Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Scary as Sheet: Ghost Stories For My Halloween

I live in a house that has good potential to breed ghosts. Built in 1920, the Craftsman home on a quiet tree-lined street in Butte, Montana, is a jigsaw puzzle of dark corners, cobwebbed crawlspaces, drafty closets, an obsolete coal chute, and narrow, twisting staircases that send one’s mind reeling with vertigo. In the basement lurks a big-bellied, multi-armed and asbestos-lined furnace that, when it gleams with inner fire, looks like a mechanical beast out of Jules Verne. And one hears things. At night, the radiators tick like approaching high heels. The blowsy curtains shift from side to side, in a breezeless room. There are creaks, there are hums, there are papery whispers behind one’s back.

The house has seen its share of stories, passing through several different Butte families before us, including one owner, a well-known married ophthalmologist, who met a scandalous end when he was killed in a car accident, along with an 18-year-old female passenger. In an unofficial history left by previous owners, there’s a winking little addendum to the story: He was known for his wandering eye and partying ways.

Like I said, stories have attached themselves to this house. And I believe some characters from those stories still live here.

During one visit, my daughter tripped near the top of one of those spiral staircases, barely catching herself in time from falling. She swears she was nudged from behind. A distinct push against the middle of my back. She was alone in the house at the time.

Houses contain us, we live our lives in them, and it is not surprising that they might continue to shelter us after we die. We are attached to our homes, perhaps so much that we cannot leave, even though we are dead. A haunted house has an emptiness that is filled by the inappropriate or unnatural. A house can lose its soul, a house can go bad. Houses can be monuments to personality, we inflict our tastes upon them, but they can afflict us with their perversity in return. Ghosts can be like vermin–pests to be driven away or exterminated. We are anxious about our houses. Even the most conciliatory, helpful house can become supernaturally burdensome.
I don’t know if I’m supernaturally burdened in my house or if those noises in the other room are just noises, but I do know I suck a lot of pleasure out of that paragraph from Audrey Niffenegger’s introduction to her excellent collection, Ghostly, which is one of the books I’ve been reading this past month to get me in the mood for Halloween.

Ghostly begins with “The Black Cat.” It has been years–decades–since I read Edgar Alan Poe’s classic, and Niffenegger was smart to open her roster with this one because I felt those spinal chills all afresh as if for the first time when I read these words from the narrator (murderer and terrible pet owner) when he overconfidently bangs against his cellar wall as a show of bravado in front of the investigating policemen:
       “Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps,” I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this–this is a very well constructed house.” ( In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered are all.)–“I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls–are you going, gentlemen?–these wall are solidly put together,” and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
       But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tombs!–by a cry, at first muffed and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman–a howl–a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the dammed in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.

The book only gets better from there. Shivery standouts include short stories by Edith Wharton, Oliver Onions (funny name, creepy story), A. M. Burrage, A. S. Byatt, and Neil Gaiman, whose “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is an icy stab to the heart. I don’t want to spoil anything for the virgin reader, but these lines near the end really sent me over the edge:
He pushed open the door to the attic room. It was perfectly dark, now, but the opening door disturbed the air, and I heard things rattle gently, like dry bones in thin bags, in the slight wind. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Like that.

Ghostly also briskly re-introduced me to Saki and his equally-brisk pleasures. “Laura” and “The Open Window” are both delights in narrative wordplay, trickery, and compression. Especially the latter. Saki gets the job done in the time it takes some writers (present company included) to merely warm up the pen.

Niffenegger closes Ghostly with Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (updated here to “August 2026”). As she writes in her introductory note: “Perhaps this is not a ghost story at all, but I like to think it is. It is a story of the ghost of a house and the ghost of a civilization. It is a warning and a parable. Of all the stories in this book, it is the most possible.”

The story moves like a roving camera, in one take, through a day in the life (and death) of a house which has miraculously survived a nuclear attack. The house lived, but nothing else did:
       The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.
       Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.
       The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.
       The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light.

