Archive for May, 2011

As the heart of a student-writer’s story, growing up becomes an almost craft-resistant subject. The narrative is often generated in a gush of feeling barely controlled by point of view, and the thrall of the compositional act obscures the banality of the product. That is, the experience of writing a coming of age story banishes doubt and becomes a writer’s first experience as an artist. Invariably that confidence is reinforced in the workshop; no matter how manipulative the story may be, the writer’s peers are bound to love it. And they’ll be right, because the writer has managed to tap into her own damp and dreamlike past to create her most successful, well-formed story ever.

So we wait for the next story, and it doesn’t come. Or if it does, it’s rambling and superficial, no scenes, no characters, no reason. The ideal trajectory in an academic workshop is that the writer improves with each submission, either technically or in terms of invention. But when a student writes a coming of age story he might just as well give birth to his own writers’ block—because coming of age stories are autobiographical, at least in the emotional sense. That writer is going to need time to recover, psychically.

But there is also another problem, and it’s a biggie. Almost anyone can write a coming of age story—and by “write,” I mean start, develop, and end it—without learning much about how and why it works. Technique comes naturally, for better or worse.

As in instructor, I don’t feel I’ve succeeded with the usual formal/critical approaches to coming of age submissions. The only traction I gain is when I ask my students to question their impulses—why do you want to write about someone who doesn’t know half of what you know? And what I mean by that is, why aren’t you interesting to yourself?

The risk of getting my message across is that I’ll end up reading more college cafeteria stories, but that’s okay. I’d rather read a dozen fragmented scenes of English majors trading smarmy quips over curly fries than one perfectly shaped story about a middle-schooler who learns To Love after her drunkle drowns the cat. That story might hold my attention, but I don’t think those skills transfer.

Read Full Post »

I’ve long admired J.A. Tyler  as much for his prolific and brilliant output as a writer as for his work as the founding editor of Mud Luscious Press. So, it was my great pleasure to sit down with Mr. Tyler to chat about the relationship between editing/publishing/ and authorship.

Q: Could you discuss the relationship between your own tastes and aesthetic as awriter and those of MLP?

A: My own aesthetic as a writer and the aesthetic  of Mud Luscious Press are super similar. I write in what I hope it a solidly experimental yet poetically readable approach, something that skirts a line, and what we seek with MLP in all forms (online, novel(la), Nephew) is that as well. However, I accept greater experimentation with MLP than I would personally write, simply based on how well the writers do it. Darby Larson’s The Iguana Complex is a great example of this – writing that I couldn’t pen myself but that is absolutely, without question, the aesthetic of Mud Luscious Press. It helps too that we have Andrew Borgstom on board as our Associate Editor, as he keeps my own aesthetic preferences from over-running any of those areas of Mud Luscious Press.


Has the rise of MLP influenced you as a writer? Editing in general?

Honestly, every aspect of editing has absolutely influenced me as a writer. Editors get to see first-hand the easy narrative mistakes that writers commit alongside the depth and complexity that great writers can achieve with techniques we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. It is really an unbelievable and amazing learning curve. And editing-proper, working to hone an author’s final manuscript for print, is another layer to that beautiful education, teaching editors to see the concrete reality of their words, no matter what style or approach. Editing (and reviewing) is something that every writer should do for a least a portion of his or her life, it is an evolution.


I think of your work and the writing at MLP–both print and online–as being very distinctive–but you’ve edited for a number of different journals over the years and you’re very widely published. Does your approach change depending on a venue? Or has it developed over the years?

I like to believe that I’ve carried some of my own ‘distinctive’ editing style with me to those journal gigs. When I was editing for Pindeldyboz (R.I.P.) I was probably the most experimental leaning editor there, straying more often away from narrative than the others, though of course the diversity of selections was what made Pboz the great beast that it was.

As for my own writing, I often write with specific journals in mind – I am writing a book, so it has an overarching style or super-objective, but then in the small moments, in the beats, I write for specific submissions periods and/or journals, so that I’m close to hitting what they want while also furthering my book goal. I’m not sure if this is normal (or acceptable) practice, but I do it.


Has there ever been any tension between your role as a writer and your various roles as publisher and editor? How do you reconcile these?

