Monday, July 30, 2018

My First Time: Gina Wohlsdorf

My First (Almost) Agent

It’s putting the matter mildly to say I wrote a lot between 2007 and 2009. I lived alone, I had a flexible work schedule, and I was—also putting it mildly—very dedicated. Mornings were for fiction. After earning my living every afternoon, I spent evenings either revising stories or writing essays. A topic I seemed to veer toward frequently in my nonfiction was pop culture and the sociological consequences of celebrity worship.

That sounds pretty high-falutin’, but these essays had titles like “I’m Not As Pretty As Megan Fox, and Neither Are You, and That’s Okay” or “Three Pieces of Investigative Reporting That Totally Never Happened [With Brackets to Denote the Dim, Distant Voice of My Sanity].” I’m almost ten years gone from when I wrote these, and I still like them. As standalones they’re well organized, funny, pithy, and intelligent.

The problem was, I thought they worked as a collection.

The other problem was, I finished assembling the book in 2008, when the housing bubble popped, too-big-to-fail banks got bailed out, and the publishing industry imploded.

People frequently mistake me for confident when I’m actually just oblivious. This served me well as I raided the library for any and all resources on getting a book published, as I shelled out thirty bucks for the current Writer’s Market, as I began composing query letters in an attempt to secure representation for my essay collection, which I confidently called Storytelling In-Psycho-Media: How Celebrity Worship Is Hurting Us and Them.

Let’s first have a good long laugh at that title. I was trying to make a wordplay on “encyclopedia” while saying mass media was psycho, and the two efforts canceled each other out beautifully.

Next, let’s talk about where I lived: Edina, Minnesota. Nowhere near New York’s pub hub, where you can troll around and try to make the right friends and get to the right parties and descend on your dream agents in a bird-of-prey manner I’m sure they all really appreciate.

Last, let’s look at my writing credits: I didn’t have any. This is kinda-sorta okay-ish with novels, as long as you have the Aaron Rodgers of publicists, which I now do. With essays, not okay at all. A platform is so crucial in nonfiction, it’s practically required unless you’re writing a memoir—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So off I went, highlighting my money’s worth in that Writer’s Market, giving my printer the aerobics class of its nightmares, personalizing each query, spending I don’t know how much money I didn’t have on postage, and creating a spreadsheet to track responses. Looking back, this is adorable: I really did believe I could land a deal. That delusion that began its slow death as the ‘Responses’ column on my spreadsheet began to fill with line after line of ‘Form Rejection’. I considered making a stamp so I didn’t have to write it so often.

But the nutty part was, I got a handful of responses that were positive. One was extremely positive, saying they’d very much like to take the book on and they would if the economy weren’t such a steaming vat of feces at the moment. More common were the scrawled notes in the margins of the form rejections. One read, “You’re an excellent writer—don’t quit!”

I was dim enough to take this advice. I continued alphabetically through every American agent who was accepting query letters for nonfiction. For all you number people out there, that meant 209 agents. Every single one was a no.

There were even con artists. A married couple who ran an agency in San Francisco had written a book on how to craft a nonfiction proposal. They sent me (what I thought was) a very nice letter saying if I used their method to write my proposal (meaning, buy their book), they’d give me greater consideration. I bought the book, wrote the proposal, and they wrote back saying, “Didn’t we reject this already? Ha ha, thanks for the 16.95!” I’ve mostly forgiven them but I still hope, on principle, that they burn in hell.

When the rejection tally was nearing the two-hundreds, I called my friend Jenny and told her I was giving up.

“But it’s good!” she said. This was high praise coming from Jen. She’s harder to please than Simon Cowell—though she’s not British, so her criticisms don’t have quite the same cutting authority.

“Dude, it’s over. I tried everybody.” I looked at my list. “Well, almost everybody.”

“How many left?”

“Two. In England.”

“Try ’em, Gina. You can’t say you tried everybody if you didn’t try everybody.”

Factually, this was true. I wasn’t sure my ego could take any more. I wrote the queries, sent them off, packed in Publishing Command Center, and waited for these last two rejections so I could dig a hole to die in.

Except I got an e-mail. Maybe a month later, from the very last agent I wrote to—let’s call her Betty. Betty wanted the full manuscript. I sent it of course, and by this point, it was so polished it could blind. I got another e-mail about a week later that she wanted to phone me.

I thought, This is it! I’m on my way! I’ll be Stephen King by this time next year!

And then the phone convo with Betty went pretty much like this.

Betty:  I loved it!
Me:  Wow, thank you!
Betty:  But there’s no way I can sell it.
Me:  Oh. What?
Betty:  I don’t know how to describe it to people.
Me:  Oh . . . Can’t you just say you loved it? (Adorable.)
Betty:  Have you thought of writing a memoir? Memoirs are big right now; they’re about the only thing that is. Do what you did here but with a memoir, then we might have something.

To most artists of any kind, this might sound like an impossible demand: hey, create another project in a form you’ve never even dabbled in. But I’m me, so I read a dozen popular memoirs and established a schedule. I had a draft for her in ten weeks.

I still like the memoir, too. Its title is better—Prism Diaries: Movies, the Milennium and Me. Since I was a cinephile throughout my youth, what I did was take films that had had a profound impact on me as a kid (Goonies in early childhood, Karate Kid Part II around first grade, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade just before middle school), and I juxtaposed them with formative challenges or incidents from my life (coping with my parents’ deep and deeply confusing sadness, beating up the schoolyard bully using—true story—the crane kick from Karate Kid, landing the lead role in the sixth grade play and realizing I might have what it takes to leave North Dakota).

The result was memoir-cum-film-criticism. I turned it in feeling great about it.

