Monday, April 30, 2018

My First Time: David W. Barbee

My Four First Times

The first time I got a book contract, it was for three books to be published by Eraserhead Press. I was beyond ecstatic, especially because I’d sold a hundred copies of my “New Bizarro Author Series” book. That series was like a trial run to see how well an author could not only write, but also promote their book, pretty much all on their own. The book itself wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, but it helped me earn that contract and prove myself. That first contract helped to make me feel like a real author, but nothing more was ever said about the contract. I kept submitting stories and Eraserhead kept publishing them, long after my three books came and went.

The first time I had a story rejected, it was for an anthology of literary horror. Very literary. And since I’m more of a pulp genre writer, my prose didn’t really fit in. I should have known that at the time, but I was still very new to things. The story I wrote was very clichéd and stale compared to what wound up in that anthology’s table of contents. On the bright side, my rejection was probably more polite than I deserved at the time. It simply said, “This isn’t what we’re looking for.” It was cold and robotic, and to this day I’m very appreciative of that.

My first public reading was back in college. I started out, as I always do, by shouting at the audience. The boom of my voice made several of the college folk jump in surprise. The story had to do with a father yelling at his son, who wouldn’t come inside for dinner because he was having too much fun jumping on a trampoline. Eventually, the kid decides that he can jump higher if only he can climb onto the roof of the shed and fall onto the trampoline from a great height. He makes the perilous climb onto the roof, and he makes his swan dive onto the trampoline, but then he bounces so high that he hits a power line hanging over the backyard and dies by electrocution. The college folks were pretty impressed.

My first award nomination came back in 2012, for my redneck detective novel A Town Called Suckhole. I was still pretty nervous about doing author stuff like reading publicly and talking about my writing. So I probably would have crumbled into a million tiny Davids had I won an award at that point. And at that point, there was a real chance I could’ve won it. Suckhole had a lot of buzz at the time, at least in the bizarro scene. I remember writing something down on a piece of paper just in case I won and I needed to remember what to say. The message was just a thank you to my wife. Nothing more. Then the moment came, the nominees were announced, the winner’s name was about to be revealed, and just as I was about to wet my pants… Laura Lee Bahr saved my life and won the award for her novel Haunt. Afterwards I hugged Laura, congratulated her, and thanked her for saving me from crumbling into a million tiny Davids.

David W Barbee writes bizarro fables full of dark monsters and strange maniacs, influenced by a deranged childhood diet of cartoons, comic books, and cult movies. He is the author of Jimbo Yojimbo, Bacon Fried Bastard, The Night’s Neon Fangs, and the Wonderland award-nominated A Town Called Suckhole. He lives in the mangy wilderness of Georgia, next door to one of the world’s most polluting power plants.

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.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield

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

Of the two bars in town, Laverna proudly owned the one that served food and encouraged fighting.

The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield

Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday Freebie: Eat the Apple by Matt Young

Congratulations to Tammy Zambo, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen.

This week’s contest is for Eat the Apple by Matt Young. I was an early reader of this offbeat memoir about Matt’s service in the Marines and had this to say about it: “Matt Young’s Eat the Apple is a standout in a crowded room full of war memoirs. It’s fresh, invigorating, and brutally honest in a scorched-earth kind of way. Eat the Apple scrapes the landscape of memory raw until it bleeds, and that’s what puts it head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest....

Eat the Apple is a daring, twisted, and darkly hilarious story of American youth and masculinity in an age of continuous war. Matt Young joined the Marine Corps at age eighteen after a drunken night culminating in wrapping his car around a fire hydrant. The teenage wasteland he fled followed him to the training bases charged with making him a Marine. Matt survived the training and then not one, not two, but three deployments to Iraq, where the testosterone, danger, and stakes for him and his fellow grunts were dialed up a dozen decibels. With its kaleidoscopic array of literary forms, from interior dialogues to infographics to prose passages that read like poetry, Young’s narrative powerfully mirrors the multifaceted nature of his experience. Visceral, ironic, self-lacerating, and ultimately redemptive, Young’s story drops us unarmed into Marine Corps culture and lays bare the absurdism of 21st-century war, the manned-up vulnerability of those on the front lines, and the true, if often misguided, motivations that drove a young man to a life at war. Searing in its honesty, tender in its vulnerability, and brilliantly written, Eat the Apple is a modern war classic in the making and a powerful coming-of-age story that maps the insane geography of our times.

If you’d like a chance at winning Eat the Apple, 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 May 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 4. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

House Beautiful

It was love at first sight.

I’m not talking about the first moment I saw the woman who was to become my wifethough that’s very, very true (yes, my relationship with Jean began as a cliché). In this case, I refer to my love affair with 1923 Argyle Street in Butte, Montana.

Photo by Tyler Call
About three weeks after my retirement from the U.S. Army in 2008, I got a job offer to come work for the Bureau of Land Management in Butte. We packed up our household goods and drove from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains with happy hearts: we were coming back to our beloved Montana. We’d had our eyes on this prize ever since I’d left the Treasure State for Army basic training twenty years earlier. Our dream was to retire in the West and this job in Butte felt like destiny ringing the doorbell.

