Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Townie by Andre Dubus III


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


With physical violence there was always the wreckage after, not just the bruises and lacerations, the chipped teeth or fractured bones, there was a hangover of the spirit, as if all those punches and kicks had pushed you into a gray and treeless landscape where love and forgiveness were hard to find.

Townie by Andre Dubus III


Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis


Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Underworld by Kevin Canty.

This week’s contest is for The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis. And speaking of Kevin Canty, here’s what he had to say about The Dark and Other Love Stories: “A bright, adventurous, and lively collection. Deborah Willis seems to be able to go anywhere and do anything, taking the reader from the Ukraine to Mars. Beautifully told and strangely moving, these stories made the world seem like a slightly different and much more interesting place after I had read them.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


The characters in these thirteen masterful and engaging stories exist on the edge of danger, where landscapes melt into dreamscapes and every house is haunted. A drug dealer’s girlfriend signs up for the first manned mission to Mars. A girl falls in love with a man who wants to turn her into a bird. A teenaged girl and her best friend test their relationship by breaking into suburban houses. A wife finds a gaping hole in the floor of the home she shares with her husband, a hole that only she can see. Full of longing and strange humor, these subtle, complex stories―about the love between a man and his pet crow, an alcoholic and his AA sponsor, a mute migrant and a newspaper reporter―show how love ties us to each other and to the world. The Dark and Other Love Stories announces the emergence of a wonderfully gifted storyteller whose stories enlarge our perceptions about the human capacity to love.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Dark and Other Love Stories, 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 March 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 3. 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, February 20, 2017

My First Time: Bren McClain



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 Bren McClain, author of One Good Mama Bone. She was born and raised in Anderson, South Carolina, on a beef cattle and grain farm. She has a degree in English from Furman University; is an experienced media relations, radio, and television news professional; and currently works as a communications confidence coach. She is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and the recipient of the 2005 Fiction Fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission. McClain won the 2016 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress for Took and was a finalist in the 2012 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novel-in-Progress for One Good Mama Bone. McClain will be touring throughout the South as well as in other parts of the country. To learn more, please visit her website, her Facebook page, or connect with her on Twitter or Instagram.


The First Time a Story Chose Me
and What I Learned

It was June 1994, and I was living in midtown Atlanta. My next-door neighbor, a man named Ron, called me to his front porch. He was white-haired, deeply sun-tanned and drove a white convertible Cadillac. I had never had a long conversation with him in the nine months I had lived beside him.

He motioned me towards a white wicker chair, lit a cigarette and said, “I’ve been carrying around a secret since I was a boy, six years old. My mama made me promise I’d never tell a soul about what happened this one night outside of Birmingham. And I’ve been true to that.” He took a long drag and blew smoke into the air, so hot the smoke had nowhere to go. “But I can’t be true to it no more. I turned 60 today.”

I swallowed and wanted to tell him “Happy Birthday,” but I could not talk.

“I’m only telling you this,” he said, “because I know you’re a writer.”

I wrapped my fingers around the end of the chair arms and squeezed. It made a squeaking sound.

He proceeded to tell me his mother woke him from sleep that night and summoned him to the kitchen, where their neighbor was lying on their table. She was having a baby. Ron’s mother delivered it, made him watch, and then did something horrible, forcing him to be a part of it.

Sitting there on that porch, Ron did not cry, but I thought he would. I told him, “I’m sorry.”

This was the first time a story chose me, the first time I would write something not made of what is known as “whole cloth.” Before then, I had made up stories, let my imagination run wild. But here was this man handing me a story. And what a story it was.

I left the porch and told myself I should make notes, so I wouldn’t forget. But I dared not write one word down.

It would be six years before I did. I would be in Assisi, Italy, taking a writing workshop with acclaimed writer Dorothy Allison, who gave us a prompt to write about a mother. That afternoon I sat in the open window of my room, looked out over the 12th-century buildings still standing and wrote these first lines: One night my mama came to my bedroom door and said, “Emerson Bridge, you come with me. You come with me right now.” She was talking fast and loud.

I wrote the entire scene, just as Ron had described it, from little Emerson Bridge’s point of view. When I read it aloud in class the next day, Dorothy’s eyes on fire, she said, “Kick some butt, McClain.” I would write the entire book, spinning forth from that opening scene. I fell in love with the mother as I wrote, named her Sarah Creamer, and came to understand why she did what she did, which I will tell you now. She delivered the baby, then dropped the baby on its head on the floor, and then made the little boy help her bury it in the back yard.

No one else fell in love with Sarah. In fact, many called her a “monster.” I had written a failed novel. A brilliant editor told me, “We don’t see the love you have for Sarah on the page. We see her full of inadequacy. Show us her magnificence. In fact, begin with it.”

I realized I had to transform what happened that night. Ron never said, but in my heart, I knew the baby was the product of an affair between his father and the neighbor lady, whose husband was off at war. In writing that first version, I had come to know that Sarah felt inadequate as a mother. What if she delivered the baby, and her neighbor refused to take the child, fearing her husband would kill her and the baby when he returned. And what if Sarah had to push past her fear of inadequacy and do the right thing by the child and take him?