And then the phone convo with Betty went pretty much like this:

Betty:  I loved it!
Me:  Uh. Thank you?
Betty:  But there’s no way I can sell it.
Me:  Do you not know how to describe it to people?
Betty:  Exactly! How’d you know?
Me:  I’m a writer, Betty. We’re perceptive.

I’m being an asshole here—Betty was never anything but polite and professional and encouraging, but she didn’t offer to rep me. She and I kept chatting back and forth for the next several months. I convinced her to read an earlier draft of Blood Highway, but at that point it was still trite and undisciplined and thematically sloppy. She passed on it, with good reason.

Honestly, she had good reason to pass on all of this stuff, because the truth was, I wasn’t ready yet. I was a batch of cupcakes that look golden brown when you flick on the oven light, but you stick in a toothpick and it comes out damp with batter. And my initial exposure to the agenting world was educational in another way. I learned that my work was tough to classify, and tough to classify can mean tough to sell. So I needed an agent with the nerve of Houdini and the war wits of Sun Tzu and the inventiveness of MacGyver. I needed HouTsuGyver. I decided to wait on approaching agents until I had something so weirdly original that the one who was meant for me could not pass it up. It took another two years.

This time when I went looking for an agent, I found her on the second try. Emma Sweeney had me revise the beginning of Security, then she got me a deal within a month. Chuck Adams, my editor at Algonquin, taught me a ton about my strengths and weaknesses while we worked on Blood Highway together. He was those last few minutes in the oven.

If I’d gotten a book deal way back in ’08 and the reception for my work had been vicious, or even tepid, I’m not sure my sense of self would have been up to the task of soldiering on.

But I know who I am as an author now. And I’m not going away.

Gina Wohlsdorf is the author of Blood Highway and Security (both published by Algonquin Books). She was born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota. She graduated from Tulane University, taught English in the south of France, and earned an MFA at the University of Virginia. She currently lives in Colorado. Click here to visit her 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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler

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

The current slides away; the river stays.

The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler

Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday Freebie: John Straley’s Alaska mystery series

Congratulations to Paul Thomley, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, Perfect Conditions by Vanessa Blakeslee.

This week, I’m going north to Alaska! I am teaming up with Soho Press to give away a bundle of John Straley’s mystery novels set in Alaska. To celebrate the release of the latest Cecil Younger mystery, Baby’s First Felony, Soho is re-releasing Straley’s earlier novels in beautiful new editions with cover art by Francesco Bongiorni. One lucky reader will win all the following titles: The Woman Who Married a Bear, The Curious Eat Themselves, The Music of What Happens, Death and the Language of Happiness, The Angels Will Not Care, and Cold Water Burning. Cecil Younger and company have been charming and enticing readers for years. With a wry sense of humor, exotic details and stirring plots, this series is a nuanced introduction to small-town Alaskan life. Ken Bruen, author of The Ghosts of Galway, had this to say about the author who lives in Sitka, Alaska: “Like the Coen Brothers on literary speed, John Straley is among the very best stylists of his generation.” Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest...

Criminal defense investigator Cecil Younger spends his days coaching would-be felons on how to avoid incriminating themselves. He even likes most of the rough characters who seek his services. So when Sherrie, a returning client, asks him to track down some evidence to clear her of a domestic violence charge, Cecil agrees. Maybe he’ll find something that will get her abusive boyfriend locked up for good. Cecil treks out to the shady apartment complex only to discover the “evidence” is a large pile of cash—fifty thousand dollars, to be exact. That is how Cecil finds himself in violation of one of his own maxims: Nothing good comes of walking around with a lot of someone else’s money. In this case, “nothing good” turns out to be a deep freeze full of drug-stuffed fish, a murder witnessed at close range, and a kidnapping—his teenage daughter, Blossom, is snatched as collateral for his cooperation. The reluctant, deeply unlucky investigator turns to an unlikely source for help: the misfit gang of clients he’s helped to defend over the years. Together, they devise a plan to free Blossom and restore order to Sitka. But when your only hope for justice lies in the hands of a group of criminals, things don’t always go according to plan.

Cecil Younger, local Alaskan investigator, is neither good at his job nor at staying sober. When an old Tlingit woman hires him to discover why her son, a big game guide, was murdered, he takes the case without much conviction that he’ll discover anything the police missed. He really just needs the extra cash. But after someone tries to kill him, Younger finds himself traveling across Alaska to ferret out the truth in the midst of conspiracies, politics, and Tlingit mythology. High drama meets local color as Cecil Younger works to uncover the motive and identity of the killer.

When Louise Root, a new client of Cecil Younger, is found murdered, the private investigator finds himself in the middle of a web of secrets and deadly repercussions—usually not found in the world of environmental politics. Not only that, it seems everyone suddenly wants Younger’s help: his old friend, Doggy, the DA; his autistic roommate, Todd, whose Labrador retriever has disappeared; an image-conscious environmental activist; and even the sleazy executives of Global Mining, whose interest in the case is a more than a little suspicious. In the midst of all this, Younger is wrecked by guilt, and his personal life is fraying as he tries to keep his drinking under control. He’s got his hands full trying to juggle his lingering emotions over his ex-lover, the multiple investigations, and simply trying to stay alive.

Confrontational and obsessed, Priscilla DeAngelo is sure her ex is conspiring with a state senator to wrest her son from her, and thus, she hires Cecil Younger to investigate. This is the first time Younger has to deal with lawyers in flashy suits and overused paper shredders. When she storms off to Juneau for a showdown, Younger’s custody case swiftly turns into a murder. Younger is fired from the defense team, but he can’t stop thinking about the case, and keeps on with the investigation alone. He’s not sure what keeps him involved. Is it Priscilla’s sister (his lost love)? His regard for truth as a rare commodity? Or the head injury Priscilla's ex gave him? But there’s one thing he knows: he won’t let go until it’s solved, even if it kills him.

