Thursday, April 28, 2016

new essay on the body (well, my body, in particular)

The essay about my body (which isn't getting any younger) that I wrote for Real Simple is now online. It starts with my daughter, a sculptor, asking me to pose for her work. Her theme? Deterioration of the body. (Thanks for thinking of me?) 

Warning. It gets graphic -- like I refer to my breasts as my sad Walter Matthau eyes; they’re that soulful-looking these days.

I've gotten such stunning emails and letters about it from women of many different ages, which really surprised me. 

Here's the link. (Note: There's an editorial gaff -- a small paragraph near the end interrupts the piece and then is repeated later. Sorry about that. Out of my hands.)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

cover reveal!

The cover of my upcoming novel THE INFINITY OF YOU & ME at last! J.Q. Coyle is my joint pen-name with the ever-brilliant Quinn Dalton. The novel -- it's technically YA -- comes out with St. Martin's this fall. Writing it was one wild ride -- alternate parallel universes, Sylvia Plath, infinite forests ... 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Open Letter to Governor Pat McCrory

Dear Governor Pat McCrory,

My family's roots are in North Carolina. My grandfather once owned the 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh. My family goes back many generations in the state. I went to graduate school at UNC-Greensboro in large part to recapture that sense of home. I met my husband there. He proposed to me on the North Carolina coast. We now have four children. When I was a child, my father picked me up and ran me along the shore of Kitty Hawk the length of the Wright Brothers' first flight, my arms outstretched. I was looking forward to reliving that moment with our youngest this summer.

We won't be coming to North Carolina.

You just signed into law sweeping discriminatory legislation. Until all are welcome and treated with respect in North Carolina, we won't be visiting. We're not interested in teaching our children hate. We're not interested in handing over our vacation dollars to a state that encourages hate. We're not going to spend time in a state that has stripped Americans of their basic rights, a state that seems to have no basic concept of the gifts of the LGBT community, no understanding of the basic struggles facing the community, in particular the vulnerable youth. You are actively creating a hostile environment for your own people. Do you know that the suicide attempt rate for the transgender community is 46%? Do you know how at-risk these teens are -- even without hateful legislation that strips them of their basic civil liberties? Shame on you for signing this bill without meeting the families in your state who need protection and listening to their stories.

Perhaps you once visited the lunch counter in Greensboro, home to an historic moment in civil rights history? Do you realize that you just made it legal to deny gays, lesbians, and transgender people a seat at lunch counters across your state? You did that. In one fell swoop, you reversed all of that progress.

You've taken a state that is beloved in this household and you've turned it into a place of hatred, discrimination, and bigotry.

We might be just one family -- and you should know that we're Christians. We're protesting. We're boycotting. Count us out.

Julianna Baggott

on craft

Late at night, I read in bed and write notes about my current project in the front and back pages. I wake up in the morning curious what I worked out, usually thankful. My night mind functions differently than my day mind and, in this way, before falling asleep, one can talk to the other.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

1/2 Dozen for David Blair

David Blair's latest book of poems, FRIENDS WITH DOGS, has recently hit the shelves. Julia Story likens the collection to "a long fast-paced walk with your weirdest, smartest friend." It's a delight to have that weird, smart friend here to answer some questions about his obsessions, the silence of poetry, being a writer of place, and much more. 

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?

I write one poem at a time rather than book-length projects—which are not really to my taste—so I don't really have a sense of the entire book coming to me all at once, but the themes emerge as I discard and revise poems. When I finished my first book, Ascension Days in 2007, I started thinking about my next book, and I started fooling around with some different sorts of formal approaches, making my poems less dense than they were in the first book, and also experimenting with poems that were partially written in lines and partially written in prose. The title sequence poems of Friends with Dogs are the result of this stylistic development. How did I get to Friends with Dogs? Actually, Friends with Dogs is my third book. I finished another manuscript around 2013, and that book, Arsonville, will be coming out in September of 2016 with New Issues Poetry & Prose.  My first book is mainly poems I wrote when I was first living with my wife Sabrina. Arsonville contains poems that I wrote when my daughter was a toddler and then around the time both my mother and my father-in-law died. They are basically the first and second Obama administrations reversed. Friends with Dogs contains a lot of poems that I wrote about and for my friends. Friends, love, and art are realistic consolations for the pains of life, and I write to show how and to find out how much. The poems that I still liked between 2007 and 2012 ended up as Arsonville. The ones I still liked from between 2012 or so and last summer ended up as Friends with Dogs.

