Sunday, December 27, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Thursday, November 19, 2009
1. Norah Vawter
2. Kirsten Clodfelter -- All manner of silverware, etc.
3. Ben Brown
4. Eugenia Tsutsumi
5. Whitney Poole
6. Jenna Morgan -- Freaking delicious spin dip
7. Walt Seale
8. Jennifer Brown -- Fruit salad
9. Allison Renner
10. Collin Grabarek
11. Brie Spencer
12. Priyanka Champaneri
13. Elizabeth Gutting
14. Nicole Lee -- dessert
15. Beckie McGill -- Wine and dessert
16. Sara Flood
17. Pat Devlin
18. Taehee Kim
19. Tim Rowe -- Pasta salad (or some kind of non-lettuce salad)
20. Lisa Hill Corely -- Deviled eggs
(Since Kirsten apparently needs a lesson in how to actually use her email, we're adding these two earlier-missed RSVPs to the list. Sorry about that, Ladies!)
21. Sarah Silberman
22. Ally Armistead -- Cheese and wine
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Double-Trouble Poetry Night with a Non-Fiction Twist!
Attend a captivating reading by three Masters of the Mighty Word this Friday at 7p, featuring:
Brian Fitzpatrick (poetry)
Jessica McCaughey (non-fiction)
Rahima Ullah (more poetry)
--and an Open Mic for all!
at the SPACE at Old Town Village
3955 Chainbridge Rd. Fairfax, VA
above the Metro Diner & across from Panera
please bring your favorite beverage, some snacks, & open mic material to this smoke-free venue.
Brian Fitzpatricks' very happy birthday party will follow!
Check that out here!: http://tinyurl.com/yc93hzo
Monday, November 2, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Thanks everyone for coming out last night to Loud Fire. Norah, Lucy and Jen gave wonderful readings and then on open mic, Paul F, Paul Zaic (nice job with the laptop reader!), Kelly Hargrave and Michael V added nicely to the mix.
Next Loud Fire: November 13:
Brian + Alison (poets), Jessica McCaughey (nonfiction)
Loud Fire: December 4:
Loud Fire: December 4:
Ellie (poet), Rebecca McGill (fiction), Jennifer Janisch (nonfiction)
Loud Fire: December 11:
Loud Fire: December 11:
Angela Panayotopulos (fiction), Amy Garrrett-Brown (Nonfiction), Meg Ronan (poet)
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Saturday, October 17, 2009
For a glimpse inside Alyson's head, check out her interview at: http://www.smokelong.com/interview/alysonfoster26.asp
Keep your eyes peeled for her forthcoming stories in The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and Glimmer Train.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Join us for a fabulous evening with Steve Goodwin on Sunday, November 1st at 5pm. Bring your favorite dish to share and all of the MFA, publishing, teaching, and writing questions you can think of.
The guest list is capped at 20, so sign up by sending an email to Kirsten (KClodfelter@gmail.com) or Norah (firstname.lastname@example.org) before we've filled up!
Here's who will be joining us so far:
1. Kirsten Clodfelter -- Some variety of meat, cheese, and crackers/bread
2. Norah Vawter
3. Tim Rowe
4. Walt Seale -- Wine or beer
5. Jenna Morgan -- Spinach and artichoke dip
6. Sara Flood -- Wine
7. Nicole Lee -- Malaysian curry
8. Lisa Hill Corey -- Deviled eggs
9. Taehee Kim -- Lemonade and iced tea
10. Corey Beasley
11. Jay Patel
12. Stephen Loiaconi -- Fabulous dessert of some kind
13. Sarah Silberman
14. Elizabeth Gutting -- Baked good dessert
15. Briana Spencer -- Quiche
16. Priyanka Champaneri -- Brownies or sparkling beverage
17. Beckie McGill -- The most delicious dessert in the history of desserts
18. Allyson Armistead -- Chicken casserole
19. Ben Brown
20. Paul Zaic
**Save the date now for the next fiction dinner on Sunday, December 8th with the lovely and fantastic Susan Shreve.
Monday, September 7, 2009
And when you're done reading Ally's story, why not submit something of your own for their Fall 09 Story Contest?
AND if you're 30 or below, Narrative has a contest for that as well.
Note: to view the full story you have to register, which is quick and free and painless (barring some minor wrist pain after typing in your mailing address, fyi)
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It's that time again. September 1st has hit and the floodgates have opened - just some of the journals that are dying to read what you've got:
-New Ohio Review
-Cold Drill (opens 9/15)
And you're still reading this post and therefore not submitting stuff...why? Huh.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
-Check out the recent SF Chronicle online, featuring a review of The Convalescent by alum Jessica Anthony (who will also be reading from her novel at this year's Fall for the Book Festival)as well as Alan's review of the new Thomas Pynchon book
-Boulevard had just opened for their short fiction contest, deadline 12/31 - this one offers a free subscription with the entry fee (ok, so not really free)
-Zoetrope: All Story is still accepting entries for their fiction contest, judged by Yiyun Li, who will be Visiting Fiction Writer this Fall at Mason
-And more contests from Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, and - yes - even Good Housekeeping
And don't forget - most lit mags are open to submissions either now or in just a few weeks - get those stories ready and sent out!