When 97-year-old William Flynn is accused of killing his neighbor, Angela Ramirez, he turns to private investigator Cecil Younger with an odd—and, frankly, rather incriminating—request. He wants Cecil to track down a man he believes witnessed Ramirez’s murder: her estranged husband, Simon Delaney. The only problem? Flynn doesn’t just want Cecil to find Delaney. He wants him to kill the man. Cecil knows that kind of thing would be bad for business, but he takes the job, hoping he can both convince Flynn to call off the manhunt and discover what really happened to his neighbor. But the old man isn’t making the job easy. He keeps confusing two different crimes: Angela Ramirez’s recent murder and an 80-year-old tragedy in which four American Legionnaires were killed during an Armistice Day Parade. Cecil struggles to sort through the old man’s befuddled memories and dives into the search for Delaney, which takes him on a journey through Alaska history and all over the Pacific Northwest, from the Aleutian Islands to Centralia, Washington.

Cecil Younger never thought it would come to this: running surveillance on a chicken coop that’s being raided by a fowl thief. But things have not exactly been breaking right lately for the Alaskan PI. The logical thing to do? Take a vacation, of course. Well, it’s not exactly a vacation. Cecil has been paid to investigate a doctor aboard a cruise ship up the Alaskan coast following some complaints from his patients....that is, the patients who are still alive to complain. Worst of all, someone is leaving evidence pointing an accusing finger at Cecil. By the time the S.S. Westward makes landfall, Cecil will be wishing he was back guarding chickens.

When the wife of a former client asks Cecil to find her husband, Cecil agrees. After all, helping to get Richard exonerated during a tragic murder trial three years ago was one of the biggest successes of Cecil’s career. But why, if Richard’s name was cleared, is he MIA now? Patricia, Richard’s steadfast wife, has one guess: someone is after him. It’s no secret that Richard has a long list of enemies, not least of which are the family members of the dead. But things soon get complicated when Patricia is killed, sending Cecil on a desperate trip to sea to chase down the twisted truth.

If you’d like a chance at winning all the books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

My First Time: Dawn Raffel

The First Time I Dug Up History

I had already published four books (three fiction, one memoir) when I dove into a historical project and found myself in over my head. And while I generally hate the word “project” when referring to a book, writing The Strange Case of Dr. Couney was indeed a project.

I thought I was researching a period novel. Then I stumbled onto the true story of a mysterious showman who saved thousands of premature babies in the early 20th Century—by placing them in incubator sideshows on the midway, right next to the “freaks” and the strippers. People would pay a quarter to gawk at them. This went on for 40 years. How was that even possible?

The fact that a technology with the potential to save millions of children existed but was unavailable in most American hospitals had never occurred to me, nor did I understand that there was a raging eugenics movement dimming the prospects of anyone deemed imperfect. Instead, I was struck by the combination of carnival voyeurism/commodification of children, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I had no idea what lay ahead: Missing records, conflicting reports, the flim-flam of the midway, and a subject who’d falsified his own story. Four years and 600 archival end-notes later, my book is making its way into the world.

Here are half a dozen things I learned from writing historical nonfiction:

1.  Some information is simply unavailable. Often, it feels as if all the facts in the world can be had with a few clicks of a mouse. Indeed, Google is a marvel, bringing us Worldcat, earth’s most comprehensive library catalogue, and Google books, which allows us to find the one existing copy of a magazine that went defunct in, say, 1896. But much of our history lies only in handwritten documents in musty archives and microfiche. And sadly, much more has been discarded, or was never written down.

2.  The records are sometimes wrong. My subject, Martin Couney, was famous during his lifetime. Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles were written about him during his lifetime. Assessments of him in peer-reviewed medical journals and books about neonatology followed. Every source said that Dr. Couney was educated in Leipzig and Berlin, served as an intern for a world-renowned physician in Paris, and first came to the U.S. in 1898. Some of the peer-reviewed items had footnotes up the wazoo. But when I followed the trail back to the source, all of the information came from Martin Couney himself—and he had fabricated everything. All those articles and interpretations of his work reminded me of a seed pearl: An error lay at the center and everything else had calcified around it.

3.  Probate records are fascinating. Every “last will and testament” tells you where the money went, which in itself is intriguing. But after you wade through the legalese in triplicate, you might also discover family feuds and love affairs, nestled amid the possessions. These documents, along with birth certificates, marriage licenses, immigration and naturalization certificates, census records, and property deeds are public record. Just be prepared for inconsistencies. Almost any time people can fib, they will.

4.  It’s worth it to do your own footwork. Again and again, well-meaning friends suggested I hire a researcher. I’m glad now that I couldn’t afford one. While looking for one needle in the haystack, I often found an unexpected nugget of gold—an adjacent story about something else going on at the same time that provided context and color, and deepened my understanding.

5.  Eye-witness reports are highly subjective. I knew that already, but it was hammered home when reading competing newspaper reports of the exact same event—say, the infamous execution of an elephant at Coney Island. What really happened? People who were there had very different versions. (As an aside, that’s a good reason to get rid of the death penalty, where convictions are too often based on witness testimony.) Even when we believe we are telling the God’s honest truth, we human beings see what we’re looking for.

6.  Our deepest motivations are ultimately unknowable. With thousands of pages of documents in hand, and after hundreds of hours of original reporting, I can tell you many things Martin Couney did and said, and I can make an educated guess as to what he might have thought. But I can’t presume to fully know what was in his heart, which might have been different from one beat to the next. I can only approach my subject with a kind of wonderment, as I would with any living person.

