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

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Booklife / Shared Worlds


Little mini-essays written for "Shared Worlds" are starting to pop up on the Booklifenow site. I pass something in, and Jeremy Jones writes a nifty little introduction and slaps a title on it. Other writers respond to the questions, producing varied results. New topics include questions on good and bad advice and writing about the Other.

And Jeremy has also done an interesting interview with Michael Curtis, longtime editor of The Atlantic. Here's a sample question and answer:

What has been your greatest editing challenge?

Curtis: My greatest editing challenge. I can think of three:
A) Shortening stories far too long for The Atlantic format but so distinctive and artful that we hated to give them up. One early example was a story by Joyce Carol Oates, at the time a little known but already prolific writer of short fiction. Trimmed to half its original length, and retitled, the story appeared in The Atlantic in 1964 and was then chosen for inclusion in the O. Henry Prize Stories for that year and was awarded First Prize as the best of the stories in that collection. A more recent example: two stories by a writer whose first collection won a Flannery O Connor Award in the 1990s. We published two of his stories at roughly half their original length without, I believe, leaving out essential detail or nuance.

B) A second challenge: working with writers (often poets who have turned to fiction) whose ideas about language have less to do with literal meaning than with the sound of the words, in isolation or in sequence. This kind of writer often resists the objection that he/she hasn’t said what is plainly intended, and that other words would do a better job. “But I like that word,” he/she will say, “and why can’t I use a noun as a verb, or vice versa?” Problems like this get solved, eventually, but not always in the editor’s favor.

C) A third challenge lies in the use of language too frank or sulfurous for general audiences. When such language is fundamental to a story, can’t be changed without damage to the intent or affect of the story, we usually just return it. In many cases, however, alternates are available and are often just as effective. Such revisions, however, require negotiation and patience. In recent years, frankly, The Atlantic has allowed language it would not have published in the 1960s, offending a handful of readers but probably going unnoticed by the vast majority, and certainly by those familiar with, and comfortable with, the loosening of artistic boundaries in all the arts.

Today's assignment has to do with inventing creatures to be illustrated as part of the Shared Worlds writing camp. Should be hairy and scaly and interesting...

Illustration: The logo above is by John Coulthart, a book designer who is amply suppied with both coult and hart. The image is drawn from Jeff Vandermeer's Booklife jacket. More of John Coulthart's designs and concerns can be found at Atelier Coulthart.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

New books by friends, 3: Alice Lichtenstein's "Lost"

Alice Lichtenstein and Peg Leon and I are Oneonta-and-Cooperstown area writers who are fond of eating lunch. Together. So this is not by any means a review. Instead, it is a celebration of Alice's new novel. (Soon I'll do the same for Peg's new novel. Party confetti is floating about the lake and village these days.)

5 Notable Things about Lost

1. There's a lot about the work people do in Lost: what makes it meaningful or not, what goes on in laboratories or fieldwork, what goes on in the village world of firefighters and rescue workers and social workers and police. I notice this strain in the book because it's somewhat unusual, and I like it. Often in what is called "the literary novel," nobody seems to do any work, or else it is all happening at stage left. Here the work people do informs and expresses character.

2. A related element is Alice's use of class divisions and the way that terrible events can break the barriers between people and make them learn about others who had seemed from another world only hours before. (The people involved at the beginning are: an almost-mute boy who is seen only as an arsonist and a danger at school and on his grandparents' farm; an architect who has been transformed from what he was into an Alzheimer's patient; a scientist who is attempting to navigate her new life as caretaker of the husband who has permanently mislaid his reason; and a Vietnam vet who is losing family and a good deal of his mobility while attempting to make meaning through work that involves search-and-rescue of those who are physically or metaphorically lost. The strands of story bind Corey the unwanted and "lost" child to Susan Hunsinger, whose loss is clear and painful right from the start, and to Jeff, who is losing himself, bit by bit, and who suffers a major loss near the beginning of the book. Family is in tatters in each of the three parts of this novel, and family must be remade and bound together from unexpected materials after the characters pass through fire and ice. Whether that is possible is one of the questions the novel asks.)

3. This writer is very clear in her mind on what a novel is and what prose is, and her writing is as clean and sharp as the right tool used for the right job. Here's Susan in her lab with a student and a red-spotted newt: "Then she set to work, showing Jennifer how to slice a tiny trapdoor at the top of the skull, first scraping back and forth to score the bone, next finding the natural sutures to separate the places. 'Then it flops back like this.' Using the forcepts, Susan carefully lifted the bone, skin intact, up and back as though it were hinged. 'And here's the treasure.' Susan peered through the scope as the image of the salamander's brain, a white translucent globe, flooded the computer screen hooked up beside it. 'I think of it as a pearl.'"

