On the Tenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

My husband and I went on a several-month, across America road trip back in 2006, including stopping in New Orleans in June, ten months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.

My former editor connected us with her sister and brother-in-law; he had been a lifelong resident, including living in a house in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1965 and surviving on the roof when Hurricane Betsy came through. His son had the same experience during Hurricane Katrina, living in that same house and surviving on the roof, and still, they were rebuilding. But at that time, less than a year after the storm savaged the city, many of their neighbors weren’t.

I believe that couple gave us the tour so I’d write something–a magazine piece, a New York Times worthy piece–about what I saw, but all the loss shut down my words. Eventually I penned a blog post, but always felt like there was more to say, and that I was incapable of saying it. My life was not disrupted by the damage, it wasn’t my storm, all I could do was witness, and as witness, I took these photos. All are from June 2006, with my Nikon D70; many are from the window of the car as we drove through neighborhoods plagued by quiet, by absent voices, by cars that didn’t work. The tour started in the Lower Ninth Ward, and landed in Metarie, where boats were still marooned on land, wherever Katrina had deposited them. The damage was much less severe there, but still there was plenty.

The last few photos are of once-bustling entertainment businesses along the Gulf Coast, as we drove on.

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When I found Ellen Urbani’s Landfall, a manuscript about two daughters and their single mothers, four flawed but resilient characters, I knew this book told a story that I wanted to know more about, a story that I had seen echoes of in June 2006. A story that I decided I was unable to tell in words; one that I chose to record with my camera instead.

Ellen’s at Powell’s today, at 4 p.m. at the flagship store, with Cheryl Strayed introducing her, after her first tour leg of the South, including New Orleans, where an architect gladly gave her a tour of the restoration efforts, which have progressed much farther at this ten-year anniversary than they had at ten months.

Publishing this book has given voice to the survivors, with Ellen using fiction to piece together a compelling narrative, a story about a storm, but mostly about these two eighteen-year-old girls with the same name–Rose–and how their lives were interrupted by Katrina.

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Summer Reading: My Bingo List

I’m playing book bingo through my local indie bookseller, Annie Bloom’s Books, this summer, and have completed all 25 slots for the chance to win a $50 gift card. It’s been a great challenge to read outside my zone–literary fiction.

Here’s what I’ve read this summer, by category, and in the book bingo sheet’s order:

FROM AN INDIE BOOKSTORE

Stephanie Kallos’ Language Arts: Richly crafted, beautifully written, this is the third novel from one of my all-time favorite authors. I purchased this at Annie Bloom’s during Stephanie’s reading there in June–and I ended up winning an amazing gift basket!

TRANSLATED FROM ANOTHER LANGUAGE

The Merchant of Noises by Anna Rozen: I scanned my bookshelves, sure I had a translation I’ve always been meaning to read, and came up empty handed. This is not my usual category. But then I read this charming, whimsical book to my kids and realized it had been originally published in French and then translated into English. Ta da!

SET IN THE PNW

Polly Dugan’s The Sweetheart Deal: So many books I read are set in the Northwest, because they’re by friends. I actually read an ARC of this debut novel from the author of the story collection So Much a Part of You, both published by Little, Brown. This one has a great hook–two college friends who make a pact that one must marry the other’s wife if he dies. It’s very much a relationship-driven story, with lots of point-of-view characters that give their own takes on the situation.

Spheres of Disturbance by Amy Schutzer: I apparently read 26 books so far this summer… but had to add this one because it was a powerful multi-voiced tale of a dying woman and the people who had some sort of connection with her. A finalist for last year’s Oregon Book Awards.

WRITTEN BY A FEMALE AUTHOR

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland: A quiet, lovely novel reminiscent of Glaciers by Alexis Smith, and set in the recording room at The New York Times. As a former journalist, I had my eye on this book when it came out and was glad to pick it up from Paulina Springs Bookstore in Sisters, Oregon, earlier this summer.

CHECKED OUT FROM THE LIBRARY

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton: One my toddler picked. A tiny warrior princess, her wish for a warrior horse, and lots of sweaters. I’m so obsessed with this–and happy to read and read and reread every day–that I’m going to buy a copy.

