Friday, January 30, 2015

Immersion

By Susan

"Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you." ~ Flannery O'Connor


Flannery O'Connor with one of her "obsessions."
She raised over 50 peafowl at her home in Georgia.
I've been home from my third MFA residency for the past two weeks. Deciding to get a strong jump-start on the term, I've spent the past 14 days in a state that I can only call immersion, which is to say that anything that doesn't have to do with my reading or study has been put on the back burner and set to simmer.
There is something incredibly powerful about spending days on end in the deep end of a study pool. For me, my topic is Flannery O'Connor—and this immersion has been incredibly eye-opening. I've not only read The Complete Stories (all 550 pages) and her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, I'm also tackling her first novel, Wise Blood, and am beginning her second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away. I'm waiting on the arrival of her 2013 published collection of letters and journals, The Prayer Journal of Flannery O'Connor. I've not only spent the past two weeks reading her work, I've annotated it, made pages of notes, and have begun the formulation of a thesis regarding her wide influence on American literature. I've loved every moment of it.
Writer Steve Almond, who was a guest speaker at the University of Tampa for the January residency, might call this immersion obsession. And good writing, he notes, comes from obsession. How else can we motivate ourselves to tackle a puzzle as large as a novel? Or complete a non-fiction title on an obscure topic? We allow the obsession to become our work. Simply put: 

Our obsession justifies the madness that consumes us when we take on a new project.

That's how I currently feel about Flannery O'Connor.
I'm charged this term with writing my critical essay in addition to writing another 80-100 pages of fiction, and in the beginning I was daunted by the task of simply choosing a topic. Flannery O'Connor and her influence and illumination of religion in American fiction came to me from a deep sense of whom I am as a writer: a Southern woman with a deeply religious history. I didn't know that I'd be seized with a literary passion and that I'd take in her collected works like liquid. I didn't know that I'd become immersed.
Immersion as a reader becomes much deeper than skating atop the ice, of course. Immersion requires diving in. In doing so, I've found a way to build bridges between the stories. I've seen threads of characters as they re-weave themselves through her work. I've studied the grotesque with a quiet fascination, and I've marveled at her ability to create rich characters that not only experience brutality and bigotry, but perpetrate it.
Immersion as a writer is a similar process. I'm looking at my novel in progress through O'Connor's filter, and I see glaring character and plot flaws. Yet I started this novel—I remind myself—out of the obsession to tell a tale of character and place. As I stare down the latest draft of my own work, I know that my obsession with it will translate to another type of immersion. And there, I can find the heart of my own words.


Monday, January 26, 2015

About Us, six years later

by Joan


Elizabeth, Julie, Joan, Kim, Susan, Pamela
This June will mark six years since we began this blog. We kicked off on Monday June 8, 2009 and since then have shared 850 posts. Chances are if you’re reading this you’re familiar with what we do, probably a little bit about each of our styles. We've interviewed authors, agents and editors as well as posted about our highs and lows over our many years of writing. We get excited about attending author events like others might for concerts or live theater. 

Here are just a few of my favorite interviews and guest posts from over the years. 

Amy Einhorn stops by for a chat

Dani Shapiro on Devotion

Mollie Glick on what she looks for in a submission

A conversation with Alyson Richman

Karen Harrington's favorite rejection

Kathy Louise Patrick (The Pulpwood Queens)

An interview with Naomi Benaron

We’ve updated our “About Us” page, so check it out. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Review of Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb

By Kim

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness.

Rodin’s Lover brings to life the volatile love affair between one of the era’s greatest artists and a woman entwined in a tragic dilemma she cannot escape.

Photo by Angie Parkinson
About Heather Webb (adapted from the author's website):

As a former military brat and traveling addict, it was tricky for Heather to choose a landing pad. At last, she settled in a rural town in New England. For a decade she put her degrees in French and Cultural Geography to good use teaching and coaching high school students.

Currently, she is a novelist and works as a freelance editor. She can also be found lurking at the popular RomanceUniversity.org where she contributes to their blog with editing advice, and at the award-winning site, WriterUnboxed.com, where she poses as Twitter Mistress (@WriterUnboxed). She also kicks around a local college teaching classes called “Write to Publish” and “Crafting Your Novel”.

When she’s cross-eyed from too much screen time, she flexes her foodie skills or geeks out on history and pop culture.

Rodin’s Lover is Heather’s second novel. Be sure to check out her first, Becoming Josephine, as well.