4. She cares about craft and shapeliness, and that sort of meticulousness and concern for form shows. This book is the right length, trimmed of all fat and gracefully weaving threads of the past into the fabric of the present.

5. One thing that I consider a profoundly religious idea--the taking of the worst possible events and making of them the means of redemption and resurrection--underpins the story. This pattern strengthens and deepens the entire book. Was that a conscious design? Surely not. Instead, it was a writer plugging into one of the great mythic patterns of story. ,,Was

Friday, April 09, 2010

Running with goats, etc.

Here's another question and answer from the Shared Worlds people that will eventually go into the writers' pot at the Booklife site. I'll let it sit a few days and then tweak the answer and send it over to Jeremy Jones at Wofford.

It'll be clear that I have evaded answering the first half of the question. As it happens, I didn't feel like it and have exerted my right to be whimsical and difficult. Feel free to pelt what is there with rotten fruit. Or even to make sensible (or silly--I have a liking for silly) suggestions.

The question is from writer Nisi Shawl: ROAARS is an acronym used in Writing the Other [written with Cynthia Ward] as a shorthand designation for a set of differences dubbed "important" by the dominant culture: Race, (sexual) Orientation, Age, Ability, Religion, Sex. 1.) What is your best experience writing a character of another ROAARS? 2.) What about your worst experience writing a character of another ROAARS?

As a woman, I am in some danger when writing about a man who could be described as sensitive or reflective. I was raised in an era that tried to declare that men and women were the same, but it's not at all so, "equal" being so very different from "same." I've had to tweak several male characters in revision to make sure they weren't women in disguise, and that happened even when the character in question was waging war or exerting himself in feats of redwood-climbing.

I'd say that the clearest I've ever been on writing about the opposite sex was in the book I'm polishing now. I've written a fantasy for each of my children, and the current one was for made for a sports-mad boy of 12 who came late to liking books and school (still hates homework) and who is extremely social. He is blessedly normal in all his boy-ways, and all I had to do was meditate on his likes and dislikes to have an imaginary boy rise up around me along with a pack of young associates who didn't always want to follow his lead, a fair degree of silliness and nonsense, twists and puzzles, feelings conveyed through action and reaction, a bit of revelatory violence, a fairly quick pace, and a general male refusal on the part of the primary character to ponder about anything except what must be done next, now. And football. We had to have football. If I could have worked in track and wrestling, I would have done so.

I have long advocated tossing little boys out the door to run with goats and goatherds until they are ten or eleven years old--until they are ready to sit still in a classroom and crack open a book--although nobody ever pays attention to this modest proposal of mine. So what I have aimed to write for my son and any other young readers is a book that might serve as one of the first adventures a boy hears after coming in from the fields and joining what is called civilization--a story full of juice and sun and life. And a dash of football.

* * *
I have been rather over-involved in facebook--all those funny people! all those writers!--and am now making a resolution to do better in tending to the blog. Oh, and if you want to know about my upcoming books (I'm up to four now), please slip down to the next post.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Another forthcoming book

I've known about this one for a little while and have posted some information and answered questions on facebook, so I suppose it's time to slap up a poster here as well.

The Foliate Head -
Stanza Press, UK
A collection of formal poems with cover and division pages by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. This one is already mighty pretty--the interior art is strange and lovely. The title is apt; there are an awful lot of leaves, groves, dryads, green men, forest meetings, and more in this book.

The other forthcoming books are:

The Throne of Psyche - Mercer University Press, July 2011
This one is a plump collection of poetry, including the blank verse recollections of Psyche--a close-to-final version of the title poem (as well as others by me) may be found at Mezzo Cammin.

Glimmerglass - P. S. Publishing, UK, 2011
A house set in a hill, a failed painter, a resurrection, a labyrinth and minotaur, a murder, a flood, an embodied muse . . . This is the wildest of dreams, set in an alternate Cooperstown. You definitely haven't read this one before.

Maze of Blood - P. S. Publishing, UK, 2012
I've felt a kind of weird kinship with the unfortunate Robert Howard, pulp writer. (Left out the "E." because his name is under copyright. He wouldn't like that, you know.) All the deep South heat of childhood, the neurological strangeness (for I feel quite sure he was neurologically strange), the childhood certainty of what he would do . . . he could be a long-lost cousin of mine. Although the names are changed, this story is clearly inspired by his life. And I had great fun making up faux-Howard episodes for "his" writing, plums embedded in the sad pudding of his life.