a replacement life by boris fishman

areplacementlife

 

[ARC via Amazon Vine program]

Slava Gelman is a young writer trying to get a foothold on the slippery slope from low-ranking nobody to published writer, with a byline in Century, a high-profile magazine where he works. So far achieving little respect, his ideas largely overlooked, he’s mired in frustration. If he’s to succeed, he believes he needs to break free of his barely off the boat Russian family, moving forward into modern-day Manhattan and the new lifestyle he yearns to emulate.

Upon the death of his much-loved grandmother, his adorable grandfather – a golden-hearted man thoroughly lacking principle in all matters related to money – convinces Slava he should turn his writing skills to the family’s advantage, forging a letter of restitution for his grandmother’s suffering during the Holocaust, in order to receive money from the German government. Along with the request, Slava finds himself reeled back into the bosom of the family, adding to his conflict and misery.

What makes the whole endeavor a bit less smarmy is his grandmother just missed a legitimate opportunity to apply for restitution; she missed the letter which would have qualified her by just a few days. The implied question is: is it more immoral forging a letter to get money from a government formerly responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews, or to allow this same government to get away with not having compensated the family in any way – not that money can buy back what suffering takes.

Moral or not, Slava writes the letter. In so doing, he gets far more than he ever bargained for, which you kind of have to figure or there’d be no story, would there?

Fishman’s book takes on a very serious topic, managing to sidestep the most serious offense through use of humor, mixed with a cast of characters you can’t fail to love .  Will his treatment of forged Holocaust restitution offend some readers or make Slava heroic? Tough to say.

Though I am not Jewish, I am a human being whose heart hurt reading Slava’s invented stories. Not having read other reviews of the book, I can’t say how he fared with other readers. I was borderline, finding a few more gruesome details a little too graphic for comfort. But then, as is always the case in reading fiction written by a writer representing a culture foreign to the reader, I feel a bit reluctant speaking out against his treatment. I have no notion how it feels to have been savaged at the hands of the Nazis. What I know comes from history books, films and other literature I read. My heart breaks on their behalf but I will always be an outsider.

For the most part, I found Fishman’s balance between horror and humor even. The specter of very real suffering was in the background throughout the book; it isn’t as if he moved from funny to savage with no segue. His own Russian Jewish heritage came through strongly, his heart clearly affected by the story he chose to tell.

A Replacement Life reads similarly to the books of Gary Shteyngart, funny by use of understated, ironic humor. There’s a good chance if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy the other writer.

Russian Jewish humor has a distinctly unique inflection. Plots often verge on the madcap, heavily using old word vs. new world contrast to create distinct generational separation in characters, lending itself well to this type of humor. Older family members groan and hold their heads over new world changes in the young, invoking guilt in an attempt to bring the younger generation back to the old ways. Of course, they generally fail. Once having achieved freedom, who wants to trade it back?

Loved the book. Highly recommend.

 

From Acknowledgments:

“My first thanks is to my grandmother. She really was better than all of us.

Then to my grandfather. A friend once said, “You’re smarter than him, you’re more enlightened than him. But both of us can fit inside his left nut.” Hard to Argue.”

 

 

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 20, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062287885
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062287885

Publicist: jane.beirn@harpercollins.com

 

 

why i’ve made a podcast i won’t post: an anne tyler man booker screed

Anne Tyler fan? You may want to look away.

Moriarty!

Moriarty!

Just as an FYI, my beef is as much with the Man Booker judges as with Anne Tyler the writer. Sure, I dislike her books. Quiet tales about domestic American life have been done far, far better than in her own novels. And sure, she’s a sweet lady who’s managed to make a crap ton of money while thumbing her nose at  the “authors must promote themselves” modern truth. She barely missed that train. By the time publishing companies began their slide into despair, she was already a Very Big Name in women’s fiction. She had no need for exhausting signings, granting interviews and answering the same questions over and over. She was grandfathered in, so to speak.

And I say women’s fiction because I cannot imagine many men would find her books of interest. There are no murders, no car chases, no sports (that I know of) and nothing which would require full-frontal nudity in a film adaptation.  No testosterone, basically.

There’s a difference between these mid-range books written for a female audience and those written for males. No cries of sexism! It’s considered sexist to speak what’s obvious truth, a ridiculously politically correct notion. Is there some cross-over? Sure! Is it the norm? No! There is male writing and female writing, neither is better or worse than the other but the differences are mostly clear. But that’s a topic for another day; I can’t argue that now.

My podcast about Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was ad hoc, unrehearsed and frankly made  me come off like a crazy cat lady cornered in an alley. To Anne Tyler, it was unfair. I dismissed her with one brushing motion, letting my anger over the unfairness she made the Man Booker shortlist while Marilynne Robinson did not (though she’s a far, far superior artist, have I mentioned that?) get the better of my judgment. It’s not on her that she was chosen, not her decision to bump Robinson from the Shortlist.

 

@$*%&Q$*%

@$*%&Q$*%

 

I self-censored myself, for better or worse. Perhaps I’ll come at it again, with a cooler head. Or maybe this post is enough. But I refuse to go back on my assertion Tyler’s works are not prize-quality writing. They are geared toward an audience eager to read fuzzy, warm and reassuring stories about generations of families, all their ups and downs and dramas. While it’s true every life tells a remarkable story, not every story is worthy of turning into a novel.