The only tension between the editor/publisher side and the author side is that of time. There are only so many minutes in the day and when it comes down to it, I work on MLP projects first. Their books deserve the first time, to edit and design and publicize and sell, they are what I do before I do anything else. Their deadlines are the first deadlines, their demands the first to be sated. I write with what is left. It is that simple. And though this means that due-dates for my own work have to remain flexible: when you don’t have all the time in the world, when writing is imperative, you write better. Or at least I do. Or at least I think / believe /hope I do.


You have a series of releases coming out this summer (and beyond). And between Mud Luscious and your own work you have come up with a number of innovative ways of promoting interest and community–the MLP stamp stories, for one. Could you talk a little about the connection between creativity and marketing for indie presses and writers? Does the potential format of a release effect your writing process?

In terms of publicity, I try to do the same for my own writing as I do for our Mud Luscious Press authors, I just use a much louder voice for MLP. I believe it is imperative to make waves when you are releasing a book, whether you are the editor or the author, but I also know that you must believe in the publicity you chose, no matter the approach.

The Stamp Stories project that you mention came from the idea to publicize writers from small presses using the power of each press’ own mailings, asking them to include a Stamp Story with their shipments but also to suggest their authors for future Stamp Stories. For our first Nephew imprint title, Larson’s The Iguana Complex, we live-messaged on facebook our editing of the final design proof. We couldn’t speak enough about the book itself, it is so complicated and dense, so we thought why not post our favorite lines, favorite moments, questions we had about the text, and praise of it so that our facebook followers could see how much we love this book.

As for my own work, with the release of A Man of Glass & All the Ways We Have Failed from Fugue State Press, I decided to show readers how much I believed in these words by offering to write a new book, just for them, inside of that book, if they read it and didn’t like it. The idea being that I believe in my words and trust that if people read the book, they will enjoy it, and if they don’t, well, then they get something special and new. And as you mention, I have a handful of new books slated throughout the coming months of 2011, and I’m sure with each I’ll put my creative muster behind their publicity. Getting people to purchase and read a book is not easy, but there are ways to help it happen.

Earlier you mentioned “poetic” and “readable” as distinctive traits in your writing. I would agree with that assertion. How important is audience to your work and to the work you accept for MLP?

What a fantastic question, thanks for asking it. Audience is, to me, super important. There is obviously a point where you can say ‘fuck it, I wrote it and I stand behind it and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it’, but if we lose our audience, what do we have? I want, more than anything, to straddle that line with my writing. I want words and language that are thick and complex yet still enough to hold on to, still enough to pull you through its guts. And as an editor for MLP I want the same thing – works that challenge us to see language in its wrecked state, where it is broken but we still see in its damaged mass, the semblance of reality. This for me is the pinnacle of audience / writer connection, and I work towards it in all the writing and editing I do.


Read Full Post »

This clip is from the documentary SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS, a film that explores southern literature, music, culture.  I recommend getting your hands on a copy.

Read Full Post »

I realize the irony of this electronic post:  I expect you to read it online as I make a case for why I do not plan on ever owning a device which would allow me to digitally read virtually anything I want.  Why is this?  I’ve asked myself the same question multiple times.   It’s not that I’m electronically challenged —  I blog, I dabble in SQL, I know my way around a database, I use a blackberry…what could I possibly have against a device dedicated to my passion, the written word?

I’ll tell you why:  it’s tactile.  I need to hold a book in my hand.  I need to bury my nose in it and let it tell me if it’s from the library, the used bookstore, or that mega store in the burbs.  I need to be able to circle stuff, draw stars and exclamation points.  I need to be able to scan a line and mark the rhyme scheme.  I need to be able to let the book lie next to me in bed, even if I’ve read it ten times.   I want its spine showing on my bookshelf or in the growing piles I have around the house. I want to enjoy the artwork on the front, the colors chosen for the cover.  I want to see the author’s signature scribbled in the front with maybe a note to me wishing me the best on my own work.  When I get an idea for a paper or for class, I want to go straight to the book on my shelf, open it up, and get busy.

I want to see the stitching. I want to know that the book I hold is just as vulnerable to age as I am, but its essence has the potential to live on.  I want to hold a piece of history, as I do with the marvelous Pocket Poet Series book I have of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, City Lights Books, 1964, which has its price as part of the orange border on the back:  $1.25.  I feel closer to O’Hara, I feel in the moment, holding this “pocket” book of poems that is in remarkable condition and five years older than I.  Even if the e-reader one day comes with scents and the ability to circle and scan, I don’t want it.  I want the real thing.  I wanna hold it in my hands, live with it in its physical manifestation.  Yes. Oh yes.   Now let’s go pick up a book and read it like it was meant to be read, baby.  Let’s do.