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
An emailed interview can lack context—people tap at keys . . . somewhere. But Reid’s characters provide a distinct sense of place not only in what they say but how they say it. Evansville, then, where the toe-end of Indiana dangles into Kentucky by a bend in the Ohio River—a river port, a crossroads of Midwest and South, a city with rural on its mind—seems a fitting place for such work. Reid is an associate professor at the University of Southern Indiana, fiction editor at the Southern Indiana Review, and codirector of the RopeWalk Visiting Writers Reading Series at USI and on the board of the RopeWalk Writer’s Retreat in New Harmony. She lives with her husband and their two-and-a-half-year-old three streets from the Ohio, where swallows chase insects and coal barges float by; summer nights, she said, just outside town, fireflies hover above the corn, their winking green glow as big as cow’s eyes against the sky.
Q: You have said you moved around before your family settled in the D.C. area (from Philadelphia to Chicago, Dallas to Appalachia) and collected characters’ voices along the way. Most sound southern—they seem to have the loquacity and turn of phrase I often hear in the Deep South or southern Appalachia. Is that your tendency?
NLR: When I was a kid, I’d listen to my mother answer the phone and knew exactly who she was talking to by her inflection, diction, and appropriated accent. She was unaware of it until I repeatedly guessed at the caller and was always right. Then she became self-conscious and embarrassed. She worried that her friends and acquaintances would think she was making fun of them. I don’t think anyone ever did, but becoming self-aware on the telephone (or in the grocery checkout line) really clammed her up.
I share my mother’s ability to adopt the voice of someone around me. Whatever best friend I had growing up, I talked just like her or him. And once I began reading heavily and writing, I found it even easier to talk like someone else on paper. This isn’t to say my own voice is a blank slate, but any accent is minimal, and because my father grew up with southern idioms and my mother with northern, my speech has always drawn from both. Nonetheless, I was four and five years old in Dallas and five through nine in Blacksburg, Virginia. These are pretty formative years linguistically, and Southern—capital S—voices are what I find richest and most comfortable.
Q: When you start writing, do you hear the voice first, or do you imagine a situation or a character first, or does it depend?
NLR: The chicken or egg question is an interesting and frustrating one. Interesting to know how any writer operates usually or for particular works. Frustrating because the more I think I have the answer, the less it tends to happen that way. The observed subject is never truly the subject in its pure state, right?
Here is what I know about how I have worked in the past: there was always a voice. I always followed it down a sort of rabbit’s hole. In some stories it was ferocious (I’m thinking of a story called “So There” [in Clackamas Literary Review]), in others timid. My very first story attempts sometimes suffered from overindulging whatever first person character was talking, at the cost of plot. Action was difficult for me to figure out; it is so unknown compared to the very known voice of whatever character I am writing. The prospect of having to make something up—what in the world is going to happen!?!—was too big for me to face. Then I’d get into a story, halfway through it even, and halt. That actually happened in a couple.
At that point in “So There,” the first person girl narrating about the nights leading up to her father killing her mother’s brand new baby, says, “This was all a game. So there.” I was writing that to myself, saying the 23 pages of story so far were just a game; ha. I left the computer for the day and came back to the story the next day. I read everything up to that last point and realized my own frustrating search to make meaning of this girl and her fucked-up world was the same search she was on. She truly was saying this was all a game, so there. So I left those lines and kept going. Sometimes action and its mysterious meaning come like that.
More recently, I have been writing with ideas. I’m working on a triptych right now, a series of three linked stories. [“We Want It Back,” in Grain Magazine, and “Sparrow,” which is under submission, form the first two parts.] I began with the most recent in time, then went back 30 years, and am now struggling to write the first in the series set 30 years before that. I find writing with ideas much harder. Following a voice almost always has built-in momentum. When I have a sense that I want to write about a phenomenon or need to lay groundwork (while simultaneously writing a kick-ass stand alone story) as in this first of the triptych, I have to provide my own momentum. And that, that is work.
Because it’s what I’m doing right now, I like to think of this idea-writing as resulting in more complex fiction than voice-writing, but probably it is only different fiction.
Q: When you say you are writing with ideas, do you mean having a purpose or meaning, the way social commentary is ascribed to To Kill a Mockingbird—or is it less concrete than that?
NLR: Oh good question—no, I don’t write with a purpose. As a reader, I find purpose-driven work transparently didactic (even the better, literary pieces) and completely at odds with art, which I think is meaningful because of its detachment from ulterior motive.
This argument’s one I enjoy having even though it becomes incredibly messy at this point because one could say, “But doesn’t art’s detachment imply an argument (say, that art CAN be detached from social criticism or direction)?” Still, and as flimsy as this is as an answer, I feel that a writer working with critique at the root of her or his material will impose that critique on the story, on the characters, on the language and scenery, and on the narrative. A story or novel that explores characters and action within (that word “within” implies a kind of limitation here that I don’t intend) a literary aesthetic devoid of polemic will carry a sort of purity to it.
Do I, as a reader, sometimes respond to that kind of writing with a quiet (or hollering) social commentary of my own based on the characters and their contexts? Yes, how can I not? I think the difference for me lies in the sense that a writer wants me to arrive at her or his endorsed answer. I don’t want to be told what to think—I want to figure out my own head, my own world my own way.
