Monday, July 31, 2017

My First Time: Stephen Policoff


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 Stephen Policoff, author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, his debut novel, which won the James Jones First Novel Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf in 2004. His second novel, Come Away, won the Dzanc Mid-Career Author Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. His essay about his disabled daughter’s experience in music therapy won the Fish Short Memoir Award in 2012, and was published in Fish Anthology 2012 (West Cork University Press, Ireland). He teaches writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, and has recently completed his third novel, The Dangerous Blues.


The First Time I Realized I Was Writing a Trilogy

The first time I realized I was writing a trilogy was in 2013, when my younger daughter Jane, then 12 and a voracious reader of multi-volume Young Adult series, declared, “Daddy, you’re writing a trilogy!”

I shook my head. “No. No. It’s just that all three of these books have the same narrator…and okay…some of the same weird characters and ideas.”

“That’s not a trilogy?” She eyed me as if I were simply being a dense dad.

“Maybe,” I said, backing away. “Maybe.”

The thing is, I never intended to write a trilogy. But the various dislocations of my life kept leading me back toward the voices, images, and obsessions which inspired the first two of my unplanned trilogy of novels.


When I wrote my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, I had no real idea that I was writing a novel. I had mostly written plays performed in obscure off-off-Broadway theaters, and magazine articles for glossy magazines (Cosmopolitan! Ladies’ Home Journal! Seventeen! Family Fun!).

When my wife Kate and I spent a wretched vacation on Cape Cod during Hurricane Bob in 1991, I had an idea for something—it involved heavy substance abuse, possible alien abduction, and sinister behavior in a storm-battered setting. I didn’t really think that it was going to be a novel but I liked the not-entirely-trustworthy narrator, Paul Brickner. The voice I devised for him was a more conflicted, unstrung version of my own voice, and that was fun. I also liked some of the minor characters—Nadia, Paul’s dynamic girlfriend; her father, Dr. Maire, a scholar of occult lore; Tommy, Paul’s lifelong friend, a drug omnivore and aficionado of hallucinations—and the way in which I was able to weave the banal details of that miserable week in Eastham, Massachussetts (no electricity, no running water, a lot of crazed behavior from stranded vacationers) with the eruption of less naturalistic events (mysterious lights, inexplicable messages, an abandoned inn hosting a 12-step program for people who believe they have been abducted by aliens).

It took me a long time to finish that novel. I was teaching , parenting, working on other projects. And despite winning the James Jones First Novel Award, it took me almost as long to get it published. While waiting for Beautiful Somewhere Else to find a home, I started another novel. I had the title for this one before I had the idea: One day when she was about 4, my older daughter Anna pointed to my oddball collection of Buddha figures arrayed on a bedside table and said, “Look, Daddy, a Buddha train.”

Anna, who suffered from a terrible neurogenetic disease called Niemann-Pick C, often did not say much for days at a time, but when she did speak, she had a strangely poetic turn of phrase. I filed the expression Buddha Train away, and when I haltingly began a new novel, I knew that would be the title.

The Buddha Train was about art, toxic relationships, and a death-haunted cult called The Dream People. I have written about this before but it’s an important part of this story: writing The Buddha Train was a somewhat torturous process for me, at least in part because during that time, Anna’s illness progressed, and so did my sadness and feelings of helplessness. I began to have recurring bad dreams about losing her: Anna in a forest, calling out my name and I cannot find her.

When I confided these dreams to my friend Lucy, she said, “That’s the novel you should be writing.” I knew at once that she was right. I put The Buddha Train aside and started fiddling with another idea.

When I finished Beautiful Somewhere Else, I was reasonably certain that I was also finished with Paul Brickner, Nadia, Dr. Maire, Tommy. But at the end of that novel, Nadia is pregnant with Paul’s baby, about which he is (of course) conflicted. As I was trying to figure out what this new, inchoate novel would be, I kept coming back to Paul’s voice, to his life filled with visions and revisions. I found myself slipping naturally into that voice again. I gave Paul and Nadia—married and living in upstate New York—a five year old daughter, Spring, who has suffered a frightening accident. I imbued Paul with my bad dreams about my own child. I gave him new, not-entirely-explicable fears of losing Spring to the creepy lore of the changeling and the ominous mythic figures of the Green Children of Woolpit.

“So, I think I might be writing a sequel to Beautiful Somewhere Else,” I casually told my then-agent.

“Ah,” he said, just a hint of acid in his voice, “because so many readers are clamoring?”

It’s true that Beautiful Somewhere Else, like much of my work, was largely ignored by press and public alike. But the small, fervent band of people who did appreciate that book, seemed especially intrigued by the way I entwined day-to-day details with strands of dread, of the unexplained, the overlooked.

