Category — On Reading
I’m thrilled to have a story included in this new anthology from Press 53: Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, an anthology of 20 short stories by 20 authors set in 20 countries.
The collection, compiled and edited by award-winning author Clifford Garstang (What the Zhang Boys Know, In an Uncharted Country), has a a theme that goes beyond geography: It’s a Dangerous World. The stories take readers on journeys to all seven continents: to a portentous soccer game in the Congo, to a mysterious disappearance in Argentina, to post-Katrina New Orleans, to a murder in the Italian countryside, to a quarreling couple in Kazakhstan, to a visit with Chairman Mao in China, to a sketchy dentist in New Zealand…and in my story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” to a remote Antarctic island where a touring passenger overstays his welcome.
I was glad to have the chance to chat with Cliff about Everywhere Stories … as well as upcoming readings and events!
Q: What was the inspiration for Everywhere Stories?
A: I began traveling extensively right after college, when I joined the Peace Corps. I then went to law school, which led to an international career. When I began writing fiction, I was drawn to stories set abroad, and I like to read those stories, as well. It occurred to me that an anthology of short fiction set all over the world might have some appeal, so I approached my publisher, and he loved the idea.
Q: Tell us what’s in the book. Do you cover the whole world?
A: There are a lot of countries on our small planet, so we couldn’t include them all. We’ve hit each of the continents: four of the stories are set in Africa, five in Asia, five in the Americas, four in Europe, and one each in Antarctica and Oceania.
Q: Do you have any plans for a second edition, to include the many other countries on the planet?
A: I’m glad you asked! I’m in discussions with the publisher now about a second volume. My thinking is that we would again have about 20 stories, and the only country we would repeat would be the U.S. In fact, from the original submissions for the book, I’ve asked a number of writers if I could hold their stories for Volume 2, so I’m already well on the way. We’re looking at Fall 2016 for a release.
Q: The book opens with thought-provoking quotes on travel by T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Albert Einstein — what do you hope readers come away with after reading this anthology?
A: My own international education began when I joined the Peace Corps. Since then I’ve worked and traveled extensively overseas, but when I return to the U.S. I can’t help feeling that we are primarily xenophobes. We know very little about the rest of the world, even those parts of the world we’ve visited as tourists. So this book—this series—is an attempt to dig below the surface of the world, to find what a casual observer isn’t going to see. So what do I want readers to come away with? I want them to realize that there is a big world out there, and we all have a lot to learn about it.
Q: As a writer yourself, how does creating your own stories affect the way you work/read as an editor?
A: The impact is more the other way around, I think. As an editor, I often see writers doing things that don’t work—falling into long flashbacks that totally stop a story’s forward momentum, for example—and it helps me understand what not to do in my own work. It’s almost like being in a fiction workshop, where the real benefit for a writer is not having his or her own work critiqued but in investing the time and energy to offer constructive feedback to others. In doing that, the writer invariably learns from someone else’s mistakes.
Q: Are there any upcoming events readers should know about?
A: First up is the official launch party, which takes place in Staunton, Virginia, where I live. Four of the 20 contributors will be coming to that. Press 53 will also be celebrating the launch at their annual Gathering of Writers in Winston-Salem NC on October 18. And then throughout the fall, we’ll be posting information about other events on the book’s Facebook page, at: https://www.facebook.com/everywherestories.
And check out this radio interview with Cliff on Rudy Maxa’s World; Cliff comes on at 33:45.
October 1, 2014 Comments Off
Last week on Whidbey Island, I stopped in to Moonraker Books in Langley — an absolutely lovely, welcoming bookstore, starting with is quaint exterior, a perfect fit for Langley’s shopping district.
The bookstore’s two stories are open and airy, with plenty of light and space for excellent browsing (when you stop in, be sure you have plenty of time!).
I chatted with owner Josh Hauser, who opened the bookstore in 1972 and was at the register the day I visited. Josh’s commitment to community is obvious in everything from the store’s selection of local-interest titles to its donation jars for the feral cat colony that lives in the neighborhood (along with a photo of the cats, whom many of the local seaside business owners look after).
Josh and I talked about the changing world of books and publishing, and the importance of such local bookstores as Moonraker; it was heartening to see that Josh’s enthusiasm for books and readers hasn’t waned a bit, which is likely why Moonraker is still thriving after 40+ years. Don’t miss this treasure ext time you’re on Whidbey Island!