As a writer, I abide by this sense that my job is to reveal humanity, not educate it. Ordinarily I have no trouble with this. The last story I wrote (“Once It’s Gone”), however, made me uncomfortable. In the story, a girl has an abortion. Her mother, concerned about saving an abandoned nestling from a pack of roving once-housecats, seems okay with this. The father, who narrates the story, is not the girl’s father; the mother had affairs early in the marriage and the girl is a product of one of those. So despite parenting the girl her 16 years, all of a sudden he feels unentitled to the grief he feels at mourning what could have been his first grandchild. Ach! I really worried that the story would be perceived as a polemic. And it isn’t. At all. Something happened and the reader gets to see how a particular person will react to it. That the something was an abortion, I was sure, however, was going to please some and aggravate others. I wasn’t interested in abortion in coming to write this story, but in the sense a person can develop that a particular grief and mourning does not belong to them. That was and is interesting to me and I wanted to explore that emotional phenomenon. I think if looked at in its entirety, a reader would see the story as simply an exploration. I sure hope so.
I didn’t realize that my second novel might be considered as social criticism until I wanted to use it to apply for a course-release award at my university. After having finished a full draft, I forced myself to do the glossy spin such an application calls for and in writing that, I found that the book can be seen as an indictment of American body image and body standards. I didn’t write the book thinking about it this way, or wanting to change anyone’s mind about what value Americans ascribe to thinness. The book is simply about people who have particularly extreme approaches to food and what it does to their bodies. I can certainly see someone reading the book and thinking differently about the subject, but I hope that will be because the characters have revealed themselves rather than any message I have imposed on the those characters.
Q: So when you say you are working with ideas, in the case of the triptych, you mean you aren’t only following the flow of one voice, you are working within a kind of continuity?
NLR: That’s a good way of putting it. Yeah, working with a certain continuity. In the case of the triptych, the continuity is a set of characters who are part of the universe of Leo (the uncle returning from the dead in “We Want It Back”). The first story in the series, (at present a very messy 22 first draft pages and building), will have Leo as a little kid. So the continuity of this series is a single life, though never is Leo a narrator. (The middle story, “Sparrow,” is narrated in third person from Jilly’s point of view.) I’m finding this writing from ideas or continuity much slower than following a voice—in the latter, the character who speaks is quickly fleshed out by the quality of her or his voice, and that fleshing out, if I’m lucky, can look a lot like or actually be plot. But in writing from ideas, well, I have to have ideas or create them, and I’ve never been very easily creative.
Q: The question of purpose or meaning has come up in workshops; a variation on “I don’t know what to take away from this story.” Do you think that’s coming from the same place—someone who wants stories to make a larger point—or do you think there’s a difference there?
NLR: I guess I’m not sure of an answer to your question. It’s so hard to talk about what a story does or should do, you know? I don’t know of a word for the emotional response of a reader to what she or he reads, and I desperately want a word for that. If that, that wordless effect is “the point,” then I certainly don’t object to wanting a story to have a point, though I don’t think the writer ought to presume to prescribe what that emotional response is (just that there is one). If what is meant by “the point” is actually something instructive (though of course if you show me love in a story, I may very well infer instruction on compassion), then I do think there’s a problem there. Teaching undergraduates, I count myself lucky not to have students ask what they should take away (beyond that emotional reaction) from a story. And, to be honest, I don’t recall my peers in graduate workshops saying that either. Perhaps my experience is an anomaly or the times, they are a-changin’.
Q: How is teaching?
NLR: Teaching is a mixed bag. I don’t think doing anything would make me happier, but it’s a frustrating thing for sure. I teach mixed-genre introductory creative writing classes to sophomores, juniors, and seniors and, because the class fulfills a core requirement for graduation, 80% of them have no desire to write, even less desire to read, and very little business doing either. So I pull out my hair over their inability to construct a sentence, let alone a concrete image or round character. But that other 20% is heaven. I generally try to teach to them, since the rest won’t get it and will move on unswayed by this brush with literary art.
I also teach a fiction workshop and advanced creative writing, and I taught a CW techniques class on the child narrator last fall. What I love about teaching the workshops is seeing a student whose work reaches and being able to guide her or his hand a bit toward something larger than both of us. It’s been in the last couple of years I really have felt capable of that, of instantly seeing what’s missing in a good short story, and being able to articulate that hole to a student along with advice for how to fill it. It’s these short stories that satisfy any doubt I have that I’m in the right profession.
Q: How did you get where you are, associate professor of English and helping to run the RopeWalk program? You seem to have balanced work with writing really well—two novels and a steady flow of stories in journals since you got the MFA.
NLR: Of course I haven’t mentioned the perks that make this job fit so well with being a writer. Summers free, winter and spring breaks off, are lovely and absolutely necessary—especially given that I teach a 4/4 load. Four classes each semester gives me no time for writing. It took a few years to figure that out, and I beat myself up about not writing much if anything during the school year. The solution is to protect those times when school is out and get to work fast!
After getting my MFA at Mason, I took an instructor’s job teaching composition at a school that takes its football so seriously, it wanted me to excuse athletes’ poor performance in my classes. I left after the first semester and returned to the D.C. area, where I adjuncted at five campuses and led workshops at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. Once MacAdam/Cage bought In the Breeze of Passing Things, I went back on the job market for creative writing positions. I took a one-year post at Penn State—The Behrend College in Erie, PA, then was back on the market and came to the University of Southern Indiana in a tenure-track job. I applied for tenure and promotion this past semester and was successful, so I plan to stay at USI if we can do something about the heavy teaching load and I can inherit more control over the Creative Writing programs we have here.