A house also featured prominently in my TV watching in October. The Haunting of Hill House was only nominally, tangentially related to the novel by Shirley Jackson, and it took my wife and I a couple of episodes to really get into the Netflix series, but when we did, we were sucked in, as helpless as poor little Carol Anne splaying her fingers across the television screen in Poltergeist. There were plenty of legitimate jump scares that had me choking on my candy corn, but more than anything The Haunting of Hill House succeeded as–get this–a tender story about the bonds of family and how to deal with grief and guilt. The scares melt to schmaltz in the final episode as the denouement swerves like a car on an icy road toward a tree called This is Us, but even that isn’t enough to dampen the series’ well-earned sentiment of family first, even unto death.

I also appreciate how the Netflix series was kind enough to include a few patches of text lifted directly from Jackson’s famous opening/closing lines:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood for eighty years and might stand eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I concluded my Halloween reading jag with Dolly by Susan Hill. While I wouldn’t rate it as highly as I would her previously ghost story novella, The Man in the Picture, Dolly does have its moments. Hill creates a soupy, chilly atmosphere of an isolated house out on the fens in Britain. She writes: “Empty houses breed fantasies, bleak landscapes lend themselves to fearful imaginings.” There are some superb, evocative descriptions which all combine to create some tense scenes surrounding temperamental children, a too-large mansion, and an unappreciated gift, a doll. And don’t even get me started on the rustling of tissue paper.

Speaking of odd noises, I just heard something strange coming from the other room. I’m gonna go check it out and then I’ll be right back.

Monday, October 29, 2018

My First Time: Jenn Stroud Rossmann

The First Time I Took Myself Seriously

The first time I went to a weeklong writers’ workshop I was still in grad school, before jobs and kids and various responsibilities kicked in. Since I was working toward my PhD in mechanical engineering, a week at Squaw Valley felt like a glorious moment of finding my people while visiting a land where words were the currency. I felt instantly at home. There’s a reason they call it the Squaw Valley “Community of Writers.” But, because I was still in the suspended half-reality of grad school, I didn’t yet know how special, wondrous, and rare this experience was. Also, there were hot tubs and mountains and wine. It was late-90s northern California, in the middle of another gold rush (several of my lab-mates had side hustles daytrading), and we were invincible.

After Squaw Valley, I buckled down and finished my thesis; I got a job teaching engineering with the marvelously clever students at Harvey Mudd College. I had wonderful colleagues and a little bungalow in Pasadena, and I was trying to get tenure. I wrote on the weekends, or late at night after finishing my grading. But I was very much an engineering professor whose “hobby” was writing fiction. (And reading it: I subscribed to several litmags, and read a few novels a month.) In the meantime, the veins of gold dried up, and several California universities froze hiring. So my husband’s faculty job, when it came, was across the country, in New Jersey. We moved, I found a new position, and I was back at the starting line of the tenure track. Then, we had children.

This is how some novels get written: after the “real work” is done; at naptime; in the car while you’re waiting for ballet class to get out; when your husband sees you getting twitchy and takes the kids to the park for a canoe. I wrote stories and novels this way, on the side and in the margins, and I sent them out. I got some useful feedback, and some not-so-useful. I slid a lot of manuscripts into the drawer. My children grew, and I started to feel more confident about my odds of earning tenure.

I had been automatically deleting those emails from Squaw Valley about each summer’s re-convening of the Community of Writers, and—after a wistful sigh, and a little wave of ennui, those about other conferences and residencies. (I never took the step of unsubscribing. I may be a bit of a masochist when it comes to ennui.)

Then, twelve years after Squaw Valley, I decided to apply to Tin House’s summer workshop. It would be in July, in Portland, Oregon; in August, I would compile and submit my tenure file. I made a pro-and-con list. I shopped for daycamps that my young daughters could attend while I was gone. Here’s what cinched it: my capable husband said, We got this. My best friend back in California said, I’ll meet you there. My mother said, Use my frequent flier miles. My in-laws said, What took you so long.