Since my parents were living in Bozeman, an hour east of the Mining City, we used their house as a base camp for our real estate hunt in Butte. Snow was falling heavily when we first arrived in town and the streets were thick with slush, but still we had high hopes for finding a cozy place to live. We had spent the past two weeks ogling Zillow listings and knew we would have plenty of candidates for what would be only the second house we’d bought in our 25-year marriage. Though Butte’s landscape is dominated by the earth-wound of the Berkeley Pit scraped across the hilly terrain to the north, Jean and I were attracted to the friendly spirit of the people we encountered, starting on the first day. Everyone in the town seemed unnaturally nice.

The houses, however, were a different story.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal from that time:
Dec. 10, 2008: We’ve been house-shopping in Butte for the past week or so and we’re getting pretty discouraged. As Jean says, if the price is low enough for us, the interior is “rough,” or the furnishings/fixtures/appliances were last updated when Jimmy Carter was in office. Shag carpeting, lime-green stoves, wood paneling in the living room. We were gagging and giggling in equal measure. Our Realtor has been patient with us, but we’re all getting weary after looking at nearly three dozen houses over the course of four days. So, we’ve narrowed down our top four to the following:
       1. 315 West Fourth Street (in Anaconda, 25 miles west of Butte)
       2. 1923 Argyle
       3. 1251 Steele
       4. 1059 West Porphyry
       (in that order of our preference)
The Anaconda house was built in 1923 and was originally used as a convent for Ursuline nuns. It has lots of room and would ultimately be the cheapest of all of them. Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to say you lived in a convent? But the Argyle house is the nicest and the most “move-in ready” of them all. It’s also the most expensive. And it has narrow staircases which would be hard for us to get our furniture up.
Well, staircases be damned. I was in love with the Craftsman style and floor plan of the Argyle house. The original hardwood floors glowed in the late-winter light slanting through the large windows. Those staircases, narrow as they were, felt like secret passageways to the upstairs bedrooms. The ground-floor ceilings were dominated by thick wooden beams. It just felt right. Like it was an actual person from the past calling to me. We put in an offer and, after some negotiation and paperwork, this was the result:

A lot has changed since that February day when we signed the contract and snapped a happy-homeowner photothe exterior is now a deep shade of blue, bushes have been dug up, flowers have been planted, and we’ve renovated the kitchen, the basement, and both bathroomsbut what hasn’t changed is my love for this house built in 1920 and the way Jean has truly made it a home.

As anyone who’s followed The Backyard Bungalow’s Facebook page knows, my wife is a gifted interior decorator. Though we’ve since closed that furniture and home decor boutique here in Butte, Jean still brings to our house the same unique look shoppers loved about The Backyard Bungalow. It’s hard for me to put into words just what makes her decorating touch so special (and, if you ask her how she does it, she’ll probably shrug and say, “I guess I can just tell when something goes together”). Like my initial romance with the house, Jean knows when it feels right. She aligns the chemistry of a room into a perfect mix of visual dazzle and practicality, without being too in-your-face with any one of the elements. From choice of paint color, to furniture arrangement, to knowing exactly which antique will be the right thing to put on display, she can turn a bland and blasé room into a comfortable haven that works on the subconscious of everyone who steps across the threshold. First-time visitors often give a little gasp when they come in and say something like, “Wow, this is so cool! And it has such a peaceful vibe.” Jean doesn’t just decorate a roomshe fills it with emotion and a sense of character. She is a true artist of home and habitat.

Photo by Tyler Call

Photo by Tyler Call

Photo by Tyler Call
And now she’s finally receiving due recognition for her talents. This month, 1923 Argyle Street is getting the star treatment in Cottages and Bungalows magazine with a 12-page spread showcasing Jean’s work. I’ve been holding on to this news until the magazine hit the newsstands and now that day has come!

Look for Cottages and Bungalows at all major bookstores, Walmart, Target and most major grocery chains. To subscribe, or to purchase just the June/July 2018 issue, go to this page.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the wonderful talents of writer Meryl Schoenbaum and photographer (and Bozeman resident) Tyler Call for bringing the beauty of Jean’s handiwork to these pages.

I’ll leave you with one more shot of my writing space, which overlooks Argyle Street (it also doubles as a guest bedroom). Normally, there’s an actual cat curled up on the bed, rather than a papier-mâché bulldog standing guard...and, of course, the desk is missing the laptop on which I am now typing these very words. But I think you can see how Jean has created the perfect spot where I can work on my writing....

Photo by Tyler Call

Monday, April 23, 2018

My First Time: Susan Henderson

My First Mentor

I have a school assignment all the way back to third grade, declaring that I wanted to become a poet. I loved rhythm and word play and nonsense rhymes. I had crushes on the dead poet, Dylan Thomas, and the dead jazz singer and crooner, Donny Hathaway. I wrote bad copycat poetry on my arm and on my desk at school. I was a weirdo misfit everywhere I went—my hair stuck out in a lump in back because of the knots I couldn’t comb through, and was I often mistaken for a boy—but I felt certain the poets understood me.

