Category: News


Mini-Interview with ABC

By Midge Raymond,

I loved doing this mini-interview with Andrew Scott of Andrew’s Book Club.

And while you’re visiting the book club, stay a while and check out ABC’s previous selections, as well as many other author interviews, among them Josh Weil, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Robert Boswell, Tracy Winn, Kevin Wilson, Paul Yoon, and Antonya Nelson.

And, as always, remember the rules of Andrew’s Book Club! Here are the first two:

1) The first rule of Andrew’s Book Club is you should talk about Andrew’s Book Club.
2) The second rule of Andrew’s Book Club is you should talk about Andrew’s Book Club. Spread the word.

Enjoy … and start talking.



Can Writing Be Taught?

By Midge Raymond,

The debate about MFA programs seems to be reignited every once in a while, as it has this time in this New Yorker piece. I always read these articles with great interest, to see on which side the author will come out: making MFAs feel as though they’ve wasted their money, or making me feel bad for never having gotten one.

I really like how the web site for the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop puts it: “The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us.”

I have the same teaching philosophy as Iowa — that “writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged” — and I’m not just saying that. To accomplish anything as an instructor, you need students who are motivated, who are willing to work hard, and who have something to say. It’s so exciting to see former students do well — and a lot of fun to believe you had something to do with their achievements — but in the end, if they did the work, they’re the ones who earned it. (Though try explaining the opposite to disgruntled students when grades are posted.)

For those who don’t seek an MFA, there are conferences and independent programs that allow writers to find the encouragement they need (Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, for example, offers reading classes as well as writing classes). Having been both an attendee and a presenter at various conferences, it’s clear that a well-chosen, reputable conference can provide much of what an aspiring writer needs: tools, workshops, agents, editors, the company of fellow writers, lessons from veteran authors, and (usually) plenty of alcohol.

On that note, I was saddened to learn that the Nieman Foundation is suspending its Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism for 2009-10. If you’ve been to this conference — and especially if you have not — pick up a copy of Telling True Stories, which gathers together a wealth of information on writing and reporting from writers who have presented there, among them Susan Orlean, Nora Ephron, and Tom Wolfe. While it may be aimed toward nonfiction writers, I’ve found it enlightening as a fiction writer as well. In the end, it’s all about the story.



Forgetting English a June ABC pick

By Midge Raymond,

I’m happy to announce that Forgetting English was one of two books chosen for Andrew’s Book Club this month, along with Josh Weil‘s The New Valley.

As you may already know, Andrew’s Book Club is a very cool literary venture by Andrew Scott to celebrate story collections (read about the history of ABC here). ABC is on Twitter (@andrewsbookclub) and Facebook, so join in.

And for more good reading, check out past ABC selections.



Words Made Livelier

By Midge Raymond,

If there’s actually something more fun than reading, it’s being read to. Lively Words has posted a new video featuring Ann Cummins, reading from the UC Berkeley campus on a rainy day.

And while you’re visiting, don’t forget to check out the archives (which include readings by Rus Bradburd, Travis Brown, Andrew Scott, Jill Stukenberg, and others) — seeing these pieces is the next best thing to going to readings — and sometimes even more fun (readings in the snow, readings from bathtubs).

You also won’t want to miss the Outtakes, in which writers talk about their work (these are all great, but I especially liked Andrew’s and Jill’s, which included feline guests).

Enjoy!



Stranger than Fiction

By Midge Raymond,

A little drama out of Oxford to start off the week, from The Guardian: Ruth Padel, the first woman in more than 300 years to be elected to Oxford University’s chair in poetry, resigned after admitting she tipped off journalists about sexual harassment allegations surrounding Derek Walcott, who was also being considered for the post.

The Guardian article notes the sadness surrounding Padel’s resignation (“It would not have happened to a man,” said poet Jackie Kay; “Oxford is a sexist little dump,” said novelist Jeanette Winterson) — while a NY Times story reports that this scandal has exposed “a culture of jealousy and mean-spirited connivance at sharp odds with the university’s public posture of academic tolerance and reason.”