Somewhere, Nabokov says that the word reality is the only word which does not make sense without quotation marks. I’ve always liked that idea. Someone once called my work slipstream. I don’t know what that means, but if it suggests a world where we cannot be sure that what we are seeing is what others take to be “reality,” I am down with that idea. That is what I hoped would fuel Come Away.

But while I was working on Come Away, my wife Kate became terribly ill, was diagnosed with cancer. She spent six spirit-crushing weeks in New York Hospital Hell, while I lurched back and forth between home and the ICU, doing what I could for her, trying to care for our two devastated daughters, trying not to slip too deeply into the slough of despond. Working on Come Away was one of the very few tasks that allowed me to enter another world, one I had slightly more control over.


I finished Come Away on the day that Kate died, in March 2012. I spent the next months numb with sorrow, struggling to tie up the many loose ends of our life together, struggling to help Anna, who was 17, increasingly ill herself, and Jane, who was just 11, in sixth grade and in a new school, cope with a life suddenly devoid of their beloved mom. I could not bear to look at anything I had written then, but on a whim one lonely day, I sent the manuscript of Come Away to a competition at Dzanc Books. It won, and Dzanc chose to publish it.

I fiddled some more with The Buddha Train during this bleak era in my life but occasionally contemplated writing a novel about Kate’s horrible stupid death. I kept wondering what it would be like for my alter-ego Paul to lose Nadia; I had the nascent notion that he might be more literally haunted by Nadia than I was by Kate, and this little shard of an idea stuck with me. It nudged me into doing some desultory research into ghost lore and the neurology of loss.

That’s when I told Jane I was working on another novel about Paul and Spring, though I was not then sure it would grow into anything more than mournful musing.

I always assumed that anyone who wrote multiple volumes about the same characters must have planned it that way. The Ring Trilogy? Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy? Anthony Powell’s massive A Dance to the Music of Time? Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels? I loved all those books, but I certainly never imagined attempting a feat that daunting—constructing a continuing narrative, a world populated by characters who live beyond the pages of one book.

But in 2013, I discovered that’s what I was doing. I put The Buddha Train aside again, and began to wrestle with the ongoing lives of Paul, Nadia, and Spring. I shrugged off thorny issues of continuity—would anyone care that Nadia is pregnant with Spring in 1991 in Beautiful Somewhere Else but Spring is barely 5 in 1999, when I (vaguely) set Come Away? Or that she is just a pre-teen in 2011, in the book I had just begun? That Dr. Maire, mildly villainous in the first novel, turns out to be inadvertently heroic in the second and downright wise in the third?

I also made an abrupt decision to uproot Paul and Spring. Come Away was set mostly in Phoenicia, New York (where my wife and I had a weekend home for many years). But I wanted them out of there—they wanted to be out of there, fleeing the sad house where Nadia had recently died. I invented a sublet, and moved them to the city, placing them in a version of the NYU faculty apartment which my family has occupied for 20 years.

Although I have lived in New York for most of my adult life, I had never really written about it. Placing Paul and a pre-teen Spring in my neighborhood was strangely, almost preternaturally liberating. I could write about the Piano Guy in Washington Square Park, the Merchant’s House Museum, the Village Halloween Parade...

At some point during my blurry explorations for this novel, I heard a song called “Dangerous Blues,” which my friends, the folk/blues duo called The Four o’Clock Flowers, perform. It was written and originally recorded by Mattie May Thomas, a largely unknown blues singer, who may have been incarcerated when she recorded it sometime in the 1930s. The eerie howl of her voice sent shivers down my back; it contains the line I might get better but I won’t get well. Somehow, that seemed to sum up everything I had been feeling for the past year. I found myself throwing chilling blues songs into the mix of this book; I started referring to it as The Dangerous Blues.

But in Fall 2014, just as Come Away was about to be published by Dzanc Books, just as I was beginning to see how The Dangerous Blues could be written, Anna’s health imploded. She was in the hospital with pneumonia three times in ten months.

She left us in June 2015.

I know, I know. People ask all the time: How did you get through this? Insofar as I did get through it, it was because I didn’t really have much choice. I had Jane to think about, and stumbling along was what I knew how to do. As Dylan observes:
And when the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on.
I hid away for quite a while, doing only what I had to do, seeing only people who showed up at our door (in fairness, that’s pretty much the way I have always behaved; maybe this was a little more so). For a long time, I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t already know what had happened to my family; I felt almost apologetic if I had to catch someone up with my recent life. Once, in the vast, gray lobby of our apartment building, I felt compelled to tell the story to a neighbor who observed in passing that she hadn’t seen Anna for a while. She burst into tears, and I found myself, oddly, comforting her.