I find Anne Tyler mind-numbingly dull. She’s the sort of writer who tells every single action her characters make, whether it advances the plot or not – usually not. Here’s an example of my life, written by Anne Tyler:

She woke at 8:30 in the morning, sunlight streaming through her cheap, brown Walmart curtains bought because their color was neutral and, besides, she was getting divorced after 25 years and had no energy to think much beyond the fact she needed to find her own place to live. The curtains were those ring-top ones, or whatever you call them. The texture was nubby. Overall, the effect was somewhat masculine but dreadfully dull. However, the curtains were room-darkening, allowing her to sleep almost endlessly, should she so desire. Though, sleeping almost endlessly is not good for those with depressive personalities, which she had.

Reaching for her phone, a Samsung Galaxy 6 – way too expensive and not worth the money, leading her to question why on earth she did such a stupid thing – her arm brushed the white, Egyptian-cotton sheets she’d purchased from Amazon, back when she realized she would need them, along with the cheap, brown curtains previously mentioned. Kicking aside the down comforter from Ikea, covered with a miniature rose print by a duvet cover, also from Ikea, she turned on her phone, saw what time it was, rolled back over the white sheets and went back to sleep..

  • pseudo-Anne Tyler

 

FASCINATING ISN’T IT.

Sadly, I included nowhere near the detail Anne Tyler would have. I neglected to mention how my hair looked, what I was wearing, the fact I sleep with roughly three books, a notebook and two pens every night so I can reach for them directly every morning – or at night, if I’m fighting insomnia. I could have included so much more, as she would have.

I am angry, impotently angry, not a damn thing I can do about it but rant and rave. Makes no difference as far as the Man Bookers but it does help me feel better, by a small measure. Life isn’t fair and literary prizes are political. Shock horror. But then, if no one points a finger it all slides without notice, a much worse eventuality. Anyone who cares about literary fiction should fight for what’s right, not ignore injustices such as these. When it is so blatant, so brazen how could a serious reader not notice?

At this point, I need to do one of two, things: 1). Forget Anne Tyler, ignore her completely, swallow my indignation and move on, or 2). Read more of her work, in a vain attempt to ascertain what about her is so noteworthy.

She’s driving me mad. When a thing drives you mad it means you care enough to allow it to bother you. It has power, growing into a towering force that pokes you in the night, annoys and irritates. I can’t let the topic of Anne Tyler and the inordinate amount of praise she receives bother me anymore. It’s unhealthy, not to mention a waste of time.

To read or completely obliterate from notice. That is the question. I’ll sleep on it, along with my three books, notebook and pens. On my Egyptian cotton sheets.

 

meanwhile, back in edinburgh: Part the 1st

Dusk, over the Atlantic

Dusk, over the Atlantic

As I was saying, I flew to Edinburgh on the spur of the moment, staying nine days from the end of August through early September. In my earlier post I covered the generalities: the whys and whats and wherefores. I went because I could, because I had the time and the freedom and the money. I went for the Edinburgh International Literary Festival (which expanded to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as a bonus) and out of love I’ve nursed for Scotland as close to all my life as it interests me to relate.

What makes this remarkable isn’t just that I upended my life and left; it signaled the end of one very, very (very) long married phase and the beginning of the rest of my life.

Dull. Let’s get to the fun bits.

 

Appin Guest House, Edinburgh

Appin Guest House, Edinburgh

I have no reason to lie to you; the trip cost a fucking fortune. Nervous breakdowns are expensive. I’ve been using the bank statement listing all my foreign transactions as note paper; I can’t bear turning it over and facing reality. I know what the plane cost (ouch) and roughly the hotel (oucher). Food, cab fare, festival tickets, souvenirs, beer… Not like I can return any of it for a refund or would even want to.

Note paper. All note paper.

Flying into a European city at the height of its festival season (books, the arts in general, the military tattoo and films: four separate affairs) without having pre-planned to do so, at a time when hotels are booked to capacity, is nothing short of foolhardy. In any case save duress, this would be a very bad idea. Duress, in my case, meant if I didn’t get the hell away I would risk losing the last bit of my goddamn sanity.

I had all of two hotels from which to chose, two with rooms available so late in the festival season. One was a guest house/B&B  so expensive it gave me a nose bleed, the other a mansion far out of the realm of reality even if I’d knocked over a bank. Because I’m too pretty for prison, I went with the nosebleed, a beautiful little B&B – Appin Guest House – off Dalkeith Road, in a residential area to the southeast of central Edinburgh. I was by Arthur’s Seat, not far from the Palace of Holyrood, the walk to the Old Town roughly half an hour to forty minutes depending how many wrong turns I took and how many distractions.

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Now, the B&B was expensive but it was ungodly amazing, like walking off the streets of 21st century Edinburgh straight into the Edwardian era. Have you seen that horrendously saccharine time-traveling film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour? Something something in time? That but without the gagging, a sort of time warp, space/time anomaly, timey wimey wibbly wobbly thing. Step outside and I’m a tourist in rumpled, not fresh as they could be clothing, dragging luggage. Step inside and my high-fashion silk dress squeezes me into a perfect hourglass, lace-up leather boots with sharp toe ringing on the floor, all topped with a hat nestling my well-coiffed hair – as opposed to flat and somewhat frozen locks on the one side, from resting it against the wall of the plane, sticking straight up in front because Edinburgh’s more than a little bit windy.