My review:

Hmmm…an artist-muse story set in Belle Époque Paris? The tale of a talented female sculptor obsessed with and overshadowed by a male artist of greater fame? It’s safe to say that I would have snatched this book off the shelf and bought it based solely on the title and that gorgeous cover.

For those readers unfamiliar with the relationship between Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, the cover may imply a tempestuous affair crossing the border into obsession, one that more likely than not ends badly. The beauty of Rodin’s Lover is that while the reader does get the thrill of living vicariously through all that passion and heartbreak, this is not a typical artist/muse story. Though Rodin is better remembered by history, Claudel possessed similar talent. The role of muse is not set in stone. (Pun intended.)

Heather Webb did a phenomenal job chronicling Claudel’s slow descent into madness, much of which is told from her point of view. I saw Claudel’s delusions through her own eyes, and while I knew her perceptions were not real, there was truth to be found in them.

Readers who have felt thwarted in their creative pursuits by a parent or other loved one will likely find Claudel relatable and sympathetic.

If you enjoy stories about artists and the creative process, or even simply ones that take place in this particular point in French history, Rodin’s Lover is well worth the read. Pick up your copy starting on January 27th.  

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advanced copy of the book mentioned above gratis in the hope that I would mention it on this blog. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. In accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” I am making this statement.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Go?

by Elizabeth

Two nice East Coast girls, masters of historical fiction both
 
Yup, that's Joan last Sunday night with Anita Diamant, author of The Boston Girl and most famous for The Red Tent. Joan was able to make the private reception at 6 p.m., and I managed to get to Highland Park United Methodist Church in time to hear Diamant speak at seven. We had a great time.

As I drove home, I thought about the many book signings I've been to with Joan, the other members of this blog, and a few by my lonesome. It's always interesting and fun, but I began thinking beyond just the good time of going to a signing and instead about why I go.

Years ago, when Joan and I were both regulars at the critique group where we first met, we skipped the first couple hours more than once to sit in a church's sanctuary and hear writers pitch their work. In recent years, I've met my fellow bloggers at the Dallas Museum of Art (and have taken each of my kids to boot) for writer talks, and I've schlepped over to Richardson High School several times to revel in the community of Richardson Reads One Book. I guess I've made a point of seeing authors speak whenever I can make it for going-on ten years now, and after Sunday, I was already plotting my next opportunity. (Kate Alcott! Dave Barry!)

But again: why?

I mean, I hustled to get there. I have to get on the second-worst freeway in Dallas to get to HPUMC, and to get to the DMA I have to drive downtown. Sometimes rain is pouring down, sometimes the dog throws up on my shoe as I head to the garage. Why?

The responsible answer, and one that is true, is that by attending writer events, I am part of the writing community. Wait--better still, it's to support the writers. Years later I'm still telling strangers what a great time I had listening to Amy Tan speak at the Eric Johnsson Library in, what? 2004 maybe? and thrusting her books into their hands. Elizabeth Strout? Please, that was just terrific. Oh, and I missed the official Marcus Zusak speech, but a kind librarian invited me to join a crowd of high school juniors the next day to hear him talk in an even more intimate setting--a morning I'll not soon forget. And what I'd like to think of all of these writers, is that while they made a big impact on me, I have made a small impact on them by telling other people about them and their books and hopefully selling a few copies along the way.

So yes, being a supporter of writers is one reason to go, and another, maybe a little more self-serving, is the hope that others will come when I am in the same wonderful shoes. That others, aspiring and accomplished both, will brave the rain and traffic and animal mishaps to sit in a pew for an hour and hear me talk.

But as I sailed up the dreaded freeway that wasn't that bad (it was the weekend, did I mention?), I thought hard about what draws me back again and again, whenever I can swing it. Fun, sure. Support, yes. But at the deepest level?

It feeds me.

You can always tell in the Q&A who are the readers, and who are the writers, by the way. Readers ask questions about the book. Writers ask questions about the process. I love hearing both, and I've asked a few myself, but whether I'm handed the microphone or not, listening to a writer answer questions about their book or their craft, about their upcoming work or the publication process, gives me both hope and reassurance. Hope that it really can happen for me as well. (Anita Diamant's biography had a fair bit in common with mine). Reassurance that my methods are valid. (Not everyone manages to pump out the desired number of words every day.) And not a little--what's the opposite of starstruck? Yes, it's great to meet these people who are famous, but what's even better is to talk to them as just regular folks--like most writers are, most people are. Like I am.

