Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Minor madness + a birthday



















Zany moment...

I have committed a MySpace page. If you're interested in such things, take a look and tell me what's wrong with it and what I need to add: http://www.myspace.com/marlyyoumans. Since I don't have a lot of time, I'm just going to do a few minutes on it every day. I'm thinking of it more as a "pointer" to other sites and to what I do with my writing. It's just an experiment.

But I'm afraid that I have a wicked desire to be wholly fictitious. Yesterday when I started the thing, I declared myself to be 99. Today I am 23. That's a rotten age, but so is 99. Tomorrow I might be 33, which is a third of 99 and 10 years happier than 23.

Alas, on MySpace I have no friends. That would be sad, if only I didn't have real life, plus my visible and invisible visitors here. I suppose if I stick to 99, I'll meet codgers and crones. And 23 will gain angsty types...

If you're not interested in such things, just slide down to Slush Pile Baby! C'est moi!

***

And now for something that matters...

The real news of the day is that 10 years ago, at about 2:00 a.m. in the morning, I almost kicked the bucket but did not, and neither did my baby--the jolt of gratefulness when the morphine dreams wore off a few days later has stayed with me for a decade.

Today N is in double digits.

Happy birthday, N!

***

Credit: The photograph is courtesy of Lithuanian Zilvinas Valeika, a.k.a. Poetas, and www.sxc.hu/.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Slush Pile Baby

One sub-sub-genre of journalism that shoots up green every spring is the Cry of Woe (the not-lowing-but-bleating C. O. W.) from a radically disillusioned publisher’s intern or junior assistant-to-an-editor. That ever-renewing cry is the result of a time spent inside the unholy heaps and towers of the slush pile, where the hapless reader finds that all the world is crap. That’s why they call it a slush pile, she discovers.

She realizes that the world is radically fallen! She flees the Gothic piles of slush to freedom. From there, she conceives of an article revealing to the world the unbearable blistering horror and yea, even terror of her tenure in the slush. Like an Ishmael, she has escaped into a bracing air that is not permeated with flecks of pain. This calls for hoo and calloo and general uprisings of celebration!

The latest escapee from this travesty of life that is surely, surely worse than days of digging ditches or shoveling out camp latrines is Jean Hannah Edelstein. She has written The Shocking Truth About the Slush Pile. Once again, people around the planet are confronted with the dread internment of a sensitive soul. Once again, they add an amusing array of comments to the slush pile moan.

Jean Hannah, I am so glad that you are no longer suffering the prickly Boschian torments of the once-innocent! No doubt elevation will follow, as you scramble up the glittering rungs toward your goal; I wish you luck, and hope you will be an editor worth having.

Yet I have something to confess.

Many long years ago—more than five years before my first book wobbled into the world—I bought (one must buy) and read a book called Salar the Salmon, by Henry Williamson. It was a reprint from David R. Godine, Publisher, a company in Boston known for its beautiful books.

Back then, I was a poet who had stumbled into writing a novella and nine stories. In my poet’s innocence, I thought, If he loves this, he’ll like my stories. I put my manuscript in an old-fashioned brown paper envelope, added a handwritten address, and slapped on that queer, archaic thing, a stamp. I dropped the envelope in the mail, somewhere near Willett Street in Albany, New York. Perhaps I didn’t even know that term, slush pile.

Many months passed. Eugene Garber told me to call, so I called: and felt abashed. The operator knew nothing. Call back in three days, he said. Three days later I duly called, and learned that the manuscript was on David’s desk.

The night before my birthday, David Godine called to accept the manuscript. He wanted to do the novella and stories as two tiny books rather than one. The strange thing was that I had made that particular birthday the dividing line; if I could not achieve a book by then, I would quit—or so I had told myself. I knew too many poets embittered by lack of publication, and I didn’t want to be one of those.

Of course, nothing is easy. It took many years for the first book to come out, although it was a beautiful object, meticulously designed and produced. My editor, writer Sadi Ranson, made sure that reviews for the novella appeared in The New York Times and The Boston Globe and elsewhere, and that was far more than I had expected. The second book lagged, and I eventually withdrew it; by then I had published a novel with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and I didn’t want the book of my very first stories to be reviewed as a third or fourth book.

My next book will be my seventh. Despite the fact that I am “midlist” and have never received that rare, desirable gift, “a push,” I paddle on in the stream, keeping to my own course. I have learned a great deal since the day when I put a manuscript in an envelope.