But if losing Anna—among the sweetest, loveliest children who ever lived—upended my life even more than losing Kate, it did eventually show me how to make The Dangerous Blues a little richer, deeper, at least for myself. Spring became more and more an amalgam of my two daughters—Jane’s exuberant resilience mingled with Anna’s soulful silence. I found that in detailing the father-daughter bond between Paul and the wounded Spring, I could also use some of my most poignant memories of Anna—walking her to preschool singing the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl”, watching a family of ducks paddle around the Esopus Creek upstate one summer, reading the disquieting Grimm’s tale “The Juniper Tree” one night, then having to sit there with her for an hour because she was so weirded out by it.

Anna’s spirit, like Kate’s, came to feel like an integral part of The Dangerous Blues. I am not especially superstitious and I lack the belief gene, but there were many times when I felt like they were hovering nearby, watching me write about them, and maybe, just maybe, smiling.

I recently finished The Dangerous Blues, though what will become of it is as yet unknown. I feel fairly certain, too, that I am finally done with the haunted lives of Paul and Spring. I’d like to be able to state definitively that no earthly or unearthly events could cajole me back into their tumultuous world. But I don’t think I can say that. I’ve been there before.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.
April 30, 1999
Paris

       This evening a man knocked on the door of our apartment and said, “Hello, I just got out of prison, may I come in?”


Theft by Finding by David Sedaris


Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Freebie: As Good As Gone by Larry Watson


Congratulations to Adam Coulter, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Blinds, the new novel by Adam Sternbergh.

This week’s contest is for As Good As Gone by Larry Watson. My love for Larry’s fiction is as big and wide as a Western sky over a windscraped landscape and this book is no exception. Here’s the Minneapolis Star Tribune on As Good As Gone: “Whether Watson is describing the inside of a 1952 Ford Tudor, a homey tree-lined street in Missoula, an afternoon branding a herd of cattle, or a pair of elderly strangers making love as spontaneously as a prairie thunderstorm dropping from the big sky, he writes evocatively and with great persuasion. This book is vintage Watson: laconic, dramatic and tough as a dry Montana stream bed.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...
It’s 1963, and Calvin Sidey, one of the last of the old cowboys, has long ago left his family to live a life of self-reliance out on the prairie. He’s been a mostly absentee father and grandfather until his estranged son asks him to stay with his grandchildren, Ann and Will, for a week while he and his wife are away. So Calvin agrees to return to the small town where he once was a mythic figure, to the very home he once abandoned. But trouble soon comes to the door when a boy’s attentions to seventeen-year-old Ann become increasingly aggressive and a group of reckless kids portend danger for eleven-year-old Will. Calvin knows only one way to solve problems: the Old West way, in which scores are settled and ultimatums are issued and your gun is always loaded. And though he has a powerful effect on those around him--from the widowed neighbor who has fallen under his spell to Ann and Will, who see him as the man who brings a sudden and violent order to their lives--in the changing culture of the 1960s, Calvin isn’t just a relic; he’s a wild card, a danger to himself and those who love him. In As Good as Gone, Larry Watson captures our longing for the Old West and its heroes, and he challenges our understanding of loyalty and justice. Both tough and tender, it is a stunning achievement.

If you’d like a chance at winning As Good As Gone, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 4. 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.


Monday, July 24, 2017

My First Time: Jamie Harrison


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 Jamie Harrison, author of the new novel The Widow Nash. Jamie has lived in Montana with her family for almost thirty years. She has worked as a caterer, writer, and as a technical editor for archaeological, botanical, and biological reports. She is the daughter of Jim Harrison.


My First Protagonist

My new novel, The Widow Nash, is the first book I’ve published in twenty years. Friends, understandably, had stopped asking for progress reports, and I’d stopped volunteering by the time I started it five years ago. I worked on it between research jobs, editing jobs, family illnesses, and despite grave self-doubt: when you don’t sell a book for decades, a little insecurity is only sane. I had a lot of time to think about my character, Dulcy Remfrey, and by the time I began really writing her story, she was clear in my head: a little lost, a little cranky, ready to do anything to save herself.

But my first protagonist, Jules Clement, the center of the four mystery novels I started twenty-five years ago, was accidental, as was my whole decision to write. My father was a poet and novelist, and until I was twenty, he didn’t make more than $10,000 a year. When you spend your childhood watching your parents worry about bills, you don’t romanticize the craft. And he had a calling—I had a love of reading and an English degree, but I made my living in food, and then magazines and script editing, and finally, after I moved to Montana, as an editor of a small press. I loved it, right up until the moment that we went out of business and I found myself in a small town with a small child and no job.

I was desperate; it brought out supreme arrogance. I’ll write a mystery, I thought. A series. I’d read enough of them; I’d even edited them. No art, but not just commerce: nothing soulful, but something good. What makes more readers happier than a well-written mystery? Nobody had handled an idiosyncratic town like mine realistically, or with humor: I’d transplant a New Yorker into the freezing, windy northern Rockies and watch things go wrong, and I’d grind a few axes from the past while I was at it.

