Thursday, August 2, 2012

Andrew Malan Milward - The Agriculture Hall of Fame

I first heard about Andrew Malan Milward's Juniper Prize-winning debut collection, The Agriculture Hall of Fame, on The Story Prize Blog. Man, I'm glad I did. 

All the stories in The Agriculture Hall of Fame take place in Kansas, my home state (as well as Milward's), so when I first began reading I couldn't help but feel a little jealous.  Milward stories are really strong, and like I always feel when I read strong stories, especially those from young writers, I was a little envious.  But on top of Milward writing great stories, he's written great stories about MY place.  It was a difficult feeling to overcome, but the stories were so good I had to let my jealousy go.  One of the things that helped was knowing that Milward's success would serve Kansas, and the Great Plains in general, very well.  His stories prove that Kansas--what many refer to as merely"fly-over" country--is as fertile a place--perhaps even more so--as any other region in America.

The excellent opening and closing stories, "Quail Haven, 1989" and "Silver Creek, 1969," as well as one roughly in the middle, "Two Back, 1973" prominently feature troubled men and barns, but this collection is not simply about rural Kansas.  Of the ten stories in the collection, Milward takes readers all over the state: from Ulysses to El Dorado to Wichita to Lawrence, to even the suburbs of Kansas City, and the many places in between.  Nor is the collection only about rural people and their concerns.  Milward's characters are just as varied as the Kansas landscape he draws for readers.  In "Skywriting," Milward presents us with two recovering addicts trying to deal with sober life while house-sitting in the wealthy suburbs of Kansas City; "John" is about two college friends, one of whom is Muslim, catching up over beers in Wichita only weeks after the 9/11 attacks; a dentist from Lawrence follows the life-flight helicopter carrying his premature baby to a hospital in Kansas City in "Birthday"; and in "The Antichrist Chronicles" a town's lake dries up and two outcast high school students watch as one of the two's fundamentalist father video tapes the happenings for his "Antichrist Chronicles" series.  These overly brief summaries clearly don't do Milward's stories justice--they're doing far more interesting things than my descriptions can accurately tell--but they do show how varied the collection is.

The title story, "The Agriculture Hall of Fame," is the most formally inventive story in the collection.  In short numbered sections, Milward tells the story of Meg and Jerry, only in reverse.  Counting backward is a technique that Jerry is told will help his rapid onset of memory-loss, but as readers we don't find this out until near the end of the story, which is really the beginning of Meg and Jerry's relationship.  What may seem only a gimmick, works wonderfully well.  The structure works so well, in fact, that even trying to read the story from back to front doesn't work.  Milward tells this story the only way it could be told, backward.  It's a perfect example of form and function working together perfectly.  

I'm clearly biased about the "place" of these stories, but the stories stand up.  They're not just good Kansas stories; they're good stories period.  I can't wait to see what Milward does next. 

A starred Publishers Weekly review, a review at ForeWord Reviews, and a short story not included in The Agriculture Hall of Fame in Zoetrope: All-Story.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jensen Beach - For Out of the Heart Proceed

Jensen Beach's debut, For Out of the Heart Proceed, is a surprising collection of stories.  Though I had no expectations when I first opened the book, I was surprised to find the collection made up of mostly flash and short-short stories.  In fact, of the twenty-two total stories, only three eclipse ten pages; the rest are all under six pages, many even shorter than that.  It made for an different kind of reading experience; actually, it was a lot like reading a poetry collection.  Beach's stories move so effortlessly (to his great credit), I caught myself breezing through many of the shorter ones.  I had to force myself to slow the pace of my reading so I wouldn't miss anything.  These stories, especially the shorter ones, demand a slow, thoughtful reading and reward you when you comply.

Structurally, the collection is broken up in to three sections.  The first section is mostly first person narrators, the second mostly third person narrators, and the third section contains a few stories that are a little more experimental in nature.  Thematically speaking, though, the book is unified by stories of fathers and sons and husbands and wives and the demands and struggles of life.  

The conclusions of many of Beach's stories are open-ended though never unsatisfying. That's a difficult thing to do: write an ending that allows the characters to live beyond where the writer stops writing while simultaneously satisfying the reader.  "Orion," the longest story (and one of the best) in the collection is an excellent example of this.  A campus security guard at a community college returns to work three months after getting in a car accident that resulted in his daughter's death.  After catching two students attempting to have sex on the baseball field, the man slaps the young man in front of his girlfriend.  Later, the man and his partner return to the school's planetarium, and in the middle of the presentation about the Orion nebula, the man abruptly walks out into the cold, points to the star, and simply says, "There." 

The shorter stories are also very impressionistic.  Beach gives the reader a powerful image and leaves us to consider its meaning.  "Alaska," the shortest story in the collection, "Spaceport America," "Priest Lake, Idaho," and "Training Exercise" are all excellent examples.  "Training Exercise," a story about a father and a son in the back yard at night playing with a flashlight who encounter a strange man in the treeline just beyond their yard, reminded me of a Dan Chaon story, with its eerie feeling creeping in at the edge of the story like the stranger in the yard.

"The Dark is What," "Wyoming," and "The Weather Factory" are rather touching father/son stories, but Beach never dips into sentimentality.  I think keeping the stories short and the images powerful allows Beach's stories to resonate emotionally without the reader feeling manipulated.  As a reader, I felt I came to the emotions on my own.  Again, that's a very difficult thing to pull off.

