Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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

"Oh Maria..." I cried.  "I'm sorry."  And I was clearly not the first brute to cry in her presence, either, because she knew just what was needed, unbuttoning the top of her blue dress and putting my head between her breasts, whispering, "Shh, Wisconsin, shh," her skin so soft and butter-sweet, so wet with my tears that I cried harder and she said, "Shh, Wisconsin," and I buried my face between those breasts as if her skin were my home, as if Wisconsin lay there, and to this day, it is the greatest place I have ever been, that narrow ribbed valley between those lovely hills.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Front Porch Books: March 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck (New American Library):  Every literary year has trends, whether it's 50 Shades of Gray triggering a whipcrack of S&M imitators or a coincidental congregation of Amish romance novels ("bonnet rippers").  By all accounts, 2013 will be the Year of Zelda.  In the coming months, new titles about F. Scott Fitzgerald's doomed wife will be gathering like chatty cocktail party guests in your local bookstore: Z by Therese Fowler, Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo, Guests on Earth by Lee Smith, and Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck.  While I'm interested in all of them (primarily because I don't know as much about Zelda as I'd like), it's Robuck's novel which holds my attention front and center.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
From New York to Paris, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reigned as king and queen of the Jazz Age, seeming to float on champagne bubbles above the mundane cares of the world. But to those who truly knew them, the endless parties were only a distraction from their inner turmoil, and from a love that united them with a scorching intensity. When Zelda is committed to a Baltimore psychiatric clinic in 1932, vacillating between lucidity and madness in her struggle to forge an identity separate from her husband, the famous writer, she finds a sympathetic friend in her nurse, Anna Howard. Held captive by her own tragic past, Anna is increasingly drawn into the Fitzgeralds’ tumultuous relationship. As she becomes privy to Zelda’s most intimate confessions, written in a secret memoir meant only for her, Anna begins to wonder which Fitzgerald is the true genius. But in taking ever greater emotional risks to save Zelda, Anna may end up paying a far higher price than she intended.
And here are the Opening Lines:
      The ward was never the same after that February afternoon when Zelda Fitzgerald stumbled into the psychiatric clinic with a stack of papers clutched to her chest, eyes darting this way and that, at once pushing from and pulling toward her husband like a spinning magnet.
      I opened my arms to her. She would not look at me, her nurse, or allow me to touch her, but walked next to me down the hallway to her room. We left Mr. Fitzgerald at the desk preparing to meet with the resident in charge of his wife's case, when Mrs. Fitzgerald suddenly stopped and ran back to him, nearly knocking him over with her force. Her husband wrapped his arms around her and kissed her hair with an intensity that filled me with longing and squeezed my heart. They both began to cry like two lost, scared children. They were not what I expected in any way.
From the looks of it, Robuck's novel will be an unexpected delight to read.

North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey by Shannon Huffman Polson (Zondervan):  In the world of "elevator pitches," I can imagine Shannon Huffman Polson would have publishers hooked before the elevator had ascended even one floor: "After my parents were killed by a grizzly in Alaska, I retraced their route along that Arctic river in a journey of faith and healing."  I've known Shannon via social media for more than a year and had the opportunity to meet her in person when I had a reading at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books last week.  She is a bright, friendly, adventurous soul and of all the books on my radar for 2013, North of Hope has been pinging the loudest.  Now that it's finally landed on my front porch, I can't wait to start reading her personal story of hope and healing.  Opening Lines:
      The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska. I braced myself against the seat in front of me. Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky. The airstrip rushed upward with menacing inevitability. Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Arctic Coastal Plain. Ice stretched from just offshore to the horizon. The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk, first one wheel and then the other staggering on the rough surface. Our bodies lurched forward and to the side. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels until the sound smoothed into a rhythmic bumping to the end of the runway.
      As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece. I stood on the boundary between land and sea, water and ice. It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule.
      As much as I pretended that courage motivated my trip, my arrival was a supplication born of a bewildering devastation I could not shake. I came on my knees, begging and desperate.
Blurbworthiness: "Daring, perceptive and eloquent…Polson's writing is clear and forceful. Like all true pilgrimages, this one is challenging, and well worth taking." (Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Private History of Awe)

