Thursday, April 30, 2009

You should check out Dan Wickett's Emerging Writers Network--he's declared May as Short Story Month. Every day, he's going to blog about three short stories: click here.
Sinful Reading?: click here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rick Moody makes some musical recommendations: click here.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

An interview with Elizabeth Strout: click here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"The Reality of a Times Bestseller": bestselling author Lynn Viehl posts--and explains--her royalty statement. Click here.
"Adult Readers in the Kids' Section": click here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"America's Newest Profession: Bloggers for Hire": click here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's worth your time to check out this interview with agents from the latest Poets and Writers.

Here's a sample:

Are there any specific things that can make you fall in love with a piece of writing?

STEIN: I would say that being able to make me think, especially in dialogue, "Oh, shit. This person has got me. This person has just seen into what we all feel every day but don't say. This person has looked into our souls, especially the worst sides of us, and sort of ripped them open and put them on the page." Psychology, to me, is one of the most exciting things to see work well in fiction—when it comes alive on the page and is totally devastating.

STEINBERG: When you read something and think, "I can't believe they just said what I've thought in my deepest thoughts but never articulated," that is always an eye-opener for me. And it's also about reading something that doesn't seem familiar. Writers should realize that agents have a ton of material to read, and when things seem familiar, it's an easy reason to pass. If it's something that's new, it really makes a huge difference. And I'm not talking about something being so wildly creative that it's ridiculous—not a talking plant falling in love with a turtle or something like that. I'm talking about, in a real sense, something that is genuinely new and also deeply felt. That's what we're all looking for. But at the same time, I do get things and think, "How is this like something else that has sold well?" It's a difficult balance. You have to have one foot in literature and one foot in what's going on in the marketplace.

RUTMAN: Writers probably shouldn't trouble themselves too much over that consideration. If they're aiming to hit some spot that's been working—trying to write toward the books that have made an impression—that just seems like a pretty pointless chase. You know, "I hear that circus animals are wildly appealing and I've had some thoughts about circus animals...." That doesn't seem like a very good way to go about it.

STEINBERG: A writer was just asking me about that and I said it's the agent's job to spin a book for the marketplace—to talk about it being a little like this book and a little like that book or whatever. Writers should put those kinds of thoughts out of their heads and just write.

RUTMAN: I don't know who to blame for trends. If a run of books comes 
out that are all set in a particular 
country—which happens all the time—to whom do we attribute that? To writers who are looking at things and saying, "Hmmm, I notice that fourteen years ago India was interesting to people. I think that's where I'm going to set my book"? You can't blame writers for asking what subjects are interesting these days, even when we're talking about fiction, and I wish I had a useful answer for them, but I just don't think it works that way.

STEINBERG: I would basically go with your passion. The subject matter can be very wide ranging, but if you go with your passion, even if it doesn't work, at least it's heartfelt.

STEIN: On some level, what else are you going to do? Are you going to write a novel because it's "commercially viable"? I mean, I guess people do that. But we're not going to represent them.

You are all deep inside this world, but so many writers aren't. If you were a beginning writer who lived out in Wisconsin or somewhere and didn't know anybody and you were looking for an agent, how would you do it?

STEINBERG: I would not worry about looking for an agent. I would work on my writing for a long time. And then when I was finally ready, I would ask everyone I know what they thought I should do.

MASSIE: I agree with that. I would concentrate on getting published in well-regarded literary magazines and, chances are, agents will come to you.

RUTMAN: I wouldn't relish the prospect of looking for an agent if I had not come through a program, where a professor can often steer you in some helpful direction. I guess you'd start at the bookstore.

MASSIE: You pick up your favorite books and look at the acknowledgments and see who represented them and write those people a letter.

STEIN: I'm with Peter. I wouldn't worry so much about finding an agent. The thing is, there aren't that many great writers. Right? And there seem to be a lot of people trying to write novels and find agents. If you're looking for an agent, it means you want to sell your book. But if there are only a hundred people making money as writers—and I think that number sounds about right—and you're trying to sell your book to make money, then that doesn't really make sense. It's like playing the lottery. If I thought I'd written something brilliant, I would hope that, like Peter said, I would be continuing to work on my writing.