The three longer stories in the collection are the last stories in each section, and while I enjoyed the short pieces, "Orion," "To the World I'll Be Buried," and "For Out of the Heart Proceed" were my favorites.

For Out of the Heart Proceed shows great range for a debut collection, for any collection, really.  It's rare to see a collection of stories so varied in style and length that doesn't feel inconsistent or get labeled the dreaded "uneven."  Jensen Beach is certainly a young writer watch, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Extras: a short interview at Fictionaut, a review at Outsider Writers Collective, an essay by Beach at Dark Sky Magazine Blog, and a great review at WORD/SOUND. 

Check back soon for an interview with Beach!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dana Johnson Interview

I got the opportunity to read and review Dana Johnson's new novel, Elsewhere, California a few weeks ago (you can find my review here), and I was impressed by the novel's structure, as well as with Johnson's superb use of language.  Johnson, author of the Flannery O'Connor Award-winning collection, Break Any Woman Down, generously agreed to answer a few of my questions.  Her answers are incredibly insightful, and I thank her for her time.  Enjoy.

Casey Pycior: I heard you speak at Kansas State University in 2010, and at the time I remember you saying that you were having some trouble finding a publisher for Elsewhere, California. Can you talk a little bit about the book’s path to publication?
Dana Johnson: I sent the book out to all the major houses and nearly every independent press. Some rejections were just plain “no” and others said stuff like, “We’re not taking domestic dramas,” (which was such a narrowing of the scope of the novel) and a few editors actually said that they couldn’t see the relationship that the dual narratives had to each other, which made me scratch my head. When Counterpoint took the book, I was truly thrilled, of course, but even more since then I am grateful and feel truly lucky to have landed at a place that cares so much about literary fiction.
CP: Since Avery, the narrator of Elsewhere, California, first appears in two stories in your first collection, Break Any Woman Down, I wonder, when did you realize you were working with a novel’s worth of material?  How did you first envision the novel?
DJ: When I finished the short story collection, I felt satisfied with all the stories, but there was something about Avery’s story that didn’t quite feel finished. In those stories, I was merely touching on all the things I felt needed to be discussed and I realized that if I really wanted to get to the heart of themes in the short stories, I was going to have to write a novel. I knew right away that I wasn’t going to write a linear novel, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted a dual narrative, with one consistent voice in the real-time narrative and a shifting voice in the backstory.  I also knew that I wanted the real-time narrative to be all in one day, while the backstory was going to span several years. One other thing I wanted, was to use baseball, particularly the Los Angeles Dodgers, as a metaphor for my themes of race, class, and America in general. Also, I knew from the beginning that I was going to use travelling West, notions of Manifest Destiny, and pioneers as one of my themes. It’s crazy, when I think about it, that I wanted to do all of this in a first novel, and my editor, Dan Smetanka was always saying, “You’re doing a lot of things! You have a lot of balls in the air!”  I was making a lot of trouble for myself.  But I had so much to say and a lot of space to say it in, so even if readers don’t necessarily absorb or care about every single element, why not go for it?
CP: Structurally speaking, the novel is really marvelous.  Can you talk some about how, and more importantly, why you structured the novel the way did?
DJ: It’s so gratifying to hear that you appreciate the structure, because I was determined to do the things I did and make them work. I’ve mainly already talked about the how, but the “why” of it is maybe harder to articulate, other than to say that without all the tensions inherent in my craft choices, the complications and nuances of identity—and what makes us who we are—wouldn’t be as resonant. At least that’s what I think.
CP: You cover such a long span of years, roughly 15 or so, in the sections where Avery is growing up.  There are gaps in Avery’s story, and these gaps are probably necessary for the pace of the novel, but how did you manage time in the novel?  Was it something you were particularly conscious of while writing, or was it something that worked itself out?  Also, in Chapter 22 near the end of the book, there’s a 25 page section—the longest in the book (I think) where we are in Avery’s past. It’s clearly a pivotal moment in Avery’s life, but I’m curious how you see the section working in the novel.
DJ: I was very conscious of the moments chosen to represent Avery’s life. I didn’t do an outline or anything like that—I never have. I just wrote down ideas for scenes in a journal I carried with me everywhere. I wrote down ideas, put bubbles around them, and crossed them out whenever I found a place to fit these moments in. The ideas would be for any point in Avery’s life and I would just save them until I was ready for them, and write them as fully formed sections. Some moments my editor and I went back and forth on. Elsewhere was longer but streamlined and tightened by the final version. Some moments stayed, and others were cut, weird moments like Avery’s obsession with Phil Donahue (just when you thought she couldn’t get any weirder) and longer sections with Avery’s therapist at the beginning of the novel, for example.
I see Chapter 22 as illustrative of Avery’s political and moral cusp. She’s finally old enough to really be putting things together and taking action in ways that younger Avery can’t. I’m hoping the reader asks, “What are you going to do with all this information, Avery?” And I hope that the ending of the novel answers that question.
CP: Avery’s voice is something I think readers will admire most about this novel.  I especially liked witnessing the transformation in her language.  It’s so subtle that I was reading along and it took me awhile to realize Avery wasn’t talking the same as she was only a chapter or two before.  Can you first talk about what language means to Avery, and then how you navigated the changes in her speech patterns?
DJ: I’m so glad that you like witnessing the transformation of Avery’s language! It was important to me, to discuss language, because I see it as a large part of Avery’s assimilation. Two things are happening, she mimics what she hears purposely at first because Avery is impressionable, but then as time passes it’s just simply how she speaks. For Avery, language is a means of getting from one place to another. I thought language was another way to illustrate all the ways in which one can be seen as other but also to illustrate on the page a journey that is otherwise invisible to people who have interactions with adult Avery.
I started out with a more impressionistic treatment of the language, with no punctuation, and gradually worked in apostrophes and other punctuation. I tried to pick a moment that would indicate the beginning of permanence in Avery’s ongoing transformation and added the first, more conscious punctuation.  I added and took out slang as she learned it and dropped it, the older she got. Her language became simpler, plain, as the novel progressed. This balance became more difficult during the editing process because my editor would cut and move things around, and also ask me to write new scenes. It felt a little schizophrenic as we approached the end of the editing process because I would just be jumping in the middle of a section and writing something new, and I had to try to keep the voice consistent for that time in Avery’s life.
CP: You teach at USC, one of the more prestigious writing programs in the country.  What do you find most satisfying about teaching?  Least?
DJ: I love it when I see writers who have so much talent, who allow themselves to be taught. I see it often with students new to writing, mistakes that are just messing up truly interesting stuff. The serious students let you show them some things through the novels, stories, and exercises you assign, through discussion of technique and craft. It’s like magic, seeing the before and after of students who have been working very hard. My least favorite thing is the opposite of what is most satisfying for me: folks who are resistant to learning all the things they could be learning. I just want to say, “You could be so much better! Why don’t you want to write better!” And beyond wanting my students to get better at craft is my desire for them to have a true appreciation for how literature is created, all the choices and influences that come together to make fiction. That’s why I like teaching.
CP: What books/writers inspired you early in your writing career?  Who are you reading now?  Which writers/books should be more well known that what they are?
DJ: It’s a cliché, but J.D. Salinger started me down this path. His use of dialog was so revelatory to me when I was a kid because to my ear it sounded so honest, almost like transcripts of conversations that people had. And I’ve always had a fascination with how people spoke, with voice, the music of language, the particular syntax or figurative language that makes up a vernacular, and all the elements that make up the communication of a dominant culture. James Baldwin was an influence too. I remember the first time I read Another Country, it struck me then, and has stuck with me since, just how brave it’s possible to be in literature. I’m wild about Edward P. Jones. Just crazy about his work. What can I say about it except to say that it just kills me whenever someone says, “Who’s that?” I was shaking when I read the last lines of The Known World. I read Mary Gaitskill constantly, although I’m not so much influenced by her style as I am her honesty. But I take that back, actually. I read Veronica several times while I was working on my novel. What she does with time and space in that novel is incredible and it emboldened me to stick with my decision to structure my novel the way I did. There’s another writer I like a great deal, Thomas Glave, who wrote an incredible collection called Whose Song? And there’s a story in that collection called “The Final Inning” that’s just mind blowing. I teach that story as often as I can.
Now, I’m not reading fiction, I’m rereading a book by Danielle L. McGuire called At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. Long title, great book.
CP: I know it’s early, Elsewhere, California has just come out (or will by the time this interview is posted), but what can readers expect next from you?
DJ: It is early! But I’ve been wanting to write about downtown Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the last seven years. I have some things turning over in my head, but I won’t jinx my possibilities by saying anything more.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Quick Reviews

