his own identity and sexuality. As the six march across Baghdad, their complicated histories, hopes, and fears are told in a chorus of voices that merge into a powerful portrait of the modern war zone and the deepest concerns of us all, military and civilian alike.
Brave Deeds perfectly captures the strange mixture of camaraderie, humor, beauty and brutality experienced by men at war. It reads like a fever dream, like unvarnished documentary truth, and sometimes like both at once.”  (Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment)

“In one very full, very messed up and hair-raising day, Brave Deeds delivers everything we could ever ask for in a novel, no less than birth, death, and all points in between. David Abrams has written a flat-out brilliant book of the Iraq War, one that reads like a compact version of the Odyssey or Going After Cacciato. Soldiers on a journey―it’s one of humankind’s oldest stories, and Abrams has given us the latest dispatch from the field, to stunning effect.”  (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

“At the beginning of Brave Deeds I was laughing out loud, and enjoying the feeling of being among the Army squad, even one making an insane walk through Baghdad. But by the end of the book I was silent: I was really undone by it. David Abrams has done something very powerful, drawing together the different layers of this story so beautifully, and drawing us down below the surface to a place of darkness and sadness. It’s a tour de force. Bravo.”  (Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta)

“I have never read another author with David Abrams’s uncanny knack for laugh-out-loud sarcasm one instant and gutting compassion in the next. If there’s a situation more emblematic of the forever wars―in league with Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk―I can’t imagine it. By the end Abrams had me holding my heart in my hands. Brave Deeds is hilarious, subversive, devastating, beautiful, human, and written with the kind of skillful light touch we expect from master fiction writers.”  (Andria Williams, author of The Longest Night)

“A dizzying rush of a story, Brave Deeds serves as a testament to the manifold acts of courage and folly demanded by soldiering. David Abrams writes with moxie, and this odyssey across Baghdad cements his standing as one of our most indispensable chroniclers of contemporary war.”  (Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood)

Thank you Phil, Ben, Roxana, Andria and Matt for your amazing generosity!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Now that’s how you do a book trailer. Haunting, mesmerizing, intriguing, not too long, and not too short, the video for Chris Bohjalian’s new novel The Sleepwalker does its work efficiently and beautifully. Mixing blurbs with shots of a woman hypnotically rising from bed and walking in a trance down to the river, the trailer most definitely makes me want to buy the book. (I already have it on my shelf, so I guess that means I’ll go out and buy an extra copy to give to a friend who’s looking for what The Washington Post calls “a dark, Hitchcockian novel.”) In the novel, a wife and mother, known for her episodes of sleepwalking, doesn’t return to her bed one night and, after a swatch of her torn nightgown is found hanging on a tree branch, her community assumes she is dead but her family and a detective believe that might not necessarily be the case. Things are not always as they seem. I’ll leave you with one last blurb (from USA Today)―one that makes me bump the novel even higher on my to-be-read list: “Great mystery writers, like great magicians, have the ability to hide the truth that’s right before your eyes. Best-selling novelist Chris Bohjalian is at the full power of his literary legerdemain in his newest book, The Sleepwalker...Masterful plotting evokes a magician who distracts his audience to look this way, not that way. The ending will have the reader rereading for missed clues.” This looks like great bedtime reading (or maybe all-lights-blazing-during-the-daytime reading).

Monday, January 30, 2017

My First Time: Beth Kissileff

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Beth Kissileff, author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. She works as a journalist and her writing appears regularly in various publications such as Tablet, the Forward, New York Jewish Week, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post and Religion News Service. She has taught at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Carleton, the University of Minnesota and Shaw University and had writer’s residencies at the Corporation of Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She is at work on a Reading Exodus anthology, a volume of short stories and a second novel.

