Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Sentence: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt


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


How loud is death?
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Monday, August 14, 2017

My First Time: Felicity Everett


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 Felicity Everett, author of The People at Number Nine. Felicity grew up in Manchester and attended Sussex University. After an early career in children’s publishing and freelance writing, which produced more than twenty-five works of children’s fiction and non-fiction, her debut adult novel The Story of Us was published in 2011. She has just returned from four years in Australia and lives in Gloucestershire.

My First Children’s Book

My first children’s book was not one I chose to write. It was allocated to me by Usborne Publishing when they took me on as a writer/editor in my second job after graduating. Truth be told, I could scarcely have been less qualified to write it or less interested in the subject matter. It was called Making Clothes–A Practical Guide and was aimed at young teens–well okay, teenage girls (this was the 80s) who wanted to run themselves up a trendy jumpsuit on Mum’s sewing machine. It wasn’t that I had never made clothes myself–there was the A line skirt I had hand-stitched in primary school, which had somehow come out upside down (V-line?), there was a regulation apron with my name embroidered on the waistband, that I had been forced to make in Stalag Needlework at secondary school (this was during the birth of Punk, when I would rather have been running up a pair of bondage trousers). There was the over-sized “boyfriend” shirt I sewed to make myself feel better about not having an over-sized boyfriend. None of these garments would have given Christian Dior a sleepless night. But if Making Clothes was going to be my literary debut, I was determined to make a success of it.

In fact, the process of writing and editing that book gave me a fantastic grounding in the business of children’s publishing. I worked with a young fashion designer on the design and construction of the clothes, and with an in-house book designer on the layout of the spreads. I commissioned a fashion photographer, booked a model and supervised a photo shoot to showcase the finished clothes and found an illustrator to produce step-by-step how-to pictures. More importantly, in the context of my future writing career, I wrote the text. You wouldn’t think that writing four-line captions on how to attach a collar would be the greatest preparation for writing fiction, but it taught me to communicate clearly, economically and as far as possible, in words of one syllable. Short words were easier to edit. The last thing you want when writing to length is a “widow”-printer’s jargon for a single word that goes over to the next line. I don’t know who invented shirring elastic, but for forty-five minutes in 1985, when the sheer number of syllables in that indispensable phrase kept taking my caption over-length, I’d gladly have strangled them with it. Now of course, I would shake them by the hand. Because that process of sifting words, trying out alternatives, checking clarity of meaning again and again and again is what makes good writing.

I can’t claim it was a hop skip and a jump from Making Clothes to my latest work of adult fiction, The People at Number Nine. Quite a lot of water passed under the bridge in between. There were a few more Usborne Practical Guides (Make-up; Fashion Design; Jewelry Making) and, around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair, when Usborne would pitch as-yet-unwritten titles to foreign publishers, a lot of blurb writing. This was my breakthrough. My boss noticed that I had a knack for writing a catchy blurb (which was easy when the book hadn’t been written yet, because you didn’t need to let troublesome things like its contents get in the way). I soon graduated from blurbs to Beginner Readers–simple stories incorporating reading puzzles, for 5 to 9 year olds. As with the Practical Guides, the room for creative maneuver was limited–the first titles were not ones I had come up with myself, but ones which had gone down well at Frankfurt. The Clumsy Crocodile, was my debut and I spent several days cursing the person who dreamed it up even as I pondered in what amusing scenario which lent itself to reading puzzles, a crocodile might be clumsy. Tethered as I was to the practical world, hemmed in by sewing machines, nailed down by hard facts, I found myself thinking too narrowly–a crocodile in the jungle? A crocodile in the zoo? Then I had a eureka moment. This was fiction. It didn’t have to be realistic. I could make it up. I could make my crocodile the manager of a department store. Pit her against a pair of thieving rogues determined to get their hands on a priceless diamond. Make her clumsiness a hilarious impediment to catching them red-handed when they broke in at dead of night. It’s still in print thirty years later.

That lesson–“just make it up”–was key, for me, in becoming a writer of fiction. It’s still my mantra now and one I repeat to myself when I get stuck. What happens next has to make sense within the internal logic of the story. It has to be convincing enough for the readers to suspend their disbelief. What it doesn’t have to be is realistic.

So I have a lot to thank Usborne Publishing for. They gave me a grounding in writing and editing that laid the foundation for my career as a writer and three periods of maternity leave and a freelance writing contract which allowed me to keep my hand in, whilst raising four kids. It’s taken a while, but the journey from Making Clothes to The People at Number Nine hasn’t, in the end, been as circuitous as you might think. One is a couple of thousand words, the other runs to eighty thousand. Both, I hope, convey the essential information in as entertaining a way, and in as few words, as possible.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach


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


He kissed her forehead (coconut, lemon, that sweet tiny pimple), kissed her chin (watermelon, saltwater, salami), kissed her coarse eyebrows, her surprised little nose, kissed her eyes one at a time as she closed them again, kissed her open unresponsive mouth, kissed that watermelon chin, kissed those clavicles, kissed her breasts, her belly, might have tripped all the way over the line, but she squirmed away at the precise moment.

“Princesa” from The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Brave Deeds on tour



The bags are packed. The Jeep is gassed. The road is waiting.

Early Monday morning, I will set out on a driving tour of bookstores in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, signing copies of Brave Deeds and, at various locations, reading from the novel during evening events. I’m looking forward to meeting readers on the road.

Let me rephrase that: I’m looking forward to meeting readers at the bookstore events. Good gracious, I hope they’re not standing on the road, despite the reliability of my new Jeep’s brakes.

My publicist and I are still working on future events--and I’ll add the new dates and events as they come up--but for now, here’s where I’ll be in the next two weeks, with links to the Facebook events page where possible:

August 14:  Ketchum, ID (The Community Library, sponsored by Iconoclast Books)
August 15:  Sunriver, OR (Sunriver Books)
August 16:  Portland, OR (Powell’s Books, Burnside location)
August 17:  Bellingham, WA (Village Books)
August 21:  Seattle, WA (Elliott Bay Book Company)
August 22:  Spokane, WA (Auntie’s Bookstore)
August 23:  Moscow, ID (Book People of Moscow)

And here are some other future events we’ve scheduled:

August 26:  Billings, MT (This House of Books)
August 28:  Bozeman, MT (Country Bookshelf)
August 29:  Livingston, MT (Elk River Books)
September 16:  Great Falls, MT (Casseopeia Books)
September 28-October 1:  Missoula, MT (Montana Book Festival, TBD)
November 4-5:  Austin, TX (Texas Book Festival, TBD)
November 9:  Houston, TX (Brazos Bookstore)
November 10:  Dallas, TX (Interabang Books)
November 11:  St. Petersburg, FL (Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading)
November 13:  New York City (Center for Fiction)

I’ll see you on the road. And hey, remember to watch for cars and be careful out there!


Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Freebie: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt


Congratulations to Bonnie West, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Malin Persson Giolitto’s Quicksand.

This week’s contest is for Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt, now out in paperback from Algonquin Books. I have one copy to put in the hands of a very lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information about the novel...
Sixteen-year-old Lucy Gold is about to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default parent for most of their lives, Charlotte has seen her youth marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare. Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, chaos and control, as it explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot make right. Set against a backdrop of peace, love, and the Manson murders, the novel is a reflection of the era: exuberant, defiant, and precarious all at once. And Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.

If you’d like a chance at winning Cruel Beautiful World, 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 Aug. 24, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 25. Please note: I am extending the deadline for the contest since I will be on the road promoting my new novel Brave Deeds at Pacific Northwest bookstores for the next two weeks. 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, August 10, 2017

Front Porch Books: August 2017 edition



The Age of Perpetual Light
by Josh Weil
(Grove/Atlantic)

I look forward to a new Josh Weil book like Donald Trump looks forward to a 2 a.m. Tweet (though my anticipation is decidedly less malicious in intent). From the time I read his debut collection of novellas, The New Valley, to the dazzling dystopian epic novel, The Great Glass Sea, Weil has bound me in a beautiful spiderweb of words. He burrows deep into his characters and, like the cleverest of spiders, draws me closer and closer to the center, where I die in ecstasy. And now comes this new book of stories. From the title to the cover design to the story about an Amish woman discovering the wonders of electricity, light—both manmade and divine—guides us forward into this brilliant fiction.

Jacket Copy:  Following his debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, Josh Weil brings together stories selected from a decade of work in a stellar new collection. Beginning at the dawn of the past century, in the early days of electrification, and moving into an imagined future in which the world is lit day and night, The Age of Perpetual Light follows deeply-felt characters through different eras in American history: from a Jewish dry goods peddler who falls in love with an Amish woman while showing her the wonders of an Edison Lamp, to a 1940 farmers’ uprising against the unfair practices of a power company; a Serbian immigrant teenage boy in 1990’s Vermont desperate to catch a glimpse of an experimental satellite, to a back-to-the-land couple forced to grapple with their daughter’s autism during winter’s longest night. Brilliantly hewn and piercingly observant, these are tales that speak to the all-too-human desire for advancement and the struggle of wounded hearts to find a salve, no matter what the cost. This is a breathtaking book from one of our brightest literary lights.

Opening Lines:  One by one the windows come alight. From up the hill, I watch: the Hartzlers’ old stone house so dark, so still, it might be the new-turned soil of a garden bed—huge, square, black—and in it the orange lamplight blooming. Bloom, bloom, bloom. Mrs. Hartzler lighting the wicks. There: I can see her shape. It goes window to window, a bee drifting, till it reaches the first floor, again, and goes straight to—where else?—the kitchen. My stomach moans. I suck in my gut, tug the rucksack’s belt more tight. On my shoulders I shrug the straps a little higher. Down I start toward the farm.

Blurbworthiness:  “Josh Weil is a lamplighter, the best possible kind. He moves us into each of these earthy, elegant stories and suddenly the light changes in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The Age of Perpetual Light is a special book woven with generosity and grit as it works against the dark to take the true measure of kinship.”  (Ron Carlson, author of Return to Oakpine)



The Grip of It
by Jac Jemc
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I’m going to start building this year’s Halloween reading list with Jac Jemc’s new novel right at the top. From the mad-seeming black-marker scrawl on the front cover and the equally-childlike drawings of screaming heads overlaid on the cover in a near-transparent layer (tilt the book to see the faces in the light) to a groaning haunted house, The Grip of It is the book to prickle my skin with unease this autumn.

Jacket Copy:  Touring their prospective suburban home, Julie and James are stopped by a noise. Deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping, but underwater. “That’s just the house settling,” the real estate agent assures them with a smile. He is wrong. The move―prompted by James’s penchant for gambling and his general inability to keep his impulses in check―is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to start afresh. But this house, which sits between a lake and a forest, has its own plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to establish a sense of normalcy, the home and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The framework― claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms―becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall―contracting, expanding―and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of painful, grisly bruises. Like the house that torments the troubled married couple living within its walls, The Grip of It oozes with palpable terror and skin-prickling dread. Its architect, Jac Jemc, meticulously traces Julie and James’s unsettling journey through the depths of their new home as they fight to free themselves from its crushing grip.

Opening Lines:  Maybe we move in and we don’t hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as we try to describe it and fail. “You don’t hear it? It’s like a mouth harp. Deep twang. Like throat singing. Ancient. Glottal. Resonant. Husky and rasping, but underwater.” Alone in the house, though, we become less aware of it, like a persistent, dull headache. Deaf to the sound, until the still silence of ownership settles over us. Maybe we decide we will try to like the noise. Maybe we find comfort in it. Maybe an idea insists itself more easily than an action.

Blurbworthiness:  “I mean this in the best possible way: Jac Jemc gives me the creeps. The Grip of It deserves a spot on the shelf beside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves―not only because it is a masterful haunted house story, but because it, like its literary predecessors, is elegantly written, psychologically rich, and damn terrifying.” (Benjamin Percy, author of The Dark Net)



The Shape of Ideas
by Grant Snider
(Abrams Comicarts)

I have a very short shelf of inspirational books about writing and creativity; right now, the only other residents are Still Writing by Dani Shapiro and On Writing by Stephen King. To that shelf, I am joyfully adding a new member: The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider, creator of the equally-fabulous Incidental Comics. I am only about one-third of the way through this “Illustrated Exploration of Creativity,” but I am taking it slow because smart, beautiful books like this deserve to be savored. The Shape of Ideas is divided into chapters with headings like Inspiration, Perspiration, Aspiration, Contemplation, Pure Elation and other wonderful “-ation” words. Snider is inventive, witty, forthright, and, yes, inspirational. I am hereby declaring this is the Gift Book of the Year for all creators in your life. It is for everyone who, according to Snider in his Dear Reader note, has ever been mocked “for carrying a notebook to bars, restaurants, and children’s birthday parties,” and those who “have been glared at in class or during an important meeting for aimlessly doodling on scrap paper.” Snider is quick to point out The Shape of Ideas won’t help you tap into a bottomless well of creativity (a non-existent well, he says), but it will provide the kind of long-lasting, deep-drilled inspiration that will keep you going when you think all wells have run dry. Want one more scrap of encouragement before you dip your pen in the ink? In addition to being a world-class illustrator, Snider has a full-time day job as an orthodontist. Dentist by day, artist by night. That kind of dedication, perspiration, and aspiration makes me smile.

