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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.”

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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.

Yesterday was an awful day, a punch to the gut sort of day. And today has also been kind of sucky. I had a lunch meeting with an artist I want to work with on a graphic novel. I tried to start my car and the battery was dead. I managed to jump it in time, and began to back out of my garage, when I noticed that one of my relatively new tires is flat. I had to text the artist and ask him to pick me up. (And it turns out that he’s got a new full-time job and is not sure he’ll have the time to take on my project.)

So now I’m lying on my couch, wondering if it’s too early for me to have a glass of wine (it is). I have the movie Mystery Men on in the background. I love this movie, but it’s not managing to cheer me up. Oh screw it, I’m getting the wine. Be right back.

I’ve actively sought out quirky, funny sorts of posts from Fictionaut because that’s what I need right now. And I hope they’ll provide a bit of an escape for both of us.

Sapiosexual by Diana Kerik

I love how Kerik has picked an enticing word and run with it, giving us a story. I could read a bunch of these at once, someone ought to write a collection of flash pieces based on provocative words. And since I’m a big time sapiosexual, and potentially also a sapiosexual by proxy at the same time, oh whatever.  It’s fun, read it.

RAINMAKER! by Adam Sifre

Sifre’s piece is similar to Sapiosexual in that he pondered a word, “rainmaker” and a story sprang forth. It can also go in the collection of one-word-spawned flash stories. And it’s quirky, and sad. I like that.

Truth by Steven Gowin

When I was choosing these, I didn’t notice how most of them could fit in to WORD: A collection of flash pieces, each inspired by a single word. (You like that name for the collection, WORD? I’m not sure.) Gowin’s clever piece might be a poem, I’m not sure. It’s not exactly a story, or is it? Anyway, I hope it’s a lie.

Question by David James

Sad, and yet strangely funny, at least to me. And I want to know more about the woman, and the man, and what’s behind her being able to ask such a question at such a time. I mean wow. (This wine is really nice, too. I’m feeling better.)

Be Careful What You Wish For by Jerry Ratch

I like this piece because I am a techie geeky sort of person. And  if I had a 3-D printer, you better believe I’d print a dog, because I love dogs. (I’m not a big fan of the title, but maybe if he renamed it Bitch it could go in WORD.)

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Lynn Beighley is the author of dozens of tech books and even more articles. She’s gotten lots of her short stories publishes in lots of places. She’s currently working on a YA novel that she hopes will encourage teens to try a bit of computer programming. She got an MFA a few years back. She’s on twitter as @lynnbeighley and her Amazon author page is here.

I haven’t been hanging out at Fictionaut lately as I’m mired in the fall semester at UTSA (they’re making me read Beowulf and maps…I’m in agony) but I told Michelle months ago that I’d do this Editor’s Eye thing so here we are. I’ve never exactly prided myself on my editorial style. My comments on pieces I appreciate range from “love this so much!” to “this really fucking resonates with me.” The strange thing is, after leaving the ex-boyfriend for good (we were on and off for a year and a half) last Mother’s Day I discovered that I can editorialize for days. Joining various dating sites and posting ads at Craig’s List will have that effect on a woman. My mad flurry of weird dates and weirder flings with strange San Antonio men taught me at least one thing and I think it’s valuable: I know exactly what I do and do not like and I can tell you why in excruciating detail.

Plantar Fasciitis by Carl Santoro
I love the clever pop culture savvy banter. I especially love this bit: “I’m on a pot fast also. Just want to see if the every day vanilla version of me has what it takes. Sadly, I do miss the psychedelic crutch though.” I could hang out in Applebee’s with these characters. I avoid Applebee’s but if these characters were hanging out in Applebee’s I’d go in there and buy them at least one round. What the hell does that tell you? Best of all, the couple dances at the end. Couples don’t dance anymore. I hate that.

Out of Stardust by J. Lin
I was drawn in immediately by the promise of heartache and poignancy. The first sentence clued me in on impending disappointment. Things were going to go badly for the characters but the protagonist seemed to possess enough style and savvy to rise above the shitty circumstances. I would suggest a few minor tweaks but when the prose is this rich and the characters are this real I much prefer a piece like this to a finely polished piece that reads hollow and false.