I was an infant and an idiot, and within a month, I’d been smacked over the head by a series of discoveries:

Making my female protagonist an amateur and outsider felt contorted. Why would people talk to her, and anyway how many bodies can one character stumble over? One a book? Really?

Professions linked to crime and death felt just as awkward. Law was a possibility, but I wouldn’t be any good at a procedural; my husband, a defense attorney, is still stunned by my lack of legal knowledge, and his work also gave me a second insight: the job isn’t always that interesting. Making her a female cop would necessarily be all about that struggle, rather than whatever story I wanted to tell, and I was already struggling to imagine wanting to be a cop (given marriage to a defense attorney).

I tried making her a journalist, but found I couldn’t separate her from me, give her an independent existence. People would assume it was me. Sex scenes, background, everything. The horror.

I circled a male cop, a male lawyer, a male journalist, but by then I was having an utter failure of the imagination, and terrified that people would see my husband, or a local newspaper writer who fed me stories over drinks. And then I happened to go to a concert, and halfway through, listened to the singer’s calm, ironic speaking voice, looking at his skinny frame and crooked face.

I was a Clash girl; please don’t laugh hysterically if I admit the singer was Lyle Lovett.

I don’t know why everything clicked, but it did, and I shot past abstractions into a real character. I went home and scribbled out pages of notes, and I started writing, and I had a first draft within a couple of months. All my failed protagonists became secondary characters, but Jules Clement was really his own guy, a local boy turned social worker turned archaeologist turned cop (because he needed to make a living in the place he wanted to live), maybe a little younger and better looking than the singer, but with the same deadpan voice and curiosity and humor. And he was so fun: no one ever thought he was me, but of course the half of him I wasn’t in love with was me: political beliefs, years in New York, abandoned careers, problematic moods. I wanted him to do everything I hadn’t done or couldn’t do, including the archaeology degree and bar fights. It was completely freeing to write from a male point of view, to force myself to really think, to not incidentally make myself be empathetic to situations that had mostly brought out sarcasm or giddiness. I needed a separation to really get into someone’s skin.

I was lucky; I still like Jules Clement, and I still sometimes want to write about him, and he taught me how to come up with Dulcy Remfrey, another character I don’t want to give up. In many ways, she’s far less innocent than he was, and I don’t know that he would have been able to pry the truth out of the Widow Nash.

Author photo by Melanie Nashan


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Sentence: “Lament” by Anne Sexton


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


               A Canada goose rides up,
               spread out like a gray suede shirt,
               honking his nose into the March wind.




Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh


Congratulations to Nancy Horner, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Belgravia by Julian Fellowes.

This week’s contest is for The Blinds, the new novel by Adam Sternbergh (author of Shovel Ready). Here is some early praise for the book from Dennis Lehane, author of Since We Fell: “Adam Sternbergh is a genre-bender of the highest caliber. Part thriller, part Western, part pulpy whodunit, The Blinds is a propulsive and meaningful meditation on redemption and loss. It’s witty, electrifying, vivid, and thoroughly original.”  Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest...


Imagine a place populated by criminals—people plucked from their lives, with their memories altered, who’ve been granted new identities and a second chance. Welcome to The Blinds, a dusty town in rural Texas populated by misfits who don’t know if they’ve perpetrated a crime or just witnessed one. What’s clear to them is that if they leave, they will end up dead. For eight years, Sheriff Calvin Cooper has kept an uneasy peace—but after a suicide and a murder in quick succession, the town’s residents revolt. Cooper has his own secrets to protect, so when his new deputy starts digging, he needs to keep one step ahead of her—and the mysterious outsiders who threaten to tear the whole place down. The more he learns, the more the hard truth is revealed: The Blinds is no sleepy hideaway. It’s simmering with violence and deception, aching heartbreak and dark betrayals.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Blinds, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on July 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 28. 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.


Monday, July 17, 2017

My First Time: Kris Faatz


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 Kris Faatz (rhymes with skates), a pianist, writer, and teacher. Her first novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was published in May from Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). To Love a Stranger was inspired by Kris’s work as a professional musician and is set in the backstage world of the classical symphony. Kris’s short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Glassworks, Reed, Bluestem, and Luna Station Quarterly, among other journals. She lives in Maryland with her husband and feline contingent, and when not writing or music-making, can often be found hiking and exploring the outdoors. Visit her online, and check out her Storytelling and Sound blog on the links between writing and music, at https://krisfaatz.com.


The First Book That Anchored Me

The summer before I started sixth grade, I first read Watership Down. Bits and pieces of the rest of that summer hang around in my memory: a day of camp here, a sleepover with my best friend there. Everything else, though, boils down to the story and the place where I read it: my grandparents’ house in the Pocono Mountains.