Jacket Copy:  What does an idea look like? And where do they come from? Grant Snider’s illustrations will motivate you to explore these questions, inspire you to come up with your own answers and, like all Gordian knots, prompt even more questions. Whether you are a professional artist or designer, a student pursuing a creative career, a person of faith, someone who likes walks on the beach, or a dreamer who sits on the front porch contemplating life, this collection of one- and two-page comics will provide insight into the joys and frustrations of creativity, inspiration, and process—no matter your age or creative background.

Opening Lines:

Blurbworthiness:  “Grant Snider’s work delivers introspection, humor, and inspiration in visually stunning drawings. They are a colorful look into the creative process—from the moments of quiet contemplation to the days of frenzied desperation.”  (Susan Cain author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking)



The Standard Grand
by Jay Baron Nicorvo
(St. Martin’s Press)

Some of the best war literature doesn’t involve bullets, blood, or bombs, but centers around what happens to warriors after they redeploy. Think The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman, Redeployment by Phil Klay, and Tim O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” from The Things They Carried. When you’re in the midst of the fog of war, it’s hard to think; the contemplation—and the nightmares—often don’t hit full force until after you’re back among the uncomfortable comforts of home. That’s one reason I’m looking forward to reading Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand; the other is the dazzling and inventive plot which involves an AWOL vet, a cougar, a resort in the Catskills and Senator Al Franken. Good things wait for us in these pages, dear reader.

Jacket Copy:  When an Army trucker goes AWOL before her third deployment, she ends up sleeping in Central Park. There, she meets a Vietnam vet and widower who inherited a tumbledown Borscht Belt resort. Converted into a halfway house for homeless veterans, the Standard―and its two thousand acres over the Marcellus Shale Formation―is coveted by a Houston-based multinational company. Toward what end, only a corporate executive knows. With three violent acts at its center―a mauling, a shooting, a mysterious death decades in the past―and set largely in the Catskills, The Standard Grand spans an epic year in the lives of its diverse cast: a female veteran protagonist, a Mesoamerican lesbian landman, a mercenary security contractor keeping secrets and seeking answers, a conspiratorial gang of combat vets fighting to get peaceably by, and a cougar―along with appearances by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Senator Al Franken. All of the characters―soldiers, civilians―struggle to discover that what matters most is not that they’ve caused no harm, but how they make amends for the harm they’ve caused. Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand confronts a glaring cultural omission: the absence of women in our war stories. Like the best of its characters―who aspire more to goodness than greatness―this American novel hopes to darn a hole or two in the frayed national fabric.

Opening Lines:  Specialist Smith gunned the gas and popped the clutch in the early Ozark morning. Her Dodge pickup yelped, slid to one side in the blue dark, then shot fishtailing forward. The rear tires burned a loud ten meters of smoking, skunky rubber out front of the stucco ranch house on Tidal Road.
       She felt thankful for her bad marriage. It allowed her the privilege of living off base; she could go AWOL without having to bust the gates of Fort Leonard Wood. Her four-barrel pocket pepperbox, a COP .357—holstered, unloaded—rode on the passenger seat.

Blurbworthiness:  “With profound compassion for his outrageously wonderful characters, Nicorvo brings readers to a defunct and decaying Catskills resort where a ghost platoon of vets are surviving among dangers both natural and human-made. Insanely funny, by turns tragic and, ultimately, redemptive, The Standard Grand is a desperate masterpiece of a debut: honest, epic, constantly surprising, and relentlessly entertaining.”  (Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of American Salvage)



Crossings
by Jon Kerstetter
(Crown)

Another promising book about war landed on my doorstep this month and has promptly hooked me inside its pages. Like The Standard Grand, the memoir Crossings reminds us that battles are not fought by faceless robots bent on clinical killing but by men and women with bodies that can bleed and souls that can break. Army physician Jon Kerstetter volunteered for duty in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia and served three combat tours in Iraq. And then he came home and suffered a stroke. See, no robots here. The military may pride itself on its weaponized machinery, but its heart is still made of flesh and blood.

Jacket Copy:  Every juncture in Jon Kerstetter’s life has been marked by a crossing from one world into another: from civilian to doctor to soldier; between healing and waging war; and between compassion and hatred of the enemy. When an injury led to a stroke that ended his careers as a doctor and a soldier, he faced the most difficult crossing of all, a recovery that proved as shattering as war itself. Crossings is a memoir of an improbable, powerfully drawn life, one that began in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin but grew by force of will to encompass a remarkable medical practice. Trained as an emergency physician, Kerstetter’s thirst for intensity led him to volunteer in war-torn Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia, and to join the Army National Guard. His three tours in the Iraq War marked the height of the American struggle there. The story of his work in theater, which involved everything from saving soldiers’ lives to organizing the joint U.S.–Iraqi forensics team tasked with identifying the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, is a bracing, unprecedented evocation of a doctor’s life at war. But war was only the start of Kerstetter’s struggle. The stroke he suffered upon returning from Iraq led to serious cognitive and physical disabilities. His years-long recovery, impeded by near-unbearable pain and complicated by PTSD, meant overcoming the perceived limits of his body and mind and re-imagining his own capacity for renewal and change. It led him not only to writing as a vocation but to a deeper understanding of how healing means accepting a new identity, and how that acceptance must be fought for with as much tenacity as any battlefield victory.

Opening Lines:  A soldier lies in the sand, blood pooling beneath his head, mouth gulping at the air. His eyes fixed, head tilted off to one side, legs and arms motionless. He’s a young soldier in his early twenties, late teens, a young man who should be a freshman in college or finding a summer job while deciding what to do after high school. In less than five minutes he’ll probably die right there in the dirt, right at your feet. You will carry his bloodstains on your boots and on the sleeves of your uniform.