September 26, 2014 Comments Off
I just sent out an e-newsletter with late summer and early autumn news and events …
…and there’s a lot more going on than I realized until I put it all together.
The fabulous Sheila Bender will be in Southern Oregon … I’m reading (with Janée Baugher) and teaching in Port Townsend in September … there’s an all-day writing conference coming up in Ashland in October … I found a very cool online resource for writers … and I’m teaching an online class for the amazing organization Kahini in the new year.
Hope to see you this fall!
August 5, 2014 Comments Off
I’ve written about this wonderful bookstore previously, and it’s as wonderful as ever — but now, the store is in a new location under a new awning: Owners Anna and Peter Quinn purchased Imprint Books and, this spring, combined the two stores in its new location at 820 Water Street.
The new Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books has all the best of both places — a huge selection of books (still creatively organized), as well as fun writerly gifts and toys (from Writer’s Block chocolate to cleverly worded T-shirts and mugs).
The store is as bright and welcoming as it was in its previous location, and the Quinns continue to host visiting and local writing instructors in a lovely and inviting new workshop space.
You can check out the workshop offerings here — I’m delighted to be in the lineup to teach two workshops on September 17 (call 360-379-2617 for more information and to register), and I’m in great company with other fall instructors, including Bill Kenower, Erica Bauermeister, Sheila Bender, and many more.
And for those of you with little ones, Imprint Books has a fabulous, child-sized section for kids, a cozy little nook perfect for getting lost in a book or two.
If you haven’t stopped in already, be sure to visit The Writer’s Workshoppe and Imprint Books when you’re in Port Townsend…and be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore this fabulous spot for readers and writers.
July 30, 2014 Comments Off
Chico, California, is a fun town — not only is it home to Cal State Chico (and hence a great many bars/restaurants and fantastic boutiques), it is home to Lyon Books, one of the most fabulous indie bookstores I’ve encountered in my many years of being a bookstore geek as well as an author.
I was privileged to enjoy Lyon Books not only as a reader but as a presenter (I spoke about book marketing to the wonderful Chico Authors & Publishers Society), and Heather Lyon and the CAPS writers were so incredibly welcoming. The store holds weekly events with a range of speakers, and CAPS holds its monthly meetings at the store. Lyon Books is one of those amazing bookstores that is truly a part of the community.
The store is beautiful and welcoming, with a wide array of new and used books, magazines, gifts, and cards that are thoughtfully arranged throughout the space. Among my favorites is the travel section, which features this globe and vintage suitcase:
If you’re ever in northern California, don’t miss the town of Chico … Lyon Books is worth a visit for all book lovers, but you’ll also enjoy Chico’s quaint downtown shopping, as well as Bidwell Park, one of the country’s 25 largest municipal parks. But do make sure you have enough time (and a good book budget) for Lyon Books!
April 23, 2014 Comments Off
I look forward to seeing many of you at the AWP Conference & Bookfair — February 27 to March 1.
I’ll be hanging out at our booth for Ashland Creek Press, EcoLit Books, and Literary Provisions. Please join us (we’ll be in booth #1207 in the North Hall) to check out new books and fun stuff for writers.
And don’t miss these other events before, during, and after the conference …
Wednesday, February 26
I’ll be one of the readers at the fabulous AWP Festival of Language at the Rock Bottom Brewery (1333 5th Avenue, just a couple blocks from the conference center), along with dozens of other authors. I’ll be reading sometime between 5 and 6:30 p.m., and the literary festivities will go on until 10 p.m.
Thursday, February 27
Julian Hoffman, contributor to Among Animals and author of The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for creative nonfiction, will be signing books from 11 a.m. to 12 noon. (ACP booth #1207)
Jean Ryan, author of the “captivating” (Publishers Weekly) short story collection Survival Skills and contributor to Among Animals, will be signing books at the booth from 1 to 2 p.m. (ACP booth #1207)
Friday, February 28
Mindy Mejia, author of the “beautiful” (Twin Cities Pioneer Press) novel The Dragon Keeper will be signing books from 9 to 11 a.m. (ACP booth #1207)
JoeAnn Hart, author of the eco-novel Float (“a stellar model of eco-literature”—Cape Ann Beacon) will be signing books from 4 to 5 p.m. (ACP booth #1207)
And at 4:30 p.m., I’ll be leading a panel on Book Marketing — From Finding Your Muse to Finding Your Readers: Book promotion in the twenty-first century, with Kelli Russell Agodon, Wendy Call, Janna Cawrse Esarey, and Susan Rich. Panelists from a variety of genres—poetry, fiction, narrative nonfiction, and memoir—will discuss the unique challenges and opportunities of transitioning from writer to published book author. Through specific experiences and using real-world examples, panelists will offer tips for finding one’s natural niche and audience, and how to reach out to readers authentically and generously. Topics include book promotion through conferences, book clubs, social media, awards, blogs, events, and salons. (Room 608, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6)
Saturday, March 1
On Saturday, the Bookfair will be free and open to the public!
