Author Interview: Lisa Borders on Point of View, South Jersey, and the Art of the Book Tour

TheFifty-FirstState-LoResLisa Borders’ novel, The Fifty-First State, is a powerful anthem about place, and belonging, and finding a new way to exist in the midst of fresh grief.

Told in alternating point-of-view sections, featuring thirty-something New Yorker Hallie, and teen stepbrother Josh, The Fifty-First State is about rebuilding family after loss has torn it apart. It’s also about southern Jersey, a creek with deformed frogs, the farmland of the Garden State, and the power of love and loyalty. Lisa peoples her novel with a cast of wonderful, and occasionally outlandish, characters, the warmth and humor fully balancing the heartbreak.

The cast of characters is rich, funny, and achingly honest. And for me, The Fifty-First State was also a wonderful introduction to Engine Books, an impressive, women-run small press that pledges at least half of each year’s titles will be written by women.

Lisa’s debut novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was released in 2002 by River City Publishing, which awarded her the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel.

I met Lisa when she stopped by Portland on her West Coast book tour with Ron MacLean, because our mutual friend Liz Prato encouraged me to attend their reading. It’s so wonderful to be able to feature Lisa on the Seven Questions Series today.

  1. Tell us about The Fifty-First State

Lisa Borders Author Photo (Color)The Fifty-First State – the title refers to Southern New Jersey – started with setting. I wanted to write about the part of South Jersey near the Delaware Bay that very few people know about – including many people in the northern half of New Jersey! The oyster industry once thrived in South Jersey, and was decimated when a parasite killed off the oysters in the 1950s, and so I created a family that had once been prosperous but had lost everything. Donald Corson, the tomato farmer who dies in the first two pages of the novel, was a wealthy boy until he was seventeen, when his family’s business went under. After that, life was a struggle for him. I was interested in how this legacy gets passed down in a family, what remnants of that absent prosperity might remain, what is permanently lost.

The book also deals more immediately with loss: that of a teenage boy, Josh, and his 37-year-old half-sister, Hallie, coping with the loss of their parents. Grief is a difficult and complicated emotional state, and its effects are as individual as people are. It’s especially tough, I think, when one doesn’t have a strong belief in an afterlife, which is the case with the characters in my novel. And yet, we survive – sometimes, we can even later thrive – after a loss. The novel is about grief, but it’s also about finding a way to move beyond a devastating loss. Ultimately, the book has an optimistic heart.

  1. We’re both Jersey girls, but I’m from the northern part of the state, and your novel takes place down in south Jersey. Why there? How did you integrate the sense of place so deeply? It really pays off with the tension Hallie feels between her life in New York City and her emotional obligation to Josh and the farm.

I grew up in Central Jersey (the Jersey shore area) until I was 13. My family moved to South Jersey when I started high school, and while I knew it was more rural there, I had no idea of the culture shock I’d experience. It felt more like moving to Alabama than moving to somewhere in the Northeast – and when I say that in South Jersey, people nod in agreement. Parts of South Jersey are, technically, below the Mason Dixon line, and you really feel that Southern influence there. As a teenager who had just moved from a place that was less than an hour from New York City, I was pretty miserable at first.

Eventually I adapted, but it wasn’t until I went away to college, returned and lived at home for a year that I came to really appreciate South Jersey – the natural beauty, the connection to the land that people feel there. Even in my early twenties, when it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I might be a novelist, I knew I wanted to write something that really captured that setting. There was a lot I wrote about the setting that never made it into the novel – lengthy descriptions of the house and the farm, for example – but I think (hope!) a lot of that was conveyed in the book with more economy because I could picture it well.

  1. I read that you spent years working on this book, and had to pare it down quite a bit. Please tell us a bit about your revision process.

My revision process is not for the faint of heart! Both of my novels came out long and needed to be pared down, but this one was a bear – an 800+ page draft that I got down to 324 pages in its published form. With each subsequent draft, I was able to cut 50 – 100 pages until, finally, the draft my agent submitted to editors was about 480 pages. My amazing editor at Engine Books, Victoria Barrett, managed to help me trim another 90 (manuscript) pages from it – something I didn’t think possible until I saw her brilliant edits.

  1. Do you have any advice for writers struggling with multiple protagonist novels? Lately I’ve found a lot of manuscripts in my slush pile that hold the reader at arm’s length, never bringing us close to the characters. Hallie and Josh are right there, living and hurting and being confused and unsure about their decisions. I barely breathed as I read this story because you kept me pulled in so close. I absolutely had to know what happened next. How did you do that?

Seven Questions LogoWow, thank you! I tend not to write with a great deal of narrative distance, or at least, I haven’t yet. My first novel was in first person; The Fifty-First State was two very close third-person narrators (excepting the short prologue, which has a great deal of narrative distance); and the book I’m working on now is in first person again. From what I’ve seen as a writing teacher, the mistakes emerging writers make with multiple POV novels often involve distance, as you mention. Either the writer is trying to pull off a truly omniscient point of view and it’s not working (I think it’s a very difficult thing to master, though it pays off big when it works), or the writer is so distant in her third person limited narrators that the reader feels she’s being told things about a character rather than experiencing what that character experiences. I love the way Jonathan Franzen gets really close to his third person limited narrators – often so close that it’s really just a hair away from first person – and I may have modeled the narrative distance in The Fifty-First State from the way he employs it in his more recent novels.

  1. You teach at Grub Street in Boston. Do you recommend writers seek out educational opportunities in their communities? How has your personal literary community grown since you started teaching at Grub Street?

I think all writers, whatever their level, cannot grow without being exposed to educational opportunities and/or other writers they admire. And with the advent of online classes – we have many fine ones at Grub Street, but I know other organizations have good ones as well – writers have more access than ever to these opportunities, no matter where they live. Still, living in a city with a thriving writing center is a huge boost for a writer, and Grub Street has just been amazing for me personally. When I started teaching there in 2001, I felt rather isolated. I had a few friends from grad school I was still in touch with, but I hadn’t really found my niche in Boston. Through Grub Street I met the writers and students who would become among my closest friends and best readers of my work. We’re all very supportive of each other.