Blurbworthiness:  “The author’s emergence as a military doctor makes for interesting reading...but what is of greatest value in this narrative is Kerstetter’s ongoing, twofold recovery from a stroke on one hand and PTSD on the other...The author’s medical perspective on his own condition and critical therapeutic moments adds depth to an already solid story. An inspiring memoir.”  (Kirkus Reviews)


Fresh Complaint
by Jeffrey Eugenides
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story collection—his first in a writing career which began in 1993 with The Virgin Suicides—is a virtually gallery of great opening lines. I won’t list them all here—apart from the book’s very first lines (see below)—but as one example, here’s the bold, funny start to “Baster,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker:
The recipe came in the mail:

Mix semen of three men.
Stir vigorously.
Fill turkey baster.
Recline.
Insert nozzle.
Squeeze.

Ingredients:
1 pinch Stu Wadsworth
1 pinch Jim Freeson
1 pinch Wally Mars

There was no return address but Tomasina knew who had sent it: Diane, her best friend and, recently, fertility specialist.
Now, that’s funny stuff. The rest of the collection promises even more smart hilarity. No complaints here.

Jacket Copy:  Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novels have shown him to be an astute observer of the crises of adolescence, self-discovery, family love, and what it means to be American in our times. The stories in Fresh Complaint explore equally rich­­––­­and intriguing­­––territory. Ranging from the bitingly reproductive antics of “Baster” to the dreamy, moving account of a young traveler’s search for enlightenment in “Air Mail” (selected by Annie Proulx for Best American Short Stories), this collection presents characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. We meet a failed poet who, envious of other people’s wealth during the real-estate bubble, becomes an embezzler; a clavichordist whose dreams of art founder under the obligations of marriage and fatherhood; and, in “Fresh Complaint,” a high school student whose wish to escape the strictures of her immigrant family lead her to a drastic decision that upends the life of a middle-aged British physicist. Narratively compelling, beautifully written, and packed with a density of ideas despite their fluid grace, these stories chart the development and maturation of a major American writer.

Opening Lines:  Coming up the drive in the rental car, Cathy sees the sign and has to laugh. “Wyndham Falls. Gracious Retirement Living.”
       Not exactly how Della has described it.
       The building comes into view next. The main entrance looks nice enough. It’s big and glassy, with white benches outside and an air of medical orderliness. But the garden apartments set back on the property are small and shabby. Tiny porches, like animal pens. The sense, outside the curtained windows and weather-beaten doors, of lonely lives within.


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.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

There Will Be Boxes: Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s Library



Reader:  Caitlin Hamilton Summie
Location:   Knoxville, TN
Collection size:  Estimated 1,000
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Life in Ancient Rome by F. R. Cowell
Favorite book from childhood:  Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman
Guilty pleasure book:  I don't have one!

The question has always been this: can I fit all the books in the house?

The answer has always been: no.

Growing up, my parents purchased sleek wooden bookcases made in Scandinavia and filled them with volume after volume. Avid readers, they accumulated thousands of books before they retired to the South and downsized both house and library. Yet their house never looked stuffed to spilling. Their books always looked beautifully cared for. Tended. The titles that overflowed the shelves onto end tables and chairs looked loved, the others remaining bright and orderly on their shelves.


Until recently, I’d never settled long enough to tend my shelves. My library was made up of first editions, specialty art editions, cookbooks (for someone who rarely cooked, I always had aspirations), novels, histories, and books I’d promoted. A few computer manuals. Reliable reference books. One beloved children’s book (Friends by Helme Heine).

Once, when I thought I had settled for good in the West, I had visions of building an entire wall of bookshelves in my condo, but then shortly thereafter I met my husband and we moved to a larger space. Oh, the glory of space! But our rental wouldn’t allow us to hang pictures let alone build bookshelves. Most of my library ended up in boxes stacked in an unfinished basement.

Why unpack? we thought then. After all, we planned to head out in a year, aiming East. It took much longer than a year for us to head East, though, and for many years it seemed moving along the Front Range in Colorado was a tradition as we bounced from one home to the next, boxes and people more raggedy with each displacement.


When we finally decided it was time to head East toward family, I unloaded boxes of books. To see what we had. Here we were, off again, but this time cross country and once again moving ourselves. It was time to consider what we could carry with us. In addition to my books, we now had our children’s books (roughly 300-plus), and my husband needed to be allowed a few, though his collection is small and curated, whereas everyone else’s book collection sprawls.

As I unloaded the boxes, I developed a new rule: if I had owned the book for twenty years and not read it, it went into the “donate” pile. Stacks and stacks of books went out of the house to the library, along with a few titles I decided I would never read again or which had gotten bumped down a notch or two in my esteem. I donated my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, feeling sad but resolute. If I hadn’t needed the cookbook for many years while it waited in a box, it would be best to pass it along.

When you are loading your own moving van (again), a person gets tough.

Except with children’s books. Chewed, crusty, a few pristine—they all moved with us.

And so we Summies collected our beloved stories and headed out.

We arrived here in the South deep at night, into a neighborhood without many streetlights and no sidewalks and quiet enough to hear the thrum of crickets. I was so grateful to have arrived safely that I couldn’t absorb much, except that we had made it. In the morning I got a good look at the house and yard. Lots of beautiful trees and a wide swath of land. Not a lot of house. Ideal, except for the book situation. As my children relished playing in the dirt in their first-ever yard, and running across the stretch of grass that was now theirs to run every day, we did what we’d always done: we unloaded boxes into the garage for lack of space.

Which is what we did a year later when we moved.

Again.

At that point, I quoted my friend Natalie to my husband: “The next time I move, it will be because they are carrying me out.”

After six years here (the longest time I have lived anywhere in so long, I can’t remember), I began to unpack.

Unpack. The word unsettled me. I was so used to moving, I didn’t know how to stay.


Amidst unopened wedding gifts and scads of shoe samples from my husband’s previous job, we found my books. I unloaded them onto IKEA bookshelves which we re-purposed to fit our space. Look at them! I thought, giddy. Children’s books. Histories. Novels. Picture books. A cookbook about foods for the pack that I was pretty sure should have been returned to my friend, Jim, with whom I had lost touch amidst the multiple moves. (Jim, I have your book!)

Later, I got a little upset. My book about everyday life in the Roman Empire was missing. Among the stacks, I noticed that one missing spine... a favorite. Yes, I adore a book that tells me how people dressed and ate in ancient Rome.

Finally, I found it.

Thank goodness.