GRAPHIC NOVEL

Richard McGuire’s Here: Unlike anything I’ve ever read. A pictorial history of one corner of a room in a house (and before there was a house there), spanning centuries, families, simple conversations, and major events.

OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Manspressions by Joe Biel and Elly Blue: A hilarious illustrated guide to Man-isms, i.e. words they defined or altered to include the word “man.”

A BOOK YOU OWN BUT HAVEN’T READ

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: This was a summer-changer for me, and kicked off a new round of revisions after I devoured it while camping back in June. She does so much world building so economically that it helped me see the flaws in my novel and got me to make a radical structure change, and call it done.

BANNED

Drama by Raina Telegemeier: One of my daughter’s favorite authors. I love this sweet story about a middle-school girl and the boys whose lives intersect with hers while she’s working on sets for the school play. Great book, well worth borrowing off her bookshelves–and the conversation that ensued about why it might have been banned, and why banning books is an issue.

RECOMMENDED BY STAFF AT ANNIE BLOOM’S

Baby’s on Fire by Liz Prato: I love this author and this elegantly crafted short story collection from Press 53.

NONFICTION

Now I See You by Nicole C. Kear: I met Nicole at Annie Bloom’s last February and was glad to dive into her memoir about learning she’d lose her eyesight when she was nineteen. Funny, powerful, and made me think about my own abilities and limitations in a clearer way.

TURNED INTO A MOVIE OR TV SHOW

Big Fish, Daniel Wallace: I loved this fable-like, whimsical, heartbreaking father-son novel the first time, and the second time, and the third time… and pulled it out again for the “reread” category, only to realize it’d fit the movie category–and almost no other books on my shelves would fit there.

RECOMMEND A BOOK YOU LOVE TO A FRIEND

This was the free square, but I’ve recommended tons of books, all summer, as usual.

A BOOK YOU LOVED AS A KID

Hippos Go Beserk by Sandra Boynton: Really any of her books would do, but this one was at hand, and it’s a family favorite.

300+ PAGES LONG

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: Many of my selections fit this category, but I picked The Miniaturist because it’s long and epic-feeling, set in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It was recommended by a friend because of the gender role themes and the bit of magic that reminded her of my novel-in-progress, and like Station Eleven, it played into how I thought about my own manuscript. Mine’s a lot sunnier, but the way the themes develop here definitely made me want to chisel and hone a bit more.

YOU’VE ALWAYS MEANT TO READ

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom: I love Amy Bloom, and while this wasn’t exactly “always,” because it came out in 2014 in hardcover, and I bought it and had it signed while Amy was at Powell’s, and had been waiting for a quiet block of time where I could savor and enjoy. Glad I did find that time to fall into the pages of this lovely sister story, set in the 1940s.

LOCAL AUTHOR

MacDeath by Cindy Brown: I adore this sassy theater-inspired mystery by my friend Cindy. I was laughing out loud within the first few pages–and I’m not usually a mystery reader. So excited another in the series is in the works.

YOUNG ADULT BOOK

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling: I insisted that my daughter let me read this to her–not for book bingo as much as for the experience of experiencing it together. She’s officially hooked and the second book is waiting at her bedside for us to dig in together.

POETRY COLLECTION

Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman: I bought this when Matthew was up for an Oregon Book Award in 2014, but held off reading because it’s about (in part) his brother’s suicide, and that’s something my extended family has experienced. I wasn’t sure I wanted to dig into that material. But this collection is sheer genius, totally readable and breathtaking, and yes heartbreaking too. I read it like a novel, page after page, instead of savoring, and will for sure go back to savor these poems one by one. Together, it was like a symphony, so much bright sound and thought clashing together in a very American way, in a way that I could relate to as a novel-reader.

SET SOMEWHERE YOU’D LOVE TO VISIT

Ms. Baross Goes to Paris by Jan Baross: Another book by a friend. Jan charmingly explores a trip to Paris with her food-researching friend, through illustrations and text.

RE-READ

Mr. Putter and Tabby See the Stars by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard: My younger daughter loves Mr. Putter and his cat, and we’ve read and reread this book more times this summer than any other book in our house.

#WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS

The Hour of Daydreams by Renee Macalino Rutledge: In addition to reading this summer, I’ve been working on manuscripts, and it seemed very exciting and fitting to add our 2017 title to my book list. It’s not a book, but will be in galley form this fall. It’s based on a Filipino folktale about a young woman with wings, and it explores how well we can ever really know the people we love. One of the best love stories I’ve ever read, and one of the best stories about in-laws, too.

AUTHOR’S FIRST BOOK

The Deception Artist by Fayette Fox: I learned about this sweet first novel because Roaring Forties Press is also distributed by Legato Publishers Group–and who are we kidding, I loved the superhero-costumed girl on the cover. A wonderful exploration of family, from the perspective of a highly precocious, imaginative girl.

RECOMMENDED BY A FRIEND

Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin: This debut novel has received all kinds of media attention, and it wasn’t just recommended by one friend, it was introduced to me by a bunch of friends who also know Shanna. I bought a copy earlier this summer from a friend who held a house party in the author’s honor, and enjoyed following the whip-smart, funny protagonist through her Hollywood life. It’s a really genuine, accessible look at a place, and a lifestyle, I know nothing about.

FINISHED READING IN ONE DAY

420 by Lou Beach: My husband bought this searing series of tiny 420-words-or-less stories for me, hardcover, a few years ago, and I had never cracked it open. The pieces were originally written as posts on Facebook. I thought about reading a kids’ book for this one-day challenge–rarely having hours to read a full novel–but decided I wanted to pick an adult book. This one was a great choice. The mini-stories are like poems, almost. Now I’ll have the freedom to go back and piece the pieces back together, in smaller chunks, so I can re-enjoy them.

That’s it! My list. Next up: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, published by Tin House. Loving it so far.

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It’s Nearly Midnight…

Our beloved Landfall launches tomorrow, Aug. 11, which isn’t that many minutes from now. Instead of going to sleep, I’m thinking about community, and how far the press has come since I started the Seven Questions Series right here.

Here are a few photos from Sunday’s Forest Ave party, held at one of our author’s houses. These people believed in me, they sent me their manuscripts, or they signed up as contractors to help shoulder the workload alongside me. Everyone marvels at me being a one-woman show, but look at all these writers, editors, and our graphic designer, and their partners and spouses. We’ve launched this business. And we’re launching Landfall.

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Landfall, by Ellen Urbani, has been blurbed by Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, and Garth Stein. It’s been endorsed by the president of client services of The Perseus Books Group and hand-sold to booksellers across the country by our distributor, Legato Publishers Group. It’ll be in Books-a-Million stores across the country, and numerous Barnes & Nobles across the country will feature it on New Releases tables starting Aug. 18.

This book. It’s about Hurricane Katrina. Set during the storm, and after, from the points of view of two eighteen-year-olds and their mothers. This author. Ellen Urbani. She’s got an amazing bio and background, including being a grief and trauma counselor, training that absolutely factors into her compassionate portrayals in her novel, her second book after the memoir When I Was Elena. She’s going on a twenty-city book tour, starting next Monday. Landfall has been chosen as a common reads selection for Junior League of Portland, and by book clubs across the country as part of our 50 in ’15 Challenge. Ellen is represented by Books in Common, as one of the company’s top fifty featured speakers.

Ellen’s decision to give a book to an area hard-hit by Katrina for every twentieth person who attends one of her events was profiled in the Huffington Post on Friday; her article on Hurricane Katrina reading appeared as a feature story on Literary Hub today.  This is just the beginning of the next step of Landfall‘s journey; I acquired the book one year ago, last August, and have been working on it every day since, as have the rest of us, doing our parts to share this important novel. As Kirkus put it, “Urbani boldly sets her story among some of the most disturbing events of that time, sensitively evoking the desperation of the survivors of the hurricane and its mishandled aftershocks. To her great credit, she never shies away from the realities of poverty, race, and racism, nor does she fail to give people, both white and black, individual characters, unique histories, and often warm hearts.”