On Saturday, I stopped in at New Haven's Atticus Books and picked up a novel by Imre Kert├ęsz, plus a book by Borges that I wanted to reread. I took a quick glance to see if any of my books were on the shelf, down in the bottom right-hand corner where “Y” lives. At first, I didn’t see any at all. Then I noticed the tiny, lovely hardcover of Little Jordan, still in print after all these years.

I laughed, touched by the sight.

If I have learned anything over the years, it is that the proper stance of an artist before the blank page and before those who have gone before is humility.

I hope that I have also learned to be grateful.

***
Credit: Above is the logo of David R. Godine, Publisher.

***

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Y-Y-Y

MB of Find Me a Bluebird has pointed out that a Ms. Y ran away to Yaddo and Yale, and asks if she has any other Y venues lined up. She does not—that is, I do not, though I am open to other Y-ideas. Those of us in the long tail of the alphabet, with those less-used letters, need to promote them. Up with X! Up with Y! Etc. Etc.? Make that Xvz! For the next year, buy all your books from authors whose last names start with W, X, Y, and Z. They have been languishing in the dust bunnies on the bottom shelf for years.

As I have been away for twenty-nine days, my house is a sad wreck. Somebodies have been flinging broken pop tarts, dirty cups, and assorted laundry over the house. Another somebody had no boxers left. Domestic explosions are in evidence in all areas except the dining room. Meanwhile, it is still Easter in the living room, complete with baskets and egg tree! It will take a long time to comb the snarls out of this bad-hair-day house. Bad-hair-month house.

Here is the good stuff.

At Yaddo, I drafted (yes, I wrote like a maniac) a short novel and a story. I also met lots of interesting artists, attended readings and concerts, and went to open studios. Once I did a reading from my recent poetry. Once I read from the above-mentioned short novel. That is a brief and bare account of twenty-five days that satisfied my desire to do little else than meditate on the emerging shape of a book and write.

I came home, hugged my family, and then raced off to Yale Divinity School, where Makoto Fujimura and I did two collaborative presentations at the “Faith as a Way of Life” conference on pastoral excellence. Our events yoked my “The Pilgrim Soul” with eleven paintings titled with phrases drawn from the story. And yes, it is thrilling to see images made as a response to one’s own writing. As Mako works in the Nihongan style with a paint made of crushed jewels (along with vermilion, cochineal, silver, gold, and platinum), it’s hard to find photographs to do justice to the marriage of light and paint. He’ll be having somebody who specializes in micro-photography record the images, and eventually I’ll post a link. We may be doing a few other things with this project . . .

And that is the nutshell version of Y at Y and Y.

Oh, I spent a wonderful afternoon at the Yale Art Gallery, too. So many lesser-known museums have such splendid collections. This spring I’ve been to the Corning Museum of Glass and Yale, and found them both very worth seeing. While the contemporary/modern sculpture at YAG had a familiar air of fascinating tedium, there were lots of lovely things in the “ancient,” Asian, and painting collections. Think I’ll add going to smaller museums to my year's resolutions.

Credit: The photograph above is a photograph of an installation by Makoto Fujimura at All Hallow’s, London (curated by Meryl Doney of The Hayward Gallery for The City of London Festival.) It originally appeared on his blog, Refractions. The measurements of the three “Mercy Seat” paintings were 1 ½ x 2 ½ cubits—a cubit being the length from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow, and the unit of measurement used in the pyramids (Pharaoh’s cubit) and in the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant (Moses’ cubit.) Mako used the "cubits" of his three children. A little boat covered with Chinese paper sits on the floor between the mercy seats, the source of the video, “Nagasaki Koi,” that floats in the air above the seats.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pups of Letters, no. 2: Eileen St. Lauren

Yes, Marly-the-absent-one is back from 25 marvelous days at Yaddo! I came home with the draft of a short novel, written at maniacal speed, and a new story... I'll be off again to New Haven before I can possibly sort out the wreckage of my once-tidy house, but after that I will stay home for a while (cleaning, no doubt.)

It's time for a new Pup of Letters. One has to fulfill those New Year's Resolutions...

A thing I find interesting is how varied--astonishingly so--the Pups in the Litter are. The novice writers who wander into the Palace have a wild variety in their obsessions, life histories, work, religion, locale, politics, taste: indeed, in all things that could affect how one dreams a book. This is a boon to my curiosity that, cat-like and hope-like, springs eternal.

