The Long and Short of It

Sometimes, I just want to sink into a thick, wide-ranging novel. Getting lost in a world completely unlike my own, or sliding deep into the consciousness of a character—my earliest reading memories are of experiences like this, whether I was reading Black Beauty or Little Women.

Over the last several years, I’ve been drawn a bit more toward work that is lean and spare. I suspect this is because I feel inundated by news and social media on all fronts (who doesn’t?), and I long for something focused, quiet, and controlled. Then again, sometimes the best way to drown out the everyday noise and chatter is to dive deep into a long book. It’s like food cravings: sometimes all I can think about is pasta drenched in a hearty meat sauce—but then, on another day, a crisp, fresh salad calls my name.

Lately, I tend to ping-pong back and forth between these reading tastes. I’m reading Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. James’s book is over 600 pages long, and is the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Drawing on African myths and narrative traditions, James has created an entire universe which, while rooted in African sources and sensibilities, is also profoundly original (the book includes maps of the various regions and locations which the characters inhabit, such as The Darklands, The Blood Swamp, and The House with No Doors) and unabashedly expansive (it also includes a list of all the characters, which is helpful, given that there are over 50). I’ll be honest: I don’t want to enter the world of Black Leopard every day. It’s a violent and complex one, and sometimes, after a day of work and kids, that’s not what I want. But even on the days I don’t visit, I marvel at the scope of the book, and the many threads it weaves.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis clocks in at just over 700 pages—but it includes about 200 stories. The longest are no more than 8 or 9 pages; the shortest, a paragraph or two. Many of them are singularly unnerving, not only in content but in form: how does she compress an entire narrative down to a couple of pages? When I read Davis, I often finish a story and my first instinct is that I’m disappointed that it’s already done. But this isn’t because the story seems incomplete—if anything, it makes me a little sad to realize how succinctly a story, or a life, can be summed up (not that it’s easy to do as a writer!).

Reading Marlon James, I’m reminded that, as a writer, I have the right to go big, and to offer my readers entire worlds. Lydia Davis, meanwhile, reminds me not to burden my stories and poems with anything they—and the reader—don’t need.

I’ve now tried my hand at writing a (still unfinished) 250-page novel, as well as several poems that are no more than a page. I’ve written lyrical essays that clock in at 15 pages, and barely 1 page. The writing has its own necessary length—whether it’s 500 pages, or 5.

Strong Bonds: The Writing Couple James Ransome and Lesa Cline-Ransome

Where do I even begin to talk about the work produced by Lesa and James Ransome? As an author myself, I think of the process of writing and publishing books as a very slow one indeed.

Except when I look at Lesa and James.

Lesa and James Ransome

I’m not supposed to compare myself, I know, I know. But they seem to produce a new book (or two, together and/or separately) every time I check in on them. And each book is great—a solid work of beauty. How the heck do they do that? I have been following them for years, and I finally reached out to ask them to be our guests for our March 10 salon, to see if they could shed some light on their remarkable productivity. They agreed! Below is just a taste of some of their inner workings, which we will be hearing more about in person:

Get Lit Beacon: You have written & illustrated a wide variety of books that have won many awards. Where do your very top ideas come from?

James Ransome: My ideas come from all around me—books, movies, what I’m interested in painting. I am constantly gathering ideas for books I’d like to create. I only wish I had more time to fully flesh out every one. I once grabbed a biography off my shelf on the life of Harriet Tubman before we took off for a trip. On the first page the writer listed the many lives and jobs Harriet Tubman had throughout her life.

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In that moment I knew that we should create a book about it and our book, Before She was Harriet was born. Sometimes, the tricky part is not coming up with the idea, but finding someone to write it. More often than not, Lesa will pass on a project I really want to do because she is not interested and I may have to find another writer or shelve it for later. 

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Lesa Cline-Ransome: I let my interests guide my choice of topics, but the one subject that remains a constant is my desire to tell the many untold stories from the lives of African Americans. In particular, the stories of women who have persisted in the face of discrimination, prejudice and obstacles and how they found a way to overcome. My interest in sports led me to write biographies about the Negro League player Satchel Paige, soccer star Pele and cyclist Major Taylor. I am an aspiring rapper (if rapping in my car and kitchen counts), and a lover of music, which inspired me to write about musicians I love—Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman, Joseph Boulogne and the forthcoming book on Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. My love of libraries was my inspiration for my very first middle grade novel, Finding Langston, about a young boy who finds refuge from bullies and solace from Langston Hughes’ poetry in the Chicago Public Library. 

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GLB: Do you ever feel like you want to branch out from writing for children? What are your fantasies regarding that? Or, if not, what are some future ideas?

JR: I am definitely interested in studio painting. I spend some time doing my own personal work for exhibits. And I love the idea of my work one day being featured in galleries and museums throughout the country. I would always want to do at least a book or two a year for the children’s market. I enjoy the challenge of telling a story with visual images. When I look back on my childhood, I have always loved books and the idea of combining art and words is, for me, one of the highest art forms.