RUTMAN: But don't you think most people who are working on their writing feel kind of persuaded that they are brilliant and have something really unique and wonderful to say?

STEIN: I also think they feel this pressure to get published. With all the MFA programs, and with all the writing conferences and programs that they pay money for, there's this encouragement to get published.

RUTMAN: Sure. It's the stated goal.

STEIN: Right. That's the goal. But for 99 percent of people writing fiction, that shouldn't necessarily be the goal. Maybe writing should be the thing they work on for many years and then maybe they should think about getting published.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Changes to MLA: click here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Interview with MaryElizabeth Williams, author of GIMME SHELTER

Here's an interview I did with Mary Beth Williams, author of Gimme Shelter, a memoir about Williams' quest to buy a house in New York City. I love this book--it's got a compelling narrative, a strong voice, humor and clear, clean prose. I kept thinking of how I could use this book in a Form and Technique course; in a Creative Non-Fiction course; in a literature course on Working Class Narratives or the American Dream.

Her publisher describes it this way:

"Of course I want a home," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "I'm American." Gimme Shelter is the first book to reveal how this primal desire, "encoded into our cultural DNA," drove our nation to extremes, from the heights of an unprecedented housing boom to the depths of an unparalleled crash.

As a writer and parent in New York City, Williams is careful to ground her real-estate dreams in the reality of her middle-class bank account. Yet as a person who knows no other way to fall in love than at first sight, her relationship with the nation's most daunting housing market is a passionate one. Williams's house-hunting fantasy quickly morphs into a test of endurance, as her search for a place to live and a mortgage she can afford stretches into a three-year odyssey that takes her to the farthest reaches of the boroughs and the limits of her own patience.

"Welcome to the tracks," she declares at the outset of yet another weekend tour of blindingly bad, wildly overpriced properties. "Let's go to the wrong side of them, shall we?" As her own quest unfolds, Williams simultaneously reports on the housing markets nationwide. Friends and family members grapple with real estate agents and lenders, neighborhood and quality-of-life issues, all the while voicing common concerns, as expressed by this Maryland working parent of three: "The market was so hot, there were no houses. We looked for years at places the owners wouldn't even clean, let alone fix up."How frustrating is the process? Williams likens it to hearing "the opening bars of a song you think is 'Super Freak.' And then it turns out to be 'U Can't Touch This.'" Told in an engaging blend of factfinding and memoir, Gimme Shelter charts the course of the real estate bubble as it floated ever upward, not with faceless numbers and documents but with the details of countless personal stories -- about the undeniable urge to put down roots and the lengths to which we'll go to find our way home.

Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio International's morning news show, The Takeaway, and a regular contributor to She has written for many publications including The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Parents. She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

Visit her website.


Diana Joseph
: Unlike a lot of writers, you don't make your living teaching. You've been a restaurant critic, a film critic, and a writer for, The New York Times, TV Guide, The Nation and others. You've supported yourself and your family by writing professionally for a long time. What's your background?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I became a writer by failing out of everything else. I didn't go to journalism school (my degree is in film) and I was on the corporate track the first few years of my career. And I was a terrible office worker!

When I got laid off from a studio, I chucked it all and moved to San Francisco and decided, rather whimsically, to become a writer. I interned at a bunch of places, I wrote for no money for neighborhood papers and zines, and I temped everywhere. I used to have the idea that eventually I'd wind up somewhere with my own desk and a phone and a real job title. Instead, I got to know pretty much everybody in the Bay Area, making contacts and picking up freelance assignments and continuing to work in my pajamas. Eventually a lot of those people migrated to New York and I did too. Now I can't imagine any other career path that would have fit me.

Joseph: What advice do you have for someone who'd like a writing career like yours?

Williams: Be reliable. Seriously.