The week of workshops with the legendary Jim Shepard was transformative. The craft talks and readings were edge-of-seat, can’t-take-notes-fast-enough terrific. (This must be what it feels like to get an MFA, I thought.) My fellow writers were generous, subversive, hilarious. And not all of them were shockingly young, with jetpacks strapped to their backs as they counted down to career rocket-launches. Some, like me, had other lives, other jobs. (I called home each night to hear my daughters’ sweet, vulnerable voices, usually during happy hour.) We called it wordcamp, recognizing the ephemerality of our time together.

All of us recognized each other as fellow citizens of this world of words. The work of both workshoppers and faculty was dauntingly excellent, so the week didn’t exactly build my confidence in my own writing. But it was a homecoming. The week reminded me how alive I felt in this world: performing a close reading of a story; discussing stories and novels; hearing lyrical poetry read aloud; watching as Luis Alberto Urrea dropped his new novel to the ground and performed the first chapter from memory, in character(s).

I soaked it all in, sat marinating on the plane ride home, then faced a week of agonizing detox on re-entry to Real Life. I resolved to figure out how to bring writing out of the margins. A slow learner, I realized only gradually that if I could visit this country of Wordland again—whether it was in Oregon, or Brooklyn, or California, or Chicago—I could reconnect with my people, practice my conjugations in the native language, cobble together something like a DIY MFA, and eventually learn how to conjure this feeling at my very own desk: I belong here, I’ve knit something of words, and I believe I may be able to strengthen it, today.

Jenn Stroud Rossmann is the author of the new novel The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, set in Silicon Valley in 2002. Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody, says it is “acutely observed, full of wit, keen insight, and compassion.” Rossmann writes the essay series “An Engineer Reads a Novel” for Public Books. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Tahoma Literary Review, failbetter, and other magazines. Her work has been a finalist for honors including the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, the Disquiet Literary Prize, and Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize. She earned her BS and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. You can 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.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sunday Sentence: American Radiance by Luisa Muradyan

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

                 If sadness were a fruit
                 It would be a sadberry
                 which is related to the blueberry
                 but sadder.

“Clams” from American Radiance by Luisa Muradyan

Friday, October 26, 2018

Friday Freebie: Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners by Gretchen Anthony

Congratulations to Elyse Garrett, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener.

This week’s giveaway is for Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners, a new holiday novel by Gretchen Anthony. One lucky reader will win a new paperback copy. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest.

Dearest loved ones, far and near—evergreen tidings from the Baumgartners!

Violet Baumgartner has opened her annual holiday letter the same way for the past three decades. And this year she’s going to throw her husband, Ed, a truly perfect retirement party, one worthy of memorializing in her upcoming letter. But the event becomes a disaster when, in front of two hundred guests, Violet learns her daughter Cerise has been keeping a shocking secret from her, shattering Violet’s carefully constructed world. In an epic battle of wills, Violet goes to increasing lengths to wrest back control of her family, infuriating Cerise and snaring their family and friends in a very un-Midwestern, un-Baumgartner gyre of dramatics. And there will be no explaining away the consequences in this year’s Baumgartner holiday letter. Full of humor, emotion and surprises at every turn, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners brings to life a remarkable cast of quirky, deeply human characters who must learn to adapt to the unconventional, or else risk losing one another. This is the story of a family falling to pieces—and the unexpected way they put it all back together.

If you’d like a chance at winning Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners, 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 Nov. 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 2. 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, October 25, 2018

Front Porch Books: October 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.

The Adults
by Caroline Hulse
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  A couple (now separated), plus their daughter, plus their new partners, all on an epic Christmas vacation. What could go wrong? Meet The Adults. Claire and Matt are no longer together but decide that it would be best for their daughter, Scarlett, to have a “normal” family Christmas. They can’t agree on whose idea it was to go to the Happy Forest holiday park, or who said they should bring their new partners. But someone did—and it’s too late to pull the plug. Claire brings her new boyfriend, Patrick (never Pat), a seemingly sensible, eligible from a distance Ironman in Waiting. Matt brings the new love of his life, Alex, funny, smart, and extremely patient. Scarlett, who is seven, brings her imaginary friend Posey. He’s a giant rabbit. Together the five (or six?) of them grit their teeth over Forced Fun Activities, drink a little too much after Scarlett’s bedtime, overshare classified secrets about their pasts...and before you know it, their holiday is a powder keg that ends where this novel begins—with a tearful, frightened call to the police. What happened? They said they’d all be adults about this...