Read Full Post »

Ron Rash in The New Yorker

Ron Rash has a new story in The New Yorker called “The Trusty” about a prisoner, a woman and a drink of water.

Read Full Post »

Review – Talismans by Sybil Baker (C&R Press)

I’ve been a fan of Sybil Baker’s writing for quite a while now. She’s witty, intellectual, and one of the most down to earth liberal female writers I’ve ever read. Her book The Life Plan published in 2009 through Casperian Books was filled with intelligent hilarity. Think Bridget Jones meets Carrie Bradshaw on a goose chase through Bangkok and beyond.

The recent release of Baker’s sophomore novel Talismans actually caught me off guard. Published in 2010 through C&R press, Baker navigates her protagonist Elise through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, intermittently throwing harsh tragedies at the protagonist. At the start of the novel, the reader’s given a glimpse into Elise’s dark family secrets. Since it’s told through the eyes of a little girl, the narration retains innocence and charm, something Baker pulls off incredibly well.

I definitely had to read this knowing that each chapter would harbor a different tone of voice from the next, as Talismans is a series of short stories moving the plot forward. That’s another one of Baker’s talents, she explores numerous voices and styles of writing, and executes them with precision and continuity.

If this book had a soundtrack, it would be A Fine Frenzy’s One Cell in the Sea. There’s a balance between the soft and delicate passages such as the opening chapter and grittiness of a life in San Francisco after the death of Elise’s mother. There are harsher passages filled with Baker’s inner angst, a voice I’ve heard in The Life Plan, but also resolution in the final pages of the final short story.

Sybil Baker exhibits some of her finest writing in Talismans, and I sincerely cannot wait to see what this fellow Casperian Books author is waiting to unleash next.

Review of Sherry & Narcotics by Nina-Marie Gardener (Future Fiction London)

There are many Danielle Steele and Twilight writers out there, but to a much lesser degree, female writers that tackle contemporary fiction like Nina-Marie Gardener. She has crafted a debut novel about a whip-smart editor migrating through a hardcore trip of loss, desire, addiction, and near death in Manchester in her debut novel Sherry & Narcotics. Though the protagonist suffers from an obvious substance abuse problem, she maintains a graceful eloquence in her narration and observations of the external world in a sort of Jane Austin meets Irvine Welsh manner. There’s sex, drugs, booze, drunk texts and email exchanges, and a “life flashing before my eyes” scene toward the end of the novel, moving the protagonist past current demons, but with great certainty, onto new ones. The formatting and pop culture references such as Starbucks or chart music, email and text exchanges reminded me a lot of Sybil Baker’s The Life Plan. Not necessarily chick lit or genre fiction, but true contemporary fiction with an attitude, an edge.

Read Full Post »

The subject of this chat is Matthew Salesses . Matthew is the author of a slew of stories, a very tremendous chapbook (“Our Island of Epidemics”), the forthcoming The Last Repatriate as well as the fiction editor of The Good Men Project and the former editor of Redivider. And it was these various roles (that he handles always so brilliantly) that I wanted to talk to Matthew about.

My thanks to Mr. Salesses for helping out with this ongoing series of conversations.

Q: We both went to Emerson, although apparently you were there a little after my time. There’s such a close proximity there between the publishing and the creative writing programs that I want to begin there. From my point of view, I never wanted to spend any time with the literary journals or the publishing students (except for my wife, of course) because at the time I thought a writer should entirely focus on the craft of writing and conjuring the muse, so to speak. I wonder if to any extent you had similar notions or conflicts or if you entered the program thinking about the opportunities offered by writing and editing?

A: When I decided on Emerson, the publishing thing seemed a great asset. It probably was. I didn’t take much advantage of it. I never took publishing courses, though I had a friend who ended up in the publishing program, by chance (she claims), at the same time.

I did, however, get involved with Redivider rather immediately. Part of that was an immediate network of friends that were involved with the journal (I was lucky), and part of that was a desire to enter into a community, which I thought, and probably still do think, was the thing an MFA most had to offer. I actually applied to MFAs only in NYC, San Francisco, and Boston–I didn’t know anything about funding until after the acceptances came with paltry sums.

Redivider was fantastic. A great opportunity, and one of the two best things about Emerson–the other being Margot Livesey. It was so valuable to see the behind-the-scenes process, to see what made a submission rise to the top of the pile or get immediately put aside. I also met most of the people I know now (in the writing world) through the magazine.

