About Me

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Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, and Pank, among others, and forthcoming from Gargoyle #57 and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. For two years I worked as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. Currently, I serve as a mentor for Dzanc's Creative Writing Sessions. I'm working on two novels and a short story collection. In May, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Read This: What the Zhang Boys Know by Cliff Garstang



I've known Cliff through his writing for over a decade now. We met virtually through an online workshop site and literally in a real-life workshop at Bread Loaf in 2006. I've admired Cliff's straightforward, elegant writing for years but in his latest novel-in-stories, "What the Zhang Boys Know," it seems that straightforward elegance has become richer, in both a narrative sense and an emotional one. Cliff can write from any point of view, whether from a child's, a woman's, or a foreigner's, to list a few found in this novel, with authority and verisimilitude. If you haven't yet read this beautiful novel of disparate characters connected by an elegant mansion turned into condos on the crumbling edges of D.C., then you're in for a treat when you do. I asked Cliff a few questions about the novel and his process:



K: You have quite an amazing background. Among other things, you have worked as Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in D.C. with a focus on China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia. How did your work, and the time you spent in East Asia, inform this novel?


C: Since joining the Peace Corps after college, my work has always had an international bent to it—first in private law practice and then in the World Bank—so it’s natural for my fiction to reflect this interest of mine as well. I used to do a lot of work in China, so it didn’t surprise me when a Chinese character popped into my head when I was conceiving this book. More specifically, though, when I began planning for it, I had just returned from a work trip to Nanjing where I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. It was incredibly moving, and that visit helped shape the story.

K: In the opening story, “Nanking Mansion,” you begin with a chaotic scene in which the narrator is surrounded by “all the people he knows in America” then you circle back to help the reader become acquainted with those people and also help him understand how they came to be standing in the foyer of Nanking Mansion. How did this structure idea come to you? Did it present itself in the first draft?


C: It did present itself in the first draft. In fact, originally, it was even more chaotic and included all the characters in the book. The current version is trimmed down so that the reader gets a feel for the cast without being overwhelmed. The scene is a reaction to two things. My first book, In an Uncharted Country, which is a collection of linked short stories, ends with a story in which most of the book’s characters appear at a 4th of July Celebration. It seemed to be a good way of drawing the book to a close. Because Zhang Boys was conceived as a novel in stories from the beginning, I wanted to begin with a scene in which most of the book’s characters would be introduced. The other impetus was an essay by Sven Birkerts that suggested the modern story needs to create a new world for the reader without relying on assumptions. The scene, I hope, accomplishes that, complete with chaos.

K: Is there a real Nanking Mansion from which you drew inspiration? When did you know the mansion would be a central character and the other stories would be connected by it?


C: Although all of the human characters in the book are complete figments of my imagination, the building itself resembles the condo building where I used to live in DC, although with a different name. As soon as I realized that my characters would be the building’s residents—very early on in the process—the building also became a character.


K: Many of the residents of the mansion are artists of some sort. Was this intentional? What does it say, if anything, about our society here in America, that often our artists are left to survive on the fringes?


C: It was intentional in the sense that I was trying to be true to the neighborhood as it existed at the time. We had a real mix of artists and business or government people in the building and in the neighboring buildings. But I was also thinking about the people who observe the world and those who participate in it. To some extent, the artists see things more clearly than others do, and I think they were useful for that. And certainly artists, like other communities in America that I also tried to represent in the book, are often marginalized.


K: What or who was the inspiration for the “Face in the Window”? Was there a particular artist you had in mind? How did you come to decide on the omniscient point of view for this story? Were there any challenges for you in using that pov?


C: No particular inspiration—no artist, no artwork. Having said that, I suppose abstract art in general was the inspiration, or, rather, the ability of the abstract artist to see clearly something that the rest of us may miss. I chose the omniscient point of view because I wanted to show the reader things that the painter couldn’t see, including moving forward in time. When I started working with it in this story it was exhilarating. I sometimes felt as though I were running alongside the painter, who is a runner. Because I don’t think I’d ever done anything omniscient before, it might have been hard to strike a balance at first so that the main character’s consciousness doesn’t overwhelm the story.


K: Which story was the most difficult to write? Easiest?


C: The easiest was “Counterpoint,” in the sense that I wrote it one amazing sitting—like no other day of writing I’ve ever had. There was revision, of course, but remarkably little. The first story, “Nanking Mansion,” was very difficult because at that point in the writing I wasn’t sure what the book was about. So a lot of thought went into that story, work that paid off by making the rest of the book much easier to write.


K: I’m always interested in revision. Would you share some of your insights and habits regarding the process of revising?


C: Like most writers I know, I firmly believe that revision is the key to good writing. If you’re going to revise something, though, you have to have something to work with. So I like to pour words onto a page when I’m creating a first draft and hope that I will have the discipline to cut and shape and rewrite in a later stage. With this book, after the painful writing of the first story, I had what amounted to an outline of the rest of the stories. I had a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and wrote first drafts—very rough, for the most part—of all of the remaining stories over the course of four weeks. When that was done, I saw clearly the shape of the book, and knew what I needed to do to polish and revise. I began to revise one story at a time, because I was also sending stories out for publication in journals. So that process was working through each story sentence by sentence, reading them aloud, searching for the right rhythm and the perfect word. I’d finish one, submit it to a journal, and move on to the next. The process of revision was many times longer than writing the first draft. Of course.


K: Which story and which character are your favorites?


C: I usually don’t write about children, but here I do, and so I might say that Simon and Wesley are my favorites. As for stories—I think “Nations of Witness” is my favorite, for several reasons. I hesitated to answer this question, but let me turn it around. Which story and which character are YOUR favorites?



