Poets & Writers Live coming to Chicago!

Megan Stielstra at a Second Story performance. Photo courtesy of Julie Sadowski.

Megan Stielstra at a Second Story performance. Photo courtesy of Julie Sadowski for Grayscale Studios.

Poets & Writers Live is coming to Chicago on Saturday, June 20. If you have not yet registered, you can sign up today—before May 15—for the Early Bird reduced price of $60— a whopping 50% off. Space is limited. P&W has put together an outstanding list of writers and publishing professionals for a day of learning, listening, and inspiration.

From coffee at 8AM to a Literary Mixer from 6 to 7PM, it will be a packed day, in the company of other writers. Chicago’s impressive lit scene is well-represented, including Stuart Dybek, Megan Stielstra, Lindsay Hunter, and more. Just a few of the others on the program:

Bonnie Rose Marcus, director of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops (East), will lead a discussion about resources available to writers in Chicago with Kevin CovalKelly Norman Ellis, Haki Madhubuti, and Angela Narciso Torres.

Victor David Giron, Curbside Publishing.  Photo courtesy of Jacob Knabb

Victor David Giron, Curbside Publishing. Photo courtesy of Jacob Knabb

Literary agents Jeff Kleinman and Renée Zuckerbrot will join publicist Michael Taeckens and Kevin Larimer, editor in chief of Poets & Writers, for a critique of three writers’ elevator pitches.

Melissa Faliveno, associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, will lead a discussion with Victor Giron of Curbside Splendor, Adrienne Gunn of TriQuarterlyJeff Pfaller of Midwestern Gothic, and Don Share of Poetry magazine about the kind of work they publish, plus practical advice on how to establish successful working relationships with editors.

See full program details at pw.org/live and a video of highlights from its first year.

Review of FRONTLINE: Reporting from the World’s Deadliest Places

by David Loyn, Forward by John Simpson

Nonfiction, 460 pages. Published 2011 by Summersdale, UK

I picked up this book when I was in London last fall visiting the Frontline Club, having learned about this organization while doing research for a new novel. Frontline (unrelated to the PBS television series) was founded by a handful of Brits during the Soviet-Afghan War—all of them freelance correspondents: writers, photographers, videographers, filmmakers, etc. Journalists who are not on staff at major news outlets often jump into conflict hot spots with no funding, no insurance, and no support of any kind. This book describes the birth of a freelance agency specifically set up for such war correspondents. Frontline’s founders conceived it as a for-profit business—or rather, one that would in time earn a profit. With pooled resources, they started an agency through which footage, stills, and writing could be sold to the BBC and other news organizations. As time went on, finances became increasingly problematic. A telling illustration of the difficulty of making a go of it: In the 1990s, footage that brought £700 could continue earning a videographer more money through the sale of usage to other outlets, including burgeoning Internet sites. By 2003 that fee was halved, and broadcasters demanded more control, including Internet rights—for no extra dough. The Frontliners eventually had to face the music, calling it quits as a business early in the Iraq War. Worse than the money lost and the impressive work that was (by and large) poorly compensated, Frontline lost members in some of the most violent places on the planet, deep in the heart of war zones many news organizations hesitate to send their own staff correspondents.

The good news is that Frontline perseveres, even if in an entirely different guise. The Frontline Club is a charity with a mission to support worthy causes, such as the Frontline Fund, raising money for the families of fixers killed or injured while working with the international media. Housed in a London building a stone’s throw from Paddington Station, the ground floor is an outstanding restaurant where you may spot international journalists —provided you know what they look like—and can view an impressive photographic collection. (If you go, save room for the sticky toffee dessert.) Upstairs, the clubroom is a large, comfortable spot for members to gather, lamplit tables, worn leather cigar chairs, and  walls lined with cases of memorabilia, letters, antique implements, and more photographs. It was a quiet night when my husband David and I visited, so we were privileged with a private tour. The top floor of the building provides low-cost lodging for international journalists traveling through London. Frontline Club members enjoy reciprocal membership in other press organizations and have access to lectures, films, and workshops and training in safety practices and dealing with trauma—something that has become even more critical in recent years, given the accumulation of kidnappings and brutal murders of war correspondents.