Q: Did those behind the scenes processes drastically affect the way you wrote?

A: I think it helped me to keep in mind that someone would be reading what I wrote and looking for a reason to keep reading or to stop. To keep reading, a reader needs to settle immediately into a compelling situation and voice. To  stop, a reader needs only an out-of-place word, or action, or cliche. It’s easy to stop reading. This sounds obvious, but when you are buying books you already know you want to read, it isn’t obvious. It’s only obvious when you are reading in the face of time or obligation.

Q: Did any of the submissions you recieved or writers you worked with at Redivider directly influence your direction as a writer?

A: In issue 7.1, I did an interview with Alexander Chee (author of the amazing novel, Edinburgh). Among other things, he says,

It’s more like teaching people to stay close to their excitement. The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they’re talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they’ve lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story?” I feel too many people are working from the wrong end of the stick. They’ve got something very abstract they’re trying to make specific and exciting, and they’re doing it in this Frankenstein’s monster sort of way. So it’s like, “Here’s my backstory sewn onto my character development sewn onto my climax, and now I add the ending and apply electricity!”

This was when I was at the end of my time at Emerson, and to hear this was to articulate a lot of what I felt was wrong with workshops. I think it is eye-opening to hear an evaluation of writing as either exciting or boring (though of course I’m paraphrasing). Exciting/boring is something a reader thinks immediately, but writers are almost trained out of this thinking by workshops. I think that many times when a writer says, more backstory, or try a flashback here, or even I don’t believe this, really what is being said is: make this more interesting. Because if a piece of writing is interesting enough, all those problems fade away. There is a Lynne Tillman quote about how she hates backstory. I am interested in why a reader wants to know more about a character’s history or not, or why a reader questions a character’s believability or not. I think what happens is, if the reader is excited by what she is reading, then those questions never come up, and if the reader is bored, then she wonders why.

I am starting to think that the most helpful critique a writer can get is for her reader to say, these are the parts where I was bored, and these were the parts where I was reading happily. I also think this is a taboo thing to say in a workshop.

I’m not saying you can’t teach writing. I think the tools learned in workshop are helpful once you start thinking about how to increase excitement in the reader–through greater stakes, more conflict, etc. But often the “technical” evaluations made in workshop are made out of a sense of obligation to the workshop setting. It can be hard for a writer to hear her own voice in the chorus of suggestions. Part of the MFA experience is finding those readers you trust and staying in touch with them later.

Q: Earlier you mentioned the importance of finding a “community.” Other than cultivating that handful of trusted readers how has this idea of community affected your writing?

I think that handful of readers is the main way. I’m not sure the community affects one’s writing so much as one’s writing life. The people you meet can provide conversation, support, motivation, opportunities, etc. They might steer your writing in a certain direction if you let it be steered, whether through pressure to publish or desire to be accepted or by stoking interest in a certain style or genre, or so on. And maybe that has happened to me to a certain extent–I write more short shorts than I might have, for example–but mostly the effect is one of infrastructure or something. I’m not explaining this well. What I’m saying is, I *think* my writing is more influenced by what I read than by my personal relationship (if such exists) to a writer, or writers.

Q: To what extent are your decisions as a writer or an editor affected by audience or venue? For instance, has your approach changed at all with your work on the Good Men Project?

I think one’s audience should certainly influence one’s writing/editing. We all know who we’re writing/editing for, even if we say it’s ourself, and even if it is. There is an audience we have an mind. I wrote a thriller last summer. I paid a lot of attention to plot. I gave my characters guns. The whole thing would have been pointless if I hadn’t tried to satisfy a reader who likes thrillers.

Also, it’s not just the writer for whom an intended audience is important. I blew through all those Harry Potter books at about a hundred pages an hour. When I started reading them, I expected to read like a certain type of reader I am not when I read The Alexandria Quartet. We make these adjustments all the time. We are happiest when our expectations are fulfilled.

There was this study done (I was told this, so can’t cite) that showed that people were far more likely to see a movie if the trailer gave away the plot than if it did not. This might seem counter-intuitive–you might think we want to be surprised–but people are mostly interested in seeing things they expect to happen happen.

All of this applies to the Good Men Project, as well. I always want to push the boundaries of a reader’s expectations–that’s what makes a reading experience in any genre, including literary, special–but I don’t want him to feel as if his expectations were misguided.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »