Sunday, January 19, 2014


I talk a lot about the advantages of writing across genres -- breaking down how each one offers transferable lessons -- but the most important thing that writing in a new genre offers the writer who's been focused in another genre is that it takes you out of authority, lowers the stakes, and allows you to play again. The lessons come in sideways.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


It's simple. Poetry shifts your consciousness. It forces you to look at the world with new eyes. It can unhinge us, dead-center-heart, where we live and breathe.

For those who don't take in poetry in large doses, how about just five books this year? That seems reasonable. Just this week, the National Book Critics Circle announced their finalists for 2013. A place to start. (Poetry can be a beautiful addiction.)

Frank Bidart, METAPHYSICAL DOG (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lucie Brock-Broido, STAY, ILLUSION (Knopf)
Denise Duhamel, BLOWOUT (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Bob Hicok, ELEGY OWED (Copper Canyon)
Carmen Gimenez Smith, MILK AND FILTH (University of Arizona Press)
Delaware, my small wonder, the nation's first state but also mine, my homeland, my mother-tongue (a mix of Baltimore's nasal "o" and Philly's tight-jawed "ight") I miss you -- how the Mason Dixon line stops dead at your door (there's even a bump in the pavement), how you're tiny but contain multitudes (coastal but farmland but also small towns -- including my own little collegial one -- but urban). You're sadly known as the place where dead soldiers come home again; it has to be somewhere. Land of incorporation and small boasts: a mascot of Blue Hens and Poe once slept here, as did Mason Dixon and their pet bear, you gave us all Valerie Bertinelli, the dead-pan actress in Parks and Rec, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, of course, and Biden (though maybe you should talk to Scranton about dibs). A place where you can call up the governor and have a conversation (and you now have a great one: Jack Markell -- currently tweeting about a real plan to get all college-ready kids to college, despite income). My homing device -- that relentless pigeon inside each of us -- is set to you. Alas.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

This year: a wonderful & weird (lush and unexpected) literary publishing event -- a hat trick. On Feb. 4th, it begins with publication of ANNIHILATION -- the first in a trilogy in development for film with Scott Rudin (who's brought you a ton of films you love) and published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux (who have brought you some of the most beautiful, award-winning books you've read). On May 2, the second book comes out: AUTHORITY. And then, no time to catch your breath but I'm guessing you won't want to, the third and final installment arrives. The brain of the author -- JEFF VANDERMEER -- will be on stunning display -- brilliant, otherworldly, the likes of which you've never seen before, even if you've read some of his other award-winners. More to come. But, for now, I feel like I'm announcing available seats at a feast/circus/dirigible-journey/not-of-this-world safari. 


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My mother, Glenda Baggott, says that I've suggested too many books, and she doesn't know what to choose. She emailed that she wants something like my upcoming book The Bloomed Life of Harriet Wolf (which is nice of her and very much what the mother of writer should say but really, really specific). My mother and I are huge Lee Smith fans so on an off-chance I looked up if Lee has a new book out AND she does AND it's about a child prodigy pianist (my mother is a pianist) AND it's partially set in an asylum early in the 20th century (which makes it a little like Harriet Wolf) AND it's set in North Carolina; my mother's a North Carolinian. So I'm pretty sure that Lee Smith wrote GUESTS ON EARTH for Glenda Baggott.
So. Kirkus gave BURN a wonderful, rip-snorting review. But my favorite part is the first two words, "Fantasist Baggott" -- I mean, from now on when given options Ms. Mrs. Mr. Dr. for my prefix, I'm going to have to write-in Fantasist, scribble a box, and check in. (A little harder to do online.) They also call me a worldbuilder so I think I'll try to write that in when asked for my profession. (Banks are gonna love that.) And then I love the ending, "It’s no place for a picnic, but we’ll hope that Baggott moves on to making another world just as engaging as this one." Remembering all those years I couldn't even confess to wanting to be a writer, they still loom. All my anxiety of authorship is still there. The going public is always brutal for me. In the deepest, simplest ways, all I want is for someone to want me to keep writing. "What are you working on now?" is a beauty to me. 