Opening Lines:  Matt had known about the trip for months before he dropped it into conversation.
       Matt didn’t deliberately keep things from Alex; he just dealt with complicated thoughts like he dealt with his post.
       When letters landed in the hallways, Matt stepped over them or, when they could no longer be ignored, crammed them into any nook he could find.

Blurbworthiness:  “Such a breath of fresh air! Witty, intensely human, and (dare I say it) relatable...This novel is the perfect comedy of errors.”  (Katie Khan, author of Hold Back the Stars)

The Elephant in the Room
by Tommy Tomlinson
(Simon & Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  When he was almost fifty years old, Tommy Tomlinson weighed an astonishing—and dangerous—460 pounds, at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, unable to climb a flight of stairs without having to catch his breath, or travel on an airplane without buying two seats. Raised in a family that loved food, he had been aware of the problem for years, seeing doctors and trying diets from the time he was a preteen. But nothing worked, and every time he tried to make a change, it didn’t go the way he planned—in fact, he wasn’t sure that he really wanted to change. He was only one of millions of Americans struggling with weight, body image, and a relationship with food that puts them at major risk. Intimate and insightful, The Elephant in the Room is Tomlinson’s chronicle of meeting those people, taking the first steps towards health, and trying to understand how, as a nation, we got to this point. From buying a FitBit and setting an exercise goal to contemplating the Heart Attack Grill, America’s “capital of food porn,” and modifying his own diet, Tomlinson brings us along on an unforgettable journey of self-discovery that is a candid and sometimes brutal look at the everyday experience of being constantly aware of your size. Over the course of the book, he confronts these issues head on and chronicles the practical steps he has to take—big and small—to lose weight by the end.

Opening Lines:   I have this dream. We’re on a road trip, out in this house in the country, and I’m trying to talk to my wife. But this hog gets in the house. It stinks and it’s slick to the touch and I can’t keep it off me. I push it away but it keeps plowing back and I see tusks. I finally shove it out the door. Now I’m in bed. Here comes the hog again. I can barely stave it off with my hands. It’s all over me. I get to my feet and kick it and ram it with my shoulder and we tumble out into the yard. My mouth is coated with hog-slime, and I reach in and scrape it off my tongue. I’m half-dressed, stinking, miserable. Suddenly we’re back in a room and I can sense I’m being watched. Three or four official-looking people are lined up at a table, like judges on a panel. One of them says, “Here’s what you have to do.”
     I wake up knowing two things.
     One, I have to kill the hog.
     Two, the hog is a part of me.

     I weigh 460 pounds.
     Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Elephant in the Room is more than a memoir of an ever-supersizing America. It’s a love story. It’s also a whipsmart history of working-class America, where the fast-food line is long and a weary mother’s love is shown in third helpings of cornbread and butter beans. Tommy Tomlinson’s singular voice—of journalist, Southerner, son, and of a husband who knows how lucky he is—is at turns punchy and poetic, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud, and full of language so authentically fresh it needs no sell-by date.”  (Beth Macy, author of Dopesick)

The Promise of Elsewhere
by Brad Leithauser

Jacket Copy:  Louie Hake is forty-three and teaches architectural history at a third-rate college in Michigan. His second marriage is collapsing, and he's facing a potentially disastrous medical diagnosis. In an attempt to fend off what has become a soul-crushing existential crisis, he decides to treat himself to a tour of the world's most breathtaking architectural sites. Perhaps not surprisingly, Louie gets waylaid on his very first stop in Rome—ludicrously, spectacularly so—and fails to reach most of his other destinations. He embarks on a doomed romance with a jilted bride celebrating her ruined marriage plans alone in London. And in the Arctic he finds that turf houses and aluminum sheds don't amount to much of an architectural tradition. But it turns out that there's another sort of architecture there: icebergs the size of cathedrals, bobbing beside a strange and wondrous landscape. It soon becomes clear that Louie's grand journey is less about where his wanderings have taken him and more about where his past encounters with romance have not. Whether pursuing his first wife, or his estranged current wife, or the older woman he kissed just once a quarter-century ago, Louie reveals himself to be endearing, deeply touching, wonderfully ridiculous . . . and destined to find love in all the wrong places.

