Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Short Story Month Giveaways: The Winners

Thanks to all those who entered the Short Story Month giveaways here at The Quivering Pen.  It was gratifying to see so many lovers of short fiction vying for copies of these seven wonderful books.  Early this morning, I drew names out of the proverbial hat; here are the winners:

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon:  Ann Cole
Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass:  Lewis Parker
The Great Frustration by Seth Fried:  Robert Stuart
Love Doesn't Work by Henning Koch:  Andrew Stancek
In This Light by Melanie Rae Thon:  Brittany Gale
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman:  Andrew Stancek
American Masculine by Shann Ray:  Jane Kulow

Congratulations!  Enjoy the short stories!

For those whose names were not picked, I strongly encourage you to buy a copy of these books.  I've read portions of each and, trust me, you won't find any better contemporary fiction in bookstores today.

Monday, May 30, 2011

My First Time: Donna Marie Merritt

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 Donna Marie Merritt, author of the series Poetry for Tough Times: Cancer, a Caregiver's View and Job Loss, a Journey in Poetry.  A third book is due out in 2012.  She taught school for 14 years, from pre-Kindergarten to middle school and GED classes for adults. She has been a columnist for Teaching K-8 Magazine, penning both the "Life in the Middle" column for educators and the "Parent Connection" column for families. Her stories and poetry have been published in children's magazines such as Highlights High Five, Potluck, Discovery Trails, and Wee Ones. For teens and adults, her work has appeared in magazines like Book Links, Teaching K-8, Metro Parent, Partnership for Learning, Signs of the Times, NEA Today, Liguorian, Children's Writer, The Word Among Us, Catholic Transcript, The Catholic Leader, and the Wonder Years Development Guide.  Visit her website and her blog.

My First Poetry Reading

I am a children's author turned poet.

I have written 15 children's math and science books for the education market, 38 teachers' guides, columns for Teaching K–8 Magazine, and stories for school reading programs.  I was also a teacher for 14 years.  So, I am comfortable reading my books to children.

But stand in front of a bunch of adults and read my poetry?  Every time I thought about it, my stomach churned.  I am not by nature a public speaker.  Yet in today's world, you cannot just sit home and write, much as I would prefer that.  To develop a following, even a small one, you must do much of your own marketing to promote yourself and your work.

How did a children's writer find herself facing a group of expectant adults while she tried to keep down her breakfast?  I had held a day job as an editor to pay the bills since writing is not steady work for many of us. It was a grant-funded position for a large nonprofit organization.  One morning I was greeted by the HR person, asked to sign some papers, and given a box to pack my things.  The grant money had dried up and they were "sorry."  They were sorry?  We had a mortgage and three children and had just written college tuition checks for the two oldest.  Were they sorry they had given me no warning?  Were they sorry because they knew it would be almost impossible for me to land another job in this economy?

I was bitter, angry, depressed.  I had been writing poetry since I was eight, but mostly for myself.  Without thinking, I picked up a pencil and wrote poem after poem.  It was a way of venting, of coping.  Cathartic.

Not long after losing my job, my husband was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  I dealt with doctor's appointments, tests, keeping multiple medications straight, supporting him emotionally and physically…Again, I turned to poetry.  I read it.  I wrote it.  I let its imagery and language wash over me.

Poetry is a hard sell.  There is not much money in it, even with better-known, established poets.  In addition, my poems were not exactly about cheery subjects.  Would someone really want to read about unemployment or cancer?  Still, the words were from my heart and I found a publisher who believed in them as well.  Avalon Press picked up both books and called it "The Poetry for Tough Times" series.  The third book is due out in 2012.

And, we are back to my first poetry reading.  I had been to a few readings and also listened to poets on CD.  Some readings were dramatic.  (That’s not me.)  Some were giddy and playful.  (That’s not me, either.)  Some read as if they knew they were brilliant and the audience could not possibly understand their poetry fully.  (Definitely not me!)  Then there were some who simply gave a brief intro on the origin of the poem(s) and then read.  The tone was not monotonous, nor was it a big production.  These poets read in a clear, steady voice, letting the audience know when a particular word or phrase or stanza was especially meaningful with the rise and fall of the voice or a pause in the right place.  I opted for that route.