Photo by Claire Holt
Dawn Raffel is the author of several books, including The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, out this summer from Blue Rider Press (a division of Penguin Random House). Her illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Previous books include a critically acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body, and two story collections— Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division.  She was a fiction editor for many years, helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she served as Executive Articles Editor for seven years, and subsequently held senior-level “at-large” positions at More magazine and Reader’s Digest. In addition, she served as the Center for Fiction’s web editor. She has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University, the Center for Fiction, and at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia; Montreal; and Vilnius, Lithuania. She currently works as an independent editor for individuals and creative organizations, specializing in memoir, short stories, and narrative nonfiction. Click here to visit her 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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Robin by Dave Itzkoff

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

The real Robin was a modest, almost inconspicuous man, who never fully believed he was worthy of the monumental fame, adulation, and accomplishments he would achieve.

Robin by Dave Itzkoff

Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Freebie: Perfect Conditions by Vanessa Blakeslee

Congratulations to Jonathan Butters, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, the bundle of new novels from Algonquin Books: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin, Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann, and When the English Fall by David Williams.

This week, I'm giving away the new short story collection by Vanessa Blakeslee, Perfect Conditions, now out from Curbside Splendor Publishing.  One lucky reader will win a signed copy of the book. Keep scrolling for more information about Perfect Conditions and how to enter the contest...

And before you go, be sure to check out Vanessa’s account of the first time she said “No”

Everyone here is both at home and lost: a deep sea fisherman discovers he may not be allowed to return to shore; a newlywed couple embark on a disastrous honeymoon; a niece and uncle debate the ethics of hunting after a nuclear fallout; a surfer struggles between cross-continental commitments and local attractions; and a single mother begins preparations for the end of the world as we know it. From the unforgiving surf of Costa Rica to suburban Florida, the stories in Perfect Conditions arise within worlds we know and others that only resemble our own. Vanessa Blakeslee’s characters often struggle to find control in unrelenting circumstances, in places which are often anything but welcoming..

If you’d like a chance at winning Perfect Conditions, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on July 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 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.

Monday, July 16, 2018

My First Time: Milana Marsenich

My First Return to the Homeland

My father was a great storyteller and, although he had never been there, I grew up listening to his stories about Montenegro, his parents’ homeland. He seemed to know the country, the people, and the stories. My great grandmother had seen the white wolf following her. She could stop a snake with a whistle. She had once crossed a mountain haunted by unburied soldiers to save a child’s life. Montenegrins were great warriors. They were a rugged people, who fought for land, family and God. Through the years, my father’s stories worked their way into my psyche and into my memory. I lived as if I had been there. Montenegro was as real to me as my hometown of Butte, Montana. My ancestors visited me in my dreams. They told me their secrets. The ghost of my great grandmother, in particular, found her way into my first novel, Copper Sky.

Marika, one of the main characters in Copper Sky, crossed the Atlantic with her family, and made her way to Butte. She longed to be like her Baba (my great grandmother) who she’d left behind. From my father’s stories I deduced that my great grandmother must have known how to use herbs, beauty, and natural energies to heal and mend wounds. She must have known the mysteries of prayer, gratitude, and faith. She was a special kind of doctor, the kind that Marika aspired to be. Marika’s Baba taught her to heal, taught her the remedies, taught her “love ignites the cure.”

My character lived and breathed Montenegro. She had been there. But I hadn’t.

In 2006 my brother, Bob, and his wife, Karen, went to Montenegro. Speaking very little Serbian, they hired an interpreter who traveled with them. Having lost contact with our family years before, we weren’t sure if we still had close relatives there. Bob was determined to find out. They went to the Village Marsenich, a small village of hundreds of distant relatives. After asking around, they found Thomas, an elderly gentleman who knew our uncles. He drove Bob, Karen, and their interpreter cross-country to a small shack.

Milorad Marsenich stepped out of that shack looking just like our Uncle Bob. Through the interpreter, they learned that his grandfather was our grandfather’s brother. At one point, Bob heard him say “Butte, Montana.” Milorad then disappeared into the shack and, as if they had been sitting there on the kitchen table all these years, he returned with a stack of letters. Our grandmother’s handwriting crawled across the envelopes—return address “Silver Bow Homes, Butte, Montana.”

The last known contact was in 1967, the year that our grandfather passed on. At the bottom of the last letter our grandmother, Jovanka, wrote, “Milosav is sick and they don’t expect him to make it. How is your Latin?” Our grandmother had come to America when she was just two years old. She married our grandfather when she was fifteen. We believe he dictated the letters to her, but she didn’t feel confident writing in Serbian without his help. She was trying to find a way to continue communication.

Bob and Karen went back to Montenegro in 2007 and I tagged along, my first time actually setting foot in my “homeland,” a land I had heard about, dreamed about, and written about my entire life. We flew into Podgorica where our uncle Mojsije and his son, Nikola, picked us up. We drove to Danilovgrad where they lived.

My Uncle Mojsije and my Aunt Dushanka had prepared a room for us in their small home that they had built themselves. They fed us elaborate meals, with vegetables from their garden and “yogurt” made fresh from their goat’s milk. They were generous, kind, and funny. They were family. Even though I’d just met them, we all felt it.

Although their grown children, Nikola and Jelena, spoke some English, my aunt and uncle spoke only Serbian. With my English/Serbian dictionary in hand, I tried really hard to communicate. At one point, as we walked to the store, I explained in Serbian to my aunt that I once had a cat named Machka, the Serbian word for cat, because my mother always wanted a cat named Machka and she couldn’t have one. When we got back to the house, I asked Nikola to see what she understood. She replied in Serbian, “Your cat doesn’t have a husband.” Once I begged, “please may I help”—or so I thought. I was actually asking, “please may I go to sleep.” We made lots of mistakes and we laughed a lot.