Opening Lines:  If at last they are to come down to us—the Extraterrestrials—what better time than dusk, what better place than the American Midwest? It’s midsummer and a small boy sits beside his father on their sagging back porch. The boy’s name is Louie Hake and the father’s name is Louie Hake as well, and so prickling-potent is the boy’s sensation of kinship while the two of them hunch in the neighborhood twilight, it’s like some internal scent lodged within the very bones of his head. Both wear khaki shorts. Both have blue-gray eyes.

Winter Loon
by Susan Bernhard
(Little A)

Jacket Copy:  Abandoned by his father after his mother drowns in a frozen Minnesota lake, fifteen-year-old Wes Ballot is stranded with coldhearted grandparents and holed up in his mother’s old bedroom, surrounded by her remnants and memories. As the wait for his father stretches unforgivably into months, a local girl, whose own mother died a brutal death, captures his heart and imagination, giving Wes fresh air to breathe in the suffocating small town. When buried truths come to light in the spring thaw, wounds are exposed and violence erupts, forcing Wes to embark on a search for his missing father, the truth about his mother, and a future he must claim for himself—a quest that begins back at that frozen lake. A powerful, page-turning coming-of-age story, Winter Loon captures the resilience of a boy determined to become a worthy man by confronting family demons, clawing his way out of the darkness, and forging a life from the shambles of a broken past.

Opening Lines:  A hawk banked in the gray daybreak, head hunched, eyes darting beneath a cross of wings. Nothing scampered or skittered along the ice, nothing meaty or gamey worth a closer look, nothing with any fight left. All that hawk could have seen was me as I was that morning, a boy only fifteen years old curled up tight as a fiddlehead, ear to the ice, alone on a frozen lake surrounded by remote miles of woods and farmland, a handful of houses sagging in the dark.

Blurbworthiness:  “Winter Loon is a brutal, beautiful coming-of-age story in which a young man who loses everything must return to the landscape of that loss to discover what it all means. Susan Bernhard is a writer of incredible grace and power who employs weather and the natural world to plumb the icy depths of her characters’ souls for the warmth of hope, healing, and heart.”  (Wiley Cash, author of The Last Ballad)

Buddhism for Western Children
by Kirstin Allio
(University of Iowa Press)

Jacket Copy:  Set on the coast of Maine and in the high desert of New Mexico in the late 1970s through the early 80s, Buddhism for Western Children is a universal and timeless story of a boy who must escape subjugation, tell his story, and reclaim his soul. In search of community and transcendence, ten-year-old Daniel’s family is swept into the thrall of a potent and manipulative guru. To his followers, Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich is a living god, a charismatic leader who may reveal enlightenment as he mesmerizes, and alchemizes, Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Daniel’s family plunges into a world with different rules and rhythms—and with no apparent exit. They join other devotees in shunning the outside world, and fall under the absolutist authority of the guru and his lieutenants. Daniel bears witness to the relentless competition for the guru’s favor, even as he begins to recognize the perversion of his spirituality. Soon, Daniel himself is chosen to play a role. As tensions simmer and roil, darkness intrudes. Devotees overstep, placing even the children in jeopardy. Daniel struggles with conflicting desires to resist and to belong, until finally he must decide who to save and who to abandon. With spiraling, spellbinding language, Allio reveals a cast of vivid, often darkly funny characters, and propels us toward a shocking climax where Daniel’s story cracks open like a kaleidoscope, revealing the costs of submitting to a tyrant and the shimmering resilience of the human spirit.