Q: You published some chapters of In the Breeze of Passing Things as short stories before the novel came out; how did that affect the effort to publish the book as a whole?
NLR: Almost all of the chapters from In the Breeze of Passing Things came out as stories in literary magazines before the novel was published. I was writing them with the short story as my form and mode, so each chapter ended with some sort of resolution, even if it was messy enough to suggest itself toward the way a true novel’s chapters often most successfully end mid-act. In other words, while many novels keep readers turning the page by interrupting a dramatic moment with a chapter break, I was ending mine fairly tidily. The reason, I believe, this worked was that the plot of my book had my characters physically moving from place to place, and in each place they’d find a new context of people and circumstances to confront and change or be changed by. So each story-chapter could deal with those new contexts and circumstances and how they alter the main characters while also making a suggestion as to what the main characters’ eventual evolution may be. So a story-chapter worked as a story and the chapter worked as a chapter because subsequent chapters picked up the implications left at chapter’s-end and developed those implications into live dramatic reality.
My second novel (a manuscript I’m often told is too sad for publication) doesn’t operate like this at all and I doubt I could ever write a novel in the story mode again, now that I’ve tackled the messier juggling that a traditional novel’s form requires. I like the simplicity—this word could suggest inferiority but I don’t mean that here at all, just that the task is more ordered—of writing in linked stories, but I also find them confining. Perhaps once I finish the last installment of the triptych novella I’m working on, I’ll transform the stories in to one solid book. I’m afraid I’ve done myself in with their points of view all being different—first, third limited, and third multiple. I really, really hope to find a way for them to meld as they are, or perhaps they will remain a novella-in-stories.
In answer to your question of how publication of my first novel’s stories affected the book’s publication, I’m really not sure. I do know that publication helped get me an agent; she saw one of the story-chapters in Indiana Review and contacted me to ask if I had a longer project. I had just finished my MFA thesis, which was Breeze, and was beginning to query agents. So the timing was good and she ended up placing the book with MacAdam/Cage as soon as the publishing industry returned from its summer break.
Q: I was thinking about the Indiana Review piece in particular; the language is near to poetry, and so much is implied—there’s a lot to unpack. Did you revise from story to chapter—or the other way around? (Or both?)
NLR: There were times in editing the book that I had to take some repetition of information out of the stories in order for them to hang as a cohesive book—repetition of undercurrents like when the dad left, where he went, etc.—and there were times in the editing process that I wrote more (such as implying more of a life outside the house for the Blacksburg cousins). The tone and diction didn’t really change from story to novel, though.
Q: On the second novel—people actually said the book is too sad?
NLR: Yes. A handful of agents and editors. It’s a reaction I don’t really understand. Most of the books, well-loved, classic books I have loved over the years are terribly sad. The end of mine is bleak, but the situation is bleak and to impose a cheerier implication would ring utterly false.
Q: Why the shift from the short story form to the, as you say, messier work of a traditional novel? Or—maybe a better question—why the shift from voice-driven to idea-driven work?
NLR: I think the shift came because I transitioned from graduate school—a time during which all I had to do was read, write, and teach a class or two—to working. At first, I adjuncted at sometimes six schools a semester. Still, that left me more able to write and read than either of the two full-time teaching jobs I’ve had. Certainly the 4/4 teaching load and extensive service I perform in my current position at USI make writing tough. But it’s not just the work. In the five years I’ve been here, I have bought two houses, moved three times, gotten married, and had a son. That’s a lot of flurry competing for my writer mind’s attention. I hope I’ll be able to un-overextend (in addition to being fiction editor of Southern Indiana Review, board member of the RopeWalk Writer’s Retreat, and director of the RopeWalk Visiting Writers Reading Series, I serve as faculty advisor to the Student Writers Union and faculty advisor and managing editor for USI’s student literary and art magazine) soon. So . . . the shift from short story form to a novel may be because instead of writing with focused, daily regularity, my writing time is in spurts spanning months, years even. I tend, now, to introduce far more ideas because a character’s voice, which used to sustain my fiction, modulates over time so I can’t depend on it to carry the work anymore.
Q: Annie Proulx said in an interview at Bookslut a few years ago, “If I get fifteen minutes a day it’s a small miracle.” And you said earlier you have to take advantage of it when you have it. Any other advice for young writers to carve it out?
NLR: I don’t know that I have advice for young writers; everyone’s circumstances are different of course, and everyone’s psyches, too. What I’ve been trying to do for myself is not beat myself up over the lost time to job and family and just plain life. As a friend said to me yesterday, I’m in the taking-things-in mode, filling up on big changes and experiences in my life. On the other hand, what if I could have done better? I probably could have. And what if that’s a book gone? Alan Cheuse used to tell our workshop: write just a page a day, every day, and by the end of one year you’ll have a book. He also would go around the workshop table asking each of us, “Are you a writer today? Did you write?” I love, love, love Alan—he’s a rigorous teacher and generous soul—but few days pass by now that I don’t think of his question and hate myself for the answer. In every area of my life I try to find what works best and after a period of disappointing the rigorous writer in my head, I’m trying to see myself as more than a writer, someone with a lot of roles in addition to being a writer: wife, mother, best friend, daughter, teacher, mentor, editor, reader, citizen, and so forth.