But what I have not found—still—is room for the rest of my books, presently gathering dust in our ridiculously overfull garage. My old Judy Blumes. A book series my parents had as kids. Literary novels. History titles. But they will stay, even if I can’t fit them in the house.

Lately I have been thinking more carefully about our garage, about how big it is. Our garage is massive. Our house was clearly built by someone with specific ideas about living. It has its quirks. Did the builder have large SUVs to fit into the garage or was he planning to create a wood shop? Why is there no linen closet? Why does the master bath include a make-up desk fit for a theatre actress?

But no matter. Someday I’ll take out the make-up desk and make a linen closet.

And that garage? Well, it could hold bookshelves. Quite a few, in fact.


Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, Long Story, Short and other journals. Her first book, a short story collection called To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, is now out from Fomite and earned a starred review from Foreword Reviews. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at caitlinhamiltonsummie.com

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 thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.

Author photo by Colin Summie


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt



There will be blood. Oh yes, buckets and freshets and rivers of blood. Sniff the first pages of Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done and you’ll catch the unmistakable odor of musky iron, damp earth, old pennies (or, considering the book is about Lizzie Borden, bad pennies). In the first chapter, narrated by Lizzie, Schmidt gives us a gore-streaked description of the axe-work inside the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts:
Like a tiny looking-glass inside my mind, I saw all of Father’s blood, a meal, the leftovers from a wild dog’s feast. The scraps of skin on his chest, his eye resting on his shoulder. His body the Book of Apocalypse.
Beyond rendering blood into poetry, however, See What I Have Done is a riveting portrait of a mind gripped by madness. What happened in that family home back in 1892 to bring about such personal and deliberate horror from the blade of an axe? Schmidt investigates the mystery and describes the scenes in beautifully-written prose. By the way, contrary to the popular children’s rhyme—heard in the trailer—it probably wasn’t 81 whacks, but more like 30. Still...the horror, the horror.

As for the book trailer (the reason we’re here today), it’s the very best one I’ve seen all year. Here’s what makes it work so well:
  • The haunting children’s chorus singing about the 40 whacks
  • The ticking-clock pace that ratchets up the tension
  • The seep of blood across the wide planks of the wood floor
  • The shifting, geometric angles of the camera, hinting at the jarring, unsettled atmosphere of the house on that August morning in 1892
Visually and aurally, the trailer is a marvel. Listen closely to the way all the sound effects (the pendulum tick, the wasp’s wingbeat, the music-box tinkle, the breathy rush of wind) come together. I also love the yellowed papers where we find some blurbs for the book: “What a book—powerful, visceral and disturbing. I felt like one of the many flies on the walls of that unhappy, blood-drenched house.” (Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love)

The book and the trailer are both great. Bloody great.

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


Monday, August 7, 2017

My First Time: Jay Baron Nicorvo


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 Jay Baron Nicorvo, author of The Standard Grand, picked for IndieBound’s Indie Next List, Library Journal’s Spring 2017 Debut Novels Great First Acts, and named “New and Noteworthy” by Poets & Writers. He published a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books), and his nonfiction can be found in Salon, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, and The Believer. He lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. Click here to visit his website.

My “First” Novel

My first published novel—The Standard Grand, released earlier this year from St. Martin’s Press—is the fourth novel I’ve finished. I started my first one as an obscenely naïve undergrad. A couple years later, in grad school and no less naïve, I wrestled it to something resembling completion. I spent a year or more trying, and failing, to get an agent—any agent—interested in it. When that didn’t work, I started the next novel. Five years later, the second novel I’d finished landed me my first agent.

That novel went out on submission to editors in September of 2006. I’d just turned 30 and, at that point, I’d been at it, pretty much on a daily basis, for a dozen years. My agent at that time—who isn’t my agent at present—was young, energetic, and enthusiastic. She was far smarter, savvier, and better educated than I. She was slumming somewhat, and I was marrying up, so to speak. She was lovely in every way, and I was in love with her a little. The whole process felt like a courtship.

Publishing people are a bit like the Beatles, and I love the Beatles—if not for love, they’d all be out of jobs. Love is not all you need, but it sells books. And love is also the dominant metaphor when it comes to book acquisitions. Time and again, you’ll hear agents say to writers, and editors say to agents, “I’m sorry but I just didn’t fall in love with this.” Sure, cynically and occasionally, such a euphemism can be read as: “This shit doesn’t deserve a toilet.” But more often, and more readily, didn’t fall in love is shorthand for the following run-on.


The publication process, at the big NYC publishing houses anyway, is so drawn-out (taking years in most cases), so fraught (even the most successful books face far more rejection than acceptance), involves a fair bit of money even at the low end (tens of thousands of dollars), and requires so many people (droves of hardworking individuals across the country), that the principals—writer, agent, editor—must feel the deepest, most abiding of human emotions, for one another and the work itself, otherwise the working relationships, and the books born of them, can only end in personal devastation every bit as fraught—emotionally and financially—as divorce. Turns out, the love metaphor isn’t really a metaphor. It’s literal. And you never really get over your first one, whatever it is (which is why this feature of David’s blog is so damn satisfying and inexhaustible).

That first novel submission of mine spent a year getting kicked around Manhattan, in two different versions, before my then-agent said enough was enough. The experience was brutal, slow psychological torture, and our relationship had a hard time surviving it. By the time I had another finished novel (the third, if you’re counting at home) I needed another agent, the inestimable Jen Carlson, whom—you may well guess—I love. And guess what. Novel number three didn’t sell either, despite accumulating more rejections than I care to count, though Jen has the tally. But by then I was mature enough (read: hardened by heartbreak) that I didn’t let my failure ruin our relationship. It’s a good thing, because some six years and one more novel later, Jen found me my editor. And yes indeed, dear reader, I do love her, too.

Last year, I read a wonderful interview with Emma Straub, a writer whose first published novel was the fifth one she finished. “They all got rejected by every single person in publishing, in the world,” Emma says. “It’s still true that I will go to a publishing party or event, and the first thing I will think of is, ‘I know who you are, you rejected novels 2 and 4.’” Emma has now published three novels, and I wrote her yesterday to ask if any of those unpublished novels went on to see the light of day or if they remain foundation work supporting all that’s come after.