At 12 noon, join John Yunker for a panel on The Greening of Literature: Eco-Fiction and Poetry to Enlighten and Inspire, with authors JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, Ann Pancake, and Gretchen Primack. From mountaintop removal to ocean plastic to endangered species, ecological issues are increasingly on writers’ minds. Authors on this panel discuss how their ecologically themed fiction and poetry engages readers in powerful ways that nonfiction can’t. Panelists discuss writing in these emerging sub-genres as well as their readers’ responses and offer tips for writing about the environment in ways that are galvanizing and instructive without sacrificing creativity to polemics. (Aspen Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor)
Sunday, March 2
I’m thrilled to be doing a post-conference reading with the amazing Gretchen Primack on Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. at the Central Library in downtown Portland. We’ll be reading eco-fiction (me) and eco-poetry (Gretchen), and we look forward to a lively discussion afterward about the environment and animal protection in the context of fiction and poetry. This event is free, and all are welcome; click here for complete details.
February 21, 2014 Comments Off
For a tiny town on a small island, Friday Harbor, Washington, has wonderful bookstores. Among them is Serendipity, a used bookstore near the ferry line at 225 A Street. The store doesn’t have a website, but you can call (360) 378-2665 to check its hours.
This beautiful store is overflowing with books (yet all books are cataloged, so if you are looking for something specific, just ask). And books are arranged by section, from contemporary general fiction to classics to Oprah Book Club selections, and so on. Particularly fun is the cookbook section, which is located in what formerly was the kitchen of the house:
All the different rooms and nooks makes for excellent browsing. This definitely outs me as a Cat Lady, but I did love the cat-book section of the store.
Between the sheer number of books and the cozy fireplace, Serendipity is one of those bookstores you can lose yourself in, so plan accordingly — and if you’re in the ferry line, keep an eye on the time!
November 29, 2013 2 Comments
Griffin Bay Bookstore is in the heart of Friday Harbor, Washington, on gorgeous San Juan Island.
Griffin Bay is a must-see when you’re in Friday Harbor, and it’s a particularly perfect spot to visit on a rainy day, with its cozy feel and relaxing cafe.
The bookstore features a great selection of island-related books, as well as all of the latest indie bestsellers. It’s wonderful for browsing not only for books but for all sorts of readerly and writerly things; I especially enjoyed its amazingly diverse and lovely selection of note cards.
Last but not least, Griffin Bay has a truly impressive selection of Theo Chocolate.
November 19, 2013 Comments Off
Today I’m very happy to post my Q&A with Tom Lombardo, a poet, essayist, and freelance medical writer who lives in Midtown Atlanta. Tom’s poems have appeared in journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India (translated to Hindi and Mayalayam), including Southern Poetry Review, Ambit, Subtropics, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Atlanta Review, New York Quarterly, and many others. He is also editor of the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events, and he runs the Poetry of Recovery blog.
Tom’s new book, What Bends Us Blue, has been praised as “remarkable” (Thomas Lux) and “exquisite” (Cathy Smith Bowers). Clifford Garstang recently reviewed the book on his blog, calling it “a lovely collection of poems…both sad and hopeful…and there’s also a great deal of humor.”
Q: Congratulations on your new poetry collection, What Bends Us Blue, whose title I immediately fell in love with. Can you tell the story behind it?
A: Thank you, Midge. In music, especially in blues and jazz, notes may be bent upward or downward, on guitars or other stringed instruments or on harmonicas, saxophones, clarinets, and other reed instruments. It’s a way of taking the note up or down a half-step or more without changing the string or the holes. The musician will bend the string with a finger or bend the reed with the embouchure of the mouth and the speed of exhale or inhale. This technique was popularized by the Mississippi blues men of the early 20th century, so it is associated with blues, but it has crossed over into jazz and other genres. So…what bends us blue, literally, is bending a note to achieve a bluesy sound. What bends us blue, figuratively, is what What Bends Us Blue is about.
