Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Killer Author

May 23, 2011

Donna White Glaser’sThe Enemy We Know is a suspenseful tale of a woman with multiple stalkers. This murder mystery has the reader trying to guess the identity of a villain who first leaves creepy sonnets, and later leaves bodies for recovering alcoholic Letty Whittaker. Glaser serves the story up with such witty prose that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud several times.

Glaser is the founder of a writers’ group I used to attend. When she released The Enemy We Know (the first book in a mystery series themed  on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous), I seized the opportunity to ask her a few things about her writing, her personal life, and her decision to self-publish.

You share a number of characteristics with your protagonist, Letty Whittaker. You are both recovering alcoholics and psychotherapists living in Northwest Wisconsin. What are some of the challenges  of writing about a world so close to your own?

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Nothing to Sneeze at: An Interview with Michael Perry

February 21, 2011

When prepping for this interview with the multi-talented Michael Perry, I wondered if I should focus on the fact that he is one of the Midwest’s most beloved authors or if instead I should emphasize his outstanding songwriting. Perhaps I should dwell on his hefty contributions to fitness and outdoors magazines or inquire about his role as host of Tent Show Radio. Then again, it might be most interesting to ask him about his childhood in a devout Christian family involving more than fifty brothers and sisters (most of those foster siblings).

In the end I couldn’t resist trying to sprinkle a few questions related to each of these topics in my thoroughly enjoyable discussion with the man who lived up to his reputation as a heck of a nice guy. You can learn more about him by visiting his website www.sneezingcow.com (a reference to a memorable incident in which he found himself behind a sneezing bovine. I’ve not had the pleasure of such an experience, but he explains that it involves the release of contents under pressure.)

You joke about how your mind can’t stay focused on one thing, but leaps from one topic to the next. Rather than work against this tendency, you’ve made it a hallmark. In your writing and reading, this often buoys your comedic impact. But I’ve noticed something very different in your songs.  The seemingly illogical and unconnected images are often emotionally evocative. For example in “Indiana” the worn out narrator, apparently à propos of nothing, sees fit to mournfully request the head of Edward Hopper. I have no idea why, but it’s beautiful.  Does songwriting require you to think about your skill set as a writer in a totally different way?

First of all, it’s nice of you to call it a skill set. One thing I love about songwriting is that it is a throwback to my first love, which was poetry. It’s a forced economy.

For my prose, I write thousands and thousands of words to get one 800-word riff. Songwriting forces me to work leaner and with more economy. But also, when you throw in music, something happens and the words don’t have to make strict sense. So in that song “Indiana,” what happened was I had been on a two-week book tour alone and I was on my way back. I just wanted to get home. I was coming from Michigan and I had to stop in Chicago and I was thinking, “no problem, I’ll go from Michigan to Illinois and then to Wisconsin.” Then I saw a sign that said, “Welcome to Indiana.”  I had just completely forgotten Indiana!  So anyway, in Truck I write about that Edward Hopper painting Seven AM. It destroys me. It’s just a building, but something about the color and the light…

When I hit Indiana I was hit by what the Portuguese call saudade. It’s hard to describe what that means, but it’s a longing for things irretrievably lost, which I have a lot of. We all do. I long to be in that abandoned building Edward Hopper made. And so this phrase came to me, “Bring me the head of Edward Hopper.” What I’m doing there is first of all hoping that whenever you ask for the head of someone you get people’s attention. But what I really mean to say is that I want his mindset.

Some lyrics are straightforward, like “Alice Mayhew Jackson.” It’s a short story, you layer one verse on another to build it and make the story progress. Others are what I call abstract existential cowboy songs. “Could Be You” is in that category. It’s exciting to build line after line of seeming tangents and create a feeling more than create a story.

I think one thing rural readers appreciate about your writing is that you are writing about your region in a realistic way. Have you ever written from the perspective of an outsider? And if so, did the experience change anything about the way you write about Wisconsin?

I often write as an outsider when I do magazine pieces. For example, one time for Backpacker I climbed Mt. Rainier with two vets returning from the Iraq war. My experience was not theirs. I’m not a vet. I’m not a mountain climber. We were strangers at the start. There is the old cliché that you should write what you know. Obviously I do that a lot in my books. But I also think you should try to write what you don’t know. It makes you pay attention and not take information for granted. Sometimes when I write about firefighting—which I know—I find I have to be really careful not to use terms or information that isn’t understood by the reader. Terms that I just take for granted. But when I’m climbing Mt. Rainier I’m paying attention to every detail, not taking anything for granted.