My grandparents lived in Berwick, Pennsylvania, a small town that sits on the bank of the Susquehanna River and looks across at an even smaller town called Nescopeck. If you go there, and drive into town across the concrete span that used to be a railroad bridge, you’ll probably think this is Anyplace, America.

From the outside, you would be right. If you had been a kid there, though, you would know a few other things. For instance, you would know that the sunlight up in the mountains is daffodil-yellow and as sweet as water. You would know that they don’t make the same kind of air anywhere else. It’s so crisp and clear that it should glitter. You would also know practical things, like the fact that Dalo’s Bakery on Freas Avenue makes the crustiest torpedo rolls and the softest, sweetest raisin-filled cookies. You’d know that if you want to watch a sunset, you should go up to the lake in the northwestern corner of town, and while you’re there you should toss crumbs for the little sunfish. If you had been a kid in Berwick, you would know, too, that the brick-walled library in town must be bigger on the inside than the outside, because any book you want is hidden somewhere in its maze of wooden shelves.

The summer before sixth grade, I found Watership Down in that library. I checked it out, took it back to my grandparents’ house, and for the next four days I parked myself in my grandparents’ living room, with the tick of the grandfather clock on the wall to keep me company, and ate, breathed and slept words.

I can’t say that summer was when I decided to be a writer. I didn’t settle on that for another twenty years or more, but that story took hold of me as no other ever had. When the summer ended, the story came back to school with me. It followed me along the shadowy floor-polish-smelling corridors of the junior high building–new territory for the new sixth grader–and infused itself into math problems and Spanish sentences. It came to my piano lessons with me and slipped into the music I played. It was the dialogue behind J. S. Bach’s Invention in A Major, and it was the angry heartbeat of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor.

Junior high is the part of school that most of us remember as “thank God it’s over.” Somehow, even the popular kids weren’t having fun (though they didn’t let the rest of us in on that secret until years later). I was quiet and different, too much in love with books and classical piano music to belong anywhere. Watership Down became an anchor for me. Through it, I learned that stories could have a kind of power I had never imagined.

I also learned about the power and authority of the storyteller. If you’ve read the book, you might remember Dandelion, the warren’s own storyteller, the keeper of his people’s history and, often, the source of their courage. I saw what he did inside the story, and I saw what the writer did outside it. Without meaning to, I found myself imitating the way Richard Adams wrote: the gentle voice, the depth of detail, the meditative, immersive tone. I didn’t know anything about him other than the book he had written, but for me, he was a hero.


Fast-forward twenty-some years. My own first book, To Love A Stranger, came out in May 2017. I found my wonderful publisher, Blue Moon Publishers in Toronto, on my own, after much trying and giving up and trying again. (About that process: “thank God it’s over.”) But I think my eleven-year-old self would be proud, because whatever else she thought about doing with her life, she always knew that having her own name on a book cover would be the height of cool. To me, this milestone feels like taking a place at the table with the writers I love. Richard Adams, for instance, is up at the head of the table, and I’m a newbie at the foot, but we can sit there together.

When I started writing my novel, close to ten years ago, I didn’t have Watership Down or Berwick in mind. I meant to tell a story about a character who had become so loud and insistent in my head that I had to try to put him on paper. I also wanted to send a shout-out to classical music, because by then I was a professional pianist and knew how increasingly tough it was for that art to find an audience.

Berwick, though, had other plans. My character needed a hometown, and soon enough, fictional Westbury looked like a place I knew. The Weis Market had become an A&P, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was now St. Francis. I knew, though, exactly how the air in that place tasted and what the sunlight looked like. I knew that the majority of Westbury’s people had roots in Eastern Europe, like my grandparents did, and that they spoke with the unmistakable twang that belonged to the Pennsylvania mountains.

I wish I could show you things about Berwick that are gone. My grandparents had a crabapple tree in their front yard. The next owners cut the tree down, but I remember my grandmother’s crabapple jelly, which tasted as rosy-rich as its color. On Front Street, there used to be a store called Mulberry’s. It had wooden floors and crowded aisles stuffed with bins of fabrics, beads, and all kids of dried flowers. A few blocks away from my grandparents’ house, there was a place called Will-a-Mett Farm, where they made their own ice cream and where–I think–I first petted a cat. (It was patient.)

These days, Berwick is more Anyplace than it used to be. People don’t have the same accent. The sunlight looks about like it does anywhere else. The place as I remember it is now only in my head, but stories–and storytellers–have power.

Berwick was not the engine that drove my novel, but I’m glad to have put a piece of my memories into my first book. In my words, I send out seeds of the place I loved. In other imaginations, those seeds might grow.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Sentence: We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister


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


I felt like a rusty nail getting hammered into the knot of a two-by-twelve, getting all bent up, going nowhere.

