Monday, August 22, 2016

My First Time: Michael Copperman

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Michael Copperman, author of Teacher, a memoir about teaching in the rural public schools of the Mississippi Delta. Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. In addition to his own writing, Michael also helps run the The Oregon Writers’ Collective, a group co-founded by Heather Ryan. Through readings and workshops they foster a vibrant community to nurture working literary writers, particularly those who are beginning their careers, by connecting them with audiences and developing their craft. Click here to visit his website.

My First Book

For years and years, I preached process to my literary friends. I listened to their fears and doubts about the long odds inherent in the pursuit of lyric and literary art, and affirmed them (since I share them). I insisted that the intersection of art and commerce is the wrong obsession, that all that matters is the work of making meaning which is an end unto itself. I said (and meant it) that the integrity of art lies purely in the purity of pursuit, that what matters is not publications or awards or pay, but in the doing which is its own reward, to have reached and to have honed and to have made your work as beautiful and significant as you can. But I found my faith being tested as my agent and I tried to find a home for my memoir Teacher, a book about working in the rural public schools of the Mississippi Delta.

That philosophy of process and persistence and integrity held up through what was eight years of submissions to literary magazines and journals and newspapers—held up through the years of rejection it often takes to place even an excellent story or essay out of the slush pile, held up as fellowships and opportunities and lovers passed me by, as friends left and peers seemed to soar and I struggled on the ground floor. I kept an ink-stained record of my submissions—first one side of a page, then two—more ink, smaller writing, the occasional piece circled and crossed off when it was placed.

Things settled out in that process—I ascended from slush with regularity, published between four and eight pieces a year of literary fiction and nonfiction since 2008 in some of the country’s finest venues, eventually won fellowships that had formerly passed me by, hewed to process and kept a stiff upper lip when disappointment set in. I queried perhaps 125 agents with parts of the two finished novel manuscripts that were enjambed, kept on through two years of rejection until I realized each book had to live as its own expression. I realized that being published in literary magazines matters little—even at good publications—and just as I accepted how little it meant to be in The Sun or Gulf Coast or The Oxford-American or a Norton anthology, an agent came to me saying they’d read something of mine in Creative Nonfiction and wanted to read the manuscript the piece had come from. I sent it on, expecting it to come to nothing. Days later, a phone call came from New York and suddenly I was revising the memoir with my agent, and being prepared to go to editors.

That was when things got difficult. I had been psychologically dependent on production, on process, and there was a safety to that state of career—I just did the work. Now, I was judged on a finished project, and nothing to work on and no submissions to make and nothing boiling forth. I felt sick with dread, shaken by the impending stakes, by verdicts with real consequences to come. This was exactly how I used to feel before a big wrestling tournament; exactly why I grew to hate competition even as I loved the sport. For a few weeks, a month, I felt similarly about writing: I missed the doing, the reaching for meaning. And then, even as the rejections began to come, first close calls at the big houses, and then the editors who wanted the manuscript, and then got turned down by the offer makers or boards, and then the long period when it seemed nobody at all would come calling, I kept writing. The same process: I worked on my novel, and spilled more ink on the submissions sheet for short work, and kept working even through the last months of one full year of rejection. In the end, I still did not yet have a publisher, but I did have a second manuscript.

An ancient Japanese proverb tells us, “If you focus your will upon a stone, it can pass through it.” Ten and a half years ago, I began submitting work. I kept the records on this sheet of paper (two-sided), vowing not to stop until I had a published book. On September 1 this year, that sheet can be retired, as University Press of Mississippi will finally release my memoir Teacher. And now, as my agent has moved along with his career, I am beginning to search for the right representation for my novel.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Melancholy Accidents by Peter Manseau

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Cleaning guns, dropping guns, “overhandling” guns, allowing guns anywhere near children or dogs—all of these occasionally lethal activities add an often overlooked dimension to the question of whether it is guns that kill people or people who kill people: while people who kill people with guns often don’t mean to, guns are so good at it that people sometimes don’t even have to try.

Melancholy Accidents by Peter Manseau

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Freebie: Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies, edited by Lynn Houston, Susan Allspaw Pomeroy and Jennifer Spiegel

Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: The Trouble with Lexie by Jessica Anya Blau.

This week’s book contest is for Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies, edited by Lynn Houston, Susan Allspaw Pomeroy and Jennifer Spiegel. I have two copies of the anthology to give away to two lucky readers. Will you be one of them? For more about the monsters that haunt us, be sure to check out the My First Time essay by Lynn, Susan and Jennifer.  Now here’s some more information about the book...

This literary collection brings together 26 poems and 6 essays inspired by the zombies and characters of AMC's hit television show The Walking Dead. As new generations of writers, filmmakers, and artists continue to revisit the notion of the undead and continue to add to the richness of its legacy, we have to ask what fascinates us so much about this particular monster. The authors of the literary works in this collection provide robust responses to that question. This collection speaks to the tension between a fascination with zombies and a repugnance with their fearful decrepitude. Somewhere within that tension is our continual desire to know, to understand, to commiserate with the post-apocalyptic inhabitants of films and television shows, like The Walking Dead, where zombies are the norm. The literary works in this anthology are rich in messages about our frail humanity, messages that transcend overt metaphor. The result is a lens that focuses on our own self-inflicted hunger for something. For what? For what do we hunger? And will we be satiated before the bite comes from behind?

If you’d like a chance at winning Dead Inside, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 26. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Drinking Dandelion Wine

Ray Bradbury was a wizard with words, casting spells left and right, mesmerizing the readers of his 27 novels and 600 short stories. He sometimes wrote about hypnotists, magicians, and soothsayers, but the real wizardry happened in the elixir of his words.

Nowhere is the magic more potent than his 1957 book Dandelion Wine, which the cover of my 1979 Bantam Books edition calls “The captivating novel of a boy’s magical summer.” Dandelion Wine is not quite a novel, neither is it a traditional collection of short stories; it is a fever dream of memory, a jump-cut film of golden memories, a warm bath of nostalgia that, no matter how long you sit in the tub water, never grows chill. Dandelion Wine centers around two brothers, Doug and Tom Spaulding, as they roam carefree across the “magical summer” of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, based on Bradbury’s childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. (Bradbury often returned to Green Town, most notably in Something Wicked This Way Comes and Farewell Summer.)

Though I could fault Mr. Bradbury for packing a few too many “life lessons” into just one summer, and for making 12-year-old Douglas too wise beyond his years, it’s probably best to set those aside and just go with the flow of the book. And flow it does, from golden vignette to golden vignette across the June to August span of months. There are moments of true beauty (the dawning realization that the fabled Time Machine the boys are so excited about is none other than ancient Colonel Freeleigh who spins stories about the Civil War and hunting buffalo with Pawnee Bill) and true terror (Lavinia Nebbs walking through the dark ravine when The Lonely One, a serial killer, is still on the loose). The real Time Machine conductor here is Bradbury himself as he transports readers back to a small Midwestern town of the 1920s, a world of trolleys, soda fountains, junk peddlers, Saturday afternoon matinees, and sitting on the front porch in the evening eating chilled foil-wrapped Eskimo Pies and falling asleep to the sound of the adults’ conversation murmuring soft while the squeak of their rocking chairs sing like crickets into the falling blanket of night.

