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.

Don’t Do the Hustle: an Interview with Author Belinda McKeon

by Julie Chibbaro

In a society where the dollar is everything, and our very existence depends on money, it’s often difficult for writers to find the time and resources to reach down deep to discover what we really want to say. This is a fact that I’ve been struggling with as an author, and it’s great to talk to other writers, to understand their ways of dealing with the grind of life while also making time for what they want to focus on —– their writing.

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Belinda McKeon, our February 2019 guest and the award-winning author of the novels Tender and Solace, doesn’t have all the answers, but she does have an amazing ability to juggle a tremendous amount of creativity. I asked her how she does it:

GLB: You are a playwright, journalist, novelist, professor. How do you manage to do it all?

BM: I don’t really do it all —- I just do one thing at a time. I tend to work on projects in blocks, including teaching work, which consists of a lot of syllabus and assignment-writing over break, and then class prep in blocks during the week. Around that, at the moment, I’m trying to spend two to three hours a day working on my current novel, and there’s no journalism or playwriting happening. They’ll return, I hope, when the teaching semester is done and I have some space for them. When I was in my twenties, the idea of firing on all cannons was much more attractive to me. Now I see the pressure to be massively productive as, basically, another part of the neo-liberal con, even for writers. I write what I can, when I can. That’s really all anyone can do. The rest is hustling, which is not the same as creating.

GLB: You’re from Ireland. How does that inform your work?

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BM: Fundamentally. The cadence, intonation, sentence structure, grammatical structure, of my writing is Irish. That’s before I even get to the question of character, storyline, themes, settings. I was born in Ireland, I lived there until I was 26, I return there several times a year, and in a sense I’m always halfway there, or half there, because a good deal of my reading, my social media feeds, even sometimes my radio listening, is from there. Also, my husband is Irish. But we’ve been in the US for almost 14 years, and life here, and the texture of life here, has become an organic part of my thinking and my writing over that time. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set here, between Newburgh and New York, and that is something I think it took me almost 14 years to be able to do without (I hope) forcing it. It took that long for the experience of being here to filter down into the writing in that way. Of course, one of my characters is still Irish, and is thinking about the immigrant experience all the time…there’s not much getting away from that. Still, it contains many aspects, so I don’t feel limited by it.

GLB: Lots of times, writers want to protect their characters. How do you get so honest in your work?

BM: I don’t have a choice. Honesty, often horrifying honesty, is just what comes out when I sit down to write. I don’t have any interest in writing characters who portray me in a flattering light. I’m just a messy, needy human.

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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Her second novel, Tender, was published in the US by Lee Boudreaux Books in February 2016. (Read the Kirkus starred review here.)

Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. She lives in Newburgh and is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

by Kristen Holt-Browning 

In a recent interview, the author Roxane Gay said something that jumped out at me:

“I read everything. The number one thing I tell my students is read diversely. And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts. . . Anybody who tells me, ‘I only read literary fiction,’ I’m just like, ‘Well, you’re an asshole. What are we going to talk about?’ Literary fiction—a lot of it’s not that good! . . . My favorite thing to read is spy thrillers, which I just love. I also read romance novels, because they are fun, and they are sweet, and they’ve got a happy ending, most of the time. The world is shit, so—I need that happy ending.”

Reading this, I realized that I hardly ever read anything other than literary fiction. I think that, in college, I was so eager to dive into the classics, and so suddenly aware of the canon, that I snobbishly turned away from anything that wasn’t approved by the academy. And, after graduation, working in publishing, I was surrounded by people who, like me, were reading the latest literary novel, and I wanted to keep up.

Maybe it’s getting older, maybe it’s leaving New York and the publishing scene behind—whatever the reason, I don’t feel that pressure anymore. So, taking Gay’s words to heart, I picked up two fantasy novels by Naomi Novik: Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I had recently stumbled across a glowing review of Spinning Silver, which praised its original and creative use of fairy tale. Although I never read fantasy, I do love the fairy tale-influenced work of Angela Carter (if you haven’t read The Bloody Chamber, get thee to a bookstore now!). So, Novik’s work seemed like a good opportunity to take baby steps into unfamiliar literary territory.

In Spinning Silver, Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender, lives in a town that seems to be situated in an Eastern European locale, a long time ago. Her family is Jewish, and faces anti-Semitism that rings all too true. The villagers live in the shadow of the Staryk—creatures of ice who will do anything for gold. This doesn’t bode well for Miryem, who discovers she has the magical ability to turn silver to gold.

I was impressed with how Novik adapts and twists the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and ingeniously subverts the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish moneylender. She also explores the theme of female agency—without giving short shrift to the fantastical Staryk, and their unnerving ability to turn all the world to winter.

Similiary, Uprooted is situated in a Slavic-inflected, premodern world that is overlaid by magical elements. The protagonist, Agnieszka, is chosen in a longstanding ritual that takes place every ten years: a magician known as the Dragon takes a young woman to live with him for a decade, before he releases her and chooses a replacement. The village acquiesces to this sacrifice, receiving in exchange his magical protection from the Wood, a menacing, monstrous forest that seeks to encroach on the village year after year.

In Uprooted, Novik loosely adapts the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, but here, both of the main characters have magical abilities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these books are well written, with fully developed plots and characters. She doesn’t fall back on the types of stereotypes that I’ve always ascribed to fantasy: there are no fire-breathing dragons or maidens in distress here. Novik may be a “genre” writer, but her books intelligently interrogate fairy tale and fantasy, while also engaging with perfectly “literary” themes like discrimination, gender roles, and social pressures.

Clearly, I’ve overlooked a lot  of great fiction by narrowly reading only one type of book; my future reading will definitely include a wider range of genres.

Have you read any romances, mysteries, thrillers, or fantasy novels that you loved? I’m open to recommendations!

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.

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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.