The current Pup is Eileen St. Lauren, a young novelist who says that she is "in the tradition of Reynolds Price, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Willie Morris." I sent her a batch of questions before I roared off to Yaddo, and in my absence she has answered them.

MY:
Eileen, you’re now looking for an agent. Have you learned something from this arduous rite-of-passage? What’s heartening about it, and what’s frustrating?

ESL:
I have had wonderful literary agents and editors to read my samples and write me beautiful rejection letters. I have made some great friends along the way. In truth, no one has slammed me and most have hated to tell me “no.” However, I have come to learn that so far what I have composed may not be the ONE that will break me into the commercial market. That has prompted me to move forward and compose a new work of fiction with hopes that it will be the ONE journey that an agent then the world falls in LOVE with. It’s entitled, Everybody in Town. It’s set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and about the garbage in our lives.

MY:
Here is a link to your online story, Mozella. Is this a landscape that feels like home to you? Say anything you would like as an introduction to the story.

ESL:
Mozella (and the little grey squirrel) just came to me one sunny day in Amherst, Massachusetts, while sitting on the Emily Dickinson Homestead grounds near dark silhouettes of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I believe Mozella is an ageless spirit who wanted her story told. The seven bells that ring at the end are from the church house where the homeless were being called to supper directly across the street where I was feeding squirrels from a-top of my New Testament Bible purple grapes and crusts of bread. Then I took a walk over to the graveyard was where Emily is buried and used actual names from the headstones in my cemetery. Mozella is about peace.

MY:
Your publication at BigCityLit.com came from a mention by James Simpson in the first Pups of Letters interview. Can you tell us something about this upcoming piece?

Glory, Ananias, is forthcoming in mid-May in BigCityLit.com. I am eternally grateful for James’ words to submit. And more so that poetry editor, Nicholas Johnson, loved the piece. Nick is a gem.

In the story, characters from the unpublished novel, The Adventures of Myra Boone, book one, Goodlife, Mississippi, Myra Boone and Margie Anne Roberts visit a frail, paralyzed, and the fallen old soul, Ananias. Sitting in a wooden wheelchair that sports a jaunty, tiny American flag and a daisy cloth-covered Bible pouch, he tells the girls of a place between heaven and earth called Glory that holds the Saints and protects them from an Enemy called Death before their souls cross over into Heaven. It’s sublime.

MY:
As a Southerner, I look at you and see the unmistakable stamp of the deep South. Tell us where and with whom you liked to play on a hot summer’s day when all the work that belonged to a child was done.

ESL:
Strangely enough, all my friends from childhood are dead save one. At times in my early life, every afternoon after school, I read an entire book then walked down West Cherry Drive to see the pansy beds soaking up the southern sun with my black rabbit named Cricket who I taught how to fall asleep on command... On more than one occasion, my imagination brought voices, characters, and distant lands into my childhood all of which served me well as playmates, friends, and such. Most of my childhood and life has been solitary and lonely yet humorous. Oftentimes I muse, that if it wasn’t for books, my own imagination and ability to create and personal faith in God, I would have nothing. It seems as though I have always been in LOVE with words, and am still. And in truth, I’m blessed to have a supportive, understanding husband.

MY:
Please tell us about the long works you have on hand, finished or near-finished.

Book one: The Adventures of Myra Boone: Goodlife, Mississippi ~ On October 31, 1956, in a remote area of Jackson County near the George County line in Mississippi, nine-year-old Mary “Myra” Boone finds herself at the Salem Camp Meeting a Holy Ghost healing service. It is there that she begins her journey into the spirit world—a world that can only be seen with the eyes of the heart. Through inexplicable spiritualism, Myra hears voices, sees spirits and souls outside herself where the supernatural power of God, the Devil, and their angels exist.

Book two: My Neighbors: Blue Roses ~ Neighborly, but solitary and often hilariously sad, voices of people whom sixteen-year-old Myra Boone lives among in Goodlife, Mississippi, after the tragic death of her family inspire the young writer with their painful humor and heartfelt simplicity in My Neighbors: Blue Roses. The personalities bare their souls, merging the mystical and the real in the towns of Soso, Goshen, Glossolalia, and Goodlife. The essence of My Neighbors: Blue Roses is love, peace, provision, redemption, faith, glory, and death.

MY:
You clearly have been encouraged and helped by a number of writers. Tell us something that you gained from one of these.