The floors of the hotel were marble, broad stairway showing gracefully well-worn wood, crystal chandeliers hanging from coffered ceilings, tastefully muted tartan carpeting throughout and general gob-smacking splendor. Fresh from navigating the streets of Edinburgh, dragging my worldly belongings behind bumpity bumpity down cobble-stoned streets, reaching that foyer I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the floor. And this before I’d even experienced their Full Scottish Breakfast.

 

Foyer, Appin House

Foyer, Appin House

 

Grand ceiling, Appin House

Grand ceiling, Appin House

Many more photos of Appin House here on Bluestalking’s Tumblr

The absolute silence of the place was a bit spooky. I’d forgotten hotels in Europe aren’t like those in America, they all but close down for several hours between breakfast and check-in time. I knocked on the “Employees Only” door, receiving no answer. I strained my ears to hear even a whisper of human noise, even the scurrying of a mouse. The quiet was almost oppressive but there was a chair to rest my weary bones, an outlet to charge my phone and little else I wanted aside from that. Half a sandwich from a New York layover sufficed for lunch with water from the Edinburgh airport.

I could wait ’til Doomsday, if need be. Communication with the outside world re-established, weary self safely and warmly ensconced in a luxurious setting frankly too good for me, it was time to start texting bragging pictures home.

 

Edinburgh Castle, In Yo' Face

Edinburgh Castle, In Yo’ Face

Eventually, it was the maid who came along to save me, tsking both that I’d had to wait so long and also that the gardeners had left the front door unlocked, allowing me to come inside in the first place. I’ve never received such a warm and assuring, flustered and disbelieving welcome before in my life. Welcome! And how did you get in here… ? Oh, and your room isn’t ready, did I mention that?

My room hadn’t been cleaned but she took care of it in less than an hour, while I sat unmoving in the foyer, alternately texting madly and cackling at the consternation of friends I’d awoken at an ungodly hour back home in Chicago. For all I cared she could have repainted and tiled the walls, while she was at it. I had Facebook! Twitter! Text messaging! Pictures I’d already taken! THE WHOLE DAMN INTERNETS!

But breaking eye contact with my phone screen long enough to – with no small degree of annoyance at the interruption – look up at her antiseptic-smelling self hovering above me, I fell in love instantaneously. As the clouds parted, she handed me the key. “You must be so tired,” she said, in the way soothing, ethereally beautiful angels must, at the point of our death. I’d been bright-eyed and more than a little manic-looking, eyes evolved huge and staring wide from gazing at the flickering blue screen in the almost dark, but her eyes were so kind, her raw need to see me rest so urgent. Pulling the charger plug for my phone from the ancient socket in the wall, cord whipping behind me, I charged up the stairs into my newly-cleaned room, peeked to see that there was in fact an en-suite bathroom (it’s Europe, you can’t take these things for granted) and threw myself into sheets so white and starched I thought I’d never crawl out again.

The angel left quietly, soft clouds caressing my cheeks in her wake. To sleep, perchance to awaken and shower before nightfall. “Sleep, my precious… Sleep.” she whispered.

Three minutes later I heard her above, vacuum roaring away. My angel.

 

Room 6, Starched and Ready

Room 6, Starched and Ready

 

Thinking back, I’m not positive I ever once set out in an intentional straight line from the hotel to central Edinburgh. Lie: I did but never made it without streets changing names and buildings popping up where they hadn’t been the day before. Greyfriars Cathedral alone must have gone poof and re-assembled itself in a different location a good dozen times before all was said and done. For one solid day it was there every time I turned a corner,  like some sort of twisted-ass Harry Potter wizarding trick. I could set out with it at my back, make a beeline in the opposite direction, then find myself smack in front of it again in half an hour without having made a turn.

It was not rational; it bent the laws of physics in half.

It got to the point I found myself ecstatic to recognize places I’d gotten lost previously. It’s not that I remembered how I eventually managed to get where I was going from these points. Rather, I was disproportionately gleeful I came to find streets I hadn’t meant to be at least once before. If I’d been anyone else tagging along with me I’d have ripped off my head, shoving the map down my neck as blood spurted from my arteries like a sprinkler. On my own, I just slapped myself on the back – a bit too sharply, at times -laughing it off.

In my peripheral vision, Greyfriars stood sentry, biding its time.

 

Couldn't find it again if I had to

Couldn’t find it again if I had to

So, I spent these first couple days wandering, getting my bearings and memorizing every line of Greyfriars Church. I had no agenda save book festival events a couple of days hence, leaving fate to take me where it would. Putting a foot out the door each morning, I had no set plans. I picked a direction and followed my nose, which also seemed to pop up in unexpected places several times an hour. My map and smart phone were in my backpack for emergencies but the only real need I had of them was navigating back home at the end of the day. Because, well, they weren’t going to get me anywhere I actually intended seeing, anyway.

 

I do not know

I do not know

I floated through the city, embracing my own discombobulation, getting lost cutting through dark alleys, taking photos of details.

 

Damned if I know

Damned if I know

Uphill and downhill… Up and down, each up more steep than the downs, I swear to God. Defies all laws of physics. Or geography. Or geological who’s it.  But you cannot tell me it’s not so.

Cowgate - this one I figured out

Cowgate – this one I figured out

Thank goodness for those huge breakfasts on subsequent days. I didn’t need to eat all day, not until dinner.

So I walked.

And got lost.

Walked some more, got tired, sat, got up and walked. Found a pub, had a pint.

And walked.

 

Sword Swallower - Fringe Fest

Sword Swallower – Fringe Fest

Finding myself in Princes Street that first day, I blended with the crowds watching street performers.