River of Dust by Virginia Pye (Unbridled Books):  Unbridled Books has been keeping my bookshelves well-stocked for years and I know I can count on quality literature whenever I open one of their large mailing envelopes found on my front doorstep.  Virginia Pye's debut novel looks like it will be among the best of what Unbridled has to offer.  Virginia will have an upcoming guest blog in the My First Time series, but I can offer this one spoiler alert now: it only took her 23 days to write the first draft of River of Dust.  It's the stuff of legends and, yes, the majority of us writers are filled with equal parts admiration and jealousy at the thought of this accomplishment.  But there's also a bit of skepticism: could something written that quickly be any good?  Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to assure you that, based on the first chapter at least, River of Dust is a beautiful, enthralling piece of literature and more than amply meets Unbridled's high standards.  Here are the Opening Lines:
The Reverend loomed over the barren plain. He stared at the blank horizon as if in search of something, although to Grace’s eyes, nothing of significance was out there. Sunset burned his silhouette into a vast and gaudy sky. Standing tall in his long coat on the porch above his wife and son, he appeared to be a giant—grand and otherworldly. Perhaps this was how the Chinese saw him, she thought. Her husband spread his arms toward the blazing clouds and shadowed flatlands as if to say that all this was now in the Lord’s embrace. The breeze shifted, and billows of smoke circled their way. Grace watched the Reverend’s outline waft and shimmer. She would not have been surprised if his body had gone up in flames right there before her eyes, ignited in a holy conflagration with only a pile of ash left behind to mark his time on this earth. Grace shook the strange notion from her mind, although she wondered how so good a man could appear so sinister in such glorious light.
And here's the Jacket Copy:
On the windswept plains of northwestern China not long after the Boxer Rebellion, Mongol bandits swoop down upon an American missionary couple and kidnap their small child. As the Reverend sets out in search of the boy, he quickly loses himself in the rugged, corrupt, drought-stricken countryside populated by opium dens, sly nomadic warlords and traveling circuses. Grace, his young wife, pregnant with their second child, takes to her sick bed in the mission compound, where visions of her stolen child and lost husband begin to beckon to her from across the plains. The foreign couple’s capable and dedicated Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin, accompany and eventually lead them through dangerous territory to find one another again. With their Christian beliefs sorely tested, their concept of fate expanded, and their physical health rapidly deteriorating, the Reverend and Grace may finally discover an understanding between them that is greater than the vast distance they have come. Inspired in part by journals of her grandfather, who was himself an early missionary in China, Virginia Pye delivers a hypnotic, emotionally powerful, spiritually resonant debut that is at once both lyrical and dynamic.

Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz (Engine Books):  Engine Books, another small but scrappy publisher, is another supplier of front-porch packages which always assure editorial quality.  So far in their short history, they've only put out a few titles each year but that speaks volumes to the thoughtful editorial care they give each book.  Gregory Spatz's new collection of short stories promises to be one of the better books of short fiction being released this year--a year which already looks like it will see a mini-renaissance of short stories.  Not only do I like the book's cover design which diagonally splits it into two halves of dubious happiness, but perusing the first lines of the stories, I grow more and more excited for its contents.  Here, for instance, are the Opening Lines to "String," the final story in the collection:
We were not bad kids. We'd never stolen candy bars, tormented insects or smaller children, drowned cats. Our worst crime the previous summer: breaking into the Cassidys' back yard to float in their pool on a moonlit night and imagine one or all of the pretty young sisters who lived there coming out to join us, or leaning from the windows of the upper story bedrooms with their hair down and the straps of their nightgowns falling away.
Here's more evidence to tease us from the Jacket Copy:
A grieving couple rents a desperate landlord's house in an effort to recover lost intimacy. Twins are irrevocably separated by events both beyond and within their control. A nighttime prank and its gruesome aftermath forge human connections no one could have anticipated. The eight stories in Half as Happy reveal with startling clarity their characters' secrets, losses, and desires. Each with the depth of a novel, these insightful portraits of the darkness and light within us reverberate long after they've ended, like beautiful and disturbing dreams.

Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson (Harper):  If you cast Alfred Hitchcock as a character in a novel, you can be 100 percent assured that I'll be instantly hooked.  In Nicola Upson's new mystery, he is joined by another real-life persona: mystery novelist Josephine Tey.  I just swallowed another hook.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Summer, 1936: Josephine Tey joins her friends in the resort village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Alfred Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained—and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing—and no one—is quite what it seems. Based in part on the life of Josephine Tey—one of the most popular, best-loved crime writers of the Golden Age, Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight features legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock as a prominent character—and features the classic suspense and psychological tension that fans of Hitchcock films love.
I swallowed yet another barbed hook when I read these Opening Lines:
      "Do you mind if we stop for a moment?"
      "Sure." The detective sounded impatient, but he did as he  was asked and the staccato whirr of the projector gradually subsided. Archie Penrose closed his eyes, but the image of Josephine refused to go away. She sat on the hotel terrace in the afternoon sunlight, a little self-conscious in front of the camera but laughing nonetheless at something he had just said to her. He couldn’t remember what they had been talking about, and that annoyed him – irrationally, because the moment was eighteen years ago now and the conversation had been nothing more than easy holiday banter; but, since Josephine’s death, the gradual fragmentation of all she had been in his memory disturbed him, and any elusive detail stung him like a personal rebuke. He stood and lifted the blinds on the windows, aware that the American was watching him, waiting for an explanation. "I didn’t mean to upset you, sir," he said hesitantly, and the lazy drawl of his Californian accent gave the words an insolence which might or might not have been intentional. "There’s worse to come in the later footage. Much worse."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Friday Freebie: The City of Devi by Manil Suri, Leela's Book by Alice Albinia, Londoners by Craig Taylor

Congratulations to Jodi Paloni, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Darlings by Cristina Alger, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories by Johanna Skibsrud, and All That I Am by Anna Funder.

This week, one lucky reader has the chance to win a copy of three new books which take readers beyond the borders of the United States: The City of Devi by Manil Suri, Leela's Book by Alice Albinia, and Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor.