I threw out 95 percent of what I had written and rewrote the book, casting Sarah as the hero she did not yet know herself to be. That book became One Good Mama Bone, published this month by Pat Conroy’s fiction imprint, Story River Books.

I learned a valuable lesson. A story may have chosen you, but it doesn’t have to remain that exact story. It could be used as starter dough.

What a gift this man, Ron, gave me. Thank you, sir.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


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


The flowing sugar gown of Lady Liberty descended like drapery upon a Chinese pagoda, inside of which, in a pond of candy floss, swam miniature fish of chocolate.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Underworld by Kevin Canty


Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Kevin Canty, The Underworld. I have a hardcover copy to give away to one lucky reader. Deborah Reed, author of Olivay and The Things We Set on Fire, had this to say about Canty’s novel: “The Underworld pierces with busted hearts, broken families, and the gristly days of work and drink that bind them. A lovely, melodic, and unsparing look at small-town life in the West.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

In The Underworld, Kevin Canty tells a story that begins with a disastrous fire inspired by a true incident in an isolated silver mining town in Idaho in the 1970s. Everyone in town had a friend, a lover, a brother, a husband killed in the mine. The Underworld imagines the lives of a handful of survivors and their loved ones: Jordan, a young widow with twin children; David, a college student trying to make a life for himself in another town; Lionel, a lifelong hard-rock miner as they struggle to come to terms with the loss. It’s a tough, hard-working, hard-drinking town, a town of prostitutes and priests and bar fights, but nobody’s tough enough to get through this undamaged. A powerful and unforgettable tale about small-town lives and the healing power of love in the midst of suffering.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Underworld, 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 Feb. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 24. 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.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Souvenirs and Other Stories by Matt Tompkins


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


There’s a family of mountain lions living in my basement.

“Seeking Advice and/or Assistance
re: Mountain Lions”
from Souvenirs and Other Stories by Matt Tompkins


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Stories of Frederick Busch


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


I was nine years old, and starting to age.

“The Settlement of Mars” from The Stories of Frederick Busch


Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday Freebie: Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff


Congratulations to Lynn Koeppen, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.

This week’s contest is for Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff. Here’s what Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi, had to say about Questioning Return: “The brainy, conflicted heroine of Beth Kissileff’s heart-stirring debut novel Questioning Return goes to Israel to interview Jews who have come home to a tradition once lost to them. The process launches her on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic adventure that will change your understanding of what it means to truly belong. An eloquent and absorbing achievement.” Keep reading for more information about the novel...

A year in Jerusalem questioning American Jews who “return” to Israel and to traditional religion changes Wendy Goldberg’s life forever. Every year, 700,000 Americans visit Israel. Wendy Goldberg spends a year in Jerusalem questioning the lives of American Jews who do “Aliya”—a return both to Israel itself and to traditional religious practices. Are they sincere? Are they happier? The unexpected answers and Wendy’s experiences (a bus bombing, a funeral, an unexpected suicide, a love affair, and a lawsuit) lead her to reconsider her own true Jewish identity. The ambitious graduate student is certain she’s on the path to academic glory. But from the moment her plane takes off Wendy is confronted with unanswerable questions of faith and identity. As she becomes immersed in the rhythm of Israeli life, her sense of distance from it fades. Her ability to be an outside observer terminates abruptly when a student commits a horrible act immediately after his interview with her. Wendy is not sure how or if she is implicated in his action, but in her search for understanding, she is led to knowledge and love in unforeseen places.

Be sure to check out Beth’s “My First Time” essay here at The Quivering Pen.

If you’d like a chance at winning Questioning Return, 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 Feb. 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Books for Dark Political Times: Michael Copperman’s Library



Reader:  Michael Copperman
Location:  Eugene, Oregon
Collection Size:  Five hundred books
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  I Have a Dream: The March on Washington by Emma Gelders Sterne
Favorite book from childhood:  James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Guilty pleasure book:  Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

My personal library is small. I live in a converted garage and rent out the rooms of my house, and I have boxes and boxes of books away in storage and in my office at the university. My awkward little secret is that I am often not much of a reader of contemporary fiction—I tend to read poetry as one consumes fuel, and keep those books thrown about the living room, where just now I am reading the collected work of Langston Hughes as if it might save my life. With everything else, I am immensely selective, and more likely when I am deep in work and process to reread something essential to me which speaks of mystery than I am to begin the latest NY Times bestseller. For instance, I have read Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours, five times, and would gladly begin it again. I have read the collected stories of Chekhov two or three times, and these days, every couple months I read his great short story “The Student,” an irreducible and indescribable little short about immanence, which in that story is the suggestion of imminence in the absence of wisdom, meaning, and God.