I felt a sense of peace there, a sense of home. Talking with Jelena, my cousin—or as she would say moya sestra, my sister, having no word for cousin—I felt a deep connection to my grandparents, having done something they could not: return to their homeland.

There was much to see and the first night we went to Ostrog, a monastery built into the side of a mountain. St. Basil lay in repose inside. He cried holy tears that the monks collected and gave to visitors. We arrived at dusk, just in time for Vespers. I’d been to Vespers with my family at the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Butte many times. But this was different. This was ancient and I could feel the spirit of that mountain, the monastery, and the saint. Although no one collected them, I cried my own tears, to be standing on the side of the mountain in Montenegro, at dusk during Vespers. I wished my father could have been there, that my grandparents could have been there.

A few days later, we went to another monastery. My uncle insisted that I walk with him behind the stone fence into a building of artifacts. There inside of a wooden box with a glass top was a piece of wood. My uncle told me its significance. Since he didn’t speak English, he told me this in Serbian. I could tell from his tone that it was important, but even with my Serbian/English dictionary in hand I couldn’t understand. Finally, he called a monk over. The man stood near in his white robe, his essence soft and peaceful, and explained to me that the small piece of wood that my uncle pointed to was a piece of the original cross that Jesus had been crucified upon.

We drove for an hour through the mountains, across the river, over narrow roads to a small village that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The celebration was for the Vasavichi Clan. Two hundred members, all related to me, stood among the tombstones outside of the small church. The church held only about twenty people. Inside, a bishop who I had met in Butte conducted the service. The service was in Serbian and, having been raised in Butte’s Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church with Church Slavonic, I understood small parts of it. I felt the presence of our ancestors there, the ghosts rising up out of the graves singing. These were Marika’s people. They were my people. My family.

After the service, we drove for another hour into seemingly the middle of another nowhere, past donkeys pulling carts, and small cars on a narrow road. We drove past little huts and kiosks selling candy. Finally, we arrived at a large field set up with tents and tables. Beef and lamb smoked in a pit. 200 people ate lunch as the musicians sang the traditional songs. They dedicated one song to us. It was the song that they sang for those who had left Montenegro and never returned, our grandparents.

Several days later, we visited my great-grandparents’ house in Berane, or more accurately, we visited the leftover stones of the foundation to their house. The stones were weathered and shrunken, barely small rocks by the time we arrived. The land inside of and around the stones looked out over the fields toward Komovi, Holy Mountain, the mountain I imagined my great grandmother crossing in the cold, in the night to minister a dying child.

A pear tree grew majestically at the edge of the land. My uncle had made Kruska from the pears, a brandy that we drank that morning. It was cold and rainy and I was sick. In that rain, our uncles gave us the property, for our grandfather. We drank the Kruska and spilled it on the land and said a prayer for those who had passed before.

Later, when we visited their graves. I stood before my great grandmother’s grave and I hoped that I had done her justice, that somehow through the years, through the stories, across the continent I had sensed her sweet spirit and brought it to life again through Marika in Copper Sky.

Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. For the past 20 years she has worked as a mental health therapist in a variety of settings. She grew up in Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. Copper Sky was chosen as a Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel. Her latest novel, The Swan Keeper, is set in 1920s Montana. Her other work has appeared in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies. She has a short story included in The Montana Quarterly book: Montana, Warts and All.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Adultery and Other Choices by Andre Dubus

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

Larry Guidry was a short wiry boy with biceps like baseballs, thin curly hair, a small head, and a face the color of housedust.

“The Bully” from Adultery and Other Choices by Andre Dubus

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Freebie: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin, Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann, and When the English Fall by David Williams

Congratulations to Renata Birkenbuel, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon.

This week, one lucky reader will win three new paperbacks from Algonquin Books: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin, Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann, and When the English Fall by David Williams. Keep scrolling for more information about the books, their opening lines, and how to enter the contest...

My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not as well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.

Aviva Grossman, an ambitious congressional intern in Florida, makes the mistake of having an affair with her (married) boss. When the affair comes to light, the popular congressman doesn’t take the fall. But Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins: slut-shamed, she becomes a late-night talk show punch line, anathema to politics. She sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. This time, she tries to be smarter about her life and strives to raise her daughter, Ruby, to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, Aviva decides to run for public office, that long-ago mistake trails her via the Internet and catches up—an inescapable scarlet A. In the digital age, the past is never, ever, truly past. And it’s only a matter of time until Ruby finds out who her mother was and is forced to reconcile that person with the one she knows. Young Jane Young is a smart, funny, serious, and moving novel about the myriad ways in which roles are still circumscribed for women, whether they are young and ambitious interns; mothers attempting to steer their daughters through a male-dominated world; political wives facing an age-old knowledge that fidelity isn’t always honored; or young girls feeling bold about their many choices before they realize the gender restrictions all around them. Gabrielle Zevin captures not only the double standards alive and well in every aspect of life for women but also the mood of our recent highly charged political season.

The two lions crouched on top of their pedestals, frozen in preparation to leap. One was snarling, its stone teeth menacing in the late-afternoon shadows, while the other stared out with disdain at the broad sweep of empty soybean fields that lay just across the state highway, a disdain made all the more pointed because the lion was missing its left eye.

How long must we pay for the crimes of our youth? That is just one question Christopher Swann explores in his compulsively readable debut, Shadow of the Lions, a literary thriller set in the elite—and sometimes dark—environs of Blackburne, a prep school in Virginia. When Matthias Glass’s best friend, Fritz, vanishes without a trace in the middle of an argument during their senior year, Matthias tries to move on with his life, only to realize that until he discovers what happened to his missing friend, he will be stuck in the past, guilty, responsible, alone. Almost ten years after Fritz’s disappearance, Matthias gets his chance. Offered a job teaching English at Blackburne, he gets swiftly drawn into the mystery. In the shadowy woods of his alma mater, he stumbles into a web of surveillance, dangerous lies, and buried secrets—and discovers the troubled underbelly of a school where the future had once always seemed bright. A sharp tale full of false leads and surprise turns, Shadow of the Lions is also wise and moving. Christopher Swann has given us a gripping debut about friendship, redemption, and what it means to lay the past to rest.