And cringed along with them.

015

 

Found myself in the square in front of St. Giles Cathedral.

St. Giles Cathedral

 

I gawped up at the architecture.

Still St. Giles

Still St. Giles

Gawped some more.

You guessed it

You guessed it

A bit more.

Yip

Yip

The cathedral was emptying out for the day, whisper quiet as I walked around taking photos. Just me and a handful of other tourists.

Interior, St. Giles

Interior, St. Giles

St. Giles, Interior

St. Giles, Interior

Then…

Yes

Yes

One last look, before they closed for the day.

Outside again, dusk had begun falling, travel weariness dead on its heels. All the early excitement walked out of me, I started coming back down. I dreamed again of starched sheets, dreamed of dreaming on starched sheets.

Just as I’d begun drooping, the Fringe Festival was revving up. Actors and comedians and singers passed out handbills to lure in well-fed and watered tourists looking for entertainment. At any given time I must have held thirty advertisements in my free hand. Not sure why but grabbing papers from strangers became almost giddying,  all those hands stuffing things at me at once, elevator speeches chattering full force. I found that manic smile on my face again.

Crowds don’t usually amuse me, much less crowds popping out with hands. Must have been over-exhaustion making me slap happy. It got to be a game: how many papers can I grab?! I must have all the papers! GIVE ME ALL THE PAPERS.

So many venues, so much to see and quite reasonable. Dirt cheap, most of it. Had I not enjoyed so much free sampling on the streets earlier I may have been tempted, myself, on the first day. But I was growing exhausted.

 

Fringe Festival - 2015

Fringe Festival – 2015

And evening was coming on quickly.

Human Statue

Human Statue

Performance artists posed.

Fringe Event Posters

Fringe Event Posters

And all the posters and posters and posters glued everywhere.

St. Giles, Square

St. Giles, Square

Buildings grew dark as street lights began to glow.

A Close

A Close

And while the excitement of the revelers was palpable and alluring, gearing up for a long night, I’d just flown in from the States. Already awake more than 24 hours, I hit a wall.

Hungry for the first time since that hours’ old sandwich consumed at the B&B, dinner was another cold sandwich from a shop. Quick and easy. The forty to fifty to three hour walk back was exchanged for a cab.

Day one – a mere late afternoon and evening – was done. The next would be my first full day in the city.  What little energy I had left I’d use reading that guidebook I packed, to research what I hadn’t made time to before, leaving in such a rush, and study a map more for ornament than anything. Then shower dust and sweat and the palms of dozens of people I’d brushed from Chicago to New York to Edinburgh, falling asleep on sheets ironed by an angel.

Grateful I’d fought against every excuse to not, yet came, anyway.

Back to Edinburgh.

 

Night falls on Edinburgh

Night falls on Edinburgh

 

interview: wiley cash

[Previously published at BookBrowse.com, rights retained by author.]

Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash

In the bio on your website, you wrote: “I became a Southern writer because I wanted to recreate the South that I know, and I learned to write about the South from the writers I loved.” Why is southern writing so distinctive? Do you feel you had the choice to become any other sort of writer?

One thing that makes southern writing so distinctive is that it relies heavily on the voices of its characters and narrators. Southerners are pretty proud of their accents, no matter how much the rest of the country makes fun of them; southern writers want those accents reflected accurately in their work. I think it’s important to be true to the diction and vocabulary of southern speech, but I think it’s also important to remain true to the southern style of storytelling, which means as a writer you have to pay special attention to how southerners tell stories. Rarely are these stories told in a linear fashion; very often the storytelling is circular or digressive. I’m thinking of the narrator of Thomas Wolfe’s narrator in The Web of the Earth, an elderly woman based on Wolfe’s own mother who starts the story and then immediately changes the subject, only to return to the central story intermittently throughout the text. I’m also thinking of Kaye Gibbons’s novel Ellen Foster and the way Ellen, as the novel’s narrator, moves chronologically with long stream-of-consciousness digressions. The novels reads as if Ellen is telling the reader her story as it comes to her.

I don’t know that I had any choice to become anything else but a southern writer, and I don’t think that’s true just because I was born and raised in North Carolina. I grew up reading the work of southern writers like Clyde Edgerton, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest J. Gaines, and those writers really informed my writing. But I think I was just as affected and influenced by the stories I heard from people like my maternal grandmother and the other people who surrounded me as I grew up. I might’ve learned to write from what I was reading, but I learned to tell from what I was hearing.

Why has the South been such a looming presence in so much of the best American literature?

The South has continued to loom large in our collective imagination because it so dominated the imaginations of this country’s earliest settlers. Aside from Jamestown, most of our early colonists settled in New England and along the northeastern coast. They built cities like Boston, Salem, and Philadelphia, and they rarely ventured too far outside those cities. They knew the French were in the north, but they didn’t quite know what was down there in the south, and that’s why they sent their outcasts to the southern colonies.

To these early Puritan settlers, the woods represented evil, unknown things, and they built a great mythology around what stayed hidden out there in the woods. The early settlers in the Appalachian Mountains did the same thing. Even after the south was settled that mystery stayed strong, and people in other parts of the country were still incredibly interested in the region. That’s why the local color writers like Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar were able to stake their careers on writing about this region; their fiction, nonfiction, and poetry gave many readers their first tastes of the South.

