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One of my New Year resolutions this year is to be a better Fictionaut member. What that actually means, I’m not really sure, but given the opportunity to be a guest editor for The Editor’s Eye, I jumped on the chance to give something back to the community that has welcomed and inspired me the past four years.  I admit to being a somewhat sporadic, binge connoisseur here. I often drop in when I can, reading almost obsessively for a few hours or days, until the amount of awe-inspiring writing gets too great, and I shuffle back to my own writing, feeling a little lack-luster and over-stuffed. I recently read (probably here) how upon reading The New Yorker, a writer threw the magazine against the wall because the writing was just so impossibly good. Well, that could be Fictionaut too. I’m just glad my computer’s a bit too heavy and still too wired for me to throw. The writing here never ceases to amaze and entertain me. No matter how many times one posts or publishes, putting your work out there can feel like dropping your soul in a void. It’s impossible to predict which pieces will soar with comments and favorites, and which ones will slip by seemingly unnoticed. But every day, every week, there you all are posting and writing, reading and commenting, and I thank you all for making this community real. These past weeks, I gluttoned myself on Fictionaut and read everything posted. I cheered as some pieces began that soar, and secretly cheered more as a few I really liked slipped by, quieter but definitely not unnoticed. Here are the ones that continued to rattle, sing, and cajole me back again.

1. Untitled, Natasha Whyte

Natasha Whyte’s Untitled poem, which opens, “I am a sunflower,” first reminded me of a series of yoga poses, The Sun Salutation. With simple, bold imagery and the POV of a sunflower, it’s as evocative as a zen meditation. In the next lines: “I turn my yellow/ and black face,/ bruised, to the sun,” the poem reveals a deeper tension which eats away at the poem’s opening warmth, and moves the narrator to a much darker awakening at the end. If you passed this one up expecting sentimental poesy, or were fooled by its warmth and charm, I urge you to take another, closer look

2. City of Masks, Marc Lowe

Of all the pieces I read these past weeks, Marc Lowe’s City Of Masks haunted me the most. The story describes a city plagued by some undefined, ominous air contamination. What’s most frightening about this piece is what happens behind the masks as we hear the narrator describe the masked people, “Watching them is like watching zombies on a movie screen, like watching comatose patients try to move around.”  Indeed, it feels like zombies. It feels cinematic. Dark and edgy, with an uncomfortable dose of fear and pathos, this may not be a read for the faint of heart, but very worth the while for those courageous enough to withstand a psychological jolt out of their comfortable, recliner chair.

3. George Square, Samuel Derrick Rosen

Who can resist the first line; “Buchanan Street; god strums a cheap guitar”? Samuel Derrick Rosen’s poem, George Square, paints a wonderfully complex, if abstract, picture of a civic center that could be George Square on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, Scotland, but could very well be many streets in many civic squares. The poem’s worth the read for its voyeurism alone. (A particular favorite of mine was the old woman on a bench.) Layered in riddled details, this scrappy, lyrical poem seems to take on its predecessor, the epic poem. Stealing its fiercest strength from the rumbles of the cenotaph of artificial forms, Rosen gathers the elements to create something new and less defined. The poem nods to progress and art as something not so much achieved, but something continual, universal, and unchanging:

Far past these art deco fantasies, these irresistible acidities,

these shadow-Juliets, these clown-faced Romeos,

pieces of a truth must oscillate.

The poem ends with a powerful couplet, you’ll have to see. It’s a big poem, a hard poem, but a great one that earned my fave.

4. Sacred Throne, Book 1, Chapter 15, Dan Kelly

I’m just as guilty as the next of often avoiding or skimming the longer pieces here. Having not read any of the previous chapters, and being a little baffled by the title (which the author discloses is not the actual title to his work-in-progress), it took me a bit to straighten out the characters Cal, Charles and Freddy. But the Cal/Charles confusion was short lived, as one of Kelly’s strengths is his ability to create convincing characters and shine a light on the complexities and fragilities of their relationships and personalities. Full of stolen snack food bootie, pornographic magazines, and other adolescent shenanigans, Dan Kelly brings these characters, otherwise invisible or suspiciously spied, to life on the page. My curiosity was sufficiently stoked to the end, earning it a fave and ensuring I’ll be coming back for more.

5. Quasimodo Casanova, strannikov

This delightfully funny tale is just what the title promises: an absurdly humorous retelling of an old familiar tale. It’s a fast read and without giving anything away, I don’t want to give anything the end made me laugh out loud. The greatest thing about Fictionaut is finding the little jewels you may otherwise not have found or read, and this for me, was one of those gems. Check it out for the lust, pride, vanity, for the sheer delicious fun if it!

6. The Zipless F—, Karen Karlitz

Having never read Erica Jong’s The Fear of Flying, which inspired this piece, I admit being a little baffled by this one at first. I didn’t know what a zipless f*ck was (can we write that here?), and surmised that it just meant casual sex, sex with no strings attached. In a day where women may have just as many sexual partners as a man, and marital affairs are probably as common for wives as for husbands, I didn’t know what to make of this rather old fashioned tale. But still, it takes some ovaries to write about feminism or sexuality today. We’re still not comfortable with discussing it, despite attempts to legislate it. It was that 1970s turquoise shag rug and the teenage-like giggles of married women meeting like a secret think tank to discuss the zipless f*ck, that made me look up the term and reread the story again. In Jong’s book, the term signified the purest kind of sex, between strangers, offering freedom from the give and take of unfulfilled relationships. Karlitz puts this revolutionary act to the test on the page, and the results are provocative and murky. The telling is in the details, like the vividly rich description of the dinner scene as contrasted to the white space and scarce dialogue of the bedroom scene where the protagonist, Lisa, confronts her husband about his suspected affair, and in the final image of the carpet store being available for lease. Looking back, I found the story didn’t aimlessly revel in an act of infidelity or revolution, but instead gnawed away at the edges of prepackaged ideals, expectations, and certain social roles, be they old or new. With so much to like on Fictionaut, I don’t often go back for seconds; but in this case, I’m glad I did.