In 1992, at a table in a two-room flat in Prague, I wrote the first poem that became part of What Bends Us Blue. It was seven years after the death of my first wife, Lana, in a car accident. The poem was about her death, and some of it was in her voice. It was an awful poem, much worse than a rough draft, but that poem, scores of drafts later, entitled “Elegy on a Visitation,” has been published in a journal, is in What Bends Us Blue.
Over the next several years, I wrote a few more poems, some of them about Lana and her death and my recovery, some not. Then, a creative burst between 2001 and 2011 when I wrote hundreds of poems, many of which appear in What Bends Us Blue. The collection centers emotionally on loss and recovery, but it also looks at What Comes Next. As I was a young widower, the course of my life changed dramatically. It’s not unlike experiencing a divorce, I would imagine. You think you’re going in one direction, then Bam!, you’re not, and you’re lost for a while. When your life is shattered by an event, you come to a point like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” You face a choice. A new direction. You can sit at that fork your entire life, or you can move on. That is a key theme of What Bends Us Blue, the moving on. Life wants to live. In my case, I remarried, had two children (who are now teenagers), and some poems of What Bends Us Blue give the reader a view of redemption.
Q: The collection has been praised for, among many things, the diversity of the poems — which range from satire to irony to heartbreak. What were the challenges of putting together a collection with such emotional breadth?
A: Let’s put aside for now the challenges of writing the poems themselves. Once I had the poems in hand, I built a collection. I had been submitting this manuscript for several years to contests and open submissions, and it was rejected over and over and over. Then, I turned to April Ossmann, former executive director and editor at Alice James Books, which awards the prestigious Beatrice Hawley Award each year to a book of poetry. April became my editor. The first thing she did was cut one-third of the poems I had included. Like most poets, I found it difficult arranging my poems into a coherent collection, even though I’ve been an editor for more than thirty years. But I’m smart enough to listen to a good editor. The poems April cut were good poems, had been published in good journals, but they were clotting the collection, disrupting the flow, distracting the reader. In this case, less was more. April also did some rearranging of the poems, creating an interesting arc that I had not considered. My arrangement was linear, telling a story from A to Z. Hers maintained the story arc but was somewhat less linear, becoming more impressionistic, which fed the emotions. And achieved better balance of heartbreak and humor and fantasy. The collection succeeds because of its humor and flights of fancy, which offer readers some relief from the sadness and grief, and the balance was the beauty of April’s arrangement. She found exactly the right pacing. What’s ironic is that I do this kind of editing in my work with other poets as a poetry series editor for Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC). It’s difficult to do it with your own poems. But that’s what good editors do—step back, objectively view the collection, suggest cuts and new arrangements that make sense for the whole.
Q: Speaking of being the poetry series editor for Press 53, can you tell us about your process of acquiring new work. What makes a poem or selection of poems stand out among the rest?
A: I’m always looking for new poets for Press 53. Journals—paper or online—and submissions and recommendations from trusted sources. I will probably read 300 submissions each year, maybe more. We received more than 100 during our open submissions last year (we ask for a 10-poem sample), from which I selected two. I also solicit samples or full manuscripts from poets I read in journals or who have been recommended. In addition to selecting poets from Press 53’s home base in the Carolinas, I make a concerted effort to build Press 53’s poetry catalog across the U.S. I’ve selected poets from Portland, OR; the San Francisco Bay Area; Los Angeles;, Houston; Louisiana; Atlanta.
In my reading of submissions for Press 53, I reject a lot of poetry because it contains no figurations. It’s prose with line breaks, and it fails to elevate from prose. That’s an important lesson for all poets to understand. Poetry is essentially figurative language. Metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, irony, synesthesia, imagery, intensity of senses are the keys to authentic poetry. So to answer your questions, submissions that use figurations stand out. Submissions without figurations—rejection.
Q: How does editing poetry affect your own writing?
A: I’ve been editing for a long, long time: newspapers, magazines, Internet. My career has been editing. Many of my professional skills transfer over to poetry editing, though the forms obviously are different. I feel like I was born to edit. My tombstone will read: I edit, therefore I am.