Very few of us are geniuses, and having been an editor, I can tell you that geniuses can be a real pain to work with.

Editors want people who meet their deadlines, who turn in clean, proofread and fact-checked copy. Because you would be AMAZED at how many writers expend far more energy in begging you for work than they will put into actually producing it.

Be nice. Not in a butt kissy, doormatty way, but just in a knowing how to act in a socially acceptable way way. Be real and honest and genuine in your curiosity and your enthusiasm. The people you interview and the sources you rely on need to feel comfortable with you and trust you. The editorial assistant who's going through the slush pile needs to know you regard him or her as a human being.

Most of us don't go into the world with a lot of great connections and contacts. But if you're willing to put yourself out there, build your clips, and keep at it, you will cultivate them. And years from now, the people who were starting out with you will be running the show, and they'll remember you.

One of the first people I met in California, when he was starting a zine and getting people to contribute for free, was Dave Eggers. So you never know.

And write. Write a lot. Write every day. Write your bad first drafts and your underdeveloped ideas and try them out. The only way you will ever, ever get to the good stuff is by having something to work with. Very little in life springs forth flawlessly from the imagination. Bill Buford has a great phrase about "the pedagogy of repetition" and I remember that every day, when I'm faced with a blank screen and my terror of it.

Joseph: Your book Gimme Shelter is a memoir about your quest to buy a house in New York City. How did you decide this was a story you wanted to tell?

Williams: I knew it almost immediately. I came back from the first open house I attended and wrote about the experience, on my laptop, just as an exercise. I was dying to talk about what I saw out there. Eventually I turned my early house hunting into a story for the New York Observer. And I just kept going with it. I'm relentless that way.

I think the story of home and need for one is one of the great stories of the human experience. And we live in such an interesting time -- more peripatetic than ever but also so romantically attached to the notion of home and ownership. I had tinkered with other book ideas before but I knew this was something I was passionate enough about to go the distance.

: What made you choose to tell this story in present tense?

Williams: Thank you so much for asking! That was a very conscious choice and something I felt very strongly about from the beginning. I wanted the book to feel immediate and suspenseful. There's a certain horror-like quality to the experience of house hunting, especially in New York, especially during the bubble, and I wanted the reader right there with me in it. I wanted to bring people with me in as active a way as possible. The comfort of distance and misty water colored memoires wasn't an option.

Joseph: While Gimme Shelter is a personal story, it's also a book that has to educate the reader along the way, explaining the complicated and sometimes confusing process of purchasing a house. How did you balance anecdote with background information?

Williams: That was by far the hardest part of the process. I really didn't want to go all Basil Exposition with the information: "This reminds me of a funny story about the Federal Reserve!" It had to be as natural and conversational as I could make it.

It helped that I'm not a business or economics person. I couldn't assume any complicated knowledge on the part of the reader because I didn't have any complicated knowledge myself. Any distilling down that I did came from my own hard-won experience. I had my own internal Denzel Washington on my shoulder the whole time, saying, "Explain it to me like I'm a four year old." Fortunately I already kind of am.

Joseph: In her short story "The Lesson," Toni Cade Bambara writes, "Where we are is who we are." The setting of Gimme Shelter--New York City--is as important as any of the people. In a way, New York becomes a character, one central to the story's themes of home and finding a place to belong and identity. Can you talk about the importance of place in your book?

Williams: Place is huge. My friend Cynthia, who survived Katrina, says in my book, "It's not even part of it, it's all of it." I think we like to fancy ourselves citizens of the world, but where we come from -- and where we settle ourselves -- are a huge statement.

If you look at "Not Quite What I Was Planning," the book of six word memoirs, you'll see how very many people choose to tell their life stories in terms of location and religion (Me too. Mine was "Catholic girl. Jersey. It's all true.") Think of how you define yourself, or how you describe others--the stoic midwesterner, the laid-back Californian.