In between opening a beautiful new Brooklyn bookstore, Books Are Magic, with Michael Fusco-Straub, her designer husband, raising a pair of boys, championing books at every available (and even unavailable) opportunity, and surely stealing a moment to write her next critically-acclaimed bestseller, Emma replied to say about those early stabs:
The first three were dead, are dead, remain dead. I say that not unkindly. The first may be resurrected someday, but no day soon. The fourth book I think of as the first draft of what became The Vacationers—or rather, it was a totally different book with most of the same characters. I struggled with it for years, and published two other books before I went back to those characters. The second time around, it was easy as pie—I knew every inch of those people. Then I just had to write it down.

What I love most about this—and, Beatles-like, I love it all—is the loving ruthlessness: dead, dead, dead. If you don’t reach that point, it’s easy to become precious and protective of your every written word. That attitude rarely, if ever, leads to publication.

Because publishing a novel isn’t just a matter of murdering your darlings. Killing darlings is easy by comparison. (While the love metaphor is lovely, if not very insightful, I’m afraid another favorite figure of speech, the war metaphor, is far more telling.) You’ve got to be willing to firebomb Dresden. To fly the plane. Identify the target. And ride a bomb giddyupping on down to the goddamn ground. Lay utter waste to years, even decades, of building sentences and characters and settings, bringing it all lovingly to life, only to be the one to give the awful order and, in the aftermath, dance madly round your own intimate devastation. On top of the ashes of first times—and first novels, plural—you may then, if you’re lucky, make something that, in the full maturity of repeated but ever greater failures, comes to feel like second nature. As Emma says, “The second time around, it was easy as pie.” The hellish part, I’ve found, is getting there in the first place.

Author photo by Thisbe Nissen


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris


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


May 3, 2002
New York

       The dumbest words ever spoken in New York are “I think I’ll wear my new shoes.” I left the hotel yesterday at ten, and when I returned seven hours later, it looked as if I’d jumped into a wood chipper.


Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday Freebie: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolitto


Congratulations to Tim Schultz, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: As Good As Gone by Larry Watson.

This week’s contest is for Malin Persson Giolitto’s Quicksand, named the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year by the Swedish Crime Writers Academy. I have a new hardcover copy to give away to one lucky reader. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


A mass shooting has taken place at a prep school in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb. Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is charged for her involvement in the massacre that left her boyfriend and her best friend dead. She has spent nine months in jail awaiting trial. Now the time has come for her to enter the courtroom. How did Maja—popular, privileged, and a top student—become a cold-blooded killer in the eyes of the public? What did Maja do? Or is it what she failed to do that brought her here? Quicksand is an incisive courtroom thriller and a drama that raises questions about the nature of love, the disastrous side effects of guilt, and the function of justice.

If you’d like a chance at winning Quicksand, 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 Aug. 10, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 11. 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.


Monday, July 31, 2017

My First Time: Stephen Policoff


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 Stephen Policoff, author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, his debut novel, which won the James Jones First Novel Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His second novel, Come Away, won the Dzanc Mid-Career Author Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His essay about his disabled daughter’s experience in music therapy won the Fish Short Memoir Award in 2012, and was published in Fish Anthology 2012 (West Cork University Press, Ireland). He teaches writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, and has recently completed his third novel, The Dangerous Blues.


The First Time I Realized I Was Writing a Trilogy

The first time I realized I was writing a trilogy was in 2013, when my younger daughter Jane, then 12 and a voracious reader of multi-volume Young Adult series, declared, “Daddy, you’re writing a trilogy!”

I shook my head. “No. No. It’s just that all three of these books have the same narrator…and okay…some of the same weird characters and ideas.”

“That’s not a trilogy?” She eyed me as if I were simply being a dense dad.

“Maybe,” I said, backing away. “Maybe.”

The thing is, I never intended to write a trilogy. But the various dislocations of my life kept leading me back toward the voices, images, and obsessions which inspired the first two of my unplanned trilogy of novels.


When I wrote my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, I had no real idea that I was writing a novel. I had mostly written plays performed in obscure off-off-Broadway theaters, and magazine articles for glossy magazines (Cosmopolitan! Ladies’ Home Journal! Seventeen! Family Fun!).

When my wife Kate and I spent a wretched vacation on Cape Cod during Hurricane Bob in 1991, I had an idea for something—it involved heavy substance abuse, possible alien abduction, and sinister behavior in a storm-battered setting. I didn’t really think that it was going to be a novel but I liked the not-entirely-trustworthy narrator, Paul Brickner. The voice I devised for him was a more conflicted, unstrung version of my own voice, and that was fun. I also liked some of the minor characters—Nadia, Paul’s dynamic girlfriend; her father, Dr. Maire, a scholar of occult lore; Tommy, Paul’s lifelong friend, a drug omnivore and aficionado of hallucinations—and the way in which I was able to weave the banal details of that miserable week in Eastham, Massachussetts (no electricity, no running water, a lot of crazed behavior from stranded vacationers) with the eruption of less naturalistic events (mysterious lights, inexplicable messages, an abandoned inn hosting a 12-step program for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens).

It took me a long time to finish that novel. I was teaching , parenting, working on other projects. And despite winning the James Jones First Novel Award, it took me almost as long to get it published. While waiting for Beautiful Somewhere Else to find a home, I started another novel. I had the title for this one before I had the idea: One day when she was about 4, my older daughter Anna pointed to my oddball collection of Buddha figures arrayed on a bedside table and said, “Look, Daddy, a Buddha train.”

Anna, who suffered from a terrible neurogenetic disease called Niemann-Pick C, often did not say much for days at a time, but when she did speak, she had a strangely poetic turn of phrase. I filed the expression Buddha Train away, and when I haltingly began a new novel, I knew that would be the title.

The Buddha Train was about art, toxic relationships, and a death-haunted cult called The Dream People. I have written about this before but it’s an important part of this story: writing The Buddha Train was a somewhat torturous process for me, at least in part because during that time, Anna’s illness progressed, and so did my sadness and feelings of helplessness. I began to have recurring bad dreams about losing her: Anna in a forest, calling out my name and I cannot find her.

When I confided these dreams to my friend Lucy, she said, “That’s the novel you should be writing.” I knew at once that she was right. I put The Buddha Train aside and started fiddling with another idea.