K: I liked many of your characters. One of the strengths of the novel is that they’re all so different. Though Simon is the one for whom I have the most empathy, I suppose Feng-qi is my favorite. He seems the most earnest, and perhaps even the most complex, even as he seems unaware he’s still mired in grief. As for my favorite story…This is a difficult one. I admire the first one for its depth and structure, and “Last Lilacs” is quite moving. That said, I would have to say my favorite of all is “The Replacement Wife.” It’s authentic, moving and surprising. So my next question is how easy was it for you to write from the female pov?

C: Not as difficult as I thought it would be. I had also written from the female point of view in my first book, and have been told that it worked well. In the case of “The Replacement Wife,” I think I understood Jessica’s dilemma, and while her medical problem is female, her range of emotions isn’t, particularly.


K: Which leads me to another question. The voices and characters are all so different. Do you have any tricks, any revision techniques, that help you nail down the voices?


C: One of the things I like most about writing short stories is the opportunity to inhabit many characters. I’m not an actor, but I think the process of writing the multiple voices is similar to what an actor does in moving from one role to another. In fact, one of my first writing teachers recommended Stanislavsky’s book An Actor Prepares because it offers some tips for achieving emotional authenticity, even if the character’s actual experience is foreign to you. I may not have felt the specific pain the character has felt, but I have felt pain, and so I try to tap into that feeling. Also, of course, on most of these stories I sought feedback from trusted readers, and that’s often crucial in measuring whether the desired effect has been achieved.


K: What’s next? What are you working on?



C: I finished a novel last year, set partly in Virginia and partly in Korea, and I'm looking for a publisher for that. And now I'm working on a novel set in Singapore--a mix of historical and contemporary action. Plus, I'm also working on a new collection of flash and longer stories. Lots to do!



Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Books I Read in 2012

Books Read in 2012

The World We Found by Thrity Umvigar

Running the Rift by Naomi Benarom

The Good American by Alex George

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

The Odds, A Love Story by Stewart O’Nan

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penny

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

The Dreaming Girl by Roberta Allen

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy (read aloud to my son)

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Heft by Liz Moore

How it All Began by Penelope Lively

Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Wildwood by Colin Meloy (read aloud to my son)

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (read aloud to my husband)

This Will Be Difficult to Explain by Johanna Skibsrud

Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross

Volt by Alan Heathcock

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer

This is Not the Tropics by Ladette Randolph

The O’Henry Prize 2012 (favorites: The Deep; Eyewall; A Birth in the Woods)

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

The Invisible Tower by Nils Johnson Shelten (read aloud to my son)

Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter

Ladies and Gentlemen, Stories by Adam Ross

Animal Farm by George Orwell (read aloud to my son)

Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo

Goliath by Susan Woodring

In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Stand Up That Mountain by Jay Erskin Leutze

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Grolick

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

The Witch Doctor’s Wife by Tamar Myers

Mice by Gordon Reese

Boleto by Alyson Hagy

The Nobodies Album by Carol Parkhurst

Drowned by Therese Bonman

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon

This is How by M.J. Hyland

Shelter by Frances Greenslade

The Adults by Alison Espach

In the Woods by Tana French

The Likeness by Tana French

The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

When the Night by Cristina Comencini

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

Gone by Cathi Hanauer

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards

In Malice Quite Close by Brandi Lynn Ryder

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandell

The Revisionist by Helen Schulman

Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (read aloud to my son)

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner (read aloud to my son)

Faithful Places by Tana French

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs (read aloud to my son
)
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke Brunt

All Women and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones

Dirt by David Vann

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

The Unwanteds, Island of Silence by Lisa McMann (read aloud to my son)

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

The Yard by Alex Grecian

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Afterwords by Rosamund Upton

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I Am Holding Your Hand by Myfanwy Collins

This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky

Brain on Fire by Susanne Cahalan


*There were a few I began but put aside for various reasons and there was one I read but the quality of writing was so poor it left me feeling a bit gray, so I didn’t include here…



Monday, July 02, 2012

A Conversation with Susan Woodring


"Goliath" by Susan Woodring, is an elegant, character-driven novel, about the impending death of a small-town and the characters' large-hearted attempts to revive it. "Goliath" is successful both in scope and depth and I was moved to ask Ms. Woodring for her insights on writing it.

Katrina: You handle the omniscient point of view expertly. I can understand why you chose it; it’s the best point of view in which to capture the spirit of “Goliath.” Is this a point of view you usually use? What are the advantages? What are the challenges?

Susan: I think I’ve used omniscience only once before Goliath, in a short story that ultimately failed. However, I’ve long been fascinated with it. . Some years ago, I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina and loved it. Not only did it feel authentically and wonderfully Russian (I spent some time teaching English there many years ago), but it also used omniscience in this sweeping, beautiful way. I also read The River King by Alice Hoffman, and the opening pages are magical and fairytale-like in the novel’s use of omniscience and I ached to try it myself.

I like the flexibility in distance I have with omniscience. I can pull way, way back—speaking from the sky in many scenes—but then come zapping down, into my characters’ heads, and especially that of Rosamond, the main character. This allowed me to “see” the characters and their town from so many different angles.

I like how omniscience can create the sense that the reader and the narrator are very close—we’re in this together—while the story becomes something they observe from a distance, like a play on a stage. With Goliath, I really wanted, too, to create a sense of isolation for the town of Goliath. I wanted the reader to feel like he/she is peeking into Goliath—a sort of existence unto itself.