Manil Suri's The City of Devi is, according to the publisher's summary, a dazzling, multi-layered novel that not only encompasses a searing love story but, with its epic reach, encapsulates the fate of the world. Mumbai has emptied under the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation; gangs of marauding Hindu and Muslim thugs rove the desolate streets; yet Sarita can think of only one thing: buying the last pomegranate that remains in perhaps the entire city. She is convinced that the fruit holds the key to reuniting her with her physicist husband, Karun, who has been mysteriously missing for more than a fortnight. Searching for his own lover in the midst of this turmoil is Jaz—cocky, handsome, and glib. "The Jazter," as he calls himself, is Muslim, but his true religion has steadfastly been sex with men. Dodging danger at every step, both he and Sarita are inexorably drawn to Devi ma, the patron goddess who has reputedly appeared in person to save her city. What they find will alter their lives more fundamentally than any apocalypse to come. A wickedly comedic and fearlessly provocative portrayal of individuals balancing on the sharp edge of fate, The City of Devi brilliantly upends assumptions of politics, religion, and sex, and offers a terrifying yet exuberant glimpse of the end of the world.

In Leela's Book, Alice Albinia weaves a multi-threaded epic tale that encompasses divine saga and familial discord and introduces an unforgettable heroine. Leela—alluring, taciturn, haunted—is moving from New York back to Delhi. Worldly and accomplished, she has been in self-imposed exile from India and her family for decades; twenty-two years earlier, her sister was seduced by the egotistical Vyasa, and the fallout from their relationship drove Leela away. Now an eminent Sanskrit scholar, Vyasa is preparing for his son’s marriage. But when Leela arrives for the wedding, she disrupts the careful choreography of the weekend, with its myriad attendees and their conflicting desires. Gleefully presiding over the drama is Ganesh—divine, elephant-headed scribe of the Mahabharata, India’s great epic. The family may think they have arranged the wedding for their own selfish ends, but according to Ganesh it is he who is directing events—in a bid to save Leela, his beloved heroine, from Vyasa. As the weekend progresses, secret online personas, maternal identities, and poetic authorships are all revealed; boundaries both religious and continental are crossed; and families are ripped apart and brought back together in this vibrant and brilliant celebration of family, love, and storytelling.

The lengthy subtitle of Craig Taylor's Londoners neatly sums up this oral history of the city which gave us fog, Charles Dickens, and Big Ben.  Here's what the publisher adds by way of explanation: In Londoners, acclaimed journalist Craig Taylor paints an epic portrait of today’s London that is as rich and lively as the city itself. In the style of Studs Terkel (Working, Hard Times, The Good War) and Dave Isay (Listening Is an Act of Love), Londoners offers up the stories, the gripes, the memories, and the dreams of those in the great and vibrant British metropolis who “love it, hate it, live it, left it, and long for it,” from a West End rickshaw driver to a Soldier of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to a recovering heroin addict seeing Big Ben for the very first time. Londoners is a glorious literary celebration of one of the world’s truly great cities.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The City of Devi, Leela's Book, and Londoners, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on April 4at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on April 5.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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, March 27, 2013

My First Time: Elizabeth Benedict

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 Elizabeth Benedict, editor of What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, which will be released by Algonquin Books in April--just in time to pre-order it for Mothers Day (hint hint).  The book even has its own Tumblr page--check it out.  Benedict's five novels include the bestseller Almost and the National Book Award finalist, Slow Dancing. She’s the author of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers and the editor of Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their LivesClick here to visit her website, and visit her on Twitter at @ElizBenedict

My First Photo Shoot

November, 1985.  The Algonquin Hotel.  A heady moment – maybe four minutes into my fifteen minutes of fame.  Private party rooms at the hotel – yes, that Algonquin – and I was mingling with other writers, editors, and literati who wanted to rub elbows with those who’d been short-listed for the National Book Award.  That year there was a category for first novels, and my own, Slow Dancing, had made the cut.  Moments before, taking the elevator down from my room to the gathering, I’d thought of this event as my debut.  Was anyone ever so young (pace Joan Didion)?

I mingled.  I tried not to sound like an idiot.  Did my best to look like I was not the nervous wreck I was.  A man tapped me on the arm, said my name, and introduced himself.  Tom Victor.  He had a camera or two around his neck.  “Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.”  I had been ogling his beautiful author photos for years, ever since the famous paperback cover – front cover – of Susan Sontag’s short story collection, I, Etcetera, had come out in 1979, adorned with a startling Tom Victor photograph of her: sexy, provocative, a literary Odalisque, though she was fully clothed.

“Would you like to sit for me?” he asked.  “If I have a portfolio of photos, when Newsweek calls you, you just have them to call me, and I’ll show them what I have.  Are you up for that?”

Two days later, in a dreary downpour – after not winning the big prize – I showed up at Tom’s studio in Chelsea.  It was dark outside, but inside the vast loft were high white walls and bright lights of every kind, stray chairs and couches, and giant rolls of white background paper.