When I finished Beautiful Somewhere Else, I was reasonably certain that I was also finished with Paul Brickner, Nadia, Dr. Maire, Tommy. But at the end of that novel, Nadia is pregnant with Paul’s baby, about which he is (of course) conflicted. As I was trying to figure out what this new, inchoate novel would be, I kept coming back to Paul’s voice, to his life filled with visions and revisions. I found myself slipping naturally into that voice again. I gave Paul and Nadia—married and living in upstate New York—a five year old daughter, Spring, who has suffered a frightening accident. I imbued Paul with my bad dreams about my own child. I gave him new, not-entirely-explicable fears of losing Spring to the creepy lore of the changeling and the ominous mythic figures of the Green Children of Woolpit.

“So, I think I might be writing a sequel to Beautiful Somewhere Else,” I casually told my then-agent.

“Ah,” he said, just a hint of acid in his voice, “because so many readers are clamoring?”

It’s true that Beautiful Somewhere Else, like much of my work, was largely ignored by press and public alike. But the small, fervent band of people who did appreciate that book, seemed especially intrigued by the way I entwined day-to-day details with strands of dread, of the unexplained, the overlooked.

Somewhere, Nabokov says that the word reality is the only word which does not make sense without quotation marks. I’ve always liked that idea. Someone once called my work slipstream. I don’t know what that means, but if it suggests a world where we cannot be sure that what we are seeing is what others take to be “reality,” I am down with that idea. That is what I hoped would fuel Come Away.

But while I was working on Come Away, my wife Kate became terribly ill, was diagnosed with cancer. She spent six spirit-crushing weeks in New York Hospital Hell, while I lurched back and forth between home and the ICU, doing what I could for her, trying to care for our two devastated daughters, trying not to slip too deeply into the slough of despond. Working on Come Away was one of the very few tasks that allowed me to enter another world, one I had slightly more control over.


I finished Come Away on the day that Kate died, in March 2012. I spent the next months numb with sorrow, struggling to tie up the many loose ends of our life together, struggling to help Anna, who was 17, increasingly ill herself, and Jane, who was just 11, in sixth grade and in a new school, cope with a life suddenly devoid of their beloved mom. I could not bear to look at anything I had written then, but on a whim one lonely day, I sent the manuscript of Come Away to a competition at Dzanc Books. It won, and Dzanc chose to publish it.

I fiddled some more with The Buddha Train during this bleak era in my life but occasionally contemplated writing a novel about Kate’s horrible stupid death. I kept wondering what it would be like for my alter-ego Paul to lose Nadia; I had the nascent notion that he might be more literally haunted by Nadia than I was by Kate, and this little shard of an idea stuck with me. It nudged me into doing some desultory research into ghost lore and the neurology of loss.

That’s when I told Jane I was working on another novel about Paul and Spring, though I was not then sure it would grow into anything more than mournful musing.

I always assumed that anyone who wrote multiple volumes about the same characters must have planned it that way. The Ring Trilogy? Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy? Anthony Powell’s massive A Dance to the Music of Time? Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels? I loved all those books, but I certainly never imagined attempting a feat that daunting—constructing a continuing narrative, a world populated by characters who live beyond the pages of one book.

But in 2013, I discovered that’s what I was doing. I put The Buddha Train aside again, and began to wrestle with the ongoing lives of Paul, Nadia, and Spring. I shrugged off thorny issues of continuity—would anyone care that Nadia is pregnant with Spring in 1991 in Beautiful Somewhere Else but Spring is barely 5 in 1999, when I (vaguely) set Come Away? Or that she is just a pre-teen in 2011, in the book I had just begun? That Dr. Maire, mildly villainous in the first novel, turns out to be inadvertently heroic in the second and downright wise in the third?

I also made an abrupt decision to uproot Paul and Spring. Come Away was set mostly in Phoenicia, New York (where my wife and I had a weekend home for many years). But I wanted them out of there—they wanted to be out of there, fleeing the sad house where Nadia had recently died. I invented a sublet, and moved them to the city, placing them in a version of the NYU faculty apartment which my family has occupied for 20 years.

Although I have lived in New York for most of my adult life, I had never really written about it. Placing Paul and a pre-teen Spring in my neighborhood was strangely, almost preternaturally liberating. I could write about the Piano Guy in Washington Square Park, the Merchant’s House Museum, the Village Halloween Parade...

At some point during my blurry explorations for this novel, I heard a song called “Dangerous Blues,” which my friends, the folk/blues duo called The Four o’Clock Flowers, perform. It was written and originally recorded by Mattie May Thomas, a largely unknown blues singer, who may have been incarcerated when she recorded it sometime in the 1930s. The eerie howl of her voice sent shivers down my back; it contains the line I might get better but I won’t get well. Somehow, that seemed to sum up everything I had been feeling for the past year. I found myself throwing chilling blues songs into the mix of this book; I started referring to it as The Dangerous Blues.

But in Fall 2014, just as Come Away was about to be published by Dzanc Books, just as I was beginning to see how The Dangerous Blues could be written, Anna’s health imploded. She was in the hospital with pneumonia three times in ten months.

She left us in June 2015.

I know, I know. People ask all the time: How did you get through this? Insofar as I did get through it, it was because I didn’t really have much choice. I had Jane to think about, and stumbling along was what I knew how to do. As Dylan observes:
And when the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on.
I hid away for quite a while, doing only what I had to do, seeing only people who showed up at our door (in fairness, that’s pretty much the way I have always behaved; maybe this was a little more so). For a long time, I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t already know what had happened to my family; I felt almost apologetic if I had to catch someone up with my recent life. Once, in the vast, gray lobby of our apartment building, I felt compelled to tell the story to a neighbor who observed in passing that she hadn’t seen Anna for a while. She burst into tears, and I found myself, oddly, comforting her.

But if losing Anna—among the sweetest, loveliest children who ever lived—upended my life even more than losing Kate, it did eventually show me how to make The Dangerous Blues a little richer, deeper, at least for myself. Spring became more and more an amalgam of my two daughters—Jane’s exuberant resilience mingled with Anna’s soulful silence. I found that in detailing the father-daughter bond between Paul and the wounded Spring, I could also use some of my most poignant memories of Anna—walking her to preschool singing the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl”, watching a family of ducks paddle around the Esopus Creek upstate one summer, reading the disquieting Grimm’s tale “The Juniper Tree” one night, then having to sit there with her for an hour because she was so weirded out by it.

Anna’s spirit, like Kate’s, came to feel like an integral part of The Dangerous Blues. I am not especially superstitious and I lack the belief gene, but there were many times when I felt like they were hovering nearby, watching me write about them, and maybe, just maybe, smiling.