Omniscience is, of course, a pretty complicated point of view, one that isn’t used that much in contemporary fiction. It’s a bit of a risk; many readers simply don’t like it. When I was working on Goliath, though, it felt very freeing—daring in a foolish way—and I remember feeling like I was always holding my breath. I was all the time thinking, “This will never work, this will never work,” and “I’ll never get away with this,” but also, “What the heck.” It was such fun; I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

Also, I feel like taking this sort of risk with point of view allowed me to give myself permission to take risks in other areas. For example, I used a few supernatural elements. These—which included a ghost—were edited out later, but still, I feel like experimenting with them stretched the story (and the writer) in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Katrina: I’m always interested in process. What is your office like? Do you write by hand or type? Do the drafts come to you in a linear way or do the scenes arrive and you arrange them later?

Susan: Oh, my office is a disaster. We painted it this odd reddish-pinkish color (play-doughish, if that makes sense) because the color looked good in the can—not so much in real life. I have a bookcase with a writing ledge and there are a few more bulging bookcases and piles of papers around me. My knitting basket is at my feet. Also, my kids’ homeschooling stuff is slowly taking over the room—computers and art supplies and so forth.

But, my laptop is tiny—it’s actually a netbook—and so I’m pretty transportable. I often head over to my in-laws’ with my kids—they play and I write in the spare bedroom. I hit coffee shops on Saturdays, when my husband is home to keep the kids.
I begin jotting down ideas and snatches of dialogue or characters’ thoughts in an unlined notebook and move onto my laptop when I feel like the story or the scene I’m working on are firm enough to start drafting. I usually don’t know exactly where the story is going, but I do have a vague sense of where things will end. I often have a visual image of the last scene. (I had the epilogue to Goliath in mind from the very beginning.) I do a lot of revising, but it’s usually in chunks and while I’m still drafting—it takes me so long to figure out what the story is really about. Especially with longer works, I really like using a lot of characters, so often in drafting, what I’m doing is figuring out why they all belong in the same book.

Katrina: “Goliath” is rich with details and complexity. Did this richness come with revision? How long did Goliath take to write? How many revisions did it go through? Did the first draft differ greatly from the end result? If so, in what ways?

Susan: Goliath began in 2006 as a NaNoWriMo novel set in the wake of the JFK assassination. It was initially centered on Hatley, a door-to-door salesman who ultimately took on a secondary role in the book, and it was only in later drafts that it became a story about a factory town. I didn’t really have a good sense of it at all until I discovered Rosamond, and even then I didn’t really know what the story was going to feel like until I wrote the first scene, with Vincent Bailey discovering Percy Harding’s body.

I believe that from that moment—when I had the first scene and my main character—it took about two years to write. My editor at St. Martin’s, Elizabeth Beier, was so, so brilliant with the changes she suggested—I feel like the process of taking her recommendations and re-working the book taught me so much about fiction-writing, particularly about novel-writing. For example, Elizabeth really pushed me to get the book, with so many, many characters, to really focus on Rosamond. In her editor’s notes, she said, “I firmly believe that the best and most successful novels not only have terrific writing and great characters, but (even if it’s subtle, barely seen) an imagined outcome in the reader’s mind that they either long for or dread.”


Katrina: I know you are the mother of two children and that you home-school. How do you find the time to write? Do you have any advice for stay-at-home mothers who want to work writing into their lives? Any nifty tricks?

Susan: I don’t sleep!

Well, not really, though that’s been part of my equation for far too long. I’m starting to feel the effects of this, though, and it ain’t pretty.

I used to say I get up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. I no longer do that—I just can’t. But, I have found I can get up really, really early—sometimes even like two-thirty or three—and write for several hours once or twice a week. Otherwise, I cobble together time when I can get it. My in-laws also local and retired and WONDERFUL. They keep my kids for two afternoons a week, plus they take in my whole family, husband included, when I go out of town for book events and conferences. It’s an amazing blessing. I come home from a trip with only my own laundry to get caught up on—my mother-in-law has done the rest.

Also, my husband really gets how important this is to me. I take off most Saturdays for three-to-four hours’ of writing time. And, during the school year, I have a babysitter (also wonderful!!) who comes in one morning a week.

I have no nifty tricks. Sometimes, I’ll get asked about this at a post-reading Q and A, and I say that I throw handfuls of Froot Loops to my kids, like breadcrumbs to pigeons, rather than stop writing to feed them. I had to quit saying this, though; I had a group that looked completely horrified until I explained I was joking.

Katrina: Your teens, Vincent and Cassie, are fascinating. I find teenagers difficult to get right, but you make it look easy. Did you find these two characters difficult to embody?

Susan: Oh, Katrina, thank you so much! I think I identify with teenagers—especially the kind who live on the fringe of things--because in my heart of hearts, that’s who I still am. I am horrendously self-conscious. It took me years to get up the guts to wear open-toe shoes—toes are so vulnerable-looking, don’t you think?—and I still lie awake every night, cringing over the things I said to different people during the day.

Also, I’ve always been drawn to adolescents. I used to teach middle school and found my students so adorably neurotic. This attitude helped a lot with Vincent, I think: I really identified with his mother who tries so, so hard to help him. Who tries to understand him but really, just can’t. As far as Cassie goes, I always picture a former student of mine when I think of her. I knew the student when she was much younger than Cassie, and her situation is different, but her plucky defiance, with such an unreachable sadness underneath—I totally got that from my old student.

Katrina: Vincent is challenged to swallow things. It seems, symbolically, not in any conscious way, he chooses to swallow living things in order to forget about death. What was the inspiration for this?

Susan: Ooh, Katrina! That’s great! I honestly never thought of it like that. Yay!! (It REALLY helps to have smart readers….)

I thought of him more as his trying to become something else. I think he really feels overcome by what he witnesses at the first of the book and by the growing distance between him and his father. He craves a different mode of existence, maybe.