As I mentioned earlier, Ray Bradbury was a genius when it came to imagery and character-building. I’ll leave you with a single paragraph in which he sums up the everything we need to know about John Huff, one of Douglas’ best friends:
The facts about John Huff, aged twelve, are simple and soon stated. He could pathfind more trails than any Choctaw or Cherokee since time began, could leap from the sky like a chimpanzee from a vine, could live underwater two minutes and slide fifty yards downstream from where you last saw him. The baseballs you pitched him he hit in the apple trees, knocking down harvests. He could jump six-foot orchard walls, swing up branches faster and come down, fat with peaches, quicker than anyone else in the gang. He ran laughing. He sat easy. He was not a bully. He was kind. His hair was dark and curly and his teeth were white as cream. He remembered the words to all the cowboy songs and would teach you if you asked. He knew the names of all the wild flowers and when the moon would rise and set and when the tides came in or out. He was, in fact, the only god living in the whole of Green Town, Illinois, during the twentieth century that Douglas Spaulding knew of.
If, like me before a couple of weeks ago, you’ve never read Dandelion Wine, now would be the best time to do so, while we still have a few golden drops of summer left in the bottle. As Bradbury warns us, “August was almost over. The first cool touch of autumn moved slowly through the town and there was a softening and the first gradual burning fever of color in every tree, a faint flush and coloring in the hills, and the color of lions in the wheat fields.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Front Porch Books: August 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

The News From the End of the World
by Emily Jeanne Miller
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The author of Brand New Human Being returns with what looks like a terrific, engaging story of a family drama that plays out over four days on Cape Cod. I love the way this novel seems to glow, from the cover design to the opening paragraphs.

Jacket Copy:  Vance Lake is broke, jobless, and recently dumped. He takes refuge at his twin brother Craig’s house on Cape Cod and unwittingly finds himself smack in the middle of a crisis that would test the bonds of even the most cohesive family, let alone the Lakes. Craig seethes, angry and mournful at equal turns. His exasperated wife, Gina, is on the brink of an affair. At the center of it all is seventeen-year-old Amanda: adored niece who can do no wrong to Vance, surly stepdaughter to Gina, and stubborn, rebellious daughter to Craig. She’s also pregnant. Told in alternating points of view by each member of this colorful New England clan and infused with the quiet charm of the Cape in the off-season, The News from the End of the World follows one family into a crucible of pent-up resentments, old and new secrets, and memories long buried. Only by coming to terms with their pasts, both as individuals and together, do they stand a chance of emerging intact.

Opening Lines:  In Vance’s dream, nothing is the matter. He’s home with Celeste, it’s sunset, and the sky through the west-facing windows of their living room glows pink. Celeste, fresh from her post-run shower, sits on his lap, straddling him. She looks sleek and lovely, with flushed cheeks and her wet hair combed straight back, and there’s music playing—her music, sitars, singing bowls, bells. She’s holding a glass of wine and teasing him with it, tipping it toward his lips and, just before he can taste it, taking it away.
     And then she’s doing other things, odd things—kneading his cheeks roughly, tapping her fingernails against his teeth—and when he asks her to stop, the dream changes: darkness descends, Celeste dissipates. He tries standing up but he can’t, there’s a great weight on him, something heavy holding him down.
     When he opens his eyes it’s dark, and it takes a few moments for him to remember where he is—that he’s not at home, not with Celeste. He’s in his brother’s attic, sweating under an itchy army blanket that smells of mothballs, of the past. Only the heaviness he felt in the dream is real. As his eyes adjust he sees that the thing holding him down is a person: his niece, Helen, is sitting on his chest.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone
by Sequoia Nagamatsu
(Black Lawrence Press)

He had me at Godzilla. Sequoia Nagamatu’s debut short story collection delves into the ancient myths and modern pop culture of Japan in a fresh and exciting way. I like the way Black Lawrence Press has packaged the book, too—starting with a terrific cover design of a businessman’s ascent to the moon while papers flutter from his briefcase, and continuing with large-print introductions to each story with things like a recipe for a Placenta Bloody Mary, a “Technique for Deep Sea Diving,” and “Ten Things You Should Have Known Before You Died [Text Unavailable to the Living].”

Jacket Copy:  “You should be here; he’s simply magnificent.” These are the final words a biologist hears before his Margaret Mead-like wife dies at the hands of Godzilla. The words haunt him as he studies the Kaiju (Japan’s giant monsters) on an island reserve, attempting to understand the beauty his wife saw. “The Return to Monsterland” opens Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture. In “Rokurokubi,” a man who has the demonic ability to stretch his neck to incredible lengths tries to save a marriage built on secrets. The recently dead find their footing in “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost.” In “Girl Zero,” a couple navigates the complexities of reviving their deceased daughter via the help of a shapeshifter. And, in the title story, a woman instigates a months-long dancing frenzy in a Tokyo where people don’t die but are simply reborn without their memories. Every story in the collection turns to the fantastic, the mysticism of the past, and the absurdities of the future to illuminate the spaces we occupy when we are at our most vulnerable.

Opening Lines:  Mayu called me from the train car that Godzilla had grabbed hold of—no screaming or sobbing, no confessions of great regrets, no final professions of love. She did not ask to speak to our five-year-old daughter, who was unknowingly watching the news coverage of her mother’s impending death, as the train crashed into the side of a skyscraper and through a set of power lines. My wife spoke of feeling the radiation of his body coursing through her own, the view down his cretaceous mouth, an atomic breath swirling in a maelstrom of blue light. And then, before there was nothing but a roar and static, she said: “You should be here; he’s simply magnificent.”

Blurbworthiness:  “A combination of the mystical, magical, and marvelous, Sequoia Nagamatsu weaves a collection of bold, hysterical, and moving tales into an unforgettable debut. From shape-shifters, to star-makers, to babies made of snow, the characters in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone form a community of longing, of the surreal, of wonder. What a joy it is to read each and every story.”  (Michael Czyzniejewski, author of I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories)

All Back Full
by Robert Lopez
(Dzanc Books)

What we talk about when we talk about books that snap expectations like sticks over our knees: Robert Lopez’ new book (coming in early 2017) looks like a novel but reads like a stage play. I’m eager to see what he’ll do with a heavy reliance on dialogue and “stage directions” as he describes one day in the life of a marriage.

Jacket Copy:  Act One: At a kitchen table, a husband and wife discuss the news, nudists, and lie to each other about the ways they no longer connect.
     Act Two: At a kitchen table, a man and his friend discuss the weather, the state of public transportation, and lie to each other for the sake of something to say.
     Act Three: At a kitchen table, three people discuss, mostly, nothing, and watch the threads unravel as their lives come apart at the seams.
     Told in a genre-defying style that melds the depth of the novel with the honesty of the stage, All Back Full charts one day in a marriage at once usual and unusual, exploring what we say to each other when we say nothing, and the ways we speak to each other without words.

Opening Lines:  The setting is an ordinary setting. A kitchen. One table and four chairs. A counter with a sink. Cabinets across the room from the table and chairs. A door that opens into the kitchen.
     The principals are at the table. They are married to each other.

by Ian McEwan
(Nan A. Talese)

Ian McEwan, Booklist writes, “can be counted on to make the implausible plausible and the outrageous reasonable.” Well, the outrageously implausible is hard at work in his new novel, Nutshell: a murder mystery narrated by a fetus. Okay, you can pull your eyebrows down from your hairline now. I’m reserving judgment until I can read the whole of this short novel, but the opening lines carry the promise of all the good things I’ve come to expect from McEwan in books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

Jacket Copy:  Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home—a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse—but John’s not there. Instead, she’s with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy’s womb. Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world’s master storytellers.