Twenty minutes and counting to midnight. Congratulations to Ellen and the whole Forest Ave team, and thank you to all our readers and our loved ones for cheering for us every step of the way. I want to prove that the traditional publishing model still works, that a book that deserves attention can rise to the top, that genuine hard work can build an audience and word of mouth. That a novel about a horrific hurricane that made landfall ten years ago this month can open minds and break hearts and make people turn off their digital devices and talk to each other, and feel, and remember this moment in American history.

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Counting Down to Landfall

Landfall cover smallEllen Urbani’s Landfall is being released to booksellers right this very moment! After a year of daily work on the editing, design, distribution, and marketing of this stunning mother-daughter novel set during Hurricane Katrina, we’re finally counting down to the Aug. 11 availability date.

Its release is timed for the tenth anniversary of the storm’s landfall. Publishers Weekly featured Landfall in its Katrina section last week, amid a group of nonfiction titles, which was very exciting.

We have phenomenal blurbs, an enthusiastic sales team courtesy of our new distributor (Legato Publishers Group, a division of The Perseus Books Group), and pre-sales galore. Landfall will be in a ton of wonderful indie bookstores all across the country; the novel takes place in the South (Tuscaloosa and New Orleans mostly) but it’s not regional. And in addition to those booksellers agreeing to stock our book, this will be our first Forest Ave title to appear widely in Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million stores.

Ellen Urbani will be appearing at twenty-plus cities around the country (see her impressive events calendar here), with a focus on the South and the Mid-Atlantic, so if she’s coming your way, please go hear her, and tell her we know each other from this blog. Likely, she will hug you and shower you with gratitude and warmth. Most of you have been here since the beginning–my Seven Questions interview series–which morphed into the idea of publishing a collection of interviews, and three years later, we have this national, spectacular launch. I’m holding on to my hat as we approach this date when “forthcoming” will be replaced by “available now,” still pushing hard to get the word out, and enjoying everything that comes our way. Like this recent Kirkus review:

“Tracing the experiences of two smart, tough young women, Rose and Rosy, she lays down threads that knot their histories together. Each young woman is fatherless, each living with a difficult mother who clings to a romantic past while trying to prepare her daughter for the challenges of a female adulthood. Thrown into the maelstrom of Katrina and its aftermath, each sees her life change completely overnight, forcing her to face herself and the past that shaped her. Urbani boldly sets her story among some of the most disturbing events of that time, sensitively evoking the desperation of the survivors of the hurricane and its mishandled aftershocks. To her great credit, she never shies away from the realities of poverty, race, and racism, nor does she fail to give people, both white and black, individual characters, unique histories, and often warm hearts.”

And here are some of Ellen’s jaw-dropping blurbs:

“With her new novel Landfall, Ellen Urbani enters the world of American fiction with a bang and a flourish. She brings back the terrible Hurricane Katrina that tore some of the heart out of the matchless city of New Orleans, but did not lay a finger on its soul. It is the story of people caught in that storm and the lives both ruined and glorified in its passage. Her descriptions of the flooding of the Ninth Ward are Faulknerian in their powers. It’s a hell of a book and worthy of the storm and times it describes.”

– Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides

“A gorgeous and raw rendering of a young woman’s struggle for redemption, for forgiveness, for salvation, in the aftermath of the devastating catastrophe of Katrina. Landfall is not about a storm; it is about the resiliency of the human spirit, and our ongoing need to make sense of the world around us, no matter the cost. Urbani has crafted a powerful novel that will resonate in your soul long after you have turned the final page. Outstanding!”

– Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain

“Ellen Urbani has written an amazing and original piece of literature. If you love Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits you will love this book!”

– Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

“From the first sentence, I was drawn into  the intricately wrought emotional lives of Urbani’s nuanced characters and didn’t put the book down until I’d found my way to the end. This novel is as delightful and compelling as it is necessary, broadening the cultural conversation around community, love, loss and inequity. It’s about making human connections, particularly during times of grief. Landfall, like the best literature, delivers an expansive, rich sense of humanity.”

– Monica Drake, author of The Stud Book

“A deeply soulful novel set during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina and the long, moody ebb of its aftermath, Landfall recalls Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the strength of the women in its pages, and their resilience despite immeasurable loss. Urbani knows it’s only love that truly overcomes catastrophe, that even as we search for the answer to that most elusive question–Why?–everything in our lives can always change in an instant, sometimes even for the better.”