We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister


Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday Freebie: Belgravia by Julian Fellowes


Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee.

This week’s contest is for Belgravia by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. Here is some early praise for the novel: “Written with brio, the novel races along with all the page-turning suspense of a thriller...A glittering costume drama packed with authentic period detail, it’s also a clever, involving read that brilliantly summons up a bygone world.” (Woman & Home Magazine) Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


On the evening of 15 June 1815, the great and the good of British society have gathered in Brussels at what is to become one of the most tragic parties in history: the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. For this is the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and many of the handsome young men attending the ball will find themselves, the very next day, on the battlefield. For Sophia Trenchard, the young and beautiful daughter of Wellington’s chief supplier, this night will change everything. But it is only twenty-five years later, when the upwardly mobile Trenchards move into the fashionable new area of Belgravia, that the true repercussions of that moment will be felt. For in this new world, where the aristocracy rub shoulders with the emerging nouveau riche, there are those who would prefer the secrets of the past to remain buried...

If you’d like a chance at winning Belgravia, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on July 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 21. 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.


How to get a signed copy of Brave Deeds



My second novel, Brave Deeds, will be released on Aug. 1. About two weeks later, I’ll set off on a book tour, stopping at cities throughout the Pacific Northwest (a complete schedule is coming soon). I’m looking forward to not only visiting some outstanding independent bookstores but also meeting readers along the way.

But how can those readers who can’t make it to one of the readings get a signed copy of the novel? I’m pleased to announce that I am once again partnering with one of my favorite local bookstores, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, to make signed copies available to readers. CB has had a very special place in my heart since I moved to Montana eight years ago. It’s a bright, inviting store well-stocked with everything I love to read: from literature of the American West to noir mysteries set in the gritty streets of New York City. In the past, I’ve said: “If Montana bookstores are comfort food for readers and writers, then the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman is the mashed potatoes and gravy on the plate.” I love eating there.

Here’s how to go about ordering a signed copy of Brave Deeds (or Fobbit) from Country Bookshelf:

1.  Click on this link to take you to the Brave Deeds page.
2.  Add the book to your cart.
3.  Order two or three other books on your wish list (not mandatory, but hey, why wouldn’t you want to have more books than just mine in that box when it arrives?)
4.  During Checkout, fill out the necessary billing information then scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen to a box that says “Order Comments” which looks something like this:


5.  If you would like your book personally inscribed, this is the place to tell us. I’m happy to either just sign the book or inscribe it to a particular reader. If you want a personalized inscription, please tell the Country Bookshelf staff in that comments box to whom you’d like me to make it out and if there’s a special message you’d like me to include.
6.  Complete your transaction and sit back with a satisfied smile knowing that a book with my nearly-indecipherable scrawl is on its way to you. Bonus Satisfaction: You’re supporting an independent bookstore, a simple act which is bound to earn you a couple of feathers on your angel wings in heaven.

Thanks to everyone who pre-orders a copy. These early pre-publication sales can boost a book’s strength so that it hits the ground at a gallop on Publication Day.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday Sentence: End of Watch by Stephen King


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


“Lowtown’s where they drink the beer and then eat the bottle it came in,” he told her once.

End of Watch by Stephen King


Friday, July 7, 2017

Friday Freebie: Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee


Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow.

This week’s contest is for Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee. Here is just one example of the rave reviews the novel is already getting: “If Lonesome Lies Before Us isn’t the best American novel of the year, it’s one of the most American American novels. It’s intensely concerned with the civic institutions that shape everyday lives, and with who’s affected when they disappear. That’s too much weight for the average country song to bear, but Lee’s novel carries it just fine.” (Mark Athitakis, Washington Post)

Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


Yadin Park is a talented alt-country musician whose career has floundered― doomed first by his homely looks and lack of stage presence and then by a progressive hearing disorder. His girlfriend, Jeanette Matsuda, might have been a professional photographer but for a devastating heartbreak in her teens. Now Yadin works for Jeanette’s father’s carpet-laying company in California while Jeanette cleans rooms at a local resort. When Yadin’s former lover and musical partner, the celebrated Mallory Wicks, comes back into his life, all their most private hopes and desires are exposed, their secret fantasies about love and success put to the test. Drawn to the music of indie singer-songwriters like Will Johnson, who helped shape the lyrics in this book, Don Lee has written a novel that unforgettably captures America’s deepest yearnings. Beautifully sad and laced with dark humor, Lonesome Lies Before Us is a profound, heartfelt romance, a soulful and memorable song.