Easier said than done.  Before the bookstore staff introduced me, I thought about quietly backing out the door, which was conveniently close.  Instead, I looked at the audience, which consisted mostly of friends and family—in a way, much harder than speaking to strangers.  In my mind, I decided I would approach the podium as if this were a role I were playing:  I am a poet.  I am a famous poet and they have all gathered to hear me speak.  They are hanging on my every word.

Not true, of course, but by slipping into that role, I was able to overcome the nausea and read some of my poems.  The first poem contained a reference to a cartoon character, so I kind of sang it to the tune of the theme song.  Blank stares.  Note to self: Strike this poem from future readings unless you are speaking to people under 21.  I had neglected to take into account the age of my audience.  I cut myself some slack on that one, as I am used to speaking with elementary students.  The next poems, however, seemed to hit home.  I read about job loss, illness, menopause.  They cried in the right spots and laughed at the appropriate times.

In the end, I felt I had leapt a huge hurdle.  I had given my first poetry reading.  I learned it's okay to be nervous.  I learned it's okay to choke on a word (the audience teared up when I did so and identified with my emotions).  I learned it's okay to make a mistake (I had to explain the cartoon reference).

But what I learned above all else, is that I can step outside my comfort zone.  I am a poet who now gives poetry readings.

Photo credit: Images Studio (Watertown CT)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Short Story Month Miscellany

As May draws to a close and another National Short Story Month enters the history books, I thought I'd point you to a few other places celebrating short fiction, as well as a couple of guest posts I wrote elseweb.

1.  One of the freshest lit blogs on the block is Reader's Quest.  Despite Jerri's claim to be "absolutely underqualified to be blogging about short stories," I think she does a damned fine job of taking a Phillips-head screwdriver to literature, prying off the back of short stories, and describing what she finds in the inner cogs and pulleys.  She has a very ambitious and calculated plan for her "year of reading and thinking about short stories."  Bookmark and subscribe to the Quest today.  That's a commandment.

2.  After the demise of the dearly-departed Readerville, one of the best communities to rise out of its ashes has been Book Balloon.  Discussion about books, writing and the arts in general is always lively, fun and stimulating.  With my schedule the way it is these days, I don't drop in as often as I should; but when I do, I find the chatter is always smart and perky.  Chief Balloonist Gary Glass recently wrote to me, saying they had a specific need at one of the forums.  Here's what he said:
BookBalloon is looking for a short story discussion host. BookBalloon members love to talk about literature of all kinds, including short stories. If you'd enjoy leading insightful story discussions with thoughtful, well-read people, stop by the forum and check out our "Story of the Week" thread.
(You may need to register as a forum user at Book Balloon--but it's free and totally worth it.)

3.  I review Francine Witte's superb chapbook of flash fiction, Cold June, at the Emerging Writer's Network.  The review begins thusly:
     The best short-short stories are trash compactors. Short-shorts (aka flash fiction, micro-fiction, and postcard fiction) are repositories of all the scraps of life—the fruit peels, the hair clumps, the soup cans, the utility bills, the paper towels which soaked up that puddle of cat vomit you found with your bare feet on the kitchen floor at 2 a.m. Short-shorts squeeze and compress the whole beautiful trashy experience of life down to an unbelievably-small, impermeably-hard cube of matter which, if you could reconstitute it, would expand to the size of the average Dickens novel.
     In her award-winning chapbook from Ropewalk Press, Cold June, Francine Witte delivers stories the size of a breadbox, but you always walk away feeling like you’ve eaten an entire bakery. The book is 26 pages long and there are 23 stories. That should give you some idea of length. What it doesn’t indicate is the depth and breadth of the stories.
Click HERE to read the full review.