The actual inspiration for this is pretty gross. One morning, I killed a cricket in my living room, and, picking its squashed body up with a paper towel, I really looked at the thing, saw how meaty (forgive me!) this little creatures was. I don’t know how I went from that to deciding Vincent was going to try swallowing it. I suppose we sometimes write about the things that frighten us, don’t we?

Katrina: “Goliath” has a lot of symbolism. Were you aware of the symbolism as you wrote or was it all a surprise?

Susan: Yes and no on both counts. I had the name of the town before I realized it was going to be, in some shape or other, a kind of David-and-Goliath story. And, the cardinal paper knife just seemed like the kind of thing Rosamond would pick up at the drug store as a gift for Percy’s family. From there, I suppose I picked up on birds in the story when I could, and they became symbolic. The best kind of analogy or symbol, of course, is the kind that is a surprise. That feels unplanned and serendipitous. I believe our subconscious minds work very hard--both in our ordinary lives, and in the stories we tell ourselves—to construct meaning and to form ties between seemingly disconnected entities. Our job, then, is to more or less get out of the way, and to clean up the excess afterward.

Katrina: Goliath is a character itself. Did you intend this? What were the challenges in creating the essence of a town?

Susan: I think that, for me at least, point of view and character and setting develop at the same time, in tandem. They are linked in messy and intricate ways from the very first. The events of the story and its shape flow from these first three. So, I can’t tell you which came first: Goliath as a character or the omniscient point of view. I do believe that if I had begun with a different point of view, Goliath would have ended up being a very different entity. Maybe it would have been “only” the setting of the book. I don’t know if I would have been able to see the town as a whole if the point of view had been focused only on, say Rosamond.

The greatest challenge in creating Goliath was in portraying a sort of quintessential small town that is recognizable as such, but at the same time, making Goliath unique and believable. I wanted to capture the feel of a small town—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without making it feel like a cliché.

I liken it to creating a character of a particular age, especially child characters. You want your made-up seven-year-old to think, act, and talk like a seven-year-old, but you also want your character to be an individual. Your aim is to create a unique being and not an every-seven-year-old. I had the same thoughts when creating Goliath.

Katrina: Which character was the easiest to write? The most difficult?

Susan: Hatley, the prodigal husband and father, was by far the hardest character for me to write. I needed for him to say certain things, though he also didn’t seem like that character that would just come out and say things. Every Hatley scene was about me making him say, “hello,” and “I stole a spoon,” and my editor pressing me to make him say and do more. I really had to push that man.

The easiest character to write? I really don’t know. I enjoyed different aspects of different characters. I enjoyed writing about the encyclopedia salesman because he was cute and young and unsuspecting. I liked writing Agnes because she reminds me, in many ways, of myself, all that early-twenties angst I think so many of us face during that period of our lives. I liked Rosamond’s courage and her determination as well as her awkwardness and her inability to see what she really needed/wanted. Oh, and Clyde! I loved working through the Clyde and Rosamond scenes, and the Clyde and Ray scenes.

Katrina: There’s this part in the book in which Ray is preaching about Jericho and Vincent is in
the garage with his father and the focus switches back and forth between both scenes. It’s an interesting technique that added tension. Was this an intentional choice?

Susan: I think this goes back to what I was saying about taking risks. I trusted the story to carry the omniscient point of view, and when the story wanted to do something like this—there are actually a few scenes with these kinds of cut-takes—I let it. I hate it when writers talk like that—about what the story “wants to do—but I don’t know how else to explain it. One very important thing I learned (or think I learned) while writing Goliath: trust the story. Follow it.

Katrina: The end is beautiful and transcending. How did you come to that particular end?

Susan: I knew the epilogue from the beginning. I don’t know how else to say that. I saw it almost as soon as I saw the factory or the woods behind the high school or Rosamond herself. Before Vincent found the body, the end had already been written, or at least imagined.

Katrina: What's next?

Susan: My agent is reading a new manuscript at this very moment! I'm very excited about it; I hope he likes it. Like Goliath, it's set in North Carolina, but with this story, the setting is a little farther west, in the mountains. I'd say that Goliath focuses on community with marriage and family being secondary, but I think this new one is just the opposite. It's really about marriage and love. Something that was really fun about it for me was that there are two concurrent stories taking place, one in the present and one in the past.

Katrina: Sounds wonderful. I can't wait!


Thursday, May 10, 2012

North Carolina's Amendment One

Ever since Amendment One passed in my adopted state of North Carolina I’ve been trying to understand and integrate the complexity of feeling around the issue, both in myself and my community. For it is a complex issue. Though the amendment seemed to be quickly boiled down by both sides to a simplistic gay rights issue, the amendment also snuck in a host of other human rights questions: the ability of two elderly people to live together in dignity with their civil rights intact, the rights of children of unmarried couples, the protection for an unmarried partner from domestic violence. These issues aside, the one that took center stage was whether two people of the same sex could live under the same protections and with the same rights that two people of the opposite sex take for granted. And the majority of voters of North Carolina gave a resounding, a disappointing, No.


I love my adopted state. North Carolina is where my writer self feels most at home. North Carolina is where I met my husband, the love of my life. North Carolina was where my youngest son, now 10, was born and is being lovingly educated and embraced by community. North Carolina is full of people who care for their state, work hard every day to provide for their families, give countless hours of volunteer time to their communities. That said, I was initially deeply saddened by the outcome of the passing of this amendment. Saddened because I’d hoped the majority of the people in this state, my adopted home, had moved beyond a fear and misunderstanding of homosexuality, had moved beyond hating one group of people based on a perceived difference, had moved beyond singling a group of people out and declaring them unworthy of God’s love and protection, and finally, perhaps most disturbing, declaring them unworthy of the law’s protection and consideration.