Opening Lines:  So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

Blurbworthiness:  “Short [and] smart...The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting.”  (Publishers Weekly)

In the City of Falling Stars
by Chris Tusa
(Livingston Press)

Paranoia threads its way through Chris Tusa’s new novel In the City of Falling Stars. Stars aren’t the only things falling in these pages: birds do, too, as well as the main character’s tolerance for idiots. What’s rising, though, are my expectations for a great read. Any time you combine bird flu, terrorism, murder, ulcerated stomachs, and the Second Coming of the Lord, I’m bound to be hooked and booked.

Jacket Copy:  Dead birds are falling out of the sky and Maurice Delahoussaye suspects the air in New Orleans may be unsafe. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries claims the birds were poisoned, while meteorologists suggest they were killed by a sudden change in temperature. There’s even talk of terrorism, Bird Flu, West Nile Virus, or high levels of mold spores left over from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Gradually, Maurice becomes increasingly fearful that the government is hiding an ominous secret, and when he begins having strange religious premonitions suggesting that his wife is pregnant with Jesus Christ, he becomes convinced that the dead birds are a sign from God. In the City of Falling Stars is a tragicomedy that examines the increasing paranoia following the September 11th attacks, as well as a commentary on the devastating psychological scars that the storm left on the city of New Orleans.

Opening Lines:  For the last few days Maurice Delahoussaye had been thinking of ways to kill Michael. He’d considered poisoning him, planting a bomb in his car, stabbing him, pushing him off an overpass, drowning him, electrocuting him, slitting his throat, even setting him on fire. When he finally decided that shooting him was the best option, Maurice climbed into his car and drove to New Orleans East, toward a dilapidated Six Flags amusement park on the edge of the city.

Blurbworthiness:  “Chris Tusa knows New Orleans, from post-Katrina fallout to the NOPD, junkie hoodlums, and Commander’s Palace. His second novel, In the City of Falling Stars, follows the uncertain progress of a slowly unhinging man, Maurice Delahoussaye, whose troubles range from family issues to the growing conviction that the whole world is closing in on him, like “a silver plague of stars.” Tusa’s tough lyricism captures it all, lingering in the mind long after the last page.”  (David Galef, author of My Date With Neanderthal Woman)

The Outrun
by Amy Liptrot
(W. W. Norton)

How to Rapidly Engage Readers:
Rule #1: Write an opening sentence that has conflict, intrigue, and tension.
Rule #2: Include a newborn baby in that opening sentence.
Rule #3: In that opening sentence, casually mention a strait-jacketed man is being pushed in a wheelchair across an airport runway.
Rule #4: Throw some spinning helicopter blades into the mix.

Jacket Copy:  After a childhood spent on an island in northern Scotland, and shaped as much by her father’s mental illness as by the cycle of the seasons on their sheep farm, Amy Liptrot longed to escape her remote life. When she moved to London, she found herself in a hedonistic cycle. Unable to control her drinking, she gradually let alcohol take over. After more than a decade away, Liptrot returns home to Orkney, struggling to come to terms with what happened to her in London and trying to heal. Spending early mornings swimming in the bracingly cold sea, her days tracking Orkney’s wildlife―puffins nesting on sea stacks, arctic terns swooping close enough that she can feel their wings―and her nights searching the sky for the Merry Dancers, Liptrot makes the journey toward recovery from addiction and begins to come alive again.

Opening Lines:  Under whirring helicopter blades, a young woman holds her newborn baby as she is pushed in a wheelchair along the runway of the island airport to meet a man in a strait-jacket being pushed in a wheelchair from the other direction. That day, the two twenty-eight-year-olds had been treated at the small hospital nearby. The woman was helped to deliver her first child. The man, shouting and out of control, was restrained and sedated.

Blurbworthiness:  “This is a luminous, life-affirming book, and I have no doubt I’ll be pressing it into people’s hands for years to come.” (Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City)

The Midnight Cool
by Lydia Peelle

When someone mentions “mules” and “war” in the same breath, the first thing I think about is Francis, the Talking Mule (yes, my life is soaked in obscure, mid-20th-century trivia). But the hybrid horses in Lydia Peelle’s debut novel are about as far from sitcom jackasses as one can get. The Midnight Cool begins with its main character and a mule named Sonofabitch Number Two belly-deep in mud just outside the Argonne Forest in 1918 and promises to get even better from that point forward.

Jacket Copy:  Lydia Peelle, the Whiting Award—winning author of the story collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, delivers her enchanting debut novel, set in 1916 Tennessee: a rich and rewarding tale of two flawed yet endearing grifters who pursue women, wealth, and a surprisingly valuable commodity for the troops in Europe—mules. A middle-aged Irish immigrant, Billy has a gift for illusion—making damaged objects look new. His companion, Charles, the smooth-tongued teenage son of a prostitute, is a natural salesman, just like the mythical father he’s never met. Longtime horse traders and partners, they’ve recently turned their talents to trading mules. But in the summer of 1916, these seasoned grifters skilled in the art of the underhanded deal have just been swindled themselves. They’re saddled with the one thing they may not be able to unload: a gorgeous, murderous black mare named The Midnight Cool. Charles should have listened to Catherine, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of Leland Hatcher, the richest man in Richfield, Tennessee, and the former owner of The Midnight Cool. The horse would be worth a fortune—if she weren’t a verified man-killer who attacks on sight. Charles and Billy are rooted in this muggy town until they can miraculously retrain their recalcitrant mare, and in the shadow of the growing inevitability of war, their bond begins to fray. Falling in love with Catherine—and under the spell of the deceitful, wealthy Leland, the vision of himself he’d like to be—Charles pulls away from the older man. Despite their growing distance, Billy and Charles find their business thriving when the war in Europe pushes the demand for mules sky-high and the United States enters the fight. But when a trade goes terribly wrong, Charles is forced to reevaluate his allegiance to his country, the moral implications of his lifestyle, his relationship with Catherine, and, ultimately, his mysterious and surprisingly deep connection to Billy. Populated by spirited, memorable characters, The Midnight Cool is a startlingly profound tale of aspiration, loyalty, and love—and the eternal search for something lasting in a transitory world.

Opening Lines:  Another shell explodes in the distance. Charles and the mule are stuck, mired in the mud. It is dawn, and the sky is the color of mud, the earth is mud, the whole world is mud. The only thing that is not mud is a stand of wasted trees ahead. Beyond those trees the rest of Charles’s unit moves towards the Argonne Forest along a road that is a river of mud, studded with nails and barbed wire the Germans scattered to slow them.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Midnight Cool was written a hundred years after the events it describes, but it reads with the force and charisma of a writer describing her own time. It plunges you into the Tennessee of the 1910s, into the First World War, into high-stakes mule-trading, most affectingly into the ardors and errors of the people caught up in this extraordinary story. It makes you feel the urgency of every choice they make. The authority of Peelle’s prose is total.”  (Salvatore Scibona, author of The End)

That Hidden Road
by Rocco Versaci
(Apprentice House)

I’ve often thought about giving two weeks’ notice at the Day Job, hiring a catsitter for Ash and Cinder, and, chucking all domestic responsibility, grabbing my wife to head out on a cross-country bike ride. The thought of saddle sores and loss of major income are really the only things stopping me. What I dream, Rocco Versaci does. Not too long ago, the 42-year-old put his bike tire in the Pacific Ocean, then turned to face eastward and started pedaling. The result is this intriguing memoir that I’m adding to my must-read shelf. Maybe I’ll read it while walking on the treadmill in my basement, pretending that I’m walking across the United States with Mr. Versaci.

