You may have seen that the writer Martin Amis died last week. I’ve never read any of Amis’s novels, but on hearing the news, I immediately recalled Amis’s short story ”Oktober,” a story that has lingered in my memory because of how much I have admired it ever since the first time I read it 7 or 8 years ago.
I’ve seen this story criticized as “non-fiction-ish” and “lightly fictionalized.” It doesn’t matter to me how much Amis heavily drew from his own experience and observations, as if there’s only a certain amount that’s okay. Rather, this story should be held up as an example of how we can fictionalize our own experiences to find deeper, emotional meaning on the page. Perhaps one reason this story speaks to me is because it’s archetypal in that it portrays a character on a journey, and, as Amis said:
“Even the dullest journey resembles a short story: beginning, middle, end, with the traveler displaced and, we hope, alerted.”
I admire this story for many reasons, most notably because it’s such a well-executed political story. It addresses world events on both the largest and smallest scales. In this case, the story centers on an Englishman in Munich during Oktoberfest, and more importantly, during an influx of Middle Eastern refugee movement. What the narrator witnesses is framed both by literature (Vladimir Nabokov & Thomas Wolfe) and history (Russian refugees in 1917 & German refugees following World War II).
The story’s refugee thread holds continued relevance in light of the migrations being politicized in the United States, centered around the expiration of Title 42.
One of the characters in “Oktober,” Bernhardt, is Iranian-German. He says about the migrants: “You know, they won’t stop coming. They pay large sums of money to risk their lives crossing the sea and then they walk across Europe. They walk across Europe. A few policemen and a stretch of barbed wire can’t keep them out. And there are millions more where they came from. This is going to go on for years. And they won’t stop coming.”
There are also mothers of various types appearing on virtually every page of “Oktober.” And in regard to the mothers that Amis portrays here, I would mention that one thing I admire about this story is how tightly he weaves all the threads of the story. It may not always seem so because the language is conversational, but everything seems to serve a purpose. Everything is connected. Meanwhile, the story is not so economical that it feels austere or lacking. It feels rather sprawling instead.
Amis received criticism during the last several years for some sloppy comments he made about terrorism and extremism. Some of these comments are not so far from those of Geoffrey, a British businessman in “Oktober” who has a less than welcoming attitude towards migrants. Geoffrey is also the character who brings the most shock value to the story. So while he is not a likeable character, he’s incredibly dramatic to follow.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading any of Amis’s better known works, but it was a pleasure to revisit this story and to remember all of the reasons I admired it in the first place. You can read Martin Amis’s short story, “Oktober,” online at The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/12/07/oktober. And I hope you will.
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I’ve had a lot of fun this last month as my new collection, Tamp, has found its way into readers’ hands. Thanks to all of you who have ordered the book, and extra thanks to those of you who’ve reached out to let me know what you think about the poems. Just as the days are growing warmer and longer, I’m very aware of how much I hope to accomplish this summer. I have several writing projects that I want to move forward in at least some way. And there also has to be time set aside to submitting our work. To that purpose, I offer this list of one dozen submission opportunities. It’s tempting to pretend most journals are taking the summer off, and maybe we should take it off, too. But neither is exactly true. A lot of great journals, like these 12, are open right now, and would love to read whatever you’ve been writing. Good luck!
Exacting ClamExacting Clam is an online and in print quarterly journal from Sagging Meniscus Press, publishing short fiction, poetry, book, art and music reviews, essays, interviews, and visual art/illustrations. https://www.exactingclam.com/submit/
Florida Review & Aquifer: The Florida Review Online We are looking for innovative, luxuriant, insightful human stories—and for things that might surprise us. Please submit no more than one piece of fiction, nonfiction, graphic narrative, review, or digital story at a time. Poets and visual artists may submit up to (but no more than) five poems or artworks as a single submission. We charge a $2 or $3 submission fee depending on category. https://floridareview.submittable.com/submit
Tipton Poetry Journal The Tipton Poetry Journal is published quarterly both in print and an online archive. The Tipton Poetry Journal publishes about 35 poems each. Poems with the best chance for acceptance are quality free verse which evokes a shared sense of common humanity. The Tipton Poetry Journal is published in Indiana, so themes with a regional focus are encouraged. Submissions are read year-round. http://tiptonpoetryjournal.com/submission.html
Waxwing We read submissions of poetry, short fiction, and literary essays Sept 1 to May 1; translations of poetry and literary prose are read year-round. Each issue features approximately thirteen poets, six prose writers, and six authors in translation. Poets should send one to five poems, and prose writers one story, essay, novella, or novel chapter (or up to three short-short stories or micro-essays). https://waxwing.submittable.com/submit
Qu Qu is a literary journal, published by the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. The Qu editorial staff is comprised of current students. We publish fiction, poetry, essays and script excerpts of outstanding quality. Payment upon publication is $100 per prose piece and $50 per poem. Next reading period opens May 15th, 2023. http://www.qulitmag.com/submit/
The Stinging Fly We publish new, previously unpublished work by Irish and international writers. Each issue of The Stinging Fly includes a mix of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, alongside our Featured Poets and Comhchealg sections, occasional author interviews and novel extracts. We have a particular interest in promoting new writers, and in promoting the short story form. We plan on being open again for submissions from May 16 until May 31 2023, for Issue 49 Volume Two (November 2023). http://www.stingingfly.org/about-us/submission-guidelines
Baltimore Review Summer The Baltimore Review is a quarterly, online literary journal. Submit one short story or creative nonfiction piece, no more than 5,000 words. Submit three poems. Our current submission period runs through May 31, 2023. www.baltimorereview.org
2023 New American Fiction Prize The New American Fiction Prize is awarded each year to a full-length fiction manuscript, such as a story collection, novel, novella(s), or something that blends forms, like a novel in verse. The winner receives $1,500 and a book contract, as well as 25 author’s copies and promotional support. Deadline is June 15, 2023. There is a $25 submission fee. https://newamericanpress.submittable.com/submit
The Fairy Tale Review Founding Editor Kate Bernheimer will edit the twentieth annual issue of Fairy Tale Review. Vol. 20 will not have a theme. We are looking for your best new work. Writers may submit a single prose piece up to 6,000 words or up to three prose pieces under 1,000 words each. We welcome short fiction, essays, lyric nonfiction, and creative scholarship. Submit up to four poems totaling no more than ten pages. Submissions will be accepted through July 15, 2023. http://fairytalereview.com/submit/
Poetry South Poetry South is a national journal that considers all kinds of poetry. Though we pay particular attention to writers from the South — born, raised, or living here — all poetry within our covers has a claim to the South because it is published here. The magazine has a tradition of including poets from other regions in the US and other countries. We are looking for a great mix of styles and voices that will appeal to our audience and breathe new life into the poetry of the South. Send 1-4 unpublished poems in Word or RTF format. Our annual submission deadline is July 15. https://www.muw.edu/poetrysouth/submit
Masque & Spectacle Masque & Spectacle is a bi-annual arts and literary journal.We publish short fiction of all genres, up to 7,500 words. We are looking for unpublished nonfiction essays, literary analysis pieces, and personal essay/memoirs of up to 7,500 words. We are looking for all forms of poetry, including formal and experimental work. Submit work to be included in our next issue between May 1 and July 31, 2023. http://masqueandspectacle.com/submission-guidelines/
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Coming up… Join me Tuesday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m., as I speak with Erica Nichols-Frazer about her book, Feed Me, in Birch Bark Editing’s InConversation series. The event is free but registration is required. I hope to see you there.