Seldom can I say I loved – or loved the strong depiction of – every, single character in a book but I felt a very strong sense of acquaintance with the full cast in ALMKTH. Even the characters I despised I couldn’t quite bring myself to hate because you were able to show bits of goodness in them. Except, well… Readers of the book will know. Does characterization come as easily to you as it seems? Do you think this is the strongest aspect of your writing?

It’s important for me to create characters that readers can believe in, even if they’re unlikable. I don’t know that I’ll ever create a character more unlikeable than Carson Chambliss, but I can tell you that I enjoyed putting him on the page. I grew up watching guys like Jimmy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart on television, and I grew up aware of what they did with the power people gave them; some of those observations went into Carson Chambliss.

But I think place is probably the strongest aspect of my writing, at least I hope it is anyway. When I wrote Land I was trying to recreate western North Carolina because I missed it so much. I was living in southwest Louisiana, and I found myself homesick for those mountains, seasons, and fresh water. When I wrote the novel I got to go back there; I think these characters spring from that place. They wouldn’t be as real to me if they didn’t.

I loved Christopher/Stump most of all. He lodged in my heart and never let go. When you wrote his character did you realize how singular and special he was? Did you base his character on anyone in particular (in fiction or real life)?

What I wanted to show was how much Jess loved his brother, and I thought it was important make that love just as real as the characters themselves. Christopher’s presence looms large in the novel even though he doesn’t appear on very many pages, and I wanted the reader to feel his absence as much as Jess does.

Did you have a personal favorite character from the book?

I really liked Jimmy Hall. He comes into the novel with more past and more baggage than any other character, and we’re wondering if he’s going to screw everything up or finally do the right thing for once in his life. To be honest, I never really knew what he was going to say or do when I put him on the page. There was a time when I attempted to use him as a narrator, but he was just too out of control. He wanted to tell the reader what happened at the end of the novel, and he wanted to defend himself and try to explain the decisions he made. I had to cut out his narration even though I had over one hundred pages of it; I just couldn’t get it to fit.

How long did it take to write ALMKTH? With so many intersecting plots, how did you keep them straight and so well-balanced?

I started writing this novel as a short story in the spring of 2004, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to work; the story needed more space and more characters to round it out. I experimented with a host of narrators, but Jess, Adelaide, and Clem seemed to be the best folks to tell this story. Each of these three narrators represented a particular knowledge of the event: Jess knows what went on inside the church and what happened to his brother, whether he understands it or not; Adelaide knows the history of the church and she understands the hold Carson Chambliss has over his congregation; Clem is an outsider just like the reader, and he’s trying to put all the facts together just like we are.

The first draft I wrote of the novel was more like a character study where I delineated the pasts of each character in order to understand their role in the community and their role in this tragedy. In the later drafts of the novel I focused more on the plot and trying to keep it moving while maintaining the novel’s heavy emphasis on the characters. Toward the end of the revision process I found myself overwhelmed with trying to balance the pace of the narrative with the development of the characters, and I ended up making calendars that allowed me to match the evolution of the characters and their knowledge of events with the major plot points in the story. I wish I’d thought to do that earlier.

Do you keep a specific writing schedule, any particular place you need to be in order to best concentrate?

I’ve kept a lot of schedules. When I started the novel I was in graduate school in Lafayette, Louisiana. If you’ve ever been to Lafayette then you know it can be tortuously hot for much of the year. As a graduate student I couldn’t really afford to run the air conditioner, so I’d get up early in the morning – 5 or 6 a.m. – and write until late morning. I worked at a Cajun lunch house and in the evening I worked at another restaurant, so I liked to have those morning hours to focus on work.

When I moved to West Virginia to teach at Bethany College I’d still wake up early and try to get some work done before class started, usually around 9 or 10 a.m. I tried to write or revise a thousand good words a day. I wrote this book while living in Louisiana, and I revised it while living in West Virginia; it made for a lot of early mornings.

I’m no longer teaching every day, so that it makes it easier to get some good writing done. I’ve been traveling a lot since the book’s been published, so I’m getting used to writing in hotels and on airplanes. When I’m at home I work on a desktop computer without internet access. I still like to wake up early, have some coffee, read the headlines, and start working around 8 a.m. My desk is on the top floor of our house, and the window looks out on a hill where cows graze. It’s really quiet, and that makes it pretty ideal.

Did you write a thesis for your Ph.D.? If so, what was the subject? (Would love to read that!)

My Ph.D. is in creative writing and American literature, and an early draft of A Land More Kind Than Home served as the creative portion of my dissertation. The academic portion was a study of Charles W. Chesnutt and Thomas Wolfe, two North Carolina writers from opposite sides of the state. The study considered the ways Chesnutt’s and Wolfe’s literature portrays issues of race and class in North Carolina in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression.

Who are the literary luminaries writing today whose works you believe will stand the test of time? Any particular works you’d recommend to readers of literary fiction?

This is a tough question. My background is in American literature, and as a student of literature I’m used to those established canons and I’m used to the anthologies that have already made the decisions about what’s important and what’s not. That’s why I think booksellers and book reviews are so important to contemporary; they’re shaping the canon in real time without the benefit of hindsight that professors and literary theorists have. Booksellers are making decisions about what to put on the shelves and reviewers are making decisions about what to review; their jobs are really important, especially to contemporary readers.

There are a lot of contemporary writers whose work will stand the test of time. Ben Fountain and his new novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk come to mind, as does Karl Marlantes’sMatterhorn. Those are both debut novels, and that just blows my mind. I think Louise Erdrich’s work is incredibly important, and I feel the same way about Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, and Richard Ford; these people are chronicling the America they know, even if those Americas are all a little different.