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 writing poetry and the feeling of heightened consciousness of music and being near the ocean and traveling around the city and other places either by foot or car, all of which are more or less akin to my experience when I am writing. I recently started writing essays, and prose is just like playing, but playing for too long. It drives me crazy.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I was kind of fat and hedonistic, loved sports, was clumsy at them, and very injury prone, and then got thin as a rail in high school. Spending a lot of times on crutches probably made me more bookish than I might have been. I got to avoid a lot of gym. I was obsessed with old movies and plays, so that when I discovered poetry later on—the writing that moves most by images—I was hooked. I'm the youngest of five kids, and everybody in my family takes a lot of personal space to themselves, so that mixture of sociability and the sort of humor that creates and weird subjectivity shapes me and made me ripe for poetry as well. Lots of sharp talk with my brother and sisters, cracking up, imitating people, making cartoons of people, and stuff like that. I think I am shaped in my world view by my experience of the various class and religious and racial experiences of growing up in Pittsburgh and things like that, moving into and out of various situations, different vernaculars.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I love to work with people, and I like a job where I don't spend all of my time nailed to a desk. I like being able to work on my own, and I love the material. It's like getting paid to play. For most of my teaching career, I've taught at a school with a lot of fundamentally bright and creative students who have gotten a raw deal from the sort of class system that gets imposed on American students and bores them with pablum, and since I had the experience of being thought of as both a very bad student and as a very gifted student, I know that all students basically need to come into contact with all the strangeness and realness that poetry and fiction have to offer.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I am not precious with myself about poems in progress, and I am mostly thick-skinned about rejection. My first book got only two reviews—and the only really extended treatment of it was by Tony Hoagland, a full two years after it came out. The FBI could offer poetry publication as part of witness protection programs. You have a new name, a new social security, a house in Ohio, and, oh yes, your poems will be in this review.  New editors.
Now if you asked me how I dealt with the silence around poetry, I guess I would say that it is like the silence in the woods. "Oh. That's what there is. Is this a tick?" 

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I do consider myself religious, but I do not invest any of my ideas about religion with authority. I consider myself a sort of Catholic of a not very rigorous sort, though I suspect that a lot of Catholics might not choose to have me on their team because I think that there is some crazy stuff that people think is defensible. Puritans. For me, the big divisions in the world are the ones between the ones who are literal-minded and the ones who are metaphoric in their understanding. I also believe that I am part of whatever is messed up about the world. Some of this is going on in my books.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I am obsessively a lover of places and their cycles of change, and this is all over my books. "Where can we live but days?" Philip Larkin asks. Place and people and imagery all happen at the same time for me. The great acting teacher Stella Adler says in her lectures on American theater that if an actress is playing a character, she has to know where she is and when she is­. If it's a garden, she has to know that it's a garden. Place and imagery are the best enemies of abstraction. Friends with Dogs and Arsonville are really New England books. I've lived around Boston for twenty years, almost half my life now. There are poems set in New York and Pittsburgh and at the Jersey Shore because those are soul places for me, but these two books are all around Boston, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. When I was a kid, we lived in Ireland for a year, and my father's parents were from Ireland, his father a convert from Ulster and his mother from Mayo. A number of the poems in Friends with Dogs are actually set in Ireland, and Stanley Moss found a beautiful Irish watercolor of a dog in a boat by Jack Butler Yeats for the cover. Poems can be comedies or highly aware projections of looking at place and people, getting some things right, getting some things wrong, social and physical comedies that I hope leave a "a loophole for the soul." The sense of place is a huge presence in all of the writers I love best. It's practically a pre-requisite for me.

David Blair was born in New York City and grew up in Pittsburgh. He is the author of three books of poetry, Ascension Days, which was chosen by Thomas Lux for the Del Sol Poetry Prize, Arsonville, and Friends with Dogs. He has taught at the New England Institute of Art and in the M.FA. Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter, and he has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from  the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Find Friends with Dogs here, and Ascension Days here.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

1/2 Dozen for Bryan Furuness

No one kicks ass at the 1/2 Dozen like Furuness kicks ass at the 1/2 Dozen. 

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

A while back I heard about a study that found a strong correlation between the things you're into at twelve-years-old and what you're into as an adult. (I just tried to google up the study, but no luck. Clearly I wasn't into research at twelve). In my case, the connection is embarrassingly literal. Reading and writing, for example: Liked then, like now. Though I would never have admitted this to my sixth-grade classmates, I like(d) school. Comics. Stories with magic and monsters. 

Back then I read a lot of fantasy and soft sci-fi (and my grandmother's Harlequins. Add that to the list of things I wouldn't have admitted to my classmates). Heinlein. Piers Anthony. Books with titles like Beast Island and Spellsinger. I couldn't get enough of them.
But Stephen King? I wanted nothing to do with that guy.  

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I hated Stephen King.
No, that's not right. I hated the idea of Stephen King.
When you're a kid in the eighties and you let it slip to a grown-up that you like to write, you could count on the following response: "Oh, you could be the next Stephen King!" (I imagine there are more than a few writers growing up now who hate the idea of J.K. Rowling).