I never knew another writer until I was in high school and met the janitor, a man in his 40’s who also wrote poetry. I’m not sure when we first learned this about each other. He kept a locker in the janitor’s area, back by all his equipment, and on the top shelf, he had pages of poems he’d written in calligraphy. After school, in between mopping the floor and emptying the garbage cans, we sat at a table in the cafeteria that was close to the wall because he always brought a little cassette player that he’d plug in. He was a big fan of the opera singer, Jessye Norman, and we’d sit there, listening to her sing out of those little, tinny speakers, and he’d read his poems to me. We talked about words and music, and eventually I had the courage to show him some of my own writing. He never pointed out the many obvious flaws, only told me that my voice mattered. This man—the unknown poet, Melvin Brooks—was the first spark in my writing career, a voice of permission that said, It’s okay to write down everything you feel and imagine. It’s okay to write badly.

After 30 years in this business, with two novels and a shelf of printed work in obscure literary magazines and anthologies, it’s clear to me that endurance is half the battle to success. And what keeps me in this game, despite the rampant rejection and feeling of invisibility, is the writer community—the avid readers, the misfits and introverts, the observers and deep thinkers who sustain me.

Many of us work in a near constant state of doubt, consumed with the ways our ideas seem so big when we dream them and so small when we translate them to the page. We know what it is to write through a fog, to write into a dead end. We share the scars of rejection, of “help” from people who may have meant well as they wrote notes in the margins of our stories that read like hate letters. We face the same, hounding questions that make us feel like failures: Have you finished your book yet? Oh, still? When do you think it will be done? We’ve all been in this game longer than our résumés would indicate. Many times, we’ve considered giving up, the experience too discouraging. Our drawers and hard drives are filled with stories that didn’t work or didn’t sell. Many in our lives wonder when we will get a real job, encouraging us to move along to something more reasonable and lucrative. But we keep on, writing with no guarantee of success, because something inside speaks louder than logic or fear.

School staff gathers for a photo. Melvin is on the far right.

I’m grateful for this beautiful and bruised body of writers for creating the paths I’ve followed, for opening the doors I’ve walked through, for teaching me how to fight the self-doubt, for being generous with their time and their hearts. I’m grateful for every soul who looked at my terrible drafts and taught me to nurture rather than strike out against that wrinkled and trembling life. And I’m grateful to Melvin, the janitor-poet, who guided me into this community with his example.

I wonder where he is. I’ve looked for him. I would love to tell him thank you.

Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of two novels, The Flicker of Old Dreams and Up from the Blue, both published by HarperCollins. Susan lives in Kings Park, New York and blogs at the writer support group,

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.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sunday Sentence: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

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

Walking into a warm steamy diner during a Chicago winter is like going from Alaska to a tropical country where the President is a giant onion ring who smothers you with greasy bear hugs while chain-smoking.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Front Porch Books: National Poetry Month edition

“It’s National Poetry Month,” I told the crowd in Dillon, Montana who had come to hear me read from my novel Brave Deeds last night, “and so in honor of that, I thought I’d try something a little different.” I coughed, took a shaky breath and, not without a little nervousness, recited a poem I’d recently written about the Iraq War, “We Drown Them in Night.” The poem was inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1959 classic We Real Cool. Since I’d just read the short chapter of the same name from Brave Deeds, in which my character Staff Sergeant Raphael Morgan uses those Cool lines in a cadence while running with his soldiers, and since not enough people know April is National Poetry Month (there was barely a flutter of recognition rippling across my audience members’ faces), the moment felt right to do something I rarely do at my readings: bust a rhyme. Despite my apprehension, and my apology that my poem was “a pale imitation of Ms. Brooks’ masterpiece,” the Dillon crowd seemed to like my stanzas. All in all, it felt good to break with tradition.

Continuing in that same vein, I realize I don’t feature poetry nearly enough in the monthly Front Porch Books feature here at the blog. Father, forgive me for I have sinned and see the errors of my prosaical ways. In reality, a lot of poetry books land on my front doorstep on a regular basis. I turn right around and read a good majority of those books, but for some reason, they just never seem to creep into the monthly lineup of new and forthcoming titles I spotlight here at The Quivering Pen.

This morning, I dug into my towering To-Be-Read pile and pulled out the poetry collections from 2018 which have caught my eye lately. As always, I haven’t had a chance to read any of these—with the notable exception of the first book in the lineup, Ted Kooser’s new collection (a fresh Kooser will always get my immediate attention)—but I hope you, like me, will put these new and forthcoming poetry releases on your radar. I’ve included some sample lines from each in order to further whet your appetite...

Kindest Regards
by Ted Kooser
(Copper Canyon Press)

We could hear the parade three blocks before
it arrived at our corner, a Sousa march
that sounded like distance, distance, distance,
with an occasional boom wadded up in a ball
of steel wool, and then we’d see two soldiers
coming, marching in step, holding high a white,
gold-bordered banner, like the inside
of a lid to a box of cigars, with something
scrolly printed on it.
       (“Memorial Day”)

Wade in the Water
by Tracy K. Smith
(Graywolf Press)

History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman
Corralling her children onto a crowded bus.

