2011 Westies Anthologized

My Clarion West classmates have had a pretty rockin year so far with stories in anthologies and collections. If you are looking for some good short stories to read, I highly recommend checking these out.

First up is S.L. Gilbow’s new short story collection. I’ve been waiting for Gilbow to put out a collection of his own ever since I met him. His stories are amazing. They’re the kind that pull you in so close that they silence a loud room, and grip you so tightly that you ache for days. Elegant with a feeling of the best classic science fiction, these are stories that you’ll remember and want to share with others. There are five stories in this collection, each one beautifully crafted. I hope one day there’s a print edition, so that I can add Gilbow to my shelves with my other favorite authors. You can get your copy here.

Next up is an anthology with two of my classmates’ stories: Corinne Duyvis’ Week 6 story at Clarion West, “The Applause of Others,” and “Fisheye” by Maria Romasco-Moore. Corinne’s story is set in Amsterdam, full of lovely city details. If you haven’t read a story by Maria Romasco-Moore yet, you are missing out on some of the most beautiful and delightfully, wittily weird writing. In addition to Corinne and Maria’s stories, the line up is stellar. Check out the Table of Contents and then maybe get a copy
Jei D. Marcade’s story “Superhero Girl” is out in bookstores (like Barnes & Noble and such) in the anthology Super Heroes. Read this cool interview with Jei about the story that was originally published in Fantasy Magazine and learn the word for the storytelling technique you’ve probably been trying to pull off for years. Jei uses it seamlessly in this story. It is, in my mind, the textbook example (in addition to just being an all-around amazing story.) Go Jei! 
Alisa Alering was a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest this year. Her story “Everything You Have Seen” is in the newest compilation (Volume 29), out everywhere! This is a gorgeous, haunting story told in the lyric-crisp language that I love in all of Alisa’s stories. At the awards ceremony, dancers interpreted the story, in what I think was the best performance of the evening. Read her awesome story, then head over to her blog where she’s recounting the WOTF winner experience. 
The rest of my Westie friends are doing amazing things – managing magazines, starting novels, finishing novels, publishing short stories in magazines all over the place. I’ll do another check-in soon with some cool story pubs in journals and magazines. Go CAAMF! 🙂 


Australian Women Writers Challenge

This year I’m challenging myself to read more books by Australian women authors as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

My specific self-challenge is to read six books by Australian women authors in 2013.

Here are two of the books I’m planning to read this year:

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Selkies and witches and Lanagan’s brilliant prose. I’ve heard murmurs of greatness about this book, but I’ve not listened too closely for fear of having the details spoiled. And the details in Lanagan’s writing are so wonderful. I bought this book when it first came out and I’ve been holding onto it, waiting for a time when life quiets down so I can make sure real life doesn’t interfere with my reading. Maybe I just need to go ahead and start reading and then real life will have to make room.

The Sinkings by Amanda Curtin
I recently reviewed Curtin’s short story collection Inherited for the journal Antipodes. I had agreed to do a book review for the journal, but had no idea which book I would get. As soon as I started reading Inherited, I knew it had been the perfect choice for me. Her stories are gorgeous, and play with magical realism in ways I haven’t seen before. And the structure of the collection as a whole is also a wonderful experience. As a short story writer who is beginning to write novels, I’m very interested to read a novel by a writer whose short stories I adore.

The other four books I will read as part of my self-challenge I’m leaving open for now, but I’m going to try to read other genres in addition to fiction – one poetry and one non-fiction at least.

Do you have any suggestions of great Australian women writers I should read?

Want to Participate?

  • If you want to take part in the challenge, sign up here.
  • There are some wonderful recommendations on this post on short stories and poetry, and the blog is continually updated with reading recommendations.

Books I’ve Loved: Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara

Lovely package my copy arrived in – thank you Amy! 

I loved this book. Wren is a great character, and her interactions with others are believable. She’s eighteen, spending a year after high school living at her artist father’s house in the Northeast. All she wants is time alone to process life as it was and is – two very different variations. At heart she’s a photographer, but she’s put away her camera. Seeing the world is painful, and she feels like there’s a false veneer she was led to believe all her life that has been stripped away.

Poetry is always just beneath the surface. From the title, I was a bit afraid Robert Frost would overshadow the story. But instead his appearance is a small one, with Larkin the poetry that Wren connects with as an extension of her own feelings. Poetry is not used as a gimmick or an easy spandrel. It is a realistic part of the world. Which is to say, it comes and goes at the moments when Wren needs the words.