Tom was small, energetic, and wonderfully talkative.  “Why don’t you stand here and I’ll get some readings,” he said and started fooling with his light meter.

“I hate getting my picture taken,” I said.

“All the best writers do.”

“Really?”  I wondered if he’d read my book, the almost prize-winner.  He must have, or why would he have said that I’m a good writer?  (Was anyone ever so young?)

“Turn your head a little to the right.  Tilt your chin up.  That’s good.”

Snap, snap, click, click, click.  I felt like a sack of potatoes.  Why couldn’t I look like Susan Sontag in that famous photo?  Why did I have to look like me?

“You’re very pretty,” Tom said. My face wrinkled in disbelief. “But you need to hold your chin up more. Turn a little to the left.”  To demonstrate, he came to me and moved my head and touched my waist, doing something with the back of my shirt.  “Try that,” he said and touched my cheek.

He crossed the room and snapped dozens and dozens of pictures, and in the course of chatting about this and that, he asked if I had ever seen his work.

“Of course.  I’ve known the picture of Susan Sontag on I, Etcetera for years.”

“Susan’s my best friend.  I’ve taken pictures of her forever.”  As I glanced around, I noticed the backdrops of certain other jacket photos of Sontag, standing by a filing cabinet, by a sliding door. “You’re beautiful, Elizabeth, but you don’t hold yourself the way a beautiful woman should.”

I cringed every time he said something positive about my appearance, but it was usually accompanied by a personal visit and a touch or three to straighten my shirt or move my chin or turn my torso.  It was as though I were getting a series of mini-massages, and with each one, I felt more relaxed, and maybe even a tiny bit prettier.

“Sit on this chair,” he said, “and bring your chin forward.  That’s good.  That’s very good.  Gorgeous.  Have you heard about Edmund’s advance for the Reagan biography?  He got a million dollars.  A little to the left, chin down.  Eyes to the right.  Beautiful.”

Another mini-massage, his hand brushing my check, my shoulder, my waist.  Maybe he was right after all.  “Good, look a little to the left, oh, that’s great, that’s wonderful.  Don’t move.”

This went on for an hour.  The directions, the literary gossip, the intermittent massages, the you’re-so-beautiful-and-you’d-be-more-beautiful-if-you-believed-you-were-in-the-first-place.  And by the end of it, he had me convinced – not that I was beautiful, but that the way to take a good picture of someone who is not used to getting her picture taken is to seduce her into thinking she’s gorgeous.

Soon after, Tom sent me contact sheets of the hundreds of photos he had taken.  I picked out my favorites, and there they sat, in Tom’s studio.  Several years later, when my new novel was ready for production, my editor at Knopf tried to save money by sending me to a cheaper photographer – whose photos were terrible.

“Tom Victor has a file of good pictures,” I told my editor, just as Tom had instructed me to say.  So it came to pass that my second novel, The Beginner's Book of Dreams, was adorned with one of Tom’s pictures of me.

A year later, in 1989, Tom died at 51 of leukemia.  Years after that, when I needed a photo of myself, I called someone senior at Knopf to find out who had the negatives of Tom’s work; no one there knew.  More than a decade later, I came across Tom’s ancient obit in the Times, and the name of his surviving sister in the Midwest.  By then I knew that he had died of AIDS.  I tracked down his sister and did all I could to work with her on a show of the work in New York, and on writing an article about him.  It never materialized, but I loved the idea of bringing Tom and his beautiful photographs back to life.

Since that enchanted day in his studio in 1986, I’ve had my picture taken by professionals many times.  The first few times, I wondered if the photographers would go to Tom’s lengths to “seduce” me, to make me feel so good about myself that the pictures would sparkle.  No one ever came close, though each has his or her methods.  Regardless of what the photographers do, I learned from the master what was necessary.  I have to be there.  I have to do a little vamping.  I have to pretend that each and every photographer is the enchanting, gregarious, evanescent Tom Victor, trying to make me believe – at least for half an hour – that I’m a knockout.

Author photo by Daniel Lake

Monday, March 25, 2013

My First Time: Shannon Huffman Polson

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 Shannon Huffman Polson whose memoir, North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, will be released on April 9.  Polson lives and writes with her family in the Pacific Northwest.  In previous years, she has worked as attack helicopter pilot and business manager.  She spends as much time outdoors as she can with her family.  She started and finished North of Hope from a tiny log cabin in central Alaska.  Find Polson at her blog, A Border Life.

My First Agent

“How long do you think you need, a month?” my boss asked, when I told her I was quitting.  I looked hard at her because she was looking hard at me.  I tried to look respectful, not show my disbelief.  I was leaving to write a book.  She thought it would only take a month?

“I think closer to a year,” I said.

Her phone rang.  She answered it.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I’ll be just a minute.”  She set the phone down.

“So do you want to work part time?  What are you thinking?” she asked.  Something dinged and popped up on her computer.  She glanced at it, then back at me.

“I’m going to need to focus exclusively on writing,” I said, hearing my own words with an even greater dose of disbelief.

This was crazy.  I’d always taken the secure path, the one guaranteeing success within a framework that I could learn and operate within.  College.  The military.  Business school.  The corporate jungle.