History spits Go, go, go, lurching at the horizon,
Hammering the driver’s headrest with her fist.
       (“New Road Station”)

Deep Camouflage
by Amy Saul-Zerby
(Civil Coping Mechanisms)

because i thought say when was a trick question
& you just kept pouring
& now the house is flooded
& we can’t decide who should clean up.
       (“invented reasons for a hypothetical breakup”)

Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch
by David Bottoms
(Copper Canyon Press)

We’d watch the news on my portable Philco.
The jungle was black and white. The bodies were black and white.

The whole house strained in its silence. I was 1-A.
       (“Summer 1968”)

Search & Rescue
by Michael Chitwood
(Louisiana State University Press)

It was her wish,
in the old tradition,
that someone sit up
with the body,

so it wouldn’t be alone
when most alone.
       (“With the Body”)

Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God
by Tony Hoagland
(Graywolf Press)

There are too many characters in this book I’m reading.
I can’t keep track of them all.
How can I care who marries who, or what they wear?
Nevertheless, each time one disappears, I feel a brief, sharp grief,
knowing they will not return.
       (“A Walk Around the Property”)

Of Marriage
by Nicole Cooley
(Alice James Books)

In a Tapas bar I’m alone eating food you hate—cracker stained with black squid,
spoonful of sea urchin, this tiny plate of eggs and olives.

I love food that is all sharp edges, brackish and salt, iced mineral
water that burns the tongue and hisses in its glass bottle.
       (“Marriage in Mixed Media, Acrylic, Canvas, Pixels”)

House of Fact, House of Ruin
by Tom Sleigh
(Graywolf Press)

You’ve got to put your pants on in the house of fact.
And in the house of fact, when you take off your shirt,
you can hear your shirt cry out, Facts are the floor, facts
are how you make the right side talk to the left.

I’m washing my naked belly clean, and doing it with dignity.
I’m turning around, trying to see the filthiness
that keeps making me filthy.
       (“House of Fact, House of Ruin”)

Terrible Blooms
by Melissa Stein
(Copper Canyon Press)

If you’re going to storm,
I said, do it harder.
Pummel nests from limbs
and drown the furred things
in their dens. Swell creek
to flood, unhome the fish.

Café Crazy
by Francine Witte
(Kelsay Books)

I’m eating my salad when Charley says—
how do you know tomatoes
can’t feel? How do you really
know anything? I know this:

when Charley gets metaphorical,
it’s time to hide the wine.
       (“Tomato Scream”)

by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
(Copper Canyon Press)

Because I was taught all my life to blend in, I want
my fingernails to blend out: like preschoolers

who stomp their rain boots in a parking lot, like coins
who wink at you from the scatter-bottom of a fountain
       (“In Praise of My Manicure”)

by Kai Carlson-Wee
(BOA Editions)

In those days the wind seemed to whittle me down
to the root. Round off my fingers as if I were some
piece of glass in the evening sea.
       (“Poet at Twenty-Four”)

Friday Freebie: Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen

Congratulations to John Smith, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: American by Day by Derek B. Miller.

This week’s contest is for Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen (author of The Good People of New York and Osprey Island). Here’s what Julianna Baggott, author of Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, had to say about Thisbe’s new novel: “Our Lady of the Prairie is a tumultuous romp, both cautionary and liberating. A mystery winds its way through these pages, as Thisbe Nissen explores marriage, lust, midlife crises and motherhood, crafting complex portraits not only of her characters but also of the land they inhabit; and, one thing is clear, this novel was written in praise of the prairie itself.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

In the space of a few torrid months on the Iowa prairie, Phillipa Maakestad—long-married theater professor and mother of an unstable daughter—grapples with a life turned upside down. After falling headlong into a passionate affair during a semester spent teaching in Ohio, Phillipa returns home to Iowa for her daughter Ginny’s wedding. There, Phillipa must endure (among other things) a wedding-day tornado, a menace of a mother-in-law who may or may not have been a Nazi collaborator, and the tragicomic revenge fantasies of her heretofore docile husband. Naturally, she does what any newly liberated woman would do: she takes a match to her life on the prairie and then steps back to survey the wreckage. Set in the seething political climate of a contentious election,Thisbe Nissen's new novel is sexy, smart, and razor-sharp—a freight train barreling through the heart of the land and the land of the heart.

If you’d like a chance at winning Our Lady of the Prairie, 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 April 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 27. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Order and Chaos: Jan English Leary’s Crowded Library

Reader:  Jan English Leary
Location:  Chicago
Collection size:  About 1,300 books that are mine alone and about as many in the rest of the house that my husband and I share. That doesn’t count our several hundred ebooks.
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  My most prized published books are my Best American Short Stories editions, but they’re too numerous and cumbersome to grab in a fire. Instead, I’d rescue the self-published book my grandfather compiled of the pages from my grandmother’s scrapbook over the years. And I would also grab the book my son James wrote, illustrated, and bound in second grade and dedicated to his brother. Pretty much everything else, I could replace.
Favorite books from childhood:  The Secret Garden, Handy Mandy in Oz, Mary Poppins, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Cheaper by the Dozen, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Rebecca.
Guilty pleasure book:  I don’t tend to read things that I’d consider guilty—I’m more of a guilty TV watcher—but I did enjoy the Poldark series by Winston Graham, which I came to know through a BBC TV series, so this is guilty pleasure by association. It’s a family saga that takes place in Cornwall, England in the 18th century. The novels continue well into the 19th century following the descendants of the original heroes.

