Monday, October 15, 2018

My First Time: Lee Zacharias


My First Lesson Learned

If book tours were a thing when Houghton Mifflin published my first novel in 1981, I’m sure I would have had one. My publisher had big expectations: ads in the Washington Post and New York Times, an auction for paperback rights with a minimum bid of six figures, a first press run of 30,000 copies. That the novel didn't sell anywhere near 30,000 copies, that the one company offering the minimum six figures was immediately sold to another that was iffy about my novel—let’s just say those things happened later. The excitement of my editor, the offshoot sales—Book of the Month Club, Redbook, foreign rights—actually seemed normal. Never mind that my first book, a collection of short stories, had been published with a press run of 1,000 by a university press. I was teaching at Princeton and often had lunch with Joyce Carol Oates. At parties I met Nobel laureates at the kitchen sink and overheard authors like Peter Benchley (remember Jaws?) saying that they didn’t feel they’d been published if the first press run wasn’t 100,000. At readings I sat next to Carlos Fuentes. Richard Ford was a good friend. Yet once, as Joyce and I were walking back from lunch through the Princeton Gardens, she stopped to exclaim, “This is Princeton, Lee!” I recognized the awe in her voice, because I too was from a lower middle class family who could never have dreamed of sending a child to Princeton, let alone having one who taught there.

So many copies of my first novel were remaindered that a company that makes safes out of leftover books bought up mine. Lessons was at the top of the stack in one of their ads in Parade, cover open to reveal the hollowed out pages and velvet lining, pearls spilling from inside. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” was the ad’s slogan, and though the small print warned that you couldn’t specify a title, the clerk I spoke with on the phone was so impressed that I was the author she gave me the company president’s number. The president promised to send as many copies as I wanted as soon as she received my check. I had given up on receiving them by the time her apology arrived, my uncashed check enclosed. When she had gone to the warehouse, my title was out of stock, she explained, ending with a cheery “It truly was a best seller.”

Fast-forward to 2014. I’ve just published a collection of personal essays, which I’ve been writing with some success over the past decade. My publisher is an excellent small press, and by now even a book of essays requires a tour. Asheville’s Malaprops is a prize—nearly all of my friends have read there, but the store turned me down the year before, when a much smaller press issued my second novel. I explore the newly hip downtown and take a picture of The Only Sounds We Make, prominently displayed in the window next to all the best-selling authors with new books. Unexpected friends show up—friends from Chattanooga who happened to be in town. Another friend, strangers. It’s not a huge audience, but as I read I can see on their faces I have their full attention. There’s not a moment of awkward silence when I ask for questions, and we’re in the middle of a lively conversation when a siren goes off. Everyone looks at one another. No one seems quite sure what to do, but then the fire trucks arrive, and in come the firemen in full gear, bearing axes. The store is evacuated. For a while my audience stands on the street with me, though as time drags on all but my friends drift away. It’s a false alarm—sort of. Malaprops sits on a hill, and beneath the back of the store, facing a side street, there is a popular restaurant with a kitchen that occasionally has a pan overheat. But by the time the firemen depart, hoses unused, the bookstore has closed. Still, if you can leave Princeton and not publish another novel for years, you can leave Malaprops without a single sale knowing that at least a lot of people own book safes with your name on them, and maybe, just maybe, the people who heard you tonight will remember it when you come back to read from your next book.


Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We MakeAt Random was a finalist in literary fiction for the 2013 International Book Awards, the National Indie Lit Awards, and the USA Best Book Awards. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, including, among others, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Five Points, Gettysburg Review, and Crab Orchard Review.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy


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


My life was going by. Year. Cake. Year. Cake.

“Circus Youth” from Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Fall of Gondolin by J. R. R. Tolkien and A Middle-Earth Traveler by John Howe


Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Godsend by John Wray.

This week’s giveaway is a Lord of the Rings prize pack for fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy series. First is the newly-released book by Tolkien: The Fall of Gondolin. It’s edited by the author’s son, Christopher, and illustrated by Alan Lee. I also have a nice hardbound copy of the lavishly-illustrated A Middle-Earth Traveler by John Howe. Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest.