When can we expect to see your next novel published? Will the themes be similar to ALMKTH?

My next novel is tentatively titled Stealing Home, and we’re thinking it should be out late 2013 or early 2014. It’s set in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, and it’s about a washed-up minor league baseball player who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home and goes on the run. There are the same themes of fathers trying to do the best they can, children trying to make sense of the world, and the constant threats that families face when they’re not as strong as they could or should be.

 

nba longlist: a necessary rant, an inconvenient truth

NBA Longlist 2015

National Book Award Longlist 2015

National Book Award Longlist 2015

Not a word of complaint from this woman: Hanya Yanagihara (YES), Jesse Ball, Lauren Groff, Adam Johnson, Edith Pearlman, Nell Zink, T. Geronimo Johnson, Karen E. Bender, Angela Flournoy…

Oh, wait. Son of a bitch. Bill Clegg.

Nervous pulling of collar.

It’s like this: Did You Ever Have a Family is, how shall I put this… really awful. Bill Clegg is a big name literary critic. I do not question his credentials. However, having attempted and failed to read this novel the words “ungodly terrible” spring to mind.

Adjectives.

Cringe-worthy metaphors and similes.

Crawl out of your skin, teeth-gritting, primal scream of despair prose.

It’s a book in desperate need of an editor – in order to tell Clegg not to have published this book. Hate to resort to this harsh review, because it took my breath away for its candor,  but it’s the truth:

NY Times Review – Sept. 8, 2015

by Dwight Garner

“If you’re not willing to let this confident but shallow novel pour over you, as if you were a Belgian waffle, there’s no point to it at all. Unless you’ve got a funky old gas stove you need to tend to, right now.”

OUCH.

Look at it like this: Bill Clegg is a literary critic. His LinkedIn status is God. If you’re an author there’s an uncomfortable, squirm-in-your-chair with anticipatory angst chance he may someday be assigned something with your name on it. The risk of speaking with bald truth is the chance he’ll go Michiko Kakutani on your ass at some later time, leaving strips of skin stuck to a shirt saturated with your own blood.

While I can’t blame the raw fear, I despise the concept an author would let this stop him or her from honestly stating that which is fact: this book really sucks.

No one relishes facing someone about whom you’ve told an uncomfortable truth but above that, there is literature. There is truth. There is legacy. There is sleeping the sleep of artistic integrity. Knuckling under for fear of reprisal pimps what literature means, reducing it to the lowest common denominator of all:  ego.

Short story long: this is why Bill Clegg’s novel sits on the NBA Longlist, usurping a deserving book. As if we needed reminding: literature prizes are political.

This is a sad truth.

man booker 2015: what a difference a few hours make

Unbelievable. While I slept, from behind my back emerged this wee bitch of a Shortlist:

Man Booker Shortlist 2015

Man Booker Shortlist 2015

Hello, political component to the Man Bookers. Ha, what am I saying. Welcome back. We hardly missed ye; never had the chance. You can’t miss what hasn’t had the courtesy to leave.

Analysis of the analysts:

Judges 2015

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey (48)

Granta, Jonathan Cape, Random House, Telegraph, Guardian

Guardian Books podcast: Political fiction

Verdict: Holy fuck, with political bent, though probably least prejudicial on list.

 

John Burnside (60)

Scottish poet, T.S. Eliot Prize, latecomer to the literary game, hell of a learning curve but he smashed this one.

Prof, St. Andrew’s University,  novelist, list long as my arm.

From his university page:

“John’s main interests are in American literature, poetry, ecocriticism and the language of environmental activism.”

Verdict: Respect, with an American bent.

This is your Anne Tyler.

 

Michael Wood (67)

Historian/broadcaster

Born Manchester, working man’s town.

Verdict: Respect.

Marley?

 

Frances Osborne (46)

One novel, two biographies. A Sackville by birth. Silver spoon. Lives next to freaking P.M.

Verdict: No respect.

Fuck all.

 

Sam Leith (41)

Journalist, author of several works of nonfiction.

Young; resume growing nicely. Not there there.

Verdict: Judge in training.

Wild card man.

 

Two women, three judges under 50,  two extreme heavy-hitters, a broadcaster, a political toss-in for my personal irritation and an in-training youngling. Typical cast of characters, though generally there’s a John Sutherland who really really pisses me off, ivory tower up the arse, anti-public opinion blow-hard.

Fuck everyone but me

Fuck everyone but me

Had a run-in with him once. Doesn’t show. Maintain neutrality.

Eliminations:

No Marilynne Robinson, no Anne Enright, who’s won already so there’s that; never expected her to repeat. She’s obviously no Hilary Mantel, right? No repeat offender?

Sitting on the survivor’s list is Anne Tyler, audible gritting teeth. Quit making me say this: not a terrible author, no talentless hack but no Man Booker caliber writer either.  Adding injury to Obamacare, bumping two far superior female writers, so far superior should be ubiquitous. Words almost fail but not quite. Once I stop talking the idiots win.

Nice person

Nice person

And no I’m not. Angry, yes. Out to piss off, yes.

Robinson and Enright bumped for Tyler. Many times as I say it sounds no less farcical.