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
So much has been written about this book, there's nothing I can add that hasn't already been said.  A really cool book.  How this is a "novel," I'm not really sure, but as a collection of semi-linked stories, it works wonderfully well.  Plus, it's cool to see how Egan pushed the boundaries of the genre past where some might expect it to go.

The World of a Few Minutes Ago - Jack Driscoll
A really excellent collection of stories by a writer that should be much more well-known than he is.  I highly recommend this book.

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
As much as this novel has been lauded in the past year, I just couldn't get behind it - for too many reasons to list here.  It is an ambitious novel, and Harbach should be commend for that.  I had some serious problems with a lot of the depictions of baseball in this novel, but early on, Harbach writes a few passages of some of the best baseball writing I've read.  I just wish he would've done more of it.  

Send Me Work - Katherine Karlin
A strong debut collection of stories about, as the title suggests, work.  The female protagonists in these stories work alongside men in every capacity, and they struggle with their identities and for acceptance.  Excellent stories. 

Black Maps - David Jauss
Another great collection.  This won the AWP Award in 1995, and though Jauss may be more well known for his craft books, his stories deliver the goods.  His stories are reminiscent of Charles Baxter and Tobias Wolff.  Another collection I'd recommend.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dana Johnosn - Elsewhere, California

Elsewhere, California, Dana Johnson's excellent follow-up to her Flannery O'Connor Award-winning short story collection, Break Any Woman Down, follows Avery Arlington (readers of Break Any Woman Down will recognize Avery from "Melvin in the Sixth Grade" and "Markers") from the age of 9, when her family moves from inner-city Los Angeles to the suburbs of West Covina, to her early forties where she is an artist living with her wealthy Italian husband in the Hollywood Hills. 