I’d written an article for a magazine, and written a book query to one (yep: one) agent, and that agent had asked for a proposal. I didn’t know what a proposal was.

I’d written the first part of the book two years before.  I began in the months after I took a trip down a river in Alaska’s Arctic, retracing the route my dad and step-mom had taken the year before when they were killed by a grizzly bear.  I’d given my few chapters to someone for her thoughts.  In a nutshell she said: this doesn’t work.  I don’t think you’re ready to write this.

I put my writing to the side.  I worked at my day job in business management at a technology company.  Then I started again, this time working on the article, which Alaska Magazine published.  I went to a couple of writing conferences, one big, one small.  I took classes at the Hugo House, our local writing center, on proposals, on essays and memoir.  I wrote several chapters, worked on my outline.  Another year passed.

That's when I sent my first query, the one that was accepted.  I had the talk with my boss.  I quit the job.  My last paycheck came in the mail.  I looked at it for a long, tender minute.

“This might fail,” I said to my husband, whom I’d met at business school and was happily stressed out in the world of start-up companies.  “Maybe no one will like it.  Maybe it will be good but nobody will want it.  Maybe it will be terrible.  I don’t know if this will work at all.”

“Just like a start-up,” he said cheerfully.  I worked to internalize his cheer.

Proposal class under my belt, I sent out my proposal to the agent who’d asked.  She turned me down.  I sent out more queries, which were mostly accepted, and then proposals, which weren’t.  Despite my ability to crank out college essays, creative non-fiction was an entirely different beast.  Things weren’t looking good.

I applied for and was accepted by Seattle Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program two months after I gave birth to my first son, because apparently, I didn’t think I’d have enough to do.  Unlike many, if not most, MFA programs, this one didn’t let you work on a book.  I put my manuscript aside, and while juggling diapers and doctor’s appointments, wrote essays about my military experience, about climbing mountains, about music, about faith.  I tried different forms.  I published a couple of essays and articles in magazines.  I read books on craft, and immersed myself in reading essays, memoirs, biographies.  During the summer months off between quarters, I went back to the manuscript.

The fall of my second year in the program, I sent out queries again.  That night I tweeted: “Sending out queries for the book!”  And someone responded: “Sounds interesting.  Want to send a copy my way?”

It was a colleague in my program, someone who had just graduated.  I hadn’t known he had started work as an agent.  We emailed back and forth.  I sent him a packet.

Long story short, he accepted the proposal, and four months later I was in talks with a publisher.  Of course, that’s just the beginning.  A longer beginning than I thought it would be.  A three-year long beginning (not that I’m counting).  A whole new world of beginnings.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Sentence: "Running Alone" by Halimah Marcus

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

      The mass is not benign.  It is a stage three malignant tumor in her left breast, and it has spread to her lymph nodes.  Treatment is an accelerated course of chemotherapy and then a single mastectomy.  Worst-case scenario: she is dead within the year.
      Her husband Albert is with her during the second appointment when she gets the news, and he looks when he hears it as if the soles of his feet have fallen off, and that the contents of his body--bones, muscle, blood, and sinew--are spilling out through his feet, like the drain at the bottom of a bathtub.
"Running Alone" by Halimah Marcus
One Story, Issue #176

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Friday Freebie: The Darlings by Cristina Alger, This Will Be Difficult to Explain by Johanna Skibsrub, and All That I Am by Anna Funder

Congratulations to Jim Mastro, winner of last week's book giveaway: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

This week's Friday* Freebie is another triple treat.  One lucky reader will win a copy of all three of these books: The Darlings by Cristina Alger, This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories by Johanna Skibsrub, and All That I Am by Anna Funder.

The Darlings is being called a Bonfire of the Vanities for our times.  Since he married Merrill Darling, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to all the luxuries of Park Avenue. But a tragic event is about to catapult the Darling family into the middle of a massive financial investigation and a red-hot scandal. Suddenly, Paul must decide where his loyalties really lie. Debut novelist Cristina Alger is a former analyst at Goldman Sachs, an attorney, and the daughter of a Wall Street financier. Drawing on her unique insider's perspective, Alger gives us an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society—and a fast-paced thriller of epic proportions that powerfully echoes Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children and reads like a fictional Too Big to Fail.

In This Will Be Difficult to Explain, nine loosely connected and hypnotic stories introduce an unforgettable cast of characters. A young maid at a hotel in France encounters a man who asks to paint her portrait, only later discovering that the man is someone other than who she thinks. A divorced father, fearing estrangement from his thirteen-year-old daughter, allows her to take the wheel of his car, realizing too late that he’s made a grave mistake. A Canadian girl and her French host stumble on the one story that transcends their language barrier. Youth confronted with the mutterings of old age, restlessness bounded by the muddy confines of a backyard garden, callow hope coming up against the exigencies of everyday life—these are life-defining moments that weave throughout the everyday lives of the remarkable characters in this book. Time and again they find themselves confronted with what they didn’t know they didn’t know, at the exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire. In This Will Be Difficult to Explain Skibsrud has created a series of masterful, perceptive tales.

