Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bruce Springsteen on Flannery O'Connor (it's her birthday), "“The short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.” (The link:…/5-flannery-oconnor-quotes-to-live-b…)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Katherine Center

What a pleasure to announce Katherine Center's new novel HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS -- now out in the world!

If you haven't heard of it yet, here's something to draw you in: "Such a charming, heartfelt novel about a woman who needs to escape from her life in order to rebuild it. I read it all in one delicious gulp." -- Sarah Pekkanen, author of The Opposite of Me 

Katherine is here today for a quick Q and A -- and generously offering some brilliant writing advice.  

Here we go: 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Oh, so many obsessions all the time!  I just churn through them, getting seized by one topic after another: Old houses, swing music, typography, paper flowers, sign painting, the entire state of Maine, line dancing, whales, embroidery…  On and on.  

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.
Write the story you want to read.  Not the story you think your smart friend wants to read.  Or the story you think will impress your writing group.  Or the story you think will be a bestseller.  Write the story that your own inner reader would love more than anything to curl up with for an afternoon.  There are infinite stories you could write.  The real question is, which one is yours?

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
I love to write.  I love most things about the writing life, actually, though different parts have their upsides and downsides.  But there's no downside to the actual writing.  For me, that's always blissful.  I love the early first-drafting, when I get a rush of endorphins like I've just fallen in love--and I also love the editing and re-working.  The only time writing is hard for me is when I have a deadline that I'm stressed about meeting--which does happen sometimes.  I am a mom, after all, and when my kids are sick or it's somebody's birthday it can be hard for me to focus on writing.  Like, if people need me in the real world, it can be hard to give myself permission to go to an imaginary one. 

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
No.  And yes.  Depending on the month.  I am not organized or disciplined or habitual.  I write when I'm in a frenzy because an idea has caught fire in my head.  Some weeks, I don't write at all and it feels like I might never do it again.  Then, inevitably, a spark of a story turns into a flame and everything else is an interruption.  Mostly, I write all day when my kids are at school, and that's a pretty good balance.  But when I'm caught up in a story, the school day isn't nearly enough time. It's hard for me to stop and start.  I go on writing retreats a couple of times a year when I can just be very quiet and listen to the narrator's voice in my head.  I can get more done in five days that way than in five regular weeks.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?
I like to teach writing from time to time because it helps me refine what I think.  I like to read books about writing, too, for that same reason.  I don't have a writing group or anything, so reading about how it works--and why--helps remind me of different aspects of the process.  It's so complicated!  So many different things have to be working well on so many different levels for a story to really work.  You're never done. You're never like, "Now I know everything about writing."  I'm constantly trying to figure out how to do a better job.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)
This new book, Happiness for Beginners, was the easiest project of my life--hands down. It wrote itself.  It really did: I was just taking dictation.  I think maybe I just had the right characters in the right situation--and the premise of the story was the fuel that carried it through.  I was curious to see what would happen--and how it was going to happen. I was pulled along the way you are when you read a good novel. Like reading a page-turner, only writing one.  Flip-side, the hardest project was my next book (the one I've just turned in that will come out next year).  I was still so in love with Happiness when I started it, it was hard for me to shift gears.  I can write and revise all day and all night, but a story is never going to really knock anybody's socks off until the characters magically come to life and light the thing from the inside.  It took a while for me to find the magic on my last one--but I did finally find it.  It's always a little scary though, because I don't know how to force it.  All I can do is keep writing and hope the magic happens.

KATHERINE CENTER's newest novel is Happiness For Beginners. She's the author of four other novels about love and family including The Bright Side of Disaster and The Lost Husband. Her writing has appeared in RedbookPeopleUSA TodayVanity FairThe Atlantic, and Real Simple.  A graduate of Vassar College and the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, Katherine lives in Houston with her husband and two sweet children.

Visit her website at

Sunday, March 15, 2015

stubborn memory. the feeling before the story finds the page.

