Friday, December 18, 2015

Inter-generational Star Wars -- a note from the Scarred Generation

My 18 yo is the only one who's seen the new STAR WARS. He's fit to burst with spoilers -- just choking on them. 
We're in the kitchen and I try to explain why I seem distant and aloof. It's about the past. Our history. I look at him coldly and say, "Look. I come from a deeply scarred generation."
"What do you mean?" he asks.
I close my eyes. "Some kids saw the Empire Strikes Back the day it came out. Other kids didn't." I open my eyes and stare deeply into his. "What do you think happened to those other kids?"
He's speechless.
He knows what happened to those other kids. He shakes his head, ever-so-slightly in hopes, I assume, that I wasn't one of the other kids.
I was.
"It was 1980," I mutter through a fog of memory. "I was with a friend who'd seen it and a friend who hadn't. The seer -- who shall remain nameless -- promised not to spoil it. Assuming she was true to her word, we went blissfully through our day. Some Pac Man. A little Joust. A trip to the Seven Eleven. It was there in line, having just paid for Slurpees that she ambushed us."
I'll never forget where she was standing, where I was standing, the coldness of the Slurpee in my hand. The words that came out of her mouth -- ten words. That's it. You all know the words or close enough. All was lost.
"It was a sneak attack," I go on. "There wasn't even enough time to cover our ears and scream nanananana..." My voice trails off.
It's a grave moment. A respectful hush falls over the kitchen.
I don't expect him to truly understand. How could he? The fact that we had only three TV channels, nothing streamed, our primal phones were cruelly bolted to walls. For three years, we'd been trading Star Wars bubblegum cards.
Good God, we were bereft.
And now the bulk of my family is going off to watch the new Star Wars in 3D. As I lamely represent the 20% of humans who get nauseous in 3D movies, I'll stay home, trying to get past the trauma. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Aging, Art, Daughters & Ta-Tas -- REAL SIMPLE


I have a piece in the current issue of REAL SIMPLE in which I refer to my ta-tas as "my sad Walter Matthau eyes; they're that soulful these days." It's about aging (I'm going for graceless but comedic), art, and daughters. 

Some have asked to see the original piece of art that was made by my daughter, the sculptor Phoebe Scott. Here it is.

The essay begins with the two of us on the phone. She's trying to figure out her next project and decides to go back to one of her most rooted themes, deterioration. Over the course of the piece, I talk about aging and about art, but most of all it was an unexpected moment to have my own daughter's art reshape my sense of self.


Note: It dawned on us here yesterday that, looking at the photo accompanying the piece, which isn't my daughter's piece but a black and white photo where the face isn't visible, people might think I posed topless for REAL SIMPLE. They aren't mine; those in the photo are clearly an upgrade.

And for those who are too young to know who Walter Matthau is, here's a photo -- post-BAD NEWS BEARS, for obvious reasons.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Robin Silbergleid

I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of THE BABY BOOK by Robin Silbergleid and, as much of a feel of memoir as it does a collection of poems, it has stayed with me.

It's my great pleasure to have Robin here to answer a few questions!

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

I love the phrasing of this question—often when I teach, I tell students their project is to find their obsessions and honor them.  In general conversation, I think the word “obsession” can be a bit off-putting, but within the context of writing, it’s generally their subject.  My literary obsession is undoubtedly the tangle of issues surrounding reproductive choice, motherhood, and infertility evident in The Baby Book.  It’s a project I’ve worked on in various forms since 2002 (when I started the process of trying to become a mother).  I’ve started a new book (am I allowed to say that?) that I’m conceiving of as a series of domestic prose poems, in some way a sequel of sorts to both The Baby Book and my memoir Texas Girl, and doing some research on cookbooks and domestic manuals.  Our library happens to have a huge database of American cookbooks that are available digitally.  Good fun!
     I’m also obsessing about sleep, or lack thereof (my 4-year-old doesn’t sleep—like, until recently it was like having a newborn— and we’ve actually seen sleep specialists).  I have an essay I’ve been working on about that process, as it’s so much more complicated than any of those parenting books or conversations about ‘sleep training’ would indicate. My personal life and professional life are incredibly tangled; there’s a whole interview in that.
     Otherwise:  I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie and very stoked that two of my old favorites are making comebacks (The X-Files and Gilmore Girls, both of which I’ve written about!).  When not wrangling children, writing, or teaching, you might find me taking a yoga class.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s obsessive but it’s important to me.

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?