  1. You’ve had two novels out from two small presses—The Fifty-First State and your debut novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. I am passionate about small-press publishing, but I only know about it as a publisher. What is the small-press experience like from the author’s perspective? What are three things authors should know before submitting to a small press?

I think small press experiences can be amazing, and as the big houses do less to promote their authors, there are fewer reasons for authors to feel they really need a big press to have a great publishing experience, as well as to be taken seriously in the marketplace. As fewer literary novels and short story collections are being published by the big houses, independent presses are becoming the homes of great literature.

But all small presses are not created equal. There are independent presses that have staffing and distribution similar to an imprint at a larger house, and then there are books that emerge riddled with typos from a press operated out of some eccentric booklover’s basement – with lots of variation between those two extremes. It’s important to enter into any publishing contract knowing what your goals are as a writer, and then evaluating how realistic those goals are. Is critical acclaim more important to you than the number of copies sold? Is your main goal to connect with readers and build a fan base? Understanding what you want out of your publishing experience can help you to make the choices that will lead to a positive outcome.

I would also recommend doing a lot of research into any small press you’re considering signing a contract with. Have their titles been well-reviewed? Does your local bookstore carry any titles by the press? How do the books look physically – are they professional-looking, visually appealing, with no glaring proofreading errors? Contact some of the publisher’s authors and ask about their experiences. People are usually quite honest about their publishing experiences, both good and bad, as long as they are talking one-on-one and not speaking publicly.

  1. You and Ron MacLean had an epic West Coast road trip last fall to promote The Fifty-First State and Ron’s novel, Headlong,which is how we met. What prompted the adventure? Would you recommend touring to other small-press authors?

Ron and I have been friends for many years, and it just happened that we had books coming out within two weeks of each other last fall, so the timing seemed auspicious. We decided early on that we would plan a West Coast tour, because we both felt we knew enough people in a variety of cities out there to bring in at least modest crowds for our readings. We also knew a few other things in advance: that we would make good travel companions; that we could set up places to stay with a variety of friends; and that we were doing it largely for the experience itself, as well as for connecting with others in the literary world. We hoped to sell books, of course, but we were well aware that there would be nights we might not sell more than a handful. My advice to other small press authors would be: go for the experience, go to personally connect with booksellers and others who are passionate about books, but don’t expect an indie book tour to translate to huge book sales. (Of course, who wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised by the outcome?)

Thanks for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Lisa!

You can learn more about Lisa Borders at her website. Find The Fifty-First State at your local bookstore, or Powell’s, or Amazon. Engine Books is here, and check out the current Indiegogo “Big Dream Campaign.” You can see other interviews in the Seven Questions Series here. 

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Author Interview: Polly Dugan on Her Debut Linked Short Story Collection, So Much a Part of You

Polly Dugan’s stunning debut collection of linked short stories, So Much a Part of You, is being released by Little, Brown (an imprint of Hachette) this week.

So Much a Part of YouTen stories feature the intertwining lives of three characters, Anna, Anne, and Peter Herring, who has relationships with them both. Polly’s luminous prose is equal parts ache and elegance. It’s the kind of writing that’s beautiful and measured, allowing heady emotions and sparks of connection between the stories–and the characters–to flash beneath the surface.

So Much a Part of You reads like a classic piece of literature, each story taut with meaning, striking the universal chords of human longing, and loss, and faith, in a way that’s unexpected and deeply resonant. Polly has harnessed such explosive power in quiet situations, such as a boy delivering newspapers, a girl taking horseback lessons, and two people beginning to date. It’s not exactly a coming-of-age collection, but we do see the characters open their eyes more as they grow up, and with that comes a particular kind of grief, but also forgiveness. The stories shift from being about flaws, and how the flaws of the parents are imprinted on the children, to those children growing up and moving through the world themselves.

Stunning, really.

I met Polly in 2012, right before I founded Forest Avenue Press, and she gave me the huge gift of listening and encouraging me to pursue starting a small press. We launched a homegrown craft anthology, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, through the Powell’s Espresso Book Machine, because I loved the idea of printing books inside a bookstore, removing the middle steps. Polly worked there,  tending the machine–and the dreams of writers and publishers like me. I was elated to hear she had found an agent, and even more excited when I heard about her two-book deal, and now, it’s such an honor to feature her on the Seven Questions Series.

For those of you in Portland, Polly will be reading from So Much a Part of You at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 19, at Powell’s City of Books. Let’s have a huge hometown crowd cheering for her success, okay? If you don’t live nearby, consider buying Polly’s book online from Powell’s, since Little, Brown is an imprint of Hachette, which is in a headline-inducing ebooks rights fight with Amazon, where Amazon is blocking delivery on Hachette titles. It seems crucial for readers, and writers, and people who love their indie bookstores, to support debut authors like Polly so they don’t get inadvertently penalized by Amazon’s practices.

Sherman Alexie gave Powell’s a huge shout-out recently on the Stephen Colbert Show as a non-Amazon place to buy books, which apparently then resulted in a glorious flood of unexpected business. He also mentioned how anti-author this particular Amazon campaign is.  So please, support Polly, and other debut authors like her. You can also find So Much a Part of You at your local indie bookstore through Indie Bound by entering your zip code. Amazon doesn’t care about these authors’ careers, or how long it took to get their books written and published, but we do. We have to care, as readers, and as writers, about Polly, and all the other Hachette authors with titles launching in the midst of this intense battle. Their books shouldn’t be the battleground, so let’s take that power back from Amazon and support these authors as best we can.

Welcome, Polly!

1. Tell us about So Much a Part of You.

polly duganThe book is a collection of ten linked stories that take place from the Depression to post 9/11. The stories primarily revolve around Anna Riley, Anne Cavanaugh and Peter Herring, the lover the two women have in common, and extend to the lives of their friends and families. Seen through the specific lens of Irish Catholic characters and culture, the stories grapple with faith, mortality, the posterity of alcoholism, abortion, infidelity and the losses of friends, parents and children.

2. Why linked stories, and not a novel, or a collection of disconnected stories? Did the form give you permission to accomplish certain things with your characters? What were some of the challenges in working with this form? Did you cut out any of the stories, or decide to add any, in shaping the collection?