The most important thing I’ve learned as an editor that has transferred to my own writing is that I must write for an audience. A reader. What I write must be understood by someone else. Poetry is a form of communication. That is so fundamental that you would think it’s obvious. But I see too many manuscripts in which the poetry is written for the poet himself or herself, the reader ignored. Only the best poets and writers do it well, some of them may just do it naturally, a gift from the gods. Another important editorial skill: I fully understand and embrace the revision process. I write in order to revise. Good writing is the result of good revisions. Some poems of mine are published in their hundredth draft. To me, revisions are fun. I love to revise. Love it, love it, love it. The writing opens itself up to me as I revise. Being an editor, I’ve spent my life revising the work of others, so I truly enjoy revising my own work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel. I’m about half finished. Soon, I’ll query agents and publishers.
I’m also producing frequent items for the Poetry of Recovery blog, which is an offshoot of an anthology I edited in 2007. After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events comprised 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. The poets wrote of recovery from grief, war, exile, divorce, abuse, bigotry, illness, injury, addiction. The Poetry of Recovery blog presents poems from the anthology along with an interview with the poet. I also feature new collections or readings by the After Shocks poets.
I’m putting the finishing touches on a chapbook due out next year from Kattywompus Press (Ohio) entitled The Name of This Game. It’s based on my experience playing football for eight years in high school and college, during which I experienced a number of concussions. The poems capture the violence of the sport and the damage it may cause to a young brain. The concussions fuzzed up mine through my early twenties, and I drifted a bit. My brain clarified in my mid-twenties, and I found direction to my life. Now, I’m waiting for dementia to kick in. The title of this short collection is from a quote from one of my coaches: “The name of this game is to hurt someone.” Indeed, coaches actually speak in luscious metaphor and simile. “Charge to this spot like a dog on a porkchop.” “Cover this guy like a cheap suit, like dirty shirt.” That coach got me a college scholarship as well as some great lines of poetry, so I can’t complain too much about football, though the injuries concern me enough that I encouraged my son’s early interest in tennis. He’s quite athletic, but he ain’t goin’ anywhere near a football.
I’ve also spent a lot of time lately arranging readings and workshops to promote What Bends Us Blue. The book’s Facebook page will list the specific details, places, and times of my readings. But note that I’ll be reading this fall in Atlanta on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12; in Charleston, SC, on Oct. 14; in Asheville, NC, on Nov. 3; and in Cary, NC, on Nov. 17. I’ll also be reading at the Press 53 offices at the Community Arts Café in Winston-Salem, NC, as soon as I can arrange that. I also have a radio interview scheduled for Oct. 28, 9 p.m. Eastern, on RN.FM. You can listen here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rnfmradio.
Keep an eye on Tom’s book’s Facebook page for more details and future events.
September 5, 2013 2 Comments
I was delighted to visit The Writers’ Workshoppe while I was at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference last week — this spot is a veritable candy store for writers (literally; the store sells chocolate and other goodies).
This amazing bookstore and writers’ center offers an abundance of books, gifts (fabulous T-shirts, mugs, coffee, writing implements, and other necessities for readers and writers), as well as writing workshops. Owner (and writer) Anna Quinn‘s vision is that of what every bookstore should be — a hub for writers, readers, and all things literary.
It’s especially fun to browse the stacks here, as Quinn does not merely stock the shelves; she is a curator of her inventory and has arranged books by subject and theme as well as the usual categories, with such sections as “Influential Women Writers You May Not Have Read” and “Best Kick-Ass Female Characters.”
This wonderful spot also offers classes, from weekly workshops to one-day intensives, for writers of all levels and genres. These classes are both literary and hands-on: offerings include everything from poetry and fiction to social media and blogging classes for writers.
The Writers’ Workshoppe is located in beautiful downtown Port Townsend and is a must-visit for writers and readers … and those who love them.
July 26, 2013 2 Comments
Thanks to all of you who entered the Forgetting English giveaway (and also to those Kindle readers who enjoyed Forgetting English at only 99 cents) in honor of Short Story Month.
To enter the giveaway, readers contacted me with their favorite travel destinations — and I absolutely loved reading about your favorite places (many of which, like Maui and Tokyo) appear in Forgetting English and are favorites of mine as well).