Like most writers, I’m a book accumulator. Not quite a hoarder because I often give away books to friends and donate them to used book sales, but my shelves still groan under the weight of the books I own. When piles start building on the floor, I know it’s time to cull.

When we moved into our current home ten years ago, I was eager to have shelves installed so I could rehouse my books, which had been in boxes for several months. After the kitchen, it was the next room where we unpacked the boxes. A couple of days after my husband drilled the holes and put up the shelves, he fell and tore his rotator cuff, requiring surgery. We put aside settling into the house as he worked to regain his strength. Although I was relieved that he was on the mend, a tiny, shameful voice looped in my head, asking, What if this had happened before the shelves were done?

We have books all over the house, but my books are principally in two rooms: my office and the guest room. I have two walls of shelves in my office: my short-story wall and my work-in-progress wall. The short-story collections range from Sherwood Anderson to Stuart Dybek to Richard Yates, from Alice Adams to Alice Munro to Eudora Welty. It is carefully organized and maintained, the spines neatly in line. I have collected Best American Short Stories editions for the past thirty years that I’ve been writing fiction. When I’m lucky enough to find an older edition, I buy it to fill a hole in my collection. My earliest copy is from 1926. One of my sons has taken to carrying a list with him of the editions I lack, and he is on the lookout for copies to fill in the gaps. One year, he gave me the editions from my birth year and the year my parents were married. I also collect the O. Henry Prize Stories with the same goal of someday having a complete set. I am running out of room, but I can’t get rid of them.

The working wall houses research books for my novel, Thicker Than Blood, which dealt with transracial adoption, maternity homes, and the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company. I can’t seem to part with these books even though the novel is done and published. For my current novel-in-progress, I’m consulting books on homeschooling and Sensory Processing Disorder. Poetry, books on craft, literary magazines, and my personal writing journals, all share space with family photo albums. Framed photos perch on the edge of the shelves: me on the last day of my pregnancy with my younger son, my father in Paris during World War Two, my older son in kindergarten, my younger son riding a horse, my brother and me on a boat when we were children. These shelves also hold art postcards, a Sigmund Freud action figure, a Chinese brocade purse, a metal box of letters I wrote home to my parents during my year abroad in Paris, and a cardboard box of letters between my parents the year before they married. It’s a wall of memories as much as information.

In the guest room, I keep novels and non-fiction: classics from Austen to Dickens to Stendhal, graphic novels and cartoons from Alison Bechdel to Roz Chast to Chris Ware, essays and memoirs by Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, and David Sedaris. histories of Paris, biographies, and The Annotated Brothers Grimm, as well as my tattered copies of Astérix and Tintin. On the top shelf, out of reach except by stepstool, sit remnants from earlier periods of my life: my French dictionaries (Cassell’s, Larousse, et Robert), my Pléiade edition of Baudelaire, yellow Garnier editions of Balzac, Molière, and Racine, and my Russian texts from college. You’ll also find children’s books from three generations of our family: The Lost Princess of Oz, Treasure Island, Frog and Toad, Heart Specialist (a book my mother treasured in high school), Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, James and the Giant Peach, and Little Bear.

My library reflects two sides of my nature, my desire for order and my tendency toward chaos.

Jan English Leary’s short fiction has appeared in Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve Magazine, Long Story, Short Literary Journal and other publications. She has received three Illinois Arts Council Awards and taught fiction writing at Francis W. Parker School and Northwestern University. Her first novel, Thicker Than Blood, was released by Fomite in 2015 and her short story collection, Skating on the Vertical, was released in 2017. She lives in Chicago. Click here to visit her website.

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 for more information.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson

Though we are all distinguished and separated from each other by many things—race, sex, religion, and the varied impulses of our personalities—in the end, we all share one thing in common: all of us, each and every one, will someday die. Try as we might (and oh, we try so hard), none of us can avoid our inevitable status as a corpse. To be particularly indelicate about it, we all wind up as nothing more than lifeless meat on a cold stainless-steel table in some morgue or embalming room at a funeral parlor. But what of our bodies’ final lifeless moments before the casket is sealed or the crematorium fire consumes us? Who will give us our final goodbye? In Susan Henderson’s new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams, that last earthly shepherd for the residents of tiny Petroleum, Montana (population: 182) is Mary Crampton, the funeral director’s lonely daughter who spends a lot of her time embalming bodies before the funeral. Mary herself has never fit in with the rest of the folks in Petroleum: “It’s fair to say I’m not a people person,” she tells us. She is a corpse person, but not a people person. In a way, her own personality has been embalmed. Her true nature is preserved and hidden from those she grew up with. While her father tends to the needs of the grief-stricken in the upstairs parlor, Mary retreats to the silence of her work in the basement.