I hold her, tight in my arms, and she screams.

When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath in When the English Fall. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities. Written as the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob who tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos. Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they do, can they survive? David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of how we live today and what remains if the center cannot hold.

If you’d like a chance at winning all three books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on July 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 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.

Front Porch Books: July 2018 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

by Stephanie Land
(Hachette Books)

Jacket Copy:  While the gap between upper middle-class Americans and the working poor widens, grueling low-wage domestic and service work—primarily done by women—fuels the economic success of the wealthy. Stephanie Land worked for years as a maid, pulling long hours while struggling as a single mom to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. In Maid, she reveals the dark truth of what it takes to survive and thrive in today’s inequitable society. While she worked hard to scratch her way out of poverty as a single parent, scrubbing the toilets of the wealthy, navigating domestic labor jobs, higher education, assisted housing, and a tangled web of government assistance, Stephanie wrote. She wrote the true stories that weren’t being told. The stories of overworked and underpaid Americans. Written in honest, heart-rending prose and with great insight, Maid explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them. “I’d become a nameless ghost,” Stephanie writes. With this book, she gives voice to the “servant” worker, those who fight daily to scramble and scrape by for their own lives and the lives of their children.

Opening Lines:  My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

Blurbworthiness:  “We need more books like Maid, with the view from behind the fridge and under the couch. Stephanie Land has something to teach us about both sides of the inequality divide. Neither is what you are expecting.” (Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed)

A Key to Treehouse Living
by Elliot Reed
(Tin House Books)

Jacket Copy:  A Key to Treehouse Living is the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest. In a glossary-style list, he imparts his particular wisdom on subjects ranging from ASPHALT PATHS, BETTA FISH, and MULLET to MORTAL BETRAYAL, NIHILISM, and REVELATION. His improbable quest―to create a reference volume specific to his existence―takes him on a journey down the river by raft (see MYSTICAL VISION, see NAVIGATING BIG RIVERS BY NIGHT). He seeks to discover how his mother died (see ABSENCE) and find reasons for his father’s disappearance (see UNCERTAINTY, see VANITY). But as he goes about defining his changing world, all kinds of extraordinary and wonderful things happen to him. Unlocking an earnest, clear-eyed way of thinking that might change your own, A Key to Treehouse Living is a story about keeping your own record straight and living life by a different code.

Opening Lines:  ABSENCE
       A woman becomes a mother when a baby comes out of her body. From then on, she can never stop being a mother. No matter how much or how little mothering she does, she will still be a mother. If a bird lays an egg in a nest, flies off, and never returns, the bird will still be a mother if the egg she laid hatches. Not all mothers want to be with their children.

Blurbworthiness:  “Disorienting, weirdly wise, indescribably transparent, impossibly recognizable. Fun, too.” (Joy Williams, author of The Quick and the Dead)

The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta
by John Rollin Ridge
(Penguin Classics)

Jacket Copy:  The first novel to feature a Mexican-American hero, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta is an adventure tale about Mexicans rising up against U.S. rule in California, based on the real-life bandit who inspired the creation of Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and Batman. An action-packed blend of folk tale, romance, epic, and myth, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta tells the story of the Gold Rush-era Mexican immigrant whose efforts to find fortune and happiness are thwarted by white settlers who murder his family and drive him off his land. In retaliation, Murieta organizes a band of more than 2,000 outlaws—including the sadistic “Three-Fingered Jack”—who take revenge by murdering, stealing horses, and robbing miners, all with the ultimate goal of reconquering California. The first novel written by a Native American and the first novel published in California, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta speaks to the ways in which ethical questions of national security and racialized police violence have long been a part of U.S. history. This edition features excerpts from popular rewritings of the novel, including Johnston McCulley’s first novel about Zorro, The Curse of Capistrano (also known as The Mark of Zorro). The Penguin Classics edition includes a new foreword by Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author of the Outlander series.

Opening Lines:  I sit down to write somewhat concerning the life and character of Joaquín Murieta, a man as remarkable in the annals of crime as any of the renowned robbers of the Old or New World, who have preceded him; and I do this, not for the purpose of ministering to any depraved taste for the dark and horrible in human action, but rather to contribute my mite to those materials out of which the early history of California shall one day be composed. The character of this truly wonderful man was nothing more than a natural production of the social and moral condition of the country in which he lived, acting upon certain peculiar circumstances favorable to such a result, and, consequently, his individual history is a part of the most valuable history of the State.

Blurbworthiness:  “One of the most influential and one of the most invisible novels in the history of American literature...It remains a vital novel today as racial profiling, deportations, criminalization, police violence, and racialized dispossession continue to devastate American communities in spite of putatively ‘colorblind’ laws [and] offers a bracing rejoinder to racially disproportionate rates of incarceration, the systemic nature of antiblack police brutality, and the intensified militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border fueled by racial stereotypes such as President Trump’s invocation of ‘bad hombres.’” (from the Introduction by Hsuan L. Hsu)

Jell-O Girls
by Allie Rowbottom
(Little, Brown)

Jacket Copy:  In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege—but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments. More than 100 years after that deal was struck, Allie’s mother Mary was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer, a disease that had also claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, determined to understand the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story. A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune,  Jell-O Girls is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss. In crystalline prose Rowbottom considers the roots of trauma not only in her own family, but in the American psyche as well, ultimately weaving a story that is deeply personal, as well as deeply connected to the collective female experience.