The First Time I Stopped Being Jealous
of Other Writers

A friend of mine recently asked what has been the most exciting moment in having my novel published. I had to think. Was it opening the galleys from the publisher, or opening the final printed book with the thoughtful blurbs from five writers and scholars I admire and acknowledgements to my family? Reading from it in public for the first time at a synagogue I had gone to for the High Holidays as a child, and spent many hours curled up with a book on the roof as the grown ups prayed for a good and auspicious year, hoping maybe somewhere in the corner of my mind that one day I would be a writer too? It seems a remarkable coincidence that the same place now hosts a summer “Scribblers on the Roof” writing series and I am reading to an audience with my parents’ oldest friends, my daughter and some of her friends, my sister in law, a cousin, friends from graduate school and high school and Pittsburgh, really all parts of my life. My publisher telling me it was the best launch of a debut novel he has had?

No, the best moment of having a novel out was when two weeks before my publication date, I walked into Book Culture on 112th, between Broadway and Amsterdam in New York, my favorite place to browse, new academic and popular books, always get great ideas, smaller and more accessible than the labyrinthine Strand that I also love. Whenever I go into a book store, I do something superstitious, I check the shelves and see where my book would be placed, who are the authors I belong between alphabetically. I feel like if I imagine it enough, one day it will come into being, I don’t really know where or how I got this idea but it has been something I’ve been doing for the last few years, a way of proving to myself that one day my ideas will turn real, will be set between two covers of a book and laid out on a shelf for a random browser to pick up. And on this day, it happened. My book was right there on the shelf where I’d hoped it would be for so long! It was unexpected since it was before the official date for the book to go on sale.

I’ve wanted this for a long time, since I read books I admired, and thought that I wanted to write something like that one day. I knew I would eventually, but didn’t think it would take quite as long as it did. I wanted to be a writer in college and my twenties. In college, I took a writing course and hated the savagery with which other students were willing to critique both my stories and ideas and those of others. I didn’t want to go to an MFA program or take other writing courses. I wrote, but for myself, never tried to publish. I had a big old Victorian house with a porch and a large wide third-floor room, big enough to house all of the books my husband and I own, as well as our desks, with space left over. When I first saw the room I told myself that this would be where I would write my novel, the perfect space. I did spend time in that room writing, but I was also teaching full time some semesters and parenting young children. And unsure how or where to publish even when I had material worth sending.

And then, I moved to a new city when I was almost 40. Fortunately for me, there was a place in my new city called The Loft that offered writing courses. Finally, I had a place to go where people other than myself cared about writing and the kind of writing I did. For my 40th birthday, I created my very own writer’s retreat, going to the Andersen Center in Red Wing, Minnesota, for a few days by myself to write. It was a productive time. I know which pieces of my novel I wrote while there, can remember distinctly reading a Paris Review interview with a particular writer and basing an aspect of a scene on the ideas contained there. After that, I did finally start to submit my stories and in fall 2009, at age 41, my first fiction story was published. Shortly thereafter I applied to Yaddo; for my 42nd birthday, I was at the writer’s residency program.

Some of getting it together as a writer was finding places that would support my aspirations, both on my own and in a community of writers and artists. Not being afraid of getting critiques, of seeing how others react, having the thicker skin that one develops as one ages.

And I will confess something unpleasant, that until this book came out I had been jealous of those who did this thing earlier in their lives, those writers who were my chronological age and seemed to be doing much much better than I was, publishing with ease, making money, all while being married and having kids, even having other non-writing careers.

But different things happened to those I was jealous of earlier. One who started young and has continued to publish, but some of the work is growing thin; in fact, when I queried an editor I often do reviews for he declined to review her latest at all, dubbing it a “beach read.” Another who had what I am told was a six-figure advance on her first novel, has not been able to publish her second and isn’t writing much anymore. A third, who published young and seemingly with ease, has young children and a husband who must be overseas for work frequently, leaving her in charge of the bulk of their lives. She does still write, but seems overwhelmed. So none of them are the wild successes I once imagined them to be.

Six-figure advance writer had a fancy professional photo taken for her book jacket, complete with make-up session and hair being done; my author photo was done by my teen photography-loving daughter, after I had a haircut, no fancy styling. I thought having a make-up and photo session would make me feel I had arrived in some way. Yet, I am pleased to give my daughter an opportunity to do this work, to take a photo that will be seen by many. This writer is also now divorced and her ex married someone whose career is diametrically opposed to almost all of the values she espouses. Though she does still have lots of success, her life isn’t one I would take over for my own these days.