Opening Lines:  Daniel’s parents listened to the Guru on cassette tape all the way down to Maine from Halifax.
       Canyon stripes of browns and grays whipped by like banners out the window. As they got farther south there was yellow-green in the blur of bushes at the bottom.
       His dad, Ray, set a plastic milk jug of drinking water on the floor of the back seat, and it was Daniel’s job to pass it up when Ray got thirsty.

Blurbworthiness:  “One piece of traditional writer’s advice is ‘Give the devil all the best lines’; Kirstin Allio has instead elected to give him the entire book, leaving the reader and her dear feral child of a protagonist, Daniel/Jubal, to fight their way free together through nests of dazzling, seductive, off-kilter language. The result is a superb exploration of the emotional condition of guru-drunkenness.”  (Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective)

The Altruists
by Andrew Ridker

Jacket Copy:  Arthur Alter is in trouble. A middling professor at a Midwestern college, he can’t afford his mortgage, he’s exasperated his much-younger girlfriend, and his kids won’t speak to him. And then there’s the money—the small fortune his late wife Francine kept secret, which she bequeathed directly to his children. Those children are Ethan, an anxious recluse living off his mother’s money on a choice plot of Brooklyn real estate; and Maggie, a would-be do-gooder trying to fashion herself a noble life of self-imposed poverty. On the verge of losing the family home, Arthur invites his children back to St. Louis under the guise of a reconciliation. But in doing so, he unwittingly unleashes a Pandora’s box of age-old resentments and long-buried memories—memories that orbit Francine, the matriarch whose life may hold the key to keeping them together. Spanning New York, Paris, Boston, St. Louis, and a small desert outpost in Zimbabwe, The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, with shades of Philip Roth and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a “good person.”

Opening Lines:  The Alter family was beset by fire. All autumn there were flare-ups, happenings, the kind of uncoordinated auguries that look ominous only in retrospect. In September, Ethan singed his thumb trying to light a cigarette. Three days later, a faulty burner caused the range in the kitchen to malfunction; the igniter made an anxious sound, a string of desperate ticks, before sparking a flame that caught Francine’s cuff. And at Arthur’s fiftieth birthday, a modest gathering on the back lawn of the house, a trick candle fell from the carrot cake and set a few dead leaves alight, which Maggie stomped out with her foot.

Blurbworthiness:  “Andrew Ridker has a lot to say about the way we live now. The result is one of those super-brilliant, super-funny novels one enjoys in the manner of a squirrel with an especially delicious acorn. I found myself trying to get out of every activity and responsibility just to come back to this novel.”  (Gary Shteyngart, author of Lake Success)

A Philosophy of Ruin
by Nicholas Mancusi
(Hanover Square Press)

Jacket Copy:  A young philosophy professor finds himself in the middle of a drug-running operation after his personal life derails in this taut, white-knuckle debut for fans of Breaking Bad. Oscar Boatwright, a disenchanted philosophy professor, receives terrible news. His mother, on her way home from Hawaii with Oscar’s father, has died midflight, her body cooling for hours until the plane can land. Deeply grieving, Oscar feels his life slipping out of his control. A seemingly innocuous one-night stand with a woman named Dawn becomes volatile when, on the first day of classes, he realizes she is his student, and later learns that she is a fledgling campus drug lord. To make matters worse, his family is in debt, having lost their modest savings to a self-help guru who had indoctrinated Oscar’s mother by preying on her depression. Desperate to help his family, Oscar breaks with his academic personality—he agrees to help Dawn with a drug run. A Philosophy of Ruin rumbles with brooding nihilism, then it cracks like a whip, hurtling Oscar and Dawn toward a terrifying threat on the road. Can Oscar halt the acceleration of chaos? Or was his fate never in his control? Taut, ferocious and blazingly intelligent, A Philosophy of Ruin is a heart-pounding thrill ride into the darkest corners of human geography, and a philosophical reckoning with the forces that determine our destiny.