In my previous post, I had a wonderful conversation with Erica Plouffe Lazure about her new linked-story collection Proof of Me. Today, Erica is sharing a very short story from her collection. Originally published in Swink, Erica’s story, “Re: Division Unification,” is a mere six paragraph structured in the form of an inter-office memo. I appreciate interesting narrative structures such as in this one. Another story in Proof of Me, “Azimuth and Altitude,” is told through a series of phone messages. These kinds of structure lend towards a monological confession. In other words, it’s a great way to let a character loose to better reveal their voice and their particular narrative. Read Erica’s story below, and afterwards, I’ll share Erica’s advice about how to use interesting structures in your own work regardless of genre.
RE: Division Unification
Golden Poultry Processing Plant MEMO To: All Golden Poultry Division Employees From: Kitty Ingram Lanford RE: Division Unification
As you know, Boss Karpinski likes to say that we here at Golden Poultry should all aim for division unification. Better workers, he says, produce better teams; better teams make for better projects; better projects create a better office atmosphere, which brings better leadership, all of which contributes to a better, more unified division, which, in turn, makes our company succeed. The company is considered successful when it makes more money. And it is the division’s office’s leader’s team’s project’s members—each of us—who are charged with making that happen.
To motivate us into further unifying our division, Karpinski tells us to get our “ducks in a row,” to “think outside the box,” and to always leave “room on our plate.” Achieving these three goals, he says, will no doubt put “a feather in our cap.”
More than once, he has noted that members of our division’s team must “wear many hats” in order to succeed. This in particular caught my attention because I have yet to see anyone in our division, save for myself, wear a single hat, let alone several. I did a good stretch of knitting a few years back, after my father died and before my daughter joined the Marching Tigers, and those of you who work on my team in our division’s office know that I actually own and wear an extensive collection of woolen hats—although not at the same time. I’d like to know why Boss Karpinski suggests that we all wear hats, then, when in fact I am the division’s sole multiple hat wearer. I can imagine he’ll read this memo and say, “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ Kitty Ingram.” But there’s no ‘we” in team, either. Only “me,” mixed up. And wearing all the hats. And while I see boxes of chocolates and boxed pens doled to my colleagues as quarterly rewards, I—the lone multi-hat wearer of our division—have yet to see a reward, let alone a single feather, for my cap—or caps, as it were—come my way.
Perhaps the source of these elusive feathers is the ducks which Mr. Karpinski is so fond of aligning. Every time he urges us to get our “ducks in a row,” I can’t help but think we are getting bad advice. My father was a prize duck hunter out at Mattamuskeet each year, Mallard Class, and I know that, unless they are stuffed and mounted on your mantle, ducks do not readily get in rows, nor do they like to. As everyone knows, ducks in flight make v-shaped formations, which is not a row but rather an elegant, egalitarian arc. And anyone who’s ever watched ducks in a marsh could tell you they aren’t about to line up for you when they’re sitting in the water. That’s why they make buckshot. Yet Mr. Karpinski seems to believe that there is some relationship between row-friendly ducks and our mission of division unification. But to put them in rows is contrary not only to the natural tendencies of ducks, but also to the true aim of the statement, by which I assume he means: get organized.
But in order to get organized, he wants us to think outside the very object that would help us, logistically, to achieve it. It has been nearly three decades since I have been able to maneuver my body to fit inside a box, let alone think inside of one. And, unless you are compelled to place a box over your head as inspiration to get the neurons firing, thinking outside of a box is a natural, if not logical, thing to do. It begs the question why a box would even need to be present in order for thought to occur. My experience suggests that thinking happens—and should happen—when no box is present. So it makes one wonder: why the emphasis on the box? If, perhaps, the word “box” is meant to suggest my rather boxlike “cubicle,” then I heartily agree. And, since boxes tend to stay where you put them—except if that box happens to be in the supply room closet filled with staples and designer pushpins and the four-dollars-a-pop fountain pens and deluxe desk calendar—it seems a far simpler and more logical task to put your boxes in a row, and to let the ducks outside where they belong.
By solving the dilemmas of box placement and duck-alignment, it frees us, then, to consider Mr. Karpinski’s third piece of advice to achieve division unification. When I first heard him say, “don’t tell me your plate is full; always leave a little room,” I thought he was talking about the holiday all-you-can-eat chicken buffet the division pays for down in the break room. It’s advice I get from my dietician, too. And my therapist. But I always want to know, and no one ever tells me: what are we leaving room on our plates for? Ducks? In boxes? But then I realized that leaving room on a plate simply means that there is more to life than ducks and boxes and Golden Poultry, for that matter, and that you need to be ready for it. Leaving room on your plate is, in essence, making room for change, something that would mix up and rehash stale leftovers, be it food or phrase. Maybe it’s something that might inspire you to leave the division’s office for a while, even for just an hour, to take a walk in the woods to experience box-free thinking. And maybe you’d find in the woods a lake, where, if you are lucky enough, you may come across a family of ducks and observe them. You would know how unwilling they’d be to get in rows for you, how easily they spook if you rush at them, scare them a little into taking flight. I used to do this when I was a girl, on those Saturday mornings duck hunting with my dad. I’d rush at the ducks and when they flew away, a feather sometimes would fall from their fold, and land, miraculously, at my feet.
Erica Plouffe Lazure: When I wrote RE: Division Unification, I was working in an office at a university, and often had to edit the somewhat formalized and (at times abstruse) language of professional communication. And my brain is always looking for something to be entertained by—I’m a terrible punster—and so I thought it would be fun to see what would happen if one of my characters were to co-opt some of the hackneyed phrases we always hear in corporate settings, and use them to address a topic that is personal in nature while maintaining a somewhat formal tone.
I think stories that steal from other formats (with essays they’re called “hermit crabs”) can work, due to the sense of urgency (that “confessional” feel) and the familiarity of the format itself. Something that I always think about when I compose stories (no matter what format they take) is what circumstance would motivate, or even force, my character to ACT? What would push them into divulging something that they might not otherwise? Something I would caution against is using unusual forms gratuitously—there’s a fine line between coopting an unusual format to bring the writer (and character) closer to the truth of a situation, and using it as a gimmick.
As far as Kitty Ingram Lanford, we are introduced to her in the story “Marchers,” but we don’t know precisely what motivates her until she has a chance to speak on her own behalf via the memo in “RE: Division Unification.” Here we see a woman who is probably unseen and ignored at work, who dedicates a lot of time to causes she cares for, who is likely still grieving the death of her father, and who is sick of having people steal office supplies from the closet. To refer back to our earlier conversation about how I shaped my story collection, “RE: Division Unification” is a good example of how I’d reworked the names and some of the minor points of the original story (published in the now-defunct Swink journal) and found a space and voice for her in Proof of Me as Kitty Ingram Lanford.
Prompt: Start by making a list of unique structures along the lines of an office memo/email, or a voicemail. Pick one that allows a character to tell their story. Be sure to allow your character to confess something to their audience. Include a memory from the character’s past.
If you are writing nonfiction, try to recall a job you once held, and write about a time when you wanted to express something to a co-worker or boss, but didn’t. Use a memo, email, or voicemail format to recall that moment to your former colleague, and why it still stays with you.
If you are writing poetry, make a list of the objects of a workspace that is familiar to you. Then make a list of words you associate with that profession (feel free to look them up). Mix and match the words to see what story or throughline surfaces. Or, find a format within the workspace (an admission ticket or order form, for example) that you might borrow to “contain” the poem.
Erica Plouffe Lazure is quick to explain that she is not a Southerner nor a Southern writer. But what exactly is a Southerner or a Southern writer today? Are such distinctions based on the accident of birth? On the range of time and experience? How do perspective, talent and empathy work into the equations? I’ve heard every side of these arguments over the years. All I know for certain is that regardless of the way she self-identifies, the stories in Erica Plouffe Lazure’s linked-story collection Proof of Me authentically center on a small square of land called Mewborn, North Carolina, a place born out of Erica’s lived experience as much as from her imagination. Erica was kind enough to answer some of my questions about putting these stories together, about her submission process, and about winning the prestigious New American Press Fiction Prize.
DL: How long did it take you to write the stories in Proof of Me? Can you talk about how some of these stories link together and how those links impacted the shaping of the collection?
EPL: The stories in Proof of Me go back from when I first started pursuing creative writing—as early as 2005. Some were completed and published right away; others sat as drafts that I’d revisit and revise from time to time. I always keep a folder of stories that are “workable” but as of yet incomplete, and as I set out to help round out the stories and voices in this collection, they were integral.
I enjoy the editing process, and believe that, especially when you’re feeling stuck with a particular story, setting it aside for a while and returning to it can help shake loose its arc, and get it into publishable shape. Combing through each story one by one can help you to see how they might all fit together. Initially, I had not set out to link the stories (geographically or otherwise) in earlier configurations of the collection, but in the early days of the pandemic, I decided to dust off the collection, print it out, and see how I might more consciously connect each story to the other. I’d already written several pieces about some of the characters (like the Weaver sisters, or Cassidy Penelope), and so those stories became natural anchors for the larger collection. From there, I reworked some of the other pieces to connect more organically to other characters in the collection, or found ways to tie back stories that were set outside of Mewborn to the town itself. If I hadn’t allowed myself the flexibility to change certain aspects of the stories as I’d initially envisioned them, I’m not sure the collection would have been as strong.
DL: These stories are set in a range of locations such as Nashville and Boston and as far away as India, but each story is centered emotionally around Mewborn, North Carolina. Was it helpful in your writing process to create your own Yoknapatawpha County?
EPL: Mewborn the town is very much an imagined community, a bit of a hybrid of the small city of Greenville, in Pitt County (where I’d lived for about eight years), certain parts of Eastern Carolina, and my own hometown in Massachusetts. The name Mewborn is taken from a small crossing close to Kinston, but I chose it because I liked the sound of the name, and did not want (like Faulkner, I would guess) to have to adhere to the actual historical particulars of Pitt County while crafting a fictional work. And yet, a strong sense of place—about a small town, about how families and neighbors live and function alongside each other, about how even those who leave their hometown are still tethered to it—is what I hope surfaces in this collection. And as I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t intended the stories to be linked when I first set out to write them, but the revision process enabled me to see how I was, in fact, writing of, or about, the same place all along. And I should note that, for the record, I am not from the South, nor do I claim to be a Southerner, but I am very much a student of its literature, and I had never written a word of fiction until I moved to North Carolina.
DL: Can you describe the time between writing and publishing these stories? How did you connect with New American Press? Were there many rejections along the way?
EPL: Since about 2009, I had submitted various versions of Proof of Me to book prize contests offered by smaller presses. I like to joke how I almost renamed the collection The Bridesmaid, because it had been a finalist or runner-up in at least a half-dozen or so competitions (including New American Press, which eventually took it). But I think my effort to substantially rework the collection to make it more directly linked, geographically and thematically, worked in my favor. Rejection is part and parcel of the publishing game, and at some point, you understand that it’s not because the work isn’t any good; it’s more of what fits with the vision of the press, and the aesthetic tastes of the contest judge (or editor). I haven’t really gone the agent route—the agents I’ve had conversations with were always asking about my novel (! Don’t ask !) and were not interested in story collections. I’ve found there is certainly an interest and demand for short stories, but I guess we story writers have more work to do in making a convincing case to big publishers.
DL: Do you have advice for writers who hope to publish story collections?
EPL: This is rather technical advice, but something that helped me to envision my collection AS a collection was printing it all out (1.5 spacing, double-sided) and then read it aloud and edit with a pen in hand. I would make notes of key objects, characters or themes in a notebook, and then look for spots where those objects (sewing machines, dice, cars) might show up in another story. In some cases, I realized that, with a name change and a shift in a few key details, a story that might not have been part of the collection could be transformed into another piece of the Mewborn puzzle.
As far as submitting your work, I suggest that you research the publisher first to make sure it will be a good fit. Some publishers will want you to chip in for paying for a publicist (and there goes your advance), others might not do much in terms of promotion, or expect you to do much of that work yourself. I suggest researching a few past winners of story collections prizes of publishers that you’re interested in, and see how their books fared (via reviews, or press interest, or readings). Smaller presses tend not to have big budgets for book launches, so be aware of that.
DL: What are you working on now?
EPL: I’ve been working on a collection of flash stories under the thematic title Desire Path. It’s a term often used by city planners and landscapers to describe a “footpath made through foliage or grass by repeated traffic, rather than laid out by design.” I plan to take this literal definition in a metaphorical direction, where each of my characters will aspire for something guided by their desires, instincts and travels, and endeavor to carve a path of their own making to attain it. It is slow-going, but I’m enjoying discovering how each story might bend toward (or even challenge!) the established theme.
Huge thanks to Erica Plouffe Lazure for speaking to me about her new book. Don’t forget to order Proof of Me now. Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll share a writing exercise from Erica based on one of her short stories. Make sure you never miss a post by subscribing here:
For many years before Tony Taddei was creating characters on the page, he was creating them on the stage as a trained actor. Born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Tony now lives in New Jersey. I first met Tony in 2014 when we both attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A few years later, we reconnected through the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Though all of my interactions with Tony had been related to writing, I hadn’t had the pleasure to read his work for myself until the recent publication of his collection of linked short stories, The Sons of the Santorelli. What a joy it was to discover the craftsmanship and poignancy in these twelve stories about an immigrant family, particularly the men in the family who struggle with their desires and ambitions. Yes, this is a narrative about an immigrant family, but as David Gates said about the book, this is not “the conventional immigrant family saga.” Tony was kind enough to answer some of my questions about putting these stories together, about how he avoided convention, and how he infused a political slant into such personal, character-driven writing.
DL: How long did it take you to write these stories, and do you recall when you knew how individual stories would work together? Can you talk about your reasons for writing multiple, linked stories rather than a novel?
TT: I took my time writing these stories, so that the process from drafting the initial stories to finalizing the collection probably took five or six years. The collection wasn’t the only thing I was working on during the time, and, in any case, I didn’t want to rush the process of writing the collection. First, because I wanted to get the premise of each story right as well as to spend time considering what stories might need to be added, and second, because I was having a lot of fun writing about these people and I kind of wanted to savor it.
During the process of working on the stories I don’t think I really had a master plan for how they would all work together. That said, once I decided to write one story for each of the Santorelli sons and grandsons as well as at least one story about the patriarch, the linkages between stories started to become evident, and I was able to find ways in rewriting the stories and adding new ones to get them to work together as a piece. My goal was to have each story stand on its own but also for a reader to be able to sit back and think about them in their entirety after finishing the collection to realize that the parts of the book made up a whole.
As to why I wrote the saga of this family as linked stories rather than a novel, I did it because it gave me the ability to tell multiple, smaller stories that I would not have been able to tell in a novel (while still trying to make the novel a cohesive whole). It was also a lot easier for me to write about the individuals in this very complex and human family in separate stories than it would have been in a novel. By telling the story of the Santorellis a character at a time, I think I did more justice to each individual while still creating the personality and a legacy of a whole family.
DL: One of the recurring themes throughout these stories is the idea of the immigrant experience, often depicted here in connection with “immigrant shame” and the idea that America “breaks” the spirit of immigrants. This is the antithetical American story. How conscious were you of making this kind of political statement during the writing? Do you have advice for other writers about incorporating political ideas into fiction?
