Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Matriarch we all know and love (or some of us) - Glenda Baggott

Oddly enough, my parents are born on back-to-back days, in the same year, so today is the birthday of my favorite matriarch (and a few of yours -- shout to my siblings, kids, nieces, nephews) -- the one and only Glenda Baggott.
In her Facebook photo, she's leaning against a baby grand piano; when she was 16, her father (who ran an oyster bar in Raleigh) won a bet (letting a lot of money ride on the NY Yankees). With his pay-out, he told my mother he'd buy her a car or a piano. She picked the piano -- this exact one -- because, by sixteen, she was a serious pianist, and she went onto study in college and then won a scholarship to study in Rome, but she'd met this handsome law student and married the guy, aka my Pops. 
A brilliant woman, her mind holds every detail of the past -- in particular any illness, who had it, how they got rid of it or how, exactly, it did them in -- as well as a meticulous memory for story -- who told her what, when, where, and why it was fascinating -- and catalog of all things -- I mean, where they are, what box, what label, what drawer -- and, most impressively -- a constantly shifting calendar of where all of her children, their partners, her thirteen grandchildren are at all times, which sometimes includes the entire globe. 
Before she sent me to school, she said, "One day, the teacher is going to ask for volunteers to bring in goodies for some kind of classroom party. As soon as she asks, you raise your hand and say, 'My mother will bring in the cups and napkins. Got it?" 
As I was her youngest and by 4th grade I took a bus to school and the bus driver wore fringed moccasins which indicated, to my mother, drug-use, I stayed home from school a lot. 
In fact, especially in 4th and 5th grade, she kept me home if it was raining or finally pretty out or even for her birthday. "You get off for the presidents' birthdays, but you wouldn't be alive without me!" 
In lieu of geography and chunks of math, I stayed learned how to play canasta, did some banking, and listened to my mother tell stories. She's a wonderful storyteller and taught me how stories should work in the most natural way possible -- by offering them and letting them unfold. 
She was the one who called up the head of the English department at Loyola University -- before I showed up for freshman year -- to ask if my education there would ruin my innate talent as a writer.
She was the one who dropped me off at grad school with the advice, "What ever you do don't fall in love with a poet." And when I told her a few weeks later that I wasn't dating an actor, she said, "Oh, dear Lord, you're dating a poet." (She also loves my husband as one of her own.)
My mother is the last person I'd have pegged as one day becoming Zen. She once shone a flashlight at me and my date parked in the driveway because, though she didn't want to interrupt, the car was running and she thought we might asphyxiate and die. (Note: We weren't in a garage. We didn't own a garage.) 
And we once passed another car on the highway while we were on vacation and noticed it was sparking. My father said, "Roll down your window and very calmly tell them to pull over."
My mother nodded, rolled down her window and screamed, "Your car's on FIRE! Your car's on fire!"
And yet, she's become very wise and all-accepting and she often takes the long view. She is the most loving person I know. 
Today, she and my dad are at noon yoga dance, which one has to pronounce VERY carefully or people think your parents are at NUDE yoga dance. 
I talked to her this morning and she said not to write about her. She told me I have too much on my plate, that I'd just written about my father. She may have even quoted her own mother who was forever telling me to rest my brain. No use. Here I am. 
She told me that my dad said, "Happy birthday" to her when she first woke up and she said, "I am happy." She told me that this felt true in a more meaningful way than ever, like such a gift. 
She is the gift.