It’s clear this is a divisive issue. People seem to feel so passionately one way or the other that manners have been forgotten or discarded and accusations and vitriol have bubbled over into an otherwise sane discourse. But I wonder, in all of this back and forth, if people have taken the time to put faces to the issue. Surely, in this day and age, the people who pushed to pass this amendment and who voted it in must know someone who’s gay. A friend, a relative, a child. If not, surely they know someone who will be adversely affected by such restrictive rewriting of our Constitution. I wonder if they took the time to think, How will such an amendment affect my neighbor, my daughter, my mother-in-law, my son’s friend? I wonder if they asked themselves, How will my words of hatred and prejudice affect my community?


My oldest son, now a young adult, is gay. He’s brilliant, hard-working, caring. He’s a beautiful young man with a beautiful soul. I’m immensely proud of him. He no longer lives in North Carolina and I can’t help but feel protectively relieved he wasn’t here to read all the hateful articles in our local paper. And yet, I’m not giving him enough credit. He has had to deal with prejudice and judgment every day of his life and doing so has made him an incredibly strong and admirable human being.


I voted against Amendment One. I voted against it because there is no place for government in the bedroom. I voted against it because it’s wrong to limit or deny civil rights to our fellow citizens. I voted against it because it comes down on the wrong side of human rights. And I voted against it because one day, I don’t want my son to go through the frustration and pain of being denied access to his partner’s hospital room because their partnership is not recognized by the law.


I believe in God. I do not, however, believe in the ability of religious dogma to accurately and fairly interpret God’s intentions and I find all attempts to do so not only highly suspect, but arrogant.


Change in the issue of gay rights has been a long time coming. And it is happening. As people open their hearts and their minds, acceptance is spreading. I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the last thirty years.


Two days ago, I felt disappointed and disheartened. Those feelings have eased and left me with a feeling of hope. Because I suspect most of my adopted people who voted it in did so because they believed they were doing the right thing. Because most of my adopted people did not resort to hatred. Because I know the intrinsic good of humanity has prevailed in the past and will prevail in the future and it is these kinds of situations, the ones that boldly push important issues right up to our faces, that inspire us to deal with them, to consider them thoughtfully, sometimes even reconsider them, with heart, until eventually love and acceptance win out.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Read: "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" by Megan Mayhew Bergman




Once in awhile I discover a book that, after reading, inspires me, on a deep level, to be fearless in my own writing. I’m not only referring to the writer’s courage to render the ugly and unfortunate aspects of human nature and the world, but also, and maybe even more so, the fearlessness to offer the beautiful, the honorable, the heart-on-a-sleeve kind of writing that feels wholly authentic and much like a message from a dear friend insisting, “These are the things I love about life, and I love you enough, dear reader, to share them with you.”

This is what the dozen stories within this accomplished collection seem to be: love stories. Stories of unabashed, deep, awakened, intelligent, love. Love for animals, love for the Earth, love for children and parents and partners, and ultimately, love for life itself, however messy it gets. The writer of these stories has an enormous capacity for deep feeling and she isn’t afraid to use it.

The characters are not without fault, however, and love doesn’t show up for them without cost or in the expected ways. They have burdens, they’ve made mistakes, but even so, they face the next day with eyes and hearts wide open.

In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother travels to Myrtle Beach with her young, precocious son, to a roadside zoo. She’s on a mission to hear her deceased mother’s voice one last time, a voice that is held indefinitely, she hopes, in the throat of a surly African Gray, her mother’s beloved pet. In “Saving Face,” a young veterinarian struggles both to forgive herself for the accident that left her disfigured and to allow her fiancé to love her, imperfect as she is. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the narrator must decide whether to take a morning-after pill which would appease her own adopted world view and that of her radical boyfriend, a self proclaimed human exterminist, or listen to her instinct and her heart, both conditioned by generations of mother-love.

Beyond theme and emotional depth, beyond clear, beautiful language, strength of voice is most noticeable. Most of these stories are told using the first person point of view, and though there is intelligence and an uncanny awareness in each female voice, each is distinct, each is memorable. Many of the women wrestle with forgiving past mistakes, reflect on what motherhood means, view caring for animals and people a priority, and feel a deep responsibility for the well-being of the planet.

“Birds of a Lesser Paradise” is a book I’d love to press into the hands of friends and strangers alike, saying, “Please read, and be transformed.”


* Review first appeared in the March 4th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Monday, February 27, 2012

Read: "The Dreaming Girl" by Roberta Allen.






"The Dreaming Girl" is a slim, poetic novel that lured me into its dream and didn't let me go. Set in Belize, its unnamed characters, the girl and the German, are drawn together against the lush backdrop of paradise and all of its unique inhabitants. The girl dreams her way through life until she meets the German, and her attraction, and consequent love for him, forces her out of the safety of her dreams. The German, with a girlfriend at home, finds himself surprised by his desire for the girl and initially resistant.
The prose in "The Dreaming Girl" is spare, yet Roberta Allen knows how to set a mood with the blank spaces, and there are plenty of sharp insights to be unearthed. It's an honest, beautifully rendered metaphor for the birth and death of love. A spectacularly gorgeous read.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Pedestal Magazine

I'm honored to have a story in the latest issue of The Pedestal Magazine, guest-edited by the amazing Terri Brown Davidson. Randall Brown also has two beautiful short fiction pieces in the issue.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Read: "Echolocation" by Myfanwy Collins





Be prepared. Haunting, mesmerizing, "Echolocation" is a page-turner you will not be able to put down until you've reached the end. It's the story of four women connected by family and the bleak, harsh, land of northern New York. Some have escaped, but they're all brought together again by tragedy and secrets they thought they'd left behind. There's Auntie Marie, dying of cancer, the two girls she raised, Geneva and Cheri, and Renee, Cheri's mother, who ran away to Florida not long after Cheri was born. Cheri returns to help Geneva with their aunt, and Renee shows up unexpectedly with a secret that will change them all.