If you’d like a chance at winning Lonesome Lies Before Us, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on July 13, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 14. 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.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Early praise for Brave Deeds



Most normal people (i.e. non-writers) don’t fully understand the complexities of the writing life. In particular, what happens between the book’s first sentence and publication day. Here’s a helpful timeline:

1.  The author writes the first sentence of a new book and realizes there are only another 104,573 words to go before the first draft is done.
2.  The author freaks out.
3.  The book is written. (See also: Steps 3a through 3w)
4.  The author freaks out.
5.  The book is accepted for publication.
6.  The author freaks out.
7.  The publisher sends out galleys and advance reading copies to book critics six months before the publication date.
8.  The author freaks out.
9.  The first early reviews trickle in.
10.  The author freaks out.
11.  The book is published.
12.  The author stops freaking out because by this point, the book has permanently left the creator’s hands, it stands on its own, and there is little the author can do to change the course of the book’s reception and reputation.

I’m currently somewhere between #9 and #10. People other than my wife and editor have been reading my new novel Brave Deeds and I am, every day, practicing hand-release exercises. The early critical chatter has been gratifyingly, surprisingly good. Every novelist has anxieties and freak-outs--none the less so when it’s a sophomore novel like Brave Deeds. (Okay, they say they liked the first book, but how will this one be received?) You have no idea how many sailor’s-hitch knots I’ve had to untangle from my guts these past few weeks. In many ways, Brave Deeds is a different novel than Fobbit and I hope readers will give it a fair shake. Before I go too much further, let me state that I love ALL readers--even those who dislike Brave Deeds or (worse) are left feeling indifferent by it. No book can ever please everyone. Though I wouldn’t want to meet them, I’m sure there are Charlotte’s Web haters out there. We writers do the best we can, then with a great deal of pride-swallowing, we force open our clenched hands and let the book fly out into the world.

Here, then, are some of the early reports which have come home to roost (some minor spoilers lie ahead):

In Fobbit (2012), Abrams caricatured military personnel who avoided combat overseas. His second novel confronts another underexplored aspect of war: the unlikely bonds formed by mutinous allegiance. Six soldiers steal a Hummer and sneak off base to attend their esteemed commander’s memorial service. Then their vehicle breaks down in the heart of Baghdad. In a city where everyone is a potential enemy, the men risk their careers, and their lives, to get to the service on foot. Battling hunger and paranoia, the squad episodically recalls their daring adventure and Rafe’s violent demise, portraying a complex man who secretly cared for stray dogs and avenged the deaths of innocent victims. Sharing their stories as a collective voice, each man bears his own burden: there’s the notorious overeater, Cheever; impulsively violent Fish; Park the stoic; desperately romantic O, who can’t get over his ex; Drew, who married the wrong woman; and their sententious makeshift leader, Arrow, who spurs them on. Just when the squad’s plights become darkly, hilariously absurd, Abrams surprises with pathos and tenderness. This is military fiction at its truest.
       (Booklist)

In Abrams’ second novel (after the well-received Fobbit), a group of six soldiers in the Iraq War attend the funeral service of their dead sergeant, which involves stealing a vehicle and essentially going AWOL. The Humvee breaks down in the middle of war-torn Baghdad, and the group ends up getting lost walking to their destination. Somewhere along the way they raid a house they have been told is a bomb factory. Gunshots are exchanged, several people wind up dead, and one of the officers is wounded. After the raid, the soldiers steal a car, and with their injured comrade and a very pregnant Iraqi woman who joins them on the way, they make progress toward the base. Yet getting past the entrance there proves to be one of the most dangerous events of the day. Describing the soldiers’ perilous journey while filling in details of their backgrounds and the military situation in Iraq, this excellent novel is believable, dramatic, and also quite funny.
       (Library Journal)

Abrams returns to the Iraq War in his second novel, which tells the story of six AWOL American soldiers defying orders by crossing Baghdad to attend the funeral of their squad leader, Sgt. Rafael Morgan. It’s a journey made more difficult by the fact that their stolen Humvee has broken down and they now have to cross hostile territory on foot, mapless and without a radio or medic. During these tension-filled hours, we get to know the squad members: new leader Arrow, who is beginning to have doubts about his sexual orientation; Cheever, the overweight screwup; Park, “our quiet one”; Fish, the twitchy FNG (“fucking new guy”); Drew, who dreams of being unfaithful to his wife back home; and O, short for Olijandro, who is everyone’s friend. Their personal mission is interrupted by the search for a bomb factory, a diversion that turns unexpectedly bloody. The journey is also punctuated with nightmarish flashbacks to earlier in the war and the heroic act that cost Sgt. Morgan his life, and glimpses of civilian life. It all builds to an emotionally wrenching and tension-filled climax as the squad attempts to crash the funeral in a hijacked civilian van. Filled with vivid characterizations and memorable moments, this novel—as with classic modern war literature from John Hersey’s Into the Valley to David Halberstam’s One Very Hot Day—turns a single military action into a microcosm of an entire war.
       (Publishers Weekly)