When I started writing these stories, a book was never the end goal. That didn’t seem remotely manageable or attainable. “Masquerades” was the first story I wrote, in 2006, and in hindsight became, and really is, the backbone of the collection. It’s the first story in the book in which the book’s three main characters appear together and quite honestly, the connections and how they developed were driven by the stories themselves. After writing the first story it seemed natural and worthwhile to pursue the circumstances of Anna, Peter and Anne both forward and backward in time from “Masquerades.”

I had the idea for writing that one story, which was a manageable and attainable goal for me. Writing one story at a time, over time as I did, they started to add up. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to make them linked—there was no precise moment or revelation—I only wanted to continue following and writing about those first three characters. But interestingly, after an early reader of mine, a dear friend, read “Masquerades,” she said she thought it was the beginning of a novel—an idea which I promptly rejected because, again, it seemed neither manageable nor attainable. Yet I recognized that story rather demanded a sequel, or companion, if you will, so I wrote the “Legacies,” but not until late 2010. In the years between 2006 and 2011, within each story I wrote, I was able to find threads that connected the narratives. Threads that made each story have a relevance and life beyond itself, while still standing on its own.

The form did allow me to accomplish many more things than I was consciously aware of while I was writing each story; it’s interesting to look back and add them up. For one, I got to play with cause and effect in a controlled way that I had to make authentic. We’re all a sum of our own experiences, and our interactions and relationships result in our ‘sums’ and other people’s ‘sums’ impacting each other. When I wrote “A Matter of Time,” I remember thinking, What happened to John Riley to make him this kind of father?, which led to the preceding story, the first in the book. Then “So Much a Part of You,” a significantly renovated story that I wrote in college, seemed like not only a natural continuation of Anna’s story—with a break of years in between—but also served to raise the stakes for her conflicts with her father. I was also able to explore points of view without feeling like I had to be confined by a certain consistency; each story is part of a greater whole, but a part that stands alone, so I was able to write from more than one close third point of view: children (both male and female), a teenage girl, and men at different ages and stages in their lives, as well as the stories that are close third female POVs.

Seven Questions LogoThe other thing, and this may be my favorite, was having the latitude to expose the complexity and duality of the characters’ moral compasses, most specifically that of Peter Herring. The first time readers encounter him, I expect they’ll form some sort of an opinion about him, and perhaps pass judgment, but none of us is one-dimensional. So while the subsequent stories in which Peter appears may or may not change readers’ first impressions, they do make it harder to stereotype or pigeonhole him. He’s complicated; the best characters are. Along with characters’ interior dualities—an enemy under certain circumstances may be a loyal friend under others—the stories illustrate another duality or doubleness or replacement model; the way characters repeatedly land in the same cycles until they get their lessons ‘right.’ For example, young John Riley, named after his father, Jack, is destined to repeat the ‘sins of the father’; then, despite the teenage Anna’s struggles with her father, John, she is attracted to a boy named Jean; Peter’s relationship with Anna follows the one he had with Anne; and there’s more than one character named Peter.

I didn’t cut any stories and none were cut in edits. I added a tenth story, “Blackball,” following my mentorship with Meg Storey at Tin House in 2012. Prior to the working with Meg, there were nine complete stories and her general suggestion to add one more gave me another chance to expose shifting moral compasses and hopefully strengthen the thread that was already working.

I think the biggest challenge for linking the stories was that I wanted the connections to be authentic and plausible; I didn’t want any of them to seem contrived or clever. I wanted to strike a balance that for me, made the linked nature satisfying and compelling without being distracting and confusing. From the early readers’ feedback that I’ve seen, there are differing opinions: I either accomplished that or I didn’t. Taste is so subjective, I think the form works for people or it doesn’t.

4. You’re one of the few authors I know who is living the dream—a savvy, top-notch agent (Wendy Sherman), and a two-book deal with a major New York press (Little, Brown). What does it feel like at this moment in your career? How are you planning to celebrate?

The past year has been really incredible, beyond any expectations I had or predictions I could have gambled on. I’m beyond lucky to have such a wonderful team: starting with Wendy, and my wonderful editor Judy Clain, and everyone at Little, Brown who’s worked on the book and changed the course of my journey as a writer. Because there have been so many milestones—small, huge and everything in between—over the past twelve months, closing in on the pub date feels like just another step in the process but also the very big beginning of a new phase. While I’m so thrilled the book is about to enter the world, the most predominant feeling I have is that the book doesn’t ‘belong’ to me anymore, it’s about to belong to everyone who makes the time to read it, spends time with and invests in these characters. Knowing that’s about to happen is extraordinary for me. My family and I are planning on spending the summer celebrating in numerous ways—a special dinner with friends and a party are what I know of right now.

4. The feud between Amazon and Hachette has been in the news constantly for the past few weeks. As a debut author, coming out with a title on the Little, Brown label, which is owned by Hachette, are you tracking the debate and worrying about its potential impact on your book?

I’m following what’s happening and have been, trying to fully understand the complications of the dispute and hoping for a resolution. Of course I’d prefer this wasn’t affecting the publication of my first book but because of how Hachette is handling it, the unifying support from other publishers, writers, and bookstores, and Stephen Colbert’s endorsement for Powell’s to name a few of the overwhelming, positive responses to the dispute, I’m proud to be a Hachette author. And, I think if someone wants a book or product badly enough—whatever it is—people are tenacious, they’ll find a way to get it. The dispute is particularly unfortunate for customers who rely on Amazon as their only means, or preferred means, for buying books and other products, but suggestions and options for alternative online outlets (Powell’s, Barnes and Noble and others) have been promoted everywhere since this has been going on, and I hope people are turning to those resources.

5. You’ve been a regular attendee, and champion, of the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop. I’d love to hear a little about why you’re so passionate about this program, how it’s impacted you as a writer, and whether you’d recommend such programs to other writers.

Right. Because I live in Portland, it’s been incredibly convenient for me to attend the workshop 2010-2013 inclusive, and I’m effusive about the program because it’s where I’ve received my exceptional education as a writer. I don’t have an MFA, and from what I’ve heard from other attendees who do, or have been enrolled in those programs and withdrawn, what Tin House offers rivals MFA curriculum.