Living Alone by Dallas Woodburn
This is so weird. I love it. It reminds me of my ex-boyfriend. I was living with him. He was not living alone. But he was so used to living alone that he would scratch his back against the wall. He told me about one time when he lived alone and was so sick with the flu he had to crawl into the kitchen and make himself a bowl of soup. That always stuck with me. I adore the details in this story, the Skittles and Cheese-Whiz (Google tells me it’s Cheez Whiz) and…Applebee’s. Holy fuck. Is the universe trying to tell me something?! I cannot explain why but this story reminds me of Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, a favorite of mine.

Gregory Dates a Witch by Steven Miller
This is ridiculous. I like ridiculous. Reminds me of a guy I dated/fucked last month. He told me about a time in Mexico when he fucked this woman on a beach and for some inexplicable reason there was a caged alligator near the woman’s head. The alligator opened its mouth and the woman died of a heart attack. I thought, “Gee. I want this man. He has lived such a colorful life.” I told my ex-husband about the story and he said, “Come on, Misti. You’re too old to date jokers like that.” I have a tendency to fall in love with jokes, jokers and stories that are absolutely balls to the wall absurd.

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Misti Rainwater-Lites is the author of Bullshit Rodeo and other works of fiction. Misti maintains a blog called Chupacabra Disco. She is forty-one years old and still wears glitter and striped tights on occasion.

 

We are pleased to welcome David Ebenbach to Fictionaut’s Writers on Craft.  David’s poetry, fiction, and essays have been published in a wide variety of magazines, and in collections of fiction (Between Camelots, and Into the Wilderness), poetry (Autogeography), and essays (The Artist’s Torah). David has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.

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 really struggling in my writing, I get a little cautious about my reading. There’s inspiration to be found in the great work of others, but maybe not when I’m despairing, when I’m clawing and gasping my way up toward the mountaintop. At a moment like that, I don’t necessarily want to look up and see someone else way above me. I don’t want to see someone who’s already at the very summit, apparently not even breathing hard, not a drop of sweat on her or his brow. I’ll tell you this, though—there was one time that I was having terrible writer’s block and I solved it by going to a bookstore and picking up a really terrible-looking, remaindered book. (I won’t name the book.) And it was terrible, and it really helped. I thought, I can do better than that. I got back to climbing. 

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

You have to care more about the well-being of the piece than about your own comfort level, your own mood, your pride, your original goals for the work. If you care more about your own mental state than about the piece, you’ll let things stay bad just so you don’t upset yourself. You’ll let things fail because revision puts you in a lousy mood. If, on the other hand, you care more about the well-being of the piece than about anything else, you’ll do whatever it takes—add enormously, cut savagely, change wildly—to make the piece great. 

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

I guess the big thing is that it’s gone from being only a passion to being a passion and a profession. Partly that’s about making professional things—sending work out to magazines, doing readings, etc.—a regular part of my life, and partly it’s about a mental shift: When I was starting out I was hoping to be a writer (even though I already was, because I was writing, just as everyone is, if they’re writing)—but now I just am a writer, and I give it the space, respect, and time it deserves. 

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

Fostering empathy. Without a doubt: the purpose of literature is to foster empathy.

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

Well, it probably sounds trite, and George Saunders already said it better than I will, but it may be worth saying again: Be kind. Be kind. Give people the benefit of the doubt, try to understand where they’re coming from—writing can help with that—and be kind. Also enjoy the occasional piece of cheesecake, which is kindness in dairy form. 

I really like how you approach various sensitive issues with your work, from the mental illness story “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy” recently in Agni, to several stories found in your recent collection Into the Wilderness.  You take risks I applaud on many subjects, even engaging with presenting a female breastfeeding narrator in that collection’s title story “Judith I: Into the Wilderness.”

Your approaches to the female psyche feel particularly sensitive and apt.   What do you think about when you are writing women?  Is doing so ever challenging to you and how?  I say this as a female author who really likes when male writers approach the opposite sex with sensitivity and nuance.

Thanks for saying all this. I believe it’s important to take on sensitive things. I usually like my writing best when I’m writing about things that people experience but are afraid to talk about. When I do that, I feel like I’m helping those experiences find their place in the light. That’s where human experience belongs, I think: in the light.

