Misfires, Stalls, and Mistakes: Interview with Anthony Tognazzini

by Julie Chibbaro

My interview this week is with an author, Anthony Tognazzini, whom we can all thank for giving me the idea to start our Get Lit Beacon salon. Back in the 1990s, when I moved to Prague with the idea of becoming a writer, he was the leader of a literary salon called Beefstew, which met weekly at a local pub. I brought a story to read, and listened to his writing, and felt my whole idea of what it meant to be a writer shifting. He was one of the first people to give me positive feedback, and also to show me how to demand more of my work. Anthony is the author of many short stories, and the collection I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These. You can listen to his story “Neighbors” read aloud at WNYC’s Selected Shorts here.

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GLB: Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Or how do you judge your own work (or know if what you’re writing is good?)

AT: My stories aren’t perfect, so no, but I try to make each one as good as it can be. I’m a slow learner, and writing takes me a long time; much of the process is spent just trying to figure out the most basic stuff, like what the story’s really about and how it’s going to unfold. There are a lot of misfires, stalls, and mistakes, a lot of bumbling around. The process feels inefficient and often pointless, but it also helps me discover where the real story is, and pushes the draft, successively, through revision, toward some more fully realized form. Getting rhythm and sound right is really important to me too. But none of that is unusual. All serious writers have high standards in these regards.

As for judging the work, it helps to read it out loud, and to get feedback from readers you trust.

Doubt plays an important part in keeping my standards high. Believing my draft is a piece of shit doubles as a way to figure out how to make it more solid, more honest, and more imaginative. I sometimes worry that I revise so much to compensate for a lack of other gifts. I asked the poet Dean Young if genius was maybe a matter of timing, that what the genius can do in 10 minutes might take a hard-working non-genius 10 years to do. (Dean’s answer, “Maybe taking 10 years is the genius part.”)

But I also know that if I doubt too much or for too long then the work probably isn’t that good, and I need to either quit or totally re-think the story.

ant book

GLB: Do you keep a diary? Or how do you keep track of your thoughts as a writer?

AT: I don’t keep a diary or daily record of my life and thoughts, but I take a lot of notes in notebooks. I also use the Notes function of my iPhone. Some of those iPhone entries are devoted to a story idea, and I’ll just add more to it now and then, sometimes over months or years. Eventually I type those notes into a Word document, adding more, and in this way build bones for a story, collage-style and by accretion. This has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the gaps created by the collage approach create too many narrative absences that are then hard to reconcile. I’d like to move more toward generative, narrative-driven momentum in my writing process.

GLB: How has your writing changed over the years?

AT: I used to write shorter stories, and I think I’ve lost some of the spontaneity and freedom those forms allowed. I’m writing longer stories now, and trying to do more within the stories, so in terms of composition and story construction it’s gotten more complicated. Everything in the process takes about a thousand years.

Certain literary qualities that I believed in when I was younger still hold. I still want the stories to be fun, energetic, subversive, and emotionally impactful.

One key change is that the stories I’m writing for my current book are more concerned with moral questions. Especially around issues of social equality, justice, and individual freedom, the stories have become more moral. That might sound icky and prescriptive, but the morality is philosophical, speculative, a way to explore problems and imagine solutions. In a broad sense, the writing tries more to help. It wants to be of service.

Anthony Tognazzini is the author of the fiction collection I Carry A Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These (BOA). He has received fellowships from Yaddo, Millay, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He teaches Creative Writing at the College of Wooster in Ohio. 

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.

A Year of Reading Like a Writer: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Kristen Holt Browning

When Julie first asked me to blog for the Get Lit website, I had no idea what to write about. Every week, Julie or Flora give their insightful exchanges with authors both local and far-flung, or Ruta provides great behind-the-scenes peeks into the book publishing world. What could I offer? Well, I read (a lot). And I write (a little). And so, from that banal observation, Reading Like a Writer was born.

This year, I committed to reading beyond pleasure—that is, while I still read for story and character and language, I also read to answer these questions: why did the author choose to write this poem/chapter in this way? What does it mean that the author chose to use this word, this image? Does it work? Why not, if it doesn’t?

Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t turn reading into homework. I never felt like I was forcing a novel or book of poems under a literary telescope, or dissecting text merely for the sake of exposing its linguistic or structural innards. Rather, it felt like a deeper, fuller mode of reading: when a narrative kept me engaged, I thought about why. When a poem made my heart beat a little faster, I considered how the poet’s choices created that effect in me.

I also committed to keeping a book log (Logging Books, Logging Memories). As I glance through it, there are two or three novels there that have already disappeared from my mind. But others remain: for example, I am still thinking about, and deeply affected by, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Empathy for the Reader).

In addition to keeping a book log, I’m also still reading a poem a day (Poetry Every Day). A daily practice of reading at least a couple poems has inspired my own writing in notable ways: for one thing, I often use compelling lines or phrases from a poem I read in the evening as the basis for some free-writing the following morning.

So, if you’re looking to adopt some new literary practices for your New Year’s resolution, might I suggest: write down what you read, and read a poem every day.

Finally, a word about the future direction of this series:  I’m obviously not the only reading writer here in Beacon. Going forward into the next year of Get Lit, I’d love to add more voices to this column. What are you reading? What have you read recently that inspired or influenced your own writing? Comment on our Facebook page or tell me at any of our upcoming Get Lit events this year, and I’ll share your recommendations and thoughts in upcoming columns and posts!

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.

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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.