Once I finish the triptych, I may decide to work much smaller (short-shorts, even) something more suited in size to the focus I have at the moment.
Q: Not far down the road from you, Wendell Berry said last year in an interview in The Sun he became a better writer when he figured out he could be perfectly happy not being one—a bit of a Zen koan, maybe, but it seems sound?
NLR: I wish I could be so self-assured. That’s not me. I do wish for it, though. On the heels of a day spent submitting work to contests and journals—something I used to look forward to but now dread because of the quiet hours it entails in which I must constantly assess my writing, try to fit it to the particular markets, and gauge its chances there—life is grim. During the years of and just after graduate school, I wrote and published a few pieces a month.
Ah, a broken record but God, it’s a deep ache.
And when a workshop goes particularly well for a student and I see a revision that I shepherded to breakthrough or find myself editing a submission for SIR and think it’s going pretty swell, I wonder if I should simply hang a different shingle.
But no, it will come back. It does. When I go looking. Writing is the thing I’m most afraid of when I’m not at it. And the thing I take the greatest pride in when I’m good.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
On Monday, July 20, at noon in the Mary Pickford Theater, third floor of the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress (101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC), C. M. Mayo, short story writer, essayist, translator, founding editor of Tameme, Inc., and instructor at the Bethesda Writing Center, will read from her novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. More information here.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Like fellow Canadian author Alice Munro, Thien is interested in the unpredictable dynamics of family life; several of her short stories focus on the puzzling, unexpected actions of adults and the confusion of their children as they struggle to make sense of the events going on around them. In “House,” two young sisters spend an entire day outside the house they once lived in, waiting for the mother who abandoned them more than a year ago to return. And in “A Map of the City,” the last story in the collection, a young woman tries to comprehend the mysterious yearnings of her father, a failed furniture salesman, who abruptly leaves behind the family he brought to Canada to return to his native Indonesia. “When I was younger, I used to study all the details of Indonesia, its wealth and beauty, its lost ages,” the daughter, Miriam, says. “As if I could understand my father and myself by knowing this, as if what I needed could be compiled, written down, and it would shore me up against the present day.” In both stories which bookend the collection, “Simple Recipes” and “A Map of the City,” the narrator is the Canadian-born child of immigrant parents, much like Thien herself; born to Malaysian Chinese parents, Thien grew up in Vancouver, and the city “wading out into the ocean” features prominently in her work.
If in “Simple Recipes” and “A Map of the City” we feel the confusion of a daughter trying to understand a father who has left part of his life behind in another country, in Thien’s first novel Certainty (2006) we feel the confusion of the father as well as he grapples with conflicting emotions: the desire to let go of the past and the yearning to hold on to it. A finalist for the 2007 Kiriyama Book Prize, Certainty chronicles the inner lives and outward journeys of a Canadian family with roots in Asia: Gail Lim, a documentary maker for Canadian radio; her father Matthew Lim, who grew up amid the rubber estates of Sandakan in British North Borneo; and her Hong Kong-born mother, Clara. All his life, Matthew is haunted by memories of his adored childhood friend Ani. When Gail finds an old letter addressed to Matthew informing him of the death of Ani, she sets off on a quest in search of her father’s past.
The novel, told in the third person, draws together multiple points of view: we are privy to the thoughts and feelings not just of Gail, Matthew, Ani, and Clara, but also those of Ansel, Gail’s lover, a clinician and medical researcher, and Sipke Vermeulen, a Dutch photographer who eventually marries Ani. Their stories take us from wartime Sandakan to the urban bustle of Jakarta in 1957; from the clamor of a family-owned restaurant in Kowloon to the quiet of a university boarding house in Melbourne, Australia; from the canals of Ysbrechtum in the Netherlands to rain-washed, present-day Vancouver. The novel deftly moves back and forth across great expanses of time and space, a structure which captures the sense of fracture and dislocation at the heart of the immigrant experience. To read Certainty is to feel the force of the unburied past, to recognize its pull, and to understand that in the end, we hold on to what we have lost “in the hope that what we know will finally redeem us.”
I sat down with Madeleine Thien to chat about the origins of stories, the pleasures of writing and revising, and the transition from writing short stories to a novel. She is currently at work on a novel set in Cambodia in the 1970s.
Madeleine, you’ve said that a story often begins for you with an image of some kind. In your collection, there are several powerful images of violence – the father whipping the son in the title story, “Simple Recipes,” for example. I just wondered: did these stories start out for you with those images of violence?
Actually, “Simple Recipes” started with the girl and her father, and I think the image of a fish in a basin. I was an undergraduate at the time and I went to do a semester in England; I was supposed to be writing a paper about Seamus Heaney, the poet, and instead I started writing fiction. The story came out all in a burst, and in fact the violence in the story took me by surprise – I didn’t think that was what I was writing about. I thought I was writing about this relationship between a father and daughter, and then the story went places I wasn’t prepared for. I think partly it was because I was away from home, and this distance opened up and it allowed me to write about particular things.
It’s like when Flannery O’Connor says she didn’t realize the Bible salesman was going to steal Hulga’s wooden leg in “Good Country People” until just before it happened.
Yes, it’s true. When I was still an undergraduate in creative writing, “Simple Recipes” was the first story I took to my writing workshop. It was a very raw draft, quite different from the story in the book. People were very positive about the story, but one woman in my class said ‘I don’t understand what the point is. Why take us to this dark place that’s so violent and leave us hanging there?’ and that was the comment that stayed with me longest, and even now, it is a difficult question, and it’s an ethical question: what happens when you open up this kind of violence in a work of art? Where are you trying to leave the reader? Does it have a point? What the woman in my class said really fed into my rewriting of that story…it’s the story that’s lasted in Canada, the story that has been anthologized, and that’s hard when it’s one of your first stories.
Another recurring theme in the collection has to do with people disappearing suddenly: Miriam’s father leaves for a time in “A Map of the City,” for example. I remember reading that your Malaysian grandfather disappeared during the war, and something similar happens to Matthew Lim’s father in your novel, Certainty. It’s such an incredibly painful thing to have someone in your family vanish that I wonder if the story of that event stayed with you, and perhaps triggered other stories about disappearances?
I think so, although my father almost never spoke about my grandfather; he’d only say he was killed. His last memory is the Japanese soldiers coming to the house and taking him away. But when I was a teenager my father left very suddenly. I was at that age when adolescents are usually the ones leaving the family, so when it’s reversed and a parent leaves – it puts you in a strange position. So I think [in “Simple Recipes”] I was probably more influenced by my father’s disappearance. The weird thing about writing fiction is you’re not really aware of it – it takes other people to point it out to you. I was surprised; I wasn’t thinking about that event explicitly – I was thinking of it story to story.
While we’re talking about fathers, what’s interesting to me is that several of the fathers in Simple Recipes are so ineffectual: they feel adrift in a foreign country, and they begin to lose their parental authority, like Miriam’s father in “A Map of the City.” What do you think it is about the immigrant experience that affects these fathers?
I think in my case, my mother was the most stable, and my father seemed far too complicated for me to understand, at least at that time. In hindsight, there’s something particular about that generation of people who emigrated, who came to a new country without support and had to support their own families. For women – at least in the case of my mother – the women found a lot of strength. Being in North America gave them opportunities that weren’t available to them in their home countries. They kind of blossomed, whereas for the men they lost a lot of control over circumstances; there was a loss of dignity from not being able to provide for your family that was humiliating. They didn’t know how to connect with their families differently than as providers, because that was the model they grew up knowing.
Speaking of immigrant families, I wondered if that was important to you to get down on paper the voices of these mothers and fathers – the diction, the way they speak. As an Asian writer, I identify with the “Ah-yahs,” these little speech inflections that feel so familiar to me when I see them on the page…
Yes, the melody and musicality of the voice, the rhythm of the sentences, it is different. You don’t realize it until you hear it, and then you feel this instant connection to the voice.
Let’s switch gears and talk about the technical aspects of writing…Madeleine, how much revision do you tend to do with your stories?
I developed this habit where I would write a draft, throw it out, sit down and write the story again, throw it out, and do this maybe eight or nine or ten times. Because I was just starting to write, so there was so much I was learning technically about voice and structure that in a way I couldn’t apply to drafts I already had. I had to sit down and live through the story all over again, it was the only way I could integrate them. There’s a writer named Larissa Lai and she once told me there’s a point in the editing process at where you take it to the very best you can be, then there’s a stage where you keep editing and you push it off that point. I think she’s right; there’s often that point where it’s as good as you can get the story to be, so it’s finding that moment.
Do you try to wait until you’ve written the whole story before you revise or do you try to tinker a bit at the edges?
I tinker a bit, but mostly I wait until I get the whole story written so I know the lay of the land, and that helps you figure out what’s important. I can’t really see it until I’ve written the whole piece.
Perhaps we could turn now to your first novel, Certainty. It’s set in the present tense, which is really interesting because the novel moves back and forth in time. When did you realize it had to be written in the present tense, and why?
I think from the beginning, I did play with the past tense, but in a way it didn’t feel right. [The characters in the novel] – their stories collide – they are these contained present moments and the future is very dark to them. I thought of [those moments] as islands of memory, and they had to be immediate. Because of the part set in 1945, in the last days of war, it felt like it had to be immediate and vivid and from a farther point in time you couldn’t get back into.
Certainty covers so much ground, and not just in terms of history and geography…it’s also about neuroscience, and cryptology, and even about Malay fishing techniques! I just wondered, when you were setting out to write the novel, how did you go about it?
Well, I spent about two months in Malaysia. I travelled in the Peninsula and then I went to Borneo, to Sabah, and all the time I was in the company of family. I did a lot of interviews, visiting different historical sites, museums, but I didn’t do any writing. Then I went back to Vancouver and started writing. I wrote a very messy first draft; people appeared and disappeared and appeared again. It took a year…there was so much material to consider and I was always researching as I was going, and when you research as you go it tends to be clunky. Because it was my first novel I didn’t quite know exactly what I was doing; I was putting pieces together. Then I did what I do with my stories – I threw out the draft and wrote it again.
I liked that in a novel partly set in the Malay-speaking world, you included words a Malay-speaking audience would recognize, words like “bunga kubur,” a kind of local flower, which an English-speaking audience might not recognize. I liked that you weren’t afraid to do that.
I was afraid! What I found interesting is that people from Malaysia have been very supportive about the way the landscape is described. I was worried about depicting this atmosphere, yet the criticism I received was from people who weren’t Malaysian.
What was the research process like when you were writing Certainty? How was it different from writing short stories?
I had towering stacks of books around me all the time to dip into. What you’re holding in your head keeps growing, and there are all these corridors you never really go down but you know they’re there. It’s hard to go back to the short story – there’s a certain rigor and discipline, whereas with novels you have to give yourself the freedom to expand within structure…they’re very different processes. I found that for the five years I was writing Certainty I couldn’t write any short stories.
Which character in Certainty proved most challenging to write – the person you found kept surprising you?
Gail was the hardest – she is the closest to me in temperament, but we have very different lives. When a character is close enough to you that you assume you know her, your imagination shuts down. It’s a bit claustrophobic – you feel like you should get her but you don’t. It’s like taking somebody you know well for granted.
What was it like creating the character of Ani, whose life story is so different from Gail’s? What was it like trying to get into Ani’s head, so to speak?
I loved Ani…she was so exemplary to me. I think she understands so many things other people in the novel are trying to understand. She’s somehow integrated in all these things and is able to live her own failings. She can love people in different ways, and it’s hard to write a character like that because she is good, and she’s wise, and I’m not – but she is kind of the soul of the novel. I told myself her fears, her desires, her guilt, would not be foreign when it came down to it – those were the outer layers. It required the greatest leap but it appealed to what was most important to me personally…it was a strangely distant yet close experience.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Nicole Foreman Tong, who wrote the poetry posted here;
Monday, June 15, 2009
SFWP, the Santa Fe Writers Project, is also looking for authors (fiction, nonfiction, and book reviews) to submit work to their literary journal: http://sfwp.org/. As a previous post noted, SFWP published Alan Cheuse’s novella The Fires, and its founder, Andrew Gifford, was featured in the Washington Post Magazine.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
The Collagist, a new monthly online journal accepting fiction (flash, short stories, novel excerpts), non-fiction, poetry
Zoetrope All-Story's Fiction Contest opens July 1st
Glimmer Train's Fiction Open Contest, deadline June 30th
let us know about your publications...
Monday, June 8, 2009
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Baltimore, MD 21201).
And after that? Since you're on the website, you might as well read some incredible fiction, including stories by Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie (awesome awesome awesome), and Yuyin Li - who will be visiting GMU in a few months as part of the Fall for the Book Festival.
Friday, May 29, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
With summer as an easy temptation to take a break from writing (which later turns into a months long hiatus - you know who you are), we could all use some reminders to get back in the chair and start up again.
The Creative Writing Opportunities Listserv will help you do just that. I've posted about this before - instructions follow for how to join - this is a listserv that sends an email digest once/a few times daily with links to everything from writing contests, fellowship and job opportunities, and journals looking for submissions. It's an invaluable resource for those who don't have time to dig up all the info on their own (ahem: me).
It takes a few seconds to sign up, but once you do so you'll have a guaranteed daily kick in the pants to remind you to keep writing, revising, submitting...
Instructions for joining the list:
and click on "Join This Group." Follow the on-screen prompts to join.
Send a blank e-mail to email@example.com
You will be sent an e-mail message with further instructions on how to join
Monday, May 18, 2009
GMU MFA poetry alum Danika Paige Myers
poet Deborah Ager
writer and media artist Marissa Plumb
and music by Marbayduk
And as always, it’s free!
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
And another champagne bottle opener: Bucknell University has named him the Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing, which means—well, go read it. It’s more than very cool.
Monday, May 11, 2009
When: This Friday 5/15, 7pm
Where: Old Town Village in downtown Fairfax, next to the HSBC Bank
In addition, there will be an after-party at the Friendship House.
And congrats to the graduates!
Robb St. Lawrence
Thursday, May 7, 2009
In the spirit of that instruction here are a few journals/contests that are still accepting submissions (although the deadlines loom near for some). And yes, some of these are big names - but ALL of you are awesome writers! Send it out!
New Letters Deadline May 18
North Dakota Quarterly
Alaska Quarterly Review (Deadline May 15)
Virginia Quarterly Review (Fiction Only Deadline May 28)
And one more!
The Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition for Emerging Writers - extended deadline May 15
Ok! That should be enough to get you started. Why are you still reading this? Go out and submit! Let us know about your publications! Go!
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Nicole Lee (fiction)
Maria Ivkovic (fiction)
Ethan Edwards (poetry)
Monday, April 27, 2009
When: Sunday May 3rd 5pm
Where: Norah's house, directions on listserv
Nicole Lee -- Malaysian curry
Angela Panayotopulos -- Greek dish
Steve Loiaconi -- dessert
Brie Spencer -- quiche
Ben Brown -- dish from Louisiana
Paul Zaic -- cheese and wine
Norah Vawter -- vegetable dish
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Hey, and the Folger Shakespeare Library is throwing its Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House party tomorrow (Sunday April 26) from noon to 4 pm. It’s a kid-friendly event; I’m so there—hope to see some of you . . .