So that's why I go. While I'll keep going. Why I'll meet my friends, take my kids, and thrust the books of authors I've heard talk into the hands of strangers. Community for them, community for me, and the kind of nourishment found only when a writer takes the stage with their latest book in hand and shares with the audience how it happened for them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Characters Matter

By Pamela

Over the winter school break, my two college boys were home quite a bit and, in addition to loving their being here, I enjoyed movie marathons (John Grisham titles this time around) and they spent some time catching up on their favorite TV shows via Netflix.

Because I wanted to be where they were, I generally watched what they watched. And while I could appreciate the jokes in their favorite sitcoms, I had a hard time enjoying them at the same level they did. Later I realized it was because I had no idea who the characters were. I knew the actors but not the roles they played. I wasn't invested in their lives at all.

The same can be said for books. If the author doesn't do his or her job developing the characters, you can't invest yourself in the story. Try watching a TV series you're unfamiliar with. Even if it's award-winning and everyone you know loves it, my bet is you'll not feel the same passion if you pick up a random episode in the middle of a season. You'll want to ask, Who is she? Is he married to her or do they just work together? Did she used to be with someone else? And is she not over him? Questions abound and make it nearly impossible to become interested in the story.

As writers, we have to develop characters. And not just stock characters or puppets that bend at our commands. We have to love them first (or hate them just as passionately) and figure out how best to communicate that passion to the reader.

In order to create characters that resonate with your readers, you must develop them fully. Several books on my shelves can help:


Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Page after page of examples of characters in novels as well as ideas for creating multidimensional characters and taking them through the paces in your story.


The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman

Because one of the first things your story does is introduce main characters, this book by Lukeman really helps hammer out the essentials for getting off on the right foot. My copy is highlighted pretty extensively and I need to reread this ASAP.


Escaping into the Open by Elizabeth Berg

One of my favorite authors gives us her take on how to write good fiction. In the chapter "The Good Lie," she talks about creating empathetic characters your reader will relate to. Berg also has a lot of great exercises in this book that will get you stretching those creative muscles.


In closing, think back to television shows you loved. Chances are the characters stayed with you long after you turned off the TV. My list will probably be different than yours (and will date me) but I can think of Rhoda in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Quincy, M*A*S*H, Carol Burnett, Cheers, Designing Women, Friends, Seinfeld, and the list goes on and on. Great characters I couldn't wait to watch week after week. The challenge is to create memorable characters on the page as well.




Friday, January 16, 2015

Best Reads 2014 Part II

By Susan
It's been a great year of reading for me, as I've learned to balance my required reading for my MFA program and still choose to take the time for pleasure reading. Here are a few of my favorites from this year, read for pleasure.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
A National Book Award finalist and a surprise NYT Number One Bestseller, this book had all the hype that often makes me avoid a novel: it can't possibly be as good as everyone says. And yet I couldn't resist the premise: a dual narrative of a blind Parisian girl and her father during WWII, balanced with a boy genius in the Hitler Youth. The language is gorgeous, the setting, impeccable, and the characters are compelling and empathetic. I can't recommend this book highly enough.




Redeployment, by Phil Klay
Recommended to me by a friend while at the Sewanee Writers Conference this summer in a conversation about war literature, this short story collection beat out All The Light We Cannot See as the National Book Award winner. Each story deals with the War On Terror, ranging from the ethics of fighting, the nature of religion, the difficulties of re entry into civilian life, and the pain of the helplessness felt by those driven by purpose, only to find that purpose hollow. It's a powerful book for anyone interested in learning more about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the veterans who are just beginning to taste the consequences of violence firsthand.



Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Originally released in 2012, this book is a gem. NPR's Maureen Corrigan says it best: "A literary miracle like Beautiful Ruins appears, and once again I'm a believer... a sweeping stunner of a narrative... the entire novel is a kaleidoscopic collection of 'beautiful ruins,' both architectural and human. This novel is a standout not just because of the inventiveness of its plot, but also because of its language."  Set against the picturesque backdrop of Cinque Terre on the Italian coast, the novel moves seamlessly through time and through the lives of its characters. And as incredible dessert, the final chapter is one of the finest I've ever read.