While Avery's life as a young black woman in Los Angeles (and all the struggles with race, class, gender, and sexuality) is good in and of itself, what I marvelled at the most is the way Johnson tells the story.  There are two alternating narratives, both of which Avery narrates: in the first, Avery is an adult, and she is preparing for a gallery showing of her artwork; the second narrative begins when Avery is 9 and moves through her life all the way to her college graduation from USC.  The brilliance of this structure comes through most readily, in Avery's use of language and the way Johnson presents it.  As an adult, Avery uses Standard English and is what many would call "well-spoken."  As a child, Avery speaks in the black vernacular of her family, friends and neighborhood.  What's particularly interesting is the way Avery, because of where she lives and who she becomes friends with in the (mostly white) suburbs, becomes conscious of her use of language and makes an effort to modify it.  It happens gradually as Avery ages, but it is so subtly done that it's almost invisible.  It's also very funny at times, too, witnessing Avery attempting to adopt slang that she's unfamiliar with.  Avery's voice, and her transformation, is a joy to read and experience.   

Another thing about the structure of the novel worth studying is Johnson's use of time.  The narrative where Avery is an adult takes place in the course of one day, while the other narrative follows roughly 15 years of Avery's life.  That couldn't have been easy to pull off, but Johnson manages this wonderfully. 

Finally, this structure allows readers a unique look at the development of one character.  Had this story been told completely linearly, I'm not sure it would be as powerful.  In one section we see Avery as a confident adult, and in the next we see her as an awkward pre-teen coming into her identity, dealing with living in a new place, going to a new school, and watching her parents fight .  This kind of duality plays itself out in nearly every chapter.  In fact, the incident that is the engine of the plot deals with Avery trying to come to terms with her past and her family and to reconcile who she was then with who she is now. 

To say this novel was only about race and class and identity would be short changing it.  Of course those themes driving the novel, but it's about so much more.  For a relatively short novel, it's very lush.  Johnson manages to pack it full of funny and embarrassing popular culture references from the '70s into the mid-'80s, as well as quite a lot music.  In fact, music weaves its way through both narratives.  The great thing about the music and pop culture stuff is that it never feels forced.

If for no other reason that to study the structure, do yourself and favor and read Elsewhere, California.  I'm sure you'll be glad you did.

Review in Kirkus Reviews, and a review in Publishers Weekly.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ben Fountain - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Wow, what a great novel this is. 

After being filmed by an embedded Fox News crew during a particularly dangerous firefight, Bravo Company, America's new hero-darlings, is on a "Victory Tour" of the country to simultaneously celebrate their bravery and bolster citizen morale for the Iraq war.  The novel takes place--in virtually real time--on the final day of the tour, a Thanksgiving Day visit to Texas Stadium to watch the Dallas Cowboys (America's Team!) take on the Chicago Bears.    

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is getting a lot of press, and deservedly so, and it is most often compared to Heller's Catch-22.  The comparisons are valid, but in this novel I never felt as if Fountain was trying all that hard to make me laugh.  The humor--and there's a lot of it--comes out of the absurdity of not only the situations that Billy and the rest of Bravo Company are put in on the Thanksgiving Day culmination of their "Victory Tour" but of the idea of war in general.  We realize that as absurd as Bravo's "Victory Tour" is, it is absolutly plausible, and the humor, as dark as it is, comes in the realization of how true the seeming absurdity is. 

I think what I marvelled at the most, aside from Fountain's ability to keep this narrative moving in the present tense with very little slack, is his use of language.  The dialog in this novel is really extraordinary.  Not only does Fountain capture the voices of each individual soldier, but of the men and women they encounter, the Cowboys front office brass, even cheerleaders.  It's spot on.  Fountain also plays around with the typeface and formatting, but I never once felt he was showing off or trying to pull any trick - everything is in service of the story, and it's a good one. 

One other thing I was thinking about while reading this novel: like many "big" books, it tackles big, controversial, important issues, but for some reason this novel felt much closer to the ground than say, Franzen's Freedom (a novel which I liked).  It's hard to articulate, but I think it comes down to Fountain's style and his voice. 

Depending on your politics, this novel might get under your skin, but I think this novel is going to be around for awhile.  I'm sure it'll make most everyone's "Best of" lists at the end of this year, and it wouldn't surprise me if this novel is nominated and/or wins one of the big literary prizes this year. 

NY Times review, an excellent review (with a great plot summary) at WORD/SOUND., an interview with Fountain at Writerland, and an overview/profile of Fountain at

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Eugene Cross Interview

If you've been paying attention, you've probably already heard of Eugene Cross and his debut collection of short stories, Fires of Our Choosing.  If you haven't (shame on you!), do yourself a big favor and pick up a copy of this masterful collection.  Eugene was kind enough to answer a few questions for me in Part One of this two part interview.  Check out my good friend Brian's blog WORD/SOUND. for Part Two.  Thanks to Brian for setting this up and to Eugene for taking the time to answer our questions.

Casey Pycior: Your book—as an object—looks really cool, and Dzanc Books is a great small press. Can you talk first about the process of writing and putting this collection together and then about how it found its way to publication? 