– Tony D’Souza, author of Mule

Landfall is a poignant, provocative, and utterly compelling story of two fatherless girls forced into adulthood too soon. Ellen Urbani has accomplished the nearly impossible: creating a fictional world so real you’ll revel in its beauty and flinch from its pain. I could not put this book down. And the ending is worth every page that precedes it.”

– Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters

“Reading Ellen Urbani’s writing is like reading a painting, or a song. It’s that colorful and alive. Urbani sweeps you up into her world and carries you through this gripping story about two young women affected by similar tragedies.”

– Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

“Ellen Urbani’s story of Katrina and its aftermath is an important part of America’s modern mythology, a chronicle of one of our greatest national trials. But Urbani’s characters reach beyond mythology: two rich and complex young women, two troubled and heartbreaking older women, whose separate journeys and literal collision are unique yet timeless. Landfall is a mirror in the floodwaters, showing us our own distorted faces in the murk and mayhem of our recent past.”

– Samuel Snoek-Brown, author of Hagridden

If you’re part of a book club, consider taking part in our 50 in ’15 Challenge! We’re looking for 50 clubs–at least one in each state!–to pick Landfall as a selection by the end of 2015. No need to read the book this year; just put it on the club list, and in return, you’ll be eligible for a series of perks, including author participation in your event, personalized autographs for all book club members, and an unpublished, never-revealed prologue. Feel free to grab this handy image I designed and share it on social media!

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I’ve been quiet here, because I’ve been busy with the press, but you all are my roots. The online community that centered me, grounded me, fed me, gave me the heart and the courage to push forward with this crazy idea of starting a small press–and now look. Something big is about to hit, something national, something bigger than anything my press has done before, and bigger than anything I could have done on my own. I’m so grateful to all of you, all of our readers, our reviewers, our staff and contractors (especially publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek and graphic designer Gigi Little), and Ellen as well as all of our previous and future authors. You’re all at the heart of this.

Publishing can be disheartening, but dreams can come true. I want to prove that with this launch. I want Landfall to be what some are already calling a Cinderella story: a little-known author and an independent press coming together to create something extraordinary. 

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From the Publisher’s Desk : A Matter of Taste

I’ve disappeared into editorial tasks over the past weeks, working on galleys for our Spring 2016 release, doing a final edit on our next release, and reading submissions for Forest Avenue Press. We opened nationally, seeking novels, for the first time in January, and wow, have I been stunned by the quality and quantity of manuscripts. Each has been a gift, even if it’s not a gift meant for our particular press. Whenever someone takes the time to share a piece of work, it’s a gift, and I treat rejections as such. With kindness and appreciation.

When I can, if I feel strongly enough about a novel that’s not working, I offer specific feedback. Sometimes that includes what’s positive, and sometimes I get a little bossy (shh) and pinpoint what’s not working because I think the book could work really well–should work really well–if only these issues were corrected. Sometimes books begin in the wrong place. Sometimes the voice is so strong it overwhelms the plot, or the plot is strong, but once the big scene that’s been teasingly revealed happens, the rest falls apart. Sometimes it’s just not the right book at the right time because of other things in my catalog queue. That last one happens a lot, and I’ve had to let go of some great books this time because they were too similar to other books I’ve already published or will be publishing next year.

Liz Prato, editor of The Night, and the Rain, and the River, our short story collection that came out last May, said something about if only the writers knew how much we want them to succeed. It’s so true! We try not to let bad formatting or typos or a terrible query letter or the wrong opening stop us from seeing the potential in a manuscript, but the easier you can make it for us to fall in love, the better your chances.

It’s really fun to peek behind the scenes at the submissions to our supernatural short story collection, set in Portland, or rather an alternate Portland, forthcoming in fall 2016, edited by Gigi Little. The submissions period closed last week. The decisions are all Gigi’s, and seeing her make comments on each piece reminds me of how strong a vision she has for this book. That’s the most important thing about publishing, for me: finding the right pieces. Falling in love. I have to want to devote eighteen months or more of pre-publication hard work to a novel, and if it’s not exactly for me, then I won’t be the right advocate for it. I won’t enjoy those months of pre-release activity, or the ride we’ll go on when the book actually launches.