By Elizabeth
I hate to admit it, but I'm having some trouble remembering what I read last year! I'm inspired to once again keep a reading log as I did several years ago, an undertaking I both enjoyed and appreciated. Why I have failed to do so in subsequent years is a question I can't answer, but for 2015, I'm committing to do so. As for 2014, the last book I completed begins my list. Going roughly backward, then:

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

How long ago was it that Ms. Gilbert came to Dallas and kept us captivated as she promoted this book? Yet it wasn't until just after Thanksgiving that I finally picked it up, and many happy hours at our retreat were spent relaxing into Alma's life story. I had a super-busy December, and it wasn't until after Christmas that I finally finished, mostly because I wasn't willing to take the novel in the little sips of time I had available; no, this deserved big gulps of time. The writing itself left me awestruck; Gilbert truly is an outstanding pen smith. The research she undertook for this also impressed (and left me not a little envious to boot--London! Tahiti! Amsterdam!), and I am quite sure this is a novel that will stick with me for a long time.

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty

This was a re-read, another I read as a potential comp, and I enjoyed it just as much as when I read it a few years ago. Plus, it led me to more of Moriarty's work, notably The Hypnotist's Love Story which I thought was terrific, and two others I bought which are in the stack on my nightstand awaiting their turn. Since they were already recommended by Pamela (Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret), I have no doubt they will be as satisfying as Moriarty's other works. Like Pamela, I love finding a reliable author who I can read--and re-read.



The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

This was a re-read, as is anything by Anne Tyler, since I believe I've read every word she's published. I'll be totally honest: I'm not sure this is the one I read from her this year, but I read her every year (as I do Maeve Binchy), and it's always fresh, always enjoyable, and I always, always find something new. She (they) is (are), very simply, in my top five of all time. And always will be.

The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty

I might have discovered this perusing the library for more of the Australian Moriarty's works, or maybe I was looking for her specifically having read a couple of her other novels in earlier years (both While I'm Falling and The Rest of Her Life were terrific), but between these two and my fandom of Sherlock, it was quite the Moriarty year. The Chaperone is an imagining of a woman accompanying Louise Brooks, a girl destined to be one of the most famous actresses of her silent film generation, to New York for a summer that changes both of them forever. Any time a book sends me to the internet to learn more, I know it's good. I was itching to Google by the end of the first chapter.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

My daughter is a devotee of Mr. Green, both his novels and his YouTube channel , but I never let her forget I discovered him first. I read Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska several years ago, loved them, and while Stars was on my radar, somehow it wasn't until shortly before the movie came out that I picked it up. And cried (as I did at the movie of course).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

It's always a pain when my kids ask me what I want for a gift, but I remembered this book has been on my wish-list for a long time, and my son gave it to me for my birthday. Still, it was months before I got around to reading it, and it was so worth the wait. So worth it, how ridiculous is it that it took me years to read it? I don't read a lot of non-fiction, though when I do, I wonder why not? This was a great read tied with an amazing and sometimes shameful story, a story that literally impacts every person on our planet. Some of my favorite reading hours this year were spent with this book.

 Courage for Beginners, by Karen Harrington

Once again, Harrington nailed the voice. I attended her book signing and bought copies for myself and my daughter and for my niece. As with her middle-grade debut Sure Signs of Crazy,  Karen had me completely believing I was inside the head of a twelve-year-old. It's exciting to watch a writer find her niche, and I feel privileged to see Karen's career blossom from across town.

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

This middle grade book was, well, a wonder. The story of a boy with both extreme facial deformity and enormity of heart was in a word, beautiful. This is another one that got voice perfectly, this tale from multiple points of view, all of them authentic.

The Nineteenth Wife, by David Ebersoff

I love a story that goes back and forth in time. I was shopping at Costco with my mother-in-law, started chatting up a stranger in the book aisle who soon thrust a copy of this novel in our hands (probably to get me to leave her alone). This story, the fact-based tale of one of early Mormon leader Brigham Young's many wives woven together with the fictional story of a modern day religious sect, is another that set me Googling.

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

I'm pretty sure I read this was my first read of last year. Julie recommended it at our 2013 retreat, and I was happy to believe her, already a fan of Ms. Rowell having read Attachments (at the suggestion of my librarian) a year or two earlier. I was not disappointed. This high school story set in 1986 was spot-on (as an '85 grad I feel qualified to judge), and had me aching with the singular memory of how high school love feels and acts.