TT: As the work progressed, I was very conscious of it. Having come from an immigrant family and seen them fail more than succeed at the things they most wanted I can be somewhat cynical about the idea of an American Dream to begin with. I knew that cynicism would likely play a role in the situations I put my characters in.
That said, I didn’t I initially set out to tell stories that torpedoed the idea of what can be achieved in America. I set out to write human stories that were compelling to read as well as funny and tragic with as many twists and surprises as I could manage. In order tell the truth about the characters in this family as I saw them, I had to show the forces that were working upon them. The largest of those forces being that for most immigrants and, especially for the poor, this country very often only lets them get so far before it pushes them back down again. This comes in the form of economic imprisonment, and it comes in the form of racial imprisonment where one wave of immigrants who’d faced bigotry visits their own xenophobia and bigotry on the next wave of immigrants to reach America’s shores.
My advice for writers who want to incorporate political ideas into fiction is to first find an honest story that is personal and then begin writing it without focusing on the political or cultural connotations. If the story is honest and tracks with the world we live in, they won’t be able to help themselves from writing about the political forces that are acting upon their characters. Those forces come into play in our lives most of the time without us even realizing they are there. After that, when the writer looks back on what they’ve written, they can draw out the more political aspects of the story to any degree they choose. To put the above more succinctly, all politics are personal. I think any political writing should follow that guideline.
DL: Many of these stories are told through the male point of view which makes sense given the title of the collection. But that’s not to say that you don’t give voice to women within the Santorelli family. How did you settle on the balance between male and female characters and points-of-view? Were there any challenges in allowing the women to have their say in this male-dominated cast?
TT: Not at all, because I think if you look closely at each of the stories, you’ll see that the women in the backgrounds of these men’s lives are the real truth-tellers. The stories would not have found the ballast they needed for their conflict and reasoning if it weren’t for the women characters. A reader will likely see this most clearly in a story like “Commedia Dell’Arte” which has the matriarch of the family as the protagonist trying to make sense of and tell the truth about male dominance in her life. But it’s just below the surface of most of the other stories as well. From “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” where a prostitute early on dominates a group of highly dysfunctional and misogynist men, to “Valiant” where the sisters and especially the mother in the family turn out to be stronger and more insightful then either the father or the son.
So, no, I did not find many challenges in allowing the women to have their say in my largely male-dominated cast. In fact, I’d say that the challenge was being able to hold off in letting the women have their say long enough so that the men could act out in the wrong-headed and solipsistic ways that I think make the stories interesting and recognizable to readers. Especially female readers.
DL: In an effort to demystify the process, I always ask writers about the process of submitting their manuscripts for publication. Can you describe the time between writing and publishing these stories? How did you connect with Bordighera Press?
TT: The time between writing and publishing was, to some extent, concurrent. I started to send the manuscript to publishers when I had most of the stories finished but was still revising the last two or three. At that point it was rejection, rejection, rejection until I found Bordighera Press.
Bordighera is a small independent press that is partially privately funded with a mission to publish writing about the culture of Italy and Italian Americans—essays, fiction, poetry, what have you. They publish a semiannual review of shorter work as well as a twice yearly run of new full-length work and are always looking for good writing that fits the themes of Italian life. About 2 years ago, I submitted the title story of my collection to Bordighera for consideration in their semiannual review, and it was accepted. Once I realized that they also published full length work, I sent the full and, by then, nearly completed manuscript, and I was thrilled when they said they wanted to publish it.
I’ve been telling people who ask how you find a publisher for your work that you have to persevere until you find a publisher that is the right fit. Most of the time that’s easier said than done. In my case I believe it was a bit easier because the work was a more-or-less exact match with the kind of work Bordighera is looking for.
DL: What are you working on now?
TT: I’m finishing up another collection of short stories that revolve around the melancholy, indignities, and occasional pleasures that men face as they age. Each of these stories also weaves in animals and their ability to live instinctually and unquestioningly as a humorous and (I think) affecting counterpoint to the men in the stories who are creating their own problems and then struggling to accept the circumstances they find themselves in. These two themes may not at first glance seem to go together, but I think the stories work better because of their juxtaposition. I’m hoping to have these stories published as a collection sometime soon and readers can judge for themselves. For now, if any of your readers want to take a look a couple of these stories, they a can go to Animal Literary Magazine and The Florida Review online. I’m also beginning a novel but it’s too early to say much about it, so I’ll have to get back to you on that.
DL: Are there any opportunities coming up for readers to hear you read from The Sons of the Santorelli either via Zoom or in person?
I can’t exactly remember the first time I met Patti Frye Meredith. I definitely have memories of her at one of the early Mountain Heritage Literary Festivals making people laugh and playing music late at night. One thing I know for certain is that Patti can make anyone laugh. That’s true whether you’re fortunate enough to sit down and share a meal with her, or whether you’re reading her beautiful new novel, South of Heaven, a multi-generation narrative set in Carthage, a small town in the Sandhills of North Carolina. At the center of the novel are two sisters, Fern and Leona. Both have secrets they are keeping from each other and from the world. There’s also Fern’s son Dean who, as Fern says, doesn’t have any secrets. South of Heaven is a meaningful exploration of how the things we try to keep bottled up complicate relationships. The novel is deeply Southern, completely universal and wonderfully fun to read.
DL: South of Heaven centers on the McQueen family, and it’s set in the late 1990’s, a time not so long ago but a time that feels infinitely different in hindsight. Do you have any advice for other writers writing about the recent past?
PM: When Dean first “talked to me in my head,” he told me his dad was MIA in Vietnam, and how as a child he pretended to find his daddy in the overgrown bamboo patch in his backyard.
I wrote the book from that one scene. I knew Dean was in his early 20’s, and that his father went missing at the very end of the war. That’s why I set the novel in 1998. After I got into it, other 1998 occurrences came into play like the Clinton/Lewinsky drama. There’s a lot in the book about the lengths we will go to avoid the truth, so that worked.
Early readers suggested that I move the story up in time, to make it more contemporary, to use the Iraq War instead of the Vietnam War and put it in present tense. I tried, but I couldn’t make it work. By that time, too, I felt like I knew Fern and Leona very well, and I realized they wouldn’t be the same people if they hadn’t grown up like they did in the sixties.
There are pitfalls. It’s not historic, and it’s not contemporary. The characters are just modern enough for readers to wonder, “Why would they think that?” or “Why would they do that?” It’s embarrassing, but I had to do research to remember if everyone had cell phones in 1998, or if fax machines were still a thing. We’ve seen a lot of change in twenty-four years, and it’s amazing how quickly we forget recent history.
DL: I loved reading the “Backstory” on your website about your job at University of North Carolina Public Television, and how you met so many writers there. The authors you mention (Lee Smith, Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Fred Chappell) all come from the Southern tradition, and South of Heaven feels like a very Southern novel. How natural was it for you to write in that tradition?
PM: Like so many others, reading Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Tim McLaurin, and so on and so on, showed me that stories set in small towns were okay to write.
I grew up in Galax, Virginia, population around 6,000. So, it was natural to stick to the world I knew. Thinking about it, I’ve now lived in Memphis and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Huntsville, Alabama, Durham and Charlotte, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cities large and small, but with the same southern sensibilities. (Or maybe I think all those places have the same southern sensibilities because “wherever you go, there you are”!)
DL: Did you feel any pressure to “live up” to the works of those writers you admired so much?
PM: If I thought I had to live up to their work, I’d never write another word! Back when I first started writing, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, however, it didn’t take long to realize I was never going to be in the same league with the writers I admired most. I’d give anything to see the world and put that world on the page like Fred Chappell, but I don’t have his complexity or depth. That doesn’t mean I don’t love reading his work. But, even when you study the craft and learn what makes great literature, even when you can recognize it, it’s still not possible to re-engineer your brain to create it. Thank heavens. There should be only one Lee Smith, one Jill McCorkle, one Darnell Arnoult.
That’s not to say I don’t spend a lot of time being discouraged! But you have to write what you write, be who you are, I mean, you can’t fake your subconscious! We all have our own perspectives and experiences, and we’ve all drawn our own conclusions.
I’m hooked on the joy of writing. The discoveries, the occasional good sentence, exploring the minds of my imaginary people. Writing helps me understand what matters and it’s my way of expressing what strikes me—good and bad—about being human.
And, since I love a cliché, I’ll say, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” Chasing after the “secret” to good writing has led me to friends who absolutely make my whole life better. Having the opportunity to be with other writers is the best reason to write! Sorry for getting off on a tangent, but maybe that’s the southern tradition!
DL: How long did it take you to write South of Heaven? How many drafts did you go through?
PM: There’s no telling how many drafts I have. Dean’s voice came to me at Hindman Settlement School in 2005. I wrote the original draft in first person present tense. Then changed it to third person present tense for my MFA thesis at the University of Memphis in 2012. Then I wrote a draft in third person past tense. I was always changing something, adding, taking away. Starting over. We moved seven times in twenty-eight years for my husband’s job, so I had a lot of distractions (excuses) through the years.
When my husband retired and we moved back to North Carolina, I set up my little office and joined a weekly writer’s group. Then the pandemic hit. Everyone is different. I know there are many great writers with extremely busy lives, but for me, the stillness of the pandemic quarantine made it possible to devote the time I needed to work. No travel, no socializing. I don’t think I understood what it meant to really work until the pandemic. I discovered the long stretches of uninterrupted time helped keep the story together in my head, helped me play out the scenes I needed to make the story more cohesive. I think of it as bandwidth. Writing South of Heaven took a lot of bandwidth!
DL: Your novel is published by Mint Hill Books, an imprint of Main Street Rag which published my poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds. What was your experience like in finding a publisher?
PM: I can’t remember if I saw Main Street Rag’s call for novel chapters on social media or in Poets & Writers, but I had one of those “What the heck” moments and sent chapters. Months later, I got an e-mail saying they were interested in publishing the novel, and Scott Douglass sent a contract and a detailed explanation of how the process would go.
I had sent out query letters to agents off and on for years. (One agent had almost taken it years ago, but that fell through when the third reader in her office didn’t think they could sell it.) I knew South of Heaven wasn’t the kind of book that was getting the attention of traditional publishing, or the independent presses I was familiar with. It wasn’t full-blown literary, and it wasn’t quirky enough to be chick-lit.
I didn’t think it was going to set the literary world on fire, but I wanted my imaginary people to live in a real book. So, I asked you, Sue Dunlap, and Darnell Arnoult to read it and tell me if I was about to embarrass myself, and you all said, “Do it.” So, I did. I fiddled with it after I got it back from you all, and I hired an editor to make sure I hadn’t added a lot more typos. Then I fiddled with it some more, and my niece, Becki Vasques, found my last snafus. We made it a family and friend affair! You and Darnell suggested I put an emu on the cover, and my husband, Lee, and I put it together (with Darnell on the phone). It’s been fun. Not “have lunch with your agent in New York City” fun, but better. A true labor of love. And I like that my North Carolina story is published by a North Carolina press. Scott Douglass does something very special with Main Street Rag. He publishes wonderful poetry and stories. I’ve gotten to know him and his wife and his dog, Harley, and I really appreciate the work he does.
DL: Do you have any advice for other writers ready to send their novel out?
PM: Don’t discount the small independent presses. We all appreciate independent bookstores. These presses deserve our appreciation, too.
Do ask yourself if you’re ready to be in the book marketing business, though, and the weird thing is part of that is selling not just the book but yourself. The great thing about the small press is, “You have a book to sell.” The scary thing about the small press is “YOU have a book to sell.” Just be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish and why you’re doing it.