I recently finished The Dangerous Blues, though what will become of it is as yet unknown. I feel fairly certain, too, that I am finally done with the haunted lives of Paul and Spring. I’d like to be able to state definitively that no earthly or unearthly events could cajole me back into their tumultuous world. But I don’t think I can say that. I’ve been there before.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.
April 30, 1999
Paris

       This evening a man knocked on the door of our apartment and said, “Hello, I just got out of prison, may I come in?”


Theft by Finding by David Sedaris


Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Freebie: As Good As Gone by Larry Watson


Congratulations to Adam Coulter, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Blinds, the new novel by Adam Sternbergh.

This week’s contest is for As Good As Gone by Larry Watson. My love for Larry’s fiction is as big and wide as a Western sky over a windscraped landscape and this book is no exception. Here’s the Minneapolis Star Tribune on As Good As Gone: “Whether Watson is describing the inside of a 1952 Ford Tudor, a homey tree-lined street in Missoula, an afternoon branding a herd of cattle, or a pair of elderly strangers making love as spontaneously as a prairie thunderstorm dropping from the big sky, he writes evocatively and with great persuasion. This book is vintage Watson: laconic, dramatic and tough as a dry Montana stream bed.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...
It’s 1963, and Calvin Sidey, one of the last of the old cowboys, has long ago left his family to live a life of self-reliance out on the prairie. He’s been a mostly absentee father and grandfather until his estranged son asks him to stay with his grandchildren, Ann and Will, for a week while he and his wife are away. So Calvin agrees to return to the small town where he once was a mythic figure, to the very home he once abandoned. But trouble soon comes to the door when a boy’s attentions to seventeen-year-old Ann become increasingly aggressive and a group of reckless kids portend danger for eleven-year-old Will. Calvin knows only one way to solve problems: the Old West way, in which scores are settled and ultimatums are issued and your gun is always loaded. And though he has a powerful effect on those around him--from the widowed neighbor who has fallen under his spell to Ann and Will, who see him as the man who brings a sudden and violent order to their lives--in the changing culture of the 1960s, Calvin isn’t just a relic; he’s a wild card, a danger to himself and those who love him. In As Good as Gone, Larry Watson captures our longing for the Old West and its heroes, and he challenges our understanding of loyalty and justice. Both tough and tender, it is a stunning achievement.

If you’d like a chance at winning As Good As Gone, 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 Aug. 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 4. 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.


Monday, July 24, 2017

My First Time: Jamie Harrison


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 Jamie Harrison, author of the new novel The Widow Nash. Jamie has lived in Montana with her family for almost thirty years. She has worked as a caterer, writer, and as a technical editor for archaeological, botanical, and biological reports. She is the daughter of Jim Harrison.


My First Protagonist

My new novel, The Widow Nash, is the first book I’ve published in twenty years. Friends, understandably, had stopped asking for progress reports, and I’d stopped volunteering by the time I started it five years ago. I worked on it between research jobs, editing jobs, family illnesses, and despite grave self-doubt: when you don’t sell a book for decades, a little insecurity is only sane. I had a lot of time to think about my character, Dulcy Remfrey, and by the time I began really writing her story, she was clear in my head: a little lost, a little cranky, ready to do anything to save herself.

But my first protagonist, Jules Clement, the center of the four mystery novels I started twenty-five years ago, was accidental, as was my whole decision to write. My father was a poet and novelist, and until I was twenty, he didn’t make more than $10,000 a year. When you spend your childhood watching your parents worry about bills, you don’t romanticize the craft. And he had a calling—I had a love of reading and an English degree, but I made my living in food, and then magazines and script editing, and finally, after I moved to Montana, as an editor of a small press. I loved it, right up until the moment that we went out of business and I found myself in a small town with a small child and no job.

I was desperate; it brought out supreme arrogance. I’ll write a mystery, I thought. A series. I’d read enough of them; I’d even edited them. No art, but not just commerce: nothing soulful, but something good. What makes more readers happier than a well-written mystery? Nobody had handled an idiosyncratic town like mine realistically, or with humor: I’d transplant a New Yorker into the freezing, windy northern Rockies and watch things go wrong, and I’d grind a few axes from the past while I was at it.

I was an infant and an idiot, and within a month, I’d been smacked over the head by a series of discoveries:

Making my female protagonist an amateur and outsider felt contorted. Why would people talk to her, and anyway how many bodies can one character stumble over? One a book? Really?

Professions linked to crime and death felt just as awkward. Law was a possibility, but I wouldn’t be any good at a procedural; my husband, a defense attorney, is still stunned by my lack of legal knowledge, and his work also gave me a second insight: the job isn’t always that interesting. Making her a female cop would necessarily be all about that struggle, rather than whatever story I wanted to tell, and I was already struggling to imagine wanting to be a cop (given marriage to a defense attorney).

I tried making her a journalist, but found I couldn’t separate her from me, give her an independent existence. People would assume it was me. Sex scenes, background, everything. The horror.

I circled a male cop, a male lawyer, a male journalist, but by then I was having an utter failure of the imagination, and terrified that people would see my husband, or a local newspaper writer who fed me stories over drinks. And then I happened to go to a concert, and halfway through, listened to the singer’s calm, ironic speaking voice, looking at his skinny frame and crooked face.

I was a Clash girl; please don’t laugh hysterically if I admit the singer was Lyle Lovett.

I don’t know why everything clicked, but it did, and I shot past abstractions into a real character. I went home and scribbled out pages of notes, and I started writing, and I had a first draft within a couple of months. All my failed protagonists became secondary characters, but Jules Clement was really his own guy, a local boy turned social worker turned archaeologist turned cop (because he needed to make a living in the place he wanted to live), maybe a little younger and better looking than the singer, but with the same deadpan voice and curiosity and humor. And he was so fun: no one ever thought he was me, but of course the half of him I wasn’t in love with was me: political beliefs, years in New York, abandoned careers, problematic moods. I wanted him to do everything I hadn’t done or couldn’t do, including the archaeology degree and bar fights. It was completely freeing to write from a male point of view, to force myself to really think, to not incidentally make myself be empathetic to situations that had mostly brought out sarcasm or giddiness. I needed a separation to really get into someone’s skin.

I was lucky; I still like Jules Clement, and I still sometimes want to write about him, and he taught me how to come up with Dulcy Remfrey, another character I don’t want to give up. In many ways, she’s far less innocent than he was, and I don’t know that he would have been able to pry the truth out of the Widow Nash.

Author photo by Melanie Nashan