The trailer for the novel gives some indication of this stark isolation. As a video, it’s an artful short film (I like the way the Barbie doll metaphorically bridges the space between Mary’s childhood and her adult work); but as a trailer, it doesn’t fully capture the surprising warmth and poignancy of Henderson’s novel. It’s like David Lynch directed an episode of Six Feet Under. While I like Mr. Lynch’s work and have enjoyed the quirkiness of the HBO series, The Flicker of Old Dreams feels more potently human to me. In contrast to the nature of Mary’s work, it is alive with emotion and, while I’m only halfway through reading it, I can confidently say it is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Just look at how tenderly Henderson captures the quiet moments Mary spends with the newly-dead as she prepares to go about her work, slicing and stitching and stuffing:
The dead come to me vulnerable, sharing their stories and secrets. Here is my scar. Touch it. Here is the roll of fat I always hid under that big sweater, and now you see. This is the person I’ve kept private, afraid of what people would think. Here I am, all of me. Scarred, flabby, covered in bedsores. Please be kind....Perhaps everyone longs for this. Just to be and to have someone stay near....There is no pressure to be charming or clever. We are simply here, together in this quiet.
When we die, may we all have someone like Mary Crampton to be with us in our final quiet moments.

Trailer Park Tuesday is a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Monday, April 16, 2018

My First Time: Michael A. Ferro

No Country for Recluse Writers: How My First Novel Brought Me Out of the Dark

Perhaps it’s the introverted, quiet side of me, or maybe it’s the cynical, brooding half that embraces absurdity and satire in all its forms, but when I long ago thought about being a writer, I’d imagined that I could do it like many of the reclusive literary heroes of my past: Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, and many such others. I wanted more than anything to keep out of the spotlight—to write novels, perhaps under a pseudonym, have them published, and then slip silently back into the shadows while my agent and editors sent correspondence by way of the Pony Express, inquiring as to when my next manuscript would be ready. When I had finally finished writing my debut novel, Title 13, I emerged from many months of seclusion in my kitchen writing area and began looking for a publisher. One thing quickly became apparent: this was 2016 and publishing doesn’t work like that anymore.

To show how clueless I was, how out-of-touch I’d become, this actually came as a surprise to me. After a pretty rough go of things for a few years following college, I largely withdrew from social life. Sure, I worked at my day job, did my grocery shopping on the weekends and whatnot, but for the most part, I was a man who lived in rural Ann Arbor holed up in his house with his dog and books. Still, it felt like a necessary isolation.

Meanwhile, in the last few months of a long-term relationship, my then-girlfriend and I visited Chicago. I hadn’t been back to the Windy City since I’d lived there during the strangest, darkest twelve months of my life—a time when I was wildly out of sorts and working for the federal government within a massive urban landscape that I found both intoxicating and absurd in many ways. When we returned to Michigan, I knew what the subject of my first novel needed to be: The Second City. On one of my last turbulent days in Chicago years before, I’d written one page of the beginning of a story. I didn’t know where that story was leading, what it meant when I wrote it, or even why I had written it—it just happened. Now, years later, I took out that one page and sat down to start fresh. I was ready to write a book.

After a few months, the relationship with my girlfriend ended when I couldn’t break my focus from the work-in-progress. Each weeknight after work turned into a marathon of reading, planning, and bits of composition. My weekends, on the other hand, were spent from morning to well past midnight writing as much as I could. It went on like this for many months and before I knew it, I had largely cut myself off from friends, people in my community, and even my family to some extent.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed it.

I grew especially fond of knowing that my only responsibilities were going to my job to pay my bills and working on my novel. No more social media, no more dating, no more talking to anyone, jabbering on and on about nonsense that had nothing to do with my interests; I was selfish and this cloistered haven of solitude was all mine. I wouldn’t realize until years later just how dangerous and insular that mindset can become if you’re not too careful.

Once I’d finished the first draft of my novel about a year later, I emerged from my writer’s cocoon, brushed the pizza crust crumbs off my bathrobe, and combed the fruit flies from my belly-length beard. I transcribed my much-too-long typewritten 135,000-word manuscript onto my laptop, editing it in the process, and put my Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter away. The typewriter had left an imprint on my kitchen table that I still notice to this day.

Next came the hard part: finding a publisher. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea then just how many writers were out there trying to do the same thing I was. Like I mentioned, I was pretty much living in a spooky, malodorous cave. After a few months, I came across a small press that looked intriguing. I sent them a sample of my manuscript and to my surprise, they asked to read more. After another month or so, they informed me they had decided to publish my novel and sent me a contract.

After I’d soiled myself, ran around my yard screaming at the trees in joy, and imagined paying off all my credit card debt with royalty checks, I had a lawyer look over the contract. While the basic terms were all fair and good, there was one clause that immediately struck me as unusual. As one of this press’ authors, I would be required to take part in a “social media training” program, as well as participate in a great many number of live interviews, Q&As, and interactive reader events.

My heart sank.