3a.  If I didn't say it before, I'll say it now: I am absolutely in love with the cover of Cold June.  The colors, the font, the whimsy of the over-scarfed kid--it all adds up to one of my favorite designs of this or any year.  Frameable.

4.  Matt Bell kindly allowed me to rant and rave about the pleasures of Joshua Foster's short story "Inside Out."  I mentioned the story earlier in my discussion about Fugue magazine, but at Bell's blog, I stretched out a little bit more and got pretty particular with my lit-love:
     If there's one lesson to be learned from Joshua Foster's short story "Inside Out" (published in Fugue, Winter-Spring 2010, Vol. 38), it's this: enlightenment can be found when you're shoulder-deep in a heifer's ass. You'd expect to find that sort of thing in a New West story by Annie Proulx or William Kittredge, but newcomer Foster boldly stakes his claim as a writer to watch in this gritty, moving coming-of-age story set in the ranchlands of eastern Idaho.
     Foster moves from tension to tension, stringing conflict like barbed wire as 17-year-old narrator Jeremiah Foster (who, for what it's worth, also has a younger brother named Joshua) oversleeps on Sunday, decides to skip church, helps ranch-hand Jarrett Buckett with a troublesome heifer who won't go into the calving pen, and ends up turning the cow "inside out" in a brutal, bloody climax.
Read the rest of the article HERE.

5.  Earlier on his blog, Matt had some nice things to say about my short story, "The Things He Saw," which appeared in Connecticut Review last Fall.

6.  And finally, if you aren't sick to death of my self-involved self-aggrandizing self-promotion, you can check out another of my short stories, "Joyride," which was recently published at The Center for Fiction's new web-magazine The Literarian.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Freebie: He Said What? edited by Victoria Zackheim

Congratulations to Lewis Parker, winner of the previous Friday Freebie, The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak.

This week's book giveaway is He Said What? edited by Victoria Zackheim.  This lively anthology from Seal Press is subtitled "Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed" and the 25 contributors focus keenly on those instances when "a man in their life said something—good or bad, poignant or hilarious—that changed them irrevocably." Speaking as a man, I know I have my full share of blurting out plenty of bad, sweet and hilarious things to my wife and daughter, but I don't think I've ever been as insensitive as Mary Pols' father who remarked, "Your thighs have gotten much bigger since you started college" as she walked past him wearing a bikini.  Ouch!

Here's an excerpt from Zackheim's introduction:     
     I love you. I want a divorce. The meeting ran late. Please don't tell the folks, but I'm gay. One little phrase, one casual lie, one devastating announcement and our lives are turned upside down forever. We all know that the children's rhyme boasting "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a crock. Words can hurt--deeply--and they frequently do. But they can also soothe, cajole, enliven, educate, entertain, and remind us that loving, cheating, losing, and gaining are all part of that human condition we call life. This book is a collection of gifted writers, women sharing their most intimate, true-life experiences of how one phrase, a few little words, changed their lives. Some of these stories are poignant, a few might be considered frightening, and others are laugh-out-loud funny...Whether the life-altering comment is made by a psychotic boyfriend, a dying father, someone's husband, teacher or doctor, a Russian journalist, a boss, or a frightened brother facing the threat of AIDS, the talented authors in this book offer everything from drama to delight, from havoc to the outright hilarious, from the philosophical to the whimsical, and they will remind you of that moment in your life--or, for some of you, the many moments!--when you thought to yourself, He said what? and it changed the way you looked at your life for that precise moment...or forever.
A short list of the contributing authors includes: Beverly Donofrio, Abby Frucht, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Pam Houston, Caroline Leavitt, Joyce Maynard, Christine O’Hagan, and Clea Simon.  This anthology of essays is good, essential reading for everyone--male and female alike--who has ever had one of those pivotal moments when life hinged on a word.  For more on He Said What?, visit the book's Facebook page.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of He Said What?, all you have to do is answer this question (the answer can be found at the author's website):

Victoria Zackheim has edited several anthologies with diverse themes.  What was the title of the anthology in which writers reflected about the dreams of their youth?