On June 1, I randomly chose a winner: Julia Cousineau, who has graciously given me permission to share with all of you what she shared with me. Julia’s favorite travel memory was a ten-day stay in Tokyo during the early 1907s, when she was a flight attendant for Flying Tiger Airline; on this particular trip, she injured her knee and had a long stay in Japan, which inspired this poem:
The pickles were purple
the puppies were plump
the frog legs were stir fried
the peanut sauce spicy
the produce perfectly strange
murky air, gray pallor
sharp smells I know
a market place in Tokyo
Am I ready for this
Thanks to Julia for letting me share her memory and poem … and thanks again to all who entered the giveaway.
Here’s to every month being Short Story Month!
June 3, 2013 Comments Off
As many of you know, May is Short Story Month!
To celebrate, the Kindle edition of Forgetting English will be only 99 cents for the entire month of May.
I’m also offering a giveaway of the print edition of Forgetting English, a beautiful, expanded edition from Press 53. To be entered to win a copy, simply contact me with your favorite travel destination (whether it’s someplace you’ve been or someplace you’ve always wanted to go), and I’ll enter you in the giveaway. A winner will be chosen in early June. (Please note that I can’t ship overseas, so the giveaway is limited to U.S. readers.)
For all of you who enjoy reading individual short stories, a few stories from Forgetting English are always available on e-readers. On the Kindle, you’ll find Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, The Ecstatic Cry, Translation Memory, and Beyond the Kopjes.
A few other celebrations are taking place for Short Story Month …
Visit the Short Story Month website for stories, news, and resources.
Jean Ryan’s new collection, Survival Skills (which Publishers Weekly calls “captivating”), is hot off the presses from Ashland Creek Press — click here to get yourself a copy. And if you have an e-reader, enter to win a free Survival Skills e-book on the Booklover Book Reviews blog.
Happy Short Story Month — and happy reading!
May 4, 2013 1 Comment
You’ll find out about upcoming events, a few great resources for writers, calls for submissions, and have a new writing tip and prompt to keep your writing going.
April 23, 2013 Comments Off
After reading Clifford Garstang’s beautiful story collection What the Zhang Boys Know, I had to learn more about it … and to my delight, Cliff was willing to answer a few questions. I always love to know what goes on “behind the scenes,” especially when I’m so strongly drawn to the writing, and I hope all you writers out there will enjoy learning about Cliff’s process as well.
Here’s a little more about Cliff: Clifford Garstang is the author of the prize-winning short story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009) and the novel in stories What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012). About his first book, Tim O’Brien, author of The Things they Carried, said, “In an Uncharted Country is an impeccably written, sumptuously imagined, and completely enchanting book of stories. . .” John Casey, author of Spartina, called What the Zhang Boys Know “a wonderful and haunting book.”
Garstang’s work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and has been awarded fellowships by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte and is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine. He is also the author of the popular literary blog Perpetual Folly.
Garstang teaches creative writing at Writers.com and elsewhere. He currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Q: What the Zhang Boys Know is “a novel in stories”—and the stories are indeed seamlessly woven together, even though most of them were published as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines. Did you begin with interconnected stories in mind, or did the collection become linked after you’d begun writing individual stories?
A: Unlike my first book, In an Uncharted Country, which just grew as I kept writing stories and borrowing settings and characters from the finished stories, this one was conceived from the beginning as a whole, complete with the overall narrative that ties the independent stories together. The first story in the book, “Nanking Mansion,” which I also wrote first, serves as something of an outline for the whole. It introduces most of the characters—indeed, early drafts included all of them—and also sets out the themes that the book seeks to explore.
Q: Your collection features such a wide range of voices—you write from the point of view of characters male and female, gay and straight, black and Chinese, young and old. Do you have any special way, as a writer, of immersing yourself so completely in these characters?
A: It’s just a matter of authorial empathy, I think. Doing all those voices is part of the pleasure of writing short stories, in my opinion. You toil on a novel for many years, often mired in a single voice. I know! I’ve done that. But being able to shift gears, so to speak, and try on different voices the way you’d try on different clothes, is liberating. As for the “how,” I’m not really sure. Years ago a writing teacher recommended a book by Stanislavsky, the great theater director, called An Actor Prepares. The salient part of the book for writers is a section on finding emotional authenticity by tapping into feelings that the actor shares with the character. I may not have felt the exact same pain that my character feels, or the same love, or the same anxiety, but I have felt pain, love, and anxiety, and so I am free to write about those feelings. With a little research and observation, I think you can make those things come alive for a character who is quite different from yourself. That’s the theory anyway.