Like you, I think, I’m more of a hard-work, butt-in-the-chair, rather than wait-for-the-muse, sort of writer.  The story that unfolds in The Baby Book is also the story of writing The Baby Book—something that took a long time with a lot of near misses, pushed me in all kinds of emotional ways, but needed to be done.  I wrote a draft of the first poem in this collection in 2001-2002, actually, “The Childless Women Talk about Frida Kahlo,” when I was just thinking about becoming a mother and trying to make sense of an experience of reproductive loss and somehow encountered the painting Kahlo’s “The Henry Ford Hospital” at exactly the right moment.  Perhaps not inspired then, but charmed.  Or perhaps that’s simply paying attention and making connections? 
     What followed was certainly not inspiration but painstaking work.  I sent a version of this book out in 2006, and it immediately earned second place in a national competition.  Second place often doesn’t mean publication in the world of poetry (my department chair didn’t quite understand that!), but it was encouraging.  I kept at it.  It hurt to write, it was devastating, honestly, to revise, not “cathartic” at all.  The version that was published was ultimately very different than I first imagined—it now has a section about my second child and parenting after infertility and pregnancy loss—and I’m very happy with it.  I often talk about infertility and IVF as the experience that pushed me places I’d never thought I’d go; this book is very much the same.

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

I feel like my answers are starting to blur together.  It very much depends on the project and the moment in it.  I love beginnings and first drafts.  I write very quickly at this stage and it’s full of possibility.  That really goes for any genre: poetry, literary/cultural criticism, memoir, or, more recently, short stories.  Revising is much more painstaking, more so for certain projects than others.  Although I agree with the oft-expressed sentiment that young writers often send their work out too early, my motto is “get it off my desk.”  If someone else is reading it, I can be working on something else.  The Baby Book was one of those projects that changed and grew not because I was actively revising it, but because it was out in the world, I was growing as a writer and thinking about other things. When it was picked up by CavanKerry, I revised in a very systematic way based on my editor’s encouragement and feedback.  But it was difficult work and angsty, due to the subject matter.  I’m very happy to be on the other side again, just reading around, taking notes, putting words on the page with few expectations at this point, just the accumulation of untitled prose poems I’m tentatively calling “Mother Is a Verb.”

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

Make a writing schedule.  I recently had a conversation with a thesis advisee—super smart student, the type who has earned major scholarships and awards, easily top 1-2% of those I’ve ever worked with—and we talked about her writing habits.  Wednesdays, she said.  I was stunned.  I think so many young writers are either so overwhelmed by the urgent, all the stuff that has actual deadlines, and/or convinced that inspiration will strike, that they don’t actually make the habit, the daily habit, of writing.  Those books like “Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” have something to them.  I think that’s true of all kinds of writing, both literary and academic.  While I don’t work every day on my writing—juggling too many other hats—I do spend at least four mornings per week producing new writing, and certainly there’s not a day that passes that I don’t read something, even if it’s just what I’m prepping for class.
     My other would be carry a notebook with you at all times.  Everything is fodder for writing if you’re paying attention.  When I’m on a walk and I notice my neighbor chiseling away at the painted lines covering the mortar of his brick house, I write it down.  Those moments happen all the time.  And no, writing notes in your phone is not the same thing.

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

The teacher I learned the most from in graduate school wrote paragraphs about our poems as feedback.  It was an incredible amount of personal attention.  They weren’t so much suggestions but close readings.  I knew when she didn’t “get” what I was up to the poem had failed in some major way.  But that was never about a poem not meeting her aesthetic, just what she saw, as objectively as she could frame it.  That is, when I receive criticism from someone who takes the project on its own terms, I’d like to think I’m a writer who can take constructive criticism and do something with it.  I always welcome line suggestions from the folks in my writers group or an editor who sees where the project is coming from.  Even if I don’t accept the specific suggestions, that’s encouragement to go back and rework that part of the piece and figure out what the problem is; to give a specific example, my poem “The Childless Women Talks About Frida Kahlo” used to have four sections.  My editor asked me to cut one, and I insisted that the poem needed it.  But in the end I saw another section of the poem was misleading and cut that one instead, and then reordered.  I think we’re both happy with the result.  There were a number of moments like that along the way, and each presented the opportunity for me to think very systematically about what purpose each poem in the book served, where it should be placed, how it worked.  I will confess that this process was much harder with The Baby Book than with other projects, mostly because of its emotional and autobiographical content.  That was a useful reminder for me as a teacher of writing that receiving criticism is not an easy thing, particularly when students are producing, as they should, deeply honest work.  Still, the ability to look at one’s own work with critical detachment is vital; I don’t think it’s possible to grow as a writer, or survive the business, without it.

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


I’m teaching two classes right now, with different reading loads, as well as directing a graduate independent study; I also read the work of the writers who come to campus for readings and talks.  That is, my reading is very much dependent upon what I’m teaching and don’t have a lot of time for “pleasure” reading (although reading what I’m teaching is generally pleasurable).  Right now on my nightstand you can find Simeon Berry’s Monograph, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, A.K. Summers’ Pregnant Butch, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and your own Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which is simply wonderful.  As you can tell from this list, I do try to read in a number of genres, and I take different things from them.  I always gravitate toward novels when it gets cold and the fall semester is winding down; I suppose they’re my guilty pleasure because I don’t teach them much anymore.  I’m looking forward to some time with tea and novels over winter break, and then going back to poetry alongside my students next semester.