Along with the setting and the use of the present tense, the poetry gives the book a feeling of suspension in time. This mirror’s Wren’s situation, and helped me to connect even more with her.

Wren’s in the process of grieving over a lost friend, but her experiences are also related to depression. McNamara’s writing provides a realistic window into how such an experience affects not only the person in the center of these emotions, but also everyone connected to her.

This is a big book, much thicker than most other YA novels on my shelf, but I never lost interest or felt the story flagged. This is one of those books that is a great companion, and I was sad to finish the story and place it on the shelf.

One last note: the cover art and binding are gorgeous.

*I received this book as a giveaway on Nova Ren Suma’s blog, 99 distractions.*

MFA Flashback: Comprehensive Exam

In addition to coursework, students in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks must complete two tasks: compose a thesis and pass a comprehensive exam. 
What is this exam?
  • The exam is in February, and MFA students are expected to take it in their second year. It is a pass/ fail exam. If you fail, you can take the test again the following February. It is only held once a year and you must pass it in order to graduate. 
  • The test is composed of five questions that must each be answered with an essay. Students answer two questions in the morning session (9am – Noon) and three questions in the afternoon session (2pm – 5pm), all on a Saturday near the beginning of the Spring semester.
  • The exam itself is exhausting. The only book you are allowed to use is a dictionary. But you must reference (and quote if possible) several books in each essay response. 

At the end of the exam, upperclassmen were there with champagne and beer. There’s no better feeling than finishing an exam you’ve been studying for for a year and having people who have been through the process before (and know how difficult it is) there to cheer your success.
But here’s my story – I messed up with my comprehensive exam. I didn’t plan for it. 
There are fifty books on the comprehensive exam reading list, and in order to pass, you need to read most (if not all) of them. Usually professors try to use at least one comp book as a text for their class, but this will only get you so far. Students must read a substantial number of books in addition to their class readings, and with most graduate literature courses requiring you to read one book per week, this can become an overwhelming task. 
The first year for a graduate student is tough. Graduate level workshops are like that scene in Centerstage; everybody was the best writer in their undergraduate workshops. But here, in the graduate workshop, you’re a first-year. The first time your story gets workshopped at the graduate level is a serious wake up call. 
So after my first year of grad school, I was wiped out. (Did I mention we were living in the middle of Alaska with no car?) I was mentally and physically exhausted. That summer, I should have been reading for my comprehensive exam. But I couldn’t bring myself to read or write. My brain felt fried, so I went into regeneration mode. I rode my bike to Creamer’s Field to watch the sandhill cranes, developed an obsession with episodes of Mystery! and Globe Trekker that aired on public television.
I reasoned I’d study for comps during the winter break. I’d have nothing to do but read for a few weeks, and  the books would be fresh on my mind when it came time for the exam. 
Then we visited my family for the winter break, and time evaporated. As time drew near for the exam, I made a difficult decision – I decided not to take it in my 2nd year. If I took it while I was unprepared and failed, as I knew I would, then it would be much harder for me to take the exam when I was ready. 
I took the exam in my 3rd year and passed. The results of the test were given through individual letters from the chair of the department, placed in our grad mail boxes in the English office. I was on shift as a tutor in the Writing Center when word started going around that the letters had been delivered. There weren’t any students waiting to be tutored, no appointments scheduled – I can’t remember if I ran to the mailbox to get the letter or if my boyfriend picked it up for me. The letter was short, and without looking at it I can still remember one part: “in the end, I believe the most useful part of this process was the time you spent studying for the test.”
Me with my comps pass letter, 2010
And this is absolutely true. 
When I realized I wouldn’t be able to take the test on time, I got serious about studying for the next opportunity. The students in my year had formed a weekly study group, but I dropped out after a few sessions because I couldn’t keep up with the reading and I was embarrassed. 
Luckily, there were several fiction writers in the year below me who were up for the exams. We started meeting every Sunday at Alaska Coffee Roasting Company. We made a schedule of books to discuss and designated a discussion leader for each text.
I wish I had a photograph of the four of us studying for the exams. The coffeehouse was always crowded and noisy. There was never enough table space for our coffees, sandwiches, piles of books, the binders of notes we were compiling. Our screenwriting professor, Len Kammerling, was sometimes there with a different group, and he’d wave to us and stop and chat. Often I would spot David Marusek, the science fiction writer, with his laptop. I never worked up the courage to go over and say hi. There were impassioned conversations about Melville, talks that helped me better understand my mixed feelings for The House of Mirth, and gradually there was a comprehension of knowing the texts much better than I could have if I had studied for the test on my own. 
I’m glad I didn’t try to take the test my 2nd year, when I had not studied. My comps study group was one of the best learning environments I experienced during graduate school. And this experience converted me from a student who detested group projects, to a teacher who believed in their ability to inform texts and conversations on literature in a way that other modes of learning cannot. 
If you’re curious as to the 50 books I read for my comprehensive exam, here’s the 2012-2013 list. It changes a little every two years, some books are added and others dropped, but the scope and the spirit are pretty much the same. 