The 4-star rating I give this book at Goodreads was not arrived at easily. I generally reserve 5 stars for books in which the language grips me hard. There were times that I wanted to reach into the text, nudge and shape its direction and tone, or ask the author for more information, for clarity in spots that left me dangling and confused. Story lines holding promise for deeper exploration occasionally end abruptly, causing this reader to lapse into a a frustrated huff and toss the book aside for a while. I always came back for more.

But make no mistake: This book is chock-full of truly moving stories, laugh-out-loud funny anecdotes, tragic miscalculations, and derring-do. There are eccentric renegades who risked everything—possessed of a passion to bring awareness of the true costs of war to a lackadaisical public. Some of these journalists left behind lineage, title, family castles, and so forth, modern swashbuckling types who make one think of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Lord Flashman” novel series. David Loyn brings them to life with descriptions of clothing, habits, dialogue, flaws and peccadillos. We feel skin prickling with the desert heat, the lurking danger, and the slap-happy recklessness of adrenalin junkies who might as well be juggling dynamite.

I’m glad to have found this book and this organization. If you follow news of conflict around the world, if you’ve wondered what attracts some to plunge into jeopardy, I recommend “Frontline: Reporting from the World’s Deadliest Places” without hesitation.

View some of my other reviews at Goodreads.

What Endings Have Stuck with You? On Parsing Resolution

Lawn chairs at Ox-Bow

Lawn chairs at Ox-Bow

Sometimes characters speak to me out of the blue. They might introduce themselves in a line of dialogue, with a simple observation, a long internal monologue, a rant couched in outrage or delight or bewilderment or worry. I listen, record, let them have their say, and try not to force their hand, er, tongue. I’ll follow them long enough to figure out whether they’re taking me into their world or leading me down a dead end road. I’ve learned it’s better they remain mysterious to me for a while early on. If they have a story (and not just a lovely rant), their convoluted actions and thoughts will eventually challenge me, pushing me toward a level of discomfort that I must write my way out of. Maybe I have to release or reveal something I prefer to hold onto. It’s challenge that allows me to stick with characters for the length of time it takes to make a story, much less a novel. They move into my head, complete with furniture and problematic relatives and entire wardrobes, as if laying claim to a room in my brain. No matter how unpleasant they might have been at times over the months or years we spend together, I’m always a bit melancholy when they pack up and move out.

Perhaps because I tend to fall in love with characters, they come to me somewhat easily. It’s plot that gives me fits. Those characters whose foibles and mysteries I’ve indulged must, at a certain point, cough up their rent. I prefer bartering: in exchange for my brain space, they help me with plotting. Plot evolves when characters generate an action, or are acted upon, and are drawn into a troubling of the waters in their particular, idiosyncratic lives.

You know how athletes talk about ‘getting into the zone,’ where no pain is felt and the athlete is one with his sport and his body? I was always jealous of that, until it occurred to me that the same thing can happen in writing. If I’ve hung in there through the grind and the muck, kept butt-in-chair even when the story seemed to be going nowhere and taking its sweet time getting there, a moment comes in which the characters and I are mutually implicated in the rise and fall of the trouble. I’ve become entangled as I write them toward their eventual untangling. If I do my part well, it’s possible a reader somewhere in the future will also become entangled, invested in the character’s release.

I’ve heard this described as the story fulfilling its compact with the reader, giving them a return on their investment, through a resolution that satisfies the human need for release. 
Resolution can arrive in a number of ways. Knowing this does not, I’m sorry to say, make arriving at one any easier for this writer. Landing an ending (without the wheels coming off or, to stay with the athlete metaphor, without a sprained ankle) is perhaps even more of a struggle for me than plotting. Sometimes the best way through what easily mushrooms into paralyzing anxiety is to dive into a methodical study of works I admire.

Close readings of satisfying stories shows me that various kinds of resolution can blur and overlap, even in a single story. The most successful endings, the ones resolved in a way that feels ‘earned’, come about when seeds are planted early and subtly, evolving organically, as their tendrils weave through plot. The polar opposite of satisfying is the resolution that feels appended, like a requisite afterthought or a tidying up. On the other hand, a surprise ending that at first seems to come out of nowhere—can compel a reader to continue thinking and drawing connections after he’s left the story, brewing a unique satisfaction of its own.