It's hard to say why that response rankled me so much. At that point, I hadn't read a word of King's writing, but I didn't hesitate to reject it on the hipster principle of "If it's so damn popular, it must be stupid." My own books, I told these adults who were taken aback by my sudden anger, would not be garbage. I would write Real Books, dammit. Serious Books!
And then, in the literary equivalent of a booty call, I would disappear into my bedroom with a Xanth novel.

But leading a double life is not a viable long-term strategy. Hypocrisy is exhausting. Eventually, my affected disdain for popular, "unserious" fiction like King's grew like cancer until it killed my love for fantasy. That happened during high school, and shortly afterward I stopped reading altogether.

I didn't come back to reading until one night, late in college, when I found myself in the library, dangerously close to doing homework. In a last-ditch effort to avoid my assignments, I picked up The Sun Also Rises and American Psycho. These seem like weird choices to me now—Macho Lit? Really, Furuness?—but I'll forever be grateful to Messrs. Hemingway and Ellis for resurrecting my love for reading.

But as any fan of Stephen King could have told me, when something comes back from the dead, it's never the same as it was before. I was back into reading, sure, but only literary fiction. I steered clear of other genres, especially fantasy.

Until a few years ago. 
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I didn't come back to fantasy as much as fantasy came to me, dressed up as literary fiction. It came in the guise of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Lauren Groff and Lev Grossman and Angela Carter.
Here's the thing that seems crazy to me now: I didn't think of their work as fantasy. Despite the fact that I was reading about magic and demon lovers and supernatural pirates, I didn't make the thinnest connection to the books I had devoured as a kid.

But then came a day when my creative writing students asked for help in coming up with story ideas. I pointed them to this article by Kelly Link and asked them to do the following:

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Tip #1742: Set a timer for 25 minutes. As Link describes in her article, make a list of "Things I Like in Other People's Stories." Don't think too much. Treat your mind like a magic eight-ball. If something floats into your mind, put it on paper.

I bet you'll be surprised at least a couple of times. I certainly was. Especially when I saw magic and werewolves and mermaids show up on my page.

Huh, I thought. That sounds an awful lot like fantasy.

That's when I realized how so many of the books I'd loved over the last few years could be categorized as fantasy, and all at once I felt stupid. How could I have missed it? So obvious!

Maybe that was the only way it could have happened. Maybe my boyish interest had to sneak past my conscious mind that was still poisoned with traces of the old disdain. It had picked the lock, crawled under the security cams, performed sexy tumbles through the laser grid, and now, at last, it was back in the command center where it belonged.

I was happy for a whole minute before another question troubled me: If I loved reading this kind of stuff, why wasn't I trying to write it? Why the disconnect, bro?  

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Because I was afraid. Afraid of looking dumb, or worse, unsophisticated.

After college, I took a writing workshop as a graduate non-degree student. My first story featured a talking lizard. When I met with the professor in his office, he gave me a funny look and said, "The lizard isn't actually talking, right? The narrator is crazy and he just thinks the lizard is talking to him . . . right?"
This, my friends, is what we call a leading question. At the time I didn't think he was leading me further away from the stuff I loved as a kid; I thought he was leading me toward being a Serious Writer who writes Real Books. "Right," I said after a pause. "Talking lizard. Come on." We laughed, and that was the last time I played with fantasy elements for several years.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

What are the lessons here? Snobbery closes doors in the pleasure palace. As an artist, your job is to blow doors open. If you like what you find on the other side, let yourself like it. Don't lie to yourself, don't waste time being ashamed. Write what you want, not what you think you should want.

And if your lizard wants to talk, let him. This reader, for one, would be interested in what he has to say.

Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he is the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana, an anthology. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indy, where he teaches at Butler University. 
For more information, his website is

Sunday, February 28, 2016

1/2 Dozen for Keith Lee Morris

It's a great privilege to have Keith Lee Morris in for a few questions. His new novel, TRAVELERS REST, has recently hit shelves to rave reviews. Below, find out how running informs his process as well as how his various jobs -- from salvage crew for a train wreck to working at a French Quarter hotel -- have offered a lot of material. Plus some advice on love and handling criticism. 

Here goes:

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

This one's easy-- running. I started running about a decade ago when my older son got interested in running 5K races and wanted someone to train with. I was using it primarily as a way to make me quit smoking (which didn't work--I kept smoking for several years even when I was running regularly). But now I'm certifiably obsessed on my own. I run four days a week, nine miles each time out, with occasional longer runs thrown in (longest so far -- 22 miles). I'm now thinking of running my first marathon, which I always swore I wasn't interested in doing. But my father, who started running marathons when he was in his 50s, passed away recently, and I find myself wanting to do it as a tribute to him. First I have to lose the 10 pounds I gained when I was out West on my book tour. At any rate, running seems to have a pretty permanent hold on me by now--I don't feel good if I don't run, and I actually feel as if I can't THINK very well, either--I do a lot of the work that goes into writing by mulling over material while I'm out huffing and puffing along. As far as reading obsessions go, I suddenly feel compelled to read every word Edith Wharton ever wrote. I'm also pretty crazy about my cat.