I'm eleven or so. It's fall.  I'm growing up in a sweet little college town -- Newark, Delaware -- on a dead end, literally. I'm alone in my front yard with absolutely nothing to do. No one else is out. A convertible appears at the top of our street, top down though it's a little cold for it. A young man is driving, wearing a sports coat, maybe a loose tie. It's a fast car, blaring California Dreaming, and he's driving way too fast especially as he's heading toward a dead end. He passes by and I kind of follow a few steps to see if he'll wreck. He cuts the wheel, the car swings around, and heads out as fast as before, kicking up leaves. The music fades and I'm alone again, feeling like I saw something that may or may not have happened -- no other witnesses. The strange thing is that I think of this moment often -- maybe three or four times a year. I'm sure the car wasn't his. I'm sure he was pissed off. I'm sure he really didn't have anywhere to go except just out of wherever he was. And maybe that's it -- he expressed some trapped restlessness, maybe even a creative restlessness, the feeling of a story that you don't understand and haven't yet started to tell.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

My Fellow Americans, A Rant (& suggestion that some of you stop talking)

When someone says they want to be an actor, an artist, a writer, someone in the film industry, for example, people assume that they're saying they want to be Bradley Cooper, JK Rowling, Warhol, or Spielberg. They assume that the person is being delusional and uppity. 

When someone says they want to be an accountant, people can't name a famous celebrity accountant and so they never assume the person is delusional or uppity. (In point of fact, if I said I wanted to be an accountant, I would be completely delusional -- I'm horrible with numbers.) 

Despite the fact that the listeners likely have no idea how these arts operate, despite the fact that there are many middle class actors, artists, writers, and film industry folks and despite the fact that most often they're listening to someone who isn't interested in the celebrity of art but has -- in some very personal and intimate way -- fallen in love with a craft, with doing and making, and that most people realize that they're actually making sacrifices for this art they love and are painfully aware that a life in the arts comes at a great sacrifice and risk and the complete opposite of celebrity -- how could they not with the way we beat each other with the stick of the starving artist? -- REGARDLESS of ALL of this, the listener takes it upon themselves to beat down this person who has confessed their aspiration, to tell this person that they'll never make it. As a culture, we supposedly encourage greatness -- at least in theory. In practice, we don't. Sometimes that beating comes in through the door of "I'm being nurturing" sometimes through the door of "I'm just joking." 

Sadly, sometimes the artists set themselves up for it -- by engaging with people they know they should be wary of, by preempting with a joke themselves (I've done this many times), by allowing the person to get away with it so they feel empowered to go merrily along and do it to others -- completely and astonishingly blind to the fact that they're walking down hallways lined with paintings, passing a public sculpture, their earbuds tuned to the music they love, hopping into the car that they fell in love because of ads written by writers in scenes created by filmmakers, on their way home to binge-watch a TV show that was worked on by set-designers, costume designers, casting directors, special and visual effects, cast and crew, based on a novel, while sitting in a chair designed by someone who studied industrial design in an art school while wearing clothes designed by people who studied fashion and printmaking, inside of their homes filled with things bought in beautifully laid-out magazines created by designers,

Here is what I have to say to my fellow Americans, if you don't know what you're talking about, stop talking about it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Lauren Haldeman

A half-dozen with Lauren Haldeman who talks poetry, the creative process  (post-kid), and the role of research while also redefining "love story" and offering some health tips! Her debut collection of poems, CALENDAY, is now available.  

Here goes:

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

There were so many different moments that inspired each poem, but there were actually two books, not moments, which helped shape the whole collection of Calenday.

I had been reading and re-reading Ko Un's Ten Thousand Lives for a few years -- I loved the way he created a very personal collection of poems, so intimate and precise, about every person he could remember in his life. His style -- short, narrative, often light-hearted -- really helped to inspire me to start (and continue) writing during the first year of my daughter’s birth. It was a very forgiving style that, when emulated, allowed me the room to write each day, even if it was just for five minutes. And five minutes was (really) all I had each day, in that first year. The fact that Ko Un's poems were so short, but so extensive as the same time, made me feel more at ease. It took off some of the pressure of the whole "I’M WRITING POETRY" aspect of it, so that, in the end, I felt I was just cataloging time, marking little sections of our life in the books. When the poems did arise out of the writing, I didn't need to edit them much -- I used a very light touch when shaping them. Ko Un was a huge influence for that. 

I was also reading Anne Lamott during the first year of my daughter's life, especially her book Operating Instructions. That book REALLY helped me. Her honesty and humor about the many overwhelming aspects of having a baby relieved so much of the pressure, strain and worry from my own experience. You know, there were all these other books and people and commercials around me saying "HAVING A BABY IS THE GREATEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE! BABIES ARE LOVELY SWEET ANGELS THAT WILL FILL YOUR LIFE WITH JOY AND WONDER!" But I did not feel that way, most of the time. I was on the opposite end of the spectrum -- I was just so scared, sad, anxious, alone -- and I was totally panicking because, seriously, what is wrong with me that I was not enjoying this beautiful thing that everyone else said I should be enjoying? But then I found Anne Lamott, and she was saying, basically, "No. This is not all flower petals and soft sleeping puppy faces. This is crazy! This kid won't sleep. This kid won't eat. I am going nuts...." She pulled me out of the abyss. I owe a lot of my own realizations and writing in Calenday to her work. 

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

My first draft usually happens with the same spirit as, say, doing the dishes – I don’t like doing it, I know it has to get done, so I just do it.  There is this stubborn “work” attitude to it. Push up your sleeves, do the work, and finish.

My real joy comes from editing. I take all of the writing from the first drafts and then I edit – this is where I can get into “flow”, where I can play. I love this part. 

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Oh wow – well, let’s see, I actually chose a non-“writer” as my partner. Ben does write, but he doesn’t do it for a living. He is very different than me, in many ways, but we actually work pretty well together as a family unit. And after having our daughter, it began to occur to me that sometimes a marriage feels like a business partnership – there are just so many mundane everyday items to take care of, especially with a child – and the partnership needs to function in a productive way in order to weather that pressure and grind. Ben and I are pretty good at that aspect. He is much more organized than me (he was an Eagle Scout, as he will continually tell you) and he has a very strong basic sense of work, as in, “This needs to be done, so I will do it.” Me? Not so much. I’ve actually learned A LOT from him that has been applied to my creative process; like I mentioned above, I am better now at “just doing” the work that need to be done, whether it is in my art and writing, or just around the house. (Also – as an aside, unrelated – there was an app that completely helped me in this regard too, called HabitRPG. It isn’t for everyone, but for people who work well on a task/reward system it is INCREDIBLE.)

So, yes, Ben and I manage the “family business” well together, and right now, with a four year old in the house, that is the most important thing for us. Our relationship started off in the sort of usual passionate, romantic way, like most relationships, but now, on good days, it has settled into a well-oiled machine that makes the rest of our life and creative work so much easier. On bad days, there is a lot of anger and frustration, of course. On bad days, his every move will annoy me (sorry Ben!) But I’ve noticed we go through cycles with this, and there are more good days than bad ones.

Also, his last name is “Fortune” -- what writer, what lover of words, could pass that up?

(Re-reading this answer over, I realize that the way I describe our relationship sounds a little boring: “business partnership”, “well-oiled machine”, etc. But man, with a kid and a house and two jobs, this way of being makes me redefine what I thought of as a “love story”.)
Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I am working on a new book that, in part, has to do with the First Battle of Bull Run, the battle which officially marked the start of the Civil War. I grew up outside of Washington DC, and so was inundated at a young age with Civil War history – we had class trips to the battlefields, I played many soccer games in the recreation area of Bull Run National Park – it was everywhere.