Below are some of the notes I made while rereading, with an eye toward resolution, several very different writers and various lengths of work. (In italics is the type of resolution I think the story employs, followed by the title and author.) Maybe some of you will find a useful bit here or there your own work. Maybe you’ll disagree vehemently with my reading of these stories. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What endings have stuck with you?

1. A change occurs in the protagonist: E.g. “Soldier of Fortune” by Bret Anthony Johnston. Whether subtle interior psychic change or dramatic shift in beliefs, whether brought on by others’ actions or by the character’s own folly, through maturation or aging, this sort of resolution features a change after which nothing will be the same again. Johnston’s story, narrated from a distance of some years, looks back at the change effected upon the narrator during adolescence through his interactions with a neighbor.

url-12. Dramatic changes occur for other characters, beyond the apparent protagonist: E.g. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. In the wake of the actions of the central character, four other characters adjust their lives, having spent a year observing him, thinking about him, talking to him, and using him as canvas for their longing. A sense of development across a community can arise organically through this sort of development.

An insight is received by a character: E.g. “The Dead” by James Joyce. Joyce liked the term epiphany, a now somewhat fraught word, perhaps from overuse, perhaps from being co-opted and commodified in the vast spiritual marketplace of self-help. Sometimes it isn’t the protagonist who submits to an insight, but an ancillary character. Sometimes it isn’t anyone in the story at all, but rather the reader whose perceptions shift. This takes many forms: from small revelations about one’s own character to acceptance of a hard truth about family, society, life itself.

A decision is taken after an event or insight, resulting in action: E.g. Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. A novel has the luxury of time and space, allowing the accumulation of inciting incidents that ultimately shape a resolution. Societal injustice and cruelty, compounded by tragic choices—if choice is a power Donoghue’s protagonist can be said to have—cannot lead to any other action than the one taken. In Donoghue’s capable hands, empathy for this bedeviled young woman is so strongly forged that, even as we steel ourselves for the inevitable ending, our breath is taken away through the last pages.

91U2CxkICaL._SL1500_A decision or insight is considered, then not taken: E.g. “Silence” by Alice Munro. Munro has been called a master of the unresolved story. But doing nothing about the trouble, walking away from it, is in itself a decision, so I would argue that there is in fact resolution here. Munro’s hyper-competent protagonist, Juliet, handles the trouble in her life—her daughter’s estrangement—with an attitude worthy of Pangloss: I’ve got this; don’t worry about me; everything works out for the best. Sure, sadness will show up now and then, Juliet seems to be protesting; she will manage. Some readers see little difference between “a decision considered but not taken” and “absence of resolution” (discussed below). But the ground from which Dan Chaon’s story emerges is vastly darker than Munro’s. The resolution of each story is intricately woven from the beginning: for “Silence,” it is attached to character; for “Prosthesis” it is attached to atmosphere.

Lastly, the absence of resolution: E.g. “Prosthesis” by Dan Chaon. Sometimes verisimilitude nails a story arc to an absolute. In this case: life’s troubles are irresolvable. Even an untidy resolution is doomed to ring false. Chaon’s protagonist reflects on the random meetings and “small, offhand choices” that make a life; she’s disturbed, even as she accepts the lack of resolution. We can call it an insight, even if it’s just a “meh” insight, and Chaon is no more satisfied with this newsflash than we are. We could push a little harder, looking for resolution, and say that in turning away from her possible pasts and reminding herself that her husband is a good man, the protagonist takes a decision when she steps into his arms—until Chaon waylays her (and us) with “her possible pasts crackling behind her like a terrible lightning, branches and branches . . . ” Fear grips her (and us) even as she leans into the warmth of her husband’s neck. We have no choice but to feel “the pulse of other choices, other lives, opening up beneath her.” The contentment and safety we wish for is ruptured by the inescapable randomness of life, threatening to strike from behind and ready to swallow us in its open maw below. The story’s final chilling words make clear that there will be no summing up, no denouement: “. . . endless, and then nothing.” What troubles Chaon’s protagonist is anything but resolved.

IMG_0881Now, how to resolve this post?
Wait . . . What?
Sorry, you have to excuse me . . . Someone’s knocking.
I’ll listen a while, figure out whether they’re headed someplace interesting.
Maybe they’re packing a resolution or two. Maybe I’ll be lucky this time.

Teen Angst, Fundamental Style

lay-it-on-my-heart-250wA review of Lay It On My Heart by Angela Pneuman

Here is a voice we don’t hear often in contemporary fiction—Charmaine Peake is poor, female, adolescent, white, growing up in the rural South, where Bible quotes are dropped into everyday conversation and faith is not only to be worn on the sleeve, but broadcast loudly. I grew up not far from where author Angela Pneuman was born and raised, so the novel’s setting is familiar. But this intimate visit inside the mind of a 13-year-old fundamentalist Christian was a new and sometimes unsettling experience. What starts for Charmaine as a niggling suspicion of her church’s youth group leaders mushrooms into overwhelming personal confusion, until she can no longer ignore the contradictions between what she’s been taught to believe and the gritty circumstances of her falling-apart life revealed daily. Worse, the visionary dad she idolizes seems to be losing his grip on reality. A less capable author might have given us a sad and self-pitying victim of bad luck here. Instead, Charmaine Peake is a hybrid of surly teen and wannabe mystic, prickly and tender, guarded and utterly guileless, craving closeness with her never-available evangelist father, while pushing away the mother who desperately wants her affection. Prickly flesh-and-blood teens are quite capable of driving one mad; building a reader’s empathy for an acerbic protagonist requires patience by the bucketload. Pneuman accomplishes this through a slow and subtle rendering of Charmaine’s milieu, the hermetic environment of a deeply religious community. Tension builds as the adults she depends seem to fail her, one by one. Reaching the final chapters, I was nearly unable to put the book down. Fans of The Glass Castle and The Liars Club (and other memoirs and novels dealing with parental mental illness) will be rewarded with a similar empathy boost in Lay It on My Heart. As we root for a girl whose tenacity enables her to board the school bus with the other poor kids who live down by the river, Charmaine discovers compassion for the flawed adults around her—even the with burden of growing up.

Delicious Autumn

View of the Palisades from the Kentucky River Palisades Trail. Photo by Karry Mills.

View of the Palisades from the Kentucky River Palisades Trail. Photo by Karry Mills.

It was George Eliot who called autumn delicious. Her soul was “wedded to it,” she said, and if she were a bird, she would “fly about the earth seeking successive autumns.” I’m glad to have days exactly like that. This autumn has seen more travel for me than usual, and I’m not complaining. Most days I’ve been doing things I love almost as much as writing. I’ve talked with readers and writers and word people and I’ve seen new places and made new friends. I was invited to read at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington and later got to walk the Kentucky River Palisades Trail. (The photo to the right, a view of the Palisades from the Trail, shows the inspirational roots for the cover image for Cementville.) In Louisville the next week I met with an incredible group of women who read and loved my book (thanks again to my dear friend, Richard Thurman, for introducing me). In Norfolk I ordered crab cakes. Come to think of it, in Minneapolis I ordered fish cakes. I seemed to be following, and eating from, water. But in a little Mississippi River town three blocks long it was waffles.

And that was just September.

There are events closer to home to look forward to this month: this Saturday, October 11, I’m going to the Indiana Writers Consortium annual conference, where I’ve been asked to lead a breakout session, a sort of mini-workshop. And on Saturday, October 25, the InPrint group has invited me to their annual Book Fair in Rockford.

Edinburgh. Photo by Kim Traynor.

Edinburgh. Photo by Kim Traynor.

This weekend David and I head to Britain and a big looping train ride ( guess I didn’t get enough rocking sleep on AmTrak this past summer) up into Scotland where—and don’t even ask how I’m lucky enough to get to do this—I’ll be showing up at the Edinburgh Library for a writers group, then moving west to the fishing village of Mallaig for a book group. I’m excited to show London to my history major husband, and to take in the Lake District and some of Wales too.