The characters in "Echolocation," men and women alike, are flawed in the best, most fascinating, ways, and though they make mistakes, they are not beyond redemption, not beyond our empathy. Collins clearly loves her characters, weaknesses and all, and that authorial love elicits a similar compassion from the reader. These four women are fierce. Auntie Marie's devotion to Cheri and Geneva is as strong as her devotion to God; Cheri is determined in her self-destructive desire to deny her feelings; Geneva's strength in carrying on with life after a devastating accident is remarkable, and Renee finally discovers she's capable of caring for another more than herself.

This is a complex story, told with an assured, deft hand. Collins is a master at weaving story lines together in an artful, spare way. Every word is well-chosen. Every nuance is perfectly placed. "Echolocation" is literary fiction at its finest.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January Reading

These are the books I read in January:

"The World We Found" by Thrity Umvigar
Beautifully written story of the strength of women's friendships.

"Running the Rift" by Naomi Benaron
*Review to come

"The Good American" by Alex George
Deftly written story of a family's journey to becoming American. The author, a recent English immigrant, has written a Great American Novel.

"The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey
A hybrid of the retelling of Jane Eyre and a tale drawn from Livesey's own childhood and young adulthood. Atmospheric and highly readable. Even if you haven't read Jane Eyre, you'll enjoy the story, the characters and the language.


"The Artist of Disappearance" by Anita Desai
Three beautiful novellas. I'm a huge fan of Desai's elegant writing and sensibilities.

"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova
Gripping story of a professor slowly losing her life as she knew it to Alzheimer's.

"American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar
This is one to read. It's the story of a young man raised in the Midwest by parents of non-praticing Muslim parents. When his "Aunt" Mina arrives from Pakistan, her devout faith shakes everyone up. Funny, tragic, insightful, refreshingly daring, this is a great read.

"Stay Awake" by Dan Chaon
The stories within this collection are grim and frightening in the best way. One of my favorite short story collections. A real stand out.

"The Odds" by Stewart O'Nan
O'Nan is one of my favorite writers. This story of a couple on their second honeymoon in Niagra Falls trying to save their finances and consequently their marriage is amazingly tight and so well done. Loved everything about it.

"The Invisible Ones" by Stef Penney
I enjoyed this mystery involving a group of elusive gypsies.

"Other People We Married" by Emma Straub
Loved these stories! Superb wrting, fresh imagery, and intriguing characters.

* These are not reviews but rather quick notes I made about each after I finished with it.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Read: The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar





The Torres-Thompsons live in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Scott Torres’ software executive job has enabled him to provide his wife with a view of the Pacific and his boys with the kind of toys that inspire the maid to name their bedroom The Room of a Thousand Wonders. With the help of a gardener, a nanny and a maid, Maureen is able to teach art as a volunteer at their sons’ private school and stay home the rest of the time with her three children. When Scott loses money in the stock market, however, he’s forced to let go of the gardener and the nanny, leaving the cooking, cleaning, and baby-sitting to Araceli, the tall, dour-faced Mexican maid who was “more likely to ignore you when you said hello in the morning or to turn down her eyes in disapproval if you made a suggestion.”

Disagreements over money ensue and when the last argument wreaks havoc on the marriage, the two go their separate ways to lick their wounds: Scott to a coworker’s and Maureen to a spa with only her young daughter in tow. Both parents neglect to inform Araceli of their plans or their whereabouts and soon she feels compelled to take the boys into LA to search for the boys’ paternal grandfather, a decision which will impact her standing not only in the household, but also in the country.

“The Barbarian Nurseries” offers a hilarious look at our solipsistic culture and a poignant reminder of the Mexican immigrants who live among us, often invisible, taken for granted, and ultimately powerless. Tobar uses the omniscient point of view effortlessly, allowing the reader to see Araceli, a surprising, larger than life character, through the eyes of a multitude of people, people who perceive Araceli either as a victim or a criminal depending on their particular biases and agendas.

This novel is a comment on immigration in today’s volatile socioeconomic environment, a comment on our relentless desire as a nation to accumulate and consume more and more, and a comment on the pliable circus our media has become. Tobar’s love for his characters is obvious and none is without culpability of some degree. Intelligent, provocative, this book is loads of fun to read, and though the reader will be confronted with some unflattering truths, he can still come away from the experience entirely hopeful about humanity.

*Review first appeared in the December 18th edition of The Pilot

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Read: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks





These days you can go to a sex offender registry and learn where the convicted offenders live in your area and how many there are. What the site can’t tell you, or at least, doesn’t at the moment, is the exact crime each of these registered offenders was convicted of. Without this information, you’re likely to lump all of them into the scary child molester/abductor category and not give them another thought. At least that’s what I did, until I read Russell Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin.”

When I first heard Banks had written a novel featuring a convicted sex offender as his main character, I was skeptical. I’ve read his work before, I know how absolutely brilliant Banks is, but man, asking a reader to sit with one of the most deplorable kinds of characters for over 400 pages was asking a lot. As a reader, I wasn’t sure I could do it and as a mother, I wasn’t sure I could stomach it. Then one day, I picked up “Lost Memory of Skin” and read the first sentence, then the first paragraph and the first page, and the second, and so on, until I realized I was hooked. Because, in the end, the fact that Russell Banks writes about the down and out in our society with intelligent, highly readable prose kept me reading.