Q: While the collection’s anchor is Nanking Mansion, the condominium in which the characters live, many of the stories also take readers to distant places, such as China and Paris. Have you been to these places yourself—and if so, do you find that you get story ideas from traveling, or does the act of writing bring you back to the places you’ve visited?
A: I’ve been to Paris a few times and to China many, many times. I can’t recall having story ideas while traveling, exactly. I think it’s when I sit down to write that the places flood back. For example, as I began this book, I had recently visited Nanjing, China, and had seen the memorial to the victims of the Nanking Massacre. (Nanjing is the modern spelling of Nanking, which means “Southern Capital.”) That was a moving experience, and it occupied my thoughts in the crucial, formative stage of the planning for the book. That gave me the name of the building and also some of the themes that I come back to in several of the stories.
Q: You bookend the collection so beautifully with Zhang Feng-qi—was he (and were his sons, the Zhang boys) always in your mind as the central character to the story? And how did the other inhabitants of Nanking Mansion begin to take shape as characters?
A: Feng-qi came first, simply because I wanted to create a central character who was unfamiliar and so unpredictable. Then came his sons, because I was interested in the diversity of the building specifically and in Washington, D.C., generally, and what better way to show diversity than with biracial children? And of course they were crucial to Feng-qi’s goal, which is to find them a new mother. As for the other inhabitants, they too were manifestations of the diversity of the population. I’ve joked about this, but it’s more or less true that I imagined the doors of the apartments of this building and started opening them one by one in my mind. Every new door revealed a new character, and ultimately a new story for the book.
Q: The same old question I love to ask: What’s your favorite place to write, and what time of day? Do you have a regular writing routine?
A: I have a nice office in a loft at my house. It’s quite spacious, lots of natural light from skylights. My dog has a comfortable bed there, and that’s where I do most of my work. I do escape to coffee shops from time to time just to shake things up a little. And I also try to go to a writing residency once a year to get some really hard, concentrated writing time in when I’m immersed in whatever I’m working on. Much of What the Zhang Boys Know, in fact, was written in first draft in a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. But regardless of where I am, my routine is to get to my writing space pretty early in the morning, right after breakfast, and to work until lunch time. After lunch I’ll turn my attention to other things—submissions or teaching preparation or whatever.
Q: What are you working on now—and where can we find some of your recent work?
A: I’ve recently completed a novel set partly in Virginia and partly in South Korea, where I lived years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But now I’m working on a novel set in Singapore, where I lived for almost a decade. Because I’ve been writing longer things for a couple of years, there isn’t a lot in the way of new work available to read, but I do like a story that appeared in Joyland last year, “Cousin Barnaby is Dead.” That’s available here: http://www.joylandmagazine.com/stories/midwest/cousin_barnaby_dead.
Thanks so much for asking all these great questions!
March 19, 2013 3 Comments
Brenda Miller is an award-winning author, a professor of English at Western Washington University, and the editor-in-chief of Bellingham Review. Her many books include Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays; Blessing of the Animals; Season of the Body; and Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Most recently she co-authored, with Holly Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World — and this is what I’m chatting about with Brenda today. This new book is a wonderful reminder to us writers that we need to create the time to write rather than wait for it — and its prompts show us how we can incorporate mindfulness into our writing practice in order to deepen and strengthen what we do.
Q: Brenda, I love that your book connects writing and mindfulness—and your own writing space is the same space you use for meditation. What are some of the ways in which being mindful in turn helps you with your writing?
A: I think it allows me to practice observation, even subliminally, so when it comes time to write, I have images/words/memories that can float more easily to the surface. It also teaches you patience and faith: I might be writing something that seems odd and random, but I’ve learned to just go with it and see where it leads. If I stay quiet, without too much judgment at the beginning, the writing can flourish without the intellectual/critical mind interfering too soon. If the writing ends up not leading anywhere, that’s okay, because I haven’t labored over it, beating it into submission. It’s all practice.
Q: Yes, practice—that is another key component in your book; in fact, Chapter Six is devoted to the idea of writing as practice, as with a musical instrument. You mention in this chapter that you sometimes do a writing practice with friends. How is this different from writing alone? And do you have any tips (such as using a timer, as your group does) for writers who get together with others for their writing practice?