What I may be most excited about, though, is the invitation to come and present at the 33rd Annual Kentucky Book Fair on November 15. Treasured writeimages-1rs with Kentucky roots who’ve been featured in the past include Bobbie Ann Mason, Sue Grafton, and Wendell Berry. One of the nation’s largest at over 4,000 attendees, profits from the fair and sale of books are donated to Kentucky’s public schools and libraries. Those interested in applying for a grant can find info here. Fair director Connie Crowe says that every book purchased there is like placing literature in the hands of a Kentuckian.

Thank you, W&CF, for years of service to Chicago readers


Below is an open letter to friends and followers from the owners of Women and Children First, Chicago’s venerable feminist bookstore. Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon set a high bar for other bookstores around the country that have opened with  the mission of making many voices heard. Many of us have known for a while that the store was on the market, and we’ve waited nervously to see what would happen. Today, we all exhale a sigh of relief, knowing this beloved institution is passing into the able hands of two literary feminists who have been associated with the store for a while now. A few months ago, when Sarah Hollenbeck graciously introduced my new novel to Chicago, we were all charmed by her warmth and enthusiasm for her work. Sarah will now join her colleague Lynn Mooney in the care of the W&CF legacy.

Here is Linda and Ann’s letter to us:


Dear Friends of
Women and Children First,

Thirty-five years ago, we were two enthusiastic and earnest young feminists, ready to change the world by adding a feminist bookstore to the literary landscape in Chicago. Two moves and one expansion later secured our place in a community of independent businesses in Andersonville. In this space we have enjoyed tremendous success, serving all of you as a general bookstore, a feminist bookstore, and a neighborhood anchor.

In the months following the news that we were selling Women & Children First, many of you2455 said lovely things about what the store has meant to you and also expressed concern that it might close or might not remain, well, Women & Children First. We did our best to assure you that, no, we weren’t closing, that in fact quite a few people had expressed interest in buying it, and that we were only going to sell it to people who were invested in the same mission and vision we have followed for almost thirty-five years. We are thrilled to say that we have found those people in two of our co-workers, Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. This enthusiastic feminist and literary pair are every bit as committed as we have been. With their complementary skills and interests, their love of books, their feminist purpose, and their combined experience in bookselling and publishing, Lynn and Sarah are our ideal successors.

But the future won’t be easy. These are challenging times for brick-and-mortar stores as well as for print books. Please continue to support the store: buy books, come to programs, and be sure to bring your kids, parents, and friends!

Linda plans to be semi-retired, working a couple of days a week at the store. She is so happy to turn over the responsibility of ownership! She wants more time to read, write, perform (and play golf). She will still be hosting the Wednesday morning children’s story time and the monthly Women’s Book Group. Ann will be retiring in August, but continue to stay connected to the store through special projects and consulting.

One longtime customer recently came into the store and said something to Ann that she will always hold in her heart: “I haven’t had a lot of money to spend here over the years and I know I haven’t been one of your best customers. But you always treated me as if I were.” While Lynn and Sarah are excited to make some needed changes and improvements, they’ll continue to treat all of you as their best customer. Because you are.

Together we have created-and will continue to create-this welcoming village that is so important to all of us who have decided to belong and help make it our own.

This has been an extraordinary, satisfying journey. Thank you all for your support, confidence and love.


Ann & Linda

Don De Grazia writes “About a Character”





Don De Grazia is the next author in the chain of this blog relay which started a while back, and to which novelist Thaisa Frank invited me. (Check out Thaisa’s responses to this series of questions here.) I met Don just last month when we were paired together to talk about my novel Cementville for an event at a Chicago bookstore, City Lit. I already knew he wasn’t a blogger when I tagged Don, but I wanted to hear him talk about the fascinating characters he creates, so I told him I would host his answers here on my own pages. Enjoy—then hie yourself to a bookstore to find his novel, American Skin.

1. What is the name of your fictional (or historical) character? Where is the book set?

Ryan Rocha is a fictional person whose story is set in 2012, Chicago.

2. What should we know about him?

He has worn a handlebar mustache and modified pompadour—both dyed jetblack—since about 1988.  Pretty much before anyone.

3. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

He becomes enraged when people point at his handlebar mustache and accuse him of being a hipster.  Also, people now assume that his shoepolish black hair is just a bad dye job to cover up gray hair, when in reality it is a sort of stylized homage to Elvis Presley.  Complicating matters is the fact that he is, in fact, starting to go gray, which makes him reluctant to stop dyeing it.  These are probably not really the main conflicts messing up his life, but they are easier to discuss and chuckle about than the fact that he is starting to contemplate his future with genuine terror.

4. What is the personal goal of the character?

Ryan is kind of a modern day renaissance man.  In ancient times, he might have been called a “man of virtus.”  In the age he lives in, however, he is called “a Starbucks barista.”  He wants to discover his true calling before he reaches retirement age.

5. What is the title of this book, and can we read more about it?

Ryan’s story is part of an untitled, unpublished manuscript of interconnected tales.  Many of these stories have been published in various journals–most recently “Black was Missing” (which includes a cameo appearance by Ryan Rocha) in The Chicago Quarterly Review’s 20th Anniversary Issue. This manuscript is third in a queue of manuscripts I’m polishing, but it seems pretty much done.


Don De Grazia has invited three writers to keep the blog relay going. Next week you can check out the responses to these same questions from Jessie Ann Foley, Mason Johnson, and Rob Jackson.

JESSIE ANN FOLEY is a teacher and writer whose first novel, The Carnival at Bray, was the recipient of the Sheehan Prize in Young Adult fiction and is forthcoming from Elephant Rock Books in October 2014. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, The Madison Review, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s, The Chicago Reader, Writer’s Digest, Hypertext, xoJane.com, Sixfold, Great Lakes Cultural Review and other magazines. She lives with her husband and daughter in her native Chicago. Jessie blogs at Chicago Now / Dispatches from the Northwest Side.

MASON JOHNSON is a writer from Chicago who currently works full time writing and editing articles for CBS. His novella, Sad Robot Stories, came out from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography in the summer of 2013. You can find his fiction—and the answers to his blog relay questions about one of his characters— at themasonjohnson.com.

ROB JACKSON received a B.A. from Ohio State and a M.A. from John Carroll University. He was an editor for Cleveland’s literary journal, Muse, and is currently the editor of Great Lakes Review. His novel, Silo Pilgrimage is coming out in September from BlazeVOX.

Guest blogger Geoff Wyss writes “About a Character”

11386929-smallLast week I had fun answering questions posed by a writer who generated a blog relay to which novelist Thaisa Frank invited me. This week, my friend Geoff Wyss has agreed to participate. Since Geoff doesn’t have a blog, his answers are posted here.

BIO: Geoff Wyss’s book of stories, How, won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2012. His first novel, Tiny Clubs, was published in 2007. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Image, Ecotone, Tin House, and others and has been reprinted in New Stories from the South and the Bedford Introduction to Literature.  He teaches and lives in New Orleans.

Warning: what you read below may make you rush out to find his book.

Come back tomorrow to find out what Chicago writer and Columbia College professor Don De Grazia  has to say about one of his characters. Don is the author of the acclaimed novel, American Skin.


1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he a fictional or a historic person?

My character’s name is Gary Wilkins—or sometimes (depending on the story) Gerald or Gordon, sometimes Weldon or Wellman—and he’s basically an alter ego for me, so I’m not sure what to say about ‘fiction’ versus ‘reality.’  (I don’t try to hide my association with the character; he has my initials, my job—teaching high school English—and my smart-ass demeanor.)  So the narrator of my teaching stories is basically me (as the other characters are basically my co-workers), but the events are made up.  My stories about teaching move around in this halfway space and are energized (so it seems to me at least) by a hybrid vigor.  So the answer to the question of “fictional or historical” is: yes.

2. When and where is the story set?

Two of the teaching stories in my book How, “Child of God” and “Profession of the Body,” are set in a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, in a suburb of New Orleans.  The stories occur around the time I wrote them, a few years before Katrina.  (I mention Katrina not because it has any bearing on the stories but because the teaching stories I’ve written since the storm are set in the all-boys Jesuit school where I now teach.)  The unnamed suburb is modeled on St. Bernard Parish, where I then taught.