Opening Lines:  Oscar Boatwright’s mother had died in her seat during a flight from Hawaii to California, and his father had been made to sit for three hours in the same aircraft as her cooling body. This information had been relayed to Oscar via telephone by an airline representative who spoke in a measured tone that simultaneously conveyed measured sympathy and complete legal indemnity. The plane was still in the air.

Blurbworthiness:  “An unforgettable debut. Mancusi is a writer to watch.”  (Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel)

The Other Americans
by Laila Lalami
(Pantheon Books)

Jacket Copy:  Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant in California, is walking across a darkened intersection when he is killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efrain, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, a former classmate of Nora’s and a veteran of the Iraq war; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself. As the characters tell their stories, the invisible connections that tie them together—even while they remain deeply divided by race, religion, or class—are slowly revealed. When the mystery of what happened to Driss Guerraoui unfolds, a family’s secrets are exposed, a town’s hypocrisies are faced, and love, in its messy and unpredictable forms, is born.

Opening Lines:  My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland. Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo

Blurbworthiness:  “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.”  (J. M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace)

Monday, October 22, 2018

My First Time: Adrianne Harun

My First Time at a Transformational Reading

I arrived at college, raw and confused, bobbing between a cocky embrace of unwarranted privilege and a contradictory but equally keen awareness of my many limitations. The college I attended was beyond my ken, socially and academically. Although I had likely been admitted based on a musical resumeI’d been performing since I was fourteenI knew early on that I didn’t have enough desire or talent to be a true professional and that I didn’t want to be shown up for the minor talent I was, to publicly fail. So I’d bypassed the music department altogether, landing somewhere between art history and classical languages. Of course, I was consistently befuddled. A sense of failure and hazy doom traveled with me continually. Always, it seemed I was interpreting or translatingand not well. In retrospect, those tasks seem entirely keeping with my mental state. I felt alien. Yes, truthfully, I found it hard to understand why I was in the world at all.

Then a few months into that first semester, I followed the erudite crowd to a Major Campus Event, a public reading. I’d been to very few readings before, and although I pretended otherwise, I hadn’t heard of the writer. But the energy around this appearance was palpable. And I was a reader. I’d always been a reader. Still, I was deeply ignorant, and my expectations were low even as the glorious Grace Paley, her flyaway halo of gray hair shaking with reverence and passion, introduced the little old woman beside her, and Tillie Olsen took the stage.

Tillie Olsen
Within the next hours–and, yes, I’m sure she read for hours–my world shifted and cracked open. A great swell of appreciation and recognition and longing swept through me as Tillie Olsen read the whole of her masterful novella “Tell Me a Riddle.” Incantatory and precise, tender and unflinching–the story soared and dove and transfigured the crowded audience. Riveted, we wept without noticing. We came awake. I came awake, perhaps for the first time in my life, not just listening, but miraculously fully hearing. I was enraptured by a story about a elderly couple, a working class couple wrestling with their differing values and beliefs, told in prose that seemed to have its own form of astute cadence, rhythms that somehow–I wasn’t at all sure how–was also telling the story.

Thirty or forty minutes in, Grace interrupted to give Tillie Olsen a break, escorting her off the stage. A minute passed. Another. No one moved. I can still remember where I’d been sitting during that long-ago reading: on the floor in the far aisle, hugging my knees, half-holding my breath. It must have been an uncomfortable pose to keep, but I do know I didn’t shift either. Tillie Olsen may have had time to take a sip of water before glancing at the hushed audience and then at Grace (who shrugged) and slowly returning to the podium as if acknowledging with us that a break had no place in this experience.

Grace Paley
I should say that Grace Paley herself was a riveting presence on campus. I knew little then of her brilliant anti-war activism or her deep generosity. I only knew the wise-cracking voice of Faith, a character who pervaded her extraordinary stories. Clearly, too, I had no idea of the breadth of Tillie Olsen’s lifelong, sometimes life-threatening, work for unions and women and social justice. Grace was not a tall woman; Tillie Olsen came up to her shoulder. They were at first glance from my youthful distance, unassuming, perhaps grandmotherly. I don’t remember the exact moment my perception of both shifted from “elderly and plain” to “fierce and beautiful,” but I do know that the latter viewfierce and beautiful; fierce=beautifulhas only intensified over the years as has my admiration for those two women, those two magnificent writers whose every word still jars, demands, and inspires.