The first year I worked with Joy Williams, whose work I’d studied in college, and it was remarkable to spend a week with a writer of her caliber, working so closely and in such a concentrated way in class and then privately too (she made herself available to meet with her students if they wished) which was marvelous. And it was the same with Steve Almond and Elissa Schappell, who were both also incredibly generous with their time and the attention they gave to each student’s work, and what they gave of themselves all workshop week beyond class: lectures, panels, readings, the willingness to be accessible to and visit with writers at all different stages of their careers. Likewise my mentorship with Meg Storey in 2012 (which took place during the workshop week) resulted in my getting the collection in the shape it needed to be for me to query agents.

I think the other thing that struck me in 2010 and has every year, is the collective genuine humility of the faculty—they’re all tremendously accomplished writers—but they’ve all lived the struggle, the uphill battle of writing, they know that the road to publication is paved with rejection and they readily share their stories of how they got where they are. And in turn, because they are invested teachers, after spending an intensive week with their students, they become supportive mentors. There’s just tremendous chemistry. And it’s not just necessarily exclusively true for the writer a student workshops with; I’ve gotten so much support and direction from writers I’ve been able to talk with during the week. Have lunch, dinner, a drink. It’s just an exceptional program. Plus, I’ve made so many good writer friends who are peers: other fiction writers, poets (I gravitate to the poets), non-fiction writers. It’s a place where lasting connections are made. We’re all cheering each other on, sharing accomplishments and setbacks. A good writer friend of mine who I know from attending in 2010, who is also represented by Wendy, just signed a significant deal with Dutton and her novel is coming out next year about the same time as mine. We’re both so excited. And, plain and simple, the workshop week is just a ridiculously good time. I think writers owe it to themselves to apply. If you get accepted, go.

6. When we met, you were helping authors and small press publishers get their work into the world as a Powell’s Espresso Book Machine staffer. Between that experience, and now working with Little, Brown on creating a successful book launch, what are some tips you have for debut authors, wanting to spread the word about their words?

It was great working to help launch Brave on the Page and have a part in your establishing Forest Avenue Press. For me it was significant to contribute to the local literary scene and witness the founding of an independent press, which you’ve made so successful.

I think every author has to pursue her writing and her goal for her writing to the fullest, in all the ways that feel like the best fit, and by that I mean a lot of things. The outlets to choose for submitting writing to—which magazines and journals, which agents to query. Also the education side of it, to get an MFA or not. Which conferences to attend, apply for, take part it. I’m so fortunate to have an incredible team at Little, Brown working on my behalf and the behalf of the book. My publicist asking for my input and also finding out what I’m available for as far as travel, contributing essays. There isn’t a travel budget for this book so together we’re working on the best strategies for travel in the northwest and possibly along the west coast that work with my family’s plans for the summer.

I don’t know that I have any groundbreaking tips, but what I do think is important no matter if an author is published traditionally by a big publisher or an independent or a university press—where there is a team working on the book’s behalf—or pursues self-publishing, that you have to be the first, best advocate of your work, even if it’s only in spirit while someone else is working to promote you. Be available and game for whatever opportunities there are, even if it’s outside your comfort level; take advantage of every chance for exposure and coverage. And, it’s so important, early on as you make connections and network as a writer, to cultivate your role as a good literary citizen. If the world is a small town, certainly the publishing community is. You meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. It’s so important to support and be vocal on behalf of writers you love and your friends’ achievements and milestones. We all have to do that for each other; and when it’s a writer’s time they deserve to be celebrated. For years, we’ve all worked hard, paid our dues, resisted quitting, spent more time alone with our ideas than the average person could stand. Being a good literary citizen is one of the best first ways to take care of your writing and your role as a writer.

7. What are you working on now?

After writing and working for the past 12+ months, since March 2013, in March of this year, I finished my novel, The Sweetheart Deal, which will be published Spring 2015. Right now I’m in the various stages of editing, which I love. I’m excited about promoting the collection; there are so many great things coming up in the months ahead. And I’m playing with ideas for the third book, getting some new writing done when I can, letting it simmer. For me, that’s how the process starts.

Thanks so much, Polly, for participating in the Seven Questions Series! I learned so much from reading your thoughtful answers, and I am rereading the book right now, so it’s a fun opportunity to have this knowledge of how the stories came together. 

Find Polly Dugan at her website or on Twitter. So Much a Part of You is available at Powell’s Books, through your local indie bookstore, or if you must, on Amazon. And read this just-released interview of Polly on The Rumpus, conducted by Steve Almond. 

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Blog Hop: From M. Allen Cunningham to Gigi Little and Dan Berne, With Me in Between

Author M. Allen Cunningham and I are both small-press publishers based in Portland. But we also write, and I am so grateful he tagged me in this blog hop, giving me an opportunity to open up about the novel I’ve been working on for the past four (or five or six) years.

M. Allen Cunningham is the author of two novels, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which was chosen as a Book Sense pick in 2004and Lost Son, a novel about Rilke that’s definitely on my to-read list. His short story collection, Date of Disappearance, gets to the heart of what it means to be human, to make mistakes, and live with them, to question your own judgment and move forward in the world. Mark has an elegant, classic style, and he brings that aesthetic to his publishing endeavors through Atelier 26, which recently released Harriet Scott Chessman’s exquisite novel The Beauty of Ordinary Things, a meditation on the lives of three very different characters, who influence each other in deep and unexpected ways.

Here’s what he has to say about his third novel.

And here’s what I have to say about my third novel, which is still in progress.

  1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person?

Henri Blanchard. His family makes a very peculiar type of barrel organ that seems like it must be fictional, but that part is real, while Henri is an invention. The whole novel evolved from me wondering who would have dedicated themselves to making such an absurd but beautiful little high-pitched instrument. I’ve had such fun exploring the answer to that question.

  1. When and where is the story set? 

The novel begins in a French village in the 1840s, based on a real place but with a changed name to allow for some magic and diversions from the real history of the community. It shifts to the Five Points district of New York City—the heart of the strumpetocracy—in the 1850s after Henri finds agency and leaves home.