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 2--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on June 3.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Beautiful Hell of War: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

My review of Andrew Krivak's debut novel, The Sojourn, appears at The Barnes and Noble Review today.  It begins:     
      On the day I finished reading The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak's riveting novel about World War I, the last surviving male veteran of that "war to end all wars" died. Claude Choules was 110 when he passed away at a nursing home in Perth, Australia, and I wonder what he would have thought of Krivak's story about a sniper who undergoes the standard hells of war literature before arriving at uneasy peace with himself on the last page. Though Choules was a seaman with the British Royal Navy, I suspect he shared the same kind of scarred psyche as Jozef Vinich, the Austrian sharpshooter in The Sojourn who comes marching home full of "grief and desolation." Mr. Choules was, after all, a pacifist.
      And isn't that the resonant effect of most war literature--to turn readers' hearts and minds against militarized conflict? There is, of course, a strand of fiction which celebrates and glorifies the act of man killing man, but the most serious and enduring works of literature provoke us to reconsider the ends in light of the means. Think of All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, even Catch-22, and it's the horrors of battle scenes which stick in our memory and pour cold water on delusions of war's grandeur (though nations seem little able to remember the lesson).
      The Sojourn is no exception and, in terms of the power of its prose, deserves to be placed on the same shelf as Remarque, Hemingway and Heller (though you won't find a trace of humor in this sobering novel). Krivak's style is simple, direct, and sedate, but when violence appears, it comes in unforgettable detail.
Click here to read the full review

As always, in the constraints of a review, I'm unable to quote long passages which moved me.  The Sojourn is no exception.  In fact, the margins of my little paperback from Bellevue Literary Press are dark with scribbled stars and arrows.  Here's just one outstanding chunk of Krivak's compelling narrative about Jozef Vinich and his cousin Zlee, both snipers in the Austrian army who come up against entrenched Italian soldiers:     
      At first light on the twelfth of May, we had just come off a week's rest and were sitting in a good hide forward of our main trench, from which we had seen an artillery team in range. We wondered why they had exposed themselves so foolishly, but we never thought to question our luck. The officer was easy to identify as his gunners loaded and aimed their cannon. I reckoned him at 550 yards, a long shot, but Zlee never second-guessed himself, or me. Windage was light and the morning air dry, and Zlee just brushed the trigger and I watched that man's head snap back and body crumble as though it had been relieved of its bones.
      And hell followed: Three thousand guns--long-range, medium-, trench mortars, everything--opened fire on us and every other Austrian position from Plava to the Adriatic for two days straight, so that no one or no thing could run, move, or even breathe, a hell in which I prayed to some lost God that I might die so that the banishment toward it would end as quickly as it had begun.
      They say the earth is a soldier's mother when the shells begin to fall, and she is, at first, your instinct not to run, but to dig and hold and hug as much of that earth as you possibly can, down, down, down into the dirt, with your fingertips, hands, arms, chest, thighs, and feet, until you are like a child clinging with his entire body to comfort after a nightmare.
      But minutes of this, then hours, and days, and you wonder, How many days? Because the earth herself can't stop shaking and disintegrating as the shrieks and howls rain in like otherworldly miscreations on wing who know--know--where you are hiding and want not just to kill but to annihilate you, their hissing and infuriate ruts as they approach the last sound you'll ever hear.
For the next few hours, you can enter to win a copy of The Sojourn here at The Quivering Pen.  But hurry, because the Friday Freebie giveaway ends tonight at midnight.  Click HERE for more details.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Day I Sat on Oprah’s Couch, and Other Lies I Tell Myself

My wife turned from the TV and looked at me, shaking her head. "You blew it," she said.  "You missed your chance to be on Oprah."

On the screen, Ms. Winfrey was sniffly and dabbing at her eyes.  This was her last week of a 25-year run and it was, indeed, the end of an era for diet gurus, rehabbed celebrities, apologetic adulterers, Maya Angelou, cancer survivors, prison inmates and Novelists-Disguised-as-Memoirists.  The queen of talk shows and—for better or worse—dictator of popular reading tastes had every right to be weepy as she approached the edge of what will be a gaping void in afternoon television programming: she was leaving us in what seemed like a protracted year-long divorce ever since she announced her farewell plans in November 2009.  We knew it was coming, but it was only when she stood at the door with her packed suitcases in hand that the reality hit.  We must now live out the rest of our numbered and allotted days without The Oprah Winfrey Show.  I can hear America sniffling.

In addition to leaving a hole on our television sets, Oprah's departure also spells the end of an era for mid-list (and low-list) authors whose careers got rocket boosts with the large "O" sticker on their books.  Even the world's greatest novelist, Charles Dickens, got a small bump in sales when A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations were chosen for the Book Club.

Now, without Oprah, what's a dreaming, delusional novelist to do?

All is not completely lost, if we believe the hints Oprah has been dropping lately.  The Oprah Winfrey Show leaves the air today, but the Book Club may have some televised life in its future.  "I'm going to try to develop a show for books and authors," she’s vowed.

The hearts of three thousand struggling writers just skipped a beat (including mine).  Maybe there's still a chance we could end up like Wally Lamb, an author who got much more than a small bump in sales after Oprah anointed not one but two of his novels (I Know This Much is True and She's Come Undone).  Here's Lamb describing what it was like to get the first phone call with that all-too-familiar voice on the other end of the line:
      She was calling to say that she had selected She’s Come Undone as the fourth novel in her wildly successful book club. I was to keep it a secret until she announced it on her show, she instructed.
      Then she put her producer, Alice McGee, on the line. It was after hours on a Friday, but Alice told me I would have to contact my publisher that night. To meet the anticipated demand, hundreds of thousands more copies would have to begin printing immediately. It couldn't wait until Monday morning.
      It didn't.
      On Saturday morning, members of the publishing house held an emergency meeting. Pulp was ordered, numbers were crunched, and printers worked overtime to meet the expected demand.
      A few weeks later, Oprah held up a copy of my novel and recommended that her vast audience read it. A Boston Globe article about the selection captures the frenzy that followed. Above a photograph of me seated before a class of high school students, looking stunned, one shoelace untied, a headline asks, "WALLY WHO?" My roller-coaster ride had begun in earnest, and I haven't gotten off it yet. To date, She's Come Undone has sold millions and millions of copies.

These are the pinch-me-to-wake-me fairy tale moments most writers dream about--unless you're Cormac McCarthy and you don't give two fiddle-farts about being on Miz Who’s-It’s show.  And even then, we saw the miraculous softening effect Oprah has on even the most granitic, publicity-resistant writers: Cormac McCarthy actually sat on Oprah's couch (or, more correctly, she sat on his couch since he couldn't be lured to the Harpo Television studios).  If she had worked just a little harder, I have no doubt we would eventually have seen her going out for ice cream with J. D. Salinger.

In 2005, Meg Wolitzer (The Uncoupling) told The New York Times* that "Winfrey's effect on authors, particularly novelists, 'was to make us feel relevant,' whether they were chosen for the club or not. 'To have somebody with a really loud mouth and a lot of power saying to people, "You need to read this," is important,' she added."

Just look at the list of ten bestselling Oprah Book Club picks in the last ten years (compiled by the Nielsen Company ):

January 2005:  A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle (sales to date: 3,370,000)
September 2005:  A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2,695,500)
January 2006:  Night by Elie Wiesel (2,021,000)
March 2007:  The Road by Cormac McCarthy (1,385,000)
January 2001:  We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (1,348,000)
June 2003:  East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1,314,000)
November 2007:  The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1,109,000)
October 2007:  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (817,000)
March 2001:  Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio (794,000)
October 2008:  The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (770,000)