And yet another article, in the Telegraph, makes the point that, really, what poet isn’t a little scandalous? Dylan Thomas, for example, “drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends, fought with his wife in public, had affairs, and on at least one delightful occasion is said to have defecated on a host’s floor.” TS Eliot wrote “lines that could be construed as racist, and others as anti-Semitic.”

And it doesn’t end there: “Byron: womaniser. Coleridge: drug fiend. Pound: fascist sympathiser. Yeats: snob. Crane: alcoholic. Keats: smackhead. Kipling: imperialist. Hughes: another womaniser. Poe: married a 13 year-old. Verlaine: jailed for shooting one of his friends. Lawrence: pervert. Betjeman: had a bit of a temper on him, apparently. And don’t let’s get started on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The booze, the sexually transmitted diseases, the mistresses, the page boys…”

To me, the real story is Padel, who seems to have felt, despite her obvious merits, the need to taint her main rival (ultimately causing him to withdraw from consideration), rather than letting the vote happen (the Times reports that Padel not only noted Walcott’s sexual harassment allegations but also “noted Mr. Walcott’s age, claimed that he was in poor health and pointed out that he lived in the Caribbean, not Britain” — and that she condemned the very reports she instigated: “it seems horrible, this anonymous campaign”).

Kay and Winterson both said this wouldn’t have happened to a man — but should it have happened at all? The allegations in Walcott’s past might have surfaced eventually — or not — but at least Padel would have won or lost the post honestly. Clearly she had no choice but to resign — and she left, as novelist Rose Tremain told the Guardian, “a moral question here – and I think it is unanswerable.”



The History (and future) of Publishing

By Midge Raymond,

This article in The Nation, by Elisabeth Sifton, senior VP of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is an excellent, if depressing, look at the history of publishing and its still uncertain future. (Sifton also writes about technology and culture in a way that made me a little depressed about things even beyond publishing.)

But it’s a great piece, and something well worth reading if you’re a writer with hopes for a future. Sifton recalls trends in publishing and points out, as we’ve heard before, that despite all the changes in business and culture and technology, “the arithmetic remained unchanged” in the publishing industry — and money isn’t the only problem: “The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto).”

Perhaps these grim times will ultimately force the industry to make the huge changes it needs to, so that it might rise from the ashes into a thriving, sustainable business. This means embracing ideas that are still anathema to many — smaller advances, digital publishing, e-books — but better to adapt than to get left behind altogether.

Not even Sifton, an industry veteran, can tell us what’s ahead: “It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive.”



Briefly, because the sun is out…

By Midge Raymond,

A couple interesting things …

George Braziller’s blog offers the Narwhal Awards, to recognize booksellers, agents, publishers, and others in the industry who are finding unique ways to stay afloat in this economy. The first award went to Readers’ Books, which now sells local, organic eggs off its shelves — that is about as unique as you can get for a bookstore.

And I love this new feature from the LA Times: Off the Shelf: Writers on Writing, especially the column “When Second Novels Go Bad” (which is even more depressing for those of us still working on the first). In other entries, Nahid Rachlin remembers her childhood writing room in Iran, and Tod Goldberg  remembers Dungeons & Dragons.

Finally, Writers Out Loud: Literature for the Ear is currently accepting audio submissions — this cool new literary venture “publishes original Voice-Only Prose and Poetry as well as Multi-Audio Prose and Poetry, which may include background music tracks and other sound elements as part of the creative expression.” Check it out.

…and that’s it for today; the sun is shining in Seattle, and I have miles to go before I can bask.



Literary Pirates

By Midge Raymond,

When I lived in Taipei in the early 1990s, my furnished apartment had a television monitor that didn’t receive any local channels. Limited to watching movies, I went down the street to my local video store (all VHS back then) and rented a few films. I was happily surprised by how quickly Taipei was getting the fairly recent films from the States — and I soon found out why. The video and sound quality was so poor the movies were hardly watchable … because they’d been pirated, of course. (Even if I hadn’t been against piracy for obvious reasons, the films were so hard to watch it just wasn’t worth it.)

This New York Times article presents the latest in acts of piracy — not in Asia but here. And not films  but books.