New Year’s Day 2007 I wrote Daniel Wallace, author of the beloved Big Fish and forthcoming July 2007 Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. With grace and professionalism, Daniel told me to submit my work to literary journals, magazines with hopes that an agent would read my work, and contact me for more. And I read an interview he did where he talked of writing FIVE novels before getting that first ONE accepted. Lastly, he said that if the story takes off on page 100 then that is where the book should begin. That prompted me to begin Goodlife, Mississippi, on page 100. And it worked. One more thing, Daniel suggested not spending all my time on trying to get published instead to continue being the writer that I am. Meaning I’m a writer not a publisher. In time but not at first, his words made good sense to me and the light came on to begin a new novel, Everybody in Town. So far, I am having a lot of fun with it and look forward to spending time with my characters. It brings me joy.

It’s rare for an author or a poet to reach out his or her hand to another and if they do be eternally grateful and keep the boundaries. Daniel’s simple kindness and a few words from time to time were invaluable to me and indeed helped me along my way. Other great writers and poets were kind to me over the years too—Anne Tyler, Richard Wilbur, and the now-late Charles Edward Eaton who was my best friend and longtime mentor. These are but a few that I am eternally grateful to have known and read.

I also have learned a great deal from a rare, brilliant giving soul and former New York Times Book Reviewer turned literary agent—Roger Jellinek of Hawaii. Words of agent, editor wisdom that I just learned from Roger are, “Don’t be preoccupied with being a “writer.” Try and be as transparent as you can be. Put all your energy into telling the story, and into the relationships between your characters, and less on your relationship to your reader—less concern with the impression you are making as a “writer.”

All the money in the world won’t buy time or good, sound advice like Roger, Daniel, and the others have given me. And I must thank you dear Marly Youmans for this opportunity to speak via this interview on your breath taking website for it means the world to me. To be in the presence of great company such as yours is priceless.

Back to the interview: in truth, we writers are on our own in the real world. Either we have it (talent, a good story) or we don’t, period. By this I mean, either the book will sell or it won’t. There are no maybes when it comes to publishing. For a well-known successful author to endorse a first time novelist is priceless. Though in the end, it’s all about the story—your story. Either the reader like an agent falls in LOVE with the journey the writer takes him on or he doesn’t. Either the reader will want to keep reading or he won’t. Again, no maybes come into play. It’s just that simple.

Oops! You asked me to talk about “one author that I gained something from…” I just couldn’t help myself to mention a couple!

MY:
Are you still involved in radio? Can you give a nutshell version of your time there?

ESL:
I would LOVE to be on NPR and radio again. Since moving to New England, it has been difficult to get accepted. While on NPR in Nebraska, I wrote State, Nation, and World Commentaries in the satire / humor vein with a southern twist. I look forward to reading my own work in book form on tape.

MY:
Despite the fact that everybody in publishing complains about everybody else—the editors, the agents, the writers (who get it from all sides), the publisher, etc.—it’s a plain fact that writers make money for everybody else in the food chain. They tend to get less of it, of course, and the very great majority of writers will never make a decent living with words. Yet writers keep going. As a writer, what keeps you going?

ESL:
Composing is like washing my hands under cool water filled with early light. I was born to write. Writing is my calling—I cannot not be a writer. If I don’t write, I will die slowly but surely. I HAVE to write, period.

MY:
If you were to create a little museum-in-a-shoebox to explain yourself to us, what five objects would reside within its walls?

A Bible plus a writing journal, a recording of Bruce Hornsby’s Greatest Radio Hits, paintings of the ocean’s waves, a kaleidoscope, and a lilac lead pencil with a hand-held eraser that I have always composed with.

Bio—Eileen St. Lauren is a Southern literary writer and poet from Petal, Mississippi, who has over 80 publications. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a former Commentator on Nebraska Public Radio Network, she is an award-winning photojournalist, news, and feature reporter.

At present, she is composing Everybody in Town. In 2007 she completed two novels, The Adventures of Myra Boone: Goodlife, Mississippi, and My Neighbors: Blue Roses. Glory, Ananias, an excerpt from the unpublished series is forthcoming in the online magazine, Big City Lit.com, New York City. She has had work published in The Antigonish Review. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with her husband in a golden neighborhood where 100+ years ago Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow planted trees and composed. http://mysite.verizon.net/eileenstlauren.

As always,
Eileen St. Lauren
http://mysite.verizon.net/eileenstlauren