In All That I Am, award-winning author Anna Funder delivers an affecting and beautifully evocative debut novel about a group of young German exiles who risk their lives to awaken the world to the terrifying threat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Based on real-life events and people, All That I Am brings to light the heroic, tragic, and true story of a small group of left-wing German social activists who mounted a fierce and cunning resistance from their perilous London exile, in a novel that fans of Suite Francaise, The Piano Teacher, and Atonement will find irresistible and unforgettable.  Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, praised the novel by calling it “an intimate exploration of human connection and our responsibility to one another.”

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Darlings, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, and All That I Am, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on March 28at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on March 29.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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.

*No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you--this Friday Freebie is being posted on Saturday.  Chalk it up to my broken arm and the fact that I was on the road this week with readings at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, Powell's in Portland, and Elliott Bay in Seattle.  I got a little behind on blog maintenance.

Monday, March 18, 2013

In Which the Ping of a Basketball Changes My Life Forever: John Updike's Rabbit, Run

Today marks what would have been John Updike's 81st birthday.  In honor of the occasion, I thought I'd share this essay which originally appeared in the When We Fell In Love series at Three Guys One Book.

In 1980, I was ready for John Updike.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my childhood was about to vanish with the single bounce of a ball on a city street in Pennsylvania.  I can trace the divide between Boy-Me and Man-Me to that solitary ping vibrating from the hollow air inside a basketball as Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom barged uninvited into a pick-up game on his way home from work.

It was a spring afternoon.  I sat in the third row of my English class, a windowless room filled with the insect-buzz of fluorescent lights.  I was 16 years old and I gripped a yellowed, musty paperback of Updike’s Rabbit, Run in my hands.
Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.
I saw myself in duplicate on the page: at 16, I was one of those kids passing the ball back and forth; but yet I identified with the man in the business suit (at 26, an ancient adult from my perspective).  I externalized the boys, my peers, and internalized Rabbit, the adult I was yet to become.  I stood on the divide between them.

I looked around the classroom.  Some of the other students were reading their own books, but others were scratching initials on their desks with the tips of penknives or playing with the ends of their hair, bored and waiting for the bell to ring.  I was alone with my Updike.

On this day I first met Rabbit, I was a high school junior enrolled in an honors English class, one of those self-designed lit courses where advanced students get to pick their own novels. My classmates chose such literary classics as The Outsiders, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story.  For whatever reason, I picked up Rabbit, Run by some guy I’d never heard of before. Maybe I thought it was like that Watership Down book or maybe I was going through a Trix cereal phase...I don't know.

What I do know is that I was holding in my hands a new kind of novel, a book that burned with sex and cynicism and moral decay—all elements of the adult world I was about to enter, but which were indistinct through the fog of childhood that still clung to me.

I was a sheltered, naïve kid with few friends.  I liked to hang out in my bedroom and read Hardy Boys mysteries and the prairie sagas of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My favorite TV shows at the time were The Waltons and The Andy Griffith Show, fantasies of a grown-up Pleasantville that never existed outside a cathode ray tube.  Even in my late teens, I still burrowed deep in my simple, uncorrupted life—sex and alcohol and cigarettes were still two years in my future when I would taste the world at college.  At the time, I still listened to Barry Manilow, fer Chrissakes.

Then came Rabbit.

In those first pages of the novel, he watches the street game of roundball for a few minutes, feeling the tug of the sport from when he was a star player on his school’s team.  Now he is a man in a business suit who sells MagiPeel kitchen gadgets to five-and-dime stores.  As he stands there, the ball rebounds over the heads of the players and he catches it with lithe quickness.
     Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. "Hey!" he shouts in pride.
     "Luck," one of the kids says.
     "Skill," he answers, and asks, "Hey. O.K. if I play?"
     There is no response, just puzzled silly looks swapped. Rabbit takes off his coat, folds it nicely, and rests it on a clean ashcan lid.
From one side of the divide I now straddled, I read how this adult tried to force his way back to his youth but found the way blocked by the surly boys who resent his intrusion.  They don’t look at him, they don’t speak to him, they barely pass him the ball.  As Rabbit plays, Updike writes, “he wants to tell them there's nothing to getting old, it takes nothing.”

There it was. I was about to slide into adulthood and the transition would be seamless, invisible, the ground crumbling under my feet as I walked along the cliff’s edge.  It was time to turn off Andy Griffith and shelve The Little House on the Prairie.  This was when I needed to bend down and lace up my shoes and start off into the world spreading wide before me.  I would run to meet it.  Ah, I would run, run, run.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

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

His hair is the color of electricity.

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Freebie: A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Congratulations to Peter Armstrong and David Pittman, winners of last week's Friday Freebie: The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead and Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters by Charles Finn.

This week's book giveaway is  A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.  Here's the publisher's description of Ozeki's new novel:
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.  Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.  Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of A Tale For the Time Being, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on March 21at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on March 22.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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, March 14, 2013

There's Nothing Funny About Breaking Your Humerus

You're looking at an X-ray of what used to be the unblemished rod of my upper right arm bone.