  1. What should we know about him/her?

He’s quick to worry—and to imagine things to worry about. He has unusually flexible wrists, which he hides from the other schoolboys, upon his brother’s urging. He likes bobbin lace as much as music-box making, but only women and the sons of lower-class families are allowed to make lace, so instead he sorts his mother’s bobbins, smelling them to identify the different types of wood in the dark.

  1. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

His father pokes his eye out in the workshop, and Henri runs to the village, whereupon he faints on the doctor’s doorstep. Henri gets locked in the doctor’s dead mother’s room and, after much examination, diagnosed with a feminine condition, which removes him from the world of music-making and deposits him neatly, and with no apologies, into his bed. His older brother Jean-Jaques, of course, picks up additional duties to compensate, while Henri grows accustomed to laziness, and it’s their relationship—and the presence of a particular spunky village girl—that generates the main conflict.

  1. What is the personal goal of the character? 

He wants to be a piece of something bigger, to fit in and contribute the way a pin on a music box cylinder adds its vibrant, essential sound to the whole. Henri defines that longing as wanting to be normal, but it’s more like wanting to contribute to a community, to be given the opportunity to work together, whether it’s making a piece of lace that will be attached to a bigger piece of lace or as something entirely unforeseen.

6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it? 

The Serinette. I’ve written about the act of writing it over the past few years on this blog, and there’s a short synopsis at my website.

7. When can we expect the book to be published? [Or: When was the book published?]

I’ve spent a lot of years writing novels, and had an agent for a number of them, so I’m determined for this one to work, and to find the right home for it. I’m revising right now, trying to fix a particular issue, and then we’ll see what happens.

Now, I’m tagging two people. Gigi and Dan will post their answers on their blogs on Monday, June 16.

First I knew Gigi Little as a writer before I knew her as a designer, but one day she mentioned her artistic background and her interest in making book covers. She’s been my designer for Forest Avenue Press ever since. Also, she used to be a clown. Stick around her blog for “Moments in the Day,” her lovely epiphanies and explorations. Gigi’s new novel, which I am fortunate to hear in our writing group, is hilarious and heartbreaking, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll reveal about it.

Dan Berne, whose novel The Gods of Second Chances was published (by me) in March, was a slush pile surprise, and I now use his query letter as an example of what works when I’m teaching such things. His down-to-earth style, and blue collar characters, really have been resonating with readers and folks who attend his events around Oregon. He’s been blogging lately about Amazon from the perspective of an author and a marketing expert, so check that out. I love The Gods of Second Chances so much, for its snappy characters, sense of humor, and page-turning gasp-worthiness. It’s going to be fun to hear how he answers these questions.

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Guest Post: Steve Denniston on Mixing Comedy with Tragedy

The Night, and the Rain, and the River features stories by 22 Oregon writers.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River features stories by 22 Oregon writers.

This is the second guest post in an occasional series by authors of short stories collected in my press’ newest release, The Night, and the Rain, and the River, available at your local bookstore or online in paperback and ebook formats.

Steve Denniston, today’s guest author, is one of the funniest writers I have the pleasure to know personally. What makes his humor so powerful, besides his smart writing and his view of the world, is the darkness he brings into the world around those glinting moments of hilarity. He’s funny because he knows when he needs to step back and not be funny. He knows how to make us feel his characters’ struggles, and how to turn a laugh into a gasp.

I am thrilled that Steve decided to write about exactly this subject, using his story from The Night, and the Rain, and the River, as an example. Welcome, Steve!

And Portlanders, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 5, Steve will be reading from “It’s No Good Telling Me That,” along with Jackie Shannon Hollis, Jan Baross, and Gail Bartley, at Annie Bloom’s Bookstore. So come out and join us!

You Don’t Have to Choose: Using Comedy and Tragedy Together

By Steve Denniston
Steve Denniston

Steve Denniston

When I write, I often explore how humor can affect the story. One of the challenges of doing this is the spectrum for how we react to jokes. At one end is the type of joke we realize is humor but may not even make us smile. It’s more of an intellectual acknowledgment of, “Yes. That’s funny.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the joke that makes us laugh so hard we cry, can’t catch our breath, and can’t even talk to someone else without starting to laugh again. In many ways it’s the same physical reaction as a severe panic attack. Uncontrollable crying, shortness of breath, inability to talk while it happens. That right there, the closeness that tragedy and comedy share, is really what I find interesting about using humor in writing.

In “It’s No Good Telling Me That,” I play with that closeness of tragedy and comedy by starting it out as a comedy about a smart-ass son and forgetful father. The son’s stance is announced in the opening paragraph:

I was up at Shaw’s place with Dad and they were talking about a price for taking out the stumps. Dad took his baseball cap off to negotiate. He should have left it on and kept his bald spot covered. It looked bad, starting on top and going to his left. Leave it to my dad to mess up going bald.

We get a sense right away of the his attitude toward his father, and maybe even suspect he’s right; the father should have left his hat on. Yet we also know it’s ridiculous to suggest there is a right and wrong way to go bald. A couple pages into the story and we realize that the son, John, does have a bit more wisdom than his father. Between the two he understands how much work it’s really going to take to pull out all the stumps. Yet he doesn’t quite have the maturity to channel the wisdom because his solution is,

“Get me some black powder, a foot of metal pipe, and five minutes on the internet. We could make our own dynamite.”

The father is set up pretty quickly as scatterbrained, someone who forgets things all the time. He tells his son he forgot to say something to Shaw but can’t remember what it was, then suggests:

“I should have written my thought down. I need one of those little notebooks you can put in your pocket and write things down in. Then I wouldn’t forget.”

And John replies,

“You were going to write it down while you were talking to him so you could remember to talk to him about it?”

Their forgetfulness and smart-assness come together for a joke. By the time they get a chain wrapped around the first stump so they can pull it out with a truck, we’re convinced we know these characters, and we do.

TNATRATR Promo Steve 02In the second half of the story, they begin to talk for the first time about the mother who has left them repeatedly. We find out how her leaving affected the father, his quirky ways of dealing with it, and that he hasn’t told John about any of it before. The characteristics of the father and son we laughed about at the beginning of the story take on a different tone. I like to call it, comedy in a minor key. A phrase the screenwriter Larry Gelbart used to describe some of his work.