Full text here:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Masters of Sex. Why I Kept Coming Back this Season.

My first impression is that Masters of Sex is incredibly difficult work for the two main characters -- Michael Sheen who plays Bill Masters is allowed such little range in the emotionally self-alienation that the role demands (remember his exuberance in Frost Nixon?) and Lizzy Caplan feels confined to her role's purposefulness, earnestness -- and, on both counts, rightly so. Masters isn't a loveable character. And the role of Virginia Johnson reminds me -- pointedly -- that single working mothers have painfully little margin for error with the massive demands of their lives; somethings change so little. That said, when they're allowed range, both take it. They are the engine, yes, but I kept coming back for the ensemble cast whose plot lines grew as the season went on.

First, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are exquisite. And note: when have we seen two veteran actors play -- in the same season -- such demanding and brilliant dramatic parts and comedic parts -- both are in Masters of Sex and currently running sit-coms (Bridges plays the father in The Millers; Janney the mom in Mom).

I'd like to talk, just a minute, about their bodies in these roles. Janney all limbs and stride in Mom becomes so narrow, awkward and precise as Margaret Scully in Masters of Sex. And Bridges is a short squat old man in The Millers. He seemingly shaves off ten years and grows about six inches when he plays Provost Scully. A sunken chest as Mr. Miller becomes an impossibly broad, square-shouldered chest as the provost. 

Janney and Bridges' scenes -- together and apart -- on Masters of Sex are some of the most beautiful,  raw, and honest I've seen. Incredible, breath-taking.

And when I talk to my writing students about knowing your era -- and using it to your advantage -- and knowing place -- and exploiting it -- and knowing, with depth, your full characters, I will be pointing to the scene with Janney, a college swimmer, in the university's indoor swimming pool with her ex-lover during a nationwide civil defense drill to prepare for nuclear attack. Alone and floating on their backs in the deep end, they talk about satellites not orbiting, but slowly, slowly falling.

Finn Whitrock who plays Dale, the Provost's lover, has a monologue in a hotel room with Bridges that is something I will never forget. Absolutely perfect. The supporting actors are across the board incredibly dynamic -- Helene York, Nicholas D'Agosto, Teddy Sears... They pin me in place.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

1/2 Dozen with James Scott

James Scott's debut novel, THE KEPT, is brutal and beautiful. Written with emotional ascendancy, these rock-ribbed characters illuminate loss, desire, and love. THE KEPT is a celebration of bracing action, evocative rendering of the past, and literary precision.

That was my reaction to reading this novel before publication, and I've been anxious to have it on shelves to share with all of you ... TODAY is the day it hits shelves. 

Here's a Q and A with the author... Enjoy.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

I'd been working on the manuscript that would become The Kept for a couple of years when I met an agent at a party. This was (and is) an agent I'd heard of, who represented writers I admire, who had read one or two of my short stories. I told her briefly what the novel was about, and she told me to send it along. I told her I wouldn't be comfortable sending it for a while and she explained that she had a rare lull in her schedule and could read it quickly and immediately. Still, I told her that I didn't think the manuscript was in the kind of shape to show to others. This back and forth continued over email when I thanked her for her interest, and so, finally, I sent the manuscript with a few notes about how I was planning on continuing the plot (I didn't even have a complete draft), and the overall shape of the book. 

Now, I am certainly not complaining about being approached and courted by an agent, and it was a very kind offer. But... Soon after, I received an email from her that made some general comments and also said that the book was unpublishable. That was the word she used. "There's not a single person I can imagine sending this manuscript to," or something very similar was how the email concluded. I was crushed, obviously, but after some time to lick my wounds, I realized that I'd known the manuscript wasn't good enough to send, and so how could I expect her to see past that? I worked for nearly three more years before approaching another agent. Facing that kind of rejection, not a simple 'no,' but a larger 'don't do this' will happen from time to time. The knowledge that it's coming doesn't lessen the impact, but it may prepare you to get past it.  