By Julie
My 2014 reading was, shamefully, as sketchy and scattered as everything else I did last year. (Did I mention the moving and selling and buying of houses? I believe I did!) I didn't keep a list for the first time in forever. And I suspect my total number was dismally low. I typically read late at night, and last year I did a lot of crashing into bed and falling asleep in five minutes. But a few titles did float to the top as I glanced through my eBook collection -- because I'm not sure I managed to read a single print book other than a few for research that were only available that way. I've already read one in print this year and am going to focus on doing a lot more of it as I really enjoyed it. I'm honestly not even sure what year these were published in several cases, but I read them in 2014!


Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

I'm still in disbelief that this gripping, beautifully crafter debut novel was written by an author in her mid-twenties. Don't expect to come away from it feeling sunny or hopeful. After all, it's set in Iceland in the winter and it's about a young woman awaiting her execution for murder. But do expect to come away with a crash education in 19th century Icelandic geography and culture, and the experience of reading something unlike anything you've read before. I have recommended this one many times at book clubs I've attended in the last year. It was so dark, but it was so good.

Little Mercies, by Heather Gudenkauf

This is just the kind of twisty, emotional, "ripped from the headlines" family drama I almost always enjoy -- though enjoy is never quite the right word for a story that guts you. Yet, this one does end on an uplifting note. I had always intended to read something by this author, but hadn't for some reason. I'm glad I did, and will likely read more. The story focuses on the ironic premise of a child welfare worker who unintentionally neglects her own child with horrifying repercussions.

The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon

I really liked this story about a woman with a developmental disability and a deaf man who fall in love in an "institution for the feeble-minded," as it was called during the historical period in which the novel is set. Not only that, but it was also about interracial love, so it had obvious appeal for me because of my own novel, Calling Me Home. Now that I am mostly past the terror writers experience in the early stages of publication about whether someone else has published, or is about to, a "competing" novel, I find I've returned to really enjoying stories with similar themes. After all, I wouldn't have written this type of novel if I didn't enjoy reading it myself. Another great one for book clubs.

Finally, I would be lying if I didn't admit I read Eleanor & Park (by Rainbow Rowell, already mentioned by Elizabeth above!) AGAIN and loved it as much or more the second time! And let me tell you, I don't re-read books. This has truly become my go-to feel-good story (though it is full of heartbreak, too), and I have actually stood near it in bookstores and waited for teenagers to approach and placed it in their hands and said, "READ THIS ONE." :) I have her other novels waiting in my TBR pile. What am I waiting for? Oh, yeah. Time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

by Joan

Whenever I’m writing a new novel, I like to immerse myself in the time period, researching not only non-fiction and memoir, but also fiction. When I read the blurb about Anita Diamant’s latest novel, The Boston Girl, about a young Jewish girl born to immigrants in early twentieth-century Boston, I immediately ordered the book.  

The youngest of three sisters, Addie Baum yearns for an education and to become a true American. Her father spends most of his free time at the synagogue and her mother, who speaks primarily Yiddish, complains about life in this strange new country and mourns two boys she lost, one on the boat, another in their first years here. She constantly harps on Addie for wanting more. When Addie says maybe she doesn’t want to get married, Mameh says, “Are you so stupid? Marriage and children are a woman’s crown.”

Addie’s eldest sister Betty is banished from the house for taking a job in a shop so she doesn’t have to do factory work. Celia, the meek and frail middle sister, marries a widower with two small boys and soon becomes worn out from domestic life. Through a kind teacher Addie joins a library group and sneaks off to Rockport lodge during the summer. She befriends a group of girls who refer to themselves as the “mixed nuts,” for among them are Irish, Italian and Jewish, then as now, a nationality as much as a religion. Among these girls she learns compassion and friendship, sharing joy and pain.

Naïve about men, at a dance Addie becomes infatuated with a Coast Guard recruit and despite her friend Filomena’s warnings, leaves the dance with him and later is too embarrassed to admit her friend was right. What follows is a tender story of pre- and post-Depression era Boston, Addie’s quest to learn, to find love, to win her mother’s elusive approval, to eek out a career in journalism in a time when men expected women to fetch coffee for them. There’s a heartbreaking scene late in the book when Addie misunderstands a moment of tenderness with her mother.


The novel is told in flashback, with eighty-five year-old Addie telling her story to her granddaughter. This adds a layer of nostalgia as Addie reflects on how different things were then as now. 

Reminiscent of Francie Nolan in Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Addie will steal your heart in this poignant, coming of age tale. If you’re a fan of audio books, Linda Lavin brilliantly voices Addie’s Boston dialect and Jewish inflections.
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