Opening Lines:  She leaned forward, mouth opened for the wobbling pink Jell-O I steered toward her. “Here comes the Jell-O train,” I sing-songed, as if she were a child and I her mother, piloting a spoon into my baby’s mouth. She kept her lips closed over a laugh, focused on swallowing, and said nothing.
       Across the room the TV flashed images of a Main Street somewhere in America, a dilapidated factory. Faded red brick, a smokestack, and a plaque: The Jell-O Company, 1900-1964. My mother gestured, mouth still full, pointing at the screen, suddenly frantic.

Blurbworthiness:  “We all come from somewhere, yet I never imagined that someone could come from Jell-O. From these beginnings, Allie Rowbottom has molded this generous book of intuition, connection, and grace. This is a work of wild insights and deep music.” (Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City)

The Novel of Ferrara
by Giorgio Bassani
(W. W. Norton)

Jacket Copy:  Giorgio Bassani’s six classic books are collected for the first time in English as the epic masterwork they were intended to be. Among the masters of twentieth-century literature, Giorgio Bassani and his Northern Italian hometown of Ferrara “are as inseparable as James Joyce and Dublin or Italo Svevo and Trieste” (from the Introduction). Now published in English for the first time as the unified masterwork Bassani intended, The Novel of Ferrara brings together Bassani’s six classics, fully revised by the author at the end of his life: Within the Walls, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Behind the Door, The Heron, and The Smell of Hay. Set in the northern Italian town of Ferrara before, during, and after the Second World War, these interlocking stories present a fully rounded world of unforgettable characters: the respected doctor whose homosexuality is tolerated until he is humiliatingly exposed by an exploitative youth; a survivor of the Nazi death camps whose neighbors’ celebration of his return gradually turns to ostracism; a young man discovering the ugly, treacherous price that people will pay for a sense of belonging; the Jewish aristocrat whose social position has been erased; the indomitable schoolteacher, Celia Trotti, whose Communist idealism disturbs and challenges a postwar generation. The Novel of Ferrara memorializes not only the Ferrarese people, but the city itself, which assumes a character and a voice deeply inflected by the Jewish community to which the narrator belongs. Suffused with new life by acclaimed translator and poet Jamie McKendrick, this seminal work seals Bassani’s reputation as “a quietly insistent chronicler of our age’s various menaces to liberty” (Jonathan Keates).

Opening Lines:  Turning back to the distant years of her youth, always, for as long as she lived, Lida Mantovani remembered the birth with emotion, and especially the days just before it. Whenever she thought about it, she was deeply moved.

Blurbworthiness:  “Powerful new translations...Bassani began as a poet, and McKendrick’s redelivery of this taut uncompromising fiction reveals resonance and generosity.” (Ali Smith, author of Winter)

No Exit
by Taylor Adams
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  On her way to Utah to see her dying mother, college student Darby Thorne gets caught in a fierce blizzard in the mountains of Colorado. With the roads impassable, she’s forced to wait out the storm at a remote highway rest stop. Inside are some vending machines, a coffee maker, and four complete strangers. Desperate to find a signal to call home, Darby goes back out into the storm....and makes a horrifying discovery. In the back of the van parked next to her car, a little girl is locked in an animal crate. Who is the child? Why has she been taken? And how can Darby save her? There is no cell phone reception, no telephone, and no way out. One of her fellow travelers is a kidnapper. But which one? Trapped in an increasingly dangerous situation, with a child’s life and her own on the line, Darby must find a way to break the girl out of the van and escape. But who can she trust? With exquisitely controlled pacing, Taylor Adams diabolically ratchets up the tension with every page. Full of terrifying twists and hairpin turns, No Exit will have you on the edge of your seat and leave you breathless.

Opening Lines:  “Screw you, Bing Crosby.”
       Darby Thorne was six miles up Backbone Pass when her windshield wiper broke, and that bass-baritone voice was just kicking into the second chorus. It was official: he’d be getting his white Christmas. He could shut up about it now.

by Edward Carey

Jacket Copy:  Little, the new novel by Edward Carey, is the wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris, befriended by royalty and radicals, who transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud. In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and at the wax museum, heads are what they do. In the tradition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Edward Carey’s Little is a darkly endearing cavalcade of a novel—a story of art, class, determination, and how we hold on to what we love.

Opening Lines:  In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst in the city of Paris people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties that would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte: many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and a terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby.

Blurbworthiness:  “Blessed are they who have their own copy of Edward Carey’s new and not so little novel, Little. As with everything by Carey that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read everything), Little is exquisitely sensitive to all the warmth, vigor, humor, woe, and peculiarities of human nature, as if the writer had a dowsing rod capable of divining what hides within the human heart. Carey is without peer.”  (Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble)

Past Tense
by Lee Child

Jacket Copy:  Jack Reacher hits the pavement and sticks out his thumb. He plans to follow the sun on an epic trip across America, from Maine to California. He doesn’t get far. On a country road deep in the New England woods, he sees a sign to a place he has never been: the town where his father was born. He thinks, What’s one extra day? He takes the detour. At the same moment, in the same isolated area, a car breaks down. Two young Canadians had been on their way to New York City to sell a treasure. Now they’re stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. The owners seem almost too friendly. It’s a strange place, but it’s all there is. The next morning, in the city clerk’s office, Reacher asks about the old family home. He’s told no one named Reacher ever lived in town. He’s always known his father left and never returned, but now Reacher wonders, Was he ever there in the first place? As Reacher explores his father’s life, and as the Canadians face lethal dangers, strands of different stories begin to merge. Then Reacher makes a shocking discovery: The present can be tough, but the past can be tense...and deadly.