This fall, I went back to Bull Run to do research for the new work-in-progress. I hadn’t been there in decades. When I first arrived, I went into the museum, thinking that would be most beneficial. But it wasn’t until I actually went out and walked the fields that I starting gathering all this real material, all this ethereal emotional material. That walk was surprisingly intense. It was a grey cold day, and I was pretty much alone out there. You can see the mountains in the distance -- the place is beautiful -- and yet there was all this death, all this conflict, just…hovering.  It was a much different experience being there as an adult than as a child, you know; I just understand more now – about the war, about hardship, about fear, but also about the history of slavery, about emancipation, about those still continuing struggles of race in America. And I felt so sad, out there in the field. It was haunting. And it really wasn’t that long ago that these battles occurred. These battles, in so many ways, are still being fought.
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I am reading Amy Lawless’s My Dead right now, and it is so good! Also, Andy Stallings’s To the Heart of the World and Bridgette Bates’ What Is Not Missing Is Light – excellent books, in totally different ways. I like reading many books at the same time, and I try to pick ones that have very differing styles or forms. It creates a great mix in my brain.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

This is non-literary and possibly boring, but I am obsessed with Chicory right now, as a replacement for coffee.

About a month ago, my eyelids started twitching at work. I ignored it at first, but then they just KEPT TWITCHING. And I thought, in the deep whispering truth part of my brain, "This is because of coffee." Like any addict, I didn't want to believe it, so I blamed it on dry-eye, stress, my computer screen, allergies. It may have had a little bit to do with those other things, but I slowly, painfully, realized that yes, indeed, the coffee was making my eyes twitch. Heartbreak! After asking around and trying things out, I found chicory. It is good! It tastes like coffee, and you brew it like coffee, but it doesn’t have any caffeine. I brew mine in a pour-over drip for single cup, with some dandelion root mixed in, which oddly makes it sweeter and better. I add milk to it too. And both chicory and dandelion root have all these health benefits: detoxing, liver cleaning, and antioxidants. Chicory also contains inulin, which is a prebiotic (food for probiotics). So it seems perfect! And hey, if you ever want to know more about vague health stuff – probiotics, prebiotics, minerals and vitamins, brain chemistry, adrenal systems – just ask me. I will talk non-stop about it. I dork out on these things.

Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collection Calenday (Rescue Press), 
works as the web developer, web designer and editor for the Writing University website at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Review. She received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Also, she's a mom and makes paintings. 
You can find her here:

Monday, February 16, 2015

On the Passing of Philip Levine.

Philip Levine (Jan. 10, 1928 - Feb. 14, 2015). I wrote him this fall to thank him for a correspondence over a decade ago. In that first response, he'd talked about his own struggles with writing -- it was astonishing to me at the time, the idea that language and poetry could still be elusive to someone who'd mastered the form; he remains one of my favorite poets, and I've found him as instructive to me as a poet as I have as a fiction writer. (I'm looking for that first letter now.)

This is the beautifully charged response he wrote a few months ago at 86.

Dear Julianna,
How good of you to write all these years later. I love knowing I was of use to another writer. You’re right – it doesn’t get easier except when it does. That’s what probably keeps us going – the strange, mysterious glory of getting it right.
You’re searching for it just as I still am. We are such stubborn maniacs.
I hope you find it again soon – you will. May it be soon.
Thanks, Phil

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wishing You an Urgent Valentine's Day

The most memorable dinner party I've been to was hosted by a couple in this little town in Provence. Just one other couple was invited to the dinner, and the man in that couple knew that he didn't have long to live. He was intense and pointed, and he kind of tore into me -- as an artist -- urging me to write what was important, essential. I told him that I'd done a lot of my heart work, one novel and my first collection of poems in particular. But he kept at me -- what I was saying wasn't good enough, didn't appease him. (I was there working on what would become The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted.) Finally, his wife told him to leave me alone, and he leaned back in his chair, relenting. I was relieved, but he's never really left me. The heart work of writing and the heart work of loving each other goes on and on. Love each other. It's all fleeting. I wish you all an Urgent Valentine's Day.