So think about this, novelists and short story authors who have received rejections and have wondered about them. You may have more edits to do, things you need to fix and sharpen, especially if an agent or editor or publisher takes the time and care to tell you so. But it’s also a matter of personal taste. And you can’t take any of it personally, especially the taste thing. You write what you write because it’s your taste, your subject matter, your story, your belief in the way the world works. But we publish what we love, and it has to be our taste, something that we can get behind not just in the pre-publication process, but for years to come.

My first author, Stevan Allred, is still doing events and promoting his 2013 book, and I still have his back. He likes to say A Simplified Map of the Real World is just a toddler now, getting its legs under itself. And I love that. As a small press with a small catalog, we do have the luxury of promoting our backlist titles for years; there’s no three-month shelf life here.

I’m sitting in the airport right now, flying to our first sales conference since we signed with Legato Publishers Group, a division of Perseus Books Group. I’ll meet the reps who have been reading Landfall, by Ellen Urbani, our next title, which is forthcoming in August to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I’ll share my enthusiasm for Ellen’s spectacular novel, and my vision for Forest Avenue Press, and I’ll share our backlist titles, too. The four books that launched my company. It feels important to be in the airport today, getting ready to meet a team of executives and reps who dedicate their time to helping books succeed. It feels big. Really great.

I can’t wait to board my plane and go meet everyone. Including an author whose novel appeared in my inbox earlier this year, a novel that grabbed my heart, a novel that I could totally spend years working on, a novel that, when I finished reading, already had me itching to go back to the beginning to start again.

Lucky me.

I’m bringing all the love we’ve gotten from our readers and authors with me in my carry-on bag. Because this is big, this moment, and without them, I wouldn’t be here in the airport, poised to go to sales conference, poised to fully launch this company on the national scene, poised to meet with a new author. Thank you.

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Sometimes It’s Best to Ask for Help

I’ve been stuck on my knitting recently. Too busy with other things, not making it a priority, and not having enough time to go to knitting group all contributed to my dropping that favorite (only?) non-literary hobby.

When I started again, it felt good… until I lost my mostly-done fingering weight shawl. Which means I lost the gorgeous yarn I had been saving for the right project, the needles, my prized little canvas drawstring project bag, and the hours and hours I had put into it.

So then I stopped knitting. Again.

Luckily, two knitting friends of mine work at the local yarn store, and I went in last week and begged for help. I told them I wanted to be told what to do. I needed a pattern, yarn, and needles. I wanted them to treat me like a beginner, like someone who had no idea what to buy.

“Surely you have needles!” they said.

“Surely you have stash yarn!” they said.

True. I also have a huge queue of patterns, including some I’ve purchased and never tried. But if left up to my own devices, I wouldn’t match those things up and get started again. The energy just wasn’t there to sort through my yarn, or look for the right needles, which are surely already embedded in an unfinished project from two years ago. These knitting friends suggested the right pattern, showed me suitable yarn, and grabbed a set of needles, and I walked out of the store with a new project, ready to go. Which is exactly what I needed.

Sometimes writing is like that too: we get stuck. We panic, or lose energy, or lose focus, or other things get in the way. Sometimes health gets in the way. Or family issues. Sometimes it’s things we can control, other times not. The reason I’m so focused on building literary community, and connecting with other writers, is that sometimes when we get stuck on a project, help from a friend is exactly what we need. That kind of reassurance, or guidance, or just a kind voice wanting you to get on with something you love, is priceless. So is the writer-friend who is willing to read your manuscript and give you comments. Tell you what’s missing or which darlings are getting in the way. Give you the tools–and the encouragement–to revise.

I try to be that person for authors in my community here in Portland, and also online; I’m not blogging, or commenting on others’ blogs, as much as I used to, because of the press, and nourishing existing relationships, but it’s all coming from the same place. Wanting to encourage and empower other writers, wanting to build a platform for their work with the press, and to share behind-the-scenes tips and thoughts to help others keep going.