Opening Lines:  Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south. But not, he thought, straight down the coast. Not like the orioles and the buntings and the phoebes and the warblers and the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Instead he decided on a diagonal route, south and west, from the top right-hand corner of the country to the bottom left, maybe through Syracuse, and Cincinnati, and St Louis, and Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, and onward all the way to San Diego. Which for an Army guy like Reacher was a little too full of Navy people, but which was otherwise a fine spot to start the winter.
       It would be an epic road trip, and one he hadn’t made in years.
       He was looking forward to it.
       He didn’t get far.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

Two women, a city boiling with heat and hate, and a simple misunderstanding: these are the driving forces at work in Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages. The story follows two military spouses, Cassie and Margaret, who join their husbands in their new duty location: Amman, Jordan. As anyone who has traveled to Countries Other Than America can tell you, foreign culture can sometimes be a shock. Fallon (an American living in the Middle East with her Army officer husband) plunges us into that unfamiliar way of life with the ease and authority of someone who has walked in her characters’ shoes. The sights, sounds and smells of Jordanian streets rise off these pages like they were loaded with special effects for our senses. Beyond those rich, sensual details, The Confusion of Languages moves forward at a waste-no-time pace, sparked by a traffic fender bender that quickly spirals into a grave situation involving both Cassie and Margaret and tests the limits of their new friendship. The book’s trailer, created by Fallon herself, gives a sense of that frenetic, jangling, jarring pace of life in a foreign country. The video basically consists of three elements: a jazzy Middle Eastern song, a slide show of images taken around Jordan, and excerpts from praise for the book (including a blurb from yours truly). That’s really all Confusion needs for this short video. Those three pieces—song, pictures, words—work together to make this a terrific trailer for an outstanding book.

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

My First Time: Vanessa Blakeslee

My First Time Saying No

When my first book, Train Shots, was published, I wrote a guest post for a literary magazine’s blog advising writers to say yes to opportunities. As with many such interviews and panel discussions, I encouraged my young audience to start a reading series in their local community, review books, interview authors, and participate in the literary community. And I don’t retract or regret that advice. Consider this an addendum, if you will, or a Part B. Why this addendum, why now? Because at a certain point—maybe mid-career, or mid-life—a shift happens, where a writer realizes she must say no.

The subject of “saying no” has been well-trod territory in mainstream magazines such as O, where writers have lamented the difficulty of the polite but firm decline. For some, having a child forces the priority shifts and time constraints. But what about saying no when one doesn’t have the constraints of, say, children or aging parents to care for (yet)? Shouldn’t one be more obligated to say yes, to fulfill duty to community? What precipitates such a shift?

The shift happened for me after my second book was published, a novel called Juventud, which I pushed out with troop-rallying gusto. I contacted MFA alumni, conference chums and literary magazine editors, arranged for interviews and kept a massive spreadsheet. I invented a playlist for the site Largehearted Boy, an appropriately-themed menu for another site, and wrote numerous guest blog posts giving advice, research notes, “Top Ten Tips,” etc. A massive effort, and yet even this felt like not enough—after all, authors are told we have a “brief window” when a book is new to get it noticed, before our work is cast off into spinster territory.

Crucially, did all this effort and writing-about-writing succeed in selling more copies of the book? Looking back, I am left with the distinct impression that all this accomplished was to add to the information glut we’re bombarded with—too much content, all the time. I sold the bulk of the first print run at events, and continue to do so, face-to-face with readers. Just a few years ago, I recall somewhat making light of two older professors of mine with books coming out, who weren’t planning on undertaking much promotion aside from a local launch party and a couple of readings. Are they crazy? I thought, it’s the Internet Age. You have to market. Be an indie entrepreneur.

Now, I conclude, not so much. Swiftly, too, the times did change. Just a couple of years later, and the promotional climate has changed, I sense, with the steady onslaught of terrible daily news. As our republic disintegrates toward inevitable totalitarianism in tandem with the decline of cheap oil, as the biosphere rapidly unravels, as mass shooters wipe out dozens in crowds, where does promoting one’s art fit in? Not so much that doing so is seemingly distasteful or insensitive, but is this truly the best use of a creative writer’s energy and time?

Diverting my efforts for those six months prior to the novel release away from writing fiction and toward promotion not only placed me in a headspace I found exhausting, but caused me to lose more steam with the other fiction projects I had underway than I ever would have guessed. This loss of focus and momentum is what ultimately caused me to sit back and assess how to go forward—and to start saying no. I stopped taking on book review assignments; while I’ve enjoyed reviewing, doing so detracts from my own work too much, for now. I don’t blurb, but I will write letters of recommendation, as I consider those a more worthwhile endeavor. My attending AWP Tampa earlier this year, I decided, would probably be my last. I find writing residencies (where I am writing this), a far more productive and enjoyable use of away-time.

What I’ve found is that you can pick and choose, and not feel guilty about declining yet another interview, conference panel proposal, or advance reading copy to review. And if what I’ve uncovered in my last eighteen months of diving deep into climate research is correct, the remainder of our collective lives is likely far shorter than we’d like to think. Once, as a 19-year-old undergrad, I decided to study abroad in Australia because I mistakenly (amusingly) believed I was dying; now, we’re faced with a planet that we’ll soon have made uninhabitable. My advice, not so much as a mid-career writer to other writers, but as a human to fellow humans, is to practice weighing what you truly value, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Decide to say no and do so often, to make room for what matters.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her novel Juventud won the 2015 IPPY Bronze Medal in Literary Fiction, was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year, and a runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award. Her debut story collection Train Shots won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Her new short story collection, Perfect Conditions, is now out from Curbside Splendor. Find her online at

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.