The humor is still present through the end, and even though the last scene stays true to an earlier “rule” of the story, ineptitude gets rewarded with an accident, it’s hard to laugh at these two characters any more.

Even though I was experimenting in this story with comedy and tragedy, it does serve a purpose. Tension and release being one of the most significant. In several places the comedy serves as a release for the tension. Towards the end though, it continues to build the tension. We no longer feel the release of laughter about what’s funny. So instead of landing the story on a joke, the final release of tension comes internally from John, as we finally get a piece of actual wisdom from him that we’ve seen him learn in the story.

Steve Denniston lives in Portland, Oregon, and works at an elementary school with students who have autism. Whenever he gets the chance he writes, whether it’s on a lunch break, at boring (or interesting) meetings, or during conversations with his wife—but that rarely ends well. “Are you listening to me?” “Yes.” “Or are you thinking about a story?” “Ummm.” “You’re thinking about using this conversation in a story, aren’t you?” “I’ll tell everyone it’s fiction, okay? Wait! Come back!”

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Messing It Up to Make It Good

At low tide, the sand is so wet it reflects like it's water. You can see the ocean off to the right.

At low tide, the sand is so wet it reflects like it’s water. You can see the ocean off to the right.

Earlier this month I went on a writing retreat to Manzanita, a lovely little Oregon coast town.

Well, it wasn’t so much a retreat as a publishing panel weekend. Which I turned into a retreat. Instead of walking on the beach, I hunkered down in a gorgeous “author’s apartment,” where authors like Jim Lynch, Stephanie Kallos, and Garth Stein have stayed. How could I do anything but write, drink coffee, and write in between my publishing sessions?

I can get a lot done on retreats, but what I did this time was undo.

I made a mess of the beginning of my novel. Which hung together before I jumped in and changed things.

I edited so furiously, and without fear, and at the end of the weekend I felt like I had done this to my book:



Cut it open, gouged out the good stuff, and filled it full of sand.

On that last weekend walk, feeling frustrated that I had done so much undoing, I found myself taking pictures of wrecks on the beach. Bits of crab, and messes of miscellany like this one:


What have I done to my book? I’m not sure–haven’t had time to go back and look at it again, to dive back in and see how I can pull the mess back into something recognizable. But you know what? It feels good. This mess. I can work with this mess in a way that I couldn’t work with the polished manuscript.

Sometimes we revise and revise to the point that the book just feels good, sounds good, looks good. That’s when it’s hardest to find our own flaws, to find the lack of tension or the character who acts one-dimensional. Because the pages look good! They sound good! They’ve been revised and edited!

In particular, I’m going after a slackening in my novel, The Serinette, that occurs between pages 50 and 100. The best way to tighten, at least for me at this point in the writing process–four years in, I believe, or is it five?–was to sit alone at a table used by other writers, and mess everything up. With the faith that I could put it back together in a way that’s stronger than that carefully wrought draft I had earlier.

When I found this lovely abandoned sandcastle on that last walk, I thought, okay, there’s a model. It has structure, form, purpose. It can get wrecked by the tide and someone else will come in and build a bigger, stronger, better one.

DSC05894I am the builder and rebuilder, the author of this story I want to tell, the one who is testing the story walls for weakness, and knocking down the ones that aren’t strong enough. Because I want it to hold water. I want it to work. It has to work–or I won’t have a good reason to work on the sequel I’ve already started building!

What courageous things have you done recently in your writing life? Messed up any manuscripts lately?

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Interview: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore on Her ‘Literary Beach Read,’ Naming Characters, and Prepping for a Book Launch

Bittersweet cover 10.9.13 finalMiranda Beverly-Whittemore’s third novel, Bittersweet, ushers readers into the elite world of the Winslows, a wealthy family with a sprawling, historic estate in Vermont. Protagonist Mabel Dagmar gets invited to spend the summer in one of the cottages with her glamorous and unpredictable college roommate. Even before she arrives, Mabel yearns to belong in this fresh, bright world of privilege. Things aren’t what they seem, though, and as she connects with different members of the Winslow family, and begins collecting clues to the past, the novel races to a heady conclusion, pitting her beliefs against her desire to be accepted.

Bittersweet, due out May 13, is a gorgeous, often surprising, testament to the falsity of appearances, with a heady pace and a wholly American vibe that’s reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The accolades are streaming in, including a starred review from Kirkus, and just being chosen as #3 on Entertainment Weekly’s Must List for the week.

I met Miranda years ago, at Vassar College, where we were both English majors, and I’ve admired her work for years. Her first novel, The Effects of Light, came out in 2005, followed by Set Me Free in 2007. I’m so excited to see Bittersweet greeted with such enthusiasm from reviewers and readers this spring. It’s a masterful third novel, full of Miranda’s beautiful prose, anchored to a story that keeps twisting and turning all the way to breathtaking conclusion.

Today’s the last day of Miranda’s OMG! All The Books! Giveaway, and she’s giving away a copy o Bittersweet. Anyone who enters will also be automatically entered to win all twenty-four books. Ten runners-up will also win Bittersweet.

Portlanders, Miranda will be at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, at 7:30 p.m. on July 1 as part of her Bittersweet book tour. I’ll be there for sure.

Welcome to the Seven Questions Series, Miranda!

  1.  Tell us about Bittersweet.

Bittersweet is what I’ve been calling a literary beach read; it’s my attempt to write the kind of book I love to gobble up on vacation. The Secret HistoryThe Line of BeautyAtonementThe Emperor’s Children—all of those contemporary novels are about outsiders hungering to belong to a special inner circle, which I realize is a tale I’m drawn to again and again. Bittersweet is a hat tip to these books, a blend of literary language and a juicy plot, about a plain-Jane named Mabel Dagmar who is invited by her wealthy, beautiful college roommate, Ev, to spend the summer at Ev’s family’s lakeside estate. At first, Mabel believes she’s won the lottery—she finally has the life of her dream—but it’s her nature to sleuth, and as she digs up Ev’s family’s secrets, she can’t help but be drawn into their web of lies, until she is over her head and implicated in their bad behavior.

