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.

Tony Earley

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.

 

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What’s the deal with children’s books?

By Ruta Rimas

When people think of children’s books, the first type that usually pops into mind is picture books, the often large-trimmed delights of young childhood, sometimes (but not always) read at bedtime. Most adult readers can fondly look back upon their youth and recall a few favorites books, the ones that transformed them into the readers they are today.

There are the classics: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, anything by Dr. Seuss, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which has countless spinoffs!) by Laura Numeroff. But if you don’t have a toddler, an elementary-aged kid or teenager, you may not know that the children’s book industry is so much more than picture books, and so much more expansive than the classics. For instance, my employer produces over six hundred new children’s books every year.

WildThings
A classic picture book.

Children’s books often get lumped into one giant box, but this segment of the publishing industry is robust, diverse, innovative, and vast. The books published in this category span 0-18 years of age, and that includes:

A board book is short and simple, made from thick cardboard for little hands that like to pull and little mouths that like to bite. Generally, children’s publishers either repurpose content for board books or write board books in-house.

Picture books are usually geared for readers aged four to eight, and contain both a text-based narrative and a visual one. Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt are modern picture book successes.

For young readers who are eager to begin exploring stories on their own (or perhaps with a reading partner) there are chapter books. These tend to run between 10-12,000 words, sometimes have spot art, and are gobbled up by kids six to nine years old. A great example of a chapter book is the Clementine Series by Sara Pennypacker

There are also middle-grade novels, usually for readers who are eight to twelve. These tend to be longer and offer more complex and sophisticated stories. Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is middle grade, as is Wonder by RJ Palacio.

Finally, children’s publishing also encompasses the thriving young adult category. These are books published for teenagers, though there is a significant adult readership, too. Recent YA successes include To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

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A modern YA bestseller

The business wasn’t always this way: The world of children’s publishing fundamentally shifted about twenty years ago and we have a young wizard to thank for that. The Harry Potter series changed everything for this part of the publishing business, and created a shift from a primarily back-list driven industry (i.e., books that have been published many years prior) to a front-list driven one (i.e., new books). This type of model is much more in line with how the traditional adult book market functions. The Harry Potter series is also responsible for the invention of a children’s New York Times Bestseller list, too, because when those books published, they ate up the slots on the regular bestseller list.

Children’s books. It’s where it’s at.

Language and Landscape

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I try to hike at least a portion of the Pocket Road trail here in Beacon at least once a week. On my last couple of walks up the trail, I’ve been leaving my headphones and podcasts at home, and instead paying extra careful attention to the rapidly evolving foliage, and the swollen creek rushing down the mountain—because I’ve been reading Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane.

Published a couple of years ago, Landmarks traces Macfarlane’s explorations of the relationship between land, language, and history across the British Isles. I’m reading it slowly, savoring all of the linguistic nuggets he unearths, and it’s on my mind during my hikes in my own familiar terrain.

I’m only a couple of chapters in, but Macfarlane has already introduced and discussed several fascinating examples of nature-influenced language. For example, in the historical northern Scots dialect, “blinter” refers to the dazzle of winter stars on a clear night. Imagine—someone, at some distant point in Scottish history, looked up at the stars night after winter night, and knew he (or she) needed a word to describe this seasonal, regular part of his (or her) landscape and life.

Macfarlane’s overall point, as he notes, is that “language deficit leads to attention deficit.” He couches this point primarily in our linguistic relationship to the natural world, which places him in a long line of British writers and poets (Wordsworth writing about the Lake District, for example).

Americans have their own history of locating themselves and their language in the land (Thoreau’s Walden comes to mind). Last fall, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, before I visited Arches National Park in southern Utah, because Abbey worked in and around Arches and Moab as a park ranger in the late 1950s. Like Macfarlane, Abbey believes passionately that our relationship to the natural world is sacred, and in danger of being lost—and worth writing about and recording, because

“This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

While Macfarlane locates people’s history in the geography of the British Isles, Abbey finds his own natural home in the desert:

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

I’ve never written directly or deeply about the landscape of the Hudson Valley—my own native, most-loved region. Macfarlane and Abbey make me wonder if it might be time to learn more about how people have traditionally spoken of and interacted with this land, and write about this sweet valley that has nourished three generations of my family. 

Time for me to hit the trail again, I think, and find some inspiration on the mountain.