 Robin Silbergleid is the author of The Baby Book as well as the memoir Texas Girl.  
She is also an advocate for infertility education and partners with "The ART of Infertility" 
on related programs.  She is associate professor of English 
and director of the creative writing program at Michigan State University. 
For more, visit robinsilbergleid.com

Monday, December 7, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Jay Wexler

It's my great pleasure to introduce Jay Wexler -- humorist, novelist, non-fiction writer, lawyer, law professor, hedgehog pet-owner. 

Let the questions begin!

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 wouldn’t say that there was a singular moment of inspiration for Tuttle in the Balance, but as with most of fiction that I’ve written, I had a scene in my head that came to me fairly early in writing the book that I was really excited about and eager to get to in the story.  So in that sense, it was a piece of inspiration that drove me to write the first half of the book, just so I could write that scene.  I remember writing the scene in a McDonald’s in Singapore (they had really cheap and decent coffee) while I was researching something else, and once the scene was written I felt like dancing.  And then soon after that I got another inspired scene in my head that got me through most of the second half.  It’s interesting to me that both of those key scenes took place in the courtroom of the Supreme Court during oral argument—I think that a big part of the overall inspiration for writing the book was to depict a Supreme Court that looks in many ways like the real one but that occasionally turns into something a little different. 

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

I’m not religious at all, but religion is very important to my work.  I was raised Jewish and went to Hebrew School for years until I had my Bar Mitzvah, at which point I was out of there.  I had basically a Philip Rothian relationship to Hebrew School, which is to say that I felt every second of it as a nightmare.  I wrote a story about it once.  In high school I announced to my freshman English class that I was an atheist, although after I broke my collarbone playing dodgeball that very afternoon, I did give my position some reconsideration for about a month.  In college, as an East Asian Studies major, I became interested in Buddhism and Taoism, and I wrote my senior thesis on the Chuang Tzu, which is the collected writings of the second most famous Taoist after Lao Tzu.  I found the stuff fascinating, and as a result I went to graduate school in religious studies.  I only lasted a year, but when I got to law school I did a lot of writing about religion and the First Amendment, which is one of the subjects I now teach.  I’ve published one book about law and religion, have one more coming out in March, and am supposed to be writing another one that will come out in 2018.  Religion is an important part of Tuttle also—the main character gets really into the Chuang Tzu, and when his Catholic colleague insists on writing about his religious faith in a controversial opinion about pornography, Tuttle wonders what the law might look like if he were to approach it from a Taoist angle.  Hint: it would be odd.

What’s your take on touring? 

I’ve never published a book with a publisher that was able to send me on any kind of a tour, but I love doing reading events, so I set them up myself whenever I can.  To me, the readings might be the best part of publishing a book—you get to meet people who want to read your book and make jokes about yourself in front of them—what could be better?  I’m still so excited when someone wants me to sign his or her book—I usually draw them a piece of fruit saying something unexpected.  Plus, whenever the venue lets me, I bring a bottle of Jameson and some plastic cups, because my motto is that “nobody should ever have to bring a flask to one of my readings.”  I’ll be on a mini-tour in the northeast for Tuttle for a week or so in early December with some special guests and cool sponsors.  I’m very excited about it.

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

My pep talks for writers starting out or feeling down take the form of pointing out how terrible a writer I was not so long ago.  When I’m doing a reading, I will often read from my first, unpublished novel, entitled “Arrivederci, Loser,” which might be the worst piece of shit ever penned.  It’s a novel only in the sense that it is 200 pages of words all put together in one file.  The main character is a walking, talking, three-foot high blueberry muffin who suddenly shows up in the apartment of two slacker twenty-somethings named Zatwig and Mumford.  They all end up going underwater to fight a war against some scallops.  The title was taken from a piece of hate mail that my wife got from a friend of hers after we had been going out for about a month back in the fall of 1992.  Anyway, I figure that if the person who wrote that thing could end up a published writer, anybody can. 

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

Not long ago I was “teaching” a workshop about writing humor, and since I have no idea how to teach writing at all (I thought about just teaching them environmental law, but it didn’t seem like what they’d signed up for), I thought hard for a week or so about what advice I might give the aspiring humor writer.  I came up with a top-ten list, and probably the most important one is to “mine your pain and humiliation.”  Not particularly innovative, I realize, but worth reminding people about.  So much of my writing draws on mortifying moments from my past.  Indeed I just wrote a sex scene which draws from one of those moments.  Which leads me into another one of my tips for aspiring humorists—“write about sex, yes, but make it bad sex, because good sex isn’t funny.”