Jacket Copy:  On a Wednesday morning in May of 2010, 42-year-old Rocco Versaci dipped the rear tire of his bicycle into the Pacific Ocean and began to pedal, alone, across the country. He had what he thought was a simple idea-to sort out the story of his life, which had taken a couple of unexpected detours in recent years. That Hidden Road is a memoir of the two months he spent crossing the country by bike. It’s a story of burning saddle sores, heart-popping climbs, and unleashed dogs with a taste for ankle. It’s a story of America’s less-traveled roads and the people who live there. And it’s a story of rebuilding a life from fragments, the spirit of the whole journey captured in a question most of us ask at one point or another: Can I find my way home? Blending travel writing, memoir, and even comics, That Hidden Road—like Kerouac’s On the Road, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild—is an unforgettable story of being lost and found on the road in America.

Opening Lines:  “Linda thinks you’re dead.”
     The words came to me slowly. It had been a rough morning, so just before lunch I decided to take a quick twenty-minute nap that stretched into an hour and a half, and now I was struggling to reenter the world. I tried to will my eyes to stay open, but they kept dropping shut as if I’d been drugged. My limbs felt like rubber and my face was gummy. I should have just let the call go to voicemail, but my hand somehow reached the phone and my fingers somehow opened it and my mouth somehow said “Hello?” and they my cousin Cathy told me that our other cousin Linda thought I was dead.
     “She saw the card and started crying,” Cathy said.

by Alan Moore

Why, in the name of all that is holy, when I am already feeling overbooked, would I want to undertake the task of reading a 1,266-page novel, nearly 4 pounds in the hand, that’s sure to bend and possibly break my mind? Simple answer: because the name Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, From Hell, Watchmen, et al) is on the cover. And because the thousand-plus pages are filled with what the publisher calls a “dizzyingly rich cast of characters” including “the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal.” Sure, Jerusalem is a heavy, potentially months-long commitment, but I think I’m up for the holy challenge, other books be damned.

Jacket Copy:  In the epic novel Jerusalem, Alan Moore channels both the ecstatic visions of William Blake and the theoretical physics of Albert Einstein through the hardscrabble streets and alleys of his hometown of Northampton, UK. In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England’s Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap housing projects. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district’s narrative among its saints, kings, prostitutes, and derelicts, a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them. Employing, a kaleidoscope of literary forms and styles that ranges from brutal social realism to extravagant children’s fantasy, from the modern stage drama to the extremes of science fiction, Jerusalem’s dizzyingly rich cast of characters includes the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal in an intricately woven tapestry that presents a vision of an absolute and timeless human reality in all of its exquisite, comical, and heartbreaking splendor. In these pages lurk demons from the second-century Book of Tobit and angels with golden blood who reduce fate to a snooker tournament. Vagrants, prostitutes, and ghosts rub shoulders with Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s tragic daughter Lucia, and Buffalo Bill, among many others. There is a conversation in the thunderstruck dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, childbirth on the cobblestones of Lambeth Walk, an estranged couple sitting all night on the cold steps of a Gothic church front, and an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters. An art exhibition is in preparation, and above the world a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby race along the Attics of the Breath toward the heat death of the universe. An opulent mythology for those without a pot to piss in, through the labyrinthine streets and pages of Jerusalem tread ghosts that sing of wealth, poverty, and our threadbare millennium. They discuss English as a visionary language from John Bunyan to James Joyce, hold forth on the illusion of mortality post-Einstein, and insist upon the meanest slum as Blake’s eternal holy city.

Opening Lines:  Alma Warren, five years old, thought that they’d probably been shopping, her, her brother Michael in his pushchair and their mum, Doreen. Perhaps they’d been to Woolworth’s. Not the one in Gold Street, bottom Woolworth’s, but top Woolworth’s, halfway along Abington Street’s shop-lit incline, with its spearmint green tiled milk-bar, with the giant dial of its weighing machine trimmed a reassuring magnet red where it stood by the wooden staircase at the building's rear.

Blurbworthiness:  “Staggeringly imaginative...bold readers who answer the call will be rewarded with unmatched writing that soars, chills, wallows, and ultimately describes a new cosmology. Challenges and all, Jerusalem ensures Moore’s place as one of the great masters of the English language.”  (Publishers Weekly)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: My Father Before Me by Chris Forhan

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

In 1973, when Chris Forhan was 14, his father went into the carport of the family’s home, ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of his car to the driver’s window, and lay down across the front seat. His wife found his body the next morning. Decades later, when Chris was his father’s age, he wanted to know why, without a word of warning, Ed Forhan chose to abandon his wife and eight children. “I wanted to know, who was this guy?” the author tells us in this short, powerful trailer for his memoir My Father Before Me. “He didn’t talk about his family with us or my mother—she knew just knew vague outlines. So it was first of all a detective story for me. I wanted to know as much as I could about him.” And so, as the publisher’s jacket copy tells us, Chris Forhan went about “digging into his family’s past and finding within each generation the same abandonment, loss, and silence in which he was raised. Like Ian Frazier in Family or Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, Forhan shows his family members as both a part and a product of their time.” As I mentioned, the book trailer, with a shifting collage of family photos, is emotionally-moving and authentic in the way Forhan narrates the story of how he came to write the book. “I know (my father) in a way now, having imagined myself into his life,” Forhan says. “I have a kind of sympathy for him...I felt I brought him back to life in writing about him.”

Monday, August 15, 2016

My First Time: James Carpenter

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is James Carpenter, author of the new novel No Place to Pray. James Carpenter began writing fiction after an eclectic career in education, business, and information technology. His stories have appeared in numerous publications including The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills.

My First (and Worst) Fiction Publication

The second worst thing that happened to me as a fiction writer was getting the first story I wrote published—in descant’s 2009 issue. Worse yet was descant’s giving it their Frank O’Connor Award.

Ten years ago I was anxious about facing the vacuum of retirement after a life defined by work. I thought maybe I could fill it writing fiction and began work on a coming-of-age story about a teen-aged boy whose father makes him kill his dog. I worked on “Animal Story” nearly every day for six months. Revising, cutting, pasting back what I’d cut. Changing point of view, changing setting, grappling for mood and tone that were just dark enough to make the story disturbing but keep it on this side of parody.

When it was done and while I worked on new stories, I sent it to nineteen different publications, all of which rejected it. At the time I feared that all those rejections, nineteen for crying out loud, were telling me maybe I’d be better off finding something else to fill the retirement void.

I decided I would send it out one more time, get that twentieth rejection, and call it quits. Then lightning struck—my SASE to descant came back with the message “Acceptance enclosed” written along the bottom of the envelop in red ink. Evidently I wasn’t the only writer who despondently tossed those responses from literary journals in a pile to look at later (what’s the use, right?). A few weeks later David Kuhne, descant’s editor, emailed me to say I’d won the Frank O’Connor Award. A very bad thing for me—proving as it did that I was really hot stuff.

Shortly thereafter, I received another acceptance for my story “Two Jews Walk into a Bar,” about a frustrated author who could never finish anything. Somewhat experimental, the piece tells his story through the openings of ones he can’t finish. I labored at it for months, writing nearly seventy-five openings from which I eventually mined the thirty-two of the final published version.