Eugene Cross: Many thanks for the good word. I'm really happy on how the book came out. I had finished the collection a while back and decided I was going to start submitting it. At the time Dzanc was running a prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service. In addition to sending along a community service project proposal, authors were required to submit their manuscript. My service proposal involved running a series of Creative Writing workshops with Bhutanese and Nepalese refugees living in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. I had encountered the group while volunteering in their ESL classes. Several weeks after Dzanc awarded me the prize in 2009 they also informed me they would be publishing my collection.

CP: There are several short pieces mixed into your collection, two of which, “Harvesters” and “Hunters” are among my favorite stories in the collection (“Harvesters” especially, because of the Midwestern setting).  How do you think the short pieces work in conjunction with the substantially longer stories in the collection?  

EC: One of my favorite things about the short story form and short story collections in general is the variance you can get in terms of subject matter, POV, length, tone, etc...It's possible to change it up in a novel too, but I feel as though a story collection allows you to tackle wildly different themes in different manners without worrying as much about cohesion. At least not until you're trying to put the collection together. I was happy to see that shorter pieces like "Harvesters" and "Hunters" worked in the book along with the longer pieces and even a flash -length story such as "This Too." Admittedly, I'm the guy in the bookstore who oftentimes opens a collection to the shortest piece. If it leaves me feeling gut-punched or sad or laughing out loud, there's a good chance I'm buying that book.

CP: Brian and I were talking not that long ago about how writing is essentially a never-ending series of choices, and when you make one choice, two or three or even more choices present themselves.  But when writers talk about their processes, they usually never talk about why they made one choice over another, what they were thinking at the time, etc.  I thought of your story, “The Brother.”  Without giving too much of it away, there is a moment late in the story that comes as quite a shock, when the narrator, Sam, delivers the invoice to the lady whose house he painted, and the story dramatically turns in an unexpected way.  Looking back at it, it’s still a shocking moment, but it’s completely plausible.  It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s “surprising yet inevitable” idea.  So, with all that said, can you talk some about why you made that choice in this story?  In general, how do you usually handle making those kind of choices in your writing?

EC: I'm so happy you mentioned "The Brother" as it's a story I hold dear. Without giving too much away myself, I felt at the end that the negative choice the secondary character, Luke, makes is a direct result of a choice the narrator, Sam, made. Sam refuses to open up to his struggling co-worker and share his experiences and what he's been through. As a result Luke makes a poor desperate decision he might not have made otherwise. One influences the other. You're exactly right; we're putting our characters through a series of doors they cannot go back through. I've heard these called "One-way gates." Charles Baxter gives a brilliant lecture on this very topic entitled "Undoings: Dramatic Actions That Can't Be Undone." It's an issue of plot. Our characters make decisions and these lead to more decisions and eventually an inevitability to their lives and circumstances has presented itself. In the aforementioned lecture, Baxter refers to this as "Snowball plotting."

CP: Your bio mentions scholarships to Bread Loaf, and in your acknowledgements you also reference the Sewanee Writer’s Conference.  Can you talk a little bit about your time at each of those conferences?  Do you think attending those was integral to your development as a writer?  What do conferences like those do for young writers that an MFA program cannot (or perhaps does not)?

EC: Both conferences had a huge effect on me as a writer. One of the biggest rewards was meeting other writers at all stages. This was encouraging to a very novice writer such as myself in that I saw people who were currently publishing books, who had published books in the past, and I was able to sit and talk with them and have them read and comment on my own work. In addition to the faculty that MFA programs afford, these conferences bring in fellows and scholars who have published one or two books or in journals. This was important to me in that these writers had been through what I was about to go through with trying to get published, submitting and being rejected, searching out the right venues for your work, etc... MFA faculty have obviously encountered this as well but for many of them its been far longer. In other words, they've been "established" for some time. It's nice to encounter writers who are still making their way there: applying to jobs, submitting manuscripts, searching for an agent. Their advice concerning the challenges they've recently faced can prove invaluable. The most important aspect of these gatherings for me however are the friendships I've made with other writers. I've met some of my closest friends at these conferences, and have formed writers' groups that still exchange work. It's inspiring to me to be around a group of people who are passionate about the same thing I am.

CP: Who are you reading right now?  What writers inspire you?  Why?  What writer should more people know about, and why?

EC: Right now I'm finishing up the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. It's a slim book, but I've been making it last, hoping it somehow won't end. It's that good. I'm inspired by so many writers including Dan Chaon, Charles Baxter, and Louise Erdrich to name a few. I love reading new story collections and am eagerly anticipating Junot Diaz's new book as well as Tell Everyone I Said Hi by Chad Simpson, winner of this year's John K. Simmons Award in short fiction from the University of Iowa. A writer not enough people know about is Lewis "Buddy" Nordan, an old professor of mine who just recently passed away. His work is amazing. "Sugar Among the Freaks," "Wolf Whistle," "Lightning Song," you can't go wrong. I read him for the first time as a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh and it changed everything for me.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mini Reviews

Troublemakers - John McNally

The 2000 John Simmons Short Fiction Award-winning Troublemakers is a really strong collection.  If you've read McNally's The Book of Ralph, then you'll recognize a few of these stories.  Among the Ralph stories, there is another set of linked stories that work well as companion pieces.  I especially enjoyed "The Politics of Correctness" (if you've ever spent time in an English department, then you'll get this story), "The Greatest Goddamn Thing," and my favorite story in the collection, also by far the longest, "Limbs."  All around good stuff.