It’s an interesting piece that shows why authors are paranoid about making their work available digitally — Ursula K. Le Guin talks about finding unauthorized digital copies of her books on Scribd. (Scribd says that it removes illegally posted content once the company is made aware of it, and it has even installed filters to identify copyrighted work.) But clearly LeGuin’s work made it through the filters, leaving authors to wonder whether they need to start devoting time to prowling through web sites looking for unauthorized copies of their work.

The publisher John Wiley & Sons employs three full-time staff members to do just that. The Times notes that most pirated content is already bestselling work, like the Harry Potter or Twilight series. Stephen King told the Times that, basically, he couldn’t be bothered trying to chase down the pirates: “My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

While the piracy problem isn’t going away, digital publishing isn’t either. Because more readers are turning to the Kindle and Sony Reader, it makes sense to offer books in digital form (in fact, we’re in the process of preparing Forgetting English for its Kindle version even as I type this post). It makes especially good sense for writers who aren’t Stephen King, or J. K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer. As the novelist Cory Doctorow, who offers free electronic versions of his books on the same day they are published in hardcover, told the Times, “I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity.”



Celebrating Short Story Month

By Midge Raymond,

May is Short Story Month! At least, it is according to Emerging Writers Network — and it seems to be catching on:

BookFox has an all-time best short story list (held together by a “secret theme”)
Poets&Writers presents an article making the case for National Short Story Month (after all, we have National Poetry Month)
– The literary magazine Ninth Letter posted a blog about in honor of Short Story Month
Andrew’s Book Club features an appreciation of Alice Munro’s “Differently”

shortstorymonth

And of course, short stories aren’t just for the month of May  … join me at Hugo House in July for The Art & Craft of the Short Story, Tuesday nights, 7-9, from July 7 to 28.



Happy Mother’s Day

By Midge Raymond,

Readers and writers celebrate Mother’s Day in their own special ways. Bookfinder.com has published a list of the Worst Mothers in Literature, and Lori Gottlieb has an essay in the New York Times Book Review about writers writing about their mothers, and how their mothers react. The spirit of Mother’s Day is clearly alive and well.

I have to admit that I myself called home before 8:30 this morning, not due to a big rush to wish my mom a happy Mother’s Day but as the latest in an ongoing effort to beat my sister to the Sunday Phone Call Home (my dad tells us he keeps a chart near the phone). And then I learned that in celebration of the holiday, my mom is taking her own mother to see the film Is Anybody There?, in which Michael Caine plays a retired magician who “reluctantly enters a family-run old age home.” I told her I hoped Grandma wouldn’t think she was trying to drop any hints.

And, finally, in case you don’t have enough drama in your own Mother’s Day, check out today’s Post Secret for new Mother’s Day secrets.



On poets & writers

By Midge Raymond,

Wasn’t it great to read about Britain’s first woman poet laureate in more than three hundred years? In fact, Carol Ann Duffy told the BBC that she took the post “purely because there hasn’t been a woman.” When she first started writing, a woman poet was still called a “poetess,” which Duffy called “ludicrous.” She talked about the validity of a woman’s unique perspective — writing about being a mother, for example — but believes that “the second-class citizen element of the description has long gone, and we won’t ever see that again.”

Speaking of poets, I’ve just ordered — and am eagerly awaiting the arrival of — Jill McDonough‘s book, Habeas Corpus, a collection of poetry comprising fifty sonnets, each about a historical execution. I first met Jill years ago in Boston, where she was teaching in Boston University’s Prison Education Program, and her passion for teaching incarcerated students has clearly found its way into her work. Gail Mazur calls her “a daring poet, formally sophisticated yet pushing the boundaries of form at every turn,” and Wendy Lesser writes, “The power of Habeas Corpus, as a work of literature and as a political act, is both cumulative and chastening.”

In other news, I’m still cheering for my friend Janna, whose book The Motion of the Ocean was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly‘s top 10 summer reads for 2009! The book’s pub date is only a month away, and since it is already at the top of must-read lists, I would highly recommend pre-ordering now.

And I so enjoyed doing this interview about Forgetting English with Diana Joseph. I recently finished Diana’s hilarious and heartwarming book I‘m Sorry You Feel That Way, and the only thing I didn’t love about it was that it had to come to an end. The good news is that Diana is also the author of a story collection, Happy or Otherwise, which I’m eager to check out next.