A: Writing with others provides a certain kind of focus and momentum that I find is not possible when writing alone. Since we are writing in a timed fashion (with a timer) there’s also an intensity about it. When I’m writing alone, it’s a bit more leisurely, and I’m gathering my thoughts and written fragments together to form a bigger picture. It’s more of a “mulling,” a stroll, while the writing together is more like aerobics! If you write with the same group for any length of time, you may also find yourself subtly working off each other’s imagery and energy; oftentimes people will end up having the same imagery as if they were telepathic.
I think it’s important to have a certain level of commitment from the group; while it’s okay to be flexible of course, it’s best to have the same time/day that everyone agrees on for a certain length of time. Then you’re not always trying to figure out schedules and it becomes a habit.
Q: I agree that getting into the habit of writing is one of the best ways to get into and remain in that creative space. In your book, you write, “As a young writer, I don’t think I ever really understood that you need to prepare for writing…I’ve come to see that I need to be warmed up.” In one chapter you mention the importance of observation, and how a woman who prunes the roses in the park near your house always makes you eager to write — I love that! For me, too, paying close attention to the world around me always sparks my creativity. Have you ever experienced a loss of connection to your writer/creative self, and if so, how did you reconnect? Do you have any advice for writers seeking to find better access to creativity in their everyday lives?
A: That’s a timely question, Midge, as I’m experiencing that right now! It usually happens when I’ve finished one project (in this case, a book of linked short-short essays) and don’t really have another one in the works. I get very, very nervous during these fallow times, and the intellectual mind feeds that anxiety, giving me messages of despair: “Okay, that’s it, you’ve written everything you’re ever going to write.” So, at some point, with the help of my therapist (a saint!) and my writing friends, I remember that this voice is not the true voice. I continue with the weekly writing practice, even if nothing I write feels “good.” I read poetry. I take a lot of walks. I type up words from the writing practice just to see if anything might spark something new. I find a writing contest deadline to motivate me. But the main thing is having a sense of humor about the whole thing, not being so heavy about it. I slap that critical voice on the shoulder and say, “Cheer up, old chap!”
Q: This is all such great advice … I often finish a project and lose my connection to writing, and then it only becomes harder to reconnect. I like the idea of continuing to write, but I especially like the idea of taking walks, which is not “writing” but an activity that opens up the mind, which in turn leads to writing. Your book includes chapters on travel and encounters with the wild — how does connecting with other places and with nature affect your own work?
A: I recently returned from a trip to northern California, a landscape that is quite special to me. I lived there in my early twenties, at a hot springs resort, and as I walked down the road from that resort, I found myself talking to the trees. Really talking to the trees! I know this sounds crazy, but there’s a point on that road that shifts from mellow oaks and dry grass to old redwoods. You feel like you’re crossing a threshold into a deeper place. It’s very, very quiet–and timeless. And I truly felt like those trees remembered that younger self I’d so firmly packed away. They were asking me to remember her, to accept her, to welcome all her good qualities into my life now.
That’s a long (and maybe pointless) story, but in regards to your question: that experience in nature allowed me a moment to feel something unexpected, and to have the space to really feel it: to let it settle and expand. This would not have happened in my quotidian life, where I live more on the surface, where the familiarity of the day-to-day landscape can dull my perception. I haven’t yet translated this experience into writing, but it’s certainly a seed that is germinating.
Q: It’s so true that stepping outside one’s everyday life can be so enriching; we notice things so much more. Your chapter “Emptiness” reminds me of how I need to get away from the clutter of my desk in order to think more clearly. Do you have any advice for writers who tend to avoid the emptiness and the quiet that is both necessary as well as a little intimidating?
A: I’d say it’s important to know that you don’t necessarily need A LOT of it; just a small respite can do. Even 30 minutes off of email/Internet at a particular time every day. Or a ten-minute intentional breather outside where you practice, simply observing without doing anything. And also to enlist allies: make a contract with a friend and hold each other to it!
Q: Last but not least, one of the many things I love about your book is hearing both your voice and that of your co-author, Holly Hughes. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to collaborate?
A: It was wonderful; we each brought different perspectives to the topics and so our voices complemented one another. We wrote the book as letters to one another, so it was always easy to simply sit down and write “Dear Holly,” which would be like a mindfulness bell, putting me immediately in a writing frame of mind. We enjoyed the letters so much that we kept the first draft of the full book in letter form, but got the feedback that it wouldn’t work in the long term for the reader. The hard part was shaping the book out of the letters, but keeping that same sense of intimate communication. Letters are a wonderful practice, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a way to infuse your writing with joy.
November 29, 2012 Comments Off