In the Tale of The Fall of Gondolin are two of the greatest powers in the world. There is Morgoth of the uttermost evil, unseen in this story but ruling over a vast military power from his fortress of Angband. Deeply opposed to Morgoth is Ulmo, second in might only to Manwë, chief of the Valar: he is called the Lord of Waters, of all seas, lakes, and rivers under the sky. But he works in secret in Middle-earth to support the Noldor, the kindred of the Elves among whom were numbered Húrin and Túrin Turambar. Central to this enmity of the gods is the city of Gondolin, beautiful but undiscoverable. It was built and peopled by Noldorin Elves who, when they dwelt in Valinor, the land of the gods, rebelled against their rule and fled to Middle-earth. Turgon King of Gondolin is hated and feared above all his enemies by Morgoth, who seeks in vain to discover the marvellously hidden city, while the gods in Valinor in heated debate largely refuse to intervene in support of Ulmo’s desires and designs. Into this world comes Tuor, cousin of Túrin, the instrument of Ulmo’s designs. Guided unseen by him Tuor sets out from the land of his birth on the fearful journey to Gondolin, and in one of the most arresting moments in the history of Middle-earth the sea-god himself appears to him, rising out of the ocean in the midst of a storm. In Gondolin he becomes great; he is wedded to Idril, Turgon’s daughter, and their son is Eärendel, whose birth and profound importance in days to come is foreseen by Ulmo. At last comes the terrible ending. Morgoth learns through an act of supreme treachery all that he needs to mount a devastating attack on the city, with Balrogs and dragons and numberless Orcs. After a minutely observed account of the fall of Gondolin, the tale ends with the escape of Túrin and Idril, with the child Eärendel, looking back from a cleft in the mountains as they flee southward, at the blazing wreckage of their city. They were journeying into a new story, the Tale of Eärendel, which Tolkien never wrote, but which is sketched out in this book from other sources. Following his presentation of Beren and Lúthien Christopher Tolkien has used the same ‘history in sequence’ mode in the writing of this edition of The Fall of Gondolin. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, it was ‘the first real story of this imaginary world’ and, together with Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin, he regarded it as one of the three ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days.



Take a tour through Middle-earth with illustrator and Tolkien conceptual designer John Howe. A Middle-earth Traveler presents a walking tour of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, visiting not only places central to his stories, but also those just over the hill or beyond the horizon. Events from Tolkien’s books are explored—battles of the different ages that are almost legend by the time of The Lord of the Rings; lost kingdoms and ancient myths, as well as those places only hinted at: kingdoms of the far North and lands beyond the seas. Sketches that have an ‘on-the-spot’ feel to them are interwoven with illustrator John Howe’s observations gleaned from Tolkien’s books and recollections of his time spent in Middle-earth while working alongside Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies. Combining concept work produced for films, existing Middle-earth art, and many new paintings and sketches exclusive to this book, A Middle-earth Traveler will take the reader on a unique and unforgettable journey across Tolkien’s magical landscape.

If you’d like a chance at winning both books, 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 Oct. 18, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 19. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Sunday Sentence: One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray


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


I admire the three-years-and-running commitment
the neighbor’s dog has made to going apeshit with barking
whenever she sees me arrive home,
as if I were the first man she’s ever seen.

One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray


Friday, October 5, 2018

Friday Freebie: Godsend by John Wray


Congratulations to Benjamin L. Clark, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Collector’s Apprentice by B. A. Shapiro.

This week’s giveaway is for Godsend by John Wray, author of Lowboy (I’m a fan). Check out this fantastic praise for Godsend: “I’ve just spent every spare moment in a fever heat reading Godsend, and I’m truly dazzled by its daring literal and psychological border-crossings, its tonal complexity, and its pitiless compassion. Nothing is foreign to John Wray’s imagination. I hope I can write half as fearlessly one day.” That’s from Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, who knows a thing or two about writing fearlessly good fiction. And, hey, how about that cover? It’s already one of my favorites of the year...Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest.


Inspired by the story of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” Whiting Award–winning author John Wray explores the circumstances that could impel a young American to abandon identity and home to become an Islamist militant. Like many other eighteen-year-olds, Aden Sawyer is intently focused on a goal: escape from her hometown. Her plan will take her far from her mother’s claustrophobic house, where the family photos have all been turned to face the wall; far from the influence of her domineering father―a professor of Islamic studies―and his new wife. Aden’s dream, however, is worlds removed from conventional fantasies of teen rebellion: she is determined to travel to Peshawar, Pakistan, to study Islam at a madrasa. To do so, she takes on a new identity, disguising herself as a young man named Suleyman. Aden fully commits to this new life, even burning her passport to protect her secret. But once she is on the ground, she finds herself in greater danger than she could possibly have imagined. Faced with violence, disillusionment, and loss, Aden must make choices that will test not only her faith but also her most fundamental understanding of who she is, and that will set her on a wild, fateful course toward redemption by blood. John Wray’s Godsend is a coming-of-age novel like no other.