I tried to present a variety of lifestyles and locations in the book, to show the home experience in St. Louis or Vermont or Miami. I wanted to make it clear why those places are attractive, and why they weren't an option for me. You can't put a fish in a tree, you know? And there shouldn't be anything wrong with being a fish.

I also believe very very strongly that cities, not just New York, have to be sustainable for normal, middle class people. It's not just my own attachment at stake, it's a particular social ecosystem that's threatened when school teachers and nurses and office workers are squeezed out. I wanted to make the case for our continued presence here.

Joseph: Describe the process of writing this book. Did you write it in real time--as you were living through the experiences? Or did you work from memory?

Williams: I wrote a lot as I was living it. I wrote the whole time, taking notes and trying to shape them into the book proposal. Then when I was working on the book itself, I interviewed my friends and family, and had them send me some of the emails we'd exchanged during the book's timeframe. I still had to pull a bunch from memory, and I still have people whose recollections are different, but I tried very hard to get it right.

If you're a nonfiction writer, take notes, all the time. Couldn't hurt.

Joseph: Describe your revision process.
Williams: Well it's endless. I tried to do the real writing of the MS in a big straight initial burst, not twiddling too much. Then when I had a draft, I did a week of nothing but revising it from start to finish. THEN I worked on the parts that needed the most help. And then I started collaborating with my editor, which took about two months. Because this was my first book, I quite deliberately overwrote it, and put in a lot of material I knew would eventually go. But coming from a journalistic and editorial background, I'm reasonably ruthless at cutting my own prose. It's not about saving a clever line or good scene, you have to be willing to constantly ask, what's best for the whole?

And yes, I look at it now and think of everything I wish I could fix.

Joseph: Who are some of the writers you most admire?

Williams: I knew I was in good hands with my editor when she said, "I love American stories." So do I. I have a lot of favorite writers, but I'm really drawn to that particular American sensibility. And you find it in authors as disparate as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and Richard Yates. I love how they write about class and aspiration and work in ways that are so almost painfully straightforward.

And when you look Twain's essays and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Barbara Erinreich's Nickel and Dimed, you see this particular form of nonfiction that's very novelistic. We take it for granted now, but it's very American and incredibly innovative.

The British author Fay Weldon was also one of my big early author crushes. She was the first woman I read who just scorched the earth. There's nothing cute or chick lit about Fay Weldon, she's funny in the most brutal way possible. I wish we had more of that.

Joseph: What are you working on next?

Williams: I'm in the early stages of a proposal for a book about public education. I want the structure to be similar to Gimme Shelter--using my experience and that of friends and family around the country to tell a bigger story about a social issue. I have two young children, and the pressure on kids right now, within this truly broken system, is completely dysfunctional.

And fortunately I've got that convenient amnesia about how difficult writing a book actually is, so that'll help move me forward.

Of course, with the economy being what it is, I may reconsider everything and get into air conditioning repair.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The habit of excessive writing, of explaining, amplifying, and reiterating, of letter making and pamphleteering, forms a morbid symptom of known as “graphomania.” Some men may overload their natural tendency to write, but a certain class of lunatics use nearly all their mental activities in this occupation, to the endless annoyance of their friends, relatives and physicians.

"'Bryan's Mental Condition:' One Psychiatrist's View." Source: New York Times, 27 September 1896.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Interview with Jorge Evans, Founder, Publisher and Editor of RockSaw Press

Diana Joseph: Describe what RockSaw is and how it came to be.

Jorge Evans: RockSaw Press is a chapbook press. A chapbook is a short, bound book (usually 30 pages max and as few as a couple pages minimum. Robert Bly has a chapbook with one poem that's about four pages total.

A little history of chapbooks: They originated in 16th century England as broadsides, or posters, that contained laws, religious sermons, etc. Eventually someone had the idea they could fold the sheets, if printed on both sides correctly, into 8ths and 16ths and it made a little book. From then on it was a very affordable way for writers to share their work. In a time when there weren't presses all over the place dedicated to publishing literature, it was an author's only option to gain recognition.