At approximately 4:45 p.m. yesterday, that bone snapped like a breadstick.  The bone is called the humerus.  I'm here to tell you there is nothing funny about breaking your humerus.

Of course you'll want to know how it happened.  At approximately 4:44 yesterday, I was in my wife's soon-to-be-opened vintage merchantile shop here in Butte (The Backyard Bungalow at 1305 Kaw--for those of you who happen to be in the neighborhood with a bulging wallet).  I was standing on a ladder, holding a board I was about to screw into the wall.  We weren't sure if that board was straight or not, so my wife asked me to move to the right so she could see.  I moved to the right.  "A little more," she said.  I moved a little more--without thinking of physics or consequences.

On the .75-second journey to the floor, I thought, “Well, that was stu—”

I didn’t blackout.  It was more like I had a supreme moment of being Dazed and Confused.  Shock and Awe.  When I lifted my head, I could see my arm lying on the floor off to my right.  It didn’t look like my arm.  It looked like a Thing disconnected from the rest of my body.  When I tried to sit up, it went off in a different direction.

My wife feels terrible about this whole thing, but I assure her that she's not to blame.  It's all the fault of that little fleshy fold of my brain called Common Sense (aka the Duh Center).  As part of my penance, I suppose I'll have to make a ladder-safety video for OSHA.

So here I sit writing this to you from the cumulonimbus of Percocet and pecking each letter on the keyboard one at a time with my left index finger.  Of course I broke my writing arm--this story wouldn't be interesting if it didn't have a plot twist.  And hey, it only took me three-and-a-half hours to write this blog post!

So, because I'm now a rightie forced to live in a leftie world, The Quivering Pen will probably go dim for a few weeks.  Not completely dark, but posts may be a little sparse as I heal.

But hey, it's all good.  Because this is the first bone I've ever broken in this half-century of life (I'm not counting a hairline fracture on my collarbone from a childhood sledding accident), I'm treating this as an opportunity to do research on a future character who's missing the Duh Center in his brain.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Soup and Salad: Ben Fountain's Dead Novels, The origins of the English Department, Jenny Milchman's neverending book tour, Yaddo is officially historic, Hollywood calls on Calling Me Home, Jennifer Spiegel's confidence, Women's Prize for Fiction longlist

On today's menu:

1.  At Bloom, Ben Fountain talks about the novels he wrote before last year's masterpiece Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk:
Is the novel dead?  I don’t know about the novel, but I have two dead ones sitting on the shelf in my office closet, representing, between them, more years of work than I’m willing to admit.  It’s a cliché, but one of those true clichés, that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.  Over the course of my writing life I’ve discovered that I am, for better or worse, insanely stubborn—I’ll keep going back to a piece over and over until I think I’ve gotten it right, and this hardheadedness helped me bust through a lot of the inevitable obstacles that confront anyone who attempts this kind of work.  I wouldn’t have had anything like a writing career if I hadn’t been so stubborn, but that same stubbornness kept me going on those two novels for years after I should have set them aside.
Remind me sometime to tell you about my early failed novel which, like Fountain's, died a merciful death.  It was called The Last of Anne and it was written out of my anxiety at being a new husband.  It was horrible--the novel, that is, not my marriage (Jean and I will celebrate 30 years of wedded bliss this December).

2.  Check out this post at Alaska's 49 Writers blog.  In the first half, novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax talks about the just-concluded Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference--to which I didn't go (yes, I wish I was in Boston; and no, I just couldn't afford to take time off from the Day Job; and yes, I'm already making plans to be there at AWP when it's held in Seattle next year).  It's the second half of Andromeda's blog post which I found to be most fascinating, however.  To wit: the history of the study of creative writing, as reported by D. G. Myers in The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880.  I gleaned several cool nuggets of trivia, including:
  • The study of English--literature or composition--was not part of American higher education until after the Civil War.
  • When the study of English literature was finally added, it tended to stop at Shakespeare and Milton.
  • In America, early literature classes tended to be about literature (hard dry facts, historical dates, and so on), without requiring the actual reading of literature--and certainly no enjoyment of it!  Actual reading was considered an extracurricular activity.

3.  At Shelf Awareness, Jenny Milchman (Cover of Snow) is writing regular dispatches from the road where she's on what looks like it could be the Longest Book Tour Ever.  Between now and August, she estimates she'll have logged 40,000 miles on her auto odyssey from bookstore to bookstore across America.  She and her husband will be "car-schooling" their children on the trip (which, I'm assuming will include lots of reading....and maybe counting license plates).  In the latest installment, they encounter blizzards, a pearl-encrusted statue of a bison, and foot-stomping readers.

4.  Yahoo for Yaddo!  The renowned writing retreat is now an official National Historic Landmark.

5.  Congratulations to my fellow Book Pregnant gal pal Julie Kibler.  Her debut novel, Calling Me Home, has just been picked up by Warner Brothers.  The book is inspired by events in Kibler's family and revolves around the relationship between 89-year-old Isabelle McAllister and her hairdresser, a black single mother named Dorrie Curtis.  McAllister enlists Curtis’ help to drive her from her home in Arlington, Texas, to a funeral in Cincinnati.  Along the way, McAllister reveals the secrets of her past, in which she fell in love with the black son of her family’s housekeeper to tragic consequences.  I'm sure Hollywood picked up on the whole "marriage between The Help and Driving Miss Daisy" angle, but can you blame them?  I, for one, can't wait to see the movie.  But I'll read the book first.