  1.  The names of your characters are all so evocative, helping to contrast Mabel Dagmar, the outsider protagonist, with members of the elite Winslow family, such as Genevra and Galway. I’d love to hear a little about how you name your characters and whether you changed any of their names during revisions.

It was so much fun to name these characters! Mabel’s original last name was actually Glouch, but when I sold the book, my wise editor made the point that it was almost too Dickensian, so Dagmar fit the bill in a more subtle way. I wanted the Winslows’ names to flow like water, to be unusual and easily shortened in the way of the WASPs (and it’s no mistake that Winslow has the word “win” in it).

BittersweetMirandaBWGenevra “Ev” Winslow came first. Once I knew that was her name, I knew her much better. And I understood that her younger sister needed a matching name, so she became Luvinia “Lu” Winslow. The brothers—Galway, Athol, Banning—came next, followed by the older generation, Birch and Tilde and Linden (“Indo”) and CeCe et al.

Once I knew how many characters would be in play, I signed up for so I could use their family tree software on my iPad! At one point, there was a Pippa Winslow in every generation, but that got confusing (even if I think it’s realistic that in a family like the Winslows, there would be a name recycled in such a way), so the matriarch got to keep the name Pippa, and the secondary characters got new ones.

  1. Your first two releases, The Effects of Light and Set Me Free, were definitely literary novels, while Bittersweet is a beautifully written page-turner. How did you approach this more commercial novel? Did your writing process change?

My first two books were incredibly close to my heart and, although they had a middling bit of commercial meat on them, they are definitely on the literary end of things. Bittersweet was a blatant attempt to write something that lands squarely at the crossroads of literary and commercial. I wanted to know if I could write such a book, a book that, quite frankly, I’d have a better chance of selling (I tried to sell two other books after my second novel was published, to no avail). But I also wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror; my assignment to myself was if I was attempting to write a novel with an eye on commerce, I had to write it well. I wanted the language to be beautiful, the place to come alive, the characters to be three-dimensional. What I didn’t take into account was how fun it would be! Man, writing this book was a blast. A publishing friend of mine who has read all three of my books said the difference with this one was that she felt like I was smiling the whole time. I love that.

  1. You and your publicist have been blogging about preparing for the book launch. How long ago did you start publicity for Bittersweet? What are some must-do items you recommend for debut authors staring down their launch dates?

Seven Questions LogoHe’s an online marketing consultant named Dan Blank—I’d taken a course about building my author platform back in the fall of 2012 before I sold Bittersweet, when I was feeling really lost in my career. When I signed the ink on Bittersweet, I knew I wanted Dan’s help navigating today’s rough waters—so much is required of a writer these days, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed without a compass. I’d made a pledge to myself that if I sold another book, I’d do everything I could to get word about it into the world. He’s helped me be incredibly thoughtful about how to exist on social media, he’s helped me undertake a number of web projects (redesigning my website, building, and keeping the Bittersweet Booklaunch Blog with me), not to mention running a 24-day-long giveaway on my website in which we’re giving away 24 of the hottest books coming out this spring. There is no way I could have done even a tenth of that if I didn’t have Dan’s help.

That said, there is plenty one can do without having someone like Dan on one’s team. I think the biggest factor is time. Start early! Be thoughtful about what is realistic for you, but dream big. Be friendly and generous and warm, and people (even online) will respond in kind. Remember that the wonderful thing about the internet is that it is mutable—you can tweak and adjust as you go along. And I hope the Bittersweet Booklaunch Blog will be a resource to writers who are doing this for the first time; we started it because I realized there wasn’t much practical advice out there, there’s just kind of this expectation that you’ll “need to do a lot of stuff online,” but not much guidance about what that actually means. Dan and I kept talking about wanting to keep it emotionally honest, and I’ve tried to lay bare the challenges and triumphs of a writer facing down publication!

  1. All the publicity seems to be paying off with one piece of good news after another. Can you mention a few places we might find coverage of Bittersweet in the upcoming weeks?

I’m thrilled that Cosmopolitan has excerpted one of the most scandalous chapters from Bittersweet in their May issue! And I’m also so so SO excited that Martha Stewart Living has chosen Bittersweet as their May book club pick. They are also running one of the ten evocative book trailers that my filmmaker sister made with my family and friends up on the lake last summer—you can see them here.

There’s more good news coming along, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy! I’m so excited that the response to this book has been so warm—it’s really a dream come true that the press is starting to say that it’s a book they think people will want to read too!

  1. Tell us about Friend Stories. Why did you start the site, and are you still looking for submissions?

At the center of Bittersweet is a tumultuous best friendship between Mabel and Ev. I found that when I started telling people about my book, they almost invariably volunteered a tale about a rocky girlhood friendship of their own. I suppose that up until that moment in my life, I’d always kind of believed that my childhood friendships were these all-consuming love affairs, but I hadn’t necessarily seen it as a universal. But then there were all these stories being offered up and I realized, this is a web project!

I welcome submissions to FriendStories; please, please, please submit!!! I get so excited whenever one pops up in my inbox. Check out the guidelines here.

  1. Many writer-friends of mine have not yet experienced their first book launch, and this is your third—a huge achievement. How are you planning to celebrate the release of Bittersweet?

This time around, my vow is to enjoy myself. My book comes out on Tuesday the 13th. The day before, I’ve got a lunch and some spa pampering booked with a friend whose novel is coming out on the 13th too! And then on publication day, my sweet editor is taking me out to a fancy lunch and I’m going to get my hair blown out in anticipation of the two readings I’m doing on the next two days (and just because, you know? When the heck else am I going to get my hair blown out?). On the 14th is my big booklaunch at Bookcourt, a fabulous independent bookstore here in Brooklyn. I’ve already had so many friends and family say they’re going to be there, and my goal is to be as present as possible—it’s awe-inspiring to think of so many people I love all gathered together in one place, toasting something I’ve worked so hard on. My gratitude knows no bounds.


Thanks so much for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Miranda.

MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE is the author of three novels: Bittersweet (May 2014), The Effects of Light (2005) and Set Me Free(2007), which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, she lives and writes in Brooklyn and Vermont. Check out her, and the Bittersweet Booklaunch Blog.