For me, the experience has been amazing because it has reminded me that I have the very best family and friends in the world. The support has been phenomenal. People I haven’t seen or talked to in ages bought my book after seeing my Facebook posts. Friends talk about my characters like they’re real people they care about. So, if I don’t sell another book, I’m very happy with the response South of Heaven has gotten.
The truth is, without Facebook, I wouldn’t have sold m(any) books. South of Heaven is in two bookstores, Chapters in Galax, my hometown, and McIntyre’s in Chapel Hill, where I live now. I’ve had one reading at McIntyre’s. I hired a publicist, and maybe there will be more readings, but maybe not. Even if I devote a lot of time to driving around, going to bookstores, taking them a book and a nice press kit, there’s no guarantee they’ll carry it. I have a couple of book club gatherings coming up. The bottom line is: It’s up to you to promote your book, to make yourself known. I believe even if you have an agent and a traditional press, they want you to have a “platform” meaning they want you to use your social media connections to publicize and sell your book.
DL: You’ve described South of Heaven as coming out “late in life.” We could argue about what that means, but I’m more interested in something else you said which is that having the novel out in the world helped clarify where and on what you want to focus your energies. Can you talk more about that?
PM: I know for sure I don’t want to be an author who dresses up and talks about writing. I want to be a writer who writes. I want to spend more time with my imaginary people and less time telling real people why they ought to like my book! Ha! I recently got together with a group of my writing friends, and afterwards I realized all we’d talked about was how close each of us were to having finished products to try to get published. Like there was some big door we were all clamoring to walk through to get to a different, more perfect life. I want to spend more time talking about ideas, or break-through moments, or what we’ve discovered about the craft. I don’t want my energy focused on end-products. I want to focus on better writing and storytelling.
DL: What are you working on now?
PM: Not much. I’m caught up doing what I think I ought to be doing to sell books. It’s uncomfortable and not much fun. I did have a little “conversation” with one of the characters in South of Heaven the other day. So, I wrote that down.
I first met Christopher Linforth in 2014 at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Our paths crossed again in 2019 at Writers in Paradise – Eckerd College Writers Conference. Christopher is a graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, and recently, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Atticus Review. Christopher’s first two books are When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014) and Directory (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2020).
His third collection of short fiction, The Distortions, was named winner of the 2020 Orison Books Fiction Prize and has just been released by Orison Press. The Distortions is a beautiful collection of stories, thematically linked by the Croatian-Serbian War, particularly its aftermath. In each story, the weight of the past continues to press against the present. For many of these characters, historical events have had generational effects. These are not war stories although the war is a villainous character, always looming in the background. More than war stories, these stories are often about love–all kinds of love including the kinds that are sadly insufficient as well as the kinds that keep trying.
Christopher is a gifted writer. His own experience living in Zagreb was surely useful in writing these stories, but each story is subtly elevated by detailed knowledge that must have required significant research. In the same way that these are not war stories, this is also not a book about Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc. as much as it’s a book about displacement and identity and the universal ways we humans struggle to put the past behind us. Christopher agreed to answer some questions about The Distortions as well as about his writing and publishing.
DL: Your new collection of short stories, The Distortions, centers on the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, mostly focusing though on the Croatian-Serbian conflict. Although you lived in Zagreb for some time, you come from a very different background. Did you find your outside perspective to be helpful or more challenging as you wrote these stories? Can you talk about how the kinds of research that were required for these stories?
CL: In some ways, my position as an outsider helped me to broach the aftermath of the war in new and different ways. Josip Novakovich talks in the afterword to Infidelities about the reluctance of people in the former Yugoslavia to talk or write about the war. Though this has changed in recent years and has led many writers from those countries to write compelling novels about the war, I still felt I had something to say. Over the years, to aid my poor memory, I read dozens of history books on the subject and watched documentaries, and delved into tranches of original documents and news reports, and I talked with people from that area. Much of that information, though, never appears in the book. Instead, I focused more on the characters and the stories while hewing—as much as one can—to the historical, political, and cultural realities of the time.
DL: So much of the tension in your stories comes from the weight of the past pressing into a character’s present. Moving back and forth through time can be tricky, but it can also enrich a narrative as it clearly does in your stories.
CL: Whenever possible, I try to eschew as much backstory as possible and instead focus the story on the present action. With the stories being set in former Yugoslavia and revolving around a major but little-known war, I tried to strike a balance of including information (in non-expository ways) that would help an American audience understand the ramifications of the war for the characters while also keeping the pacing tight and the stories interesting.
DL: Two of my favorite stories in The Distortions are epistolary. I’m thinking about “brb” (seemingly told through a long Instant Message) and “Sojourn”(told through a more traditional letter). What I appreciate about both stories are their gestures toward the confessional. Do you have advice for writers who want to explore the epistolary form? Does a story told through a letter have special considerations?
CL: It’s funny. For me, “Sojourn,” is an imagined letter, not an actual one. The story reads and feels like a letter and perhaps contains a vestigial element of that form. The story, to me at least, has an uncertain form: part letter, part monological confession, part a story being told. The hybrid nature perhaps also reflects the vacillating nature and identity of the narrator. Similarly, “brb” uses misdirection about the narrator’s identity to say something about the stylized IM form. The intersection of the confession and the letter form, or variants thereof, often work well together. They allow a “natural” unfolding of thought on the page addressed to someone off it. For me, that is where the intimacy and magic of the epistolary form lie.
DL: I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for several years, and through that time, the manuscript keeps shifting. How long did it take you to write and shape these stories? What was the submission and publication process like for The Distortions?
CL: The earliest stories were drafted around 2014 and the latest around 2019. It was a long process of revision and then discarding the lesser stories (perhaps another six or seven). Some stories, like “brb,” emerged fully formed, with only minor edits later. Others, like “The Little Girls,” I rewrote several times over the years. I entered the manuscript into a handful of contests in late 2019 and early 2020, perhaps only five or six altogether, while constantly fine-tuning it the whole time. The collection won the Orison Fiction Book Prize in July 2020 and then underwent another year of refinement.