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

I had all sorts of jobs before I went to law school.  I was a paper boy for the Boston Globe when I was twelve. Later in high school I was a bank teller--probably the worst bank teller in the history of Boston’s North Shore.  Once I cashed a guy’s pay stub instead of his check.  I would have cashed anything—a McDonald’s Gift Certificate, a paper bag, a baseball card.  In college I worked as a librarian’s assistant, a telemarketer (okay, only for one day), a stockboy at the local gourmet grocery store.  A couple of the wicked Boston-y guys who worked at the store called me “College Boy” or even just “College.”  One time one of them who worked the butcher counter held up a ham hock and said, “hey College Boy, what kind of meat is this?” and I said “umm, ham hock?” and he said “I don’t belieeeeeve it, he gohhhtt it.”  I almost took a job as a door-to-door meat seller, but it was totally on commission so I turned it down.  I taught English in Taiwan for a year, worked as a legal assistant at a dicey American law firm in a town called Xiamen, in mainland China (I had to go to the airport to get my stipend, sent by the Hong Kong office with random strangers flying the Hong Kong-Xiamen route), and spent a summer temping in Chicago.  I worked for a week in one of the last smoking offices in the city.  Banning smoking inside of office buildings was a good idea.  None of these jobs helped shape me as a writer.


Jay Wexler is a law professor at Boston University. 
He is the author of four books, including Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars and The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions. 
For more information, go to: www.jaywex.com.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Harriet Wolf's 7th Book of Wonders a NYTimes Notable Book of 2015

THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW has chosen their 100 NOTABLE BOOKS of 2015 and HARRIET WOLF'S SEVENTH BOOK is on the list! 

To be honest, I didn't write it for shelves or lists. I wrote it for you -- the hearts that aren't rind-tough, for those whose minds are still a frothy terrarium, who still conjure entire oceans in their dreams. 
I wrote it because each of us carries our own stories -- beautiful and tragic and stunning, all sunlit steam as our engines labor within us.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

ALL OF US (& DAVID BECKHAM) & EVERYTHING

Inside the pages of PEOPLE magazine -- God bless you, sexy David Beckham -- you'll find my new novel in BEST NEW BOOKS! Mitch Albom's looking a little tall, casting a shadow, sure, but I'm there, my head in a little circle, ALL OF US AND EVERYTHING all big and bright behind me.
Some days, to be honest, it's better to be Bridget Asher than Baggott. Today is one of those days, but so were the days while writing this novel. I loved writing about this odd family (all families are odd), in particular about three sisters.
At the start, one sister is trying to understand the language of elephants while living in a longhouse in Vietnam; one's a self-proclaimed marriage-profiteer (who's come from a long line of profiteers) having a breakdown in her ex's apartment in the Caledonia in West Chelsea; and another has just found out through the headmaster that her husband's fallen in love while chaperoning a boarding-school trip to Europe; her 15-year-old daughter's instinct is to live-tweet the dissolution of her family.
And then there's Augusta, their anti-establishment mother, and Nick who is, in fact, a spy. To create Nick, I had the pleasure of talking to someone who'd worked in intelligence all his life; I was looking for the toll the job takes on love, family.
This review uses the word sexy and in a magazine with Beckham on the cover, that's one fine compliment. But what I love is that this novel is an indulgence. I was unrestrained while writing it with the hope that readers would feel unrestrained while reading it.
To my fellow writers, I'll confess -- there's nothing quite like the moment when you take off the literary handcuffs and tear into writing story -- rip-snorting story. In the end, my literary leanings are all there. Nothing I can do to really shake them from the page, but it's dreamy to let fly like this. Completely dreamy.
You know what else is dreamy? Clare Anne Darragh, once upon a time, my college roommate and one of the most bad-ass people I know -- and I know a lot of bad asses.
This novel is for my sisters -- I adore you all, the ones who were chosen for me and the ones I got to choose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Reading about DC in DC ...

When I was a kid, my father told me the story of the snowstorm that hit DC on the eve of JFK's inauguration -- all the empty dance halls inviting people off the streets, the abandoned cars, the motorcade driving through the park -- lights swirling as it rocketed by. A young patent attorney at the time, my father was trapped on a bus and finally got out and walked home, for miles. I never forgot it and thought it'd be a great night for two people's lives to be tied together. It's now part of ALL OF US & EVERYTHING. 

So, DC, I'll be reading in DC about DC next Monday at the PEN/Faulkner Hardison series at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Click the pic below for more info. 

(Delighted to be reading alongside the amazing Laura Kasischke.) 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My great grandmother's genes...

We just unearthed this photograph of my great grandmother, a madam of a house of prostitution in Raleigh, NC. Here she is during that period of her life, 1929 or 1930, in a silky kimono-like jacket, wearing pants on her front porch. 
I thought of her today while reading this article on genetics and how they're handed down. It reads, "Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding." 
I'm thankful for her resilience.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Kathy Flann

I got to know Kathy Flann early on and have become a fan of her work. It is so wonderfully odd, so brilliantly wonderfully odd and it feels so true and precise and real and yet otherworldly. 