Surely this could be negotiable, I thought. I knew a lot of young writers were “building their brands” in the wake of the successes enjoyed by “branded” writers like J. K. Rowling, E. L. James, and Stephenie Meyer, but I wanted no part of it. My literary heroes had always let their work speak for itself. The publisher assured me that this was non-negotiable, that they wanted their writers to make a connection with their readers, promote themselves heavily on social media, and increase their visibility. To the press’ credit, this can indeed be a very effective way for small publishers to find new readers and spark success, but at the same time, it just didn’t feel right for my novel. Title 13 is a darkly comic satire about the absurdity of modern politics and government, while also being a highly emotional tale of literary fiction that focuses on the devastating effects of addiction and a divisive American culture. This just didn’t feel like the kind of story I wanted to saturate peoples’ social media feeds with—not to mention I’d also just spent years in hibernation and the idea of jumping right into the thick of a “social media training” program felt akin to dropping a baby-faced army recruit fresh out of boot camp into the bloody jungles of Cambodia.

I knew I wasn’t ready for this. Something felt off.

After some additional back and forth, the publisher and I amicably parted ways. While I was devastated that this meant my novel would probably never see the light of day, I couldn’t help but to also feel a twinge of relief. I could go back to my hole, safe and secluded.

That’s when everything changed.

In an effort to see if my long-held dreams of being a recluse writer were effectively dead in the twenty-first century, I began to reach out to all sorts of publishers and writers. Before long, I came across a person who would change my whole perspective on the publishing world: Laura Stanfill. Laura runs the incredible Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon, about as far from Ann Arbor as anywhere else in the continental United States. And yet, after emailing back and forth with Laura just a few times, I began to realize how crucial (and, more importantly, rewarding) it can be to make friends with others in the writing industry.

Laura then put me in contact with another publisher in Ann Arbor named Jon Wilson who runs Fish Out of Water Books and the two of us became friends. I couldn’t believe it: someone who lived on the other side of the country had just put me in contact with a person whom I had probably run into once or twice at a shop downtown. And better yet, I actually liked this guy! How had we not already been introduced to one another in this relatively small town? Then I remembered my smelly cave. It was already growing smaller and smaller in my mind. From that moment on, I vowed to get to know all these amazing literary citizens.

In a moment of serendipity, I soon heard back from a different publisher I’d contacted many months earlier: Harvard Square Editions. They were intrigued by my novel. They had a few questions, and after some back and forth, I was given a contract. This time, there was no clause about having to participate and engage with readers, but I was of a different mindset now—I knew that connecting with other readers and writers wouldn’t damage my soul, rob me of my creativity, crush my privacy, or anything shortsighted like that. Rather, it could be quite the opposite: I might make meaningful connections with others who shared the same interests, created their own works that I would now know about, and together we could help one another succeed. It was a win-win.

After my lawyer reviewed the contract, I signed with Harvard Square Editions and off we went. From the start of that terrifying and exciting process of publishing my first novel, I knew I had a legion of new friends and colleagues who were at my side. And in true form, folks like Laura and Jon assisted me with absolute gusto, never once seeking transaction, and even put me in contact with others who helped me along the way to boot. I made an oath then and there that should ever a young writer come my way seeking aid or advice, I would bend over backwards to lend them a hand. It’s a pay it forward business, folks.

I’d signed my contract with Harvard Square Editions in February 2017 and my book was published one year later. Between that time, I worked with a crackerjack team of editors, designers, and, now, friends. We all supported one another, wanted one another to succeed, and looked to make sure that the world of books and literature had a place in our everyday society, despite the devastating presidential election and its effects on America’s arts and culture. There would be times that I would be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of preparing a novel for publication, even losing much of the eyesight in my left eye due to stress, but in the end, it was all worth it. Publishing your debut novel can be terrifying enough, let alone trying to do it all alone. Making friends in the publishing business has made all the difference in the world. And now, Title 13, the thing I suffered, sweat, bled, and lost some of my eyesight over, is finally out there in the world. It’s a reality.

All that being said, you might ask: Do I ever still wish that I were a recluse novelist like my hero authors of old? Do I still envy the likes of Cormac McCarthy, sitting out there in the New Mexico desert somewhere, typing up his latest masterpiece on a dusty, aging typewriter in his self-made “no country for old men”? The answer is sure—who wouldn’t want that at times? But when that happens, all I need to do is close my laptop, shut the curtains, and lay down in the dark for a bit with my dog.

I’m convinced that we are all split personalities—the dark and the light. I centered Title 13 around this concept. At different points in our lives, depending on our circumstances, one side gets the better of the other. Will I remain this socially-connected forever? Probably not. Is there a chance that I, like anyone else, might slip back into isolation? Of course. It’s only realistic to realize that we are complicated beings always being pulled by the cosmic whims of an absurd universe. Still, while I’m here, let’s stay connected and get to work, friends.

Michael A. Ferro’s debut novel, Title 13, was published by Harvard Square Editions in February. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Stories for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Born and bred in Detroit, he has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest. He currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Click here to visit his website.

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.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson

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

The grieving can pretend that their loved ones are merely sleeping. That they will hear you when you bend over to whisper all you had meant to say.

The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson

Friday, April 13, 2018

Friday Freebie: American by Night by Derek B. Miller

Congratulations to Michael Ferro, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: a big box of new releases from Algonquin Books.