I learned there are various shades of gray in the matters of sex offenses and there are many levels of offense. For instance, a child molester and an eighteen year old who has sex with a minor (even a year younger counts here) both get labeled as sex offenders. There is no public differentiation. And with technology in the picture, there are more and more ways young people can make mistakes that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Such is the case with Banks’ protagonist, the Kid. In the course of the novel, we learn why the Kid is an outcast and living under the bridge with the rest of the area sex offenders. And it is through Banks’ skillful characterization, his ability to go places most of us would turn away from, that we can come to have empathy for him. Not only is there a human story here, but there’s also a mystery: a professor of sociology has decided to interview the Kid and he has a hidden past of his own, a past that soon catches up with him. Banks has us questioning the Professor’s motives right to the end.

Compelling and beautifully written, this book is an important and timely read.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward


There’s nothing pretty about poverty or the cruelty of dog fighting, however Jesmyn Ward writes about both in her latest novel, “Salvage the Bones,” with spectacular beauty.

Esch, the narrator, is fifteen and living in a small Mississippi town along the Gulf with her alcoholic father and her three brothers, one of whom loves his pit bull beyond all reason. Esch, enthralled by the myth of Medea and Jason, begins to see the story mirrored in her own life, in her dealings with Manny, the young man she imagines she loves, and in her brother’s dog, China, whose instinct to kill seems to be fiercer than her instinct to nurture. Motherless, Esch is left the only girl in a house full of males, and when she figures out she’s pregnant, she tells no one.

Ward structures the book using time. The story begins twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and each chapter is a separate day. We’re all familiar with Katrina’s devastation so tension is already built in, but Ward doesn’t stop with a little bit of trouble. She gives us characters so poor they’ll eat Ramen Noodles uncooked and chase them down with a packet of dry spice. She gives us a father stuck in his grief; a pregnant narrator who’s too young to be savvy in affairs of the heart, and a mother pit bull raised to fight, all on top of the category five hurricane bearing down on a family unequipped to properly prepare.

The story gripped me from the start and there were a few moments in which I found myself holding my breath, but what elevated this story from compelling to an absolute must-read was the quality of language:

“Daddy said that Randall and Skeetah and me came fast, that Mama had all of us in her bed, under her own bare burning bulb, so that when it was time for Junior, she thought she could do the same. It didn’t work that way. Mama squatted, screamed toward the end. Junior came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower. She touched Junior just like that when Daddy held him over her: lightly with her fingertips, like she was afraid she’d knock the pollen from him, spoil the bloom. She said she didn’t want to go to the hospital. Daddy dragged her from the bed to his truck, trailing her blood, and we never saw her again.”

Despite all the tragedy, this is a hopeful book, a testimony to the power of love and community. Currently, “Salvage the Bones,” is a finalist for The National Book Award, and this is one reader who’s rooting for it.


*Review first appeared in the October 30 edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Monday, October 24, 2011

Kathy Fish: Interview








I’ve known Kathy Fish through an online writing site for nearly a decade now. Back in 2003 I asked Kathy to help me with my first flash fiction attempt. I’d noticed her short pieces, saw how even back then, she was a master with the form. Years later, she’s still amazing, and her work is playful and intelligent and fresh and will entrance you with its tragic beauty then two seconds later make you laugh out loud. Each of her pieces in her book, "Wild Life" is a glistening, detailed world in miniature, replete with humor, longing and willful creatures.
Kathy has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her process, her stories and her writing desires.

Katrina: I’d like to begin with your process. Where do you write? Do you use pen and paper? Computer? A mix of both? Do you have a set time? Number of words? Music? A certain required beverage? What is a typical writing day? What is your dream writing day like?

Kathy: I always begin with notebook and pen. I don’t think I’ve ever started any writing at all on the computer. I need time to scribble. And it’s all over the page. If something feels like it might be good I circle it. After awhile something clicks and I know I’m ready for the keyboard. I’m very unstructured. I don’t give myself a time limit or word count goal. Coffee is always involved. I know the writing’s going well if the coffee gets cold.

A typical writing day is spent messing around on the internet for longer than I ought to until I’m seized with guilt and shut it off. I stare out the window a lot. I take my dog for a walk. I pour another cup of coffee. Maybe after two hours I start to scribble in my notebook. I look out the window some more. My dream writing day is when I get past all of this and go into that beautiful trance, where I forget everything and look up, finally, two hours later and have before me something that feels real and right and pretty decent. A dream writing day is when it feels effortless.

Katrina: “Land and Sky and Cosmo,” is a hilarious story of a young woman trying to seduce her boyfriend, full of details such as this one in reference to the woman’s uncle telling them how to scare off a bear while camping: “He said make yourself look bigger, wave your arms and yell and he demonstrated and we saw the forest of his armpits.” I love that you chose to echo their environment in the description of armpit hair. What was the seed for this piece? How did you come up with such a perfect question to end the piece? I mean, this is a question often unasked, but present in all relationships, and I don’t think I’ve seen it before in fiction offered in just the right moment, said so beautifully and with such hope.

Kathy: I feel, often in my life, that I don’t connect in those moments when I most want to. And that the scene plays on nonetheless. It’s like small talk when you really want to say I love you. And the scene plays on and we go along and there’s so much courage to that. We swallow our disappointments and heartaches and the small ones are just as important as the big ones. That was my seed for this piece. So here is this woman, desperately wanting to connect and she knows it’s not happening and she wants to confront that. I’m interested in people who are just about at the end of their rope. She wants answers and she’s not getting them. She’d been deceived and it wasn’t the first time! That, right there.

Katrina: “The Cartoonist” is brilliant in its subtext and its ability to convey mood and lingering tension. I loved the title which instructs the reader and the last line which completely changed the color of the piece. Can you talk a little about its inspiration?