With the recent publication of her new story collection GET A GRIP, it is especially my pleasure to have her here to answer a half dozen questions about her creative process, bad habits, obsessions, and her story about wanting to time-travel in order to beat a certain Scottish poet with a spatula. 

Here goes: 



Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I’m writing a series called How to Survive a Human Attack, advice pieces for different movie monsters, like zombies, swamp monsters, and mummies. I find myself thinking about it all the time – these poor wretches always get bludgeoned, beheaded, set ablaze, or tricked into wells. They may have tried to eat people’s brains or something. That’s a fair cop. But they were hungry (or lonely or low on fuel or looking for a place to call home). I mean, who hasn’t gotten cranky after a long day of dieting or gestating?

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’s inspiration, often, in the genesis of a story, coming up with the idea for it. The rest – at least for me – is hard work and determination. The notion that a person sits down and just sort of channels a story onto the page in one sitting is  -- in my experience – misguided. But what I would say is that those initial moments of inspiration are so compelling that they give fuel to the process. With some stories, it even takes several years to finish, but I care about the idea enough to come back to it over and over. If I don’t have that commitment, then the story wasn’t really worth pursuing.

One moment of inspiration came when I read a newspaper story about the first meteorite fall in Maryland since 1923. Meteorite hunters were flying to the area, competing to get to the object first. I learned that meteorites are worth more money if people witness the fall, or if the fall is captured on camera, or if the meteorites don’t land on the ground. They lose their value the longer they touch earth. All of this got my imagination going. I wrote draft upon draft. I researched like crazy, learning about the different metals that can be in a meteorite, about telescopes, about the cut-throat nature of meteorite hunting, the need for speed and secrecy. The story that resulted, “Heaven’s Door,” about a veteran meteorite hunter nearing the end of his career, speaks to the race against time in which we are all engaged. Our time is limited. How will we spend it?

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

Tip #1: Don’t buy flowers for your beloved every time she gets a rejection because while it is true that she is bummed out and making overwrought comments about her worth as a human being,  A) you will go broke and B) she really is going to be fine after a few hours of cursing under her breath. I had to tell my husband this when we first met four years ago.

Tip #2: Consider whether you want to spend your life with someone who curses under her breath.

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.

In one of my first workshops, I wrote a story in which a character traveled back in time and beat to death Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet, with a spatula. We’d been reading him in a literature course, and I couldn’t parse the Scots dialect. The instructor commented that the story I’d submitted was reminiscent of Woody Allen’s work. “Do you know ‘The Kugelmass Episode?’” she said.  It was a piece I had read about twenty times. She may or may not have meant the comparison as a compliment, but I felt so light, as if I’d won something.

If I’d been able to travel forward in time, I’d surely have been shocked to discover that I would grow to love Scots literature later, when I lived in the UK for five years. Probably that spatula-wielding hatred had been a sign of engagement – of wanting to engage, anyway. MacDiarmid still isn’t my favorite Scots writer, but he is credited for starting a Scottish renaissance, using Scots dialect when it was stigmatized, and I have to be grateful to him for that. As much as it’s challenging to make a connection, I suppose he and Woody Allen both spoke in registers that people hadn’t heard in writing before, and I think that’s an important thing for a beginning writer to see is possible. Below is MacDiarmid’s “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn,” which does not make me want to bludgeon him with a kitchen utensil -- and that’s always relaxing, not to feel murderous.

Mars is braw in crammasy,/ Venus in a green silk goun,/ The auld mune shak's her gowden feathers, / Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers, / Nane for thee a thochtie sparin'/ Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn! / - But greet, an' in your tears ye'll drown / The haill clanjamfrie!

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

One summer, I worked at a moving company as a packer. This was in DC, and a lot of the moves were government workers – our days were spent wrapping wine glasses, picture frames, etc. in paper and sealing them into boxes. I was always surprised that people would not sort through their things much before we arrived. We packed junk drawers, and I’d think, You really want this hairy button? Or this price tag? This one time, we went to a nice ranch house in the suburbs to pack for a middle-aged couple, very ordinary-looking, indistinguishable from other customers we’d had. The woman wore no makeup and had shoulder-length dark stringy hair, and the man might have been in khakis, might have been the military. When I packed their night stand, I found myself holding a giant tub with the words Orgy Butter on the label.

That moment was like graduating from an extra MFA program -- people may seem a certain way, but what’s in the nightstand? What’s in the glove compartment?

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?

In my MA program at Auburn, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Judy Troy, who used to have me over to her house. We’d sit on the shaded front porch and talk about fiction all through the Alabama summer. When you’re living in a dumpy place full of roommates and termites, the invitation to spend time at a nice house and drink lemonade is, in itself, nurturing. But on top of that, she offered me insights about stories and characters that I still draw on everyday. I hear her saying, “What’s the ongoing tension here – the problems that this character has had for a long time? And why is today the day of the story?” Whenever I’d explain, she’d say, “Just say that. Right at the beginning.” I hear that still, too. It was a revelation to me – that being very clear would build tension.