The Borrower - Rebecca Makkai

A really charming librarian-kidnaps-kid-and-takes-him-on-the-road novel, but it doesn't lack in any social relevance and poignancy.  This is a book lover's book if I've seen one.  References and allusions abound.

I'm looking forward to whatever Makkai does next.

The Man Back There and Other Stories - David Crouse

Crouse's 2007 Mary McCarthy Prize-winning collection is a strong group of stories, but I've yet to read a McCarthy Prize winning collection that isn't good.  These stories are fairly intense but also varied.  The best of the bunch, the title story, "The Man Back There," "The Castle on the Hill," "Dear," and "Torture Me" are really great. Crouse has also won the Flannery O'Connor Award for his collection, Copy Cats, and I plan to get to that sometime soon.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mini Reviews

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick DeWitt

This is both an entertaining and engaging novel.  DeWitt is a hell of writer and comparisons to Cormac McCarthy abound.  I don't want this to sound negative, for either DeWitt or McCarthy, but I think the comparisons limit the reach of this book.  It's far more accesible (in a good way) than much of McCarthy's work, and while it is violent, it's also funny, too.  What the novel really is, though, is a deep psychological forray into the mind of Eli, a hired gunman who is losing his taste for killing. 

For me, the novel sagged a bit at the end.  The way the plot works out, Eli, the narrator, and his brother, Charlie, are a little less active in the drama than they are in the early parts of the novel.  By that I mean that drama is acted upon them rather than them inacting the drama.  Of course at the very end, Eli ties up all the lose ends, but even after that there was something a little soft about the ending. 

All that said, the novel is still really great.  I highly recommend it, especially if you are into darker, more violent fiction. 

Orientation: and Other Stories - Daniel Orozco

A long awaited debut collection by noteable short story writer, Daniel Orozco.  The stories in this collection are formally inventive - for example, "Officers Weep" is written in the form of a police report, and the title story, "Orientation," takes the form of a narrator describing a job and an office into which another character (or the reader, depending on how you want to look at it) has just been hired.  The narrator directly addresses the reader, and it makes for an interesting experience.  Even the more "traditional" stories in the collection Orozco plays with form.  In "Hunger Tales" and "Temporary Stories," the narrative is broken up into sections or chapters, each one shifting perspective.  You don't see that a lot in the short form.  Orozco does it in "Only Connect" and "Shakers" as well, only the shifting perspectives is more fluid. 

In all, I respect what Orozco is doing in this collection, and the guy can really, really write.  Aesthetically speaking, I liked the more traditional stories more than the ones that play with form, but that's only a matter of taste. 

I look forward to seeing what Orozco does next.

Naked Summer - Andrew Scott

A strong debut collection from Andrew Scott, of the now-defunct Andrews Book Club.  When reading stories in this collection I got very real sense of ease from the writing.  I knew from the first paragraph that I was in good hands and that the story would deliver.  That's not easy to do.  Plus, this book was published by Press 53, a good small press that is dedicated to publishing short story collections.  

Scott is certainly a young writer to watch.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Q & A with Charles Dodd White

Charles Dodd White, author of the novel Lambs of Men (see my review here), and most recently an excellent collection of stories, Sinners of Sanction County, graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his process, editing an anthology, the role of place in his writing, and MFA programs, among other things.  If you're a fan of good writing, then do yourself a favor and check out White's work.  You'll be glad you did.

Casey: I’ve heard many writers talk about the advantages/disadvantages with working a small press versus a larger publisher.  Obviously, most writers want to get the huge book deal from one of the big three or four New York publishers, but so few of us get that opportunity.  Your first novel Lambs of Men, (Casperian Books, 2010) and your most recent collection, Sinners of Sanction County (Bottom Dog Press, 2011), were published with good small presses to what I would consider success.  Can you talk about your experience working with them from them buying the manuscript to its publication and after?  Did you deliberately try to place your books with these publishers, or did you (or your agent) send your work out to larger, more commercial presses as well?  Do you see your work fitting better with small presses?  

Charles: This seems to be a choice an increasing number of so called “literary” writers are facing. Each of these books was a little different. Lambs of Men was written while I was finishing my MFA and one of my writing mentors wanted to pass it along to his publisher. I was excited, of course, because it was a small but nationally recognized small press. The editor there took it and gave it a hard look over the summer, sending it back with pretty insightful comments and a note that I revise and resubmit. The problem was they wanted me to wait until the following summer to submit and I didn’t want to sit on the manuscript for that long. I went ahead and made the changes and sent it along to Casperian because I liked a couple of books they published. A couple of months later I had an acceptance letter, so that was all she wrote.

Sinners of Sanction County was a little different because I had already co-edited an anthology of stories for Bottom Dog. I had a less formal relationship with the publisher so I was able to let him know I had racked up enough stories to fill out a collection, many of them already published in journals. He asked for me to see them and he liked what I had. It all had the flavor of a gentleman’s agreement, but I think that is pretty atypical.