If you’d like a chance at winning Godsend, 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 Oct. 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 12. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Monday, October 1, 2018

My First Time: Darrin Doyle


Stuart Dybek
My First Writing Workshop

My first workshop in the Master of Fine Arts program at Western Michigan University was taught by Stuart Dybek. The class met, as most graduate workshops do, in the evening. I remember being nervous but excited by the sense that I was now joining the “big leagues” so to speak. I was thrilled to have the chance to enter a community of people who devoured literature and longed to create art. I had taken undergraduate workshops, but I was optimistic, quite honestly, that this class would do nothing less than usher me into a new life. At age 25, I had finally begun to sniff at the possibility of a career rather than a menial job (of which I had worked a dozen in my life at this point).

Stuart (he told us to call him Stu) had asked a second-year MFA student to bring copies of a story to class for discussion. Since the class only met once a week (this pre-dated electronic story distribution), Stu wanted to hit the ground running. The idea was that the class would take a 30-minute recess, disperse to find a comfortable nook where we could read this short-ish story (8 pages or so), comment on it, and re-convene to workshop it.

The workshopping second-year student in question (I’ll call him Frank) was an older gentleman of medium build, probably in his early 40s. He had longish hair beginning to go gray. I offer this description for visualizing purposes only.

The story was a Vietnam War story. I don’t recall much detail about it; it was decently written. Nothing terribly good or terribly bad. After our short break the class gathered, and we engaged in what I thought was a productive discussion about the story’s strengths and weaknesses. From my perspective, it felt great. We talked seriously and deeply for a solid 40 minutes, balancing praise with suggestions; nothing contentious or controversial was mentioned. When we were finished, Stu asked Frank if he had any comments or questions for the group.

I’ll never forget the pregnant pause and the way Frank drew a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. “I could go point-by-point,” Frank said, “and tell you all why you are wrong. But I’m not going to do that.” There was a definite change in the air at this point. “Andre Dubus says that the danger of workshops is that other people will tell you how they would write the story rather than how the story needs to be written. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Stu flashed a bemused look, then a resigned one, raised his eyebrows, and said, “See you all next week.” We were dismissed. I wandered around outside on the way to my car, encountering another new MFA student. We both were pretty shell-shocked and angry. Why had we bothered to read and comment on this dude’s story if he clearly didn’t want or need our advice?

Happily, this experience turned out to be the exception rather than the rule in graduate school. Over the next three years, I completed my MFA; a few years after that, I earned my PhD in literature with a creative dissertation. The vast majority of my workshops were extremely helpful, and I wouldn’t have accomplished anywhere near what I’ve accomplished without the help and guidance of my mentors and peers. Over the years, in addition to working with Stuart Dybek I’ve received invaluable guidance from amazing writers/teachers like Jaimy Gordon, Elizabeth McCracken, Brock Clarke, Michael Griffith, Denis Johnson, and Christine Schutt. My peers, too, provided inspiration, wisdom, eagle eyes, and a feeling of camaraderie for which I will always be indebted.

Often we’re warned about the dreaded “workshop story” – that piece of writing whose vitality has been sapped by too many grad school critiques; that piece of art once rife with potential now beaten and crushed into something lifeless, something safe and tepid and designed to please everyone (therefore pleasing no one). I’m sure that at times creative writing workshops can have this result. However, my experiences reflect the opposite: the workshop as a safe place of experimentation, of exploration, of inspiration. I could never be the writer I am today without these experiences to challenge and push me.

These days I’m the teacher in the workshop, and fortunately I haven’t had any Franks in my classes. I sometimes miss being the student and having the opportunity to share my newest stories with a diverse group of smart folks. The truth is, however, that my students’ writing and conversation–and enthusiasm–continues to inspire my fiction year after year.

Here’s hoping Frank is finding inspiration in his writing life, too.


Darrin Doyle is the author of Scoundrels Among Us, a short-story collection now out from Tortoise Books. has lived in Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Cincinnati, Louisville, Osaka (Japan), and Manhattan (Kansas). He has worked as a paperboy, mover, janitor, telemarketer, pizza delivery driver, door-to-door salesman, copy consultant, porn store clerk, freelance writer, and technical writer, among other jobs. After graduating from Western Michigan University with an MFA in fiction, he taught English in Japan for a year. He then earned his PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press) and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s), and the short story collection The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books). His short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Harpur Palate, Redivider, BULL, and Puerto del Sol, among others. He currently teaches at Central Michigan University and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with his wife and two sons.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.