I keep the books which I am intending to read in a stack atop the rest on the right shelf on one side of the bed—books by friends or acquaintances, gifts, books which I feel I need to read or should have read. Sometimes books jump the queue that demand attention—on top now is a book by my great-grandmother, the writer Emma Gelders Sterne, I Have a Dream: The March on Washington which was published in 1965.

Recently I pulled that book from my father’s shelves of all Emma’s books as if drawn to it—to find a note from my father to me, his unborn son, five years before my birth, charging me with bearing on his grandmother’s legacy of writing, activism, compassion, and justice. As this is one of Emma’s books I did not read in my childhood, and speaks of a strength and solidarity and rising up I feel I may need to summon now, in these dark political times, I am excited to begin.

Atop the left shelf are books I’ve pulled from the shelves because I needed to read them as I work to complete an essay or my novel-in-progress—usually books which have been a long love of mine, or have particular resonance. So it is that Cesar Vallejo, translated by Roberty Bly and James Wright, sits atop that shelf. Vallejo, the music of my heart on big sad days of reckoning. So it is that Hamlet, has been set to the top, too, in this bitter winter, as has Willa Cather’s Five Stories, perhaps her least known work, but so large in lyric and retrospective force. I turn to these books as if to a holy book, a source—they do not directly instruct me, but their art and ethos are somewhere so near to what is in me as I work that they show me a way.


Michael Copperman is the author of Teacher, a memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. He has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. Visit www.mikecopperman.com for more information about Michael and his book. 

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Nice Things People Have Said about Brave Deeds



Exactly six months from today, my second novel Brave Deeds will be out in the world. I’m very proud of this book and hope those of you who read it will find it to be even better than Fobbit (though, in truth, it’s a horse of a slightly different color―a little more sober and serious than the screwball tour of duty experienced by Chance Gooding Jr., Abe Shrinkle, et al). And if you don’t find it’s your cup of tea, that’s okay; I’ll just work harder to make the next book even better yet.

Some early readers have already chimed in on Brave Deeds and I am eternally grateful for their comments. They are all busy artists and for them to take time out from their schedules to not only read the book but say nice things about it means the world to me. It’s true: a writer is kept afloat on the rough seas of publishing and bookselling by the community that supports him or her beneath the waves.

First, a synopsis of what waits for you on the pages of Brave Deeds:
Spanning eight hours, the novel follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. Cut off from all communication with their company headquarters back on the base, they find themselves struggling to survive in an inhospitable landscape. As the men make their way to the funeral, they recall the most ancient of warriors while portraying a cross section of twenty-first-century America: sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but subject to the same human flaws as all of us. Drew is reliable in the field but unfaithful at home. Cheever, overweight and whining, is a friend to no one—least of all himself. Specialist Olijandro, or O, is distracted by dangerous romantic thoughts of his ex-wife. Fish’s propensity for violence is what drew him to the military and could be a catalyst for the day’s events. Park is the quiet one, but his quick thinking may make him the day’s hero. And platoon commander Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos is stalwart, yet troubled with questions about his own identity and sexuality. As the six march across Baghdad, their complicated histories, hopes, and fears are told in a chorus of voices that merge into a powerful portrait of the modern war zone and the deepest concerns of us all, military and civilian alike.
Brave Deeds perfectly captures the strange mixture of camaraderie, humor, beauty and brutality experienced by men at war. It reads like a fever dream, like unvarnished documentary truth, and sometimes like both at once.”  (Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment)

“In one very full, very messed up and hair-raising day, Brave Deeds delivers everything we could ever ask for in a novel, no less than birth, death, and all points in between. David Abrams has written a flat-out brilliant book of the Iraq War, one that reads like a compact version of the Odyssey or Going After Cacciato. Soldiers on a journey―it’s one of humankind’s oldest stories, and Abrams has given us the latest dispatch from the field, to stunning effect.”  (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

“At the beginning of Brave Deeds I was laughing out loud, and enjoying the feeling of being among the Army squad, even one making an insane walk through Baghdad. But by the end of the book I was silent: I was really undone by it. David Abrams has done something very powerful, drawing together the different layers of this story so beautifully, and drawing us down below the surface to a place of darkness and sadness. It’s a tour de force. Bravo.”  (Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta)

“I have never read another author with David Abrams’s uncanny knack for laugh-out-loud sarcasm one instant and gutting compassion in the next. If there’s a situation more emblematic of the forever wars―in league with Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk―I can’t imagine it. By the end Abrams had me holding my heart in my hands. Brave Deeds is hilarious, subversive, devastating, beautiful, human, and written with the kind of skillful light touch we expect from master fiction writers.”  (Andria Williams, author of The Longest Night)

“A dizzying rush of a story, Brave Deeds serves as a testament to the manifold acts of courage and folly demanded by soldiering. David Abrams writes with moxie, and this odyssey across Baghdad cements his standing as one of our most indispensable chroniclers of contemporary war.”  (Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood)

Thank you Phil, Ben, Roxana, Andria and Matt for your amazing generosity!