And then there are all the female narrators. The funny thing about that is I didn’t even realize how often I was focusing on female protagonists in Into the Wilderness until interviewers and reviewers started pointing it out to me, which was after the book came out. But I suppose, in a short story collection all about parenthood, it makes sense for me; my parents got divorced when I was young and I spent most of my growing-up years in a mother-run household, and my only sibling was my older sister. So I grew up with women. And of course now I’m married to a woman, which means I had another close-up view of motherhood when we had our first child. Fatherhood, too, obviously, looking at myself—but there’s something even more primal about motherhood, I think. Something culturally powerful. It’s not “Dad and apple pie,” after all. So I basically gravitated toward it without trying.

My hope is that if I pay close enough attention to the people around me, I’ll find my way into characters who aren’t entirely like me. Like I said, it’s about empathy—and not just for the reader but certainly for the writer, too.

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

In terms of individual pieces of work, the Hayden’s Ferry Review recently posted my poem “What My Father-in-Law Says” online, and, as you said, AGNI posted my story “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy.” As far as books, my poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved is coming out in Spring 2015 (with Tebot Bach as the publisher), and I’m looking for a home for my new story collection, Missionaries, while revising a novel called Miss Portland. The novel is about a woman who tries to restart her life by moving to Portland, Maine, but things go screwy pretty fast. She’s a resourceful one, though, and I have hopes she’ll come through okay.

Thanks for these great questions!

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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.

 

 

When I first joined Fictionaut, I was beginning to find out who I am as a writer and what I want to accomplish with my work. From my initial posts—poems on classical music and, oddly enough, eating disorders, to some of my later fiction—I notice a kind of confidence that I don’t think I would’ve achieved without the feedback and support of the people who comment here regularly.

As the editor of Fictionaut, I found it difficult to pick my favorites, for the sheer reason that every piece inevitably does something to capture my attention, whether it’s the perspective of the narrator or the clever language play. To narrow my list of choices, I thought back to the rules I learned in my first creative writing class, since those are the ones that resonate with me most:

  1. Write in a way that feels raw and honest.
  2.  Use language that everyone can understand.

(Or , as my teacher used to say it, “Don’t mix words.”)

By the end of the two weeks, I found six pieces that deserve multiple reads.

“Corners” by Fm Le

Fm Le’s gritty, visceral style can be easily confused with any number of female, confessional  poets from the 20th century. Where Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton created a foundation for anyone who writes from a place that feels intimate and personal, Fm Le’s work elevates the emotional intensity, leaving the reader with a feeling along the lines of a gut-punch.

“Slipstream” by Aline Carriere

A story about the terror that relationships can leave behind, Carriere’s narrator grabs the reader  by the collar from the first sentence and does not let go.

“Cuccoon”– Kait Mauro

The title of this poem, which works both as a plea for security on the part of the narrator, as well as an acknowledgment of the kind of solitary confinement of being in prison, is something of a constant theme in Kait Mauro’s work. What makes this narrator’s plight expand beyond that fear of ‘alone-ness’ is her vulnerability, and, in the narrator’s “hoping not to be strip-searched”, a commentary on the politics of the body.

“Hands” by Phillip F. Clark

It is hard not to read (and enjoy) Philip F. Clark’s poetry for its eroticism ; however, this particular scene, between a father and son, does not sexualize the body as much as it celebrates touch  as a source for human connection. As I read this, I pictured the author’s burning hands reaching mine, everything between us catching fire.

“Sleeping on Route 110” by Carl Santoro

Carl Santoro’s narrator wastes no time or words as he describes his account of a car accident, and the result is haunting. This is how poetry should be done.

“Same Grape, Different Name” by Peter Erich

I could make countless arguments as to why this piece deserves to be read, but I think the writer sums it up best: “If you asked me, am I caged and on display? I would say, yes, at some point, yes, we all are.”

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Amanda Harris is a writer, college student and gym rat living in New York. You can find her poetry and fiction in Camroc Press Review, Black-Listed Magazine, madswirl, Postcard Shorts and other fine places. When she isn’t working on her own stuff, she’s either lifting weights or editing her own magazine, The Miscreant.