LCR: While I am an avid reader of adult fiction, my heart is in writing stories for young people. Their curiosity, imagination and impulsiveness make them the perfect protagonists to write about and write for. I find it to be a rewarding challenge to tell stories in a condensed format, sorting through research to find only the most interesting parts of a person’s life and weaving together a story that is both informative and entertaining.  

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Award-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransome, whose work focuses on African-American history, has written numerous books for children that have garnered her top honors. Her latest, Finding Langston, won the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction.

As an illustrator, James Ransome’s work has appeared in over 60 books for children. His art has won Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image Awards, among others. He is on faculty at Syracuse University.

Author Interview: Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely

by Ruta Rimas

The Get Lit Salon on January 13 — the first one of 2019 — will feature not one, but two guest authors, Jessie Chaffee and Brendan Kiely. They are both highly acclaimed, award-winning novelists with a special distinction: They’re married.

Two authors, one roof.

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Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy

Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2017, and translated into five languages. She was awarded a Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the Writer-in-Residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Florentine, and Global City Review, among others.

Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), Tradition, The Last True Love Story, and The Gospel of Winter. His work has been published in more than ten languages, received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award.

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Brendan Kiely’s most recent novel, Tradition

His work has been selected twice as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with Jessie in New York City.

This couple’s literary credit rolls deep and we’re excited to speak to them in person. In advance of the salon, I asked these two writers the same question.

Why write?

Jessie Chaffee:

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Author photo by Heather Waraksa

I write because it is my way of making meaning and of understanding the world and my place within it. Whenever there is an issue that I’m grappling with, whether personal or global, the solution is always writing, because it is in putting words on the page that my understanding takes form and shape. Sometimes that process provides answers, but more often it just clarifies the right questions—and then those questions keep me writing! I write because I’m a reader and, like reading, writing is a path to empathy and connectedness. It takes me further into myself but it also takes me far outside of myself. It gives me access to an entirely new existence and to characters who are vastly different from me, who surprise me, who stretch me and challenge my sense of what it means to be a person in the world. Florence in Ecstasy took almost a decade, and while the writing process was at times maddening and there were plenty of dead-ends, I got to spend those ten years with a city that I love but that is not my own, with art and rowing and history, with Italian women and men and American expats and ecstatic saints. I’m grateful for every one of those years. I write because I’ve always felt most at home in books, in those moments when I glimpse truths that I might understand deeply—being lost, being at war with oneself, being in love—but that I haven’t seen captured in the (exact right way) that my favorite writers have managed to articulate them. And I write because I hope that my books might provide similar moments of connectedness for other readers.

Brendan Kiely:

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Author photo by Gary Joseph Cohen

I take inspiration from Toni Cade Bambara’s line, “the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” I write as an act of social engagement. Whether it is the scandal of abuse in the Catholic Church (The Gospel of Winter), racism and police brutality (All American Boys), or the violent repercussions of misogyny (Tradition, May 2018), I write novels examining the motivations of people grappling with the complex social issues of our day to try to inspire action for social change. I write to move the heart and the feet: I write in search of hope.

Join us on Sunday, January 13th at 5 pm, at Oak Vino, to continue the discussion with Jessie and Brendan.

Year End Roundup – Our Favorite Posts!

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

 

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In only one year, Get Lit Beacon has become an indispensable part of my writing life. Just the chance to spend a couple of hours a month in a room full of people as passionate about words as I am is a gift. Add thought-provoking and inspiring guest speakers and the chance to share work, and the gifts begin to spill out from under the tree. To torture my holiday metaphor, then the cookies arrive each week via blog posts that I gobble as soon as they land in my inbox. I’ve certainly learned from these weekly posts this year. As I looked back, I wondered what Julie, Kristen, Flora and Ruta had learned by writing them, and which posts stood out for them in 2018. I asked, they answered.

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Her interview with Lily Burana is Julie Chibbaro’s choice. In it, she asks Lily what it’s like to go so far out on a limb with her thoughts on so many difficult topics. Lily replies: “I may summon up a lot of nerve … but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life.” She can be brave in her writing because she keeps her private life very private. Something I find especially encouraging coming from an established author in our current world of personal brands and online self-promotion. But I think my favorite part of the interview is what Lily has to say about shitty first drafts. “Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.” Yes!

Kristen Holt-Browning didn’t hesitate when I asked about her favorite post. It’s the one where she talks about reading poetry every day. Partly because she’s still doing it, which means that it’s truly having an impact on her. As she describes it, “in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language.” What stands out for me is how easily poetry can fit into a busy schedule. Like a snack to keep you going, a poem can be a little hit of beauty, emotion, wordplay. And inspiration.

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Tony Early’s interview is Flora Stadler’s choice. Mine, too. The open discussion of how depression affects Tony’s process affected me deeply. First, that he’s willing to put his experience out there, especially if it might help someone else. And then, because I have this fantasy that everyone else is writing daily in a wholly disciplined way and I’m a total slacker. My reasons may not be the same as his, but sometimes I just can’t make myself work. To hear a successful author say that he sometimes goes years without writing was something I really needed to hear.