3. What should we know about him?

He’s been teaching for about ten years, long enough to have gotten good at it but also long enough to have started feeling the institutional weariness that comes with the job.  He is idealistic about his work in one moment and cynical about it in the next as a result of this weariness.  (Most teachers will tell you that it isn’t the students and classroom that wears them out; it’s everything outside the classroom and the other adults in the building.)  His complex relationship to the religious mission of the school often gets him in trouble when he can’t keep his mouth shut.  He is (in these two stories) unmarried, one of those lifelong bachelors you commonly find in high schools.  He’s tightly controlled and out of control.  His messes are mine.

4. What is the personal goal of the character?

In “Child of God” Gary hopes to defend a favorite student, senior Ashley Brimmer, from the over-heavy hand of the institution when she turns up pregnant.  Girls in Catholic schools in New Orleans are not expelled when they get pregnant, but they are asked to leave campus when they begin to “show” and to finish the year at an alternative school.  Even though Ashley’s pregnancy won’t be visible—the school year is almost over—the school’s Campus Minister, Ted Infante, is exerting his influence to have Ashley removed.  In a fit of moral (or amoral) outrage, Gary schemes to get Ted fired and save Ashley’s school year (and her last couple months in Gary’s class).  What deeper wishes Gary might harbor regarding Ashley, Gary himself would be unable to say.

 5. What is the title of this book, and where can we read more about it?  When was the book published?

“Child of God” appears in my first book of short stories, How, which was published by Ohio State University Press in 2012.  It can be found in the usual places.  “Child of God” first appeared in Image and was later reprinted in New Stories from the South 2009 and The Bedford Introduction to Literature.  More information about the collection as a whole can be found in this review from the Times-Picayunehttp://www.nola.com/books/index.ssf/2012/08/new_orleans_writer_geoff_wyss.html

I can be reached at geoffwyss@hotmail.com.

Thanks to Paulette for the chance to take a shot at these questions.  The next writers, whose blog relay answers will appear around the net on July 7, are three of my personal favorites:

Louis Maistros is a longtime resident of New Orleans’s 8th Ward. A former forklift operator and self-taught writer, artist, and photographer, Louis published his widely hailed historical novel, The Sound of Building Coffins, in 2009 with The Toby Press. Coffins is currently in its third printing.  When he is not writing, Louis is compulsively taking pictures of his beloved home city of New Orleans. You can find Louis’s responses, along with his photography, at http://504ever.net/

Cary Holladay writes fiction based on the history and culture of her native Virginia. Her seven volumes include Horse People: Stories and The Deer in the Mirror. Her answers will appear on her website: http://www.caryholladay.net/.

Patty Friedmann is an award-winning New Orleans author whose nine darkly comic literary novels include Secondhand Smoke and Eleanor Rushing—the latter soon to be released in e-form as Through the Windshield. She also has published short stories, essays, reviews, stage plays, and more. Her An Organized Panic took first runner-up out of 406 entrants in the Faulkner-Wisdom novel competition. Patty’s answers to the blog relay will appear here at www.PauletteLivers.com/journal on July 7.

“About a Character” Blog Hop

Kentucky landscapeThanks so much to novelist Thaisa Frank for inviting me to join this “blog hop.” For the uninitiated, a blog hop is sort of like those chain letters you might have participated in as a teenager, from which you were promised 42 pairs of socks or more good luck than you knew what to do with. Nowadays it’s a way for us nosy types to look into other people’s writing processes.  When Thaisa first told me that we would answer questions about a character in our writing, I wasn’t sure how I would choose, because my new novel has multiple characters whose voices tell the story of their small Southern town’s experience of the Vietnam War. Many of Cementville‘s readers have let me know how much they love Wanda, and since I love her too, she’s the one who gets to show up here today.

  • What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person?
    My fictional character is Wanda Ferguson Slidell, a 30-year-old agoraphobic living on a small farm with her ailing mother.
  • When and where is the story set?
    My novel Cementville takes place during the summer of 1969 in the rural South during the height of the Vietnam War.
  • What should we know about her?
    Wanda is something of a social mutt. Her mother Loretta is from the disreputable Ferguson clan, and although Loretta’s father (Wanda’s grandfather Johnny Ferguson) worked hard his whole life to overcome the family’s reputation for drunken violence and laziness, the stain clings. Wanda’s father, Stanley Slidell, was the only son of the town’s wealthy grand dame, Evelyn Slidell. Stanley, a romantic alcoholic who died ignominiously in the back of a car where he had passed out, left Wanda a “half-orphan” as an infant. When the novel opens, Wanda’s hilltop isolation with her taciturn mother and an aging mule has become convenient habit, allowing her to avoid the real world and the grief enveloping the town below as the war dead come home.
  • What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?
    Wanda has been oblivious to the fact of being the wealthy Evelyn Slidell’s only heir. Evelyn has ignored her only grandchild, blaming Loretta and Wanda for her son Stanley’s ruin. When the two finally come together, Wanda sees something of herself in her reclusive and bitter grandmother, while also worrying that her pending sudden wealth may topple the carefully preserved bell jar of her life on the farm.
  • What is the personal goal of the character?
    At the beginning of the book, Wanda’s goal is defending her own status quo. The bodies of eight local young men are coming home from Vietnam and Wanda’s main worry is that her mother will make her attend some of the funerals. Subsistence at every level—emotional, physical, mental, and economic—has been narrowly tied to the hilltop farm from which she observes the town below. As the book progresses, events pry open Wanda’s expectations of herself and her relationship to others.
  • What is the title of this novel, and where can we read more about it?
    CEMENTVILLE can be found wherever books are sold. More about the novel and about my writing can be found at www.PauletteLivers.com. You can also follow me on Facebook, on Twitter, and at Goodreads
  • When was the book published?
    CEMENTVILLE came out in Spring 2014 from Counterpoint Press.

Again, much thanks to Thaisa for inviting me to join in. Next week, Please come back to my website to hear what two good writers have to say about characters they have created. Neither of these two has a blog themselves, so they will guest blog here at PauletteLivers.com/journal.

Don De Grazia is author of American Skin and other writings. His work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Great Lakes Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader, Rumpus, and other publications. He teaches full-time in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.

Geoff Wyss’s book of stories, How, won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2012.  His first novel, Tiny Clubs, was published in 2007.  His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Image, Ecotone, Tin House, and others and has been reprinted in New Stories from the South and the Bedford Introduction to Literature.  He teaches and lives in New Orleans.

I can’t wait to hear what Geoff and Don have to say about these people.

Review: Cara Hoffman’s “So Much Pretty”

So_much_pretty_-210Full disclosure: I was led to Cara Hoffman‘s work by the upcoming 2014 Printers Row Lit Fest. Chicago Tribune journalist Steve Mills will be directing a conversation with Hoffman and myself on June 7 during Chicago’s annual celebration of literature.

The fiction Hoffman and I write shares much: The rural setting caught in a violent spin, themes of vengeance, denial, the wages of war, and of environmental destruction. Gone are the days of reading for pleasure, if I ever read that way (okay, The Mists of Avalon, while I was lying on a sugar sand beach, that was pleasure). I read “So Much Pretty” the way I do most novels, with the eye and mind of a writer.

Some readers will quibble with the rapid-fire switches in point of view, encompassing the voices of many townspeople: a reporter who wears all the hats at the tiny local paper, the police chief, parents, high schoolers, interviews and police blotters.

Cara_close_head_shot-210But it was this piecing out of information, the challenge of following the accumulation of understanding about what was happening to the town, that kept me reading. Hoffman manages in less than 300 pages to paint portraits of her characters’ desires and secrets and fears, assembling a study of a unique family of outsiders and the isolated town they’ve chosen to call home. That she simultaneously weaves a murder mystery, a despotic agribusiness, and law enforcement that fails resoundingly to speak truth to power (all in vivid prose that never devolves into mechanics) makes this an impressive debut.

During the final pages, I found myself squirming with that restlessness only the best sorts of stories can bring out, in which what is moral or legal or responsible shifts from black or white to multiple shades of gray.

Next up: Cara Hoffman’s just-released novel, Be Safe I Love You