If she walks off with the prize with that goes the last shred of relevancy for the Man Bookers. And I do mean s-h-r-e-d, gossamer thin, not fine. The award’s gone so far Left it’s rendered itself almost moot. SEE: Nobel Prize, category of any. Stick a fork in it and twist. HARD.

Aha! Wait! She’s one of the two Americans. Tyler and Yanigahara. Phew! I thought they were serious!

Nice person

Nice person

Ignoring that wee epiphany, A Little Life is there, the fuck me this is fine A Little Life. A Brief History of Seven Killings, called it.  The rest don’t even speak to me: bad year, bad read on the judges.

Top of this heap: A Little Life, A Brief History of Seven Killings. The former, because I’m reading it now and it’s slapping me upside the head, the latter for its subject matter and how nearly universally praised it’s been, normally not a great thing but this time there’s the clever plot, hipster Bob Marley thrown in for good measure.

Marley & Me

Marley & Me

No: Satin Island and sure as hell better be A Spool of Blue Thread.

Wild cards: The Fishermen, The Year of the Runaways.

At this point I would rule out a damn thing. This is a jury of rogues out to make a statement. But which statement. A Little Life is probably too mainstream well-written, left standing because something needs to hold that spot. Satin Island gives me a bad vibe – prize-wise only.

Narrow again: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Fishermen and The Year of the Runaways. If I’m really lucky, A Little Life. If there’s a swing vote.

A Little Hope, diminishing

A Little Hope, diminishing

Which political statement are they looking to make?

Nice person

Nice person

Find it and there’s your winner.

man booker 2015: i’m fucked

Things were going along well, so tidy, so well-kempt, all picket fences and Sunday afternoon lawnmowers pushed by men in white shirts with cut-off jeans, baseball caps protecting dear, shiny heads. All signs pointed to Marilynne Robinson for the Man Booker 2015 win. God was in his heaven. I sat on the front porch sipping lemonade and waiting for autumn to bring the Shortlist so I could laugh my knowing laugh, toss my head back and sneer at the world with my smug I may be a bitch but I’m a correct bitch face.

Bitch face. Suits me.

Assuming the judges weren’t planning to go to the dark side and be all let’s not give the prize to the writer who deserves it but, rather, to some unknown writer who’s produced a book whose politics are timely, themes ripped from the liberal headlines of the moment, it was a shoo-in. I could get away with skimming the other books, reading reviews and crunching the numbers with my patented prize winner crunch-u-lator. Because come on. Marilynne Robinson, writer of prose the angels sing while lounging languidly on fluffy while clouds. And pitted against what that could even come close?

Well, fuck and blast. Pitted against this:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Jesus Holy Granola Christ on Greek yogurt.

Encamped at Barnes & Noble for the duration, computer open, headphone and charger wires sticking out like nasty, nasty spider legs in all directions and hogging all available outlets I wasn’t going anywhere, Jack.  Armloads of books plopped on chairs I’d screeched across the floor to my cave like a magpie gathers shiny things to her nest, a token coffee purchased to justify my whole-hoggishness, I read the first few pages of what I presumed would be an oh so lovely book.

It would be a good read. I knew that. People liked it, Amazon reviews were effusive, critics waved their arms above their heads, spittle flying in their hurry to get out pretty words about a pretty book before their peers could get anything in edgewise. I’d read a few chapters, smiling smugly as I put it back on the shelf for the next person to buy, a perfectly enlightened person who’d read a good thing or two on Goodreads, no idea it had nearly swiped the Booker.

Propped on the table in front of me, it hit like a typhoon bitch-slapping me with a palm leaf, causing me to laugh and feel all sadly desolate and empty and what’s the point of life within the space of half an hour’s read. My hands started to itch. Then my face. I scratched where imaginary feathers tickled me, like I was allergic to incredible prose.  I was there in Barnes & Noble without adult supervision and I had my debit card. Like a sex addict stuck in a hotel room with a ready whore, pockets bulging with money and happy-to-see-you, I was sunk.

I bought it – along with a few others but that’s not important right now. I bought it.

I took it home, resumed reading it in bed, sinking feeling triggering the realization this isn’t going to be a book I can merrily skip through, finish and pronounce upon with my usual speed and cocky know-it-all manner. (My once upon a time speed, I mean, since I haven’t done anything quickly in months but that’s not quite the point.)

Like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, the book’s packed with prose you can’t rush. It’s beautiful, at times reaches poetic but with a cast of characters bigger than Lila, another thing slowing me down.  I need to catch the nuances of each, dig into his or her motivations, separate one from the other despite their fierce desire to cling together.

This is a very long novel, 736 pages densely packed with small print and those slick, thinner pages I can’t turn very quickly without having to lick my finger, and I hate when people lick their fingers. Thick, textured paper tends to have a larger font, is quickly read, turning pages eased by deckle edges giving something to grasp. The reader feels accomplishment much more quickly, these thick pages forcing the left hand to secure more and more strongly as the balance tips from pages to read to have read, left to right left to right in rapid succession.

A Little Life was designed differently, to keep it from weighing 20 lbs. and saving the wrists of its readers. Because did you read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Morrell?   The wrist snapper? Who didn’t learn a lesson from that? Yanagihara’s novel is heavy but looks so innocent, what with its thin, slick pages.  It’s frustrating, the left hand sitting there all hurry up stupid while the right hand flips and flips, getting nowhere fast.

All this to say holy god, this book has a shot. IT HAS A SHOT! It doesn’t espouse an irritatingly liberal agenda that’s all politics, no substance. It shows how one life is important, how all the little life things add up to one Very Big Thing, indeed. Seven hundred thirty-six very big things. Lila‘s no slouch but

A Little Life

has…

a…

shot…

Right now, I could use a shot.

Unravel all I said about how easy this was, how eye-rollingly stupid, guttural expression of disgust stupid, the idea of putting anyone above or on par with Marilynne Robinson. Because

A Little Life

has…

a…

shot…

Fuck me, it does.

9-11-2015

H.W. Frishmuth Bronze - Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980)

H.W. Frishmuth Bronze – Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980)

 

“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

– “Dirge Without Music” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

’round edinburgh in nine days: preface

Edinburgh: City of Eternal Rain

Edinburgh: City of Eternal Rain

“Adventure should be part of everyone’s life. It is the whole difference between being fully alive and just existing.” ― Holly Morris

 

If my Grand, Impulsive Excursion to Bonnie Scotland were a book, it could best be described as pitch perfect, the work of a writer at the height of her powers and, that perennial favorite of mine, readable.

It was a solitary endeavor, a lone wolf journey abroad made by a newly-single woman with an abiding love of a good, cold stout served up at a dusty, dimly lit pub and a post-divorce chip on her shoulder the size of, well, a really big chip. And yes, it was a little scary going it alone, thanks for asking, though not so much as it could have been had I not just last year flown to Ireland on my own. My 2014 trip proved I can rely on myself, plan and execute a solo vacation and not at all blend in with the locals because who am I kidding, I scream American from five miles away even in English-speaking nations.

I’m a strong woman who can handle herself, a perfect candidate for solo travel. I also enjoy my own company more than that of most others. Disagreements with myself are few, seldom resulting in violence. At only one point in the trip did I become so aggravated I stopped speaking to me, a brief period which flared and subsided as quickly as it came. I bought myself a drink, we laughed, it was soon forgotten.

Ah, the memories!

Edinburgh isn’t just awesome and beautiful, full of history and bagpipes and beer and whisky and beer but also a mecca for all things arts and literary. A  safe city for a woman alone, during my nine days there not a single murder was committed: not in Edinburgh, in Scotland or the entire UK. Meanwhile, back here in the USA not only were there violent killings in the Chicago suburbs but my very own street was staked out by a SWAT team, shite you not. So, for those considering a trip abroad but concerned with personal safety, shut up and go, for fuck’s sake. Quite whining. You’re more likely to be harmed here than there.

God bless the NRA!

In fact, the closest approximation to a traumatic situation I encountered was a man urinating proudly and profusely through a wrought-iron fence near the Sir Walter Scott monument. Despite his vigorously healthy stream, at no point did I feel endangered. In fact I envied the man, as I do all of his gender, his possession of equipment enabling urination while standing up, in a set direction no less, a feat nary a female could accomplish without impaling herself and making a huge mess. And if that’s the worst that happened to me I count myself lucky.

Ostensibly, my official “reason” for flying over was to attend the Edinburgh International Literary Festival, that most deservedly lauded celebration of books and authors and books and authors, coupled with a deep love for Scotland I’ve enjoyed more than half my life. Abroad on a student ambassador program at the tender age of 18, I proclaimed to no one in particular, “This is where I will spend the rest of my life!” Then promptly didn’t, because hey that’s how 18-year olds are, dramatic and pretty well powerless.

Not that I didn’t give it a noodle. I entered college with every intention of studying abroad a semester at Edinburgh University and would have, too, had my then boyfriend (now ex-husband, IRONY) not popped a diamond on my finger as a sort of insurance policy I would not dump him and hook up with a man in a kilt. And how’d that work out for me. Believe me, not a year goes by I don’t regret that.

Worse, to this day I still do not know for certain what Scottish men wear underneath their kilts. Suspicions, yes. Verifiable proof, no, despite having visited during a particularly windy week. Hopes dashed, I default to a firm belief it gets pretty windy under there.

Och, lad, tell me true!

Och, lad, tell me true!

Sadly, many literary festival events were sold out before I arrived. Things had been going on full-swing a couple of weeks before I showed up and though I bought tickets online before I left pickings were quickly growing slim. Let this be a lesson for anyone planning to act on impulse. Always pre-plan your unexpected adventures.

 

Ian Rankin interviews Stuart David

Ian Rankin interviews Stuart David

I wound up attending only two events: a Michael Frayn talk about his new compilation of tiny plays, Matchbox Theatre, and an Ian Rankin discussion with singer-songwriter Stuart David – of Belle and Sebastian – upon publication of his new biography, In the All-Night Café: A Memoir of Belle and Sebastian’s Formative Years. Though I had tickets to see Denise Mina, I’d exhausted myself walking around that day and couldn’t bear the thought of dragging arse back to Charlotte Square. Instead, I stayed in my hotel room watching really bad British TV and eating takeaway fish and chips, followed in short order by horrendous indigestion and a bad case of insomnia by saturated fat.

All in all the trip was, technically speaking, amazeballs.  Ireland and Wales last year, Scotland this… Which was the better trip? The trip would have to go to 2014, since my daughter was with me and if she reads this she’ll be really pissed off if I don’t say that. However, which city is better? God  I‘m sorry Dublin but it’s Edinburgh. Purely Edinburgh. Just remember I love you, too.

So I have loads of pictures to share, as well as a strong possibility of anecdotal bloviating. I’ve prefaced my adventure here and will continue telling my story in subsequent posts. Hope you’ll tune in.