You might bookmark Diana’s teaching blog, where the Q&A appears, as it’s a fantastic resource of author interviews and links to articles about writers and writing, including Steve Almond’s “10 Rules For Writing Real Classy Sex Scenes.”

Happy reading.



How to write a novel on the subway

By Midge Raymond,

Writer Peter Brett told the New York Daily News, “my muse lives on the F train.” In fact, he wrote his most of his novel, The Warded Man, on his smart phone while commuting to work. He wrote 400 words each morning and evening, which was so efficient that now, though he writes full-time and no longer commutes to work, he still rides the train to get his writing done.

This is why I always tell students to do whatever works for them. You just never know.

Laptop magazine did an interview with Brett, in which Brett talks about how technology has honed his writing practice (The Warded Man is his fourth book, but the first one he has sold). He estimates having written 100,000 words on his phone. This proves that there’s no such thing as “no time to write.” And it’s not as if you need a smart phone — a little notebook would do the trick just as well.

But it’s interesting to hear Brett’s thoughts on technology — he loves the Kindle! — so check out the interview here.

And remember, no more excuses for not writing!



Celebrating the story

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times has a great article in praise of the short story — though it begins with all those negative things we hear about short stories and their writers: “To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult” … “A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome” …

…but the article quickly points out that the great American novelists that appeared on your English class syllabus were terrific story writers (among them Melville, Hawthorne, James, and Poe). The article also highlights three recently published biographies — of Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme — and celebrates the amazing work of these authors. But, in the end, it’s a celebration of the short story itself — with a call to action for readers.

The article questions whether the Kindle might be like the iPod in bringing short stories to a bigger audience, one by one, and poses a challenge: “If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?”

This is, of course, a wonderful idea — one that’s already being done in print (for example, the literary magazine One Story) — and my husband, John Yunker, is one of probably many entrepreneurial writers who has a story on Amazon for Kindle download, his prize-winning story “The Tourist Trail.” (At $1.59, it’s a great deal, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband.)

The article concludes with what those of us who love short stories already know: “…the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.”



For your summer reading list

By Midge Raymond,

Read this New York Times story for news about the  partnership of the O. Henry Prize stories with PEN American Center. Starting with the 2009 collection, which will be published by Random House in early May, the annual anthology will be called the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

Included in this year’s edition are stories by this year’s Spokane Prize winner, Caitlin Horrocks, and this month’s Andrew’s Book Club Indie Pick, Paul Yoon.

My summer beach reading stack is now taller than I am.



A different breed of penguin

By Midge Raymond,

I was so glad to see this great interview with Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington in today’s New York Times, about her penguin research in Argentina. The interview is terrific in highlighting Dee’s work with the Magellanic penguins over the years (25+), and important in pointing out the serious threats penguins face today due to climate change and overfishing.

pentuins

As readers of Forgetting English know, the story “The Ecstatic Cry” is about a different breed of penguin … but my husband and I were fortunate to have been able to help Dee with her census at Punta Tombo a couple of years ago (John’s award-winning short story, “The Tourist Trail,” was inspired by the trip). It’s an amazing part of the world — and while much of it still feels pristine and unspoiled, the sad fact is that, as Dee mentions in the article, the colony at Punta Tombo has declined 22 percent since 1987: “That’s a lot. This type of penguin is considered near-threatened. Of the 17 different penguin species, 12 are suffering rapid decreases in numbers.”

mpenguin

In the photo above, though it looks as if I’m stabbing this poor bird, I’m in fact lifting it just slightly so that I can count the eggs it’s incubating. That was one of our tasks as volunteers: to count individual penguins, breeding pairs, and eggs. The penguins suffered no harm — in fact, having to lift the birds, let alone hold them to weigh and measure them, was probably more stressful for John and me — but it’s because of this meticulous research over nearly thirty years that Dee is able to tell us about climate change, feeding and breeding patterns, and how we can help the penguins of the future. As she told the Times, “If we’re going have penguins, I think we are going to have to do ocean zoning and try to manage people.”

Click here to learn more about Dee and The Penguin Project at UW.

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