Abrams follows his award-winning debut with a more empathetic but no less bitter take on the Iraq War. In the Land of Not Good, Staff Sgt. Raphael Morgan, “dismembered but not disremembered,” has been killed by an improvised explosive device, “obscene pieces of him flying through the bomb-bloom air.” A band of brothers, troops he led, has decided to attend his memorial service at FOB Saro across Baghdad from their Taji camp. However, officers have denied permission. That’s irrelevant to troopers Arrow, Park, Drew, O, Cheever, and Fish. They steal a Humvee and go AWOL. The Humvee breaks its drive shaft, and the six, edging past death at every door, must hoof it across the “chaotic center of terrorism” amid “al-Qaeda, Mahdi, Ba’ath, and Badr clashing their ideologies and ambitions of evil.” Abrams offers an unusual narrative, first person plural, with points of view discernible only by process of elimination, a subtle reframing of the Rashomon effect. Chapters are long and short, one a mere 38 words, another a prose poem that’s an homage to legs, the infantryman’s mode of transportation. With multiple narrators, each trooper is seen through a different squad member’s eyes. There’s Arrow, distant son of more distant parents, who falls naturally into a leadership role, or the Hajji-hating Fish, years of promotions and demotions turning him into the private soldier with a “shine of gray at his temples” and the ability to shoot prisoners without remorse. As the six march across Baghdad, the heat, dust, and broken buildings stand as warnings until the M4 action explodes in short, spare declarative sentences, every bullet another shot at the cruel and illogical aspects of war. A powerful story on its surface, a soldier’s story laced with vulgarities and gallows humor, but also a story holding deeper interpretations of our troubled Middle Eastern misadventures.
       (Kirkus Reviews)

In his first novel, Fobbit, David Abrams had his satirical way with Iraq War soldiers who lived inside Houston Barricades, lounging at Burger Kings and Dairy Queens on the army’s FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). Abrams had been one of them, serving 20 years as a military journalist. But on the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah, the grunts got their chow in MREs salted with blowing sand. Their only protection from unseen hostile insurgents was a “hillybilly armored” Humvee, their “battle rattle” gear and a squad of alert buddies. Brave Deeds is the story of six such soldiers at Camp Taji, who steal a Humvee to drive across Baghdad to attend the officers-only funeral of their sergeant, killed by an IED. Told by an unnamed member of this motley crew, it is a story as old as The Odyssey--soldiers far from home on a less-than-rational and dangerous journey. When the Humvee’s drive shaft freezes an hour into their mission, they abandon the disabled vehicle, radio and maps to avoid a potential sitting-duck attack, and begin to hoof it to the funeral through unfamiliar streets amid Iraqi citizens. As the narrator puts it: “The situation had gone from bad to totally f**ked... there we were, a cluster of dumb in the middle of Baghdad.” In short chapters, Abrams fleshes out each of these unlikely comrades. As the favorite of the dead sergeant, Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos steps up to take charge, but is as clueless as the others when it comes to navigating the city’s dicey alleys and open-air markets. Abrams’ sarcastic narrator doesn’t miss the metaphor: “We’re all blind men feeling our way across Baghdad; Arrow just happens to be the one in front with the cane.” Cheever is an overweight whiner. Fish has a history of crime and violence back home. O hasn’t gotten over losing his ex-wife. Park is a silent Korean American with overbearing parents. Drew is obsessed with the high school sweetheart who got away. Some are gung-ho for the war and “worship at the First Church of Bush.” Others joined up for the money. Whatever their reasons, they share the ordeal: “We walk. Through the dust, through the thirst, through the sunbake, and now, through the Iraqis filtering into the marketplace with their goats, their dishdashas, their wind-flipped magazines, their snapping teeth, their cooking smoke.” The men in Brave Deeds (and they’re all men) crack funny, gripe at their buddies, and, with reason, fear the unseen. A car full of armed Sunnis opens fire in a public square, killing children, beggars and mothers. A feral dog is run over. A wedding groom is blown apart in a mortar attack. The squad is lured into a wild firefight where a family held hostage by a bomb-making operation is slaughtered. With compact precision and the amusing patter of a sardonic narrator, Abrams captures the unusual histories of these ordinary men shuffling through Baghdad as they encounter the horrors of war. They may be AWOL on a personal mission outside command protocol, but they are heroes in their own ways and perform small brave deeds in the midst of half-baked chaos.
       (Shelf Awareness)

And finally, this dispatch from the Time Now blog in which reviewer Peter Molin makes me sound way better than I am:

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth--is the most kind, gentle, and sweet soul imaginable, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that most junior enlisted rightly assess them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: lots of contemporary war fiction attempts to portray the worldview of junior enlisted—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clich├ęs, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least.

Pre-order Brave Deeds here or here




Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sunday Sentence: We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister


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


The autumn sun felt like a quilt.

We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister