Saturday, December 12, 2015

Soup and Salad: Val Brelinski Worries About Her Sister, Gordon Lish Fools Around With Raymond Carver, a Bookstore Curates Desert Island Books, War Lit Gets Listed, Susan Henderson Keeps On Keepin’ On, Lisa Gornick Observes, Rebecca Makkai Evangelizes Short Stories....and a Memo From the Completely Self-Serving Department of Vanities

On today’s menu:
On the last day of August in 1970, and a month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Jory’s father drove his two daughters out to an abandoned house and left them there.
1.  That’s the first line of The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski...and the novel gets even better from there. Religious fundamentalism in central Idaho in the 1970s, a young girl struggling to come of age, a mother who just can’t seem to deal with her daughters’ messy lives, a possible immaculate conception, a hippie commune, a love affair with an ice-cream-truck man...there’s a lot to love here. It is also, Brelinski admits, an autobiographical novel which hews close to the bone. In the novel, Brelinski includes many (though not all) of the facts of her own life and that of her older, devoutly-religious sister. Novelists who put their own families in their books are a brave breed, and in this essay for Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, Val Brelinski shows us just what’s at stake when she asked her sister Gail to read The Girl Who Slept With God for the first time:
     Gail returned to the states once her missionary-tenure was over, but our lives continued to part ways. She stayed in our hometown in Idaho and retained her faith-filled lifestyle, while I moved to San Francisco and became a “worldy” writer. And because I was incapable of truly knowing my sister, and because I desperately wanted to, I did the thing that many writers do: I wrote about her. I wrote an entire novel devoted to uncovering the mystery that was my older sister, titled The Girl Who Slept with God. In it, her name is Grace and she does a few things that she didn’t in real life, but the majority of the novel is a direct expression of my desire to dissect her, to peel back the careful carapace that she built around herself in order to see what was beneath. Naked, unshelled insects are terrible things to behold, and even worse things to be, and as the publication date of my novel approached, I began to worry.
     Gail had not read the book, nor did she know anything about its contents. This wasn’t her fault, but mine. I deliberately hadn’t told her anything about the novel and I hadn’t sent her an advanced copy of it either. Avoiding trouble until the last possible moment has always been my shameful m.o. An absurd and fanciful part of me even imagined that she might never read the book at all.

2.  “I saw in Carver’s pieces something I could fuck around with. There was a prospect there, certainly. The germ of the thing, in Ray’s stuff, was revealed in the catalogue of his experience. It had that promise in it, something I could fool with and make something new-seeming.”
     It feels like every time editor Gordon Lish opens his mouth, Raymond Carver dies a little more.

3.  I love the idea behind One Grand, a new bookstore in Narrowsburg, New York: celebrated thinkers, writers, artists, and other creative minds share the ten books they would take to their metaphorical desert island. For instance, Neil Patrick Harris’ list includes books like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Confederacy of Dunces, and Bridge to Terabithia. For his list, John Irving chose Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville and several other Dead White Guys.

4.  Speaking of lists, Peter Molin is curating a pretty damn fine one of war literature at his Time Now blog. I’m grateful he includes Fobbit, but I also appreciate all the other works which he’s added to my ever-growing To-Be-Read mountain of books (aka Mount NeveRest).

5.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something which captures the writer’s life as precisely as this blog post by Susan Henderson (author of Up from the Blue). The struggle is real, people.
     If (my neighbors) happen to see me out and about, they’ll often ask, How’s the book going? It’s a perfectly sensible question, but I always feel like there’s the answer people want to hear, and then the one I’m going to give them.
     What they’re really asking about is the end-product. Is the book done yet? Is it on a shelf in the bookstore?
     When you’re a writer, you regularly answer such questions with no and no. Which gives an illusion of failure. Maybe you’re not writing fast enough. Maybe you’re not smart enough. Maybe you don’t work hard enough. Maybe you’re fooling yourself when you say you’re a writer.
     But most of a writer’s work is not about this end result. It’s about the private and often circular process of thinking, scribbling, re-thinking, rearranging, erasing, scribbling again. This process can take months or years or decades, depending on the writer and depending on the work.
Amen, sister, amen.

6.  At the Story Prize blog, Lisa Gornick (author of Louisa Meets Bear) also captures the essence of what makes writers tick:
     1. To write, I have to observe. I have to push myself to see: sky beyond generic dawn or dusk, drunk beyond scruffy and stumbling. To hear: the breathing of someone so angry he might punch a wall, trees before a hurricane hits. To smell garbage on the eighth day after an apocalypse, feel a sea slick with oil, taste chicken a hallucinating mother browned with shoe polish.
     2. To write, I have to tolerate being alone at my desk, without answering the phone or checking email or looking up Black Friday sales. An act of warfare against the multitasking-google-social media-hegemony.
Click here to read the other five points on Lisa’s list.

7.  While you’re at the Story Prize blog, make sure you read Rebecca Makkai’s funny, sad-but-true essay, What Some Readers Are Missing Out On. Here’s what happened when she was sitting at a table with stacks of her short story collection, Music for Wartime, sitting in front of her:
     I’m one of three authors at a signing table at a benefit. A woman walks up, touching each book. She gets to my story collection. “What’s this about?” she says.
     I say, “It’s a collection of stories, and—”
     And she goes, “Oh.” Not as in, “Oh, how interesting,” but like, “Oh, I thought the hors d’oeuvre you were passing was foie gras, but it’s Spam.” A little to the left of “Oh, no thank you, I would not care for a dead raccoon.”
     And so I decide to call her on it. I make sure to laugh, and I say, “Wait, what’s that about?”
     I’m not a confrontational person. It’s just that this is the 300th time this has happened to me since June, and I’ve reached a breaking point.

8.  And now, from the Completely Self-Serving Department of Vanities: I’ve recently had the good fortune to have several of own short stories published in print and on the web. In fact, numbers-wise, 2015 has been my best year as a short-story writer. If you’re interested in reading some of my fiction which is available online, here’s the list:

     Welcome to the First Day of the Rest of Your War at Litbreak
     Vulture at High Desert Journal
     The Wedding Party at Provo Canyon Review

In print, I’ve got work in F(r)iction (“Thank You”), and (forthcoming) Glimmer Train Stories (“A Little Bit of Everything”), Pleiades (“Kuwaiting”) and The New Guard (“Jesus and Elvis Have a Little Conversation”).

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