DL: What are you working on now?
CL: I’m working on two books. One is a sister project to The Distortions. Tentatively titled The Homeland War, it’s centered on two young men in Zagreb just before the outbreak of war. The novel explores toxic masculinity and social class and the football hooliganism endemic in the 1990s. The other book, currently untitled, examines the intersections of internet culture and the New York art scene. Stories from this collection are forthcoming in Cutleaf and in the Irish magazine, Banshee.
DL: Are there any opportunities coming up for readers to meet you or study with you via Zoom or in person?
CL: Yes, I teach online creative writing classes for The Writer’s Center in DC, and I take on private editing clients now and again. I’m also available for workshops and readings and so forth. I also have some more on the origins of the book over at Necessary Fiction.
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It’s been almost 8 months since my last blog post here. I’m afraid a lot of my plans for this space escaped me as the year rushed by. Probably the biggest reason for this is because of the role I accepted as an editor for EastOver Press and EOP’s literary journal Cutleaf. In our first year, we published 23 bi-weekly issues of the journal. We also published 4 wonderful books of poetry that I’m really proud of. (See the links below to purchase EOP books and others!) This new position as an editor requires a lot of reading, and so my list of published books I read last year (2021) isn’t quite as robust as I’d like. But I love seeing other people’s what-I’ve-read lists, so here’s mine.
Julia Cameron – Finding Water
Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I’d like to think that my list for next year will be at least twice this long. And maybe it will be. But it really doesn’t matter. These days, I’m trying to be more comfortable with the idea of slowing down the process. What this means to me is sometimes reading fewer books, but giving more time to think about and engage with each one.
If you’ve posted your own 2021 list or have recommendations for what to read in 2022, please post links and ideas in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you. Happy New Year!
I love to read, but I struggle constantly with my own expectations of how and what to read and specifically with how much to read. The struggle comes to a head about this time of year when I look back and make some kind of judgment about how I spent my limited time and energy. For 2018, I ended up reading 52 books, obviously, an average of one per week, although it wasn’t paced out that way at all.
Does it matter? Does the number of books I’ve read make me a better person? Does it make me a better writer? There’s some science to back up both possibilities. But more importantly, I enjoy reading. I love a book that captures me with its language and its characters, and yeah, a great narrative helps too.
Two of the books I loved the most this past year are Jacob Shores-Arguello’s In the Absence of Clocks and John Brandon’s Further Joy. Neither writer was familiar to me when I came across their work in magazines. Arguello’s poetry was found in The New Yorker, and I found a short story by Brandon in Oxford American. Both journal pieces blew me away. I felt so lucky to discover that each had books that were as thoroughly good as their individual publications.
Here’s the list of all 52 books I read this year. I’d love to see what you read in 2018. And I’d love to year which books were your favorites and which ones will stick with you.
1. Russell Banks – A Permanent Member of the Family
2. Virgil – Eclogues
3. Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way
4. Laura Hunter – Beloved Mother
5. Elaine Fletcher Chapman – Hunger For Salt
6. Jacob Shores-Arguello – In the Absence of Clocks
7. Michael Dowdy – Urbilly
8. Eric Shonkwiler – Moon Up, Past Full
9. William Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice
10. Marie Howe – What the Living Do
11. Robert Pinsky – At the Foundling Hospital (Feb)
12. William Shakespeare – As You Like It
13. Marie Howe – The Good Thief
14. Jacob Shores-Arguello – Paraiso
15. Madeline Ffitch – Valparaiso, Round the Horn
16. Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge – Poemcrazy
17. Todd Boss – Tough Luck: Poems
18. Walt Whitman – Song of Myself (Mar)
19. Marc Harshman – Believe What You Can
20. Rita Quillen – The Mad Farmer’s Wife
21. Linda Parsons Marion – This Shaky Earth
22. Greg Wrenn – Centaur
23. John Brandon – Further Joy
24. John Lane – Anthropocene Blues
25. Larry Thacker – Drifting in Awe
26. Rachel Danielle Peterson – A Girl’s A Gun
27. Michael Knight – The Holiday Season
28. Jia Oak Baker – Well Enough to Travel
29. James M. Gifford – Jesse Stuart, Immortal Kentuckian
30. Manuel Gonzales – The Miniature Wife
31. Sharon Kay Penman – Falls the Shadow
32. Crystal Wilkinson – The Birds of Opulence
33. James Herriot – All Things Wise and Wonderful
34. Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation
35. Rowling, Tiffany & Thorne – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
36. William Glasser – Choice Theory
37. James Herriot – All Creatures Great and Small
38. Sylvia Lynch – Jack Lord: An Acting Life
39. Kevin Fitton – Dropping Ballast (manuscript)
40. Jane Smiley – A Thousand Acres
41. Stephen Mitchell – Gilgamesh
42. C.D. Wright – One with Others
43. Kevin Canty – Into the Great Wide Open
44. George Eliot – Silas Marner
45. Michael Kardos – The Three-Day Affair
46. Christopher Smith – Salamanders of the Silk Road
47. Grant Faulkner, Lynn Mundell, Beret Olsen – Nothing Short of 100
48. Maureen Seaton – Fisher
49. Amy D. Clark – Success in Hill Country
50. Langston Hughes – Let America Be America Again and other poems
51. Cassie Pruyn – Lena
52. Kathryn Stripling Byer – Catching Light
Thanks to Sliver of Stone Magazine for publishing my short story, Fiddlers, in their 16th issue. Fiddlers is sort of a dark Christmas story, so it might feel a little strange to read in this July heat wave. Or else, it might remind you what snow and cold feel like.