6.  Virginia Pye (River of Dust) has a great interview with Jennifer Spiegel (Love Slave, The Freak Chronicles) at her blog.  I was especially struck by what Jennifer had to say about self-confidence: "I will say—and I don’t mean for this to sound cocky—I believe that writers who make it are confident in their abilities.  They think they’re good.  They have to believe this.  If you’re going to make it, you have to think, I’m good and people should read me."

7.  The longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) has been released and it is bursting at the seams with strong contenders, among them Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Gillian Flynn, Shelia Heti, Kate Atkinson, A. M. Homes, and Maria Semple.  The shortlist will be announced April 16; the winner will be announced June 5.  One thing's for sure: I would not want to be a judge in this year's competition.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Sunshine When She's Gone by Thea Goodman

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.  Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex.  And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video.  So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

Anyone who has survived the boot camp of parenting--i.e., the six weeks immediately after the Blessed Event of Birth when sleep deprivation, confusion, and midnight joltings-awake with a little dictator screaming in your ear--will have an visceral, PTSD reaction to the trailer for Thea Goodman's debut novel The Sunshine When She's Gone.  The video has two competing soundtracks: a squalling baby's insistent cry and a bright, jangly ragtime tune.  If this doesn't make you break out in diaper rash, then you obviously had a much easier, quieter, sleep-filled experience than 99.9 percent of the rest of us parents.  We hate you.  But from the looks of it, most of us will love Goodman's novel which tells the story of John and Veronica Reed, fragile new parents on the edge.  One morning, Veronica wakes up with a strange feeling.  That's because she's just had a good night's sleep.  And that's because her husband and baby are gone--fled to the Carribean for some R&R (though how John thinks he's going to get any rest or relaxation is beyond me).  Parental abduction seems like it would make for some rather dark material, but critics have praised the novel for its wry satire of modern marriage, as well as calling it a suspenseful page-turner.  Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds, said: "Thea Goodman has made something I would've thought impossible: an edge-of-your-seat narrative about parenting a small child. Her emotional investment in her characters is complete as they confront each other, themselves, and the heavy weight of new love."  Look for The Sunshine When She's Gone in bookstores now.  Baby wipes and burp cloths not included.

Monday, March 11, 2013

My First Time: Ron Currie Jr.

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 Ron Currie Jr., author of the novels God Is Dead, Everything Matters!, and the recently-released Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.   His writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Sun, Other Voices, The Nervous Breakdown and several other places.  The Believer has called his fiction "bladder-threateningly hilarious."  Currie has received the New York Public Library Young Lions award, the Addison M. Metcalf award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Alex Award from the American Library Association.  Click here to visit his website.  You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

My First Resolve

In November of 2000, a few days after the presidential election but a month before the Supreme Court would kiss the ring of George W. Bush, I was freshly sprung from a mental hospital following the second massive depression of my life.  I say "following," but that's not quite accurate.  The depression hadn't ended--not by a long shot--but I had been deemed fit to be alone around sharp objects and belts and such, and so I got my walking papers.  I was wide-eyed, rail-thin, stumbling around on legs shaky as a newborn fawn's.  I was barely employable, though my workplace at the time was kind enough to keep me on, in an extremely part-time capacity, until my mental convalescence was over.  I spent a lot of time surveying the smoldering remains of my mid-twenties, and what I saw, among the shitty jobs and empty bottles, was the pile of short stories I had worked on in earnest but not yet been able to, quite literally, give away.

One thing I knew was that I couldn't keep working jobs I loathed in order to support writing that no one wanted.  Something had to give.  Either I would demonstrate to myself, finally, that this writing thing was viable (though I had no idea what "viable" meant, beyond writing at least one story good enough that somebody would want to publish it), or I would jettison the whole idea of being a writer, go back to school, and find a job that paid more than $18k a year and didn't make me want to hang myself every other day.

I gave myself a deadline six months away, on my 26th birthday.  If no one had accepted a story of mine by then, I was all done.

It seems laughably dramatic, from this side of the divide--the notion that if I hadn't published anything by the ripe old age of 26, I was useless as a writer.  Ah, the narrow perspective of youth.  But it also focused me, because I knew deep down that I really, really didn't want to give it up.  And the focus paid off--just a couple of weeks before my birthday, I got my first acceptance, from a new online magazine.  The magazine was named for a writer whose books had recently become holy texts for me.  It paid nothing, and was read by nearly no one.  I was overjoyed.  I was galvanized.  Twelve years and three novels later, I still remember the moment, and its effect, as though George W. were still just stumbling through his first inauguration speech.

Photo by Lisa Prosienski

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

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

She feels something deep inside her--maybe fear or fury--springing open like a black umbrella.

Red Moon* by Benjamin Percy

*Click here for more of my thoughts on Red Moon at Writers Read