I once accosted Nathan Englander at the Hungarian Pastry Shop and asked him for writing advice. “Don’t publish till you are ready” were his words to me. I thought, sure, that’s easy for him to say when he received an unprecedentedly large amount of money for a volume of short stories printed before he turned 30. But now, at this distance, I actually think he was sincere, though the envy I felt at the time made me think it was a flippant remark. It did take him 10 years to publish his next book, so maybe there was a difficulty involved with the pressure of early success. One doesn’t know all the facts of the lives of others, rendering jealousy a pretty futile emotion to have.

Another writer I have spoken with, who started publishing with a volume of poetry at 21 and twenty-three years later has now published 11 books of prose and poetry, responded simply to my query about how he was able to be so prolific, “Some things are hard and some are easy.” Again, I assumed it was a facile statement, one made to ward off the envy of the unpublished. But I don’t think so now—he was sincerely saying, that’s how it is.

So what is different, now that a chapter of my novel is online and two interviews with me are up?  I am somehow, cleaved in two, a public persona of “writer” and the self who created my work. It is an odd feeling, a new role I need to perform. I’m happy to do it, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been waiting for this, but I’m also a bit nervous, exposed. People see sides of me and ask me personal things, hint that they may grasp aspects of me I am uncomfortable with. But my writing is alive, a living breathing thing that others can access, not a pile of marked-up manuscripts sitting forlornly in stacks under my bed, not knowing what their fate will be.

Most importantly, I am happy with what I’ve done, the book I’ve written, and I’m eager to go on writing and publishing, hoping I have productive years ahead to create the body of work I dream about without being concerned with the careers and successes of others.

Author photo by Yael Perlman

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Stories of Frederick Busch

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

What to know about pain is how little we do to deserve it, how simple it is to give, how hard to lose.

“Widow Water” from The Stories of Frederick Busch

Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday Freebie: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

This week’s contest is for We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, now out in paperback. The Huffington Post called the novel “a rich examination of America’s treatment of race, and the ways we attempt to discuss and confront it today.” Keep reading for more information about the book...

The Freeman family—Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie—have been invited to the Toneybee Institute to participate in a research experiment. They will live in an apartment on campus with Charlie, a young chimp abandoned by his mother. The Freemans were selected because they know sign language; they are supposed to teach it to Charlie and welcome him as a member of their family. But when Charlotte discovers the truth about the institute’s history of questionable studies, the secrets of the past invade the present in devious ways. The power of this shattering novel resides in Greenidge’s undeniable storytelling talents. What appears to be a story of mothers and daughters, of sisterhood put to the test, of adolescent love and grown-up misconduct, and of history’s long reach, becomes a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.

If you’d like a chance at winning We Love You, Charlie Freeman, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Front Porch Books: January 2017 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

We begin this month with axe murders. Specifically, the most famous axe murders in history: Lizzie Borden and her “forty whacks.” I was initially drawn to Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel by its startling cover design. I have no idea what decapitated pigeons have to do with the story, but I simply cannot look away from that unblinking red eye. Pretty cover art notwithstanding, it’s what’s inside that really counts and from what I’ve read so far, See What I Have Done doesn’t disappoint. You can say I came for the cover but I stayed for the words.

Jacket Copy:  On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence. As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Opening Lines:  He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed Father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this to you because I love you.’ He had smiled and kissed my forehead.
      A long time ago now.
      I looked at Father. I touched his bleeding hand, how long does it take for a body to become cold? and leaned closer to his face, tried to make eye contact, waited to see if he might blink, might recognize me. I wiped my hand across my mouth, tasted blood. My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again, watched blood river down his neck and disappear into suit cloth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I walked out of the room, closed the door behind me and made my way to the back stairs, shouted once more to Bridget, ‘Quickly. Someone’s killed Father.’ I wiped my hand across my mouth, licked my teeth.

Blurbworthiness:  “This novel is like a crazy murdery fever dream, swirling around the day of the murders. Schmidt has written not just a tale of a crime, but a novel of the senses. There is hardly a sentence that goes by without mention of some sensation, whether it’s a smell or a sound or a taste, and it is this complete saturation of the senses that enables the novel to soak into your brain and envelope you in creepy uncomfortableness. It’s a fabulous, unsettling book.”  (Book Riot)

Unearthing Paradise
Edited by Marc Beaudin, Seabring Davis and Max Hjortsberg
(Elk River Books)

These days, we talk a lot about protecting our public lands―the crown jewels of the continent, the sacred treasures of our wilderness areas―but sometimes you have to put your pen where your mouth is. Kudos to the dozens of writers who did just that by contributing to this anthology of short fiction, poems and essays that are designed to be, as the book’s subtitle tells us, in “defense of Greater Yellowstone.” A partial roll call of the contributors: Terry Tempest Williams, Edwin Dobb, Michael Earl Craig, Greg Keeler, John Clayton, Amanda Fortini, Russell Rowland, Shann Ray, Jim Harrison, Elise Atchison, Tami Haaland, Doug Peacock, Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, and Rick Bass. On Twitter, we talk about doing #smallacts to combat the post-election tide of racism, mysogyny, and anti-environmentalism. Why not make buying Unearthing Paradise your Small Good Act of the day?

Jacket Copy:  An anthology of essays, fiction and poetry by 32 Montana writers celebrating and honoring the unique environmental, aesthetic, cultural and economic value of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially the regions of this ecosystem that fall within Montana: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Paradise Valley, the Gallatin Range and the federal, state and private lands that connect these regions. The book calls for the withdrawal of mining permits within the GYE; in particular, for preventing two gold mining threats in Park County, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. In addition, it strives to raise awareness of the need to stop short-sighted, destructive development of any kind on these lands.

Opening Lines:  It is hard to imagine a gold mine within view from the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, but given the state of the world at this moment in time, it is possible. Whatever legislation may be in place from the Obama administration could be undone by the zealotry of the incoming administration committed to placing our nation’s public lands in the hands of private interests. Never have our lands, our water and the health of our communities in the American West been more at risk, and in the case of Montana, pressure continues to build around more mining for gold, copper and coal. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is vulnerable.

Blurbworthiness:  “The most important book you’ll buy this year, or maybe any other, Unearthing Paradise, is not only a call to action, it’s a beauty in its own right. Calling together so many of Montana’s writers, how could it not be? In this day, when so much is threatened by so many, I hope that beauty can, for once, override a bit of the greed. Get it, pass it around, spread the word, let Unearthing Paradise be an awakening, not a swan song.”  (Pete Fromm, author of If Not for This)

Stephen Florida
by Gabe Habash
(Coffee House Press)

Much has already been written about the cover design for Stephen Florida (and for good reason―Karl Engebretson’s design using George Boorujy’s illustration of a wildcat might very well be the Cover of the Year), but I’m drawn to the plot as well. I’m trapped like a hare under a paw. It’s not often I say that about a book whose central character is a college wrestler, but there you have it. I’m pinned to the mat by this one.

Jacket Copy:  Foxcatcher meets The Art of Fielding, Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler in his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity. Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it’s a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark.

Opening Lines:  My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them. I was supposed to have a twin. When the doctor yanked me out, he said, “There’s a good chance this child will be quite strong.” This is the story my parents always told me, but I never really believed it.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Stephen Florida, Gabe Habash has created a coming-of-age story with its own, often explosive, rhythm and velocity. Habash has a canny sense of how young men speak and behave, and in Stephen, he’s created a singular character: funny, ambitious, affecting, but also deeply troubled, vulnerable, and compellingly strange. This is a shape-shifter of a book, both a dark ode to the mysteries and landscapes of the American West and a complex and convincing character study.”  (Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life)

The Coming
by David Osborne

Like Lizzie Borden (see See What I Have Done above), reams of paper and gallons of ink have been spent on the exploits of Merriwether Lewis and William Clark, both in fact and fiction. Of course there’s Stephen Ambrose's classic Undaunted Courage and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian K. Hall, but if you’d like to see a perspective of the 1804 expedition from a slightly different angle, David Osborne’s The Coming might be a good place to start.

Jacket Copy:  The Coming is an epic novel of native-white relations in North America, intimately told through the life of Daytime Smoke―the real-life red-haired son of William Clark and a Nez Perce woman. In 1805, Lewis and Clark stumble out of the Rockies on the edge of starvation. The Nez Perce help the explorers build canoes and navigate the rapids of the Columbia, then spend two months hosting them the following spring before leading them back across the snowbound mountains. Daytime Smoke is born not long after, and the tribe of his youth continues a deep friendship with white Americans, from fur trappers to missionaries, even aiding the United States government in wars with neighboring tribes. But when gold is discovered on Nez Perce land in 1860, it sets an inevitable tragedy in motion. Daytime Smoke’s life spanned the seven decades between first contact and the last great Indian war. Capturing the trajectory experienced by so many native peoples―from friendship and cooperation to betrayal, war, and genocide―this sweeping novel, with its large cast of characters and vast geography, braids historical events with the drama of one man’s remarkable life. Rigorously researched and cinematically rendered, The Coming is a page-turning, heart-stopping American novel in a classic mode.

Opening Lines:  William Clark tucked his head down as the rain dripped off his hat. He was a large-boned man, with a long, reddish face and nose and a high brow. It was a rough face but confident, accustomed to command.

Blurbworthiness:  “The destruction of the Nez Perce, who were obliterated like other Native American tribes all across the American frontier during the 19th and early 20th centuries, makes harrowing history....This work of fiction reaches a level of truth that history cannot in depicting the collision between two civilizations.”  (Publishers Weekly)

Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka
(Simon and Schuster)

We meet Lucinda Hayes, high school golden girl, in the early pages of Danya Kukafka’s debut novel. She’s sprawled on a school playground carousel, snow drifting down, covering her body. She’s dead, the titular young female at the heart of what looks like an absorbing, addictive reading experience. As the opening lines below attest, Kukafka’s prose is of the Rice Krispies variety: plenty of snap, crackle and pop. Dig in and don’t look up until you’re done.

Jacket Copy:  As morning dawns in a sleepy Colorado suburb, a dusting of snow covers high school freshman Lucinda Hayes’s dead body on a playground carousel. As accusations quickly spread, Lucinda’s tragic death draws three outsiders from the shadows. Oddball Cameron Whitley loved—still loves—Lucinda. Though they’ve hardly ever spoken, and any sensible onlooker would call him Lucinda’s stalker, Cameron is convinced that he knows her better than anyone. Completely untethered by the news of her death, Cameron’s erratic behavior provides the town ample reason to suspect that he’s the killer. Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought. Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her. Cameron Whitley is his ex-partner’s son. Now Russ must take a painful journey through the past to solve Lucinda’s murder and keep a promise he made long ago. Girl in Snow investigates the razor-sharp line between love and obsession and will thrill fans of Everything I Never Told You and Luckiest Girl Alive. Intoxicating and intense, this is a novel you will not be able to put down.

Opening Lines:  When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Blurbworthiness:  “Girl in Snow is a haunting, lyrical novel about love, loss, and terror. Reading it felt like entering another world, where things—and people—were not as they at first appeared. The world Kukafka so masterfully creates is suspenseful and electrifying; I was willing to follow her wherever she took me.” (Anton DiSclafani, author of The After Party)

Universal Harvester
by John Darnielle
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Once upon a time, I worked in a video store in Alaska. It was a quaint, small-town Mom-and-Pop kind of store that, at the time, only rented VHS. Blu-Ray was still in the future (and, if you’d asked us, it sounded like laser guns used by the good guys in sci-fi movies). Every now and then, a customer would bring back a tape, claiming there was “something wrong” with it. After allowing disappointed viewers to pick out a replacement movie, our job as video store clerks was to go in the back room and play the questionable tape, fast-forwarding to the “something wrong” part. We never found anything juicy―no homemade porn, no creepy or cryptic messages spliced into the tape by demonic forces, not even a mother somehow recording her baby’s first steps. The problems were easily diagnosed: a foot or two of crinkled tape someone’s dirty VHS machine tried to eat, or greasy smears from a grilled cheese sandwich some toddler tried to insert into the door flap of the tape deck, or distinct and sometimes still slobber-wet tooth marks from a dog. This is where my experience and John Darnielle’s unsettling new novel part ways. The characters in Universal Harvester do indeed find some very wrong things on the videotapes customers return to the store, but grilled cheese is not the culprit.

Jacket Copy:  Jeremy works at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town in the center of the state―the first a in Nevada pronounced ay. This is the late 1990s, and even if the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut, there are still regular customers, a rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: it’s a job, quiet and predictable, and it gets him out of the house, where he lives with his dad and where they both try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck. But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets―an old movie, starring Boris Karloff, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store―she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, a different customer returns a different tape, a new release, and says it’s not defective, exactly, but altered: “There’s another movie on this tape.” Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious, but he brings the movies home to take a look. And, indeed, in the middle of each movie, the screen blinks dark for a moment and the movie is replaced by a few minutes of jagged, poorly lit home video. The scenes are odd and sometimes violent, dark, and deeply disquieting. There are no identifiable faces, no dialogue or explanation―the first video has just the faint sound of someone breathing― but there are some recognizable landmarks. These have been shot just outside of town. So begins John Darnielle’s haunting and masterfully unsettling Universal Harvester: the once placid Iowa fields and farmhouses now sinister and imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. The novel will take Jeremy and those around him deeper into this landscape than they have ever expected to go. They will become part of a story that unfolds years into the past and years into the future, part of an impossible search for something someone once lost that they would do anything to regain.

Opening Lines:  People usually didn’t say anything when they returned their tapes to the Video Hut: in a single and somewhat graceful movement, they’d approach the counter, slide the tapes toward whoever was stationed behind the register, and wheel back toward the door. Sometimes they’d give a wordless nod or raise their eyebrows a little to make sure they’d been seen. With a few variations, this silent pass was the unwritten protocol at video rental stores around the U.S. for the better part of two decades. Some stores had slots in the counter that dropped into a big bin, but Nevada was a small town. A little cleared space off to the side of the counter was good enough.

The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
(Harper Collins)

Want me to click with a book right away, before I’ve even opened to the first page? Just say the words “Victorian,” “sea serpent,” and “shades of Charles Dickens.” Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent has all that―and more―in spades. I’m in.

Jacket Copy:  An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love. When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Opening Lines:  A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water,” he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.

Blurbworthiness:  “ can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian séance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years.” (Daily Telegraph)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: I See You by Claire Mackintosh

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

The trailer for the new novel by Claire Mackintosh, I See You, is creepy as that guy in the coffee shop who keeps glancing up from his laptop to watch you carry your venti light-foam cappuccino from the counter back to your table on the other side of the room. The same guy who is still sending eye-flicks in your direction 10 minutes later. The same guy who packs up his computer and loose-leaf papers in his messenger bag, goes up to the counter to order another cup of coffee, then appears to be heading out the door, but takes a sudden detour at the last minute and decides to sit at a different table...just ten feet from where you’re sitting. Yeah, that guy. As the trailer for I See You points out, we live in a look-over-your-shoulder world. In the case of the novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, “Every morning and evening, Zoe Walker takes the same route to the train station, waits at a certain place on the platform, finds her favorite spot in the car, never suspecting that someone is watching her.” The trailer, culminating with an eye staring deep into the camera, is chilling as an ice cube some prankster slips beneath your shirt then stands back and laughs as the cold trickles down your back.

Monday, January 23, 2017

My First Time: Larry Watson

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Larry Watson, author of of ten books, among them the novels Montana 1948, White Crosses, Let Him Go, and, most recently, As Good As Gone. The Seattle Times had this to say about Larry’s latest book: “In the virile, enigmatic character of Calvin, Watson both indulges in and reworks the romantic myth of the American cowboy in ways reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy or Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. The wistful territory covered here will be familiar to Watson’s fans. A repressed little town on the plains, uncomfortably poised between the old West and the new. Shameful secrets and penned up passions that flash like heat lighting on the horizon of a brooding sky. A master of spare, economical storytelling, Watson sweeps us up in a captivating family drama that departs as quickly as it came, leaving us gratified yet hungry for more.” Larry teaches writing and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he lives with his wife, Susan. Click here to visit Larry’s website.

My First Novel

My first novel was published with so little effort on my part that I completely misjudged what the process would be like.

I was working on a PhD in the creative writing program at the University of Utah, a program I’d been admitted to on the basis of a few short stories I’d written as part of my master’s thesis at the University of North Dakota. I continued to write stories and submit them to workshops for my first couple of years at Utah. The form, however, never felt comfortable, mostly because I struggled with what to leave out.

Then I came up with the idea for a novel, and I was not far into it before I realized how right that longer form felt, at least for me. If I knew nothing else about the novel, I knew I had to fill a lot of pages, so I let everything in. And everything seemed to fit, or at least I found a way to make it fit. Best of all, that indulgent writing philosophy led me to make discoveries that weren’t available to me when I wrote short stories, discoveries about my characters and their world, about language, and about myself and my world.

I can’t say that the novel wrote itself, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much material my original concept yielded. Soon I had 50 pages I was reasonably satisfied with, and I felt that behind those pages were 50 more, and 50 more behind those. I couldn’t be sure of the novel’s quality, but I felt as though I’d be able to produce the requisite quantity.

And with 50 completed pages I’d be able to apply for a generous national fellowship that some of my fellow students had been talking about. I sent in my application along with those pages and then waited to hear how I fared in the competition.

Well, I didn’t win a fellowship, but the competition brought another kind of good fortune. One of the judges liked my submission and got in touch with me. He’d been an editor but was now an agent with William Morris. Did I have an agent, he wanted to know, and if I didn’t, would I like him to represent me and my novel-in-progress? No, I didn’t, I said, and yes, I would. By then I’d written perhaps 150 pages, and he asked to see them. On the basis of those pages, he was able to sell the manuscript to Scribner’s (and that name should be a clue as to how long ago this was; today’s Scribner was then Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Once I finished the novel (which, I might add, was my first effort at the form), I submitted it to my committee as my dissertation. They accepted it, as I felt confident they would, since it was already under contract. My editor at Scribner’s didn’t ask for many changes (what took the most time, as I recall, was coming up with a mutually agreeable title—In A Dark Time was what we finally settled on), and before long the novel was published. That was in 1980.

It didn’t sell particularly well, but it received a few respectable reviews, and because I now had a novel on my vitae, I was able to get a teaching job.

Where, I wondered, was all the agony and frustration of trying get published? I didn’t have to find an agent; he found me. I didn’t even have to finish the novel before a publisher agreed to publish it. I was on my way, or so I believed.

And that belief must have constituted just enough hubris on my part for the literary gods of punishment and reward to conclude that there were lessons I needed to learn. Because everything that had once been easy soon became very difficult.

For 13 years I couldn’t get another novel published.

That agent and I soon parted ways when it became apparent to both of us that I wasn’t going to produce the kinds of novels he’d hoped for. The novels I did write couldn’t find a home, either through my efforts or the efforts of another agent I acquired—and lost. My slump ended when Montana 1948 was published in 1993.

I would have quit except...well, you know how it goes. No matter how short of expectations it might fall, your first time feels so damn good, you just want to do it again. And again and again and again...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Sentence: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

The sky was black and turned to blue just before a ribbon of bright coral opened like a cut on the horizon.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Freebie: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Congratulations to Jodi Paloni, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

This week’s contest is for two of the best and most important political novels of recent years: Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I have a copy of each book to give away to one lucky reader; Guapa is a trade paperback and The Sympathizer is a hardcover. Read on for more information about the novels, including their terrific opening lines...

The morning begins with shame.

Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa's grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

If you’d like a chance at winning Guapa and The Sympathizer, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 27. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.