I was also struggling with another story based on an experience I had riding my motorcycle to Alaska. I’d stopped at a roadside motel and restaurant in the Yukon Territory, when a very drunk, very sad old lady tried to get me up to her room “to look at her acrylics.” I began that story at least a dozen times. From the motorcyclist’s point of view, from the woman’s, from the clerk’s who’d waited on me. First person. Third person. Nothing worked. Setting it aside to gestate for a while, I started another story about a little boy who after the Sunday school lesson on Lazarus, decides to bring dead animals back to life. And then I had it—why the woman had landed in such a desolate place. I changed the boy to a girl who killed her baby brother so that she could resurrect him, made her a rising star of an artist, had her abandon her success to hitchhike north and imprison herself and her guilt in the godforsaken Yukon. Altogether I spent about eight months on “The Fairy of Destruction Bay” before sending it out, and Edie Meidav, then guest editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal, chose it for publication. (Not only is Edie the author of exquisitely beautiful novels, she’s the most gifted writing teacher I’ve ever known.)

Following that came a marvelous autumn when I had six stories accepted in three months. Every journal wanted changes and every one had a deadline. A crushing workload, but I was ecstatic in spite of the pressure, working at something I really enjoyed, filling my empty retirement days, but mostly because all of this success surely meant only one thing—that I was truly hot stuff. And if any little hesitancy or doubt were to creep in to suggest I might not be, all I had to do was remember that I’d won an award with my very first story.

I started churning out stories at the rate of about two a month. One week to write. One more to edit. And then out the door they went. Strangely, nothing the least bit encouraging, I mean not a single thing, came back from all those editors who clearly didn’t realize how hot I was.

I wasted nearly two years before taking stock. What was different?

What was different was that being hot stuff meant I didn’t have to spend all that time thinking and writing and discarding. On rewriting and research. On just plain diligence and hard work.

Chastened, I went back to the way I’d started, letting each story unravel on its own timeline and throwing the dreadful ones away. Accepting that 100 strong words in a day will get you to the end way faster than 2,500 weak ones. In time the acceptances began again, eventually building to a steady, if modest, stream.

Lesson learned, I took the same approach with my novel, No Place to Pray. Over a five-year period, its main characters evolved from a university professor leading a Denis Johnson-like coterie of down-and-out angels, to an Ivy League teaching assistant, to a couple of homeless alcoholics living under a bridge. It moved from North Dakota to west Philly, to a fictional southern state. I “finished” it at least six times before I was satisfied enough to send it out. A few months later Twisted Road Publications offered to publish it.

It’s too easy for me to forget that writing is hard. It’s hard even to do it badly, let alone well. But as long as I keep that in mind and stay honest to myself about my talents, I seem to do okay. As for my occasional hubristic relapse into believing that I am really hot stuff? That’s descant’s fault for publishing my very first story, not mine.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning, early, and putting out your hand to the first white cool powdering of snow that had come, silently, with no announcement, in the night.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Trouble with Lexie by Jessica Anya Blau

Congratulations to Stephen Furlong, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway, the bundle of three new novels: All the Lasting Things by David Hopson, Intrusion by Mary McCluskey, and After Disasters by Viet Dinh.

This week’s book contest is for The Trouble with Lexie by Jessica Anya Blau. I’ve got a new paperback copy of the novel to giveaway to one lucky reader. Read on for more information about The Trouble with Lexie...and, in case you missed it three years ago, be sure to read about Jessica’s “first time.”

From the beloved author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and The Wonder Bread Summer comes the story of Lexie James, a counselor at an exclusive New England prep school, whose search for happiness lands her in unexpectedly wild trouble. Lexie James escaped: after being abandoned by her alcoholic father, and kicked out of the apartment to make room for her mother’s boyfriend, Lexie made it on her own. She earned a Masters degree, conquered terrifying panic attacks, got engaged to the nicest guy she’d ever met, and landed a counseling job at the prestigious Ruxton Academy, a prep school for the moneyed children of the elite. But as her wedding date nears, Lexie has doubts. Yes, she’s created the stable life she craved as a child, but is stability really what she wants? In her moment of indecision, Lexie strikes up a friendship with a Ruxton alumnus, the father of her favorite student. It’s a relationship that blows open Lexie’s carefully constructed life, and then dunks her into shocking situations with headline-worthy trouble. The perfect cocktail of naughtiness, heart, adventure and humor, The Trouble with Lexie is a wild and poignant story of the choices we make to outrun our childhoods—and the choices we have to make to outrun our entangled adult lives.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Trouble with Lexie, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 18, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 19. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

The trailer for The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware stirs up feelings of dread, unease, and intrigue—much like the plot of the novel itself:
Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong....
The jacket copy also hints this is a twisty thriller in the same vein as Agatha Christie. I think Dame Agatha would have loved the sentence used in the trailer: “How can there be a murder when there is no body?” The trailer is short, but memorable. Using floating words over a slow zoom-out from a stormy sea, it brings us into a ship’s cabin through the porthole and we realize we’re looking at the book’s cover design. It’s just enough to intrigue us with storm-tossed ships, missing persons, and empty cabins. Who’s ready to take this cruise with me?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Why is it so loud when you cry from grief? Because it must be loud enough for the missing one to hear, though it never can be.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Freebie: All the Lasting Things by David Hopson, Intrusion by Mary McCluskey, After Disasters by Viet Dinh

Congratulations to Josh Forsythe, Liliana Montero, and Jon Butters, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: The Hike by Drew Magary.

This week’s book contest is for three new novels from Little A publishers: All the Lasting Things by David Hopson, Intrusion by Mary McCluskey, and After Disasters by Viet Dinh. Read on for more information about the books....

In All the Lasting Things, the Fisher family of Alluvia, New York, is coming undone. Evelyn spends her days tending to her husband, Henry—an acclaimed and reclusive novelist slowly losing his battle with Alzheimer’s. Their son, Benji, onetime star of an ’80s sitcom called Prodigy, sinks deeper into drunken obscurity, railing against the bit roles he’s forced to take in uncelebrated regional theater. His sister, Claudia, tries her best to shore up her family even as she deals with the consequences of a remarkable, decades-old secret that’s come to light. When the Fishers mistake one of Benji’s drug-induced accidents for a suicidal cry for help, Benji commits to playing a role he hopes will reverse his fortune and stall his family’s decline. Into this mix comes Max Davis, a twentysomething cello virtuoso and real-life prodigy, whose appearance spurs the entire family to examine whether the secrets they thought were holding them all together may actually be what’s tearing them apart. David Hopson’s All the Lasting Things is a beautiful, moving family portrait that explores the legacy we all stand to leave—in our lives, in our work—and asks what those legacies mean in a world where all the lasting things do not last.

In Intrusion, a loving couple, grieving the loss of their son, finds their marriage in free fall when a beautiful, long-lost acquaintance inserts herself into their lives. Kat and Scott Hamilton are dealing with the hardest of losses: the death of their only child. While Scott throws himself back into his law practice in Los Angeles, Kat is hesitant to rejoin the workplace and instead spends her days shell-shocked and confused, unable to focus. When an unwelcome face from Kat’s past in England emerges―the beautiful and imposing Sarah Cherrington―Kat’s marriage is thrown into a tailspin. Now wealthy beyond anything she could have imagined as a girl, Sarah appears to have everything she could need or want. But Sarah has an agenda and she wants one more thing. Soon Kat and Scott are caught up in her devious games and power plays. Against the backdrops of Southern California and Sussex, in spare and haunting prose, Mary McCluskey propels this domestic drama to its chilling conclusion.

Beautifully and hauntingly written, After Disasters is told through the eyes of four people in the wake of a life-shattering earthquake in India. An intricate story of love and loss weaves together the emotional and intimate narratives of Ted, a pharmaceutical salesman turned member of the Disaster Assistance Response Team; his colleague Piotr, who still carries with him the scars of the Bosnia conflict; Andy, a young firefighter eager to prove his worth; and Dev, a doctor on the ground racing against time and dwindling resources. Through time and place, hope and tragedy, love and lust, these four men put their lives at risk in a country where danger lurks everywhere. O. Henry Prize–winning author Viet Dinh takes us on a moving and evocative journey through an India set with smoky funeral pyres, winding rivers that hold prayers and the deceased, and the rubble of Gujarat, a crumbling place wavering between life and death. As the four men fight to impose order on an increasingly chaotic city, where looting and threats of violence become more severe, they realize the first lives they save might be their own.

If you’d like a chance at winning All the Lasting Things, Intrusion, and After Disasters, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 12. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mag Watch: One Teen Story, Vol. IV, Issue X: “Momentum” by Kris Dinnison

Kris Dinnison’s “Momentum” in One Teen Story is a model of concise writing that is as tight as a cube of garbage pulled from a trash compactor.

That’s probably a poor analogy since Dinnison’s story is hardly garbage. No, it’s full of beauty and truth and humor and danger and thrills and romanceall in the small space of fifteen pages of large print. It’s a coming-of-age story and a coming-out story which all unfolds during one night’s drunk, careening drive in a Pacer. Narrated by Leo on the eve of his departure for college as he’s driven through the moonlit countryside by cool tough guy Sid, “Momentum” quickly peels back the layers between the two young men as they play a revealing game of Truth or Dare. I say “quickly,” but it’s done so subtly that I hardly noticed the emotional evolution taking place in the front seat of that Pacer. Kudos to Dinnison for understanding the precision of words and the way they can shift the balance of a story to the left or to the right in the space of just one syllable. There is so much at stake in “Momentum” that the wrong wordtoo heavily-weightedcould have sent the whole thing tumbling into a messy pile. Instead, we get succinct passages like this:
I hated momentum. But I loved Sid. And I was leaving. And he was staying. And I didn’t know what that meant yet.
It took me less than twenty minutes to read “Momentum,” but that was long enough for me to lose my breath on a ride that sent me hurtling through the pages. It was only when I reached the end, gasping, that I was able to look back and see all that had flashed past the windows.

If you aren’t already a subscriber to One Teen Story, you should be: it’s great literature for all ages. Click here to get OTS in your mailbox every month.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

An Open Letter to Donald Trump from a Purple Heart Veteran

An Open Letter to Donald Trump
from a Purple Heart Veteran
by Sean Davis

Mr. Trump,

This morning, I heard retired Lieutenant Colonel Louis Dorfman gave you his Purple Heart. Having a Purple Heart myself, knowing what it takes to get that medal, knowing the toll that award has taken on me, both mentally and physically, I can’t stop thinking about this.

You probably don’t know the Purple Heart was established by George Washington during the Revolutionary War. It was the first award in our military. Today, the Purple Heart is “awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action.”

In my case, it was a violent and coordinated ambush in Taji, Iraq. A vehicle packed with munitions exploded next to my Humvee while we were on a patrol to find and arrest a suspected arms dealer. The blast critically injured me and killed my gunner, and dear friend, instantly. We both received Purple Hearts that day. My driver pulled me out of the truck and when a secondary explosion went off, he shielded me from the blast with his own body, taking shrapnel in his arm and back. He received a Purple Heart that day. Another good friend ran while under direct fire with a medic bag to try to help us and the secondary explosion critically injured him. He also received a Purple Heart that day.

So, when I heard you quip, “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier,” my first reaction was anger and indignation. How could someone give something I hold sacred to you, a person so full of hate and ignorance? Why would anyone give this award I hold so precious to a man who so obviously has no idea what it really means?

But the truth of the matter is, I don’t own the medal, Mr. Trump. I don’t own war, and I surely don’t own being a veteran. I only own my past and what I believe. It took me years to come to this conclusion.

So, please give me a minute of your time and keep reading. I gave my Purple Heart to my nine-year-old son when I first came back, twelve years ago. He saw my bandages and later my scars. He also saw how the war changed me. I gave him my Purple Heart with the hope that it would help him understand sacrifice and duty. Not just my own, but my brothers who died and the others who were wounded, as well as all the men and women who risk their lives to defend our great country.

My son has grown to be a fine young man that I am proud of and love dearly. I do believe that giving him the medal helped in some way. So I want to believe that this retired lieutenant colonel giving you his Purple Heart is a good thing. I want to believe this because, considering the number of times you have superficially invoked war veterans, you obviously need to learn more about sacrifice and duty. These are two topics that weigh heavy on all veterans. These are two topics, taking in account your dispute with Gold Star families, you desperately need to understand.

My hope is that you don’t give that medal to a staffer to file away and lose. My hope is that you hold that heart-shaped medal in your hand and feel the weight of it. I sincerely wish it crushes you at first. You need to come to a realization, Mr. Trump. Veterans and their family members are not props. Sacrifice and duty is how we’ve lived our lives and we understand that these are the foundations our great country was built on, and it is our duty to ensure no one, not even a presidential candidate with billions of dollars, trivializes or belittles our sacrifice.

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and a community leader in Northeast Portland, Oregon. Sean has fought in a revolution, a war, and helped save lives in New Orleans during Katrina. He’s a wildland firefighter during the summers and currently teaches writing at Mt. Hood Community College and Clackamas Community College. For more on The Wax Bullet War, see this earlier post at The Quivering Pen.

Trailer Park Tuesday: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

In the spring of 1974, I was preoccupied with three things: my chocolate Labrador Retriever, Nancy Drew mysteries, and this photo:

As an 11-year-old boy, I tracked the Patty Hearst kidnapping case like a third-rate Encyclopedia Brown. I didn’t have much to go on—the coverage in TIME magazine (the only national news source my father subscribed to) and Walter Cronkite’s reports on the evening news—but I was obsessed with the pale slim girl toting a machine gun in a bank lobby. Who was this girl who’d been snatched from her Berkley apartment at gunpoint one night by a gang calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army? Was she a victim or a criminal? Was she a spoiled rich girl or a radical revolutionary? Did she just “go along to get along” with the SLA or was she a bad person, too? Where were they hiding out? And, most importantly, where was Symbia and why did they want to liberate it? Bear in mind, at the time there was no internet, no 24-hour news cycle, no phones I could carry in my pocket to beep an alert that six members of the SLA had died in a shootout with police on May 17, 1974 and that Patty Hearst was still missing. No one was there to Tweet the news that the heiress cum gun moll was arrested fifteen months later in San Francisco and while being booked gave her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla.” No, all I had were TIME and Uncle Walter to tell me what was going on out there in California. With my trusty dog at my side, and a finger stuck in the pages of The Clue of the Tapping Heels to mark my place, I watched, dry-mouthed, the footage of the midday gun battle carried live on TV. Patty Hearst was my circus, my 10-part television mini-series, and my first real introduction to the complicated and duplicitous lives of adults. That’s why when I first heard about Jeffrey Toobin’s new book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, I knew it would be going right to the top of my always-growing towering To-Be-Read pile (aka Mount NeveRest). The two video clips highlighted here today indicate that Toobin is just as fascinated by the Patty Hearst story as I was as a kid. You can hear the enthusiasm in his voice as he talks about how he researched the case (of which he admits he knew very little before he started). In the second clip, he tells a fascinating story about how Patty had a chance to escape her captors, but didn’t. Unfortunately, as he writes in an author’s note at the back of the book, Patty Hearst refused to talk to him for the book so we don’t have her perspective on her actions back in the 1970s; but Toobin was able to obtain 150 boxes of materials from SLA member Bill Harris which provided some never-before-seen insight into those tense, bloody months—a time, Toobin says, “when the country was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” American Heiress opens with a thrilling prologue in which three people burst through Patty Hearst’s front door with guns and, from there, it looks like it will never let up in intensity. At last, maybe I can get some answers to this case which has haunted me since junior high school.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Our First Time: Jennifer Spiegel, Lynn Marie Houston, and Susan Allspaw Pomeroy

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guests are Jennifer Spiegel, Lynn Marie Houston, and Susan Allspaw Pomeroy, the editors of Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies. The literary collection brings together twenty-six poems and six essays inspired by the zombies and characters of AMC’s hit television show The Walking Dead. More about the editors can be found at the end of the blog post.

My First Monster

We’re a pretty diverse team of academics, real-world professionals, and writers. The big commonality—not the only one, but the major one—is our crazy love for AMC’s The Walking Dead. So we made an anthology, edited it, and each contributed to it. Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies is our baby together. Lynn’s very own press, Foiled Crown Books, published it; Susan’s poems inspired it; Jennifer is the most obsessed. But gathering around the topic of “firsts” is, in itself, tough. So we decided to discuss our first monster.

Jennifer:  Well, in all honesty, my first “monster” was probably Jaws—which scarred me for life. I also had a recurring dream with a gold, metallic sea monster who looked strangely like C-3P0 (but predated him). The sea monster used to “seduce” my mom into a big pool. I’m not sure this counts, though. I have body-of-water issues. The water as monster.

In truth, I’ve spent minimal time in the horror genre. I’ve only read the first graphic novel of The Walking Dead. I’ve read Frankenstein. One Stephen King novel (The Stand). Some Benjamin Percy. I never got into the Vampire thing. I miss all the horror flicks. I can’t remember the last one I saw.

But zombies. . . I like the zombie-thing. The zombie is really my first monster. What are each of YOUR personal monsters?

Lynn:  I actually started with the horror flicks at a young age, maybe too young. While my mother was getting the weekly groceries, my father used to let me and my younger brother watch the scary movie that came on every Saturday afternoon from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. But as soon as we heard the car in the driveway, he would change the channel. There were so many “B” movies from the seventies and eighties whose final moments I never saw. But later, at night, I would imagine their endings. And that’s probably how I developed the mindset of a writer—lying there in the dark imagining the endings to scary movies I wasn’t allowed to finish watching.

Jennifer:  Are we talking The World Beyond (wasn’t that a thing?) or the slew of demon-possession films that haunted Gen X youth?

Lynn:  Mostly haunted-house-type stuff, with some Satanic-children stuff thrown in—

Jennifer:  Oh yeah, I forgot about all those Satanic children!—

Lynn:  Which is exactly what my devout Catholic mother didn’t want us watching. (P.S. I have the best dad!). But my mother wasn’t totally wrong. My early childhood fascination with monsters led me to some dark places. It prompted me to have a recurring nightmare about a female werewolf who made me bring her men so she could eat them. I’ve had this same dream numerous times even into adulthood, and I always wake up right as she comes crashing through a glass elevator to claim her prey. It’s too bad Freud didn’t do more with monsters. I’m sure he would have had a lot to say about werewolf pimps. Zombies seem tame, almost comical, compared to the fang and claw nightmares of my childhood. That is, until zombies started moving fast, à la 28 Days Later. How about that for a “first monster”? The fast zombie was an incredible way to make the whole genre scarier. Although so many of these recent innovations on ancient monsters (think sparkly vampires!) are indebted to supernatural and paranormal fiction. I haven’t read much Stephen King, but even he has written a zombie story!

Susan:  I read my first Stephen King novel, The Stand, when I was fourteen. I’d already been introduced to the movie monsters of the eighties, but this post-apocalyptic tome stuck with me. So, in truth, my first monster was Randall Flagg, evil with a man’s face. Not only did I read everything King had written up until then, but I sought out any apocalypse-like stories. My first zombie movie was Night of the Comet, which was about as eighties-themed as you could get. I was obsessed...partly because the worlds of these novels and movies tapped into our basest survival instincts, and at that time in my life, I needed stories in which people survived the unthinkable. I (poorly) wrote horror stories throughout high school, and even though I left fiction behind in college, the obsession stuck.

Zombies are the easiest way into my apocalyptic-survival obsession, which is really about all the rest of the humans.

Jennifer:  I share this obsession with the apocalypse. And, really, it’s about the humans. Less monster-centric, more human-oriented. I think it’s interesting to note that there are different kinds of monsters out there in pop culture- and literary-land. When we were little, there seemed to be this preponderance of demon-possessions, haunted houses, The Exorcist, The Omen, et al. The monster came from within, maybe? There was also this lack of control. Escape seemed to have less to do with strategy, and more to do with luck. The move to the apocalypse and zombie stuff has to do with externalities. The essential human being is put in dire circumstances and forced to deal.

So we’re writers. As a writer, what is the monster appeal?

Lynn:  I think I’ve always been curious about what part of me was monstrous enough as a child to invent the fantasy of a werewolf pimp. Beneath the surface somewhere, I was both parts of that narrative—femme fatale and innocent, villain and heroine. And it reflected something complex about my interpersonal relationships, even at an early age, how I felt, even then, like I was constantly mediating between bullies and their victims.

I think the idea of a monster is like a blank canvas for representations of moral questions—what makes us human and are those qualities good? The monster-figure tries to account for what is not wholly good in us, the parts of ourselves we want to hide away in the dark. The cultural space of the monster allows that discussion to come into the light.

Susan:  Exactly, Lynn!

Jennifer:  So, in philosophical terms, monsters are an opportunity for exploring the problem of evil. I like the word Lynn used: canvas.

Susan:  Monsters give us a creative way to look in a mirror at our humanity without (necessarily) putting a human face on our poorest qualities. Poetry and its penchant for metaphor really lent itself to this endeavor for me, and while I started writing zombie poems as a distraction from what I thought was “more serious” work, they became the best way to tell the story that I was struggling with. A book that completely turned the tables for me, though, was Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates. This was an incredibly fast and dark book that really isn’t about zombies….It’s the mind of a man who wants to escape his own mind. Incredibly creepy, it haunted me, but gave me leave to strive to a more artistic approach to our base darkness.

Also, writing zombies is fun.

Jennifer:  I have to admit that I have never tried my hand at zombie fiction. A friend of mine told me about Sarah Lyons Fleming, who—I don’t want to get this wrong—wrote some self-published zombie books, and I read the first one. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven did actually whet my appetite for writing something apocalyptic. But it hasn’t happened. Definitely, though, the appeal is in how humans deal.

Susan:  So if our monsters are mirrors, what do you think about the obsession for writers at large that helped create Dead Inside?

Jennifer:  I think it really makes a lot of sense. Dead Inside, zombie-inspired, a tribute of sorts to The Walking Dead on TV, comes together in the midst of a perfect storm. The stakes are high; the plot is well-drawn. The monsters are externalities in form, and brainless—which means that it’s all about the humans, being human. A friend of mine liked the show less because the zombies were brainless. She said they were too easy to outsmart. I’d suggest this contrasts sharply with what is human. It sets us up to focus on the quandary of being human. The show is character-rich. Time is strained. Setting is booby-trapped. Tone is somber (this, I personally think, is one of the biggest strengths of the show; it refuses to degenerate into cheesiness, always going for realism. The painstaking humanity under pressure is the appeal).

Lynn:  I like the classic nature of the zombies—slow-moving, brainless—in The Walking Dead. The writers of this show haven’t tried to re-invent the monster. Zombies are dangerous for the same reason democracy is dangerous—sheer masses, brute force. When enough of them pile on one side of a fence or door, they get through it. No brains needed. And that, for me as an intellectual, is the scariest thing ever. Our country run by brainless idiots, laws decided by people who couldn’t pass a basic freshman composition course because of the logical fallacies they commit. It scared John Adams, too, when he helped found our country. In a letter to his wife on July 3, 1776, he writes about his anxieties over the concept of majority rule: “The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality.” This next election feels like the apocalypse, amiright?

Jennifer:  Someone just asked me if I think the zombies are symbolic. I think they may be, but I wouldn’t push this too far, probably. I think it’s really focused on the people, and the potential for symbol is mostly in the people. Rick as symbol, Morgan as symbol, Daryl as symbol, Carol as symbol, and Negan as symbol. The brainlessness draws our attention to those with brains. That said, I think there’s symbolic value—quite a bit of it—in the zombie horde. The horde of brainlessness...

Susan:  The collective unconsciousness of humanity is the thing that I think draws us all to this topic... that we are all faced with the same vulnerabilities and collective fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. The film I Am Legend haunted me for just this reason—what is left when we are reduced past the facades we put on every day to our most basic humanity? How is life changed for us, and how do we change the world around us, when we become the monster in the dark (Negan), or the man desperately clinging to his mask (Rick)?

Jennifer:  I Am Legend got to me, too.

Susan:  But I am married to a scientist. And part of the draw of zombie stories for me is our ability to imagine a feasible (albeit far-fetched) reality in which we might be able to reason our way to resolution. If the story isn’t character-rich, as Jennifer says, if the story doesn’t present us with danger that we know but ignore, as Lynn says, then the story is too far removed from me for a visceral response. And that’s the key that I think every writer strives to evoke in his or her audience—a visceral response.

Jennifer:  Well, to be very writer-specific, we might ask what our own “writing monsters” are, or what challenges/obstacles do you face as a writer, especially as a “professional writer” (if we can call ourselves that)?

I could identify a ton! First and foremost is the vocational challenge. I’d like to think that I’m trying to make candor part of my aesthetic; I really try to be honest in my writing (who doesn’t?). So, in the interest of candor, let me say that choosing to go “professional” is my biggest monster. I’ve found that I’m a devoted writer; I’ll write like a fiend, meet deadlines, edit and revise, read voraciously. I’ve simultaneously found that I lack business savvy, and I offer little to the world of “real work.” Whatever that is. I’m sounding too cynical. I can hold down a job; it’s just that I’d always rather write or talk about writing. That’s my biggest monster.

Then there are the little monsters. My fiction voice tends to be more serious than my nonfiction voice. I don’t know what’s going on there. A monster?

I’ll expose myself in crazy ways for my writing; I really will. I like, very much, the idea of using my own life as an artistic palette. For the sake of narrative, I will truly violate my own privacy. The monster is, however, that I am not an island—not even close. I’m married with kids. So, I have to consider their privacy. This definitely introduces a tension in my writing—not a bad one. But I feel more drawn to fiction because I get to mess with the truth. Writing well, for me, often involves balancing on this tightrope of self-exposure and self-protection.

Lynn:  I get how monstrous it is to live as a writer in terms of the ways you expose your personal life. I had a boyfriend once accuse me of purposefully creating drama in our relationship just so that I could write about it later. What does that Facebook meme say? Be careful not to make a writer mad or she will write about you? Yeah, that ex-boyfriend has become the villain in some of my creative nonfiction stories.

The thing I struggled with about that writing situation was ethical: if it was emotionally abusive of him to claim that I was “crazy” when I pointed out his wrongdoings, is it emotionally abusive of me in turn to write him as “crazy”? My essay in Dead Inside asks questions about this dynamic: how can the victims of abuse avoid creating more victims?

There’s no easy answer here, but this touches on probably my biggest writing monster, and it’s the reason I switched from academic writing (where five people will read your dissertation, if you’re lucky) to creative writing—the fear that no one will know me. The monster that haunts me, that pushes me to write, is the desire to be known. (And loved? I’d settle for known. It’s already asking enough).

Jennifer:  Kudos to you for acknowledging that. My guess is that most writers want to be known.

Susan:  My writing monster has always been the obsession…which includes this latest jag of zombie poems. I will create a maelstrom around a particular topic, and sometimes this obsession is the thing that gets me to write about the thing that really matters. For instance, when I was writing my first poetry collection, I started obsessing about Antarctica; lo and behold, a book of Antarctic poems was born. While trying to focus on Little Oblivion, I wrote poems (an entire book’s worth) about two fictitious men and their relationship. So I suppose I’m saved by my writing monster, even though its distraction means I take longer to get where I’m going.

Jennifer:  Do monsters figure into your own work, apart from this project?

I think my fiction “worries” over the problem of evil, the monster within, the monster with a human face, how seemingly normal people are secret monsters, how everyone might really be a monster, how the monster is not so far-fetched. How’s that for stream of consciousness?

Lynn:  Like Jennifer was saying earlier in her reading of The Walking Dead, in my work people are the monsters. I write a lot about relationships between men and women in both my poetry and my creative nonfiction. Romantic relationships are filled with monstrosity because Hollywood narratives have led us to believe that true human connection is something other than what it really is. Although I don’t often deal with the fairytale genre, I essentially write about how Snow White and her prince become The Munster family.

Susan:  Someone once told me that my poems seemed to be a distiller of identity; that they hold a mirror up to the self and allow us to see ourselves as strangers, all the better to experience and react to our raw emotions. So while these are my first external monsters, the monsters in my other work come out of the self.

Lynn:  I wanted to conclude by saying that the zombie horde is a powerful force because of its numbers, just as the survivors of an apocalypse can do better things for each other when they band together. We saw this in the Alexandria community in The Walking Dead, and also in the Hilltop community. When the survivors collaborate, they can get haircuts again, hot showers, grow crops. We won’t mention how that is also how things start to fall apart, when you want to stand up for and protect a larger group, your tribe, or how individual morality can corrode a group. This project, Dead Inside—the three of us producing this volume of twenty-six poems and six essays on zombies—is a testament to the power of the group. It has been a fantastic experience to work together with the two of you.

Jennifer:  Likewise, I’m sure.

Susan:  Indeed! The human, thinking collective wins over the horde every time.

Lynn Marie Houston holds a Ph.D. in English from Arizona State and is currently completing her M.F.A. at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press), a book of poetry about her relationships with men which won 1st place in the 2016 Connecticut Press’s statewide literary competition and then went on to take 2nd place in the nationwide contest of the National Federation of Press Women. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Word Riot, Squalorly, Bluestem, Full Grown People, Cleaver, and other journals. She has held writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. For more about her work, visit

Susan Allspaw Pomeroy defies writerly expectations by marrying the life of a poetess with that of a scientist/techie. Not surprisingly, the poet takes precedence. She is the author of Little Oblivion, a poetry collection that gives voice to Antarctica’s stark, impressionable landscape—which came out of her voyage to the South Pole during her 15-year tenure with the US Antarctic Program. Though equipped with the requisite English and Creative Writing degrees, she’s also a security program manager for an email service provider. Additionally, she’s been a visiting writer for universities in Denver.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (a story collection) and Love Slave (a novel). Currently, she is at work on both a novel and a memoir-in-almost-real-time. She is also half of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing gig with Lara Smith ( Besides writing, Jennifer teaches and does the mom-thing. When she watches TV with her husband, she pretends it’s an academic endeavor.