Ok, so now that the history lesson is over, here's how it all came to be: I'd been interested in presses and book making and whatnot for a long time. I buy old books because I like how they're put together. I have a book of Thomas Aquinas written in Latin just because it smelled nice. I have a Socrates book that I bought simply because some of the pages were still connected on the outside edge (you used to have to cut pages open in older books). With that obsession of book making, it was just a matter of time before I'd start a press.

In Rick Robbin's poetry workshop in the fall of '08 we had to make a chapbook as a final project and in my obsessive compulsiveness I went and found a free layout program and used photoshop to make a cover. It dawned on me then that I could do the work of a chapbook press. It would just be a financial issue.

Then we read The Gift by Lewis Hyde in your Teaching Creative Writing class. And we had that conversation about how we need to be out there spreading the art by all means necessary and I think that's what solidified the idea. I did some accounting, figured out cost, called my parents to make sure if I went bankrupt they'd be able to save my butt, and started the press.

A side note on the press name: It was a typo. I was meaning to type Rickshaw for something or another and I accidentally typed RockSaw. I take it as a happy accident because that happened a year before I started the press and the name has stuck with me. Plus, I like power tools. So it's fitting.

Joseph: What's RockSaw's mission?

Evans: The official mission statement is: "RockSaw Press is an independent publisher with close ties to the Midwestern region. As such, we strive to publish the work of Midwestern writers and work that reflects the state of the region regardless of the writer’s origins.

Our mission is to publish the best work that comes our way. Work that informs, inspires, challenges, and, sometimes as it is, daunts.

We keep our publishing in house, assembling our books by hand with the belief that manual work nets the best results in regard to the art of book making and the spirit of the independent press.

We hope, through our publication, to promote a stronger literary culture in the Midwest and expose the talent that the region has to offer."

Unofficially, we want to do kick ass chapbooks. And I want to help expose the writers in the MFA program here at MSU because I think we have some of the best talent in the country but a lot of people are afraid to publish or to submit to publishing.

And, on a personal, business level, I'd like to take the press to a level where it could be a viable career. I love doing the work and I hope the press survives past my graduation from the MFA in Mankato. Minnesota is a great state for presses with the funding available and I've always been willing to live paycheck to paycheck, so I'm going to do all I can to keep it going as long as I can.

Global domination would be cool, too.

Joseph: What sorts of work made up your catalog so far? What sorts of work are you interested in?

Evans: I'm glad you asked this. So far we have three poetry chapbooks. I think it's a misconception that people think chapbooks are only for poetry. Certainly, poetry lends itself well to the chapbook form, but prose is also just as viable. Essays, short stories, flash fiction, novel excerpts--all of it works in a chapbook. It's just the page count that's limiting. I want to do prose as well as poetry. I want to break that myth that only poetry can be in chapbooks.

As far as work in general, I want work that is influenced by the Midwest or takes place in the Midwest or has some connection to the Midwest. But I'm flexible on this. Just so long as there's some tie--the author is from the Midwest, the story passes through the Midwest, etc. You know me, Diana. I'm fiercely Midwestern.

I used "Midwest" six times just now.

Joseph: Why are you doing this?

Evans: According to the newspaper articles, because I want to lose money. But that's not it at all. I'm just willing to lose money because I want to spread the art. That's the main reason: exposing new writers and their work. Another reason, though, is because I love the work. I absolutely love doing layout, making covers, binding the books, talking to writers. And I'm doing it because right now, while in grad school, I've been given three years to work on my craft and devote myself to writing. So I've got the time. When I graduate I might end up working 40 hours a week in a soul sucking place and I won't have the time. So, while I do, I want to take advantage of it. As I said before, I'm fine living paycheck to paycheck and I'm well aware that this isn't a way to make millions. I do it because it makes me happy and it's not often that people get to do work that they love to do.

Joseph: What are the payoffs and pitfalls to starting up a small press?