But in [book] form, I have not written from the perspective of an outsider. I’m not sure what other people’s perspective is of where my career is as a writer, but it’s not at the stage where every idea I pitch gets approved by the publisher. I’ve had five or six book ideas that have been rejected. (more…)

A Story of Drive

February 4, 2011

My most recent short story, “Drive,” has just been published by Inwood Indiana Press. (You’ll need to scroll down to just below the first poem to see it–it will also be available later in the year as part of a paperback anthology.) This is the story of two single parents, each of which has a son determined to make something of himself. When one makes a terrible choice, both families find themselves navigating each others’ flaws, virtues, and desires.

Confessional Prose

December 15, 2010

My short story “Confessional” has just appeared in Damazine–an international literary magazine dedicated to exploring facets of the Islamic world.

When an Egyptian man is imprisoned for an act of terror he did not commit, he must decide whether to trust the disembodied voice he has been hearing for years. Is it Satan? Is it God? Is it nothing more lofty nor lowly than insanity? The answer may lie in the reader’s perspective–though of course I have my own view on the matter. Click here to read the story.

New Fiction

November 16, 2010

I’m pleased to announce that my short story “A Question of Timing” is appearing in the Midwest Literary Magazine’s new anthology, Bearing North. It is available in print or you can read it online here. (My story starts around page 220, but lots of other great stuff in there too!)

Yes, Let’s.

November 10, 2010

 

Rebecca Meacham (and Stella)

An acquaintance recently suggested I pick up a copy of Rebecca Meacham’s debut story collection, Let’s Do, and I’m so glad I did. The book, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction when it came out in 2004, realistically explores high drama writ small. Jennifer Anniston’s divorce may have captured headlines the world over, but Meacham’s Lila in “Simple as That” experiences all the same agony in the privacy of her home. When another character gets struck by a car and can’t take care of herself for several weeks, we don’t expect or get the heroism of Christopher Reeves—instead we get a little insight into ourselves. Let’s Do has been honored by Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program and attracted other national attention.

 

Meacham’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for a 2005 Pushcart Prize. She is a regular contributor of nonfiction to the Women’s Review of Books blog and is an editor of Talking Writing magazine. She is an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and director of the creative writing program. She lives with her husband, the poet Chuck Rybak, and their two children in the woods of Wisconsin. I spoke with her recently about Let’s Do, her writing technique, and her current projects.

Nearly all of the stories in Let’s Do are in third person. What do you see as the particular virtues or challenges of writing in third person versus first person?
What’s in the collection was written over the course of 10 years. When I was younger I was especially drawn to 2nd person, so I want to throw that in the mix. I’m a very language driven writer, and you can tell that because my stories are not action driven. I like 2nd person because it is pared down. It has an edge. I like that.

For me, 1st person is hardest to write. I have a difficult time capturing the way a person sounds using 1st person. In 3rd person, you can detach and still convey things from the character’s point of view, but be more articulate than the character might be. You can still capture their perspective, use their idioms. When I was writing these stories, I read a lot of Antonya Nelson and Dan Chaon. They use the 3rd person, but in a way that brings you very close to the character. I used to read them every night, hoping that somehow by osmosis their incredibleness would sink into me and my writing.

One thing I tell my students is to think about John Updike’s story “A&P.” Sammy is the cashier, young and working class. When he sees beauty, what will he compare it to? When three girls come in wearing their swimsuits, he makes a comparison between their breasts and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In his world, beauty is ice cream. Later he compares a collar bone to a dented sheet of tin. Those are the things he knows, and to him, that’s beautiful. You have to know what your character will think is beautiful. You also have to understand attitude. For example, Samantha in “Trim and Notions” has a grumpy attitude. I know how that shapes her sentences.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen pets cast as well as they are in Let’s Do. (I’ve always been sympathetic to W.C. Fields on the question of working with animals–except my own adorable pets of course.) The relationships you’ve written between the humans and the pets are so realistic. What would you say are a few key things about bringing animals into a story?
I’m so happy you asked about this. When the collection first came out people would interview me about the book and I always wished someone would ask me about the animals, but no one ever did. (more…)

Excavating Emily

July 24, 2010

Emily’s Ghost:
A Novel of the Bronte Sisters
Denise Giardina
W. W. Norton, 2009

Denise Giardina’s mastery of meaningful writing once more comes to bear in her latest effort, Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of the Bronte Sisters. The story she weaves is so vivid and compelling that the reader must take pains to remember that she has produced it almost whole cloth from her imagination. Though the setting is convincingly placed in Victorian era Yorkshire, this is fiction, not history.