Emily Bertholf received her BA in English from the University of Iowa. Her poems and flash fiction can be found in publications such as Lost In Thought, Flash Frontier, and vox poetica, but live mostly in dark caverns of old file drawers and dusty notebooks. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband, three children, and their aging pug.

 

We are pleased to welcome Ravi Mangla to Fictionaut’s Writers on Craft.  Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, The Collagist, American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, and Corium Magazine. He lives in Rochester, NY and keeps a blog at ravimangla.com.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?

When the sentences aren’t coming out quite right, there are a handful of texts I use as tuning forks: Ray by Barry Hannah, Florida by Christine Schutt, End Zone by Don DeLillo, Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Mary Ruefle. I’d like to start a campaign to get her elected U.S. Poet Laureate. Or, better yet, president.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Let the work breathe. Putting aside a piece of writing for a day, a week, a month, allows you to see it in a whole new light. Young writers are constantly in a hurry. Wait, let me try that again: Most writers are in a hurry. It helps to slow down, take a deep breath, step away from the work for a while. Time isn’t always such a bad guy.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

Recently I’ve started to think of writing as a collective endeavor as opposed to an individual one. For a while I was dealing with this crisis of faith, wondering if the work I did was selfish, and whether I had anything to truly contribute to the literary arts. I probably quit writing half a dozen times (as close—and infinitely patient—friends can attest). Then I asked myself two questions that helped to clarify the situation: Do you believe the writing you create has value? And my natural response was no. The follow-up question: Do you believe that literature as a whole has value? That I answered with a resounding yes. Literature can initiate social and political change, foster deeper feelings of compassion, and open the mind to new channels of thought and inquiry. Once I stopped thinking of myself as an individual entity, fighting for recognition in an overcrowded field, and imagined myself instead as part of a larger constellation of writers, all aiming to put beautiful things into the world, I was able to relax and get back to work.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

To make us more empathetic creatures, by providing us with a mousehole into different lives.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

There’s this part in The Night of the Hunter when Lillian Gish’s character (after witnessing an owl swoop down and snatch a rabbit) remarks, “It’s a hard world for little things.” So I’ll use that as my advice: Show compassion toward the small and helpless among us.

Also, invest in quality bed linens. You can’t put a price on comfort.

Your short novel Understudies  has a style that’s quite wonderful in its biting humor, an insouciant tone.  What made you decide to partition the novel into tiny chapters like you did? 

The fragmented structure allows for a more interpretive reading of the text. Certain sequences will resonate differently for each reader. The interstices between sections offer a brief (very brief) moment of reflection before beginning on the next one. Plus, I can play with tones, switching between comic moments and more solemn ones, without startling the reader. 

Do you feel like social commentary is the obligation of the modern writer?   

No. I think the beauty of contemporary literature is the plurality of forms. The only obligation of a writer is to do right by their characters.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.

God, I wish I had some large, important tome in the works, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Mostly I’ve been tinkering with little pieces—short stories, essays, tweets, missed connections, and so on. 

Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowler.com .

 

What a nightmare this has been. A luxurious nightmare, to be sure, but one of impossible satisfaction. To be sweet of tooth and set free in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory with strict orders to select only one treat, why, it would induce madness or crime, or both. As for this place, literarily dripping with delicious, exquisitely burgeoning uncompensated talent, it could easily leave the restricted taster strangling in a duel between tortured aesthetic appetites and solemn duty.

I am sworn to highlight a mere handful of new diamonds after two weeks of staring at the glistening gem case. Had I Goliath’s hand this task should be none the easier. As such, my own scant hand is forced to rely on the eeny meeny miny moe selection method, which, as it may satisfy the law of the land, leaves a giant hole in my heart—not to mention in a mind already riddled with the wounds of too much living with too little armor (altho I think I did wear a helmet in high school playing that game, you know, the one with the turd-shaped ball?).

Anyway, I am also hamstrung by a noticeably deficient articulation in the critical arts. As previously confessed of himself by Chris Okum, when he was in the barrel, I am all thumbs in the language of why something works for me. Not so much why something may not, although I am rarely up to taking the time or, more likely, risking the hurt to publicly point out shortcomings as I see them or even privately to the responsible party. Cowardly, I suppose, but…as I said, anyway.

Okum, by the way. I welcome him back with glad thunder despite my resentment of having prepared to laud one James Parker Jr. as the new Voice With Buster Keaton’s Face. As Parker’s departure coincided neatly with Okum’s return from somewhere, I, and I’m sure many other Fictionauts, let out huge volumes of bated breath in relief at the vanished prospect of a titanic deadpan battle for the Buster Keaton title. And now, my ado duly exhausted, let’s give it up for the winners!

Gary Moshimer lured me off the street with his first paragraph in the story, Summer-1966, and sold me a ticket to his show with the second. With these five short sentences, using words none of which I had to Google, he foreshadowed a story I knew would pluck at my heartstrings and titillate the adolescent residing within me—and it did. I even touched my fingers to my lips afterward. I daresay you will, too.

Loren A. Moreno, a relative newcomer here, I believe (it’s sometimes hard to tell, of course, with the constant dynamics of name shifting and comings and goings and all of that) boldly posted a looong story. Now we all know the best way to win comments and garner faves here is to post short stuff—good stuff, of course, but short). So Loren wins his first * from me for daring to swim upstream with his 1,539-word “rough draft” story, Consequences of Waiting. Even I, who’ve alienated Fictionauts for years violating this custom, almost walked on by. But being in the barrel this term I knew I had to stop and check this thing out. Then I saw that our two most recent returning exemplars of excellence (besides Okum, who rarely appears in comment boxes—with which I sympathize whilst officially withholding applause) already had visited Loren’s piece and left laudatory remarks. I’m speaking of Kathy and Jane, obviously. So, with a huge sigh, I plunged in and…and found a true gem—and not as rough, either, as Loren modestly says he fears it is in his author’s note. As I noted vernacularly in my comment, the kid has chops. Check him out. You will be tested.