Having someone from the publishing world give an insider’s glimpse is invaluable. I have learned a lot from Ruta Rimas’s posts. Her favorite, it turns out, isn’t about the industry itself but about improving your writing. In July she reminded us to pick up Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Yeah, yeah, whatever, said my inner bratty teenager. Then I did pick up my copy. Yeah! Yeah! Going back to the basics can be a great catalyst. Now I’m hoping that every word in this post counts.

What stood out for you this year? Let us know in the comments below.

Why Respectful Writing Matters: Interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann

By Julie Chibbaro

We are all familiar with the way hashtags can create movements, and #ownvoices is one of those movements. #Ownvoices defines for readers books about marginalized characters that are actually written by marginalized authors, as opposed to, say, a white author co-opting a person of color’s experience.

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The multi-talented author Lyn Miller-Lachmann has written from both sides of this argument. I was curious what she thought about writing across races and experiences, as well as her view on the #ownvoices movement. Her answers provide some insight into what’s respectful within the boundaries, and why problems with writing outside of one’s own “voice” can occur.

GLB: I love that you write from the autism spectrum (Rogue) and cross culturally (Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago). You’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but you’re not from the Latin culture from which you’ve written. How do you feel about this political and social climate of #ownvoices, or writing from your “place” in the world only? Do you feel it’s limiting?

LML: This is a complicated question. I think the two most important reasons for #ownvoices are the preponderance of bad representations by outsiders that have become part of the canon—and this is a major problem for books with autistic characters because the early books were bestsellers and award winners and so problematic (see Elizabeth Bartmess’s review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nght-Time in Disability in KidLit, for instance)—and the way in which non-#ownvoices books by bestselling authors have hoovered up scarce publishing slots, leaving marginalized authors unable to sell their work.

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When I started writing Gringolandia, and then Surviving Santiago as the sequel, the circumstances were somewhat different. I lived within a refugee community in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s and then spent time in Chile, where I observed the transition from dictatorship to democracy. My Chilean friends at the time asked me to write the book, because, as they said, “We want you to tell the people in your country what happened to us” as a result of the CIA bringing Pinochet to power. In fact, several of them were angry with me because I failed to find a publisher for the book for many years; they thought I would self-publish it because that’s much more common and respected in Chile than in the U.S. Given that Isabel Allende, Antonio Skármeta, and others were publishing fiction set in Chile during the dictatorship, I didn’t feel I was taking a slot away from anyone else but rather bringing their story—and the U.S.’s role in it—to a wider audience.

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While it’s important to do the research necessary to write outside one’s lane, it’s even more important to be aware of one’s motivation. Why do you want to tell someone else’s story? Will your writing this book deny an opportunity to someone else from a marginalized group? What are you willing to do to make sure an aspiring marginalized writer has a chance? At this point, I would rather serve as the translator for an #ownvoices writer from Latin America, which is something I’m in fact doing now for a Cuban author who’s trying to publish in English in the U.S., where he now lives. We haven’t had much luck yet with U.S. publishers, but he adapted the novel into a screenplay, which I also translated, and it has garnered a lot of interest.

GLB: You’re a translator as well as a novelist. How did you get so involved in Latin cultures and language?

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LML: I was a language ace in high school and did a study abroad mini-semester in Spain during my junior year, an experience I wrote about for YARN several years ago. Teaching in a high school with a predominantly Puerto Rican student body, alongside a Puerto Rican colleague rekindled my interest in Spanish as well as Latin American history, music, and culture. So when I arrived in Madison in 1983, I sought out Latin American New Song concerts and attended other cultural and political events. Then, when my family moved to the Albany, New York area, I became the assistant host of a weekly radio show of Latin American and Iberian music, poetry, and history on WRPI, “Los Vientos del Pueblo.” As part of my duties, I translated songs and poems and read the translations over the air. And when my husband won a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and we moved to Lisbon, Portugal for half a year in 2012, I learned Portuguese and continued my studies (and my translation of songs from Brazil and Portugal) upon my return.

GLB: You’re also a teacher and editor, among other things. Do you find it difficult to wear so many hats? How do you manage?

LML: I think that to survive as a creative person today, one has to wear a lot of hats, because when one opportunity fizzles out, there have to be others waiting. Several years ago, I taught a number of one-off and semester-long workshops at the middle and high school level, but the organizers moved away and the programs ended. This year, more than half of my income has come from translation, but last year I had only one small translation project. For the past couple of years, I’ve made good money doing sensitivity readings from autism, and while I appreciate the income, I hope that sometime soon, my #ownvoices novels will find a publishing home.

In all this, my one constant is writing fiction. I’m always working on new projects and trying new things to develop my craft and explore moments in history with resonance today.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), the story of a eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s and an X-Men obsession, in search of a friend and her own special power. Lyn has also written the historical YA novel Gringolandia (Curbstone, 2009) and its companion, Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) and translated the picture book The World in a Second (Enchanted Lion, 2015) by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho from Portuguese to English.