Those numbers are enough to unclench the jaw of even the most imperial, impervious publisher and send weak-hearted authors to the emergency room, gripping the arms of EMTs and saying, "She picked me!  Can you believe it?!  She picked me!"  The Oprah Effect is akin to a large butterfly wing in Argentina stirring up a storm in Kansas.  One ecstatic clutch of a book to her bosom in front of a television camera and a writer like David Wroblewski, who toiled ten years on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, has cement flagstones on the career path beneath his feet.  Those were the lucky ones (and, admittedly, the talented ones) who enjoyed the blessing of Oprah Winfrey for nearly fifteen years, the authors with rocket-fuel burns on the soles of their shoes.  A list of contemporary authors given a boost by La Oprah includes people like Janet Fitch, Bret Lott, Robert Morgan, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Edwidge Danticat who recently recalled what it was like to be an Oprah Author:

As for the outcome of being on the show, people always want to know about the book sales. The most important gift anyone can give a writer is time and the books sales certainly gave me that. They also rewarded a small publisher, Soho Press, that had taken a huge risk on me. They paid for weddings and funerals and paid off, among other things, school loans and my parents’ mortgage. They helped finance my minister uncle’s small school and clinic in Haiti.
For the rest of us—whether we own up to it or not—Oprah has represented a touchstone in publishing.  We fantasize about the phone call, we dream about standing backstage and hearing Oprah sing our voice in that trademark opera vibrato: "David Aaaabraaaaaaaaams!" (The last notes of her voice drowned by an ocean roar of applause).

So yes, when my wife turned to me the other day and said, "You blew it," I could hear a bell tolling in my head--a funeral bell that dredged up all the regret and self-loathing which lay in a black pool at the bottom of my ambition.  If only I'd been more consistent in my writing habits, if only I hadn't procrastinated myself into stasis, if only I'd written that novel, and then another, and then another, if only the writing gods had rolled the dice and they had come up sixes, then maybe I would have had a big ole O on my book.  The book I have yet to write.  The one Oprah should read.

I suspect my novel, Fobbit, isn't really Oprah material (my wife certainly thinks it is, but I can see through the tissue-paper of her enthusiasm to the truth: she just wants to sit in Oprah’s audience).  A comic novel about death and dismemberment in the Iraq War?  Hardly the stuff she'd endorse to scrapbooking moms in Des Moines.

Then again, the Book Club has rarely been about popular tastes or trends.  It has been stamped with Oprah Winfrey's personal judgement of a book, as firm and indelible as that big O stamped on the cover.  None of us know the exact algorithm used in picking a book for the Club—and there's every reason to believe it's done by members of her staff—quite possibly in a candlelit ceremony involving pentagrams, voodoo dolls, and three drops of James Frey's blood (kept in a vial locked in a safe in Oprah's office).  There are almost certainly some secret handshakes with publishers behind closed doors.  But even if Oprah is only the figurehead for the selections, there's no denying she's been an effective persuader all these years.  I won't go so far as to say she "got America reading" again, but she certainly stirred up some enthusiasm for literature as a hobby for those previously reluctant to pick up a book.  As Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch recently noted, Oprah Winfrey "didn't originate the idea of book clubs, but more than anyone, she has spread the idea of reading a book as a shared community."

She's picked novels about incest, child abduction, Alzheimer's, the Apocalypse and The Sound and the Fury for God's sake.  So I like to think that maybe my book—still unfinished, unpolished and unpublished—might stand a chance.  Why not a novel about the public relations circus of the Iraq War?

I'll never know because I blew it.


--Wait!  Is that a phone I hear ringing?