Come we now to Katrina Trepsa, whose very name I find so intriguing I would look at anything she posted whether I was in the barrel or not. And she does good titles. This one, Washed Up, prompts so many connotations my fingers could go crazy on the keyboard trying to list even half of them. And how’s this for an opening sentence: “At noon on a weekday in the off season, when the trickle of tourists who wandered into the Mermaid Curio Shoppe had died out completely, she walked in with wet hair, leaving tiny puddles on the floorboards.” Don’t you want to know who she is? Huh? Don’t you think you’d like to sit on a bench overlooking the beach and sip piña coladas with her? If she’s paying? Read the piece. It’s short, has great dialogue, an easy swinging pace…hell, you can dance to it. If I didn’t give it five faves I should have.

Peter Cherches. I didn’t pick him. He just popped up, again. And why not? He’s terrific!

Strikhedonia! (That’s the title, not the poet, whose name is Samuel Derrick Rosen) But what a title, huh. Maybe it’s not so cool to regular poetry readers, of which I’m not, but to me it…it sent me straight to Google. Which is where you will have to go if you want to know what it means. My comment in response to Strikhedonia!, the poem, was “A most eloquent “bah humbug”. And I meant it.

Trying to get a fix on something Tara Isabel Zambrano posts is like fighting with a kitten over a ball of mercury. Now you see it, now you don’t. Her writing never fails to awe and stun with its insights and exotic perspectives. I get the impression she takes forever to pick just the right word, and then, after another forever, switches it for something even better. But being in the barrel and trying to find an example of one of these perfect jewels is…well, the kitten analogy again. She takes them down and stashes them somewhere out of reach (I hope at least she can still reach them) and then puts up something new. Despite her sleight of hand with her work, she’s prolific. To give you an example of her excellence, I was forced to go to her page and select one of my all time favorites. You’ve likely read it, too, but it gets better with every reading. I suspect it will continue to do so, forever.

Oops, I believe I’ve about fulfilled my quota and filled my space, but..but I have two more! Honorable mentions? Can I award honorable mentions? (No answer, but I will. Here they are):

Strannikov. What a name. It’s Russian, my major in college. I have no frigging idea what it means. But the sound of it! It just might be the name of a general: “Comrade Lenin, we’ve sent Strannikov and the Cossacks to the Western front!” “Хорошо!”

Anyway, here’s the general’s piece that won from me the comment: “Delightfully bizarre”.

And now…AND NOW…Brace yourselves for Joseph E. Lerner‘s report from amongst the organgutans.

Mr. Lerner’s superb reportage won from me, this: “Bwahahahahaha… Fooled me right up to the reveal. My advice, eat more of whatever you had that night before going to bed. Artists are supposed to suffer for their fans, you know.” I no longer can explain what I meant by that, but here is what inspired it.

________________________________

Mathew Paust is a man of a virtually autistic personality spread. A forcibly retired newspaper reporter, he now writes novels, short stories and the occasional embarrassingly derivative poem. He appears under various guises on Facebook and Twitter, but is too exasperated by the proliferation of unnecessary technology to venture into other social media or even to want to buy the kind of hand-held device that is sucking modern youth into its black hole of merchandising. He resides in Gloucester, Virginia, and is considering raising a tankful of triops to study perhaps as characters for a future novel.

 

We are pleased to welcome Lauren Becker to Fictionaut’s Writers on Craft.  Lauren Becker is editor of Corium Magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online venues, including Tin House, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, and Wigleaf. Her collection of short fiction, If I Would Leave Myself Behind, was released by Curbside Splendor Publishing in June of 2014.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?

I don’t have any formal training in writing, which is sort of an explanation rather than an excuse for my lack of knowledge with regard to instructive texts about writing. Honestly, when I despair at the state of my work, which occurs often, I tend to walk away from reading much. Reading great work sometimes feels accusatory to me. At times I get down on myself for not being as productive or talented as the writers I otherwise take great joy in reading. That said, when I push past that completely unconstructive way of thinking, I am inspired by authors including Alice Munro, A.M. Homes, Miranda July, and George Saunders, as well as writers better known in the independent literary community, including Andrea Kneeland, Ravi Mangla, Amber Sparks, Scott Garson, and Alan Rossi.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Believe in what you write before putting it out in the world. Whether you feel your work is “done” without edits, or whatever you’re writing takes years to finish.

If it doesn’t fit, cut it. If it doesn’t lend itself to inference by a reader, cut it. I’m a big fan of cutting. I respond best to incisive writing that assumes an intelligent reader.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

I think this goes back to my answer to the previous question. When I first started writing, I was greedy for publication. As a result, I look at older work that was published that feels unfinished or just bad. My standards are much higher. If I don’t stand behind it absolutely, I don’t submit it. I reverted to my old habit with a piece recently and am embarrassed that I sent out work I didn’t fully support. I’ll work on that piece again, but it’s tucked away until I love it.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

I have no idea how to answer this question. I guess I would say that the purpose of literature to me is nourishment, sustenance, hope. Putting words together is creation, almost in the sense of giving birth. I know this sounds extreme, but I feel like literature saves my life over and over. Reading and writing have provided me with an identity. I cannot define myself without the role that literature has played in my life.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

If you view life as competition, you will lose. Giving love and support doesn’t mean you have less. We each have an endless supply.

Your work features incredibly intimate moments with narrators who seem to visualize themselves disappearing at times.  It explores themes of loneliness and friendships between women quite a bit—as well as romantic relationships.  Can you speak to your thoughts about writing women, or writing women well? 

I write from experience or imagined or desired experience, and I’m fascinated with friendships between women – the negotiation involved. Expectations of the role one will play in the other’s life. What happens when those expectations are or aren’t fulfilled. It goes back to my life advice about competition. Too often, I have found women compete with one another rather than providing support and encouragement. I am fascinated by the precariousness of love relationships, whether between friends or in the romantic sense. I don’t mean to write only about the bleak aspects of these relationships: I have many supportive, healthy relationships. I write about loss and loneliness to make sense of it, to mourn ended relationships, to connect with people. We’ve all experienced loneliness. I suppose it makes me feel less lonely (and more visible, in the sense of the wording of your question) to know this.

The shape of some of your prose is quite poetic.  I notice this in both the cadences of some of the sentences and the inversion of phrases.  What relationship does poetry have to your fiction?  Is this a conscious choice since many of the stories in the new collection are flash fiction, which lends itself to density?

I love when people tell me things about myself I don’t know.  The more I hear interpretations of my work, the more I learn about recurrent themes or devices I use. Do I write with poetic leanings intentionally? No. It’s what comes out.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.

I’m still writing flash and have a few things set for publication in the new year. I am writing a longer story with a favorite writer/friend. I have an idea for a collaborative book that’s rolling around in my head. Mostly, I am attempting to work on a novel that is continually confounding and satisfying. I’m excited to push myself to write longer, to work against my comfort with conciseness, to let characters exist for more than a few hundred words. I can’t wait to find out what these characters will do and become.

 Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

 

I haven’t spent much time on Fictionaut this year. 2014 has more been a year of the novel for me. I’ve tried much harder to keep up with books from the indie lit scene, as well as the increasing number of books written by friends. Between managing Bartleby Snopes Lit Mag and Press and my own writing, something had to give. Unfortunately, that thing was Fictionaut.

When I was invited to do “Editor’s Eye,” I thought it would be a great way to catch up on what I’ve been missing. During my reading period, I also had a major life event. On November 29th, my second daughter was born. This might sound like an obstacle to keeping up with the latest on Fictionaut, but it really hasn’t been. What it has meant is that most of my reading has been done with my new baby girl in my arms. I think this means my selections here are from both of us, not just me. At times, I’ve used her mood as a cue. This has left me skimming through a fair number of stories and even abandoning some completely. Interestingly enough, she didn’t cry at all when I encountered prose that really struck a chord. These are the stories that have moved us the most.

1. CONCERNING A CASE OF CIGARILLO MANIA by Jeff Goldberg

At first glance, we might roll our eyes at yet another story about Ferguson. We might be even more apt to engage in such eye-rolling at a Ferguson story posted on Fictionaut. However, to do so would be to miss a truly insightful and moving piece. Goldberg skillfully uses the fierce combination of fact and satire to remind us about the utter humanity of these tragedies. Even if you’ve come to Fictionaut to get away from political ranting, this is still a must-read.

2. Your Novel Approach by Peter Cherches

In “Your Novel Approach,” Peter Cherches proves himself a master of language. In this epistolary tale, Cherches explores the origin of recipes, novels, the creative process, and even thought itself. It’s a letter filled with humorous spins on language and twists on logic that will leave the reader more than just amused. This story is a very unconventional way of approaching something that’s become cliché in the writing world.

3. The Duke of Travel by Brenda Bishop Blakey

In the author’s note, Brenda Bishop Blakey informs us that this piece came from a prompt. Not just a prompt, but one of those “create a story from a big list of words” prompts. For most of us, this is just a writing exercise that doesn’t go anywhere. This is not at all the case for Brenda Bishop Blakey. Her story is a marvelous motorcycle adventure that will leave you grinning along with the characters.

4. The Havisham Complex by Daniel Harris

“The Havisham Complex” begins with two people meeting at a botanical garden. Doesn’t sound very riveting, but don’t dismiss it. From there, it dives into a delightful and engaging conversation that could serve as a crash course in dialogue usage. There isn’t a wasted word as the characters reveal themselves and tell their stories. This is a relationship we can really feel.

5. Vera’s Nemesis by Magda Sullivan

Dog stories are tough to write. They generally are overly sentimental or just plain cliché. “Vera’s Nemesis” is neither of those things. Through Vera and Zoey, Magda Sullivan creates a story with both bark and bite. There’s plenty of doggie action here, but there’s something much deeper going on. As Magda tells us in her author’s note, this is a story written to draw attention to her novel, Delilah, My Woman. Magda, you have my attention.

 6. Cricket Box by Katrina Trepsa

“Cricket Box” is a gorgeous piece of writing that demonstrates nearly everything a piece of flash fiction can do. The prose is captivating and breathtaking, and Katrina Trepsa somehow creates an engaging and fully developed story in just 300 words. The opening description is the type of scene-setting that most writers only wish they could accomplish: “There is no frost to compare to moonbeams; no wind carries lotus fragrance or rustles maple leaves; no rain transforms pine trees into parasols; the moon is too ripe to call a sliver, too thin to call full; and the wild geese have yet to start their southbound flight.”

_____________________________

Nathaniel Tower is the author of the absurd short story collection Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands and the satirical novella Use, Remove, Repeat. His short fiction has appeared in over 200 publications and has been included on the storySouth Million Writers notable stories list. He is the founding and managing editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. Nathaniel currently resides in Minnesota with his wife and two daughters.

We are pleased to welcome Michael Czyzniejewski to this month’s Writers on Craft.  Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of three fiction collections: I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories (Curbside Splendor, 2015), Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012), and Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc, 2009). In 2010, he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He now serves now as Editor of Moon City Review and Moon City Press and teaches at Missouri State University.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or modern literature—any “go to” texts?

I despair about my work, quite a bit actually, as I think any writer does, always second-guessing, always wondering where this or that is going, if it’s going to fly. I’m good, though, on the state of modern literature, and never, ever think that it’s in trouble, it’s going in the wrong direction, or ain’t what it used to be. But back to me and my own crises, I still go to the stories and writers that made me want to write, that formed me, just to remind myself how great stories are and how much I love them. I’ve said this in other interviews, but my crush on A Good Man Is Hard to Find is never-ending, so that’s always at hand. Barthelme’s 40 Stories—that fits in my bag better than 60 Stories—and I carry it around a lot, my Catcher in the Rye, sans assassination plans. I’ve been living in and around the new and selected Milhauser that came out recently. The two books that most specifically formed my voice and style, too, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Those are both pretty perfect books.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Editors really want to like your work. I think most submitters, the newer writers, think the opposite, that editors sit in a room with piles and piles of manila envelopes, looking for one poorly placed adverb or one bad simile so they can move on to the next story. Now it’s the queue in Submittable or one of the other programs, their finger on the DECLINE button, a hair trigger. In my experience, it’s the opposite: I’m hoping that every time I open a file, it’s a great story and I can show it to my staff, talk them into it because I read it, ate it up, and can’t wait for others to read it, too. And I think a lot of my colleagues in editing think the same way. It’s why I, and a lot of editors, got into this, just to be able to read great stories.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

Interestingly, I think it’s more cyclical than a change, especially with this new book, the breakup stories, because those are similar to the stories I wrote in my first book, Elephants, and some of those stories are fifteen years old. My stories are leaner now, more attention paid to style and differentiating style, but a lot of the themes are similar. My second book, in between, was a project, those Chicago monologues, written from famous POVs. But this new book, it attacks the same themes that I was writing about when I started writing and publishing.

Since I turned this new book over to the publisher on September 1, I’ve made a concerted effort to redesign myself, to do something else. I like this new book and I like my first book, but I’ve done that now, a couple of times, stories about relationships, very domestic stories, what love and sex make you do, how those things change you. I’ve made a pact with myself to not write another story that focuses on relationships, or one that takes place in anyone’s living space. Been there, done that.

The problem is, where do I go from there? I haven’t finished anything since them, partly because I’ve been busy with Moon City Press, but mostly because I’ve been trying to figure out where to go next. I’d like to work on longer, more developed stories, for one. I teach from Pushcart, BASS, and O. Henry and I like a lot of those stories, but most of them would be twenty pages or more in manuscript form. The longest story in my new book was nine. I’d like to take a shot at some extended narratives. Oh, and write a novel. I’m well into one and should probably finish it.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

My answer might not be popular, but I think the main purpose of literature is to entertain us, for a reader to find what they like to read, whether it’s Donna Tartt or some manga thing that has a million exclamation points. That’s what I get out of it, a challenging diversion, like a crossword puzzle or watching Jeopardy!, something I like to do to pass the time, intellectual, but fun, in between reading students’ stories/submissions and watching sports/mindless TV.

But it’s not that easy, to just be entertained, as I’m also a writer, so I’m never only being entertained. I’m picking up on techniques, watching the arc of the story take form, predicting what will happens, seeing how characters are introduced, how people talk to each other. So as much as it’s entertainment, it’s also research. I try to get one thing from everything I read, something that’s memorable, something I can steal.

But that’s for me. I know literature does a lot of other things for other people. Just one example: It teaches people about places and events, and that’s great. But I’m not going to pick up a novel about Tegucigalpa because I want to learn about Tegucigalpa. That might happen as a peripheral benefit, but I’m not setting out to find that. I watch the news and surf the Internet when I want to know things.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

Don’t lie. It hurts people and makes you into someone else. It makes you a liar, for one, but also posits you as someone you’re not, someone you don’t deserve to be or someone you don’t want to be. I used to lie to people, like half my life ago, to make myself seem more important or impressive, and that’s so pathetic and betraying. Plus, if you’re honest all the time, it helps you aspire to be the person that you thought you had to lie to be. I made it a practice to not lie twenty years ago and couldn’t be happier with who I am. It’s a burden to lie, and I’m happy to be free of that burden.

Besides, I write fiction, and that’s enough lying right there.

I notice you use first-person narrators quite a bit in your stories, though you also alternate with other POVS at whim.  What’s the allure with first person POV for you—since this seems one of your favorite modes to write from?  Is there any difference between how you feel writing a story in third person and first, for example?  Different elements you might bring to the more confessional narratives first person use sometimes implies?

I think it has to do with unreliability, more than anything else. I do believe in the close third-person limited unreliable narrator, the third person who takes on the characteristics of the unreliable person they’re chronicling, but for the most part, these stories in this new book are all about betrayals and dishonesty and naiveté, and the best way to demonstrate that, I think, is to put the reader in the mindset of that character, that person making the mistake as they’re making it, but never realizing it. I guess that’s my gateway into story.

That’s not to say I don’t take notice of this overabundance, that I didn’t write third-person stories just to offset all the first. I like that voice, too, and as I grow as a writer, referring back to your previous question, I think I’m understanding what that voice can do for a narrative, the perspective, the neutrality. The novel I’m working on, for example, is in third, because I just didn’t want to inflict first person on a reader for 250 pages. Unreliability can only be taken so far before the person moves beyond unreliable and is just bad. Or dumb. Most of the power of using an unreliable narrator is how the reader doesn’t know they’re reading an unreliable narrator, maybe not until the story’s over.

I love how freely you experiment with form and humor in some of your work.  I’m thinking, in particular, of “The Braxton-Carter-Vandamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline” and “The Plum Tree” pieces in your new book, which are both so structurally playful and funny in their own ways.  Do you often experiment with unusual structure?  Do you tend to do this more often with flash fiction than full-length stories? 

I was really inspired by a couple of other books of short shorts, The Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray and Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter, books that are so remarkable, not just for their story-telling, but for how they form the genre, hold nothing back. When I started putting together this book, I saw what they did and remembered something, that one of the great things about short shorts is that you can do/try anything, mainly because writers should do that, but with short shorts, if you experiment, try something like a voice or a form or a syntactical experiment, the reader only has to endure it for a couple of pages. Short shorts are made for outline stories and lists and overwritten prose and crazy voices and whathaveyou; If it doesn’t work, it’s not like the reader invests too much time into it. Some of that stuff works better in small doses, like the outline story, because I don’t give the reader time to get tired of it or see it as  gimmick. Could you imagine a novel, or even a fifteen-page short story, written like that? So, my purpose when I head into a short is to try something new, pull it off one time, then move on, like how a band will try a weird cover, or let the drummer sing, during the encore, because, why not?

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? Give us a sneak peek.

From me? Well, the book’s coming out on March 15, and that can be preordered at places like Amazon, or even better, the Curbside Splendor page. Some of the stories are coming out in journals beforehand. I’m so happy to have working coming in places like Pleiades and River Styx, as they’re magazines that I’ve read for a long time, have sent to for a long time, and I’ve finally caught their eye.

But there are so many books by so many great writers. Just glad to be in the mix.

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Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

For this edition of “Editor’s Eye,” I read virtually everything posted on Fictionaut from November 1st through the 15th,  not an especially difficult task as it turns out, and in a way pretty rewarding. I found, at a certain point, it was hard to say why some pieces got more or less attention than others, besides, maybe, name recognition. Not to diminish the importance of that factor as guarantee of quality. Everybody follows some writers, I assume, and part of that comes from the belief, probably reliable, that the ones you follow are likely to produce on a regular basis work that appeals to you. I think the only problem is in the assumed corollary, that all the others you don’t read are any the less reliable. The best reward from the exercise of reading everything has been that discovery, that there’s a lot of good stuff here that can be found under any number of signatures, and that it’s well worth looking under those unfamiliar names, from a Fictionaut reader’s viewpoint, the unworked ground where gems can frequently be found.

“Thank You, Ms. Roe,”  by Angela Kubenic 

Since most Fictionaut pieces are comfortable ignoring the strictures that make something “fraught,” in the outer world, I doubt anyone will be outraged by Angela Kubenic’s take on abortion, her depiction of a might-have-been family that exists happily, and comfortably in companionable squalor, copious ingestion of Xanax by the putative mother, and an “anything goes,” attitude toward responsible parenting. Figuring out at whom the irony is directed, society or the narrator, is part of the slippery appeal of this piece. In any event, one cannot help be delighted by a portrait of a family in which all the rules are happily ignored without dire consequences.

 “Diving is the Only Thing that Helps,” by Bud Smith

If you step back a little from this piece, what comes through strongly is a sense of Smith’s authority over his material, in a laconic piece, dialogue driven in part, that manages to layer comedy over tragedy, without sentiment or bathos. A lot of people try humor, but the number of writers who can bring it off without violating the context of the work, can make you laugh without losing track of where you are is quite small. E.g.: “The EMT’s were drinking in the bar underneath my room. Town like this, of course the EMT’s were trashed.” In a piece of a couple hundred words, there are at least five places where you’ll be laughing.  Funny thing, it doesn’t at all mitigate the pain. Read carefully, and don’t let laughs distract you, even as you enjoy them. There’s a lot here.

“ There was a G.I.—January 1970,” by Carl Santoro

Okay, Veterans’ Day, and kindred experience may play into my bias. But not enough to occlude judgment, I think. This was a good meaty poem, that uses the immediate experience of a G.I. and barracks life to key into larger points, one where the writer successfully links the particular and general truths, without censure or preaching. You don’t have to have been there to feel the heart in this work.

“On a Sunday,” by P.R. Mercado

There’s a particular tone to Mercado’s work, almost an attitude, of belief in love combined with a deep skepticism of its durability, which is reflected in poems that are romantic but never sentimental. Lust and love vie, intertwine, face-off, each dubious of the other, each knowing their deep interdependence. Assignations are by the hour, and eternal. The poems, like this one, are often quite beautiful.

“The Next Act,” by Dan Cafaro

This—admittedly  a WIP—is one of those pieces which you can see just developing from a single, simple idea, a question: What would happen if people kept showing up at your door, in costume, on the day after Halloween, the day after that, and on and on? What indeed? In this case, its an elegantly simple question, which leads to complicated and amusing possibilities. I wish I’d thought of it.

These are by no means the end of my choices, and I wanted to mention in addition these others that are well worth your attention before they slide into Fictionaut history:  “Eulogy,” by Jowell Tan,  “Beelzebub,” by J.A. Pak; “Eulogy is a Night Crawler,” by Dennis Mahagin and “Sock,” by John Olson.

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David Ackley lives and writes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

 

   I do a lot of reading here at Fictionaut these days.  Occasionally I’ll share a story of my own, but mostly I just read.  I’ve even taken to commenting less, which is sort of neglectful, I know, but it’s true.

I’m not sure when I made this change, but I do remember seeing the tagline “For adventurous readers & writers” and something just sort clicking for me.  I needed to be a better reader.

So, here I am, trying to do that.  Over the course of time I read for this series I bookmarked several stories – probably twenty or so, all told – but eventually, and by requirement, pared that down to the five you’ll find here in my list.  I made no effort to vary things in any way.  I chose the stories and poems and essays (yes, there’s all three in this list) based solely on my own tastes.

That said, I hope you find some you’ll enjoy among these.  Okay, here goes, in no particular order: 

The Good Sounds of Squeamish Language by Peter Erich

The breakdown of language through phrases in this is miraculous.  It’s one of those stories I can see the writer just absolutely knowing he had a great idea on his hands and went with it.  And Peter pulled it off in spades.  My favorite: “’I perceive faces as religions.’ This is a phrase I say to tighten your shoulders.”  And it all comes to together to create a narrative full of heart and mind and craft.  Read this.  You won’t be sorry.

The Vanes of Foxes” by Natasha Whyte

This is another with some experimenting going on.  Like I said, these is my taste.  As with Erich’s story, Whyte does the same, but takes building a narrative from her listing a step further.  Whyte explains in her notes that this is a personal essay.  A personal essay built from footnotes about foxes, all of which are included at the end of the story.  Built from footnotes!  Excellence!  One of many favorite moments: “Your red mouth is a great cave laughing into the sky that is open and begs for your songs.”

Book of Mountains” by G.E. Simons

I’ve read several of Simons’s pieces on here, but this one is now my favorite.  Compact and economical, this poem makes every word work perfectly.  It hums along with language that just rolls, you know?  For example, this beginning: “Suddenly at desks in abattoirs/Where slicing the culture/Leaves answers between cuts of prime truth.”  On and on.  Two stanzas, with a final image that just kills it.

A Little Piece of Humanity” by Meghan K. Barnes

This immensely sad story covers a lot of ground quickly, but despite that, it is fueled with great courage that a reader cannot help but pick up on.  This one’s not about the language (it’s pretty straight forward with not many frills) or the structure (ditto) it’s about writing something that likely tore at the heart and took bravery that some of us will never know.  And, like with Simons’s piece, that last, stand-alone, italicized paragraph just melts the world.

The Syncopated Clock” by Peter Cherches

This, the third experimental piece in this list, is possibly the most bold.  It has, as of this writing, still only garnered a single “fav” and a mere two comments (one of which is mine, as is the single “fav”, and the other Cherches’s thank you in response).  From the author’s note: “I was attempting to use the slowly unfolding, repetitive techniques of minimalist composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass as a basis for prose.”  This was accomplished.  Task completed.  Bravo.  A taste of the way Cherches pulls you into this story?  Sure thing.  Here’s the first five sentences: “Morning now.  It is morning now.  Is morning now.  Now.  Morning.”  And it just gets better from there.

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Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collections The Same Terrible Storm and Where Alligators Sleep, both from Foxhead Books, as well as the forthcoming novella Brown Bottle, due out from Artistically Declined Press in the summer of 2015.  The founding editor of Revolution John, he does now and has always survived in Kentucky.

It was exciting and intense to go back to reading just about every piece offered here in the past couple of weeks. It once was part of my daily ritual and for years, I started off every dawn making rounds: email, newsfeed, Facebook, Fictionaut. And I was writing as well as reading, putting together well over a thousand flash fictions in both traditional and hypertext style in the past five years.

I overdosed. Flying too high on literature for too long. Fell back hard to the reality of work, meals, redecorating, gardening, and the keeping up with friends. It’s been a real treat to have done this stint for the Editor’s Eye because it made me spend time with something I love.

New people and old friends here at Fictionaut. Hard to narrow it down to just a few and yet there were certain works that just got me, just reached out and pulled me into a different world. After all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

My Selections for “go-back-and-reads”:

1.  Kevaughn Hunter’s “Laughing, Crying”

The opening paragraph says a lot. It hits the reader with the prejudice of fifty years ago and if we cringe at the words, that’s a good thing. Time seems to be the theme, from the changes (and some changes that for some people, didn’t take) in society to the changes of the generation between the protagonist and his father. You can change your name, you can change the words, but as the last line says, “Yes, so it goes.”  There’s much more to this story than what it seems, and that’s what I particularly like about it.

2.  Marc Lowe’s “(Yet) Another Mask”

The mask comes to each of us at different points in our lives. The nice guy who’s tired of getting stepped on. The bad dude that finds Jesus. The worker passed by over and over for promotions. The prostitute who realizes she never had a baby. And for a while, we make ourselves over, more than bleaching our hair blonde but sometimes that’s all it takes. A visual that we think will be sink into the skin, into the soul, change who we’re just not happy with. What we should have been–whether it’s our own disappointment in ourselves or what we think we see when others look at us. It’s life and sometimes, we don’t fit inside the change. I loved that this read almost like a fable, the style of mixing a fascinating story with a moral that hits close to home.

3.  Con Chapman’s “Probably For The Best”

Con is one of the most prolific writers at Fictionaut and I was glad to see him still producing at the same pace (though it did make me feel guilty!). This story appealed to me because I do like realism as well as the oddly creative magical realism and such. Human nature is one of the most interesting subjects, to me, and all you need is a character or two and a situation to see how many different ways it can go. Con is a master at getting it down clearly, as if he were witnessing the story unfold and retelling it to a friend later on. He has the conflict of someone’s relationship as the impetus that drives the narrator’s spiral of reactions. It’s interesting to watch it all happen.

4.  James Knight’s “The Bird King’s Employees”

Amazingly metaphorical with language that surprises and delights. Some of the references are true dark humor and yet fanciful and spot on.  I felt I was reading something from Voltaire, his odd characters and the story world being looked upon from the outside with a sardonic eye. Not an easy thing to do and James has done it well.  Most enjoyable read–and I’m not usually a liker of the structure used here, but that’s a personal preference and the form simply won me over.

5.  Mathew Paust’s “First Shot 56″

This story is part of a series but not having read most of the other sections I was still taken in by the easy way I was brought into the story. Focusing on this current event, the characters interact in such a revealing manner that that is what tells the story and that’s what Mathew does so well. He takes the scene, the conflict, and lets his characters reflect it to establish the environment and their own humanness. It’s easy reading because it’s real, with well-chosen dialogue and just the right amount of information distributed throughout to give us a clear image of the people we’re watching.

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Susan Gibb, recipient of the 8th and the 14th Glass Woman Prize, two Pushcart nominations and on the storySouth Million Writers Award long list of notable short stories 2010, writes one blog on literature analysis and another on hypermedia writing and reading. She is listed in the Electronic Literature Directory, the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, and her hypertext has been included in college syllabi and translated into other languages. Her fiction, poetry, and digital art have been published in many fine publications. 

 

We are pleased to welcome Sara Lippmann to Fictionaut’s Writers on Craft.  Sara is the recipient of a 2012 Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, PANK, The Potomac Review, Fourth Genre, Slice Magazine, and many other print and online publications.  Raised outside of Philadelphia, she lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn.

What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?

When I’m feeling down on my work – which is often – I don’t usually drop, stop, and read. I do have lots of papers taped on my wall, smart things smart writers have said, advice from Vonnegut to Keret to Elissa Schappell, but when the despair hits, all the affirmations in the world won’t alleviate it. It’s time to shift things up. Take a walk. Go for a run. Bake. Be utterly radical and shower! Whatever clears the mind. For me, this is not the time to pick up a brilliant novel effortlessly written by a wildly successful author. That would only feed the voices already calling me an idiot, demanding Who do you think you are? This is the time for me to get out of my headspace. I’m my own worst block.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

Julie Regan, a professor of mine in college, cribbed from Miles Davis and told us to look for/make sure we could answer the question of “So what?” It may sound flip, but I’ve found it indispensable as editing advice. Can your story hold up to the Four Questions of the Seder table: Why this night as opposed to all others? Why this story? This moment? These characters? Meg Wolitzer talks about the imperative, which is another way of putting it. Locate the imperative; chase it down. Stay with that critical pulse. That’s what will lend your work urgency; that’s what’s yours alone; that’s what will make it ring true.  

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

When my kids were little, it was hard for me to give myself permission to write. To carve out any time at all. Diapers, potty-training – every waking moment seemed spoken for. What did I think I was doing? But no one is going to give you the time unless you take it. A few minutes a day. And no, it doesn’t happen every day. But even on non-writing days I try to engage the senses, and stay open in case something comes. Justify it all as the space around the actual work. Book or no book, I still can’t call myself a writer without feeling absurd. But the truth is, other than a handful of stints spent teaching, editing, breast-feeding, I have no other skill set. (If only I’d majored in something else!) Although I can sleep. Even on the nights I stay up late working, I’m out the second I shut the light. If I may boast, I’m an expert sleeper.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

Who said anything about purpose?

If you read something and it resonates and you enjoy it or laugh and are moved to share it with another and maybe feel a little less alone in the world, then that’s something, however fleeting it may be, that’s all I could hope for.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

I think George Saunders’ commencement speech on kindness pretty much covers it.

It seems that an awakening sense of self is a feature that many of your short stories exhibit and that you enjoy working with young narrators and or sexual coming of age stories.  Has this always been a fascination for you?  How do you think your use of sexuality informs your narrative themes?

I was probably in 7th grade, life science, when my teacher divided all living things in the world by their reproductive style: sexual or asexual. Because I was a preteen the classification came with an outburst of classroom laughter. There it was, laid out for us: Sex as a fundamental defining aspect of animal behavior. Each one of us was a sexual being – by nature. We were not jellyfish.

Thank god for that.

So, yes. It’s that straightforward. Sex/sexuality as a driving force of human motivation. Sex not just as procreation but pleasure, power, politics, want/need, consumerism, escapism, selfishness and selflessness, an act of love, an attempt at connection, something to withhold, a desperate grasping in the dark, a hollow transaction, that which can both fulfill and leave us even lonelier.

Like many writers, it pervades my writing. But what I’m drawn to most is the push/pull of desire, the magnetic forces at work, mysteries and rules of attraction and how they are subverted – than the actual play by play. The sex act in and of itself – like eating and shitting – like any basic function, is not that interesting. Everyone does it. What is interesting to me is what sex – like chewing an apple – reveals about character. How a character’s sexual impulse or restraint in a given moment services the story, how it affects the person, brings the narrative to life. A character may get naked in his/her body but still remain cloaked/clothed, and then what – what light does it shed? Where is the fall-out? How does it brush against cultural norms and societal expectations?

My “sexiest” stories are less about sex and more about the tension and ache around it, the energy between people. What transpires in a gesture. The physical exchange often takes place in the margins, off page, if at all. Although I won’t shy away from writing a sex act when I think it is warranted, I have little patience for coyness, for the stilted artificiality of the veil as erotic code, the candle-lit packages fed to us in movies, dripping with sincerity, all the overreaching and overwriting. Sex is not precious nor should it be treated as such. Even if the characters themselves are being dishonest in the moment, it’s the writer’s job to keep the action honest. You can usually tell when sex scenes have been tacked on and have not risen from a novel organically – when they are there to provoke or to sate the marketplace and not because the narrative demands it – because you feel all sorts of ick reading them. The bad kind of dirty.

And that’s a rant.

So many of the stories in Doll Palace have what I would call the “quiet disintegrations” at their hearts and a strong sense of place.  How do you think setting works to connect to readers to a narrative?

Heather, I love that phrase “quiet disintegration.” The characters may be falling apart inside, but you are right, they aren’t being loud and dramatic about it. They are trying to hold it together even as their façades are crumbling. A lot of the settings reflect that sense of decay: Atlantic City in winter, a Jewish tchotchke shop on the outskirts of town, a decrepit prewar apartment building.

What’s recently released or in the pipeline for your readers? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.

I’m working on a novel set in Sullivan County, NY. It takes place over the course of a summer. Lots of pent up sexual energy. I have a ways to go and it feels overwhelming. Denial runs deep. So I’m doing this interview. Tying up a few freelance pieces and reviews. And I’m making soup. Last week’s was butternut squash. I’m currently boiling a chicken in a pot – like a nice Jewish girl.

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Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowlerwrites.com.