On the Occasion of My Pops' 79th Birthday

It's my Pops birthday. I remember talking to a psychologist friend at a party who was explaining off-handedly the natural moment in becoming an adult when one realizes their parents don't really know everything. I was bewildered. What if your father actually knows an awful lot about so many things -- and fluidly guesses at what he doesn't know -- a brilliant, funny man with a gentle soul? What if you're lucky enough to have a father who's your chief adviser and primary counsel and foremost researcher and one of your best friends? 
My father is a man who still dances like Zorba the Greek in the kitchen, in fact, who dances almost daily at age 79, who was a corporate lawyer and engineer but most clearly valued my mother's role at home raising us. 
A man who would get home from work and start playing four-square with us in the street -- though, arguably, making more complex rules for the game -- who loves the theater and keeps a record of every play he's ever seen on stacks of index cards (how I could backtrack and figure out that he once took me to see TRUE WEST off-broadway with Malkovich and Sinise, when I was 13). 
A man who's so cheap he drove a car with no second gear for ages, used to have a canvas kind-of briefcase (that I once held out the window of that car -- holding it hostage until we could come to terms on radio stations), buys his Velcro shoes at Walmart -- and asks for his money back if they wear out too soon -- but who is incredibly generous about the things that matter to him the most -- education, travel, and his kids. 
A man who taught me how to argue, present my case, and stand my ground at the dining room table, who retired at 57 and, having talked about how much he valued my mother's work raising kids, actually walked the walk, driving carpools, making paper airplanes, playing every crazy made-up game my kids -- actually all 13 of his grandkids -- could come up with (and adding his own, again, rules to enrich the game), who offered to "build my wedding hat" -- he wasn't hired, but I appreciated the gesture. 
A man who chokes up when he sees heroism -- that pilot landing the plane in the Hudson -- a man who became a pilot himself after he retired. But who also chokes up in the same three scenes every time he watches THE PARENT TRAP with the grandkids. And now he writes books and writes his own mock-reviews -- which are the harshest and funniest reviews I've ever read. 
He's also clairvoyant -- but only in one area -- he dreams about his grandchildren before they're born. He once dreamed that his three daughters and one daughter in law were each holding a baby. It was highly unlikely that each of us would have a baby, for various reasons, but after three of us announced our pregnancies -- and one of my sisters who was finished having kids was getting very nervous -- my sister-in-law found out she was pregnant with twins. 
My father was also once visited by God in a dream. Not a hugely religious man -- though soulful -- it was a clear message -- and one that I try to teach -- that every person has a full and rich an interior life with dreams and fears and desires and we should meet each person with the understanding of their full humanity. He approaches his fellow humans this way, with great generosity. He's open-minded and kind and, if you sit close to him at a dinner party, you'll get the quippy side commentary, the wry Bill Baggott. 
Once when I was a freshman in college, I was getting off the phone with my father, and he'd said, "I like you," and I'd said, "I like you, too." It's different, at that age, than I love you -- you're just getting to know each other in a way... I didn't think much of it, but my roommate had overheard and said, "That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard." We hadn't meant to be sweet.
Happy Birthday to my Pops -- a man I like and love so very much. I'm so thankful to be your daughter, Snots.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

1/2 Dozen for R. Flowers Rivera

What a pleasure to introduce R. Flowers Rivera and her new collection Heathen. I love how she examines faith in this interview, as well as the day-to-day, multi-tasking, her perception of time and identity. 

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

My obsessions are quite consistent: Reading, writing, travel, yoga, perennial flower gardening, silence, sun, warmth, and open-ended time. Opening my calendar each morning always seems to cause a brief moment of panic. Therefore, I’d have to say I am more obsessed with open-ended time, which allows me to pursue all the others.

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?

Sometimes, the bolt of inspiration does strike me—but that was more my younger self—before children. However, now, usually it’s the concatenation of images and sounds that linger for days and weeks and months because my sons and their school administrators don’t look kindly upon parents who flake, so I attempt—to the best of my ability—to comply. Heathen started with the villanelle “A Siren Repents.” I liked the myth of the sirens as well as modern usage of the word. Then, poem-by-poem, I found other ways to re-enter the old myths, a means of re-interpreting them to reflect race, gender, class, orientation, and identity.

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

Being raised Catholic, I find solace in some of the traditions and rituals of the Church, but I also find it quite easy to reject doctrine I regard as offensive to my inherent sense of the interconnectedness of humanity. So, I consider myself a heathen soul. If you name some aspect of my identity—Catholic, Southern, mother, daughter, sister, spouse, parent, Black, bisexual—I know that questioning of dogma will arise in my reading and writing life. Still, it’s rare that I will abandon areas of my life where I’ve happened upon any glimmer of faith; I, as a result, am apt to expose, subvert, reconstruct as a means of survival.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

Balance? What’s that and where can I get some? I am the worst multi-tasker ever. Everything must be entered in our synced, family calendar—with alerts—because I have a tendency to lose myself in most whatever I’m doing, especially when that involves being with my family or reading or writing, and when I was teaching, the same issue presented itself. I slip into almost everything I’m doing, becoming lost in that flow. But I like operating that way, that ease of existing outside of time. The only exceptions I can think of involve the public side of being a spouse or a parent, for example, attempting to engage in small talk with other parents or attending business dinners with my husband. Then, if I haven’t found a place to hide or some other diversion, I can multi-task quite well as means of diverting my attention from the almost glacial slowing of time.

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?)

My debut collection, Troubling Accents, felt organic. I’ve moved from the South to the northeast several times, in addition to living abroad in Singapore and traveling the Asia Pacific Rim. That moving back and forth has cemented my identity as an outsider, a perspective I find useful and alienating at once, yet it has solidified my identity as a Southerner who is willing to witness for as well as critique her homeplace. I’d have to say the flip-side would be the novel I’ve been sitting with and tinkering on for over a decade. At some point, I’m going to just have to slingshot that bear, not just excerpts, out into the world. And, no, I hadn’t a clue this beast would still be living with me all these years later.