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

Can't stand writing. Or at least I despise the idea until I've gotten caught up in the process enough to forget what I'm doing. That does happen, fortunately--once things start to click, I forget that I had to drag myself kicking and screaming onto the page, into the characters' heads, into the particular fictional world I'm trying to create. But I guess I'm lazy by nature--I'd rather daydream than do just about anything--and writing is hard work, at least if you're doing it seriously, at least it is for me. I'm physically and emotionally exhausted after a three hour stretch working on a novel or story. I get a sense of satisfaction from HAVING written, which is why I've always done it and continue to do it, but I don't enjoy the writing itself. I used to bribe myself with cigarettes--come on, Keith, just keep writing and you can have a cigarette every time you finish another page--but now I have to work myself up to it without the benefit of guilty pleasures. Sorta sucks.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Bless your heart. Seek help. No, I don't know, I don't think that writers are by nature any different from anyone else, are they? It seems to me a mistake to think so. With a few exceptions, my closest friends aren't writers--most of my best friends are still the people I hung around with when I was growing up in Idaho or striking out on my own in my 20s, and they've got the same roil of thoughts and emotions and plans and dreams and memories going around in their heads that I do. The only difference is that writers develop the skill to untangle the whole mess and translate it into words that achieve a physical form on a page, which, when arranged well, can be rewarding and entertaining for other people to decipher and consider. Otherwise, I don't know that we're any different. Maybe we're a little more touchy. So, hey, I'd say, congratulations! Go for it! It's good to be able to fall in love with anyone . . . even a writer.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Nobody can stop you from writing, nobody can tell you what to write or how to write, and the only person you have to please is yourself. Pencil. Paper. Begin.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

Wow. A lot of things. Near as I can remember, these are the jobs I've been paid to do at one time or another besides writing fiction or teaching fiction writing. The first work for which I ever got paid was writing an article about the junior high school dance for my local newspaper, The Daily Bee, when I was fourteen. Then I covered high school sports. Then I mowed lawns. Then I worked in a sporting goods store. Stocked shelves at night in a grocery store. Worked on a salvage crew cleaning up after a train wreck. Worked at a different sporting goods store. Worked at a different grocery store, this time as a checker. Moved furniture. Sold hot dogs. Worked in a bookstore. Parked cars. Worked as a bellman. Worked as a concierge. Substitute taught at a middle school. Acted in a horror movie. Worked at a stereo/tv/appliance store. For about six months, babysat this really cool four-year-old named Scott. Desk clerk. Night auditor. Bartender at two different bars, the last of which was where I met my wife, who worked there as a waitress. I think that about wraps it up. After that, I was a graduate student at the University of Idaho, and I got paid for teaching freshman composition. Since then, which was over 20 years ago, I've gotten paid for writing and teaching writing (the latter much more than the former). There are great things about a career in academia, but I do miss having the wealth of material that came along with working all those different jobs. And you lose the sense of frustration and even desperation that, unfortunately, a lot of people in this country feel when it comes to figuring out how to make ends meet and find some work that seems important and rewarding. I was lucky--and am lucky--to have writing and teaching as a way to get my head above water and keep it there. It's a good life, and I'm thankful for it. The work you do definitely figures into what you write, though--for instance, the time I spent babysitting, in addition to teaching me something about being a father that I was able to put to good use later, gave me the material for a short story called "Mr. Jordan's Arrival," and I've used my experience working at a French Quarter hotel in New Orleans as the basis for at least two or three stories. It's something to think about for young writers planning their careers. It might seem easy and enjoyable to go the standard route--English major, MFA--but there's something to be said for having extensive knowledge in other areas. I've always envied writers like Ethan Canin, who's a physician, or Andrea Barrett, who has a strong background in science. Or ask a writer like Donald Ray Pollock, who spent most of his adult life working at a paper mill, how important work is when it comes to the writing you choose to do and are suited for--I'm pretty certain he'd tell you it means everything. So I would advise young writers to get as much experience as possible outside the confines of a classroom.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I probably spend too much time worrying about the opinions of people who don't know what they're talking about or don't really care. But almost everybody does this, right? It's a habit that applies to a lot more than writing, but it does apply to writing, especially. At the same time, I probably don't give enough thought to the opinions of people who do know what they're talking about and do care. Half the trick is being able to tell the difference, but only half. The other part is being able to forget about the useless and accept the useful, even when it hurts.

Keith Lee Morris's most recent novel is Travelers Rest, published by Little, Brown. 
His previous novels are The Dart League King and The Greyhound God
He is a creative writing professor at Clemson University.