The question of big publishing is somewhat prickly, I think. I mean, does anyone believe Cormac McCarthy or James Salter would be published by big presses if they were just breaking through today? I personally believe some of the most energetic and interesting work is coming from more obscure places. And while it might be great to break in and make a decent amount of money for your work, I’m not exactly counting on it. With small press publication you’re likely to have a higher quality of reader. These people are often (i.e. nearly always) writers themselves and I like the idea of being a “writer’s writer”. Some of the deliberate departures from form are more likely to be noticed by them. I hate to read bad reviews of my books. Who doesn’t? But I especially hate to read bad reviews because my book is not the kind of book the reader wanted it to be. I think that happens to a lot of interesting books put out by big publishers. As a result the writer ends up blackballed because of poor sales/negligible backing.    

Casey: Last year you co-edited an anthology, Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia, also through Bottom Dog Press.  Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting this anthology together?  It seems easy enough from the outside  – just find a bunch of great stories and collect them – but I’m sure there’s a little more to it than that.

Charles: From the outset my co-editor, Page Seay, and I wanted to make the collection a mix of established and emerging writers. This ended up being a lot harder than we’d anticipated. The stories sent in were often not up to the standards we wanted, so we had to seek out writers we knew or knew about. This was tough too. Just because you solicit something from someone you respect and admire as a writer doesn’t mean what they give you exactly fits the kind of anthology you’re trying to assemble. Like any collaborative project, there is a lot of give and take involved, and the process of keeping up with different stories in different drafts and then getting everybody to a place where they could be happy with the product was extremely time consuming and exhausting. I’m glad the collection is out there, but it really does take nearly as much energy as writing your own book from scratch. I don’t see myself becoming part of such a process anytime in the near future. All that said, I’m grateful for all the work everyone involved invested in the project. I think it’s a pretty damn good book

Casey: I read not that long ago an essay in Tin House by Gerald Howard where he argues that in the past writer bios were filled with “tough and colorful professions and pursuits that the author had had experience in before taking to the typewriter,” and that “contemporary…biographies tend to document the author’s long march through the elite institutions. . .postgraduate and MFA degrees.”  Howard goes on to write, “Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce.”  I thought of you and your author’s bio; it lists that you have been a “marine take crewman, newspaper writer, and fishing guide.”  In some places your MFA from Spalding is listed, but in other places it’s left off.  Is this a conscious decision?  This issue, that of the relationship between class and work and writing and academia, hits close to home for me, so I’m interested in what you think about it. 

Charles: I think there’s a difference in this generation of writers and those say fifty years ago. Personally, I kind of laugh at the idea of a writer’s “long march through elite institutions”. I mean, yeah it sucks and grad students are a hell of a lot more strapped for cash than most folks realize, but I don’t think it really makes you into a hard knocks writer. It might give you some connections and you might (if you’re lucky) meet some good people along the way who will encourage you to read good books, but entering the MFA track mainly just means you’ve decided to take your creative work seriously. That’s something you can do outside of an MFA, of course, but committing to it whole hog is important for people. It helped me break free from the scholarly track I was on. My MFA was great because I worked with two great mentors, Robin Lippincott and Crystal Wilkinson, who are fine writers. It was about joining a community for me, I guess. I don’t include this academic credential in my bio because I don’t think my writing really seems like something that comes from the MFA experience. In many ways the writing workshop is awfully opposed to work that isn’t watered down in some way. I know there are exceptions, sure, but overall I’ve seen this time and time again. So, if you are in an MFA, you have to take other students’ and even many profs’ opinions with truckloads of salt. Sure, craft is important, but vision is all that really matters and no one can teach you vision.

My manly man bio sounds better on paper than it was in real life. Anybody that’s been in the military knows that it’s largely about putting up with massive doses of bullshit and showing up to work on time. I climbed up on tanks and sat there and did inventories of gear and stood inspection and went out in the field and shot at things, but most of it was remarkably dull. And paddling dopey tourists down the river in a canoe through class three rapids is more absurd than adventurous. I imagine a lot of the tough man author personas are similarly tendentious.

Casey: I don’t disagree with you about the importance of “vision,” but you say that you don’t think your writing “seems like something that comes from the MFA experience.” I know there’s the on-going debate about the validity of MFA programs, and one of the main criticisms, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that MFA programs all produce the same kind of writing.  Though it’s completely subjective, that wasn’t really my experience in the MFA, nor is it in the PhD program I’m currently in.  Sure, in my MFA there was both bad writing and good, but I never felt like we were all being conditioned to write and produce one standard MFA-style story.  I guess I say all this because when I read your work, nothing really strikes me as anti-MFA in style.  Your stories are good, really good, and I certainly would’ve been impressed had I read them in a workshop; however, I don’t necessarily think they would have been out of place, at least stylistically speaking.  So, can you elaborate on that a bit more?  What about your writing do you see as operating outside of a more standard MFA system?

Charles: I do agree that it’s unfair to characterize the MFA “system” as producing, as if by conspiracy, a certain kind of umbrella style. I think there is a great deal of diversity within the programs themselves. However, what is a concern is what the process of the workshop environment can do to a story. There tends to be a watering down of content and risk taking in heavily edited pieces, and a lot of writers need distance from such close peer influence so they can develop their own autonomy as writers. The kind of group think going on within a workshop can be pretty oppressive. I’m always struck by how great stories have an undeniably uniqueness, even eccentricity, that would be roundly attacked by workshop participants, particularly if they critique with a certain aesthetic agenda, as is often the case. Personally, I love to see the rough edges, the odd obsessions that come out in a particular author’s voice. I’m afraid taking other people’s opinions about your writing too seriously can infringe on those kinds of meaningful departures.

I really don’t know if my work does or doesn’t fall within certain definitions. I think it’s nearly impossible to really understand how other people might receive what you produce.

Casey: As an Appalachian writer, a label you seem to be (and, for my money, should be) proud of, place is something that comes through in your writing maybe more than anything else.  But, as Dorothy Allison says, “Place is people,” and your characters are very much products of their particular environment.  How do you define the role of “place” in your work?  In fiction writing in general?  Is there something about the Appalachia region that lends itself more readily to place-based regional writing?

Charles: I think place boils up through everything in a well-executed piece. If you’re thinking about where and when the story is, then your characters are going to manifest themselves accurately and compellingly. I also believe you have to consider the role the narrative voice plays in rendering that place, even if it’s a third person narrative. The language of the storyteller has the ability to reconfigure an idea of what a certain region can seem like, productively upsetting reader expectations. Consider Padgett Powell or Lewis Nordan’s American South. They vary greatly from writers like Harry Crews and Larry Brown, largely because of the baseline voice of the narrator. One danger of writing place aware stories is that you can contribute to stereotypes unwittingly. Fictional representations exist as service to the story, not as a dependable mapping of a real place in the world. Appalachia has a strong mythic influence on concepts of the frontier, outlaw culture and the individual, so it exists in a certain part of the American consciousness, and attracts storytellers interested in the natural world, environmental drama and marginalized characters.   

Casey: This may seem to be a strange observation, and it’s probably a bit of a generalization, but there seem to be many similarities between Appalachians (or at least they way they are portrayed in books like yours) and Midwesterners, particularly those to the west in the Great Plains.  The people (characters) are fiercely independent and strong-willed; they keep things close to their chests - they don’t show their cards or their emotions; they’re polite but secretive; they’re used to physical labor; the land is very important to their livelihood; in the Midwest there is corporate farming, and in Appalachia coal mining; and there are often unfavorable representations, usually by outsiders, of the people of Appalachia (“hillbillies,” bootleggers, etc.) and the place of the Midwest (the “fly-over” states, flat, boring, etc.).  Do you have any thoughts about this?

Charles: I like Midwestern and Western writers like Jim Harrison, Louise Erdrich and James Welch because I see a great deal of what matters most in fiction—justified suffering. The people matter because they struggle to live their lives amid hard circumstances. The world is more immediate than hyperrealities of identity as represented in social media outlets. I just do not care about hip writing done by mediocre and derivative minimalists. Most writing attached to a region will share certain commonalities. The deeper we go into place the more we end up learning about each other. And for me, that’s what reading is all about...empathy.   

Casey: I can recall images from the stories in Sinners of Sanction County very easily.  In “Hawkins’s Boy,” the old man digging up and reburying his son; in “A World of Daylight,” the tank gunner’s training at Fort Knox when the deer wander onto the range; in “Killers,” when the wounded deer falls off the cliff and into the river; in “The Sweet Sorrowful,” the man catching and trying to transport the trout to the pond outside the children’s hospice center—just to name a few.   Did these images drive the creation of these stories?  If so, can you talk specifically about perhaps your favorite one? 

Charles: There are certainly distinct moments that seem to have a propulsive effect on a story, but they are something that occurs on their own, something that develops organically in the telling rather than something that exists in a kind of inspirational form. That being said, each of the examples you mentioned were key attractions to me in the writing of the stories. I guess out of the collection my favorite image is actually the closing image of a story called “Winter by Heart” (I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a fairly dramatic conclusion) but that was a place I wanted to get. The reason I liked it the most was because it seemed inevitable yet unexpected. The content of the story and the theme came together in a moment of violence that seemed absolutely right.

Casey: Speaking of favorites, do you have a favorite story in the collection?  (I know most writers say picking a favorite story is like picking their favorite child, but I rarely buy that…) Why?

Charles: “Jack’s Gun” is my favorite piece. I think it’s got a lot going on in terms of the characters’ perspectives changing over time. There seems to be some real heartbreak in that one. Perhaps too, because it took the most out of me. I really felt like I’d just completed a novel when I was done. It was also the last story written in the collection, and I feel like it unified several themes that turned up throughout.

Casey: If anyone knows you or follows you on Goodreads, they know you read a lot.  Who are a few writers who you think should be read who aren’t (current or past)?  What books/writers do you find yourself coming back to again and again, and more importantly, why?

Charles: For style, Salter. He does things with the sentence that are unbelievable. For character, however, I’m really interested in Erskine Caldwell. I think he’s been unfairly portrayed as an exploitative writer when in fact he’s doing something a lot more sly. Some of his stories are terrifying in their implications. His characters behave like the world is about to end, and I’m afraid that’s the most honest thing you can do in storytelling. The story must justify its importance, and he does that just about as well as anyone ever has.

Casey: Finally, if you don’t mind talking about it, what can readers expect to see from you next?

Charles: I have some creative nonfiction essays coming out in the next few months, one late in May in The Louisville Review. Still working on my next novel, Benediction. It feels like my best work to date. Hope to have it done by late summer, early fall.

Casey: Thanks so much answering my questions.  It’s been a pleasure.

Charles: Likewise. I enjoyed it.