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

In terms of rejections, learn to embrace them—as much as you are able. Make literary journals and people, in general, tell you no, because each time you receive a rejection, each time someone says "not this time,” the no actually means you’ve taken a chance on your writing and, more importantly, on yourself.

R. Flowers Rivera is native of Mississippi, she completed a Ph.D. at Binghamton University and an M.A. at Hollins University. Xavier Review Press published her debut poetry collection, Troubling Accents (July 2013), which received a nomination from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and was selected by the Texas Authors Association as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. Rivera’s second collection, Heathen, has been selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2014 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press, March 2015). Her short story, “The Iron Bars,” won the 1999 Peregrine Prize, and she has been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, the Crab Orchard Series, and the Gival Poetry Prize as well as garnering nominations for Pushcarts. Currently, she lives in McKinney, Texas. 
View more of her work by visiting www.promethea.com.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Writers & Readers: Now Offering a Free Mini-Book on the Craft of Writing (and an upcoming exclusive excerpt)

When you pre-order a copy of HARRIET WOLF'S 7th BOOK OF WONDERS, we will send you a free electronic mini-book on the craft of writing. Plus, if you pre-order before Mother's Day, we'll also send an exclusive excerpt for you to share with a mom or favorite mother figure in your life! 

Bestselling, critically acclaimed novelist Julianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books and has given lectures all over the country on the craft of writing. In honor of her new novel, we are giving away letters allegedly written by the famed, reclusive novelist Harriet Wolf to once-upon-a-time fledgling fiction writer Flannery O'Connor.  These (meta-)letters offer real hard-hitting writing advice on craft and cover a lot of territory: shaping beginnings, endings, and epiphanies; inspiration, memory, motivation, and the muse; fiction, screenplays, and poetry; and rejection and resilience. They also include a full list of writing prompts. 


1. Pre-order HARRIET WOLF'S 7th BOOK OF WONDERS at a bookseller of your choice.

2. SEND AN EMAIL TO WolfonWriting@gmail.com and tell us where you ordered the book. 

3.  WE WILL EMAIL you the 24-page craft-packed .pdf as an attachment. Please allow three days for delivery. 

FEEL FREE to buzz about this offer to all of the writers in your life! Tag Julianna in a tweet -- @jcbaggott -- or on Facebook, follow Julianna HERE.  

If you order before MOTHER'S DAY and you want to an exclusive excerpt from the book, let us know! We'll send one to you on Mother's Day so that you can share it with the mother-figure in your life! 


“Julianna Baggott’s devoted readers have long known that she is a genius who can do whatever she wants. But with Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders she has somehow outdone herself. This novel, about a woman who is stuck telling and living a family story that someone else has written and whose ending has been (maybe) lost forever, reminds me of the best work by the great Steven Millhauser: brainy, self-aware, tender, full of loss, but also full of grace and wonder. This is Julianna Baggott’s best book, which is one way of saying it’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, or any other.” — Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England and The Happiest People in the World.

“Julianna Baggott’s very winning Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders is only incidentally about a lost masterpiece, a marriage bound by string, and a lunatic literary family. Dig deeper and it’s about mothers and daughters and the conflicts and compromises that amount to love.”—Joshua Ferris, Man Booker Prize finalist for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
“An utterly original tale told in four distinct voices, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders is an exhilarating mélange of heartrending loss, hilarity, and enchantment. Julianna Baggott has indeed created a book of wonders.”—Mira Bartok, author of National Book Critics Circle Award winner and New York Times bestseller The Memory Palace
“‘All stories worth telling are love stories,’ a character says Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. This novel about a famous writer’s lost manuscript, the complex legacy of family secrets, and—yes—a love story that unfolds across generations is inventive, playful, and deeply affecting.” —Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train
“Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of WondersJulianna Baggott’s most sweeping and mesmerizing novel yet, offers a profound meditation on motherhood and sisterhood, as well as on the central importance of stories. It is a novel that affords its characters that rare chance we all long for—the chance to reimagine the stories of our lives while there’s still time.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
“Julianna Baggott’s richly imagined new novel is filled with laughter and heartbreak, and–most wonderfully–the bright, pained release of stories, which somehow flutter from these pages like living birds.”  —Elizabeth Graver, bestselling author of The End of the Point.
Author of the ‘Pure’ trilogy, a bleak and gorgeously rendered dystopian tale, Baggott here does something arrestingly different. Reclusive author Harriet Wolf is long dead, but rumors of a final, revelatory book left unpublished are still very much alive. Harriet; her fiercely protective daughter, Eleanor; and Eleanor’s grown daughters, runaway rebel Ruth, and Tilton, now as reclusive as Harriet, share a narrative that delivers a powerful sense of the meaning of motherhood and the bonds between sisters.” — Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders will be published in August 2015.

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: http://flavorwire.com/…/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 http://www.katherinecenter.com

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.