Evans: Pitfalls: Financially, it can be draining. I'm always defending the credibility of the press (but I've noticed I only have to defend the credibility to people who don't know a lot about small presses). Those are really the only pitfalls. Some might consider time loss a pitfall, but I don't mind that.

Payoffs: I get to read what's being written right now. I really enjoy the work (as I talked about before) so it's great being able to do it more often than for school projects or for myself. There's a big artistic divide between doing art for yourself and doing art for someone else. It's amazing when you do work for someone and they really like it. I guess it's self satisfaction, but I also like the idea that I worked with someone to create a piece of art. It's a two souled creature. Plus, it's great experience. Where else would I be able to get this kind of experience? And I'm putting together a great portfolio so if I ever have to fold on this press (and I hope I don't), I can show my work to other presses for potential jobs.

The biggest payoff, I think, is when you give someone their book and they are more excited to see it than you were putting it together. It's like giving presents. I like to give presents.

Joseph: Do you have a staff?

Evans: Yes. And I want to expand the staff. Right now David Clisbee has been acting as the PR guy (and doing a hell of a job getting newspaper interviews and radio spots). And a few other people in the MFA program have offered their services. Sarah Snook said she'd help with news releases. Seth Calvert is reading submissions for me. When we put together Clisbee's book, Sarah Blossom and Danielle Starkey helped on the assembly line. I kind of consider the MFA program as my staff. The faculty has been supportive and helped with ideas and motivation. The students in the program have also been supportive and willing to help whenever they can. Right now I don't have a landslide of submissions but I'm planning to advertise heavy this summer so the waterfall should start soon and I'll for sure be asking for--needing--help. And I'd like to keep it connected to MSU because this is where it started and I think it's a great opportunity for MFA students to get involved on the publishing side of things.
Joseph: What are your submission guidelines?

Evans: The exact guidelines can be found here. But generally our guidelines are prose should be no more than 10,000 words total. That can be broken up into two 5,000 word stories, three 3,333 word stories, four 2,500 word stories, etc. One thousand ten word stories might be a little much, but if it’s good, we’ll consider it. Poetry should be around 700 lines. That can be a 700 line poem or broken up. The spread is up to 25 pages. So around 20 poems because the pages are smaller and a poem that doesn't page break in word normally will page break in the book.

And the submissions should be snail mailed. The address is on the website. I know I'll probably get flak for not embracing the internet submission trend, and for killing trees, but I find it much easier to stay organized if I get the submissions in paper. (And I recycle, so it's not that bad for the environment.)

Joseph: Where can people learn more about RockSaw Press?

Evans: The Website:

The e-mail:

The Facebook: Search for RockSawPress

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Congratulations to the winners of the 2009 Robert Wright Awards (with comments from the judge, Leigh Allison Wilson):

First Place - Amanda Schumacher (fiction/creative nonfiction)
Judge's comments: "Whether Amanda Schumacher is writing fiction or nonfiction, she is an author who investigates the mysterious interstices between life and death, mystery and manners. That she does this with a fine intelligence and originality makes her prose a memorable experience for her readers."

Second Place - Lesley Arimah (fiction)
Judge's comments: "Lesley Arimah's fiction takes characters in extreme situations and, somehow, renders their emotional states into feelings we all recognize as a mirror to our own. These shocks of recognition occur whether Arimah is writing about the adult grief from losing a child, or the child grief from the manipulations from a horrendous mother."

Third Place - Heather Elliott (poetry)
Judge's comments: "Heather Elliott is a poet who clearly loves language and often regrets its slippery meanings. She is, in other words, a poet's poet and the range she shows in these twelve poems both delights and sobers her readers.

Honorable Mention - Seth Calvert (creative nonfiction)
Judge's comments: "Ancient Greek may well be 'hard' but it is equally hard to write an intelligent contemporary English essay about learning it. The wit and humor of this piece meshes astonishingly well with the arcane complexities of what J.R.R. Tolkien called 'that brutal seductress' of a language, Greek."

Also, let's hear it for the 2009 Nadine B. Andreas Graduate Assistant: Jorge Evans.