The novel begins with Emily Brontë breaking the news to her father that she is dying of consumption. She insists this fact be kept secret in order to avoid useless treatments that would take her away from her beloved home and moors. With this opening scene, Emily’s ghost does indeed dominate the book even as we are brought back in time to follow her childhood and few adult years.

The Brontë siblings are six motherless children at the start of the novel, taking comfort in each other and in the imaginary worlds they create. Emily also takes comfort from the ghosts that visit to tell her about their earthly passions. Soon, however, the two oldest sisters die within months of each other from consumption. The remaining children are raised indulgently by their clergy father. Charlotte is an ambitious and opinionated girl who longs to rid herself of her hometown backwater. Branwell is an artist who squanders his modest talent by wallowing in drink and laudanum. Emily is absorbed by her animals and her inner world, completely ill at ease in a parlor. Anne is virtuous and industrious, taking on one governess gig after another to help with the family finances.

Enter William Weightman, Mr. Brontë’s new curate. He comes to the Yorkshire town of Haworth because of a deep spiritual calling tied to his political sympathies. He supports the Chartists, who endorse a shockingly radical platform including civil rights for non-propertied men and a secret ballot. (more…)

America’s Nightmare

July 4, 2010

Shadow Tag
Louise Erdrich
Harper, 2010

Louise Erdrich’s novels often show us that things are not what they seem. In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse the priest in a small Ojibwe community is secretly a woman. In other novels, people who seem to be enemies are in fact bound together by the closest of bonds. Often, these secret truths serve to delight the reader, to inspire us to believe that there is a hidden beauty beneath everything we see on the surface. In Shadow Tag, however, the reverse is the case: a seemingly happy couple are in reality the bane of each other’s existence. Their three children are coming apart at the seams.

Irene America helps launch her husband Gil’s artistic career by endlessly posing in whatever position and with whatever props he desires. By the time the book opens, he is that rare breed: a painter who makes a very good living. Irene is still sitting for portraits, but she now openly despises Gil.

Gil hits the children and his wife, but doesn’t believe this ought to keep them from being happy.  He tries everything he can think of (and his imagination for this sort of thing is not great) to make the children and especially Irene happy.  Meanwhile Irene realizes he is reading her diary and torments him by entering false lurid accounts of sexual encounters with other men and anything else she can think of to hurt him. She hopes to make him hate her enough that he will ask her to leave. Until that can happen, she will drink away her life. And her children’s lives. (more…)

Ravenous Reading

May 12, 2010

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2009

When a book has garnered its author the Nobel Prize in Literature, what more can be said by a little blogger like me? Obviously, it’s a good book. The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other most illustrious bodies have delivered well-researched and knowledgeable reviews of this historical novel. I will now write a review from the ground that I suspect most of my readers occupy.  With no slight intended toward my discerning audience, I bet that most of you find 16th century English history to be a confusing mess.  I can never keep track of who was dethroning and beheading whom, and whether the Scots were involved.  I know the bit about Henry having lots of wives, though I couldn’t say just how many.  I know it caused an awful row with the Pope.  So it was that I was well into Wolf Hall before I realized that the protagonist Thomas Cromwell must have been a real person. Don’t confuse him with Oliver, who came much later.

Part of what makes this novel work is that it’s a little like Sesame Street, those innocent of knowledge can enjoy it on one level, while the scholars (the grown-ups) can appreciate all the references and plot lines that blow right by the rest of us.  The story follows Thomas Cromwell, a lowly son of a blacksmith who makes his improbable way to the inner council of King Henry VIII, just as the monarch is determined to prove that his two-and-a-half decades of marriage to Katherine of Aragon never really occurred. Since they didn’t occur, he ought to be free to marry Anne Boleyn. Accomplishing this, however, takes the better part of another decade, and still fails to produce the male heir Henry so desperately desires. The reader (even this one!) knows that Anne will lose her head on trumped up charges and additional marriages will ensue. The characters, however, give about 50/50 odds to Anne, and position themselves as best they can.

Mantel juxtaposes the positioning, the intrigues, and the hypocrisy at court with the tumult of the truly religious. A renegade priest has been translating the Bible into English so that all may read it. Those who are caught doing so are tortured and burned. Their friends and family persist nonetheless in such reading. Luther’s bold new version of religion threatens to spill beyond Germany, where Christian communes are taking over cities. In the English countryside,  convents and monasteries house both saintly sacrifice and vile misdeeds. It’s hard to say how things will shake out. Such tumult, in turn, serves to strengthen Henry’s resolve that a male heir must be legitimately got in order to unify and indeed preserve the nation when his reign ends. (more…)