Friday, April 24, 2009
Mark Craver Poetry Award
Virginia Downs Poetry Award
Joseph A. Lohman III Poetry Award
Honorable Mention: Amy Garrett Brown, Angie Mazakis
Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, Fiction
Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Eshelman, Corey Beasley,
Dan Rudy Fiction Award
Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Congratulations, Ally! You're a rockstar!
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
At the sound of the tread of the noble horse ridden by the traveller, the mistress of the farm-house he was passing at the time might be seen cautiously opening the door of the building to examine the stranger; and perhaps, with an averted face, communicating the result of her observations to her husband, who, in the rear of the building, was prepared to seek, if necessary, his ordinary place of concealment in the adjacent woods. The valley was situated about mid-way in the length of the county, and was sufficiently near to both armies to make the restitution of stolen goods no uncommon occurrence in that vicinity. It is true, the same articles were not always regained; but a summary substitute was generally resorted to, in the absence of legal justice, which restored to the loser the amount of his loss, and frequently with no inconsiderable addition for the temporary use of his property. In short, the law was momentarily extinct in that particular district, and justice was administered subject to the bias of personal interests, and the passions of the strongest. —James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy (1821)
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Tickets are $20, available here, or you can buy your tickets onsite and receive a $5 discount. MFAers: print out the email with this same announcement and show it when you buy your tickets. All proceeds go to the Tranquil Space Foundation and the Breast Cancer Fund.
The first five people to email me to say you’re going, I will match your $15 or $20 ticket price by donating the same amount to the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer as well. My GMU account is dheath.
Despite this, for the next 11 days, unless stopped, this space will present very bad writing by good writers. Sacrilege! The horror! No way, Madame Bovary! How to stop it? Go here, read a Shakespearean sonnet (updated daily), and donate to the May 2-3 DC Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. (Thanks very much to those who have already given.)
You can also help by emailing (there --> or my GMU account) more examples of the worst of the best. Any bad stuff by good authors will do. Now, without further ado, here is day one (from the November 1924 issue of Der Querschnitt).
Part Two of THE SOUL OF SPAIN
You come to Spain but do not remain. Ann Veronica, Marcial Veronica, Pablo Veronica, Gitanillo Veronica. No they cannot veronica because the wind blows. The wind blows and it does not snows look at the bull with his bloody nose.
—Ernest Hemingway, 1924
Had enough already? Go here and donate.
Friday, April 17, 2009
When: Sunday May 3rd 5pm
Where: Norah's house, directions on listserv
We're limited to 20 people on this one, so send Norah an email to rsvp. We'll keep a waiting list...if you are past the 20th person, we'll add people off the waiting list in case someone cancels.
And as always this will be potluck, so figure out what you'll bring...
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Friday, April 10, 2009
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Update—hey, cool, we have five stars! I’ll write a review, too, if someone else will . . .
Brian Brodeur has interviewed Philip Levine about the creation of a poem. I just discovered Brian's blog. Brian appears to have decided to interview as many poets as possible about the creation of their poems. Others interviewed include Eric Pankey, Sandra Beasley, Dorianne Laux, etc. Visit if you haven't already.
This post is short because I am very tired and must now go wash dishes.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Go read Alexis Santi's nonfiction piece up at Prick of the Spindle. It's called "One Pure Thing."
The essay features Richard Bausch, alcohol(ism), a dying raccoon, and those goddamned old office chairs that Mason seems to always give to their creative writing professors.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
• Collin Grabarek (fiction)
• Ranjani Murali (poetry)
• Sarah Klenakis (non-fiction)
• open mic: bring a page or two!
Ok, not really, but if you do prefer your fiction in smaller doses, check out Five Chapters, an online fiction mag that publishes stories in serials of - hey! - five chapters. Steve Amick is this week's pick.
Friday, March 13, 2009
• Soon-to-be-mustachioed volunteers of the Capitol Letters Writing Center in the WaPo! CLWC is truly a bright spot in a world that needs one (seriously).
• Speaking of hirsute DC residents, this May 31 is Walt Whitman’s 190th birthday, which you can celebrate now or then by downloading Leaves of Grass in its entirety, or shouting poetry in the street . . .
• Which brings us to Poetry Please, the BBC program for which listeners send in their favorite poems to be read by a cast of actors (like Judy Dench and Ian McKellen), now in its 30th year.
• Completely unrelated to anything, here’s a site that defines (and, I guess, helps you avoid) clichés. But people who don’t know, maybe they should read a little, live a little? (OK, yes, I’m making a case for listening to the BBC.)
• Apparently you can now, literally, feel as if you have ice water in your veins. It’s a bit creepy, this article. Could be fodder for a story? I don’t know. (It’s Friday the 13th?)
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Heritage Fellowship: Emily Viggiano
Completion Fellowships: Hannah Vanderhart and Allyson Armistead
Thesis Fellowships: Moriah Purdy, Priyanka Champaneri, and
Great job everyone!
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Capitol Letters Writing Center believes that within every student lives a writer. We support and challenge those writers through workshops, tutoring, and student publications that complement the classroom goals of educators in a safe and creative environment.DC students will greatly benefit. And, of course, there’s the mustache ...
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
This is a much deserved publication, Ally, and we couldn't be more proud.
For those of you wondering, Emprise means "an adventurous or daring enterprise," and this is the perfect place for Ally's work because that definition is true of her writing as well.