Probably I would have started knitting again eventually, but my friends made it easier. I asked for help, and they helped me. I already had the tools, and the knowledge, but I didn’t feel ready to put those things together on my own. I didn’t feel motivated because I was so frustrated at losing those hours of shawl knitting when I lost that project.

I am now working on a bright pink single-ply Reversible Turkish Cowl by Sophie Bayard. It’s a two-line pattern, relaxing and lovely, and it’s exactly what I needed. This week, too, a writer friend of mine, whose work I edit regularly, read a piece of mine–a short story that I wasn’t really sure worked–and told me what was missing. I trust her instinct and totally agree, and we think a paragraph will fix it. Instead of letting that piece of writing go, or continuing to worry that it wasn’t story-like enough, I now have an action plan. I had the tools to fix it all along, but she reminded me that I have them, and pointed out specifically where the weak spot was.

Have you reached out for help from another writer recently? Or have you reached out to help someone else?

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Trends: WWII

I had the extreme reading pleasure of devouring Tony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah one after the other. They’re both epics about World War II. Nuanced, heartbreaking, gorgeous, suspenseful novels, both. Important, both.

The books themselves feature very different plots, and characters, but they’re both tales of resilience, enhanced with rich (and sometimes horrific) historical details.

All the Light We Cannot See tracks the lives of a young German orphan, who gets filtered into a privileged school for Nazi youth due to his skill with radios, and the sightless daughter of a museum lock-maker, who builds her scale models of neighborhoods so she can learn her way around by touch. Each is tested–and changed–by the world around them.

The Nightingale is about two French small-town sisters whose everyday lives are impacted by the arrival of the Nazis and the shift in the political currents. Kristin Hannah delivers a powerful message about how heroism comes in all forms, and the consequences of acting on principle in a time of war. I was surprised, and oddly grateful, for the horrors she put on the page amid this story of family bonds and community life.

There’s no sugarcoating in either of these novels.

Some pages were hard to read, certainly.

I don’t like intentionally shocking novels; I find that the shock, the horror, pulls me out of understanding the character, but if the shocks come after we know the characters, and love them, then my seatbelt is already on, and I’m along for the ride and can appreciate the bumps and unexpected turns. Moreover, I don’t want to get off the ride.

I think that’s part of the brilliance of All the Light We Cannot See: we know Werner as an orphan who wants to protect his sister. Where he goes, and how he becomes part of the Nazi engine, is perfectly rendered and in context. He has a good heart, and we know that from the beginning.

I’ve only read–and admired–one of Kristin Hannah’s novels, which didn’t prepare me at all for this gorgeous historical epic, newly released, which is full of terrible injustices and dangers and heartbreaks that she poured on to the page. What happened, what she allowed to happen to her characters, took me by surprise, the way the best fiction does, and in a way that felt totally true to the setting.

It was a pretty amazing experience reading both of these novels one after the other. However, it’s meant bad timing for World War II manuscripts that are coming through my submissions portal at Forest Avenue Press. They might be excellent novels, totally different from Doerr’s and Hannah’s, but those two made such an impression on me that I can’t pull myself far enough away from them. In several instances I’ve found myself comparing Nazi protagonists with Werner, and thinking about how even if a kind act is shown by a Nazi in the opening pages, that character is still a Nazi. It’s hard to be sympathetic. With Werner, Doerr avoided that issue by introducing us to him earlier in his life, and letting us see the inexorable machinations that pulled him into service by circumstance.

The bigger takeaway?

It’s all about taste, when it comes to finding the right editor or agent or publisher. And sometimes a manuscript hits at the wrong time for the person reading it. So take heart, and keep submitting, and keep researching where you’re submitting.

Across the board, authors who have taken the time to read one of our books or even look at our catalog have submitted novels that fit my taste; people who throw their books at us like spaghetti being thrown against the wall are most likely to earn form rejections. Sometimes, with all that preparation, and even hitting a person’s taste just right, you’ll run into an unforeseen circumstance; I’ve told our WWII submitters that I haven’t been able to get past my own reading, or see how at this point I could compete with those two novels in the literary fiction marketplace, but perhaps another agent or editor or publisher wouldn’t bring that same perspective, or would welcome a war novel.

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