*That article is about the joyous announcement of Oprah's latest pick at the time: A Million Little Pieces. When he learned he’d been selected for the Book Club, Frey said, “I was shocked and thrilled and had this sort of amazing and surreal moment." I’ll bet you did.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Soup and Salad: Richard Ford on Work, Flannery O'Connor Lettered and Preserved, The Museum of Silly Charts, Alan Heathcock Weeps Over Charlotte's Web, Charles Dickens Meets the Kindle, A Peek at Eugenides, Two Totally Awesome Covers

On today's menu:

1.  Is writing hard work?  Richard Ford responds in The Guardian:
I've always had uneasy loyalties about the relevance of the term "work" to the activities I perform every day, and which occupy the hours when most other people are in fact "working." I write novels and stories and essays for a living. And while I fairly mindlessly refer to what I do as "work" ("I'm working, I can't help you shovel the driveway;" "I start work every day at eight and work on 'til cocktail hour;" "I've been working way too hard, I need a trip to Belize"), it's hard for me to think that work is what I really do. Work, after all – to me, anyway – signifies something hard. And while writing novels can be (I love this word) challenging (it can also be tedious in the extreme; take forever to finish; demoralise me into granite and make me want to quit and find another line of work), it's not ever what I'd call hard.
Speaking of Richard Ford and "hard work," be sure to check out the latest anthology he edited: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar.

2.  Flannery O'Connor certainly knew the meaning of hard work.  Even after she was stricken with lupus, she knuckled her way through a daily regimen of writing, energy rarely flagging, mind fiercely alive at the typewriter.  She left us some of the brightest bonfires of 20th-century fiction, but she was also a prodigious letter-writer.  This Recording celebrates some of those epistles, remarking "Everything is in the letters of Flannery O'Connor.  Everything."  As a writer struggling with the commercial viability of my own novel,* I heard a loud choir of little word-scribblers start cheering inside my chest when I read this letter O'Connor wrote to Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, in 1949:
      When I was in New York in September, my agent and I asked [John Selby, an editor at Rinehart] how much of the novel they wanted to see before we asked for a contract and an advance. The answer was--about six chapters. So in February I sent them nine chapters (108 pages and all I've done) and my agent asked for an advance and for their editorial opinion.
      Their editorial opinion was a long time in coming because obviously they didn't think much of the 108 pages and didn't know what to say. When it did come, it was very vague and I thought totally missed the point of what kind of a novel I am writing. My impression was that they want a conventional novel. However, rather than trust my own judgment entirely I showed the letter to [poet Robert Lowell] who had already read the 108 pages. He too thought that the faults Rineheart had mentioned were not the faults of the novel (some of which he had previously pointed out to me). I tell you this to let you know I am not, as Selby implied to me, working in a vacuum.
      In answer to the editorial opinion, I wrote Selby that I would have to work on the novel without direction from Rinehart, that I was amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I was trying to do.
      In New York, a few weeks later, I learned indirectly that nobody at Rinehart liked the 108 pages but [William Raney, another Rinehart editor] (and whether he likes it or not I couldn't really say), that the ladies there particularly had thought it unpleasant (which pleased me). I told Selby that I was willing enough to listen to Rinehart criticism but that if it didn't suit me, I would disregard it. That is the impasse.
      Any summary I might try to write for the rest of the novel would be worthless and I don't choose to waste my time at it. I don't write that way. I can't write much more without money and they won't give me any money because they can't see what the finished book will be. That is Part Two of the impasse.
      To develop at all as a writer I have to develop in my own way. The 108 pages are very angular and awkward but a great deal of that can be corrected when I have finished the rest of it--and only then. I will not be hurried or directed by Rinehart. I think they are interested in the conventional and I have had no indication that they are very bright.
I love her absolute belief in her own work and her steadfast refusal to compromise.  That is what makes Flannery Flannery.  The novel in question is, of course, Wise Blood.  It was published on May 15, 1952 and the world of American letters would never be the same again.

3.  In other FO'C news: Andalusia, O'Connor's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, has received a grant for the preservation of the oldest structure on the property, the Hill House, "the home of Jack and Louise Hill, African-American farm workers at Andalusia during the period of O’Connor’s residence."

4.  For your daily diversionary delight, I give you Ben Greenman's Museum of Silly Charts.  I'm particularly fond of the one which graphs the frequency of letters in Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby and "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

This graph, too, took quite a bit of work, and I was surprised to see that it actually yielded some results. The Great Gatsby has more g’s than f’s, which is uncommon, and may have something to do with West Egg and East Egg.

5.  For the "When We Fell in Love" series at Three Guys One Book, Alan Heathcock rhapsodizes on Charlotte's Web:
I felt quite surprised to be crying when reading Charlotte’s Web. I still have the copy of the book from my childhood, its pages yellowed, the back cover torn in half. On the front cover is an illustration of a little girl, a worried looking little pig in her arms, a goose at one elbow, a sheep at the other, a spider dangling above them all. I can only guess what the bark-kneed ten-year old jock version of myself thought of it, this baby book, this silly tale about girls and farm animals. But I found myself deeply taken by the plight of the little pig, a runt named Wilbur. From the moment of his birth, everything was set up against Wilbur, and only by a few fortuitous bounces did he live at all. And even then, author E.B. White did not shy away from the harsh truths of the Wilbur’s world. Pigs were killed. Pigs would become bacon and ham for the farmer’s table. Wilbur would die. The bitter old sheep told Wilbur they were fattening him for slaughter and the spider, a kind soul named Charlotte, assured him it was true.

“I don’t want to die!” screamed Wilbur, throwing himself to the ground.

And I desperately did not want Wilbur to die, and the runt pig inside me threw himself to the ground and screamed, too. It was a profound moment for me, and I cried for Wilbur, not yet knowing I was crying for myself.

The best of what literature can do for us is to allow us to face ourselves, but in a way that’s bearable. Story can strike us at the buried and otherwise impenetrable core of those things which make us afraid, make us ashamed, make us swoon and question, make us imagine, and understand, the world in new ways. My wife is a fifth grade teacher and we’ve talked often about the role of the teacher being that of curator, of knowing the vast spectrum of books and suggesting books to students that might allow them to have this deep and meaningful interaction with the written word. Lifetime readers are generally made by those moments that the best of books can provide, that awakening, deep and visceral, striking our emotions and intellect and imaginations, the interaction of our inner selves with the written word.
Leave it to Heathcock to turn a sweet, sentimental kid's version of Animal Farm into a meaningful cornerstone of his reading life.  His tribute to E. B. White's beloved classic might just be the most beautiful thing I've read on the web all week.

6.  Explaining the Kindle to Charles Dickens: it's "just a lot of books inside a big book."

7.  Attention, Jeffrey Eugenides fans: The Millions has the first paragraph of his much-anticipated novel The Marriage Plot (coming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux in October).  Check out that paragraph here.

8.  Awesome Cover #1:

Designer Matt Dorfman gives a little background at his blog:
Riverhead did not skimp on the production touches for this one.  They sprung for a combination gritty matte finish (which covers the white paper portions of the jacket) and a shiny gloss for the yellow/magenta “crazy” half, thereby giving your sense of touch a noticeable edge if you find yourself blindly scanning your shelf for this book in a dark room (which I have done).

9.  Awesome Cover #2:

There's something about this cover which is beautiful and sad at the same time; it puts the reader in the right frame of mind to approach the book even before going beneath the cover: contemplative, melancholy and haunted.  My only complaint: though credit should go where credit is due, I think the design would have benefited by removing the names of the editors in the lower left corner--leave that part of the black sky blank.  By the way, you'll notice this is the 10th Anniversary Issue of Poetry After 9/11.  The anthology was the first book published by Melville House, the unique take-no-prisoners publisher who has done some excellent work in the past decade.  Melville House grew out of the blog MobyLives (which I followed like a zealot back when I was a toddler on the Internet).  Since then, publisher Dennis Loy Johnson has brought out some great titles--including a line of novellas, reprints by the masters and mistresses of world literature (including Chekhov, Kipling, Wharton, Cervantes, and--of course--Melville).  For more on Melville House, check out this interview with Johnson at nthWORD.

*Try telling a publisher you're writing a funny novel about the Iraq War and see how far you get.