“Tell Me a Riddle” is an indescribable piece of workthe best kind. You might say the novella is a tale of a long marriage reaching its endpoint or perhaps a deeply tender portrait of a working class family. But that would be mere outline. Listening to Tillie Olsen read was the first time I fully understood that a story told right, generously and knowingly, might move past plot-description limitations and transport an isolated reader right out of the confines of her own solipsistic despair into the heart and being of another human. Years would pass before I could understand how that magic might take place or attempt to tell a story that even approached such territory, but the goal was locked in that Sunday afternoon when Tillie Olsen jolted me awake and sent me walking, not only into a life that would include writing but one that would continually strive to remember how recognition of our shared humanity elevates all of us and makes us stronger: a compelling reason for being here after all.

Adrianne Harun’s short fiction, essays, and book reviews have been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Story, the Chicago Tribune, Narrative, Cincinnati Review, Ontario Review, The Sun, Willow Springs, and Colorado Review. Her first short story collection, The King of Limbo was a Sewanee Writing Series selection and a Washington State Book Award finalist. Stories from her upcoming collection, Catch, Release, have been noted as “Distinguished Stories” in both Best American Mystery Stories and Best American Short Stories. Her first novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, won the 2015 Pinckley Prize for Crime Fiction, was shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association Award, and has been named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. A longtime resident of Port Townsend, Washington, Adrianne has taught as a core faculty member of the Rainier Writing Workshops, an MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, as well as a faculty member at the Sewanee School of Letters at the University of the South.

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy

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

          His hair became my favorite thing to touch.
                 I didn’t want my hands back.

“Waiting for Crocuses” from Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy

Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday Freebie: Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener

Congratulations to Ray Clapper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Fall of Gondolin by J. R. R. Tolkien and A Middle-Earth Traveler by John Howe.

This week’s giveaway is for Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener. I previewed the novel earlier on the blog, but here’s what Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams, had to say about Strangers: “Jessica Keener has written a gorgeous, lyrical, and sweeping novel about the tangled web of past and present. Suspenseful, perceptive, fast-paced, and ultimately restorative.” One lucky reader will win a new paperback copy of Strangers in Budapest. Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest.

Budapest: gorgeous city of secrets, with ties to a shadowy, bloody past. It is to this enigmatic European capital that a young American couple, Annie and Will, move from Boston with their infant son shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. For Annie, it is an effort to escape the ghosts that haunt her past, and Will wants simply to seize the chance to build a new future for his family. Eight months after their move, their efforts to assimilate are thrown into turmoil when they receive a message from friends in the US asking that they check up on an elderly man, a fiercely independent Jewish American WWII veteran who helped free Hungarian Jews from a Nazi prison camp. They soon learn that the man, Edward Weiss, has come to Hungary to exact revenge on someone he is convinced seduced, married, and then murdered his daughter. Annie, unable to resist anyone’s call for help, recklessly joins in the old man’s plan to track down his former son-in-law and confront him, while Will, pragmatic and cautious by nature, insists they have nothing to do with Weiss and his vendetta. What Annie does not anticipate is that in helping Edward she will become enmeshed in a dark and deadly conflict that will end in tragedy and a stunning loss of innocence. Atmospheric and surprising, Strangers in Budapest is, as bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt says, a “dazzlingly original tale about home, loss, and the persistence of love.”

If you’d like a chance at winning Strangers in Budapest, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 26. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

My First Time: Lee Zacharias

My First Lesson Learned

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy

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

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

“Circus Youth” from Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy

Friday, October 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 18, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 19. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Sunday Sentence: One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray

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

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

One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray

Friday, October 5, 2018

Friday Freebie: Godsend by John Wray

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

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

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

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 12. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, October 1, 2018

My First Time: Darrin Doyle

Stuart Dybek
My First Writing Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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