This week’s contest is for American by Day by Derek B. Miller, author of Norwegian by Night and The Girl in Green. Here’s what Richard Russo had to say about this award-winning author: “Sure Derek Miller’s novels are smart and full of heart and savvy and hilarious, but even more than all of this, he’s fun. He’s as dedicated as any writer I know to the proposition that readers should enjoy themselves, should delight in the experience of life and language. If our hearts get broken along the way, so much the better.”

Keep scrolling for more information about American by Day...

American by Day is a gripping and timely novel that follows Sigrid—the dry-witted detective from Derek B. Miller’s best-selling debut Norwegian by Night—from Oslo to the United States on a quest to find her missing brother. She knew it was a weird place. She’d heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there; to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life. Working with—or, if necessary, against—the police, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the backwoods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further.

If you’d like a chance at winning American by Day, 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 April 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 20. 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, April 12, 2018

Rowing with Anne Sexton

This is National Poetry Month and I’m keeping up with my daily habit of reading a poem (or two or three) a day, as I wrote about earlier at the blog. It’s a routine I strongly prescribe for everyone, even if you think you don’t like poetry. Some of my favorite poets you might want to try on for size: Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Virginia Hamilton Adair. They’re poets for people who hate poetry.

For the better part of 2018, I’ve been working my way through The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton. I fell in love with Sexton’s poetry when I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon back in the ’80s. I can still picture myself on the fourth floor of the Knight Library, deep in the stacks, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead like trapped flies, holding one of Sexton’s books in my hand. You know that feeling of discovery? That “where have you been all my life” sense of joy? That was me in 1986, leaning against the tall metal bookshelves in the Knight Library. The fluorescent flies hummed, my brain sparked.

I stared at the words on the page, feeling startled, amazed and encouraged. I was a young writer still trying to chart a path forward. Among other things, Anne Sexton taught me to be bold and brazen in my own work. Don’t be afraid, she whispered in my ear. Just lay it all out there on the line: bloody, bare, and shivering. If there is anything in my writing that causes a reader’s eyes to widen with shock, surprise or recognition, that is due, in some small part, to Sexton’s influence. She was one of my earliest and greatest teachers.

This morning as I read The Complete Poems, I reached what is perhaps my favorite collection of hers with what is unquestionably one of my favorite titles of all time: The Awful Rowing Toward God. Here’s a snippet from the first poem (“Rowing”):
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
As anyone who knows the circumstances of Sexton’s life will point out, the poem was written during her final dark period of depression, less than two years before she committed suicide. By that time, the pestilential rat had eaten too far into her soul and the sad end was near. In her biography of Sexton, Diane Wood Middlebrook writes:
Sexton’s demons were pursuing her in full force. Between 10 and 30 January 1973 she wrote “with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital”thirty-nine poems, a whole volume: The Awful Rowing Toward God. She framed the book in two poems that provided beginning and end, as of a narrative: “Rowing” and “The Rowing Endeth.” The poems between were short, loosely organized explosions of imagery; the theme, if it can be generalized, was self-disgust. Yet the poems flowed from a seizure of energy that felt to her like hope, and the resulting imagery had the urgency of exploration.
All of that is captured in the last line of “Rowing” in which I can practically hearing the slap of water against the bow of the boat:
This story ends with me still rowing.
That’s me, too: still learning, still yearning, still rowing toward the horizon and that perfect sentence.

Painting: The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Just after eleven o’clock on a bright spring morning, the sort of day when the sunshine is almost white and promises a warmth that it doesn’t quite deliver, Diana Cowper crossed the Fulham Road and went into a funeral parlor.

That’s the opening line of Anthony Horowitz’s forthcoming novel The Word is Murder. That sentence in itself is intriguing, especially in the way Horowitz counterbalances the bright sunshine with the emotional gloom of a funeral parlor. There’s something inherently chilly about the notion of death; here, even the sun withholds its warmth. But what ratchets up the intrigue of The Word is Murder is what Horowitz says next in the book trailer: Diana Cowper is there to arrange her own funeral. “She does everything,” Horowitz tells us, “the psalms, the music, even the casket. She then goes home and she’s murdered.” I mean, really, how could you possibly stop reading (or watching) after a setup like that? Horowitz goes on to tell us that the novel features “a classic detective” who is “damaged and difficult.” Okay, it sounds a little like Cormoran Strike in the mystery series written by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling); I’m in. But, wait—there’s more, as they say in late-night TV commercials. The sleuth, Daniel Hawthorne, feels he needs an assistant to help him document the case: a Watson to his Sherlock. And that man Friday turns out to be....Anthony Horowitz. The fiction just got meta, lads and lassies. Horowitz’s previous novel, Magpie Murders, was already high on my must-read list. Now this new Word from the author just grabbed on to its coattails and shoved it upwards. The trailer isn’t all that flashy, but I like its simplicity and the way Horowitz explains his book with outstretched fingers—fingers that look like hooks ready to reach out and pull us to his book. The Word is Murder hits U.S. bookstores in June. Sharpen your knives and pencils.

Trailer Park Tuesday is a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.