Baking, Reading, Writing

It’s baking hot here in Alabama. I step out of the front door, and a wave of heat envelops me. The heat messes with my brain and burns my skin. I have headaches, and get light sunburn from walking out to the car.

The heat is bad for my head, but good for some vegetables. 

Bounty from my parents’ garden

We have more squash and zucchini than I know what to do with. And not tiny little squashes and zucchinis, either.

Furball and Zucchini

Zuchinni the size of a small cat.

I’ve never been someone who likes to cook anything beyond very simple meals that involve lots of cans and pasta. My attitude for a long time has been that it would be wasteful to try to learn even rudimentary cooking, like baking. I’m afraid of using up a lot of ingredients and making food that is completely inedible.

But we got a huge bag of zucchini from my parents this week, and I’m determined to use it before it goes bad. There are a few foods I remember making with my mom when I was a kid, and one of them was zucchini bread.

So I found a recipe for zucchini muffins online, and I started gathering the ingredients. Then I started to panic. Wait – no applesauce. Maybe I could chop some apples in the food processor? Wait – we don’t have brown sugar. Would our other, non-bleached sugar still work?

I started to freak out. The scales were slowly tipping. With every missing ingredient the voice in my head said “Give up now. Don’t be wasteful, the muffins aren’t going to turn out right anyways.”

So I took a break. I searched for a different recipe. And in just a few minutes, I found a recipe for banana zucchini muffins. This one had just three steps, fewer ingredients, and hey, even called for over-ripe bananas, three of which I had sitting on the kitchen table.

To someone who cooks regularly, I’m sure watching me as I mixed together the ingredients would have been a painfully boring experience. I went really slowly, making sure I wasn’t confusing tablespoons and teaspoons, repeating the directions out loud. But my boyfriend was at work and even my cats were taking naps. If I failed, I planned to throw away the evidence, take out the trash, and never tell anyone that this had happened. I could be wasteful once, I reasoned.

But my muffins came out great. They didn’t have the delicious alchemy of a gifted chef like my boyfriend, but they were solid, tasty muffins.

Banana Zucchini Muffin – My first baked thing

My attitude about wastefulness also applies to my writing. I’ve been wanting to try writing a novel for a while, but I’ve been holding off, reasoning that I need to get better at writing short stories first. The thought of spending a year or more on a novel, and never seeing it published, is terrifying. The same voice that keeps me from trying to cook also tells me how complicated writing a novel would be, how much time it would take, and how in the end it wouldn’t hold together. I’m afraid I’d be forced to throw the whole thing out, and pretend my first novel never existed.

Supporting this voice are the novels that I love most. I like complicated, lengthy novels with twists in perception that creep up on you. I’ve just broken a two-month long novel-reading drought with Sarah Waters’ Affinity. It’s a gorgeous book, and I’m reading it slowly, because I love the characters and I don’t want to stop hanging out with them.

I’m worried about writing a novel because I feel like I don’t have all the skills that an amazing book calls for. How can I hope for the expert alchemy of Peter Carey or Sarah Waters or John Crowley when I’m still learning how to make short stories?

What I think I need to do is plan a novel in steps: make an outline of a character’s journey and set myself the small task of taking each step. Tell myself not to stress over writing the best novel the world has ever seen. But write a good novel, that holds together, and that I’ll share with a few friends. Tell myself as many times at it takes that trying something new isn’t wasteful.

{Here’s the easy, yummy Recipe I used to make my muffins.}