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Guest Post: Fear and Making by Trevor Dodge

I love listening to writers talk about the craft. That’s where my Seven Questions Series came from. That’s where my blog came from—and certainly the motivation behind today’s post. Our guest author, Trevor Dodge, contributed a short story, “Real World Reject,” to The Night, and the Rain, and the River, a new anthology my small press just released. The launch party is at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 6, at Powell’s City of Books here in Portland. You’ll be hearing from more of these twenty-two authors in the coming months, because I have invited all of them to contribute to my blog. We’re excited to share Trevor’s thoughts on fear and writing to kick off this series and to celebrate the launch of The Night, and the Rain, and the River, edited by Liz Prato.  

Fear and Making

By Trevor Dodge

Write About What Terrifies You.

This is advice I see and hear a lot as a writer. It’s advice I give out myself, to my own writing students. I’m guessing this advice sticks because to write is to somehow become or already be someone who is predisposed to being terrified. To being afraid. Maybe us writers are just afraid all the time, or should be, or something.

Trevor Dodge

Trevor Dodge

The things that terrify us, that we are afraid of, they make good stories. I don’t think anyone really would argue with that. Being afraid, it’s something all of us can get with, whether we are writers or not. Something we can all understand. “I’m afraid” or “I’m scared” is always going to catch someone’s attention, is always going to be an invitation to listen. That’s not anything particularly revelatory or revolutionary to say, and probably not even really worth saying. So I guess I’ll keep going, past the part that’s really not worth saying. Maybe it’ll end up at the part that is worth saying.

So I’ll keep going.

I don’t want to talk about what specifically makes us afraid. What I want to talk about is what writing does with that, how writing is an action that navigates fear. Being afraid, it is a state of almost pure arrest. It is a state where our senses are ablaze and tuned to the entire universe all at once, when every change in environment, no matter how minor, gets recorded and measured and shipped up to the brain where the recordings and measurements await action. What’s It Gonna Be, Boss? The fight/flight thing is a shorthand to analyze why we react and act the ways we do when we are afraid. Which is to say, in another set of words and syntax, to understand better what makes us human.

The writer, she experiences fear. She is temporarily arrested by it. In it. Her senses are ablaze. This does not make the writer unique, this being in a state of arrest, because the writer is not unique in this, not by a long shot, because everyone experiences fear. Which is maybe why writers always tell other writers to go to that place of fear and try to bring something back. I use the word try here on purpose because sometimes, let’s face it, there’s nothing really to bring back. Sometimes, there’s nothing in that place but the fear. Fear, again, it is a state of arrest and heightened senses. But most of all, fear is a place, and a for-real place at that, where what we don’t know isn’t just present and upon us; fear is a real place where what we don’t know, and our knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, it’s a knowing that is a kind of suffocating, is a kind of drowning. Uncertainty is what I’m talking about now. Uncertainty, it is the epicenter of fear, a kind of knowing that is terrorizing. It’s the paralysis of uncertainty that puts everything on the knife’s edge of fight and flight.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River features stories by 22 Oregon writers.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River features stories by 22 Oregon writers.

What I’m saying is that the not knowing, the uncertainty, the very core of fear, it is about being right at the cusp of action. Of making. This is the place where we stand and fight as warriors or we take flight as a flock of birds. These are actions. These are where the making of something lives. This is why other writers are telling us to go to this place, because we will quite literally make something as a result of our going there. And if we are brave enough to bring it back with us, bring back the thing that we have made there, we not only will have the thing, but we’ll also for certain have a story to tell about the journeys there and back, and we’ll be rewarded by everyone who has paused long enough to listen. Because that’s what we do ourselves when someone brings something back from that place. We listen. We will always listen. Telling a story is an action which exists one step past the place of fear. And so is listening. Tuning our senses to a story is not the same thing as experiencing the full assault of fear, where the whole world is spring-loaded. The writer, to bring us back the story from that place, she has already taken at least one full step past the fear. To listen to that story is not to step back there with her, because she is not herself stepping back. To tell a story is always to take a step forward, and when we listen to a story, we also take that step. This is what allows us to listen to things horrific and terrifying, and not out of some mode where we step down into another saying, something along the lines of Well, That’s Just A Story.

The story, see, it has survived the fear. And as storytellers, as listeners, as writers, our actions always step through the fear and then forward. The story, it is not the place of fear. The place of fear, see, it isn’t just uncertainty. It is inaction itself. It is that paralysis and arrest with senses ablaze. That is not the place where stories live, where making lives. It is the place where stories and the making begin, but not at all where they reside, and certainly not where they end.

What I’m really trying to say here is this: Be More Than Afraid. And but also: Don’t Be Afraid of Being Afraid. That thing about birds of a feather flocking together? It’s true, you know. And that other thing about the pen being mightier than sword? That’s also true. But you know these things are true. That’s why you tell stories. And why you listen to others tell theirs. It almost sounds like a choice, doesn’t it? The truth, though, is it’s not. We cannot live in fear because fear is not a living place.

Let me rephrase that.

We do not live in fear. Living is acting, is making. Fearing is solipsism, is and will only ever be itself. Your story is not your fear. Your inaction, though, most definitely is.

Yet another way to say this, and to tell yourself this, is to pick up one of those coffee mugs at The Rumpus, the one that says Write Like A Motherfucker, the one that captures the advice of our dear friend and fellow writer Cheryl Strayed, who has certainly had more than her fair share of fight and flight. Us writers, us motherfuckers, we do notlive in fear. We live through it, and we bring the story back with us. Fear can feel like death because death is the ultimate form of inaction. So as long as you aren’t acting, as long as you remain in that state of arrest—as long as you aren’t writing—you feel like you’re dead.

But you’re not. You’re alive, motherfucker. So write, motherfucker. Write.


Trevor Dodge is the author of two collections of short fiction (The Laws of Average and Everyone I Know Lives On Roads), a novella (Yellow #10), and collaborator on the writing anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing. He teaches writing, literature, and comics studies at Clackamas Community College and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He lives in Oregon City and also online at

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