What's your worst writerly habit?

For a while I would eat candy or chew Big Red while I wrote, as a way to burn off nervous energy. I suppose it was like all those writers you’d see in old black and white photos, sitting at typewriters with cigarettes burning in their fingers. There was a need to do something physical while writing, something to keep me there in the chair. Maybe it was also a way of creating a ritual, of tricking my mind into associating writing with something as normal as chewing. But I worried about my teeth. So then I started chewing sugarless gum, absently unwrapping piece after piece. One night, my husband and I went to a party and I had to go home early because I had a stomach ache. He’s a doctor, so he went into that mode. “What did you eat today?” I listed off some stuff, mentioning the gum only as an afterthought. “You did what?” he said. Then he gave a very technical description of what the chemicals in the gum were doing to my “gut.” He kept checking up on my habits later.  “Are you still chewing that gum?” Oh no, I assured him, you persuaded me at “gut.” Now I drink herbal tea.

Kathy Flann’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. A short story collection entitled Get a Grip won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. 


Friday, November 6, 2015

Boston Globe piece with lotso shout-outs...

So a shout-out here to my mother, Glenda Baggott "a helicopter parent before there were helicopter parents" and one of my all-time favorite storytellers in the BOSTON GLOBE. Also a shout-out to my son Finn, when he was in utero, the Worcester Public Library, Harriet Wolf, Holy Cross, and the new book coming out this month ALL OF US & EVERYTHING, under my pen name Bridget Asher. A catch-all in 300 words or less and my face as cartoon, which my face appreciates.

In fact .... I think I'd actually prefer to be a cartoon for a while -- at least try it out. It's like a little painless facelift -- like MOONLIGHTING's blurred rendering of Cybill Shepherd. 


Friday, October 30, 2015

the face at work.

I can remember so clearly, as a kid, watching the concentration in my mother's face when she was at the piano playing the most intricate and demanding pieces. She was foreign to me then -- so muscular and exact. Her mouth, in particular, would tighten in a specific way -- fiercely.

I've never thought of myself as making a face when I concentrate -- but these are the moments when your body disappears and your mind is its own machine. But I recently noticed this wrinkle, just on one side, below my mouth and I knew it immediately -- the only face I know that would create that odd, upright line. I knew it not from my own visceral understanding of self, but by watching my mother while at work on her own art. So strange to see it there and know it and realizing that I don't always know myself.

On Oates...

I heard Jim Braude interviewing Joyce Carol Oates recently, asking her if she taught her own work -- and, to be clear, I think he meant process. 

She was a little aghast. No, never, was the answer. 

He followed up, asking if students walked up to her and asked her questions about her own work; they are, after all, taking a class with Oates. 

She said something like, "My students aren't that naive." 

Of course, I'd never suggest a writer teach their own work, but I have access to my brain -- my process -- and I do try to crack my pinata-head open, as figuratively as possible, to show them how the candy is arranged. When in doubt, I do this. When starting out, I try this. When lost, I do this. When stumbling on point of view, I try this. I talk about other writers' processes too -- and other artists and inventors and composers. 

But I agreed with Braude and if I were in an Oates class, I'd be so naive -- or so bold -- and I'd ask and I'd probably keep asking.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Writerly Tips & Whatnot & Whatall

I was on Vermont Public Radio a couple weeks ago, forgot to post. Here's some writer stuff that popped up. 
I've been saying for years that you could open a book of mine to any page and I could explain the memory that went into building what's there. And then the interviewer, Shelagh Shapiro (who's wonderful) completely catches me by pulling out a very short bit -- maybe only one sentence -- and it contains three distinct memories. Her point is about using metaphor, but mine is all about using memory. You'll find that at 14:50.
On the page here, you can read the visualization exercise that I now do on the first day of class. Visualization is crucial to my process and I was underplaying it in my teaching so decided, this year, to develop a way to get writing students -- first off -- to understand or, maybe more pointedly, to trust that their minds are generative. Many of the stories written in my classes this fall started with this exercise. Try it yourself, use them in your classes. (If you're teaching them, speak slowly -- the asterisks allow the writers time to see...)
Other bits:
11:15 I explain how I'm Tilton, how I still allow my mother to mother me as she needs to.
11:35 An explanation of my daughter Phoebe's nickname for me "Baby Mobster"
13:20 The dangers of writing a novel over 18 years.
18:15 On how to write a story within a story. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

the reading.

I know my brother's coming late to the reading so I tell the crowd [that's playing free-and-loose with terminology -- I should use the word audience, but I'm sticking with crowd] that when he shows up they should whisper loudly, "That's him! That's the brother she just read all those horrible things about!"
But he knew that I'd do something like that so he was armed to be loud back. He said, "My grandfather always told me that if you're headed into an uncomfortable situation, it's best to show up late ... and drunk." 
(Note: Our grandfather was a wise man.)
He took his seat. The brilliant Laurie Foos and I were into the Q & A part and he's beaming in the audience the way my Pops does, which is really sweet, but then, moments later, I see him looking down and I know he's gotten distracted and pulled out his phone so I whip around the podium -- as maybe some of my students can imagine -- and I say, "Dude, you are seriously not on your phone right now."
And he says, "What? I'm searching for my favorite line from your novel."
And I say, "Oh yeah. Right."
He sticks with it. "Really, I'm searching the book!"
And I say to the audience, "Oh, he's searching alright." Then to him, "We'll discuss this at Thanksgiving," which as we all know is the time set aside for the airing of family grievances.
Later though, while I'm signing books and before we head to the bar, he shows me the lines. They are:
“My dad got us a Lab from the pound. It ate its own poops after they’d been left in the yard to harden,” I tell Ron. It’s a rare memory of my father.He fed it fat rinds from the table, which Eleanor took as a comment on her cooking. The dog would be flatulent for the rest of the night.
“Eating your own poop – that’s the height of vanity, if you ask me,” he says, which is hard to take from a man who is moussing his hair. Ron’s hair shifts unnaturally in wind as if a single unit.
This is proof, of course, that my brother did read the book because of all the lines in the book "Eating your own poop -- that's the height of vanity, if you ask me," would clearly be his favorite. I soften.
A bunch of us went out after. Some of my favorite people were there. My brother who rarely reads promised Emily Franklin that he would read her new upcoming novel which he claimed was more valuable than anyone else there reading her book because his book-reading is so rare. Jay Wexlerendured much Baggotting; I've sent my apologies already. Tim Hugginswasn't spared either.
And just as things were winding down, my oldest daughter pulled out her phone and told my brother to do a sorority squat, and she didn't just get a picture of it -- no, no. She got an actual leaping and squatting and cute-facing video. And THAT my friends will be what we share at Thanksgiving. It will be a gift that gives and gives and lives on.
And there is a happy ending for all, the end.

[I'm aware that this advice from my grandfather could have far-reaching effects. At the very least it could change faculty meetings forever. ]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

oh, monkey bicycle, i had a blast with this.

so the game is that you explain your book as something else, beginning with if my book were ... 

here it is. i go a little off the rails at the end.
Sebastian Matthews had a wild idea -- to read all of my books and, while reading, conduct a months-long interview. The Five-Part Interview is up in full published at Fiction Writers Review over the course of last week. 
I was in Michigan much of last week so didn't post it all, but here is the first; each one leads to the next section. 
NOTE: If Michigan TSA explains that, once past security in this tiny airport, you will not find any bathrooms but there will be a pot machine, keep in mind, she might not have said pot machine. In Michigan, soda is called pop. So, before you kind of admire Michigan for itsprogressive pot culture and the potential for people who are scared to fly to do so while high, check yourself. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

casting ...

Invited over to My Book, the Movie. Usually it pains me when someone asks me to think of casting, but this time I had a blast.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Personal for Promotional, one for one swap.

1. Early on when I was on book tours, I used to pretend I was late for flights and sprint through airports. Day after day of late nights and early wake-ups and then feeling penned and shuttled, I was so restless that I couldn't help it; it was like being set loose, something wild in a big enough cage, but also strangely it's one of those rare places that a woman in jeans and boots can start sprinting and it's social acceptable. (Update: I now lounge in airports...) 

2. Just heard that Harriet Wolf is an EDITOR'S CHOICE at AudioFile Magazine and just won Earphones Award! This is really an award for the actors who voiced the roles so I'll pull the part that mentions each by name, "Jodi Carlisle depicts Harriet's anxious, resentful daughter, Eleanor, while Katie Koster and Christine Lakin offer spot-on portrayals of her granddaughters, agoraphobic/claustrophobic Tilton and prodigal Ruth. But Harriet is the story's heart. Susan Silo is outstanding as she rasps and whispers her droll asides, skewering characters with choice observations. Part romance, part mystery, this completely engaging and wondrous tale is an audiobook listeners will want to hear again ASAP."

Here is the full review!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Do I deserve to work in words?

So far the strangest thing about the new novel being out is that people write me that the novel made them cry -- I've never published a novel that's had so many people consistently write me about their emotional reaction -- and then they tell me the lines they love. It's the strangest thing to have your novel come back at you in disconnected lines -- wonderful too, but oddly disorienting. 

Here is a beautiful new review by Lauren Daley in South Coast Today that really allows the novel to speak. Wriiting a novel about a novelist who's never cared for novelists while I'm trying to start writing a new novel, I was surprised the reviewer quoted this line from my novel today. Harriet, a reclusive novelist, wrote, “I’ve never cared for novelists. They don't know how to be essential. They lack self-restraint. If you can’t evoke emotion — twist-tie one soul to another — in the density of a poem, then you don’t deserve to work in words.” 

I know exactly where this idea came from. As a young writer I was a devout short story writer and had no intentions of ever writing anything else, and in my most zealous phase, I once said -- about novelists, "If you can't tell a moving compelling story in twenty-five pages or less, why call yourself a writer?" 


I eventually broadened my definition of a writer.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Day One. Writing.

I want my students to see the scenes in their heads. I want them to know -- day one of class -- that their minds are infinitely generative.
This year, I started with three exercises -- the second is where they offer memories based on prompts and we plot a story together. The lesson here is that their memories are gold -- "Memory is a net," as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. And Mednick's famous definition creativity being associative memory that works exceptionally well. In this exercise, they see a lot of the basic elements of story being assumed, but subservient to memory.
The last exercise is purely word-based, the simplest and often the one that yields the best results. The lesson being that words alone can save the writer. They have their own generative force, beyond you.
But the new exercise, the first, is where I lead them through five short visualizations. They have to close their eyes for each and can jot notes between them. One, for example, asks them to imagine a woman in a flooded basement, what floats around her ... she wades to a footlocker and opens it and looks inside. That's it.
After the five are finished, I ask them to put them through two lenses -- the first is which is the most vivid. The second is which is the most mysterious -- meaning you yourself, the creator, wants to know what happened before and after.
The homework for introductory level students is to write one as a scene. The intermediate students have to do the same but also have to plot a story in which they use at least three of the visualizations as scenes in the proposed story that they never have to write. They also write prompts for each other to play with. Much of the discussion is about not just what but how they saw what appeared in their minds. And some of the visualizations also ask for listening as well as seeing.
At the end of the first class, they have three ways at story-making.
For young creatives in particular, this speech is a good one.
"I didn't have a choice." -- Steven Spielberg


[Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is now loose in the world... ]

Thursday, September 3, 2015

On plotting by secrets, just a little note for writerly types.

 
One of my former graduate students just posted the Entertainment Weekly review of HARRIET WOLF, which circles around secrets and when they're revealed. The student wrote, "Some might say she plots by secrets." And she tagged a number of my students who know my catchphrase "plot by secrets" well. The idea of the secret holding power and the stories we tell are form of currency -- we use them to form intimacy -- and the stories we don't tell are coiled springs waiting to be let loose. The right secret let loose in fiction has consequences, creating more plot. Of course, plot can be revealed by all kinds of metaphors, except perhaps static ones. BIRDMAN was fascinating to me because it had an opposite mechanism for plot. I'd call it "plot by escalating and contradictory truths stated openly." (They actually play truth or dare.) It gave me a new lens to look at truth instead of the held secret. I still prefer what's held close and the timed release.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Chaos

The Personal: 
My folks come for dinner to see Finn and Phoebe before they leave for college and as Theo and O. prep for new school year. Washing machine flood in basement as Dave puts the steaks on; fire alarm goes off as steaks smoke. Dogs run outside and sit on neighbor's lawn, as if following the safety plan. People eat, shouting between the fire alarms. I drop a knife that stabs the floor next to my foot. It was that kind of meal. 
Later, after everything calms down, Dave calls us all downstairs. "Are we in trouble?" "Are you going to make us look at the moon?" He has us all sit down and play "What's my problem?" -- a game he's just invented. Basically everyone gets 3 minutes to air their issues.
O. (8 years old) says, "I think you shouldn't just have to say your problems. You can be like, 'Socks these days. Am I right?'" We agree. We go around, each timed, and then discuss.
We laugh. We choke up. It's been a strange and wonderful summer -- the kind of tough summer you wouldn't trade.
The next day is the last before Finn leaves. I give him a haircut in the side yard, an old ritual, but it's later when I confess to him I haven't cried yet but I could. He's at the foot of the stairs. I'm at the top. The 8 year old is asking for soda in between. He says that he could dig at it and cry but doesn't feel like it. I say I don't want to either. He continues packing. The 8 year old is still hoping for soda. I wave her up the stairs and whisper that I'm sad about Finn leaving but my voice cracks and I start to cry. She stares at me, wide-eyed. Seeing a parent break down a little is surprising. Then she says in a very quiet voice, "Can I have some soda now?"
"No."
The Promotional: 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has a fantastic review of HARRIET WOLF in the current issue. I hear that in print I'm on the same page as Franzen and got a higher grade, but I could care less about Franzen, on the planet and on the page. Hoping to get a copy in hand today. Here's a bit:
"Family secrets make for ripe hunting grounds for novelists. In this evocative book, those secrets hide mystery after mystery, like a set of Russian nesting dolls... No spoilers, but we’ll say this: Baggott knows how and when to reveal answers for the ultimate emotional punch."