Kathy: It’s narrator as observer. That is her only part in this scene. To observe and sketch. Family dynamics as cartoon. Harried mother with exclamation points all around her head. I wanted to drop the brother in right at the end, just bluntly like that, to show how the cartoonist sees him. Smaller than everything and everyone else, because she sees him as he sees himself. It was just another way in, to write it that way. In my own family dynamic, as a child, I hardly said anything at all. I had six older brothers. I watched and listened and learned and that is what my cartoonist is doing in this story.

Katrina: “Lioness” is so amazing that it made me excited and teary when I read it. You describe the despair, the helplessness, the suffocation a mother feels when her child is ill so damn perfectly. I loved this:

“This house is getting tighter like that vacuum that sucks the air out of things so you can pack your quilts and sweaters and pillows into smaller spaces. You could pack this house into a dresser drawer, open it up in the springtime.”

But the moment she imagines a nuclear winter outside on her walk and determines, “This broken planet needs a hero,” is the moment in which she seems to find her super-hero strength. Brilliant. You’re a mother of four. I can guess what inspired it. However, what were the challenges, if any, in writing this piece?

Kathy: Yes, much of the inspiration for this story came from life. I’ve had so many times of being home alone for days with a sick child or two sick children and that claustrophobic and desperate feeling of, this is all there is, this will never change, Spring will never come, etc. One of my children went through a period of high fevers and febrile seizures. It was the scariest thing I’d ever gone through. I wanted to take that experience and notch it up, to put my character right on the edge to the point where she believes the snow outside is nuclear snow, that she is the only hope for her child and for humanity. The challenge was letting myself as a writer go to that strange place and letting that peculiar voice take over the story and letting her say the things she did without going, oh this is just too demented. To trust in the story.

Katrina: Your endings are sometimes ambiguous and always artful. I’m thinking specifically of two pieces: “Spin” and “The Bed.” In “Spin” your ending mirrors what the protagonist does every day with her son. It’s their life in one line. It’s also a hopeful line. And in “The Bed” this last line: “I go to him, but I can’t get any closer than this,” aptly describes a universal truth not only about relationships but about life itself: the distance between people can never fully be breached. How do you come to your endings? Are they easier than beginnings or more difficult?

Kathy: Endings are definitely more difficult for me. And one of my most common self-edits is to cut the last line, ending on the line before it instead. The last lines of my early drafts tend to feel too much like a wrap-up. They feel too neat, often, even contrived in order to achieve that neatness.

I’m glad you felt the hopefulness at the end of “Spin.” That’s how I wanted that story to feel, that this mother is never going to stop trying to connect with her child. To me, there is such joy in that alone, in stories and in life. It’s so not about everything being perfect or all problems being solved, it’s about not giving up. The ending of “The Bed” is sadder, more resigned, I think, in its recognition of a connection that will never be fully made.

Katrina: The precision and freshness of your details make me think of poetry. How often do you revise a piece? Do you write line by line, not moving forward until a line is just the way you want it, or do you get a quick draft down and work with it?

Kathy: Thanks, Katrina! I’ve always been a line-by-line writer, revising as I go. I actually enjoy taking my time, fussing over words and sentences. I have had a few stories that seemed to come out very quickly, but it’s not my normal process.

Katrina: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Kathy: Charles Baxter, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, William Maxwell, Edward P. Jones, Salinger, Tolstoy, Julie Orringer, Raymond Carver, Jane Austen, Flannery O'Connor…also, I love and admire the work of my friends who are writers and who are amazing.

Katrina: You have another collection forthcoming. Would you tell us about it?

Kathy:”Together We Can Bury It” from Cow Heavy Books. It’s a collection that keeps evolving. The title has changed three times. It’s gone from being a chapbook of flash fiction to a longer collection of both short shorts and longer stories. I really like the mix of work included, the emotional tone of the book as a whole. Molly Gaudry is a gifted and thoughtful editor and just a joy to work with. And the cover is gorgeous.

Katrina: What’s next?

Kathy: Is it too much of a cliché to say I’d like to write a novel? Well, I’d like to write a novel. And plays. I’d love to write some plays. I’m feeling a tremendous need to stretch and try new things.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Read: "We the Animals" by Justin Torres


At only 125 pages, “We the Animals” by Justin Torres is slight in weight but not in substance. The narrator us tells the story of his growing up with two older brothers, a well-meaning but often ineffective mother, and a mercurial father, mostly using the first person plural point of view.

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

So begins Torres’ novel as it eloquently speaks of what it was like for the narrator to grow up in Brooklyn with parents of different cultures, with poverty a perpetual threat, and with a passion for words no one else in the family shared. The narration is spare, precise, lyrical, and Torres’ point of view choice aptly captures the swirling, joyous mess that is brotherhood. The brothers in this family are often rolling, wrestling, hitting, a united front against all others, a tumbling trio of lion cubs.

Told in succinct and startling sections, our narrator invites us to witness this family’s trials beginning on his seventh birthday and on into his early adulthood. Though there’s abuse, it lingers on the peripheral, slightly out of our focus, to allow for the real story: how a person can emerge an individual out of such an all-consuming entity that is family. Metaphorically, the consequence of the narrator finding and claiming his individuality works on both a large and small scale.

An Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, Justin Torres spent five or six years working on his debut novel and his patience has paid off. “We the Animals” is fierce in its ability to evoke potent emotion with poetic language and veracious insight.

* Review first published in the October 12th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Elizabeth Gilbert on TED

I've posted this before because it helped me write a draft of one of my novels in about three months. And I'm reposting because I'm in a bit of a writing funk and thinking maybe it might help me again and anyone else who may be in a funk with me.