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I spent hours in college libraries reading and trying to decipher late 20th century obstetric journals and countless more poring over histories trying to figure out some basic timelines and get some details that I could use in a couple of very key scenes in the book. I remember returning to my room at an artists' residency after an especially frustrating afternoon spent at the library and changing into my running clothes. Overflowing with melodrama, I collapsed onto the carpet in my room, looked at the ceiling, and wondered how I'd ever be able to locate the right needle of truth in a haystack of information. When I went downstairs to drink some water before setting out on my run, another artist--who'd quickly become a friend-- was sitting in the kitchen, waiting for his coffee to brew. He asked me what was wrong, and I explained, very briefly, and through tight lips, what had happened. Or, more precisely, not happened. "I don't know if this is helpful," he said, and I was certain it would not be, "but I know a midwife. Could she help?" 

The next day, I sent a brief outline of the scenes to the midwife, the very kind and patient Laurel Philips, who responded with what I'd gotten wrong, and where I could stretch the truth and where I could not. There are many lessons to be learned from this, but the most important one is to always complain about your struggles with your book because you never know who might be able to help. (I'm joking. Don't do that. But it doesn't hurt to ask for help.)    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 guess when people ask me this question, I usually interpret it as, "What's the first thing that made you start writing this book?" Or maybe, "What's the thing you couldn't let go of?" The answer to either of those for The Kept is the image of a boy wiping the snow from a girl's face. But I totally agree that the inspiration needs to come from more than one source at more than one time in order to sustain something as long as a book. A painting, perhaps, can be inspired by one sunflower, but a book requires a lot, and I spread it around-- besides books, obviously, I draw from other areas such as music, movies, photographs, conversations... I saw Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller as I was working on the ending of The Kept. Or rather, not working on it, as I felt as though I'd exhausted every possibility and none of them were right. I'd seen the film years before, but it hadn't stuck with me, but this re-watching energized me to go back and give the ending another try.  

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I read as widely as possible. I read experimental stuff, and I read genre stuff. I read things that are popular and things that are not. I used to plow through books I wasn't enjoying, but I've quit that practice. 

Other people have said it, but 2013 was the year of the short story: Laura van den Berg, George Saunders, Tom Perrotta, Nina McLaughlin, Ethan Rutherford, Kate Milliken, and others put out incredible collections. 

I think he's starting to get his due, but Daniel Woodrell is amazing. The Maid's Version was my favorite book of this year, The Outlaw Album was one of my favorites of 2011, and I've been rereading some of his older work. 

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a strong impact on your writing life?

I combined these two questions because one leads to the other. When I was an undergraduate, I attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. I was young and full of myself, and I'd dreamed of going to the conference for a long time, and the workshop was a rude awakening. One afternoon I was sitting (sulking might be a better word) outside of the barn where the workshops were held, and Margot Livesey sat down and talked to me. She wasn't my workshop teacher, she wasn't friends with my sister, she wasn't a counselor, but she still took the time to make me feel better. Later, I thought of the power of this, and as I started teaching, I knew that what Margot had done for me was what I would aspire to do-- make students comfortable. Help them get out of their own way, and tell them that how they're feeling is how a lot of us feel. I've been lucky enough to have many other amazing teachers that have also helped me as a writer and a teacher: Jim Shepard, Daniel Wallace, Christine Schutt, Joy Williams, Pamela Painter. All of them, in one way or another, gave me comfort. I can do discomfort on my own (and I think one needs it, a LOT of it, to write) but that's why I teach. (Should I attach my resume here?) I know it sounds hokey, or self-important, but so many people come to writing as a balm for something wounded or dark, and my goal is to help ease the transition from making that a private practice to making it a public one.  

James Scott was born in Boston and grew up in upstate New York. He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA from Emerson College. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and other publications. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog. For more information, go to James Scott's website. To read an interview, click here.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Today, I'm over at WRITER UNBOXED giving advice for those times you feel stuck, caged, self-conscious.